INVADERS FROM THE SHADOW PLANETS OF TWARR
“Negats, kid. Zephyr doesn’t do that. We might make a little jaunt across the Milky Way to deliver bags of parcels a few times a year. We may send a single drone to the stars nearest the Sun. But, no, we do not deliver missives to the Lone Ranger on Earth. That is simply beyond our capabilities.”
After explaining for nearly an hour, the frustrated clerk, Mix, threw down his pencil and came around the desk. He wrapped an arm about the boy’s shoulders in an attempt to guide him out of the office. The lad balked, making the harried clerk feel desperate to have him gone.
“Now, see here. This Lone Ranger would be too busy to answer your call. Anyway, what good could he do? The man’s transportation is some kind of animal, for crying out loud.” Close to tears, Mix begged, “Give me a break. Get out of here.”
The kid wavered. His pouting lower lip trembled. “But, my uncle will be angry.”
His disappointment moved like a knife into the Zephyr Quicksilver Messenger and Freight Service agent’s overly tender heart. “Kid -”
“Call me Xmill.”
“All right. Xmill.” Mix looked out the tiny porthole at six silvery satellites hanging over the purple mountain range. “Kid - Xmill - You have touched me deeply. Healer alone knows why. Leave your uncle’s written plea to the Lone Ranger here with me. For sixty-thousand brookas, the next drone that gets close to that neighborhood, I will intercede. Perhaps it can drop a pod. But be forewarned, we don’t have a formal address to send it to. If he even receives your missive it will be something akin to winning the Intergalactic State Lottery. In short, he likely will not read it.”
But Xmill was beaming. “He will. I know he will. In all of history, the greatest champion of justice. The Lone Ranger hears every cry for help. Here is the note my Uncle Sneezer wrote. He will gladly pay.”
Mix frowned, his conscience pricking him for taking these struggling farmers’ money. He nevertheless made out the forms and put them in Xmill’s grip. Extending a hand, he wished the boy luck. "May the Healer guide you.”
“Thank you. The Healer right back at you.”
“Do you know how to get on the shuttle to your asteroid?”
“Yes, sir. I have a map right here.”
As Exmill searched himself for the map, Mix said, “Well, add two hours to the departure time and you can’t go wrong.”
Frustrated in his search, Exmill paused to reply to Mix. “I will. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t thank me, kid. I just work here.”
Uncle Sneezer was ancient, and although his countenance was crustacean and his voice a gargle, his thought remained lucid, his gaze keen. All for the moment fixed on his nephew. The enraged old tyrant danced about the floor, arms flailing, having but one thought: Strangle Exmill. His gnarled fingers glanced off the boy’s throat and he was thrown into a spin that almost cost him his balance. Recovering, he again threw out his arms, and shouted, “Sixty thousand brookas you will cost me. Damn, boy.”
He paused in his tirade and approached the great wooden desk he had imported from the home planet. He reached in a lower drawer and pulled out a sheaf of cash. “All right. Here it is.”
Uncle Sneezer snapped his wrist, causing the bills to blossom into a yellow bouquet that fluttered ingloriously to the floor. “Sixty thousand brookas for the masked rider of the plains. The cost of justice. Always steep. Always worth it. Go and pay that little maggot clerk and get my list of demands on its way. Don’t let me down.”
Suddenly deflated, Sneezer turned away.
He seemed extremely tired, withered, and old as he moved to look out the porthole. His hawk eyes swept the land that he held dear, now menaced by cretins from the Shadow Planets of Twarr, known to Sneezer as Jackarillos. Squatters. Interlopers. Usurpers of the law. Stealers of crops. Disrespecters of women and families. Deniers of the authority of the Old Healer.
Beyond his limited gaze lay the jagged mountains that had temporarily kept the Jackarillos at bay. Both he and Exmill knew that as soon as it suited their purpose they would cross those towering peaks and that Sneezer’s empire might quickly cease to exist. The youth’s hand came to rest on a bony shoulder, but he shrugged it away. “When I was a boy,” the old fossil recited, “my pa owned the entirety of XI-321, along with the chain of asteroids trailing it. He caused deserts to bloom, after installing the Tanner atmosphere and gravity machine that keeps the whole shebang functioning. Horizon to horizon, all was crops and greenery. Then came the dam blasted homestead act. Good for nothings and scoundrels built towns on his prized farmland. Miners took possession of the asteroids.
“Well, it was a bitter pill, but we swallowed it. But when the federation crumbled and was forced to declare each of the frontiers free and independent, that is when things went south permanently. The authorities hauled tail, lock, stock, and barrel. Since, them Jackarillos been steadily crowding in.”
His feeble body shuffled to a rumpled old chair, where he sat and then reached from there to the knobs of the consol radio he had inherited from his grandfather. “Lone Ranger. Faithful Indian companion Tonto.” He looked up sharply. “You think I’m a fool to believe in the Lone Ranger. Well, go, boy. Go and be proved twice over the brain-deprived meat puppet that you are. Get that message off or don’t dare set foot on XI-321 again.”
Exmill already had gathered up the loot and tucked it safely inside his shirt. He opened the door to leave. Looking back, he met Uncle Sneezer’s red-eyed glare with boldness. His voice laced with bravado, he said, “I will get it to him, Uncle. I am your hands and feet, but I wish him here as badly as you. For one, I just want to see what an Indian is.”
Sneezer made a guttural sound and looked about for a hurtful object with which to strike the boy.
Port Silver, widely referred to as the rectum of the planet, had been designed to harbor an armada of warships, warships never built, to fight a war that never started. Exmill, after paying the clerk, came away with fifty blugers. More than enough to buy a soft drink, if he could find a machine. Mix had informed him one stood in a dank lower hallway near the loading dock. He came to level five, looking with wary curiosity at the dingy mildewed walls and the occasional passerby. The port workers were a ragged, unshaven bunch, of the sort one might have mistaken for derelicts on any skidrow. Drunks, most of them. Xmill walked into a stretch of the corridor with no exit, no hole to drop into, as there appeared a wedge of haughty Jackarillos, bearing down with long booted strides. He was certain to be trampled and ground into the floor if he did not retreat quickly enough. Running, flying nearly, Exmill finally stumbled into an open hatch and very nearly ended up shooting through a tube to the Healer alone knew where.
He found the drink machine. He tried sending a bluger into the slot.
“Zzzmmmm,” the machine cautioned. “I accept zins only. Deposit five zins. Zzzmmmm. Fork it over, please.”
Looking for someone who could exchange his blugers for zins, he saw just a rust-covered maintenance bot rolling aimlessly down the corridor. Then something great and bronze intruded on his vision. It was a Jagual-syrne, one of the only non-humanoid species to have evolved enough to engage the human species without becoming, abruptly, extinct. He was bipedal, virtually naked, a savage, tattooed on the nose and face, hairless, lizard-like, lofting enough tail to appear ungainly and out of balance.
Xmill gaped and moved to the side, standing in awe of the seven-foot creature. It was an oddity that blinked at him, an unappetizing alien, whom the kid feared and instinctively despised. The beast paused to look down at the boy. He seemed intrigued, moving in close to measure up the quaking kid. He spoke, sounding like a rusty train explosion from deep in a cavern. “Good lad. Strong. Almost a man. Mohaw like.”
Exmill overcame his feeling of revulsion enough to ask for change.
“Change? Mebbe want Fizzy Soda, mebbe?”
“Yes. It takes five zins.”
“Mohaw got zins.”
The monster scratched behind his ear hole and some coins mysteriously appeared in his hand. He waved Exmill back. “Mohaw’s treat. Mohaw do anything for new friend.”
Crusty fingers pushed zins into the slot, then jammed the button.
Mohaw shook the half-ton of metal and beat the button without mercy.
“Zzzmmmm. What are you doing? My seams are loosening. Zzzmmmm. Back away. I will signal the authority.”
“Mohaw paid for drink,” Mohaw insisted.
“Zzzmmmm. You have been photographed. You will pay for the damage, sucker.”
Enraged, the creature took hold of the machine with both hands, roaring so loudly that Xmill considered running for his life. Fingers were forced into the seams, popping bolts and rending metal.
“Zzmmm” was the machine’s final utterance.
Dozens of plastic bottles cascaded, falling all about snarling Mohaw, who continued punishing the defeated piece of machinery. With a shout of triumph, he sent the remains crashing against the wall. After, he clucked and trotted his dance of victory. At length, the Jagual-syrn turned and faced the dumfounded Xmill and stopped. He picked up a Fizzy Soda, grinning. “Want mebbe two?”
Exmill drank the first with gusto. He took a second and sat on a bench to enjoy it more leisurely. Then a great laughter welled up in him. He howled so hard his sides ached. Tears rolled from his eyes. Mohaw’s grin broadened. Xmill found himself enjoying the alien’s company.
Abruptly there came on silence of soft-soled shoes the crew of a ship about to depart. Four stalwarts flanking a stout pepper-haired man, one Commander Charlis Blade. Blade issued an order to halt. Theirs was a presence as commanding as the ancient gods who preceded the Old Healer, for they were masters of the stars; the gods could claim no greater accomplishment. The crew waited as the Commander inserted a card, which opened the gate. They marched efficiently up to the ramp and began the ascent that would allow them to step into the belly of the starship. Blade broke away to confront the still grinning Jagual-syrn. His voice was crisp and stern. “Mohaw, I presume? You are hereby ordered to accompany me on board my vessel, to be confined to a room, until such time as we set down on your home planet. On landing you will be given over to the civil authorities, to be dealt with for crimes of which you have been adjudged guilty by they and neighboring planetary governments.”
Seemingly against his will, Mohaw lost his grin. He brushed as at an insect, impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His eyes followed Blade’s gaze, which surveyed the wreckage-strewn corridor.
“Your reputation as an escaper artist, while legendary, will become a source of embarrassment to you should you put it to the test.”
Blade tried to intimidate Mohaw by casting a penetrating stare into his lizard-like eyes. Mohaw burned a look that cut into the Commander’s very mortality. For one moment, Blade wavered. The gun on his hip reassured him and his steely eyes recovered to counter the challenge. “Your little temper display will be duly noted. I assure you, it will be costly.”
Mohaw sneered, said nothing.
From his seat on the bench, Xmill watched Mohaw disdainfully take to the ramp, closely followed by Blade, whose hand rested on his weapon. Then it became shuttle time and Xmill had to leave. The boy trotted up all three levels and scrambled through a fast collapsing portal to fall into his capsule.
The shuttle rattled like a very old bus as it whooshed into space.
The harvest came and went. The animals were herded into the canyon before the fanged beasts of winter could begin stalking them. Storms raged. Ice sheets were thrown across the range and farmlands for the bitter two months of winter. Exmill often escaped from his wintertime studies to care for and practice drive his father’s Y-Wing fighter plane, practicing the maneuvers he had been taught from an early age.
Sneezer blathered. “Fuel, boy. Don’t be using up the reserves like that,” to no avail.
Impatiently they awaited spring’s gentle thaw, dreaming of the moment when a masked visitor would appear at the door, waving a silver bullet in evidence he was indeed the “masked rider of the plains.”
Soon enough planting time came, but not so the Lone Ranger. Xmill split his time between controlling the machinery that tilled, raked, and tended the soil and watching the sky. He never really surrendered hope, until the day the Jackarillos decided to cross the mountains. They sent a team to disrupt farming and to mark specific locations to build settlements, as the old codger lived in his chair, searching the radio for news of the Lone Ranger.
“When I was a boy,” Sneezer recited.
Exmill tuned out the litany. His mind churned options. In the final analysis, it fell to him, Xmill, alone to deal with the Jackarillos. He took to cruising over the fields in his Dad’s plane, buzzing low if he detected the aliens’ shapes. Once he caught two aliens at once in the crosshairs. The button didn’t work. Uncle Sneezer must have emptied out the ammunition to keep him from hurting himself. He parked the plane intending to never take it up again. His uncle met him as he hopped down from the cockpit.
As usual, he interpreted Xmill’s use of the plane as loafing. “You dam-blasted son of a weakling father,” he bellowed. “Sneaking off like that in the height of growing season. I vow to wreck that thing next time you get in it. Now go to the barn and see to the animals in there. Some are ready to deliver.”
Knowing better than to try to explain, Xmill grabbed the delivery tongs and wasted no time becoming involved in the bloody birthing process of several feathered slingnats. The slingnats were essentially helpless meat bags, who could not deliver their own offspring. Exmill clamped the tool about the head of one hundred-pound baby and pulled with all his might, dragging a bruised and slimy body out onto the floor. He crammed a hand down its throat to remove blockage that would have asphyxiated the beast. It lay like a pool of flesh, looking at him through trusting eyes, assigning to this human primary parental status. The boy moved on. The next “slingy” as he called it would not come forth, no matter how hard he pulled.
“Want help, mebbe?”
A huge bronze arm reached over Exmill, gargantuan hands grasped the baby and it came forth. The slingy choked then spat. It was all right.
Exmill spun around. “Mohaw. How did you -?”
The monstrous alien good-humouredly brushed a hand down the boy’s face. He poised a moment, grinning, then dragged a finger across his throat. “Blade - No more.”
The thought gave Xmill’s stomach some queasiness. “Won’t - Won’t they come here to find you?”
Mohaw broke into his victory dance. “Mohaw send ship into hyperspace. Them look - Where? Ho-oh-oh-oh. Milky Way mebbe? Here? Me not think so.”
“Well, gosh dang it, Mohaw, around here that sort of killing is frowned upon.”
Mohaw guffawed. “Blade no like.”
“If you’ve got to kill anybody, there’s Jackarillos around.”
That statement caught Mohaw in the solar plexus.
“Jackarillo. Much bad.”
The monster thrust his ungainly form out the door. He scoured the landscape, nostrils flaring, as though he actually expected to see even a trace of the hated fiends. Finding nothing but a whiff of feathered slingnat offal, he rejoined his friend to deliver another five babies. “Where we find Jackarillos?” he demanded.
“I can take you in a plane later to look for some,” Xmill said.
“Mohaw make war song. You, friend, make plane ready.”
The alien sat cross-legged on the floor, lit a pipe, took long slow drags from it. His eyeballs turned inward and the chant began. “Tya-tya-tya-tomay-tome. Tya-tya-tya-tomay-tome.”
Exmill, watching from near the entrance, suddenly was inspired. “He’s like Tonto.” That is when he hatched his half-baked plan.
The boy raced inside the house to change his clothing and to fashion a mask out of a pair of briefs. He dug through a drawer to locate a silver marble. He found the marble, polished it. Minutes later he approached Sneezer in his chair, fiddling as always with the radio.
In a voice deepened to mimic the one heard on Lone Ranger broadcasts, Exmill proclaimed, “Yes, my man Sneezer. I am the Lone Ranger.”
The old curmudgeon started. His best eye rolled up and down the masked figure. “Who the hell are you?”
The masked man flashed his silver marble and stuck it quickly back in his pocket. “Come, you know who I am. Didn’t you send a note requesting help from me?”
“I thought you’d be taller. ‘N’ lithe as a panther.”
“Sneezer. We’re wasting time. The Jackarillos are going to overwhelm you and your nephew if you don’t listen to me.”
“Where’s Tonto? If you’re the Lone Ranger where’s Tonto?”
Xmill sighed. “All right. I will get him to come in.”
Effecting an exaggerated saunter, the would-be heroic figure moved to fetch his sidekick.
The boy paused.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Sneezer had risen and begun waving his arms. “You say he’s out there?”
“That’s good enough for me. Go, Lone Ranger. Get every last one of them varmints.”
“Another thing. I had to leave my horse at home. Lame leg and all. I need to use your fighter plane to scout them out.”
“Take what you need. Don’t come back until every dad gasted son of a bitch has died or else gone back home to the Shadow Planets.”
Gar Splan melted control panels and ripped out wires as his brother, Spler, rolled over wheeled structures, severing underpinnings and burning off rubber treads. Two other Jackarillos, Brung Stekian and Mael Grom, studied the system of water pipes. Having gotten used to operating with impunity, they discounted the darting actions of Exmill in his fighter plane, expecting it to buzz impotently and then retreat homeward, as had been the case daily. They were mildly surprised that the plane chose this occasion to swoop down and suddenly land. Grinning at one another, they anticipated torturing the foolhardy pilot to death.
They saw there should be double the fun when not just the boy jumped down, but also a Jagual-syrne. They mocked the outlandish costume and the ungainly look of the lizard man, as they called him.
The Jagual-syrne bounded across the field, his powerful legs driving him to almost a blur as he closed in on Brung Stekian. He literally plowed the Jackarillo into the soil. Turning his attention immediately to Spler Splan, the next intended victim. Gar Splan at the same time went after Xmill with a long-handled wrench, until Mael Grom intervened. Gar launched himself onto Mohaw’s neck, pulling him away from Ger. Ger fell away. He pulled from the wreckage a ragged spear of iron. Exmill, caught in the clutches of Mael Grom, heard Mohaw’s scream of death. He twisted his head around in time to see the bronze monster vomiting blood, lurching away, then falling full length on the freshly tilled soil. He twitched once, then lay still. A blow to the back of the head laid the boy out also. Gar ripped the mask away, snorting derisively. “Dumb ass kid,” he said. “Wake him so he will know when and how we kill him. Only if he sees it coming will the Old Healer credit us with yet another death.”
Mael grabbed the boy with one hand wrapped about the neck. He dragged him like a sack of tubers over the uneven ground.
Xmills eyes were slits. He pretended to be unconscious while studying the Jackarillos. They had piled Brung Stekian’s corpse on top of Mohaw’s and built a huge fire over them. Soon they were sniffing, enjoying the aroma, cracking coarse jokes. The boy almost vomited when Gar pulled off Brung’s arm and ripped out a healthy chunk with his teeth. His discomfort was met with laughter. “The farmer’s awake,” he chortled.
Mael snatched a string of meat that had settled on Gar’s chin whiskers and forced it into Exmill’s mouth. He held it in there while puke tried to occupy the same space. “Let him breathe,” Gar commanded. “I want him to take the walk of death on his own two feet. Get him ready.”
The slingnats needed to be in water to survive for very long. Sneezer managed to float them out of the barn into a large pond where they would reside the entirety of their lives. Unable to swim, slingnats relied on their feathers to keep them on top of the pond. Cursing because this ought to have been Xmill’s job, the old man looked down the slope into the water for a bit, anticipating the slaughter when the market for slingnat meat opened up. He felt regret for allowing Xmill to get away with masquerading as the Lone Ranger. He turned to go when a dark form suddenly confronted him. They each were startled by the unexpected encounter. A Jackarillo cruelly smiling, because he had before him a weak old man, reaching for his pistol. Sneezer reflexively sent the point of the slingnat hook he was carrying into the Jackarillo’s eye. Shocked, jumping away to avoid pain and further damage, the Jackarillo stepped into the sluice that carried the slingnats to the pond. His foot slid on the moist slingnat oil, causing him to fall on his backside in the groove and glide all the way to the water. He flailed in the water like one under heavy shark attack for three minutes. Sneezer gawked in amazement as the water reddened around the splashing and then still body. He gasped in wonder to discover that the water was dissolving the Jackarillo. After a mere fifteen minutes, the water began to clear. All that remained of the struggle that had taken place was Jackarillo clothing.
Hauled to the Plank of Great Guessing, Xmill found himself balancing on two inches of grease-coated steel.
“Walk,” Gar barked. “And if you fall you take a beating. Then walk again.”
The boy’s feet went on either side of the plank before he made the first step.
“Haw haw haw,” the Jackarillos laughed.
“Family jewels,” Mael shrieked.
Spier whacked him with a paddle, but Gar intervened. “No. He’s not on the ground.”
At first, Xmill struggled to regain his footing, until he realized it was hopeless. “Best drop to the dirt and let them finish me,” he muttered. “End the humiliation.”
He made a show of struggling, then falling. Blows rained all over his limbs and body; just not the head. His eyes were being saved that he might see death when it came. He tried making himself into a tight ball, to no avail. “Old Healer,” he bellowed at last.
At that point, Gar stopped the proceeding. “Just put him on the rack. I think he is too bright for the walk of death.”
The boy found himself lashed upon an X-shaped frame, X being the Old Healer’s favorite religious symbol.
“Cut away his eyelids, then bring the ax.”
Giggling mischievously, Mael pulled a shiv and approached the quivering boy. He quickly showed frustration as he tried to make the blade follow Xmill’s bobbing head and cut without puncturing an eye. In frustration, he turned away, pouting, until Spier seized a fistful of hair, jamming the boy’s skull against the frame. Mael returned with his eager knife, going, “He he he.”
This moment chose to be filled with torrents of water. Suddenly and without warning the watering system had went on. The drenched and no longer haughty Jackarillos rolled and writhed on the ground in great agony. Xmill looking from his bondage on the X frame saw that the sun had created a circular rainbow through the mini storm. Moving into the circle’s center came a lone figure. A costume-clad man wearing a mask.
Barely twitching, “Who is that masked man?” Spier wondered with his final breath.
“The Lone Ranger,” Xmill breathed. “Given us this day, Great Healer. Thank you very much.”
As the sprinklers continued to rain, splashing past the dissolving marauders, the newcomer approached the X frame. Somewhat roughly, Xmill thought, he sawed through the bonds, allowing Xmill to slide to the ground.
The boy was hurt. His rescuer had not the strength to move him. It was up to him to crawl, roll, or whatever to get himself home.
The dadgasted mask kept shifting, blocking the man’s vision. Finally, he snatched it off, flung it in the puddled water. Xmill smiled, pleasantly surprised. “Uncle Sneezer.”
When finally they made it home, in the course of a conversation, Xmill asked his uncle, “But, tell me, Uncle Sneezer; how did you know it was me and not the Lone Ranger?”
“Spotted it right away, you idjit. That was my underwear you had on your face.”