io-preservation vessels: a fleet of military supply ships and cargo tugs refitted for wild alien animal extraction in order to preserve and increase diminishing populations on native planets.

#

he bio-preservation vessel Michio Kaku approached Peron's second moon, bucking and groaning as it descended to the mysterious satellite. Except for a half-dozen unusual creatures called rock-eaters, the moon Acknockted was a lifeless rock.

Within the lower, forward section of the ship was a well lit drably painted, multi-chaired room--formerly a weapons bay--with a dais at the front and a dozen or so one-man, hover vehicles lined across the back.

Captain Leonard Weaver, senior officer of this his final mission, sat reflecting on the two-hundred plus assignments he'd been on and the last time he was with his wife, Carol, and their two year old daughter, Pinky. Of course she'd be around twenty-two now.

He pulled a well-worn, three-dimensional representation of Pinky at two from an inside pocket of his uniform and stared at it. As with many times over the years, his eyes misted and his insides turned to putty.

A group of young officers sauntered in. He wiped his eyes and quickly stashed the image back into his pocket as they sat down around him.

"What'cha lookin' at, Sir Leonard?" said a large, first lieutenant with a tattoo of a charging marquat above the right ear of his shaved head. The others chuckled.

"Knock it off boys," said Leonard. "You guys should be concentrating on the mission."

"Oh we are, we are," said a black first lieutenant with a thin mustache unsuccessfully hiding a scarred lip. "Are you taking your cane today, your Highness?"

Laughter erupted once again in the group. Even Len grinned at the dig as he pointed at his crotch with both thumbs and said, "I've got your cane right here, bucko."

"Yeah?" the tattooed lieutenant said jokingly, "well you know what you can do with that, champ." More hilarity ensued.

"Laugh it up, boys," Len said, "but you won't be amused when we hit Acknockted."

"Careful guys he's a captain," whispered a lean, red headed, second lieutenant with an explosion of freckles on his face. "Are you the famous Leonard Weaver?" he asked awestruck.

"Looks like your reputation precedes you, boss," said tattoo head. He looked back at the new lieutenant, motioned towards Len with his head, and said, "this dude's been a catcher long before you were born, Red. He's like a freakin' bloodhound."

"Is that a fact, captain?" Red asked dumbfounded.

"That's a fact," Leonard said casually, "and out here we don't stand on ceremony, the name's Len."

"Listen up," said an amplified voice at the front of the room. "I need your attention . . . QUIET!

"As you know our sensors are malfunctioning thanks to the magnetic cloud we encountered on Rigos Five--our last assignment. Consequently we will be forced to use the sensors on the chase pods--"

Moans and groans came from the men. Len looked across the dimly lit room at the seven young men who, along with him, were about to risk everything on the planet's surface and thought, If these boys only knew what it was like just a few years ago. He shook his head.

"--AND WHILE THE RANGE is limited," the speaker continued, "it'll have to do until we get back to spaceport.

"The creature you will be tracking, the Meza A Comedor a.k.a. rock eater, which lives in the twilight zone or the terminator region of the moon has been hunted to near extinction. It's a protected species now but that's probably too little too late."

The man doing the talking at the front of the meeting room, commander/scientist Gill Rogers, pushed a button on a pedestal. A twenty-four inch, three dimensional, running image of a rock eater appeared and rotated on the dais.

It was a long necked, bulky creature fully covered with large boney scales. Its egg-shaped body was supported by a pair of massive legs, and according to the indicator at the side of the display, it stood ten to fifteen feet tall. It had a stubby two foot tail and possessed a group of three or four spiked horns located at the rear of the jaw just before the neck. The mouth was nothing more than an orifice in the shape of an O with what looked like baleen behind it. The organs of vision were shadowed under a brow that went horizontally across the front of the head. These organs didn't seem to be eyes in the way we know them but a different sensing organ entirely.

"Difficult to kill and exceptionally hard to capture," commander Rogers continued, "it has been a test for the shrewdest of hunters throughout the galaxy. Consequently the challenge of the hunt has caused its numbers to diminish over the years. There are more than a few rock eater heads on the walls of hunting lodges throughout the galaxy.

"Our mission is simple. We are here to capture, without injury to our quarry or ourselves, and bring back all remaining rock eaters for artificial insemination.

"As you can see the creature is very large, standing over ten-feet tall with heavy plate like scales covering its entire body. The plates will withstand almost any known weaponry up to and including the Alutionayian pulse rifles. You'll also notice the powerful hind legs which, despite the heavy shielding, can propel these beings to speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The legs are used mainly to break open rocks with a well placed back kick so the beast can reach the minerals and moisture deep inside on which it subsists.

"The only way to bring them down, as it were, besides a lucky stun shot between the plates is to ensnare the creature in a tractor beam and give it an injection on the base of its neck between the plates. Doing all this and avoiding the neck horns and its powerful rear legs will be challenging.

"Our sister ship The Loretta will be on the scene to give us back-up should we require it. We are presently maneuvering into position. Get to your chase pods at the rear of the meeting room and prepare to launch.

"You gonna' need help getting on your ride, pops?" asked one of the younger crew members. The others chuckled.

"No thanks," replied Leonard. "I think I can manage if I can only find my damn walker."

Minutes later Leonard climbed aboard his chase pod and sat with churning guts. He yearned for a do-over of the night Carol walked out. If only he could take back what he'd said.

#

hey'd been arguing for weeks about his job at GRIP (Galactic ReIntroduction Program). It came to a head on that momentous evening.

"We need you home with us nights!" Carol yelled from the kitchen.

"Come on Carol," Leonard whined from the living room, "we've been through this before. What I do is important and I'm damn good at it. I can't just get up and leave. They need me."

"Yeah well your daughter needs you too and not beat- up and bleeding or planning your next endeavor. She needs a whole father!"

"It's not that bad. I'm home once a month."

"Once a month! Once a month! Your daughter doesn't even know you. I don't know you. We're stuck here on this . . . this godforsaken planet while you gad about the galaxy searching for your next unfortunate life form to rescue for God knows what!"

"Now honey you know I don't 'gad about.' I don't think I've ever gadded about."

"You're missing the point," she sobbed. "If you can't get a come-home-nightly job like normal husbands, I will have to take further steps!"

The final hiss in her voice should have warned him of her feelings, but he quickly answered, "Well you might as well take them cause I'm not leaving the program!" That was it. That was the sentence he wished he could take back.

The next day he awoke to an empty house. Carol and Pinky had left without even a note.

Subsequent communication attempts by Leonard to Carol at her mothers house on Mars had failed. He never saw his wife or daughter again. Twenty years is a long damn time.

#

ink . . . Whoosh! The first of eight chase pods launched through a converted photon torpedo tube and roused Leonard from his musing. I better concentrate on the business at hand, he thought, but I'd give everything I own just to see Pinky again.

Dink . . . Whoosh! Another chase pod departed. Leonard put on his oxygen supplementation mask and adjusted the visuals. He activated the pod's processor. The pod whirred! to life and hovered a foot above the deck.

"Good morning, Captain Weaver," came the drone of the metallic, female voice from the chase pod's computer.

"Hello, Amee. You ready for this?"

"I am fully charged and all systems are functioning within acceptable parameters."

"So you're ready?"

"I believe that is what I said, sir."

Leonard lowered his head and shook it.

"I have a question, sir."

"What is it, Amee?"

"Is it not inappropriate for junior officers to refer to you as 'your Highness' or 'sir Leonard' and so on? Is this not counter conducive to military discipline?"

"You heard all that? I thought you were turned off."

"I am never fully switched off, sir. Not much gets past me."

"Well, Amee, normally you'd be correct, but I let it slide because we are all out here three billion miles from home and we need to be loose--ready for anything. Guys enjoy jeering or jibing one another . . . it quells the tension. Having this freedom promotes a healthy work atmosphere."

"See you in hell, captain," Red said apprehensively and the next to launch.

"See you in hell, Red," Leonard responded.

Dink . . . Woosh! Red was gone.

"Get ready, Amee, we're next."

"Yes sir."

Leonard checked the LED screens and warning lights. "I wonder what Pinky looks like today," he whispered as he felt Amee shudder and tractor into position. He adjusted his corilliam chaps.

Dink . . . Woosh! The overhead lights zipped by as the torpedo tube became a silver/gray blur. His chase pod was spat onto the surface of the dark, arid moon--wrenching his aging neck.

Amee decreased their speed, switched on the lights, and adjusted their elevation until they glided within two feet of the moons rocky surface.

"Check for any movements, Amee."

"Yes, captain."

They hovered through gloomy, still canyons. They glided around shadowy, stone spires. They floated over forsaken landscapes littered with smashed rocks . . . testament to the rock eaters presence. Sensors detected nothing.

After thirty minutes, Len said, "See anything, Amee?"

"If I had detected anything it would have appeared on your view screen."

"I know. I was just looking for a little conversation."

"It was my understanding that you were searching for the Meza A Comedor. Had I known that all you wanted to do was converse I would have--"

"Never mind."

Suddenly there was a blip on the screen. "Located one sir," said Amee.

"Lets go."

The little chase pod headed for the detected target. A rock eater jumped up and ran full bore in the opposite direction.

"Follow it, Amee."

"Yes sir. Hold on she's fast."

Len clenched tighter to the stability grips as Amee tightened the harness across his legs.

he chase was on. Len felt exhilarated as his heart incessantly slapped his breastbone. Amee performed admirably maneuvering over and around rocks and hills in the pursuit of their quarry. Len watched the velocity LEDs reach fifty then fifty-five, but the rock-eater slowly pulled away.

"Fire the stunner."

"Will do, sir."

The sound of the rapid-fire stunner echoed across the moon's bleak surface. Shots ricocheted wildly off the creatures scales striking rocks and hillsides as Amee tried unsuccessfully to hit a pre-determined spot on the creature's neck.

"Prepare the TB, Amee."

"The tractor beam will not work at this distance, captain."

"Then get us closer."

"Unable to comply. An electronic governor has been installed on my variable velocity control."

"Well, disengage it."

"I can not do that, sir. As the result of a directive, the governor was applied for your protection. A greater speed would prevent my navigational processors from accurately negotiating the rough terrain we are currently traversing."

"Dammit, Amee! I didn't come all this way to search for this animal and be stopped by some silly regulation. I need that extra boost, and I need it now."

"Is that a direct order, sir? Will you take full responsibility--"

"Yes yes, just get me in range of that thing."

"I will disable the governor as ordered, sir."

Leonard felt the increase of warm air blowing on the exposed portions of his face as the craft's speed quickened sending the velocity gauge over sixty. Rocks blurred past faster as they drew closer to the running creature. Len held on to the pod like he was riding a runaway animal.

"Are we close enough for the TB?" Len asked.

"Another two meters, captain."

"Fire on my mark."

"Affirmative."

he rock eater ran with a heavy clomp! clomp! clomp! as she attempted to evade her pursuers. Either from the heavy footfalls, her natural clumsiness, or a stray ricochet from the stunner, a large boulder dislodged and tumbled down into the path of the chase pod. Amee made a valiant effort to avoid the impediment but caught her underbelly on the obstruction. Together Amee and Len cartwheeled down a small basin bouncing off boulders and rock faces. The harness finally snapped, and they tumbled away from one another.

Len's bruised and battered body came to rest against a massive boulder. His ears buzzed as he lifted his head and opened his eyes. Everything was spinning. He saw flashes of color. He rested his head back down on the moon's surface until it cleared. He passed out.

He saw vivid images of a baby girl. He saw events unfold that he'd missed with that little girl. He saw her grow into an adolescent. His mind fabricated tender moments with her. He saw her blossom into a young woman and he observed all he'd missed.

Then he was in bed sleeping next to his wife. His baby daughter was crying.

"Your turn," said his wife.

"For what?" he said groggily.

"She's hungry. Give her a bottle."

"Too tired. You do it."

"I was up with her last night. Get your ass up!"

That's strange. He couldn't recall Carol ever using language like that. "What?" said Len.

"Get your ass up, we've got work to do." This time the voice didn't sound like Carol's. It was metallic, tinny.

"Huh."

"I said get your ass up!" he was jostled.

He opened an eye and saw a battered and dented Amee hovering over him. One of the two sensor emitters that stuck out of Amee's aerodynamic front like breasts, was missing. He opened his other eye. "Are you going to make it?" Amee asked.

He felt as though he'd been wrenched in five different directions. He ran his tongue over his front teeth. He tasted copper. "I think so. . . . How 'bout you?"

"I've been better," Amee said. "Where's your helmet and what happened to your oxygen supplementation mask?"

Len sat up and felt his head. "I don't know, musta' flew off in the crash."

Amee circled him. "You're back's leaking. I better call for pick-up."

"My back's leaking?" Len reached to the center of his back to a tear in his therma-suit and pulled back a bloody hand. Then he felt the knife-like pain. "I'll be all right for a little while. Let's get that little bitch. Do you have her on sensors?"

"I believe so. Climb aboard, bucko, and I'll give chase."

'Bucko?' Leonard thought, as he boarded the chase Pod. "Sounds like you've got some circuit damage."

"What'd you say," Amee asked, as she resumed chase.

"Nothing . . . just talking to myself. Get me close enough to spit on that critter, Amee"

"You got it, champ."

'Champ?' What's with her?

Soon they were back up to speed and located the rock eater. She took off running again.

As they moved in, Len said, "Closer Amee."

"You're the boss."

With their speed came a faint clanking!

"Sounds like you need an overhauling." Leonard shouted lacking his helmet transmitter.

"Yeah well you try tumbling down a rocky hillside doing at least sixty-five."

"I did."

"You didn't fare too well either."

"Don't get snotty with me! I was only commenting on your--"

"We are approaching the creature, your Highness, shall I try to tackle it by myself or are you going to help?"

"Why you little . . . get us close enough to use the TB." "We will be close enough in four point two seconds if the TB was working."

"What? What-do-ya mean?"

"I mean, the TB was damaged in our little mishap. You're on your own now, Clyde"

Oh great, I've gotta' bring that thing down like we use to when I was younger before we got all this new fangled bullshit. He looked off to the side again at the boulders whizzing by. His back was still smarting. How am I going to pull this off. Years ago this technique was used on animals the size of a horse or smaller . . . not an elephant.

houghts ran through his head like roaches in a lit room. "When we're close enough," he finally announced, "I will stand on the stability grips and prepare to leap onto the creatures back. My legs not being what they use to, you'll have to jerk your front-end up to help launch me!"

"You know," Amee said, "that sounds courageous and all but to my way of thinking it's a little foolhardy."

"What'a you know? Your logic circuits have been damaged."

"I can still detect a dangerous situation. You could be injured again."

"Thanks for your concern, but we're out of options."

"Have it your way, Pops."

'Pops!' That was it. He had to put a stop to all this insolence. "That's Captain Pops to you . . . er, I mean--"

"Well, Captain Pops, we're close enough for your circus act. Are you ready."

Len exhaled through his nostrils, lowered his head, and said yieldingly, "Yes."

The tiny chase pod weaved to and fro. Len grasped and balanced on the stability grips and prepared to leap.

"When I say 'go', Amee!" Len said.

Oui, mon Capitaine .

Pebbles and dust kicked up by the fleeing animal pelted Len as Amee endeavored to keep pace with it.

"Ready Amee?" Len yelled.

"Whenever you are. See you in hell, Captain Pops."

Len pressed his lips together, shook his head, and shouted, "GO AMEE GO!"

Amee bucked as Len jumped. The combined thrust almost shot Len over the top of fleeing beast. He grabbed one of the numerous large scales around the creatures neck and head with his fingers--avoiding the horns.

The creature bucked and kicked like a bronco in a rodeo. Len wrapped his arms and legs around the beast's thick neck to avoid being thrown. The creature swung wildly at him with her rear legs as she ran.

He tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the syringe in the pouch attached to his belt--the bucking was just too wild.

"AMMEEE!" he screamed.

"What?!" Amee yelled, cruising along side the beast.

"YOU NEED TO STOP HER."

"How?"

He thought a moment and came to a painful conclusion. "TRIP HER!"

"What? How?"

"I DUNNO. FLY AROUND BETWEEN HER LEGS OR SOMETHING."

"I could be further damaged."

"JUST DO IT!"

Amee complied. Seconds later she was successful at toppling the creature. The three of them tumbled across the rock-strewn wasteland.

Len, a dreadful pain in his back and his head swimming, came to rest alongside the dazed and sprawled beast. Amee hovered quietly nearby.

Len's head quickly cleared and he realized he had to administer the inoculation while the creature was still stunned. He reached into the pouch, pulled the syringe, flicked the protective cap off with his thumb, located some soft tissue at the base of the neck between two plates, and lowered the needle.

Suddenly the rock eater jumped. Her head knocked the hypo from Lens hand. It went flying. Len grabbed the creature's neck with his arms and held on with all his strength. A horn gouged his left hand.

"AMEE. FIND THE SYRINGE."

"What do you think I am a freakin' bloodhound?"

"AMEE, I NEED HELP!" Len shouted, struggling to hold on to the thrashing creature.

From the corner of his eye he saw another chase pod hover over and someone drop onto the head of the rock eater. By the person's lean appearance, Len assumed it was Red. His sudden weight knocked the creature off balance.

ith the agility of a mountain cat, the figure pulled a hypo, flicked off its cap, and injected the drug into the soft flesh between the plates on the neck of the beast. Its movements slowly diminished until it was just a large, heavily breathing mass.

"Amee," Len yelled, "call for a pick-up."

"Can't. That last tumble damaged my transmitter."

Len, dizzy from low oxygen, rolled off the quiescent behemoth to his smarting back, closed his eyes, and yelled, "I'm getting too old for this shit."

"You all right, Captain Weaver?" said an unfamiliar, female voice.

Len opened his eyes and saw a young lady instead of Red standing over him. She'd removed her mask and smiled down at him. "I'll transmit your co-ordinates, sir."

Len jumped to his feet and replied, "L-lieutenant eh . . . " he looked at her name tag barely making out the name through the dust and dirt. "Eh Weaver . . ." Weaver . . . "What's your first name, lieutenant?"

"Pinky, sir. I'm from your sister ship Loretta. We were told to keep an eye on you boys in case you needed help."

It's her. It's my daughter. Unable to swallow and an electric mixer stirring his insides he sighed heavily. He wondered how he was going to tell her he was her father. How was he going to tell her he missed her? How was he going to tell her that he still loved her?

"You certainly were that, Weaver," he said.

She furrowed her brow and tilted her head.

"Help, lieutenant, you were a lot of help . . . Thank you."

"My pleasure, sir." She walked toward her chase pod and replaced her mask.

Len watched her walk away and thought, I'm going to lose her again. What do I do? What do I say?

He felt something bump his leg. He looked down to see Amee.

She whispered, "Say something you big oaf."

Len looked back at his daughter as she mounted her chase pod. "Lieutenant!" he yelled.

"Yes, sir?"

His mind went blank. His mouth was a desert. Perspiration flowed down his back and into the gash there. He felt Amee nudge his leg again. "Maybe . . . when we get back to spaceport . . . we can grab a cup of coffee or something."

She removed her mask once more, flashed an angelic smile, and said, "I'd like that, dad."

End


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