Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Lost Jewels of Luna, part 2

Jared dived out of the way as the giant robot foot came slamming down into the ground, leaving an indentation at least a foot deep. He rolled on his shoulder, and around so that he sprung back up on his feet, then continued to run, avoiding the other’s foot from landing. He pulled his communicator from his belt, the cord making a zipping sound as it extended to his mouth.

“Maria!” he shouted into it. “We need this thing shut off now, its immune to our guns and other weapons, and we can’t keep running around it forever.”

“I am working on it captain,” came the cold, confidant reply. “This computer system is far more complex than I am used to seeing on native Martian designs. This colossus of a robot was built to not be easily shut off.”

“If we don’t find a way to do so soon, someone is going to end up dead,” he shouted back. Just then, he spotted robot’s hand coming down right over Rick Edwards, their communications expert, who was running as hard as he could. Rick’s leg had been injured in the crash that had caused them to land on this Martian canal island, and so he was limping rather than running. Jared acted without thinking.

He fired his gun as he ran towards the danger to his crewman, trying to get the robot’s attention, but as with all his other shots, it just bounced off him. He pushed his legs harder, and then leaped. He tacked Rick hard, causing the two of them to fall and tumble, hitting the hard Martian soil and then rolling over rocks and sharp shells buried in the sand. When they stopped rolling, they were covered by a cloud of dust, but even through it Jared could see they were both covered in burses and minor cuts. Better that that squished flat by a robot hand.

“Captain,” came Maria’s voice over his radio. It almost sounded excited. “I have it!”

“Great,” he practically shouted into his speaker, “You can shut it down from there?”

“No, sir,” she said, “but I can tell you how to do it.”

He set his jaw, held up his ray gun, and prepared for the worst. “Give it to me.”

“There’s a main conduit that runs through this robot,” Maria said, “that delivers the needed oil and liquids needed for the robot’s vital functions. It runs from the robot’s brain down it’s spine and ends in it’s right foot. You should see a valve or release where an ankle would be on a human.”

Jared dodged around so that he was behind the robot, and tried to get as good a lock as he could at the giant’s right foot. There, just as she said it would be, was a valve release.

“I see it,” he said.

“Find a way to open it,” she said. “It’s designed to allow for re-fueling the robot, but according to what I am seeing here, if we release that valve, then the fluids in side it right now will pour out, and it will short circuit.”

“Got it,” he said. He thumbed the communicator to another channel. “Alicia, did you get all that?”

“I heard it,” came a female voice through the crackling and popping. “You want me to distract or damage?”

“Distract,” he said. “I’m already in position to damage.”

Jared looked up just in time too see Alicia run in front of the robot. She wore the traditional black and white Star Captain uniform, though hers was a little more form fitting than his was, and carried a ray gun, just like him. She didn’t fire it, however. Instead, she waved it around in front of the giant, trying to get its attention.

“Hey, you big ape,” she cried. “I’m right here! Come get me!”

Much to Jared’s surprise, this tactic worked. The great robot turned and focused itself upon his first officer, and started it’s single attack of slamming it’s hands into the ground trying to squash something. Alicia dodged it easily.

“Distraction in processes,” she said. “Get to it, already.”

He set his jaw and ran up behind the robot. He had to do some tricky maneuvering to avoid being seen by the thing. It was surprisingly fast for something it’s size. Before he knew it, though, he was right up to the creature’s right foot, staring right at the leaver that would end the entire fight. Without hesitation, he grabbed and yanked. The valve moved and a fist sized door opened. Almost immediately, a dark, brown liquid started gushing out. The robot stopped moving, and made a strange noise that sounded like metal grinding against stone. Jared could almost swear that the thing was in pain.

The liquid continued to gush out of it, and Jared stood back. The robot started to turn, but it was moving very slowly, and getting slower. Eventually, it stopped moving all together, and Jared saw that the lights that were it's eyes went out. They had done it.

“Great job, Maria!” he said into the communicator.

“Thank you, Captain,” she replied.

“Not so bad yourself,” Alicia said, coming up beside him. His first officer looked at the liquid that continued to pour out of the giant and crinkled up her nose at the smell of it. “Ugh, it smells like rotten eggs.”

Jared agreed, and the two moved over to Rick and helped him into the low, stone bunker that Maria was in. When the four were all settled inside, Alicia looked over at Jared.

“Now what, Captain?” she said.

Jared sighed. It wasn’t one of depression, however, but an obvious sign of frustration.

“What is it, Jared,” Alicia said. “Talk to me.”

“We’re not going to make it,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “We’ve already been flying for a week, and we’ve got three more, at least, before we even get to Io. By then, the deadline will have passed. And what’s really frustrating is that there’s no faster way there.”

“There may be,” Maria said, and both Star Captains turned to look at her. “We can always go through the Asteroid Belt. It would only take us a few days to reach Io that way.”

Jared shook his head. “I wish, but no one has ever survived going through the belt. It’s just not possible, even with the best rocket.”

“There is one man who made it,” Maria replied. “An old pirate named Phenius. He found a route through the belt. It was how he avoided capture for years before being brought down by the Martian Royal Navy.”

“I’ve heard of this guy,” Alicia said, “but I never believed he was real.”

“Yeah,” Jared said. “I’m with Alicia. What brings this on now, Maria?”

“While searching this Martian computer system here,” Maria said, pointing to the vast console of buttons, tape and blinking lights before her. “I discovered records of his imprisonment. It turns out he’s on a canal island similar to this one, being held prisoner by Martian Buzzards.”

“What are Martian Buzzards?” Jared asked.

“Large birds,” Maria said. “About the size of a full grown man, with humanoid upper bodies and wings as long as you are tall. Their beaks are said to be able to punch through even lunarium.”

“Nasty,” Alicia said. “And this guy, Phenius, he’s really here?”

Maria nodded, pointing to a small screen displaying a report of food being sent to Phenius’ island.

“If we go get him,” Jared said, “he can show us his route throug the belt. There’s hope we can make it.”

He stood up, nodded and slapped Maria on her back. “Great job, Maria! Come on everyone, back to the ship. We’re going to rescue Phenius the pirate.”

A short time later, they were all back aboard the Rocket Ship Destiny, taking a short jaunt around Mars to the location of Phenius the pirate. When they arrived, however, all they saw was a wooden hut that looked to have been built by hand. Curious, they landed on the shore of the island, away from the hut and slightly out of sight. Just as Jared and his crew were disembarking, they saw a robot probe come in over the island. It bore the markings of the Martian Royal Navy, and stopped right over the hut. As they watched, the probes bottom opened up to reveal an internal cargo bay. Tumbling out of this bay was an astonishing amount and array of food. Fruit, cooked meat, breads, even sealed tumblers with water and wine in them. A veritable kings feast.

Jared signaled that everyone should wait. They watched as a head slowly peaked out from the hut. It was round, browned and wrinkled by the sun, and covered in a shock of stark white hair. The head darted this way and back, as if looking for something, but the scan was limited to the sky above. The old man managed to completely miss the rocket ship that had landed on his island. When he was satisfied, he ran at full speed out of the hut and towards the food. He was very skinny, which confused Jared given the amount of food available to him, and wearing little more than the tattered remains of a space suit.

When the old man got to the pile of food, he started grabbing and stuffing his face as fast as he could. Fruit, mean, bread, it all got stuffed in, and most of the time he didn’t even wait for the last mouthful to be swallowed. He continued like this for several moments, and Jared could only just watch. How often was this man fed? He was about to ask Maria, when they all heard a screeching noise. The old man cowered, and started stuffing even more food into his mouth, and sometimes he’d stuff something into his clothing.

A second later, they saw the source of the cry. Three large, dark birds covered in green feathers, with human like arms, came flying down out of the sky. They were truly massive, each easily six feet in height with wingspans twice that size, and their arms, while thin, were all muscle. Their heads were the most gruesome part, small circles resting upon a scrawny neck, with very human like eyes on them. They each had a wicked sharp beak that ended in a point that looked like it could puncture a man’s chest to get at the tasty heart in the middle. Jared shuddered. Then he noticed that they were aiming straight for the pile of food.

They did not hesitate, and immediately set about raking their clawed, taloned feet on the old man, causing him to drop food as he desperately tried to hold onto what he had. The old man was attempting to get his booty to the dubious shelter of the wooden hut.

“Cruel, but efficient,” came the cold voice of Maria next to Jared, startling him. “The birds act as natural jailers, preventing him from eating more than is needed to live and also preventing him from seeking escape should he be strong enough to try and swim the canal. And all it cost the Martians is some food.”

Jared looked at her appalled. Sometimes, her lack of emotional response was amazing. “It’s inhumane,” he said. “And we’re going to do something about it. Destiny crew, let’s take down those birds.”

He heard a chorus of cheers from behind him. Phil Dixon set about giving everyone a laser rifle. When everyone was armed, they all turned to Jared for orders. He looked at the scene one more time, then back to his crew.

“Alicia, take Kate, Chris and Flynn and circle around the island to be behind the hut,” he said, and Alicia nodded. The four were away before he could even give his next order. “Dexter, take Phil and Maria, and circle around so you’re behind the birds. Everyone else, with me.”

They all went about their duties quietly, but quickly. They reached their positions in little time, but in that time the birds had knocked the old man on the ground and continued to claw at him to get the food out of his clutching hands. Jared’s stomach tightened as he saw the red streaks of blood appear on the man’s arms and chest. Jared got the signal through his communicator that everyone was in position, and gave the word.

As one, the ten members of the Destiny springing up the hill towards the hut, guns blazing. The birds were startled, and attempted to fly away, but some quick ray shots by several crewmembers put enough holes in their wings that it quickly became impossible. One bird dropped to the ground, dead, a shot through it’s right eye. A second bird attempted to hide behind the hut only to find Alicia there with her saber in hand, and she sliced its throat, dropping it dead. The third bird was angry, and took lashed out with its arms. Chris was too close, and got caught in the vice like grip. Kate aimed her blaster rifle right at the creatures head, but before she could fire, the green feathered head struck down, piercing her brother’s chest and puncturing his heart. Chris was dead instantly, and every member of the crew fired at the bird. There wasn’t much left of it when they were done.

Kate ran to her twin’s side, tears streaming down her face. Jared stood respectfully off to the side, sad as well. He hadn’t know Chris long, but he had been a valued and loved member of his crew. Dexter Steele came up behind Jared and patted him on the shoulder.

“I’ll take care of this,” the large man said. “I’ve had experience with losing crewmen before. You go take care of the old man.”

Jared nodded, thankful for the more experienced Star Captain’s help. He moved away from the sad scene, and towards the hut where the old man still lay, clutching his loaf of bread. Flynn was there attending to him.

“What’s the prognoses, Flynn,” he said to his ships medic.

“Well,” Flynn said in his thick Scottish accent, “he’s battered and bruised from this attack, and several others from the looks of things, but they’re mostly just cuts and bruises. Nothing too serious. I’m more concerned with the fact that this man is seriously malnourished.”

“Well,” Jared said, waving his had to the pile of food still remaining. “With the birds dead, there is nothing preventing him from eating his fill.”

The old man’s eyes jumped open right then. He looked up at Jared and then over to Flynn. “You’re real?” he said, his voice low and wavering, as if he hadn’t spoken in a long time. “You’re not a figment of my imagination? The buzzards really are dead?”

“We’re real,” Jared said, offering the old man a hand up. “And the buzzards really are dead. I’m Star Captain Jared, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Phenius.”

The old man sputtered and shook, coughing and spasming. Jared looked at Flynn in concern, but Flynn just waved him down. The old man was merely laughing. After the fit died down, the old man took Jared’s offered help to stand, and smiled at him. He stood as straight as he could and looked Jared straight in the eye and smiled a smile that showed several teeth were missing.

“I see you know me,” he said. “Which probably means you came here just to get me, which also probably means you need my help getting through the belt. Am I right?”

Jared smiled back. This man was shrewd, even after all these years. “Indeed you are, right on all accounts. Will you accompany us, and aid us in our journey?”

“I will,” the old man said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Phineus, Pirate King and the only man in the solar system to pass through the Asteroid Belt not once, but several times. I will happily lave with you on your rocket ship and get off this God forsaken red dust ball. But first, if you don’t mind, I have some breakfast to get to.”

And with that, the old man pushed passed Jared and made his shaky way to the food. Jared laughed as the old man continued his previous shoveling of food in his mouth, as if he couldn’t get it all in fast enough.

A short hour later, Chris had been buried and they held a funeral for their lost crewmember. Even Phenius was there, and called Chris a hero who sacrificed himself to save the pirate king. Jared vowed that Chris would always be remembered on the Destiny and that in his name, they would complete this quest. Kate said nothing, but nodded at everyone’s remarks. When they were ready to leave, Jared tried to convince Kate to let someone else pilot, but she refused, took the ship into orbit and towards the Asteroid Belt.

The next day there were there. The ship hovered just out of range of the massive ring or rocks that circled the inner planets of the solar system. As they watched, the rocks collided and crashed against one another, smashing and spinning off in different directions. The rocks ranged in size from that of a man’s head, to that of a small pacific island. All in all, it was very intimidating. It was easy for Jared to see why people took the extra time to go around it. Even the fastest, most nimble ship would have a hard time navigating that mess. He turned to look at Phenius, who was now dressed in some spare clothing they had on board. He was doing that strange shuddering coughs that Flynn assured him was the old man’s way of laughing.

“It’s beautiful,” the old man said, his eyes wide as he took in the scene outside. “Home at last. How I’ve missed you, my beauties, how I’ve missed you.”
Jared shook his head. He was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea. “Phenius,” he said, “Stop drooling and tell us how to get through that.”

The old man stared at Jared as if unsure of where he was. Then, he blinked several times, clearing his mind to the task at hand. “Of course,” he said. “Of course. You have atomic probes on this tub, I assume?”

Jared nodded. “Several.”

“Excellent,” Phenius said. “Take me to one with your computer girl over there. I’ll need to instruct her on how to reprogram the probe for our needs.”

“Maria,” Jared said. “Go with Phenius here. And Dexter, go with them. I want someone I trust to keep an eye on things down there.”

“Captain,” the old man said in mock hurt, “You wound me.” Then he coughed a laugh again, and went to the lift with the other two.

It was several hours later, and Jared was catching some much needed sleep in his bunk, when the call came to him that the probe re-programming was finished. He quickly came up to the bridge. Phenius was there grinning from ear to ear, showing off the several missing teeth at the same time. Jared smiled faintly back at him, and then turned to Maria to find out what was going on. Even she seemed to be smiling, though honestly, it was hard to tell. Her face was pretty hard to read, and the smile he thought he saw was faint at best. Dexter, standing behind her, however, had a smile to match Phenius.

“Well,” Jared said, looking from one to the other. “From the looks of the three of you, I’d saw you’re little reprogramming efforts worked?”

“Oh, it sure did,” the old pirate said. “You’re girl here, she’s a right genius with those punch cards. You’re probe here will be far more successful than mine ever were, and that’s saying something.”

“It’s really quite simple, Captain,” Maria started, and this time Jared was positive he saw a smile on her lips. And excitement in her voice, to boot. “The probe travels into the belt, programmed to think it’s a ship the same size as ours. It uses its sensors as it travels through the belt to constantly chart a course around the rocks and asteroids, adjusting as it goes. When it reaches the other side, it sends that information back to us, thus giving us a charted course to travel through the rocks.”

“Why can’t we just do that ourselves?” Jared asked.

“Our sensors are not as good as the probes,” Maria said, and Phenius nodded. “You see, Captain,” she continued, “the probe contains several…”

Jared waved his hands to quiet her down before she started on some math-fueled soliloquy. “That’s good enough for me.” He turned to look at the last member of the reprogramming team. “What do you think, Dexter? Will this work?”

“Oh, yeah,” the big man smiled his brilliant white smile. “Maria here found a major flaw in the pirate’s software and fixed it. Oh, yeah, we’re ready.”

“Good,” Jared said. “When ever you are ready, Maria.”

She nodded. “Launching probe.”

The next hour was tense. Everyone watched the monitor at Maria’s station as the blinking light that represented the probe slowly made it’s way past white outlines of asteroids. Some of the white outlines were bigger than the monitor. There were several times when the probe had to stop and change directions, or even go back and retrace its path to find a new way through. Eventually, though, it was through. Jared couldn’t believe that it worked, the probe made it all the way through to the other side.

“We’re receiving the probe’s data now,” Maria said. “It shouldn’t take me more than another hour to figure out a course for us form this.”

“Good,” Jared said. “In the mean time, everyone take a break and get some food. All this waiting is exhausting, and I want everyone sharp when we finally go into the belt.”

Rick had made them all an amazing lunch, some of which came from the food they got from Phenius’ island. Jared felt refreshed, and he cold tell that several other crew felt the same way. Now, they were ready to face the asteroids.

“Okay, Kate,” he said back on the bridge, his hand on her shoulder while she sat staring grimly ahead. “Take us out.”

Kate kept her sole focus on her control panel, never bothering to look out the window. Jared though this was good, for if she had it would have thrown her concentration. The belt was an amazing site, but it was down right terrifying to watch from the inside. Giant rocks, never quite forming a real circle or sphere, circled and spiraled around them. Occasionally, two would collide with each other, causing debris to fly around, but for the most part, those things missed them or had no affect on their flight. Kate took them around a larger asteroid, one big enough for them to land on if the wanted to, and they used it as a shield from smaller rocks for a significant portion of the trip. Jared couldn’t help but think that this island-sized chunk of rock could house a small population. Maybe if they tunneled it out, they could live underground, mining the asteroid for whatever precious metals it contained. But, that would have to wait for another day. Right now, as they cleared the island, he saw that they were nearly through the belt. They had actually done it!

Just as they were about to exit the belt for good, though, the ship shook. Jared and the rest of the crew stumbled, and Kate fell out of her seat. Jared helped her back up.

“What just happened?” he asked, hoping that someone, anyone, had the answer. It was Dexter who answered first.

“It looks like one of the smaller rocks hit the rear end of the rocket,” the large man said. “It bent up one of our tail fins pretty good, and also damaged one of the boosters.”

“How badly?” Jared said.

“We’ll definitely need to land someone nearby for repairs,” Dexter said.

“What’s closest?” Jared asked.

“Chloe,” Phenius said before anyone else could even get to their consoles.

“What?” Jared said.

“Chloe,” the old man repeated, as if that were all the answer he needed. “It’s a station nearby, run by a woman with the same name. She and her daughters keep the place up and stay mostly to themselves, but occasionally my crew and I would stop there to get refueled and repairs when we miscalculated the belt.”

“There’s no station here on my charts,” Kate said.

“It’s not on any chart,” Phenius wheezed. “But believe me, its there.”

“Can you guide us there, Phenius?” Jared asked.

“’Course I can,” Phenius said. “But it would be easier if I piloted myself.”

Jared looked to Kate, who made it pretty clear she didn’t like this idea.

“I don’t think so,” he said to Phenius. “Just direct Kate how to get there.”

Phenius shook his head. “Still don’t trust me, do you boy?” he said.

“No, old man,” Jared said. “I don’t.”

Phenius coughed and wheezed then, laughing. “Good for you, boy. Good for you. Keep that up, and you may just survive this.”

He stood behind Kate and gave her directions. She snapped at him several times stating that there was nothing where he was directing them, and in fact all they were doing was paralleling the belt. Jared had to say that he was thinking the old man was just leading them in circles.

“Wait,” Kate said after a few moments. “What is that?”

“That is Chloe,” Phenius said.

There, visible in the window, Jared could see it. It was a great circle, or more like a wheel, with windows all around the outer part. The inner part was a large cylinder with almost no windows on it, and tube like spokes connected the outer wheel to the inner cylinder. It was huge, an amazingly large station for an old woman and her daughters to live in by themselves.

“We’re getting a radio signal,” Dexter said.

“Let’s hear it,” Jared said. The speakers flared to life and a voice issued out. It was all gibberish, however. Jared couldn’t understand it at all.

“What language is that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Phenius said. “Chloe always spoke Standard.”

“Get Rick up here,” Jared said. “We need to know what they are saying.”

A few moments later, Rick Edwards was standing in the command center. “I vaguely recognize the language, it sounds like a derivative of Greek, but I can’t quite get what they are saying. Something about landing and… dinner?”

“Dinner sound good,” Dexter said.

Just then, music started coming through the speakers, combining with the voice. It was rather melodic. Rick started to rock back and fourth, and found himself being drawn to the station. He just wanted to land there. Then, he shook his head. He realized that’s what the voice was saying. Land. Land and come to us. Come to us and become our dinner. It was a trap! When he looked around, he saw that his fellow crew members were just as enthralled as he was a moment ago.

“Kate,” Jared said in a sleepy tone, “take us down, and dock with the station. I’d like to land.”

“Yeah,” came Kate’s equally dazed reply. “Me too. Taking us down.”

“No!” Rick cried, but no one seemed to listen to him. He tried to shut off the speakers, but Dexter kept turning them back on. He needed to find a way stop the signal from affecting his crewmates. He couldn’t think of anything else to do with the controls, so he started to sing. He sang about the woman he loved, and how beautiful she was, about how they were going to be married once he had his fortune. He sang about her eternal beauty, her long black hair, dark as space, and her sparkling eyes, which were the stars. He sang as loud as he could, drowning out the call from the speakers. Eventually, he noticed that everyone was looking at him and not the window, and he took the opportunity to shut off the speaker. Dexter didn’t fight him this time. As soon as the speaker was off, everyone shook their heads and rubbed their eyes, as if waking up from a dream. Rick stopped singing.

“What just happened?” Jared said.

“Those are cannibals down there, Captain,” Rick said. “We need to get out of here now.”

Without hesitation Jared ordered Kate to get away from the station as quickly as possible, and she was doing it before he even finished the order. When the rocket was well on its way to the Outer Planets before Jared turned to look at Rick.

“Okay, Rick,” he said. “I trust you that we did the right thing back there, but we’re still damaged. Care to explain why we couldn’t land at that station again? How did you know those were cannibals?”

“Simple,” Rick replied. “The message. It used an old technique called Subliminal Messaging. The reason why none of us could understand the actual words being spoken was because they were mostly gibberish with the occasional real word in there. Those occasional real words were the subliminal message. When the words by themselves weren’t working, they switched added in the music, strengthening the message and making us all more willing to go along with it. When I realized this, I tried to shut it off, but Dexter, under the influence, kept the channel open. So I did the only thing I could. I sang.”

“And I’m thankful you did,” Jared said, “But I still don’t see how that let you know they were cannibals.”

“It was the words in the message it self,” Rick answered. “It basically outlined their plans.”

“Cannibals,” Phenius was saying. He was looking out the window in the direction of the station. “Does that mean Chloe…?”

Rick came to the old man and put an arm around him. “I’m afraid so, Phenius. I’m afraid so.”

A single tear ran down the pirate’s face. Jared set his jaw grimly. He would make sure that other Star Captains knew about the danger of Chloe Station and that it was destroyed. But for now, they still needed to get to Io and find the Lost Jewels.

To be continued…

Week 16

Wow, has it really been 16 weeks? I guess so! Well, here we are, Part 2 of the epic story, The Lost Jewels of Luna. Next week will be part 3 and the end of this adventure. I'm loving writing it so far. I hope you all enjoy it!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Lost Jewels of Luna, part 1

Jared Decker slammed his back up against the rock outcropping, narrowly missing several shots from his opponent’s ray gun. He checked his own ray gun. Still half a charge. Now that he had a chance to think, he took a moment to listen to the shots still coming his way. It sounded like two people, maybe three on the outside. Half a charge was more than enough to take them out. A moment later, the ray gun fire died down as they realized he had taken cover. He gritted his teeth and took a quick peak around the side of the rock. He spotted two of the shooters, one down the rocky path and another across the gorge to Jared’s left. That one spotted him and started shooting again, forcing Jared back behind his cover.

He did a quick calculation in his head of angle and distance, then, just as the gun fire ceased again, poked around the rock with gun raised and shot twice, hitting both opponents. The one down the path just fell to the ground, while the other one had been reaching over the gorge just a bit too much and tumbled head over heels down the dusty, red rocks. Carefully, Jared stood up, looking around to see if there was a third shooter. After a few moments, it appeared that there wasn’t, so he came out from behind the rock, intending to check the body of the man on the path. Maybe he had some form of identification. He didn’t get more than four steps, however, when the shooting started again.

The third shooter was good, and prevented Jared from getting behind his cover again. However, Jared already had his own ray gun drawn, and he ran and dived behind the cover the man on the road has been using, shooting over his shoulder as he went. After ducking behind the cover, he looked up to find the shooter, but couldn’t see him anywhere. He must be using a ray rifle, it was the only way he could have been shooting at him without being seen. The shooting stopped, and he carefully scanned the red rocks of the surrounding hillsides. Finally, he saw what he needed, a glimmer of light, reflecting off the shooter’s gun. It was too far away to hit with his own ray gun, of course, but Jared had an idea. He took aim at a large rock below the shooter, and fired.

He hit the small rock right at the bottom of it, causing it to loosen just enough for it to start to fall. Rocks that were resting above it started to fall as well, and pretty soon, the whole hillside was an avalanche of rocks. He couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he saw the glint of light consumed by the rockslide.

“Excellent work, Jared!” came a cheerful voice from behind him. Jared spun around, his gun raised, ready for whatever was to come. Before him was an older man with salt and pepper hair, wearing a pressed and clean, yet still old fashioned, red and white Earth Space Force dress uniform.

“Admiral Turner!” Jared said. He spread his arms wide and a smile filled his face. He holstered his ray gun and came up to shake the older man’s hand. The old man, however, grabbed him and gave him a great big bear hug. The two slapped each other on the back and laughed.

“Congratulations, my boy!” Turner said, “You’ve made it past every test I can think to throw at you.”

“You mean…?” Jared started, but couldn’t finish the sentence out of fear.

“Yes, indeed,” Turner said, a broad smile covering his face. “You have officially graduated from the Star Captain University. You are now one of the few, the brave. The heroes of the solar system. I hereby declare you a Star Captain!”

Turner pulled out something that looked like a brooch from his tunic, and pinned it to Jared’s chest. It was a silver rocket ship with the planet Earth behind it. This was the symbol denoting one as a Star Captain.

“I did it,” Jared said, rubbing the medallion on his chest He turned his eyes towards the stars. “I can finally go, and explore the solar system. I can’t wait to tell Angus. He said he’s got his eye on a ship for me.”

“Excellent, my boy, excellent,” Turner said. Then, his face turned serious, and he guided Jared to walk with him down the rocky path. “Jared, before you leave, there’s something important I have to tell you.”

“What is it, Admiral?” Jared asked.

“Jared, tell me, what do you know about the politics of the solar system?”

“Well,” Jared said, confused by the question. This was Star Captain 101. “The human’s from Earth colonized most of the worlds and moons a long time ago. The outer planets are hard to get to, but we still can by taking a months long journey around the asteroid belt. Not long after forming the colonies, the original colonists set themselves up as royalty and nobility. Venus, the Moon, several colonies on Mars and the Martian moons plus the few colonies we did establish on the outer planets, are all ruled by nobility. Earth is now the only planet to not be ruled by a monarchy. Why?”

“And, as you know, you’re not from Earth,” The admiral said.

“Right, I’m originally from Luna, the moon,” Jared said, still confused. “My mother left me in your care when I was just a baby. You’ve told me this story a hundred times. Admiral, what is it you’re trying to tell me?”

“Well, my boy,” Turner said, taking a deep breath. “I’m just going to come right out and say this. You’re father was the king of Luna. He was a good man, and loved by his people. But, he was deposed from his throne by your uncle, his brother. He led a violent coup by subverting the Lunar military to his cause. He attacked the castle and took the throne. You’re father and older siblings were all killed in the take over, but your mother hid you by pretending that you were still born. She saw to your safety by sending you to me.”

“Wait,” Jared said, “My father? King? You’re telling me that…”

“Yes, Jared,” Turner said. “You are the rightful heir to the throne of Luna. You’re uncle took the throne unlawfully, but no one could stop him. And none of the other worlds wanted to get involved, as your uncle had the military on his side. It’s up to you to restore things on your native world.”

“How…” Jared started to ask. “This is all kind of hard to take in, Admiral. Is there some kind of proof? How do I know that I am a Prince of Luna.”

“You know already,” the Admiral said. “You ca feel in your heard that I speak the truth. But, if you need proof, you need look no further than your ring. The ring you wear on your left hand is the royal seal of the Court of Luna. You’ve worn it since you came to me. You have a destiny, my boy, to return to the moon and claim you’re throne.”

“Destiny,” Jared said, rolling the word around on his tongue, tasting it, and deciding that he liked it. He looked down at the ring, the only thing he was left by his mother. It was gold, and had a white stone that was not found on Earth in it. He knew that Admiral Turner was telling him the truth. He set his jaw in grim determination. “Yes. I will return to the moon. I will revenge my fallen father, and I will claim my destiny.”

“Excellent, my boy, excellent,” Turner said, slapping the younger man on his back. “Now, go to your friend Angus, I hear he has a special gift for you.”

Jared ran off, down the rocky path to the hills below, where the large, sprawling campus of The Space Academy, where all Star Captains were trained, many directly by Admiral Turner himself. It was here that many famous men and women learned their trade, including Dexter Steele, who sailed the cosmos even now, and the infamous pirate captain Jane Danger, who terrified the space lanes for twenty years before Dexter Steele put her down. Now, it was Jared’s turn to make a name for himself.

The school was located just outside of San Diego, and sat along a cliff by the coast, with a breath taking view of the ocean. Admiral Turner thought that was appropriate for a place where he would train people to explore space, or the cosmic ocean, as he liked to call it. Jared ran past the three main domes that made up the largest portion of campus and straight to the launch pads. As expected, he found Angus covered in his overalls, covered in grease, working on the engine of a rocket. It was a rather small rocket, but sturdy from the looks of it, and it was one that Jared had never seen before. It was mostly unpainted and unnamed, from the look of it.

“Angus!” Jared called.

His friend turned his sweat coated, red-curl-covered head around and smiled broadly. “Jared! I see that congratulations are in order!” He pointed at Jared’s pin.

Jared smiled in return, “Indeed. I’m a Star Captain now.”

“Fantastic,” Angus said, then turned and patted the rocked behind him. “Because I just finished building this puppy here. I spent all year making her, and I’m giving her to you as a graduation gift.”

Jared’s jaw dropped. He looked to his friend and then back to the rocket, unable to believe his luck. He looked the rocket over again. It was still small, for a rocket ship, Jared guessed it could house about ten people, maybe twelve. He could see the command center on the top, where the four bridge crew would sit. Just below them, at the front of the ship, was it’s sensor dish. Near the bottom were the wings, and attached to them he could see the small guns that Angus had put on. Like the rocket itself, they were small, possibly only good for defensive action, but it was better than not having guns at all.

“It’s… fantastic,” he said. “And it’s great timing. I have a mission.”

He filled Angus in on the details of his life that the Admiral just told him. Angus nodded and turned to the rocket. “Well, that is good timing. I’ll have all the finishing touches done by tomorrow, including the paint job. The other members of the ground crew here have been excited to help me with this. It just needs a name.”

Jared thought of that for a moment, and then smiled. “Destiny.”

Angus nodded. Then, Jared turned to his friend once again. “Angus,” he said, “I want you to come with me.”

Now it was Angus’ turn to stand with his jaw open. “Really? I’ve been an engineer here at the academy for the past twelve years, why would you want to take me with you?”

“You built this rocket,” Jared said, “and you’re the best engineer I know. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to make sure the Destiny can take me wherever it is I need to go.”

Angus nodded, and turned to look back at the rocket, though Jared suspected that he was hiding a tear. He turned back to Jared and clasped him on his shoulders.

“I would be honored to accompany you, Prince Jared,” he said, and then bowed. The two went off that night to celebrate, and had a grand feast in town. When he returned to his dorm room, Jared started to pack, but realized he was too tired to really focus on the task, so went to bed.

The next day, Jared completed his packing and had his baggage sent to the Destiny. He dressed in his finest Star Captain uniform, a smart black jacket that buttoned over the left side with three brass buttons, and his Star Captain badge on the right side. He had clean, pressed white pants with a black striped down the side, and shiny black leather boots. When he reached the launch platform, he saw that the Destiny had been painted, the name proudly displayed next to the Star Captain symbol. He smiled. He spotted Angus, still in his overalls and covered in grease, standing nearby.

“We’re all set, Captain,” he said. “Normally, we’d want a full crew of ten, but the two of us should be fine for a quick trip to the moon.”

Jared nodded and the two climbed aboard. It was his first time aboard her, and he took his time getting to know the ship. He found his quarters, smaller than his dorm, but better, fore they would have a view of space. He walked around the mess deck and kitchen area, nodding. They weren’t fully stocked, but for now they just needed to get to the moon. Proper food and a cook could be found later. Then, he went to the command deck, where there were four seats. Two were for the pilot and navigator, in front. One was for the captain, and the fourth was at a computer station where the ships sensors and weapons were operated. He sat in the command chair and smiled. This was where he had wanted to sit his whole life. Once again, he thought of the word Destiny, and how it was a perfect name for this ship.

A short time later, they were blasting towards space and the moon. Jared sighed as he saw the white orb. He had seen it from Earth orbit before, but he had never actually gone there. In fact, he had never really been anywhere outside the Academy campus. Now, he was going to the place he had been born, a place he just discovered he was destined to rule. The moon. Luna, as its natives called it in an attempt to differentiate it from the other moons in the solar system. On the trip, he did some research on Luna. The current King was Jeffrey the First, who had taken the throne from his brother, Alex. Jeffrey the First had married his brother’s widow, the Lady Sarah. Jared gritted his teeth. His mother was still alive, and she had been forced to marry the man who had killed his father. He would not only get revenge for his father’s death, but he would free his mother as well. This he vowed.

The rest of the trip went pretty quickly, and they landed in Lunar City uncontested. Of course, why should they not be? No one knew who he was or why he was here. Angus stayed behind on the Destiny, claiming he needed to make some tweaks to the engine, while Jared headed straight to the royal palace. The city took Jared by surprise. It was dirty and run down, but had the look of a once grand capital. Beggars lined the streets, asking for what coins he could spare. He looked up at the domes that protected the city from the reaches of space, and saw that the glittering white tops of the buildings looked brand new. This was where the nobles lived, and Jared heard some conversation that made him realize that the state of the city was the result of King Jeffrey and his policies. The city was falling apart, and he didn’t care as long as his sky palace was okay.

Jared took a skiff up to the palace, where he was stopped from actually entering the palace by a large guard. He refused to allow him to enter, even after he declared himself the prince and true heir to the throne. He was ready to draw his weapon when two things topped him. The first was a large retinue of other guards, all armed with rifles and swords. The second was the man that was behind this group of soldiers. He was short, but there was no mistaking the family resemblance. That combined with the crown upon his head made Jared realize this was King Jeffery. He was older and frailer looking than Jared had expected.

“What is all this about?” the King said.

“Highness, this boy claims to be the prince and true heir to the throne of Luna,” the guard said over his shoulder to the king.

“Really?” said the king, who pushed his way past his guards and up to Jared. He looked the boy up and down, eying him closely. Jared wondered what it was he was expecting to find. Then, he saw the ring Jared wore on his finger, and his eyes went wide. Jared couldn’t help but notice.

“Let the boy in,” he said, slapping the guard that had blocked Jared. “Bring him to my study. I shall meet him there briefly.”

“Your highness,” the guard said, switching from gruff barrier to friendly servant at the snap of a finger. He led Jared through a seeming maze of hallways to a large room that had many large desks and tables, and was covered wall to wall in books. He took a seat at a long, square table made from actual wood from Earth. Expensive, he knew, considering that even after two hundred years of colonization, no trees grew naturally on Luna. A few moments later, the King entered the room, and bade his guards to wait for him outside. He came up to the table that Jared was at and sat opposite him. Despite his stature and apparent physical weakness, he was an imposing figure, and Jared found himself flinching slightly under the old man’s keen gaze.

“So, you claim to be the true heir of my throne, do you?” he said at last.

“I am Jared Decker, son of Alex Decker, Prince and Heir to the throne of Luna,” Jared said in as proud a tone as he could muster.

“I see,” Jeffrey said, stepeling his fingers. “And what proof do you offer me of this?”

Jared paused for dramatic effect. He had expected this question, so he held up his hand, displaying the ring.

“That ring proves nothing,” Jeffrey said. “Several of those went missing during the attack that resulted in my brother’s death. You could have stolen it, or bought it off the black market.”

“I did no such thing,” Jared said, slamming his fist on the table and standing up half way out of his seat. “My mother left this ring with me when I was left on Earth!”

Jeffrey nodded. “I see,” he said at last. Then he freed his hands and placed them flat on the table. “I always suspected that lying wench of hiding her youngest from me. I never did believe the story of still birth.”

He paused a moment then looked at Jared. The two could not be more opposite. Where Jared was young, Jeffrey was old. Where Jared was handsome and fit, Jeffrey was ugly and fat. The king sighed, and it sounded like defeat to Jared.

“I am an old man,” the King said, “and you could easily take me in a fight. But I am not willing to give up my kingdom so easily. You still have no conclusive proof that you are who you say you are. Bring me such proof, and I will gladly release the Throne of Luna to you.”

“What proof would you have of me?” Jared said. The only real proof he had was the ring.

“Long ago, at the founding of his great city, the original settlers of Luna unearthed three great, shining white jewels,” the king said.

“The Lost Jewels of Luna,” Jared said, having heard this legend before.

“Yes, the very same,” Jeffrey said. “They were lost to history, during a bloody regime change that lead to the monarchy. Legends say that the loosers of the battle took the jewels, and fled the system. The legends go on to speak of how the jewels traveled to Mars, where they were stolen by the kings there, and eventually taken by the pirate queen, Jane Danger, and the three jewels now reside on the moon of Io in orbit above Jupiter. They have always resided in a safe that can only be opened by a member of the royal family. If you are such a member, you should have no trouble opening the safe. Bring me the Lost Jewels of Luna, and that would be all the proof that I need.”

Jared narrowed his eyes. He could kill the king easily, but doing so would bring the whole castle guard down upon him. He was not prepared for a siege, or to take the kingdom by force. He realized that he hadn’t really thought this through. He had no choice.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

“Good,” the king said, “I’ll give you a month to return before I kill your lying mother.”

“What?” Jared said, standing fully up out of his chair now.

“I can’t allow such a lie that threatens my very throne to go unpunished, now can I?” the king said. “I must set an example. But, in fairness to you, I will simply imprison her for a month before killing her. If you return before then, she goes free.”

“No one can make it to Jupiter and back again in a month!” Jared said, “It’s impossible.”

“Surly not for a member of the royal family,” the king said, a wicked smile displayed on his face. He stood then and turned to leave.

“One month, oh Prince. No more,” Jeffrey said, then left him in there alone with his thoughts.

Jared slammed his hands down on the table and left the palace. He stormed down to the launch pad, where he saw Angus in a discussion with some other mechanics. His friend waved, but then Jared told him what had happened at the palace, and Angus’ face dropped. But only for a moment. He hitched up his tool belt and looked at Jared with a set determination.

“So,” he said to Jared, “we’ll need a crew if we’re going to do this.”

Jared smiled at his friend. This was what he needed.

“How do we go about getting one?” he asked.

Angus turned and entered the rocked and went straight to the communications room, Jared following. “We’ll send out a message along the Star Captain frequency. We’ll have a crew in a matter of days.”

“That will really work?” Jared asked. He knew of the Star Captain frequency, of course. It was used to ask fro help from other Star Captains. But he never thought of it as a place to advertise for a crew.

“Of course,” Angus said.

Sure enough, a few days later, they had a line of people. Some were Star Captains themselves, other’s were experienced Star Captain crew, having worked with others. There were so many, that Jared and Angus had to interview them to get the eight they wanted to give them a full crew. Some of them they gave tests to, and other’s they knew one way or the other from the interviews. In the end, they had six that worked out well.

This included a pair of twins, Chris and Kate, who were collectively the best pilots and navigators in the solar system, at least according to them. Angus was able to verify that, though, relating stories he had heard from another Star Captain the two had worked for about how they managed to sling shot their rocket around the sun to avoid being captured by pirates.

Another was Flynn Jones, an expert in field medicine, ship’s doctor and self-proclaimed poet and songwriter. He gave some examples of his work, singing a song he wrote for the two as well as providing a resume of his time as a member of the Lunar Star Fleet as a surgeon. Jared was happy to have him aboard. Not only was a doctor needed, but some live entertainment would be welcome.

Next was fellow Space Captain Alicia Rhea. Alicia had graduated just a year before Jared from the Academy, and had already made a name for herself as a warrior without equal. She requested to be his first officer, and, as Angus was happy to stick to the engines, Jared accepted.

Phil Dixon was a man with a long history of working for various Star Captains over the years, including Alicia. He was a weapons expert, both ship board and personal. He gave a demonstration of his knowledge of ray guns and saber use, and was able to tell from the outside of the ship what it was armed with, a feat that surprised Angus given that he had just completed building the ship a short time ago.

The final member they found was Rick Edwards, another man with lots of experience on Star Captain crews. He had experience as a pilot, navigator, engineer, weapons expert and even cook, which made Angus happy. But his real area of expertise was in communication. He spoke eight languages fluently and another three more brokenly but passable enough to get by. Jared felt that if they found themselves dealing with native life or even the stranger refuges of exiled Earthers, someone like Rick would be good to have around.

But past these six, the rest were simply not good enough, and Angus was adamant that a full crew of ten was needed. Jared sighed. He was beginning to feel like this quest was doomed from the start. Then, a shadow fell over him and he looked up to see a large brick of a man smiling down at him. His skin was the color of rich, dark chocolate, and his black hair was kept short and close to his skull. He had a broad grin which showed off gleaming white teeth and seemed to bounce around in his eyes, as if he was in on a joke that you were not.

“Greetings, Star Captain,” the man said. “I hear that you’re looking for a crew. I’m looking for a ship. I think we can work something out.”

It took a moment for Jared to recognize the man. “Dexter Steele?” he said. The man only nodded. “What are you doing here? A Star Captain of your status should be captaining his own crew, not looking to work as part of one.”

“Nonsense,” the larger man said, slapping Jared hard on the back. “I heard about your claim to the throne. Being of noble blood myself, I understand your need. I’ve had other Star Captains crew for me before, and am just wanting to do the same.”

“Well, I,” Jared started, hesitating. “I’m not sure I have a position for you. I’ve already got my first officer, and it would be unfair to her to change now.”

“That’s quite all right,” Dexter waved him off. “Truth be told, I’ve had some things happen to me lately that have made me realize that I’ve been a selfish, arrogant jerk. It’s resulted in me loosing my crew and rocket ship. I called the only person I knew that could help in times like that.”

“Admiral Turner,” Jared said, nodding his head in understanding.

“Indeed,” Dexter said. “He told me that I needed to remind myself what it’s like to not be the system’s greatest Star Captain, to do something lowly and menial, and to work for someone else. I see that you haven’t yet assigned anyone as your engineer’s assistant. I’d like to voluinteer. I was top of my class in engineering, and it’s been a long time since I got my hands dirty. It will be good to do that again.”

Jared and Angus looked at each other for a brief period of time. Eventually, Angus gave him the thumbs up symbol, and Jared smiled. He turned back to Dexter.

“Well, then,” Jared said, slapping the big man on his back, “welcome aboard the Destiny!”

“Now we just need one more,” Angus said.

“That would be me,” a voice said. The woman attached to that voice was not at all what he expected from a Star Captain crewmember. She was short, no more than five feet, and very thin. Her skin was pale, and she wore large glasses. “I am Maria Martil of Olympus Mons on Mars. I am a computer technician, and have a vast personal knowledge of our solar system.”

“Maria!” Steele called at the mousy woman, who smiled in return.

“Captain Steele,” she said. “It is good to see you again. I heard that you lost your ship, I am gratified to know that you are still plying the space ways.”

Steele turned to look at Jared. “I’ve worked with her before, she’s brilliant,” he said, waving his arms for emphasis. “If you need to know something, she’s the girl to ask. If she doesn’t know what it is you need to know, she knows where to find it. A must have on your crew, especially on a long journey like we’re about to take.”

Jared looked at Angus, who smiled and nodded. He felt for a moment like he and Angus had been doing that a lot lately. “Well, a recommendation from Dexter Steele is good enough for me. Welcome aboard the Destiny, Maria.”

“Thank you,” she said, accepting his outstretched hand.

Jared let out a sigh and smiled. They had a full crew, and it was a good one. And they were a good crew, all heroes in their own rights, and all of them willing to help him retrieve the Lost Jewels and reclaim his throne. A few weeks ago, all he wanted to do was fly a rocket ship into the void and find adventure as it came to him. Now, he found himself with a real quest, and a goal that he never dreamed could be his.

With a full crew, they loaded the last of their supplies and prepared for takeoff. They were underway that same day, and set course for the outer planets. Jared was sure that with this crew, he could make it.

To Be Continued…

Week 15!

Something a little different this week. I spent the first part of this week trying to figure out what to write. I had this feeling that Jack was the best story I had written so far, and what could I do to top that?

So, I decided not to try. I just needed something I thought would be fun to write. And then it occurred to me. Why not take some story of myth or legend and turn it into a sci-fi story. I thought of Robin Hood, but scratched it. It's too easy to re-tell Robin Hood. Besides, I already had an idea for Robin Hood in the old west. King Arthur was tossed out right away as too complex to turn into a sci-fi. At least, not in the time I had left to write a story.

So, I turned my attention to Greek Myths. I then landed upon one of my favorite ones, Jason and the Argonauts. The quest for the Golden McGuffin... er... Fleece. Jason and the Argonauts in space was an AWESOME idea. So, I went with it.

Not long after picking the story, I came up with the setting. A 1950's pulp style sci-fi setting, set in this solar system, with strange alien life forms living on all the worlds, that are mysteriously Earth like. It would allow me to use some of the more creature like stories (harpies, anyone?) from the legend and still have it be suitably sci-fi. So, I ran with it.

Than, I ran into an issue. At around 3500 words, I realized that I wasn't even to the journey part of the story yet. And yet, the parts I had told were important. So, I've decided to split the story in two. Maybe three, I'm not sure yet, we'll see how next week goes. But at least two. Think of this as you're very own pulp serial. And so, I present to you the adventures of Jared Decker and the crew of the rocket ship Destiny, in... The Lost Jewels of Luna, part 1! Enjoy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jumped over the candlestick.

Do I remember Jack? Of course I remember jack. No one could forget him. I especially remember the last time I saw him. It was on Candlemas Day, some twenty years. Oh, but I should start at the beginning. See, Jack and I first met when we were lads, just wee boys. We went to school at the local lace making school in Wendover, where we traded our education by making lace. It was hard and dirty work, and we spent many long hours in a small, dark room that had no windows. We were crowded in there, boys and girls both, only the candles to light the room. During the winter months, as it was that last year I saw Jack, the school mistress, Mary Day, would bring out the big candles, the expensive ones, to not only light our workspace, but to keep things warm.

Not that Mary Day was a kind woman. Not by any means. She had exacting standard, and any time any one did not live up to them, they got whipped by a pine branch. So we worked hard, from dawn until dusk when we escaped back to our families. The only exception was the two hours we received for lunch each day. During that time, we would play our games, and in those winter months, one of our favorite sports was candlestick jumping. It’s good luck if you can clear a candlestick and it doesn’t go out, you know. And Jack, he was the master candlestick jumper. He would leap over those candlesticks, even the tall ones, and it would look like he was gliding. The flames never even flickered when he jumped. Never. We figured he had to be the luckiest boy in the world.

Of course, this wasn’t really true. Jack was an orphan, who had basically been bought by Mistress Mary Day. No one knew what his last name was, not even Jack. In fact, I’m not sure that Jack was even his real first name; it was just what everyone called him. During his time at the school, he had faced every conceivable kind of hardship. He was beaten, starved, and I personally watched him survive an illness that had killed three other kids. There was no doubt that Jack was tough, and some of the pain he suffered he had brought upon himself, but make no mistake, Jacks’ life was not easy.

When I first met Jack, I was five years old. He had been there for a year already. I had been attempting to work with the simple pattern all new students were taught. Sadly, I wasn’t very good at it, and had thoroughly destroyed the material I had been given. It was one thing to make mistakes; sometimes those could still be sold to the lower class. But to make something thoroughly unusable was unforgivable. I was going to get the switch when the instructor came around. Jack was sitting next to me, and just before the inspection happened, he switched his lace with mine.

As the instructor looked over my patter, she nodded, commenting that it wasn’t bad for a first try. When she saw Jacks, she shook her head, chiding Jack for doing so poorly on such an easy pattern. He should know better by now. He took the beating, right there in front of everyone, the beating that I should have taken. He and I became best friends that day.

I later found that this wasn’t unusual behavior for Jack. He had suffered many beatings trying to save other kids from such pain. He had even gone so far as to give up his food to provide food for a kid that was denied as punishment. Some kids thought he was a hero or at least a very nice guy. I learned pretty quickly, though, that it was mostly because Jack just wanted to get back at Mistress Mary Day. He hated her, so much so that he rebelled in any little way he could. I never thought Jack was a hero. But I did know that he was brave. I only wished that I was as capable of helping others as Jack was, whatever the reason.

But, I was telling you of that last Candlemas, the last time I saw Jack. Really, that story started about a week before Candlemas. On our lunch break, as usual during that time of year, we were jumping candlesticks. We did so under the watchful gaze of Karen, Mistress Mary Day’s lead assistant and some said inheritor. Karen was a wonderful woman, a young lady of fourteen, widowed just a year prior when her new husband died in their wedding bed. Tragic, but she never seemed to be at a loss for happiness. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Karen was as quick to use the switch on us as any of Mistress Mary Day’s teachers, but she was still the kindest of all the teachers at the school.

It was my turn to jump the candlestick. Everyone chanted. You would recognize the chant now, it having since become a famous nursery rhyme, but you must understand that back then, we said the chant whenever anyone came up to jump, and used that person’s name. So, for me, the chant went like this.

“Richard be nimble, Richard be quick, Richard jumped over the candlestick.”

I know, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but that’s how it was done back then. When the chant was done, I ran and jumped. I remember coming up to that candle, thinking that it looked longer as I came up upon it than it had moments before when it was placed on the floor by Karen, having grown to three feet. It was all white and gnarled and angry looking, and the flame on it leaped up another foot. I panicked, and started to back out just as I jumped. The result was both the now one foot-candle and myself splayed across the hard stone floor.

It was Jack that came up to me and helped me up, while all the other children laughed at me. Honestly, I never minded their laughing. After all, I wasn’t very good, and truly, I laughed when one of them fell. But Jack never laughed. I never was sure why, I used to wonder if he even knew how. After Jack pulled me up, everyone was chanting for him to jump.

“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jumped over the candlestick!”

It was repeated over and over, and I saw Jack start to shake his head. But even I loved watching him jump. I joined in the chanting, and even Karen was reciting the chant. Eventually, he relented. A great cheer went up, and the candle was reset and relit. Jack took a few steps back, eyed the candlestick, smiled, and ran towards it. He leaped over it, his legs pushing him up hard. He seemed to float in the air, and then came back down the other side. I’m not even sure the candle flame flickered.

Afterwards, Jack pulled me aside to tell me some exciting news. There was a girl at the school, Rose. Her father, a man named Edward, had just come back from a trip as an officer on a merchant ship. The trip was so successful that Edward had enough money to purchase his own ship, which is what he had done. The man had been coming to the school for the past few days to visit Rose and talk to Mistress Mary Day. Eventually, he convinced her to let Rose go, and he was taking her back home with him. I, for one, was very jealous.

But, Jack told me, during his visits, Edward had been watching Jack, and decided that he was the perfect lad for joining the crew of his new merchant ship. He would need a good cabin boy, after all. He asked if Jack was interested, and Jack said of course he was, but that he didn’t turn ten for another seven days. Edward laughed and had told Jack that none of that mattered.

“You’re birthday is Candlemas itself? Fine, fine. My ship is still being inspected and I won’t be leaving for eight days anyway,” he said. “Just make sure you’re at the dock on the day after Candlemas by ten in the morning, that’s when I plan to set sale.”

It was exciting news. I meant that Jack would bet getting out of her, living a life, one that he had talked about many times. Ever since I had met him, he had talked of being a sailor. Before we could celebrate, however, Mistress Mary Day appeared in the doorway. She was a large woman, full of hard personality. I had seen full grown men, masters of business and aristocrats, whither at the stare she was now directing at Jack. He just stiffened and stared back at her. Jack was the only person I knew that actually looked Mistress Mary Day straight in the eye.

“Jack!” she said. She said it at the top of her lungs, but I’d also never heard Mistress Mary Day talk in any quieter tones. “You are supposed to be sweeping out the basement! Instead, I find you here playing with candlesticks! Forty whacks! Now!”

Jack didn’t even hesitate; he just turned around and bent over. Everyone near him, myself included, backed away. Mistress Mary Day stomped over, pulled a wooden paddle off her belt, and started hitting Jack hard on the rear. Though none of us wanted to be there, we all knew better than to walk away. If we did, we would be next. Jack only cried out twice during the beating, something that I never understood. Not crying only made her hit harder, so I cried all the time, right away, even if I wasn’t in pain.

After the count of forty, Jack just stood back up and turned to face her.

“Are we done?” he asked. He tried his best to make it look like he was feeling no pain, but I knew better. There were tears just behind his eyes. Mistress Mary Day, however, looked like she was about to explode.

“We are not done,” she said. “We have lots of work to do. Next week, you turn ten years old, and I have already found someone willing to pay the rest of your debt to me to take you on as a servant.”

“What?” Jack said, taking a step backwards at the news, as if it had struck him in a way that was more painful than the beating. Mistress Mary Day smiled. It was not a pleasant sight.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “My sister had told me that her manservant is getting old, and having difficulty. She is buying your debt so that he can train you to be her new manservant. A carriage is coming to pick you up the day after Candlemas. Now, back to your cleaning duties!”

And with that, Mistress Mary Day stormed out of the room. This was devastating news. Everyone else went back to work. I looked at Karen, who nodded, but held up two fingers, indicating that I shouldn’t be gone longer than two minutes. I walked Jack out.

“What am I going to do?” he said to me. “I want to go with Edward and work on his ship, but he doesn’t have the money to pay my debt.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I do know this. You truly are nimble, Jack, and if anyone can figure a way out of this situation, it’s you.”

He nodded, and then told me to go back to work in the main room while he went back to his cleaning. For the whole next day, Jack mopped around the school, never looking up and avoiding contact with all of us, even me. Now, I was one of the few students at the school that stayed at the school through the night, until the Sabbath day. Even though those that stayed, Jack included, slept in the same great hall that we worked and played in, I didn’t mind. It was better than being at home, the last of ten children, all crammed into a tiny cottage. No, the space of the great hall suited me just fine.

That night, I grabbed Jack before bedtime and pulled him aside.

“Jack, what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Do?” he said, looking at me with blank eyes, as if he didn’t understand the question.

“About the Mistress’ sister,” I prompted.

“What about her?” he said. “I can’t do anything. I owe a debt to Mistress Mary Day for taking me in from the orphanage, and her sister is paying off that debt so I can work for her. There’s no way out of it, unless I…”

I smiled. That hesitation meant that he had discovered a way out. His salvation was now in his own hands. But he didn’t complete the though, he just stared off into space, and I started to get worried.

“Unless you what, Jack?” I asked.

He turned to look at me, and I saw fire in his eyes. His mouth twitched up into a smile, and a twittering noise escaped his throat. I realized that he was laughing. It wasn’t a traditional laugh, like when someone says something that you find funny, but more like the sound of madness. It scared me, and I started to back away.

“Unless,” he said, grabbing my arm and holding me in place. “Unless I run away.”

“What?” I said, putting my hand up to hush him down, and looking quickly around the room to make sure that one of the other children could hear. “Running away isn’t a possibility. We’re constantly watched, and mostly kept to the hall here. How are you going to run away?”

“I don’t know, Richard,” he said, his eyes dimming slightly as he returned from madness to sanity. The intensity didn’t leave his eyes, though, and I knew that meant he was still planning on this escape. “I don’t know, yet. But, I’ve got six more days to figure it out.”

He let me go then, and crawled to his blankets to sleep. I could only sit and stare at him. Escape? Run away? Even if he could manage it, he would be an outlaw. That could potentially damage Rose’s dad, Edward. Why would he want to do that? I didn’t wonder for very long, though before falling asleep. When I awoke the next morning, Jack was already awake. He was sitting, staring at me, his left eyebrow raised in an express of question.

“You’re right,” he said.

“I am?” I said, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and stretching.

“Running is a last resort,” he said. “I realize that now. I need to try and talk to her, tell her about the job offer from Edward. Maybe I can make a deal, where I pay off my debt from the pay I make working on the ship.”

My jaw hung open in shock. This was the most rational I had ever heard Jack.

“You think she’ll go for it?” I asked, unsure if Mistress Mary Day would turn down her sister and the lump sum payment she was offering for the potential of re-payment from a child that she didn’t even trust.

“I don’t know, but I have to make the effort,” he said, and I nodded. For the sake of his conscious, he needed to make the effort.

That day seemed to go pretty normally. Students came to the school, some dropped off, most walking on their own. The hall was filled up in short order, and we got down to the work of making lace. Though Jack often spent time doing some of the more dirty and ugly chores around the school, that day he was working with us. Mistress Mary Day had a large order of lace she needed filled, and so all hands were making it.

When lunch finally came, Jack, despite having to be exhausted from hours of work, broke ranks and ran to Mistress Mary Day’s office. I’m not sure if he had asked her before hand if he could speak to her, but in either case, I’m said a prayer for Jack. He was gone for almost the entire lunch break, and when he finally returned, it was with a fresh mark across his face. I recognized it right away as the leather switch carried by Mistress Mary Day herself. I ran up to him, despite Karen’s protests that lunch was almost over and that I needed to sit down and get back to work.

He looked beyond tired, his arms slumping at his side, his eyes unfocused and uncaring about the world around him. He walked hunched over, and shuffled his feat. The beating looked bad physically as well. Not only was there the mark, but also his noise was bleeding. I quickly grabbed him and steered him towards an empty workstation next to mine. I didn’t speak at first, I just guided him into the making of lace until he started doing it on his own. It was like his body was running by itself, and he had nothing to do with it. It continued like that for most of the rest of the day, but slowly, he returned to himself. I saw him start to hunch over his work, poking what could be a little too hard with the needles, and doing other things that showed me just how angry he was. The big clincher for me was when he would start talking to himself.

“So,” I said as the bell rang indicating that school was over for the day, “I take it that the discussion didn’t go very well?”

He looked over at me, and I could see one tear running down his cheek.

“Mistress Mary Day’s sister, Elizabeth, was there,” he said. Each word came out as if forced. “They let me speak, but were appalled when I mentioned Edward. They beat me for almost an hour straight, for daring to even talk to Edward, nevermind make plans with him. Afterwards, they left and I just lay there.”

“So, now what?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “Now, I go back to my original plan. I escape.”

I nodded. I felt guilty, like this was somehow my fault. But, before I could apologize, he simply crawled back towards his blankets and went to sleep. The count down was on. Five days left until Candlemas. Jack spent that first day testing things. He watched the woman that were our instructors, seeing which ones were easier to sneak out of the hall from. Too my surprise, it wasn’t Karen, it was an older woman, a spinster named Madelyn. She was very uncaring about our work, and us and, in fact, was often asleep while we were under her watch. Jack slipped in and out of the hall for two hours under her watch, and she didn’t even notice.

The next day, Jack slipped out and told me later he tried testing various doors. He discovered that Mistress Mary Day kept all the doors locked during the day. As he was coming back to us, he heard footsteps. They were coming up behind him, so he hid, behind the stairs leading to the sumptuous bedrooms upstairs. It was Mistress Mary Day and Elizabeth. They were talking, and went out side the main door, and Elizabeth had asked why all the doors were locked. Mistress Mary Day said it was to prevent escape, because apparently in the past, several students tried to run away. But, she explained, only she had the key, and she showed it to her sister. Jack knew then what his next task needed to be. And this time, he wanted my help.

“You want me to what?” I said that night. I shook my head from side to side, trying to shake out the request he had just made of me. It was insanity.

“I want you to help me steal Mistress Mary Day’s key,” he said matter-of-factly, as if this were something we do every day. “I need you to be the look out while I search her office.”

“How do you know if she’ll even have the key in the office,” I asked. “What if she’s carrying it on her all the time?”

“Then I’ll figure something else out,” he said. This was when I realized he was serious. He was going to run away, one way or another. I knew that there were only two endings for this. Either he would escape and make it to Edward’s boat, or he would be caught trying to run away, and likely be killed. Mistress Mary Day didn’t take kindly to run aways. I nodded my consent after this thought, realizing that I needed to do everything I could to aid him on his quest. After all, he had saved me from sever beatings more times than I could count. Helping him run away was the least I could do in return.

The next day, when Madeline’s shift came up, we snuck out. We hardly even waited for her to sit at her desk we just left. I don’t think she eve noticed. Why was Mistress Mary Day paying her? Maybe she wasn’t, it occurred to me. Maybe she, too, owed a debt to the school owner, and working this shift was the best she could do to pay it off. Next came the hard part. We had to get to Mistress Mary Day’s office and get the key.

It turned out that getting there wasn’t as difficult as my fertile imagination had me believe. I pictured an adventure of vicious dogs and armed guards preventing us from getting to the office, but it turned out that, except for the main hall, the school was pretty abandoned. A few times we ran into children that were sweeping or cleaning the floors, usually as some kind of punishment for mishandling the lace, and they just ignored us. Otherwise, we had free run of the school.

We rounded another corner, and I was feeling lost. How did Jack know so much about where things were? I spent most of my time in the school in the hall. Jack, on the other hand, had done the punishment chores of cleaning many times, I realized. He probably knew this building better even than Mistress Mary Day. As we rounded this corner, however, he held out his hand for me to stop. He pointed to a large oak door, and nodded. This was it, I realized. This was her office. I felt intimidated and terrified just at the site of the door. I thought I was going to piss myself.

We waited there for what seemed like hours, though of course it must have just been minutes. Finally, the door opened, and we crouched behind the stairwell in the shadows. Out from the door came Mistress Mary Day, and I had to stifle a little groan. I was sure that she would see us right through the shadows. It was going to be the worst beating of my life. She closed the door and stopped to look around. Then she looked right at us. I shifted, pushing myself back into the wall, which caused a floorboard to squeak. Jack’s arm shot out and held me still.

Mistress Mary Day slowly walked towards the stairwell, looking up and down at our hiding place. This was it, I thought. We were going to get the worst beating of our lives. Or worse, we would be killed. She stopped not two feet from where we were crouched, eyes narrow and searching. She reached her hands out to get us, and I thought that this would be the end, when suddenly, there was a flurry of fur and crying. Mistress Mary Day backed up, a squeal of pleasure escaping her lips. It was a sound I hoped to never hear again. When I opened my eyes to look, I saw that her great, fat, Persian cat had jumped down from the stair case and into her arms.

“Goldie!” she said. “You silly cat. You had mommy worried. I thought you were one of those pesky children, trying to cause mischief. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen and get something to eat.”

She walked away carrying the cat and stroking it’s back, the creature purring the whole time. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing then that I had held my breath. I wanted to collapse right there. The fear was exhausting. Jack had other ideas, though. He ran up to the door to Mistress Mary Day’s office, and cracked it open. Then, he signaled me over. I ran over there, looking over my shoulder to see if the headmistress had for some reason returned. I ended up bumping into Jack, who shoved me off and glared at me.

“Keep watch,” he said. “Let me know as soon as you hear Mistress Mary Day return. Then, run back to the shadows under the stairs.”

“What will you do?” I asked, suddenly terrified for him.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said, a lopsided smile on his face. “I’ve got a plan.”

Without any further explanation, he dove into the room. The heavy oak door closed behind them. I stood there just waiting. Jack was only inside for a few minutes, but it was the most nerve-wracking time of my young life. I had never been so scared. But, he came back out in triumph, holding up a large brass key. I smiled, and the two of us ran back to the main hall, where we sat at our stations and finished our days work like nothing had happened.

As we started to settle down for the night, I thought we had gotten away with it. I thought for sure that this would be Jack’s victory, that tomorrow he would be able to escape with no problems tomorrow. Before we even got to lights out, however, the doors to the hall slammed open, and Mistress Mary Day, holding her cat, came storming into the room.

“One of you brats,” she said, her voice a low growl, “has stolen my key. I will find you and make sure that you are given the worst beating you have ever experienced.”

We all stood at stiff attention, fear that we would get a beating just in general principal anyway running through us. She walked up and down the room, looking at each of us intently, as if she could see the key in our heads or something. Finally, she whipped around and shouted at the whole hall.

“You will all get a beating if someone doesn’t come forward, and I mean right now,” she declared. We all looked at each other. Only Jack and I had any idea what was really going on, and when he looked at me, he had a fear in his eyes that I had never seen before. I knew what was going on in his head. This key was his one chance to escape. But I also knew that always tried to protect us other kids. He couldn’t let us all get a beating for something he had done. He looked back down at Mistress Mary Day, and just as she pulled out her switch, he stepped forward, his head hung in shame.

She smiled an evil smile as she saw Jack come forward. “I knew it had to be you, boy,” she said. “No one else here would dare be so bold.”

She pulled him towards him and proceeded to give him the worst beating I had ever seen. When she was done, he lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. His ears and nose were bleeding, and both eyes were swelled shut. I think he even lost a tooth. She then searched through his clothing and found the key.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said. “Now, everyone get to bed. I expect all of you, even Jack, to get back to work tomorrow.”

Several of us helped Jack get back to his bedroll, and he didn’t resist. The next day, Jack sat dejectedly at his station, trying to work as best he could through two black eyes. Somehow, he managed to just barley make his quota. One more day gone, and now it was the day before Candlemas. Jack was looking better by the day’s end, but his spirit was still crushed. That night, Mistress Mary Day came back into the room, and this time she came straight up to Jack. He didn’t look at her defiantly this time, just kept his head down.

“Good boy today, Jack,” she said. “I have a special task for you tomorrow. All the candles I’ve ordered for Candlemas are here, and you will be responsible for setting every last one up.”

Jack only nodded. That night, though, before going to bed, I saw a gleam in his eyes, and I realized that Jack was scheming something. I had no idea what it was, but something was definitely up. When I woke the next morning, he was already gone. The rest of that day went just fine, until just before lunchtime. Jack came into the main hall with an armful of candles. He moved slowly about the room setting them up, and I saw that he was making sure to have the last one set up just as lunchtime started.

He caught my eye and winked at me. I shook my head, and then to the end of the hall to get my food with everyone else. Just as I started to sit down to eat, I smelled smoke. I looked with everyone else across the room to see all the lace had caught fire. The room was quickly filling up with smoke, and the fire was spreading. Everyone screamed and ran out of the hall. When I looked back, I saw Jack there, holding a lit candle in his hand, setting it to more lace and even the wooden walls.

Mistress Mary Day came screaming down to the hall, pushing back all of us, but then cried when she saw the blaze. It was huge now, spreading quickly through the whole school. She ran towards the front door, using her key, and opened it, and we all pushed after her to get out. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the school burn down. I don’t know if Jack ever made it out alive, but I imagine that he did, and that he went to Edward’s boat. I hope he’s living a life of adventure on the seas, that he was making money to one day have his own house and ship. I imagine that he’s out there still, on the waters, plying trade where ever he goes.

Maybe, once in a while, he still jumps candlesticks.

The End

Week 14

Well, short preamble to this week's story. I was inspired to do this one by twitter friend @sparrowbug. I proudly present to you the story of Jack Be Nimble! Enjoy, and I'll see you all next week!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hope Platform

Thomas looked out the window of the shuttle’s main cabin and viewed the round, canister appearance of the station that would become him home for the two years. Despite looking like a mile long soda can, it was the most advanced space station the Earth had ever seen. The outer hull was made out of a mineral that was discovered on the Moon, and scientists named lunarium. It was bright white, highly reflective and amazingly heat resistant. Lunarium had resisted temperatures as high as twenty thousand degrees. That made it perfect for the job they needed to do.

The shuttle rotated as it aligned itself with the station for docking, and the Earth came into view. Thomas shook his head. Even at this height, it was easy to see the damage. The Earth was no longer the blue and green ball that he had seen in pictures from his youth. Though there was still green on it, most of the surface was the soft brown of deserts, and even the water was more a sickly green than blue anymore. Hope Platform represented their best hope to reverse that damage, and make the Earth green anymore.

Thomas wasn’t a scientist, so he wasn’t real clear on the details behind the idea, but basically, the lab coats back home wanted he and his team to gather Solar Plasma, or the stuff the sun was made up of, and bring it back to Earth. They were going to use the raw star stuff to power some terra-forming machine that would artificially create conditions that would allow the plant life to grow again, which would start a natural process that would reverse the damage done to the planet. His team had two years to get there, grab all the plasma they could gather, and get back. It was nine months there, and nine months back, and six months doing the actual gathering.

It sounded like a long time, but six month was the minimum needed with this station to gather the amounts of plasma needed to make the plan work. At the same time, they didn’t want to take any longer; the decay on the planet was getting faster and faster each and every passing month. His crew would be working hard, and working around the clock, to get the job done. He also had orders to try and pull some extra plasma, just in case. He tried to tell his superior that the eggheads had already figured in extra to his team’s pull totals, but the general didn’t care. He wanted extra, and he expected his soldier to agree. And so Thomas did.

Of course, now that they were on the actual mission, the general wasn’t around to make sure Thomas followed through. He would work as hard as he could to meet the quota the scientist’s had set for him, and if possible, get more, but he wasn’t going to push him men past exhaustion. This was too important to take stupid risks on. Thomas’s musings were interrupted by the shuttle completing its docking. He thanked the shuttle pilot, and climbed through the tube to his new home. On the other side of the airlock, he was greeted by a man in an orange NASA jumpsuit, who saluted him.

“Welcome to Hope Platform, Major,” he said.

Thomas saluted back. “Thank you, Captain, it’s my pleasure.”

Thomas let the captain lead him to the command deck. There, he met a few more members of his crew. Counting himself, there were twenty people here in all, the most that had ever manned a single space station at one time in human history. Most of them were from NASA and the Russian Space program, but a few were from Europe, Australia and China. This was truly an Earth wide endeavor. The past few months planetside had seen these twenty people train together for twelve hours a day. Thomas was the last on board the station, so at long last, they could get underway.

The next hour saw Thomas making sure all the pre-launch preparations had been made, and that the station was ready for the trip to the Sun. He went to the communication station and called back down to mission control.

“This is Major Thomas Parkman to Ground Control, we are ready for launch,” he said.

“This is Ground Control to Major Tom,” the voice from over the speaker came, singing the famous David Bowie song.

“Very funny Mission Control,” he replied. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard this joke.

“Sorry, Major,” the voice came again, sounding actually apologetic “I just couldn’t’ resist. Rodger on the launch status. Take off will proceed in T-minus five minutes and counting.

Now came the part Thomas hated most. The waiting. There would be lots of waiting on this trip, both there and on the way back, but he always hated waiting for launch. It didn’t seem to be as bad on the station, compared to being a shuttle with thousands of pounds of explosives strapped to your belly, but it was still there. The station was going to be sent to the moon in a similar fashion, with the exception that the booster was part of the station and was making the return trip with them.

Everyone on the station strapped in for the launch, most in their cabins, which were designed for just that. Thomas and the five command deck crew decided to stay on the command deck, to witness the launch from the best seats in the house. It didn’t take long for the final count down to come in. It was repeated by the young Chinese lady sitting at the communications station.

“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

Thomas always held his breath at this point.

“Six. Five.”

He gripped the arm rests of his chair harder than was required. His eyes closed despite his desire to see this launch.

“Four. Three. Two.”

He said a silent prayer, for the success of this launch, this mission and the safety of his crew.

“One. Ignition!”

He felt the engine behind the station light, rumbling through the whole mile long structure. Even though a massive booster was pushing the station away from the scaffolding they were currently attached to with massive force, the process looked painfully slow from the inside. Inertia was also lessened in the zero gravity of space. He was pushed into his seat, sure, but it was for a brief time compared to Earth launches, and with nowhere near as much force. But it still seemed slow. Perhaps it was the scenery. The stars and even the moon were further away than the ground, buildings and clouds that normally accompanied a launch. He checked the readings, however, and they had reached seven thousand miles per hour at the moment they were supposed to. The booster would push until they reached ten thousand, and then would shut off, conserving fuel and letting inertia push them through space.

The whole launch took about ten minutes before the booster shut off. It went as smoothly as could be expected, and when Mission Control announced that they were away, everyone inside the command center cheered, including Thomas. He decided right then to send out message to the crew.

“This is Major Thomas Parkman,” he said. “We’re away. I’m declaring the next two hours open hours for celebration purposes. We’ll be getting in twenty hour work days soon enough, let’s take some time now to celebrate our successful beginning.”

The crew let out another cheer. This was pretty much expected. While the schedule did call for some tests to be run for mission control, they wouldn’t need to report on any of them for an hour anyway. They could wait.

“A most auspicious beginning, Major,” said the only other person left in command after the announcement.

“Indeed, Dr. Jones,” Thomas said. He looked over his shoulder at the tall, muscular blond woman from Finland, Heidi Jones. She was a top astrophysicist and engineer, and one of the scientists’ that had come up with this plan. The device that would be used to extract the plasma from the sun was her invention. And she also looked like the classic pictures of the valkyries from Norse myths to Thomas. She was also his second in command on this mission, being the mission expert on the extraction processes, and directly in charge of the civilian members of the crew. Over the past few months he had gained a deep respect for her, not only a s a scientist, but as a leader.

“There’s something bothering you,” she said suddenly.

He looked at her in surprise. “Am I that obvious?”

“Well, maybe not to anyone else,” she laughed, “but you forget how much time we spent training together to be ready for this mission the past few months. I know you as well as I know my husband.”

He nodded, and then sighed. “Just before launch, one of the mission control techs made a Major Tom joke.”

“You said that would happen,” she said.

“Yeah, but right now, I have another line from that song going through my head,” he said, “one that was said by Major Tom himself.”

“’Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do,’” she quoted, speaking the line rather than singing.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said.

“Listen, this is a difficult mission we’re taking on,” she said, patting him on the back. “Literally the fate of the planet rests on our shoulders. If you didn’t feel worried or nervous, I would be worried about you. But, really, worrying now, at the beginning of this mission, isn’t going to do any good. We still got nine months before we even reach the moon, you really want to start worrying now? Besides, you got me to help out. What could go wrong?”

He looked at her, a wide smile across her face. It was infectious, and he found it hard to stay sullen in its light. He let in and smiled back.

“There we go,” she said. “Now, what say you and I go join in the festivities you just initiated? We can go for about a half hour, and then come back up here to run the tests that NASA will be expecting.”

“Deal,” he said, and they linked arms, ready to enjoy themselves for the brief time they’ve allowed. She was right; there would be plenty of time to worry later.

“By the way,” she said as they were leaving the command center, “You do know that song is about drug abuse, right?”

He laughed.

The next nine months were long and tedious, even if they were kept busy. NASA and other international space agencies had the crew running various tests and collecting data that would otherwise be unavailable. They felt that if the mission was a success, the information gained from this mission would be invaluable, and thus too much to resist. Plus, besides training for the actual mission once they got to the Sun, it gave the crew something to do. There were times when Thomas felt that the crew would have been at each other’s throats were it not for the work. Even with only 20 people, the station began to feel like a small town.

Then came the big day, when they were about to enter the Sun’s corona. It was truly an amazing site. Waves of plasma rose and fell, heights measured in miles, crashing into each other. The colors were amazing as well, bright reds and deep yellows, brilliant oranges and even blinding whites were all visible. Everyone that wasn’t actively on duty at that point was in the mess deck, watching out the observation windows. Thomas, however, noted that the temperature in the ship was getting well over one hundred degrees. Most of the command crew had stripped down to tank tops. And it was about to get far hotter. He opened up ship wide communications.

“This is Major Parkman,” he said. “We are about to enter the corona, the hottest part of the sun, and as such, we will be closing the lunarium shielding over the observation ports. They will remain closed for the next six months, as we get to the work we came here for. Thank you.”

With that, he nodded to an air force officer at one of the command stations, who flicked a series of switches. A few moments later all the windows on the ship were soon blocked by white walls made of lunarium. From now on, they were blind, steering by sensors alone.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the man sitting at the pilot station, “prepare to ignite boosters on my mark and take is through the corona.”

This was potentially the most dangerous part of the mission. The temperatures at the corona reached thousands of degrees, and no one was sure if even the lunarium shielding they had created for the station would resist those temperatures for long. So the plan was to booster rocket it through, as fast as possible, and get to the considerably cooler photosphere, where the actual work would begin.

“Aye sir, boosters prepared,” the airman said.

“All hands, prepare for boosters,” Thomas said once more through the intercom. Then he nodded to the Lieutenant.”

“On my mark,” the officer said, “Three, two, one, ignition.”

There was a slight feeling of being pushed back into the ship, but lessened even compared to the initial firing of the rockets at launch nine months ago. The wall where the window was now had computer screens and view screens that showed infrared displays and particle counts and all kinds of other data that the sensors were taking in. What amazed Thomas while looking at them was that it didn’t look like they were moving on the screens. The same waves of plasma were there, or at least it seemed that way. After a few moments, he could see that the waves were changing, and getting more intense. It was also getting hotter inside the ship. The lunarium was an amazing mineral, given that they should have been boiled alive by now. Without it, this mission wouldn’t have even got off the ground. The temperature kept rising and rising, and Thomas began to worry that they had reached al limit with the moon metal.

“External hull temperature at nine thousand degrees Kelvin and holding,” the pilot said. “Internal temperature at three hundred twenty degrees Kelvin and also holding.”

Three hundred twenty degrees Kelvin. That was about one hundred seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, Thomas thought as sweat poured down his head and neck. He had little doubt that his shirt and pants were equally soaked. The pilot kept talking.

“Photosphere in T minus twenty,” he said. “Breaking thrusters engaged. T minus fifteen. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

“Brace for impact,” Thomas said, and his words were relayed over the station.

“Five,” continued the pilot as if Thomas hadn’t spoke. “Two. One. Photosphere impact.”

And with that, they did impact. The whole station was jarred and Thomas bounced in his chair hard, hitting his back on the headrest as he came back down. The station bounced and rocked a few more times, reminding Thomas of the white water rafting trips he used to take with his wife, before she left him.

“Photosphere splashdown complete,” the pilot said as the station reached stability. “External temperature at one thousand nine hundred five degrees Kelvin. Internal temperature at three hundred and five degrees Kelvin. And it looks like we’re stable. We made it, sir,” he reported, turning in his seat to look Thomas in the eye. Thomas smiled and nodded at him, then flipped on the intercom again.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Hope Platform has landed.”

There was a cheer from the command crew, and Thomas imagined that it was being repeated throughout the station. A message was sent to Earth, though they wouldn’t get it for a few months. Then, they got down to the hard work of ‘drilling for plasma’ as Dr. Jones put it.

The actual process wasn’t drilling, of course. Nor was it strictly mining, as Thomas tended to think of it. The extraction machine that Heidi had invented was basically a gigantic vacuum, similar to the one used to clean your carpets back home. It would suck the plasma right off the photosphere of the sun and then put it into special magnetic storage containers. It took a crew of about six to run the machine at basic levels, and about nine to get it really going at maximum capacity. Almost everyone on board Hope Station was trained on its use and operation.

At first, things went slower than the plan. There were some mistakes with the drill use, and one accident that resulted in two of the crew injured and the drill arm damaged. Normally, Thomas though, they could send two men outside in suits to fix the arm, but in these conditions, it was impossible. Lunarium was fine as a metal, but not useable in a fabric. Without it to protect people from the heat, there was no way space walks were going to happen on this mission.

Heidi, however, reassured everyone that one damaged arm wasn’t a mission killer. They had built the maching so that it could operate with two arms down, if need be.

“Still,” she told everyone, “let’s try to not damage anymore, okay?”

Everyone laughed, but understood the sincerity of her comment. They all redoubled their efforts to work carefully and still efficiently. For the rest of that first week, progress was slow, but steady. Then, on the second week, they started to settle into a routine, and progress was increased. They were slightly behind schedule, but catching up. If things continued at this pace, they would be back on schedule by the end of the month, and possibly ahead of schedule by the end of the next month. Thomas was elated at the news. This might just actually work.

A week later, they made a startling discovery.

“Major,” came the cry of one of the scientists as he ran into the command center, out of breath. “Doctor Jones. You have got to come see this.”

Heidi caught the man before he stumbled into Thomas, something Thomas was grateful for. “David,” she said, “What is it?”

“It’s amazing,” David said, “the scientific find of the century. You’ve got to come see this, Dr. Jones. It will change the way we look at the universe!”

He started pulling Heidi out the door and down the hall. Heidi turned to look at Thomas and shrugged. Thomas shrugged back and started to follow after her.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the officer at the pilot stations, “you’re in command until I get back.”

“Aye sir,” came the reply.

Thomas and Heidi followed David down several hallways to the main sensor monitor room, where everything from temperature, hull integrity and scientific surveys of the sun’s surface are run. He walked straight to a computer console that was rather crowded with people, his whole team, Thomas realized. He and Heidi walked up to the computer and the crowed parted.

Thomas had little idea what he was looking at on the screen. It appeared to be just more pictures of the sun’s surface, thing he had seen hundreds of times. The display was on a spectrum that made everything look blue, except for a few patches of green flames that moved around the screen. He looked over to Heidi, who just shook her head and shrugged. Meanwhile, David was pointing to the screen with a look on his face as if that alone explained everything.

“What are we looking at here, David?” Heidi asked, shaking her head. “All I see is a spectrum shot of solar flares.”

“That’s just it, they’re not flares,” David said, pointing again to the screen. “We were studying a relatively stable part of the surface, trying to get a baseline reading to compare everything else to, when we saw these.”

He was pointing now to the green flames on the screen. Thomas squinted at the screen, and then blinked. He could swear that he saw little arms on the flames, and that they seemed to be moving with purpose, as opposed to random movements. Also, they seemed to be carrying things, a slightly different shade of green. And as he watched, they moved into an area with some larger yellow flames, but these seemed to be more regular shapped, like squares. Almost like… buildings.

“Okay,” he said, “I think I’ve been staring at these screens too long. Are those flames moving independently? And I’d swear that I saw… buildings”

David’s smile broadened, and he practically shouted, “Yes!”

“What?” Heidi looked closer at the screens, then at another one next to it with numbers running on it. She looked from one to the other for a few moments, than back to David.

“Are these accurate?” she said, and he nodded. It was an excited nod, almost self-satisfied. “That can’t be right.”

“Oh, they are,” he said, “we’ve been double and triple checking them all morning, and the numbers are consistent. Everything you’re looking at is real.”

“Wait, what are you saying?” Thomas asked, thoroughly confused.

“These readings indicate that these green colored flames here,” Heidi said, pointing to the screen, “have been moving independently of any outside influence for hours, and have done so in concert with each other. They appear to be operating on their own power and intelligence.”

“Wait, Intelligence?” Thomas said. “Like… aliens?”

Heidi and David both nodded, though where his was enthusiastic, here’s was worried.

“Aliens,” Thomas said, “on the sun.”

“I know,” David said, “It just blows your mind out of the water, doesn’t it?”

That wasn’t the half of it, David thought.

“We need to get on this in more detail,” Heidi was saying.

“Wait,” Thomas asked, beginning to understand. “Are those things really buildings? And those are tools in their hands? And more importantly, are they interfering with the drilling?”

David and Heidi looked at each other, then back at Thomas.

“We don’t really know,” David said, “about either. They’re obviously intelligent and those do, indeed, appear to be tools and buildings. They’re a few kilometers away from us, but we spotted a group of them headed this way, so if they’re not in our way, we are most certainly going to be in theirs shortly.”

“Okay,” Thomas said, the military man in him coming out as he clasped his hands behind his back and his voice became more authoritarian. “Until it is proved that they are a disruption to drilling, that has to remain our primary focus. Keep at the main mission, but keep what eyes you can on this. I want to know as much about these… aliens as we can.”

David nodded, and even said “Yes, sir,” which made Thomas smile inside. Civilians didn’t often say that. Not seriously, at least.

A few days later, Thomas was in his quarters taking a short nap when he got a call from David stating he had a report on the solar life forms and their relationship with the drilling. He got dressed and met David and Heidi at the same computer station they first saw the aliens on.

“What do you have,” Thomas said, all business.

“Okay, well,” David said, pointing to the screens. It showed almost the same scene as the last time. Blue sun background, green flames moving about. This time, though, there was some kind of long black thing in the middle. “This a picture from about an hour ago. That black line in the middle? That’s drilling arm five. It appears that the aliens were attempting to attack it. They were doing a good job of it, too, until we retracted it. The little damage they were able to cause it matches the damage done to the first drilling arm we lost.”

“Wait,” Thomas said, “Your saying that these things are responsible for the lost arm? They’re… attacking us? Or defending themselves, maybe?”

“We don’t really know, at this point,” Heidi said.

“Can we communicate with them?” Thomas said.

“We don’t know,” David said.

Thomas nodded, realizing that this was just as new to them as it was to him. “Okay, David,” he said, giving orders, “Finding a way to communicate with them is your top priority as of right now. We need to know what they’re doing, why, and if necessary, how to stop it.”

He then turned to Heidi. “Dr. Jones,” he said, “find away to re-insert arm five, but make sure it’s away from these guys. We want to avoid damage, if possible, but we also don’t want to slow down extraction. If it’s impossible to avoid these guys, let me know. But,” he said, cutting off a protest he saw forming on her lips, “find out just HOW impossible it is before coming to tell me.”

Both Heidi and David nodded, and then turned to their respective tasks. They spent the next few days pulling in and re-extending the drilling arms, trying to dodge the aliens. Then, a few days later, they had that communication break through, though it wasn’t because of David.

Thomas walked into the command center, ready for another day of alien watching and status reports on the drilling. With the aliens, production had slowed, but not yet enough to make him want to try and move to another location. Before he could even sit down, however, there was a flash of brilliant white light. When his vision returned, standing in the center of the command room was a small figure, much like the flame aliens. It was about seven feet in height, barley touching the ceiling. The top of it swerved left and right, as if it were a head searching for something. Thomas was struck still in awe. It was almost painful to look at, yet difficult to pull his eyes away.

Then, he heard a voice. “Greetings, strange creatures,” it said. It was hollow and echoy, like those old fifty’s sci-fi movies he’d watched when he was a kid. It took a few moments to realize that it was inside his head. Telepathy? It was more and more like those old sci-fis.

“We are not native to this star, but we live here,” the voice said. “You are also not native to this star?”

It took Thomas a moment to realize that they had asked a question. “No,” he replied. “we are not native to this star, but we are native to the third planet orbiting around this star.”

The creature almost seemed to nod. “And why are you here now?” it asked.

“We need a material found on this star,” Thomas said, “in order to save our world. We’re facing environmental disaster, but this material can save us.”

“And yet,” the voice said immediately, “you destroy our environment in the process of getting this material you crave.”

Thomas’ eyes flew open. So they were defending themselves. Damn it. This seriously compromised the mission. He realized he hadn’t spoken for a few moments.

“We apologize,” he said. “We were unaware that there was life on the sun. Our scientists believed that it was impossible.”

“What is this material you seek?” the voice asked again.

Just then, Heidi replied. Thomas wasn’t even aware that she had arrived in command. She gave a description of the specific type of plasma they were here extracting. The alien listened, and did that strange nod thing several more times.

“And you cannot get this material from the gas giants in this system?” the voice asked.

Heidi looked to Thomas, as she expected him to have the answer. He simply waved his hand towards the visitor, inviting her to continue. After all, Thomas didn’t have the slightest clue. He just went were he was ordered.

“Well,” she said at last, “no. I mean, it’s a plasma only found on the photosphere of the sun.”

“We know a way to make that type of plasma from the raw materials of the gas giants.” He said. “We have done it during our travels throughout the cosmos to help sustain us. We can show you.”

“But,” Thomas said, “It would take us years to get there and back to our planet. By the time we arrived, the damage would be worse, maybe more than the amount of material we’d have collected.”

There was a slight pause as the alien considered this information. “This device of yours, it brought you here from your world?”

“Yes,” Thomas said.

“It has engine’s then?” the creature said. “That propel you through the void?”

“Yes,” Thomas said again.

“May I see them?” the alien asked.

Thomas once again raised his eyebrows in surprise, then turned to Heidi. She shrugged. He turned back to the alien and said, “Yes. Please, follow me.”

He lead the strange, flame like creature through the station to the engine room, where the booster rockets could be worked on directly. The creature seemed to float across the ground, moving without any kind of visible method of propulsion. It moved right up to the engines and examined them closely.

“Interesting use of solid materials,” it said, seemingly to itself. The speech patterns seemed strange human. He watched as it did that strange nodding motion. After it had moved around the whole room, it came back to Heidi and Thomas.

“We can teach you how to modify these engines to travel as we travel,” it said. “We can show you how to fold space.”

Everyone in the engine room turned to look at each other and mutters began rippling behind the alien. Thomas waved them to silence.

“You would do this for us?” Thomas asked. “After we started destroying your environment?”

The alien again nodded. It was like that was the only emotional expression it had. “You’re world suffers, and so you came here to fix it. You hurt our world in the processes, but on accident. In order to save both our worlds, this is the most expedient solution. Perhaps, when your world is saved, we can become friends as a result of this.”

A smile crept across Thomas’s face. “We would like that.”

Thomas immediately ordered the stopping of all extraction. The crew of Hope Platform changed their focus to work with the strange alien and modify the engines so that the station could fold space. Heidi spent a long time explaining to Thomas exactly what that would mean, and he was excited on the prospect of almost instantaneous transportation from one part of the universe to another. It took nearly a month for the work to be completed, but when they were done, a small test was conducted, that had the ship exit the photosphere of the sun to orbit around the sun just outside the corona, without ever traveling through the corona. It was a success, and the whole crew cheered.

“On behalf of all the people of Earth,” Thomas said to the alien that had been a regular member of the crew for the past month, “I wish to extend a thanks to our new friends. Our view of the universe has changed because of this, as has our ability to explore it. Thank you.”

The creature nodded. “Our view has changed as well. We never thought that solid beings such as you were scientifically possible. We look forward to conversing with you about your people and sharing knowledge. Farewell, people of Earth.”

With that, the creature disappeared in a blinding flash of light. Thomas turned to Heidi, who was already working at her computer, running numbers based on the formula the aliens had given her to convert the raw gasses of Jupiter into the plasma they needed. He walked up behind her and put his hand on her back.

“This is going to work,” she said. “between this processes and the folding space, we can get more than enough plasma to fix the Earth, and do it in half the time!”

Thomas nodded. “We’re going to make it, and we’re going to come home with far more than anyone could have ever imagined.”

He looked at the slowly opening blast screen on the main view port. The majesty of the black of space extended before him, and he now knew that he would be one of the first to get out there and truly explore it.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the pilot. “Set course for Jupiter.”

“Aye, sir,” came the reply.

The End