“Do you have any idea how horrifying it is to be stored in a static bag? Every moment feels like infinity. You have no sensations. You cannot move. And you only have one thought, how in the next moment you will be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters.” Although his audience was sparse, George’s speech was making an impact. Several people had already left in disgust. One frail person had even fainted. “My friends”, Mr. Brash continued, “we must attack the Monsters before they eat every Human in this sector.”
A heckler, as usual, was the first person in the audience to reply to George’s haltingly delivered diatribe, “I think that you underestimate the Monsters, my friend. They are a far more formidable enemy than your easy words imply.”
George bristled as he replied. “Are you kidding me? A dozen cruisers could disable the entire Monster fleet. Forget about what two battleships could do.”
“Do you have two battleships?”, the heckler asked.
“I have access to 6 fully armored cruisers” a balding man with wicked, small eyes interjected. “Even though I think Mr. Brash’s case could have been more articulately made, I agree with his assessment of the Kulnoi.”
George cast a discerning eye over the evil looking gnome who had just spoken. In addition to his beady eyes, he had a crooked smile and grating manner. “This truly is the type of man who would have access to military hardware”, George thought with excitement. “He could help me realize my dream of initiating an illegal military action against Kuln Prime, the Monster’s home world.” The heckler, the audience, indeed the entire university campus became invisible to him. He looked the man in the eye and asked, “What is your name?”
“Richard Chump. Call me Dick.”
George looked away from Dick and toward the dwindling crowd. He inhaled shallowly and then spoke, as if to a throng, “If Mr. Chump can deliver six cruisers to me, the time for talking is over. If there is anyone in this audience who wants to do something about the Monsters, step forward. I am no longer interested in debating with myself.”
Risa, a petite woman who had been standing in the front row while George gave his pitch hesitated. On one hand, George’s insistence that only a violent solution was possible to the Kulnoi problem, disturbed her. She was a good Christian and believed that peace was better than war and that love was better than hate. On the other hand, she was realistic enough to know that some species only understood violence; so violence in foreign relations was inevitable. In the end what swayed her was George’s decisiveness. Humanity couldn’t just do nothing about the Monsters. If she was going to hitch herself to a tugboat, it would be to a tugboat like George who was willing to do something, anything, about Humanity’s greatest foe. She stepped forward.
Jam wasn’t certain why he stepped forward. Certainly, he was, like every right-thinking Human, profoundly concerned about the Monster problem. Perhaps more importantly, he viewed himself as someone who should step forward. He was an unreflective man of action whose skills, experience and attitude were perfect for an illegal military adventure. However, there was no denying that there was something witless and sophomoric about George, so Jam also hesitated. In the end, like Risa, he was charmed by Mr. Brash’s unwillingness to let soft values undermine the pursuit of hard foreign policy goals.
Unlike Jam and Risa, the lobbyist Cruel Rave brought very little to the table, and knew it. “What good are my skills in the heat of battle?” he thought morosely. He was ultimately compelled to volunteer for George’s criminal escapade by his patriotism. “Mr. Brash”, Cruel addressed George in his thin, nasal voice, “I really don’t have too much to offer. All I ever do is spin news stories for my political masters. And I know I’m not much to look at. But I lost a brother at the Battle of Kuln; I hate Monsters as much as anyone.”
George thought as deeply as he could about the problem posed by this pasty-faced, weak volunteer. With his flat feet, drooping paunch and thinning hair he certainly was not an impressive physical specimen. But Mr. Brash also knew that physical health was not that important in a modern, military adventure. It was far more important for a modern warrior to have a wanton, destructive nature than a toned abdomen. “Is this man craven enough to be on my crew?” George thought discerningly. He looked directly into Cruel’s weasel eyes and saw a shiftless,
untrustworthy soul. “You lost family at Kuln?” George said. “I lost my father. “
“Yeah. I heard the static-bag story”, Cruel replied.
This moment of near-intimacy clinched George’s decision “Cruel, you have more than nothing to offer our team. When our expedition stirs things up between Humanity and the Monsters we’re going to need all the spin you’ve got in you, and more.”
The group, because they were a clique of criminal adventurers, decided to call themselves the Coterie. They met the next day at Mr. Rheumy’s house.
Although Dundald Rheumy’s house was modest, everything about it suggested more. The casual placement of the clay soldier in the hallway, for example, suggested that Mr. Rheumy could afford the entire Qing army if he so chose. The pyramid by the Jungle-Jim was an homage the Cheop’s tomb. But what impressed George most was that these modest suggestions of wealth and power were real. If Dundald could afford even one battle cruiser he was a very rich man indeed. George understood that Mr. Rheumy knew people who could finance the entire expedition.
George began the meeting without introductions, “Is there any one here who cannot go on a mission immediately? If so, you should excuse yourself. I will have a driver take you home.”
No one stepped forward or backward. It was a room full of heroes.
Dick filled the patriotic lull with a wheez and a hork, “So we’re all in?”
Everyone in the room nodded. §
Now that she was committed to this adventure, Risa wanted to bolster her decision with details. “How long will the mission last?” she asked.
“20 to 30 days tops”, Dundald replied briskly. “Most of that is travel time. I bet our battles only last minutes.”
Risa rubbed her chin pensively, impressed by Dunald’s brisk response.
Despite himself Jam was impressed too. He knew the horrors of war. He’d been shot down and tortured. He had even spent time- an infinity – in a static bag. He knew there was brutality in war, but he also knew there could be glory.. He yearned, all of Humanity yearned, for a big victory. There had been too many stalemates recently. “So what exactly is the mission, gentlemen?”
George answered Jam’s query, “We’re going to liberate the food factory on Kuln’s Moon.”
The room became completely silent at the apparent lunacy of his answer. George burst into a grin. “It is possible. Dundald, would you like to explain?”
Mr. Rheumy strode to one end of the long oak boardroom table. Altough his skin was thinly stretched over his sharp bones, he looked neither gaunt nor weak. “First a bit about myself, I’m a military historian.”
“Sometimes he makes history” Dick interjected with as much smarm as he could muster.
Dundald smirked but continued as if Dick had not spoken, “Most military victories involve a large army overwhelming a small one. Not only is this approach wasteful, it does not guarantee victory. Think of all those battles like Marathon, where a small, organized force defeated a much larger, poorly organized one. If you can sometimes win with a smaller force, why not always win with one, and save money.”
“How is this relevant to the Monsters, Sir?” Risa asked. It was an impatient question, but no one minded. In fact, Dundald’s thin lips disappeared into a smile as he responded, “Imagine a situation where you have a small, overwhelming force”, he said.
“Are there any battleships included in this hypothetical force?” Jam asked. He was not yet convinced by Dundald’s theoretical talk. “
Dunald’s smile was thin and predatory, “After we liberate the Moon.”
Jam gasped. Dundald’s words implied that the Pan-Human navy would intervene, with battleships, against the Monsters if the Coterie‘s escapade was successful. “I’m surprised we only got six cruisers!” Jam exclaimed. “There must be dozens of military contractors who would risk entire fortunes for the chance to profit from a conflict with the Monsters.”
“Six cruisers are five more than we need” Dundald crowed to his audience. “Each cruiser has a munitions factory on board. With access to the metals which are abundant on Kuln’s Moon, these ships could fight for 100 years.”
“Even if we win our battle, how do we ensure we do not initiate a war?” Risa asked.
Cruel, who was barely visible in his padded chair, replied, “Avoid war? Risa, the purpose of this adventure is to start a war. And then quickly win it”, he added as an afterthought.
The crew of the Coterie could best be divided into the leaders George, Risa and Jam; the cronies Dick, Dun and Rave; and ten mercenary pilots. This natural division was reflected in their flight plan. Five cruisers were given two pilots each, while the cronies and the leaders piled into the Shill, which became the command ship. The presence of two cliques on the Shill could have led to trouble but did not. Fortunately, the cronies, whose military strengths were also serious social weaknesses, preferred to keep to themselves. They would sit in the smoking room for hours drinking and reminiscing.Their discussions, by virtue of constant repetition, were nuanced: they would talk for hours about deeper aspects of political philosophy, such as whether it was more fun to harm an innocent opponent or an insufferable prick. Cruel was particularly interested in incarcerating his enemies. When he held forth on penal politics it was as if Plato himself had founded his Republic on the bridge of the Shill.
Conversation did not flow so easily among the leaders as among the cronies. George, in particular was a problem because he was inarticulate to the point of incoherence, but felt that it was incumbent upon himself as their leader to keep the conversation going. Although George was an ineffectual leader his instincts were on the money: it was a good idea to keep the conversation going, because with silence came brooding about what it was like to be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters. §During one occurrence of terror-filled torpor Jam said, “George, you never told us why our ship is called the Shill.”
“It’s a tribute to one of my role models.” George replied. “I chose my role models from among the mediocre. That is because I am not a great man, like Tamerlane or Genghis Khan. I am near-great.”
Risa approved of George’s humility. “It was right that the near-great should be humble”, she thought. “Leave arrogance to the great men, who don’t need it.”
George continued. “My models include leaders like Calvin Coolidge, Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Gerald Ford, people who through extreme serendipity have managed to gain responsibility far in excess of their abilities.”
“Yes. But why the Shill?” Risa was always quick with the impatient questions. Perhaps too quick.
George was not flustered by the aptness of her question. He marshaled his free ranging neurons into a reply, “In the nineteenth century there was a political boss in New York City named Roscoe Conkling. Although Roscoe’s perfidy made him a great politician, it was his near-great protégé, and shill, Chester Alan Arthur who became the 21st President of the United States. I named this ship the Shill in honor of President Arthur, and to remind myself that if I pimp for the right boss, and have a bit of luck, I can make it all the way to the top.”
The well-liquored Mr. Chump’s face twisted into the smile of a curmudgeonly troll. Dick knew that George was a ton of bricks short of a full load, so was always pleased to see wisdom somehow finding a purchase on his slippery, thin brain.
Unfortunately, they could only keep conversation with George going for so long, so George’s moment of lucidity was followed by fearful silence. §
They brooded not only because of their fears but also because there was so little to do. Heroic journeys are mostly prosaic and dull. Like ordinary people, heroes must focus on such issues as where to sleep, how to keep busy and what to eat. Food is always a contentious topic because the food supplies on quixotic missions are inflexible, which causes problems when people discover that the burgers suck and the lasagna is really good. Friendships form because of this. For once in his life Dundald found that his lean and hungry bearing was a social asset, for he rarely ate and was happy to share treats such as chocolate cake. “It is as if you can live on malice alone” Risa, a frequent beneficiary of Dundald’s largess, once noted. He laughed raucously at this remark, for her words were truer than she realized. In contrast, Cruel emerged as a social problem because he was a glutton and lied about it. Worse, he was lazy and would leave the dishes from his food burglaries lying about for others to clean up. After George roughed him up, Mr. Rave’s worst excesses abated. Fortunately for all, Dick’s taste buds had long since been destroyed by booze and cigars, so he didn’t notice the putrid taste and chalky texture of the burgers; he happily fed on these, keeping the peace by leaving extra lasagna for everyone else.
So the crew of the Shill divided their boring days between torpor, idle conversation and eating. The boredom was serendipitous because when Dick finally assembled them together, two days out from their first objective – a military base that spanned between the third and fourth planets in the Kulnoi solar system – the fear of being eaten alive by green bugged-eyed Monsters had given way to a yearning for action.
George’s strategy was bold and simple: they had six ships, they estimated that the Kulnoi had 1 million ships in orbit around the third planet, a gas giant. The Coterie would divide the enemy into five quadrants, one for each of the five mercenary cruisers. The Shill would fire at will. Each cruiser would have a quota of 166,666 kills. When the Kulnoi outpost was obliterated they would use the gas giant to slingshot to Kuln Prime and then liberate its moon.
George’s bold plan caused some consternation. Jam felt that the idea of five quadrants was unclear mathematically speaking; and Risa strongly believed that the Shill should have more of a plan than simply firing at will. The cronies agreed with Jam and Risa. Dick even pointed out that space was three dimensional, and existed within a fourth dimension, time, whereas George’s plan was based on a flat, static view of the universe. Nevertheless, the cronies let George’s plan prevail. The mood on the Shill was that the upcoming battle would be a cakewalk and that quibbling over details would be bad for morale. §
It is one thing to participate in a military brief and quite another to implement it in battle. This weighed heavily on George, who was a rooky leader whose responsibilities far exceeded his abilities. On the morning of their first attack,George sat down beside Jam and asked with a worried voice, “Jam, what is battle like?” The old timers pretended to play poker and Risa pretended to read as they all lent half an ear to Jam’s response.
Jam had heard George’s question a hundred times before, so was ready. “The an easy question to answer George” George sighed as Jam continued, “In battle you give a command to fire, the computer that controls your ship’s artillery fires, the enemy gets killed, your on-board factory makes another bomb, and then you do it again until all of the enemy combatants are dead. Sometimes they surrender before you kill them all; the Kulnoi never do. But that only means we’ll have to kill them all.” The old warrior shrugged.
For once, George was not placated by a simple answer; he wanted to know more, lots more, about battle, “Have you ever seen friendlies get hit?” George asked.
“Yeah, all the time” Jam replied with a stern look on his face. “We’ve got to remember that the Coterie has tremendous fire power. It’s likely that we are a bigger threat to ourselves than the Monsters are to us.” At that point the entire crew, even the cronies, were thankful to have the experience that Jam brought to the team.
Because Jam’s military wisdom flowed deeply and George’s wisdom was like a shallow, dirt-filled eddie, the questions continued, “Is it wrong to kill Monsters, even though they don’t have souls?” George asked.
Jam took a big inhale as he prepared to respond, but Dick cut him off, “Let me field this one, Mr. Fain.” Dick directed his next remark to George, “You don’t need to refer to religion here, my son. You must understand that war, because of its nature, has different ethical guidelines than peace. You can massacre Monsters because they are your enemy. It is a good thing to kill your enemy during wartime, whether they have immortal souls or not.”
“What about starting a war? Surely that must carry heavy moral consequences?” Although George had great respect for Dick’s sophistry, he followed his own moral path.
Dick warmed to his theme. “Wars are often good, George. They can help you better understand who your friends and enemies are, for example.” Dick’s bold answer caused Risa to look at him in a new light. “It is rare to see a moral compass that is so crude yet so finely honed,” she thought admiringly. §
George and the cronies spent the 24 hours before battle working out the details of George’s strategy. By the time they arrived at their first target, the communications outpost that protected the gas giant, the two dimensional side of the battle-plan was pretty much complete. There were some three and four-dimensional details related to artillery trajectories over time that still needed work. George was not worried.
It only took a moment to destroy their first target, a communication satellite. The moment the dust of the dematerialized target disappeared off of their scanners, Jam called the attention of the gunners to their unfinished business, defining how to calibrate artillery in five quadrants while moving. George, as a near-great leader, would not have his troops doing computer work when victorious. Besides, the pilots were mercenaries. They had other priorities. He ordered the pilots to destroy the small fourth planet, and its dozen moons, wisely realizing that this would be good for morale. As she watched George order people about, Risa mused, “Self-importance makes him act like twice the man he is”.
Once they had finished turning the undefended target into trash, George loudly asked to anyone who was listening, “I wonder what they’re saying on Earth about this overwhelming victory?”
“We must maintain communications silence.” Jam said over his shoulder. He was annoyed, although somewhat relieved, by George’s idleness. “At least he isn’t giving anyone any orders.” Jam thought.
“Chill out, Jam, I think that the Kulnoi know that we are here,” Dundald calmly interjected. “After all, we just blew up their outer solar system.”
While Jam struggled to tame a pack of biting replies, Cruel’s insinuating voice piped out of the couch in which he was buried, “Do you really want to see what Humans are watching, George? I wrote the copy before we left. Here, let me show you.” The spin doctor, turned on a screen, which showed Earth news, “Don’t worry Jam – this isn’t real time. Actually, it is, in a way, but its all pre-arranged.
Risa was beyond being impressed at this point. She had read so much about freedom of speech. She was awed to have finally met someone rich enough to afford it. Of course she still saw the news story as spin. She was realistic. The “Heroes of the Shill” were younger, more beautiful versions of themselves; and the destruction of the communication satellite took longer on the news than it had in real life. Who had heard of that! Even Jam, who prided himself on his modesty, had to admit that the story tickled him pink. “It’s been too long since someone – even my publicist – called me a hero,” he thought wistfully.
Although he loved Cruel’s flattering spin, it made George pensive. His family had never used the word “hero” lightly. He came from a long line of people whose near-greatness – the near caused by avarice, laziness and/or narcissism – had left the family utterly devoid of heroes, and acutely aware of why. Not that the Brash family had given up trying to produce a hero. George had been raised to exceed. From birth he had learned that heroism was something exceptional. It came from having the conviction to stand up to nay-sayers, the boldness to draw moral lines, the steadfastness to defend those lines, and the courage to lead the charge against someone else’s moral system and crush it. Without realizing it, George addressed his next words to the entire bridge, “Am I a really a hero because I just blew up this remote communication outpost?”
“You are witless” Dick noted, to general agreement.
George heard Dick’s wise words, nodded his head sagely and said, “I sometimes fear that stupidity may be my tragic flaw.”
Risa would have none of it, “Don’t doubt for a moment Mr. George Brash that you are a hero even if your actions achieve nothing or cause damage.”
Risa’s faint praise brought tears to George’s eyes but failed to bring conversation to his lips. His awkward muteness made him wish that he had produced a detailed battle plan, which could keep minds occupied as the Coterie approached Kuln Prime. Unfortunately, in the quiet hours before their first full-scale engagement, his simple plan left his idle mind free to dwell on the many ways in which the green bug-eyed Monsters eat Humans alive. §
Within hours of destroying the outer solar system they arrived at the third planet from the Kulnoi sun, a gas giant that was currently 200 million kilometers from their ultimate goal, Kuln’s prison moon. They steadied their trajectory 100,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface and prepared their attack.
“Look at your planet side monitor, sir.” Jam said to George.
George gasped. The huge face of the gas giant was covered by Monster war ships.
As Risa rushed to her monitor to see for herself, Dick leapt out of his chair and said authoritatively, “Don’t panic men, and Risa, this is what we expected.”
Dick’s brave language inspired Mr. Brash to take charge. George was proud to be commander of the Coterie.This was the end point of a path that he had been on since he had stopped partying 15 years ago. Every step that he had taken had been focused on this one goal, and with each step his options had narrowed until now there were no more decisions to be made. He pushed the button on the intercom, “Coterie. This is your Captain. Divide the sky in front of you into 5 quadrants as discussed in our briefing. Each of you will focus on one quadrant.
The Shill will fire at will.” He turned off the communicator, trying to remember if he had missed anything and feared that he had, but he could not remember what.
While George fumbled with his communicator, Risa rocked nervously on her heels impatiently waiting to speak. At the first appropriate moment she let what she had to say burst out of her. “Commander Brash, I know it’s a bit late to ask, but are you certain everyone is clear about what the five quadrants are?”
At this point the ship’s computer did something quite unexpected for a servant-machine: it interrupted George just as he began to evade Risa’s question. It said, “Good question, Risa. George’s plan <i>is</i> ambiguous from the perspective of four dimensional reality. There are many calibration issues related to defining what the fifth quadrant is, and how it changes while we move. These issues will be particularly difficult to solve as we accelerate toward light-speed …”
George interrupted the upstart computer with a cold, patrician voice, “I have no time for your trigonometry, machine. Be quiet.”
The insolence of the ship’s computer had distracted the crew from the fact that the Shill was actively engaged in battle. George looked at the battle simulation that was being projected onto the screen in front of him. The view of Monster vehicles exploding was like the biggest imaginable Independence Day celebration. The combination of the Coterie‘s pinpoint targeting and the abundance of targets, led to kill after kill after kill after kill after kill. 700,000 kills later it looked like the Monsters had had enough. Their vehicles pulled back and regrouped. While they did so, George seized the moment: he gave the order for the Coterie to cease firing and prepare to slingshot.
As George’s team hurtled forward, the Monster ships began to rise up from the surface of the gas giant in a path that was exactly perpendicular to theirs.
“What are they doing?” George tried to speak decisively, but there was a waver in his voice.
“I know,” said Jam, “it’s a three-dimensional crossing of the T”.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a battle strategy used by navies that float on water.”
“Why should that work here?”
“It allows them to concentrate their fire while making themselves smaller targets.”
The thin line of enemy battleships moved upward through the space directly in front of them, all the while concentrating its fire on the Urgent Fury, which was the Coterie‘s vanguard ship. When he saw that the Fury’s shields were failing George gave the order to fire back.
The Fury exploded.
“Computer. What just happened?” George was aghast.
“A missile from the Contra just destroyed the Urgent Fury“, the computer said laconically, “The damage happened in the fifth quadrant. You will recall that we have some calibration issues there.”
“Stupid computer, why can’t you make my plan work?” George would brook no mathematical talk-back from this machine.
The computer’s voice remained placid. “The lack of clarity over what the fifth quadrant is makes it difficult to create firing tables.”
Risa thought she heard the computer sigh as it replied. “Overlap, for example. If you are going to have five quadrants in one space, there may be overlap amongst the quadrants. Determining how this is so while giving each quadrant a unique identity is difficult.”
The crew let George respond. He did so, with vigor. “Whole numbers!” George exclaimed as he slapped his head with the palm of his right hand.
“What do you mean?” the computer asked.
Only use integers in your calculations. That’ll get rid of the overlap.”
When the computer sought clarification George shouted it down,and then sentenced it to silence. He had more important things to focus on than quibbling machines . After all, they were down one ship; their plans had to be updated.
“Which quadrant was the Urgent Fury covering?” George asked Risa. The waver in his voice was now gone.
“Good. Divide responsibility for the third quadrant among the remaining pilots.”
“Shouldn’t we simply divide the battle field into four quadrants?” an artillery sub-system hopefully asked.
The sub-system’s impudence made George so livid he turned down the volume on the Shill‘s entire human-machine interface. “We’re finishing this battle on mute.”
Before George had finished speaking these words, the Coterie‘s new vanguard cruiser, the Contra, exploded into a ball of flame, this time from enemy fire. Before the Contra had finished vaporizing the Monsters focused their fire power on the Rolling Thunder. It glowed red then disappeared into a puff of metallic vapor.
“Did we do that?”
“No” Jam stated in a flat voice. “When the Monsters concentrate their fire they are able to overwhelm our shields.”
George was dumbfounded. In the same way that he knew that God created Heaven and Earth, he also knew that the Monsters could never destroy a Human ship. The heat of battle gave him no time to reflect on this development however. He received an urgent communication from the pilot of the Free Enterprise.
“Captain Brash. I’m speaking for the ships Ajax and Dessert Storm. What is happening in this battle is not covered by our contract. We’re turning back.” The pilot was speaking in the past – the ships had already departed from the battlefield.
The Coterie was down to one ship.
The gravity of the gas giant hurtled into Shill into the inner solar system picaseconds before the Monster guns concentrated their fire.
Within minutes they were in orbit around Kuln Prime. They were traveling so quickly that it was only on their third traverse that they noticed that thousands of Kulnoi warships were rising from the surface of the prison moon.
Although they were dramatically outnumbered, George did not hesitate, “Computer. Prepare to set up a base on Kuln’s Moon. Make sure the site is defensible.”
George’s decisive commands led to nothing. It took Risa but a moment to realize that the Shill‘s human-machine interface was still muted.
The moment the computer got it’s voice back it said, “Commander Brash, there isn’t a good place to set up our base. The entire moon is militarized. If we get within 500,000 kilometres of it we will be blasted to Andromeda.”
George was not an evidenced-based leader, so the ship’s warning did not cause his resolve to waver one iota. He inhaled deeply and then spoke, “Fine. We will begin to orbit the moon and keep firing until every Monster ship has been destroyed.”
Risa looked at her control panel and reported to George that his plan was impossible. “Our missile factory is malfunctioning.”
“I assume that we still have enough munitions in reserve to obliterate the Monsters.” George was all over this problem.
“We have slightly more than one million missiles left.” Risa replied. “The enemy have just over ten million ships that are within immediate firing range. There are at least 10 million more ships stationed on the moon.
“Let’s get started. We’re going to have to make every shot count. Ten times over.”
“Twenty times over” Mr. Chump corrected. He had a grim look on his face.
Although the battle was heated and the Kulnoi casualties mounted, they all – with the exception of George, who was a bit slow in these matters – realized that defeat would only be a matter of time. Fortunately, no one had a moment to dwell on how they would soon be eaten alive by green bug-eyed Monsters.
The Shill ran out of missiles one day and over two million Kulnoi casualties later. The Monsters then bombarded it until its shields imploded. Once they had destroyed the Human ship’s defenses, the Monsters adulterated the Shill‘s air supply using a drone, rendering the crew unconscious.
When the Humans awoke they were astonished by the size of their cage. That mystery was solved when their captors arrived. The Kulnoi were huge compared with Humans, and walked very lightly in the low gravity environment of Kuln’s Moon. They wore leather tunics made from the hides of their victims. The brown leather was offset nicely by their pond green skin. Their eyes were comprised of spheres of hexagonal lenses. Clusters of them were perched on agitated stalks. Most of the Monsters had only five or six eye-stalks, one had a dozen. Below their eyes were two vicious looking sets of mandibles that they used to tear up food before inserting it into a circular mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
A Kulnoi officer began to bellow at the crew of the Coterie . It seemed to think that the louder it spoke, the easier it was to understand. The Human crew looked dumbly on. They were all ignorant of the Kulnoi language. When the bellowing officer paused to take a breath, Cruel stepped forward, placed his personal communicator on a table, activated it then stepped away. The communicator projected a holographic image onto the space in front of the officer. The image said something in the Kulnoi language. The officer walked over to the device and examined it. It grabbed Cruel’s device, then Cruel himself, and brusquely left the room, a train of lower ranking soldiers followed. The door to their prison closed with a clang.
Several hours later their captors returned with Cruel’s device, but without Mr. Rave himself. The Monster officer handed the communicator to George.
It played a hologram of the Monster saying, in George’s own dialect, “Mr. George Brash, capturing your ship was a great victory for the Kulnoi. You are my prize. Although your government has offered to pay me a large ransom for your safe return, you are much more valuable to me as food.”
After delivering this message the guards then took Dundald and Dick away. George, Jam and Risa had only moments to wonder who would be next; the guards quickly returned for them. They were taken to a food-sorting factory. Probably the very one in which George’s father had been packaged. The Humans were divided into pens, each of which moved very slowly on a conveyor belt toward the Packers and Sorters. Healthy Humans were thrown into static bags by the Packers to be eaten later. The unhealthy and the dead were identified by Sorters and then ground up into pet food.
Commander George Brash looked bleakly up at his enormous, threatening captors. He was four pens away from the Packer, three from the Sorter. He wondered which of the two Kulnoi would seal his fate. He spoke, but did not directly address Risa and Jam, who shared his pen. “I don’t want to be a Monster’s appetizer.” Risa, who had had enough of George replied sharply, “Captain, whether we’re kept alive in a static bag, or ground up for pets to eat – either way we’re food.”
“What I mean is, I don’t want to be eaten alive” George retorted. He sprayed himself and then handed Risa his sprayer. “Apply this ointment to your skin. The Monsters will think that you’ve spoilt and will kill you quickly.” They solemnly sprayed each other and prepared to die like heroes. The spray’s foul smell caused Risa to vomit convulsively. §
The Sorter rudely grabbed a young Human, chewed off his head and then tossed the corpse into a masher where it would be ground into pet food.
“Hey, don’t eat the merchandise” the Packer chastised.
“It was already dead”, the Sorter replied.
“That’s disgusting, eating something that is dead.”
“Not all of us have good jobs, like yours, Mr. Packer. If you paid me more, maybe I’d be able to afford some of this living merchandise.”
The Monsters continued working sullenly. After a while the Sorter spoke again, “Do you think they suffer?”
“Of course they do.” The Packer guffawed at the irrelevance of the question. “My friend you are over-complicating your simple job.” As he spoke the Packer picked up George and poked him harshly in the stomach. The human recoiled in pain. The Monster plunged George head first into a mild solvent in order to remove his terrible smell, and then threw him into a static bag. George struggled futilely until the instant the bag was sealed and time stopped. The Packer turned to the Sorter and said, “It’s actually very simple: if it moves, it’s alive. If it’s alive, its food.”