Major Tom's Thumb
"Lieutenant, can we take a break? I mean a real break, maybe even a few hours sleep." Major Thomas Pilaus, stopped, crouched over, hands propped on knees. Despite the thick, cold air, he sweated heavily beneath the drab, khaki garb of the Oblik Colonial Militia. His legs ached from all the walking, his head ached from lack of sleep, and his stomach ached from the plain, dry rations consumed at irregular intervals.
Some of the others walked past and kept walking, others slowed their pace, waiting for the Lieutenant's reaction. The Lieutenant, tall for an Idorian, but just of average height next to the small company's two humans, exchanged a few soft, lyrical words with the tall one, a female Idorian who towered over both humans and the other Idorians. The tall one seemed satisfied, so the Lieutenant called for a stop, using a string of sounds that the human was coming to recognize.
"I thought you wanted to be treated as one of us." The Lieutenant said as a friendly chide.
"I thought so too. But, I've recently discovered, I am not an Idorian, I am not as young as I used to be, and probably never as young as I thought I was." Pilaus, hands on hips, stretched out his spine.
"As for being Idorian, you'll get used to it." Said the only other human in the small company. "Everything else is only going to get worse." The other human, a fleeter wearing a black field uniform and jacket similar to the lead Idorian's, was more than used to life among the Idorians, serving with them on the Union Star Vessel Mars. From a pocket hidden within his field jacket, he pulled out a thin heat absorbing blanket that would disguise his infrared signature. Curling to a fetal position on the dusty ground, he draped the blanket over himself, as grateful as the Major for a few hours sleep.
The Major kept to himself, wanting nothing more than to curl up on the ground and pull a blanket over his head. The others, all Idorians in hzraat hide armor, carrying an unnerving blend of modern and archaic weaponry, their white hair braided and cut into tufts and partial mohawks, set perimeter sensors under the direction of the tall female. When the area was secured, they crouched on the ground in pairs, back to back, and pulled identical blankets over themselves, hopefully disguised from the omnipresent 'eyes-in-the-skies' that may or may not be watching.
Of the Idorians, the Lieutenant was the only one to which the Major could relate. With the exception of the ornate flute / knife, he had not yet 'gone native.' Pilaus tried to keep an open mind, but the soft, haunting, threnody of their voices and the native dress scared the hell out of him.
The Lieutenant was somewhat more conventional, with a scruffy, multi-pocketed, field uniform covered by a waist length, high collared field jacket. The material was the 'void' black color worn throughout the Union Fleet. On each shoulder strap was a dull bronze eight-pointed star, rank insignia of Fleet lieutenancy. The jacket's left breast bore a cloth patch with the wings of a certified flight engineer, colored the same dull bronze as the stars.
Of the strange mix of armor and uniforms, kilts and breeches, they had one thing in common: a silver dragon, roaring in defiance, one wing lifted skyward. The patch was worn on each fleeter's upper left sleeve. It was the symbol, the banner, of the Dracos Expeditionary Force sent to Oblik as protection against the alien invaders.
In all his worst imaginings of this mission, he never expected a guard of traditional Idorian warriors. When Pilaus had first seen the dragon symbol, it was in the form of a shining, metallic pin on a void black duty uniform.
The Idorian Lieutenant then was the one in that uniform, every square centimeter of a proper, conventional, if somewhat bewildered officer. His bewilderment came not only from the abrupt summons to the Governor's residence, but also in finding two Governors and an army of staff awaiting his arrival. The army of staff were, like Pilaus himself, crammed into colonial military uniforms bearing rank, certification, and medallion that they neither earned nor deserved.
The Idorian was introduced to the Governors and their backdrop as Lieutenant Claviak, Senior Flight Engineer of the USV Mars, flagship of the Dracos Expeditionary Force, but he needed no introduction. Claviak's exploits and image were spread throughout the Oblik star system colonies by the colonial government's fledgling propaganda machines. Deserved or not, he was already a war hero, a proud example of Union and colonial cooperation.
The Idorian knew the Governors, Hannah Burke, the short, thick, stump of a woman that was Governor of Oblik III, and Lucinda Dalhoise, the busty blond who was Governor of Oblik II, the world on which Major Pilaus found himself surrounded by savages. He met them a month, maybe two months ago. It was hard to say, events were moving so quickly. It was at this initial meeting that Claviak proposed the mission that had broken the invader's orbital superiority over Oblik II. It was during that mission that Claviak had made first contact with the invaders, an alien species called 'Imzaar.'
Of late, the Idorian had seen much of the Governors and their staffs, being kept at the mercy of the Office of Public Affairs, shuffled from party to banquet to speaking engagement in dizzying frenzy. It was his Captain's idea, while the Mars underwent repairs at the mercy of the Office of Procurement and Supply, Claviak was to make the rounds, strengthening relations with the colonists, 'winding the strings' as it were in dealing with OPS.
Both Governors wore stylized military uniforms of no particular branch or specialty. Both bore rank insignia equivalent to Commander-in-Chief Union Fleet or General of the Planetary Marines, a ridiculous pretension. Governor Oblik II Dalhoise's uniform had even been cut low, accentuating the deep cleavage of her full bosom.
As for the staff, they were a back drop of faces that blended into a common theme rather than any distinct individuals. The Idorian knew most of them, but would be hard pressed to put face with name, or even remember a name. They were a group of people who were always present, always had something to say, but contributed little.
"Lieutenant Claviak has joined us with special permission of Captain Smythe." Governor Oblik III, explained, commanding the back drop's rapt attention. "Lieutenant, Captain Smythe had spoken very highly of you. He has told us that you have formed some sort of a special operations team." Claviak nodded in confirmation, saying nothing. "With the Union marines stranded on Oblik II and in light of your experience with these 'Imzaar', we have a job for which you and your commandos are uniquely suited."
With that brief, enigmatic introduction, Major Thomas Pilaus was pulled from the back drop. Pilaus felt silly wearing the crisp, fresh uniform in front of the war hero. The uniform bore a rank greater than the Idorian's, a rank given him less than three standard weeks ago, a rank for which he had done no military service - yet.
Pilaus' career, until three standard weeks ago, was as civilian contractor. His youthful, energetic looks belied his years, but the decades of hard work, long hours, short deadlines took there toll as an used weariness that came through the eyes, the long face and easy-going manner. His manner with everyone was the same, developed from those same decades of dealing with so many different people for such sort periods of time.
"It's simple, really." Pilaus had told the Idorian. "I just need a lift."
The Idorian, a bipedal humanoid with rough, blue-grey skin, no hair, bright green eyes, and bilateral antennae, twitched those antennae in a common gesture signifying confusion. The gesture was often incorporated into their language, denoting an interrogative.
Pilaus handed him a small computer. "These are the mission specs."
The Idorian studied the data on the comp-pad. "Why not an equatorial approach? This landing will burn more propellant and require a landing vehicle to take us to our destination."
"There will be no vehicle Lieutenant." Governor Oblik III told him pointedly.
"What? It will take days of marching to . . . "
"I'm sure you're fit enough." Governor Oblik II virtually purred at the Idorian.
"There are reasons Lieutenant." Governor Oblik III interjected before Lucinda Dalhoise could embarrass herself - again. "I have another meeting to get to. You may discuss mission specifics with Major Pilaus later. Do you understand the assignment?"
"There is not much to understand." replied the Idorian. "Although I do have several questions."
"We need some assurance that he will complete his orders." The backdrop proposed as if the Idorian were not in the room.
The Idorian's antennae twitched in confusion as another of the back drop suggested "We'll obviously need to transfer him over to the Militia, to guarantee fealty to the Governor."
"What?" Claviak asked, agitated.
"Oh, you'll be well compensated. We can give you the rank of Captain, that would be a promotion for you. We can't promote you to Major, Major Pilaus has to have seniority."
"What?" The Idorian was now becoming angry.
"A Fleet lieutenant is the same rank as a Militia captain."
"Smythe is a captain."
"A Fleet captain is the same as our colonels."
"Oh, I'm a colonel, aren't I?"
"What is this all about?" The Idorian directed the question at no specific person, addressing the back drop as a whole.
"The thing is, . . . " One of the back drop volunteered. " . . . what guarantee do we have that this mission will be a success?"
"There are no guarantees, only carefully planned details. Of which, I have several questions."
"That's just not good enough. We need to know that you will carry out your orders as if you were under the Governor's direct command."
"Then go yourself. I have work to do." Swiftly and smartly, the Idorian turned on his heel and bid the Governors good day.
"Just a moment Lieutenant." Governor Oblik III said before the Idorian made another step toward the door. She turned to her staff. "The Lieutenant is under orders that place him under my command for the duration of this mission. It's good enough for me, it should be good enough for you."
Governor Oblik III turned back to the Idorian. "Lieutenant, will you help us?"
With a scant nod, the Idorian pressed his thumb over the comp-pad's rectangular indentation, confirming the orders and accepting his assignment.
That was one standard week ago, one day before meeting the fifteen Idorians and one human of Claviak's special operations team. It was only then that Major Pilaus realized he was in for much more than he imagined. His first clue was the other human, an information systems officer who was to be Pilaus back-up in case anything went wrong. The Governor's backdrop had given a thousand assurances that nothing could go wrong and that if it did, it would be the fleeters' fault.
From there, the Major's life only became less comfortable. For his work, Pilaus had traveled between Oblik III and Oblik II many dozens of times, but always in the comparatively luxurious commercial transports, the first or second class passenger compartment paid for by the contractor. The fleeters' shuttle was little more than rocket and atmospheric jets. Its passenger compartment was cramped and Spartan, little more than padded, metal crash couches and storage compartments. There were no separate rooms, no proper beds, no privacy except for the single toilet shared by all.
Using detachable rocket boosters provided by the colonial government, the shuttle made the journey in only six days. Firing the boosters continually for nearly ten hours, they were subjected to crushing gravitational forces that left the Major stiff and sore.
In the zero gravity free fall of the remainder of the journey, the Major felt isolated and alone. The fleeters were polite, but guarded, not trusting the amateur colonial. Most conversation took place in the soft, lyrical Idorian Common Tongue. Pilaus used a comp-pad to translate at first, but, as he came to realize they spoke perfect Union Standard and simply chose not to, he stopped bothering.
It was during the long, boring voyage through space that the fleeters 'went native' as Pilaus recorded in his mission log. Except for the human and Lieutenant Claviak, they discarded their Fleet uniforms, impractical to the assignment anyway, and put on the traditional dress of the Idorian kel'ijabra foot soldier.
Pilaus asked the other human what they were doing. The human replied "Don't make the mistake of thinking they are like blue humans." Pilaus admitted he knew almost nothing of the Idorians. As the black uniforms were put in stowage and replaced by hardened, leather-like breast plates, grotesquely bladed and corded musical instruments, state-of-the-art weapons, and communications equipment, Pilaus researched the computer database.
In traditional Idorian custom, the kel'ijabra troops were lead by a nos'ijabra warrior. Without having to ask, Pilaus came to understand that Lieutenant Claviak, in standard Fleet issue except for the twin bladed flute / knife that he had carried even in his meeting with the governors, assumed that role.
From his brief talks with the other human, Pilaus also discovered that there were two groups among the Idorians. The clan Juimar served on Mars with Smythe. The clan Raim were conscripted from a passing freighter after the first battle around Oblik II. It was to the Raim that Lieutenant Claviak was a member, having served as officer aboard that freighter. The clans were related somehow, but still formed barriers of blood and society that could no more be broken by the cramped confines of the shuttle than could the racial barriers that separated the major from his new comrades.
As they prepared for orbital approach and the communications equipment was loaded into field kits, Pilaus argued with the Lieutenant. The equipment should be dumped into space or at least left aboard the shuttle. The Lieutenant agreed that the equipment would only be used in emergency, but they were still taking it.
Still smarting from his first attempt to exercise rank over the Idorian, the Major strapped himself back in his seat for the approach to Oblik II. Aero-braking through the atmosphere, the shuttle jettisoned the boosters and propellant tanks.
Pilaus gripped the armrest hard, his knuckles white. It was a rough glide until the shuttle entered the lower atmosphere and her maneuvering jets finally fired, slowing her further and giving Lieutenant Claviak, the pilot, better control. Claviak brought them to a relatively gentle landing on the frozen tundra south of the equator.
Pilaus awoke, still tired, head thick. Having no real sense of time, he did not know how long he had slept. It felt like minutes, but could have been hours.
Per mission spec, they brought the shuttle to a landing south of the equator and had been marching ever since. The march, at the Major's urging, was Idorian style, four hours hard walk followed by an hours rest. It fit in with the Idorian metabolism and sleep cycle, but was taking a hard toll on the Major. At least they set a reasonable pace, both in consideration of the Major's normal sedentary life and the fleeters' months of long confinement aboard a cramped star vessel.
No consideration was given to adopting a day / night, partly because Idorians were neither diurnal nor nocturnal and partly because of the planet itself. Just south of the equator, it was always the same, no day, no night, a perpetual sunrise. As they marched to the higher latitudes, the sun rose higher in the sky.
Oblik II, knocked on its side billions of years ago, spun on a north-south axis. At this time of year, the north pole pointed always at the sun. Only the planet's axial tilt moved the sun up or down in the sky. From here, it never completely cleared the horizon.
Oblik II's north pole and much of its northern hemisphere was a molten desert of continual light. The south pole, always pointing toward open space, was an expanse of darkness and ice. Only around the planet's equator did these extremes compromise in a thin comfortable habitable, temperate band.
Pilaus was raised on Oblik III, a world with a diurnal cycle similar to Earth's. Despite years of work on Oblik II, this world of constant sunrise was still disconcerting.
"Lieutenant, . . ." Pilaus walked over to the Idorian. Claviak sat under a thin silver blanket, back straight, knees drawn up to his chest. ". . .we have to assume that the Imzaar know where we are."
"An eventuality for which we should always be prepared. But, we have taken extraordinary precautions." Claviak did not need to complete the thought, 'at your insistence Major.' Even though they were taking the communications equipment, Pilaus had stubbornly refused to leave the shuttle until the Lieutenant agreed to follow satellite surveillance protocols. In the interests of overcautious common sense, the Lieutenant agreed.
"No, there is more to it than that." Pilaus watched the Idorian's eyes move behind the comm-set. There was nothing in his field of vision, he must be watching whatever telescopic image was displayed on the goggles' heads-up-display. The goggles were attached to a plastic strap around the being's head. A plastic oval was fitted over the tympanic membrane on the right side of the head, where a human's ear would be. A small bent armature fixed to the headband held a small plastic ball over the receptor cup of the right antenna, while another went down close to the mouth. Each Idorian wore identical comm-sets, while the pair of humans had comm-sets with small plugs that fit into the ear canal and no antenna receptor / display.
"Do you know General J.T. van der Boothe?" Major Pilaus asked rhetorically.
"No." The Idorian muttered something at the comm-set, it obviously had more than half his attention.
Pilaus arched his eyebrows, perplexed. "J.T. van der Boothe? The 'General' is an honorary title, like my rank. When the crisis came, it became . . . fashionable . . . for the first time ever, I think, to be in the colonial militia." In the Oblik system, the military uniform was the latest fashion trend and rank the latest status symbol. "The CM gave it to him in exchange for licensing rights and comm-link time for the duration." At the Idorian's continued look of incomprehension, Pilaus elaborated further. "van der Boothe comm-net? van der Boothe orbit systems? vdB data exchange? vdB Werks? No, . . . nothing?"
"Before this, I have only had a brief layover at Oblik III. I am afraid I know nothing of the system. Although I do seem to recall a 'vee-dee-Bee' on the hold pattern of a hotel comm-unit."
Pilaus chuckled. "It is funny how something can be such a large part of our lives, yet outside of that, it is nothing. I suppose the rest of the Union has no use or care for our little satellite networks.
"Anyway, Oblik II has an extensive geostationary satellite network, covering the entire equator. Since only the equatorial band is inhabited, there is very little orbital activity outside of that network. And, I was there at the beginning.
"J.T. and I made a lot of money setting up communications software for the Oblik III comm-sat network. Too much, I thought, for the work performed. Then we did the same thing to Oblik II. J.T. had a good head for the business. We low bid by exchanging profits for licensing rights. By the time we were finished, J.T., who was willing to put up everything he owned, had an almost complete monopoly on the entire systems communications.
"Then came the meteor scare and they hired us again for the defensive systems, the orbital artillery. It came as a complete shock to me. No bids, no procurement, they just told us to get it done. But, J.T. knew, J.T. always knew. He never had a good head for detail, fact and figure, compared to me that is, but he certainly had a vision and the colonial government was only too happy to hand it to him.
"Now, every time you use a comm-unit, a comp-pad, even a VR chamber, J.T. gets your money. Me, I was well paid for my work, but nothing like the rewards reaped by J.T."
The Idorian listened politely, still paying more attention to whatever was on that comm-set.
"The problem is, and what I am not supposed to tell you . . ." While Pilaus may keep parts of his personality hidden away, honesty and openness when he thought it was needed to get the job done, was not one of those attributes. ". . . is that the Oblik II defense-net never came back on-line after the Imzaar white noise jamming went away."
The Idorian's antennae twitched in confusion. "Yes, I read the report. The network was destroyed by the Imzaar."
Pilaus pursed his lips and shook his head. "That's the story. The truth is we have no idea what happened. If it were destroyed, there would be system errors, incomplete data transmissions, warning messages, something. Instead, there is nothing."
"The Imzaar have control of defense satellites?" The Idorian asked, his full attention now directed at Pilaus. He was not shocked that the colonial government would keep this from them, just that this little, tired human would disclose it so casually. "Why are you telling me this?" He asked, almost angrily.
"It's easier to tell the truth. I thought you Idorians knew all about that?"
"We do. We just do not often find it among humans." A nasty thought popped into the Idorian's churning mind. "When Major Molders and I ejected from the Imzaar ship, we had planned an equatorial trajectory. If we had not changed it to the south . . .?"
"You would be a posthumous war hero and the colonial government would have been forced to concede that they no longer controlled the satellite network and had concealed it from you fleeters."
"Did the Governor know?"
"She sent us off to die?"
"Did Molders know?"
Pilaus shook his head. "Why bother disclosing politically sensitive information to those who need it. That is the government that J.T. made his fortune from and from which I wanted nothing more than a paycheck.
"So we can assume the Imzaar have the control bunker?" The bunker their ultimate destination, was the central, overriding command facility for the entire satellite network.
"No, the security is too extensive. Even if they could get physical control of the facility, they can't break the encryption software. That's why I'm here.
"The software is old. They don't teach it anymore. J.T. kept everything to himself. He wouldn't document anything. I spent one hell of a lot of time on a manual. I wanted to make sure the government knew what we did in case they had to go back.
"J.T. told me I was wasting my time. He called me short sighted and said that if they ever needed to go back, they could just hire us.
"J.T. was the last person with the manual. Now he claims he never knew it existed. No one can find it anywhere. My back-up copies have disappeared, wiped out during a systems breach that the government wouldn't even investigate. J.T. and I are the only living beings who know the system, provided we can get to the bunker. That's why I'm here.
Pilaus paused, head down, chuckled. "Actually, I'm here because J.T. can buy our government several times over. But, the government can afford to make me an offer I can't refuse, and it's more than this stupid uniform." From a sealed pocket, Pilaus took a small blue box marked with a rec cross and yellow label that contained small black lettering. He handed it to the Idorian. "Not that J.T. hasn't made sacrifices."
"What is this?" The Idorian asked suspiciously, holding the box between thumb and forefinger. The instructions on the label gave him a good idea before the human could answer and the thought of it started his stomach churning. It was the stuff of detective fiction.
"The colonial government is rather sloppy, very sloppy in fact. That is why they were more than happy to leave both technical infrastructure and orbital defense systems to a man who is not sloppy. But, they still owned the physical systems and J.T. was not about to expend his resources voluntarily.
"J.T. and I were the last ones in that bunker. He told them time and time again that the locks needed to be changed. He made proposal after proposal and bid after bid. But, with the government, why fix something that is broke when you can wait until you have a real problem.
"They never changed or updated the security on the old control bunker. J.T. and I are still the only ones with access. Since we're still the only ones who know the computer systems as well . . ." Pilaus finished the sentence with a shrug.
"And you think the Imzaar already have the bunker?"
Pilaus shook his head. "Not the bunker. They can't access the computer from outside and they would need heavy excavation or nukes to get in. From what you've found of the Imzaar, they couldn't possibly have the excavation equipment and they haven't had the time to use it if they did. And we sure as hell would have seen any nuclear detonations."
"If they do not have the bunker, what is the problem?"
"Tracking stations. The system has ten tracking stations. They have almost no security. From any one tracking station, one or more satellite can be accessed."
"So they have some of the satellites, but not all?" Claviak asked.
"At the very worst, yes. But, if we can get to the bunker, we can override all the tracking stations, secure the network, and secure ourselves. Once we get inside, they can't touch us."
The Idorian forced the box back on Pilaus. The Major took it with a wry grin and tossed it playfully. "Not squeamish, are you?"
"I suppose I am. In my clan, the thought of doing this to yourself . . ." The Idorian gave a slight shudder. "I see them." The Idorian, switching to Common Tongue, spoke to the comm-set. He spoke more urgently now, issuing orders to the fleeters who rose and quickly folded the thin, silver blankets into little squares and stuffed them back into their pouches. They collected the perimeter defenses and in a matter of seconds were ready to move.
"You may be right Major. I sent Preatr and Phras on ahead. Ten kilometers northeast is an Imzaar scouting party, they are coming straight at us."
Pilaus reached over and knocked the comm-set from the Idorian's head. The comm-set was tilted at an angle, hanging on one antenna as Claviak's arm reflexively whipped upward and he grabbed at Pilaus' wrist. "I've just told you, the Imzaar have the satellites. They can hear and track us. We have to move now." Pilaus explained.
"I know my business, Major. This set is receiving, not transmitting. Any satellite, if it happens to be looking, would only lock onto Preatr and Phras' position, not ours. If they can find us from that transmission, then they already know where we are."
Sharp, barbed thistles tugged against the tough synthetic fibers and scratched at their armor, doing more damage to exposed skin. Thin lines of dark blue criss‑crossed the faces and hands of the Idorians as they crept low through the vast field of saw weed that covered the entire hillock. Similar lines of crimson streaked the faces and hands of the humans.
The thistles grew in regimented columns along the sides of the tall, thin stalks of saw weed. They stiffened and strengthened the plants, providing support against the planet's continually strong winds.
Using his covered forearm, Lieutenant Claviak brushed aside the stalks and looked down at the Imzaar. In a clearing at the hillocks base, more than two dozen of the pink skinned amphibians gathered around small water filled holes. At the outer edge of the camp, more Imzaar were digging holes and filling them with water. Others lounged comfortably in the muddy holes, apparently oblivious to danger nearby.
"If you were off to intercept possible enemy movements, would you break camp at such an indefensible position?" Claviak whispered softly in Common Tongue.
"I don't think they know we're here." Preatr, the tall female with a swath of scalp shaved bare down the middle of her head, said to the Lieutenant. In Union Standard, she would have added a 'sir.' In their language, the connotation of respect was conveyed by intonation and level of vocabulary used.
"Do we want to change that?" Claviak asked.
Preatr's antennae twitched. "The bunker entrance is ten kilometers that way." She gestured straight through the mud pocked encampment. "We can wait or go around. If we wait, the risk of being surveyed increases exponentially. If we go around, it increases less so, but with the additional time it will take, it will not make a difference."
Claviak gestured understanding. Satellite surveillance protocols were a matter of probability. The satellites would find you, it was just a matter of when. For the type of systems the colonists used, they were already in the eighty percentile. If they waited or went around, they would be thrown into the one hundred percentile, provided the Imzaar were paying attention.
"I have seen no communications equipment." Preatr elaborated.
"Every minute we sit here increases our chance of the satellites spotting us." Pilaus warned, guessing at the conversation taking place.
Taking the bladed flute from its holster, Claviak made his decision. The Idorian blew a low hum that carried backwards through the field. Pilaus watched as the fleeters took aim. Normally, the marksmen would have sighted using comp-pads and both Claviak and Pilaus could have coordinated their aim. But, in so doing, there was the risk of the satellites detecting the transmissions between weapon and computer, giving away their position.
So, the attack was coordinated by the Idorian and his flute, in tradition that predated Earther civilization by ten thousand years. Each marksman, tuned to the subtle musical notes, selected a target, relying on their weapon's onboard computer. Preatr, nearest the human fleeter, whispered "primary: 36 by 12, secondary: 39 by 14," giving him the coordinates of his primary and secondary targets as seen on the computer generated targeting grid. The human could understand the general concepts communicated by the flute, but his alien senses were too dull to differentiate the higher pitched notes.
Claviak selected his own target, eye and antennae through the scan scope of his illegally modified RTT pistol. The weapon was modified, contrary to Fleet regs, to accommodate both laser emitter and the small electrically charged mag-slugs of a conventional RTT.
An Imzaar lounging in a pool was just off center of the green cross‑hairs. He moved the RTT a fraction to the left and down. The image on the screen moved into the cross‑hairs, which began flashing red. The Idorian held his breath. The slightest jarring would send the beam a fraction of a degree off target, and at this distance that would mean a clean miss. For this to work, they could not afford a miss.
Gently, he pressed his thumb on the trigger pad. A gentle hum accompanied the tracer gas' orange beam that cut through the dawn-like twilight. The weapon warmed in his hand, the warmth quickly dissipated so that it could be used again. The tracer gas discharge followed the laser, much, much slower, but still at speeds undistinguishable by eye or antennae.
At the Idorian's signal, orange beams flared from the saw weed. The Imzaar on Claviak's scanner jolted back, then slumped forward, sinking into the mud‑hole. The Idorian aimed his RTT to the right. His second target, now on the move, appeared on the screen. Cross‑hairs passed over the Imzaar, unable to lock on the tall, pink amphibian as it bolted for cover. For a fraction of a second, the cross‑hairs flashed red. In that split second, he pressed the trigger, another Imzaar dropped.
As the second wave of Imzaar dropped, the orange beams became more sporadic, each fleeter having to take time to lock onto a moving target. Occasional Imzaar fire, beams from their own hand held laser weapons, shot blindly into the assaulting saw weed, had pitiful little effect on their hidden attackers, other than to cause one of the Idorians to hunch down at a shot that would never have hit him - standing or crouching.
Now they had to move. They had bought time, but the risk of detection also increased with the concentrated laser fire. With a quick look through the targeting scanner, Claviak confirmed that there was no movement below and blew a few notes through the ijabra'shah. The party moved as hurriedly as possible through the thick grove of saw weed, those who had thought to bring gloves leading the way, Preatr at the point, scouting for traps.
"I do not think they were expecting us." Claviak said to Pilaus as they broke through the field into the low lying clearing that was now littered with the spot burned bodies of the alien amphibians.
A laser is a very clean way to kill. With a small contact point, it burns through the entire body, vaporizing and cauterizing, leaving none of the blood, the gore, the personal horror of mag-slugs or blades. Thick, heavy aroma of roast flesh filled the air.
"It certainly doesn't look that way." Pilaus choked back a gag of revulsion. His sanitized, civilized universe of computer logic, data transmission, and overfed clients who didn't know a processor from a memory crystal and were more than happy to give him lots of money to keep it that way, left no room for this sort of carnage. In a emotional surge that his exhausted psyche could not contain, a moment of shame and guilt at the uniform and its rank, given so freely by those clients, overcame him. Borrowing the Idorian's ijabra'shah, surprised at the comfortable heft of it in his palm, he cut away his rank insignia and tossed them into one of the muddy pools.
"Why?" Claviak asked, taking back his weapon.
Pilaus shook his head. "It's a game to them. They sit in comfortable offices and board rooms plotting to gain control of your expeditionary force. They don't give a damn about the job, they just want control of those ships. It would scare them shitless if they got it.
"Never mind. Just do your job, I'll do mine, and they'll be no more pretending about whose in charge here."
"No." Claviak said. "We both know it's WFC Preatr."
Pilaus suddenly jumped one meter straight up and three to the side. Before either of them had time to react, a blur of mud, water, and rubbery pink shot up out of the mud hole, directly at the Major. Pilaus and the blur tumbled gracelessly into another mud hole, thrashing wildly in the muck.
Claviak tugged his RTT from its shoulder holster and fired at the attacker. The laser beam carried no momentum. The Imzaar was not thrown to the side as if hit by a mag-slug, it just stopped, as if shocked at having such intense heat bore through it, and slid beneath the mud.
A few bubbles, air escaping Imzaar lungs, and the mud pool was still. With two great steps, Claviak ran into the pool, groping for Pilaus. Preatr followed. Up to their waists in mud, they fished out the colonist and dragged him to ground.
"Access codes . . ." Pilaus was having trouble breathing. The Imzaar neurotoxin, delivered through sharp needle claws, was rushing through his body, shutting down even autonomic functions. A younger, healthier man could survive with only a few hours misery, Pilaus was neither.
Grabbing at the Idorian, pulling at Claviak's head so the tympanic membrane came toward his mouth, he shouted the bunker and control system access codes in a voice that came out as a bare whisper. As they came from the humans mouth, Claviak put them to song, using ancient nos'ijabra learning techniques, wrapping the data as quickly as possible in a web of associative memory.
A simple array of radar dishes, just fifteen meters across, and a rather more extensive grouping of antennae marked the entry to the control bunker. The metallic spires could be seen rising above the saw weed covered hillocks when they were still kilometers distant.
The other human, WSC Marston Haddon, nicknamed 'Mars' just to make things confusing, had no trouble hacking into the facility's simplistic security protocols. An elevator shaft, built into the support column of the main antenna dish, dropped them five hundred meters into the ground.
At the bottom of the shaft, the bunker was sealed by another half a kilometer of interlocked, sliding blocks of poured duraplast. When the proper codes were entered, the blocks would slide away and allow the elevator to drop the final five hundred meters, into the satellite control room. To enter those access codes, there were only two small rectangular indentations, the kind used throughout the Union. There was not even a dedicated terminal for Mars to attempt a bypass.
Standing on metal floor plates, Mars held J.T. van der Boothe's thumb up to one of the indentations. The thumb, now warmed to body temperature, was attached to tiny pumps in the blue box that simulated blood flow through the severed digit.
Claviak was less confident of Pilaus' thumb. With several hours decomposition, no blood flow, and tainted by Imzaar neurotoxin, would the system accept it as Pilaus? He held it up to the other indentation.
Claviak counted down in Idorian and, at his mark, the thumbs were placed on the thump pads and the access codes, like magical incantations from Arabian Nights, were recited.
"Thomas Edourd Pilaus, PILAU34331, identification acknowledged." Claviak, aware of his rapidly beating heart for the first time, relaxed and took a breath. Relief turned to terror, then horror as the disembodied voice of the computer said "identification unknown, intruder alert, physical security routines active" and Mars flailed, flopped, and burned as electricity poured through the thumb pad and floor plate and his body.
L'Étoile Oblique, bastardized as 'Oblik' by the North American derived Earther culture, rose high in the afternoon sky. In his luxury suite in the vdB Werks communications complex, J.T. van der Boothe ate a light lunch of fried swamp weed. The delicacy was imported from Oblik II before the crisis suspended all commercial shipping. Between ring finger and thumb, he secured one stick while manipulating the other with forefinger. With a malicious grin, he watched stock prices rise. Someone, he couldn't imagine who, had leaked Pilaus' desperate mission to the Colonial Exchange. The rumor of such a gross security over sight on vdB's part sent prices plunging. J.T.'s holding companies bought, but not enough to force up prices.
Then, with the skill of a master artisan, the rumor that the prior rumor was true flew through the markets, along with the implication. If the Imzaar, as these invaders were now being called, controlled Oblik II's satellites, the defense network would have to be destroyed before it could be turned against its owners, his customers. If the satellites came down, there was only one company with the expertise and resources to rebuild. No matter who was at fault, who could be blamed, J.T.'s stocks soared, J.T.'s companies sold.
Another sell order flashed across his monitor. He flipped the chopsticks into his left hand, and stabbed his right thumb onto the indentation as confirmation. Using his left hand, he kept eating, manipulating one chopstick with his index finger, the other stick secured between ring finger and thumb.
"Fleet Captain Smythe is here to see you."
"What for?" He replied to the disembodied message.
"Satellite access code negotiation."
"That was quick. Send him in."
Captain Nigel Smythe, tall with a slight stoop, thin graying hair, hawkish nose, and long chin, came into the room. Both he and the Idorian junior officer accompanying him bore a menacing composure that had more to it than the neat, void black uniforms and shining silver dragons. Scratches were healed, but the Idorian moved with a stiffened gait as if cradling his left side from a recent injury.
"Mr. van der Boothe, I have heard a great deal about you since our arrival in your beautiful colony." Smythe's voice, carrying a thick, well-honed accent from Earth's Western European Community, dripped diplomatic sincerity.
"Most of what you hear is rumor, I'm sure." van der Boothe rose from his desk, pushing aside the half finished meal, and gestured for the fleeters to sit at the adjacent lounge area.
Smythe declined. "We won't be long."
"How is your thumb?" The Idorian asked.
van der Boothe's mouth dropped. He looked down at his hands, thumbs fully intact, no sign of scar tissue that would still be present even after a new thumb were regrown and attached. van der Boothe now recognized the Idorian in the fleeter uniform as Claviak, the one who made first contact with the Imzaar, the one Governor Oblik III told him was lead Pilaus' mission. The one whose mission failed and cost poor Pilaus his life.
Claviak glowered darkly at J.T.'s thumbs, both of them. The satellite baron quickly hid both hands behind his back.
Smythe continued. "I understand that you have offered to sell us the bypass access code of each armed satellite. You know better than I, that to disable the network, we will have to approach each satellite from orbit, transmit the access code to shut down the automated defense systems, and then destroy the satellite. A bloody dangerous business, I'm sure you'll agree. And one that leaves us on even ground with the Imzaar, neither side will have satellites.
"So, I have a better idea, actually it was your idea. I am going to turn you into a war hero Mr. van der Boothe. . .for real this time. You know the old saying 'if at first you don't succeed. . .' - I need your thumb."
J.T.'s eyes went wide and his mouth worked spasmodically, but made no sound. The Idorian had taken the strange knife / flute from its holster and was coming straight at him.
Copyright 1998 by Scott Langley
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