December 22, 1993
A quiet night
The kids were bored. I could tell by the way they bickered and sniped at one another. This was the start of the usual swelling of anger, and if it wasn't derailed, there would be hell to pay in an hour.
"Who knows what day it is?" I asked them. For faces turned to me and looked. Nobody replied, so I went on. "It's Christmas Eve, eve, eve. So what do you think we should do?"
Ficus intoned that the children of the world would enjoy it if we put on an aerial display of Santa Claus' sleigh being bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland. Megan suggested that we arrange for the stores to give up all of their wares to financially disadvantaged people. Brenna had nothing to say at all, and Aron said we ought to put up a Christmas tree. Of all the suggestions, that one struck me as something I wanted to be involved in.
Brian and Kal were on Velar; they'd planned a camping trip. Christmas wasn't celebrated on the planet, and where they were was about 75 degrees under clear skies. We, on the other hand, were miles into space, with as much hope for a white Christmas as a snowball in hell.
So, a tree it was, and we all set out to find things to decorate our tree with. We'd selected a big spruce that was growing on the knoll just above our living area, and decided to decorate it in place. It wasn't like some vandals would destroy it or swipe presents from it. The troupe and I took the gate to the lunar lab and we went on a scavenger hunt for things to use as ornaments. Penny set a couple of remotes to work building strings of lights. After a couple of hours of searching, we had what we needed and the remotes had coiled our lights by the gate back to K1.
With hands full, we stumbled through the gate and onto the alcove on our asteroid. Gal Meen and twenty of his guards were waiting for us. I looked at the Meenzai and then over to the other side of the room where our armor was stacked. Gal bowed stiffly.
"We have come to beg assistance, Owner Bob. We ask you tolerate our trespass of your world." With a flick of his wrist, the Meenzai laid their weapons on the deck and stepped back from them. They looked like some odd chorus line, standing erect with their arms away from their sides and the palms of their paws facing forward, empty. It only would have been better if the were singing. Of course, they weren't.
"My home is honored by your presence, Gal Meen of Meenzeii." I replied.
"Trespass? Oh no!" said Karen. "You're welcome here. Would you like something to eat?" The cats looked uncomfortable.
"We do not wish to intrude" said Gal. He nodded his head forward slightly.
"It's no problem! I just made cookies, you know. Chocolate chip."
"I thought those were for Brian?" injected Ficus.
"Shut up, dude" I snapped quietly at him.
"What are cookies?" asked Gal. He actually looked interested.
Karen decided to show him, and went to fetch a tray of cookies and some different drinks. We had milk, coke, root beer and seven up. We were all sitting at one of the "outside" tables when she returned. The Guard were sitting stiffly upright, eyes straight ahead. If one could sit at attention, these meenzals were doing it.
Gal Meen waited for me to take a cookie from the tray and bite it. Then he took that cookie from me and carefully bit into it. Chewing slowly, he looked straight into my eyes. His began to twinkle as the flavors became apparent to his taste. "This is excellent! You call these cookies?"
"Yes," said Karen proudly. "The best in the universe."
"May I have another?" asked Gal.
"Sure! Take all you want" said Karen. At this command, all of the Meenzai lunged forward against the table and began to grab and stuff cookies into their mouths. It took three seconds and the cookies were gone. Karen saw this and announced that she would go get some more cookies, and all of the cats murmured grateful thanks and spit crumbs as they did. I poured some coke into a large tumbler, and handed it to the Meenzai closest to me. He took it cautiously, and after receiving a nod from Gal, drained it in one gulp. He sat for a moment, then his eyes widened and he let out a huge belch.
The other cats at the table dove off of their benches and rolled to their feet with their weapons drawn. They looked at me with a combination of suspicion and fear. "You explode Kaz!" snarled one of them.
"No, no! That was coke. It's a drink with a gas suspended in it, and so it makes you burp after you drink it. It's supposed to be fun." I felt like I was talking for my life. Gal waved an arm and the weapons were put back into their holsters. He took a tumbler off of the table and held it out to me. I poured coke into it and the cat drank it down. After a second, Gal too erupted with a belch, and began that metal on metal laugh that meenzals have. In a few seconds, the cats were grabbing the bottles from one another and talking gulps. They'd gulp and burp, burp and gulp. After a couple of moments, the pop was gone.
"A new idea" said Gal. "Food which is amusing. It is our custom to be amused by the capture of our food."
"Yeah, well for the most part, our food doesn't try to run away." The big cat saw something humorous in that and laughed hard again.
"Gal Meen. Shall we discuss your coming here?" I asked him.
"Yes, it is time. The females will leave."
"My apologies, Gal. It is not the custom for women in our culture to be sent away. It is one of the greatest insults one may give."
The big cat looked surprised and dismayed. He motioned to his ranking Guard who stepped quickly to his commander's side. "You may kill this one that we may attone for our ignorance."
"We don't do that either, Lord. Differences in custom are to be celebrated." The Guard looked relieved and Gal looked perplexed.
"Then how may we make right our insult?"
"There is nothing to make right, Gal Meen" said Karen. She stepped up and faced him. "We will learn about one another."
"If we had the time" sighed Gal. "We are here to beg the assistance of the Star Men."
"Who's that?" I asked.
Gal blinked. "Why, yourselves" he said.
And coming soon...
"Why you call Bob a Star Man?" asked Jab. He'd stayed silent from his first sight of the cats until now. The Leader of the Empire High Council looked at Jab with obvious contempt.
"The Bob and his Mage befit the Legend" he said curtly, then added "You claim to be of Meenzeii, you should know this."
"Nahn know. Nahn know too that Legend talk give Star Men to enemy as to offer of peace."
I wished I was wearing armor. "Perhaps this is a legend I'd better hear about."
"The title is meant to honor you" said Gal Meen. For some reason, I didn't believe that for a second.
"Then tell me of this legend."
"As you wish" and he did. It was their history that Meenzals had always been at war with somebody. It was the way that their economy was based. The different Meenzeii produced the machineries of war which the Meenzai used to wage battles. When they won those fights, which was most of the time, they took home the spoils of the wars, which they used to pay for the products. It was the only way they knew, so when the economy waned, the government didn't print more money like ours had, they just went out and found a new victim to conquer. It had been this way for all of their known history.
There was a time that the Meenzeii had not fared so well. They had taken on a race with great technological power. In the battles which followed, they lost consistently. At what was what the Meenzeii believed was the end, a pair of men had come from the stars to help them. The men came as part of a personal search for challenge. They had shown the cats how to succeed against the enemy. On the eve of the battle which should have turned the tide in favor of the Meenzals, some in the council, believing that the war could not be won, had made a secret agreement to give the architechs of success to the enemy. In exchange, the enemy agreed to leave Meenzeii alone.
The Star Men were taken in the night by Meenzai loyal to the betraying faction of the Council, and handed over to the enemy who killed them outright. After this, the enemy came to Meenzeii in force to wipe all of the cats from the face of their world. Even in death, the Star Men were able to help the cats. Using the technology and strategy given them by the Star Men, the cats fended off the attack, and went on to decimate the enemy.
"That's quite a story, Gal Meen. Would you come to ask our help, meaning to give us over to the Maal? Considering how well loved we are on your planet, I find the idea of being betrayed a likely one."
The Leader looked at me with pleading eyes. "It is not so. We are in the debt of honor left by your service to us. We would not act with so little honor."
"Your stations of honor have existed a long time, Lord Gal. Did they not exist in the time of the Star men?"
Gal looked at the floor. "They did, yes."
"Then you must forgive my suspicion."
"How may we reduce your fears?"
"I don't know" I replied.
"Jab know" snarled my cat. "Gal Meen bring family to K1. We keep."
"Hostages, Jab? That doesn't sound like me."
"Sound like him" said the cat.
"Perhaps we can find a better way. Like, for instance we don't know what it is that Gal Meen wants of us. If he tells us, maybe we can negotiate something."
"Maybe" said Jab. "But remember who come here, lay down guns in action of honor, then have guns again at table."
I noticed something I hadn't before. A small array of remotes had glided silently up behind the Meenzai. Each of them were armed with plasma cannons. They floated about three feet off the ground, each aiming at two of the Meenzai Guard.
"Enough!" spit Gal Meen. "We require your services. It is we who will take hostages --to ensure your cooperation."
The air behind the Meenzai exploded in cannon fire. The remotes had blown holes in the ground behind them, and the soldiers promptly fell in. Jab produced an ugly looking weapon from under his fur somewhere, and pointed it at the Leader's head. The remotes moved over the holes and held the cats in check.
"Surprise, surprise, Gal Meen. My how the mighty have fallen."
"What will you do with us?" asked the head cat.
"Meenzal good meat" offered Jab brightly. Gal snarled and hissed at him.
"What I do with you depends on what you came here for."
"We came because we needed your help."
"Jab, shoot this piece of shit."
"WAIT!" called Gal. "Wait. We came to have you attack the Maal. Only you have survived an encounter with the Maal at their home. We needed you to repeat it."
"To what end, Gal Meen?"
"We planned to arm your ship with a powerful set of weapons. Weapons which would kill the Maal."
"And us in the bargain, right?"
"We meant no harm. Any Meenzai would give his life gladly for the victory of our race."
"Fuck your race, pal. I ain't no cat! And Jab here, well, he ain't no damn Meenzai anymore."
"A difference in culture.." intoned Gal hopefully. It fell on dead ears.
"And I gave you the last of the cookies!" spat Karen. She'd been standing there listening with a pitcher of milk in her hand. Now she poured it all over the Leader of the High Council. One of the Guardsmen screeched and went to dive out of the hole he was in. He got a half a foot before Penny had a remote blast him to bits of hair falling on us like snow.
"Perhaps we should give the Maal a new subject" I said to him. "How would it be to have a Maaltee as the Leader of the Empire High Council?" The look of horror in Gal's eyes was unmistakable.
Ficus! Treat the guest nicely!
Ficus clumped up behind me wearing full battle armor. I could hear the faint whine from his suit that indicated Penny had removed the weapons block we'd installed for safety on the kids' armor. I edged slightly to the left, not wanting to be in front of him. He can be excitable.
"Gal Meen," I said to the head cat, "I'm not going to arrest your ass, or any of those other diplomatic and legal trappings. What I'm going to do is simply cage you and your boys here until I figure out if it's a better thing to kill you, or what."
"On what authority do you do this?" demanded the cat. Ficus answered by creating a new crater in front of the Leader with his wrist rail. I heard him whistle quietly to himself and say 'that was cool!'
"I don't need authority. You came to my home uninvited, and then we find that you conspired to use us as bait for some Maal trap. Well, fuck you bozo. Homey don't play that shit. Ficus! Take these guests of ours to the hangar deck. You'll find a cargo module in there. Put the cats in it and we'll set them off the station in a life support field."
"You cannot do this, human."
"Who's gonna stop me?"
"You will. We took other precautions against failure."
"What does that mean?"
"We made no attempt to hide our tracks --as you say-- in our trip here. I would say the Maal are not far behind. So, human, if you do not help us, your worlds are at risk."
Jab made a screaming noise and lept at Gal Meen. It was unexpected and the big cat wasn't ready for it. Jab knocked him down and began to tear at Gal with four inch fangs. I barked for him to stop, but it was too late. The Leader of the Empire High Council was dead. Almost immediately, the Meenzai swarmed out of their holes, gaining in size as they did. Cannons and rail guns began to erupt in front of and behind me. In seconds things quieted, and all that was left was blood-smeared grass and rock. Our guests wouldn't be going home in triumph. They wouldn't be going home at all.
"God dammit, Jab! What the hell was that for?" The cat looked at me with a curious expression.
"Is not what think" said the cat slowly. "Is not Meenzai."
"What the hell does that mean, fuzzball?"
"Gal no Gal. Is other Meenzal to look like Gal."
I stared at the cat. "What are you talking about? I've seen Gal Meen and this was he."
"No. Is not. Was not."
I was getting frustrated. "If you have something to say, then spit it out."
The Meenzal sighed heavily and started a combination of words and thought images. What he told us was surprising.
"You think Meenzai let us go for favor they owe Bob? Is not. Let we go for not keep us around." He smiled crookedly. "We stay and let cat out of bag."
"Very punny, cat face."
Those we'd met on Meenzeii were not who we thought they were. Jab had stayed silent, because he believed if he clued us in that we'd be killed. But the bottom line was, no member of the Council --nor their personal Guardsmen were ever seen in public. An appointment to the Council was like a sentence in many ways. They had great power over the Meenzals, but they were separated from them. This was to prevent a number of problems ranging from corruption to assasination. It made sense in a way. Those we'd seen were members of the military --whose job it was to give every appearance of being the Council. The courts we saw were real, only Gal and his Guard were imposters.
"Jab not think these Meenzai act for Meenzeii. Think they do this on own." What we had on our hands was essentially a group who were making a bid for power on their planet. They'd started out doing a duty to the council, but seized on the opportunity to make things better for themselves. In other words, we'd become part of a military coup on the cat planet. "True Meenzai not lead Maal to anyplace."
"I'm getting a fucking headache" I said.
"Do you think he was telling the truth?" asked Karen. She still held the empty milk pitcher.
"The cat there" she waved the pitcher towards the gored corpse of Gal, or whoever that really was.
"About the Maal. Do you think they're really coming?"
"That's a damn good question. What do you think, cat?"
"Jab think there go the neighborhood."
"Well, that's about fucking perfect!"
"Bob!" snapped Karen. "Watch your language in front of the kids." I ignored her. Speech was the least of my worries at the moment.
"Penny! What have you got for long range sensors?"
"Not much, I can tell you if something is approaching, but not with a lot of lead time." I thought back to Jab's abduction and remembered just how fast the Raptor had come in on us.
"Can we put out a few stationary probes? Maybe give us some more warning?"
"On the way" she replied cheerfully. "We also have a little extra help now too. We have three triships on station. Should I put them out further to head off an attack?"
"No, let's leave them for closer support. Brian would be unhappy if we left the Earth defenseless."
"I don't think he'd mind. Besides, we'll have two more of the triships ready for use in another two days."
"In that case, send one of them out to the midpoint between us and Meenzei to act as a high resolution sensor platform."
"Ok, Bob. I have to do some modifications, but they'll be easy and fast. I'll send out a few remotes to handle it right away."
"Thanks, babycakes. I owe you a virtual backrub." I got a small chuckle as a reply. "What's Brian's ETA for return to civilization?"
"He's due back in four days. Should I send a remote to find him?"
"Nope. Let the man have his vacation. We all need to think this through and see just what the best approach would be. If you would, I'd like to get some more background on the Maal. We know they're crystalline, but we need to know more."
"It would be better if we had a sample of them to analyze" said Penny. "We can only guess at things."
"Better than nothing, I guess." I looked at what had been a picnic area just a short half hour ago. "Ficus, kick off the armor and get your brother and sisters and see what you can do about the yard. There's shovels and rakes in the gate room."
"Why me? I only made one of the holes."
"Because I told you to, that's why."
"This sucks" said Ficus, but he went off to get things started.
Dance of the Nutcracker
"At least we're safe for now" said Karen as we walked towards the hangar deck.
"I wouldn't say that. In the first place, if the Maal come out of hyperspace right next to us, we'll have zero warning about it. In the second place, we're overly vunerable here in the station. We can't move."
"Well, thanks for boosting my spirits."
"Better to know the truth. Right now though, I think I'll take Jab and go on a little patrol." What I wanted to do was take a look at the ship that brought the Meenzals. I wanted Jab along because there might be someone left onboard.
I wasn't really expecting trouble, so I let Aron come along. We all climbed into the thug and pushed off. Sensors had the Meenzal ship some 500 yards away and above the station. We rounded over the end of the station and there it was. It wasn't one of the big jobs that came after us before. This one was smaller, but absolutely dripped with weaponry. "It's a dreadnaught class" I said to nobody. "Jab, read the energy off of that thing. Is there anything alive on it?"
"No see for life. Only see power for ship."
"Then let's dock up on it and take a peek. Aron, get your armor on dude. We're going to have to step through space to get on that ship." The three of us got our armor on while the thug drifted slowly towards the cat's ship. I took a close look at it as we approached. The ship was some fifty feet wide, and seventy long. Compared to the thug, it was a behemoth. It was shaped roughly like a flatiron, except it had no handle, cord or steam control. "It looks like the SS Amana."
Aron got it instantly, but we had to explain to Jab that Amana was the name of an earth manufacturer of home appliances. Then we had to explain what an iron was. We finally succeeded when Jab just reached into my head and took the pictures he needed. "Hatch right there" said Jab. I put the thug at station keeping and we went back and phased out of the ship. Aron had been spending a great deal of time practicing with his armor at the zero gravity altitude of K1. He jetted with ease over to the dred and made a fast tour around the hatch.
Jab showed us how to cycle the lock, and we were soon inside. We'd stepped right onto the bridge. It was arranged in a U shape of stations and consoles. A single seat, obviously the command chair, sat in the middle. It wasn't like any chair a human would use, it more resembled a saddle that one laid in, rather than sat on. We moved aft, and found an armory with it's own power generation unit. This boat was capable of throwing some serious shit. It had eight quantum cannons, capable of throwing a whole series of the black hole projectiles in rapid succession.
Across the hall from the armory was a mess area. And it was. Not even Jab wanted to stick around in there. There'd been some sort of feast here, and there was a lot of rotting meat laying about, with smears of drying blood on the deck and walls. What ever they ate died more violently than the Meenzals had. Aft of the mess were crew cabins. There were four of them, and they were barely closets with small mattresses on the floor. The entire stern of the ship was powerplant.
Jab looked it over with great interest, poking here and there, saying something occasionally like 'This is new.' After a few minutes of looking at it, Jab announced that this ship would go like a goosed goose. Aron and I went back to the thug, and Jab took the helm of the dred. Together, we moved back to the station, and grounded both of them on the hangar deck. The first order of busines was to clean the dred out, then we'd start to get familiar with it. I introduced "Finders Keepers" to Jab, who told me that was a funny way to say "Space Salvage."
Aron went over to look at the dred a little more while Jab and I went to organize cleaning parties. Penny set a remote to constructing modified control panels for it, changing the Meenzeii inscriptions to English. Aron had been inside for just a moment when the unmistakable sound of a plasma bolt reverberated through the hangar deck. It was followed by two more, and then the sound of Aron's wrist rails snapped. Then it was dead silent. Jab and I had started running towards it at the first sounds, and arrived as soon as it quieted. We burst into the bridge and saw Aron. He was sitting on the floor facing the rear of the ship. Both of his arms were still extended, hands turned in. He was ready to fire again.
"Gizmo, disable the weapons, Kiddo." Aron didn't budge. "Come on, dude, shut 'em down." He looked at me, turning his head slowly. His hands flexed out and his arms drooped slowly. "What the hell was that?"
"It shot at me" he said blankly. "It shot at me."
"Are you alright?" He indicated he was. The first blast had hit him face on in the chest. It drove him over and backwards, and the second burst of two had struck the ship above him. He sat up and pointed his arms and let go. Looking aft, the wall to the mess area was riddled with holes from the rail's mass projectiles. At the base of the wall laid a dead Meenzal. Blood drained fom it, soaking the light carpet. I turned to Jab. "I thought you said there wasn't anything alive on this ship?"
"Did not see energy mark" he shrugged in return. "Maybe was close to engine."
"Well, let's search this tub and see if anyone else is stowed away." We did, and found nothing. We added wall repair to the list of fixes Penny was to have the remotes perform. If everything went right, I'd have a nice addition to our weird fleet to show Brian when he came off of vacation. That was two more days. We'd also have something else to show him. The Meenzals had the navigation information of the Empire in the databanks. He'd want to know that one of the specific jump plots was for the darkside of the Earths moon. Our attempts at disguising our coarse home were futile. The kitty's had us plotted to the meter. I had to wonder of the effectiveness of the triship Penny had just modified and sent on station. It was some outward looking eyes for our sensor array, but it was still a well-armed triship. I figured it best to leave it out there, maybe the Meenzals had us pinned down, but that didn't mean the Maal did. And I just knew they were coming. I could feel it in my gut.
Aron went off to tell the kids about his experience, and Jab and I went to work on the drednought. I wanted to understand as much as I could about that ship, as fast as I could. We spent the next day flying it and trying out the weapons systems. We pulled out the command saddle, and put human type chairs at the stations. Whoever would command this ship would pull double duty as bridge personnel.
The ship was very maneuverable. Not so much as the thug was, but then the thug was made to be Saturday Night Special. It was ugly, fast and deadly. The dred was fast, and a hell of a lot more deadly. When we grounded in the hangar bay at the end of practice, Jab and I had both an understanding and a respect for the Meenzal craft. We'd have more respect for it once we added to it's shields. The ship wasn't hull metal, it was some Meenzeii alloy. Also, they weren't shielded against half the emissions the thug was. We'd have that fixed the following day, just in time to greet Brian. We figured we'd all go down and wait for him at his lunar lab, and have a small party for him.
We didn't get the opportunity. Brian came blasting in through the K1 gate as we were getting ready to go down. "What the hell has been going on while I was gone?" he yelled at us. "There's triship parts all over the Lunar Lab, every remote we have is busy, and one of the completed triships is out thataway" he waved his arm towards deep space. "Besides that..." The Mage looked from the gate room out onto the hangar bay, and his eyes fell on the drednought. "What the HELL is THAT?"