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Trophy Grove

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Brian S. Wheeler

 

Trophy Grove

Brian S. Wheeler

 

Published by Brian S. Wheeler at Shakespir

 

Flatland Fiction thanks you for your purchase of this ebook. This ebook remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author. Quotes used in reviews are the exception. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoy this ebook, Flatland Fiction encourages you to send us a review at [email protected]. Unless otherwise instructed, Flatland Fiction reserves the right to post such reviews online.

 

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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Brian S. Wheeler

 

 

Trophy Grove

Brian S. Wheeler

 

Contents

Chapter 1 – Deadline

Chapter 2 – The Law of Extermination

Chapter 3 – Lightcraft

Chapter 4 – Bringing Out the Big Guns

Chapter 5 – Scalping Faces

Chapter 6 – A Mudder’s Price

Chapter 7 – Bruised but Beautiful

Chapter 8 – To Rebuild Paradise

Chapter 9 – The Terms of Titans

Chapter 10 – A Trophy Case of Aliens

Chapter 11 – Shadow Monster

Chapter 12 – Plastic Faces

Chapter 13 – The Doctor and the Archivist

Chapter 14 – No Appetite for Pageant Queens

About the Writer

 

Chapter 1 – Deadline

“I just can’t believe this is the story you want to give me, Zane. I thought we had an understanding on how we wanted to write this thing before you ever left my office and jumped to Tybalt. Frankly, I’m speechless. I’ve never felt so disappointed in any of my star-jumping essayists.”

 

I’m pacing back and forth in the swank office of my editor, Harold Higgins, and it’s not going to take much longer until even my featherweight body starts wearing down a path in Harold’s shag carpeting. I know the story Harold wants. He wants the story all those poor, desperate and dingy people hunkered down on our dying planet – all of whom subscribe to a dozen other electronic tabloids other than our own – so intently crave. He wants the kind of story that made me famous. Harold and all his subscribers want a story oozing with sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and cosmic strangeness. Harold wants the story I’ve never before failed to give him.

 

“Look at me, Higgy-Baby. Look at me.” I remove my red sunglasses so Harold can get a good, hard look at how insomnia’s swollen my eyes and drawn the color out of my skin. “Can’t you see I’m terrified? How can you ask me to rewrite that story when it’s so evident I’m scared out of my wits?”

 

Harold scoffs. “Let me tell you about fear, Zane Thomas. Fear is a deadline. Fear is answering the boardroom’s summons when you lose thirty-percent of your subscribers and fifty-percent of your sponsors because your most popular essayist suddenly decides he wants to write monster stories. This electronic tabloid made you, Zane, and I’m not going to let you repay the favor by letting us down now. Not when a story like this drops into your hand. Not when Teddy Jackson returns to safari and requests you to cover the story. The story’s too big. We can’t afford to disappoint anyone with it.”

 

Among all the editors stinking of cologne and sweating of gin, my career gets hitched to Harold Higgins, the biggest health nut remaining on the smog-choked Earth. Harold will drink any pharmaceutical cocktail if two people amid all the colonized stars swear the drink’s added an extra month to their lifetimes. He’ll sweat through any exercise regimen if some house-husband claims such gyrations and flexes have taken even an inch from his waistline. I’ve never wanted a mudder’s toxic cigarette as badly as I want one as I’m pacing back and forth in Harold’s office. I’ve never so desperately wanted to escape reality by tossing a handful of Levant hallucinogenic powder into my eyes. But Harold Higgins is too much of a health fanatic, and I’m just going to further jeopardize any chance of coercing a paycheck out of my editor’s hand by pulling any kind of drug or drink out of one of my Bermuda shorts’ pockets.

 

I’ve got to get hold of that paycheck. I know the grove has somehow followed me. I feel the grove hiding beneath the most sensitive and pink folds of my brain matter. I feel the grove peeking through my eyes. I’ve got to get off this old rock before the grove plants its roots into Earthen soil. I hate to think about dooming all those tired faces currently sheltered on our dingy homeworld to that alien intelligence, but I’ll do just that if that’s what it takes for me to get that last paycheck from my editor that’ll let me afford my rocket ride off this marble.

 

“I tell you what I’ll do, Higgy-Baby.” I slam my palms upon Harold’s oversize desk. “I’ll rewrite the story. I’ll throw out the old and start the new story from scratch. I’ll write it just the way you want it. I don’t care how it really went down on Tybalt anymore. I’ll have Teddy Jackson mowing down imaginary, alien rhinos made of rock with a laser machine gun. I’ll have Teddy Jackson baiting the most horrible predator you can imagine with poor, dumb mudders.”

 

Harold’s fingertips tap together. “What about Marlena Jackson? What kind of ending can you give me with her?”

 

I slump into the chair in front of Harold’s desk. “We can’t change that, Higgy-Baby. We have to at least try to warn everybody.”

 

Harold shakes his head. “Oh, no we don’t. The only thing we have to do is make people happy. The ending you’ve got here is going to terrify all our subscribers. Hell, Zane, no one’s going to want to take a step off of Earth at all if they think there’s such monsters out there in the stars waiting to clutch them. The entire reason the League’s invested so many marketing dollars in your story is because they’re hoping your writing is going to encourage people to settle new worlds. They’re going to want all that money if they read the pages you’ve delivered me, filled with writing that’s only going to hold people back.”

 

“Alright,” I swallow. To hell with the human race. “I’ll come up with a new ending. Marlena Jackson remains unharmed. She’s shaping new light sculptures in a quiet, stone cottage on some quiet, stone countryside. She’s got two dogs and three cats. And she’ll be madly in love with me.”

 

Harold nods. “Now, that sounds like the Zane Thomas my readers love. We also need steamy love scenes, like the chapters you gave me after you returned from your stay in the Xanadu resort tower.”

 

My nerves are frazzled, and my forehead glistens in sweat. I feel my Tiki shirt dampen because of my fear.

 

“Alright. I’ll write sex scenes fueled with more drugs than ever before, Higgy-Baby. Just give me a rocket ticket to Alpine Eleven or to New Venice. Just jump me through the stars to someplace where I can concentrate to give you a new story. Send me to someplace that doesn’t stink with all of Earth’s distractions.”

 

My heart drops into my stomach when Harold shakes his head.

 

“No way, Zane. We don’t have the time to give you that luxury. I have a deadline, and I needed that story yesterday. The board members and the League are too anxious to see a first draft of the upcoming issue. You’re going to sit down in that chair, and you’re going to hammer out a new story on my ancient typewriter, just so I can hear the words clicking along, so that I can know if you’re going to need any help punching through any writer’s block.”

 

I toss my green dealer’s visor onto the floor out of despair. “Listen, Higgy-Baby. You’ve read all the original pages. You know that terrible monster’s breathing on the back of my neck. You know the grove is on my heels. Don’t you know I have to flee this planet while I still can? Don’t you understand I’m going to attract the grove to come here?”

 

Harold laughs. “Then I suggest you start writing.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 2 – The Law of Extermination

“What will it be, Zane? The automated bar can provide any concoction you can name, and I guarantee it will perfectly mix whatever drink your thirst requests.”

 

I must’ve star-hopped through a hundred systems searching for thrills to feed to old Earth’s crowded masses through the tabloids. I’ve dedicated my career, my entire life, to find the adventures capable of distracting those poor souls stranded back on our original Eden from the stink of a rotting world. Way I see it, my job is to consume all I can, to experience whatever thrills my body can sustain. To do my job well, I believe I’ve got to experience all the pleasure and all the disgust out there in the heavens so I can best share it with the subscribers of my electronic tabloid, so that all those broken men and women waiting for the miracle of a rocket ride beyond Earth’s gravitational tyranny get out of bed each morning to read my essays, regardless if there’s nothing else to occupy their time.

 

My job doesn’t have the luggage space for many virtues. My editor doesn’t pay me handsomely to act with moral conviction. He doesn’t pay me to hesitate before boarding some stealth-cloaked star-station pleasure brothel. He doesn’t pay me to pause before I toss back whatever pill or ingest whatever smoke is rumored to spread smiles among the dumb mudder population. My editor learned a long time ago that virtues don’t sell, and I learned a long time ago that there’s a fortune to be made by dropping my morality.

 

Still, there are some principles that are harder for me to drop than others. Chief among them is the conviction that anyone who toys with robots is flirting with catastrophe.

 

I wink at my host before ordering my drink. “You can remove al the faces, Mr. Jackson, but people will still know better. You might not paint an artificial smile on your machines anymore. You might not dress your electronic bartender in a bow tie. But that machine’s thinking. The logic of mixing and serving drinks might seem really simple at first, but it’s not going to be long until that machine starts waxing poetic about humankind’s existential frailty. That’s exactly how the robots took control of the Turlag asteroid belt, before the fleet expended a fortune in energy blasts to turn all those rocks into molten slag so we could all go back to sleeping at nights knowing the robots were vaporized. Everyone’s going to be able to recognize your bartending machine is really a robot, regardless if it doesn’t have a face. A robot is a robot is a robot.”

 

Teddy lifts an eyebrow. “So you don’t want a drink?”

 

“I didn’t say that. Give me a bourbon.”

 

Teddy laughs. “Zane, let me promise you that the bar stocked on my star yacht will satisfy even your legendary thirst. One bourbon coming your way in a wink.”

 

There’s nothing illegal in owning a robot, and there’s nothing illegal in minting a fortune in their manufacture as has Teddy Jackson. There’s still too much heavy lifting to be done in the cosmos to destroy all the robots, and not even a clone mudder survives the vacuum cold of space construction as well as a machine. Still, robots have given folks the creeps since well before the Turlog disaster. I’ll sprinkle a mention or two of a robot into my pages whenever I need to tickle a little fear in my readers, but I don’t like having a robot tending to me any more than anyone else. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes, I like unloading my sob story on a human barkeep after I’ve earned his or her ear by jangling enough coin into the tip jar. That cathartic release has been missing the few times I’ve been forced to order drinks from a mechanical bar. With a machine watching me drink, I get to feeling guilty for participating in one of my favorite pursuits. I never drink very much in a robot’s company, and I always leave feeling that I’ve missed out on a good time.

 

But I don’t mention any of that to Teddy Jackson. I’m not going to voice my prejudices and ruin my chances of enjoying a little luxury as the tycoon’s guest on his safari. I’ve never star-hopped in a finer spacecraft than Teddy Jackson’s private star yacht. The bartending machine whirls and hums, and a panel opens to slide an old fashioned glass filled with liquor to my position at the bar.

 

I sip at the bourbon and smile. There’s age and smoke in the drink, and it’s a fine drink no matter if it slid from a machine. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Teddy considering me while he scratches his gray-bearded chin. I worry I may have missed something.

 

Marlena’s voice purrs from the stool set on the other side of my own. “The proverbial cat’s stolen even Zane Thomas’ tongue. Dad’s hoping your face betrays an indication that you approve of his new machine.”

 

I’ve got high hopes for this trip before we make the first of the jumps into the stars that will in three Earth months deliver us to a distant planet named Tybalt on the edge of the galaxy. Marlena’s company inspires optimism. Her dark brown eyes glimmer as they laugh at me, and her dark hair reflects the color of the neon billboards built in low, Earth orbit as they wink outside the star yacht’s viewing window. I’m seldom at a loss for words when faced with even the strangest of events during my excursions, but I have to admit I’ve been finding it a little difficult to retrieve my vocabulary whenever Marlena’s drifting near me.

 

“Oh, your old man just has too many beautiful things to comment on just one,” I answer while bourbon warms my throat. “I’ve got to say I’m a little taken by it all, and that’s not a routine sentiment for me.”

 

“I’m sure it isn’t,” Marlena replies. “I’ve read a few of your articles.”

 

Teddy laughs, and his broad shoulders shake in merriment as his meaty forearms fall upon the bar counter.

 

“You see now, Marlena? I knew what I was doing when I invested in that new line of mechanical barkeeps. I’ve even got Zane Thomas stretching for words, and is there a more difficult drinker out there to impress than him?”

 

Marlena rolls her dark eyes. “The ugly can steal the breath as easily as can the beautiful.”

 

Teddy chuckles. “I don’t mind the ugly just so long as I can sell it.”

 

I don’t really believe Teddy, for there’s nothing at all ugly about Mr. Jackson’s star yacht. I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when my surroundings were any more opulent than those of Teddy’s viewing cabin. Still, though I’ve found myself in all kinds of harry situations in my time as a star-jumping journalist – be it riding with the Neo Mongols through the dust rings of Lethe or walking barefoot across the ice fields with the nomads of Iniut – I’ve seldom felt as unsettled as I do as I sit at my bar stool and sip at my bourbon. Too bad that machine behind the counter isn’t a warm-blooded, breathing human who might alleviate my anxiety by explaining why my alarm is unnecessary. But something warns me that pouring my heart out to either Teddy or Marlena would be foolish, and so I finish my bourbon and give the machine the opportunity to refill my glass.

 

Marlena winks at me. “Maybe you can settle a debate I have with my father, Zane. Do you think my old man still has room for more trophies in this viewing cabin, or do you think he’s got too many heads already mounted on these walls?”

 

Teddy chuckles. “I’ve got close to fifty years of safari beneath my belt, son, and all the trophies mounted in this room are only a fraction of the creatures I killed in the stars before the League implemented their Law of Extermination.”

 

Horns and heads crowd the paneled walls of the viewing chamber. I don’t recognize most of the animals on display; the universe is too large, and my time star-hopping doesn’t provide me with much knowledge concerning alien life forms. A dozen chromatic eyes return my stare from a head that’s a combination of a bee and dolphin. Horns rise and knot together from the head of a creature that reminds me of an antelope from the videos of the extinct, lost world our teachers in elementary academy were always showing us; yet there is no mouth, nor eyes, on that visage, only horns that fan out and twist together into a tangle. All kinds of winged creatures suspend from the ceiling, and their talons make me cringe as my imagination dreams of them swooping upon me while I sip at my bourbon.

 

Safari excursions hit their zenith before my time. Nearly a hundred years after the last of Earth’s wildlife died into memory, the starship yards owned by Teddy Jackson’s grandfather couldn’t keep up with the demand to construct the luxury starliners needed to deliver Earth tourists to alien planets teeming with alien life, where such visitors could gaze upon, and even shoot, the animals that, somewhere in the stars, still lived in the wild. But that was an age before the League instituted their Law of Extermination, an age before the League demanded that every trace of native life must be obliterated before human settlers and tourists could step upon an alien landscape.

 

And now something on the planet Tybalt prevents the obliteration contractors from completing their task to eradicate all signs of life on that distant planet in preparation for human settlement. Rumors claim the clone mudders who toil on Tybalt refuse to kill a strange beast lurking on the world. I doubt it took Teddy Jackson long to remove all his hunting weapons from storage. I’m sure he didn’t waste any time before servicing his star yacht for the race out to Tybalt. My editor and I weren’t going to turn down Teddy’s invitation to ride along on safari. The hunts the man once conducted with his father remain legendary, and subscribers across the spoiled Earth still spend their precious coin to buy the accounts of Teddy’s exploits. Mr. Jackson is no doubt hoping my flair with the pen is going to help remind humankind of the glorious days of the hunt, and eventually force the League to rescind their Law of Extermination, or at least amend the legislation to give old safari hunters like Teddy a chance to again chase exotic and alien game.

 

I spot the snarling shapes of bristles and tusks just when I think I’m not going to recognize any of the creatures in Teddy’s collection.

 

“Is that a razor boar?” I gape as I point at the trophy.

 

Teddy smiles, and I know my curiosity pleases him. “It is. It’s the legendary razor boar. I never included the hunt of that monster in any of my safari journals, and I never included its photo in any of the coffee-table, picture books of my hunts that remain so popular. But let me tell you, Zane, what you’ve likely heard of those beasts conveys hardly a fraction of the terror those boars inspired.”

 

“Weren’t those razor boars responsible for the massacre of those colonists on Delphi Prime?” I stammer.

 

“Indeed they were,” Marlena answers, “and that massacre motivated the League to craft their Law of Extermination. Earth’s too crowded and hungry, and the League can’t afford having anyone hesitate to board the ready rocket on account of being scared of any monsters.”

 

Teddy raises a finger, and his machine serves him a straight whiskey. “The razor-sharp bristles on those boars are terrible enough. The ones on that trophy would still draw blood if you touched them even now, and the boars could launch those bristles like projectiles with very precise, and cruel, aim. But the boars didn’t kill the colonists of Delphi Prime with their bristles, nor did they kill any of those first settlers with claws or teeth. Everyone found out too late that the boars shared a kind of a hive mind, and that hive mind too soon discovered that by gnawing a cable here, a power cord there, that carbon monoxide could easily, and quickly, poison the settlers while they slept in their barracks. The boars waited until winter turned cold and made the night very long and dark before digging below the ground to sever at those cables. The boars knew to wait until all the settlers would let down their guard and all sleep at the same time. None of those colonists woke come the morning.”

 

I nod. “I remember the story, but I never knew the details. I was just starting out as an electronic tabloid writer, think I was doing a story on the hang-gliders of the Sunshine Retreat when the story broke. I’ll never forget how all the resort guests kept peeking beneath their beds following the news.”

 

“The response was heavy-handed, to say the least,” Marlena growls. “All that fear that floated through the heavens on the star-hopping passenger liners and fleet cruisers produced the demand for the Law of Extermination. The League has always failed to address any issue responsible for our old world’s ever-quickening demise; but the League’s passed the Law of Extermination, and they never miss a chance to trumpet the legislation, as if that asinine law’s going to save any of us come the end.”

 

“It might not be our salvation, but I’m not sure the law’s as foolish as you say,” I argue. “Humankind’s been settling new planets for hardly fifty years, and that’s been plenty enough time to teach us colonization is filled with peril. What would we do if another virus jumped from some alien species to our own? We barely contained the pneumonia strand the settlers on Cassiopeia contracted from the alien tundra weed. It makes a lot of sense to simply burn everything away so we can safely start anew.”

 

Teddy snarls. “It’s a horrible law. No way around it. That bristle boar stuffed there in the corner’s the last of my trophies from the wonderful days of safari. I was among those who raced to Delphi Prime to hunt out the last traces of the razor boar, and those alien monsters nearly got all of us. But in the end, humanity prevailed, and the contest made all of us stronger for the thrill and the chase. Now, the League simply sends in the cheap mudders with their flame torches. Now, they only waste, and they don’t let anything alien live long enough to supply a hunt.”

 

“Not to mention the tragedy of annihilating an entire alien species,” Marlena rolls her eyes at her father. “Human ignorance is the ultimate danger we face out here amid all these twinkling stars.”

 

“I’ll drink to that,” and I raise my bourbon. “Perhaps we’ll someday find a civilization in the middle of all this black nothing smarter than ourselves. Perhaps we might still find that race of aliens that can save us from ourselves.”

 

Marlena shrugs. “We’d only try to butcher them as well.”

 

Teddy shakes his head. “I’m not so sure. There are stipulations to the Law of Extermination that force the obliteration contractors to cease their work if they should ever trip upon anything resembling alien civilization.”

 

“As if the obliteration contractors care for such a stipulation, even if they did possess the brain power to recognize intelligence when they came upon it,” Marlena chokes on a laugh. “They’d only wait long enough to martial the League fleet before vaporizing anything smart enough to avoid their mudder flamethrowers and bulldozers.”

 

I understand Marlena’s frustration. My heart understands what she’s saying. But the problem is that all her arguments are old, and humankind chose to ignore her side of the debate a very long time ago. A quick glance at the condition of festering Earth clearly conveys the scant empathy humankind has for any living creature other than itself. No matter what I think, or even what I might write, the League’s not going to revoke the Law of Extermination anytime in the near future. In the meanwhile, I’ve got a living to make, and if my readers want to read about my experiences tagging along with Teddy Jackson as the old hunter goes on a new safari, then I’m not going to refuse them that story on account of moral argument.

 

Besides, I’m too excited about the upcoming safari to let arguments regarding the sanctity of alien life detract from my trip. Star safaris were all the rage before the League instituted their Law of Extermination. Before that bill, the alien wildlife discovered on some distant planet’s mountain range or forest had a chance to survive the initial wave of colonization to give the hunters time to jump the stars before arriving to sever those animals’ heads and mount them to the walls of their star yachts. My grandfather hunted with the earliest safaris, and I never tired of listening to the old man share his adventures of facing some alien herd thundering across a planet. The man planted that fascination with star-hopping in me, and I’ve often imagined how I might handle myself on a hunting expedition. Those were brave and hardy men and women back in the glorious days of safari. Those hunters never relied on a robotic sentry to save them if they should miss some charging creature with their pulse rifle.

 

Starliner companies started offering year-long excursions from one safari to the next before those boars on Delphi Prime killed all those settlers in their sleep and inspired the League to pass their Law of Extermination. The starliners could promise that each tourist would have an opportunity to take his or her shot at some alien creature during the golden era of the safari. The passenger starliners were the first to employ the heavily-armed robots with the quick reflexes and precise tracking sensors that killed any creature a tourist might’ve missed with his or her laser pistol before that riled beast could come near enough to the vacationer to inflict any harm. No one in the glorious safari days needed to worry about robots rising up on mining asteroids, or of mudders burning all the prey before a tourist had a chance to look at the wildlife that still lived beyond the tame Earth. Whenever the hunters eventually killed off the best game, they simply returned to their waiting starliner and hopped to the planet next named on the itinerary.

 

Theodore “Teddy” Jackson grew up during the heart of that golden age of safari and adventure. His father, Thaddeus, designed and controlled nearly every patent on the second-generation faster-than-light engines whose efficiency made hopping between the stars affordable, making human settlement of the stars attainable and fostering the tourist trade throughout the heavens. Thaddeus’ wealth swelled beyond imagination, but contentment never soothed the tycoon. Thaddeus’ fortune constructed the first starliners, and the influence his wealth cultivated within the League granted Thaddeus’ ships the privilege to travel the star-hopping routes established by the military fleet. Upon accumulating his second fortune in the trade of star travel and recreation, Thaddeus built a third trove of treasure in the manufacture of the robotic sentries first employed to escort hunting tourists, machines soon afterwards sold to the League’s expeditionary forces at a bloated cost.

 

Thaddeus didn’t send his son Theodore to study in private and prestigious academies, nor did he foster skills of business negotiation and book-keeping in his only son. Teddy received his education during those safari expeditions he shared with his father. The boy could shoot almost any weapon before he turned ten, and he knew how to dismantle and reassemble the most complicated of laser cannons before he was old enough to receive his driver’s license. Teddy taught himself how to speak the clicks and clacks of enunciated binary, so that he could more efficiently communicate with the sentry robots that followed him like shadows. He navigated his first star-hop in the navigation room of his father’s star yacht on his thirteenth birthday, and Teddy demonstrated such a mastery over the delicate, and deadly, calculations demanded to skirt black hole event horizons and exploding supernovas that the League granted him an exemption from the age restrictions placed on jumping starcraft between the stars. Teddy leaned how to provision all the supplies and ships his father’s more difficult safaris demanded. And while accompanying his father during the hunts, Teddy learned how to command robot, mudder and man.

 

Teddy Jackson never had to earn a living. A wealth far beyond his capacity to spend continued to multiply. Teddy had all the privilege he needed to devote his life to the chase of the intergalactic safari, until the League passed its Law of Extermination.

 

It dawns on me how much Teddy Jackson must despise that law.

 

“How long has it been since you went on safari?” I gingerly ask.

 

“Fifteen years, four months and three days,” Teddy instantly answers. “Before the obliteration contractors pooled their resources together to build the communication array tying the stars together, I used to, for a while, be able to intercept settler communiques and race my star yacht out to the alien game discovered on some new planet before the contractors had time to muster their mudder forces and set the wildlife to flame. But even the fastest engines produced by my manufacturing plants have little chance of beating the mudders to any planet anymore. The obliteration contractors simply store too many mudders in cryo-freeze along all the star-jump routes. The mudders of the obliteration contractors arrive too quickly on any planet to give us hunters a chance to take a shot at anything.”

 

I sip at my bourbon. “Why don’t the obliteration contractors try their hand at selling safari vacations of their own? Seems the business would still be lucrative.”

 

Marlena shakes her head. “The real money for the obliterators exists in enticing settlers to their prepared planets. The obliterators take a cut in any of the profits a planet produces for another hundred years, and so they’re real interested to see that settlers arrive to start plowing fields and digging up mines. The obliterators don’t want to waste any of their time or resources holding hands of tourists out on vacation killing sprees.”

 

“Would the obliterators have to watch them?” I ask.

 

Teddy nods. “Marlena’s got most of it right, but she doesn’t have all of it. A repeat of Delphi Prime is the very last thing the obliterators’ efforts to entice human settlement need. Why risk the chance of an injury to some hunter spreading any fear back to old Earth of what waits for humankind out in the stars? No, it’s a safer play for the obliterators to simply release their clone mudders to destroy any of the danger. No one cares what happens to a mudder.”

 

I understand. I deluded myself back when I was just another student struggling through his academy courses of metallurgy and physics into thinking that good books and careful words might elevate humankind’s nature. But that silly notion eventually only led me to drink, and all those skills I crafted with the world only tossed me from one star-hop to the next in search of the latest story that might entertain the miserable and dull masses languishing on Earth’s carcass. So many subscribers to my editor’s electronic tabloid send messages complaining about how badly they need a new home in the heavens, or of how the League intentionally denies them their right to lift into the stars. Those subscribers will believe one conspiracy after another as to why the rockets haven’t yet lifted them away from Earth, and I’ve certainly stacked a high pile of shimmering coin by writing out a dozen fictional conspiracies of my own to feed to those subscribers. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me at all if those same complaining subscribers refused to enter a rocket ship due to even a whisper of a monster waiting in the firmament.

 

I nod. “But we’ve got a safari now. What’s happened to make Tybalt different? What’s happened that gives us an opportunity to find something to shoot now? How are we beating the obliterators to the punch?”

 

Marlena winks. “Oh, the obliterators are asking for our help.”

 

“Evidently,” Teddy tips his whiskey glass towards me, “the mudders can’t kill whatever’s waiting for us on Tybalt.”

 

I swallow, and my bourbon burns. “Tell me you’re joking. The mudders are far from the cowardly kind, and they certainly don’t have any sympathies for animal life – all of those things have been bred out of them for generations. I find it hard to believe that there’s any creature holding out against those clones, and I’ve learned to believe in many strange things in my experience hopping about the stars.”

 

“Something’s keeping the obliterators and their mudders from scraping Tybalt clean for human settlement,” Marlena shrugs.

 

I peer into those dark eyes. “The mudders can’t find it?”

 

Teddy swirls his whiskey glass. “From what I’ve heard, the mudders know exactly where to find it, but they don’t have the nerve to kill it.”

 

I don’t like the sound of that at all. I’ve likely spent more time among the clone mudders than any other human. Like I said, I can’t let morality get in the way of chasing an entertaining story, and some of my most popular features have focused on the mudders. The clones fear nothing. That’s likely the reason why their parties are so legendary. I’ve watched the mudders light one another’s arms on fire and wager on which clone can hold out the longest against the pain. I’ve watched mudders punch one another in the face to simply see who can take a smack without flinching. Mudder clones play really simple, combat sports. They’re the kind of life that gets a kick out of riding barrels down waterfalls and smashing through windows. They don’t live long enough to learn how to be afraid of anything, and I hate to imagine what kind of creature’s been found out in these stars to give the mudders pause.

 

“They must’ve found one ugly animal.” I offer.

 

“Or a beautiful one,” Marlena quips.

 

I laugh and raise a finger for a new bourbon. “You don’t know the mudders.”

 

“No, I don’t,” Marlena responds, “but I know beauty.”

 

I tip my glass. I’ll not argue with that. Beauty knows Marlena Jackson, and I don’t doubt that Marlena Jackson intimately knows it. Her presence is another storyline that makes this expedition with Teddy Jackson one that’s impossible for my editor or myself to deny.

 

“We’ll learn soon enough why the mudders can’t kill it,” Teddy speaks, “but for now, we’re still three months out from Tybalt. Time enough to get to know one another. Time enough to make the most of my fully-stocked bar.”

 

I drink to that, but later – when my antique wristwatch tells me night hangs over my hovel of a city apartment back on Earth – I can’t fall asleep no matter how my head spins on account of too much bourbon. I’m no fragile flower. I can handle myself. I’ve had to learn how to protect my noggin due to the company I’ve often kept during my travels.

 

Still, I feel the urge to peek beneath my bed in the guest cabin.

 

And I haven’t felt the need to do that since I wrote about the hang-gliders while staying at the Sunshine Retreat.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 3 – Lightcraft

“You rely only on memory whenever you shape your pieces?”

 

“If you think about it Zane, I don’t even have that.”

 

Marlena keeps her eyes locked on the form her fingers have been shaping from the square of three-dimensional and blue holographic light humming before her face. She’s given me scant indication of what she thinks of my intrusion into the work studio she keeps aboard her father’s star yacht. If I hinder her creative process in any way, Marlena doesn’t so much as frown to warn me.

 

“You don’t even work up a sketch first? You don’t at least work from a photograph?”

 

Marlena finally pulls her hands out of the light and sighs. “Oh, the archives back on Earth overflow with photographs of all the lost creatures, but I don’t believe those pictures do me any good. They’re too dead. They’re all only ghosts, either digitized into a computer or pasted into an old scrapbook. I try to summon a little of the lost life back into my light sculptures, and I can only resurrect the extinct animals by using my imagination.”

 

“Have you succeeded in bringing any of the creatures back from the dead?”

 

“No,” Marlena answers after a pause. “I’m afraid I haven’t.”

 

Marlena Jackson has been the highest-selling artist on Earth for the last decade, ever since she introduced her first holographic sculpture of an arctic fox on her nineteenth birthday. What’s left on Earth remains an ugly sight, and the views of so much poverty and trash exhausts everyone’s vision, so that most folks don’t have the energy to go browsing through resell tents and salvage yards in search for a little color to hang on the walls. Earth hasn’t seen an art movement for generations, and so the odds of finding any artist at all anymore on our home planet have become awful slim.

 

Marlena is the exception. That last one percent of the one percent of the human population that still has any money at all can’t seem to buy enough of the projectors the shape and size of tea saucers that project Marlena’s light sculptures into the air. The wealthy engage in bidding wars and subterfuge to get their hands on the first editions of the projectors. It’s sometimes hard to notice with her father’s wealth looming over her head, but Marlena’s hands have shaped one heck of a fortune over the years she’s been attempting to do what she can to preserve at least the memory of so many creatures lost upon our planet.

 

The rest of us, whose ancestors long ago fell out of the wealthy and privileged class, content ourselves with buying the cheap, key-chain mirrors that hold a two-dimensional replica of Marlena’s most famous works. The shapes in those mirrors sometimes seem to stretch beyond the flat surface when one flashes them just right in the light, but everyone knows they’re cheap knock-offs compared to what those projectors afforded by the wealthy throw into the air.

 

“I own one of your pieces.”

 

Marlena smiles at me. “A replica mirror?”

 

I grin. “No. I own an honest-to-goodness projector.”

 

“Which one?”

 

“The Risen Phoenix.”

 

Marlena’s foot taps a button on the floor projector humming her light canvas, and the blue sculpture she’s been devoting herself to the last several hours vanishes in a wink, no doubt preserved on some hard drive, ready to return at Marlena’s request.

 

“I remember crafting that one. I wasn’t excited about putting it on the auction block. Did it not bring much?”

 

I chuckle. “You don’t think I could afford one on the salary I make chasing stories through the stars? I saved my credits for that projector.”

 

Marlena frowns. “Why did the phoenix so attract your attention.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” I shrug. “Isn’t that reason enough?”

 

That sparkle returns to Marlena’s eyes. I like the sparkle.

 

“Tell me, Zane, would you consider yourself a collector of beautiful things?”

 

“Sure. When I can afford them.”

 

That’s not entirely true. I’ve been a collector of beautiful things when I couldn’t afford them as well. I had no business purchasing the Risen Phoenix projector. When first Harold Higgins, and then the bank, refused to loan me the credits I required to cover my folly, I had to turn to the slumlord Sal Valentia to cover my ass for the cost of the projector. The terms of Sal’s loans may have been no steeper than those the banks offered, but Sal didn’t have any qualms about breaking fingers and legs whenever the first payment didn’t trickle in on time. I had to jump through the stars for five years with Sal’s thugs always one planet behind me until I finally earned the funds to cover the debt I acquired when I purchased that Risen Phoenix.

 

My sight was still laced with hallucinogens when I rose my hand at that auction selling Marlena’s projectors. I’d just returned from covering the artificial meteor showers launched above the Franklin moon complex orbiting Ark Levant, and my pockets refused to empty of that wonderful powder the monks of the Levant throw into their eyes each year during their ceremonies celebrating the fourth messiah. I’d fallen into a distracting addiction to that powder during the star-jumps back to Harold’s office, where I needed to renegotiate my terms with his electronic tabloid after some of his competitors started knocking at my door after my essays about the monks jettisoned to the top of the best-seller lists. Maybe Harold knew exactly what he was doing when he sent me to cover that auction offering Marlena Jackson’s latest, and greatest, holographic projectors. Perhaps he saw all that powder dancing in the back of my eyes, and perhaps he sent me to that auction knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to raise my hand when so many beautiful animals of light surrounded me, all of them shimmering so powerfully thanks to the hallucinations swirling in my eyes. If Harold hoped I would weaken my negotiation posture by overspending my hand, I fell right into his trap.

 

I must’ve been a sight at that auction, with my antique, red sunglasses hiding my burning eyes, with my antique, green-tinted dealer’s visor resting crookedly upon my forehead, dressed in my colorful, Tiki shirt though the occasion’s quiet etiquette demanded formal attire. I must’ve looked more parts alien than human to those wealthy stiffs whispering observations about Marlena’s light rabbits and glowing chipmunks. I can still hear the way they gasped when I so casually swept my hands through the projections of monkeys and canines displayed just in front of the auctioneer’s podium. I can still see how their faces cringed when I started dancing next to so much light.

 

Mixing work with pleasure has always been easy for me, and I settled into my seat after accepting the bidder number Harold’s office purchased for me. I didn’t have any problem concentrating to collect all the details that would make my story another popular spread for the tabloid. Harold wanted another number on the lifestyles of the last remaining characters of Earth’s rich and famous. The story would be a guaranteed smash with Marlena’s wonderful light creatures tossed into the mix. I’ve done a hundred such stories. The setting might change from the sunny tennis and golf country clubs that sprawl across the private planet of Washington Mount to the synthetic ski ranges of Alpine Eleven, but the characters remain the same men and women who keep planting their heads into the ground while old Earth decays all around them. I mix together a few weak-willed, triple-chinned men responsible for nothing more than inheriting fortunes from their distant ancestors with a few young and vapid mistresses hoodwinked into believing their bedroom tricks are going to earn them mansions on fresh planets. I throw in a few wolves with schemes to swindle the fortunes few in the suits know how to keep, and my story thrills the hard-luck masses.

 

But that auction event turned into a different story the moment that foxy lady dressed in a skirt shorter than anything a rocket stewardess would wear rolled that Risen Phoenix projector piece upon on the stage. The bird’s fiery red and orange plumage brilliantly burned in my eyes thanks to the influence of pills from the monks of the Ark Levant, and there was no way I wasn’t going to resist that offering. Participants nodded their bids to the mumbling auctioneer who droned that price higher and higher. It didn’t matter whether or not I understood the numbers that auctioneer kept shouting. All that mattered was how that Risen Phoenix kept twisting in my vision, how its wings flapped and fluttered, and how my drug-soaked mind kept imagining that bird leaping to the ceiling before falling into a pile of ash on the floor a moment before its cycle started all over again. I first raised my hand a moment before the auctioneer lowered his gavel, and I ignored everyone’s stunned face when I refused to stop bidding no matter how high the challengers tested the price.

 

Sal Valentia might’ve hunted me through the stars for the next five years, but I never regretted putting my neck out on the line for that Risen Phoenix. I got one hell of a story out of the auction, one that Harold still brags about at the annual tabloid conventions held on the planet Praxis.

 

“I take that bird wherever I go.”

 

Marlena smiles. “It must’ve seen all kinds of things by now. Do you have it with you now?”

 

“Of course.”

 

I take the projector disk out from a pocket in my Bermuda shorts as Marlena makes space in the center of the room for the light. I flip a switch hidden in the side of the device, and the room instantly fills with the Risen Phoenix’s plumage of bright red and orange. What must the world have looked like before asphalt and concrete covered the Earth? I’ve never thought of myself as a very sentimental person, but I always have an urge to weep whenever that Risen Phoenix leaps out of its projector like some kind of genie and fills the room with its feathers. It’s sickening to think how the world once supported such life, to think how my ancestors so cruelly kept choking mother nature’s throat until nothing but stinking humanity remained.

 

Marlena grins at her work. “Is the bird some kind of good luck charm?”

 

I shrug. “Maybe. Mainly, it just keeps me company. I watch it rise and fall from time to time to just keep me on my guard, to remind me about how lousy people really are, to remind me of all the things we’ve ruined during our millenniums.”

 

Marlena’s smile turns a little sad. “Oh, Zane, that phoenix bird never flew in any blue sky of old Earth.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The Risen Phoenix is from my lineup of holographic creatures inspired by myth,” she answers. “I needed to turn somewhere for inspiration after I worked through all the photographs I could find of Earth’s old wildlife. I was desperate to find material. So the idea came to me to turn to the books my father stocked in his library, books of gods and heroes teeming with monsters and beasts. Those books were crowed with the stuff humanity used to dream about before anyone knew the first thing about faster-than-light engines and colonized planets. I shaped dragons, uniforms, kelpies, trolls and more monsters than you can count. The Risen Phoenix rose from those efforts. I’m thrilled the bird found such a great owner. It’s always been one of my favorites.”

 

“Do you expect to find a creature worth the effort of shaping into light on Tybalt?”

 

“I do. Don’t you? Don’t you think the mudders must’ve found something incredible if they couldn’t kill it?”

 

“I’m sure they found something.”

 

Marlena laughs. “Does Zane Thomas, the star-hopping journalist who’s not afraid of any story, suddenly worry about monsters? Don’t you think we would’ve found the monsters by now if any of them exist?”

 

“I worry we already have,” I respond. “I worry we’ve just not recognized it yet.”

 

Marlena stares at me. She doesn’t give me one of those measuring looks a woman might give a man when she’s trying to determine if there’s something attractive beneath all the stench and all the flaws. Her eyes are going deeper. She’s trying to guess what kind of man might be standing in my sneakers when things turn dangerous.

 

“Why are you chasing to Tybalt with my father and me? You must’ve done your research, read at least one of my father’s hunting memoirs. You must know that he always sees a thing through until the bitter end. You have to know that he won’t let any concern for your safety keep him from finding that old thrill of the hunt. He’s starved for it now after all these years.”

 

“That’s why it’s going to be an incredible story.”

 

“Are stories the only things that pull you into the stars?”

 

“There are other things.”

 

Marlena chuckles. “Like what?”

 

“Let me show you.”

 

I pull a plastic bag of powder out from another pocket in my shorts. Like that projector, I take that powder with me on every leap I take through the stars. My hands have a lot of practice when it comes pouring that pixie dust into my palm, and I don’t spill so much as a mote onto the floor.

 

Marlena arches an eyebrow. “Are you serious?”

 

“Does anything about my reputation suggest that I’m not?”

 

Marlena takes a breath. “Sure, Zane, I’ve sneaked my fair share of gin cocktails back when I was an academy girl, but I’ve never done anything stronger than an alley vendor’s cigarette. What if something snaps in my mind? What if I toss that powder into my eyes and go blind?”

 

“Wow. That’s some kind of imagination for terrible impossibilities.”

 

“Your reputation precedes you, Zane.”

 

“I deserve that,” I respond. “But the monks of the Art Levant have crafted this. You can’t find safer drugs of higher quality anywhere else in the cosmos. The powder never gives too much, or too little. The monks are true masters. Join me and know why I would’ve sawed off my right arm if that would’ve been the price I needed to pay to get hold of that Risen Phoenix.”

 

I press some of the powder into Marlena’s hand before I toss my lot into my eyes. It stings for a second, but my eyes don’t roll into the back of my head, nor do I fall to the ground in convulsions. I smile when the warmth spreads from my heart into my fingers and toes, and I know it’s time for me to stare at the flaming shape of my cherished bird.

 

The Risen Phoenix doesn’t waste a second before leaping into its unending cycle of birth, death and resurrection. The bird would hardly move at all if it wasn’t for those monks of the Levant and their miracle powder shimmering upon my eyes. Wonderful as that Risen Phoenix appears without the pills, it’s nothing compared to what it becomes once my eyes start shining in hallucination. The holographic light jumps and swirls, turning and banking about the studio, and its slender neck reached back before silently screeching a plume of flame. I watch the phoenix catch fire before exploding into a mist of ash that falls to the floor, where a moment later a new phoenix rises to start the cycle all over again.

 

“What do you see, Zane?”

 

I only smile and nod towards that powder Marlena holds in her palm.

 

Curiosity remains one of humankind’s most powerful movers, no matter how many stars humanity charts within the heavens. Even though Marlena hesitates as she rolls that pill around in the palm of her hand, I know she’s going to toss that drug into her eyes and join me in attending the Risen Phoenix’s fabulous lightshow. I’m tuned in, and I’m turned on. I’ve never shared the full experience of my bird with anyone, and I suppose it’s because I’ve always been waiting for someone like Marlena Jackson with which to share it.

 

It doesn’t take long until the shine reaches Marlena’s eyes. Her dark eyes widen, and I know she watches the phoenix dance as I do. We’re holding hands a few minutes later. The clothes come off a few minutes after that, and it’s not long until Marlena and I are tossing along with that bird through that burning cycle of rebirth and death.

 

Marlena catches her breath to make an observation. “That phoenix is no less real than any of the other animals I’ve sculpted out of the light.”

 

I silence whatever words Marlena might still offer by pressing my lips to hers. Marlena’s right, and I don’t know if I want to cry out of sorrow or joy because of it.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 4 – Bringing Out the Big Guns

I cringe when I hear Teddy Jackson knocking on my cabin door. Marlena and I have been sharing a bunk almost every night during the three months it takes us to hop through the stars to arrive at Tybalt; and though I know Teddy’s likely been aware of our liaisons since that night Marlena and I watched her Risen Phoenix ascend and burn, I still feel like I need to do better to keep the intimacies I share with Marlena a secret from her father. Marlena chuckles as she feels my body wince against hers at the sound of her father’s knocking, and she’s laughing as she hops out of bed and grabs her pants and blouse from a pile of clothing heaped upon the floor.

 

“We’ll be slowing out of super-light speed within the half hour as we arrive at Tybalt.” Teddy’s deep voice easily penetrates the cabin door. “Mimosas and Bloody Maries will be waiting in the viewing cabin.”

 

Marlena emerges from my cabin’s private bathroom a few minutes later and winks my way before slipping into the empty hall. I give my cabin’s coffee pot the time it requires to bubble some caffeine before hurrying to the viewing room. Many a year has passed since I took my first trip into the stars, and the process of hopping through the heavens has lost that old charm it held for me before I first lifted into space. Star travel lacks any of the excitement all the old Earth movies assigned to it. Most passengers crowded upon starships find themselves in cabins without portals or windows through which they might spy on the stars beyond the safety of their ships’ hulls. A passenger feels no change of momentum in his or her knees, nor does he or she ever feel the slightest change of pressure in his or her ear at any moment during a trip through the stars. Even the first-class space tourist, who pays a steep ticket price for the privilege of a cabin with a view, feels disappointed to discover that the stars do not trail any pretty streamers of rainbow colors as a ship slows out of super-light speeds. Simple, utter darkness greets anyone peeking out of a ship’s windshield while travelling at speeds beyond that of light, and all the stars simply wink back into the heavens on that fraction of a second it takes a starship or star yacht to materialize from faster-than-light travel. A passenger misses the transition if he or she blinks. No one ever hears anything; even the hum of the engines never changes. One only waits for the necessary days to pass, isolated from any communication while the ship hops through the heavens. Even a short voyage through the stars can feel lonely.

 

So I take my time to savor my coffee before I make my way to Teddy’s viewing cabin. I’m surprised to find Teddy and Marlena dressed formally for the descent out of super-light travel, and I’m a bit embarrassed by wrinkled Tiki shirt and Bermuda shorts. Teddy and Marlena chuckle at my frazzled wardrobe.

 

“Have we completed the jump into the system?” I ask as Marlena hands me a celebratory Bloody Mary.

 

Teddy shakes his head. “Not yet, but we should look upon Tybalt at any moment.”

 

It doesn’t seem fair when Teddy and Marlena are too distracted by my entrance to miss that fraction of a second when all the stars wink back into the heavens beyond the viewing window. I nod towards the scene, and my hosts applaud as they look upon the gray and orange planet that quickly grows in the center of the viewing cabin’s window. Tybalt is only slightly larger than Earth; and though its distance from its solar center forces the planet to take twice the time to orbit its star than the year Earth requires, Tybalt’s climate is little different from that on our native planet thanks to the increased levels of energy jettisoned by the system’s bright star. There’s no abundance of water on Tybalt, but that’s a shortcoming that’s easily remedied by the League’s efficient shipments of space-mined water. Everything considered, Tybalt is as good of a match to our Earth as anything that might be found amid all the stars. The planet’s a real gem humanity was lucky to find. The obliteration contractors must sure resent whatever obstacle prevents them from achieving the Law of Extermination before they might open Tybalt to human settlement.

 

“I’ve never looked on a planet that’s in the middle of being cleansed by the obliteration contractors,” Marlena speaks as Tybalt continues to expand in our view. “I wonder if the rest of the planet was as orange before the first mudder arrived to ruin it.”

 

Tybalt is no blue marble like the Earth. Half of the planet is a dull, dark gray. That’s the half that’s been scraped clean by the obliterators’ mudders and machines. Tybalt’s other half is brilliant orange that pulsates from dim to bright in synch with an alien rhythm. The difference between the sphere’s two halves is a stark one, one emphasized by a sharp borderline that slowly turns in our view as Tybalt spins upon its axis.

 

“That rock must’ve really been something if it was ever completely covered in all that orange,” I remark. “It must’ve glowed like some kind of lantern. What do you think might account for such luminescence?”

 

Teddy shrugs. “It’s beyond my ability to guess. I’m no extra-terrestrial botanist. But I’d bet a pretty sum that we’ll find our prey along the border between that dark gray and that bright orange.”

 

I hardly have time to finish a Bloody Mary before Tybalt’s mass fills our viewing window as the star yacht quickly nears our destination. Dozens of blocky, windowless spacecraft pop into that window as we drift into orbit. The ships are massive, as large as the mightiest drone and scout carriers the League might martial. Yet I’m hard-pressed to count more than a few blinking lights upon any of them. They’re certainly not starliners filled with settlers waiting in orbit for permission to lower upon the planet and establish their new lives, for the decks of starliners team with lights spilling from dance parlors and viewing decks. Nor do I recognize any of those blocky shapes of ships as those matching the fleet’s cruisers and frigates. None of the craft sport any emblems or flags, nor do any have something as simple as an identifying number stenciled upon their hulls.

 

“It looks like we’re awful late to the party,” I observe. “I don’t recognize any of those ships greeting us. I hope that’s not going to be a problem, because all those ugly blocks are brimming with guns.”

 

Teddy smiles at me. “They’re not going to present any problem to this star yacht, Zane. Those are my firm’s newest ships assembled together in orbit. They’re gunships of the line. They might not be much to look at, but believe me, they’re quickly, tough and deadly.”

 

I grunt. “I don’t see any indication of docking bays or command bridges. I’d hate to be among any crew stationed on those ships.”

 

“Oh, that’s what makes those ships so especially rugged,” Teddy answers. “They don’t need any crew at all. Their systems are fully automated.”

 

The fine hairs along the back of my neck stand upright as I consider the missile racks and laser cannons protruding from every surface of those blocky ships. I hurry to the bar for another stiffening drink, and I don’t give that vending machine of a barkeep the time to do its job before I pilfer a bottle of bourbon to help myself to my need.

 

“Are you telling me those ships are robots?”

 

Teddy chuckles. “Heavens no, Zane. Even I can see humanity’s not ready to accept that. Those are drone ships. Think of them as really fancy, and expensive, remote control toys. The crew of a small command cruiser out there drifting somewhere between the ships controls everything. A crew that’s half the size of any needed by a League interceptor can command all those gunships.”

 

“What do you think all those guns are doing around Tybalt?” Marlena asks.

 

“I don’t know,” answers Teddy.

 

The star yacht’s intercom system whistles, and the voice of the ship’s navigator enters the viewing cabin.

 

“Fleet authorities are flashing us with their signal, Mr. Jackson. Do you want me to bounce it straight into your viewing cabin, or would you like me to redirect it onto a private line?”

 

“Straight into my viewing cabin will be fine, Navigator Omato.”

 

A piano melody crowded with popping static fills the chamber. Several minutes pass before a voice eventually addresses Teddy.

 

“Welcome to Tybalt, Mr. Jackson. This is Lieutenant Hasbro. On behalf of the League, let me welcome you and your crew to Tybalt. You’ve arrived right on schedule, and our ship scans show your star yacht’s functioning optimally. Everything looks to be in fine shape following your jumps through the stars. Where would you like land on planet?”

 

“We’ll be delaying our visit to the obliterators’ offices, Lieutenant. We’d rather make our way directly to the soup kitchen.”

 

Marlena glances at me. I shrug. I don’t have any problem with visiting the mudders. I’ve written more features about the clones than any other electronic tabloid reporter.

 

Popping piano music again fills our cabin while Teddy waits for a response.

 

“Mr. Jackson, are you sure you want to head to the clone working camp?” The Lieutenant’s voice returns after another delay. “The landing platforms there will likely be hard on your star yacht, and the streets are more than a little rough, with so many clones unable to work at scraping this planet clean at the moment. Then, there’s the typical stench found wherever the mudders congregate.”

 

“I’m confident my star yacht and my navigator can handle the landing, Lieutenant,” Teddy responds. “Nor will we wilt on account of the smell. I’m on the hunt again, and I need to dig a little information out of the mudders.”

 

Another delay of piano music passes. “Of course, Mr. Jackson. I would advise being careful if you’re planning to have any robotic sentries escorting your party. The mudders hate robots even more than we do.”

 

“Of course. Say, Lieutenant, where’s your command cruiser amid all these gunships?”

 

I notice how Teddy’s finger tap upon his leg as he counts the seconds that pass before the Lieutenant’s voice returns.

 

“We’re currently outside of Tybalt’s system, Mr. Jackson.”

 

“Where would that be?”

 

There’s another delay. “We’re not at liberty to say.”

 

Teddy winks at me. “Of course. You’re likely a few jumps away. Perhaps you’re stationed near the Sigma Anomaly. That would be a good place to mask your presence from any civilian scanners. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what’s with the presence of so many gunships in low orbit?”

 

“We’re simply rolling through some typical equipment testing.”

 

Teddy gives Marlena a troubled glance. “That’s strange, Lieutenant Hasbro, because the League fleet informed my offices that the gunships excelled at every system check upon delivery. Is there anything wrong with the ships that I need to know about?”

 

The piano plays a little longer this time before the Lieutenant returns. “Not at all, Mr. Jackson. You’ve supplied us with a fine fleet. We’re only conducting simple training. You’re all cleared to make your way towards the work camp’s landing platforms. Tugs will help guide you upon entry. Good hunting, Mr. Jackson.”

 

The background music vanishes from the intercom. Teddy stands before the window, perhaps considering the gunships circling around Tybalt. I wish I could read minds.

 

A smile remains on Teddy’s face as he turns his attention back to us.

 

“My guts tell me we’re about to go on one hell of a safari. We tested those gunships over and over before handing them to the fleet, and I’ve looked over the performance reports enough times to know that they’re everything the League requested. Zane, those gunships are so easy to operate that I could teach you how while we got blasted on bourbon and gin. I suspect there’s something incredible on that planet, something so special as to bring the big guns into orbit.”

 

I gulp. “And we’re planning to kill it with nothing more powerful than handheld laser cannons?”

 

“We are,” Teddy nods. “Imagine what something responsible for drawing so much attention is going to look like when it’s mounted upon my wall.”

 

Marlena and I refrain from sipping any further at our drinks after Teddy marches into the hall. I’m worried that I should’ve packed a full set of Space Marine body armor along with all my shirts and shorts. I remember what Marlena told me concerning her father, how she told me that Teddy’s going to see this expedition through to the glorious, or disastrous, end. I remember Marlena telling me that Teddy’s not going to settle for anything between total victory or utter defeat. I hope I’m ready, because I’m feeling like I’m about to go on one hell of an adventure for a story my readers aren’t going to forget – as long as I survive long enough to get it all down on glowing, electronic paper.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 5 – Scalping Faces

Teddy Jackson’s star yacht is as comfortable and cozy as any starship I’m ever going to have the opportunity to ride. Yet even a star-hopping veteran like myself gets to feeling a little claustrophobic after a few nights in the stars. Any starship gets to feeling cramped and small – especially when you’re sleeping with the captain’s daughter. So the air that greets us as we take the last step off of the landing platform makes me draw a deep breath, regardless if it carries a strong stench of the mudders along with it.

 

“What’s that smell?” Marlena’s face wrinkles.

 

I laugh. “That’s what a mudder town smells like.”

 

“Why do they smell so bad?”

 

Teddy chuckles in his silly, pith helmet. “It’s not the mudders themselves that smell so bad. It’s their stew.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Marlena growls.

 

“You’re smelling what the mudders eat,” I explain. “You’re smelling their bubbling stew, a concoction of synthetic proteins that’s far less expansive than anything even the most desperate of Earth citizens put on their plate. It tastes pretty terrible, though I’ve almost eaten enough of it by now to at least tolerate it. It’s the only food the mudders ever know, so they don’t have any problem with it. The mudders don’t eat for pleasure. They only eat for energy.”

 

“But that stench,” Marlena presses her hand against her nose. “Hasn’t anyone offered them something more palatable?”

 

“Don’t you dare,” Teddy frowns at his daughter. “The last thing I want to worry about while I’m on this safari is getting a lawyer out here to get you out of the prison the obliterators throw you into after they learn you did something as foolish as suggest to the clones that they add something to their diet other than mudder stew.”

 

“You’ll be surprised how quickly you get used to the smell,” I wink at Marlena.

 

“So what’s next, Dad? Is it on to the hunt?”

 

Teddy shakes his head. “Not yet. We still need something.”

 

That surprises me. “We don’t already have everything we need?”

 

“We have all the foodstuffs we need to keep us off the mudder stew,” Teddy replies, “and we have more than enough equipment and ammunition. But we’re short on information.”

 

I whistle. “And information never comes cheap from a bunch of mudders. They’re bred and trained to keep their mouths shut.”

 

Teddy nods. “Maybe so. But a mudder’s information will be honest, if you’re able to get it. I don’t want to depend on only what the obliterators tell us.”

 

Teddy stomps off towards the yellow tape that forms the flimsy cordon distinguishing where interplanetary League law ends and obliterator jurisdiction begins. Marlena hurries to keep pace at her father’ side, but I shout at Teddy’s back before continuing.

 

“Aren’t we going to power up the robotic sentries? I thought you’d have your best models at the ready to give us a little protection.”

 

Teddy waves his hand for me to follow. “I thought you didn’t like robots, Zane Thomas. Besides, you know better. I’ve read your stories about all the sex, drugs and rock and roll you’ve shared with the mudders. We wouldn’t have the chance to ask a single question if we came to the mudders escorted by an armed robot.”

 

Teddy’s right, but my courage still wishes we wouldn’t leave the landing platform without a pair of Spartan sentries rolling aside of us. I certainly know I don’t want to be left alone on a world still groaning in the obliterators’ first phase of colonization, when the mudders and machines scrape a world clean so that it may be rebuilt according to humankind’s preferences. The last story I wrote concerning the mudders didn’t shine a very complimentary light upon them, because I don’t worry about selling tabloids to illiterate mudders. A mudder never learns how to read anything more complicated than the simplest clone-symbol instructions stamped on a blueprint. Still, my journalistic instincts scream to me to be very careful about crossing paths with anyone my pen paints in a dim light. Robots or not, my sneakers squeak as I hurry to catch up with Teddy and Marlena.

 

No League customs agent waits beyond the yellow cordon to stamp our passports and inquire about our business. The obliteration contractors know the mudders are capable of protecting themselves well enough, and there’s no real loss to their bottom line should a mudder or two meet a violent end in a work camp that’s short on police forces. Thus resources aren’t wasted to check what few parties land on the mudder camp landing platforms. Unchecked, the mudders have built their cardboard and plastic shelters right up against that landing area’s cordon, so that one automated supply rocket exploding as it lifts from its launch pad would throw the entire mudder town into flame. The mudders never drive a mag vehicle, for the obliterators’ trucks carry the mudders to whatever work site waits for them. Without any need to make room for cars and trucks, the mudders have stacked their cardboard shanties so closely together that we have to proceed single file through the maze of streets. Without proper supervision, the mudders build everything crooked, and I wonder about the instinct that guides Teddy to take the turns that he does through all the pathways.

 

The number of mudders sleeping in the street, with half-empty bottles of mudder gin gripped in their hands, surprises me. It’s the time of day when the all the mudders should be mobilized in the field to eradicate all the traces of Tybalt’s original world. The mudders can turn self-destructive when they’re not working. All the stories I’ve handed to the electronic tabloids about my time attending the wild mudder parties have always skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller charts. I’ve never met anything that drinks as much as a mudder who doesn’t have to work in the morning. We keep stumbling upon slumped mudders as we progress through all that cardboard and plastic, and I occasionally catch the glimpse of a mudder face peeking at us from some corner in our pathway. I suspect that the monster Teddy comes to Tybalt to hunt is responsible for keeping so many mudders away from their labor.

 

“That looks ugly.” Marlena points to a splatter of blood on a cardboard wall in front of us.

 

Being the consummate hunter that he is, Teddy can’t resist the urge to dip a finger in the red fluid. “It’s still dripping. It’s got to be fresh. And there’s a trail winding along the ground.”

 

Once more, I shout at Teddy’s back as the gray-bearded man hurries to follow the blood splatter.

 

“You sure you want to go stomping ahead without calling for one of the robotic sentries? We might find out that something more than a mudder is doing all the bleeding.”

 

Our pursuit takes us through only a couple more twists and turns before we nearly stumble into the back of a man who’s got a handheld bolt cannon aimed squarely at a panting mudder’s forehead. Burn scars cover much of the man’s arms, and his dark beard is flecked with other scars. Guns, knives and wicked gizmos dangle from the man’s backpack and cargo pants. I’ve rarely seen men with shoulders as wide as those belonging to the man in front of us, and I know we’ve tripped upon a mudder bounty hunter at the end of his hunt. I take a breath. Bounty hunters, never famous for their congeniality, are least friendly when found at the end of a trail.

 

The bounty hunter doesn’t let one eye stray towards us as he keeps that gun levelled upon the mudder’s forehead.

 

“This mudder’s ring belongs to me.”

 

Teddy nods. “We’ve no intention of challenging your claim to it. We’re not here on the business of collecting renegade mudders.”

 

The bounty hunter has good reason to keep his concentration trained on the mudder’s forehead. He’s injured one of the larger clone templates, one of the heavy-lifting models that stands a little over seven-feet tall with all the mudder muscle and power required to carry components where mag lifts and trucks cannot reach. A bolt from the bounty hunter’s hand-cannon protrudes from the mudder’s chest, and I admire the mudder’s efforts to make it as far through the cardboard streets as he did with such an injury. I know as well as that bounty hunter that the mudder remains dangerous. The clone field models are as quick as they are powerful, and it wouldn’t take much of an effort for that mudder to snap any of our necks if his massive hands settled upon any of us.

 

“Then what the hell are you here for then?” The bounty hunter growls.

 

“We’re here to do a story.” I answer.

 

The hunter smiles at me. He recognizes my shirt, shorts and sunglasses.

 

“You’re Zane Thomas, the furious scribbler of the galaxy’s ragged edges.”

 

I wink. “In the flesh.”

 

“Man, your stories about the city burns of Helios was amazing.” The bounty hunter keeps his gun aimed squarely at the clone’s forehead. “Who knew writing could still spark the imagination?”

 

“I did,” I answer, “but thanks. Mind if we asked you some questions?”

 

The man pulls the trigger to his bolt-cannon, and the mudder’s neck snaps against the plastic wall behind him as a ten inch bolt drives clean through the mudder’s forehead and pins the clone to the building. Regardless of the risk, work as a mudder bounty hunter doesn’t soon make one wealthy, but there’s always work to be found as long as a hunter possesses a decent star-jump engine to travel alongside the obliterator ships travelling through the stars with their supply of clones. Mudders labor in the most demanding and dangerous of jobs, and foremen never hesitate to put mudders in jeopardy during any process of wildlife eradication or settlement construction. The obliterators’ clone breeding vats are always belching out mudders quicker than the pace of demand, and so mudder workers are easily, and cheaply, replaced. Obliteration and construction crews have no need for injured mudders. None of the contractors want to waste resources feeding the cheep stew to mudders who cannot work on account of a twisted ankle or broken limb. It’s common practice to simply kill hurt mudders in the field rather than spend any investment in medical care.

 

Sometimes, mudders hide their injuries long enough to finish their work shifts. Once returned to their cardboard shanties for their night’s worth of rest, those mudders sometimes try to hide in the crowded work camps, where they scrounge what scraps of mudder stew they can for their growling stomachs. The obliteration and construction crews don’t hesitate to post contracts for missing mudders the moment their clones fail to appear for morning labor.

 

Marlena’s face goes pale, and I grab her elbow so her buckling knees don’t drop her onto the ground. She’s looking at those bloody brain bits pasted to the plastic behind the dead mudder. Poor Marlena. She hasn’t spent enough time with the clones to realized she’s only looking at cheap mudder parts, no matter how all that gore looks just as red and pink as any that might explode from our bodies.

 

Teddy nods at the bounty hunter. “You shouldn’t have any problem claiming that contract with a shot as clean as that. Mind if I asked you some questions?”

 

The bounty hunter removes a giant knife from his belt. “Nah. I don’t mind, but I just jumped into this system, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to tell you. Let me claim this ring, and then I’ll talk shop.”

 

“What’s he doing?” Marlena’s whisper cracks as the bounty hunter begins his work.

 

“He’s taking his trophy.” Teddy answers.

 

The companies that genetically engineer the mudders stamp two blue rings around every mudder’s right eye before a clone is allowed to take its first step out of the birthing canisters. An outer ring of zeroes and ones relates the date and year of each mudder, its template model, and its expected working life – good information to possess in times when disputes concerning mudder warranties arise. An inner ring of hashes, when scanned by a clone engineer, details all the genetic tweaks and modifications unique to that clone – helping a buyer understand what jobs a clone might be best suited to complete. Those dual rings around a mudder’s eye helps humanity differentiate the difference between a man and a clone, so that it’s highly difficult for a clone to slip into the ranks of humanity’s population. Clones discovered to have altered their rings in any manner are executed without hesitation, and many a colonial planet reserves the hangman’s gallows for anyone found guilty in helping a mudder conceal its face rings.

 

Unlike humans, clones share common sets of fingerprints, and thus an examination of those face rings is the best method to identify individual mudders. I don’t mind watching the bounty hunter work his knife as he cuts into the mudder before pealing away a patch of the clone’s face that includes the blue face rings. I don’t think any less of Marlena for refusing to glance in the direction of such work. It’s easy to forget that mudders aren’t human before you spend enough time around them. All the inner muck beneath the skin looks the same as ours. But after a while, you start seeing all the viscera for what it really is, just motor oil and parts that happen to be tinted the same red as a human’s blood.

 

“You do fine work,” Teddy remarks just as the bounty hunter sets his patch of mudder face into an ice bag slung over his shoulder. “The obliterators shouldn’t have any problem reading those rings before rewarding your bounty.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve learned the obliterators will use any excuse they can to keep from paying the full sum posted on their contracts. That’s why I still use an old knife. The blade gives me more control than the laser scalpels the rookies pack in their gear.” The bounty hunter cleans his blade on the dead mudder’s tan work pants. “I do appreciate when someone recognizes the care I take in dressing my trophies. You said you were looking for some kind of information?”

 

Teddy nods. “How much have you heard about the commotion regarding the mudders and the native wilderness? How much do you know about whatever’s making the obliterators pause in their work?”

 

The hunter laughs. “You can come out and ask me. I’m a big boy. You can ask me anything at all about the monster.”

 

“What do you know of it?” Teddy’s eyes narrow as he presses.

 

“Nothing,” the bounty hunter chuckles. “The mudders keep real quiet. But I can tell you this, there’s something lurking on that borderland between the obliterator’s scraped landscaped and the orange wilderness. I’ve never known the mudders to be afraid of anything, being how fear’s an emotion that’s been bred out of them through all those generations of clones stepping out of the birthing canisters. Yet fear has flooded this mudder work camp. The mudders are hiding from their work in numbers I’ve never seen before, and most of the mudders don’t have an injury to use as an excuse. Bounty hunters from all over this sector of the galaxy are jumping to Tybalt. I’ve never seen so many bounties posted by the obliterators.”

 

Marlena forces herself to face the bounty hunter. “Have you tried returning the healthy clones to their contractors?”

 

The bounty hunter scratches his chin. “Though that’s a dangerous proposition, I tried at first, didn’t want to upset the contractors by unnecessarily harming their equipment. But I was warned no to bring a living clone back to the obliterators if I wanted to keep collecting paychecks on this rock. They made it real clear they expected me to kill the healthy ones just like I kill the hurt ones.”

 

“Why?” I ask. “I know the obliterators can easily afford new mudders, but that doesn’t mean the companies that hatch them are giving clones away for free.”

 

Teddy again scratches his gray beard. “The obliterators don’t want frightened mudders spreading any more fear through their clone ranks. The price for a handful of mudders is nothing compared to what it might cost the obliterators if they have to get rid of an entire batch of the laborers.”

 

The bounty hunter sheaths his knife. “Well, I can tell you that the fear’s spread all the same, no matter what the obliterators might say to the contrary. More and more mudders are going into hiding, and more and more bounty hunters are jumping this way.”

 

“You don’t have anything else about what’s got the mudders so scared?” asks Teddy.

 

“Not a thing,” replies the bounty hunter.

 

“Do you know where the mudders might be drinking?” I ask.

 

“I do, but you got to promise you’ll be real gentle with the gin joint,” the bounty hunter answers. “I’ve invested a good amount of coin in planting some mudder informants in that joint, and I’d sure regret losing any of them just as more competition arrives.”

 

“If you read my stories, you should understand I know my way around a mudder gin joint.”

The bounty hunter shakes his head. “Your stories, Zane Thomas, are the reasons why I haven’t already told you where to find it.”

 

“I could offer you a Spartan robotic sentry.” Teddy interjects. “That should more than make up for anything you might lose to the competition should your informants be compromised.”

The bounty hunter’s jaw drops. “You’re not serious.”

 

“I’m very serious.” Teddy scribbles something on an ancient, paper notebook he takes from his vest’s pocket. “Here’s my number. Go to the working camp’s landing platforms and show this note to the crew that greets you at the private yacht, should be easy to find surrounded by all the ugly supply runners. I’ll phone ahead of you and let them know you’re on your way. Call that number once my crew delivers your new robotic friend, and then you can tell us where to find that mudder gin joint.”

 

The bounty hunter smiles and forgoes any farewell to hurry away in the direction of the spaceport, gripping his that piece of notebook paper so tight that his knuckles turn white.

 

Teddy shouts at the man before the bounty hunter can disappear around a corner.

 

“And don’t forget you’re not going to want to arm that Spartan until I reset its calibration and security settings! I can do that from my phone, but I’m not going to do it until I find whatever information you provide us is legitimate!”

 

The bounty hunter vanishes and leaves the three of us alone with the carcass of that mudder that leans against a plastic shanty. We take several more twists and turns through the work camp until we find ourselves in a bit of a clearing, a good place to wait to hear back from the bounty hunter. It doesn’t take long until Teddy’s phone buzzes, until we have the directions we need to locate the mudders’ gin joint.

 

I keep quiet as we make our way through the narrow streets. I’m no longer the young man I was when I first started my career as a writer for the electronic tabloids. A mudder’s strength might never fade, but I’m well aware that I don’t have the same constitution I once did. That concerns me, because I’ve never visited a mudder gin joint without throwing myself to the drink.

 

And considering the impressions I’ve already made about what we might find frustrating the obliterators on Tybalt, I’m afraid I’m going to have to do my best to preserve a very sober mind.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 6 – A Mudder’s Price

It feels nice to contribute to our small group as we progress through the mudder’s work camp. Usually, I’m only tagging along with my audio recorder and digital notebook, an unnecessary observer during most of the events I cover. On Tybalt, however, I possess experience that’s very beneficial to our expedition. I’ve spent more time with the mudders than any good man should, and I’ve learned to recognize many of the subtle markers the clones employ to mark the trail to a mudder gin joint. The scratches of green and red markers on the bottom of the camp’s cardboard and plastic walls do not miss my attention, nor do all the small piles of gravel set before each of our needed turns. The bounty hunter’s direction placed me on the trail, and my keen nose for drink locks onto the track leading to the gin joint.

 

I raise a hand after another turn. “Everyone hold their breath. Do the two of you hear it?”

 

“It’s not very loud, but I think I hear a melody now that you say something,” Marlena responds.

 

Teddy slaps my shoulder. “I didn’t know I got a tracker when I invited an electronic tabloid reporter. Nice work, Zane. The mudder music should guide us the rest of the way to the gin joint.”

 

Mudder music is a jangling and clanging kind of a melody. Mudders keep the beat with bottle cap tambourines and polished steel drums. They turn plastic water bottles into wind instruments, and some clones posses enough know-how to make growling guitars out of optic wire and ready-to-eat meal tins. Mudders never sing. Maybe all the care the clone engineers invest in their genetic coding curses them with ugly voices, or maybe the mudders lack the courage to throw their voices into song. Still, playing that jangling and clanging kind of music is a mudder’s second favorite thing to do behind soaking up the booze.

 

We take a couple more turns down our mudder road, and the melody’s increasing volume welcomes us. The mudders have managed to drag to the middle of their camp a half dozen of the steel shipping containers the obliterators tie to the back of their star freighters to haul supplies into the system. It looks like the clones have used a cutting torch and welding rig, no doubt pilfered from the obliterators’ equipment inventory, to fuse the containers together into the largest structure in their cardboard community. A crowd of a dozen or more mudders share contraband cigarettes before the structure’s entrance, but none of them turn to pay us any attention as we approach the leaning square of plastic that serves as a mudder door. It wouldn’t do that group any good to attempt to deny us our entrance. They’re powerless to prevent us from going anywhere we desire. Now that we’ve found their gin joint, the mudders will assume that the best way to insure that we don’t go reporting the place to their obliterator foremen will be to invite us whole-heartedly to the party. The clones will be very happy to show us a good time in exchange for our silence. They’ll flood us with the cheap, mudder gin, and they’ll offer Teddy and myself the newest, unbruised models of female, mudder pleasure gals. Among the myriad types of dive bars I’ve visited during my hops among the stars, I regard a mudder gin joint as the safest and most affordable place to find a good time.

 

Still, I always remind myself that mudders seldom fear much, seeing how fright’s an emotion bred out of them. I remind myself I shouldn’t take anything for granted as long as there’s some monster out somewhere in the wilderness capable of sending so many mudders fleeing their work crews regardless of the bounty hunter threat.

 

“We’ve got good drinking company tonight, boys.”

 

A short and slender clone, likely one of the mudder models bred for mining and tunnel work, waves us welcome. The clone wears a fake mustache and wig of dark hair, not enough to shroud any part of those blue rings circling his right eye, but enough to threaten the clone with severe punishment should an obliterator foreman spy him manning the bar.

 

The clone wipes the bar counter clean to coax the three of us forward. “We’ve got plenty for everyone, as long as you can stomach our stink.”

 

That stench is thick in even my trained nose. The mudders are undoubtedly bubbling vats of their stew in some backroom of this gin joint. I rotate on my barstool and take a look at my surroundings. There appear to be two-dozen or so clones – all of them sharing the same three, template clone faces – milling about the main drinking chamber. There are few women with the same blonde hair, the same curvy figures and the same faces of blue eyes and soft lips, no doubt pleasure models who’ve come to visit on their nights off from the obliterators’ private barracks to hand out a little pleasure to warm bodies of their own choosing.

 

“How do you tell them apart, Zane?” asks Marlena. “They even dress the same.”

 

I chuckle. “Yeah, the obliterators have but one style of work clothes for most all of them. You can say fashion’s low on their list of concerns. You have to pay attention to the little things, like who’s got a grease spot on his knee, or which of the mudder girls wears the most eye shadow.”

 

“Do they have names?”

 

“They can,” I respond, “but the mudders don’t hesitate to change them from day to day just for kicks. The obliterators simply identify them by scanning their eye rings.”

 

The mudders pay us hardly any regard. They’re too occupied with getting to the bottom of their porcelain mugs of cheap, but potent, mudder gin. I envy those clones in some ways. They’ll drink all night long until their sight turns crooked; but give them an hour’s worth of sleep, and those hard-drinking mudders will wake up as if they never sipped a drop of alcohol the night before. I’ve nearly killed myself on a few occasions trying to keep pace with a mudder’s rate of drinking, but I’ve never managed to open my eyes with any of them the following morning.

 

They’ve welded together a small stage from metal refuse brought back from their worksites, and a band of clones grins as its members pound and pluck away on makeshift instruments. The music’s attracted a small group of the large, lifting mudders, and the ground shakes as the clones stomp their feet. I’ve always thought it a strange thing that the mudders, so carefully bred for optimal health and strength, possess so little rhythm. A couple more of the blonde-hair mudder women twirl in the center of that group, no doubt encouraging the males to fight over them.

 

Teddy smiles at the mudder behind the bar. “We’ll all have whatever you’re serving.”

 

“So long as you know it’s powerful drink,” winks the barkeep.

 

I smile. “We’ll drink it slow.”

 

The barkeep opens a faucet connected to a plastic pipe hanging along the ceiling and gravity pours three paper cups of mudder gin. Teddy and Marlena hesitate as they accept their drinks. Though I promised the last time I partied with the mudders to never again place that gin recipe upon my tongue, I slam my first drink down my throat and hold my paper cup out for a refill. Mudders regard it as poor manners to wrinkle one’s nose at the host’s first offered cup, and I tell myself I’m enjoying the warmth of that gin spreading through my blood for the good of the group.

 

“That’s a fine batch of gin,” I wink to the barkeep.

 

“Thank you for saying so, sir.”

 

Truth is that mudder gin always tastes the same, no matter what planet you’re standing upon when you swallow it, no matter what vat of mudders distill it. The bitterness of the first drink makes your tongue recoil, but it quickly throbs through your veins. A second paper cup gives your muscles a massage from the inside-out, a surprisingly pleasant feeling. The next drink will tickle your vision and summon halos around everyone’s head. I never know for sure what the drinks following that will do, and that’s part of the charm about partying with the mudders. Still, I hope we’re not planning to stay long with the clones, because I’m not sure I want Marlena to see that side of me that smiles when I drop the last of my virtues and throw myself head-first into partying with mudders.

 

Teddy leans forward and whispers to the barkeep. “We’re looking for information.”

 

I feel the mudder eyes on the back of my neck, but all the mudders turn away from my glance when I twirl around on my barstool.

 

The barkeep doesn’t give any indication that he’s heard Teddy.

 

Teddy sips from his gin and winces. “We’ve come a long way to reach this planet. We’re looking to finish the job all you mudders cannot. We aim to hunt the beast that scares the hell out of rest of you.”

 

This visit is off to an inauspicious start. We haven’t been seated at this counter for five minutes, and I’m already downing a second paper cup of mudder gin to soothe my nerves. The joint’s turned quiet, because none of those jangling instruments are making a sound. I feel the eyes burning again on the back of my neck, and none of those mudders look away when I turn around for a second time.

 

“I’ve no intention of telling the obliterators where they can find this gin joint,” Teddy still smiles, and I fear I’m going to hate that grin before we reach the end to our expedition. “I didn’t mean offense. I’ve killed my share of creatures scattered about these stars, and I know that sooner or later, every hunter meets the animal he can’t kill, sooner or later runs into the beast that it’s not in his nature to claim. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I aim to kill whatever creature’s obstructing your work on this planet. Money’s no concern. You name the price for your information, and I’ll pay it.”

 

The barkeep stares at his work boots. Teddy’s curiosity has frightened the mudder to the spine.

 

One of the large lifting mudders, as big as that clone claimed by the bounty hunter, mumbles at our back. “What good’s your money to a mudder?”

 

Another mudder who shares a face with the barkeep shakes his head at the larger clone. “Forgive my brother for his growl, sir, but you likely don’t possess the type of currency that’s needed to persuade us to tell you anything about the hampering the obliterators’ efforts to reshape this planet.”

 

Teddy doesn’t flinch. “What if I agree to pay the mudder’s price?”

 

I gulp down my third paper cup of mudder gin, and the halos are starting to swirl behind everyone’s head now. Teddy has to know what he’s asking for by suggesting he’ll pay a mudder’s price for the information he craves, but I can’t believe he’s just slammed that card onto the table. I’m sure Teddy Jackson was one tough son-of-a-bitch in his day. I’m sure old father Thaddeus trained his boy Teddy to do a hell of a lot more than simply defend himself in a street fight. But to offer to pay the mudder’s price is an offer to go to war. A man has to stand in the center of a circle of the big, nasty mudders. It’s not enough for a man to pommel the attacking clones into bloody silence. A man who wants to pay the mudder’s price has to show that he can take whatever punishment the mudders can deliver to him. And then, when that man’s trying to see through eyes that are swelling shut, when he’s trying to breath through a bleeding and broken nose, he’s got to break the will of his mudder attackers. I once watched an intoxicated and idiotic shipping jockey on the Rhodan colony offer to pay the mudder’s price so that he could take a clone pleasure gal away with him, so he could keep some warm comfort in his rig for those longer hops through the stars. That contest didn’t last long, and that shipping jockey likely went bankrupt from his medical bills and the time he had to spend away from his rig in healing stasis while his body accepted a set of artificial ribs.

 

The larger, lift mudder nods. “You pay that price, and then we’ll consider you another mudder brother. We’ll share our stew, and then we’ll answer whatever questions you still have.”

 

“Then it’s settled.” Teddy throws back a second paper cup.

 

Yet the mudders remain cautious. They can’t afford to attract the obliterators’ attention if they give Teddy just what he’s asking for and beat on him too badly.

 

The bartender politely offers Teddy a new cup of gin. “Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to be rude, but don’t you think you’re a little old to pay a mudder’s price? Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

“Of course I’m sure.”

 

Marlena glances at me. “What’s this about?”

 

“Your father’s offered to show the mudders that he’s as tough as any of them, and that he can take whatever the mudders can give.”

 

“I still don’t understand.”

 

“Basically, your father has to first get his teeth kicked down his throat, and then he has to turn around and do the same thing to the mudders.”

 

Marlena gasps. “That’s asinine.”

 

I shrug. “We’re talking about mudder custom. Did you expect differently?”

 

Marlena throws her first drink on the ground and jumps onto the counter. “He’s too old! I will pay the mudder’s price!”

 

My knees knock, but no matter how madly the cosmos turns, I don’t dare knock back another paper cup of gin after I so quickly burned through my first three. Even the cautious mudders can’t help themselves as they snicker and snort. They refuse to even look at Marlena.

 

Marlena shouts at the mudder women loitering around the stage. “And what do you ladies think? Wouldn’t you like to have a chance to show that a woman can take a mudder’s punishment? I suspect all of you have taken your share. Don’t you think a female should have the chance to give a little of it back?”

 

One of the female mudders, whose nose runs a bit more crooked than her peers, snarls a smile.

 

“Yeah, missy, I think you should have the chance to pay the mudder’s price,” and the mudder spits towards the feet of the nearest male clone. “None of you mudders hesitate to slap me around at the end of your work days, but you all turn coward once a woman says she’ll pay the mudder’s price.”

 

Marlena winks. “Good girls.”

 

I growl a whisper at Marlena. “You’re mad. They’re just happy to see something feminine other than themselves get a beating before the next sun.”

 

“We’ll give you that shot if that’s what you’re wanting,” speaks the large mudder.

 

The bartender squints at Marlena. “But know that you asked for it. Just promise us you’re not going to go running to the obliterators after we’re done with you.”

 

“I promise.”

Teddy helps Marlena off of the counter. “You sure you want to go through with this? I was the one who made the offer, and I’m the one who’s looking for information.”

 

Marlena shakes her head. “We both want to find that beast, and you’re too old for this kind of work. I don’t doubt you could pay that price when you were younger. But that’s not you anymore, father.”

 

Teddy smiles. “Then be careful.”

 

“Oh, I’m not going to let them do too much damage to this pretty face.”

 

All of the mudders hurry out of the gin joint to regroup at the back of the building of steel shipping containers, where they’ve built a caged combat ring out of cheap fencing discarded by the construction crews. The floor made of pressed plywood doesn’t look the least bit forgiving. That fist-fighting cage surrounded by rusting, metal benches intimidates the hell out of me, and I squeeze Marlena’s hand.

 

“Stop this. It’s crazy.”

 

Marlena laughs. “Then put it in your next book, Zane Thomas.”

 

I plead with Teddy. “You can’t let her enter that cage. The mudders will destroy her.”

 

“I doubt that very much, Zane. Marlena knows how to take care of herself.”

 

Though everything’s turning fuzzy thanks to the mudder gin, I can’t resist the temptation in my nervous condition, and I grab an unfinished paper cup out of a clone’s hand and drink it as quickly as I can manage while I follow Teddy and Marlena to the gate of that fighting cage.

 

I try to urge Marlena to change her mind before she steps through a gate. “You can still turn back. It doesn’t matter what the clones think of you if you do. They’re only mudders.”

 

Marlena ducks through the gate and enters the octagonal, fighting ring. The mudders politely wait as Marlena removes her riding boots and bends through a series of stretches. The mudders are strange like that. They have every intention of pounding on Marlena anyway they can, and they’re not going to hold any punches on account their adversary is of the finer sex. But the mudders will do their best to harm Marlena as kindly and politely as possible.

 

Marlena nods when she’s ready, and three of the big and nasty lift mudders stomp into the cage with their eyes glaring at Marlena, who takes a strange stance in the center of the floor. I hold my breath. It’s not going to be long now, and I raise a hand to catch another female mudder’s attention to receive my fifth serving of gin. My hands just need to hold a paper cup. I don’t dare drink that helping. I’m only sitting down, and my balance is still swooning. Only I just want a drink in my hand, just to know there’s something to push me deeper into oblivion when those mudders start blasting away at Marlena.

 

I pray she quits it all quickly, and I pray the clones remain sober enough to recognize the sense in stopping their beatings before they permanently ruin Marlena’s beauty that I’ve quickly come to cherish.

 

Teddy points as one of the large mudders stomps towards Marlena. “It’s on.”

 

I close my eyes. Unfortunately, mudder gin sharpens your senses just as it robs you of coordination. I vainly try to cover my ears at the sound of the first blows Marlena absorbs in that cage. I hear her grunt. I hear her pant for breath. Yet I don’t hear her scream or cry after those mudders deliver several volleys upon her.

 

I cautiously open my eyes and see that Marlena remains standing in the center of that cage. All three of the mudders circle her, snarling as they deliver kicks and punches all over their enemy. The identical faces of the lift mudders have never looked so ugly. I’m surprised to watch how deeply those faces flush from the exertion of their attacks. I’m surprised to notice how frustration comes to those faces when Marlena doesn’t fall. Marlena moves her body a fraction of a moment before the mudders deliver a strike against her. She turns and twists her arms and legs before receiving each impact so that much of the force is diverted away from her. It’s graceful movement, the gestures of some exotic martial art I’m sure her father has been teaching Marlena since she started to read and write. I wouldn’t want to tangle with her. She doesn’t dodge any of the blows, but she dictates where each of them land, regaining her composure with a quick breath before the next fist or foot can boom against her.

 

As impressive as her train might be, it’s not what the mudders are interested in seeing. They don’t care about how many years Marlena has practiced defensive moves and postures. Mudder clones are cursed with such short lifespans devoted fully to their masters’ labor that they lack much chance to develop the skills Marlena exhibits in that cage. Thus Marlena’s unobtainable combat craft doesn’t inspire them. The mudders want to see how well Marlena takes the punishment. They want to see how she bleeds. They want to see if she can humbly accept all the hurt a man demands a mudder take.

 

“You’re the cruelest kind of insane to let this continue,” I growl at Teddy. “Ask them to stop. The mudders will stop pounding on her if only you ask them to. They don’t want to give you any reason to inform the obliterators where they can find this gin joint. We’ll find your information someplace else.”

 

“I’ve watched her take harder blows from her robotic trainers,” Teddy answers. “Marlena knows what she’s doing. She’s only wearing out her attackers to take the sting out of their punches. Be patient, Zane. You’ll see Marlena give this crowd exactly what they want.”

 

I’ve been too concerned about what those mudders might do to Marlena’s face to recognize that strategy. I see how Marlena’s working her assailants just as my gin-soaked vision starts seeing streamers of light trailing behind all the punches and kicks those panting mudders are throwing at her. Marlena lowers her arms and sways at her hips as the mudders gasp for the breath required to refocus their efforts on her exposed face. No matter how well the mayhem might be unravelling according to Marlena’s plan, it’s not easy to watch as Marlena starts blocking punches with her face. Her face instantly starts to swell. A cut opens above her left eye, and a fist to her mouth sends a tooth arcing out of the cage – where a mudder quickly wraps the incisor in a cloth just in case we find a dentist on this rock of a planet with the skill to implant the tooth back into Marlena’s gums.

 

The mudders are starting to lose their tempers as Marlena refuses to fall. Marlena starts grunting, the first indication that she’s struggling to shake off the pain. One of the mudders attempts to grab her from behind, likely hoping to put her into some kind of a wrestling hold so that his friends can really increase their hurt. Marlena easily ducks away from the effort.

 

Teddy winks. How can he wink while the mudders are turning Marlena into a bloody mess?

 

“She’s done it now, Zane. She owns her attackers.”

 

I can’t belief how all the mudders drops their fists at the same time. Marlena raises her chin, and her battered face smiles. She’s taken everything the mudders had to throw at her, and those clones wheeze to catch their breaths while they lean forward with their hands on their hips.

 

I swallow that gin I’ve been holding without thinking. I’m going to pay for my thirst come the morning, but I want those streamers of light that infect my sight to burn nice and brightly for the next stage in this contest.

 

Marlena’s leg flashes upwards and forwards, catching one of the mudders square in the throat before he realizes the moment passed for him to transition from attacker into defender. Marlena twirls and strikes another in the knee before focusing all her momentum to slam that poor mudder’s face into the cage and crumpling him onto the ground. The remaining mudder attempts to throw a punch, but Marlena catches his arm and slams the clone over her shoulder, slamming her rival onto the wooden floor with such force that the entire cage shudders. She doesn’t release her grasp of that last mudder’s arm. Bending to a knee, Marlena twists, and I gulp at the sickening sound of bone snapping in that mudder’s arm.

 

The door to that combat cage was never locked, and Marlena exits that ring to return to us. She looks terrible. The mudders have smashed her nose, and one of the punches has ripped her right ear. Her right eye has swollen shut, and she’s struggling to squint through her left eye before it too closes. Blood matts her hair, and she’s limping upon one of her knees. Bruises cover her arms. She’s proven her mettle. She’s paid the mudder’s cost. But I worry that Marlena sacrificed too much of herself to give it.

 

And I worry that I’m going to feel as terrible as Marlena come the morning if I don’t lay off the mudder gin.

 

“You have a drink for me, Zane?” Marlena gives me a painful wink.

 

I hold out what remains in my paper cup. “The stuff’s going to sting really bad.”

 

“You think that’s going to bother me?”

 

Teddy ruins any chance for celebration when he points back towards the cage. “What’s that mudder going to do with that iron pipe?”

 

I raise my finger for another paper cup after I look towards the cage. No matter if it kills me, I’m going to need another drink.

 

“That’s the best medical support the mudders can give,” I sigh.

 

The mudder with the iron pipe walks to the center of the cage where the larger mudder sprawls upon the floor with his arm bent at a sickening angle. The mudder with the pipe kneels and whispers something in the injured fighter’s ear. Then, the mudder with the pipe stands tall before lifting that iron pipe far above his head. He slams it down upon the head of the injured mudder before I have time to wink, before Marlena and Teddy have any time to turn away.

 

“Why?” Marlena stammers.

 

“A mudder can’t work with an arm broken so badly,” I answer, “and the obliterators don’t offer their mudders any healthcare.”

 

“So the obliterators will just kill him?” Marlena’s hands tremble.

 

I shake my head. “No. The mudders do the killing themselves. They think there’s pride in it, and pride’s something a mudder seldom has any chance of knowing. The mudder with the pipe likely asked the hurt clone if he wanted to try to hide from the bounty hunters or if he just wanted to have it end real quickly when he bent down to whisper in his ear. The broken mudder made his own choice out of the possibilities set before him.”

 

Marlena hesitates to follow Teddy and me back into the gin joint. It’s not easy for her turn her back on that mudder corpse left in the fighting cage. The sight of that dead clone likely hits her harder than any of the other punches she’s taken in that cage, and it’s going to leave a bruise on her that isn’t going to heal along with all the other hurts delivered upon her body. That dead clone’s just another part of paying the mudder’s price.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 7 – Bruised but Beautiful

I can hardly hold my eyes open when we take our seats around a large, metal table on coasters the mudders pull into the gin joint’s central drinking room. Everything’s really fuzzy, and the halos are starting to illuminate that set of common, mudder faces. Teddy’s going to have to pinch me from time to time to keep me from falling asleep so that my face doesn’t slam onto the table. If I can keep my eyes open, I’m in the perfect mindset for mudder stories, for the strong gin has blurred the distinction between reality and dream. Whatever the mudder barkeep has to share regarding the beast that Teddy’s come to Tybalt to kill is guaranteed to grip my imagination, so much so that any nightmare the tale might summon is likely to be magnified. Yet I wouldn’t want to hear the story in any other way. I love the thrill of the dream too much to deny it. I love the magic too much to resist.

 

“Tell us everything you can about the beast,” Teddy sips at his gin. “The smallest detail might prove to be the one we most badly need.”

 

I peek at Marlena. Her face looks like a beaten pillow, and she’s wincing as one of the female mudders stitches shut the gash above her left eye. The mudders, especially their females, are adept at sewing wounds closed. They have to be as proficient in first aid as they can if they hope to avoid the obliterators’ executioner after they suffer injury. The mudders never use anesthesia. The mudder’s gin is the only thing they employ to ever dull any pain. Marlena’s fight in the cage might be finished, but she’s still got to endure all the hurt of being stitched back together until we might find the opportunity to find the finer services of a hospital’s healing chamber.

 

The clone barkeep sits at our metal table before beginning.

 

“The obliterators set all us mudders free to eradicate whatever native life we came upon on Tybalt. Tall grasslands covered the land during those first days, grasses so thick that a mudder could hardly push his way through them. But the grasses took easily and quickly to the flame because of the high amount of oxygen in this planet’s atmosphere, and we made easy progress through the first stages we needed to complete to meet the Law of Extermination so that the settlers could set down on planet.

 

“We just set everything on fire and followed the flames. It’s a lot easier to keep safe with fire when you don’t have to worry about protecting anything but yourself. But we hardly came across any wildlife at all. A few small lizards hissed at us in the grass. An occasional cloud of bugs lifted from our footfalls when we stepped on swampy places hidden beneath the grass. We didn’t trip across anything larger. Save for all of those grasses, this planet seemed empty. We didn’t expect to need much time before we got everything burned and scraped away like the obliterators required. We certainly didn’t notice any indication that there was any kind of animal on Tybalt that colonists would have to fear.”

 

“When did the mudders start having problems?” Teddy asks.

 

“Our fires stopped burning when we arrived at sector in the Southern hemisphere. That’s where we discovered the grove, a forest unlike anything any of us clones have ever seen. I think it confuses the obliterators more than it confuses us. The grove’s trees rise for miles. They grow beyond the very clouds far overhead, and vines drop from all those branches down to the ground, so that the grove seems shrouded with orange curtains. Strange bulbs, some the size of pearls and others the size of boulders, grow from those descending vines. None of our saws do any damage to the plants. The vines only tangle all the blades we wield against them until our tools’ motors are overwhelmed. Cutting torches and laser scalpels have no effect at all. We can’t find anything capable of cutting through an inch of that grove.”

 

“How large do you think the grove is?” I ask.

 

“Close to a million square acres, give or take.”

 

Marlena shakes her head and mumbles. “A million acres? It must be larger. Half of Tybalt appeared covered in orange when we approached.”

 

The mudder barkeep shrugs. “I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’m only relating what I’ve heard.”

 

Teddy nods. “Have the obliterators tried using the fleet to bombard the grove from low orbit?”

 

“Oh, they put on one hell of a light show,” snorts the mudder. “They must’ve opened their laser batteries onto the grove a dozen or more times. None of their ordinance had any impact on the grove. The forest just seems to absorb whatever energy assaults it. The obliterators even detonated a thermo-nuclear warhead over the grove, and all that fire still didn’t char any of it. Nor was there any indication of radiation following that explosion.”

 

Teddy shakes his head. “The obliterators must’ve been desperate to risk such contamination of a new world, especially one that matches Earth’s parameters as closely as Tybalt does. Not to mention that every strike against that grove must’ve cost the obliterators a fortune.”

 

“That’s why the obliterators keep pushing us mudders harder and harder,” the barkeep continues. “Our crews came to an absolute standstill at the border of that grove after we raced so quickly across the grasslands. There are rumors that the League’s established a scientific team at that borderland, which would make the obliterators even angrier. I’ve heard mudders sitting at this bar whisper that they don’t think the grove’s native to Tybalt. I’ve heard those mudders whisper they overhead those men and women stationed at that science outpost saying the grove’s some kind of extra-terrestrial life that’s migrated somehow to Tybalt. Some mudders claim the obliterators are arguing with that scientific crew over whether, and how much, of that grove deserves to be preserved.”

 

Marlena bruised face turns towards her father’s. “Preserving life native to this biosphere would keep the planet closed to human colonization according to the Law of Extermination, and the League couldn’t force the obliterators to preserve anything unless there was reason to think the planet possessed any intelligence equal or superior to our own.”

 

I rub my forehead. My buzz is starting to fade into ache. “And what happens if that grove proves to be as alien to Tybalt as we are?”

 

“I’m only a mudder, so I have no idea,” the clone shrugs, “and remember that I hear only rumors.”

 

Teddy scratches his beard. “Rumors about a beast were what pulled us out to Tybalt. What can you tell us about the creature said to so badly frighten the mudders?”

 

The mudder nods. “It wasn’t long until the obliterators started pushing us into the grove. They simply shot any of us who paused before stepping through those hanging vines into the grove. For a while, none of those mudders ever returned, so the obliterators started importing mudders from other star systems so that they could keep pressing us forward into those vines. The obliterators gave their mudders radio and camera equipment so the clones might communicate back to them whatever they found. They clipped tracking chips onto the ears of their mudders so they could follow their route through the trees. Only, the obliterators never received a signal of any kind from the mudders they pushed into the grove. They just kept pushing more and more of us clones into the vines.”

 

“So where have all the rumors of this monster lurking on the planet come from?”

 

Teddy leans forward. He’s got an excellent Poker face, but I still see he’s getting anxious. He’s starting to fear he’s come all this way out to Tybalt to chase nothing more than a fiction.

 

“Eventually, the mudders started to shamble back out of the grove,” the mudder sighs. “The clones returned to describe a grove filled with the heads of strange animals preserved in amber. They mumbled about a creature of shadow who stole their faces. They returned to ramble on and on that the dark monster hungered for new faces, that it was about to come out to search for new ones. Some of the mudders described the beast as a kind of vulture fluttering way up high in the trees. Other mudders described a kind of giant and black cat that pounced from the branches. The mudders who returned from the trees kept claiming the grove was tired of the same, clone faces, that the grove wanted new trophies to satisfy its curiosity.”

 

“What happened to those mudders?” Marlena asks.

 

The mudder pauses. “They wouldn’t go back into the grove. They preferred to be executed for refusing the obliterators’ orders to do as commanded. Do you know of any planet were a mudder is allowed to refuse to follow as he or she had been bred to do?”

 

“That must’ve been when the obliterators contacted me about their problem.” Teddy leans back into his chair.

 

“When did they reach out to you?” The mudder asks.

 

“They told me some animal was holding up their efforts four months ago, and I’ve spent the last three with my daughter and friend jumping all the way out here.”

 

The mudder shakes his head. “The obliterators knew of that monster for well over a year.”

 

“Why did they wait so long before reaching out to me?”

 

The mudder shrugs. “It’s not a mudder’s place to second-guess what motivates the obliterators. Maybe they didn’t want the rest of the galaxy to know they were having problems on Tybalt. Perhaps the beast changed their minds when it started crawling out of the grove around the time the obliterators reached out for your help.”

 

Marlena gives me a nervous look through her swelling eye.

 

“Where has the beast struck?” I ask through the mumble of gin.

 

“It’s hard telling,” the mudder replies. “There are so many rumors, and the grove remains very far away. Still, there are rumors that the monster has reached this camp of cardboard shanties.”

 

I peek at Teddy. I wonder if he’s having any second thoughts about leaving his Spartan sentries at the landing platforms. It would be nice to have their quiet company of armaments at my side right about now when my imagination starts to whirl out of control over rumors of a monster slinking about the clone work camp. Maybe the mudders might be frightened enough by their own rumors to turn a blind eye towards the presence of robots in their community.

 

The mudder stands from the table. “That’s all I’ve heard. The woman could use something in her stomach to help her regain her energy. She’s going to need it to help with the healing. The man in the garish shirt’s going to need something other than gin in his blood if he doesn’t want to languish in hangover after a few more hours. A little food will do all of you some good. I know it’s only a gin joint, but stay and share in some stew. Consider resting here in the back chamber before the sun rises. You’re not going to have much time to rest if you try making your way back to the landing platforms at this hour.”

 

“You’re right, and we’d be grateful,” Teddy agrees.

 

“I recognized you as a wise man,” comments the mudder, “a shame the obliterators don’t seem to share your wisdom.”

 

The three of us are too hungry to protest as a female mudder emerges from a back room to deliver us all steaming, clay bowls of pungent mudder stew. I always keep a salt shaker and a handful of cheap soy sauce packets in my pockets so that I’m prepared for any occasion when I might need to share a meal with the mudders, and I’m very grateful when our hosts offer us a large bottle of hot sauce to douse over our stew. Teddy and Marlena might not carry any cumin or pepper with them, but they don’t say a word as they slowly chew away at the meal. They’re probably just as tired and hungry as I am.

 

Marlena and Teddy also keep any reservations they might have about spending what remains of the night sleeping in a mudder’s gin joint to themselves. I’m still happy to rest anywhere other than a starship. Besides, I’ve spent my share of nights sleeping off the gin in clone hovels far worse than this building, and I know how to make myself comfortable in the least-accommodating of places.

 

  • * * * *

 

The mudder cot I claim for my night’s bed doesn’t stop spinning after I rest my head on my balled-up Tiki shirt I employ as my pillow. The mudder gin burns my blood too thin, and my dreams, whether they sway towards the light or the dark, are going to be powerful. I yearn for Marlena’s company, because I think her warm body, as bruised and battered as it may be, will help my sleep steer clear of the nightmares. Yet the presence of a half a dozen snoring mudders in the chamber, and the fact that Teddy sleeps on the cot right next to me, hardly provides me with the privacy I need to ask for Marlena’s company.

 

Though the lack of privacy doesn’t stop a pair of mudder lovers from unabashedly moaning and panting against one another, the room eventually quiets and slows enough in its spinning to give me a chance of falling into sleep.

 

But that’s when the dark mist enters the chamber like an untethered shadow.

 

The darkness rolls into the room through the spaces between the wall and the crookedly hung metal door. The shadow glistens slightly as if it’s moist, and the way it swirls reminds me of an oily kind of smoke. I can’t move as I watch that darkness coil and slither upon the floor like a snake. I feel cold, and it feels like a heavy, invisible stone has been set upon my chest to keep me pinned upon my cot.

 

The darkness gathers the form of an alien figure that reminds me of some kind of long, black feline hunter whose pictures are preserved in another stack of Earth’s lost wildlife archives. The feline’s legs are slender and long, and its muscles coil in pent energy as it lurks about the chamber, sniffing at the sleeping faces of the mudders sleeping upon the ground. Six long feelers of smoke reach from the creature’s back as if they’re stretching extensions of the feline’s misty spine. The feelers pull back bed sheets and sweep away whatever hair falls across the faces of those dreaming within the room. No one stirs as that feline steps among them. No one’s breathing changes. Everyone but me seems oblivious to the creature who visits us in the night.

 

My heart pounds when that dark shadow creeps away from the mudders and approaches Marlena’s cot, its feelers pulling her shoulder so that the creature’s maw can regard Marlena’s bruised visage. The feelers stroke her swollen cheeks as the form’s shape softens again towards mist. I fail to scream, or even mumble, a warning to Marlena as the feline stands over her as its feelers trace the shape of her cheeks and chin. Marlena’s beauty captivates it, regardless of the bruises and gashes. The feline shimmers and gathers back into a cloud of oily smoke, which retreats from Marlena’s cot before retreating beneath the crookedly-hung door through which it first entered the room.

 

A clanging, metallic rhythm suddenly thunders throughout the chamber just as my heartbeat is about to settle. The weight on my chest vanishes, and I roll off my cot and plant my face on the ground as projectiles explode through the steel walls and shriek through the chamber.

 

Teddy shouts over the din. “These rounds are from a Spartan’s assault barrel! Quick, Marlena! Toss me your digital notebook!”

 

Marlena pulls a glowing computer tablet from beneath her pillow as the rounds shriek throughout the chamber. I know enough about sentries to recognize that an armed robot is unloading its ordinance in an indiscriminate sweep of its surroundings, employing a pattern of fire meant to flush threats out of hiding so that a sentry’s scanners can target precise rounds onto the objective, and I know that it won’t take long before so many bullets are pumped into this chamber that neither human nor mudder have much any chance for survival. A mudder near the doors grunts as a round breaks his body and throws him across the floor. Marlena slides the tablet across the floor to her father, and Teddy’s fingers dance wildly upon the glass just as I start to feel the heat of so many bullets whizzing close to my neck. I hold a breath, and the room suddenly quiets.

 

“Marlena, are you alright? Zane?”

 

“We’re both fine!” Marlena squeezes my hand when she sees I’m unharmed.

 

Several of the mudders are not as fortunate. A Spartan’s assault barrel works like a terrible saw, and the effects of such a weapon are unpleasant. Though I learned long ago that a mudder is less than human, even my experienced heart feels ashamed for the amount of hurt we’ve delivered to their gin joint, to the only place where a mudder might ever hope to find a bit of solace.

 

“It’s got to be that Spartan I handed over to that bounty hunter,” Teddy doesn’t waste any time apologizing to the mudders as he hurries back into the narrow streets of the cardboard community.

 

“Do you think that bounty hunter would’ve just unleashed such weaponry in the middle of this camp simply to flush out his prey?” Marlena asks.

 

Teddy shakes his head. “I certainly doubt it. He’d have to compensate the obliterators for any mudder he might’ve accidentally struck with that sentry. There’s got to be a better reason why that Spartan unleashed its sweep.”

 

“Maybe your sentry simply blew a fuse and went mad.” I suggest.

 

“Impossible.” Teddy growls.

 

Pain bellows in my hangover skull as I hurry to keep pace with Teddy and Marlena as they run back through the narrow streets. We’re following the mudders who are spilling out from their cardboard shelters hauling buckets of water as they run towards the orange glow of a fire hovering above the camp. We trip over many more dead clones. I doubt there were any walls within the clone community capable of stopping the rounds unleashed by that sentry, and those bullets likely shredded through plenty before finally losing momentum well beyond the work camp’s final street.

 

“Stand down, Spartan!” Teddy’s voice shouts just as we enter a charred section of the camp, where a ten-foot tall, robotic sentry stands in the center of its destruction.

 

Spartan sentries are designed to appear intimidating, with the thought being that a frightful appearance may avoid conflict before the robot needs to unleash its harrowing arsenal. Often, a dozen weapon appendages are affixed to the machines, so that the sentry looks a little like a spider set upon a pair of triangular treads. A crown of sensors and antennae encircle every Spartan’s head, an appendage that houses no delicate software, nor one that serves any other function other than to provide a canvas upon which Teddy Jackson’s manufacturing plant airbrushes a sneering, white skull. Thankfully, the Spartan that greets us in the center of a burned ring of cardboard shanties hasn’t been armed to the teeth. Only a pair of assault barrels have been affixed to the sentry, but those barrels would’ve been more than enough to ravage the work camp had Teddy Jackson not happened to be on planet to silence the robot’s guns with his override instructions.

 

“Doesn’t look like the bounty hunter’s going to be able to tell us what happened,” Teddy raises a hand to warn us of what he’s found.

 

Marlena has more sense than I do, and she retreats a few steps and turns away from the body slumped at the base of that sentry’s treads. The bounty hunter’s face is missing from the slumped corpse; it’s been ripped away as if it was some kind of scale or hide to reveal the macabre skull beneath, tinged red with the dead man’s blood.

 

Teddy removes his jacket and gently settles it over the skull. “Spartan, what did your user tell you to target?”

 

Lights don’t blink on the Spartan when it answers, but I can’t help but imagine the voice from the machine’s internal speaker somehow originates behind that white skull spray-painted on the sentry.

 

“The user didn’t instruct me to target anything, Mr. Jackson. I initiated a tactical sweep.”

 

Teddy walks around the Spartan, searching for any signs of damage. “Why did you take the initiative for such a decision?”

 

“My sensors could not locate the enemy that was harming my user,” the robot replies. “My sensors recognized the injuries delivered upon my user, but my sensors could not track anything responsible for the harm. Thus, I initiated my tactical sweep in an effort to save my user from further hurt. I failed in this, Mr. Jackson.”

 

Listening to that robot creeps the hell out of me. I don’t like thinking that the sentries now rolling off of Mr. Jackson’s production line are now taking the initiative to decide when and where to unleash their furious power. I think I like even less the idea that the robots are starting to distinguish the difference between success and failure. Microchip minds like the one installed in the Spartan in front led to the disaster on Turlag asteroids.

 

I flinch when Teddy climbs upon the sentry’s back. “The Spartan’s sensor array appears undamaged, and everything appears to be working at optimal ranges. Spartan, you can’t tell me anything about what attacked your user?”

 

“I can only tell you that my user was in distress.”

 

I was plenty terrified enough by the shadow creeping around our mudder sleeping chamber, and Teddy’s conversation with nearly two tons of armed Spartan sentry sends me shivering into a fearful, cold sweat. I’m no wilting flower. I cut my teeth covering stories about conflicts and blood grudges my rivals were too terrified to follow. And I’ve spent plenty of time with the rough and dim mudders. But all the drink, all the gore, all the shadows, and all the talking robots are finally too much for me. I walk to a corner of cardboard walls and vomit the drink and the fear that fills my belly and makes a ruin of me.

 

So I’m already on my hands and knees when everything around me starts humming. The cardboard and plastic walls shake, and I look into Tybalt’s sky to see a line of grav-copter lights rushing our way. The mudders stop their efforts to extinguish the fire caused by the Spartan’s weapons sweep and run for cover as several of their cardboard walls take to the wind. We’ve finally attracted the obliterators’ attention.

 

I put my head between my knees as debris flies around me. Marlena takes my lead and does the same.

 

But that old fool Teddy Jackson just stands up straighter and waves.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 8 – To Rebuild Paradise

The morning following my drinking binge with the mudder gin proves surprisingly pleasant. The obliterators have poked an IV needle into my arm, which works wonders to rehydrate my inflamed brain and release the pressure on my skull. Nor do my eyes ache so badly as to force me to wear my darkest pair of sunglasses to avoid the sting the slightest bit of light can deliver to a mudder-gin hangover. Instead, my eyes look unobstructed upon a medicine as potent as any of the electrolytes the obliterators’ supply to my blood.

 

Suspended in the nutrient-rich, amber fluids of a healing canister, Marlena blows a kiss in my direction, and I do my best not to stare at her naked body floating within the liquids. Though her father Teddy stands right next to the wheelchair that supports me while the IV helps me recover from my intoxication, it’s very difficult to resist the urge to lean upon the healing canister and press my palm to the glass while Marlena does the same. Marlena’s dark hair lifts in the canister’s healing currents that caress her skin and heal all the bruises and scrapes the mudders delivered upon her the previous night. The swelling has vanished from Marlena’s face, and I’m amazed by how quickly the healing canister erased those streaks of purple and yellow that blossomed upon her cheeks after the obliterator doctor straightened her broken nose. Her eyes are no longer black and closed, and even that playful glimmer has returned, though it’s been no more than twelve hours since the mudder fists delivered such harm to Marlena’s visage.

 

I’ve made love with Marlena during many of those nights we drifted upon her father’s star yacht while waiting to reach Tybalt, our desires no doubt motivated into our sudden tryst by the expectation of the coming hunt. I’ve run my fingers through the dark hair floating in that canister; I’ve trailed my hands along all the contours of Marlena’s figure. Still, I fear that I failed to appreciate the beauty Marlena offered me when she took me into such embraces. Only as I watch her heal do I sense the depth of her grace. She took a bad beating for her father’s safari and though modern, medical science might account for the healing canister’s magical ability, such technology cannot claim any credit for how Marlena’s soul recovers so completely from her hurt to seemingly spill from her eyes and fill that canister with light.

 

So it’s very difficult indeed to avoid staring at Marlena while her father stands next to my wheelchair, chatting with the obliterator doctor while waiting for his daughter and his tabloid reporter to recover from the fighting and folly that they engaged in during the night.

 

“How much longer do you think Marlena will need to remain in the canister?”

 

The young doctor scribbles something upon his digital clipboard before adjusting some knobs and recalibrating some numbers glowing on the healing tank.

 

“At least a few more hours, Mr. Jackson.”

 

Teddy frowns. His daughter heals from the injuries she suffered in his cause, and still Teddy pushes to get back on the trail of whatever creature we’ve come to Tybalt to hunt.

 

“All the bruises seem healed well enough,” Teddy replies, “and you’ve promised there’s not even going to be scarring. Why a few more hours?”

 

The doctor shakes his head. “Believe me, Mr. Jackson, you’re not going to find a more efficient healing canister on any other obliterator planet on the fringe of the charted galaxy. Your daughter suffered more than bruises. She suffered several cracked ribs, with a hairline fracture of the jaw to go along with the teeth she lost. I’ve also no doubt that she suffered a concussion, and regardless what you may think, there’s no such thing as a minor concussion. She’s fortunate she didn’t suffer more severe injuries beyond this healing canister’s capacity. Beyond this device, there’s little more we might have given her in means of medical care.”

 

Teddy’s smile returns. “Of course. Forgive me if I gave any sense I was pushing you. I’m most grateful the obliterators have offered their medical services to Marlena, and to Zane.”

 

The doctor flashes a pen light into my eyes. “I’d recommend you take another bag of solution, Mr. Thomas. Another round will do your body wonders as it recovers from so much gin.”

 

“I’d be very happy for another round,” I chuckle.

 

“Go ahead and give it to him.” Teddy answers as if he’s in charge of the decisions relating to my medical care, “seeing how we’re going to need to wait a while longer to get Marlena pieced back together.”

 

No matter what expression Teddy employs to mask his emotions, I know this delay from the hunt angers him. We have little way of knowing what the obliterators might choose to do with us once that doctor decides that canister has sufficiently healed Marlena. Regardless that the obliterators invited Teddy to Tybalt to kill the creature that vexes their mudder annihilation crews, they might decide that Teddy’s decision to gift a Spartan sentry to a bounty hunter proves Mr. Jackson lacks the wisdom to conduct his hunt without inflicting more harm than good. The obliterators might decide it a better idea to turn Teddy away, forcing the aging man to wait all over again for an opportunity to engage in a new safari. The way Teddy paces about the room while Marlena continues to wink my way convinces me that he’s very worried about such a possibility. It wouldn’t surprise me if the obliterators cut this story short. Perhaps such an abrupt end to the hunt might finally convince Teddy Jackson of the foolishness, and the danger, inherent in putting too much trust into a robot’s ability to make good decisions.

 

“For goodness sake, Zane, stop sitting there with your eyes fidgeting all over the place like some academy brat who’s just copped his first feel! Stop trembling as if I’m not aware of the pleasure you’ve been sharing with Marlena,” Teddy suddenly snaps the moment the young doctor exits the room. “The two of you are adults, or at least Marlena is. And if you’re not, then I’ll buy you a return ticket aboard an empty construction freighter so you can get back empty-handed to Mr. Higgins.”

 

I scowl as a bit of my headache returns. “You were the one who chose to hand an armed robot over to that bounty hunter. No reason to take your frustrations out on me. I was only trying to show a little respect.”

 

Teddy scoffs. “You were afraid of getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar, Zane Thomas. I don’t care if you and Marlena think it best to keep your tryst a secret from me, but I’ll not have your eyes turning meekly away from mine every time I glance your direction. I can’t afford you turning away the moment I’m trying to silently convey something on the hunt. Besides, it’s not like you’re stealing anything away from me. Marlena’s nothing you’ll ever have the chance of taking. She’s too much to be any trophy mounted in your collection.”

 

“Fine,” I growl. “Getting it out in the open means one less headache I have to hold in my head.”

 

Teddy glares at me, but he grins when my eyes don’t flinch from his.

 

“See? That’s not so hard, Zane. No more peeking away from me like a lovesick puppy. Marlena knows what she’s doing, and believe me, you’re far from the first paramour she’s invited for a little company to help spend the time while jumping between stars. Nor will you be the last. She’s not waiting for any man to claim her. She’s no one’s prey, because my family raises only hunters. You’d be an idiot to think that Marlena’s some fragile doll in need of anyone’s protection, especially if you still think that after her performance in that mudder cage.”

 

I take a long, hungry look at Marlena as her body sways in the canister’s amber fluids. I’ve not been honest with myself. I’ve been trying to fool my heart into believing that the embraces I share with Marlena are only temporary distractions. I’ve ignored the truth my heart returns, the truth that I’ve grown attached to Marlena Jackson, the truth that I now harbor hopes that our lovemaking might survive beyond this expedition. I realize that I’ve tricked myself into believing the impossible, that I might claim Marlena as my greatest trophy, as a lover to make my manhood swoon. I’ve come to believe I can claim Marlena’s beauty and caresses for myself, so that Marlena’s presence upon my arm will wash away any of my insecurities. If I cannot run as fast as another man, or if I cannot fight as ferociously as a rival, it would not matter so long as Marlena waited in my bed. I’ve been a fool. Marlena Jackson hasn’t been created to provide mankind with any such assurances. Her beauty doesn’t shine to simply mask mankind’s shortcomings.

 

My desire nonetheless burns for her. How far would I go to claim her? Would I not happily build the cage to imprison her if such a trap was possible? The pursuit would be vain. In the end, Marlena would escape or devour me. But still, as I watch her body float in that healing canister, I desire her more than ever. Marlena again winks at me. Certainly, she realizes I’m the one who’s been caught within a cage.

 

Teddy laughs at me. “And you worried that you stole from me.”

 

I shudder. Suddenly, I recall the way the dark mist that visited us in the night coiled into form, how its feelers stretched to caress Marlena’s battered face. Did her beauty charm that shadow as powerfully as it has charmed me? A chill races through my body, and the point where the needle enters my arm begins to throb in a dull, cold hurt. Was that shadow responsible for stealing that bounty hunter’s face? If so, I find it difficult to believe that shadow would’ve preferred that bounty hunter’s ugly visage over Marlena’s features. Had that shadow considered Marlena’s face, and did it decide to wait until those hurts might heal before returning to claim the face it suspected lay beneath so much bruising? Marlena might possess the power to deny man, but did she hold the power to deny shadow?

 

Teddy mistakenly guesses the origin of the thoughts that turn my face pale.

 

“Cheer up, Zane. Marlena’s got taste. I’ll never deny that. Consider it the highest compliment she ever shares a bed with you.”

 

I consider telling Teddy of that shadow I witnessed in the night, regardless if the entity was a thing of reality, dream or madness. But the door behind us chimes before I can choose the proper words with which to begin my telling, revealing a trio of men dressed in formal business suits and straight, narrow ties. I hold my breath. I’ve shared time with all manner of people during my tabloid tenure, and I’ve come to believe that there’s no type of person more dangerous than those who were the suits and ties present on those men standing in the door. The obliterators have come to summon us, and they will no doubt soon reveal whether Teddy Jackson’s hunt will continue.

 

“We understand your daughter will require several more hours in the healing canister,” speaks the oldest face among those men. “We ask that you come with us so we can discuss the continuation your hunt. We have ideas we’d like to share.”

 

Teddy nods, but he hesitates to follow the men.

 

The tallest of the suits softly smiles. “We promise Marlena will be fine, Mr. Jackson.”

 

“And we also offer refreshments,” adds the third obliterator.

 

Teddy slaps his thigh. “Refreshments? Why didn’t you all say so in the first place?”

 

I gulp and follow Teddy out of the medical chamber. I’m sure guilty of too often indulging too freely of the mudder gin, but I’m a little scared to think about whatever refreshment might be offered by the obliterator men dressed in their formal suits and narrow, straight ties.”

 

  • * * * *

 

It must not take the obliterators long to make themselves comfortable on a far-flung world in the middle of being scraped clean for the purpose of human colonization. We sit in a long conference room of paneled walls bedecked with reproduction prints expressing the unemotional and uncontroversial art so in vogue as humanity begins establishing new footholds in the stars. A pane of smooth glass tops the marble surface of the table around which we all sit, and the soft buzz that lifts from the furniture piece tells me holographic projectors have been installed into the elegant table. I haven’t touched the glass of tea the obliterators have offered me. Honestly, I’d be a great deal more comfortable sipping from mudder gin.

 

I have little experience with the obliterators. There’s just little demand among Mr. Higgins’ subscribers for essays detailing the science behind the obliterators’ planet-cleaning process. The only stories I ever see connected to the obliterators are found in mechanical trade journals that describe the nuts and bolts inside the latest colossal machine the obliterators employ to reshape an alien world. Obliterators don’t party like moon bandits or mudders, and so tabloid editors have no motivation to send writers with behavior as erratic as my own to the annual conventions the obliterators like to hold on the most luxurious starliners Teddy Jackson’s fleet offers.

 

Such inexperience with the obliterators makes me squirm. Customs and protocols govern every gaggle of humans, even gaggles dressed in suits and ties. I do my best to learn those protocols so that I understand how far my eccentricities can push my subjects before I annoy them to such a point as to hamper my efforts at gathering a story. Most of my erratic actions are aimed at gathering new subscribers for Mr. Higgins, but all my strange behavior seldom offends my hosts. But I don’t know what kind of boundaries the obliterators might’ve established at their holographic table, and my wrinkled Tiki shirt certainly feels like an infraction in the obliterators’ dress code.

 

The thinnest of the obliterators sitting at one end of the table smiles at me. “It’s no problem at all to offer you something with a little more kick than the raspberry-green tea, Mr. Thomas. Our bar might not be stocked as well as most you visit, but I’m sure it holds something for your thirst.”

 

“The tea’s fine,” I answer. “I got my fill of gin last night. Which one are you again?”

 

The obliterator’s smile widens, and I feel lucky not to see fangs. “I’m Mr. Krieger, but you can call me Toby if that makes it easier for you, Zane.”

 

Teddy Jackson sits at the other end of the table, and he hasn’t stopped tapping his fingers since he sat at the table. Teddy’s probably swallowed a full pitcher of the tea as we’ve waited for obliterators to enter the conference room. I’m assuming that whatever Mr. Krieger wants to show us will be revealed after an obliterator arrives to claim the last chair, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Krieger has instructed his colleagues to arrive so slowly so that Teddy Jackson, the legendary, interplanetary hunter, will fidget and sweat before he might be placed back upon the trail.

 

Mr. Krieger keeps his attention focused upon me. “I must tell you, Zane, that I’ve overseen the preparation of seven planets for colonization, and I still struggle to remember a time when the tabloids sent a reporter to write about our work, though we do such amazing things. Why is it that you’ve never before paid us a visit?”

 

I shrug. “You’ll have to ask my editor. Harold Higgins buys my tickets into the stars. He chooses the stories for me to cover.”

 

“I’ll note that,” and another of the obliterators at the table scribbles onto a glowing, digital notebook as Mr. Krieger lifts a finger, “but if you had to guess, tell me why you think your editor’s not found our efforts worthy of his tabloid.”

 

“Oh, probably not enough sex and violence,” I wink.

 

Mr. Krieger sighs. “And yet what could be more violent, and thrilling, than the reshaping of an entire world? I’m thankful we have you here with us now, to see what we’re about to reveal above our holographic table. I’m sure you’ll do us, and our project, justice when you tell your readers of Teddy Jackson’s safari.”

 

I wonder how I might employ much flair into my description of the obliterators. Sure enough, the obliterators are all human, born from different mothers, with different body types, and all with different faces. A few look like they’re fresh out of their prestigious and private science academies, while others appear old enough to have witnessed humankind’s first successful hop to a distant star. Bald crowns shine atop of some, while thick and dark hair covers the heads of others. None of the obliterators’ eyes share the same color, and there are no rings of hashes and numbers tattooed onto any of the gathered faces. Yet I sense the dozen or so obliterators gathered at the table hardly look any more different from one another than do the mudders. All the obliterators exhibit the same posture in their chairs. All the men wear identical wrist watches, and all the women wear the same butterfly brooch upon their sport jackets’ left lapels. I can’t fault the mudders for blending so completely into one another that I have to work hard to make the mudders seem entertaining to my readers sweltering back on Earth. But I have a hard time understanding why all the obliterators work so hard to blend together until they’re little more interesting than a clone.

 

A last obliterator finally enters the conference room to claim the last empty chair.

 

Teddy leans forward. He’s rolled the sleeves of his hunting jacket up to his elbows, and the muscles of his forearms flex as he speaks.

 

“I’m assuming you’re going to keep me on the hunt,” opens Teddy. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be seated at this holographic table.”

 

“I’m no legendary hunter, Mr. Jackson. That is your role.” Mr. Krieger responds. “I knew what I was bringing to Tybalt when I invited you. I don’t have the expertise to comment on whatever means you feel you must employ to track the creature hampering our efforts.”

 

“I can’t say I’ve received much information about whatever it is you’re expecting me to kill for you,” Teddy grumbles.

 

Mr. Krieger nods. “That’s because we know so little about it ourselves. We know nothing more than you. We know only clone rumors, tidbits of fantasy I’m sure you collected in the mudder work camp. We’re hoping you can put the pieces together, that whatever truth you find in all the rumors will put you on the proper path. We want to make sure you have all the information we have, so that you understand the gravity of this project. That’s why we’re sitting at this table.”

 

Mr. Krieger waves his hand over the glass, and the holographic table crackles with life. An orb of blue light hovers in the air, wrinkled with Tybalt’s geography. The orb must appear as Tybalt did before the obliterators’ arrival. There are no flat plains of gray to betray the touch of the obliterators’ machines, nor does a sea of orange cover half of the globe. The planet spins, and its surface peels away like the skin of a fruit, laying flat upon the table’s glass. The many small projectors hidden within the table wink, and dozens of machines – miniatures of those colossal mechanisms the obliterators’ drive in their push to reform worlds – crawl across the presentation to flatten mountains and raise valleys. Tall spires rise from the readied foundation, luxurious housing towers waiting to shelter millions of citizens trapped on the wasted Earth. Cities gather shape, and landing platforms for star yachts and starliners mushroom on the outskirts of every urban center. Hamlets appear upon the mountain ranges the obliterators chose to preserve, and the view of that holograph magnifies to show pleasure spas and recreational resorts.

 

The holograph’s contents again shift, and I begin to realize what makes the obliterators’ plans for Tybalt so incredible. The table hums and adds the full spectrum of color to the projection. Incredible parks expand upon the world, filled with the variety of trees long ago lost upon the homeworld. I peek towards Teddy, and I see his face tremble with amazement as herds of antelope and zebra gallop across ranges of grass, on their heels the great predators, the lions and the cheetahs, that once inhabited a lost planet. Flocks of strange birds rise and fall on invisible winds. I too hold my breath as wide seas shimmer upon the horizon, from whose waves leap dolphins and whales. An image of paradise floats above the obliterators’ holographic table, a view of a lost world I never believed could one day be rebuilt in the cosmos. They show us a project that would be humankind’s greatest achievement if realized.

 

Teddy’s eyes glisten in tears as he looks through the lights floating above the table towards Mr. Krieger.

 

“I don’t understand. How could you build such a world?”

 

Mr. Krieger smiles. “We are only reshaping. Tybalt is the greatest planet we’ve yet discovered in the heavens. We’ve found no other world as close in character to our native Earth. If we can only prepare everything properly, then we’ve found the world where we can reintroduce the old genetic lines.”

 

“So the rumors of the seed vaults are true?” Teddy whispers.

 

“They certainly are,” the obliterator winks. “A few of our ancestors possessed the foresight to preserve what they could as they watched the old world die. They gathered seeds while others of their time denied how the world suffered. They raced to collect genetic material from every animal they could, before such wildlife completely vanished. Those who have followed in those efforts have desperately guarded the secret of the seed and genetic vaults for generations, lest the same people who denied the old world’s frailty should steal that which they already once destroyed. The secret was kept until we arrived at Tybalt to find a planet capable of supporting our resurrection. All we need to do is reshape Tybalt so that our old world can again flourish.”

 

Teddy closes his eyes for a moment after the world hovering in the air vanishes after the table goes silent. The face of the confident hunter returns the moment Teddy reopens them.

 

“And a single creature keeps you from realizing such a world?”

 

I notice the way Mr. Krieger peeks at his colleagues. “Not only a creature, Mr. Jackson. A person as well.”

 

My heart quickens. However badly the previous night’s mudder gin has blurred my brain, I recognize what Mr. Krieger kept unwritten in that invitation he sent to Teddy Jackson. I realize what the obliterators hope we become.

 

“But hunting an animal is different than killing a human,” I stammer.

 

Mr. Krieger doesn’t flinch.

 

“Are you sure about that, Zane?” Teddy asks me.

 

“Hold on just a moment,” I nearly topple out of my chair. “I didn’t agree to murder when I accepted my editor’s assignment on this safari, and I know Harold Higgins isn’t interested in story about real crime.”

 

No one gathered at the table pays any attention to my outburst. Even Teddy refuses to glance my direction. I suspect the obliterators have all the pieces positioned on the board just to their liking. I suspect Marlena’s body is healed plenty from her mudder injuries, that the doctor lied about her recovery so that the obliterators could separate Marlena from her father when they decided it time to press Teddy to consider a human as just another creature in his hunt.

 

Mr. Krieger again waves his hand over the table, and the projectors spring back to life and fill the air with a middle-age woman’s face. A streak of silver runs down the center of the woman’s otherwise raven-black hair, and a slight nose supports a pair of dark glasses, an eccentricity from a woman who surely has access to corrective eyes surgery. A pair of green eyes burn in the light of that holographic face, giving the gaze of that false image a piercing quality that I suspect must be magnified many times over when looking upon the woman in person.

 

“Her name is Dr. Carol Amberson,” begins Mr. Krieger. “She arrived upon Tybalt with the first contingent of the League’s scientific team, a botanist specializing in alien plant-life.”

 

Teddy eyes focus on the shimmering visage. “She came to Tybalt to help insure that the preparation of the planet for human settlement didn’t eradicate any kind of intelligence that might be considered sophisticated?”

 

I growl at Mr. Krieger. “Exactly as stipulated in the Law of Extermination.”

 

Mr. Krieger doesn’t turn towards me. “Indeed. Dr. Amberson’s presence among that science contingent gave us no concern. She’s studied several planets teeming with more alien plant-life than that we found on Tybalt. Before coming here, she always conducted her studies and gathered her samples in an efficient manner, and she never hesitated to give us her approval so that we could continue our reshaping of worlds.”

 

“But not this time?” Teddy raises an eyebrow.

 

Mr. Krieger’s eyes close momentarily. “This time, Dr. Amberson refuses to grant us her approval.”

 

Teddy quickly presses his next question. “Do you think she found indications of life possessing advanced intelligence?”

 

Mr. Krieger shrugs. “We don’t know what she’s found. She’s presented no findings, submitted no kind of report.”

 

“Could the League be withholding any such information from you?”

 

“Perhaps, Mr. Jackson,” Mr. Krieger nods. “The League certainly has a reputation for keeping secrets. But our money reaches so many pockets elected to the League that I find it hard to believe they could keep any findings Dr. Amberson might’ve given to them a secret from us.”

 

I cautiously try to reenter the conversation. “Then why not ask the League to simply replace Dr. Amberson? You have the grounds to press for it if the woman’s failed to submit anything at all to the League. And if the League is keeping any of her findings a secret from you, then a request for Dr. Amberson’s removal would pressure the League to either show them whatever they might have, or appoint someone new to her post who might be more cooperative to your efforts.”

 

Mr. Krieger finally acknowledges my presence. “A very good idea, but one we’ve already attempted. We convinced the League months ago to replace Dr. Amberson with a botanist of our choosing, and for a while we were able to proceed with the reshaping of this planet.”

 

“Until your mudder crews came upon the grove?”

 

“That is correct, Mr. Jackson.”

 

Teddy lifts a thick eyebrow. “Is it also true that the mudders couldn’t chip the trees even if they wanted to?”

 

Mr. Krieger’s lips quietly snarl. “That question cuts to the quick of our dilemma. We’re not allowed to employ all the tools at our disposal. We’ve got all the power we need to burn that grove to ash orbiting just above Tybalt. But our hands our tied. The League has come all this way through the stars with those ships, but the League refuses to unleash those weapons no matter how we plead with them to do so.”

 

“What makes you think the guns in orbit will do any better than your own weapons,” I ask. “The mudders told us your big guns failed. Told us you went so far as lob a nuclear warhead at the grove. Why not just explode more mushroom clouds on your own?”

 

Mr. Krieger rolls his eyes. “You know as well as the rest of us, Mr. Thomas, that we cannot afford to keep detonating nuclear warheads above the grove. We’ve not discovered the perfect location for our new paradise only to poison our dreams out of reach. We need the precision of that fleet’s guns. We need the cleaner type of fire their lasers can deliver.”

 

“Fine,” Teddy shakes his head, “let’s assume the guns of that drone fleet orbiting overhead can burn the grove out of your path. What’s keeping the League from doing as you wish after they’ve come so far out here with that fleet?”

 

“They evidently don’t want to fire on Dr. Amberson.” Mr. Krieger answers.

 

“Couldn’t they just arrest her and lift her off the planet?” I ask.

 

“They’ve tried, and they’ve failed. Dr. Amberson has gone native. She’s disappeared into the grove along with along with a crack platoon of rangers the League sent in afterwards to drag her back out. So far, no one’s come back from the grove.”

 

“Just like the mudders,” I smirk.

 

Teddy shakes his head at me. “Not quite, Zane. Mudders do come back from the grove now, only the obliterators promptly execute them before anyone has the chance to ask any questions.”

 

Mr. Krieger growls. “Better that than risk the chance of those mumbling mudders spreading fear through the clone ranks. We’re not entirely sure a monster even lurks in the grove, Mr. Jackson. Kill whatever monster you can find, but the real reason I’ve invited to Tybalt is to track down Dr. Amberson and remove her from this planet.”

 

“And what if Dr. Amberson doesn’t cooperate?” I ask.

 

Mr. Krieger takes a slow breath. “Then, Mr. Thomas, I would ask that you consider the waiting paradise we’ve just shown you before you decide to paint us as murderers with your pen. Think of all your readers back on old Earth who are desperate for a new home. Consider everything you’ve just seen flickering above this table. Why should a single botanist have the authority to deny that future for billions of men and women?”

 

I sigh. I realize that Mr. Krieger has me backed into a corner. I know how Harold Higgins will want me to write my story. I know which side of the moral debate regarding the value of one life compared to that of billions Mr. Higgins will choose. Harold will side with his subscribers, and he’ll make sure I give all those readers the exact story they desire. I could try to write however I choose to judge the obliterators, but Harold will force me toss all my drafts into the trash until I finally present him with the story that reaffirms what his subscribers already want to believe. That’s the business of selling electronic tabloids. My readers will of course judge the obliterators as heroes for killing Dr. Amberson if that’s what it takes to open Tybalt for settlement, and I’ll have to paint those obliterators as saints in my copy if I hope to earn any kind of paycheck from Harold Higgins for my efforts.

 

“Do you have any idea where we should start?” Teddy asks.

 

“A slight one,” answers Mr. Krieger. “We can deliver you and all your equipment to the coordinates closest to where the science station stood before the grove overtook it. We’re happy to supply you with all the mudders you might need to help transport your supplies once you enter the grove.”

 

Teddy locks a stare with Mr. Krieger, and the obliterator flinches before the old hunter’s appraisal.

 

“The grove is growing, isn’t it Mr. Krieger?”

 

“It is, Mr. Jackson. We don’t how, or why, but the grove is expanding. And that rate of expansion is getting quicker and quicker. It’s all the more reason we need to find Dr. Amberson in that jungle.”

 

“Can you use your projection table to show us how far the grove has expanded?” Teddy asks.

 

Mr. Krieger’s fingertips tap along the glass surface to summon the spinning orb of Tybalt once again into the air. The planet turns to reveal that original speck of orange grove present on Tybalt when the obliterators landed with their machines of destruction and creation. The grove expands as the planet rotates, spilling like ink across so many acres the obliterators and their mudders had scraped clean for the coming human settlers. Soon, the orange of the grove covers nearly half of the globe, and the holograph then matches the sight of Tybalt we looked upon when we approached that world aboard Teddy’s star yacht.

 

“Why is the grove growing?” I ask.

 

Mr. Krieger shrugs. “We don’t know. Perhaps we removed some natural obstacle to the grove when we flattened the landscape.”

 

“It could take us months to march deep into that grove if Dr. Amberson’s retreated to the center of all that orange,” speaks Teddy. “Assuming that Marlena will soon be out of her healing canister, my party can be ready to depart as quickly as the supplies can be gathered. You put us on the trail, Mr. Krieger, and we’ll find Dr. Amberson, and we’ll put an end to that creature that terrifies the mudders so they refuse to work.”

 

Mr. Krieger smiles. “If a hunter such as yourself cannot do so, Mr. Jackson, I doubt anyone can.”

 

We enjoy the obliterators’ finest amenities their compound can offer that night. Fresh from her healing canister and looking more beautiful than ever, Marlena joins us during a dinner of fine prime rib imported from the livestock world of Denali Range. We drink from finest bottle of wine transported from the Ambraxis vineyards of New Castle. Everything tastes sweet, and so the three of us laugh and challenge each other to imagine what delights might rise should the obliterators realize their paradise upon Tybalt.

 

The obliterators provide us each with fine luxurious, guest apartments, furnished with satin sheets and warm baths to wash away whatever grime we gathered in the mudder work camp. I toss and turn on my comfortable bed after nestling into its comfort. I keep expecting to hear Marlena knocking on my door, though hours pass without any indication that she drifts to my apartment. Perhaps Marlena has decided the time has come for her to focus on the pursuit of a creature other than that of an eccentric, tabloid reporter.

 

I can’t say I’m surprised. Teddy warned me the time was coming when Marlena would be finished with me, and yet that warning makes my empty bed no easier to accept. The cushions on the obliterator bed are very soft, but a fear still irritates my spine no matter how I turn. I’m afraid I lack the required imagination to anticipate what the grove might hold for us. Thus for one more night I so badly crave the reassuring warmth of Marlena’s body pressed against mine.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 9 – The Terms of Titans

“You’re such a strange man, Zane Thomas.” Marlena’s eyes are again laughing at me, and her smile surges my blood. “You have a reputation for trying anything once, but you hesitate to take the simple medicine I’m offering you.”

 

“What is it?”

 

Marlena unwraps a white square of candy from a sleeve of silver foil. “It’s gum.”

 

“What does it do?”

 

Marlena chuckles. “The people of Earth must be desperate if they can’t even find gum anymore. You simply chew it.”

 

“And then what?” I shrug. “Does it help with your concentration, or does it give you a boost of energy in the middle of your day? Does it help you sleep, or does it paint visions upon your sight?”

 

“It simply tastes sweet,” Marlena winks. “Chomp on it. The gum will work your jaw, and that will help relieve the pressure the altitude’s built up in your ears.”

 

Marlena presses the square of gum on my tongue after I sheepishly open my mouth, and the sensation the candy gives me, though simple, proves pleasant. I work the gum between my teeth, and my ears pop to release much of the pressure that’s making me swoon as our zeppelin continues to climb higher and higher. With my lips smacking on that candy, I can’t help but wonder what else has been lost upon Earth, a vain activity because imagining all the missing treasures of a wasted world brings only hunger and melancholy. I’m of a generation born after the Earth plummeted into ruin, and so I’m fortunate that my mind isn’t filled with haunting memories of the good-old days. I thought I’d tasted every thrill and sweet waiting to be tasted in the stars, and I’m amazed at the pleasure I take from such a simple candy.

 

“Feeling better?” Marlena asks.

 

I nod. “I do. How much longer do you think we’re going to be floating in this zeppelin?”

 

The obliterator pilot sitting behind the zeppelin’s levers and pulleys turns to answer. “Four or five hours more. We’re at this altitude to take advantage of Tybalt’s atmospheric currents.”

 

Teddy occupies the seat next to the pilot, grinning from one ear to the next. “It’s a wonderful machine.”

 

The pilot nods. “There’s no quicker way to move mudders and equipment about the planet. Trucking things across the ground takes an eternity by comparison, and nothing flies as smoothly as an obliterator zeppelin.”

 

The mudders and supplies of Teddy Jackson’s expedition wait in the expansive storage chamber that composes most of the zeppelin’s bulk. Neither hydrogen nor helium lift the large zeppelin. Instead, a ring of anti-gravitational motors hums to create a vacuum around the zeppelin that allows the massive airship to travel at such rapid speeds at such a high ceiling. The weight of Teddy Jackson’s supply of Spartan sentries, mudders, ammunition crates and supplies add up to massive sum of tonnage. Yet the obliterator zeppelin lifts upon the currents as if its cargo hold remains empty. Without a clear expectation concerning how far we’ll have to push into the grove to locate either the monster that hunts the mudders or the woman who torments the obliterators, Teddy has been forced to bring many more supply boxes along on his safari than he would prefer, for he cannot reasonably guess how long the hunt will keep us in that orange jungle, and working mudders possess very hungry stomachs. The cargo hold also carries several motorized scout cars, which Teddy hopes to employ to increase the rate of our exploration. I certainly hope the mudders have sneaked several crates of their mudder gin onto the zeppelin, for no tabloid reporter worth his weight on such a trip can realistically be expected to refrain from strong liquor for more than a handful of days. We’re definitely not travelling light.

 

Marlena chomps on her gum and gazes through the windshield’s three-hundred and sixty-degree view. “The grove is incredible.”

 

The pilot smiles, and I’m surprised to feel a pang of jealously trip my heart-rate. “Wait another hour for the sun to descend below the top of that grove cliff, and then it’ll seem as if that jungle holds one hell of a fire at its heart. The grove stretches so high that its glow creates streamers of light that seem to sway amid the stars themselves. It’s a heck of a lightshow, and I won’t deny there’s something romantic about it.”

 

Marlena shakes her head. “A shame that the obliterators want to knock it all down.”

 

The pilot shrugs. “I just get to thinking about the Earth I left behind whenever I start feeling sad for that grove. I want a future of my own out here on Tybalt. I want a place to raise a family, no matter if it takes chopping down a glowing jungle to get it.”

 

“So long as you find a way to do it,” adds Teddy.

 

The pilot winks. “That’s why you’re all here.”

 

We saw the line of the grove the moment the zeppelin lifted us above the launch platform standing in the center of the obliterators’ offices. Then, that boundary of trees looked like an orange river snaking across the otherwise gray landscape. Slowly, the top of that grove has risen higher and higher as our zeppelin races towards that wall of orange foliage, until that glowing barrier seems to scratch at the underbelly of the stars. My mind stammers at the sight of that growing grove. I’ve never seen anything so large.

 

“How quickly has that grove spread across the landscape?” I ask.

 

The pilot whistles. “There are days when the grove seems to race across the land like wildfire. You can watch the grove grow all day long, and you still won’t believe anything can move that fast across the landscape. In the morning, you might notice a few caps, like orange mushrooms, popped up onto the ground. By the middle of the day, those mushrooms are curling into the sky atop vines that wind around each other like rope, and there’s nothing you can do to pull or cut any of it down. And by nightfall, those vines have thickened into trees, with their tops peeking beyond the range of our sight.”

 

“Incredible,” Marlena whispers.

 

“Unless you’ve spent the last year of your life working to scrape this planet clean just to watch that grove swallow up all your work in less than a month,” sighs the pilot.

 

“Do you think the mudder camp and the obliterator offices behind us are in danger?”

 

The pilot nods. “I do, Mr. Jackson. We haven’t been able to do a thing to slow it down.”

 

The grove looms ahead of our zeppelin like a fence erected to cage titans by the time we arrive at the base of that jungle several hours later. It’s night, and as the pilot claimed, the grove glows and pulses through shades of yellow, red and orange as if lava flows through the knotted vines. I notice thousands of flecks the color of silver and gold shimmering amid that foliage, and beads of pearl and white hang from every vine like lanterns. It’s impossible for me to estimate the size of the those glowing beads and shimmering flecks of light from our distance, but the scale of those lights must be enormous. Unlike my readers trapped on old Earth, whose only experience with plant-life has been restricted to plastic flowers displayed in museums, I’ve had the opportunity during my star travels to peek at the exotic life that sometimes flourishes on the mining asteroids and moons the obliterators deem unworthy of their attention. I’ve gazed upon the crimson firedrop that’s a delicacy served on the most magnificent restaurants of the luxury starliners, and I’ve helped in harvesting the vermillion grasses found on the moon of Janus many testify to be the greatest aphrodisiacs offered by the heavens. But I’ve never seen anything grow like that grove.

 

Our zeppelin rocks gently as its landing pads settle on the surface. A commotion of mudders loading supply crates onto motorized wagons immediately rises from the cargo hold into our pilot’s cabin, and Teddy and Marlena hurry to oversee the efforts to unload all of our expedition’s supplies in the most efficient manner possible. I linger next to the pilot and stare at the view filling the forward windshield, marveling to see how that grove creeps closer to our zeppelin as new shoots of vines stretch out from the ground ahead us. I notice how the pilot peeks at his watch, and I realize he has not pulled any power from his anti-gravitational engines, so that his zeppelin remains ready to ascend at a moment’s notice. I appreciate the grove’s splendor, but watching how the pilot fidgets leads me to worry I fail to show the grove enough fear.

 

“Promise you’ll come back,” I speak to the pilot before mounting that ladder that leads into the cargo hold. “Promise you won’t forget about us.”

 

The pilot’s eyes look sad. “Oh, I never forget. The problem is that no one ever comes back.”

 

Teddy and Marlena shout various instructions to the mudders while I dumbly stare upwards at the underside of the rising zeppelin that starts its return to the obliterators. Everything else has served as a prologue, and I’ve a suspicion that the story I’ve always hoped would cement my fame and fortune will be discovered deep within that grove, so long as I can survive Teddy Jackson’s expedition long enough to return my manuscript to Harold Higgins.

 

  • * * * *

 

“That’s it! Pack it all back up!”

 

I’m madly running all about the hunting camp, desperately capturing all the snapshots of the canvas tents that I can before the mudders begin disassembling them and packing them back into their crates. The galaxy hasn’t seen one of Teddy Jackson’s legendary safari camps for decades. Harold Higgins would have a difficult time locating anyone among his subscribers who didn’t own one of those coffee-table books brimming with photographs taken during Teddy’s golden era of great hunts. People back home just can’t get enough photographs of the big tents standing on strange, alien landscapes, of the bonfires preparing fresh game, of the giant weapons wielded to fall the largest of the galaxy’s animals. People are hungry to see what those old hunts had been like before they vanished following the passage of the League’s Law of Extermination. People want to see pictures of game being dressed in the field, of hunters sitting cross-legged on rich carpets at night to sip at whiskey as they tell tales of their hunt’s adventures, of the piles of strange, curving tusks and bones. Those picture books of the golden age of Teddy Jackson’s safari remain all the rage, and the demand for new editions keeps many a publisher in business. Harold Higgins reminded me many times before I stepped upon the rocket that would hurl me beyond Earth’s pull that he expected me to return with enough photographs of Teddy’s camp to produce a new coffee-table book. He’s expecting my story of Teddy and Marlena’s adventure to forever put his tabloid’s accounts into the profitable black, and he’s going to milk this expedition for all it’s worth.

 

Unfortunately, the grove refuses to cooperate. Though Teddy’s mudders planted the first tent pole a very safe distance from the jungle, and though the mudders hurried to quickly erect the camp, the grove has advanced towards our position at such a fast rate that our expedition’s threatened to become overwhelmed before I get the chance to gather enough pictures to satisfy my editor.

 

Marlena ruins a shot by pulling at my shoulder just as I click the shutter on my camera.

 

“Would you know how to work this thing, Zane?”

 

The camera that Marlena holds out towards me looks to be at least three centuries old, with all kinds of cryptic knobs and buttons.

 

I shake my head. “I haven’t a clue. Where did you find that thing?”

 

“My father wants me to use it,” Marlena grunts as she fidgets with a dial on her camera that doesn’t seem to have any effect. “He told me this old camera would somehow do a better job of capturing the glow the grove throws over everything. He thinks this antique will do a better job capturing all the shadow and light. If only I knew the first thing about it.”

 

“I wish I could help, but I’m just a writer. These new cameras do all the work themselves. A person had to study a science back in the old days to operate what you’re holding.”

 

Marlena sighs. “My father just assumes I must know how to use this camera because I’m an artist.”

 

“That’s because he knows how to operate every weapon as a hunter,” I smirk.

 

Teddy stands in the center of his hunting camp as the mudders race to fold the canvas tents quickly enough to slam them back into their trunks. He’s staring at that glowing, orange wall of grove, his hands at his hips as if he’s daring that barricade of ropes and vines to come nearer. I doubt that hunter’s posture is going to give that grove any reason to pause.

 

I don’t think Teddy’s at all pleased with this discouraging start to our expedition. From reading all of Teddy’s journals as a boy, I’m very versed in all of Teddy’s hunting strategies. At the top that hunter’s long list of adages rests Teddy’s maxim that the hunters who survive are those who dictate the terms of every hunt. The grove is currently winning the battle to define our hunt’s variables, forcing Teddy to bend his plans to its will.

 

“Over here! Hurry before we lose another tent to the grove!”

 

I swing my camera towards the mudder targets of Teddy’s ire to see the three Spartan sentries of our expedition race to a tent perched dangerously close to the grove so that their hydraulic strength can assist in moving ammunition crates to a safer location. I snap several shots of the mudders frantically working to pull down that tent. They fail to move quickly enough, and I keep shooting as vines rise from beneath to knot about the poles and canvas before lifting the tent off of the ground and into the grove. The mudders strain against the tent’s ropes as they try to rip the canvas back from the foliage, but the tendrils are too strong, and the grove lifts one more of Teddy’s tents upwards towards the stars.

 

“Let it be!” Teddy shouts. “Don’t let that grove twist about your ankles! Work to dismantle the other tents while we still can!”

 

Something seems out of place to my finely-tuned radar for the strange. Taking another long look at the grove, I realize that the vines and ropes are not expanding towards us in a regimented line. Rather, the grove sends rivulets of orange cords into our camp as if sniffing and prodding to learn more about what has arrived at its border. A tent to my right at one second appears in jeopardy of becoming the next grove victim; but a moment later, the grove’s cords retreat and remerge to threaten a tent standing someplace else within our camp. I can’t help but think there’s an intelligence testing us, and I can’t help but worry that the obliterators have placed our expedition in danger by withholding secrets from us.

 

“There’s only one mudder tent left!” Teddy screams. “Get it packed up with the others before all you stinking clones have to sleep out in the open!”

 

My camera and attention are locked onto the grove when the mudders squeeze the last tent into the waiting trunk. But now, that glowing, orange wall doesn’t appear to be advancing towards us at all. There’s not a single cord or vine trespassing into our camp to pull at our motorized wagons or to grip at the crates holding our food supply. Teddy notices that change in the grove’s behavior as well as I do. He stands silent and still for many moments while the mudders try to slow their panting while waiting to learn what they’ll be asked to do next.

 

Teddy gives it to the mudders just as they’re about to catch their breaths. “Take it all back out! Put it all back up! We’ll still sleep in our tents!”

 

The mudders never complain. Their breeding doesn’t give them the chance to be discontented, and a mudder’s blood makes it nearly impossible for them to bitch and moan. They hurry about and reopen all the expedition’s supply trunks, frantic to unfurl canvasses and to untangle any knots their quick disassembly of the hunting camp produced such a short time earlier. Quicker than before, Teddy’s hunting camp rises on the featureless ground resting at the face of the glowing, orange grove. The mudders again unfold all the carpets, and I hurry to gather my shots of the glorious safari once more undertaken on an alien world, just as mudders start the fires that will bubble their cauldrons of mudder stew.

 

But then, the grove seeps again into camp to send all the mudders into another round of scurrying to put everything back into the trunks while Teddy Jackson screams orders at their backs. This time, we lose the last of the mudders’ sleeping tents and a crate of Teddy’s favorite whiskey. Just as it did before, the grove retreats the moment the last tent is stuffed into its box.

 

And one more time, Teddy lets his mudders catch their breaths before shouting that same command.

 

“Take it all back out! Put it all back up!”

 

Marlena turns to me on the fourth round of such madness. “We haven’t taken the first step into the grove, and he’s already lost his mind.”

 

I smile. “Your father’s only fighting to establish the first terms of our hunt. He’s already fighting whatever it is we’ve been sent to kill.”

 

Marlena’s eyes fill with excitement. I hope she doesn’t think mine are filling with fear.

 

“We’ve found a sophisticated intelligence out here, haven’t we Zane?”

 

“I’m afraid so.”

 

No man, woman or mudder gets a wink of sleep that night as Teddy’s hunting camp rises and falls. Come morning, Teddy’s tents stand as the rising sun dims the glow of the orange grove. Teddy thinks he’s won the first battle, but I think the grove is laughing. Our mudders are already exhausted as they find places on the ground for sleeping, and they’re too exhausted to even prepare the mudder stew their bodies are going to need because of the exertion that’s behind and ahead of them. Yet Teddy thinks he’s still established his terms.

 

I doubt he has. I think the grove has pushed us all to our limits before we set a single foot into its domain.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 10 – A Trophy Case of Aliens

“I guess that settles any debate concerning where we start.” I smirk near the front of Teddy Jackson’s line of supplies and mudders.

 

Teddy winks. “Cheer up, Zane. Taking an open path is better than chopping our way into the grove.”

 

I again think back to all those journals of Teddy Jackson’s adventures I enjoyed reading as a boy. The first rule emphasized in those chapters was to always establish your terms on the hunt. Should that prove impossible, rule two motivated the hunter to recognize the positive that might be found in even the worst of situations. First thing in the morning, the three of us took a Spartan sentry for an escort and tested the cliff wall of the grove with our robots’ sensitive scanners, searching for corridors through which we might enter the thick jungle. We failed to find any possible point of entry after several hours of searching, and it was a disappointing blow to realize how little our Spartans’ powerful array of radar and radio waves penetrated the cliff of grove. When I regrouped with Marlena and Teddy, I was certain we would have to wrestle for every inch forward as we joined with the mudders and swung laser scythes at the glowing, orange growth. Yet, just as I started to communicate my failure to find a path with my colleagues, Teddy pointed to a wide pathway that opened when I gave up hope.

 

“I like this expedition less and less with each passing moment,” Marlena whispers at her father’s side. “That grove seems to be toying with us, and that means it’s intelligent. Maybe we’re better off letting whatever beast is lurking in that grove alone, because the obliterators have no right to destroy anything that displays such sophisticated thinking.”

 

Teddy squeezes Marlena’s hand. “The obliterators might not realize what’s out here. We’re here to help them find out as much as we’re here to hunt a creature. We have to know what the grove hides on Tybalt.”

 

My eyes sheepishly peek away when Marlena shoots an appraising glance in my direction. Her eyes that morning hold little charm. They don’t glimmer with that playful sparkle I so enjoyed during those nights we spent together while drifting on her father’s star yacht. Her eyes are piercing, and they’re reading every feature on my face to see if I’m holding anything back from her.

 

Teddy and I have shared nothing with Marlena concerning the science station swallowed by the grove, nor of Dr. Amberson and the obliterators’ plans for a new Eden. I don’t consider it my place or duty to tell Marlena of the obliterators’ suggestion that we stop at nothing to remove Dr. Amberson’s obstruction to their plans. I’m only here to cover the story, not to keep Marlena informed of all the details. Still, Marlena knows we conferred with the obliterators while she floated in that healing canister, and I know she suspects her father’s holding something back from her.

 

“We’ll set one of the Spartans at our vanguard,” speaks Teddy, “and we’ll use its sensors to give us any indication it can of our surroundings.”

 

A few hand signals place all the other components of Teddy’s expedition into proper position. Teddy looks a bit like a toddler as he walks in the shadow of the Spartan that rolls into the grove at the front of our procession. Marlena and I fall directly behind Teddy, and a second Spartan, with its assault cannons raised and sweeping back and forth over our heads, moves at our heels. The mudders assemble the remainder of our column, a few slowly driving the motorized wagons carrying the bulk of our camp’s supplies, the rest marching two abreast, packs slumping their shoulders, as they too enter the grove’s orange glow. Our final Spartan occupies a station in the very rear, keeping its guns pointed behind us while its tracks push it into the jungle.

 

Teddy starts whistling a melody, probably some marching song his father taught him on some other interplanetary safari decades ago. My stomach curls with trepidation, but that bearded hunter can’t be any happier. Teddy’s about to take his first steps on the adventure he’s waited years to experience again following the passage of the League’s Law of Extermination.

 

“You’re going to get one hell of a story, Zane.” Teddy shouts over his shoulder. “Everyone on Earth is going to love reading this tale over and over again, and you and Harold Higgins are going to be made very, very rich. Zane, I’ve got a feeling this grove’s going to lead us right to that monster I’ve come all the way to Tybalt to kill.”

 

I don’t respond. I doubt Teddy’s euphoria would hear a single word of caution from me, from Marlena, or from anyone else out here amid the stars.

 

  • * * * *

 

Our procession marches quietly forward for hours. Marlena and I share no conversation, and even the mudders refrain from grunting as they stomp forward with their backs laden with the weight of Teddy Jackson’s supplies. We give the jungle only the sound of Teddy’s whistling melody, which the grove selfishly absorbs without returning even an echo. Our progress is easy, for the grove opens its path to accept us, and our feet find nothing to trip upon as the jungle withdraws so completely to reveal landscape previously scraped flat by the obliterators’ machines before the grove expanded to reclaim the acreage. The grove knits and knots back together behind our line, forcing us to rely on whatever information our Spartans’ sensors can give us if we hope to have any idea of our position or bearing upon Tybalt. Teddy shows no concerns as he keeps whistling along, but I feel like a tasty morsel all buttered-up and dressed for a monster’s maw.

 

The grove bathes us in orange, pulsating glow, warming our skin so that human and mudder sweat as we move forward. The foliage twists tightly together and hides any indication of whatever sky drifts above the jungle. The grove focusses its illumination to unveil our path, while the remainder of the jungle dims into brooding shadow.

 

“Hold up!” Teddy quickly raises his laser rifle.

 

The assault cannons of our Spartan sentry positioned at our line’s vanguard begin to spin and hum, readying the weapon to unleash its firepower in a fraction of a second.

 

Marlena hurries to her father’s side. “What do you see?”

 

Teddy swivels his rifle to the right side of our trail. “Something’s moving among those vines.”

 

I summon all my courage to speak to the Spartan. “What do you see?”

 

“My sensors perceive no signature of any kind,” the robot calmly answers.

 

Teddy’s rifle centers upon a bulbous mass emerging upon a vine. Our line freezes to a standstill as I watch that swelling grow larger and larger. An internal light of pearl pulses beneath the growth’s translucent skin, revealing a swirling fluid of clouds and mist. Several other growths appear on neighboring vines. Some are pearl in color like the first bulb that continues to swell, but others are silver, copper and gold. All of them pulse and add their colors to the light illuminating the grove as the temperature increases with the emergence of each new bulb.

 

Marlena draws a breath. “Shapes are forming inside those orbs.”

 

The filmy mist within each bulb clears as the baubles enlarge to their final sizes, revealing strange, alien forms held within. One orb encases a large creature whose set of turquoise wings reminds me of the illustrations of butterflies contained in my elementary school’s spelling primers. The film within another growth evaporates to reveal the shape of a furry and eyeless animal, covered in scales shaped like shovels evolved for burrowing beneath the ground. The bulbs amaze us with the colors of a brilliant, two-headed lizard covered in eyes that grow from its hide like warts. The largest bauble envelopes a giant creature that makes even our robotic sentries seem small, a turtle-like animal whose massive shell and muscular limbs suggest enormous power.

 

I wildly click away with my simple camera to capture all the images I can of the alien life-forms held within those growths. Earth subscribers relish the stories of Teddy’s old expeditions because they brim with wildlife, because they are filled with creatures like those long lost to our native world. I’ve always been a confident writer, one who doesn’t lack the confidence to bend the rules of grammar and mechanics to press an impression; yet I fear I’ll lack the skill to convey the strangeness of those animals that coalesce within each of those bulbs.

 

“Amazing,” Marlena’s eyes widen in the grove’s light. “Do you think the grove might’ve trapped all those animals?”

 

I shudder. “That’s an unpleasant thought.”

 

“The animals seem preserved,” comments Teddy.

 

“How did they get in there?” Marlena asks. “And are they dead or alive?”

 

Teddy scratches at his beard. “There couldn’t have been anything in those bulbs but film and fluid a second ago. We watched those bulbs grow.”

 

“Maybe the grove’s trying to tell us something,” Marlena whispers.

 

I feel the grove closing in around us as I stare at those strange creatures held within each bauble that swells upon a vine. I don’t like that sensation that another intelligence is looking over my shoulder, and I don’t like standing in one place, just waiting for one of those vines to grab at my ankles and pull me into the thick jungle. The grove perhaps senses my unease, for just as I’m about to express my desire to move forward, the bulbs that have attracted our attention, and my dread, fill again with mist to shroud those forms before the bulbs shrink and retreat back into the vines from which they originated.

 

The grove doesn’t forget about Teddy and Marlena’s curiosity, and new bulbs continue to emerge on either side of our path as our expedition moves forward. The creatures become more exotic within each new growth. A strange mass of fingered tentacles fills every inch of the largest bulb yet grown by the grove, while smaller orbs hold small creatures that look little more to me than thin paper wrinkled across a flat skeleton. Other bulbs hold bird-like animals of bright plumage with elongated, streamlined beaks and massive wings that stretch from the front to the rear of our marching line. Like most children born in the days after Earth was irreversibly tipped towards oblivion, I’ve wasted hours in library archives and marveled at page upon page of all the wonderful creatures lost to our thirsty and hungry world. I consider my imagination to be more powerful than that of most man and mudder, but I could never have dreamed of the variety of life the grove’s bulbs show to us. Some animals are giants, and others are barely perceptible to my eyes. Some are dull and dark, while other shimmer in rainbow colors. Some possess feather appendages, and others are built entirely of spines.

 

I shake my head. “This world must’ve teemed with wildlife when the obliterators first landed on it. I’m guessing there must’ve been hundreds of eco-systems to support such life.”

 

Marlena’s eyes again thrill my heart when they turn towards me. “Zane, I’m not so sure we’re looking at species from a single planet. I doubt any single world could support such a variety of wildlife. I think these creatures have been gathered from other planets.”

 

“How can that be?” I ask.

 

Marlena shrugs. “Maybe someone gathered them together and brought them here.”

 

I chuckle. “That’s crazy.”

 

Marlena’s eyebrow arches. “Is it?”

 

Marlena’s response reminds me of her father’s viewing cabin upon his star yacht, whose walls are adorned with the stuffed heads and mounted horns of so many alien creatures that hunter claimed during his golden, glorious days of safari. Teddy’s trophies also included so many colorful and winged creatures, so many graceful animal runners, so many snarling, alien predators. I don’t forget Teddy’s pride when he described the hunts that came before our expedition to Tybalt. I remember how his face glowed with joy while I considered his collection.

 

“You think we’re walking through someone else’s trophy room.”

 

Marlena nods. “I sure do, Zane. There’s definitely intelligence in this grove, an intelligence that’s going to force the obliterators to stop before they destroy one more wonderful thing.”

 

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I reply.

 

Marlena shrugs and redirects her magical eyes towards the bulbs that continue to sprout about the glowing grove. I want to tell her about the obliterators’ plans for a new Eden, how the grove keeps humanity from achieving a new home far more wonderful than anything Earth ever was, one filled with the very animals we believed forever lost to our kind. Only I fear that I would then be forced to also tell Marlena that the obliterators ask us to hunt a human as well as a monster, and I too much fear how Marlena will regard me for thinking the killing of a woman a reasonable price to pay for the realization of humanity’s hopes.

 

So I keep quiet along with the rest of Teddy’s expedition as we proceed deeper into the grove. I marvel at all the animals and their strange, alien faces the grove displays to us, and I dream what the hunter responsible for gathering such a collection might look like should we happen upon him.

 

And my imagination paints a very frightening face.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 11 – Shadow Monster

An alarm shrills from the Spartan at our hunting party’s vanguard, and its dual assault cannons spin in preparation for a firefight as its torso swivels around so that its weapons face the rear of our line.

 

“I regret to inform you, Mr. Jackson, but the Spartan at the back of the party no longer appears on my sensor sweeps,” the robot’s voice still seems to originate from the white skull spray-painted on its decorative faceplate. “Nor am I recognizing the presence of any clones.”

 

The second Spartan follows the lead of its mechanical brother and levels its spinning cannons upon the grove. I gasp to see that the grove has collapsed and seemingly swallowed the rear portion of our expedition. The mudders, and all our supplies, are gone. There’s no trace of the third Spartan as I swivel my eyes around my surroundings. I tense, and I get ready to leap face-first upon the ground, because those Spartans are ready to unleash hell over my head the moment any enemy blinks into their awareness. But nothing stirs, and the grove remains silent.

 

“Spartan, initiate a sonar ping,” commands Teddy. “Locate the position of our missing Spartan.”

 

I hold my breath as the robots’ halo of sensors spin to find any trace of our missing robot and mudders. The grove’s only sound is the hum of the spinning assault cannons.

 

“We cannot locate the third Spartan,” the robot answers after a very long minute.

 

“How far can you see through the grove?” Marlena asks.

 

“Our sonar pings fail to return to us, and so we cannot calculate distance.”

 

Marlena sighs. “The grove soaks up everything.”

 

“At least the grove didn’t swallow us,” Teddy remains positive.

 

“How do you know?” I quip. “Maybe our mudders are dancing at this very moment to celebrate their sudden freedom.”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” and Teddy straightens his shoulders, refusing to show the grove any indication that his resolve falters. “The way forward remains clear, and we have nothing capable of making a dent in the grove behind us. Our best option remains going forward. Spartan, keep your weapons at the ready.”

 

The grove hasn’t revealed any additional baubles for several hours, and the intensity of its pulsating light has diminished. I no longer feel like a guest the grove is working to impress. The jungle has evidently decided we’ve seen enough of its alien zoology, and it continues to shape our progress with the path it unfolds before our feet.

 

My breath turns to vapor in the chill air, for the temperature within the grove has fallen as the grove dims. I doubt Tybalt’s climate has much any kind of effect upon this depth of the jungle. All the vines and ropes of jungle seem to knot together into tight walls that contain whatever environment pleases the grove. Every condition – including temperature, humidity and illumination – seems tailored to a sophisticated intelligence’s whim, and I doubt if even Teddy remains confident that any of our hunt’s terms or conditions remain in our control. None of us speak as we continue, with the spinning of our Spartans’ whirling cannons humming over our heads.

 

Teddy suddenly drops to a knee, and his laser rifle tracks something within the grove.

 

Marlena carefully bends to whisper into her father’s ear. “What is it?”

 

“There’s something rustling between all that orange foliage,” Teddy hisses. “I saw a moving shadow.”

 

My heart pounds. In the short time since I witnessed a shadow lurking within that sleeping chamber I shared with mudders, I’ve convinced myself that what I looked upon was merely dream. No matter that the things I’ve already seen in the grove prove that jungle too strange for my understanding, I have convinced myself that the feline shaped from darkness that caressed Marlena’s sleeping face in the mudder camp was a creature far beyond possibility. Regardless how the grove revealed one alien creature after another, each one stranger than the one revealed before, I’ve assured myself that the shadow creature I suspect ripped away a bounty hunter’s face couldn’t be real.

 

But Teddy’s mention of a shadow moving within the grove shatters the fragile lie I’ve tricked myself into believing.

 

Teddy’s long laser rifle sweeps the jungle just beyond our path. “Are you picking up any signature at all on your scans Spartan?”

 

The sentry’s cannons follow the sights of Teddy’s rifle. “Negative. I see nothing beyond the path.”

 

“Careful,” Marlena urges her father. “The Spartans are on a hair trigger.”

 

“That’s just where I want them.”

 

I summon as much courage into my voice as I can to command Teddy’s Spartan. “Calibrate your sensors to focus on light fluctuations. Track the darkest shapes.”

 

Both sentries immediately swivel their torsos to center their spinning cannons on the opposite side of our path. Whatever shadow moved within the grove diverted our attention in one direction before creeping upon us from another. Pieces of dark collect together into a cloud. That mass of black would’ve been upon us had our Sentries not turned to alert us of our jeopardy.

 

The Spartans unleash the fury of their assault cannons into the advancing cloud of darkness. The robotic sentries’ weapons fire at an incredible rate, and though only every seventh round unleashed from their cannons is that of a glowing tracer, the velocity of their projectiles blur into a beam of burning, red light. The cloud of shadows ripples as the rounds rip patches of black away from the larger mass of dark. Every shred of shadow swirls a second before fighting its way through the Spartan’s onslaught to reunite with its cloud of shadow. The Spartans’ weapons halt the shadow’s advance, but the robots fail to push the shadow back into the grove. My ears ring for the thunderous roar of the Spartans’ cannons, which now steam as the robots’ internal cooling mechanisms struggle to prevent the whirling barrels from overheating. I know the Spartans will soon deplete their supply of ammunition. I know that the Spartans cannot forever continue their onslaught.

 

“The cloud’s changing shape!” Marlena shouts over the din of weapons.

 

Teddy’s discipline lapses, and he discharges a laser beam from his rifle, which the dark cloud absorbs just its shadows morph into an animal’s shape.

 

“How can that be?” Teddy snarls.

 

“How does it know?” Marlena asks.

 

The cloud of shadow accepts the form of the beasts that have fed humankind’s nightmares for millenniums. The tusked snarl of the razor boar, that manic grin of the animal responsible for the slaughter on Delphi Prime that inspired the Law of Extermination, hungrily leers at us. The boar’s shape falls back into a formless cloud, and the shadow reshapes itself into another nightmare monster. The spiked appendages of the twelve-legged, giant spiders that still terrorize the miners of Chrysalis Station stretch out from the mist and claw towards us before the Spartans’ bullets rip those legs back into the shadow’s core.

 

The first faces of teeth and fang the shadow assumes are those humankind has thus far discovered waiting in the stars, but those shades soon shift into more ancient predators of man and woman. The nostrils of the great jungle tiger sniff at our scent as that great, shadow cat’s power poises to leap. That cloud of shadow swirls, and a pack of wolf heads howl against our sentries’ fury. The shadow shifts, and the mandibles of a giant scorpion click towards our faces as its barbed tail flails over our heads. I wink, and the cloud expands despite the hail of gunfire into the head of great hooded cobra that unfurls to shroud the grove’s light.

 

“It’s reading our fear!” I shout. “It knows our monsters!”

 

Marlena retreats a step. “Zane’s right! The shadow’s taking the shape of anything that scares us!”

 

Screeching dragons, drooling werewolves, shuffling corpses and bellowing minotaur’s threaten us. That creature of darkness will find no shortage of monsters to emulate in the warehouses of our fear. We believed we turned all those terrible creatures harmless by killing them in the hunt and mounting their heads upon the walls. But within the grove, that shadow reclaims all the terror those animals possessed before our wit and weapons neutralized their power, and then turns that ancient fright back upon us. Within the grove, that monster of shadow steals the trophies mankind holds as proof of his dominance.

 

The shadow crashes over us the moment the Spartans’ weapons turn quiet. Darkness chokes me, and it stings me like a swarm of buzzing hornets. Cold hands squeeze my arms, and I feel chilling fingers trace my face’s shape. And then, as suddenly as the shadow fell upon us, the darkness vanishes so that our eyes wince in even the soft light of the pulsating grove.

 

Teddy cries at my side. “Marlena! Where are you!”

 

Marlena is gone. I know that monster of shadow has taken her, because I witnessed how Marlena’s face attracted the darkness. The obliterators’ canister healed that woman’s face, and by doing so returned so much of the original beauty that the monster of shadow couldn’t resist taking Marlena’s features as its prize. My stomach turns sick.

 

Teddy screams at his Spartans. “Conduct a full scan! Find her! Find my girl!”

 

I can’t look towards Teddy as the robotic sentries rotate their halos of delicate sensors. Watching the despair contort that father’s features would make Teddy’s face as terrible as any taken by the shadow monster. Teddy Jackson has jumped beyond so many stars to reach Tybalt to experience a new safari, and he has found the monster that denies humankind a new Eden. But Teddy has failed. He’s been defeated in a way he likely never anticipated. He has lost his daughter.

 

“We fail to find signals of any kind, Mr. Jackson.”

 

Teddy Jackson crumbles upon the ground. Suddenly, I realize I’ve agreed to follow an old man on the kind of adventure once reserved for the young. I see that Teddy Jackson is no longer the man I read about in all those journals detailing his expeditions. I doubt Teddy Jackson was ever really such a hero. Desperation erases all the bravado from Teddy’s face, leaving only the terror. Should luck, or mercy, ever rescue me from this grove, I swear I’ll make all of Harold Higgins’ subscribers read the truth behind Earth’s famous interplanetary hunter, even if I have to force each page down every balking throat.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 12 – Plastic Faces

The grove unveils its next surprise several hours further into its depths. Our only companions remain the pair of hulking Spartan sentries that flank us for protection as the grove continues to unfold a path for us to follow. Even Teddy must now have to accept our expedition’s failure, to have lost so much so quickly. Even Teddy must accept that the grove has mocked him, taking even his beautiful Marlena away while forcing that old hunter to recognize how all his weapons were powerless against the shadow that stalks us. The Spartans continue to spin their cannons, and the weapons quickly click as there is no longer the ammunition to send roaring from their barrels. We crouch behind those robots as Teddy clutches his laser rifle and I clutch my camera, the both of us waiting for whatever else decides to leap from the grove.

 

“Hold your fire!” A voice suddenly shouts. “We’re as human as you are!”

 

“Then you best walk out really slowly from that jungle!” Teddy shouts back.

 

Two men dressed in the lightweight armor of League space rangers step backwards into the light glowing above our path, a strange manner of walking on a planet that brims with more oddity than even I’m used to experiencing. One ranger stands slim and tall, while the other is a wide wall of a man measuring a good foot shorter than his companion. Each of the men wears an identical, plastic face on the back of his trooper helmet. The plastic faces are eyeless, lacking any kind of feature or color. Yet something in their expression still sends a shiver up my spine, as if those false visages somehow appraise my character as well as any of the living, breathing faces of flesh I’ve thus far encountered upon Tybalt.

 

“Tell your Spartans to stop twirling their cannons,” the taller man shouts. “There might still be a round jammed in one of those gun barrels, and I don’t want to take in the back should it decide to wiggle its way out of the weapon.”

 

“Sure,” Teddy snarls, “right after you turn around and show me your faces.”

 

“You’re a fool for not knowing what you’re asking of us,” the shorter man growls.

 

“Maybe so, Mitch,” the taller ranger responds, “but we’ll only have to expose our faces for a moment. Just long enough to let that fool know we’re human.”

 

“A second might be all it takes, Danno.”

 

The slim man slowly turns to face us through a dark visor that hides his features. I notice that his hands tremble slightly as they push the helmet off of his head to reveal a pale face of blue eyes and short blonde hair. The man’s eyes dart about the grove that rises like a wall only a few inches beyond either side of our path.

 

“Come on, Mitch,” urges the ranger. “I took the risk. Now it’s time for you to do the same.”

 

Mitch hurries around, and his hands rip off his helmet to show a face of dark skin and dark eyes, shadowed by beard stubble. The men could hardly look any different from one another. I doubt I would’ve given the observation any thought if not for the identical, white masks on the back of their helmets.

 

Mitch’s dark eyes do not scan the jungle. They instead remain locked upon Teddy’s. “Well, old man? Have you seen enough?”

 

Teddy grunts. “Better. But why are you wearing those masks?”

 

Danno shakes his head. “Not until you command your Spartans to stand down, and not before I squeeze my face back into this helmet.”

 

“Lower your guns, Spartans.”

 

The sentries’ cannons hum to a stop, and the weapons’ barrels no longer click. Both of the rangers hurriedly squeeze their heads back into their visors, and each twists his body so that those plastic, white masks fixed onto the rear of their helmets again face the grove. Mitch drops a pack from his shoulder before removing a pair of additional helmets, each with another identical, plastic face. He tosses one to both Teddy and me.

 

“Don’t just stare at them. Hurry and put them on,” urges Danno.

 

“Why?” I stammer.

 

Mitch glares at me. “This isn’t the place for explanation. Trust us. We’ve survived this grove longer than most.”

 

I don’t argue any further, and I’m squinting through the dark visor to watch Teddy squeeze his beard into his helmet. My helmet dims the grove’s light, and my view doesn’t improve as my breath begins to fog the visor. The helmet feels a size or two too small, pushing against my nose and squeezing against my ears. My breath quickens. I feel the sweat rise to my forehead, and moisture trickles into the corner of my eyes. But I can’t rub at my eyebrows to clear the sweat my anxiety keeps generating because that visor keeps getting in the way.

 

“Just take a breath,” Danno tells me. “Just concentrate on slowing your breathing before you start hyperventilating or get sick. You wouldn’t be the first person to struggle with such sensations the first time you squeeze into a ranger’s helmet.”

 

Mitch nods. “Listen to him. You can’t afford to remove that helmet out here in the grove. Danno, you’d better get his plastic face pointed at the jungle.”

 

Danno slowly turns me, but it still feels like vertigo’s about to overtake me within the helmet.

 

“Why are you spinning our backs to the grove?” Teddy asks. “How are we supposed to see whatever jumps out at us? My Spartans’ sensors don’t work in the middle of all this jungle, and now that you’ve put this visor over my eyes, I’m afraid we’re not going to have any warning when some creatures jumps out at us.”

 

Mitch chuckles. “Did you have any warning before, old man?”

 

“We had enough,” Teddy replies.

 

“And what good did that do you?” Danno asks. “You probably had time to raise your weapon. I’m guessing your Spartans’ weapons were clicking empty because they’d already unloaded everything they had against the shadow. What good did it do you? I doubt even those Spartans did much to dissuade the shadow from taking whatever, or whoever, it was looking for.”

 

“It took my daughter,” Teddy’s voice cracks.

 

Mitch scoffs. “Who in the hell brings a child here?”

 

“Is she dead?” The words erupt from Teddy as a shout, telling me it takes all the strength remaining to that hold hunter to shove them from his throat. “Will I find her?”

 

Danno shrugs. “Only if the grove decides to let you. Only if the grove’s in a merciful mood.”

 

“So I have a chance? There’s still a chance the grove will give her back to me?”

 

Mitch sighs. “The grove returns nothing.”

 

“What was that shadow?” I’d rather ask questions about a terrible monster than learn another thing more about Marlena’s probable fate. “Our Spartans gave it all they had. You didn’t hear the robots roaring their guns?”

 

“We could’ve been less than ten feet away from you in this grove and we still wouldn’t have heard a thing,” Danno answers. “We’ve spent too much time out here as it is. Trust us. We know of better shelter.”

 

“I have to find my girl,” Teddy’s voice falters.

 

Mitch’s helmet nods. “You have to believe me when I tell you the shelter is the only place where you have any chance of seeing her.”

 

“Will the grove let you get back?” I ask. “The only direction we’ve been following is whatever one the grove shows us.”

 

“The grove will let us,” Danno replies. “Please, we have to talk on the move. It’s too dangerous to slow down on account of too many questions.”

 

I must concentrate to keep from stumbling as we continue deeper into the grove. Mitch and Danno have positioned us so that the white, plastic faces on the back of our helmets face the grove ahead of us, forcing us to walk in reverse and trust that our surprise comrades aren’t in fact pushing us towards some pitfall filled with demise. I’ve never been a very athletic man. I’ve never owned coordination, and what little grace I might’ve been born with has long ago evaporated in too many all-night parties with deep space pirates and private adventure girls. I’ve tossed too many hallucinatory powders into my eyes, and I’ve sipped from too many zombie cocktails. Thus, I trip several times into Danno, who faces me as he walks forward in a much more agile, reverse gait. I’m about to go mad. I’m about to tear that visor away from my face and simply toss the helmet into the glowing grove just as Mitch finally gives us some explanation behind our masks and our walk.

 

“The masks come from a box of mudder face templates we found back at our science station,” Mitch begins.

 

“Are you part of the contingent the League sent to find Dr. Amberson,” Teddy asks.

 

Mitch laughs. “Yeah, we found her alright, found her right after the grove took most of us, before we found all those plastic, mudder face templates stored in the station. You need to understand what the grove wants most.”

 

“What is that?” I hate to ask.

 

“Faces.” Danno doesn’t break his stride as he answers. “The grove collects faces.”

 

“You’re not talking much sense,” speaks Teddy.

 

Mitch chuckles again. “Listen, old man. You have to hear a little of how it went down out here to understand why we’re walking backwards with these dark visors dimming our view while we glue mudder masks onto the back of our helmets. The grove took the mudders first, which makes sense, seeing how the obliterators first sent all the mudders to chop down that glowing grove with little more than hand axes. But the mudders failed to satisfy the grove’s curiosity for very long. The grove quickly tired of taking the mudders.”

 

“So the obliterators didn’t lose all the mudders that they claim?” I ask.

 

Danno answers. “The obliterators lost plenty of clones. Only, the grove didn’t kill most of them. The obliterators committed the mudder butchery on their own. The mudders were terrified when they remerged from the jungle, ranting about monsters made of shadows, capable of taking all kinds of strange forms lurking in the glowing grove. The obliterators feared the panic such mudders might spread almost as much as they feared the grove, and so the obliterators just swallowed the cost and put a bolt through the brain of any mudder coming back from the grove before the clone could spread a rumor about whatever might’ve been waiting within that glowing wall of jungle.”

 

Mitch and Danno suddenly stop. They slowly adjust their bodies, insuring that the plastic, mudder masks on the rear of their helmets squarely face the grove directly ahead of them. I can’t see Danno’s face, though it’s no more than an arm’s length in front of my own. The dark visor veils any of the emotion, or fear, that might be crossing his features as all of us stand as still as possible, listening to whatever sound the grove betrays. I wonder if Danno is as frightened as I am. We must look like an easy meal to whatever monster shuffles through the foliage – four men, all dumbly presenting eyeless masks to whatever danger approaches.

 

Mitch somehow notices that the danger passes and nods, and we return to our reverse strides.

 

Mitch continues to relate what he knows of that shadow I still sense nearby. “The grove’s become tired of all the mudders, but the grove hasn’t lost any of its appetite when it comes to us humans. Mudders can walk back out of the grove once they’ve entered. Men and women cannot.”

 

“Why is that?” I swallow.

 

“It’s because we all have different faces,” Mitch answers. “All of our faces offer a unique trophy. You have to realize that the shadow and the grove are the same. The shadow is only one of the forms the grove takes in order to hunt. That shadow doesn’t want to collect the same face over and over again. The shadow wants each face it collects to be different than any it found before. That’s why the grove lets all the mudders go while it devours every man or woman that steps into its confines. The mudders have nothing new to offer it.”

 

Danno smirks. “Sound crazy enough for you?”

 

I must admit that Mitch’s tale fails to shock me. Once more, I think back to that room on Teddy’s star yacht adorned with the mounted horns and the stuffed heads of so many alien creatures Mr. Jackson killed during his prior safaris. Teddy doesn’t mount the same alien head over and again on his walls. Doing so would be a poor showing for Teddy’s collection. The prize hunter wants to fill his trophy chest with one different head after another. The prize hunter must always move on to new game after asserting his dominance by killing another.

 

“Are you suggesting the plastic masks serve as some kind of camouflage?” Teddy asks.

 

“That’s the idea,” Mitch answers. “Too bad Danno and I didn’t come up with the idea until the grove took everyone else out of our platoon. We’re hoping that the shadow sees the mudder masks and thinks its just looking on more of the same clone faces. Hopefully, the black visors shield our true faces from the shadow’s attention. Hopefully, the shadow doesn’t think there’s anything worth grabbing on the front of our skulls.”

 

“Is it working?” I ask.

 

Mitch shrugs. “We’ve survived longer than anyone else who’s entered the grove.”

 

“That’s not true,” Danno counters. “Dr. Amberson’s been in the grove longer than either of us.”

 

Mitch snorts. “And you think the grove hasn’t taken her?”

 

Teddy stops. “The obliterators sent us to drag Dr. Amberson back out of the grove.”

 

Mitch laughs loudly. “They sent you just like they sent us. You must be one mean, old dog. Did the obliterators show you their lightshow? Did they tell you it was just as well to kill the woman?”

 

“They did.” Teddy replies.

 

“Then you’re going to love us,” Mitch continues, “because we’re going to take you straight to her. But I’ll save you from the suspense. There’s not anything that can be done to remove that woman from this grove.”

 

“Why is that?” Teddy asks.

 

“I’d like to try to tell you,” speaks Mitch, “but I don’t have the words for it.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 13 – The Doctor and the Archivist

“You can remove your helmets now that we’ve reached the science station.” Danno suggests.

 

Though I’ve felt claustrophobic the moment I slipped into the visor, I’m the last to pull off his ranger helmet. My surroundings look no different than they did when we first stepped into the grove, and I fail to immediately notice any indication that we’ve arrived at our destination. It takes several breaths before my eyes finally discern the frame of an open archway veiled in vines and ropes that descend from the grove to cover the entrance. The grove swallows a building of mason block, hiding the structure’s size, but I’ve little reason to doubt that we’ve arrived at the science station the League established to insure the obliterators didn’t erase signs of an alien and sophisticated intelligence. I doubt it took those appointed to the station very long at all before they found what they were looking for, and I suspect the intelligence they sought quickly overwhelmed them.

 

“How long has it been since the grove expanded to reach the station?” Teddy asks.

 

Danno answers. “The grove arrived less than a month ago.”

 

I squint to notice other traces of the overwhelmed structure. “But it looks like the grove’s been growing on the station for centuries.”

 

“Leave the Spartans at the door,” Mitch growls. “They’re too large to roll down the hall we must enter. Nor would they offer any protection, even if their ammunition was replenished.”

 

Danno winks. “Nor do you have to worry about anyone stealing them out here in the grove.”

 

Teddy doesn’t object and follows the rangers into the station. I close my eyes as I force my way through the curtain of mossy vines shrouding the archway, exhaling a breath only when the ropes of growth allow me to pass without gripping at my hair or pulling me into the branches that knot together overhead. Mitch unlatches a flashlight from his ammo vest, and he focusses its beam through the dark hallway. Though I’m certain a monster knit of shadows still stalks us, I welcome the dim environs. It feels like the grove’s light has surrounded me for weeks, and my skin is thankful for the chill the science station holds. Beyond the entrance, the jungle appears to have no foothold within the station’s walls. No vines snake along the floor. No roots rumple the tile. I assume the grove’s responsible for the lack of power, but Mitch’s flashlight otherwise reveals a station interior that remains in good repair.

 

“Place feels awful empty.” I’m speaking because my anxiety swells in silence.

 

Danno agrees. “That’s because Mitch and I are the only ones left, not counting Dr. Amberson.”

 

“But the League must’ve sent any army of scientists,” I respond.

 

Mitch snarls. “The grove’s collected them too.”

 

We pass a dozen open doorways as we follow Mitch and Danno deeper into the station. Mitch’s flashlight occasionally seeps into empty chambers to reveal the shapes of various instruments – the curves of microscopes, the keyboards of mainframes, canisters of formaldehyde fluids that hold creatures the missing researchers thought worthy of their attention. Erase boards are mounted next to most doorways, upon which are written notes regarding holiday schedules and social functions, or molecular diagrams and equations that will forever remain beyond my comprehension. Empty lab-coats hang from abandoned chairs, and rubber boots sometimes rest just beyond a doorway’s threshold. A curving receptionist’s desk supports boxes of plastic gloves and safety goggles. Yet I find no trace of the many scientists who must’ve staffed the science station. No corpses fester in the shadows. No skulls grin angrily in the beam of Mitch’s flashlight. The smell of rot doesn’t assault our senses. I don’t sense death, though I don’t doubt Mitch’s claim that the grove’s taken everyone, and that gives me a small hope that we might reunite with a living, and still beautiful, Marlena.

 

“The station’s much larger than I anticipated,” Teddy comments.

 

Danno nods. “That’s because the grove’s grown to cover most of the facility. Before the grove claimed it, this station also served as one of the obliterators’ chief equipment warehouses and mudder barracks.”

 

“So there are larger chambers ahead of us?” Teddy asks.

 

“You got it,” Mitch replies, “and we’re headed towards the largest.”

 

A turn in the corridor positions us before a set of double doors, where a pair of glass portals glow in the grove’s pulsating and orange illumination. Mitch extinguishes his flashlight, and Danno points us towards the double doors. Teddy and I hesitate to take another step.

 

“Aren’t the two of you going in with us?” I balk.

 

Mitch shakes his head. “We don’t go in there unless Dr. Amberson asks for us.”

 

“Has she asked for Zane and me?” Teddy inquires.

 

“She has,” Danno returns. “We never would’ve entered the grove if she hadn’t. We never would’ve found the two of you and we never would’ve made it back if she hadn’t.”

 

“What if I refuse to go forward?” I force myself to ask.

 

“It’s better if you go voluntarily,” Mitch answers. “The grove will just grab you if you try to resist, and there’s no way back out after the grove grabs you.”

 

I still hesitate, and I look towards Teddy. I can’t help but look towards that old hunter when my knees tremble and knock.

 

“Are you planning to just walk in there?” My voice cracks. “There’s no way to guess what’s going to be waiting for us on the other side of those doors.”

 

Teddy’s eyes pierce into my heart. “I think I’ll find Marlena where I find Dr. Amberson. Are you ready to abandon her?”

 

I take a breath and face the truth that I have no other choice but to enter that glowing room waiting beyond those double doors. I promised Harold Higgins I would go as far as the story would take me, a promise I’ve never failed to keep despite all the strangeness I’ve experienced during my jumps out into the stars. Just like Mr. Higgins, I want to harvest all the fame and wealth I can from Earth’s hungry subscribers. The grove guided me to this science station. The grove revealed the path to that room I now face. The grove isn’t going to show me the way back to the mudder camp’s spaceport if the grove wants me to enter the doors in front of me. But I doubt I would turn around even if the grove gave me the chance to do so. Teddy reminds me that I too have come to the grove with hopes of claiming a trophy. I know I can’t walk away from Marlena.

 

“I’ve come this far,” I try to sound brave.

 

Teddy nods. “You’ve got more spine than you realize, Zane Thomas. Time we enter those doors and see what it is we’ve traveled all the way to Tybalt to kill.”

 

  • * * * *

 

My eyes wince as I walk through those double doors and enter a chamber that burns brightly in the grove’s orange glow.

 

The grove’s light is more intense than anywhere we’ve so far tread upon Tybalt. I guess the room once served as a large equipment shed for the colossal bulldozers, crawlers, earthmovers, and cranes the obliterators employ when flattening worlds to make room for human settlement. I spy the corroding carcasses of many of those machines through the spaces provided between the grove’s twisting and knotting vines. Bundles of the grove’s branches and roots now grow from the spaces that once held engine blocks and machinery, and vines twist out of shattered windshields. The chamber’s space must once have felt cavernous, but the grove currently grows to occupy most of the structure, filling it with brilliant foliage.

 

Tendrils of vines sway from branches overhead and sweep across my forehead as I push through the dense growth. I shudder at the sight of the black spiders, seemingly knit from the same swirling shadows as the monster that stole Marlena, that scurry to ascend the vines as we trudge deeper into the chamber. The periphery of my vision senses larger shadows skirting along our side, seemingly testing how close they might approach the room’s visitors before catching our attention, seemingly sniffing our scent to appraise the degree of our fear.

 

“You see them as well, Zane?”

 

I nod to my left. I lack the courage to square my sight to them, but I feel several shadow masses peering at me from an empty truck. “I wonder what keeps them from pouncing on us.”

 

The grove no longer shifts to provide us with a clear path through its density. Teddy and I often stumble as we climb over thick roots, and we often gasp at the touch of a tendril against our ankle, fearing that the grove might clutch us at any moment before lifting us away into whatever cage or mouth awaits all of those taken by the grove. Yet the jungle doesn’t trap us, and we slowly push through curtains of moss and filaments teeming with scurrying, shadow spiders. We cannot determine our direction. We only push towards that patch of grove that appears to glow most brightly.

 

“I can’t deny that there’s something lovely about it,” I whisper at the splendor surrounding me.

 

Teddy sadly nods. “Aye, but I’d burn it all if it returned Marlena.”

 

Brilliant flowers blossom all around us, encased in bulbs that sprout from the grove like the other orbs previously revealed to us within the jungle. I recognize none of the plant life the grove shows us, but many of the blooming pedals remind me of so many more pictures held in Earth’s libraries struggling to preserve a memory to the variety of flowers once abundant on our wasted planet of a home. Some of the flowers glow in a luminescence of their own, emitting hues of green and lavender that mix strangely with the grove’s orange cast. Many of the flowers would fit easily into my palm, encased in bulbs little larger than glass marbles. Still other flowers stretch so wide overhead to cover me in a soft degree of shade. Mouths of teeth leer from the stigma of a few exotic flowers, while some plants seem to be composed of little more than a shimmering kind of pixie dust. I stare at a small, furry animal that smiles at me from a home burrowed in the stalk of a particularly large plant, itself captured by the grove when the jungle decided the animal’s host to be worthy of its bouquet of flowers. My mind stammers at all the plant life encased in those bulbs. Such a collection of color must be any botanist’s dream.

 

My nerves jump when Teddy sets a hand on my shoulder.

 

“That has to be Dr. Amberson.”

 

Teddy points to a massive trunk of roped vines that rises, like an immense tree, just ahead of us. Motes of intense, orange light pulse and rise within those vines, rising into the dense canopy where the strange leaves shimmer in the chamber’s grove. A crook of branches in roughly the center of the tree’s symmetry supports a shining bulb that encases what is undeniably a woman’s curved figure. The shapes of the woman’s hips remain distinct, but though my eye can still follow the line of her legs, the grove has seemingly fused with the woman’s lower half, rooting her to the bulb in bright, orange plant life that shares a synchronized pulse with the rest of the tree. Her upper torso is bare, but her skin has become slightly translucent, so that I can see the dark mass of her heart beating within her chest to the grove’s rhythmic light. The woman’s unnaturally long arms beckon us to approach the base of her tree, while her hair floats within the bulb’s fluids in yellow, orange and red streamers of color.

 

Teddy rushes to the roots radiating outwards from that tree and grunts as he attempts to pull them out of the ground.

 

“Are you in much pain?” Teddy shouts.

 

The woman in the bulb laughs. “I’m in great pleasure.”

 

The grove brightens, and its heartbeat quickens. Dr. Amberson waves her hand and several new bulbs begin to sprout and swell on the thickest vines close to her tree. The fluids swirl and coalesce into the shapes of new creatures, all of which appear terrible in fang and demeanor. The creatures that form in those bulbs possess snarls instead of mouths, and they’re equipped with the talon and teeth needed to perch them atop any planet’s food chain. New bulbs continue to swell about us, growing massive in order to hold the monsters the grove chooses for our consideration. It takes no hunter to recognize that the orbs that come to surround us hold the greatest killers evolved during the eons since the heavens birthed the stars.

 

The subjects within those bulbs take a sudden, evolutionary leap forward. Though the next forming specimens appear no less wild, I recognize how the weapons now gripped in tails, hands and claws have been produced by species with intelligences not unlike our own. The creatures share no common symmetry – even a simple reporter recognizes that so many evolutionary variables existing amongst the stars force a diversity among species development. Some creatures stand on six legs instead of two, covered with robes knit together of armor scale. Metallic alloys cover the backs of other lizard-like bodies that hardly rise off of the ground. All of them, regardless of their physical differences, hold weapons designed for killing. Many hold primitive spears and knives. Many hold weapons that remind me of so many of the guns stored in the crates Teddy brought along upon his expedition. I wonder if a study of the sophistication of a species’ weapons might be the best barometer of any alien race’s intelligence.

 

The creatures may all remain trapped within the grove, but their confines do nothing to blunt the intimidation I feel when gazing at them. All of the creatures possess unique faces. Some are not so unlike our own, holding sets of eyes, nostril cavities or even wisps of hair. Other are far too exotic to compare to my human visage, a times appearing nothing more than rough hide painted in symbolic stripes and tattoos. The bulbs continue to sprout throughout the room, and I doubt the grove would ever run out of trophies to show us if we stood for a century surrounded by the grove’s glow.

 

A film of mist covers Dr. Amberson’s eyes like cataracts as she smiles. “There have been so many hunters to step into the grove over the millenniums, on far more planets than this one, for the grove is not confined to a single world. All of them failed to take anything from the grove. Do you think you might steal me away and succeed where all the others have failed?”

 

The bulbs holding the alien specimens dim, and bright new bulbs emerge from the thick vines nearest to Dr. Amberson. I hold my breath as I watch those growths expand while their inner fluids swirl, for I sense what is about to take shape within those orbs before the liquids solidify into the legs and arms that show human symmetry. The grove summons the squad of missing rangers from its fluids. All of the soldiers remain dressed in their combat armor, posed like toys in aggressive postures, with their laser rifles levelled at an imaginary enemy beyond the confines of their bulbs. Each of the rangers remains unblemished, and their eyes still blaze with the fear and the fire they held when the grove claimed them.

 

“Why hasn’t the grove taken Danno and Mitch as well?” I’ve never been so terrified, and I ask questions out of a reporter’s habit.

 

Dr. Amberson’s pale lips give me a crooked smile. “The grove refrains from taking their faces to please me. I can use their help. Were they not helpful in coercing you to come to me? Did their companionship not help you advance deeper into the grove after the two of you became all that was left of your expedition? The grove understands how a familiar face can feel comforting. The grove understands how pets can make a human feel appreciated.”

 

“Where is my Marlena?”

 

Teddy is at his breaking point, and his words hiss as his entire body trembles. Tears stream into his beard. He drops his laser rifle, and I know he’s a defeated man. The grove crushes his spirit each second it keeps his daughter from him, and it taunts the once proud hunter by showing one specimen after another within its bulbs, all stuffed and preserved like the trophies mounted in Teddy Jackson’s luxury star yacht.

 

“Patience, Mr. Jackson,” Dr. Amberson answers. “The grove has sensitive ears, and it knows the obliterators have invited you here to scrape this planet clean of this jungle. But the obliterators are wrong to believe that only my presence keeps those mighty guns in low orbit from burning away so much glowing growth to make room for a new paradise for fallen woman and man. If the choice was mine, I’d happily let you drag me from the grove if my return tricked the League into firing another volley from those guns. Did the obliterators not tell you that the League already tried removing the grove with all that firepower?”

 

“The obliterators told us they detonated a warhead over the grove,” I respond.

 

“Oh, they did more than that,” Dr. Amberson replies. “The League fired every cannon currently in low orbit at the grove, and it didn’t do the trick. It only brightened all the glow. It only fed the grove so that it could grow.”

 

I sigh. “Another attack would only increase the rate of the grove’s expansion. Like always, the obliterators refuse to believe that firepower will not solve their problem, because firepower is the only tool the obliterators ever really have to prepare planets for human settlement. The obliterators are always distrustful of the League. They always think the League holds them back. They think the League refuses to keep firing those guns on account of a single woman, but the League would never let a single woman get in the way of paradise.”

 

Dr. Amberson chuckles. “You’re an astute man, Zane Thomas. Your party reputation doesn’t do you mind enough credit. I wonder if you’ve shaped your reputation so that you’re often underestimated.”

 

“A wise man would not have joined such a vain expedition.” I answer.

 

“Oh, Zane, the grove’s taught me that there’s no pursuit grander than that of the hunt.”

 

Teddy squeezes his hands into fists. “Why not take us now? Why banter and toy with us?”

 

“Because the grove has a purpose for the two of you.”

 

Teddy shakes his head. “I’ll do nothing until I know Marlena is fine. I’ll do nothing until the grove returns my daughter.”

 

Dr. Amberson frowns. “You will do exactly what the grove asks because you desire your girl so badly. But take heart, Mr. Jackson, the grove promises the two of you will be reunited. All the grove asks you to do before that time is simply look upon its trophies and admire so many prizes.”

 

“The grove only wants to boast?” I stammer.

 

“I would never claim the grove wasn’t vain,” Dr. Amberson’s smile widens. “Why shouldn’t the grove be proud of what it holds? The grove is the galaxy’s greatest preservationist and archive. So much would be forgotten if it wasn’t for the grove. So much would be lost to wild hunger, merciless chance, cruel disease and violent war if not for the grove’s ability to collect. Most of the creatures you will see housed within these orbs have long been extinct; but thanks to the grove, they can still be summoned for study and consideration.

 

“I consider myself fortunate to have been gathered by the grove, gentlemen. The grove houses more specimens of plant life from across the cosmos than I could ever imagine, and thanks to the preserving nature of the grove, my life will stretch long enough to give me a chance to examine a fraction of that collection. The grove enjoys an appreciative audience. The grove only wants to share a little of what it knows with a fellow hunter like Mr. Jackson.”

 

Teddy lifts his chin and squares his face to Dr. Amberson’s filmy eyes. “Is Marlena still alive? Does the grove preserve her as it preserves you?”

 

Dr. Amberson nods. “It preserves everything. There are no words to describe what waits once embraced by the grove. I promise you will once more share joy with your daughter.”

 

“It sounds like the grove expects us to take a leap of faith,” I snort. “You suggest I should feel thankful for the grove. That’s asking much.”

 

“In time you will see the wisdom,” Dr. Amberson replies. “Humanity has discovered the power to jump throughout the stars, but humanity will forever remain on the cusp of extinction. Humanity is far from the first intelligent creature with that terrible lean towards self-destruction. The grove has preserved so many such races. Let the grove show you only a small sampling of what has already fallen to ruin, what would have slipped into oblivion if it were not for the grove.”

 

Another bulb sprouts from a cord of vine, filling with film as it expands into an orb twice as large as that which encases Dr. Amberson. Visions, like those described in the fairy tales of crystal balls, form within the sphere. The grove shows strange landscapes teeming with alien cities within that orb. Ziggurats rise into sparkling clouds, their steps trafficked by creatures dressed in holy robes of crimson and gold. Lanterns illuminate the hanging hives tiny creatures of wings build, like stalactites, upon a cavern’s ceiling. Music warbles from the orb as the image of giant seashell amphitheater floating upon a pink sea focusses into view, unfolding and magnifying to show alien musicians strumming strange instruments. Fortresses of dark metal soon follow in the orb, squat ugly buildings to withstand and deliver power as the dust of armies fighting upon a battlefield clouds the the orbs vista. A dozen city skylines appear within the orb – cities in a giant, gas-planet sky built upon massive, floating balloons and palaces of ice whose inhabitants move through walls like cold, spirit wraiths.

 

The scope of the cosmos boggles my mind. Humankind has already discovered so many planets since we’ve unlocked the technology to unlock the stars, and yet we’ve found no indication of sophisticated intelligence. But that orb within the grove flashes one vision of alien civilization after another, and I wonder if any of the musicians, artists or warriors the grove displays would motivate the obliterators to pause in their planetary renovations.

 

“Are they not lovely?” Dr. Amberson nearly sings. “And all of it is such a small portion of what the grove has already shown me.”

 

The mists within the orb continue to churn. The ziggurats topple as earthquakes ignore the pleads of those holy men dressed in crimson and gold. All those lanterns go dark just before the hives of those buzzing occupants fall from their cavern’s ceiling. The pink sea rises and consumes the seashell amphitheaters and silences the song as the waters sweep away the musicians. Massive explosions erupt above the ugly, squat fortresses, and only rubble remains when my eyes recover from the blinding flash of the destruction. The wraiths of the ice palaces turn opaque as cracks splinter through their city’s crystal walls. All the cities floating in that giant gas-planet’s sky fall out of the orb’s picture.

 

“All of them lovely, and all of them gone,” Dr. Amberson sighs. “All of them would’ve be forgotten if the grove did not collect a piece of their glory.”

 

“So the grove wants a kindred spirit with Mr. Jackson, but what does the grove want with me?” I ask.

 

Pity appears to cross Dr. Amberson’s face. “Oh, I wish I could invite you into the comfort I know, Mr. Thomas, for your face is as lovely as any that has ever looked upon the grove. But the grove has a different goal for you. The grove needs you to return and deliver a wonderful story to those masses languishing on our home planet. The grove needs your words to inspire them to race to Tybalt. The grove needs you to deliver as many faces to its curiosity as you can.”

 

I smirk. “I’ll do no such thing.”

 

Dr. Amberson rolls her filmy eyes. “We know that’s not the case, Zane. The grove knows better. You’ll return to Earth by telling yourself you’re going to warn humankind about this jungle. You’ll fool yourself into believing a noble cause makes you courageous. But in the end, you’ll write the wonderful story your editor Harold Higgins and his subscribers crave. You’ll rewrite what Mr. Jackson truly found on Tybalt for all the adoration your words can gather. You can’t resist it. You’ll describe so many wonders out here in the grove just waiting to be found, and all your readers will come to see it just as if the obliterators built their paradise. And the grove will know so many new faces.”

 

“I’d sooner kill myself.”

 

“You would sacrifice yourself in vain,” replies Dr. Amberson. “The grove has learned about woman and man, and one way or another, it will have the faces it hungers. The grove grows as we speak, and it pushes its vines higher and higher. Soon, those vines will stretch beyond Tybalt’s atmosphere. The grove’s vines will feel the cold vacuum of space, and they will release their spores to the solar winds. Perhaps a spore will latch onto one of those gunships in low orbit, and perhaps that gunship will plant the first grove spore on Earth when it returns to its original dock. Or perhaps the spores will eventually simply drift to Earth as they have come to a legion of planets stretched across the galaxy. Your death would do nothing to hold back the grove’s eventual exposure to humanity.”

 

“I swear I won’t write that story.” I snarl.

 

Dr. Amberson stretches her smile. “We will see, Zane Thomas.”

 

Teddy takes a step closer to Dr. Amberson. “Please. Enough talk. Just show me my girl.”

 

Dr. Amberson’s bulb shines as its fluids pulsate with light. The doctor’s skin is nearly translucent thanks to the intensity of such illumination.

 

“Forgive me for keeping you separated so long from your daughter. Like the grove, I enjoy an audience. You’ve listened to me long enough, and the grove is so excited to show you so much more once it takes you into its embrace, Mr. Jackson.”

 

The grove grants Teddy Jackson a single heartbeat to gather a breath before shadows leap from the grove and consume Earth’s great hunter in a cloud of darkness. I don’t hear Teddy scream or choke as ropes and vines rise from the grove’s surface to knit Teddy into a tight cocoon. The dark shadows that whirl around my companion prevent me from seeing if terror contorts Teddy’s face the moment when he is claimed as a trophy. I hardly have to time to think about turning and fleeing from that chamber. The grove takes its prize so quickly. The shadows buzz before fragmenting into a thousand coils that fall to the ground and scurry away like black snakes. The ropes and vines that clutched Teddy withdraw and return below the surface. The grove has taken everything. Nothing of Teddy Jackson remains. No pile of bones marks where Earth’s great hunter made his last stand. No boot nor vest is left to mark the spot where the grove consumed my hunting companion. The grove proves to be too much of a hoarder, collector and archivist to leave a single artifact behind that might describe the creature Teddy Jackson had been within his natural habitat.

 

The grove has a last trophy to show me.

 

“You see, Mr. Thomas. The grove keeps it promises, and the grove preserves.”

 

All the other bulbs, with their specimens within, contract again into the grove. Even Dr. Amberson’s orb turns opaque before it too collapses into a small drop that the grove easily absorbs. Two new bulbs, one blossoming upon either side of the massive tree growing in the center of that chamber, sprout from a pair of thick roots knotted along the ground. I close my eyes as fluid fills those expanding orbs. I don’t want to see the shapes that form in those mists. I want to wake from this sleep and learn that the mudders, the obliterators, the grove, the doctor, and the hunter are only figments of nightmare. I want to wake and discover that only Marlena and her loving hold the only truth from this failed expedition. Only, my mind tells my fearful heart that I the grove will never let me leave its dominion until I open my eyes and consider what the jungle wants me to see.

 

The faces of Teddy and Marlena stare at me from the center their grove orbs. Both bulbs throb in bright, golden light. Neither of my safari companions appear harmed in any way. There clothing isn’t so much as wrinkled, and I doubt there’s a hair out of place on either of their heads. Both are perfectly preserved. They are wonderfully pickled and jarred specimens that will never ruin.

 

The grove dims its lighting and attracts my attention onto the new path behind me that the grove wishes me to take upon my retreat. I have no problem following the path all the way back to the mudder work camp where I book passage on the first obliterator, supply freighter scheduled to jump back into Earth’s native system. I don’t know if Teddy and Marlena are alive or dead, and I wonder if they’re trapped in some strange purgatory of glow and grove. My heart races with fear while simultaneously burning with hate.

 

And it’s myself that I hate the most. For as I stood staring at Marlena’s perfectly preserved body held within an orb of alien fluids, I thought she looked more beautiful than ever.

 

  • * * * *

 

Chapter 14 – No Appetite for Pageant Queens

“Listen, Zane. It’s Harold calling again. We’re all real excited back at the home office to see the copy you’re no doubt soon going to be sending us from the Gamma Block Sunscreen bikini pageant out there on the Luminous Moon resorts. All the boys in the office would sacrifice their yearly salaries for seat at those stages. I’m sure you’re having one hell of a time, just like in the old days. Everyone’s dying to read what you come up with. Just don’t keep all the depressed masses waiting too long, Zane.”

 

I’m staring all bug-eyed at the ceiling of my hotel room as my editor leaves still another message on my interplanetary phone inquiring about my status on the Luminous Moon. He doesn’t have the balls anymore to push too hard. Everyone back on Earth is desperate for all the stories I can sell them since my piece about Teddy Jackson’s expedition upon Tybalt went through the atmosphere and made Harold Higgins and myself very wealthy men. Harold knows he can’t test me too much and risk giving me a reason to go knocking on the office doors of any of his competitors. Poor Harold still thinks I’ve got the least bit of desire to write anymore, and he’s likely losing sleep over the thought of my prose going to some other tabloid, though I’ve already made him so much coin. Harold won’t dare send some rookie reporter all the way out to the Luminous Moon resorts to salvage whatever story he can about the Gamma Block Sunscreen bikini contest. Harold knows that his chances of ever receiving a story from me have turned very slim in this second week beyond the copy’s deadline, but he won’t fuel a scandal by putting my name on some rube’s attempts to emulate my style. I’m too eccentric for that. I’ve got a real problem with the drugs, drink and, most of all, the fear. But no one writes like me.

 

I suppose I’ve put old Harold Higgins in a bad spot. Truth is, I didn’t even bother attending the Gamma Block Sunscreen bikini extravaganza the Luminous Moon resorts host each year for the benefit of the skin tabloid and virtual pleasure pot industry. I didn’t so much as bother to watch the live broadcast of the pageant the resorts beam onto every glowing monitor screen. I just don’t have any appetite for curves and trophies anymore.

 

What I do have an appetite for is the pure speedball perfume so readily available everywhere on the Luminous Moon resorts, a world that thrives on putting every thrill, regardless of legality, within a visitor’s reach. I don’t want to throw any of the eye powder from the monks of the Ark Levant into my face, because the only visions that drug now delivers me are tainted by an orange tint I first spied in Tybalt’s grove. I don’t dare sip the bourbon, because the good, old strong stuff too easily sends me into dreams crowded with nightmares. So I go all in with the speedball perfume, and I spray it really thick onto my cheeks and chest so that the fumes flow nice and easy into my nostrils and keep my heart racing on the brink of explosion until my bed sheets are soaked in sweat. Thanks to that speedball perfume, I haven’t slept in five days.

 

A knock on my resort door nearly sends me into cardiac arrest, and I leap beneath my bed for cover.

 

“What do you want?” I scream at the door, my words racing as result of my perfume high.

 

Another slow and kind voice of the resorts’ many servants answers. “Special delivery, Mr. Thomas.”

 

“Leave it at the door!”

 

“Afraid I can’t do that this time,” the voice returns. “It’s a special package sent from a Mr. Higgins. I can’t leave until I get your signature, Mr. Thomas.”

 

“You’re going to be standing at the door for a very long time.”

 

“I’ve also got a new bottle of that perfume you’ve been enjoying, Mr. Thomas.”

 

I can’t resist that offer, and so I come out from beneath the bed and unlock my resort room’s door to find another one of the busboys dressed in the standard crimson and red monkey suit grinning at me.

 

“It really is you,” the young man stares at my face, and I doubt he notices how swollen and irritated my eyes have turned on account of all the speedball perfume, or how my face sports the shadow and stubble of a week-old beard.

 

“It’s the true me. Zane Thomas in the flesh.”

 

I grab at the bottle of perfume the busboy holds, but the young man hides it behind his back before my hands, shaking from so much of the drug, can clutch the offering. Instead, the busboy hands me a large envelope.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“According to the special delivery ticket, the envelope holds the first photographs printed of the Gamma Block Suncreen bikini finalists,” answers the busboy. “I wasn’t sure if I could make it all the way to your room without breaking upon that envelope’s seal and peeking at all those pictures. No one but the photographers and the pageant organizers have so much as glanced at those photos. All those pictures must be incredible. The girls keep getting hotter and hotter with every year of the pageant.”

 

My shoulders slump as I accept the envelope. I’m sure Harold Higgins has a good idea that I didn’t bother to attend the bikini pageant. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’s been checking up on my activities since I arrived at the Luminous Moon. It wouldn’t surprise me if Harold’s invested a tiny fraction of his massive fortune to grease the gears so that the busboy dressed in crimson and gold who stands in front of me delivers those photographs so much of the settled galaxy is anxious to see. Harold’s hoping that those glossy photographs will get my words flowing onto the page, that they’ll be enough of a motivation to cover pageant with another bestseller. Harold certainly knows my absence from the festivities will do nothing to decrease my chances for success. He knows that I don’t have to report the truth, and that he doesn’t need to publish it. Harold knows he only needs to give his hungry subscribers what they want to hear.

 

Harold Higgins should also know better than to bother sending a busboy with an envelope of skin pics and a bottle of whatever drug is currently gripping me to my hotel door. I told Harold I was finished with the entire tabloid business when I finally gave him the fictional account of my safari on Tybalt with Teddy and Marlena Jackson that he wanted. I promised Harold I wouldn’t write another feature for him after he made me burn all those pages upon which I tried to scribe the truth of the grove that devoured our hunting party. Dr. Amberson was correct. In the end, I wrote the story all those hungry subscribers wanted. In the end, I wrote a fantasy about a paradise that doesn’t exist. In the end, I didn’t write a single word about the grove’s appetite for faces. In the end, I simply created a fictional story that would assure every reader that his or her assumption and belief concerning Tybalt had always, of course, been true. And in the end, I was made a very wealthy man for doing so.

 

I scribble a laugh of a signature on the delivery form the busboy gives me, but I grunt when the busboy hesitates to give me that bottle of perfume.

 

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Thomas, but I was hoping you might sign something else for me,” smiles the busboy. “I’m your biggest fan. I’ve been following you long before you wrote your masterpiece about Tybalt. I’ve ready everything you’ve ever penned about mudders. I even write a little myself. I was hoping you might sign this for me.”

 

The busboy pulls a canister out from his sleeve and unrolls a glossy poster printed with a stylish graphic of Tybalt’s landscape. It’s another mass-produced piece the League commissioned to promote human settlement upon Tybalt. I’ve counted hundreds of different such posters pinned in all the space docks and drinking halls since my return from the grove; and though each poster is a wonderful specimen of type, color and line, none convey an ounce of the truth I know from my experience walking within that grove. An orange jungle fills the background of the poster the busboy offers to me. Tall tents, like the ones Teddy hauled upon his ill-fated safari, rise in the foreground, where men and women sit around campfires to play guitars and sip from mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. The grove that rises behind them looks no more harmful than a Christmas tree decorated with twinkling lights and reflective bulbs.

 

“You got a pen you want me to use on this?”

 

The busboy removes his cap and pulls out a marker. “Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Thomas. You can’t guess how much this means to me. You see, I’m hopping out to Tybalt next week. I’ve saved everything I’ve made while wearing this monkey outfit to build a home on Tybalt.”

 

I grunt. “So you got anything you want me to say?”

 

The busboy winks. “Oh, I rambling. I’m keeping you from the story you must be working on about the bikini pageant. Say ‘To Glenn. Here’s to finding your paradise.’”

 

My hand shakes from all the speedball perfume as I scribble the words as neatly as I can across the poster’s orange grove. It’s foolish to think that retreating from my falsehoods is going to do anyone any ounce of good now. It’s too late. It was too late the moment I handed my fantasy over to Harold Higgins. That busboy is going to drift out to Tybalt to meet whatever the grove has planned for him, no matter how hard I might try to convince him that what I wrote was just a lie. That busboy’s not going to consider any evidence I might have to prove that the grove is a monster. Guilt can be a corrosive poison even within a bestselling journalist, and so I tell myself that the busboy has it coming to him for holding back a junkie’s drug for the sake of collecting a silly signature.

 

“Good luck,” I mumble as the busboy takes back his poster and pen and finally hands me that bottle of speedball perfume.

 

“Thank you. Thank you.” The busboy stammers. “I’m going to frame this poster real nice over the mantle of the cottage I plan to build on Tybalt. I’m going to take really good care of it so my grandchildren can see how I once met the great Zane Thomas. Is it true what they say about Tybalt? Is it true that the world was so perfect when the obliterators found it that they didn’t have to do a thing to the world?”

 

I nod. “It’s all true.”

 

I take a step back into my resort room and slam the door in the busboy’s face. Humanity’s launching a thousand rockets a month to keep up with the passenger demand to arrive upon Tybalt. The grove’s going to have all the faces its hunger can devour.

 

But I doubt anyone will notice until it’s too late. Perhaps a person might one-day knock on my door to try to hold me accountable for the fantasy I helped spread about that terrible world. But I won’t hold my breath. In the meanwhile, I’m going to hole myself up on one resort moon or pirate planet after another and breath as deeply as my racing heart will permit of the speedball perfume so that I will rarely have to dream of Marlena Jackson’s beautiful face, and of the grove that holds it.

 

  • * * * *

 

About the Writer

Brian S. Wheeler calls Hillsboro, Illinois home, a town of roughly 6,000 in the middle of the flatland. He grew up in Carlyle, Illinois, a community less than an hour away from Hillsboro, where he spent a good amount of his childhood playing wiffle ball and tinkering on his computer. The rural Midwest inspires much of Brian’s work, and he hopes any connections readers might make between his fiction and the places and people he has had the pleasure to know are positive.

 

Brian earned a degree in English from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has taught high school English and courses in composition and creative writing. Imagination has been one of Brian’s steadfast companions since childhood, and he dreams of creating worlds filled with inspiration and characters touched by magic.

 

When not writing, Brian does his best to keep organized, to get a little exercise, or to try to train good German Shepherd dogs. He remains an avid reader. More information regarding Brian S. Wheeler, his novels, and his short stories can be found by visiting his website at www.flatlandfiction.com.

 


Trophy Grove

The obliterators execute the Law of Extermination, cleansing alien planets of native life and reshaping extra-terrestrial landscapes to prepare the new worlds found in the stars for human settlement. Yet a creature of shadow and fear prevents the obliterators from completing their duty on the planet of Tybalt, a world that promises humankind a New Eden if only the obliterators can exterminate that glowing jungle in which the monster hides. Teddy Jackson, that old hunter of a previous era’s great safaris, accepts the obliterators’ challenge to claim that monster as a trophy. But an intelligence unlike any Mr. Jackson has ever tracked threatens to turn the table on that great hunter who has mounted so many alien heads upon his walls.

  • ISBN: 9781311635884
  • Author: Brian S. Wheeler
  • Published: 2015-10-16 00:05:11
  • Words: 45801
Trophy Grove Trophy Grove