Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

Against All Odds

by Dan L. Hollifield


"Things simply spiraled out of control until I was forced to make some tough choices."
King Arthur, 716 AD

"You've never really known fear," said the Hanapket warlord to Kazsh-ak Teir. "Have you, D'rrish?" The contempt in its voice was easily detected, even though its translator was a cheap, military model built from stolen designs based on a child's toy from an emerging planet its people had invaded decades ago.

"Septodon," said the Reever from his bar stool near the old D'rrish, as he turned to face the Hanapket. "Your lack of manners is appalling. I'll thank you to refrain from taking that tone with my friend Kazsh-ak. His bravery has been demonstrated time and time again. As Antuth is my witness, if he strikes you dead right this minute, I will refuse to bring charges against him."

"Your threats are meaningless, human," replied Septodon, making his second mistake of the evening. And the night was still young. The Reever turned to face Max, and the two exchanged complex facial expressions involving single raised eyebrows. Max shrugged as if to say to the Reever, I have to serve it drinks until it breaks a law. You ARE the law. Your call, Cousin.

As if to diffuse the situation, Kazsh-ak Teir laughed through his translator for several long seconds. "Your humor is irrepressible, Friend Hanapket," he finally managed to say. "And a fair reply to your statement could only be that everything depends upon what your species defines as fear, does it not?"

"Bah," replied Septodon. "Fear is fear. It needs no definition between species. Either one admits to feeling fear when events thrust such upon one, or one is a fool."

"Indeed," said Kazsh-ak. "But I submit to you that I am no stranger to fear, panic, nor even despair. I have feared for my life, the lives of others, of events unfolding beyond any measure of my personal control, and even that the universe itself sometimes conspiring against my best efforts to perform my duties. I remember a time..." Almost seamlessly, the old D'rrish launched into one of his tall tales. As he spoke, the nearby listeners relaxed and ordered refills of their drinks, as if knowing that this story was not only true, but rather lengthy...

"I was only supposed to gather intelligence for the Fleet, but things rapidly went beyond my ability to control them," Kazsh-ak said. "A distress signal had been sent from the D'rrish colony on the planet R'lynath, some 780 lights in-arm from Bethdish. They were under siege and were in need of reinforcements and relief. I had only recently been commissioned as a Scout and given my own little ship at that time. I was sent out to see what the situation actually happened to be on the colony world. My little ship took somewhat over 100 standard days to arrive in the solar system that R'lynath called home. A hundred days by myself in a scout ship was difficult enough, but when I came out of hyperspace drive in the far reaches of the cometary halo of the system, I was more than a little bewildered by the sheer size of the fleet of invading star ships. The sensors reported more ships blockading the system than my tiny little Scout's computer could count. Hundreds of thousands of heavily-armed warships, swarming the outer system like a hive of angry Sting-Things whose home nest had been trodden on. I knew the Fleet was only a few standard days behind me, a week at the most, but still I was thrown into doubt at even their ability to come to the rescue of our colony...

" 'This does not bode well,' I thought. 'What am I supposed to do against a mighty armada of invading ships? I suppose reporting to home base that this is not fair will only get me written up as an idiot. Still, I'm only supposed to gather data for the fleet to make use thereof. Very well, to work...'

"I programmed my ship's sensors to gather as many observations as it could, and then to transmit those to the fleet as a secure, encrypted high-speed data dump at certain intervals when enough data had been collected to justify endangering my position outside the system. As time passed I became aware of a small group of ships attempting to break the invader's blockade to bring much needed supplies to the beleaguered planet. They were still long hours away from planet-fall, and taking heavy fire from the invading ships. What could I do to help them? I was in a Scout ship, not a fighter. I had only a few under-powered weapons. All things being equal, I might be able to slightly damage a very few of the invading ships, perhaps give the blockade runners time to sail closer to the colony planet, but at the ultimate cost of not only their lives, but my own. For hours, I continued to monitor the situation as things became grim indeed for the brave blockade runners. I kept hearing the voice of my seventh grandfather, twice removed, in the back of my mind. D'rrish did not build a mighty civilization by living as safe little animals.

"For long hours I pondered my Grandfather's words. I sat safe within my ship, well out of range of the invader's weapons. I finally came to one inescapable conclusion, to wit: Those colonists were members of my family, however distant. They were my sons and daughters, my cousins, my blood. They needed me. 'Sod this for a game of soldiers,' I thought. 'Computer, set all internal systems for overload capacity,' I said to the ship's internal AI. 'Recharge all weapons systems to absolute danger levels. Bring the main drive systems online and set a course for the colony planet. If these barbarians want a fight, I'm going to bloody well show them what fighting a D'rrish is all about!'

" 'Systems detect a weak point in the blockade placement,' replied the ship's AI. 'If these three ships are rendered useless,' the computer added, while placing a map on my main screen, 'then there is a slight chance to reach the planet's orbit. I calculate the odds at 17.75% we can succeed in this course of action...'

" 'I'll take those odds,' I replied to the computer. I knew it couldn't understand my words but I felt my Grandfather's fore-hand upon my carapace, urging me onwards. 'I want hyper drive micro-jumps calculated to bring me within firing range of each of those three ships.'

" 'Calculating...' said the AI. 'Estimated time of departure in eight standard minutes. Systems charging to overload levels...'

" 'What can we do once we reach planetary orbit?' I asked aloud.

" 'Working...' replied the AI.

" 'That wasn't meant to be a direct question, computer.' I said.

" 'Working...' said the ship again. 'Answer to rhetorical question estimated in four minutes...'

" 'T'narr'eft'duu'co'doze?!' I exclaimed. Well, actually, the word I used isn't easily translated from D'rrish, but the closest cognate would be 'What the bloody HELL?!'

"I waited for the on board computer to reply. It seemed to take ages, but I realize it only took the four minutes the AI quoted.

" 'Calculations complete,' the AI finally said. 'Weapons, engines, and shields charging to overload limits. It is suggested that on board systems perform each action for best efficient effect. Pilot interference will only degrade system effectiveness.'

" 'Onto'genydkin'nel ganc'esh'ont?' I replied. Oh, that translates rough to 'Cheeky bugger, ain't you?' But not quite as polite as all that, I'm afraid.

" 'Engines to full power for hyperspace jump sequence...'

"After about seventeen seconds I asked 'Well? What are we waiting for?'

" 'Pilot orders are required for full-auto sequence,' replied the little ship's AI.

" 'Oh, for Granshformod's sake! Computer, execute calculated sequence!' I shouted.

" 'Compliance,' replied the AI. 'Sequence activating in five... four... three... two... one... Now...'

"The universe blurred in my vision screen as the ship leaped into the position it had calculated. All my on-board guns fired, and the ship launched a single torpedo, then the universe blurred again. Once more my guns flamed outwards, and two torpedoes fired, then the universe blurred a third time. My guns drained their charges and one more torpedo was fired. Then the ship shifted position one last time. I saw that the AI had placed me in orbit around the colony world. Sensors showed one battle fortress nearby expanding into a cloud of tiny debris. The ships shields were still at full power, but the guns were cycling through a full recharge. I saw that I only had five energy torpedoes left, but that those systems were in full recharge mode as well. The AI's scans showed that I had cleared a tiny corridor through the blockade, but that I'd have to work my zatc'ansh off to keep it cleared until the fleet could arrive. Nothing is ever easy, is it? Suddenly, my communicator unit began shouting at me.

" 'Unidentified D'rrish ship, declare your intentions or face the consequences!'

" 'Why is no one ever happy to see me?' I asked.

" 'Rhetorical question,' my ship's AI replied. 'Answer not possible under stated conditions...'

" 'Replies to rhetorical questions are contra-indicated at this time!' I exclaimed to my ship. 'Calculate nearby enemy positions and firing solutions to eliminate same!'

" 'Working...' said my ship's AI. 'One orbiting fortress detected 180 degrees opposite our present position in planetary orbit. No other enemy ship remains functional inside the local system asteroid belt range.'

" 'Calculate time to weapons recharge and best course to intercept the enemy ship in planetary orbit,' I said.

" 'Working...' the AI replied.

" 'Kash'du'mod'rafell!' I exclaimed. Um, let's just say that was something rude and leave it at that. It wouldn't translate to anything other than 'your mother enjoys sex with decorative houseplants,' and remember that I was yet young and uncultured at the time.

" 'Xaxdu'math'ardriii,' replied the computer. Which is a very old D'rrish word that roughly translates to 'it takes one to know one, arthropod.'

" 'Who are these invaders?' I asked.

" 'The species refers to themselves as Nye-koll-tuurn-aye,' the AI said.

" 'Are there any records available?' I asked.

" 'Asexual species of invertebrates, native to the system delineated as Zatsh'confern'atha with their home world being the seventh of that system. Their home world is 67.25926% standard of D'rrish norm. Eco-forming the colony world to their home world standard would be a minor engineering problem. They could establish a viable colony in roughly 7000 D'rrish standard years. Addendum: the colony planet is already at D'rrish standard normal, but lacks the added ionic radiation of the D'rrish home world.'

" 'Long-term planners, eh?' I said. 'What do they require that we don't?'

" 'Scans indicate that the invader species require 70% more atmospheric water content, 80% more landmass, and 23% more viable plant life to feed upon...'

" 'Sounds like they would need to boil the ocean, raise a few more landmasses, and scatter fertilizer on the resulting new landmasses so the plants would grow faster. Quite a major undertaking. Couldn't they find a planet nearby that fits their needs better?'

" 'Working...' the ship replied. 'Warning! We are detected. Estimated attack in five point 75436 hours.'

" 'The other orbital fortress, halfway 'round the planet?' I asked.

" 'Confirmed,' said my ship.

" 'But the invaders have nothing other than that ship any closer to us than the system's asteroid belt?'

" 'Confirmed, the orbital fortress is the only enemy ship in range.' my ship replied.

" 'Time to engine and weapons recharge?' I asked.

" 'Zero point 7538 hours,' said the AI.

" 'How long until the invaders can close up the corridor we made into the inner system?' I said.

" 'Twenty-eight point 25673 hours,' the ship's computer said in reply.

" 'That's almost sub-light speeds,' I said. 'We could sabotage nearly every emplacement that they can set a ship in!'

" 'Confirmed. Their ships are much slower than I.'

" 'How long until you can plot an intercept with the ships threatening to close up the corridor we opened? We have to leave a window open for the fleet when it arrives three days from now!'

" 'Intercept plotted and laid in. Awaiting only the recharge and your orders to proceed.'

" 'So, we'll be ready to attack in less than three quarters of an hour, but we can't be targeted in less than five hours?'

" 'Confirmed,' said my ship.

" 'How much damage can we do to the invaders who are trying to close up the hole in their defenses that we opened for the D'rrish fleet?'

" 'This unit can keep the passage for the D'rrish fleet open indefinitely, if survival of the pilot is not a limiting factor.'

" 'I see,' I said. 'Would sending a farewell message to the colony reduce our chances of success?'

" 'No, not within measurable tolerances,' replied my ship.

" 'I see,' I said. 'Open communication frequencies to the colony.'

" 'By your command,' said my ship. 'Com open to the colony below.'

" 'Good,' I replied. 'Send this message to the planet. Repeat as necessary. 'D'rrish colony, this is Kazsh-ak Teir of the Family S'und'ash'tun'beyay'thorn. The D'rrish fleet will arrive within 93 hours planetary standard time. I will defend your lives with my own until then. I have the enemy in my sights and will close with them as soon as my weapons and engine recharge permits. You are not forgotten, you are not abandoned, and you are mine to defend. It is my honor to spend my life, if need be, to keep you safe. If you have any weapons left that are able to target orbiting attackers, the last enemy orbital fortress is at co-ordinates 227.563 North, by 164.8765 East. Those co-ordinates increase Eastward by 5 degrees every hour. May the Empress bless us all as we defend our lives for her glory. You are my family, and I am yours. I will defend you all with my life, to my final breath. Bless you all and keep you safe. I, who defend you, pledge my every breath to keep you from harm. Bless you and keep you, and never surrender to the enemy!' Message ends. Transmit that on continuous loop until we can't transmit any longer.'

" 'Compliance. Weapons recharge complete. Engine recharge will be complete in two minutes.'

" 'If I am going to die today,' I said. 'Then I want the Underworlds to overflow with the souls of my attackers. Let them curse my name for all eternity. I am Kazsh-ak Teir of the S'und'ash'tun'beyay'thorn! I alone stand in your way! And cursed be the name of any who defy me. Here I am, and here I shall remain, until my last breath escapes my body. For our families, for our home world, for honor, I will stand until I draw my last breath!'

" 'Engine recharge complete,' said my ship. 'Intercept and attack course loaded and ready.'

" 'Execute intercept and attack, Ship. And may all the Gods have mercy upon the souls of our enemies, for I shall have none!'

" 'Intercept under way, attack in twelve, eleven, ten...'

" 'If I live through this, I'm going to have a few harsh words for your programmer, Ship.'

" 'My programmer has been deceased for 200 years, sir,' the AI replied.

" 'That's no bloody excuse!' I shouted as the ship began moving outwards from planetary orbit once again.

Kazsh-ak sat his empty drink container on the bar top and motioned for a refill. He sighed heavily, or at least that the the sound which issued from his translator. "Another, Max, if you please."

"Coming right up," said Max as he tapped control keys on a pad on the bar. "It takes a minute to get the mix just right. Too bad I can't just make up a big batch and keep it tanked long term. Stuff doesn't age well in big batches, though. All right, old friend, here you go." The empty container vanished with a flicker of the teleport field, and was replaced by a filled one. Kazsh-ak bowed slightly to Max, then took a long sip from the container's straw.

"Thank you, Max," Kazsh-ak said.

"This is bravery to you? Letting your ship carry on your battle?" Contempt dripped like venom from the warlord's voice.

"One being against a fleet? Sounds brave enough for me," said the Reever. "How many fleets have YOU taken on singlehandedly?"

"In any case," Kazsh-ak continued with his tale. "I was not content to await my next foe. My intercept course took me over the planet's Northern pole in order to take them by surprise. As I crossed over, I could see my target reflecting sunlight below my position. I cycled through the targeting system, looking for a weak spot in their defenses. As I arced down past their orbit in order to come at them from beneath, the sensors located an open port, venting debris. I increased speed, then fired a torpedo into the port. As I dodged away to position my ship for another run, I saw my torpedo fly straight and true into it, just as its door began to close. The detonation took out a sizable portion on the ship's stern. My foe lost power, began to spin about from the remaining engine pointing far from its normal alignment, then heeled over to enter the atmosphere. A very meteoric re-entry, to say the least." Kazsh-ak waved a medial limb, indicating an inward spiral. Then he took another sip of his drink. "That the encounter was over so quickly left me somewhat the better as to my remaining munitions supply. Even so, I was in something less than an enviable position. No matter how quickly my weapons could recharge, the invader's sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm my little scout."

"I could think of a few things," the Reever said. "But what did you decide on as your best course of action?"

"I too saw several possibilities," said Kazsh-ak. "Hit and run looked to give me the best chance of survival. Even more so than hiding alone. Obviously, standing my ground to take on all comers was the surest way to die. Then there was the possibility of reprisals against the colonists once my troublesome self had been disposed of as a threat to the invaders. A few calculations revealed that the D'rrish fleet would still be a day away from our colony, at the very least, before I inevitably ran out of munitions and places to hide. Unless I planned my actions very carefully indeed."

The old D'rrish paused to take another drink, then set the container down to gesture with both fore-claws. "The invaders were scattered through the system's asteroid belt in an irregular pattern," he said as he spread his arms wide, then pointed to several spots between his claws with one of his medial limbs. "The safest method of attack would have been to hit them where their placement was thinnest in the areas closest to my rather hastily-dug tunnel through their blockade. Thereafter to find a secure hiding place to await my weapon's recharge cycle." Kazsh-ak once again reached for his drink, took another sip, than continued his story.

"I did indeed find a hiding place to study the fleet positions arrayed before me. One thing that I found puzzling was the slow pace of the invading ships. Try as I might, I could find none of them using any sort of hyper drive. I was well aware that they had to have FTL ships to reach the colony system from their home world. But where were those ships now? Carriers of some description, returned home for reinforcements? Hiding in the cometary halo, waiting in ambush for my own fleet to arrive? Scouting nearby systems for their next target? I finally put aside my speculations as wasting valuable time. I set my ship's computer a complex task, to plot the most effective course to attack each of the clusters of invading ships, taking out the best target in each group, then micro-jumping to the next group."

"What was that tactic supposed to accomplish? Destroying a token number of your enemy would gain you little," the Warlord's voice still sounded contemptuous, but now there was a hint of curiosity there as well.

"My intent was to deceive," replied the D'rrish. "My tactic would require my ship to be strained far past the limits of its design, but if I succeeded, the invaders would believe that I was not alone in my attack. If I succeeded well enough, they might well decide that my ship, my initial attack, was a decoy to distract them while a squadron of stealthed D'rrish fighters slipped past their guard to harass their invasion effort."

"Cunning," said the Warlord grudgingly. "Against my better judgment, I am beginning to admire your species."

"Generous of you, friend Septodon," said Kazsh-ak. A polite chuckle escaped his translator. "Or perhaps even your mighty frame is beginning to feel the effects of Max's most excellent potable beverages. Speaking of which--Max, I see that His Grace is suffering from 'empty tankard syndrome,' as am I. I propose a refill for both of us, if you'd be so kind. Purely in the interests of inter-species amity," he added in an aside to the Warlord, who accepted the drink without rancor.

That D'rrish! He is a Diplomat, thought Max as he turned away from the room to hide a smile as he reached for the particular off-world "Brandy" the Warlord favored during his infrequent visits to the Mare Inebrium. Several of the other bar patrons chose to take advantage of the temporary break in Kazsh-ak Teir's tale to place their own drink orders. When the D'rrish was set to resume his story, the atmosphere in the bar was perceptibly less antagonistic.

"I waited in my chosen hiding place," he began afresh, after a lengthy draw from the fresh drink in his right claw. "I had observed a loose gathering of small asteroids in the planet's Lagrange points. One set in particular had a high concentration of metallic boulders, some as large as my ship. The metal served to hide the presence of my little ship from the sensors of invader ships. Once the timing was right, when the invaders would be in the best positions for my attack once I covered the distance between us, I unleashed my ship upon its pre-programed course. We made our first micro-jump, fired, then jumped again to the next target area. Over and over we jumped, blazing away at the invaders when we came out of hyperspace. Occasionally, they managed to get a few shots off at us. We took some small amount of damage, to be sure. But nothing like what we gave! As the day wore on, my ship and I saw the necessity of hiding yet again until the weapons could recharge. Once, it took several hours of hugging the surface of a rather large asteroid for the ship to auto-repair several of the engine components that my tactic was putting far more stress upon than its designers had intended. During that time, I listened in to the invader's communications chatter. My plan was working! I gathered from what was said that they believed my initial breakthrough of their blockade had been just a scouting run for a full D'rrish fighter squadron."

"Somehow I doubt your illusion could be maintained for very long," Max said. "But if you could make it last long enough for the fleet to arrive within the invader's sensor range? That would be one for the record books!"

"I have studied D'rrish ships," said the Reever. "Part of my duties is to learn the limitations of any technologies a species living on the planet could put to an unfortunate use. Those little Fighter/Scouts are tough machines, I know. But what you describe is well beyond what I thought they could do. I would have thought that pushing one that hard for even two days would cause terminal breakdowns in the systems on board. To hear that you managed it for even longer is a surprise to me." The Reever bowed slightly towards the old D'rrish, then raised his own glass in a silent toast.

"I was a bit surprised that the little bugger didn't blow up on me," said Kazsh-ak. "But I gave my word to defend the colony, and so I was obligated to spend my life, if need be. I spent more time in hiding, waiting for the repair circuits to undo the damage my actions were causing, than in actually fighting. Long hours, sitting in the dark, fearfully watching the nearby space for some invader ship to discover me. I had to switch off nearly every system of the ship in order to keep from giving my position away. I could only use passive detector systems, or my own eyes, for any active device might give me away. I took the precaution of shutting down even the cabin life support systems, depending on my suit to keep me alive. Each time I made another attack run, my suit replenished itself from the ship's systems. There was one point, late in the second day, that I made a miscalculation that should have proved fatal."

"What happened?" Hnarcor Finivalda asked. The little lizard man absently brushed imaginary dust from his multicolored scales. As the Halazed Ambassador, he was more than a little obsessed with his appearance. The custom dye job on his scales this month was more subdued than usual. A darker blue and a less gleaming gold overall. He must be attending a trade conference, or something similar. Usually he chose much brighter colors to cover his species' normally dull gray scales. The brown vest with its many pockets was, as usual, his only garment--aside from a wide belt with several pouches that hugged his slim lizard hips. Standing a mere five feet tall, he was still an imposing member of his species.

"Old friend," Kazsh-ak replied. "I rushed the repair time in that instance. I should have waited longer. But the enemy ship, my target, would have made it past me into the inner system if I had waited. The micro-jump put me in a bad position for a targeting lock for my weapons. The mechanisms that compensated for the micro-gravity of asteroids failed. I came out of the jump in the orbital path of a larger asteroid and was forced to dodge it as my computer fired my missiles. I missed the invader ship, but by a happy accident I managed to hit another nearby asteroid. Its fragments destroyed the invader ship, but also pummeled my own with enough rocks and pebbles to almost overload the repair circuits. Almost, I say, but it was a near thing to jump again to a new hiding place. The damage was so massive that I was forced to find a cave, of sorts, in another nearby asteroid to hide within. I call it a cave, but most likely it was merely the result of an ice pocket in the asteroid that had long ago vented its contents into the void. My suit barely kept me alive while the ship repaired itself once again. By this time, the mistakes in the repairs were beginning to mount up into a dangerous combination. The computer urged me to abandon my attacks, to flee the colony system, before it failed me completely. But I was determined. I had only one more day in which to act before the D'rrish fleet arrived. The invaders had been reduced to a state of panic by my efforts, but gifting them with a respite at this point would allow them to regain access to the inner planets of the system. At all costs, I had to deny them the inner system. The fact that the colony had not yet been able to aid me in my efforts weighed heavily upon my mind. What damage were the invaders able to inflict before my arrival? Had the colonists all been killed? Were my attacks destined only to be a Pyrrhic victory, wasted time, defending a planet of corpses from further indignities? No signals had come through from the planet so far below me. I began to despair that my struggle was merely an empty gesture of punishment for the invaders. I sat in the dark, cold and near death, awaiting the repair circuits to combat the damage my ship had suffered. My spirits were then at their lowest ebb. My confidence was battered, nearly broken, and the darkness was taking a toll upon me that no amount of bluster could undo. Despite my string of victories in my individual attacks, without any indication that the colony had survived, I was beginning to lose all hope. My ship eventually reported that all the repairs it was capable of making were once again complete. I gently eased my little ship to the mouth of the cave so that I could survey the situation. Live or die, this was the last day. Perhaps my last day as well. The fleet should arrive within twenty six hours. As the asteroid rotated upon its axis, I was granted a slow look at the entire area around my position. Out-system, I detected a massing of enemy ships, on a course inwards towards the planet I had sworn to defend. When the asteroid spun about to grant me a view into the inner system, I could see the colony planet, at the very end of the reach of my low-powered instruments. I could detect massive dust storms, undoubtedly from explosions on the world's surface. Were these the marks of the invaders, battling some few survivors from the D'rrish colony? Was I witnessing the extermination of my fellow D'rrish on the world we had named R'lynath? Was my mission in vain? And then, just as my spirits reached their lowest ebb, the Gods themselves seemed to smile upon me..."

"You saw something that renewed your hope?" Cicsilasdee the Menfilozunbeeandii asked from her seat at a table near the bar. The tall alien held a drink halfway to her lower mouth with one tentacle, while four others sinuously writhed in distress in the air about her shoulders. Her sixth tentacle grasped the floating table before her seat with a grip so hard it would leave an imprint upon the wood the table was encased inside. She was a famous opera singer on her home world, gifted beyond measure, yet, at fifty years of age, only a child by her species' standards. Barely out of her adolescence. Max had allowed her into the Mare only after she had given proof of her status as a young adult by her species' standards. "Invaders fleeing your colony world in defeat, perhaps?"

"I saw a spark," said Kazsh-ak. "A simple spark, the light of a ship's drive pushing outward into the dark. From the energy signature, I could tell that it was a D'rrish ship. A large ship, in fact it could have only been one of the original colony ships we had sent. But it was moving far faster than a fully-loaded colony ship could have done. So fast that I knew it could have been only lightly crewed. The spark quickly vanished into a hyper drive jump. Within moments, I saw the ship reappear relatively nearby. I calculated it's course frantically. By my judgment, it was not fleeing the system, but angling to attack the very same formation of invader ships that I had detected earlier. The colonists were bringing the fight to the invaders. My people, or at least some of them, had survived the enemy attacks, and were now strong enough to leave their homes in defense of their colony. The asteroid slowly turned about to deprive me of any other observations of the colony world, but not before I saw three more sparks leap from the planet's surface. I reactivated more of my ship's detector systems, heedless of the danger to myself, and frantic to know more despite the threat of destruction revealing my presence entailed. My people LIVED! I had to know how many, and in what circumstances, but they did live. I wracked my brains for memories of what weapons a colony ship of that era would posses. Very strong shields, tractor and presser beams as part of the shield's deflector systems. Communication lasers that could punch a signal through clouds of interstellar dust to send signals home. Records of torpedoes and phased plasma beamers, I could remember none, however. As I restarted my ship's drive systems, my communicator fairly SHOUTED at me with signals from the four colony ships. 'We are D'rrish!' the signals proudly proclaimed. 'We are the defenders of R'lynath, warriors of the T'nash'keee'elkor Family, the Kat'athan'eldor Family, the Sarth'ak'meelon'itnsh Family, and the Meganish'foldor'akath Family! Invaders! Your forces have been routed and live only at our mercy. Surrender now or face total destruction! This is your only warning! We have come, we stay, and we shall survive! And may K'lat'ened'cor'tesh'val herself, the Creator Of All Things, have mercy upon your worthless souls, for WE shall have NONE! Defend yourselves, scum! Your end has arrived!' the signals proudly proclaimed as I moved my little ship out of the cave, and lit up the engines for one last effort. I knew the slightest touch of a proton beam or a single anti-matter torpedo would end my life and destroy my weakened ship. The time was right, only seven hours would stand between myself and the arrival of the D'rrish fleet from Bethdish. It was now or never. I must give my all alongside my fellow D'rrish, or allow the invaders to triumph."

"Glorious," said the Warlord. "You acquitted yourself with valor, friend D'rrish. I withdraw all my previous insults, and offer my deepest apology to you. Fear you HAVE known, bravery you have shown, and I shamed myself by my insults. I hope you can forgive my childish blathering. But I must know... What happened next?"

The entire room was hushed. You could have heard a pin drop, the silence was so loud. Every being within ear-shot of Kazsh-ak's recital was shushed, awaiting his next words. Even the Apalaeet Sivast-enuar-sivest-decavarrd wedding party who sat at the farthest reaches of the room had ceased their celebrations of the marriage of their beloved princess and her commoner groom.

"Well," said Kazsh-ak. "Next? I fear I need yet another refill of my drink before I can conclude my story." Max laughed, and the Reever held up one finger to attract his attention.

"Sir?" Max asked.

"Put the Ambassador's drinks on my personal tab," the Reever replied. "Everything, the whole night. And serve a round to the house, on me. I haven't had this much fun in centuries."

"The customer is always right," Max said. "Especially when they have a few million years worth of unlimited credits to spend!" Max and the other bartenders spent a frantic fifteen minutes refilling every glass in the house.

Finally, every patron had a full drink in front of themselves. The Reever then looked at Kazsh-ak and spoke. "Friend D'rrish," he said. "The floor, as the expression goes, is yours."

"Thank you, Friend Reever! The rest of the tale is easily told, but methinks this eager crowd deserves more than the usual 'and they lived happily ever after.' "

The Reever barely avoided a spit-take, manfully swallowed a good two fluid ounces of 2000-year old Krupnick, and finally nodded in Kazsh-ak's direction. "You, Sir," he said with difficulty as the fiery liqueur burned it's way down his gullet. He coughed twice, then continued. "Are mad, bad, and dangerous to know." He laughed again, as soon as he was able. "Say on, old friend!"

"The asteroid's rotation brought the cave my ship was concealed within, eventually, around to face towards the enemy invader ships," Kazsh-ak said. "With some trepidation, I activated the drives. Like a cannon shot, my little ship fairly leaped out of the cave mouth. Within scant seconds, I was traveling at the very limits of what speed my injured ship could attain. It was still six hours before the D'rrish fleet could possibly arrive. It was down to the four ships from the colony, and my little Scout to turn the tide, once and for all. We would repulse the invaders from the inner system, or we would die in the attempt. As I left my cozy safe-hold, my communicator blared out a message from the D'rrish ships. 'Noble D'rrish of the S'und'ash'tun'beyay'thorn, e! Our ground forces are even now putting these Slugs to flight, driving them into the ships they grounded on our world. Lead us to victory, Oh Noble! Allow us the honor of serving alongside your squadron, though we are not worthy of such honors. 'The old boy is laying it on a bit thick,' I thought."

"I wracked my brains for what I could remember of these four families whose warriors had come to aid me. Farmers and craftsmen, I had thought. The Meganish'foldor'akath were renowned as weavers of the finest carpets, as I recalled. The T'nash'keee'elkor were merchants and farmers, the Sarth'ak'meelon'itnsh had the reputation of being the best furniture makers the D'rrish have ever produced. And the Kat'athan'eldor were known as the greatest architects and builders... None were known for military pursuits. There seemed to be more deceptions than my own afoot this day. A quick glance at the readout screen of my communicator told me that the D'rrish ships were signaling without any of the encryption a military ship would normally use for secure battle communications. These are not warriors, I surmised. These are civilians! My thoughts were interrupted by another of their signals, 'Admiral, where may we join you?' Suddenly, it came to me, these colonists were aware that the invaders could most likely hear their transmissions, and were also aware of my own bluff against the enemy. Clever lads! Oh clever, clever lads! Quickly, I signaled back, in clear as well. 'Rendezvous two minimum micro-jumps North of the ecliptic of your present position, my squad is there waiting for us. They are in stealth mode, so your sensors will not detect them, kanshe't'ethik!'"

"Needless to say, not only did I have no squad of ships there, my final word was an old schoolyard term for a childhood game wherein the players follow all instructions given to them as exactly as possible, but in reverse. 'Kanshe't'ethik, Oh Noble,' came their reply. I set my ship for two micro-jumps South of the ecliptic plane of the system, then flew over to intercept the colony ships as they came out of their hyper jumps. I used my com laser to signal the closest ship, and quickly we had established a closed com-link between all five of us. We could now speak without fear of being overheard by the enemy."

"Once I had established that our five ships were all the 'fleet' we had to work with until the Grand Fleet arrived late the next day, they again asked me to lead them into battle. I asked for details of their ship's weapons and shields, their piloting skills, and their computer skills, a plan began to take form in my head. I explained it to them, we debated some of its finer points, and then we prepared for our attack. On my signal, we leaped through hyper space to a series of positions within striking range of the closest enemy ships. But instead of firing on the enemy directly, the colony ships used their tractors and pressers in turn to shatter nearby asteroids. A single torpedo into each asteroid as it broke apart served to push the debris into the enemy positions, then we jumped again for our next target. Once we had thinned their herd sufficiently, we split into two groups to continue our assault. By the time we had cleared my little corridor through the asteroid belt once again, there were no enemy ships left within two days flight time, at their speed, from the safe path into the inner system. By this time my little ship was on its last legs, needing down time for repairs quite badly. The colonists locked our little squadron together with their tractor beams, and once again we communicated by way of our com lasers. The sensor systems of the colony ships were capable of far longer range detection than those of my little ship. Our computers found massive confusion among the invaders' communications. Half of them were calling us a 'Ghost Fleet,' and the rest were arguing about just what sort of supernatural demons they had awoken. None seemed inclined to bypass our corridor and attempt to reach the colony planet from a different route, although they easily could have done so. Eventually, they all changed course for the outer system, where the first waves of the arriving D'rrish fleet made short work of them shortly thereafter."

"Their forces on the ground had spread themselves far and wide. Most of them dug in for a siege, inside their now useless ecology-modifying ships. It took years to find them all. There were many battles, some quite protracted, but all eventually won by D'rrish forces. I am told that the local farmers still occasionally find a desiccated corpse or two buried in new fields being plowed for the first time. Generally the farmers leave them there. They make the crops grow better, as I understand it."

"What happened to their hyper drive ships?" Max asked.

"That puzzled us, as well," Kazsh-ak replied. "Until we managed to capture some of their Ecologists and other non-military personnel. Upon questioning, they revealed that their Priests believed hyper drive travel to be some sort of sin, or a crime against their Gods. You're aware of what can happen to a hyper ship if it gets too close to a gravity well?"

"Yeah," Max said. "The engines react to the gravitational field-- like a pair of magnets attracting each other. If the ship is going fast enough and the gravity is strong enough, the engine digs itself a hyperspace hole and tries to pull the hole in after itself. Either the engine vanishes, taking just part of the ship with it, or the whole ship gets converted into subatomic particles that continue on along the ship's original course. At the same speed the ship was going before it disintegrated. There's a school of thought that says that's the source of some Gamma Ray bursts that get detected from time to time, or something like that. I never put stock in that theory, myself. But what do I know? I'm a bartender, not a physicist."

"One of their Holy Elders proposed that hyperspace was populated with monsters that eat ships," Kazsh-ak said. "Put there as a punishment to those who seek to subvert the Holy Laws of normal space." He laughed through his translator. "It seems that after unleashing their smaller ships upon the planet and the outer system, their Priests took command of the carrier ships and flew them all into the system's sun. They hoped to appease their deities by their willing sacrifice."

"Shooting their entire invasion in the foot, so to speak," said the Reever. "Not the silliest thing I've ever heard of, but it does come close."

"You spent some time on the ground too, hunting the invaders," said Max. "Didn't you?"

"Yes," said Kazsh-ak. "Quite probably the dirtiest two years of my life. I don't know the soil composition of that benighted colony planet, but when the frequent rains fell, the mud stuck to everything it touched! There were times when my feet were caked with so much mud I could scarcely walk. But those troopers, the invaders, those were built to take advantage of the mud. It helped them. With their tough, smooth hides, they could slide across it at a rapid clip. Or they could use their tentacles to dig into it, burrow beneath the mud, and leap out at us from their hiding places. They were big fellows, too. Easily twice my size. Built like-- what was that creature you found in your wine cellar last year, Max? The little thing, barely longer than your hand?"

"A slug?" Max asked. "Like a snail without a shell."

"Exactly!" said Kazsh-ak. "Imagine one of those, twice my size and mass, with five pairs of long, muscular tentacles surrounding its mouth-parts. Skin like armor plate, pushing through the thick, sticky mud like some infernal construction machine. Once their energy weapons had exhausted their charges, the buggers made spears and stone knives to come at us with. Damn good fighters. I almost died several times during one of their ambush attacks. But we gradually hunted them all down. Those that surrendered, we put on cargo ships and sent back to their home world. The ones that wouldn't surrender, we fought. Eventually, we couldn't find any more of them. Not living ones, in any case. They held out even after their food supplies has been consumed. Evidently, they were able to gain some nourishment from two or three species of vegetation native to the colony world. Just barely enough to keep going, but keep going they did. As I said, it took roughly two years to locate the last of them. Finally, we found more corpses than living invaders. More of them starved to death than we killed or deported, sad to say. Such an enormous waste of life. We could have given them some world we couldn't colonize, if only they'd wanted to negotiate. We found many worlds that were useless to us, but they would have thrived upon. Such a waste..." Kazsh-ak's voice trailed off in sadness.

"I suppose that you were promoted for your valor," said Septodon.

"Worse," Kazsh-ak said. "Oh! Much worse!"

"What happened?" the Reever asked.

"Another bloody statue!" Kazsh-ak moaned. "The colonists built an heroic statue of me! Sometimes I despair that the entire galaxy is littered with bloody damned statues of me! Saving this or storming that-- I could, in my shell of shells, vomit-- As the saying goes. While I did receive a promotion, and a leave of absence to return home, those t'singe'thwhipt statues follow me everywhere! Eventually, I mated, did my parental duty for a time, then I was allowed to rejoin the fleet as a full Scout. Those were some good times, I'll tell you. Good times. But finally I was drafted into the Diplomatic Corps, and here I've been ever since. A mere ghost of my former self."

"By way of apology for my earlier boorish behavior," said Septodon. "I would like to propose a toast, Friend D'rrish."

"There is always time for another drink," said Kazsh-ak. "Max? A refill, please."

"I'm buying," said the Reever. "Another round for the house, on me, Max."

"At your service, Sir!" Max said as he and the staff smoothly began making drinks for everyone. When every glass, or whatever container the species in question happened to use, had been refilled, all eyes, or whatever sense organs served the same use, were upon the Hanapket Warlord, Septodon. After a suitable dramatic pause, with his tankard held high, Septodon spoke.

"To Kazsh-ak Teir S'und'ash'tun'beyay'thorn, the brave and noble D'rrish warrior! No More Statues!"

"No more statues!" the patrons repeated, then drank. The room erupted into laughter.

"That reminds me of the time..." Kazsh-ak began.

"Here we go again," said the Reever.



The End

Bio: Dan L. Hollifield has been Aphelion Webzine's Senior Editor and Publisher for going on 19 years now. His first published works appeared online in Dragon's Lair Webzine, Steel Caves, Titan, The Writer's Club, and several other now sadly defunct websites. He was a very minor staff member of the Casebook: Jack the Ripper website back in the mid 1980s, doing photo scanning for the website. His first traditionally published short story appeared in the anthology Flash of Aphelion, edited by Nate Kailhofer and published on Lulu.com. Dan is known world-wide as the co-creator, with long-time musical partner Jim Parnell, of the Mare Inebrium shared universe series of spaceport bar stories. His first collection of his own Mare Inebrium Spaceport Bar short stories will soon be released by Dark Oak Press. He is currently engaged in co-writing writing the novel Heritage with established pro writer Stephanie Osborn. Heritage is volume 4 of the acclaimed Cresperian Saga series created by Darrel Bain and co-written with Stephanie Osborn. Dan also has three music CDs available through Create Space and Amazon.com, with digital downloads available through his Bandcamp webpage. His third album, "The Displaced Detective Suite" is based on the novel series of the same name written by Stephanie Osborn.

Dan is currently 57 years old, lives in the howling wilderness of Madison County somewhere not too near Colbert, GA, roughly seven miles from Athens, GA. He collects firearms, swords, books, music, cats, dogs, and mechanical junk that he turns into the occasional steampunk sculpture. He is married to Lindsey C. Burt-Hollifield, and shamelessly pampers his many step-children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He has been gainfully employed by the Certain-Teed Corp. fiberglass insulation factory in Athens, GA, since 1978. He is an inactive member of the SCA, a member in good standing of the Atlanta-area Steampunk community, and a long-time member of the Chattanooga LibertyCon family. He and Lindsey attend the conventions AnachroCon and LibertyCon every year, but they avoid Dragon*Con because of his fear of large crowds.

E-mail: Dan L. Hollifield

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.