Minor Diversion
by C.W.Smoke
Visit Castle Smoke

Aldrick One paused to twist off what remained of his left arm. In a bent-legged, half-crouch he scuttled after his clones who were advancing cautiously about fifty meters ahead on the rock-strewn path that hugged the base of the basalt cliff.

Leo halted in the black cliff's narrow shadow to wait for his leader.

"Space these Jaylen amateurs!" spat Aldrick when he caught up with Leo.

They advanced silently side-by-side in shadow, the sheer cliff on their left blocking the hot, midday sun.

Aldrick pushed a stud on his belt and two pain pills popped out. He ate the pills quickly, swallowing with a loud, dry gulp. "See this wound, kid? Even their weapons are defective!"

As they walked, Aldrick half-turned so Leo could could see the wound in his side.

Before Leo could answer, they rounded an outcropping. The path ended abruptly, blocked by a huge black rock.

The basalt boulder, with its vertically streaked narrow bands of gray granite, reminded Leo of the iron-banded fortress gate set into the mountainside guarding the entrance to the government hospital on Megalith where he had been cloned. But there the illusion ended. This obstacle was solid stone and stood nearly twenty meters tall, resting snugly against the cliff.

They would have to leave the the safety of the shadows to bypass the boulder.

Fifty meters on their right, like a black laser beam connecting distant horizons, an empty, arrow-straight, asphalt road paralleled the black cliff.

"If the Jaylen scum followed Sigwalt Convention Rules," Aldrick said, "my arm would have been taken off cleanly and the wound cauterized." He turned toward the road, raised his weapon and shouted. "Amateurs!" His cry echoed hollowly along the black ciff as he defiantly shook his weapon toward the basalt rock piles that rose up like giant elephant droppings scattered haphazardly on both sides of the road.

Silence greeted his challenge. Even the breeze that had cooled them earlier had ceased.

Thermals rose from the sand and the cracked, abandoned highway. The black rock piles shimmered in the midday sun.

High above a large, black vulture soared, dipping a white-tipped wing as it wheeled slowly in the cloudless blue sky.

Below only the vulture's black shadow moved, casting back and forth between the highway and the cliff as the great bird circled.

Aldrick darted out into the bright sunlight, quickly skirting the exposed boulder.

After a short pause Leo duplicated Aldrick's dash, joining him back in the shadows beneath the black cliff. Beyond the boulder, the path began again, only to disappear as it rounded another crag.

"It's too quiet," hissed Aldrick. "Something's wrong! I can feel it!"

Another injury would make his pills useless, and Aldrick could actually experience pain, coming perilously close to breach of contract with the Formite Federation and their warrant of painless combat.

Leo peeked around the crag's blind corner before pulling back, pressed tight against the cool rock face. He half-turned toward Aldrick and hissed, "Sir! Your clones are destroyed. We have no replacement limbs. The Jaylen sacrificed a master for copies. I don't understand them, sir."

"Understand, neophyte? Let them understand death! Sacrifice our wounded for my replacement arm. I need able bodies!"


"Do it!"

"Yes sir!" exclaimed Leo, relaying crisp orders with his communicator. He sincerely hoped this operation would conclude before Aldrick's increasing demand for spare body parts included him, officially designated as Aldrick Two, but immediately and unofficially renamed Leo. Apparently superstitious Aldrick wouldn't surrender his name to his clones, proclaiming loudly to all within earshot that each new casualty diminished his vitality when carrying his name. "Sir! let me lead while you hole up with the other commanders."

"I'm just protecting my investment." hissed Aldrick as he grabbed Leo and forced him down, flat against the hot desert sand.

A narrowly focused, intense blue light beam, originating somewhere on their right, flashed through the spot they had just vacated. The black stone wall above them bubbled and smoked as fire and brimstone salted the dry desert air.

"Stay put!" spat Aldrick. "And get this straight! Injured means expendable! Got that? We are not buddies. You will survive intact so I get my rightful rank when you replace me. Understood? Now pay attention!" He leapt from cover and disintegrated the nearest rock pile with a sweeping, liquid arc from his weapon.

"Incoming!" shouted Aldrick. He dove to his left and fired forward as another tight blue beam partially disintegrated the gold epaulet fastened to his right shoulder.

Waiting patiently, sprawled where he'd landed in the rocky ravine, Aldrick pulled a miraculously undamaged stagger-weed from a dry pocket. He lit the homemade cigarette from his still smoldering epaulet before discarding the gold braid.

While viewing the LED on his recorder, Leo shouted, "Target neutralized. All clear!" Then he darted forward, halting beside Aldrick's ravine. "Too bad these counters only count them when they're dead," he said as he reached down and helped Aldrick from the gully.

"Don't complain," replied Aldrick as he shook off loose sand. "Be grateful the chem-techs can't duplicate our warrior instincts, or we'd be nothing more than laborers on some rock pile. When we link-up with your brothers, mop up this sector while I get my arm replaced. And be careful! These Jaylen have more tricks than we've been told. Those bleeding-heart advisors must've pumped the Queen full of space-chem, for her to be suckered onto this miserable rock. And for what? We could've Zeed the entire system on a two chron fly-by..."


"Yeah. You know. Zees. Put 'em to sleep. Permanently!"



"Save me a toke?"

"Sure, kid. Hey, sorry I blew up back there."

* * *

Twenty chrons earlier in another star system...

"...You are hereby ordered to evacuate to Omicron Five...repeat...evacuate to the citadel on Omicron Five. All military contracts have been automatically extended to cover corridor travel and citadel destinations. Renew your vouchers when you arrive at your billets on Omicron Five. Prepare to evacuate! Prepare to evacuate! This is a Class Two Emergency...repeat...Class Two Emergency..." The loudspeaker at the airstrip had been repeating the same message for the last two deci-chrons.

"Sir! What a twist!" exclaimed Leo, quickly scuttling up the boarding ramp to the cigar-shaped Queen's Escort Number Four landing craft. "We were just about mopped up, then the Jaylen ping-skip reinforcements in using the ultra-warp near the black hole. Now we're the ones making tracks and hightailing it!"

"Nothin' new," yelled Aldrick, shouting to be heard above the high-pitched whine of turbine engines being revved and warmed-up all along hangar row. "The Jaylen used up their surprises long ago. At least we ride in style this trip!"

"How much time do we have, sir?" asked Leo as they boarded the sleek, black QE-Four shuttle. His words reverberated hollowly in still air as the outer hatch closed behind them, cleanly sealing off all exterior sound.

"Don't worry, kid," replied Aldrick, lowering his voice. "We're with the Royals. They never endanger the Queen. Plenty of time to eat and scan the news before we bid fond farewell to Megalith here."

"I hear we're burning bridges all the way to Omicron Five," said Leo.

"Safest way," explained Aldrick. "We'll stagger the hyper-jumps and destroy anything useful between here and O-Five. Make the Jaylen bring it all with and hope they overextend. I've danced this jig before. Get some rest before your first star-jump, kid."

Aldrick turned away to stare blankly through the tinted porthole at the rapidly receding airstrip below -- just the latest smudge in a swift succession of outposts that blurred together into singular anonymity.

* * *

Jeremy Entwhistle was Lord of the flies, Sovereign of the ants, giant Deity of the insects, seven years young and playing alone in his fenced back yard. Summer vacation was nearly over, but young Jeremy, clad in shorts and tank-top, made the most of what remained. His mother didn't know it yet, but some of great-aunt Sophie's good silverware was missing.

One butter knife and one salad fork.

For digging.

Two teaspoons.

For scooping and stirring.

During last week's musty attic foray as Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the Pirate, young Jeremy had discovered the silver mother lode in a manner of speaking, secretly spiriting away treasure and burying booty at the foot of the old oak tree beneath a makeshift, popsicle-stick skull and crossbones.

Today Jeremy tested the mettle of his ant-subjects on an ant-obstacle course beginning with ant-quicksand. He had his sister's sandbox pail filled with water and held in reserve if the Great Deluge or more quicksand were needed, and he had moved his theater of operations from the relatively clean sandbox to the infinitely more satisfying, gooey, boy-made muck near the old oak tree and untamed lilac bushes in the back corner of the large, sun-dappled yard.

Jeremy stirred his ant-quicksand lake fortuitously dammed at the head of a recently excavated, two inches deep ditch that crossed a chemically marked, ant-food trail. The shiny, smooth silver spoons worked the soupy ant-trap muck with a much more satisfying feel than his sister's rusty sand shovel.

Muck entombed, ant-obstacle victims would guard his pirate treasure when it was properly cached, just like the unlucky treasure trove guards selected by real pirates.


Well, his older brothers, Jack and Jason, would hardly volunteer as cadaverous sentinels. And his six-year-old, tag-along, little sister, Jenny would only be a pain. Besides, Jeremy did not want to dilute his sovereignty. For added authenticity he would simply pad the body count.

"Fifty ants on a dead man's chest! Yo! Ho! Ho! And a bottle of Raid!" he sang out softly before his face wrinkled into a pleased, omnipotent ant-god smile. Quantity would have to suffice.

The round, red-and-white peppermint candy strategically expectorated yesterday had performed its magnetic magic. Ants were strung out in a many-legged ant-line between the sticky confection and their anthill domicile, all blissfully unaware of the unnatural disaster about to be launched from high above.

A dark shadow slid silently across the back yard, momentarily stealing Jeremy's sunlight. He glanced upward, his curiosity rewarded with a blinding faceful of noontime sunshine as the cigar-shaped, airborne intruder relinquished stolen sunlight and continued its journey.

"Jeremy....Jer-a-meee! There you are! Lunch, honey! Hurry up! We're all waiting for you!"

"Awww, mom....OK, I'm coming! I'll be right there..."

Neither Jeremy Entwhistle nor his mom saw the sleek, black spheroid settling slowly to earth behind the trees across the cornfield as Jeremy dropped his silver pirate plunder into the water-filled sand pail and sprinted barefoot toward the back porch stairs...

* * *

"You have been warned! Cease your useless chatter or I shall crush you!" shouted Kaspar One, leader of the Formites, rising to his full impressive height and displaying his anger.

Unable to prevent an involuntary cringe, Janus One quickly backed away. "Mind your manners!" he shouted. "This is no killing field! Your contract does not extend here! This news must be brought before the Queen!" As he spoke, he kept a safe distance between himself and the much larger Kaspar One.

"I shall squash you like the insignificant insect that you are!" cried Kaspar One, edging closer, preparing to carry out his threat. "Just one more useless weakling to feed. You contribute nothing but gibberish to foul the air."

"Enough!" exclaimed Omar One. "Cease you two! Everyone, including the Queen Mother, would perish without the support of Labor! The facts must be presented to the Queen so she may render a decision. You must speak for your factions. Control your emotions, and compose yourselves. The Queen awaits!" He firmly led the way toward the royal entrance.

Janus One quickly scooted ahead, keeping Labor's representative between himself and huge, glowering Kaspar One.

Three Ones, Janus, Omar, and Kaspar entered the Queen's royal chamber, each bowing low before her, then wordlessly reaching out and touching her as impressions flowed swiftly from subjects to Queen. The trio faced the Queen in a tight semi-circle when the ceremonial touching concluded...

"So, the rumors are true!" stated the Queen. "We do have distant, intelligent relatives residing on this planet! And there is colandol! We could train our distant cousins to mine it for us. But you, my valiant Kaspar, do not believe we should exert ourselves to save them from the Jaylen!" She faced Kaspar One, awaiting his reply.

"We owe them nothing! Zee the lot, I say," muttered Kaspar One beneath his breath.

"Speak up, Kaspar! Your tactical units made first contact. I must hear your words so there will be no misunderstanding!" she commanded.

"I am merely the humble conduit of Your Majesty's Grace," replied Kaspar One with a courtly bow. "But, in my humble opinion, we should immediately make for the star-citadel at Omicron Five, destroying all in our path as previously decided. The plan was satisfactory when proposed and approved. Nothing has changed, Your Majesty."

"Nothing save the discovery of colandol, a mineral vital to our effort. Are you trying to argue that discovery of our distant cousins isn't relevant? Confine this debate to military strategy where you are the expert."

"Your Majesy! We can Zee the entire system and return later to mine the colandol ourselves!"

"Kaspar, surely it would be advantageous to use others for this task, particularly when they are so plentiful."

"Your Majesty! Indigenous life forms on this planet, named by Your Grace as distant cousins, are primitive and coexist intertwined with a primitive form of the Jaylen we now fight. We have no time to winnow the grain from the chaff. The planetary system must be sterilized before the Jaylen can ally with these primitives and use this system as a base against us," he finished with another bow.

"I appreciate your concern for my safety, loyal Kaspar. However, my advisors inform me that it is unlikely that the Jaylen will even travel this particular path to Omicron Five. Is this true?"

"Your Majesty! We cannot entrust your safety to Fate's whims!" exclaimed Kaspar One.

"Your protests have been duly noted. Now answer my question, Kaspar!"

"Your advisors are not charged with your protection, Your Majesty. I am. But yes, we have laid so many false trails that our destination will remain undiscovered for at least fifty chrons. The royal evacuation route will never be discovered by our enemies!"

"Tell me again, in your own words valiant Kaspar, how many fleet cruisers are required to sterilize any planetary system?"

"Any fleet cruiser acting unilaterally could perform the task, Your Majesty."

"And my retinue consists of ten fleet cruisers, five of Star Class Alpha?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"A formidable fighting force of elite warriors, would you not agree, mighty Kaspar?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"With this elite force at your disposal, how much time would be required to winnow grain from chaff as you so aptly put it?"

"Your Grace, we have never faced these primitive Jaylen in combat, but with their relatively simplistic civilization and surprise on our side, I would estimate the time required for complete neutralization to be between ten and fifteen chrons. But let me emphasize, Your Majesty, that without actual combat data I can only estimate the time required!"

"There you have it, then my dear Kaspar! We shall remain here temporarily until our enemy in this system is neutralized. Then I shall choose a small contingent to remain here to train our cousins."

"But Your Majesty! The plan!"

"Plans are merely probable paths to be revised when conflicting realities intersect. Bold Kaspar, surely you do not question my decision?"

"No, Your Grace!"

"Notify Omicron Five of my decision and prepare this system for immediate sterilization at my command should we face hasty departure. Does that sufficiently allay your concerns, my splendid Kaspar?"

"Yes, given your choice, Your Grace."

"Yes, Kaspar. My choice and my responsibility. Now we shall all touch simultaneously to resonate our harmonious accord. Remember, strife feeds the swarm. Need I say more?"

Three 'No, Your Grace' replies immediately resounded in the royal chamber, and the participants formed a small circle and simultaneously touched...

* * *

During lunch, Jeremy wolfed down his food, pausing ingestion only long enough to decline an invitation to play baseball with his older brothers at the neighboring farm. Still chewing the last bite of his hot dog, Jeremy jumped up, clearing his plate and silverware off the table.

He carried his utensils to the sink and loaded them into the dishwasher, then he dashed out the back door and down the back porch steps, halting with his bare feet planted comfortably in green grass and sunshine long before the screen door slammed shut.

As Jack and Jason waved goodbye, riding their baseball-gear laden bicycles along the white-post-and-rail fenced driveway, Jeremy casually sauntered toward the old oak tree and his temporarily abandoned ant-obstacle course while keeping a watchful weather-eye peeled for sister Jenny.

But Jeremy worried needlessly, because from the comfort of her upstairs bedroom window, Jenny already had decided just before lunch that Jeremy could keep his mud. Yuk! No sticky, filthy muck for Jenny! Even hassling him about her sand shovel and pail could wait. Jenny had other, more important, after lunch plans! She was the only one in the family to have seen the large, black, blimp-like object descending from the sky and disappearing directly behind the trees, a real mystery right across the cornfield that begged investigation...

When Jeremy arrived and sat down cross-legged at his after lunch headquarters, he discovered that his ant-quicksand lake had retrograded into a viscous ant-tar pit, so he added more water to his dammed, miniature lake and retrieved his rinsed silver utensils.

Concentrating on lake restoration, he ignored another sunlight theft as a large shadow darkened the border of his ant-kingdom and slid silently toward him.

Behind him his mother screamed!

Jeremy jumped up and spun around. He screamed too, unable to move as a giant ant closed in on him from less than twenty feet away.

Suddenly a blue light flashed, and the ant's head separated from its thorax.

The huge insect collapsed and thrashed against the ground, but the ant's large head kept coming, bouncing to a halt beside Jeremy, one quivering, stiff-bristled antenna touching his bare leg.

Released from his paralysis, Jeremy screamed again and leaped away from the head, grabbing his leg where the twitching antenna had touched his bare skin. He stood still, watching in trembling horror as the giant ant's large mandibles mindlessly opened and closed.

Beyond the dead ant Jeremy's mother had fainted dead-away on the back porch.

"Hey there, Jeremy! No worries, mate," said a voice from the bushes right beside him. "Easy does it, lad. The bug's done for"

Jeremy rubbed his eyes and stared hard at the bushes, but the only intruder he could see was the giant, headless ant, still twitching on the grassy lawn.

Suddenly, a helmeted, kneeling man, wearing a uniform with fuzzy, undefined edges and pulsing with thousands of tiny, dimly flashing lights, materialized in the bushes right beside Jeremy!

After raising the glowing, opaque visor that covered his ruddy face, the big soldier smiled.

"There!" he said. "I've turned down my camouflage, so you can see who it is you're talkin' to. Relax Jeremy! My uniform won't be familiar, but we're on the same side."

"What is that? Who are you?" demanded Jeremy, punctuating each word by stabbing his forefinger toward the dead ant on the lawn.

"Lad, that giant ant is our enemy for sure, yours and mine. Me, I'm Jaylen Special Forces Sergeant Tip O'Shale at your service. Friends call me Red. Sorry for not steppin' out into the sunshine for a proper introduction, but my buddies and I are keepin' a very low profile with our new toys -- invisible, you might say -- until our big surprise party, or else these giant ants will try to zap this place. They don't know it yet, but we've won. Spooked 'em right into our waiting net, we did!

"Why don't you fetch your sister out of the cornfield and then go help your mom? Your dad and brothers are safe next door. Have everyone stay indoors. We've made most of your planet's buildings invisible to the giant ants. So get inside, and leave the show to us! I know your sister Jenny's a pain, but, take my word, she'll grow out of it. Take care of her! Once, long ago, I had a wee darlin' sister named Jenny . . ."


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