Closing in on Xantos.
After traveling through Andromeda and the Milky Way, space traveler Major Zerion Vesper was cautiously optimistic. His cosmic blues were beginning to dissipate, but the reality of his situation precluded anything close to being euphoric.
While he'd be returning home in his cargo container-sized spacecraft in a few days, there was only a slim chance at best that his life would go back to the way it used to be.
What should have been outright enthusiasm about the prospect of reuniting with his family was tempered by the very strong likelihood that they would flee from him in horror at first sight, unless the process reversed itself.
"May I proceed with the landing?" Zerion asked ground control at the National Space Center. "I await your instructions."
The response, emitted by NSC millions of miles away, arrived ten minutes later.
"Proceed with caution, Major Vesper. Remember, go with the best intentions. Good luck."
They hoped the space traveler would remain positive during talks with the beings. Their concern was his malaise would be misconstrued as an affront and make him persona non grata.
Zerion wouldn't have been surprised if the message from NSC had instead been, "Abort!" because of the hideous turn of events. His assumption was that they believed that even if the mission didn't go well, useful information could still be collected and beamed back.
"Best intentions." That's how NSC usually signed off. In the back of his mind he wondered if that was their way of saying, "Don't be shocked if everything goes terribly wrong," and if they weren't telling him something.
Zerion hadn't always been such an emotional mess. Quite the opposite. He was the person everyone went to for advice. Graduating at the top of his class at Griggich Institute, a top aeronautics school, Zerion was admired by his peers. Nothing seemed to upset him. Calm, cool and collected and then some, that described him.
His mood, however, turned dour several weeks after his Cytryx RM2 spacecraft began its journey from Anton Field. Even before everything went awry at mid-flight, he hadn't been the happiest person in the universe. No longer was he the same brash, over-confident cadet who thought he could conquer the world, drank too much and stayed up to all hours of the night. Since he was NSC's best recruit who was being groomed for a "special" mission, the repercussions were minor. If his misconduct was reported they risked losing him. A slap on the wrist would have to suffice because he was irreplaceable.
Dr. Halom Sousa, a psychologist, expressed concern about his patient's new outlook on life.
In a confidential report, the doctor noted: "Zerion should be watched closely. Instead of viewing the mission to Xantos as an opportunity of a lifetime, he expresses guilt about abandoning those he loves. He is torn between responsibilities to his family and his commitment to NSC. This could affect his mental acuity and ability to make the right decisions." And now, the prospect of meeting an intelligent life form had bolstered his morale. This would temporarily fill the emptiness.
His only concern at the moment was his ghastly appearance. When panic began to overtake him, he'd shift mental gears to pull himself together as only a disciplined member of military could do. Maybe the beings from this civilization were progressive, and would accept him into their society.
Despite many attempts, the NSC had never made contact with the beings or seen them up close. They were there all right. Even their structures. If they were mutated beyond belief, Zerion's mindset was that he would be as sensitive as possible. After all, that's what they went over and over again during training. The No. 1 lesson was that under no circumstances was he to scream out in terror, which would place him in harm's way. Control your emotions, they often reminded him. And now he could only hope that they would feel the same way about him.
Zerion was in a better place now mentally, confident the symbolic olive branch he'd extend to the beings, would be reciprocated. The purpose of the mission was to lay the foundation for future talks about trade and cultural exchanges and to reassure the beings he was not part of an advanced team of scouts whose real purpose was colonization. He'd have to make an excellent first impression though. "Stay positive and strong," Commander Splinter emphasized when it became evident early on that Zerion was riding an emotional rollercoaster. "Any sign of weakness could jeopardize the mission. Again, go with best intentions."
Even at this critical juncture, keeping sadness at bay would be no easy task. Buoying his mood however, was knowing that entering into any preliminary agreements with the beings could result in a better life for his people, who would one day have access to what NSC believed to be natural resources.
In less than an hour, he'd be on solid ground again, and soon after that, hopefully, introducing himself to the beings and making new friends. It all seemed plausible, especially if he could at least act like he was enthusiastic.
"There is absolutely nothing to worry about," Splinter reassured Zerion several minutes before the spacecraft entered into the outer reaches of the planet's atmosphere which contained heated gases. "Before you know it, they'll be treating you like royalty and you probably won't want to leave."
"Maybe we can change places. I'm willing, if you are."
"Wish we could, buddy. I'd do it in a heartbeat if it were possible."
Zerion completed the final preparations for the slow descent into the multi-layered atmosphere. He made sure the spacecraft was programmed to orbit Xantos until the onboard computer made a definite fix on the pre-determined landing site that was located near an ocean. Finally, he flipped several switches on the control panel that propelled the spacecraft downward.
His plan was to arrive in the wide meadow, which was surrounded by a forest, in the middle of the night, completely unnoticed. He'd make contact with the beings in the morning, and then venture out if they seemed friendly.
Other than some bumps along the way from meteorites, the journey had been uneventful for the most part. That all changed when he noted the first symptoms: a loss of appetite, headache and muscular pain. "All very normal," was the diagnosis from NSC officials. "Take your medicine, relax and enjoy the trip. You'll feel better soon." And there were a few other things.
"The bulging veins in your neck, forehead and temples will diminish as will the larger pupils." Those were the least of Zerion's problems it turned out.
The alarm bells went off when he reported what appeared to be permanent physical changes: the jaw that was jutting out, the sudden formation of a round moist black nose, emergence of fangs, and the rapid growth of mangy hair everywhere. Amazingly, the changes had not affected his vocal chords which could still form and express words, as well as growls. He could still speak, but in a raspy voice.
At first, NSC wasn't truthful, telling him an unknown form of bacteria had entered his system, when all along they knew it was related to the theoretical Androx Evolutionary Belt.
Putting two and two together, Zerion reached the conclusion that was the actual reason he'd been sent on the special mission was to be the first space traveler to pass through the zone, if it existed, and that NSC wanted to monitor the changes. When pressed, they admitted they hadn't been upfront with him, and apologized profusely, which came as a small consolation considering what he now looked like.
"You bastards! I'm a damn experiment, a lab animal, a guinea pig. Why weren't you up front with me?"
"This was the only way," explained Commander Helio, a tinge of remorse in his voice. "No one else would volunteer for the experiment. You were by far the bravest. We'll do everything we can for you. I promise. Don't worry."
"Not to worry? Are you out of your gourd?"
"We believe you'll change back when you re-enter the Androx Evolutionary Belt."
"Keep the faith, Major Vesper."
There was another lie. The spaceship would be blown to smithereens if he didn't revert back on the way home. If word of the experiment gone awry ever became public, an inquiry would follow which could result in the end of the program and the loss of thousands of jobs.
As Xantos came into full view, Zerion, a half-beast, possessed too much pent up energy which couldn't be released until he reached Xantos. Once there, he'd run through the forests with wild abandon when no one was watching. In the woods, he would satiate his appetite for something fresh and meaty by pouncing on an animal and devouring it.
Now at an altitude of about 500 feet, Zerion navigated the spaceship into its final approach with waning prehensile grip. It was a smooth landing as spindly but solid legs of the vehicle burrowed into the ground. After making sure the spacecraft was still in good working order and reviewing procedures for the first encounter, he'd try to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
His best intentions went up in smoke. Before he could fall asleep, the welcoming committee made its presence known. It was too early to determine whether the commotion was the precursor of a hostile or friendly gesture of goodwill.
Propping himself up against the portal, he could make out the beings. Some were clothed in black suits with white collars and cuffs and tall black hats, while others were dressed in long-sleeved black dresses with white collar and cuffs and white caps. The flames from the torches they held illuminated their faces which resembled his former countenance.
So much for going unnoticed, he thought.
The light from a moon silhouetted a row of log cabins topped with thatch. There was also a dirt road that led to larger buildings on both sides of a street.
A heavy-set being, who was also brandishing a weapon of some kind, approached the spacecraft, and spoke loudly into raised cupped hands to be heard.
"Good morrow, stranger."
With a remote control, Zerion activated the LTVA Quantron Nanospectrometer surgically implanted in his brain when he entered the NSC program. The device allowed him to interpret and speak any language.
"I am the governor, William Phips, announce yourself stranger. Have you anything to say?" He patiently waited for a response. "You are welcome in this land, my friend. Show yourself and let us go forward to prepare a feast for your arrival. You will go unharmed, you who have come to deliver us from our tormenters."
His words were non-threatening. He had nothing to lose. It was time to return the kindness. Using his claw, he pulled down a lever that activated the main door of the spacecraft to open.
Slowly exiting the spacecraft in a half-walk, half-crawl, he was welcomed with open arms, that is, weapons that took dead aim on his heart.
"Werewolf! Werewolf!" shouted the physician Hollister Griggs. "What are we waiting for? Let us fire upon it governor."
"You are too quick to judge this creature," William admonished. "Let it speak to us if it is capable of doing so. Turn your weapons away. It cannot harm us. We are many. It is only one."
"It can only howl!" asserted a young girl, Mary Warren. "Such a thing cannot speak. What are we waiting for? It will soon unleash its full fury. We know who has sent it."
"It has shown no such intention and is entitled to a fair trial," rejoined William.
Before the mob became more unruly, Zerion gingerly and in an un-menacing way, approached his greeters. Perhaps they would listen to the voice of reason, he thought.
"My name is Commander Zerion Vesper. I have traveled here from the galaxy called Andromeda."
Expecting only a howl, the huddled crowd momentarily stepped back in fright. The half-beast could speak in their tongue.
"My body was once like yours but it became horribly deformed after I entered the Androx Evolutionary Belt. Look away from me if you must, but know that I am not a beast who wishes you any harm. It is only friendship that I seek which will benefit your world and mine."
The beings had already made up their collective minds. They lunged forward. As they forced him to the ground, he tried to ward off his attackers with his claws and fangs, but there were too many of them. They bound his legs with rope while small driblets of frothy, slimy drool from Zerion fell onto their garments.
A chorus of "Destroy it! Destroy it!" resonated from the beings of all ages.
They dragged the prisoner for about a quarter mile to a cobblestone street and then into a brick building. He was chained to a chair in the middle of a court room, ten or so feet away facing the rat-faced chief magistrate, Sylvester Hanover, who wore a white wig and seemed to be in his usual foul mood.
Both Sylvester and the prosecutor, Zachary Wilkens, known as the "The Worm" stared at Zerion as if he were a freak. The court appointed defense lawyer, Kendall Brewster, was sitting in a chair to the right of the defendant and was either passed out from too much alcohol or taking a nap, his head resting on his folded arms placed on a table.
"How do you plead?" asked Sylvester, with glee in his eye and disdain in his voice.
Zerion quizzically asked, "Plead?" His LTVA Quantron Nanospectrometer momentarily could not define the word.
"I mean is your intention to hurt our inhabitants."
The black-hooded Zachary broke in. "This creature should be put to death immediately," he said in a snide voice, lifting one eyebrow higher than the other. "This is a waste of our time."
"Save your speech for the trial, Worm. I repeat, innocent or guilty, creature?" said Sylvester with disdain. The suddenly energized Kendall managed, "My client is innocent. Innocent, I say!" His bespectacled face resembled an apple which had been exposed to air, revealing dried areas of white and brown pigment. He wanted to sound smart, but everyone knew he was the least competent lawyer around. He stomped his left peg leg onto the floor for effect, which resulted in laughter from the packed gallery.
The side-show continued for hours and throughout the fiasco the stern look of Sylvester, jurors and the beings in the courtroom remain unchanged. They just wanted to get it over with. No one could understand why justice took this long.
Even the images of Zerion's wife and children Kendall found on the spacecraft and shared with the court didn't change any hearts or minds. "It's a trick!" onlookers screamed out intermittently. "We are not fools. This cannot be his family for they bear no resemblance to him. His family dwells in a den."
"I'll have none of this," Sylvester said in a tempest, knocking his gavel down twice on the bench. "The creature is entitled to a fair trial. Anymore outbursts will result in arrests and possibly the same punishment that awaits the defendant. That is, I mean, if he is found guilty." The threat silenced everyone.
As the trial proceeded and testimony of "experts" and witnesses was heard, Zerion's thoughts were with his wife and children. This preoccupation left him oblivious to the sentence Sylvester pronounced following the one-half day trial.
"We find you guilty as charged. Have you anything to say."
"What type of primitive race are you?" Zerion blurted out. "I came to Xantos with the best intentions, to establish a friendship between our two worlds."
"Fare well, creature," said Sylvester. "Remove this creature from my courtroom!"
"Howl wolf! Howl! Howl for mercy," frenzied members of the gallery tormented Zerion.
Zerion was led on a leash by several beings to the public square where his executioner, the hunchbacked, saliva dribbling Rodney Powell awaited the order to proceed with the execution. A crowd of fifty or so beings gathered to view the spectacle. It was a carnival atmosphere with laughter and merriment.
"Let go of me!" Zerion demanded as he tried to free himself. "Take your damn hands off of me."
"Be still, beast," Rodney ordered. "You're just going to make this much more difficult for yourself."
"I have a name and it is Zerion Vesper."
"Whatever, whatever, Wolfie."
"You may proceed. Do your job, fool," Sylvester commanded.
"This is the twenty-ninth to be condemned, I believe, your honor. The first creature, though."
As the hunchback prepared the execution site, Zerion noticed out of the corner of his eye the banner on the archway marking the entrance to the town.
It read "Salem."