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…

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