The Story Of Donald
From the Great Library on the planet Xulcator
Keepers of all Knowledge and Legends in the Galaxy
[or at least they try to]
Translated by Adrian Dorn
Donald, the overlord technician of Beta colony, thought it was a good time to step outside for a smoke. The constellations over Aurelius always disoriented him. He would never get used to it, he thought, as he lit the cannabis tube and took a long, deep drag. The terraforming operation had been going on for two full years, continuously, and yet the air was still only 38% the density of Earth's. The pills helped, supplementing what was lacking. When his job was done, they would no longer be needed, but then it would be time to move on to the next colony farther out. He cursed under his breath; he never got a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Suddenly, the muffled reverberation of alarm bells could be felt through the vinyl-foam body suit. With shock and dismay, he realized he'd lost track of time and strayed too far in his daydreaming under the alien sky to reach the shut-off switch before meltdown. Earlier he had dismantled the automatic, waiting, as usual, for parts from Earth. Too late. An overload was imminent. The exterior building would turn to plasma and collapse. He ran, fast. It was all he could do. But not towards the overheating resonator, but away, away towards the shelter of the bunker on the other side of the twenty-foot berm of rock and dirt.
Tears streamed his cheeks as he listened through the thin atmosphere to the shrill tearing sound of electrons being stripped away from the steel-reinforced melodidium. He knew he'd be fired and have to return to the nightmare called Earth. He ran, crying, wanting to die.
The heat rushed by, searing the top of the berm to glass. What lay beyond was barren charcoal-grey basalt and shards of granite with few useful minerals mixed in. Now the terraforming operation would be pushed back, maybe even abandoned due to cost overruns. The outfit he worked for believed in cutting their losses, not throwing good money after bad, and so forth. That included personnel who screwed up. He would probably be sent back to Earth for questioning, to give his account of what happened, instead of sending it by sub-space relay. If that were the case, then indeed his career would be over. It didn't take much, not like the old days when he was a young buck and the field was wide open. Nowadays, everybody wanted to venture off-world. It was wild and exciting, living on the edge, out and away from Earth and its teeming billions and all the problems of day to day existence, survival really.
When the electron storm had blown itself out, Donald went looking for his crew. They'd heard the warning and had scampered out through the escape burrows, sliding down the waxed ramp to a secure bunker deep within the planet. There was nothing they could have done. They were at the end of their shift and near exhaustion from all the overtime. Get it done! had become a constant refrain from their employers. Well, it sure as hell wasn't going to happen now, and knowing it was their fault wouldn't mitigate their responsibility. The bosses are never to blame.
They returned to their shelter and decided to get drunk, always a good idea when calamity strikes. However, complete meltdown and dissolution of the main terraforming factory was a serious occasion. His men tried to console Donald, joking about their lost lunch pales and the genuine balogna sandwiches and cartons of milk. But it was no use. Donald had to give his report, but not just yet. He'd wait a day or two while he thought up a good lie. His men promised to back it no matter how outrageous.
He sent the encrypted message telling of a meteor crashing into the factory. But, he knew investigators would come and discover the truth. That would take a few days. The nearest planet was Rigelious Three, a mere light month away. He could wait for their arrival and suffer the consequences or,..., run. Take their personal cruiser, kick it into quark-drive, and be on Rigelious in less than a day. He talked it over with his crew, they were his buds, so, he wasn't going to do anything like that without their OK.
He had no family, least ways any he cared about. He was on his own and had to admit being burned-out with the whole terraforming business. Fifteen years was a long time to be spending most of it on deserted planets and moons working his ass off trying to make them livable for miners and the trash that followed along. An occasional scientific outpost would go up, he knew. Astronomy and astrophysics, biology and micro-technologies, and a deeper understanding of the universe had their respective frontiers pushed back thanks to him and his men and others like them. Besides the usual bonuses for getting the job done on time, he never got any credit or recognition for it. No medals, no parades, no sit-down dinners. Then it was off to the next God-forsaken place. He was bored and felt overworked and unappreciated.
And now this. In spite of his exemplary record, it was a costly mistake. He probably wouldn't get fired over it, but they would most likely downgrade him to a desk back on Earth. The thought made him shudder. He sat alone all night long, brooding over times and places, adventures and near-death experiences, beautiful night skies and strangely twisted landscapes. By daybreak, under the glare of two suns, he'd made up his mind: Run like the devil himself was chasing you.
He hated long good-byes, but he knew he'd never see his friends again, so they sat around and reminisced over breakfast. They helped stock the cruiser with enough supplies to last six months. He took weapons from their small armory--a plasma repeater rifle and an electron hand gun complete with over the shoulder holster and plenty of extra laser tubes. They'd never run into any creatures to use them on, but that was not the reason for carrying them. Pirates roamed the ether. In all his years out in the bush, he'd only had one experience with such scum. And proved himself a damn good fighter. He killed two before they got back to their ship, never to return.
Waving to his men, giving them one last long look, he boarded the cruiser and fired up the engines. Quark-drive took time to charge. He sat in the pilot's seat, still thinking about his decision. He was cutting all ties with Earth and the normal routine of men. His employers wouldn't let a ship as valuable as this go easily. They'd be looking for him, the closest place first, he knew. So he studied the star-chart as his ship warmed up. Rigelious Three would be his first jump. Couldn't stay long. Where to next? He'd make several jumps, going farther and farther out into the wasteland, amongst the space of pirates and worse, criminals of all stripes hiding from the authorities. Was this wise? He didn't care. He was done with caring. Years of putting up with rudeness and arrogance by those too afraid or inept to do what he'd done, well, that was over. A load left his shoulders along with the past.
A bell went off signifying readiness. He said one last good-bye to his men over the radio, then kicked her into gear. His ship--the Pentagram. It took but a few seconds for it to get above the gravitational force of Aurelius before the quark-drive could be initiated. But as luck would have it, halfway to Rigelious Three, he was captured by pirates. I suppose I could go into a longwinded description of just how he got captured, but, you know: they pulled aongside, threatened total destruction, he surrendered and became a captive. They were into selling people; that was their gig. They were pirates and they captured people to sell as slaves. Anyway, Donald became one of those.
Partway to their nearest auction-base they in turn were captured by the Ardosian Navy. These folks were from another part of the galaxy that had never even heard of Earth. They were involved in fighting a war with the Valerians whose home planet was Valeria, where else? The Ardosians treated Donald and all the other captors of the pirates with the same indifference they treated all suspected ne'er-do-wells. Why else would one wind up a slave? Donald, along with the others, were taken before a tribunal. These were folks who had no real credentials or bona fides, but held their positions simply because they knew somebody higher up the food chain, you know the type. Donald told his story: he was a survivor of an attack on Beta 13. By whom, he didn't know. It appeared to be a military force. Everyone was killed, save him. Taking a shuttle, he barely escaped with his life. Pirates caught him. Period.
The council wasn't buying it; something about Donald smelled fishy. It could've been his plastic pocket protector; no one used those anymore. They brought it up. He confessed to being old school, to even having a sliderule. Slightly bewildered, the council members locked eyes on each other, communicating telepathically. Could the Valerians had been the military force this man speaks of? they asked one another. After a few minutes, as one, they faced him. The head councilman told Donald they unanimously decided to test his mettle and his truth by allowing him to become a member of the elite Purple Invasionary Force [PIF].
Why they made that decision is anybody's guess, the reason is not recorded in the archives. Perhaps they believed he might want payback, if his story was true and if the Valerians were the attackers. A lot of ifs. The problem is source material. On certain matters deemed significant by the Xulcatur librarians and subject to their interpretation, explanations are extensive and well researched. On others, events are covered in a hazy cloud; documents, records, and local histories are inadequate, unverifiable, non-existent, or simply inaccessible due to conflicts and diplomatic disagreements in the regions of interest. And Donald's diaries and journals are incomplete, swaths of time are missing. As well, certain events are mentioned only in general, the particulars having been left to the imagination. Between what the archivists were able to uncover and assemble from offical records and Donald's personal accounts, a compilation of his life experiences was stitched together. [Translator's note.]
Donald was not ready for this. After the first week of training, he thought death might be preferable. But after another couple of weeks, it was too late, he was hooked. He rapidly worked his way up the ranks to become a Star Cruiser Captain. I suppose, once again, I could describe what he went through to get there, but it's rather humdrum and routine, an historic account which--my opinon--the chroniclers of Xulcatur labored over too intensely, rife with minuscule details, pedantic accomplishments, and obscure technical references as it is. We have to get to the good parts. No dawdling. Suffice it to say, he learned how to operate a Navy cruiser, everything it entails, and from that perspective, running his corporate ferry boat was a snap.
The Valerians had been waging war aginst the Ardosians for close to three hundred years, Earth timescale; we need a scale we can relate to. [If we'd of given it in Valerian units, say, 500 valers, nobody would know what we were talking about.] The reason to go to war was simplicity itself: the Ardosians claimed a planet in Valerian space, as the Valerians saw it. Valerian space extended 1000 parsecs in all directions, with their home planet at center. Most of it was empty, but that didn't seem to matter. A claim was a claim. Right beyond the edge facing Ardosia was this planet in an area that had never been surveyed by a joint committee. As reported by scout vessels, that particular region of space wavered for reasons unknown. That is, it stretched and shrank periodically. The Valerian argument, naturally enough, was based on this: if space can be flexible, so can their measurements. Sometimes it was in Valerian space, and others, not. Their contention was that it preferred Valeria and would remain permanently in its space, if only it could.
No one lived on this planet save a few strange species of plant and animal life, and, in truth, it had little to no value as far as minerals or any other resources the Valerians held valuable. What it possessed was a religious significance. As the story goes, long ago, really long ago, a being from another galaxy crash-landed there. His call for help went unheeded; too far away, I guess. Over the years he adapted to the flora--that's plants and such--and managed by dint of luck, cleverness, and pure meanness to survive. During that time, not having anything else to do, he cannibalized parts from his massive ship and built another; it was smaller, but, it worked. One day he jammed as much food as he could into the tiny ship and took off, planning to explore the local neighborhood. His charts were still in good order and so was his navigational equipment. Pretty damn lucky, huh?
His engine was merely the driving force for what really propelled his ship through space, allowing him to cover such vast distances, even the void between galaxies--a crystal, similar to Earth quartz, but infinitely denser. Part of the exploded debris field of a neutron star, it acted as seed around which a tiny black hole of multiple dimensionality could be induced to grow. They were commonplace in his old galaxy, scattered throughout; here, not so much. The engine drove a piece of equipment that sent a stream of high-intensity neutrinos, in a state of coherence--phases of different frequencies matching each other congruently--into the crystal's center. The ensuing particle cascade initiated a four-dimensional juxtaposition of present position right next to desired destination within the confines of the crystal itself, magnified and projected as a single holographic image for the sake of sentient beings to observe and analyze. Imagine folding a sheet of paper with A on one edge and B on the other so that they touched. That's not exactly what's going on here, but it's as close as I can come without bringing in a lot of tedious technobabble.
On second thought, let me try this: It doesn't amount to warping space like in Star Trek; no, that's fiction. It's more like turning pages of a book while keeping a finger tucked in the one you're reading and skipping ahead ten pages, say. Each page represents a slice of spacetime. Separating the page you're on, or in, from the one you want to be on may be any number of other slices. The sum of these--thickness of pages--is the intervening distance between present position and desired destination. If you can arrive at the backbone of the book, then all the pages become accessible. And running through the center of that crystal, like a wormhole connecting membranes of parallel universes, was the backbone, the spine, the common axis of multidimensional hyperspace. There, that's more like it. [Translator's note]
Where were we? Oh yea, exploring the neighborhood. It wasn't much to look at. Most planets were lifeless or nearly so, microbial life is tough and persistent, able to take root and flourish under the most extremes of circumstances. [What's with those guys? They are the real trailblazers of the universe.] But beyond that there was little evidence of conditions that would support more advanced life. What he found were: oceans of methane and carbon dioxide, steaming basins of sulfuric acid, volcanoes venting cyanide and molten mercury, daytime heat that would melt iron, and vast empty expanses of brown gravelly rock and dust. Gravity varied as did the gaseous composition of the atmospheres. They ranged the spectrum, from the deadly poisonous, to a few that almost fit his home planet profile, but there was always some crucial ingredient lacking, some fly in the ointment. Not crashing would have been better; nonetheless, looking back he couldn't believe his good fortune: landing on a planet whose atmosphere and gravity were so similar to his own, and in a completely other galaxy. What are the chances of that?
Eventually he entered the space of Valeria. He saw it was well populated by sentient beings; how civilized, he couldn't tell. He circled it twice, scanning for a good place to set down, a place that appeared to be official where he could talk, hopefully, with leaders. Official sights of this caliber all look the same, have the same trappings, monuments, huge extravagant buildings, heavy street traffic, and watchful security. In fact, his arrival triggered the alarm of the Planetary Guard who sent fighters up to meet the intruder. He had sufficient weaponry to easily defend himself if he so chose. One weapon in particular could alter the atomic structure of matter, transmuting the metalic outer hulls to the consistency of wet dough, one choice among many. Instead, he allowed himself to be escorted to a landing strip out in a dessert. Surrounded by armed men, he opened the door and stepped out, trying to look as friendly as possible. He did carry with him, however, a shield pellet, a device affording the bearer the ability to enshroud his personal being with an invisible force field up to ten meters in diameter, impervious to all but the most powerful vaporizers.
Leaders did indeed come to visit, curious and also somewhat fearful. Could this be a messenger from a more powerful race of beings? An emmissary bringing good news or ultimatums? They had to find out; he seemed friendly enough. Through a combination of hand signals and mathematics--the universal language--they communicated, not fluently, mind you, but well enough to determine what side of the fence he was on. He knew things--physics, technology--of which they had no idea. They were suitably impressed and awed. He was given a comfortable place to stay beside a lake with an armed guard to keep the masses at bey. Leaders from all over Valeria came and went. They learned much and improved their societies immeasurably. But after a year he grew weary of it all and decided to leave for greener pastures. Concern that other planets might learn what he'd taught them and become equally wise and powerful, they chose to restrain him under house arrest. Bad idea.
He'd shown a great many things of a technical nature to these beings, including the crystal, page-turning drive which they incorporated into their war ships (the designs stolen by the Ardosians almost immediately), but not everything. He'd kept a couple of aces up his sleeve. One was a hand-sized cloaking device, undetectable by magnetic resonance imaging scanners; X-rays couldn't see through it either. With that in play, he hoofed it out to where his ship sat, under heavy guard. He crawled underneath to a secret hatch and gained entrance. Wasting little time, he fired it up, testing all systems, and prepared to escape. But before he left, he hacked into the network of the worldwide audio/visual one-way communication devices--TVs, essentially--and informed all that he was leaving, but one day would return, bringing secrets of eternal life. Of course, he had no intention of coming back to this ignorant hole of a planet; he was just saying that to screw with their heads for putting him under house arrest, but they didn't know. If he could magically escape, then he could do anything.
So, ever afterwards, they wait, one generation after another, wait and hold sacred this icon and the planet in their galaxy from which he came. Hence, the war of territorial acquisition.
Let's get back to Donald. Remember Donald? This is his story.
He achieved captaincy of his own cruiser which he renamed Pentagram to honor the ship that brought him to Ardosia. It's bad luck to rename a ship, but he didn't care. He figured he'd make his own luck. The Council of Elders--they weren't old, some were in their twenties, but that's what they called themselves--convened twice a week to discuss matters of importance: health care, unemployment, infrastructure, and, oh yes, the neverending war. They concocted a plan, a secret mission for Donald, to test his resolve, skill, devotion, and patriotism. He was to go behind the lines and destroy the entire planet of Valeria, or as much as he could, killing everyone: men, women, children, dogs, cats, and lay waste all food sources and existing flora--plants and such, remember? Donald thought this a bit over the top considering it was his first mission and that the entire fleet had been unable to accomplish anything remotely approaching this degree of annihilation after 300 years of open, ruthless warfare, and said as much. But the Council was adamant. Conservatives. If he refused, he'd face court-marshall, charges of treason, and certain unpleasant death. He didn't have much of a choice; it was suicide either way.
His crew onboard the cruiser Pentagram were excited and enthusiastic at the great honor bestowed on them by the Elders. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine such an opportunity. They attributed it to the luck of their new skipper, and praised him mightily. Donald, for his part, questioned the mental status of his crew. Would it be wise to go into battle with these people? He sat in his cabin brooding, soul-searching, trying to put his finger on where it had all gone so terribly wrong. He regretted many things, not the least of which was changing the name of the ship. Could that be it? he wondered.
The mind of Donald worked along a single track: how to stay out of trouble. But trouble lay in wait no matter what avenue he turned down. After thoughtful consideration of all possible action he could take, or not take, he arrived at the final all-purpose conclusion, the one that made most sense: Run like the devil himself was after you. This had become his mantra when in dire circumstances; dire being in the eye of the beholder.
His little ship, the original Pentagram, having been first captured by the pirates and then by the Ardosians, had been freed from its imprisonment and now sat in a hangar at a private field near his home, a favor owing to his status. Every saturday he'd gotten into the habit of going there to attend it: change out old outdated parts for the latest stuff, check systems for functionality, stock the stores with canned goods and dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and wash the hull. Just a regular guy on a saturday morning, his neighbors thought. But in the back of his mind he wanted this baby ready to go at a moment's notice. It's how he thought.
The day came when he was to embark on his mission. His crew was ecstatic. They spent the previous night in final preparation while drinking copious amounts of alcohol. He spent the same time readying his personal craft. When the time came for him to report to the cruiser, he was long gone, heading out and away from the war zone. His quark-drive wasn't as snazzy as the cruiser's A tab locked into B slot, but it was nothing to sneeze at either. In no time, he'd be leaving troubles behind. Or at least, so he believed.
He kept going until he was far beyond the bounds of both Ardosia and Valeria before slowing down. He never could quite see the difference between the two anyway. They lived to fight. Over nothing, as he saw it. He traveled on and on, wanting to get the taste of it all out of his mouth. Taking it easy, eating only when hungry, lazing about, watching videos he stole from the officers' social center, smoking up his stash of cannabis, he was feeling pretty good. But, it was not to last.
Three clicks out of Hadron Prime he ran into some difficulty. He was stopped by what looked like Customs Agents; they were dressed that way. But once onboard they pulled down on him. An hour later, all his stores and personal valuables were gone. Out of food, batteries, wine, and such, he found the nearest populated planet and put in. Populated does not translate into civilized. This was one of those wide-open mining and resource gouging expeditions--a mining colony. Half the people here were running from the law; the other half were either trying to strike it rich for their families, or trying to get away from their families.
Nobody was going to give him anything, and as he had none of the local currency, he had to find work. Mining anything was out of the question, as far as he was concerned. By sheer luck, he ran into a few friendlies who understood his rudimentary Ardosian, and so, with their help, soon found employment at a wharehouse loading bags of grain onto large enclosed vehichles--trucks. It was backbreaking work, but he couldn't expect more given his circumstances as an illiterate outworlder. Most of the folks here were outworlders, in fact, from worlds Donald never imagined existed. He learned to accept the bizarrest of creatures and behaviour. Mining planets draw folks from everywhere.
Before too long Donald fell in with a crowd at the wharehouse who shared his passion for the local liquors. Another passion of theirs was robbing art galleries and selling paintings on the black market. Donald immediately saw a way to speed up his whole operation, so he threw in with them. He imagined it to be a simple affair: break in; grab painting; carry it out to waiting vehicle; drive away. But it didn't turn out that way. They put Donald behind the wheel while they went around the back. He waited, thinking about the supplies he was going to buy with the money. Suddenly, alarms went off and a large military-looking truck drove up beside him. His dreams were dashed, along with the left side of his head.
When he got out of the infirmary, he was let into the general prison population. Justice was exceedingly swift at this little mining colony; they didn't waste time with courts and such paraphenalia. If you were caught doing something illegal, they threw your ass in jail. For how long? He wasn't told. Keep out of trouble was all. His cellmate was from a planet near enough to Ardosia that communication, although sketchy, was possible. His name was unpronounceable by Donald, so he called him Bob. It seemed to work. Bob was a sullen kind of guy who hated just about everything, in particular, his present situation. Along with a few others, he'd concocted an escape plan which he had no bones telling Donald about. He wanted in. Staying here for an indeterminate time was not on his list of ways to spend his life.
Having fashioned darning needles from toothbrushes, the prospective escapees had been busy knitting replicas of prison-guard uniforms from blankets. They looked the same as long as they stayed in the shadows, but were extremely scratchy. One night they set their plan in motion. As their respective doors were about to close, they put a pack of matches in between the locking device and its keeper. Everybody has match books, it's no big deal. When the guards retired to their bunkers for the night, the escapees made their move, quietly leaving their cells to rendezvous at the end of the corridor where the laundry shoot was. They slid down to the waiting pile of bags, skittered to the drain pipes near the rear of the laundry facility, then climbed up a utility ladder to the surface road leading to the gate. Under the watchful eyes of the marksmen manning the guard towers, wearing their uniforms in the dark of night allowed them to move across the open expanse to the entrance with impunity. However, this is as far as their plan went. In actuality, the designers of the plan didn't think they'd get this far.
Donald was beside himself; he couldn't believe it. What morons! He quickly took charge and stepped out away from their hiding place and called up to the guards not thirty feet above. He told them they thought they saw some activity at the edge of the trees where the scrubby forest began. And could they open the gate so they could investigate. A moment later, the rusty iron gate creaked open, just enough for them to squeeze out. They walked purposefully, spread out in a line like they were actually checking things out. The guards, suspecting all was not in order as the escapees/guards had no weapons, called to them to return. They waved back, but kept going. Once at the edge of the woods, they ran like hell. The guards opened fire, killing three. Donald and Bob hightailed it, crashing through the dense brush until they got to a dirt road that cut through the forest. Moving fast, they eventually came across a settlement tucked neatly on a spacious meadow just past a string of trees lining the roadway. Donald had no idea where they were, of course, but they needed a change of clothes. Handily, they found suitable items hanging from a line. They then proceeded back to the road to hitchhike.
Donald knew the name of the town he'd been staying in, but that was about it. They continued to walk in the direction away from the prison, naturally enough. Traffic wasn't all that grand. Eventually, however, a truck rumbled down the road. Donald put his thumb out which Bob quickly pushed down, explaining that here such a gesture was highly insulting. Instead, Bob simply waved him down and asked if he was going to Noevkea, Donald's town. Infrastructure on this boring little planet was minimal; one main road connected everywhere and so this truck driver was either heading their way or not. It never occurred to them, when they randomly chose to run in this direction, what side of the prison Noevka was on. As luck would have it, it wasn't far ahead. So they piled into the back and hid amongst the bags of grain.
Donald had only one thing on his mind: get to his ship and get the hell out of there. He'd been stuffing it with supplies and scrounging spare parts since he first started working at the grain factory. Grain was a big deal on this planet--wheat, maze, soy, and such. In fact, a lot of people thought you could do better farming the lush temperate-zone soil than you could mining. The miners didn't think that, of course; only farmers believed it. To each his own. [Translator's note]
When they arrived in town, they immediately made their way to Donald's ship. No one of the policing establishment knew he had one, so it was unconfiscted and unguarded. It didn't take long to fire it up and get going. He zoomed past the Planetary Guard--all these planets had Guards--and shunted her into quark-drive, heading outbound. Bob wanted off at the first peopled planet they came to, which suited Donald just fine as his former cellmate was of little practical use and constantly complained. Bob was as much a pain in the ass out of jail as in. Nonetheless, he wouldn't be free, here and now, soaring away on his ship, if it hadn't been for Bob. So he owed him at least that much.
Only a day out--an Earth day--they came across a contender. Donald didn't care how civilized it was or even if it was civilized; Bob wasn't. After eluding the--yes--Planetary Guard, he dropped him off near a small village and continued on, not saying much in the way of good-bye except--Take care of yourself, Bob, and thank you for all your help.
After putting several parsecs of space between him and the mining colony, Donald slowed down and got control of himself. He wanted to give his next destination serious thought, so he put the Pentagram on cruise control and sat back. Earth lay on the other side of the galaxy, 50,000 to 70,000 light years away, as the crow flies. Billions of stars and an unkown number of habitable planets lie between. Donald was a long, long way from home.
After a time, being out of reach of major gravitational disturbances, he shut down all engines and smoothly barreled straight ahead. In the background could be heard the quiet electrical hum of the main computer performing scheduled diagnostic tasks on the network itself as well as on life-support, navigation, engineering, quark-drive integrity, and other important systems. He talked to himself constantly, a habit he'd gotten into over the many years of terraforming service. The planets he worked on were always devoid of life and he would quickly tire of talking with fellow crew members. Playing cards and drinking didn't appeal to him all that much. Well, cards didn't.
He puttered about his ship, that's how he thought of it now. It was no longer a ship he stole from the Corporation. No. It was his home and he set about making it feel that way. He personalized the bridge with cards he received over the years and carried with him everywhere, keepsakes, touchstones of a life, things the impostor customs agents hadn't found. Among other projects, he hung a copy of the painting Luncheon of the Boating Party over the main computer console, built a bookcase from plasticized cartons, and stacked his music collection and player within easy reach, items procured on Ardosia and the mining colony. He'd learned to be a packrat, and it served him well. Over the back of the pilot chair, he draped his favorite sweater, hung one of those roll-up oriental bamboo landscape paintings next to the door leading to the rest of the ship, and wedged a tiny vase--he liked its shape--picked up on a vacation trip to Lindarae One, a tiny resort planet near Orion's outer edge, between two holographic displays. He liked the way the colors played across its odd shape. Inscribed on it was the insignia of the hotel where he stayed for two glorious weeks.
Donald got into the habit of keeping diaries since he began his terraforming career fifteen long years ago; actually, before that even, when a student. He wrote about the good and the bad. Times of celebration, birthdays, new planets to conquer, crew members, as well as personal relationships, mistakes and regrets, bad decisions, and rude treatment tolerated without protest. Stuff, lots of it. But as he aged, he wrote more about going through difficulties, like now, trying to get a handle. Reflections and analysis, thoughts and feelings.
Savoring the quiet and the vast expanse of star-studded emptiness through the viewscreen, sipping coffee and smoking a cannabis tube, he paged through a journal from four years ago. He came across an entry dated when he was working a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system, 10.5 light years from Earth. It was rugged but safer than most, already having something of an atmosphere serving as protection from minor space debris and deadly radiation. He'd written that he intended to kill himself after finding out that his Earth-bound fiance had died. It'd taken three months for the message to reach him. He requested time off and spent most of it in his tiny studio looking out in the direction of Sol. The planet was a good third larger than Earth, the horizon bulged out past where his mind expected it to be. He needed the familiar as anchor, but, not being able to see Earth, could only find it within the confines of the compound. Idleness made matters worse; he thought and felt too much. He returned to work with a passion, pushing himself harder than usual. The command station and terraforming factory kept him busy, which he desperately needed. He drank heavily during this time, was irritable and easy to prod to anger, and kept to himself, maudlin and depressed.
One night he purposely drank to the point where he was about to pass out, turned on the natural gas burners, all three, then laid down expecting to die. A couple of hours later he awoke feeling dizzy and dim-witted, as though his head was filled with cotton balls, a combo of the alcohol and gas, turned the burners off, and cleared the air. Since then he hadn't tried suicide, although several times he felt like it. But he did remember that feeling, that head space when he laid down anticipating death, wanting to die. It was peace, easy, no misgivings or anxiety or fear of the unknown. It felt so goddamn ordinary, like he was just laying down to take an afternoon nap.
He tossed the journal onto a chair and went to the galley to get something to eat. While preparing a meal, which amounted to heating up a package of pasta and meatsauce by unzipping a pull-tab on its side, he let the memory come of its own volition:
After his head had cleared he set about trying to do simple tasks. The incident itself, as he thought of it, played through to the past as though nothing special, just another drunk and, oh yes, attempted suicide. Doing personal things afterwards, like doing his laundry or making a pot of coffee, was almost too much effort, like grinding gears going uphill. He would begin the acts, then stop, then start again. He sensed himself as though a machine composed of will and meat, a machine that needed occasional fuel and down time. The will was the internal engine. He felt he could have laid down and not moved a muscle forever, but he kept pushing and pushing. He poured water into the pot and some coffee in the basket, watched it perk, drank some. He tasted the bean's acrid bitterness piercing to his soul as though nothing stood in its way. Otherwise, he thought his closeness to death to be of little concern, but only because he didn't care. It was but a micron away; a mere sidestep. His nerves were bad for a period of time during which a large part of the project had been completed. He found this satisfying, rejuvenating, allowing him to focus his energies brought him out of the dumps. His crew was very thankful; he was getting to be a pain in the ass. Everybody on terraforming crews had relationship problems, it went with the territory, so they weren't alarmed overly much. If he killed himself, well, they'd have to get another gang-boss out here posthaste.
He finished eating and went back to the bridge to check on everything. The diagnostic procedure had completed itself, all was in fine shape. He sat back in the pilot's chair and glanced over at the journal. At certain questionable times--and this was definitely one of them--he'd open a journal at random and read whatever faced him. The proper attitude would present itself. He'd been doing this for years. On his own; out past the reach of any help, he needed to be invisible to himself. Talking out loud all the time was one thing; schizophrenia, quite another.
It may have been a small corporate flier, but it had state-of-the-art systems and technology. Tracking speed and direction based on last known position put him where he was. Punching a key on the main board at his side: a 3-dimensional hologram, a two-parsec cube, projected onto the empty space in front of him. A tiny icon of his ship hovered at mid-point. Punching another key, names of half a dozen planets, with distance-direction vectors showing alongside each, appeared scattered throughout the neighborhood. He questioned computer for information on their status. The Pentagram, as with all crew-ships, wouldn't have unnecessary navigation charts onboard; for that matter, no corporate ship would. But their names were registered in the database for a reason. His corporation--or rather, his former employer--had far-reaching plans. Nonetheless, the search came up empty.
Forgoing the journal, he stood to pace the bridge, glancing out side viewscreens as he passed. Why had the names and locations of these planets been in the database but no reports as to their status? The ship was intended for ferrying workers back and forth and to escape, if need be. He surmised that, at the very least, the corporation had in fact explored this region, if only by robot ship, and had accidentally failed to delete evidence of their existence from the computer. Some programmer had perhaps simply copied exploration results from the robot ships onto the entire network at once to save time, and then whoever was in charge of computer oversight on ferry ships had screwed up. To be sure, executive ship computers held all pertinent information concerning exploratory missions as well as names and locations of finished products, as they called them. It was on a need to know basis, and he and his boys working on Beta colony obviously had no need to know what the corporation was doing on the frontier. Somebody messed up.
He concluded that, if indeed the corporation knew of these planets, and had earmarked them for terraforming projects or as potential staging bases, they would probably have agents nearby, in place, on habitable planets, agents who would recognize his ship as one of theirs and send out the word. Worse yet, some, if not all, could be already completed, ready for colonists to move onto--at a reasonable price, of course--or in the process of becoming so. If that were the case, star-charts containing the whereabouts of these planets would be a done deal, a bona fide addition to the evergrowing corporate archive of charts.
He sat back in the pilot's chair and made a decision: Blow off these planets and keep heading out. Why the hell not? See what's over the rainbow, as his mother use to say. His mother used to say a lot of things. Don't take any shit from anybody was one of her pieces of advice. But then, another thing she used to say over the years, pulled from her street-wise store of wisdom when he'd complain about his lot in life was, You zigged when you should've zagged. How he missed her. Mom.
He performed a long-range scan of the region ahead, fanning at forty-five degrees. As there was nothing in the way he retired to his room for a nap. He was exhausted, but only now began to feel it. He set his alarm clock for four hours, got into his pajamas and curled up in bed, relishing the solitude and his unemployment. He didn't have to go to work when he woke up--thank God, he thought--then quickly nodded off to dreamland.
His ship, unaffected by any major grav drag, continued to hurtle along at near light speed. Not exactly quark-drive, but fast enough. In spite of the engines being shut down, the Pentagram's passage through space left behind the tell-tale signature of particle interference. The quantum field constantly interacted with the material of the hull, producing neutrino streams in all directions like fourth-of-july flares. As he passed a planet not on his corporate list, it got the attention of one Flange Lafite, a notorious pirate and rogue. He was wanted by over a dozen worlds interested in killing him, after suitable torture, for crimes against,..., well, against everything decent and valued, including stuff he stole. His automatic observation station high up in the mountains monitored all traffic in his vicinity.
Meanwhile, Donald dreamed on. He was in a house of ill-repute on Lindarae One. You know the type. Places where the hard-earned money you've scrimped and saved to buy necessities magically transforms into so much confetti. He picked a woman out of the line-up named Lolanda. What a pretty name, he thought. She was not too tall but had long legs that went all the way up to her ass. And large shapely breasts that stood at attention. Her long curly blue hair draped her shoulders, some falling down her chest, the rest, down her bare, exquisitely tanned creamy back. She had that kind of skin that seems to glow from within, soft and silky, yet firm, resilient, wrinkle-free. Her rich full lips shaped a smile that spoke worlds of promise as she led him down the opulently adorned and carpeted hallway to her room. The way she moved her hips, he could've walked behind her for miles if he hadn't been eager to get to her bedroom. Once inside she turned his way, then knelt before him on the thick red rug and reached to undo the sash holding his pantaloons up. He was all smiles with anticipation; the incense intended to evoke the maximum in pheromone production clearly succeeding.
Just then, the proximity alarm reverberated throughout the ship. His dreaming self thought it might be a smoke alarm going off in Lolanda's room--too much incense. A struggle of epic proportions ensued. He really didn't want to leave Lolanda, but grudgingly, in fits and starts, awoke, cursing the gods, throwing off his blanket in disgust. Fully awake now, the loud clanging threatened to break his eardrums. He raced to the bridge to shut it off, and glared out the forward viewscreen at whatever the hell had the proximity nerve to ruin such a perfectly wonderful dream. Who knows if he'd ever see Lolanda again?
He saw no one and nothing. He scanned the immediate area--still nothing. Had the alarm misfired? His recent diagnostic on all systems would've revealed any problem, so a false alarm was unlikely. An anomoly? He hated anomolies, he hated anything out of the ordinary--he was an engineer, unknown factors affecting equipment were a curse. Perhaps a spontaneous burst of quantum fluctuating energies converging in one spot was large enough to set off the alarm, he thought. He hoped that was the case, although he'd never heard of it before. But he was in uncharted waters and had to accept that anything could happen. He needed to keep an open mind. Leave the land of expectations based on known physics behind.
A loud thud on the hull startled him. Fear and adrenaline raced, charging his nervous system, readying his muscles, focusing his brain. Not relying on instruments now, he ran around the ship looking out at every viewport. There were a lot of them. The ship was designed to carry up to ten passengers, two to a stateroom, and each had a window; engineering aft and below the main deck had its series of separate viewports as well. The galley and infirmary were centralized, so had none. Nothing. Whatever it was had almost purposely chosen a place out of sight. He went to the port-side airlock, the side the sound seemed to come from, and made certain it was secure. Could a tiny meteor had caused such a loud noise? He was traveling pretty fast; a collision with anything larger than a piece of gravel would ring the bell.
Back on the bridge the radio abruptly crackled. A voice, or what sounded like a voice, spoke in a strange tongue. It was a language he didn't know, but the tone was unmistakable--he was being threatened. Instinctively, he went to his weapons cache and grabbed the electron handgun. The plasma rifle might do more harm than good in these close quarters; he could accidentally blow a hole in the hull, but he took it with him anyway and laid it on the fold-out table in front of his navigation computer. The strange voice had ceased, so he waited, standing in the center of the bridge.
He wiped sweat from his brow and tried to compose himself. Could the corporation had caught up with him, out here in the middle of nowhere? Waiting for conditions to deteriorate was not his style; he'd built his reputation and pay grade based on being proactive. It wasn't his fault the plant on Aurelius had melted down to pure plasma; he'd been waiting for parts from Earth to fix the automatic shut-down switch for weeks. It was an accident, plain and simple. He regretted it, but shit happens.
He recited the customary hailing message into the radio transceiver, and waited. The voice returned, but this time in Donald's language. It demanded he open the air-lock or be blown to smitherines. The voice didn't say smitherines but that's how he interpreted it.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he replied.
"My name is of no concern to you. You are traveling through my space and must pay a toll. If you want to live, open the air-lock on the port side or I will be forced to destroy your ship."
Could he do that? The hull was an alloy of titanium and designer carbon for the most part, with a few inert elements thrown in to tweek it just right. Mechanically, the atomic lattice arrangements were set in perfectly ordered sheaths like an onion, then fused into one whole solid chunk, enfolding him like an iron womb. It was lightweight but impregnable to all radiation frequencies, they simply had no entrance points.
He had no intention of allowing this intruder to enter. He doubted he represented legitimate authority; he'd already been duped once by people masquerading as customs agents. Regaining his footing, he said, "Screw you, asshole." And waited, clutching the handgun firmly with determination to use it without hesitation.
Suddenly the main display screen came to life revealing a bruised and scarred face, little hair on an acorn-shaped head, and a short scraggly beard that did little to hide the scar across the left side of his chin, or what passed for a chin. The man smiled sardonically and seemed to be looking right at Donald, eyeball to eyeball. Donald almost shot the screen in response, then thought better of it. Get a grip, he told himself.
"Dear sir," the man said, all too sweetly, "I assume you are captain of this vessel. As such, you have a responsibility to your crew to save their lives. I mean you no harm."
"You threatened to destroy my ship. And you just said I had a duty to my crew to save their lives. So how the hell can you say you mean us no harm? Sounds like harm to me."
The smile continued. "Well, you are responsible. And my threat, a test merely, nothing more. You see, we've had pirates and criminals come through here looking for prey to pounce on. I thought perhaps you might be one of those. But I can see now you are not of that stripe. Where is your bridge crew? Do you always man the bridge alone?"
Donald was astonished. He can see in here, see me. How is that possible? Recovering nicely, trying to act like it was a common occurrence, he said, "Only one is necessary when running on the open sea. We are fully automated--state-of-the-art--with everything, including weaponry." He was bluffing, of course. It was a ferry boat; it had no weaponry. At least not the kind that fired from the ship itself; it wasn't military issue, just a corporate puddle-jumper. He also didn't have a clue as to this guy's weaponry, but he was guessing it wasn't corporate. In another part of the galaxy, who knows what they know? Maybe the hull isn't as impervious as he believed.
As though reading his mind, the screen went blank. Momentarily, the air a few feet away shimmered. Microseconds later, flat shards of glaring light formed the detailed holographic image of the man, in full, standing on Donald's bridge. He studied the layout, looking at everything in swift succession, then back to Donald. "I like your ship. Very neat and orderly." He stepped closer and said very directly, "By now members of your crew should be here. I suspect, therefore, you are alone. Is that true?" The smile remained.
Donald knew that to fire on this image would be meaningless; he'd probably destroy what was behind him--the nav-computer. He was up against something unfamiliar, to say the least--brains and know-how. He figured this intruder could guess at the people capacity of his ship. Even if not, he wouldn't ordinarily be traveling alone. Unwilling to expose his vulnerability, squeezing the handgun at his side, he sidestepped the question with, "How the hell did you do that? Project a hologram right through my hull?"
"Simple technology which I acquired over the years. As far as getting through your hull goes, there are forces in the universe of which you apparently have no knowledge. How would you escape from a three-dimensional enclosure?"
"Bribe the guards or tunnel out," was Donald's reply.
The man attempted a chuckle, it looked like it hurt. "Yes, but if you had access to the fourth dimension, it would be easy. I ask you again, are you alone?"
"Yes, I'm alone. I took this ship from the people I used to work for; far, far away from here. I'm searching for a planet to rest on and maybe move into." He was being as honest as he dared; this man seemed to be holding all the cards, so what the hell. Besides, his instincts told him he might be impressed by an act of larceny--a kindred spirit, a brother. He obviously wasn't the gentleman he pretended to be. But even if he was, Donald had dealt with corporate lawyers who could talk a bird out of a tree, but who would also cut your balls off for a piece of chocolate.
The man smiled wolfishly at this confession, revealing even deeper scars and wrinkles. How old is this guy? thought Donald. And what is he all about? He's not a rep from some government; he threatened to destroy my ship, no questions asked. I can't trust him, but what am I to do?
"You wish to find a place to rest, temporarily. Or perhaps move in. I have the perfect place. I invite you to visit, as my guest. It is only a short distance away, but getting farther and farther at this speed. Consider it."
"Why can't I see your ship? Is it that tiny?"
The man laughed briefly. "No. It's rendered invisible by a device I discovered on a passing ship, long, long ago. The captain was kind enough to,..., trade for it."
"But my proximity alarm, it detected it."
"I didn't say it was immaterial, only invisible. God Almighty." Muttering under his breath, Lafite closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "Perhaps you too have something to trade for the secret? Let's discuss it over food, at my humble estate. What do you say? Rest? As my guest?"
This guy didn't exactly inspire trust, thought Donald, but so damn few people do anymore. He may or may not be treated like a guest once in his clutches. But what choice did he have? Consider it? Suppose I said no? What then? He felt the intruder had the upper hand and until he could figure out just what to do, where he stood in relation to this strange creature, he might as well play along. But surrendering his ship was not an option, of that he was most certain. He'd rather die.
"What's your name," Donald asked, wanting to appear conciliatory if not totally convinced.
"Flange Lafite, at your service. And yours?"
"That is all? Donald?
"Yea, that's all. I was left on the doorstep of a convent back on my home planet with a note pinned to my blanket with that name on it."
"You don't want to know." Donald sensed an awkwardness in the air, an unresolved issue hung in painful silence. He couldn't resist, "I need to ask, are you also alone?"
After a pause, Flange replied, "Why yes, I always travel alone." His holographic avatar vanished as it had appeared. He deactivated the invisibility device, gave Donald the coordinates of his chateau, and followed him in. Why didn't he lead? wondered Donald; that would be customary. He considered making a run for it. Kicking Pentagram into quark-drive, entering hyperspace and eluding Flange, if possible. But, he was curious. Besides, he was invited to dinner; how often did that happen? A full-fledged homecooked meal would be almost worth dying for.
While enroute he jury-rigged a self-destruct mechanism into the computer's mainframe that would fry all connectors, reformat the hard-drive and make all the bells and whistles go off simultaneously, initiating a cascade of field-collapses resulting in the quark-coil exploding, consequently vaporizing a good portion of the planet, at least all life on the surface within 300 kilometers of the blast center. He could trigger it with a small remote control device, something like a TV remote, only smaller, you know. It wouldn't help him any, and, in fact, would trap him on the planet, if it didn't actually kill him; but he thought it was a cool idea and sometimes that's all that matters, especially when you don't have a plan. At least this Lafite character wouldn't get his ship, that was some satisfaction.
Staring out the viewscreen at the rapidly nearing planet, he kicked back in the pilot's chair and fired up a cannabis tube; he wanted to be at his best on their arrival. As he sat getting stoned, the semblance of a plan emerged: Go with the flow.
Flange Lafite's mountain-peak chateau looked more like a castle; in fact, it was a castle, like the kind you see in the Swiss Alps back on Earth. Coming in low from the direction of the sun, the area around it looked empty of neighbors. Four main turrets surrounded a compound of sixteen buildings, not counting the main house with its many wings. An extensive garden with a long narrow pond running down the middle spread out behind. Off to one side a landing field with several outbuildings could clearly be seen. That's where they set down.
The compound was over four hundred years old, when Flange was born. His parents were killed in a space mishap, leaving him the entire estate a hundred and eighty years ago. His planet takes ten Earth years to make one trip around its sun. Evolution is very local. So, from our age determination factors, Flange is only about forty. [Translator's note]
Leaving his gun behind, he entered the airlock chamber and closed the inside portal, then opened the outside one. Automatically, the gangplank telescoped down to the grassy tarmac. Standing at the top, he watched as several people gathered around. Donald couldn't help but notice that some of the larger greeters had rifles of some sort strapped over their shoulders. Friends of his, he thought. He sauntered down and scanned for the only face he knew. His elbow was grabbed from behind. Flange said, "Come this way, my friend," as he let go to escort Donald.
The view was breathtaking, to be understated. High jagged Ranges snaked off in every direction, glaciers streamed their ponderous way down to the valleys, rivers carried away icebergs of every size and shape. A muffled roar could be heard far off, Donald stopped to see a great calving of ice slowly falling into a river, such mass inconceivable. They entered the compound through a side gate and then up a few steps passed ivy-covered stone walls to a pair of bronze-hinged doors of unknowable weight. Geometric patterns and designs of fanciful creatures covered their darkwood surface. The instant Donald stepped across the threshold, he felt warmth; well-heated but from what source? he wondered. One broad set of carpeted stairs led up to a wide hallway, which, in turn, led to a cavernous hall. Paintings, sculptures, tables, high-backed chairs, and vases of flowers, among other unknown objects, could be seen going off into the distance, a plush richly-patterned azure rug covered the floor from wall to wall, absorbing all sound.
From a side room appeared an entourage of beautiful women, adorned in colorful clothing of the finest material. One at the lead followed closely by three others. She had eyes only for Flange. Smiling she said, "You've brought a guest."
"Yes, my love. A wayfarer, lost and alone. You know the type."
She gave him the onceover, then said, her upper lip curling, "He needs a bath." Whereupon she and her train made an about-face and returned to whatever they had been doing.
Flange said, "My wife. She is the kindest and most well mannered of women. However, she loves her solitude. It's an irony I've learned to deal with. Come this way. You can take a bath and get into some clean clothes."
Donald was led into a sumptuous sitting/bedroom with a view overlooking the bowl of mountains. The window was open a crack, just enough to smell the sweet air and hear the sounds of birds, or what he imagined were birds on this bizarre planet. A towel and a bowl of water sat on a table by the window with which he washed his hands and face. He couldn't help but feel a strangeness about the atmosphere. It wasn't that the surroundings seemed to come from another time and place--Camelot came to mind--but that it made him feel invigorated in a most uncommon way, as though his body held no mass but was instead composed of pure light. He dressed in the clothes laid out for him on the four-poster bed--smooth colorful silk-like material that warmed his body against the evening mountain chill. He was even given a hat which he disdained.
As though on cue, a servant appeared at his door inviting him to dinner. He was escorted to a splendidly lit and huge dining room complete with tapestries, print rugs displaying intricate mosaics of odd animals and flowers, and a long table down the middle bedecked with well-spaced candelabras and plates and bowls of the most interesting looking food items. At the head, in a high-backed chair, sat Flange; on his immediate right, his wife. Only a few others were present at varying distances down both sides, engaged in private conversations. He was offered the chair to the left of Flange who, aware the choices were no doubt unknown to Donald, had a servant fill his plate as he pointed and suggested.
The flavors and textures were indeed alien and evoked emotions he didn't know he possessed. What he imagined was the meat dish tasted like chicken, of course, to his untutored palette. He didn't realize how hungry he'd become having only what he considered fast-food to munch on, so he ate in silence while Flange and his wife conversed in soft tones with the other guests, an occasional chuckle reverberating through the group.
Donald, being of a more or less cynical bent, couldn't help but think that he was being fattened for the kill, like a calf or turkey. But he pushed the thought out of his mind, not wishing to spoil an otherwise extremely enjoyable experience. Momentarily, quiet music could be heard coming from the rear of the hall, string and wind instruments confluing in perfect harmony, sending rivulets of pleasure up and down his spine. If he was indeed being prepped for some ill, he thought, this was not a bad way to go.
After dessert of the most scrumptious chocolate pudding, of a texture overwhelming in its uniqueness, smoothness, and depth--that's the best he could do to describe it--the servants cleared the table. The other guests politely excused themselves, pausing to welcome Donald, and ambled off along with the musicians, leaving him alone with Flange and his wife. It all seemed like a fairytale to Donald. Never in his life had he experienced such splendor, such grandiose opulence. It was a dream that couldn't possibly last.
Flange looked at him and said, "You're probably tired, Donald. And a bit,..., how should I say, awed."
Donald only nodded in the affirmative, then took a sip of wine.
Flange clapped his hands and his escort appeared. "Germaine will take you back to your room. Sleep well. Tomorrow I'll give you the tour and we can discuss matters," a glint of intrigue in his eyes. He smiled as Donald and his personal servant left. His wife even smiled, kind of.
His head was abuzz as he lay between the sheets of an unknown yet soothing material. A warm scented air from the garden floated in through the slightly open window. It wasn't long before Donald fell fast asleep. But visions of sugarplums didn't exactly dance in his head. He found himself on a battlefield. And it wasn't just any battlefield either, not the familiar kind; he was standing on and surrounded by dark clouds. Flashes of lightning rent the sky all around; strangely, however, none were followed by thunder. Sword-wielding men-things of enormous size, wearing only shreds of clothing, fought furiously with beasts baring savage teeth and long claws. Curiously, the eerie silence enclosed them as well.
He watched from a great distance, but in the blink of an eye, found himself in the midst of it, a sword in his hand and wearing clothes reminiscent of the ancient Roman period on Earth. A beast noticed him and approached menacingly, saliva dripping form its massive jaws. It reached for him with a mighty clawed hand. He jumped to the side and ran underneath its bulk, slicing its calf as he did so. The beast turned and bent over him. He jabbed upward, sticking his sword into its throat a few inches. As it clutched the wound he sliced again at its calf forcing it to fall backward, barely missing a sidestepping Donald. He then nimbly jumped onto its chest and, holding the hilt with both hands, drove the sword into its heart. Blood poured forth through the wound and gurgled from its throat. Still, there was no sound. He scrambled down and quickly took in his surroundings, waiting for the next attack, but no one else was there, the cloud-field was empty, the battle over, apparently.
He walked to the edge of the clouds and looked down. Far below he made out a village or town, well lit; it was nightfall. Somehow, the effect of a momentary touch of vertigo perhaps, he lost his footing and tumbled head over heals towards the ground, still clutching the sword.
A voice called to him, "Master Donald, Lord Flange requests your presence at breakfast. Your bath has been drawn; Melanie will accompany you."
Donald woke with a start, his head ached, sweat beaded his body. He looked towards the direction of the voice to see a woman dressed in sheer tight-fitting white robes, her long black hair curling over her shoulders, standing by the doorway. Her eyes, green like jade. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. While never taking his eyes off her, unable to do otherwise, he slowly sat up on the bedside. She bowed her head and said in the sweetest of voices, "Master Donald, please come. It is my duty to bathe you."
After the bath--this is a family story--Donald joined Flange on the veranda off the east-wing, a small garden of varied-colored flowers surrounded by a low rock wall lay just in front and down a couple of steps. A small lilly-covered pond lay in its center. They had a wide view of the bowl of mountains and further into glacier-covered spires of singular peaks, raw and craggy. As they ate what appeared to Donald as duck eggs, sausage and toast, with coffee, Flange talked of a trade: the technology supporting Don's quark-drive in exchange for Flange's cloaking device. In light of the direction Donald had been heading, Flange advised it would be wise to have. Lafite already had a drive that was capable of crossing vast distances in a very short time, but it never hurt to have an alternate propulsion system, just in case. Donald didn't hesitate, a device to make his ship indetectable would have alleviated a lot of problems in the past. They clinked glasses of what might have been champagne on Earth, and the deal was done.
While technicians installed the cloaking device, Donald lived a fantasy life in this parallel Camelot. As well, he was probably as clean as he'd ever been, taking baths morning and night. The dream persisted, however, picking up where it left off: He fell from the clouds and landed unhurt, miraculously, on the outskirts of the village, sword still firmly in hand. Sheathing it, he walked into the town, down one narrow street after another, not knowing where he was going but feeling more and more a sense of the familiar with each step. He came into a rough dirt square centered by a large fountain, a well-spring, where the villagers got their water, he surmised. Leaning against its wall, wondering what to do next, letting matters unfold on their own suggested itself as the wisest choice. After all, he certainly seemed to be caught up in events beyond his control. Not the first time that's happened.
In due time, town-folk began to appear from the many side streets, bent on retrieving water and socializing in what was obviously the main square. Surprisingly, not a one payed any attention to him, as though he were invisible. His attire alone was outrageous compared to their humdrum colorless peasant clothes, so it wasn't like he blended into the crowd. Out of the blue, a woman carrying a jug that seemed too heavy for her diminutive frame stopped dead. Shock clearly written on her face, she turned to him and ran up. Looking directly into his eyes, she asked excitedly, "Where have you been? It's been twenty years since your spirit was set free. You were always so passionate, so certain and serious. So headstrong. We've all gotten on with our lives and most have forgotten you. But,..., I never could, Jason. I knew you'd come back some day."
She paused to take him all in. Then asked, sorrow and caring in her eyes, "Are you back for good now?"
She placed her jug on the wall and stared at him, waiting. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember you," said Jason with genuine feeling. "Were we once friends?"
Her brows raised dramatically. "Friends," she said, pain clearly in her tone, soon followed by umbrage, quickly expanding to full-blown anger. "What the hell do you mean--friend?" As she grabbed the jug with both hands, Jason backed up instinctively. "I oughta smash this over your head, you son of a bitch. I gave up waiting for you years ago and now you show up dressed in that ridiculous costume with a sword strapped to your waist and ask as innocent as a child, were we once friends? Have you taken leave of your senses?"
The crowd, having overheard, turned to him and stared, anger in their faces. She continued her harangue, "We elected you headman and I was your chief assistant. You abandoned us after your death, joined with an outworlder and left to go adventuring. With Jabal and his henchmen on the loose. We've been paying tribute to that scum all these years in your absence. No wonder no one wants to bother recognizing you, you despicable traitor. How could you do this to us? You stood up to him; he feared you."
Just then a swirl of dust filled the streets leading to the square, people shouted and ran in all directions. Horses clattered in, the riders dressed in rough leather, bearing swords and lances. One jumped off his horse and approached quickly. "I see you've returned, Sir Jason," he said, contempt mingled with surprise in his voice. "But it's too late. We own this town now and there's nothing you can do about it."
Without thinking, Donald/Jason drew his sword as did Jabal and they immediately fell into battle. Donald was amazed at Jason's skill, honed after years of such fighting, no doubt. And his strength, several times that of Donald's. Jabal's men jumped to the ground and surrounded the pair, shouting encouragement to their leader and curses to Jason. It was a fight like no other they had ever seen. Jason weaved and drove on, relentless, unhesitating; he feinted and twirled, slashed and sliced Jabal once, twice on the arms. Time stood still, the clang of swords and the scuffle of boots in the dirt quieting the voices of Jabal's anxious men. Finally, with one last thrust, Jason drove his sword through Jabal's midsection, holding it there for moments while staring bitterly at his advesary. A bubble of silence enfolded the tableau. Then pulling it free, Jabal fell painfully to the ground, a pool of blood quickly soiling the brown earth. No one moved at first, stunned as they were. Jason glowered at Jabal's men. As one, they lept to their saddles and galloped off, never looking back. Their reign of terror over.
Slowly, the town folk came out of their hiding places in dribs and drabs, shocked amazement and relief clearly showing on their faces. "All hail Jason, the headman," one man dressed elaborately shouted, "he has returned to save us." Closely surrounding him and slapping his back, the crowd hurrahed and offered praises at his fighting skill. His former assistant hugged and kissed him, mumbling apologies and offering sexual favors to prove her appreciation. Donald sheathed his sword and hugged her back; she wasn't all that bad looking.
But in a blink of an eye, Donald was once again in the clouds, staring down at the town where only moments before he'd been standing. What the hell is going on? he wondered. Jason? A tiny bell tinkled its way through the fog in his mind; Donald jolted awake, once again covered in sweat. Melanie stood at the entranceway to his room; it was time for his morning bath. He felt crazy; the dream had been so real he could still feel the weight of the sword, his muscles ached. The smells of the earth, the water from the spring, and the people, especially the woman proclaiming to be his former assistant, filled his nostrils.
At breakfast with Flange he couldn't help but tell him about the dreams he had the past three nights. They were so vivid and real. Flange took it all in, not interrupting once. When Donald finished, Flange softly said, "On my planet the dream world is real. What you're experiencing is another part of you, your mind, acting out through people who once lived here. Or rather, our ancestors acting out through you, by means of you. Time is but a shadow, with layers stacked like onion skin. They live as spirits through living beings when they sleep in those times when they died. It depends. Jason, the headman, lived two hundred years ago, in a village down in the lowlands. Now, it's a thriving city of art and commerce. But back then it was beset by marauders and bandits. This man, Jason, had come to that village from another world. He possessed inordinate strength and fighting ability, plus the power to orb from one place to another, even unto the clouds where strange, angry beasts dwelled. They are no more, but then they roamed the high reaches doing battle with other men of valor like Jason."
He paused to break bread and sip the morning drink. With a controlled calm, he said, "You are most fortunate his spirit chose you to relive those times. Spirits of this world occupy the living when they sleep. The Dreamworld exists in truth on another plane of being; it is not purely a creation of the subconscious mind. As I said, you are fortunate because now Jason will ever be with you no matter where you roam." Staring at his drink, he said, wistfully, "There must be an affinity of some sort."
Flange gazed out onto the vast bowl of jagged mountains and said, "Perhaps your adventurous spirit awakens fully, a kindred soul to match his own irresistible urges. He abandoned his home planet and his adopted people. Perhaps it is in him to act thus. Regret and guilt must drive him, but being dead, there was nothing he could do about it. Until you came along. I, personally, have never shared his ghostly life; he never chose me. Why, I can't say; I've done more than my share of adventuring." He smiled broadly at this, not mentioning the pirating he'd done. "Perhaps there's something about you he finds compelling, intriguing. Your innocence? I don't know; but, as I said, you're lucky, he'll be with you now and may prove helpful when needed. Adventuring is still in his heart.
"Speaking of which, indirectly, your ship is almost ready. I'll see that it's provisioned with food and spare parts. Tomorrow, if you wish, you may go. If you decide to, tonight we'll have a send-off party the likes of which you've not seen."
"Oh, that's not necessary, Flange. I am most appreciative of all your help and care, truly." Donald laughed. "Great Zeus, I'm beginning to sound like you." They both laughed as they finished their breakfast and talked of other things. Mostly, Flange spoke of his experiences in the nearby celestial realm, offering tips and information concerning what he might run into and hotspots to avoid. Donald took it all to heart and memory; he had a good memory.
"Getting back to,..., Jason. I confess to being a little freaked out about it. I mean, the dream, it seemed real. I was in a sword fight and could've gotten killed, to me, as far as I could see. Is he going to come with me? And, when I dream, will I no longer have ordinary dreams of my own? I mean, I usually have a very active dream-life; I don't really want some stranger from long ago taking over my dreamworld."
"Well, Donald, it works like this. You may not like it and I probably should've warned you, but I had no idea he would be drawn to you so. It seldom happens to visitors, even those who stay here for long periods, vacationing or on business. There are many consulates stationed in the capital, no diplomat or any of his staff, that I know of, has ever shared the mind of a home spirit. If it had occurred, I'm sure they would've been alarmed, those astute enough to tell the difference, and come to me seeking help or information. Somehow the spirits of this world are able to tell beforehand if a subject intends to move in permanently, which is usually their desire, to remain on planet. But some, and it would seem Jason is one of those, prefer to leave. If he does choose to leave with you, he'll eventually find a home in your psyche where he'll stay, observing even while you're awake. And if the time arises when you may need his help, his abilities will meld into yours on the physical plane. I'm sorry, but it's too late to do anything about it. The closer he identifies with you, the less you'll notice his presence. Once away from here, from this planet, the life he lived when alive will end."
Noticing the worry on Donald's face, he consoled, "It's not a bad thing, Donald, truly. You could do far worse than have a man like Jason on your side, so to speak."
Donald considered this, but had nothing more to say about it. He was flabergasted into silence, in other words. Donald was not a fighter, except for that one time he fought off a few pirates long ago. But he was finding out about himself on his venture. How he escaped from Ardosia and avoided their war. Then again how he escaped from prison, got back to his ship and left that God-forsaken planet. So he knew he was good at escaping situations he deemed unpleasant. He was not without resources. So combined with Jason's skills, perhaps it was a good thing after all.
It would take some getting used to, however, having a spirit from another time and place living in him. Would they eventually be able to communicate? He talked enough to himself when alone, now maybe he'd have someone else to talk to. Was that crazy? Could he keep him separate? A separate self? Or was he to become a hybrid with two distinct personalities, or would they somehow fuse as one, what Jason knew of the world and life slowly becoming part of his mind? It remained to be seen, he supposed. He decided not to worry about it; after all, Flange said it couldn't be helped and now it was simply too late. Very casual, he thought. As though he had merely put on someone else's clothing. Maybe he should treat it that way as well. On the other hand: would Jason get him into trouble he'd rather avoid? It made him wonder just who, if anyone, Flange had intertwined into his psyche. Probably a whole host of people by now, no doubt, if mass fusing was possible.
After breakfast, Donald wandered down to his ship to see what progress had been made on the cloaking device. The technicians were setting up a control station on the bridge and informed him it would be completed by mid-afternoon when they would perform testing. Donald felt he was in the way and, at any rate, was of no help. He decided to spend some time in the expansive garden at the rear of the main house. He found a bench complete with cushions adjacent the main pond; he needed to think.
A servant approached and asked if he wanted anything to drink. He asked for tea; she went away. He smelled the flowers and listened to the pond as it mysteriously moved back and forth. Staring at the water, he too felt as though he were moving back and forth. He had chosen a path that now seemed to galvanize his awareness that indeed he had cut all bonds with his former life. He was a loner; in another part of the galaxy; in uncharted waters, at least to him. He'd always had trouble with his confidence. An overbearing mother and an absent father, and not many relatives concerned for his welfare, a few. That's why he left Earth and got into terraforming, engineering a pile of rock and toxic atmosphere into something livable for people, for animals, for plants and trees from Earth. One after the other, farther out he'd go with the completion of each project, and even then he'd leave before it was fully developed. He and his crew were the frontiersmen, the rougher side of the coin. He loved it, most of the time, and now he needed to pool confidence on that well of proof.
The servant returned with tea, then went away, quietly, like a cool breeze. Watching her walk away, he whispered to himself, I could stay here. But how many more dreams could he take? And, he was a guest only, expected to leave eventually. But, if he chose to stay on indefinitely, or call it home base, would Flange object? He sipped the flavorable tea, stimulated by its warmth. He focused, like he used to when he saw a problem in some machinery, zeroing in on the intricate details, taking it apart, then reassembling. Donald was pragmatic, if nothing else. He worked out the nuts and bolts of his choices as he sat by the moving pond sipping tea. And he wasn't just interested in understanding the mechanics of it, he wanted to feel it, in the middle of his solar plexus: this is the right thing to do.
Leaving his tea on the bench, he got up to stroll around the garden, purposefully studying each and every flower and greenery. Remarkable, he thought, how similar to Earth. Am I just seeing it that way on this magical world, or is that how it really is? The edges and surfaces of the flowers radiated an appearance of genuine intelligence, as though given the capacity, they could talk, the colors so bright and lush. The bark of the tiny fruit trees seemed more like skin in its aliveness. Am I going to die? he thought. Nature appears so much more vivid and meaningful when you're about to face serious danger. Is that what I'm doing? Or is it just the intensity of this place, this planet and its weird dreamworld filled with spirits that can invade and commandeer your soul? Suddenly, a chill went up his spine. At that instant, his personality and all that he knew of himself--his memories--became vitally important. Wrapping his arms about his shoulders, he clutched at his life and its meaning, protectively. Will it be overwritten like a bad program?
He should probably ask Flange about it. But, what would he say? Something like: It depends on how weak your personality is, compared to Jason's. "I guess we'll find out," he said to the moving pond, lilly-pads crowding around his knees like children seeking candy or a pat on the head. "No wonder I felt a chill," he chuckled. He'd managed to walk into the pond without noticing. Such was the state of his concern.
He finished the last of his tea and decided to take a nap; he had a long day in store tomorrow and needed to be as rested as possible. If he dreamt and went on another Jason adventure, he might find time to discuss the situation; it deeply concerned him; it brought too much uncertainty. It was the kind of anxiety he didn't need and could do without. Maybe he'd tell this Jason character to back off and stay home. But rest would not come for Donald. He tossed and turned, too nervous before the big day, his stomach tied in knots. Giving up on sleep, he went to his ship. When he got to where he thought he left it, he banged his head on the invisible hull and jumped back. "Great Zeus," he said out loud, amazed and filled with wonder. "This is terrific. An invisible ship. No more worrying about Planetary Guards."
Presently his ship materialized before his eyes. It shimmered back and forth briefly, then, as though released from a great restraint, settled into solidity. The chief technician bounded down the gangplank, smiling at Donald. "Well, master Donald, what do you think? There's a few bugs caused by the interface between the asymmetric technologies, but my men are patching in a control relay to adapt the protocols for a seamless fit. A few minutes only and she'll be ready to go. I'll show you how to use it later this afternoon; as well I left a user's manual on the table next to the main bridge controls."
Donald's eyes glazed over momentarily. The chief engineer smiled and said softly, "There's pictures and diagrams in your computer. It's a cinch, practically turns itself on and off." As he passed Donald, he mumbled, "Starved," rubbing a hand over his belly, and away he went. Donald was beside himself with joy, the kind he used to feel on Christmas mornings when a kid. He didn't even care about Jason anymore. He could come along or not, somehow it would all work out. Confidence filled him; he was ready for the big show.
He meandered over to the castle library for the first time since arriving. He'd thought it a waste of time as the books and manuscripts were no doubt in languages of which he had no knowledge. But it completed his tour, so he had to at least visit for awhile. He wandered the stacks nostalgically, memories of his innocent university days on Earth flooding his mind. On impulse he grabbed an imposing-looking book off a shelf and carried it to a nearby table. The high-backed chairs were more comfortable than they appeared. Strangely, he mused, no one else was here, but it was a nice day and he had no idea how many more like it there would be this time of year, whatever time of year it was. People were probably taking advantage of it.
He lay the tome down carefully. Opening it at random he was amazed to find it was in his native tongue. It was an historical work set hundreds of years ago. After a few pages he came across the name of Jason; another coincidence perhaps, but he was less surprised than he should have been. He was getting used to it; things just seemed to work out that way here, he reflected. He read of Jason's exploits when a young man and up through his untimely demise at the hand of a superior swordsman, name of Mormar Lafite. Lafite, he thought in mild alarm; isn't that Flange's surname? Should I ask him about it? Probably not, he concluded quickly. Sure Flange would know, but there had to be some reason why he kept it secret.
He retraced his steps and replaced the heavy book, then pulled another off the shelf across the aisle. It too included stories chronicling Jason's life. Was this too somehow a magical occurrence? Would he discover that all the books contained stories and references to Jason? He read feverishly, not noticing others entering the library. By the time he finished absorbing the details of Jason's life, the room was half-filled with people. Suddenly exhausted, he went outside looking for a place to lay down. Dutifully, he thought of going to the ship for a lesson, but the sweet smells of the garden called instead and before long he was lying on a plush section of grass fast asleep.
He dreamed of his home on Earth when he was a child. It was rough going. His father, a scientist, always seemed to be gone on another planet for reasons he could never fathom. He missed him terribly and the neglect played havoc with his emotions. He dreamed of their backyard, such as it was, and the hours he played by himself with his toy soldiers. He had few friends and longed for company. Eventually, he became used to being alone; it felt like his lot in life and he grudgingly accepted it. The Earth itself was devastated by pollution and oppresively long summers. Food and water shortages plagued all segments of society. His family was well-off by normal standards yet they too knew difficult times. It was not a pleasant dream by any means and as though shaken, he awoke, agitated, his head aching and feverish.
Birds chittered their songs; otherwise, the area was deserted. He thought it curious how others seemed to avoid him, or perhaps it's from respect. After all, was he not the guest of Flange Lafite? He remembered how the library was empty on his arrival but gradually half-filled before he left. They certainly didn't seem to be the fearful or xenophobic type. This was a planet of space voyagers and traders, adventurers and pirates, a magical world where books appeared to be written in a person's native language and everyone spoke his tongue. But something bothered him about the people; he couldn't put his finger on it. But as he was about to leave on the morrow, he decided that whatever it was really didn't matter.
Kneeling at the edge of the pond, he splashed water on his face. Its chill wetness not only refreshed him, but also seemed to increase his concentration. He repeated it a few more times, each time his focus sharpened ever so slightly, like tweaking the gain dial on a radio. Sitting back on his haunches, he abruptly realized that his dream didn't involve Jason. Had he been off somewhere else in Dreamland, occupied with an exploit for which he wanted privacy? Perhaps a tryst with the good-looking assistant? Donald shook his head at the idea. Takes me to combat with monsters and evil-doers, but when it comes to a litle enjoyment, leaves me to my own nightmares. "Jason," he called out, "you bastard." As he was laughing, Flange appeared around a bush to join him.
"What's so funny, my friend? Or have you finally lost it here on my confusing planet?"
"No. Nothing. Just an idea I had. I dreamed a dream that didn't involve Jason."
"Well," he said smoothly, "he won't always make his presence known. Maybe he was watching what you dreamed. Trying to understand his host, what makes him tick."
Donald noticed that Flange used an idiom from Earth. Not the first time. Was he picking my brain with his clairvoyance? he thought. Did all the people here have that ability? Ordinarily, he'd be creeped out, but after everything he'd experienced thus far on this jaunt through space and time, the nature of this bizarre planet and its inhabitants didn't bother him as much as it otherwise might. He was growing, beginning to accept that other beings had powers which he could not understand or anticipate, and that planets could have their own lives, their own agendas.
"Come along, Donald. Let's go to your ship, see how things are going. If you intend to leave tomorrow, we need to be sure everything is in ship-shape order."
When they arrived, no one was there. "They were going to give me a lesson on the cloaking device," said Donald. "Now what?"
"Don't worry. I'll show you. I'm sure we can figure out what needs to be done. If not, I'll call them back. They're probably just out on a dinner break."
Up the gangplank they went and onto the bridge. All appeared as it had been except for a set of dials connected to the side of the nav-computer. Next to that lay a sheet of paper with numbered instructions on it. Again, the language was in his native tongue. Flange read it and without a moment's hesitation proceeded down the list, turning dials and pushing buttons on the computer console. Momentarily, the ship shuddered, a noise bellowed from the rear engine room, and the display in front indicated a transference had occurred. But a transference of what? wondered Donald.
"What just happened, Flange? Are we invisible? How can you tell?"
Together they walked down the plank to the outside. Turning, they saw nothing, not even a misty silhouette of where the ship lay, even the plank was gone. Donald was beside himself with excitement; Flange just smiled. "The transference has to do with slipsiding," explained Flange with the ease of an earthly salesman. "The material of your ship has translated into the fourth dimension, just enough to alter the structure of its basic particles and for the space immediately abutting it to enter a strickly temporal zone. From the inside, it remains constant, the interior is unaffected. Electromagnetic flux is funneled towards the singularity, and through sympathetic resonance, is projected outward into a negative-energy sphere around the exterior, establishing an envelop or membrane around the quark bubble when in hyperspace. And at sub-light speeds, it shrouds the hull. Otherwise, once the shielding was activated, you'd be standing in blackness, unable to see your instrumentation. That would make it somewhat difficult to return to normal space. You'd be fumbling around in the dark for the light switch."
"A singularity?" queried Donald, a little concerned.
"Yes. An infinitesimally tiny black hole embedded in your quark-drive. Ordinarily, it's encased by antimatter monopoles, but once the device is engaged, the cover is off, so to say, and then you're invisible."
"But,..., what of the danger of being sucked in?"
"It's never happened, far as I know. It's safe, my friend, don't worry." He slapped Donald on the shoulder and gave him that look of trust he wore when first appearing on Donald's ship. It made him flinch, ever so infinitesimally.
Together they walked back, but at the entrance to the castle, Donald begged off to return to the garden, in spite of the closing dusk. Flange had preparations for the going-away party to attend to anyway, so they parted. Donald returned to the pond where he'd napped earlier, paused to savor the embracing ambience, then continued on down a flat-stoned path leading along a section not as well manicured. Before long he found himself in a far corner enclosed behind high hedges, essentially cut-off from the main garden. A stone bench with cushions sat adjacent a tiny pool with what looked like gold fish swimming in it. The cozy seclusion and quiet of the place soothed him. He thought how this would be his spot to come to for peace and meditation if he lived here.
As he lay on the bench, he couldn't help but feel that everything was going a little too fast for his taste. He'd only been here a few days and yet, a spirit from hundreds of years ago had grafted itself to his psyche, potentially drowning out his own personality and mind while putting him in dangerous situations, situations that Donald himself would ordinarily avoid. And as far as that went, this Jason fellow was killed by a relative of his host. Why didn't he bother to mention that fact when explaining the whole Dreamland-possession-by-ancient-spirits thing? Was he actually as above it all as he seemed? For that matter, why hadn't Flange warned him in the first place when they arrived? And now the cloaking device. As an engineer, it bothered him that he was about to put trust in a device of such awesome power that he knew nothing about. It simply wasn't like him.
He listened to the faint dribbling of the fountain several yards away in the main pool and stared up at the azure sky. Slowly he drifted off, the stress and anxiety of what he'd already been through and what was to come working his nervous system in spite of his excitement for the next leg in his adventure. He was weary. His attempt to escape the long arm of the corporation was taking its toll. Part of him wished to settle down, or at least take a long break from his travels thus far. He thought about it, the idea felt agreeable, but he was only a tourist, visiting this planet, and soon must be gone.
Sleep came, and with it, Jason. They were not engaged in battle with demons or monsters or upstart bandits, they sat next to one another on the bench. Jason addresed him directly as a separate being on the same plane in Dreamland. "We need to talk," he said in a darkly serious tone. Donald was startled, he had no idea what to expect. "You're in trouble, we're in trouble. We have to leave the planet. Today, now."
Donald stared at him, for the first time recognizing his appearance instead of only a voice and a presence in his mind. Wearing the clothes he had on when fighting Jabal, he had long black hair and a short beard ending in a point. Otherwise, they were built similarly, except he could see that Jason was a good deal fitter. Funny, he thought, he's in better shape and he's dead. "What do you mean, leave now? I'm scheduled to go tomorrow, isn't that soon enough? What's the rush? Besides, there's a party for me tonight. Do you have any idea how often that happens?"
Jason stood and stepped over to the pond, then turned to look at Donald. "I, or rather, we killed Jabal, the bandit. We don't know where spirits go when they're killed in Dreamland. Stories, rumors, tell of a distant plane, a wasteland, where spirits roam a vast empty space, the Great Emptiness it is sometimes called, a landscape of wildness like nothing ever seen by the living. But, no one knows for sure, there's never any contact between the realms. Spirits go somewhere, they never die. Mormar Lafite killed me many years ago. The story was told that he out-fought me with sword. Not true. He wished the headman's position, and one night while I slept, stole into my bedchamber and cut my throat. He's now entwined into the psyche and being of his descendant, Flange, your charming and helpful host."
"Does he know this?" asked a shocked Donald. "I mean, is he aware?"
"Of course he is, he must be. Mormar moves about in disguise when in Dreamland, looking for me. He dare not present himself as long as he believes I may be amongst the populace. But until you arrived, I stayed as a spirit only, hiding in the shadows. I fell victim to his cowardice once, it will not happen a second time. A spirit roams the planet, watching both the land of the living and the dead, yet apart, not able to enter either. He can only have access to Dreamland through the mind of a living person."
"That brings up a good point," said Donald, a trace of annoyance in his tone. "Why pick me, after all these years and all the possibilities you must've had, why me? I'm just an ordinary guy. An engineer running from his bosses who no doubt wish to kill him for stealing their ship and blowing up the operation on the last planet I worked. They do that, you know; they're beyond the arm of the law. I'm nothing special, in other words."
Jason peered down at him, a smile creasing his swarthy face. "You are more than you think, than you believe. You are used to living in the outback of the galaxy, going to crude and lifeless worlds and bringing them to the conditions necessary for your species to inhabit. You are a wayfarer of the sea. Plus,..., I wish to leave and you are my first opportunity in a very long time. Others have come here, for sure. Travelers, traders, emmissaries, people coming and going. But they all had homes to go back to, families they cared for, lives of confining spirit and sense of duty, loyalty to something other than themselves. You, on the other hand, have a fast ship, now enhanced with a cloaking device, and have nothing to lose. You are a loner without a family or a planet or a creed. A free spirit alone in the galaxy. That's why I chose you."
Jason sat back on the bench while Donald chewed on this information. And of all the questions he could've asked, asked, "Why didn't Flange tell me about his ancestor possessing him? Why keep it secret?"
Jason sat silent for awhile. Then said, "After this evening's festivities, when you sleep and enter Dreamland, he will kill you in your bed, cut your throat. Mormar has had the time to infiltrate and take over his mind, even when awake, if he chooses to. Flange may or may not be aware of this, I honestly don't know. I think perhaps not, Flange's identity is probably suppressed, his consciousness. But now Mormar knows--you told him--that I have returned. And he sees his chance to emerge from obscurity to rule Dreamland. I am his only enemy and the only one who knows of his treachery in killing me. I could easily best him in combat, but he is too cowardly to reveal himself. With you dead, I will be cast into that nether world, my spirit lost forever. That is the price you pay for bonding with a living person. We only get one chance, and this is it for me."
"The price you pay," spat Donald. "What about me? You got me into this! Mormar wants to kill you, not me."
Jason sat crumpled in despair, too self-absorbed to hear Donald's outrage. He looked terribly worn and weary, ancient, in fact, but only for a moment. He breathed deeply, seeming to taste the sweet air, and smiled. "If nothing else, my friend, you have given me this renewal, this brief time amongst the real of the living and of dreams. For that, I am eternally grateful. Now, you must decide. What are you to do?"
Jason sat crumpled in despair. He looked terribly worn and weary, ancient, in fact, but only for a moment. He breathed deeply, seeming to taste the sweet air, and smiled. "If nothing else, my friend, you have given me this renewal, this brief time amongst the real of the living and of dreams. For that, I am eternally grateful. Now, you must decide. What are you to do?"
Donald's mood softened. In spite of his own sudden predicament, he could understand that Jason's plight conjured greater fears than his own. But he didn't like being used, and this felt like it. However, it was too late to do anything about.
He was confused; he had questions. And he didn't like being rushed. As an engineer, he was used to knowing all the workings of every machine he ever operated. It made him feel secure. Loose ends troubled him. "You said you have returned, and your assistant said you'd gone away, adventuring. What did she mean by that?"
"She believed I had joined with a wayfarer long ago and traveled off-planet. She knew of my death, the lie of it, but was unable to converse with me because I had not joined with a living person. Yet, I could see them as though through water and looked for Mormar in the background of their dream lives. She doesn't know how I was killed, none do. Except you and Mormar."
"And are we in Dreamland now? I can see you as separate. How can that be?"
"I am from another world, a world that was embroiled in conflict and destruction. I left and found my way here. Because of my birthright, I have the power to project my will on a plane removed from Dreamland. As well, the power to orb, to shift through space. I am visible as an indvidual to you, but to no one else. In Dreamland, I appear as myself to others, you are but an agent of that appearance. Together, we fought the monsters who once lived in the sky and Jabal. His spirit has gone to the wasteland."
Donald remembered transporting from the clouds to the village and back again. That must be what he means by orbing. "If you can orb, as you say, does that mean I can too?"
Jason hesitated, rubbing his large hands together. Then said, "If your mind resonates at precisely the proper way with that of mine, which necessitates an immersion of selves, of identities, then yes, on the physical plane as well as in Dreamland, we may be able to transit space. But it takes precision, exactitude. And concentration. Otherwise, I can bring only your mind and consciousness with me. Your body remains where you're sleeping."
Donald searched for more questions. In the morass, the thought of his throat being cut while he slept stood out like a starburst. "Are you certain about this throat-cutting thing? I mean, how do you know?"
"Thanks to you, I can see Mormar now, his whereabouts are known to me. As well, his thoughts. They are like snakes slithering on the sand."
"Well then," Donald hesitated, "why not kill him first?"
Jason gave a quick start towards Donald. "That would mean killing Flange, your host. Mormar will not dare meet me on the field of combat in Dreamland. He remains lurking in the background, waiting. But now the wait is over, his time has come. He knows you are to leave tomorrow, but he still fears I might return. As long as I am, he cannot rest."
"But,..., if you go, then Mormar will take over Dreamland, and it doesn't sound like that would be a good thing for the people who dwell there. Those folks were very glad to see you, Jason, especially after you killed that guy, the bandit who held them under his thumb. What of them, Jason the headman?"
Jason stood again and paced. Anguished over what would surely be betrayal, he wrung his hands in quiet turmoil. Finally, he said, "Very well. I wish to leave with you, but that won't happen if we are dead, you to the spirit world, and me to who knows where."
Donald interrupted, "Wait a second. I don't get it. If we're both from other planets, how can we, or any other off-worlders, for that matter, end up in this world's Dreamland? Aren't there rules?"
Jason simply replied, "It's the planet itself. All here, no matter for how long, fall under its spell, its rules. It is a living thing with many complex realities; Dreamland is but one." With that, he picked up where he left off, "Let us seek out the others, my assistant, and tell them how I truly met my end. So if Mormar materializes in their world, they will know the truth of the matter, and he will be executed or ostracized, but at any length, he will not be chosen ruler. I see no other way. Killing Flange, do you really want to do that?"
Donald, feeling ruthless as on that prison planet, suggested, "What if,..., what if I'm ready for Flange/Mormar tonight, and manage, with your help, to kill him instead. Would that not be like meeting your adversary on the field of battle?"
Jason smiled, his eyes softening. "But, are you not friends with Flange? He has been nothing but helpful and means you no harm. It is Mormar within him who conspires."
Donald agreed with a nod, wondering how he could've so casually thought to kill his benefactor . Was this union with Jason causing it? Were they exchanging personalities? What would Flange do? At length, he said, "Yeah, you're right. He's possessed only." He thought for a moment, then said, "Okay, if I was asleep in Dreamland when Mormar comes to kill me, you two could have it out."
Jason stared. "You would be taking an enormous chance."
Donald stood and said, "What the hell, I've gotten this far taking enormous chances. What do you think?"
Smiling deeply, they shook hands, then in a whiff, rejoined orbed to the well in the town square. Everyone was surprised and overjoyed. He stood on a bench as they gathered around, dozens of spirits, including his good-looking assistant who sat on the bench beneath him. He told the story of his death, of the treachery and lies of Mormar, of why he'd been gone all this time, and where. Loudly, he dared Mormar to reveal himself, to come forward for a fair contest. But Flange was wide awake, overseeing preparations for the party to be, so there was no chance Mormar would appear. At least, for their sake, the people would know the truth. Hearing it, they grew angry and looked about for Mormar, but he was nowhere to be found.
"Wake up, old friend," he heard Flange say. "I've been looking for you. How did you find this special little place? I used to come here often myself when in my youth. I wished to be a poet and found this hideaway most conducive."
Together they returned to the castle, Donald to his quarters where Melanie was waiting. He swore under his breath how he would sorely miss this routine. Afterwards, he dressed for the fesitivities, in his honor, no less. How could he pass it up? As darkness descended, a servant came to escort Donald to the main ballroom. He was excited and completely forgot about Jason and the plan to kill Mormar. Music grew louder as he neared, and he could hear the sounds of people laughing and chattering away. Suddenly, he emerged from the side hallway and stopped. The decorations of colorful ribbon creatures that fluttered as though alive and huge flags of the many provinces draping the walls stunned him. The long darkwood table was laden with all manner of food: plates of meat; bowls of fruit and greenery blended with tiny flower petals; cakes, pies, and puddings that called to one as sirens would, promises of tastes and flavors of a truly alien and delicious nature. Goblets of wine seemed to appear out of thin air as guests reached for them. The elders sat at a separate round table engrossed in mild amused conversation; otherwise, most people stood. The servant respectfully urged him on. Snaking through the crowd, he soon arrived at the head of the table where Flange sat, his wife on his left; he was seated across from her.
These people loved to party, thought Donald. Any excuse or no excuse. Smiling broadly, almost embarrassed by the occasion, his attention flitted from one small group to another, then to the many paintings on the walls, their gold embossed frames blending naturally in tone with the tawny wood planks. All dissonance and sharp edges were muted as a law of the land. The high vaulted ceiling of bare timbers interlocking in deceptively complex patterns was too much to encompass for a poor boy from the squalid streets of an Earth city. The wood interior combined with the gigantic fireplaces rendered an incongruous feeling of coziness despite the enormous size of the hall. And, of course, the rug that covered almost the entire floor, magical in conception: birds, flowers, mythical figures, all manner of patterns geometric and free-form seemed to move and writhe under the lights of the chandeliers and hundreds of floor-stand candles. The table itself was a thing to behold, resplendent in its own right, constructed for size and strength, exuding solidity, its texture strangely yielding and warm to the touch.
Donald was served a first course of delectables; his goblet half-filled, as was the custom. Flange and his wife greeted him when seated, but almost immediately re-engaged themselves in animated talk with those about. Donald, ensconced despite the hubbub, looked fondly at Flange and decided firmly that his accidental death would be unbearable and unforgiveable. Perhaps Jason, supposedly paying attention, would sense that in him and concur. With Mormar pulling his strings at will, or at least by influencing his behavior, anything could happen.
Well-wishers approached Donald and offered the equivalent of bon voyage, some expressed envy while others, more reserved, applauded him for his bravery. Donald was overjoyed by all the attention. During one interlude of privacy, he let his eye peruse the many paintings as well as the sculptures situated near the entrance. Although having been here briefly before on his arrival, this was the first time he had a chance to study them. Surprisingly, to him, there were no paintings of people, all were of splendid landscapes, vistas of the planet, one was even of the world from space. And the sculptures, fanciful images, he imagined, conjured by artists with an eye for the surreal and exotic. He noticed, however, that they all had some characteristic in common, a theme of shape that alluded to an otherworldy presence, to an alien nature beneath the surface struggling to get out. As he examined them, that earlier intuition about the people that bothered him rose to the fore. It troubled him, he knew not why, could not guess. Shrugging it, he sampled puddings and tasty treats the flavors of which he could not name, new to his palette as they were.
Having consumed an inordinate amount of wine, even for him, nature called. Nodding to Flange and his wife, he rose to search out the nearest bathroom. Its marbled-mosaic floor drew his attention as he waited for a free urinal. Looking about, he saw a large floor-length mirror fixed to the farthest wall. It struck him just then that, except for the mirror in his room, he hadn't seen any so far. Their absence from public areas caused him no misgivings. Why should it? he asked himself. But then suddenly, stunned shock struck like lighning from the clouds-without-sound. A guest stood in front of the mirror adjusting his clothing. What Donald saw as a human appeared quite different in the mirror image. In that was another being entirely. Tall and thin, his head was shaped like an almond, his arms and legs were similarly exaggerated in form, extended with elongated fingers. He could only guess at what the creature must look like under his clothes. His eyes were overlarge and green around the edges. He had no brows and only the tinest of mouths, his nose mere holes in the middle of his face. Donald stood frozen in place. The man finished his inspection and turned to walk past Donald towards the door. He couldn't help but stare, impolite as it was, at what appeared to him as a normal human being, like that of Earth.
Why had I not questioned this before? he wondered, amazed at his acceptance and naivete. On a planet halfway across the galaxy, and I'm not surprised that everyone looks human. Did they do something to my mind? he wondered. Is this really a magical world? As he used the urinal, he listed the anomolies: books written in his native tongue, people speaking his native tongue, and now this, people who looked like earthlings to my perception, but in truth, their reflection revealed that they were decidedly not. He finished and, though his skin crawled, made his stumbling way back to his seat. Once againd he smiled at Flange and his wife, but this time, not with the same warmth and openness. Instantly, however, he regretted so parochial an attitude and refused to allow it to dampen his spirit or his enjoyment of the festivities. His hosts and these people had shown him nothing but kindness, generosity, and hospitality.
Perhaps it was all for the best, he considered, for my regard and ease, not intended as deception for some horrible ulterior motive. Flange had not bothered to inform me of the true nature of himself and the populace simply because it was protocol, a customary procedure for all visitors. If someone from another species were here with me, would he see these people as members of his kind? Possibly, most likely. Once framed in his mind, he readily accepted the explanation, hoping it was true. At one point, he spied his bath partner, Melanie, and his mouth dropped open; his stomach wrenched at the thought of what the two of them had been doing together in that bathpool. Oh great Zeus, he mumbled, what really happened? Shaking his head vigorously, he refused to think about it, but also decided he'd had enough baths, tomorrow he was leaving and could do so dirty.
The musicians played on, people danced and laughed and staggered about. Their clothing resembled that of pictures Donald had seen of ancient periods in Earth history, at the courts of Europe, such billowy and colorful splendor, from gold buttons, silken scarves, and bodacious jewelry right down to spangled shoes and buckled boots. Most of the men sported beards, some very elegantly tailored and designed; and the women had an affection for bouncy curls and long, sinewy braids halfway down their back. As guest of honor he was expected to circulate, and with Flange's encouragement, did so, with drunken enthusiasm, dancing with a few of the more comely ladies.
As the night wore on, the crowd thinned out, only the more hardy and dedicated party-goers hanging on, insisting that the musicians continue in spite of their obvious exhaustion. Donald, however, couldn't sip another drop and could barely keep his eyes open; it was time to retire. Effusively thanking his host and his wife, he made his way through the hall, shaking hands and managing to not trip over himself or anything else. Back in his room, he removed his shoes only, then crawled under the thin blanket. As he drifted off, he vaguely remembered what was supposed to transpire. Mormar, suppressing Flange's consciousness, was going to cut his throat while he slept, just as he'd done before to Jason. Muddled in mind as well as body, his attempt to contact Jason was to no avail. This troubled him more than he thought it should. He definitely did not want Flange to be killed or hurt, but asleep, he had no control over events. Matters seemed to be taking on a life of their own. Could he trust Jason to honor their agreement? He'd spoken up for Flange. Was it even possible for Jason to hurt the living from Dreamland? He didn't know; it was far too complicated for him to grasp.
He gazed out at the two moons, one high in the sky, farther along its route than its smaller partner hovering just above the horizon. I'll miss this place," he thought, saddened at the prospect of leaving. Not able to keep his eyes open to the brightness of moonlight, he closed them and quickly fell asleep.
Time flows differently in Dreamland. Between the beats of a heart, eternity enfolds a lifetime, and the past and future can comingle in the present without any sense of the abnormal. We can navigate river boats through back alleys of cities; we can run across racing, tilting sheets of ice with the greatest of ease; we can jump from a precipice to land safely in the branches of a tree. It's also a domain where nightmarish creatures, dredged up from the dark recesses, confront us. A place where: your legs don't seem to work when you need to run; you find yourself inexplicably walking on a narrow ledge high above the street; you're riding through rugged mountain country on the back of a sheep and thinking nothing of it.
Supposedly, different personas in our dreams represent different aspects of ourselves, of our psyche. The many characters that make us up vie for attention and dominance, much as they do in waking life, only with the gloves off. And sometimes, an emerging identity, long lying suppressed, finds fulfillment in the dream-state, and the transformation realized in the awake world, or not. Something of this sort happened to Donald.
Before long, on the plane of seeming, an unforseen glitch in the plan materialized, so to speak: Jason, necessarily having to utilize the mind of Donald, was seriously smashed. Separating himself from a sleeping Donald, he weaved tentatively on the side of the bed; his sword next to him. Just then, as though on cue, a sleep-walking Flange entered the room; he too must've crashed fully dressed. Jason stood, drew his sword, and called to Mormar. Flange, knife still in its sheath, collapsed on the bed as Mormar separated and the two faced one another in Dreamland, swords in hand. Together, they danced around the room, feinting, jabbing, slicing, with neither landing a blow, drunk as they were. Jason knocked over a standing candle holder in Mormar's direction, then thrust straight ahead, sticking a few inches of his sword into Mormar's midsection. As he leaned forward, Mormar slashed across Jason's side. The two reeled back, pain and hatred in their eyes, then charged at the top of their lungs. Breaking furniture and leveling anything taller than a footstool, they fought and stumbled and cursed and bled. When it was all over, both lay dead on the floor. On the plane of seeming, however, the room remained as it had been, neat and orderly. And Jason and Mormar vanished into the wasteland, it is believed.
The following morning, Melanie stood in Donald's doorway taking in the scene--Donald and Flange in bed together. Quietly, with respect, she woke Flange and whispered his situation. He glanced through red eyes at Donald, laughed, then wobbly stood, with her help. After drinking bouts, it was not uncommon to find Flange anywhere. He staggered to his room, to his wife. Melanie thought to leave Donald sleep on for awhile, when abruptly his eyes opened. Blearily, he gazed at her, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, standing over his bed, smiling, looking fondly down at him. He vaguely remembered in his foggy hungover mind that he'd made a promise last night not to bathe anymore with a creature who didn't look as he perceived. But admiring her curved sensuality, and the memories of all the baths before, he decided he didn't care. He'd be out in space for who knows how long before reaching another planet. Such small-minded thinking, intolerance, and naivete would simply not due for a star adventurer. What other types of people would I meet? He thought she could no doubt see him as he really was, or could she? Could the magic of this planet dictate such symmetry, such reciprocating harmony? He didn't know, but decided it wouldn't do to head out to the wild black yonder without a going-away bath. His previous feeling of revulsion, in the face of Melanie, now seemed so,..., provincial.
Afterwards, he had a light breakfast in his room, alone. It'd been only four days, but still he gazed about the room with affection towards the only home he'd known since departing his crew, all good friends. Briefly, nostalgia filled him. He said to the room, "Thank you," and meant it. As his head began to clear, he remembered with a jolt what was supposed to have transpired while he slept. Apparently, Jason was successful in saving his life. But to what end? He felt for Jason's presence, but, without a detectable response in his psyche, had no clue as to the outcome.
But he did feel different personally, and not just the result of being hungover, he'd been there plenty of times. Inner strength, confidence, and determination had replaced anxiety and trepidation. Perhaps Jason has become part of me, fused to my inner self. How would I know?
As Donald was standing at the window, taking in the majestic view of the mountains and valley far below, Flange, accompanied by his chief engineer, casually walked into the room. "I see you're none the worse for wear, Sir Donald," joked Flange. Rubbing his head, he continued with, "Can't say the same for myself, however." He plopped into the cushioned chair by the door; the engineer stood beside him, smiling proudly.
"Everything's ready," the engineer announced. "The stores have been brought onboard and replacement parts for your electronics stashed away. When we go to your ship, I'll brief you on how to use the cloaking device and what to do if there's a screw-up. Although, there's not much chance of that," he said with finality.
Donald gazed out one last time, smiled another good-bye, then grabbed his duffel off the bed and together they walked to the staging area where the Pentagram was moored. It wasn't much of a ceremony. Flange's attitude, and he said as much, was that he'd no doubt see Donald again, so he wasn't all that emotional. The engineer showed Donald the star-chart upgrades he'd placed on the nav-com. On the holgraphic display, Flange pointed out planets close-by that Donald might want to check out, describing what to expect, their pluses and minuses. He'd prepared a list of names to contact. "Mention me, tell them I sent you. You'll be taken care of," he said. "None are hostile or unfriendly to visitors; they're used to intra-galactic tourists and traders."
The engineer finished showing Donald the stores, how to work the cloaking device, and the new charts and information on sectors and planets he'd find valuable. A large portly man, a real talker, he went on to describe the physical dangers of areas of space he'd be passing through--blackholes, gamma nebulae, asteroid clusters--as well as the political and social atmospheres on planets where he himself had lived, what not to do and where not to go at night. Inside information you wouldn't get on a travel brochure. When he was satisfied, he shook hands with Donald, slapped him on the shoulder--a jarring impact--and with a good day to Sir Flange, left the bridge and the ship.
Alone with Flange, Donald thought to tell him the whole story and his part in it. His unknown possessor and what he was up to, killing him through Flange. But it all seemed too superfluous and wrenching to begin. He felt it would not only spoil the moment, but also all that had gone before, sully Flange's hospitality, and cause him misgivings and fear of what he could do without his volition. To know that a spirit could take over his body on the real plane while he slept may not be something Flange wanted to know. He looked at Flange, a true friend as far as he was concerned, shook his hand, gave him a brief hug, and said, "Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything. You've been a wonderful host. And the cloaking device. Thanks a lot for that. Maybe now pirates won't sneak up on me so easily."
They laughed, Flange slapped his arm, informed him he was clear to leave anytime, turned and left the ship.
Donald watched him go, then mechanically prepared for take off, raising and securing the gangplank, starting the anti-grav engines, warming up the quark-drive, firing up the holgraphic navigation display, and taking his seat at the captain's chair. He plotted a course for the planet Flange had suggested be his first stop, and laid it into the computer. Taking in the view one last time, he kicked the Pentagram into gear, slowly it rose to the outer atmosphere. Like a good engineer who always demanded hands-on experience, he went through the simple procedure to activate the cloaking device. If he couldn't get it to work, this would be the place to find out. Readings informed him it was online and functioning fine. He was invisible. He then shut down the anti-gravs and intiated quark-drive. The autopilot took over. Donald watched the straightened rainbow colors streak by. After mere moments, it all went blacker than coal; he was in hyperspace.
He sat for awhile as he rocketed along in deathly quiet, forward movement undetectable in the timeless zone of hyperspace. But his mind was clouded over, thoughts would not come, and his emotions were a sea of confusion. Pushing himself up, he groggily trudged to his sleeping quarters to take a much needed nap. It had all been an incredible whirlwind. Could he expect more of the same farther out? Surprisingly, to him, the thought of adventure calmed and excited him all at once. He drifted off, expecting to meet with Jason in Dreamland, to have someone to talk to, a partner and comrade in arms, if need be.
Just before sleep overwhelmed him, however, the proximity alarm went off. Woefully sitting up, his mood soured, he muttered to the Great Emptiness, "Now what?"