As I write this, I am sitting in my local Starbucks (well, one of my many local Starbucks) working on final edits of Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War. I expect to finish edits and a final read-through today, and hopefully I can get the tedious task of formatting out of the way so all I have to do is add the cover art.
So, as an early Christmas present for everyone, I present to you the first two chapters of The Black End War.
SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read the following unless you’ve read at least through Action Figures – Issue Five: Team-Ups (if you haven’t read Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play, don’t worry; books six and seven are interchangeable and can be read out of order!).
ACTION FIGURES – ISSUE SEVEN: THE BLACK END WAR
PART ONE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Carrie Hauser.
(That’s me by the way.)
One day, after learning that her parents were divorcing, Carrie went for a pity walk through the woods near her Cape Cod home, where she encountered an extraterrestrial named Lieutenant Yx. Yx, a member of an intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Vanguard, had been mortally wounded by a renegade Vanguardian named Galt and, by pure dumb luck, had crash-landed on Earth.
Before dying, Yx passed onto Carrie his astrarma, the hyper-advanced technology that granted him fantastic powers — powers Carrie used to become a super-hero. For eighteen insane months, Carrie fought the good fight, confronting evil in all its forms, never once stopping to wonder exactly where the astrarma came from.
She found out the day Galt arrived on Earth to finish the job he started with Yx.
Galt hunted Carrie down, intending to take her astrarma for himself, just as he’d done with many unfortunate Vanguardians before her — and he might have succeeded were it not for the timely arrival of a Vanguard squad under the command of Do Lidella Det. After teaming up to take down Galt and his forces, Commander Do led Carrie into low orbit above Earth for a private chat. The commander told Carrie about the obligations that come with wielding the astrarma and gave her an opportunity to relinquish her astrarma and the attached responsibilities.
“Release them to me and you may return to your homeworld that you may live a peaceful, normal life,” Commander Do said. “Why are you laughing?”
“Like I said before, Commander: that horse has already left the barn,” I said.
“Then you accept the astrarma? You accept them of your own free will?”
“I accepted them a long time ago.”
And then Commander Do sighed. “For your own sake, CarrieHauser? I wish you hadn’t.”
“What do you —”
Whoa. What the hell was that? Felt like someone grabbed me by the face and yanked me through a funnel.
I turn around. Earth is gone. It’s been replaced by a distant sphere of pure white light. It’s a sun — but somehow I know it isn’t my sun. It feels wrong. There’s no other way to put it.
“What did you do?” I demand. “Where’s Earth? Where are we?!”
Commander Do Lidella Det releases my shoulder and holds her hands up, a gesture of peace. Lady, you’re going to have to do a lot more than gesture to keep me from going totally ballistic on you.
“We are in Kyros Alliance space,” she says, “in the Zhyzyu System. I brought you here for a reason.”
“You better have a damn good reason for kidnapping me.”
“Kidnapping you?” Her expression hardens. “I warned you, CarrieHauser, that if you accepted the astrarma you also accepted the responsibilities that go with them. You agreed. That makes you a member of the Vanguard. More specifically, that makes you a cadet in the Vanguard, which means I am your commanding officer — and as such, I expect the appropriate amount of respect. Is that clear?”
I almost tell her off, but considering I’m in the middle of literally nowhere and she could easily leave me out here, I bite my tongue.
“But I may be getting ahead of myself,” Commander Do says, her tone gentle again. “You have accepted the astrarma but there is no guarantee the Council of Generals will accept you. They might well deem you unworthy to carry the astrarma, in which case you would be stripped of them and returned to your homeworld.”
“Strip me of my —? But they don’t even know me.”
“No. But they will. Come with me.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You did,” she says. “And you made it.”
She flies off.
Flying in outer space is totally bizarre.
Flying in general took some getting used to, but on Earth, I always had the constant tug of gravity and visual cues like the horizon to keep me oriented. Space has neither. I have absolutely no sense of up or down or of how fast we’re traveling. We could be moving at the speed of light for all I know. I focus on Commander Do, using her as my literal guiding light. If I lose sight of her…
No. Stop. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about how easy it would be for her to abandon you in the middle of deep space and leave you to die a slow — oh, dammit, Carrie, I said don’t think about it!
“Cadet?” Commander Do says, glancing back. “Are you all right?”
“Little freaked out here,” I admit. “This is my first time in outer space.”
“Yes, it can be disorienting, but once you’re trained to —” She pauses. “My apologies. I’m getting ahead of myself again.”
“Maybe you’re just that optimistic the Council of Generals will give me the thumbs up?”
“Give you the thumbs up?”
“That means they’ll like me.”
“Ah.” She nods. “Perhaps.”
“They’re your bosses, I assume?”
“The Vanguard’s high command. You present a rather unusual situation. Normally candidates for the Vanguard are exhaustively vetted by the council before being accepted into our ranks. You will have to prove yourself to them before you’re allowed to remain. That is why I’ve brought you here: so you can understand what it is we’re fighting.”
“You said you were fighting terrorists.”
“That is an accurate if somewhat simplistic description of the Black End. They are much more than mere terrorists. You’ll understand soon enough.”
“All right, then, let’s go get woke.”
I have to explain what the phrase get woke means, a gentle reminder that I’m not dealing with a human being, despite appearances. Commander Do has a slender but decidedly feminine build, delicate features, and long, dark hair, and if you took away the white, yellow, and blue Vanguard uniform and stuck her in jeans and a T-shirt, you wouldn’t look at her and immediately think she was an alien being.
“Almost there,” Commander Do says. She smiles and gives me a nod of approval. “You’re doing quite well. You’re a natural flyer.”
I’m grateful for the compliment, but I am so far out of my comfort zone it’s ridiculous. In addition to losing all sense of distance and orientation, I’ve lost all sense of time. The clock on my headset’s heads-up display, which is normally synched to the Protectorate’s communications network, reads “–:–,” the universal symbol for I have no idea what time it is.
Consequently, I don’t know how long we’re flying before we reach Helo, a planet that, at a glance, is surprisingly Earthlike. At our current angle of approach, it appears to be spinning on a horizontal axis. There aren’t as many landmasses as on Earth, at least on the hemisphere facing us, and the ocean has a slight gray cast to it. I follow Commander Do down toward the largest of the landmasses, which is shaped like a comma. Amidst the dull, muddied greens and tans and grays of the distant landscape, I pick out a dark spot, like a smudge of soot. The spot grows as we descend, and we touch down in the middle of a blasted wasteland.
It used to be a city.
We land at the edge of a crater maybe a mile across and half as deep, but the damage carries on as far as the eye can see. Something huge fell here — fell, or went off. All around me the charred remains of buildings lay splayed outward, as if pushed over by a gigantic child playing Godzilla in a miniature Tokyo made of stacked wooden blocks. The ground beneath my feet is a mix of dirt and rubble and ash. I kick at it, and a wispy cloud swirls around my ankles. A smell like that of a long disused fireplace hits my nose.
“This was Olar, the largest city on this world. The Black End dropped one of its ships into the heart of the city. When its plasma reactor exploded…” Commander Do says, spreading her arms in presentation. “All of this because the people of Helo refused to side with the Black End. They took a stand. They knew destruction would rain down upon them and still, they took a stand.”
The rattle of shifting rubble catches my attention. An alien, tall and pencil-thin with skin like a leather wallet, cautiously pokes his head out from what I first believe is a squat building that, impossibly, survived the blast. It’s actually more of a makeshift hut assembled from large chunks of debris.
(I shouldn’t call him an alien, should I? In this context, he’s the native, and I’m the strange visitor from another planet.)
Commander Do turns toward the alien — er, the native to let him (her?) get a good look at her Vanguard uniform. Commander Do smiles and gives the native a small bow. He/she nods in understanding then retreats into the shelter.
“Come,” Commander Do says.
We fly low over the city. The very worst of the destruction stretches on for several miles. The debris field gradually thins out and grudgingly gives way to intact structures — intact, but bearing lighter signs of damage. The architecture of this world, or at least this particular city, favors round forms; the shorter buildings are oval in shape while the taller structures are perfect cylinders. We pass one tower made of a mirrored material that, on one side, is scorched and bubbled from the heat of the blast. The other is unscathed and gleams brilliantly under the planet’s orange sun.
Signs of life return once we reach the far edge of the city. The buildings here completely escaped the blast, and aliens — sorry, natives — like the one I saw back near Ground Zero bustle about as we pass overhead. Everyone seems to be going about their daily business as if they’re not right next door to a massive graveyard. I can’t help but wonder what’s going on down there. Are they on their way to work? Are they on their way home from work? Does the concept of work as I know it even exist here?
Our destination is an expanse of bluish-green grass surrounded by trees with twisting trunks and branches ending in matching blue-green foliage. This city’s equivalent of Central Park, maybe? Whatever it was once, it’s now an evacuee camp made up of row upon row of boxy metal shelters, each large enough to hold one or two people comfortably. Natives mill about aimlessly, shuffling through the refuge like zombies.
We land in the center of the camp, near a cluster of hard shelters butted up against one another to form a mini-complex. An ali— sorry, a being in a Vanguard uniform emerges from one of the structures. He (I think it’s a he) is built like Joe Quentin, tall and broad, but has a head like a grouper and mottled green-black skin like a frog.
“Commander Lotz,” Commander Do says in greeting.
“Commander Do. What can I do for you?” Commander Lotz says in what sounds to my ears like perfect English, thanks to the translator devices Commander Do gave me. Now, if she could give me something that makes the movement of their lips match the sounds reaching my ears, I’ll be golden. This badly dubbed foreign film effect is really distracting.
“This is a new cadet, CarrieHauser, from Earth.”
Commander Lotz looks me over. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s a world in the Lehzutan Arm.”
“The Lehzutan Arm? That’s on the opposite side of the galaxy,” Commander Lotz says. Well, that answers that question. “What’s it doing in the Vanguard?”
“Her world,” Commander Do says, subtly clarifying my gender for Commander Lotz, “was recently found by the Black End.”
“Oh.” Commander Lotz bows his head and interlocks his hands. He has three fingers on each broad hand, and the thumb is located at the base of the palm, dead center. “I’m sorry,” he says to me, and then he returns his attention to Commander Do. “Was it bad?”
“CarrieHauser and her people fought bravely. Many died protecting their world. Fortunately, the damage was contained to a small part of an insignificant town.”
“Insignificant?” I say. Kingsport might not be much, but it’s my home.
“Good fate placed CarrieHauser where she needed to be to discover Lieutenant Yx as he lay dying. He passed his astrarma on to her.”
“Ho! Good fate, eh? Blind luck, more like.”
“As you believe. But I’m sure you’d agree, how she came to join us is irrelevant.”
Commander Lotz grunts in agreement. “If she’s willing and able to fight…”
“Excuse me?” I say. “I’m standing right here, you know. It’s okay to talk to me directly.”
That gets a huge laugh. “You’re feisty. Good. We need feisty. If you’ll excuse me, commander, it’s time for my morning rounds.”
“Of course,” Commander Do says with a respectful little bow. “I trust the reconstruction is proceeding well?”
“It’s proceeding,” Commander Lotz says diplomatically, and then he’s off to walk the grounds.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “Why are you showing me this?”
“Images can lie. Words can lie. Experiences don’t,” Commander Do says. “You have no reason to believe my claim that we’re fighting for a righteous cause and you’d be foolish to take me at my word. You needed to see the destruction the Black End has caused and what we’re doing to right their many wrongs.”
I’ve already seen what the Black End can do, up close and personal, but she’s right. On the surface of it, the Black End certainly seemed like a bunch of murderous lunatics, but the difference between a good guy and a bad guy can sometimes be nothing more than a matter of perspective. What’s that saying? Every villain is the hero of his own story. That philosophy could apply as easily to the Kyros Alliance as to the Black End. I need to know who’s the real bad guy here.
“All right,” I say. “You want me to know the whole story? Then tell me the whole story. I want to know every last detail.”
Commander Do nods. “Very well.”
We warp in at the edge of Kyros Alliance Central, a six-planet solar system. The two outermost planets, Kyros Remote One and Two, share an orbit and act as defensive outposts. After checking in with the base on Kyros Remote Two, we fly toward to the fourth planet, Kyros Prime — the Alliance’s home base.
It’s hard to say for sure but Kyros Prime gives the impression that it’s much larger than Earth. Three major landmasses are visible as we approach, plus icecaps at each of the poles and several smaller chunks of land, all surrounded by an electric blue ocean. We drop toward the northernmost landmass. Its grayish color gives up detail slowly. Small patches of green and blue freckle what reveals itself as a city — a city that covers nearly the entire continent. Holy crap.
We pass over the city, maintaining a respectable distance from a teeming layer of countless flying vehicles of varying sizes and styles — spheres and bullets, boxes and tubes, flying wings and flying saucers, some as small as a Cooper Mini and others as long as a commuter train. It’s street traffic without the street.
The center of the megalopolis, a tightly packed collection of towers and domes Commander Do introduces as Kyros City, rises up to greet us. She guides me toward a fat tower with a circular landing pad jutting out near the top. As we land, a being steps out of a small booth near the edge of the platform. He’s wearing a variation of the Vanguard uniform that’s more of a loose jumpsuit deal. He’s another humanoid, but his arms are socketed on the front of his torso instead of the sides.
“Commander Do, welcome back,” he says, though his focus is entirely on me. “Another new recruit?”
“CarrieHauser of Earth,” Commander Do says. The being blinks at me curiously, his eyelids closing sideways. That’s unsettling. “I need a recovery team dispatched immediately. There’s a Lyztarian exploration vessel stranded on her homeworld and it needs to be removed as soon as possible.”
Commander Do relays to her colleague the coordinates for Earth. At first, I think my translators are glitching because what I hear is total nonsense — not a recognizable word or number to be found — but I come to realize there might not be a direct translation for how they describe a location in space. Besides defying basic concepts like up and down, points of reference in space can be millions of miles apart from one another. Add to that the fact everything in the universe is in constant motion, and it makes sense they can’t simply tell each other to go straight for fifty thousand light years and hang a right at Tatooine.
“Oh, and contact the Council of Generals, please. They need to meet with the new cadet.”
“Yes, commander,” jumpsuit guy says. “It will take some time to assemble them.”
“I’m counting on that.”
She gestures for me to follow. Jeez, that’s all I’m doing today. She might as well put me on a leash.
We go down in an elevator (okay, something familiar, that’s good) and step out into a massive concourse teeming with activity. I can’t even begin to process how many different life forms are here. Several of them wear Vanguard jumpsuits, a few wear formal Vanguard uniforms, but most are dressed in what I’ll call normal clothing.
Yow, except for that thing. He’s walking around free and easy.
(Please tell me that’s not his junk.)
The uniformed beings acknowledge Commander Do as she passes with salutes and gestures and respectful hellos. I get nothing, not even a curious glance or a horrified gawk.
I quickly lose track of where we are as we travel down hallways and more elevators and more hallways, eventually winding up in a high-ceilinged room with no windows, but the entire ceiling glows with soft, warm light that makes it feel like an outdoor space. There are enclosed stations of varying sizes and configurations lined up against the wall and set up in rows on the floor. Commander Do gestures toward one station, a tall cylinder made of…oh, I don’t know what anything around here is made of so I’ll just say glass.
“This should be compatible with your visual and auditory needs,” Commander Do says. “It’s voice-activated. Ask whatever questions you will. The archives are quite comprehensive.”
I step inside. The cylinder closes around me, and for a moment, I’m immersed in total darkness.
“Umm…hello?” I say. Nothing. Logging in must not be a thing here. Hm. Okay, Commander Do wanted to prove that the Vanguard was fighting for a righteous cause, so let’s start there. “I’d like to search for the history of the Vanguard?”
The cylinder comes to life with a soft hum. The show begins. Images flash in front of me, rapid-fire, like a strobe light, accompanied by a high-pitched buzz. It’s an all-out assault on my eyes and ears and mind as information floods into me, too fast for me to consciously process any of it. As abruptly as it began, it ends, and the cylinder darkens again, and that’s when my head spins violently and my stomach seizes up.
“Let me out,” I say. “Let me out!”
The cylinder opens, and I fall out, crashing to my hands and knees. I haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast and that feels like forever ago, so all I do is dry heave for several minutes. It’s embarrassing, but at least I’m not ruining their carpet.
Commander Do kneels next to me and lays a hand on my back. “Will you be all right?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute,” I pant. “What was that?”
“A hyper-compressed data stream. You adapted so quickly to the translator matrices, I thought you’d be able to handle an immersion learning chamber. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You’re learning too.”
She smiles and helps me to my feet. Once the lightheadedness passes, I feel surprisingly good — and quite educated about the history of the Vanguard. Ignore the crippling nausea and hyper-compressed data stream learning is pretty cool.
The Vanguard has been in existence almost as long as the Kyros Alliance itself. They were assembled to act as peacekeepers and protectors, acting only in defense of member worlds against threats from outside the Alliance. They don’t get involved with internal disputes, and they don’t serve political interests. They demand certain things of their members, particularly when it comes to sharing technological advances with other member worlds and restricting the use of other technologies, but for the most part, the Alliance is pretty hands-off. Their primary duty is to deal with large-scale problems.
Which brings us to the Black End. Story time.
The Black End began innocently enough. The Kyros Alliance has always been dedicated to bringing disparate worlds together, but a small group of well-intentioned activists calling itself the One Light felt the Alliance wasn’t pursuing this mission as aggressively as it could. The founders of the One Light, who hailed from member and nonmember worlds alike, urged the Alliance to leverage its military might (meaning the Vanguard) to keep member worlds in-line and pressure nonmember worlds into joining up. The Alliance rejected the idea out of hand, preferring to stick to diplomatic avenues.
(Good for them.)
Frustrations within the One Light grew, which led to dissent among its members, which led to internal conflict, which ultimately led to a violent coup d’état. Some founders escaped the revolt, scattered throughout the galaxy, and to this day they remain in hiding, but most of them were slaughtered and replaced by individuals who weren’t big on the whole One Happy Universe concept. This new regime attracted criminals, dissidents, and radicals — people with an axe to grind and no regard for who might get hurt in the process. The newly dubbed Black End took advantage of that and started making some noise through a loose-knit network of operatives.
They weren’t capable of causing any serious harm at first due to their small numbers, relative disorganization, and lack of resources, so the Kyros Alliance wrote them off as a petty nuisance. That decision came back to bite them in the butt pretty quickly. With local planetary governments paying little attention to the Black End and the Alliance ignoring them entirely, they were free to expand their reach unchecked. The Black End sought out like-minded individuals — people eager to vent their anger over whatever real or imagined sins their homeworlds or the Alliance had committed against them. Their numbers grew rapidly, and the Black End became a veritable army right under everyone’s noses (or comparable smell-based sensory organ, as the case may be).
When they were ready, the Black End set out to bolster their resources. They launched a series of raids on civilized worlds outside Alliance space, knowing the Alliance would symbolically shrug and say sorry, people, not our problem. They soon amassed an arsenal of weapons and a fleet of starships, mostly freighters and exploration vessels, many of which were converted over time into serviceable warships. Others served as innocuous-looking transportation so they could slip into Alliance space without drawing undue attention and work on building up the local network.
Recently, they started turning up the heat, big time. Several months ago (however long the Alliance considers a month, I have no idea), the Black End began establishing presences on worlds that were within Alliance space but, for whatever reason, not part of the Alliance proper. Those worlds were given an ultimatum: join the cause or else. Those that did, whether out of sympathy for the cause or fear of the repercussions for refusing, became safe harbors for what could only be called terrorist cells.
The first world to refuse the Black End, Ohkny, paid a heavy price. The death toll was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
That’s when the Alliance finally got off its collective backside and started treating the Black End as a serious threat. The Vanguard went on the hunt, sniffing out Black End hideouts and taking out cells. Several worlds that had been holding out on joining the Alliance caved and petitioned for membership while others distanced themselves further, fearful that any signs of collaboration would bring the Black End down on them like the wrath of God. The Vanguard established outposts on member worlds with potential strategic value and put nonmember worlds under constant surveillance.
With this sudden expansion came a thinning of Alliance resources, which demanded an aggressive recruitment drive. About a third of the Vanguard’s current membership is composed of new cadets who have only days of basic training under their belts. Talk about getting thrown into the deep end.
Now, this is not to say the Vanguard’s history is squeaky-clean. There are blemishes on its record, but I can’t say I’m surprised. The Vanguard’s history is measured in centuries (by my best guess), so it stands to reason there’d be a black mark or two — and to the Vanguard’s credit, the majority of those missteps occurred early in the Alliance’s history. For the most part, they are unquestionably the good guys.
But it’s not enough. I need to know just how bad the alleged bad guys are.
“What are you doing?” Commander Do says.
I step back into the chamber. “I have some more homework to do.”
The second go-round wasn’t any easier. My stomach muscles hurt from trying so hard to barf up nothing, and now I have a pounding headache to go along with it.
I am, however, feeling extremely well informed about the Kyros Alliance, the Vanguard, and the Black End. If I’m going to look like an idiot in front of the Council of Generals, it won’t be because I haven’t done my research. More likely, Commander Do warns me, I’ll make a bad first impression simply by showing my human face. I’m among extraterrestrial races that mastered interplanetary travel around the same time the human race was figuring out how to cross the Atlantic.
“You must understand, CarrieHauser —”
“It’s two names, commander. Carrie. Hauser.”
She nods. “You must understand, Carrie, there is normally a process for determining who is worthy of wielding the astrarma. Candidates are recommended by their homeworlds after going through a rigorous initial screening, and then the Vanguard vets the candidates thoroughly before welcoming them into our ranks. You’ll have to convince the council you’ve earned the right to wield the astrarma.”
“That’s going to be a hard sell, considering it’s dumb luck I have them at all,” I say.
Commander Do laughs. “Is that what you believe? That dumb luck brought you the astrarma?”
“Commander, I’ve made the mistake of thinking I’m something special before. I try to be realistic about who I am. When it comes to how I got my powers, I was in the right place at the right time and that’s all there is to it.”
“Carrie,” she says, smiling at me like I’m a child who just said something totally silly but absolutely adorable and aren’t I the cutest thing? “The universe is unimaginably vast, perhaps infinite. In this galaxy alone there are more than three hundred billion stars and one hundred billion planets, and only the tiniest fraction of those are home to intelligent life. Lieutenant Yx teleported blindly, in a moment of desperation. The chances of him warping into deep space, light years away from anywhere, were incalculably greater than the chances of him warping to your world and landing where you happened to be at that very moment.”
When she puts it that way? Mind. Blown.
“I don’t believe in random chance. I don’t believe every moment of our lives is written in the stars and free will is an illusion, but I do believe that everything that happens in life does so for a reason.” Her expression turns serious. “You, Carrie Hauser, were brought to us for a reason.”
I’m flattered. Honestly, I am, “But that won’t be enough to convince the council to keep me around, will it?”
“Oh, no. Belief rarely plays a role in council deliberations. They prefer facts to faith.”
Commander Do takes me to the roof of the archives building. We take off from there and fly toward Vanguard Command for our big meeting.
Vanguard Command resembles a domed sports stadium with a tall, narrow lighthouse attached to it, the top of which is a small landing pad for Vanguardians. We take an elevator down into the main building and step out into a foyer manned by two beings in what I’ve come to regard as civilian uniforms. One of them is an honest-to-God cyborg. Mechanical components replace half his face, including one eye, and his left arm from the elbow down, but everything is sleek and streamlined. It’s obviously not his real arm, but it’s nowhere near as fakey-looking as the few prosthetics I’ve seen on fellow humans. The other guy leans against a metallic staff ending in a blue sphere that emits a glowing mist.
They stand a little straighter as Commander Do approaches them. “Commander,” the cyborg says. “The council is convening now. They’re expecting you.”
“Thank you,” she says as we walk past them. “The generals are likely to question you at length, and they won’t be kind about it,” she warns.
“Guess I can’t blame them,” I say. “With the Black End making such an aggressive push into Alliance space, they can’t afford any dead weight on the team.”
Commander Do nods approvingly. “Your insight will serve you well. Display your knowledge and give them your respect and we might yet convince them of your value.”
“Show what I know and keep the attitude in check. Got it,” I say, which gets a laugh.
“I didn’t say anything about checking your attitude. You have a fire in you, Carrie. Let them see it.”
This may be the first time in my life someone has ever encouraged me to be mouthy.
We end up in a small, circular room, staffed by two more guards and oh my God what is that?!
“Hello, Commander,” says the thing scuttling along the wall like some giant freaky spider thing. Imagine a snail with a swirling, multicolored shell the size of a basketball, unnervingly human eyes at the end of its eyestalks, six spindly crab legs, and a segmented scorpion tail ending in a double stinger. I can’t help but slide behind Commander Do, placing her between me and —
“Oh, hello, Jozh,” Commander Do says.
“Welcome back,” the thing says. It cranes its head to get a better look at me. “Is this her?”
“This is Carrie Hauser of Earth. Carrie, this is Jozh.”
“Josh?” I repeat in a terrified squeak. The thing’s name is Josh.
“Hello, Carrie,” Jozh says, pleasantly enough. “Your presence has caused quite the stir.”
“Oh,” I say. I can’t keep my voice from cracking.
“You’d do well to get used to the Cestrans,” Commander Do says to me in a whisper. “They’re vital members of the Vanguard. They possess eidetic memories and perfect recall — qualities that make them ideally suited for their role as our living archivists.”
“Is he — it — he going to be at our meeting?”
Great. Intense scrutiny and harsh judgment I can handle, but a freaky snail-crab-scorpion thing hanging out on the wall? That is a big ol’ bucket of nope right there.
A door slides open. The Vanguardian that steps out has a wizened look about his broad, distinctly froglike face. “Commander,” he says. “We’re ready for you.”
“Thank you, General Tis,” Commander Do says.
I follow the commander into a dark, round chamber. I suppress a shudder as I hear Jozh skitter in behind me. He circles around to take a position on the wall where he can see everyone. Commander Do and I move to the center of the room and stand before a semicircular table, at which sit five beings in Vanguard uniforms. General Tis sits, making it six – six alien faces staring at me in curiosity, doubt, contempt…
“Are you ready to proceed, Jozh?” General Tis asks.
“I am, general.”
General Tis grunts in my general direction and says, “So. This is the fargirl.”
Fargirl? Why do I feel like that’s meant to be insulting?
“Generals, this is Carrie Hauser of Earth,” Commander Do says, putting on her best game face. “Her world is located in a solar system in the Lehzutan Arm of the galaxy.”
“Have we charted out that far?” one of the generals asks, posing the question to anyone who might be able to answer.
“No, General Ezenti, we haven’t,” Jozh says. “That entire arm of the galaxy has been rough-mapped but there have been no extensive surveys of that arm or any system therein.”
“Then how, exactly, did our astrarma come into the possession of a heretofore unknown alien species?” General Ezenti, a feminine humanoid with skin the color of charcoal, gives me a once-over, her iridescent green eyes narrowed to thin, glowing slits. “Is she even capable of speech?”
“She is perfectly capable of speech, General Ezenti, thank you for asking,” I say. General Ezenti harrumphs, thoroughly unimpressed. It can talk. Big whoop.
“I’d prefer to hear from Commander Do,” General Tis says, “in the interest of having an official account.”
“As would I,” says a general who appears to be the same snakelike species as Lt. Commander Fast.
“Of course, General Rist,” Commander Do says, launching into the epic tale of How Carrie Got Her Astrarma. I stand there quietly as Commander Do tells the council how Vanguardian-turned-Black End hitman Galt (the mere mention of his name causes the generals to spit and curse) ambushed Lt. Yx, intending to rip his astrarma from his dead body. Yx, mortally wounded and desperate to escape, warped away and wound up in Earth’s gravity well. He fell to Earth, where “a native girl” found him. Yx passed his astrarma on to the girl, who used their power to fight evil on her own world.
However, unbeknownst to Carrie Hauser of Earth, the astrarma are linked on a cosmic level, and every time she used her powers, she caught Galt’s attention. He methodically tracked Yx’s (former) astrarma to her world and parked his strike force’s ship, the Nightwind, at the edge of her hometown to wait for the Earth girl to show herself. When she did, Galt attacked. And then the Earth girl kicked Galt’s ass.
Okay, maybe Commander Do’s story paints a slightly more favorable portrait of me, but I’m not about to correct her. She’s selling me to the council, and I have every intention of letting her. Problem is, the council isn’t buying.
“One minute, commander,” says a general by the name of Ahm Ahm Re Da, who, no kidding, could pass as Cher’s twin sister (if the twin in question had vivid pink skin). “You expect us to believe that this fargirl, who had no access to Vanguard training, developed sufficient skill with the astrarma to best Galt in combat?”
“You’ll soon see for yourself, general,” Commander Do says.
“Galt has been incapacitated and is as we speak imprisoned aboard the Nightwind — which, I would like to note, is currently disabled and stranded on Carrie’s homeworld.”
“Wish you’d mentioned that sooner, commander,” mutters a general who is some kind of cross between a man and a bulldog.
“Apologies, General Torr, but worry not. I have already authorized a recovery team to salvage the ship.”
“Oh, have you now, commander?” General Torr says with a note of reprimand.
“Simply anticipating the council’s wishes. I know how strongly you all feel about more primitive cultures having access to our technology,” Commander Do says. She slips me a glance that’s as good as a wink.
General Ezenti harrumphs again. “Fargirl’s world is so backwards that a relic of a ship like the Nightwind is considered advanced technology, yet you want her to join our ranks?”
“I want to join your ranks,” I say, stepping forward to make damn sure they’re looking at me and not Commander Do. Getting a little sick of being ignored by these people. Beings. Aliens. Whatever! “Look, I know I haven’t been living with this problem like you have. Everything I know about the Black End I learned less than an hour ago, but I can tell that they’re the same kind of people I fight every day. They’re bullies. They use fear and violence to get what they want and they don’t care who gets hurt or killed along the way. I don’t care where you are in the universe — that’s plain wrong.
“Commander Do says you need every able body you can get to put these guys down for good. I’m willing to help you. I want to help. So maybe instead of pissing on me because I’m just some ‘fargirl’ from a ‘primitive culture,’ you could at least judge me for who I am and what I can do.” I fold my arms, put on my best smug expression, and bring it home. “Or is the Vanguard’s Council of Generals so advanced they’ve mastered the fine art of making snap judgments about beings they’ve just met?”
The stunned silence that follows my grand speech is broken several seconds later by the sound of General Torr laughing a deep, booming laugh that causes his jowls to quiver. General Tis presses a fist against his mouth to hide his smile.
“Now I like her,” General Torr says to General Tis. “Sorry,” he says to me, “I like you.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Very good. You’ve charmed Commander Do and General Torr,” says a general who, until this point, has done nothing but sit there and glower at me, a fist tucked up under his chin in thought — or in judgment. He has a blocky head, deep purple skin, and surprisingly human eyes. “If only we could defeat the Black End with rousing speeches, sass, and an endearing personality.”
I had a feeling this guy might be the council’s resident hard-ass — the Concorde of the group, if you will. He’s already made up his mind about me and nothing I say or do is going to impress him — so I don’t try.
“If you’re going to send me home, do it and get it over with,” I say.
“That was my plan. Personally, I feel we have no need for an untrained fargirl.”
“One moment, General Gretch,” General Torr says. “Commander Do said this girl defeated Galt by herself.”
(Except not really, but they don’t need to know that.)
“Galt,” Gretch sneers. “Perhaps we should remember that tragic mistake before we decide to make another.”
Filing that curious remark away for later research.
“Galt was a unique case,” Torr says, undaunted, “and untrained she may be, but that doesn’t mean she’s unskilled.”
General Gretch sighs. “You and your bizarre affection for lower species —”
“Has nothing to do with this. Fellow generals,” General Torr says, standing and spreading his arms. Brace yourselves, the man’s about to speechify. “We are not so desperate that we can accept just any well-intended individual into our ranks, but we do not have the luxury to casually dismiss anyone with true potential — and I believe this girl might have potential.”
Nicest thing anyone’s says to me all day.
But it’s still not enough. “Might have potential,” General Gretch says.
“Perhaps we should see for ourselves,” General Ezenti says. “I believe Commander Dorr is training some of our more promising cadets as we speak.”
Commander Do bristles. “General, this girl is exhausted. She spent hours fighting Galt and his forces,” she says. “She’s in no condition for a demonstration of her abilities.”
“Many of our people are exhausted from fighting the Black End,” General Gretch says, “yet they don’t complain or beg off when they’re called into action. If the fargirl can’t endure the harsh reality of life in the Vanguard —”
“The fargirl has endured a lot worse than whatever you’re planning to throw at me,” I say. “Let’s go.”
“Carrie, no. This is an unfair test,” Commander Do says.
“I have to try,” I say, lowering my voice. This conversation isn’t for the generals’ ears. “If I play ball, then maybe they’ll let me stay.”
“Or they’ll make you put on a show for their amusement and send you home anyway.”
“That’s a possibility. But if I don’t try they’ll send me home for sure. If I’m going to go down, I’d rather go down swinging.”
Commander Do gives me a sad smile — sad, but proud.
“What are we waiting for?” I say to the generals. “Let’s roll.”