Background Noise, Part 9
By Dave Vincent
This Kind of War
(According to legend, they were born a short time after the universe came into being. They were scientists, builders, explorers, warriors and, to most of the races that came after, magicians and gods. What they called themselves is not known. The lesser races called them the 'Nibblonians' which meant 'The Firstborn' in the common tongue of the time. Others named them the Eternals since they were immortal or, at least, seemed so to the short lived races that knew them. Eventually, however, the Eternals too departed into the mists of time.
Short and squat with three eyes, they had walked amongst the new races as giants. To some they came as teachers and to others as conquerors. They set up a mighty empire spanning a large portion of the universe and nearly every sentient species was under their sway in some fashion. It was a time of great peace and prosperity but there was a darkness dwelling in the ancients.
It was said that they became disdainful of the other races and treated them contemptuously. Some say it was this arrogance that led to the Great War. Others speculate that a power struggle occurred. And on the devastated planet of Zhadum, a badly damaged stele seems to imply that the ancients warred on their own children. Whatever the reason, the universe exploded into war. And such a war! It is said that whole suns were destroyed and trillions of sentients died. - >The Ancients: Nibblonians and the Beginning of Time by Knowledge Seeker Kryten of the Peelian Commonwealth; c. 150,000 BC; translated by Dr. Jeremy Bleichman, Department of Archaeology, University of Frisia, 3128)
(Jintai ('the cats') - a reptilian species whose facial structure, pointed ears, claws and fangs vaguely resembled the Earthican feline. A warrior race from a dying planet in the Canopus system, they were doomed to extinction until some human explorers found them. The remnants of the species were moved by Earth to a new home world near Van Maanen's Star. In return, the Jintai swore eternal allegiance to Earth. While they were not numerous, they did send a considerable number of their males into the DOOP military. The Jintai were immensely strong, had incredible eyesight especially night vision, and a love for hand-to-hand combat. They eschewed the DOOP ground forces' standard issue weapons in place of blades. Mostly, however, they preferred to use their claws which were razor sharp. - DOOP Ground Forces in the Da Nang IV Campaign - Pandion Haliaetus Press, Melbourne, Earth 3055)
(435,000 years ago)Eternia -
Adoy walked slowly into the great council chamber, his staff of office clicking on the beautifully tiled floor. The chamber was dark except for the lights shining on the robed figures sitting in the high chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a brilliant spotlight in the center. He could hear the recorders whispering excitedly in the background as he approached the spotlight. There were nine chairs but only eight were occupied. The center chair sat empty. He looked up at the high council as he stepped into the center spotlight. Adoy could sense their minds reaching to him but he blocked them. He could feel their anger at the rebuff.
"I prefer no telepathy today. We will speak openly so all can hear," he said, wanting no one to touch his mind. They stirred uncomfortably.
"My Lord Adoy, you have been absent far too long. Come, you must take your seat as head of the council," said the lone female on the council sweeping her hand towards the center seat. He looked up and smiled gently at her. She is the best of them, he thought with sadness, she deserves better.
He shook his head, "No, I am leaving."
"Leaving the council?" She asked with the dismay plainly visible on her face.
"Leaving Eternia," he replied.
The council members began talking all at once. The sense of shock being emitted by the recorders was palpable. But his eyes were on the female who blinked with surprise then her features hardened as the anger rose in her.
"You have been our leader since the beginning," she said curtly. "It is unseemly to leave your post while the universe still faces the peril of the swarm. I understand your feelings over the loss of the Followers, but…"
He held up his hand and the room went silent. He could feel all focusing on him. "Loss, Lady Lambsy? You make it sound like a momentary inconvenience. I deliberately provoked a war that killed billions of sentients. My belief in our superiority over the Followers led me to that. I was wrong. That is why I've come today."
A loud voice brayed in triumphant. "I see you have come around to our point of view, Lord Adoy."
Adoy looked at the grinning stout figure. Lord LoveyDovey was the leader of the faction who felt that the prophecy absolved the Eternians of having to do anything. If he had his way, the Eternians would retreat into isolation and leave the Followers to their fate. Adoy shook his head.
"No, Lord LoveyDovey, I have not. I reaffirm the great oath we all took to oppose the Swarm." He paused to note the swift look of anger on LoveyDovey's face. He had ignored that one too long, Adoy thought sadly. The conflict between LoveyDovey and CuddleySoft had caused division within the council and throughout Eternia. He should have addressed it when he recognized what they were doing but now it was too late. He had thought he could control it and use it but he had been wrong there too.
Wrong too many times, he thought wearily. If only there was more time. But his time had run out. They'll have to resolve it themselves, he thought sadly. He waited till the room became quiet.
"I've come to the conclusion that we are the tools the First used to shape the universe. But we've acted like mindless instruments too long. I will be one no more," his voice rang throughout the chamber.
Some of the council looked aghast and he could hear the muttering amongst the recorders. He was bordering on blasphemy to some of them. He wished that he could explain but it would take too many cycles to make them understand. He sighed and said, "I believe that the prophetess Aeryn was sent to give us guidance. She foresaw the Mighty One and gave us hope where there was none before. When he arrives, you must protect him and the Other in a manner less destructive than the one I chose. Learn from my mistake and intervene only when you all can agree."
CuddleySoft, who had been slouching with a bored look, sat up straight at that. "When we all can agree? Is that an order, my lord?" he asked, a note of repressed anger in his voice.
"That is correct, Lord CuddleySoft," he said, recognizing that CuddleySoft had suddenly realized what was coming and that he could not stop it. Adoy gave a ghost of a smile at the pleasure the thought gave him. CuddleySoft stared down at him, his hands clenching the chair's arms as if he would rip them off.
That one understands what I'm about to do, he thought then he looked back at Lady Lambsy. Greatly agitated, Lady Lambsy said, "My lord, you are irreplaceable. We look to you for guidance in these dangerous times. If you leave, where will we find one with the strength and wisdom to fill your chair? You cannot resign." This set the council to arguing noisily with each other.
Adoy watched the bickering for a moment and, struck by the absurdity of their feuds when compared to the darkness they faced, laughed loudly. The room went silent again and the council stared at him as if he was mad. Well, perhaps he was. He'd spent nearly five thousand years meditating on what had happened. He recognized that the Doppelgangers were an enemy that could not be stopped by the Mighty One. They did not pose the same threat as the Swarm yet he could not risk revealing Eternia to them either. Aeryn had foreseen that the Eternians could not face them openly. Yet something must be done or the universe was doomed. He had brooded on this riddle and had come to the conclusion that the only solution was for he himself to go out into the universe and face them.
He wished he had more information. Aeryn's other visions were obscure and filtered by her young mind. Some of them were very foreboding and when he remembered them, he felt uneasiness. He could not understand everything that was shown. The one thing he was sure of was that the answer could not be found on Eternia nor could his people help him. Only he remained of the true firstborn and he was sure that only he could face what was to come. It was up to him to set things right. He looked back again at the council.
"I did not say I was resigning from the council. I am leaving Eternia. For how long, I do not know," he said, his voice cold and correct. "My order to keep our presence secret from the Followers will continue in effect. You must remain hidden." He looked up at Lady Lambsy. "As is my right, I appoint Lady Lambsy as acting head in my absence."
There was much shouting now. LoveyDovey began yelling that it was an illegal act. Adoy ignored him and watched Lady Lambsy who had tears running down her face. He gave her a sad smile and then laid his staff on the ground. The room broke out in a dismayed murmuring. Somewhere in the dark background, he could hear someone openly sobbing. He bowed solemnly to the council then turned and strode swiftly towards the exit.
As he left the room, he felt her mental touch. "Farewell, father, come back safe to us."
Fire Support Base Aberdeen -
Jess coughed as the dust and smoke filled the room. She could hear someone moaning softly. She crawled from under the table and switched on the small flashlight she carried. In the smoky gloom, she could see Chief Tamiko attending to a Highlander trooper who had been hurt when the ceiling gave way. She could see the other members of the team moving about in the haze. A dull red glow lit the room and she looked back towards the door where the division command center was located. The collapse of the ceiling had blocked the entrance but through a small opening she could see that the other room was in flames. A quick look told her that it was unlikely anyone survived.
She heard a siren wailing and ducked as several more rockets came slamming down into the camp. Outside the bunker, men were shouting and cursing. She saw that the door seal had been blown out by the explosion. Through the shredded remnants, she could see shadowy figures running about. Jess coughed again and then realized they hadn't been wearing their breathers in the bunker. She yelled for everyone to put them on and went over to where she thought the major would be. As she approached, she could just make out Rand's metallic form laying on the floor. She was worried that the major was dead or injured when she heard his voice, hoarse and angry.
"Damn it, Rand, get off me. You weigh a frelling ton. You're crushing me."
Rand slowly lifted up and helped the major get up. He adjusted his breather and looked at Jess.
"You all right?" he asked. "Any of your team hurt?"
A quick look told her that her men had survived unhurt. She gave the major a thumb up signal then bent over with a sudden coughing fit. She lifted her breather and spat.
"Guess I swallowed too much dust," she said as she hacked. She saw Rand's green eyes fixed on her. She remembered Rand's diagnosis of impending lung damage and grimaced. Not now, she thought as she struggled to suppress the coughing, I've got work to do.
"We need to get out to the perimeter," the major said. "The bugs wouldn't use this much firepower without following it up."
Some Highlander soldiers came in with fire extinguishers and approached the command center door. They were unable to make any headway against the caved in roof and sprayed foam in through the small opening.
Jess went up to Major Smith and pointed back at the main command room. "Sir, the division staff, the general, everyone was in there."
Major Smith nodded and turned to Rand. "Go check it out."
Rand went over to the collapsed entrance. The Highlanders moved aside and Rand began tearing down the debris blocking it. She quickly cleared an opening and the fire roared out of it. Rand stepped into the blazing room with the Highlanders following her with the fire extinguishers. They continued to fight the fire as Rand came back out. With smoke and soot staining her camouflage coating, she said, "No one left alive in there, sir."
Smith grimaced and gave a jerk of his head towards the flapping door seal. "Find out what is happening."
As Rand left the bunker, Smith turned to Jess. "Get your team equipped and report back to me in ten minutes. I'll be at the perimeter." Then he was gone out the door.
Jess shouted for her team to get moving. The chief and the other six men raced out the door. As Jess stepped out, she found the major talking to a young Black Watch captain. The captain was gesturing wildly at the bunker.
"The entire division leadership is in there," he shouted. Smith grabbed the man as he attempted to enter the bunker.
"They're gone, son." He said quietly. "Nothing anyone can do."
The captain looked as if he was about to cry. He stared at the bunker as fire shot up from the roof. Another rocket came screaming in to explode on the airstrip.
"The general, his staff and all the battalion COs and their execs were in there," he stammered then trailed off with "The general had called a meeting…." Smith looked back at the bunker. Noticing Jess, he signaled for her to wait.
"Who's ranking officer?" Smith asked.
The captain looked at Smith's collar insignia and the Highlander badge. "I guess that would be you, sir."
Smith looked surprised for a moment and then said, "Okay, get everyone on the line." The captain nodded and ran off quickly. Smith looked over to Jess and said, "I want your team ready to act as a reserve. I'll need you to plug any holes if the bugs are hitting us."
He paused for a moment, looking out towards the eastern perimeter. Jess turned and looked in the same direction. She could see a dull glow against the clouds far to the east. The glow was highlighted by streaks of lightening. Overhead, some bright lights streaked down out of the clouds, screaming like banshees. Jess ducked as another salvo of rockets blasted Aberdeen base. She looked up at the major who had not moved. He was rubbing his neck and staring at the glow in the east. Jess moved to stand beside him.
"Sir," she asked as they both looked at the fiery glow in the distance, "where did the bugs get all this heavy ordinance? They've never used anything like this before."
The major gave a mirthless smile. "The Persae gave it to them, lieutenant."
A few more men came running by, shouting in panic. The major looked about at the chaos the base had become. Flames were shooting up from numerous bunkers where the rockets had struck. Jess could see that the bugs had done a pretty thorough job of savaging Aberdeen. The artillery pits were a sea of flame and it looked like one of the ammo bunkers was on fire as well. The airstrip was burning from one end to the other.
"Wow," she muttered, "they sure are pasting the hell out of us." A huge explosion lit up the night as the ammo bunker exploded. Chief Tamiko came running up with her gear and she quickly outfitted herself. When she was ready, she turned to find the major was striding off towards the perimeter. As he went, he grabbed the men running away and pushed them along with him. Jess signaled her team who shook out into a skirmish line to gather up the fleeing men. As the numbers grew, other men began to join them, some without weapons or uniforms. Jess moved to catch up to the major. She fell into stride beside him and said, "What are we going to do, sir?"
The major, still looking at the burning sky, said grimly, "Survive, lieutenant. If we can."
Fire Base Cantigny -
Feeling like a drowned rat, Fry huddled in the trench next to Lieutenant McNally listening to the sound of the battle amidst the pouring rain. It had been raining steadily since the battle started. Fry had put on his poncho which leaked badly. When he had originally been issued it, he had quickly found it was nearly useless. He complained to Hicks who had told him that a lot of their gear seemed unable to stand up to the Da Nang heat and humidity. The ponchos, canteens, webbing and other items often didn't do what it was supposed to do or simply fell apart. A good portion of it was manufactured by some outfit with the initials WI which the troopers claimed stood for Woefully Inadequate. But the soldiers improvised and duct tape was a vital commodity at any fire base. Unfortunately, there was none to be had when Fry got to the base. Now he was standing in the rain, getting soaked.
The bugs were still firing at them from the jungle; shooting up the perimeter and mortaring the base. The DOOP soldiers were firing back and Fry could hear the base's own mortars replying with a husky cough-cough sound. McNally was looking through a periscope and talking in a low voice to Hicks.
"Can't see a damned thing," the lieutenant muttered.
Hicks stood next to him fingering his carbine as he peered out a firing slit. He shrugged and said, "They seem to be taking their sweet time coming for us."
McNally gave an affirmative grunt as he continued to peer out the periscope. More rounds impacted on the sandbags in front of them. Fry found that he wasn't quite as terrified as he had been. While it was still scary, the calmness of Lieutenant Mac and Hicks had helped lessen his fear. He remembered what Colonel Moscewicz had said about all men being afraid. He found concentrating on the job at hand helped.
Hicks moved off to check on the men in the trenches to the right. Some men were in the bunkers firing out. Fry wished he were inside too if only to get out of the rain but the lieutenant didn't look as if he planned to go inside. He looked through the periscope for another minute and then sloshed down the trench to the left. Fry grabbed his medical bag and followed after him. As Fry trotted along behind the lieutenant, he looked at the men they passed, checking for wounds and whether they were wearing a breather. The lieutenant would touch their arms and shoulders or say something to them. The men grinned and gave thumbs up signs. The lieutenant stopped when the reached Alexei's position.
The second squad leader stood with his fletchette rifle pointed out a fire slit, the rain dripping down off his helmet. He hadn't even bothered with a poncho and was thoroughly soaked. McNally touched his shoulder and Alexei gave him a grin.
"Hey, Ell-Tee. Some party, eh? Like Zurich on a Saturday night," he laughed.
"What do you think?" the lieutenant asked as a flare shot out over the field. He quickly put the periscope up again. Alexei pulled up his breather and scratched at the rash around his nose and mouth. Fry reached into his bag to pull out some anti-irritant ointment and offered it to Alexei.
Alexei waved it away saying, "Keep it for those that are hurt. I'll survive some itching."
Alexei settled the breather back on his face. "They ain't coming, Ell-Tee," he said as the rain started to come down harder. "They're just jerking our chain."
McNally smiled. "I agree," he said as he pulled the periscope back down. "At least, I don't see anyone moving towards us."
The sergeant went back to looking out his fire slit. An explosion occurred far down the line and there was a loud wailing scream. Fry heard someone shouting for a medic and began to climb up onto the back trench wall so he could get a better view. Alexei pulled him down using the back of Fry's shirt. A flurry of shots whickered over head and Fry gave a sudden 'whoosh' sound as he slipped down into the muddy trench bottom. Alexei reached down and helped him up, saying, "Fry, you need to keep low. The buggies got better eyesight than us and can pick out our silhouettes against the fires. Besides, that was down towards third platoon, I'm sure they've got it covered."
Fry got up and made a half-hearted effort to brush off the mud. He muttered "Thanks" to Alexei. Alexei gave him a wink and turned back to the perimeter. Fry looked over and saw Lieutenant Mac was looking at him.
"Phil, don't overreact," he said and reached out to put his hand on Fry's shoulder. "Keep your head down. We need you alive." He grinned and gave Fry's shoulder a squeeze then turned back to look out at the jungle with his periscope. At that moment, Fry felt he would do anything the lieutenant asked. Fry wanted to have this man respect him. As he considered that, he idly pushed his finger under his breather and scratched his rash. It was itching terribly and Fry began to think about using the ointment but decided against it.
"If Alexei won't," he thought, suddenly angry at himself, "then I won't either."
A splashing sound came towards them and he could see some men running along the top of the trench line inside the perimeter. One of them shouted Lieutenant McNally's name. As they neared, Lieutenant Mac stood up waving his arm. Alexei yelled, "Covering fire" and opened up with his rifle followed quickly by the other men about him. The trench line blazed with a sudden light as the rifles flashed. Jaratha, standing next to Alexei, joined in with the squad's automatic fletchette weapon which made a ripping sound as it threw several thousand sharp metal slivers towards the jungle. Amidst all this, the two figures came tumbling into the trench just as a shell landed a few feet away, showering everyone with mud.
The lieutenant reached down and pulled up one of the men who turned out to be Ol'Coot. He was spattered with mud but grinning.
"Helluva a night," he said. The other man was Ol'Coot's orderly; a kid named Cates. The boy got up into a crouch, his eyes wide and fearful. Fry gave them both a quick once over for injuries as the lieutenant began his report.
"It doesn't look like they plan to hit us at all. Just shooting randomly at us to keep our heads down," he said, handing the periscope to Tenison. "We're shooting back so they don't' think we're going to be an easy target. I guess they aren't sure where we've got the mines and the tripwires. Maybe they're a little nervous with idea of charging us over that open field."
Tenison grunted and put the periscope up over the top of the sandbags. "Can't see squat in this crap," he muttered. He watched for a few minutes and then turned to McNally. "They seem to have their mortars set over there at three o'clock." He pointed towards the jungle. "I can see the flash from their tubes firing but I can't get a good fix on them in this rain."
A round of shells arrived seconds later, exploding inside the perimeter. Without leaving his slit, Alexei said, "That's right, Ol'Co…Captain, Sir. They've been shooting from the same spot since this started."
"Have they now," Tenison said; a note of excitement creeping into his voice. Fry realized that Tenison was enjoying himself. Alexei and the lieutenant seemed to be feeling the same way. Only the orderly looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but here. Fry felt the same way but didn't want to shame himself in front of the lieutenant or Alexei. Tenison turned to his orderly and barked, "Cates, go find me a cat!"
The startled orderly jumped and then, looking like a man sentenced to death, crawled up onto the ground behind the trench line and jogged away hunched over. As he moved off, Tenison bellowed after him, "And get me a damned FIST operator as well."
The fire coming in from the jungle grew heavier and Fry could hear the two officers talking about whether the bugs were going to attempt an assault. Fry didn't want to think about what that might be like; didn't want to think about his friends getting wounded or dying. The training he had received on the Young had been meant to accustom him to the horrors of battlefield medicine but it occurred to him that it might be harder working on someone you actually knew than some computer hologram. He felt his hands start trembling and reached up under his poncho to grab his soaked coverall front. He pulled open the seam that held the coveralls together and reached in to touch a small plastic holder that hung on a chain about his neck next to his dog tags. Hicks had gotten it for him to keep his one photo of Leela in. Hicks kept a picture of his wife, Ellen, and their daughter in his. Fry grabbed the case and just held it. He sometimes felt he could draw on Leela's strength and courage when he touched it. In a few moments, the trembling stopped and Fry let out a long exhalation. He wondered where Leela was and what she was doing then said a little prayer to keep her safe.
The Fire Support Team operator, who provided a link to the mortar platoon, arrived first. The man came jogging down the trench line with his bulky radio swaying on his back. Tenison shouted at the man when he arrived.
"Anderson, get on the horn to the mortars. I think the bugs aren't shooting and scooting with their own mortars like anyone with sense would. We'll teach 'em to be lazy."
A small compact man, Anderson nodded and began talking on the radio. Tenison grinned hugely and went back to staring out the periscope. A few minutes later, Cates came slithering back with a huge figure behind him. Fry stared in nervous awe at the heavily armed seven foot tall scaly creature in army coveralls.
It had an ugly dark green scaled face which resembled a domestic cat atop an imposing muscular body. The coveralls' sleeves were ripped off so that the creature's large arms could have freedom of movement. The arms ended in large hands that had long talon-like claws. It was one of the Jintai that was assigned to the base. They were normally Special Forces but, since they had such keen eyesight, they were assigned in pairs to the various fire bases. They often hunted in the jungles about the bases and Fry had heard that they kept a collection of bug ears as trophies. Jaratha had told him that the bugs feared and hated the cats intensely.
Tenison looked back from the periscope and nodded in delight. "Mouse," he cried at the cat, "damned good to see you." The cat gave a hideous razor-toothed smile that chilled Fry's blood. It was the scariest thing Fry had ever seen. The soldiers called this particular cat, Mouse-on-Venus. Not that it was actually named that but it approximated the hissing sound that was its name. Few humans could form their mouths and tongues into the shapes necessary to make the sounds. Since the Jintai's own language was nearly incomprehensible to most humans, the cats chose to speak Standard English although their version could difficult to understand as well.
Tenison pointed out at the jungle. "I think the bugs have their mortars over there somewhere. Can you spot them and give Anderson the location?"
Mouse growled and stepped up to the firing slit. He stared out in direction Tenison had pointed to, his eyes huge in the dark. Rain dripped off its scaly skin as it toyed with an ugly looking curved knife in its belt. It hissed for a few moments and then turned back to the FIST operator who held a laminated map and flashlight under his poncho. Mouse quickly pointed out the position on the map and the FIST operator began talking into his handset. More men came down the trench line and Fry heard a trooper say, "I think he's down there, sir." As the men came up, Tenison and McNally both straightened. The one in front was a slight, dark skinned man with bright black eyes and a small graying mustache. Behind him was the squat first sergeant Orlov. The small man stopped next to Mouse and took a quick look out over the sand bags. Tenison grinned at him.
"Captain Ranjan, Top," he said enthusiastically. "You're just in time. We're about to fry some bug mortars."
Captain Vijay Ranjanpurani, the base CO, nodded. The FIST operator shouted, "On the way!" as Fry heard the coughing sound of the base mortars. A scream passed over head and moments later, the jungle exploded in flames as the white phosphorus shells impacted. The FIST operator whooped and pounded Fry on the back. "Willy-Pete! Oh, yeah! That's what I'm talking about. Nothing but fricassee bugs over there now."
After looking at the burning jungle, Captain Ranjan turned to the two officers and said with a very proper English accent, "Gentlemen, division is sure this is only a feint and the real attack is going through the Highlander zone. We can hear the Highlanders calling for help on the radio. It appears that they are being heavily assaulted all along their line. Division has ordered us to move to the Highlanders aid." He looked at Tenison. "Mike, I'm going to take Charlie Company along with the heavy weapons platoon and head for Glasgow. You'll take charge here and hold the base. I want the mortars dedicated to me but you can use them for any serious threats."
Tenison frowned and said irritably, "Alpha Company should be the one…" Then he nodded and saluted. "You can count on Alpha, sir."
Ranjanpurani gave a quick flip of his hand and then he, Orlov, Anderson and Mouse moved off towards the northern perimeter. Tenison looked at McNally and growled, "Damn the man, we're much better than Charlie." McNally only shrugged and Tenison sighed, "Alright Mac, start spreading the men out. We'll need to stretch as far as we can to hold the perimeter. I'm going to round up everyone that's left and put them into the line as well."
The lieutenant nodded and shouted for Hicks. Tenison climbed out of the trench and jogged off towards the center of the base followed by his pasty-faced orderly. Fry stared out at the flaming jungle just as the smell of burning flesh began to reach them.
Planet Express Ship, Rose Convoy, Gooney Bird-Maug Corridor -
After the Persae torpedo hit, the convoy was thrown into some confusion by the attack. The two corvettes were moving towards the area where the torpedo had come from. Leela decided to send Amy to check the engine room to make sure they weren't going to have any problems. She was wondering what she was supposed to do when another torpedo appeared. The computer blatted the warning and Leela watched as a large ship ahead of them was hit amidships on its port side. Leela swung the P.E. ship to pass on the starboard side of the doomed ship. She stared in shocked disbelief as they passed alongside the ship. She could see its hull collapsing as its bulkheads failed from internal fires raging out of control. Life pods began coming out of the ship as it seemed to crumple in on itself.
She was about to slow to pick up survivors when Ruiz came back on the command channel. His sweating face appeared on the view screen making Leela feel suddenly fearful. This is not good, she told herself but she quickly noted that while Ruiz looked pale, he was in command of himself. There were a lot of voices shouting in the background and Ruiz had to speak loudly to make himself heard.
"Captain Turanga," he said, "we think we may have a triangulation fix on the bastard's position but we can't cover the convoy and chase him. I don't know if we can get him but we can keep it busy enough to allow the convoy to escape. I've sent the distress call to Maug and we should see some help in about four hours." He paused and then gave Leela a grim look. "I'm turning the convoy over to you. Get it to Maug as best you can."
Leela was dismayed as she heard this order. She wasn't sure what she could do that would make a difference. If the corvettes were lost, her ship wasn't going to be able to fight the raider.
"What should I do?" she asked. Ruiz smiled wanly as he looked about at his bridge crew and then back at Leela. He said quietly, "Save as many as you can, captain." He paused to look down at his display. Looking up, he said, "Maximum speed, Captain Turanga. Leave any survivors to the mercy of the enemy."
Leela started to protest. She had heard a rumor that the raiders went out of their way to destroy life pods. Ruiz snapped angrily, "That's an order, captain." Ruiz's picture disappeared.
She watched as the scanner showed the two corvettes headed off behind them to fight an invisible foe. She gulped back a sob as she saw the life pods spreading out behind her, their emergency beacons beeping a lament of despair. Recovering her composure, Leela tuned the com over to the command frequency and called all the remaining captains. The view screen subdivided to show each captain as they appeared.
A portly Grunka Lunka scowled at the sight of Leela. "Grunka Lunka, a female? We are to be led by a female?" he asked in his sing-song voice.
Leela nodded and said, "That's right. You are. So shut the frell up and listen. Now, here's what….."
"Female!" roared a Neptunian captain. "I'll take no orders from you. I take no orders from any female."
Leela shrugged and then gave the Neptunian a cold smile. "Fine, get killed by the raider. Anyone else wants to die with this moron, speak up now."
No one said anything. The Neptunian spluttered for a moment then nodded his acquiescence. Leela looked at the remaining twenty captains and said crisply, "Forget the convoy rules. They're out the window. We're too far out to go back to Gooney Bird, so everyone run like hell for Maug."
The assembled captains looked shocked, surprised or terrified. A female human captain protested, "But I've got the slowest ship in the convoy. You can't leave us to die. I didn't contract out for this. The Navy promised…."
The woman's voice trailed off and the other captains started shouting. Leela looked at the scanner and saw that the Sunflower's signal was gone. Ruiz's Daffodil was racing wildly towards a cloud of space dust. Leela guessed he had the raider on his tail and was trying to lose it in or draw it towards the dust cloud. She understood now that Ruiz was buying time for the convoy by gambling his ship and crew. She felt a coldness come over her. Her racing mind calmed as she began planning what she needed to do to survive and save those she could.
"The Navy is sacrificing itself to give us a head start." She looked directly at the human captain. "I'm sorry but we need to run as fast as we can. Try heading off in another direction from the pack. Maybe you'll make it."
The woman went white as a ghost and her view screen went blank. The other captains were staring at her. Leela snarled at the gaping faces, "Get moving and don't stop for anything."
She watched as the screens closed. The Grunka Lunka was the last and he sang in his people's fashion, "Grunka Lunka, dippity-do, I know we're all going to die, and so do you." He smiled and raised his hand in salute to Leela as the image went blank.
Leela laughed bitterly and said, "Not if I can help it."
She looked at the scanner and saw the merchant vessels increase speed. Given the varying speeds of the assembled vessels, the convoy was going to soon be spread out. Some would make it, but probably not all. Leela felt a mild bit of surprise at the sheer ruthlessness of the decision. She hadn't even thought a second about the fact she was condemning a lot of merchant sailors to death.
"No time to think on it now," she muttered to herself.
Amy came up from the engine room and gave Leela another cup of coffee and a sandwich. Leela accepted it and moved the engine to full power. Amy looked at the scanner and said, "Our engine is running one hundred percent nominal. All equipment is functioning. Fuel supply is…" She stopped as she realized what was happening. A look of horror came over her face. "Leela! You're leaving the slower ships behind. They'll be killed by the raider."
"Nothing we can do about it," Leela said calmly as she took a bite of the sandwich.
"Nothing?" Amy was shocked. "But you're Turanga Leela, the toughest space captain around. You've never been stopped by anything."
Frowning, Leela shook her head. "There's got to be a first time for everything," she said quietly. She turned to Amy and said in an even tone, "It's war, Amy. People die. If we stop, if we slow down, the raider is going to kill us too. It's going to kill everyone who is too slow to get away."
She waved her hand at the scanner. "Ruiz is trying to buy us some time. He's probably going to die for it. We have a small chance of getting most of the convoy to Maug if the Navy sends help. We've sent a distress signal but who knows if they'll arrive in time. The captains understand their chances. Look," she pointed at the scanner which showed that the slower ships were beginning to move off away from the convoy, "they're taking the only option left for them; hoping the raider goes a different direction. Maybe they'll get lucky and it will follow the rest of us."
Amy looked aghast. She said in an anguished tone, "You've heard the rumors about what the raiders do to life pods. What kind of war is this where we abandon our own people to die?"
"I don't know, Amy," Leela said, her voice suddenly gone rough. She looked down at the scanner and gave a weary sigh as a small dot disappeared. "Ruiz is gone. I'll need you on the turret gun. Now it's going to get really hard."
Tears running down her cheeks, a pale looking Amy headed towards the ladder for the turret. Leela realized she should feel tired but the adrenalin rush was intense. She knew it couldn't last. If things went as she feared, she was going to need some drugs to keep going. Amy too, she thought. She called Amy on the com and sent her grumbling to the med bay for some stimulants.
For the next hour, nothing seemed to happen. Then as suddenly as a shark attack, the computer began screeching a warning of a high speed contact headed straight for them. Leela shoved the ship into evasive maneuvers, constantly jinking one way or another in hopes of throwing off the torpedo's sensor lock. But it was to no avail, as the torpedo came screaming after them. Amy started yelling on the com circuit in Martian.
Leela shouted, "Amy, open up at it. We can't outrun it."
Leela could hear the cannon's odd spoinging sound as Amy cut loose. Suddenly she found herself wishing Fry was in the turret. He was good at it, she thought; and then smiled as she realized that she found something Fry was good at.
"I never told him," she said sadly to herself as she watched the blip closing in. The computer was counting down the range as Amy blazed away with the ion cannon. Leela closed her eye and said softly, "Fry, I…" and suddenly Amy was screaming in joy. Leela looked and saw the blip was gone but the ship was far away from the remnants of the convoy. As she watched the scanner, she saw another merchant ship slow and then its signal disappear. Another victim of the raider, she thought as the adrenalin drained away and exhaustion set in. She took three of the stim-pills at once. A dangerous number but she needed all the juice she could get.
Amy called down from the turret. "Leela, more life pods. Can't we…" Her voice trailed off into a mix of a sob and a sigh.
Leela frowned. They didn't have anything that could target the raider. Without being able to spot it, they couldn't fight back. They needed a miracle. She looked at the string of life pods being left behind and felt a wave of despair and hopelessness. She wanted someone, anyone to come forward and take the burden from her.
Let someone else make the decisions, she thought, let someone decide who lives and dies.
She allowed herself the moment of self-pity and then, steeling her heart, she said, "No Amy, we can't. There is no choice now. We have to run as best as we can."
Behind them, the life pods' beacons wailed for help. Leela turned the ship back to the Maug heading as she blinked away the tears in her eye.
(1100 years ago)Eternia -
Lord CuddleySoft sat in his dark council robe, drinking his wine and watching the young Eternian in a light blue uniform sitting across from him. The other was sipping at the wine with a blissful look.
"Ahhh," he sighed, "it's been a long time since I've had a glass of Paradise Wine. I've missed this luxury since I joined the Watch."
CuddleySoft looked the young Eternian over. He's lost weight, he thought, but looks calmer. At least that's something joining the Watch did for him. It gave him something else to think about since the tragedy.
CuddleySoft leaned forward and refilled the glasses. "I'll ensure you have some in your kit when you leave."
The other laughed. "You know the restrictions the Watch has. We're to travel light and one or two bottles would only be a tease."
CuddleySoft smiled grimly for he knew the rules for the Swarm Watch all too well. He had written them himself. As Lord Commander of the Watch, he had seen so many young people like this one go out to seek the birthing place of the thrice-damned swarm. Many had not returned which contributed to the decline of the Eternians. The loss of so many potential parents was dismaying. Worst though was the council's willful blindness to it which made him furious. When he complained, they threw the oath into his face as if that justified it. If he had been leader of the council, he would have seized control of the Followers. He thought to use them to fight the war against the Swarm while the Eternians restored themselves. He knew that most of the council would not approve and he would have to force it on them. To do that, he needed the Watch; the last remnant of the once mighty Eternian fleet. The Eternians had nothing else. With it he could dictate the commands that would save Eternia.
Although he was Lord Commander, CuddleySoft could not use the Watch without being able to frame it as a council decision. The Watch would refuse the order to take control of Eternia without the authorization of the council behind it. Therefore, to use the Watch, he needed to be in control of the council.
And he would have been but for that cunning old feaster Adoy who had tied the council in knots. Adoy knew that LoveyDovey or he would try to take control and guide Eternia down paths not of his choosing. Now everything was deadlocked and the council could not come to decision. Unfortunately, this gave LoveyDovey what he wanted which was to keep Eternia out of the affairs of the Followers. CuddleySoft thought this was madness and a sure path to the destruction of all Eternia had stood for. He could not allow it to go on but he up until now he had had no means to stop it. Adoy had prevented that from happening.
He had tried, via his supporters, to make the Eternians believe Adoy had resigned in hopes of filling Adoy's spot on the council with one of his supporters. That had gone nowhere and the deadlock remained. It angered him but he was not impatient. He had waited thousands of years; a thousand more would make no difference.
He looked at his companion again. Since the tragedy, the lad had become headstrong and quick tempered. His recent affray with the Followers known as Decapodians had shown this new side of him. As part of his initiation period as a new Watch member, the boy had been assigned to a safe zone to learn his trade. The Decapodians had evolved enough to achieve space flight and had embarked upon an ambitious colonization program. This had led them into conflict with the Tencteri, a gelatinous blob species of little note.
For some reason, the lad had taken an irrational dislike to the Decapodians and had decided to secretly intervene on the side of the Tencteri. This had resulted in the death of several thousand Decapodians and allowed the Tencteri to achieve a stalemate peace. The local Watch commander upon learning of the violation of Watch rules had promptly arrested the boy and sent him to Eternia for trial. CuddleySoft had gotten the best available advocate to defend him. The advocate managed to get an acquittal based upon the boy's tragic life. The advocate told CuddleySoft that the Mind Councilors had determined that the boy had simply lost control of his rage and had chosen the Decapodians as the ones to pay for it. They recommended several thousand cycles of telepathic counseling.
CuddleySoft arranged a short stay with the therapists and then, over their objections, had reinstated him to the Watch; sending him to one of the farthest outposts. Now, that the time of the Mighty One's coming approached, he had called him back to become the instrument of his plan.
"My boy," he said quietly, "you know what I intend?"
The young Eternian nodded slowly. CuddleySoft smiled and said, "Adoy has left us a stalemate but he didn't think that we might find a way to break it."
The other looked keenly at him as he took another drink of the wine. CuddleySoft could sense no fear in the boy, no doubts; just a readiness to begin. He smiled and said softly, "The Mighty One is the key. If we have control of him, most of the council will fall in behind us. They will have no choice."
The youngster stared at his glass and then said slowly, "What about mother? She would oppose us and I've no desire to harm her."
"Although we no longer live together, I still have feelings for her and I do not wish to see her harmed either. If we have control of the Mighty One, she will fall in line or resign. She has no power base on Eternia. Only the geneticists support her and they are too few in number. I doubt we will have to do anything at all." CuddleySoft said confidently.
The young Eternian looked unconvinced. "What of the Other? The prophetess stated that the Mighty One would come as would one called the Other."
"Your mother thinks the Other is the Mighty One's mate. I agree with this interpretation. Obviously we cannot depend on the Mighty One alone. We will need his progeny," CuddleySoft said noting with some dismay that the boy could not speak his daughter's name even now. He leaned forward and put his hand on the lad's knee.
"Son," he said softly, "Aeryn did not kill your wife. It was her fate to die. You cannot blame your daughter."
The boy looked up at his father with haunted eyes. He emptied the wineglass with one long pull and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stared for a moment out the window into the exquisite garden of CuddleySoft's inner courtyard.
"My son," CuddleySoft began but the boy groaned and looked back at his father.
"Leillah died bringing that deformed monster into the universe. I know I should have loved the thing as my child but I cannot. I loved Leillah with all my heart and when she died, my life ended." CuddleySoft could see the tears in his eyes. He felt the boy's overwhelming grief and behind it, something else, a touch of rage or even madness perhaps.
Yes, it is rage but the boy was suppressing it well, CuddleySoft thought. He has lost his beloved wife and so it was to be expected.
"Don't worry son,' he said, his voice suddenly rough with sadness. "Everyone understands why you did what you did."
CuddleySoft was filled with grief. Lambsy and he had not been able to conceive a child until two hundred million cycles ago. Their great age meant they could never have another. Like most Eternians, they loved children. But children were now so rare that a newborn was an event that set off planet-wide feasting. When Aeryn was born prematurely, his wife was on a mission for the council and only he was there with his son when Aeryn came forth.
Like the boy, he had rejected Aeryn as a monstrosity that it would be kinder to terminate. While Adoy had taken Aeryn into his home, CuddleySoft arranged for his son's departure into the ranks of the Watch then turned to rebuilding of Eternia's shattered defenses. He did not even bother to inform Lambsy of Aeryn's birth. When she returned too late to see Aeryn, Lambsy had been furious. It became a terrible gulf between them and, in the end, their marriage was destroyed. Lambsy and he no longer lived together although time had allowed them to come to an understanding.
Time had also allowed CuddleySoft to reflect on what he had done. He felt shame over his treatment of his granddaughter. He had rejected her and, worse, he had harmed Lambsy. He had learned to live with that. But their son had been seriously damaged by the death of his wife.
"Yet," he thought to himself, "he is still so young. There is time for him to remarry and to father a child again. It may yet be possible. Fathering a second child is not unknown. I will have to talk to Lambsy about finding another wife for the boy." He shook away the dreams of redemption and forced himself back to the task at hand.
"We must be ready to seize control of the Mighty One when the moment arrives."
The other nodded and reached for the wine again. Pouring himself a large portion, he said quietly, "What must I do?"
CuddleySoft smiled. "Go see your mother and offer your help. She does not like that you have given yourself over to the Watch. She will see this as an opportunity to get you out of it. She will come to ask me for help and I will agree. You will volunteer to protect the Mighty One. She will like that idea."
The Lord Commander's only child gave a harsh laugh and raised his glass in a toast. "Here's to the Mighty One and the reshaping of the universe."
"No, here's to the restoration of Eternia." CuddleySoft said, his three eyes glowing brightly.
Fire Support Base Aberdeen -
Jess watched as the major placed the men they had collected into the perimeter of the base. Most of them were supply types, drivers and clerks. He had gotten them armed and divided them amongst the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland battalions that made up the Highland division reserve at Aberdeen. No officer above the rank of captain had survived the attack uninjured and Major Smith had assumed command.
The rocket barrage had ended as suddenly as it had begun. As the Highlanders sat in their trenches staring nervously out into the darkness at the fires to the east, Smith quickly organized firefighting teams to put out the worst of the fires. The wounded were taken to the hospital bunker and the dead were stacked on the ground outside it. Soon, the chaos eased and Aberdeen began to function again. Now, Smith stood in one of the few undamaged bunkers talking with the new commanding officers of the two battalions; a stocky Dane named Michael Nissen from the Black Watch and a New Caledonian named Allen Tanner of the Argyll and Sutherlands. Rand, her camouflage coating smeared with soot and mud, stood silently behind the major. Around them were the company officers of the two battalions, Chief Tamiko and Jess.
"Alright," the major said; his voice cracked from shouting. "Rand reports no bug activity on our perimeter. From the radio, we're getting distress calls all along the fire base line. Glasgow and Jedburgh are being hit the hardest and report that they are in a bad way. The others are holding on. If we can break the two major thrusts, the smaller ones should be easy to turn back." He paused. The assembled officers murmured in dismay but the major just scowled at them. "The First Infantry and Eighth Guards are sending help but they won't be able to make an impact for several hours. We'll have to do it ourselves or the line will be breached."
He rolled out a map on the table and began drawing lines on it to show his plan. Glasgow sat on the very south end of the Highlander zone while Jedburgh was up towards the northern end. Looking at the map, Jess could see that if the bugs broke through, they'd quickly have the fire bases cut off and an open road to Thunderbolt.
"Captain Nissen," the major said as he pointed at the northern part of the Highlander firebase line, "you'll take the Watch and the surviving cat towards Jedburgh. Break up the enemy assault and relieve the base. Don't pursue the bugs beyond Jedburgh but turn south towards Skye. The Argyll's will be moving towards you from the south if things work out. Make sure you link up with the Guards coming down from the north." The major paused and stared at Nissen. "The bugs are probably moving around the fire bases towards Thunderbolt so don't get caught in an ambush."
The Black Watch captain looked down at the map and nodded. The major turned to the tall Argyll and Sutherland commander. "Tanner, you will head for Glasgow. They are reporting that they are in danger of being overrun. We'll have to move fast."
Tanner said something to his executive officer who promptly left the bunker. Nissen asked about air support but the major shook his head. "Unlikely. The Navy landers can't attempt anything in this storm. We've got T-Bolt's heavy guns assigned to us and the First and Eighth will task what tubes they can spare. But we've got to do most of the heavy lifting ourselves, so be ready for some hard fighting."
The major rubbed his neck as looked at the assembled men. "I've spoken to IV Corps and they've approved my plan to stop the bug attack. I mean to hit the bugs hard, gentlemen. We have to break this attack or they'll sweep by us and hit Thunderbolt."
The men looked at him silently. Everyone knew that Thunderbolt was the only source of supply they had. It was held mostly by service troops and lightly defended at best. The fire bases depended upon regular resupply from Thunderbolt. If the bugs got between the Highlanders and Thunderbolt, the supply situation might become critical. It could unravel the entire DOOP position on Da Nang. The major let that sink in and then said, "I'll be with the Argyll's. We move out in fifteen. That's all."
The officers saluted and quickly left the bunker. Jess came over as the major was talking to Rand.
"I want you out front," he said grimly. "I don't want to walk into a bug ambush."
Rand nodded and departed without a sound. Jess stepped up to the major and said, "What do you want my team to do, sir?"
The major looked at her for a moment then said, "I'm leaving a platoon of the Black Watch here to strengthen the scratch unit we've built out of the service personnel. I want your outfit to stay and help out in case the bugs get behind us."
Jess felt a wave of anger rise in her. "My men are the best you've got. We shouldn't be sitting here holding the bottlewashers' hands while there's a fight going on," she snapped with some heat.
The major grinned. "I didn't say you were staying. Tamiko's got more experience than you, so he and your team are going to stay to assist the young lieutenant who will be in command. If I left you, you'd be senior to the lieutenant and I'm damned if I'll let a Navy officer take over an army command." The grin faded and he resumed his normal stern face. "We lost most of the FIST operators when the artillery bunkers were hit. The ones that are left are going with Nissen and Tanner. I'll need one with me. You can work a FIST radio, can't you?"
Jess blinked in surprise and then said, "Yes sir, everyone on my team can. But if the arty is gone, who am I going to be talking to?"
Smith gave her a speculative look and said dryly, "Well, Thunderbolt is still around and I think we've got some support from the other divisions as well. Better find a radio, lieutenant."
Feeling like a raw ensign for not remembering what the major had said about support, Jess raced off to her own bunker to recover her team's FIST radio. Wearing the clumsy box contraption on her back, she caught up with Major Smith who was standing atop a bunker near the perimeter. A drizzling rain was falling now and as she looked east, she could see a group of fiery orange glows that proclaimed the fight going on along the line of Highlander fire bases.
The major was conferring with a young Black Watch lieutenant and Tamiko. Jess moved up beside him and looked down towards the perimeter. She could see long lines of men headed out across the trench line towards the glows in the east. As she watched, it began to rain harder and the men faded into dim shadows. She heard the major say, "You have to hold. There can be no retreat, understand? No matter what, you cannot let the bugs take Aberdeen."
As the two men muttered their assent, Jess felt a sudden stirring in her heart.
I'm part of something important, she thought excitedly. Most of my fights have been small unit actions where we rarely saw the enemy. Now I'm part of a major battle to save our position on Da Nang. It will be something to tell my grandchildren someday if I survive to have any.
The major saluted the two men he was leaving behind to hold Aberdeen. He waved to Jess to follow him as he jumped down off the bunker. Jess came down after and hurried to catch up with the major. Together, they stepped quickly towards the perimeter and into the gloom.
Khadir sat in the ship staring about at the dials in wonder. Adoy wearing the guise of a Hafza, a blue guardian angel, sat in the pilot's seat and flew the ship. He had appeared to the boy that night in this guise. He told him he was called Mala'ikah and had been sent to bring him to face the evil djinns. The boy, already showing signs of derangement by the quick conditioning, came willingly with Adoy to his ship. Adoy had a fanciful story prepared about why Mala'ikah could not face the djinn but the boy accepted his role without questions. Adoy watched sadly as the boy focused on one pulsing instrument light and stared at it the whole trip.
Soon enough, Adoy saw the Caznoc atmosphere generator. It's far enough out in the desert to minimize the effect on the local humans, he thought glumly. At least he hoped so. What he planned to do was dangerous but he had no other weapon against the Doppelgangers. Even now, he could feel them as they entered the planet's orbit. He quickly linked to the DOOP MilNet and realized the local military hadn't even recognized the threat. He generated an alert but the Doppelgangers easily slipped through the small defense grid and headed towards them. He cursed himself for not thinking of using the defense grid earlier but then reflected that it was probably for the best. He wanted them all together when they came for him.
He quickly approached the huge structure. It looked like a gigantic cooling tower. It was nearly six hundred meters high and almost two thousand wide. The top two thirds was composed of specialized filters and exhaust ducts arranged in a circle around a huge intake plenum. The atmosphere was drawn into the tower through the plenum and converted inside by the internal decomposer, and then the cleansed air was exhausted out the sides. A gigantic fusion generator that used the naturally occurring Imthe ore to fuel it supplied the power to huge device.
The bottom of the tower was raised upon huge pylons and Adoy flew his tiny ship into the gigantic opening. He landed just beneath the fusion reactor and bidding Khadir to follow, he moved to the control panels. Although ancient beyond human ken, Adoy remembered the Caznoc and had no problem deciphering the controls. He quickly set the controls to the desired setting and then turned to Khadir. The slight boy had slumped down onto the floor and was staring at the lights on the control panel. He linked to Khadir and found that the boy's mind was unraveling. Adoy had hoped that the boy would be coherent enough to perform the task assigned. He couldn't project the image he wanted and control events, he needed Khadir but the boy was no longer reliable enough for the task. It meant Adoy would have to be close enough to be able to signal the generator control unit. It put him at risk which he had hoped to avoid. He cursed softly as he felt his plan was already showing signs of coming apart.
He decided it would be best if the boy was incapacitated and swiftly shut down all but basic life support functions in the lad's brain. The boy still had his senses but was paralyzed. It was inconvenient but the boy was nothing more than an amplifier now. He had hoped Khadir could be of some use but that hope had died. Obviously his rushed conditioning had failed but the boy could still play the role of bait.
He left the boy sitting at the control panel with drool coming out of his mouth and tears streaming down his face. Adoy had a momentary pang of guilt but pushed it away thinking of how this could save the universe.
"The boy is a suicidal Follower," he told himself, "and I'm needed to set things right."
Swiftly, he raced out of the tower and moved as far away as he dared. He found a small rocky wall that shielded him from the sight of the tower. He quickly dug himself down into the rocky ground. Deep enough, he hoped, to avoid serious injury. His mind was linked to the boy's and to his ship. All that was required was the Doppelgangers.
Lying amidst the rocks in the blazing sun, he thought of Aeryn and her visions. He wished he could make sense of them. It frustrated him. Here he was; the most ancient sentient in the universe and he could not decipher the imaginings of a mere child. He sighed and wondered how he had become so impotent.
As he waited in the hot sun, he reviewed the other portions of his plan. He had taken nearly a year to make his contact with the Decapodian; taking time to try and disguise it so the enemy would not detect it. He had been surprised to find his people had already recruited him and then abandoned him. Adoy was unsure why Nibbler would abandon the Mighty One and the fact the Mighty One had gone to war troubled him to no end. He wanted to contact his people but dared not since he was unsure if the enemy could track his telepathic contacts. Zoidberg was expendable, Eternia wasn't. So, it had to be Zoidberg.
He needed to send a message to his people but without drawing undue attention. Zoidberg was the perfect foil since he was an agent of Adoy's own people but with contacts in the human military. If he could get to Eternia then he could bring warning to his people. Adoy hoped that his people would believe Zoidberg's message and aid the humans in their war against the Doppelganger proxies. Adoy had implanted the message along with the knowledge that would be the means of getting Zoidberg there.
It had come to him while he was amusing himself browsing the humans MilNet. Since no human security could stop him, he had easily wandered through all of the humans secrets, marveling at the ingenuity of some of them. When he discovered the secret project called TLZ, he knew he had found what he needed. Now all he needed to do was ensure Zoidberg had the knowledge of where to go. But, he couldn't be sure that the story of the Doppelgangers he had read in Curg's mind was accurate or even truthful. There might be ten of them or there might be more. Once he had dealt with these, he would impart the knowledge of Eternia's location to Zoidberg and send him as his messenger. Then Adoy would move out into the universe to act as a decoy for any other potential Doppelgangers to allow his people time to muster a force to fight them.
Satisfied with this portion of the plan, he allowed his mind to drift. Strangely, he thought of the beginning when he had awakened in the gardens of Eternia. A feeling of great sadness came over him as he remembered Atunau, she who came next. He had loved her and for a time they lived in bliss. All too soon, the other Eternians had wakened and their idyll ended. The new comers had chosen Adoy as their leader and under his guidance they had created civilization. In time, they left for the stars. And for another brief period of joy, Atunau and he had explored the heavens together. After a few billion cycles, they began to come across the Followers who worshipped them like gods. The Eternians accepted this as their due. In return, the Eternians provided guidance. But in that peaceful and prosperous time, the Followers had bred like Mayflies and began filling up the galaxies. The Eternians had responded by cloning but it all went wrong; so terribly wrong. Out of the great rebellion that had followed, came a war of terrible savagery made worse by the fact that most of the Followers sided with the clones. When Atunau, who had pleaded for peace, was killed in a Follower bombing raid, Adoy went mad with grief. He led the Eternians into battle and did much slaughter upon the enemy. He gave no quarter and committed terrible deeds in his passion.
In the face of so much death and destruction, the clones had offered an armistice. Most of the high council was weary of the war but Adoy had declared in the council chambers, "No peace except victory." His passionate eloquence and undeniable authority overrode the voices of those who wanted to end the war. And so it went on, battle followed battle, slaughter begetting slaughter, atrocity piled upon atrocity, until at last the Eternians exterminated the clones. How many other species had died could not be known.
"Too many," Adoy thought with immense regret. He had not thought on those days for so long, that he had nearly forgotten his role in it. He suddenly felt ashamed. "I became a monster and I have not changed. I'm about to sacrifice a small Follower so that I might triumph over my enemies. No, I've not changed at all. Nor have my people. We're all monsters. Only Atunau, my daughter and Aeryn were different."
As he felt revulsion and sadness to the depth of his being, something began to nag at him. Aeryn's words kept flitting about his head. He tried to focus on them but they were a blur. Then suddenly, the words cleared and Adoy gasped in terror.
"Great-grandfather, Eternia must remain hidden when its doppelgangers come"
A great shock went through him. He suddenly realized the terrible truth of Aeryn's vision.
"I've been wrong," he said to himself. "Completely and terribly…"
He stopped as several small ships passed overhead and landed around the tower. He peeked over his rock and felt his mind crawl at the sensation of something alien, dark and cold. He quickly melded with Khadir and saw the figures coming through the gates of the atmospheric generators. Although they could feel his presence in Khadir, once they spotted the boy they'd realize it was a trap. He had put all of his effort into shielding himself except what portion he extended to the boy. The Doppelgangers, hungering for him, had taken the bait and not done a thorough telepathic sweep which he had counted on. Adoy smiled as he watched the enemy walk into his trap.
Through the boy's eyes, he saw six large shapes come into the light of the control panel. Some were huge things with many arms, some shambled, and one was exceptionally hairy. They were each strong creatures that could last for some time with the Doppelganger parasite eating at their life force. Two of them were particularly fearful looking with six arms ending in razor claws and huge fangs. Adoy could feel Khadir's fear and calmed the boy.
"Six," he muttered bitterly, "only six. The First take them. Where are the others? "
He wondered if it he should abort. He was torn with indecision. But his nature asserted itself. "No time, curse it, no time. Nothing for it now but to barge on and hope for the best," he said defiantly. "At the least, it will be six less to deal with."
They had reached the area were the boy was visible. Their consternation upon seeing Khadir was quite evident. Adoy gave a small smile as he saw their sudden recognition of the trap and was quite pleased to note what seemed to be fear. He could see some of them turning to run while a few came howling at the boy. Adoy activated the fusion generator control device he held and then sent a command to his ship.
"Jump," he told it and pulled the wall down on top of himself.
P.E. Ship, Rose Convoy, Gooney Bird - Maug Corridor -
Leela watched in frustration as the raider picked off one ship after another. Nearly half of the convoy had been lost and there was no sign of any relief force from Maug.
"Damn it!" she shouted and slammed her fist into the top of the control panel. Amy's words about her being the toughest captain in the galaxy ran through her head in a mocking refrain. She thrummed her fingers on the console as she steered the ship towards Maug.
"This cannot go on," she muttered. "Somehow, there has to be a way to beat them. There is always a way."
She frowned as she thought of what she knew about the raiders from Ruiz. The Navy believed them to be a small class, perhaps a corvette or frigate type. They speculated that the stealth device somehow hid them from the standard graviton scanners and may even bend light or cast a shield over the vessel. Sometimes they appeared as sensor gremlins but only to the larger vessels that had huge sensor arrays. Leela reckoned that she had the weapons to fight a small ship like the raider but she didn't have the ability to detect it.
She peered at the scanner as the long scattering of ships ran for Maug at top speed and thought bleakly, "At best, the damn thing can't have too many torpedoes left. We've soaked up a lot of them in just dying."
She slumped into her chair and took another drink of the cold coffee. Ruiz's last words came back to her and she sat up quickly.
"Triangulation fix!" she shouted gleefully. Amy, who heard her, asked what was happening. Leela calmed herself and told Amy to stay alert. Then she ordered the computer to replay sensor traces from the attacks. Watching it for a few minutes, Leela realized that while the sensors could not detect the raider, it could detect the torpedo. After running several replays to confirm her suspicions, Leela grinned.
"The raider captain is an idiot. Or maybe, he's just lazy. Either way, his ass is mine," she chuckled and called to Amy. "How much charge do you have left on the pulse cannon?"
"About half, I shot off an awful lot at that torpedo," Amy replied tiredly. Leela thought it would be enough. She took a deep breath and then called back to Amy.
"Amy, we're going after the raider."
There was a long moment of silence. Leela wondered if she had heard her and asked, "Amy did you…"
"Are you frelling nuts? You told me two hours ago that we don't stand a chance. We can't even detect it," Amy said loudly, the weariness gone.
"Maybe, but the raider captain is predictable. He attacks from the same bearing every time. Once we spot the torpedo, we can predict where he's going to move to next." Leela paused and took a deep breath. "I figure we come rushing at the spot with you firing in a wide dispersion pattern…"
Amy protested. "Wide dispersion pattern? That won't do spl'uh to it. It will be like I'm tickling it."
Leela replied calmly. "Yeah, but it might cause an interaction with whatever is masking them from our sensors. That should be detectable and then I'll nail it with our Terriers."
"Might? Should? We're going to attack on something that might work?" Amy asked in startled tone. "That's your plan?"
"Yeah, that's my plan. You got anything better?"
There was a lengthy silence that was broken when Amy said meekly, "No, I'm clool with it."
Leela laughed at Amy's resigned tone. "That's the spirit," she said. "Now strap yourself in and get the cannon set."
Strapping herself into her chair, Leela moved the ship up next to the large freighter that the loud mouthed Neptunian captained. He radioed to demand to know what she was doing but Leela ignored him. Leela hoped that the massive freighter would shield them from the raider's sensors and allow her to take it by surprise. Thirty minutes passed and Leela began to wonder if she had misjudged the raider captain when the computer came to life with a warning of a high speed contact. She called to Amy and told her to get ready.
Suddenly the proximity alarm blared and Amy screamed. Leela looked at sensor screen and began yelling curses. The Neptunian captain had turned hard to starboard to get away from the torpedo. The massive ship was closing the distance between the two ships rapidly and collision seemed imminent. Toggling the fuel supply control to drop another dark matter pellet into the fusion engine, Leela went to 110% power and then threw the ship into a steep climb to pass over the large merchant ship. They barely cleared the other ship's bridge causing the Neptunian to curse them over the radio.
Leela was going to answer back with some choice words of her own but the torpedo impacted on the merchant ship's port side with a bright flash of light as they passed over it. The Neptunian ship shuddered as parts of its hull spewed out into space. Leela stopped paying attention to what was going on behind them. With a quick check of the scanner, she regained her bearings and drove the ship at top speed towards the area where she expected the raider to be moving to. As they sped towards it, she yelled for Amy to open fire.
The noise of the cannon echoed through the ship. Through the outer cameras, Leela could see a wide band of light pulses streaming off ahead of them, most to disappear into the distance. Leela put the ship into a hard turn that brought them parallel to the raider's suspected course and Amy blazed away. Leela couldn't see any results and had a sudden sinking feeling that she'd made a terrible mistake when the computer began chattering again.
"Contact. Bearing 295, Mark 210. Range 100,000 meters."
Leela cried in triumph and, with a push of her finger, sent two Terrier torpedoes towards the contact which looked incredibly tiny. She prayed it was the part of the raider where Amy's ion bursts were interacting with their stealth device.
"Amy, keep firing right at it. Go to full power!" Leela yelled.
"Roger," Amy's voice came back, excited and breathing hard. Leela watched the contact flicker in and out on the scanner as Amy's high energy pulses reached it. She could see the two Terriers moving rapidly towards the target.
"Go babies," she whispered. "Kill it. KILL IT!"
The computer which had been counting down the range to the contact suddenly went quiet and then said simply, "Impact."
Leela looked up quickly at the ship's window as a brilliant flash of light occurred. Amy began screeching in Martian, her voice engulfed in laughter. Leela looked down at the scanner and saw that the contact was now as large as the Planet Express ship. The outer camera view showed a long, dark oval shaped vessel. Its front bow had fangs painted on it and it was covered with thick cabling that was giving off a pulsing glow. A turret with dual cannons sat atop the ship. The starboard side was scored with a long tear where one of the Terrier's had impacted. Debris mixed with either fuel or water was leaking from the torn plating and several strands of cable were hanging loose. The other Terrier had hit the rear of the vessel causing severe damage to ship's main thruster. As Leela watched, the ship began noticeably slowing.
Leela stared at it for a moment wondering what she should do next.
Amy called down from the turret. "Do you think they might surrender?" Then she cried out in alarm as the raider began firing at them with their particle beam cannons. Dodging the twin beams, Leela flung the ship downwards and moved below the Persae raider.
"Amy," she shouted, "open fire."
She could hear the ion cannon spoinging as it fired. She looked at the vid screen and saw Amy was tearing pieces off the raider's ship as they passed underneath.
"Aim to disable it," Leela shouted with a rising excitement. "If we can capture the bastard, we can get their stealth secret."
She turned the ship for another pass underneath where its cannons had limited firing arcs. She was about to tell Amy to knock out the engines when the computer said, "Warning, contact is exhibiting a large energy surge."
Leela gasped, then quickly toggled another fuel pellet into the engine and drove the ship down and away from the raider, pushing the engines to maximum burn. She watched the view screen with trepidation, wondering if she was far enough away. A huge bright light appeared where the dark shape of the raider had been. Amy yelled something but Leela couldn't hear it amidst all the alarms that were going off. The computer seemed to be overloading on sensory data and was chattering like crazy.
The Planet Express ship ran from an expanding cloud of particles that seemed to chase them. Leela stared at the cloud through the vid screen and mouthed a short prayer. The shock wave expanded outward and buffeted the Planet Express ship as it passed. The ship shook and shuddered violently. Leela felt herself being thrown against the seatbelt. She could hear Amy yelling at the top of her lungs but couldn't make out the words. Then, just as quickly, it was over. Leela slowed the ship and made a slow "wooooo" sound.
Feeling bruised where her seat belt straps had dug into her body, Leela gave a sigh of relief. She called out to Amy, "Amy, are you alright?"
There was no reply at first, then Amy's unsteady voice sounded, "I'm fine. I'm sore from the bouncing and I really need to pee."
Leela threw back her head and laughed joyously, happy to be alive. She told Amy to go ahead then unbuckled herself from the pilot's chair. She stood and stretched. Rubbing her eye, she breathed a small prayer to whatever god her mother followed and thanked it for looking after them. About fifteen minutes later, Amy came back up from quarters holding two large mugs of steaming hot coffee. Leela took one and sighed appreciatively.
"I thought we were goners for sure," Amy smiled. Leela grinned and said, "Me too."
They both laughed. Leela took a swallow of the coffee. The computer's alarm began beeping again. Amy turned pale and said, "Oh no, not again."
Leela eyed the sensor screen for a moment, gave a derisive 'hmmph' and then said calmly, "It's the relief force. Just in the nick of time, of course."
Asedjrad Defense Command -
Lieutenant Kamli Noureddine was a short stout man who had joined the Asedjrad Security Force to keep from having to follow his father into the Imthe mines. He hated the job especially as it mostly involved protecting the Grand Erg Mining's property from his own people. However, Noureddine hated Asedjrad as well and wanted nothing so much as to be able to leave. He had hopes that with the recent federalization of the Asedjrad Security Force, he might be able to obtain a transfer to one of the greener worlds of the DOOP. But so far, not one of his requests for transfer had been approved.
Now he was headed out into the godforsaken desert to check on a report of potential smugglers' landing out by one of the atmospheric generators. Normally, this would require a full squad but the last half-dozen such sightings had proved wild goose chases. The obsolescent defense grid was barely adequate for normal traffic control but to count on it for accurate intelligence was asinine in Noureddine's view. He thought there was no sense to wait to gather up a whole squad, get it ready and transport it out to the middle of nowhere for a fool's errand. Since it was unlikely that any smugglers had actually arrived, Noureddine decided to take a small flyer to check it out himself.
Noureddine was soon flying over the rocky desert headed for the area where the grid had lost track of the smugglers. The officer in charge of the sensors had been vague on what they had seen to the point that Noureddine thought the man was drunk or drugged. He shrugged indifferently. It did not matter, he thought fatalistically, that it is a waste of time. At least he would get to put some flying hours in. Something he couldn't do if he had to ride in a transport with a full squad.
He was approximately one hundred kilometers out from the location when a bright flash of light occurred and his cockpit glass went dark as it went into shield mode.
"What in the name of the prophet was that?" he yelled. The computer bleeped and a message flashed on his view screen from the defense grid - Nuclear Detonation. Noureddine turned his flyer and headed back for base at maximum speed but the ship could not outrun the shockwave. The little flyer began bucking like a wild animal and Noureddine knew that he was in serious trouble. He decided he needed to land and find cover.
As he brought the flyer down, a huge wave of boiling wind and dust struck him. The little ship was tossed downwards. The flyer crashed heavily into the desert but remained intact. It ended up on its side being pushed along by the howling winds. Noureddine prayed loudly but to no avail. The ship ran hard up against a large jutting rock and stopped suddenly. The cockpit glass shattered and sprayed him with shards. The full force of the wind hit him like a hammer and he felt the hot air sucking the very breath out of him. He tried to scream but could make no sound in the howling. Mercifully, Noureddine blacked out.
When he awoke hours later, the wind was still howling and the sky was a glowing cloud of swirling dust and smoke. He undid his seatbelt and tried to contact his base. The radio was blaring nothing but static. The remnants of his cockpit window had become clear again and he could see electromagnetic sparks playing on the surfaces of his flyer. Noureddine climbed stiffly out of his broken ship, thanking the prophet that he had not suffered more than a few scratches and bruises. A quick look at the torn flyer told him that it wasn't going anywhere soon. He wrapped his khafiyah around his mouth and nose. Noureddine decided that he needed to get to the nearest atmospheric tower which he could see in the distance.
Fifteen minutes after he moved off, he espied another ship lying next to a small outcropping of rock. He moved towards it and soon found himself standing next to a strange looking ship. Although it looked like a standard lander, its outline was all wrong. The angles and curves looked oddly placed to Noureddine. It was upright but clearly not flyable as its wings were broken off.
"The pilot must be one hell of an expert to have landed this," he thought with admiration. He walked over to the access door and banged on it. No one answered. Noureddine pulled what looked to be the manual release and the door opened. He walked in, calling out as he did. In the pilot's chair he found a large unfamiliar species strapped to the chair. It was a dark yellow being with four arms and a long face that tapered into a snout. One look told him that the pilot had probably not survived the landing. Noureddine reached out and touched the strange looking alien to check for a pulse. There was nothing at first then he felt something cold and dark touch his mind.
DOOP Naval Vessel Nimbus -
Feeling puzzled, Kif looked at the order the communications officer had handed him. It was an order from Admiral Tsing directing the Nimbus to move back to the Iota Sector and join Task Force 137. Brannigan was to turn Task Force 237 over to the commander of the Sobutho and assume command of the Iota Sector. It made no sense to Kif. Task Force Brannigan had done a good job in Epsilon Sector and had not lost a transport. The loss of the Roger Young was due to the Da Nang local space forces and the kamikazes.
Surely, he thought, Admiral Tsing isn't blaming us. Then he paused for a moment and reflected on the loss of the Young and the reason she was there at all. His lips twisted into a sour grin.
Tsing is getting ready for the war, he thought bitterly. The Admiral doesn't want Brannigan in charge when the balloon goes up. With the Nimbus in Iota, Tsing can easily come up and take command which would relegate Zapp back to being captain of the Nimbus and me to first officer.
Kif sighed at the injustice of it all as he headed for Zapp's quarters. Knocking on the door with his gloved hand, he heard nothing. Thinking Zapp was asleep; he softly opened the door and stepped in.
He found Zapp spread eagled on his floating bed. Worse, he was stark naked. Kif groaned softly, came to attention and saluted. Zapp didn't appear to be doing anything but staring at the ceiling of his cabin. Kif could see the picture of Leela sitting on the nightstand next to the bed along with a glass of Zapp's favorite cheap champagne.
Looking up, Zapp waved his hand and growled, "What is it, Kif?"
"Er, sir. We've been ordered back to Maug to join Task Force 137. You're to assume command at 1300 hours Zulu time."
Zapp sat up. He reached for the champagne and took a sip. He put the glass back down and reached out to pick up Leela's picture. He stared at it for a few moments and then looked up at Kif. He started as if he had just seen him for the first time but recovered quickly and said, "Very well, Commander. Carry out the orders. Alert me when we reach Maug."
Kif felt suddenly disquieted by Zapp's calmness. He'd expected to have to convince Zapp that the new order wasn't a rebuke but Zapp hadn't even reacted.
Zapp looked up at him again from Leela's picture. "Dismissed Commander," he barked. Startled by the tone, Kif saluted and left the cabin. Outside, he wondered if he should talk to the doctor but decided against it. Even Zapp Brannigan has off days, he decided.
Detoxification Ward, New New York Charity Hospital -
Hubert Farnsworth awoke in the darkness with a soft cry. His heart was racing and he could feel the sweat trickling on his body. Something close by in the darkness was beeping rapidly. He felt dizzy and tried to orient his senses to the situation. In the darkness, he could see vague shapes about him. He was definitely in a bed with some sort of railing on either side. He could see a table with an electronic device that had red LED readouts that was making the beeping sound. He looked at it and took deep breaths, slowing his pulse. As he did this, the beeping sounds slowed in sync.
"Yes," he thought with a small sense of triumph, "a heart monitor." He looked to the left side of the bed and saw an upright pole with a square shadow hanging from it. Long thin tubes snaked down from it and went underneath his sheet.
"Hmm," he muttered. "I'm in a hospital room. I don't remember being ill or in an accident. How did…" Someone coughed.
He looked over across the rail and saw a whole row of beds running down a long room. Some of them had shadowy lumps in them. No, not a room, he thought, a ward.
He tried to sit up but the effort was too exhausting. He lay in the sweat soaked sheets and wondered what had happened. Suddenly, the dream came back to him. He had been standing in her office again, he remembered. She was younger then. Waspishly thin with long gray hair; he thought her beautiful. And evil, he reminded himself. Yes, very evil. In the dream she was screaming at him.
"I'm going to hurt you, Hubie," she shouted, her face an ugly mask. 'I'm going to hurt you very, very badly. I don't know how and I don't know when but I'm going to make you regret this for the rest of your life. You know I will."
And then a blinding burst of pain hit him in the center of his forehead. He saw it as a dark shape stalking towards him. He cried aloud as he fought to keep it away. As he struggled against it, he heard a noise. He opened his eyes and saw a dark shape walk up to the bed. It paused to look at him and then moved towards the left side of the bed.
"No, please no," he cried as the figure reached up to the tall pole.
"Just a little something to help you sleep," said the female voice. He felt the drug hit him and the dark shape retreated in his mind as the wave of sleepiness rolled over him. He reached up to the voice.
"Please, no more dreams," he begged but then there was nothing but darkness.