There is no sight like sunrise in the desert, no matter what desert, no matter what planet. The memory of thin purple clouds persisted in Lyndon's mind for a few minutes after the event. He had just woken up, and sat staring out of the forward window of the small craft that served as his temporary home. Soon, he would be leaving this peaceful world to return to the even more peaceful realm of space; that ubiquitous domain which punctuated each of his planetary visits. Still, there was time yet for him to settle into his comfortable and familiar control chair, as both pilot and ship prepared for the day ahead.
This was surely a perfect occupation, thought Lyndon. There were many things that he loved about it; the solitude and the security were chief among them. The job of Space Ranger in these times of extended and assured peace was a steady one. Technological advantage had made the Galactic Union secure from such concerns as invasion. This vast interstellar community stretched across an entire galactic arm. The combined might of its star-navy, planetary defence forces and its sophisticated monitoring outposts was enough to ensure an everlasting 'golden age'.
The engines of Lyndon's small one-man patrol craft carried him quickly out of the planet's gravity well. As the vessel sped away he watched its image on the rear-view monitor until it became just another blue-white dot. It was the perfect start to a day which, as anyone with something less than Lyndon's undying optimism would realise, could only get worse. He called up a music program and started to sing, but it was not too long before trouble joined in the chorus.
The neat row of orange lights that indicated an incoming transmission began to flash, lighting up the interior of the darkened cabin. Lyndon pushed the 'receive' button and turned to the communication display where the image of an Admiral was already starting to form. Lyndon realised that he had forgotten to comb his hair.
"Captain Lyndon Mond?" The Admiral inquired. Captain Mond confirmed with a brief nod, trying to remember whether he had done anything wrong in the last few weeks. He looked again at the comm panel and noticed that the Secure Emergency Channel indicator was on. "There have been some grave developments in one of the border territories in your patrol area. Since yours is the closest ship, and the only one able to respond quickly enough, I am ordering you to investigate and deal with any enemy forces until help can arrive." This scenario had all of the characteristics of one of his more common day-dreams, but the imagined adventures where he routinely saved the entire Galactic Union from catastrophe were never usually so vivid, or terrifying. The image jerked slightly. "All contact with the Sentinel facility at Gotlig-Prime has been lost. It is vital that we reestablish communication with the station," the Admiral continued. Lyndon tried to ignore the awful yawning sensation in his stomach and acknowledged his orders with a simple word.
Lyndon was at a loss to think of any explanation for the sudden emergency. Could the Zimminites be responsible? He thought it unlikely. The Zimminite Empire had fought a fierce war against the Galactic Union some two hundred years ago, and had lost, badly. The defeat had seen its territory reduced drastically and its potency as a threat nullified. Little had been heard of them since, but their much reduced Empire was well monitored and charted by the Union. All the evidence suggested that the Zimminites had still not recovered from their unsuccessful and expensive war.
It was more likely that the current situation had arisen because of a fault in the communications relay or something of that nature, Lyndon reasoned.
"Good Luck Captain, and thank you. Be assured that your name will live on in the memory of the Citizens of the Galactic Union." These fine words ended the Admiral's speech abruptly. The transmission terminated, leaving Lyndon unsure as to whether the whole thing had simply been a recording. Perhaps these instructions were sent out on a routine basis from an automated system when contact with a star-system was lost. After several minutes of worrying, Lyndon convinced himself that the whole mission would involve nothing more serious than a faulty computer component.
Finding Gotlig-Prime was a simple task; Lyndon had been there before. Like all border systems, it had a sense of the frontier about it. Gotlig-Four was a peaceful planet with a few well sculpted, neat cities scattered about its more hospitable hemisphere, while Gotlig-Seven was equally serene, with large habitat domes on its surface and artificial underground caverns full of industrious and contented citizens below it.
As he approached, in the contrived state of physical flux that was Hyperspace, he observed the multitude of ships that appeared on the sensors. Certainly there were many more ships than he would have expected, none of which seemed able or willing to respond to his repeated attempts at communication, but nothing seemed to suggest anything threatening about the situation.
Lyndon's gift for seeing nothing beyond his own limited interpretation of reality cloaked him from the idea that he was going to emerge from the transcendental mode of transit that he was in into an invasion size Zimminite armada. When the undeniable truth of the matter was made clear Lyndon had to seriously rethink his ideas about how easy this mission was going to be.
A heavy barrage of disintegrator fire was immediately sent out from the nearest ship to welcome him. Fortunately the targeting system of the battleship was not yet fully locked and Lyndon had a second to swing the flight controls to port. It was a manoeuvre that owed more to panic than any innate skill. A second off-target salvo of neon-red energy blasted the point in space where he had just been. A single hit of that magnitude would totally destroy the small ship; Lyndon knew he had to find some refuge. Looking around, the only likely candidate was a free-floating platform a short distance away. It looked fairly safe, if only for the fact that it was still there.
He'd landed in the station's only docking bay before he'd noticed any absence of enemy fire. Why the station was safe, he did not know, but something about it had saved it from immediate destruction by the alien invaders. The Zimminite shuttle that he shared the bay with might hold the answer, thought Lyndon. He decided that, since he wasn't going to be leaving any time soon, he may just as well venture into the station and try to determine what exactly was going on. That this was actually his mission was mere coincidence.
Lyndon made ready his gun, which so far he had only ever fired in the controlled environment of the training simulator at Sector Command Head-Quarters. He had never managed to get through a complete session. The power cells of the sleek and compact weapon were fully charged and the smooth handle moulded itself solidly into the grip of his right hand. After connecting his ship to the airlock, he stepped through into the station's interior.
The station seemed calm after the chaos of a few minutes before. The steady humming of the environmental systems and the daylight-spectrum lighting had a pacifying effect. Lyndon crept forward cautiously at first, then, gaining confidence, adopted a more expeditious pace. He wandered around the multitude of meaningless corridors, not exactly sure where he was going, until he had almost persuaded himself that there really were no aliens on the station. Everyone else had gone as well. Searching the various rooms around the vicinity Lyndon found all to be vacant. The station looked deserted. Just as soon as he had come to accept this more desirable scenario, however, he found the very thing that refuted it.
Two armour-clad Zimminite guards were leaning on a railing that ran around a large open chasm in the floor. They were short and bulky figures, with a thick hide of dark brown that hung in deep folds. Their heads were large with a broad neck and their eyes were the only feature that could be distinguished amongst the thick wrinkles of their face. Lyndon was relieved to discover that they hadn't noticed him and he quickly ducked back around the corner. Considering the circumstances he was not confronted with a difficult decision. With things the way they were he could not hope to leave the station and live, his only course of action was to fight. Maybe, despite the apparent absence of any of the station's personnel, he could find someone who knew what to do.
Resigned to the fact that he had to engage in combat, Lyndon went through his options. With luck he would be able to get one good shot in before the guards had time to react, if he used this opportunity to his full advantage he would be able to eliminate one of the guards immediately, but this would still leave the other. The odds would then be a little more favourable; Lyndon figured that he stood as good a chance as anyone in a straight shoot-out. The plan relied heavily on luck, but it could work.
Lyndon steadied himself against the wall and slid slowly towards its edge. The guards remained calmly unaware several metres away and continued their alien conversation. Lyndon moved his head and right arm around the corner and fired his first shot. The energy-bolt from the pistol hit the ceiling just above the guard's heads and blasted the material into tiny fragments which rained down in a shower of white sparks. Both guards ducked and raised their rifles, but neither could see which of the four corridors next to them the shot had come from. Lyndon saw his chance and fired again, but this time the shot cracked into the floor some distance from either target. He dodged back to relative safety. His hand was shaking. Things weren't working out the way he had planned them.
There was a further eruption of heat and smoke as the guards fired in the direction of their attacker then Lyndon swung around the corner again. This time, he noticed, one of the guards was gone. Rather than feeling relief at the diminished opposition, however, his fear grew; where had this other guard gone? This could only serve to complicate matters. He fired, and missed yet again. The now solitary guard fired back as Lyndon found cover once more. The shot slammed into the wall millimetres from his face, the extreme heat and light momentarily blinding him. He stumbled back as pieces of the wall flew across his face. The wall seethed with the disruptive power of the Zimminite weapon.
There was no way he could fire back, Lyndon wondered if the next shot was going to be terminal, but he was suddenly gripped by another sensation; the unmistakable feeling of a gun barrel poking into his back.
"Drop the weapon!" The voice of the guard was dry and emotionless with a strong accent. Lyndon had no hesitation in complying with the request. He released his grip on the pistol and let it drop to the ground. His vision was now returning to normal. The guard called to his companion and the second alien came jogging around the corner. He stooped down laboriously and picked up the discarded gun. There was a brief exchange between the two soldiers in their native tongue.
Whatever final fate awaited Lyndon, it became clear that it was not to meet him here. He felt the guard behind pushing him to move and through the Zimminite's repeated physical directions the pair soon reached an elevator. Lyndon wondered what was going to happen to him; even his considerable imagination could not conceive the many possible outcomes. He watched the guard's arm reaching out for the elevator controls, but his three fat fingers never made it.
There was a muffled thud somewhere to the guard's rear and he twisted awkwardly as he sank slowly to the floor. His body slumped on one side and came to rest where Lyndon could see the obvious cause of his sudden demise. There was a sizable gash in the soldier's neck and a thick green slime oozed out of it. A human voice assured him that the Zimminite was dead and urged him to follow. Lyndon turned around to see a young man in a light blue technician's suit.
Lyndon was glad to see that someone had stayed on the station. The stranger looked as though he had been hiding for some time. His suit was torn and dirty and his face was scratched and bruised. In his left hand was a large and heavy looking modular converter.
"Quick, we have to get out of here," the stranger urged. Lyndon had to agree, it seemed an entirely reasonable course of action. Lyndon was led by the stranger into the darkened side-room where he had presumably been hiding.
The interior of the room was small and warm and the low drumming of machinery could be heard. The only illumination came from behind the far wall where a section of panelling had been removed and a portable light had been set up. The recess was a cavern of energy lines and control systems.
"Thank's," said Lyndon gratefully, "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't shown up." The young man's expression didn't waver.
"You would have died sooner rather than later," he replied morbidly.
"So, what should we do now?" He asked, interested to hear of any plan that the Technician might have.
"They're trying to figure out how the weapon works," said the stranger. Lyndon thought it an odd way to answer his question. "They want to replicate it, use its devastating power against us," the young man added, unnecessarily.
"Do you know how it works?" Lyndon inquired further. The stranger bent forward and disappeared for a few seconds in the darkness. Lyndon could hear him rummaging around through some equipment.
"Why do you think I've been hiding," the Technician explained. When he had stood up again Lyndon attempted to restart the conversation.
"Do you know what's going on?"
"It's like I said, the Zimminites are invading, and they're hoping to use our own defences as their master weapon." Lyndon was beginning to understand.
"How do we stop them?" He asked. There was a commotion outside followed by more alien chatter.
"Here, hold this," the Technician ordered. He handed Lyndon the improvised weapon that he had used a minute before. "Listen, this is important," the stranger continued, "you must try to get as near as you can to the control console." Lyndon didn't have the slightest idea of what the man was talking about. He wondered if perhaps he was talking to some other unseen person in the room who had not yet been introduced. The stranger held the small transparent tube that he had just retrieved, up to the light. The sound of more footsteps moving outside produced a discernible sense of alarm in the stranger. "They can't find me here," he insisted, pressing the end of the tube against his neck.
"Wait," Lyndon protested, fearing the worst, but the young man didn't wait.
There was a loud hiss from the tube as it injected a measured dose of the liquid into its target. Whatever was in there, it had no immediate effect. The stranger then pressed the tube against Lyndon's neck. The injector made the same sound again and Lyndon felt something cold going into his skin.
"What are you doing?" he yelped.
"Quiet, you idiot," suggested the stranger. It was becoming clear to Lyndon that the Technician was working toward his own ends.
The stranger gathered up his case from the floor and climbed into the hole in the wall. "Replace the panel, hurry," the young man ordered harshly. For some reason that he did not understand, Lyndon complied, and just in time.
The door burst open and a small army of Zimminite soldiers stormed in. Bright lights swarmed everywhere and settled on the corner of the room where Lyndon stood. One guard marched forward and pushed him roughly against the wall while another snatched the weapon from his hand. There was more alien chatter before a burst of recognisable language struck Lyndon's ear.
The guard seemed to know only this one word, as he repeated it several times on the way back to the elevator, emphasising it on each occasion with a forceful jab in Lyndon's back. He wondered how he had come to be back in the predicament that he had been rescued from just minutes before. He could not expect to be saved twice, and with the increase in the number guards around the place further liberation was most unlikely.
Lyndon and his escort continued through the upper levels of the installation and saw that his initial impression, that the station was virtually empty, had been somewhat misconceived. It looked as though everyone was in one place. Throughout their ascent, Lyndon saw small groups of station personnel. All of the technicians and officers who formed its staff had been captured. He was moved on further, passing through the already defeated security systems unchallenged, until the end of the little journey was reached.
The scene in the command centre was a repeat of what Lyndon had seen below. A group of hostages sat in one corner, watched over by the omnipresent Zimminite soldiers, while more of the aliens dealt with the computers and automated defence systems. All around the place there were pieces of alien equipment entwined with pieces of the station's operating systems, spilling out of the walls and ceiling like intestines.
Lyndon guessed what kind of questions he was going to be asked when he saw the alien Leader approaching him. Probably the same questions that everybody else in the room had been asked. From the looks of things the Leader had not yet any received a satisfactory answers.
"You are our murderer?" Said the Leader incredulously. Lyndon wanted to say that he was neither a murderer, nor 'theirs', but decided that this kind of reply would not win him much favour. The Zimminite Commander scrutinised Lyndon's uniform, "Captain Lyndon Mond of the Galactic Union Space Navy," he read, "so this is who they send to halt our invasion armada?" He shared the joke with his fellow officers. It would be a very small effort for Lyndon to see the risibility of this remark; that the mighty Galactic Union had sent him here at this desperate hour, with no clue about what was going on or what to do was a joke.
Lyndon felt fully defeated. If he was the Union's last defence then the Zimminite invasion was already complete. The guard that had accompanied him here handed the Leader the modular converter that still bore the 'blood' stains of its victim.
"I didn't kill that guard," protested Lyndon.
"Really?" the facial features of the alien rearranged into what must have been a smile, "then we have a bad case of suicide." The remark served as further entertainment for the alien crew.
"My officers were most efficient in their search of this station, there was no one else who could have done it." The logic was obviously flawed, but Lyndon knew that it would be unwise to reveal the true facts.
The alien Leader moved across to a large control panel set before a sloping window in the side of the station. Through it, the small sphere of Gotlig-Four was just visible.
"As you can see, we're having some trouble understanding this weapon of yours." Lyndon hoped that he wasn't going to ask him how it worked.
"It's not mine," he amended blankly, "and I don't know anything about it."
"Of course not, but I'm sure you wouldn't be offended if I told you that I didn't believe you." Lyndon saw no way to convince him, keen as he was to avoid the unpleasantness that now seemed a certainty. He was pulled into the seat that hovered in front of the control centre and it became clear that the conversation, unrewarding as it had been for the Zimminite Commander, was nearing some awful conclusion.
The confusing and completely unfamiliar array of controls in front of him were surveyed by Lyndon to no avail. He could not begin to guess at what even half of this equipment did, much less operate it. The Leader motioned to one of his specialists who was examining a power relay over in another part of the room.
"Now Lyndon Mond, show me which control activates the weapon," ordered the leader, but Lyndon knew that it was beyond him. He wondered how much more it would take to convince them.
"I don't know," he shouted, "I DON'T KNOW!" His cry died away to silence.
"We'll see about that."
A small machine set upon a portable frame was brought over from the end of the room where the hostages still sat. Lyndon tried to get up, but was prevented from doing so by some kind of force field.
"What's that, what are you going to do to me?" Lyndon was scared, and didn't care about who knew it.
"I warn you Human, my patience is not limitless. You either tell us now how your weapon functions or we will use our mind probe to rip the answer from your pathetic brain." Talking was useless, Lyndon knew that there was no way out of this. This was how it was going to end. With no answer from their captive, the Zimminites decided to take the only option left to them.
The first minutes of the exercise were a non-event. Lyndon felt himself nearing unconsciousness several times and was aware of the aliens around him talking and moving about. After his initial fear and panic, he was surprised that there had been no intrusion into his body and none of the physical mechanics that he had imagined or that the 'mind probes' name implied, had been evident. Aside from the anguish which he had generated purely on his own, the probe had not yet been the unpleasant experience that he had been promised.
The transition from reality to the effects of the probe were so slight so as not to provoke any reaction from him at all. Like a dream, he remained unaware of any other level of existence but the one which he currently occupied. Apart from the dull pain at the back of his head, things felt normal. The past few hours repeated in random chunks; He saw starships firing at him, the Admiral, the fight with the Zimminites and then, sunrise, all apparently for the first time. The pain grew more intense as the memories grew more distant.
Then, he was back on his last assignment, enjoying the hospitality of his hosts on Caligus. He was to check on the colony and see that all was well, give them any supplies that they needed and generally show the flag. It was a welcome break from the monotony of his patrol, if he could just get rid of that damned headache.
Another place and another time; he was departing Sector Control for his patrol, looking out over the crests and peaks of the mountains on his homeworld as they floated past. The home to which he knew he would return at the end of his three-month run. Time's shifting sands suffered a major land slip again as he was suddenly home again. His twenty-fifth birthday party, with his family and his friends, then it was his graduation from the Academy; the pain became overwhelmed everything, but there was more yet to come.
The search through his memories intensified with a dizzying velocity. The control over his mind was becoming intolerable, yet it was impossible to escape. No part of it was spared, all his life's experiences, remembered and forgotten, were compressed relentlessly into just seconds. The pace of it seemed set to rip his mind into a useless bulk of disconnected fragments. Then, suddenly, there was respite.
Lyndon found himself sitting in a training seminar, half-listening to a lecture on sentinel stations. Like so many of the academy seminars, it was far from engaging; all about invasion defences and the measures put in place after the war to hold off the threat of further invasion. That was ancient history as far as he was concerned. Better to think about the future, that was what mattered. What would he be doing once he'd graduated, what assignment he would receive, where it would it take him.
The lecturer rambled on and on. 'In the event of an invasion the Sentinel stations will be activated in the affected systems,' the teacher explained. 'The weapon built into the station will be fired directly into the sun, instantly causing a super-nova that will destroy everything within a sphere of several light-years. There followed a lengthy explanation of how the weapon operated and how it would be activated, but Lyndon wasn't listening. He had spent the previous night at a 'Muton Corpse' concert, and his concentration was not sufficient to take in the many details contained within the lecture.
There was a snap in his consciousness, as though someone had flicked a switch that had instantly turned reality back on. The alien Leader raged about the room, clearly annoyed by the situation. Two guards hurriedly moved the mind-probing equipment away. Lyndon noticed that Gotlig-Four was coming around to line up between the sun and the station. The procedure had obviously taken some time.
The whole mood of the scene had changed, Lyndon noted. The Zimminites looked like they were moving out; they had given up on the station, and they had stopped asking him questions to which he had no answer. He leant forward; the force field had presumably been an integral part of the now absent mind-probe unit.
Looking intently at the controls before him, Lyndon found them to be no less confusing as they had been at first; clearly the mind-probe had dredged up no deeply hidden knowledge on that subject. If only there were someone here who knew what he was doing. Here, there was an odd gap in Lyndon's memory. The Technician, Lyndon strained to recall, his head still throbbing like an over-stressed stardrive. The corridors, the guards, the fight; how had he got here. He was still too confused to work it out. There was one thing he understood, though. If the station didn't stop this invasion, what would?
The thing to do now, it occurred to Lyndon, would be to activate the weapons main control relays by pressing the three yellow buttons on the bottom middle panel in front of him. This he did, and was slightly concerned when a row of lights came on above his head and the panel in front of him came to life. That a guess, or perhaps an instinct, could prove to be the correct course of action was somewhat worrying. Nobody seemed to notice what he was doing. Better charge the main batteries, he thought, pressing the green button on the centre panel. Lyndon felt the floor vibrate slightly and heard a low hum rising up from below. Where was all this coming from? Lyndon knew the answer to that question as much as he knew the operating protocols of the Sentinel stations, yet here he was, setting the charge on the weapon's batteries. The 'Time To Full Charge' indicator came on at thirty seconds. Some of the Zimminites stopped what they were doing and looked around. Lyndon positioned his hand over a large red button in the middle of the control deck, without really knowing why.
Without considering the implications of the act, Lyndon let his hand drop onto the button. Red lights instantly flashed on all over the control room and almost as instantly the Zimminites went into a frenzy of action. Several of them started ripping away at wall panels, desperately trying to get to the control systems. The Leader grabbed hold of Lyndon again and dragged him from his seat.
"Stop the countdown," he bellowed. A little scared, Lyndon replied,
"I can't, I don't know how." The leader looked out of the main window. The great ball of deep yellow sun had reached its position in front of Gotlig-Four. The seconds ticked away, until, at last, the tremendous power within the station darted out of the energy directors towards its target. Past the Zimminite ships, past the planet and into the heart of the sun.
The spread of solar material was slow at first, spreading gently out in all directions, unstoppable and all-consuming. The end, thought Lyndon, but not the end of the Union. This is what he would be remembered for, but as the sky expanded in fire, he finally remembered. Had he really been the hero, or had that stranger he'd met in the lower section of the station done something to him. It didn't matter, whoever it was, the Zimminites would not get their revenge today. Lyndon sat back and enjoyed his last sunset.
Mark E. Cotterill is from England and is a keen science fiction fan. He is also an avid follower of the Aphelion's own Mare Inebrium, for which he has written two short stories. When he isn't writing, driving a truck or playing computer games he can be found on Dalnet at #the_writersclub, where he is known, for his own reasons, as Mr_Garak. He welcomes comments about Starfall on the Aphelion's Letter Col, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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