Chapter 4: The Planet
“Is this really the place?” Larson asked, staring out from his control chair.
“Yes sir,” Bradley said, swiveling around in his chair to face the Admiral. “These are the coordinates of the last destination of the Enigmatic Principle, still tied to us.”
“Thank Gondolus for no friction in outer space,” Larson said. “Or else, dragging that thing would be…” He let the thought hang in the air.
“It’s a planet, sir,” Bradley said. The view-screen showed a desolate, barren yellow planetoid. “Desert, mostly. The heat is normal, about one hundred degrees outside, which is actually pretty cold for a desert.”
“Shouldn’t be a desert, then,” Larson said.
“Wait, I’m reading something,” another techie spoke up.
Larson and Bradley in unison: “What?”
“Looks like a speck…on the bottom left, it just came into view as the planet turned. Perhaps a city?”
“Doubtful,” Larson rebuked. “Send out Dasher’s team. I want them to scout the area.”
“It could be dangerous,” Bradley said.
“That’s quite alright,” Larson retorted, “Danger is Dasher’s middle name. Literally.”
“Alright,” Bradley said. “But the fact it is desert when it should not be points to tampering.”
“What?” Larson said. “Tampering?”
“An intelligent race must have tampered with the biology of the planet, otherwise, it should look different. The speck points to civilization,” Bradley said.
“You know, I take you for granted,” Larson said. “Perhaps I should promote you.”
“I like my job,” Bradley said.
“Have it your way,” Larson acquiesced. “Has Dasher been notified?”
“Yep. Making his way down now.”
Larson sat back, and stared up at the metallic grey ceiling. What had become of his once glorious, beloved Federation? Now he was merely a king, Larson realized, a benevolent dictator. When he died, another would take the “throne.” No longer was there a central command, a president – all of it was in Hidyos. Or was it really the survivors of the genocide that were in the pit?
. . .
“What the fuck is this thing?” Johan asked, motioning towards the elevator in the prep room under the cube. Both Jim and him were now dressed, Jim having explained the rules of Cube warfare to Johan.
“It just shoots you in there,” Jim replied. “It ain’t bad.”
“Yeah, well, what I’d really like to know is why your – ”
“I’ll tell you when we get in there,” Jim said.
“You mean to tell me we are going to fight for our lives and talk at the same time?” Johan asked.
“Yeah…” Jim cocked an eyebrow.
“Alright then,” Jim said, relieved. “Just…step in.”
“Hell no!” Johan exclaimed.
“Why?” Jim asked. “Just get in the damn thing so we can start. Dasher said to make teams.”
“You first!” Johan jabbed Jim in the arm. “I’m not stupid!”
“Would I lie to you?” Jim put on his most innocent face.
“Of course,” Johan said soothingly, wrapping his arm about Jim’s shoulder. “And would I lie to you?”
“Well, I’ll go first then.”
“Great,” Jim said. “Go!”
“Well, one thing beforehand. You were wrong,” Johan said, shoving Jim into the cylinder. It instantly ejected him into the cube, screaming. Stepping in, Johan said, “Well, it seems safe enough.”
. . .
“Jesus!” Johan exclaimed, backing behind a slab of broken-off concrete. Jim hovered up to join him. As he did, a white pin-point of light whistled by.
“Fun, huh?” Jim said.
“Already got shocked three times,” Johan said between labored breaths. “Because someone else wasn’t there to help me!”
“Ah,” Jim replied, waving his hand dismissively, “Zero gravity is hard. I kicked off something and didn’t notice I had no where to land. You know how long it took me to get back here?”
“Shut up. Tell me,” Johan said, “How did you get here now?”
“Alright,” Jim said, leaning his back against the concrete. “That vampire you were fighting on board that cargo ship? Yeah, well, he was at the top of that mile-high spire. After we whooped him he jumped, and I followed him.”
“Stupid – ”
Johan was interrupted as a man darted by overhead and rebounded off the nearby glass barrier, heading straight for Johan. The man’s eye’s widened, though, when he realized there were two of them, and Jim had a gun. Jim shot him, and let Johan continue.
Catching the man as his frozen form drifted toward him, Johan threw him off at an odd angle.
“You were saying?” Jim asked.
“You’re an idiot,” Johan said. “You jumped out of a mile-high building. He would have just landed and splattered!”
“No, you see, he had my girl with him.”
“So? It’s still a suicide. You didn’t have a parachute,” Johan said.
“I had a feeling otherwise,” Jim said. “Obviously I was right! They did leave.”
“She’s probably dead, anyways, Jim. Sorry.”
“Yeah,” Jim said, casually peering around the side to hide his tear-brimmed eyes, “I know.”
“Enough chit-chat,” Johan said. “I hear two or three infidels around the corner. Care to join me?”
Jim sniffed, raised his gun, and grinned. They bolted out into the open, firing.
. . .
“Dasher,” Bradley said over the intercom.
John leaned forward in the cockpit seat and looked out both sides of his view. “Yeah?” he replied.
“Right.” Dasher switched channels and then said, “Alright, everyone move up to the launchers.”
A few minutes later, the Alpha squadron was lined up and fired out at high speeds towards the atmosphere of the desert planet.
“How long till we gotta activate heat shields?” Pinky asked.
“About thirty seconds,” Righty answered.
Dasher felt the hull of the ship vibrate as the beginnings of atmospheric resistance smashed into the Gladiator Interceptor. Flipping the heat-shields on, the vibrations were stifled but not completely smothered out.
“Alright, crew,” Dasher said. “We’ve got about five minutes of interference ahead of us, meaning we won’t be able to talk to each other.”
“Well,” Lola said, “I’ll see you boys in five.”
“Roger,” Lefty said.
“Wilco,” Righty said, mimicking an old space-hero from a video game the two brothers enjoyed.
“Got you, John,” Pinky said, and they all heard a click as he signed off. Dasher flipped his intercom off and peered out through the plate of glass to view the barren desert beyond. Dasher wondered what lie beneath the sands, what secrets this so-called city might hold, and if the place could be colonized or not.
Minutes later, the computer notified John that the burn-through was complete, and that he could now send and receive radio transmissions once more. Flipping on the intercom he said, “This is John Dasher. Everyone alright?”
“…-ese babies weren’t meant to enter the atmosphere,” Righty said.
“No,” Pinky said. “They weren’t. I have a fuel-leak.”
“What?” Lola asked. “A fuel-leak? How bad?”
“I have about two hours worth of fly-time,” Pinky said.
“It’s more than we need,” Dasher said, “We’re only going on a fly-by, after all.”
“Damnit!” Lefty exclaimed. “My heat-shield almost didn’t work! Damn malfunctioning pieces of crap!”
“Calm down,” Dasher said. “Form up, V formation with me in the center, we have about…fifty miles till we do the fly-by over of our target. Heading is due west.”
“Roger,” they all said, forming up around him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Dasher said as they sped onward, “If this planet is hospitable, couldn’t we colonize it?”
“No,” Lefty said, “That’s impossible! It’s desert!”
“On Earth we had deserts,” Righty said. “And if this is a city it could support all of us. We could…start over, rebuild. Fertilize the landscape.”
“Yeah,” Dasher continued. He flipped a few switches. “We could land here and finally settle down.”
“Couldn’t work,” Pinky said. “Admiral would never go for it. Too many unknown variables.”
“What about Earth?” Lola asked. “Why can’t we go back?”
“What part about The Long Winter don’t you understand?” Lefty said. “The nuclear fall-out is just the beginning. The cloud cover keeps the sun from getting in – any unfortunates who are still on Earth and manage to survive will suffer a long and cold death.”
“Some will survive,” Dasher said. “It’s just like the stone age.”
“Plus radiation,” Righty added.
“Whose side are you on, Righty?” John asked, smiling.
“Just thinkin’,” Righty replied.
“Well, still, people will survive. We are humans. We can adapt,” Dasher said.
“Naw,” Lefty retorted. “We can survive nature, as a race. Dinosaurs got hit by a comet. They went out. Comet is not natural, at least, Earth-wise. This nuclear fall-out definitely isn’t. Perhaps one day a hundred years from now we could return to Earth; and the clouds would have dispersed and Mother Nature would have healed herself, Gondolus willing, and we could repopulate. But boys, that’s beyond the scopes of our pitiful lives. And even so, where would any ship get enough supplies to last a hundred years?”
“We manage to recycle almost perfectly,” Dasher said.
“But not completely perfectly. Eventually, we run out,” Lefty said.
“Not to mention ship maintenance,” Lola said.
“Wow, she speaks,” John said playfully.
“Just have to herd you boys in the right direction,” Lola said. Dasher could almost see her smiling in her cockpit.
“See the problems we face?” Lefty asked. “The universe naturally tends towards chaos. I’m sorry, but the human race is winding down. We are probably near the last generation.”
“Pessimistic, aren’t we?” Dasher said with a condescending tone. “Twenty miles left. I think we as a race will survive, by finding hospitable planets like this one.”
“Like this one?” Lefty spat with disgust. “It’s as barren as the Canadian desert. Now maybe if it was like the Sahara – a lush, beautiful land of fertility, we would do quite well.”
“The Sahara was once a desert too, you know,” Dasher reminded him. “The world moves in cycles.”
“Okay, granted that,” Lefty said. “The Sahara was once a desert. Patches of land move in cycles. Not whole worlds.”
“We can always hope,” Dasher said with a tone of finality. “Anyways, we’re about – Holy shit I’m reading something big on the radar! And it’s moving!”
“I see it too!” Righty exclaimed. It’s right below – oh shit!” John looked to his left to see Righty’s craft pull straight up as what seemed to be a large worm jumped up through the formation, biting at the Gladiator. The formation broke apart, and John circled back on the worm, to see it continuing to force itself up and into the sky, gaining on Righty.
“All ships fire at will!” Dasher exclaimed, beginning to light up the worm with lasers. The others followed suit, and they heard a piercing shriek as the worm lowered a bit. “Fire the missiles!”
Arcs of fire laced out from the Gladiators as they unleashed hell upon the worm. On impact large chunks of burnt flesh fell from the thing, and in its death throes, it shot three needle-like objects from its mouth before smashing onto the sand in a muffled thump. The needles lanced across the sky into Righty’s wing, sending his craft sputtering out of control.
“Shit!” he exclaimed. “Shit, shit, shit!”
“Eject!” Dasher ordered. “Eject!”
The cockpit blew off of Righty’s Gladiator, speeding towards the surface with flames spouting all around it, the other half exploding in mid-air. It hit the ground with a spattering of sand, causing a large crater.
“I’m alright,” Righty said, coughing. “I see the city.”
“It’s a mile away,” Dasher said solemnly. “We cannot come to get you; we have to scout out the city. Hmm…alright, you three, go scout the city and get back to the Ethiopia for help, I’m going to land and help Righty. We’ll get to the city.”
“He can take care of himself,” Lola said.
“Not really,” Righty replied. “I think my leg might be broken.”
“Damnit!” Lola exclaimed. “Alright. We’ll go on. Dasher, I’ll see you later.”
“Roger,” Dasher said, turning off his engines and kicking on the hover pads, bringing the Gladiator to a gentle rest on the desert floor. “I’ll see you soon.”
. . .
As Jim flipped lazily about the cube, he took a look at Johan, with his pretty-boy eyes and brown tufts of hair. Johan had that naïve sense which could instantly become a battle-hardened intuition for survival. Jim admired him because he would always go for the upper hand and never back down from any challenge. Almost instantly after meeting, Johan had become as that sort of role model friend, and Jim had jumped into a role of the submissive companion.
“Now what?” Jim asked. “I don’t see any more people. Bet there at the other end?”
“Probably,” Johan said, with his back to Jim while looking down to the south end of the cube. Jim and Johan had devised a system of directions, calling sky-ward north, ground-ward south, and east and west in their respective places. It had helped them take on many teams of people as well as crafty individuals, whose attacks were uncoordinated and even once resulted in a team of fighters freezing themselves because attacking from uncoordinated angles.
“We could go down,” Jim said. “Lots of obstacles, though, we could get caught in an ambush.” Jim was right, many pieces of flotsam floated randomly about, obscuring any view. Johan only nodded and brought his rifle to bear. The two had found many sorts of weapons floating about the chamber, Jim’s favorite being the hand gun, and Johan’s being the rifle. So far they hadn’t been frozen in awhile.
“You only live once,” Johan said. “I say we try for three times or bust.”
Jim agreed, and, using calculated movements, the two made their way down half of the cube’s distance. At one point they heard battle cries, and moved into position. Between a Gladiator wing and a large fusion engine of some sort, three men were fighting, one held a pole, the other two held curved lance-like apparatus. They all seemed to be bashing each other but were flying back upon contact making any complete kill a near impossibility. Jim moved up north to a piece of floating concrete and positioned himself behind it, while Johan hid behind a Gladiator cockpit and readied his rifle. Jim wondered if these guys had figured out the dynamics of zero gravity combat yet. Probably not, he thought.
Jim gave the signal and they both unleashed a slew of white pin-points, Jim’s being larger and well-aimed, Johan’s being small and rapid, forcing the men to retreat. One got hit in the torso, the other right under the arm pit. They both drifted off and both friends heard the resounding “One point” in their ears.
The other with the pole managed to retreat behind the fusion engine, and Jim looked to Johan and nodded for him to get an angle. Moving south, Johan found a niche between a piece of cement and a trashcan that afforded him a view as well as protection from the rear. Jim pushed off of the piece of cement towards the fusion engine, arms outstretched for impact. When he hit, his gun went tumbling out of his grasp as he doubled over, the momentum causing his back to stretch beyond reasonable limits. Groaning, Jim righted himself and peered over the edge.
The man lunged at him from behind, hitting him full force and sending them both into the Gladiator wing nearby. The man raised his pole to bring it down, but he instantly froze. Jim kicked him away to find Johan, rifle up, six meters away from him, smiling.
“Almost got you,” he said. “That’s how you help a teammate.”
Grinning, Jim replied innocently with: “Almost. And I’m a good teammate.”
. . .
As Dasher stepped out of the cockpit, he found Righty struggling up the steep incline of the crater he had created. Taking off his helmet, John moved over to the man and helped him the rest of the way.
“It’s only a mile,” Righty coughed. “We can do it.”
“Perhaps…” Dasher peered into the distance at city. It seemed to shimmer in the heat. They could make it – he was sure of that, a mile was only a mile, after all, and Righty could walk a little. “Okay, then we have to move now.”
Five minutes later, Dasher sweated profusely, Righty panting beside him. With each lurching step he felt more and more strength sapped from him. John needed water, and badly.
“Do you hear something?”
Dasher turned his head back to stare off into the distance. All he could see was a single sand dune. He did, however, feel a slight tremor beneath the soles of his boots. “I feel something. All I see is a sand dune, though. Where could it be coming from?”
The rumbling got louder, and then Dasher recognized it: the dune was moving towards them! Thats no normal sand formation…that was something else, Dasher realized. “We got to run, Righty. I don’t care about your leg!” John exclaimed, beginning to drag Righty along. The man tried to keep up with intermittent steps but really was of no help. It was all up to John.
The city was only fifty meters away but already he could feel his reserves, already usurped by the heat, draining even more rapidly. It would only be a matter of time before his legs gave out. A sticky, cold layer of perspiration had formed on forehead, and drops of it kept stinging his eyes as he went. The humming began to sound like a locomotive, a living, breathing monstrosity made even more frightful by the fact all the things Dasher had with which to imagine it was the large sand dune and the roar.
The city was placed on what seemed to be a cement plate, and that rose a foot off the ground; a safe haven only ten feet away from the two. He had almost made it – both of them had, but then Dasher’s legs gave out. They stiffened up, and then jerked spasmodically as he tripped and hit the desert floor, face first.
Righty, who had up to this point been mostly dragged, was suddenly with out support. He managed to right himself before he too fell to the ground. The thing was only twenty meters behind them and enclosing. Realizing this was the moment of truth, the ultimate trial for himself, Righty forced him self to stand up, and grabbed Dasher’s limp arm. He trudged along, ignoring the biting pain in his leg, growling with each step. He would not lose to a stupid worm, not a fighter pilot. Only a few more feet…almost there, he thought. But then the ground gave out below him, the sand seemingly spilling backwards, his grip failing.
Sinking into the sand, Righty reached out with one arm and grabbed hold of the cement plate before all the sand completely gave way, revealing a pit beneath, with large teeth churning violently at the bottom. “Dash!” he shouted.
“I need you to help! Your arms still work! Climb!”
John was parched, he felt weak, but he did as he was told. All those hours in the deck thirteen’s weight lifting plaza had helped. He grappled the cement plate and did a chin up, then hoisted himself over the side. Reaching out an arm, he helped Righty up.
“That was close,” Righty said, breathing heavily while sitting on the ground.
“I know,” Dasher said, brushing himself off. He felt somewhat rejuvenated – probably a second wind. “C’mon. Let’s find somewhere in the city with shade.”
The two made their way, slowly, towards the city, and on the outskirts, found a small one story building made of what seemed to be something like cement. One side had a large opening, enough to fit a vehicle in. They moved into here, and leaned back against the wall until they sat on their behinds in the shade.
“It’s friggin’ hot,” Righty said.
“Naw,” Dasher countered. “I spent some time in the Canadian desert back on Earth. You have no idea how hot it really should be.”
Righty seemed to lean his head back and mull this over. Dasher stared absently at the floor. This went on for a few minutes, and then Righty asked, “When will they be coming to get us?”
“Beats me,” Dasher said. “Could be an hour, or so, at least.”
“I’ll die if I don’t get some water before then.”
At this, Righty retorted with: “Yeah. But does it look like I want to?”
A half hour passed uneventfully, and both men began to get curious.
“I don’t get it,” Righty said, running his hands along the smooth walls of the room they had found. “Why can we breathe?” He turned to regard Dasher, who was using his arm-computer to bring up statistics on the atmosphere.
“It’s got about the same combination as Earth. Well, actually, it’s exactly the same. Isn’t that odd?” Dasher said.
“And look at these markings,” Righty said. “This one right here, it looks like a cloud or something. Come look.”
Dasher moved over, and indeed, it seemed a swirling cloud of dust was depicted on the wall. The interior was smooth silver, the engravings jet black. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe a storm of sorts?”
“No, because look over here.” Righty pointed to another symbol, one of a lanky humanoid figure. “Think those are the guys that lived here?”
“They could still be here, you know,” Dasher reminded him.
“Doubt it. They woulda found us by now. Man, they got all sorts of weird stuff.”
John wondered what kind of race had populated this city, and why they hadn’t expanded outward. The heat wasn’t bad – in fact, not even enough to create a desert. Maybe they were the ones creating the desert? Dasher shook his head. These weren’t questions for a fighter pilot, they were for an archaeologist. His job was just blowing things up. And he liked it that way.
. . .
Looking over the blueprints, Jake had finally found the location of the MAC gun. It was located towards the back of the ship, near the engines. Hidyos, Jake reminisced, from the Ethiopia’s view the apparatus could be seen jutting out like a bad boil in the Principle’s smooth surface.. It was a crummy installation, but hey, Jake thought, if they had used it they could probably have put the Ethiopia out for the count.
So why hadn’t they used it? This was the very question Jake was trying to answer as he took the transport ship from the Ethiopia to the Enigmatic Principle. When he reached the engine room, in the center was a large stalk of electronics that housed the magnetic accelerator cannon. Boxes of heavy tungsten shells lay forgotten nearby, the fusion core complex only meters away. It was dangerous to keep a heavy MAC gun near a fusion reactor, Jake realized. But then again, these people hadn’t even used it. So obviously there was a reason here.
“Maybe they were trying to get killed,” Jake said to himself as he ran a palm along the side of the MAC gun. The air pressure had been restored to the Enigmatic Principle after many repairs, but the air still smelled a little off to Jake.
The magnetic accelerator cannon, Hallous recalled, using high-powered magnets would propel an object at high speeds out of the cannon, ripping through most ship’s hulls in seconds. It was a brute force weapon capable of much destruction. A ship that had one was usually the victor in any battle.
In fact, Jake recalled, not a single battle had been recorded between a vessel without a MAC gun and one with one where the one without had been victorious. He turned to three crew members who had accompanied him.
“Take this thing out. I have orders from Larson to have you remove the three middle missile turrets on the left side of the ship. You are to install this,” he ordered.
“Yes sir,” one man said, walking past him to the MAC gun to begin the unhinging process. Jake pointed a thumb over his back, motioning that the other two get to work. He made his way back to the transport.
Such an odd thing, that they could have destroyed the Ethiopia yet had chose death instead, Jake thought. Perhaps death was the only way of getting away from…from what? Hallous didn’t know. But he would find out.
. . .
Jim and Johan had finished up at the cube a sweaty, tired mess. They retired to Jim’s room, and now sat at the two-person table, enjoying some wine from the agricultural deck. Jim had taken a shower but Johan had yet to do so; he couldn’t figure out how to work the thing and he was afraid to tell Jim.
“Did you hear?” Jim said.
“What?” Johan asked. “What happened?”
“We’re now in orbit around a planet,” Jim replied. “Supposedly a team of guys, Dasher’s, I think, went down there to check it out and one crash-landed. Dasher and one of his buds are in the city now.”
“There’s a city?”
“Yeah,” Jim said. He folded one leg over the other, leaning back in his chair. “The city sounds interesting. I want to see it.”
“Oh, do you? You think Larson is going to do that? From what I hear he is one cautious guy,” Johan said.
Jim pursed his lips in thought. It was true – Larson was a softy, in his opinion, but nevertheless, he believed he could get a ticket down there. “Do you suppose we might be able to use our advantage to muscle ourselves two seats on the first expedition down there?” Jim asked.
“And how would you do that, Jim?”
“He suspects us. Thinks we are withholding information from him. Well, let’s barter with that info!” Jim waggled a finger in the air.
“What information? We have none to barter with,” Johan shrugged.
“He doesn’t know that!” Jim snapped his fingers as if in revelation. “All we have to do is call him up and say we’ll tell him what we know if he lets us go down there.”
“What if he just says he’ll torture it out of you instead,” Johan said. “In the name of the security of the Ethiopia and what not. It’s happened before in history. Guy tries to barter and instead gets castrated. You know the deal.”
“Nah, Larson isn’t that kind of man, I hope,” Jim said. “Hell, we can get a ride down there!”
“And then what?”
“What do you mean?” Jim asked.
“What happens when he asks for his info that you have?”
“Oh…well…we wander around the city and find something and tell him about it like we knew it,” Jim said. “Or we could just make something up.”
“Yeah. Fat chance,” Johan said. “You really wanna go down there, don’t you?”
“It…” Jim paused, searching for the right phrase. “It tickles my fancy, if that is how you say it.” He then sat up, and called on the intercom. “Admiral Larson, please,” he said. The intercom said the man was in a meeting but Jim brushed it off as “poppycock.”
The intercom then routed him through to Larson, who answered with a terse “What now?”
“Good morning, Admiral,” Jim said cheerfully.
“Technically it’s nine at night,” Larson replied monotonously.
“What ever,” Jim waved dismissively. “I heard about your little excursion to that planet. Well, I want to go down there.”
“And why on Earth would I let you do a thing like that?”
“Because I know about that planet. I know things that you don’t, and I want to go see it,” Jim replied.
“I thought you didn’t know anything.”
“I know much,” Jim said mystically. “I offer a trade: You let me go down and I’ll tell you what I know.”
“How about you tell me now or I jettison you into outer space?” Larson asked. Jim gulped.
“Well…uh…” Jim coughed. “You see, I uh…have the password for a data-bank down in that city. I don’t know what is in it, but I know it is something you could never get to with all your technology unless you have this password.”
“Again, I can jettison you.”
“Um, yes, I know, but see – ”
“He is the only one who can activate it,” Johan cut in. “So we want to go down there to help you get it.”
Jim nodded meekly, as if the Admiral were in the room. “Yeah. Can you get us down there, then?”
The two heard Larson sigh. “I guess so,” he said. “You’ll be accompanied by some soldiers, of course. I don’t exactly trust you two.”
“That’s fine,” Jim said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now if you don’t mind,” Larson said, “I’ve got other things to do.” He cut off the intercom and Jim looked to Johan bleakly.
“Thanks for saving my ass on that one,” Jim said.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Johan said. “You have a way of putting yourself in these situations, Jim. Ever wonder why?”
At this, both men laughed and took another sip of their drinks. After a half an hour, Johan left for his suite to go try and fiddle with the shower again and Jim took to reading a novel from the book case nearby. It seemed that this ship had an extensive library somewhere on board, and Jim meant to find it one of these days.
. . .