Read Chapters 1 - 15 at: Deep Sky Stories
Chapter 16 - Luss Power and Big Ben's Last Rumble
Big Ben rumbled up to the scene of the battle just in time as Dart and Jade were forced to fly lower, with wings unfolded, and battle on as best they could. They flitted and dodged about, firing madly as their Bubble-Shields glowed dangerously from multiple hits. A swarm of the cat-sized Flies soon surrounded Ben but he continued on despite taking several stinging hits from their Shock-Bolt Guns.
Within seconds, the huge, lumbering robot became the target for a hail of tiny missiles and jolting high-voltage assaults. Huddled inside the tiny driver's compartment, Alex and Rainah cringed as each projectile clanged and rattled off old Ben's shuddering iron body.
"Oh crap, I don't think this is going to work", yelled Alex above the horrible din. "He's falling apart, I just know it!" Bang - ting - ting - ting - CLANG, rang the continuous barrage of bullets off old Ben. He soldiered on though and was soon upon the stinging, annoying Flies with all the brute-force and momentum of a juggernaut.
He seemed unstoppable in spite of all the punishing blows and he ground onward right over the enemies' milling ranks. Grotesque crunching sounds and muffled explosions beneath them told the children of the clumps of unlucky Flies who ended up under Big Ben's thundering wheels.
Louder and still louder the attack raged and onward, up the large hill of blackened scrap-iron climbed old, huge Ben.
"Come-on, come-on!", screamed the children together over the terrible grinding of his over-heated gears.
The Flies were on Ben’s body now, clawing and tearing away at anything they could cling to. Whipping ganglia wires whistled and cracked all over him. The massive robot took Flies two or three at a time in his mighty vice-hands and slowly crushed them down to tin-foil.
He was blind though, from all the black bodies crawling about on his head and face, but Alex kept Ben going in the right direction: to the peak of the scrap-iron mountain they were climbing; the mountain under which the precious space vessel lay hidden.
There, at the top was the opening to the elevator shaft and it was down this long shaft that the last remaining tank of Parathagon Gas was to be sent.
Rainah cried out suddenly as a clawing, angry-eyed Fly clung briefly to the iron grating covering the glass of the driver's cabin. It hissed at the children with vile hatred before it disappeared forever, dragged beneath old Ben's mighty mass.
There was now a wide swath of flattened and mangled Flies leading all the way from the ground to the hilltop as the now heavily damaged giant reached his destination.
Old Ben activated his heavy-lift electromagnetic crane then, and easily picked up the gas tank from his rear cargo box. The powerful crane swiveled slowly round with the tank swinging in the air along with a dozen wriggling Flies who had flown too close to the magnet.
The hilltop, by this time, was covered in a thick swarm of oil-black Flies and Ben was being weighed down by their number. They buzzed viciously and crawled over every inch of him but the crane kept turning.
Two halves of a hidden hatch opened and the elevator rose smoothly up out of the shaft of the Biosphere's central pillar, having been sent by Miss Vee. The door slid open invitingly to await the arrival of the children and their precious cargo.
Behind him, Alex heard Rainah whispering strange, clipped words in her native tongue, as if to better their fortunes or, perhaps, to bring a god's wrath down upon the enemy. Alex figured it was for the latter; she seemed to be quite a vengeful girl, after all.
The boom of old Ben's crane suddenly lurched to a stop as it became jammed with the mangled remains of several Flies who had crawled into the gearbox. Then another Fly stuck to the magnet exploded itself, sending a static charge through the electromagnet and frying its internal wiring.
The gas tank fell with a heavy thud still several yards away from the waiting elevator. Without further coaxing though, the two embattled Dragonflies took matters into their own hands. Jade and Dart descended quickly and hooked onto the tank's lifting rings with their spindly insect legs. Their wings buzzed louder as they heaved upward on the dead weight. But, their shields glowed dangerously and the Dragonflies were staggered by the terrible onslaught of firepower that was targeted on them.
"We must help them!", cried Rainah above the nightmare of the surrounding battle. Alex felt the blood drain from his face and cold fear gripped him in the pit of his stomach.
Poor old Ben, shaken and battered, was fast becoming useless as one of his arms went limp, its hydraulic lines cut and bleeding fluid. Alex sat still for a few moments too long and received a savage shove from behind.
Rainah screamed, "Come on, Alex, now!"
With a shaking hand, he reached up to open the iron door. Alex could see Dart and Jade heaving vainly at the heavy tank, their wings beating viciously, their power draining away with each passing second. His throat felt tight and fearfully dry. Shock and tunnel-vision made the whole scene before him look very unreal.
Oh God, Alex thought with sickening fear, this must be the end!
Something heavy was suddenly in his hand, and it felt warm and reassuring. It had a shifting, slippery feel to it like quicksilver and as he looked down, Alex knew immediately what it was: his Luss!
It was his strange, ever-changing device that could be warm and healing or cold and deadly. It seemed to partially have a mind of its own by the way it changed and reacted at different times. It should have been a weapon now, feeling ice-cold in his hand but no, this time it was warm.
In fact, it was becoming almost hot!
Whatever was about to happen to it was going to happen very soon. Alex felt a sense of shaky relief as he pushed the two little iron doors open.
The sound of the battle, loud though it was from inside the robot's belly, was horribly more so as the doors swung open. Alex yelled something like, "come on!", over his shoulder but the chaotic noise was such that his voice became lost within it. Rainah understood, nevertheless and was pushing forward with him.
As they stepped out, Alex looked down at the Luss in his hand. It was already shifting and warping very oddly. A stray Shock-Bolt shell clanged loudly off Big Ben's skin, but not before it had been directed harmlessly away from the two children by the rapidly changing Luss.
Gold! It had the brightness of liquid gold!
In spite of the blistering attack by the horde around them, Alex felt more confident as he planted his feet. Rainah dashed forward to help the Dragonflies and she too had something bright in her hand. It glowed like a golden orange flame and something flashed out of it as a Fly leaped toward her. The Fly vanished instantly, leaving only crackling sparks behind in the air.
For a split second, Rainah was alone with the Dragonflies, fighting savagely, her teeth bared and a feverish gleam in her eyes, as she swung a keen-edged sword which cleanly chopped and beheaded a dozen of the nearest attackers. Then, just as quickly, the Luss she wielded shifted its energy over to the Dragons in the form of arcing strands of liquid light.
Their shields became re-energized and new power flowed through them. Jade and Dart heaved upward again and this time the fuel tank began to inch toward the elevator.
"Haww", cried Rainah wildly and a spear-shaped bolt blew away from her Luss and then split into hundreds of darting sparrow-like slivers. Dozens of attacking Flies squealed vicious hatred one last time as they each felt a sliver's deadly touch. Closer the tank inched toward the elevator, but even Rainah's magnificent attack could only do so much.
"Oh God", yelled Alex as he leaped forward into the midst of the carnage. All thoughts left him then, only a heightened sense of action and life filled his heart. He was a pouncing wild thing, nimble and deadly. He saw nothing clearly yet dodged and destroyed effortlessly.
His Luss became molten in his hand; now cold, death-delivering steel; now a warm shield for Rainah just before a crackling beam would have hit her. It danced like lightning - never static - and Alex moved with it then used it with fluid savagery. There was a form of intelligence in his Luss that anticipated and out-moved his opponents with unthinkable, deadly quickness.
"The elevator", cried Rainah, and Alex paused long enough to see the Dragonflies drop the canister of fuel within the door.
"Come-on, come-on", Rainah cried and ran for it! But, a tiny missile whistled by Alex and stabbed into her leg. An explosion of sparking wires told him of the severe damage done to her bionic leg and Rainah cried out and fell.
True to her mistress, Jade forgot all else but protecting her and buzzed vengefully back from the open doorway. She became a creature of utter malevolence then as with hot, pin-point precision she emptied her remaining arsenal of weapons and energy upon her surrounding opponents!
If machines have feelings, hers was the height of suicidal vengeance!
The Flies fell back and Alex used the moment to grab Rainah and drag her the last few yards to the elevator. She fell inside with Dart who was resting on the fuel tank. Rainah looked up at Alex and a moment passed between them as those rare moments in life do; a moment to take a single breath, only.
"Choose", a small voice suddenly whispered to the lonely boy. Alex though, already had. A small window of warm, yellow light beckoned him back home and to a mother who still needed him. He backed away, even as his Luss warped around behind him to stave off a burst of Shock-Bolt shells. He tried saying goodbye in that last, brief moment given to them, but the words caught in his throat.
Rainah saw his choice but was too proud to try persuading him. Their time was up anyway as Jade jack-knifed and suddenly exploded from a direct hit to her midriff.
"Dart", Rainah cried, "protect Alex!"
No further orders were necessary as Alex's faithful Dragonfly flew out the door and came to his aid.
"Leave, now!", she sobbed and a single tear of regret fell.
Rainah reached up and punched the door button and vanished from sight. Down went the elevator amid a hail of shells which struck the steel hatch just as it closed.
"Dart, we’ve got to get out of here”, Alex yelled as all the Flies targeted them. But they had not reckoned on Big Ben and his still overpowering presence.
His shadow fell over all of them as the mammoth robot turned in front of Alex and Dart, shielding them from the worst of the onslaught.
He was buying them a few precious seconds to escape.
Dart knew what was expected of him then. He landed daintily beside Alex and the soft whine of movement was heard from his insides. Alex saw the Dragon's middle collapse down slightly to take the form of a saddle and two small hand-grips extended out from his flanks.
"Get on...get on...get on", called an insistent, electronic voice. Alex needed no further prompting and fairly leaped onto Dart's back. The Dragonfly beat his wings and his shield flared brightly around Alex as Shock-Bolt rounds hit it over and over again.
The ground fell away swiftly as Dart gained altitude then turned back toward the dark, open countryside. Their prizes lost to them, the buzzing horde of the Others turned their vengeance then on the crippled old construction-bot.
Old Ben was rocked terribly by the vociferous army's continuous volley but he had one last option available. A ponderous clanking sound could be heard coming from his innards and Big Ben's stabilizer legs began to slowly extend out from his sides.
Welded to these hydraulic legs were broad iron plates which were used as huge earth-moving scoops on construction sites. With a massive, heaving groan, old Ben turned one last time to face down the long dark slope that was crawling with the seething mass of oily black Flies.
He had no fuel left but he needed none as Ben let go his brakes with a loud CLANG and began rolling down upon the unlucky ranks below. The hardened steel earth-mover blades did their job very effectively.
The Others, for all their sophisticated weaponry were now just so much road gravel beneath Big Ben as his massive plates scooped up thick writhing layers of them and funneled the Flies underneath his irresistible, crushing weight. Sparks flew and the beetley robots exploded like grenades under him again and again as he gained more speed!
Ben made his final road down the scrap-iron mountain and paved it with melted and mangled Flies. He came to rest at the bottom and moved no more. But then, the earth itself began to move.
Alex felt the first shock-wave hit him as Dart whizzed him away from the awful scene. He looked back at the small spot of ground below him where there were still the flashes and faint explosions of the defeated enemy. Dart chirped nervously and put more distance between them and the shivering disturbance below.
Again the ground shifted up then back down with a loud, low THUMP!
The milling Flies buzzed among themselves and tried to flee. But the ground beneath them heaved and vibrated so severely that they began to sink into the rattling scrap-iron and shifting sand.
Death was coming, even if they had no comprehension of it. Larj, the most evil one among them felt the ground shiver and melt beneath him. Within seconds, the hill became a deathtrap as the huge pile of scrap-iron rolled down upon them all like an avalanche.
Hate-filled to the end, a last message was beamed back to his Homeworld, Phobos, then Larj blew himself to bits rather than face the fate that was befalling his comrades.
Meanwhile, flying high above it all, the cool wind of Dart's beating wings buffeted Alex as he and the Dragonfly banked round in a gentle left turn. Alex hung on tight, his eyes tearing up and his long, brown hair blowing back as Dart enjoyed showing the boy how wonderful it was to fly.
They had done all that they could for Teresa Vasquez and Rainah. It was now or never for them.
From their soaring height, both were struck with awe when the moment finally arrived. With a last shivering rumble, the ground was split asunder and blinding, pulsing light from the emerging ship forced Alex to avert his eyes. What little he had seen though, was of a huge, magnificent, domed vessel surrounded by a whirling ring of crackling hyper-energy.
A shock-wave of shredded, ionized air hit them suddenly and Alex hunkered down and held on tighter as his friend buzzed frantically to regain his equilibrium.
Dart shot away with amazing speed and Alex peered over his shoulder at the starship as it ascended gracefully to within one thousand feet of the massive crater it had come out of. Then, with a last blinding flash and a loud, crackling BANG, it was gone and darkness closed back in upon them so swiftly that Alex shivered and let out a frightened yell.
Dart chirruped reassuringly and then sped away toward Delta-Town.
Meanwhile, Back at Rosie's Diner...
Back in the town of Delta, Sgt. Jim Cash was taking a midnight coffee break at Rosie's Diner when he began to get calls over his radio about explosions and earth-tremors, out in the countryside near Brinnel's Bog. The bog? That sounded vaguely familiar to him. Wasn't that somewhere near...?
Sitting at the counter across from him was Old Elliot, the hobo, now older and wiser. Upon hearing the reports on the police officer's radio, Elliot got up slowly and then turned to peer out a window which gave him a view of the distant outskirts of Delta-Town, where a certain scrapyard lay.
Sergeant Cash was about to get up and leave when the silent, old man put a hand gently on the officer's shoulder and looked down at him with a pale face and haunted grey eyes; eyes that vividly recalled that horrible night, almost eleven years ago to the day.
The old hobo slowly shook his head, knowingly and then mumbled that odd word again under his breath, “Nethlin...Nethlin…”
That was all.
The old vagrant then shuffled back to the counter to nurse the cup of coffee that Rosie had given him out of pity.
Older and also wiser, Sergeant Cash read Elliot's mind quite perfectly and, with a measure of caution, the policeman decided that one more coffee before he left, wasn't such a bad idea. After all, whatever had happened did seem to have happened out in the middle of nowhere.
A low-priority call. No need to rush in.
Jim cast a caring glance across at the counter where the beaten-down old man held his hot cup and gazed listlessly down at something that he held in his free hand.
“Poor old lost soul”, Jim whispered under his breath. Old Elliot stared fixedly at a needle-thin shard of colored glass held tightly in his gnarled, grubby hand.
Rosie was busy cleaning up for the day, but every so often, she glanced up from her work to gaze across at Elliot, curiosity playing briefly across her face, hidden within a frown.
Where had the old wanderer come from, she wondered. Had his life been always so...empty? A few minutes more passed before Rosie slid a last morsel of apple pie under Elliot's low, bowed head.
"Eat up, m'dear", she whispered kindly, "closing time."
"He won't answer you, y'know", said Jim as he got up to leave, "his mind has always been somewhere else." "Good night, Rosie, I should go check on something before the night is done."
And, with that, the little bell over the door tinkled lightly as Jim bade her good night and stepped out to breathe the cool, fresh autumn air.
The old police sergeant dusted off his stetson hat before putting it on and then took a step toward his police car. He paused then cocked an ear as he heard a swift sound approaching on the night breeze. What was that? Looking around him, Jim saw nothing but vague shadows beyond the one streetlamp on the corner.
From out of nowhere, Alex Faraway gave a whoop of joy as Dart swooped low and then hovered over Rosie's Diner for a startling moment, just as Sergeant Cash happened to look up.
"Hi!", Alex yelled happily down at him.
"Oh...y-ya...hi", the stunned police officer answered as the breeze from Dart’s wings blew his hat off. To his credit, Jim took only one step back. Next moment, they were gone again, sailing off into the darkness.
Without missing a beat, Jim promptly picked up his hat, dusted it off again, then turned around and stepped back into the comfort of the old Diner...for just a few more minutes.
"One more coffee, Rosie", he called, "and bring me your last doughnut too, will y'please."
“Oh, for heaven sake”, old Rosie grouched as she clicked the kitchen light back on, “two more minutes, Jim Cash, and not a minute more!”
“Yes m'am. Thank you."
Dart landed daintily back at Alex's home with the exhausted boy on his back. Alex led the Dragonfly into the old workshop where he figured he could settle in quite well with friendly old Legs, the scavenger-bot and all his other inventions.
Looking toward the faint beginnings of a new dawn, Alex saw a soft glow, off in a distant corner of the old scrapyard. The orange glow marked the smoldering crater left from Miss Vee's departure back to Mars, and also where the battle had been won.
Alex gave a little smile and waved a fond farewell up to the starry night sky. He hoped that she and Rainah had made a safe return and that there was still something of the old Mars for them to discover and look back on while they prepared themselves for the future and the Great Change that was soon to come.
Alex's only regret was finding nothing of his father within the amazing vessel that had laid hidden beneath the ground of his scrapyard for so many years. He paused for a last look, up at the twilight sky then turned quietly back toward home and the comfort of his mom's arms. He felt a twinge of guilt then, and, perhaps, a little fear too.
"Oh boy", he whispered to himself, "this is going to be really hard to explain."
But when his mother opened the door, there was an air of calmness about her and a new sparkle in her eyes that Alex had never seen before. Elizabeth Faraway wore a small, contented smile; the kind that one has, without knowing it, after having just seen a long lost friend once more.
"Your father", she said quietly, "your father is coming home, Alex."
"His work on Mars is finished."
Next: Chapter 17 - The First Hello
A message from Alex's missing father brings him hope for a better life at last. The past history of Mars and its people is also revealed though, and with it, the reason why the adventure for Alex may have only just begun.
As of 2017-06-19, Chapter 16 is at: Deepskystories.com