Chapter 2: Innocence

From the journal of Solin Meduri, Professor of Human Studies at the University of Ferrelus . . .

Tuesday, May 2, 2938 (Martian Independence Day)

Today, Marx Averri tried once again to kill us all. I managed to stop him with my powers of observation.

We left Earth earlier today, after taking on sixty-two passengers at Radovan’s Oasis. They were a uniformly miserable bunch of Aldren refugees from all over Merca. It probably has not hit the press yet (especially not at home), but the last couple of weeks have been a very bad time to be living on Earth if you are not a human. There was an explosion at a government arsenal, and Domnus Themond called it an act of aggression by Aldren Imperialists. It sounds preposterous to me, but the Terrans believe whatever he tells them. This, in turn, led to a fresh outbreak of oppression. It is a good time to get off-world if you’re an Aldren. Our business is making that possible, and business has been good. Some might say that we are profiting from the misfortune of others. Marx maintains that we are saving lives, which is perhaps true in some cases. But such ethical questions do become moot if you wind up snuffing the lot of them in a crash.

Marx’s attempted massacre took place as we were entering the atmosphere of Mars. I knew something was wrong as I tried to make my way through the passenger compartment and kept floating toward the ceiling. I ran into the cockpit and looked out the canopy. The Martian ground was coming up too quickly, and the momentum indicator bubble was flattened against the top of the globe. Marx was talking into the intercom, telling the passengers to make sure their harnesses were properly buckled. Then he instructed me to hold on to something. He pitched the ship’s nose forward until the vessel was facing the dirt head on. The passengers did not seem to think that the maneuver was helpful, and I could hear their shouts through the hatch.

By this time I was holding onto the navigator’s seat with one hand, and floating. Marx’s plan to correct the situation was not a complete act of futility, I’ll give him that. He can control and guide the vessel well, but he forgets small details. Moments earlier, he had throttled down the ship’s engines to an idle to let the heated lift gas do the work of slowing our descent. This is standard procedure, but for some reason the lift gas was not performing its duties. Having realized that the system wasn’t functioning, he decided to use the engines. I saw him flip the throttle levers with his thumbs, opening them up all the way. I began sinking toward the conical tip of the cockpit. On my way down, I noticed the root of our dilemma. The lift gas steam cutoff valve was closed. With the valve off, the gas was not being heated, rendering it inert and useless. I tried to tell Marx, but he could not hear me over the engines. (They are quiet in space, but they create a deafening roar when they touch air.) He was sagging forward in the pilot’s chair, restrained there by its crash harness, squinting at the ground with his mouth half open. Below us I could see the expanding reflective pool that was Lake Stendahl. We had planned to land next to the lake at Wilder’s Dawn, but we had not planned on doing it at such a high speed. The engines were helping to slow us, but they could not do it quickly enough. The lake was still growing at an alarming rate.

I pointed to the valve and shouted again, but Marx was concentrating on the control levers. He directed the ship toward the southern shore of the lake, where the spaceport lay. At the speed we were going, I suppose it would not have mattered much whether we hit water or solid ground. Flattened and burnt or flash boiled in the lake, it would be a reasonably quick way to go. With these thoughts for motivation, I leapt for the pilot’s chair and caught hold of it with my claws. Marx had never seen me jump for my life before, and I believe it surprised him. Humans are notoriously bad at jumping, but even a sedentary Ferrelan like myself can cross six meters from a standstill. I braced myself against the back of the pilot’s seat and turned the steam valve. With the engines at full blast the tanks heated in a tremendous hurry and the inertia compressed me against the seat. I peeked over Marx’s shoulder to look out the canopy. The spaceport and lake filled the view, but the rate of our descent was decreasing to a far less fatal velocity.

Marx guided the vessel to a landing pad on the edge of the port. He always tries to land someplace inconspicuous, but I did not see how our arrival could fail to attract attention. I resolved that if we survived the landing, I would let him do all the talking when the firemen arrived on the scene.

There was only one person on the pad that I could see –  a young man with a khaki hat and a red shirt, and he was engaged in some sort of work that involved bending over and studying the tarmac. We were coming down right on top of him, and he would soon find himself instantly cremated by our engines if he didn’t move out of the way. It must have been nearly noon, for the shadow of our ship fell over him. He turned his gaze skyward and stared straight at us. I couldn’t make out the features of his face, but his body language said it all as he ran for his life.

Marx, with his fine grasp of the obvious, shouted over the din that we would survive this landing. I thought of several things to say in reply, but judged than none of them would be helpful at this juncture.

Our ship finally slowed to a stop just a few meters above the fibercrete pavement, with its nose to the ground and its tail pointing to the sky. I can only imagine what the air traffic controllers were thinking. If Marx had bothered to turn the radio on, I’m sure they would have been more than willing to share their thoughts. I saw an abandoned pump bottle sprayer, which the young man had left behind when he fled. He had been spraying the stubborn weeds that grew through the cracks in the pavement, unaware that he too was in immediate danger of death from above. I found that amusing for some reason. But I suppose it’s true that human behavior has always fascinated me.

Marx shut down the engines and our vessel slowly righted itself, leveling out so that the floor and ceiling resumed their normal duties. With a mechanical whine the landing gear extended from beneath each wing, and we settled to the ground. In the sudden silence I heard an eruption of joy from the passenger compartment. Using all the composure I could muster I explained to Marx the position of the lift gas steam cutoff valve and the consequences of attempting to land with it closed. He sheepishly answered that he had closed the valve to conserve the steam while we were in space, and had forgotten to open it for the landing. Marx promised that he would not forget again, and scratched a reminder note onto the ship’s manual. It is written in Aldren, and Marx has been filling it with notes and definitions for the technical terms. There was a knock at the cockpit hatch. Our long-suffering stewardess, Cathar, shouted to Marx that if he didn’t let the passengers out of the hold soon, we would probably have to replace all the upholstery. “I gave each of them an inertia-sickness bag,” she said, “but I can’t make the passengers use them.” I flipped the series of toggle switches to start the depressurization cycle—

It was a different sort of Independence Day parade at Wilder’s Dawn, much smaller than the one being held almost simultaneously on the crowded streets of the capitol city, Rothesburg. It was unplanned, unorganized, and for the most part unnoticed. Instead of flags, the participants carried only the things that they could not leave behind – such as children, clothing, and jewelry. Instead of music, they marched to the sounds of a busy spaceport: the hiss of steam issuing from maneuvering ports, the rumble of ground tractors, and the hum of distant engines. There wasn’t much in the way of waving either, although a few people erupted into shouts upon recognizing a group of family members and ran from the parade across the sun-baked tarmac to meet them.

But for all its shortcomings, this was truly a parade of independence. These people had been set free twice in one day. First, they had been freed from several types of tyranny found on the planet Earth the moment they stepped aboard the oddly shaped blue and green starship. Whether it was the oppressive race laws, the abolition of free speech, or simply the intolerable smug confidence of Domnus Themond, it was behind them in that moment, whether they knew it or not. Second, they had just been released from the hold of that same vessel and the uncommon terror of a routine space passage with a dangerous novice for a pilot. The realization of these freedoms came quickly to some, who fairly skipped on their way from the cooling spacecraft to the footpath that led to the terminal. Others were slower on the uptake, turning back to blink in disbelief at the sun glancing off the ripples of Lake Stendahl –  a scene made all the more surreal by the waves of heat distortion rising from the ship’s massive engines. All the passengers were relieved to be out in the fresh Martian air, even though it reeked of fish (from the lake) and burnt almonds (which is precisely what metoline exhaust smells like.) These aromas were pleasant compared to the odor of the ship’s passenger compartment, where many occupants had parted with a variety of bodily fluids as the vessel made its harrowing landing.

The majority of the passengers were Aldrens, pacing along with their families, arms linked. They had the lean bodies and long skulls characteristic of their race, with large eyes like deep pools. Despite what Domnus Themond (or the propagandists that worked for him) might say, these Aldrens didn’t look like “The greatest threat that Mankind has ever faced.” The handful of humans who marched amongst them didn’t seem to be concerned for their safety.

Our ship is of a type considered a “heavy launch.” In space-faring terms, this means that it is the largest class of vessel that can efficiently land on the surface of a planet and take off again. Anything larger would do well to stay in orbit, unless it intends to become a permanent resident. As if she was determined to earn her designation, the old girl’s landing cleats were sinking into the fibercrete landing pad.

I am not new to space travel, but this is the first time I have ever voluntarily lived and worked on a ship. I have been to Wilder’s Dawn a few times, but I do not believe I have ever described it for this journal. South of our landing pad, Lake Stendahl stretched for a dozen miles to the east and west. The old control tower rises like a petrified sea serpent from the center of the lake. It is shaped like an oblong mushroom, and the rusted remains of radio antennas protrude from its center like a grove of leafless trees. Through its broken windows, flocks of common seagulls land to nest.

When the first Terrans colonized Mars they had every intent of populating it with the most beautiful, noble, and majestic creatures available on Earth. But, as things turned out, it was the common, adaptable animals that were best equipped to survive on an alien planet. The biology department at the University of Ferrelus has yet to find a habitable world that isn’t home to the seagull, field mouse and housefly. This frustrates them to no end.

Things never seem to go as planned on colony worlds. I’m sure that when the Martians built a floating spaceport in the middle of the lake, they planned to still be using it today, but, during the Martian War of Independence, a Terran dreadnought passed over Wilder’s Dawn in close orbit. It shelled the old spaceport until it sank to the sandy bottom of Lake Stendahl, leaving the shattered control tower as the only grave marker for its victims.

The new spaceport, much more sensibly, is built on solid ground. The buildings are never more than two stories tall, so as not to impede air traffic. The new control tower hovers in the air above the port, anchored to the ground with a single massive chain. It is shaped like a capsule, and unlike its predecessor, it can dodge out of the way if a wayward vessel gets too close.

But today all the air traffic was drifting about in an orderly fashion, like a weightless ballet with the control tower as the choreographer. They glittered and hummed with all the variety and vitality of insects. I was surprised to see so much commerce on a holiday, especially on the twentieth anniversary of Martian independence. I thought of two possible explanations: for some of the Martians, surely the memories of the war are so bitter that any reminder is painful to them. But for the new generation, perhaps working on a holiday is a new sort of patriotism. Diligent labor unencumbered by sentiment is the very heart of Martian culture. (I must remember to include this observation if I ever get back to writing that thesis.)

A wide road paved with bricks led to the customs building. Seagulls hovered overhead in the hope that the new arrivals would drop something edible. The walkway opened into a plaza just off the shore lined by shops and eateries catering to a galactic variety of needs and tastes. Opposite the shore stood the customs building, a squat, dull-yellow office. Much to the disappointment of the refugees, there was already a line extending out the front door.

Ahead of the parade of refugees was a lone figure that the Aldrens recognized as a yensi. The yensi had been made in the image of Man, or at least the image of Man from an Aldren point of view. It was cased in hrudak wood, a lightweight yet sturdy import from the world of Catharis. The polished lacquer gleamed in the sunlight, and it was accented with elaborate red pin striping. The yensi’s head was larger around and flatter on top than that of a human, and a pair of camera lenses peered out from beneath a ponderous, exaggerated brow. Flexible brown leather covered its joints to ward off dust and debris. In one of its hands, it carried a clipboard laden with a thick stack of papers. Although the yensi was walking at a good clip, its arms didn’t swing. The machine’s smooth, even gait gave every impression that it could carry a cup of water on its head without spilling a drop.

A lone telephone booth stood nearby, and as the crowd watched, the yensi made its way toward the green painted structure. It silently sat down, folding its legs into a strange combination of a kneel and a crouch. As it turned to face the expanding customs queue, the Aldrens in the line could see chalk writing on its chest. In a bold, precise hand, somebody had written, “Free the Robots!” This revelation brought a few amused chuckles from the line. It was good to see that the yensi’s owner had a sense of humor. The effect was somewhat diminished when the machine presented the clipboard to the crowd, holding a pen with its other hand. In a clear, surprisingly loud voice, the yensi proclaimed,

“Support Union Legislative Proposal 5086! A thinking machine is a person! Please sign our petition.” One of the humans in line laughed out loud, immediately falling silent when he realized that he was alone. Everyone else regarded the yensi with raised eyebrows or slack jaws. The yensi waved the rear end of the pen back and forth across the line, clearly expecting or hoping for someone to step forward. After a minute, it said in a much quieter voice,

“One at a time, please.”

Distracted by the spectacle, few of the refugees noticed that the phone booth was occupied. Fewer still recognized that the young man inside the booth was the captain of the heavy launch they had gratefully exited a few minutes ago. His frame was tall and lean, as if his body had been in such a hurry to reach for the stars that it had neglected minor details like musculature. He was obviously overdue for a haircut, and he periodically brushed the oily black locks away from his grey eyes. He held the phone to his ear with slender, almost feminine hands. He wore a white cotton shirt with no sleeves and a ring of perspiration around the neck. It might have looked better on someone with thicker arms. A tightly cinched belt held up a pair of baggy green pants that appeared to have been discarded by a much larger and more affluent spacefarer. He slouched forward and studied the filthy floor of the phone booth as he listened to a voice coming through the speaker.

Near the back of the line, an Aldren boy with bright blue eyes and a shirt several sizes too big tugged at his mother’s arm. When he was certain he had her complete attention, he said,

“That’s the yensi from the ship. I want to go talk to him.”

“Remember your father,” she told him, “I will surely die of heartbreak if lose you as well.”

His eyes dimmed at the reminder. “We’ll be safe here, Mother. There aren’t any Athno … AnthroSocialists on Mars.”

She knelt next to him and tenderly placed her fingers beneath his chin.

“Perhaps, but Mars is still full of humans. You may go, but stay where I can see you.”

“I promise I will.” The boy trotted over to the yensi, his leather-soled shoes slapping the pavement.

Even in its reclined position, the yensi practically towered over the boy, who gave no sign of apprehension as he approached. He knew that yensis were safe, they had to be or nobody would buy them.

“What are you doing, Mr. Yensi?” he asked. The machine lowered its arms, lurched its abdomen forward and peered at the boy with its inscrutable lenses. Black eyebrows had been painted above the cameras, frozen in a neutral expression.

“I am trying to make changes happen. Would you care to sign this petition?” It offered the pen and clipboard, and the boy took them without hesitation, squinting at the paper. The yensi’s voice was deep and low, but otherwise it was much like talking to someone on a telephone or intercom. A thick line of black paint across its speaker grille formed a mouth that neither smiled nor frowned.

“What’s it for?”

“If enough people sign the petition, the Legislative Proposal may be reviewed by the Galactic Union. If that happens –”

“Oh, I know what a petition is,” interrupted the boy, “but what is the proposal about?” The first several lines of legal jargon had been enough to discourage him from reading further.

“The goal of Legislative Proposal 5086 is to establish a scientific method for determining what sort of entity may be considered a person in the legal sense. If passed into law, it would pave the way for the recognition of automatons of sufficient intelligence to be considered persons. As such, they would be protected from involuntary slavery as outlined in Article 27 of the Galactic Union’s Declaration of Personal Rights.”

The yensi used a different voice for its explanation, and it dawned upon the boy that the machine had answered him using a recording. He pursed his thin lips, tilting his head to one side.

“So … the point is to free the robots?”

“Exactly,” replied the yensi, reverting to its normal voice.

Behind the machine, the young man in the phone booth had straightened up with shoulders squared and began emphasizing his words with the knuckles of his free hand, tapping them against the glass. His volume had risen as well, and his voice carried through the walls of the booth.

“No, no, no. I’m not saying you owe me!” He resumed his slouch as he listened, stroking his left eyebrow with his thumb, growing more agitated by the minute. The Aldren boy returned his attention to the yensi.

“I saw you on board the ship,” he offered, making small talk after the fashion of an adult. The yensi raised its polished wooden head with something like pride.

“I am the Chief Engineer of the heavy launch Luft Ritter.” The boy cocked his head to the left, confused.

“That’s what it’s called? The Loot Fritter?”

“No. Looft-rit-tur. It’s some old Terran language that they still use on Noy Ostrike. It might not be a good name, but it’s a very good ship.”

The young man in the booth interrupted them again.

“Because it’s dangerous, that’s why!” He listened for a moment with his mouth open, eager for his turn to talk again.

“No, what we do is not the same. It’s a harmless charter business. Well, I don’t care what Alex told you. Hey . . . hold on just a second. I have to plug this thing again.” He reached into a pocket and brought forth a tightly packed wad of lint, which he released to join the rest of the debris on the floor of the booth. A quick search of his other pockets yielded similar results. He pushed open the door of the booth and leaned out, gently tapping the yensi on the shoulder.

“Otto, do you have any change?”

The yensi swiveled at its midsection to face him.

“No, I do not. But I am doing my best to make change.” Otto gestured with a sweep of an open hand toward the Aldren boy, who was still holding the petition. With an exasperated sigh the young man closed himself back in the booth, muttering into the phone,

“I’m sorry, I’m out of change. We’ve only got a few more minutes.”

“I saw him on the ship, too,” said the boy, “is he your owner?”

Otto shook his head from side to side in a very lifelike manner. “That is Marx Averri. He’s the captain. My owner is Professor Meduri.”

“Your captain seems mean.”

“Oh, he can be. But my owner is a very good person.”

The voice of Marx Averri penetrated the glass, interrupting them yet again.

“Well, I wish you’d leave the Cathar out of this . . . that’s a very common misunderstanding, and she’s a little sensitive about it.”

The boy returned his attention to Otto.

“So who built you?”

“Well, if you believe the little plate on my back,” Otto laid a hand on his lower back, touching a brass plate stamped with his serial number, “I was manufactured by Aarchot Analogue Automatons of Clarion. But I’m not ruling out evolution.” The boy had been flipping through the petition but stopped at the absurd statement. Otto perceived his confusion and tried to explain.

“It’s possible, scientifically speaking, that I started out as just a battery with a few resistors and such. And then I found a transistor and some more parts, and I just kept getting larger and more complex until . . . well, it’s a theory.”

The boy laughed in a staccato eruption of mirth.

“You are a very strange sort of yensi.”

Otto’s shoulders moved up and down in a reasonably good impression of a shrug.

“I am told that often.”

Marx Averri had raised his volume once more, pacing in the tight confines of the booth like a caged animal.

“I really wish you’d just stay home. The Martian Navy is no place for a girl your age.” He froze in mid pace as he listened. “Well I’m supposed to worry about you. I’m your brother.”

The line of refugees had been steadily creeping into the customs building, and the boy’s mother was nearing the door. She called his name, and he replied with a nod that yes, he was coming back soon. He returned his attention to Otto.

“So if you were a free yensi, what would you do?”

“Probably the same things I do now. If I left the ship, I would likely be stolen for spare parts.”

The Aldren studied the signature page of the petition, thoughtfully tapping the pen against his chin.

“Well, why do you want to be free then? It doesn’t make any sense if it puts you in danger.”

The yensi leaned forward until he was nearly at eye level.

“For the same reasons you want it. Don’t forget, mister smarty flesh, you just left Earth to search for freedom.”

The signature page only contained two names. One was an illegibly scrawled cursive in an alien alphabet, and the other was the neatly printed name of Solin Meduri, Professor of Human Studies at the University of Ferrelus. The boy added his mark on the next space.

“That was a very good answer,” he confessed, handing the clipboard back to Otto.

“All I’m asking for is you to stay safe!” shouted Marx, oblivious to the stares of the people in the dwindling line, “I gave up a lot to see you safe! I don’t think you realize what I’ve been through since then. The least you could do is stay out of danger when I ask you to … No, I am not saying you owe me … Hey! Hello?” His jaw dropped and he gazed at the phone in disbelief, listening to the dial tone. Marx launched into a tirade of profanity, tremendous in scope, creativity, and volume. He began hammering the receiver against the base of the phone violently, making a sharp cracking sound but failing to cause any real damage. Intent on breaking something, he pummeled the phone, and then the window next to it with his bare hands.

“I should probably go back now,” said the Aldren boy casually. He didn’t want to be around when the furious captain ran out of stationary objects to vent his rage upon.

“It was good to talk to you, Otto!” he shouted as he ran back to his increasingly nervous mother. Otto waved him farewell with fingers the size of garden tools.

“Thank you for signing my petition.” Raising his voice, he addressed the remaining crowd. “Free the robots! A thinking machine is a person! Step right up.”

***

Marx did not cease to make a scene until he had exhausted himself. He sullenly exited the booth in a slouch leaving chips of black plastic on the floor of the booth, and red smudges on its windows. He had cut his knuckles during the assault. The line had disappeared inside the customs building, and the square was strangely quiet. A tiny voice from the shattered phone instructed Marx to insert another coin before dialing. He ignored the voice and the pain in his hands. Looking out across the lake, he muttered to himself, “You do owe it to me to stay on the line. I failed to mention that…”

Otto regarded him with curiosity. He regretted that the outburst had perhaps frightened off some potential petition signers, but took no offense. To him, Marx was a force of nature that could not be reasoned with. Marx blinked a couple of times and raised his head. He studied his surroundings with curious intensity, as if he had just awakened from walking in his sleep.

“Otto … We had best get back to the ship before somebody fines me for that booth.” Marx turned on his heel and left without waiting for an answer.

“Yes, sir,” Otto said cheerfully, his long legs matching the human stride for stride. By the time they reached the walkway along the lake, Marx’s rage had dissipated completely. He sounded downright amiable when he asked Otto whether the Aldren boy had signed the petition.

“Oh yes. He seemed like a very bright young fellow.”

Marx smiled mischievously. “Did you remember to tell him the benefits of having his name on that paper?”

Otto cocked his head to the side. “Benefits? I don’t understand.”

The mischievous smile broadened into a wicked grin.

“You should have told him that when the robot revolution comes, his death will be quick and painless.”

Otto walked in silence for a moment. “That’s not very funny,” he finally replied.

***

Professor Meduri didn’t even look up as the white truck bearing the name “Middle Plains Fuel Co.” rolled up to the Luft Ritter, rumbling to a stop alongside the cockpit. His attention was fixed on the second of the vessel’s two fuel caps. He was standing on the wing a few feet from the port engine. Meduri’s task was complicated by the fact that he was wearing a space suit. It was made of leather from the hide of a vacuum dwelling creature. The thick gloves on his hands covered his claws, making his clever fingers almost useless at the task. If that wasn’t bad enough, the lenses over each of his shiny black eyes had begun to fog over. The suit had not been designed to deal with humidity. The stubborn fuel cap finally budged, and opened with a pop. The pressure remaining in the tank blew metoline fumes in Meduri’s face, and he was glad that he was breathing air from a bottle on the back of his suit.

“You know, sir, Mars has a breathable atmosphere.”

Meduri had been so focused on the fuel cap that he hadn’t noticed the arrival of the fuel truck driver, a young man wearing a red shirt and khaki hat, squinting in the sunlight. He was standing on a ladder propped against the leading edge of the wing. When the professor made no reply he continued, “I’m breathin’ it right now.”

Meduri sighed, a gesture that was lost inside the suit’s respiration system.

“Did you happen to notice that I am a Ferrelan?”

“Well, yeah, the tail is a bit of a giveaway.”

Meduri drew himself up to his full height, which was about half that of the fuel attendant, and his muffled voice took on a lecturing tone.

“About one in five Ferrelans have an autoimmune response to metoline fumes. It is similar to an allergic reaction. Symptoms include shortness of breath, loss of fur, and numbness in the extremities. Especially the tail.”

The attendant blinked a couple times.

“I get it. You want both tanks topped off?”

“Yes. They should take about four hundred liters each.” The human disappeared down the ladder to retrieve the fuel hose. Meduri ignored the ladder and jumped down from the wing, landing without a sound. It was usually Cathar’s job to oversee the fueling, but she and Marx had left right after the landing. Meduri didn’t blame them. The smell of vomit inside the passenger compartment had been overwhelming. Still, either of them could have opened the fuel caps without needing to get overdressed for the occasion. He fumbled with the latches on his narrow chest and freed himself from the space suit. As he did so, he saw Marx and Otto approaching from the walkway that bordered the lake.

The attendant wrestled a python sized hose free from the pump on the back of his truck. He threw it over his shoulder and mounted the ladder. Using its heavy handles, he twisted it onto the fuel port.

“Don’t see too many Ferrelans way out here,” he commented. Meduri shrugged in response. The attendant lowered his voice. “I also don’t see many ships that drop out of the sky and nearly burn me to death while I’m spraying for weeds.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

“Terribly sorry about that.”

“It’s a good thing I can run so fast. Somebody really should have a talk with your pilot.”

“I already have. But if you would care to register a complaint, here he comes right now.”

Marx was sauntering past the truck with Otto alongside. The attendant glared at the pilot with undisguised animosity, but held his tongue. Marx turned his back to the ship and muttered to Meduri, “What’s this guy’s problem?”

The professor noticed his cut knuckles.

“You have been in a fight.”

Marx slowly turned his gaze from the fuel attendant and surveyed his hands.

“I suppose I have.”

“You were only gone for fifteen minutes! I thought you wanted to keep a low profile.”

Marx exhaled heavily through his nose and folded his arms. It was clear that he didn’t want a lecture.

“Did he hurt anybody?” Meduri directed his question to Otto.

“That’s difficult to tell, sir. I do not know if telephones can feel pain.”

“Telephones?” Meduri inquired.

“The captain engaged in combat with a phone booth. He made a good effort, but the booth is still standing. I suppose you could consider it a tie.”

“It wasn’t the kind of fight,” Marx said, “where anybody wins.” With that, he trudged toward the ramp that descended from the ship’s tail.

“Marx,” the professor called after him, “Where is Cathar?” The captain paused mid stride and turned back with a puzzled look of on his narrow face.

“She’s not inside the ship?”

“I thought she left with you,” said Meduri.

“No, she was still here when I left. Did she say anything?”

“I didn’t even see her leave.” For a long moment, the Ferrelan and the pilot just stared at each other until Otto broke the silence.

“Perhaps she went to the restroom. It seems like you organic people are always doing that.”

“That could be,” said Marx, “The cabin does reek. Otto, go check the nearest ladies room. I’ll get the cash for the fuel bill.”

Professor Meduri waited for several minutes. He saw Otto returning alone from his errand. The vessel was fueled, and Marx had not returned from the hold, so he asked the attendant for the total on the fuel bill, and then climbed the ramp to get the money himself. Meduri was surprised to find Marx in the cargo hold, standing next to an open trunk and loading a bolt-action rifle with a long wooden stock. His face was grim, and his hands trembled as he pressed the rounds into the magazine and closed the bolt.

“Am I missing something?” Meduri asked, trying to account for Averri’s frightening mood swing. Marx pointed to a gray metal box that was lying open on its side, next to one of the tool lockers. Meduri recognized it as the Luft Ritter’s cash box.

“I found it empty,” Marx explained, “and Cathar is gone. Does that seem like a coincidence to you?” Meduri’s mind raced through several explanations, coming to rest on one that he found revolting, yet unavoidable.

“I’m … sure there must have been a reason,” he stammered, trying to reconcile his high opinion of Cathar’s moral character with his unpleasant conclusion.

“Well, I’m going after her. No time to lose.” He fished a pair of apple-sized grenades out of the trunk and stuffed them in his pockets, where they made absurd bulges.

“But Marx, we can’t just assume that she… ”

“Professor Meduri, I know you are a highly educated Ferrelan. But sometimes you have trouble with the obvious. It’s perfectly clear that somebody has stolen all our money and abducted our Cathar. I’m going to find this kidnapping thief, and perforate him!” Marx left him in the hold, blinking in disbelief. Although Meduri had spent the majority of his life in school, no curriculum in the galaxy could have prepared him to understand the mind of Marx Averri.

E N D   O F   C H A P T E R

__________________________

Born in 1980, Grant Anderson came home from the hospital in a 1975 AMC Pacer. His parents tried to give him a normal life. However, when Grant began to drive this car on a daily basis upon his 16th birthday, all chances of normalcy were forsaken. Grant was raised in Norfolk, NE. After a brief respite in Lincoln, he now resides in Louisville with his wife, Sarah, their beautiful daughter, Rose, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Lucas. In his spare time, Grant is an avid reader and a military history enthusiast.  More than anything else, he is a loving husband and adoring father. At least, that’s what his family says.


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