Alaska Girl Publishing features author Tiffee Jasso. I think you will enjoy her books, wit and humor.
Here are the first few chapters of Angels of Another Kind. Please note formatting is different for this website than book will be in either print or ebook form. Also do realize I could have made mistakes. Formatting on a small laptop screen is not the same as using my Word program.
Blue Lucy Revelation: Angels of Another Kind
My tale begins April 4, 2094 with a group of prospectors, or target hunters as they are known in the trade, on board a spaceship sitting in the Six Mile Desert on planet Mars. Five explorers from Earth, and two beings from another dimension, make up the ship’s crew. The five humans aboard the spacecraft have no knowledge there are any other life forms on their ship, but them. Today— they take their first step toward enlightenment. —Tiffee Jasso
“One clap of thunder, and all eyes turn toward the heavens. That is as it should be.” —“The Atlantis Tablets: Stone One.”
Captain John T. Striker, former US Air Command pilot and co-owner of a refitted space freighter, newly christened the Blue Lucy, is a Texan. He is a tall, proud man with the bluest of blue eyes and sandy-colored hair. Generally, he has a lot of patience for what life throws at him, but not today.
Striker straightened up and took several steps back from the erosion grotto he had been burrowing into. Taking his geo scanner out of his pouch pocket, he turned it on and pointed the small handheld machine at the quartz stringer he had exposed. The white ribbon of rock glowed as the scanner’s light passed over it. He stopped the scan and checked the data on the tiny screen, and was disappointed to see the rock contained no minerals of real value.
He blew a breath of frustration which fogged-up his faceplate, and then rolled his eyes in self-reproach. He knew better than to exhale forcefully into his oxyhelmet like that, but it had been a hard week and he was out of time. An oxygen line on the ship had ruptured due to a rough landing, and they had lost most of their air supply. Tomorrow, they would beam off-planet to Ring City, the largest and nearest, space station from Mars that had oxygen for sale.
He tried not to think about what it was going to cost them to replace the oxygen at space station prices. Their bank account was already at a low point.
Thank God, we don’t have to worry about water too, he told himself. The Blue Lucy had been built before spaceships began using the new flame resistant corrite sludge for fuel. She had a fool’s pool water tank mounted over each of the ship’s two fuel vats.
That thought gave him an idea. Perhaps they could trade their extra water to offset the cost of the oxygen. When installing the new beamer engines on their new spaceship, he and his partner, G.T., had looked the tanks over and decided to leave them in place as a backup water supply.
Striker smiled as he thought about how the water tanks came to be called “fool’s pools.” They got the name because most spacers believed you were a fool to depend on them. While the tanks did save ships from turning into blazing fireballs, they did so, only about half the time.
Striker glanced upward as the sky lit up in the distance. His brow furrowed as he studied the growing dark haze on the horizon. By the size of the rising dust clouds, they were in for another electrical sandstorm. He decided it was time to head back to the ship. They could not risk being caught out in the open during a Martian sandstorm. In addition to the storm’s fierce lightning and being scoured by gritty winds gusting in excess of a hundred miles an hour, the dust cloud kicked up by the wind would block out the sun’s light. It would be impossible to fly their bootscooters back to the ship in the dark.
When another bout of lightning from the storm brightened the horizon, he hurriedly switched on his rock hammer’s built-in black light and aimed the purple beam into the dark crevice to take one more scan. The underlying rock now, glowed in the soft iridescent colors of common minerals. Three small bright pink dots were the only noticeable colors that stood out from the rest.
Striker pursed his lips as he studied them. While gems were not exactly on their list, he knew Aphrodite garnets were found on Mars, and could be valuable. That is, if you were to find any crystals large enough for the jeweler’s trade. He made a mental note to check the current market rate of the gems when he got back to the ship.
He powered off the hammer’s light and slipped the tool back into its sling strap on his utility belt. He turned around and began to search the nearby terrain for his field partner, who today, happened to be his younger brother, Billy. He looked for a tall skinny figure in a bright yellow oxysuit, and gave a short grunt of irritation when he failed to spot his brother’s tall lanky form.
Striker walked toward the rock shelf, Billy had been working on, grumbling to himself along the way. The kid knew the rules. Stay in sight of your field partner at all times! It had been the first thing he had drilled into his brother’s head this morning as they had waited for the airlock hatch to open.
It is a well-known fact that for a target hunter out in the field, time and distance often, slip by without notice. Space prospectors have been known to fall prey to Foley Smith Fever. A syndrome named for the two men, Stan Foley and Ned Smith, who had the misfortune to be the first to die that way. The fever had nothing to do with body temperature, but rather, the folly of running out of airtime before one could get back to one’s ship. The lure of the hunt for geo-treasure has that kind of effect on man.
Striker knew that. He had experienced the phenomena for himself on his first target trip to the moon. His mind kept telling him the next big strike might just be over that next rock outcropping, or the next canyon. If it had not been for the Foley alarm on his oxypack, he would have never realized his oxygen supply was at the halfway mark.
“Where are you, Billy?” he murmured over his comm unit as his dark blue eyes scanned the surrounding terrain.
Lightning lit up the sky again and a low rumble of thunder followed.
The next thing Striker heard was Billy’s excited voice spike over his comm unit. He looked around and saw boot prints in the wind-blown sand between two rocks. He followed them. The trail led him through a narrow canyon and into a small valley.
“John!” Billy shouted out when he spotted his brother’s figure emerging from between the rocks. “Look what I found!”
Then, without giving his brother time to look at what he had found, Billy leaped feet first into the gully before him.
Striker winced as he watched Billy land, and then, propelled by Mar’s lighter gravity, shoot forward and slam into a large boulder. About that same time, he realized he was not looking at a ravine made by natural means. He was looking at a gully-wide crash alley made by what was left of a downed ship. He stood there completely taken by surprise. When he reached up to rub his jaw, the thonk, his gloved hand made as it collided with the base of his helmet, broke the spell.
“You all right?” he asked when he saw Billy rubbing his arm.
“Hit my elbow on that rock. Hurts a bit, but nothing’s broken,” Billy answered, trying to keep the pain out of his voice as he flipped his wrist over to make a quick check of his suit’s environmental meter.
When Billy started toward the spacecraft, Striker told him to stop where he was. “You need to run a RAD check before you get any closer. That wreckage is apt to be hot.”
“Uh, right... I forgot,” Billy said and reached for his field scanner. He quickly switched the machine on and pointed it toward the crashed spacecraft. “It’s not hot!” he called out smugly, and began moving forward, only to stumble over another rock.
Striker waited for Billy to regain his balance before he spoke. “Don’t move!” He ordered. “You did not give your meter time to power up, let alone calibrate a cycle. This time, I want to hear some numbers. If you would slow down, you wouldn’t stumble around so much.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Billy said, giving a mock salute.
Striker ignored his brother’s subtle protest that he was being too protective. Radiation sickness was not an option as far as he was concerned. He had dealt with radiation victims during the war, both live ones and dead ones.
“Three, two, one, calibrated!” Billy called out when the machine gave a small ping.
This time, Billy took the time to move the meter back and forth across the entire expanse of the crash alley. “It’s not hot,” he announced. “The RAD line is no higher than point three and the signal bands are green. So, if you haven’t any more objections, I will now proceed to yon piece of space junk,” he finished, sweeping a hand toward the spacecraft for emphasis.
“Not yet! Just stay put until I run a backup check,” Striker stated as he took out his own scanner.
As Striker waited for his machine to calibrate, he quoted from his favorite off-planet survival guide. “Fact number three: If you are too bloody lazy to scan, you are too bloody stupid to live!” Striker smiled as he saw Billy’s head swing toward him. “That axiom can be found along with nine others in “The Bloody Field Guide to Space Survival,” by Lord Allard Krake. Have you read it?” he asked.
“No,” Billy answered, shaking his head.
“I’m not surprised,” Striker said. “Many professors believe the book to be too graphic and the language too raw to be of any use as an instructional guide. Also, it is considered outdated as it was published before spaceships began using light beaming reactors. But, it is one of the better books on space travel which is surprising, considering the book is by a British Lord. Krake does more than just draw you a verbal picture of what you need to know. He brings to life, not only the wonders to be found beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but also the harsh realities of space travel. My favorite axiom is number one. “Life is too spoofing* short. Don’t make it shorter!”
[*Spoof: Screwed by machine. A popular slang word invented by putertechs (computer programmers).]
Billy’s laughter rang out at that statement.
“Yeah, I know. Made me laugh the first time I read it. But, I soon learned Krake was not being humorous. There are stories in his book about incidents and accidents in space that anyone even thinking about blasting off Earth should know about. It could save their life. We have a copy in the Lucy’s data base, I suggest you read it.”
“Read it, I will, when I get back to the ship,” Billy promised. “But right now, it is that ship or what’s left of it that interests me.”
Striker checked for other dangerous substances that might cause problems, but found nothing out of the ordinary. He motioned with a hand for Billy to go ahead and approach the ship.
While Billy made his way toward the wreckage, Striker stood on the edge of the crash alley. His eyes narrowed in concentration as he tried to match the unusual ball and pipe shape of the ship’s hull with a known corporation, or country, but nothing came to mind.
Billy walked slowly along the side of the crashed vessel, searching for clues that might tell him where the ship hailed from. He stopped to take out his field scanner, pushed the vidcam key and began a detailed description of the downed space vessel to take back to the Blue Lucy.
Frustration set in when he found the layer of red dust and grit that covered the craft’s hull was so thick it hid any tags, logos, or other clues that would solve the mystery of who owned the vessel. Or rather, who had owned it, he reminded himself, since the ship was now just a piece of salvage.
“Hey! I think I just found an exit hatch,” he called out to Striker as he spotted a rectangular-shaped variation in the dust layer. He hurriedly wiped at the spot with a gloved hand. When he found himself staring back at his own reflection, his mouth dropped open.
“Whoa!” He exclaimed. “When did they make chrome-plated ships?”
“I don’t know. I can’t recall ever seeing or hearing of one,” Striker replied as he walked up and stared at Billy’s and his own reflections in the silver mirror-like surface of the ship’s hull. “But, it might help tell us more about it and where it came from as I doubt there will be very many models like this one in the files.”
Striker turned away and moved on to inspect the part of the ship that had slammed into the rock wall, halting the spacecraft’s disastrous skid as it had plowed through the rocky terrain. It was plain to see, by the damage done to the surrounding area, the runaway ship had hit the rock wall at a terrific speed. Yet, he saw no signs of structural damage to the vessel’s hull.
He stopped to look back down the length of the vessel, searching for signs of hull breaches or surface ripples that would indicate metal giving way as it impacted with the planet’s surface. He saw none. Now that’s got to be one for the books, he thought.
As Billy wiped away the dust, his glove slipped across the metal surface and revealed a small panel of black colored triangles. Each button had a design etched into it. He did not recognize any of the icons.
He longed to put a comm link through to the Blue Lucy, and ask Kalo, to check the ship’s computer files, but both Striker and G.T. had strictly forbidden any field contact with the Blue Lucy. They had given him a lengthy explanation on how communication of any kind was automatically picked up by remote satellite jockeys that orbited every planet in the system. “The info is then sold to anyone who will pay for it,” G.T. had complained.
With a quick glance to make sure John was not watching, Billy cautiously pushed on one of the black buttons. When nothing happened, he tried the others. When he tired of trying different variations he turned and looked toward his brother.
“I found a panel on the right side of the hatch, John,” he stated. “It has six triangular-shaped keys and each one has a different symbol, but I don’t recognize any of them.”
“What kind of symbols? Iconic, letter, or numeral?”
“The top one has something that looks like a seashell,” Billy replied. “One might be a fish. It’s hard to tell. The rest look like scribbled lines—not letters, or numbers, just scribbles.”
“It might be something from Taz Inc. or one of the other islander corporations. They all use various aquatic icons and native ciphers in their logos.”
Billy stared at the designs more intently and nodded. The scribbles did kind of remind him of some of the primitive designs he had seen on artifacts displayed at the Phoenix Museum of Ethnology.
“Kalo told me that Liinka has most of ACTS* on file,” Billy told Striker as he made a careful sweep of his vidcam back and forth over the area. “So I am sure he will be able to match it up with something in those files.”
Striker groaned inwardly at the thought of the putertech, and Liinka, hacking into the American Center for Technology in Space. Should the Government Investigations Agency, trace their highly illegal activities back to the Blue Lucy, their ship’s computer tech would not be the only one that got hauled off to prison. The real question would be, who arrested him and G.T. first, ACTS or GIA*?
[*ACTS: American Center for Technology in Space (formerly NASA).
[*GIA: Government Investigative Agency: Replaced the FBI & CIA in 2057.]
“Of course, maybe this thing is not from Earth at all.” Billy said with a laugh.
Striker ignored his brother’s remark as he was busy using his scanner to take measurements. The craft was 12.3 meters long. Large enough to be a survey ship, he told himself, considering this was no more than a section of the original ship. There had to be more of it somewhere as he still had not been able to locate anything that resembled a power or propulsion port. It occurred to him the ship may have been powered by one or more separate nacelles that had sheared off as the ship impacted the planet.
His attention drifted to what he did not see. He ran a quick scan of the crash alley and found the ship had slid 840 meters from where it first impacted to where it finally came to rest. The force of impact had cut a 10 meter wide channel, close to 3 meters deep. The ship should have broken up upon impact and, what was left when it hit the rock barrier, should have folded up like a beer can. Instead, the craft had miraculously defied the laws of physics, and not only stayed in one piece, but also appeared to have sustained no external damage.
Striker slowly walked back and forth along the crash alley’s bank, scanning for any variations in his previous readings. A red blip on the meter caught his attention. He stopped to check the meter. He ran new RAD scans, and found that each time he passed by the same section of the ship, the instrument’s radiation register jumped. There was definitely a small area on the craft that was radioactive, but it appeared to be at acceptable levels. Still, his curiosity was piqued. Atomics had been banned more than thirty years ago after the Beijing Lotus’ reactor had exploded on takeoff at the Shanghai Spaceport. Within seconds, a million people died, and millions more were injured. The accident had spewed deadly radiation across the continent, and many of those who had survived the initial blast, died later from the aftereffects of radiation exposure.
A loud banging interrupted his thoughts.
He turned around and saw Billy trying to pry open the recessed area with a lode chisel and a rock hammer.
“Put that hammer away,” he commanded.
Billy jerked as Striker’s voice boomed over his comm unit. He then gave a yelp of pain as his hammer slipped off the chisel and crashed down on his gloved fingers.
“Bangers!” He exploded with a rush of breath. “That hurt!”
“Do not touch another thing unless I tell you to!” Striker ordered without sympathy. He was angry that Billy was dumbbot enough to try hammering on the craft in the first place.
“Yes, sir,” Billy said contritely, using his good hand to put the chisel and hammer back into their slots on his utility belt.
Striker climbed toward a rock shelf that hung out over the spacecraft. Once he had reached his goal, he jumped onto the top of the craft. He landed safely enough, but his feet began sliding out from under him. He dropped down onto his belly and spread his arms and legs out. When his body quit sliding, he slowly rolled himself around until he once again faced the rock ledge. He then reached for his grapple gun. Bracing himself for the tool’s percussive kickback, he shot the grappling hook toward a group of rocks above him and then reeled the line back until the claw caught in a crevice.
He tested the cable and found it stable. For safety and balance, he wrapped the cable around one leg. He slowly tightened the feed. As planned, he slid headfirst over the top of the ship and down toward one of the oval outlines he had spied earlier. When he was even with the area he was aiming for, he locked the cable’s slide. Holding onto the line with one hand, he swiped at the dust with his free hand, revealing what he had hoped to find—a viewport. He twisted around and reached for the lightwand hanging off his belt.
“Do you see anything?” Billy asked as he watched his brother peer into the ship.
“There are a few lights glowing on some panels, but it’s too dark inside to see much else,” Striker called back. “The port is solarized, and so the light doesn’t penetrate more than a few feet, but I don’t see any bodies.”
“Bodies?” Billy questioned, swallowing nervously as the word echoed in his mind.
“Well, we know somebody was piloting this thing when it went down. There are probably a couple of bodies inside, maybe more as I can’t recall hearing of any rescue missions. Also, G.T. and I checked the data base before we filed for our site permit. There were no crash sites listed for this part of Mars.”
The thought of dead spacers made Striker lose his enthusiasm for trying to see what else might be inside the vessel. He let his legs slide slowly downward until he was in position to use the cable to pull himself back up to the rock ledge.
“Bangers!” Billy exclaimed to himself as he realized he had found more than just a crash site.
“Fortunately, for us, we won’t be the ones that do the removal. Once we get inside and see what we’re dealing with, we will file a salvage claim,” Striker explained. ‘The investigation and removal of the casualties falls to the Star Guardians. All we have to do is wait for them to finish their job. Then we can start the salvage operation.”
Billy felt his stomach churn as he listened. He stared at the hatch area he had been banging on and gulped. The only dead bodies at a crash site he had ever seen had been on news channels.
“But, right now, we need to get back to the Lucy. Our airtime is counting down,” Striker stated.
Billy nodded and started out of the alley, but paused at the hatch area to reach out and touch one of the black triangles. About that same time, the sixty-minute alarm on his oxypack went off like a mini-siren, startling him. He jumped back so fast, he almost lost his balance.
“Kill the switch!” Striker shouted over the alarm’s high pitched screech.
Billy hit the alarm button and the wailing stopped.
“That, practically gave me a heart attack, John,” he told his brother as he followed him back through the gap between the rocks.
“Well, now you know the Foley alarm works,” Striker said with a chuckle. “But, if it makes you feel any better, my heart did a dance too.”
Billy’s brow went up in surprise at that confession. He had never known anything that could scare John.
“If that storm lasts as long as the last one, we’re not going to be able to come back tomorrow,” Billy complained as he eyed the dark cloud bank coming towards them.
“We will be back,” Striker said. “By then, we should have a better understanding of what we are dealing with and what type of intruder defense system the ship has. We don’t want to activate it when we pop the seal.”
“Intruder defense system?” Billy questioned, alarm on his face. “You mean, like in explosives?”
“Exactly! Most ships have some type of IDS, and some of them can be rather nasty. Not enough to damage the ship, but more than enough to disable someone trying to disable a ship’s security hatch code,” Striker explained as he mounted his bootscooter.
Once he had positioned his feet on the scooter, he looked up and saw Billy standing there, a puzzled expression on his face.
“It’s called protecting your investment, kid. Anyone boarding the Lucy without permission would find themselves in for a few surprises too.”
Striker smiled inwardly as he thought about that statement. The Blue Lucy did not have a regular defense system. It had an invisible—when she wanted to be—force, by the name of Liinka and her pet dogbot, Puzzle. While the robot might not be dangerous in the sense of being armed, it definitely could be hazardous to one’s health. He had a couple of healed ribs that would testify to that.
“Maybe we should bring Hazey with us when we come back” Billy suggested. “He told me he used to clear booby traps for the Air Command, during the war.”
“We could, but I doubt Hazey knows how to handle an airbike well enough to fly it across this rugged terrain.”
“I could bring him on one of the sleds,” Billy offered.
Striker nodded, but did not comment. He was busy looking up at the stars above his head. Even if he could not see them, he knew three SAT* jockeys orbited Mars. He also knew every word spoken over their helmet links had been picked up and analyzed for content and the information had been passed on to the brokers that owned the jockeys. The discovery of an unidentified craft, no matter what kind, or where it was found, would spark a lot of interest. He decided not to wait to file salvage rights. Tomorrow could be too late, he told himself.
[*SAT: Satellite Activated Transmission.]
He reached for his comm unit, opened a direct link to the Blue Lucy and entered three nines followed by the command sign. It was the spacer’s code for “salvage found.”
Using the data off his field meter, he carefully keyed in the exact coordinates of the crash site and sent the information to Kalo. It would alert the putertech to file a claim with the Federation. This would ensure they got first rights to take what they wanted off the craft. Whoever got second rights would depend on who could outrun the rest of the pack, and get here first.
“Hell of a time to run out of oxygen!” he muttered to himself as he mounted his scooter.
Captain G.T. Eagle
“Damn her ghosthide!” G.T. cursed, and in what he knew to be a childish gesture, he hit the delete key, dumping her figures off his screen. He fervently wished there was a delete key he could use to wipe her from the ship’s computer.
Gilbert Tafoya Gray Eagle, co-owner and registered captain of the Blue Lucy, and member of the Navajo Nation, had been named for both of his grandfathers— Gilbert Tafoya and Gray Eagle. However, his grandmother, who was living with her daughter, Lucinda Eagle, at the time, forbade anyone to use the name of her ex-spouse “Gilbert” in her presence. His father, Charlie Eagle, always the peace maker, promptly dubbed him, G.T. As he grew up, most called him Eagle, but to family and friends, he was always G.T.
G.T. sat at his comm station studying the figures before him with a frown on his face. Some days are just worse than others, he told himself. No matter what numbers he applied, the end result was the same. Their oxygen supply was at 69.7 hours and fizzling down with each second that passed.
He studied the latest set of figures on the flatscreen before him. Shaking his head, he grumbled softly to himself in his native language. A rough landing had snapped a coupling off the ship’s main oxygen line. The ship’s computer had automatically switched life support to the auxiliary oxygen supply, but that was ten days ago, and they were fast running out of air.
He sat there beating himself up for failing to check the valve couplings on the oxygen lines before they left Skyhawk.
A message box opened up on his flatscreen and the words, “Cutting life support for engine halls and hydroponics is not advised,” appeared.
“Get out of my computer, dammit!” G.T. muttered, angry that Liinka was monitoring his work.
He forcefully struck the delete key. Her words disappeared, but then, so did his numbers. Before he could react, a new set of numbers appeared. He looked them over and made a sour face when he deemed her calculations were correct. The eight hours of airtime he had hoped to gain, had dwindled down to less than one hour. Not enough to make a difference. They would have to beam off Mars within the next 24 hours in order to insure their oxygen supply held out until they could get to Ring City. The space station did have oxygen for sale. He had checked on that yesterday.
“Have Hazey and Jesse run a prelaunch check on the beamers, Sitka!” G.T. commanded, swiveling around in his chair to look over at the slim dark-haired woman who sat across the room at the nav station. “Then, chart a path to Ring City. But, do not file it with Earth Station, until we are ready to beam out.”
Sitka Garcia turned away from the comm screen she was monitoring, long enough to nod at him, and then relayed G.T.’s command. First to engineer Jack Hazey, who was running a diagnostic on the starboard beaming engine, and then to her husband, Jesse Garcia, the ship’s mechtech, who was in the freight bay working on one of the bootscooters. She next changed all the status lights on the ship from dead red to prelaunch yellow.
G.T. saw the status lights change color and nodded. He admired Sitka’s ability to master all the protocols required of both a navigator and pilot. He also liked the fact she did not question his authority or stop to ask questions. Good pilots are that way, he thought. They tend to take off first and ask why later.
When Striker had bragged to him about her piloting skills in flying freight to remote parts of Alaska, he had pictured in his mind a yard-wide female with a fierce look, on her face. He knew his own face must have mirrored his surprise the day he found a young, slim woman, in her mid-twenties, with black cropped hair, standing outside the Blue Lucy’s main hatch. She had a huge red leather handbag slung over her shoulder. When he saw the brand name, he raised a brow. The handbag probably cost as much as their new computer. Of course, he had to admit it did spice up her white t-shirt and faded blue jeans. After giving Striker a warm hug, she turned and introduced herself.
Jesse had arrived a few minutes later, in a cargo van, with a Skyhawk field maintenance crew. He was a short husky man with hazel eyes, and about the same age as his wife. When a freight hauler loaded with more boxes and crates pulled in behind the truck, G.T. realized why Jesse had brought help with him. He was going to need it.
G.T. turned his chair around and went back to staring at the figures on his flatscreen. There was nothing he could think of to add, and so left the figures where they were. Clasping both hands behind his head, he leaned back in his chair and swung his feet up on the counter before him, thinking to take a break.
He found himself staring up at the streaks and stains on the ceiling above his head. His eyes landed on the black smudges over Striker’s comm station and he scowled. Most of the scorch marks were due to past smoke damage and were evidence the ship had seen more than her fair share of bridge fires. However, the ones he was looking at were fairly new, and had been put there by the all-too-ingenious metal mutt robot, named Puzzle, that parked its torso in the computer hall.
“G.T.!” Sitka cried out, turning to look over her shoulder at his reclining figure. “Striker just relayed a triple-nine code!”
That brought G.T. up so fast, he nearly fell out of his chair as he struggled to get his feet off the counter and back onto the floor. He quickly crossed the short distance to the nav station to take a look for himself.
“Salvage!” he exclaimed, his jaw dropping open as he dumbly stared at the screen. There is no known salvage in this sector, or on the entire planet of Mars for that matter, he told himself. He had made sure of that before he had filed the permits for this zone. There had been no back claims, present claims, or future claims, registered, and there were no references to any missing vessels.
“Uh-oh,” Sitka said, shaking her head as she read the new SAT message on her screen, “The Dragon Queen just entered a nav path with Earth Station*. Her destination is Ring City, and she’s cleared to break orbit in one hour.”
[*Earth Station: A large space station orbiting the moon.]
Sitka waited for G.T. to explode. She knew from past experience that any mention of either the Dragon Queen, or its captain, General Alturas Modocco, generally set off fireworks with both G.T. and Striker.
“What’s the Queen’s ETA for Ring City,” G.T. asked between gritted teeth.
“She’s logged in to make the run from Earth Station to Ring City in just over thirty-two hours. That’s over four *BEEs per hour!” she exclaimed. “I did not know a Warrior Class ship could travel at that speed.”
[*BEE: A rate of speed equal to 33,333 miles per hour.]
“Most cannot,” G.T. told her, “but the Dragon Queen is not most. She has triple quad beamers.”
“Ah. Yes... I can see where that would give one an edge,” Sitka said, nodding her head as she pictured the giant quad beamers she had seen at the annual tech fair in Seattle, last November.
Both Sitka and G.T. fell silent as they contemplated the speed the large target vessel could travel, but for completely different reasons.
G.T. knew it was no coincidence the Dragon Queen was headed their way. Whatever it was that Striker and Billy had found, the odds of holding onto it had just taken a hit.
His face grew rigid at the thought of losing another discovery to the General and his thugs, even if this one was just a salvage claim. He exploded with a string of curses in several languages.
Sitka jerked in her chair at G.T.’s outburst, but his anger did not surprise her.
After G.T. ran through every word he could think of to describe how he felt about the General and his ship, he turned and headed for the lift tube.
“I’ll be in the computer hall if you need me,” he told Sitka.
The Star Chamber
“It is time to power yourself on, Dub!” Odn stated as he contacted the sleeping android. “There are things to be done.”
Dub shook off the dull lethargy of inactivity as his visual receptors powered on. The faceted black ovoid-shaped crystals he used for eyes sparkled as they caught the light rays from the ship’s interior lamps. As he powered up the rest of his body, a low hissing sound emanated from the vocalizer located in his chest. He turned his head slowly from side-to-side to check the mobility of his neck ring and found it working properly. He then rotated the two short rod antennae on his head and noted both of his hearing units were in perfect order.
Satisfied, for the moment, with his physical self he began to check for memory and logic capabilities while tentatively reaching out with his mind to Odn. It pleased him to find the Star Chamber’s wellmaster was the one who had summoned him.
Dub scanned Odn’s files and he found that all was not good. Several of the Star Chamber’s memory wells had been breached, and life support for his charges had been confined to that which the chjube tree was able to produce. This information told him that, indeed, something terrible must have transpired. It was at this point he realized he had no information on what had happened.
He rapidly searched his core memory, but found he could not establish the whereabouts of the mothership. “Where is the Khaddi-Bior?” he asked.
Odn did not reply. Instead, he lit up one of his data panes and created a video log. A silver-colored spaceship appeared on the largest viewing pane and was quickly replaced by an interior scene of the ship’s bridge area.
Dub heard the collision alarms as they warned of danger. He saw the looks of dismay on Judrn’s and Muro’s faces as the two android pilots stared at something he could not see. Before he could ask Odn for more information, the scene switched direction and focused on the crystal panes that lined the hull of the mothership’s bridge. Dub extended his neck and moved his head toward the screen to get a closer look. He saw a large piece of space debris grow rapidly in size as it streaked across the darkness of space on a collision course with the mothership.
Dub shrieked when the giant colony ship disappeared in a blinding flash of light. He now understood what had happened. Because the giant colony ship and the asteroid occupied the same dimensional stream, they collided. Judrn’s theoretical argument of ‘dimensional collision’ had come to pass.
“No,” Odn communicated. “Judrn’s theory has not been proven. What occurred is Pilot Muro moved the Khaddi-Bior out of the light stream in preparation to scout for the planet Attina. In doing so, he unknowingly, placed the mothership directly into the path of a comet. There was not time to engage the engines and move the ship out of its path before the comet’s core collided with the mothership.”
The android moaned and hung his head mournfully at that news.
Odn gently reminded Dub that not all was lost. “This Star Chamber has survived as well as its children.”
Odn’s words reminded Dub of his duties. He waddled across the length of the inner chamber to stand before the crystal tagnyte cylinders that encased and protected the two children in his care. Dub took heart when he saw the male and female floating tranquilly in the life preserving fluid that filled the decanters. “Just as it should be,” he murmured and moved in for a closer evaluation.
He first stood in front of the crystal cylinder that held his female child’s data. He found her life reading was twenty-two Vibs, her color excellent, her brain waves were active and normal. He then moved over to the next cylinder and saw the male’s life reading was twenty-four Vibs, two points higher than the female’s. And that it as it should be, he told himself.
“When the android finished his inspection and determined his children were in no danger, he ran a check of his own systems. He found some of his of memory missing and his brow ridges wrinkled in concern. He complained to Odn, but the Wellmaster offered no solution, telling him he was still in the process of rerouting data from his own damaged memory wells.
“How long?” Dub asked.
“Unknown,” came Odn’s reply.
Dub gave a low sigh and went back to his passengers. He slowly circled the tagnyte cylinders and then moved over to where the chjube tree stood. He scanned the plant and saw not only had it survived, but had also grown in size and was touching the ceiling.
“Of course it survived, you stiff-wiffy!” he scolded him-self. “Had it not, your children would have perished long ago. Without the tree, there would have been no oxygen.” He shuddered at the thought of such a catastrophe.
Odn had idly been listening in on Dub’s discussion with himself. “Fortunately, the planet we are on has strong solar cycles,” he told the android. “That is all that is needed for the chjube tree’s survival.”
Dub reached out and stroked one of the tree’s larger branches. Its crystalline surface resonated softly to his touch. “Yes. You are quite right, Wellmaster. It is healthy.”
He turned away from the tree. “Have you finished your calculations?” he asked.
“Yes, we have been here on this planet 7,491 years in Atlantean time,” Odn answered.
“But how can that be?” Dub queried, shocked by the numbers.
“It can be because it is,” Odn stated. “Do you doubt me?”
“No, Wellmaster, I do not doubt you,” Dub replied. “Please ignore my small ramblings which I am sure are mostly due to shock and lack of programming,” he apologized.
“One functions as one can,” Odn stated.
“Yes, of course. I quite agree,” Dub said, already feeling better about himself.
When Odn did not reply, Dub turned away from the tree and slowly walked back to his work station. He set his clock to coincide with Odn’s new time cycle. He began a check of his structural parts. First he extended one green gelatinous hand and flexed all four of the thick digits that made up his thumb and three fingers. He then did the same with his other hand. It pleased him to see his fingers wiggle.
The movement cast shadows on one of the many reflective panels that lined his work station, and that caught the android’s attention.
Dub moved closer to the largest pane and used it as a mirror. He preened in front of it as he studied his trim figure’s reflection. Pleased, he smiled and watched his cheek ridges warped outwards until they touched his ears.
I am indeed a fine specimen. My outer self is as lustrous today as it was the day I first awakened, he silently bragged to himself.
He stood there admiring the soft green gelatinous skin which covered his body. It still had the fresh yellow-green tinge the creators had given him the day they brought him to life. He noted the dark silver metal shells that covered his center torso and brain gleamed as if they had been polished yesterday.
Dub let his eyes travel downward. It was then he saw the ugly black smudges that streaked across the tops of his wide rectangular feet. Much to his horror, he saw several places where his skin had been burned away from his metal frame. He flung his arms out and gave a screech of dismay.
Odn heard his distress, and relayed the damage sustained to his torso was from an uncontainable radiation field that had flooded the Star Chamber at the time of the collision between the mothership and the comet’s core. “When the first alarms sounded within the Star Chamber,” he explained, “I immediately erected a containment field around the ship to protect it, but it took a few seconds to do so, and I was not able to stop some damage from occurring.”
Dub realized Odn’s quick thinking had saved them all, and he thanked the machine entity for his actions.
Later, after he had had time to thoroughly examine every inch of the ship, Dub considered what he should do next. Odn had told him the planet they were on was not habitable for humans in its present state. That be the case, he dared not wake the children. Once they entered into the awakening stage, the chjube tree would not be able to supply enough oxygen to keep them alive. He sighed loudly when he realized they would have to wait for someone to come rescue them.
“We had visitors earlier today,” Odn told him. “That is the reason I awoke you. However, they are not the ones we have been waiting for.”
“They left?” Dub queried, disturbed by that news. “Where did they go?” he asked.
“I do not know,” Odn answered as he powered on one of the smaller data panes to show the android.
Dub saw two figures in saffron-colored suits walking around outside the ship and speaking in a language he was not familiar with. He asked Odn if he was able to translate, but the wellmaster told him he could not.
Dub stood pondering the situation. When nothing occurred to him, and Odn offered no suggestions, he gave a sigh. There was little else for him to do, but wait. He moved over to his station, and with a click of his heels, anchored himself to his power port.
“Wake me if they return!” he said and then powered down to conserve energy.
Striker looked up as a blazing streak of light crossed the sky in front of him. The meteors entering the Martian atmosphere were dangerous, but spectacular, nevertheless. Some people would give half a year’s salary or more, to see such a sight, he told himself. He then gave a derisive snort at that thought. He had spent the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of credits to get here when he took into consideration the price of the Blue Lucy, and all that it had taken to make her space worthy.
Striker put all thoughts of the downed craft out of his mind as he guided his bootscooter over the rocky terrain. One had to pay strict attention when kiting an air bike across rugged ground. The frequent changes in air pressure beneath the scooter as it tried to compensate for the rise and fall of the ground beneath it, made for a rough ride. If you hit a crevice or gully, the sudden plunge could cause an inattentive rider to lose control. It was one of the bootscooter’s drawbacks. They had wanted to buy two of the new All-Terrain Kurtis Gliders with the latest in gravity compensators, but the high cost of replacing the Blue Lucy’s two beaming engines had ended that plan.
He reached the top of the ridge just above the valley where they had based the Blue Lucy and stopped to stare down upon his ship with pride. He knew others often criticized, and even laughed at her bright blue colors. But, it was his opinion, the color made her more interesting to look at and spiced her up.
Billy sped past Striker and let out a whoop of joy as he spotted the Blue Lucy below. He flew down the steep incline at a reckless pace, zigzagging back and forth as he artfully dodged rocks and crevices.
Striker knew he would have to scold the kid later for risking his neck that way, but he could not help feeling pride as he watched his brother professionally maneuver the bike down the steep slope. Who would have thought all those years of competition air-boarding across the rugged deserts of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, would prepare the kid for the day he would race across Martian plains on a bootscooter.
Billy slowed to a stop as he reached the freight bay’s exit hatch. He shut his bike’s engine down and waited for the machine to sink softly to the ground before he sprung the scooter’s boot locks and stepped off the bike. He then ked Silky—the ship’s autobot—to open the hatch and pulled his scooter into the airlock.
Striker parked his bike beside Billy’s and waited for Silky to complete the reentry process. Once the hatch door locked in place, he heard the rush of air as it flooded the airlock.
“Pressurization of inner-lock is complete. Radiation and contaminant check will now y announced in the husky feminine voice, Kalo and Billy had picked for her programming.
“Negative contamination,” she stated a few seconds later, and opened the inner airlock door.
Striker guided his scooter inside the freight bay. He removed his oxyhelmet and took a deep breath of the ship’s air, enjoying the freedom of breathing without hearing the rasp of his breath against his ears. He next removed his field gloves and rubbed his hands together to help warm them. With no real atmosphere to capture the sun’s heat, Mars was cold, and wickedly so.
He stopped rubbing his hands and glanced over at Billy, who was telling Jesse about his discovery. He walked over to where the two stood.
“I’ll help Jesse recharge the scooters,” he said, interrupting his brother’s wild-eyed account of the ship he had found. “You need to go see Kalo and get your scans analyzed. We need to know more about what you found out there.”
Billy stopped his narration. In his excitement to share his news, he had forgotten he had recorded his discovery.
“Got to go,” he told the mechtech. “But, I’ll make sure Kalo sends you a copy of the vid file. Striker says he has never seen a ship like it. It’s incredible and…” His voice trailed off as Striker softly cleared his throat. “I will tell you all about it later, Jesse,” Billy promised before he turned and headed for the lift tube.
“So, you found some kind of ship, huh?” Jesse questioned as he moved to connect a power plug to the charge unit on Billy’s bootscooter.
“Some kind, is probably the right phrase,” Striker replied, snapping a power unit into his own scooter’s femport. “It left a crash alley half a mile long and ten feet deep before it slammed into a rock shelf at rocket speed. Yet, it doesn’t appear to have a dent on it.”
“That don’t sound possible!” Jesse exclaimed, referring to there being no damage to the ship and not to the size of the crash alley. He had seen bigger.
“That’s what I would say too, but there’s more. There are atomics on board.”
“Atomics! That would have to put it back thirty years or more.”
“Yes, that is what I figured too. And, I guess this is as good a time as any, to tell you I have already had Kalo file salvage markers with the Federation.”
Jesse’s thick brows rose as his mouth dropped open with surprise.
“I know” Striker said, putting his hands up and shrugging, “I don’t like it either. But, someone else could come along and grab the rights, and legally too, if we don’t file. Not that it looks like there is all that much to grab, but some spacers will jump a claim no matter its value.”
Jesse frowned. He did not like claim jumpers.
Striker saw the frown and added a quick apology. “Sorry,” he said. “I know you and Sitka were hoping to clear enough on this trip to put a down payment on your own flight service. While there may be some value in what we can salvage off that spacecraft, I doubt there will be any bonus money for you at the end of this trip.”
“No reason for you to apologize, Striker,” Jesse reassured his friend. “Maybe, there will be something on that craft we can use to make repairs on this ship. I could really use a chister valve to fix the botcho unit down here in the freight bay.”
“I doubt any botcho units are on that ship,” Striker said, shaking his head. I don’t think Bot Choy’s latrine incineration units were in use when that ship went down. But, thanks for understanding the situation. I just hope Sitka feels the same way.”
“Don’t worry about Sitka. This is the first time in a year that we have been able to spend time with each other without running into her mother, father, brothers, uncles, or several dozen cousins who all have been living with us this past year. In fact, we have been talking about asking if we could stay on for the next run. We like this ship... and its captains too, of course,” Jesse added with a good-natured chuckle.
It was now, Striker’s turn to be surprised. He did not realize that someone other than Kalo—their orphan putertech—G.T., and himself, would really care to live for any length of time on the Blue Lucy.
“You are both welcome to stay as long as you like,” he told Jesse warmly. “We can always use the help. But, you do realize that unless we find something of value…” Striker broke off when he realized he was moving into financial details that he was reluctant to reveal.
When he saw Jesse’s patient face staring at him, he decided he might as well put it all on the table, Jesse and Sitka deserved that much.
“Well, to tell you the truth, we put most of what we had into this operation, and there are damn few credits left,” he confessed. “Unless there is something of value on that ship, things are going to be financially tight for a while.”
“Money is not a problem for us,” Jesse said, flashing Striker a wide grin. “I am not trying to brag when I say this, but me, and Sitka... well, let’s just say we got all we need. My grandfather left most of his money to me and my brother, Jorge.”
“Thanks,” Striker said, not bothering to hide his relief. “It helps to know that I won’t be responsible for you both ending up at a geriatric farm for the poor.”
“Geriatric farm for the poor,” Jesse repeated, and laughed. His brown eyes crinkled in amusement as he ran a hand through his thick black curly hair. “That is funny, considering that is how my grandfather made his fortune. He owned fifty-two percent of the stock in Yonder Years. He left Mama a billion, another billion or so to charity, and the rest was left to Jorge, and me.”
Striker gave a low whistle of surprise when he realized Jesse’s grandfather must have been the late, Hector Rodriguez Dunnigan. He could not help but mentally do the math as he summed up an approximate value the inheritance would have been. His brow went up at the answer. In all the time he had known Jesse Garcia, they had never gotten into any lengthy discussions about family. It was a shock to find out the man was the grandson of what had been one of the richest men in the galaxy.
Wait till G.T. hears this one, he thought.
Jesse saw the surprise on Striker’s face, and guessed at his friend’s thoughts. “Like I said, you don’t have to worry about us. We are fixed for life and maybe, the hereafter as well,” he stated with a laugh.
“I don’t understand,” Striker said. “Why aren’t you sunning yourself on the beach in Miami, or California? You can afford to buy your own beach, or your own custom-ordered spaceship for that matter. It is not like you don’t know where to find a good nav pilot. Why ship with us?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, even though Sitka and I want to be alone, we don’t want to be that alone. And despite what you might think, having money doesn’t always make for happiness. I know that for a fact. It made our lives pretty miserable for a while.”
“Now, that is the kind of misery I could live with,” Striker cracked, thinking of what it would be like to have enough money to do whatever he wanted for the rest of his life.
“Yeah! That is what I would have said a year ago, but not now,” Jesse said, a scowl forming on his face as he thought about what had happened. “How would you like to have to deal with dozens of bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, tax people, and a couple hundred relatives that literally, popped out of the woods when they heard Sitka and I had money? Lots of money.”
“Exactly!” Jesse exclaimed, nodding his head. “It’s like living in a hotel lobby with a revolving door. Then without meaning to, I made matters worse. I decided I would buy Sitka a diamond ring. Not just any diamond ring, but the biggest diamond I could find in Seattle to put with the plain gold band I gave her when we got married. To make a long story short, she began to complain she couldn’t sleep. She looked terrible. I took her to the doctor and he said it was probably nerves and gave her some little pink pills to take. They didn’t help. Nothing helped. She lost weight and her hair started falling out. I mean really falling out… whole handfuls at a time. The doctors still could not find out what was wrong with her. For a time…” he paused, his voice breaking with emotion, “I thought I might lose her.”
Striker nodded sympathetically. He now, understood, why Sitka had cut off her long dark braids and was thinner than when he last saw her.
Jesse stopped long enough to put down the oil can he had been holding in his hand before continuing on with his story. “One day, I found her sitting on the floor rocking back and forth and crying her heart out. I finally got her to tell me what was wrong. Turns out, it was the ring. She had lost so much weight it fell off her finger and rolled under the bed. That is when she told me she was scared she would lose it, and I would have spent all that money on her for nothing.
That did it for me! The next morning, I put the ring in the box it came in, and took it and her to the bank. When I finished locking the ring away in the safety deposit vault, we keep for deeds and stuff, I turned to tell her it was going to be okay, and was just in time to catch her as she started to fall.”
“That would have scared me too,” Striker murmured, nodding his head.
“When I got her to the hospital, the doctor said she was suffering from Nervous Exhaustion. I stayed by her side for the next two days while she slept and then took her home. When my secretary brought me your job offer, I asked Sitka, if she would like to go live on a spaceship for a while? She gave me the first real smile I had seen on her face in several months.”
When Jesse saw Striker’s mouth hanging open, he chuckled softly. “Yeah, I have a secretary,” he chuckled. “And, he has his own secretaries. Someone has to take care of all the paperwork.”
“I can see where that might be a problem,” Striker agreed, recalling the stacks of paper that had piled up on his desk when they had been refitting the Blue Lucy.
Jesse nodded. “Anyway, I called Jorge, and told him to take over management of my accounts. He thrives on the banker’s life and likes all the fuss. His wife, Georgia, loves to entertain. Sitka prefers a good book to a social gathering any day, and so do I.”
Jesse stopped talking as he reached across the scooter he was working on to grab a fresh can of cyber oil. He filled the bike’s small oil injector tank and then continued. “So I left Crimmins, my secretary— in charge of the Seattle office. He is a good man and gets along great with Jorge, and the rest of the family. As soon as Sitka could travel, we headed for Flagstaff. You know the rest of the story.”
Striker nodded as he took the can of oil out of Jesse’s hand and went to work on his scooter. While he cleaned the bike’s air vents of small rocks that had gotten trapped inside the ducts, he recalled how he had met Jesse and Sitka Garcia.
* * *
After the war in the Middle East had been declared over, Striker found himself transferred to Wallie Air Base on Shemya Island in Alaska. They gave him a choice of rooms, with or without a window. He chose the one with a window and requisitioned an extra down sleeping bag, a half dozen wool caps with ear flaps, and a portable heater.
Once the heating problem was settled, he was told to go to the airfield and select his flyer. It was mid-November and mild for the locals, but for someone who was used to Egypt’s much warmer weather, the cold wind was brutal. He put on one of the wool hats, bundled up in his new parka, and headed out to the airfield to pick his plane.
He soon found out there were no grav jets on the airbase. The only aircraft he found out on the tarmac were twenty-year-old swoop jets. He walked over to take a closer look at the only plane that looked like it might still fly and saw half of the pilot’s station was setting on the ground. He started to go back and ask where they kept the real planes, but halted when a muffled voice asked him to hand him a wrench laying on top of the jet’s landing gear.
He picked the tool up and handed it to a greasy hand sticking out of the plane’s engine casing. He decided he would stick around in case the man needed something else. Several minutes later a dark head appeared and a man climbed out of the engine compartment.
“Hi. I’m Jesse Garcia, head mechtech for the base,” Jesse said, introducing himself as he wiped his hands on a grease rag before he offered it to Striker.
“And, that’s because I am the only mechtech on this base,” he added with a laugh.
When Jesse saw Striker’s eyes were staring up at the crooked welding job on the swoop jet’s belly, he chuckled knowingly. “If you think that one is bad, take a look at the wing on the other side.”
Striker followed the mechtech around to the other side of the plane.
“As you can see, the base’s former mech couldn’t weld bread with peanut butter,” Jesse said, pointing up at the repair job.
Both men laughed as they stood there looking at the wobbly welding seam that zig zagged across the wing.
“But, the scanner shows the repairs are good for go, and that is what counts.”
Striker nodded and looked around at the jets parked on the field. “I always wondered what they did with the planes that had become obsolete, and now I know,” he stated.
“I thought that same thing when I first saw these old ladies,” Jesse said, a wide grin on his face. “But after checking out the specs, I saw that swoop jets really are the better choice. Their wings have heat ridges. You got to have some way of clearing the ice before you take to the air in this part of the world. And you have to keep it off while you’re flying. Believe it or not, I just about got this one ready to start flying recon again.”
“That’s good to know,” Striker said while he kept hold of his jacket’s hood to keep it from blowing off his head as a gust of frigid wind hit him. “Because I am supposed to be in the air, come Monday morning. Maybe I could help. I did a lot of the repairs on the jets I flew at Siwa,” he offered.
“I can use all the help I can get,” Jesse told him, happy to have someone else out on the tarmac with him. “We should have her up and running by Sunday evening.”
Several weeks later, he and Jesse were back together replacing a broken power link on the plane’s engine. After they finished the job, Jesse invited him to dinner. That was when he met Sitka Garcia, He was surprised to learn she was a local bush pilot, and a member of the Tlingit tribe. Over the next few months, he became close friends with both.
* * *
“You know, salvaging that ship could be a good thing,” Jesse said, interrupting Striker’s thoughts. “Even a jack bolt or two for strapping down loose items would be welcome.”
“You are right about that,” Striker agreed as he spotted the twisted yellow wire securing an airjack to its stall. “But, I was hoping to find something of real value. I imagine that ship is going to be a real dog when it comes down to making any profit on it.”
“Could be, that all right,” Jesse agreed, bending down to check the air vents on Billy’s scooter. “But, sometimes a dog can be a good thing. My grandfather once brought me and Jorge, a puppy. It was some kind of cross between a Chihuahua and a Yorkie, I think,” Jesse said, smiling as he fondly recalled the little dog.
Striker’s eyebrows went up as he tried to picture such a dog.
“He grew to be about the size of a jackrabbit, and with ears about as long as a jack, too. He had patches of long yellow hair that spiked out in some places and pinkish-brown bald spots in other places. His eyes were a funny gray color and looked like they were going to pop right out of his head when he got excited. Which was most of the time. Of course, me and Jorge, we didn’t care what he looked like. But, the dog did cause problems with Mama. He wasn’t ten minutes in the house when he chewed up one of her favorite slippers. Boy was she flashed. She yelled at the dog, and told Gramps to take him back. He just laughed and told her he would buy her a new pair of shoes, and talked her into keeping it. But, the pattern was set. The dog chomped on her shoes every time he could get to them.”
“I would get a little flashed myself if some animal chewed on my boots,” Striker said, looking down at his feet.
“Yeah, I imagine if he had developed a taste for Jorge or my shoes, we probably would have fussed about it too. Of course, Mama got even with Gramps, in her own way. She sent him a bill every time she lost a pair of shoes, and she named the dog…” Jesse let his voice drop off as he bent down to pry a rock from the air vent.
“She named the dog what?” Striker prompted.
Jesse looked up at Striker and laughed before he answered, his brown eyes twinkling with humor. “She named him Hector, after my grandfather.”
Striker raised a brow and grinned. He could see why that would cause a few problems.
“But, the point I am trying to make is he was the best damn dog Jorge and I ever had,” Jesse said with a sigh as he remembered the good times with Hector. He then gave Striker a sly grin before he added, “Of course, he was also the only dog we ever had.”
They both laughed at that statement.
Striker decided it was time he got out of his oxysuit, so he left Jesse to finish charging the scooters and headed for the small cubicle on the other side of the freight bay he used for a dressing room.
* * *
“Whoa!” Billy exclaimed excitedly as one of the flatscreens flashed on and he saw the six black triangle-shaped buttons he had scanned, earlier. “That came out better than I thought it would, considering I was on the dark side of the ship.”
“Not bad,” Kalo agreed as he strung code and told the computer to remove the slight glare that reflected off the ship’s surface.
“See that key in the middle with an icon that looks like a fish?” Billy asked. When Kalo nodded, he continued, “Do you think it could be something one of the islander corporations might have used?”
Kalo studied the icon. “It could be a fish, but it might be a math symbol,” the putertech answered.
Both young men were discussing the symbols when the door to the computer hall opened.
Billy turned and greeted G.T. as the older man walked over and joined them. He had just started to open his mouth to tell G.T. about the ship he had found, but was interrupted by Kalo when the putertech let out a wild shriek.
Billy jerked around to see what was wrong.
“Captain Eagle! Billy!” Kalo cried. “Look at this!”
G.T. and Billy tried to make sense of what Kalo was pointing at, but the Puterease symbols rapidly scrolling on the screens in front of Kalo, made little sense to them.
[Puterease: A complex verbal computer language used by computer techs.]
“I can hardly believe this!” Kalo shouted, his pale white-blue eyes so large they appeared to take up half of his face.
G.T. looked at Kalo and then back at the screens. All he saw were puter symbols moving at a fast rate. Too fast, for him make any sense of them. He cast Kalo a look of irritation.
Kalo close to passing out with excitement, rose from his chair, put a hand to each side of his head and screamed, “Oh, my God! You are not going to believe this!”
“Believe what?” G.T. shouted, his patience gone.
“The spacecraft Billy and Captain Striker found today is not from Earth at all. Miss L. says it’s from another solar system!”
Kalo stopped and peered at the screen again and then broke into rapid Puterease. His head moved from side-to-side as he studied the data on the screen. “She says the outer hull is an element not found on Earth,” he finished breathlessly before collapsing back into his chair.
“From another world?” Billy cried.
“Yes, Billy, the vessel you found today is from another world,” Liinka stated as she appeared before the men.
Billy’s mouth fell open as he gawked at the transparent figure before him. He had heard Striker and G.T. refer many times to the ship’s computer ghosthost, but he had believed, until this moment, she was a screen image and not a walking, talking, holofigure.
G.T. stared at the crash site shown on the screen. He shook his head. Not in denial, but because of the problems such a discovery presented. They had to leave tomorrow. Alien vessel or not, they had to leave. Hell of a time to run out of oxygen, he told himself.
Liinka, for her part, paid scant attention to the men in the room. She had her mind on what she considered to be more important matters. She was waiting for John Striker to join them. There was much to do and time was of the essence.
How It All Began
“We are all born under one sun and the same blanket of stars, but the number of paths between life and death are infinite. Who chooses our destiny? One that is, or one that has yet to come?” —“Observations in the Afterlife,” Araina (2061).
Striker signed on with the Air Command at the age of twenty-three with the intention of applying for duty with the Star Guardians after basic training. When the Army transferred him to the Air Command’s combat pilot program in Houston, he figured the Star Guardians would be the next step.
Unfortunately, fate often colors a different picture then the one we choose for ourselves. Six months later, Mohammed Abdul Rahbadi, and his army of elite desert fighters, attacked several cities in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt, starting a war that eventually involved the rest of the world. Striker was sent to the newly erected, Siwa Airbase, located about three hundred fifty miles west of Cairo. For the next year and a half, it was his home. The last eight months of service, he spent at Wallie Air Base on Shemya Island, on the tail end of the Alaskan Aleutian island chain.
When his Air Command service was over, Striker applied for a job at Landworth Wacklang, in San Diego, hoping to get assigned to one of their off-planet space projects. Instead, Wacklang sent him to Phoenix. They needed test pilots for their new C-7 skycruiser. A sleek four-passenger flying car made for the civilian market.
* * *
Striker arrived in Phoenix in the middle of July. When he stepped out of the spaceport, the heat hit him like a blast from a furnace. For just a second he wished he was back at Wallie, but as he climbed into the back of the skycab, the temperature dropped forty degrees, and sanity kicked back in.
At Wacklang’s testing center, he was assigned a guide. A skinny young man with dark hair and darker eyes, who stammered every time the subject of the new skycruiser came up.
“Frenton Ballard,” he introduced himself as he extended his hand. “I am First Aide to L.J. Wacklang, here at Phoenix One Operations.”
As Striker shook hands with the young man, he had trouble suppressing a grin as he thought about the acronym that title made.
They were rounding up the tour of the hangar, where he was told he would be doing most of his training when Ballard let the botcho* hit the fan, so to speak.
[*Botcho: Common slang word derived from the introduction of inventor, Bot Choy’s Latrine Incineration unit.]
After a quick glance around to see if anyone was watching them, the young man whispered, “There are some problems with the cee-dash-seven series. You will find the pilots here have picked their own name for the skycruiser. They call it Wacky. Which is disrespectful, you know? After all, Mr. Wacklang is the Wacky’s creator.” Ballard’s face and ears turned bright red as he realized his error. “Oh, my!” he bleated out in distress. “That came out the wrong way. What I meant to say, he is the cee-dash-seven’s creator.”
Striker kept a straight face and nodded politely before changing the subject, stating he was looking forward to getting settled in. He also mentioned he would like to get out of the heat.
Ballard flashed him a quick look of relief and gladly gave him the details on the living quarters assigned to him. He was told he would be sharing the unit with the other new test pilot, also a former Air Command veteran.
“But, the units are roomy and you do have your own separate bedrooms and bathrooms,” Ballard assured him before he added, “Captain Eagle only arrived last week, himself.”
Striker listened with one ear as he mulled over what Ballard had said about the skycruiser being nicknamed Wacky by the pilots who had flown them. He could not help but wonder what he had gotten himself into. He was no longer sure he wanted to work for Wacklang.
After some inner deliberation, he decided he would stick it out at least for a few badly needed paychecks. If something better came along, he would move on.
After Ballard left, Striker grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge and sat down to read the company report the young man had given him. From what he could determine, the cruiser had been designed for the civilian commuter market, and considered by engineers to be revolutionary in design. However, the craft had a bad habit of dropping out of flight path when it hit any air turbulence. If you were an inexperienced pilot, the unexpected loss of altitude could be fatal. There had been six fatalities, with four of them being female pilots. “Gender causation is being studied,” the report stated.
Striker could have told them to save their breath on that one. Most female test pilots lacked combat training, either in simulations or in real life. That lack of training made their reaction time a jig slower. In real life that was all it took when your cruiser was flying at top speed in traffic to get you killed. In the meantime, Wacklang had grounded the small craft until further notice.
He figured he, and the other new pilot rooming with him, had been hired on as part of that “further notice.”
He was putting his things away when his new roommate, a tall, dark-haired, brown-skinned man, walked in and introduced himself as G.T. Eagle.
Later that evening as they filled each other in on some of their background, he found G.T. was the same age as himself, twenty-seven, and a Navajo. Both had lost their fathers when they were thirteen. G.T.’s father had died in a mining accident. His father, and his uncle, had died in an oil rig explosion. And despite all the similarities in their lives, he had no idea at the time, they would not only become good friends, but also target hunters and business partners in the near future.
At the end of his first week of training, Striker’s face and neck were sunburnt, and he had a headache that pounded in tune with his heartbeat.
G.T. took pity on his new friend, and invited him to come spend the weekend with him at his family’s ranch north of Flagstaff.
As they circled the ranch in an older model skycruiser they had borrowed from Wacklang, Striker got his first look at the impressive Eagle Ranch. The main house was a series of large white-stucco two story buildings with red tile roofs, surrounding a courtyard with an elaborate eagle-shaped swimming pool.
It was in the courtyard that he and G.T. first began to voice their dreams of becoming target hunters and getting a spaceship of their own. The stories G.T.’s grandfather told them about the massive gold strikes the Navajos had made back in the sixties had not hurt either. Striker knew there was a lot of truth in what the old chief said. The Navajo Nation owned the Skyhawk Corporation, one of the wealthiest independent corporations in the world.
Since, neither he or G.T. could afford to buy a ship of their own, they decided to target hunt for the Home of America Corporation—HOAM--on a share basis. They both had believed that if they found a good target site, they would earn the credits needed to buy their own ship.
The Corporation supplied an explorer grade vessel, a nav pilot and an engineer. The pilot was several years younger than they were and a likeable young man by the name of Frank Enoch, from Maryland. The engineer, HOAM sent over, was Jack Hazey, an older man in his fifties from London.
The exploratory target site assigned to them was on the Moon. Not exactly the place or moon he and G.T. would have picked for their first hunt, but given it was the Corporation’s ship, they were not in any position to argue.
Striker recalled how they had swaggered into the local claims office at Dusty Bay, a small underground lunar outpost located on the backside of the moon, and plunked down their site chip. The Federation agent glanced at their maps before he took their claim chip.
“I take it you boys are new at this?” the old gent remarked as he slid the chip into a slot on his station board.
They were too excited to pay much attention to what the claim’s agent said, or more importantly, what he did not say.
After several days in the field, and finding nothing of geological value, they both began to worry. G.T. had read that spelunkers often dropped a camera down to check on an underground cave before entering it. They decided to try the same tactic with their vidcam. They began dropping the camera down into the deeper crevices while monitoring the results on a remote screen. What they saw surprised them. About ten meters down, the rock strata changed color and displayed tiny quartz veins. For the next couple of days, they dropped the camera down into every crevice and fissure it would fit into until, they found one with a good-sized quartz vein shot with black metallic streaks. They bored down into the rock with their core drill to take a sample.
Euphoria set in when they tested the rock and found several metals, including gold and platinum. In their excitement to tell G.T.’s grandfather of their discovery, they both overlooked the fact that every word they said had been recorded by the dozen, or more, SAT jockeys orbiting the moon.
The next day, they powered up the small, two passenger, skyhopper, and returned to the claims office. The same tired-looking clerk gave them a startled look as G.T. handed him a red chip with the coordinates to their claim site.
The clerk inserted the chip into a slot on his work station and entered the date and receipt of the transaction. He then handed the chip back to G.T.
They thanked him and turned to leave, but found a huge man blocking the exit. Behind him stood several men dressed in the same blue uniform. And, even though, G.T. and he had not met the man before, they both recognized him. He was General Alturas Modocco, head target warrior for Quebec East, Canada’s largest corporation. The man also had a reputation for jumping claims.
Striker tried not to stare at the large zapzooka pistol holstered on the general’s right hip—a gun that size could take out a small platoon all by itself. Zapzookas had been banned in most countries, including the US, and Canada, because of the deadly force they employed.
The three men standing behind the general were almost as formidable in size as was their commander. None of them were as tall, but nevertheless, they could have easily passed for a team of Dallas linebackers. The men were also armed, but with regular zap pistols. Not that the smaller guns made Striker feel any better.
Modocco gave them a gloating smile and handed G.T. a memo sheet.
“To sum it up, boys,” the General said, pointing one of his gloved fingers at them, “all target strikes on the Moon, made by HOAM or their agents, which means you, after the year 2087, are subject to forfeiture to Quebec East, and their agents.” Modocco stopped long enough to exchange the finger for his thumb, and gestured to himself. “Which means me. In plain English, I get the target and you get the shaft. Get it?” he added, making a lewd sign with his middle finger as he guffawed loudly at them.
The men behind the general roared with laughter at the crude joke.
G.T. moved toward Modocco, but Striker quickly moved between his friend and the general when he saw a couple of the men, behind their commander drop their hands to their weapons. By the cruel smiles on their faces, he knew they would undoubtedly, use those guns if the occasion called for it.
Modocco held his hand—palm out—and waited for the chip. His steel gray eyes staring contemptuously at them.
Striker cast a quick look at the clerk, hoping the man might interfere on their behalf, but when he saw the old gent’s pale face, and he knew they would not get any help from that direction. Modocco’s reputation for violence was too well-known. He pried the chip out of G.T.’s hand and offered it to Modocco.
The next few minutes were tense as the clerk reentered their claim site with a new owner. The standoff ended when Modocco took the data chip from the clerk, shoved back past them, and went out the door.
In silence, because neither of them could bring themselves to talk about it, G.T. and he left the claims office and made their way back to the skyhopper. They stopped only long enough to watch Modocco’s skybus streak off into the darkness.
“I hope no one kills that bastard anytime soon because I want that job.” G.T. stated.
When they got back to Dallas, they filed a report with HOAM Corporation. Two days later, they were told their services were no longer needed. They had no choice, but to swallow their pride and go back to Wacklang, who surprisingly enough, seemed glad to have them back.
* * *
Several months later, Striker and G.T. were sitting by the eagle-shaped pool, still feeling raw over the fiasco with Modocco and HOAM, when G.T.’s grandfather came over and sat down by them.
“Skyhawk will advance you the credits to buy a ship,” he told them. “And, ten million more to cover supplies and equipment.” G.T. tried to protest, but his grandfather raised a hand and shook his head. “Let me finish,” he stated. “If Skyhawk is to compete with the rest of the world, then it is necessary they too follow the path of the stars. For clearly that is the future. The elders are confident you two will do your best to see that our money is not wasted.”
A week later, they found a ship at an auction of old freighters the Mid-America Corporation--MAC—was dumping on the market. The numerous scars and dents on the hull, and the broken and outdated equipment on the inside of the ship, did not dampen their spirits. They both knew they could rebuild the spaceship from the floor up if necessary. The vessel was never going to be a speedy craft, but that feature was not needed for target hunting. What was needed was something powerful enough to lift off planet, habitable enough for them to live in for months at a time, and large enough to carry the supplies and equipment needed for living and prospecting in harsh environments. With a length of ninety-three feet, plus a detachable bridge section, the freighter was more than adequate to suit their needs. The front of the ship had three levels for crew quarters, galley, computer hall, etc. A cavernous freight bay, two engine halls and a hydroponics section took up the rest of the ship.
They spent weeks making a list of names to christen their new ship, but none really took their fancy. One day G.T.’s grandmother sent over some sweet cakes that were so good, he had jokingly told G.T. they ought to name the ship after her. That was how they settled on the name “Lucy.” The “Blue” part sneaked in after they found several shades of blue metallic paint on sale at the local shipyard supply in Flagstaff.
By the end of August, they were ready to begin work on the engine halls, the bridge, and the computer hall. Although, he or G.T., were not looking forward to taking strangers aboard the Blue Lucy, they knew the refitting of the computer hall was beyond their capabilities. It was also a part of the ship that had no room for errors. Every aspect of the ship and operations would depend not only on their new computer, but also on the expertise of the putertech who would run that computer.
They posted a local ad for a tech and waited. Several days passed before a young man, Kalo Rotheggis, from Denmark answered the ad. When the kid told them he was Wizard Class, both he and G.T. had gawked at him as very few putertechs held the advanced degree of Wizard. They also stared at the young man because his skin was the color of chalk dust, except where it was covered by freckles. His eyes were almost colorless. His hair was carrot red with curls so thick they stuck out like spring coils. As if all that was not enough to attract attention, the young man wore a blue geometric-pattern tunic over dark green leggings, which gave him the surrealistic look of a walking, talking, animation character.
While G.T. went inside to run a background check on Kalo, Striker introduced himself and explained how the ship was temporarily without a computer. He stressed the amount of physical work that it was going to take to remove all the old frames and get the computer hall ready for a new system. He also added they would probably have to string a couple hundred miles of wire before it was all said and done. He made sure to tell the young man they would not be able to pay wizard scale salary. If his spiel discouraged the putertech in any way, he could not tell it.
G.T. was back in a few minutes, and invited Kalo to come inside to see where he would be working, and the room that would be his quarters. When they finished the tour, G.T. offered the putertech three thousand credits per month and ten percent of any targets they found.
Kalo’s face turned beet-red and Striker figured the kid was going to turn them down. A Wizard Class putertech was worth ten times as much. But, much to his surprise, Kalo stammered out his main concern was finding a place to stay, and not how much he would earn.
Once they were alone, G.T. filled him in on what he had found out when he had run the background check. The young man had told the truth. “He is Wizard Class and a lot more too,” G.T. stated. “Kalo Rotheggis is considered to be the youngest genius in the history of Puterology, and he is only eighteen-years-old. The only negatives, I could find in his background, are references, to him being extremely shy and a bit peculiar.”
Striker did not need a file to tell him that. He had already pegged those traits for himself.
Peculiar or not, Kalo did settle in with no apparent problems. They found no reason to complain about the young man. He worked just as hard as they did to get the ship ready to fly.
As they still had no idea of which brand of computer they would be able to find, or afford, they removed all the wall panels in the computer hall and stacked them on the far side of the room until the wiring and installation could be completed.
When Striker saw the gutted room with bundles of wire and tubing sticking out everywhere, he began to worry that Kalo, no matter how smart they said he was, would not be able to put it all back together and make it work— not in time for them to make a spring launch.
An auction ad marker on SAT popped up one day, listing an upcoming auction of excess computer equipment, including several mega block computers the Seattle Pacific Corporation--SeaPac—was offering in Seattle. A few days before the auction, he and G.T. were served with subpoenas to testify at a Senate hearing in Washington, concerning the investigation into the deaths of the six pilots who had died testing the Wacky. The hearing was scheduled for the same day as the SeaPac auction. They had little choice, but to send Kalo off to Seattle, alone, while they went to DC.
The putertech came back with a DINI 4000 mega-block computer still in its original crate. It was a far better computer system than they had ever envisioned getting for the Blue Lucy.
For the most part, they left Kalo to install the computer. They did drop in and help string wire at first, but the kid did not seem to need their help. Plus, they had more than they could handle in the engine halls, installing the new twin light-beaming engines. By this time, Billy had joined the crew, and they assigned him to help Kalo.
Of course, both he and G.T. knew there were bound to be glitches in their new computer system, but they would never have guessed where that glitch would come from. Their new computer came with a holographic ghosthost.
“Nothing prepares you to meet with the unexpected, but the unexpected.” —“Observations in the Afterlife,” Araina (2061).
It had been a shock to find a robot aboard the Blue Lucy, and a bigger shock to find the ship’s new computer had a ghosthost—a million credit upgrade.
The few times G.T. and he had stopped by the computer hall to check on Kalo, or help take in some of the boxes and crates that were constantly being delivered, they had seen nothing out of the ordinary. Neither of them had thought to look behind the plastic sheeting. After all, it was only there to keep the dust out.
What they did notice: the lift tube was back in operation, lights powered on when one walked through the corridors, full shower mists were back, and other things that made life on the ship easier. If there were times they encountered equipment that seemed more advanced than what the original specs stated, they figured Kalo must have replaced it with a new program. Boxes and crates marked “Computer Hall” were delivered several times a weeks, but the bills that came in had been affordable, and there had not been any reason to complain.
Striker recalled the day everything changed. G.T. and Billy had left early that morning to take a load of scrap to the cuber center for recycling. He decided he would chase wire on the bridge.
It was a grunt job crawling through the emergency repair channels in back of the stations, cutting out the old wire and stringing new, but he did not mind the hard work. Everything he did would get the Lucy ready to launch that much sooner.
His first surprise of the day, came when he reached the bridge. Twisted, ruptured metal and wires lay everywhere. The new station counters, he and G.T. had carefully installed a few weeks earlier, had been ripped from their mountings and tossed onto a debris pile in the middle of the room.
Hot anger coursed through him as he spied a strange patchwork-colored dogbot, pulling out another large chunk of wires from a hole it had made in the wall right where their new nav station had been, yesterday.
Striker grabbed a lock wrench off the floor and charged toward the robot.
Unfortunately, the dogbot chose that same time to turn around with the piece of metal it held in one of its vice-like paws and caught the charging man directly in the midriff with it.
Striker doubled over in severe pain and gasped for the wind that had been knocked out of him. The lock wrench slipped from his hand. He tried to unfold long enough to make a grab for it, but could not move. He was still trying to suck air into his lungs.
“Oops! Sorry, Captain Striker. I did not realize you were standing so close. You move pretty fast for a human, but I imagine you already know that.”
“Where the hell did you come from?” Striker gasped as he slowly straightened up.
“From below, of course,” the robot replied, its amber colored eyes glowing brighter as it spoke.
The dogbot cocked his head and eyed the man. “This bridge. Where else would I have come from?” it answered.
“That’s what I am asking you.”
“Oh. I see. The computer hall, of course,” answered the machine as if surprised by the question. “I have been given the task of refitting this bridge. However, I must say, it is not going to be an easy job. This section of the ship is years behind anything else on Earth, but I am sure you are already aware of that fact.”
Striker’s eyes glazed over with anger as he listened to the dogbot insult his ship.
When the robot deemed the man was angry, it computed it had possibly overstepped protocol boundaries for human interaction.
“My assessment was not intended to offend you, Captain Striker. I was merely commenting on a technological aspect of this vessel, and not the vessel itself, which is very sound given its advanced age.”
When the man continued to glare at it, the dogbot relayed the problem to his mistress and was told to introduce himself.
“My name is Puzzle,” the dogbot said. “As you can see, my name is well chosen. For putting me together was quite the jigsaw, you know? Humans are not really capable of deciphering zegron.”
Striker opened his mouth and raised a hand to tell the robot he would be cube dust, come tomorrow, but closed his mouth as a sharp pain in his left side gripped him. While he waited for the pain to subside, he realized he already had his answer. Kalo was the one responsible for the robot. That was all the information he needed.
He jerked around, intending to head for the computer hall, but immediately froze in place as another streak of pain shot through his rib cage. When he could move again, he gingerly put a hand to his ribs. He practically yelped as his fingers found the sore spot.
Puzzle saw Striker’s pained expression and computed he had caused the man physical damage. He moved slightly forward and scanned the man’s biological self. He relayed the results to Miss L. with an explanation of what had transpired.
“Stop!” Striker commanded, raising a hand when he saw the robot moving toward him. “Not another inch closer!”
Much to Striker’s surprise, the dogbot stopped and backed up a bit.
“Sure thing, Captain Striker. You do not have to ask me twice,” Puzzle said as he tossed the piece of metal he had hit Striker with onto the scrap pile beside him.
“What I have asked you twice is where you came from?” Striker grated.
“I thought I had answered your question,” Puzzle replied. “But I can see that you are still confused, so I will try to explain it all to you again. I am Puzzle. I am a robotic…”
“Enough!” Striker commanded, holding a hand up in exasperation.
“I am only trying to explain where I came from, Captain Striker. You see, Kalo Rotheggis had the honor of erecting my mechanical self—which I can truthfully say was no small task—but the source of my intelligence is mine alone, and is Sagian. My machine processors are, of course, zegronary, but I can and do function in the more primitive PRA, COR, and a few of the other obsolete binary languages that are favored by computer users in this realm.”
Striker paid scant attention to the robot as it expounded on its origin.
Bitterness flooded his mind as he looked around the room. It would take weeks to undo the damage. When he saw one of the dogbot’s metal ears rise up and then slide back down, he braced himself for another attack.
“Miss L. says I am to tell you she is waiting for you in the computer hall.”
“Miss Ell?” Striker questioned.
“Yes. She is the one, you know?”
“No. I don’t know?” Striker snapped.
“Why, she is the one who will explain it all, Captain Striker. You will see.”
“Oh, I intend to see, all right,” Striker muttered, slowly turning around and making his way to the lift tube. “I intend to see you both off my ship.”
Striker stood inside the lift tube, staring at the destruction of his bridge.
“You need not worry, Captain Striker,” the dogbot called out as he saw the man looking at him. “I will restore the bridge, you will see.”
Puzzle, in his haste to show that he was quite capable of doing the repair work, spun around and jerked on another batch of wires. Unfortunately, the wires were live ones, and hot sparks sprayed out in a blaze across the ceiling, leaving scorch marks.
“Oops!” he exclaimed. “That was not very smart of me, was it?”
Striker snorted painfully in disgust and gave Silky the command to take him to deck two. The elevator door slid shut and he was already in transit by the time he realized he should have told the dogbot not to touch another thing.
As Striker exited the lift tube, he tried to hurry down the corridor to the computer hall, but his body dictated other-wise. By the time he reached the door, he was in severe pain and out of breath. He asked Silky to open the door.
The first thing Striker spied was Kalo sitting at his station. The second thing he saw was the room itself. “What the hell?” he gasped.
He realized he had not visited the computer hall for several weeks, but the room was almost as much of a shock as was the mess he had just encountered on the bridge. The hall had undergone a complete transformation. Flatscreens of all sizes covered almost the entire wall in front of Kalo’s station. He counted at least three holoscreens on the work counter. When? he asked himself. And, more importantly, how?
The old brown Mylar work counters were gone and in their place were new metallic silver-blue pylor ones. The walls were paneled in a gray terrastone block pattern. Even the old, mustard-colored warp carpet was gone. Replaced with a snow-gray-colored carpet shot with lavender and blue streaks.
He dragged his eyes off the biggest flatscreen which looked to be about eight feet in size and moved toward Kalo. However, he had taken but a few steps when a glowing female holographic figure appeared before him in a flash of light, blocking his path.
Striker looked at her figure and blinked at the intensity of her glowing green eyes as they met his.
Striker glanced over her shoulder at Kalo and then stepped to one side, thinking he would go around her ghostly image. He did not get more than two steps before she glided directly in front of him, blocking his path again.
“Greetings, John Striker,” she said and, much to his surprise, smiled at him.
“What the hell?” he repeated.
“Not a what,” the transparent figure stated. “A who. And, I most certainly am not from Hell. Although, I gather you are already aware of that and are using the term merely as a form of personal expression.”
“Expression, my ass!” Striker snapped.
“Patience, John Striker!” the glowing figure admonished him. “It will all be explained in time.”
Striker opened his mouth to tell her he did not want to hear any more explanations, but instead, found himself staring into her incredibly neon green eyes.
She smiled. He blinked. The spell was broken.
“Let me introduce myself to you,” the ghosthost said. “I am Liinka. My geographical origin is not of importance here, and so we will leave it for some other time. What is important is where I am, and here is where I am.”
Striker thought about trying to walk straight through her to get to Kalo, but quickly discarded that thought. Walking through an energy field would not be the smartest thing to do. The pain in his midriff reminded him he had not done so well, up against her metal mutt.
“I don’t care where you came from!” he interjected. “It is where you’re going that interests me. And that is off my ship!” He stopped to take a short breath and looked over her shoulder at Kalo.
“You want to turn her off and then take a stab at explaining what’s going on here before I beat the chips out of you or after I beat the chips out of you?” he asked, not bothering to hide his anger.
Kalo’s freckles seem to glow as his face lost what little color it had. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but Liinka intervened, sending him a transmission telling him she would take care of the situation.
To the man standing before her, she said, “I am quite capable of explaining myself, John Striker. However, I can see you have suffered injury. For that, I do apologize. It was truly an accident, I assure you. My physical companion had no intention of harming you or anyone else aboard this ship. We are here to help, and since it will take time to give you a detailed explanation, I do believe it would better if you were seated. I think you will find the chair over there with your name on it comfortable enough.” she said, waving a jeweled hand toward the only table in the room.
Striker turned to look in the direction she had pointed, and did a painful double take. The crescent moon-shaped table that sat across the room was similar in design to that of a Ryker Sling piece. The two chairs at the table with matching crescent moon backs appeared to also be Sling designs. He turned around and saw Kalo was sitting in a similar designed station chair.
The stack of unpaid bills that he had shoved in his desk drawer, and had meant to pay before they had left Earth, flashed before him. He recalled that at least one of them had been from Sun Mesa Office Supply in Phoenix. He had not gotten around to opening it and now he was not sure he wanted to. The chairs alone probably ran three thousand credits each. The cost of the table, he did not even want to think about.
He walked slowly over to the table and ran a hand over the satiny smooth silver-blue surface. Embedded in the center of the table was a dark blue ‘S’ amid silver wings. That is Sling’s trademark all right, he told himself.
When he saw his name written in silver script on the back of one of the dark blue chairs and G.T.’s name on the back of the other chair, he knew there would be no taking them back.
He looked toward Kalo, fully intending to tell the kid he was fired, but before he could open his mouth, he found himself face-to-face with her again. Her eyes were so intense, he forgot about Kalo, and instead, pulled the chair out from beneath the table, and carefully lowered himself into it.
As much as he hated to admit it, she was right about him sitting down. The pain in his side eased up some. “This had better be good or else…” he told her, not finishing the sentence as his eyes met her glowing ones.
“The refitting of the computer hall is complete,” she told him as she moved to stand in front of the moon table. “Kalo and Puzzle, within the next few weeks, will complete the necessary upgrades to the bridge. There are other areas I have deemed need work. You and Captain Eagle could help with some of those projects, if you would. When all the upgrades are finished, the Blue Lucy will be a much better vessel and more in line with my standards.”
“Your standards?” Striker snarled, rising out of his chair to confront her.
He gasped as a streak of fire danced along his ribcage. He found himself reaching for the back of the chair and holding onto it.
“Sit down, John Striker!” Liinka commanded gently. “Before you fall down. My standards are your standards. We both want what is best for this vessel. The difference is in knowledge, which I have and which you lack.”
The large flatscreen, which covered most of the wall opposite of the table, powered on and the Blue Lucy appeared in three-dimensional form, spinning slowly against a starlit background.
Striker’s attention was pulled toward the running menu of the ship’s structural schematics and interior sections that scrolled on the left side of the screen.
His mind reeled as he listened to her detail what changes had been done and what changes still needed to be done—some of them were so advanced, he thought them to exist, only on paper.
Incredible! Striker thought, turning his attention back on her holofigure. He had never seen or heard of a ghosthost like the one standing before him. Her size and features in imitating a human were normal enough. So was the glowing energy field that surrounded her figure. Almost too normal, he thought as he noted her blond hair moved as she moved. Instead of the usual generic body suit or uniform found on most ghosthosts, this one had on a blue robe that sparkled like a night sky and wore jewelry. Lots of jewelry. For in addition to the gold-colored headband decorated with blue sapphires and silver lightning bolts, she also had jeweled rings on every finger, and a row of sparkling bracelets running up one arm.
He glanced over at Kalo. The putertech gave him a timid smile. He glared back. He was not about to swipe the pad clean yet. He still had questions, and he wanted answers.
When he turned back the Lucy was gone, and in her place was the secret list of possible target sites he and G.T. had mapped out over the past few months. A list that only existed on G.T.’s personal computer. There could only be one explanation for her having it. Kalo had pirated the information.
“I have examined your choice of target sites,” she told him. “I find them unacceptable.”
The list disappeared off the screen.
“Put it back!” Striker commanded, grunting at the effort it took to speak. “Each one of those sites has plenty of potential. And, when it comes down to it, that list is none of your damn business!”
Much to his surprise, she gave an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders and the list popped back on screen.
“As you wish,” she told him, her green eyes glowing a shade darker as she studied him.
Striker saw a new site had been added to the list. When he read the location, he smiled dryly at her. “So, I am the one lacking knowledge, huh?” he stated. “If you were as smart as you think you are, you would already know that no one hunts for target sites on that part of Mars.”
“I know,” Liinka said, cocking her head to one side as she spoke. “Perhaps it is time someone did.”
“No, it is not!” he snapped. “You see that small circle with the letters NG to the left of the site you have picked?” he asked, pointing at the screen and not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
Without turning to look at the map, Liinka nodded at him.
“That is a tag notice for target hunters. Do you know what that means?” When she did not answer, but instead raised an eyebrow at him, Striker shouted, “It means just what it says: No Go there! Understand?”
He quickly regretted his outburst as it had sucked the breath from him and he found himself in pain and gasping for air.
“You need to calm yourself, John Striker! Your physical self is in danger of collapsing,” Liinka said, her sensors noting his body’s reduced oxygen level and his two injured ribs.
Striker took short, shallow breaths and held onto the edge of the table as a wave of dizziness swept over him. When the room steadied, he raised his head.
“Right now,” he began softly, “I would say you are the one that is in danger because I am going to disconnect your cables and…”
“No! You can’t, Captain Striker! You don’t understand,” Kalo cried out, rising from his chair, and speaking for the first time.
“No, I don’t understand,” Striker stated angrily, turning to look at the putertech. “But, I have seen and heard plenty. All I want to see and hear now, is that you are leaving. Once you remove Madame Ghosthost out of my computer, you can go find her metal mutt and both of you can get the hell off my ship! You are fired!”
“I will leave, Captain Striker,” Kalo said mournfully, his eyes moist. “But, you cannot send her away. She is special.”
At Striker’s blank look, Kalo cast a glance at Liinka and when she nodded, he stammered, “She is, uh… zegronary.”
“What’s that? The magic word that will make me see the light?” Striker sneered, his eyes glaring at the putertech.
“What Kalo is trying to tell you, John Striker, is I am not merely a computerized holograph. I have the ability to store and retrieve information faster than other computers. Perhaps if I express it in terms you are more familiar with, you will be able to understand my true self. I process data at zeg speed, which is the equivalent of COR to the second power.”
“And, I am one of the owners of this ship!” Striker countered, too angry to pay attention to what she had just said. “A fact that the two of you seemed to have overlooked in your zealous race to take over this ship, and…” He stopped abruptly as her statement “COR to the second power,” finally reached his brain. He looked at her and then at Kalo. “Impossible,” he scoffed. “There is nothing faster than COR.”
“It is possible, John Striker, and in time you will learn that. But, I do not intend to replace you or Captain Eagle. I am quite pleased with you both as guides.”
“Replace us? Guides!” Striker shouted, slamming a fist angrily down on the table, and quickly regretting that action as he went through another bout of pain.
“Calm yourself! John Striker. I use the word guide in the same manner you use the word captain. The difference is simply a choice of verbal description and nothing more. Both titles are synonymous.”
Striker found himself staring into her incredible lime green eyes and the argument he had been about to utter stuck in his throat.
In the months that followed, he asked her several times if she had the ability to control minds, but she never did give him an answer. What he did find was: If she did not like the question, she vanished. Her face, hair color and her glowing green eyes were about the only parts of her that did not change. She switched her holographic clothing as often as a New York model, and wore jewelry with more sparkles than Snoopy Hope, the latest Rock Diva who is as well-known for the colorful jewelry she wears as she is for her wild music.
He took another look around the room at all the changes that had been made to the computer hall and tried to estimate the total cost. When an exorbitant figure popped into his head, he rubbed his forehead. In addition to the pain in his ribs, he now had a headache as well.
“The finest carpet available, and completely anti-static,” Liinka stated when she saw him staring down at the floor.
“Not completely,” Striker muttered as he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise slightly as he met her glowing eyes.
Striker watched her glide across the room and stop beside Kalo. She began conversing with him in Puterease. As she turned her head from side-to-side, ribbons of light bounced off the silver lightning bolts that dangled from her holographic ears.
Striker soon realized she was the one giving commands, and not vice versa. That worried him. “COR to the second power,” echoed in his mind, only to be replaced by the words rogue computer. His dark blue eyes sobered with concern at that thought. A computer with the abilities she claimed to have could be dangerous. With such advanced capabilities, she could easily override any command given to her.
Hell! If she is as powerful as she claims, she could override any computer made by man. What if she were to decide she does not need human contact to operate? A computer like her could have been responsible for what had happened to the USS Centurion, he told himself.
* * *
The starship Centurion had been on a long range exploration trek in deep space when the ship’s computer, on its own, shut down all life support systems. It then locked out all attempts by the crew to override the fatal command. Once the computer determined there were no survivors, it relayed a full report to ACTS, including the information that the computer had overloaded the fractal beamers and was waiting for the ship to self-destruct.
No one to date had ever unraveled the mystery of why the starship’s computer had gone rogue, killing the crew and destroying the ship. Many theories had been expressed as to what had happened, but no one had a definite answer. Today, all space vehicles had manual override switches for both life support and engine systems, installed. No one wanted to see a repeat of what had happened to those aboard the Centurion.
* * *
Striker was not aware she had moved to stand across the table from him, but when he found himself staring into her frosty lime green eyes. An involuntary shiver ran down his spine. He had never seen eyes that color before. Of course, when he thought about it, he had not seen or heard mention of a ghosthost like her before either. If she had not been transparent, he would not have known she was a holofigure. She acted and reacted like any human would. He had also seen her smile a time or two and frown at him several times.
The room lit up as her glowing figure brightened and she disappeared in a flash of light.
He sat there for a few seconds waiting to see if she would return. When she did not, he turned to look at Kalo. He knew he would not throw the kid and his ingenious creations off the ship, today—maybe tomorrow, but not today.
Of course that could change once G.T. saw the mess the dogbot had made on the bridge.
Striker spent most of the next hour quietly grilling Kalo for answers. Namely: Where had she come from? What did she want? And, how could their computer be faster than COR? But, the putertech was not much help. The kid went on in volumes about her abilities, but every time he tried to pin the tech down as to how she had ended up in their computer, in the first place, Kalo just shook his head and said he did not know.
“She will not harm us, Captain Striker!” Kalo said in defense of his computer companion. “I would stake my own life on that!”
Striker gave the young man a hard look before he looked around the room. His eyes stopped on the moon table with the Sling logo.
“You need to think of what excuse you are going to use to return that table,” he told Kalo.
That is when he got his next surprise of the day.
“It is paid for, Captain.”
“Paid! How did you do that— rob a bank?” Striker asked sarcastically.
Kalo’s face went dead white at his captain’s harsh words. “I thought you said I could fix the computer hall up the way I wanted,” he whispered.
“Wanting and doing are two entirely different things, Kalo,” Striker stated sourly.
“Yes, sir. But it is not what you think. It was my money. I did not steal it.”
“I was being sarcastic, Kalo,” Striker said, his voice softer this time. “I didn’t really, think you robbed a bank. But, you have to admit, you must have spent a small fortune on the stuff in this room.”
Kalo nodded. “Some of it was expensive as far as credits go, but I could afford it.”
“You could afford it?” Striker questioned skeptically, his brows furrowing as he studied the Dane.
“Well, to tell you the truth, Captain Striker that was just as much a surprise to me as it is to you. I asked Liinka to check to see when I would get the next dividend on my inheritance so I could buy a new station chair. She discovered I should have received the entire amount of the money, Mother Patria left me when I turned eighteen, and not twenty-five. She set up an account for me at the banking center in Flagstaff, and transferred the funds. So, I ordered all the things I needed and wanted, plus a few other things just in case we might need them.”
Kalo’s bony face lit up as he looked around the room. “Liinka helped me pick out the furniture and carpet. I found the wall panels on sale and had them, along with the carpet, installed the last time you and Captain Eagle went to DC. Billy helped too. He said you would be surprised. I know some of it is not exactly regulation for a spaceship, but this is my home— or was?” he finished plaintively.
Striker felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the anxious look on Kalo’s face, but he needed to discuss this new problem with G.T., so remained silent. He rose from the table and turned to leave, but stopped. “I don’t want you making any more changes to anything on this ship without checking with either G.T. or me,” he warned the putertech.
Kalo’s head bobbed up and down as he promised to do what he was told.
“Except for the bridge. You and your robot are to fix the damage it has done. I expect to see some real improvements in the next day or two, or we will be having this conversation again.”
The only way he had gotten G.T. to agree to give Kalo and his creations time to do what they claimed they could, was by promising his partner that if the robot did not repair the bridge, they would zap it into oblivion and throw the Dane overboard. As for the ghosthost, they would wipe the program from the computer and find a new putertech.
It took a visit to the med center at Tuba City to get his ribs wrapped, and about six weeks for them to heal. It took Kalo, Billy and Puzzle almost as long to refit the bridge, but Striker had to grudgingly admit, Liinka’s standards were better than his.
Copyright © 2016 Tiffee Jasso & Suzanne Jasso, all rights reserved.
Cover Art © 2016 is by Tiffee Jasso and all rights are reserved by the author and Alaska Girl Publishing.