Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
The Commandos team up with Navy Chief Admiral Gray Jack Dundee on a mission to eliminate raiders from the aptly named Pirate Stars. Sogan assumes command of Dundee’s battleship to fight one of the most challenging duels of his life against a Pirate Stars opponent. If successful, the unit must depart for what is likely to prove a suicidal assault on the heavily armed renegade base supporting the enemy battlecraft.
Even as they struggle in space, a new threat has developed at home. The fact that Sogan survived his execution has at last been discovered by his former associates. Four of them are on-world, and they question what to do about him, whether to ignore or eliminate him, while the Emperor himself conceives a very different plan for his disgraced former admiral.
The strange triumph had hit him even before Connor’s warning. He whirled to face the sea.
There was a deeper blackness in the dark water by the transport. Something rose out of it, not a body or a head, but a blunt, dark gray snout, the upper part of a spike-filled jaw.
Four tentacles extended from it, two situated on either side of the snout’s center, two rising out of the water and probably fixed to the place where the upper and lower parts of the great mouth joined. They seemed to lie a vast distance away from the central pair. Each of the four was about six feet long and of the thickness of his thigh. They were highly mobile, coiling and twisting in the air around them.
Only for a moment was it visible. It submerged, and the transport began to shake.
The machine steadied again after about ten seconds. The jaw surfaced once more, this time accompanied by its lower counterpart. The body of the driver was held between them, looking small in their ten-foot expanse.
They crunched down on it. The corpse splintered, shredded, and was gone.
Part of one leg fell free. It scarcely struck the water before the nearest tentacle, an outer one, grabbed and restored it to the mouth, then that, too, was gone.
The hunter’s hunger had in no sense abated. Sogan had used those horror-filled moments to move the child and himself back to the wall. They were beyond the reach of the tentacles, but only just. If the monstrous thing could lever itself out of the water at all, it would be able to take them or take any of the others in the Commandos’ care.
It was coming again!
A stream of energy from Islaen Connor’s blaster stung the tentacles as they emerged from the water. They disappeared fast, and he felt the creature draw back from the shore.
Good work, Colonel.
Varn’s eyes turned to the child. He dropped to his knees beside her in alarm. She is not breathing, Islaen!—Her heart still beats. Even as he spoke, he had tilted her head back, checked that her airway was clear, and started forcing breath into her.
Connor looked up at the cliff. They’re here! she exclaimed in relief.She activated her communicator. “There isn’t room for the ambulance to land here. We’ll have to use our flier and take them up in three trips. The little Lemuran has to come alone so Varn can keep working on her.”
The former admiral willed his fear for Islaen to subside. She was in good hands and should be restored by the time he reached the road above once more. The same might not hold true for this tiny girl he was fighting to save. Even if he could deliver her to the medics alive, she might not survive to reach the hospital for regrowth treatment. It all depended upon the severity of her injuries.
Spirit of Space, she was no more than a baby. It wrenched the heart in him to think that she might die when she had scarcely begun to live. She would die if he failed to give her breath...
The minutes passed with interminable slowness. The flier returned for its second load. There were fewer children to go, and it filled faster.
Bethe came over to him. “We’re ready to lift again, Varn. I’m going along. I want to keep on with the renewer work. We’ll be back in another few minutes.”
He nodded and lifted his hand in farewell.
Those minutes would seem long, he thought as he watched the machine rise and disappear from his sight. He was tired, and even his efforts and his concentration on them could not keep the cold knifing him at bay. He had passed beyond discomfort into the realm of pure misery. At least, he was sheltering and warming the child somewhat...
Fear banished the cold and nearly every other feeling. The hunter was back.
The tentacles groped up onto the ledge. Their search was not blind. They, or the thing of which they were a part, seemed to know precisely where its intended victims lay.
They could not reach the humans, not quite, but they were close and struggled to come closer still. The Arcturian pulled his legs higher so that he lay more nearly parallel to his charge.
He was helpless. Only now did he recall that he had failed to ask his comrades for a blaster.
It would probably have been useless in any event. He could not fight and continue with his present work. Deprive the Lemuran of air for even a few moments too long, and everything else would be pointless. A mindless shell did not have life.
A great form rose out of the water. There was a slap like a sharp clap of thunder as it slammed down upon the ledge, not a snout this time or a jaw but the whole massive, terrifying head.
There was movement above, but it was too late now. The flier could not make it down in time, and its lasers could not be aimed finely enough. If fired, they would take out the prey along with the predator.
The descent would take only seconds, part of a minute, but the hunter would be feeding by then.
Varn Tarl Sogan deliberately moved his body away from the child, angling himself toward the sea and maintaining only sufficient contact with her to permit him to continue breathing for her as long as possible. To cover her would be worthless. They would only be taken together, as a unit. By offering himself to the predator in this manner, he would give his comrades time in which to save the child.
He could not see the creature now, but he could feel its hunger and its anticipation, and he could hear the scraping of the tentacles as they advanced rapidly over the rock of the ledge.
While traveling to Hedon for a much needed furlough of R&R, the unit is stranded on Elaine of Avalon when their fighter encounters mechanical problems. As they begin making repairs, Varn Tarl Sogan, former admiral and still War Prince of the Arcturian Empire, finds that he is none too welcome. An escalating conspiracy is formed to humiliate, injure, and finally destroy him and his comrades. Yet the greatest danger on Elaine of Avalon may not be its human inhabitants, but the monstrous creatures of its seas: barracands, nine to sixty-foot eating machines; and an over one-hundred-fifty-foot leviathan with teeth the size of sabers. From every quarter the Commandos must defend one another from a hostile populace and a deadly environment if they are to escape back into the safety of space, and it is obvious on all too many occasions that they may well not succeed.
“On your feet and start moving, you son, or maybe I’ll play a few games with your precious colonel right now.”
The former admiral obeyed. He turned his back and walked toward his place of execution, holding himself straight and silent, as he had faced the first of another set of executioners five years previously.
He wanted to tell Islaen how much he loved her, how much he loved them all...
Sogan said nothing. He dared not distract her. If Ecke’s attention wavered even for a moment, she and the others had to be ready to seize their chance. There would be only the one.
It would not come, the Arcturian believed, until he was about to enter or had actually entered the water. The Elainen’s hunger for his death, his desire to gloat over it, could well distract him then. He did not grudge the dying if it bought Islaen Connor her life.
* * * *
Varn Tarl Sogan left the sand and stepped onto the solid surface of the pier. For all his courage, his stomach twisted, and a shiver coursed through him at the thought of the death he must accept. There had been no movement behind him. He realized he would have to go through with it. It was over for him. Destruction would come here on Elaine of Avalon. He, War Prince and former admiral of the Arcturian Empire, was about to be shredded and devoured by a school of voracious fish.
His shoulders straightened. No. He was not quite ready to accept death as inevitable, not yet. He would have to go over the edge of the pier, aye. He did not have to enter the ocean, not completely.
The Commando considered his position. He was near the left edge of the pier now. By slanting his walk, he would bring himself to the very edge by the time he reached its end, just above the strong pillar supporting it. Ecke had ordered him to lower himself slowly, to dangle for a while. That would give him the moment he needed to get his arms and legs around the piling. A theatrical scream at that point would doubtless give his friends their opening.
Another shudder coursed through him, body and heart. The water level was very high, and some part of his body would be within the barracands’ reach.
Sogan gathered his courage. What had to be endured must be. The fish might well still kill him. They certainly would if he failed to hold on, but he would not have to do that for long. It would all be over within minutes. He would be able to climb back up then or be pulled up. Vishnu’s ravagers had almost eaten the legs off him, and a renewer had healed the damage. His unit had theirs with them, and the village hospital had both renewers and a regrowth facility, as did the Terra’s Charm.
His throat closed in an agony that exceeded any dread he held for his own fate. If Islaen were slain, it would not matter what the outcome was for him. Nothing would matter for him then.
* * * *
Tomas Dyn watched the War Prince make his march to death, and a cold fury filled him. That fine man was going to die and maybe the Federation’s other greatest heroes with him to feed the hate of this thing, this creature that defiled not only Elaine of Avalon but humanity itself.
That was not going to happen. He would see to that. Dyn knew what his companions were thinking, what they must be planning. He also knew that their success could only be partial at best. He alone was close enough to do the job properly. He had been nearest to the renegade from the start, and slowly, millimeter by millimeter, he had drawn closer still. There would be no need for anyone else here to die. Maybe even Varn Tarl Sogan would not have to die if he moved quickly enough…
* * * *
The former admiral stopped at the end of the pier. He was shaking slightly. That did not matter. He had cause for fear, and no one was close enough to observe his weakness in facing it.
He looked down at the quiet surface of the sea.
Something seemed to be there just beneath the surface.
His eyes closed momentarily as he fought down his terror. The barracands. They were waiting, watching…
He willed his eyes to open just as the waters parted. Slowly, deliberately, a massive form rose out of the sea to tower over him, a great, scarred head with two large eyes and slender, razor-toothed jaws extending ten feet out from it.
Panicked screams and shouts sounded all along the beach as those jaws closed on the War Prince’s chest, lifted him bodily off the pier, and disappeared with him beneath the surface of the ocean. There was no splash, only a ripple which flowed outward briefly before dissipating, leaving no sign behind it to mark where the sea creature or man had been.
The Commandos find themselves embroiled in an ever-escalating mesh of intrigue and danger, mental, emotional, moral, and physical, upon their return to Horus.
In response to the rising peril of the Pirate Stars, the Federation and the Arcturian Empire, Sogan’s former ultrasystem, have resolved to form an alliance, and the Security Council has come to Horus to finalize it with the Empire’s representatives. The members of the unit, the Federation’s experts in the renegade system, prepare to present their information to both parties, but it is Sogan whom the Arcturians demand to see, much against his will and judgment. His reluctance is well founded. Admiral Zerat, the second-rank Arcturian officer, uses the meeting to launch his subtle attack, an attempt to push Sogan into committing suicide.
Other dangers threaten both the members of the unit and the others. A young man, consumed by hate for Arcturians generated by all he and his people had suffered during the long occupation of his homeworld, has secured the means to eliminate the Commandos and the admirals of both ultrasystems and watches for his opportunity to strike.
Emirites, with whom Sogan and Karmikel had previously clashed, make several attempts to shatter the new alliance culminating in a deadly street battle in which the Commandos, Arcturian soldiers, and Horusi civilians must unite in a desperate effort to defeat the attackers before even more people die.
“Attack!” she shouted. “Spread out and take cover!”
A broadside volley seared from the transport a bare instant after the Noreenan’s sudden warning, and fifteen strongly built men, erupted from its rear. They wore nondescript, dark-colored tunics and trousers, and their heads and faces were fully masked. All were armed with long-barreled assault blasters.
They had struck too late. The Commandos had served with what was arguably the best Resistance organization to develop during the War. The Arcturians had fought that Resistance. All of them were superb street fighters with light-speed reactions honed in the sudden, fierce strikes characteristic of that particularly violent form of on-world warfare. The intended victims were no longer in place to receive the blast.
The ports on the other side of the vehicle had opened up simultaneously to clear the street and opposite pedestrian walkway of human and machine traffic and had met with better success. The area was jammed with shoppers. Those within range were cut down like condemned prisoners facing a firing squad.
None of the disembarking assassins turned in that direction. They were given no opportunity to do so. The allied soldiers fired in their turn. Five of the attackers fell. The rest split up and burst into the four nearest establishments, their blasters discharging as they dashed through the doors.
Screams and cries followed. Blaster fire answered, at least from within the Fife and Drum.
“Varn, Jake, Bethe, pin the rest of those bastards inside that transport,” the colonel commanded as she dropped a couple of hooded figures with an accuracy that drove several more of their fellows farther back into their vehicle. “Loron, Throm, keep spraying those firing holes, the same as if you were trying to force through a laser’s port in space. The rest of you, clean out those shops. We’ll be in a crossfire in a few more seconds.” Their enemies’ assault weapons had greater range and power than hand blasters, but these men knew that, and they were not stupid.
The windows of the dress shop beside Sullivan’s place shattered, and broad-beam bolts sprayed out, sweeping the street in front and forcing the allies to pull back and huddle in the relatively secure space they had created for themselves at the transport’s rear.
Other blasters discharged from within, also big assault weapons, and the firing stopped abruptly.
“Loron, you have seen our laser controls,” Varn Tarl Sogan said. “Can you manage them?”
“Well enough to hit that flaming thing.”
“You and Bethe go for the flier.”
Sogan watched the two race away from the troop carrier, running in a low crouch. They had better move fast, he thought. As matters now stood, no weapon he had at his disposal including captured assault blasters could penetrate the enemy vehicle’s heavy shielding.
A bolt seared by a scant inch from Karmikel’s head. “Damn! We’re back in the flaming War!”
"Stay down, Prince!” Throm called out. “We shall cover.—“
The former admiral’s response was short and definite, and the yeoman chuckled. Time might not have reversed in fact, but some aspects of the bygone years had certainly traveled forward unaltered. War Prince Varn Tarl Sogan had never been given to seeking shelter while others did his fighting for him.
Shooting erupted from within the grocery. Seconds later, blasters discharged through the windows, not aimed at the allies but at the enemy’s firing holes.
Varn’s brows lifted slightly as one of the concealed marksmen sent a narrow bolt cleanly through three of the ports, one after the other, in as many seconds.
For the moment, Sogan and his comrades had little to do. The battle had frozen into a stalemate. The transport possessed only the one door for use by its human cargo, that in the rear, and the enemy had ceased trying to exit through that in the face of the Commandos’ withering fire. The Arcturian yeoman kept spraying the nearer ports, making it raw suicide for those inside to approach them. There were no visible targets farther up on this side of the street, and the Empire’s force rendered the ports on the other equally unusable.
They could not get at their attackers, but the military possessed weapons in plenty that could, and those would not be long in arriving. The transport’s driver would be equally aware of that fact, and he was not likely to wait around for it to happen.
The War Prince dashed forward to grab the weapon out of the hands of one of the slain attackers and then started to run up the length of the vehicle. The windshield was its most vulnerable point. The big blaster would be able to burn through that and take out the driver if he could get into position for a direct shot...
His race began well, but he had traveled only half the length of the enemy vehicle when two hooded men broke from the hardware store, shooting as they came. A veritable sheet of blaster fire from their comrades in the transport covered their retreat.
The War Prince flattened, unable to move forward or back as the ports nearer him activated as well despite his own fire and the efforts of his comrades to keep them untenable.
He winced as a bolt blistered just above his shoulders. Another near miss. Too near. Had it come a fraction-inch closer, he would be feeling more than residual heat.
His answering shot drove the defender back from that port, perhaps already en route to his kind’s particular hell, but others opened up, directing their fire at him. The attackers were getting desperate. They were ready now to risk more to defend themselves and to escape. He would have been out of the fight already had it not been for the incredible marksmanship of the sharpshooter covering him from the grocery.
He swore mentally. If he did not break free of this soon, it would be too late. The sons would be away…
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Twas the Night before Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"