"We're coming out of jump!"
I grabbed the arms of my chair to steady myself as the ship shuddered.
The pale, uniform glow beyond the pilot's canopy rippled, invaded
by black stripes that grew rapidly wider, until the only white
remaining was the sparse shimmer of stars against the emptiness.
Marks guided the ship though a smooth turn and a small sun slid
into view, its rays painting everything in a faint pink hue.
"Status report!" I barked.
"All clear," responded Mullins, checking his instruments
calmly. "Nothing moving nearby and all the lights on my board
I shifted in my seat so that I could see around the navigation
officer's broad shoulders, sighing as I did so. His readouts gave
every indication that this was as boring an expanse of space as
I'd ever laid eyes on. Such were the joys of the Space Exploration
"No planets detected?" I asked, hoping I'd misread something.
"Nope," he replied with a yawn and a stretch. "No
major debris, either. System looks pretty much empty. Want me
to do all the usual mapping anyways?"
"Yeah," I told him. "Take some star readings too.
Maybe something weird will pop up while you're at it."
"Alright." He didn't sound too hopeful.
I turned to Marks.
"Nate, you might as well start plotting the jump to the next
star on the list. I get the feeling we won't be staying here long."
"Will do, boss," he answered. "You gonna go and
get some shut eye?"
"Sure am," I told him, rising from my seat. "Unless
you think this is too much excitement for you two to handle on
"Woohoo!" hooted Mullins sarcastically.
"I think we've got it under control," added Marks dryly.
The hallways were empty as I my made my back to my quarters. Another
day, another worthless solar system. Maybe I should have taken
that post on the courier vessel based out of the capital. Maybe
I should have studied harder for my finals at the Academy.
About thirty seconds after closing my door I was already in bed.
Undressed, hair down, and teeth more or less clean.
I'd have to talk with the captain in the morning. I was definitely
feeling stuck in a rut.
Someone had turned on the lights.
I rolled over to shield my closed eyes and my hands landed on
something colder and harder than the mattress I was expecting.
What the hell? Had I fallen out of bed?
"First Officer Warren? Are you okay?"
I opened my eyes.
I was lying face down on top of a large speckled rock. A slight
breeze blew against the side of my face. It was alive with the
scents of nature, not the stale chemical tang of the Wanderlust's
I recognized the voice that had spoken as the captain's but it
took me a moment to collect myself enough to respond. I felt strangely
groggy and my body ached all over.
"Karen?" he said. His voice was closer and sounded slightly
With Herculean effort, I forced myself into a sitting position.
Captain Brian Johnson leaned over me. He was solidly built, if
not particularly tall. His dark, glossy hair framed a face that
was sharply angled, but not unattractive.
His deep brown eyes were currently squinting at me with a hint
"I'm alright, Brian," I told him gruffly. "Just
"Damn! I was hoping you'd know what in blazes was going on,"
he grumbled. "I leave you the bridge for a routine jump,
retire to my quarters, and wake up here."
At this, he motioned upwards with his hands and I raised my eyes
to follow them but could make out neither clouds nor blue sky.
A harsh illumination seemed to shine down from everywhere at once;
the light was strong enough that I had to look away after only
a moment. It was as if the sun was everywhere in the sky.
I lowered my gaze and met the captain's once more.
"What the hell did you do with my ship?" he asked.
"The jump went off without a hitch," I told him, managing
to keep my voice level. "The system was devoid of planets
or anything else of interest, so I ordered Marks and Mullins to
do the standard mapping procedure then went off to catch some
I paused for a moment, considering.
"Same story. Made it to bed okay, woke up here."
"Hmm," said Brian, rubbing at his chin.
"Oh, probably nothing," he said, making a dismissive
gesture with his hand. "Just thinking that if our memories
stop around the same point it might be a good sign. Like maybe
we're not nuts, we're both just missing something."
I got up off my rock, noticing the pale, thin grass carpeting
the ground. I was surprised to see that I was wearing shoes. In
fact, I was decked out in full SES uniform.
So was the captain.
"I just wanted to point out that my clothing is different
than I last remember. So, either I changed at some point and can't
recall it, or someone else dressed me."
"Good point," he looked down. "I hadn't even thought
about that, but the same goes for me."
We studied our surroundings in silence for a moment.
We were on a rocky little hill. It was part of a small cluster
but mostly the land hereabouts was flat, stretching unbounded
in every direction.
I heard a soft moan from somewhere nearby. Brian and I looked
at each other then took off scrambling over the rough terrain.
"Over here," he called a moment later. "It's Jenkins."
Tom Jenkins was the Wanderlust's Computer Maintenance Engineer.
He was shorter than me and his baby face and dark, smooth skin
gave him a childlike appearance. Talking to him always made me
He was lying in a small crevice between two rocks that jutted
out of the hillside.
There was a scrape on his forehead that was coated with dried
blood, but otherwise he looked none the worse for wear.
Brian and I each took an arm and dragged him to his feet.
"Where am I?" he asked, trying to shake his head clear.
"Damned if we know," said the captain bluntly. "What's
the last thing you remember?"
He scratched at the back of his neck.
"I was working on a glitch in the ship's heating system.
I'd lost track of time and when I looked at my watch I saw it
was hours past the end of my shift but I figured I might as well
keep at it a bit longer and get it of the way. I don't really
remember anything after that. Maybe I fell asleep at my keyboard?"
"Do you fall asleep at your post often?" asked the captain,
one eyebrow quirked upwards.
Jenkins looked down, scraped at the ground nervously with his
"I wouldn't say often," he replied.
"It doesn't matter," I reassured him. "We don't
remember how we got here either."
"We'd better look for the others," said the captain.
"For all we know the entire crew could be somewhere nearby.
Let's check out the rest of these hills, but stay close and keep
your eyes open."
It didn't take us long to canvas the area, but we found no one
else from the Wanderlust and no footprints or other evidence
that they had been in the area recently.
It felt like about an hour since I had awoken but the intensity
of the light from above had not altered, and without a watch I
had no way of reliably telling time.
"Let's take inventory," said captain as we huddled together
catching our breath. "My pockets are empty. I've got nothing
but the uniform on my back. You two?"
After patting ourselves down for a moment, Jenkins and I shook
"Right then," the captain continued. "We've got
not no food, no water, no weapons, and no tools to construct them."
He paused for a moment. Jenkins gulped audibly.
"I suggest we each grab a nice rock, preferably one with
something of an edge, and head down onto the plains. Our biggest
concern for the moment is finding a source of water. Once we accomplish
that, it stands to reason there'll be food somewhere nearby. This
grass doesn't look too healthy, but at least we're not in a desert.
Odds are there's a river or at least a pond around here somewhere."
I picked up a lopsided stone that was rounded on one side and
fit nicely in my palm. It wasn't anything like sharp, but the
end was fairly thin and I might be able to hone it into a rough
edge given enough time.
When the other two had made their selections, the captain led
us down onto the plain. He made a wide circle of the hills, bending
here and there to dig in the dirt with his bare hands and rub
the earth between his fingers.
"That's strange," I heard him mutter to himself under
"What is it, sir?" I asked.
He stood up and brushed his hands on his legs.
"I'm not sure if it's anything," he said. "I wish
McCraw was here."
Dick McCraw was the ship's resident biologist.
The Wanderlust carried a small store of frozen animal embryos
and crop seeds in her hold. Just enough for the crew to establish
a small colony on a habitable world in the event that the Earth
was ever threatened and humanity's best chance at survival was
to make a new start in a distant sector.
More likely, the stock would be put to use if the ship was ever
too damaged to complete the long voyage home.
McCraw was tasked with maintaining these stores, as well as studying
any extraterrestrial life that we uncovered.
"Take a close look at the grass," the captain told me.
"It's overgrown and under-watered, but otherwise it looks
like something I'd grow on my lawn back in New Jersey. Not exactly
He was right.
"Do you think it's grown from the Wanderlust's stock?"
I asked him. "That there was some sort of emergency and we
had to find a planet to put down on?"
The captain shrugged.
"No way of knowing," he said, shaking his head. "But
it further improves the chances that we'll be able to find us
some food that's safe to eat."
"There isn't much difference in the dampness of the soil,
but I figure our best bet for finding water is this way."
With that he turned to his left, motioned with his head for us
to follow, and started walking. I fell into step behind him and
after a moment Jenkins ran to catch up.
We walked on in silence for a long time. The ground climbed and
dipped a little in spots, but otherwise there were no discernable
landmarks. The plain threatened to go on forever, endless empty
Just as I was thinking this, Jenkins suddenly perked up beside
"What's that?" he asked, pointing towards a lump in
the grass several yards away.
Before I could respond, he was off and running towards it.
"Jenkins!" called the captain, annoyed. "I said
to stick together!"
The computer officer ignored him and kept going. Brian threw me
an exasperated look and I offered a shrug in response. We followed
at a more cautious pace.
Nearing Jenkins' position, I saw that what he'd found was a small
patch of shrubbery. So much for the excitement.
"Hey, look at this!" Jenkins said, leaning over to pull
away some of the leaves so that we could see the knee-high plants
more clearly. "I think we've found a grove of rogue bonsai
He was right, they weren't shrubs after all, but tiny little trees
growing close together with twisting branches intertwined.
"Well, don't just stand there," the captain chided,
giving him a little shove. "Help me dig them up. We can find
a use for the wood."
There were less than a dozen of the trees, no more wood than your
average bundle of sticks, but I felt better at the prospect of
a fire somewhere down the road. It made me feel a little more
"Which way now, Captain?" I asked. With no sun and no
clear landmarks, I hadn't the faintest idea how he'd managed to
keep us walking in a straight line. Maybe he hadn't; maybe it
was all a brave soldier act to keep us from losing hope.
He looked back the way we'd come as if getting his bearings, and
without hesitation pointed slightly to our left.
"This way," he said, leading onwards.
At least he looked like he knew where he was going.
We must have walked for most of a day but the light wasn't getting
any softer. I wanted to keep on going but Jenkins was too winded
to continue, and realizing this, the captain made us stop and
Brian handed me some branches and I spent some time scraping one
against my rock to sharpen a scrap of wood to a point.
A deep bellowing reverberated through the air. It was clearly
animal in nature and it didn't sound friendly.
It was the first sound that I'd heard since we'd awoken that wasn't
of our own making. I started in surprise. Jenkins, who had nodded
off for a moment, jumped to his feet in confusion.
"Wha?" he mumbled.
"Shh," the captain reprimanded him quietly, finger to
his lips like a school teacher. "It came from over there,
not far off. Let's go."
"Wait," I said, holding up my hand. "We're going
to go towards the dangerous animal sounds?"
The captain shrugged in response.
"If you'd prefer to remain ignorant of what we're up against
and sit there waiting for it to find you first, you can be my
guest," he said.
"Aw man," muttered Jenkins.
We crouched down behind the captain, who led us onward. The noises
soon grew louder. Now I could make out a ferocious howling and
yelping as well.
"There!" hissed the captain, pointing.
"You've got to be kidding me!" exclaimed Jenkins.
I found the sight that greeted us somewhat baffling.
A small cow was running in panicked circles across the open ground.
It was hemmed in by a pack of stubby-legged basset hounds who
stood no taller than my knee. This scene would have struck me
as comic, if not for the vicious aggression with which the hounds
dove at the cow's legs, trying to drive the heavier animal to
As we watched, the quarry caught one of its pursuers flat-footed,
battering it aside with a sweep of its massive head. The canine
flew through the air and landed near us in a whimpering heap.
The other hunters backed away for a second in uncertainty and
the cow took advantage, charging forwards through the sudden hole
in their formation. The hounds let loose with another round of
baritone howls and sprinted off after their prey, leaving us alone
Brian watched them go, then crept quietly toward the wounded hound.
"Is he still alive?" I whispered.
The stone in his hands swung downwards in a brutal arc.
"Not any more," he said. "But on the upside, we
just found dinner."
I resisted an urge to vomit. Jenkins looked as if he were feeling
"Let's head back," continued the captain. "We'll
make camp for the night. Cook our food over a small fire. We'll
have to take turns on watch, though. We don't want to fall prey
to wild dogs."
I soon found my hunger was great enough to overcome my earlier
"What did we just witness?" asked the captain from across
the small cook fire.
"Hmm?" I asked.
Jenkins just stared at the greasy meat in his hands without eating
"Both basset hounds and cattle were in the genetic stores
of Wanderlust," he said.
"Imagine what would happen if they were let go on a planet
with no natural competition and nothing else to eat."
"The hounds would be desperate," I realized. "They'd
have to go after anything they could find, regardless of the danger."
"Exactly," answered Brian, reflected flames dancing
in his eyes. "Get hungry enough and everybody begins to look
He paused for a moment, rubbing his stubbly cheek.
"We'd better be careful with any critters we come across.
The ecology here has clearly been thrown completely out of whack.
We've got to assume anything we encounter is dangerous. There'll
probably be any number of things that'd be all too happy to eat
"I'm sure that'll help me sleep," joked Jenkins weakly.
"Sleeping lightly might not be the worst idea right now,"
suggested the captain.
He idly scratched some nonsense symbols in the dirt with a stick.
"Who wants the first watch?"
The evening passed without incident, but we all awoke cramped
and sore. The sky had never grown darker but I decided to consider
it a new day. Last night's dog was not sitting well in my stomach
but I knew the real culprit was dehydration. I could not remember
ever going so long without a sip of water in my life.
Brian ignored our muttered complaints and got us moving as soon
as he could drag us to our feet. Despite all his coaxing, it soon
became clear that we were only moving at a fraction of the speed
we had the day before. If we did not find water soon, we would
My fuzzy mind belatedly noticed that the captain was leading us
along the trail of the hounds we had encountered last night. I
wondered at the logic of this plan, for in our weakened state
I doubted we'd be able to fight off the beasts if they came upon
us, but I lacked energy to raise an objection or begin any sort
of debate. The three of us walked on in silence, our throats too
painfully dry for idle conversation.
Over the hours that followed, I became convinced that Brian must
have lost whatever trail he had been following. There was no sign
of lake or stream, and if anything the grass here looked more
stunted and brown.
Jenkins was the first to stumble, but Brian angrily pulled him
back to his feet and pushed him onwards. My shaky legs gave way
beneath me not long after but I forced myself back up before anyone
could stoop to help me. I fell many times after that but I refused
to stay down. I was afraid that if I stopped to rest I may not
be able to start moving again.
Eventually, Jenkins went down and would not get back up, even
at the captain's rather violent prodding. Brian hauled the man
upright, leaned him against his shoulder, and plowed on unsteadily.
I drew upon my reserves and hurried ahead to join him, grabbing
Jenkins by one armpit and taking on half of his weight.
Brian turned towards me and appeared ready to protest, then shrugged
and said nothing, silently accepting that he needed the help.
I couldn't tell you how long we went on like that. My life became
devoid of anything except the tightening of my thirsting throat
and the swish of the grass as I forced one foot in front of the
other, time and time again. The strange light from above beat
down on us relentlessly.
Finally, my foot caught on a stone or a piece of uneven ground
and I pitched forward. Jenkins' unconscious form landed painfully
on top of my back. I struggled to push myself back to my knees
but my arms lacked the strength. The last thing I remembered was
Brian pulling at my arms and dragging me forward along the ground.
Ice cold water poured onto my face.
I sat up, sputtering and furious.
It was hard to make out the figure standing over me. It must have
been bone white in color. All I could discern was a vague outline
against the dazzling light.
Several feet too tall to be human, its head was chunky and square.
Two tentacles waved from each side of a curving, barrel shaped
torso, gesturing between me and the small creek that lay nearby.
A rumble came from the thing's chest. I wasn't sure if that was
meant as emphasis or a sign that the thing was hungry.
It stepped back and I saw that it walked upright on two long,
skinny stilt-like legs that contained no joins. It marched away
stiffly and as I turned my head to follow its progress, I saw
it join a second creature of the same type that was waiting alongside
a small herd of cattle.
The two rumbled deeply back and forth at each other, gesticulating
animatedly with their tentacles, and the cows started off across
the plain. The two creatures followed along slowly behind them,
paying me no further mind.
"At least the natives seem friendly."
Brian was sitting on the grass behind me and slightly to my right,
an ironic smile on his face. Jenkins had dunked his head into
the creek and was noisily slurping up water.
I looked at Tom disdainfully for a moment before my own thirst
intervened and I crawled forward to join him, making a conscious
effort drink more daintily.
The captain waited until we had finished then gestured along the
"The water flows that way," he said. "We'll see
where it leads. If there's any form of settlement around here,
I'd bet on it being in that direction."
Jenkins failed to entirely stifle a snort.
"What's to say any settlement we find would be human?"
"It might not be," shrugged Brian. "It's still
got to beat being in the middle of nowhere. I'd rather not have
to hunt up another dog for dinner."
"Amen to that!" agreed Jenkins.
That decided it, so we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off,
and trudged alongside the path of the stream.
We passed small copses of trees here and there as we walked. The
grass had turned a much healthier shade of green. We met no watering
animals but we weren't being particularly silent, and there might
have been wildlife that fled before us. A pair of blue jays burst
from the branches of a tree as we passed beneath it, quickly becoming
dwindling blue specks in the hazy white sky.
Our trio had already stopped twice to rest, and I was beginning
to think that Brian would have to let us sleep soon, when we were
all startled by a voice calling out to us in challenge.
"Do not move any further!"
The three of us froze in mid-step.
"Who are you?"
I searched about wildly but couldn't locate the speaker. The captain
motioned almost imperceptibly with his head towards a small patch
of bushes near the creek's other bank. They rose only a few feet
from the ground and if he was correct then the speaker would have
to be practically lying prone to stay concealed. Still, I could
find no better source of cover.
"We were lost on the plains," called out Brian calmly.
tentacled ones found us and brought us here or
we would have succumbed to thirst. We mean no harm, we seek only
There was a long pause.
"What is your village?"
The three of us stared at each other uncertainly for a moment.
Jenkins shrugged in a way that I took to mean "say whatever
"Wanderlust," said the captain finally.
There was a rustling in the bushes.
Two men smoothly rose to their feet. Both held crude wooden spears
cocked over their shoulders and ready to throw. They looked like
island natives from a low budget movie, wearing nothing but short
skirts woven out of grass. Both were attractively muscular but
the younger couldn't have been more than fifteen. They confiscated
our pointy sticks and made us drop our rocks in the stream.
"We will take you to the village. Your fate will be decided
there," instructed the older. He gestured in the direction
we had been walking with the tip of his spear. "You walk
in front. Make no attempt to escape."
We marched on slowly, afraid to make any sudden movements. We
were shouted down when we tried to speak and soon ceased trying.
Fortunately, it was only a few moments before we had reached the
village, a sad circle of mud huts set atop a small plateau rising
a few hundred yards from the stream.
There we were quickly surrounded by a dozen more bare-chested
warriors and a middle-aged guy wearing a necklace of wooden slats
and small animal bones who I took to be the man in charge.
"Chan!" he shouted at our captors. "Who are these
foreigners and why have you led them to our village?"
The older warrior bowed.
"My apologies, sir," he pleaded. "Sergei and I
captured them heading along the stream and I was uncertain how
to handle the situation without your guidance."
"They are unarmed and claim to have been led here by the
When he said this the members of the tribe muttered softly and
made some sort of sign with their hands.
"Where do you come from?" demanded the tribal leader.
"The Wanderlust," answered Brian once more, this
time without any hesitation.
The warriors showed no reaction to this response, but their leader
was momentarily taken aback, though he recovered quickly and hid
his emotions behind a stern mask of command.
"You have done well to bring them here," he proclaimed,
to the obvious relief of Sergei and Chan. "Return to your
The two bowed once more and hurried off.
"Come," the leader beckoned us. "We will speak
more within my home. The rest of you get back to work!"
The crowd dispersed immediately. Our host walked towards the largest
of the huts. It was adorned with bits of wood and scraps of animal
hide for decoration. Two more tribesmen fell silently into step
"Now we're getting somewhere," whispered Jenkins under
The door to the hut was a curtain of leaves threaded together.
I was relieved when the warriors stopped at the door and allowed
us to proceed into the hut alone.
The interior of the structure was large enough to house more than
one family, but I saw only a pair of mattresses set off to one
side. There was a small, crude wooden table and some stuffed hide
cushions were scattered about the floor. A fireplace cobbled together
from mismatched stones dominated the center of the room.
Two women were slicing roots into a cauldron that hung above the
fire using stone utensils. Both wore dresses of woven grass that
were little more than loose sacks.
One was a handsome older woman, the other a young beautywhether
a daughter or a second wife, I couldn't tell.
"Begone," commanded the tribal leader imperiously, and
they did not hesitate to obey, though both looked back over their
shoulders with undisguised curiosity as they hurried out the door.
The fuel for the fire was not wood but some form of peat and the
stinging, sour smoke that filled the hut made my eyes water. The
man lowered himself onto the largest of the cushions and motioned
for us to sit before him on the floor.
"Let me start by welcoming you to Goodday," he said.
"My name is Winston and I am the head of our village.
"You know of the Wanderlust," he said with a
frown. "But from your strange dress I had assumed you must
be some type of priests of the Eldi.
"It seems that they have brought you to me for some purpose.
The question is what?"
"What can you tell us of the Wanderlust?" asked
Brian in return.
Winston eyed him coldly, as if insulted by the question.
"I have not been remiss in my duties!" he answered sharply.
"I too have studied the holy documents."
The captain raised his hands in apology.
"Of course," he said softly. "I did not mean to
imply otherwise. I fear that my own people have lost some of the
learning that you and your village may possess, and I wished to
share in that knowledge."
Winston scowled at us in suspicion.
"How do I know that this is not some form of trick? You will
tell me first what you know and I will decide then if you can
"Very well," said the captain, nodding in agreement.
He then paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "The
Wanderlust was a ship that could travel between the stars,
studying them and searching for new worlds and new peoplespeoples
like the Eldi."
He hesitated, looking to see how Winston was reacting to this
response. The village head simply motioned for him to continue.
"But something happened and the Wanderlust could not
continue her voyage. Was it a crash? A battle? I do not know,
but her people found themselves here."
"This is not known for certain," he said. "The
Wanderlust may never have come here, and though I have
heard it argued before that this was the case, I have also heard
those who believe that it never truly existed."
The captain looked at us. I could see him debating with himself
then coming to a decision.
"I can tell you that its tale is true," he said. "For
the three of us once traveled upon her."
Winston examined each of us critically for a long moment, then
with unexpected violence he exploded up out of his chair.
"Sacrilege!" he screamed. The guards came charging through
the curtain, leveling spears at Jenkins and the captain threateningly.
For a tense second, none of us breathed.
"Leave us," Winston commanded the guards. He turned
back to the captain. "How could this be when our village
has stood for generations? Do you claim to have lived three lifetimes?"
" fumbled Brian. "No, we do not."
Winston glared at us fiercely. He said nothing, just waited.
"Our memories have failed us," I told him. "Last
we knew, we traveled aboard the Wanderlust. Your world
is new to us. Perhaps we were brought here by the Eldi?"
Winston grew thoughtful; his eyes drifted towards the ceiling
as if he were trying to recall something. After a moment he rose
and walked away from us towards a stone chest I had not noticed,
which sat in the far corner.
He lifted the heavy lid with a groan and placed it off to the
side. As he removed the contents he piled them atop it. An assortment
of wooden trinkets and semi-precious stones came into view. Finally,
he withdrew a dark boxy object and walked over to place it on
the table before us.
Jenkins instantly perked up.
"It's a laptop!" he exclaimed in surprise.
He was right. The banged up case was covered in such a layer of
dirt and rust that I never would have recognized it, but that's
what it was.
Jenkins pounced on it at once, not even waiting for Winston's
permission before opening it.
I eyed the village head with concern, but he merely stood watching
the computer technician with interest.
"If you are really what you say you are, then you will have
no difficulty opening the forbidden files."
"Forbidden files?" wondered me and the captain aloud.
"Password restricted, no doubt," answered Jenkins, his
hands a blur of motion over the keyboard. "Nothing I can't
get into. How does this thing still have a charge is what I want
"Here," said Jenkins, turning the laptop, so Winston
could see the screen from where he stood. "Our personnel
Brian and I moved to stand besides Winston as Jenkins flipped
through screens showing our pictures and personal information.
"Trickery!" shouted Winston, but he was much less enthusiastic
this time and no guards came running in response.
"Well, what do you want to see, then?" demanded Jenkins,
his professional pride a bit ruffled. "I'll unforbid any
file you want."
Winston did not hesitate for a second.
"If it is true that we came from elsewhere, then I wish to
see our homeland," he said, his eyes gleaming with excitement.
"I want to know the origins of our people."
A few keystrokes later, Jenkins had a map of the solar system
displayed on the screen. A blue colored vector shot out from the
Earth, depicting the travels of the Wanderlust. As the
distance traveled became greater, the screen zoomed out to show
more and more of the galaxy.
Beside me, Winston gave a howl of triumph.
"Guards!" he cried. They were next to us in an instant.
"These foreigners are spies who would lead our enemies to
the village! Throw them in the prison pens!"
Again the guards paid me little mind and kept their eyes on the
It was a mistake.
I had Winston in a submission hold in a second. My attack had
taken him completely by surprise. The idea of a woman defending
herself must have been entirely alien to him. He was bigger and
stronger than I was, but with the grip I had on his arm I could
have snapped his wrist in an instant. I sent a jolt of pain up
his arm and he gasped audibly.
"Tell your men to lower their weapons," I ordered him.
He ignored me until I twisted again, harder.
"Do it!" he said angrily.
The warriors obeyed reluctantly.
Brian grabbed a spear and held it to Winston's throat. I released
my grip and let the captain take hold of him. Jenkins grapped
the other guard's weapon and held it awkwardly.
"Let's go!" said the captain.
"Not you!" he screamed at the warriors when they moved
to follow. "Unless you want to see you leader spitted."
They cursed at us but did not follow us through the curtain. We
were surrounded by practically the entire tribe when we stepped
outside anyways. The captain jabbed Winson lightly in the cheek
with his spear and at the sight of his own blood the village head
gave the order for no one to follow.
We made our way down from the plateau. Once the warriors were
out of sight, Brian bashed Winston unconscious with the butt of
his spear and hid his form in a stand of tall grass.
"Come on!" he called testily, taking off at a sprint.
"That won't buy us much time!"
"What's going on?" asked Jenkins. "I thought we
showed him what he wanted."
"I don't know," replied the captain. "Maybe he
wants to pass off what we taught him as his own discovery. It
might increase his aura of widsom and power."
"If you ask me, it'd seem pretty suspicious if he killed
us and uncovered the secrets of the universe a week later,"
panted Jenkins, struggling to keep up.
"Let's worry about it later," I growled. "Right
now we should concentrate on running."
As if to punctuate my point, a spear whistled through the air
and thudded into a tree trunk behind us.
We ran until exhaustion forced us to collapse, and when we'd caught
our breaths, we got up and ran some more. After what had to be
several hours, we lay cramped next to the stream, lapping at the
"I can't believe we made it," I said.
"Neither can I," agreed Jenkins.
"I'm not so sure we did," replied the captain glumly.
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"Those warriors were in better shape, knew the lay of the
land, and had to guess we'd return to the stream eventually,"
he said. "I think Winston called them off before they had
gone too far."
"Why would he do that?" I asked.
"Because he'd already won," said Brian. "He didn't
need to kill us or capture us because he had already learned enough.
Hopefully, he'll be no threat to us as long as we don't return."
We made camp away from the stream in a small scattering of trees.
The captain had us post a watch in case he was wrong about our
pursuers. I took the first shift and it passed without incident.
I woke Brian and was asleep before my head hit the uneven ground.
"Um, guys," stammered Jenkins. "I think you'd better
The man was clearly terrified. I bolted upright; beside me, the
captain did the same.
Jenkins was pointing a quivering spear at an Eldi who stood only
a few feet away.
Its flesh was fish belly white in the ever present light of the
sky and it wore some sort of metallic breastplate. Each tentacle
held a small plastic object; the way it shifted to keep them trained
on each of us as we moved gave me the impression that they were
some sort of weapon.
The Eldi's stomach gurgled and a voice spoke out of nowhere. It
took me a moment to realize that what I had taken to be armor
or some type of garment was actually a computerized translator.
"I wanted to come and thank you personally," it said.
"For what?" inquired Brian.
"Jenkins, lower your weapon," he added irritably. The
computer officer complied with the order, but the Eldi did not
return the gesture of goodwill.
"For providing us with the information we needed," it
"It has been years since we found your vessel. We could not
decode your language ourselves, it being so foreign to our vocal
functions, so we sectioned off a portion of this station to clone
and raise some humans of our own. The ecology you carried on your
ship was most helpful."
"Despite this, we had some difficulty making everything grow
and we found we had to restock the life forms constantly."
I remembered the Eldi who had saved us, herding cattle through
"Eventually, some of our humans remained alive long enough
to reproduce. We gave them access to your writings and recordings
and they managed to learn your language and in turn teach it to
us. But they were still unable to break the codes that would allow
them to access all the information in your computers."
"How is that possible?" asked Jenkins. "Have we
been kept in some sort of suspended animation?"
"Not at all," said the Eldi with a dismissive gesture
of one tentacle. "You were all killed during the capture
of your vessel when we found we couldn't torture the necessary
information out of you. We've cloned various members of your crew
over the years, tinkering with selective parts of their memories."
He swept a tentacle to indicate all three of us.
"I congratulate you. You are the first group that were both
willing and able to unlock the codes. That computer we gave to
Winston immediately transmitted us everything that you uncovered.
"He will be rewarded with a few bits of metal and perhaps
some minor technology. That will be enough to make him a great
king and he will never doubt his good fortune. Meanwhile, we will
use what we have learned from you to travel to your homeworld
and eliminate the potential threat that your people pose to our
The Eldi bowed slightly. I stared at it, so shocked I couldn't
"This project was my own design, so you have won me no small
amount of influence and fame. We have no more use for this place,
but to show my thanks, I will allow you to live out your lives
here before we destroy it.
"I wish you much happiness."
I was too stunned by the Eldi's claims to respond, but Brian let
loose with a pure animal cry of rage and hurled himself at the
thing. There was a blinding flash of light from one of the weapons
it held, and the concussion knocked us all to the ground. By the
time I had cleared my head, the Eldi was gone.
I jumped up to check on the captain, but he was already rising
to his feet.
"What now?" I asked.
He smiled grimly.
"We find some willing tribesmen and we plant the seeds of
revolt against the Eldi."
This comment sent Jenkins into hysterical laughter, a sound clearly
tinged with madness.
I tried to imagine an army of spear toting warriors charging at
a few of the technologically advanced Edli. I couldn't see any
outcome but death.
Brian would never give up the fight; it was not in his nature,
but that didn't change the fact that the battle had already been
I took Tom Jenkins in my arms and hugged him tight and we cried
for the end of humanity.