The original draft was written on an electric typewriter. It's arcade video game fanfiction, if such a thing is even possible. All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, ridiculously low population figures, etc. are as in the original.
It had been going on for several months now, and still the landers came. Every few hours, one of those little green monsters would descend, stealing away one of the helpless human inhabitants of the planet. The population at the beginning ranked in the hundreds, but now it was down to a miniscule twenty-five. And within a few days, it would reach the zero mark. Then the machines that had kept the planet in order for so long would simultaneously shut down, leaving the planet's unstable surface to erupt and finally explode.
As he gazed toward the horizon, he could see another of the four-legged beasts come down above a group of humans, select one at random, and commence the attack. In no time at all, its target was in its claws, being hauled up almost as effortlessly as the creature had drifted down. How those things produced their own anti-gravity, no one was certain, but they did know that they had some sort of hypnotic power that would make its prey paralyzed once it was close enough to it. This made it impossible to escape, being in conjuction with their impressive aerial speed.
He lowered his gaze to the ground, and wondered how long it would be before he was carted off. It didn't really matter whether he was taken next or last, because either way, he would suffocate, die, and be eaten when the thing reached the very top of the atmosphere. It was understood that at that point, the landers mutated into some odd form of deep space "life," which only vaguely resembled their original form. There were a few scattered descriptions of what they looked like, but very few had actually been seen by humans of any sort, and none had been photographed.
There were occasional rumors about the origin of the landers, most of them pointing to the old "biology-experiment-gone-wrong" attitude. After all, this form of anaerobic "life" had not been observed until the post-Bio-war days of the last decade. This life form had devastated, robbed, and almost destroyed the entire human race, except for the far-off colonies, like the one he was on now.
As he walked slowly, dragging his bare feet along the rough, sandy ground, he struck something painfully hard with his left foot. When he looked, he could only see a small hole in the sand, like those dug by the larger worms. But as he looked closer, he could see that there was something transparent sticking out of the ground that was almost 100% invisible. He stuck his hands in around the hole, and began to excavate. Sure enough, the invisible part quickly gave way to a white, conical region that continued in a smooth line from the invisible portion.
He began digging furiously, until he had the object two-thirds uncovered. Sure enough, it was a private, one man space craft, presumably a shuttle. But why would a shuttle need an invisible nose cone, when the need for visible light sensing was replaced some time ago with micro-radar and gamma ray tracking?
He wasn't too concerned with this at the moment; a space craft could mean a getaway from those gruesome landers. If the thing had hyperspace capability, he might even leave the spiral arm of the galaxy....
He quickly pried open the opaque cockpit cover, revealing the cramped pilot's chamber within. In this day of total computer control, the console required only nine functions, including the anti-grav lever control. He stepped into the cockpit, and, before closing the hatch and sealing himself off from his planet forever, pushed the "on" button.
The multiple screens on the cockpit cover suddenly burst into life. giving an all too realistic view of the sky above; better than glass. He had felt an uneasy feeling when he first pushed the button, but that soon went away as the internal gravity control soon brought the cabin gravity up to seven tenths of a G. A warning light on the instrument panel indicated that the cockpit was still open to the environment, an observation which anyone with an I.Q. of 65 or more could have made.
Nevertheless, he pulled down the cover, thus saying goodbye to the world he was born and raised in. It was then he noticed that although the cabin was airtight and lightproof, it was in no way soundproof, since every sound from the outside was reaching his ears just as before; the slowly blowing wind of this otherwise desolate planet, the footsteps of the terrified and frightened twenty-three people, and - what was this? - an explosion of some kind.
The explosion sounded much too artificial to be anything from the outside; it was definitely produced by the few warning synthesizers aboard the craft. It was then he remembered that it was about this time when the lander carrying the twenty-fifth human would reach the top of the atmosphere, eat the already dead human, and finally mutate. So the craft had a warning indicator like that.
He looked up at the top of his viewscreen, and saw massive amounts of data about the status of the craft all crammed into a rather small horizontal area. There were two layers of armor left - armor on a private shuttle? - that were represented symbolically as little pictures of the craft. There was a rather well-made long range scanner that showed accurate detail of the mountains and valleys of the surrounding terrain, and then there were three things that looked like the old material types of bombs used back in the twentieth century. He was puzzled about these, but quickly shrugged them off as decoration.
He then began to concentrate on the control panel. There was the "on" button, which was out in plain sight, a not-quite-so-easily-accessible "off" button, the up-down anti-grav control, which worked in the opposite direction an airplane worked, "thrust" for movement in real-space, "hyperspace" for movement in not-so-real-space, "reverse" for changing the direction of the craft, and ... "fire?" This button aroused his curiosity, so he decided to try it.
There was no way to mistake the beam of thundering, multicolored light that streaked from the craft's front; it was a charged particle assault beam. This was no private shuttle; this was an escort craft! He might not only be able to escape the landers now, he might be able to destroy them!!
There was one more button - "Smart Bomb." He remembered hearing about a weapon like this that was used to destroy all non-living matter within a nearly visible range. But a little ship like this would certainly not carry a weapon as powerful as that, or would it? A brief look inta a chamber below his feet confirmed it; the craft was equipped with a complement of three smart bombs, thusly represented by the bomb characters at the top of the screen.
He hadn't bothered to take real notice, but the escort craft was still working despite its many years of being buried, with its thermonuclear power unit set on idle for all that time. The chances that ani of the internal functions, especially the assault beam, would still be working was very small, and yet it worked. Most likely, it had been preserved by some sort of material - probably even one of the machines that maintained the planet.
Nevertheless, he had to see if the thing could still fly right. He pushed the control lever up, and felt himself grow lighter, almost weightless, in his seat. Yes, the internal gravity control worked just fine, but he hadn't budged off the ground like he was supposed to.
Of course de didn't - the craft was still partially set into the ground from when it had been planted there! No use in trying to anti-grav out of the hole; he'd have to thrust his way out.
He pushed thrust, and felt himself get pushed forward in his seat, another corrective measure taken up by internal gravity control. He felt the ship rumble and the ground crack; and suddenly, the whole heap finally gave way. The ship lept into the sky from its resting place, flying only some twenty feet off the ground. As he released the thrust button, the craft slowly ground to a halt from both the wind resistance and the front retro rockets.
At last, he was the pilot of a craft, complete with four maneuvering controls (one in hyperspace) and two major weapons. He quickly began to test the altitude control, and found it one of the smoothest to handle. There was no inertia effect from moving up and down, and the control allowed him to never crash into the ground, not even voluntarily.
He began to fool around with thrust-control level combinations, and soon began adding in the reverse button. Soon, he decided to do some work with false targets by applying the fire button to randomly selected portions of the air. The assault beam was nearly one hundred percent efficient, requiring very little power and never over-heating. Thus, he was able to either shoot a target once (accurately), or for the sake of speed, do an "overkill" and fire six or seven times in the general area of his intended target.
About an hour and a half later, the crucial test came. His long-range scanner registered the presence of something that looked green but had a yellow tint to it; a lander. Pushing the "Reverse" button to get him going in the right direction, he proceeded to thrust toward his first real target. It never failed to impress him how even the reverse button, which caused the craft to do a 180-degree spin in a fraction of an instant, could be countered by the internal gravity control.
Right when it should have, the enemy lander came into view. It almost seemed to materialize before him, coming out of a vanishing point rather than actually being seen. Perhaps it was a built-in function of the cockpit cover, giving some idea to the pilot about a limited range. But a limited range of what? Was it the viewscreen programming or, more likely, was it the range of the assault beam?
He maneuvered the craft until it was lined up exactly with the lander, and fired. The beam seemed to whiz right over the lander's head; he hadn't taken careful enough aim. He tried again, and this time the streak of light shot just under its body. There was no use in trying to aim; he would have to go for an overkill. Moving up and down in the general altitude of the lander, he fired as quickly as he could manage. Sure enough, one of the shots struck home, and turned the lander into a disintegrating mass of fried green fragments. The bits and pieces didn't even reach the ground before dispersing into the surrounding air.
He removed his hands from the console, placed them in back of his head, and leaned back against his chair, breathing a sigh of content. Now, at last he was of some real use to the planet; he'd destroyed a lander and most probably saved the life of one of his fellow humans. He was the last hope for a dying civilization. Presently, he sat up, and spoke in the general direction of the console: "Ship, I name you 'Defender.'"
It was then he noticed a small, folded piece of ordinary white paper that was printed obviously by some manufacturing agency. It occurred to him that this paper must be decades old, but was still in good condition, preserved by the same forces that preserved the craft as a whole. He picked it up, unfolded it, and found that it was a simple diagram sheet of the craft. The control panel with its seven buttons and lever was on its own private diagram, which also seemed to include some kind of microphone.
A microphone? He hadn't seen one of those around the place! He looked again at where the mike was supposed to be on the panel and, sure enough, there was a circular set of tiny perforations in the panel above what was probably a very small speaker. He looked once more at the diagram, and it showed this hooked up directly to both a short-wave radio transmitter (which could be deactivated in battle, of course) and a rather larger speaker on the bottom of the craft.
The diagram also showed the entire outline of the ship, complete with all the details that were still buried when he boarded the craft, including the rear "thrust" section and the landing skids.
Meanwhile, out in the surrounding space, the Mutant race was getting worried.
"Where is the last one we sent down?" the leader asked in whatever language a space race speaks. "He should have been back three minutes ago."
"Well, maybe he's having problems finding and catching a humanoid. After all, there are only some twenty of them left down there."
"And there's no place for them to hide! It's a small planet, and they're all out in the open, junior officer. All he has to do is hypnotize one of them at close range, grab it, and carry it off. And he has over twice their running speed! I'm telling you, something's gone wrong!"
The junior officer simply said, "Hmmm," and turned his gaze to the planet. There was something down there moving, he noticed, slightly bigger than a lander and moving with - hold on! - five times a lander's velocity. He pointed it out to the leader: "Look, sir!"
The leader studied it for a while, then commented, "Hmmm, I have a hunch about this thing. Send another lander down, but this time..."
He continued to practice maneuvering with the craft, almost playing with the controls. For a space craft, the controls were quite easy to master, so he noticed when he resumed the over-killing of his phantom targets. Suddenly, out of the corner of one eye, he caught something gleaming a bright, greenish color in mid-air. He looked at it, then turned to his long-range scanner. It said that a lander was within visible range of him at that very moment, at a place where there was nothing but air. That green thing was not only off with regard to the scanner, it was also definitely not a lander. He looked around some more, and noticed another green thing just like the first one - and then another, and yet another. All in all, there were more than five of them - all in a sphere surrounding the supposed location of the lander on the long range scanner.
It was then he noticed that the six or so green things were moving, rushing toward each other with increasing velocity. And when they impacted each other all at once in the one spot, they suddenly formed a complete lander.
A lander had formed itself out of what seemed to be no place! Is that how landers were built? Then he remembered what had happened - he'd seen this a few years back, when a large space ship arrived near a spaceport. It came out of hyperspace in exactly the same fashion, by forming out of small clumps of suddenly formed nothing. 'So these landers have hyperspace ability,' he thought.
That really didn't matter too much to him now, since his first obligation was to destroy it. He thrusted until the lander was almost out of visible range, then hit reverse and came head-on toward the lander. Suddenly, a small globe of white light formed by the lander shot straight toward him. Startled, he lifted the craft up several meters and let it streak by under himself. That lander fired at him! Nowhere in any form of biology, normal, space-living, or otherwise, had there been one with a fire mechanism. The lander was obviously carrying some kind of weapon with it that could fire what were presumably balls of light-energy. This could mean only one thing: This was a space race with a developed and probably useful technology.
Recovering from that last encounter quickly, he lined up the Defender with the lander once again, and let him have it about four or five times. It blew up as easily as the first one had.
Before he had time to think about what their technology meant, another lander appeared on the scanner. And then one more appeared - almost on the other side of the planet. Making up his mind quickly, he hit reverse and thrusted toward the one who appeared to be the closest. As soon as it came into visible range, it fired at him. This time, however, he was on his guard, and easily avoided the potentially lethal shot. With a few quick blasts, he took out the green menace.
Suddenly, he heard an artificial noise ringing in his ears. It sounded distant, like a bird squawking or something. Then he saw it; on his scanner, the other lander had registered as having taken away one of his fellow humans! Theoretically, he should have hit reverse, but since the planet was a rather small one, he decided it was quicker to just keep on going forward.
When he arrived at the scene of the dirty deed, the lander was more than half way out of the lower atmosphere with the human. He took aim carefully, and let the lander have a single shot right in its center. It exploded gracefully, letting the human fall to what was apparently his doom. He couldn't let this happen to him, and before he knew what he was doing, he was letting the Defender rush right out to the level of the human on an interception course.
But what good would that do? Then he remembered: the Defender was equipped with landing skids, which looked large enough by the diagram to be able to let someone get a good hold on. He leaned over to where the microphone was supposed to be, and spoke loudly and with good diction: "Grab on to the landing rails!"
The human was nearly unconscious due to the natural fear of falling, but his body was quick to comply with the Defender's orders. Timing the move perfectly, he lunged his upper body outward and successfully caught one of the rails, being jerked back almost immediately by the velocity the craft had attained. To the human, this seemed like some sort of improbable bad dream, but as he mockingly bit himself and felt the pain, he knew it was really happening.
He eased the craft down until it was only some ten feet off the ground, and instructed the human to let go. He was on the surface within four feet, and confused as ever. Looking up at the craft, only one question made it out of his mouth: "Wh ... who are you?!?"
"Just call me, 'The Defender,'" came the reply.
He raised the Defender a few hundred metres into the air and just let himself hang there. Now, at least, if one of the landers did manage to carry away one of the humans, he would be able to rescue it. But what if, say, fourty or fifty of the landers came down all at once, and each grabbed on to a human? He'd be able to rescue some of them, sure, but certainly not all of them. And if it kept up ...
... If it kept up, then he was only fighting a losing battle, prolonging the inevitable. He was no defender, he was just someone trying to wreak as much havock on an enemy as possible before they eventually took over. He would work in a full-scale war, but that only lasted until reinforcements arrived.
But, that was just a thought. Maybe reinforcements would arrive; maybe the landers only had a limited population in the dozens or, maybe, hundreds. But until such a time when his work was done, he would defend the dwindling population of the planet as best he could.
Was was this? Now, there were three landers on his scanner, all at some wide dispersion. Thusting and moving up-and-down rapidly, he took out the first lander with ease, destroyed the second just before it grabbed onto a human, and rushed upon the third just in time to see it cart its confiscated human up to the top of the atmosphere, and watch the change take place. The human disappeared in an explosion that seemed almost like an unearthly belch, and the lander's middle portion expanded to allow the human to become part of it; the whole creature was now a mutant. It looked like a sickening green-and-pink combination, but the sound it emitted was even sicker. It sounded like a swarm of bees being exposed to a flame thrower at point-blank range.
The creature would normally have gone off into space, but since this was a battle, it had to stay and fight. It moved back and forth in an erratic, downward motion, spitting out lethal shots at a rate of one per second. He was caught unawares by one of the shots, which shook the whole craft. The internal gravity control evidently let you know when you were hit, because the motion of such a shock would be too intricate to counter. He looked up at the upper part of his screen which showed his vital statistics, and sure enough, one of his armor layers was gone.
He thrusted and reversed, reversed and thrusted, again and again, looking for an opening to the mutant that wouldn't put his own craft in jeopardy. At last, he saw his chance, and did an "overkill" with the assault beam. The mutant was blown apart, and its remains disintegrated in mid-air.
It was then he noticed something he had missed on his scanner the first time. He had been looking for greenish-yellow things, so it was no wonder that he missed a red-and-white object which almost seemed to scintillate in the dusky light. Thrusting over to it, he saw it was a spherical, slow moving object that had no weaponry and was apparently harmless. One word stuck out in his mind from his subconscious remembrances: pod. The thing was a pod, like a pea pod, or something. It was obviously put there by the landers/mutants, but what was its use? Was it a mine that would go off if he got close enough? Well, if it was, it had a rather limited range, since he was already pretty close to it.
Then he remembered where he had heard about the pods; they were used a lot in some of the wars of the last century. He remembered that they had some dangerous property besides anti-gravity, but couldn't put his finger on exactly what that property was. Oh well, if it had a dangerous property, then he might as well destroy it....
It was then that he was reminded of its dangerous property. As he hit it, he suddenly realized what was so deadly about it; the thing didn't fly apart into a few innocuous chunks, but instead spit out six little red things from its interior. They traveled like a swarm, and suddenly began firing just as did the landers and the mutant. Awe-struck, he quickly began to overkill as many as he could get in one fell swoop, then reversed and came at them from what appeared to be the behind. He slaughtered two more, then discovered the hard way that these things had no more front or back than did the landers or mutants. In a temporary panic, he subconsciously hit thrust and moved right into the center of the swarm.
When he came back to his senses a few milliseconds later, he suddenly realized the stupidity of his last move. He was in a deathtrap, surrounded by firing, mischievous "swarmers." Then he remembered the two buttons he hadn't used yet in battle. Frantically he passed his right hand over the hyperspace button, pushing downward and to the left in a simultaneous, uncomputerish swish.
The universe seemed to fade from existence as the light inside the cabin changed. The outside looked black, and the only source of illumination he had was the tiny little indicators at the top of his screen. Either there was no light outside, or the computer had shut the screen down for hyperspace purposes, or the only kind of light outside was a form of light which he could neither imagine nor understand.
Then, the universe started to reassemble itself, coming together from a myriad of meaningless places. When everything was in focus again, he found himself in mid-air above the surface of a planet. A quick glance at his long range scanner confirmed that it was still his home planet, what with the three little red dots that registered as swarmers.
'Well,' he thought, 'That was fun!' Pushing thrust once more, he came up to the area occupied by the swarmers, and with a few well-placed overkills, finished them off. However, by this time another three landers had come down, except one of them looked slightly less yellow on the scanner than the rest of them.
The first came into visible range and was destroyed almost immediately. It was strange to note how much more quickly the second, less yellow lander moved than it should've. When he came up to it, he discovered why. It wasn't a lander at all, but a green, fast moving flying saucer with the same firepower as that of a mutant. Frantically swerving its blows, he was finally able to destroy it - but it sure put up one hell of a fight. Presumably, its green color had been used as a device to bait a trap for him. It was at this point that he made the arbitrary decision to call it a "Baiter."
As he thrusted to intercept the "third" lander, he caught a glympse of another red-and-whitish thing. Another pod? Well, if it was, he was certainly going to avoid hitting it. But no ... it wasn't a pod, as he could see when it came within visible range. It was cubical, and moving much too fast; yet it wasn't firing, which made it an easy target as he closed in on it.
Suddenly, a glowing x-shaped thing popped out of its rear, soon followed by two more. As he raised the Defender to avoid impact with them, he remembered what they were: they were aerial bombs, designed not so much for destroying enemy craft as for putting up a barrier against them. By now, it had formed an entire wall of bombs, blocking any passage to the lander, or to the second and third landers which had just come out of hyperspace. And even the bomber was hiding behind its own wall of bombs. There was no way he was going to get through to save the three humans on the other side, one of which had just been picked up.
Then, he remembered the last button on his panel. Cautiously, he pressed "Smart
bomb" and watched with wonder as the wall of bombs dispersed from existence.
The bomber and the three landers were now just scattered debris, and the one
human that had been picked up was close enough to the ground to save himself.
The smart bomb had done its job well.
... And the battle waged onward. As soon as he'd destroyed everything that popped up on the scanner, a new part of the attack wave would materialize. He was beginning to tire, but the thought of the now ten remaining humans kept him going.
Probably the sickest feeling he got from then on was when he remembered attacking one of the landers with a man in its grasp. He hadn't put too much thought into the situation, and did an overkill on the lander. This move unfortunately also destroyed the human in one great boom that he was never to forget.
The baiters, bombers, and pods now came so frequently that it was almost disgusting. About one-fifth of the time a lander would successfully tote a human to the top of the atmosphere, consume the dead body, and rejoin the battle as a mutant.
And still, the battle waged onward....
Finally, the inevitable moment came when the last human on the planet was taken away by a lander. He had no idea that the population and equipment arsenal of the space race were so large! If he had known such a thing was going to happen, he would just have taken the Defender and left the planet in the first place. But now, since the planet's surface would soon grow unstable and finally explode, he would have to leave anyway.
Pushing the Dedender up to the very top of its anti-grav range, he pressed the thrust button and kept it pressed until the craft reached escape velocity. He could already feel the life-sensitive machines deep within the planet start to lose their hold and function for the last time. At last, when he looked back, he could see the planet crack, shudder, and finally fly apart in one gargantuan explosion, taking with it the memories of a culture, the machines of the past and, fortunately, a good number of the space race's pieces of equipment and population.
At least the thought of their partial destruction helped suppress the agonizing tears. He had been given the chance to defend his own race against the slow death of the landers, and he had used that chance. And yet, despite his fantastic efforts, the planet died in no more time than it would've if he had never interfered. He had put 100 percent of himself into saving his race - 100 percent - and still that wasn't enough. His home planet was gone, and with it went all the people he had ever known.
His grief was suddenly broken by the screaming of the Defender's internal synthesizer; there was a mutant within visible range. No, there were two mutants; no, three! Working frantically at the controls, he used evry technique he remembered from fighting the mutants back on the planet. The Defender seemed to respond almost exactly the same as it did in the atmosphere, except for the fact that the anti-grav was no longer an anti-grav device, and the swing up and down was over a slightly broader area. The mutants were destroyed, but he barely made it out by the paint of the Defender. Those suckers were pretty worthy opponents! The landers were as harmful as full-sized ameba, when compared to the shrewish mutants.
His long range scanner gave even worse news. It it was correct, there were more than twenty mutants out there with him! Well, he had one chance. He thrusted right into the middle of the mob, getting about fifteen of them into visible range with himself, and pushed "Smart bomb." They disappeared into fifteen little clouds of space-debris.
The remaining five were soon accompanied by a few baiters and a pod, all of which were taken out with some effort on his part. He had destroyed them all, but he was unprotected by armor and completely out of smart bombs.
He wasn't going to be any good just hanging around his new deserted star system; he had to go and find another. He Aimed the craft for what looked like deep space, in the direction of the major human colonies, and held down the thrust button.
After about thirty seconds of waiting, he realized that he wasn't going to get anywhwere like that. The thrust could produce a maximum speed of maybe five hundred kilometers per second, and at that rate it would take him more than a thousand years to reach the nearest star. Hyperspace, in the mode it was currently in, would only teleport him to some area of surrounding space. However, he just recalled, that feature could readily be adjusted by the pilot, as he remembered seeing on the diagrams of the ship. Opening up the console just below the dashboard, he saw a hairy maze of wires, and after some careful searching, found what he was looking for: a toggle switch, labeled "HS."
'Why they still use switches and wires,' he thought as he flipped the switch from the up to the down position, 'I'll never know. With all the hyper-electronics and printed circuitry in practice today, I should have opened this up to find an empty space with the wires either printed on the back wall or not wholly existing in this universe.'
Once again, he aimed the Defender for deep space, and this time pressed the Hyperspace button. The universe faded rom existence as it had done before, leaving only the dull light of his indicators to see by. However, this time the universe did not immediately reassemble itself. He was going at thousands of times the speed of light, and the only real link the Defender had to normal space were the high-gravity refernce points known as black holes. The computer registered their gravity and used them as its only form of guidance so that the craft would continue to go straight on forward.
Suddenly, much sooner than he had expected, the universe came into being again. He was nowhere near any star or planet, for all he saw around him was the inky void and the tiny points of light that were the stars. Then, after pushing reverse, his eyes caught the reason for stopping so soon. Just to the right of the Defender was an escort craft almost exactly like it, except a little newer and more well-preserved in the natural vacuum.
Although the craft was itself in hyperspace, the material form of it would not have been able to travel at that finite speed unless there was some part of the craft in normal space, whether that part was material or not. The black holes did some of the job of linking the craft to normal space, but not all of it. Naturally, you would think that the part that should remain in the known universe would be the hyper drive, but this was not the case. The hyper drive no longer needed to be the one part in normal space, thanks to modern hypserspace research, but something else did. And if the something else was to have either a material or energy form, it had best have some form of matter/energy detector on it to stop the hyperspace travel of the craft if it came too near an object. This was exactly what was used: a simple matter and energy detector. And that was why the Defender had come out of hyperspace so near to the other escort craft.
'Maybe,' he thought, 'Just maybe, this thing might be in perfect working condition. Who knows? It may have a full complement of armor and smart bombs, in which case, I can just get rid of the Defender.'
"Hmmm," he said as he carefully thrusted and angled the Defender up alongside of the new escort and used its nose to open its cockpit cover. As far as he could tell, the instruments were in good condition, what with them being hidden in shadow from the brighter stars. If he made a leap for the craft and it was working, he'd have himself a new ship. If it wasn't working, he'd asphyxiate before he could return to the Defender. He decided to take the chance.
He inhaled and exhaled deeply, in rapid succession, not so much to get oxygen into his bloodstream but to remove most of the carbon dioxide so that the transit through deep space wasn't so painful. Finally, when he thought it to be the right moment, he exhaled completely to avoid exploding from the drop in pressure, popped open the cockpit cover, and pressed the "off" switch on the console. The stars on the viewscreen faded from existence.
It was cold. Oh, it was cold! He had no idea that it could get this cold, anywhere. Unfortunately, he had forgotten how far he had gone from the nearest star. Within the short time he was in hyperspace, he had travelled almost half a light-year, and any radiation he could receive now was in the form of visible light only. Making what effort he could, he pushed himself off of the Defender and caught hold of the escort craft by the edge of the cockpit. Frantically, he dragged himself inside and pushed the "on" button. The cabin was filled with heat and gravity, and the light of the stars shone unaltered through the cockpit cover; the escort craft still worked.
His eyes felt like they were going to come out of their sockets, and his arms felt like they were a foot in diameter; the vacuum was getting to him. He yanked down the cover, and the cabin was filled with cool air - but not too cool - and thereby with some sound. He had made it.
He scanned the controls quickly. Everything was there: up-down lever, thrust, hyperspace, smart bomb, reverse, on, off, and fire. And what was this? A ninth control had been added to the console. It was a red button labelled, "Inviso." The word struck him strangely; he had heard it before, in some old story of technology which he scarcely believed.
He looked up at the status display, and saw the long-range scanner (which pictured only his craft and the Defender), the two units of armor plating, three smart bombs, and a small red line that looked like something off of a gauge or timer. Once again, there was an operating manual stashed near the pilot's seat. He opened it up, and looked down a rather lengthy index to the word, "Inviso."
Turning to the proper page, he read aloud to himself with growing awe: "This button will deploy an instantaneous pulse of light-matter shielding energy about the craft. Any matter in contact with this shielding will be destroyed or repelled, and any light in contact with it will simply pass through the body of the craft and emerge unaltered on the other side. This includes radar waves. Though this effect of invisibility is only a side-effect, it was useful enough to get the type of shielding in its class named after it (hence, the name 'inviso'). The red line below the armor indicator displays the amount of power remaining in the inviso shielding units."
He put the manual down while his mouth was hanging about a foot open. When he had heard about experiments for combat shielding, it was only going to be used on the big ships, the ones with big enough power centers to control the immense amount of energy needed for the shields. He had never seriously imagined that combat shielding, let alone inviso, was going to be used on craft as small as this. The new escort craft was going to be one hell of a fighting machine, if he ever had to use it for such a purpose. Presently, he sat up in his seat, and said gallantly, "Escort craft, I cristen you 'The New Defender'." It was a name well deserved.
As he readied the craft to make the transition into hyperspace, he began to wonder how an escort craft like this, in perfect condition and complete battle-ready status, could just be left to die out here in the void between the stars. The chances against someone doing this sort of thing were pretty large, but the chances against him going into hyperspace in the exact direction where the New Defender was were almost astronomical. This had to be some sort of a setup, he decided. Who or what had done this must've known about him.
As he pressed the central button for hyperspace, the New Defender did absolutely nothing unusual. The stars faded from view, and the craft lurched forward at several thousand times c, using black holes as its navigational guides. This would probably be the only chance he would have to really relax while in hyperspace, which he did. Hyperspace was calm, peaceful, and dangerless, yet there was something about it that seemed wholly unnatural. It was probably because he was cut off from his own universe, filled with familiar energies, that he had this unnatural feeling. But then again, the inside of the Defender did exactly the same thing, what with creating its own little internal universe. And probably, so did the New Defender.
After about a minute, five soft and shrill beeps sounded through the cockpit. As he glanced around to see what they might be for, he noticed that below the long range scanner was the message "Normal Space In 05." The number 05 quickly changed to 04 as he was watching it, letting him know that the beeps were actually a five-second warning of the exit from hyperspace.
When the count reached zero, the universe and the stars assembled themselves out of nowhere just as before, and the wording under the long range scanner simply chanced back into the word "Scanner" once more. A quick look around outside the cockpit confirmed that he was well within a star system, probably one of the neighbors of his old system of Omega Cygni. The system he was now in consisted principally of what looked like a rather hot green star and a whole bunch of small jovian planets. However, there was one rather massive terrestrial planet at a close distance to the star which was probably an old human outpost. He decided to investigate.
As he approached the planet, a small, blinking, green-and-pink dot appeared on his long range scanner. This conformed to the exact specifications of the readings he had always picked up from the mutants back on his old planet during the battles. Could it be?...
As soon as the object entered visible range, his fears were confirmed. It was a mutant, just like on the old planet! This one, however, seemed about as docile as a lander, not making any aggressive actions, even firing. It did, dowever, look strangely different than did the mutants he had remembered. There was something about it that seemed different, something he couldn't quite place. Maybe it was that he'd never seen a mutant for so long that he'd forgotten what they looked like, but he doubted that was the reason.
Well, if there were mutants surrounding a large terrestrial planet, then the planet below was probably under constant raid by the landers. If this was so, then it was his duty to put a stop to it. Aiming the craft so that it would dive down to the planet below, he pushed thrust, and streaked down through the atmosphere.
What he saw going on below was not just a bunch of landers stealing away several helpless humans; he was witnessing an actual war. The landers were about one-and-one-half times as wide as the ones he'd remembered fighting before, and were ladened with technological and natural markings which made them look almost beautiful; so that's what made the mutants look so much different! The humans had obviously developed a primitive form of defensive technology in despair, consisting principally of stone catapults with what looked like fireballs for use as projectiles. There was a volcano on the planet which seemed to spew out fireballs of similar nature as the projectiles on its own accord, which seemed to deter the landers almost as much as the hurled fireballs from the catapults did. The humans had obviously learned how to run, for they were moving about twice as fast as the helpless inhabitants of his old planet. These people had learned to defend themselves.
Suddenly, a human voice boomed through the cockpit, the first human voice other than his own he had heard since he had landed the first humanoid back onto his own home ground. The voice was very excited, and almost impossible to keep under control, but the words were clear: Hooray! Reinforcements have arrived!"
So they had radio equipment! It was almost impossible for him to accept, but these people actually had a fighting chance! If they had called in to central galactic H.Q., and if they had hyperspace communications as well as radio, then maybe reinforcements would arrive before the last human was carted off! Maybe, if he defended them, his efforts would not be in vain....
He leaned over to the microphone, and said, "No, reinforcements have not arrived. I just came from a planet that was in almost the same situation as you were in, and I could not successfully hold off the lander/mutants. The machines within the planet shut down, and the unstable surface exploded, leaving behind only an asteroid belt too close to the star. I'll do my damndest to defend you guys from the landers, but I can't guarantee anything. For now, just call me 'The New Defender'."
He hadn't much time to lose, as a few of the landers were rapidly closing in on some of the more defenseless humans. He pushed thrust and came over to their location, firind repeatedly as they came into visible range. In less than a second, all three landers were dead.
It was then that he noticed a couple of odd things on his long range scanner. There seemed to be some white spinning thing along with a red-and-white thing which looked more like a fireball than a pod on his scanner, along with a big strange square which hung motionless in the sky. He would have to look into these, he decided as he changed direction and pushed thrust.
As the fireball and the spinner came within visible range, he noticed a property about the spinner that seemed quite remarkable. It chased the fireball, and when it got within range of its own circular body, it ate it. That was the only word to use for what it did - it ate the fireball. This was obviously some ploy put forth by the space race to slow the humans' attacks, and it was evidently working. He decided to test its limits as he lowered himself to its altitude and overkilled with the fire button. It was destroyed.
Just before it went up in pieces, however, it managed to launch the fireball it had eaten straight at the New Defender. The fireball wasn't nearly as quick as the old shots fired by the landers, mutants, etc., and he wondered if it might be more than just flame energy; if it might have some substance. A quick burst of energy from his assault beam confirmed that it was solid and that it could be destroyed.
Then there was that orange square he would have to look at. He found it just beyond where he had just been fighting, just hanging there like a space ship hangar or something. He looked at it carefully, and noticed that it was actually a little tunnel of orange boxes, drifting off forever into nowhere. It was some sort of gateway, and from what he could tell, it looked two-dimensional. Maybe it was a hyperspace gate, or a route to the stars. A stargate? Yes, that might be it. Whatever it was he would have to try it. He raised the craft to its altitude, and thrusted right into it.
Just as he did, he heard the distinct sound of a lander picking up a human. Damn it, they couldn't hold it off! But it was too late to go back and save him now, for the New Defender had already hurled itself into the stargate, and the universe was fading from existence just as it would while in hyperspace. Suddenly, the planet popped into being once more. But not in the way it did when he came out of hyperspace, by mysteriously assemdling itself before his eyes. This time, it was just there. One point in time it was nonexistent, the next it was as normal as when he had been looking at the stargate. And right in front of him was the lander carting off the now helpless human.
He aimed his shot carefully, and took the lander out with one blow. He came across the top of the human's body, not even bothering to give him instructions, and the human did as he'd instinctively planned and caught on to the landing skids. He was about to set him down, when he noticed another human being carted off in the vicinity. He came over to the place his scanner said for him to go, and saved the second human in just the same way as he'd saved the first.
Then, it happened again. How long could he keep this up? He picked up the third human as it fell from the now-dead lander's grip. Now he would be able to put him down. No, he wouldn't. Near the other side of the planet (which seemed very small for such a big view from space) a fourth lander was taking away a fourth human. He had no time to lose. He thrusted to the rear side of the planet, the side where the stargate was, and proceeded to eliminate the fourth lander and save the fourth human. It was probably getting very crowded down there under his craft. And the signal came again! There was a fifth human being carted off, he had noticed it when he came here to save human # 4. And there was the stargate. It had transported him to the site of a lander stealing away a human before; maybe it would do it again....
This time, something really weird happened. As soon as the universe faded from existence, he seemed to be moving very quickly through some tunnel of warped space. Lots of points of light, mostly red, flashed past his eyes as he watched the tunnel come from nothingness in front of himself, and go back into nothingness from behind. He wasn't quite certain why, but he felt as though this "warp" was caused by the fact that he had four people under his craft. When it finally ended some fifteen seconds later, he was back in the planet's atmosphere, and all the ships he had seen before he left - the two landers, the fire-bomber (aka spinner), and even the baiter that had popped into existence as he entered the stargate - were gone. Destroyed. Not there anymore.
It was obvious that the warp he had gone into had done this. The stargate was most likely the construction of his own kind, not a device used by the space race, for the humans were still there. Why anyone would want to construct such a self-contained twister of space and hyperspace, he was not quite certain. If it was built to help people who were in distress, why not build it on the ground instead of hundreds of meters in the air, perhaps even kilometers off the ground? Maybe this was put here by whatever had also put the New Defender in his flight path out of the Omega Cygni system. Somehow, thinking about these things coupled together made him feel strangely religious, but then common sense took over. Someone was helping him out, someone of a race that probably hated the space race almost as much as he did.
At that point, a red splotch appeared on the scanner, followed by a smaller pink dot. These two were soon accompanied by a third blob, which looked like a whitish-green, completely unlike the landers. He decided to investigate....
What he saw when they got within visible range looked positively hilarious. Here were these three squares, all of different colors, attached to a mountain and eating their way through it! They had no discernable features except for their squarish mouths which seemed to open and close quite rapidly in a regular pattern. These hilarious guys definitely needed hilarious names. Okay, how about "munchie?" That would certainly do for the green one. The red one was a bit bigger than the other two, so naturally, he decided to call it, "Big Red."
He didn't want to call the pink one "Pinky" or something stupid like that, since it looked too much like what must be an offspring of Big Red. Picking a name which reflected this, he called the pink one "Phred."
Suddenly, a loud voice rang through his head. He knew it was inside his head, because his ears didn't even feel anything, and the noise was at least the equivalent of sixty-five decibells. It spoke with an accent which was strikingly similar to his own, which did not seem too surprising. It said: "Yes, somebody has been helping you, and that somebody has been us. The landers can mutate just as easily by consuming one of us as they can by consuming one of you. We needed the help of someone like you, so we located an abandoned escort craft, recharged its inviso power, loaded its weapons pay with three smart bombs, and laid it out in your path. We also had been to work constructing the stargate out of an old hyperdrive, and adding the 'warp' feature as you call it. There are several bugs in it - like having to take four people with you to activate the 'warp', for instance - but we completed it in a hurry. Oh oh ..."
The oh oh of the three "munchies" had been well justified. His scanner showed six objects coming out of hyperspace into the planet's atmosphere. He thrusted over to them, and found that the objects were things he had never seen before. Three of them looked like tiny fighters, similar in design to his own escort craft. The other three looked like glowing diamonds, not completely unlike swarmers. He engaged them first, finding out that these swarmer-like things were not too much different from baiters and/or mutants in their flying tactics. They were tricky and fast. He called them "dynamo" before he was finished wiping them out.
As soon as he engaged the fighters, however, they all emitted a hum like he had never heard before in the short time he had been in combat. It was a low hum, but not quite low enough to be a rumble. Then, all-of-a-sudden, the three craft faded from existence. They had gone into hyperspace. That made him angry, for now he had met something with as much escaping power as he had. It was from this that he began to call the fighters, "space hum."
Quite unexpectedly, one of the fighters came out of hyperspace, reassembling itself not only within visible range, but right under the New Defender. The space hum rapidly swing its whole body upward in an attempt to "kamikazi" with the New Defender. He had no time to lose. He brought his right thumb down on the red-colored "inviso" button, and held it there for a split-second just long enough for the space hum to complete its attacking run. Rays of yellow colored energy sparkled as they radiated away from the craft, leaving the surrounding air ionized in their wake. The space hum came barrelling up to the craft and was blow apart upon contact with the inviso shield, leaving the little escort craft completely unharmed.
A quick glance at his scanner told him where the two remaining space hums were. It also told him that the three munchies were not there anymore. Most likely, they had hyperspace ability, but more likely they did something else. He thrusted over to where the space hums were just about to get into visible range, then quickly removed his finger from the thrust button on a frightened impulse. If they saw him coming, all they would do would be to go into hyperspace and try to take him by surprise. Presumably, they either had long range scanners of their own, or a heightened sense of sight, since they would have to know whether or not he was coming. But what if they couldn't see where he was? Then, instead of disappearing right when he was about to pounce on them, he would be able to blast both of them out of existence before they even had a chance to react.
Smiling the way an evil scientist does before he puts his master plan into action, he pushed down on inviso and thrust simultaneously. He spent a full second or more lining up his craft, and then released the inviso button and began firing full force. The space hums were destroyed before they knew what hit them.
He then realized that he was right over the area where he had "met" the munchies. He brought the craft down to the mountain they were chomping on, and looked closely at it. Just as he had suspected, there were three holes in the side of the hill filled in with loose dirt. The munchies lived inside of the mountain.
But there wasn't time to worry about this now. According to his scanner, the
landers were beginning to come down again....
.... Once again, the battle had waged onward. Besides the dynamos, space hums, and fire-bombers, the space race had its normal complement of bombers, baiters, and pods. He had been forced to learn, the hard way, that the smart bombs would not harm the munchies; they were normal, biological, carbon-based life. That was why they could provide transformation sustainence to the landers.
The people had run like crazy, and launched a multitude of fireballs at the onslaught of landers, but for the most part their efforts had been in vain. They had still been carted off, and now even with four of the rescued humans under his belly, the warp wouldn't work.
Throughout the battle, the scanner had displayed beneath it such cheery messages as "All Landers Destroyed!" and such useless messages as a countdown to a "Pod Intersection." But there was no such triumphancy or uselessness in the message now, as it read "Humanoids Remaining: 5".
He struggled desperately against the onslaught of alien devices and bodies. There seemed to be no end to them. His armor, both layers, had been completely stripped off because of good strategy on the part of the space race and/or a bad move on the part of himself. In various attacks, he'd had to use his smart bombs ... all three times. And he was tired. The aliens were almost about to win.
Now, there was another kind of alien craft on his scanner. Instinctively, he thrusted in its direction, too exhausted to take notice of the immense size of it on the scanner. When he came into its presence, he was almost completely awe-struck. That thing was at least five times as big as his own craft, in all directions! Oh well, at least it would be an easy target. He lowered the New Defender to its altitude, and prepared to do an overkill.
Then suddenly, a thundering beam of light-energy streaked from the side of the thing, and destroyed a lander which had just come out of hyperspace. The thing had fired an assoult beam for one thing, and had attacked an enemy craft for another. It was on his side!
As he took his hands as far away from the controls as possible, the cabin once again came to life with a human voice. The fact that he could feel the vibrations and tell that this really was sound that he was hearing told him that this was a radio transmission from one of his own kind - a human - and not the voice of a munchie. The voice said: "We came here as soon as we could, but we've been busy all over trying to put down invasions by landers. It seemed at first like an uncontrollable epidemic, but we've finally started to drive them away - out of the galaxy, in fact.
"We're glad to see that somebody's been able to fight off the landers alone. You'll probably get some kind of a medal for this. But in the mean time, thanks. Now then, would you kindly leave so that you won't get blown up. We have a lot of assault beams on board, you know."
After about ten seconds, the shock passed from his face. He brightened up tremendously, and then let out a loud whoop that involved his whole body. His efforts had not been in vain! Because of him, a planet had been saved, and an attack by the landers and company had been put down. He truly was a real hero.
"You got it, boy!" he announced triumphantly into the microphone. "I'll patrol the other side of the planet 'till you get there, ok? So-long!"
He lowered the craft and began to speed out of its visible range from the big stip. Before he left, however, he hit the reverse button so that he could see this big baby in battle. Sure enough, several landers, bombers, and even baiters had come into its area. As soon as it felt ready, the big ship began pouring out firepower in all directions.
A myriad of luminous and thundering streaks emerged out of nowhere from the hull of the ship. The thing was literally bristling with assault beams on all sides. Once or twice, a shot managed to connect with the craft, and it managed to do something; it made a little red glow on the surface about as bright as a firefly. This ship seemed absolutely invincible. Not only that, but each shot it fired connected as with a direct hit; the thing had the accuracy of a targeting computer at its disposal.
He pushed reverse, then thrust, and sped away from the site of victory. There was nothing that could stop him now from being the hero he'd always wanted to be.
Suddenly, without warning, a mutant flashed into being at the extreme visible range. He hadn't been paying any attention to his scanner, the battle being so nearly won. The mutant closed in rapidly, screaming its warcry and letting loose with white-hot shots in his direction. Within seconds, the mutant was upon him.
There was no way he was going to avoid the mutant now. Thinking quickly, he pushed the inviso button and held it down. No streaks of yellow radiance flew forth from the New Defender as they had done in the past. He looked up at his status display, and suddenly realized, to his horror, that he had used up all of his inviso time in combat.
The mutant bore down, and struck hard.
In an instantaneous concussion of light and sound, all his dreams, all his
glory, and all his problems, were gone. The medal of honor he so well deserved
would never be his. The battle was won, but his own war had been lost by the
actions of a single craft trying for one last desperate all-out attack. Both he
and the mutant, at least, would go to their deaths in triumph. It was all over.
"Drat!" he cursed, and put in another quarter.