The original draft was written on an electric typewriter. Just as Every Fifth Attack Wave was Defender (the arcade video game) fanfiction, so this story is Scramble (the arcade video game) fanfiction. All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, etc. are as in the original.
"... And so, men," the colonel continued, "The enemy has been escaping our grasp for much too long. You must take the craft you have, fly in, and infiltrate the area behind enemy lines. Do I make myself clear?"
A chorus of "Yes sirs" came from our little group. We were the most experienced fly-people, and the best at flying in through tight places without getting our paint scratched.
"Okay, then. Kruchanska, you'll go on a bombing run over the big plains area of Marius II. Marius I, III, and IV are currently uninhabited, while we've almost completely taken over Marius V. The rest of you will attack Procyan, Tetanide, and Darbor. Make arrangements among yourselves as to who attacks what."
The colonel saluted; we all returned the salute, and began to head out the door. Suddelnly, I felt his large hand put a rather strong grip on my left shoulder. "Not so fast, Dwarmij," he said in his cold, determined tone.
"There's one more place I haven't mentioned. Can you guess what it is, lieutennant?"
I was rather reluctant to answer because I knew exactly what it was, and what it meant. "Why, Europia, sir. But, that's their main base, and is one of the most heavily guarded places known!"
"Exactly. That's why I want you to infiltrate it."
I froze for about two seconds. Then, weakly, I said, "Me, sir?"
"Yes, you. You're the best man for the job; you can avoid rockets as good as anyone, and you're the best at dodging the tighter mountains. Go along with the rest of the group on the spacecraft carrier, but don't tell them where you're going, because it might upset them."
'That was certainly an understatement,' I thought. If any of them knew I was going to infiltrate Europia they would go out of their way to keep me from leaving the carrier. We all stuck together.
"When you reach Ross 128, just leave the craft carrier with the rest of them, taking the Scrambler as your transportation. Then, when it comes time for you to split up to your appropriate planets, just ease off in the direction of Europia while nobody else is looking. It's that simple."
"Well ... ok, sir. Goodbye."
"And good luck, soldier," he said as he shook my hand in that particular style which meant "Goodbye. I might never see you again."
I left the room and re-entered the group, avoiding any questions concerning that little discussion I had with the colonel. They had chosen for me to invade Tetanide. It was a shame that I couldn't tell them my mission was to infiltrate Europia.
As we were on your way to the close star Ross 128, I inspected the Scrambler more closely. This was one of my favorite space craft, the kind I'd heard about but never flown. It was tiny, and outside of the "laser" on the front and the bomb launcher on the bottom, it was outfitted with no more than the bare minimum. The design didn't even make provisions for radar. Why this craft was so well-known, I wasn't quite sure.
It was equipped with the usual garb for mountain weaving and infiltration, such as vertical thrusters and a variable-speed rear thruster. I had a feeling that it was going to work out just fine.
At last, we arrived at Ross 128. The longest part of the space travel was not the distance between the stars, but the time it took where the carrier was actually travelling through space - getting out of the plane of the ecliptic, lining up with the destination, getting ready for the jump into hyperspace, etc.. Travelling through hyperspace only took a few seconds of time, both actual and shipboard.
We boarded our respective craft and made haste through the innumerable airlocks. As we neared our destinational breakoff points, I suddenly seized the communicator transmitter, pushed the little red button, and said "So-long, guys. It's been nice," afterwhich, I promptly put the Scrambler up to maximum speed and set a course for Europia, the seventh planet from the star.
I had unplugged the receiver so that there was no way they could convince me to come back. I looked back at the other few planets of the system that were inhabited by the hostile human offshoots; there was Darbor, Tetanide, Procyan, and the gigantic planet, Marius. It seemed highly unlikely that any terrestrial planet should reach that size, but Marius was the exception to the rule.
Presently, I had found my way down to the surface of Europia. It looked barren from this side, but I knew that on the other side of the planet was a defensive maze so deadly that any craft without clearence would almost certainly be destroyed. And I had to be the one to put its defenses to the test.
Suddenly, an artificial mountain sprang into being over the horizon. This was it; I was about to take the Scrambler on a suicide run into the deadly maze. Somewhere, deep within the recesses of my mind, a large fanfare played an introduction piece that could have as easily meant "On to victory" as it could have meant "On to your death."
I raised the craft in altitude somewhat so that I would be able to climb over the mountain. It was then that I noticed how low my fuel supply was getting. At the beginning of the mission, the gauge had a solid red-and-yellow bar across it with a number at the front reading seventy. Now, that number was gone, and in its place was only the bar, now slowly shortening itself in length. I suddenly realized that I was down to the last of my fuel, which was less than a seventieth of a tankful, and that I would soon run out.
The other side of the mountain finally gave way to my sight, and I could see below me the first defenses of the main base: simple rockets. Quickly, I pushed the "bomb" button twice, and watched the two bombs fall from the air and destroy the first two rockets. I promptly reduced my altitude so that I was hovering only a few meters above ground; that way, I could dispose of the upcoming rockets with my laser.
I quickly blasted everything that was in front of me out of the way. In addition to the rockets, which as of now had remained innocuous, there were strange fire-hydrant shaped things that were presumably either ammunitions depots or power generators. There were also small water tower shaped things that were shielded from enemy fire. Strangely enough, when I hit one of them, my fuel supply jumped higher by about ½ of an inch, or a little more than a centimeter. It was then I realized two things: the water towers were fuel storage areas, and the Scrambler had the ability to sponge up, or cyphen, fuel from an unshielded source when its own supply was low.
That made me feel a whole lot better. If there were enough fuel dumps around, then maybe I wouldn't run out of fuel. Despite all the humanly-controlled flaws of the Scrambler, it did have some remarkable abilities to guide me through this infiltration mission.
The artificially enhanced landscape kept changing color on my viewscreen. This was not because the landscape was actually changing color, but because the enhanced image was getting so confused, it being near dusk and all. If I were watching the actual landscape, it would just look like a dark gray form set against a lighter gray sky. Not only that, but I would've also missed the rockets, fire hydrants, and fuel depots entirely, what with them being hidden in the shadow of both dusk and a faraway sun.
Now that everything was out of my way, I could clearly see the next, lower, artificial mountain in front of me. I would have to lift the Scrambler up over it and then look at whatever might be on the other side. I pushed the control lever into its lifting position, and felt the craft glide upward in an unnaturally smooth motion. The landscape fell away from under me, and soon I was high enough to climb the mountain going forward. As the mountain (or rather, large hill) slid past me, I was greeted on its opposite side by another row of rockets and fuel depots - no fire hydrants this time. Suddenly, before I could begin bombing them, one of the rockets ignited its engine and came launching upwards straight for the Scrambler! Thinking quickly, I pushed the craft forward with added thrust, and pushed the bomb button twice at the same time.
The first bomb intercepted the rocket in mid-air, while the second came down and destroyed the shielding of a fuel depot, letting the Scrambler suck up the much-needed fuel energy. The rocket had gone off just behind my craft, thanks to the added thrust, but now I would have to drop straight down if I was going to destroy everything in my path again. I pulled the lever back to its furthest position which made it hover in place, and then pulled it into its down position, causing it to descend to the level of the obstacles. Why the designers of this craft put the altitude control on the same lever as the thrust control, I'll probably never know.
As I "lasered" all of the rockets and fuel dumps, I realized that now I knew how this complex defended itself; with rockets that launched whenever a craft flew overhead. They were probably small nuclear warhead missiles, not unlike the Genie missiles employed on the old F-101 fighter planes of the mid-20th century. If these were the defenses on the above-ground level, I shuddered to think what I would have to go through once I got below the ground; the main base of Europia is located about a full kilometer under ground.
I'm not quite sure why they call the weapon on this craft a laser, although I have an idea. A laser is supposed to fire a beam of coherent light, but the thing on the Scrambler fired a little ball of what was apparently glowing matter which went slow enough so that I could actually see it rushing away from the craft. Apparently, it's called a laser because of the stimulated emissions process it uses to fire a ball of matter with such high energy potential. However, the name still is a quite bad and misleading one.
Would these hills never end? Once more, I brought the craft up and over a hill, although this time the hill came out to a level plane on which three rockets were standing; I lasered them all down. I was just glad that as long as the craft had fuel it could keep generating bombs and forming the matter necessary for the laser; and none of the weapons or systems would ever overheat. This was one reason why the Scrambler had attained such a widely known reputation.
The landscape kept rolling by, showing me different, yet somehow monotonous, rows of the same rockets, hydrants, and fuel depots. I looked down at my fuel supply several times, and each time I was no way in danger. I had a few close calls and near misses, but with my training background and the handling capabilities of the Scrambler, I always made it out unharmed.
Then, at last, I saw the first change in the landscape: the cave roof of the underground complex was coming up in front of me. This meant that from then on, my mission of infiltration would be underground, and whether there would be enough light for the image-enhancers to pick up on, I couldn't be sure. If the image-enhancers couldn't work, then the radar would come into play, and that was a more dangerous, and more monotonous, monitoring system. It was bad enough to have pink mountains and green rocket exhaust, but having all that appear as just white blips would be too much to bear. It would make me lose any sense that I was really on a mission, and not just a space traffic controller.
As soon as I had blasted everything on the external surface of the planet out of my way, I took the Scrambler to a medium altitude which would let me slip easily into the underground labyrinth.
Evidently, there was enough light for the image enhancers to pick up on, for I noticed something moving within the cave. I could begin to see the orangish color artificially put in by the enhancers, and it was then I knew there was enough light. Soon, I discovered what the motion inside the cave was from; there was a rather small flying saucer madly moving about in an up-and-down, sideways motion. I adjusted my level to where the saucer's was, approximately, and immediately began to rapid-fire with my laser. After a few shots, he had gone, but another one had appeared. So far, neither of them had bothered to fire at me. This most likely meant that they either had no firepower at all, in which case they were trying to ram me, or else their firepower was so pitifully wimpy that it neither affected my craft nor showed up on the screen.
After he was destroyed, and two more had appeared, a fuel dump came into view. This was an awfully strange place to distribute a fuel dump, but as usual, my fuel was getting low, so I pushed "bomb" twice and watched my fuel level jump out of the corner of my eye. It seemed very strange that these fuel dumps should be distributed so evenly all over the complex's defenses, almost as if they were there to keep the Scrambler going, to prolong its death in some other place.
Nevertheless, I kept up the rapid-fire on the saucers, which came on a regular basis now. I had found one place where I could "rest" the craft at a particular altitude and destroy each of the saucers as they came out. The saucers had an easy but definite attack pattern which I had mastered after a few of them, and now they were easy pickings for my gun-lasers.
Reguardless of the fuel dump I had recently disposed of, my fuel level was fast approaching the critical level (which was not to say that going down to a single bar-graph for my fuel tank level wasn't a critical level in itself!). Then, as I had almost expected for some reason, another fuel depot came within visible range, only this time it was followed by three launch-rockets. As I was still fighting off the flying saucers, I managed to bomb the fuel dump and the rocket that came immediately after it, but I couldn't get the other two rockets from my current altitude and position. It was a lousy shame that interstellar law prohibited a small craft like this to drop more than two bombs at once. It was a stupid law, and was probably originated in the early days of the frontier. If it was finally repealed, I'd sure want to be the first to know.
Amazingly enough, neither of the rockets launced in pursuit of me. Maybe they knew that they would hit the flying saucers, or something like that, but if that was the case, then why were they put here to begin with? Were they here for decoration, or what? That, in conjunction with the continuous array of fuel depots, let me know that there was something very strange going on.
Suddenly, the two saucers that had evaded my grasp sped off in a direction opposite my own. Even though they had stopped their up-and-down wavering motion, I still missed them both, seeing as they were moving so quickly now. Again, a string of fuel depots, rockets, and fire hydrants came into being at the extreme visible range, but this time they were accompanied by something - in fact, they were accompanied by a lot of things - meteors. There must have been hundreds of them, all going at the same speed the escaping saucers had gone at. They were glowing pink and blue, but a quick look down at the purple landscape reminded me that this wasn't their real color. I fired repeatedly at one of them, but the big chunk of rock was completely unaffected. Somehow, these meteors had been made immune to gun-laser fire, which must've been a pretty hard thing to do. I'd heard about some rare kind of meteors that were unaffected by matter, gravity, or energy, chiefly because they didn't exist completely in this universe, and I was pretty certain that these were some of them.
I lowered the Scrambler down so that it was just above the ground, raised it over a small artificial hill, bombed twice at the string of items, lowered down to their level, and lasered them all to bits. It seemed so much like the outdoor part of the maze, except now there was an added danger factor if I went too high.
It was times like these that I really began to admire the image-enhancer. Even though it couldn't make up its mind about the color of the landscape, the glow of the meteors was almost magically beautiful. Actually, I knew that the meteors weren't actually glowing at all; they had no reason to, in an atmosphere no denser than that of Mars.
Up came another artificial mountain. I rose over it, bombed twice, lowered down and lasered every remaining item in my path. The combat here was exceptionally easy, seeing that the rockets didn't even launch. Then came another hill, and up I went, avoiding a low-flying meteor and bombing at the same time. With the on-the-job training the outside area had given me, this part was the easiest I had yet ventured through.
But every easy thing must end. Ninety seconds and five hills later, my image-enhancer displayed a gigantic brick wall, almost a hundred-and-fifty meters high. Responding as quickly as the Scrambler would let me, I raised the craft at the full available power of the upward-thrusters. When I was as near to the ceiling as I dared be, I looked out over the top of the wall. There again was an array of rockets and fuel tanks simply laying out there, exposed to any firepower that might come their way. I fired a few laser bursts when I had properly adjusted my altitude, and nailed three rockets and a fuel depot there were standing up out of little wells on top of the wall.
Actually, when I thought about it, the item I was now passing over was more than just a wall; it looked more like a brick building, judging from its size and top width. Why anyone would build a fortress of thes size was beyond me, as was what could possibly be contained inside. For all I knew, this was just a "prop" put up for incoming visitors, whether friendly or not. But whatever it was, somebody went to a lot of trouble to make it.
As I passed by the area, I noticed an odd configuration coming up on the image enhancer. The ceiling dropped straight down by a few meters, and the floor dropped down the same distance a couple of meters ahead of the drop in the ceiling. All in all, the corridor that remained was extremely narrow, not to mention the fact that the drop in the corridor was obviously designed for craft that could hover and drop without moving forward the slightest bit.
The Scrambler could hover, but only for a very short amount of time and only after it had accelerated forward a little ways. The drop was the only thing up-and-coming on the image enhancer, but it was up-and-coming rather quickly. I pushed the Scrambler forward somewhat, and then at the instant of the minute drop, I pulled the stick backward and down, causing the Scrambler to lower itself without moving forward.
The next corridor was similar to the first, except that the ceiling was much closer, giving me practically no leeway at all. If I flew the slightest bit too high, I would crash into the ceiling. If I flew the slightest bit too low without bombing first, I would crash into the row of objects simply lying out below me in an array.
The same objects were there - the rockets, the fuel depots, and the fire-hydrant shaped objects. They were just standing there on top of what was presumably the roof of the brick building, just waiting for someone to knock them off. The enemy was a powerful one, but it certainly wasn't very big on security. I somehow got the feeling that all the time I was just playing a game with them, that all this time they were giving me at least one way out of any situation so that I could continue on to their internal base.
I bombed twice, lowered the scrambler, and blasted away at everything in front of me. The next wall wasn't for a few meters, to say the least, so I just let the Scrambler hover in its positions while it slowly, inexorably moved forward. The image enhancer was working overtime with the bricks of this "building," as I saw fit to name it. Each brick glowed with its own color, while the divisions between the bricks kept their steady yellow-white shade.
This was a perfect time for me to sit back and think of all that had gone before me, and all that was yet to come. In the thin Europian atmosphere and low Europian gravity, the Scrambler was perfectly at home. I shuddered to think what this craft would do if it were used to invade Marius. A terrestrial planet four times the size of Earth with gravity and atmosphere to match would quickly take its toll on a little fighter like the Scrambler. No, Marius was a place for groundcars, not air battles.
Another wall, another duel with a few inanimate objects, and another run through a sudden drop and that part of the maze was finished. I liked the way the word "maze" fit the situation. In a maze, there is always at least one way to get through. However, in any security system, this should not quite be the case, since enemy craft should have no way of getting through without monstrous firepower. I was beginning to feel that the enemy was not trying to stop me, but merely trying to wear me down. But then again, they might never have seen a fighter like the Scrambler.
I was almost completely unprepared for the next obstacle. There were no glowing meteors; no launching rockets; not even any enemy ships. Instead, all that lay before me was a great shift downward in the corridor like the one I'd seen a couple of minutes earlier. This time, however, the dip was not just a drop-off of a few meters, but dropped nearly half the range of the image enhancer!
I pushed the Scrambler forward as far as it would go without hitting the wall, and then lowered it while making it hover in place. As I looked down the short stretch of corridor before me, I could see the same thing coming up fast; only this time, it was going to be upward to the very top of the image enhancer's limits.
I pushed the Scrambler through the last jump, but not by much. And then, ahead of me, there was the same thing again. This, the hardest part of the maze so far, reminded me of some great, square-toothed beast with his jaws just barely open and wide gaps between where his teeth interlocked. I pushed the Scrambler forward, and this time dived as far as the image-enhancer's range went. It was getting harder all the time.
Now, the teeth of the beast were becoming wider, but their height from tip to gum was just the same, gruelling height. I passed up through one gap, then down another, and then ... it was over.
Somehow, I knew that I had gotten through the maze. The bricks suddenly gave way to a rocky, dirt floor just like in the first three sections of the defense maze. In front of me, at the very edge of the image enhancer's range, was a tall, artificial mountain, reminiscent of the first obstacle on the outside. I realized at this point just how much my face was full of sweat as I reached my right arm up to my forehead and wiped what perspiration I could away. It had been a long journey, and my body knew it.
With a relieved sort of tiredness, I raised the Scrambler over the artificial mountain, remembering as I did that my mission was not quite over yet. All these defenses, all that mazework, was put there to guard something I knew only as the enemy's "main base." Now, it was that which I had to destroy.
Over the mountain, hidden in the solitude of the foot of the artificial mountain, was a single, octagonal, green object no bigger than the Scrambler itself. All the great computers, all the fantastic technology, and all the war plans of the enemy were stored in that single green storehouse. My aim had to be exact, or else the Scrambler would fly right by the main base and all my efforts would have been in vain. Carefully, I pictured in my head the exact trajectory of the bombs when they dropped. I lowered the Scrambler down to a comfortable altitude, then took careful aim, and quickly pressed the "bomb" button twice.
I heard the dull whine of the bombs as they cut through what little atmosphere there was here on Europia. With tense and crossed fingers, I watched the two red-tipped explosives fall mightily toward the vast yet small storehouse of the enemy. I closed my eyes in fear of the worst, letting only my ears betray any victory whatsoever.
Suddenly, the whining sound was replaced by the muffled static crackling that the bombs left in an explosion. I opened my eyes excitedly to witness the destruction of the small, green storehouse. The explosion was as uneventful as when I blew up a rocket or a firehydrant, but in my mind I could see it as something infinitely more flambuoyant, such as an enemy spaceship falling into a star, or the dramatic concussion when the magnetic bottle gives out on a fusion reactor.
I was shaken from the sight of victory instantly when I realized that the Scrambler had run out of fuel. The horizontal thrust giving out was what betrayed it to me, but the real danger lay in the fact that it was the same fuel reserve used to power the vertical thrusters on the bottom of the ship. I pushed a big red button on my instrument panel just before I began to feel the Scrambler herself fall from the Europian sky.
Before I could recover my bearings, the on-board escape system had clasped me in a conventional space suit, strapped an automatically opening parachute to my back, and launched me out into the alien environment. Through the transparent cover of my helmet, I could just barely see the last faint glimmer fade from the explosion of the main base, leaving the inside in nearly total darkness. The image enhancers on the Scrambler must have been really working overtime in a place like this, relying only on infra-red, ultra-violet, and other invisible light forms to guide my way.
I had no idea where the ejection device had thrown me; all I knew was that it was dark, and that somewhere the Scrambler was falling to its death. Then, with all the grace of a ballet dancer, I caught a glimmer of light, and turned my head to witness the death throes of the space ship that had taken me this far. The entire hull was blown apart from the force of the impact, and the explosion that followed reminded me, somehow, of a sinister, smiling face.
And when it subsided, I knew it was over. The giant parachute looming above my head billowed out with about twice the size of any parachute used on Earth, thanks to the thin atmosphere, as I glided slowly toward the ground. Within a matter of seconds, my feet made contact with the dirt floor in the total darkness.
I quickly removed the parachute, leaving it behind due to its sheer bulk and uselessness. It was only a few kilometers to the above-ground, and if I was lucky, I might get picked up by a passing space ship. Yet all my companions would think me by now to be dead, thanks to such a daring mission. Not even the pilot was informed of what my real mission was ahead of time.
"Oh well," I said as I began to walk away, "I'm only about seventy trillion miles from home."
"Drat!" I said, and put in another quarter.