July 18th, 2034
It has been fourteen days since the great quake struck the southern end of the Central Valley in the early morning hours of the 4th, – and fourteen days since I finally bagged my cursed white whale.
And, yes, the two do go hand in hand.
It was 4:45 a.m., – the sun had yet to rise when the early morning breeze slowed and stood eerily still. I was already up and on the move when I heard, – but, more so, felt, a crack in the air and an immediate and violent shift of the ground beneath my feet.
I’d been through enough tremblers to know what was going on, but this was different. This one was huge, epic. This one knocked me to the ground and held me tight, and try as I might, I couldn’t stand. Not a chance.
I’d like to say the shaking lasted for fifteen minutes, but, in all actuality, it was probably closer to one. Regardless of the duration, the side-shift of the fault was violent enough to split the landscape, and in one particular spot near Fort Tejon, the ground was found to be displaced by as much as fifteen feet.
After the shaking stopped, I pulled myself to my feet and my thoughts immediately sprang to the air base. This had to have set the Threak off. In fact, I was counting on it.
I wasn’t far from the alien facility. No more than a half of a mile as the crow flies and I covered the ground to my latest vantage point in no time at all, crawling the last few feet to keep my profile low against the horizon.
Down below, the base was dark. No lights, not a single one, and, more importantly, no plasma fence. The ominous pulsating shield was down. Hallelujah! The earthquake had knocked out the power lock, stock and barrel. This was it. This was my chance. It wasn’t ever going to get any better than this.
I slipped out of the hills and ran along the Interstate. Sixty yards shy of the base’s southern gate, I dipped low in the weeds along the side the road and focused my attention on the guard shack. From where I lay, I could hear the excitable and confused wailing’s of the troopers on duty and I could feel their fear in the air. They had no idea what was going on. For all they knew the ground was set to drop away under their feet.
Their fear gave me strength.
I drew my .357 and checked my vest pocket for the small cloth sack containing my secret weapon, – the one the Retratti had clued me into earlier, the one I would need to take out the power core of the mothership.
I still had it. The package was safe and sound.
I sidled up next to the base, and even though the fence appeared to be down, I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d seen what the highly charged fence could do to a human body so I picked up a rock and chucked it between the fence poles for confirmation.
Nothing, not even a spark.
I watched the stone bounce harmlessly along the alien tarmac.
I was convinced. Well, – sort of, I sprinted to where the fence once stood and dove across the threshold, eyes closed all the way. I hit the ground and rolled across the tarmac unscathed and sprang to my feet. I kept my head low and took off for the western side of a massive gray warehouse, – I made it sight unseen.
So far, so good.
The troopers were confused. They had no idea what was happening to the ground under their feet, and when another strong aftershock rolled across the southern edge of the Central Valley, they just about lost their collective minds. With the power knocked out, the link between those running the show and those on the front lines was broken. The grunts had no precedent to fall back on, they had no idea what to do. Left to think for themselves, for what may have been the first time in their lives, they jumped from being a calm, cool and collected crew to a panicked pod of nine.
Chaos had bubbled up through the cracks and it was a beautiful sight to behold.
But, not quite as beautiful as the six shuttles I spied sitting side by side on the eastern edge of the flight line. All were earmarked for the mothership and one even carried the royal crescent. They’d be lifting off at any moment and I had to be on board one of them. This was my shot. It was now, or never.
An explosion rocked the ordnance supply warehouse on the western edge of the base. Flames leapt thousands of feet up into the air and had spread to the adjoining buildings, – adding to the level of hysteria in the compound and making my job of stowing aboard a shuttle that much easier.
Through it all, I’d never stopped moving and had worked my way to within four hundred feet of the closest shuttle, the one carrying the royal crest. So far, so good, but the window to stow aboard her was closing fast. Already, two of the six shuttles had sealed their hatches and were making preparations to lift off. In a few minutes all would be gone.
I bowed my head and ran, my .357 in one hand and a fist full of air in the other. I ran as I never had run before. I was chewing up the tarmac when out of the corner of my eye I spied a cargo loader carrying shipping crates displaying the royal crest heading for the flight line.
I angled my run to meet up with the back-end of the slow-moving loader twenty feet shy of the royal craft. When I reached the back-end of the vehicle I pulled myself up and into the freight, squeezing myself tightly in between the crates. As I wedged inside, I felt myself being lifted, and a few seconds later, loaded into the back of the alien craft.
Once again, I had found my way onto a Threak ship.
Behind me, the doors sealed shut and it fell black inside the cargo bay. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, – and I took comfort in the fact it also meant the Fuzzies couldn’t see me either. I knew that would all change once we hit our destination and the off-loading process began, but for now I was invisible.
Next stop, the mothership.
The temperature dropped inside the cargo hold and my breathing became heavy and labored. My lungs were being squeezed as the oxygen was being pulled from the room. I leaned back against a crate and cleared my mind. I slowed my breathing as best I could and held still. I couldn’t let panic set in as it had in the past. Panic would certainly kill me. I had to let my body adapt, – if it could.
I closed my eyes and counted to thirty, – slowly and deliberately, and was able to calm myself and regulate my breathing. I heard the now familiar hissing sound coming from up above, and I held still as a light mist fell into the hold. Over the next few minutes the pressure in the hold stabilized, and the pressure on my chest remained constant as well. It may not have been Earth’s atmosphere, but at least I could breathe.
When I’d finally caught my breath, I made a move to stand. I pulled myself to my feet and my eyes began to adjust to the dark. I could make out shapes and had a general sense of direction, but as soon as I left my hiding spot, the shuttle vibrated slightly and we began to power down. I slipped back into the freight and nestled in, praying the atmosphere on board the mothership would support me.
I’d find out soon enough.
I clenched my .357 tightly and hoped for the best.
The ship slid to a standstill and when the cargo bay door was breached a few minutes later an orange ambient light filled the hold. I took a quick, shallow breath and was pleasantly surprised to find the atmosphere was enriched with even more oxygen than was available on the shuttle.
I’d scored a break and thanked the Universe.
A low rumble in the distance grew progressively louder and I correctly surmised it was a freight off-loader coming to collect me. I felt the blades of the lift slide into the grooves of the pallet beneath my feet and tilt back, rising slightly as it did so. I was lifted up and out of the shuttle and moved a short distance before being set down. Seconds later, another, much larger vehicle came and collected me. I was driven a short distance, – the loader lifting me into the air all the while, and soon I was set up on a storage rack. After the loader left, I peeked out and I found myself one hundred and twenty feet in the air, staring down at dozens of troopers working the busy docks down below.
I was on board! I was safely on board, and no one was the wiser!
I scanned my surroundings and was about to hop down onto the freight below when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Another freight loader was headed my way. I slid back into the freight and soon after the blades of the loader slide underfoot.
I was on the move once again.
This time around I was moved deeper into the cargo hold. With any luck, I thought, I’d be placed on a shelf in the dark recesses of the ship and be forgotten, – which was exactly what happened. When the loader rolled away, I shifted forward and looked around. I was elated to find I’d been placed on the bottom tier of a storage rack in the middle of the massive hold area. I was well hidden from prying eyes and grateful for the fact.
The air was dank and thick inside this part of the ship, and although I found it hard to breath, it wasn’t impossible to do so, it just required more effort. As long as I moved in short, quick bursts, I’d be all right, but if I had to run any sort of distance, one where I’d need to draw deep, successive breaths, I’d be in trouble. I wouldn’t be able to take in enough oxygen. I had to plan my moves. I had to be smart.
Carefully, I crept from storage bay to storage bay, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. The maze of racks I had to negotiate to leave the cargo hold looked endless, and one thing became evident straight off, I would need a map of the ship if I had any hope of reaching the bridge and the power core.
At the end of a long dark aisle, a small blue light flickered in the darkness. Upon closer inspection, I found the marked the location of a large oval hatch door.
Did it lead to the interior of the ship?
There was only one way to find out.
I was ready to rock when the hatch swung open. Filling the doorway, a creature strode through the opening and the door closed behind him. He was a Threak, all right, but much smaller in stature than the troopers I’d been dealing with. This version was approximately three feet shorter and three hundred pounds lighter than his counterparts.
They come in different sizes? Who knew!
I crept a little closer and kept watch. Sure enough, the hatch swung open once again and another of the smaller-sized Fuzzies stepped through. He turned and barked back through the opening and I realized the hatch didn’t lead to a hallway, but, more likely, it lead to a break room of sorts. A cold chill ran up and down my spine when I thought of what would’ve happen to me had I blindly popped open that door.
I chased the thought from my mind as I slunk back into the freight.
Time to take stock.
I was on the ship and the enemy had no idea. I had the element of surprise and I wasn’t pressed for time, – the clock was not ticking. I had no deadline. I was rolling on my own program. As long as I went unnoticed, I was in charge.
I found a path between the racks and moved diagonally across the hold. I was dwarfed by thousands and thousands of identically fashioned crates stacked from floor to the ceiling and I stopped among them from time to time to catch my breath and gather my bearings.
I was holding up pretty good, I was breathing deeper and my limbs felt lighter. Either I was adapting, or the environment was becoming increasingly oxygen friendly. I didn’t matter to me which assumption was true, just as long as the trend continued.
I popped my head up over a pallet and dropped it back down just as fast. An open-aired vehicle was coming to a stop in the aisle to my right. I held perfectly still as the cart-like vehicle slowed and stopped and one of the shorter, less menacing Threak stepped from it and headed for a storage bay not fifty feet away from me.
I slunk lower and held still. I wasn’t curious at all to see who he was, or what he was doing. I had no interest in him at all. I was only interested in finding a way out of the cargo hold and onto the bridge sight unseen. Nothing more, nothing less.
I waited without worry and in due time he moved on. Only after he’d left did it occur to me that he’d performed the task alone, unlike his trooper counterparts who operated in pods of three, no matter how menial the task. Were the smaller ones smarter? Apparently.
I crept further back in the hold. The din of the loading dock faded as I slipped deeper and deeper into the ship until soon it was quiet. The glow of a hazy red light beckoned in the distance and I crept toward its strange luminescence. As I approached, I hide among the pallets and found the red light also marked the entrance to a passage way.
I sat, I watched and I waited.
After a full hour of observation, I’d only seen one Fuzzy use the hatch, – a high-ranking officer. The longer I sat there, the more convinced I became it led to the interior of the ship. With any luck, the bridge wouldn’t prove to be too far off.
I had to pop open that hatch. I had to know what lay on the other side.
I left the freight and approached the gray oval door. I hesitated a bit, but still reached up and pulled down on the hard flat metal-like lever. The hatch popped open with ease and I peered inside and looked around.
It was a hallway. Long, dark and wide. I stepped through the hatch and sealed the door behind me.
I was inside, but where inside? I had no idea, – but I was off the dock and one step closer to my goal.
The interior of the hallway duplicated the interior of the shuttle, – featureless and cold. The floor, walls and ceiling were midnight black, and the space between them was lit with the same smoky red light I’d seen so many times before. Every sixty feet, on either side of the corridor, a huge oval door was sunk in slightly from the smooth walls and as I took my first step forward, a Threak trooper exited from one room and crossed straight across the hall toward another.
I froze and held my breath. I was standing in the middle of the hallway stone cold busted. Had he not been preoccupied and simply looked to his right, my life would have ended right then and there. Instead, when he entered the second room and the door slid shut behind him, I took off running deeper down the hallway. My head was on a swivel, scanning from left to right, and back again. I had to get out of the hallway, and when I heard the hatch lever move behind me, I pressed my body against the closest door and hoped for the best.
Mercifully, it slid open and I ducked inside.
A smoky red light partially illuminated the room and a quick glance found it to be unoccupied as well. Leaning back against the near wall, I took a deep breath as sweat beaded and poured off of my brow. My eyes had adjusted enough to the crimson-hued darkness to see I was standing on the louvered grating of an air duct. The slatted cover measured two feet by two feet, easily large enough for me to fit inside and I immediately went to work removing the twelve clasps that secured it to the floor.
After I d finished, I pushed the grate to one side and slipped down into the duct. Once inside, I lay flat on my back and slid the slatted cover back over the opening and contemplated my next move.
I lay there in the darkness and called up what I knew.
From the information given to me by the Retratti I knew the mothership to be a triangular craft approximately a mile and a half long and a quarter-mile from top to bottom. The captain’s bridge, the nerve center of the alien craft, is located high up on the pointed bow of the sleek, swept back vessel, while the main power core, the great ship’s Achilles Heel, is tucked away in the center of the massive craft.
And, although the main power core lay in the center of the ship, the visions were quite specific, the package must be delivered to the power core via the bridge for it to have the desired effect.
The Retratti were most adamant on this point.
I closed my eyes and visualized the ship’s layout. It was over a mile from where I lay to the forward bow, – a figure that would only hold true for me if the ventilation system were laid out in a straight line. If it had been erected in any other manner, I may never reach it at all.
I lowered my head and began to crawl forward. My progress was slow and deliberate. I was moving under the feet and over the heads of those who would kill me and I was fully aware that any misstep would certainly be my last.
But, I had time on my side, there was no need to push it.
One hundred feet ahead of me a column of crimson light blocked my path. I kept moving forward, nonetheless, and when I’d gotten to within twenty feet I saw that it was the light from a room below filtering up through a louvered grate.
I slipped around the light, peeking down through the slatted grate as I did so. The room was empty, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I pressed up tightly against the side of the shaft and slithered past as quickly and as quietly as I could.
I stared out into the darkness and for the first time since I’d embarked on this mission, I was stuck by the realization that my actions would not only take out the Threak, but myself as well.
Was I really ready to die?
Until that moment I’d only focused on delivering the package and taking out the mothership. Never once did I entertain the thought of making it off this ship alive, but as I crawled along, I began to think of ways I might effect my escape.
I had to stop and shake my head to keep from laughing. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. I still had to crawl more than half the length of the ship, sneak onto the bridge and then breach the power core without getting killed along the way.
Thoughts of escape would have to wait. I still had a job to do.
I looked up and my heart sank, up ahead, the ventilation shaft split off in two directions.
It wasn’t a straight shot to the bow, after all.
I choose the shaft leading off to the left and said a prayer. If the shaft presented another series of options up ahead, I’d have to fall back and take stock. As it stood, I had a fairly good idea of where I was on the ship, but a five-minute crawl in either direction, with a twist or two thrown in for good measure and I’d have been hopelessly lost, no doubt about it.
I kept moving, and as I pressed on I realized the shaft was slowly wrapping itself around the ship’s main power core.
I was on the right track.
This would put me mid-ship.
Right here, right about the time I was feeling a bit smug, I was overcome by a foul, putrid stench. I nearly vomited on the spot. The smell of rotted and decaying meat permeated the air, and as it wafted past me, my eyes began to water and sting. I sat back on my heels and covered my mouth hoping it would pass.
Then I heard footsteps.
A brief pitter-patter, like that a small dog scampering across a ceramic tile floor, filled the shaft. I was no longer alone. There was something else in the narrow shaft with me, some sort of alien creature I hadn’t met before, but would now, because a confrontation was all but inevitable. There wasn’t anywhere else either one of us could go.
I d been inching forward with my .357 in my right hand all along, so I was good to go at a moment’s notice, but, rather than plunge blindly into the unknown I sat back and listened.
The scampering continued.
The creature was close, very close.
The air became very still. In fact, the gentle flow of air through the duct had stopped all together. My worst fear was coming to fruition. The airflow was reversing. Now I was up wind of the creature.
I held the gun out in front, waiting for the charge I knew was surely coming. And, seconds later my worst fears were confirmed when I saw a trio of menacing red eyes rushing toward me out of the darkness. I hadn’t a split second to waste and pulled the trigger repeatedly.
A shrill scream filled the air shaft. My bullets had found the alien creature s soft skull, making mince meat of its brain and shredding its nervous system as well. The creature was dead before it even fell upon me.
I pushed the fifty-pound possum-like creature off me and rolled the other away. I reloaded my gun and poked at the strange animal. He was dead, no doubt. Four rounds had taken out its skull, while another had ripped open its soft underbelly, and the stench it now emanated was exponentially worse than before.
I crawled away, and even after putting a few hundred feet of distance between us, I still couldn’t escape the smell. The fetid odor of the creature was stained upon me, but my discomfort and annoyance at the fact was soon tempered by the realization I now had a natural mask. No longer could the Threak smell the human on me.
I put my head down and kept moving. An hour later and I’d cleared the bend with only straight and open ventilation shaft lying before me.
Half a ship to go and I was already whipped to the bone. At this point I’d been on the go for over thirty hours and my tank was running on empty. I needed a bite to eat, a swallow off the canteen and a quick pep nap. I couldn’t be sloppy. Not now, I was too close. I had to rest. I had to sit for a spell.
Thirty minutes later I woke with a start.
A loud hum enveloped the ducting system and one by one the red shafts of light that had stood as signposts along the way began to shut off one by one. I looked over to the one to my immediate right. What was happening?
A flushing of the system?
Once the thought sprang to mind, I knew it to be true. I had to get out of there, and fast, otherwise, I’d be blown out into space.
I shoved the barrel of the .357 into the slatted grate just as it was snapping shut. Automatically, the slats reopened and would remain open until the impediment was removed. The trick for me was to keep the gun in place while I dropped through the grate without it snapping shut, – and before a live body came to check on why the louvered grate wouldn’t close in the first place.
I squatted next to the vent, keeping the gun pressed against the edge of the metal slats. Throwing caution to the wind I dropped through the opening and the slats snapped shut above me as I hit the ground. I lay on my back staring up at the ceiling as a loud wash of air blew through the shaft.
I stood and looked up at the closed grate. The slats had sprung back open, but with the ceiling being some thirty odd feet above my head, getting back into the ventilation system wasn’t going to be an easy task.
Thinking quickly, I managed to maneuver a round table over to the corner of the room and gazed back at a number of similiar-sized square cases stacked neatly across the room. If I could stack them like a pyramid, they just might reach.
But, before I could make a move, the door handle turned. I dove under the table and rolled into the corner, pressing myself against the wall and clung to the shadows.
The handle stopped moving, – and fell back to its original position.
I held still until I was sure the danger had passed and got back to work. I flew across the room and grabbed a hard case. I’d just dodged a bullet and it was only a matter of time before one creature, or another, came through that hatch.
I redoubled my efforts and ten cases later and I’d built myself a nice stairway to the air duct.
But, I knew it wasn’t enough to just get back in the shaft, I needed to continue hiding my presence as well. I needed to get rid of the pyramid, but how?
In the corner of the room I spotted a large pole with a hook on one end that would fit the bill nicely. I jumped off the table, snatched up the twenty-five foot pole and climbed back up the cases. I pushed the pole up into the shaft and then pulled myself up alongside it. Laying on my stomach, and looking down upon the room, I eased the pole back through the grate and positioned the hook alongside the bottom of the pyramid. One well-placed thrust and all ten cases would come crashing to the ground.
But, would it be too loud?
It was chance I d have to take.
I pushed hard against the base of the pyramid and the cases came tumbling down. They bounced off each other, – and the table as well, before they came crashing to the floor. The racket was loud, but not loud enough to draw any unwanted attention from outside of the room.
Now safely back in the ventilation system, I went about my business with renewed vigor. I had another quarter-mile to cover before I reached the bow and another quarter-mile of climbing until I reached the bridge.
I had a lot ground to cover. But again, I had plenty of time to cover it. Like I said, I wasn’t up against a clock, nor was I striving to meet someone else s deadline. As long as I remained calm, cool and collected I would be all right, – at least until I reached the bridge, then all bets were off.
I’d only crawled another few hundred yards when Klaxons began blaring throughout the ship. My first reaction was that I’d been discovered, but how? I was careful not to leave any human evidence back in the room. And, anything I might have inadvertently left behind in the vent, be it a hair, a thread, or a piece of cloth, it would’ve been blown out into space when the system was flushed. No, I decided, my presence hadn’t been compromised. I had to keep pressing on. The bells did not toll for thee.
I was so close, no need to turn paranoid now.
I kept moving and soon found myself at an intersection of two main corridors. I peered down through a louvered grate and saw that an elite squad of troopers lined the hallways.
Seconds later, I heard footsteps falling in time coming up from behind me and then three standard bearers carrying the Royal crest marched beneath me. I inched closer for a better look as a member of the Royal family passed below and I drew my .357, but thought better of popping off a couple of rounds and giving myself away. I’d cause far more damage to their cause by taking out whole ship, rather than just one single entity.
Instead, I aimed a forefinger and thumb and fired an imaginary bullet at the back of the Royal s head.
Incredibly, he stopped, and slowly turned around.
I’ll admit it, a cold chill ran down my spine.
It was the Emperor.
I slunk back in the shaft as he tilted his head back and purposely sniffed the air. He stood still, closing his eyes as he did so, and, ever so slowly, he lowered his head and continued on his way.
Adrenaline charged my soul. The Threak Emperor was on board.
The pot had just been sweetened.
With a renewed sense of purpose I pressed on. A few thousand feet later I reached a major junction where the air shaft split into four separate directions, – port, starboard, top and bottom. The bridge lay above me, but how I d get up there became a concern. The square shaft was smooth on all four sides. How was I to climb?
I stood up in the space and peered up into the darkness. I pulled myself up and placed my back against one wall and extended my legs and pressed them against the opposite wall. And, with my knees a half of a foot from my face, I inched my way up the shaft one shuffle-step at a time. As long as I kept myself wedged into the tight space I’d be all right, but heaven help me if I lost my footing and went careening back down. Depending on my progress, it could be a long way down to an awfully unforgiving surface.
I inched up in total darkness, keeping my body engaged at all times. It was hot and I was sweating heavily, – my head throbbed and my body ached, but worst of all, I felt my calf muscles beginning to tighten. Dehydration was taking hold.
I pushed the pain aside until I couldn’t move another foot. I didn’t know how far I still had to go, but I had pretty good idea of how far I had to fall, so I held my ground until I could move once more.
Inch by inch, foot by foot, despite my ever-tightening calf muscles, I kept climbing. My perseverance was finally rewarded when I came to a point where the shaft opened to accommodate a right angle feeder duct. Once I felt the slight breeze on the back of my head, I knew I had found a spot to lie out and stretch. Which is exactly what I did.
I willed my body up and into the feeder duct and pushed myself back in the shaft, rubbing loose my rock-hard calves and happy to be stretching out my overworked and undernourished body for the final push.
I finished the last of my water and carefully slipped back into the vertical shaft. I climbed on in darkness, my muscle issues of the past few hours were behind me and the end of my odyssey was now in sight. The darkness above my head was turning a familiar shade of smoky red and I knew I was close, very close.
The bridge lay a few feet above me.
Slowly, carefully, deliberately, I inched my way up to the louvered grate and peered through. I’d come up in the southeast corner of the expansive room and had a clear view of the elevated bridge, and of the dozens of officers who operated the ship’s command consoles. I smirked and shuddered, as I gazed upon them, – they would be among the first to die.
I studied the grate and found it to be firmly secured to a bracket imbedded in the sub-flooring. I couldn’t remove it, but I could cut through the synthetic slats and gain access to the bridge that way. Using my carbonite jackknife, I sawed through the alien material and after only a few minutes I’d cut away enough material to allow me to slip through.
I poked my head up through the opening and scanned the room. Two things stood out, – I was knee-deep in Threak, and the object of my desire, the power core module, an offshoot of the ship’s main power core, sat off to the right of the command consoles.
I dropped my head as the officers snapped to attention and a hush fell across the room. This reaction couldn’t be for the captain alone, no, I surmised, the Emperor must be with him.
I rose up and had a look. Sure enough, the Captain and the Emperor stood side by side on the bridge. That ought to draw and hold the attention of the troopers standing guard.
I rose up from the shaft and committed myself to action. I reached into my vest pocket and pulled out the small cloth sack containing the substance the Retratti promised me would bring this great ship down, – dirt. Yes, good ‘ol dirt. Terra Firma. A handful of home.
After all, what is dirt? Only the result of millions of years of natural, earth-centric organic decay. Even the tiniest of particles contained the basic elements of life, – the nutrients intrinsic to fostering life on this planet.
The dirt was the Earth, and in the end the Earth would prove to be her best defense. The life, the building blocks of a planet, stored inside a few ounces of Southern California topsoil, would be more than enough upset the delicate balance of the alien plasma inside the containment vessel. And the reaction, according to the Retratti, would prove to be a fatal one for the power core.
The plasma, once corrupted, would breakdown. No longer in balance, but feeding on itself just the same, the new concoction would generate untold heat and energy. In due time, the super-energized plasma would reach a frenzied point well above what the containment vessel could handle, and when that happened, when that critical mass was achieved, well, the explosion would tear the ship apart. Simple, swift and sweet. Just small bits and pieces of her shooting through space was all that would be left.
And, if I couldn’t find a way off, I would be included in that small bits and pieces shooting through space, so be it.
But, first things first, I had to deliver the package.
With the Emperor on the bridge my job actually became easier. He commanded the room’s attention. There wasn’t a trooper in the room whose gaze was not fixated on their beloved leader, and as he paraded about the room, all their doomed alien eyes followed him.
He proved to be the perfect diversion.
As he made his way to the starboard side of the bridge, I lost sight of him behind the power core. The troopers closest to me had lost sight of him as well, and as they inched to their right to keep their eyes on their beloved Emperor, a blind alley opened up to the power core module.
I had to take it.
I pulled myself up the rest of the way out of the shaft and took off running for the power core module. I was five healthy strides into my mad dash when the shooting started. The core was still one hundred feet away, and for the first time since I’d embarked on what most would consider a fool s errand I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. The module was too far away, and the troopers too numerous and positioned far too close to miss.
But, much to my surprise, the shooting stopped. I was in line with the power core and one errant blast to the module, the containment vessel, and my work would have been done for me.
I kept running, my head down, my legs churning, my left hand gripping the sack of dirt.
Instead of blasters, I got brawn. A dozen troopers converged on me and I dodged and weaved as best I could. The Threak, for the most part, are huge and cumbersome, traits I’d learned to take advantage of. I could evade them just fine, but what I couldn’t evade, or more precisely, had a hard time mixing it up with, were the smaller sized versions, the ones only slightly larger than myself. They moved quicker than their counterparts, but still much slower than I.
I saw the first one coming in from the right and I juked and sidestepped him, but the effort put me on a collision course with the leg of a full-sized trooper. I spun off and was knocked to the ground by one of my smaller adversaries, but quickly found my feet and scrambled for the glass-like module.
The Emperor moved away from the power core and the troopers formed a circle around him. I almost couldn’t believe my luck, they weren’t protecting the power-core, they were protecting the Emperor. They had no idea my designs were on their power supply, not their beloved Leader. The further he backed away, the less crowded my field of contention became.
As they backed away, I continued for the core.
I reached across my chest and pulled my .357 out of my shoulder holster. I had six shots left. I aimed at the glass-like module housing the power core and started firing away. Round after round struck the glass and a crack appeared and began to grow. At first, it was just a sliver, but by the sixth shot, the sliver had become a quarter-inch sized crack, large enough to breach the core.
I was almost there. I could see my reflection clearly in the clear red-hued containment module. I could see the plasma surging in and out of the pencil thin crack in the glass.
I was going to make it.
I was tackled from behind. One of the smaller Threak got me. He hit me low and hard and the cloth sack flew out of my left hand. I hit the ground with the beast on top of me and I rolled onto my back to fight him off and out of the corner of my eye I saw the sack spilling open, the precious dirt filling the air in direct line with the growing crack.
Would it be enough, could enough get inside? Would any get inside? From where I lay the prognosis did not look good.
But, then it happened. The sack of dirt fell at the right angle, at the right speed and close enough to the crack in the clear module to get sucked in through the ever-widening crack.
The entire sack! The entire sack slipped inside!
It was better than I had hoped.
I scrambled to my feet and kept low to the ground. A trooper lunged at me from my right and another came in from the left. I squirted through the pair and was met head on by one of the smaller ones, but I was ready for him and I flew at him feet first with a lunge kick to the abdomen. He buckled and I rolled off to the right and kept moving.
All the while, inside the power core, the seeds of destruction were germinating. The dirt, – millions of years of the Earth s rock, dead plant, insect and animal life mixed with the alien plasma. The result was catastrophic.
Small explosions tore through the containment module and spread throughout the ship. The genie was out of the bottle. Molten plasma spikes shot across the bridge from the pulsating pile of angry terrian-alien stew, skewering the troopers trying to contain the module and sending the rest for cover.
I saw only one way out. The same way I came in.
I ran for the vent as another explosion rocked the bridge. I hid my face from the blast and as a result I didn’t see the trooper charging at me from my right until it was too late. He dove and caught me by the right ankle. I fell forward and tried to crawl away, but he reached out and grabbed me, pulling me back toward him. And, though I fought, I couldn’t hold my ground. He drew me closer and the blood lust in his eyes told the whole story. He was going to tear me from limb to limb.
And, he most certainly would have, but the Universe had other plans.
Another explosion rocked the bridge and I was thrown to my left. The force of the blast loosened the trooper’s grasp and I squirmed my way across the floor as many more molten spikes of plasma flew all around. The vent lay no further than forty feet away and I scrambled to my feet and launched myself toward the corner of the room.
I slid head first across the floor. The hole in the floor loomed large ahead and I was sure I’d made it when another huge fist clawed at my ankles, stopping me just short of the open vent.
I looked back at the trooper, his body engulfed in flames and in the throes of death, but, still he had me by the leg, and he held on tightly. Mercifully, he was not long for this, or any other Universe and his grasp loosened as he died and I pulled away and crawled for the vent.
A deep blast rocked the ship, but, unlike the previous explosions, this blast was not centered on the bridge. The deep, lumbering, ship-shaking event was centered many decks below, in the belly of the power core, crippling the massive vessel and sealing its fate as a casualty of war.
And, sealing mine as well, if I couldn’t find a way off the doomed ship.
Through the flames I caught sight of the Emperor and his entourage slipping off the bridge and onto the deck lifts. There was only one place for them to go now and that was to the escape pods that were housed deep below in the forward hull of the ship.
I dropped back into the vent and the ship pitched to the right. The angle at which the vessel lurched allowed me to slide down the shaft quickly, speeding my descent and saving me valuable time.
As the levels flew past, I knew the intersecting shaft was coming up fast. I did all I could to soften the impact, but I landed with a thud just the same and began to slide forward once more. A feeder tube leading to the main down shaft was coming up fast. I couldn’t afford to miss it. If I did, I might never find my way back.
A red glow signaled the exchange up ahead and I dug my heels in as best I could. The effort slowed me down enough to allow me to change shafts and continue on my way.
The great ship shuddered violently and continually, signaling a breach of the hull. It was all over for her now.
I had done it. I had taken the beast out.
However, I didn’t have time to savor my victory.
I had company.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who escaped the bridge via the air shaft. One of the smaller Threak had been on my tail the entire time. It wasn’t until the shaft pitched back to a near vertical ninety degree angle and he came crashing down on top of me did I have a clue he was even there.
Side by side, we plummeted in darkness, fighting each other as we went. He had the dual advantage of size and strength, but I had the inside position and I wasn’t about to fight fair. I thrust my thumbs up into his eyes and gouged away as he tried to squeeze the life out of me.
All the while, the ship was creaking and quaking, and explosions were effortlessly tearing the vessel apart. The shaft we were hurtling down was no longer attached to the ship’s infrastructure, and as a result we were both getting bounced around and beaten up on all four sides as well.
The great ship shook and shuddered and shook some more and the ventilation shaft slapped back and forth between the deck floors accordingly. In the course of the tussle my adversary fell ahead of me, and I once again I resorted to digging in my heels to slow my progress.
He was falling headfirst and never saw it coming, – there was another intersecting vent dead ahead.
He hit the horizontal surface hard, – hard enough to snap his neck on impact and hard enough to dislodge the ventilation shaft from its mounting brackets. By the time I arrived at the intersection, he was already dead. The ship pitched forward once more and he began to slowly slide down the shaft and, eventually, out of sight.
I followed right behind his lifeless body.
The ship slowly rolled to near ninety degrees once again and I was grateful for the move. It dropped the dead Threak’s body straight down the shaft and his weight, nearly four hundred pounds, was heavy enough to send him crashing through the air vent below.
The pinhole of light coming up grew larger and brighter and I dug in my heels and hands and skidded to a stop. I’d reached my destination. I sat perched on the edge of the vent looking down on the escape pods the Threak had buried deep in the forward bow of the ship.
There were three pods left. Six had already been jettisoned, and of the three remaining, one had sustained major damage and didn’t look as if it would fly. That left two. Two pods.
Up above, in the shaft – I heard a rumbling and I knew what it signaled, – incoming. Something, or someone was falling down the shaft and would be on me in a matter of seconds.
Down and to the left, a support beam had been wrenched from the ceiling and lay at a forty-five degree angle to the wall, propped in place by the wreckage of a destroyed escape pod. It was a healthy leap, thirty to thirty-five feet to the narrow beam, and another one hundred feet to the ground should I miss my mark.
I hung from the mounting bracket and swung my body out over the lonely void. As I leapt for the beam, I felt a rush of air at my back. Whatever it was falling through the vent had come through, but I didn’t have the time to look. I had my own issues to deal with.
I hit the beam dead on, which wasn’t the best spot to land, my momentum nearly carried me off the side, but I held on and swung my legs back onto the surface and proceeded to scoot down the incline as quickly as I could.
The ship’s shudder was nearly constant now.
The bucket of bolts was on its last legs.
I hit the flight deck running. I ran for the nearest pod and pulled myself in through the hatch and wasted no time sealing it behind me. The control panel was the same I’d seen before, in the both the visions and in practice, and I wasted no time locating the disengage button.
So long, suckers.
I pressed the button and waited for the drop.
A volley of plasma rounds burned through the shuttle bay s blast door and dozens of troopers poured into the compartment and rushed for the escape pods. A half of a dozen troopers surrounded my pod, and, I have to say, the shock and rage registering across their faces as they pounded on the glass was one I’ll never forget. The fact of the matter was, that most of those who served on the mothership had never laid eyes a human before. They’d only seen the images and heard the reports. I was their first and last contact with humanity.
Glad to have been of service.
Seconds of frantic pounding on the release button eventually worked its charm and I heard a snap, then felt the weightlessness of free fall. I looked up, and indeed, I was falling away from the dying ship.
I felt the initial surge of the engines, the extension of the wings and I grabbed for the flight stick, but it had a mind of its own. The pod was on autopilot.
I’d have to remedy that situation.
My crash course in symbol recognition had taught me well. I overrode the auto-controls and took over full command of the pod in no time at all.
I broke off to the left and rolled toward the Earth. The other two remaining escape pods had dropped away as well and were sitting off to my right. For the moment, they lay still, but I knew that wouldn’t last for long.
Looming overhead, the underbelly of the mothership was rocked by explosions, each one greater than the last. The hull tore open and a gaping wound opened up mid-ship that was never to be healed. The great ship’s demise was imminent.
I nosed the pod Earth-side and pulled back on the stick. The winged pod slipped forward and I shot off for home. Running my hand up and down the alien flight panel, I found the terrestrial navigation files. On the touch screen, I pulled up the west coast of the United States and locked in the Southern California coastline.
I pitched the shuttle pod to thirty degrees and held firm the flight stick. I was heading home.
The other two pods were having none it, nor were the squadrons of warbirds hanging helplessly around. The jig was up, – I’d been discovered.
At least, I’d gotten a good jump on them.
I dove for the planet with a couple of dozen warbirds on my tail. They were armed to the teeth, their weapons hot, and they had me dead to rights. And, even though I was streaking through the mesosphere at 30,000 miles an hour, I was a sitting duck. There was no way I could out run them, not a chance.
I waited for the inevitable.
But, fate had other plans.
The mothership exploded!
The skies lit up a flaming red, and a shock wave extended violently from the center of the blast.
The warbirds closest to the ship, those still outside the Earth s realm stood no chance. They were blown apart by the sheer magnitude of the wave, and those entering the upper atmosphere, well, they suffered a much hotter, but an equally devastating fate.
I’d been spared. I’d ducked low enough in the stratosphere to be spared the brunt of the blast. I was still in the air, still in control, but then again, so were a handful of my pursuers.
I broke hard left and dipped at a harsher angle to the earth. A trail of plasma fire dotted overhead and a trio of warbirds fell in line behind me. I increased my angle of descent and hoped for the best.
Ten thousand feet. Way too hot, way too steep.
Balls of plasma exploded around me. I broke hard right, then back hard left before pitching the craft up in an attempt to slow down. The ground was coming up fast, much too fast, and the warbirds opened up with everything they had. The skies lit up around me, and the ground below exploded in rock and flame. There was no escaping the barrage. The shuttle quaked with each successive strike, and fires broke out all around me, but through it all, the stubborn little craft held together.
I reversed the engines and rolled hard right. If the maneuver worked, – and the ship held together, I’d drop at an awkward angle through the cloud cover, giving myself a few extra seconds to run low and fast while the fighters reconfigured their firing solutions.
I broke through the marine layer at two thousand feet, much closer to the ground than I cared for. I pulled back hard on the stick and the craft flattened out and screamed ahead. Despite the beating she had sustained, the pod streaked north along the southern California coastline like a champ.
I dropped another fifteen hundred feet and reversed the engines once more. I buzzed the water at five hundred feet and looked for a spot to ditch.
The fighters had caught up and the next salvo of plasma fire did the trick. The engines exploded and the craft peeled away around me. I was ripped out of the cabin and found myself hurtling through the air as the remainder of the pod exploded behind me.
I don’t remember hitting the water and I don’t remember washing up on the shore.
However, I do remember laying face down on a beach.
And, I remember being wet and cold, and I remember struggling to breath.
I remember staring at my right arm, but being unable to move it.
And, I remember Bagman hovering over me. He was alive!
I thought you were dead. I said.
Nope, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. He said with a smile and when I heard his warm cackle of a laugh I knew I’d be all right.
My next memories are of silhouetted figures, fading in and out of the haze, speaking in a roller coaster-like cadence of soft whispers, – filtered through a mask of incoherent static.
I could hear them, but I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Who were they? Where was I? I couldn’t hold my concentration long enough to find an answer.
I faded in and out for seven days before waking up for good one week ago today.
As far as the mothership goes, well, she’s no longer with us. Good riddance to bad rubbish. When she went up the blue skies turned a pale red and within hours word came crackling over the airwaves that the Emperor s flagship had been blown to Hell, – and, by a human, nonetheless. A human! The news set off celebrations all over the world and knocked the Threak back on their heels, all in one fell swoop.
It was a good day.
How this shapes the Threak moving forward, only time will tell, but I’m under no illusions this will chase them away. They’ve come too far to turn tail and run away. The worst may still be ahead of us. I may have won this battle, but, make no mistake, this is going to be a long, hard-fought war.
So be it.
I’m not going anywhere.
Bring it on!