With plenty of humor along the way, get ready for an exhilarating voyage to intriguing worlds.
- Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9852095-5-1
- eBook ISBN: 978-0-9852095-6-8
- Audiobook ISBN: 978-0-9852095-9-9
- Published: September 18, 2018
- Available in: English
- Edition: First Edition
- Publisher: Sun Day Consulting, Inc
- Paperback: 228 pages
- Genre: Science Fiction / Adventure
- Interest Age: 13 years and up
- Authors: Mark Fulcher, Annet Libeau
- Narrator: Steve Carlson
- Cover and Character Graphic Design: Seeker
Back Cover by Annet Libeau
While rescuing a meteor prospector in distress, fighter pilot Kryger is lured into a sophisticated trap and forced to flee to a planet in a newly discovered solar system. The Hullenii bugs pursue him with uncharacteristic vigor, as their glee turns to anguish, and he has no choice but to crash land on a desert world.
All is not as it seems, and Kryger soon finds himself on a perilous journey with a dwarflike humanoid. They receive a precious gift from the last member of an ancient race called the Scrii.
Unbeknown to Kryger, the gift will bring them face to face with an even deadlier intergalactic enemy.
The stay-alert drug was starting to wear off, and Kryger’s brain was so befuddled by lack of sleep that he couldn’t trust his reactions. He took the sensible precaution of switching to automatic to let the heavy fighter land itself and follow the signal to its assigned hangar. He was on the verge of drifting off to sleep when the doors trundled open as they recognized the signal from the craft. The doors shut automatically when the craft stopped well inside the hangar and the lights turned on.
He felt inclined to simply deactivate the fighter and sink into much-needed rest without even loosening the straps but sensed bad news when he saw Major Amanzi, a trusted old friend, approaching with a runabout. But even with his mind so obtuse, he made sure the fighter was properly shut down before he popped the door open and pressed the button to unfold the flimsy-looking ladder to the floor, then used it to descend carefully lest he trip and fall on his face. He usually dispensed with this luxury, but he could barely concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
“Hi, Dub. What’s up?” he asked, trying to sound interested. Dub Amanzi was a wing commander. About eight months ago he had miscalculated his distance from a Bikan light cruiser and veered off too late after bombing it. Both he and his fighter had been badly damaged in the explosion, and he had still been piloting a wheelchair around base when the fleet left Nevus four weeks ago. “Did you decide to spare me the walk, or were you just tired of your usual transport?”
Dub saw and felt the utter exhaustion radiating from his friend but smiled to hide his concern. “No, I regret that it’s got nothing to do with anything as mundane as altruism. I’m able to walk a short distance by myself off and on, and I was told, not asked, by the old dodderers to come and collect you because they want to see you without delay. How’s the fighting going?” The “old dodderers” was their irreverent nickname for the war council, who lacked combat experience and sometimes issued strange orders to young pilots who couldn’t comprehend the logic of it.
“When the admiral ordered me back to base about three hours ago in the midst of a dogfight, the Bikans and their allies were trying to withdraw discreetly. They gave us bloody hell for a fortnight. Most of the pilots didn’t get any sleep because our old enemies fought with uncharacteristic cunning and determination. I thought I was being dismissed because I was making foolish, unintentional, and dangerous mistakes.
“Perhaps the Bikans have new allies with some brains and fighting skills because we lost quite a few craft along with their crews, but that’s classified information, so don’t blabber it out in your sleep.” He knew that Dub wasn’t the talkative kind and that he could be trusted with such information. “What’s so urgent about the council wanting to see me?”
“They didn’t tell me, old friend, but they seemed quite impatient about your arrival. I was told to bring you directly to them with no stops on the way.” Kryger had a sudden foreboding. “Oh damn! That means a Bug problem popped up that is so urgent, I was ordered to quit in the middle of a serious skirmish. And I thought I was being favored. I innocently planned to sleep nonstop for at least a week in a decent bed. At least the other guys might get a bit of rest within the next few hours, for as you know, those crazy Bikans usually make sudden exits once they decide that it’s time to push off.”
During the twenty-minute trip to the council building in a city named Landing, Kryger involuntarily relaxed and fell asleep. Dub was watching him out of the corner of an eye and called his name when his head fell forward. Kryger suddenly became alert, then realized where he was, relaxed, and smiled sheepishly at his friend.
“You may have noticed that I wasn’t bragging. I’m a walking disaster looking for a place to happen, and I have a nasty premonition that the uncaring council is going to provide the place.”
“My sympathy, old friend; I know how you feel because that’s how I ended up in a wheelchair after only three days on the stay-alert drug. But here we are.” Dub set the hover-car down below the twelve steps in front of the building. “We can only hope you’re allowed a few hours’ sleep before they send you off to wherever, but knowing those insensitive old codgers, I doubt it. I was politely requested, mind you, to wait after delivering you, and that alone is ominous enough.”
“I don’t think I can make it up those steps. There’s space enough on top and never much traffic, so will you hover up, please? Tell any busybody who wants you to move to take it up with the council and me. That should shut them up.”
“Okay, I’ll also offer to give them my wheelchair to suffer in. That should be enough to deter any sensible human being.” Dub settled the car down to one side of the wide stairway, well away from the occasional pedestrians.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Only iron discipline made Kryger get out of the car and kept him upright. He found it difficult to focus on the simple task of walking into the building, but the effort it took wasn’t obvious to the few onlookers.
At reception he was sorely tempted to give the guard a rude gesture when he was waved through with the unnecessary comment that he was expected. Another guard wordlessly opened the door to the council chamber and gave Kryger a friendly smile, which he returned as he nodded his thanks. Hoping that the air conditioning inside the council chamber would make him feel better, he unzipped the front of his flight suit and entered slowly, unable to control the fatigue that showed in his walk, voice, and face.
He warily greeted the stern-faced old men seated in a semicircle and sensed their distaste as they smelled the odor emanating from his body, which hadn’t been outside the flight suit for a fortnight. He didn’t care; they could have been more considerate since he wasn’t a robot.
“Ah, young Kryger, thank you for coming so expeditiously,” Guar, the chair and spokesman, greeted him politely while taking short shallow breaths. His face was serious and didn’t display distaste after the initial shocked reaction. “I’ll get to the point immediately. A matter of extreme urgency came up, and you’re the only one who can handle it.”
Oh damn! I’m really sick of bloody Bugs, Kryger thought despairingly.
“About ten days ago, we received intelligence that a fair world, a little over three hundred light-years away, was rapidly being devastated. Observation by mechanical means confirmed that something out of the ordinary was happening, but the pilot couldn’t venture too close because he wasn’t immune to Bug control. That’s why we need you to go in for a closer look and maybe do something about it.”
“Sir, with respect,” Kryger interjected when Guar paused, apparently to clear his throat, “I’ve been on stay-alert drugs for thirteen days, which is four times the recommended duration. I can hardly stay upright, and I can’t think straight. Can’t it stand over for one day so that I can have a much-needed rest? It’s only a three-hour journey, but I can’t engage a Bug in this condition and come off best, sir.”
“I’m sorry, boy,” another councilor replied. “Councilor Guar was going to add that an urgent call for assistance from that vicinity was intercepted about five hours ago. Apparently a meteor prospector’s ship, from a race recently rescued from the Hullenii Bugs, was disabled by a meteor and is losing air quite rapidly. The call for help said that he can perhaps survive for eleven hours on his reserve oxygen. You must try to get to him in time and then, if possible, at least quick-scan the planet in question on your way back.
“We won’t ask you to confront the creatures this time; just get close enough to check what’s going on because, except for Quarr, you’re the only one who can resist a Bug’s mind power. You can pick up the guy in distress because your ship can accommodate two persons and is being rearmed right now in case you need to fight to get away. You have time for a…ah…quick shower and a meal. The coordinates and a fresh flight suit will be waiting for you.”
A shiver of apprehension ran down Kryger’s back. He had one of those rare forebodings of disaster waiting, but he couldn’t refuse a “request” from the council or an urgent call for help from a lone spaceman in trouble, genuine or not.
“Very well, Councilors, but I smell a nasty, sophisticated Bug trap. I don’t think I can face even one of them in my present state.” They just looked at him as if he were out of his mind. He shrugged and turned to go but then thought he might as well upset the old fossils―if it could be done. He turned his head halfway around. “This reminds me of an old story, Councilors. Old Benny was on his deathbed, and his wife called the children to come and pay their last respects. They gathered in the lounge, and the teary old mother went in first to prepare the dying man. ‘Benny,’ she said with a sob in her voice, ‘the children are here to say goodbye.’”
“The dying man croaked, ‘What? Where are they going?’”
With that repartee, he more stumbled than walked to the door. They were always so serious that he thought they had no sense of humor, but he heard a few suppressed titters, and as the guard closed the door, uncontrolled laughter burst out before it was completely shut. He remained serious-faced and just shrugged when the guard gave him an inquiring look.
He felt somewhat refreshed after the much needed shower and a light meal. Dub took him back to the hangar and made sympathetic noises when told about the emergency call for help in Bug territory, but Kryger refrained from mentioning his reservations. It was just a little too much of a coincidence that the call had come from the vicinity of the troubled planet, but a “polite request” from the council was an implied order he had to obey, no matter whether he could keep his eyes open. The only consolation was that he should have at least two hours’ sleep on the way, and when he arrived he would be as wary as an antelope getting a slight whiff of a stalking predator. It was just too dangerous to take even one more stay-alert capsule and expect to resist the dreadful mental powers of a Bug, which was usually linked to seven others that would instantly combine their mental power when Kryger was recognized.
After he’d completed the usual roundabout route to confuse possible chance observers, he entered the destination coordinates into the computer, and to make sure he’d wake up in time to take control of the ship, he switched the ten-minute-prior-to-emergence-into-normal-space warning buzzer to maximum. The irritating din would wake him up with sufficient time to stretch some of the sleep and fatigue from his overtired body. He fell asleep even as he pushed the button to enter subspace.
Kryger jumped when the too-shrill warning shocked him awake, but he didn’t attain any height because of the restraining straps. His brain was foggy, but he removed the straps, drank water from a squeeze-bulb, and started to exercise in the confined cockpit to get his blood circulating. After four minutes of trying to push the cockpit sides away from him, he felt alive enough to switch the final reminder off because he didn’t require the one-minute-and-ten-second warning that the craft was about to pop out of subspace. The drastic deceleration from 100 light-years per hour, or 1.4 light-years per minute, was quite severe by then, and other reminders would be superfluous.
He checked the time. He had slept for two hours and about fifteen minutes, which wasn’t nearly long enough, but at least he felt a little more alive. Although he didn’t want to, because it could easily delude him into making stupid mistakes, he took a mouthful of wake-up juice to ensure he at least would feel fully alert at pop-out.
He missed Quarr’s unique talent for scanning normal space around the exit point while still a couple of light-years away in subspace, and since his brain was not as sharp as it should be to ably cope with such a situation, he was grateful that there wasn’t a surprise party waiting to welcome him when the fighting craft emerged into normal space.
Not surprisingly, the call for help came just as he changed direction to head for the planet about five million kilometers away. “Help! Anyone…Please help me! My freighter is gutted, and I only have enough oxygen left for about three hours. If you can reach me in that time, my coordinates are…” and the numbers came in calmly and clearly with no hint of panic, which warned Kryger, and fatigue miraculously departed as his survival instincts kicked in.
The measured tones were in sharp contrast to the urgency of the message. It sounded just like a recording done under ideal conditions because nobody could stay that calm in such a situation, he thought with growing alarm, but even though he was sure he’d been sent into a trap of some sort, he was obliged to investigate on the off chance that it just might be a genuine distress call. Maybe the recorder deliberately transmitted the message so calmly as a warning to the intended victim or victims. He wondered if the ability to instantly jump a million or two kilometers through subspace was known to or suspected by those involved in this elaborate but flawed trap.
When Kryger sensed monkey business like this, his brain sharpened because his life depended on correctly interpreting such situations, but he entered the numbers into the computer as they came while he vainly tried to find signs of life in the vast area of space around him. When finished, the computer indicated that the target area was in the middle of the scattered clusters of meteors on the other side of the planet, and his instruments detected the presence of a metallic object, but his wary mind-scan of that area found no sign of Bug or warm-blooded life.
He pushed the button for the short subspace jump to the given coordinates. Otherwise it would take him three to four hours to reach the place, which would be way too late. He wondered briefly if he was being overly suspicious but decided it was prudent to err on the safe side because of the subtle warning in the message. He emerged about a hundred kilometers short of his objective because the sophisticated detectors wouldn’t allow the craft to emerge too close to a heavy object. The fighter was at an angle that would completely miss the cluster of meteors if Kryger didn’t apply reverse thrust to slow it to a veritable crawl, which he felt would make him a sitting duck. He made sure the shields were on full power.
Kryger mentally started to search the meteor cluster and was reaching for the throttle to slow down when the instruments shrilled a warning that large objects were rapidly closing in around the craft. At the same time, he sensed a multitude of gleeful chuckles, and he received a direct, harsh, derisively jovial greeting: Aha! Welcome, cat-face! We can hardly believe our luck! We prepared a trap to lure a human ship with shield technology, but you showed up instead and fell for our painstakingly made recordings. You won’t escape this time as we have twenty ships which are responsive to the thoughts of one of us, and we can outmaneuver you no matter what you do. You’ve escaped our vengeance for much too long, cat-face, and now you will die slowly, but only after we know the location of your planet. We’ve wondered what you would taste like, and we’ll start with one toe at a time and taste our way up until you die of pain and blood loss. But you can be sure that you’ll give us what we want long before you die!
Kryger went cold and shivered. He mentally cursed the insensitive council who had likely sent him to this ignominious death when they could very well see he was almost comatose. But he wasn’t dead yet, and there was no giving up anywhere in his powerful two-meter body. He would fight until his last breath, and he had some nasty, unconventional surprises to confound them with.
The ship with the exultant Hullenii speaker on board was rising from behind the cluster of space debris directly in front of him where the alleged miner-in-trouble should have been. He wondered fleetingly how they had managed to conceal their thought emanations, but hardly a moment later, he sent the strongest mind-bolt he could muster into the ship without focusing on the jubilant speaker Bug and then stabbed the button for the short random subspace jump to get him out of the area. In the battle to save the planet Okryon from total destruction, he’d thought of this quick getaway method, which had been subsequently programmed into all ships, and it had saved many lives when ships or fighters were disabled and unable to get away. He emerged half a million kilometers away and faint with exhaustion after the energy expended on the mind-bolt, then checked his instruments just in time to see a rapidly fading explosion in the vicinity of the meteorite cluster. He wondered briefly if the Bugs were bombing the position where he had been a moment ago. He couldn’t know that the energy bolt, not aimed at a specific Bug-mind in the ship but sent just to stun, had killed all eight overconfident Hullenii on the ship, and that the explosion occurred when the uncontrolled ship collided with a gigantic boulder.
There was no known method in which he could be attacked in subspace. Kryger was too spent to fight and therefore quickly punched the coordinates of a recently discovered solar system with a livable planet more than one thousand and five hundred light-years away into the computer. He felt dizzy.
The Hullenii had an inborn compulsion to pass new information to one another. Although information was instantly filed in their vast retentive brains, they didn’t have the ability to access the incredibly diverse and valuable scientific data accumulated over very long lifetimes. Perhaps, Kryger thought, one of them had found a humanoid bright enough to cross-reference information and program its computer-like brain to access it. Of course, the method would have automatically been passed on to the whole caboodle, which would have enabled them to have these new ships built, and he’d have to assume they could track him in subspace and would follow since they couldn’t miss the chance to do him in.
Of course, he couldn’t know the consternation his spur-of-the-moment decision would cause.
A century or two ago, a Bug overpowered and eventually destroyed a humanoid race who hooked their fighting ships’ controls electronically to the pilot’s brain before they went into battle. The Bugs must have liked the idea because their vast brains would superbly control and maneuver a big ship like an agile fighting craft.
The Hullenii’s vast minds were faster than any electronic computer. Their brains were, in fact, similar to the organic computers used by Kryger’s people, and their ships were designed to be controlled by one of them hooked up with the electronic controls of the ship. That particular Bug became the ship’s controlling computer. The hooked-up one received directives from the elected commander, and the near-sentient ship responded instantly to any impulse it received from its controller. The Bugs were incapable of comprehending that the ship would respond by exploding when the controller realized it was dying, but, then, they thought they were immortal unless cat-face was in the vicinity.
Because the ship was controlled by a living, thinking brain, it was ultra-responsive and could outmaneuver any ship manually controlled by a humanoid pilot. The hooked-up one was fed at regular intervals to replenish the vast amount of energy it used in the process, but they were not original thinkers and never realized that the hooked-up one could become overtired from the constant concentration of keeping the ship operating and on course on very long journeys.
The backlash of the unexpectedly powerful blast had left them confused for vital seconds before they could check the course their fleeing quarry had taken and pursue him. When they checked where the course might end up, they hastily linked to confer in a fit of anxiety.
They immediately assumed the interfering cat-face had somehow learned about the recently discovered desert planet, which was ideal for hatching their eggs. They were desperate to replenish their rapidly dwindling numbers and assumed the cat-face, in desperation to take a last stand, was going there to destroy the precious planet in an effort to save his miserable life. Their elected fleet commander had been killed by the cat-faced human even before its ship exploded, and they hastily designated the oldest survivor to lead and take decisions. It immediately snapped a mental order: We must follow at the maximum speed we can coach out of our ships. That eternally damned cat-face must not escape now that we know where he’s headed! We must stop the creature at all costs since we’ve searched everywhere and might not find another planet suitable for hatching our eggs. Cat-face must be destroyed even if we forgo our much anticipated vengeance. Go!
The nineteen ships took off in pursuit, and Kryger saw the cluster of blips on his subspace monitor screen. They were roughly two light-years behind, but his ship was still accelerating. He hoped to outdistance them but was too exhausted to worry whether he could. He didn’t even wonder what kind of genius they had enlisted or, more probably, coerced to concoct the ingenious trap as he dropped off into an exhausted sleep. His instruments had calculated the exact distance, and he’d set the alarm to wake him two hours prior to pop-out. That should give him sufficient time to wake up and take stock of the situation.
He reluctantly rubbed his eyes to get them open when the insistent alarm at last managed to irritate him enough to realize he must get back to reality, that he couldn’t afford the luxury of stopping the alarm and going back to sleep. He forced his eyes open with conscious effort, sucked a couple of mouthfuls of water from a bulb to get a semblance of life back into his body before he switched the alarm off, and then checked his instruments. He was so shocked to see sixteen blips less than a light-hour behind him that he almost stopped yawning. His jaw dropped, and he shook his head because he just couldn’t believe the Bugs could gain that much distance in thirteen hours but knew his instruments wouldn’t lie.
And the Buggers, the ironic comparison flashed into his mind, are incapable of thinking that they might be led on a chase that would eventually overtax even their enormous capacities. There are only fifteen blips left, and I’d like to know whether the missing blips destroyed themselves or if they popped out into normal space so fast that the ships’ structures burst into flames or just ripped to pieces. One can only hope.
They were too close for peace of mind, so he must think and plan ahead. He would come out of subspace perilously close to the solar system, and the ship controllers might very well overshoot when his craft started to decelerate before pop-out, unless they had an inkling of his probable destination.
He just couldn’t afford to underestimate them because they might start to decelerate at more or less the same time and pop out before him. He must take that likelihood into account and be prepared to fight them off or just dodge them until he could enter a new course into the computer. He just didn’t know how much control they still had over their ships and whether they could decelerate drastically enough to save them from breaking up if they hit normal space too fast.
If they were scattered at emergence, he would have a chance to take some of their ships out before he entered subspace again, but he must take into account that their ships were fractionally faster in subspace and that they might outmaneuver him in normal space.
They, because of their different makeup, could withstand as many gravities as he could, if not more, but it was highly unlikely they were able to unhook a controller during subspace flight. The ship-controlling Bugs must be pretty exhausted by now, and another few hours in subspace might be too much for them. It was a pity he couldn’t punch fictitious destinations into the control computer since he might not survive a long journey or could end up in another galaxy and never find his way back.
It was worrying that the Bugs overcame their natural antipathy toward one another to band together, and he must warn his father through Mike, the artificial intelligence that claimed its telepathic ability could keep track and contact a bracelet-bearer anywhere in the universe.
He settled down to make contact with Mike. He’d contacted the AI many times before in subspace to transmit information he’d gleaned from a Bug’s mind and was surprised that he received no immediate response. He tried for ten minutes before giving up, concluding that Mike wasn’t as powerful as it claimed or that he was still too tired to transmit or receive thoughts over such a vast distance.
Kryger was disappointed, but there was nothing he could do but try again in normal space when he got the chance. The only consolation was that, if and when the constant surveillance began to fade or ceased, Mike would inform Quarr or his father and give them the direction in which Kryger’s signal was lost. If contact wasn’t reestablished within a reasonable time, his disappearance would be investigated.
When the vicious deceleration began, he set about readying all missiles and counter-missiles the craft carried. It wasn’t a chancy thing to do because they were cushioned and would only detonate on contact at high speed. Then he switched on the front and rear Matter Annihilator Guns so they too would be ready to fire. He had done all that could be done and settled down to endure the rest of the thirty-minute severe deceleration. Then he noticed that six blips were passing; four kept parallel and five stayed close behind him. He grimly thought that they planned to box him in and almost smiled.
Kryger was tense as pop-out approached and unconsciously began humming the signature tune of the Golden People as he was wont to do under stress. His right hand was on the push button for the short subspace jump as he couldn’t know what was waiting for him, and his left hand was clamped around the joystick.
The sickening lurch into normal space didn’t bother him, and his eyes rapidly alternated between the monitors and the space before him. The fourth planet, the only one in this out-of-the-way system capable of sustaining life, was a little to his left, just about two million kilometers away, and the automatic deceleration continued to reduce speed for rapid atmospheric entry. He disengaged the automatic action since he wasn’t going to land and quickly switched the craft’s shields on for safety’s sake. He had a decent look around to see if it was safe and then took a moment to check and punch new coordinates into the control computer.
Kryger almost felt elated when the front monitor screen showed two explosions quite close together on the planet. To be picked up so clearly at this distance, they must be quite enormous, he thought with grim satisfaction. Two ships and sixteen Bugs fewer to worry about without lifting a finger, he thought happily. It improves the odds so much more in my favor.
But the elation was short-lived. Even as the explosions occurred, a warning shrilled sharply in the cockpit. A quick glance at the relevant monitors showed a swarm of dots rapidly closing in from the right-hand side. They could only be heat-homing missiles―too many to be deflected by the shields. He fired all counter-missiles on his right-hand side to intercept them, then quickly did a half roll and fired all the interceptor missiles on his left side, hoping that would be enough to stop most of them, but the alarm kept shrilling and he hastily stabbed the jump button, which unfortunately would switch the shields off an instant before the craft entered subspace. It was unavoidable as some peculiarity in the shield generators would not allow a ship to enter subspace.
But as the familiar stomach-churning lurch began, he felt the ship shudder, and the next thing he knew, he was back in normal space with missiles flashing past a little to his rear. He punched the all-shield button and was thankful when the shields flashed into place. A one-in-a-million chance of being hit by a missile in the rear just as the ship entered subspace, he thought as he calmly accepted the misfortune. He was thankful the rear missiles didn’t explode because he and the fighter would have been scattered debris, which would have been a source of delirious delight for the Bugs.
Missiles began to splash against the shields, and the fighter shuddered continuously. The shields would overheat very soon, and then he’d be a goner. Then a Bug ship tried to ram him, but by applying power, it was easy to avoid the immense bulk. He realized they meant to kill him by any means, even by sacrificing themselves. Did they really hate him this much, or were they trying to prevent him from reaching the planet? And if they were, what’s so important about this sandy, barren-looking planet? There must be a very good reason for them to be so uncharacteristically suicidal.
Just to be certain, he stabbed the jump button again, but nothing happened. He quickly punched another destination into the computer, but there was no response. He sighed; the subspace nexus must be damaged, but other than that, the fighter responded quite normally to its controls, and he could fight as long as the shields held. Whether he originally intended to or not, he now had no choice but to land on the lifeless-looking planet. His fighter might be crippled, but it still had enough teeth left to take a lot of Bugs with him.
Three ships approached extremely fast around the curve of the planet just as he turned the fighter in that direction. The ships were quite close together as he aimed the forward big MAG and rapidly activated the trigger three times. Three silent explosions followed in quick succession, which Kryger found strange because a big MAG bolt left only a small hole about a centimeter wide in its path. He noted the unusual phenomenon only because he was executing a tight loop to confront the ships that had crept up behind him. First he fired all forward counter-missiles to intercept approaching missiles and then shot both ships with the big MAG. Again he realized that the ships exploded instead of just becoming lifeless driftage as they should. Perhaps it was the type of metal used, he thought and shrugged. It was none of his concern but a very convenient way to get rid of eight Bugs at one go.
His instruments bleeped twice and showed another four ships approaching, but they were still far away. He thought that they might very well be the only survivors of the six ships that had surged ahead and might have overshot the solar system. He could afford to disregard them because he would land long before they were close enough to enter the thin atmosphere in pursuit. He turned the fighter toward the nameless planet again and increased speed.
As he entered the atmosphere, an alarm began to bleep. He checked the monitors and saw a single ship closing in fast from behind as it was firing a swarm of missiles. There must be some Bug ships stationed on this planet, he thought, and every single one of them seems to be equipped with a surplus of missiles. He took a chance and fired the rear counter-missiles as well as the rear MAG. He felt the slight, rapid bumps as the missiles left their tubes, but then there was an explosion. The fighter shuddered briefly and then tumbled out of control.
When he flipped the antigravity switch on, it unaccountably didn’t respond. Damn, he thought viciously as he fought to stabilize the craft, how in all the hells of creation did that happen? There wasn’t much time because the atmosphere wasn’t thick, and he activated reverse thrust at maximum as he fought the craft for control. Fortunately the craft was equipped with Quarr’s invention—the joystick was coupled to the thrusters as well—but for some unknown reason, response was tardier than it should have been.
He tried every trick he knew of to level out, but by the time the heavy fighter responded, he was already too close to the surface. The belly hit deep sand, and the craft bounced high into the air. Fortunately the craft stayed level, and Kryger briefly glimpsed a fairly wide fissure in the far distance but couldn’t see how deep it was before the craft hit the sand again.
Reverse thrust cut out. Perhaps it had been damaged by the second impact. He could eject—if that still worked—when the fighter shot over the edge of the fissure, but that meant he would be left without survival equipment, provisions, and precious water. Kryger calmly accepted the dire prospects because it had happened many times before, and somehow he always came through.
The situations had been similar but never on a seemingly lifeless planet like this, and with such well-equipped and ruthless enemies determined to rub him out while he was within reach. These thoughts flashed through his mind as he flipped switches off to prevent an explosion or fire if the craft went over the edge or hit an immovable obstacle head-on. Maybe something could still be salvaged after the crash because the ready-packed rucksacks were in cushioned compartments for just such an eventuality.
The fighter slid along as if it were on a greased surface but suddenly began to bounce and lurch as it hit uneven, roughly formed, low dunes. He knew the fighter was designed to survive forced landings and extremely rough conditions but could only hope it would veer off course to miss the none-too-inviting fissure. That same fissure might be the only place to find water and a place to hide, but it was also the most likely place for the Bugs to search for him. So it would be better to stay out of it for a few days and find some other means of evading them.
The trail of billowing dust must be visible from space, he thought despairingly and surmised that one or more Bug ships would arrive soon enough to finish off what they’d started if he didn’t get away from the fighter in time. He also knew that, if they didn’t see or detect his presence, they would assume he was either dead or unconscious and head for the craft because they’d been trying to get hold of shield technology for a number of years.
The craft must have reached deep, loose sand because Kryger suddenly felt it slowing down quite drastically. The long dust cloud overtook the craft and began to obscure his forward view, but there was nothing he could do except prepare to eject, if he could, when the craft sailed over the edge. He grabbed the ejection lever next to the seat in his left hand, ready to pull it up the moment he felt the familiar sinking sensation and saw a bit of clear sky above.
Then there was a heart-stopping bump. The fighter bounced and then lurched slightly sideways before hitting an immovable object. The restraining straps bit into Kryger’s body as the craft came to a dead halt at a slightly downward angle. The swirling dust cloud obscured his sight, and when he tried to open the canopy, it refused to budge. As the opening mechanism quickly overloaded, a warning light flashed a few times before the motor cut out.
Kryger undid the straps and pulled the recessed lever to unlock the emergency door next to him, then forced it halfway open with his legs before it refused to budge any farther. Hot sand and dust poured into the cockpit as he turned on his stomach to blindly grope for the rucksacks with emergency supplies and survival equipment. The cockpit was partly filled with sand when he pulled both bags by their straps and began forcing his way out, backside first. He felt the cascade slow to a trickle as he pulled his shoulders through the half-opened door.
Dust billowed thickly around the craft, and Kryger couldn’t wait for it to disperse to see properly since a Bug ship might already be close. By touch he clawed enough sand out for the door to shut. The ship must be destroyed along with its secret weapons, he thought, but it might as well take a Bug or two with it.
Kryger made sure he had the remote control with him to destroy the ship from a distance if the mechanism for autodestruct on forced entry had been damaged, and that the door was properly closed again so only he could open it or the canopy safely with his voice or a bare hand on the lock plate.
Although the urge to run was hellishly strong, he cautiously crawled on hands and knees since he didn’t know how far he was from the fissure. Dragging the rucksacks with one hand, he patted the hot sand before him with his free hand to feel his way out. When the dust thinned enough to see a few steps ahead, he came to his feet and checked the sky for ships before he looked around. The fighter had bounced over one of the last fairly big dunes, and its angle and momentum had been just right to make it end up, nose first, in the side of a dune about fifty meters from the uneven edge of the fissure. He quietly thanked whatever higher entity had taken pity on him because the fighter had nearly missed the last dune and would have sailed right into the deep fissure.
He shouldered the rucksacks and ran some distance along the rim as fast as his stiff muscles and the terrain allowed. He wasn’t concerned about the tracks he was leaving since the Bugs would naturally home in on the fighter first. Kryger knew they were incapable of considering consequences and followed only their natural instincts but couldn’t keep a wolfish grin from his lips when he thought of the deadly trap they wouldn’t be able to resist.
The weapon strapped to his side in a holster―called Big MAG by his twin sisters, the inventors―although not heavy or big, was powerful enough to bring a battleship down. The original little experimental MAG, which he always kept in a special pocket on the inside of his shorts, could also do the job, so he wasn’t worried about ships spotting him.
The kilometers-long dust trail the fighter had left behind was slowly settling down in the hot, windless atmosphere. After checking the sky again, he stopped for a moment on the gradually rising slope to lift the faceplate of the transparent flight helmet that had kept the dust from entering. He turned the oxygen off and took a short cautious sniff. Although the dry, overly hot air smelled dusty, it was breathable. He breathed faster to get enough oxygen and then removed the helmet completely but didn’t discard it since he might need it as protection against poisonous gas if the Bugs resorted to that. He perused the sky again and then continued sprinting along the edge to get as far away from the immediate area as he could.