"Luke's Ghost" by Ehrad

 

Iron Feather
(A Langford Joh story)
by William Alan Rieser

 

Among the private files of Ambassador Langford Joh were many in which he played a decisive and important role, a factor that contributed to his legend and legacy. But interspersed within the glorified accounts were a few items in which the man's contributions were understood to be indirect and insignificant, perhaps because he found them of potential value, regardless of his minor participance. This tale is such a case, but for a reason that does not clarify until those in the know were no longer available for comment.

Technically speaking, the first glimmers of Iron Feather's future notoriety surfaced at the Police Training Facility when he was little more than a cadet, though the full report of the incident was suppressed by his superiors. Nevertheless, someone leaked part of the tale to a reporter where it was alleged that a raw recruit from Earth saved not only his squad and section leader from certain asphyxiation on a simulation mission but that he refused any sort of commendation for the act.

Another twinkle seemed to occur during the graduate's first assignment in Luna City where he supposedly captured the ID chip smugglers singlehanded, the ones who had made the dome citizens so hesitant and worried about local security measures. It was there that his nickname of Iron Feather was first alluded to and the association made that he was the progeny of Indian stock. Apparently his subsequent vanishing was a deliberate act, planned by Confederation politicians so that the man could be employed more or less privately for certain highly placed organizations and people. This could not have happened without Iron Feather's acquiescence, if true, and it remains an unconfirmed hypothesis to this day.

Then, for a long while, after a string of blazing successes lionized in the presses of Earth, Mars and Io, Iron Feather disappeared from public view. Nothing was heard about him anywhere in the Confederation until the asteroid perimeter was challenged in a bizarre incident later recalled by the man who came to bring him back to everyone's notice. His name was Livingston Kyler Amory and he, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing the following facts to light.


* * *

Lieutenant Amory was surprised at the condition of both the inhabitants of Lighthouse 243 and the physical station itself. He had expected the technicians to beg for relief or transfer after their harrowing experience with a still undefined enemy but that was not what he encountered. Instead of finding a quivering, sniveling group of badly shaken people who should have been decimated by fear, he was accosted by strength and a patriotism he hadn't seen since his Academy days. Yet, these were normal civilians, folk accustomed to a lackluster existence where threats of violence and death on the asteroid were supposed to be mere rumors of things that happened elsewhere. None of these people had ever seen war or terrorists. Never had they lived with one of the more common side effects of asteroid life, the occasional human-gone-mad variety of those who could no longer bear the loneliness.

He pieced together as much as he could from the six survivors. Three men and a woman had died when the alien, whatever it was, attacked them from its misty, brown cloud. They never discovered whether it was an inanimate accumulation of deadly gases, a primordial biological life form or a clever, if fiendish, sentient. One thing was certain. L243 was the first of several thousand lighthouses positioned on asteroids around the solar system to categorize an approach of any kind. And the military, in spite of its awesomely sophisticated detection equipment, had been slower to respond to the emergency than a single policeman, the one they called Captain Iron Feather.

"He must have been nearby when it happened," explained one of the female technicians. "I mean, there were only minutes before the thing struck the station and our hearing his voice for the first time. It was so unexpected, even more than the attack if you can understand that. We were in shock, you see."

"She's right!" agreed a male counterpart. "I guess it was the way he came across. Kind of inspirational, you could say. There wasn't time to feel sorry for ourselves, I remember him saying. We had to hold on and help him get rid of the thing. Somehow, we did that, but I don't think we could have been as successful with someone else. He made the difference."

"No doubt about it," added a third man. "With cops like that patrolling the void, fear can never be an issue because he just breathes courage. Even with Ellen and the others lying dead before us, from the corrosives that the thing released, he convinced me and these others that it was better to fight than crawl in a hole. I know I wanted to do that. I was all set to lock myself in a preservation chamber when he deliberately insulted my manhood and told me in no uncertain terms that there were valuable people and property to protect. He made me feel that I didn't have the right to be a coward, which is what I was."

"Yep," said the female technician again. "He was that good and it turned the trick."

"What exactly did Captain Iron Feather do?" asked Lieutenant Amory.

"First he activated our defense console from his prowl craft," said the head tech. "Our own engage mechanism was already destroyed by the alien's acids and he made that presumption. I still think that was quite intelligent. Then, assuming we needed coaching, which we did in our stupor, he gave us the codes and reminded us which buttons to press and in what sequence."

"Yeah. Yeah," said one of the still blurry techs. "And then he made us try different lamps for the light projector, after nothing else worked on the alien. It was the yttrium-barrit strobe that got a reaction. All of a sudden, the cloud appeared on our monitors. The strobe illuminated it and showed us that it was bigger than the whole complex."

"You said it was a brownish cloud," repeated the Lieutenant.

"We only captured the image for a few minutes," said the female tech. "But that was all it took for Iron Feather to do something decisive. He knew after the failure of our weapons console that it was not affected by electricity, magnetic fields or the counter chemicals. We don't know what he employed. I thought the prowl crafts were limited in offensive capabilities, but he must have found something."

"I am under the impression that he modified his searching lamps," said the head tech. "After seeing how our strobe worked, he must have come to a conclusion about light. In any case, the alien suddenly withdrew and we could see it in its entirety. A moment later, it disappeared along with the Captain."

"Disappeared?" queried the Lieutenant.

"Vanished on our monitors," replied the head tech. "If he managed to caption the beast then he is probably still pursuing it somewhere."

"Are you suggesting that the creature created a vortex, that the Captain entered it when the beast tried to escape?"

"It's a reasonable assumption," said the female tech challengingly. "He isn't here, is he? You didn't get here in time to help him out. So he bravely went after it alone."

"It certainly was brave," replied the Lieutenant. "I'm not so sure how smart it was without leaving us a tracer."

"Oh, but he did," answered the blurry tech with a little animosity of his own. "His proton pack was energized. You ought to be able to key on him with that."

"Yes," said the female tech angrily. "Why don't you and your crew assist the man instead of questioning us. While you're at it, bring back an image of his face. We'd really like to see it, you know."

"Really," insisted the head tech. "After all, he saved us in every way it's possible to save people. We all need to see what he looks like."

"All right. I'll get on it right away," said Lieutenant Amory. "My team has assessed the damage to your facility. Help is on its way and should be here in twelve hours. A medship has been authorized from Central for the deceased and any of you that require assistance. Replacements are also coming. Anything else?"

"Just find him," said the female tech. "I need to know that he is alive."

"Com, this is Amory. Energize a proton tracer."

"Where, Lieutenant?" said a young voice over a communicator.

"360 degrees until you get a reading."

"Energizing. There's a trace going towards Alpha Centauri, sir. Nothing else at all."

"All right. Have the projections ready. Contact the other ships. I'm coming back."


* * *

"How would you describe that, Lenard?" asked Amory of his primary aide as his five ships approached a garbage conglomerate.

"Some sort of collision, sir. I think our cop cornered the alien in the debris of the junk yard and found a way to put it out of its misery. You see that old freighter engine floating between the discarded cryo bins? The scoring on the engine flange is atypical of a prowl craft's arsenal, but the firing pattern is pure patrol school."

"How so? I don't recognize anything special."

"He's using old fashioned quantum cannons, sir. Can't imagine where he got them or the authority to use one, but quantum bursts score titanium blocks just that way. I know from when I was a kid. My dad showed me when we were hunting renegade gas terons on Saturn. Never forgot. Don't have to be too accurate, either. That's why the scoring is surrounded by holes and melted sections. He must have hit it."

"Do a comparison on those holes with the L243 damage. If you find a match, then it's a good bet you're right."

"So where did he go from here, Ensign Wayne?"

"The trace continues in the direction of home, sir. He's going back to Mars or Luna. No, wait, it might be Phobos. Yes, it is Phobos."

"Whatever for? There are no police needed on that moon. Have there been any transmissions from there?"

"Just one, sir," replied Ensign Wayne. "It was garbled. Something about the disappearance of one of their zoological specimens; a gannathor, I believe."

"If I may, Lieutenant?" interrupted Lenard.

"By all means."

"If it is a gannathor, rather 'the' gannathor, I believe that Captain Iron Feather might wish to be involved. If you recall, that was the species they found on Cygnus 3, the creature that could alter substances. Supposed to be incredibly long-lived with the ability to pass that trait to others. There was a great deal of controversy about it at the time, sir, because it was the only life form ever found that could deal with changelings."

"Why was that?"

"Although it could not alter itself, it could make a changeling or almost any other species turn into something other than it wished to be. At first it cooperated with humans but then reneged when our politicians refused to guarantee non-interference with Cygnus 3 element mining. It was imprisoned on Phobos in a Moebius chamber when it rebelled."

"It must have found a way out."

"Yes sir. Captain Iron Feather was part of the team that actually captured the creature back then. I think he talked it into accepting its fate after befriending the beast. There's a rumor that he's real good with oddball aliens."

"Ah, that explains his motivation. What about that comparison?"

"It's a match. Iron Feather was definitely there."

"My orders are simple. Find Captain Iron Feather and hold him for questioning."

"Sir?" queried both Lenard and Wayne.

"It seems his reputation is not to modern taste, gentlemen. He may be a rogue element that the Corps is unable to control. Although he is performing according to regulations, he has gone way out of his permitted range and far exceeded his authority. Corps does not want another hero to inspire people. Look what he did on L243. Every one of those technicians worship the man, exactly what Corps wants to avoid. Besides that, his background is a little unusual."

"What would that be, sir?" asked Lenard.

"Nez Perce on the father's side. Israeli or Australian outback for the mother according to his Academy application."

"Now there's a brew," said Wayne. "I heard he's an awesome tracker."

"We'd better close in on Phobos," said Amory. "Full thrusters."

On the way, Lieutenant Amory intercepted several hysterical transmissions crossing the solar system at that moment. They had nothing to do with the gannathor, rather an unexpected assault coming from the Arcturus sector. After some collating, a coordinator was able to figure it out from an analysis by the lighthouses.

"It seems to be an unusual form of attack, near as I can tell. They thought it was a meteor shower, at first. Now they are saying that heat blooms have been detected and that ordinance is involved. Armed meteorites! All of the planets, moons, satellites and stations are targeted. A very comprehensive venture, sir."

"I'm sure General Pharos will employ the new shield," said Amory.

"That's just it, sir. The meteorites have already bypassed the shield. It was all kept hush-hush while we were called to the asteroid. I believe we'll be getting new orders any moment. In fact, there's a private transmission for you just in."

"I'll take it in my quarters," said Amory.

When he got there and switched to visual, he saw immediately that it would be a highly sensitive issue for it came from headquarters in the form of an informal request from his personal friend and mentor, General Devan.

"General! How good of you to call," began Lieutenant Amory before being cautioned not to speak by his long time acquaintance.

"Not a syllable, John. That nonsense about Iron Feather was a ploy. I assume you are aware of that. If not, then you need to know that he was given a rather delicate assignment. He is not a real police Captain, more like a special operative reserved for the elite and the private inquiries. No one is to know about it, but considering the collapse of the shield, he's going to need some assistance and I thought you'd be in a position to do something. The aliens have made themselves invisible, now that their spy was detected and pursued.

"We let him fake the gannathor's escape so he might be able to induce it to help us in this crisis. After all, the two know each other rather intimately. Ambassador Langford Joh arranged for that to happen. That tells you how big this incident is. Now, what I think you should do is cloak your ships somewhere in the vicinity of Gray's Bow where it intersects the vector from Arcturus. I expect he'll be there somewhere. Perhaps you can make contact. If not, be prepared for those meteorites. There will be plenty of backup coming, but they won't know about Iron Feather or his friend."

"What about orders?"

"Pharos will be in touch shortly. You will be given full authorization, John, and you know what that means. Keep your crew on a need-to-know basis unless it becomes impossible. That's all for now. Good luck!"

The screen went dead as Amory's heart skipped a beat. A massive alien attack and he was on point with five ships. Iron Feather was out there somewhere with a renegade being manipulated to help the cause. He rushed back to his command chair just as the new orders arrived. His speech became curt and restrictive.

"Proceed to Gray's Bow at maximum velocity. Tight tandem formation, all ships. Prepare for major assault, including a full broadside. I don't want a single one of those meteorites getting through."

When they reached the Bow perimeter, a floating cloud of multi-colored gas between the two stationary dead moons of Gray's system, the sensors did not pick up any anomalies, neither the incoming attack nor Iron Feather.

"Calculate the probable trajectory from Arcturus to the nearest Confederation asteroid," he ordered quietly and received an answer on his console in moments.

"Lenard, have you calculated when they'll be in range?"

"They should be now, sir. I don't know why they are not."

"Wayne, are we using all optical sensor possibilities?"

"Everything except infrablue, Lieutenant."

"Do that as well."

"Yes, sir. Incoming message. I can't lock in the source."

"On my console, Wayne."

"Whoever is in command, this is Iron Feather."

"I read you Captain. This is Lieutenant Amory."

"Forget the broadside, Amory. Get your ships out of harm's way. All hell is going to break loose in about ten minutes. You've got that much time."

"Where are you, Captain? You don't register on our sensors."

"Thank Dar Pollyk for that. He's my gannathor partner. That means the aliens won't see me either. But they will see you and you won't have a chance against their new technology."

"What's new about it?"

"A new cloaking mechanism that defeats our best sensors. Better get moving. I won't be responsible for your destruction."

"That bad? We can't try to defend ourselves?"

"Not a chance, Amory. Now git!"

"Redeploy behind the moon," ordered Amory, miffed that he couldn't get a better view of what was to happen.

"We can drop sensor buoys, Liuetenant," offered Lenard. "Perhaps they will pick something up that we can analyze later."

"All right. Do it. Have all the other ships do the same thing. Five minutes, people. Move gentlemen."

It was a good thing that Iron Feather warned them in time because they would never have been able to stop or impact the assault that came out of the void. Clearly, the gannathor, in spite of its being incredibly alien to any species in the Confederation logs, had both immense power and a sense of humor. Somehow it had been inspired by the Captain to perform an act of preservation for the sake of its jailors, a singular and noteworthy accomplishment.

First, the attack was made visible and for a moment the deception of the Arcturians was revealed in cunning detail. To Amory, they looked like an extinct species of sea life he once studied at the academy, urchins or anemones, except that these were immense, black spheres and their podlike tendrils were tipped with planet concussion detonators. The gannathor simply undressed their meteorite hulls to expose their giant husks.

"Are those living beings?" asked Amory to no one in particular. "Biomechanicals or what?"

"I don't know," answered Lenard and others.

Next, it was seen that the forward progress of the onslaught was slowed to a halt, that the devices, if that is what they were, appeared to be in confusion. An infrablue detector picked up an alien transmission, as though the Arcturians were trying to decide how to cope with their unseen new enemy, a complete reversal for them. But Iron Feather apparently decided to take advantage of their dismay by encouraging the gannathor to proceed to another tactic. Suddenly the great Arcturian aliens began to alter into a shape they could not prevent. Amory's crew gazed in wonder as the ferocious Arcturians were changed into huge, harmless, blue cheese-balls, the kind often fed to prisoners on Phobos, but on a vastly greater scale.

Then, almost laughingly, Iron Feather's little prowl craft appeared before the aliens who were massed before him in a group of fifty or more screaming, bellicose, helpless appetizers. The gannathor then propelled them back to the Arcturian system with an undisclosed shove and the crisis seemed to be over.

"Iron Feather! Are you receiving?" shouted Amory, intending to compliment the Captain.

"Not now," came Iron Feather's response. "One of the Arcturians was not affected. We think it was the leader. He's coming toward you."

"Shields," said Amory, forgetting that they were already up.

It didn't make any difference. The Arcturian uncloaked itself as it came in fast, urchin torpedoes firing in all directions. First, one ship was impacted and it evaporated in a brief flame. Then another. All the Confederation ships began evasive tactics as quickly as they could, but another two were caught. Hundreds of Confederation entities joined their ancestors in oblivion. Finally, only Amory's ship was left and the Arcturian refused to show mercy or veer away from helpless prey. Then, in a flash, it turned for a different reason. Iron Feather.

There wasn't actually much to see, because the Arcturian re-cloaked itself for protection. Amory managed to save the transmission.

"All right, Amory. I've managed to save your ass......barely. Me and Dar Pollyk are going after the Arcturian. When I get back, I expect a cup of coffee for this, at least. Dar Pollyk, as you might suspect, enjoys cheese-balls. Gotta go!"

It was the last anyone ever heard of Captain Iron Feather because he never returned from the void. That is, the last heard from him by anyone living today. By the time Lieutenant Amory returned to Confederation headquarters, he was joined by those on L243 who had been saved by the Captain. If the various governments were intent on squashing rumors of a new hero, they failed miserably. Iron Feather became more than just a legend, but an icon for what heroism meant. Statues were commissioned and erected on many planets and asteroids. Schools and streets were named for the man. Even the Academy was renamed for the Captain as legions of the new generation became motivated to enlist because of his deeds.

It is said that Amory, when he retired on Mars in his old age, allegedly received a personal transmission from Captain Iron Feather, far out in the galaxy where he still claimed to be chasing the Arcturian. Most people think it was wishful thinking on Amory's part, a kind of last farewell to the rogue cop that saved his life. But you never really know for sure. Maybe, just maybe, the gannathor has kept his friend alive all these years. After all, they worked so well together, like a salt and pepper team.

As for Langford Joh, whenever anyone asks him about the man, he just winks and shrugs his shoulders. When Amory finally passed away, he held a private celebration in his quarters in Luna City for himself, his droids and his computer console which recorded these impressions:

"The Ambassador has taken a long look at the photograph of a young woman on his dresser. Pixels equate to a deceased entity, one Mayra Takhina. Confederation records identify her as pureblood Nez Perce and the mother of a child sired by Langford Joh who is Australian-Israeli.

"The Ambassador is filling a crystal glass with a substance that equates to wine. Now he is holding it out at arm's length, addressing his androids. He is speaking."

'To absent sons and legends.'

"There seems to be an unusual liquid descending from the Ambassador's eyes. He is crying and permitting his droids to observe the emotion. Oh, he is approaching me and reaching for the encryption control."





Story © 2003 by William Alan Rieser wrieser@juno.com

Illustration © 2003 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net




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