All he remembered was a fist in his face. That’s how it started. Jai, his best friend, tried to keep him out of it, but Commander Lontrelle Dickens felt like he always had to lead from the front. Now he was on his way back to Earth with a nail in his head. I know what you’re thinking. Lontrelle wasn’t building old-frame houses. It wasn’t that kind of nail, but more on that later. Coming back from Mars was going to take some time. How much would be decided by the fuel left on the shuttle. The crew left in haste to get him the expert medical care he needed. There were little more than half the fuel cells the ship needed, about 10 give or take, and the contents hastily checked.
Splayed on a gurney and belted in, Valou held his hand as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Looking out the windows, the stars appeared to be standing still, and Valou pointed to Earth, a shiny dot among them. She told him the pilot had them going at top speed, and the trip would only be a few days longer.
“How long have I been this way,” Lontrelle asked.
“I’ll let the doctor talk to you,” she said.
“Where’s Jai,” he asked another tough question. “He was with me. I thought he would have made this trip.”
“Do you even know what happened?” Valou asked. “They rushed you and Jai to Fry Hospital at the colony.” She paused to work through how to respond further, knowing he was still in shock. Anything she told him now could make him more unstable. “You’ve been in an accident.”
“No shit Valou, I get that,” he said, his frustration rising. The vitals scan triggered a soft alarm, a slow pinging noise. A computer voice urged him to remain calm. “Look, I know I’m hurt. I’m on a medical transport ship. And yeah, I know I’m going back home. What I don’t know is what happened to Jai. Now, are you going to tell me? Because I’m not going to shut up until you do.”
“He’s gone Lontrelle, OK? I’m sorry about that,” she said, letting the information burst from her. “But he saved you! He stood between you and that… that… thing.”
“That must have been one hell of a knock I took, because I feel like my head is going to split wide open,” he said, wiping his wet eyes and runny nose. He didn’t want to appear vulnerable in front of Valou. He had lost good friends before, but not like this. This was about his selfishness and stupidity, and making a rash decision.
“Yeah, about that headache,” she said. “I have to show you something. Are you ready for this?”
“Ready for what?” he asked with a weak voice and frog sitting in his throat. Valou got up from her chair to fetch her assault pack. She brought out her makeup kit, which puzzled Lontrelle at first. Then he realized why. Bringing out her compact case, she opened it, and in the small circular mirror, he saw the object causing his discomfort. But calling it discomfort was an understatement. Doses of pain killer masked the searing pain. He felt the throbbing burning sensation pulse to the rhythm of his beating heart. There was indeed a nail, a finger nail, like a giant splinter sticking straight up out of his skull, stuck there, vibrating, like a javelin when it hits the ground. Lontrelle passed out from the growing shock, while Valou continued to gently squeeze his fingers.
Finebaum found them first, Jai’s body sprawled over Lontrelle. The two of them had run from the Mordre’s beast leading it away from the main buildings of the colony toward an empty warehouse. It got loose while the Mordre was feeding it, releasing it from the cuff’s thick alloy linked to the equally thick bars of its cage. The Mordre absent mindedly left the cage door open trusting the sedatives which had apparently worn off. The beast, more interested in its freedom than the synthetic proteins made to look and taste like the carcass of a deer, saw the crack of daylight and made a break for it. It lifted the carcass to its jagged teeth to fool the Mordre, then pushed him over. No easy feat in more than three hundred pounds of armor, enough to repel the needle point claws and teeth of the beast – each between eight inches and a foot long.
Covered in white fur, it ran easily on two legs, while gangly arms and paws extended from a lengthy barrel-chested torso. The odd awkward shape slowed the beast the Mordre called a Ta’gloom. Lontrelle jokingly called it the abominable snowman. There were two of them, part of a deal to breed living transports and weapons back on Earth. Mars was a weigh station and a testing ground. Its keepers, the Mordre represented a vanishing race of giants from earth’s closest galaxy neighbor, Alpha Centauri. What makes the war beast valuable beyond their fearsome appearance is their ability to adapt in any climate as easily as chameleons change color. Normally, they can be controlled with brain inhibitors, they had not been fitted with any the day one had escaped. At least not yet. The inhibitors were being specially programmed with arms training and workload preferences during preparations to be shipped to Earth. Hence the sedatives.
Lontrelle, the security commander on duty, saw the Ta’gloom crash out the door of the cage, stomping its feet on Mordre, who could only groan. Lontrelle, no slight figure himself, slammed the alarm button. Jai, who stood next to him, followed his lead as he dashed to cut off the lumbering creature heading toward the opening of the hangar where the shuttles and fighter aircraft sat. But first, the beast would have to choose a path through the rows of crates filled with provisions for the manned missions designed to tame Mars. Defensive measures were kept as a precaution.
The Ta’gloom stood up on its rear legs and roared, seeing the path it would take. A handful of steps brought it past a few hundred yards of crates where a left turn put it in line with the huge sliding doors of the hangar. The two men raced out to the rover near the outer wall. There were guard posts at each corner of the expansive building, which covered five miles from end to end. Lontrelle and Jai were the closest. The seasoned commander chose to park the vehicle at the middle of the opening and aim its sonic canon in the direction of the rampaging beast. Using the non-lethal weapon would save the company’s investment, and probably his job. Lontrelle ordered Jai to fire the weapon which shook the air, but had little effect. The white muscular blob of fur kept trotting in their direction. One more failed attempt and they would have to disengage. Firing again, the sound waves rippled across its body. Picking up speed, the Ta’gloom was closing too quick. They wouldn’t be able to move the vehicle with enough speed. Jumping out was their only option. At the same time, Finebaum emerged from the latrine scared and confused by what was going on. He had heard the loud booms and rushed out of the stalls pulling his pants up.
He emerged just in time to see the large beast crash into the armored vehicle. It sat dazed, then shook its mane. Spotting the men, the angry Ta’gloom gave chase. By this time the Mordre regained his wits and shook off being stepped on. He was much quicker on the ground than any of the men and the Ta’gloom, leaping hundreds of feet with each step despite the heavy armor. The Mordre caught up with them, a noose and collar in hand, while the two men continued to draw the white shaggy creature closer to the empty warehouse.
Bucking the possibility of dying, Lontrelle held up light sword and a photon pistol. He had no choice. Either maim it or die. Jai had the same idea, and both guards fired their pistols. It slowed the creature, which skidded toward Lontrelle who stumbled sideways to avoid contact. That’s when the Mordre’s fist hit Lontrelle’s face, knocking to him to his knees. The wounded creature extended his paw in a last-ditch effort, while Jai dived to knock Lontrelle out of the way. Jai was impaled by most of the Ta’gloom’s claws falling listless over his commander. A small one pierced the commander’s helmet, which the medical staff later cut away with a laser, and determined Lontrelle would need more expert care. Each minute mattered in getting back to Earth.
He was “lucky to survive,” and “it was a miracle,” friends and other colonists had remarked in get-well holograms that he would eventually be deleted on the sick bay’s computer. He wanted nothing to remind him of his dead friend. The Mordre was taken into custody and detained until an investigation took place. His planet’s authorities raised hell among each other, knowing there was nothing they could do about it. They wanted to stay on good terms for business. Finebaum caught up to them in the hangar, saw the carnage and vomited in his space suit. He was passed out on his back when the medics arrived. Control had watched it all on monitors, helpless.
Valou was one of the medics who watched in utter horror, wishing she hadn’t. Now she couldn’t get the images out of her head. Jai was pulverized, something she would keep to herself. She knew Lontrelle had a wife and two kids back on Earth. His wife knew little. Mars Operations was calling it an accident. The problem was she was making it difficult for authorities at Control. She already called the central government on Earth, pestering a province coordinator for more details. She wanted to talk to her husband. She wanted to see him live on video, but Control didn’t want these pictures getting out into the public. Revealing classified weapons was not on their agenda. Not to mention Lontrelle’s impaled head might send her into a tizzy, which could send her talking to the media.
“I think we should tell him the truth,” Valou said. Her page boy haircut, soft cheeks, and pale green eyes pleaded the case with her bosses. “I’ll speak to his wife. I know she’d be pissed. Carla doesn’t deserve to be lied to, and those boys by extension… What if their dad doesn’t make it, and we make it worse than what it is?”
When Lontrelle came to again, he had to be reminded what had happened. The claw stuck in his head was affecting his short-term memory. But this time, when Valou gave him the mirror, all he could do was shake and deny this was happening. “This is a fucking nightmare,” he screamed, pleading with Valou to tell him more. “When do we get to Earth? When do I get home to see my wife?”
“We’ll get there in a few days,” she said, even though the truth of the matter was the ship was still months away. The pilot still had to adjust speed for reduced fuel. That or shed some weight, and it was already a bucket of bolts with a skeleton crew that had to ration food and water supplies. As Valou saw it, the race was against time, while she saw Lontrelle’s vitals began to deteriorate. The computer dispensed the necessary blood and plasma due to the internal bleeding, not to mention the medication that tamped down the pain, and kept his screaming to moans.
The calm female voice of the computer gave a litany of updates which he took in stride. Part of his military training for survival started to kick in. Yet, he would fade in and out and have his moments. That’s when Valou would sing to him the ballads of early Mars pioneers. She finally did tell him about Carla, and why the company couldn’t tell her about his condition, and that it was important if, and when Control would allow her to speak to him via video link, he refrain from talking about the classified nature of his case. His glum sad eyes prefaced his sharp comment. “Do they think I’m stupid? What do they think of us? Idiots, all of them. The only thing I’m not protesting is because if something happens to me, God forbid, I want my pension to go to her. They better take care of my family if this situation goes south.”
Valou could barely speak as she tried to spoon apple sauce into his mouth. “Eat this,” she said, almost in a hoarse whisper. “I’ll make sure that it happens Lontrelle. Don’t worry. You have my word.”
The computer’s alarm sounded, a slow-paced ping that seemed to echo throughout the ship’s corridors and small rooms, and out into space. It began to reel off the bad news. He could barely fathom the broken phrases about the claw stopping his brain from healing. “Shut that thing off,” he yelled. “I need to see my wife before I die. You gotta help me Valou. You can’t just let things be this way. You know Carla, you know my boys.”
“You’re not going to die,” Valou said with such confidence that Lontrelle quieted, and almost gasped. “You’re not going to die. And you want to know why? Ask me. Ask me why?” She didn’t bother waiting for an answer from the stunned commander. “It’s because you have so much to live for. You have a life waiting for you – your beautiful wife and your two beautiful boys. You hold on. I’m telling you!” She stood up and grabbed his arm, and looked straight into his brown eyes, mere inches from hope.
Finally, a message from Control came through. Back on Mars, Finebaum had been lobbying his bosses to reveal the truth. He told them the Mordre had threatened to share information on their end. A prolonged investigation, their authorities were running out of patience. They still had not received the body of the dead Ta’gloom, which they considered to be a breach of contract. Keeping the body, Mars Operations was accused of extracting tissue for possible clones. As for the animal’s escort, he could remain imprisoned under the Martian law which he had broken. He was considered a drone and expendable, but in keeping up relations, if that’s what Mars Operations wanted, they could extradite him. In this situation, Control felt it was only a matter of time before the news got out. Instead of facing too many questions, and the possibility of a lawsuit by the family for a wrongful death, the company was in danger of facing a marred reputation which it could not afford. The message was simple: “Allow Commander Lontrelle Dickens contact with his family.”
Valou set up the camera over his bed with tears in her eyes, seeing Lontrelle’s ashen face, and blood-shot eyes brighten. He laughed, but immediately began to cough, then stopped and took a deep breath. “I ain’t gonna die yet,” he said, showing his teeth, his lips upturned into gaunt cheeks and loose jowls. “That’s right,” Valou agreed, cupping his face. She took out her compact case and dabbed him with powder. It was a much lighter shade than his olive skin, but he said that it would be OK under the bright lights.
He thought he was dreaming when he saw their faces. Carla set the two boys in front of her, and talked quickly about all she had to go through to get Mars Operations to answer. “We love you. We love you, it’s been so long.” He could barely understand the spotty message as it was being transmitted. The delay made it even worse. “How are you feeling? Are you better? They told me about the accident. They said they can’t tell me everything for contractual reasons, but they said they’re going to give us a settlement. Is that right?”
“I’ll be there soon baby,” Lontrelle said. “Valou said it’s just a few more days.”
“What did they tell you,” Carla said. “What on Earth did they tell you? Oh, hell no honey. Please tell me you’re getting better, and they’re going to fix that problem with your head.”
The screen went blank. “What happened? What does she mean Valou?”
Tears streaming down her face. “This is all we could give you… I’m sorry. We’re months from Earth Lontrelle. I’m so sorry.” She buried herself in his chest as he winced from craning his neck to keep her cherub face in view. He laid his hand on the back of her head. She kept sobbing mumbling something about fuel. “I just wanted you to keep hope.”
The computer noted his elevated levels, and slipped him something to keep his heart rate steady. His heavy lids slipped shut, his big hand slipping from Valou’s head. She hugged him for as long as she could until his body stopped heaving and shivering. He had gone limp.
A door to the med bay opened, and a tall broad-shouldered man walked in. His auburn hair was styled like a Franciscan monk, and his gray jump suit adorned with shoulder boards and tiny gold epaulets, was marked with coffee and sweat stains. Through a stern gaze, he asked Valou a simple question. “So?” Moving from the door to a chair where she had sat most of the flight, he decided to spell it out for her. “So, what did he say?”
“What did he say about what?”
He asked the whole question slowly, spacing the words with emphasis on each syllable as if he were talking to a child. “So, what did he say when you told him we were out of fuel?”
“What does it matter? We’re too far out for a rescue.”
“It does because of all he’s been through. The man should be able to rest in peace,” the pilot insisted, feeling regretful. He had miscalculated on the fuel cells, in a hurry to leave Mars. The computer showed ten. There should have been a manual check. Instead, there were only seven cells and the computer only accounted for the containers, too late to adjust speed.
“I got that.” Valou lied turning her eyes toward deep space. “He said he was OK with it. At least he got to see his wife and boys one last time. That’s all he wanted. They better take care of them. Or, I’ll come back to Earth and haunt them myself.”
She whispered to Lontrelle: “It’s better to keep hope. That’s all I wanted for you. That’s all I want for anybody.” Then, punching in an override code, she pressed a button on the life support machine that sent an overdose of sleep meds to Lontrelle. “You got more than me. Godspeed commander.” The ship’s engines stopped. Life support would run out soon. Valou stared out the sick bay window. All she could do was listen to the loud silence of space.