A man is working at the docks, stacking open crates outside a warehouse when a ship glides silently towards one of the piers. The man stares at the ship as if dumbstruck, then rushes inside the warehouse to grab the telephone. He quickly dials a number and begins speaking; "Henri? It's me, Arthur."
"Yes, I know that it's early, but this is important. Tell the major that the White Lady is docking."
"Yes, of course I'm certain! I may be old, but I'm NOT blind."
The ship glides slowly, silently towards one of the piers, a tall, thin man at the helm. "Rrsh'Dhana, come up here, we're about to dock," he suddenly calls down the open hatch behind him.
"I'm coming." An alien, looking like an anthropomorphic version of a white lioness with red and brown spots and the tufted ears of a bobcat, soon follows the soft voice. She, for the creature is female, joins the man by the steering wheel. "There's no one at the docks. I thought you said that this was a busy place."
"It normally is," he replies, "but it's still early. Give it an hour, and this place will be chaos."
"Is there a reason that we arrive at this hour?" she asks. "It seems like you planned it, when you anchored so early, yesterday."
"I have somewhat of a reputation here," he responds, grinning slightly, "and part of it is that I suddenly appear out of nowhere. I see no reason to upset anyone by doing something that they don't expect of me." Pulling on a rope, he lowers the sail and the ship loses speed as it glides the last few meters to the pier. As the ship touches the old tires serving as fenders, he grabs the end of a heavy rope and jumps ashore to drop it over a bollard. "Throw me the rope at the bow," he shouts as he walks along the pier. She throws the rope to him, and he drops it over the second bollard, then climbs back aboard.
"Ahoy the ship!" a voice can be heard shouting.
"Someone must have finally noticed us," the man says as he puts down his cup. "I wonder who it is?" He hurries to the hatch and climbs a few steps to peek over the edge. "Well, what do you know," he mumbles to himself. Then he adds to her, "I think you should come up on deck with me," before he climbs the rest of the way up the ladder.
Somewhat apprehensive, she climbs the ladder to join him. As she moves to stand beside him, she sees an elderly man in green camouflage fatigues standing on the pier.
"So, Anthony, that's the mysterious passenger you mentioned in your last message, eh?" the man on the pier asks.
"Yes," he replies. "Major, let me introduce you to Rrsh'Dhana, an ex Fang-pilot that I picked up a while back." Then he turns to her. "Rrsh'Dhana, let me introduce you to Major Thomas Hinchley, the local busybody and nuisance, most well known for his unwillingness to get up early in the morning."
"Hmph. Well, we expected you back a few weeks ago," the major responds. "Did something happen?"
"No, not really," Anthony replies. "I just needed a rest. Besides, I didn't think that it mattered, after I saw that the missiles worked."
"Yes, they worked all right," the major says. "So, what are your plans for today?"
"Mostly restocking. I'm running low on a lot of stuff. Other than that, nothing much."
"In that case, you won't mind me borrowing your passenger for the day, then?"
"That depends on your plans for her," he replies.
"I need to ask a few questions, that's all."
"In that case it's probably OK," Anthony says. "You go with the major and have fun then," he says as he gently urges her forward. "I'll come up to his office when I have finished my errands." As he climbs back down the ladder, she jumps down to land gracefully on the pier and follows the major to a rather battered car.
"So, the Iceman seems to be melting, eh?" the major says as they drive up the hill towards a cluster of drab looking buildings.
"Iceman?" she asks, perplexed.
"Yes, that's what we call him around here," the major explains. "He sometimes jokes but I think that it's just because it was expected of him, because I have never actually seen him smile before. And he absolutely never let anyone get close enough to become a friend."
"Oh? Have you known him for long?"
"I met him about a year into the war. That was when he got the nickname, actually," the major explains.
"He was arriving on the White Lady just as a group of Fang fighters decided to do a little strafing run here, but instead of jumping into the water like everyone else, he dropped the sails, picked up that rifle of his and started shooting as if it was just target practice." The major shudders at the memory. "He shot down one of the fighters and probably damaged another before our own fighters came and chased the rest away."
"I wonder what made him like that?" she asks as they pull up in front of a building.
"I really don't know," the major replies, "and I'm not certain that I want to know, either." Then they exit the car and enter the building, he holding the door open for her.
"Is there anything that you can't eat?" he asks.
"I don't know," she replies. "I can eat just about the same as the wolves, as you call them... Why do you ask?"
"We'll probably be spending the day talking, and while I don't know about you, I can't go all day without something to eat," he replies. Then he picks up the phone and speaks into it; "Henri, could you please bring us a pot of tea, two cups and some cakes to my office, then hold all but emergency calls for the day." Then he waves his hand at a group of deep chairs around a table. "Take a seat."
She sits down in one of the chairs and curls her tail around her legs. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I assume that Anthony questioned you about the wolves while on the boat?" She nods so he continues, "He'll probably drop off the tapes at the office later. But what I really need to know about is who is out there; customs, rules and all that. We have some information that we gleaned from a wolf ship, but we don't trust any of that. We can't afford to make any mistakes right now."
The door to the major's office building opens and Anthony enters. "Good afternoon Henri. Are they still busy talking in there?" he asks the sergeant at the desk.
"Yes," the sergeant replies, "they've been talking all day. They barely had time to take a break for lunch."
"I wonder what they're talking about..."
"Since you'll find out anyway, it probably won't hurt to tell you," the sergeant says. "They're talking about which other species are out there and interstellar politics. You know, the boring stuff about how not to start wars."
"I see. Has there been any talk about what we are to do with her?"
"Not really," The sergeant replies. "She's too useful to be sent off to a prison camp, but on the other hand we can't just let her run around unsupervised, either."
"Well, I have room on the boat, and won't be going anywhere for a few days. I can keep an eye on her for that long at least."
"Oh? Any particular reason that you want her to stay with you?" The sergeant grins as he asks.
"Only that she's a better cook than I," Anthony replies. "It's probably time to interrupt them now, especially if they've been in there the whole day. You know Edith will be cross if the major wears himself out." Then he walks over to the inner doors and disappears inside, where he finds the major and Rrsh'Dhana sitting at the table, discussing some point on a drawing. "Good afternoon," he says as he approaches them.
"Oh, it's you," the major says, grumbling, "I thought I told Henri not to let anyone in."
"You probably did, but he knows better than to argue with me," Anthony replies. "So, how's it going? Learning anything useful?"
"Some," the major replies, indicating a stack of papers, all filled with sketches and handwriting.
"Looks like enough for one day if you ask me."
"I don't," the major counters. "So, why are you here now?"
"I'm here to tell you that it's time you called it a day," Anthony replies, "and if you don't, I'll tell Edith. You don't want that to happen, do you?"
The major shakes his head in resignation. "No, I don't want that." Then he gathers up the stack of papers and stands. "I'll drop these off with Henri so that he can fax them to HQ, then I'll go quietly."
"Don't let his easygoing manners fool you," Anthony whispers to Rrsh'Dhana as they leave. "He's one of the best intelligence officers around. He only has one flaw, in that he sometimes tends to forget that he's not young anymore. He's really lucky that he has someone like Edith because she won't let him overtax himself. He may grumble about it, but he knows she is right."
"If you say so," the alien whispers back as he closes the door behind them and they walk down the stairs. "
"I do say so, yes." Then they walk down the hillside until they reach the main street. "Feeling hungry?" he suddenly asks.
"I wouldn't mind something to eat," she replies.
"Good. In here," he directs, opening and holding the door to a café for her to enter. Inside, there is a counter along one wall, a few booths along another, and a few pool tables on the floor. Anthony directs Rrsh'Dhana towards one of the booths where she sits down, her tail slipping into the gap between the seat and the backrest. He then goes up to the counter to order, returning with a tray filled with plates and glasses a few minutes later.
"Who let that furball in here?"
When Anthony turns his head he sees a large man with short hair, brand-new uniform and polished boots. "I let that furball in," he replies. "Now, go away and let us enjoy the food, thank you."
"No," the man states, clearly spoiling for a fight, "this table is reserved for heroes, not civilians with pets!"
"Yes, I know this table is reserved," Anthony replies in a neutral voice, "but you're wrong about it being for heroes; it's for hunters. Besides, since you don't look like either a hero or a hunter, I guess that you won't need it." He then turns back to his meal and continue eating.
"Why, you..." the soldier exclaims as he advances towards the table, only to be grabbed from behind by two other soldiers. "Let me go, I'll crush that scrawny wiseass!" he yells as they drag him back.
"Are you nuts, Lou?" one of the soldiers holding him back ask. "That's the Iceman."
"Yeah," the other says. "You should have seen the two wolves that he brought in a while ago. I could swear that they had bite marks. The rumour is that he's certifiable." The voices die down as they drag their comrade away.
"Bite marks?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Oh, that," he replies. "The wolves had a run-in with a pack of wild dogs. I just never bothered to correct the rumour. And a good thing that was, too."
"Why do you say that?"
"I would never be able to take on that big soldier," he explains, grinning mischievously. The rest of the meal is eaten undisturbed.
"Where's the ship?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as they nears the docks, and the ship is nowhere to be seen.
"This way," he replies, leading her around one of the larger warehouses. There they find the ship sitting high and dry on rails. "I had her pulled up so that I could go over the hull," he explains, pointing to all the barnacles on the lower part of the hull and keel.
"Her?" she asks, perplexed.
"Yes. Sailors throughout the times have almost always considered a ship female. She's gracious in the water, and if you treat her right will take good care of you. Ignore her and what she says at your peril."
"But a ship can't speak."
"Oh, but it can. Listen carefully to the creaking sound in the hull, the flutter in the sails, the sound the water makes as it rushes past. All these sounds tell you something."
"You know," she says, "I think the man at the cafe was right. You are certifiable." Then she climbs the ladder up to the deck of the ship.
A week later.
"Are you going to spend the day with the major again?" Anthony asks as they are eating breakfast.
"No. He said that I could take the day off," she replies, "but I have a suspicion that you already knew."
"Guilty as charged. I talked with the major yesterday and he agreed to let you have some free time."
"I take it you have plans for today?"
"Yes," he replies. "I'm tired of seeing you in that coverall. It's time to do something about it."
"Really?" she asks as she grabs for one of the straps holding the coverall up.
"Not that way," he replies, grinning. Then he gets up and heads for the hatch. "Come on. It's time to go shopping."
"Well, if it isn't the iceprick and the furball." A voice from behind taunts them as they are about to enter a shop.
"You know Rrsh'Dhana, I never asked you how good you were at unarmed combat," Anthony whispers as they turn around to face the same soldier as they encountered a week earlier.
"I think I can hold my own," she replies in a hushed voice. "Why?"
"Nothing. It's just that he insulted you, and I'm not enough of a gentleman to defend your honour."
"You want me to fight him?" Rrsh'Dhana asks, incredulously.
"Yes," Anthony replies. "He's a bully, pure and simple. I've been hearing things about him this week. He is a coward and the rest of his platoon blames him for the loss of one of their comrades a while ago. Just take him down any way you like as long as you leave no lasting damage." Then he adds almost as an afterthought; "A broken bone or three don't count as permanent."
"If you say so," she mumbles. Then she walks up towards the soldier. The fight, if it can be called that, ends almost before it starts as the soldier throws a punch that she side steps with ease. Then she spins on one leg, the other sweeping out and connecting behind a knee, pulling the opponent's leg out from under him. As he struggles not to fall her leg flashes out again, this time connecting with his ribs with a loud cracking sound, throwing him back to land in a crumpled heap.
"Ouch! That must have hurt," Anthony comments as Rrsh'Dhana rejoins him.
"Not yet," she replies, "but I'll feel stiff tomorrow since I didn't have a chance to prepare myself."
"I wasn't talking about you," he says, "but if it helps I could give you a rub or something later."
"That sounds nice. But won't this fight lead to problems later?"
"I don't think so. Not only are you still listed as a prisoner of war, and prisoners are protected by law against assaults, but you're also our only reliable source of information about who and what is out there. He also threw the first punch, even if he missed. He'll be very lucky if the military doesn't at least throw him out with a dishonourable discharge," he explains. "But now it's time to spend some money." Then he leads her to the store and opens the door to let her enter first.
"Good morning. How can I help...? Oh..." The woman minding the store just stares, dumbstruck.
"We were thinking of buying a few sets of clothes," Anthony says. "That is, if you can make the necessary alterations."
"Of course I can make alterations," the woman states, her professional pride winning over her surprise. "What were you thinking about buying?"
"A couple of casual outfits for day-to-day use, an outfit for parties and such, and anything else that you can think of as long as it isn't too expensive," he replies, then hands her an official looking paper. "Here's a military requisition form. Try to spend as near to the budgeted amount as possible."
The woman takes one look at the form, then grins. "We don't see too many of these forms here, but it looks real, so I'll try my best." She grabs Rrsh'Dhana by the hand and drags her towards the inner recesses of the shop, all the while mumbling, "Who ever got you that coverall? It looks like a sack, and the colour! All wrong for you! What size do you use in underwear? Where, oh where did I leave the scissors?"
Anthony, satisfied that Rrsh'Dhana is in competent hands, sits down on a chair by the exit, picks up a magazine and starts browsing.
It is a much-changed Rrsh'Dhana who returns to the front of the store almost two hours later with the storekeeper in tow. "How do I look?" she asks, turning around so that he can get a good look at her from every side, the skirt of the white summer dress billowing out around her and her tail sticking out through a hole among the pleats.
"You look great!" he exclaims. Then he points at the bag she is carrying. "Is that all?"
"Oh no, there's more," the shopkeeper replies. "The rest still needs to be altered. I should be finished with them before closing time, 6pm today."
"Great. We'll be back for them then," Anthony says as he and Rrsh'Dhana exits the shop.
"Where are we going now?"
"I thought that we might go and get something to eat at the café," Anthony replies.
"Excuse me mister, ma'am?" A young soldier is standing next to the booth, obviously nervous.
"Yes, what is it?" Anthony asks.
"Is it true what the rumour says, that you sent Lou to the hospital, mister?" he asks Anthony.
"No," he replies. "Rrsh'Dhana here did it."
"Really? Great!" the soldier exclaims. "In that case, my buddies and I would like to buy you the next drink." Then he waves to a group of soldiers standing in the other end of the room.
A month later.
The sounds wake Anthony and he spends a few seconds listening before he shakes Rrsh'Dhana awake.
"What is it?" she mumbles, still sleepy.
"There's someone up on deck," he replies as he gets out of bed and pull on a pair of jeans and a sweater. "Get dressed and come with me." As he enters the aft cabin, he can hear that whoever is up on deck has also moved aft and is now knocking on the hatch. "Who is it?" he shouts up the hatch.
"It's me, Henri"
Anthony unlocks the hatch to let him in, grumbling, "What is so blasted important that it can't wait 'till morning?"
"We need Rrsh'Dhana now. Where is she?" Henri asks, then, "Ah, there she is," as she enters the aft cabin.
"What's going on?" she asks.
"There is an unknown spacecraft in orbit," Henri explains.
"Above us?" Anthony asks.
"No. It's in stationary orbit above what's left of New York, but the people at the American HQ are afraid of goofing it up, and passed the task of contacting it to us because of Rrsh'Dhana."
"Where's the major?" Anthony asks.
"He's over at the bunker, and that's where you two should go, too," Henri replies. "Now come with me. I brought transportation." Then he hurries up the ladder. They follow him up on deck, Rrsh'Dhana first and Anthony last. On the pier they find Henri already seated in a big, blue van. They quickly get into the back seat and Henri starts the engine and gets the van moving.
"Where is the bunker?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as they head out of the small town.
"Sorry, but that's classified," Henri replies, then he throws a black cloth back to her. "I'm sorry, but I have to ask you to put this on."
A few minutes later they pull off the main road and onto a narrow side road that leads them to a hole in the face of the mountain. Henri stops the van, rolls down the window and hands some papers to a guard that suddenly appears. The guard takes a quick look at the papers, then peeks into the van before he hands the papers back and waves them on.
"You can take off the blindfold now," Anthony whispers to Rrsh'Dhana as the van rolls to a stop in a small parking lot inside the mountain.
Henri shows his papers to a guard and they continue past heavy doors and into a corridor. As soon as they are inside, the guard follows behind them and the doors close with a dull boom.
"Welcome to the bunker," Henri says as they walk down the corridor.
"What is this place?" Rrsh'Dhana whispers to Anthony.
"It's an old NATO command center," he replies in a hushed voice. "It was built to withstand a near-hit from a nuclear device, so should be able to withstand some conventional bombardment. We didn't tell you about this because you didn't need to know about it. This place is provisioned for several months, has its own power source and even air-filtration. The tunnel back out is sealed and will continue to be so until we know who is up there and their intentions. The same goes for every other similar complex around the world. Please do not speak about this place or what you see in here to anyone without express permission from me or the major."
"Yeah, that sums it up quite well. Luckily, the wolves didn't know about them when they started their bombardment."
Then they pass another set of doors, a new corridor and yet another set of doors before they finally enter a large room. Rrsh'Dhana can only stare at all the screens, consoles and maps on the walls. On one wall there is a map of the Earth, with sections in various colours; red, yellow, blue and green. A voice speaks up; "France reporting DEFCON 3," and a section of Europe changes from yellow to green.
"That means France has its personnel in the bunkers and that its missiles are ready for launch if necessary," Anthony whispers to Rrsh'Dhana.
"Ah, there you are." The major, together with another officer, appears out of a doorway. "Rrsh'Dhana, this is colonel Hawkins," he says, indicating the other officer who just nods. "Come with us; we're ready to begin as soon as we have a link to Edinburgh."
Then, as on cue a voice issues from a speaker; "Relay to Edinburgh, and from there to NATO radio established."
"We'll be communicating through a transmitter somewhere on the coast of Scotland," the major explains. "A simple safety precaution. It's far from any population, and the terrain is quite inhospitable if anyone should attempt a landing." They all enter a room that is equipped like a small sound studio. They sit down at a small table. "You can put on one of those headsets," the major tells Rrsh'Dhana as he grabs a set for himself. "There are two buttons on the cord; the green will let you transmit, and the red one is an override that stops everyone from transmitting. Only use that one if you really have to. If someone else is transmitting, the green button will be dim and will not work. But for now, just stay silent."
"I understand," Rrsh'Dhana says while fumbling with a headset obviously never meant to fit someone like her. "But why isn't Anthony using one?"
"I don't plan to do any talking," Anthony replies.
The major grabs a microphone in the middle of the table; "We're ready to begin now," he states loudly. A technician on the other side of a window can be seen pushing a few switches and a red lamp lights. Then he turns towards the window and give a thumbs-up signal.
"Record this message and broadcast it on the selected channels," the major says into the table microphone, then grabs the green button on the headset and speaks calmly; "This is Major Thomas Hinckley of the United Earth Armed Forces calling unidentified ship in Earth orbit. Please identify yourself and state your intentions." Then he releases the button. Grabbing the table microphone he speaks again; "Let that message repeat for thirty minutes or until we get a reply."
"What if we don't get a reply?" a worried Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"We are transmitting on every channel that the wolves ever used and a few that they never used but their equipment was capable of using," the colonel replies. "You did mention that it was standard to have at least one crewmember learn the dominant language of the destination, right?" Rrsh'Dhana nods, and the colonel continues, "There is the possibility that they do not have anyone who speaks English up there, so if they don't answer in thirty minutes we'll broadcast a similar message in German, French and Italian. If that message doesn't result in a response, then it's your turn to broadcast. If that doesn't result in any answer, then I'm afraid that we may have to consider the ship to be hostile and take action."
"You mean, shoot at it?"
"Possibly," the colonel replies, "that ship is currently over what's left of New York. We lost more than three million lives in that city alone. That is why I am here, to make the decision whether or not to attempt shooting it down."
"I just wish we had any sort of visual of the ship," the major says as he pours himself some coffee. "Then we might have some idea of who we're dealing with."
"We have trouble focusing ground based telescopes on the ship, and we lost just about every satellite during the initial assault," Anthony whispers to Rrsh'Dhana. "That was how we managed to stop the bombardment. There were a few satellites in a polar orbit that we managed to shift into one that intersected the battleships. We only destroyed one and damaged two others, but that was enough to force them to withdraw to a safer position."
They settle down to wait. Five minutes pass, ten minutes, fifteen minutes and still nothing. Then there is activity in the control booth and the technician speaks into a microphone, "We are getting a carrier signal. Shall we patch it through?"
"Yes, but run it through the limiters first," the colonel replies. "The filters remove anything above fifteen thousand and below twenty-five Hertz. They also block sudden volume changes. Just in case they try something funny," he explains to Rrsh'Dhana.
A hum fills the room, then a few seconds later, a voice erupts from the speaker, in accented but still understandable English, "I am Rrsh'Ghanar, Clan chieftain of the Rrn'Sshah. I have come to retrieve my daughter, Rrsh'Dhana, whether she be alive or dead."
The colonel starts shuffling and digging through a large stack of papers and the major looks thoughtful. Anthony looks at Rrsh'Dhana who looks resigned.
"Is it really him?" the major asks.
"Yes," she replies, "That sounds just like him."
"Any advice?" The question comes from the colonel, and is directed to Rrsh'Dhana.
"Let him land, but first challenge his right to make demands. He won't respect anyone who backs down."
"I can do that," the major says, a determined look on his face. Then he grabs the transmitter button on his headset and states, "Let me get this straight. You want us to hand over someone who, if she is alive, would be a prisoner of war, and do that while we still have not received a surrender from the opposition? No, I don't think so."
"I demand that you return her!"
"You are not in any position to make demands," the major explains, his voice calm but firm. "We shot down a fleet of warships. I doubt that a single ship would be much of a problem."
"Can you at least tell me whether or not she is alive?" The voice that now issues from the speaker is more subdued.
The major looks at Rrsh'Dhana who nods. "Yes. We have her in protective custody. I assume that you want to meet her?"
"Very well," the major says. "Tell me, do you have a shuttlecraft, or is your ship capable of atmospheric reentry? And if so, are either capable of a vertical take off or landing?"
"No, this ship is not equipped with a shuttlecraft, but it is capable of reentry and vertical takeoffs and landings."
"That will do since we are a little bit short on shuttles these days," the major says. "I will now give you a set of vectors for an atmospheric reentry and landing. Please follow them precisely. Deviations at any point will be considered an act of aggression and treated accordingly. The same goes for unannounced reconfigurations of the ship, such as opening hatches or bays. You will be contacted again when your ship is on the last vector on the list." Then he continues by reading out a list of vectors and speeds from a sheet that the colonel picked out of the stack on the table.
"We should have approximately three hours before he lands at the nearest airfield," the colonel says. "That will give everyone time to freshen up."
Definitely NOT the end...