This is what you’ve all been waiting for — the final part of the storyline. Starting next week I start expanding each line item of the 7-part storyline into a full-fledged chapter, one a week hopefully. Enjoy the read.
- The Sector Commander’s assistant knocked on his commander’s door and waited for permission to enter the office. The Sector Commander answered gruffly, “Enter.” The assistant opened the door and saluted smartly from the doorway. The commander returned the salute cursorily and scowled, “What do you want?” “Sir,” the assistant held the closed file in his outstretched hand, “We have not been able to raise the unit commander in Sector 127 for the last half hour.” “Did you try his second in command?” the commander looked out the window. “Yes sir,” the assistant answered. “The second doesn’t answer. Neither does the medic, the chaplain, or the cook… Nobody for the last half hour.” “Well, keep trying to raise someone on the STU for another half hour or so,” the commander ordered. A half hour later the assistant once again knocked on the door. After receiving permission to enter and saluting, he reported that there was still no response on the STUs. The commander was exasperated. “Get me the governor of Sector 127 now!” he ordered. The assistant ducked out of the room. A couple minutes later, the assistant returned and reported that the governor of Sector 127 was on the other STU. The commander thumbed his STU and growled into it, “Sector 84 Commander here. As you know, we have a commando unit operating in your territory near the river.” “No, I didn’t know,” the governor answered coldly. “Well, now you know,” the commander sloughed off the governor’s impertinence, “I haven’t had radio contact with my unit commander there or anyone else for that matter for the last hour.” “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” the governor asked, not wishing to extend his resources or volunteer anything to this pompous sector commander. “I need you to send a couple of scout balloons over the area for a look-see,” the commander said irately. “Who’s gonna pay for my men and balloons?” the governor asked thinking about his budget and his financial opportunities. “You’ll get your money!” the commander scowled. The governor asked for the last coordinates reported by the commandos. The commander nodded to his assistant, who pointed to their last known location on the wall map. The commander read the coordinates off the map to the governor. The governor said he’d let them know as soon as his balloon scouts got back.
- The governor called in his assistant and requested him to send one of the scout balloons over to Dead River at Point 23 and float down as far as Point 27, looking for any sign of the commandos Sector 84 had lost. “Have him back before nightfall, one way or the other,” the governor ordered. The assistant nodded and returned to his desk to call the duty pilot. The duty pilot scowled, got up, stretched, and ambled over to the quartermaster at his own slow pace. The pilot asked the QM for a fuzzcoat, STU, map of Dead River, and a monocular. The pilot signed for everything he took and ambled over to the balloon master. “What do you have ready to go?” the pilot asked the BM. “Number 3,” said the BM, stifling a yawn. “I thought 3 had been retired,” the pilot grimaced. “I thought you’d been retired,” smirked the BM. The pilot signed for the balloon and walked out the door in search of 3. It had more patches on it than his grandmother’s quilt. He climbed into the basket with his bag, checked the air-burner frames, and told the guard to cut him loose. The balloon started to rise tentatively into the air, while the pilot looked for a breeze blowing in the direction of Dead River. He shivered at the thought and put on his fuzzcoat. The pilot radioed his position to the assistant. He glanced at the map and checked his direction. The balloon floated on, mostly silent except for the times he had to turn on the airburners to maintain height. The sun was high. He leaned over the basket and saw his shadow running along the ridges and valleys underneath him. The pilot saw the thick grey clouds in the distance. When he saw the river, the pilot glanced at his map and saw he was approaching Point 23. He released air from the balloon to drop altitude until he was floating downstream parallel to the river on his left, keeping a respectful distance from the river, the roiling clouds, and those damned lightning bolts. The ridges and valleys moved slowly under him. He passed over a clearing in the woods and saw something that made his blood run cold: two naked corpses hung upside down from th limb of a skag tree. One of them was a woman. Well, it was a common enough sight. “They must have been Rat-lovers,” the pilot told himself. He trained his monocular on the dead woman a little longer than was proper or necessary. The pilot thumbed on his STU and reported the hanging bodies and their position to the assistant. “That’s none of our business,” said the assistant. “You’d better be looking for those commandos, if you know what’s good for you.” The pilot flicked off the STU. He adjusted the altitude to take the balloon in a little closer to the river. Then he saw the three deflated balloons on the beach. As he approached the gutted balloons, he saw the commandos lying every which way on the beach. Not a one of them was moving. The pilot reported what he saw to the assistant and asked him what he wanted him to do. The assistant told the pilot to return home. “Put as much distance as you can between you and that river,” the assistant ordered. “I wouldn’t want your balloon to be hit by some stray lightning bolt.” The assistant laid his STU on his desk, walked over to the governor’s office, and stuck his head inside. “Sir, the scout balloon found the commandos at Point 24,” the assistant told his boss. “49 of them, all dead, and 9 dracs. 6 of the commandos looked badly burned. The rest looked blue in the face. Oh and the pilot saw two corpses, a man and a woman, hung upside down and hour northwest of Point 24… probably Rat-lovers.” The governor nodded at his assistant and called the Sector 84 Commander.
- The Sector 84 Commander ordered a unit of 10 men to go to Sector 127 to recover the equipment and bring back the remains of his commandos for identification and determination of what the hell happened. He ordered the unit to bring back the two Rat-lovers for identification in case they could be linked to others.
- The doctors examined the recovered bodies two weeks later. They were badly decomposed. The six burnt corpses were balloon pilots. They had been killed apparently when their balloons exploded on them. The burnt holes in each of the balloon skins were probably caused by lightning. The rest of the commandos, all present and accounted for, except for the one that was missing, were blue from cyanide poisoning, probably from the cyanide gas canisters that had burst open on the rocks. The missing commando was Sangor. So was the male corpse found hanging from the skag tree. The woman was his wife, Sirka.
- Sangor had been a captive of the Rats. Maybe they turned him. Maybe his wife caused him to betray his species. The sector commander ordered a unit to round-up Sangor’s neighbors for questioning, along with his fellow captives. The former captives confirmed that Sangor had spent a lot of time with one of the Rats and did not seem to share their enthusiasm when they talked about escaping. Some of what the former captives said was just jealous speculation, but some rang true as a bell. The picture of defeat and betrayal was becoming clear to the commander. What was also clear was that the Rats were preparing to launch an attack on them, the likes of which they could scarcely imagine.
- Sector 84 Commander requested an urgent meeting with the president. He outlined recent events in the Rat wars and presented his conclusions. “Our civilization is in imminent danger of extinction,” the commander raised his voice dramatically while scanning the blank faces around the table, before resting respectfully on the president’s face. “… Unless we eliminate the Rats once and for all.” The commander nodded at his assistant, who rose to address the faces. “Sir, as you know, we have been working on a top-secret project for five years now.” The assistant clicked a button on the box in front of him and an image appeared on the screens on every wall. He described the cobalt bomb and the super cannon that was capable of shooting the cobalt projectile from the eastern area of Sector 84 into the middle of the Uncharted Areas. The trajectory was suborbital and would bring the shell down through the clouds over Rats’ unsuspecting heads. Although the bomb had never been tested, the scientists involved on the project assured them that the kill radius would be at least two weeks in every direction. “Why didn’t you test it?” the president interrupted the assistant’s presentation. “How do you know it will work?” The assistant explained to the president that there were only two places they could test the weapon: “our place or their place, and besides, the Saps did not want to lose the element of surprise… Let’s just call this operation against the Rats our first test”. There was a sound of conspiratorial smirks around the table. The president banged his fist down hard on the table. The image of the kill radius and encircling damage radii jumped on all the screens. “What say you all?” the president demanded of the blank faces around the table. The votes were unanimous. “When is the test to be scheduled?” The assistant looked at his commander, attempted to swallow down the dryness in his throat, and croaked up the date. “Make it so … and the devil take your miserable soul if the test fails!” the president said in a harsh and guttural growl.
- There was a quiet murmur in the cave as the representatives of all the Rat families found a place to sit in the vast cavern. As soon as Lem and Yani sat down, traces of red lights appeared to slice the air in front of them but stayed suspended. There were bright points along each line. The points seemed to sprout new traces that branched out in all directions. The lines bred more and more lines until the central space of the cavern took on a solidity that looked like a star. A few lines leaped out of the star. Lem spoke. “What you are looking at is a map of Sap and Rat timelines. Each line is an individual from birth to death. Each point is an event on that individual’s timeline. Each event is a point from which alternate timelines spring forth. This is just a representation of what we all see and know for ourselves. I made this so we could discuss what we see and know, even though we don’t have words for these things yet.” Lem looked around at the familiar faces of his friends. He saw agreement on their faces. He also noticed a parenthesis of mirth in their blue eyes at his childish scrawls etched on the diaphanous walls of space-time. Everyone had an internal language that allowed him to think about what he saw. The only problem was that everyone had a different internal language. The common language they used to communicate among each other was inadequate to express their thoughts and conceptual structures. Someday their common language would be as rich as their internal languages but, for today, Lem’s barely adequate light display in the cavern would have to suffice. “Instead of the constantly expanding cone of timelines we should expect to see,” Lem continued, “we see a convergence of timelines into a vortex culminating in a single point and whose lines branch away conically.” A voice arose from the darkness of the cavern. “Please expand the convergence point for us, Lem.” Lem thought about the point and it expanded into a cobalt bomb explosion in the atmosphere above their lovely valley and then another explosion and another in a chain reaction of world-rending blasts spread across the sky from horizon to horizon. Air turned to fire and fire turned to scorched earth and water boiled until it was no more.
- There was a silence throughout the cavern. Light and shadow ricocheted against the stone walls. Lem said, “It is time for us to do what we were always meant to do, what the Saps told us all along that we must do with their words and their actions.” He paused and then said a single word: leave.
- It had taken them five years to build it. It was a shame that it would be destroyed after they used it only once. It really was not much to look at – just two doors and a tunnel between them. The beauty was in the simplicity of it. Like most of the products of genius, the simplest things were often the most elusive. It had always been there if only they could have seen it. The only problem would have been explaining it to a being who was sentient in only three dimensions. They all lined up at the door. Nobody pushed or raised his voice. The Rats knew there was just enough time for them all to go through the door to the other side safely. Lem opened the door for his friend. Yani stood at Lem’s side and smiled at the friend as he passed through the doorway.
- The assistant’s neck was on the chopping block. There had been two delays in the scheduled test. He had been hauled in front of the president each time. The next time he’d be hauled in front of a firing squad in the words of his fearless leader. Today was D-Day. In another few moments it would be H-Hour. The countdown had already begun. The shell was loaded in the canon. The magnets were spinning up their fields. 3 – 2 – 1 … The assistant lowered his arm and the artillery officer pushed the button that armed the shell with an opposing magnetic field. The cobalt shell hissed out of the canon at ten times the speed of sound, causing a series of deafening booms, as the shell disappeared above the clouds on its trajectory to the Uncharted Areas.
- The last ones through the doorway were Lem and Yani. Lem closed the door behind him. He took Yani’s hand and they walked together toward the light. It seemed like no time at all before they reached the other door. As Lem and Yani emerged from the tunnel, all their friends greeted them with smiles and waves. Lem closed the second door behind him. They walked with their friends into the fresh night air of a valley much like their own beloved valley. It was so quiet you could almost hear the stars sing. Someone pointed at their sister planet as it rose majestically above the eastern mountains. The air became heavy with sadness. “Look!” someone said and their heads all turned to the planet hovering expectantly above the mountain tops. A flower of light blossomed silently plains, another flower, and another flower. Soon there was a whole bouquet of light as the atmosphere of the sister planet caught fire. It seemed the Sap planet was becoming a star, but there was no danger to the Rats anymore. After a few day-night cycles there was no atmosphere left to burn and the bouquet withered.