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First Things First, Next Things Next
Fog wrapped Mesa Mid-Terra. But here some and there more, seethed a soft sooty gray smoke rising and, penetrating the ground’s mist. Up; it streaked among clotted swirling white clouds where the waiting layers of overcast hung and limped across the sky.
The Earth colonists’ recently renamed the well-developed sight that dominated the river basin of the Fly-Walkers, also renaming them Flivvers. While they embraced the misnomer for their tribe, the Flivvers shunned the more correct title for their largest village.
At the mesa’s base near a wide icy-chunky melt-run, a young Flivver named Windborne called to her brother, “What do you see?”
Paynore fluttered his thin wings and called back over the dozen paces from the far side, “Frozen stuff, thawing carrion, pieces of Hill’s City folk. And other broken things. Plenty of broken things.”
Paynore hung his head, and spoke from his heart
“Mesa’s sky-smoke sadly leaking
Down the slope’s mad river rushing
To the basin at my feet
Remnants of friend and neighbor
Bits of cloth to watch and savor
Why the absence? why destruction?
Why the loss of all thy lessons?
Love and art
Sky fire falls and rubbish making
Broken city for the taking
at my feet
“Thousands of talents scattered by Creator-Giver among the Fly-Walkers and my brother gets poetry.”
Windborne taunted her brother with a rhyme of her own:
There once was a squirrel
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of his
Fluffy, fuzzy, flippy-dippy
Big fat tail!
Paynore showed teeth.
“You and whose army?” said his sister.
The air stirred. Snow loosened from trees and fell. Dodging, Windborne notched an arrow, “This is bad. Follow me,” she said and with rapid wild wing-strokes took to the air.
Paynore tightened his quiver, began a zig-zag floppy air-climb to obey his sister, and struggled to string his bow in flight, “If we find anything it will chase us.”
“String your bow!”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
Windborne’s voice cut like an ice ax, “Pooping up a waterfall during spring thaw!”
The two punched through a chilly cloud layer and momentarily locked gaze on Hill’s City. Flaming arrows longer than their combine height and as big around as their legs hissed towards them.
“Plunge,” demanded Windborne and retracted her delicate green wings.
Paynore obeyed a bit late. Rockets’ red glare set him a-fire. Though un-hit he slapped his legs. Some flames extinguished. Some didn’t.
Windborne sounded quite far away, “Fold your wings, egg!”
By the time Paynore obeyed, all of his clothes were kindled. The smoking ensemble and its owner fell from the bottom of the cloud deck, “Where are you, Sister?”
He opened his wings. They caught fire too. A blob of ice-water hit the young Flivver as he touched down hillside. Rolling to a snow encrusted stop, he hollered, “Where… did; where did you…?”
“Here, King of Dunce-dumb.” Windborne landed next to him and threw down a pail.
“Where did you get a bucket of water?”
“And how did your stupid ass catch on fire?” She busied herself brushing assorted detritus, snow, and ash from her brother’s body. “You’re not even blistered. But there’s nothing left but you and your shoes.”
“The, uh; the um…”
“The hair down there is trashed-ash and gone. The boy thing’s still there. Ohooo, Dearest Mother, We flew near Hill’s City and thy son caught fire as if a god punished him.”
“What did I do? What god? Mom won’t believe you,” Paynore blushed.
Windborne crossed her arms and fluttered her wings. “What are you going to tell her? That off-worlders shot you?”
“They did,” said Paynore. He crossed his arms, and glared back.
“Yes, I guess they did,” said his older sister smoothly, “and destroyed Hill’s City too. C’mon; we need to walk a ways.” She took him by the hand, “Most of your head hair is gone too. You look like something that fell into a cook-fire.”
“’Flivver’ is slang for a junk car in 1940’s America, said Captain Carmichael of the Space Marines.” Actually Tommy Atwater said it.
“It’s 1930’s slang. The rest is correct: except the Captain part, and the Space Marines part and the ‘Whoever-promoted-you-made-a-mistake’ part, said Dale Truck-Michael the comely mascot of Torpedo Eight.
“AND, Doctor Benson Williams, Ol’ Ballast-Butt, the leader of First Contact named them. The Flivvers liked it and now the name is theirs,” Dale was not named Truck-Michael, but Smith.
Two Flivvers emerged through the fog shaking off snow. Tommy Atwater [alias Captain Carmichael] pointed and motioned up the trail. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,”
“Duh! What happened to you two?” said Dale.
“We got shot,” said Paynore.
“Most of your hair’s gone, Windborne,” said Tommy.
The plaintive Windborne frowned and sighed too. “What? There’s a Virgin’s Dance-Feast in three days,”
Dale lifted the hair on Windborne’s ‘good side,’ “Maybe we could plat it, Wendy, or comb it over. There was an Earth movie star in the 1940’s, Ver…, uh, Lake something: she combed hers over.”
“Who did the shooting?” growled Tommy. He picked up various paraphernalia and tossed them into their small flyer’s open cargo bay. He pulled out his sidearm, chambered a round and checked the safety ‘on’ before re-holstering it.
A rocket rattled overhead and exploded an Hundred fifty meters north splintering trees; raining bits of burning green wood. “What in the Five Worlds can that mean?” said Tommy.
A rocket fell fifty meters south; more blazing splinters, but three sets of eyes glanced about until Tommy yelled, “We’re bracketed!”
“Everybody in the hopper! NOW!” screamed Dale. Tommy made it to the command seat, flipped the master battery switch ‘ON’ and squeezed the starter.
Dale called target instrument readings, “Engine Rotation, Main burner light, Rotor movement, Heat Peak. Roll up the throttle. I’ll engage the governor!”
To avoid the aggressive incoming rocketry, the rotorcraft took off backwards. Tommy’s pedal action brought the tail back behind the nose. A rectangular shaped something bounced off the left landing skid.
“God, that’s the cargo door!” yelled Dale.
With the flyer climbing like a scared monkey, Tommy’s dodge of the former cargo door’s attempt to reattach itself to the flyer came just in time to clip a skid full of limbs from the top of an evergreen tree. Trailing various bits of falling foliage and a few pieces of dirty laundry, they put the incoming rocket-fire at their tail. The open cargo bay added a low pitched moan like a grade ‘B’ sound effect, from a grade ‘B’ ghost, in a grade ‘B’ movie from [when else?] 1940.
Paynore’s cry over powered the rotor’s popping, “Tree of those fire arrows hit where we took off from.”
“He meant three,” said Wendy over the interphone. “You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. Put on a headset, Egg.” She held one out to Paynore.
“They’ve adjusted fire. Ziggy a zag, flyboy,” said Dale.
Tommy made random, abrupt, tight turns and the rocketry continued to miss. “Their stuff’s dumb. It can’t adjust on its own, or we’d already be dead.”
“That can’t be right. If that’s the case why shoot at a moving target? Said the comely Dale,” Dale’s attempt to continue their joking might have worked better, if her voice didn’t shake and crack.
Tommy kicked control pedals. That brought the rotorcraft sidewise to direction of flight. Then he pulled his pistol and squeezed a shot towards, it seemed, nothing in particular. But a rocket in the near distance blew up.
“Oooo!” said Paynore.
“Nice shooting,” said Windborne.
“You super-lucky, freak-oh fly-person, go back to the main basecamp. We’re gonna need help. And fuel. Look-it the gauge; empty!” Dale’s voice was clear but still shook.
Tommy again kicked pedal encouraging the rotorcraft’s tail to follow its nose once again. When it did, he called, “Ta-Daaah!”
The Flivvers clapped. Dale didn’t. The fuel gauge momentarily showed ‘FULL’ but settled at ‘HALF.’
Anger cleared Dale’s voice. “What? Are you a magician too?”
“It’s got a floaty in the tank, old techno; bounces, moves,” Tommy sighed. “Don’t you remember? You’re cross-trained as a helo pilot too.”
They passed over Critter Kill Cliffs and abruptly were a thousand feet from the ground. “There’s smoke at the river bend near base camp,” said Dale.
The closer they flew to base camp the less it seemed it was there at all, “It’s not there anymore! It’s just a bunch of smoking holes. The river is diverted too. Oh God! Oh no!” Dale’s assessment passed beneath the rotorcraft: hole after smoking hole. The four young ones were alone.
Alone and with but a bit of hope, Tommy’s words were all they had. “The three un-manned satellite camps are scheduled to open today,”
“What about The Village?” said Windborne?
“We’ll look on the way,” said Tommy.
Dale rested her face in her hands, “I know where Shit Creek is,” she muttered.
“Believe and it will be given,” said Windborne.
“Give and it will be given,” said Dale.
“It’s all according to what you’re quoting,” said Tommy.
“Scripture,” said Paynore.
“Whose? said Tommy.
More smoke, The Village was gone too. Tommy lowered the flyer’s altitude to tree top level and turned north. Dale entered code into the flight management system. “The nav-satellite is on line and shows normal. The inertial navigation shows our position relative to our,” her voice cracked, “former basecamp and the three new, uh whatever’s. . .” Dales’ head bent over and she wept. “Two years out there, and then back for grad-school; what could go wrong, Mom?”
“Don’t follow a terrain feature! Just don’t fly down the river. That exposes us to ground fire from small arms,” said Tommy.
“This isn’t a military . . .” the rest of Dale’s reply went unsaid.
“I have the aircraft,” said Tommy.
“You have the aircraft, Boss,” said Dale letting go of the flight controls in front of her seat thus transferring flying duties to Tommy who was the Aircraft Commander and the more experienced pilot.
“Women don’t make good pilots?” complained Dale.
“Depends on the person; I had a lady instructor who . . . I see it!”
A ninety degree bend in the otherwise meandering river would be noticeable of itself, but the sheer face of an unmistakable flooded quarry with a sixty meter exposed cliff face and an embossed symbol thirty meters across made an impression not unlike the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and for the same reason.
“Who carved that? said Tommy.
“They said it was big; we can’t hide out near a, ah, billboard like that.” Dale’s voice lowered to a whisper, “Wendy, does it really glow in the dark?”
“Not every night, and usually not all night. When it’s bright, you can read stuff in your boat; down in the river. The moss glows and the Fire Bugs are all in it too. The rock wall has Lightning’s Stone plaited through it.”
“A rip roaring, though subdued, ‘wow.’ Sort of defines ‘coruscation;’ right up there in stone,” said Tommy.
“Core of scat? Glowing stone-poopy what? Fly-person, have you lost your poop-headed mind?” chuckled Dale.
“Naw; ‘coruscation’ means sparkly, flashy, or witty. Which way do you think the wind is blowing? Thank you for the mild complement. Most of our group would have said ‘shithead’ at the least, but you…” said Tommy.
“The wind is blowing upriver. We are approaching downwind. Where I come from we Nev-Ah say, ‘shit,’ but rather: poop, scat, feces, do-do, et cetera,” Dale reset the inertial Nav to ‘Zero/Base.’
Paynore followed the conversation with interest. Now, with a lull presenting itself, his question popped out, “Do the creatures where you come from produce more than one sort of shit? Or do they, maybe, have more than one ass?”
Tommy laughed so hard it moved the flight controls. The helicopter joined in their mirth with small spasmodic bounces. Pointed straight at the carved cliff embossment, Tommy started a rapid descent by reducing power and raising the helicopter’s nose to loose speed too. But the machine began to vibrate strangely.
A sudden drop and a severe yaw; the whirly-bird threatened to fall uncontrolled into the river, “It’s a full-on main rotor stall!” Dale yelled and yelled more, “Don’t decrease power!”
But Tommy did anyway, and the machine fell more but slowed its forward motion. First the nose pointed directly at the river, muddy but teaming with fish, then the nose raised pointing back into the wind, the exact opposite direction, the fall stopped but they now slid backwards towards the rock face and certain destruction; it seemed.
Tommy jerked flight controls. The machine hovered, near the cliff, over a small sandy stretch, headed into the wind with the tail rotor chewing on a small bush that gave up the ghost by splintering into chaff and dust.
“You could have killed us,” said Dale.
“I didn’t,” said Tommy.
“I need to pee,” said Paynore.
“Me too,” said Wendy.
“I’m a professional,” said Dale.
Tommy landed on the sand bar, friction-locked the controls, and got out; followed by the Flivvers.
Dale tried to be nonchalant, but failed. When the others returned from the bushes, she stood in the river with her pants in one hand and her boots in the other, “Did somebody change the uniform of the day,” laughed Tommy?
“I’m halfway there. Anybody got a spare shirt,” chucked Paynore.
Quite professionally actually, Dale said, “There’s medical, and toilette supplies here somewhere. We can salve Paynore’s burns. There will be soap as well.”
Behind a veil of vines and shrubs, a well-hidden entrance hindered rather than invited approach. “That torn spot; most likely,” said Tommy.
Inside; a smooth stone floor, softly glowing walls well laced with Lightning’s Stone, and the sound of running water greeted the four. An extensive cavern stretched out before them. Light, soft but clear with a golden tint, suffused the expanse.
After a two meter slide sidewise to get in, “Wow!” said Paynore. “I didn’t know it was like this. I thought it was all made up. Where are the fairies?”
“Fairies are the ‘all made up’ part. It’s obvious The Hall of the Ancients is not,” said Windborne. “I thought Mom told you. She told me.”
“I was jus’ making a joke! I ache. I need to sit down. I want Mama,” Paynore sat, bent over his head, and held his face with his palms. His smoke colored wings drooped.
“There’s tons of stuff here. Tommy help me find the medicals,” said Dale.
“Indeed, Pants-less Pauline, I hear and obey.”
Dale dropped her boots and pulled on her jeans, “Don’t break a leg hurrying. Did Pauline get a promotion?”
Tommy Put a finger to his cheek, “Truck-Michael, I’ve considered it. But. . . Forgetting one’s breeches. . . shows a certain amount of unprofessionalism.”
Dale cut Tommy short, “To trou or not to trou? ‘Trousers’ is the question?”
“Great; here’s some burn cream, a fifty pound box of easy open one ounce packets.” Tommy slapped handfuls into Wendy’s and Dales’ out stretched palms. He pointed, “Legs, arms ‘n’ wings. I’ll get chest and back. Here go Pay-pay; you do the ‘boy thing’ and your ass, but not too hard and not too long.”
“OK,” Murmured Paynore.
“What about his feet?” said Dale.
“S’good,” said Pay-pay.
“Dear Toadyone, why do you think it a machine? The native sentients fly. A rocket destroying, cloud dodging Machine? HA! Atmospheric flight is considered impossible by competent engineers.
“It was a malfunction of the rocket. You saw, and shot at, a tribe-creature and the projectile burst of itself.”
“It dodged; they. . .”
But the Toadyone was cut off in mid reply. “It wasn’t a machine. An air flight capable machine with wings moving fast enough to blur its image is not possible. Visible wings maybe; maybe. Blurred wings? Mechanical flapping? Somebody doped on duty; if they actually saw that. Are you doped?”
Toadyone belched an answer, “Yes, My Leader. The hill? Oh, I meant ‘NO, My Leader, the hill?”
“Burn it. Scrape it. Build our fortress; a castle. Build our base. Plant our crops.” The Leader smiled; not nearly so unpleasantly as usual.
“And the waste an’ sewage?”
“Pump-it-dump-it down the west wall. Show the locals who the new bosses are; eh?” He laughed.
Toadyone laughed politely, but thought: me hates to dump de poo-oo out de side de hill. So nasty. So wrong.
“We’re still counting heads, sir,” Lieutenant Windle Burr looked up from Ship’s Main Computer Console and added, “Reams of equipment got fried by the attack. We . . . ”
“Still counting? An old fashioned ‘mouse click’ or two should give you the location of every colonist, researcher, soldier, and flyer we got, son,” Major-General Willis Freeman was no one’s Daddy. Rather, he was: in command, in orbit, and somewhat in befuddlement.
“SRACON is still trying to sort out the bad guys approach and attack. Our sensors recorded the whole event. But . . . Evidently that ‘group of three moonlets’ really were artificial and the natural radio waves they were giving out were anything but.”
Major-General Willis Freeman spoke, his subordinate listened, “Burr, ‘enemy’ is a useful word to use. For use in this situation use ‘ENEMY!’ I don’t want to hear any bleeding heart liberal-progressive crap in a military conversation on my bridge. Ya, hear? What’s Natural about an artificial satellite? HA!”
“Yes sir. A great number of the latest personal communicators. . .”
“Were fried by the hostiles’ . . .”
“. . . electronic counter measures employed by our enemy, sir,” Burr almost laughed out loud, but he managed to make his partially smothered chuckle sound like a gag.
It looked a bit like a dead palm tree, yet obviously metallic. “Pultruding? Is that even a word?” Dale was not impressed.
Tommy tried to explain, “It’s extrusion, continuous extrusion of. . .”
“Defining bull-shit as monkey–manure is still as opaque as hell,” Dale laughed.
“Like squeezing toothpaste from a tube; only it’s plastic and that’s the result and it looks like the main rotor of a helicopter, ‘cause of that cabin bubble in the front.” The formation did greatly resemble the cabin of a rotorcraft with a dead limp palm tree on top droop-covering various sections of the artifact.
“EEEK!” Dale ascended.
The cluster of gray green not-palm-leaves drooping at the top of the may-be-a-rotorcraft’s mast caught her between her legs, and held her too.
“That almost looks like fun,” taunted Tommy.
“No it doesn’t! The thing has got me by the zipper!” Yelled Dale
Tommy began to laugh, “It looks like you’re in luh-ove.”
“No it doesn’t! Help me!”
“Does it hurt?’
Dale sighed, “No it doesn’t.”
After several unsuccessful tries to free Dale, Tommy used a small pair of plastex scissors from his personal first aid kit to cut her free. It took a while.
The two stood red faced trying not to look at each other. “Uh; thank you. I guess,” said Dale.
“My pleasure . . .“ began Tommy. He felt his face burn. “I; it wasn’t fun, uh I mean. . .”
“Shut up! You’re embarrassed, and so am I. My underwear is intact and so is my. . ., but not my pants.” Dale sighed, “Explore outer space and get pants-ed,” she laughed, and inspected her zipper-less trousers. Not a bad zipper-ecktomy. I may be able to sew these back.”
Tommy’s voice took a playful tone, “Pants-less Pauline of the Space Marines does have certain salacious ring to it, but. . .”
Dale tried ‘playful,’ “Yes, But the butt needs a certain amount of, uh. . .”
“Speaking of butts and pants, this looks like; a seat.” Tommy slid in.
The artifact that resembled a rotorcraft beeped a friendly welcome, “Ugh Taah,” it said.
“Yo-Mama, Cave-Thing! How about some music?” Tommy reached for what resembled an instrument panel.
The Machine responding said, “Yo-Mama!” but the more dramatic reaction involved the erection of the ‘palm leaves’ into a multi-tiered, many bladed, suspended on air it seemed, true main rotor.“
“Pee, ef, M?” muttered Dale.
“Pure fucking magic? Naw, Magnetism. But from where? And what’s the power source?” Tommy touched a stick lying in the cockpit and the rotor began to turn splaying dusty, grit, and dirt. He looked up at the mass whirling about overhead. “Let me see? The P F M produces a majestic cluster fuck; and viola, a total electric helicopter?” He grabbed a second stick and found, “The collective pitch control! It’s the collective. It has feel. But it’s just up in the air too; no doubt suspended in a Mag-Net-Ick feel of its own. And there’s no seat belt.”
“Viola? Isn’t that like a violin?” said Dale.
“Oh, I meant ‘abracadabra.’ I want my mommy, or maybe my flight instructor,” Tommy sighed, “Sure is quiet. Some of that mess is going clockwise and some counter-clockwise; ergo no tail rotor needed. Good thing too, it ain’t got none.”
Tommy pulled on the ‘collective’ [up-down power stick], but even though the machine hovered momentarily the resulting clouds of dirt and dust obscured virtually all of creation, and forced him to re-land, “I’d bet the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag looks like this.”
It took a long time for the dust to resettle. But with the four seated inside the mystery but spiffy rotorcraft Tommy noticed, “What keeps all the crap outside?”
“Magnet-is-ums,” said Dale and wiggled her fingers at Tommy.
“I mean right now. There’s still plenty of dusty-crappy in the air but all of it is staying out; out of, in here,” said Tommy.
Paynore stuck his hand into the swirling dust and got it covered for his trouble. But as he snatched it back into the cabin of the mystery rotorcraft, the hand’s load of dirt remained ‘out-there’ as a fresh new swirl in the dusty-crappy.
He did it again, “Whoa!” with the same result.
Dale lowered her voice and pronounced, “The new! Improved! Magnetic! dusty-crappy remover.”
“Shut the dusty-crappy up,” said Tommy. And the four laughed; deep breath sucking guffaws.
“Dusty,” said Paynore
“Crappy,” said Windborne.
They laughed all the more.
Instead of sucking swirling dust the alien rotorcraft produced a clean air bubble that surrounded and preceded the machine along towards the cavern’s mouth. In sight of the known way out, the fat-man’s-squeeze of a front entrance, multi-colored lighting marked their path. A huge exit opened. The whole wall rose like a garage door.
“Let’s fly,” said Tommy.
“What about the bad guys?” said Dale?
“Tune in next week…” began Tommy.
“With what?” asked Dale?
“Cable TV,” Tommy laughed.
The “Mike Romeo,” short for ‘Mystery Rotorcraft,’ as well as ‘long’ for ‘M. R.’ flew quietly for a helicopter; quickly too. But a musty-moldy scent escaped the air-conditioning vents to the point of gaging the occupants.
After a short bout of four headed nausea the smell cleared and the air became fresh and even sweet; like honey suckle or clover; a mix, yes, a faint pleasing mix. They climbed; a smooth pleasant fight seemed a certainty.
Music? No, a single note sounded. Where? Heads turned; glances were drawn to a video screen manifested in the middle of the you-can’t-really-call-it-an instrument-panel. “That looks like a radar picture of a. . .” began Dale.
“Storm,” called Windborne.
“A big-un. Hail maybe,” said Paynore.
Weather shapes moved on the video screen. Little jagged ‘S’es and ‘Z’s danced here and there in the red portions, green areas, and even a few in the clear. Hail fell in the distance pounding the ground and vegetation. Dust [crap too] flew up only to be pounded back down.
“Short flight,” said Tommy and circled back to the cave.
Toadyone burst into The Presence, “Leader, Leader, leader, ice come from sky!”
Dear Leader stared for too long, said “Toadyone is relieved of duty.”
Hail pounded their metallic hut. Dents appeared in the ceiling.
“Sky ice,” said Toadyone.
“Take him outside and. . .”
The unthinkable happened. Dear Leader was interrupted in mid proclamation by Chief Advisor Talky-Speaky, “We can’t go out! Ice falls from the heavens. Big ice!”
“We’re through counting heads, sir,” Lieutenant Windle Burr looked up from Ship’s Main Computer Console and added, “All present or accounted for including one hundred and thirty-five dead, except for Dale Smith and Tommy Atwater.”
“Colonists, researchers, soldiers, or flyers? Speak up, son,” said Major-General Willis Freeman in command, in orbit, but no longer somewhat in befuddlement. Now, much closer to his normal ‘large-and-in-charge’ self, he added, “Are we still under attack? And do we have any ideas concerning Atwater and Smith? Oh! Yeah, those two; a team not unlike Trump-n-Clinton.”
“SRACON sorted out the bad guys’ arrival and hostile action. An edited and full version of the video from the sensor record is available via daily briefing app. That’d be the Camo-dressed Frowny-Face on the lower left next to the bikini-clad...”
“Professional ism, Burr. . .” The general liked ‘bikini-clad’ only second to unclad but was in Pro-Mode this morning. “Humor has its place. That is a rather amusing faux GI though.” Freeman actually chuckled, and his underlings all stared, some with their mouths open in surprise.
“Atwater and Smith?” Demanded the General.
“Have disappeared completely. The homer in their chopper has been disconnected or destroyed. And the Emergency Locator Transmitter, the E.L.T. the ‘a-crash-turns-it-on’ apparatus thingy is off, which is normal for the Atwater-Smith Traveling Comedy Hour, or maybe tea-totally destroyed, which is highly unlikely.
“Keep up the search. Those two have a way of landing on their feet.”
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