SHORT STORY: “PRIDE OF THE FLEET”

Posted: May 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

A few readers have informed me that my short stories are—to put it politely—“oversexed.” I’m not particularly concerned. When often accused of the same label, John Updike replied: “Everyone’s interested in sex.” And who’s going to argue with him? But there’s another reason a few of these tales may appear overly titillating (what genius concocted that word!): some of them were written in my relative youth and published in what were referred to back then as “men’s magazines.” I was asked to be sexy. Hey, I was young, and as Marilyn Monroe once modestly confessed: “I needed the money.” At least I was in good company; while I was churning out verbiage for a poor man’s Playboy called Escapade, some kid named Stephen King was simultaneously stomping the vineyards of the slightly classier Cavalier with his own early fiction. The following yarn, however sexy, has a different genesis altogether, and a different pedigree for that matter. I was approached in 1977 by Zebra Books editor Andrew Offutt to contribute something to a collection of original sword and sorcery tales entitled Swords Against Darkness, Vol. 1. That I was not invited back for Vol. 2 may owe not a little to the fact I hadn’t the least idea what a sword and sorcery story was– as you’ll soon see. But I had read some Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy as a kid. So, ever plucky, I plunged blindly ahead with the genre-tangled anomaly below. Maybe the best thing about the whole Swords project was the cover art by legendary Frank Frazetta–that and sharing space with fantasy icons like Poul Anderson and Manly Wade Wellman. I can say with unabashed accuracy that of all my scribbling through the years, this story holds the dubious honor as the one most reprinted. After the Zebra book outing, it appeared in comic book form– issue number six of the BJA sci-fi title Alien Worlds. At the time I was writing all the stories for the comic—four per issue–and simply ran out of steam. Yes, I stole from myself. With Frank Brunner’s illustrative help, the tale turned out rather well in graphic story form, I think, though I’m not sure it’s science fiction. Not long afterwards (probably not long enough) the tale appeared again in a now out-of-print paperback collection of my stories called Twisted Tales. To some a collector’s item now, the book boasted a cover and several interior illustrations by ole pal Richard Corben. All this was made more confusing because Twisted Tales is also the title of another line of BJA comics partner April Campbell and I were packaging for San Diego publisher Pacific Comics. Whew! At any rate (as Robert Bloch’s agent always said) now, at long last, the poor, tattered, homeless story has a final resting place under the tediously long foreward in this blog. But wait, there’s more! As stated below, if these yarns prove popular, I’ll doubtless include it in a brand new, refurbished collector’s edition of Twisted Tales in ebook form! So you see, kids, if you want to be a really-for-real professional writer, always be ambivalent. But most of all learn to think green—recycle! And maybe you too can endlessly torture a beleaguered reading public with the likes of something as unceasingly ubiquitous as:

 

 

                                             PRIDE OF THE FLEET

                                                 __________________________

                                                             Bruce Jones 

 

The Colifax she wore at her girdle, and she didn’t like it. It pulled the wrong way. It hurt. It looked ugly.

The stunner she had thrown away hours ago. She could always claim later she’d lost it in the tangled underbrush. It would cost her, of course, but she’d rather pay a fine than be humiliated by the presence of a common gun. She would have thrown away the Colifax too, even earlier, but it happened to be worth several million credits base value and even more than that to the prestige of Colony Six and its commander; if she had any intention of staying with the Fleet, she’d better hang onto that particular piece of hardware.

All right, she’d put up with the damn thing. Even if it did get in her way, slow her down and (most importantly) unforgivably disfigure her sexy, newly designed combat uniform. She’d suffer through.

But damned if she’d use it. She’d flit through this mission in record time, bring back her man without a scratch (to either of them) and collect her credits and medals. And she didn’t need any so-called cutting-edge techno-gadget to accomplish it. Dangers? Of course. Threats? To be sure. There were always those. But she’d run into them before, in more jungles on more planets than she could remember. She could handle it. Handle it well.

She had her sword.

Ah. Her sword.

She touched it now, lightly, on the jeweled hilt as she stepped over the next moss-laden log, and couldn’t suppress a smile of pride tugging her lovely cheek. Now here was a sword!

The uniform may have been for show, true; the flaming hair, moisture-gloss lips, black choker and diamond slippers, pure eye-candy, all for effect. Granted. Even the elegant sweep and flamboyant design of the blade itself may have been opulently histrionic—but that’s where the similarity ended. Once that ivory hand wrapped around that ebon grip and the blinding sabre length sang from its scabbard, all the tinsel ended, all the glitter vanished.

She was lightning, she was whirlwind, she was blinding blur—everywhere her opponent should have been just one nth of a second before he got there—all slash and gleam and terrible wind-screaming death was she. Until her combatant got dizzy just watching, just absorbing this wondrous dervish– probably never felt the incredible razor incisions even after the ground was soaking red under him and his knees were buckling of their own accord. Oh she was good. She was the best. Sex distinction notwithstanding. In a word: unbeatable.

She knew it too. Enjoyed the reputation and attentive awe that went with it. Men were at once intensely enamored with and terrified of her. She simply could not be bested with a sword—not at Colony Six, anyway, and in a place where the men outnumbered the women three to one…well, it made for an interesting career.

They were all in love with her; all the men and many of the women. She was beautiful, exotic, talented, lethal. It’s easy to love people like that. Even the Colony Commander wasn’t immune; him with his stuffy little paneled office and his stuffier little shirt…

* * *

“Come in, Sheffield, yes…”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sit down, please.” My God, is THAT her uniform! Is she running around the halls like that?

“I prefer to stand, thank you, sir.” It shows me off better.

“As you wish.” >ahem!< “Now, as you’ve no doubt heard, we’ve got an AWOL as of last night, Sheffield. A cadet…uh…papers and name here somewhere…”

“’Leakwood,’ sir.”

“‘Leakwood,’ yes. Cadet Leakwood.  AWOL as of 0730. Our first AWOL in seven years. Seven years, Sheffield. The first ever on my watch. I don’t like it. Don’t like it a bit. I want him back, do you understand? I want him alive. I want him disciplined. Do you understand me, Sheffield?”

“I do, sir.”

“It’s a blemish, Sheffield. You can appreciate that.”

She looked down a moment at her perfect arms, unblemished breasts. “Yes, sir.”

“We can rectify this thing, Sheffield. Cleanly. Efficiently. Without it getting upstream, if you take my meaning. We have the training, we have the technology. We’re one of the best, Sheffield, one of the very best. We don’t want a blemish like this on Colony record, on everything Fleet stands for.”

He cleared his throat, found himself staring at her torso without approval. “That…ah, uniform you’re wearing. Has it been officially recognized?”

“It has sir. I designed it myself. After the Princess Dejah Thoris.”

“The who?”

“Dejah Thoris, sir, a fictional creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs.”   

“Burroughs…”

“Twentieth Century novelist, sir. He’s all the rage now.”

“Is he now? Huh.” Furrowing of brow, shaking of head. “What they’re passing for regulation these days. Now, in my day, we… anyway, you’ll wear something else for this mission. Something less…revealing.”

“Sir, I prefer to go as I am. This is designed as a combat uniform.”

“Perhaps, Sheffield, but it’s hardly…I mean, your…bosom—it’s unprotected.”

“Bare breasts are quite common on Cylis 4 now, sir.”

“I’m aware of what is and isn’t vogue, Sheffield, but—“

“Sir, I believe my present uniform will afford me with the greatest amount of comfort, familiarity and physical dexterity for the mission, thereby serving as the best asset to my abilities.”

 

Clever, that speech. But then, she’d rehearsed it thirty or forty times before entering his office in anticipation of his remarks. Self-designed combat uniforms were more and more commonplace on Fleet soldiers now, but this one was almost too radical. Like everything else about her.

She smiled a confident little smile as she moved through the forest. Every female at Colony Six was jealous of her ability to handle the Commander. If they only realized how simple it was; how, under all the brass and bluff, he was just like all men. Weak.

Ahead and to the right a twig snapped.

Her smile broadened. She was on Leakwood’s trail to be sure; he had, in fact, made little attempt to conceal it. But an ambush in this clearing? Not likely. Leakwood just wasn’t the type. Besides, unless she’d missed her guess, Leakwood liked her.

It wasn’t surprising, then, to find a stranger confronting her when she rounded the next tree. What was surprising was to find a member of Fleet standing there. As far as she knew, Colony Six had exclusive privileges on this planet. Could this be another AWOL from another Colony?

She strode politely if confidently up to the man and took in his bearing in a single sweep of her lovely green eyes: tall, husky, yellow Fleet stripe on his arm (like hers), buccaneer pants and boots (very vogue these days), tank top, series seven sword, no stunner, unnaturally curly hair. This last item was egocentric. Any man who had his hair set regularly was obviously glued on himself; this one was probably into an Errol Flynn thing (also very vogue these days). It could be merely swagger, but then she was flamboyant as well—and she was good! It was always prudent to test, even when you were the best.

“Station?” It was the expected universal greeting.

“Colony Twelve.”

She didn’t like the way he said it: snobbish, self-important. She didn’t like what his mouth did when it formed the words. But she was on official business, in a hurry. She’d give him the benefit of the doubt. “I’m Sheffield, Colony Six. On Fleet Apprehension Orders. Do you wish to assist?”

“No.”

It was the way he said it again. Ohh, this one was a smartass all right. That conceited, jutting chin, patronizing air. Probably a sexist to boot. She knew she should get about her business, leave this jerk to himself, but she couldn’t help adding one last item. “Are you aware that this planet is restricted to Colony Six personnel?”

“Is that a fact?”

“What is your business here?”

“I came to bag a Rhunk. With my sword.”

With his sword. Cute. Stuck on at the end to let her know he didn’t need a stunner to kill a Rhunk. Ohh, a real smartass all right. She knew what reaction her next words would elicit and she said them anyway.

“That’s against Fleet law.”

He smiled, widening the smarmy conceit, and his hand touched his sword hilt as she knew it would. “And you’re going to report me,” he filled-in for her.

“Yes.”

“Klete!” It was what she expected, one of the universal words for ‘on guard’ always followed by the swift unsheathing of the challenger’s sword. There were other words, but “Klete’ was the most widely used. Either she followed suit now or faced ridicule.

“Hawn!” Her word. Ancient Oriental, like her fighting style. Neither was widely known and rarely practiced, which was why she chose them. Her sword literally sang from its scabbard—shiiinggg!—a result of the friction of twin blade sharpeners employed within her case. It wasn’t impossible to buy such a scabbard but they were known only to the elite.

His sword, she noticed made a sound like shuuunk. No sharpeners. He might be a prima donna but he wasn’t in her league.

She stepped in immediately, not wasting time, with a deliberately slowed English shoulder thrust, sacrificing style now to see what he could do. He parried nicely—anyone could have—but still, his movements were quite dexterous, even admirable. She pivoted next, went low and tried a Cyrnian volupe to the solar plexus. Again he blocked with ease, adding a quick counter slice when he leapt lightly back that was supposed to put her off balance. It didn’t, of course, but he was above average, definitely.

She played with him for a time, letting him get in some false scores until she knew his every strength and weakness. And, although the latter far outnumbered the former, she found him an exceptional swordsman with the potential to be even better—if he stopped spending all his time in the beauty salon. It would be a pity, she decided, to waste someone who could be an asset to Fleet.

She stepped back, clicked her heels together, and pointed her sword stiffly at the forest floor to her right. It mean either, I yield or Let’s reconsider. “You’re a fine swordsman. I don’t wish you harm. Leave the planet now and I see no reason to report you.”

The vain smile again. He thought she was bluffing out of fear. Oh, boy. There was just no help for this guy. All right then, she’d tried. The fun was over. She had to get back to work.

“Klete!” he answered and threw himself into an excessively ostentatious fighting pose.

Now it was her turn to smile. “Hawn,” she said calmly, and slowly, ever so slowly drew her sword level to and horizontal with her breasts. It was a maneuver she savored. They were splendid breasts; generous and round and pink-nipple firm. Few men could watch them and her sword simultaneously. He proved no exception.

Her next movement was so lightning-fast, he had only time to feel the breeze her John Carter blade made passing in front of him. He started to counter but she was frozen now at the completion of her turn, staring passively at his chest.

But she had missed! He was sure of it! He’d felt nothing! He glanced down at his chest.

The ribbons of crimson appeared magically across his tank top, delayed seconds by the impossible keenness of her blade. His mouth fell open. Before he could shut it again, she was behind him, wrist flicking ivory bright in the sun, sending the slashed tank top swishing from his body and over his head. Together they watched the material arc high into the air to drape neatly over a leafy branch.

When he whirled in humiliated fury to slash at her, she was gone, pirouetting gracefully to his right—no, to his left—no, no she was behind him again—pulling tentatively at his wide swashbuckler’s belt with the point of her weapon, then effortlessly slicing leather like butter to the ankles. The pants fell away like separate, faded petals. Then she feinted to the right—he followed, stumbling—and, leggings tangling his ankles now, crashed in an inglorious heap as she’d planned. He had to let go of his sword to prevent impaling himself.

She kicked the sword away and struck the point of her own blade beneath his terrified chin. His Adam’s apple convulsed once and he was suddenly swimming in sweat.

“Up!”

He obeyed immediately, propelled airlessly to his tiptoes by the stinging tip of the magic sword. She stood grinning at his nakedness, letting the razor point trace a tickly, not-quite-skin-piercing line down his throat, chest, belly…

She lowered the sword between his legs and cocked her head speculatively. She had castrated only one man before in swordplay, although it was quite commonly the loser’s lot among Fleet swordsmen; indeed, many half-expected it. But she found no particular satisfaction in the act or in the rapidly growing fad of gathering nuts so popular among the younger cadets. In her book, you either killed your opponent outright or let him go the way he came.

She looked up at his dripping face: eyes squeezed tight, teeth clenched, jaw atremble. “Turn around, pig, while I decide how to kill you.”

He turned drunkenly, legs rubbery with fear, to stand shaking before the warm sun. He was standing there still, an hour later, long after she’d melted silently into the tangled thicket.

Alone again in the forest, she was still on Leakwood’s rather clearly marked trail and still remembering what the Commander had said about him…

* * *

“Now, then, Sheffield, my reports tell me you knew this…this…”

“Leakwood, sir.”

“…knew him personally. Is that true?”

“It’s unofficially true, yes sir. ‘Acquainted’ might be a better word.”

“’Acquainted.’ Would you care to amplify that, Sheffield?”

“We ran into each other at the Colony library occasionally…had lunch together once or twice.”

“Once or twice.”

“Twice, then.”

“What kind of lunches, Sheffield?”

“Just…lunch. At the cafeteria.”

“I see. What else?”

“Let’s see…I believe he took me to the movies once. Yes. Several months ago.”

“And?”

“And? Nothing, sir. It was a terrible film as I recall.”

“After the film?”

“He took me home—no, I took him home. He’s…you see, he’s small, sir. His quarters were in a rundown part of the Colony and, well, I’m good with a sword.”

“I see.”

“The truth is, sir, we were just friends. Never anything romantic about our relationship. I don’t think Leakwood had romantic inclinations toward anyone. He just wasn’t the type. I socialized with him because, well, I could relax around him, not constantly be fighting off eight arms if you take my meaning. Leakwood didn’t have many friends. He’s sort of…funny-looking, to be blunt. I felt a little sorry for him. And I know he appreciated my gesture, offering to be his friend.”

“His friend. Not his girlfriend.”

“Not his girlfriend, no sir.”

“Was he a thief, Sheffield?”

“Sir–?”

“Did he ever steal anything to your knowledge?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir.”

“Well, he has now. Something extremely valuable. Extremely expensive and extremely important to Fleet.”

“I see, sir.”

“We want it back, Sheffield.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pronto, if not sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pause.

“Uh…what would that be, sir?”

“How’s that?”

“The stolen property, what was it?”

“I can’t provide you with that information, Sheffield.”

“Can’t provide—“

“It’s classified, Sheffield.  Sensitive. You can appreciate that. Colony Six is a Top Secret installation. Half of these buildings house classified information and material. The object this cadet stole is highly confidential. I understand there are no more than two of them in existence and both are here at Colony Six. Or were here. I want it back.”

“Yes, sir, but how will I be sure…I mean, if I don’t know…”

“I’ll grant you that’s a problem. That’s why you were chosen, Sheffield. My reports tell me you’re one of the best in the Colony. Top of your class. This could be the most memorable assignment of your career. The most important. Are you game, Sheffield?”

“Of course, sir.”

* * *

Of course she was game. Like the best swordsmen in the Colony, she’d been itching to get a look at what lay outside those steel walls. Now she had her chance.

Evening was coming on fast. In a few minutes she’d have difficulty discerning Leakwood’s trail, clear as it was.

The dandleflies were out, zeroing in on her like attacking missiles, rolling their crystal wings deliriously in her sweat glands. She found a Mulinaw bush without much effort, broke one of its berries between her fingers and spread the glistening oil over her limbs. The dandleflies buzzed off in resentment. She’d done her homework.

The ground beneath her slippers grew steadily softer, danker, as she’d read it would toward evening. The Rhunks would be pushing up any time now. She fingered the hilt of her sword warily…

A species of un-catalogued bird-lizard screeched abruptly above her head. She twisted around and caught sight of its yellow-blue plumage spiraling swiftly across the mauve sky, arrowing gracefully to a nearby fern, landing not so gracefully with a light plop. As she watched, it began kicking convulsively, then stiffened and began dissolving rapidly into the devouring fern.

She knelt down beside Leakwood’s  latest boot print and took a reading with the infra-heat device snapped to her girdle. To her amazement the little needle hovered just over the seven minute mark. Leakwood must be very close. Calculating her rate of pursuit, he must have slowed considerably within the last hour. Odd. He couldn’t have tired this early in the hunt. Was it indeed to be an ambush? Or had he finally come to his senses, fearing the coming night, his lone vulnerability?

She produced a food tab from her belt and chewed it reflectively. Leakwood was a hard one to figure all right: cautious, introverted, rarely talking at all during the few times she’d been with him. Still, she couldn’t believe he’d do her harm. He may not have shared the other men’s physical passion for her, but she thought she’d always seen something like affection in his eyes.

He was an odd one, though.

She twitched reflexively. A pungent odor assailed her nostrils. Her perfect nose wrinkled in revulsion. She craned about for the source, right hand gripping the dark hilt of her blade. Behind her a soft plopping sound became evident. She whirled in time to see the dun snout of a female Rhunk poking through the soft loam amid clumps of its own excrement.

She stepped back gingerly, eyes riveted to the enormous block-like head, twitching ears and blinking yellow pupils. The smell became overpowering. It hadn’t seen her yet, so she moving backward silently, merging with the surrounding undergrowth… watched in repugnant fascination as the thing heaved its rhino-like bulk out of the damp earth and yawned enormously.

It was everything both field manual and Commander had described…

* * *

“Now, I’m sure you’ve made yourself familiar with the wildlife on this planet, Sheffield. Let me emphasize that the three hundred and sixty-eight pages before you do not exaggerate in describing the ferocity of these creatures. They are many and varied—and nearly all lethal. I realize that swordplay is very much the fashion of the day—that some of you young people are quite proficient with a blade. However, I’m going to insist you also carry a sidearm.”

“But sir—“

“Please. I’m well aware of your prowess and reputation, Sheffield, and that the blade has recently been recognized as an official Fleet weapon. But this planet is different. Aside from this AWOL, only seven men have ventured outside these steel walls. We lost two of them because we weren’t sufficiently prepared. I’ll not allow that again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take a look here at page twenty-nine of the manual, Sheffield. Tell me what you see.”

“A Rhunk, sir.”

“Ugly brute, isn’t he?”

“He is, sir.”

“Ugly and huge and deadly. You’ve heard stories of how they can rend animals twice their size to shreds with those tusks while holding them securely with those ghastly tentacles. You’ve heard and read how their hides are comparable to the finest alloys we know, how a certain percent of their make-up is non-molecular. You know they’re virtually indestructible.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Patently unstoppable. But! They can be fooled.”

“Fooled, sir?”

“Hoaxed, conned! There’s only one animal on the planet a full grown Rhunk won’t attack and immediately disembowel. Do you know what that animal is, Sheffield?”

“Another Rhunk, sir?”

“That’s very good, Sheffield, very astute. Yes, another Rhunk. And we can make another Rhunk! We have made another Rhunk–here in our labs at the Colony.  With the aid of this instrument you see in my hands.”

“What is it, sir?”

“It’s called a Colifax.”

                                                                          *   *   *

A Colifax. It hung now from the gold chain of her G-string, the cold metal pressing uncomfortably against her bare tummy, banging distractingly when she walked. Until this moment, it had been a heavy, unwanted piece of Colony technology she’d have given a week’s pay to be rid of. Top Secret or not.

Now she wasn’t so sure. If it could somehow protect her from this incredible monstrosity erupting from the soil…

For it was obvious now that nothing else could. The emerging Rhunk was an awe-inspiring study in armor-plated destruction. Nothing short of a T-3 missile could bring it down, of that she was sure. Even with sword in hand she felt, for the first time in her life, totally ineffectual. That guy from Colony Twelve must have been out of his mind, or—like her—had never seen a real Rhunk in the flesh.

She stumbled back through the creepers as it lifted its nose to sniff the evening air. She emerged into a small clearing on the other side. As she turned, she came face to face with another Rhunk.

A big one this time. A male.

She stiffened. The thing was staring directly at her, had heard her coming, in fact. The thick lattice of jungle hemmed her in from all sides. There was no place to run, no place to even turn. For the first time in her young life, real fear found her.

Stay frosty. That was the rule. Her rule. With palsied fingers she tore the Colifax from her waist and knelt slowly to the wet earth, setting it in front of her—eyes never leaving the bloated form of the big Rhunk before her. Its nose was in the air now as the female’s had been, taking in the full scent of the human with the aid of a steady evening breeze wafting directly toward it. The thin, veined membranes of its four nostrils flared red, and she thought she detected a sudden tremor pass along the great ridges of its broad back.

Methodically then, as if confident of the helplessness of its prey, the monster advanced on her, muscles riding in sensuous rhythm along its muscular flanks, tentacles twitching in eager anticipation.

She reached out for the Colifax, depressed a red button.

The hotness that flooded her body was immediate and not altogether unpleasant. No pain, really, but it left her with the distinct feeling she was being pulled slowly apart from all sides like heated taffy..pulled and softened and molded. Changed. She refused to panic; she knew, as Colony Command had warned, the morphing process would reverse itself the moment she touched the green button. Even now her fear was ebbing as she took on the proportions and character of her new body. Even the approaching Rhunk appeared less menacing with the advent of her new height, her muscular girth.

Its nostrils didn’t flare any less, however, and the tremors riding its back increased if anything. It was still intensely interested in her for some reason. But if not as food…what?

Even before it moved over and deliberately crushed flat her Colifax with its massive hoof, sealing her fate forever, she knew: even before it wrapped its twenty tentacles about her ardently and adjusted her to mounting position she understood. For she had looked deep into its eyes and they revealed all. Perfect as the Colifax was at imitating, it couldn’t quite disguise the familiar personality behind those eyes, the quiet, introverted but highly imaginative brain. And in that instant, she knew exactly why Leakwood had led her this merry chase, and what piece of Fleet equipment he’d stolen.

She’d miss her friends, of course, and life at the Colony. But most of all, she’d miss her sword. Even with the highly sensitive tentacles at her command, with seven thousand pounds of female Rhunk behind them, it was difficult to be as gracefully as Dejah Thoris.

 

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