"Tell me again why we're doing this," Cortes Narenz asked sarcastically as Slagoy slightly altered the pitch of the ship's ascent as they drew closer to the cold barren moon.
Slagoy looked at his short bumbling lieutenant and his voice rang with exhaustion as he spoke, "I've already explained, we have to locate the cosmic key so we can unlock the secret of the great stone. The elders' stories say that Feldegrath holds the key deep inside the moon."
"I know," Narenz whined. "But it feels like a pointless mission. If even half the stories about Feldegrath are genuine, then this assignment is a suicide run."
"What other choice do we have?" Slagoy asked rhetorically as he painfully thought about the hardships endured on Gerdi Prime. A series of planet wide disasters befell the people of Gerdi and an encompassing sense of desperation and doom gripped the populace.
The disasters began almost two years ago with the outbreak of the Bolian plague. The plague infected the primary water supplies in the majority of Gerdi cities and the people wallowed in agony as purple buboes and high fevers ravaged the land. Half of the Gerdi population died within six months, including all of Slagoy's boyhood friends, and the fragile economy teetered near collapse. With most skilled workers either dead or afraid to leave their homes, the industrial complex collapsed and the urban areas fell into disrepair.
Crime swept through Gerdi Prime as desperation and idleness seized the most reprehensible elements of the surviving citizens. The streets became unsafe as gangs of sadistic thugs, armed with weapons ranging from elctro pulse disruptors to rotting human femurs, roamed the cities day and night. They tortured hapless victims for entertainment but even the unrelenting gangs succumbed during the final disaster.
Four months before Slagoy initiated his mission to the moon, a continent shattering earthquake shook the foundations of Gerdi civilization. Some people blamed the disaster on outlawed Tesla weapons while others believed that the vengeful God Ormantz, ruler of the Darkrealm, attempted to cull Gerdi. The few scientists who survived the gauntlets of tragedies, including Slagoy, proved that the quake was a natural disaster, but the populace ignored their claim. In the aftermath of the quake, the collective consciousness of the Gerdi society reached the brink of complete anarchy. Faith in civility, humanity, and order eroded as the people felt crushed by the invincible forces that confronted them. As Gerdi stood near the ominous abyss of chaos, the elders broke their stoic silence and restored remnants of hope by recalling the legend of the great stone.
The myth predated industrial Gerdi society and only the elders remembered the tale. Everyone knew of the impregnable great stone that stretched across the mountainsides along the shores of the Blue Ocean, but only the elders knew the story of what laid inside the stone: the gift of life.
The elders lost the meaning of those words through the ages, but the civic leaders of Gerdi felt desperate and ready to risk the unknown. 'Gift of life' sounded so promising that the World Order President of Gerdi (the sixth woman to hold the position during the previous two years) could not resist asking the elders how to gain access to the hidden salvation.
The wisest of the elders explained, "Only one entrance to the great stone exists and it can only the cosmic key can unlock it. Yet, the cosmic key was lost many generations ago. The key was the first of our many technological sacrifices to the dreaded Feldegrath." The foul Feldegrath demanded constant gifts of technology or else it threatened reprisal. The older generations feared the great power Feldegrath wielded and they conceded to the demand. Ever since, Gerdi created new enterprising inventions in weaponry and space technology, only to send it to the Gerdian Moon, never to be seen again.
Hoping to find the cosmic key still hidden in Feldegrath's lair, the President ordered the construction of a spacecraft for a recovery mission to the Gerdian Moon. Slagoy volunteered to lead the mission because, in addition to his compulsive need to help his fellow people, the stories about Feldegrath intrigued him ever since he was a child. The idea of becoming the first man to view Feldegrath in a millennium gave Slagoy a sense of self worth and importance. History would remember his name. But as the ship drew closer to the foreboding and desolate moon, Slagoy regretted his decision.
"So what do you know about this worm?" Narenz asked as Slagoy aligned the ship with a synchronous orbit above the surface of the moon.
"I've heard the elders tell many stories. Gerdi first encountered it on the initial mission to the moon more than 1500 years ago. Feldegrath destroyed the liquid hydrogen rocket and ventured to our planet in retaliation. Feldegrath threatened to destroy our world if we did not give him his technological tribute. Since then, we have sent decommissioned crafts, satellites, or any other device, sometimes virtually unused, to Feldegrath's lair."
Narenz shook his head skeptically and exhaled with a snort as he blurted out, "It must be a legend, or some sort of apparition. Nobody has seen Feldegrath in hundreds of years, if the worm existed at all. The elders are delusional." Slagoy understood Narenz's frustration because the legend and threat of Feldegrath had created a century long technological dearth on Gerdi. The leaders and scientists feared the development of powerful weapons or spacecrafts because if Feldegrath learned of the new inventions, he might demand more tribute or destroy Gerdi Prime out of fear. Thus, technological advancements crept out of the laboratories and corporations at an eternally slow pace. Gerdi society's industrial capacity stood at a cautious standstill for longer than anyone but the elders could remember.
Slagoy glared at Narenz with a condemning eye because he refused to listen to sacrilege against the elders. No matter how much Slagoy empathized with him, he did not blame the elders for the woes of their planet. "Do not admonish the elders. They are wise beyond our years and they know that Feldegrath still exists. Why else would we continue to send tribute?" Slagoy asked, assuming he'd stumped Narenz.
"Who knows!" Narenz shouted incredulously. "We probably started using this moon as some sort of interplanetary junk yard for outdated technology and the elders invented the worm as a justification for some kind of Luddite perversion."
Slagoy scoffed at Narenz's theory because why would the Presidents sometimes sent newly produced technology as tribute. Useful communications satellites and renewable rockets were lost to the worm for eternity. Slagoy looked at his young and naive partner as the ship thrusted toward the surface opening of Feldegrath's cavernous lair and he decided to impart a small piece of advice. "You probably shouldn't use the name worm inside the lair," Slagoy said as they passed through the rocky surface of the moon and entered a sea of complete darkness. "Worm is an insulting name to Feldegrath," Slagoy explained as he tried not to imagine what horrible torture the beast would inflict if he heard the offense.
"Then what would you call Feldegrath?" Narenz asked sarcastically.
"I'd acknowledge Feldegrath by the name given to him by the elders: dragon."
The lime green flood lights on the front hull of the craft illuminated the jagged rock tunnels as Slagoy moved deep into the inner recess of the moon. Neither he nor Narenz spoke as they gawked at the incredible subterranean labyrinth. Slagoy looked at the winding rocky corridors and realized that the interior of the moon was nothing more than a series of connecting tunnels. Slagoy did not deceive himself though. He knew that somewhere inside the maze a terrible beast awaited him. There was no reward at the end of this puzzle.
Slagoy looked down at the blue electric lines flashing on his echo monitor and realized that many kilometers awaited further exploration. He sighed loudly and breathed deeply to slow his racing heart as the anticipation of Feldegrath weighed heavy on his shoulders.
"Do you believe this plan will work?" Narenz asked to break the tense silence.
"No, but nobody invented a superior alternative," Slagoy replied bluntly. Slagoy planned the scheme and he took it upon himself to carry out the difficult part. Even as a child, Slagoy chose the more difficult path. He remembered playing with his brother, Croini, one sunny and warm summer day when they stumbled upon a dying Rabain Dog in the hollowed out ditch behind their house. Slagoy vividly remembered the foul stench of the gangrenous sores covering the decaying animal and the Barrow Flies, the size of Slagoy's thumbs, circled and swarmed the poor rotting animal.
"Let's get out of here," Croini said to his younger brother as he tugged on Darren's shirt.
"No," Slagoy remembered saying solemnly. The sight of the dog sickened him, but an indescribable urge inside Slagoy compelled him to help the animal. The poor creature needed treatment and Slagoy decided to provide it. "We have to heal it."
"You're skitso!" Croini said as he ran away from the ditch, leaving Slagoy alone. He didn't care though. He fought off the stinging flies with a harmonic bug repellent and held his breath as he poured handfuls of sustenance water from his canteen onto the sores. The effort required the entire afternoon, and Slagoy felt nauseous for days afterward, but the healing minerals of his water restored some life to the dog. It recovered enough strength to lick its sores clean. The dog survived and Slagoy kept it as a pet. He felt a rush of empathetic satisfaction and Slagoy decided from that day forward that he wanted to help the injured and uplift the downtrodden.
Even though Slagoy had Narenz's assistance in his plan to obtain the key, Slagoy, who never called upon anyone to perform a task he would not do himself, reserved the most dangerous part of the mission. Slagoy decided he would try and distract Feldegrath while Narenz discreetly searched for the key. The elders told Slagoy that Feldegrath was a vain and conceited creature, who he could manipulate with a crafty and complimentary voice. Slagoy grudgingly accepted the possibility that Feldegrath would kill him during his foolish ploy, but he decided death was a small price to pay to save Gerdi. Slagoy tried not to focus on that aspect of his scheme though.
Slagoy looked at the blinking echo screen again and he saw an enormous circular opening at the end of their present tunnel. He knew they neared Feldegrath's lair. "Let's get suited up. We're almost there." Narenz said nothing as he followed Slagoy to the rear of the twelve-meter long cockpit, where two pressure suits hung on the wall.
Slagoy and Narenz emerged from the rear of the craft, wearing their shiny polymer pressure suits with transparent dome helmets, just as their ship neared the rocky opening to Feldegrath's lair. Slagoy pressed a small rubber button on the control panel fixed to the sleeve of his suit and the forward engines deactivated. The reverse thrusters burned hot for a few seconds and overcame the forward inertia as the craft halted a few feet from the craggy entrance.
"Take these," Slagoy said into the radio transmitter inside his helmet as he placed a halogen light and a frequency receptor in Narenz's clumsy padded hands. Narenz carefully balanced the devices in his palms as he struggled to curl his fingers and grip the important tools. He turned the halogen on and it glowed with a green illumination similar to the flood lights. Narenz stared curiously at the smooth black metal rod in his other hand until Slagoy finally explained, "It will locate the key. It resonates a detectable energy pattern at 613 kregs. Set the receptor to the correct frequency and it will guide you."
Narenz slowly turned the plastic red dial on the rod and he imagined that he heard it click with each turn, even though Narenz could not hear anything but radio transmissions. The dial reached 613 kregs and Narenz breathed deeply as he and Slagoy looked at each other in complete silence. Narenz was afraid that this moment would become the last he ever shared with another person, and he firmly placed his hand on Slagoy's shoulder as he said, "Good luck, friend."
"Thanks," Slagoy responded after their radios relayed the message. He appreciated Narenz's gesture, especially since they were not friends. But Slagoy ignored his nagging doubts and remained focused on the task at hand, "Don't wait for me. If you find the key, get back to the craft and take off." Narenz barely nodded his head in reluctant agreement and Slagoy took the first step onto the inner surface of the Gerdian Moon.
As his weight shifted to his outstretched right foot Slagoy felt the pebbled surface crack and grind under him. The ground felt like sand with particles of moon rock and dust mixed throughout. "It's stable," Slagoy said as he put both his feet firmly upon the surface. He looked up and held his halogen above his head so he could examine the sloping ten foot incline in front of them. Beyond the incline was complete darkness. "Let's climb it," Slagoy said and Narenz balanced himself as he stepped out of the spacecraft.
Slagoy and Narenz leaned against the steep incline and climbed hand over hand up the rocky terrain. Slagoy found the climb strenuous and he realized that gravity was surprisingly strong inside the moon, but it was still not as powerful as the artificial environment of the spacecraft.
Slagoy reached down and helped pull Narenz up to his position as he held his halogen above the apex of the slope. Slagoy raised his head to peer into the lair and he gasped as he looked out across an abyss of metallic devices and creations. The technological graveyard stretched as far as his illumination reached and Slagoy recognized a weather modification sat from Gerdi but some of the technology was foreign to him. Great spiraled wheels of titanium and long black obelisks appeared more advanced than any other Gerdi technology and Slagoy wondered where it came from. As his eyes adjusted to the shining brilliance of the rarefied metal, Slagoy noticed a slight shifting of the piles and drifts. He slunk back down the incline and covered his halogen with his hand, praying that nothing had seen him. Something was alive in the lair.
"Keep your halogen low so it won't see you. Start searching and I'll do my best to distract Feldegrath. Maintain radio silence." Narenz saluted in confirmation and he turned a small black knob on his halogen emitter, dulling the green light and making him barely visible. Narenz crawled off, toward the rounded side of the incline as Slagoy took a deep breath. He remembered the sick dog he found behind his house and he resolved himself to completing the mission. He had to save a sick planet.
Slagoy rose to the top of the incline and held his halogen high above his head. He looked in all directions but saw neither Feldegrath nor Narenz. Slagoy felt relieved and his hard breathing slackened, slowing the carbon frost creeping along the interior of his helmet. Slagoy began his descent into the abyss and the halogen reflected off thousands of surfaces like a metallic spectrum. The sea of metals and plastics obscured the floor of the cavern and Slagoy decided to traverse the obstacles. The disorganized piles of inventions, of varying shapes and designs, appeared difficult to walk upon, but Slagoy found it easy. Each piece of hardware remained stable as Slagoy jumped from a satellite, to an oblong disc, to a rusty ship hull.
As Slagoy leapt from one hull onto the smooth curved rim of an orbital land satellite, a radiant white light flooded the lair and Slagoy was blinded. He raised his arm to obscure the sparkling iridescence until his sensitive eyes adjusted. The light came from the far corner of the gigantic lair and Slagoy's mouth fell wide open as he saw the most majestic, and at the same time horrifying, sight of his life: Feldegrath.
"What a monster!" Slagoy thought as his arms and legs trembled. The white light narrowed as Feldegrath squinted, and Slagoy noticed that two sparkling diamonds served as its eyes. Slagoy was amazed by Feldegrath's thick adamantine skin and razor-sharp teeth that protruded from its mouth. Two spear like horns extruded from opposite sides of the dragon's head and Slagoy felt a cool sweat bead along his forehead as he saw the sharp erect fins running the length of Feldegrath's body.
"I can sense you," Slagoy heard a hissing metallic voice say over his radio.
"It can communicate on our frequencies," Slagoy mumbled to himself in shock. Feldegrath rose up to his hind legs and exposed his thick shielded belly of dark scarred metal. As the beast rose, Slagoy felt chills run up and down his spine because Feldegrath had wings! Large thin sheets of titanium that he flapped, creating a gale wind within his chamber.
"Please, I mean no harm," Slagoy begged and Feldegrath's shining white eyes homed in on his radio signal. As the blinding light of Feldegrath's eyes washed over Slagoy's face, he felt woozy and inebriated. The light radiated disruptive microwaves that interfered with the electrical impulses in Slagoy's brain. He felt susceptible and drowsy as his vision began to contort and blur. Slagoy shielded his face and blinked three times as he became more accustomed to Feldegrath's disrupting force. Slagoy maintained his balance and his vision quickly returned as he glared at the beast.
"How dare you enter the lair of the mighty Feldegrath," the monster roared and Slagoy worried that his radio speakers could not relay the decibel level of the beast.
Slagoy's heart pounded so hard that he could hear the rhythmic thumping in his ears, but he forced himself to stand up straight and the light of Feldegrath's mind numbing eyes washed over him. "I only wish to gaze upon your majesty," Slagoy said nervously.
Feldegrath raised his long steely tail in the air and crashed it down upon his nest of crumpled metals and rocks. The impact of the thrashing tail rumbled through the entire lair as Slagoy fell to one knee and grabbed the rod suspended next to him to maintain his balance. "All who visit me find only death," Feldegrath's voice rang through the radio.
"Oh mighty Feldegrath, please afford me the opportunity to admire your magnificence before you squelch my worthless life," Slagoy said as he stood up and shielded the light of Feldegrath's eyes with his arm.
"Look into the brightness of my eyes and know that you are about to die!"
"I need not look into the beautiful minerals of your eyes to know such," Slagoy said humbly. "I feel the wrath of your powerful tail and I know I am not worthy of your presence."
"My tail is strong, but my claws strike like razors and my teeth are stronger than the hulls of any ship!" Feldegrath bragged as he exposed his long black claws and opened his mouth wide to reveal six rows of pointy glinting teeth.
"This beast is entirely mechanical," Slagoy thought in amazement as he listened to the soft humming sound of gears parting Feldegrath's jaws. Slagoy stared at the rows of finely honed metal teeth and his knees felt weak. "Just one of those razors could split me in two," he thought in astonishment.
"Your claws are frightening and your mouth deadly," Slagoy said as he gawked at Feldegrath's thick metal hide and thought it impregnable.
"My teeth are minor in ferocity to my breath. I exhale a solar wind of devastation that brings only death," Slagoy said with a thunderous laugh that hurt Slagoy's ears.
"I fear the smell of your mighty stench, Feldegrath. You are more magnificent than I could ever imagine and if death awaits me, then my journey was well worth the effort."
Feldegrath's oil boiled as he realized that the interloper came to his lair for a surreptitious reason. Slagoy was the first living creature Feldegrath had seen in two hundred years and he enjoyed the flattering conversation, but his wits reminded the mighty dragon that nobody would seek out death at his feet. "Why are you here and where did you come from?" Feldegrath asked and Slagoy could sense the dragon's changing demeanor.
"As I said, I merely wish to gaze upon your beauty. I have heard many stories of you," Slagoy said and Feldegrath realized the origin of the puny human.
"You're one of those Gerdis," Feldegrath hissed menacingly and Slagoy tried to shake his head in denial. "Yes, you are! I'd recognize your feeble people in any solar system. Gerdi Prime is the only planet that still tells fearsome stories of me. That is where you heard of Feldegrath!"
Slagoy trembled as he anticipated imminent death and he realized that his ploy had failed. "Please mighty Feldegrath, I am but your humble servant. I did not intend to arouse your ire."
"But you did intend something! You sniveling Gerdis are always up to no good! Why are you here!" Feldegrath shouted as he slammed his clenched claw down on his abyss of metal and rock, shaking the cavern more violently than before.
Slagoy maintained his balance but he heard a surprising voice on his radio, "Whoa! Ufff!" Narenz called out as Slagoy turned around and saw his partner jumping up from a gutted ASAT he slipped upon. He carried a slender four-sided pyramid under his arm and Slagoy smiled, if only for a moment, because he knew Narenz had found the cosmic key.
"Run Narenz!" Slagoy screamed as Feldegrath began to lumber toward them. Narenz was close to the ship but Slagoy realized that he must slow Feldegrath's approach. The beast roared and Slagoy slammed his hands onto the sides of his dome in a futile attempt to obscure the deafening noise.
As Slagoy bent over in agony he peeked through his tightly shutting eyes and saw a glowing cylindrical rod a few feet below him. "A sonic sword," Slagoy thought as Feldegrath's roar faded with his discovery. Construction of sonic swords on Gerdi ceased sixty years ago, because the elders deemed them too destructive, but Slagoy realized that one of the deadly weapons must have become a sacrifice to Feldegrath.
Slagoy jumped to the steady pile of junk below him and took the radiant blue rod into his hand. Even through his gloves, Slagoy could feel the smooth brilliance of the perfectly round shaft. Its length measured half of Slagoy's body, but it felt light in his hand and he hoisted it above his head just as Feldegrath reached his position.
"I hope this weapon functions in space," Slagoy prayed because he was not certain if the sword would operate in a nearly inaudible environment. He pointed the rod at the high ceiling, far above Feldegrath's looming head and neck, and he turned the sliding cap on the bottom of the sword.
A humming sound, echoing through the entire cavern, grew louder as Slagoy turned the dial further. Just as Feldegrath opened his mechanical jaws, a cacophony of high pitch sound waves crashed into the dragon and the stalactite filled ceiling above them. Feldegrath roared in pain as the sonic boom pummeled his adamantine body with unfathomable kilos of pressure. The dragon reared back on his broad hind legs as heavy chunks of the ceiling crashed down upon him.
Slagoy, protected for the moment by Feldegrath's immense body, leapt for the ship and dodged huge boulders that fell with great velocity despite the slack gravity. Narenz anxiously waved his arms and Slagoy heard his partner's voice on the radio screaming, "Faster Slagoy!" Slagoy felt the shadow of a large rock bearing down on him and he leapt for the rear bay of the ship, just as the enormous boulder landed with a thud at his heels.
Narenz closed the hatch as soon as Slagoy hit the floor of the ship and the vessel quickly pressurized. "Let's get out of here!" Slagoy yelled as he ripped off his dome and peered out a window at Feldegrath. The caverns of the hollow moon collapsed on all sides and Feldegrath writhed in pain as the crushing ceiling dented and crashed into its body.
"This will be close!" Narenz shouted as Slagoy felt the ship's reverse thrusters push them away from Feldegrath's ruined lair. Slagoy watched nervously as debris fell past the ship's windows and the sifting sounds of dust and gravel rained onto the hull of the ship.
"Speed it up!" Slagoy shouted but he knew it was a useless command. The reverse thrusters could not propel the ship as fast as the main engines. In that harrowing moment, Slagoy wished he still had a wife and family. He wanted someone to pray for. A family who could feel his presence across the coldness of space and know that he loved them.
"I see the entrance!" Narenz bellowed excitedly and Slagoy hoped, for the slightest moment, that they might prevail alive. The entire center of the moon collapsed and jagged rocks began to cover their escape. Slagoy peered out one of the port windows and hoped their tiny ship had enough thrust to make it.
A large boulder, half the size of Feldegrath, broke loose from the ceiling and hurtled downwards, toward the entrance. The ship became dark as the shadow of the enormous stone engulfed the craft and Slagoy held his breath.
CRASHSHOOM! The boulder rumbled behind the ship just as it emerged on the other side of the subterranean entrance. "We made it!" Narenz screamed and he jumped up and down with Slagoy. They embraced each other and for a moment, Slagoy and Narenz were friends. They shared a dangerous experience and both survived. It created a closeness neither of them could explain, but they each found new respect and appreciation for the other.
The journey back to Gerdi was boring in terms of scenery, but lively in conversation. Narenz told Slagoy the story of how he found the cosmic key wedged underneath a dilapidated solar sail and Slagoy exaggerated how he fooled the gullible dragon. "He never doubted my intentions for a second," Slagoy claimed. "It would have gone without a hitch if you hadn't slipped."
"I didn't coax the dragon into raising up and shaking the whole place," Narenz retorted but Slagoy did not feel like arguing. They were both thrilled to be alive and they both knew that Gerdi Prime would welcome them as heroes.
"Let me see the key?" Slagoy asked. His curiosity compelled him to hold and examine the priceless artifact.
Narenz walked to the back of the ship and removed the key from a black plastic bag. He wrapped the key in a piece of velvet cloth, to protect it, and Slagoy felt a dark radiance fill the ship as Narenz pulled back the flaps of the cloth. "This is it," Narenz said as he handed the two feet long key to Slagoy.
Slagoy looked at the relic and was astounded by its unique design. The key felt like a piece of glass in his hands, and Slagoy guessed that it consisted of obsidian because of its dark hue. The key was shaped like a long slender pyramid with a sharp tip at the apex. "Look at this," Slagoy said to Narenz as he examined the key more closely.
Slagoy carefully ran his fingers along the smooth obsidian and he felt one barely detectable groove running the length of each side. "Is it damaged?" Narenz asked as he noticed the grooves for the first time as well.
"I don't know," Slagoy said. The grooves were symmetrical and the same length on each side. "Perhaps it's just part of the key's design."
"But why would it have grooves? The keyhole in the great stone is a tiny notch," Narenz reminded him but Slagoy could not postulate an answer.
TWEEP! TWEEP! the echo monitor blared and Slagoy leaned toward his control panel. "There's something large coming up behind us."
"An asteroid?" Narenz asked even though he did not know of any charted belts so close to the planet.
"No, the orbit and projection are too precise," Slagoy responded as he darted to the back of the ship and looked out one of the windows. "Narenz, increase our velocity! Now!" Slagoy barked as his eyes widened and a hint of fear rang in his raspy voice.
"What's wrong?" Narenz asked.
"Feldegrath! The worm lives!" Narenz silently mouthed out the name and Slagoy pushed him aside so he could navigate the ship.
"What are you doing?" Narenz asked as Slagoy changed their course heading. "Where are you going?"
"The alternative landing window on Gerdi. By the time we arrive, darkness will still cover a small portion of that hemisphere. Perhaps we can confuse Feldegrath in the shadows," Slagoy hypothesized.
"I don't understand," Narenz complained as he gave up all hope of ever eluding the dragon. "How could it escape the moon and how can it pursue us in open space?"
"Feldegrath is powerful," Slagoy explained as the echo monitor showed the beast gaining ever slowly. "He must have broken through the debris of his lair."
"But how can the worm move through space so quickly? All I see are wings, no engines or boosters," Narenz said.
"Feldegrath lives in space. His entire body is a ship in itself," Slagoy said as he remembered the light shimmering off Feldegrath's sleek adamantine skin. "I don't know how, but his wings are engineered for space travel." Slagoy was not sure if the wings used some type of rocket thrust or a more advanced proton technology like the solar sail, but it did not matter. Feldegrath moved swiftly whatever its propulsion.
"We'll never outrun it!" Narenz screamed as he watched the enormous dragon expose its jagged teeth.
"I'll maneuver away from it, but that's not the concern," Slagoy explained with a cool rationality that terrified Narenz. He couldn't understand how Slagoy could remain calm with the vengeful beast close behind them. "Even if we escape, we must think about the planet. We've got to contact the surface so we can warn them."
Narenz reached toward the control panel next to Slagoy and activated the radio so he could send a signal to Gerdi Prime when Slagoy slapped his hand, "Not that frequency!" Slagoy shouted. "Use the secured radio band. Feldegrath can tap into general radio frequencies," Slagoy explained as he remembered the dragon's voice booming through his speakers inside the pressure suit.
Narenz adjusted the frequency of the signal and after a few seconds of high pitched static he heard a woman's voice say, "This is control, what is your status?"
"Hey Ivoras, we have a slight problem," Slagoy shouted.
She did not appreciate his levity and the exasperated tone of her voice revealed her feelings, "Do you have the key?"
"Yes," Slagoy shouted as Feldegrath's echo drew closer. "But we also have drawn out the beast!"
"What beast?" Ivoras asked and Slagoy recognized the cold military calculating that inherently dominated his commander.
"Feldegrath is real and we awakened it!" Slagoy remembered discussing his mission with Ivoras before he and Narenz departed. She did not believe in Feldegrath, despite Slagoy's devotion to the stories, but Slagoy's warning changed her perceptions rather quickly.
"What is wrong?" Ivoras asked as Slagoy's riddles frustrated her.
"It's right behind us. We've changed course to the alternate landing site," Slagoy said as he continued to guide the ship toward the dark hemisphere.
"We'll launch three military vessels to confront the dragon. I am departing for the alternate site now. I will meet you upon landing," Ivoras said and the radio became silent. She was ever abrupt and to the point which explained why Slagoy constantly butted heads with Ivoras. He preferred patience to rashness.
Slagoy wiped his sweaty brow and breathed deeply as the planet obscured the sun's light. "It's still following," Narenz said as he looked back at the dragon, just as Feldegrath entered the dark shadow and disappeared from sight.
Slagoy looked down at the echo monitor and watched Feldegrath's image waver. It continued straight on, but as Slagoy turned the ship into a re-entry orbit, Feldegrath's pursuit went astray. "It's working!" Slagoy said excitedly just as three more signals appeared on his monitor.
"What are those?" Slagoy asked in irrational fear. His fright convinced him that Feldegrath had somehow spawned three new dragons and they would soon surround him.
"It's Ivoras' battleships!" Narenz shouted.
Feldegrath's penetrating eyes searched the dark space around him but he could not find the ship. "Where are those flies," Feldegrath thought as his positronic brain seethed with anger. "How dare the Gerdis try and recover their sacrifice! I will make them rue their deceit!"
As Feldegrath searched the mesosphere for Slagoy's craft, he felt the rumbling vibrations of the approaching battleships and the dragon exposed its long serrated teeth. "I will have my revenge upon someone, if not the thief himself," Feldegrath thought just as the battleships appeared through the darkness.
The battleships fired all of their weapons, ranging from blasts of forzinic energy to the dispersion of high acceleration space debris. Tiny bolts or fragments of metal could attain incredible velocities in higher orbits, but they were not strong enough to penetrate Feldegrath's hull. The fragments bounced away or disintegrated in white hot flashes.
"Your weapons are weak and I will make you pay for this pitiful show of insolence," Feldegrath's voice roared over the radios of all three ships. Feldegrath opened his jaws wide and expelled a giant glinting cloud. Every soldier on the ships stopped to watch the incredible vomitus display, but none of them realized the deadly nature of Feldegrath's breath.
The cloud moved in a regulated pattern toward each of the battleships and a crushing wave of billions of microscopic robots descended into the thick metal hulls. The nanites performed their duty with truculence as they reconfigured the sub atomic hulls of the battleships and weakened the titanium. As the nanites returned to their host, the ships creaked under the intense pressure of space. The weakened molecular bonds of the hull could no longer withstand the intense pressure surrounding them.
CRVROOM! the ships imploded and disintegrated in the sizzling upper atmosphere. Feldegrath swallowed his tiny minions and looked toward the planet. The sun was emerging from the other hemisphere and Feldegrath continued its descent toward the surface. "I will punish the Gerdis," he thought as he swooped past the lingering remnants of the powerful battleships.
Slagoy considered landings the most harrowing part of space travel. As his ship hurtled toward the long runway, he held his breath and deployed the sixteen thick rubber wheels from underneath the craft. The ship skidded as the thick tires impacted the coarse pavement and Slagoy released the parachutes from the rear of the craft. The eight parachutes deployed and Slagoy lunged forward as his velocity dropped and the stench of burning rubber filled the open air. His stomach felt queasy but the worst part had passed and within another minute the valiant and reliable ship stopped at the end of the runway.
Slagoy blew the hatch on the back of the pressurized craft and he and Narenz jumped out, thankful to see their home world again. As Slagoy threw his head back and breathed the clean air of Gerdi Prime he saw a tall woman, with thick biceps, and long curly brown hair running toward him from the grassy field abut to the landing strip.
"I told you I'd return, Ivoras," Slagoy said with a sly smile but she ignored him.
"Where is the key?" Ivoras asked directly as she extended her dry and cracking hand.
"I have it," Narenz said as he reached into his bag and removed the precious relic.
Ivoras took the key and unwrapped the velvet. The obsidian sparkled in the light of the rising sun and Ivoras smiled for the first time in months. "Finally, we will attain the gift of life," she said as her eyes became lost in the brilliant configurations of glass.
Slagoy shielded his eyes from the rising red sun and he breathed a deep sigh of relief that his mission had ended. "I want my sacrifice!" a voice boomed from the shortwave communications radio attached to Ivoras' leather belt.
"What was that?" she asked as she held the radio in her palm. Ivoras inquisitively searched the field to her right and the endless Blue Ocean to her left, but she could not locate the source of the transmission.
Slagoy's sharp eyes sprang to attention and he searched the skies for any signs of trouble. Far off, in the direction of the sun, he saw a shining spot that seemed to grow larger. "It's Feldegrath!" Slagoy shouted as he pointed at the approaching spot. "It must have destroyed your battleships."
A silence filled the air and Ivoras, for the first time in her life, felt fear. The menacing beast, approaching ever faster, caused her veins to throb in terror and her chest burned with dread. Nothing had ever defeated her battleships, but, then again, they had never encountered any being as powerful and merciless as Feldegrath.
"Without the battleships we stand no chance," Ivoras said as a sudden sense of panic gripped her and she clenched her fists until her fingers turned white.
"Don't speak so surely," Slagoy said as he dove back into the ship and emerged with a weapon.
"Is that a sonic sword?" Ivoras asked. She was astounded because she had only seen photographs of the dreaded weapon.
"It is," Slagoy replied. "It almost stopped Feldegrath once before and maybe it can succeed a second time." Slagoy was not confident in his chances of subduing the dragon, but the sword was his only hope and Slagoy refused to give up without a fight.
"Do you know how to wield that thing?" Ivoras asked as she turned her neck sideways and stared at the iridescent rod.
"Not really," Slagoy said with a shrug of his shoulders and a less than confident look on his face. He gripped the sliding knob attached to the bottom of the sword and firmly rested the shaft in his hand.
Slagoy felt his heart beat faster and harder as Feldegrath approached, but he remained resolute and stood in the rolling field next to the landing strip with the sword above his head. "Be careful," Ivoras said as she noticed Slagoy's arteries pulsating along his neck. Ivoras led Narenz away from Slagoy and he smiled back at her in thanks for her concern. Slagoy and Ivoras were rivals more than friends, but the common threat of the dragon created a sense of community among everyone. They all believed they would die together but a hopeful communal spirit pervaded their souls.
Slagoy watched intently as the shining scales of the beast grew closer, but suddenly Feldegrath paused and hovered above the ocean next to the field. "I need a radio!" Slagoy shouted and Ivoras ran onto the field to hand him her shortwave.
"What's wrong," she asked as she stared up at Feldegrath, wondering why the menacing beast halted.
Slagoy pressed the radio against his mouth and shouted, "What are you waiting for, you worm! Come and get me!"
"Are you crazy?" Ivoras asked as a dull expression of shock covered her wide eyes and gaping mouth.
"Probably, but if Feldegrath fears the sword, he may avoid us and ravage other parts of the planet." Ivoras realized Slagoy was right, but as she stared at the dragon, perched on the riptides of violent ocean winds, she hated the beast and wanted to destroy it. Feldegrath killed without provocation and leeched its existence off the less strong. The worm threatened her home and everything Ivoras knew. She could not let Slagoy face it alone.
"I'm not leaving," Ivoras said as she unstrapped the black polymer rifle attached to her back.
"What do you think you're doing!" Slagoy shouted. He didn't understand why they should both perish under Feldegrath's wrath.
"That sword might or might not stop it and I'm not leaving anything to chance. Maybe a few static pulses will tickle his hide! If Feldegrath is going to kill us all, I'm going down fighting," Ivoras said as she loaded her rifle with six static mortar rounds.
"Don't be stubborn!" Slagoy shouted. "You are acting like a fool!"
"Guess you shouldn't have married me then," Ivoras responded with a wry smile and Slagoy shook his head back and forth. They hadn't lived together for three years and he hated when she reminded him of the most grievous mistake of his life. Their marriage was built on intense passion, but destroyed after the first argument. As Slagoy looked at his hulking wife, he smirked and hoped she felt a passion for battle that morning.
Ivoras snatched the radio out of Slagoy's hand and shouted spitefully into the receiver, "What's wrong you worm! Are you afraid of two little humans?"
Slagoy appreciated Ivoras bravery, or perhaps stupidity, and her strategy to tempt the dragon, but he had no desire to watch anyone die with him, especially Ivoras. "You can't do this! Let me face it alone," he insisted, but it was too late. Feldegrath broke his vigil and flew toward him as Ivoras cocked her rifle.
"Get ready!" she shouted but Feldegrath suddenly changed his course and flew out over the open sea again. "What is it doing?" Ivoras asked but Slagoy did not know.
The beast hissed as it opened its mouth and expelled its nanites. A shimmering swarm of billions of microscopic robots descended upon the water as Slagoy watched in horror and his muscles contracted. "What is that mist?" he asked as small ripples parted the waves and the nanites began their devastating work. The sea boiled and scorching steam filled the air.
"It's destroying our water!" Ivoras shouted in confusion. Nanotechnology did not exist on Gerdi Prime and they could not comprehend how Feldegrath could break apart the chemical bonds of the water molecules, releasing hydrogen and oxygen into the atmosphere.
"It's evaporating our water! Burning it away!" Ivoras shouted as an angry scowl formed among the tense wrinkles of her reddening face.
"We've got to do something!" Slagoy screamed but Ivoras was one step ahead of him. She raised her rifle to her eye and took aim at Feldegrath's horned head. She pulled the trigger and one of the static charges discharged and propelled toward Feldegrath. Ivoras designed static charges to disrupt small electrical equipment and weapons. She prayed that the charge would have the desired effect on a living creature of metal.
The mortar exploded as it impacted at the base of Feldegrath's skull. Lines of crackling static electricity crept down Feldegrath's head and neck like streams of water searching for the path of least resistance. Feldegrath hissed as the electricity engulfed him, but could not penetrate his adamantine scales.
"I think you made him angrier," Slagoy said as the nanites returned to Feldegrath's belly. The dragon turned its sights on Slagoy and Ivoras and it beared its jagged teeth as it flew down toward them.
"Get ready!" Ivoras shouted as she pumped her rifle once and prepared to fire again.
Slagoy's arms quivered but he mustered the strength to hold the sonic sword above his head as the dragon drew nearer. "Cover your ears!" Slagoy shouted and he turned the knob. A thunderous humming sound filled the field and the bright light associated with the mega-sonic spectrum filled Slagoy's eyes. He shut them tight just as an eruption of harmonic chords sprang forth from the rod. A blast of energy struck the onrushing Feldegrath and his metallic body resonated with the cacophony of frequencies. His hide began to crack and bend as the dragon screamed in pain.
The sound overwhelmed Slagoy and he fell to the ground, drained of his strength. Feldegrath's body went limp and the beast screamed in agony as its wings folded and it collapsed in a heap. Feldegrath's tail hit the earth with a tremendous quake and the beast found itself two meters away from Slagoy. He laid unconscious and unmoving from the sensory numbing blast. Malice filled Feldegrath's thoughts and it spread its fierce jaws apart in a final attempt at vengeance. Feldegrath lunged forward with its limp neck and beared down on Slagoy just as Ivoras jumped between them and pointed her rifle between the dragon's separated rows of teeth.
Ivoras pulled back on the trigger and dove away just before Feldegrath snapped his steel jaws shut. But the electric charge exploded in the beast's mouth before it could bite at either of them again. The static ravaged the fractured adamantine of the fallen dragon's head, and spread to its brain. The static dispersal disrupted the positronic flow of the Feldegrath's thoughts and the dragon unleashed one final desperate roar of pain seconds before its glowing diamond eyes faded and it died.
"You've done it!" Narenz shouted from across the field. He did not think their feat possible and he jumped up and down like a child receiving unexpected gifts on his birthday.
Ivoras knelt down on the ground and picked Slagoy up with her muscular arms. He cautiously placed his feet and the ground and Ivoras stopped him from stumbling over. Slagoy stuck his fingers in his aching ears and rubbed vigorously until he heard a faint ringing. "Can you hear?" Ivoras shouted.
"Barely," Slagoy shouted back, unaware of his loud response.
"Come on, we still have to take the key to the elders," Ivoras shouted and she helped Slagoy to her jeep along the edge of the runway.
For that moment, Slagoy forgot all the pain and anguish Ivoras had caused in their relationship and he was thankful that they were friends.
As the chief commander of the Gerdi Space Program, Ivoras accepted the responsibility of caring for the elders. She kept them hidden deep inside the hardened exploration center along the edge of the Blue Ocean. Every citizen was allowed to visit the elders, they were considered a national treasure, but Ivoras was obsessed with keeping them protected from any harm.
As the elevator lowered Slagoy, Ivoras, and Narenz twenty levels underground to the protected chamber, Slagoy could feel his hearing return. The ringing had ceased and he began to realize how loudly he spoke.
The door to the elevator opened on sub level twenty and Slagoy was the first to step out into the sterile room. Across a thick sheet of plexi-glass he saw the elders and bowed before them. Despite his reverence towards and curiosity about the elders, Slagoy felt the typical repulsion that gripped him every time he laid his eyes on them.
Slagoy did not know exactly what the elders were, but they looked like withered gray brains, floating in vats of orange and lime colored protein water. Thin wires and electrodes spread from the brains, past the openings atop the vats, and connected to computer consoles and speakers. The speaker array allowed the elders to communicate with manufactured unwavering voices, but Slagoy considered their hollow timbre unnatural. He had listened to the elder's stories since he was a child and he decided to use the same technique he used then to avoid any nausea. He closed his eyes.
"Do you have the key," a steady metallic voice asked from one of the speakers.
"Yes, elder," Ivoras replied as she typed her response on the computer keypad.
"Good," the hollow voice responded. "Now you must take the cosmic key to the symmetric hole along the face of the great stone. Insert the key and it will reveal the gift of life."
"As you command," Ivoras said as she nudged Slagoy in the arm. "Stop acting like a child and open your eyes," she whispered and Slagoy remembered why they stopped living together. His unusual habits annoyed her and he hated to listen to Ivoras' complaints. But after saving him from Feldegrath, Slagoy decided to tolerate a few grievances.
The great stone was a smooth, sheer rock face of granite overlooking the Blue Ocean. Slagoy remembered climbing the enormous rock many times as a child and as he approached it, the stone did not appear nearly as large as he remembered. He, Narenz, and Ivoras advanced the rock with great anticipation. They genuinely believed that the mysterious gift of life would alleviate the suffering of their planet.
"Today is the dawn of a new era," Slagoy said with a smile as they rushed headlong towards the face of the stone and the annals of history.
In the center of the rock face, an even distance between the two ends of the rock, there was a small notch, barely noticeable from a distance, and hardly larger than the pointed tip of the key. "This must be the keyhole," Ivoras said as she peeled back the velvet and held the key horizontally. She carefully slid the delicate artifact into the opening and bright red lights suddenly emerged from the obsidian.
The dazzling colors surprised Ivoras and she quickly jumped backwards, releasing the key, but it did not fall. The key slowly moved deeper into the rock as the notch inexplicably expanded. The four small grooves along each side of the key spread apart, like wings forming a pinwheel, and yellow lights joined the sparkling red.
"What's happening?" Ivoras asked as the astounding display of light hypnotized all three of them.
"It's unlocking the stone," Slagoy said sedately just as a low cracking sound filled the air. A straight line, running through the notch from the top of the great stone to the bottom, suddenly emerged. The key stopped turning and the rock began to part along the crack.
"This is it," Ivoras said as the rock split into a vast opening. A chilling rush of frost and cold air flew past them from inside the hollow stone, but nobody seemed to notice. The thick mist of frozen air quickly evaporated and Slagoy took the first tenuous step inside the great stone.
Sunlight poured through the opening and Slagoy rubbed his eyes to ensure that he saw everything. "What is it?" Narenz asked as Slagoy and Ivoras pushed him to the rear.
"I don't know," Slagoy said as he looked across a level field of shining silver orbs, each half his size.
"What are those?" Ivoras asked in wonderment as she crossed her arms and leered forward.
"I cannot say, but there are a lot of them," Slagoy estimated as he looked across endless rows and fields of the polished orbs.
"I think they are metallic," Ivoras said as she watched the sun glint off the rounded surfaces.
"What now?" Narenz asked but neither Slagoy nor Ivoras had an answer. They all looked at each other with perplexed expressions, wondering how these orbs were the gift of life.
Slagoy turned his eyes back tot he orbs just as the one nearest the entrance emitted a vapor. "Look!" Slagoy shouted as he pointed at the mist rising from the orb. Four lines, each running vertically along a hemisphere of the steaming orb became visible. They all watched intently as the orb split open along the lines and a gush of foul odor filled their noses.
"Hiissss," a sound emerged from the exposed orb and a small shining creature with clawed talons and a whipping tail crawled out. "It looks like Feldegrath!" Narenz shouted in terror as Slagoy studied the metal beast's design. It has the dame diamond eyes and similar adamantine scales, only much smaller.
Ivoras reached for her rifle just as every other orb inside the stone split apart and baby dragons began crawling and scurrying towards them. "Kill as many as you can!" Ivoras screamed just as four of the dense and heavy beasts toppled her. Slagoy dove for her gun and felt the piercing bite of one of the dragons ripping through the skin around his wrist.
Slagoy screamed in agony as dozens of razor claws ripped through his back and punctured his lungs. He groped for the gun with his other hand, but the dragons knocked it away. Slagoy struggled onto his side and watched six dragons devour Ivoras and the screaming Narenz. Slagoy's chest constricted as his collapsed lungs struggled to breathe and the last thing he saw was one of the vicious beasts leaping to his face and chewing out his eyes.
They had awakened the gift of life and the gifts were feisty.
In the writer's own words:
My name is Allen Woods. I am a 22 year old writer from Nashville Tennessee who enjoys writing adjectives, adverbs, the occassional noun, and science fiction. I am an affiliate member of the HWA. I have written two dozen short stories, some of which have been published in Pablo Lennis, Art:Mag, Lost Worlds, and Pleiades. I am finfishing work on a novel legnth space opera and I encourage readers to give me feedback via e-mail: Allen.Woods@mail.house.gov
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