by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
The polo pony lacked a speedometer, but Frank was certain they were moving at two or three times the top speed of a real horse. Its heavy metal hooves dug into the soil with machine precision. Dippy sat just behind him, holding Frank’s pith helmet atop his blue head, his other arm wrapped tightly around Frank’s waist as he hung on for dear life.
Apparently, Dippy had never played the Tellurean game he described to Frank. His horsemanship skills were appalling. Instead of riding in rhythm with the pony’s steady rocking, he bobbled like a big blue water balloon atop a paint shaker, sloshing eerily with each jolt.
Still, Frank could only admire Dippy’s uncanny technical skills. As if by pure instinct, he had rebuilt each of the pony’s legs like new, re-establishing loose connectors and seating a bewildering range of electronic components into their proper places. It was one of those odd, inexplicable moments where technology and magic fused. Frank could only watch in awe as Dippy worked.
“This is definitely District 17!” Frank cried over the pony’s thundering hoofbeats. “See that?” he said, pointing ahead to his left. “That’s Death Valley, which is at the border of what used to be California. Just past that, the megalopolis begins — a single urban complex spreading all the way to the Pacific and thousands of kilometers north.”
“Goodness me!” Dippy exclaimed.
“Over a billion inhabitants here, and not a single IFF event on record. Once we reach the outskirt cities, we can ditch this pony and catch the high-speed rail. My guess is we’ll reach San Francisco in about six hours. Well after dark, but Nutrisynth never sleeps.”
“My great benefactor,” Dippy said, “surely the vehicle appropriated by Miss Evans is many times faster than any means of travel available to us. As we speak, she may well have already reached San Francisco.”
“Dippy, I’m surpised!” Frank said. “Whatever happened to the Miss Mary Sunshine I picked up outside the Atlanta crater?”
“Forgive me, but I have no knowledge of such a personage.”
“I mean, why the gloom? Where’s your sunny outlook? According to you, we’re supposed to praise Razhdha-ka and do our best, win or fail. What happened to all your talk of divine beneficence?”
“I am unworthy. In the tradition of the Blackened Heart of Dtmqkld-se Raam—”
“Aw, guy, would you quit feeling sorry for yourself? You saved my life. That’s a good thing. Do you honestly think Razhdha-ka despises you for it?”
Dippy made no reply, but Frank doubted he had changed the Tellurean’s mind about his fate. No, he would still cling to his self-pity and the irrational fear that his actions had somehow displeased his god.
For the first time since their adventure together had begun, Frank saw his traveling companion as quintessentially human. And then an odd thing happened: he felt compassion, so he decided to take another tack.
“Dipphatmensatur[pop]ranjkopalivracksyhu’hu’men[pop][click]jurneeprohnohosticla-ka,” he said gently. “Truly, the Scribes have said: There is a Way, called Action. To act for one’s own sake is to worship falsely, for to serve the self is to—”
“Is to worship an idol of clay,” Dippy finished.
“Damn skippy,” Frank said.
“And what of yourself, o beneficent Franklin, son of William? Why then do you continue to pursue the files stolen from you by Miss Evans, when your only goal is financial gain? It is, as you Earthmen say, only money.”
“You know, at this point, I’m not sure. I’ve been telling myself that without the money, I’m as good as dead, that it’s my one reason for staying alive. But I’m beginning to wonder. Maybe staying alive is overrated. Something keeps driving me forward, that’s for sure, but the why of it is a complete mystery.”
Reaching the crest of a hill, Frank suddenly brought the pony to a halt. A half kilometer to their northwest, Hildy’s transport lay atop a rough pile of rocks, its nose cone buried in rubble. One of its engines had been ripped away, and an ominous great plume of black smoke rose from the tail assembly. A deep and freshly-dug trench some fifty meters long lead to the wreckage. Most prominently, a pair of Grunts stood silently but menacingly at either end. Frank understood at once — the Grunts had forced the vehicle to the ground, crippling it, with Hildy trapped inside.
Backing down the hill a few meters to avoid detection, Frank and Dippy climbed off the pony and crept upon their bellies until Hildy’s transport came back into view.
“This is bad, Dippy,” Frank said. “Headhunter Lohman’s caught up with her. Or at least his Grunts have. Don’t see him anywhere, though.”
“Perhaps he is en route, benefactor Frank,” Dippy said.
“Doubtless. We should expect him to turn up any second. We need to act fast.”
“To what purpose, o Frank?”
“For the purpose of distracting those Grunts long enough for me to get to Hildy.”
“Do you mean to rescue her?”
“Hell, no. She deserves what she gets. But I want my files back.”
Without warning, one of the Grunts — the one at the transport’s prow — lifted off and flew away at high speed.
“My goodness me,” Dippy said. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Beats me,” Frank said. “Whatever’s going on, we need to take advantage of it. Dippy, I think it’s time you played some Adj.”
“Come again, o benefactor?”
“Do you think you can ride that pony and distract the Grunt? I’ll try to sneak up out of his line of sight. If I can do that, I may be able to rescue Hildy.”
“Forgive me for saying, O Frank, but did you not say rescuing Miss Evans was not your intention?”
“I suppose, but you know what I mean.”
“Do I? Very well, then. I shall do my best. But first I need a talma’at.”
“Talma’at. It is the mallet used in Adj, carved from a branch of the sacred Tubu tree.”
“There are a few trees right there,” Frank said, pointing downhill. “Break a branch from one of those.”
“It is sacrilege to harm any living being, even a tree.”
“Then find a dead one, damn it!”
Meekly, Dippy skittered off and searched through the trees for a dead branch. Once he had found a suitable candidate, he climbed awkwardly onto the polo pony’s back, grasping it firmly at the withers.
“Give me about five minutes,” Frank said. “Then make your run. See if you can get close enough to the Grunt to give it a good whack with your...”
“Well, talma’at the hell out of it.”
“And should it attack?”
“With any luck, it won’t see you as a threat.”
“Ah, we are trusting to luck, then?”
“Sorry, but that’s all we have going for us. Try to keep at a safe distance, but do whatever you can to get the Grunt’s attention.”
With no time for any further planning, Frank crept along the hillside until he had outflanked the Grunt. From this position, he could approach the downed transport out of the Grunt’s line of sight.
As he neared, he heard in the distance the shrill ululation denoting Dippy’s attack. Poised like a soprano straight out of some Wagnerian opera, the Tellurean rose dramatically over the hilltop, the talma’at raised high and Frank’s pith helmet rattling loosely upon his head as he descended at top speed towards the Grunt.
Okay, Frank told himself. Here goes nothing.
With blinding speed, Dippy raced down the hillside. A whiny droning sound rang out, a cross between a poorly-played set of bagpipes and the noise made by a very fat person flattening a spate of whoopee cushions. Frank surmised this must have been Dippy’s war-cry.
In seconds, Dippy reached the Grunt, the talma’at lending him a sense of balance and horsemanship he had heretofore lacked. He swung his mallet hard, deftly catching the Grunt along the crown of its headpiece. The Grunt made no notice of the attack whatsoever.
Dippy leaned to one side, guiding his pony in a wide arc. When he had come full circle, he gave the Grunt a second whack.
Frank, meanwhile, reached Hildy’s transport, ducking low to shield himself from the Grunt’s view. Quietly, he tried to open the side door, but to his dismay he found it impossible to do so without scraping the rocky ground. He waited for Dippy to make another pass. As the talma’at met its mark once again, Frank gave the door a firm yank. To his relief, it opened wide enough for him to enter.
Hildy was there, but sprawled across the floorboard, unmoving, one arm draped unnaturally over her head. Despite his declaration that she deserved whatever she got, Frank’s heart sank a bit.
But there would be time for grieving later. He kneeled, preparing to search her pockets, when he spied the palm-mounted taser concealed in her hand. He jumped away, narrowly escaping a second debilitating shock.
“Bitch!” he cried. “I should have known you’d pull that stunt on me again!”
“Nick!” Hildy cried, her face lighting in relief. “Thank God! I thought you were Richard. How did you—?”
“Never mind! We’ll talk about it later, if we live. For now, give me that goddamned bug zapper and fork over my data!”
Confused and uncertain, she complied. Frank buried the file deep within the folds of his tunic. He decided to keep the taser handy.
“Through there,” he said, motioning at the open door. “Keep low and move straight ahead. Once we make it to the hills, I’ll signal Dippy to join us.”
“Frank, it won’t work,” Hildy said. “Once I’m out of this transport, Richard will be able to track me. He’ll spot me immediately.”
“He already knows where you are. Your only hope is to outrun him. Come on. We have a pony.”
Frank shoved her roughly out the door, cursing himself for even bothering with Hildy. Rescuing her was impossible, and he knew it.
The sight of Dippy, still astride his pony, waiting for them just outside the door, only served to reiterate the obvious.
The Tellurean dropped his talma’at and once again lowered his eyes in shame. “I fear I have failed you, o beneficent one,” he said.
Frank turned, though he already understood.
The second Grunt had returned, but not alone.
Lohman was with it. Or rather, wearing it. He had reconfigured the Grunt into an exoskeleton. It enveloped him, leaving only his face to the open air. He forced a smile, though Frank could tell the man was in terrific pain.
“Mr. Flemel,” Lohman said, “at last... we m... we meet.”
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll