by Vixyy Fox
Text ©2008 Vixyy Fox; illustration ©1995 Dark Natasha

Home -=- #17 -=- ANTHRO #17 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   Fred Matheson held up his pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, which was only half there. The upper half of the pack had been burned off, and what was left inside the pack was nothing but charcoal. He was having a ‘stopped for three days really really needing a damned smoke bad’ craving; now was not the time for his son to be messing with him.
   “Martha… the kid burned up an entire pack of my cigarettes this time!”
   Her voice floated in from the kitchen. “Just go and open another one, Fred. Don’t be such a drama queen. Corey is only ten. You should be flattered that he loves his dad so much that he wants to help him quit smoking.”
   Fred heard a dish smash on the floor and his wife cursed, which stopped their ‘through the walls’ conversation. He was about to yell back at her that she wouldn’t think it was so funny if the brat had pissed in her scotch bottle, but the stream of bad language coming from the kitchen made him reconsider.
   “I suppose that means dinner is going to be late again?” he yelled instead.
   That crack triggered more bad language, directed this time at him. He smiled; touched a nerve. Lifting the cigarette pack to his nose, he sniffed at it, wondering how his son had gotten such a close and neat burn on the pack while roasting every one of the cigs inside to blackness. It didn’t look right and it smelled funny—like the electric blue of a close thunderbolt. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. Crumpling the pack as he would normally before throwing it away, he coughed as a black cloud of dust enveloped his head. Tossing what was left of the pack to the ashtray, he decided to go up to his son’s room and maybe have a little chat with him… just a chat, though… Fred had never hit Corey in his life. In fact, his own father, Corey’s grandfather, had told him on every occasion possible that this was what ailed his son: ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’, the old man preached constantly. Fred glanced across the room to his father’s photo on the wall. Picking the crumpled paper back out of the ashtray he tossed it at the picture, hitting the image square on the nose. It left a black mark.
   Two points, Fred thought, and smiled to himself. His life might not be ideal; his family might not be perfect; but that was okay, because he loved both his son and his wife with his whole being. His father’s thoughts on life no longer mattered to him.
   Fred was about to knock on his son’s bedroom door when he heard him talking to someone. He stopped to listen to the conversation… it almost sounded like two different people. He had to admire the kid’s imagination, but it also worried him that his son still had an imaginary friend at age ten.
   He knocked softly at the door. “Corey?”
   The voices stopped and there was an electric spark of a sound. “Yeah, Dad?”
   Fred opened the door and peeked in. “I think you know why I’m here.”
   “I didn’t do it!”
   Fred stepped inside the room and closed the door behind himself. “You don’t even know what I’m sore about; so how can you say you didn’t do it?”
   “Rogers said he fried them with something he keeps as a weapon—it’ll cut through anything. It’s for your own good. He says if you don’t quit you won’t live another ten years.”
   “And he knows this how?”
   Corey looked at the floor. “He just does.”
   At times like this Fred hated having to be the disciplinarian… but it had to be done.
   “Where is Buckman so I can talk with him?”
   “He doesn’t like when you call him that, Dad,” Corey bridled.
   Fred used the name on purpose, because he knew it would bother his son. It was a petty thing to do, but he was still sore about his cigarettes. Since the doll was a spaceman named Rogers, the father had dubbed it Buckman soon after it first showed up. The name was in reference to the original space warrior: Buck Rogers.
   “Corey… Buckman is a toy. He’s a pretend playmate in the form of a doll.”
   “He’s not a doll!”
   “Oh, yes,” Fred replied, sitting on the bed. “I forgot; he’s an action figure. You know, I can’t even remember how you got him.”
   “He flew here in his spaceship, which was wounded. He looks like an action figure because he’s hiding from the bad guys.”
   “Rii-iight… And those bad guys, what are they called again?”
   “Howlers. He says they look like Doberman Pinschers, and you can never, ever trust any of them. They used to be Wolfs like Rogers, but they belong to the government. The government had them genitillicly changed while they were sleeping one night, but he was on a camping trip with his family so they missed him.”
   “Wolves,” Fred corrected automatically while smiling at his son’s youthful distortion of words.
   Corey shook his head adamantly. “It’s Wolfs. That’s how Rogers says it. ‘Wolves’ is a term used by lower life forms. He always says he doesn’t like the way you try to correct things you don’t understand.”
   “Is that a fact?” He sat on the bed and studied his son.
   Corey nodded.
   “Can I see him?”
   “You could… but you won’t.”
   Fred made a ‘serious father’ face. “And what does that mean?
   “You’re a grown-up. Rogers says grownups can’t see much of anything because they’re always too busy trying to make ends meet that are too far apart. He says it’s not your fault, it’s just the way of our society.”
   Fred was actually impressed. That was a pretty mature observation his son had just made… maybe too mature for a ten-year-old kid. Perhaps he should talk with him more often. “You sure you didn’t get that from the TV?”
   Corey shook his head. “I don’t watch TV anymore.”
   The father rubbed his chin and paused a moment looking at his son. “Not even cartoons? I can check with your mother, you know. She’s here all day while I’m at work. I know they have entire cartoon networks for the after school bunch; and you get home plenty early.”
   “Mom’s mind isn’t really here by the time I get home,” the boy replied, looking back at the floor again.
   Fred knew his wife drank too much, but he had no idea what went on in the house during the day. He left early and got home late every day except Sunday. He had immersed himself in his work and ignored the minor bad parts of his life. Everyone had bad parts in their marriage. If you didn’t roll with the punches… he had a sudden mental picture of his father’s upraised hand, and his own understanding that if he moved his head in the direction of the slap it wouldn’t hurt as bad. He shook his head, trying to rid it of the demon of his memory.
   “What say you and I try to maybe change all of that? I never knew—”
   “Because you’re always at work!” Corey interjected, looking at him in a hard way for a ten-year-old. “Rogers says you’re hiding there. He says that happens, and I have to take care of myself as best I can, otherwise I’ll become a Howler like all the rest of… human kind.” These last words were quieter than the rest, and tapered away to nothingness.
   Fred was stymied. “Can I see Buckman, please?”
   Corey thought about it, and then slid completely under his bed. Fred remembered that when he was young, ‘under the bed’ was where all the monsters lived. He heard whispering; he could swear there were two different voices again. He was tempted to lean down and raise the skirt of the bed, but he allowed his son the small bit of privacy the bed skirt afforded. Presently Corey wiggled back out onto the wooden floor, his ‘action figure’ in hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to Fred that in all the toy stores he’d ever been in, he had never seen another doll like this one. It just showed up one day, clutched in his son’s hands; and Corey wouldn’t give it up for anything. He wrinkled his forehead trying to remember when that was… maybe five years before?
   Standing back up, Corey handed over Rogers. “Just so you know, Dad: Rogers doesn’t like you.”
   “He doesn’t?” Fred wondered what a shrink would make of this.
   “No. He says you’re a pussy.”
   Fred’s immediate reaction was to slap his son’s face for the use of a bad word, but he stopped himself even as his hand rose up. It had taken him years of discipline to keep away from the initial reactions that had gotten him into so much trouble in the past. “We don’t use words like that in this house, son.”
   “Well, that’s what he said! I think it means something different in his language, but I know it’s still not good. He also says Grandpa acts like a Howler.”
   Fred looked at the doll in his hand. “Buckman, you and I have to have a close and personal talk. Corey told me you’re the one who burned up my cigarettes, so it’s you who will have to be punished. I know my son is telling the truth, because I know he knows he is absolutely not allowed to play with fire.” Fred looked at Corey. “Get ready for dinner, son. Buckman will spend the night in my bedroom. If I can’t smoke, you can’t have Buckman, so we’re even.”
   “Nooooo!!!!” wailed Corey as his father stood. “You said you just wanted to talk to him!”
   “Get used to the idea that there are repercussions in life, son. Action and reaction… crime and punishment. You can have Rogers back in the morning.”

   That night, as Fred lay in bed, he could see the silhouette of Buckman standing on his dresser. The room was dimly lit by the yard light he’d installed on the garage. He always figured maybe he and Corey would play basketball by that light someday. He sighed… one step at a time. First he had to get his life back in order.
   Though his wife was sound asleep, he was just the opposite, not being able to get comfortable no matter what. The window was open and a cool breeze blew the curtains making them billow. Heat lightning lit the sky without thunder. It was like having a distant camera flash go off. Slowly his eyes readjusted to the darkness. His mind was everywhere except for sleep. He envied his wife’s soft snoring, though he didn’t exactly like the way she worked into her sleep cycle lately.
   What was happening to them? Why was everything the way that it was? Where was the storybook ‘happily ever after’ that was supposed to happen post-honeymoon? Where was—
   There was a noise downstairs. Heat lightning lit the room again as he sat up. In the flickering light, he saw that Buckman was missing from the dresser.
   “Corey,” he muttered as he kicked off his sheets. He could actually understand, but things were the way they were. His son had to learn, one way or another, that there were always consequences to the things you did in life. If that meant he had to play the heavy and come down on the kid like a ton of bricks, then so be it.
   Fred made his way out into the hallway and peered into the gloom. Surprise would be the best way, so he refrained from putting a light on. A quiet noise drifted upstairs… right, Corey and Buckman were raiding the refrigerator. As he recalled, his son had mentioned that the space Wolf had a liking for orange juice. Perhaps that was what they were doing; a quick quenching of the old thirst and then back upstairs to sleep under the bed. Standing on the stairway while peering down into the darkness, Fred rubbed his chin in thought; a few different plans of action passed through his mind before he finally decided on exactly what to do. Best not to cause any trauma, so he would creep quietly to the kitchen, and then when Corey saw him he would ask if he could join the pair; maybe they could talk things out.
   Finding his way in the near-darkness was not as easy as he’d anticipated. What little light there was came from under the swinging kitchen door, and wasn’t enough to keep him from stubbing his toe against who-knew-what in the living room; he’d been hard pressed not to make any noise as he danced around in pain. The father in him might have smiled, except his foot hurt too much. Pushing through the kitchen door, he found the refrigerator open and heard someone rummaging around. Bottles clinked, and then the sudden ‘pssshhhhhh’ sound of a soda can being opened.
   “Corey?” he said softly.
   The refrigerator slammed closed. Fred stared at something he could only describe as a huge Doberman Pinscher in a metal-looking space suit, which stared right back at him for a moment. It was standing on its hind legs, and in one forepaw it held a diet Coke. The kitchen light clicked off and something heavy hit him from behind, knocking him to the floor. A heavy weight pinned him, and a dog’s voice growled in his right ear. On the heels of the growl came a bizarre, electronic voice, just like the one his Uncle Johnny had to use after they removed his cancerous larynx.
   “Wherrre isss Rrrogerssss?”
   “Who the hell are you?” he managed and the weight on his back shifted. A knee dug painfully into his back. The dog’s voice growled again, the light switched back on, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a big Doberman’s snout with bared teeth.
   “Annsswerrr only what isss assssked. Wherrre issss Rrogerrrssss?”
   “What Rogers?” he gasped. “I don’t know any Rogers!”
   ‘Growllllll.’—“Weee havvvve the boyyyy.”—‘Grrrrgrrrowlllllll.’—“Heee would not talk eitherrrr.”
   Another canine sound came from the refrigerator—‘Grrrr… sneezeeeee.’—and the same electronic voice translated that as well. “Thisss stuff is crrrrap. I don’t knowww howww they eat iiiiit.”
   ‘Bark!’—“Shut up!”
   “Look,” said Fred, feeling crushed under the weight. “if I knew what you were looking for, I’d help you out, but I really don’t know—” His words got cut off.
   ‘Snarlllll… Grrowwwlll!’—“We will kill the chiiild if you do nnot complyyyy!”
   “What did you do with him??!!” Fred screamed, suddenly feeling panic. He jerked his head up, trying his best to rise against the creature on his back. That dog-thing slammed his head back to the linoleum floor, and he saw stars.
   ‘Grrrrrrrrrrr’,—“Wee took him toooo the shiiip.”
   And then things happened so quickly that Fred hardly had time to catch his breath.
   Whump!—the light went out. Glass tinkled around him and water began to spray in the air.
   Whump!—something lifted the weight off his back. A large body crashed into the wall next to him. It fell right back down onto him, knocking all the air out of his lungs.
   Whump!—and the Doberman next to the refrigerator crashed backwards, smashing through the window behind the sink.
   A large hand grabbed the body lying across him and dumped it off to the right. That hand’s mate grabbed him by the neck and yanked him to his feet, with a shouted “Let’s go!” loud enough to deafen him. Fred’s apparent rescuer then grabbed his arm and manhandled him out the back door.
   “Who…” Fred began to demand of the person pulling him across the back yard.
   “I’m Rogers, ye dopey bastard!” said the person without turning around. The rough voice had a slight Scottish sound to it. “And don’t ye dare call me Buckman!”
   They were halfway across the yard when the figure whispered forcefully, “Fred! Shields up—do it now an’ cover the house!”
   Something large rose up in the darkness of the moonless sky, eclipsing the stars. A small bluish light came on, looking very much like a Cyclops’ eye, and then a hum filled the air all around them. The whole area lit up, covered with the same blueness of the Cyclops’ eye, so brightly Fred had to squint his eyes. There was a large chunk of the back wall missing where the kitchen window used to be; a metallic-looking form lay inert on the ground, surrounded by broken glass.
   Bolts of eerily silent lightning flashed over top of them. At least ten of these bolts bounced off the bluish light, and a series of ‘ouch’es and ‘oof’s echoed, not in Fred’s ears, but within his head.
   “Quit complaining, ye bloody great poof, and show ’em the cannon!” yelled the person still clutching his arm.
   “I have no ammunition,” a bland-sounding voice replied—again, Fred heard it within his skull, not his ears.
   “They don’t know that—so fake it!” Fred’s rescuer hissed. “Power up, then send out the ghost tae chase ’em off! Now, put down over here for us t’ board!”
   “Just do it!”
   At this point, Fred got his first good look at the person who’d saved him. He stared in shock: His benefactor looked exactly like his son’s doll, blown up to man-sized. The creature stuck out its right hand. “The name’s Rogers, and I am the ‘action figure‘ ye took away from your son. Bloody stupidest thing ye could e’er ha’ done.”
   Fred’s world had just come unglued; nothing made sense any more. He said the first random thing that came to mind: “Aren’t you a little big to be a doll?”
   The creature sighed. “I used a gadget called a spatial camouflage field—and afore ye ask, no, I shan’t explain it just now. We’ve yer whelp t’ rescue, aye?”
   “My whe—Corey!” Yes; the world might have gone crazy, but Corey needed him. “I’ve got to, I mean he’s—”
   The Wolf put a steadying hand on Fred’s shoulder. “Too right he is—but we’ll get ’im back. The bloody Sassenachs can run, but we’ll catch ’em. All we need’s a wee dram o’ fuel first.”
   “Fuel?” Fred asked, looking at the hovering shape—could it be Buckman’s spaceship? “I don’t think any gas station has what you need…”
   The Wolf-thing grabbed the man’s left hand and raised it up, looking at his wedding ring closely. He smiled. “Aye, but this will do nicely. That much gold—”
   “Wait, wait, wait—do you mean to say you actually use gold as a fuel!? That’s impossible! Gold is inert!”
   The Wolf muttered something unintelligible, then cut off Fred’s babbling: “Wait ’til yer boffins suss out cupromagnetism, an’ then tell me how ‘impossible’ it is. In the meantime, I’ll thank ye for the use o’ that hunk o’ shiny yellow metal on yer finger.”
   Fred jerked his hand away. “That’s my wedding band!”
   “An’ it’s worth more tae ye than the kid? He’s m’ friend, so I’ll get him back, be it with ye or wi’out ye. The choice is yours: Come along and help… or wuss out like a pussy.”
   Fred’s left hook surprised and staggered the Wolf. It didn’t matter that the ‘thing’ in front of him wasn’t even human, or that it had just killed a couple of other ‘things’ in the process of blowing holes in his house: He was pissed.
   “Bad language is not acceptable, Buckman!” he yelled at the Wolf. He would have said (and done) more, except he was encircled by some kind of glowing blue sparkly thing. It raised him bodily from the ground, electrifying him with what looked like ball lightning. His teeth chattered; all of the hair on his body stood completely on end. It cut off as quickly as it began, dumping him back to the ground.
   “That’ll do, Fred,” said the Wolf, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of a forepaw. “No need tae protect me; I’ve handled plenty like him easy enough. Still an’ all, this one’s a fighter. I’m thinkin’ he could be useful, if he can keep his eye on the real enemy. Speakin’ of which…” Rogers turned his attention to the hovering space craft. “How in the hell did they get past your sensors?”
   “I was asleep.”
   “Since when does a bloody machine sleep?”
   “You told me to power down and conserve what fuel I had left.”
   Rogers opened his mouth to scream an obscenity at the large black spot in the sky… caught himself… and then sighed. “Well, ye fried the human, so it’s ye who gets tae fix ’im. If ye haven’t power enough t’ beam us up, send a mobile unit down here t’ help me. Get the ring off his hand while you’re at it and then we blast—it’s that or we kiss the kid goodbye.”
   “As you wish.” The blue light sheltering them and the house cut off. “You were right about the cannon: They fled.”
   “Tails between their legs, I presume?”
   Rogers laughed. “Some things ne’er change. An’ the ghost is on their heels?”
   “Yes. I am tracking them even as they are taking evasive maneuvers. However, they will be out of range in ten minutes forty seven seconds.”
   The Wolf cursed under his breath. Leaning down, he jerked Fred to his feet, and then pulled him up on his shoulders. “Well, then, get yer carcass down here: We’ve little enough time tae waste.”

   Fred was floating when he awoke. At least his arms were floating, since the rest of him was strapped into a chair of some sort.
   “Ten-point-seven centurns and closing,” said a voice. “We will overtake in approximately two hours.”
   “That much of a lead, they’ve got?” asked a gravely voice he recognized as belonging to the Wolf creature. He didn’t open his eyes but continued to listen.
   “They have upgraded their engines. The ship is .4277 ferons faster than it used to be with full containment of the fields.”
   “But that would mean… rrrrrrrr… How long were we in hiding?”
   “Five rotations around the star of the planet you chose.”
   There were some unfamiliar noises, and one sound that had to be a body moving in a seat. “Ye’re really beginnin’ tae get on my nerves, Fred. Ye know full well the reason we landed there.”
   “So you could hide, like a pussy.”
   The gravely voice sighed. “Must we be havin’ this conversation now?”
   Fred felt a rough slap on his shoulder. “Open yer eyes, Twinkie, I know ye’re awake. Fred’s been monitoring your bodily functions; there’s no hiding from him. He’s an all-knowing prick.”
   Fred’s first view as he opened his eyes was the expanse of space stretching out in front of him. He’d never realized how many stars there were…
   “Impressive, aye?” the Wolf asked. “I ne’er tire o’ seeing it. Amazing that with all this nothingness, we have to seek each other out in order t’ snuff life away. Ye’ve just got tae ask… why?”
   “Where am I?” the man managed, his eyes growing large as he stared straight ahead.
   “Yoo-hoo! Over here, Freddy old boy.”
   He turned to the voice and saw the Wolf, his rescuer, sitting in the seat just to his left—the commander’s chair, maybe? Rogers returned his stare, but he was not smiling. He was in the same seemingly-metallic space suit he’d worn on Earth; when Fred glanced at his own floating arms, he saw he was in a similar outfit.
   “I’m nae used t’ working with creatures that are inferior,” the Wolf said, “so ye’re somethin’ of an oddity for me.”
   “That’s not truthful. He’s simply not used to working with anyone but me,” said the bland voice emanating in Fred’s mind.
   “Can it, gizmo—or I’ll pull your circuit boards and fly ye m’self.”
   Fred cleared his throat. He was about to say something—but instead covered his mouth, looking rather frantic.
   “Puke bag is right on the floor next to you. I’ll thank ye t’ make sure ye keep it tight against yer face until ye’re completely done. We’re flying wi’out gravity; if ye’re not careful, yer spew’ll be floatin’ around the cockpit like grease in a gravy bowl.”
   The man looked, grabbed, and puked, doing as he’d been instructed. When he was done, he held it with the flap folded tightly over. A hand appeared next to his face, taking the bag from him. Fred looked up and into the smiling face of Martha—his wife. He twitched, but managed not to make any comments. As he watched, the image dissolved into that of a pretty Wolf girl, who walked to the back and disappeared down a ladder.
   Rogers chuckled. “He got ye.”
   Fred wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. “Who got me?” he asked, sounding miserable.
   “My ship: Fred.”
   “An alien ship,” said the human, dubiously. “An alien ship… whose name just happens to be… ‘Fred’."
   The Wolf shrugged. “In yer language, aye—but nae in mine. It’s yer son I blame; he decided the ship’s English name was ‘Fred’ afore I’d a chance t’ teach him the right o’ it.” Now the Wolf leaned back in his chair, made an adjustment on a small lever, and then toggled a switch. The chair rotated to face the man. “Dinnae worry; by whate’er name, ye get used to him after a while. He’s a mickle stubborn at times, but he’s got a hell of a sense of humor—like projectin’ that image o’ your wife. I bloody near pulled his guts out when he did that to me once. Ye should hae seen your expression… like ye were expectin’ to be beaten.” The Wolf stopped talking, as if what he’d been saying finally caught up to his brain. His mouth opened for a moment, and then closed again. His eyes looked sad, and then he continued, but it was in a more subdued manner.
   “Look… I’m sorry about yer boy.”
   “His name is Corey.”
   “Aye. An’ that’s as close as the lad e’er got tae pronouncin’ my own son’s name, so in a way, we’ve that in common…” The Wolf looked at the deck for a moment. “They got to Corey afore I could do anything. As ye might recall, yours truly was bein’ ‘punished’ by a certain human for frosting a bleedin’ pack of cigarettes. Can y’ imagine? The wee bairn didnae gi’ me up… Well, no matter; we’ll get him back, or die trying. What do ye say t’ that?”
   “I think I’m having one hell of a nightmare.”
   The Wolf looked hard at him. “Trust me,” he said in a very soft voice. “This is no nightmare; it’s much worse than that. If we dinnae rescue the laddie, his best-case scenario puts ’im in the government zoo on the capitol planet. We’ll catch up to that scout ship in about two hours, so I’d suggest that you pay close attention to what I’ll be teachin’ ye in the meantime. As well, ye’ll need tae ready yourself for what’s goin’ tae happen. An’ finally, if ye worship any God or Gods, ye may want to make peace wi’ Him, Her, It, or Them.”
   The Wolf rotated the chair back to face his control console and touched a small square spot. Gray metal blast doors moved across the huge windscreen until they met in the middle, closing solidly with a hissing sound; Fred noticed there were burned looking areas on the inside.
   “I left them open so when ye woke up, ye could see that ye weren’t dreaming and that we are indeed in deep space.”
   “With no weapons,” intoned the ship’s voice gravely.
   “Wi’out any weapons, aye,” agreed Rogers quietly. “That’ll make things just a mite ticklish.”
   “No weapons? Yeah, right,” Fred groused. “What, exactly, did you use on the two back at my house? It sure as hell wasn’t one of Corey’s toys!”
   The Wolf looked at him, smiled, and pulled a strange-looking pistol out of the holster on his hip. “My whumper,” he replied, holding up the brightly-colored device that did indeed look just like a human child’s toy.
   “A… ‘whumper’…” the man replied. “Let me guess: Another name Corey dreamed up?”
   “’Tis that, indeed,” Rogers agreed. “And under normal circumstances, the poor thing is nowt but a harmless tool—its makers’d be horrified tae learn what I’ve been doin’ wi’ it this past wee while. What makes a weapon is how ye use it, after all. Haven’t ye e’er cobbled up an implement o’ destruction frae what’s available to hand?”
   “Yeah, but—urrkh!” Fred said, turning pale as his guts twisted in on each other. “Oh, man… are you going to turn on some gravity here, or will I have to float around for my entire dream?”
   “For the last time, this is nae a dream!” the Wolf said. “But to answer yer question, I fear there’ll be nae gravity here for two reasons. One, such forces are detectable; an’ two, it would slow us down. Right now we need all the stealth an’ speed we can get, especially in the light o’ ‘no weapons’. Why do ye think I was runnin’ in the first place?”
   “Because you’re a pussy,” intoned the ships voice.
   Rogers stood and shouted as loud as he could, “I am nae a pussy!”
   “Bucka buck buck buck,” cackled back the ship.
   “Wait,” Fred said, placing a hand to his forehead, “Since when does ‘bucka bucka bucka’ have anything to do with ‘pussy’?”
   Rogers looked at him. “I dinnae know what ye think a ‘pussy’ is, but in my tongue, that word names a small, feathered avian beastie that’s quite a pleasure to eat.”
   “Oh. Sounds like what I’d call a ‘chicken’.”
   The Wolf shrugged, then holstered his whumper. “Chicken t’ ye, pussy tae me—eats the same how-so-e’er it’s cooked.”
   Crossing to Fred, he released the straps that held him to the seat, then righted him and brought him back to where his feet touched the floor. Finally, Rogers tapped a well-marked spot on the human’s tinfoil-like suit, and his shoes touched the deck with a secure ‘click’.
   “There—now ye won’t feel so ill. As long as ye’ve the shoes on, ye can walk around quite normally. If ye come off the deck, let’s say ye jump up, ye’ll drift about until ye can get yer feet back where they belong. So be careful; no sudden movements. Better now?”
   For the first time Fred was able to stand totally frontal to Rogers. He found that they were exactly the same height.
   “When I slugged you, what happened to me?” he asked.
   “Och, that was me ship, Fred. He’s a tad protective o’ my fine self. No damage done; ye were just stunned. Mind, it’s not like ye dinnae deserve it for bein’ such an all-fired bloody stupid ass.”
   The right hook took the Wolf totally by surprise and he was staggered. He stayed in a slightly crouched position, waiting for the next blow. He did not try to hit back, nor did he position to block the punch.
   “An’ that’s all ye know how to do, is it?” he asked calmly, looking up at his human counterpart.
   In the middle of his head, Fred heard his father’s voice: That’s it… you let a bully push you around at school; so now get a whipping at home too.
   Slowly and carefully, the human exhaled; opened his fists; then straightened himself, hearing his space suit crinkle like new plastic. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been under a lot of stress… no, that’s an excuse. I… I’m just sorry. Thank you for helping me.”
   “Apology accepted,” replied the Wolf, wiping his mouth with a paw and then looking at the blood on it. “I’m thinkin’ tae give ye a quick tour o’ Fred, and then we shall sit oursel’ down an’ calmly discuss our plans. Does that sound reasonable to ye?”
   The man nodded.
   Fred cleared his throat, still tasting the bile from throwing up. He then held out his right hand. The Wolf looked at it, and then accepted it; slowly standing straight again.
   “Just one question,” the man asked him, holding on to the handshake.
   “Well… why haven’t you tossed me out the airlock?”
   “For strikin’ the Captain of the ship ye’re on board? Believe me, the notion has crossed me mind. But yer son’s at risk, aye? That’s a feelin’ I know of old, so I’m makin’ allowances for ye. M’ own family and I… we were on a camping trip when the changes took place, so we were missed. Passed over by the troop ships sent to find us. I stole Fred, trying to get them away. But I was nae quick enough—they were caught afore I could return. I fought the bastards as long as I could, an’ apparently I hurt ’em worse than I figured. They seem rather desperate tae get me back.”
   “Don’t be so egotistical,” said the voice in their heads. “They want me.”
   The Wolf looked upwards in an expression of exasperation. “All they had tae do was ask! I would gladly have given ye over. Such a pain in the bum ye are, givin’ ye up would be the absolute best way to punish them.”

   The promised tour took less than ten minutes. Though the ship was larger than any space vehicle ever constructed by humans, its deck plans were laid out according to a logic that the human grasped very quickly.
   “… was ne’er intended as a transport,” Rogers explained. “Th’ original brief was for an almighty versatile fightin’ ship wi’ a wee bit o’ autonomy, so as tae be capable of independent action when her pilot was nae up t’ the task. That pilot was t’ be the only crew—but it turned out that her cargo facilities were flexible enough tae accommodate passengers as well. T’ be honest, at first we dinnae believe there was a person in the machine—there was even some as thought Fred was a bug in the code.”
   “Artificial Intelligence?” Fred the human asked.
   “Aye—we were tryin’ for it all along, but dinnae expect it that early in the project. Ye’re quick for a human.”
   “I have found that humans are, in fact, smarter than Wolfs,” said the voice in their heads. “They seem to accept things more naturally. Their relative lack of scientific advancement should not be held against them. And Rogers? I want you to know that I am deeply and irreparably offended by the idea that I was a programming error.”
   “An’ a sarcastic wee bug ye are, too!” the Wolf said in an amused tone. “That’s why we get along so well, that is.”
   As Fred and Rogers left the engine room, they met a Wolf girl—another of the ship’s projected images. “Actually, I think humans are rather cute. I wouldn’t mind having one of them as a pet.” The image smiled at Rogers. “May I keep him, Dear? Or maybe I should just turn you over to the humans and go work for their government? I did some research, and they have a Space Shuttle that’s kind of cute in an old-fashioned sort of way.”
   “Sorry, pet, but ye cannae keep him. D’ ye suppose there might be somethin’ in the galley for us poor organic types tae eat?” In answer to the human’s dubious expression, he said, “Dinnae worry on it bein’ edible. I won’t vouch for th’ taste, mind—but after five years on yer planet, I can assure ye that it will nae poison ye.”
   “What he said,” the ship’s image replied, winking at Fred. “Now, please follow me.”
   The generated image led them to a small round table. To all intents and purposes, she was quite solid-looking, with no indication she was nothing more than a programmed image. Tethered to the table were two objects that reminded the human of extra-large toothpaste tubes. She pointed at them: “Will this suffice, your lordship?”
   “Drinks, wench,” the Wolf said with an exaggerated sigh.
   “Will water be sufficient?” she asked with a smile, as if this were some sort of inside joke.
   Rogers nodded, and winked at Fred the human. “It’s all we have, in any case,” he said as the image stepped to a small galley area, coming back with two squeeze bottles of water.
   Fred regarded her closely as she handed him his water. For a Wolf creature, she was very pretty. “You’re really Fred?” he asked, reaching to touch her. His finger went right through her image, with no more resistance than air. “That’s amazing… how the heck does a hologram manage to serve food and water?”
   She smiled at him, all poise and grace. “Moving stuff around is the same trick as my force-shields, just on a smaller scale,” she replied, putting Rogers’ bottle on the table next to him with a metallic ‘click’.
   “An’ the image he’s usin’ now… ’Tis my wife,” Rogers said quietly. “It’s a reminder.”
   “Of what?”
   “Of why I fight. M’ wife, she died rather than be converted. I should hae been there t’ die with her…”
   The galley fell silent for a time. The human and Wolf busied themselves with their ‘meal’, which proved to be a thick paste. Fred thought the stuff tasted odd, but at least it went down and stayed down, and it rinsed cleanly away in water. After the second mouthful, he said, “Tell me about your family.”
   “We had a son and a daughter. They took my son. I found my daughter in the arms of her mother. Both of them were… were… they died fighting.”
   When the two were finished, the Wolf-image unobtrusively took care of the empty bottles and tubes, not seeming to notice the sadness that Fred saw.
   “Thank ye, Fred,” Rogers told her. “I’ll thank ye, as well, tae sit wi’ us now so we can come up with some sort of strategy to get Corey back. Let’s begin by lookin’ at a diagram o’ their ship. I assume yer sensors got a good look at it?”
   “Inside and out.”
   “Good. Now, show us their deck plan, if ye please…”

   The Howler ship they followed had not deviated from the course Rogers’ own ship had calculated for them. This was good, because that course took them dangerously close to a black hole. The hole itself wasn’t so bad—all you really needed to do was keep a safe distance away, and you were fine—but its gravity pulled rocks and gas to it from incredible distances, and that debris formed a vast, swirling cloud around it. This ‘accretion disk’ was much like water twisting down a bathtub drain, except on a literally astronomical scale. At all times, bits of the disk slid past each other, and their friction sparked off bolts of lightning that could incinerate large moons; as well, the hole was liable to generate intense pulses of gravity whenever a particularly large chunk of mass fell into it.
   Between the lightning, the gravity waves, and the chance of getting smashed by a solid piece of the disk, you’d have to be insane to go anywhere near a black hole. Insane… or possessed of a ship’s computer smart enough to ‘read’ all the surrounding hazards, and chart a trajectory that missed them all. The Howlers didn’t qualify on either count. However, Fred the ship was smart enough to do the job—so each second they spent in the accretion disk brought them that much closer to their quarry.
   Rogers and Fred knelt quietly in the cockpit of the spacecraft, going over a pile of equipment. There was nothing to see out the windows because the blast doors were closed; even if they were open, Fred the ship had surrounded himself with chunks of rock so that he looked just like any other random asteroid in the disk. Once they caught up to their target, Fred and Rogers would beam over. It being a small scout ship, there would be only four of the Dobermans on board; of the six-man crew Rogers said was standard, two had been disposed of back at Fred the human’s house.
   “Okay,” said Fred the human, ticking through his checklist again. “Whumper, flash grenades, laser thingie—”
   “’Tis nae a ‘laser thingie’,” corrected the Wolf. “It’s called a plit.”
   “And my son named this one, too?”
   “Aye. D’ ye find that odd?”
   “What isn’t, here and now?” Fred sighed. “Never mind—that doesn’t seem to matter all that much.”
   Rogers nodded. “What the plit does, it produces intense heat in a controlled, well-defined volume. ’Twas originally a cuttin’ tool—also very useful for sealin’ up a door ye dinnae want unexpected guests comin’ through. Part of a standard shipboard repair package.” He smiled a strange and rather vicious smile. “An’ as things developed, I found it was also very useful up, close, an’ personal.”
   “It’s a fancy-assed welding torch, is what you’re telling me,” Fred countered, frowning as he looked at it. He flicked it on and then off, watching the six-inch glowing beam intently. “And it certainly is useful for burning up packs of cigarettes, as I recall.”
   Rogers ignored the comment. “Aye, ‘welding torch’ is basically correct. It’ll also slice through nigh-onto anythin’ the beam touches. Remember—about this far away,” he said, holding his palms about six inches apart. “And whate’er ye’re joining stays joined until they blast the bastard t’ flinders. Do not touch the beam to the surface ye’re bonding, else ye’ll have a whoppin’ great hole. Also, keep it away from any type of window or ye’ll find yerself floatin’ through space in short order. The depressurization alone will snuff out ye—”
   “Okay, okay, I get the point.” Fred the human waved the inert tool in his hand, testing its weight and mass distribution. “Huh… about the same balance as a Commando Graybar.”
   “What’s that?”
   “Sharp. Made of steel. Good for cutting throats and such.”
   “Ah—a knife, then.” Rogers nodded. “This is better, since a steel blade would nae penetrate one o’ these suits. The plit will. Now, mind ye dinnae cut yersel’ wi’ the bloody thing! I had t’ remove all the safeguards that made it a tool rather than…” The Wolf trailed off, as he noticed that his human comrade was paying more attention to the plit than to him. “Right: I dinnae ken what’s got up yer nose, but ye’re clearly in no state o’ mind tae learn what ye need. What’s the problem?”
   “Well…” Fred cleared his throat and looked at the floor. “I was busting Corey’s chops, when I called you ‘Buckman’. He said you didn’t like it, and that made me want to do it all the more.” He looked back up at the Wolf. “It might sound kind of stupid, but… I was actually jealous of my son’s ‘action figure’.”
   The Wolf gave him a friendly look. “Tell me about this ‘Buckman Rogers’.”
   Fred shrugged. “Actually, the name is ‘Buck Rogers’—way before my time. Old Buck was the original movie space hero. His spaceship looked really funny, and you could see the wires holding it up. It made this stupid buzzing sound, and the smoke from its engines went straight up into the air even though they were supposed to be in space. The guys who invented Buck Rogers had no idea what space really was; but they had great imaginations.”
   “Like ye?”
   The man picked up his whumper, looking at it with keen interest. “I used to. Then I grew up.”
   “And now ye’re here.” It was a statement, not a question.
   “Yeah… now I’m here.” Fred pointed at a latch on the side of the whumper. “This is the safety, right?”
   “That button? Aye. Push it forward if ye want tae use the weapon. It’s generally safe tae fire inside the craft—but the bloody thing is awfully damned loud, aye? Like t’ deafen ye for a time. I’d suggest ye only use it and the flash grenades if ye must.”
   “An’ ye’ll want the holster,” Rogers said, handing it to him. “So what happened tae yer imagination?” he asked.
   Fred strapped the holster around his waste. “Let’s just say… Once upon a time, there was a little boy. He was small for his age, and frail. His father was very disappointed with this. When the boy came home after being beaten by a bully, Dad beat him up even worse. The father believed he could make his son stronger if he dealt out more punishment than the boy got from those of his own age at school. The theory was that the boy would stand up for himself to avoid the punishment for losing a fight.”
   “Did it work?”
   Fred holstered the whumper. Standing straight, he adjusted it to his waist and then took the time to tie the hold-down strap to his leg. He drew and pointed the weapon with fluid movements. “Depends what you mean by ‘work’.” Rogers didn’t speak. After a short pause, Fred continued: “The boy became… more than a handful. He got into any number of fights. By high school, it got so bad that he actually stabbed another student. He got expelled, threatened with jail time, and finally ended up in the military where he joined the elite and learned to kill.”
   “And what about the boy’s imagination?” asked the Wolf softly.
   Fred knelt back on the deck and looked at him in a hard way. “He became a realist. Neverland wasn’t just dead—it had never existed. The whole world became two-dimensional. Black and white, yes or no, kill or live… nothing in between. After the military there was only work. It was the same, just a different battleground.”
   “But the lad’s father was proud of him, aye?”
   “Oh, hell yes. Kid came home with a chestful of medals— didn’t take shit from anyone. Dad was real proud of him. But the relationship… that was as dead as Neverland.”
   Rogers sighed. “’Tis a right sad life ye’ve led,” Rogers said, buckling up own holster. “But ye’re here now, an’ that means there’s hope for ye.”
   “Why? Because my son got kidnapped by monsters from outer space, and his ‘action figure’ doll is helping me out? I might be insane; all of this could be just a delusion; but I’m going to get my son back, or die trying.”
   Rogers cleared his throat. “Ye know it’s nowt o’ the kind. Ye’re quite sane, I can assure ye.”
   “Target is approaching,” said a voice they both heard inside their heads. “In range for transport in three minutes twenty seven seconds.”
   “Dinnae show yerself until we give the signal, Fred.”
   The ship did not reply.
   Fred the human had gotten used to hearing the ship in his head. The two Freds actually had an entire conversation while Rogers was away getting their equipment. The ship started off with his wife’s voice, but that made him uneasy, so Fred the ship changed back to his bland, grade-B-sci-fi-movie monotone. The ship gave Fred a quick history on both himself and his creator: Rogers was a polymath, strongest in computer science (which skills made him the lead scientist on the artificial intelligence project) but also a respected biologist. In this capacity, he’d been studying the long-term effects of the Howler transformation serum which had then-recently been developed as a military project for heightening soldiers’ combat efficiency. That was before Howlers began offering the change free to any Wolf, civilian and military alike, who wanted to ‘better’ themselves. Nobody really thought much of it at the time… and then Rogers discovered that the Howler serum had some nasty psychological side-effects, like a tendency towards paranoia and megalomania. He would have published his findings, except that’s when the Howlers overthrew the existing Wolf government, and Rogers was named an enemy of the state. Since then, he’d helped form the inevitable anti-Howler resistance movement, and had narrowly escaped several assassination attempts.
   The scientist was only a warrior because he had to be: Simple self-preservation.
   It had been that way for Fred the human, too. In his life, it was beat or be beaten. His father made sure to always preach the sermon of ‘do unto others before they could do unto you’, belt in hand. Eventually, Fred adopted his father’s way of thinking.
   The man was only a warrior because he had to be: Simple self-preservation.
   Fred the ship pointed this similarity out to his namesake. He was logic based, and logic stated that both of these creatures needed the other for more than the obvious reason of getting Corey back. Fred the ship was, in truth, worried about both of them, and not just for what they were about to attempt.
   Rogers adjusted his human counterpart’s translator earpiece, making sure it would not accidentally fall out. “Can ye hear me?” he asked in the Howler language.
   It was a strange feeling for Fred to hear exotic sounds in one ear and normal English in the other. “Yes, I hear you just fine. But this is going to take some getting used to.”
   “That’s as may be—but we’ve little time t’ spare, so do it fast. I’d say ‘dinnae worry on it’, but all the same it’s probably best ye wear the translator anyway. Ye can speak wi’ me in your language, and I’ll understand ye.”
   “I doubt it’ll make any difference, Rogers. I just want my son back. If that means I’ve got to break some heads, then so be it. Last I checked, you don’t need language to do that.”
   “True enough,” the Wolf agreed, before placing his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Look—afore we move out, there’s somethin’ I need t’ tell ye: I’m sorry I fried yer cigarettes.”
   “Not a problem,” Fred replied without smiling. He now had his game face on. “When we get back, I’m quitting.”
   “Me too,” said Rogers; but he spoke the words only to himself.
   “Transport now,” Fred the ship told them… and everything faded to black.

   The scout’s engine room was hot and dimly-lit; it reminded Fred of an engine room he’d seen in a movie about a German U-boat. There was one ‘engineer’, a Howler dressed in a stained T-shirt and shorts tending to the power plant. Unlike Rogers’ engine room, which was clean and quiet, this one was so noisy they couldn’t hear each other speak. The engine tech never knew what hit him; while he was examining a piece of equipment, Fred came up on one side and touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, Rogers, coming up on the other side, smacked his head with a large wrench he’d found lying on the deck. They tied his arms behind his back with plastic cords from another part of the engine room.
   Rogers pointed to the engine room’s sole exit and held out the big wrench. Fred nodded, took it, and moved to cover the hatchway. When the human was in place, Rogers touched two places on what Fred supposed had to be a control panel—and the engine room’s deafening noise wound down to a low hum. At the same time, the ship’s artificial gravity decayed sharply.
   They heard barking sounds, and ringing bells, over a loudspeaker. Within moments, the door opened and a big Doberman, wearing one of the metal suits, walked through —straight into Fred’s wrench. A second Howler followed a moment later, with the same result; Rogers and Fred tied them both up and laid them out next to the engineer.
   Rogers whispered to Fred, “There’ll be one left. We’ll take him, but we need him conscious so he can tell us where yer son is.” Then he was out the door, whumper in hand.
   It didn’t take long to reach the bridge; Fred let Rogers take the point. When the Wolf stopped, he indicated a particular door and whispered, “That’s for the bridge. If the blast doors are open, dinnae use the whumper under any circumstances! The cockpit layout will be similar tae Fred’s, so he’ll have nae place t’ hide.”
   Fred nodded.
   The space Wolf moved forward again… but when the door didn’t open automatically, he pried open a small access panel on the bulkhead. Taking out his plit, he turned it on and probed for an exact spot with the blue light. There was a spark and the door opened. They rushed through and took up positions of readiness, one on either side of the entrance.
   The first thing Fred noticed: Corey, his son! The next thing he noticed was what was holding Corey: A large Doberman in one of the shiny suits. Third, he noticed the Howler’s weapon—a whumper pointed at Corey’s head! The black hole’s accretion disk, alive with lightning and gravity-warped currents, was a surrealistic backdrop to the Howler-and-child tableau.
   “I have been waitin’ for ye, Father,” the Doberman said in his snarling language. “Welcome tae my trap. Ye shall lay your arms on the deck, and kick them over this way.”
   Fred didn’t take his eyes off the huge creature holding his son captive, nor did his weapon stray from its mark. ‘Father’, it said—so this was Rogers’ son? The human risked a sideways glance at the Wolf and found him simply standing with his weapon pointed at the floor.
   “Corey,” he said softly to his son, “be brave. We’re getting you out of this.”
   The Doberman looked at him sharply. “How did ye know my name?” he asked plainly, his English bearing the same strange accent as Rogers’.
   “He didn’t,” the Wolf replied. “It’s his child ye’re holdin’, an’ the both o’ ye share the same name. Ye never asked him a bloody thing, did ye?”
   “He is yer comrade; what else did I need to know? Ye would come for him, as ye did not for us.”
   “I did come for ye!” Rogers said acidly. “I found yer mother and sister dead. They fought, but ye embraced their executioners!”
   Fred recognized the Wolf’s strategy: Make the enemy mad. Since the Howler was holding all the cards, they were screwed unless he made a mistake—and if he was angry, he’d be that much more likely to mess up. “Wait a minute,” said Fred loudly, playing along. He lowered his weapon and stood from his crouched position. Turning, he looked directly at Rogers. “Am I understanding this right, Rogers? This, this dog-thing holding my son is your kid!?”
   “They’re called Howlers, not dog-things, and ye’re statin’ the bleedin’ obvious,” he replied flatly. “But that piece o’ filth is nae any son o’ mine! He ran away and left his mother and sister tae die. My son would ne’er ha’ done that!”
   “And ye are nae my father!” the Doberman yelled in response. “Howlers have only one father, an’ that’s Ton Balsamore the Mighty! I’m nae the one who ran; the Wolf called Rogers was! He took his precious ship and left us tae rot!”
   The Howler was angry, alright… but his weapon was still perfectly poised to kill Corey. Okay, time to turn up the heat a little more: “I’ll tell you what I think: I think this is all a load of crap, and you’re both cowards! I think you both want to blame the other for what happened because it’s easier than facing the truth. Now it’s down to who can catch who! Well, how about leaving us the hell out of it?”
   He concentrated, trying to replay that odd voice-in-head sensation: “Are you getting all of this, Fred?”
   The mental reply sounded faint, but it was there. “Yes.”
   “I need the whumper off my kid’s head for just a second.”
   Very faintly, a translucent, wavering image of Rogers’ wife, with arms outstretched, appeared to the left of the Doberman.
   “Corey…” it said.
   It was only a moment’s distraction—but that moment was enough. The big Doberman turned to it, eyes wide, just in time for Fred’s thrown whumper to strike him square on the side of the head. He went down in slow motion, like a tree cut down in the forest; the human child dropped to the deck and rolled. Rogers and Fred jumped the Howler at the same moment, and it was over. Almost.
   After they disarmed the Howler and securely tied his arms, they saw a disturbing sight through the cockpit window: Floating right in front of them, no more than two thousand meters away, was a very large warship. Cannon fire flared, a bright streak against the swirling backdrop of the accretion disk, and a nearby chunk of debris was vaporized.
   Fred the human was the first to speak. “He did say it was a trap…”
   “Aye, he did that,” replied Rogers.
   “You’re the expert in these things,” the man continued. “What do we do now?”
   The Wolf watched the warship with narrowed eyes as it blasted another small asteroid. “I dinnae ken… so we’ll have tae think o’ somethin’.”

   Captain Pultzer of the Howler Warcraft Kitten watched the scout ship drifting before them, as accretion-lightning flared all around. He didn’t like black holes any more than any other captain, but his ship’s engines and shields were strong enough to negate most of the possible danger. Another asteroid disappeared, vaporized by one of the Kitten’s watchful gunners.
   “Hail the ship,” he said in the cryptic growls of the Howler language. This was now the official language of everyone under the Howler dominion. He did not look at anyone in particular as he said this, yet it was done immediately. Life as a Howler was harsh and disciplined. Obedience and order were the ideals being a Howler stood for. The theory behind the grand design was simple: The weak died, and the strong prevailed. Everyone was a soldier of the state. Those who would not—or could not—conform were destroyed so their weakness could not infect others.
   The communications officer on duty pressed a spot on his console. “Scout ship One Niner Five, this is Warcraft Kitten. Respond and be recognized.”
   Fred looked at Rogers. “Warship… ‘Kitten’? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
   The Wolf snorted in derision. “Och, ’tis real enough. That Howler muckamuck, Ton Balsamore the Mighty, he named her after his mistress o’ the time.”
   “They all have to have a title, don’t they?” mumbled Fred. “The pay is never enough… there’s just got to be a title.”
   “Aye. Now, let me handle this…” Rogers moved to the commander’s chair on the left side of the cockpit. He glanced briefly at the panel, punched a lighted spot, and then spoke in the Howler tongue: “Scout ship One Niner Five reporting. We have lost two crew members. Lieutenant Rogers was killed. His father did not follow. I repeat: Rogers did not follow.”
   On the bridge of the Kitten, the Captain looked doubtful… but it was a report he could deal with. To a crewmember on messenger watch, he said, “Give Ton Balsamore my regards, and tell him the scout ship has come back empty-handed.”
   A flash of cannon fire rippled across the blackness at a nearby asteroid. Instead of the usual resulting explosion, there was only a dull blue flash. The asteroid stayed intact.
   The Captain’s eyes narrowed. “Belay that order. Tell the Mighty One his presence is requested on the bridge immediately, as I will need his guidance. Tell him also that Rogers is here.”
   Fred the human and Fred the ship cursed at the same moment. Fred the human concentrated… “Fred? Do you love Rogers?”
   “Stand by to bring everyone aboard except me; this includes the other three crewmen we captured.”
   “We’ve been made, Rogers,” Fred said calmly. “I need you to do something, and I don’t need an argument.”
   The Wolf looked at him. His expression told Fred that he’d come to the same conclusion about the blue flash. “I’m listenin’,” he said.
   “Is there a way to undo what happened to your son?”
   “Aye, though it took me four years t’ suss out. The necessaries are all on board Fred.”
   Fred the human nodded. “Okay. Can you set this pigboat up to ram the warship?”
   “Aye—but it would nae penetrate their shields.”
   “That’s not what I asked. Can you do it?”
   Rogers gave him a sideways look. “Aye…”
   “Do it now. I need a button to push to set it in motion. Then you and the boys go back to Fred—no questions.”
   “Ye’re talking suicide, friend.”
   Fred shook his head. “No… not exactly. Just before impact, Fred is going to transport me onto their bridge the instant I crash through the shield—”
   “Did ye nae listen!? This wee tub cannae break those shields! Howe’er,” Rogers said, not giving the human a chance to respond, “it’ll weaken ’em, sure… an’ the wreckage will make for a bloody great lightning rod! That should finish th’ job. The timin’ might be a mite ticklish, o’ course, but I’m thinkin’ it’s doable.”
   “And I’m thinking it's suicide.”
   “Maybe, but it’s the only chance we’ve got. I need you and Rogers to get my son home to his mother.” He gave Rogers a look which the Wolf understood perfectly; he would have done the very same thing. The bottom line was, Fred the human was right: It was the only hope they had.
   Looking down at the control console, Rogers punched a series of lighted panels until all but one of them went out. “There—tap that one spot tae start the fireworks. Sit here an’ strap yersel’ in. Ye’ll have five seconds afore the engines return tae full power, and another three seconds afore they reach the levels o’ thrust ye’ll need. I’ve punched the front shields tae up their maximum strength, but it’s nae much since she’s just a scout.”
   “Right,” said Fred, checking over his kit one last time. “Just one thing: You never told me how long it takes a flash grenade to go off after you release the handles.”
   “Three seconds.”
   Until now, Corey the human had been quiet. He’d heard, and seen, everything but wasn’t at all sure he understood what he’d seen and heard.
   Fred smiled at his son as he climbed into the Captain’s seat. He winked. “Everything’s going to be fine. You be sure to tell your mom I love her a lot, okay?”
   His son gave him an uncomprehending look.
   Fred the human concentrated, opening the private link to Fred the ship, and the three other creatures in the cockpit simply faded from his view.
   “They’re on board,” flashed through his brain, along with a very strange emotion… it felt like a combination of sadness… gratitude… and something else.
   “Okay, Fred. As soon as you do the final transport, you shag tail out of here. Throw a few of those ghost thingies out there for good measure—but your top priority is to get the hell away from here, as fast as you can, got it? The best I’m hoping for is to simply slow them down a bit.”
   As he buckled himself into the seat, the speaker in front of him sounded, and a small spot on the panel lit up: “Scout ship One Niner Five, prepare for docking sequence.”
   Fred punched the lighted spot that would get the show on the road.

   Second one…

   Fred the human punched the freshly-lit button: “Cowabunga, duu-uu-uude!” he yelled as he pulled two grenades off of his belt. He held one in each hand.

   The Kitten’s captain and communications officer gave each other puzzled looks. “What is this noise?” growled the Captain. “Get a translation on that!”

   Second two…

   The communications officer turned and repeated the alien expression as closely as he could in the Howler language. “That’s utterly meaningless,” Pultzer said. “It makes no sense at all.”

   Fred the ship blew his asteroidal cover, and extended his own shields to cover the scout ship.

   Second three…

   “Captain! We have a second ship, bearing 360 relative. It is the suspected asteroid.”
   “Imagine my surprise,” Captain Pultzer said. “Open fire with the secondaries. How long until the main cannon can be brought on line?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
   “Ten seconds, sir.”
   “Sound General Quarters.”

   Second four…

   Fred felt the scout ship begin to shake; whatever adjustments the Wolf had made to its shields, they left the craft susceptible to emissions from the accretion disk. The vibrations began at low intensity, but increased rapidly to the point that he began to think it would shake itself to pieces before it ever launched. Cannon fire lashed out repeatedly, and he heard Fred in his mind, sounding like a person who was juggling a hot coal back and forth between their hands.
   “ooh… ahhh… crap… ow… dang… ack… dammit… ow…”

   “Main armament to bear as soon as possible,” instructed the Captain. “Shields to full. Primary damage assessment if he rams us?”
   “Shield depletion by 65%, sir, but it will hold.”
   “You wished to consult with us, Captain Pultzer?” asked a voice behind him. The Captain turned to find Ton Balsamore standing right behind him. He had actually embarked on the Captain’s craft when the communications had come in from Rogers’ son. Ton Balsamore was delighted, insisting that he be a part of the trap.
   “Sir, this is not a good time,” the Captain told him. “I recommend that you return to your cabin. Should something go wrong, you have a jettison pod right there at your disposal.”

   Second five…

   Rogers had strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and punched up a visual, doubly certain to keep the blast doors closed.
   “Scout ship engines at full power, thrust coming on line now.”
   It was an actual voice and Rogers looked over at the co-pilot’s seat to see his wife strapped in there. With every cannon blast that hit the shields, her image fuzzed out momentarily and then returned to focus.
   “We’re nae leavin’ him there, Fred,” he told her. “As soon as the scout’s thrusters pop, I want ye tae pull him out.”
   Rogers looked at the form in the other chair. No!?

   “What—and miss all of this?” the big Doberman asked the Captain loudly. Unlike the others of the crew, he wore a lavish outfit befitting his rank and power; which was ultimate.
   “Captain, sensors are picking up high energy output from the scout ship,” reported one of the crew.
   “Main cannon?”
   “Not on line yet, sir.”
   “You see, Captain? We were correct to assign Rogers’ whelp to bring him in!” exclaimed the Dictator.

   Second six…

   Fred’s body was now bouncing around so hard he felt he was on the inside of his wife’s drink mixer. He began a primal scream that was well known to all men who have rushed into battle expecting to die.

   “Bring him aboard now!” yelled Rogers. “We can still escape—we’re faster than the Kitten!”
   His wife’s image was barely discernable as Fred the ship felt the punishment his shields were taking. “Noooo!”

   “Close the Blast doors!” commanded Captain Pultzer, not taking his eyes off of the scout ship. The shield around it was glowing red from the cannon fire. “Sound collision! Evasive maneuver Alpha!”
   “Belay those orders!” the Dictator declared. “You heard the damage assessment; he cannot possibly harm us.”
   “Shift all fire to the other ship!” Ton Balsamore further commanded. Then in a lower voice, he told the Captain, “You would waste energy firing at an enemy that is only going to destroy itself? Such inefficiency is for… lesser creatures.”
   The Howlers’ perfect society demanded perfect, unquestioning obedience… and the bridge crew were all perfect Howlers.

   Second seven…

   Fred the human’s face was scarlet from the bone-rattling vibrations he was taking. He held his grenades in front of his face, each one’s pin looped onto the opposite hand’s thumb; as soon as the engines kicked in, he’d pull them.

   Fred the ship could not feel pain as living creatures did—but electrical interference, from all the cannon fire he was absorbing, caused heart-rending squeals of feedback.
   Intellectually, Rogers knew that the choppy, wavering image beside him was an unliving construct—but his heart insisted he was losing his wife a second time. If only he could shoot back!

   “Captain—the scout ship is at full power! He’s nose on to the Kitten!”
   Captain Pultzer didn’t know what the scout’s pilot thought he was doing, but his warrior’s instinct told him it was a serious threat. He reflexively reached for a communicator—but stopped himself to address his master, Ton Balsamore the Mighty. “Sir, I strongly recommend that we take defensive action—”
   His voice died when the Dictator whipped around to glare at him with eyes full of fire: “You would question our orders, Captain!?” the Mighty One yelled.

   Second eight…

   …lasted an eternity. Things happened so fast, that they came across the collective thoughts of everyone at the very same moment.
   Fred the human pulled the pins on his grenades just as the scout ship leaped forward at blinding speed. His primal scream never stopped.

   Fred the ship joined him in the scream in the form of Rogers’ wife’s image reappearing; displaying his anger flawlessly. He was taking heavy cannon fire and would have to shut his shields off to fully focus what energy he had left on the transport. He too was preparing for death.

   “No, sir,” Pultzer said, his face and voice professionally impassive. “I merely wished to—”
   “—cower before a pitifully inadequate opponent,” Ton Balsamore sneered.

   Corey the human looked at Rogers’ son, the tightly restrained Howler who shared this chamber with him, on the other side of some kind of glowy shield-thing. Each boy was accompanied by a flickering projection of his mother.
   The human child hugged his ‘mother’, not caring if ‘she’ was a fake. “It’s all happening right now, isn’t it?” he asked.
   She nodded.
   “Will Dad be all right?”
   “I don’t know,” both images replied gently.

   Rogers watched the display on his pilot’s console, not realizing that he was holding his breath. Fred the ship had never disobeyed him before! Suddenly he was only a spectator, and he felt so helpless.

   Second nine…

   The image of Rogers’ wife stabilized, and calmly said, “Preparing transport.”
   Rogers looked at her, believing his ship had finally come to its senses.

   The scout ship careened forward, smashing into the Kitten’s shields—in precise unison with three of the accretion disk’s massive energy discharges! Cannon fire ceased; overloaded circuitry melted and vaporized all over the big warship.

   Captain Pultzer turned away from the windows, shielding his eyes and bracing himself against the impact.
   Ton Balsamore the Mighty stared impotently at the main window in mingled rage and disbelief. “Impossible—how dare he—!”

   Rogers, in a very un-logical way, crossed his fingers and whispered, “May any God he has please preserve him in life, or let him pass painlessly into death.”

   Second ten…

   The impact and transport were seamless. Fred found himself standing in the middle of a strange area, lit only by dimly-glowing emergency lights and full of Doberman Pinscher-looking creatures. He flung his flash grenades to opposite sides of the room and pulled out his whumper.

   Rogers’ ‘wife’ looked at him. “He’s in,” she said simply. “Should I do as he instructed and leave the area?”
   “Now ye’re asking me!?” Rogers yelled at her, unable to control his own emotions in the excitement.
   “Yes,” Fred replied, both in Rogers’ mind and through the image.
   “Och, ye..! Gi’ him five seconds, then try tae pull ’im out. An’ no matter what happens next, we leave.”


   Fred opened fire. His whumper’s blast was incredibly loud in the closed area—not that it mattered after the flash grenades went off. Captain Pultzer was only one of the Howlers that got stunned in the twin blasts.
   Now the bridge crew displayed the bad side of mindless obedience: Without their commanding officer to obey, their vaunted discipline was useless. Half of them left their posts seeking escape; a fourth of them tried their best to hide; and the remaining quarter bravely tried their best to rush this strange creature.
   Ton Balsamore barked like a crazed street fighter. He swept his cape back, and reached for the small blaster he always carried.


   Fred the human moved among the crewmembers, whumper in one hand and plit in the other. He left behind him a trail of shattered workstations and severed limbs.
   Ton Balsamore pointed his whumper in the human’s general direction. He jerked the trigger—and his shot went wild, killing a Howler who would otherwise have jumped on Fred’s back.
   Captain Pultzer shook his head, trying to clear away the ringing in his ears. His ship was in danger and he had to do something… something… blast doors? Yes that was it; must close the blast doors, they were under attack .

   Rogers watched the images on his display. The grenades’ blasts popped up as short-lived red blotches, and every blast of Fred’s whumper registered white. He was jubilant—and then there was the yellow flash of a different whumper. He cursed under his breath. “Don’t bleedin’ run out o’ ammunition, ye great hairless git!” he yelled at the screen.
   “I can’t find him!” cried the Wolf-girl image. “Too many life signatures—I need help, Rogers—I can’t find him!”


   Ton Balsamore’s next shot would have done his shooting instructor proud. He stopped barking; he controlled his breathing; he took the time to aim; he double-tapped the trigger. His first shot winged Fred, sending the human’s whumper flying from his hand. The Dictator’s second shot threw Fred back against the cold glass of the bridge windows, where he slumped to the deck, stunned, his plit extinguished…
   At this point, there were only three combat-ready crewmembers left on the Kitten’s bridge. They moved to bury the human under their bodies, but Ton Balsamore’s voice roared out: “Leave him! He belongs to me!”

   “Easy, Fred,” said Rogers. “Calm yersel’. Only one human amongst the Howlers, aye? Sort ’em out, an’ cross-reference wi’ the lad’s whumper.”
   “Yes—but—there’s too much interference from the hole! I can’t get a clear lock on him!”

   Captain Pultzer reached out… but the control for the blast doors seemed a million miles away.

   Both mother-images cuddled their Coreys and whispered, “Your father loves you very much.”


   Ton Balsamore crossed the warship’s bridge in five huge strides. An incredible number of alarms and sirens were going off, creating a hellish din. He stood over Fred, his small whumper pointed directly at the human’s head. His growling voice translated through Fred’s earpiece which was, miraculously, still in place and still working. “You fought like a Howler, bald creature! It is a true pity that you are not one of us. Tell me, who are you?”
   Fred’s head throbbed, and his vision was blurred. “Sergeant Fred Murphy, serial number 1056742, Special OPS; Task Force Wolf.”

   “Get closer,” said Rogers. “’Tis safe enough, as the Kitten’s claws are well an’ truly clipped.”
   “I have a lock!” said Fred the ship. “Now I just have to make sure the signal integrity stays high enough, for long enough…”
   Rogers said nothing. What was there to say?


   Captain Pultzer reached the dangling Captain’s console; that button controlled the blast doors, and he punched it. Two of the ambulatory crewmen saw the doors move, and so did Ton Balsamore. The crewmen moved to help their fallen commander; the Dictator tracked them with his eyes for just a little too long.
   Fred turned his plit back on. “And I’m a father,” he said quietly, hardly even aware that he’d said it. He rammed the plit’s beam into the window behind him.
   It shattered instantly, throwing Fred into the void.


   “I’ve got him!”

   Martha stood clutching her bathrobe to her body. She looked from her son, to her husband, to the large hole in the kitchen wall where the window over the sink used to be. Her head was pulsating in reddish hangover sensations. Fred and Corey sat at the kitchen table smiling at each other. When Martha had first come into the kitchen, they were busy trying to clean the mess up. When she could speak, they told her the story… well… the short form anyhow.
   “Tell me again why my house has a hole in it and the floor is all wet,” she said. “Only this time, speak slower… and softer.”
   “You forgot about the flooded basement,” added Fred happily.
   She gave him an evil look.
   “Like I told you,” Corey replied patiently, “I was captured by Howlers last night.”
   “And me and Rogers went to the rescue,” Fred added.
   “I thought you only called him ‘Buckman’?” she said, clutching at her head. Her robe came open, showing a frilly night gown. “I need aspirin.”
   Martha pulled a large bottle of aspirin out of a cupboard, popped four in her mouth and went to the sink only to see it was broken. Making a sound in her throat, she went to the refrigerator, opened the door, and almost screamed at the mess she found. Finally she grabbed a soda, opened it, swallowed her aspirin, and then made a nasty looking face.
   “I hate root beer!”
   Pulling a chair out at the table, she plopped down next to them, holding the cold can to her head. “What else… because I know there has to be a ‘what else’. There always is.”
   Fred cleared his throat. “I quit smoking,” he told her cheerfully.
   She looked at him through bloodshot eyes. “Heard that one before… next.”
   “I also quit my job.”
   Martha gazed at him without speaking… and then she took a large gulp of the soda. She didn’t even seem to notice it was root beer.
   “You’re a sick man to torment me like this, Fred,” she said when she could speak. “It’s Sunday, no one’s at the office.”
   He reached over and held her hand. “I called the boss at home. We’re starting fresh from today, hon’. Last night, well, we told you the story and it’s all true. Rogers is real.”
   “Yeah,” chimed in Corey. “He got his own son back and cured him of being a Howler. Now they’re heading to their own planet. Dad killed the Dictator last night so now they have hope.”
   Martha looked at her son and gave him a wry look. “And I suppose it just so happens that Buckman’s son was also named Corey?”
   Her son’s jaw dropped. “How’d you know that!?”
   “A wild guess.” She looked back at her husband and the look was not pleasant.
   Fred squeezed her hand again. “Before you pass judgment on us, I’ll make you a bet,” he told her.
   Fred removed a whumper from where he’d tucked it away in the back of his pants, and laid it on the table with a plastic sound.
   She looked at it, then back at her husband. “It’s one of Corey’s toys,” she told him. “So you played a game with our son all night and you hung on to this. The fact that you both had a lot of fun is not going to fix my house and pay my bills.”
   “If that’s what you think,” he replied, “I’m willing to bet we can take all of the liquor and cigarettes we have in the house, put ’em into a large box, and I can destroy them with this. If I can do all that, it will prove our story was true.”
   “Why the booze and cigarettes?” she asked.
   “Because if the story is true, we start all over again and that means no cigarettes and no booze. In two weeks, Rogers will be back to pick us up. We need to be ready. No more of either of them for us from now on.”
   “You’re serious?”
   “As a heart attack.”
   She looked at Corey and smiled through the pain of her headache. “And you’re in on this? You and your father are actually talking, and you hatched this whole scheme last night?”
   “It’s the truth, Mom.”
   “I’ll tell you both what,” she said, pushing her chair back. “We do this… this… put everything in a box deal. And when nothing happens, I go back to bed and wake up tomorrow with all of this,” she waved a hand at the kitchen, “fixed. You, Corey, will go back to being a normal little boy, and you, Fred, will go back to work bright and early Monday morning.”
   She smiled, thinking she had them.
   “Deal!” they both said at the same time.
   Within minutes, all of the bottles that had been stashed in the closet (including the cooking wine) were in a large cardboard box. Corey then retrieved no less than five cartons of cigarettes he’d hidden from his father over the past months. Martha, still feeling very ill, followed them out into the yard. They lived in a rural area, Fred having commuted longer than he liked to admit and never liking it. Just this once, though, where they lived had the benefit of privacy.
   “I don’t know why you’re bothering to do this, Fred,” his wife told him as they walked across the yard. “It’s nice that you and Corey had some sort of storytime adventure last night, but you have to come back to the real world now. That toy won’t do anything except shoot a stream of water, and you know it.”
   He placed the box on the grass at the far reaches of the yard and then they turned and walked back towards the house.
   “There’s one other item I neglected to mention,” he told her. “It’s a just-so-you-know thing. Rogers needed gold to fuel Fred.”
   “Fred? Who’s Fred?” she asked him.
   “His ship—remember? Come on, Martha. Wake up and smell the coffee. Our lives are a wreck, and it’s time to take them back.”
   “By pretending we don’t have issues?” she demanded. “By playing some silly-assed game with your son all night?”
   “No,” he told her, stopping, and turning to face the box. He reached out a hand and moved Corey behind him, “By being who we are, and not who everyone expects us to be.”
   His previous statement suddenly caught in her brain. “What about gold?”
   He smiled at her. “I gave Rogers all of your jewelry. He was very appreciative.”
   Before she could say anything else, he raised the whumper, aimed it at the box, and pulled the trigger.

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