“Step away from the child.”
“Why do you worry about these inferior creatures?”
“Step away. I will not say it again.”
Claws and fangs tore flesh, blood bathed the walls. Hot sticky drops flew from the wounds of the monstrous shapes looming over him and hit his face.
He woke up, panting, sitting up on the bed.
The nightmare had not come back for years now. It still held incredible power over him. He ran his hands over his brow, face, and chest. Rubbed them on the sheets.
He laid back down to find the spot hot and wet. It was useless to try to sleep again. He knew from bitter experience.
Swinging his legs out of the bed, he sprung up and went over to the chest of drawers. Took out a t-shirt and managed to get it on, even though it stuck everywhere on his sweaty torso, he didn’t bother to change his shorts. Sport shoes on, he went out for a run.
After a vigorous workout with weights, he was drenched again. With good sweat. Not the sour clinging affair brought forth by the nightmare, but clean exercise sweat.
Showered, he went into the mess hall after stopping by the board to check today’s roster. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a quick patrol.
“What time are you going out, Panther?”
“First thing. As soon as I’m done eating here, I’m suiting up. I’ll be out early and back for another night on my bed.” He smiled broadly.
“Ugh. I’m just in. Night patrols are a pain. I mean, even here in orbit Earthside of the asteroid belt where there should be no difference between shifts, the night shift is when most people sleep. I have to have breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast.” Prowler said looking at his bacon and eggs.
They both laughed at that. Truth was people tended to keep Earth-like schedules, even if they made no sense.
He jumped in his Interceptor. The hangar crew was loading him for combat. Not unusual, but not in the posted orders, either. His wingman’s Interceptor taxied close to the catapult.
“Hey, Hellcat, what’s the rush?”
“Pick it up, Panther. We have intermittent contact on the long range scanners and we are the ones going to see what God-forsaken rock got out of place and is making the Brasse’s panties tie in a twist.”
“Well, we have to fly out together, so hold your horses.”
Hellcat’s Interceptor got on the catapult and launched.
“Control, this is Panther on Interceptor Gamma, what’s Hellcat’s rush?”
“The Brass is on our tail, Panther, they want eyes on some rock that’s bobbing in and out of sensor range pronto, you two were up, so you get to go out and check.”
They always went out as flights of two. Hellcat’s rush made no sense, even if it was just to go check out some rock. He finished preflight and taxied in position. Minutes burned away.
The G force pushed him deep in his pilot seat. The merciless grip of the G suit on his legs and abdomen helped his blood up to his brain. Soon, the acceleration decreased to a reasonable level.
“Hellcat, hold up, I’m out and coming to you.”
“Hold back and head for our patrol sector, Panther. I’ll get eyes on the Sierra Golf, take a couple of quick snapshots for the folks at home, and will join you on the regular patrol pattern. This will be quick.”
“Hellcat, ghost or no ghost, it’s not a good idea for you to be out by yourself. You are too far out. Hold up.”
Sensor ghosts, Sierra Golfs, that’s what they called these occasional sensor readings. The asteroid belt was not the densely populated area of space people tended to think it was. There was a lot of space between the asteroids. You could fly straight through it, with your eyes closed, and not hit anything. Well, OK, maybe not as empty as all that, but close.
Panther pushed his Interceptor. They were on routine patrol, so they were not supposed to burn a lot of fuel, but on the other hand, they did have to run them hot every so often to maintain combat readiness.
“Control, this is Panther, I’m doing a hot burn.”
“Something you want to share with the class, Panther?”
“Haven’t done one in a while, it’s on the maintenance roster in a couple of days, since I’m out far anyway, I figured I’d get it done.”
“And you can catch up to Hellcat and check out that neighborhood, right?”
“Can’t let him have all the fun.”
“OK, logging you in. You owe me.”
“Amber on the mess tonight, copy that.” He wasn’t partial to beer but knew John, today’s Control, liked it. A lot.
The Interceptor darted forward, mashing him against the seat.
He was still some distance from catching up to Hellcat when several signals showed up on sensors.
“Contact forward. Unknown craft. Undetermined capabilities and intentions.” Hellcat voice on the communicator, all business.
Panther saw them in his sensors. It was a simple formation. Twenty-four crafts in concentric hexagonal formations all coming at a steady speed.
“The Tangos opened fire. Opened fire. Evasive action.” Hellcat’s transmission corroborated Panther’s sensor readings, the threat icons closed on the forward craft at a high rate.
“I’ll be there in a few, hang on.”
“Negative, negative, go back there are too many, we’ll get creamed.”
Panther pushed his craft even more, but two of the incoming missiles impacted Hellcat’s icon. Nothing remained.
The bestial roar ripped out of his throat and filled the cabin. He assigned priority to each Tango and let his missiles fly. All of them, they were of no use to him on board.
“Panther, return to base, support Combat Space Patrol is on its way.”
Panther’s interceptor redlined as he tried to get away from the incoming hostiles. They had not shot at him, so that was something. They were gaining slowly.
He could see the CSP on his sensors, all already deployed and on their way. There were eight on-call crafts. He knew more were warming up and getting ready, they had plenty of Interceptors on board. As well as Widowmakers and Reapers. Those had to be brought to their launch decks, but once out they would deal these interlopers a spanking they will never forget.
His missiles found their targets. He could not tell if they took any damage. No debris, no Tango disappeared. The missiles were ineffective? Against small craft?
“Control, my missile barrage—”
“We see it, Panther. We’ve got the big Patricias warming up.”
The Space Station Particle Cannons, “Patricias”, very effective against any target.
He spared a glance at his long-range sensors. A lump of ice materialized in his belly.
He panted as he called Control. “New Tangos coming out of the far side. They must have been behind Cybelle,” the asteroid was around two hundred and forty kilometers in diameter, so they were able to use it as a blind, and his instruments had not detected them until they broke cover.
“We got them. Targeting IP missiles on them, you are in the projected trajectory. They’ll be danger close.”
“I’ll pat them and kiss them as they go by. Shoot, shoot, shoot.” The small craft had proven hard to kill, the large ones could be a world of trouble for the outpost.
His instruments started blearing with the inbound missiles alarm. He smacked the warning signal close and concentrated on flying his ship. The trajectory was ballistic at this point, so he’d stay the course and let them fly by… unless one of the IPMs deviated. But if one of those hit him, there would be nothing left and it’d be so quick he’d never know.
Danger close was an understatement, he could swear he could count the streaks on the paint of the two IPMs that flew by him blindingly fast. Black and with their engines off, they were all but invisible in space, unless, of course, they flew so close you could stretch your hand out and touch them.
The IPMs flashed by him in an instant. The smaller Tangos broke formation and attacked the threat. The missiles had point defense measures of their own, so several made it through on their way to the larger Tangos. The few that gave up the ghost did so spectacularly and took some of the smaller Tangos with them.
He tried to keep an eye on the sensors and his approach while keeping his breathing steady.
The CSP flew by to engage the smaller Tangos.
“Give them hell, Scarlet.”
“Go get your dancing shoes on, Panther, there’s plenty of dancing partners out here.”
“Copy, back in two shakes.”
Reapers were deploying now. The Widowmakers could not be far behind. His breathing slowed a little. OK, they had an adequate force to repel the Tangos.
The big ones were probably going to be a problem, but the Widowmakers would be in play by the time they were in range, and that would be that.
He slowed down his Interceptor. “Coming in for a landing. Clear board. No damage on instruments.”
“You look good from here. Combat landing, Panther. Nothing fancy, but speed is of the essence.”
The deck was a hive of activity. The Chief ran up with two carts and a few of the combat techs.
“We’ll have her ready and willing in about half an hour. Go get some water, or coffee, or something, but get out of the way.”
“Half an hour.” Panther didn’t like it. That was a long time, but loading ordinance, getting his Interceptor fueled and ready to go out again required precision work. He could rush them, and pay for it in the middle of a dog fight.
He almost fell when the deck trembled violently.
“What the hell?” For an explosion to rock the outpost that hard and have the gravity plates oscillate…
The big Tangos must be targeting the outpost.
The Patricias answered the aggression.
He balled his fists. Trembling he ran to the briefing room, to find the Commander talking to the Widowmaker crews.
“I want you out quick and dirty. Hit them hard and fast. No gloves. Take them down. Now get the hell out there and make them bleed.”
“Death in the dark!” Came the unanimous yell.
They all rushed out.
“Panther, what can you tell me?” The Commander gathered his things and motioned Panther to follow him.
“They are quick and pack a punch. My missiles seemed to be ineffective.”
“Saw that on the screens. We thought it might be a glitch.”
“No, Rattler, no glitch. I know a couple hit them full-on. They did not go down. They just kept coming. Not even slow down. Nothing.” The situation was bad, so much so the Commander didn’t even chastise him for calling him by his call sign in the briefing room.
“OK, the Widowmakers will take them down. We’d like a couple salvageable, to study. I don’t think it’s in the cards, though.”
“Probably not, Sir.” Panther didn’t add he’d rather have them all become cosmic dust.
They reached the CIC and the tactical display showed the Interceptors heavily engaged. The Reapers were already engaging too, from a distance.
“The big ones don’t seem like they’ll fall easily,” Rattler said.
“The Widowmakers will take them down.”
“I hope so, Panther.”
“I’m going back out. My Interceptor should be almost ready.”
“Make them bleed.”
“Death in the dark.”
The fight was furious, but thankfully short.
His missiles had hurt some of the smaller craft. They were tough. They could take two, some took up to three direct missile hits. But they did eventually go down.
The big tangos were a tough nut to crack. By the time it was all over, only one of the smaller Tangos showed signs of life. The last two big ones had been destroyed, but before coming completely apart, small craft left them.
“Panther, your Interceptor is fresh, check them out, but take no chances. If they look at you sideways, destroy them.”
“Copy, Scarlet. It’s all good. I got company.” The surviving Interceptors with enough fuel accompanied him to capture the crafts. The other escorted the Reapers and Widowmakers back to base.
The small crafts were unarmed and ostensibly lifeboats.
The small damaged Tango stopped showing signs of life and floated inert in the cloud of debris.
They towed them all back to the outpost.
A substantial contingent of fully geared-up ground fighters waited for them when the deck pressurized.
The small Tango was a fighter, no doubt about it, but the extensive damage had breached the hull and vented the atmosphere. Violent decompression left the pilots dead and irrecognisable. Space vacuum frozen blood covered many surfaces, some melted in the warmth of the hangar and leaked out.
Panther got off his Interceptor and rushed to where the lifeboats ticked as they warmed up on the deck, surrounded by the ground fighters.
“If you can hear and understand me: come out slowly, we want you in a submissive posture. Do not brandish weapons. All appendages must be empty and out front. Move slowly.” Master Sergeant Savage repeated the message in a couple of different languages.
Excitement filled Panther despite the situation. This was going to be the first contact with an alien species. Certainly, those crafts were not of human design. It had gone their way, they had prevailed, but the aliens were capable. Some Interceptors and a few Reapers fell to the aliens’ fire. Extensive battle damage forced a Widowmaker to retreat. A first, as far as Panther knew.
His heart beat hard and fast in his chest as the alien craft’s hatch slowly opened. All weapons trained on the opening.
He blanched, his mouth formed a silent O and his eyes bulged out.
Coming down from the alien craft, the monsters from his nightmares moved with confidence and grace.
Obsidian curved claws at the end of the widespread fingers, hands held high and empty. Tips of fangs protruded from the mouth. Midnight black pelt, it could be nothing else, covered their hands and heads. The rest of the body was encased in tight white one-piece suits that showed rippling muscles underneath. The eyes were just like those of the beasts in his dreams, black all around, no discernible pupil. Pointy ears coming out of the top of their heads. The image of the Egyptian god Anubis came to his mind.
“Panther, what’s the matter with you? I mean they are ugly and a little scary, but get a grip, man.”
“You… don’t understand. You… don’t know.” He turned to Scarlet, his ragged breath coming fast. “I’ve seen them before.”
“You what?” Scarlet looked at him up and down. “Are you OK? Did you run short of oxygen or something?”
“No. I… I have to go.”
He turned to go, but a rough guttural voice straight out of his nightmare froze him in place.
“It’s time to repay the kindness of saving your life.”
The background hubbub of voices and grunts, of people shuffling and commenting, ceased as if a switch had closed.
In the sudden silence, Savage cleared his throat and said: “I’m Sergeant Savage, since you speak our language—”
“We will only speak to that one, the one you call Panther.”
A black clawed finger pointed directly at him. Panther’s breath caught in his throat and his knees bent for the briefest second, he had to catch himself from falling over. He turned as if death itself was waiting for him to look back.
“Panther.” The Sargent’s voice thundered over the renewed background noise. “What is the meaning of these. How do they know you? How do they know your call sign?”
Panther’s mouth worked, it opened and closed, his hands came up and out, open. His head shook, denying he knew not what, the whole thing had to be an elaborate new nightmare.
The alien spoke once more. “A life saved is a life owed. I saved your life. You owe me.”
Panther’s voice broke as he screamed, “You are not real. You can’t be real. I’ve dreamed of you, in my nightmares, you kill one another in the dark.”
“When you were a very young child, you traveled to the small red planet close to the asteroids.”
“My parents were scientists and they were on an expedition to Mars when the accident killed everyone in their ship.”
“It was not an accident. And not everyone died.” They could not read the alien. There was not a face as such to read, his ears twitched every so often, but, what did that mean?
Panther brought his hands to his face, to rub away this waking nightmare, only to start at the contact of the icy fingers against his skin. Many excited whispered conversations broke all over. The troops pointed their weapons at the aliens, muzzles moving from target to target, eager to shoot.
“Enough.” Master Sergeant Savage bellowed. “Detail, escort the aliens to the holding pen. You.” He roared pointing at Panther. “Report to the COC. Now.”
Panther turned and started walking automatically. He headed for the Chief Of the Craft’s post on the bridge.
The noise faded, he didn’t know if because he was waking up or because he was going to faint.
Heavy hurried footfalls caught up to him. Four troopers formed up beside him.
“The Sergeant wants us to escort you to the COC.”
Panther slowed down. He was being treated as a threat. As an enemy.
What was happening?
His nightmare was a memory.
His life was changing.
His life might very well be over.
Who were these aliens?
Why did they let him live when he was a child?
So many questions, and not a single answer anywhere to be found.
Panther finds out the answer to these questions.
He also finds out where the aliens come from and what they want.
The universe has many more surprises for him.
Thank you so much for reading.
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