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Underground was mercifully cooler. They had been out of the surface heat for over two days, but Shecky continued to smolder.Maximillion Rogers, a man gifted in military arts by genes and training, was talking. His voice echoed through the tunnel, pounding on Shecky's ears.
"You realize, Shecky, that we could have been much more efficient in our search."
Shecky bit his lip. He had been baited into this argument too many times.
"Dart sensors," Maximillion continued. "A marauder 24 is equipped with cases of them. You know, just one of them could map this rat hole in less than a day. Locate the target. Then we cut a precision max2 laser hole, and fly right in. All done in under twelve hours, neat and simple. We've been at this for three days!"
"No!" Shecky blew up. "You've been at this for three days. Every moment of every day, even before we arrived on this junk hole of a planet. Listen, you muscle bound, burned out grunt. This is a covert mission. If the government or another corporation finds us out, we're sunk. Let me ask you: Even with your pea pod brain, don't you think that a marauder 24 is a bit conspicuous? How could we explain it? 'My friends and I are taking the most overloaded assault craft in the galaxy for a little pleasure cruise.'"
"AAAHIII!" Jenny Tau came flying down the tunnel, shrieking like a banshee. Shecky looked up in time to see the dark figure bearing down on him. Before he could react, the genetically enhanced woman flattened him like a wafer.
She picked herself off the flailing toothpick of a man. Her head darted about like a bird on stimulants. Her body, especially her hands, constantly trembled. After spending most of her life in space, being on a planet was unnerving. The idea of megatons of planet above her head had decimated her personality. Now she was only good for trailing behind and screaming when something happened, or when it did not.
"You know," Maximillion mentioned to Gol Gol Tem Pal. "I could fix your girl friend. A little electrostatic pulse to the base of the skull. She'd be out for hours.
"No. But if it's important to you, you could slap her up side the head a little."
A shout interrupted their conversation.
"Over here!" called Charles Richards. The old scientist was examining the dead end before them, his bushy beard wagging as he talked. Given the clothes, he would make a perfect Santa Claus. "It's definitely a manufactured wall, elliptical in shape, nine meters by twelve. The material is crystalline. Possibly a liquid metal that has petrified. I wonder what held it in place..., electro-magnetic adhesion, force field, or maybe capillary filaments..."
"Okay, Charles," Shecky interrupted. "What we want is probably on the other side. So, stop rambling and start examining."
Maximillion sprang to action. Grabbing Shecky by the collar, he yelled in his ear, "Even without a marauder 24 I can get through the barrier."
"All right," Shecky said, prying himself from the mercenary's grip.
Maximillion flung his pack to the walk. He began fishing through it like a toddler tearing through the wrapping on a birthday present. Shecky, looking on, wondered if Maximillion had spent his childhood locked in a closet.
Charles began twittering as he examined the wall. His constant noise making had always irritated Shecky, so he focused on Maximillion.
He was assembling what looked like a 6 foot sausage with a clustering of tumors about a foot back from the tip. A shoe box shaped thing was giving him trouble at the base. According to the label on the sausage, it was a hydrogen fusion force beam.
"Max," Shecky said. "Don't you think a fusion beam is a touch of overkill?"
"Nonsense, Shecky," Maximillion responded, "If you start with a low impact weapon and that fails, then you move to the next, and the next, and the next. You've wasted time and ammunition. The most effective course is to use the maximum amount of fire power that can achieve your objective, without obliterating it, of course. It has the added advantage of intimidating your opponent."
"Really? So, you feel this is the amount of force necessary to intimidate this particular wall into submission?"
"Oh, Yeah! We're going to make quite an impact."
A crashing sound pierced their eardrums like a box full of needles, which was driven by a sledge hammer wielded by Thor the thunder god himself. For a moment Jenny became her regular congenial self-assured person. The others writhed on the ground in agony. As the others recovered from the onslaught, Jenny drifted back into the private recesses of her mind, where she seemed to be meeting fictional characters from her childhood.
Shecky and Maximillion turned to see the wall crumbled to the ground. Charles stood beside the rubble, holding his walking stick.
"What have you done?" Shecky asked.
"The crystalline structure was not stable," Charles responded. "I applied a decisive force with my walking stick.".
"Let me see that!" Shecky demanded, holding out his hand for the staff. Shecky hefted it, turning it over in his hands, feeling the weight. He caught Maximillion's attention and said, "This wall seems easily intimidated."
Maximillion slumped down beside the hydrogen fusion force beam; gazing at it, forlorn, he caressed the smooth knobs of the tumors. He gave it a gentle kiss and whispered, "Don't worry baby, daddy will get you into action."
Beyond the wall they found a large chamber. Walkways separated squares of machinery on multiple levels. It looked like a three tiered chess set with deformed pieces. Shecky felt as though he was at an art exhibition entitled 'A Cataclysm in Metal.' Gazing past the machinery there were side rooms along the walls.
They entered and spread out. Jenny lay on the floor near the entrance, in fetal position, rocking herself and humming "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." They were all quite relieved. Tem Pal mumbled, "I didn't know Jenny could sing."
Maximillion came upon a wall switch and instinctively ripped out his sidearm. The sound alerted the others and they dove for cover, except Jenny, who was now on "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Shecky, peering from his hiding place, called to Maximillion. "What is it?"
"Wall switch," he responded, poised like a snake ready to strike.
There was silence for a moment as they took in the implications of his statement, then another moment as they realized there were no implications to his statement.
Maximillion crouched lower and tensed his body as he assessed the room. His neck muscles began to ripple, not a common sight on humans. "It's a trap," he said, and backed up against the wall to assure that nothing could sneak up behind him.
Shecky saw him backing and realized, with the others, that he was backing directly towards the switch. "No! Max! The switch!" they shouted at the top of their collective lungs.
"Good! You understand," Maximillion said. "They're temptations placed before you, a trap saying, 'It's okay, press me, I want to be pressed! I'm your friend. Then they blow up in your face!"
As Maximillion's back hit the wall, a click echoed through the hall. Maximillion dove for cover with the others, but it was too late. Before he could reach safety, the lights came on.
Shecky sent Maximillion to guard the door while they explored. A rumble from the entrance stopped the group in their tracks. Jenny was up and walking towards Tem Pal calmly. Her expression was one you might expect to see on a clock maker's face after he had spent three years locked in his shop with only Jimminy Cricket for company.
Trying to remain at a safe distance, he ventured a tentative "hi."
To everyone's surprise she responded in a normal tone, "Uncover your ears." Gazing about the chamber as if considering something important, she added, "This is an unusual ship."
"Yes," he said, taking his hands from his ears. Usually he was a good conversationalist, but he seemed stuck in a one syllable rut.
"I wonder where the control room is?"
"Well, Jenny, dear," he stammered a bit. "You remember, um, dear. We are looking for alien technology to save Shecky's and my company. Well we found this, um, alien ship and now we're looking for a, um, trinket that will give us the key to their technology before anyone else finds out."
"I remember." Her gaze was blank and unfocused. "But not how we got on board."
"That's okay. love. Could you help search, though? You are a great pilot and a gifted technician. You can probably spot something of interest." This was true but Tem Pal's real intention was more likely to keep her busy in hopes of avoiding further breakdowns.
In one of the side rooms, Shecky found it, resting about 2 meters off the floor. It was a half dome about the size of a dog most sane people would avoid. Perfectly smooth and orangish green, it would be tacky in any setting, like pink flamingo lawn ornaments which always seem to roost next door to the person who hates them the most.
Shecky called the others to join him.
Charles's power meter went off the scale. "Charles, what do you think it is?" Shecky asked.
"Well, on first blush, I'd guess either a portable power source or a doomsday weapon."
"Wow," Tem Pal said. "I vote for power supply."
"Why do you think that?" Charles asked with furrowed brow.
"Because, if it's a weapon, we're in deep trouble."
Jenny seemed oblivious to their conversation. Her expression was now one of a person raised by wolves trying to comprehend the difference between salad and dinner forks.
"Well?" Shecky asked Charles.
Charles approached the turtle device, his arm stretched out, fingers trembling. He slowed as contact became imminent. Shecky, knuckles white and neck strained, looked on. At last Charles's fingers came to rest upon the device. He turned to Shecky and opened his mouth to speak but was cut short.
The thing dropped to the floor, darted out of the room, and lodged itself under the first machine it came to.
General bedlam reigned for a few moments as the surprised group chased after it. "There it is!" "Get it!" "To the flight deck!" The last one was from Jenny.
"What are you doing here? Didn't I tell you to wait at the entrance?" Shecky said to Maximillion.
"I thought you might need my help."
"Well, we don't. We found what we were looking for but now it's hiding under this machine."
"If we had the marauder 24 we could simply lift this machine off, zap it with a tractor beam and haul it away."
"Look, I'm tired of hearing about that stupid Marauder 24. We don't have one, and we're not getting one, so get used to the idea!"
A recognizable sound emanated from under the machine. They crouched down on all fours like a pack of dogs and peered into the darkness. The glow of the device made it discernible.
In a clear voice it said: "You can not detect me, my sensors are deactivated." It sounded pleased with itself.
Shecky was beside himself with anger. "We come all this way, risk death and imprisonment, and for what? A retarded alien power supply." He stormed off, kicking the machinery and cursing.
Tem Pal led Jenny away, trying to convince her they were not inside a giant toaster oven. Charles and Maximillion remained, watching the device.
Shecky's ranting fit ended a short distance away. He flopped down on a machine, daring the universe to strike him again.
"What is it?" Asked Maximillion.
"It seems to be a limited-intelligence power supply. There is, however, a very slim chance that it's a planet vaporizing bomb. Watch the thing for a minute while I get my equipment."
As Maximillion sat alone the thing peeked out.
His sidearm point blank on the device, Maximillion said, "don't move," with authority he obviously felt.
The device made a quick dodge to the left. Maximillion's shot missed. The turtle thing bumped his foot, said, "You're it," and sped down the aisle. Maximillion rolled prone, targeted and fired again. Sparks flew as the energy pellet discharged on the surface of the thing. For a moment silence prevailed and smoke enveloped the alien device. Just as Maximillion was starting to relax the thing shot out of the cloud, heading straight at him.
Faced with the thing's shielding, the brave mercenary ran away.
Shecky closed his gaping mouth as he watched Maximillion try to stop the thing. Maximillion pulled a plasma bomb one from his utility vest. The blast sent machinery reeling in all directions, but did not dissuade the beast on his trail. Next he tried flash grenades, used to overload sensors, then smokers, a blinding tactic. Other forms of explosives were pulled out in a dizzying array, each with great destructive success on the surrounding equipment. The turtle device, however, remained unscathed.
From Shecky's perspective the mercenary had gone to that magic land that all professional warriors actually live in, running to and fro destroying everything in sight with loud and violent glee. It was better to keep a safe distance, preferably back at the entrance. Blow it up and seal the fool in.
Maximillion activated his communicator and yelled, "Get out! Abort! Retreat! Run away! What ever term you civilians use for, 'run for your lives.' Our only hope is to get back to the tunnel and seal the entrance. I'll buy you time to get out."
Jenny and Tem Pal were the first out, followed closely by Charles. Jenny enjoyed the fireworks. The alien machinery and any knowledge it held there in was reduced to burning junk. They restrained Shecky from sealing Maximillion in.
After a few moments, Maximillion burst through the entrance. He grabbed the hydrogen fusion force beam and blasted the entrance. The others, already at a safe distance, covered up and waited for the crushing rumble to end.
In the quiet darkness again Jenny said, "No stars? How interesting."
Tem Pal had spent his reserves of patience convincing her that they were on a ship that looked like a toaster oven, fought to keep the illusion alive. "We're in the hold and the power systems failed. We'll be out soon."
Light exploded into the corridor. Shielding their eyes, they could make out the turtle thing as it broke free of the rubble. It dashed over to Maximillion, brushed his leg, and said, "You're it," and fled out of sight.
Maximillion lowered his head. His normally tense body went slack. "I give up," he said in frustration.
It emerged from the darkness and settled down at his feet. A swift kick flung it to the other side of the tunnel, back into the shadows.
Two and half days later they emerged from the planetary catacombs; the rays from the late afternoon sun bathed them in the surface heat. Jenny froze in stark horror. After a few minutes of prodding they gave up and decided to come back for her later.
"Think she'll need therapy when we get back?" Shecky asked Tem Pal.
"No. Put her in a space suit, tether her outside for a couple of weeks and she'll be fine."
"AAAHIII!" Jenny Tau came flying after them, shrieking like a banshee. Shecky looked up to see the dark figure bearing down on him. He had time to say, "Not again," before he was flattened like a wafer.
While freeing Shecky, they all noticed a whining sound that grew louder; a movement drew their attention to the west. A ship was approaching, and not just any ship. It was standard size for a crew of about a dozen, and of an unremarkable design. What really struck Shecky were the mountings on it, missile pods, torpedo doors, high energy beam weapons, and cannons covered it like leaves on a tree.
"What's that?" he mumbled.
"A marauder 24," responded Maximillion in a dejected voice. "Now you see why we needed one."
Shecky had to admit that this was the Swiss army utility device of fighter craft, all the utilities you could possibly need plus twice as many that you could not.
Shecky recognized it as the voice of Ivan Ricovic, son and heir to Galactic Prime Corporation. They must have followed and waited. They could have the retarded device as far as he was concerned, but he'd rot before giving in to this rival.
Tem Pal shouted, "And what will you do with us?"
"Why, maroon you of course. In a millennium or two someone may stray into this forsaken solar system and discover a flourishing civilization. But then again, considering the breeding stock I doubt it would make it to the stone age."
Shecky and Tem Pal fervently tried to talk their way out of the situation. They still had the bargaining chip of the turtle. Ricovic had no idea of the uselessness of the discovery. It would probably destroy the Marauder 24, once aboard.
During their efforts the turtle moved over to Charles and spoke. "The ship intends to do harm to Maximillion?"
"That is a fair assessment," Charles responded.
"Maximillion wants the ship. Is it acceptable?"
"It would undoubtedly be best for all of us if he did."
The group was consumed by light. Shecky wondered if the after life would be as nice as was said.
The light faded, replaced by an engulfing darkness. Blinking lights were the first to appear, followed by displays, stations, and chairs. The after life looked much like the bridge of a space ship. Maximillion started dancing and singing. Despite his physical training, he was a horrible dancer. "Maximillion, what are you doing?" Tem Pal asked.
"It's a marauder 24. Look at the weapon control stations." Along two walls were bank after bank of targeting and launch systems.
While this exchange was going on, Jenny had fully recovered herself and had taken the pilot station. "Gentlemen!" she shouted. "I don't know how, but we are on the same ship that was threatening us."
"Where is the crew?" Shecky asked.
Maximillion drew his side arm and checked the doorway to the rest of the ship.
Tem Pal went to Jenny. "You recover quickly, dear."
"Thanks, Hon. The sensors say that we're the only ones aboard. The previous crew is on the planet."
The turtle sought out Charles Richards and asked, "Did I do well?"
"Yes, you did exactly right. Now go play with Maximillion and don't let him hurt himself."
It sped off after Maximillion. Charles called the others together. "Listen. This thing is fabulous. It did a matter transference to get us here and the crew off."
The others were dubious. "Based on the limited intelligence shown by the turtle thus far, it's inconceivable that any sentient race would give it command of that type of power to use on its own," Shecky argued.
"The turtle was designed to be a companion to a child," Charles countered, "to play with, protect, and probably even teach. To do so it must be something a child can relate to. It evaluated our group and determined that Maximillion was the child it was supposed to bond with."
"Inside it is great technology for us, including a power source that can last for thousands of years and matter transference. These features alone make it the greatest discovery in centuries. Heck, it can probably even teach us how the technology works."
"What about them?" Asked Jenny, indicating the crew on the planet.
"Maroon them," came Shecky's response. Both Tem Pal and Jenny gazed at him with contempt. "Okay," he added, "just until we can cover our tracks. We can't let anyone prove we actually made this discovery. It will have to remain an underground turtle."
Two years later, Indicorp had become the fastest growing corporation in the galaxy. Competitive companies tried to copy their technology, but by the time they had a product ready for market, Indicorp jumped to even more advanced technology, always remaining one step ahead.
Not bad for a 14-year-old reader. For an adult reader, a puzzling combination of juvenile slapstick and more advanced jargon.
by Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
by Timothy O. Goyette