|Southern Cross Dream
Author: Bruce Pendragon PM
Mike and Mica are home, but unanswered questions remain. Dr. J. puzzles over the cipher, Merlin reappears to share an ancient truth and shed light on Zoda's motive, and Mike is troubled by strange dreams. Crossover elements in later chapters.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Fantasy - Chapters: 13 - Words: 128,663 - Reviews: 23 - Favs: 5 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 06-04-08 - Published: 08-23-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3741502
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Southern Cross Dream
Chapter One: Bittersweet Homecomings
You were beauty incorruptible;/An angel of wisdom true; a light/For countless worlds, the dream of poets,/The hope of prophets and the legacy of the kings/Of a realm that spanned the nighttime heavens./But since you would not fall from those heavens,/It was Hell that came to you.
From the womb of this Earth/To nightmare's high throne/I sought you, the dream yet undreamed,/Knowing neither quest nor destiny, but only the call./I followed that call even before I heard it,/Before I recognized it, before I knew/That the voice in the Southern Cross was yours.
-Southern Cross Princess, Micheal D. Jones, Summer Poem Assignment: September 3, 1990
"Sap! Abso-freakin'-lute sap," 16 year-old Micheal Jones growled as he crumpled up this, his umpteenth attempt at an adequate poem, and pitched it across the room at a trashbasket. His aim was true, and the wad would have gone in were it not for the mountain of previous poems with the same fate. As it was, the projectile bounced harmlessly off the top of the pile and rolled under the teenager's bed. "I swear, why does English have to have homework?" running a hand through his thick, wavy brown hair before again picking up his pen, he glanced down at the next leaf of his dwindling notebook and forced himself to try once more. "Besides, I'm supposed to be writing about my summer vacation, not about... about..." He sighed, unwilling to attach the final word on the end of that sentence. "Not about some too-perfect, nonexistent girl. 'Southern Cross Princess,' geez," he decided to put down his pen and vent his thoughts aloud to the captive audience of his empty bedroom. "Get it together, Mike. What are the odds that a girl like that is ever going to just fall out of the sky again? It's..." Mike reconsidered what he had just said, wondering if this was what his father meant when he talked about a Freudian Slip. "Why did I say 'again?'"
After giving the matter one more moment's thought, Mike shook the questions from his head, returned his attention to the assignment, and began thinking about his past summer's vacation: a vacation he still wasn't sure he completely believed. After all, how many of the other students' vacations included adventure on the high seas, battles with monsters in the deep caves of an island chain, and rescuing the last remnant of a near-extinct alien civilization from something he barely dared to remember. A nightmare, he recalled, thinking about the poem. A nightmare named Zoda, whose 'high throne' was a ship orbiting at about 200 miles up. I actually HAVE been writing about my vacation.
"Y'know, on second thought," Mike mused, putting down his notebook and crawling under the bed to reach the balled-up poem, "maybe that 'sap' has potential after all." As his hand found the paper ball, he opened it back up and reread it, mildly pleased with himself for what he saw on the page. Not exactly Shakespeare I guess, but it's the first thing I've managed that didn't begin with 'Roses are red, violets are blue.' A knock at the bedroom door drew Mike's attention. "Come in," he called.
The face of Mike's father, Psychiatrist Dennis Jones appeared at the door. "Sorry to interrupt, but your Uncle Steve's on the phone. He wants you to come down to the lab, and he says it's urgent."
"Didn't say much. All he said was he needed your assistance."
Mike frowned. There had only been two times Steven Jones had ever asked for Mike's help. The first was what led Mike to Zoda's ship, and the second time had led him on a time-traveling misadventure worthy of Marty McFly. However, those details had been a secret that remained between Mike, his uncle, and those who witnessed the events, and Mike was not eager to be his father's next patient. With a sigh, he dropped the pen and notebook onto his nightstand and started off for his uncle's lab.
June 18, 1990
Earth orbit, altitude 213 miles
"Some vacation," Mike grumbled as the ship shook violently from another internal explosion. "I came to a tropical paradise to fish, catch some sun, and maybe even check out a few island chicks sunbathing. Instead…" he was interrupted by a hiss of steam exploding forth from a nearby access panel, followed by a computerized voice petulantly announcing something he could not translate in a deep, gooey bass voice. "Instead, I'm here on this ship. And what a splendid idea it was to shoot the reactor with a laser death ray thingy," he picked up his rant where he left off, walking disinterestedly through the steam venting from the wall.
"God, what was I thinking. 'Mike, your uncle was abducted by aliens. Here's a yo-yo.' 'Mike, you have to take the test of Island Courage, and don't forget your yo-yo!' 'Mike, you have to go find him.' 'Mike, they kidnapped me for what I knew. They wiped out a planet called Argonia twenty years ago, and now they're back to finish the job. You have to board the ship and recover three artifacts, because they're maaagical. Oh, and don't forget your yo-yo!' Sure, Uncle Steve, why not? Acid slugs, mutant cobras, ghosts, whales, multi-ton Indiana Jones bowling ball things, this summer just wouldn't be complete without a little stroll through an alien warship, now would it? And do I have a single clue what these 'magic cubes' are supposed to do? No? Well who cares? It's an interstellar rescue attempt. Who're we gonna call? The Marines? The FBI? The Ghostbusters? No, of course not! We'll get the captain of the St. Helen Prep Academy Baseball team!"
Something hissed at Mike from just outside his field of vision, and he quickly raised his 'laser death ray thingy (he would later learn it was called a "Kilarrij Combat Engineering Static Pistol"),' noting as he did that the charge meter was dangerously low. He only had a few shots left out of the weapon, and he needed to conserve them. Slowly and (he hoped) quietly, he returned the pistol to his belt and unthreaded the silver chain of his favored weapon, a ball-and-chain he liked to call 'Super Nova' made of an unearthly metal, from his beltloop.
He listened harder for any sign of the noise repeating, but the ship was a jumble of alert sirens, explosions and bulkheads straining under the stress of atmospheric reentry. Mike's self-inflicted headache wasn't helping his hearing any either, nor were the bananas he had jammed into his ears to cause the headache. Still, he didn't dare remove them. The throbbing pain in his head was the only thing keeping an unwanted presence out of it: the presence of a telepathic monster, called Zoda.
He shuddered as he thought of that creature, a creature he may or may not have killed a few rooms ago. He'd felt the alien's presence in his mind first. A shadowy hallucination and an echoing voice, proclaiming itself to be the "Prime Invader, Zoda, destroyer of Argonia." The alien had been unmistakably present in Mike's own head, so intrusive that Mike felt sure it could feel everything he felt.
And so, he'd decided to let it feel a migraine, by jamming his intended lunch into his ears. He'd felt a scream of pain, and it wasn't his own, as the alien recoiled from his mind. The triumph had been short-lived, however, for beyond the very next door Mike had faced the demon in the flesh.
Shrouded almost completely in a purple cape, with only metallic gloves and boots, with the occasional glint of armor the color of obsidian visible beneath, Zoda had clearly fashioned his appearance to induce terror. His shoulders were covered with armor of the same black metal, and bore spikes, as if the wearer needed the added protection. His face, which looked down on Jones from nearly seven and a half feet up, was covered by a horned helmet, the same metal still, with no opening in the front except a semi-transparent "T" shaped visor through which shone the red slits that served as his eyes.
That fight had been a short one: almost too short, Mike thought. True, a series of blows to the side of the head from Super Nova should have been enough to kill just about anything, but this was the alien dictator who had demolished a more advanced world then Earth before. Besides, Mike was sure he had seen something huge running from that dark room… something that had not been there during the fight, and he never did find Zoda's body.
No. The more Mike thought about it, the less he believed Zoda was dead. And now, here he was, inching through a corridor leading from the reactor room to God-only-knew-where, with almost no visibility, and the ship was about to shake itself to pieces. If that wasn't bad enough, he now knew he wasn't alone in the corridor.
Peering through the now-thinning steam for the source of the hissing noise, Mike thought for a fleeting moment he saw something enormous moving in the shadowy smoke a few dozen yards in front of him. He tensed for a moment, preparing to swing the mace wide, but his only reward was the sounds of the ship around him and more of the unearthly noise.
"What is that thing," he whispered, listening intently for the source.
Splat, splat, splat.
A few tentacles waved about fifteen feet in front of Mike.
"Something with… feet."
Then, the thing came into view. It was, as near as Mike could tell, a mass about a foot in diameter with thousands of snake-like appendages that sprawled out three feet from it in every direction.
"Lots.. and lots… of feet."
The creature moved toward Mike without any sound except for the same hissing noise. After everything that he had been through on this ship, Mike had to laugh momentarily at the clumsy-looking, misbegotten wretch before him. It was likely the least dangerous-looking thing he had encountered. Still, he wasn't about to take chances. Tightening his batter's grip on the Super Nova, he swung at the thing. The chain swung wide, and the silvery spikes on the kudgel connected with so much force that the creature was flung against the side of the corridor, impacting just in time for the heat of another erupting steam leak to burn its soft body to a putrid smelling gas.
"Well, that was easy," Mike said as he finally passed clear of the clouds of steam. "Now it's just a matter of-" He was interrupted by another hissing sound. Looking up toward the source of it, he was able to make out two more of the wriggling abominations in the dim light cast by the electrical fires around him. Super Nova flew straight and true once, then twice more, and these two met the same fate as their kin, but this was getting Mike nowhere.
Another explosion, heralded by a massive rumbling that nearly caused Mike to lose his balance once more, reminded him of the urgency of his situation. This ship was going to crash, if it survived long enough to even reach the ground, and he needed to find a way off of it, to say nothing of finding what he came here for in the first place. He could feel the pulsing energy of the two Argonian cubes in his pocket, but Uncle Steve had made it clear they were useless unless he had all three. "So I've got to find the third, and fast. Geez, whatever these things are, they better be worth it."
The heat from the fires around the boy was beginning to sap his strength, and the pounding in his head grew to such a level he could barely see. Acting on sheer instinct, Mike drew his Static Pistol, fired a few shots blindly in front of him for cover, and charged forward toward the end of the corridor and, he hoped, the last cube. He barely managed to stop in time to keep from crashing into a green metal door as it came into view. Quickly, he pressed the button he had come to recognize as "open," and the door slid open halfway. Mike squeezed through, unable to see anything around him but an explosion of color as the strain on his senses finally took its toll. Upon reaching the other side, Mike was briefly aware that the door had slammed shut behind him.
That was when he heard it: a high, chilling, reptilian laugh, echoing through what Mike guessed was a massive, empty room, filling his mind as it reverberated. Regaining his addled senses through sheer force of will, Mike looked around him in the darkness. Something is close, he thought, holstering the Static Pistol and brandishing his more familiar Super Nova, and it's something that isn't friendly.
"It took you long enough, Terran," the voice screamed loudly enough that Mike cringed from the ringing.
Mike, his vision struggling to adjust to the alternating light and darkness as panels around him sparked violently enough to momentarily illuminate the room before cooling down again, said nothing. He also did not move, unsure what he was facing. Still, he thought, there's something familiar about it. Almost like…
"What's the matter, Terran? Have you forgotten me already? Or did you honestly think I'd fall so easily?"
Now Mike understood. "Actually, I pretty much guessed you managed to slink away from that fight before I could finish you off, Zoda."
"Bright boy, for a Terran," Zoda rasped as something disturbingly large moved into the outskirts of Mike's vision. "But that was my natural form: weak, imperfect, limited." The monstrous form moved close enough for Mike to make out its grotesquely misshapen features. "There's so much more to the real me."
Even at a distance he estimated to be 20 yards, Mike had to crane his neck upward to see the behemoth before him. It was bipedal, covered in moist, almost amphibian skin of an unnatural burgundy-ish shade. It's short, wide legs, ending in clawed, two-toed feet, protruded forth from a massive body with some kind of mucus membrane centered where the navel of a mammal would have been. Its shoulders were covered in a growth that appeared to Mike as a mix of mold and warts, and several of these pustules dripped a thick, greenish liquid down its back and chest. Reaching down from these shoulders were muscular arms, almost as disproportionately long as the beast's legs were short, with hands each bearing four long, clawed fingers with two opposable thumbs. Its head had a bony crest that reminded Mike of some he had seen on dinosaur fossils at the Smithsonian Museum. Its face, the most horrifying of all, consisted of little more than a piranha-like jaw, containing double rows of teeth so large the creature looked barely capable of opening and closing its mouth, and tiny, sunken eyes that stared back at Mike with murderous intent.
"Oh! So in your other form you did stunt work for Darth Vader and Boba Fett," Mike jeered, "and in this one you want revenge for what Sigourney Weaver did to your brothers. I get it."
Zoda, apparently recognizing the references from the brief time he spent in Mike's mind, merely hissed. "Let me spare you the small talk before you die, Terran. This is the escape pod hangar. There's only one pod, and it only has life support for one."
"So why haven't you bailed yet, handsome?"
Zoda laughed, the same chilling laugh as before. "Well, there is the little matter of those two cubes in your pocket."
"Yeah," Mike nodded. "There's that, and there's one more that I plan on finding after I kill you, right before I hijack the pod and eject."
The monster that was Zoda popped its knuckles, causing Mike to wince at the inhuman contortions it took to do so. "And that, boy, is what it comes down to: you, me, three cubes, and one pod. If I've found favor with my ancestor, I'll emerge victorious with your head as a trophy. If not," he clenched his fists, "well, if not, then you deserve to get off alive."
Mike clicked his tongue. "Kill the monster, find the treasure, and bail," he muttered. "Simple enough. I've done it a thousand times in video arcades."
Zoda, with his eyes closed tightly, didn't respond. It almost appeared to Mike that he was praying. To what, Mike was afraid to contemplate. When the monstrosity finally opened his eyes and leveled them directly at Mike, there was a sinister resolve behind them. Roaring, he charged across the span between them as quickly as his short legs would propel him.
"Well then," Mike said with a grin, loosening his grip on Super Nova's chain and beginning to swing the mace in an ever-widening circle, "let's get naughty."
September 3, 1990
Dr. Steven Jones' Lab; Seattle, Washington
Dr. Steven Jones was busy: obscenely busy. Fortunately, this was a state not at all unfamiliar to the middle-aged archaeologist. In fact, he rather preferred being busy to being bored. What bothered him about this particular state of being busy was that the answers he sought, staring down at a desk covered in page upon page of copied runes, continually seemed to elude him. "Doesn't make any sense," he muttered as he gazed through his bifocals at a page he was sure he had gone over at least a hundred times. "Ruins were in the south seas, and about two thousand years old, so the cipher should be in some kind of Indo-Polynesian. Not even close, and why are there Latin letters in parts?"
The cipher whose scribbled offspring now peopled Dr. Jones' desk had been found in an underground labyrinth in the tropics, in a chain of islands known by their inhabitants as 'the Islands of the Southern Cross.' He had stumbled across it a little more than a year before, mainly by accident. The labyrinth had apparently been sealed off for centuries, and was uncovered only by a massive metallic asteroid crashing through the thin ground and into one of the labyrinth's larger chambers. Jones had taken immediate interest in the lucky find, and spent hours, days, and on a few occasions weeks at a time trying to uncover its secrets. When he first found the Latin-derived cipher he believed it was evidence of European influence upon the region as early as the height of Roman power, a find that flew right in the face of current historical doctrine. Its true origins, it turned out, heralded a far more distant influence on the islands than that of Rome.
Jones thought of himself as a true scientist, not given to the whimsies and pseudo-sciences of many of the fringe-thinkers of his field. He did not set much stock by the theories that extra-terrestrials were behind the pyramids, or Stonehenge, or the myriad of other wonders so many people seemed so reluctant to accredit to early Humanity. He thought even less of what he considered to be the "camera-loving wack-o's," dug up in droves by the media, who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. If he had been able, then, to tell his two-years-younger self that this was the very fate that awaited him in the South Seas, he felt certain he would have spent the past two years searching for a new line of work.
That, though, was exactly how it had been. The past summer, after a major breakthrough concerning a runic message actually carved on the side of the asteroid, Jones had found himself face-to-face with the so-called "Prime Invader," Zoda. Looking upon this devil, Jones had become convinced he was facing death himself. Zoda, however, had other plans. Much to Jones' chagrin, the alien had taken note of his progress in deciphering the glyphs in the ruins: more progress, it turned out, than Zoda's own disciples had made. For this, the apparent sin of being smarter than a legion of alien marauders, Jones had been coerced into disclosing everything he knew about the cipher, and the asteroid (or rather, as he had learned from deciphering the runes, the escape pod).
The escape pod, as it turned out, had been the last hope of a dying world called Argonia. The planet's history was still a bit hazy to Dr. Jones. However, by putting together what he had overheard from Zoda, what little of the cipher he had translated, and the accounts his nephew, Mike, had given him, he knew that the planet had been attacked twenty years before by Zoda. The battle, as near as Jones could tell, had been more of a wholesale slaughter. Argonia's final grab for survival had been placing their leader (named Hirocon, according to the cipher), his daughter, and six other children into a form of stasis and sending them off into space (and time, it seemed, at least in the case of Hirocon). By this, they hoped to escape the destruction of their homeworld. Realizing that he had been outmaneuvered, Zoda had apparently tracked the pod to Earth, and had very nearly finished what he began on Argonia. He would have succeeded, too, had it not been for Dr. Jones' reckless nephew, Mike. Mike, coming to the nearby C-Island, home of Dr. Jones' main lab, for what was supposed to be a vacation, had somehow managed to rescue the doctor, board Zoda's ship, kill the alien, destroy the ship, salvage the cubes and escape unharmed. Unharmed, that is, with the hitherto unexplained exception of a pair of bananas jammed into his ears in a painful-looking fashion. Recalling this, Jones made a mental note to ask Mike about the story behind the bananas.
Jones had to wonder, though, about one thing, and it was that thing that allowed him to decode the cipher in the first place. The runes on the escape pod had been in Argonian, that much was certain. It was those runes that had enabled Dr. Jones to activate the cubes, freeing seven of the eight survivors, who, curiously enough, were all children and all spoke perfect, unbroken English. That itself could have been explained away, but Dr. Jones could not wrap his mind around the larger mystery.
If the runes were in Argonian, why were they the same runes that had been in the ruins? And why were there bits of Latin? If it had been difficult to believe the Romans had been this far, what did that leave him with now? "With the idea that there was a two-thousand year-old colony of Latin-speaking aliens in the South seas, and now those same aliens have returned speaking perfect English," Dr. Jones growled sarcastically. "And for that matter, Zoda did too. God, it's like watching a bloody Star Trek rerun."
"Hey," came Mike's scolding voice from the door of the lab. "Don't dis Star Trek. And don't leave the front door open either. You never know who might walk in."
Dr. Jones looked up over his bifocals at his nephew. "Indeed. It might even be some crazy, yo-yo wielding teenager with bananas in his ears." Taking a moment to enjoy Mike's aggravated expression at his joke, he became serious. "I trust I didn't pull you away from anything important."
Mike shoved his hands into the pockets of his blue jeans and shrugged. "Nah, not really. Just some homework that the teacher shouldn't have been giving out over Labor Day Weekend. What's up?"
Dr. Jones considered making a comment about the Mike's reference to his homework being unimportant, but thought better of it. He couldn't blame the boy for finding anything related to the past summer's events more exciting than high school homework. He himself certainly would have at that age. Adjusting his glasses he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in front of him, and began. "Well, I've been working more on this cipher, as you can see, and I need your help with something."
Mike gave his most exhausted sigh. "Tell me this isn't going to involve aliens or time travel."
"No," the Doctor chuckled, "it shouldn't. I just need to ask you a question or two."
Mike looked relieved. "Then fire away."
"Mike, you and Mica spent a lot of time together this past summer, am I right?"
Mike chewed his lip for a moment at the mention of Mica, the red-haired Argonian Princess, about his own age. "Yeah," he admitted. "We did. Why?"
"Did you two ever talk about Argonia?"
Mike wrinkled his forehead. "Well, some. I mean, it was kind of a bogus subject for her, but she told me a little about the way it was before… well, you know."
Dr. Jones nodded, apparently having heard exactly what he was hoping to hear thus far. "Did she ever mention anything about Argonians making previous contact with Earth?" At Mike's confused look, Dr. Jones decided to be a bit more specific. "Perhaps… around the time of the Roman Empire?"
Mike slowly shook his head. "I don't think so." Then, a thought occurred to him. "But now that you mention it, Merlin did say something about Hirocon being an old friend of his."
"Hmm," Dr Jones removed his glasses long enough to wipe them on his shirt. "Merlin, you say?"
"Yeah," Mike continued, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment. "Merlin. You know, King Arthur? Camelot? Knights of the Round Table? That Merlin."
Doctor Jones frowned back at Mike skeptically, but said nothing.
"You don't believe me," Mike said in a manner that could have been either a question or a statement.
Dr. Jones unfolded his hands and drummed on his desk a few moments in thought. "Eighteen months ago," he finally spoke up, "I would have sworn you had a high fever. Then again, eighteen months ago I hadn't been abducted, twice, by aliens. Eighteen months ago I hadn't watched you get sucked into a history book with the book disappearing behind you. Eighteen months ago I hadn't gotten a surprise collect call from you three days later to tell me you had popped up at my island lab, carrying the book along with eight golden Tetris blocks with an alien king's soul trapped in them." Dr. Jones looked back at Mike through his newly polished bifocals. "You met Merlin then."
"Did he actually know magic?"
"Well, sort of," Mike answered. "He's the one who taught me how to use… well, that."
"You mean your so-called 'psychic shockwave' that you burned half of my research notes with, and your telepathy with which you have prevented me from working in peace ever since, and that annoying telekinesis trick that you nearly demolished my lab trying to master."
Mike looked away. "Yeah, that. Thanks."
Folding his hands again, Dr. Jones prodded Mike to continue. "So, then, Merlin the wizard really existed, as a psychic shockwaving, telekinetic telepath, and he knew Hirocon."
"Yeah," Mike agreed. "In fact, it was him who scattered the Tetrads across history for Hirocon."
When Mike didn't go on, Dr. Jones decided to prod him a bit more. "And?"
"And that's all I know," Mike responded. "I was too busy trying to kill a dragon to ask Merlin any questions, and I didn't think to ask Mica during my vacation." He paused. "I mean, it's just not the kind of thing I would have thought of."
Dr. Jones, now deep in thought, ignored Mike's excuses. "If Merlin knew Hirocon, that would make Hirocon tremendously old."
Mike shook his head. "Nah, not really. I think Merlin knew how to do some kind of time travel, because he showed up in Egypt and the American West too."
Stumped, but unwilling to be defeated, Dr. Jones decided to try a different angle. "Then how about this. Did Mica, or any of the Argonians for that matter, ever explain why they spoke English?"
Mike looked at Dr. Jones quizzically. "Uh, Uncle Steve, they're from a super-advanced alien society. I guessed their families or whatever just taught them English before they left Argonia."
Dr. Jones laughed. "How kind of Zoda, then, to call in advance and say 'hey, I'd suggest you learn another planet's language so you can hide from me when I annihilate your world.'"
Mike looked down, a little embarrassed. "Yeah, didn't think of that." after a moment, he tried another explanation. "What about some kind of universal translator chip. You know, like in-"
"Let me guess," Dr. Jones sighed. "You're about to say 'like in Star Trek.' I swear, Mike. You really need to lay off that science-fiction garbage."
"Hey, come on," Mike defended his response. "It makes sense."
"No, Mike, it really doesn't" Dr. Jones explained with practiced patience. "For example, it still wouldn't explain how and when Argonians got enough exposure to English to program it into their translators. Besides, that would explain how they understood English, but not how they were able to speak it."
"So, uh, what's with all the questions all of a sudden, Uncle Steve?"
Dr. Jones chuckled a bit. "Stubborn curiosity, I guess. I am, after all, an archaeologist."
"Yeah," Mike agreed. "But there's something you're not telling me."
"I admit, that's true," Dr. Jones adjusted his bifocals unnecessarily. "And it's something to do with this damned cipher."
"What about it?"
Dr. Jones paused, apparently weighing whether or not it would be prudent to tell his nephew. In the end, he decided to do so. "Basically, I was hoping you could offer some clues as to why a two-thousand year-old cipher in the south seas would be in a mixture of Argonian and Latin."
Mike froze, staring dumbfounded at the round-faced, balding scientist. "Argonian? On Earth?"
Dr. Jones nodded. "Two-thousand years old, and mixed with the native tongue of Rome, but in a part of the world the Romans could never have possibly reached."
Mike slowly shook his head, never taking his eyes off of Dr. Jones. "Uncle Steve, you're the famous scientist here. I'm just a baseball player. What made you think I'd be able to answer that?"
"Well," Dr. Jones said at length. "Let me show you." And with that, he got up from his desk, walked over to a waist-high bookshelf across sitting below his picture window, and removed a thick, red-orange book that was all-too familiar to Mike.
"No!" Mike shouted, pointing at the book. "No, no, no! Bad Dr. J! Not again!"
"Oh, will you relax," Dr. Jones coaxed as he picked up the Oxford Wonder World of Human History and placed it on his desk. With a grin, he added, "I mean, it's not like I'm going to start chanting 'paa paa paa-'"
Mike pointed his finger acidly at Dr. Jones. "Unc, I'm not in the mood. I just got out of that thing two weeks ago, and just got back to Seattle a week ago because the stupid thing spat me back out on C-Island."
"Yes," Dr. Jones replied, "and while we're on that subject, young man, I hope you appreciate the trouble I had to go through to hide your disappearance. It wasn't easy convincing your parents that you decided to spend the week here and help me work on this cipher but were too tired from baseball practice and homework to come to the phone. It wasn't easy convincing your teachers that you had a rare case of 'Island Flu,' and it damned sure wasn't easy keeping the school from calling your parents to ask questions about the nature of the disease. Not to mention-"
"Alright, I get the picture," Mike cut him off. "And thanks. Just, don't go spouting off that bogus incantation again. Or if you do, at least warn me so I can go home and get the Nova."
"I won't," Dr. Jones assured him.
Mike's tension subsided, but only slightly. "Then what's left to look for in it? I found the tetrads and got back to the present. I finished the book."
Dr. Jones furrowed his brow. "Yes, you got the tetrads, and you made it back…" he flipped to the last page of the eighth chapter of the book, "here. But take a look…" he flipped to the page behind it, the last page of the book (Mike thought), and pointed, "here."
Interested, Mike followed Dr. Jones' finger. There, on the back of what he had thought to be the final page, was a ninth chapter, only half a page long, with another half page illustration. "Hmm, weird. I never noticed that before."
Dr. Jones nodded. "Like everything in the book but the title, it's also in Latin, so I don't think you'll be able to read it." He leaned back away from the book, allowing Mike to examine it himself. "It's really vague, but the gist of it is that the greatest champions of evil in the history of the universe cross time and space to make war on a 'Vanguard of Heroes,' as the book puts it, dedicated to resisting them. If I didn't already know there was more to this book than meets the eye, I'd swear it was total crap. I mean, it sounds like something out of a comic book, but…" he waved his hand toward the book as if to emphasize his point. "Well, there it is."
"Yeah," Mike agreed, his eyes wide as he made a startling realization about what he saw on the page, "there it is. And get a load of the picture."
The illustration consisted of five beings in silhouette, three at the center with two more off to the left. Of the three at the center, one appeared to be some kind of reptile, its back covered in spikes with a head that reminded Mike of the dragon he'd fought in Ancient England on his ill-fated first encounter with the book, except with horns and a flame-like mane of hair. Another appeared to have the tusks of a warthog, and held a weapon in its hand that looked like a pitchfork or a trident, and the third was a creature with immense girth and something like a broad mustache. Of the two on the left side, one had distinctly Simian features, but it was the one half-concealed behind that one that had captured Mike's attention. "I know," Dr. Jones said darkly without looking at the book. "It's Zoda. You noticed that too, I see. And I get the feeling that whatever connection the Argonians have with Earth, this is related to it in some way."
Mike slowly turned first his head, then his eyes away from the book and locked eyes with the scholar. "So, what do you think it means?"
Dr. Jones looked back at his nephew with an almost sorrowful certainty. "I don't know," he conceded, "but I think what happened on those islands in the tropics this summer was barely the beginning."
Four Earth days later
Argo City, Argonia
The beach of Argo City was so serene that at a glance, one would be hard-pressed to tell what an ordeal the planet had been through. The whitish sands, green in the light shining off the emerald moon, felt cool and welcome between the toes of the young girl walking along the beach, and the unswerving pulse of the waves sounded just as it always had before Zoda's attack. Taking in a deep breath of the midnight breeze, the girl savored the familiar scent of the salty sea foam carried on the crests of the misty waves, two or three shades darker than the seas of Earth. To a homesick teenage girl, it was as if the planet itself threw a private homecoming party for her.
"So why do I feel like this is the second time I've gone into exile?" Thought Princess Mica Argo, daughter of the Argonian Regent, Hirocon. "This is my first night home in years. I should be bubbling with euphoria, too giddy to speak." She took a moment to absorb the sounds, the smell, the very taste of the air of the familiar home she thought she would never see again. After all the 'if-only' and 'I wish' dreams she and her six companions had shared, here she was. She knew how she thought she would feel, how she should feel…
…how she wanted to feel about it.
So why didn't she?
Could it be that in her two and a half months on Earth, awakened from twenty years of time sleep to find herself on a tiny, remote island in a remote corner of a tiny, remote world, she had come to call that island home?
Her eyes turned to the stars, toward a constellation of twelve stars in the vague shape of a hand. Amid them, one small speck of yellowish light seemed to glimmer for a moment. She recognized it instantly. It was the one where her father had sent her, twenty years before, to escape the coming of the Prime Invader.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, the thought of that monster didn't cause her to shudder. Maybe it was because he could no longer hurt her. He was dead, vanquished by a hero from that distant point of light: the same hero who saved Mica and the six from their temporal prison.
The princess smiled, her eyes still fixed on that tiny yellow star as she thought of Micheal Jones, the boy-hero of Argonia. Though not a quarter of a cycle older than her by Argonian measurements, it had been his simple courage that stopped the nightmare, destroyed Argonia's destroyer, and saved her and her people. If she never got to return to Earth, if the eight refugees were doomed to spending their remaining years carving the struggling foundations of a rebuilt Argonia, at least she had gotten to meet Mike.
As her swirling thoughts came to rest on the brief time spent with Mike, Mica found her smile fading. After all, she didn't get a chance to really say good-bye. Her father's emergence from the tetrads, the return to Argonia, it had all happened so fast. All she had managed was a sugar-tablet farewell of 'I'll be thinking about you.' Looking down at the sand as she sat down against the abandoned shell of one of Argonia's great crustaceans, Mica sighed. The fact was, there had been so much more to say.
"I hope I'm not bothering you, my dear," came the rugged voice of Mica's father. Mica looked over her left shoulder, back in the direction of the city, to find him walking up the beach toward her.
"Not at all daddy," she said with a smile, patting the sand beside her with her palm. "Have a seat." Smiling back, Hirocon accepted the invitation.
Father and daughter sat in silence for a few moments before Hirocon finally spoke up. "You know, you don't seem as happy as I thought you would be."
Mica shrugged, shaking her head. "I guess I just wasn't ready for how bad it would be." That was a half-truth and Mica knew it. More importantly, with her father's psionic abilities, it was likely that he knew. Thankfully, he humored her.
"Well, when Zoda decided he had taken everything he could use, it seems he demolished the Frontier."
Mica's mouth hung open incredulously. I knew Zoda was a monster, she thought. No, a devil. But the Frontier?! That's Argonia's only defense against Them. Surely, even Zoda must have feared Them.
"Apparently not," Hirocon answered Mica's unspoken thought.
Mica blanched, narrowing her eyes angrily toward her father. "Dad! A little privacy please!"
Hirocon looked puzzled, so Mica decided to be a bit clearer. "You could at least ask before scanning my surface thoughts."
"You're my daughter," Hirocon said in defense of his actions.
"I'm fifteen cycles old," Mica countered. "There are some thoughts I don't want my father barging in on." She turned her eyes back toward the surf, signaling that the off-topic conversation was over and it was time to return to the original subject. "How bad is it?"
"They infected every animal and every computer, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, but for some reason when They got just south of the Acid Shallows, They just stopped."
Mica puzzled over that for a moment. "Why?"
"I wish I knew," Hirocon replied sincerely. "But we need to find out, and quickly. If They learn that the most powerful psionics on Argonia have returned, They'll be all over us in no time."
"How many are there?"
"As near as we can tell, one queen and a young hive."
Mica clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth. "More than enough to overwhelm eight Argonians."
Hirocon nodded somberly. "Yes, if They detect our presence. That's why we have to eradicate Them quickly."
"And rebuild the Frontier," Mica added in, "in case They decide to call any friends."
Hirocon looked at his daughter admonishingly. "You let me worry about the Frontier.
Mica started to respond, but hesitated.
"As for the infestation," Hirocon continued, turning his head back toward the surf, "that presents a far more immediate threat. As far as we know right now, the eight of us are the only survivors. I don't have to tell you that we can do very little alone."
Mica nodded, sensing her father was going somewhere with this but not knowing where. "You actually believe the Alliance will help us out after all this time?"
Hirocon shook his head. "Irrelevant. Even if the Alliance has remained intact, we haven't the means to contact them. Zoda didn't leave a power source intact that could generate an interstellar communiqué. Besides, if the Frontier is down, the rest of the Alliance is probably little better off than Argonia."
"Then what will we do?"
Hirocon frowned. "Argonians aren't warriors, Mica. You know that. We've devoted our society to art and science for so long we've simply bred the fighter gene out of our race." He continued a bit awkwardly. "Truth-be-known, that's why we were so dependent on the Alliance."
Mica nodded, growing a bit impatient. "Right. Never mind that the Alliance was nowhere around when Zoda struck."
Hirocon bit his lip. "Well, Mica, don't be too quick to condemn our allies. The Alliance is old, and a lack of contact between worlds may have caused it to crumble. If that's the case, it's Argonia that's to blame."
Mica acted as though she did not want to acknowledge that. "So the question is 'now what?'" More silence followed. In that silence, a thought occurred to Mica. "What about Mike?"
Hirocon immediately shook his head vigorously. "Out of the question. It's a twenty-year journey to Earth."
Mica rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know all about the trip there. But it's funny," a mildly accusatory tone seeped into her voice. "It wasn't a twenty-year trip back."
"That was different," Hirocon answered quickly. "I knew Argonia. I was tied to it. It's easy for a powerful psionic to travel to a place to he knows so well. But to travel to a barely known world the same way isn't possible. If it were, why would we need spaceships?"
Mica was preparing a response when the two heard a high, squeaky voice. "Mica! Your Majesty!" Mica recognized the voice as Saera, the youngest of the six children who accompanied her to Earth. Mica and Hirocon both stood up as she approached.
"What is it? What's wrong, Saera?" Mica asked as the child came skidding to a halt, the twin pigtails of her red hair bounding forward over her shoulders as her small feet dug ruts in the sand.
"We need you to come quick," Saera gasped. "Daru and Naberra found some people in a cave. They're still alive!"
"Well, whatever it was," Mike grumbled, "it wouldn't do much good to go back to sleep now. I'd just have to wake back up in two hours." Turning his lamp slightly so that it's beam shown more directly onto his bed, Mike reached over the side and picked up his English notebook, his pen, and his walkman cassette player. "Thank God for Don Henley," Mike said as he sat back up with his shoulders against the headboard, threw one leg over the other to provide a surface for his notebook and pushed 'play' on the walkman. Turning the volume down to a suitable level for background noise, Mike looked down at the notebook, and the returned and graded poem assignment stapled to the front page of it with a large, ugly red 'F' at the top.
"Failed to meet assignment criteria," Mike read the note his teacher scribbled in the same red ink at the bottom of the page. "The assignment was to write about your summer vacation, Mike. I'm sure your summer was exciting, but I fail to see how this poem has anything to do with it." Mike sighed. Since the teacher had called the poem 'well-written, for his age,' he had given Mike one chance to do it over, fulfilling the assignment this time. Well, I'd better get started now, since it's due today in second period.
"Nobody on the road," Mike found himself singing along with the walkman, "Nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air, the summer's out of reach" Closing his eyes for a moment, Mike let the song take him back to the middle of the past summer, to a beach on the south edge of an island half a world away. Instantly, a smile formed on Mike's face. For a fleeting moment, he found himself there, on that familiar stretch of beach in the early morning hours. Standing beside him was a smiling Princess Mica Argo, fishing pole in her hand, with Mike's arms stretched over hers as he guided her through a cast.
Then the moment passed.
Mike was back in Seattle, and his homework wasn't getting any closer to being finished. With a sigh, he turned his attention back to his assignment. "I can't wait to get back to that island next summer."