Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Unrequited

by J. Eckert Lytle





The dankness of the uneven stone floor crept into Purosti as she lay there shivering in a thin tunic. Soon she'd be taken away and forced into prostitution. She gagged on the reek of vomit, urine, and fecal material which hadn't been hosed out for days from her stone prison cell she shared with two alien females.

A large oak door at the entrance of the enclosure was opened once a day so the guards could dump the slop they called food into a low trough on the floor. Purosti and the other two captives fought over their portions like starving animals.

The door couldn't be oak, reasoned Purosti in her drug-fogged brain, since oak doesn't grow in this part of the galaxy. However, it looked like oak and was as tough.

A small screened hole in the base of a rear wall offered some illumination and occasional puff of contaminated air from the polluted city.

The only communication since her arrival two weeks ago was with a female Gonaxian in the next cell who spoke broken English through a small vent on the wall between the two cells. She'd warned Purosti of the treatment that was to come.

Purosti had asked, "What is this place, and why am I being held here?"

"This place is to be called Packy's Pleasure Palace," replied the Gonaxian. "It is to be a brothel. You are here because they no have a hu-mahn girl. You are to be the first I think."

Purosti had never seen a Gonaxian, which made her more than a little curious about her neighbor's appearance.

She also learned early on that there was no escape, and one had better not attempt it. Even in her drugged condition, she remembered the pain closet. No beating could ever be that severe. A device that didn't leave any marks on the body--they needed her skin unmarred for the trade she was about to enter. The terrors of "the closet" were no less real, however--possibly more so--because the brain was directly manipulated to perceive pain... and a hundred other impossible and insupportable horrors. Perhaps had she not been drugged, her escape effort might have proved successful.

If only she hadn't listened to her friend, Cokey, and gone to that damn party where she'd been kidnapped and brought to this lair of decadence.

One of the other unfortunate females in her cell (an Alutionayian) had smuggled in a spoon a week before Purosti had arrived and was attempting to tunnel her way out, but the mortar was tough, and she had made very little progress.

Pain lanced through Purosti's head like a bad hangover, making it difficult to think. Her back ached, her stomach roiled, and she was emaciated.

Purosti's parents wouldn't learn of her disappearance for many weeks. They were "inaccessible," vacationing on the out-of-the-way worlds near the Crab Nebula. Spring break was in effect so she wouldn't be missed on Remus II, the college planet. There was no one to help her.

She lowered her head and felt a wave of nausea as she recollected the pain closet. She glanced around at her stone surroundings and imagined simply accepting her plight. What choice had she except to do so?

Just then, the normal quiet at the front of her cell got even quieter. I wonder what's up. She tapped her fingernails nervously on the stone floor, and her trembling increased. A shadow blotted out the crack of light beneath the door. Her chest tightened. Are they coming for me now?

Then she heard the crackle of blaster fire and all manner of shouting and screaming. It startled Purosti and woke the other two females in the cell. All three cowered together. They looked up at the door and it disintegrated in a thunderous explosion. Shreds of smoking wood rained down on them. The smoke and dust obscured the incoming illumination, but Purosti could make out a large humanoid as he stepped into the doorway. Even in the bad light, she saw the man was stunning. He stood about six-foot four, with the shoulders of a weightlifter, raven black hair--groomed like a twentieth century priest's--and nary a blemish on his face. He stood in the entryway holding a smoking energy pistol, gazing through dark glasses at the cell's inhabitants.

The three females, who had often enough been at each other's throats, were huddled together like a litter of puppies.

"I am here for Purosti Epsilon," he boomed. "Which one of you is Purosti Epsilon?" No one moved. His gaze jerked from female to female as he put his pistol into one of four metalastic pouches on a khaki belt.

"Miss Epsilon, your Grandfather has sent me for you."

Purosti pushed a violet-feathered Perónese arm out of her face. "Grandpa John sent you?"

"Are you Purosti Epsilon?" he asked. She stood up and he got a better look at her. "Of course you are," his voice lightened. "I am here to take you back to your Grandfather."

Gingerly she took a step towards him and opened her mouth to speak, but he grabbed her by her arms and tossed her over his beefy shoulder. "I am sorry to be so rough," he said, "but we do not have much time. Here take this." He pushed something small into her mouth. "It is a pill to counteract the drugs they have been giving you in your food. It is chewable."

"Chewable! It tastes like an old shoe." She swallowed it whole.

He turned and ran back through the doorway. A blaster shot struck the wall near them. Her rescuer ducked, pulled his pistol, and fired back. The short clash lit up the gloomy passageways.

After the skirmish died down, Purosti heard more shouting and running. She also heard a groan coming from one of the corridors and smelled something burning.

"It is time we leave this place," said the man.

"Not until we've blown open all these doors," ordered Purosti pointing to the numerous cells.

"We do not have the time."

"Then we must blow that door open," said Purosti indicating the end cell. The Gonaxian's cell.

He paused a moment, aimed, and pulled the trigger. His gun spewed destruction with a loud report turning the door to wood dust. He ducked. Another blaster shot sizzled the air near Purosti's ear. He returned fire. Then he played the weapon over near the stone wall a few meters to the right of the cell door he'd just destroyed.

The resulting hole in the exterior wall was large enough for several people to slip through at once.

Purosti craned to see into the dark cell occupied by the Gonaxian. She saw nothing but heard a weak voice from inside say, "I am to be thanking you."

They peered through the hole in the wall to the outside and Purosti realized the futility in their effort. They were on the second floor. Then, to her horror, the man jumped. Purosti screamed. He landed light on his feet and began running. He ran as fast as an antelope through busy streets crowded with partiers--like Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. The brilliant discharge of energy weapons threw their mingled shadows on the sidewalk in front of them.

He soon outdistanced their pursuers, and the only sounds in Purosti's ears were the slapping of the big man's shoes on the pavement, the never-ending drone of repel-lift vehicles, and the honking of their horns.

Her head, for the first time in weeks, began clearing. "I guess Grandpa John's little pill is working," she reasoned in her increasing awareness.

Her savior whisked her along, dodging and weaving like a halfback down hectic streets past, all manner of intoxicated creatures. Purosti felt like a sack of potatoes flung over his shoulder as she bounced to and fro with him.

After a few minutes, he slid to a stop, took a right, and ran into a pub.

She thought, This is no time for ale.

The inside was dim and smelled of whoration hooch, and triberry smoke. He ran past scantily clad females, startled servers, and inebriated customers. He removed something small from his pocket and threw it at the floor. The object burst and a cloud of white smoke saturated the tavern. He tore through a frayed curtain covering a rear passage and ran to a back door. He kicked it down and dashed up an alley until they were out of the city.

At that point, Purosti yelled, "Stop!" and as if on cue, the man halted and set her on the ground.

"Who are you?" she asked, "and how did you just do what you did without breaking a sweat?"

"I am here to return you to your Grandfather."

"That doesn't tell me who you are. Are you some kind of superhero or mutant or something?"

"No."

"How'd you jump from a second story and run this distance with me on your shoulder, and you're not even out of breath?"

"I keep in shape. We must continue; we are not safe yet." He hoisted Purosti onto his shoulder and commenced running.

I wonder, she thought, did Grandpa John really send this dude or am I being kidnapped, again? Her guts knotted. He showed me no proof Grandpa sent him.

He carried her effortlessly through the scrub brush of the silent countryside. She watched anxiously as the city lights diminished to nothing and they seemed to lose their pursuers. She let out a deep sigh. Stop being paranoid. At least you're out of that... that hellhole.

They covered several kilometers before she was set down again. This time in a small clearing in the midst of brush and a group of stunted trees.

"Tired, eh?" inquired Purosti smiling.

"You require sustenance. It is time for you to eat." He pulled a beige tube of something from a pouch, handed it to her, and said, "Eat."

"What is this?" she asked as she sat down on a large rock.

"It is something your Grandfather sent for you."

She unscrewed the top and sniffed the contents. "This smells like poo!"

"Eat, it is nourishment."

"Do you have water or something to wash it down with?"

He reached into a breast pocket and retrieved a metalastic pouch of water. "Here, now eat!"

She squeezed a small amount of food on her tongue and gagged. "This is bad," she said and although she was starving, she threw the tube into the bushes.

"We still have a way to go. Please hurry."

"I'm not going any further until I get some answers."

"You have no choice," he replied indifferently.

"Well at least tell me what planet we're on."

"We are not on a planet. We are on the third moon of Gonax."

"What's this moon called?"

"The third moon of Gonax."

"Very funny. Who are you?"

The stranger cocked his head as if he heard something. Purosti heard nothing.

"My name is Diordna."

"What are we--"

"Ssshhh."

"DON'T YOU SHUSH ME! I'll have you know that I am a college student and I think I deserve an--"

"Please keep quiet. I am going to investigate a sound. I will return shortly."

Purosti opened her mouth to speak, but he was gone. She glanced around at the emptiness.

Alone.

Pacing and cursing her rescuer she muttered, "What the hell kinda' deal is this. My Grandpa paid you to bring me to him and then YOU RUN OFF!"

She stood, exasperated, facing a short, broad tree; her arms folded across her petite chest, and the fingers of her right hand drumming on her left arm. Gonax filled most of the night sky, glowing a bright jade and casting ghostly, green shadows over the dim moonscape. Gonax's other two tiny crescent moons, one slightly larger than the other, (the largest, about the size of her thumb extended at arms length) helped complete the alien panorama. She detected a faint pungent odor, like eucalyptus, as she gazed across the distant undulating hills to the far off horizon. The moonscape with its numerous boulders and scrub vegetation had its own unique beauty that was reminiscent of a clear moonlit night on the American southwest deserts of Earth. Across the wasteland, she saw small flashes of blue light--like miniature fireworks.

"I can't believe the way I'm being treated," she grumbled, "Grandpa will surely hear of this."

She focused her attention on a stout little tree, no more than eight feet away, in front of her. Halfway up it she noticed two large cat-like eyes, the color of mustard, staring down at her. She furrowed her brow and moved side-to-side trying to get a clearer look at what was behind those eyes, and to her terror, she distinguished the dark outline of an enormous beast.

She froze. The animal lunged. She screamed. It landed directly in front of her and raised a multi-taloned paw. Purosti screamed again and covered her face with her arms. The creature bellowed as its paw started downward to strike, but quick as a thought Diordna stepped in the way. He took the force of the blow across his face, knocking off his sunglasses.

The hairless beast was about the size of an Earth horse. Its skin was the color of coffee with bright orange stripes running across its back. Powerful rear legs were flexed and ready to spring. Its face was reptilian with rows of conical teeth around the perimeter of its mouth and a large, yellow stained saber-tooth jutted from the top/center of its great maw. It slashed at Diordna with the fang but missed thanks to the latter's agility.

Diordna gave Purosti an out-of-the-way shove, but she lost her footing and fell to the soft dirt. She rolled to the side and watched as the creature lunged at Diordna. He brought his foot across his body and delivered a roundhouse kick to the creature's protruding fang. The powerful kick snapped the tooth off with a sickening crack! The beast wailed. Diordna grabbed a fistful of hide on the side of the animal's neck and leapt onto its back. The critter galloped off kicking and shrieking--just missing a prostrate Purosti.

Diordna held the fistful of hide with his left hand as the creature bucked and kicked. He snaked his right arm around its throat and jerked suddenly. There was a snap! and the beast fell silent to the ground, its rear legs kicking spasmodically.

Diordna bounded from the body and retrieved his dark glasses which lay half buried in the dirt. He slipped them back in place on the bridge of his nose.

Purosti lay on the ground for a few seconds, her mouth hanging, and her eyes wide. Then she jumped to her feet, ran to Diordna's side, and grabbed his arm.

"Man, that was the coolest thing I've ever seen!" She gushed. "That was even better than a space rodeo. How'd you do all that?" She brushed herself off and noticed the side of his face where the beast had struck. No scratches. No damage whatsoever. "

"I take no pleasure in killing a marquat," replied Diordna emotionlessly, "they are an endangered species." He walked to the lifeless marquat, tore off a foreleg of the animal, and tucked it under his right arm. He grabbed the front of Purosti's tunic, picked her up, and flopped her over his left shoulder like a sack of rocks.

"What are you doing?" squealed Purosti kicking.

"I am concerned," he said as he started to run, "that scuffle might have drawn some unwanted attention to our location. Lay still for a few minutes."

The wasteland became a purplish-green blur. The refreshing air blew in her face, like a cold morning shower, aiding in the return of her senses. Once more, she noticed the odd blue flashes across the moon's sparse surface.

"Hey Diordnee! or whatever your name is," said Purosti.

"Yes," he said without breaking his stride.

"All this jostling around has made me got to pee."

"We are approaching another clearing; we will stop there."

Over a small rise and around a thicket they came to a clearing. He lowered Purosti to the ground. Snatching his wrist, she scuttled over to a thick growth of bushes bordering the clearing. "You wait on this side of the thicket," she said, "and I'll go to the other side to pee. DO NOT LEAVE! I don't want any more of those Marquee's sneaking up on me."

"Marquats," he muttered, as he turned his back to her and patiently waited for her to finish her business.

While she was on the other side of the brush she said, "There's not a lot of meat on this moon that I can see, so what does a marquat eat?"

"Lightning-toads mostly," replied Diordna, "occasionally an intoxicated partier that wanders out of the city."

"What's a lightning-toad?" asked Purosti, emerging from the thicket and adjusting her tunic.

"The little static discharges that you have been observing on this moon are lightning-toads."

"Why the static discharge?"

"Suffice it to say it is a side-effect in their mating ritual. The Marquats locate the toads when the static discharge takes place."

Diordna sat down on a large flat rock and drew his pistol from its holster. Then he reached into a pouch and pulled out a small box, opened it, and set it on the rock.

A curious Purosti peered into the case.

Tools.

He grasped a screwdriver handle from the container, and attaching the correct bit, took his gun apart.

"Why are you dismantling your weapon?" asked Purosti.

"To diminish its power."

"And why, pray tell, would you want to do that."

"You will not eat the sustenance sent by your Grandfather, and I feel certain that you will not even try to consume the raw leg of the marquat that I retrieved for you--"

"You better believe it, buster."

"I cannot risk lighting a fire for fear of detection, so I am diminishing the power of this weapon to cook the marquat leg. If done correctly the cooking of the leg will appear, across the wasteland, to be a lightning-toad. I will re-adjust the weapon's power after the leg has fully cooked." She tenderly watched the side of his face as he spoke. He continued to work on the gun with surgeon like hands. The Weapon was reassembled. Diordna cooked the leg with slow, deliberate swipes like a spray painter. A delectable aroma wafted through the area, and Purosti's stomach growled a concert.

"That meat sure smells good," said Purosti. "When can we eat?"

"You can eat in a few minutes."

"Aren't you going to eat?"

"I am not hungry."

That's right, contemplated Purosti, starry-eyed, super-heroes don't get hungry.

After a few minutes Diordna said, "Your roast leg of marquat is ready." He handed her a small knife.

Purosti positioned herself at the rock he was using as a stovetop. He laid the leg in front of her, and she ate without etiquette but with the ferocity of a jungle beast. As she ate, Diordna readjusted the altered weapon to make it lethal again.

Purosti wasn't sure if marquat meat was normally this delicious or because her hunger was so great, but to her the leg was every bit as palatable as Denebolian quail. She ate as much as she could then turned to Diordna and asked, "What now, Dio?"

He gave her a puzzled look and replied, "You should sleep. Morning will be here in a few hours."

Purosti looked around and said, "Where should I lay? What should I lay--on?"

Diordna reached into yet another pouch, pulled out a tiny package about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and unwrapped it. It unfolded into a paper-thin six-by-six foot blanket. He laid it at the edge of the clearing and said, "This will have to do until we are off of this moon."

As soon as Purosti wrapped the crinkled blanket around her, she fell into a deep sleep. She slept peacefully for the first time in weeks. She dreamt of her ordeal and rescue by a large, handsome individual. So intense was her slumber that she almost didn't wake when Diordna called her.

The first of two suns was just peeking over a rise. Purosti lay on the blanket and stretched. Still sluggish, she sat up and scratched her head in brisk strokes. It was some time before she was completely awake. She looked over at a stoic Diordna, still sitting on the big flat rock and gazing toward the city. "Hey Dio. You been there all night?"

"Yes."

She stared at him for a moment absorbing his handsome features. This guy risked his life to save mine. Nobody's ever done anything like that for me before except maybe Grandpa. She stood and faced him. There must be something I can do for him in return. Well, he's a man ain't he? I know what I can do. Seductively, she slinked toward him until she was blocking his view of the horizon.

He looked into her eyes and said, "Are you ready for breakfast?"

Purosti reached up, untied the string around her neck holding the flimsy tunic, and let it fall to the ground exposing her naked body to him.

"Are you?" she asked.

She threw her head back and fantasized him looking up and down her nude form pausing to observe the tattoo of a green snake curled around her left, diminutive breast. Warmth traveled up from her loins, her breathing quickened, and she felt her nipples hardened. She spread her arms and said, "Come and get me big boy," and waited for him to rush into them.

It didn't happen.

She leveled her head and looked at him. He wasn't looking at her body; he was staring at her face.

"Put your clothes on!" he ordered.

"But don't you want--"

"Put them on, now!" he thundered.

Purosti turned away and threw on her tunic. Then she pushed her matted hair from her face and turned to him. He grabbed her, threw her over his knee, and gave her a painful slap on her fanny. Purosti jumped from his knee, spun around, and slapped him full in the face. She wanted to knock his head off, but all she did was hurt her hand.

"I'M TELLING MY GRANDPA WHAT YOU JUST DID!" she screamed.

"It was your Grandfather who suggested you might try something like that and it was he that recommended the spank should you try it."

"WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? DON'T YOU LIKE GIRLS?"

"What is wrong with you? Have you no shame?"

"ARE YOU A GAY SUPERHERO OR SOMETING?"

"You are almost twenty. Why do you act like a six year old?"

"WHY DON'T YOU EVER USE CONTRACTIONS?"

"Why are you breaking your Grandfather's heart?"

"WHY DON'T YOU... breaking Grandpa's heart? What do you mean?"

Diordna tilted his head and said, "Someone is coming, keep quiet." Purosti listened intently, but she heard nothing.

"How do you do that?" She looked in the direction of the city and her blood froze. In the distance, she saw a repel-cycle rapidly approaching across the bleak landscape. A wave of terror slashed through her like a honed scythe. She lifted her quaking hand and pointed at the oncoming vehicle.

Diordna looked at Purosti and calmly said, "Gather your things. We must leave now."

She reclaimed the blanket and rolled it into a ball many times larger than its original size. "I can never fold these things like they were," she said, frustrated.

"Leave that and take only what you need."

"I have nothing else."

"Then we must get to the spaceship."

He flung Purosti over his burly shoulder and began sprinting; but as swift as he ran it wasn't fast enough. The cycle rapidly closed the gap between them. As they raced across the sparse landscape, a flash of light from the cycle produced an explosion just behind them.

Purosti screamed, "They're gaining on us, Dio."

Diordna yanked the pistol from his pouch and pointed it at their adversary. A reddish-pink beam spewed from the tip, vaporizing the front of the cycle. The rider and his machine tumbled in an acute angle from one another.

"Nice shot, Dio," shouted Purosti over the rush of air from their swift speed. "Where's this getaway craft of yours?"

"Beyond the next rise."

"Ya better hurry. There's more of them things coming."

"I have been aware of that for several seconds."

Once over the knoll, they made for a brush pile that looked like it had been rapidly thrown together.

He stopped and placed Purosti on the ground in front of the scrub pile. He pulled a section of bush away and revealed a portion of spacecraft; an access hatch, and a small keypad. Diordna quickly entered the code, and the hatch swooshed! open. The repel-lift cycles crested the knoll and fired their weapons. An explosion and a small brushfire ignited behind Purosti.

Diordna calmly returned fire and said, "Your Grandfather sent a change of clothes for you--" he blasted a hole in a pursuer--"they are in the silver locker at the rear of the ship." he fired multiple rounds at the crest of the knoll. "Get in and don them while I uncover the remainder of the vessel."

"Why are they so set on recapturing me?"

"At this point"--he fired his weapon--"I do not think they are after you." He fired again. "I have broken into their stronghold --" a laser shot hit just above the hatch. Diordna shot back. "They wish to make an example of me. Please make haste."

Purosti scrambled into the spacecraft. She rushed to the locker and opened it. There hung a yellow dress, three sizes too large. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and said, "Grandpa John, he never did know my correct size." As she changed into the oversized garment, she could see Dio through the portholes hastily removing the brush from the exterior hull and firing his pistol. When finished he paused outside the open pilot side hatch and fired his weapon once more at the enemy. Purosti threw the filthy tunic on the ground at his feet.

Dio looked somberly at the dress she wore and said, "It appears he was in error regarding your dimensions."

"Ya' think?"

A blaster shot struck just behind Dio's foot. He ducked and returned fire. He hopped into the pilot's seat and closed the hatch. The laser blasts muted.

"Computer!" he said.

"Yes sir," replied the computer as it shaped the seats under their bodies and encircled them with Velicia straps pulling Dio and Purosti tight against the seats.

"Set up force shields and initiate start-up sequence."

"Activating force shields."

"What are power level readings?"

"Power levels are at twenty-four percent."

"Get us out of here."

"Engines are not at full capacity."

"Computer, we are in danger; get us out of here--now!"

"Complying."

Laser hits wined off the shields as the tiny ship rocked back and forth from the bombardment. Purosti looked over at Dio's strong features and said, "Dio."

"Yes," he replied as he adjusted controls.

"When I dropped my tunic this morning, weren't you just a little turned on?"

"No."

Well that settles it, she thought, he's freakin' gay.

The space vessel groaned as it started its vertical rise. The computer relayed the altitude dutifully as the ship prepared for horizontal escape: "Five meters... Ten meters... Fifteen meters--" just then there was a thwomp! and the craft dropped hard to the ground.

Purosti's stomach was in her throat, and her butt cheek, still smarting from the early morning slap, throbbed. "Did something hit us?" she asked.

"No," said Dio. "The vessel was not quite prepared for lift off. That was my fault... Are you damaged?"

"I'm okay," she said, and then she thought, He's concerned about me. How sweet.

The enemy's blasting continued to rock the craft.

"Computer," said Dio, "what are power level readings?"

"Power levels are at eighteen percent."

"Hmmm," said Dio.

"What's up?" asked Purosti.

"The constant assault is draining our power levels," replied Dio. "Computer, when will we be able to attempt another liftoff?"

"Liftoff can be attempted again in two point three minutes. However, a rear thruster was damaged when we dropped. We cannot achieve orbit without it."

Diordna sat in silence for a moment as the enemy intensified their attack. Then he said, "Computer, activate stern laser cannons. I am going out."

"That course of action is not recommended," replied the computer. "Power levels will be far too low for a successful return to base."

"Computer," droned Dio, "our only option to achieve orbit is for me to go out and fix the aft thruster, and I will need protection from our adversary. There is no other choice."

Purosti put a trembling arm through Diordna's, pulled him to her, looked into his dark glasses, and pleaded, "Please don't go, I'm scared to death."

He looked over at her, patted her knee, and said, "As long as I am within two feet of the craft, I will be protected by its force shields. Say a little prayer; I will return shortly."

She stared at him, mesmerized, and said, "I trust you." Then she thought, "say a little prayer," there was something familiar about that. That's it! That was Grandpa John's favorite saying.

"Computer," said Diordna.

"Yes, sir."

"Shoot at anything that moves."

"Yes, sir." The small vessel rocked this time from its own cannon fire.

Purosti saw their antagonists through the side porthole, caught off guard by the counterattack, running for the rise. She chuckled as they scrambled.

Dio opened his hatch and slipped out. Purosti watched the viewing screen and saw him slink as close to the side of the vessel as humanly possible for a man of his build until he disappeared around the rear tail fin. She heard faint banging noises from the rear of the craft.

"Power levels are at twelve percent," announced the computer suddenly, startling Purosti.

"Continue as directed," she responded, sounding twice her young age.

"Yes, Miss."

The pilot side hatch opened, and with the outside racket pouring in, Dio leapt onto the pilot seat.

"Is it fixed?" asked Purosti.

"I do not know; let us ask the computer... . Computer!"

"Yes, sir?"

"Has the rear thruster been adequately repaired?"

"The problem has been rectified."

"How long before engines are at full capacity?"

"Engines are at full capacity now, but we only have eight percent power."

"Get us into orbit! We will not concern ourselves with power levels at this time."

"Yes, sir." With a low rumble, the craft lifted.

As before, the computer kept them apprised of their increasing elevation. Purosti stared through the front viewer across the bleak, undulating landscape.

At one hundred meters, the space vessel accelerated horizontally with an explosive burst flying over ant-sized repel-cycles and speeders, their operators steadily assailing the spacecraft with every weapon they possessed. In the distance, she saw four small fighters emerge from the outskirts of the city and fly directly at them with guns ablaze.

"Uh-oh," said Purosti.

"Do not worry," replied Dio, "we will lose them when we enter orbit. They are not made for space."

After soaring over the partying city, the ship climbed into the moon's outer reaches and into orbit losing the flying posse in their vapor trail.

"Looks like we're on our way this time," said Purosti.

"It appears so," said Dio impassively.

Purosti stared over at Dio again and thought, I wonder if he's ever had a woman, and if so, I wonder if I can lure him back to my side of the fence.

"Power levels are at three percent," announced the computer.

"Is that enough to get us back to Grandpa?" asked Purosti.

"I think not," said Dio.

"What are we going to do?"

"We will travel full speed toward your Grandfather's asteroid. Computer, plot and execute a heading of nine two five point four two."

"Yes, sir."

"Can't we take your laser gun and use its power."

"No."

Dio looked over at Purosti and patiently clarified. "First of all, it is not a 'laser gun,' it is a non-neutral plasma pistol, and although the engines run on plasma, they are ion thrusters. The plasma generator in the pistol could theoretically produce sufficient energy but not of the correct type. Second of all--"

"That's enough! That answers my question."

"Computer," said Dio, "shutdown everything except attitude control once we hit one percent power."

"Life support also?" said the computer.

"Everything!"

"Do you think that's a good idea?" asked Purosti.

"It's our only hope."

"Hey Dio," giggled Purosti, "you just used a contraction."

"What?"

"You said 'it's' instead of it is."

"My mistake."

"No no, Dio, it's cool."

For two hours, the craft raced on its intended course. Planets, comets, and asteroids appeared and vanished on the front viewer as the tiny rocket propelled them ever deeper into vastness.

"We have reached one percent power," announced the computer, "shutting down all systems as directed." They were no closer to anything than when they started.

"I'm not so sure this was a good idea," said Purosti.

"We shall see."

An hour passed. The ship's momentum carried them toward their destination, but Grandpa John's shop was still too distant to attempt a rescue with the time they had left.

Soon the air got as stale as week-old donuts, and the temperature was dropping. Purosti's breath blossomed in a white fog in front of her face. She wormed her arm through Dio's looking for heat and rested her head on his shoulder. She wished she hadn't gone to that party with Cokey; she wished she were with her Grandpa; she wished she could see Dio's eyes behind those damned dark glasses. She snuggled closer to him but she felt no warmth. What a way to go, she thought, to die with a mutant mercenary deep in the bowels of space.

Darkness flowered as her weighted eyelids drooped. Her head bobbed forward and she dozed.

"There is an object ahead," sounded the computer, shattering Purosti's slumber.

"What is it?" said Dio.

"Unknown."

"What are its dimensions?"

"Point nine-five-five meter in diameter. The object is sending an encrypted signal on a compressed theta-beam burst."

"Play message."

The message played:

"...and here is the fuel you requested left on the heading you directed, nine two five point four two from the third Gonaxian moon."

"That's my Grandpa!" squealed Purosti, rejoicing at hearing his voice. "Did you know about this all along?"

"Yes I did... Computer, where and how far is the object?"

"Ninety-eight point four meters ahead at one-fifteen."

"When in deep space were you going to tell me?" blurted Purosti trying to fluff the tangled mess that was once her auburn locks.

"When the time was right. Computer, use our one percent power reserve to take us to within two meters of the object."

"Yes sir."

The ship lurched forward.

"I think the time was right hours ago," said Purosti. "Here I was worried sick not knowing if we would live or die, and you knew all along we were going to be safe. I think we need to work--"

"I thought you trusted me," interrupted Dio as he set and reviewed controls.

"That's not the point. I . . ." she stopped talking. She suddenly realized that that was precisely the point. She did trust him--with her life. She laid her head on his shoulder again.

Before long, the object appeared on the view screen. It was dark green, dinged-up, with some indistinguishable printing on one side. It resembled an old fifty-five gallon drum tumbling through space.

"We are now two meters from the object," said the computer.

"Seize object and install in fuel bay," said Dio.

A mechanical arm appeared in the upper right corner of the view screen, grabbed the object, and pulled it out of frame. Purosti could hear what sounded like servomotors or a hydraulic mechanism coming from somewhere in the rear of the ship.

Suddenly gauges and lights became activated. Purosti's toes began feeling cozy as satisfying heat rose through the floor vents. After a few minutes, her breath was no longer visible.

"What are our current power levels?" asked Dio.

"Ninety-two percent," replied the computer.

"Plot and execute a course for John the Tinkerer's asteroid."

"Yes, sir."

The tiny ship accelerated and raced toward its programmed destination.

"How long before we land on Grandpa's rock?" asked Purosti.

"Four point nine-four hours," replied the computer.

Purosti's heart bounded with excitement. "That's great!" she exclaimed, "I can't wait to see Grandpa." She hadn't seen her Grandfather in two years, and now within five hours, she would be with him on his own asteroid. She was already tired of spaceflight and, despite the body-conforming seat, her back was killing her. She attempted to fluff her hair again with indifferent success.

Minutes seemed to go by like hours until an asteroid appeared on the screen. Lights and signals flashed. "What's all the commotion?" asked Purosti.

"Prepare for landing!" announced Dio.

The Velicia straps tightened.

Purosti looked down at the tiny landing area surrounded by all manner of repel-cycles and speeders in different stages of repair.

"Hold on!" said Dio. They descended smoothly through the force shield aperture into an atmospheric dome and landed roughly. However, considering everything that Purosti had been through she thought the landing was exceptional.

The rocket barely touched the surface when Purosti threw open her hatch and jumped anxiously onto the gravel landing pad.

"Come on, Dio, we're wasting time," she yelled as she forced her stiff legs to run to her Grandfather's shop. Dio finally caught up with her at the shops entrance.

Purosti pushed the doorbell Dink! She shook her head and chuckled. My Grandpa, he can fix anything in the universe, except his own doorbell.

She glanced at the reflection in the door glass at her matted hair and the dark circles under cocoa brown eyes.

After a few seconds, the windows on the dark facade lit up, and Purosti heard the dead bolt clicking. The door squeaked open and immersed them in artificial brightness. In the doorway stood a lean, bent, mature gentleman with receding, white wire-like hair exploding in all directions. A bushy gray mustache garnished his thin upper lip, and a squat, bulbous nose supported a pair of gold wire rims (he preferred the antique eyewear over conventional correction). He wore a genuine mixture of surprise and relief on his pallid face.

Purosti noticed the added deep lines in his already deeply lined face. My God, he's aged these last few years. Don't look surprised, and act your age. You're a college girl now. Although acting her age was always a problem around Grandpa. She was his little muffin. She dove at him and smothered him with hugs and kisses. "Oh Grandpa, I missed you s-o-o much."

"Hi, little muffin. How ya feelin'? Purple hair now, eh," he said as he hugged her and gently pushed her back. He looked up at Dio and nodded at him. Dio gave a slight bow and walked around a partially dismantled rocket engine in the middle of the shop to its shadowy rear, opened a large metal door, and stepped through.

"I'm feeling much better now," answered Purosti as she hugged his neck again.

"I'm truly glad to hear it," said Grandfather, once more pushing her back. "You should be more careful when attending any functions. You're just lucky you have somebody who cares deeply for you."

"There are things I should've done and things I shouldn't have done, but I learned a lot... Aren't you glad to see me?"

"I'm extremely glad to see you. Why do you ask?"

"Because you keep pushing me away when all I want is a hug."

"My dear little muffin, you've been locked up for--how many weeks?--with no bath. After you bathe, I will give you all the hugs you want."

"So that's why Dio shunned me," whispered Purosti.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch that, sweetie."

"I think I'm in love, Grandpa," she blurted.

"Who is it this time?" droned Grandpa rolling his eyes.

"I'm serious, I think I'm in love with Dio." She tried to fluff her hair again.

"Who?" said Grandpa furrowing his brow and cocking his head.

"You know, Dio... Diordna."

"Who in deep space is that?"

"The man you hired to rescue me. Dio."

Grandpa chuckled, "My dear child. He is no man."

"What?"

Grandpa put his arm around her narrow shoulders and said, "Come with me." He guided her through the shadowy clutter to the massive door at the rear wall and opened it. Purosti stepped through into a larger, more muddled workshop and froze at the site that greeted her just inside the huge opening.

Standing in a row, each one exact in appearance and in pose, were five Dios. Grandpa put his mouth next to Purosti's ear and whispered, "He's a machine... an android. I haven't perfected the eyes yet. You didn't think he was human, did you?"

With her eyes burning and vision blurring she stared at the quintet. Do not do this, Purosti. Do not cry! You are a college girl now... Huh, I did not use a contraction.

"No, I guess not," she said her voice quivering.

They turned to leave, but she glanced back over her shoulder at the quiescent five. "If I only had a heart," she mumbled wiping the warm wetness from her cheek.

"What, what's that, muffin? You know my hearing isn't as good as it use to be."

"Oh, nothing," she said, her voice still trembling. "Just something from an old, old movie."


THE END


© 2016 J. Eckert Lytle

Bio: Mr. Lytle has spent his youth traveling the world via U.S. Army, bicycling, hiking, and an old VW. He was a bodybuilder and a businessman. He's Scuba dived in various waters around the world and enjoys camping alone in the mountains prospecting for gold. He enjoys writing and has a lifetime of experiences to draw from. His last Aphelion appearance was Executive Decision in our March, 2015 issue.

E-mail: J. Eckert Lytle

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