George L. Duncan
"Do you always carry your laser rifle with you, commander?" Gamiel, the Trokan representative, asked. He stretched his hands toward the desolate landscape. "As you can see, this is a peaceful world. There is no violence here."
"It's something of a security blanket," Commander Sebastian McCloud said, as he eased the rifle down on his shoulder. He wore a sardonic smile like a medal on his chest. "I've gotten used to it."
Gamiel, like all Trokans, had thin folds of skin instead of lips. He showed only a limited number of smiles or frowns. Still, the folds twisted into a puzzled, if not condescending, expression. "But shouldn't a race such as yours, one that has begun to travel the galaxy, be less insecure and more..." he used a Trokan word McCloud didn't know. The commander turned to Lt. Tequesta Lynquest, who was a skilled linguist.
"Roughly translated, the word means psychologically whole, mature, emotionally sound," she said.
"So he just called me emotionally immature?"
"The ambassador has a point, commander," said chief diplomat Andric Fellows. Fellows had the advantageous trait of looking like a diplomat. Tall, with small spots of gray streaking his dark hair, he had an aquiline nose and chin chiseled into his features. "There's no danger here. The Trokans are unarmed and pacific. Yet you and your squad are tramping around with weapons. Your actions appear hostile and provocative."
"We've found that everything is not always as it appears."
"I've also noticed, Lieutenant," Gamiel said, "that although you carry your rifle in your right hand, your holster carrying your sidearm is on your left side."
"I'm ambidextrous," Tequesta said.
"That always sounds sexy when you say it," McCloud told her.
Her furious laser stare could have melted icebergs. He quickly added, "Or not. As the case may be."
She looked around. "There's something wrong here. This is SUBB. Totally SUBB." Scowling, she walked down the path toward the small Trokan hamlet.
Fellows stared at McCloud with a puzzled frown.
"Military slang. Stands for 'screwed up beyond belief.' Tequesta is a Christian, so she is diplomatic. Other Spacehawks have a different word to begin that phrase."
Fellows looked at the near-frozen ground and the barren trees devoid of leaves. The bare limbs were offered up to the sky as if in surrender. "It's not paradise, but I don't know why she should say that."
"Tequesta has been in a sour mood ever since we hit this planet, and I don't know why. Usually, she's very vivacious. Her laugh can sweep away gloom and depression. When you hear her, you join in."
"She's not laughing now," Fellows said.
No, she wasn't.
A frigid world, Troka's climate was akin to northern Canada. The temperature was a few degrees above freezing. McCloud and Tequesta had donned winter jackets and looked out on the brittle land through blue-tinted snow glasses. While there was little animal life, two soldiers had been poisoned when they brushed against thorny bushes. Troka was not going to be a popular tourist destination.
To guard against the weather, Gamiel and other Trokans dressed in clothing similar to a monk's habit. Only their gnarled hands and the stoic faces could be seen inside the brown cloth. The thick material provided protection from the cold and from the high, swirling winds that often howled over the landscape.
"It is a harsh planet," Gamiel said. "I'm sure most other races would not like it. Perhaps that explains your lieutenant's displeasure."
"I must say, as a human, I am very impressed with your race, sir. In a very hostile environment, you have created a civilization and, from what I understand, achieved it with an absolute minimum of violence," Fellows said.
McCloud's boots crunched spots of ice and snow on the road. Gamiel nodded, as if pleased with the comments.
"Our race is based on science and rationality. It had to be to survive in this climate. Violence is counterproductive."
"Yes, it is," Fellows said, directing a sideways glance at McCloud and his laser rifle.
"Depends how it's used. Sometimes it's very productive. Go ask the Chinors."
Fellows explained to Gamiel the nasty traits of the Chinorsnow back in their own solar systemas the group entered the town. Tequesta waited at the entrance to the combination town hall/library/museum. Few minerals enriched the Trokan soil, but they did have a primitive electric substation. The lights dimmed and flared but didn't flame out. McCloud waved to John and Heather Rivenback, a Spacehawk married couple who was guiding/guarding one of Fellows's diplomatic comrades. Until McCloud ruled the planet was safe, no one went out alone.
The silence was as bitter as the winds. The ugliness of the Trokan landscape was matched by a deadness in the air. In the museum, though, the loving banter of John and Heather warmed the room. Occasionally, one would reach over and affectionately touch the other.
An oak-like wood formed the central information desk. A Trokan in his monk's covering sat behind it. Three corridors converged at the desk. One led to a meeting hall, the other to a museum, and the last to a large Trokan library.
The two caretakers came from the library corridor. They were married but it was difficult to tell male from female on Troka. Fellows greeted them. They pointed toward the library and he followed them.
"If you wish to learn about our world, Mr. Ambassador, this is the perfect place. We treasure knowledge on this planet and do our best to preserve it."
"Wonderful. Wish we could say that about all the races we have encountered."
"Is that true, commander?" Gamiel said, "There are races that don't value learning and education? How have they survived?"
"Some haven't," Tequesta said.
"Let's say other races haven't placed a priority on knowledge, although individual members often did," McCloud said.
"What did they emphasize?"
Tequesta shook her head, tossing back the jacket hood. "In the case of our commander, jokes. Bad jokes."
McCloud widened his sardonic smile. "That's not true. Not all of them are bad."
McCloud strolled into the museum to check out the planet's history. Some of the pictures were a tribute to evolution. There were no religions on Troka and no spirituality of any kind. Gamiel eased beside the Spacehawk commander. Tequesta came in and also browsed. She still wore her sour grin. She turned toward Gamiel.
"You don't believe in a Creator?"
He shook his head. "We have seen no evidence of a supernatural power. Evolution perfectly explains how life came to be on this planet. There is no need for anything else. We were surprised that some members of other races believe in a higher being. Such a premise is illogical."
That didn't change Tequesta's scowl, nor did it improve her mood.
"I trust, commander, that you will soon give the approval for extended visitation and trade between our planet and yours. You have such wonderful technology and we" he spread his arms outward "can use it. Your technology can make our lives much easier."
McCloud nodded, but said nothing.
"Of course, there is not much we can offer in return."
"You can offer your knowledge and your history, Gamiel. Humans can learn much from the Trokans," Fellows said, as he entered the room. "A pacific race that treasures knowledge and science is an example of civilization after we had encountered so much barbarity. You have persevered through incredible hardships, yet have not abandoned reason for violence."
Tequesta fixed her gaze on pictures that showed aquatic creatures developing legs and walking on shore. "Yeah. We can learn from that."
Fellows nodded approvingly, as if he didn't recognize the sarcasm in Tequesta's voice. "This seems more like a tribute than a mere record," he said. If he had been an art critic, he would have pinned a blue ribbon on the wall.
"It is. The journey up from the swamps for our race has been very arduous, with many trials. But we made it. It is not something we should forget. Our minds and our intelligence are our most precious possessions." He gave Tequesta a brief glance. "No one and no god helped us on our way out of the primeval ooze. We must celebrate our achievement and never forget it."
Tequesta narrowed her gaze and was about to respond when Heather's laughter bounced off the walls and broke the tension. John's joyous baritone followed.
"Let's head back to the ship, lieutenant. Mr. Ambassador," McCloud said.
"I wonder if I could stay a while. I want to talk more with Gamiel and continue my research in the Trokan library."
When McCloud hesitated, Gamiel said, "I assure you, commander, that your ambassador will be in no danger."
The two Spacehawks walked back to the ship alone. Tequesta was silent for most of the way, although the snow sounded like sticks snapping under her boots.
"So, a priest, a rabbi and a pastor walk into a bar"
Tequesta furious gaze shot blue lasers at him and choked the next syllables. McCloud coughed. "Or not. As the case may be."
"Why are you so relentlessly and" she dropped her tone "irritatingly giddy?"
"Just hoping my sunny personality would help warm this cold world."
"The Trokan was right about one thing, concerning your emotionally maturity, or lack of it."
"I'm going to ignore that last remark. Let's look on the giddy side. We're not in combat. We're not shooting anybody and no one is shooting at us. It's a peaceful planet. Not all that scenic and a bit nippy and the Trokans don't seem to have a great sense of humor, but they also have no weapons, so it's a tradeoff."
As they walked up the ramp on the Explorer ship the door dilated. "Plus," McCloud said, rapping the door as it reappeared. "We are not out in some wet, mud-drenched field. Nor are we in some hundred-and-twenty-degree desert. Nor are we heading through some alien swamp with creatures that make crocodiles seem like harmless pets. We are in an Explorer ship the size of a condo in my native Florida. All the comforts of a...if not five-star hotel, at least a moderately priced one."
She didn't look convinced, but said nothing as they filed into an elevator. It zoomed upward and opened on the residential floor. McCloud walked to her cabin door.
"Come in. I want to talk to you."
He shook his head. "No, you don't. Not in this mood."
After he walked in, she sat her laser rifle in wall slot, clicking it into the holder. "There is something odd here, Seb. You should not give approval for additional contact."
"You're just in a bad mood. Take a holographic vacation. Try some non-alcoholic brandy. Maybe a long, hot bath."
She crossed her arms and stared at him. "Don't patronize me."
"And don't pull rank on me. Spacehawks don't do that. Not in private."
"Let's don't look for trouble. This planet is cold, dark and damp, but that's not the fault of the Trokans. Within a very short time we have dealt with both Skellians and Chinors. One major war in a lifetime is enough, and we've had two in an almost equal number of years. I don't want anything to be wrong with this planet. I want a season of peace. A long, long season of peace."
"Just wishing for peace doesn't make it so."
McCloud walked over and unhooked her holster before she realized what was happening. As it dropped to floor, he eased one hand around her waist, and grabbed her right hand with his left. As he twirled her around, in a deep, rhythmic voice he sang, "Beautiful dreamer, waken to me..."
She opened her mouth but no words came.
"Starlights and dew drops are waiting for..."
Her lips formed inaudible syllables but she joined the dance, hesitantly at first, then with greater enthusiasm. McCloud's lips moved closer to her ear.
"Beautiful dreamer. Queen of my song..."
He finished an extra chorus when Tequesta broke into a huge smile. She tapped his lips with her finger. "That is so sweet. I love to dance. Your singing voice is a bit lower than your natural voice. Very melodic." She dropped her tone as her finger gave his lips a final tap. "Now, sit down!"
McCloud groaned but walked to a chair and slumped in it. Tequesta sat on the edge of her bunk. "Seb, this planet is dangerous."
"Honey, it is not. They have no weapons, no space travel, no"
"Dangerous in a spiritual sense. I don't believe for one second that they crawled out of the slime of their planet to walk upright. It's a lie. Everything about this planet is a lie and a deception. Look at what the Trokans offer us. First, proof that there is no God, that life is a cosmic accident. Two, that reason alone can guide behavior. Three, there are no absolutes. No good and evil. Four, that evolution and atheism are ways to peace."
He shrugged. "So people won't come here to go to church."
"They will flock here, though. Many will. This planet is a danger to our souls."
"We'll not here to protect souls. We cannot disqualify them from contact due to theological disagreements."
She walked over to a cabinet and grabbed a huge, green towel. "Since I am less giddy than you are, I am going to take a hot bath and soak." She tossed the towel around her neck; her hands grasped both ends of it. "Seb, these creatures are the physical embodiment of the things we faced on Kali. We should not open Earth to them."
MacCloud's posture shifted subtly. She didn't see him jerk or flinch. Yet the tiny lines near his mouth and eyes seemed to straighten. Slowly, his eyes burned to a deeper gray. Tequesta realized a man could come to attention while sitting down. McCloud straightened in the chair, then crossed his legs.
"Interesting, if true. Horrific, if true."
"But there's no way of proving that. I can't make a decision on wild speculation."
She frowned and walked toward the back room. "We're not through with this conversation."
"To show there're no hard feelings, I'll soap your back."
She peered at him over her shoulder as she walked. "In your dreams, pal."
"In my dreams I do the..."
McCloud slammed his fist in his mouth and gnawed on a knuckle. Tequesta would have probably said the witty, if a tad suggestive, reply was a sign of immaturity. Funny, but immature.
Back in his office, the Spacehawk commander asked Cassandra, his all-purpose utility computer, to fix a cup of tea.
"Cinnamon apple, two scoops of sugar, milk, very warm."
"I see you still take tea with your sugar."
"Thank you. And since when have you been dispensing nutritional advice?"
"I always have. You just never listen."
There was a small sign in the office, and in the office of many Spacehawk commanders. The different signs had different lettering in different sizes, but they stated the same line: Why don't the Spacehawks have a football team like the Army, Navy or Air Force? Because we protect planets, not quarterbacks.
Per his request, John and Heather Rivenbark walked in when he was halfway through the tea. Before they saluted he gestured to the two chairs in front of his desk. They sat down.
"I wanted to ask your opinion of this place. Of both the planet and the Trokans. This is not official. They will be no reports. Just your generic, off-the-cuff view."
They looked at each other.
"You go first," John said.
Heather leaned back and crossed her legs. "Commander"
"It's not official."
She flashed a bright smile. "Sebastian, my friend, our first concern is security. Does this planet or its inhabitants pose a military threat to Earth or to humanity?"
"The answer to that is clearly no. The Trokans, even if they were hostile, are no military threat to us whatsoever."
"And your opinion of the Trokans and their planet?"
"That's a little more dicey."
"You don't like them?"
"If their story is true, they have overcome an incredibly hostile environment and have not been reduced to savagery the way other races might. The only thing that could be classified as a weapon on this planet is a tree branch used as a club. Even their pre-history indicates very little violence between early clans or groups. For most of their history, it would seem they have been in unity and peace."
"Yes. I'm impressed. But I sense hesitation in your voice."
McCloud drained the rest of his tea before she answered. "Yes, but I don't know why. Trokans have lived on a cold, barren planet, so naturally we can't expect much in social skills." She shook her head. "But I just got the oddest feeling when talking with them. It's like talking to an empty suit, or an empty monk's robe." She shrugged. "But how would humans have acted in, say, the sixteenth-century if aliens suddenly dropped in on us?"
"Their technology may be sixteenth-century but they have a twenty-second-century understanding of space," McCloud said.
"Yes, they don't seem overwhelmed, or even surprised at our presence," John said. "And they don't seem startled by our technology. I asked one that and he said they always believed there were other races, so they were not surprised, but pleased, when one dropped by. He said it so nonchalantly, it almost seemed that they were expecting us."
McCloud waited a moment before answering. "Yes, that was my impression too."
The next day Fellows was the first person to walk in the commander's office. McCloud didn't think the diplomat would brighten his morning, but allowed him entry. He walked in stiffly, sat down and got right to the point.
"Commander, when will you make the decision about approving further contact with the Trokans?"
"When I'm ready."
"When might that be?"
"I don't know. I'm still considering a number of things."
"I think the facts are clear. The Trokans are a peaceful race who have remained intrepid even when faced with huge environmental obstacles. On humanitarian grounds alone we should continue contact. Our technology can vastly improve their life. Commander, we have found a race that is non-violent. Do you realize murder is virtually unknown on this planet? The harshness of their world has produced a purity in them."
"What possible objections would you have to additional contact?"
"Because I'm still not certain it's the best course of action."
Fellows settled back in his chair and frowned. "May I remind you, commander, that you are not supposed to make decisions based on religion?"
McCloud frowned when Fellows launched into a pedantic tone. There had always been tension between the diplomatic corp and the Spacehawks and, listening to Fellows, McCloud understood why.
"Your specific squadron consists of two members, Lt. Tequesta Lynquest and Capt. Lupe Martinez, who are Christians and, of course, members of all squadrons carry very close emotional bonds. It's also well known that the Christians on this mission are bothered by the godlessness of the Trokans. It would be understandable if you were influenced by your two friends, but I want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Fellows continued as if he hadn't heard the commander's reply.
"This is not to say that Lt. Lynquest and Capt. Martinez are not outstanding officers"
"Glad you didn't say that."
"But there is no reason to prevent full diplomatic recognition to this planet."
McCloud eased his chair back from the desk but remained silent.
"I can, of course, go over your head and request your superiors to make the decision."
"You can. Won't work. But you can try."
"What makes you think it won't work?"
The commander asked Cassandra to fix another cup of tea. He let Fellows wait while he walked over and took it from the dispenser. When he eased back down in his chair, McCloud gave Fellows an I-think-you're-an-idiot smile.
"I will remind you, Mr. Ambassador, of why the Spacehawks make this call. The Skellians sent two of your colleagues back in pieces. A bit odd because the Skellians, although aggressive, do have a sense of honor. Dueling is a part of their culture. One on one, face to face. But murder is considered cowardly and shameful. But something went wrong and we were left with two dead diplomats. Then after the dangers on Kali our superiors, both civilian and military, decided the Spacehawks would explore any new planets first. If they determined the planets were safe, a green light is given.
"It's a nice little system and doesn't get any more diplomats killed, and also gives both civilian and military personnel someone to blame in case a wrong decision is made." McCloud leaned across the table. "You certainly know how bureaucracy works. This system allows your superiors and mine to cover their rear ends."
McCloud sat his cup down. "Now pay attention. If the head of your agency prevails in a bureaucratic fight and gets me overruled, he is putting his head and other organs for that matteron the chopping block. If something then goes wrong, his career goes down the drain. He will be before a congressional committee with elected officials breathing fire and brimstone at him, asking him why he overruled a Spacehawk commander. I don't think anyone above you wants to take that risk."
Fellows stiffened. The corners of his mouth crinkled up, as if he had bitten into something distasteful. He lowered his voice, and no longer had the pedantic tone.
"I underestimated you, commander. I assumed your insouciant manner was indicative of your nature, but it's merely an affectation."
McCloud rubbed his temples. "You gotta love diplomats. Rarely do you hear the words 'insouciant' and 'affectation' in everyday conversations, but you use them both in the same sentence. I bet you're good in your job."
McCloud's tone bristled the hair on Fellows' neck. "So am I. And nothing moves on this planet until I say so, and I'm not saying so. Not yet."
"May I ask why?"
"I'm still...puzzled about aspects of this planet, aspects thatto the best of my knowledgehave nothing to do with the Trokans' theology, or lack of it. I'm not sure how to form the questions I have about this civilization, but until I have answers..."
Rear Admiral Buster Yancey, on the mother ship, answered immediately when McCloud buzzed him. The Spacehawk commander reported regularly. This time he explained the additional developments and noted the admiral could overrule him. Yancey shook his head.
"If you're uncomfortable, Seb, then you shouldn't make a ruling yet but, at the same time, we can't postpone a decision forever."
"I know. Besides the obvious environmental conditions, there is something odd about this planet. I just can't put my finger on it. I need a little more time."
During the next couple of days, patrols continue to explore Troka. Gamiel often inquired when the decision would be made. McCloud was noncommittal. He watched the husband and wife caretakers in the Trokan museum again. There was something about the pair that nagged at him, but he couldn't nail it down. No revelation came, just a mental thorn, pricking him with the suggestion that all was not right. He walked back out onto the cold, partially frozen ground shaking his head.
For three days he walked the corridors of the Explorer ship, but was no closer to a decision. Fellows continued making his case each morning in the commander's office.
When McCloud heard the music and singing, he smiled. He drifted by one of the ship's small auditoriums. Perhaps fifty people were participating in a worship service. Some average voices and few incredible ones melded into song.
"There is wine overflowing.
"There is joy, there is peace."
He missed the next line but heard, "And we shall dance forever," in perfect harmony.
He paused at a spaceport window and looked out onto the frosted, desolate landscape. Tequesta was right about one thing, he thought. Many groups from Earth would rush to this planet. They would welcome the Trokans. The Trokans' secular nature would be a plus to many people on Earth. There was a great deal to admire in the race. They had hammered out a civilization under the most extreme conditions. Emotions were limited, but they did have a pacific nature. Stoic. Ethical. Persevering.
The song lyric floated in his brain again. He turned toward the worship room, then looked back out at Troka. He frowned, and the gray-eye stare hardened.
"Or not. As the case may be," McCloud said.
He wore his holster and sidearm but didn't bother returning to his cabin to pick up his laser rifle. On the ground deck, two Spacehawks were monitoring traffic. They told McCloud everyone was in for the evening.
"I need to check something. Monitor me," he told them.
The monitors were surgically implanted, so the command site never lost contact with individual Spacehawks.
"May I remind you, sir, that everyone is supposed to go out in pairs," the young, earnest brunette said.
"What's the use of being commander if you can't break the rules once in a while?"
She didn't smile. Her fellow rookie Spacehawk coughed with embarrassment.
"You're right, ma'am, but we are going to bend the rules briefly," McCloud said.
"Should we have troops standing by, sir?"
"I don't think that's necessary. I want one last look, to confirm a suspicion. It shouldn't take long, but don't dose off."
"No, sir. We won't, sir."
The trek to the museum wasn't far. When McCloud opened the door the lights dimmed. The desk Trokan was absent but the two caretakers greeted him.
"Is there something we can do for you, commander?"
"No, I just wanted to look around, and listen."
"Listen? To what?"
"Oh, to you two. You always learn new things when talking to a new race. By the way, how long have you been married?"
The question appeared to stun them. They stammered. Finally one replied, "Probably about twenty of your Earth years."
McCloud smiled. "Ain't love grand?"
He waved them goodbye. As McCloud walked back to ship, Gamiel eased beside him and matched his stride.
"I hoped my associates helped you," the Trokan said.
"They did. They were remarkably helpful. Not in the way they intended perhaps. Just looking at them confirmed what I thought."
"What do you mean, commander?"
They didn't stop while talking. A stiff wind whipped through the dead trees and blew snow into the air. The howl of the wind seemed like the planet itself was moaning. "Nice place you have here. Designed and created to impress humans."
Gamiel shook his head. "You're mistaken, commander. Our village is what it is. It has always been like this."
"No. It's fake. Artificial. Unreal. Oh, the buildings are real." He turned to look at Gamiel. "But you're fake. So is this civilization."
"Why would you say such a thing?" Gamiel lowered his voice. McCloud heard the first real emotion from a Trokan since humans had arrived on the planet. Gamiel's voice changed into a sinister, menacing tone. "Have you been listening to your little blonde friend?"
"When my little blonde friend isn't telling me I'm emotionally immature, she often quotes scripture to me. One line goes, for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored in him. But what if there's nothing good in the heart? Then you can't bring it out. That's what was absent on your world. It came to me back on the ship. No love, laughter, or joy. I guess there's not much of that on your side of the line," McCloud said. "You don't dance, Gamiel."
"We're a different race, commander. You cannot possibly compare"
"You go from one extreme to the other." McCloud glanced sideways at the Trokan walking beside him. "Did Kali get too hot for you?"
The steely eyes of the Trokan grew colder. His gaze became as frigid as the air.
"You had to wait for the right planet. You needed a desolate place, so we would focus on the terrible conditions. On such a planet, it would seem natural that the inhabitants are stoic and laconic. You hoped we wouldn't notice your emotional depravity. Then your acting might carry the day. Wonderful theatre, but I'm bringing the curtain down."
Suddenly McCloud noticed he was alone. He stopped and looked back. Gamiel stood about eight feet behind, directing a yellow glare at him. His robe partially obscured his right hand. A low growl formed his words.
"Commander, have you been told that you are infinitely annoying, even when you're not telling your idiotic little jokes?"
"It's been mentioned a time or two."
"But you are not quite as stupid as you sometimes pretend to be."
"Not quite. I have my moments." McCloud returned the Trokan's hard stare. "Now, why don't you bring your hand out? Slowly and empty. Or die."
Gamiel's hand didn't move. McCloud shifted his stance to face the Trokan.
"I see your hand is close to your sidearm, commander. Are you fast?"
"There's no one faster." It was the standard Spacehawk reply. "Actually, that's not true. The last time I was back on Earth, I met a rookie Spacehawk. A twenty-one-year-old, curly black-haired kid from Yazoo City, Mississippi. His reflexes were phenomenal. He's"
Cold dense air will slow bullet speed. But it was Gamiel who looked like he was in slow motion as he jerked when the first bullet hit him. He yelled in agony when the second splattered his chest. His gun flew from his hand. He dropped to the cold ground and didn't move. McCloud walked over to him. "As I was saying, the Yazoo City rookie is faster than I am." His baritone voice dropped into a bass. "But you ain't him."
McCloud looked around. He wasn't sure about being emotionally immature, but he had been stupid. He was caught outside the ship without a backup and without a laser rifle. Then he heard his colleagues back at the command center. "The cavalry are on the way, commander."
"Glad you two didn't dose off."
A yellow flare from a rifle zinged over his head. He zigzagged toward the forest. Two Trokans came in view after running over the top of a small hill. Both had weapons. They had clear shots, and McCloud's sidearm wouldn't reach them. He had to hurry, and it was going to be close. Another yellow blast filled the air with splinters as he ran past a solitary tree. The trunk broke and crashed to the ground. McCloud still had twenty yards to the edge of the forest. Both Trokans took aim.
A harsh rush of air hit one and he exploded in bright orange flame. Sparks flew into the air and bounced on the ground, then flowed down the dark hill. The other Trokan was cut in two by a second fiery blast.
McCloud glanced toward where the shots originated and saw Tequesta running toward him. A dozen Trokans scrambled toward them from the distance. When Tequesta reached the forest, she slid off the extra laser rifle and tossed it to McCloud.
"Nice to see you. I always love a woman who's well-armed," he said.
They aimed and fired. Bright flares of light ignited several Trokans. Others turned back.
"This is why you're not in the diplomatic core, Seb. You tend to irritate people, and they want to shoot you."
"As long as I have friends who will shoot back."
Within two minutes, a squad of Spacehawks and regular soldiers arrived. They escorted McCloud and Tequesta back to the Explorer ship. A few minutes later, it roared toward space.
McCloud and Tequesta stared through a space window at Troka as their mother ship sped away from the planet.
"If we ever go back, I don't think we'll find any Trokans," Tequesta said. "Not after we exposed their deception. They will go back to...wherever they came from."
"Perhaps that's the last we'll see of them," McCloud said.
A harsh chuckle came from Tequesta. McCloud looked at her.
"I say something funny?"
He looked out the window. "Care to enlighten me?"
"Sadly, that's not the last we'll see of them. Not yet. With evil it's never adios, only do svidaniya."
McCloud thought for a moment. "My Russian is non-existent. Can you translate?"
She stared at the rapidly receding orb.
"Until we meet again," she said.
Copyright 2008, George L. Duncan
After 30 years in journalism, George L. Duncan is an editorial writer with the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va. His novel, A Cold and Distant Memory was published in 2004. A second novel A Wine Red Silence, a greatly expanded version of the short story in The Sword Review, has been published by Capstone Fiction.
Cover: "The Appeal"
A memory is a haunting refrain that time cannot erase.
Copyright 2008, Marge Simon
Marge Ballif Simon freelances as a writer-poet-illustrator for genre and mainstream publications such as Strange Horizons, Flashquake, Story House, Vestal Review, Flash Me Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine, Dreams & Nightmares, The Fortean Bureau, Flesh & Blood, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, and the anthologies, High Fantastic and Nebula Anthology 32. She edits a column for the HWA Newsletter, "Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side." She is the editor of Star*Line, Digest of the SF Poetry Association.
For more information visit < www.mindflights.com >. The above items appear as part of Volume 1, 2008, Issue 6.
MindFlights is a publication of Double-Edged Publishing, Inc., a nonprofit corporation designated as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Double-Edged Publishing believes the written word is a powerful tool, capable of shaping ideas and changing lives.
Mail checks to:
Online donations can be made and more information can be found via the MindFlights or the Double-Edged Publishing websites: