May's Story - Reunions by Patrick Walts
“I’ll never get used to WETsuits.”
Iskander stopped walking and sat down on a rock. “A technological marvel,” he snorted. “Impervious to compromise, they say.”
Stavros turned, then seized his friend by the wrist. Both men felt a fleeting tingle as their suits touched.
“You want to breathe it, don’t you? The air.”
Iskander was silent.
“Well stop wanting that, right now, do you understand me? Put it out of your head.”
“I know, I know,” huffed Iskander, breaking free from Stavros’ grip. He looked out over the cliff edge. “Still, to fill one’s lungs with the breath of home; to touch the soil with one’s bare hands …”
“Their pathogen detectors are far more sophisticated than you realize.”
Iskander bristled. “Same training under my belt as you, Stavros. In fact, I do believe I scored higher than you in stealth.” He sniffed. “A man can have fantasies –”
“I’m sorry,” cut in Stavros, he too finding a rock to rest upon. “And truth be told, I share them. But we’re on a mission.” He turned. “And there’ll be plenty of time for reflection once that mission is completed and over.”
“If it’s completed,” came the answer from his friend.
Stavros raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare, gazed down upon the sea that crashed into the rocky beach at the bottom of the cliff. How it must be teeming with life, he marveled. Sharks, whales, octopuses … it made his blood boil with a lust for adventure, for discovery.
“Don’t think I don’t see you getting all misty-eyed over there, Horatio Hornblower.”
Stavros glanced back at Iskander who was tapping at his ear for emphasis.
“Your heart’s pumping faster too. Maybe this suit’s not so bad, after all.”
Stavros smiled. Fantasies. “All I ask is a tall ship. And a star to steer her by.”
“Old earth poem. A very old one. And this …” Stavros paused, gesturing grandly towards the sea. “This was the inspiration behind that and so much other literature. The ocean, the great unknown …”
“Profound,” mimicked Iskander, his eyes following a flock of seagulls passing overhead. “I hope our little visit here is worth starting a war over.”
“Listen,” said Stavros, “the only way there’ll be war is if we get caught. And we’re not going to get caught. You may be seventh level stealth, but I’m no slouch myself, you know.” He stood up and brushed himself off, out of habit, knowing full well that the suit had already analyzed and expelled all foreign particles from his body. “Let’s go find what we came here for. It’s not far.”
They walked and climbed their way over the untamed terrain in relative silence for the next hour until finally, suddenly, Stavros felt the suit readjust.
He plucked a small tool from his waist and pointed it at the ground. “Cross your fingers,” he said. “Their sensors should read the excavation as normal seismic activity, but if they don’t …”
“Yeah,” said Iskander, “Nice knowing you, too.”
The beam from the device stirred up a tight whirlwind of rocky debris, drilling its way into the Earth.
Iskander stepped forward with a different device in hand. When the beam stopped he waited for the dust to clear, pointing at the perfectly round borehole. A rather large, cube-shaped rock, nearly as tall as an a man of average height emerged from the hole. Iskander carefully guided it away and onto the ground.
They both stared for a good long while, transfixed with wonder.
“Hundreds of thousands of years,” whispered Iskander. “They never found it. I’d give my right arm to crack it open and have a look at what’s inside.”
“Not our place, not our job,” said Stavros. “This, in addition to the data the suits have collected, fulfills our mission, end of. Back to the scout, scoop this thing up and haul outta here. Once we’re past the barricade, there’ll be plenty of time to kick back and relax. Process what we’ve seen,” he breathed. “Until then we’ve got to remain focused. I’m addressing myself, as well.”
“Right, then. Let’s get moving.”
The journey back to the scout was a long one, an urgent sense of anxiety preventing either man from fully appreciating the scenery. The suits were recording it all, though. Every glimpse of every deer darting between every tree, every bird soaring across the clear blue sky, every lizard skittering across every rock, every … bumblebee?
Stavros had never before seen a bee in the flesh, but something about the one presently hovering in front of his face seemed terribly amiss. He zoomed in on the creature’s eyes and swallowed hard. “We’re busted.”
More bees followed, and within moments they were surrounded.
“They’re mechanisms,” said Stavros. “Primitive drones made to look like insects, to blend in with the environment. They’re watching us.”
“Why aren’t they doing anything? They’re just … hovering.”
“Confused,” said Stavros. “We look like humans, but we’re not producing carbon dioxide. They aren’t sure what they’re looking at, and are probably running a systems-wide self-diagnostic, trying to determine whether or not their visual receptors are malfunctioning. Perhaps if we –”
Iskander had stuck his arm into the eerily still, silent swarm.
The bees sizzled, sparked, smoked and spiraled to the ground.
“You idiot!” shouted Stavros, already running full speed towards the scout. “I may’ve been able to reprogram them to ignore us!”
Iskander stubbed his toe as he too broke into a run, but he didn’t slow down; he didn’t dare spare a single second to look back.
By the time they’d made it to the scout, the viewport was completely obscured by a blanket of bees.
“Gonna be trickier getting back through the blockade now that they know we’re here,” said Stavros, placing his hand on the smooth, featureless console.
“Welcome aboard, Captain Stavros,” the computer said cheerfully.
“Shut up. Burn those things off the hull and get us outta here! Arctic entry point 237! Transfer controls to manual, soon as we hit the thermosphere. I wanna be ready for them.”
“Inadvisable,” came the warning, though the computer complied nevertheless.
“If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it,” said Stavros. “Go!”
The viewport cleared and the scout shot upwards into the sky.
“You’re not going to get the box?”
Stavros scowled over at Iskander.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Come on. We’re probably gonna die, anyway. Let’s get what we came for.”
“You mean die because of your itchy trigger finger?” Assuming manual control of the craft, Stavros dived back down to the earth.
“What’s an itchy trigger finger?” muttered Iskander through clenched teeth, his body glued to his seat – his suit, having heard the query, quickly went to work accessing TREE and feeding him a wealth of information about both the etymology of the phrase itself, as well as the primitive projectile weapons that inspired it.
“Clear! This isn’t the time!” Iskander spat, swatting at his face as if there were a sapgnat buzzing around his head.
Stavros, ignoring him, piloted them to the excavation site.
“There!” said Iskander, pointing unnecessarily. “Covered in bees.”
“Drones,” Stavros corrected. “Not real bees. Open cargo doors!”
He activated the collector and brought the box aboard manually: there was a loud clunk that shook the scout as their ‘treasure’ settled into the compartment beneath them.
The drone-bees were beginning to accumulate on the viewport again.
Iskander maintained a firm, white-knuckled grip on his chair, the scout soaring skyward.
“Uh oh,” said Stavros.
Iskander saw them, too – six flaming shapes entering the atmosphere, burning the sky in their wake. They fanned out and soon cooled down enough to be recognizable – Namuu interceptors; automated, likely constructed eons ago, but tactically brilliant and ruthlessly deadly.
Stavros cursed under his breath. “The weapon,” he said.
“The one we weren’t supposed to use under any circumstances?”
Stavros sighed; shrugged. “Let’s start a war.”
Sliding his hand across the panel, he activated the targeting grid on the viewport. He selected all six targets and fired.
Everything – even the plumes of smoke they’d left in their wake – turned into clouds of white vapor, retaining their shapes for just a few moments before momentum dispersed them and they vanished from sight and sensors.
“Nothing left at all,” said Iskander. “Not a single molecule.”
“Yeah,” said Stavros. “Ever hear of Pandora’s Box?”
“Well, we just blew the lid off it. They’re gonna wanna know what technology we just hit ’em with; and if they find out the truth, this strained tolerance they practice, allowing us to live independently of the Relocs as our own sovereign world …”
“It all ends,” finished Iskander, unable to say more. He looked over at his friend, knowing full well that Stavros preferred to be kept talking while piloting. Instead he suggested some music.
“Good idea,” said Stavros, entering the troposphere. “Hey. Computer. Play something from one of the 10gen composers.”
“… how about some Markus?”
“Eighth or ninth?” came the computerized response.
Stavros snorted. “You kidding? Eighth. And make it something jaunty and upbeat.”
Music began to pour into the cabin as the computer obliged, while at the same time Iskander winced at that weird little twinge he always got in his stomach during the switch to artificial gravity. They were in space.
“Now comes the tricky part. Hang on!”
A shiny metallic sphere was heading towards them at an alarming speed. It suddenly made a full stop, hovering directly in the scout’s path as if it were taunting them, daring them to collide with it.
Stavros maintained course, his fingers dancing across the console like those of a concert pianist, his eyes fixed dead ahead.
“Destroy,” he uttered, and the sphere shattered into hundreds of smaller globes.
“They’re closing in,” said Iskander as the orbs started to glow and spin, surrounding the scout and within seconds they’d joined themselves together in an energy net.
“Got a perfect score on the sim for this,” whispered Stavros. “Piece of cake.”
The scout spun wildly about as Stavros expertly maneuvered her with tight little movements through the rapidly closing net, its flailing blue tendrils caressing the hull like tongues of fire. “Almost there,” he breathed.
Iskander took in the Earth’s moon, reflected perfectly in the pupils of his friend’s eyes.
There was a dramatic swell in the music as they narrowly slipped sideways through a too-close-for-comfort gap in the glowing, burning mesh of blue net. Glancing at the rear monitor, Iskander watched the tiny globes disengage and coalesce back into a larger sphere.
“See? Piece of cake.”
They were approaching Luna.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you? Timed it to sync with the music.”
Stavros winked. “Now, let me see if I remember where we parked. Gonna fold as soon as we’re aboard Kutan, so be ready.”
“Oh, they’ll love that,” said Iskander. “As if we haven’t already pissed them off enough – now you’re gonna do the thing they hate the most.”
“Don’t see we have much choice. Unless you got any alternatives, Mr. Seventh Level Stealth?”
Iskander said nothing. The large sphere was getting closer.
“Class two Nammu cruiser has entered the solar system. Estimated arrival: five minutes,” said the computer.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be long gone by the time they get here,” answered Stavros as he spotted their ship, nestled against the eastern inner wall of Orlov Y.
“Never been so happy to see that slimy blob of intelligent goop.”
“Don’t talk like that around her,” Stavros called over the strains of the bombastic march now flooding the ship’s cabin.
“Hey,” said Iskander, “I did say it was intelligent.”
“Feeding time, baby girl.”
The ship lit up as it saw them approach, and oozed its way out of the crater like a dog greeting its master. It stretched itself outward like a long, gooey string of melted pizza cheese and reached past the scout to snatch up their pursuer: the sphere became encased within an undulating mass of glowing pink slime, and there was a split-second flash of blinding white light.
Meanwhile the scout plunged into into the ship’s warm, welcoming insides, and the first stages of fold were initiated. The stars around them seemed to blur and stretch as the scout was devoured by Kutan. Iskander screamed as the suits exited their bodies and rejoined the living vessel. He was never going to like traveling naked inside a giant ball of slime. The universe around him bent in half and his brain blinked out for a moment.
Then the familiar words from Stavros:
“Home sweet home.”
Their vision cleared and Galenia came into view.
Reunions is one of a series of interconnected short stories that will eventually comprise an anthology; many of them will be posted as he writes. You can check out more of Patrick’s short stories here, find his blog here, his amazon page here and connect with him on goodreads here.