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Deadly Enemy - Logan Ryvenbark's Saga 1

DEADLY ENEMY

(Logan Ryvenbark’s Saga – Book 1)

 

 

 

Gray

Lanter

 

Blue Shelf Bookstore

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Deadly Enemy

© 2017 BlueShelfBookstore

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[+ For you convenience, this is a link to the next book on the Logan Ryvenbark’s Saga and the Discounted Box Set+]

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I’m publishing a second Series soon!

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 1

“There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result” Winston Churchill once said.

There is great truth in that statement, especially when considering the alternative. Flesh and blood cannot stand up to a speeding, burning piece of lead. Nor can it survive a laser frying muscle and bone with the precision of a surgical scalpel. Of course, today we have the advantage over soldiers of the past. The medical nanos jump into action, repairing blood vessels, rebuilding organs and creating new flesh to plug the bullet holes. You’re as good as new if the wound is not too serious. However, when half your body is blown away, there’s little even the nanos can do.

But I’ve never liked using the memory drugs to erase the knowledge of battle wounds. Civilians use memory wipes to cast bad memories into oblivion, and so are able to forget a bad childhood or traumatic events. Not soldiers. You learn hard lessons in battle, and you should remember, not forget them. A few soldiers use the drugs, but I never have.

But the nanos, as marvelously high-tech as they are, are nature’s liars. I look at my body in the mirror and see no scars, no rough, ragged redness on the pale skin. Nothing to show the wounds I have received. But my mind remembers them. It’s incongruous to view the skin and know it should show the ravages of battle. Some soldiers have a though emotional time with that.

Eternally young. And eternally waiting for the next battle. Because I’m Genrich, I age very slowly. When I look at my face, my mind tells me I should look older — and wiser for that matter. I guess I might look twenty-five, maybe twenty-seven, but I have lived more years than that.

I have chosen this profession, so I can’t complain. I chose it because, thanks to a combination of genetics and other skills, I am good at it. Of course it always helps to have a cause worth fighting for. In this age of nanobites and memory drugs, what often matters most are not high-tech skills but rather, as the poet said, the small, often unremembered, acts of kindness.

Which is why I was so proud of the Distinguished Service Medal the Deltans bestowed upon me. After the war they fought with the Critterrans, they didn’t have a lot of time for thanks, so the ceremony didn’t take long. The Deltan vice president, an older man — there is no Genrich technology on their planet — awarded me the green ribbon with the gold star. His aged hands trembled slightly as he placed the medal around my neck. He shook my hand and almost cried as he thanked me for helping to save his planet and his people. I was touched. My friends, Commander Rembrante Cleed and Lt. Jade O’Malley, also received the DSM. They’re military professionals, while I’m in a private force and usually work for cash.

Unlike their enemies, the Deltans are a benevolent race who know and appreciate the concept of honor. Which is another reason I was so pleased with the medal. When honorable men and women present you with an award, it’s well worth keeping. As I said, it’s nice to have something worth fighting for.

Which is why I couldn’t turn Belen down when she asked me for help.

The mountain winds howled like a drunken banshee and plunked high-powered snow bullet into the windshield. The heat evaporated the snow, only to have a second volley slam the plastic glass. I looked out the window and wondered why Belen desired a mountain home. An ice mountain home.

The transport hummed quietly as it rolled along in the snow. Some people are uncomfortable with driverless vehicles, but they don’t cause me any anxiety. The computer handled the wet, twisting roads like a NASCAR driver. The swirling storm had stripped the leaves from most of the trees. They held up their bare snow-covered branches to the sky, as if to surrender.

Belen and I shared a friendly yet turbulent past, and I wondered why she wanted to see me. I assumed it had something to do with my profession as a soldier-of-fortune. She did have a fortune. A considerable one. Inherited some of it, and built up the rest with talent, genius and hard work, 15-hour-a-day ambition. But she always held her cards close to her chest. She had a penchant for secrecy that annoyed me at times. But when you have built several successful corporations, you probably develop a few annoying tics along the way.

When the car reached the house, the covered driveway zoomed out to meet us. It attached itself to the car door, so that I was protected from the snow and sleet. For a man who has dodged bullets and lasers, I found the architectural convenience a bit amusing.

The door scanner pricked my thumb. It was painless, and cheap for that matter. It would run all the chem and bio tests, but I wouldn’t be billed. The green letters on a black background screen asked, ARE YOU:

(1) Synthetic

(2) An AI

(3) Android

(4) Nano-Mutant

(5) Bio-Artificial

(6) Human

There were a few other classifications after human. Looking at the list I became slightly depressed. The last time I saw such a checklist, humans were listed fourth. The species must be dropping in prestige.

“Genrich human,” I said.

The security computer had a drab, husky voice. “Name?”

“Logan Ryvenbark. I’m expected.”

“Your gun, sir.”

“What about it?”

“Would you please deposit it on the tray?”

“No.”

A silence followed. Perhaps the computer was baffled.

“Then, sir, I cannot let you in,” it finally said.

“Fine,” I said.

I turned around, then heard the feminine voice override.

“Open the door, Norman. Mr. Ryvenbark doesn’t even like to shower without his weapon. This one time we shall indulge him.”

The computer whined and the door clicked open. The house was a two- story spacious dwelling just this side of being a mansion. I walked across the palatial front room and climbed the stairs. A robot servant escorted me to a second floor office.

Belen Morganthal rose behind the large ornate desk and walked toward me. She was tall, almost six feet, and was wearing an elegant black pants suit trimmed with gold. The sparkling brown hair fell across her shoulders. I always thought her voice held something of a military bearing. As she greeted me, I kissed her cheek.

“Thank you for coming, Logan.”

I nodded.

“Please sit down.”

Must be important, I thought. Belen did not usually say “please”. Usually she just issued orders and people obeyed. I eased down into a well-cushioned green chair and crossed my legs. It was a large room with a high ceiling. Deep carpet. The robot bodyguard, white with black trim, stood silent a few feet behind her desk. He could have been a statue except for the menacing aura around him, as palpable as the scent of death on a battlefield. The high, arched windows were not covered with drapes, so you could see the snow-covered mountains. A few evergreens stood a defiant dark green against the white background.

“Good to see you again, Belen. Why did you want to talk to me?”

I admired her brown eyes. Belen had beautiful brown eyes. They sparkled and could hypnotize you. They had a laser intensity that could melt steel. When she made up her mind about an issue, it was impossible to change it.

Her steel gaze focused on me. “I am putting together an expedition to Sandeling and I would like it to be led by you.”

“Why me?”

She eased her hips on the edge of the black walnut desk and crossed her arms. “We have a long and rather complicated history, Logan.”

“Long, complicated, enjoyable.”

She nodded. “We had many good times.”

“Yes.”

“You are one of the very few people I would trust to accomplish this mission.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 2

I was standing outside at the entrance to our base on Sandeling. But there was nothing to see on Sandeling. It’s an ice world. Ten feet of snow, a dark sky, icy winds and swirling snow was all there was in view. Minus 80 on this piece of miserable frozen real estate. And this was one of our better days. It was 150 below at the poles, and the winds howled even fiercer there. Or so I had been told — I wasn’t going to check it out myself.

I had the blue thermal suit on and continually gave a cheer for science. The thin blue coating over my skin allowed me to stay at 75 degrees. Even so, I still wore the beige Arctic winter coat. It was almost impossible to tear or rip a thermal suit, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Even with the suit, I didn’t dare breathe. The cold air would frost my lungs. The medical nanos gave us some protection but, no matter how good the nanos, it wasn’t wise to breathe minus 80 degree air without a mask. I sighed. I looked around and saw nothing but blue ice and white snow.

The squad was grumbling and I didn’t blame them. We were a military unit. The men and women were used to action. They didn’t like doing nothing on a barren world with no idea about what our mission was.

The problem was I couldn’t tell them much. I heard the whiff of air as the entrance opened. Astrid was standing there in her Arctic suit.

“The squad is assembled, major.”

“Thanks. I wish I had something solid to tell them.”

The door closed behind me. I peeled back my hood. So did Astrid. She hummed a tune and smiled. She was the only one of Ryvenbark’s Raiders who felt like humming. Astrid has a pleasant personality and an optimistic nature. When I’d married her, I’d told her we might have been called on to go to the most unlikely, dangerous and miserable places.

“As long as you’re with me, I’m happy,” she’d replied.

This planet was testing that mental fortitude.

At one time this planet had an advanced civilization. The corridors and technology of the underground passages were impressive. Nobody knows what happened to the race. They must have been humanoids. The accommodations we had found fit a two-armed, two-legged species. But they didn’t leave much information about their race or what caused the permanent Arctic freeze of their world. We had a few basics we’d been able to decipher and not much more. We were in the middle of a continent in the northern hemisphere of this world. But the southern continents were not much better. Ice, snow, wind and nothing else. The North Pole conditions are everywhere on this planet.

There were huge caverns below the surface that could accommodate, by our best guess, several million people; but there was no sign of life. Nothing below surface and certainly nothing above it.

The two dozen members of my squad were assembling in a meeting room. They stood when I came in and walked to the podium. I waved hello and told them to sit down.

“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t like to repeat the obvious, but I will this once. We have been on the delightful frozen paradise for two weeks and, as you have noticed, nothing has happened. I know most of you are wondering why we’re here.”

“Practicing for the Winter Olympics, major?” came a voice.

The line brought laughter from the crowd.

“The fact is, I don’t know why we’re here. As you know, we work for Belen Morganthal, who has a string of companies and contacts with the highest officials of the Federation. Ms. Morganthal has done favors for the Federation from time to time. I have a hunch this is a favor. But they did not tell her why they wanted an expedition to this planet. Knowing the Federation, it’s possible this is some type of huge mistake. But I was ordered to come here for an indeterminate amount of time, with the maximum stay at three months. That’s why I asked for volunteers. This is one of the few times we simply do not know what our mission actually is. Apparently, we are going to be up against boredom.”

Some laughter came from the crowd, with a few anguished groans too.

“However, I do know this. For the Federation this is a very important mission. The reason I know that is we are expensive. We don’t come cheap.”

More laughter came from the crowd.

“So, even if you do nothing, you are being paid union wages, high union wages. Of course sometimes governments, since they’re spending other people’s money, can invest in boondoggles. Perhaps they have with this mission.

“But beyond that, I know as much as you did. We will keep exploring and gathering scientific information. If nothing happens, we will return to base in three months, if not before. Meanwhile, we can organize baseball teams or something,” I said.

Lieutenant Blackjack Curry raised his hand. When I recognized him, he stood up. Blackjack got his nickname for being an excellent blackjack player. He was good in poker and roulette too. He could have made a career of professional gambling, but he liked adventure.

“Excuse me, sir. From what I understand, Ms. Morganthal is a very intelligent woman. Cunning too. And shrewd. But she gave no indication of what this mission was about? None whatsoever?”

“None whatsoever. If she knew, I think she would have told me. We’re friends, and our friendship goes back a long way. Whatever the Federation wanted checked out here, they held it close to their chests.”

“Probably nothing,” Blackjack said. “When could the Federation ever keep a secret?”

“Once in a while,” I responded. “That’s all I have to say. Wish it was better news. However, I was advised the hologram is up so you can amuse yourselves by watching the greatest baseball games in history.”

“Or watching Lt. Alvarez take a shower.”

The whole squad laughed, including Lt. Carli Alvarez, a tall, strikingly beautiful brunette. She looked back toward the soldier who made the comment.

“In your dreams, Ritter. The hologram doesn’t have me in its settings.”

“Great. Frozen world and defective equipment,” Ritter said.

After a few more grumbles, the squad broke up. I was glad our supplies included ample amounts of liquor. Kayli Neugen, our Cajun Asian astrophysicist, walked up and saluted. We were a military unit but tended to be flexible about a great many things. If Kayli saluted, it was an indication that she wanted a serious talk. I saluted back.

“Can we go topside, sir? I’d like to discuss a few things with you.”

“Would the cold, barren nothingness facilitate our conversation?”

She merely grabbed her Arctic orange coat and put it on. Roughly translated, that meant yes. I put on my Arctic coat, my goggles and followed her.

The surface of the world hadn’t change much. Except maybe the wind howled even louder than it had previously. Tons of snow and ice still stretched as far as the eye could see. Towers, perhaps five feet tall, of blue ice dotted the landscape. With the howling breezes, I didn’t want to know what the windchill factor was. Even in my thermal suit, I could feel the chill.

“Logan, this is not normal,” she said.

“Of course it’s not normal. Most livable planets have items such as trees and grass and oceans and temperatures that range from 30 to 90 degrees on most days. Most planets have polar regions only in the polar regions,” I said. “This is one vast North Pole.”

“It was not always like this. We know that. At one time this planet had an atmosphere very much like Earth.”

“A million years in the past Earth looked different too.”

“That’s the problem. When we first arrived I thought some terrible event had happened a long time ago and scarred the planet. Until then, the planet was a paradise. Or if not a paradise, the weather was a lot better than this.”

“So, what happened?”

Kayli shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m an astrophysicist. I’m not a meteorologist. Perhaps we should have brought some climate specialists along on the mission.”

“None of those guys or girls volunteered.”

“Belen could have persuaded one. She has a way of twisting your arm, but in such a nice way you don’t know you’re being pressured.” She crossed her arms. “Anyway, something changed here and something cataclysmic happened. And it’s still happening. You have noticed this planet is the fourth from the sun in the solar system?”

“For what it’s worth, yes,” I said.

“It’s only about half a million miles farther from this sun as Earth is from our sun. Just a half million miles.”

I was getting cold and grouchy.

“Cajun, I’m getting tired of this world and we’ve only been here two weeks. So please, remember that I have great respect and affection for you when I ask, ‘So what?’ Are we charting out a trip?”

She chuckled, and the chuckles continued until her whole body shook.

“How does Astrid put up with you?”

“I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that many times and have never arrived at a satisfactory answer. I merely attribute it to the grace of God.”

“Well, I reciprocate the respect and affection and, for that reason, I won’t smack you.”

“Thanks. Besides, you’re not supposed to smack your commanding officer. He’s really a very nice guy.”

“The reason why the mileage is important is because the sun should be melting this ice and snow. In terms of what we know about the laws of physics, this planet should be like Earth in terms of climate. There should be two poles, one on the north and one on the South, with most of the rest of the planet having moderate temperatures. This planet is contrary to all the laws of physics we know. That’s why it makes me very, very uneasy. I like the laws of physics and astrophysics. I am comfortable with them. With physical laws, you know what will happen. You can predict outcomes based on those never-changing laws. But this planet changes everything.” She pointed down toward the ice we were standing on. “The ice and snow should be melting. According to my calculations, this should be summer on this planet and the temperature should be about 85.”

“Could your calculations be off by about a hundred fifty-five degrees?”

“No. It looks like an ice age has hit here. The Earth has experienced ice ages, but there was always a scientific reason for it and there was scientific reason why the ice melted and faded away. I see no scientific reason for what is happening on this planet. Or not happening. Something is stopping the sunlight from hitting this planet, or deflecting it, or something. The temperature is 70 below when it should be 85 above.”

I thought for a moment. “That doesn’t make me feel any better,” I sighed. “That is… disturbing.”

“Darn right.”

“But I fail to see how it affects our mission. Of course, I admit that I’m still not sure what our mission is.”

“If the Federation is behind this — and I’m guessing it is — the team to send to this planet would be a shipload of scientists. This is a scientific puzzle of the highest magnitude. So why didn’t they? Send scientists, that is.”

I shrugged, although I thought I knew the answer.

“Shall I answer my own question?”

“Sure, Cajun. Go ahead.”

She turned and looked directly at me. “They didn’t send scientists because it would have been too dangerous for them. So they sent us.”

Yes. Guess so.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 3

We stood silently and looked out into the blue ice surface. Flakes of snow flew by and smacked our Arctic jackets and our faces. With my gloved hands I wiped my Arctic mask.

“There’s one more thing,” Cajun said.

“Oh, shucks! There’s always one more thing, isn’t there?”

“Sometimes it seems that way. When I arrived and started investigating, I assumed the cataclysmic event that caused the ice age happened hundreds of years ago. Now I’m changing my mind. Logan, I don’t think that event occurred hundreds of years ago. Or even a year ago. Whatever did this, it was done relatively recently. Two months. Maybe a month ago.”

I frowned. I looked around, but there was nothing to see.

“Cajun, my respected colleague. Even with my limited knowledge of advanced science, I know that’s impossible. If this planet was like Earth in terms of climate and weather, it could not have turned into frozen barrenness in just a few months.”

“What if it did?”

“I know you’re in contact with scientists on the Intrepid and they’ve been running calculations. So what could possibly explain such a thing?”

“I don’t know and neither do they. But I think it’s logical to believe that what occurred here was not a natural phenomenon. As I said, this is contrary to all physical laws.”

I groaned again. “I think I know your destination, but I don’t like where you’re going. Care to take a detour?”

“This is a wild guess, but I think we will find the inhabitants of this planet and their civilization below the ten miles of ice.”

“Tell me they destroyed themselves. Tell me they were trying some incredible experiment with the weather and it backfired and annihilated the planet. Please don’t tell me what I think you’re going to say.”

“No, the inhabitants here did not destroy themselves. This was an attack. An attack that somehow wiped out the planet’s surface and caused an ice age to envelop this world. An attack that stopped the very rays of the sun from hitting the crust. An attack that we can hardly imagine, much less understand.”

“You’re full of good news today.” I crossed my arms and leaned back against the entrance door. “So some aliens attacked Sandeling and wiped out the population and the planet for that matter. The questions is: where are they now? Our sensors didn’t pick up any life here. Not just human life. No birds, no fish, no insects. No nothing. So the aliens can’t be here. Why did they attack? What’s the benefit in freezing an entire world? Why would they do that?”

“I have no idea, but it was done. And if the inhabitants of this planet had enemies, the chances are the Federation has new enemies.”

The entrance door opened and Blackjack Curry stuck his head out. “Major, you better come look at this.”

“An afternoon matinee?” I said.

“Not quite.”

We rode the elevator in silence. Cajun’s theory of a recent attack at least accounted for all the functioning machinery and the lack of dust in the underground corridors. The temperature underground was pleasant, and the lighting and ventilation systems still perfectly working. It looked like somebody had left home in a hurry, forgetting to turn off the lights. I followed Blackjack as he walked through the winding tunnels. He stopped when he stood at the front of a vast cavern. It must have stretched for three miles. The rock walls were pulsating and flashing with colors. An odd hum came from the walls. For a second the room seemed to jolt, as if hit by an earthquake.

“What’s happening?” I said.

“Have no idea,” Cajun said.

“Blackjack, get me Dr. Fincus. He’s over in the science section.”

“Yes, sir.”

The bright red color faded and the walls flashed burgundy instead. The humming waxed and waned. I blinked. For a minute the walls seemed to be fluid, as if they were made of elastic. They expanded and then constricted. The colors changed into a dark blue.

“Oddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Can this be a natural occurrence?” I said.

“I’d put the odds on that at about ninety-nine percent against.”

I clicked on my mic. “Headquarters, this is Ryvenbark.”

“Yes, sir. This is Ryan.”

“Mr. Ryan, is there anything showing on our scanners? Is there anything showing on anything?”

His reply was immediate. “No. Everything looks calm here. I’m in contact with the ship too. Their scanners are registering nothing.”

The noise had transformed to a low hum accompanied by purple flashes from the wall. The voice came from behind me.

“You wanted to see me, major?”

I looked around and spied Fincus, head of our science section. His nickname was Panther because he enjoyed wide, open spaces. I don’t know where he picked up the name, but it had stuck. He was six-three with a thin build and a face akin to dark mahogany.

“Yes. I want you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t know. This is not the only section that’s lighting up and humming. We have another one on the fifth level. Same thing. Walls are flexing and singing,” he said. “It’s strange.”

Cajun’s hand grabbed my arm when a dark figure appeared. It was only a shadow, but looked human. Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. But like a shadow, it blinked away. It popped up a second time and then faded. About ten yards beyond the original figure, a second shadow appeared, but only for about three seconds. Then disappeared. A third shadow appeared about ten yards to the right of the second, but it too dissipated.

The hum gradually lowered into nothingness. All the shadows vanished. The colors stopped flashing.

“Guess the show is over,” I said.

I turned to Cajun and the Panther. “I want some answers. So why don’t you two get busy and find me some? I want to know what has just happened.”

Three minutes later I was at our small command headquarters and told Mr. Ryan to patch me into our communications system. For all our advanced technology, the system sputtered and coughed before Ryan gave me the thumbs up to speak.

“This is Major Ryvenbark. We are now on full alert. You will consider this a battlezone. I want every soldier armed while on duty. We are seeing some strange things occur and I want to make sure those strange things do not become deadly things. Report anything suspicious to Sgt. Rabelais. That is all.” I turned to Ryan. “Can we get in touch with the Federation from here?”

He shook his head. “Not with this primitive communication system.”

“Then patch me into the ship.”

Two seconds later Captain Ian Liddle popped up on a screen. He saluted. Which I thought was a nice gesture, but unnecessary.

“Captain, dispatch a shuttle ship if you would. While I’m on the way up, get in touch with the Federation. I want to talk to them.”

The screen went blank. Sgt. Rabelais wore his ragtag grin when he walked up.

Ian Rabelais Stone was a veteran of too many campaigns to mention. And a very good friend. I had never met a tougher, or more intelligent soldier. On more than a dozen planets, many enemies of mankind died because Rab had shot or knifed them. He had a closetful of medals and deserved every one of them.

“I heard about the singing walls,” he said.

“Humming walls is more like it. Keep things in order until I get back. This shouldn’t take long.”

“Think the Federation knows something it isn’t telling?”

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be the first time. When you’re a bureaucrat and sit behind a desk, there are two great errors you can make. One is you’re sloppy and incompetent and let secrets slip. The other is you guard them too closely and don’t reveal what you should. Few deskmen can walk down the middle of that road. Of course there is another possibility. Perhaps our friends in the Federation just don’t know anything. It wouldn’t be the first time for that either.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 4

An hour later I was sitting in an officer’s chair with Captain Liddle beside me and stared into a screen which held wriggly white and black lines. But at least it didn’t hum. Finally, it cleared up and I was surprised at the face on the screen. Danton A. Anson, vice president of the Federation, was looking back at me. A distinguished man, he had short white hair and a white goatee. Astonishing clarity in the blue eyes. He had a reputation for honesty and, for once, the reputation was correct. Anson did not play fast and loose with the truth.

“Major Ryvenbark. I’ve heard of you. It’s good to meet you, so to speak.”

“Good to meet you, Mr. Vice President. I assume you know where I am and what our mission is.”

“Your mission is to scout the planet Sandeling and gather information about the planet and what may have happened to it.”

“Yes, we had a couple of odd events occur on the planet. Well, not really on the planet; about three miles below the planet’s surface to be exact. We proceeded on this mission with very little information and I was wondering if the Federation knew a little more than it let on. I want to know what I’m dealing with.”

“So do we, major, and that’s why you’re there. The solar system you’re in is out of the way but it’s not exactly remote. We have satellites, listening devices and telescopes in that area of space. We haven’t had a chance to explore it yet, but there are indications there was a civilization on Sandeling. Obviously, the planet had a livable atmosphere. We could even say it was a pleasant location. Then one day…” He snapped his fingers. “Nothing. Civilization disappeared. And the planet became one vast ice cube. Naturally, we were curious.”

“Naturally.”

“The Federation doesn’t have a great deal of information about Sandeling. There didn’t seem to be many building on the surface. Most of the inhabitants may have lived underground for some reason. There were no sign of large cities. But we believe there was a civilization there. That’s the extent of our knowledge, or the extent of our guesswork.”

“But you sent us, or rather you asked Belen to send us, not a science team.”

He nodded. “Yes, we did, major. We are on friendly terms with Ms. Morganthal. She has often helped us and we have occasionally done her a favor. We thought the incredible anomalies on Sandeling might be an alien attack. If so, then a scientific team couldn’t deal with it.” He smiled. “That’s why we sent our best men: Logan Ryvenbark and his Raiders.”

I don’t think I smiled back. Lips may have twitched thought.

“At my age, Mr. Vice President, I am immune to flattery, but I will tell my Raiders that you think highly of them.”

“Yes, we do. Our information was tentative, so we decided it might be best to simply tell you and your squad to keep alert and aware. We don’t know what we’re dealing with. Could be important. Could be nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. What could change the planet’s atmosphere that drastically and that quickly? And why isn’t the sun melting the ice?”

“Very good questions, major. I hope you will help us answer them.”

“So you would not know anything about flexible walls and the humming colors?”

He gave me a blank look. “I have no idea of what you’re talking about.”

I sighed. I don’t like dealing with bureaucrats, even if they are honest. Yes, technically, Vice President Anson wasn’t a bureaucrat but…

“OK, Mr. Vice President. Knowing the odds now I will not pull my squad out but I want a couple of Federation ships here, just in case. I don’t know what I’m dealing with and I want some firepower behind me.”

“I understand. The ships will be sent.”

“I don’t want any conflicts or bureaucratic turf battles either. I want command.”

He took a bit longer to reply, but finally he nodded his head. “I will agree to that, with the usual exceptions. Safety of the ship and crew, things like that. The captain will have authority to refuse your orders if he thinks the command is reckless or dangerous.”

I nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll be looking for the ships. Is the Valiant available?”

“I believe so.”

“I know the captain, Ramsey MacDonald. He’s a good man and a man I trust.”

“If the Valiant is available it will be one of the ships we send.”

“Thank you. Have a good day, Mr. Vice President.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 5

When the shuttle settled down on the ice just ten yards from the entrance, it was still cold on Sandeling. Nothing had changed on the landscape. The ice structures looked like daggers stabbing the cold heart of the planet. The howl of the wind had changed into a more subdued sound, almost like a song, but a song you might hear at a funeral. I put on my goggles and thanked the shuttle pilot.

“Any time, major,” he said. “I won’t take off until you’re safely inside.”

Lt. Alvarez met me when the door slid open.

“Status is unchanged, major. We’ve had one more wall wailing since you left. Nothing more.”

“Get the multi-color treatment too?”

“Yes. But nothing ominous,” she said.

“Good. I hope that continues. I really like that phrase. But nothing ominous.”

I joined Cajun and the Panther as they stood in a doorway to a cavern. The walls stood solid and didn’t move. A hum resonated in the chamber, but it diminished until you could hardly hear it. The color of the hour was a light purple, but it faded as I watched it.

“Figure out what this is?” I said.

“Not conclusively, major,” Panther said. “I can give you a guess, but only a guess.”

“Better than nothing.”

He walked into the chamber and tapped the rocky wall. “This is not rock as we know it. It’s a material but, as you noticed, it’s flexible. It’s meant to be a camouflage, disguising this chamber. Hidden behind these walls there are, I suspect, extremely sophisticated Artificial Intelligence machines that are doing their job.”

“And what exactly is the job of the AIs?”

“I’m not sure. The sounds, the movements you see is the machine trying to accomplish something, but I’m not sure what. The AIs certainly know.”

“If they are AIs, could we communicate with them?”

“We might be able to. I’m working on that. I have a tentative theory about this planet.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“The inhabitants here were very advanced, possibly even more advanced in science than we are and they knew they were facing a great danger. They had at least some time to react. And this…” He swept his hand around to indicate the caverns and tunnels. “…is part of their defense. Maybe somehow their escape route.”

“If it’s an escape route, where did they go? Another ten miles into the planet?”

“Possibly.”

“If they were as advanced as we are, did they have space ships? Or transport ships that could take them to other planets?”

“Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s the answer. I think the answer lies here, with these machines.”

“When you figure it out, let me be the first to know.”

“We have one bit of information for you, major,” Cajun said. “These tunnels and caverns are underneath the entire planet, from pole to pole. Apparently they’ve been here for some time.”

I took a last look at the cavern. “I suppose we just have to wait and see what the AIs are up to. Keep working on that communication thing.”

“I will,” Panther said.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 6

One of the drawbacks of being a commanding officer, even in an elite military unit, is there is a great deal of paperwork, or computer work. I had asked the few scientific personnel we had to send me e-mail reports of any information gained about the planet. Rarely have I given an order that was so rapidly obeyed. We had set up our computer communications quickly so there were still a few bugs in our system. I had to read fuzzy white letters on a puke green screen. At times the screen faded into an even uglier puke green and covered the letters. I had to wait about a minute for the screen to refocus.

The most interesting fact covered in the report was that the air in Sandeling had a toxin in it — a most peculiar toxin. Scientists could not readily identify it. At one time it might have been deadly to humans, but somehow it had been modified. ‘Although it remained dangerous, at least to other life forms, it wasn’t toxic to humans,’ Panther wrote. He couldn’t explain how it had been modified. But he said the substance wasn’t natural. Either the inhabitants of Sandeling had created it – although that was doubtful since it would have killed them upon being released – or aliens created it.

I looked up when I heard the loud humming. I ran down the corridor. Blue lights flashed from a doorway. Cajun and the Panther were standing just inside. The walls flexed and the lights became an even more intense blue. A shadow appeared, then blinked away. I frowned. It looked like the same old show.

Then a shadow changed and became a human figure. He wore a bronze one-piece outfit. The blue flashes gave his face a weird glow. But the figure didn’t have any substance yet. Akin to a hologram. Bits and pieces of him disappeared, then popped again into view. When the face solidified, he looked human. Except the skin was reddish. For a moment he became solid. He raised his armed and waved.

Then vanished.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I’m guessing he’s one of the inhabitants of the planet.”

“Where is he coming from? From another location on the planet? From space? From a ship?”

Panther shrugged.

I pointed to the cavern before us. “How many of these structures are underneath the earth?”

“So many we haven’t bothered to count them, major,” Cajun said.

I flicked my mic on and called Rab.

“Yes sir.”

“I want a man or woman standing guard on every cavern in the area. I also want reports on any unusual events, say like a humanoid popping up and then disappearing again.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 7

Three hours later I had seven sightings of “unusual” occurrences in the caverns. Although in three of the sightings only a shadow of a man appeared — a dark form with arms and legs, but too fuzzy to reveal any features. He or she had little substance at all. Just a shadow falling across the hard ground. In two of the sightings the shadow, very briefly, solidified and looked — at least for about three seconds — like a man. Or, as might be the case, an inhabitant of Sandeling. In the other two sightings the object that briefly appeared didn’t look human. It didn’t look like anything. Just a dark blob.

The technicians on the squad who were studying the phenomenon said that if I wanted definitive conclusions within a few hours’ time I was being impatient and unrealistic. It might take days, weeks, months or even years to determine what was going on.

I was reminded that there are some alien artifacts on other worlds that humans have studied for decades without coming to a conclusion on what they were made for or what function they perform. Which was true, but didn’t help the current situation.

The Panther said his theory was somebody – he assumed the native population of Sandeling – was trying to communicate with us. Although where the native population was located remained a mystery. We had scanned and rescanned the planet and our computers told us there was no life on the ice – besides Ryvenbark’s Raiders. The Intrepid had scanned the solar system and assured me there was no other life form on the six planets circling the sun. There were also no friendly or alien space ships nearby. However, Capt. Liddel said the Federation had dispatched two ships that should arrive within three days.

So where was the Sandeling population?

The Eisenhower and the Valiant carried loads of scientists who would tackle the problem once they arrived. The Federation’s view was we had pacified the planet, so it was now safe for the scientific community. I wasn’t so sure. I had requested two dozen backup security people from the Intrepid and Captain Liddel had agreed.

I had just stuck a cigar in my mouth when Rab came in and saluted.

“Any news?” I asked.

“No, sir. Everything is quiet. We have every cavern in the region staked out. Right now we’re seeing a few flashing lights and nothing else. Every soldier is on red alert.”

“Good.” I sighed. “I’m from the South. I don’t like icy climates. No native of Florida should be surrounded by ice.”

I walked to my desk and pulled open a drawer.

“Want a drink?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

I pulled a bottle of Ancient Age from the drawer, then grabbed two glasses and set them on my desk. I poured until both glasses were half-full. Rab grabbed one and swallowed half the bourbon.

“At times I wonder why I picked this profession,” I said.

“Maybe it’s the great pension plan.”

“But on the plus side, I met Astrid, so I don’t regret it. But it does get frustrating at times.”

Rab had eased down into a chair. “You know we’ve been in freezing climates and have fought in temperatures over a hundred degree. Been in forests and been in deserts. Do you realize we’ve never been sent to an island with tropical temperatures and bathing beauties?”

“Which Astrid would say is a very good thing.”

Rab drank the rest of his drink. “Waiting is always tough.”

“Yes, it’s preferable to be shooting somebody. At least that’s not boring.”

“And we’re very good at it. We have to be or we’d be dead.”

“But I’m sure they would have given us a good eulogy.”

“Yes, I want dozens of women crying at my funeral. I think that would be a nice send-off.”

“I would say I only want one at mine, but Astrid has informed me she has to die first. She doesn’t want to be here without me, which I think is rather sweet.”

“I have two ex-wives who said they’d much prefer to be without me,” Rab said.

I sipped some of the bourbon. “You think we could ever adjust to what is called a ‘normal’ life?”

“No.”

“Well, it might take a little practice, but we might be able to slide into it.”

Rab shook his head. “We’re used to living close to the edge. But that’s only one aspect of our lives. We’re used to achieving difficult goals and we’re used to doing jobs that are important. Often we achieve great things. Could you lay that down and open a business? Could you sit around and collect coins?”

“I might be able to sit around and play golf a couple of times a week. I consider making a sub-par round to be greatness.”

“Whenever you tried that Logan, it didn’t work out.”

“Not yet. That doesn’t mean it never will.”

“True. Age changes us. Marriage changes us. The job changes us. I don’t think I could ever retire, at least not right now, but maybe you could. Besides, we like challenges. Some men run away from challenges. We run toward them.”

I sipped more of the liquor. “Perhaps. But that tendency does cut down on the life expectancy.”

Rab raised his glass. “But when we go, we haven’t led lives of quiet desperation.”

“Yes, we’ve led lives of frantic, hectic desperation.”

“And achievement.”

Before I answered Rab, I answered a call.

“Yes, this is Ryvenbark.”

“Major, this is Riley, third level. We have one. A man appeared in one of the caverns. But he’s in bad shape. He’s unconscious.”

“Get him to our medical room. Hurry!” I said.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 8

In his medical cot, the unconscious man looked human, with the exception of skin the color of bronze. He had a skintight uniform that was also bronze. The green lines on the medical screen showed he was in good shape. Temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, etc, were fine. Brain activity, even though he was unconscious, was surprisingly strong. He had suffered a minor concussion and lacerations appeared on his forehead and cheek, with blood leaking onto his face. The laceration cleared up quickly. I suspected he had medical nanos or something very much like that.

Dr. Conroy Manning was standing next to the bed looking up at the green numbers and lines.

“I have no medical experience, but I’m guessing the numbers indicate he will be fine,” I said.

“He should be. He suffered some type of trauma trying to get here. But he’s breathing normally and should awake soon. He got a minor bump on the head, but nothing that should cause long-term injury. I don’t know where he came from, but it looks like he had a rough journey.”

“That’s what I want to know; where he came from, and if there are any others like him.”

“Give him a little time and he can answer your questions.”

I nodded.

Gunfire rattled through the chambers. The burst-burst of laser fire.

“MacLean here so. Intruder dead. Level three. Reptilian creature, with a weapon.”

“Getting to be popular location,” I said to Rab as we ran out.

Soldier Scotty MacLean was a six-foot three blond who looked like an Olympic gymnast even with the Arctic jacket on. He stood alert over the fallen intruder but gave a snappy salute as we walked. My reply wasn’t quite as snappy, but it was a salute. MacLean looked down at the dead creature.

“About three minutes ago the lights flashed and the walls rippled. Loud humming from somewhere. A shadow first and then this thing popped up. He was holding a weapon and aimed it at me. But I shot before he did.”

The thing before me had a face like a mutated lizard. Large eyes, big nose, teeth like a shark. Dark green in coloration. He had hands, but the fingers looked like short tentacles. Clothed in a dark uniform. MacLean’s laser blasts had blown two large holes in him, front and back.

“An ugly thing,” Rab said.

“Sure is. Wonder if he came from the same place the other guy did. And he was carrying a weapon.”

“Doesn’t mean much. When we travel to a world we carry weapons, but we’re incredibly nice guys.” He looked down at the green intruder. “Although somehow I don’t think he’s a nice guy. See that mouth?”

“Don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before. How about you, Rab?”

Rab had a cigar in his mouth. He took it out and looked like he was going to reply. Then he frowned. He stuck the cigar back in and walked to the dead creature. He knelt down as he puffed on the cigar. Ashes dropped and fell onto the creature’s face.

“We’ve seen creatures like this before,” he said.

“Where?”

Rab spit out some tobacco. “Ten years ago. On Vanodor. We didn’t get a good look at them because they skedaddled when we arrived fully armed. Most of what we saw were their backsides, but their fronts looked like this. Remember?”

I did.

A decade ago, a mini-league dictator decided to take over Vanodor; a nice, scenic, out-of-the-way world. Name was Conbor, but he liked to attach ‘general’ to his name. A brilliant guy, scientifically speaking. He could have legitimately attached ‘genius’ to his name. But the man lusted for power. The people on Vanodor were peaceful and lived a rustic, pre-technological existence. They didn’t have the firepower he did. He had won the allegiance of a bunch of lizard types who, for some reason, did whatever he wanted them to. Conbor had also assembled a bunch of rogue scientists around him; men who liked power as much as he did.

Rab was right. General Conbor’s lizard friends looked very similar to the creature on the floor. I hadn’t thought of it before. We dispatched them rather quickly so I never got a close view of them. Conbor, somehow, escaped. He was very upset at having his plans disrupted. He promised to kill me at an undisclosed later date.

I looked at MacLean. “Good job, soldier.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“We’ll get two men to drag him to the medical room.” I frowned. “If there’s one of these out there, I’m guessing there may be a whole bunch of lizards somewhere out there too.” I thought for a minute. “I wonder if he was after our bronze guest. He came with a gun and the bronze guy was unarmed.”

“Could be. That’s logical,” Rab said.

I checked with the Panther and Cajun, but they still had no idea where the bronze guy had beamed in from. Which made me uneasy. There are still a great many mysteries in space but, with our technology, we generally get detailed background knowledge about what we’re facing. The fact that two brilliant scientists knew nothing was bothersome.

“I’m going to check all the caverns, on all three levels. Why don’t you come with me, Rab?”

“Always ready for a pleasant walk. But I’ll bring my weapon, just in case.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 9

The pleasant walk took about an hour. After our two visitors arrived, both the humming and the flashing colors calmed down. The cavern’s rock stayed silent and stopped the elastic bending. When I got back to the medical room, the bronze man’s bed was empty.

“He was fine, so I put him in a private room. I thought you might like to talk to him,” Dr. Manning said.

“Yes, I would.”

“Before you do, there’s something I need to tell you.”

I nodded.

The doctor crossed his arms. “His name is Tarum, at least that’s a rough translation of it. Because he appeared to have a minor concussion I did a scan of his brain. What I saw was amazing. I confirmed my suspicions with him when he awoke. When you talk to him, major, he is going to have to speak very slowly because he will have to slow his brain down. He has the most remarkable brain structure I’ve ever seen.”

“So he’s intelligent?” I said.

“Yes, but it’s a great deal more than that. We are genrich. Our genes are perfect. We’re at an IQ level previous generations could only dream about. But that’s not what sets him apart. I…” Manning shook his head. “I’m not sure how I can explain. His brain simply works faster, much faster than ours do.” He gave a sigh of exasperation. “Let me give you an example. Let’s say you and a dozen member of your squad are on a planet, in a forest. Your soldiers are spread out but they are all connected, electronically, with you. You can talk to them individually.”

“OK, let’s say that. Your point is?”

“My point is Tarum could talk to them all individually and simultaneously.”

It took a second before I realized what Dr. Manning was saying.

“How could he do that without twelve mouths?”

“I don’t know, but I’m telling you he has that capacity. I also suspect his race is telepathic. Using his brain, he could ‘talk’ to a dozen people at the same time and not lose a syllable of the conversation. That’s what I meant when I said his brain is amazing.”

“That… is rather impressive.”

“That’s why he has to talk slowly to you. He has to slow his mind down to speak to humans.”

“Akin to us talking to a small child?” I said.

“That is a rough analogy but it is, to a degree, apt.”

When I walked in, Tarum was looking at a computer screen where pages from a history book flashed by. Flashing by at an amazing rate. When I stepped in, he was to about 1750 in human history. A few seconds later he was in the 21st century. He turned his head toward me and smiled.

“You are from an amazing race, major. You have made remarkable achievements in a short period of time.”

“We have a few things to be proud of. And, like I suppose every race, we’ve blown it a few times.”

He turned around in his chair. “I am Tarum. My race is called the Cappnids. That’s a rough translation into your language.”

“Good to meet you. I’m sure your race has many achievements to be proud of too, but right now I have no time and I need to ask you about other things.”

He nodded. “I have something I must tell you.”

“Where did you come from? I mean when you beamed into this place.”

“I came from Sandeling.”

“Where? There is nothing moving or living on this planet.”

“You are correct, major. I came from this planet, but not from this time.”

I leaned back against the door and crossed my arms. “Generally I have pretty good hearing, but could you repeat that one more time?”

“I came from three hundred years in the past, major.” He raised his hand and gestured toward the outside. “This structure you see, the caverns, are one vast machine. A time machine. Which my race had to use to flee the Soltarians or we would have been exterminated.”

“Are the Soltarians a reptilian race with large eyes and a whole lot of big teeth?”

He looked puzzled and shook his head. “No, they are about six-five, huge and furry. I’ve been reading your history. The Soltarians look a bit like Earth’s grizzly bears, but they stand on two feet. Their coloration is between orange and brown. Shorter nose than the grizzly. They do have stubby, hairy fingers, not claws.”

“The Soltarians did this?”

“Yes.”

I stuck another cigar in my mouth and lit it. I was puzzled. The Federation knew very little about the Soltarian race. We didn’t even know where their home planet was. Their communications indicated they desired to be left alone. So the Federation left them alone. Tarum interrupted my thoughts.

“They are a great danger to my race and they are now a tremendous danger to your race. They seek to conquer and destroy. We did not understand that, not at first. We are non-violent people. We knew nothing of what you call war and didn’t want to learn. Some time ago the Soltarians made contact with us and we welcomed them, as we would any race. A few of my race became wary of Soltarians and warned us of what they believed was a savageness in them. We did not listen. As I said, we did not want war.”

“People rarely do. You may not want a war, but if another race decides to make war on you, you have no choice. War only needs the assent of one side. You either fight or die.”

For a moment, the bronze man looked melancholy.

“Most of us died,” he said. “When the Soltarians attacked, we had no weapons of defense.”

“Tarum, with all your intelligence you did not discern their true nature? You didn’t see what they were?”

“We did not want to see. We were blind, but it was self-induced. We had had a thousand years of peace. We didn’t want a war, so we convinced ourselves one was not coming.”

“At times I’ve felt intelligent people can be the stupidest folks in the galaxy. With all due respect, I think you’ve proved that.”

“You may be right. But there is no time to commiserate with my race. You must worry about your own race and the fate of every other race in the galaxy.”

“Care to explain that? In fact, why don’t you tell me, in detail, what happened here after the Soltarians attacked?”

He nodded.

“We are not warlike, but we are scientifically and technologically advanced. The Soltarians didn’t make a military strike, per se, but a biological one. They released a toxin that was deadly to my people, and we began dying. The toxin, though, did not affect the Soltarians. But we managed to mutate the toxin and turned it into an agent that was poisonous to our invaders. They began dying too. But our population had been devastated. The Soltarians, alas, died more slowly than we did. We knew they would train their weapons upon us. So we made our escape, through time.”

“You went back to the past?” I said.

“Yes. We thought we might return after the toxins faded from the atmosphere. But we made one great mistake. The invaders discovered our ploy and they too came through time. They had three ships circling and preparing to bomb the planet. But a number of Soltarians, infected with the toxin but not showing any symptoms yet, had returned to their ships. They infected the crews. In a short time most of them were dying. With no one to run them, the ships began to fall to earth and were destroyed. When the Soltarians on the last ship saw their comrades dead, they destroyed the atmosphere and turned the planet into an ice world, thus assuring we could never return to the present. The remaining Soltarians on the surface of the planet had gone through time to three hundred years in the past, where they are now.”

“So they are imprisoned in the past. That means we don’t have to worry about them.”

He shook his head. “Just the opposite. Thousands of Soltarians escaped into the past. But they took with them robots, weapons and all their knowledge. The Soltarians also bred quickly, very quickly. With the knowledge they took into the past they can rebuild their civilization. In fifty years or less they can be as powerful as you are now. They can make ships and begin their storm of conquest. Can your world of two hundred and fifty years ago stop them?”

I slowly shook my head. “No. Not the Earth of two hundred and fifty years ago.”

“Our mistake will unleash the Soltarians into a galaxy totally unprepared for them.”

“As the British might say, this is a bloody mess,” I said. “OK, one more thing. In one of the caverns, a reptilian creature appeared, in the same manner you did. Do you know where he’s from?”

Tarum shook his head. “No, we fought the Soltarians. Any other creature is a complete surprise to me.”

Then where did the lizard come from?

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 10

I wasn’t quite sure I understood all the ramifications from what Tarum was telling me. To be more blunt, I knew I didn’t understand all the complications. So I buzzed Cajun and said I needed her. A few minutes later she knocked and walked in, smiling the beautiful French-Asian smile. I hated to have to change that smile into a frown…

“Know anything about time?” I asked.

“I know it’s creeping up on me, as it is on all of us.”

I had Tarum repeat his story. Cajun, by the millimetric lifting of her eyebrows and the slight twitch of her lips, appeared more fascinated by his story than annoyed. I was more annoyed.

“Tarum, before this happened, did your race go through time? Have members of your race gone into the past before your planet was invaded?” Cajun asked.

“Yes, a selected few. Historians, scientists, a few writers. No one without a legitimate reason for traveling to the past was allowed to do so. We knew the danger. We had no official police on the planet. We didn’t need any. But we created a special security service to make sure the timeline would not be disrupted. They proved efficient and effective.”

“Tarum, when you left the past to return here, what was the status of your race and the status of the Soltarians?”

“Good question. I should have asked that,” I said.

“What is left of my race is scattered on the planet. There are a few pockets of Cappnids on the southern hemisphere. The Soltarians seemed content to leave us there. As they populate the planet it’s only a matter of time for us. Right now they’re engaged in more important matters than hunting down the last of my race.”

“But if they had taken over the planet and launched into space, our time would be different. Everything would change, which it hasn’t, at least for now.”

“A time paradox that, at the present, I cannot explain. It may be because we have manipulated time we ourselves are, for a while, standing outside the time stream. But I doubt that will last long. We must act quickly.”

Cajun still looked fascinated, but I grew more annoyed. “That ‘we’ is not all-inclusive, Tarum. You mean Ryvenbark’s Raiders must act quickly.”

He nodded. “If you do not want your race and the galaxy as you knew it destroyed, you must return with me to the past and annihilate our enemies. Only then will the past and the future be safe.”

A long silence followed.

It was broken by Cajun.

“I think he’s right, Logan. We need to go back in time and defeat the Soltarians before the timeline can be altered. We don’t know how much time we have, but I’d guess the sooner we go, the better.”

“And how do we return to our time?”

“I can help you with that,” Tarum said. “I can devise a time belt that each of you will wear. I will show you how to work it. It will bring you back to the present time.”

“Come to think of it, we don’t have to go. Couldn’t we just send a vial of the toxin back? Release it in the atmosphere and our problem is solved.”

“Unfortunately, that is not possible. Our scientists released our complete supply of the toxin. There is no more.”

“Well, shucks,” I said.

“You’re saying that a lot lately, major,” Cajun said.

She gave me a playful slap on the shoulder. “You do have a way with words. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Yea.”

She looked at me. “Seriously, major, I suggest we begin packing. We have a long way to go.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 11

Cajun, Tarum and I stood around a computer table. The screen flashed a picture of Sandeling three hundred years ago. Unlike the current frosty mess, the land looked like Kansas. The wheat on Sandeling – or what looked like wheat – stood only about three feet tall, yellow and waving in the wind. Tarum told me it used to grow over most of the planet. Like Kansas, the region we were interested in was mostly flat with one small mountain range.

The only thing with an attitude at all on the flat, yellow land was what might be described as the Sandeling equivalent of a black medieval castle. Three hundred years ago, the Cappnids had a thing for castles. Tarum pointed to it.

“We were always a rural people with no need of large buildings. This structure is the largest for five hundred miles, which is one reason the Soltarians are using it for a headquarters. Their soldiers, to the best of my knowledge, have only guns, but nothing larger. Some have pistols and others have what you call rifles, but they shoot bolts of fire.”

“Lasers,” I said. “How many soldiers are there?”

“My best guess is close to two thousand.”

“I have fifty men. That means the odds are forty to one.”

“But we’re Ryvenbark’s Raiders. We can take forty to one odds,” Cajun said.

“Yes, but the Soltarians have a defensive position. The odds are always with a defensive army in a situation like this. We have no cover. They have a wall in front of them. Which means a frontal assault when they have forty times our number would be foolish and deadly.”

“I see no other way,” Tarum said.

“There is another way. When Gen. Burnside attacked the dug-in Confederates at Fredericksburg there might have been no other way, but there is now.”

“They have scientific and military equipment in the castle. Underneath is one of our portals to our time machine.”

“So it’s the Grand Central Station of the past. Any nearby troops?”

“No. Their closest outpost is about two hundred miles. They have no transportation. If they go anywhere they have to walk. They could not bring any of their vehicles through the time gate.”

“Good. By the time reinforcements come we should be on our way back to the present,” I said. I tapped the map. “Is there any cover around this…? Let’s call it a castle. Any forests, any woods, anything like that?”

Tarum placed his finger off to the west, beyond the map. “About eight miles from the castle there is a forest with dense trees but paths through it. But for eight miles afterward there is open ground.”

“You thinking of an air attack?” Cajun asked.

“I sure am. We have about two dozen drones. We could fill them with explosives and send them in first. Blow the walls of the castle and kill a lot of the enemy. Hopefully, we can decimate their forces and then fly in and pick off the rest. Destroy any equipment or weapons they have and get back to the present before reinforcements can arrive.”

I turned to Tarum. “This is the place where they have stored all their weapons and all their computers?”

“Yes. This is one of the few buildings, at least one of the few buildings in the northern hemisphere that they could use for that purpose. We are rural people. We have houses and some areas that you might call small towns, but nothing of a military nature. In this building they rigged up their power generators so they could use their computers and other equipment. But they knew they needed more than one such place. Other Soltarians are building other castles across the hemisphere.”

“I don’t think we would have to kill them all. They might die off in fifty some years. They would have shelter but no food. We might risk leaving the other settlements alone.”

“Our winter is severe. I have read about your world. In terms of winter, think northern Canada. Our winter will come in one month. The temperature does not bother us, because we can regulate our body temperature. We are secure no matter what the outside temperature is. But the Soltarians, with no supplies or provisions, would probably die during our winter. Even if they don’t, without the technology they have stored in the castle, they would be of no danger.”

“They destroyed the atmosphere in the present. A bit ironic the weather will kill them in the past. We have to make sure the drones hit their target. That’s vital,” I said.

One of General Robert E. Lee’s biggest mistakes was the Gettysburg disaster when he sent Pickett’s men on a charge against the Union flank. The Union troops behind defensive positions cut Pickett’s valiant infantrymen to pieces. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia never recovered from the loss. But Lee was a brilliant general. He took chances — such as splitting his army at Chancellorsville — but they were never reckless chances. His victory at Chancellorsville is still admired today by military leaders. The plan at Gettysburg looked good on paper. He had his artillery pound the Union position before the attack. His idea was to decimate the enemy force and leave them fatally weakened before the unfortunate charge. It was a sound idea, but it wasn’t carried out effectively. Somehow the Confederate gunners estimated wrongly. Most of their fire fell beyond the Union lines hurting no one and certainly not crippling the Union army. When Pickett charged up the hill, the Union forces were at full strength and ready.

So if the drones missed the castle, we would have two thousand enemy soldiers cutting us to pieces. We’d have our jets on as we swooped down. Men and women whizzing by via jets are not easy to shoot. They’re moving too fast. But it’s not all that easy to aim when you’re jetting toward the enemy either. I needed the enemy to be crippled before we started our attack or we’d die on an alien planet and three hundred years from home.

Fortunately I had a better officer than General Lee did.

“Mr. Tyson?”

The reply was immediate. “Yes, sir.”

“I need to see you. Would you join us, please?”

“Be right there, major.”

I buzzed Rab and told him to get the squad ready for action. He said “Good, the guys and girls are tired of sitting around and want some action.”

In two hours, the squad would get their wish.

I saluted Tyson when he walked in. The computer compressed the three hundred-years-old scene. On the west corner of the screen, a green and brown forest stood. I tapped the castle with my finger.

“This is your target. I don’t know what it’s built of or much about the defenses. I want your drones to destroy it or do as much damage as possible before we move in,” I said.

Tyson nodded. He looked incredibly young. Twenty-one maybe. Fresh face. I doubted he even shaved. Blond crew cut. Bright green eyes. Dazzling smile full of confidence. He gave his full attention to the map for about ten seconds, then looked at me.

“No problem, major. No matter what it’s built of. Drones can carry a lot of explosives in a very small space. We should be able to shatter the walls and the main structure. If the enemy has soldiers on the ground, we can wipe out them too.”

“What if the enemy has about two thousand soldiers on the ground?”

He waved his hand as if shooing away a fly. “We drop a cluster bomb and a fire bomb. The fire will spread from one wall to another. It will be one great barbecue. Or drop a neutron bomb. The castle is standing, but dead bodies will be all around. Neutron bomb is less nasty. The enemy simply drops dead.”

“Very good, Mr. Tyson.”

I buzzed Rab again.

“Tell the squad we leave in two hours. In two hours and thirty minutes we rain death on our target.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 12

The squad was dressed smart in their dark blue uniforms. Every soldier snapped to attention and saluted. They all held their silver laser rifle. All had shiny computers bands on their wrists. Goggles atop of their silver helmets. The two dozen security people from the ship wore burgundy uniforms. We provided them with our extra laser rifles. I wasn’t sure how good they would be on the battlefield. No doubt they were brave, but many were inexperienced in the type of battle the Raiders were used to. But once we bounced into the past, we would split into smaller squads, with at least one Raider in each. I didn’t want security people left alone to make mistakes. I stepped up on the small platform.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, I don’t give long speeches.”

“And we appreciate that, sir.”

“I’m sure you want to keep your record intact, sir.”

I frowned. I was possibly the only commander in the Federation who had to put up with sarcasm.

“Yes, I do Ms. Aguiline. So put your mind at ease. This won’t take long.”

Raven Aquiline was six-two, with black, silken hair, blazing blue eyes and great wit. There were no second-rate soldiers in the squad but, even so, she was one of the best. One of the quickest too. Fast as a gazelle. Could turn on a dime.

“If all goes well, we will shortly be beamed three hundred years into the past. We will rendezvous, send our drones to what looks like a medieval castle full of bad guys. Hopefully, the drones will dispatch all, or almost all of them and all we have to do is a quick mop-up operation. Our enemies have almost annihilated the Cappnids. So this trip is all or nothing. We do not take prisoners. Due to necessity we need to kill any Soltarians we see. Understand?”

“Yes, sir!” they said in unison.

“You all have your time belts on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then we shall proceed to one of the caverns. Rab, lead the troop out.”

Rab saluted, turned to the squad and said, “Let’s go and look sharp.”

With Astrid and Tarum beside me, I followed the squad. When we got to the designated cavern, Tarum splayed his fingers on a section of the wall and played piano. The walls dissipated and the cavern turned into a high-tech facility. In the center there was a green circle. Tarum pointed to it.

“That’s where we should stand.”

I nodded. “First, we’re going to try an experiment. Blackjack. Come here.”

Smiling, Blackjack walked to the front. “Yes, sir.”

I looked at Tarum. “I’d like to do a test case first. I’m going to test the time belts. You are going to send Blackjack here into the past. Then he is going to come back — in one piece we trust.”

Tarum gave a baffled stare.

“When you get to your destination Blackjack, I want you to immediately return. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

I lifted the IMI Desert Eagle semi-automatic handgun from my holster and put the barrel a millimeter away from Tarum’s head. The Desert Eagle doesn’t look all much different than most other handguns, but it does have a unique design, with a triangular barrel and large muzzle. Its design is so good only minor modifications have been made to the gun in centuries. You have to appreciate workmanship like that.

“Would you like to change anything in his time belt before you send him? Because if he doesn’t come back, you’ll have real problems and so will your race. Comprende?”

Tarum stood silent for a minute. The grays eyes muddied even more and turned a darker gray. The eyes moistened. I wondered if Cappnids often cried. He was close to it. After another minute he spoke.

“Yes, I would.”

“Then why don’t you do it? Cajun, get up here.”

In a split second she stood by me. I kept the gun pointed at Tarum. “I want you to check and see what he does. In fact, he’s going to give you a quick five-minute course on how to use the time belts. Learning the intricacies of time travel might take a while, but a time belt should be simple enough to use. Then we’re going to test it.” I put the gun barrel against Tarum’s skin. “If you lie to me one more time, I’ll kill you.”

I stepped back and waved the gun.

“Do it,” I said.

Either Tarum was a good teacher or Cajun was a quick learner. Probably the latter. In five minutes she walked back to me and nodded.

“I know how to work them, major.”

“Tarum, I’m guessing all the other belts have to be modified too.”

“Yes.”

“Then first we will send Blackjack into the past. If he comes back, you and I will have a discussion. If he doesn’t come back, we’ll say a brief eulogy for you.”

“Your soldier will return,” Tarum said, in a strong voice.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 13

Blackjack did blink back a minute after he left. All in one piece, thank goodness. He reported it was a fine, sunny day in the past. His landing point was only about ten yards from the forest. He could see the castle in the distance.

I retired with Astrid, Cajun and Tarum to a small room. I sat across from him at a table while Astrid and Cajun pointed their guns at him. I laid my Desert Eagle on the table.

“So was the plan to maroon us in the past, or kill us on the way?” I said.

“It was to maroon you and your squad. The man whose orders I followed wanted to kill you personally and watch you die.”

“He likes the personal touch, does he? Who’s the man who gave the orders?”

“He told me his name was General Conbor. He came with the Soltarians.”

I grunted. Sometimes in life you have to deal with the unexpected.

“I should have tracked him down and killed him long ago. Well, live and learn. I won’t make the same mistake twice. But first things first. Where exactly were you going to beam us to?”

“About thirty miles from the castle there is a valley surrounded by mountains. I was told to beam you to the valley. General Conbor planned to have his armed force on the mountain passes. They would open fire as soon as your squad materialized. You would have no cover, no place to hide. The battle would have been over within a minute… except for you.”

“What did the general have planned for me?”

“If possible, you were not to be harmed. He wanted to kill you personally. A knife fight. One on one.”

I frowned. “If I recall, on Vanodor, Conbor did wear a couple of knifes on his uniform. For a high-tech man, he liked more primitive weapons. The natives said he was skilled with them. When he wanted to execute someone, he or she was tied to a pole and he would toss his knife at them. Rumor was he could hit the heart almost every time.”

“He said he was your sworn enemy and you would die by the knife.”

“To paraphrase Cardinal Richelieu, I have no enemies, the Federation has enemies. Freedom has enemies. But if I had any, he’d be at the top of the list.”

Astrid had her gun pointed at Tarum. She eased it up until the barrel was pointed at the ceiling.

“Why did you do what he ordered? He’s the man who destroyed your race,” she asked him.

“Because the remnants of the Cappnid race are being held prisoner three hundred years in the past. Conbor and the Soltarians did manage to take some of their weapons to the past. They carved out an area in the northern hemisphere, which is where they are now. The ones of my race who survived are being herded into camps, but he said he would not exterminate them if I did what he ordered. He said my ancestors can have half the planet; the southern half. He will build up his forces and, when they take off into space to conquer other planets, they will leave and my race can stay in peace. The Soltarians will leave and not return if we do what he said. And if I deliver Major Ryvenbark to him.”

“And you believed them?” I said.

Tarum shrugged. “We had no choice. Our planet was devastated by their attack. Before we could get to the past, eighty percent of our race died. I wanted to save the rest.”

“How many of the invaders died when you modified the toxin?”

“Many. But I don’t know the numbers. There are thousands in the past, both men and women. But as I told you, they breed fast. In a generation or two they can repopulate the planet. There are also at least three other humans with the general. One is a military man. The other two are scientists. With the robots and the knowledge they have taken into the past, they would be a danger to your race. I said fifty years before, but that might have been a pessimistic prediction. Certainly within a century they will have the capacity that your civilization has today. That will include space travel and powerful weapons. Two hundred years in the past, I don’t think your race would withstand them.”

“I wouldn’t want to take the chance. Is what you told us about the castle true? The Soltarians have their base there, their weapons and their scientific information are stored there?”

He nodded. “They are in no danger from the population. Not three hundred years ago. We had no weapons back then. When they have built other facilities I’m sure they will move some of their equipment, but right now everything is in the castle.”

“Good.”

“What do we do?” Cajun said.

“If there are no other major surprises, we follow our basic plan. Tarum, do you know how many soldiers Conbor took with him to the mountains?”

“Close to a thousand.”

“He certainly wanted the odds on his side.” I looked at Astrid and Cajun. “We travel back to the past, take out the Soltarians at the castle, destroy their weapons and their scientific capabilities and then wait until the soldiers return and destroy the rest of their forces. As for the rest of the scattered Soltarians on the planet, we’ll let the Sandeling winter take care of them. Tarum, there won’t be any more major surprises, will they?”

“No, major.”

“Good, since you were trying to do your best to save your race and because none of my men were killed, I’ll overlook your previous questionable behavior. If you stay honest with us, we should be able to save your race. Any more deceptions and the game is off, understand?”

“Yes.”

As we filed out, I motioned to Blackjack; he walked over and pointed to Tarum, his back toward me.

“Keep your eye on him. I don’t trust him, not a hundred percent anyway.”

“Sure will, major. Don’t worry about a thing.”

We walked to the transporter.

“It’s easier if we split the group into thirds,” Tarum said. “Would your squad like to go first, major?”

“That will be fine.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 14

Fifteen men and women, including Astrid, joined me in the center of the room. When I signaled ready, a low whiz of a noise flowed through the chamber. The world turned black for a moment then we found ourselves in a sunny field. The wind blew some type of Sandeling dust at us; large, puffy grains that floated gracefully through the air. To our right the forest stood. Large brown trunks partially obscured by the dark green of the leaves on the drooping branches. Nothing human or alien moved north or south of us. In the distance I saw the faint black outline of the castle. I waved my arms toward the trees.

“Let’s go.”

The squad ran over and we took positions behind the trees. I didn’t know what type of goggles they had at the castle, but I didn’t want us spotted by the defenders. The cousin of an Earth owl whooed in the distance. A brown, four-legged creature scurried ten yards away from us. A blue bird set on the branches above us and looked down curiously.

Everything else was still. Leaves swirled slightly in the wind. But besides the brown forest dweller nothing else moved on the planet. There was nothing in sight. Which was a good sign.

Tyson focused his long-range binoculars on the castle.

“There’s a lot of Soltarians guarding that wall, sir. But there’s not supposed to be anything on the planet to guard against,” he said.

“That’s true. How many guards are there?” I said.

“Looks to be about two hundred and it’s a really big wall.”

I grabbed a pair of binoculars and aimed them at the castle. The word ‘castle’ did not do it just. The binocular screen revealed it was a mile long and a mile wide. About ten yards thick. Higher towers on each corner. In the two upfront, two ugly-looking Soltarians peered out toward the landscape. I felt a sense of unease. Tarum hadn’t gone into detail about his race’s history, but if the Cappnids had a rural economy and rustic existence, who built this thing? Then again, Europe had something of a rural life in the Middle Ages but it did have a lot of castles, although none to my understanding was as large as this one. Due to the high walls, I couldn’t see much of the insides. I lowered the binoculars.

“Mr. Tyson. That’s a little larger than we were thinking. Can your drones take that out?”

“Think so, sir. The range of a neutron bomb is more than a mile. I don’t think it should be a problem.”

“Can you get a bomb on a drone?”

“Sure, I can. Really big explosives come in small packages nowadays.”

“A neutron bomb can take out humans. Will it do the same to Soltarians?”

“It should, although I can’t give you a hundred percent guarantee. Ninety-five percent, maybe. But we have backups if the neutrons don’t work.”

I glanced toward our landing area.

“Where’s our second squad?”

“Don’t know. They haven’t arrived yet,” Astrid said. She was at my elbow. “Something could have gone wrong.”

“I told Blackjack to keep an eye on Tarum. That guy still worries me.”

“By the way, how did you know he was double-crossing us?”

I shrugged. “There was no moment of revelation. I just had an uneasy feeling about it. Plus, the more I thought about it, the more that lizard guy looked like the aliens we tangled with on Vanodor. Put one and one together and I came up with ‘there’s something fishy about this.’”

“Wow. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.”

I sighed and looked again at the landing area. “They should be here by now.”

“I can go back and check.”

“Not yet. Give them about five more minutes.”

There was silence for four minutes and then Ritter spoke up.

“Major, we may have a problem.” He was looking into his scanner.

“What type of problem?”

“There’s a large force approaching us from the south. Looks like about two thousand soldiers. I’m reading weapons, difficult to say just what type. I’m guessing they’re just normal laser weapons. Also, sir, just on the edge of my scope it appears another force is heading toward us from the east.”

“How many?”

“No definitive readings yet, but I’d say about a thousand.”

“How far away are they?”

“Currently about eight miles.”

“Walking, I hope.” I said.

“Yes, it looks like a convoy on foot,” he answered.

“That gives us some time.”

We could bounce back to the future and save the attack for another time. But we needed to take out the Soltarians as soon as possible. If we bounced back and allowed three hundred years of history to proceed, the planet might be a very different place when we reappeared in the future. It’s a paradox that when playing with time you never know how much time you have. If we left now, what would the future look like?

And if we stayed, we could be pinned against three armies. I needed the second squad. Our drones and other heavy weapons were coming in the second and third time jump.

“Major, the gates of the castle are opening,” Tyson said, as he stared through his binoculars again.

“They’re putting up a welcome sign?”

“No, sir. Soldiers are marching out. Columns of five, looks like.”

“Darn. I didn’t think we sent out invitations.”

“They’re not carrying white flags, so I don’t think they’re going to surrender.”

“Shucks, there goes my first option. I was going to accept the surrender.”

“Better go to your second option, sir.”

I didn’t tell Mr. Tyson that there was no second option. We had one plan – attack the castle. I didn’t expect three armies to be marching toward me with only one-third of my s quad. I wondered if Tarum had been lying again. Or possibly General Conbor had covered all his bases. He was a nasty character, but he was very intelligent.

“Mr. Tyson, can you see what type of weapons they’re carrying?”

He looked through the binoculars again. I was hoping for some good news.

“It doesn’t appear like they have any long guns, major. They do have sidearms, but I can’t tell what type they are. Regular speed. They don’t appear to be in any great hurry.”

No, they wouldn’t. The Raiders had no place to go. Retreat was cut off, plus we couldn’t zoom east. If we headed west, we’d be in an open field with one army in front of us and two behind. We’d be squeezed to death.

I looked up. “And there are no drones in the sky? No air weapons of any type?”

“No, sir.”

“Ritter!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Set up a defensive perimeter. We do have long guns. If they charge up we should be able to take them out before they can reach us.”

I took one look through the binoculars at the Soltarians. They were as ugly as ever. But where did the lizard guy come in? At one time General Conbor had two-legged lizards as his allies. Where did he pick up the Soltarians? Besides, the Soltarians didn’t like any outside contact. How did the general become their leader? Not that the guy didn’t have some basic charisma. He did, as most dictators do. But I doubted human charisma influenced the hairy Soltarians. Something was amiss here…

“What are you thinking? Making this our battleground?” Astrid said.

“Yes, at least we’d have a defensive position. If we have three armies converging I don’t want to fight them on open ground. They would have the advantage. But if we establish a defensive posture we might be able to take out about ninety-eight percent of them while they charge.”

As the Soltarians marched closer, I hoped they knew very little about combat, or at least about the combat they were about to engage in. In this age, armies did not clash by night, or at noon. In the space age, high-tech weapons had ended such fiery engagements. But it appeared there might be some old-fashioned warfare if the three groups kept heading our way. Perhaps their commanders didn’t know the results of a battle when armies charged a well-defended position. World War I generals had learned that lesson. Or at least some of them did. A few stupid ones didn’t. Gen. William Sherman had learned that long before the First World War. He never wanted a one-on-one engagement. He kept maneuvering his army so the Confederates could not dig in. Maybe the Soltarians last ground battles were three hundred years ago and hopefully they had forgotten the lessons of history.

Even without binoculars I could vaguely see the black-clad soldiers marching from the castle.

“Where are our other two squads?” I said.

Rab had the second squad. If something had gone wrong he would have sent one soldier back to inform me of the problem. But no one had appeared.

We stripped ourselves of guns and jetpacks. Three Raiders used their lasers to slice through tree trunks. When the trees fell, it sounded like thunder as the ground shook a few seconds. We sliced off the branches and used the trees as barricades. It would not be a solid fortress, but the wall of trees would be the best we could do in the time we had. We were all sweating after three minutes of the labor. Sweat poured down my face. I began to miss the frozen emptiness of Sandeling, three hundred years in the future. I kept looking toward our landing spot, about twenty yards away, hoping to see the second squad materializing. But nothing.

I checked the scanner. The closest army was still about six miles away and we had some of our barricades up. There would be holes in our defenses, but the wall of trees was not specifically for keeping the enemy out. I hoped no Soltarian soldier would ever get close enough to leap over the wooden wall. I hoped we’d kill them before they got within six feet of the wall. But the wood would deflect their shots.

I didn’t think the general lived up to his name. Perhaps even Conbor, for all his brilliance, didn’t know anything about ancient warfare. But if we didn’t materialize at the valley, we’d have to take a chance. We’d have to hope they only brought sidearms.

We had laser riflers instead. Which meant the Raiders could kill their enemies a long way off. A mile away a Soltarian soldier might be marching swiftly one minute and have a hole blasted into him the next moment. Unlike the Americans dug-in on Bunker Hill during the Revolution, we didn’t have to wait until we saw the whites of their eyes.

If all went well, the Soltarians would represent the Confederates and we would represent the Union on this space version of Gettysburg. But ever since we had landed on Sandeling, things had not gone well.

“Rab, where are you?” I said.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 15

In the cavern three hundred years in the future, Cajun aimed her laser rifle at a seven-foot-tall Soltarian. When she fired, the laser bolt blasted a hole in the hairy combatant. Blood and orange hair flew through the air. With their surprise attack, a few Soltarians had breached the Raiders’ lines. As her gun was knocked away by a blood-drenched hand, Cajun whipped out her knife. A second later she embedded the blade in a hairy throat. The Soltarian gasped and died. She picked her rifle as she watched Rab send laser blasts into a group of charging orange-soldiers. When he stopped firing, only one was left standing, bleeding from two laser blasts. He tried to make one more step with an orange paw, but his legs buckled and he fell to the blood-stained ground.

The attack was being turned. The Raiders had the advantage, helped by their thin but tough body armor. The Soltarians’ weapons had a difficult time penetrating the shields. They became disoriented fighting in the small corridors and often their fire hit their own men. The Raiders were comfortable fighting anywhere. They did not panic, become disoriented or confused. Their fire hit their enemies, not other Raiders.

Rab guessed about fifty Soltarians had made the unexpected charge. Now the enemy was down to single digits. With one arm shot off, one last Soltarian soldier tried to raise his other arm and fire. Two blue lasers cut him in two. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Six other Soltarians ran down a corridor. Rab fired again and three fell forward but didn’t move again.

“Johnson!” Rab yelled.

One of the Intrepid’s security officers ran up and saluted.

“Yes, sir.”

“Take your men and track them down. Capture or kill them. I don’t care which. But I don’t want any enemy soldier roaming free.”

Johnson saluted again and waved to his men. They ran after the retreating Soltarians.

Angry, Rab rushed to an adjoining room and pointed his laser rifle at Tarum. The bronze man shook his head.

“I knew nothing about that. I didn’t know there were any Soltarians left here,” Tarum said.

The butt of Rab’s rifle smashed into Tarum’s face. The force of the blow crashed Tarum into a cavern wall. He slumped to the ground and didn’t move.

“For some reason, I just didn’t believe you,” Rab said. “Taylor, You’re standing guard. I want this man here when I get back. Don’t let him out of your sight. Hog-tie him if you like.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ladies and gents, get to the deportation chamber. We are leaving!”

Now, if nothing else will go wrong, Rab thought.

The attacking Soltarians had to have stayed in a special chamber, below this level. And somehow they blocked the scanning waves. Then, they waited for the right time to attack…

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 16

Matt Ritter, sweating with all the effort of building the defensive wall, took a break and peered at the castle again. He was surprised when he saw a human walk along the wall.

“Major,” he yelled.

“What is it, Mr. Ritter?” I said.

“Is the General Conbor you spoke of a tall guy with sort of an oval face, pointed nose and chin?”

“If I remember correctly that sounds like him,” I said.

“He’s on the wall, sir.”

“What?”

I stepped over and raised the binoculars to my eyes. When I focused the lenses, General Conbor came into view. It had been a long time since I had seen him, but I recognized him. He hadn’t aged much. Obviously, he wanted to survey the battle. What surprised me even more than seeing him were the two plump lizard men walking beside him. I had forgotten what he called his alien allies on Vanodor, but as I watched them walk, the name came back to me. Kollaws. So how did they fit into the picture with Soltarians?

I was not going to make the mistake of allowing him to escape again. I’d put him in chains and take him back to face Federation justice or kill him. The latter option was easier, but the Federation would probably prefer him in a courtroom. He stopped, turned and looked toward the forest. That is him, I thought. The same beady little eyes.

“We meet again,” I said aloud.

A half-dozen Raiders saluted as they walked up. They held their long laser rifles.

“You’re going to be our snipers. Climb up the trees. When the Soltarians get in range, fire on my order. And keep firing. Looking at their physical shape I’m guessing our enemies can’t run that fast. I’m guessing they’re very slow on the ground. I’m also guessing they haven’t seen any ground fighting. Those two things will be deadly for them.”

The soldiers nodded and started climbing the trees. With the barricades up, the other Raiders checked their weapons. The first squad had sixteen men and women, so we were considerably outnumbered. But with our weapons, those numbers shouldn’t mean much. General Conbor had an extremely high IQ, but he was not a military man. Even a very intelligent man, if inexperienced, can make mistakes. Conbor, I hoped, was about to make such a mistake.

“Major Ryvenbark! Major Logan Ryvenbark!”

I looked through the binoculars again. The general had some type of megaphone he spoke into. Had to be a powerful one.

“I know you can hear me, major. So I will make you an offer. Your command can be wiped out in a few minutes. But I have another option for you. You will die here and I will kill you. The defeat on Vanodor was humiliating and I have planned vengeance for ten years. But if you meet me on the field of battle I will let your soldiers leave. One against one. Knife against knife. Your squad may return unhindered to the future. Only you will be left here. Think about it for a few minutes, major. I have a messenger who will bring a means of communication to you. When he arrives, give me your answer. If you don’t, my armies will attack.”

I checked the scanner. The three forces marching toward us were black dots on a green screen, inching closer.

“Don’t do it,” Astrid said. “Not that you wouldn’t mind stabbing him.”

“I wonder if he would actually go through with it. The only people he knifed on Vanodor were prisoners tied to a stake. Besides, we’re not here for my personal convenience. Mr. Ritter, how close are our adversaries?”

“They should be within range in about six minutes, sir.”

“You know, brilliant people are not brilliant in every area of life. They can make mistakes just like anybody. Conbor is not all that wise in wanting a battle. From what I can tell we have better weapons than his forces. But I do like his ploy. If I go out and play swordsman with him, his armies can creep closer to our positions; close enough they could overwhelm us in an attack. But I’m not going to play his game. We fire as soon as the Soltarians get in range.”

I looked up. Our snipers nestled comfortably in the branches. They had clear shots at the advancing armies. The Soltarians to the east could be seen clearly now without binoculars. Tall and ugly. Not exactly a trained military either. The columns were ragged. They did not march in precision. I doubted they would stay calm when we poured fire and lasers into their ranks. I smiled at Astrid.

“I think this shows that Conbor doesn’t think on his feet well. He expected us to materialize in the valley, where his shooters could pick us off without danger to themselves. I don’t think he had a good backup plan.”

“You have a backup plan?” Astrid said.

“I sure do. But my backup plan is the same as my first plan. We win. They lose,” I said.

The Soltarians broke ranks. Soldiers spread out. Soon they could link up with the Soltarian force from the south. When the group from the castle arrived, they could easily surround us. I forgot the name of the general in the Korean War who faced the same situation. “They have us surrounded, boys. That’s great. We can fire in any direction!” That’s a paraphrase. But he said something very similar.

A horseman – Conbor’s messenger – rode toward us. He wasn’t in a hurry. He rode slowly. No doubt commanded by the general to go at low speed. The more time he took getting to us, the more time the armies had to surround us. The Soltarian messenger didn’t look too comfortable in the saddle; he probably hadn’t ridden too many horses back on his home planet. I like riding, but horses are not ubiquitous across the galaxy. The bear-like rider almost fell twice. His hand grabbed the horse to steady himself. His feet were too big for the stirrups. With their size, the Soltarians weren’t graceful creatures, but the rider looked more awkward than most. When he slowed for a stop, he pulled the reins too tight. The horse neighed and reared up, knocking the rider to the ground. He hit with a solid bam on the hard earth. He stood up, growling, and started to walk toward the horse.

I stepped out from the forest.

“Climb on your horse and get back to the general. Tell him that no matter how much I would enjoy a one-on-one with him, his deal is unacceptable.”

The Soltarian’s cold, green eyes stared at me. He growled again. Two large incisors showed when he pulled back his lips.

“Then you are a coward,” he said.

“Yea, that must be it. Getting edgy in my old age. Should retire and play golf. I know Conbor’s gambit and it won’t work. I’m not going to have your armies creep up on us while I’m fighting the general. But tell him not to get impatient. I’ll come for him later. Tell him also I know the connection between the lizard guys and the Soltarians. That was a very creative idea by him. A stroke of pure genius. But it won’t work. Tell him he’s going to die here, along with his armies.”

My words didn’t make the messenger look any happier.

“We will see,” he said, as he mounted his horse.

I turned and hastened back into the cover of the forest.

“How much time do we have Mr. Ritter?”

“The enemy will be in range in two minutes, sir.”

“Then in we fire.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 17

Our laser rifles are often called automatic. Technically that’s not the proper term, but it conveys what they can do. The so-called general was about to learn a lesson in warfare. I would have preferred to have the second squad with me, but being outnumbered doesn’t always mean the odds are against you. I grabbed my rifle. Astrid and I found an opening in our wooden wall and aimed. As we aimed, I thought the marching Soltarians looked as awkward on the ground as their colleague did riding his horse. I guess the general didn’t think of that when he created the race. But the Soltarians weren’t created for gracefulness.

“Major, I think we have company,” Ritter yelled.

“Someone else wants to join the party?”

To our west, where we had materialized, both the air and ground seemed to blink, like it was a screen getting bad reception. Then Rab materialized. The platoon blinked into existence behind him. Soldiers grabbed boxes of weapons and ran into the forests. When Cajun ran in, she saluted.

“Sorry for the delay, sir. We had a slight problem; an attack from Soltarians hiding in the cavern.”

“Really?”

“Yes, sir. But we took care of it. We apologize for being late.”

“You’re not late, Cajun. You’re right on time.”

I had ordered the squad to fire in two minutes. The firing commenced in one minute and fifty-nine seconds after my command. Sometimes even veteran soldiers can get impatient. We had two types of laser weapons. The Armont model blasted yellow lasers that cut through flesh and bone — human or Soltarian. The Citken model shot blue lasers that pretty much did the same thing as the yellow lasers. The Raiders’ blue and yellow fire rained shots onto the oncoming Soltarians. They don’t make much noise, not as much as a sidearm or rifle with bullets. Just a low buzz. The noise came as Soltarians screamed in agony as blue and yellow lights clipped off arms and legs.

They shot back, but our wooden protections deflected most of their fire. The six snipers fired so fast the air was ablaze in blue and yellow flashes. From their position the Soltarians tried a charge. But they were not fast. Lasers are. As the soldiers stumbled, blood poured out of their wounds. A Soltarian volley pinged off the tree I was using for cover. It blasted the bark off and careened into the forest. I fired back. A Soltarian face exploded when a blue laser hit it. Huge gaps now appeared in the charging Soltarian lines. We rained so much devastation I ordered a half-dozen Raiders to leave their dug-in positions and beef up our southern perimeter. One determined enemy, blood pouring from two wounds, grunted and growled until he came within ten feet of our lines. He lifted his rifle but yellow lights cut him in two.

In space battle, you never smell the horrors of war. But on the ground you do. The Soltarians gave off a stench of open sewers. Many groaned and cried in agony. But the cries didn’t last for long. They died quickly on the field of blood. A few cursed the general.

There are times when stupidity can be applauded. One of those times is when an enemy makes a mistake. I doubted General Conbor cared if his men lived or died. If he could have killed the Raiders he would have sacrificed every one of them.

In one of the Allied World War II conferences, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed great concern about the high number of casualties in a particular battle. Stalin sniffed with disdain. He cared nothing about the lives of men. Neither did Conbor. Every one of his men was expendable to him. One of the reasons I would have to retire eventually is a part of me died when one of my Raiders did.

When the army from the east was dispatched, I split my force. Half the Raiders stood against the army advancing from the castle and the other half stayed at the rear, guarding against the troops racing toward us from the south. We were surrounded and outnumbered but, in this case, that wasn’t a bad thing.

In 216 B.C. at the battle of Cannae, the Roman Army suffered its greatest defeat when it lost 50,000 men to Hannibal’s legions after being outmaneuvered by the opposing forces. The Roman army used brute force and nothing else. It had worked before, but not at Cannae. One of the lessons of the battle was: don’t let your forces get surrounded.

Except if you have no choice. If we had been in an open field, the odds might have shifted. But as the Raiders began firing front and back I didn’t think this would be another battle of Cannae. At least not for the Raiders.

The army at the rear was larger than the one in front of us. But the bullets, and the blue and yellow lasers blow holes in the advancing troops. We had longer range with our guns. We could kill the Soltarians before their volleys could reach us. For a land battle, the Soltarians didn’t have any protective armor. Neither did we, but we had installed an effective barricade. Their volleys whistled toward us, but like Lee’s artillery at Gettysburg, they flew over our heads and plunked into trees. Lee lost 25,000 soldiers at Gettysburg and the Soltarians didn’t have that many men. A few incredibly strong soldiers actually made it to our wooden wall before they were cut down. Seeing their attack was useless, a few turned around and ran away. But the blue and yellow laser fire wasn’t charitable. They died before they could get out of range.

Watching the bloodshed and the carnage, I shook my head. Most were brave creatures… but fighting for a horrible cause. Fighting, for that matter, for a horrible human being.

In ten minutes we claimed a victory. With the exception of a few stragglers, the enemy had been devastated. I told Rab and Mr. Ritter to prepare the drones. We had one more battle we had to win.

I wondered what General Conbor thought of his one-on-one challenge now.

I looked for the squad’s physician. When I saw him, I sighed with relief.

“You’re not attending patients, doctor?” I said.

“No. No wounded, sir. The battle was remarkably successful. I’m very happy not to have any patients. The medical nanos can take care of most wounds but occasionally I’m needed. I’m glad I wasn’t today,” Manning said.

“So am I.”

“I attribute that to our ingenious commander.”

“Thank you, doctor, but I think I must give credit to the opposing commander. He just made a few stupid decisions.”

“What do you plan to do about the castle, major?”

“I’m going to pummel it to ashes. We haven’t lost a man in this engagement and I plan to keep that record intact. In about five minutes our drones will be ready. Very little will be left of the general’s last command.”

I sighed and scratched my jaw. “Doctor, I want to ask you something. This may come out of left field, but it may also have a connection to our current situation. Back on Earth if I wanted to, say, become a brown guy from Jamaica or look like I have Asian ancestry like Cajun, I would be able to do that, correct?”

He nodded. “Sure, our genetic-manipulation technology could make you whatever you wanted. Could change you into a little green Martian if you liked. If you did you’d be the only little green Martian in the universe since that planet is uninhabited. The technology is heavily regulated, of course, and is usually not recommended by medical experts. There is a degree of danger if there’s some type of malfunction, so professionals urge caution. Planning to make a change, major?”

“No. I always felt I was darn near perfect just the way I am. At least that’s what Astrid tells me, but I think she might be biased.”

“Probably.”

“Of course I think she’s darn near perfect too. Thank you, doctor. You told me what I needed to know.”

“This somehow relates to our battle here?”

“Surprisingly enough, yes it does.” I glanced toward Ritter and Rab. “How long before the drones are ready?”

“About two minute, sir. We’re fitting them with the bombs now.”

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 18

For the devastating weapons they were, the drones didn’t look that impressive. Basically they looked like mini-jets of the mid-21st century. The larger ones were mini mid-21st century bombers. Thankfully, in this era bombs did not need to be large. They were small enough to be slipped into the bay of a drone bomber. Ritter and Rab loaded a half-dozen drones with bombs, then smiled at their handiwork.

The optimist Alfred Nobel, when he invented dynamite, was overjoyed because, as he said, he had made war too terrible to fight and therefore had brought peace to the world. I’m not mocking him. The man was brilliant in many areas. If I recall, he won more than three hundred patents in his life. But he knew nothing about human nature and seemed impervious to the evil that men do. And the evil that other races do.

Then again, without that situation, I’d been out of a job. Not that I would have minded unemployment… I picked up the binoculars.

“Can the drones take off?”

“Yes, sir,” Rab said. “Mr. Ritter and I are rather proud of our work. At your command, major.”

I looked through the binoculars. About two dozen guards remained on the wall. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought they looked a bit apprehensive. But you’re not in a positive frame of mind if you just watched three of your armies wiped out.

“Conbor, you violated one of the immutable laws of the galaxy. Don’t screw around with Ryvenbark’s Raiders. Now you face the consequences.” I turned to Rab. “Release the drones.”

Three dark jets and three dark mini-bombers soared toward the castle. Six drones of black death against the stunning blue sky. They moved almost silently toward their target. We heard a slight hum, nothing more. In films, an attack was always accompanied by gripping music. Drums and trumpets accompanied the jets or the army. But the drones moved in silence when they were on their deadly trek. The guards on the castle’s wall jerked and pointed to the sky. An officer barked an order to his men. A minute later the Soltarians brought up what I guess was an anti-drone battery. Two lone, long barrels that spit fire. Bolts of yellow flame came from them and shot toward the dark drones. I had no worries. Our technology was better than Conbor’s. White-hot flames exploded when it hit a drone. The drone sailed into and out of the flames and headed undeterred on its deadly path. Two other yellow bolts hit drones with the same effect. The drones didn’t even slow down.

Panicked, several Soltarian soldiers ran from the wall. Two others stood silent and just stared into space. I guessed they knew they had no place to run. When the drone hit the wall and exploded, they were tossed into the air, head over heels. When they hit the ground, they didn’t move. The drone took out half the wall.

Other explosions blew the defenders apart as fire and smoke rose up from behind what was left of the castle’s wall. One Soltarian, staying in his post until the last second, was blown over the wall. Surprisingly he wasn’t killed. He slowly got to his feet again, then stumbled away.

“Rab, get about six men. When it simmers down we’ll go over and check the damage. I also want to make sure the general is dead. He slipped out of our clutches the last time we saw him. He’s not going to do the same again.”

“Yes, sir. If Conbor had on a time belt he might have gone back to the future before the drones hit,” Rab said.

“That thought crossed my mind. He wouldn’t mind leaving his men to die. But I hope we find his body inside.”

“It may take a while before we can go in. Those fires may burn for a long time.”

“We can wait. Time is something we seem to have.” I nodded. “That’s why Conbor invaded. He knew the Cappnids had mastered time travel and he wanted that knowledge. I think this was his plan all along. To take his knowledge, his men and some of his technology into the past and change it. He would have built up his forces and attacked the worlds in the past, overpowering them. He would have worlds at his command. He thought he would have the weapons of the future to conquer the past. But the paths of glory lead only to the grave. He should have read the poets and philosophers.”

“Doubt they would have convinced him,” Rab said.

#
h1={color:#00000a;}. Chapter 19

Because I didn’t want any more surprises I asked Mr. Tyson if he would return to the future and then come back to our present. The last thing I needed was a few bugs in the time machine. Tyson disappeared and reappeared about, in our time, three minutes later. He said he had a pleasant chat with his colleagues in the future and everything looked OK. It was extremely good news.

An hour later, when the flames died down and the castle cooled, eight Raiders plus their commander slipped on jetpacks. We zoomed straight up and then headed for our destination. The jetpacks are a wonderful way to travel. No one gets air sickness. You breezily fly over land and trees. We usually travel at about thirty miles per hour, although our jets can make fifty if we’re in a hurry. As we circled the castle, nothing was in sight except the burned ashes, the deserted castle and two dozen smoldering Soltarians. We landed, coming in softly on the smoking ground. The doors to the inner chambers had been blasted open. Five Raiders, guns out, walked in. I landed in the courtyard and took off the jetpack.

A dead Soltarian soldier, with his arm burnt off, lay five feet in front of me. An orange-haired comrade lay nearby, absent his lower body. A number of small fires still burned in various places inside the walls. Or two of the walls — other two had been reduced to ashes. Drones are darn effective. A sad scene, but the galaxy was much better off with the Soltarians dead and not alive.

The gritty, sandpaper voice came from behind me.

“Ryvenbark! You coward!”

I turned and saw General Conbor looking worse for wear. An explosion had blasted some skin off his face and had blown off a quarter of his uniform. Blood seeped from his left, exposed shoulder. In his right he held a knife. Two other knives were attached to his belt. His eyes were dark and menacing, full of anger and hatred.

“General. Long time no see. There’s not much of your kingdom left. Throw down the knife.”

“Never!”

He raised the knife. The three Raiders in the courtyard pointed their rifles at him. I waved them down.

“Haven’t you had enough fighting? You keep trying to establish kingdoms with yourself as the king and your plans just keep failing. Give everyone a break, general, and come with us peacefully.”

He shook his head. “No. I’m going to kill you.”

“A lot of people have wanted to kill me and I’m still around. I don’t think you can succeed when all the others have failed. But I most compliment you on your scheme, general, especially creating a new race. Amazingly creative. You had fooled the Federation. You are not a worthy adversary, but you have been a formidable one.”

The anger, for a moment, seeped out of his voice. He looked around at his dead soldiers. “It should have succeeded. It should have worked. The Cappnids were more treacherous than I imagined.”

“No one knows more about treachery than you, so it’s rather ironic you underestimated the Cappnids. The Federation owns them a lot. If they had not fought you so well, the Raiders might have been defeated. They did their best to cripple you and succeeded. But where did you get the idea of creating the Soltarians? You always had brilliant plans. Sometimes the execution phase of the plan was lacking though.”

I stuck a cigar in my mouth and lit it. I blew the smoke out slowly. “Let me guess. Ten years ago, after your defeat, you came up with a new idea, one that had never been attempted before. You used the medical technology of today to create a new race out of your lizard friends. I never understood how you fooled them so much. Your every wish was their command. Did you somehow convince them you were a god?”

“The Kollaws, the lizard people, did not have an advanced civilization when I and my friends arrived. They were suitably impressed by some of our stunts. They would, as you said, do anything I told them. They are a greedy, selfish race and inclined to violence. Just the type of aliens I needed,” he said.

“So you changed them and created a new race. The Soltarians. You and your rogue scientist colleagues. Where are they now?”

“Dead.”

I shrugged. “Anyway, the Soltarians made a few appearances at Federation conferences and meetings, just for show. The Federation could never find their planet. It was a mystery. But they couldn’t find the planet because there was no home base for the Soltarians.” I took out the cigar and pointed it at him. “Now that was both creative and pragmatic. You could have attacked or invaded a planet and the Federation would be looking for the Soltarians’ home world. But there is no Soltarians’ home world. So the Federation would have been stymied. You were probably making some dastardly plans when you learned of the Cappnids, or rather when you discovered they had mastered time travel.”

He gave a wry smile. “It attracted my interest.”

“Tarum and his friends used it for historical reasons, for exploring their own history. But you had other plans for time travel. It could be used as a potent weapon. A weapon that would bring you victories, bring you conquest. A weapon that would have brought the galaxy under your feet.”

He nodded.

“What were you planning; to take the entire race back with you, along with all the knowledge of our time, plus a couple of dozen robots that could build military and other installations? Build up your strength and then with the knowledge and power of the future, you would attack the worlds of the past. I don’t like you general, but it was an ingenious plan. You just made two mistakes. You underestimated the Cappnids. They put up more of a fight than you expected.”

“They were peaceful. I wasn’t expecting them to fight at all. I thought I would come in and take their planet. Never thought they would put up much of a resistance. You never can tell, can you?”

“No, the best-laid plans of mice and men and would-be dictators. It wasn’t to be. That was the second mistake. You didn’t know you’d be facing Ryvenbark’s Raiders.”

He laughed, a hollow, dry laugh. “On the contrary, that’s exactly who I thought they would send. This was tailor-made for you major, and your squad. If I was wrong, no harm done. We’d kill whoever came out. If I were right, I’d get revenge on my enemy.”

He raised his knife again. “Let’s have one final battle, major. You and me. You carry a knife. Pull it out. Kill me if you can. Man to man. You can’t resist that, can you?”

“Oh yes, I can.” I pulled the Desert Eagle out of the holster. “This was never about you and me, general. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind killing you. I would consider it a fringe benefit of the job. But I’m not playing games with you. Put down the knife or I’ll shoot.”

An angry growl came from his mouth as he twisted his lips into a sneer.

“You’re a lesser man that I thought. You really are a coward, Ryvenbark.”

“General, this may surprise you but I don’t care about your opinion of me. Now I’m not going to tell you again. Put the gun down and stop the histrionics.”

He was quick. I give him that. In a flash, he twisted and raised the knife over his head. His hand even came forward before I fired. Three bullets slammed into his chest near the heart. His fingers trembled. The knife slipped from his hand and fell. He hit the ground about three seconds after the knife did.

I walked over and stared at Conbor’s dead body.

“The paths of glory, general, lead only to the grave. In this case an unmarked grave. If, that is, the planet doesn’t spit you out in disgust.”

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Deadly Enemy - Logan Ryvenbark's Saga 1

Major Logan Ryvenbark is no ordinary soldier of fortune. While he's tough as nails, deadly with all number of weapons and highly skilled in a number of areas of combat, he's also genetically engineered to be a super-soldier. When he and his men take on a contract from the powerful intergalactic CEO Belen Morganthal to scope out the planet Sandeling, a desolate and seemingly uninhabited wasteland of ice and snow, he knows that it isn't going to be your average guns-for-hire gig – but what he doesn't know is just how perilous the mission is actually going to be. After discovering that the planet is not actually uninhabited, as previously thought, Major Ryvenbark and his mercenaries uncover even more shocking revelations as they continue to investigate the secrets of Sandeling; secrets involving invasions, betrayals, wars, massacres, genocide... and time travel. In Deadly Enemy, you'll be taken on a thrilling Sci-Fi journey in an exciting tale of mystery, suspense, action and technology that will make your head spin with awe. If you're into captivating and enthralling tales of adventure that take place in galaxies and solar systems that are many light years away, Deadly Enemy will not disappoint you.

  • Author: Blue Shelf Bookstore
  • Published: 2017-03-03 10:35:12
  • Words: 20944
Deadly Enemy - Logan Ryvenbark's Saga 1 Deadly Enemy - Logan Ryvenbark's Saga 1