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The Adventures of Guy-Shi

(Author's note: The past eighteen months have been Hell on Earth. The fact that I have finished this piece is a sign that some of my burdens are beginning to ease. The backstory is available in the Eighth Adventure, also posted here in my blog.)

Ninth Adventure

“FUUUUUUUUUUUCCKK!!!”

The ship was dropping rapidly into the atmosphere now, ionized plasma still streaming over the canopy. I was fighting the stick and flailing my left hand about the panels, trying to keep something, anything, functioning. Pegasus Interplanetary Interceptor Number 317 was badly hurt, and we were in danger of being ripped to shreds before we found thicker air. Which could also rip us to shreds.

The violent shaking of the craft kept me from seeing much of anything outside. I still didn’t know what was wrong. The number two engine on the starboard wing was non–functional according to the boards. That many red lights meant attempting a restart would be a waste of time. I looked for ways to stabilize the ship. I flipped some more switches and had a conversation with the computer. It didn’t have much of a personality but its’ voice recognition software was very… well, let me say ‘fault tolerant’.

So now maybe I wouldn’t corkscrew it in. What a way to start the day. I should be waking up in more congenial surroundings. But the powers–that–be, if such a concept even applies to whatever summons Guys like me, must be in a hurry today. I’m also wrestling with the realization that this implies I’ve been moved up a level, and I am expected to handle more difficult problems. None of this makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

I’ve lost a lot of altitude in a short time, but at least the wings have something to clutch. We’re still yawing to starboard, though. I risked looking away from the instruments to see what was out there. Or in this case, what wasn’t out there. My beloved 317 no longer had a number two engine.

So now was the time to look for a place to put down. There was a whole lot of desert out there, all dunes and scrubby plants, with lots of rusty red boulders. Great. I couldn’t risk a belly landing because I’d never get out of here again. I didn’t know where ‘here’ was, and I was loath to give up on ‘there’. I deployed the landing gear and began a series of wide ‘S’ turns to delta my vee down to a more manageable level. Flying a little better now. Then I activated the lift–off repulsers in the hopes of getting a little cushioning.

Definitely past time to hit the thrust reversers, and I was still going a bit too fast. This is going to hurt. I slammed hard into the harness, but the crash field didn’t activate. I’ll probably get some bruises from this, but at least I can still work the controls. I’m trying to keep the nose pointed forward, but the stick might as well be from an old video game at this point. Something was beeping with an increasing cadence, probably the proximity alert. Prepare for unacceptable air to ground interface. The skids made terrible sounds as they hit the sand one at a time.

The sand was smooth enough here, but I’m traveling up a rise. I caught some air again at the crest, and I thanked the Goddess as I sailed over a boulder field on the lee side of the dune. Then we were down again and the 317 was crabbing to the left as she slowed. I worried about my teeth and wished for a mouthpiece. The cloud of sand blew over the canopy and I could see nothing for the final agonizing seconds.

I wasn’t moving anymore, so I started shutting things down. The number one engine was on the verge of overheating, and I was sweating buckets as well. I told the computer to take everything else to standby.

I waited for the dust to clear a bit more, then opened the canopy. I climbed out of the cockpit and down to the ground. My knees were wobbly, and my legs gave out on me. I went down on all fours and waited for the vertigo to pass. During that time I gave thanks for being near the one planet in this system that had a breathable atmosphere. Eventually I felt good enough to shed my helmet and jacket.

I forced myself up so that I could inspect my fighter. From the port side things looked okay. I had no recollection of what I had been doing up there, but I couldn’t see any battle damage. A minute later I was staring at the remains of the pylon that held the number two engine. I couldn’t tell if it had been blasted off, broken off, or bitten off. I looked up at the sky. Orbit was a long ways away.

I opened an access panel and pulled out one of the survival kits. I needed a drink, even if water was all that I had. I also wanted to put off the full inspection for a bit longer. I wasn’t feeling very optimistic at the moment, possibly because of the meter–plus long fissure in the starboard blaster lance. I might get one or two shots out of it, but I had better be desperate before I try.

I made my way to the nose and stared at the painted–on shark’s mouth and angry eyes. I finally noticed that the paint job was blue–gray. I my previous incarnation the 317 was painted a flat gray. Hmm.

I opened another panel and pulled out the tool kit, checking to see if the Ekdol Space Works sigil was on the box. The placard was in its’ proper place. I found the emergency ‘ladder’, a tangle of sixteen gauge wire in a plastic pouch. I shook it out and activated it. The ladder unfolded the rest of the way and went rigid. I leaned the ladder against the nose and went up for a look.

I couldn’t see much of anything. I ran my hands along the surface, seeking any sign of my crude welds.. I found nothing, and asked myself why I expected otherwise. I hadn’t left Lorset six minutes ago, it was six months ago and uncounted universes away. I shook my head and climbed back down.

I picked up the survival kit, and retreated to the shade under the wings. I broke out the sleeping pad and some food sticks. I needed to pause, to collect myself, and to let the tremors pass.

I looked at the starboard pylon. I need to clean up that mess. Too much drag. I also needed to find out what else was damaged, and how much fuel I had left. I thought it likely that I had lost some on the way down.

It was too late in the day to get much repair work done. I needed to get back up to the cockpit complete the assessment of my situation. I allowed myself another sip of water as I looked over my supplies. Then I checked out my surroundings and smelled the hot sand. The heat could be a problem if I stayed here too long.

Fifteen minutes later I knew that the UltraComm was down, and that the ELT had melted into a puddle of blue resin. I found the latter development to be the cruelest part of the joke. That left me with BattleComm and the laser, neither of which was useful unless I was in orbit. Orbit… well, if nothing else came up, and if I didn’t burn any fuel running around down here, I could probably make a stable one. If the greater battle favored my side, I had maybe two or three days before they moved on. Otherwise, it was already too late and I probably wouldn’t know what hit me.

My memory of what was going on up there remained hazy. I didn’t have a grip on anything before I hit atmo. I looked at my jacket and found that I couldn’t focus on any of the insignia or lettering. Could be a not–so–subtle way of telling me that it doesn’t matter. Again I found myself wondering how much of me was here.

I set about making camp. Three minutes later I was done and into the tool kit looking for something to do. I found the power driver and began worrying at one of the damaged panels. Each panel consisted of a vast matrix of holes for screws, hundreds, perhaps even thousands. The ones that were bent or chewed up were of course angry and sullen now and refused to cooperate. Each one broke free with a cloud of alloy dust that went straight for my nose. The acrid tang reminded me of touching a battery to my tongue.

When I finally threw the second panel on the ground I saw that the shadows were very long. Time to call it a day. Supper took all of five minutes. I was still quite freaked out, but also fatigued as well, so I wasn’t too concerned about my ability to sleep.

I was concerned about being alone with my thoughts. Now I’ve got time to ponder… to brood. Why me? What am I doing here? What deities have I angered that they should lay so great a doom upon me? I’m nothing, nowhere near heroic.

I started bouncing a food stick wrapper off of the underside of the fuselage. The darkness was pooling deep around me now. I looked at the lantern, but decided against using it unless necessary. I wanted to disappear into the night, and perhaps find out what sorts of things will want to eat me.

I’d love to just give up and be eaten. But I still love not being eaten more. “Pathetic.” Then I added a bitter laugh to my announcement. I cannot overcome the fear that my failure will come at too great a price for this universe that I am visiting, and for many others as well.

There is my fear and loathing in a parallel universe. I just don’t know what I am anymore. This all used to be so fun. No doubt, little fear, the occasional beautiful woman. But now I believe myself to be a fraud, unworthy of my magic sword.

What the fuck?! Where is my sword? I haven’t even thought about it since I hit the deck.

I grabbed the lantern and rolled out from under the portside. I climbed up and stuck my head into the cockpit. I found it safe in its’ usual place where it had never been before. I am growing more accustomed to my mind going round and round this way.

I returned to Camp Pegasus and wrapped myself and my sword up inside the emergency blankets. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing. Sometimes when I’m uptight I need to meditate myself to sleep.

I heard sounds. Smaller ones, some sort of insect life. Nothing came near me. Perhaps I was in some sort of ‘alien bubble’ that did not smell appetizing.

#

Something loud woke me up. I fumbled for my sword and the lantern, cursing the crackling space blankets all the while. I waited for the next development.

The sound came again. Whatever made that noise was big. Yet it was plain that the sound was coming from quite some distance away. So that could only meant that it was monster class big. Such a beast might explain the lack of other predators in the area. I listened to one more long, bugling bellow and concluded that Tadzilla over there could probably eat my ship, if he/she/it were so inclined.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I heard other calls as well. They were fainter, and far away. I heard at least four distinct vocalizations. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

I opened my eyes again sometime after dawn. There were no sounds, and everything was where I’d left it. I felt rather wretched and the smell of the sand was deep inside my nose. I really wanted some time off, but this is just not that kind of job.

Breakfast used up ninety seconds or so of the promised long day. Next I spent five minutes up in the cockpit checking the readouts and wishing that the UltraComm would get over its’ problems. Then I went back to the hard work of cleaning up the damage. I wrenched a few more plates free and that got me into the layer of plumbing. I started with the electrical bits because I understood those a little better. I was already sweating, and my overall ripeness was becoming apparent.

I felt a cool breeze for just a moment, and then a shadow passed over me. I looked up but there were no clouds nearby. I heard something… almost a flapping kind of sound. My skin began to crawl. Slowly I turned around and saw… Oh, goddess help me, I’ve gone insane.

Giant bat wings, long tail with fins, and a sinuous neck with a great horned head at the end. The beast bugled, and I was forced to admit that I had just seen a dragon. A freaking dragon and he’s making a turn now. I didn’t know how far up he was, but I felt that we made eye contact, and not in a good sort of way.

My first thought (if it were actually worthy of the name) was to protect the ship. I climbed up onto the wing, running right across the ‘NO STEP’ painted there. I reached into the cockpit and grabbed my sword, stuck it in my belt, and closed the canopy. I danced my way out towards the nose of the fighter.

Smaug was diving down now, and he bugled once more. I swear I smelled his breath. I drew my sword and cried out as loud as I could. He might very well kill me, but I was going to get at least one blow in first. His fangs were huge, I thought that they were the size of elephant tusks. I could only hope that they were sensitive. This was also the point at which I began wondering about the whole fire–breathing thing. The Guy business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what with the general lack of sexiness and glamour. Now he was upon me, and I swung my sword.

First down, and then into a rising cut. I made contact with something, perhaps even my target, and the noise he made bottomed out my eardrums. A sound so loud that it was perceived by some sense or senses other than hearing. Why I don’t soil myself at moments such as this I’ll never know. Being tougher than I look really stinks sometimes.

But I hadn’t been bitten in half. Not yet, anyway. Smaug was of course mad enough to breathe fire by now, so maybe that wasn’t a concern after all. And then…

Well, I’m still having trouble describing the sensation. I was not ‘there’ and yet I was there. For a fraction of a second I couldn’t make myself think. My mind and body skipped a beat. Did I just have my brain sucked?

I had no other explanation for why Smaug broke off his attack. He was circling me now, with a much more wary eye than before. This was when I finally had the time to comprehend the intelligence showing in the eye of his that I could see. He was no mere beast, driven simply by hunger or horniness. Probably… no, definitely a good thing.

He landed nearby, but comfortably out of range. We looked at each other for a bit. Then he started working his mouth in strange ways. I hoped that he did not think that I was a hungry chick, and that it was time to regurgitate a meal.

“Haa… ho… Heh…” The sounds rumbled out of his chest and I swear they shook the ground. He’s looking right at me the whole time. He tried again. “How… do… youname… you…?”

Shee–it! Total brain suckage! Best to put on a brave front, then. “I name myself Guy-Shi. My ship was damaged and I was forced to land.”

I took a moment to put my sword back into the scabbard. “You clearly have the advantage.”

Oh, yes he did, for he sucked my brain again. “We speak… brain to brain… most–ly”

"My people cannot do this. I do not like it.”

“This learns me quickly.”

“Something to be said for that, but I still think it’s rude.” But then I had an idea. I got back to the cockpit and fetched out my helmet and put it on. Smaug was staring at me, wondering what I was about. “Try it now.”

The confusion came to his face straight away. “There is nothing.”

Ah. The old foil hat trick. I’m always willing to take what I can get. This helmet will get hot, though. “Good. I like to have a little control over my innards.”

There’s no shortage of amazingly weird stuff flying past in the Guy business. The problem lies in forgetting to take time out to observe and acknowledge. I’m starting to worry that one day this will be my downfall. Now I’m just wasting time in the middle of an adventure, aren’t I? Don Quixote would not approve, but he was batshit crazy first, and heroic came in a good five minutes down in the overall standings. A dispassionate assessment of my own heroism would place me somewhere behind the peloton.

I see that Smaug is giving the ship a thorough going–over now. I wonder what he’s thinking. If I could read minds, I’d be in a casino somewhere…

“What is… this?”

“This is my ride, how I got here. It’s named after a mythical flying creature from my own world.

“You fight with it?” He was getting better fast.

“Yes, though it’s a bit tore up just now. I need to get back up there —” I pointed over my head. “If I want to go home.”

“I must tell the others. I will return soon.”

I saw Smaug flex his muscles, and the next thing I know I’m eating sand and freaking out over how much of this crap is in the engine now.

Eventually I got around to wondering about these ‘others’ that Smaug had mentioned. This reminded me that I hadn’t gotten anything from him name–wise. He was definitely in a hurry, but for what? I decided to resume my labor while I waited.

I was past the worst of it, and began to think that I might be finished by the end of the day. Then I’ll blast my way out of here. I’ve probably got another day at most before the fleet moves on… no pressure there.

What can I do, really, against a beast as big as my ship? Plus several others? I felt myself getting extra sweaty, and my stomach wanted in on the action as well. What does he want of me? By extension, what does the multiverse want of me? I can’t shake the feeling that the stakes have been raised higher. I may be asked for something that I have not given before.

What have I been given? The sword, of course, along with my rocket ship and raygun. Comforting, familiar things. Somewhere in this morass that I call my mind are the knowledge and skills that I need to complete my task. Another belief that I cling to with vigor.

Sometime in the afternoon I finished what I could do for the airframe. I policed my campsite, then hit the cockpit for another systems check. Everything looked well enough, and I did the preflight all the way up to the engine start sequence. I couldn’t spare a cubic centimeter of fuel if I wanted to go home.

I shouldn’t be able to do any of this… There I go thinking again. If I overanalyze this shit I will collapse into a puddle of self–doubt. Then I will fail, and countless billions of sentients will cease to exist. No pressure there, either. Couldn’t I just sacrifice myself so that others may live? Once and for all, and have done with it? Oh, Goddess, I shouldn’t have gone there. The need to soil myself competed with the need to puke. The slimy sweat of terror poured forth, coating me in another layer of sticky stuff.

Smaug returned with four others late in the afternoon, after the shadows had grown long and the heat had broken. One with dark scales, and another as pink as that coachwhip snake I saw in the Big Bend of Texas so long ago. The third was grey, with a strange smell, and the fourth had slanted, deep–set eyes.

Okay. Inky, Pinky, Stinky, and Clyde. Got it. Then the brain–sucking began again. I remember the sun spinning around.

Smaug must have stopped them at some point. I found myself laying on my back. The pain in my head was dreadful, and I felt nauseous as well. I could smell someone’s dragon breath.

“Guy–Shi. You are well?”

“No, I am not. Warn me next time.”

“They will stop. We need your help against GRRONNKARR–” The rest was too painful to hear, but I gathered that Smaug meant another dragon. I’ll just call him Glorfindel.

“So what’s his problem?” I was coming back into my senses. I forced my queasy self after my helmet and put it on. Hot. Smaug must have stopped them again. They kept staring at me.

“He has control of the One.”

Ah. “What is the One?”

“The One Temple of –…” Even with the helmet on, Smaug’s voice could still hurt. No wonder it gets so damn loud around here at night.

“A temple? How does he control it?”

Pinky let out a disgusted–sounding snort before he spoke. “In the usual fashion.”

“But why him and not one of you?”

“It is not our way.”

“Sacrilege, then. I take it that the One is supposed to be for all?”

“It makes the world.” Smaug had leaned his head in. “But he would make the world his if he is not stopped. The One makes his mind stronger. That is why we do not approach the One.”

I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. “I got a Guy that can help you with that.” Hubris in its’ purest form.

That’s when it hit me. They aren’t expecting me to go after the worm with my sword. I also didn’t care for the way Clyde was leering at the 317. But that’s it. A flying, fighting machine they understand.

But they don’t understand what all this means to me. The nausea returned, and I could feel the blood draining from my face. If I do this, I can’t go home. If I can’t go home… The fear suddenly grew worse. If I don’t get off of the rock, I die. Truly dead. No glory.

I’ve lived so many lives as a heroic idiot. I’d advise against it. I refer you to my earlier remarks on the lack of sexiness and glamour. But I can’t stop myself. Brothers and Sisters, don’t let this happen to you. The Guy business isn’t for everyone. You don’t get to sit at the cool table. You get to clean up the icky stuff that collects under the cool table. Those that sit there neither know nor care what makes their lovely evening possible. Feckers.

"In the morning would be best, when the sun is low.” Pinky must have been speaking for some time now. “He will be weakest then.

I can’t believe what I said next. “How far?” Idiot.

Smaug leaned in again. “Not so far.”

“How can I approach?”

“We can fly with you … to a point.”

My headache was getting stronger, and now my stomach got in on the action as well. I just wanted to be left alone. I was feeling worse by the minute. “Fine.” I staggered towards the shade under the wings. “Come back before sunrise, and I’ll have a plan.” Liar. I flopped onto the sleeping pad and fought to keep from throwing up. Something’s wrong.

A lot of things were wrong, really, with me. I turned away from them and closed my eyes. Smaug made some noise, the others took the hint, and they left one by one. Four of them, anyway. Who was left?

“Where I sleep is close by.” Smaug had lingered. “I will be here when you ask.”

I didn’t say anything. The world was spinning. I think I blacked out.

Because it was dark when I opened my eyes. I felt better, but depleted. What have I gotten myself into this time? Heroic idiocy.

What is this all about? What really matters here? What have I done to deserve this? I have to do something different this time, but what?

Sacrifice myself.

I volunteered to perform ritual suicide without a first thought, much less a second. But I don’t believe in it. Belief, that’s what this is all about. I don’t have it anymore. Here I am, confused about all of this. Manipulating real objects from a remote experience… Lorset may have been right about that.

If I don’t believe, I will fail. I don’t believe. I’ve had so much taken from me.

I must die, that others may live.

I can’t do it. What do I believe in? Now I have to know. That which truly mattered is lost to me. What matters now?

I got up off of the ground and started pacing. It was very dark now, and the stars filled the sky. I searched for something that might resemble the big dipper. I need a star to guide me. Now begins my long, dark night of the soul.

#

I shouted, I wailed, I gnashed my teeth and pounded the ground. Nothing changed. I swore loud oaths against anything and everything, all the while fearing the nothing that awaited me.

But this place, this life, is as real, as believable, as anything has ever been to me. I’m also clearly much cooler here than at home. I looked back at my alloy mosquito, the starlight reflecting off of the canopy. I wandered over to the lantern, turned it on, then dropped to my knees on the sand. I extended my finger and began a line.

My Rocket Ship and
Raygun, they comfort me. I
Watch my doom approach.

Until now, death has always been the price of failure. Not today. I can’t do this. How can I bring myself to believe in such a thing? “I can’t do this!”

I wailed until I cried, choking on great, gagging sobs. I have failed.

Then it was later. I don’t know how much later. I was out of words, of breath, of tears. What am I if I have nothing left? I listened to my heartbeat, obscured though it was by my ragged breathing. I still have the fear.

I couldn’t remember turning off the lantern, but I could see well enough. I reached for my sword. I grabbed it, and I could feel the beeswax beneath my fingers. My fetish.

A sword’s only purpose is to kill. It is an evil thing. Only the will of one who wields it can prevent the sword from doing evil.

I am the sword.

What wields me?

Then the fear took hold again. An anguished sound came from within.

A thought came into my mind then. One that just might be able to sustain me. Somehow I found myself on my feet, sword in hand.

I am NOT just some Guy. I am… a Ranger.

Kill me if thou wilt, but thou shalt not escape unscathed.

I strode out from beneath the wing, and beheld first light. “SMAUG! LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED!”

I raided the kits for what I needed, then broke camp in record time, cramming the boxes back into their slots in the 317. It took another minute or two to set things out. I found the attachment points and set the clips in place. ‘Round about the time I was finished, I heard the first beating of wings.

I hope I guessed right.

Smaug landed a moment later and derailed my train of thought. These dudes were big, maybe big enough. I waited for him to speak.

“Greetings. What do you do this day?”

“That should be ‘How do you do?’, actually. If you are concerned for my welfare.”

Smaug rumbled for a moment. “Then what do WE do this day?”

“Ah. We are going to find out how strong the four of you are together. You’ll have to carry me if we’re to have any chance of surprising Glorfindel.”

“Who?”

“Your problem child at the temple. Where I’m from, all things must have nicknames. It’s the law.” I was smiling, but I knew he wouldn’t get the joke.

“Carry you?”

“Are you strong enough to lift another of your kind?”

“Yes. But how did you know?”

“I didn’t. But that’s as close to a plan as I could get.”

“How will we do this?”

I smiled. “With these.” I picked up one of the straps off the ground. “Each of these is strong enough to support my fighter. Four or five of you should be strong enough.” The others arrived a moment later.

#

I still can’t believe that it worked. We were in the air, and 317 was rocking slightly to the rhythm of the wings. I had the canopy open and my helmet off. I guess I was feeling a bit cocky. For today we ride to ruin, and the world’s end.

We were about four hundred meters off the ground. Smaug and the crew were having no problem hauling me over the ridge. I stood up for a minute and looked around. Nice day. My head still hurt, though.

I sat down and looked at the instrument panel. It didn’t make a bit of sense. I couldn’t understand why it ever did. I always knew that this was bullshit. I’m still a fraud.

What do I do now? I am always given what I need. There was a button marked ‘Canopy’. I pressed it. I must have powered up back when I still knew what I was doing.

How can I do these things when my mind has turned to cheese? I must have lost track of time because things happened while I was away. The machine was running. I hate having my brain sucked. It’s even worse than I imagined. I guess I still have a bit of luck left. Wish I could take some home with me. I managed to start the engine even though there was no freaking way that I could know how.

The one engine that I still had, burning the fuel that I didn’t have to spare. I supposed that thirst would take me before hunger. Still a crappy way to go.

The main screen pinged, and I saw that we were just about there. A large, I mean Large, structure with some sort of pyramid on top of it. A Cheops class pyramid. Big sumbitch.

I armed the blasters and got the fault warning for the starboard unit. I’ll take what shots I have, I won’t be so fortunate as to die when it blows. I must be getting a hint of what a kamikaze pilot felt on his mission. All I need is the hashimaki.

It was time to go. I waved to Smaug, and throttled up. Then I was in freefall, trying to get some air under the wings. That’s when I saw it, and him.

Efffin’ huge, all of it. He’d gotten fat by comparison to the others. The pyramid was blue, electric, flaming, scintillating blue. The blue that could only mean one thing. Dulanium was involved, and I was about to start shooting at it.

Glorfindel was bellowing now. I could see into the pyramid. Transparent dulanium… Goddess, what I wouldn’t give for a piece of that.

The heads–up display still had crosshairs, a nod to tradition. Fat Bastard was right where I wanted him. I squeezed the trigger.

I got three shots before the lance exploded, bits bouncing off the canopy and falling behind. I smirked, thinking that at least they couldn’t foul the engine if it wasn’t there. These things do blow on occasion, so they are designed to break away clean. My aim was true, but somehow the bolts missed the beast and struck the pyramid. I held the trigger down for six or seven shots. The pyramid began to crack. The cracks flew across the surface, and the faces began to shatter in a most catastrophic fashion.

#

I’ve lost so much in so many lifetimes. Seeing the pyramid break up reminded me that I was one of the last people out of Atlantis, crystal domes breaking and the great shards destroying the buildings about us as we ran. I lost love then, and when I met her again, thousands of years later, she did not remember why she knew me.

I was in Egypt when it all went to hell. I was a temple guard, in love with a priestess. I saw the tears in her eyes as the others dragged her into the passage. When I turned to face the enemy, they were beyond counting… I’ve met her, many times, but we could never make it work again.

The one who truly loved me in this life is gone forever. Please let me die this day. I would rather it, nay, welcome it, for I know that I am weary of this life. The ship kept diving into the flame and the shards and the smoke and the sparks… yet it felt as though I was not moving at all, through space or time.

#

Then it was over, and the 317 and I were on the ground. The engine was spinning down and the computer looked to have things well in hand. I should let the computer do more of the work in the future. As if I had one. I opened the canopy and made ready to exit. I was on the same planet, but someplace other than where I started. I was blinking, disoriented, and my head still throbbed.

Can I, as the bluesmen say, ‘Lay right down and die’? It would save time and be less messy. Even if it counts as giving up.

I hadn’t lost any of the straps. I felt good about that, in a stupid sort of way. Perhaps I could hang myself from a vertical stabilizer with one. I heard dragons bugling, not so far off. One had to be Smaug, I knew him well enough now.

I checked to make sure my helmet was still on before I climbed down to the ground. The rest of the crew had come with him, plus quite a few more. I felt nervous and on the spot, because I thought they might expect me to make a speech. I had nothing in the tank, though.

“Guy–Shi. What you have done this day will never be forgotten. You name will become part of our song.”

I couldn’t stop the smirk. “Thanks, Smaug. At least someone will remember me. I won’t be able to survive much longer here.”

There was a long silence. “It there nothing we can do?”

I looked at Smaug. I looked at the straps. Then I looked at the others. “How high can you fly?”

“Very high. To where the air is cold and the winds are strong.”

I looked at the sun, and realized that this was the first planet I’d been to with no moon. Midmorning, so not too much time had passed. “It’s good that you brought friends. There just might be something after all.”

#

I watched Smaug and Clyde bank to starboard. We began to rise as we entered the thermal. I still had the canopy open. Time to power up and check our altitude. Three thousand meters already. I’ll have to close the lid soon.

We rode thermals for hours. They knew exactly what to do. I couldn’t help but be impressed. There is a very slight chance that this might work. I couldn’t feel a thing as one dragon replaced another on the straps. There were six of them carrying me now in the rarified air.

Twelve thousand meters. Time to spark up the engine. I took off my helmet for a moment to try to convey that message to Smaug. I scanned the boards and everything was running well enough. I just might break atmo after all.

It was time to find out. I could see that my hosts were working very hard. We must have hit the ceiling. Ready as we’ll ever be. I stuffed my helmet behind the seat. Let me go, gang.

The four dragons closest to me curved their long necks around and bit the straps through. Free fall came a moment later. I pushed the 317’s nose down and ran up the throttle. Time to climb.

Once I had a good angle of ascent I lit the afterburner. I sank into my seat and waited for the computer to count off the ninety seconds I’d programmed in. That should be enough of a kick towards orbit without burning all the fuel. With the gauges on ‘E’, I could’t be certain about much of anything.

I was heading almost straight up now and the sky above me was dark. When the afterburner shut down I watched the instruments and waited for my breathing to resume. I was also waiting for the engine to cut out. I’d turned the low fuel warning off as soon as I’d powered up, to save time.

A bit later I throttled back the engine without thinking about it. I was in orbit, and I still had a little fuel. The computer said I had three good orbits and one bad one coming up. Call it six hours, enough time for a tow if anyone was still around.

I put the ship into a slow roll, and I powered up the comm laser, setting it for maximum sweep and dispersion. I turned on the BattleComm and dialed the emergency frequency into the transponder. I resolved to pound the ‘Ident’ button until my thumb got sore.

“Mayday! Mayday! Pegasus 317 to all ships! Mayday! May fucking Day! I need a tow, and I need it now!” I could see ships on the radar. I hoped that they were on my side. Hell, P.O.W. sounded better than asphyxiation.

That’s when I realized that I hadn’t put my helmet back on, so no one heard that. I grabbed it and stuck it on my head. I heard a bit of static in the speakers. Someone might have responded.

“Say again?”

“Pegasus 317, cease squawking. We have a fix on your position.”

“I got three orbits before I go down. Help!”

“Tug en route. ETA four hours. Good to hear from you. We thought you were lost.”

“So did I. I think I’ll catch a little shuteye while I’m waiting.”

“Roger that. Leave the lights on for us.”

I was so tired I was asleep before I knew it.

#

Then I wasn’t asleep anymore. I was back in the other world. The world that’s there most of the time. All the machinery surrounding me had been replaced by flannel sheets, and the blackness of space changed to the grey morning light.

So this is life now. Again.

I wonder when my next summons will come.

You made it!

Great to see you round this one out. Congrats!

Thanks.

The words have been hard won.