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Author Topic: THE SAPIENT PLAGUE - no comments here  (Read 47916 times)
cairn destop
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« on: May 02, 2008, 12:34:59 PM »

Author notes:

It appears that the comic and game, “Inherit the Earth,” inspires a lot of stories regarding the return of the humans.  Though I have never played the game, I’m going to give this theme my version, which means there may well be inconsistencies.  Consider such variances literary license.

Now one of our writers had the idea of including my character in his story.  I didn’t object, in fact I felt honored.  So now I’ll also be returning the favor of having not just my character in the story, but that of Allester.  It does seem only fair.

Like all stories that have a multiple chapter structure, I will use one thread.  Please make no comments here regarding the story.  A separate thread has been set up seeking your comments.

Some of these chapters will be quite short, others will come close to twenty-five hundred.  That should be a reasonable length for anyone coming across this thread somewhere in the future.  Though SPAG seems to be overlooked here, I do endeavor to keep my work in proper grammar.  Let me know if I goofed. 

The release schedule is a chapter every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with the first chapter coming May 7, 2008.  Due to a crazy work schedule, I cannot guarantee the time of my releases, just the days.
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cairn destop
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« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2008, 05:03:23 AM »

  CHAPTER ONE
HIGH COMMAND

The sterile room contained nothing more than a conference table and four chairs.  Overhead lighting gave the occupants a florescent greenish tint to their skin whenever the recessed bulbs flickered.  With the exception of a full length mirror on one wall, no seam gave a hint as to where the entrance could be found.

Seated at one end of the table was a mousy man.  His uniform confirmed that he served in the army and his insignia indicated his assignment to Military Intelligence.  A glance at his chest showed that he held qualifications for freefalling and a marksmanship award for pistols.  Though he wore several unit citations, none of the medals attested to his heroics.

If this man ever played poker, his unreadable face would make him the perfect bluffer.  Only his golden eyes moved as they scanned the room in a never-ending search.  Even his chest did not move as he breathed.

To his right sat a woman that contradicted that very word.  Her hair remained cropped so short that her scalp remained visible.  Like the man, she tried maintaining a stoic demeanor, but the flicking of her tongue to moisten her dry lips accentuated her nervousness.

Checking her uniform confirmed her as a true warrior.  Sitting atop her row of ribbons was the coveted twenty-five special ops mission badge.  Something worn by no more than a dozen members of the military as most died during one of those missions deep behind enemy lines.  Many of her citations were for individual bravery.

The final occupant matched the other two in bulk, yet none of it was fat.  Unlike the others, his uniform showed signs of recent use.  His one breast pocket remained torn, the flap hiding much of his name.  Though he wore no medals, the other two occupants knew the man must have a fair number as his unit patch proclaimed him as a member of an elite fighting force.  It was a unit renowned for its many victories and the exceptional bravery of its members.

Unlike the others, he paced the room along the wall opposite the full length mirror.  With every third step he smacked his beefy fist into his open palm.  Whenever he passed the woman, she would scrunch up her nose until he moved away from her.  Sometimes he would pound the wall at either end of his walk, which solicited nothing more than a quick glance from the two seated occupants.  After such a long wait, the walls were beginning to show signs of wear.

A low hum announced the arrival of a fourth.  Behind the seated man, a seam appeared in the wall outlining a doorway.  As the fourth person entered the room, everyone jumped to attention, saluting the latest arrival.  Without speaking a word, he took the seat with the mirror behind him.  With a sweep of his hand, he instructed the gargantuan man to the last chair.

“Let me thank all of you for coming and remind you this meeting is classified under Level Six security protocol.  With the exception of our Intelligence agent who holds a Level Four clearance, this is at least a three or four-step upgrade.”

The hulk slammed his fist onto the table causing the officer’s paraphernalia to bounce.  “You drag me off the front lines in the middle of a major Morph offensive; whisk me to some rear echelon meeting just so you can raise my spook rating?  No wonder we’re losing this freaking war!”

Without flinching, the Captain examined the brute before him, selected a folder and read the cover page it contained.  “You must be Lieutenant ‘Mouse’ Minnows.  As the rest of you can guess, our man here has had more combat experience against the Morphs than most soldiers.  You’ll be a fine addition to our mission.”

The lady gave the brute a hard look.  “You shouldn’t complain, ‘Mouse.’  The only difference between you and me is that my last mission ended five days ago.  At least I got to shower before those filthy MP’s rousted me out of a good time.  Just hope this is worth the bother, especially if I have to share space with a tubie.”

Again the Captain examined a file.  “Let me see, Margaret Sink, Naval Lieutenant and a member of Special Forces.  The most successful deep insertion missions ever; I’m impressed.  You’ll need those skills in a few days.  And that brings us to our third member, our Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Spellon?”

“Yes sir, Ed Spellon; I’m a fifth generation eugenics product and as the navy officer noted was born in an artificial womb.  Too bad that program has resulted in this distinctive eye coloring or none would know of my beginnings.  I’ve been bred to be mentally superior to most humans with the capacity to recall anything I read.”

“Since introductions are completed, let’s get down to business.  All of you are here because you have demonstrated the skills necessary for an important mission, one that may very well have a major effect on the current morph war.”

That got everyone’s attention.  For a moment, even the gargantuan soldier remained quiet.  Seeing that peace had been restored, the officer withdrew a pair of glasses and began typing on the desk.  When he finished, he removed the glasses and sat back.

Again the overhead lights began flickering.  This time, they remained off.  Though there was no light, a mechanical hum resonated throughout the place.  When it stopped, a holographic display of Planet Earth floated above the table.  It continued rotating at a slow speed for several seconds before the former North American continent filled the space.  That in turn began enlarging until the region around the old city of Seatacover remained.

“Our scientists have discovered something they call ‘an artificial wormhole’ over seven years ago.  Until recently, the aperture remained less than a meter in diameter.  Good enough for small robotic scout ships, but nothing else.  This is why the Morph space force hasn’t intercepted any of our returning probes.”

“What I am about to tell you is classified as Level Six, Black, which means discussing it outside this room will forfeit your life as well as anyone you contacted in the last forty-eight hours.”  When nobody said anything, the Captain continued.  “As Lieutenant Minnows stated, we are losing this war.  Our politicians and upper echelon military personnel have known that for almost ten years.  We gave our most trusted scientists a mission, the search for another planet suitable for human habitation.  Once we find one, hidden generation ships will carry our genetic material and enough human crewmen to assure the continuation of our species.”

“Laudable,” commented the lady, “but where do we fit into the picture?”

“I’m coming to that.  Naturally, one of the scientist figured it would be informative learning what happened back home.  Although our history records four hundred years, we spent a long period in near-light travel.  For Earth, more than a millennium has passed.”

When nobody stirred, the officer turned to the golden-eyed gentleman.  “Lieutenant Spellon, I’m sure you’re familiar enough with the historical accounts.  Based on your old security clearance, you have read the classified material regarding our former home world as part of your background research on morph behavior.”

After a short pause, the intelligence officer spoke.  “Officially, we abandoned Earth due to a plague and took to the stars for this world in ships designed to travel just below the speed of light.  As Captain Purser noted, our voyage took three hundred years and to preserve the greatest number of humans, we used morphs as the crew.  If the morphs needed directions, they revised the Captain from his suspended animation.  It was a great system as the morphs did the necessary work maintaining the ship while our computers located a habitable world.”

“That is the official history.  What isn’t known is that the plague was of our own doing.  We had bioengineered several food plants that created an unexpected reaction, something to do with a viral infection that shortened the human lifespan by a factor of sixty percent and reduced male virility by ninety percent.  Within ten years, the population growth rate went negative.”

Then Captain Purser interrupted.  “It also affected the morphs, making their successive generations more intelligent.  Realizing that sooner or later the morphs would become sapient, we created another first generation on the moon, where some of humanity remained in quarantine.  We built the starships in space for the same reason.  Only those humans immune to the plague and those living off-world were allowed on the ship.  Those affected by the plague used another starship and we hope they too found a viable planet.”

The intelligence officer continued the historical account.  “We thought the new morphs would remain nothing more than trained animals with superior intelligence.  Somewhere during the three hundred year search for a viable world, they became sapient.  One of their numbers rationalized that the humans would exterminate them once we reached a new planet fearing either a master-slave mentality or a backlash of finding humans competing with animals on an equal basis.  That one gathered others who became sapient and when we landed, somehow delayed the revival program, which gave these intelligent morphs sufficient time to escape.”

“Now here is the part our historians overlooked.”  Lieutenant Spellon gazed at each person before he continued.  “The first thing we did upon our awakening was to exterminate the morphs and ban such animal experiments in the future.  It took mankind another hundred years learning sapient morphs had escaped.  When they learned what we did to those left behind, it started this war of mutual extermination.  We were winning at first due to superior technology, but the morphs have become just as innovative over the years.”

The Captain interrupted the history lesson.  “What most don’t know is that we discovered a lab working on a reversal drug, one that would counteract what they termed ‘the Sapient Plague.’  How the message slipped past our computers is unknown, perhaps one of the earliest space morphs who became sapient tried deleting it, we just don’t know.  We believe this secret lab found a way of changing morphs back into non-sapient animals.  Military intelligence learned of this when some computer nerd doing research about oxygen scrubbers discovered an unknown fragmented file.”

“Okay, I can see the military value in such a discovery, if it still exists, but I’m missing the connection between this information and us” the female officer announced.

Captain Purser continued his briefing.  “Early spy probes showed Earth is populated by morphs in a near or early feudal period, very low tech.  Yet there are occasional demonstrations of advanced technology, such as anomalies in the weather.  We believe several computer orbs must still exist.  If they still work, it is possible that the lab could be intact and the information retrievable.”

Then the hulk showed he wasn’t all brawn.  “Unmanned probes are fine and dandy for gathering intell, but you need somebody on site to make the retrieval.  It’s not possible to send people through a wormhole less than a meter in diameter.”

“And that my dear sir is why such a high security clearance is attached to this meeting.”
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« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2008, 05:15:30 AM »

CHAPTER TWO
RAPID START

Captain Purser approached the nine men and three women going through physical training.  He watched as each member went through their exercises with backpacks he knew contained rocks.  With the exception of Lieutenant Minnows, everyone’s skin glistened from the heavy sweat.

“All right, formation everyone!” bellowed the Captain.  When everyone came to attention, he informed the squad that their departure time had been moved forward.  Instead of having another thirty days, they had that many hours.  As the grunts rushed to prepare for departure, the three lieutenants fell into step behind their commander.

“Counterintelligence discovered the morphs have human agents passing on information regarding this mission and its objectives.  If the enemy follows our protocol, we must assume the information has gotten through.  We’re moving up the launch and will just have to hope we catch the morphs with their collective tails tucked.”

It was the naval officer that commented first.  “You kept telling us moving about on Earth would be no problem, yet I cannot see how a dozen humans on a world populated by morphs will go undetected.  Think you need to share whatever you’re holding.”

When Captain Purser turned, he touched his wrist.  In an instant, the three officers faced a full-grown wolf.  Then the wolf changed into a bear, a fox, an otter, and finally, into an elk with a full rack.

Lieutenant Minnows whistled.  “Holographic projections, they must be built into some garment you’re wearing.  At least we can move about the area without notice.”

The intelligence officer snatched a rock and tossed it at the antlers.  The stone bounced off with a ping.  “Not just a holographic projection, you somehow managed to incorporate mass into the equation.”

Another touch to the wrist and Captain Purser returned to human form.  “The added mass will not withstand continual pressure, but it will last long enough to convince anyone we meet that we are real.  We could eat dinner with a morph and they would never suspect us.  In addition, the surgery you underwent last week implanted a translation program just in case the morphs back home don’t speak any recognizable language.  It will mean a short delay of two seconds before our minds receive the translation, but that’s unavoidable.  It will allow us to speak, and thanks to the holographic muzzles, our lips will match the sounds we make.”

“A lot of those species you showed us don’t even exist on this world,” Lieutenant Sink said, “How do we know they exist on Earth?”

Spellon’s eyes rolled up and he began muttering to himself for several seconds.  When his eyes refocused on the others, he explained it to the others.  “Our computers have a list of the morph species we created, and thanks to some special spy drones, we confirmed their existence.”

When he saw the wide-eyed stare of the Captain, the intelligence officer smirked.  “Why do you think I’ve been online for so long each day?  Thanks to my higher clearance level, I’ve been reviewing as much current data regarding Earth as possible.”

“How do we get to Earth and back in a reasonable time?  Or is that something you’re holding back?”  Minnows glared first at Ed Spellon and then at the Captain.  “Like I said two weeks ago, your wormhole is too narrow.”

“You’ll learn everything when we liftoff tomorrow at eleven hundred hours.”

Lieutenant Sink snorted.  “We go spaceward with anything bigger than a probe and the morph space station will launch a counterattack.  How do we keep them off our backs?”

Lieutenant Spellon provided the reply before their captain could.  “We launch a strike force from our moon base six hours earlier.  I’ll assume a high trajectory for our mission will keep us away from the morph space flyers.  However, the morph force have faster ships, they could ignore our deception and go for the big prize, especially if they guess what’s happening.”

“Our intelligence officer is right.”  The captain replied.  “We should have at least a twenty to thirty minute head start and we only need five.  Our projections show we have sufficient time reaching the spatial coordinates even under a worse case scenario.”

As morning dawned, the squad assembled in the hanger and then descended a staircase.  They followed the corridor for a distance of three miles until they reached an immense door.  Guards continually checked their identifications, verifying their right to be in this part of the base.  One final inspection and the members filed into the next room.

Built like an immense missile silo, the deep pit contained a spaceship atop a powerful booster rocket.  At their level, reaching the spaceship meant nothing more than a short stroll across a metal catwalk.  Many of the soldiers gazed down through the grillwork and whistled as they noticed the scale of the booster.

Without breaking stride the Captain offered a few pertinent facts.  “Just before launch, the camouflaged covering will slide away and we’ll be airborne.  With the morph space station on the opposite side of the world, it will take them a minimum of three hours to intercept.  Our lunar forces launched five hours ago on an attack vector to their station.”

Sinks nodded approval as she entered the ship.  “They have to protect their only space asset, so they will be launching their force to intercept those fighters.  While we duke it out with them in space, we go off on a different trajectory.  Even if some fighter does break off and go for us, he’ll never make it because our lead will be too great.”

As the squad ran through their checklists, the Captain listened to the radio as it relayed information regarding the upcoming battle.  Everything was going as anticipated.  Ground telemetry showed the morphs committing most of their space assets on protecting the space station. 

Just as the crew finished, a voice blared over the intercom.  “T-minus one minute to liftoff, all systems read green.  Good luck.”

When the rocket fired off, the G-force pushed everyone deep into the cushions.  For the first few seconds, the ship vibrated.  Then the craft gathered speed as it cleared the ground.

Once again the mission controller’s voice came over the system.  “All systems are in the green.”

Then another voice intruded.  “Morph space forces have been detected leaving the space station on an intercept course for the window.  Gentlemen, you will have less than three minutes once you reach your destination to initiate bubble.  No escorts available.”

Over the ship’s intercom several squad members voiced the same word, “SNAFU.”  Now they were in a race for the artificial wormhole that was programmed to open in five hours.

The intelligence officer turned to the Captain as he piloted the shuttle towards a point high above the system plane, a point where the gravitational pull of the planets in this system were at their weakest.  “My new security clearance has given me access to reports and data regarding our scientist’s latest discovery.  But I’m betting the others don’t know anything about the ‘bubble?’  Think it’s time you explain it.”

“Our scientists have developed a means of sending larger objects through the wormhole.  We create an energy bubble that widens a small section of the wormhole; at least that is the theory.  Since a wormhole is one way, we’ll be carried through to the other side.”

“If a wormhole is one way, how do we get back?”

“The same way our probes return.  They generate a wormhole and reverse the trajectory.”
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« Reply #3 on: May 12, 2008, 05:13:08 AM »

CHAPTER THREE
WAR IN SPACE



Just as the last booster stage separated, space command sent another message.  “Enemy forces have deployed six unknown fighters, divert course towards Sector Gamma Five and input IFF code Delta, Tango, Ford.”

All felt the shift of the craft as it increased speed on a new trajectory.  As they continued on their route, Lieutenant Sink monitored the long range scanners.  For the first fifteen minutes, the diode remained blank.  Then six dots appeared at the bottom edge and progressed towards them at a slow rate.  A flick of the switch changed the view to short range, which remained clear.

“I’ll let you know when those morph space fighters come into range.”

“Not to worry,” replied Captain Purser.  “Gamma Sector is mined with our stealth space arsenal.  When the satellites detect us, the Identify as friend or foe program will activate.  That code will allow this cargo shuttle through, but not even our own fighters could follow without activating the defenses.  We were smart enough to put in a separate code for every craft in our fleet and that code will only work this one time.”

“Mind telling me what kind of defenses we have.  If those fighters are Mambas, we could still be in the deep.”

“Lieutenant, we have heat seeking rockets, small and medium laser stations, and an array of stealth proximity blasters that could cripple a fully armed Monitor.”

Two hours passed and the screens remained blank.  Neither officer spoke as they concentrated on their assigned duty.  Behind them, the passengers remained quiet. 

Both Captain Purser and Lieutenant Sink made their respective reports at the same instant.

“Entering area Gamma Five, IFF has been queried.”

“Enemy fighters spotted.  Confirmed as Moth space fighters, usual configuration is six short range rockets with mass detectors and a fixed gauss gun with four shots each.  High speed and mobile, they were built for hit and run tactics and have no armor.  Interception to optimum weapon’s range is nineteen minutes and fifty-two seconds from my mark.  At this range, they have fuel for just a thirty second fight if they intend getting home.”

An expletive passed the Captain’s lips.  He looked at the clock as it started its countdown and cursed again.  “Initiating bubble power surge buildup, we better pray we get eight more seconds or that this minefield works as well as it’s advertised.”

Questions from the passengers were drowned out by the continual buildup of an engine.  At first it was an irritating hum; but then it graduated to a loud whine.  With five minutes to the intercept point, the noise had those without noise protection scrambling for the ear guards they discarded after takeoff.  It continued growing in intensity until it seemed that the filings in one’s teeth would vibrate loose.

Lieutenant Sink continued staring at the radar scanner as the Morph spaceships closed the gap.  When one blip disappeared, the remaining five began a zigzagged approach.  Two more vanished several minutes later in near unison.  Yet the three remaining lights continued gaining.

“With all that maneuvering those Moths are doing, they won’t be in firing range for another three minutes.”

“We need another two seconds.”  The Captain punched the digital clock in frustration as he watched the bubble timer and the firing range numbers tick down to zero.  “It’s going to be a close one boys and girls.  Better hold onto your knickers.”

Another screen lit before the lady copilot.  Now her computers displayed flashing weapon’s locks as the remaining three ships crisscrossed their path.  One of the trailing dots turned red and a horn sounded.

“Moth number two has fired its gauss gun!  Seventy-eight percent probability of a hit.”

No sooner had the lieutenant spoken than there was a pinging sound that overrode the generator.  “And the opposition scores a glancing blow.  Better give that furry a cigar and some new glasses.  Ship’s integrity is still intact, minor breaches in outer hull; though I’m sure we’re missing our primary antenna array and a few other odds and ends.”

Again the screen flickered red and the klaxon sounded.  “Moth number one has fired all weapons.  Unknown satellite has launched return salvo at the ship and the incoming rockets. Incoming probability of a hit is thirty percent and dropping.”  Sinks continued staring at the screen and gave an enthusiastic shout.  “Return salvo has ninety percent success rate . . . Moth number one has been eliminated!”

Captain Purser interrupted with his report.  “Bubble in fifteen seconds.”

Lieutenant Sinks groaned.  “Moths two and three have fired all weapons.  Return fire has been initiated.  Probability of a hit is one hundred percent; I say again, one hundred percent.”

Silence filled the spaceship.  There came a violent shake as the ship took a direct hit from one of the nickel slugs fired by the miniature rail gun.  Enemy rockets continued closing in when the two officers flying the shuttle spotted a wide iris opening before them.  Another crash sounded and alarm bells rang as the first enemy rocket slammed into the tail fin.  Then the view outside turned into a circular rainbow.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are inside the wormhole and those rockets are now over a light year behind us.  In two days we will emerge outside Earth’s lunar orbit.  We have that long making whatever repairs we can inside the ship.  Once on the other side, we’ll assess the external damage.” 

“Two days, Captain?  And it took our ancestors over three hundred years.  Imagine if we had this technology during the time of the Great Exodus.”

With that, the Captain pushed off his headphones and slumped back in his chair.

Coming out of the wormhole almost proved anticlimactic.  One moment the ship had the brilliant circular rainbow and with the next, the deep darkness of space.  To their left hung a dark orb while to their immediate forward view hung the blue marvel known as Planet Earth.

No sooner had the wormhole spewed them out than the alarm klaxons sounded afresh.  Such was the violence of the hit that the ship spun on its central axle, pressing all against an outer wall.  Only the Captain remained relatively unaffected as he had been strapped into the command chair prior to the exit.  For a while, his primary problem was overcoming a deepening sense of vertigo as he watched the Earth spinning like a top outside his viewport.  Then everything stabilized.

“Talk about a lucky shot.  That slug must have entered the wormhole just before it collapsed.  Thank goodness the exit side wobbles and it was behind us by a few seconds.  The difference kept that slug from coring us.”

Over the next two days the crew made several space walks.  First they appraised the damage and then they affected repairs.  Nobody was exempt from the labor as the computer guidance system plotted an orbital approach and unmanned probes scouted the planet for a landing spot.

Hours out, their radio crackled with static.  Then there came a loud pinging noise that lasted but a second.  The quiet that followed had every crewmember not on duty gravitating to the Captain’s cabin.  All watched as he entered a series of keystrokes into his computer.  When the screen went dark, all looked at Captain Purser with anticipation.

“Listen up everyone; I have good news and some bad news from back home.  High Command transmitted a message via another wormhole.  They are pleased with our success and also passed on word the fighters that fired on us were scorched.  That’s the good news.”

Though it was hard to do in zero gravity, the Captain could see everyone fidgeting as they awaited the bad news.

“Our forces suffered heavy losses in the diversion and we anticipate one of our lunar bases to come under direct assault within six months unless our space units can reinforce those bases.  That’s minor.  The big news comes from one of our returning spook missions.  The morphs have not only acquired the wormhole technology, they have a bubble generator.  We also learned those fur balls are coming here to stop us; ETA is in another five days.  That’s how much of a head start we have.”

Lieutenant Minnows had just cycled through the airlock when the Captain finished relaying the message.  Over the silence within the ship, all could hear his growling voice.

“Then it’s now my turn to play good news, bad news.”

All team members within the ship turned to the hulking giant.  For his part, Minnows kept his silence as he continued stripping off the space suit he still half wore.  Even the Captain became antsy as he waited for whatever information the man had.

“We can hide in orbit as our stealth generators are working, but we better not try more than one or two orbital insert.  Most of our heat tiles were shattered by that last slug when we came out of the wormhole.  My recommendation is to save the atmospheric maneuvering to the recovery and the return trip, nothing more than a quick in and out.  Anything else and we’ll become ashes floating in the ionosphere over the next century.  Otherwise, everything else that was damaged or destroyed has been repaired or replaced.”

“So is that the good news or the bad?” the Captain quipped, which was followed by the sound of the others laughing.  Then he followed-up his attempt at levity with a more serious comment.  “Looks like we have to do a HOID; make all preparations.  I’ll assign two crewmembers to remain behind and protect our only means home.  If they’re lucky, maybe they can take out whatever Morph ship materializes with one of our rockets.”

Everyone in the room began moaning at the prospects of a HOID.  For the next two days, the squad members did whatever was necessary preparing for their mission.  The morph garments were tested and every piece of gear was stripped down and reassembled, verifying that all worked as designed.

With all the preparations completed, everyone sealed themselves within their ceramic torpedoes.  In the darkness they awaited the inevitable, alone with their thoughts.  Then the voices of the two team members not going came over the headphones.  While one read off the checklist, the other imitated the deadpan approach of a mission controller.  “Prepare for high orbital insertion drop.  ETA over Plymouth Rock is in two minutes.  Don’t spend all your time sightseeing as the computers have you landing in a nice field approximately one hour before local dawn and one hundred clicks south of your target zone.  Good luck all.”

« Last Edit: May 12, 2008, 05:19:13 AM by cairn destop » Logged

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« Reply #4 on: May 14, 2008, 04:52:26 AM »

CHAPTER FOUR
PLANET EARTH


Inside the dark capsule Captain Purser could do nothing but stare forward.  The first indication that something was happening was a hard shake.  This was followed by his oxygen being cut off as the capsule detached.  A quick flick of a toggle switch and the internal air system started.  He then patted his portable air tank and traced the hose up to his hanging mask.

Captain Purser had no sensation of movement after the launch for several minutes.  Again and again he patted each pocket making sure every flap contained something and that all were secured.  His mind pictured himself landing at Morph HQ only to learn he never packed his gun.  That had him laughing as Morph HQ was over two hundred light years away.

His laughter ended when the capsule began treating him like a rag doll in the mouth of a pit bull.  In spite of the hard shaking, the Captain remained calm as he reached up and fastened his mask.  Flicking another switch on, the interior filled with a thick jell.

A dull explosion sounded above and the man’s eyes peered in that direction.  As he watched, the exterior took on a deep red that soon became a blinding white.  The heat began making him sweet, but there was no place for the perspiration to go.  Then the nosecone disintegrated. 

Seconds later the hard gel turned into ash.  The clamps that held him in place released and the flat surface of the floor met with more air resistance than the man.  Now they separated and Captain Purser reached behind him and flipped another switch.  Never had bottled air tasted so good.  Miles below him he could discern the ground and took comfort that he was falling fast enough that when his tank ran dry, he would be low enough that the planet’s atmosphere could support him.

Pulling his computer watch closer, he punched one of the buttons.  The wristwatch face glowed a brilliant green, which meant his trajectory matched the one on the ship’s computers.  If he maintained his present heading, he would land in a wide open field approximately six day’s walk from the nearest morph habitat.

Up where he fell, the sky had filled with the light of the new day.  Below him, the world remained cast in shadows.  Such was his enjoyment that the first thing that disturbed him was the sudden loss of air.  Pulling his mask away, he enjoyed the frigid air of this pristine world as he continued hurling towards the ground.  Then the watch he wore began vibrating, announcing that the ground was under five thousand feet below him.  When the wrist altimeter read fifteen hundred, he deployed his chute and glided to the wide glade marked on his map.

He pulled up just a few feet too soon and landed with a thud, remembering to tuck and roll.  While he gathered the parachute together, another form glided in with practiced ease.  She hit the quick release and ignored the billowing fabric as she swung her weapon in a rapid arc.  The inferred eyepiece gave the naval officer a robotic look and the laser sight did nothing to dispel that image as it painted the surrounding forest.

In quick succession five more humans landed.  The last down landed with such a thud that some thought the man’s chute had failed.  Then the unmistakable voice of Lieutenant Minnows broke the quiet predawn day.

“Maintain silence.  We don’t have any idea who might have seen us.”  The Captain did a quick head count and then checked his communicator.  “We’re missing two and there’s no location beacon.”

The beep of the radio sounded loud in the quiet field as the captain fumbled for his communicator.  Purser’s language matched that used by the huge giant moments earlier as he listened to the latest report.  “According to the telemetry feedback, two capsules failed.  Way we checked and double checked that doesn’t seem possible.”

Then Lieutenant Sinks voiced her opinion.  “Unless it was deliberate.”

“Are you accusing one of us of having Morph sympathies?  Such an accusation has ruined a lot of people and gotten others needlessly killed.”

“Captain, we better face some hard facts.  The Morphs have been no more than a step or two behind us, and they shouldn’t even be in the race.  How did they learn about this mission when it was so secret?  You didn’t even explain about that bubble until we were inside the wormhole, yet the Morphs have the same technology and will be joining us in another five days.  And why did they hold back those fighters in the face of a major space battle?  Somebody has been shipping the Morphs high grade intelligence because I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“She might have a point” interrupted the intelligence officer.  For a few seconds the man stared into space as he mumbled.  “Based on personnel records of those directly involved with the mission, Private Wendels has an eighty-five percent probability of Morph sympathies.”

“Accusing the dead doesn’t help” growled the Captain.  “How did she get into covert ops with that high a score?”

“Special circumstances; she was a veterinarian in civilian life.  Her acceptance explains why we don’t always rely on computers to determine the best course of action.  We explore the ‘human factor’ whenever we can.”

Saying nothing more, Captain Purser opened a pack and removed a large box.  Pressing a button, he tossed it into the mounded parachute packs and discarded equipment.  All members of the squad began jogging north, putting as much distance between them and their trash.  Several seconds later the predawn field lit up as the pile was vaporized in a heat blast leaving nothing more than ashes. 

Each member of the team touched their wrist and the human forms disappeared.  Now the eight soldiers appeared as wolves.  Like the well disciplined military unit they represented, they moved as a team with everyone on the alert for anything unusual.  They continued moving northward until the day’s light faded and they settled in a secured spot for the night.
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« Reply #5 on: May 16, 2008, 04:26:03 AM »

CHAPTER FIVE
A MORPH VIEWPOINT

The hydrogen powered vehicle accelerated as it rushed through the city.  While the passenger leaned back in the padded seat, his eyes scanned the streets they passed.  He watched the many pups and kittens romping around in the park.  He spotted adults doing the many necessary duties that kept a city functioning.  It was a most relaxing and idealistic view.

It was an illusion that shattered when the military jeep passed over a pontoon bridge next to a stone one destroyed in the latest bombing raid.  His eyes never missed the many antiaircraft laser turrets that resembled warts atop the taller buildings.  Radar units scanned the sky and everywhere he looked, squads of military personnel marched to or from some unknown destination. 

Many of the buildings on this side of the river were scorched.  Some were no more than empty husks, their interiors gutted by the fires or the explosive force of a successful missile or bomb.  Seeing such devastation so far from the front lines had the ferret growling and his canine driver giving him a wary eye.

Driving over a second bridge brought him back to that optimistic viewpoint.  They passed a few factories and then entered an area of non-descript buildings, each of which looked so much like its neighbor that the ferret officer thought the same crazed architect fashioned the horrid looking places.

At the door to one such factory, the driver stopped.  When the ferret cleared the curb, the jeep accelerated, leaving the officer on his own.  He walked briskly to the doors of the building and almost laughed at the sign hanging over the doorway.

“Creative Artistry Print Company, Adding clarity to the muddled mind.”

He passed the receptionist, giving the petite rat a smile that had her giggle.  The place was alive with creatures running everywhere as they prepared all manners of printed text.  He spotted the usual recruiting posters and several store sales banners all receiving the same degree of care.  It was a bustling place where his uniform made him stand out in its uniqueness.

Up ahead was his destination, a bank of elevators.  He waited a second until those coming down one car disgorged from the cramped compartment before he stepped inside the now empty box.  Ignoring the buttons for the upper five floors, the ferret removed a key from his pocket and inserted it in the lock.  The elevator car dropped.

When the car opened, the ferret stepped out and stood before a glass barrier.  Three soldiers kept their weapons focused on him through gun ports as he approached the verification scanner.  First it read his paw print and then it scanned his retina.  Though he felt foolish doing it, the ferret began singing the lyrics to a popular puppy’s show tune.  As he finished the last note, the central portion of the glass barrier lifted and the soldiers returned to their stations, ignoring the officer.

Once past the guards it took no time locating a directory to the maze beneath the industrial park.  For the next ten minutes the ferret walked down the tiled floors, turning wherever the signs pointed until he reached the office of an officer with the name he had been given in his orders.  Before opening the door, he noted the rank of the creature that summoned him as no such designation was listed on the papers folded in his pocket.

Beyond the door he spotted a rat lieutenant working on a pile of papers and data disks.  Her glasses hung down to the very tip of her muzzle and when she saw the ferret enter her domain, she ceased her typing.  Her eyes scrutinized the Major standing just past the closed door and without so much as a word of greeting, punched her communicator.

“Major Riven here to see you General Snaul.”

Her eyes did all the talking.  A turn of her head towards the oak door was enough of a command.  Saying nothing to the lieutenant, the ferret strolled into the office of the beast responsible for counterintelligence.  Before the Major could snap off a salute, General Snaul directed the ferret into a chair and waited until the door closed.

“I’ll not waste your time, Major Riven.  I have an assignment of utmost importance and I feel you’re the most qualified officer.  You are free to decline, but if you take this mission, it will be your absolute last time anywhere within a hundred clicks of fighting.”

That left the ferret with his jaw hanging open.  He accepted the necessity of combat and though not “liking it,” considered himself an exceptional warrior.  His superiors must have though the same thing if the number of medals and citation awards were a true indicator.  It had him hesitate as he considered an appropriate response.

The dog standing before him began fixing a drink, his back to the ferret.  “Right now your security clearance is listed as ‘top secret, lever two.’  If you accept this assignment, you’ll be classified as ‘high command, level one,’ which means you go up eight steps.  That should give you an inkling of the importance of this upcoming mission.”

Major Riven stroked his muzzle and flecked his left ear as he considered the husky’s words.  He sealed his fate with nothing more than a simple bob of his head.  Giving a wide grin, the General placed a second drink into the ferret’s paw before returning to his desk.

“Let me be brief.  We have an agent among the humans that until recently has fed us good intelligence, but nothing substantial.  Sixteen months ago, he or she supplied us with data regarding wormhole technology.  Since the human’s purpose for using this new discovery indirectly helped our war effort, we did nothing.”

“Last month that all changed.  This agent began feeding us data about our former home planet, including recent material about a deadly biological agent.  If this is true, and our scientists say it is a reasonable hypothesis, we could find ourselves exterminated as a race within one year, maybe less.”

The ferret almost dropped his glass, but recovered enough that he questioned the dog sitting behind the desk.  “This is a war of extermination; either the Morphs or the humans must die.  Why would one of them help us?”

The dog’s laughter lasted several seconds.  “You think we didn’t consider that possibility?  Yet everything this agent has relayed in the past has proven accurate.  In fact, his information is why this war is stagnating.  You’re an intelligent beast.  Haven’t you ever wondered what keeps us from using our nuclear or biological agents on humanity now that we have contained most of them on one continent?”

“Mutual annihilation has been the reasoning.  Whichever side ‘won,’ would lose in the long run.  So we continue fighting a conventional one.”

General Snaul took a long drink before replying.  “That’s the dribble we feed the public.  We know the humans are defeated and are planning on withdrawing from this world, but not until they can find another viable planet.  Such an undertaking required them to dismantle their nuclear arsenal as the fissionable material is essential for their generation ships.  Same thing with biological agents, they have a more pressing use for their scientific resources.  We responded in kind by dismantling most of our weapons of mass destruction and scaling down any major offensive moves against humans.”

“So we were giving them the opportunity to abandon this place and leaving it to us until we found out about this new biological weapon?” 

“Correct.  Your mission will be to return to Earth, find this toxin, and destroy all records or traces of its existence.  To that end, you will have full discression regarding the other members of your team.  The one thing I must emphasis to you is that for your squad, everything will be on a need to know basis.  As far as they are concerned, your training is for a deep insertion mission with the highest degree of importance.  Just be sure to emphasize that this might become a one-way mission.”
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« Reply #6 on: May 19, 2008, 05:05:21 AM »

CHAPTER SIX
INTRUDERS


Klaxons blared and Major Riven tumbled out of his bunk.  While he crawled across the barracks floor, he listened to the multitude of sirens.  Gunfire erupted in the distance and the sound of a hand-powered laser competed with the sounds of a disturbed military installation.

“Everybody outside, and don’t forget your weapons.”

“Lot of good it’ll do” one voice quipped.  “What are we suppose to do against human guns and lasers when all we have are crossbows and swords?”

Another voice added his observation.  “Makes me want my old shotgun, that thing can gut a hairless monkey at close range.  Even my old pistol would be better than what we have.”

Major Riven led his squad outside where they crawled to the nearest ditch.  He too wanted a more potent weapon against the invading humans, but those weapons had been confiscated two weeks ago.  Now the ferret questioned the wisdom of his actions.

A peek above the rim of the trench showed him a frightening scene.  To the north several building burned.  Searchlights crisscrossed the expansive camp as they searched for the intruders.  Screams of pain and the gunfire indicated whatever intruder had disturbed their slumber were making for their side of the camp, yet their soldiers concentrated on extinguishing the fires rather than finding the humans.

The invaders came into view approximately a hundred yards away when they entered the parade grounds.  Instead of crossing this open field with alacrity, they formed a defensive perimeter around one of their numbers.  None of the invaders made a noise and the laser targeting scopes atop their rifles began scanning the surrounding area.

Twice he joined his squad at the bottom of the trench when he saw the red dots sweep across the field towards his location.  Each time he lifted his head, all he saw was the same scene.  Humans in a defensive circle around one of their numbers kneeling.

On his third attempt at seeing the humans, gunfire erupted.  The crack of a hand-held laser preceded the explosion of a jeep’s engine.  Flames marked where their fellow soldiers died and drew more of their comrades.  When the one soldier stood, everyone made for the far side of the compound, a move that had the humans pass within a dozen yards of his location.

Major Riven slid down the earthen wall and joined his squad.  Before he could speak, a brilliant light turned the night into day.  That light attracted more attention and within seconds the voices of other soldiers filled the night as they continued hunting for the intruders.

First one, than a half dozen flashlight beams stabbed into the trench.  Raising their paws in surrender, Major Riven commanded his squad to stand.  One tall cougar wearing the shoulder patch of a lieutenant growled into his radio while his weapon remained fixed on the six ferrets.  A quick salute and the cougar’s paw pointing in the direction the humans ran had the other soldiers moving off in that direction, leaving the six ferrets in darkness.

“Alright everyone, the fun’s over” Major Riven announced.  “Best everyone try getting some sleep before morning; I have a feeling it will be a busy day tomorrow.”

Over the following days, the human intrusion became nothing more than old news.  Soldiers that were involved embellished the story.  Instead of spies breaking into a high security hanger, it became a full scaled invasion repulsed by one morph.  That morph kept changing dependent on whose version one overheard.

For Major Riven, it was an unexpected diversion to his training routine.  However, when morning came, that habitual course returned.  His unit did their exercises and continued practicing with their wooden swords.  Instead of a rifle range, his units used crossbows and longbows. 

A full week passed and nothing disturbed their schedule.  When a courier requested the Major’s presence at a staff meeting, the ferret’s hackles twitched.  As he departed the practice field, his last words were to order his squad to take a rest until his return.

Like he did earlier, he climbed into a jeep with a military driver.  Again they drove to town and across the pontoon bridge.  This time, the driver turned off the main thoroughfare.  Their route became a spine jarring one as they bounded over the rubble left from earlier attacks.

Their destination became a five-story building that was missing two floors on the northern side.  Instead of a billboard proclaiming this as some high-rise corporate building, two flags hung limp in the still air.  A series of antiaircraft lasers and an array of antennae were the only indication that this building had a special purpose.

Military guards saluted from their guard posts as the Major entered the building.  Following a series of steps down to the subbasement, the Major faced another security detail.  Once past them, he grabbed an electric cart and drove to his final destination.

Seated around a large conference table were officers with far more rank than him.  As he saluted the superior officers, one pointed to the last empty chair at the far end of the table.  For the next half hour, Major Riven heard more drivel on such things as logistics and ball bearing production than he cared to know.  Then with an abruptness that caught him ill-prepared, the ranking officer, a wildcat wearing the insignia of Chief, addressed him.

“Tell me what ‘the Five’ means, Major.”

“The Five refers to the five species taken by humanity to this world.  Ferrets were taken for their agility within the ship’s confined areas.  Otters came because they didn’t become disoriented in space outside the confines of the ship.  Dogs were included based on their breed adaptability and their loyalty.  Cougars were deemed to be the best mix of strength and agility, and finally, rats had the highest level of intelligence.”

A female rat rose from her seat and after receiving the Chief’s silent approval, began her briefing.  “The humans came to this world with a race bank that had several million distinctive genetic variants.  Each morph race contains less than one hundred.  This new wormhole technology allows us a chance of adding the genetic material we desperately need to remain viable.  Without such an infusion, the morphs will die as a species.”

Then the rat polished her glasses as she concluded her report.  The somber tone of her voice sounded like a judge rendering a verdict.  “We are already experiencing this with the wildcats as they had the fewest distinctive genetic variants.  There has been a radical increase in birth defects and infant mortality over the last six months.  Our projections have them going into a depopulation spiral within fifteen years.  Without a new genetic infusion, they could become extinct in fifty years.  Dogs will be next, followed by the otters, ferrets, and finally, the rats.  In less than two hundred years, morphs will cease to exist.  Our most optimistic scientists peg our extinction at three hundred years.”

The wildcat officer growled out his words.  “If the humans retrieve this weapon, the Five will be exterminated in a month.  We have no means of destroying humanity within the next thirty days that would leave our world viable, so we must stop them.  Based on past human behavior, all Morphs will suffer the same fate.  Humans will see this weapon as a means of reclaiming Earth.”

At this point, General Snaul rose.  “Let’s forget about the long-term implications for the present, Chief.  Until Major Riven eliminates this biological weapon, plans for revitalizing our five races must wait.”

General Snaul opened a folder sitting before him and started reading.  “According to our agent, the humans intend moving their departure date to today.  We believe this to be accurate as the lunar bases launched a major offensive against our space station within the last hour that required our immediate response.  On my authority, I ordered six fighters held back just in case the human agent told us the truth.  If they do try running for the wormhole, our forces can be in a position to intercept them.”

An otter wearing the insignia of the space armada Admiral cleared his throat and waited until the Chief recognized him.  “Our space station has responded to the human’s threat and we are optimistic of victory.  What worries me is this Earth mission.  The earliest date we can launch is in four or five days.  It will take that long installing the necessary equipment.”

The Chief shifted his focus to the ferret.  “Prepare for departure, Major Riven.  The fate of every Morph species of two worlds now lies in your paws.”
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« Reply #7 on: May 21, 2008, 05:38:59 AM »

CHAPTER SEVEN
DESTINATION - EARTH



“T-minus ten minutes and counting.”

Major Riven tried being confident, but having a dozen otters tightening enough belts to keep him wedged into his chair didn’t help.  When one tech asked if anything could move, he mentioned his eyelids.  The tech must have missed the humor as he said something about having no restraints for that part of the body when he sealed the visor to the ferret’s helmet.

As the last tech started out of the hatch, he hesitated by the door, verifying that he was the last one departing the rocket.  He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a computer data stick and stuck the item under one belt.  Though the otter seemed pleased with his accomplishment, the data stick turned into a blunt knife digging into Major Riven’s shoulder.  “General Snaul’s orders are to use this once you reach orbit.”

“T-minus eight minutes and counting.”

From his position in the copilot’s seat, Major Riven leaned forward and with his tongue, flicked a toggle switch within his sealed helmet.  For a moment, his headphones filled with static as the elastic bands about his head slammed him back.  Then he heard a few members of his squad muttering prayers as the voice activated intercom became active.

“Okay, listen up everyone.  I lied to you.  We are not going on a covert mission deep in Primus.  In fact, the human continent isn’t in any danger from us.  We are going to be the first Morphs returning to our planet of origin.  Our mission is to find and destroy an ancient human laboratory before those furless monkeys can get there.”

“T-minus two minutes and counting.”

“We have no idea if our space fighters destroyed their ship or if it made it to Earth.  If we were successful, this should be an easy mission.  If the humans survived, we might have to do a lot of running as they have a four day lead on us.”

Nobody replied as the mission controller began counting down the last few seconds.  When the count reached zero, their ship rattled so hard that anything loose within the command module became shrapnel pinging off the walls.  The next sensation the morph crew felt was acceleration.  As the rocket gained speed, the otter pilot let out a whoop of joy.

All too soon the sensation ended as the ship achieved orbit.  Releasing his belt, the Major retrieved the data stick and inserted it into the computer.  Though much of the information displayed had no meaning to him, the otter pilot understood what the initial stage entailed.  His low groan didn’t encourage a feeling of confidence.

“It seems we’re going to be flying through Sector Five, an area seeded with automated stealth defenses.”  The otter broadcasted to the others.  “However, our kits back in the labs have an idea how we can get through.”

“Would be nice if they came out here and tried it first” one unidentified squad member quipped.  When the laughter stopped, the otter continued his briefing.

“We are equipped with ‘lightning bug’ missiles that will each become four beacons generating two light bursts one second apart.  Since the light will be beyond the minefield, the lab techs figure our computer sensors will see the shadows of any stealth weapons between them and us.  Once located, our weapons system will transfer targeting data.”  And here the otter gave a less than enthusiastic endorsement.  “Then we just blast our way through.”

At this point the otter hit several controls and the ship started spinning.  When Major Riven mentioned the word “hurling,” the otter told him to face aft.  Doing that eliminated the vertigo as the ship looked stationary.  Only the sensation of an actual up and down let the rational side of the ferret’s mind know they continued spinning.

While the pilot handled the controls, Major Riven reviewed the information given him just before liftoff.  Though the humans used wormholes extensively over the last few years, no Morph scientist knew of its principles or its practical application.  They were relying on data stolen by some unknown agent working against his own species.

The pilot’s voice intruded on everyone’s solitude.  “Looks like the eggheads came up with a winner.  We’re through the sector and are now initiating the wormhole and bubble machine.  And here’s another example of monkey arrogance for you.  The lunar base never launched an interceptor.  So we have smooth sailing.”

“Captain,” interrupted the Major, “set your radio for burst reception on frequency Alpha, Tango, two, eight, zero and query frequency at Alpha, Tango, two, eight, eight.  If the humans made it through, our agent will contact us.”

Entering the wormhole was simplicity, the two day voyage, boring.  The exit proved to be nothing like the scientist expected.  The one thing saving the Morph crew was the fact they all returned to their seats before the exit.

“Somebody gave us a bad number” screamed the pilot.  “We’re supposed to be outside the moon’s orbital path, not just outside Earth’s.  Hang on everyone; this is going to be a hot entry.  It’s a good thing you have old Jake piloting this bucket; I’ve done this many a time evading the monkeys.”

If the launch gave everyone bruises from the shaking, the reentry made that feel like a mother’s nuzzle.  Temperatures within the craft soared and everyone’s tongue hung out limp while alarm klaxons shrieked a warbling call.  Sections of the hull turned a deep orange and in spots the color approached a fiery red.  Loose material burst into flames whenever it made contact with the hull.  Smoke started filling the cabin and several members of the squad began beating out ciders that threatened setting their fur afire.

As fast as the sirens started, they stopped.  Now the sound of the air conditioner whirling at top speed competed with that of the wind outside their ship.  Several more seconds passed and the ship made contact with the ground.  When they stopped moving, the sound of pinging could be heard all along the hull.”

“Where are we?”

“If the old maps are right, we’re in Antarctica.  Let old Jake here activate our stealth generator just in case those monkeys are searching for us through this blizzard.”

Major Riven’s voice went up several octaves.  “That’s nowhere near where we have to be!”

“Listen, Major, my orders were quite clear.  Make sure you get there undetected.  Right now the local time is noon.  Old Jake will get you where you want to be in another twelve hours.  In the meantime, I suggest you check out the radio logs.  You have two messages from your monkey agent.”
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« Reply #8 on: May 23, 2008, 05:17:06 AM »

CHAPTER EIGHT
BACK TO THE HUMANS


Lieutenant Sinks did a slow stretch.  Standing up, she surveyed their camp, relieved that their first night on Earth passed without incident.  Moving to a nearby stream, she deactivated her suit and resumed her human form.  A quick scrub of her face and she felt refreshed.  She turned back to camp feeling clean and ready for another march.

“Learn doing that with the projectors working.”

The lady glanced over to her left, spotting a male wolf leaning against a tree.  She then noted the golden orbs and her voice took on a hard note.  “Our automated guards would have detected any life form within half a click, so I committed no breach of security.”

“Why such hostility?  We’re on the same side.”  The intelligence officer deactivated his holographic projector as he jogged alongside the miffed naval officer.

The lady moved down the path back to camp ignoring the intelligence officer but got irritated by his close proximity.  “I don’t like manufactured freaks.  Your kind has replaced too many humans and we haven’t gotten anything back.  I had a high number of tube warriors on every mission I ever did.  All bred to be exceptional fighters and none of them met expectations.  In fact, every one of them became morph chowder during their first real fight because they didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘retreat.’  They were nothing but idiots.”

“And yet I can tell you so much.  For instance, doesn’t it seem odd that this lab is supposedly near the old city west of the mountains and yet we are on the eastern side?  I could tell you why our Captain is avoiding the city.”

“No need to do that Lieutenant Spellon.”  The Captain met both of them as they returned to camp.  “The morphs exploded a nuclear bomb in Puget Sound about six months after the Great Exodus.  Like many morph and human cities that existed prior to our departure, the region remains hot even to this day.  Fortunately, our target is nowhere near the radiation zone.”

“I have been given a great deal of material regarding Earth after our departure.  At least everything transmitted via tight-beam while we were within five light years.  I haven’t located any laboratory near the city, unless we go past White Horse.  So how do we find this secret base?”

“That information is classified as need-to-know” growled the Captain.

“And if you die, how do we complete the mission” inquired Sinks.

Purser first laughed, and then saw the serious expression on the woman’s face.  “Okay, here’s how we do it.  Earlier probes located an orb in this vicinity.  If we can access it and upload the message code, the point of origin will be displayed.  If it isn’t there, the mission is a failure as we cannot search an entire continent for a hidden base.”

“Begging the Captain’s pardon, why not just access the database from space?”

The intelligence officer interrupted his commander.  “Over time, the actual storage sites have become cluttered.  Without an old input module that can filter out the chaff and find what we want, we could cause a system crash.  As foolish as it may sound, we never took the specifications for the orbital database interfaces as we never expected coming back to Earth.  Having orbs was considered an unnecessary redundancy because of the ship’s computer and its multiple backup systems.  That’s why we need one that is local.”

The Captain revealed why they landed near the radioactive city.  “Our initial probes detected the emission signatures of an orb in this region, but couldn’t pinpoint the exact location.  Unfortunately, the orb has not been used in the last six months or our scanners would know its location.  We need to contact the locals and make very discrete inquiries.  If we can access it for just a few seconds, we’ll have the information we need.”

By this time, the three officers returned to their campsite.  The soldiers continued packing their gear and preparing for departure.  All had deactivated their morph controls.

Spellon leaned over and whispered something to their commanding officer.  Captain Purser in turn nodded just before he called everyone together.  The Captain then proceeded chewing out everyone, himself included, for their failure at maintaining their holographic projections.  A quick tap to the wrist and the human campsite filled with wolves.

“From this point on, we will maintain our holographic disguises.  Exchange old batteries with those undergoing solar recharging each morning.  We cannot afford being taken by surprise.  For all we know, humanity could be considered a legendary creature or it could be the very personification of good or evil.  Let’s try blending in with the locals until we know more.”

Over the next three days the squad made good progress.  As the sun reached its peak on the fourth day, the humans attained the summit of a hill overlooking a wide valley.  For the first time, signs of habitation were spotted.

Along an east to west track stood a wide road.  Where a river intersected it, the humans observed a collection of buildings.  One such building had a pier and even from their distance, the naked eye detected rafts.  The nearest building to the road towered above the others in both height and size and generated a great deal of foot traffic.  Cultivated fields surrounded the immediate vicinity and were surrounded by virgin forest, which hinted that the population didn’t extend beyond the collection of buildings.

Opening a pair of spy binoculars, the Major started scanning the scene.  Whenever he spotted something interesting, he pressed a trigger and recorded the image.  Lieutenant Sinks used a spotter scope and together they assessed the morph community.

The squad retraced their steps until the valley became hidden once more.  All gathered around the computer terminal as they made a careful examination of the data chip.  Hedgehogs were spotted, which surprised everyone since that species was native to Europe.  Learning that another eight wolves were below gave them confidence that their presence would not cause too many problems.  A few final adjustments to the projectors and everyone acknowledged their readiness.

They exited the woods just south of the settlement.  To their right several hedgehogs moved through cultivated rows of vegetables, weeding.  A glance to the left revealed a contingent of younger hedgehogs scrubbing away at sheets while elderly females hung them on a long rope line.  None of the morphs so much as gave the wolves more than a quick glance before returning to their chores.

Once they reached the front of the settlement’s largest building, the disguised humans discovered that the written language was English as they could read the large marquee sign hanging above the main door.  In bold letters it proclaimed the place a traveler’s lodge.  A smaller sign by the entryway offered bedding, lodging and meals.

The bat doors parted with a slight push and the group surveyed the common room.  On their right sat an old female hedgehog in front of a rack of keys and a large book.  Sitting next to her, several younger males gave the wolves an expectant look, but did not leave their stools.

In a low voice Captain Purser suggested they move into the common room as they were attracting a lot of notice by blocking the doors.  Everyone followed the Captain’s lead and entered the large room.  They kept their movements slow, but each member kept alert, their eyes evaluating every creature for hostile intents.  Their presence drew nothing more than casual glances from the other morph species. 

Far to the rear they found a table that gave everyone a solid back and a good view of the bustling common room.  Hands remained close to concealed weapons and eyes continued checking out the many morph species.  The Captain noticed the long bar and detected the odor of cooked foods beyond the closed door.

The eight wolves he spotted earlier sat on the opposite side of the common room.  With half their number female, the table consisted of four pairs who seemed more interested in each other than in anyone else in the room.  Occasionally the wolves would eye them, but soon returned to their food, drink, and snuggling. 

From behind the bar a male hedgehog moved towards the other wolves carrying a large serving tray.  He placed the food and drinks onto the table and commented to the eight before removing the empties.  Then he worked his way from one table to another, always saying something to one or another of the morphs.  At last he came to their table.

Standing before them was a hedgehog that came no higher than the chest of their smallest member.  His white apron had several food stains on it and the fellow made no attempt at hiding the dirty garment.  Unlike the other hedgehogs, this male had his trimmed his quills close to his fur.  He moved before Lieutenant Minnows and gave a slight bow.

“Have I the honor of addressing the Alpha?”

The Captain, who sat to the left of the huge wolf, gave a snort.  “If you mean which of us is the leader; that would be me.”

“Do forgive my mistake, sir.  I am Cairn Destop, your host.  Our clan owns this settlement and we do everything possible accommodating guests and encouraging trade with other communities.  Can I offer you food or drink?  All provided at a reasonable price.”  The fellow remained standing before their table awaiting some comment from the Captain.

Purser reached into an outer pocket of his discarded backpack.  “We have traveled a long distance and will need a place to rest.  I hope you can accept this in trade as payment.”  The Captain dropped two silver disks on the table.

Cairn’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets when he saw the two disks.  Picking up one, he gave a sharp whistle.  “For this much silver, your pack can have a private lodge and food for a month.  If you leave earlier, I will give you fair value for what has not been used, provided this proves to be as pure as it looks.”

Seeing the fellow’s expression had Lieutenant Spellon interject.  “What you see has to last us until we return.  Yours is the first establishment we visited since leaving home and we had no way of exchanging that silver for smaller denominations before our departure.”

“Quite understandable, good sirs as these two coins take far less space than a half dozen purses filled with smaller ones.”  With much bowing, the hedgehog retreated with the one disk.  “I shall send another who will take you to your cabin.  Later I’ll provide you with a proper purse, less payment for your meal and a week’s lodging.”  The way he raised his voice implied some anticipated response.

“We’ll trust to your honesty.”  Lieutenant Minnows then leaned over the table.  “I would advise you not to betray it over such a trivial matter as to an exchange rate for our coin.  We might be far from our homeland, but we do have an eye for value and know well how much that coin you hold is worth.”

Ceasing his bowing, the hedgehog retreated into the kitchen.  A few moments later, a female came to their table with a tray overflowing with meat, vegetables and tankards of a dark brew.  Mimicking the manners of the other patrons, the humans grabbed whatever they wanted and began eating.  They finished their sumptuous meal with a drink that contained no alcohol made from some unknown fruit spiked with honey.

The next hedgehog that approached their table was a petite female who was shorter than the tabletop.  She latched onto the garment of one private and gave a gentle tug.  Stepping back far enough that she could make eye contact with the Captain, she did a deep curtsy and pointed to the front door.

Everyone rose as one and the youngster retreated to a point several paces away.  As the human wolves moved towards her, the child scampered ahead of them, but always stopped to check and see if they followed.  Once outside, she almost ran to a building across the road where she grabbed the latch and pushed the door open.

The humans inspected the cabin while the hogget stood by the door.  When one of the humans dropped his backpack along a back wall, the girl rushed through the door and began explaining the amenities of the place.  Having recited what she must have memorized before leading them to this cabin, the girl made a hasty retreat, leaving only the key behind.

“Good thing that holographic garment didn’t tear when that furry pulled it” one private groused.  “If she had tapped my leg as hard as she pulled my belt, she would have patted my holstered pistol.  Thing would have blasted a hole in her chest as big as my fist.”

Captain Purser didn’t hide the anger in his voice as he screamed into the private’s face.  “Next time, make sure your weapon’s safety is engaged and that it isn’t accessible to any inadvertent contact.  These animals are at a feudal level of technology and have no concept what a pistol could do.  Let’s not educate them except as a last resort.” 

The Captain surveyed their quarters one more time as everyone laid out their sleeping rolls.  “We should spend what remains of the day checking out the area.  Maybe we can learn a few things.  I’ll stay here as that proprietor said he would return ‘with a proper purse.’  Think I may have used too big a coin, just glad I didn’t use the gold one.”

All laughed as they recalled the proprietor’s expression when he saw the silver disks.  That laughter was interrupted by a sharp knock.  Stepping through the door carrying seven bags that hung on drawstrings wrapped about his paws was the aforementioned proprietor.  Placing them on the central table, he dumped each out and explained the value of the different beads.  When the Captain didn’t object to what was placed on the table, Cairn offered a hasty farewell and left the human wolves alone.
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« Reply #9 on: May 26, 2008, 05:18:33 AM »

CHAPTER NINE
DISCOVERY


“Has anyone seen Sink or Spellon?”  There was no mistaking the Captain’s concern.

Captain Purser checked outside one more time.  Across the road he could see the proprietor lighting several lanterns hanging from the Inn’s porch awning.  Another member of the Destop clan carried a ladder down the road and stopped at each pole he passed.  Every lamp he lit illuminated the nearby road and formed a lighted path passing through the central part of the settlement.

As the unknown hedgehog proceeded to the next pole, the Captain spotted a wolf coming down the road.  When the human wolf drew nearer, he noted the feminine features.  Before the Captain could say anything, Lieutenant Sink reported her findings.

“Three armed guards are patrolling the warehouse and wharf area.  Other business establishments are locked and the settlement has two more guards patrolling the main road.  Those two high towers we spotted earlier today each have a crude, but very effective searchlight.  One of the spine-backs said otters familiar with this area of the river use the towers as navigational markers so they can avoid rocks if they sail past here at night.  When I suggested hostiles, the fellow rattled his quills and mentioned a bandit tribe that ‘had their muzzles shaved’ last time the settlement came under attack.”

“Not too sure how to interpret that evaluation of any nearby enemies, but I have a feeling the area is safe, though these fellows are cautious.  Do you have any idea as to their numbers, Lieutenant?”

“If every mature hedgehog I’ve seen were mustered, I would guess about forty.  I’m certain the older females join them whenever there’s a fight since I saw one in the tower.  You can add another thirty females that are of a fighting age.  Add in the guests protecting their stake in this trading post and the defenders would number close to a hundred.  Even higher if the attack came during a busy time, such as after a harvest.”

Captain Purser nodded as he stepped aside.  Once the female officer entered the cabin, the commander stepped out once more and surveyed the area.  Despite the lamps hung from the Inn and the poles along the main roadway, the surrounding countryside remained dark.  A glance to the sky revealed a multitude of stars and the one moon in its final quarter.

He felt a momentary pang for his home where two moons orbited the world.  The familiar constellations were missing.  No longer could he find the pagoda or the eastern star that formed the dragon’s eye.  Shaking off such thoughts, the human wolf slipped inside and barred the door.

A second later there came the coded knock at the back door.  Nodding his head, one private opened the door while others kept their hands close to their firearms.  When the door was unbarred, a ferret slipped into their mists.  The ferret then transformed itself into a golden eyed wolf.

“Thought it best I slip back into the Inn as a different species, see if anyone were more talkative.  Hope you didn’t mind me using some of those colored beads, but I had to buy a few rounds for our new neighbors.”

“I wondered why I couldn’t spot you outside” growled the captain.  “Lieutenant Sink learned a lot from wandering the waterfront.  The rest of us checked out the shops and have a good idea of their technological development.  What about you, learn anything useful?”

“Their bar is well stocked with ale, bourbon, whiskey, and several locally brewed beers.  Don’t try the bourbon or the whiskey unless you can hold your liquor; its potent stuff they serve here.  Far stronger than anything we have back home.”  This got all but the captain laughing.  “But seriously, I did learn a lot by offering the river otters free drinks.”

“Other than trading posts like this one, there is a clear division among the morphs on this world.  You’ll find settlements dominated by one species and inhabitants distrustful of any creature not of their kind.  Strangers are never trusted, even if they are merchants.”

“Well thank you for a most insightful report.”  There was no hiding the contempt in Sink’s voice.  “At least we did something productive.  All our tubie found out is if he could get drunk on a new world.”

That got Spellon laughing.  He then moved over to his bedroll and prepared for sleep, ignoring the others.  He continued chuckling until the meaty paw of Lieutenant Minnows landed on his shoulder.  One glance at the giant had the smaller man’s giggles cease as if cut with a knife.

“Fine, here’s what else I learned.  There are a number of morph settlements within a four or five day’s walk; some we knew about because of our spy probes.  That castle our probes spotted is occupied by dogs under the rule of an insane collie named Prince.  According to one otter, the real power is in his harem.  A large wolf pack occupies the forest to the east and is led by Allester, a male reputed to be in love with a bat, if that story is true.  The aforementioned bat colony is in the mountains to the west, along with the wolves we saw visiting here.  The two wolf packs distrust each other and come here at different times based on the phases of the moon.  Fortunately we don’t have the ‘pack markings’ of Allester’s wolves or there would be a bloody fight.  Is that sufficiently ‘insightful,’ or would you like something else?”

Before the two officers could initiate anything, the Captain intervened by telling everyone to get some sleep.  He then set the guard rotation just in case somebody tried catching them unawares.  As the Captain settled into his bedroll, the lantern was extinguished.  Quiet settled over the group, which is when their intelligence officer dropped his bombshell.

“Oh, did I mention that I know where there are two orbs in the area?  One is called the Orb of Storms and settlements are always petitioning the high priestess for favorable weather.  The orb is guarded by hares under the command of a cat named Elara who hasn’t let anyone see the orb since its recovery about two or three months back.  Their compound is also undergoing major defensive improvements because of that recent theft.” 

“The high priestess will be leaving the compound in a few days.  It seems she is holding a major summit of leaders at the dog castle.  Nobody has any idea what the topic of discussion is, though some speculate it has something to do with the Wildlands on the other side of the pass guarded by the castle.  One otter claims whenever the high priestess goes somewhere, many of the hare guards attend her.  No doubt as a show of power.”

Lieutenant Minnows’s tone questioned the validity of the information.  “You just walked up to some animal at the bar and said something like, ‘do be a good furry and tell me where you have an orb hidden,’ and they told you?”

“I’m not that big an idiot.”  Lieutenant Sink’s snort contradicted Spellon’s assertion.  “I told then I was journeying west to the ocean.  One asked if I was going to the old human city in search of the reputed orb located in the ruins.  That led to the revelation about the recent theft and recovery of the Orb of Storms.”

“Considering the value of these orbs, wonder why nobody ever found this other one.”  The Captain’s question hung in the room awaiting an answer.

“Radiation poisoning is my guess” answered the intelligence officer.  “According to one otter, walking or sailing on the waters through the ancient city will make you puke, your fur fall out, and your skin erupt in bleeding blisters ‘within a phase of the moon.’  Last creature that entered the city about ten years ago died that way.”

“Alright everyone, our intelligence officer has given us the where, tomorrow we can figure out the how and when.  For now, pipe down and get some sleep.”

With the exception of the guard on duty, everyone muttered a simple good night and in moments, the cabin became quiet as they complied with the Captain’s recommendation.
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« Reply #10 on: May 28, 2008, 05:13:50 AM »

CHAPTER TEN
SUSPICIOUS MIND


A gentle paw shook the slumbering beast.  At first, the creature did not react to the touch, but then he shifted positions and continued snoring.  Again the paw grasped the sleeper by his shoulder and gave a more insistent shake.  This time the snores grew in pitch.  That was when the intruder gave the sleeper a light rap to his muzzle with a knuckled fist.

Stifling a yawn, the previously sleeping beast rose from his cot and took in his surroundings.  Boxes lined the shelves along every wall.  Some of these carried the familiar names of local breweries.  Others held various supplied for the bustling kitchen located on the other side of the open door.

“You always were a difficult one waking from your afternoon nap, Cairn.”

The aforementioned hedgehog nodded.  “I’ll need that extra rest.  After I get the evening lamps hung, I’m going to the Eastern Woods; you’ll have to keep the place running while I’m gone.”

“Better tell Goldenspike.  She’ll want to know why you’re running off when we’re expecting another otter shipment within the next three days.”

Cairn exited the stockroom and walked across the grassy field to another low building.  A pace behind him jogged his brother as he tried keeping near.  When Cairn got inside the building, he did nothing more than grab a backpack and a bedroll sitting in a closet.  As he turned about, he bumped into the trailing hedgehog.

“Listen, Westie, you know I have the family curse of prophecy.  That kept me safe in my youth and also led us here to this spot.  And need I remind you that my dreams some three months back had us on alert when those raiders hit.”

Westie shook his head, the sunglasses he wore slipping down his muzzle.  The white hedgehog stared at his brother for several seconds before hiding his pink eyes behind the protective shades.  Yet he did fall into step with his brother as they returned to the Inn’s service entrance.

“You put too much faith in that ‘curse.’  How many times have you dreamed something and nothing came of it?  I know it has happened enough that even our matriarch has little faith in its power.”

When the two crossed the threshold, Cairn confronted his brother.  “My dream doesn’t involve us, or our clan, but after what happened today, I’ll feel comfortable letting others judge the value of my nightmares.”

“How long should I tell her you will be gone?”

“I’m traveling light so I can cover more ground.  If luck is with me, I’ll be back in five or six days.”

With that, Cairn returned to the common room and began bustling about his duties.  He served drinks at the bar and delivered meals to many of the patrons.  Those who asked for accommodations for the night he sent to the female at the front desk.  For the hedgehog proprietor, the day remained routine.

Shadows grew outside and night began falling.  After serving dinner to the latest arrivals, Cairn excused himself.  Stepping out to the front porch, he lit the lamps that would make their lodge noticeable to anyone traveling by foot down the settlement’s main road.  While he hung the last lamp, he noticed the lone wolf making its way to the cabin across the road.  His nose tested the air, but he could not discern the scent as the wind blew in the wrong direction.

Not wishing to cause any loose talk among his many guests, he entered the inn and meandered through the common room.  At each table he passed a few words before excusing himself.  Once through the kitchen door, Cairn rushed to the back door, retrieved his gear, and circled the building.  The hedgehog kept the traveler’s lodge between him and the wolf’s cabin until there was no chance of them discovering his departure. 

Safe from prying eyes, Cairn made for the settlement’s main road.  Past the edge of town, the road lost the illumination from the many lamps his clan hung high each night.  This didn’t bother the hedgehog as the path remained wide.  By nothing more than the feel of the hard packed dirt beneath his feet, Cairn knew he followed the right road.

After traveling nonstop for two days, the hedgehog left the comfort of the marked path and began building a campfire by the edge of a large forest.  He laid out his bedroll and finished banking the flames so it would burn through the coldest part of the night.  Sleep almost touched him when three wolves materialized around his campsite.

“It seems we have an intruder.”  One wolf growled.

“And a fool who builds a fire bright enough that any pup could find it from a mile away.”  The second wolf did not hide the contempt he felt for the creature they surprised.

“I see no reason why we should let him live.”  The third one snarled.

Cairn stood with caution, keeping his paws away from his side.  “I claim herald’s right.  I seek one from your pack, he who was last known to be Alpha.  If Allester still rules your pack, then my words are for him alone.”
« Last Edit: May 28, 2008, 05:16:01 AM by cairn destop » Logged

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« Reply #11 on: May 30, 2008, 05:37:16 AM »

CHAPTER ELEVEN
A MEETING BETWEEN AQUANTENCES


The first wolf approached.  Though his summer coat didn’t display the bulk of a winter pelt, the beast was an excellent example of his species.  Like all of his kind, the wolf’s shoulder just cleared the hedgehog’s brow.  Seeking to both intimidate and to establish dominance, he twirled his broadsword as if it were an epee in a display of power, its blade whistling through the air less than a finger’s width above the hedgehog’s head. 

The male’s blue-brown eyes flashed indignation at the words spoken and growled in frustration.  “You heard his claim.  Check his gear.  If he has either blade or shaft, I’ll gut him myself.”

The second wolf approached the campsite but did not block his associate’s line of vision.  He then rifled through the hedgehog’s gear, finding nothing more than a few day’s rations of traveler’s food and a bottle of water.  Next he searched the hedgehog, patting down his pockets before checking the camp itself.  Finding the fire making toolkit, he held the knife high so all could see.

When the first wolf took a step forward and raised his blade, the third one jumped between the sword wielding wolf and hedgehog.  “A herald is allowed one blade if it is paired with flint.  He has not violated the Law of Heralds and must be given safe passage through our lands.  Since he named our leader as the one who is to receive his message, we are also obligated to escort him to Allester.”

“I was second in the pack until this spiked-back whelp defeated me in battle.  Now I run the borders like some untrained pup or feebleminded elder.”

Cairn lowered his arms.  “You were drunk, Honech, and wanted to kill a boar that did nothing more than bump into you.  Had I not used my sap, who knows how many others may have died because you couldn’t hold your liquor?  Your disgrace was not at my paws.  Your own stupidity did that.”

It took both of the wolves to keep their companion from attacking the hedgehog.  After several heated exchanges between the three wolves, Honech sheathed his blade.  He retreated to a nearby oak and leaned against it, his eyes still sending daggers at the hedgehog.

“I could claim his quills are shafts.”  Again his paw reached for the blade.

This time the second wolf’s voice carried a note of command that brooked no disobedience.  “Keep your blade in its sheath or you risk your own life when we get back.  The hedgehog can no more eliminate his spikes than an otter can keep out of water.  Leave him be.  We can blindfold him when we lead him to our camp and take him through a stream to destroy his scent.  If others follow, he violates the Law and our Alpha will decide his fate.”

With that, the second wolf approached the hedgehog and tied a rope about one wrist.  He draped Cairn’s cape over his head and cinched it about the hedgehog’s neck.  While he did this, the third wolf gathered the camp gear and doused the flames.  When that was done, they moved.

Cairn followed wherever the rope tugged.  Three times they stopped and spun him about ‘til he almost became too dizzy to walk.  At one point, the hedgehog felt the cold waters of a mountain stream bath his feet and he almost slipped on a mossy log he had to cross.  By the end of their first hour of travel, the hedgehog panted within his cloth hood.

There was no warning.  One moment the hedgehog ran and the next instant a meaty paw slammed him in the chest.  As the hedgehog scrambled to his feet, he felt the rope binding his paw and securing his improvised hood loosened.  Reaching up, he uncovered his head.

He stood within a wide glen surrounded by thick trees.  To both his left and right, Cairn spied several tents just beyond the illumination range of the campfire he faced.  Checking the sky, he could still discern the principle constellations, but they were fading fast with the brightening sky.

The hedgehog had little time for gawking.  The first wolf pushed him forward and Cairn circled the fire.  On the other side, he spotted a tent that was twice the size of the others.  To one side of the entrance was the improvised throne of the pack’s Alpha, a tree stump that was high enough to offer a comfortable place for sitting. 

Out of this tent strolled a wolf that made Honech appear tiny.  The male wolf was in top physical condition and his bulging muscles attested to his power and dominance over the other males gathered nearby.  The dying light cast by the fire emphasized the reddish tones of his fur and caused his emerald eyes to dance with an inner fire.

“I am told you come under Herald’s Rights.  Who sent you?”

“My words are for you, Allester, not your pack.  As to who sent me, better you ask what.”

“Your kind has always valued words above actions and I’ll not play games with you, Cairn.  Thanks to you, we bargained well with that other wolf pack.  They receive a portion of our harvest and we hunted these woods.  If we are to return to our home territories before the summer solstice, as per our agreement, we must leave this land before the moon is full.”

“Then walk with me and hear my words.  I offer no obligation and there is no debt due.”

Allester scratched his ear as he continued staring at the hedgehog.  After a moment of silence, the wolf rose from his seat and strolled to his tent.  Lifting the flap, he pointed at Cairn and the interior.

Inside the tent Cairn could see many comforts.  A large bowl of water and a jug of cider rested on one table while a tray of fresh food sat on another bench.  The entire floor was covered in a thick blanket woven from wool that made the hard ground comfortable, which made sitting opposite the powerful creature a pleasurable experience.

No sooner had the two sat than Cairn launched into the reason for his visit.  “There are those within my clan, such as I, who are cursed with the gift of prophesy.  My dreams have come true enough times that I trust them, though they are not always as clear as a morning sky.”

Allester sipped from the jug his paw snatched when they first sat.  “I’m guessing yours is somehow connected with me?”

Cairn nodded.  “Hear my words and don’t interrupt.  To fulfill my prophecy, you must come to my Inn where you shall become the Omega to six weaker than you who tread an honorable path.  They seek a place where lightning brings death on a clear night and where a field painted red shall speak to them alone.  Their leader will ask much but will tell you nothing, accept it.  A day will come when death stalks a bald hilltop that shall be crowned in fire, hunt for water where the sinister lies and follow it to the first pyre, from there the path is chosen by another.  As you travel, seek the stone serpents, for it points to where the trail ends.  Look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed.”

As Cairn finished his recitation, Allester laughed.  “For this I am to abandon my pack and follow you?  The rambling words of a dream?  I think not.  In another two weeks our pack will leave this place and we will rejoin the females who are farming our home fields.”

“Three nights straight I had this same dream.  The last time a voice said I must deliver it now or all was lost.”

The Alpha continued laughing.  “I need more.  Convince me that your dream is worth abandoning my pack for who knows how long.”

Having no other idea of how he could convince the wolf, Cairn began relating the strange happenings at his Inn the day of his departure.  He told Allester about the wolves that came and how their Alpha was not a male that rivaled him, but one much weaker.  He described the coin he received in payment and how the others knew nothing of its value.

“These wolves were true predators.  They moved as if they were prepared for battle when they walked through my Inn.  They sat in a corner that protected their backs and all faced outward.  But what worried me the most were their eyes.  Each of them filled with far too much mistrust.”

“And you said they ignored the Mountain Pack’s females; even though they were at the height of heat?”

A nodding head confirmed the validity of the facts noted in Allester’s question.  Standing up, the wolf turned his back on his guest and moved to the tent’s entrance.  Poking his head outside, he spoke with another for several moments before returning to his place.

Now the wolf acted like a genial host, pushing the many delicacies towards the hedgehog.  Conversations switched from the present to memories of their first meeting and the many trading sessions since the settlement’s construction.  Stories flowed like the tides as they continued late into the day. 

Such fun did they have that Cairn forgot the time until the tent began filling with the shadows of evening.  A rustling sound came to the hedgehog’s ears and he watched a younger male deliver a wine skin.  He poured a generous portion to Cairn and offered him the flagon filled to its brim.  Then the unknown male poured for the Alpha before departing.

Allester smiled as Cairn drained his vessel, but never touched his own.  “Your cup has a mild poison in it.”  Seeing the hedgehog’s eyes widen, he tried soothing his guest.  “Our location must remain secret as raiders could steal all that we have stored.  No matter how much I trust you, the risk is too great.  The potion you drank will put you in a deep sleep.  Come morning, you’ll be at your old campsite and I’ll be there with you.  Then we shall learn the power of dreams.”
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« Reply #12 on: June 02, 2008, 05:11:22 AM »

CHAPTER TWELVE
THE ORB OF STORMS


Back at the Inn, the first night had come to its conclusion.  After Captain Purser checked the perimeter, he watched as each squad member replaced their battery.  The old one was then connected to the solar panel wiring sewn into their backpacks.  By the end of the day he knew the exhausted battery would be fully charged.

The human wolf stood by the open door and watched the settlement awaken.  Already the spring sun hung halfway above the horizon, bathing the area in a golden glow that did not have the strength yet to dispel the night’s chill.  The only other inhabitant stirring at this early hour was an old hedgehog ambling down the road carrying a long handled snuffer that he used to extinguish the now useless lamps.

He observed another hedgehog remove the hanging lanterns from the Inn’s porch.  Then that female began a methodical sweeping of the wooden planks.  She looked up and must have spotted the captain as she lifted her broom handle and used it like a soldier saluting an officer with his sword.  That drew an instinctive reaction from the human and he snapped off a sharp salute in response. 

Returning to the others, the captain snagged one of the purses and everyone made their way across the road.  One soldier whispered that he saw a raft moving south while another noted that several otters were leaving the cabin on their right, but moving towards the river.  Another reported seeing “some animal” climbing down from the nearest watchtower. 

By the time the human wolves reached the stone path leading to the Inn, the squad had a quick briefing of the early morning activities.  Since none were threatening, the humans began relaxing.  As they drew nearer, the female ceased her cleaning and gave the pack a quick bow before raising her muzzle until it pointed at the roof.

“We show a bared throat to our honored wolf guests.”

Everyone froze at the strange greeting until Sinks replied.  “And we greet you with lips uncurled.”  When the hedgehog lowered her muzzle, Sinks spoke again.  “We intend leaving today as there is much ground to cover, but are hoping for a hearty meal before then.  Your kitchen is open?”

At that point the female hedgehog propped her broom against the wall and ushered the wolves inside.  Like a mother hen with her brood, the lady herded the wolves to the same booth they occupied the previous day.  After much bowing and many promises of an excellent meal, she disappeared through the back door.  Seconds later she darted out and streaked through the room to the main entrance.

Alone for a moment, the captain leaned closer to the female wolf.  “Where did you ever learn that, Lieutenant Sinks?”

“Many of my missions had me listening in on morphs conversing.  That greeting sounded a lot like the one I heard the wildcats and dogs use back home.  I’m just hoping my reply wasn’t too different from the one used by the local wolf packs.”

Nobody had a chance at any follow-up questions as a male hedgehog wearing dark lenses ambled out the back door carrying a large serving tray.  Marching up to his guests, he placed the food in the middle of the table and stepped back.  There was an awkward pause as he faced each wolf in turn.  As the silence grew, the fellow began wringing his paws on the towel he carried.

“Is there more you want, hedgehog?”  Lieutenant Minnows inquired of the fellow.

Now the fellow’s expression beamed.  “I await your order for refreshments.”  This was then followed by a long listing of various drinks.  The hedgehog would describe each as having a “wonderful” aroma or taste.  When the guy mentioned coffee, everyone asked for a cup, which sent the white-furred hedgehog running back the way he came.

As the human pack ate and drank, they kept an eye on the empty room.  They were halfway done when a contingent of otters entered.  Judging by their laughter, all were in a jovial mood.  Once more the male hedgehog exited the back and after an exchange of comments, returned to the back.

By the time the humans had finished with their meal, half the common room tables were occupied.  Instead of the one male hedgehog, four ran between their guests and the kitchen.  The lone female kept herding the newer guests to open tables while she cleaned those abandoned by satisfied customers.

A quick inquiry regarding the bill and the male who served them quoted a price.  Opening the purse, the captain counted out a number of the beads and added another two to the pile he pushed at the hedgehog.  His wide smile told them the tip had been most generous as he swept the beads into a pouch hanging on his hip.

Once outside, the humans jogged across the road and sprawled across the open porch by the main entrance of their cabin.  They had no sooner settled than the young female from the previous day ambled up the path to their door.  Across one shoulder she carried a broom and in her paw she carried a bucket of water.

“We will be leaving soon, child.  Come back when we’re gone.”  Captain Purser breathed a sigh of relief after the hogget retreated.  When she was beyond range, the captain motioned for the three officers to join him inside.

There were no preliminaries from the captain.  “Okay, tell us about this Orb of Storms.”

Spellon then described the orb and its function on this world.  He repeated his earlier report about the location going through modifications because of a recent theft.  Then he finished his report by informing the others about the guards and their leader.

“It’s not much to go on, Lieutenant.  You learned nothing about its location or the distance away.  We don’t know how many guards or the number of other workers within the facility.  Think it’s time I call our ship.”

The captain retrieved his backpack that another squad member moved outside.  He rummaged through the gear until he found the communicator.  Seeing the familiar box had the man smile as he remembered how much he missed talking with family and friends.  Suppressing that gloomy thought, he contacted the ship for a status report.

There was a short delay as the communication signal bounced off their spy satellite to their shuttle.  “Looks like the morphs have no idea how to use a wormhole, Captain.  Three nights ago they exited too close to the gravitational pull of the planet and went in on a steep angle.  We were cloaked outside lunar orbit at the time, hoping we could surprise them with a missile up their exhaust.  Their ineptness saved them from us, but our computer projections have those fur balls crashing in the ocean a hundred miles north of Antarctica.  I’ll try running scans for debris, but it will take another day reaching Earth orbit.”

“Transmit all spy satellite images and data of our area taken over the last three days.  Give a range of two hundred miles north of our initial landing zone.”

Using their portable computer, they downloaded all the data and began sorting through it.  The program located the castle without any problem as that had been spotted during earlier surveys.  Focusing on the vicinity, they noted movement of several nighttime fires.

Next the Captain inquired about their settlement and the computer pinpointed their last transmission site on a section of the river.  Another search located several areas of current construction.  After enhancing a few, Captain Purser located one that didn’t show the building of storage or housing units.

“We have our target gentlemen.”

The communicator chose that moment to begin beeping an urgent tone.  The Captain cursed his stupidity for not shifting incoming calls to his hidden headphone when he reactivated the device.  He listened to the urgent voice of the person in orbit before he ended the call.

“It seems the Morphs were lucky.  A photo taken of the southeastern coast this morning shows a ‘shadow’ moving north and west against the winds.  No doubt it’s their ship flying in stealth mode.  I expect they touched down somewhere isolated before sunup and will make for our landing site.  From there, they’ll try tracking us.  Gentlemen, the race has begun.”

* * *

Water cascaded over Cairn’s head.  Sputtering as he tried blocking the waterfall with his paws, the hedgehog gazed up at the source of the drenching.  Located almost a full meter above his head was an upturned canteen and a meter above that was the grinning face of a wolf he knew all too well.

“Very funny, Allester.  I suppose giving me a light shake after that drug-induced sleep wasn’t practical?”

“It was too good an opportunity to give a little payback.”  Allester continued laughing as the hedgehog stood up and began packing his gear.  “Anyway, I did try nudging you with my foot, but you just kept on drowning out the crickets.  So I decided to drown out the source of the disturbance.”

Grabbing his backpack, the hedgehog pointed down the road and the two started the return journey to the Inn.
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« Reply #13 on: June 04, 2008, 04:43:14 AM »

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
AN HONORABLE PATH


By following a more direct route instead of the road, Allester and Cairn shaved a day off the time it took getting back.  As they entered the settlement, a female hedgehog hurried up to them.  When she reached the two travelers, she voiced a greeting to the wolf and then turned to Cairn.

“Cousin, that wolf pack you told me to watch left around noon the very next day.  They bought a lot of supplies before catching the ferry across the river.  Old Fester said those wolves were on the main road going west.”

Cairn nodded his head and the female continued her report.  “We also did as you suggested and kept alert for strangers.  Yesterday, six ferrets came here.  They arrived at different times, but I’m sure they’re together.  They all had the same strange accent and used copper coins instead of copper beads.  All they have done is wander about the place asking strange questions.”

“Have others inform these strangers that somebody needs to speak with them at noon; then prepare the private meeting room.  Tell Goldenspike of my return and that there is no danger.  Allester and I will handle these ferrets.”

The female continued describing the oddities of both the wolves and their latest guests as they walked through the settlement, which the wolf ignored.  Allester’s nose twitched as he caught the odor of the Mountain Wolf Pack.  For a moment, he scented a female in heat.  Shaking his head, the wolf tried focusing on the chattering lady hedgehog as they continued to a nearby cabin.

Inside the cabin, the two dropped their gear.  A quick wash and hearty breakfast were followed with a restful nap.  When a young hogget shook them, the once weary travelers greeted each other with chipper voices. 

Another quick walk across the compound brought them to another cabin.  Unlike their previous quarters, this one had nothing more than a huge table in the center of the one-room structure.  The front and back each had a large fireplace that remained unlit.  Light came into the place from windows along the side and from the roof panels that somebody opened prior to their arrival.  A gentle breeze kept the room at a comfortable temperature.

As Cairn and Allester stood at one end of the oaken table, the door to their left opened.  In stepped a ferret of medium build.  He eyed the two and remained wary, but when the hedgehog pointed at one of the table’s chairs, drew closer.  The ferret had not gotten halfway to the table when the door opened again, admitting another ferret. 

In quick order the table became occupied by a total of six ferrets.  Three sat on one side and three on the other.  None spoke as they stared first at each other and then at the two creatures standing.  When the wolf moved down to the opposite end, every eye followed him and continued to do so even after he sat.

Cairn broke the silence.  “Good ferrets, I don’t know who you are, but I do know why you are here.  For some reason, you are tracking a pack of wolves that left this settlement four days ago.”

“Innkeeper,” one ferret said, “I have never met these other ferrets or know anything about the wolves you speak of.”

Using the sap he kept in his pocket, Cairn banged the bag of lead pellets on the table.  That got every ferret’s attention.  “Now is not the time for lies!  I have brought you an ally, somebody who is an expert tracker and is familiar with this region.  Decide if you wish to continue your deception or if you will accept Allester’s help.  Our clan will provide whatever you need at a reasonable price, but I expect no troubles here and I prefer you depart before the sun gets too low.”

The hedgehog turned to one of the doors and stomped across the room.  He then flung the door open and stepped beyond the threshold.  When the door banged shut, the room returned to an eerie silence.  Nobody spoke as they stared at each other.

The nearest ferret sitting on Allester’s left gave a quick sigh.  “Testy fellow isn’t he?”

“Hedgehogs can be that way.”  Allester growled.  “Thing is, this settlement is too valuable.  Every species in this area mistrusts every other species, which makes trading difficult.  No village wants strangers seeing how poor or rich they are.  We each fear an attack from our neighbors over land, food, or some other treasure.  This is a neutral site where deals can be enacted and goods exchanged without endangering ourselves.  For example, my pack will be here in another month to consummate a deal with the Mountain Wolf Pack for using their hunting grounds.  Without the hedgehogs negotiating an equitable trade, next winter could prove disastrous for both our packs.”

The ferret rose and stood there staring in space for several seconds.  He then gazed at each of the ferrets seated before turning towards the wolf.  Clearing his throat, the ferret began shaking his head as he took his seat.  Again the silence stretched.  Then the fellow turned to Allester.

“The hedgehog is right; we have been tracking those wolves over a great distance.  We have been given the duty of stopping them, at all costs.”

“So the hedgehog was right, these wolves are either well-organized bandits or a disciplined squad of soldiers.”  Allester glared at the ferret, challenging him to deny his logical reasoning.

“I can neither confirm nor deny.  All I will tell you is that if we fail, many will die.”

Allester began laughing.  The sound caught the others by surprise and each of the ferrets displayed an expression of utter confusion.  Seeing their faces made the wolf laugh even harder.  Eventually, his laughter ended and the wolf extended his paw to the ferret who had spoken.

“Command me and I shall obey your orders.  Cairn claims that he saw you in a dream and said you were ‘on an honorable path.’  After listening to you, I see he was telling the truth.  You are hiding something, but not the purpose of your quest.  So, on my oath, I shall speak to none anything I hear from this moment forward.”

The ferret looked at the massive paw and placed his atop the open palm.  A brief shake was all it took.  Allester rose and motioned the ferret into his seat and then took the one vacated by the fellow. 

Over the next hour, Major Riven introduced his squad and questioned the wolf as to where he thought the other wolves were going.  Many times Allester would ask a question and the Major refused answering, but the wolf never pressed for explanations.  When they concluded their talks, they made for the door the hedgehog used earlier.

Outside, they found the aforementioned hedgehog leaning against a tree.  Seeing Allester nod was all the confirmation Cairn needed.  Calling the ferrets over, he led them to one of the stores and spoke with the hedgehog behind the counter.  In moments the seven had selected enough gear for a journey lasting thirty days.  Cairn then led them to the ferry and watched the raft carry them to the far side.

Upon the raft’s return, Cairn raised his paw and waved.  Allester returned the gesture and then trotted to the fore with the ferrets trailing close behind him. 

Old Fester watched the exchange and rattled his quills.  “Yon wolf kept muttering something about ‘dreams being a real tick in the fur.’  Bet he’s about to learn just how uncomfortable that is.”

Cairn just nodded.
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« Reply #14 on: June 06, 2008, 05:26:44 AM »

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
LIGHTNING IN THE DARK


Allester led the six ferrets down the road at a slow pace.  While the ferrets kept to the stone walkway, the wolf kept off the path on one side staring at the ground.  After a hundred paces, they halted and the wolf searched the opposite side, retreating to where he stopped the last time.

This routine continued for the entire day.  By the time Major Riven ordered a halt, they had covered a distance that had the other ferrets upset with the wolf’s continual backtracking.  That had the wolf snarling at the ferrets, but at no time did he respond to any of their verbal attacks.

As they sat about the campfire, Major Riven approached the wolf.  The ferret kept shifting from one foot to another as he stood a distance away from the more powerful beast.  A motion of a huge paw and the wolf patting the nearby log had the ferret’s leader approaching.  For a moment, the two sipped at the coffee they obtained at the settlement, the wolf calling it “excellent” while the ferret compared it to “muddy water.”

“You didn’t come over here to describe the coffee, Major.  You’re wondering why we travel so slowly when your adversaries are slipping away.”

“No, I’m not complaining.  You’re a tracker and we have to check both sides of the road.  I thought you might appreciate it if I told you one of the wolves we chase contacted us.  We now know they are going for the Orb of Storms.”

The tall wolf gave a menacing growl.  “A wolf managed to slip past me?  Impossible!  I would have scented him long before he got in range.  I saw no parchment or stone markers, so how did you get this message?”

Major Riven tried maintaining a calm exterior, but his eyes betrayed his fear as they followed the wolf’s agitated pacing.    “Let me just say we have a way of communicating you don’t know and could never understand.  I can say nothing more.”

Allester began muttering about dreams and how he would “cause mayhem on a certain hedgehog.”  Taking a deep breath, the wolf stared up at the stars and remained in that pose for several seconds.  When he returned to his place at the fire, his face displayed a look of contrition. 

“I don’t like being the Omega, not to you or any beast.  Yet I am compelled by my oath to do just that.  All I ask is that you answer one question honestly.  Did this wolf slip past me?  If so, than I will be of no help to you or your cause.”

Major Riven stood and placed his paw on the wolf’s slumped shoulder.  “None got past you.  This form of communication is something that cannot be seen, smelt or heard.”

“Your warriors are good.  They move down the road watching for danger and have their paws close to their weapons at all times.  So now is the time for a commander to make a decision.”

Over the next half hour, the wolf explained the history of the Orb of Storms.  He relayed all he heard of the recent theft and recovery, plus the repercussions.  A map was produced and the wolf dismissed it when the landmarks didn’t jive with those he knew.  Using a sharp stick, their guide drew a crude map showing the location of the settlement they left, the road they followed and the location of the Sanctuary.  When the wolf asked if he thought the other wolves would take the long and easy road or the more direct route, the ferret laughed.

“That’s what I thought you would say.  Come tomorrow, we leave the road.  We push hard enough we can gain a day as I know ways around the hills these others will climb.  If luck is with us, I just might catch their scent.”

“Than it’s good we have you, wolf.  What say we sleep now and get an early start?”

As dawn broke, the wolf began rousing the ferrets.  All ate a hasty meal and then secured their gear before entering the woods.  The party made no effort at stealth as they knew their adversaries were four days ahead of them.  Even the wolf no longer checked for signs of the other wolves since he knew their eventual destination.

At times the others wondered why he led them on such a serpentine route, but the wolf kept his counsel.  When the forest became too dark for running, they moved at a more sedate pace.  By the time the moon rose above the trees, the forest became too dark and they made a fireless camp.  None spoke as they fell into an exhausted slumber.

After the second day, the wolf called to the Major and informed him that the Sanctuary of the Orb would be visible when they reached the hilltop.  Many of the ferrets expressed joy at the news and all stepped a bit livelier as they climbed the hill.  Breaking out of the tree line, each ferret reached into their backpacks and pulled out a strange contraption that they attached to their eyes.

“Is that a spyglass?  I’ve never seen one so small.”

“With this ‘spyglass,’ I could count the number of bricks in that wall.”

The ferret leader kept staring at the Sanctuary for several moments before he called out to the others.  “Anyone see anything peculiar?”

The one named Minddel gave a snort.  “Yeah, if this place is so important, where are the guards?  For that matter, where are the workers for the wall?”

The Major returned the spyglass to his backpack pocket and ordered everyone to prepare for battle.  Allester objected, claiming weapons were not allowed in the Sanctuary.  None paid attention.  In the end, the wolf joined the others as they moved across the open field to the nearest wall. 

Peering around the corner, they saw the body of a hare guard.  Using his paw to relay instructions, the others fanned out and circled the building’s exterior.  Several tense moments passed before the other ferrets returned to their commander, who now stood by the unbarred door.

“We found the bodies of another five hares, all showing the same . . . marks.”  Minddel stared at the wolf, but a command from their leader had the fellow continue.  “There is one large wound in their head and a smaller one in their chest.  It looks like standard commando raid protocol, an armor piercing . . . blade . . . to the chest and a hollow-pointed . . . dart . . . to the head.”

“Search the Sanctuary for the Orb and check for any survivors, though I doubt there are any.”

“These wounds were done by no blade or dart, Major.”  Allester rose after examining the nearest body.

“No disrespect, wolf, but that is about as accurate a description as somebody of your intelligence could comprehend.”

Raising his hackles at the insult, Allester reached out for Major Riven’s shoulder when his ears detected something.  That “something” repeated itself.  A shout from within the building had everyone rushing to the source.  The wolf followed the Major as they raced through the building.  Just past the reception area they found a ferret cradling the head of a hare struggling for every breath.

“They came . . . they came last night.  Those outside must have thought . . . thought the hedgehogs wanted to see the . . . the high priestess.  They came inside, pointed something at me and thunder roared.”

Major Riven knelt by the unknown hare.  “Did they get the Orb of Storms?”

The hare shook his head.  “They never discovered its hiding place, unless our priestess took it to the castle.  I heard the one with golden eyes say something about another orb being located in a village of . . .”

The wolf watched the one ferret lower the dead body of the hare.  “Cairn said that we would find a ‘place where lightning brings death on a clear night.’  Would you agree with that description of what killed these guards?”

Seeing the squad leader nod infuriated the wolf.  “You lied to me!  We weren’t tracking wolves; it was a gang of hedgehogs.  Why the deception, and why didn’t you warn me about these weapons?”

“You said it yourself.  Hedgehogs are trusted as intermediaries.  If that trust were destroyed, it would endanger everyone, which is why your friend asked that we say nothing unless it was necessary.  We are hunting these rogues down because they have acquired weapons from an ancient site and seek an even deadlier weapon.  That is why they need an orb, to locate that other place.”

That had the wolf scratching the side of his muzzle.  “I know where this other orb can be found.  It’s in a village of ferrets, but that orb is of little value.  It will help you learn how things are constructed, but it has no other powers.  Even the wisest of rats hasn’t found a way to do more with it, and the ferrets gave them a full season trying.”

“True, but these others don’t know that.  We’re now less than a day behind these killers; can you get us to this settlement quickly?”

Once more the wolf stared at the lifeless bodies of the armored hare guard.  “If these hedgehogs are willing to kill trained guards, they’ll not hesitate with folks armed with nothing more than pitchforks and hammers.  We give these guards a decent burial and then we move on.”

“We cannot help the dead.  This is more important.”

Ignoring the major, Allester gathered the body of the guard and carried it outside.  “It will take them two days if they follow the honeybee.  I know a shortcut that should get us there before them.”
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"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."
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