We Celebrate the Falling Leaves

by Michael J. Albers

 

Late fall flowers dotted the mountain meadow except for the area around a scraggly tree that stood alone in the center. A black ring surrounded it, as if the ground had been doused in weed killer. Mark’s nose scrunched as he sat by his tent, looked at the tree, and wondered how it kept everything away.

Still pondering the tree, he heard voices on the trail. Mark shook his head and muttered, “Keep moving, please. I don’t really want to spend the night with people. Especially not that couple I passed a few hours back. They’ll never shut up.”

He watched a couple walk into sight and softly groaned. A dishwater blond ponytail, just brushing the girl’s shoulders, bobbed as she walked. They waved. He forced a smile and waved back.

“Looks like it could rain tonight,” the man said as they walked up. “Seems like you got a nice spot. Mind if we pitch our tent here, too.”

Yes, yes I do, big time, but I must be nice, Mark thought. “Naw, go ahead. It looks pretty flat and sort of sheltered over there.”

“Thanks. I’m Roger, by the way, and this is Clarisse.”

Mark nodded. “I’m Mark.”

Their matching gray hiking shorts looked new, as did Clarisse’s backpack. Roger’s gear showed only enough wear to take off the shine. Both wore tennis shoes rather than hiking boots. Roger’s hair was cut very short; Mark idly wondered if he normally shaved his head.

Their new gear contrasted with Mark’s, with its unraveling seams and multiple patches. If it wasn’t for the cancer eating out his gut, Santa might have lugged a new backpack down his apartment’s non-existent chimney. As it was, the doctor had told him he’d see Christmas, but spring was iffy. With another round of chemo scheduled for next week and the weather turning colder, he doubted his ragged backpack would see the woods again.

Roger set up the tent while Clarisse watched. They chattered on about a TV show Mark had never watched. He shook his head. Their tent went across the slope, not up it. Whoever slept downhill was going to get rolled into. At least his tent was too small to share if it rained and theirs flooded. Or maybe he’d just let Clarisse in. He rolled his eyes at the thought, as if a girl as cute as her had ever spared him a second glance.

Their campfire cooking ability matched their gear. Frustrated from watching their stumbling incompetence, Mark ended up cooking their freeze-dried beef stroganoff as the last sky glow faded behind the mountain. The rain clouds had blown through, leaving behind a cloudless sky with bright sparkling stars. He was thankful they all sat in comfortable silence staring at the occasional flicker of flame from the glowing coals. When he finally announced it was his bedtime, to his surprise, Clarisse hopped up and gave him a hug. “Night. Thanks for cooking supper for us.”

Mark lay in his sleeping bag, listening to Clarisse and Roger get ready for bed. He smiled; they were clueless, but likable. He had been alone too long; only thirty-eight and already a curmudgeonly old man. Curmudgeon or not, he hoped they didn’t get noisy before they went to sleep. Their murmuring voices filled his tent as he drifted off to sleep.

Drums, flutes, chanting voices. His eyes popped open to loud music. What the hell were Roger and Clarisse up to now? Ready to growl, he stuck his head out of the tent. A twirling column of people danced and pranced on a wide road that extended into the woods in both directions. A road that hadn’t existed when he went to sleep ran through huge trees that had replaced the meadow. Glowing balls flittered around above the dancer’s heads, lighting the road. He pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed a t-shirt, and crawled out of his tent. Roger stood by his tent wearing just hiking shorts and Clarisse wore very short bike shorts and had her arms high over her head, struggling with a sports bra.

She paused and looked over toward him. “Mark, what is this?”

He finished pulling on the t-shirt, lifted his hands, and shrugged.

Five dancers with waist-length silver hair whirled off from the group, full multicolored skirts floating as they twirled, and approached them. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse grabbed her phone from her short’s waistband, took a picture, and then grabbed Roger’s hand. “Come on! It’ll be fun. We can put pics on Facebook when we get back. Everyone will be jealous!”

Clarisse and Roger skipped and twirled into the swirling crowd. “Hey, you know when you go with the fairies…” Mark shook his head as he watched them blend into the dancers.

The dancers moved closer to him, their arms waved in his face, and they motioned for him to follow. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“What is this? One of those fairy things where I’ll return in a hundred years?”

The dancers joined hands and skipped in a circle around him. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“No, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Mark looked around and then threw his arms up. “Oh, what the hell. Why not? In a hundred years, they should have a pill to cure a bad colon.”

The dancers twirled and whirled down the road with Clarisse and Roger twirling and whirling with them. Mark walked, dodging the flailing arms. All three walked with bare feet and the spongy ground, which lacked thorns or rocks, tickled his feet.

The procession moved through the woods and approached a huge stone building. Large stones, many four or five feet across, formed the walls, which extended up about two stories with a crenellated roof. A heavy wooden double door blocked the end of the path. Mark noted how it resembled the deeply carved doors of medieval cathedrals he had seen during his college trip to Europe. The group danced up to the doors and formed a semi-circle around them. They raised their hands and chanted “Let us enter. Let us enter. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The doors swung open and the dancers swirled inside.

As Mark passed through the door, some of the dancers grabbed his arms and pulled him into a side room.

“Here,” one said “you must be properly dressed for the banquet.”

The dancers moved in and pulled off Mark’s clothes. He realized that other dancers surrounded Clarisse and Roger. In a moment, all three stood naked and, just as quickly, they stood dressed. Both Mark and Roger wore fine pale purple velvet tail-coats with tight black pants and knee-high boots. Clarisse wore a stunning pale purple velvet dress with a low-cut tight bodice and a full skirt that fell to just above her ankles. She smiled and flipped her hips, swirling the skirt.

“Now come. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The dancers grabbed them, pulled them through a different door, and into a huge room before they twirled off, leaving the three people behind.

More of the glowing globes floated around, lighting the room. Tables formed a large open rectangle. At the center of one end stood a huge chair with a high back. On that huge throne sat a man who wore a dark purple and red robe, dense with gold embroidery. A large golden crown on his head glittered, light sparkling off four large stones and many smaller ones. On each side of the throne sat other fancy chairs in decreasing heights, occupied by people wearing brightly colored clothes resplendent with gold and silver embroidery. The chairs on the other three sides of the rectangle looked normal sized and were empty. The close-set stone floor had a stair-step design that caused the side tables to drop down at one-foot intervals every few tables. The tables at the throne end were almost six feet higher than the other end. The large open space in the center contained an open stage set slightly higher than the throne table. Mark wondered if the people at the low tables could see the stage. He guessed the tables could seat a couple of hundred people and, looking around at the dancers still twirling around the room as more came in through the door, decided there could be that many.

Fast, rolling music came from the group of musicians set in the room’s corner. The group had a couple of recorders and flutes, three bodhrans of various sizes, and several stringed instruments he didn’t recognize.

Mark felt a touch on his arm. A girl with long silver hair wearing a green tunic stood beside him. He glanced at her ears and felt disappointed to see they were not pointed, but shaped the same as his.

“Come,” she said, “I’ll show you your seat.” She slipped her arm into his and led him to a side table that was only a step down from throne table level.

“Wow, a table so close to the bigwigs,” Mark said.

“You are our guests. Of course you sit at a high table.”

The dancers continued to stream and prance into the hall. When the last one entered, the doors slammed shut and the music cut off with the door’s bang.

The king, Mark decided since he sat in the biggest chair and wore a crown, he would call him the king, stood and threw his arms wide. “Come. Be seated. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

The dancers all moved toward their seats. From the way they moved, it was clear they knew their assigned places. Noting other people had sat down, he also sat and looked around. His shoulders lifted in a minimal shrug. Oh, well, he thought, thus far, except for the strange dance to get here, this isn’t much different from those medieval reenactment pictures Karen keeps bombarding us with at work.

“Mark, Mark,” Clarisse said as other servants, also wearing green tunics, led her and Roger to the chairs beside him, “isn’t this just so cool. I was trying to get some pictures and my phone just like died. Can you believe that would happen now? This is so cool.”

Mark sighed and looked at her. “Yeah well, I guess since we’ll be spending a hundred years here, it should be cool.”

Clarisse’s face scrunched up. “Huh? One hundred years?”

“Yeah. That’s how long the fairies keep you,” Mark said. “Haven’t you read those stories?”

“Oh really! Fairies! Be real. This is just so cool. I’ve got a group of girlfriends who get together every Tuesday for dinner and…”

The king clapped his hands and everyone went silent. He clapped again and the music restarted. From a side door, a troop of people in motley poured out, raced through the gaps between the tables, leaped onto the stage, and began a wild tumbling routine. Servants, all wearing matching green tunics, moved around the tables and placed clear goblets of a caramel-colored liquid before each guest.

Mark reached for his glass and then froze. Oh, yeah, he thought, going with the fairies is bad enough, but drinking or eating their food is seriously bad. He turned to Clarisse and Roger, “Hey, we really should… oh, too late.” He watched as Clarisse and Roger both took big swallows from their goblets and popped a little brisket from a basket on the table into their mouths.

Clarisse smiled at him, “What did you say?”

“Never mind.”

He picked up his own goblet and stared at the liquid as he swirled it. It seemed slightly thicker than wine. He gave a slow nod. “Guess you’re right, Grandma. In for a penny, in for a dollar.” He lifted the goblet in a toast. “Here’s to the next hundred years. May they be better than the last three.” A smooth sweetness rolled across his tongue and left it tingling.

The banquet continued with rounds of food and drink, each accompanied by a different group of entertainers. Mark relaxed and enjoyed the food and entertainment, but wished Clarisse and Roger would stop babbling about how cool everything was and how she wished her phone worked. As a group of jugglers ran off the stage, the king stood and pointed at the three of them. “Dance for me; for all of us.” He waved his arm and pointed to the stage. “Dance for me; for all of us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse and Roger jumped out of their seats and trotted up onto the stage.

A little tingle moved up his spine. Mark moved his head between the musicians in the corner and Clarisse and Roger, who had began to dance wildly to the music, their arms swinging in wide arcs. Her full skirt swirled; her legs flashed with high kicks. His head drooped. He didn’t like dancing, but he did feel obligated to dance a little to repay their host for his generosity. He certainly didn’t feel like dancing that wild ride Clarisse and Roger were on. He stood and idly wondered if once he started would he spend a hundred years dancing like a maniac? With a shrug, he walked onto the stage and picked a spot well away from Clarisse and Roger’s wild arm and leg flings. Shaking his head at them, he started to dance.

He stopped, stunned by the silence. The music surrounded him again. He started to dance again and once more the music went silent. Yet, when he stopped, it was back. Glancing at Clarisse and Roger and the party guests, it was clear the music only stopped for him. He stood motionless and let the beat of the bodhrans fill his head. Behind him, he heard a snicker. Glancing around the room, he noticed that although most eyes focused on Clarisse and Roger, a beautiful lady sat at the corner of the lowest level of tables smiling at him. Her silver hair was almost invisible beneath flowers entwined in it as they spilled past her shoulders and out of sight below the table. Her eyes bore into him, sending shivers through his body. “Oh geez,” he muttered, “One hundred years of dancing to no music?” He started to dance again and again it disappeared. He paused and the music returned. “Ok, now this is getting irritating.”

The servants distributed flower bouquets. The partiers cheered on Clarisse and Roger and tossed flowers one by one onto the stage. When a flower struck Roger or Clarisse, it stuck and they rapidly transformed into bouncing bouquets. The few flowers that struck Mark fell to the floor. He stumbled, slipping on a flower stem, and he saw a half smile cross the lady’s face. He turned away and shook his head to clear the distressing flashback of a bad college party where a hot sorority girl had teased him for a short time before flittering back to her friends.

Enough, he thought. He lifted his hands and shrugged at the king. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find the music and I’m not much of a dancer anyway. I’m sorry. Those two are much better.” He waved his hand toward the gyrating flower bouquets of Roger and Clarisse.

The king’s jaw dropped and color drained from his face. “Dance.”

Another light tingle moved halfway up his spine. Mark shook his head. “I’m sorry. No.” As he walked off the stage, he thought he heard a giggle come from the direction of the lady who had been staring at him. Damn it, lady, he thought, don’t make fun of me now.

The king leaped up. His heavy high-backed throne tipped backwards and crashed to the floor, drink trays flew as servants scattered and one yelped as it hit her in the shoulder.

The room went dead silent, except for Clarisse and Roger who kept up their wild gyrations with their feet stomping on the floor. Everyone stared at the king. He glared at Mark. “You, dance!” He stabbed his finger toward the stage. “DANCE!” His voice reverberated through the room.

“I really appreciate the dinner,” Mark said, “and I did dance for a minute or so, but I’m just not into dancing, sorry. And your music. Nothing personal, but when I dance, I can’t hear the music.”

“DANCE!” The king pointed both arms at Mark, his hands trembling. He swung his arms as if to toss Mark back onto the stage. He clapped his hands. “Music. Play.”

The music resumed. As Mark plopped down in his chair, the lady at the end table burst into hysterical laughter.

Hey, lady, what is your problem? Mark thought.

The king pointed at the lady at the far end. “You, my dearest sister, silence.” He ran over, grabbed Mark’s shoulder, yanked him to his feet, and shoved him against the table. Goblets tipped and wine soaked into the back of his pants. His face hovered inches from Mark’s as he screamed, “DANCE!”

“Ow. Hey, damn it. I don’t care who the hell you are, you don’t shove me like that. My regrets, but may I be excused?” Mark unclenched his fists and glared at the king.

The king’s bright red cheeks pulsed. His head rolled back as he screamed. A room-shaking, terrifying scream.

Again the music stopped. Only the stomp of Clarisse and Roger’s feet and the increasingly hysterical laughter of the king’s sister filled the room. Mark realized she now stood beside him. She wore a pale purple dress that matched Clarisse’s. Her thick silver flower-entwined hair reached to her knees.

She placed her hand on Mark’s forearm. “Wait. You don’t want to be excused now. This party is about to get very entertaining.”

“And so.” She stepped up to stand face to face with her seething brother, who had a good eight inches on her. “You sold your soul to steal my throne. To rule until you couldn’t enchant a human.” She spat in his face. “Did eternity come quicker than you expected?”

Mark heard distant trumpets blowing.

A gasp went through the hall.

“I still rule. He will obey me.” He pushed the lady aside, grabbed Mark’s jacket, and pulled him nose-to-nose. Sour wine and spicy cheese breath filled Mark’s nostrils. “Dance! Now! Dance!”

“The Black Rider comes. Give me your crown,” the lady said, “For you, it is forfeit.”

Galloping horse hooves mixed with the trumpets, shook the entire building. Many of the guests, mostly from the king’s end of the tables, leaped to their feet and frantically looked around.

The king shifted his grip on Mark’s jacket and lifted his heels off the floor. He screamed, his nose touching Mark’s. “You will obey. You. Will. Dance.”

The sound of the horses and trumpets stopped.

The king’s face went pale. He turned his head toward the far wall and tossed Mark away. “No. He can’t be here. No!”

A loud trumpet blast shook the building. A section of the wall crumbled and large stones tumbled inward across the floor. Four riders, dressed in solid black on jet black horses, leaped through the hole and soared over the rumble. Three of them carried trumpets; the fourth rider rode up to the king and looked down on him.

“I believe you owe me a debt payment.”

“No, no. I can still make him dance. I know I can.”

“Silence.” The Black Rider laughed. “I upheld my part and now, my payment.”

The king struggled but said nothing. Mark realized that the command for silence had been more than a basic request to shut up.

The Black Rider reached down and pulled the crown off the king’s head. “These two stones are mine.” He grabbed the two largest jewels and ripped them out of the gold, twisting the crown and leaving torn edges around the settings. He dropped the gems in a pocket of his cloak. Then he pulled off a large purple one. “And this one is your sister’s.” He jammed the crown back onto the king’s head. “You no longer deserve such a fine crown. We should melt it down.”

Mark watched in horror as the upper edges of the gold folded over and sagged down. With a scream of pain, the king tore the crown from his head and flung it away. It clattered and bounced across the floor before coming to rest against a wall.

The rider reached into his cloak and pulled out a golden circlet. He pushed the purple jewel he had just torn from the crown into it, smoothed the gold edges with his thumb, and tossed it to the king’s sister. “Lentara, your crown and your power.” He bowed to her in his saddle. “I trust you’ll wear it better than your brother.”

“And now,” he pointed at the trembling king, “my payment.”

The other three riders began to play their trumpets in what resembled a fast swing tune. The king and many other partiers began to whirl, imitating Clarisse and Roger in their wild gyrations. The other riders wheeled their horses and, still playing, leaped over the rubble pile. The former king led the dancers as they clambered after them, slipping and sliding on the stones while they continued their dance. Clarisse and Roger, still covered in flowers, moved with the group.

“Wait,” Mark yelled, “you have no right to take them.”

The Black Rider spun in his saddle to face Mark. He tossed up his hand and everything froze. Dancer’s arms and legs hung suspended in space.

“What?”

Mark’s knees went rubber under the glare. “I said,” he gulped. “I said whatever deal you made could not have included Clarisse and Roger.”

“And how can you know that?”

I can’t, Mark thought, I guess I really can’t. He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

“No. No, wait, I do know. If you knew they would be here, then you knew how the deal would end. That means you didn’t make a fair deal.”

“My deals are always fair.” For a long moment the Black Rider stared. Then he laughed. “Fine. Humans mean nothing to me.” He waved his hand and Clarisse and Roger disappeared. “They are back in your world where they belong. Satisfied?”

He turned his horse and everyone started moving again. He rode up to the rocks and turned. “Lentara.” He saluted the lady and then his horse soared over the pile of rocks. The trumpets stopped; silence echoed through the room.

Lentara smiled as she positioned the circlet on her head. The flowers entwined in her hair fell, surrounding her feet in a rainbow of color. She lightly touched Mark’s elbow. “Thank you. My brother stole my crown with a pact that he would rule until he couldn’t enchant a human. He was stupid enough to believe that meant forever.”

Mark looked around the room, now missing half the partiers. “So, am I stuck here, or do I go home to find a hundred years has passed?”

The lady laughed. “The hundred years is your world’s story. Time is time; even we can’t do that.”

“What did he do with Clarisse and Roger? Did he really send them back as he told me? They were irritating, yes, but they don’t deserve anything bad.”

Lentara started, staring at him. “The Dark Rider responded to your challenge?”

Mark nodded.

“Then he returned them. The Dark Rider is many things, but he never lies and doesn’t play word games.”

“That’s good to hear.” Mark buried his face in his hands. “Oh well. Now I can return to my life for the four months or so that I’ve got left.”

“Four months? No.” She shook her head, sending ripples through her long silver hair. She tilted her head, a puzzled look on her face and stared at him for several seconds. “No, you have a long life before you.” She placed the fingertips of both hands lightly on his forehead and slowly drew them down across his face. “I owe you my crown; we owe you a great debt. When you need me, I will be there.”

*****

Mark’s eyes popped open, the morning light faintly illuminated the top of his tent.

Gasping, he rolled his head both ways. “What the hell?” Finally, his eyes fixed on his backpack.

“Whoa! Yeah, I’m camping. What a dream. What a crazy-ass dream. Must be some delayed chemo drug or pain drug reaction or something.” He took a big breath. “Wow. If this becomes the norm, it’s going to be hell.”

He crawled out of his tent. The mountains still blocked the sun, but the sky was well lit. The spot of Clarisse and Roger’s tent stood empty. He frowned; no way could they break camp without waking him. The frown deepened. The ground where the tent had stood was undisturbed. Several pale purple flowers grew there.

“Man, were they part of the dream, too?”

He looked toward the meadow and stumbled as his knees turned to rubber. The lone scraggly twisted tree had transformed into a large tree, dense with leaves in flaming fall colors.

“No doubt about it, I need coffee. Lots of coffee. I wish I had brought whiskey. Lots and lots of whiskey.”

He tugged his backpack out of the tent and flipped it open to pull out coffee and a breakfast MRE. His jaw slowly worked up and down.

Trembling hands lifted the golden crown out of the pack. The three sharp edged holes showed where the gems had been ripped out, and the melted top had run down over a row of smaller gems. The base was dented and smashed.

“Oh, shit.” He looked over to the pale blue flowers.

“So, Clarisse and Roger were here last night. Oh crap! Does anyone know they were hiking here?” He looked down the trail into the woods. “He said he returned them. Are they ok? Where are they?” He set the crown down and swallowed hard. “I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.”

He lifted his head, forehead scrunched up. “Wait, she said I had a long life before me.” His hand touched his stomach where the constant pain of the past year was gone.

“I’ll just tell my oncologist the fairy queen owed me one.” He smiled. “Bet she’ll get me a fast appointment with a different type of doc.”

 

The Nearest Vessel

by Michael J. Albers

 

She appeared next to him only half-materialized, the stars visible through her body and an incoming comet’s tail extending from her head like a bad cowlick. “We’re not going to Breenken.” She had appeared as a rather average girl with long brownish-red hair, looking vaguely like a composite of the girls he’d dated in college, at least the ones he wanted to remember.

Roland shook his head. “What do you mean ‘not going to Breenken?’ We’ve got a full load of colony start-up supplies. I thought the captain told me, who told you, who made sure we got there, not vice versa.”

“There’s a ship in distress, and we’re the nearest vessel. New jump time is fifteen hours. I’ve modified course.” The Ship’s image turned and walked off dissipating into the star field.

Roland yelled after her, “Fifteen hours! What star? Details, please! I’m the damn pilot and suddenly I don’t have a damn clue where the hell we’re going.” But the figure had faded to nothingness against the stars of Orion’s Belt. “Shit, Captain Wilson will go supernova! Not that I ever really have a bloody clue about this Orbber ship, but at least it has always gone where I told it. He’s going to go bloody supernova.”

No, the captain will not be happy at all, Roland thought, especially since I don’t even know the name of the star we’re going to. Or even if it’s a single jump. Shit, I better tell them. 

Roland sighed and mentally signaled the system to return to normal haptics and he once more felt himself half reclined in the pilot chair’s deep padding.

A touch on his forearm. His view of his arm didn’t have anyone touching it, but then, he sat alone in his view of the control room. A control room he had designed as a spacious gauge-filled, geeked-up image from one of the campy flat-image movies he liked to watch. His jacked-in world appeared nice, crisp, and clean; it never contained other people. Yet, he knew reality was much different. Roger, an engineering assistant, would be sitting beside him in the cramped confines of the real control room, maintaining the auxiliary systems. In addition, one of the other pilots, Jenny or Rick, or Captain Wilson, or any other crew member may be standing around. With the change in the jump clock, he knew Wilson would be standing there, building to a full head of steam.

This was going to hurt. He opened a chat window and thought the words on it. “Who’s touching me?” Interacting with the outside world while jacked-in was difficult, the Orbber drive fed so much input through the jack that his brain had a hard time handling any additional inputs. Unlike some pilots, his brain simply refused to simultaneously interact with both ship control and the real world. The difference in perception gave him a splitting headache within seconds. The Ship could show up in his jacked-in vision, but no one else could.

Words appeared below his. “It’s me, Jenny.”

“Hi.”

“What’s going on? We changed course, increased speed, and decreased the jump clock by nine and a half days.”

“We sped up?” Roland mused, more to himself than Jenny, “I always sort of thought we traveled at top speed.” His head started pounding.

“Umm, yeah, me too, I guess. But the Ship?”

“It said we’re going on a distress call with jump in fifteen hours.”

“And?”

“And then it turned and walked away. Not unlike most other women I’ve known.”

A playful dig of fingernails bit into his arm. “Told you to bathe. The captain wants to see you when you unjack.” He felt a brushing motion across his forearm, their simple signal to return back to the private pilot’s world.

Closing the chat window, Roland willed the ship’s walls to fade away. Jet-black sky sparked with stars all around him except for the light yellow disk of the Sun which blocked a major chunk of his dead-ahead vision. Earth was a blue dot behind the ship, as they were already over halfway to crossing Venus’ orbit line. Sweeping across Roland’s foot, looking almost like he could stand on it, the long comet tail which had earlier sprouted from the Ship’s head, glowed. Behind him shimmered a translucent image of the ship populated by greenish images of properly working sub-systems, the yellow image of the fan with a bad bearing, and the red image of the sanitary pump being overhauled. As long as everything remained mostly green, all was well with the ship’s systems. He had the strangest feeling that if people were included in this vision, they would be turning red, especially the captain. Not a patient man at the best of times, Captain Wilson was going to be spun up with this undetermined jump change. Yes, most definitely, he’d appear as a bright red flame. Maybe even as bright as the pulsing red-hot iron hammer flailing inside Roland’s head.

He sighed. So we all ride a ship on a rescue mission to somewhere. On a ship that doesn’t see fit to tell its pilot where the hell that somewhere is. Only an hour and half eternity of this pounding headache until Jenny relieved me.

After his watch, Roland sat, eyes closed, in the dim light of his stateroom, willing the brain fog to clear. His bare arms and legs tingled as the fan wafted air over their hair. He breathed deep and slow, drawing the vanilla-cinnamon spiced cabin air deep into his lungs and completely expelling it. It was a routine every pilot went through; each pilot developed his or her own method of returning to the real world. After six hours of virtual inputs from the ship jack, essentially being disconnected from the universe, reconnection was a dizzy fuzzy time.

The bunk trembled slightly with the vibration of the ship’s various fans and pumps. Captain Wilson had done his own stint as a pilot and understood the futility of trying to get coherent answers from Roland until the brain fog cleared. But Roland also knew he didn’t have much time to shake it off. Headache still pounding, he sipped a glass of juice, a tangy mix of berry-flavored something or other.

Fog tendrils still formed a tangled web across his thoughts and vision as Roland refilled his juice glass and stepped out of his cabin to go find Captain Wilson. He discovered Wilson waiting, not so patiently, outside Roland’s stateroom, reading something from a tablet.

“What distress signal?” Captain Wilson said. His finger tapped rhythmically on the side of the tablet, a sign he was tense and not in a mood for anything.

“I don’t know,” Roland shrugged. “She walked up, said we were going on a rescue mission since we were the closest ship. And then she left.”

“What system? What distressed ship?”

“Not a clue. I asked; she didn’t say. I have no idea what star or even if it’s a human ship. Hell, it could be an Orbber ship for all I know.”

The tapping grew faster and louder.

The captain shook his head. “Great. There’s too much here I don’t blasted understand. The ship suddenly seems to have received a distress signal from another star. We change course and start going faster than I thought possible. What is it with those Orbbers? They give away star drives but not interstellar communicators, even though their own blasted drive AIs seem to talk between stars just fine.”

“True, the Orbbers haven’t given any of the space-faring races an interstellar radio. But somehow every ship drive knows what every other ship is doing.” Tap, tap, tap. Roland choked back his next words, realizing he had fallen into his habit of over-explaining the obvious. There were times when it was best to keep interactions with Captain Wilson as terse as possible, and he was suddenly very sure this time was a list topper.

“And we suddenly find out our ship has these unknown speed capabilities,” Wilson slammed his palm into the bulkhead. “Damn it, it’s my ship and we are supposed to be going to Breenken.”

Roland winced as the slamming sound reverberated through his head. “Yes, your ship, but Ship says we’re going to rescue something.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Rescuing something. The question is exactly what is that something. Scheduling boys on Earth are not happy about this.” The captain stomped off toward the control room.

Roland retreated back into his stateroom. He lay down and resumed his deep breathing exercises. Staring at the stars painted on the ceiling, he wondered if it really was an Orbber ship that was in distress. Would they finally get a chance to actually see an Orbber? Thus far, none of the six space-faring races claimed to know what an Orbber looked like. Orbber ships everyone had seen, including the first time, when three of them had come flying out of the sun, stopped at the moon’s L4 and L5 points to drop off a bunch of spheres, did a close flyby of Earth’s atmosphere, and dove back into the solar glare. The spheres proved to be 257 star drive units; all that humans had to do was build ships around them. But even learning that required a Kreen trading ship to enter the system and explain to Earth what those 27-foot jet-black spheres were and how to use them. And to explain the jet-black tube which melded itself around a potential pilot, who was shoved back out 47 minutes, 18.3 seconds later with a system jack at the base of the neck, a full set of pilot skills, and no memory of the process. Or, for about thirty percent of potential pilots, a boring wait, until the rejected pilot crawled back out with no clue about why he or she had been rejected.

The fifteen hours until the jump passed uneventfully. The Ship never appeared to either Rick or Jenny with more details. Not that that was really unusual. On routine trips, the Ship typically only appeared once. Space tugs pushed them clear of a station dock, then after the ship drifted clear of the station, the Ship appeared to the pilot, asked for the destination, and then disappeared again. The job of a pilot was not to actually pilot the ship, but to act as a go-between with the Orbber drive. Maybe thirty seconds of contact per six- to eight-week trip, but if there wasn’t a pilot jacked in, the drive shut down instantly and the ship, defying all known laws of physics, stopped dead in space without so much as rippling water in a glass. All of the six space-faring races had Orbber drives and were puzzled by the rule. No one had any real theory as to why the Orbbers insisted on having a pilot who obviously wasn’t required. Some comedian claimed it was because the Orbbers were an overly unionized species and the pilot was a leftover from early space travel days. Sadly, while made in jest, Roland conceded it was as good a reason as any he had heard. Likewise, and much more important to each race’s leadership, none of the space-faring races had any solid explanation of why the Orbbers made star drives and just dropped them off without fanfare or communication. Or why they delivered more when the previous shipment had ships built around them. Or how they knew when to deliver more. Or why they kept taking survey vessels only to inhabitable planets, unless the survey team wanted to examine something specific. Or, as hyped by the paranoid and conspiracy types, why all six space-faring races had received their Orbber drives within the last 35 years. This impromptu rescue mission would really provide fuel to those people.

The jump clock in the control room counted down the final minute. Four people occupied the control room. Jenny was jacked in as pilot, sitting slack in the control chair, head rolled to one side. Roland and Wilson stood to either side of Jenny, looking out the viewports. Karen, the ship’s engineer, sat at her panel with its green glowing holos of the ship systems. The question on everyone’s mind was just how far and where were they going. They had crossed inside Mercury’s orbit line five hours earlier, a trip which should have taken two weeks. The sun filled the viewport; without the protective shield of the Orbber drive, the ship’s skin would have melted. As far as they could tell, this was the deepest into the solar gravity well any ship had ever penetrated before jump. Normally a jump occurred well outside of Mercury’s orbit line. The physics types of all the races agreed the drive used the energy of the gravity-warped space close to a star to power a jump, but also admitted they were clueless about the physics. Jumps from bigger stars definitely gave more distance; no one had come up with a better answer than hand-waving about gravitational energy. But if closer meant farther, then how far was this jump with the ship this deep in the solar gravity well?

Roland sighed, for when he was jacked in that instant of jump repaid the isolation of being a starship pilot with a million-fold interest. He always made the entire ship transparent and floated among the stars, waiting for the sudden shift in their patterns. Watching from the control room was not nearly as exciting.

The jump clock reached zero and abruptly the stars changed. The jump felt different. Normally, a jump had no feeling, no lurch, no bump—the visible stars simply changed. People not watching a viewport had no indication a jump had occurred. But this time both Roland and Captain Wilson felt it, a deep gut-level twist that had no real physical basis. Their confused, surprised eyes locked for a few seconds.

The sun, which had filled the space ahead of the ship, was replaced with a huge bright star in the rear viewport. Two large sunspot groups marred the surface and a tall looping prominence soared from the top like a feudal Japanese topknot. A jump to a large star was expected; class O and B giants were common intermediate jump destinations with their huge masses providing longer jumps. Seconds later, the navigation computer beeped: “No constellation matches on visual star maps. O class star has no specific stellar spectral match. Approximately twenty minutes for pulsar triangulation.”

Jenny murmured, “One hour and four minutes to contact and stop. Configure and power up two containers with life support suitable for Clen-Clen, but they are not Clen-Clen.”

Karen groaned as she pushed up her VR visor and turned to the captain. “Clen-Clen. We’ve only got four containers with integrated life-support and those are designed for humans, not those aliens. That nasty corrosive Clen-Clen atmosphere will totally trash those containers. Honestly, I’m not even sure how long they’ll function in that configuration. Plus, they’re configured to snap in as a space station component, not transport. Whoever they are, they’re in for a rough ride back without seats.”

“Prep three,” the captain said, “take two all the way and have the other ready as a quick replacement backup. But leave out the nasty stuff on the third. Wait, if you don’t know about length of time till no-op, leave out the nasty stuff until the last possible minute. ”

“Leave out the nasty stuff in a Clen-Clen atmosphere and it’s called vacuum.” The engineer dropped her visor back down as her fingers flicked the air working virtual controls only she could see.

“By the way,” Karen said, “the containers are not on the outer surface. Getting to them will require our guests to move through access tubes.”

“Finally, something good, “ Wilson grumbled. “At least we’ll see what they look like.”

The Orbber drive, when it was active, provided Earth-standard gravity, regardless of their actual acceleration; an acceleration value no one really wanted to know right now. Slightly under an hour after jump, during which the star had shrunk to a much smaller size than it should have, they acquired a visual on a damaged ship. At a high magnification, they could see it visibly growing larger at a much faster rate than when they approached a station. It was almost like an animation of a vehicle coming in at top speed, slamming on the brakes, and skidding to an abrupt stop inches away from a wall. Exactly one hour and four minutes after Jenny announced it, the ship stopped 100 yards from the alien ship. A ship that was ripped and twisted almost in half with the two halves out of alignment by almost 45 degrees. In one half, a large hole occupied the center of the section. Stars shone through the gap. Halfway down the other section was a second hole, smaller but it didn’t seem to penetrate completely through the ship.

The center break and twist was the same place as the Orbber drive occupied on Roland’s ship. But this ship was a completely different design. All six space-faring races had similar designs, dictated by the Orbbers. Every race had to use the same design; any variation and the Orbber drive simply said it was wrong and refused to move. Their ship had a 700-foot long, 30-foot diameter central hexagonal tube which just fit around the Orbber drive sphere which sat at the middle. The control room and crew quarters occupied the shaft from the drive to the front end and life support and other control systems occupied the other half. Around that center shaft, attached in a 14 by14 configuration, were cargo/passenger containers which were all 48 feet long and 10 feet square.

Roland thought the damaged ship, on the other hand, looked more like a space luxury liner out of those campy old movies he based his virtual control room on. Undamaged, it would have been a huge cylinder with numerous dimples projecting outward. It was also at least twice as long as their ship and much wider, even when they carried a full container configuration. Plus, it seemed to be a single unit, nothing resembling containers broke up the surface.

“Interesting,” Roland said, “that smaller hole doesn’t show any signs of melting or pressure damage. It looks like a giant punch just removed a chunk of hull.”

“My scan results are even more interesting,” the engineer said, her face still hidden in the VR helmet. “Or lack of scan. I can tell the ship is there, but I get nothing clear on either magnetic or spectral scans. All fuzzy wuzzy.”

The captain released a long deep-throated growl, “What do you mean, fuzzy?”

“I mean like spread thick translucent grease over a viewport and then look at a spaceship. Everything blurs into a meaningless blob with enough detail for shape and little else.”

“Shit.” Captain Wilson turned toward Roland. “Grab a camera and take pictures with the highest telephoto we’ve got. I don’t know how it’s blocking our scan, but we need to figure this out. Right now, I don’t trust integrated sensors to record anything.”

“My bet is on Ship filtering the scan signals,” Roland said, “Never heard such a thing before, but everything about this trip seems to be unique. What’s that? At the far end from the damaged section?”

Everyone’s eyes shifted toward a couple of small vessels with long manipulator arms that had moved away from the damaged ship and approached Roland’s ship. Everyone watched silently as they crossed the distance and started pulling cargo containers loose.

“What the hell are those tugs doing with my cargo?”

“Interesting,” Karen said, “they’re pulling exactly the ones needed to get to the containers I prepped. How do they know which ones?”

“I’m more interested in how quickly they work. We take a hell of a lot longer to move containers.”

Roland moved up to the viewport, taking pictures of both the damaged ship and the small tugs.

As each container was pulled free, the tug backed up, swept the container to the side, and released it before moving in to grab another. Soon, a collection of containers hung free around both spots which held the prepped containers. None of the free containers drifted with respect to the ship. Roland wondered how you can swing a large container and stop it on a dime with no drift adjustments. The captain’s fingers tapping echoed through the control room.

The work continued until the prepped containers pulled free. Then, as efficiently as they were removed, the other containers were repacked with the two prepped containers fitted into the top layer. As the second one was being put in place, a third, larger vessel left the damaged ship. It mated with the nearest newly positioned container. After a few minutes, it drifted over to the other container. While it was at the second container, both tugs mated with the first container and then drifted free, slowly tumbling and obviously no longer under command. Through all of this the alien ship never tried to communicate with Roland’s ship.

Everyone stood silently watching the operation. Roland jerked at the sound of Jenny’s voice, “Three seconds to acceleration. One hour twenty-four minutes to jump.”

Wilson slapped the control panel. “So glad I get to make decisions about my ship.” The wrecked vessel was already visibly smaller.

“Eng, where are we?” the captain asked.

“I don’t know. No pulsar match. We’ve got six pulsars IDed, but none match the database.”

“Damn it, calibrate that fucking equipment. We cannot jump far enough from Earth to not have matches.”

Roland shook his head thinking about the 3D pulsar charts he had studied during his Earth-based pilot training and how the instructors had assured the class that almost every pulsar in the galaxy had been mapped. Now they had six pulsars that didn’t match.

“The equipment is in cal. I think it’s all scrambled, just like my scan toys,” the engineer said.

The drumming of the captain’s fingers shifted to all five fingers trying to punch through the hard plastic panel. “My ship goes where I want it to go.”

When it was time for the return jump, Roland had relieved Jenny. Strangely, he couldn’t shift everything to transparency this time. Also, none of the normal container telemetry existed on the two containing their guests. All he could see were black boxes. Kerry, an engineering assistant, had volunteered to go container diving to read direct monitors, but Captain Wilson had nixed the idea. The Ship seemed intent on ensuring the contents remained hidden and he didn’t want to risk anyone physically approaching them. Plus, the access tubes hadn’t been reconnected to those containers, so the idea was moot. The containers fit tightly together with interlocking ports. Under drive, the ship’s surface was inaccessible since the Orbber drive wrapped itself tightly around the ship structure in a pure mirror-like coating.

Roland watched the jump clock countdown to zero and had to be content with sitting in his empty virtual control room watching through virtual viewports as the stars changed. But jump brought darkness instead of new stars. They floated in a black nothingness close to a single blazing star. “Great gods,” Roland muttered, “are we sitting someplace between galaxies?”

A ship hung 100 yards away which looked to be a twin of the damaged one they had seen during the rescue. Four tugs with their long manipulator arms floated close to their hull. Within seconds, they pulled the two occupied containers free and moved back.

The Ship appeared directly in front of Roland, with only a poorly rendered head rather than her normal full body that looked totally real. “Jump in six seconds.”

“Jump in six seconds? With no star?” Roland wondered if he had said it aloud.

The Ship blinked out as the jump clock floating before Roland counted down. Stars appeared around him. A full bodied Ship appeared looking like she always did and spoke, “Twelve days, 14 hours, 43 minutes to first jump. Then 18 days, 3 hours, 39 minutes to Breenken jump.”

“Two jumps! We made it here in one.”

“It’s a long trip.” The Ship faded away.

Unheard by Roland, Wilson was still releasing a string of profanity which had begun when he saw six seconds on the jump clock.

After clearing his brain fog, Roland went to the wardroom to eat. He found Captain Wilson, Karen, and Kerry staring at a display of a highly pixilated image.

Kerry looked up, “Hey, Roland, welcome back to the land of the living and home of the highly confused.”

Roland looked at the image; an involuntary shudder ran through his body. “What is that?” he asked.

“This is a super-duper blowup of one of the pictures you took of the ship we rescued. Jenny spotted this little blip just over the edge of the wreck. So, we enlarged it and found what looks like a huge station.”

The captain tapped the keyboard and an image of the wrecked ship filled the upper corner with an arrow pointing to a white smudge peeking out below the hull. “I don’t think we were supposed to see it at all. That wrecked ship was too perfectly positioned between us and it. But the wrecked ship drifted enough that this came into view in the last photo as we departed for the jump point.”

Roland dropped into a chair, looking at the image. “So it only shows in this one image?”

If it was a space station, it was either totally mangled or designed by someone with no sense of smooth assembly. Even highly pixilated, it was obvious that many sections hung at strange angles and looked as if they were ripped wide open. Two small blips only a couple pixels long, possibly ships, floated nearby. Assuming they were the same size as the damaged ship from their rescue, the station was huge, dwarfing the ships. Much larger than any station either humans or any other space-faring races had considered building.

“Did a big chunk of space debris hit it? Or maybe… no, never mind.” Roland asked. Yet, even as he asked, he knew it wasn’t caused by space debris. He had the strange sensation of knowing, but not really knowing, and not knowing how he could possibly know.

The captain looked at him. “You feel like you know but can’t place it, right?”

Roland nodded.

“I was watching you when you first looked at it and I saw that shudder. Jenny and I both felt that way when we saw it. It took a little bit to realize we both felt it.”

“So, all three of us with pilot jacks feel we know without knowing what is going on? Has Rick seen it?” Roland leaned back and shook his head. “I’m still too brain fogged for this type of discussion.”

“After two hours of staring at this, we’re all brain fogged,” Karen said. “It seems the only thing we really know is that all of the pilots here have a deep feeling they know the answer, but haven’t a clue what that answer is. What we do know is we have a single image of a huge space station ripped to shreds which the Orbber drive tried to hide. It’s too big for an internal explosion. Likewise for a single hit of space debris, although a highly fragmented asteroid might have done it. Perhaps they blew it up before it hit, but the pieces didn’t spread enough. But it seems any race that can build that thing can push an asteroid out of the way. Or it was attacked.”

Roland stared at Karen. “You’re saying the Orbber drive took us into the middle of a war zone?”

Wilson sighed. “Their war zone, someone else’s war zone, who knows. We weren’t there long enough to even start a pulsar match and no spectral match for either that star or this big baby we’re falling into now. So we have no fricken idea where we were or where we are now. Hell, it might be a science research project gone bad for all we know. Maybe just a highly explosive atmosphere that rips everything apart.

“The science and intel guy and gals on Earth will have a heyday with this.”

“They’ll have more theories and fewer answers than we do.”

Roland’s head spun and it felt like everything shifted to the right and back again. Hands against his forehead, he stood up. “Be back later.”

Lying on his bunk, Roland stared at the stars he had painted on the ceiling and considered how everything formed a bigger swirl than the galaxy painted in the corner. A strange rescue comes out of nowhere. A mangled space station. And his head starts spinning every time he thinks about it; no, the head of anyone with a pilot jack starts spinning. Something was definitely wrong here, but specifically what? Ok, he had always accepted the Orbbers had some ulterior motive and now there was a data point to prove it. He had never been one of the paranoids, but also wasn’t one of the overly accepting types who believed the Orbbers were just a super benevolent race freely giving away all the star drives you can build ships for—the Ancient Ones in the Engineer’s cheesy science fiction novels. As he drifted off to sleep, the image of the mangled space station popped into his mind and his whole body shuddered; the answer existed right at the edge of his thoughts and yet did not. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was that the real answer would come sooner rather than later and he didn’t think humans were going to like it.