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            Colonel Courageous flew to the highest structure he could find and hid himself in the shadow under the slope of the roof.  He looked out over the patchwork city and tried to make sense of its chaos.  There was no thought or true design put into the layout of their city, or their world.  If it worked, and they could use it, then they did.  Even if, as he learned, it meant embedding a small – in comparison, still quite large – spaceship into the ground. 

            He couldn’t image how they could live in a world without even a hint of order.  Structures had been stacked on top of one another, piled like heaps of garbage.  The expended and useless constructs, ships, what-have-you, were crushed beneath the newest and more useful devices.  How could the Cycksiks maneuver and get around in a place that had been built, and was constantly being rebuilt on a whim?  More so, how could creatures like that come up with an idea to take over the Earth like they did?  There had to be someone else helping them.  A higher intelligence that formulated and executed their plan. 

            Looking at the mishmash world made the Colonel wonder a lot of things about their society.  Nothing about them made any sense to him.  He always saw himself as a man who cared about all living things.  You don’t become the protector of Earth by not giving a damn.  But, the Cycksiks…  Scavengers. Intergalactic locusts.  They didn’t deserve to live. 

            Before their recent attack on Earth, had Dr. 253 or Major Tom approached him with the planet killer, he would have vehemently objected and found some reason why they deserved to live.  No longer.  The Colonel stood with his them now.  The Cycksiks were vermin, and should be exterminated as such. 

 

            Lost in thoughts of disgust, Colonel Courageous forgot his reason for leaving the refuge of the ship.  He quickly remembered and scanned the area, looking for anything that resembled a broadcast tower or beacon.  The technology might be alien, but they still needed a tall structure to transmit from.  There had to be some form of relay device for an orbital satellite. 

            His eyes narrowed as he focused on sections of the city a number of stories beneath him.  It was no use.  There were dozens of constructs in the surrounding area that fit the description.  The city was a massive junk pile; any one of them could be what he and Tom were looking for. 

            Even from his height, the Colonel could see cautious scampering down on the streets below.  The figures moved independently and in secret.  They dashed from one darkened area to another; always checking to see if they had been seen. 

            “Maybe one of them could be of help?” the Colonel thought.  From what Dr. 253 and Major Tom told him, they were near hive mind.  Any one of them could tell him what he needed to know. 

            “I need to get Tom first.”  he continued.  “He should be ready to go now.” 

 

*****

 

            Major Tom gave his systems a third check before being satisfied that everything was in working order.  His inertial deflecting forcefield hummed and bathed his body in a sun kissed glow.  He tested the raygun by using a focused beam setting and cutting a small hole into the exhaust port wall.  With the jetpack and raygun both fully powered and functioning, he was ready. 

            He glided above the floor, making his way to the entrance.  Colonel Courageous would be back soon, and together they could put an end to the Cycksiks for good. 

            Tom stopped a couple of yards from the large opening, staying out of sight for anyone passing by.  He touched the wall with his hand and his mind went back to that day decades ago when he broke free from the Cycksiks enslavement.  The years he had spent under their heel, the subject of countless horrors.  The suit he now wore – recognized on Earth as a hero’s costume – a slaves uniform permanently bonded to his body. The degradation and torture.  The experiments that were carried out on him and the others.  Many of them died, but he and a select few survived those prolonged days of agony.  And with each survival, the testing grew worse. 

            Tom didn’t regret not being able to help the others escape.  They were set free when the ship’s core went critical.  He’d done for them what he could.  What he thought was best. 

 

            He ran his hand along the smooth interior of the shaft and remembered treading along its near frictionless surface.  The ship’s core had been sabotaged; exhaust vents closed and the energy doubled back on itself.  He knew that it wouldn’t take long for one of the engineering slaves to discover what was done and open the vents.  Tom had to be out of the exhaust shaft before then. 

            The emergency venting would initialize the second part of his escape plan.  He had reversed the dampening couplers to trip once the plasma vents went over seventy five percent output.  The entire core and energy conversion system would lock causing the core controls to reboot.  The exhaust vents would stay wide open, venting radiation unchecked.  The dampening couplers would contain the core energy, while the system itself was locked at maximum output.  The ship’s core would go critical in a matter of minutes.  With the main systems in reboot it was all irreversible. 

            All Tom had to do was get out of the exhaust port before it vented.  Running on the smooth surface in zero gravity was akin to swimming in a pool filled with Styrofoam peanuts. 

            Floating a safe distance away from the ship was an emergency escape craft.  It was the only one that would leave the ship before it exploded.  All the others had been disabled and would remain trapped in the launch bays, filled beyond capacity with those desperate to escape their fate. 

 

            Once inside the escape shuttle, Tom set the ship’s controls to maximum thrust and never looked back.  Behind him, the interstellar cruiser erupted in a cascade of rebounding orange, red, and light blue energies.  The shockwaves buffeted against his small craft, threatening to knock his engines offline and leave him adrift in space.  There were more humane was to die than floating helpless in the great expanse.  A person would go mad long before they would starve to death. 

            Tom shut down his engines and let the force of the shockwaves carry him across the void.  He didn’t know where they would take him, but wherever it was, he’d be free. 

 

            The sounds of approaching footsteps snapped him back to present day.  Major Tom snatched the raygun from its holster and drew down on the being coming towards him.  Light from the planet’s sun backlit the intruder, casting their features in shadow.  It didn’t take him long to recognize Colonel Courageous’ silhouette. 

 

            “You ok, Tom?” the Colonel asked.  He slowed his gait, wanting to make sure Major Tom realized who he was and no longer perceived him as a threat.

            He feared that raygun of Tom’s more than he cared to admit.  He’d seen it take down too many threats to underestimate its power.  And Tom wielded it with the carefree abandon of a western gunslinger.  His shoot first, if-it’s-still-moving-shoot-again way of thinking concerned the Colonel every time his gun was drawn. 

            “I’m fine, Colonel.” Tom answered.  He kept his gun trained on the hero until his face came into full view.  “What did you find?” 

            “This place is a hellhole.  I couldn’t tell what was a relay antenna from just discarded junk.” 

            “Hmm.  Even with the homing device, we still might not find the transmitter.” 

            “The streets, if you can call them that are virtually empty.  I saw a few Cycksiks scampering about, hiding in the shadows.  You said they’re sorta hive mind in their thinking, right?  I figure we snatch one of them and see what they know.” 

            “Scampering in the shadows?’ Tom questioned. 

            “Yeah.  It wasn’t what I expected.  I thought they be crawling all over the place, like before.  It doesn’t seem like them.” 

            “It’s not.” Tom replied sharply.  The Colonel could hear the concern in his voice.  “Take me to where you saw them.” 

 

            The two heroes hovered in the air above the city.  Colonel Courageous pointed down to the refuse built city below.  He questioned why they were in the open, and not keeping their presence a secret.  His hands curled into fists, and he waited for the Cycksiks to attack. 

            “No,” Tom spoke aloud, almost mumbling under his breath.  “This isn’t right at all.”   He scanned the ground beneath them, enhancing the display on his visor.  He zoomed in on a portion of rubble that had once been a housing unit; now scrap.  He saw the tiny figure as it popped its head out of the safety of the shelter and quickly looked around.  When the figure dashed out into the street Major Tom pounced. 

            He flew head first towards the figure, his body a missile locked on to its target.  “There!”

            Tom gave the Colonel very little notice or instruction to follow behind him.  The hero was lost for a few seconds, looking in all directions to see what his ally was referring to.  He dove behind him, not heading for the lone figure – which he still hadn’t seen – but following the alien’s lead. 

            Like a bird snagging a fish from a pond, Tom swooped up at the last minute, snatching the figure off the ground and flying it high into to the air. 

            He passed the Colonel Courageous as he returned to the sky, forcing the human to change his trajectory to follow. 

            “Talk!” Tom demand of the being in his clutches.  “Where are they?”

            The Colonel was a second or two behind him; coming up to hover by his friend’s side.  His brow scrunched tight as he looked at the alien in Tom’s hands.  It wasn’t a Cycksisks, at least not as he had seen them.  This creature was a lot more human in its appearance; for the most part.  Its body was long and lanky, taller than the two of them by more than a foot.  Its skin was fuchsia with a slick, almost polished texture.  The alien’s eyes appeared human at first glance, but bigger.  It was only upon further inspection that the extra irises were noticeable; a brighter color than the inner iris, making them almost hypnotic. 

            “Speak, gres’nict, or I drop you!”  Tom spoke to the being in his language, knowing that it had full understanding. 

            The alien looked down at the street, stories below, and back at Tom.  Its hands tried franticly to grab a hold of his arms in the event he remained true to his threat.  

            “What is that?” the Colonel inquired. 

            “He’s a Rechlen.  That ship we were in – their race built it.  That one and many more like it.  I thought they’d all be dead by now.  It appears I was wrong.  Unfortunately, this explains everything.” 

            “Explains what?”

            “How the Cycksiks are still alive.  How a simplified hunter-gatherer-scavenger of a race could have come up with an idea of this magnitude.  They didn’t do this alone.  They had help.  The Cycksiks enslaved the Rechlens and they helped to transmit them off world.”   

            “Why?”

            “With the Cycksiks gone, they’d be free again.  Their masters would be on the other side of the galaxy with no means of returning.  It didn’t take much coercion to get them to assist with that.”

 

            Tom turned his attention back to the squiggling alien he held in his hands. 

            “Speak!” he demanded again in his alien tongue. 

            The alien started to talk.  Its words cut the air, attacking it with knives of sound and making it scream in pain. 

            Colonel Courageous grimaced as the being spoke.  Its language sounded like a cross between someone trying to speak under water, and an off-tune violin being played with a metal file.  The mouth that spoke the words was circular with an inner set of lips that moved, and a thin flat sliver of a tongue. 

 

            “What’s it saying?” the Colonel questioned.  He was the odd man out in this three-way conversation between aliens. 

            “Quiet.” Tom hushed him.  He listened carefully to the lanky alien’s words.  The Colonel could tell from the look on Tom’s face that he wasn’t happy with what he heard. 

            “How?  How were they doing this?  Take us there!” Tom demanded. 

            The alien flapped its arms and gestured to a large ruin of discarded technology.  The area it directed their attention to looked like a dilapidated building.  Its odd construction, a spiral made of right angles with bulbous protrusions along the sides, screamed alien.  Not alien as in outer space, but not of this world.  The more Colonel Courageous looked around, the more he began to notice how out of place everything looked.  The city, the entire planet for that matter, was compiled of technology stolen from other civilizations.  A patchwork alien world.  Nothing fit or displayed any sense of harmony or natural balance. 

            The more he looked at it, the less it seemed like a living junkyard, and more like a random collection of other races thrown together in a haphazard – almost reckless – manner.  He likened it to a world where Jackson Pollock was the city planner.  There was logic hidden in it somewhere, but he himself couldn’t see it. 

           

            Major Tom lowered himself and the alien closer to the ground.  He flew them over to the  building that the being had pointed to.  As they got closer, the Colonel could see it, and could have kicked himself for not seeing it before.  He had been looking for a signal array, an antenna or dish, positioned at the top of the building used to broadcast the signal. 

            No.  The entire building was both the terminal and antenna. 

 

            The trio entered via an opening at the top of the spire.  The Colonel looked around the spacious hallways and rooms.  As odd as it seemed, he was starting appreciate the strange architecture around him.  The inside of the spire was much different than everything he had experienced so far.  There was design and order.  It was crafted with intent and purpose, and not thrown together for mere functionality.  

            He followed behind Tom and the Rechlen as they walked to… he wasn’t quite sure where they were headed.  They journeyed down the interior of the spire.  The building wasn’t made of individual floors, but was more like a lighthouse.  A spiral building with a winding incline that went from bottom to pointed top.  Rooms with level floors lined the steady incline which was so gradual that the Colonel barely noticed the change of pressure in his feet and ankles.  The Colonel couldn’t help but be impressed. 

 

            The walls bore the same smooth texture design as the space ship Colonel Courageous and Major Tom had been in earlier.  The Colonel stopped for a moment and stared at the writing on the wall.  The words were written in two languages.  The top language was the same as he saw in the space ship, but the bottom was something else.  He guessed Cycksiks.  It was strange… he could almost make out what it said. 

            “Colonel.” Tom called. 

            Colonel Courageous realized that he had stopped and quickly caught up to the aliens.  The three continued walking for what seemed like forever.  Given the size of the spire, he presumed that they were reaching the middle.  He wondered if these being had ever heard of elevators, or if the Rechlen was wasting their time on purpose.  The Colonel was conscious of the time spent, knowing that they had a limited window to complete their mission before they would be yanked back to Earth. 

 

            The Rechlen stopped and pointed to a room on the left, speaking with his razor tongue and making the Colonel grimace.  Tom gestured for the alien to enter, and stepped in after him. 

            Above the door was more double alien writing, and a blue pulsing light bar.  The Colonel studied it before following behind his comrade. 

            “The light’s not red, so I guess it’s okay to enter.” he said. 

            “What did you say?” Major Tom questioned his friend. 

            “The writing above the door said, ‘do not enter when light is red’.  It was blue, so we’re safe.” 

            “How did you…” 

 

            Tom stared at his ally.  His eyes narrowed as he studied the human hero carefully.  Even as he turned away to examine the transference machine behind him, his eyes were the last thing to move. 

            The machine wasn’t as big as the Colonel expected, and looked like an enlarged CT scanner.  The transference chamber was transparent with three oscillating rings that revolved around it.  The thing that struck him as odd was that it didn’t look futuristic.  It didn’t look like he expected it to.  The Colonel was expecting something more elaborate and otherworldly.  Instead, it looked rather ordinary to him.  He even found the clear panel controls and the transparent crystal-like display screen unimpressive. 

 

            Major Tom immediately went to work on the machine.  His hands flew across the illuminated touch screen display, pulling up the system information.  The Colonel couldn’t read the alien language – not that it would have helped any way, he still wouldn’t have understood anything that it said – he could barely follow Tom’s actions.   

            The alien hero suddenly stopped, his eyes focusing on a particular area.  His fist slammed down on the controls, cracking the clear touch panel. 

            “H’recht!” Tom exclaimed.  The Colonel had no idea what he said, but he knew an expletive by its tone, no matter what language it was in. 

 

            “What is it?  What’s wrong?” Colonel Courageous was more than concerned.  Nothing about this felt right.  Where were the Cycksiks? 

            Major Tom grabbed the Rechlen by his shirt and yanked him over to the machine’s controls.  He screamed at him, pointing at the machine.  The Colonel could tell by the timid alien’s body language that he was sacred.  He tried to pull away, realizing the fury his words ignited in the former slave alien.  Disgusted, Tom flung him across the room.  The alien hit the wall, fell to the floor, and was still.

            The Colonel was momentarily stunned.  Tom was impulsive and quick to temper, but this wasn’t like him at all; at least not the Tomaskarian he knew.  He wanted to check on the Rechlen and make sure the alien wasn’t hurt, but wanted answers at the same time.  His mind couldn’t decide which was of more importance.  After several seconds, his concern for the Earth won out. 

 

            “Wait!  Where are the Cycksiks?”  Colonel Courageous asked confused.  This wasn’t at all how he expected things to happen. 

            “They’re gone, Colonel.” 

            “Gone?!” 

            “We’re too late.” Major Tom spat.  “They’re all gone.  He says the last one was sent out days ago.” 

            “Days?  We have to get back!  We need to get home now!” 

            “You forget, Colonel.  The Slingshot won’t extract us until the hour is up.  Even then, the trip will take nearly a week; though it would only have seemed like an hour to us.  By the time we get back, it may be too late.” 

 

            Colonel Courageous stumbled backwards.  His eyes blinked repeatedly as he tried to accept the truth of the situation.  There were hundreds of Cycksiks on Earth now.  Maybe thousands.  The entire race, taking over innocent humans.  Lying in wait for their time to strike.  To turn his planet into another used up husk of a world like they had done so many others.  Too many. 

            Worst of all, he was too late to late to save them.  Eleven days too late.  The Colonel didn’t want to think of the destruction they would cause on Earth before he could return.  The people they would kill.  His friends, loved ones, family.  His daughter – Celia. 

            No!  He would sacrifice himself before he’d let that happen.

            “Tom!  We have to…”  The Colonel’s command was cut short by a tingling sensation that suddenly washed over his entire body.  His skin started to itch furiously.  He looked down and saw himself bathed in an orange glow.  His form started to drift away, and he realized that the Slingshot was taking him back to Earth. 

            He watched as Major Tom input something on the transference device, before he too started to dissolve into a trail of energy. 

            Once again, his mind drifted as he was streamed halfway across the galaxy.  He thought to himself, the war has begun

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