Blood Of Denebria
I watched stars streak by through the viewport as our small ship plunged out of control toward the deadly radiation zones of the inner galaxy. The Instrument panel sparked. Burned wires dangled as Sojourner made erratic jumps.
"Chancey!" I yelled into my BioSuit mic as I tried to loosen a strut that held the airlock's damaged outer door shut. "The damn thing's jammed!"
"Give me sixty seconds, Jules," he said evenly. Chancey doesn't get shaken. He burned through a tie-down on the lifeboat and snapped the clamp open. I continued to tug on the strut as he kicked off and floated toward me. His muscular body stretched the form-fitting suit around his biceps and chest as he grabbed handholds and pulled himself along in zero gravity. His black, sculpted features were grim in the airlock's flashing warning lights.
"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday!" Joe Hatch called in his gravelly voice through his mic and held down the transmit button on the Star Positioning System unit. "This is the starship SL-5 Sojourner. Our ship is damaged and making unprogrammed jumps. Four adults onboard. Calling anyone. Request assistance. We are launching the lifeboat."
"We're trying to," I said through my teeth and gripped the wrench tighter. My stomach lurched as the ship jumped again. I yanked on the strut. "Hang on, Huff!" I yelled to my Vegan friend. His thickset body was stuffed into a Terran BioSuit and his movements were awkward and stiff. He nodded his white-furred snout which was jammed against the helmet. I heard him whine as he tried to untangle a maze of exposed sparking wires on the lifeboat's bow with broad, gloved paws. "I'm hanging good, my Jules Terran friend," he said, "and wish I were not being so bounced!"
We were silent as Joe tried again. "Grave and immediate danger," he rasped into the unit. "All vessels, warp through our distress call to Operations on planet Alpha."
When no response came, he glanced at me and Chancey and shook his head.
"Hurry up, Chancey!" I called as he approached, and yanked again on the jammed strut.
He reached me and gripped the wrench alongside my hands. With our boots braced against the wall, we pulled for all we were worth. I felt the strut move. "It's loosening!" I said.
"We are about to abandon ship." Joe said into his mic. Joe's a retired captain with the Counter Terrorist Force of W-CIA, and my former father in law. We'd been in some tight spots together on planet Fartherland against General Ki Rowdinth, but I'd never seen his face so drawn, the lines of age so deep beneath his prominent nose and under the white stubble of his beard.
Grav adjusters swung wildly from Earth's G- force to zero and back again, slamming us against the wall, then releasing us to float. With the airlock's twisted door half blown, the danger was that one of us would be thrown out into space.
The adjusters swung back to E-force and our sudden weight as we yanked on the strut finally broke it free.
"C'mon," Chancey said.
We went to the outer door and yanked it open to the eerie blackness of space, speckled with distant stars.
"Where the hell are we?" I whispered as we clung to the door.
Chancey shook his head.
I heard Joe's continued distress call. "Any luck?" I asked him as Chancey and I made our way back to the lifeboat.
The look he gave me said more than his words. "I'm afraid we're out of range."
And out of luck, I thought. "I'll lend you a hand," I told Huff, and untangled two hot wires.
"Lend both of the hands, Jules," Huff said. "This tangle of biting snakes needs the long human tentacles."
"Hang on!" I yelled as Sojourner made another unscheduled jump. I tried to steady my breathing. I was using up air too fast, but I knew we were still heading into some heavy radiation zones.
Joe set the SPS unit on Alpha's Guard Station, though we had little hope of contact, and clamped it to his metallic waistband as the grav adjusters shut down again. The freed lifeboat tilted and floated into a wall. "Let's go!" he said, "before the damned thing leaves without us." He pulled himself inside the lifeboat and held open the door.
Chancey took the pilot's seat and started the engines. Joe sat beside him and activated the distress signals on the heads-up holo display. Huff and I squeezed into the rear seats. It was tight quarters, to say the least. I helped him strap in, then clamped my own belts and leaned back with a long sigh. I stared out the viewport as Chancey guided the small craft through the torn outer door and into the vast silence of deep space.
"Does anybody happen to know why that ship attacked us?" I asked. "And who the hell were those crotefuckers?"
"The ship isn't from any known system," Joe said as he studied the display. "I suspect we encountered a warship from the race that invaded Denebria."
"They could've easily destroyed Sojourner," Chancey said, "instead of just crippling her. I wonder why they didn't?"
"Maybe they are not killers of people," Huff offered.
I looked at him.
"Maybe they are like the floe breeders of my homeworld who bite the tails off squigglers that crawl up onto their ice."
"They bit off our tails all right," Joe muttered.
A sense of desolation crept into my soul as Sojourner disappeared in another warp jump. Huff leaned his helmeted head against me and I patted his forearm. I watched over Joe's shoulder as he studied the holo for Earth-type planets where we could land and await rescue.
Rescue, I thought, that would probably never come. "You see any promising planets, Joe?" I asked.
"The Search program located two possibles." He pointed to two blinking dots on the holo. "They're both E-types, but..."
I bit my lip as I waited.
"They're both designated hostile-eight," he finished.
"That's a pretty high hostile rating," Chancey said.
"Any chance on the Denebrian star system?" I asked.
"It's off the map," Joe said.
"My people have a saying for times like this," Huff told us.
His people had a saying for every nuance in life. "OK, Huff. What do they say?"
"If you are lost in one of the oceans, do not search for rescue. Remain on your ice floe and let the rescue search for you."
We were silent. The lifeboat was not capable of making jumps, and there were millions of "ice floes" out there.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. This was supposed to be a short trip to planet Denebria, where the gentle Denebrian folk were under attack by an aggressive race. We were supposed to drop off Chancey, a W-CIA undercover agent. As a telepath, I had agreed to attempt a probe of the invaders' minds for clues on their motivations, and possible methods to turn them back.
I pictured Shannon, my girlfriend from the Irish community on planet Fartherland, at home with her family and friends of dwarfs and tall people. I think we both knew from the beginning that we were star-crossed lovers, to coin a phrase. With no work for an astrobiologist in the small mining town of Gorestail on Fartherland, and with Shannon's growing desire to return to her people and start a family, we both knew that the love affair was over.
After this supposedly Sunday jaunt, I was supposed to continue my work at the Los Alamos National Lab on blackroot, a strange animal-plant I'd run into, literally, on planet Halcyon.
That had been the plan. But the best laid plans...
Joe's SPS suddenly crackled. "Mayday," a voice came through in stelspeak. "Sojourner SL-5. This is Denebrian Outpost Deep Station warping through.
"Oh my God!" I clutched the backrest of Chancey's seat.
"Be quiet, Jules," Chancey said.
"I knew that one of the Ten Gods would hear our prayers," Huff whispered.
"We followed your ship's jumps and we are homing in on your signals," the voice said with metallic overtones. Was that the radio, I wondered, or the alien's own timbre?
Chancey glanced at Joe, who was staring at the holo display. "I don't recognize the accent," Joe said, "and we're too far out for a Denebrian station."
"That's what I was thinking," Chancey said. "I'd say we run silent."
"I should've known it was too good," I muttered.
"There they are." Joe pointed to a blip on the holo.
I watched him flip a row of levers as he shut down the signaling systems. "What about those two planets?" I asked.
"Once we land this boat," Chancey said, "we're committed. She can't drive off-planet and she can't make jumps.
"On the other hand," I said, "our air supply here is limited."
He nodded and steered the boat toward a star system.
"Chancey." Joe pointed to a small rocky outer planet with a moon in tow. "We'll hide out behind that one."
Chancey nodded and turned toward the planet.
"This is Deep Station," the voice came back. "We just lost your signals. What are your coordinates?"
Joe shut off the SPS unit and sat staring at it in his lap.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Can you hide in the shadow of that nighttime moon? I want to try for a probe of the ship."
Chancey glanced at Joe.
"It's worth a try," Joe said and looked back at me. "See if you can get an image of their home system while you're at it. The Worlds Alliance would like to know just where the hell they came out of. If we ever get back there to tell them," he added.
I nodded and lowered my head. With my eyes closed I mentally opened my mind to the void outside our boat and imagined myself drifting toward the starship, about two hundred yards away. It took a while, then a loud humming noise began inside my head and I felt that strange, uneasy break between mind and body. My stomach clenched and I grabbed Huff's forearm. He pressed it against me for reassurance. The prospect of probing alien mentalities, especially a warlike race that had attacked a peaceful people without provocation, was not conducive to a peaceful state of mind.
"I will hold your body and protect your living life in the arms of my being," Huff said.
I felt the frigid black indifference between stars open up around me. The physical sensations ceased and there came that strange feeling of drifting, not through space, but through vibrations at the core of energy. The universe sang. I willed my kwaii, what we Terrans call soul, to move through the subliminal music and toward the alien ship.
The gray hull sparked with electrical streaks through glassy tubes, but metal was no more than the barrier of water when you dive beneath the viscous surface. I went through it and into the ship.
I mentally gasped and almost backed out at the alien nature of the chamber. I had entered some kind of a nursery. In the yellow lights, strings of burgundy eggs hung like dark grapes on vines from the convex ceiling, except that these grapes had eyes and gulping mouths within their fluid-filled sacs. Perhaps a hundred vines swayed in the flow of air from wall vents. Behind the transparent ceiling, blue and green liquid swirled, came together in emerald shades, then parted again.
Damn! I thought as a thirty-foot long amorphous alien with bulging egg sacs protruding from beneath her mantle floated above the ceiling, enmeshed in stems of the branching vines. She was attended by the vague forms of much smaller creatures who scurried around her body. One mounted her rear and heaved against her in what I assumed was a transfer of sperm. The other fed her dark chips. Her body undulated and eggs slid down vines like tiny droplets of black rain. The egg cases that touched the soft, white-furred floor beneath, bulged like glistening ripe melons, with developed fetuses that wiggled within their translucent shells.
And I thought blackroot was strange!
Could this be a warship? I wondered.
As I watched, a large egg case split open. Bubbly fluid leaked out. The brown "baby," all arms and eyes and tentacles, plopped wetly to the encompassing folds of the furry carpet. His round mouth opened and closed as he gasped in air. Short, prickly hairs, like porcupine quills, began to stiffen and dry. He turned and climbed the vine on slippery tentacles, bit off a smaller egg and chewed it.
Jesus and Vishnu. As an astrobiologist I had seen some strange lifeforms, but these aliens were in a class all their own.
A round chamber door slid open and I instinctively backed away, then remembered that I had no physical substance. The seven-foot tall creature who entered had the largest eyes I'd ever seen on any Earth or alien species. They protruded from his domed head like two golden discs. Nose slits opened and closed as he breathed. His mouth was a downward curve of brown-speckled lips.
He stalked into the chamber on two muscular tentacles with splayed toes. More ropy tentacles were wrapped around his elongated body, with toes and fingers curled. He was all tentacles and head, with a prickly coat of sable fur that rippled across muscles as he walked.
Holy Christ and Brahma, I thought. BEMs! I'd seen photos of them on history cubes and in books. We called them bug-eyed-monsters because no race in the known worlds could pronounce their native name. They were an aggressive people, known for their brutal slaughter of captured enemies during the Twelve-Year- with the Worlds Alliance. Their unchecked breeding habits had driven them to invade inhabited worlds in a quest for much-needed resources. The war ended with their defeat and the destruction of their military machine. That was over a hundred E-years ago. They were never traced back to their homeworld and never heard from again, to everyone's relief.
Until now. Had they rebuilt their war machine? Then Denebria was probably just the first world in another expansionist agenda. Great Mind, was the Alliance in for an all-out war? I resolved to gather as much information as possible while on this ship and hope that somehow we could relay it to Alpha.
I watched the BEM go to the baby, unravel three more tentacles and pick him up. He tucked the newborn under his short, furred mantle. To nurse? I wondered, as he left the room walking on four tentacles this time, probably to brace himself with the added weight of the infant.
Great Mind, what were you thinking, I thought, when you came up with this one?
I moved into the next chamber, a bedroom, I assumed, of round staggered platforms like spiral staircases. Two adults lay curled on the platforms, their saucer eyes covered by great lids with lashes. Seven infants, ranging in size, slept or played in frosted cubicles stacked along the walls.
I watched the adult with the newborn open an empty cubicle, carefully place the infant inside, and insert a feeding tube into its mouth. Tiny tentacles waved from under the baby's mantle and a slit seeped yellow fluid. The adult closed the lid and moved among the cubicles, tweaking dials and tapping the covers. The playing babies responded by tapping the insides of the covers.
I willed myself to drift into the next chamber, the galley, where metal straws, each in its own carved sphere, protruded from the ceiling like udders. Three adults clung upside down, their mantles clamped to the spheres, their bodies rippling as they drank through straws. Another BEM sat on a counter, eating curled green chips from a stacked pan. I wondered what the smells and sounds would be like as I drifted through the chamber and into the next one.
And there it was. The heart of the warship. The control room. Holo screens scanned space around the ship. Searching for us? I wondered. The big laser cannons, seen on monitors, jutted from starboard and portside. Only Great Mind knew what other weaponry was contained onboard. Chancey had been right. They could have blown us into the next universe if they'd wanted to. I could only guess at the nature of this ship: reconnaissance, attack vessel, support for ground troops? Or something else. A chill settled in my mind. Were they growing those juveniles as replacements for future lost combat troops?
Fifteen aliens manned the maze of controls in a circle. I saw no insignias nor any other signs to distinguish officers from crew. Perhaps, as with ant colonies, it was the queen who ran the show. If we ever managed to contact Alpha, the seat of the Worlds Government, I would relay that information. Kill the queens and you might abort the attacks on Denebria and other worlds.
I chose an alien who sat at a central console within the circle. Usually a power tag is in the center, surrounded by his officers. I conjured a red coil of telepathic power within my mind and spun it like a spider forming a silk thread. I forced it to spin and grow. A tel probe is no fun. It burns out brain cells and I always end up with a headache. At the least. When it swelled into a small tornado, I threw it at him and probed.
And was beaten back by a swarm of tel links. This was a communal mind! They descended like bees to sting my mind. I threw up mental shields as they tried to shred the coherence of my thoughts in a tsunami of deep probes.
Uh oh. I backed toward the hull. Time to leave this tangled web. But my shields were forced down in a synchronized attack.
Mind thief, one sent. What are you doing here?
Intruder, another shouted within my mind. Intruder! Intruder!
Invader of the homeship!
I'm leaving, OK? I sent. I'm going now. Bug off.
They conjured a mental curtain that blocked out the control room and the ship's hull, leaving me lost in a void without reference points. I tried to squeeze out of the spider web by moving toward an image I projected of the lifeboat. A tel force came through, stronger than the others. A thought in their native tongue plowed across my mind and left erratic furrows like spaces in my thoughts.
Was that the queen?
The curtain dropped. I was suddenly released, as though the web was ripped aside. I willed myself out of the ship and fled back to Sojourner, followed by a swarm of tel links that struck at me like bee stings until I entered our boat and my body.
The sensations of living flesh grew around me in layers. A murmur of voices. "I think he's back," Chancey said. I felt the pressure of the seat and my BioSuit and helmet against my body. The taste of air was stale as I drew in a long, shuddering breath. I opened my eyes. They ached from the sudden glare of light and I tried to rub them, but my fingers hit the helmet. Huff and Joe and Chancey were gathered around me.
"Jules Terran," Huff said, "is your mind with your body again?"
"You were out there a long time, Chancey said. "What happened, tag?"
"Did you find out anything?" Joe asked.
"They're BEMs, Joe," I told him. "The Denebrian invaders are BEMs!"
Joe straightened. "Are you certain of that? Nobody's heard from them for over a hundred years."
"They're back," I said. "I've seen the photos of them on old cubes."
"How come the Denebrians never told Alpha that they're BEMs?" Chancey asked.
"The Denebrians were never in contact with them," Joe said. "They wouldn't know a BEM from an Altairian guzzler. They're a clannish race. They weren't interested in history beyond their own planet and the BEMs didn't attack Denebria in the Twelve-Year-War.
"I'll bet Denebria was on their short list," I said, "before the BEMs' defeat."
Huff drew back his lips and shook his head, a sign of fear among Vegans. "Is my homeworld Kresthaven also on their list of shorts? We are also clannish about our clans."
"I hope not, Huff," I said.
Chancey sat and stared out a viewport. "I thought they got kicked down the technological ladder after their defeat, Joe."
"They climbed back up," I said. "Great Mind! I might have led them to us. Let's get the hell out of here!"
Chancey swiveled his chair to face the instrument panel. "That's why they didn't destroy Sojourner." He started the engines. "They know we're from Alpha." He glanced at Joe. "They'd like to know why an Alpha military scout ship was heading for Denebria."
The clunk of metal clamping to the hull vibrated throughout the boat.
"That's a tow line." Joe stood up and stared at a monitor. "They've got us."
"Damn," I said softly.
"Listen to me," Joe said. "All of you. Remember your cover. We came as consultants at the request of the Denebrians. We're not taking sides in this conflict. We're the avant garde of a peacekeeping force. You got that, Huff?"
Huff nodded. "I am here to keep peace from becoming war."
"Joe," I said, "there's just one problem with that."
"And that would be?" he asked grimly.
"The BEMs possess a communal mind, and it's telepathic."
He sat down hard beside Chancey. "Then we'd damn well better all believe the same lie."