“We have to be careful, Tiger,” Capt. Mick told his second in command. “There are other predators on this planet besides the aliens.”
The skimmers had floated up over the seawall into a steaming, equatorial jungle. A black river emptied into the ocean less than a hundred yards from their landing zone. Capt. Mick sent his lead skimmer ahead on point, following the stream inland. At its mouth, it formed an estuary, over a hundred yards wide. It narrowed quickly to half that width a quarter mile into the tangled vegetation. Jungle foliage crowded down to and over the water on both sides. Soon, even the faint glow of starlight was lost in the dense overgrowth.
Moore’s World was an anomaly. It had been seeded early on, all the way up to introducing large land animals and predators to control them. It was ready for human habitation and scheduled to receive its first settlers when the single lens accessing its system had winked out and had only recently reopened.
When the first new settlers arrived fifty years ago, it had been sitting untouched for three hundred years. Since the lifespan of large cats and bears is about twenty-five years; twelve generations of predators had come and gone, more than enough time for genetic adaptation to have bred some monsters.
For five years after the lens opened, only research teams were allowed to come to the planet. They were anxious to observe a virgin seeded world, left untouched for hundreds of years. There had been reports from the survey teams of one-ton bears and half-ton ligers. There had even been rumors of lanthers, the result of interbreeding lions and panthers. Capt. Mick was leery of coming face-to-face with a half-ton black killing machine, no matter how well armed he was.
The skimmers floated silently over the water, the faint hum of their motors masked by a cacophony of sound emanating from the jungle. Squawks and yelps, whistles and chirping gave evidence of a plethora of wildlife of all types living in the surrounding foliage.
“Jeez, Mick, did they have to bring bugs too!?” Master Sergeant Byron Martin grunted as he slapped away a dragonfly from his face. It had apparently been attracted by a reflection from his night vision glasses. The sergeant and Mick went back a long way. When they were alone they shared a familiarity that was quickly discarded when any other of the troops were around.
“It was early on. The science of terra-forming was in its infancy. Since they didn’t know what was necessary to maintain a living ecology, they just brought a little of everything but mosquitoes and fire-ants.” Capt. Mick whispered loudly to be heard over the jungle chatter. “There will be snakes in the water, maybe even leeches. Believe me, this is not a friendly environment for humans.”
Capt. Mick was studying his omni. He had sent out a flock of butterfly-like drones whose data was blended and sent back to his omni as a single viewable image. It was night-vision, heavily weighted to the infra-red, computer enhanced, to give Mick a comprehensive view of the environment ahead.
So far, there was nothing exciting; water, trees and lightning bugs. At least Mick hoped they were lightning bugs, not some light emitting hornet, or other nasty adaptation. Where the drones were flying a half-mile in front of the lead skimmer, the river widened and shallowed up into a long rapid. Near the left bank, knee-deep in the foaming water, a young girl was standing, naked, washing herself. She could not have been much over eight or nine; her breasts had just begun to form and she had no pubic hair.
She was glancing furtively up and downstream, clearly unconcerned about the jungle behind her. Mick guessed there was an adult there, hidden in the bush.
“Chief, we have contact with a young human female eight-tenths of a klick ahead. What does Willy show?”
“I’m sorry Captain, Willy is over a triple canopy. All he is seeing is treetops.”
“Captain, I have life sensor readings in the jungle, half-klick ahead, near the left bank. I read six, no… seven. One appears to be in the water if that makes any sense,” a sergeant in the point skimmer reported. Capt. Mick had equipped the point skimmer with one of the full sensor helmets from the pods. Where they were too heavy, clumsy and power hungry to carry on foot patrol, their enhanced sensors were handy and could be used, powered by the skimmers capacitors.
“Hold where you are, sergeant. I’m coming up,” Capt. Mick told him. “Step on it Top, we got folks up ahead,” he whispered to the command sergeant major who was driving his skimmer.
“Friendlies?” Sgt. Martin whispered back.
“Looks like it. There is a little girl in the water, appears to be a couple of families in the bush near her.”
Capt. Mick was watching the girl, who was washing her hair. She was evidently enjoying her bath. Mick could appreciate that. Without their air-conditioned suits, the heat and humidity would have been oppressive. He dipped his hand in the water, finding it pleasantly cool.
They passed the point skimmer and slipped silently around a bend in the river. The roar of the rapid could be heard as they cleared the trees and undergrowth. There was a wide quiet pool downstream of the rapids. They crossed the pool and drifted up to where the little girl was standing. She had finished her hair and was splashing water over her back, enjoying the relief from the oppressive jungle heat. Evidently, there were no biting bugs or flesh-eating fish. She seemed quite unconcerned.
“Good evening,” Capt. Mick said in galactic. They had floated up to within six feet of where she was standing, the hum of the skimmer’s motor masked by the whoosh of the rapid. Their camo and stealth rendered them almost invisible.
“EEK,” the little girl yelped and scrambled for the bank. This triggered a flurry of activity.
The undergrowth parted and a stunningly bright light speared out of the jungle, blinding Mick for an instant as his glasses adjusted to protect his eyes. He felt himself slammed into his driver as the sergeant instinctively whirled the skimmer around, presenting its armored bottom to the threat. The skimmer shot ahead and then made a large sweeping turn, crossing the rapid, barely missing the far-right bank, while coming around to return to where they had started.
The rapid acceleration had discombobulated the man with the light. He was shining it around the river trying to locate the fast-moving skimmer. He was not having much luck. The skimmer was designed for stealth, it reflected incoming light off at an angle, not back to its origination point. The camo suits the soldiers were wearing blended them into the river and jungle. The foaming water covered any wake the skimmer would leave, making the Rangers almost invisible to the human eye.
“Ahoy, ashore, don’t be afraid. We are Imperial rangers, you’re in no danger from us. In fact, we are here to help you, if we can,” Capt. Mick shouted to be heard above the rushing water. He stood up in the skimmer and pulled his hood back. It was a gamble, but he didn’t think any group that would allow a little girl to bathe in the river would be much of a threat. “Bring us up to the light,” he murmured to the driver.
As they floated up, the light came to bear on the skimmer. Mick could make out the shadow of a man holding it, but the glare of the powerful light masked any detail.
“Thank God, you’re here,” a deep rumbling voice came from behind the light. “It’s about damn time, we had begun to wonder if we had been abandoned.”
“This is incredible, Mister Evers,” Capt. Mick told the burly man to his right. They were standing in a massive cavern. The underground room stretched up six stories and was a city block wide. It was lit by a soft green light, evidently, some local light-emitting lichen coating the stalactites hanging from the ceiling far above, provided the illumination. The floor of the room was rough, a jumbled mass of stalagmites reaching up to meet their hanging cousins. The bottom of the cavern was split near its center by a flowing stream.
“This is just one of the entrance rooms,” Mister Evers informed him. “The main cavern makes this look like a broom closet.”
The group that the Rangers had happened onto was a fishing party. The little girl was with them to gather freshwater mussels. The mussels populated caves along the river. The entrance to the caves was often so small that a grown man could not access them, thus the young lady’s small stature was a benefit. She had come out of the last cave with a nice basket of mussels but also covered in mud, explaining her nocturnal bath.
They had pulled their skimmers up on the bank, covered them with camo blankets, unloaded their gear onto the backs of their “Alfies.” An Alfie was a pony-sized robot, officially known as an Auxiliary Logistic Facilitator, having been nicknamed by the troops.
The Alfies were four-legged autonomous robots. They differed in appearance from dogs in that they had a small head at either end, festooned with sensors. At either end a folded arm with a five digit “hand” at its end allowed them to manipulate items and load themselves. Each of the four Alfies the team brought with them could carry three hundred fifty pounds easily. Twice that, for a short time, in an emergency.
The three other men and two women of the fishing party were loading their catch of salmon and mussels onto two black rubber rafts. The little girl had taken an immediate liking to Master Sergeant Martin. She was standing beside him, dressed now, in a damp pullover knee-length dress, holding his hand, and looking up at him with eyes like an adoring puppy.
“We won’t be able to take all of you with us,” Evers informed Mick. “We can take two, then send rafts back to pick up the rest of your platoon, but I don’t think we could manage your robots, in any case.”
“The robots aren’t a problem, they can walk in, swim if necessary.”
“Oh, okay then, do you want to have a couple of folks come with us now, or would you prefer to wait and come as a unit?”
“How long will it take to go to your camp and send someone back with rafts for the rest of the team?”
“It’s about twenty minutes paddling against the current, fifteen to return. If you figure ten or fifteen minutes to unload, gather up a couple more rafts, then… We should have your entire platoon assembled back in camp in just over an hour.”
“Okay, that works,” Mick smiled. He was relieved and happy. He had expected to come upon survivors, half-naked and starving. What had greeted him was a group of armed, competent civilians, well fed and independent. Granted, they were hiding in a cave, but they were not suffering by any means.
They were men. They adjusted, they made do and were living their lives as best they could under the situation. They made Capt. Mick proud.
“I don’t know what I expected, Mister Evers,” Capt. Mick told his host. “But this… I’m blown away!” As the raft, they were riding in, broke out from a narrow opening in the rocks barely large enough for them to pass; the cavern opened into a room of startling size. The roof stretched up, perhaps twenty stories above, the floor was rock and gravel, sloping gently up from the river.
It was dark. The ceiling was so far above, the faint glow from the lichen didn’t reach the ground level. Illuminated in the beams of the powerful flashlights Evers and his companions shined to either side, impossibly, trees and foliage appeared.
“How is this possible?” Capt. Mick asked in amazement.
“The roof collapsed here, eons ago. It’s open to the sky for a quarter of a mile. An entire ecosystem took root here when the planet was seeded.”
“Aren’t you vulnerable to attack…” Capt. Mick asked pointing up toward the opening he could not see.
“The fissure is fairly narrow, hidden in the rugged crests of the highest peaks of the mountain range. The best we can figure, it’s difficult to see from the air. It was never discovered by the survey teams.”
“Still, your lights…”
“We are under an overhang here,” Evers said as he doused his flashlight. His companions did the same and they paddled on for some time in a pitch-black dark. Chirps and whistles could be heard on either side, echoing from the far, unseen walls. It was an earie experience.
Capt. Mick’s night vision glasses revealed outlines of trees and shadowy hints of bush on either side. The faint hint of starlight seeping through the crack above didn’t provide enough light even for the glasses. The IR band revealed blotches and patches in the darkness, giving evidence of birds and small animals sheltered in the trees on both sides.
“One more tunnel and we are home,” Evers told him. “Watch your head.”
The tunnel walls constricted around the river to the point where the men used their hands to push against the rock and propel the rafts forward. It seemed to go on for a long time. Capt. Mick began to get a sense of claustrophobia. He realized his breathing had become short and labored. With a strong mental effort, he slowed his breathing to long deep breaths and focused his thoughts on the mission.
The discovery of the band of survivors had changed his plans dramatically. What he was to see next, changed them once again.
From far ahead, a light appeared in the tunnel. It got brighter as they approached it. When they broke out of the tunnel it was into a light-filled room twice the size of a large football stadium. As Capt. Mick’s eyes adjusted he realized the light was subdued, barely adequate to make out the village that was built on either side of the river.
“These look like houses,” Capt. Mick exclaimed. “How…?”
“They are fabric; temporary shelters we had prepared before the invasion. You see, we were in the process of moving into the bush to start a new village. We had been preparing for months, had food, clothing, shelters, and weapons prepared to carve a settlement out of the bush. When the invasion came we were already moving. We just kept going and ended up in here.”
“I see, you were lucky.”
“We were unconsciously lucky,” Evers agreed. “Most of the other survivors are cut off either alone or in small groups, barely surviving. We run across them on our raids and hunting parties, from time to time, and bring them in.”
“How many folks are living here?”
“Close to five hundred, I’m not sure of the actual count now, since we have been bringing in more refugees lately.”
“Why houses? You’re in a cave…”
“It rains in here from time to time. This place is so huge it has its own weather.”
Evers guided the rafts to a large open space between the rows of tent-houses. In the pavilion were three large arch type structures sitting side by side, fifty feet from the bank of the stream.
“These are our dining hall, meeting room, bathhouse, and kitchens,” Evers explained. “I had some folks working on getting your tents set up while you were waiting on us to come back and get you. They should be ready if you will follow me.”
“I hope we are not putting someone out…”
“No, these were units that had never been unpacked. They are, however, the last of our spares. I’m glad we had some left.” Evers was talking quietly, barely above a whisper. Capt. Mick realized it was past midnight, early morning, and most of the village would be sleeping.
That explained the subdued lighting. Evers had told him, the villagers had a fusion power plant and that supplied sufficient electricity for their needs.
“Welcome, Mick,” Lieutenant Boswell whispered. He was standing in the door of one of the tube-like, half-cylinder structures, holding the flap open. “You can stash your stuff in here.”
Mick shoved past him and surveyed the interior. There were two folding cots set up next to the sloping walls on each side. Lieutenant Boswell’s pack was sitting at the foot of the one on the left. There were two folding chairs and a table set up just inside the entrance. An electric lantern hung from one of the arch supports at the back, flooding the space with yellow light.
“Welcome to the Moore’s world Hilton,” Boswell repeated, expanding his welcome speech. “It sure beats sleeping in the mud.” He had raised his voice to a normal conversational level. Mick turned and held his finger to his lips in a shushing signal, but raised his eyes in a question.
“No problem, Mick, these tent structures are triple walled, almost sound proof.”
Mick nodded his understanding, slipped his pack off and stood it at the end of the vacant cot.
“We do have a little problem; however, you should be aware of,” the lieutenant told Mick, somewhat reluctantly.
“How’s that, Tiger?”
“The population mix here is a bit unbalanced…”
“Yes, a lot of the men have been lost, fighting the Gnu, hunting accidents, lost on raids…”
“There are over two hundred young, healthy… even could I say? …attractive, unattached, young ladies out there.”
“And we arrive with a dozen young, healthy horny troopers, and you think that might pose a problem. Is that what I’m hearing you say, Lieutenant?”
“Well… I guess… kids in a candy store with a gold card…” the lieutenant stuttered, hearing a note of criticism from his commander.
“No Tiger, you’re right,” Mick laughed. “It could be a problem. We will just have to address it in the morning. For now, let’s take advantage of the hospitality and get some sleep. Post a watch so that we are not accosted in the night by one of these desperate ladies, and I’ll see you in the AM.” Capt. Mick chuckled to himself, turned down the lantern and crashed.
It took Capt. Mick a couple of seconds to shed the nightmarish dream he was entangled in and recognize where he was. In the dream, he was standing in the spaceport desperately trying to find his orders that would allow him to board the shuttle to lift him off-planet. There was a line of soldiers behind him and the master sergeant guarding the gate was not happy… He shuffled through the papers in his open pack… could not find…
Coffee! The unmistakable aroma of freshly brewed coffee penetrated the fog of sleep and he came instantly awake. He was not alone! He scrambled to roll over and retrieve the hand-gun hanging from his pack beside his bed.
“You’re not going to shoot me, are you Captain? That wouldn’t be very hospitable.”
The unmistakable sound of a young lady’s lilting laughter filled the tent and Mick’s head simultaneously. He looked up to discover a disconcertingly lovely young lady standing in the middle of the tent with her hands on her hips, head tilted to one side observing him critically. She had curly strawberry-blonde hair, cut shoulder length, emerald eyes, and filled out the Navy-blue one-piece jumpsuit in all the right places. Strapped to her right hip was a holster holding, what appeared to be, a 9MM semi-auto.
Mick decided he might just be in love, sheepishly drew his hand back from his gun and sat up.
“No, lucky for you, this is the one day of the week I try to refrain from shooting intruders in my tent,” he smiled and realized his mouth tasted like pond scum. He was suddenly concerned his breath might be discernable clear across the room.
“There is coffee on the table,” the vision in blue informed him. “There is a towel and soap on the chair beside it. The second hooch on your right, when you exit yours, is the shower tent. Breakfast will be served in forty-five minutes,” she stated in a businesslike manner. She then turned and started to exit, but she paused in the open flap and glanced back at him. “I’m glad you have come, Captain…” With that she disappeared, leaving Mick to wonder if she had been part of the dream.
She was followed immediately by Lieutenant Boswell who gave Mick a startled look.
“Wow Mick, you work fast!” he laughed.
“Very funny,” Mick snorted after a long moment when he finally realized the implications of the lieutenant’s snide remark. “I assume you gave them the coffee.”
“Sure Mick, was that okay?”
“Yes, of course, part of what we brought in was for relief, but we’ll have to be careful. We don’t have enough to supply four hundred folks for very long.”
“Mick, it’s amazing. About all they are missing is coffee… perhaps some medicine and vitamins. So far, they are doing quite well. There is so much game, and a lot of fish; they aren’t going hungry, by any means.”
“There seem to be a lot of firearms. The young lady who brought my coffee was packing.”
“Yes, this was a pioneer outfit, getting ready to move into a wilderness full of predators. They were going prepared.”
“If you would pour me a cup, it smells great,” Mick said as he started pulling his boots on.
“You might want to carry it with you to the showers,” the lieutenant told Mick as he handed him a steaming cup. “The mayor is waiting for you to share breakfast.”
Forty-five minutes later Mick and the lieutenant walked into the dining tent. The tables were arranged in three rows of three tables each. Each table seated twelve diners. His nostrils were assailed by the mixed aromas of bacon, coffee, and other tantalizing unfamiliar scents.
“They eat in shifts,” the lieutenant explained. “This is the last shift, eating breakfast.”
“My…” Mick stuttered. His entrance was greeted by one hundred interested, even eager, young ladies’ faces staring up at him, some of them appraising him as if he might be on sale. “Good morning ladies,” Mick said, somewhat at a loss.
“Good morning,” the chorus from the benches replied accompanied by a lot of smiles.
There was a center aisle where the tables were separated by enough room to let folks pass unhindered. The two officers strolled down the aisle, nodding and greeting the ladies on either side as they passed.
Mick observed the plates were filled with strips of bacon, slices of a heavy brown bread and what appeared to be fried potatoes, all in various stages of being consumed. “Breadfruit,” Lieutenant Boswell informed him in answer to his questioning look. “They eat a lot of breadfruits, prepared in a multitude of ways.
At the far end of the hall were four, smaller, four-place tables. The dozen bearded-men seated around three of the tables appeared to be early middle-aged, and decidedly less glad to see them than the ladies had been. Mick made a mental note of this and decided to defer thinking about the ramifications of this phenomena until later.
The remaining table was occupied an older gentleman, seated next to the young lady who had brought Mick his morning coffee. The man who Mick assumed was the mayor rose as they approached. He was not a large man, but his appearance was impeccable as if he had dressed to go on stage. His trim three-piece white suit, pale yellow shirt, and tie, coupled with the white mustache and goatee, seemed oddly out of place in what was guerilla encampment.
“Welcome to Moore’s world. I’m Herschel Moore,” the mayor smiled and held out his hand.
“Mick McCullum, Mister Mayor, I’m glad to meet you, and I have to say, I’m pleased with your community, what you have done, to resist the invaders and provide for your people.”
“That is generous of you to say, Captain, however, I doubt you are that pleased to find our planet occupied by invaders who look at men as part of their food chain,” the mayor replied grimly. “But unfortunately, it’s the situation we find ourselves in.”
“Indeed Sir, that is why we are here. We are the advance party sent to deal with these aliens. Perhaps we can send them back where they came from minus a few of their number.”
“Let’s hope you’re correct, Captain. May I present my sister-in-law, Celeste Moore. She was married to my younger brother, who was killed on the eve of the invasion. She has been indispensable to me throughout this entire trying time.”
Mick was amazed at the rollercoaster spasm of emotion the mayor’s words had caused. When he said sister-in-law, Mick’s heart had sunk. Seconds later, discovering the lady was a widow, it had sung with relief. Mick hadn’t been assailed by those kinds of emotions in so long he couldn’t even remember when it might have been.
You have a mission. You might not even be alive to see the task force arrive. Just settle down, Mick McCullum, the voice inside his head told him. At the same time, he felt a stirring beneath his belt buckle, that he thought had been dead for years. It became clear, all his thinking was not going to be done by the head on his shoulders.
Aboard an Isla Marin Transporter
leaving Beer-Sheba orbit
“So, my brother and I read the Torah and all the books of the Talmud,” Isaac was describing his spiritual journey to us. We were in another of the “wait” portions of “hurry up and wait” phenomena of space travel. My entire team, including my pet alien, was gathered around the table in the one large room in the transporter.
The two brothers were perched on bar stools at the open bar leading to the galley. They had turned their stools around to face the room to address the audience. Behind us, seated in three chairs pushed up against a row of cabinets sat the three representatives who the Israelis insisted must accompany Isaac. The most senior was the ambassador who had come out to meet us originally. The second was a rabbinic professor wearing long robes and a magnificent beard. The third was a humorless dark man whose eyes never left the boys. Jeanie had scanned him when he came aboard and informed me he was heavily armed.
I didn’t care. It was obvious his only responsibility was protecting the young men. Since we wished them no harm and considered them essential to the success of our mission, he was no threat to us.
“There seemed to be some lapses and contradictions in the text…” Isaac continued.
“Ahem,” the rabbi cleared his throat as if preparing to speak, but Isaac silenced him with a raised hand and an open palm.
“So, we read and studied several translations of the Christian Bible, along with the writings of Augustine, Luther, and John Knox. Ismaeel then compared and analyzed all of the disparate writings.”
“Wait,” I exclaimed. “Are you telling us, your brother has committed all of the Jewish and Christian theological books to memory?”
“Perhaps not all… there are a lot of writings. But he has memorized, word for word, the latest versions of the Torah, Talmud, Midrash and three translations of the Christian Bible. It’s easy for him, he remembers every word he reads.”
“So then, you two came up with your own theology?” my sister asked skeptically. Rosslyn considered all religion nothing but superstition. She was a committed secularist. If she couldn’t see, feel or taste it, in her world, it didn’t exist.
Both boys focused on Rosslyn for a long moment, then glanced at each other as if relaying a telepathic message.
“No, we have no theology, other than what is written in scripture. We just rationalized the promises God made to Abraham, Jacob, and the Prophets. We recognized that Yeshua’s teachings were rational and even conceded he may have been who he said he was.”
“So, you became followers of Christ?”
“Hardly… We rejected the perversions of the early and late Christian church as Gentile inventions to explain the unexplainable. The nature of God cannot be explained. The trinitarian heresy is alien to us as Jews.”
“So, you say Christ was not the Messiah.”
“He was the Messiah for the Gentiles, he was the suffering servant foretold in Isaiah. Salvation for the Gentiles is found in the redemptive sacrifice of Yeshua and belief and faith in his death and resurrection.”
“But didn’t Yeshua say he had been sent only to the Jews?” I struggled to remember my catechism but used the mnemonic Isaac had been citing.
“Only once in scripture, is Yeshua quoted as saying that. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is reported, he made that statement. Our analysis has concluded, it was taken out of context. After all, he then healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter.”
“So, you think the Messiah of the Jews is yet to come?”
“Yes, Yeshua was a descendant of David through his mother. We find that a stretch. The true Messiah for the Jews will be a descendant of David through the paternal line. He will come in glory to reign over his people in a land without want or fear. It may be the resurrected David himself. Salvation for the Jews is faith and belief in God’s redemptive work through this Messiah.””
“So, you think New Israel is the land Abraham and Jacob were promised?”
“It fits all the prophecies.”
“And, you think the Messiah will come to New Israel?”
“He will do, what He will do, He is Elohim, after all.”
“It’s all a lot of superstitious nonsense,” my sister whispered to me. I gave her a disapproving look through my eyebrows that received a dismissive hair-toss in return.
“What does the Sanhedrin think of Isaac’s… uh, ideas?” I asked the rabbi.
“I’ll have to admit; the Sanhedrin is conflicted. Isaacs’s teaching has resonated with the people. There has been a resurgence of belief and interest in scripture. The people are flocking to synagogue, observing the Sabbath and filling the cathedral to hear the law and prophets. On the other hand, Isaac and Ismaeel teach that the law cannot be completely fulfilled because of man’s fallen nature, and eternal salvation is accomplished through faith alone. This denigration of the law is a heresy… so you see? …Conflicted.”
“I can see where…”
“But that isn’t the worse part,” the rabbi interrupted me. “The boys are teaching that New Israel is the promised land. The Sanhedrin can never agree with that. The Holy land and Jerusalem is our home. We were forced out of Israel on earth; again – we are under exile here just like in Babylon, Syria and the great diaspora. We can never agree…”
“When the Messiah comes, he will explain all things,” Isaac told us, ending the discussion.