The insistent squawk of his comlink roused Captain Jet Topeka from a deep sleep. Questions crowded his groggy mind, starting with why he was lying face down on a city sidewalk.
Despite the sharp pains in his abdomen, he sat up from the hard cement. He craned his neck to see a blur of people rushing past him in the midst of a bustling city. Topeka pinched the bridge of his nose, and pulled himself up to his knees. An elusive memory taunted him, just out of reach. What … what was he….
But the comlink’s relentless nagging robbed him of the peace of mind he needed to clear his mind. With one final push he rose to his feet and engaged the device embedded in the right forearm of his hazmat suit. His croaking voice barely rose to the occasion.
“Topeka,” he said.
“Hold for Colonel Kraath,” said a meek voice.
In the silence that followed, the Captain wrestled with the thought that “Kraath” was a Tellurian name. The raspy voice that eventually greeted him offered no reassurance on that point.
“Captain Topeka!” it said. “Colonel Kraath. I hope you and your crew enjoyed your vacation on Synthral 3.”
“Vacation?” asked Topeka. “Sir, we were sent here on a rescue mission. Excuse me, but what division are you with? I don’t recognize….”
“You don’t recognize an officer of the Tellurian Empire?” said Kraath. “What? Is the Holthvarnian brandy stronger out in the colonies?”
“Tellurian?” asked Topeka. “You mean….”
“I mean you’re looking at a court martial on two counts,” said the Tellurian. “Commandeering a fleet ship for a joy ride and inciting an entire battalion to mutiny.”
“But….” said the human.
“Enough!” Kraath shouted. “A patrol unit is within ten meters of your position. You’re coming home, ‘Captain.’ You have some … painful … questions to answer.”
“Questions?” asked Topeka.
The Tellurian’s voice softened.
“Come along now,” he said. “Who put you up to this stunt? Tell me the truth and it will go easier for you.”
“I … I had my orders from EarthGov,” said the human.
“Idiot!” Kraath shouted again. The comlink went dead and Topeka felt a pair of gloved hands clamp down on his shoulders, followed by the sting of an injection at the base of his skull. Though still conscious, he went limp and fell into the arms of a tall Tellurian sergeant, whose snake-like skin made his stomach heave.
“Just when we think they can’t get crazier,” she said.
“Never mind that, Sergeant,” said her superior. “You owe me a thousand credits. You told me the humans would never rebel.” “OK, Lieutenant,” said the Sergeant. “Don’t rub it in.”
By now, Topeka was bound hand and foot and lying in a fetal position in the back of an AI-controlled Tellurian ground car. As it rolled off toward what he assumed was a spaceport, Topeka tried to piece together what had happened.
“The Setrillren,” his weary mind told him.
Apparently, reversing the nanobot attack on Cortez 3 had also reversed humanity’s defeat of the Tellurian invasion — three hundred years earlier. Though he was relieved not to have been transformed into a species of alien bovine by Tellurian nanobots, it was hard to see how subjugating all of humanity was an improvement.
“Revered Entity,” Topeka’s mind reached out. “Will we take our homeworld back again?”
As before, the Setrillren’s voice took a moment to coalesce.
“Fear not, Fragile One,” it said in his mind. “You have witnessed the power of nanobot weaponry, have you not?”
The auto car stopped and the two patrol officers pulled the human’s limp body out onto a loading dock, A team of medical workers lifted Topeka onto a gurney, which they pushed into a glowing, green-tiled sphere, A stern administrator looked on, dressed in long robes of a blue, leathery material.
“This one’s going to Colonel Kraath,” said the patrol leader.
“Change in orders,” said the administrator. “The humans are shipping out to a detox center on Alchiazar Base. SciTech says this colony is crawling with pathogens. You two: report to Sick Bay. Aside from you field ops, everyone on the mission has already been vaccinated. Go quietly and I won’t have to drag you through the ship by your heels.”
“Real sweet of you, Sir,” said the patrol leader. As she and her sergeant approached Sick Bay she was startled by the sound of inconsolable sobbing that emanated from an exam room on her left.
“I’m … I’m human now!” a plaintive voice wailed. “Doc, don’t leave me like this! Just get those nanobots out of me!”
(To be continued)
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