NIMR Reports is a Fan Fiction Magazine on the World Wide Web for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison


 

A Man's Best Friend

 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Episode 116

 

by Debbie Post

Copyright November 17, 1997

Third Revised Shooting Final

 

Introduction from the author: In the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode, "Journey with Fear," two aliens from the double-planet Centaur "beam" Lieutenant Commander Morton and Captain Crane to the Centaurian scouting outpost on the planet Venus. After preliminary interrogation of their prisoners, the Centaurs plan to return to their home planet with the Earthmen. Even though this episode has many illogical components, including the Centaurs acting foolishly, it has possibilities. "Beaming" is well-accepted in the Star Trek universe, for example. If the Centaurs had instead been portrayed as intelligent researchers tasked with investigating the psychology, mentality, technology, and disposition of up and coming new races throughout the galaxy, then the Centaurs were probably quite successful in taking Morton and Crane back to Centaur. If so, then the second space capsule would have been tracked by Seaman Kowalski's laser tracking station as the capsule headed out of this solar system. As our story opens, no word has been heard from Morton or Crane for three anxious months . . .

 

 

Nelson once again stood lonely vigil in the SpaceComCenter, viewing the silent laser tracking station with undisguised despair. Always volatile, the weary Admiral had become distinctly ill-humored during these past weeks. Where the devil was Lee now? What heinous indignities might the Centaurs be subjecting him to? Was Chip still alive? These unanswerable questions tortured Nelson. The unbridgeable gulf of interstellar space separated the scientist from any possible answers. Crane and Morton were beyond Nelson's reach, beyond any help based on Earth, and nearly beyond all hope. It was now three months to the day since the light beam from Venus had snatched the two young officers into the unknown.

The only thread of connection between Nelson and his officers was the laser tracker installed on the second space capsule. Three months before, that thread had stretched into the endless night of deep space before fading from the tracking station monitor as the distance grew unthinkably immense. Nelson now feared the thread was irrevocably broken. Yet, if Crane should return, the tracking station might -- just might -- herald his return. So, Nelson haunted the SpaceComCenter, tonight as on many nights, and the long hours dragged by.

Towards morning, Nelson stirred and sighed heavily. At last, he admitted to himself that he had been heedlessly neglecting Institute business. A hundred tasks demanded his attention. On his desk lay the order to declare Morton and Crane officially missing and presumed dead. Once signed, Nelson would have to admit to himself that Crane and Morton were gone. Nelson slumped with fatigue. With heavy heart, he turned to go perform his last duty towards the young men he had come to love as sons.

"Admiral!" called Sparks over the intercom. "Call for you, Admiral!"

Nelson sighed and picked up the nearest handmike. "This is Nelson, Sparks. Go ahead."

"Sir, I have General Watson of Space Central for you, sir."

"Put him on, Sparks."

A rough voice filtered over the intercom speakers. "Nelson, we've got trouble: incoming." The last word was pronounced like a decree of doom.

"Incoming? What in Heaven's name do you mean, General?" 

"Long-range radar on our Ganymede monitoring stations have picked up an incoming spacecraft. It's approaching from outside our solar system."  

Earth's successful space program had successfully deployed remotely-controlled space vehicles to every planet and major moon in the solar system. A joint venture by European and American agencies, a variety of satellites and ground stations now fed Earth scientists a constant stream of data. A parallel system of stations of a quite different nature also provided data -- to the American and British defense ministries. For ever present in the military consciousness was a very real threat: invasion.

Nelson snapped to attention. "What is the spacecraft's position, General?"

"Just passing through the orbit of Jupiter, and on an apparent course for Earth. The only thing is..." Unaccountably, the brusque voice faltered.

"Yes, General?" demanded Nelson, intolerant of the General's hesitation.

"Well, it's acting damned peculiar, Nelson."

"What do you mean, 'peculiar'?"

"Keeps changing course erratically. That's what drew our attention to it in the first place. It's not keeping to an efficient parabolic trajectory. It's not even using planetary gravitational fields to provide direction correction or velocity boosts. The craft just goes in straight lines -- jigging and jagging through the solar system like . . . well, like a ruddy ball in a ruddy pinball machine. We could've sworn it almost hit Europa by accident, but that just doesn't seem possible." 

Nelson pondered a moment, his heart beating faster. Could it be? "Almost sounds like the pilots don't know what they're doing, eh, General?" A small smile played around Nelson's lips.

The General disregarded Nelson's comment. "You and your crew have more experience than anyone with extraterrestrials, Nelson. We want you to stand by for possible first contact."

"Very well, General. I think we'll return to Santa Barbara, though."

"Why, Nelson? The incoming could make landfall anywhere in the world -- although to date, it does seem that aliens have a preference for mid-ocean rendezvous with solitary ships," admitted the General.

"Uh . . . call it a hunch, General . . . an educated guess." 

"Well -- do what you think best, Nelson. Meanwhile, I'll clear it with Washington. Watson out."

Nelson clicked the mike to switch channels. "Control Room, this is Nelson."

"Yes, Admiral. O'Brien here, sir."

"Set a course for Santa Barbara -- flank speed." 

Once laying at dockside, Seaview began to directly monitor the alien craft. Seaview's considerable sensing equipment was augmented by onshore assets, including two new prototype long-range scanners. Nelson was able to clearly observe the remarkable behavior of the alien ship on monitors covering the wall of Seaview's SpaceComCenter. The craft was only half a million miles from Earth, and rapidly closing on the Moon.

Flying at an incredible velocity, the craft hurtled directly towards the Moon. What in the world was wrong? Nelson could not take his eyes from the imminent catastrophe. At the last moment, the craft veered sickeningly and narrowly missed the lunar landscape. Nelson winced.

Swinging wide, the ship teetered, paused, and then dived towards Earth. Planetary defense weapons were tracking its every move -- with some difficulty due to the craft's erratic behavior. Finally, the craft plunged obliquely towards Earth, made contact with the atmosphere, and careened back out into space. Coming to a halt at last, the ship sat motionless -- as if thinking things over.

Nelson chuckled merrily, earning startled and concerned looks from Patterson, Kowalski and Chief Sharkey. 

Sharkey ventured to speak. "I don't get it, Admiral. Why'd they veer off? Seems like up until now, they've been headed right for us like a bat out of hell, y'know?"

"Atmospheric density differentials, Chief," replied Nelson calmly.

"Huh?" puzzled the Chief.

"They bounced off the atmosphere like a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. They came in too fast and shallow. Air is pretty dense stuff at that speed." Unaccountably, Nelson smiled. "Must have shaken up the pilots quite a bit."

Sharkey's confusion grew deeper. "But surely they must know all about that . . . that differential stuff, Admiral? These outer space jokers must be landing all sorts of places all the time."

"Perhaps not, Chief. There's a first time for everything."

"If you say so, sir," conceded Sharkey reluctantly. He eyed his Admiral with deep misgivings.

Nelson waited patiently as the alien ship huddled at a point 100,000 miles out. At that distance, long-range scanners could only resolve the ship as a roughly oblong spheroid, some 100 meters in diameter. It would have fit nicely into a football field.

Suddenly, the craft lunged once more towards Earth, jinking erratically in straight line movements, as if following a star child's connect-a-dot picture. The craft once again reached the fringes of Earth's atmosphere and hesitated, as if reluctant to get slammed aside again. This time, however, the relative velocity of the ship as compared to Earth was non-existent. The craft wavered forward and eased gingerly downwards. Nelson was reminded of a hesitant swimmer entering a cold lake. The craft quickly picked up speed, shooting across the sky first one way, then the other. It was headed approximately in the direction of the southern California coast. Planetary defense systems were completely baffled as the ship darted down the sky in totally unpredictable maneuvers. Illogically, the ship paused occasionally, almost as if unsure of its direction. 

Chief Sharkey's craggy face furrowed in puzzlement. Looks like when my ex-wife is searching for an address -- stopping and looking and wobbling all over the road -- what're these jokers up to? Sharkey looked worriedly over at the Admiral. And how come the Admiral's taking this so well -- looks to me like we've got a regular space rumble setting up and he's looking pleased. Oh, well -- leave it to the Admiral to have it all figured out -- sure teach those bozos back in Washington a thing or two. A sudden thought froze Sharkey's blood. Geez, I hope this ship ain't got more of those frogs from Centaur like what got the Skipper and poor Mr. Morton.

"Admiral, call from Washington for you, sir. General Watson." Sparks voice was tense over the intercom speaker.

"Nelson here, General." Nelson's jovial tone was lost on General Watson.

"Nelson, the bogey is definitely headed towards your position. The 101st Airborne is standing by to assist. What are your plans?" The General sounded beside himself with alarm. 

"Very well, General. Just tell the 101st to stand by. I'd just like to wait and hear what these particular aliens have to say. "

"Hear what they have to say?! Nelson, no one has succeeded in contacting the bogey. It seems inconceivable that they wouldn't understand simple radio frequency signals. We must assume hostile intent."

"Perhaps they just have their hands full landing a strange craft on a strange planet, General," offered Nelson calmly. "I would advise you to hold your fire until we make contact."

"Hold our fire?" exclaimed the General. "It's not a question of holding our fire! None of our tracking systems can get a lock on that ship. I've never seen such evasive maneuvers."

"Well, let's just keep relaxed, General. Let them land here at the Institute and then let's see what they have to say. It's just the one ship, after all."

"The President says it's your call, Nelson, but that is an extremely risky procedure. How can you know their intent is benign?"

"Well, General, they've rather called attention to themselves, now haven't they? A truly hostile ship would be more . . . circumspect, wouldn't you agree?" asked Nelson good-naturedly. "As it is, every military and scientific space monitoring station on Earth has them under surveillance. Surely they realize that."

A pause ensued at the Washington end of the line. "Very well, Nelson. But they're acting peculiar -- damned peculiar. I can't make sense of it at all. The eggheads and flyboys higher up are stumped, too."

"Leave it to us, General."

"Admiral!" interrupted Kowalski urgently. "The UFO is closing fast, sir! Within one hundred miles now." Kowalski stared intently at the console of long-range scanner Beta.

Nelson nodded. "General, we'll keep you posted. Nelson over and out." Nelson turned to Chief Sharkey. "Chief, prepare an honor guard from Seaview's crew to welcome our guests. Oh, and you'd better alert base security. All Institute staff is to remain indoors. Mobilize all base security personnel and rendezvous at the south gate. "

"The south gate, sir?"

"Yes, Chief -- that bluff on the south side of the Institute grounds strikes me as a perfect landing site: flat meadow, isolated from the general public, big as a football stadium, right next to the ocean, no trees or power lines. I'd land a ship like that there. Maybe someone else would, too," smiled Nelson.

"How're these outer space guys gonna know we've got a good landing site here, sir?" Sharkey was baffled.

"Just get a move on, Chief! Meet with Security Chief Chen and make sure that bluff is kept clear of all personnel!" Nelson's voice brooked no further back chat.

"Aye-aye, sir!" Sharkey scrambled out of the room.

Seaman Kowalski had continued monitoring the alien craft, using all his training and experience to keep the unpredictable ship under surveillance. He called to Nelson. "Sir, I think she's going to hit a mile out!"

"Patterson, get me a visual," snapped Nelson.

With deft adjustments, Patterson brought to life the large screen covering one half of the SpaceComCenter wall. A placid ocean filled the screen with waves gently sparkling in the warm California sunshine. Patterson directed the picture upwards until sky showed in the upper third of the screen.

Abruptly, the alien craft jerked into the picture, hovered for an instant, then vectored downward. It hit the water -- hard. Geysers of foam filled the air, then subsided. Ripples of froth spread outwards in expanding circles. The craft was gone.

"Well, that's one way to do it," muttered Nelson to himself.

"Sir?" queried Patterson.

"Water landing. Sound procedure for uncontrolled descents. Remember the old Apollo program?"

"Er, yes, sir. The capsules splashed down, sir."

"That's right. Well," continued Nelson briskly, "I guess I'd better get ready to greet our guests. Carry on, Patterson. Keep monitoring the shoreline near the bluff."

"Aye, sir," murmured Patterson. What was the Old Man up to?

Out at the south gate of the Institute, Lieutenant O'Brien, Chief Petty Officer Sharkey, Sonar Technician Riley, Torpedoman's Mate Rodriguez and four other members of Seaview's crew made ready to formally welcome the UFO should it appear as the Admiral anticipated. As an honor guard, they were small but impressive in their dress uniforms. They stood in uncomfortable silence on the perimeter road leading south across the wind-swept meadow. Nelson, faced with a virtual mutiny, had agreed to wait undercover in the south gate security post. His crew refused point-blank to allow him to expose himself to the unknown dangers of a UFO.

Nelson listened idly to the radio chatter as he gazed towards the sea. All security posts ringing NIMR were manned with full complement. Guards with high-powered rifles were concealed here and there along the south fence wherever sufficient cover existed. Quickly and efficiently, NIMR prepared to defend itself.

Seaman Riley stood ready beside Chief Sharkey and slightly to the rear of Lt. O'Brien. Riley's eyes were lit with excitement. What a crazy scene!

All was profoundly quiet. The silence was broken only by murmuring voices on walkie talkies, the soft breeze rustling the golden meadow grasses, and the swish of waves on the beach one hundred feet below. All around was a peaceful spring day in southern California.

Riley sighed. Nothing's gonna happen -- I think the Old Man is dreamin'.

Without warning, the ocean erupted in a cacophony of spray. The alien craft lunged upwards from the sea, unbelievably immense at close quarters. It hung above the meadow, poised and thrumming with power. Water streamed off the hull, churning the meadow into mud. The ship hung solidly in space, like a skyscraper planted in the ether.

Riley couldn't move. His chest felt tight and he stared upwards with wide, blue eyes. Is this where we all check out?

All at once, the ship clashed and outward from its dark hull sprang a dozen tube-shaped projections. One pointed precisely at Riley's chest. Oh, man, what gives? Laser cannon? Photon torpedoes? Phasers? Riley's imagination was influenced by the reading of far too many science fiction thrillers, not to mention the constant watching of television shows.

The projections ranged along the north side and top of the craft, telescoping outwards to a length of some twenty meters. The ship itself was reminiscent of a football. A hundred-meter long football conceived by a dark and twisted Gamester. The black-metal object hung obscenely in midair, tilted crazily at a thirty degree angle. Riley made a grab for his side arm.

"Hold your fire!!" bellowed Nelson over the PA system. "Stand fast!"

Only Admiral Harriman Nelson could have achieved this miracle: the men stood fast. They were nailed in place by the supreme commanding force of Nelson's personality as embodied in his spoken order. Despite the looming terror above, not a shot was fired. Men held a collective breath. What next?

After several minutes, the ship began a series of maneuvers, pointless as far as Riley could tell. The geometric center of the ship remained in precisely the same spot, as if clamped to the air. The ship revolved around this fixed point in space. First, it turned on its long axis, moving in jerks. It swung its weapons systems, if they were weapons systems, around and down towards the south and Los Angeles, then back again until the mysterious projections all faced generally downwards. Then the ship jerked around its short axis until all weapons systems were pointed straight down. The ship, now forty meters above the meadow, lay horizontally. The longest laser cannon was twenty meters above the mud.

Laser cannon? mused Riley, bothered by a thought. With the suddenness of an optical illusion revealed, Riley realized the projections were just landing gear. Man! Why was the pilot goofing around like this? Why not just come in straight, instead of all akimbo and scarin' a poor sailor that way? Jerks!

The thrumming of the ship grew momentarily louder. Landing was imminent. With a sharp acceleration, the ship popped straight up forty meters. A noise which sounded distinctly like "oops" drifted downwards. Riley blinked. A pause, then the ship ceased to hang in the air.

"Look out!" yelled Riley and ducked.

WHAAAAAMMMMM!!!!

Knocked from his feet by the thunderous impact, Riley covered his head with both arms. Peering under his left elbow, Riley saw that the belly of the ship was within scant meters of the ground. As he watched, the telescoping, shock-absorbing landing struts began to re-extend to their full length. After twenty seconds, all the landing struts had regained their full extension. One by one, they snapped into place with satisfying snicks. The ship now stood as firmly on the ground as it had minutes before hung in the air. The powerful thrumming faded into the soft sea breeze. The sound of dripping water filled Riley's ears.

All around the south gate, men slowly stood up or came out of hiding. The alien craft loomed large and menacing over their heads. In the still air, the cry of gulls and hiss of ocean breakers was clearly audible. Water dripped off of the countless protuberances, bulges and tangles of piping covering the hull. The ship's very contours were deeply disturbing: no human being ever would, nor indeed could, form a craft like this.

Abruptly, the ship spoke.

"No, that's not it. Confound it, Chip, where's the outer hatchway?" The voice reverberated along the hull. Though distorted, it sounded distinctly irritated. "Where'd we come in, anyway?"

A second voice leapt outwards. "I think up near the top somewhere, Lee. Remember, we came in by the spaceport gangway?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, how about this?" asked the first voice.

A strident clunk sounded, and a landing ramp slid smoothly from the underside of the ship, coming to rest thirty meters in front of Riley.

"I think that did something, Lee," said the second voice.

High up on the craft, a figure darkened a porthole overlooking the ramp. Riley could just make out a silver spacesuit and . . . and blond hair?

"Lee! You're on the right panel -- we've got a ramp!"

"OK, then how about -- -yaaaahhhh!!"

Without warning, a horizontal hatch popped open above the head of the landing ramp. A tiny figure dressed in khaki tumbled head-over-heels down the ramp, ending in a cursing heap on the meadow. Rolling in anguish, the figure was soon liberally smeared with mud.

A well-known voice thundered through the air. "For crying out loud! Argghh! Miserable hunk of junk -- I've had it with this hardware store reject!"

The figure sat up slowly, resolving into a man. He had a ragged black beard and long, uncontrolled curly hair. He wore the tattered remains of what could once have been a naval uniform. The figure sat gracelessly in the mud, supported by both arms with long legs sprawled outwards. The man suddenly raised one arm high and waved enthusiastically.

"Ahoy there, Mr. O'Brien! Hey, Chief! Was that some landing or what? Oooooeeeee! What a ride!"

The man threw back his head and laughed.

"It's the Skipper!" yelled Chief Sharkey, galvanizing the stunned onlookers into action. The men swarmed forward with yells and shouts to greet their Captain.

Captain Lee Crane of the submarine SSRN Seaview shifted in the mud and called up the landing ramp, "Chip! Watch out for that first step! Better turn off the artificial gravity!"

"Aye-aye, sir," piped the reply over the spacecraft's sound system.

As his men raced towards him over the uneven, slippery ground of the meadow, Crane began to stand up. Halfway to his feet, he swayed like a tramp on a bender and fell to hands and knees. Repeating these futile maneuvers several times, Crane finally staggered to one of the many landing struts and clung to it with both hands, swaying slightly.

Chief Sharkey rushed up and breathlessly said, "Skipper! Man, oh, man, are you a sight for sore eyes." He put his hand gently on Crane's shoulder. "Are you OK, sir?"

"Sure, Chief," reassured Crane. "Only . . . the ground keeps acting silly -- keeps dancing around. We havin' an earthquake?"

"Uh, no, sir."

"Good. Then, I guess I just don't have my land legs yet." Crane scanned the milling throng of happy personnel. "Chief, we have work to do. Send a detail up to help Mr. Morton secure the Alison Marie."

"Aye-aye, sir!" Chief Sharkey turned and barked to one of the senior ratings, "You heard the Skipper! Rodriguez, form a detail and get up there and lend Mr. Morton a hand with this crate! On the double!" A group of purposeful sailors instantly formed out of the melee and scrambled up the ramp, disappearing into the bowels of the black ship.

In a quieter voice the Chief inquired of his CO, "Uh, Alison Marie, sir?"

"Yeah. This grand heap of plumbing." Crane gestured expansively upwards with his left arm while still gripping the landing strut with his right. Only quick action by Sharkey kept him from losing his feet again. Crane continued, "Mr. Morton and I christened her the Alison Marie." Crane's face fairly beamed with pride -- laced with a hint of sheepishness.

"I think the ladies will be honored, sir," reassured the Chief, referring to his commanding officers' current girlfriends.

Grinning with delight, Crane stood quietly for a minute, drinking in the familiar sights and sounds of his crew. Then his vision blurred and he swayed, using the Chief for support.

"Skipper!" Sharkey was anxious. "Maybe the Doc better take a look at you."

"Nonsense, Chief, I'm fine," dismissed Crane. "Tell me, how long . . . how long have we been gone?" Despite a considerable effort of will, Crane's voice sounded weak and tired.

"Three months, sir. It's May 5th."

"Cinco de Mayo, eh? Good day for a party! Well, that explains one thing."

"Sir?"

"I haven't had a decent meal since February. Have Cookie send up some sandwiches or something. We've got to get a move on here. Send over Chief of Security, get a perimeter set up -- and get me some communications!"

Sharkey settled his Captain down on the benchlike base of the landing strut, then hurried off to execute his orders, barking at ratings and security personnel alike.

With a clash of gears, an official jeep drove up, bearing an extremely pleased Admiral Nelson.

"Admiral!" greeted Crane. "Can I fly, or can I fly?"

"You call that flying, Lee?" grimaced Nelson theatrically. "That was as poor an excuse for a re-entry as I've seen in all my days. You, Captain, are a menace to navigation."

"Aw, I'm just too short, Admiral," kidded Crane.

"How's that, Lee?"

"Well, the fella I stole, er, borrowed this ship from was fifteen feet tall and had five tentacles. I'm telling you," continued Crane over Nelson's startled expression, "this plumber's nightmare is a real bear to pilot if you don't have enough appendages. I couldn't even see out the viewport half the time."

"Ah, I thought something might be hampering you."

"Good thing I was with Chip. Between us we could almost reach all of the controls most of the time."

"And how is Mr. Morton?"

"See for yourself, Admiral!" Crane pointed over the heads of the assembled, chattering sailors.

An unforgettable vision was in the making. A marvelous, shining figure was progressing royally down the ramp. Chip Morton, Executive Officer of the submarine SSRN Seaview, was resplendent in his impeccable silver spacesuit. To the everlasting awe of the ratings and junior officers, he looked as imperturbable as ever. They did not fail to notice his freshly shaved face, trim hair, and immaculate attire. Professional to the least detail, Chip descended the ramp in calm style. The vertigo afflicting his Captain dared not touch this man. The crew fell back in silent respect.

Nelson leaned close to Crane. "Quite an accomplishment, Lee."

"Yes, Admiral," murmured Crane. "Took us the whole trip home to spiff up the suit and figure out how to shave him, but look at the crew! I mean, Chip's reputation for order and general level-headedness was immense before, but he's a regular legend now!"

Nelson idly fingered a fresh rent in Crane's uniform. "And you provide the contrast, I presume."

"Ah, the crew expects me to come back scuffed up a bit . . . shhhhh! You'll let out all our secrets." Crane's golden eyes danced with amusement.

The next half hour was filled with the bustle of excited men, scurrying purposefully amidst a flurry of orders. A perimeter was established around the ship. Washington was appeased by a brief radiophone call by Nelson. A duty watch was formed and instructed on the vital hatch and ramp controls. "After all," argued Crane, "if this darned contraption retracts her ramp and closes her hatch, we may never figure out how to open her up again." And finally, hot food was brought and ravenously consumed by the half-starved Morton and Crane.

Finishing up his third sandwich, Crane sat back with a sigh. His experienced eye scanned the men, busily securing the ship and bringing order to the initial chaos. His eye skimmed across the Admiral's jeep and stopped.

"Riley!" called Crane. The junior rating ran eagerly up to his Skipper. "See if that jeep has any spare oil cans and bring them here."

"Sure thing, Skipper!" Riley leaped to obey and soon returned with two cans of motor oil and a screw driver.

Crane nodded and gestured for Riley to wait. Putting his fingers to his lips, Crane let out a shrill whistle. "Rex! Come here, boy! Here, Rex!"

All crewmen in hearing range paused at the unusual cry and looked over at their Captain. Some followed his eager gaze upwards to the head of the landing ramp. Nelson looked quizzically at Lee, then at Chip. Chip merely shrugged at Nelson and jerked a thumb upwards. Curious now, Nelson looked up the ramp.

After a minute and another call from Crane, a surprising figure appeared in the hatchway.

"What the --" began Nelson. The newcomer appeared to be a dog -- a large, shaggy English sheep dog. Nelson looked more closely. Yes, definitely a dog shape, except, sheepdogs weren't typically purple . . . and had finer fur . . . and had a more discernible head, and . . . well, this dog really wasn't very dog-like at all . . . or was it? What the devil was it?

"C'mon, Rex!" shouted Crane. "Attaboy, Rex!" Crane clapped his hands together and whistled.

Spotting his master, Rex bounded down the ramp, disregarding surprised men, weaving through stunned onlookers, and skittering to a halt in front of Crane. Rex wagged his entire body in joy. As big as a sheepdog, Rex yelped with pleasure.

Except, mused Nelson, Rex did not seem to have a mouth . . . or eyes . . . maybe somewhere under all that long purple fur . . . or was it fur? Looked more like yarn or straw or . . . ?

Crane thumped Rex on the side and scratched him with rough affection behind the 'ears'.

Did Rex have ears? considered Nelson judiciously. Crane was clearly scratching behind some protrusions which might have been ears if Rex had been a sheepdog . . . except Rex didn't seem to be a dog at all . . .

Crane feigned ignorance of Nelson's scrutiny. "Good dog, Rex! Good dog! I'll bet you're hungry, too, eh, fella?"

Rex let out a sharp bark of agreement.

"Well, what have we here, Lee?" queried Nelson, recovering from his surprise. Rex acted like a dog, sounded like a dog, gave out a subliminal sense of dogness, but was definitely not a dog.

"Just my dog, Rex," prevaricated Crane, speaking loudly enough so that all the crew could hear. Instead of meeting Nelson's eyes, Crane turned to take the motor oil from Riley and busied himself with punching holes in the top of the cans. Ignoring Riley's mystified stare, Crane poured the oil into his empty soup mug, and set it down on the ground in front of Rex. Typical canine slurps followed as Rex assimilated this unusual meal.

"Lee, what is this creature?" demanded Nelson in his uncompromising command tone.

"Well, sir," stalled Crane, "Rex is just my dog -- not an Earth dog, maybe," hurried Crane before Nelson could protest, "but my dog just the same." Crane met Nelson's eyes dead on and pitched his voice so that it would carry to the curious crew. "Rex saved my life. He helped me escape from the gulag on Centaur. Together, we located Mr. Morton and then made our way to the nearest spaceport, and well," Crane gestured upwards at the strange craft, "here we are!"

"I see." Nelson doubted Crane's escape was as easy as he made out. "Well, this . . . this Rex," Nelson said the word reluctantly, "Rex should be an interesting study."

At this, Crane leaped to his feet, features hard. "Sir! With all due respect, I cannot and will not allow any experimentation on Rex." Crane's voice shook with feeling. "He is not an Earth dog, true. But he saved my life and will be treated with respect. He is NOT a specimen to be poked and prodded and dissected --"

At this, Rex interjected a worried whine. Crane immediately dropped to one knee and scratched Rex comfortingly behind the 'ears'. "No, Rex," assured Crane, "I won't let them do any of those things to you. You're safe here. This is my home. You're free of those Centaur swine -- damn those space frogs, anyway." Looking up, Crane appealed to Nelson. "Rex was in the cell next to me in the . . ." Crane swallowed, ". . . the Centaur's interrogation facility. We got to talking, y'know? He showed me how to work the cell locking mechanism, and Chip and I, well we decided we had to take Rex with us. Rex had nowhere to go . . . no one to turn to." Crane stood up. His hazel eyes bored into Nelson's blue ones.

"Very well, Lee," conceded Nelson. "Rex is off limits to the research staff. But --"

"No 'buts', Admiral. The research staff will have no part of Rex. He is a political refugee and I claim protection for him under the provisions of the Geneva Convention." Crane stood unyielding and insistent. Rex trembled behind his legs, peering around Crane's knees first at Nelson, then up at Crane, then back at Nelson.

"OK, OK, Lee. Have it your own way. I'll help you with Washington . . ."

Crane and Rex relaxed together. "Thanks, Admiral," smiled Crane while Rex wriggled in canine pleasure.

"But Lee, why didn't you just take Rex home in the Alison Marie?"

"This hunk of junk doesn't have enough range, Admiral. Sure, she can really haul between stars, but between galaxies, no way. It would have taken three hundred years to get to Rex's home planet, and the stardrive would've run out of fuel long before we got there."

Crane put his hand commiseratingly on the subdued Rex's 'head', or where his head would have been if . . . Nelson gave up trying to figure out Rex's anatomy. 

"Poor Rex is as far from home now as he was on Centaur -- only their beaming device could have gotten Rex home -- and that was too heavily guarded. Rex is marooned here with us . . . away from family and friends . . . maybe for the rest of his life."

Crane dropped his head in sympathy with Rex's plight, and shot a look around the assembled crewmen out of the corner of his eye. Yes, he definitely had their sympathy. Crane was vitally concerned that the crew learn to accept Rex -- and more importantly, to not fear the alien as some sort of monster. Rex was likely to be on Earth a long time.

 

Over the following weeks, the Nelson Institute of Marine Research slowly returned to normal. The Alison Marie was clandestinely removed to the US government's top secret research facility in New Mexico. Eager scientists were quickly briefed with the full complement of Crane's and Morton's knowledge regarding her operation. Rex remained at NIMR, despite vicious opposition by several mysterious government agencies. Yet, the wishes of a four-star Admiral are not lightly set aside, especially one as influential as Admiral Harriman Nelson. For the time being, Nelson won out. Rex stayed at NIMR.

Crane and Rex became a familiar sight, jogging together along the perimeter road, playing catch, or rough-housing on the beach. The widely circulated story that Rex had saved the lives of both their beloved Skipper and Exec gained Rex full acceptance with Seaview's crew. The Institute staff followed Nelson's lead and treated Rex as their guest. For himself, Rex seemed content to accompany Crane through his daily rounds of office paperwork, onboard inspections and training regimens. And Rex consistently demonstrated a positively canine talent for making friends.

 

Crack! The baseball shot up into the summer sky -- an infield pop-fly.

Riley groaned, dropped his bat and sprinted for first base anyway. Might as well go through the motions.

Sure enough, Angie's mitt closed easily around the ball as it arced smoothly downwards. That was the third out and the game was over: five runs to three and the Institute's Land Sharks beat the Seaview's Dolphins once again.

As Riley helped Patterson, Kowalski and other crew members gather bats, balls and mitts together, he looked over at the field adjacent to NIMR's softball diamond. "Hey, look Pat! The Skipper's teachin' his funky dog to play fetch. Far out!"

The men turned to watch. Looks of amusement, tolerance, curiosity and consternation crossed their faces, depending on what the individuals thought of the Skipper's companion. The Skipper was oblivious, engrossed in his explanation.

"It's called a Frisbee, Rex, see?" Crane held out the hard plastic disc. "If you throw it horizontally with a flip of the wrist, it'll really fly -- oh, not literally! Look -- I'll throw it and you just catch, OK? Good boy!"

Rex ran out onto the grassy field, an incongruous purple shrubbery against the bright green grass and yellow dandelions.

Crane gave the Frisbee a medium toss and Rex easily pounced on it as it came down.

"Good, boy! Here, Rex, bring it here!" Crane clapped his hands.

Rex scampered back to Crane in delight with this new game.

"Attaboy, Rex! OK, give it here. Where is it?" Crane stared at Rex. "You ATE it! Oh, Rex."

Rex drooped in chagrin.

"Oh, that's OK, Rex. Don't worry about it, boy," reassured Crane. "What's the matter, you hungry?"

Rex perked up with a hopeful whine.

"Why didn't you say so? I'm sorry." Crane dug in a sports bag laying on the grass and pulled out a package of Styrofoam coffee cups. "Here you are, Rex. I brought along your favorite treat!"

Rex eagerly pounced on the cups. Contented munching noises filtered upwards.

With hands on hips, Crane looked around the field for alternate amusement. Crane's eye fell on the watching crew and baseball gear. An idea seemed to strike him, and he called out, "Riley! Can I borrow your baseball gear? I want to teach Rex about Earth sports."

"Sure, Skipper!" enthused Riley. "Bring Rex on over and we'll show him how to play baseball."

As the Skipper strode over with Rex frisking at his heels, Crane joked, "Are you sure you're qualified? I just heard Angie bragging at how the Land Sharks beat you men again."

"Ah, c'mon, Skipper -- those landlubbers get to practice all the time! What are we supposed to do?"

"Well, how about a short practice game now? Let's show Rex about America's favorite pastime."

The men murmured agreement. Crane quickly pulled out a bat and ball, and tossed a mitt each to Riley and Patterson. They headed to the outfield while Crane explained the rudiments of one of Earth's many ball-and-stick games.

"This is how it works, Rex," showed Crane. He stood over home plate with a bat in his left hand and ball in his right. Tossing the ball into the air, he grasped the bat in both hands, swung hard and smacked a line drive down the first base line. Patterson started running, but it was clear he was too far away to make the catch. As the ball started to curve downwards, a purple blur shot along the grass and enveloped the ball.

Patterson stopped cold -- totally dumbstruck. "Well, I'll be . . ." He turned as Riley came up beside him. "Stu, this has real possibilities . . ."

"Yeah . . . just wait 'til those Land Sharks get a load of our new team mate!" Riley addressed Rex. "Good going, Rex!"

Rex danced across the grass in sheer pleasure, wagging his whole body.

 

A war was in progress. His face drawn tight in concentration, Crane examined the board before him. Equally tense, Nelson faced him across the small table. Crane's men were being threatened by an implacable and brilliant foe. Crane bit his lip, then reached out and made an adjustment to the board.

Nelson paused only a moment, evaluating in a flash a dozen possibilities. Then, he, too, reached out. Setting his knight down, Nelson said, "Check, Lee! Let's see you get out of this one." The chess battle raged on.

Sitting in a third chair, Rex sat in rapt fascination. His body language suggested he was studying the men as intently as they in turn studied the chess board set between them.

Crane moved his rook forward three squares, and left two fingers on it while he evaluated the strength of his position. Rex whined slightly. Startled, Crane looked over at his fuzzy friend and seemed to listen a moment. Then, shaping his lips in a silent, "Oh," Crane moved his rook back one square and finished his turn. In three more moves, Nelson conceded the game.

"Well played, Lee. I thought I had you."

"Er, thank you, Admiral." Crane looked slightly uncomfortable.

"A guilty conscience bothering you, Lee?" ventured Nelson. "Aha! I knew it -- you got help from Rex, though how is beyond me."

Rex wiggled slightly and put one 'paw' on the edge of the table.

Crane hastened to change the subject. "Say, Admiral -- why don't you play a game with Rex? It would do him good to learn a complex Earth game." Not waiting for an answer, Crane quickly set the board up again and surrendered his chair to Rex.

Twenty minutes later, Chief Sharkey entered the Observation Nose and was treated to a rare sight. The Admiral and Rex sat tensely over the chess board while the Skipper watched in rapt fascination. Now just who is playing whom? Shaking his head, the Chief continued aft.

 

"Oh, this ought to be good," said Patterson to Riley, as they walked across the Institute grounds.

"What's that, Pat?"

In answer, Patterson stopped and pointed towards the base chapel, shining brightly in the early morning sunshine.

The chapel was a small, white building constructed along the lines of a New England church. It was dedicated to all sailors lost at sea and was staffed by Father Michael Joyce, a retired Navy Chaplain. As in the regular US Navy, the Nelson Institute took care to minister to the spiritual needs of crew members, as well as the civilian staff. Worship services for all faiths were offered regularly. Mass had apparently just concluded, for a group of people milled about the entrance or walked away by ones and twos. Prominent among the diminishing crowd was the tall form of Captain Crane and the bright purple flash of Rex. Crane was in deep discussion with the aging priest.

"The Skipper took his dog to Mass?" exclaimed Riley. "That's enough to make Father Mike go ape! I betcha Rex ain't a Christian!"

"I wonder . . ." said Patterson. He looked thoughtfully at the strange trio of priest, officer and alien. Then, with sudden energy he said, "C'mon, let's go find out."

Riley shrugged and followed.

As they approached, Crane shook the priest's hand cordially, and then strode off towards the dock. Rex frisked happily at his heels.

Father Joyce merely stood silently, staring after the incongruous pair.

Patterson came up to the priest and asked quietly, "What did Rex think of Mass, Father Mike?"

"Hmmm? Oh, Patterson, me lad." The priest looked Patterson up and down. "You'll be attending the 9:30 service, I expect."

"Uh, sure, Father. But," Patterson gestured after the retreating pair, "what about Rex? Do you have another convert there?"

"Ah, Rex . . . now that young pup is exceedingly strange. Yes, exceedingly strange. I made so bold as to explain about the Almighty to the poor creature, but . . ." The priest frowned and shook his head.

"He didn't buy God and Jesus and all that?"

"Well, not precisely, lad." The priest frowned some more. "Captain Crane gave me to understand that Rex already knows all about God -- that the Almighty is exactly the same in Andromeda as here. I also gathered the pup'd rather not stand about discussin' theology on such a grand mornin'. I believe our good Captain and Rex are going to, er, go play fetch now." Shaking his head, Father Joyce harrumphed and slowly climbed the chapel steps.

Patterson and Riley gave each other wide-eyed looks, then followed Father Joyce into the chapel.

 

Six months later . . .

The shadows of afternoon grew long on the grounds of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. A solitary light fell across the lawn, showing another late night session in the offing in the Admiral's ground floor office suite. Inside, Nelson and Crane labored over operational plans for an upcoming research mission to the Arctic. As usual, the two were engaged in a lively discussion over contingency planning. Crane consistently anticipated the worst outcomes and insisted that Seaview be supplied and staffed to meet these contingencies. In contrast, Nelson focused single-mindedly on the scientific potential -- a few calculated risks meant little to him.

Through all the arguments, or rather, discussions, Rex dosed peacefully beside Crane's chair, waiting with canine patience for his master. A passersby glancing in the window would perhaps merely have questioned the taste of the interior decorator regarding the purple throw rug piled up in a heap. Rex sighed contentedly. Perhaps a walk down to the lighthouse on the south point would materialize later. But for now, Rex would rest here in this softly warm room.

"Admiral." Nelson's intercom interrupted a particularly energetic exchange regarding the safe transit distance beneath polar ice. The intercom radiated the warm tones of Nelson's extraordinarily capable secretary, Angie Millhouse. "An urgent call for you, sir. A General Watson."

Nelson raised his eyebrows at Crane. What did Space Central want with NIMR now? With a sigh, Nelson dropped his pencil onto a stack of ship's special manifests and budget request forms. "Stay here, Lee. This will likely concern you, too." Nelson reached out and flipped the switch on his videophone. Crane took up position behind Nelson's chair, leaning his right arm on Nelson's desk and resting his left hand on the back of the chair.

"Nelson, here, General. What can I do for you?"

A haggard face filled the monitor. "Admiral Nelson, we've got trouble." The General's voice verged on panic.

Nelson and Crane exchanged glances. What could possibly perturb this hard-bitten veteran?

The General pronounced one word in tones of doom: "Incoming." He continued bleakly, "We've picked up alien ships on our screens."

Nelson reacted immediately. "Have you traced their trajectory, General? Do you have a fix on their probable origin and destination?"

"Yes -- definitely originating from outside the solar system." The General glanced over Nelson's shoulder. "Looks like your friends from Centaur again, Captain Crane."

Crane frowned and reached idly down to scratch Rex behind the 'ears'. The 'dog' had come to stand beside his master, and was in a position to see and hear the videophone conversation.

Crane voiced his concern. "I don't understand, General. The Centaurs travel interstellar, and even intergalactic, distances on light beams. They don't use ships. You say your screens show ships -- who is coming from Centaur?"

"That's just what we don't know, Captain. And this time, its not just one erratic ship."

Crane fought to hide an embarrassed smile. Chip and he had created quite a stir last year. And the government was just beginning to calm down the populace -- publicizing a cover story of a prototype experimental craft.

Nelson keyed in on the General's point. "Not just one ship, General?"

"No. Admiral Nelson . . . we have ten thousand ships on our long-range scanners -- some of them as large as the state of Rhode Island."

"What?!" cried Nelson. "That's impossible!"

"I'm afraid not, Nelson. If they mean invasion -- if they are hostile -- then gentlemen, the survival of humanity itself may be at stake." The General's hoarse voice conjured up an image of Armageddon.

The scientist in Nelson demanded more data, and he forcibly pushed aside the thrill of fear which clenched his gut. "Give me what you have, General."

Wordlessly, the General gestured off screen and the Admiral's videophone monitor was soon filled with technical readouts. Yes, without a doubt an immense fleet was headed towards Earth.

Suddenly, Rex began to bark hysterically.

"Get that animal out of here, Lee!" bellowed Nelson.

"Yes, sir!" Crane grabbed Rex by the scruff of his 'neck' and hustled him out of Nelson's office.

Rex whined and howled with uncharacteristic agitation, alarming Crane.

In the outer office, Angie asked innocently, "Something the matter with Rex, Lee?"

"I don't know what's gotten into him," answered Crane, closing the door to Nelson's office firmly behind him. Crane knelt down and took the shaggy, purple 'head' firmly in his hands and looked Rex in the 'eyes'. "What is it, boy?" Crane asked quietly.

Angie then became privy to a strange, one-sided conversation. She was to remember this monologue when it was all over -- in the future days when Earth's history was forever changed.

Crane spoke slowly and distinctly, as if addressing a junior rating. "Here, boy -- what's the matter?" A pause ensued. "They finally caught up with you . . . what about Earth? . . . they know we helped you escape . . . they hold Earth responsible . . . why not just me, Rex? It's my doing . . . oh . . . they know all about that . . . I'll get what I deserve, too . . . Rex! This is no good . . . coming to Earth will result in sheer chaos . . . can't we go meet them? Just take the Alison Marie out beyond Jupiter . . . what do you mean, it's too late? . . . blast!"

Angie watched silently as Crane stood up, ignored the peculiar look on her face, and returned to Nelson's office. Just before the door closed, Angie caught the words, "Heads up, Admiral! We're going to get company . . ." Angie stared wide-eyed at the shut door, then slowly, her skin crawling, she looked over at Lee's strange pet.

Throwing back his 'head', Rex howled.

 

The cool autumn breeze carried the sharp, salt tang of the sea. Calm sunshine faintly warmed the grasses of the meadow. Riley stood once again at the NIMR's south gate, part of an honor guard consisting of Lt. O'Brien, Chief Sharkey and five ratings. Behind them ranged the entire complement of Seaview, resplendent in full dress uniforms.

This time, excitement ran neck-and-neck with bone-chilling fear in Riley's heart. Not one ship, but thousands, bore down on Earth this day. From all accounts, they moved smoothly and with deliberate purpose. Is this where we all check out? The sun grew dark as if a cloud passed before the sun. Riley looked up at the sky and gasped.

In a grand display which affronted the very laws of nature, strange ships hung in the sky from horizon to horizon. Drawn up like troops on review, they stood rooted in the air in rank upon rank, following a disconcerting but regular pattern.

The nearest of the alien craft hung directly over the meadow -- the flagship perhaps? It appeared to be in the center of the formation. The flagship obscured the sun like a mighty cumulous cloud, towering thousands of feet into the atmosphere -- a dark and ominous shape. A deep thrumming shook the very air.

Riley's heart beat wildly, constricting his throat. Time froze.

The flagship started to descend.

"OK, Rex -- here they come."

To Riley, the calm voice of Captain Crane sounded loud in the collective stillness. In addition to the honor guard, the brass was out in force. Riley skimmed his eye over Admiral Nelson, Mr. Morton, General Watson and his staff officers, and some miscellaneous men in black suits from unknown Washington agencies. All stood quietly on the south road. The Navy men were in dress whites which gleamed even in the half-light of the alien craft's shadow. The Washington contingent all but disappeared, becoming mere night shadows in the dark. Was this doomsday, then? All Riley could tell was that all the brass looked grim. Not a good sign. His fear rising within him, Riley looked desperately to his Skipper.

Unaccountably, the Skipper looked different. His was not the grimness of fear and uncertainty, but rather the edginess of nervousness, or even, embarrassment. Riley studied Crane closely as he flashed a reassuring smile down at Rex. Hey, the Skipper isn't afraid! Knowing his Skipper's penchant for expecting (and preparing for) the worst, Riley relaxed immediately.

"Geez, Stu -- what're you grinning for? These goons look ready to blow us off the map," hissed Patterson.

"The Old Man ain't expectin' trouble, Pat," explained Riley.

"Huh?" wondered Patterson, following Riley's gesture. Patterson studied the brass as had Riley a minute before. "Oh, yeah," agreed Patterson and loosened the white-knuckled grip he had had on his ceremonial rifle. Soon, all the ratings were loosening up, and then the junior officers followed suit.

Oblivious to this, Crane continued to scan the viewports of the steadily descending craft, trying to glimpse the mysterious occupants. Occasionally, he patted Rex and murmured reassurances.

Crane's superiors did not share his mood.

Even Admiral Nelson cast doubtful glances at Crane and Rex. Back in the office, Lee had sounded so sure, mused Nelson. But how could he possibly know --

Nelson's musings were cut short by the sound of a monumental crunch of metal on gravel as the gigantic craft eased onto the meadow. Dirt caved in beneath the pillar-like landing struts. After long seconds, the earth at last bore the full weight of the ship. With a tremendous hissing and scraping, the landing struts adjusted the attitude of the ship, then locked into place. The powerful thrumming faded away into the cool breeze. On the beach below, a lone seagull cried.

A long minute stretched into two, and then three. A hundred men held their breath, and strained with desperate eyes to penetrate the hull of the looming starship.

Abruptly, a landing ramp slid smoothly from the belly of the craft and a hatchway opened into the dim interior. Riley saw indistinct figures moving within the darkness, then a shape dropped onto the ramp. An insanely familiar shape. Deep magenta in color, it was vaguely reminiscent of . . .

"Rex!" whooped Crane, "it's your people, Rex!" Running forward to the ramp, Crane soon fell behind his scampering 'dog'.

Scant feet from the ramp's foot, Rex skittered to a halt and yipped happily, wagging his tails in canine ecstasy. Simultaneously, a score of figures boiled out of the hatchway, racing over and under one another down the ramp. Green, gold, pink and electric blue they came. Crane skidded to a stop next to Rex, and soon both were bowled over by an outpouring of canine affection. Laughing with unrestrained delight, Crane scratched 'ears', rubbed 'tummies', and thumped 'sides' with frequently shouted "Attaboys!" and "Good dog!" So might a young boy play amidst a litter of newly weaned puppies. But puppies don't pilot starships.

Riley watched in dumbfounded amazement which slowly turned to delight. No wonder the Skipper had been cool about this scene. Rex hadn't a hostile bone in his body, and if all the other ships were full of funky dogs like Rex, well -- looked like it was just party time! The Skipper sure knows how to handle these out of sight, psychedelic space dudes -- looks like they just like a good romp -- anybody would after being cooped up in a tin can for months. The brass are about to go ape, though. With vast amusement, Riley noted the indignant surprise on the faces of the visiting dignitaries, or 'suits', as Riley thought of them. The Skipper rolling in the grass with a bunch of space mutts while overhead thousands of bogeys just hung out is way too wild for the suits.

Riley saw the Admiral recover first. Nelson spoke hurriedly with the General and the senior agency officials, clearly motioning them to wait. After a few minutes, the energetic welcoming ceremonies at the ramp calmed down, and the Skipper beckoned to the Admiral and Lt. O'Brien.

That's our cue, thought Riley, time to deliver the goods. On the Skipper's orders, Riley had helped packed what he now figured out was a parting gift for Rex: a chess game; seven Frisbees; a book of world history (one volume); a Bible (New American translation); a Webster's dictionary (unabridged); a baseball, mitt and bat (well used); and all the Styrofoam cups Patterson and he could scrounge up in twenty minutes. Riley picked up his end of the waiting crate and the honor guard moved forward to the base of the landing ramp. At a gesture from the Skipper, Riley and Patterson set down the crate and more of Rex's people swarmed down the ramp and took it onboard.

Riley watched with great interest as the Skipper hurriedly explained something in an undertone to the Admiral. Then, all the aliens galloped back aboard except Rex. Crane knelt down and gave him a big, thumping hug and final pat. Rex seemed to give Crane something which the Skipper concealed and hurriedly put into his pocket. Then, Rex raced up the ramp and disappeared inside the immense ship. The landing ramp promptly withdrew and Crane hustled everyone clear of the landing field.

Crane waved and shouted, "Have a good flight home, Rex! Godspeed!"

Within seconds, the ship rose, hovered a few seconds while the landing struts retracted into place, then vanished. Startled, Riley broke formation to turn and stare in all directions. The sky was empty. "Wow! Those space mutts have really blown the scene."

 

A relieved yet indignant gathering followed in Admiral Nelson's office. Voices were raised in frustration. Why hadn't the aliens stayed to confer with men of authority? Why had Nelson allowed a mere Commander to interact with members of another planetary government? Why and why and why? With consummate skill, Admiral Nelson deflected these questions and calmed down the General and the government agency representatives. At last, plans were laid to analyze the encounter along more scientific lines during the following days. The meeting adjourned.

As the dignitaries were ushered out by Admiral Nelson, Crane breathed a sigh of relief. Why did the brass have to make this so complicated? Alien civilizations had been known to exist for decades. Had Washington learned nothing since Roswell? So Rex was a bit special and his people came to collect him? What was the big deal -- all those ships were just a tiny honor guard, well, tiny only compared to their total military might, Crane admitted to himself. OK, OK, I can see why everyone is upset -- if Rex's folks had been hostile, then the Earth could have been destroyed. But they weren't and Earth is fine. And in an even better strategic position on the galactic front than the brass can even begin to appreciate. Crane looked up as Nelson returned, shutting his office door wearily.

"OK, Lee. I've got them off our backs until tomorrow. You said you would explain later. Well, the time for explanations is now."

"What do you mean, Admiral?" Lee tried an innocent look, but the effect was spoiled as he shifted nervously.

"Lee." The single word carried ominous overtones.

"Well, you see, Admiral, Rex is, well, he's royalty."

"Royalty?" Nelson clearly found this hard to believe.

"Yes!" Crane took a deep breath and hurried over his explanation. "Rex is the heir to the throne of Andromeda -- his empire covers the Andromeda galaxy, two other entire galaxies, and two-thirds of this one. Or rather, since Tuesday, all of this one, too. His people were just showing respect by coming with lots of ships to take him home. Just a small honor guard, really -- nothing to get alarmed about. Besides, they took care of the Centaurs on the way here. Earth won't be bothered by those blasted frogs again. In fact, Admiral, Earth won't be bothered by any extraterrestrials at all for the foreseeable future."

"Oh, just like that?"

"Yes, sir. You see, lots of different races have been vying for hegemony over this part of our galaxy, and Earth had been in a bit of a crossroads. That's why we keep getting different races trying to invade. Earth is in a potentially strategic position -- not vital, but with some tactical potential. The Centaurs have been watching this with grave concern -- they're an extremely paranoid race and wanted to expand their empire by eliminating any potential competition. The Centaurs managed to neutralize Andromeda by kidnapping Rex -- the Andromedans couldn't do anything against the Centaurs while Rex was in their hands. So --"

"So when you escaped with Rex, the Andromedans destroyed the Centaurs."

"Well, not exactly destroyed, Admiral. You know Rex -- he and his people hate violence. But they have ways of neutralizing weaponry, stardrives and power production equipment. Centaur is now just a protectorate in the Andromedan empire."

"I see." Nelson digested this for a moment. "And what about Earth?"

"Oh, this solar system is now a province in the Fourth Andromedan Galaxy, sir. Rex decided self-rule was best for us. The Provincial Governor will handle any issues arising between Earth and the Empire. But Rex feels that Earth should just be left to develop on her own. No one needs to know that we are under protection from outside and --"

"And who might be the Provincial Governor?"

A flush rose in Crane's cheeks and he stared at the floor. "Well --" he began with acute embarrassment.

"You?"

Apologetic words tumbled out of Crane. "Well, sir, far be it from me to usurp any authority -- it's hardly my place -- I mean, the United Nations should really have --"

Nelson chuckled. "Never mind, Lee, never mind! I'd rather have you in charge than anyone I can think of back in Geneva."

Crane relaxed fractionally. "I'd rather no one knew, sir. No telling how people would react to this news -- most don't even realize alien civilizations exist."

"All right, Lee. I guess you can call the shots."

"Now, sir, I --"

"Relax, Lee," reassured Nelson. "But tell me one thing."

"Of course, sir."

Nelson took a deep breath. A forlorn note crept into his voice. "The technology to reach the stars . . ." Nelson looked stricken to the heart, as though, after seeing a glimpse of the Promised Land, the gates of Heaven had been closed in his face.

"Don't worry, sir. Rex gave me a parting gift, too." Slowly, Crane reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, purple sphere. Glowing with internal light, it was about the size of a baseball. "Rex said to me: 'Nelson can learn from this his heart's desire'. Uh, Rex is pretty sentimental, sir." Carefully, Crane reached out his hand and set the sphere in the air. Letting go, he left the ball suspended solidly two feet above Nelson's desk.

"What in the world?" wondered Nelson.

"It's a miniature stardrive, sir." A purple glow filled the room with power. "The key to the stars."

 

The End


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