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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Scientific · #618810
Chapter One! A group of astronauts are stuck on a planet with a bizarre animal.
         Commander Joseph Willems walked briskly along the corridor of the United States Space Fleet administration office building, on his way to a secret meeting. It was rather odd to have a secret meeting in this day and age, and he wasn't even sure what it was about.

         All the same, Willems was excited about it. His job as an explorer was slowly becoming obsolete. Ever since quantum entanglement had been fully understood, and instantaneous communication made possible across the universe, robots had been the personnel of choice for conducting exploration. They were a lot more expendable, and with a human controlling it in real-time from across the galaxy, it was just as useful.

         The door to the top office in the USSF building slid open with a hydrolic hiss. On the inside, Willems was met with a guard who recognized him and let him come to the next door. He entered his password into the speaker and passed the voice identification checkpoint. Next he put his eyes up to the retinal scanner, which then read the two 100,000 digit prime numbers that were imprinted onto his eye. These checked out, and he was finally into the inner sanctum of USSF's Chief of Operations.

         The room was a crisp, clean, and official looking office with padded chairs and an antique desk made of wood from now endangered trees. The floor had wall-to-wall carpeting, and the walls were papered with diplomas, certificates, and plaques.

         "Good morning, Commander Willems," said Richard Cline as he rose from his leather chair and streched out his hand in greeting. Willems took it and then sat down opposite Mr. Cline.

         "Good morning, Mr. Cline," replied Willems respectfully, "I hope this is about a new mission. I've been horribly bored for the past two years. Those folks at Los Alamos have been trying to put me out of a job."
         "Actually, Willems, I recieved orders yesterday to let you and all of the explorers go. The government has decided that there is no longer any reason to send good men to foreign planets when we can send robots and get the job done just as well."

         Willems sunk into his chair, the coup de grace leaving him speechless. "So when do I pack up?"
         "You pack up today, but you're not going home."
         Willems looked up at Mr. Cline in bewilderment. "Then where am I going?"
         "An hour after I got that call, I got another. A small robot explorer team had been visiting a new system, when they saw a planet that hadn't shown up on sensors. We didn't know it existed."
         "That's odd. What would hide it from our sensors?"
         "I have no idea. With a more focused scan, we could detect it, so I don't think it is intentional. If it is, then it must be jury-rigged by some amateur. We don't know if our remote control of the robots would be effected, so we want you to go check it out.
         "You leave first thing tommorow morning. Your usual team will go with you. Good luck and godspeed!"

         Willems walked out the door and made his way back to his quarters with a spring in his step. He pulled out his comlink and sent a message to his team to start packing for a mission. He didn't mention that it would be their last. He would probably tell them on the way back.

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         Willems sat in the cockpit, strapped in and ready for takeoff. With him sat his crew, Leiutenant Hal Peterson, Brian Austin, Michael Taylor, and James Keller.

         Peterson was second-in-command for their team. He had been with with Willems for his first mission, and they had gotten through some tough spots together. Willems was godfather to Petersons two little girls back on Ganymede, and had always been close with his family. He was also a stickler for procedure, and was almost paranoid about doing something wrong

         Brian Austin was the communications officer, so he was versed in all of the government codes and several of the most common languages of Earth. Right now he was hoping to get his Ph.D. in Alien Biology, since he usually got the short end of the stick when it came to exploration.

         He was also the wild, creative one of the group. It was rumored that he also had an abusive childhood, and he never said anything about his parents, so most people believed it.

         Michael Taylor was the ship's systems officer. He was in charge of the actual flying, and he knew all about what made the ship run. It was rumored that before joining the USSF, he modified shuttles for illegal racing.

         He rarely talked outside of work-related subjects. Even when addressed, he usually just nodded. He seemed to try to stay distant to the other crew members, but he did his job well.

         James Keller was the weapons expert. He manned the guns in any kind of space battle, and he was the best shot with a blaster. They didn't expect much fighting on this mission, but if that sensor disruption was caused by anything man-made, anything could happen.

         He also was a known partier. His get-togethers during his Space Fleet Academy days were legendary. In fact, there is still an annual party named after him.

         Cool, calculated voices rattled off numbers, acronyms, and "checks" as the USSF Earthseeker prepared for takeoff. Willems looked around at the controls, savoring his last liftoff in such an advanced ship. After he retired he would spend lots of time in a personal pleasure cruiser, but it wouldn't have all the bells and whistles like a USSF exploration ship.

         Peterson glanced over at Willems, puzzled at his glazed expression. He thought he almost saw a tear start to well up in his eye.
         "Is something wrong, Commander?"
         Willems looked over with a start. He tried to wipe his eye, but remembered that he was wearing his helmet. "It's nothing. I was just getting a bit nostalgic for the days when we were heroes. Remember when we had to turn down missions to get any amount of free time? Now we have to get second jobs just to pass the time between duty calls."

         "Yeah, I remember. But you know what I think?" he said cheerfully, slapping Willems on the shoulder, "I think that someday soon, they'll realize that there's no replacement for actual people in exploration, and we'll have our job back."

         "I don't think so." Willems was barely able to get the words out since he was about to start tearing up again. He turned his head so his crew wouldn't see and lifted up his visor to wipe the tears out of his eyes. He took a few moments to compose himself before sitting back up straight in his seat.

         The pre-flight check was all clear, and Willems and his crew strapped in for takeoff. A pre-recorded female voice counted down the seconds until ignition. At zero everyone in the ship was pushed back into their seats by multiple G's of force. After a few minutes, they were safely out of Earth's gravity and preparing to go to light speed.

         "So, Taylor," asked Willems, "how long until we jump to light speed?"
         "About two minutes. I downloaded the navigational data from the central database, so we don't have to take the time to do the calculations."
         "That's convenient. How long until we get there?"
         "Six days, seven hours, 42 minutes, and 27-plus or minus two-seconds."
         "Okay," commanded Willems, "until then, we read up on all the data we have, make sure all weapons are in ship-shape, and get plenty of sleep. You'll probably need the rest."
         "Yes, sir!" echoed all of his crew in unison.

         The trip went without much cause for concern. Every member of the crew was now a veritable expert on anything that might possibly shield a planet from long-range sensors. The Earthseeker now orbited the planet, a ball of Earth's size covered with eerily blue landmasses on lighter blue oceans. White swaths of clouds obscured part of the surface. The scans were still mostly blocked, but it was apparent that life abounded on this planet.

         The crew gathered around the windows watching the planet as the landing craft prepared for launch. Austin turned to Commander Willems.
         "Hey, maybe this time you'll finally get a chance to use those gymnastic classes you took at West point for your physical ed."
         "Hey," countered Willems, "I only took those because it came so easily to me. It was an easy grade."
         "C'mon, how hard could it be? Watch this. Hey Michael, catch me!"

         Austin got as far of a running start as the ship would allow, then did a few ungraceful, makeshift ballet jumps, ending with a leap strait into Taylor's arms. It caught him off guard, but he was still able to catch Austin, laying sideways. It didn't do much good because Taylor wasn't amused and he dropped Austin on the floor.

         Austin rolled on the floor, half in pain and half from laughing, and ended up on his back under one of the windows. When he opened his eyes, the smile dropped from his face. Then it immediately appeared again.

         "An angel!"
         The rest of the crew rushed to the windows to take a look. Angels were wisps of gas floating in space that had leaked from ships' airlocks and various other routine events, and larger ones came from ship wrecks. To the spacefaring community, angels were seen as heralds of discovery. Many of the crews that had discovered alien life forms had seen angels on the way. Not that they were a sign of luck, though. Many people had died on missions on which they had seen angels.

         For example, the crew of the EUSEI (European Union Space Exploration Initiative) Revolutionaire saw an angel while in orbit around Earth, preparing to go to light speed. While on their mission, they discovered the first alien life form known to man, a microbial species that lived off of dissolved particles in the oceans of its planet. Unfortunately, while making that discovery, one of the crewmen tripped and landed on a razor-sharp rock, slicing open his suit and suffocating in the sulfur-rich atmosphere.

         Everyone on the Earthseeker, except Austin, just barely saw the tail end before it disappeared around the side of the ship.
         "Well," commented Peterson to Austin, "I guess you'll have to keep extra alert. It seems you're going to be the one to make all of us famous."
         "Oh yeah," he replied jokingly, "I forgot about you guys. I'll try not to hog the spotlight completely. After all, someone had to make dinner."
         Keller punched him lightly on the shoulder with a chuckle, adding to his injuries from falling. Just then, a tone sounded signifying that the lander craft was ready.

         Soon they climbed one by one through the hatch attaching the Pioneer to the Earthseeker, all suited up in anticipation of embarking on the new planet. Taylor ran a quick systems check before taking off.

         "Is everyone inside?" asked Willems. It was really a useless question, since the landing craft was small enough that the tangible feeling of crowdedness was a clear indication that everyone was there.

         "Yes, sir." replied the crew in perfect unison.
         "Good. Let's take it down, Taylor."

         The landing craft detached from the ship scattering flecks of paint into space. It hurtled through the atmosphere of this new world, shaking from the friction with the air. The computed trajectory of the lander was followed to a tee, so no course corrections were required.

         Reverse jets kicked in, slowing the lander enough that it could land safely on the ground. Taylor stood by with the controls in his hands in case the pre-programmed landing site procedure needed some human adjustment. Sometimes, small aberrations in the topography of a planet caused the lander to choose a completely unsuitable place to touch down.

         The program found a suitable clearing in the middle of a forest, somewhat thin by Earth standards, but obviously full of life. The thruster switched over to air jets, using air from the surrounding atmosphere to reduce falling speed without accidentally scorching any of the local flora and fauna.

         The landing craft touched down about ten minutes after detaching from the ship. It landed on the alien grass, ever so slightly tilted from the rise of the land. The entire crew, adorned in their personal environment suits, prepared to take their first step on yet another virgin world.

         "Austin," commanded Willems, "send a message to HQ, informing them of our landing."
         "I would sir, but whatever is interfering with the scans is also interfering with communications. We've lost all contact with Earth."
         "Fine," replied Willems, obviously holding back his anger, "Will the Distress Probe Launchers be able to breach the interference?"
         "I think so."
         "Okay. How about the comlinks?"
         "At short range, they should be fine. Only distances over about five miles will be a problem."
         "Good. Everybody be sure to bring their DPL just in case. Now let's get going."

         Air hissed as the pressure equalized between the airlock and the outside world. An outside world that the landing team knew nothing about, since some anomaly was shielding it from long-range sensors. Now, with any luck, they were to find out just what that anomaly was.

         The blue underbrush of the strange forest crunched underneath their feet as they took the first few steps on this alien world. Lieutenant Peterson pulled out a pair of forceps and plucked a small sample from a blue, leaf-like structure on a small shrub. He placed it in the sample hole in his hand-held spectrograph strapped to his belt. The sample showed astronomical amounts of cobalt compared to proportions in Earth plants. There were also moderate increases in the amount of iron in the tissue.

         "The blue color seems to be coming from a high amount of cobalt," he said to the rest of the team, "Possibly in the pigment they use for photosynthesis."
         "That makes sense, considering the intensity of red and orange light from the sun," reasoned Commander Willems, "All right. Austin and Taylor will stay with the ship. Keep the door closed, and watch the windows, camera ready. Let's have some keepsakes to take home. Peterson, Keller, and I will have a look around. Let's move out."

         Brian Austin and Michael Taylor trudged back insided the landing craft. Austin was disgruntled at being stuck with the boring job of watching the ship. Austin moved his computer to a spot just next to a window, so he could look out from time to time as he worked on his doctoral thesis. He grumbled to himself under his breath, "'Stay with the ship.' C'mon, I'm the one that saw the angel. Once I get my doctorate, he'll have no choice but to take me along."

         Taylor inspected a readout on a computer screen at the control panel. The planet's air was 22 percent oxygen and contained no harmful gases. He took off his suit, relieved that the atmosphere turned out to be breathable, since he seemed to get a bit claustrophobic inside of it. Of course, he wouldn't tell Commander Willems that, because if word got out, he could never go out on another mission. He turned a chair to another window, held his camera, and waited.

         Austin drummed away at the keyboard, typing his thesis. He was never able to use the oral word processor programs, because he always forgot to deactivate it when he got up, and he would find random nonsense words and background speech filling pages.

         Austin was deeply engrossed in the reproductive systems of the deep-sea slugs of Ganymede when he noticed a rustling in the bushes outside his window. He picked up the camera next to him and aimed it outside, searching the foliage for another sign of motion. Suddenly, a fierce-looking, cat-like creature jumped out of the bushes and hit the side of the ship just below the window... and stuck there.

         The cat-thing was completely black, except for streaks of dark blue fur, especially around the head. It was stream-lined, resembling a housecat more than a violent predator, at least until you saw the sharp, vicious teeth.

         Austin's computer slid along the table toward the wall as the screen warped in strange colors and patterns, and then, with a shower of sparks, it went blank. By now the computer was pulled flush against the wall, and Taylor was at the window, quickly snapping pictures.

         The face of the creature peeked up at the bottom of the window and growled at them. They could hear the faint pong noises as its feet walked along the wall. Suddenly, it dropped off and disappeared into the surrounding forest. At the same instant, the computer fell back down to a more natural position on the table.

         By now, Taylor had gotten on the comlink.
         "Uh, Commander? We've had an incident."
         "What is it?"
         "Well... it's hard to explain. You should come take a look."
         "I'm on my way."

         Commander Willems and the rest of the team arrived in ten minutes, and they got inside as soon as the airlock would allow. Austin showed them over to the window where the computer lay, still blank and misaligned.

         Austin and Taylor explained to the Commander what happened, and as much as it sounded like it, they didn't embellish the truth a bit.

         Commander Willems looked at them skeptically. "All right," he said with a sigh, "Austin and Keller come with me, and we'll have a look around, see if we can track it. Peterson, you and Taylor will stay with the ship this time. See if you can figure out what happened to the computer, and if you can fix it. If this is just a plot for you to get ouside and explore, so help me. You know angels don't really mean anything."

         Willems, Keller, and Austin set out, without their suits this time, in the direction that they saw the cat-thing run. Rusty sunlight streamed through the green and blue canopy, as birds or small animals moved stealthily through the branches, calling to unseen mates and competitors.

         Everything on this planet seemed to be good at hiding, since they hardly ever saw a thing, but constantly heard cries and calls. As they walked, Willems noticed many of the loose rocks were of recognizable minerals, most high in iron and cobalt.

         Loose twigs and small shrubs crunched beneath their feet, announcing their approach to small animals that scurried into the underbrush before they could be seen. Austin was on edge and jumped at every snap of a twig or rustle in the bushes, spinning around and pointing his blaster at them. Willems and Keller walked casually, looking for footprints of some kind. The ground was unusually hard, and it was hard to find any trace.

         The reddish sunlight filtered through the bluish leaves and created an almost purple light that played on the ground and gave it an almost childish atmosphere of pure color.

         All three of them had their blasters at the ready, set on low power so as not to hurt anything too bad. It was a good thing, because they soon saw a figure in the bushes, closer than anything they had seen so far. It slowly creeped out, the same animal that had attacked the landing craft.

         It circled the three astronauts, growling at them with a sinister look. Willems kept his gun trained on the animal as it moved. Tensing its legs for a moment, it leaped straight at him, and reflexively, Willems fired directly at his head. But instead the laser blast curved and hit its front right paw. It let out a shreik as it twisted in midair from the force and missed the commander, and then the creature scampered back into the woods, wimpering and limping.

         "Commander, you must be getting rusty with that blaster. Either that or you're going soft" commented Keller with a chuckle, "You shot his paw for crying out loud. I would would have shot at the head."
         "I did shoot at the head," he replied, puzzled, "Something weird is going on here. Let's head back to the lander."

         The three of them started jogging quickly back toward the landing craft. The charming mystique of the forest that they had noticed before was now a sinister, dark persona that seemed to be watching them constantly. They saw many more rustlings of leaves and darting animals on this return trip.

         The astronauts started running faster. The increased oxygen lended them a much needed pair of wings as they tried to outrun the formless creatures chasing after them.

         As the ship came into sight, the animals came out of the bushes and started chasing them in the open, tossing stealth to the side. Willems has gotten a glimpse of their mean-looking claws earlier, and he had a feeling they didn't have the best of intentions this time either.

         He ran through plans in his mind of what to do, seeing as they wouldn't make it to the ship in time. No matter how good a shot the three of them were, they wouldn't be able to hold off the twenty or so that chased them now. He hit upon an idea, and pulled out his comlink. It was a good thing this ship came fully equipped.

         "Activate the static discharge system," yelled Willems to Taylor in the ship, "Point it toward the center of the group of the... the things chasing us!"

         Having reachd the clearing, the three of them started running backwards toward the ship and taking pot shots at the cats, but the lasers went careening wildly off of their path, rendering them useless.

         The creatures had now gotten within leaping distance of the crew. They walked forward slowly, growling. The lead cat pulled back and pounced with great ferocity toward Keller. But he was already holding his blaster by the barrel, and he swung it with equal ferocity. A sickening crack rung out as it was thrown to the ground. Suddenly a blindingly white bolt shot out from the ship, hitting a large rock near the group of animals.

         The cats all turned to look at the strike of electricity, and slowly they started to slide unwillingly toward it. They clawed at the ground, trying in vain to hold on, but they were being pulled in with ever increasing force. Suddenly, the closest one was pulled directly into the path of the bolt, letting out a short shreik, then became silent.

         The static discharge stopped after only a few seconds, and as soon as it did, Willems, Austin, and Keller rushed into the airlock before the creatures could start chasing them again.

         "Commander," said Peterson as soon as Willems walked out of the airlock, "I've figured out what made the computer go out."
         "I know. Magnets."
         "Right," said Taylor, "That's why you had me engage the static discharge, isn't it?"
         "Yeah," answered back Peterson, "And remind me to file a reprimand on you for not doing that as soon as we landed, according to procedure."
         "Oh. Okay. ...So," Taylor stated, changing the subject, "that explains the computer, and how that static discharge pulled those cat things away."
         "Yes," agreed Commander Willems, "that and the cobalt. Everything on this planet must be high in ferromagnetic metals, which would make built in magnets a good adaptation."
          "Right," commented Austin, "it would certainly give it a better grip on its prey. But how was it able to just drop off of the ship when we first saw it?"
         "It probably uses electromagnets," interjected Peterson, "It would certainly be a lot more useful if they could be turned on and off at will."
         "Well," said Willems, "we've figured out what was causing the long-range sensor problems. A large number of cat-thingies all using magnets at the same time. So as soon as we get one to study, we can leave."
         "Um..." mumbled Taylor, "maybe not."

         "Why not?!" demanded Commander Willems, his face turning redder than the sun outside.
         "Well," Taylor said slowly as he examined the open panel before him, "I was checking the ship's computers, and apparently that run-in that destroyed Austin's computer was a little too close to ours as well."
         "Just what did we lose?" sighed Willems, resigning to this twist of fate.
         "We lost take-off procedures and most of our entertainment library to boot. We could try manual lift-off, but they don't teach that much anymore, so none of us are that well versed."
         "So we're stuck here, then?"
          "Pretty much. And since the magnetism is interfering with our communications, so we can't call for help. At least not from here."

         "What about the DPLs?"
         "I already tried that, and apparently, they don't go high enough to escape the interference."
         "Then what do we do?"
         "We could try to find a mountain of some sort, some place where there isn't as much interferance."
         "Okay," decided Willems, "we start looking around. Everyone stock up on rations and get ready. We leave in an hour."

         After an hour of preparations, the team stepped out of the airlock. Willems looked around, trying to decide where to walk. Something caught Peterson's eye in the opposite direction.

         "Hey, look at this."
         The rest of them came and saw the charred, dead body of the magcat (as they now had dubbed them) that had been electrocuted. It was burned beyond recognition, and nothing really new could be ascertained about its anatomy.
         "Well, that's all she wrote," said Willems, breaking the silence, "let's go. We have a long walk. Oh yeah, see that puddle?"
         "Yeah," replied Austin cautiously, having a pretty good idea what it was.
         "Apparently some of the magcats got scared. Rub some of it on your clothes, and let's hope that they're territorial. It might scare the rest of them away."

         No one was very thrilled about the idea, but it did make sense, and it was an order. They all complied, but not without some grumbling.

         Everyone got up and started to follow Willems off to the east. Then, as an afterthought, Austin darted back and picked up a few blackened, but still hard, claws from the body as a souvenir.

         The group of stranded astronauts left in high spirits. They had reviewed the tapes of their landing, and thought that they saw a mountain range to the east, so that was their goal.

         Due to the higher percentage of oxygen in the air, the astronauts didn't get very sore as they walked and walked. The musk seemed to work well, because they hardly saw another animal the rest of the day.

         After a few hours, they took a break to rest and eat. They hadn't eaten since they landed, which was about ten hours before, so they were ravenous. They still hadn't seen any of the magcats yet, but they were still on their guard.

         "So," began Peterson after he scraped up the last of his MRE, "can we see any mountains from here?"
         "I think so," replied Austin, looking through his pocket binoculars, "I think I can make out a faint outline, but we need to get a few miles closer to be sure."
         "Then we'd better get a move on," said Willems, "Break's over."

         The astronauts trudged on, starting to get a bit weary, and hoping to find a good place to stop for the night. As they moved on, they realized that it really was a mountain that they saw up ahead. Willems also saw that something, definately not a magcat, was following them. Occasional snaps of twigs from behind signified its approach.

         "Hey, Hal. Remember that friend I used to have a while back?" asked Willems.
         "Do you mean the one that used to follow you like he was your shadow or something?" replied Peterson with a look in his eyes that told Willems that he had noticed the figure following them too.
         As it turned out, everyone had noticed their shadow, a testament to USSF training. They would keep up their charade of ignorance as long as they could, but no one would be sleeping that night. It seemed someone had other plans.

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Chapter 2

         Willems and his crew continued on in search of a mountain from which to send a distress signal. But at the moment they were concentrating on the figure following them, too crafty for an animal.

         The reddish star that lit the planet was setting behind the mountain that they could just see on the horizon. They would have to set up camp for the night, but their shadow worried Willems. He considered not stopping, but decided not to take a chance in the dark. He would have to just keep the camp well lit, set a watch, and hope that this thing was only curious.

         "Austin," commanded Willems, "you take first watch. Switch every three hours." He planned to stay up all night, and he had a hunch that the rest of them did too.

         Austin started gathering firewood and started a fire from the local flora and trees. The high amount of cobalt gave it an eerie blue color that somehow didn't seem to make the dark forest any more inviting. Instead it cast a ghostly appearence on the surrounding trees. Austin put out the fire and decided that this would be a good time to use an emergency lantern, even if it did run down the battery.

         The rest of the team started setting up their individual tents. They only set up four since someone was going to be on watch the whole time.

         The tents were arranged with one on each point of the compass, not that the compass was very useful here. The team settled down for a long night, not expecting to get much sleep. Austin had his blaster set high enough to disable a human and kill most animals. He sat by the fire, tense and jumpy, counting down the minutes until his watch was over.

         Willems sat and listened for over two hours, not even close to sleeping. Finally he decided to get up and relieve himself, more out of boredom than any real need. As he left his tent, Austin looked up hopefully, praying for a relief.

         "I'm going to the little boys' room," explained Willems, crushing Austin's hopes, "Keller is next on watch." Austin continued to toss small pebbles through the handle loop of the lantern and trying to look as if he weren't looking.

         Willems walked a few trees away, his blaster on full power. Once the lantern had been turned on, they hadn't seen a sign of the figure that had been following them. He situated himself in front of a tree and began his business. He still had his blaster out and was looking alertly around him.

         As he finished up, Willems saw a faint yellow flash on the tree right in front of him. He hurriedly zipped his pants up, turned around, and sprinted back to the camp. When he got there, the soil around the fire and the tents was covered with prints of boots. They had a tread different than the ones his team wore.

         Willems looked hurriedly around and saw several figures disappear into the forest, their backs barely visible in the weak light among the trees. There were too many for him to take alone with just his blaster. He would need additional help.

         As he looked closer, Willems saw Austin's blaster laying on the ground where he had been sitting. Willems picked it up for the extra fire power. When he checked the tents, he saw that the entire team was missing. The backs of their tents had been cut open, and the drag marks stopped soon, so whoever kidnapped them was obviously strong to be carrying full grown men off of the ground.

         Willems kicked the dirt as hard as he could, and the dust flew into the lantern. The dust hit it and floated down with a gentle sound. What a time for a bathroom break.

         Willems willed himself to calm down. He went around to all of the tents and picked up the supplies they had left behind, especially power cells for the blasters. He walked back over to where the footprints were the thickest. They were his only clues as to who kidnapped his team.

         First he looked at the treads. They seemed to be of human make, and most likely government issue, though not any branch of the military he knew. He followed the footprints to where the figures disappeared into the forest. Suddenly remembering, Willems turned around to pick up the lantern.

         When he turned, he found himself face to face with a brute of a man. Instinctively, Willems raised his blaster and fired, but as he did, the giant's arm intercepted his. The gun flew out of his hand as it fired into nowhere, and Willems suspected his arm might be broken.

         Ignoring the size of the man in front of him, Willems lashed out with his good arm at his stomach. Or at least where his stomach should have been; he ended up hitting his groin. The giant fell over in pain, and Willems noticed that there was another man behind him. This man wasn't nearly as imposing, but he happened to have a blaster trained on him. Willems was forced to surrender. At least he knew where his team was now.

---------------------------------------------

         Willems marched in silence along with the two men, each with a blaster at the ready. He stole a glance at their boots. They were marked with the seal of one of the United State's penal colony asteroids. That explained the government issue treadmarks.

         Willems stumbled on rocks that presented themselves out of nowhere to his sleepless eyes. His captors were pushing him too hard for having marched almost all day, and then not getting any sleep. That also made it difficult to notice where they were going.

         Another unseen rock tripped Willems, but this time he landed flat on his face. The two thugs picked him up and forcably put him back on his feet.

         "Hey Sport," he called out to the smaller one as they started walking again, "how about a pit stop?"

         Sport looked at Bub (as the commander had denoted him) and Bub gestured back. The two of them pushed Willems down to the ground, apparently allowing a rest. Willems started glancing around stealthily, looking for a way of escape, but soon felt two blaster barrels jammed into his back. Sport and Bub were both standing behind him, obviously not letting their guard down. Willems gave up on escape.

         Several miles and two rests later, the threesome arrived at a large stone door. By now it was light, and Willems noticed that they were at the base of one of the mountains that his team had been heading for. At least the trip wasn't a total loss.

         Sport tapped a sequence onto a part of the door that seemed blank. But when he was done, the door sunk noiselessly into the ground. The brutes forced him inside, and they went through a series of long, crude, stone tunnels. At the end, they arrived at an imposing metal door.

         Sport entered a code into a pad next to the door, and it slid open. On the other side was a face Willems hadn't seen in years, and had never expected to see for the rest of his life.

         It was a face anyone over the age of twenty-five would remember. It belonged to Josef Mauklin, the innovator-turned-guerilla who staged a coup against the United States shortly after its annexation of Canada. He almost succeeded in taking over the world, mostly because of a new laser, which was now called a xaser, that utilized X-rays instead of visible light. As such, it penetrated traditional shielding.

         After his capture, he went through a two-year trial, and was sentenced to a life of hard labor, followed by the death sentence when he was no longer useful. His face was the most recognizable in the world, with a laser scar running along his cheek, and one ear partly missing.

         Now Commander Willems was face-to-face with the most heinous criminal in the history of humanity. Willems' father had been a the prosecuting lawyer against him, so he knew exactly what he had done.

         Willems stammered off a forced, superficial greeting, not knowing what else to say. He paused for a second, and then threw up.

         "Calm down, Commander," said Mauklin in a critical tone that somehow seemed to grate on Willems' ears, "You'll need your strength. You have a big day ahead of you."

         "What are you doing here?" demanded Willems, wiping off his mouth, "You're supposed to be in prison."

         "Oh yes, that," replied Mauklin wearily, "It's so convenient to have a double. Especially one so loyal as the selfless wretch who is serving my sentence. You know," he continued in a voice that made anything sound surprising, "That security system in Alcatraz Asteroid is so archaic, it's a surprise they don't lose more prisoners. It only took me a few weeks to figure out how to switch out with one of my loyal followers."

         "What do you want with me and my team?"
         "It's nothing personal, I assure you, Commander. I needed a human test subject, and you came along so conveniently. And in such good shape ,too." Mauklin eyed Willems critically.
         "What are you testing on us?"
         "Oh, just you, Commander," replied Maklin calmly, "I'll only need one subject. Unless of course you don't survive."
         "But what for?!" demanded Willems hotly.
         "You'll find out soon enough," Maklin replied cooly. He nodded toward Bub, who pressed something against Willems' neck. He promptly passed out.

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