Nyko’s men ran towards the front of the warehouse, towards the sound of the approaching vehicles. Only Jonas stayed in his spot. He was the eyes. His job was to spot attackers and call out their positions.
The men were well trained. Nyko and Brian collapsed inward to the front of the building. Terrell and Andy moved up to the front corners. The drive up to the warehouse was a long, straight road.
“Three trucks, each with two in the cab and four in the back,” Jonas called down.
“Blow the latches,” said Nyko.
Jonas reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out one of the remote controls. It was a gun shaped unit, designed for driving a car. On the side was a wheel that had been intended to steer the car, and the trigger was the throttle. He flipped the controller on and squeezed the trigger.
One hundred yards away from Nyko’s position, a series of pops, no louder than a firecracker puffed tiny clouds of smoke up from the road bed. Those small charges lifted the latch on spring-loaded spike-strips. The spikes rotated up out of a small ditch in the road, pointing straight at the oncoming truck.
The first truck hit the spike strip. The tines hooked into the tires, flattening them, but also holding on to them. A year ago Brian had complained loudly when Nyko made him drive the stakes holding the spike-strips eight feet into the ground, and every time he had to reset them. But the effect was impressive. The truck was brought to a stop in less than three feet. The sheet of strips ripped partially out of the ground and folded around the wheels.
The front of the truck dipped and the rear flew upwards, launching the four men and enough hand-tools to fill a garden shed out of the back, cartwheeling through the air at fifty miles per hour. The rear of the truck fell back to the ground just in time for the second truck to slam into the tailgate. Four more men were ejected, this time from the second truck.
The force of the impact ripped the spike strips from the ground. All eight men were still in the air as the two wrecked vehicles spun to the left, and then rolled over sideways.
The men hit the ground, skidding on the asphalt. The third truck narrowly missed the pair of mangled vehicles that were still rolling over. The driver of that one must have had lightning reflexes to miss the collision.
He jerked the wheel to the right, then back to the left to swerve around the wreckage. He was in the middle of his maneuver when he ran over one of his compatriots. Driver number three locked up the brakes, skidding to a stop, sideways in the road. His real wheels came to rest on top of the corpse he’d just run over.
The driver of the last truck watched the carnage unfold, and had nowhere to go. He’d been accelerating to catch up to the group when the scene unfolded, and he never thought to hit the brakes. He smashed into the passenger side of truck number three, rolling it over. His passengers were thrown clear, and skidded to a stop on the pavement.
When everything came to rest, sixteen men lay on the asphalt, ejected from the cargo area of the trucks they were riding in. There were eight more men inside the vehicles. The driver’s side doors of of the first two opened, and at the same time, several of the wounded men started to get up off the asphalt.
Nyko waited until the driver of the first truck climbed out of the wreckage, then shouldered his heavy rifle and squeezed. He still had the door latch in his hand when the glass exploded and shards of glass and hollow point embedded themselves in his face.
The driver was spun around by the force of the shot and landed on his stomach. Several of the marauders were back on their feet, charging at Nyko, axes, hatchets, or whatever they could find in their hand. One of the remaining six was holding a shovel over his head, ready to swing it like a bat. None of them were in good shape. Those without shirts had very little skin left on their chests. One man’s nose had been ground off by the asphalt. Every one of them was covered in blood.
Nyko’s men opened fire. The marauders were cut down one by one. Not one tried to find cover or even slowed their charge, they were so consumed by aggression.
The last man moving, the driver of the second truck got out and held his hands up.
Nyko knew this was always the tricky part. One of them had to get away, one of them that was still sane enough to report back to their boss that they failed.
He started walking forward slowly, keeping his scope on the man. “Driver! Step around your truck and lay down on the road.”
“I have a cuddle fuck… I have a cup of soup… I have a message. Yes, message!” The driver yelled, seemingly thrilled that he got the right word out.
Nyko stopped. He was about thirty feet from the man. This was a new tactic. “What message?”
“Your train will be fucked by an antelope!” Brian burst out laughing from his position back by the warehouse. The sun was setting. They had about an hour before the bar’s patrons would be showing up, and had to have all this cleaned up by then.
“Is that your message? I have one for you to return,” Nyko shouted. Andy and Terrell advanced from the corner towards their boss, covering him. Both knew what was about to happen, as it had countless times before.
Nyko pulled a small notebook out of his back pocket and a pen out of the inside of his leather vest. He quickly scrawled a note.
Stay away from my bar and I won’t come for you.
This is your third and final warning.
If you come again, I will hunt you down and kill every one of you.
Everyone knew they would ignore the warning. But Nyko couldn’t just kill someone once they surrendered, and he certainly wasn’t in the business of keeping prisoners. So, he let the man go with a note, as he’d done the two previous times.
“Now, run along. Go back to your boss and tell him what a bad idea it is to come here.”
He’d been through this cycle a bunch of times. Three warnings, then they find the marauder camp and wipe them out. A few weeks or a month later a new group started up. No one knew where they came from, or where they’d been the last two years.
Nyko always figured they were the people of Las Vegas and the surrounding area who didn’t make it inside the walls in time. They held on as long as they could, eating whatever scraps they could scavenge before they resorted to eating the infected.
At first, there were no side effects from eating the disease ridden people. It built slowly. Some people retained more of their mental faculties for longer than others, but invariably, cannibalizing the infected lead to dementia and intense aggression. Marauders killed for fun. Many of them wouldn’t even eat regular food anymore. The dementia convinced them that everything else was poisonous.
In that regard, they served a purpose. They kept the infected population down.
“Let’s get this shit cleaned up,” Nyko yelled. “Haul the trucks around back, tomorrow we’ll see if there is anything we can use. Burn the corpses.”
Brian rolled up the warehouse door and came rolling out in a golf-cart pulling a trailer. The roof of the cart had been replaced with two massive solar panels. Fuel was everything, there was no sense in wasting it on yard-work.
I walk around my house talking like Brian all the time. I thought you should probably hear what he sounds like, because it makes reading his dialogue that much better. I recorded a short sample of Brian talking. (Warning, some salty language.)
The train hummed on the track. Supplies were loaded. Jonas was in the locomotive, in front of a heavily armored fuel tank car. Next, the passenger car, armored on the sides, with a crow’s nest on top. That’s where Brian was. Two more of Nyko’s men, Terrell and Derrick were on the rear deck of the last car.
Andy was already out scouting in the dune buggy, and for now, the maintenance truck was parked in the warehouse. This was an exploratory trip, and Jonas had verified the tracks were operational with the sand-plow.
Nyko climbed the short ladder to the bar car, and took a seat. Charlotte was nowhere to be seen.
The train pulled away from the warehouse, and Nyko poured himself a drink. All alone in the bar car, he hoisted the shot. “The maiden voyage. It’s about time,” he said, tossing the whiskey down his throat.
Jonas sped the train up, making time while he was familiar with the tracks. Nyko was surprised by how loud it was. Even owning a bar with generators and people and music, life was much quieter these days. The sound of a train, the first he’d heard since the outbreak both excited and frightened him. Some people would hear the train and be excited.
As they passed the south western corner of the wall, Jonas laid on the air horn. People all over New Vegas heard it.
For just over an hour, Nyko sat in the bar. It had the most comfortable seats. He imagined the next trips, where the bar would be full of people drinking and carrying on. Somehow he liked it better this way.
Eventually, he made his way to the front of the car, slid the door open and stood out on the platform between the bar and the tanker, watching the desert roll by. He winced as he climbed the ladder to the catwalk across the top of the tanker; the wound in his side was just starting to knit together. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to die of a horrible infection, Charlotte had taken the drain out just the night before and stitched up the last quarter inch of the wound. Stretching his arm up to grab the ladder pulled, and then using his abdominal muscles to lift his leg to the rung drove the ache deeper into his midsection.
He winced, but climbed. He stopped in the middle of the tanker to check on Brian. Originally, the middle of the tank was a wide spot in the catwalk that allowed access to an eighteen inch wide fill-hatch. Jonas beefed up the wide spot, adding layers of chain welded to the top and bottom rail. Jonas swore it would stop handgun bullets. It wasn’t something Nyko wanted to test.
“Hey boss! How you feelin’ man? Shit’s gotta be itchin’ like a motherfucker by now. One time I cut my leg with a chainsaw, took a hunnert and forth seven stitches across my thigh. That sum bitch itched like a kid sittin’ on a fire ant bed.”
“Not bad. It’s just a scratch,” Nyko said. “Have you seen anything?”
“Nah man, me an’ Brian been out a little farther than this, an’ Jonas went all the way to the bridge in the plow. If there was anything out here we’d know about it.”
“Excellent. When we get to the bridge, I’d like to stop and check it out. I want to make sure it’s safe for this monster.”
“Sure thing, Boss. We’ll check her out good. Can’t have no accidental train track locomotive cliff diving or somethin’”
Nyko walked the rest of the way, climbed down the ladder and stepped into the cab of the locomotive.
“How we doin,” Nyko said.
“She’s purring like a kitten. Can’t even tell we’re pulling anything,” Jonas yelled over the noise of the diesel generator.
“How long until the bridge?”
“bout an hour, give or take.”
“Think you can make it in half an hour? Let’s open her up a little.”
“You sure? Gonna double our fuel use.”
“Yeah, let’s get a feel for her.” Nyko grinned.
Jonas sounded the horn in two short blasts and eased the stick forward, directing more electricity to the drive motors. The pair watched the speedometer climb past thirty to forty, then up to fifty. Jonas pulled the stick back a little when it hit sixty.
Nyko took a seat on the engineer’s bench. His side was killing him, but it didn’t dull the thrill of the inaugural run. After two years of preparation, they were finally getting somewhere.
The feeling of power was amazing. Nyko could see why Jonas liked operating the huge locomotive. It felt unstoppable. On the long straight tracks of the desert, there wasn’t much to do in the cab, so the two of them passed the next hour talking about what they might encounter on the other side of the gorge.
Jonas checked his watch, jumped up and tugged on the horn chain, sounding one quick blast. Then he pulled the drive stick back, idled the engine down, and coasted the train to within a hundred feet of the bridge.
Andy was parked just a few feet away from the trestle. He jumped out of the buggy and met Nyko, Jonas and Brian.
“I rode out on it about fifty feet. Everything looks good. I’ve been here about thirty minutes, and I gotta tell you I could hear you coming the whole time. We ain’t gonna sneak up on anyone with this setup.”
“That’s why we built her as strong as we did. Get across on the buggy. Brian, Jonas, you two inspect as much as you can before we go across. I want to make a decision in thirty minutes. I’ll be in the bar.”
Andy jumped back in the buggy and bounced the wheels up over the track rails. The bridge didn’t have a bottom, just railroad ties spaced a foot apart. Each time, the tires dipped into the void between them, and then bounced up over the next rail.
The pair had built the buggy with over eighteen inches of suspension travel, but Andy still felt like his kidneys were going to rattle out of his gut. The bridge itself was long, nearly a mile, and curved as it crossed Dead Man’s Gorge.
Local lore said that back in the old west days, a scientist named Jason Brown and his cohort Caroline Matheson were ambushed while prospecting in the gorge. The two of them killed two hundred men that day. Stories told of Brown using some sort of weird device that called lightning from the sky, and Caroline wading through bodies with a grim reaper style scythe.
Andy didn’t believe a word of it, but the legend was pervasive. He had plenty of time to think about it in the hour it took to cross the bridge. He also had time to devise a way to use a small crane to lift the buggy up onto a flatbed car. By the time he’d finished the crossing, he knew exactly where to place the lugs to attach the rigging.
Andy reached down and picked up a small walkie-talkie radio. “Redneck, this is Eagle, you copy? Over.”
“God damnit Eagle, My name is Budweiser!”
“Fuck you, Redneck. Over.” Andy grinned, imagining Brian fuming.
“If you don’t call me Budweiser, I’m going to start calling you malt-o-meal. Over.”
“Fine, Budweiser. I’m across the gorge. How does the bridge look? Over.”
“Steady as she goes, Eagle. We’re fired up and ready.”
“Come on across…” Andy’s transmission was cut off by gunfire. Suddenly his whole demeanor changed. He was no longer joking with his buddy. “Taking fire, Taking fire, Contact multiple hostiles, One, two, three o’clock. Request immediate backup. Do you copy, Bravo Uniform Delta?”
“Copy. Heavy is inbound, tee oh tee three minutes.” Brian leapt out of the crow’s nest, slid down the ladder and screamed into the locomotive. “Gotta go, Andy’s in trouble on the far side. Make speed!”
Brian climbed back up into the crow’s nest and strapped on his Kevlar vest. He’d been sitting on it, using it as a cushion on the hard metal. Next he slid his rifle sling over his shoulder and watched through the scope.
His rifle was designed for close quarters combat, not long range shooting. His scope offered very little magnification, but he fired three shots anyway.
At the back of the train, Terrell and Derrick charged the fifty-caliber machine guns and removed the pins so the guns could rotate on their mounts.
The train leapt forward, onto the bridge. Brian heard the guns on the buggy firing in the distance. Andy was putting up a hell of a fight.
One of my author-heroes, Chris Philbrook, is releasing his epic “Adrian’s Undead Diary” in book form. Today is the launch day for book 5, Wrath. I was honored to write the forward for book 5. I hope you’ll go check it out on Amazon.
The beautiful blonde bolted down the darkened streets of New Vegas, fully aware that she was out well past curfew. If the New Vegas police caught her, she’d be thrown in jail for the night. If the night gangs caught her, she’d be in for something far worse.
The Casinos were massive; there was no way to go behind them. Most of the hotels backed up directly to the wall, in order to save time and materials.
Taylor ran from every bit of cover she could find to the next bit. First stopping to breathe behind an old bus stop, then she darted into an alley and stood behind a pile of trash while she waited for a pair of police on bicycles to pass.
When they were gone, she sprinted across the front of Bally’s and then she was at the guard booth on Flamingo. Almost home free. “Robbie,” she called softly.
Robbie came out of the booth, followed by his partner, and then another man. “Shit,” she swore under her breath.
The third man out of the booth spoke with a deep, authoritative tone. “What is your business with the guard after curfew, ma’am?” Taylor spotted the sergeant’s bars on his NVPD uniform shirt.
She couldn’t say anything about Brad. She couldn’t say anything about Robbie. She knew the city police hated Nyko, but it was her only out. “I work for Nyko. He sent me into town to give some papers and fuel estimates to the governor. I left them with his assistant, but then I got distracted by a painting in the lobby and stayed far too long admiring it. I just need to get back.”
“No one goes through the gate after dark,” the man said. “As you well know.”
Taylor poured on her wiles, stepping forward towards the sergeant. “I know, but I just got caught up. I’m so sorry, it’ll never happen again. Is there just any way you can make an exception for me, just this one time? I promise you’ll never see me out after curfew again.”
As she closed in, she noticed that the sergeant was sweating profusely. His cheeks were ruddy. It was warm, but no-where near the daytime highs. Sweat ran down his forehead, which he mopped with his arm. When he lifted his arm, she saw huge dark circles under his armpits, and his hands were shaking. Gotcha, she thought.
“I just happen to have something that might help cool you off.” Taylor pulled out two single-serve bottles of Knob Creek Whiskey. “They’re still sealed.”
The man’s tone changed, and Taylor suddenly wondered if she’d misjudged. “Do you have any idea what the penalty for trying to bribe an officer of the law is? On top of the penalty for having alcohol inside the city.”
“Oh, it’s not like that at all, honey.” Taylor practically purred. “You just looked powerful thirsty, it’s so hot, and your uniform is so… Tight. What if I just put these down over here, and then got out of your hair?” Taylor stepped a few feet to the right as she spoke, and set the two bottles on top of a barrel.
“I suppose, if I were to look the other way for just a second and you were gone, it would save me a ton of paperwork,” he said.
“I suppose it would,” replied Taylor stepping towards the gate. Robby opened the small pedestrian door in the middle of the massive gate. As she passed through, Robbie whispered to her. “How’d you know that would work?”
“I work in a bar. I can spot an alcoholic a mile away. See you next time you’re out.” She brushed a kiss across Robbie’s cheek and bolted off into the night as the gate slammed closed behind her.
Taylor ran for several minutes before stopping beside a pile of rubble, left over parts of the Barbary Coast or Burbon Street casinos, if she had to guess. She put her hand on the pile and focused on breathing. She was in good shape, but it was difficult running in the sand, and her backpack was heavy.
She heard a voice whispering behind her. “I such pretty hair. I’m going to turn you inside out!” Taylor spun around in time to see stars as someone hit her squarely in the eye. She stumbled backward, tripped over a rock and fell flat on her back.
Her backpack cushioned her fall, but when she stood, she felt something cold and wet run down her lower back and her pants. “Shit. Not the antibiotics, not the antibiotics,” she mumbled to herself as she started running.
He was chasing her. “Come on, girl. Put it in your mouth,” he said, louder this time. He was gaining. She wasn’t going to be able to outrun him.
Taylor stopped in her tracks. “You want me to put it in your mouth?”
She turned to see the man chasing her. He was gaunt, every one of his ribs showing under thick, dark-tanned skin. He had a bandanna covering his face, and yellow-lensed ski goggles over his eyes. His hair was completely gone.
“Yes!” he said, seeming confused. “Wait, no. Your mouth.” He stopped running about two feet from Taylor. “Yes, that’s how it works. You put it in your mouth.”
“Okay,” she said. “Get it out.”
Her attacker fumbled with his pants in an attempt to get them down as quickly as possible. When he did, the smell nearly knocked Taylor down. He smiled. He was missing all but two or three of his teeth. “Now, put it in your mouth.”
“Your mouth,” Taylor said.
“No, your mouth!” He screamed.
The girl remembered her first conversation with Nyko, about four months after the infection started. Brian brought her in out of the waste, where he found her cowering under a burned out car. She was malnourished, hours away from dying of dehydration. Her face was so sunburned she could barely move her mouth.
She was sitting at a table in the bar. Charlie brought two glasses, a pitcher of water, and a jar of pickles. A few minutes later, Nyko came walking in, sat down and poured himself a glass of water.
He took a long drink as he looked her over. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Taylor,” she replied between bites of pickle.
“I’m Nyko. This is my joint. We have bunch of jobs open around here. You can pick one. No one stays for free, but we’re not all work. We’re a family.
“My family is all dead,” she replied. “My mom was infected. My dad and older brother were killed by a gang for a gallon of water last week.”
“My family is gone too. This is my family now.” Nyko said. “The world is different. People lost their humanity, even those living inside the walls. You’re a pretty girl, and people out there are going to try to do bad things to you. If they haven’t already tried.”
The second part was more of a question than a statement. Taylor looked at Nyko. He was a kind man, she could see it in his eyes, despite the exterior he presented. “I’ve been lucky. No one yet.”
“Some day, someone will try. When that time comes, you need to stop thinking and act.” Nyko paused, gauging the girl’s will. “And when you act, you act swiftly and violently. At your size, once they have you pinned down, you won’t be able to fight them off. You’ll have to end the attack before it gets started. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” she replied. ”
Taylor knelt down in front of the disgusting marauder who was swinging his hips back and forth, making his junk slap against his thighs.
In one smooth motion she pulled out her knife and cut it off, balls and all. The marauder screamed, and clamped his hands on his crotch. Taylor shoved his cock in his open mouth, silencing his scream.
“Like I said. Your mouth.”
She ran for all she was worth, leaving the screaming man behind her.
“I did it, Nyko. Just like you said,” she whispered to herself as she arrived at the saloon.
Taylor stopped in the bar and grabbed Charlotte. “I did it. I got three bags, but I broke one on the way back.” She slid her backpack off and opened it. “Oh no.” Taylor’s face sank. “I broke the antibiotic. I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling out the empty bag. “A man knocked me down. I fell on it.” Taylor started crying. “I just wanted… I just wanted to be useful.”
“Oh, god Taylor, you did amazing. You got an IV kit. We didn’t have one. Brian and Andy just left to look for antibiotics, we’ll get him started on these two saline bags.”
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Taylor met Charlie at the door to the shower room with two towels. Charlie took the first one and wrapped her long, dark hair in it, piling the towel up on top of her head. She took the second one and dried off, then wrapped it around her waist. “Thanks, Tay.”
Taylor looked at her friend with soft eyes. “You okay? I don’t know how you stay so strong. I’m falling to pieces.”
Vaughn worked around the ship doing routine maintenance for the rest of the afternoon. In the late evening, he walked downtown, towards the market to get a bite to eat and a change of clothes.
After growing up and spending the first half of his life in the military establishment, Vaughn was accustomed to wearing a uniform. When he left the military, he’d adopted a kind of civilian uniform in a similar fashion. Hanging in his berth back on the ship were five pairs of brown pants, each spaced five centimeters apart. Next to that were five cream colored shirts with brown buttons. Five soft, form-fitting shirts were folded on the shelf next to five pairs of socks. His closet was a model of organization. On this trip, he’d added a formal suit for the funeral.
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Nyko and Jonas worked furiously to get the truck moving. Once they had the air pressure lowered, Nyko drove, following the tracks, deep into the desert. Within about thirty miles, the desert gave way to sandstone and rock. The landscape was beautiful, if barren. The occasional cactus was the only green in the reddish landscape.
Jonas found a rail map in the pocket of his door and unfolded it out over the dash. “There’s a big canyon coming up in about a mile. The tracks and the road parallel each other there. I think that’s where we’ll find our maintenance garage.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This book skips around in time a bit. Not in a timey-wimey time-travel sort of way, but through flashbacks and Vaughn’s memories. The heading at the top of the page tells you the year. The “main” story happened in 432, this chapter, for example, takes place in 430.
430th Year of
Emperor Valek Foger XXVI
Two years earlier, when Vaughn got word that his best friend Fresia’s father was dead, he set out that afternoon for Foger. Matthew was sick, so Sarah stayed home with him. She gave her husband strict orders to send Fre her love. After the funeral, the pair walked a block over and two blocks up to a little bar called “Twinings.” Vaughn slipped the bouncer at the door a few crench and he led them towards the back, past the stage where a Human girl danced, grinding on a pole to the bass-heavy music. She peeled a tiny string-top off and tossed it to the side, shaking her breasts at Vaughn and Fresia as they passed. “Hey, Fre,” she called. “Who’s the hunk?”
Fresia smiled slightly as she looked at the dancer. “Hey Skye. He’s an old war buddy,” she replied as she slipped into a booth. The bartender arrived seconds later with two moges. The thick, dark brown, malty beverages were their drink of choice. “Thanks Bode,” she replied and took a long drink.
“I’m so sorry about your dad, Fre,” Vaughn said. “He was a good man.”
“He was.” Her eyes were distant as she dwelled on his memory. Vaughn didn’t bother pushing her for conversation. Eventually, her eyes refocused on her friend. “That’s kind of why I asked you here. You’re the only one I knew to call. Dad was murdered, Vaughn. They called it an accident, but he was killed, I just know it. He was in great shape, and had a physical two weeks ago.”
Vaughn took a long drink from his moge. “That’s a big accusation. Do you have something we can go on? If you do we’ll find the bastard and I’ll skin him alive.”
Fresia took a long drink herself, draining her glass. “When we find the bastard, I’m going to skin him alive. Then I’ll apply dermal bandaging, and skin him again. When I’m done with him, he’s going to wish I’d fed him to a heard of gnarg.
“Tell me what you know, Fre.” Vaughn nodded to the bartender who brought another moge for Fresia.
“Dad was into something. He told me he was going to do this one deal, and then he’d be out. This one was going to set him up to retire.”
“Any idea what it was?”
“I don’t have anything concrete, but I’m pretty sure it was worine.”
Vaughn suddenly knew why Fresia had chosen this bar. The music made it impossible for anyone to eavesdrop. “Shit, Fre. What was he doing mixed up in worine? That shit is big time. People die from just one small dose. What the hell was he doing pushing?”
“I dunno, Vaughn. I don’t even know for sure that’s what it was, but he was hanging out with a bunch of Geraldinian thugs.”
Vaughn took a sip of his moge and set the glass down on the table. The girl over Fresia’s shoulder was working hard to get his attention in hopes that he’d slide a few crench into a lacy band on her thigh. She was extraordinarily beautiful, but Sarah would never approve. He tried not to look, but she was good at her job, and she was physically perfect. He briefly wondered if she could carry on a conversation.
“Where can we find these guys?” Vaughn asked, tearing himself away from the beautiful woman.
“They hang out at a club on the outside of town. Skye dances there sometimes. She got me in last night to check it out. Small joint, front door has two bouncers. Kitchen door leads to an alley. Main room has a big bar, maybe fifteen tables, and there’s a back room. I couldn’t get back there; Skye says that’s where they hold private parties.”
Vaughn pictured the place in his mind. Since his mother passed away he didn’t ever come to this part of town when he was on Foger. “What’s the name of the joint?”
“It’s a Human bar, taken over by Geraldinians. They just showed up and muscled all the regulars out. Called the Alley Cat.”
“What’s the plan? What do you need from me?”
“Skye got me a gig dancing there tonight. I’m going to kill them all, but I won’t have anywhere to hide a weapon. I’m worried I can’t take them all unarmed.”
Vaughn laughed. “You’re going to be dancing? After our homecoming gala?”
“Skye’s shown me a few moves,” she replied with a smirk. “I got the job, so I can’t be that bad.”
“Fair enough,” he smiled and then asked, “How’s security? Am I going to be able to carry something in?”
Fresia shook her head. “I don’t think so. Just gonna be us.”
Vaughn thought for a minute. “How are we going to handle Empire Security? They’ll be there in just a couple minutes.”
“Skye’s my backup on that. She’ll say one of them grabbed me, I slapped him and things got rough.”
“Think it’ll fly?” Vaughn looked doubtful.
“There’s been a huge influx of incidents involving Geraldinians sexually assaulting Human women. Ever since they took over the low-quarter, it’s like they have something to prove. Bunch of macho assholes.”
Vaughn resigned himself. Fresia was his best friend, and had been by his side since his third year at the Institute. When he was named Captain of The Reetus, she was his only choice for first officer. “I wish Hold was here. Geraldinians are fucking tough bastards.”
Fre nodded. “Me too, but he’s busy on Savye, he’s up to his ass in debt and the ruling council is breathing down his neck. He can’t get away.”
“Anything else I need to know before this goes down tonight?”
Fre shook her head. “I think that’s it. Get in, bust heads, get information, and get out.”
“Alright, I need to run a few errands; I’ll head to The Alley Cat about twenty-six hundred?” A Fogerian day ran for thirty hours. The longer days and nights had significantly upset the circadian rhythm of early Humans. These days, Humans were used to it, although their bodies never developed a need to sleep longer.
The pair stood up. Vaughn hugged Fresia and said, “We’ll find out what happened and there will be justice.”
She looked at him squarely in the eyes. “Thank you, Vaughn. For everything. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” As Fresia passed Skye, she paused, slipped a handful of crench into her garter. Skye bent down and kissed her with a passion that surprised Vaughn.
When it was his turn to walk by, she shook her boobs at him. He turned slightly red, slipped whatever bills he had in his pocket into her garter, and walked out, rubbing lipstick off of his cheek.
Vaughn headed straight for the central market. He passed store after store, selling everything from gnarg steaks to hand-made tak bars, moge and harder liquors, flowers and transports. Anything legal could be purchased there in the central market. For those looking for less-than-legal items, as Vaughn was that afternoon, one just had to know where to look.
He buttoned his coat and slipped into the side door of Miss Autumn’s, one of Vaughn’s old haunts when he was a bachelor living on Foger. The side door was reserved for special patrons. Vaughn hoped that title was for life, because he hadn’t been a good customer for a number of years. As he closed the door behind him, a high pitched voice called out to him. “Vaughn! Honey, I’m so glad you’ve come home. Finally decided to ditch that old ball and chain?”
“Hi, Misty,” said Vaughn, looking over at a beautiful blonde. She was wearing a completely see-through bikini with tall heels and nothing else. Eight years hadn’t changed her a bit. She was sitting on a long sofa, with her legs crossed. She kicked one leg innocently when Vaughn looked up. “I’m still married. Sarah’s doing well. I have a son these days,” he said, smiling.
“Oh, Vaughn. It’s a shame to see a man like you put out to pasture.” Misty put one foot over on the couch and ran her hands down her body, lingering between her legs. “Almost ten years I’ve been waiting for you to come back. No one makes me scream like you.”
Vaughn shook his head. “I got everything I need at home.”
“Why don’t you bring her along next time you come?” Misty ran her hands up to her breasts and squeezed them. “I play well with others.”
“That’s great, but I don’t. It’s been good catching up, baby, but is Mikey still downstairs? I need to have a talk with him.”
“Yeah, fine, whatever,” said Misty, standing up. As she walked past Vaughn to a small desk on the far side of the room, her skin went from milky white to dark green. Her legs and arms lengthened, and a tail peeked out from her backside and waved at him. She pushed a button on the desk, causing a door to open right beside Vaughn.
Her voice was much lower this time, as she said, “Last chance. I can look just like her if it makes you feel any better.”
Vaughn nodded his head towards her and stepped down the stairs.
Halfway down he heard a voice call up, “Vaughn fucking Troupe. What brings a badass motherfucker like you to my little hole in the world?”
“Mikey,” said Vaughn, stepping out into the underground shop. “It’s good to see you man.”
Mikey was less than a meter in height and covered in shaggy green and brown fur. He moved with deadly grace, in contradiction to his comical exterior.
“What brings you down?”
Vaughn held his empty hands out. “I’m in a spot. Some shit going down tonight and I could use something concealable that can even the odds. Gotta get past a couple door guys.”
“Must be something big if you’re looking for a force multiplier.” He held up his hands to stop Vaughn, who wasn’t going to say anything anyway. “I don’t want to know. I have enough problems with the ES as it is. I got just the thing for you, check it.”
Mikey disappeared behind the counter. It sounded like he was throwing pots and pans, guns, knives, sticks, and batons aside. When he reemerged, he was triumphantly holding a crench.
“Look at this son of a bitch. I swear The Emperor, may he guide us safely through, would take this note himself. But… you pull just right… and a little twist.” Mikey fumbled with the note for a second. “Hold on, it’s something like this.” He fumbled with the note a little more before it tore in half. “Alright… That was a real crench. But hang on. I got more shit.” Mikey ran off to the back of the store.
Vaughn passed the time looking at the high-end plasma rifles hanging on pegs on the wall. Everything on display was legal to sell, although some of Mikeys sources were slightly less than reputable. Finally, the small man bounded out of the back room, backflipped off a Human size chair and landed in front of Vaughn holding up a ring.
“Tenth-gram of Argimonium. Delivers ten thousand volts on contact. Turns your punches into real stunners.”
“That’s perfect. How much?”
“Can you bring me half a gram next time you’re in town?” Mikey looked up at Vaughn. His eyes were impossibly big.
“Half-gram? Mikey… I’d take an ass whupping for a half-gram. I’ll bring you a fifth.”
“Make it a quarter gram and we have a deal.” Mikey reached up to shake Vaughn’s hand.
Vaughn looked down at his old friend. “Fine,” he said. “One quarter gram.” The pair shook hands to seal the deal, and then Vaughn headed back to the ship to find some way to pass the time.
Vaughn worked in the cargo hold, stripping panels that lead to power conduits and reconnecting old circuits. “How many can I run based on our current generation capabilities, without disabling any of the modifications?”
“I was originally designed to host a compliment of seventy five guns. Pushing the current generators to one hundred ten percent would allow for seventeen.”
A week after Matty was stung by the shrolg, the ship’s computer woke Vaughn from his nap in his seat in the galley. Her soft, silky voice came from everywhere and nowhere. “Sir, we are nearing Vaughnville.”
Vaughn sat up in his berth and scrubbed his fingers through his long, dirty hair before wiping the sleep from the inside corners of his eyes. The transport captain cleared his voice and spoke out loud, “Halle, drop us out of the fold. I’ll come up and pilot the approach. Vaughnville? Really?”
“You’ve lived there for fifteen years, Captain. It needs a name.”
“I know. But Vaughnland? You make me out to be quite the egotist.”
“Perhaps something historic then? The name of the earliest Earth settlement in my memory is Sharonton. There was also an earth city called Duluth, and one called Red River Falls. Queen Willa the Great was from Red River Falls.”
“I remember history classes, Halle. Sharonton? I like it. How about New Sharonton?”
Instinctively, Vaughn reached out and grabbed the railing high along the wall. The entire ship shuddered as Halle unfolded space around the bubble containing the ship.
“Argimonium levels at eighty percent. Approaching New Sharonton at one quarter light.”
“Slow us to approach speed. How is the field looking?” He asked, letting go of the railing and swinging his legs off his seat and into his boots on the steel flooring. Every floor of the ship was metal. If the gravity generators failed, he could slip magnetic soles into his boots and still be able to maneuver around the ship.
“Magnetic field strength around New Sharonton is forty one percent above operational parameters. Full systems shutdown will be required during ionosphere re-entry.” That magnetic field was the reason Vaughn Troupe had chosen this particular moon to call home. It kept the E’Clei sensors from detecting the argimonium fields on the moon, and that kept his family safe. The field was caused by the gravitational interplay between the iron core of the moon Vaughn called “home” and the massive gas giant it revolved around.
When the system’s sun and his moon’s gas giant were in alignment, the tidal swell was enough to bring the ocean to his doorstep. At low tide, the ocean was almost forty miles away across a massive salt flat.
Vaughn sat down in the captain’s chair and punched a series of buttons on the arm rest. Three virtual screens appeared in the air in front of him. The far left showed the optimal approach path and his ship’s trajectory. The far right was the tactical screen, weapons systems and sensors. The middle screen had his focus at the moment, it was the flight controls. He adjusted speed and attitude, pitched over and started the descent.
“Halle, full shutdown. All controls to manual.”
“Yes Sir. Have a safe landing, Vaughn.”
“Thanks, Halle. Have a nice nap.”
Seconds later, the projections disappeared and the cover of the dash rolled back to reveal a large ball and dozens of buttons and levers. He put one hand on top of the sphere, and rolled it back and forth. Thrusters fired from the left and right side. He pushed the levers back and felt the drive thruster spin up. A huge ball of blue flame shot out the back of the ship, which lurched forward and nosed over towards the surface of the moon.
Manual reentry was always a thrill for Vaughn. As the air thickened outside the ship, the hull heated, causing it to expand. Tings, pops, creaks and groans sounded off all throughout the aging ship. “Come on baby, hold together for me,” he whispered.
Halle was a great ship. Just after the Battle of Bruth, Vaughn had found her floating in space, lifeless, not a soul aboard. He ordered her dragged into his cargo bay of his independence class warship, and there she sat, waiting. He spent most of his off time working on her.
This ship had started its life as a short range intra-stellar fighter for the Fogerian Empire, but Vaughn had other plans for a second life. He installed her AI, renamed her Halle, and every hour he wasn’t on the bridge, he spent inside Halle dreaming of the life he’d have afterward. A second life for both Vaughn and Halle, exploring deep space with his wife and the son he hadn’t yet met in person.
Folding space required a massive amount of computing power. Without the exact calculation, a ship could end up millions of light years from its target destination. Even with the most up to date star charts in the Fogerian Empire, a captain who was a million light years off course could spend months or even years trying to figure out where they were and which way they should go.
Throughout the war Vaughn requisitioned computer parts as replacements or spares for his battle ship, The Reetus. High Command didn’t complain about the extra parts, they considered them an investment. All the improvements Vaughn made to his battleship’s navigational computers benefitted the entire fleet. He never told them that he used all of those improvements in Halle’s core, let alone that she was the reason he was ordering all those parts.
As far as his superiors knew, he blew out a processor testing improvements to his own ship. Halle could compute coordinates in a fraction of a second that took the E’Clei an hour to compile. She was designed to function in deep space; Vaughn wanted to expand The Empire’s star charts. He wanted to find a sector of space where there were no E’Clei. No threat of the microscopic parasites invading his brain, killing everything that made him unique and wearing his corpse like a suit.
Sitting in the completely redesigned cockpit of his ship, Vaughn pushed the throttle and rolled the thruster control sphere forward. He reached up and hit several buttons on the ceiling, causing the ship to roll again until Vaughn was facing straight up in the captain’s chair. Another button activated the Cockpit Angle Servos. A regular Interceptor class ship was a long, skinny tube, pointed at one end with four massive engines at the other. Interceptors were capable of landing on the surface, the housing around the four massive engines served as landing gear, but the vehicle was primarily designed to stay in space. Halle was built to dock with a larger ship or space station; the crew would then take a shuttle to the surface. In her previous life, she was a space faring war-bird, but now she’d been repurposed for long-range exploration. Vaughn wanted to be able to live in the ship while she was on the surface of a planet.
Vaughn fired the landing thrusters, slowing the ship through the upper atmosphere, before reaching up to the ceiling once again to restart Halle.
“Nicely done, Captain. Shall I take over?”
“Take me home, Halle,” Vaughn said, unbuckling his harness. He walked down the hall toward the cargo hold where he had a month’s worth of supplies strapped down and waited until the ship touched down to open the door. He bounded out of the ship and crossed the hundred meter landing pad in three steps. The half gravity of his home was familiar to him. These days he was much more graceful than when he’d first arrived, although back then, he’d only had one leg.
The surface of New Sharonton was something of a kaleidoscope. The land shifted with the tides twice a day. Often, entire hills would move several meters. There was almost no vegetation on this part of the planet but on the opposite side, there were massive rainforests with trees over a thousand meters tall. They were so tall that the tops peeked above the ever-present clouds. The purple leaves gathered sun while the lower leaves soaked up moisture and released oxygen.
Vaughn looked out across the sandy planes. The sky was blue between the clouds, which created massive shadows rolling across the salt-flat to the south. His house was built just on the far side of the dunes at the edge of the massive salty desert. Twice a day, ocean water covered the desert in water, and for an hour or so at high tide, Vaughn had an oceanfront home.
At the edge of the landing pad, he expected his son Matt to be waiting for him. Matt always greeted Vaughn when he returned. Sarah sometimes came, but his son never missed a trip.
“Halle,” Vaughn said aloud, the chip in his ear connecting him with his ship. “Scan the area. Where’s Matt?”
“Sir, there are no life-signs in the immediate area. Perhaps he’s gone hunting again?”
“Where’s Sarah? Widen the search.”
“Ionospheric interference is keeping me from accessing my satellites, Vaughn. Would you like me to launch probes?”
Something wasn’t right. He was home right on time. They should be here. “Not just yet, Halle,” he said, leaping towards his home. He bounded up a large hill in one push off his artificial leg and tripped over a body in a white robe.
Now panicked, he rolled to his feet and jumped again and again towards his home, over hundreds of bodies. They all looked the same.
“Halle,” he started, out of breath in the thin atmosphere. “Dead, bald men in white robes. Gold “M” on their foreheads. Who are they?”
“Searching, Vaughn.” Seconds passed as he neared his home. “Their description matches those of Maxist priests. An ancient religion, The Maxists believe that a boy named Max was a god sent to Earth in the earth year 2010 to save Humanity from the E’Clei. The religion believes that Max will return and provide a safe place for all of Human kind. You know the name as the consortium that controls the vast majority of the argimonium in the galaxy.”
“How many years have they been waiting?”
“Unknown. It is rumored that Max was a mutated Human immune to the E’Clei parasites, who developed special abilities from their attempted infection.”
“Why would they be here?”
“Also unknown. I could create suppositions, but there are seven million three hundred thousand six hundred forty two possible reasons there could be dead Maxists on your moon. The probability of any of them being true is nearly six billion to one. The most likely is that they were monitoring your argimonium production, although they have no history of being involved in production.”
“Just tell me you have nothing,” he said, running.
“I have nothing, Vaughn. I suggest launching the probes.”
Desperation crept into Vaughn’s voice. These Maxists all had plasma burns. He’d seen these wounds before. They were from E’Clei weapons. “Launch them. Find Matty and Sarah.”
Vaughn reached his house, a solitary circle of green in a vast desert. The grass was perfectly manicured. Plants grew up under the windows, and a single tree, planted in the front yard had a swing hanging from one of the limbs, all surrounded by a white picket fence.
The house itself was a replica of an ancient earth home. When Vaughn was a child, his parents told him stories of Earth and how the E’Clei had come dozens of times over tens of thousands of years in an attempt to take over the planet before it was destroyed in The Colcoa War. Not much information survived the war, but Vaughn’s home planet was ravaged and then destroyed by the E’Clei. Less than a thousand Humans, led by Queen Willa the Great managed to survive the destruction of the planet.
Vaughn had built this house as a tribute to his ancestors, a small outpost of Humanity in a universe where his people had no real home. The front door was knocked off its hinges. Just inside the door, Sarah was laying on her back, clutching a communications link in one hand and an ionic pulse gun in the other. “Matty! Matt! Come out! I’m home!” he shouted. There wasn’t a sound in the house as he knelt to check Sarah for a pulse. She was cold.
“Vaughn,” Halle said in his ear. “The corpses are between twelve and fourteen hours old. Sensors are expanded out twice as far as Matthew could have travelled in that time. There are no Humanoid life-signs. I will continue the search.”
“Matty!” Vaughn called, grabbing the IP gun from Sarah’s hand and placing it gently on her chest. “Matty! Where are you!” He ran through the small house, searching every room. He checked every closet, under the beds, everywhere someone could hide. There was no sign of his son.
“Captain, Matthew is not on New Sharonton. I have scanned all of the bodies. His is not here. Heat trapped in the concrete of the launch pad indicates a ship left between eight and ten hours ago.”
Feeling utterly lost, Vaughn sat down on Matt’s bed, buried his face in his hands, and wept. Sarah was dead, his son was gone. And the E’Clei were to blame for it. All of years he spent being careful and trying to stay off of the radar had been for nothing. None of it made any sense.
After several hours, Vaughn headed towards the mine, fired up the excavator and dug two holes. He dug the first right beside the house, just big enough for Sarah. The other much more massive hole was over the hill behind the house. He was sewing Sarah into her favorite sheet when Halle spoke in his ear. “Captain, I have completed an exhaustive search of the entire moon, including sub-surface scans. There is no sign of Matthew on the planet. The plasma burns on the dead Maxists indicate E’Clei involvement, although there is a twenty seven percent chance that is a ruse. Footprint analysis indicates Romjini E’Clei.”
“How quickly can you get to Romjin?” Vaughn knew the planet, although he’d never been there. Part of his duty as captain of The Reetus was to know every E’Clei stronghold, even those on the farthest side of E’Clei space.
“Forty-Seven hours, sir. The Romjini ship would take nearly sixty to make the trip.”
“Halle, you’re not outfitted for war anymore. And what if they didn’t go to Romjin?”
“It is among the least likely places they would take him, Sir, but I calculated a ninety-seven percent chance that your follow up question would be to ask the time it would take them to travel there.”
Vaughn stitched Sarah the rest of the way up, and lifted her up on to his broad shoulders. Talking to Halle and creating a plan of what to do next helped him process his emotions. Being able to take the time to put Sarah to rest allowed him to deal with his grief. As he walked, he asked, “Where did they take him?”
“Statistically, based on seven hundred eighty thousand known E’Clei tactics, they would have taken him directly to E’Clei.” Vaughn’s heart sank. The most defended planet in the known universe. No Fogerian soldier had ever gotten within two light years of E’Clei. Not even spies implanted with genetically engineered parasites had ever returned.
The Fogerians were the most advanced race in the universe, other than the E’Clei, who only needed infect a handful of people of any race to have all the knowledge of that species. The E’Clei were technologically superior and when they killed an enemy, that enemy became one of them.
The Fogerian War ended in a drawdown of hostilities. The people of Foger said it was because they had done so much damage to the bugs, but Vaughn thought differently. Vaughn knew the E’Clei would never give up; instead they just altered their priorities. There were hundreds of trillions of habitable worlds in the universe, and billions of species. The E’Clei had conquered thousands of them, but as his mother used to say, “There were other fish in the sea.”
With Sarah buried in her garden beside the house, Vaughn started loading the Maxists into the bucket of the loader and dumping them into the massive grave. He thought best when he was busy, somehow physical labor always made his brain function better.
As he filled in the dirt, the thought struck him. He ran towards the house and grabbed the communicator Sarah had been holding.
“Halle, find the frequency of this comm. Adjust for the Doppler effect of the signal bouncing off the magnetic field. Find the last signal and amplify it.”
“Calculating… I’ve found it sir. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes!” he shouted, and then static filled his ear. Just under it he could hear the occasional note of Sarah’s voice.
“Filter out the static. Rebuild the signal based on Sarah’s speech patterns,” he commanded.
Slowly, the static disappeared out of the sound in his ear, until all that was left were a few sounds of Sarah’s voice. Just syllables and single letter sounds.
“I’ve analyzed all recordings of Sarah’s voice in my database. Applying suspected patches now. I’m afraid it doesn’t make much sense, sir.”
“Vaughn. T.. Avenue. Flat. Romain.”
“Factor in that she was under attack, and The Maxists being here. She had to have been under extreme stress,” the Captain said.
Sarah’s voice changed again in his ear. “Vaughn. They have Matt. Low eighty…” Sarah’s voice was cut off by Halle. “Sir, I cannot guess the number. From her inflection, there was more than eighty. Probability indicates she was telling you how many Humanoids had Matt.”
“Her mind didn’t work that way, Halle. Sarah isn’t a soldier. Enemy combatants wouldn’t matter to her.”
“Recalculating with additional parameters.”
Sarah’s voice again appeared in Vaughn’s ear and he had to choke back tears as she spoke. “They have Matt. Low eighty. Ours.”
“You’re a god damned genius, Halle! They’ve taken Matty to Loe. We have eighty-something hours to meet them there. Calculate the fold. Warm up the engines, we’re taking off.”
“Sir. I’m a computer, I do not have intelligence as you would categorize it.”
“Shut up and do the math,” Vaughn yelled over the noise of the loader he was riding towards his space dock. He climbed up the ramp into his ship and hit the button to close the cargo hatch. “How long?”
“Five hours, thirty four minutes.”
“Recall the probes.”
“They’re on their way back. Six minutes to planetary probe docking.”
“Organize the satellites, Halle. We’re going to pick them up too. We have less than four days and we need to make a stop on the way.” Vaughn’s boots clanked on the metal catwalk that led up to the galley.
“She won’t be happy to see you, Sir,” Halle said.
“I can’t get my son back without her,” Vaughn replied, buckling himself into the captain’s chair.
“I’ve adjusted our course. Four hours to the Foger home-world. I suggest you get some sleep once we get past the field.”
“Too much to do.” Vaughn piloted the ship through the magnetic field for the second time that day before turning Halle back on and heading towards the back of the ship.
“All six satellites are recaptured and safely stowed. Brace yourself for the fold.” Vaughn grabbed on to the railing in the cargo hold. He heard the familiar sound of the Alcubierre field generators winding up, and then the ship rattled and shook as it rocketed off down the wormhole created between the two layers of folded space-time.
If you are enjoying The Evolution of Vaughn, and would rather read on your kindle or other device with the kindle app (Or just think it’s worth the price of a cup of coffee, you can purchase the book on Amazon.
The Evolution of Vaughn is a work set in the same universe as What Zombies Fear, but hundreds of years in the future. Several key players from What Zombies Fear make appearances, including the E’Clei. If you have read that series, you will pick up on some of the Easter eggs, but having read it is NOT a requirement to fully enjoy this story.
Thanks for reading,
Before we begin. This is sci-fi, and there are often words that you may not recognize. Most of them, like Alcubierre Drive, do mean something, but if you don’t know the science I do try to leave enough contextual clues that it doesn’t matter.
Date: 432 Year of Emperor Valek Foger XXVI
Vaughn and his son Matthew walked across an empty desert of salt and sand. A slight breeze blew from the west. The sun was still an hour from rising, but the blue light reflected from a massive gas-giant that filled a third of the sky illuminated their path. Matthew was almost as tall as his father, both had long, powerfully built legs and a thick torso from hours spent in their gravity chamber.
Vaughn was carrying two fishing poles and a tackle box while his son pulled a small boat on massive balloon-style tires. In the low gravity of their home moon, it wasn’t a difficult task. But on any planet, it was a long walk.
It was a cool morning, but that would change quickly once the sun was up. Vaughn looked back at their tracks in the salty sand. “Do you know why the Fogerians love Humans so much, Matty?”
“No idea,” the teenager said.
Vaughn leapt high into the air, sailing more than five meters up before drifting back to the surface. “When we were a new species, back on our home world, we were the top predator on our planet, even before we had tools. Does that make any sense? We have no claws, dull teeth, and we’re not particularly fast on our two long legs.”
“How did we catch things?”
“We out-endured them,” Vaughn stated. He glanced over his shoulder at his son before continuing. “Our species has stamina unmatched in the galaxy. We can walk for days without stopping. When I was a soldier, I could run two hundred kilometers in a day. Sure, Fogerians are faster than we are. But after four or five kilometers, we’ll catch them when they have to stop to rest.”
“Two hundred kilometers in a day? Really Dad…” Matthew rolled his eyes.
“One time Uncle Holdan and I covered almost twice that in a day. Although part of the trip was in a transport. And the last fifty kilometers I only had one leg.” Matt snorted in disbelief. “Humans are the endurance champions of the universe,” his father continued. “We are stronger than most races, other than perhaps Geraldinians, but they have to eat every two hours.” Vaughn paused, watching his son’s reaction. “We are relative newcomers to this galaxy. We don’t have a planet of our own anymore, but several planets have allowed us to live on their home-worlds. This makes us second class to many people, but don’t ever let their attitudes convince you that we’re not as good. Every race in the cosmos has its strengths and weaknesses.”
“Is that why you fought the war? To get back at the E’Clei for blowing up our planet?”
Vaughn shook his head. “Nah, that was eons ago, and revenge never solves anything. I fought the war because the E’Clei are a threat to you and Mom. I fought them because they take over your body and turn you into one of them. And because someone had to stop them. If I didn’t volunteer, who would?”
“I don’t wanna go to war. I want to go to Foger and start a restaurant in the Human district. Find a girl, maybe two, and have some adventure.” Matthew said with a smile.
Vaughn laughed. “I’d come eat in your restaurant every day.” A moment passed in silence before Vaughn looked at his son. “I hope you don’t have to go to war. I fought as hard as I could so you wouldn’t have to ever do that. Adventure is overrated. I’ve had my share; I’ll take my normal, quiet life.”
The two approached the edge of the vast ocean that covered the majority of the moon. Vaughn set the tackle box he was carrying in the boat and handed a rod to Matthew. They both climbed up in the boat and cast their rods far out into the ocean.
As they sat, the water rose all around them. Matthew was unhooking his second fish when the boat lifted off the bottom. The pair drifted towards home with the tide, reeling in fish as they talked.
“So, tell me about her,” Vaughn said with a sly smile.
Matty turned red. “Who?”
“The girl you’re talking to. What’s her name?”
“Oh. Uh…Seegu. She’s just a friend.” Matthew practically tripped over the words getting them out.
“I’ve had a few friends that made my cheeks turn that color too. Your mom was one of them.” Vaughn grinned at his son. “Seegu. That’s a Foger name, no? When I was about your age, I had the hugest crush on a Fogerian woman. What do you two talk about?”
“She’s a musician and plays in a gonse band. She’s so talented, Dad. She is talking to a guy who works for a producer. She’s really got a shot.” Any nervousness Matt had melted away as he talked about Seegu.
“Gonse, eh? Like ‘Fong Dolls?’ I dig that one song; what’s it called…”
“Forever Girl. That song’s like six months old.”
“Yeah, Forever Girl.” Vaughn started singing the chorus in an incredibly high falsetto. “Don’t you know, For all eternity, I’ll never go. So come on, let’s give it a whirl… I’ll be, your Forever Girl.”
“What? I’m a pretty good singer.”
“Yeah, but you’re wrecking the song! Now it’s going to be stuck in my head.”
“So what does Seegu sing?”
Matty had a far-away look in his eyes. “Oh, she’s not a singer. She plays the jusuede. She holds four mallets and she’s so fast! It’s really amazing to watch. And I’m pretty sure she can play any song ever written.”
“So,” said Vaughn, not really sure where to start. “You know Humans and Fogerians can’t…uh…Well, even though they look a lot like us on the outside, on the inside we are very different.”
“Dad, it’s not like that at all. We’re just friends.”
“Okay. But this is one of those conversations dads have to have with their sons.”
“Really. Dad… I have signal access. I’ve seen it done.” Matty shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried to look everywhere except at his father.
“Whoa. Some of the things you see out there… They aren’t how it really is. Some of that stuff they do for the recorders is pretty crazy. Mostly, it’s about two people who love each other coming together. It brings new intimacy to the relationship, and that’s how children are created.”
“Dad, I’m going to swim home…”
“Okay… Fine. But if you ever have any questions, about anything, you know you can ask, right?”
“Sure, Dad. Whatever.”
“I love you Matty. I don’t often tell you this, but my life changed completely when you came into it, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the crench in the world. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I love you too, Dad. Can we just fish now?”
Vaughn clapped his son on the back. He opened his mouth to reply, but his vision saw something bug move in the water below. “Shit,” Vaughn muttered, looking over the bow of the boat. “Don’t move. Quiet,” he whispered.
“Yeah, big.” Vaughn slowly reached for his tackle box. They’d seen shrolg before, but Vaughn hadn’t ever seen one this big. They were the apex predator in this ocean. The creatures boasted ten long tentacles with razor sharp tips that reached out from a huge, circular mouth lined with row after row of inward facing teeth. Vibrations in the water attracted their attention; their tentacles had sensors in them that could feel a single drop hitting the surface from half a mile away.
It was close, about four meters away with all of its arms pointing towards the boat. The beast was trying to decide if the boat was random junk floating on the surface or something edible. Vaughn carefully opened his fishing box and removed the tray, gently setting it down. In the bottom of the box, he carried a small ionic plasma gun. He drew the gun and waited. Except for the tips of their tentacles, shrolg meat wasn’t poisonous, but they tasted horrible; there was no reason to kill this one unless it was absolutely necessary.
Suddenly, Vaughn’s comm started vibrating in the bottom of the boat. The tentacles honed in on the vibration, and the shrolg lurched forward, driving its arms up through the bottom of the boat. Letting out a surprised shout, Matthew was thrown overboard.
Vaughn threw the gun to the side and dove into the water, pulling out a long thin bladed knife used for skinning and cutting fish. When he hit the water, one of the tentacles lashed out at him. The creature threw the boat high into the air, scattering its contents across the surface. The number of items hitting the water temporarily disoriented the creature and it let go of Matty to investigate. Vaughn slapped his hands on the water over and over, furthering the shrolg’s disorientation.
“Matty, are you hurt?” he yelled.
“I’m okay. My leg is cut, but it’s not bad.”
Narrowing in on the sound, the creature converged on Vaughn, wrapping him up in its arms. Vaughn hacked furiously at it, severing every tentacle he could.
The massive shrolg pulled him towards its mouth.
Vaughn realized that dismembering the creature wasn’t stopping it. As it drew him closer to its gaping mouth, Vaughn arched backwards and drove his knife into the creature’s head. Instantly, the tentacles went slack.
“Matty, there’s a lot of blood in the water. Other predators will be drawn. We have to swim for it. Can you swim?”
“I can’t feel my leg, Dad!” Matthew was having trouble keeping his head above water. The shrolg’s paralyzing venom was coursing through his son. Soon it would reach his arms, and then Matty would no longer be able to swim.
Vaughn paddled over to the container they used to keep the fish cool in the hot sun. It was large enough to float Matthew. “Hang on, Matty. I’m coming,” he called to his son. “Relax and try to float!”
Vaughn pulled his son up onto the container, looped the carry strap over the teenager and started dragging him towards their home, which was just barely visible in the distance. If he didn’t get there soon, the tide would start going out, and they’d be washed out into the ocean.
“How you doing, bud? You okay? How are your fingers?”
“Okay. I can still feel them.”
Vaughn swam harder. After forty minutes of hard swimming, Vaughn’s feet touched the bottom. He stood and dragged his son out onto the sand. “The venom will pass. It just takes some time but you’re going to feel like hell tomorrow. Just try to relax.”
Vaughn tapped his ear. “Halle, can you connect me to Sarah’s comm?”
“Yes Captain. Are you alright?”
“Vaughn, are you okay?” It was Sarah’s panicked voice now. “How’s Matty? When you didn’t answer my call, I got worried. Why are you calling through Halle?”
“We ran into a shrolg. It’s dead now and everything is fine, but Matty got stung in the leg and we’re on shore. Can you bring a table? I’m going to need some help getting him to the house.”
“I’ll be right there,” she said and disconnected the line.
Minutes later, Sarah approached at a dead run, pushing a floating platform in front of her. Vaughn rolled over in the sand and stood to meet her. “Mom’s here, Matty.”
“Mm sgood,” Matthew replied through numb lips.
Vaughn picked up his son and set him on the table. “Oh, Matty! We need to get you into the house,” Sarah said. “Once we get you dried off, you’ll feel much better.”
The two parents pushed their son back to the house. Vaughn spoke quietly. “I’ve never seen one that big, Sarah, especially not that close to shore. We were only in two or three meters of water. I killed it, but we’ll have to figure out what one so big was doing in the tide.”
Vaughn knew there were massive creatures in the deep ocean, but the speed of the tidal changes and the distance covered by the rising water usually kept them way off shore, where water conditions were more stable and large prey was abundant. The fish that used the tidal surge to feed were usually small, fast moving fish that could get in to feed on the mollusks, clams and plants that lived in the tidal field, and then get out before the tide receded.
“I’ll put off my trip until late tomorrow, but I have to make the delivery,” Vaughn said. “Making sure Matty is okay is more important.”
Sarah turned and put her hand on Vaughn’s face. “It’s just a shrolg sting, Vaughn. Handle your business; we’ll be okay here at home. Matt’s going to be fine.”
Vaughn pulled her tightly to him and kissed her. “I love you, Sarah Troupe. You’re the most amazing woman. You know that, right?”
“I do know that,” she said, between kisses. “I just try to be as amazing as you. You really took out a shrolg with a fillet knife?”
“Don’t mess with my kid,” replied Vaughn, puffing his chest and grinning. “I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon.”