The bedroom of the habitat, a little after midnight
Lillith approached the doorway to the bedroom tentatively, much as a small child might approach her parent's bedroom door. Peering inside, she could see William sitting motionless on the end of the bed. His hands were in his lap as he stared at the floor. The oil lamp had been turned down very low, so low that Lillith had to utilize her ability to view Tachyon distortions to see him better. She could hear him sigh and her eyes lowered with regret before she took a step into the room.
There was a moment that passed quietly before William answered. His voice sounded distant. "Yes."
Lillith shuffled her feet along the floor, unable to raise her head or stop fidgeting with her thumbnail. "Baby's in bed."
"Good", he mumbled. "That's good."
She stopped close behind him and raised her hand slightly but then returned it quickly back to where it had started, as if she had wanted to touch him, but suddenly felt it would be better not to. She sniffled lightly and wiped one eye with the back of her hand. She stared at the back of him, waiting for him to turn around and look at her, but he didn't. The disappointment showed on her face and her eyes lowered again to stare at the floor.
"Are you still mad at me?" she asked regretfully.
At this, William's shoulders raised and lowered with his sigh. "No. No, Lillith, I'm not mad at you. I just don't understand why you have to leave again."
"Well, I had those visions and..."
"Yes", he interrupted sternly, "yes, I know all about your visions and the creature in rags and all these places he pops you around to and all that bullshit he's been spouting about fearing the fallen and ...."
"It's not bullshit, William!" Lillith raised her voice in spite of her tears returning. "There's something to it all, I just know! I have to do something!"
William sprang to his feet angrily. "Well, why do you have to go? Huh? Why do you have to save the Universe from this nutcase?" William took her by the shoulders and lowered his voice. "Lillith, I almost lost you out there and I never want to take that chance again!"
"I'm a Protector, Will'm!" Lillith retorted back at him. "It's what I am and I can't change the fact that it's dangerous! Death is always there!"
"NOT WHEN I'M THERE TO TAKE IT FOR YOU!"
In the sudden silence, Lillith looked into the wide eyes of William, astonished at what he had just yelled out, almost as much as he was at saying it. Slowly her head began to shake from side to side as she stepped toward him. Gently, her hands rested on his cheeks as her lips curled into a warm, subtle smile. Her voice became calm again, her words spoken so slowly that the sound of them soothed William from his anger and his hurt.
"Oh, my silly, silly mate. You know what I am. You've always known that. My destiny is what it is. You can't live for me or die for me. You can't take away my pain when I hurt or my sorrow when I grieve. You can only be the one I turn to, the one I always return to. You are my comfort, my solace, my life, and I love you so deeply for it. I am who I am; Lillith, Protector of Tetra. Nothing more and nothing less. I did not choose my destiny, but I will live it. I will live it fully as the Protector-born that I am."
William felt a sweeping pride flow through himself as he gazed into her soulful eyes. For a moment, he even felt a bit silly for even suggesting that he would protect her like that. It was just that....
"It's just that", he said with a touch of regret, "I just don't think you should go. You're not completely recovered yet, honey. I mean, I don't....." The words! Where were the words he needed to keep her home? "You're place is here on Tetra with me and Mara and everyone. There's no reason for you to go."
Lillith sat down on the end of the bed and nodded slowly. She began fidgeting with her thumbnail again as she seemed to focus all her attention on it.
"You're right, Will'm", she muttered quietly. "I can't explain to you why I have to go after A'ya. I don't know myself." She stopped fidgeting to look up into his eyes. "All I know is, if I don't, someone else will get hurt or someone else will be killed. Maybe another Protector will stop her before too many more are hurt and maybe not. That's all I know, Will'm." She returned her gaze down to the floor. "That's all I know."
William looked at her in silent thought. Finally, walking slowly to a large chest, William pulled open the top drawer and looked into it for a moment as if unsure. Reaching in, he gently removed the neatly folded red and blue uniform of a Velorian Protector. Returning to the bed, he set the thin cloth uniform down next to Lillith without a word. Cupping her cheek in his hand, he pressed his lips to hers as if it were the last kiss they would ever have together. Long moments passed before their lips finally parted. Then William raised a single index finger to make a point, placing it directly in front of her face. Lillith's eyes crossed for an instant trying to focus on it.
"I do not give you my permission to die." he said sternly. "I expressly forbid it. Do you understand, my mate?"
Lillith's eyes glistened as she looked adoringly up into the eyes of her mate. The rules of Velorian society were very clear when permission from one's mate was withheld.
"T'aye", she whispered, taking his hand in hers and kissing it gently. "Got it."
At dawn, William stared up at the
sky where moments before Lillith had streaked upward on her way
out of the atmosphere of Tetra. A vapor trail marked her passing
through the upper stratosphere, her rapid velocity disturbing
the air enough to leave ice crystals in her wake. William didn't
notice how the vapor trail now spread out, dispersing to restore
order to the icy stillness of before. His eyes remained where
she had disappeared from his sight. A tiny spot of sky that now
served as his only link to someone he wished desperately hadn't
passed through that solitary spot of early morning sky.
Nearby, Phil waited patiently, wishing just as desperately that Mina would have left through any convenient patch of sky available.
"What is he looking at?" Mina whispered with her usual touch of demanding to know.
"He is saying goodbye, Mina", Phil whispered back. "We will give him a moment or two more."
Mina shrugged. "He likes her, huh?"
"Yes, Mina", Phil said calmly, watching William watch the sky. "He likes her."
Phil waited those few moments before he trundled forward to William's side and looked up at him.
"Sir? Shall we begin our work?"
William reluctantly pulled his gaze from the sky, sighed, and nodded.
"Yeah, Phil. Let's get to work."
The planet of Tolan, in the northern provinces along the Ghen Estuary
Carpathia settled to the ground in the dim twilight of the Tolan evening. The metal chains she wore across her hips rattled a bit as her foot struck the ground. The smoke from the lingering fires filled the air with a patina of gray. Overhead, two Tolan air defense fighters shrieked by in a low pass as sixteen more circled in the distance and higher above. The steel blue eyes of Carpathia looked with hatred for the being responsible for this carnage but saw nothing but the lifeless ruins of the town of Whitfaw. For a moment, Carpathia wasn't even sure if she was actually seeing the town itself. Everything in the area was reduced to shattered rubble little higher than the ground itself and that included the hundreds of inhabitants of Whitfaw. Most of their remains would be found under the rubble of the buildings, although some blackened corpses could be seen littering the streets. A communication device clipped to her blue-steel armlet squawked once. She unclipped it in one swift movement, as if its intrusion into her thoughts only angered her more, and spoke efficiently into it.
She waited for a few seconds before a voice answered.
"Nothing, Carpathia. No visual sightings."
"Pistu", Carpathia mumbled to herself before raising the radio to her mouth again. "Alright, what was the energy signature on this one?"
It was only a matter of seconds before the voice returned.
"Velorian Protector, Carpathia. Matrix energy and lots of it. It looks like the same intruder. Are you coming in?"
"No, I'll stay out here for a while. I've got a hunch. You might as well recall the Warhawks too. I won't need `em."
"That's affirmative, Carpathia. Flight Cover Group 62, this is a recall...."
Carpathia switched the small radio to standby, turned it down, and clipped it back on her armlet. Gently pinching a Tolan cigar from her cleavage, Carpathia bit off the tip and spit it out on the ground. She stared upward with the unlit cigar in her mouth before her eyes crossed slightly to focus on the tip of the cigar. Thin red beams lanced outward from her crystal eyes, converging on the tip until it glowed brightly from her repeated puffs. Carpathia finally pulled hard on the cigar, letting the smoke settle within her a moment before she exhaled it all with a sigh. Her eyes returned to the darkening night sky, the frustration filling her quiet voice.
"Who ARE you?"
In the skies over the northern provinces of Tolan
Lillith descended rapidly through the atmosphere of Tolan. Even though the passage through the wormhole went quickly, Lillith couldn't help but feel that she didn't have much time. Her plan was to enlist Carpathia's help in defeating A'ya, but Lillith also desperately needed to be sure that her vision of the hooded figure was only that - a dream. The thought that her best friend had been mercilessly killed by the renegade Protector haunted Lillith. After all, she reasoned, A'ya could have remained in this sector of Space just as easily as she could have traveled across the Galaxy through any of hundreds of available wormholes. There were just too many questions. Questions that would all be answered by this single visit to Tolan and its Velorian Protector and Lillith's best friend, Carpathia.
Almost as soon as she had pierced the atmosphere, a pair of Tolan defense aircraft shadowed her down to the surface, but they didn't approach. Unusual, she thought. They're usually very adamant about identifying anything that arrives like she just did. Their sleek hulls glistened in the failing twilight of the Tolan evening as they remained aloof yet watchful.
To the east of the Ghen Estuary, there was a large area that appeared to be heavily damaged, just as in her vision. The ground was stripped nearly clear of anything larger than a small shrub. Charred to a dark gray, like consumed coal, the land was pitted and marred. The rubble of what may have once been structures were in the last stages of burning, each dying fire marking its position with a faint orange glow. Although still twilight at altitude, here on the ground night had fully arrived. Tachyon distortion patterns, aided by what little light there was from the weakening fires, revealed the same deathscape that she had seen in her vision. Her heart sunk at the thought of what else she would find as she touched down to the surface. There was no useful light now and the darkness closed in around her. The only sound came from the fading remains of a distant fire as an occasional pop or sharp snap. Lillith listened intently, but the silence hung heavily in the air. No Tolans greeted her. Carpathia was nowhere to be seen. It was wrong. Everything was wrong here. Everything. She felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rise as every instinct told her to leave. Leave now! Still, she listened, watched, and felt the eerie emptiness envelop her completely.
Sudden movement sensed in the darkness ahead sent a shock of adrenaline through her! Scanning the area, Lillith could make out the outline of a tall female. Further analysis showed her to be a Supremis. She seemed to be stalking Lillith in a crouched position! Pistu, thought Lillith, A'ya is here and waiting to attack! Lillith immediately crouched and began stalking the renegade Velorian in similar fashion.
When the two Velorians were not more than fifty yards from each other in total darkness, they attacked simultaneously. The sudden acceleration of them both made the Tachyon image of the other bloom like it had exploded! Lillith impacted her opponent hard enough to draw a satisfyingly loud grunt in return. Lillith too was surprised by the power of the slender hand that gripped her and flung her to the ground. Lillith instantly lashed out with her hand to grab any part of A'ya that she could get. Her powerful fingers snapped around what felt like a neck of hardened steel! Lillith held fast and was about to deliver her first blow when she thought she could smell .....stale tobacco smoke.
"C-Carpi?" The Tachyon image froze.
"What the ....hold on a minute!" Two luminous red beams lanced out through the darkness to the end of a shattered log held vertically by an unseen hand. It immediately burst into flame, illuminating the beautiful face of Carpathia, Protector of Tolan. Lillith instantly flung her arms around her, hugging her enthusiastically.
"Oh, Carpie, Carpie! You're not swinging in a tree!"
Carpathia's blue eyes swerved to the left for a moment in thought, then returned to center still confused.
"No, Lillith, I'm not. Why would I do something like that?" Lillith only shook her head a bit and hugged Carpathia closer. "What on Tolan are you doing here, Lillith? Don't you know what's been going on around here?" Lillith released her hug and responded with her best guess.
"A Velorian Protector's been attacking Tolan?"
Carpathia's eyes grew large with surprise.
"How did you know that? Have you seen her?"
Lillith got to her feet and began dusting herself off.
"T'aye, Carpie", she said. "I've ...... seen her. Not here, but I've seen her."
"She's driving me nutty, Lillith. She won't face me, just hit and run. She's striking all over the planet. Wherever I am, she hits the other side. I can never get there in time! Who's doing this?"
Lillith's voice dropped a bit. "It's A'ya."
The effect of that name on Carpathia was electric. Her eyes opened wide as she tried to speak, but for an instant, nothing came out.
"A'ya? Here?" Carpathia looked nervously around. "Why? I mean, why would she come clear across the Universe? Why would she do all this?"
Lillith cleared her throat. "We gotta talk."
Tetra, just outside the habitat
The guppy-like Scalantran transport ship rose from the desert with little more than a mild rumble. Having finally finished a torturous deal with the Terran mate of the resident Velorian Protector, they returned to the gigantic Scalantran freighter in orbit around the planet. They were happy to get back to the ship and away from that Terran.
The Scalantrans were always pleased to do business with the Protector of Tetra. She bartered for goods with the most pure and unusual gemstone jewelry anyone had ever seen. The jewelry had become prized throughout the local Galaxy and demand was high. So high that the Scalantrans found it very lucrative indeed to deal in it, sometimes getting two or three hundred percent return on their initial investment. Sometimes, but not today. Today, the mate of the Protector was doing the bargaining and there was no "Ooo, that's so pretty!" or "I'll take that cute purple thingy!" with him. Today, every transaction was argued relentlessly, leaving Scalantran profits in tatters. At least that was the impression left by the Scalantrans. So they would only make two hundred percent profit on the jewelry. They would make it up over the next few trades with the Protector herself.
The most annoying thing for them was that they had to return to the freighter four times to collect everything that the Terran wanted. No satin pillows were sold this time around. Now it was lubricants, tools, titanium couplings, bearings, Terran AN-style hardware, instruments, ammunition paks, grease, and all kinds of parts for a Terran Sabre Mk-IV spacecraft. In addition, the Terran wanted aluminum bracing suitable for building small structures. Out of appreciation for a new customer (and, they did not say, out of appreciation that the deal was over) the Scalantrans threw in a crate of ancient Terran miscellany that they said might be entertaining for William to sort through. Complimentary, of course.
In reality, they finally dumped that ancient Terran junk.
The Scalantran trading network crossed great distances and, some say, time itself to insure that they had whatever the customer wanted. When William opened the old crate, he immediately believed the bit about crossing time.
"Holy shit, Phil! Look at this stuff!" Phil peered over his shoulder.
"Yes, sir, it is quite interesting."
"Interesting? Are you kidding? This is vintage 20th Century stuff! Here, see this dataplate? `Date of manufacture, August 1941'. Amazing! I wonder if any of it still works. OH MAN!"
Lifting a what appeared to Phil to be shallow, flanged bowl from the crate, William seemed to admire its rusted and pitted surface before he gently placed place it on his head and tucked the leather strap that hung loosely from it under his chin. William turned his head from side to side, feeling the weight on his head.
"This is really neat, Phil. What do you think?"
"It appears quite comfortable, sir. Why would you place it on your head?"
"It's a helmet, Phil. Terran military folks wear this kind of thing to protect their heads. This style was called a drowboy or doughboy or something like that. The old United States country and that other one they used to have..." William thought a moment. "Ah, England! That's the one. Anyway, they both wore this style early on in that century. The United States changed their style of helmet later on, but this one...." William stopped speaking as if a thought had suddenly taken him over. He stared pensively at the helmet in silence.
"Sir?" asked Phil. "Do you have additional information?" William nodded slowly.
"You know, Phil, my great-great-great-something-or-other grandfather was killed at Wake Island in 1941. He probably wore something just like this." William noticed Phil turning his head slightly, a sure sign that a question was on the way. William tried to head it off.
"In the middle of the 20th Century, there was a large scale conflict on Earth, uh, Terra that had militaristic totalitarian and imperial nations at war with democratic nations. There's more to it than that, of course, and the list of reasons it happened is pretty long, but my ancestor was in the United States military at the time. He was stationed on a tiny atoll in the biggest Terran ocean, way out in the middle of it, about two thousand Terran miles from anywhere. Anyway, when war broke out, those guys held out for nearly a month before that atoll fell to their enemy. They put up a brave fight, Phil. Anyway, it was a long time ago. Jeez, what a sense of history this brings!"
Phil nodded his understanding, his
thoughts returning for a brief instant to the last war on Tetra.
Thoughts that were interrupted by the sudden elimination of all
sunlight as William lowered the rusty helmet down over Phil's
"Here, buddy," said William, "try it on for size."
"Indeed I will, sir." said Phil, removing the helmet from his head and placing it on the ground. With little difficulty, Phil settled down on top of the round steel form as he would on a favorite rock.
"I was correct in my first analysis, sir. It is indeed quite comfortable."
William could only smile at the Tetrite adaptation. "Good to see it's appreciated, Phil."
William peered back down into the musty crate and mumbled, "What else we got in here?" Pushing some packing aside, William retrieved a prize.
"OH, MAN! LOOK AT THIS! THIS IS GREAT!!"
William looked very pleased to be holding up a deep circular device by its handle. Made of stamped steel, only a bit of its original red paint had not given way to rust. It's round face had shutters behind large slotted openings. A long long arm, made of cast metal, was attached to the back of the device at the center. The arm was slightly curved with a wooden grip placed at a right angle to the arm at end opposite its attachment point. It simply looked like a red metal canister with a hand crank. At what Phil could only guess was the bottom of the device, he saw large clamping mechanisms that dangled loosely, clinking and clanking with every move the device made in William's hands. Only one of the two looked complete. William tried to turn the handle arm, but it refused to move.
"We're gonna fix this sweetheart first, Phil. This is perfect!"
"What is it about the `sweetheart' device that you find so intriguing, sir?"
"Phil", said William proudly as he set the device down, "you are gonna love this!"
Tolan Military Headquarters, Ghen District
On a planet whose social mores required the consumption of the product most identified with Tolan culture, the dark black cigar called the Tolanai Shent, the Tolan Soul, was everywhere. Lillith could not seem to escape the billowing clouds that hung limply in every room. Usually the only one not indulging, Lillith was kept busy graciously turning down cigars offered to her at a constant rate. Many of the Tolans offering cigars would appear shocked at the refusal, only to be placated by Carpathia who would explain that Lillith was "nie te Tolanai". Lillith was "not of Tolan". For that explanation, Lillith would always receive a nod and a look that seemed to say "How sad for you."
The two Protectors now stood in a small, dimly lighted room with six Tolan military officers, waiting for those same officers to finish their business and meet with them. Everyone smoked constantly and the little room was filled to within a few feet of the floor with a thick haze. Every lamp in the room shone its light as distinctive cones, defined by the reflections through the smoke that hung in the air.
"How can you stand this, Carpie?" Lillith kept waving her hand to clear away the heavy smoke. "Will'm says that smoking is bad for you."
Carpathia took a long drag and vented the smoke upward, away from Lillith. "Lillith, remind that boy that I'm indestructible, would you?"
"Okay", she said innocently.
The officer's meeting finally broke up and each turned toward the Protectors. A large Tolan officer with gray hair walked quickly toward Carpathia, taking her hand as he bowed low before her.
"Carpathia!" he boomed. "Your presence here grants me status!"
This old-fashioned Tolan greeting brought a smile to Carpathia's lips. The Tolan desire for status hadn't changed over the centuries, but the willingness of the young people to graciously grant that someone had given status to them through this kind of greeting had been purged from the social graces these days. Carpathia was very well aware of her supreme status among the Tolans, but enjoyed any opportunity to be gracious herself. She responded to the greeting in a way that would have been appreciated by any Tolan, young or old.
"I only seek your presence, sir."
The officer rose quickly, his beaming smile showing his complete pleasure with Carpathia.
"Lillith," said Carpathia, "I'd like you to meet General Rahn Vo Tahg, District Commander of the Tolan Defense Command, Ghen District. General, this is Lillith, Velorian Protector of Tetra. She remains under my protection as a visitor to this planet and will be addressed and treated as if you were addressing me."
"Of course." Again the General bowed, this time to Lillith. When he quickly straightened up, his hand extended with a too familiar shape in it.
"May I offer you a Tolanai Shent, Lillith?" he said with a beaming smile.
Before Lillith could decline, Carpathia spoke for her.
"She is not of Tolan, General, and is uncultured."
"How unfortunate", the General sighed, replacing the cigar back to his own pocket before he turned back toward the rest of the officers by the table.
Lillith glanced at Carpathia.
"Un-what?" she murmured, but Carpathia only waved the comment away.
"It's nothing, Lillith. Just an expression."
The General motioned for the two Protectors to join the others at the map table and began his briefing for Carpathia and Lillith.
"As you've seen for yourself, Carpathia, Whitfaw has been devastated. Just the latest in these unprovoked attacks. The last one...uh, Captain?" The General snapped his fingers and spun his index finger in a circular motion to indicate that he wanted to use a three-dimensional globe. Instantly, suspended over the map table, a holographic projection of the planet of Tolan appeared. It was accurate in all aspects, right down to the foliage and the roads. The General peered at it for only a moment before he wanted some things added.
"Show us all nine attack locations, with sequential numbering, please."
Red, irregular spots appeared on the projection, each with bright yellow Tolan numbers adjacent to them. To Lillith, they seemed to be scattered everywhere on the planet, without any pattern or reason. That was exactly what was driving her friend Carpathia nuts!
"See, Lillith?" Carpathia said as she pointed her slender finger at each red mark on the globe. "Everytime this Velorian attacks, it's on a side of the planet away from where I am. I can never respond in time. By the time I do get there, it's all over and she's long gone. I've kept the Tolan military out of it so far, but I can't ask them to keep taking this kind of punishment for long. Sooner or later, they're going to demand to draw blood."
Lillith shook her head. "Not with A'ya. They should stay away from her and let us handle it. Believe me, I know. I fought her and my coma was not fun!"
Carpathia was astonished! "You fought her, little sister?"
"T'aye, on her stolen Arion ship when she stole Will'm. She lied and then took him. I didn't like that."
"But, she defeated you?" asked Carpathia.
Lillith's eyes flared at the idea!
"She did NOT! I fought her and this Geheim warrior that keeps wanting to fight me all the time, I don't know why. Anyway, I defeated the Geheim warrior and Will'm fought with A'ya too, but I was hurt really bad and lost consciousness when Will'm took me home in this really junky spacecraft. When I woke up, I was in my own bed at home, but don't say she defeated me, Carpie. She didn't defeat me!"
"Okay, okay!" Carpathia held up her hands to calm Lillith down, a teasing smile on her face. "I didn't mean to say that, Lillith, but you did say she knocked you out." Lillith's ears were turning red.
"Nooooo! Will'm said it was a Supremis Coma. I had that little wiggly thing in my eyes."
Carpathia's smile vanished instantly as she just stared at Lillith. A moment passed before she turned to the General, her tone of voice was serious.
"General, would you excuse us? Lillith? Come on over here for a minute, please."
Taking Lillith by the hand, Carpathia led her into an adjacent room that was empty and completely dark. Carpathia slammed the door closed behind them, eliminating the last remnants of outside light from the room. In the blackness, the Tachyon images each saw moved toward the center of the room until Carpathia faced Lillith, her hands on the young Protector's shoulders.
"Lillith, let me get this straight. You lapsed into a Supremis coma after combat?" "Uh-huh."
"How long were you in the coma?"
"I dunno. Will'm said a few days or something."
Carpathia let out a long sigh as
she thought about the meaning of it all.
"I don't know", she said, "you body might have adapted. How do you feel?"
"I feel great!" chirped Lillith, bouncing a bit on her toes.
"Have you tried to use your strength since the coma?"
"Squeeze my hand, Lillith. Hard."
"Just do it, Lillith."
Lillith wrapped her hand around Carpathia's and squeezed. Carpathia's fingers tucked under each other from the pressure just before her strained voice called a stop to the test.
"That's.....enough!" Lillith turned her head slightly, a bit confused.
"Oh, come on. I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"You sure did, Lillith!"
As Carpathia massaged her hand, Lillith tried to understand what that meant.
"Carpie, I'm not stronger than you. I've never been stronger than you. What's happened?"
Carpathia rested her arm across Lillith's shoulder and spoke like an older sister telling the younger about high school.
"Lillith, the Terrans have an expression, `That which does not kill us, makes us stronger'. Well, they were probably talking about Velorian Protectors, Lillith, because that's exactly what happens to us when our bodies are severely damaged enough to leave us comatose, but not enough to kill us. The Supremis coma is more than a restructuring of our damaged parts, it's a readjustment, an adaptation to the new needs of your body. If you hadn't been defeated...."
"I was NOT defeated!"
"Yes you were, Lillith, like it or not, you WERE! That's how your body sees it and now, since you're still alive, it's taken steps to see to it that you are not defeated by this enemy again."
"You're saying I'm stronger than I was?"
"How much stronger?"
"I would say quite a bit, judging by how hard you squeezed my hand a minute ago." Carpathia snapped her fingers once. "I know! Flex your arm, Lillith. Let's see something."
In the absolute darkness of the room, Lillith curled her right arm up into a flex. Her Velorian arm grew instantly from a slender form into a massive structure of pure power larger than Lillith had ever seen before. Her entire arm seemed to tingle. At the center of her bicep, a dull red glow appeared that grew slightly brighter when she squeezed her flex tighter.
"Tus Skietra!" they both said together.
Near the habitat on the planet of Tetra
"Alright, Phil. Are you ready for the test run?"
"Quite, sir! Everyone is in their place"
William, Phil, and a few dozen Tetrites gathered at the foot of a newly completed tower that bore a striking resemblance to a small oil rig with a small platform at its top. William had decided that, until Lillith returned, he and the Tetrites would have to keep constant watch against alien intruders. The tower allowed the Tetrites to see much farther over the barren desert landscape in order to sound the alarm whenever danger appeared. That alarm was a freshly renovated Terran hand-operated air siren, circa 1939. It had proved to be a real attention-getter among the Tetrites as its long fluctuating wail pierced the desert silence. As William had said, it was perfect for what he had in mind for a loud warning system and today was the first test of the official Tetra Early Warning System.
"Okay, let's see how fast we can do this." William held his arm up to view his watch. Staring intently at the sweep hand, he raised his other hand as a pending signal, waiting for the sweep hand to cross the twelve.
Phil immediately spun around and peered up at the raised platform.
The Lookout peered back down at him and merely said, "I am looking out now."
"No", corrected Phil, "I am addressing you as `Lookout'."
"Is that valid?" One must be sure.
"Oh my, yes indeed it is! You are looking out, therefore you may be referred to as the `Lookout' during those times when you are engaged in that activity. It is all quite valid."
The Lookout realized his error.
"I am most sorry for my misunderstanding. How may I be of service to you?"
"Ah, most kind of you to ask! The warmest of good mornings to you! Would you be so kind as to activate the Sweetheart device?"
"I would be most pleased to accommodate your request! For what duration shall I activate the device?"
Phil thought a moment before turning to William for the answer. William shrugged and responded without even having to look up from his watch.
"Oh, a few seconds would be nice, Phil."
"As you wish, sir." Phil turned back to the platform and the waiting Lookout. "Would you be so kind as to activate the Sweetheart device for a duration of three seconds?"
"I would be most pleased indeed!" said the Lookout, sounding most pleased indeed.
"Thank you very much! You are most kind!" With that, Phil turned back to William who was still staring intently at his watch. When the Lookout finally began cranking the ancient handle and the wail of the air raid siren began to build in volume, William lowered his arm, obviously done with his watch. The siren lasted for three seconds, barely enough time for it to build to full volume. Phil was impatient to hear how well they had all done. It was, in Phil's estimation, a most enjoyable and successful test. William cleared his throat.
"Well, Phil, that took a little over two and a half minutes from when I said "alarm" to when the siren went off."
"Is that considered a proper elapsed time, sir?"
"Well", William said, "it's not bad for the first time, but we can do better I'm sure. Just a little practice, that's all. Just a little practice."
"Better, sir? What elapsed time would you prefer to have us achieve?"
As Phil stared incredulously in silence, Mina scampered rapidly between them, chasing a moth.
Phil cleared his throat and meekly said, "I will need to converse with the Lookout, sir."
"Yes", said William dryly. "I think you had better."
Aboard the Kintzi Zhar-class Cruiser, Daunt Ne, somewhere near the Olen Nebula
Captain Fhar snarled nervously at the wide-eyed Ensign who had absentmindedly bumped into him in the narrow passageway. The Ensign, not wanting a confrontation with a superior officer, particularly with THIS superior officer, nearly fell over himself to show submission. Fhar waved him away impatiently, an opportunity the Ensign took immediately. Captain Fhar had no time for such minor infractions. He had, he assumed from the orders to report immediately to the Bridge, much bigger problems.
"They couldn't still be pissed about Krag's stunt", he mumbled as he approached the hatch to the Bridge. That idiot, Lt. Krag, had done a high-speed, inverted fly-by of the bridge, sending every senior officer on duty to the deck in fright! That little game put the entire squadron on report, restricted them all to quarters for a week, and denied all of them kill rights for meals. Captain Fhar hated eating processed meals when the rest of the ship enjoyed fresh kills. To show his displeasure, Fhar drilled his squadron twice as hard during that time to show them and the brass that he took such an infraction seriously and personally. Very personally. He doubted that the incident would ever be repeated. That's exactly what he intended to point out to the Admiral as he stepped through the hatchway and snapped to immediate attention directly behind the Admiral.
"Captain Fhar reporting, sir!"
The Admiral turned around slowly and nodded in response to Fhar's salute.
"Yes, Fhar", the Admiral said pleasantly enough. "How's that young squadron of yours doing?"
"They're hot, sir, and itching for a fight. They could use some experience though."
"Yes, so it would seem." grumbled the Admiral. Damn it, thought Fhar. I thought he sounded alright. When I get my paws on Krag I'll.... Interrupting his thoughts, the Admiral continued.
"I want you to take your squadron and perform a recon-in-force. Our course will take us near a system with a protected planet and Intelligence needs updated information on the state of readiness and abilities of the Velorian Protector. You are to probe the planet, note the response and location of the Velorian, then return your squadron intact. There is to be no confrontation with the Velorian; combat restricted to defense only. You will have two days to prepare your squadron. Standard mission profile, stealth protocols will be observed outside the atmosphere of your target planet. Questions?"
"Piece of cake, sir. What's the planet?"
The Admiral slid a dark green chart of the sector toward Captain Fhar and tapped lightly on a small planet surrounded by seven moons.
The Fallen continues....
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