Captain Bastable and the Sky Cat
By James Cochran
A dime novel (or penny dreadful), as printed in the Punjoob Times.
He stands and strikes the wall with his fist. This is where his brother died. Even now, after so much, it was hard, hard for him to believe Tim was truly dead. Timothy, his brother, his friend, dead, killed by a… a... a statue? The world has gone so bonkers of late new religions, gates, orange monks, ray weapons, all bumping into this and... and... so confusing.... he strikes the wall again, and notes the brown stains left by his brother's death. Dead, dead and for what? No one will ever really know, the tales spread, misinformation is given out by all. The truth is out there he thinks, Timothy died saving the lives of many with Clive. A hero they say, he died a hero. What would Jon Huss do?
This rock wall is real, his hand hurts, as is the damp darkness that closes down around him with a cloying sense of despair. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a locket, a locket that was his brother's contains a small piece of shaped greenish stone, now his star stone.
“Bastable? I say Bastable, terribly sorry about Tim, he was a friend, a good man, I shall pray for him.” said Father Lorne, a Taboric Knight, and the squad's medic, as he walked up with a hand torch. "This is a gloomly place, a-what?"
"Here now", bellowed Sgt. Ravston, "Men stike up some more torches". Sgt. Ravston of the Legion, Artillery, and light is brought forth. The gloom recedes. The squad, 10 heavlily armed men, rolling a light piece (6lb Empress Oniko) for jollies are not happy to be underground either. Sgt Ravston is not pleased, no not pleased at all to be in these tunnels. Too many tales have been told.
Oswald looks at them, as if seeing them for the first time. "Okay survey team, time to earn the Company's paycheck let's move out". The Company has set us task, let's be about it." stated Bastable. Having said his piece he brushes by Father Lorne and heads down the side tunnel. The gloom recedes before the light.
"Gawd's there is friggen miles of these tunnels Captain Bas, ah... sir", complained PFC O'Casey. "No, more like ARFEN miles that's it, ARFEN miles of them."
"Oh come now O'Casey we have only been at this for what 2 hours" sighed Bastable.
The troop had been mapping the tunnels for maybe three hours, with no end in sight. The ancient workmanship still quite remarkably serviceable, the silence was deafening. Down, always these tunnels sloped, Bastable estimated there were at least one hundred meters below the surface by now, that was just an idea though. Periodically side tunnels would open, and two squad members would be detached to wander down them apiece, most ended after 50 yards or so, others stretched out for what seemed forever to the disgruntled grunts.
"I dare say Captain Bastable, but who do we think built these warrens?" asked Lt. Gillon.
"No one knows, we're to investigate the location, and come up with answers, that's according to my orders from Thess", stated Captain Bastable.
"Hello, what's this? The squad comes to a halt before a intersection and a large set of double doors. While the team had come across other doors earlier, this one. This door has mystery writ large upon it's very being. What could be behind it?
“Wow will you look at this" exclaimed O'Casey as he walked up to the barrier, and...... died. Horribly.
As the young man stepped closer to the door a pair of giant spears transfixed him from either side then withdrew casting the soldier to the pavement where he rapidly bled out his life. There was nothing his friends could do but pull him away.
"Whoa, did anyone see where Rus stepped before the spears gottim," asked Lt. Gillon. "Careful, don't go anywhere near that thing Captain".
Bastable had stopped about 10 feet away from the door, doors now that he looked closer at them, also he noted amongst O'Casey's blood that there were several squares marked on the floor. Clearly Rus O'Casey's final step had triggered the monstrous trap which killed him. This door was going to be opened, but how? He snapped his finger, and called out.
"Bring on the Empress boyos she's going to open this for us." A trained artillery crew is a marvel to watch, soon the 6lb. was readied to fire. "Nothing left but the crying", thought Bastable, as he gave a nod to Sgt. Ravston, who stuck the match to the firing hole. With a deafening roar the cannon fired at point-blank range and....did nothing, it did not punch a hole through the doors, the ball struck a something, a force and ....well, rolled back towards the shocked squad.
"What in bloodly hell was that." cried Lance Coporal Goodkin.
"Never seen anything like that before, even back in the deadlands around Venice when we was there," declared Gillon.
"Okay, fine that didn't work, thoughts, anyone?" enquired Bastable. " Right, this door has killed one of us, I mean to have it opened. "Sgt. Ravston, speaking of the deadlands, let's break out our toy shall we?"
A look of happy anticipation descends upon all the men as Sgt Ravston undoes his backpack and pulls forth the Deadlands weapons. During the campaign in Europe, where record breaking amounts of ammunition was expended, some trophies were taken. This was one them, a warty ovoid device is made of some unidentifiable black metal covered with bizarre circuitry that almost appears to be laid out in an arcane pattern.
"Oh yeah Captain Bas, time to rock" exclaimed Private Paladin Blake.
" Stand back lads," warned Ravston.
With that, the wily Ravston stepped up about 20 feet from the door, clutched the space weapon in just the right way, it began to glow, as did the stone around Bastable neck, not that he noticed, a high pitched whine began to growl from the gun, and before your say, "Bob's your uncle". A bluish bolt of sparks lept from it and smote the valve before them. A desparate spray of electrical discharge flowed along the force protecting the doors causing the squad to duck back, but the force guarding the doors blinked out.
Moments later with a mighty roar the Empress Oniko crashes again and this time the doors are laid low. Beyond the now ruined doors a large chamber stretches out, a staircase rises into the inky blackness on the left side. This chamber is also occupied with boxes, brick and brack and cases, and cans, aisles of them.
"Careful where you step, let's see what we've found here". as Bastable orders the team forward.
"Funny, no one. else found this before hand, what with all the work the Company spent on the underground pool area, and the submarine works, eh Captain?" impined Specialist Sor Teb.
" Who knows, Sor?" "Doesn't look like anyone has been here in years, replied Bastable".
"Okay, let's look alive squad, this looks like a place to do some work, break off in pairs, but everyone stay in sight and hearing of another team. Let's try and get an idea what's here and not lose anybody to more traps.
Walking carefully around the squares that caused the death of the young trooper O'Casey they entered the chamber and spread out amongst the clutter. Weapons, from firearms to ancient armor all carefully stored away for future use, who did this? Several of the boxes seem to hold ancient weapons, some of Greek origin, maybe Alexandrian, or the Bactrian Kingdom. There is the odd piece of crossbows, bows, arrows, and bolts, some which to the eye held an inner glow. Father Lorne takes up a crossbow and bolts. Everyone helps themselves to a choice weapon, with swords and cutlass' being preferred. Lt. Gillon finds a firearm which looks to be a shotgun of sorts and some ammo.
Gee, maybe there will be real treasure as well? With renewed vigor they spread out with dreams of a maharajah's crache just waiting for them.
Sgt. Ravston and Sor Teb, branched up the stairs abit but returned when it's obvious that the chamber and stairs ascend a long ways. From their high vantage point they direct the adventurers towards round set of doors set in floor of the room. A set of doors with something laying upon them. As the team nears these inlaid round doors they discover a statue laid out on the floor, over the large circular doors, with outstretched arms. The statue, some sort of Runic Guardian depicts a humanoid figure of an armed and armored monkey, it has a bluish glean to it.
"Shit, another of these," bemoans Oswald as he comes near. As he nears the reclining statue his green stone shines forth with a burst of light, and as if called by it the statue begins to move. A well trained fire team, Bastable's boys unleash fire upon the hapless combatant as it begins to move towards them with a slow methodical purpose.
Round upon round strike the monkey and hurl it backwards only to see it rise up again as their fire. Lt. Gillon's new scattergun has placed a large hole, to his surprise in the creature's side. They back away from its menacing approach. The shots have ripped its armor up, and several rents can be seen, but on it comes.
Thinking quickly Sgt. Ravston unleashes the spark gun and the stream of electricity leaps forth and sprays on it. Stunned, the monkey stands there as the current runs over, around, and through, with a blurt it falls forward landing hard in front of the startled group, as sparks continue to play along it's frame.
"Thank you Sgt. Ravston, that was well done". compliments the Captain. "Satchel charge I believe is in order now Private Blake.”
“See to it,” orders the Sargeant.
Immediately Blake draws forth his kit and rummaging for the charges he has brought. “Do you think that will bring down the doors the monkey was sleeping on, Captain?” asks Blake.
Gillon looking at the doors, replies, "Try to set it so the blast will strike down mostly, these doors would seem to open that way."
"Beggin pardon sirs, but how about just pushing this button here, maybe that will do it?" questions Coporal Goodkin.
Crowding around the team look at the button in question is attached to a small pedestal standing up from the floor. A thing that had not been there before the defeat of the Runic Guardian. Nothing else would appear to be an opening mechanism. So with a hunching of his shoulders Bastable directs Goodkin to go ahead. Which he does.
At first nothing seems to occur, then with a slow rumble the doors begin to slide into the flooring revealing a large dark pit, the team's torch light just barely illuminating below. A craft of sorts is seen standing on the floor below, something akin to a small scout zeppelin, but without the apparent gas sack. The floor now continues to rumble as an elevator system rises the vessel to the now hastily scattering team.
The obvious door, with a 3 step ladder is near the rear of the vessel and is slightly ajar. As if beckoning, the hatch looks tantalizing easy to open and enter. Lock and loading, the team surrounds the opening, and Captain Bastable indicates that Goodkin should be the first to enter. Proving once again, that no good deed goes unpunished.
The Corporal inches his way to a towards the ladder and using his rifle opens the door as he leaps back. Nothing happens. The cliché ‘silent as the tomb’ comes to mind as peering inward Bastable and company scan the interior of small entry room, say 5 by 5 with another hatch beyond. Nothing for it then, Goodkin still in the lead advances then to the second door and finds it unlocked. Nerving himself, he reaches forward, edging closer, he then jumps with fright as he stepped on a panel and the door slowly recedes into the wall, lights come-on throughout the part of the craft in which he stands. A slow small trickle of liquid appears on the floor next to the corporal.
"Sir, I don't think I can go any farther", bemoans the startled kid. "That's okay Paladin, come on out, someone else can take point from here," directs Captain Bastable.
The interior of craft is like nothing the platoon has seen before. There are gagets and whatnots strewn everywhere, tables and chairs, counters, readouts,port holes. Readouts, but nothing is familar and yet all is seemingly comprehensible, it's not even Greek. Oh what a disaster waiting to happen thinks Bastable as he to steps up into the compartment, curiousity getting the better of him.
"First off, nobody push any buttons, okay, " firmly commands the good Captain.
"Sir, best take a lookie at this, I think we found the owner", cries Sor Teb. Before him, seated in a massive cushioned chair near the front of the craft are the skeletal remains of, "What in bloodly hell is that, sir? It looks to have been bi-pedal, but what sort of cat walks on two legs, for the head is definitely cat-like, but criikee look at these teeth, what kind of cat was this?" And look at this clothes, what kind oh cat wears a that?"
The remains are clothed in a what appears to be a set of one-piece all covering material with a light yellow sheen, a dagger is sheathed on it's left and what at first glance a pistol of sorts is holstered on the right. The crossbow bolt sticking out of the chest area the most likely cause of untimely death for this......person?
"Rakshasa sahib, rakshasa," repeats Coporal Chullander in superstitious dread, a native born Indian, he oftens relates tales to the lads to while away the time. Tales of this and that, tales of more terrible and scary India. India today is a violent crazed land, but well, fairy tales have a habit of being based in truth here.
"It's for sure dead, whatever it was", exclaimes Father Lorne as he nudges it with the cross bow he stills carries.
"Rakshasa or not, I wonder how it all came to be here in this down below", speculates Lt. Gillon. "And what shall we do with all this? The Company will no doubt wish to learn all it can here, sir, bonus' all around I should think lads, I like me money that's for sure".
"Right, well let's be about it then," bestiring himself back to command, Captain Bastable begins a survey of the craft and it's contents while also directing a team to set up a perimeter guard outside the craft.
A quick trip through the vessel reveals that there about six chambers all in all: the main command area, two private cabins, a communal head, galley, and a large storage area. No other remains are discovered. That done, the team begins to do the tricky work of minutely examining the interior.
"What shall we do with the cat, sir" inquires Sgt. Ravston.
"I guess we can move it outside, sure why not", replies Bastable. "Move it with respect. Johnny".
"Got you there, sir" affirms the good Sgt. “Blake, Teb, go grap a crate lid and let's move this out of here.” intones the non-com.
Turning to the remains Ravston begins to see how it can be moved while the others continue looking through the vessel. Thinking to himself, I guess the bolt will have to come out then, otherwise it stays stuck to the chair.
Soon the two soldiers return with some boarding for a temporary stretcher and the respectfully move the bones piece by piece to it, the bolt falls out during this transfer. Blake and Teb gingerly move down the length of the vessel and out, as the move through the hatch with their burden a soft chime sounds near the bow of the craft. Everyone ducks, as many lights come on throughout the craft and slight humming sound, which slowly increases in volume, is heard near the rear.
"Shit, I told you all not to touch nothing," yells an outraged Bastable.
"We didn't sir, it was when the boys carried out them bones that everything started up, maybe there was some start-up gizmo on the clothes the thing was wearing" answered Lt. Gillon.
"Maybe this ship has a get go kind of like those statues react to your starstone", opined the good friar.
"Well, no matter what we don't know nothing about this vessel, grap papers and or books anything that looks like it might be a logbook then everybody off!" firmly commands Bastable.
Dutifully the remaining team members disembark after a brief salvage operation. Meanwhile, "Cat" as Sgt Ravston has started calling the ship continues what can only be called a power up phase as the amazed team members stand gawkingly about. Lights have come on throughout the vessel's interior and various ones outside as well, dull rumbling is heard far above the group and a shaft of light suddenly descends into the gloomly cavern. This sends the team running for cover as stuff from high above falls towards them.
Thank you Captain you have freed my spirit. I can now rest, in peace as some would say, whispered an etheral voice in Captain Bastable's mind.
"What who said that?" Demanded the startled officer.
"No one said anything sir", replied Chullander.
I wish to reward you Captain Oswald Bastable of the Hussite Legion, continued the whisperer. Suddenly where Lt. Gillon stands near the cat remains there is sudden glow then a small blast of heated air, and all that remains of the skelton is a skull, a gleaming metallic sheen to it.
Startled the crew gatheres round, curiousity getting the upper hand over a soldier's caution.
Pick it up, and return to the ship, suggests the other worldly voice.
As in a dream Bastable reaches down to pick up the skull, but before he can retrieve the artifact Friar Loren bowls him over.
"My pardon Captain, but what the hell are you doing? This is a little to strange to be handling, least of all without gloves, I should say," declares the Cleric.
"Hey, why did you do that? What are we all doing here, what happened?" a sheepish Bastablle replies.
"Come on Captain", replies Sor Teb, "You was taking about somebody saying something then this here thing shows up".
"Someone said we were to be rewarded for releasing a spirit, I was to return this to the ship" states Oswald in a meek response.
Men of the Legion, I am Lior, intoned the thought. And all could hear. You have freed me, for this before I sleep I wish to reward you.
"Rakshasa, rakshasa, rakshasa," repeats a very scared Chullander as he backs away from the skull, "Leave it ,it is death", he hisses.
He is wrong, chimed Lior, I mean you no harm, here is my reward, this place, these things, this ship, "Oba Rahl", I shall teach you how to fly it, with it you may journey home.
"Home"? queried Lt. Gillon,"India is home, what home do you speak of?"
Why Mars of course Sustus Gillon, returned Lior.
"Mars?" a stunned group of soldiers stood dazed as they all shared an ancestral memory, or dream of a once lush verdant landscape that was slowly dying for no known reason. Ships, large and small, many ships ferrying a fleeing people, and what people, humans and cat like folk, giants, elf-like beings, and many others all boarding ships, or walking through gates, to carry many away from Mars.
Yes Mars, our ancestral home, it still lives, not as it was, but still enough to support many. Lior answered, Return this object to the ship, I shall reveal all.
"No trickster", growled Corporal Chullander, still remembering the tales of his youth, "you would enslave us, as you enslaved my people in earlier times, no Captain, have it tell all now".
Overcoming his awe at speaking with an animate skull, "Very well, tell us Lior, and tell us no lies, less we name you Liar instead," queried the good Captain.
Oswald Bastable and the Fire Tower
"Yes, I will make it so for you Captain", replied Lior.
Then, a veritable flood of images transfix the men and they all stand in shocked awe. Several panoramic vistas of "Sullus Gillon", space, stars, sailing the solar winds, an Earth much removed from present day, the inner dynamics and runnings of "Oba Ruhl". These and more stream through the enraptured consiouseness of Bastable's unit there deep in the heart of Schwarzcastel. Some, collapse as their minds are consumed by the datastream, submerged in knowledge beyond their ken. A few thrive, they gaze about when it ends, slowly emerging from the ephemeral experience, where to start?
"Load the ship" commands Bastable.
"Aye Captain" was the reply of the four remaining team members, Gillon, Father Lorin, an astounded Chullander, and Sor Teb. They all jump to step and fetch, their paths taking them without error to crates with titles they now read. This crew now only struggles to load needed items, the rest is so much, well just so much, loot, what have you, from a previously raped enslaved land.
Meanwhile Bastable does an about face and enters the vessel. He strides to the command deck and places Lior on a pedestal. The sphere like object adheres to the surface it's inner glow pulsating from it. More systems awaken throughout the ship. Oswald turns as he hears the hatch sealing behind him.
"Sytems check, stand by for launch", he coms.
Sitting down on a cushioned chair nearby, Sor Teb acknowledges the Captain's command continues a preflight he neverknew he knew before this day.
Throughout "Oba Ruhl" the Hussite survivors go about tasks unthinkable from their earlier experience. Father Lorin, for example, sits at a console, and calls up with a series of keystokes a view of the ship's exterior and does a, "oh boy", weapons check. Chullander and Gillon seat themselves as well, they touch consoles in meaningful ways and make acknowledgements to Oswald.
When all is done," Engage", commands the Captain.
With a rumbling felt throughout the ship and the cavernous enclosure the ship slowly rises up from it's eons long rest. It's engines roaring to hot life and with slow majestic lift, "Oba Ruhl" begins to climb up the chimmey long closed, now open above her.
"Have I lied to you Captain?", questions Lior.
"No, I see things now, soon we shall take you back to Sullus Gillon," replies Bastable.
When the lip of chimmey is breached, a shocked populace of a smoldering city witness the real meaning of "Black Tower" as a thing of fire and smoke emerges from the towering ruin of the fortress and slowly rises into the evening sky.
Above, the highest of the moon-silvered clouds form sweeping stairways and balconies below the stars. The stars, which beckon the young Albanian merchant. A grin firmly affixed, Oswald orders his crew and ship to gain altitude and they soar into the twlight.
"Captain, we have unfriendlies to starboard,"suddenly coms a bewildered Lorin. "How did I know that", he questiones. It seems the launch was noted by others as well.
“A Night Among The Clouds”
The sun sank into grey mist, the sky flushed and darkened, the evening star trembled into sight. It was deep twilight when Bakke cried out and pointed. Bastable strained his eyes. Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness, rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the Indian sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve.
“This can't be good, Captain”, lamented Bakke.
“No, I think your right on that one, evasive action helm”, commanded Bastable.
The Oba Ruhl heeled over and began a dance. She is a swift ship, the Oba and while not accustomed to air battle, her crew had danced with the devil a time or two. Time seemed to contract, and strange little memories are fixed forever in one's mind. The strong determined gaze of the gunner, Bakke. A gleam of ecstasy on Bastable's face as he ordered the guns fired. Sickening shame from Gillon as what little food was left to him he vomits away as our ship heaves, rolls, and dives to stay one step out of the way of the enemies’ lightning weapon.
Bastable found himself in constant effortless communion with Lior. The melding was thorough, the ship and crew responded to his commands as veterans. The stars rolled past in the night's brilliance as a lance of light, dazzling in nature barely missed his ship. His returned fire, twin light lances also missed. The ships continue to climb, dive, barrel roll left then right. Loops and spins, the dancer’s fence across the sky. Each knowing that from this match there will be only one. A silent death waited in the night sky above Schwarzcastel in quiet anticipation of that's evening's meal.
Again and again the twin beams of the Oba reached forth for the Martian only to miss, barely, but miss they did. The Martian’s return fire streaked in and would have seared our craft but for the instinctual maneuvers of Chullander at the helm.
Rapture, the steely gaze of a raptor as it's stoops on it's prey, this is how Bastable will remember the final salvo and the fierce, prideful look on Bakke's face as Chullander looped in behind the Martian and he fired. A vast ball of flame envelopes the enemy, a thunderous thunder which rolls across us is the best way to detail the dance's end. The Martian ceased to exist, we lived. Mankind's first small victory in a global war.
An unprovoked war of conquest between worlds for which we humans find ourselves unprepared. Why, why have the Martians brought this hell to Earth? Perhaps Sullus Gillon will provide the answers muses Oswald.
“Well done men,” compliments the Captain, “Helm, if you please, second star to the right, straight on till morning, take me to Mars.”
From the Personal Log of Captain Bastable
I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.
E.R.B, "A PRINCESS OF MARS"
Mars has a diversity of terrain fully equivalent to that of Earth. In broad terms, the world is divided into ancient seabeds, the vast deserts, the craggy mountain ranges, and the polar icecaps. The most salient fact of the red planet however, is the lack of rainfall.
This red planet is populated by many races and what I would call alien forms. There are giant many armed green men, down to the human scale redman of Mars and on to some beings to horrible and maddening to name or mention. War has shaped Mars, wars over scare resources have plunged the planet's civilizations into a mere shadows of their former selves.
The Martian atmosphere is a breathable one and is very similar to Earth's. It is very dry, there is complete lack of humidity, which reflects the overall dryness of the entire red planet.
Mars has a diameter of 4200 miles and a surface area of 55.4 million square miles. Thus only 25 percent of the surface area of Earth. Mars is much smaller than Earth, it's surface gravity is also less. A 200 pound man on Earth would weigh about 125 pounds on Mars. Physically challenging acts on Earth, can become acts of grace and ease under Martian skies.
I close my logbook aboard the "Oba Ruhl" and gaze outward. It has been two weeks since we landed on Mars. Days filled with wonder and terror, agony and joy.
Little did I know that when I told our helmsman Chullander to set a course, "second star to the right, and straight on till morning", just what we had got ourselves into. Lior was no help, he was only interested in returning to his ancestral home. A home we would come to find was much changed from the one he had left.
"Captain Bastable", begin Lior, "Martian Civilization is over 30,000 years old. You men of Earth have only just arrived. You must conclude that you have only scratched the surface of this ancient planet's history".
Truer words could not have been spoken. As our ponder our situation I glance out upon the remains of a capital city of one those civilizations, "Syrtis Major" Lior's ancestral home.
There is some chance of finding water in this god forsaken place. We have been exploring buildings near our current landing site for days now. One comes upon potable water in the most uncanny of places. Water is life on Mars. For Mars today is an alien landscape which confronts us, one which is quiet, save only the sound of the wind moaning through the ruins of this once great city.
We have made several discoveries during our initial forays.
Lior tells us that where our ship now sits is just below the imperial palace of Seldon III, Warlord of all Mars. The palace consists of one large edifice and several support buildings, the site appeared at first to be quite ordinary and stunning in its own way.
I am on Mars after all. Our discovery of the secret passageways under the complex was quite by accident. While seeking water, Chullander discovered a cistern and this led to the further discovery of passages filled with mind-blasting murals. These murals seem to depict the arrival of indescribable creatures to Mars about 10,000 years ago and the subsequent battles of the Martian peoples against these horrors.
The end seems to be still contestable. I pull out my starstone out of my vest pocket and rub its smoothness, it is a comfort.