Spears of the Sun
“The Great Time has come!” General Ki Rowdinth, tyrannical leader of the Vermakt race of planet Fartherland, imposing in his black and silver uniform, pounded the podium with a fist. The rapt crowd of Vermakt followers waited, breathless in the chilly night, for his next word. “The Vermakt people have awakened!” His strident voice resonated across the town square. Wild-eyed Vermakt crowds surged forward to get closer to their beloved leader. The Elite Guards held them firmly back from the podium.
“The shame and degradation of the Vermakt race is at an end!” Rowdinth screamed. His gray, bristled snout twitched. Drool slipped past his lips as he waved a clawed fist in the air, as though vanquishing an invisible foe. “Never again will aliens, and especially the Terran vermin, strip our homeworld of its gold and give us nothing in return.” His voice shook with the pain of his plundered nation. He clasped his claws and lifted them in front of his tapered face as though in prayer. His round ears burned red with passion. “Providence has given me this burden to raise our people to their rightful place as the rulers of all the known worlds.”
He staggered back, as though defeated by his anguish. Six of his Elite Guards, seated behind him, jumped up and gathered around their sagging leader to steady and comfort him. Rowdinth’s shoulders slumped, his head hung low, as though too distressed to go on.
The people shouted his name and words of encouragement. Finally, they chanted. “Rowdinth. Rowdinth. Father Ki Rowdinth!”
With pain and defiance playing in his stance, he returned to the podium and lifted a stiff arm in a salute to the crowd. “I am the clenched fist of the Vermakt race of Fartherland,” he screamed, and the crowd roared its response. “Earth’s rat-eaters will feel the weight of my fist on their heads when you march forward to your righteous place as the leaders of all the known worlds!” He gripped the podium as though to steady himself. “If I fall in the coming war, my soldiers, you must struggle on to victory without me. March shoulder to shoulder, and the Terrans and all the other subspecies will cower before the great, indomitable Vermakt army!” His voice rose to a strident pitch. “They will bow to the Vermakt’s divine destiny, or see their Earth destroyed by Providence in the form of a dark-energy weapon.”
A color guard marched through a path in the crowd to blaring music, bearing a giant silver and black flag with Fartherland’s star system emblazoned on it, and a great bronze bust of Rowdinth carried on many shoulders.
The general turned sharply and sat down between his Guards. “That should prepare one more village for war,” he said stonily. “Did our double agents from W-CIA find the Terran telepath?”
“They did, sire,” the captain of the Guard said. “He’s on planet Halcyon.”
“It’s a large planet!” Rowdinth stated. "Does anyone know where on planet Halcyon?"
“Yes, my general,” the Captain said. “They have located him not far from the town of Laurel, living on a ranch with a Terran woman named Willa Carson.”
A Guard untied his golden scarf and dabbed General Rowdinth’s dripping brow.
Rowdinth sat back and wiped his sweaty snout. “Then bring him to me.
Blackroot. I knew it for a predatory ground forest of planet Halcyon that was hungry for animal tissue and not above a meal of Homo sapiens.
I’m an astrobiologist, and Halcyon is a feast of alien species. The planet’s evolution is directed by Spirit, as he likes to be referred to in our telepathic conversations.
Speaking of being called, he’d called me to Halcyon a year ago, along with Lisa, my young telepathic daughter, to rid his planet of a Terran ravager, the Dream Czar of Halcyon. I’d obliged, under duress, but that’s another story.
Lisa was safely back on Earth with her mom, my former wife, Althea. I missed my little girl, the way she’d throw her arms around my neck, clutching some leaves, and shout “Daddy! Daddy, look what I found.” And shove the poisonous leaves in my face.
I chuckled, remembering, and squatted to poke a shiny anchored branch at the edge of the tangled forest of blackroot with the rod end of my stingler. The root twitched. Animal or plant? I was anxious to study it. If it were plant, then the soil might be nitrogen or phosphorous deficient and the species might supplement its diet with animal tissue. I’d need a specimen to learn more.
Galahad, Willa Carson’s rangy chestnut stallion, pawed the ground and stared at me from where I’d tied his reins to a silver-trunked Yami tree, the native Kubraens name for it. Silver is common on Halcyon, where Spirit, that enigmatic silver being, infuses emerging life forms with his own DNA. The planet ran with profuse silver streams and rivers that were his gift of blood.
“I know, Galahad,” I said soothingly. “This root scares me too. We’ll leave soon, OK, buddy?” Why do we talk to animals as though they’ll answer? I could’ve driven or flown my hovair to this root forest, but it was a warm early spring day. A breeze had caressed my face and lifted the aroma of new growth to my nostrils as I rode. The sky was an opaque window to those mysterious realms of space, with clouds that sailed the blue expanse high above flat plains.
Halcyon’s variety of small birdlike species chirped angrily from tree nests as I stood up, reminding them again that a damn human was too close to their hatchlings. Yet the blackroot, which sprouted sudden flowers and snapped shut on insects attracted to the sweet aroma, never climbed trees for a juicy meal of young flightless birds.
I took a specimen bag from my backpack and turned the ring on my stingler from stun setting to hot beam, where the weapon could burn through metal. It was time to look more deeply into the “workings” of this opportunistic ground hunter. I shuddered at the memory of a woman who had tried to get off-planet against the czar’s wishes. His guards had shot her as she ran to a launching pad, and thrown her body into a patch of blackroot. The sight of an alien root system sucking the juices from a human being, shrinking her skin down to bones, then crunching bones, as though she were decaying before my eyes, still haunted me.
I swept a hot beam across a narrow tendril of root. The sliced tip spasmed and curled. Roots around it stirred. They reared, snapping their holds to the ground. I’d seen this happen before, but this time pink stubs sprang loose from the dirt like centipede legs, with clods of moist earth still clinging as the roots wriggled free and moved toward me.
Uh oh, I thought as I backed away. An odor of rotten pickles assaulted my nose.
“Jesus and Vishnu!” I nudged the loose tip into my specimen bag, stuffed the bag into my shirt pocket under my jacket, then scooped up my backpack and ran toward Galahad. His eyes were wild as he watched the blackroot follow me. He threw himself backward, reared and snapped a rein.
“Galahad, wait!” I shouted as the other rein slid loose from around the trunk. He leaped forward and galloped toward the distant ranch.
“You motherless -- “I glanced back. The roots were sniffing me out. Behind the avant garde, more roots snapped free of their holds, reared and advanced, until a surreal army of tree roots marched toward me.
I ran to the tree. Birds sprang off their nests and swirled around me like autumn leaves. Some pecked at my shirt and hair, but that was nothing compared to what awaited me if I stayed on the ground. I climbed, scraping my hands on bark, my boots sliding against the trunk. I refused to look down at the cluster of blackroots surrounding the tree, but I heard them drool sap, or something, as they prepared for dinner.
My hand shook on the stingler. I made sure it was still set for hot. If they tried to climb my tree, I would turn this forest of predatory roots into a fireplace.
Instead they climbed each other’s backs as more gathered around the trunk. Round lamprey mouths yawned open from beneath their shiny barks as they lifted. Black roots snaked forward and chewed the tree trunk like crunchy cereal.
Animal, some part of my mind decided. Then maybe they possessed consciousness. Then maybe I could influence them with a mindlink. I closed my eyes and imaged a coil in my head. I willed it to intensify. Faster than my heartbeat. I pictured the coil heating up. Spinning. A force grew within me. In my mind, the roots munched my leg, then went belly up and convulsed. Poison! I threw the image at the closest ones.
No response. Dammit! Except for a headache.
The tree creaked. I couldn’t burn the little bastards with my weapon. They were too close now. It would set the tree on fire.
I wrapped my arms and legs around the trunk in a death grip. But if I wanted to survive, I knew I’d have to let go, burn a path through the roots and make a run for it.
Just do it, Jules! I told my survival instincts, which were hell bent on clinging to something solid. The roots rustled and scraped their chitinous hides against each other as they jostled around the tree for the main course.
Spirit! I sent telepathically. I need your help, old friend.
As usual, he was out to lunch.
Where the hell are you? I’m trapped in a tree by a bunch of your creations! I need help!
I am here.
Then make them go away! Hurry up, I added as the tree swayed.
Why did you wound them?
It was just a small piece for the sake of science. Can we discuss this later? I don’t think I can run through this forest. It’s too dense.
Neither do I. Will you Terrans never learn not to destroy? I directed their evolution. I am not their master.
Are you just going to let me be eaten alive for a small piece of root? You owe me!
I have sent help. This time. With your next destructive act, you are on your own.
He broke the mindlink.
I heard the drone of a hovair as the tree leaned toward the ground. I climbed higher, though my weight helped to bring it down.
A sickening lurch. Branches cracked beneath me. The tree crashed down.
Climb! Climb. I scrambled up the thickest remaining branch as a blackroot reared and struck at my boot. I kicked it in its ring of pointed teeth and it withdrew.
The hovair banked and hovered above me while I lashed out at another root, a big one, but missed.
A rope ladder rolled down from the aircraft’s open door.
“Willa, you’re beautiful,” I whispered and made a grab for the ladder. It was still too high. The hovair lowered and held steady as a rock, there in the sky. Not an easy trick. Where’d she learn that? I’d ask her later. I holstered my stingler and grabbed the lowest rung.
I swung above the blackroot and clung precariously to the ladder as it swayed in the wind. The craft banked and flew east, toward the Sangre Mountains and Willa’s ranch beyond. Wind assailed my thin jacket. Beneath me the roots undulated like a demon sea where waves rose to show white teeth.
I climbed, finally lifted myself through the hovair’s open door and rolled onto the deck, breathing hard, but thankful for the feel of solid metal beneath me. “Willa, you’re beautiful!” I gasped. “Have I told you that I love you?”
“Not lately,” a gruff, male voice responded. Joe Hatch, my former father-in-law and former captain with the United Counter-Terrorist Force of W-CIA, a branch of Interstel, turned in the pilot’s seat. “You want to tell me now?”
“Dad?” That’s what I called him before I spent five years on Syl’ Terria while married to his daughter Althea, who remained on Earth bringing up Lisa. “Mister Hatch?” That’s what I call him now. “What’re you doing here? I mean on Halcyon?”
“Saving your reckless ass, in case you haven’t noticed.” He scratched the bristly stubs of his short-cropped, white beard. “You suppose I deserve a ‘Thank you’?” His tone was low, as controlled as ever.
We were past the blackroot forest. Below us, Galahad trotted through the Yami Creek Pass and toward Willa’s ranch beyond.
I took the specimen bag from my shirt, then dropped it. The root tip had grown pink stubs that reached through the bag and were clacking tiny claws in a search for something to grasp. A few more minutes tucked inside my shirt and I think it would have been my chest.
“What is that little monstrosity?” Joe asked.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. I’m afraid the forest is growing east, toward Willa’s ranch.”
“So torch them. They’re wood, aren’t they?”
“Spirit would not appreciate their demise. What are you doing on Halcyon?” I had a feeling I knew the answer, but I didn’t really want to hear it. I tried a light mind probe to get at the truth.
Joe Hatch was not a telepath, but he peered at me. I guess his training and his experiences with tel races had made him sensitive to mind probes.
I withdrew the link and lowered my gaze.
“Looking for you,” he said. “W-CIA wants you as part of a mission to save your home planet and mine, Earth.”