Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
The mining planet M2467 was unbelievably hot. Special suits resistant to high temperatures had to be worn by all workers and the cooling material they were made of needed to be recharged every ten hours. Not only was food rationed according to productivity but also the environment the slaves worked in. When production quotas dropped, the temperature the slaves worked in went up. Each shift was twenty hours long with a four hour rest period. Keeper, Jeff Bland and Teuth were assigned to work in an area where crushed ore was moved by monorail cars from a huge open pit to a distant refining center. Jeff guided empty mine cars to the loading station where Teuth filled them from inside an enclosed digger. The excavation equipment provided extra protection for his naturally aquatic skin and his multiple arms facilitated using the numerous controls on the high tech machinery in the most efficient way. Still the cephalopod was quickly becoming dehydrated and neither Keeper nor Bland expected their friend to last more than a few hours without adequate moisture.
Keeper attached a filled car to a train-terminal and sent it on its way. A dust cloud appeared on the horizon. “Here comes the devil,” Keeper said. A semi-humanoid squamate reptile brought a meager amount of water for each slave every hour, laughing and showing off a Hammurabi communicator he wore around his neck as he appeared in an air-conditioned truck-pod loaded with bottles.
“Your productivity has gone up the last two hours,” Gwolat sneered. “But I decided to raise your ore-quota to compensate for your unusual endurance.” He opened each and every bottle and swigged a long drink before he handed them to the thirsty workers. “We can’t have you crogs working at less than your full potential!”
One of Keeper’s crew members working in the area next to them collapsed and the sadistic lizard scampered to where he lay moaning in the sand. The squamate beat him viciously with a whip until, amazingly, the man rose to his feet. “No water for you!” Gwolat grinned as he poured a full bottle on the ground and the delirious man writhed in agony.
After Gwolat left, Keeper and Jeff each took one swallow and poured the rest into two half-full bottles stolen from Gwolot’s truck. Teuth was almost dying of thirst as they handed him one. “I don’t know how much longer I can last,” Teuth gasped as he downed the pint of water. “Even a quart every hour would not be enough for my subaquatic metabolism in this heat.” Keeper and Bland both looked away and tried not to lick their lips.
“Bland and I are working on a plan to get us out of here,” Keeper assured him as he ran to give the dying crew member some stolen water.
“Yeah I wanted to beat that lizard’s head in with a big rock the first time he showed up,” Jeff grumbled. “But Keeper insists that we work out all the details.”
“We’ve got to stay alive until sundown,” Keeper said. “I don’t know why the Hammurabi stop production for four hours while this planet is dark … but all the old-timers, the slaves that have managed to stay alive for more than one day, insist that they do. When our friend Gwolat comes back for the last time on this shift … we’ll be waiting for him!”
“Gwolat!” Jeff pointed when the sadistic supervisor stepped out of the truck he’d brought to return the slaves to the compound. “We got a guy here that refuses to do his share of the work!” The last rays of light from the mining planet’s two suns were disappearing over the horizon, but even in the smoldering shadows you could see the lizard was pleased for the opportunity to administer one last beating. He raised his whip high above his head and almost danced to where Keeper lay sprawled on the ground.
Jeff caught the end of the leather whip when the creature swung it back to render a bloody first lash and yanked the lizard off balance. Keeper rolled over quickly and pulled Gwolat’s feet out from under him. The lizard shrieked and tumbled to the ground. A look of astonishment twisted his ugly face into a knot when Gwolat realized the cries of anguish that he’d expected to hear from his victim instead came from deep within his own throat. “No water for two days!” he screeched. His long forked tongue waved in the air like a conqueror’s flag even as Jeff Bland hovered over him with a head-crushing rock.
“Not yet!” Keeper said to Jeff as he pinned the lizard to the hot sand. “There must be a source of water on this planet! We all need to drink before we can think about escaping.” Keeper had to slap the lizard twice to make him stop struggling. “Where do you get the water to fill your bottles?”
Gwolat hissed something about cutting them both into tiny pieces and scattering them across the desert.
“He isn’t going to tell us anything,” Keeper said. “Use the leather from the whip and tie him to that cactus. It’s getting dark fast. The Hammurabi will come looking for their missing truck!”
Gwolat looked horrified when he realized they were going to leave him in the desert. “No!” he screamed. “I’ll tell you were to find water!”
“I suppose you want us to just let you go?” Jeff kicked him as he tied him to a cactus.
“I won’t stay here when the night comes,” Kwolat screeched. “The water comes from a cave less than thirty miles down this road!”
Keeper and Jeff ignored the lizard’s cries of terror as they helped all the slaves into the truck. “Don’t leave me here!” The lizard was tearing at the leather bindings as the truck began to pull away. Too late Keeper saw Gwolat break one of straps and yank out a blaster that he’d obviously hidden under his pant leg.
“Duck!” Keeper screamed as Jeff sped the truck away.
A blast of laser light lit up the sky like fireworks. Keeper and Jeff were both astonished when they saw that Kwolat had taken his own life. “Wow! That lizard really must not like the dark!” Jeff commented.
Both Keeper and Jeff couldn’t help but notice the shocked looks on the slave’s faces as they peered into the gloom. “The night will devour us all, I want someone to shoot me,” a slave rumored to have worked the mines for more than a month and obviously suffering from delirium shouted.
Jeff and Keeper were expecting an inky blackness, instead minute’s later two moons rose in the east, one twice the size of the other. The larger reflected blue light while the other shown green giving the desert landscape an eerie horror-movie feel. The super-heated atmosphere was becoming much cooler. “I don’t know what everyone is all freaked out about,” Jeff declared as he steered the huge vehicle. “In fact, it’s light enough to turn off the headlights!” Which he did. “Why take a chance on having the Hammurabi spot us escaping?”
The absence of artificial lighting showed that what they thought of as a flat desert was actually riddled with holes, each one large enough to swallow a man. The two moons raced across the sky as if they also were terrified of the coming darkness. In less than ten minutes they had traveled mid sky.
The cave Gwolat had told them about loomed in the side of a mountain just off the road. A winding trail lit by the retreating moons threaded its way around still more of the strange holes. “They’re too round to be meteor craters,” Jeff marveled. “I wonder what could have made them.”
“They are made by the night to hide from the heat,” the delirious slave declared. Keeper and Jeff ignored him.
Jeff stopped and Keeper ordered all the escaping slaves to stay in the truck. “Hopefully the Hammurabi have some empty bottles stored in there that we can fill.”
“We’ll be back in five minutes and everyone will have all the water they want,” Jeff promised as they started down the trail.
They were almost at the cave entrance when a light appeared on the horizon moving quickly through the dark sky toward them. “It’s the Hammurabi, they’ve spotted us!” Jeff yelled. The two racing moons were now disappearing over the western horizon.
“We’re about to lose our lights. Maybe that will be to our advantage!” Keeper yelled as he and Jeff both turned and raced back toward the truck.
The lights in the sky were in fact a Hammurabi transport vehicle. The massive spaceship hovered over the truck sucking slaves into the darkening sky like a huge vacuum cleaner.
“We can’t help them now!” Keeper pulled Jeff back when he tried to intercede. “As long as we are free, Leika and the others have a chance!” As they turned toward the cave, darkness smothered the planet and they ran under starlight.
Both Keeper and Jeff were surprised when the huge alien vessel lifted into the air and then dashed away in the opposite direction. “It’s as if they are fleeing from something,” Jeff blurted.
The lights of the spacecraft were just vanishing on the horizon when the ground beneath the running men began to tremble. They were less than a hundred yards from the cave, when giant snakes rose out of every hole in the desert. The serpents towered over the twilight landscape blocking the light from the stars. At least three snakes lunged at Jeff at the same time luckily, their heads collided and only this kept him from being swallowed whole. He chanced a look back. Keeper’s legs were just disappearing into a hissing mouth. The scream that came from Jeff ’s mouth was involuntary but it gave the serpent looming over him just enough time to envelope him in writhing living flesh … he could feel wet slimy mucus cover him as the snake opened its mouth wide and sucked him into its yawning mouth.
Jeff Bland felt the air in his lungs being forced outward as the muscles lining the snakes long body slowly squeezed him deeper inside the serpent. He was suddenly inside a larger cavity … a stomach? A fleshy tendril with a cup on the end covered his nose and mouth again. He could breathe, but just barely. Jeff now understood why the humanoids familiar with the mining planet’s fearsome night creatures were so afraid. The snake who had swallowed him was one of a rare species of Serpentes that digested their food slowly over a period of several months. The snake was keeping him alive to keep his meat fresh and would devour a small piece of him every day. I wish someone would have shot me, Jeff’s thoughts screamed.
Suddenly with a violent contraction, Jeff felt himself being shot out of the snake’s long body along with a sticky mass of mucus and vomit. When Jeff wiped the goo from his eyes, Keeper stood in the center of the writhing mass that was now two severed snake sections. One of his arms had been transformed into a laser. “Run!” he yelled.
The cave entrance was no more than ten yards away but before Jeff could take three steps another of the snakes was pulling him into its mouth. This time he didn’t reach the stomach but felt himself going unconscious from the contractions. When he opened his eyes again Keeper was dragging him into the cave. A twisting coil of scaly flesh towered over them both. “When we first met,” Jeff told Keeper as they ran down a narrow corridor. “You were missing both feet and walking on water. Now one of your hands is missing and you have a laser sword! You certainly pay an arm and a leg for all your equipment don’t you?”
A roaring hiss that sounded like a steam engine followed just a few steps behind.
“One thing I’ve learned from crossing through countless galaxies for thousands of years,” Keeper said as the reached a fork in the tunnel and chose the smaller passage. “Is that all things in the universe are in balance … by losing my hand function for a few minutes, I’m able to replace it with something more useful … like this light weapon.”
“I wish I had that ability,” Jeff said as Keeper turned and slashed at the monster following them. They had reached a dead end. The tunnel narrowed and then became a solid rock wall.
“You not only have that ability but you’ve used it before!” Keeper exclaimed as he sliced the head off the snake. Another larger snake was moving up to take its place.
“What part of me have I ever lost in order to gain some mysterious power?” The disbelief in Jeff’s voice made Keeper smile. Jeff leaped out of the way of a wave of blood as it splashed against the rock wall.
“You lost your head when you decided to come with me and became first officer on the Centurion!” Keeper grinned.
“How much longer is this going to go on?” Jeff yelled as two snakes tried to force their way in to the tiny recess at the same time and Keeper fought them off.
“We have about three and a half hours of darkness left,” Keeper said. “Be glad the nights on M2467 aren’t any longer!”
The planet’s two suns were just rising over the eastern horizon when Keeper and Jeff stumbled out of the cave. Portions of snake lay everywhere and some pieces were still writhing. The cave floor had become a river of blood. Jeff held his nose. “I thought I was going to die from the smell alone,” he said. “That has to have been the longest night of my life.”
“We barely survived and I’m exhausted,” Keeper said looking at his arm. The laser sword coming from his stump was now sputtering like a child’s sparkler. Keeper closed his eyes and a minute later his arm was once again flesh and bone.
“What do we do now?” Jeff asked.
“Recharge,” Keeper said rubbing his arm. “Then we’ll have to rescue Leika and the others. They are probably being held in the refining center Gwolat talked about.”
Miraculously, Gwolat’s transport truck was at the bottom of the hill where they’d left it. They walked toward it wary of the thousands of holes in the desert floor.
“We forgot to get any water from the cave,” Jeff moaned.
“Do you really want to go back inside that place?” Keeper grinned.
“No,” Jeff told him as he looked back. “I hope you’ve figured out a way to get inside the refinery!”
The desert floor began to rumble just as they reached the truck. The massive Hammurabi transport vehicle that had captured the others was now hovering over them. “I have and this is it,” Keeper moaned as the enemy ship’s vacuum beam lifted them into the air.
The refining center turned out to be a small city called Enol. Two armed Scorpenions escorted Keeper and Jeff through massive crowds lining the streets. All the species looked to be in ecstatic celebration. “The queen insisted that you be present at the biggest spectacle this planet has seen in more than a century,” One of the guards zapped Jeff with the striker on the end of his coiled tail to hurry him along.
“Leika! This must be her execution,” Jeff moaned. “We really messed things up this time … didn’t we?”
“I’m not so sure,” Keeper said gazing at the crowd. A smile was beginning to form on his face.
“I’ve heard of optimism in the face of danger, but this is ridiculous!” Jeff frowned. “Nora promised a very painful death … and she is sure to deliver.”
“Make way for the Queen,” someone shouted. The voice sounded oddly familiar to Jeff but his nerves kept him so on edge that he couldn’t place it. “The sea of spectators parted like water from the bow of a ship as the entourage approached.
The queen wore layers of Vessidian satin adorned with about a billion Mateuse 17credits worth of rare diamonds and emeralds. A veil of gossamer silk covered her face. A half-dozen attendants on each side lifted her flowing train, while hundreds of children spread flower petals in her path.
“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” The familiar voice was right next to Jeff. The Centurion’s navigator stood next to him. The cephalopod mouth in his bulbous face was grinning broadly. Jeff began to recognize other crew members. The crowd was filled with them.
The queen’s procession stopped before them and the guards flanking Keeper and Jeff each bowed. “My Queen. What would you have us do with these prisoners?” One of the Scorpenions asked.
“I haven’t decided yet!” The Queen said as she lifted her veil.
“Leika!” Jeff’s voice was almost a wail. “We thought you were going to die!”
“Not today, my official coronation is going to take place in less than an hour … of course you both are invited.”
“How did you go from being a condemned prisoner to Queen of the slavers?” Jeff demanded.
“It was easy,” Leika said. “Nora didn’t tell us she had two sibling brothers who were also heir to the throne.” She gestured toward two entranced young men following her. Neither of the stumbling love sick brothers could keep their eyes off from her. “It was almost too easy to convince them that I would make a much better Queen than their older sister.”
“When did you rescue Teuth and the rest of the crew?” Jeff was amazed.
“Yesterday, just before dark,” Leika said. “I had one of my ships lift the remaining Centurion crew members from a transport truck parked on the desert … but sadly you two weren’t around!”
“And you left us on the desert all night?” Jeff was furious … but Keeper just smiled.
“Most of my galactic advisors felt a night-time rescue was too dangerous,” Leika said. “Did you know the most feared species of snake in the universe lives in this quadrant?” Her eyes were green and mischievous. “I’m only trying to be a capable leader,” She grinned revengefully at her two friends and her eyes became flashes of gold. “Someone on this planet has to be in charge!”