Chapter 12 - Recon
The last couple of days had been both disturbing and exhilarating for Chellsee Brookkss. She’d been indoctrinated since birth by the educational systems of Chrysalis to believe the Chrysallaman race was intellectually, physically and technologically dominant in the galaxy over all lower species. Those bedrock principles of Chrysallaman racial and cultural identity had proven to be so wrong and so exaggerated that she felt mentally and emotionally adrift.
Less than a week ago, she would’ve considered Humans as nothing more important than a food source. Now she wasn’t sure they didn’t consider her a tasty morsel just waiting to be served as their dinner. Chellsee needed something or someone to be an anchor her mind could hold onto while it sorted and analyzed her new reality. The sombrero-wearing Chrysallaman with intelligent, haunting, deep-black eyes was her choice to fill that role.
Whatsit was unlike any Chrysallaman male she’d ever encountered. There was no doubt he was a Chrysallaman, but the clothes he wore and the way he talked and acted were so un-Chrysallaman that she found herself emotionally off-balance whenever she was with him. He was kind and solicitous. Whenever she felt frightened or lonely, he comforted her. She relished the way his vibrant telepathic voice soothed her. Struggling to understand her thoughts and feelings about him, she had to admit she enjoyed his company, looked forward to seeing him and missed him when he was gone.
Knowing the importance of acclimating Chellsee to her new home, Whatsit insisted she have as much contact as possible with Humans. Her most memorable encounter had been with a big red-haired man named McPherson. Chellsee smiled as she recalled the first time she met the Scotsman. Whatsit had taken her to a large room he called the cafeteria where he said she should try a delicious meal he called taco salad.
The Human base had installed telepathic tokens everywhere so finding her way around was as easy as navigating the passageways of a mother ship. A marvelous aroma of cooking foods reached her when they were still over 100 feet from the double entry doors to the cafeteria.
The room was long and wide. The walls were painted in cheerful colors that flowed together to create intricate murals. Stainless steel tables with long benches on each side were scattered around; most of them filled with Humans and Chrysallamans talking to each other and eating from metal trays filled with a variety of interesting meats and vegetables. The far end of the room was walled with plate glass and brightly lit. A long stainless steel shelf at waist level ran across the glass-walled end of the room. Several Humans wearing white uniforms and oddly shaped white hats with big floppy tops stood behind the glass walls filling the trays of hungry base workers with whatever food and drink they wanted as they moved down the line.
At first Chellsee was frightened by the number of Humans in the cafeteria, but when many of them waved and called out to Whatsit as they entered, she began to relax. She allowed Whatsit to hold her hand and lead her toward the end of the glass-walled enclosure where the smell of cooked food was strongest. The largest Human Chellsee had ever seen was standing at the end of the line waiting his turn. He was six inches taller than Whatsit, and his hair was flame-red while his skin was very light as if he’d never been exposed to the sun. The big man hadn’t seen them walk up behind him, and Chellsee was shocked when Whatsit punched the Human’s shoulder.
Turning around, a slight frown was replaced by a wide, toothy grin under a bushy red mustache.
“Whatsit! You devil!”
After exchanging a few pleasantries, McPherson asked, “And just who is the comely lass standing beside you?”
“Captain Jerome McPherson, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Chellsee Brookkss. She arrived from Chrysalis aboard the Destinnee.”
“Chellsee, this Scottish rogue is Captain Jerome McPherson.”
Chellsee stared wide-eyed as McPherson said, “Chellsee Brookkss! A beautiful name for a charming lady.”
With those words, the red-haired giant swooped her into his arms, lifted her off the floor and planted a wet kiss on the tip of her nose. Grinning like a game show host, McPherson lowered her to her feet, nodded his head, thumped Whatsit on the shoulder, gave him an odd wink and turned back to moving down the food line demanding double helpings of everything he saw.
Staring open-mouthed at McPherson’s back as he made his way down the line, Chellsee rubbed her nose where McPherson’s mustache still tickled it and asked in a whisper, “Is he always like that?”
“McPherson is a constant unchanged by calm or storm,” Whatsit replied with a smile. “Irreverent, bombastic, intelligent, loyal. A good friend. He likes you.”
“Is that why he tasted me?” she asked with a bewildered look.
“No. No!” Whatsit replied with an amused look. “He kissed you. It’s a Human gesture used to express friendship, love and sometimes intimacy.”
“Intimacy!” Chellsee screamed as her eyes blazed with indignation.
“No. No!” Whatsit said. “He would never want to get intimate with you.”
“What do you mean he would never want to?” Chellsee replied. “Am I not good enough for a Human?”
Whatsit was beside himself. With no past experience dealing with a Chrysallaman female, he had no idea what he’d said to make her angry, or what he could say to calm her down. He remembered a talk he’d had with Tom Blunt several years ago. “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
At last understanding the Human adage, Whatsit said, “I’m sorry my attempts at describing Human mannerisms are so inadequate. Please forgive me, Chellsee.”
Chellsee had to admit she was enjoying Whatsit’s discomfiture. His lack of experience interacting with females was at the same time maddening and endearing. She decided he was worth keeping.
“Humph. We’ll see,” she replied before brushing past him and pushing her tray down the line.
She later had to admit the beef taco salad covered with extra raw beef and spicy sauce was delicious.
“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when we travel to Chrysalis,” Amanda declared as she drummed her fingers on the conference table.
“I agree,” Jason said. “My biggest question is what spacecraft we use for the trip?”
“Exactly what are you saying?” Yuri-Milost asked.
“What I mean is we have four alternatives as I see it.”
Lifting a finger as he ticked off each point, Jason said, “Take a mother ship with a full complement of scout saucers. Take a mother ship with only a couple of scout saucers. Take a mother ship by itself. Take just a scout saucer with no mother ship.”
Lacing his fingers, he continued, “Taking a mother ship with all five scout saucers would provide us with the greatest offensive and defensive capabilities in the event we run into trouble. Taking that many ships would also increase our flexibility in the event we encounter unknown variables such as multiple Asiddian outposts which need to be mapped and inspected.”
Doug shook his head and said, “I don’t favor sending all our working spaceships on a mission that could result in their total destruction. The whole point of going on a journey to get information is returning with the information. We’re working on our own spacecraft design, but we’re nowhere near the point we have our own equipment.”
From the agreement around the table, it was plain the notion of sending a mother ship with five scouts was rejected.
Yuri-Milost leaned into the table and said, “I will be presumptuous and say a small task force may be the best alternative we have.”
Peering around and detecting no objection, she said, “The Chrysallaman video and all accounts of the encounters between the Asiddians and the Chrysallamans indicate the weaponry of the Chriks is useless. What we need to determine is the efficacy of our protective screen and MA weaponry against the Asiddians. A scout saucer should be sufficient for those purposes.”
Doug responded, “The main purpose of this mission shouldn’t be to provoke a military encounter with the Asiddians. The principle focus should be to gather demographic information about the Asiddians, details about their military patrols in the solar system, planetary defenses and technological levels. We don’t even know what they look like. A military encounter is the last thing we need.”
Becky noticed Whatsit staring at Yuri-Milost. His arms were crossed and his posture indicated he wanted to be as far away from the Colonel as possible. There was little doubt in Becky’s mind he didn’t care for the woman with no neck. Making a mental note to ask him what reservations he had about their new staff member, she returned her attention to the discussion.
Amanda was saying, “I agree with Colonel Jenson. We don’t want to alert the Asiddians to our presence if we can avoid it. The fact the Asiddians don’t know we exist provides us with a lot of protection.”
Doug said, “I think we need to take a page from the Chrysallaman playbook and send two scout saucers on the trip. I hate to sound pessimistic, but if one of the saucers gets destroyed, the other can high-tail it and bring back Intel. Sending just one scout leaves us no margin for error.”
Sensing general agreement, Tom said, “Based on what I’ve heard and what we all know, I agree we should send two scout saucers to Chrysalis. One will act as an observer and fail-safe backup. Let’s talk about what we want to accomplish from the mission.”
Whatsit responded, “We need to find out what has happened to the Chrysallamans left on the planet after Emperor Horcunt abandoned them. It’s been a little over 30 years of real time. Are they still alive? How many are left? What is their physical and mental condition?”
Tom said, “We’ll find out what happened to your people, my friend, but our first priority will have to be the Asiddians. If we can’t overcome their weapons and soldiers, we don’t have any hope for ourselves, much less the Chrysallamans.”
Nodding, Whatsit said, “Just so you know, I volunteer for the mission, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Tom smiled and replied, “Didn’t think you would.”
Doug sat in the pilot’s couch of the scout saucer Salteer and wondered if this would be the last time he’d ever see the blue -green beauty of Earth. The viewscreen in the master control room showed the planet from an orbital distance of 10,000 miles, and the black background of space with its pinprick stars only accentuated the splendor of the planet.
“It’s no wonder the Chrysallamans coveted our World,” he mused as his eyes picked out tiny details of the topography.
It occurred to him that he no longer thought of home on the limited scale of a house in a city in a country on the planet. He realized his perspective had changed as a result of his recent experiences. The planet Earth was his home, not just some small piece of it. He was engulfed by a wave of protective emotion. His home must and would be defended at all costs.
A hand touching his shoulder broke the spell of his concentration. Startled by the unexpected interruption, Doug almost jumped out of his seat.
“You okay?” Becky asked. “You seem awful tense.”
Without conscious thought, Doug grasped her hand and squeezed it.
“I think I’m getting protective in my old age,” he smiled.
“I know what you mean. Are you getting a strong signal from the new beacon?”
“Yes.” Doug tapped a sequence of commands into the GPC, and a series of blinking circles bracketed the Earth on the view screen. As they watched, each circle blinked from the outermost edges inward to the center. The pattern repeated every few seconds.
“Dr. GooYee modified the standard Chrysallaman locator beacon on Earth with a specialized FLR transmitter. Jason is in the process of replacing all the solar system beacons installed by the Chrysallamans with the new design. When he’s done, only spacecraft with the capability of receiving FLR transmissions will be able to navigate our solar system with the beacons.”
At that moment Whatsit, Chellsee Brookkss, Dr. GooYee and Miguel Roemer entered. GooYee and Roemer wore matching white lab coats. Roemer held a clipboard, and he was making notations as GooYee pointed at various instrument panels. Whatsit wore his usual combat outfit composed of a green trench coat, black boots and undecorated tan leather sombrero. A matching leather bandoleer crossed his chest with a cutter ray pistol holstered in its center. His bolo tie with the jeweled Chrysallaman skull ornament hung around his neck. Chellsee wore a white jumpsuit with pink highlights on the collar and cuffs. She was clinging to Whatsit’s arm.
GooYee wasted no time on pleasantries. “Have you programmed the coordinates I gave you into the GPC?”
“Arrgh, Cap’n!” Doug exclaimed in his best pirate voice. “The scurvy dawgs’ve hoisted the mainsail, and all cannon are armed. I’ll keelhaul any lackey who fails to follow orders.”
GooYee was sure he was being mocked. The snickers coming from Chang, Roemer and Whatsit confirmed it.
Snorting his disdain for the comedic antics, GooYee said, “I trust you jokers understand the importance of our mission. It’s beginning to appear I’m the only adult aboard this ship.”
“Relax, Gooey,” Becky said. “It doesn’t hurt to let off a little steam every once in a while.”
“I fail to see any vaporous cloud emanating from any of you,” GooYee responded. “In fact, I don’t believe such a thing is humanly possible.”
Shaking her head and rolling her eyes at the big lizard, Becky looked at Doug and said, “Why don’t you explain to his nibs how you’ve programmed the GPC.”
Leaning back, Doug said, “At your suggestion, Doctor, I’ve programmed two stops on our way to the Chrysalis system. Easing our way to Chrysalis in a broad sweeping curve should make our origination point almost impossible to track. In fact, our last leg brings us toward the coordinates for your planetary system from a direction opposite Earth’s galactic position relative to Chrysalis.”
“Excellent,” GooYee responded.
“I’ve also programmed the GPC on our sister ship, the Verbinna, to mirror our flight path. Provided there are no hiccups, both scout saucers should arrive simultaneously at our destinations.”
GooYee appeared satisfied and began to walk toward his science instrument panel when Doug asked, “Dr. GooYee, I want to know why you gave me these specific coordinates for the intervening destinations. What’s their significance?”
Pausing a moment as if he was trying to form the right words, GooYee answered. “Both sets of coordinates are colonization worlds where I worked in the past. The first is the Ponndomer system. It’s 15 light years from Chrysalis and had a population of 2,000,000 Chrysallamans when I completed my tour of duty there 50 years ago.
The second is the Cuddlur system. It’s 15 light years from Chrysalis but only 7 light years from Ponndomer. At last count, Cuddlur had a population of 1,500,000 Chrysallamans. It was my last tour of duty before being assigned to the Earth colonization fleet. I spent two of the best years of my life on that planet improving the overall strength and endurance of my signature combat vest.”
Chellsee noticed a troubled look ghost across GooYee’s eyes and asked, “What happened on Cuddlur, Jamins?”
GooYee sat at the science panel and crossed his arms. A watery mist began to form in the corners of his eyes, and he blinked in an attempt to stem the tears beginning to run down his cheeks.
“I had several Cuddlur assistants in my laboratory. They were very intelligent creatures, and after a while I became friends with them. Marrylynne was my favorite. She was so gentle and caring. I looked forward to being with her.”
“Then one day there was a Cuddlur uprising. In many ways, they were independent as Humans. Captain Tuurket Axxdo was the commander in charge of the region where my lab was located.”
Slamming his fist on the science panel, GooYee cried, “Axxdo wore my improved combat vest and used it to tear Marrylynne apart right in front of me! He tortured her unmercifully until she died. I still wake up sometimes to the memory of her screams of pain and terror.”
Looking toward Whatsit and Chellsee, GooYee said, “I want to see if Tuurket Axxdo is still in command on Cuddlur. If he is, I want to use the weapons on this ship to blow his sorry ass to Hell!”
Walking to Dr. GooYee, Doug placed his hand on the doctor’s shoulder and said, “You don’t have to worry about Tuurket Axxdo, buddy. We waxed him on his mother ship the day we conquered Hisspat Zeck. He’s nothing but a greasy spot on the Devil’s playground.”
Staring wide-eyed at Doug and not understanding a word he said other than mother ship and Hisspat Zeck, GooYee looked at Whatsit for help.
Whatsit shrugged, curled the his lips in a half grin and said, “Axxdo’s dead.”
Returning to the pilot’s couch, Doug flipped the ship-to-ship communicator switch and asked, “Colonel Yuri-Milost, are you ready for the first leg?”
“All systems active. My GPC is slaved to yours. Where you go we go,” she replied.
“Very well,” Doug acknowledged.
Turning to Chellsee, Whatsit said, “Time for you to leave. This mission should take no more than five days. As soon as we return, I’ll come find you.”
Gazing into Whatsit’s eyes, Chellsee stroked his cheek. “You better come back to me.”
All at once she hugged him. Then she ran from the control room. Staring after her, his eyes wide with wonder, Whatsit looked down at his chest and noticed a damp spot on his coat where her cheek had been.
“You old dog you,” Becky purred. “I thought she warned you never to touch her again when she tried to stab you on the Destinnee?”
With a serious look, Whatsit replied, “You’re correct; however, I took your advice and watched the love and romance movies ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ and ‘Mean Girls’. My education is now complete on how the female mind works.”
Becky almost doubled over with laughter, and the sly grin on Whatsit’s face was proof he didn’t mean a word he’d just said.
Doug took that moment to chime in, “I think we better get this show on the road before a shovel is needed to remove what is piling up on the deck.”
Twisting the tuning knob on the FLR transceiver panel to ‘Home’, Doug said, “General Blunt. Salteer and Verbinna are a go. Any final orders?”
“Just remember, Doug,” Tom replied. “I want Intel not dead heroes.”
Looking around at his colleagues and seeing the excited anticipation in their eyes, Doug poised his finger over the GO button on the GPC, flipped the ship-to-ship communicator switch and said, “In the words of my friend Alexander Fields, activation in 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. GO.”
The view screen display instantly changed from a stunning high orbital depiction of Earth to that of a black background filled with a sea of stars. Doug had been expecting to see a planet and his alarm was evident.
“What the Hell? Where’s Ponndomer?” he blurted.
“Calm yourself, Colonel,” GooYee said.
Ignoring the Chrysallaman, Doug checked his sensors and found the Verbinna floating less than 500 feet off his starboard side.
Flipping the ship-to-ship communicator, he said, “Yuri-Milost. Report your status.”
Yuri-Milost responded and confirmed all her systems were still in the green.
Viewing the updated information from the master computer as it identified local star systems, GooYee said, “My coordinates are correct. You should be picking up a signal from the Chrysallaman solar system ID beacon confirming we are within ten light minutes of the planet Ponndomer.”
“I’m receiving a ping corresponding to the Ponndomer beacon,” Whatsit announced. “He’s correct. We’re exactly 10.3 light minutes from the solar system.”
“I don’t like surprises,” Doug fumed. “I was expecting to see a planet, not empty space.”
“Think about it, Colonel,” GooYee said. “We don’t want to appear from nowhere close to a planet that may be occupied by Chrysallamans or Asiddians. At the very least our arrival would be seen as unexpected by Chrysallamans and at the worst an act of aggression by Asiddians. I thought the whole point of this expedition was to gain intelligence covertly.”
“He’s right, Doug,” Becky said.
Still visibly tense, Doug ordered, “Yuri-Milost, take a position 1,000,000 miles off my starboard side and maintain separation. Passive sensors only. Don’t get any closer than 750,000 miles from the planet.”
“Roger that,” Yuri-Milost confirmed, and the Verbinna disappeared.
“I’m going to FLIT to a location on the dark side of the second Ponndomer moon,” Doug said. “We’ll use the moon to hide our presence. I want to get as close to the planet as possible and see what we can pick up with our sensors.”
“I’m not receiving any Chrysallaman radio transmissions,” Whatsit advised. “Don’t you think that’s strange, Dr. GooYee?”
“Not necessarily,” GooYee said. “According to the Emperor’s records, in preparation for the Asiddian attack, Chrysallamans limited military communications to unidirectional lasers with burst transmissions. Omni-directional radio was deemed insecure.”
“Destination coordinates are set,” Doug announced. “Here we go.”
The view screen went dark black except for a thin circle of light. According to the instruments, the Salterr was in a fixed orbital location 200 miles above the far-side of Ponndomer’s second moon, Wando. The circle of light was caused by the eclipse of the Ponndomer sun by Wando. As long as they stayed in the shadow of the moon and limited their electronic emissions, the Salterr should remain hidden.
“Miguel, release the Bowler and send it to the transition zone. Start with visual and radio reception only.”
Miguel had developed a spy drone for the mission. It looked like a black bowling ball even down to the standard three finger holes. McPherson had christened it the Bowler. The three holes were a powerful telescopic HiDef video camera, a multi-function instrument for scientific and electronic analysis and a MA weapon. Powered by two miniature FLIT gens and controlled by an FLR, the Bowler was a formidable tool.
Guiding the Bowler under a rock overhang on the transition zone where the light side of the moon met the dark side, Miguel routed the visual feed to the main view screen. GooYee gasped as the image was revealed.
The planet looked like an eyeball suffering from several ruptured blood vessels. A huge scorch mark covered an area on the planet comparable to the dimensions of an iris on an eyeball. In the center of the iris was a coal black circle similar to a pupil. Red cracks in the surface of the planet radiated out from the dark pupil to the far edges of the globe. The red cracks seemed to glisten with movement, and they realized the cracks were filled with bubbling, flowing magma. It was obvious the planet had been subjected to a tremendous explosive force that cracked it like an eggshell.
No one uttered a word. The scale of the destruction was beyond belief. Finally, Becky broke the silence.
“Have you scanned for lifeforms?”
“With the current instrument package, I need to be within 500 miles of the surface,” Miguel responded.
“Do it,” Doug ordered. “Dr. GooYee, have you ever witnessed this kind of devastation before?”
“Never,” GooYee said. “The force necessary to crack the crust of the planet and penetrate to the mantle is beyond the weapons capability of Chrysallamans.”
“This is freaking unbelievable,” Becky whispered.
Opening up ship-to-ship communications, Doug asked, “Yuri-Milost, have your sensors detected any spacecraft or power sources in the solar system?”
“None. It’s as if the entire system is dead.”
“Very well. Home on our signal, and FLIT to our location,” Doug ordered.
The Verbinna appeared less than 500 feet off the starboard side of the Salterr.
“There are no detectible life signs on the planet,” Miguel announced. “There may be insects, but I can’t find any mammals, reptiles or birds. It appears all water on the planet was vaporized when the atmosphere was blown away by the explosion. I’m afraid whatever hit the planet was an extinction event.”
“We need to proceed to Cuddlur,” GooYee declared. “There’s nothing more to discover here.”
Miguel swiveled around and said, “I sent the Bowler to retrieve samples from the center of the impact zone. We may be able to determine what caused the disaster. It’s back in its launch cradle, and I’m ready for the next leg if you are.”
Nodding, Doug confirmed the GPC on the Verbinna was slaved to the Salterr and pressed the GO button. The view screen flickered and showed an endless black space sparkling with the lights of distant stars. Checking the coordinates, they determined the ships had arrived 10.2 light minutes from the Cuddlur solar system. Once again, the Verbinna took up a position 1,000,000 miles away from the Salterr and reported no spacecraft or energy signatures were detectable in the solar system.
Cuddlur had no moon so their approach to the planet was going to have to be slow and careful. Ordering Yuri-Milost to increase her separation from the Salterr by another 2,000,000 miles, Doug goosed the GPC in short hops until the Salterr was within 300,000 miles of the planet’s surface. Passive sensors and telescopic visuals of Cuddlur revealed nothing. The planet had a thick cloud layer which prohibited them from seeing any details of the planet’s surface. As with Ponndomer, they couldn’t detect any radio transmissions or energy output.
Doug was about to move closer to the planet when Yuri-Milost opened a channel and said, “An Asiddian ship just appeared from around the backside of the planet. You should be able to see it now as it comes around the rim.”
Sure enough, all eyes in the Salterr locked on the speck moving into view. Becky locked a targeting icon on the speck and enlarged it on the view screen. The Noogoora burr aspect of the Asiddian ship was unmistakable. As they watched in stunned silence, the cylinder-shaped burr angled its bow toward them and began to get nearer.
“I thought this was supposed to be a covert mission!” GooYee cried.
“Time for discussion later! Do we run, or do we defend ourselves?” Doug asked.
“One of our mission parameters is to get whatever Intel we can about the offensive and defensive weapons of the Asiddians,” Whatsit declared as he pulled his sombrero off the back of his shoulders onto his head. “I wonder if the Asiddians have an ass we can kick!”
Grinning at Whatsit’s remark, Doug, Becky and Miguel turned to their control panels and began keying entries into their weapons and scientific systems.
GooYee was thunderstruck. Instead of withdrawing from a battle they might lose, these damned Humans jumped at the opportunity to confront the danger. Sinking into a spare seat next the Miguel, GooYee felt his gut tighten as he prepared for death.
“Weapons ready,” Whatsit said.
“Sensors on full scan. Data will be sent to the Verbinna for backup,” Miguel confirmed.
“Power systems at optimum,” Becky said. “Secondary FLIT gen is sequenced.”
Doug activated the defensive navigation computer and confirmed the defensive screen around the Salterr was out of standby mode and fully powered. The Asiddian ship closed the distance between them like a predator stalking its prey. Instead of using lightspeed to reach them in the blink of an eye, the dark spacecraft closed on them like a great jungle cat; confident it couldn’t be defended against and able to outrun any attempt at escape.
As it closed to within 25,000 miles of the Salterr, a red laser beam lanced from the tip of one of the spines covering the ship and struck the FLIT gen powered defensive screen. Instead of slicing a chunk off the Chrysallaman craft, the red beam deflected away from the force field as if it had impacted a convex mirror. A second red laser beam flicked from the tip of another spine on the Asiddian ship and merged with the first. Again the red laser deflected off the force field bubble. A third laser beam joined the first two and once again the triple-powered beam glanced away at right angles, but now with the combined power of three spines acting in unison, the defensive screen protecting the Salterr appeared to become gossamer.
Becky raised her voice and said, “The FLIT gens are both overheating! The screen’s not going to hold! We need to move NOW!”
Just as four more red beams merged with the first three burning at the Salteer’s defensive screen, Doug punched the GPC touchscreen ESC icon, and the Salterr FLITed three parsecs away from the battle scene.