Written in High School by Chris Meadows when he Should Have Been Studying

Copyright 1991 by Christopher E. Meadows; all rights reserved


I wrote this back when I was in High School; when I still believed that Protoculture provided mental control and all sorts of metaphysical stuff. I didn't know better, back then; it had been too long since I'd seen the TV show, and all I'd had to read were the McKinney books.

I would go back and revise this story to remove all the metaphysical references, but there wouldn't really be a hell of a lot left...metaphysical is just what this story is, I'm afraid. Ah, well...if you like the McKinney books, you should like this story...

Regarding the Zentraedi alphabet...well, the Palladium Robotech and Macross II RPGs have a "Zentraedi Alphabet" listed in them that is a set of hieroglyphics with a rather peculiar 1-to-1 correspondance with the English alphabet. My inclusion of it in this story is kind of a parody of the RPG...

Oh, and as for the native guides...honestly, no racism is intended.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this story...

I was there when he plugged in the first power coupler. I stood by his side as he engaged the computer calculation unit and course plotter. But I did not sit with him when he powered up the engine and took off into a realm far beyond any ever seen by other mortal men. And, perhaps that is for the best.

Who can say where it might have gone if it hadn't been for the untimely intervention of the U.S. Government. It might have led to one of the greatest discoveries since uranium. But it was not to be.

It all started with the UFO wreck we found in 1984. What a year that was. Nothing at all like the book had said it would be--thank goodness. Reagan had just been voted in by a landslide--I remember that, for right after I turned off the news, the phone rang. It was George. Said he'd found something potentially important, and could I please hop a jet down immediately.

Being the administrator of a major university, there wasn't much of a chance I could do that, and I told him so quite firmly. He was insistent, however, and very persuasive, so the next hour found me buying a ticket at Kennedy International Airport. I was on my way.

When I arrived in the tiny South American nation of Sao Pepito, it was after ten straight hours of plane rides, followed by a two-hour jungle trek on donkeyback. I have never been fond of donkeys. All this time, and especially on the donkeys, I was muttering darkly to myself that what he had to show me had better be of the utmost importance.

This wasn't the first time George had dragged me off into some wild adventures. Being a combination archaeologist and astrophysicist led to some pretty strange jaunts. Like the famous Aztec Pyramid expedition of '78, when George had gotten some crazy notion about a starship being hidden in the bowels of a famous Aztec temple; I won't say which one. We didn't find any starship, though George still claims to have seen an alien (I believe he saw a mirror, myself). What we did find was a whole bunch of boobytraps that nearly got us all killed.

When I finally arrived, George met me and ushered me to my room. He was about 40 years old, the same age as myself; six feet, 2 inches tall, with brown hair going prematurely to gray and wearing the same clothes he always wore on expeditions: a khaki shirt and trousers, and a web belt with a revolver holstered on its side. I looked into his grey eyes and asked him what was going on.

He looked all excited. It was all he could do not to go dancing around the room with glee. I felt gloomier when I realized that the last time he'd acted like this had been just before the aforementioned Aztec Pyramid expedition. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, but I knew from experience that this would not increase the speed of his narrative any.

"Frank, I think I've found it," he said at last. "Sanga Stentor, the legendary 'Sky Beast' all the locals around here have been talking about for the last thousand years. It was difficult, but I finally managed to worm the general location out of them. The place is taboo. Always has been. They say it's the place of the 'blue and red burning death'. I've managed to get an expedition together. I figure we could leave tomorrow, reach the place by the end of the week, and spend the rest of the month searching for it. Whaddaya say, huh?"

"You got me all the way down here just to search for that legend again?!" I said. I got all ready to cuss him out, but then stopped. What was the point? I was down here, he was ready to go, and I SURE didn't want to take another ten-hour plane flight.

George mistook the meaning of my silence and started lecturing me. "You know that 99 and 44/100 percent of old legends have their roots in fact. According to the village elders of the local tribes, many years ago--perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands, we don't know--a tribe of 'little white people' came from the stars in a great big ship called the 'Sky Beast' or 'Sky Behemoth' or something like that. They said they came from beyond the sky to observe the ways of this planet, or something. They spread out among the tribes, eager to learn their ways, seeming particularly interested in the vegetation and the soil. They brought miracles with them, including metal eggs that walked on legs as tall as a tree, and great man-shaped metal beasts, and sticks that killed and started fire at a distance.

"Many archaeologists believed that the tribe of 'little white people' were the crew of an early sailing ship, and the sticks that killed at a distance were early muskets, and the rest was just confused. But we know better, don't we?"

"Sometimes I wonder," I muttered. George ignored me and went on.

"Anyway, some of the villagers feared that the white people were going to drive them out with their awesome might, and take over the land for themselves. So they got together one night and killed most of the white men. They posted a guard to make sure that those that escaped could not get back to their ship.

"And then life went on. The legend of the white men vanished into the mists of antiquity. However, most who ventured out where the 'Sky Beast' was said to be never came back, and those who did brought tales of a hideous 'red and blue burning death', so the area was soon declared to be taboo. No one goes there. But I intend to go, to see whatever it is there is to see. And you're coming with me, aren't you?"

I sighed. "I suppose so. I've been needing a vacation anyway, and what better way to do it than looking for our old friend Sanga Stentor? Since it didn't turn up in that Aztec pyramid, why not look in the deepest heart of the jungle?"

Either George didn't or chose not to hear my sarcasm. "That's the way, Frank, that's the way. Come on, we'll go get your gear together."

So the next day, I found myself trekking through the jungle with a pack and rifle on my back, a pistol at my belt, and a song in my heart. I'd forgotten how good a wilderness expedition could be. Right then, I didn't care if we found nothing at all, I was having so much fun hiking in the fresh, open air.

Of course, by the end of the next day I was feeling dead tired, and I flopped down with relief when George stopped and indicated that we were to set up camp. The last couple of days had been pretty tiring.

The next day we started searching. The party was made up of George and me, plus four or five native laborers/guides. The laborers each had a rifle, which I had been assured they knew how to use.

It took several days of fruitless searching before we found anything, but that we had expected. What we hadn't expected was finding what we found.

Ironically, I was the one who discovered it. I stumbled right over it, in fact. Literally.

I was walking along a natural dirt trail, worn by countless wild animals through the mists of time, when my foot went into a depression and I tripped. I picked myself up and cursed roundly. The cursing stopped, however, when I saw the shape of the depression I had tripped over. "George! George, get over here!"

He came running, pistol drawn. "What is it?" he asked. Then he saw, and lowered the gun. Together we examined what I could only believe to be a footprint. But what a footprint!

It was made up of two large circles, each about two feet in diameter, beside each other; and one smaller one, about half as big, between and about a foot behind or in front of the others, depending on how you looked at it. The prints were about eight inches deep in the dried mud, which led me to estimate a weight somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty tons or more. It was George who touched on what I had been loath to say: "Frank, nothing natural made these prints."

The silence was unbroken for the next several minutes. Then I said, "What did?"

"Perhaps our tribesmens' eggs that walked on legs as tall as trees," George suggested.

"Then we must be getting close. Which way do you think these tracks are going?"

George knelt and examined the tracks. "Judging from the way more weight is placed upon this smaller one, I think it's the front. Of course, either way we go, we'll probably find something."

"That's true." I peered warily along the trail. "Get together the native guides. We're moving out."

"Now that's the Frank I like to see!" George got up and ran off toward our camp, yelling, "Okay, guys, let's go!"

It was another long hike, but the natives weren't complaining and neither was I, in my rush to get to whatever was at the end of that trail. We must have hiked ten miles that day before the sun set and we had to stop. We started again bright and early the next morning.

At about noon, George called a halt. "Look, and look well," he told me, "for there it is!"

I peered into the gigantic valley ahead. At first, I saw nothing. Then I saw the shape. "No," I said. "It just can't be!"

But it was. George handed me his binoculars and I examined the thing. It was only partly visible, the jungle having covered it with a canopy of greenery. It appeared to be made of green metal, and had a kind of organic look to it, as if a giant cucumber had been set on the mountainside and partially covered with vegetation. "It must be several miles long!" I said. "It's as big as a mountain!"

"Well, maybe not a mountain, but at least a pretty big hill," George said, taking his binoculars back. "The range-finder on these things says it's about ten miles away. I guess we'll reach it sometime tomorrow."

Behind us, some of the native guides were gazing at the object and crossing themselves. Though they professed not to believe the "old tales", the sight of this object had to shake their faith. All I could think was, "We've finally found it." I didn't have the slightest idea what we were going to do about it.

In the afternoon of the next day, we were about a mile away from the mountainous object, when it happened. There was a rustling noise, a clanging sound, and the jungle parted before us. What came out was beyond our wildest expectations. It was incredible. And it was horrible.

As I described it later to a colleague, it was like somebody had taken a giant egg and set it on twenty-foot-tall legs. Only this egg was bristling with tubes that could only be some sort of cannons.

Its legs were reverse-articulated, like those of an ostrich, and its feet were those that had made the tracks we had been following. It was about thirty or forty feet tall, and it looked angry.

It turned to one of the natives, who had gone in front to scout ahead. A panel on the front opened and some sort of device came out and pointed at the man. It lit up, and a square of blue light flashed across his face for the briefest of moments. Words in some foreign or alien language emanated from a speaker somewhere on the machine. As nearly as I can render them, they sounded like, "Oonog lanartor." The thing then proceeded to level a cannon at the guide, and blow him away.

"Fascinating," said George. "They've actually got some sort of a particle beam technology."

"We're going to be seeing it up-close and personal if we don't get out of here. Come on!" I grabbed his arm and tried to make a run for it. But it was as if he was rooted in place. To tell the truth, I was too.

The thing flashed and gunned down the next native guide, and the next, saying "Oonog lanartor" each time that it did. The last guide tried to make a run for it, just turning at the last moment to fire a shot from his rifle at it. The machine said, "Ortog oonon trandix," which must have meant something like "hostile intent registered". It then opened up with everything it had on the section of forest he'd just run into. The clamor was deafening.

When the trees were reduced to smoking splinters, the thing said, "Oonon clordo trandix." It then turned to me, and flashed its blue light in my face.

I stiffened and prepared for death, but, astonishingly, the thing did not kill me. Instead of saying, "Oonog lanartor," it said, "Oonog enigtar," and passed me by. George received the same treatment.

"Amazing," he said. "That light is used in determining the albedo, that is, the reflectiveness, of our faces. Obviously it killed those poor savages because they were dark."

Enlightenment struck. "You mean--it didn't kill us because it thinks we are of the tribe of white men? Its masters?"

George nodded sagely. "And who knows--if some of them escaped, we could very well have a gene or two in our bodies that originally belonged to them. Perhaps more, if we're as closely related to them as it seems."

"Well, we've been very lucky. I think we had better go now." I turned and started back down the trail. George grabbed me before I had taken three steps.

"Hold on there. Where are you going?"

"I'm going back to the camp, and thence back to the village. I do not intend to explore that thing all by myself."

"You wouldn't be by yourself. I'm here." I shot him a withering look. Oblivious, he continued. "Besides, we don't know how it will react to others. If they're just the slightest bit too dark, it might roast them. And then the army would be on its way to blast the thing, and it would probably fricasee half of them, and maybe take some further action as a result of the hostilities. Then where would we be? By going in now, we'd be saving a lot of lives in the future. Besides, wouldn't you like to be the first to see what's inside? As its discoverers, it's our right and our duty--yes, our DUTY--to explore it, and make it safe for other humans to check out."

Like I said, persuasive. I sighed, knowing that my decision had been altered, like it or not. "Very well. Let's get on it."

"All RIGHT!"

I turned to the machine, which had stood there, motionless, all this time. "Can you speak English?" I asked.

In a halting voice, the thing's computer (or equivalent) repeated what I had said to it: "Can--you--speak--English."

"That is what I said," I responded.

"That--is--what--I--said," was its reply.

It was George who hit on what was wrong. "Of course!" he said. "It's trying to learn English! I've read about this in science fiction books. We have to talk to it, and it will register the positions and permutations of our words, and assemble a vocabulary the way computers crack codes."

So we talked to it, identified objects, told it stories and dirty jokes, and finally cursed at it some. All this time, it was beeping and clicking and whirring and assimilating, putting words and phonetics in their places to build up a knowledge of English. At last it was to the point where it could speak, and we listened anxiously to what it was about to say.

"I--am--Defense--Drone--AG-7803. I--am--programmed--for--defense--and--perimeter--patrols. Secondary--purpose--is--to--watch--for--return--of--Masters."

It firmly refused to say any more, repeating itself whenever we said something to it. George suspected that that was all it could say. "Very simple program," he opined. "We'll learn more when we get to the ship itself."

So we walked the rest of the way to the great starship. As we got closer, we saw for the first time how gigantic it really was. It was longer than I had earlier suspected. "We'll need taxis just to get around in there!"

"Oh, it won't be as bad as all that, I'm sure," George said airily. "They must have had some means of getting from one section to another. Moving belts, elevators, that sort of thing."

I wasn't so sure, but I followed him up to the massive hull. "To think," he muttered, "that after all these years I can finally reach out and touch the hull of Sanga Stentor. It's a dream come true."

I, being more pragmatic, looked for a way in. The drone robot stood silently in the background, neither helping nor hindering.

After about five minutes of searching, I found a rectangular panel in the side of the ship that looked about the right size for a man-sized airlock door. I pushed and pulled experimentally at some nearby protuberances on the ship's hull, and jumped back when one of them lit up and the door slid open.

The sound immediately brought George over to where I was. "Great going, Frank! You've found an entrance."

I peered into the darkness beyond the open door. "I don't like this, George. What if the thing runs out of power while we're inside? We could be trapped forever."

"I doubt it will run out. This ship would have had nuclear engines, or some sort of equivalent. There's probably enough power for a thousand years hidden away somewhere in there." George pulled out a flashlight from his web belt. "After all, the door opened, didn't it?"

"Yes, but where are the lights?"

George ignored my question and stepped inside. I shrugged and followed.

The airlock was about as big as the airlocks that are on those science fiction television shows--somewhere around six by six by eight feet in diameter. George shined his flashlight at the wall opposite the entrance. There was another door there, as well as some sort of control panel. I stepped forward and examined it tentatively. It was marked in some sort of alien hieroglyphics that I could make neither head nor tail out of. Ignoring the symbols, I ran my eyes over the layout of buttons and knobs. I had some experience in electrical engineering, and one thing I knew was that humans, no matter what their race or cultural background, tended to place controls in a certain configuration--ergonomics, it's called. "I think that this is the 'cycle' button," I said at last.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" George asked. "The spring thaw? Go for it!"

I sighed. This was it--the final step from which there was no turning back. I closed my eyes, prayed briefly--and pushed the button.

Nothing happened. Not exactly the most heartening of responses. "Guess I was right, and there's no power left in this baby after all," I said triumphantly. "Can we go now?"

But then, with a grinding noise, the outer hatch slid shut behind us. "What's happening?!" George said, drawing his revolver.

"It's just the airlock cycling," I explained as air started to flow into the lock. "Pressure is equalizing, and in a few seconds the inner door will open."

And, moments later, the door did slide open. I sighed with relief, for I had only been guessing when I said what I had. George stepped through, and I followed him. We emerged into a wonderland of technology.

How can I describe what I saw inside that massive corridor? It was all so amazing at the time that it was hard to convince myself of its validity.

To start with, the corridor was at least a hundred feet in both width and height. We had emerged from what looked like a mousehole in comparison to this massive cave-like hall. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made from gleaming metal, except for strips of rubber running lengthwise down the floor.

"Just as I said," George announced triumphantly, pointing to the strips. "Movable belts to carry the crew through the ship."

"The only thing is," I observed mildly, "they don't seem to be moving right now."

"The power's off," George reminded me. "Probably an automatic shutdown mechanism. Come on."

We walked in silence down the massive corridor. As George waved his flashlight around, highlighting various human-sized walkways on the walls and catwalks slung beneath the ceiling, I began to get a sense that this ship had been somehow renovated. I became sure when I saw something in the wall.

"George! Shine the light over to the left!" I yelled, almost in a panic.

"What is it?" George asked, doing as I said.

The light illuminated an airlock door, the same kind as we had come through from outside. But unlike the one we had entered through, this one was fully eighty feet tall. This wouldn't have been so unusual, with drones like the one that had accosted us, and, presumably, larger ones, except for one thing: The control panel was built to scale, and located about forty feet off the ground!

"Astonishing!" George breathed.

"More than that," I admonished. "Try 'astounding'."

"This--this means that this ship was converted from carrying giants to carrying humans."

The door was open a crack. I peered through. "Yes, and there's every indication that the giants are humanoids."

"What makes you say that?"

"The eighty-foot-tall spacesuit hanging on a hook on the wall."

George drew a breath. "We've got to get to the control room."

"Hear, hear," I said. "Only--do we know for sure that the human-sized control room will be in the same area as the giant-sized control room?"

"No way to tell. Let's hope they are." We set off down the giant hall, headed for what we assumed was the front of the ship.

After several miles of walking and peering into any doors that were ajar, we came to a massive bulkhead door that was more heavily armored than any we had seen before. "That must be it!" George said.

I looked skeptically at the eighty-foot-tall door. "So how are we going to get that thing open?" I asked.

"We aren't. We're going to open this little hatch built into it." George pointed to a human-sized hatch placed in a position analogous to a pet door on the big one. "It's open a crack. Help me slide it open."

We grabbed onto the edge and pushed, putting our backs into the effort. It slowly slid open. We entered.

It was indeed the control room, or perhaps the bridge would be a better name for it. There were all sorts of gigantic control panels and screens, scaled to the eighty-foot giants. But there was also a human-sized control room, set apart from the giant one by partitions.

"Come on!" George said. "Let's check it out!" We walked across the giant room--it must have been a mile in diameter!--to get to the smaller room.

From what I could guess, it was designed for a crew of about twenty people. "I guess that would be helm, and there's weapons, communications..." I started, then trailed off.

"Weapons?" George moved to the panel with the cross-haired targeting grids. "So that's what those protuberances are. I bet this ship has more firepower than the 3rd Marine division."

"More than several 3rd Marine divisions," I guessed, moving toward what I suspected was the engineer's station. The buttons were all labelled in alien hieroglyphics, and none were lit up. Except one. It was in a green area on the control panel, and I suspected that it was the emergency power activator. I couldn't resist the temptation to push that glowing square, so I reached out and pressed it home. With a cacophany of bleeps and whirrs, every panel in the small control room lit up. Followed by every light on the giant control panels and every light in the room.

"Hey! What did you do?!" George yelled. I ignored him, peering at the indicator screens on the console. Alien hieroglyphics were coming up, and power level indicators were rising.

"I think the power's coming on all over the ship," I breathed.

"Great! Now we won't have to worry about our ride back to the entrance." George turned back to his workstation. "Now that the power's on, I think I can make this thing--Hey! Look!"

One of the targeting screens on his console was displaying a view of the sky overhead. George grabbed a joystick and punched buttons like a child with a new toy. Then he accidentally pulled the trigger and sent a bolt of energy streaking into the sky.

"Careful," I admonished. "Too many like that and somebody's likely to investigate."

George didn't say anything, nor did he play with the unfamiliar controls much after that. I glanced at the screens, which were still displaying alien symbols. "We won't be able to do very much with this ship until we can get a translation program into these computers."

George nodded. "Let's investigate other areas of this ship. Maybe we can find some of those sticks that kill at a distance."

"That just might be a good idea. They would certainly be proof of our discovery."

"Yes, they would at that." Somehow I'm not sure that the idea of proof was quite what George had in mind.

But we really didn't find anything of importance anyway. As I said later, it would take a staff of men several months to fully explore the ship. When, by our watches, it was sunset outside and we were setting up camp, I pointed this out to George, and suggested that we go back to civilization and get together a team of trained technicians.

"That might not be such a bad idea," George mused. "Of course, once they got here we'd have to keep them here for a few years, until we were ready to announce our discovery to the world."

"I think we could find some people for whom that would not pose any difficulty."

"You, not we," George corrected. "I'm going to stay here. I have a few ideas I'd like to try out."

"But it could be months before I get back!" I exclaimed.

"No matter," George said. "I won't get bored. I have food for two weeks--more if you count what's in the dead natives' packs--and when that runs out I'll do a little hunting. It's not a problem for me. And you're an experienced outdoorsman--you'll make it back okay."

"Well...I guess. I'd like to stay on a few more days, but I will be going back pretty soon." As I said it, I was amazed at myself--Here we were, camped out in the bowels of an alien starship, and I was talking about it as if it were a vacation resort, to be left in "a few more days"!

The days passed, without any discoveries that I could make any sense out of, and pretty soon it was time for me to go. I left George all of the supplies that I could spare and set out for the native village that the entire crazy expedition had started out from.

It was an uneventful trip back, though when I got to the village there was some difficult explaining for me to do. How could I tell the village elders that their men had been killed by one of their legendary eggs that walked on legs as tall as trees? I managed to make them understand that every other member of my party, including George, had perished in a rockslide on one of the mountains. I just hoped that George wouldn't come to the village for more supplies, disproving my story.

Back in the States, I put it to the board of directors of my university. They weren't very enthusiastic about funding a project sight unseen, but several board members owed me favors, so Project Jungle Beast received budget of one million dollars and a time limit of two years. I assured the board that the possible advances that could come out of this project would more than repay that investment.

Next I had to find some scientists and technicians. I conducted day after day of interviews, repeating over and over the restrictions taking the job would entail: Due to our fear that, if the government found out about the starship, it would be taken out of our hands, they would have to live on the site for the entire duration of the project, their mail would be subject to censorship, and they would be veritable prisoners for as long as it lasted. But I also emphasized the rewards the job would offer: possible new technological processes, fame, fortune, et cetera.

At last I had a team of about thirty men and women together, and we left for the jungle site by helicoptor. I contacted George via radio and told him to have the starship hold its fire. At last we landed. We were finally ready to tackle Sanga Stentor the way it would have to be tackled!

As we hiked from the landing site to the ship, there was some grumbling in the ranks. "Why do we have to walk all this way? Why couldn't the chopper land us directly at wherever it is we're going?" muttered one of the techs, a balding overweight electrician who was a habitual grumbler.

"You know the answer to that, Thompson," the chief computer spec chided. She was a tall black woman, in her mid thirties, named Jolene Frankel. "We don't want the pilot to get a look at whatever it is we're going to work on."

"But what could it be, this far out in the middle of nowhere?" he persisted. "I didn't hire on to walk twenty miles in steaming tropical rain forests."

"You'll see what it is soon enough," I said from my position at the head of the group. "And it isn't twenty miles. It's more like four."

Still, the grumbling persisted until we came into the open valley where the gigantic spacecraft was located. Then it stopped, along with any other speech that had been going on, and all that could be heard were gasps.

Followed by sharp intakes of breath as the sentry drone came bounding up. As it started blue-lighting us, I called George on the radio. "George! It's flashing at us."

"Don't worry," he assured me. "It's just doing that for effect. It won't shoot anybody. I disarmed its weapons."

"You what?"

"I've learned a few things in the weeks I've been here," George replied. "Oh, what I've learned."

And sure enough, the thing said, "Oonog enigtar" to everybody, regardless of their skin tone. Once the spectacle was over, I said to everybody, "Well, this is what we're here for. Let's get to the ship."

I managed to get George alone as all the others were going over the techno-systems in the control room. "What exactly have you learned?" I asked him.

"There's so much...I don't know where to start."

"Give me the abridged version."

"Well, to begin with, I taught the computer the English alphabet. And guess what? The symbols we saw are actually letters--they substitute for the English ones. With a very few exceptions, the alien language is identical to the English language--spelling, usage, et cetera. I just had to tell the computer to substitute our letters for its and I could read it perfectly."

"Amazing. Do you know the implications this has for the linguists?"

"Yes. The ones you brought with you are out of a job. But there are plenty of other languages here for them to study." He stopped for a second to catch his breath, then continued. "As soon as I learned the language, I was able to read the history of those who built this ship, or have it read to me. The computer has the same understanding of English that the drone does--probably got it from there."

"You read the history of the, uh, 'Masters'?"

"Yes, I did." He was silent. I finally prompted him by saying, "Well?"

"Well, what?"

"What did it say?!" I asked through clenched teeth. Sometimes George could be so annoying!"

George only shook his head. "You're better off not knowing. I've had the computer put the historical records under a special access code for that reason."

"George, I have a right to know. I discovered this thing along with you--I'm the one who found the prints, remember? Now if you think you're going to keep anything from me, you've got another think coming, buster. I--"

"Okay, okay, anything to shut you up. But it doesn't go beyond you and me, all right?"

"All right, unless it's something potentially dangerous."

"It isn't. You have my word on that." He paused, then began, "All right. Now this is the way it happened..."

A long, long time ago--maybe five thousand years, maybe a lot more, a group of people came to power on a far-away moon, orbiting a planet orbiting the star Tirol, in the Southern Cross constellation. What they were originally called has probably been lost for hundreds of years, but they soon came to be known as the Masters.

Comparatively recently, one of their scientists found a kind of a plant growing on a distant planet whose seeds, when placed under a certain kind of constraining matrix, gave off enormous amounts of energy. The natives of the planet were somehow able to absorb the energy directly, and had a kind of symbiosis with the plant.

The Masters saw the potential for such an energy source, and so ordered the planet stripped of all the plants, then totally defoliated.

The plant had other properties than just power, however. When used as a vehicular power source, it fostered a peculiar kind of telepathic symbiosis between pilot and vehicle, for a responsiveness that simply could not be beat. This telepathic contact formed the basis of a whole new class of technology. The name is untranslatable, but it seems to have something to do with robotics. The term was used as an adjective in front of the Masters' title, so they became the Something Masters.

This power source, which they called Primal Culture, or something like that, also had other peculiar properties. The Masters used it to enhance their life spans and telepathic contact. It turned them into shrivelled caricatures of what they had been, and perhaps stole some of their humanity.

Another use it could be put to was the enhancement of cloning capabilities. Using the source, they were able to create a race of giant clones which they used to mine monopole ore from the heavy-gravity planet the moon was in orbit around. With this ore and the Primal Culture, they were able to create spacewarp engines, which allowed hyperspace travel through the process of "folding" the space in the viscinity of the ship.

Meanwhile, the symbiosis race, the Insid or Indid or something--it's very hard to translate these alien terms--went on a revenge kick. Creating their own Primal Culture battle machines, they emerged from their barren planet to try to get their plants back.

In desperation, the Masters turned the giant miners into giant warriors, to counter the onslaught. They erased all of their mining memories and reprogrammed them for nothing but war. Yes, you should shudder. The mere concept gives me the willies. And one more thing: the giants--their name, as close as I can get it, is T'Sentrati--are human. The only difference between them and us is their programming. Remind me to go into detail about that sometime. It really is a hoot.

Anyway, the T'Sentrati fought back the Insid or whatever successfully. The casualties were phenomenal, but that was of no concern to the masters. If one of their soldiers died, they would just clone another.

One group of the Masters, or the Master-Citizens--the distinction is kind of fuzzy--got tired of endless war and life under the iron hand of the Masters. Somehow they got one of their great orbiting factories to convert a "small" T'Sentrati scout ship for standard human-size control. They must have been rushed, or they would simply have had a whole new ship constructed for them, or at least have removed the giants' facilities.

Anyway, they came as far away in both time and space as was feasible for them, taking into consideration some ancient prophesy, and landing here approximately six hundred of our years ago. The last records indicate their conducting tentative relations with the natives, and there they stop.

You know the story of the ambush and slaughter. I suspect that some of them did get away, but chose not to come back. I believe that the choice was made not out of fear, but out of free will. They wanted to leave their past as far behind them as possible, and that presumably included this ship. They could have made their way across the sea to Europe, and perhaps even been responsible for some of the great strides made during the Renaissance. Who can say?

There the history ended. I shook my head, coming out of the trance I'd gone into. George was, in addition to being a persuasive speaker, a wonderful storyteller. "I see," I finally said. "But why shouldn't I tell the workers?"

"It could scare them, cause them to go running to the government when we let them go, or it might make them too nervous to work, lest the alien giants come to reclaim their ship."

"They'll know about the giants soon enough, just by looking around," I pointed out.

"Yes, but I'll tell them they're extinct, or something. But no more than they need to know." George sighed. "Just trust me. I'll tell them everything when the time is right."

"Very well," I said. "You've been right most times before--except for that horrible pyramid expedition."

George chuckled along with me. "Yes, well, that was a mistake, wasn't it? I was looking in the wrong quadrant entirely--there when I should have been here. Ah, but here we are at last, with Sanga Stentor all around us. Well, we'd better go supervise the work, if we ever want her to fly again."

"Right." I was halfway back to the group of techs before I realized what George had just said. "What did you say?" I wanted to be sure.

George, apparently, had not realized the nature of the slip he had just made. But now he did, and he winced guiltily. "Yes, I said that we want to make the Sanga Stentor fly again. Shouldn't take too much work, really. All that needs to be done is--"

I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "What on earth--or off of it, as the case may be--are you talking about?!"

"It's simple, really." George waved a hand at the gigantic corridor we were standing in. "Look at this. Here we have a chance for our first interstellar contact. What are we going to do? Are we going to throw it away by dismantling it and wait twenty years for the results to translate into a new technology? Or are we going to go for it?"

He gazed vacantly into space as he continued: "Whole new worlds are out there, just waiting for colonization. I checked the computer. Only one fourth of this galaxy had been charted by the Masters. There are all sorts of possibilities!"

"Okay, okay," I said. "Repair the ship all you want. As for the rest, well...we'll see."

So the restoration began. George insisted on having me come to the main power core chamber to participate in the ceremonial "first repair".

In the center of the gigantic room was some sort of engine chamber. The entire room pulsed with an eerie blue light given off from it. At its base were several power lead-ins, and some were unplugged and in a great tangle. George took one and unsnarled it. "This is symbolic of the great work we are about to undertake, that the human race might expand outward to the stars for all time. Frank, if you'll help me?"

Together we unsnarled one of the power coupler cables and together we plugged it in. The repairs were officially begun!

We stayed at that site for three whole years, working on that machine the whole time. It had lain dormant for hundreds of years, and hence some disrepair could be expected.

But, astonishingly, there wasn't as much to fix as we had expected. George summed it up when he said admirably, "They built these things to last."

The expertise of our technicians was a great help, and the blueprints stored in the computer were an even greater one, but there were times when we were unsure, times when we had to guess. We could only hope that we were doing what we were doing correctly, for if we weren't it could be very bad for us later.

According to George's studies of the histories and the blueprints, this T'Sentrati scout ship had some "extras" that the others had not. Prime among them was what George described, when he came running into the corridor where I had set up a tent and was camping in, as: "Complete stealth! This ship has complete stealth!"

"What do you mean, 'complete stealth'?" I asked, looking up from the fire where I was cooking some food.

"Just what I said. This ship is completely invisible to radar, infrared, and other types of detection gear. Even the Primal Culture sensors of the Insid aliens can't detect it."

"Don't be silly. How could a ship this big be invisible to radar?" Then I realized the silliness of my statement: How could a ship this big exist at all?

George seemed to see what I had just realized, and said, "Hey, why ask why--or how. It just is. Which will prove immensely useful to us when we decide to take off."

"No 'us' about it," I corrected. "My feet are solidly planted on the earth. If you take off in this bucket, you can leave me behind. I want to live to see eighty. Besides, somebody's got to stay behind to analyze all the discoveries we find here."

George shrugged. "Whatever you say." Then he went away and left me alone.

The day finally came when the ship was entirely repaired. We were all a little older than when we had come to the jungle, and perhaps a little wiser. For some of the technicians, it had been an eye-opening experience. "This is like going back to college," Thompson, the electrician, had said. "There's so much new technology here, it's just about blown everything I knew, or THOUGHT I knew, into little tiny pieces. It would take a lifetime for me to assimilate all of it."

Most of us were more than a little bewildered about what was to come now. George, however, had never faltered from his plans to launch the ship and explore the galaxy with it, and toward the end, he had begun to make overt suggestions to the technicians about it. I believe that they had all known what he had been planning, anyway, and most of them were only too eager to sign on as crew for the voyage. I must confess, I felt a certain yearning myself, but I wasn't ready to give up the earth just yet. There were several others who felt as I did, that somebody had to remain behind to study the samples we had taken and the results of the various tests we had run on the strange ship's techno-systems.

At last the day came. Before the ship actually took off, George held a christening ceremony in which he broke a bottle of champagne against the hull and said, "I dub thee Sanga Stentor!" Old names were often the best in cases like these.

Then George and his twenty-five-man crew retired to the bridge to begin the takeoff sequence. Ordinarily, it would have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of humans to run a ship like that, but George had informed me that it was totally automated, and one person could run it by himself, if he had to.

The other five and I retired to our blockhouse about a mile away. It had been built from a combination of earth construction and alien computer technology, and thus it was symbolic of what we were attempting to do--combine human ingenuity with alien technology in order to reach the stars. Jolene Frankel, the black computer tech, was working the main console.

We had strung sensors, video cameras, and recording and transmitting devices all throughout the ship, so as to get all the final data we could before the spacefold. Now the information from this apparatus was coming up on the screens and being recorded here, for further scrutiny at a later date.

I watched the bank of T.V. screens showing the various people in the control room and elsewhere and the various interior and exterior views of the ship. George was at the helm, along with one of the mechanical engineers. They were flipping switches and punching buttons, engaging manual control of the ship. A few days ago, when he had engaged the computer calculation unit and course plotter, I had stood by his side while he explained the operation of the devices and where he was going. The destination, he said, was a small star about twenty-eight light years from earth; I forget the name. It had allegedly once been the site of the Masters' governing council before they had moved to the Tirol system, and it would be a good place to start for the two anthropologists and three archaeologists (including George) on his team of explorers. From there, he wasn't sure where he would go. "I'll just go where the urge takes me. I don't know when I'll return, but it will probably be in several months. But don't hold your breath."

So I wasn't holding it. I had already said my goodbyes before George had boarded the ship. Now all I could do was record what George did and hope that someday he would be bak to see it.

I brought up the audio on George's monitor. "Enable lift thrusters," George was saying.

"Lift thrusters enabled," the mechanical engineer said.

"Activate anti-grav pods."

"Anti-grav pods activated."

"Engage stealth device," George commanded.

"Stealth device engaged." At that instant, the great portion of the hill that was Sanga Stentor disappeared from the radar scopes we had set up. It was still visible optically, but the radar had completely lost it.

"We are now ready to take off," George said over the radio hookup. "Starting countdown at ten minutes."

"Roger. Ten minute countdown confirmed," one of the blockhouse techs said. "Begin counting down on...mark."

Beep! A countdown timer appeared on the main screen. It read 00:10:00, then the seconds began ticking away.

The final checks were run through both in the blockhouse and on the bridge of the ship. Watching the monitors, at times I saw fevered arguments break out that George had to put down, and at other times I saw crewmembers stare blankly at George in response to an order given, so that George had to come over and punch the button himself. Starship operation was new to all of them, and the pace was grating.

At last, the zero second came. On the monitors that showed the rear and bottom of the ship, fire blossomed out of the vents in the rear and bottom, and, slowly but surely, the starship tore itself free of the spot where it had lain for centuries and rose majestically toward the sky. We all gasped in awe, but then bent quickly back to our tasks. There would be plenty of time to gape at the taped replays.

The ship's rate of climb accelerated, and it was soon rising swiftly into the night. "There's gonna be a mess of UFO sightings in this area today," Jolene Frankel observed.

"Yes, that's quite possible," I said distractedly, searching for the radio headset I had misplaced. I finally found it and pulled it on. "George? George, this is Frank. Do you copy?"

On the screen, George looked up and said, "Yes, perfectly. It's beautiful up here, Frank. You can't imagine what it's like."

I looked at one of the external monitors. "I can guess," I said drily.

"Oh, that's right, you have the screens. Well, you really should see it in person."

"Maybe I will someday. Right now, we've got some work to do. The satellites have to be launched."

"Oh, of course. Don?" he called to someone off screen. "Get us in position for satellite deployment."

"Roger, George." He and his crew were on a first-name basis.

Over the next few hours, the ship launched a series of twenty satellites. Some of these were commercial--when we began to run out of university funding, some bright boy had suggested selling satellite space. "After all, we've got plenty of room."

The rest of the satellites--eight in all--were camera packages for long-distance observation of the spacefold. It took a while to get them all on-line, but finally they were, and we were ready to go.

"Spacefold minus twenty minutes." Once again, a buzz of feverish activity. George punched buttons and flipped switches all over the place. In the engine room, the great glass chambers in the center of the room were pulsing with an eerie blue light.

"Spacefold minus ten minutes." By now, everybody had settled down to the routine. George had beaten it into their heads that if this procedure went wrong, they could end up in an unknown galaxy or drop off of the space-time continuum altogether. They had drilled for this over and over again, until they were confident that they had it right. And it appeared that they did.

At spacefold minus two minutes I talked to George once again, to say my final goodbyes. "It's been nice knowing you, George," I said, realizing the instant after I said it how utterly ludicrous it sounded.

"Heh, heh, well, it's been nice knowing you, too. I'll bring back a nice alien girlfriend for you."

"Oh? You'd better keep her, you need all the girlfriends you can get!"

Then we got more serious. "Good luck, George," I said. "I realize I may never see you again, so I want to tell you that you were always a great guy, and I'm going to miss you."

"Hey, hey, I'm not dead yet," George said. "No need for all that mushy stuff. And it's not goodbye. I'm coming back, no matter what. And I'm going to bring stuff that'll set the American scientific community on its ears!"

Then the fold began. On the satellite views, the ship started to shimmer, as waves of energy washed over it. On the ship's cameras, it was space that was shimmering. As the ship began to fade, so did the transmissions. George said, "So long!" and then all the monitors faded to static, except the ones on the satellites. The ship was gone from earthspace. Earth's first interstellar expedition had begun!

There was a cooling-off period after the departure. The six of us had never really gotten blase about Sanga Stentor, and it took a while for us to get used to the idea that it was really gone.

At last we all came back to reality, and we realized that we had quite a job to do. I supervised the transferral of our artifacts and test data to the university I administrated, promising the department heads, "Now you're going to see some results!"

And they did. We released a few of the technological discoveries soon afterward. News of these "new finds" appeared in several obscure journals, usually under false names. I was still paranoid about the government finding out about the starship, and had drilled that paranoia into the other five technicians who had stayed behind.

It was those new technological processes that, among other things, accounted for the giant leap forward that computer technology took about then and made possible the increases in precision among surgical lasers at that time. We were careful only to release things with purely civilian applications, to avoid the use of this awesome technology for war and to avoid the government becoming curious enough to try to dissect our golden goose.

Meanwhile, my techs and I, along with a select team of scientists whom I had sworn to secrecy, were trying to analyze the other things we had brought back with us, including some of the particle beam rifles that the natives had observed the aliens using.

Five years later, I was dozing in my overstuffed chair in my study at home, when the phone rang. "Hello?" I said sleepily.

"Hello, Frank, this is George."

"George?! How the--? What the--?"

"Don't try to talk back. I can't hear you. You see, at the speed of light, I'm still about twelve hours out. I wouldn't hear anything you had to say for almost an entire day after I'm sending this message out, and this is a one-way transmission anyway." The voice on the other end chuckled. "You might call it the longest-distance call in the history of the earth."

"I'm just glad it's not collect," I muttered to myself.

"I managed to tap into the cellular microwave transmission frequencies, and this signal should reach your phone. If it doesn't, you're not hearing this anyway. I only hope you haven't moved.

"As I intimated before, I'm on my way back in. Boy, have I got a story to tell. Get down to the launch site and get everything ready. If it's impossible to make a landing at the launch site, call me on the following frequency--" He named a wavelength on the shortwave band. "--and give me an alternate site. Until then, adios." The line clicked, and I heard a dial tone.

For about five minutes, I sat there, struck dumb. Then I picked up the phone and dialed Jolene Frankel. "Jolene, pack your things," I said. "He's coming back."

In under eight hours, we were there. I had chartered a private plane with some of the money I had made off of the "breakthrough" releases. Jolene and I, along with some of the scientists who made up our analysis team, walked through the door of the blockhouse. The on-duty technician (we always kept at least one member of our little fraternity on duty there to take care of any little problems that might arise) looked up in surprise at so many people filing in. "It's the ship," I explained. "I just received word that it was on its way back. Everybody, stations. I'm going to try to contact George on the sublight."

"The sublight" was a special hyperspace communicator we had rigged up a couple of years after George had left, from some components brought back from the ship. It was a very low powered transmitter, but it had seemed like it should serve.

"Earth station calling Sanga Stentor. Earth station calling Sanga Stentor. George, do you copy. Please respond. Over."

A screen in front of me crackled to life. It was George himself! He looked a little older, and perhaps a little wiser, too. "Frank! You don't know how long I've waited to hear your voice."

"Yes, it's been a long time. Five years."

"Five years? That's funny. For me and my crew, it was only three years."

"We theorized that spacefolding would warp the space-time continuum like that. It must be true," I answered.

"Yes, it must. But how did you rig up that hyperspace communication system you're using?"

"Parts from the ship," I said proudly. "So what happened on that long voyage of yours?"

"That'll have to wait until I get back," George chuckled. "But what major events have occurred on Earth while I've been unavailable?"

"Oh, quite a few things. The Berlin Wall came down, there was a reorganization of the Soviet government, and there was a war in the Persian Gulf. Seems an Iraqi tyrant invaded Kuwait, and we had to go over there and oust him.

"More recently, a new space station we launched a couple of years ago in the interest of 'peace' was misconstrued as an installation for war, and that started another World War. The 'Global Civil War' is what we call it."

"You don't seem very concerned about it," George said.

"Well, it's mostly over in Europe and Asia anyway, and it looks like it'll wind down before '93." How wrong I was! "Actually, though, I can't help but feel partially responsible. Some of the technology used to place that station in the sky came from the Sanga Stentor."

"What?! You mean you actually sold some of the technological breakthroughs we discovered here?" George seemed to be aghast. I hastened to reassure him.

"Relax, it's not what you think. We just took out a few patents and wrote articles in obscure science journals. We were careful to avoid anything that could be even remotely connected with weapons. It seems, however, that we inadvertantly caused a war anyway."

Since I had explained, George was understanding. "Relax. Things like that happen."

"It was money from those patents that allowed us to purchase the landing site and surrounding area against the possibility that something might happen. So, you might say, this car paid for its own garage."

"I see. Okay, now you've nothing to do but wait. In a couple of days, this bird will be home."

And so it was. I worried that astronomers would see it, but George told me he'd gotten around that possibility by painting the hull black. That gave me pause--how could he have painted the entire outer surface of that behemoth? I decided not to worry about it until he got back and could explain.

Three days later, as I said, it set down in the spot from which it had originally taken off. It was, as George had said, a gleaming black color instead of the bright green it had shown when it had been launched. Nonetheless, as it settled back to earth, I knew that it was back where it belonged.

The airlock hatch slid open, and George stepped out. He was thinner but still in great shape, and he was tanned dark from the light of some alien sun. He was wearing some alien uniform or something, and an odd-looking rifle was slung across his back. His eyes were sparkling. We embraced.

"It's good to be home," George said at last. "You don't know how long I've been dreaming of this return."

"Three years?" I asked.

"Closer to two. But I didn't want to let the scientists down." He jerked his head at the inside of the ship. "Boy, have I got a story to tell. While the techies are bringing the log recordings, sensory scans, and videotapes in, I'll tell it to you." He jerked his head at the nearby jungle. "Come on, let's take a walk."

Ten minutes later, we were strolling in the verdant greenery of the Sao Pepitan jungle. George started his story.

Frank, it was a wierd feeling being in spacefold. There were these odd visual distortions--like heat waves, everywhere you looked.

It lasted for about twelve hours, then we came out of hyperspace above the Masters' original homeworld. You should have seen it--the first bona fide alien planet we had ever looked down upon. It had more land than we do, and most of it looked gray and hazy. It was only later that we learned that the Masters' wastefulness and self-gratification was the reason for those gray areas. The planet had been made mostly into desert, and there were hardly any living beings left upon its surface.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We set down where the computer said the main source of civilization was. Apparently things had changed dramatically since the Sanga Stentor had been crafted. The city was in ruins. Still, the archaeologists were ecstatic about it.

We stayed there for almost a year. During that time, we dug out what records we could and put them through the translator. We got a very unforgiving picture of the Masters.

Before stealing the secrets of Primal Culture, the Masters had still been a brutal race, even more so than humans. They had totally exhausted the resources of this planet and several others before settling the Tirolian planet where they live today--if they still live. They still maintained the use of that planet for storage of some of their voluminous records.

But apparently, some catastrophe had occurred very recently, destroying that city in an earthquake and fire. Either that, or the Primal Culture aliens had struck again. The latter, I believe, is more likely. Anyway, the city, which was the only place where records were being kept, was mostly destroyed. But most of the records remained intact. I brought them back with me for our perusal.

Ah, Primal Culture. From what we found on that planet, I've deduced that Protoculture is probably closer to their actual name for it, and Invid is likely to be the real name of the symbiotic creatures who it was stolen from. I'll use those terms from now on.

Anyway, that's about all that was new in those records. There were some technological discoveries, things like that, but they aren't important right now. There's just one more thing that I ought to tell you: About four years ago, the scientist who discovered Protoculture--his name is recorded as Zor--finally succumbed to his feelings of guilt about what he had done to the Invid. He stole a great battlefortress--about twice as big as Sanga Stentor--and vanished. The fortress had the last Protoculture factory aboard it--without it, there could be no more of that miraculous power source. I believe that they're still looking for it. They've sent their T'Sentrati after it. I really hope they don't find it. If they did, it would mean that the galaxy would be under the yoke of the Masters for a long, long time, and sooner or later they would get around to dear old Planet Earth. And that is something I never want to see happen.

But, as I said, we stayed there for about a year. Then we ran into trouble.

Apparantly our coming out of fold had created detectable emanations in the ether, for how else could the Invid have known we were there? It took them almost a year to find us--perhaps pinpointing the exact location took time, or perhaps they were just on a patrol. Anyway, they found us, and they descended upon us as we were conducting an experiment with some of the particle beam rifles we found in the ship. We were trying to cut through some of the Masters' building materials, to see if we could hasten the speed of the dig. It was extremely lucky we had those rifles. As it was, ten of the scientists died without knowing what hit them. I still shudder when I think of that day.

You should have seen the Invid ships. If I find a picture in those records, I'll show it to you. They were awful. It was like--like a combination of an insect and the pods carried on board this ship, with claws, and a single sensor eye in the nose of the thing. Some of them had two plasma cannons mounted bazooka style, one on each shoulder. I don't think that anything even remotely human was driving them.

It was extremely lucky for us that some of our technicians had served as "advisors" in Vietnam or other places, like I had. We were able to use the rifles to hold them off until one of us could reach the ship and activate the hundred or so pods stowed, we had learned, for just such an emergency. We discovered that by aiming for the eye, we could kill whatever was within--green slimy stuff came dripping out and they stopped moving, so they had to be dead.

The pods arrived and saved the day. It was then that I knew we had to leave. There were probably more of the alien monsters on the way. Some scientists wanted to stay and study the remains of the aliens, and some wanted to actually take them on board, but I wouldn't have it. "NO WAY," I said, "am I allowing those slimy things on board MY ship." It convinced them. It wasn't so much the way that I said it, as it was that I was holding a particle beam rifle on them at the time.

I was in favor of high-tailing it back to Planet Earth, but the others wanted to fold to a new set of coordinates that were supposedly the location to which one of the factory satellites--the giant space stations where battleships were built--had been moved. I acquiesced, figuring that, as long as we had the supplies for it, we might as well do a little more exploring.

We came out of fold near the satellite. It was occupied. I nearly had a heart attack right then. But thanks to one of our technicians, I was able to fool the T'Sentrati in charge of the factory into thinking I was another T'Sentrati --he mocked up backgrounds and made me up to look like one of them. It didn't take much, really. And since I learned to speak fluent T'Sentrati during the ten-month exploration, it really wasn't a problem.

The satellite was gigantic. It must have been 30 miles in diameter! You can't imagine how small and insignificant our ship looked against such a behemoth. Some of the scientists wanted to get out and check out the technology there, but that was clearly out of the question. I reminded them that Zentraedi were 80 feet tall, and that there was probably no way we could fool them into thinking that we were Masters.

I had the ship fully repaired and brought back to optimum condition. Also painted black, because of some strange inspiration. It only took a couple of days.

Then luck struck. A call came through saying that there was an Invid attack on a nearby planet and all the available Zentraedi were needed to help repel the aliens. I hedged by saying that my ship was not ready yet, but that I would be there as soon as it was.

The instant they folded out of there, the scientists were all over me asking to be let out. I acceded to the request this time, but with the stipulation that every scientist had to carry with him a gun like this one I have on now. We all got pretty used to carrying them, and that's why I have this one with me now.

The T'Sentrati never returned, and we were left alone there. For two years we stayed and studied the mechanics of the satellite. We could have stayed for twenty and still not discovered all its secrets. Finally, as our supplies began to give out, I made the decision to finally come home. We folded to a region just outside of Pluto, and the rest you know.

It was quite a tale. "And, you say you have records?" I finally asked.

"Oh, yes. From both the factory satellite and the Masters' homeworld. The history, achievements, and technologi cal secrets of a tyrannical race. Millennia of advancements. It will take decades to study them all. And perhaps, if we can just learn from the Masters' mistakes, we could become a better, more peaceful race. We'll have to be very careful in the release of these documents. If the Masters' weapons were to fall into the wrong hands, it could very well be a catastrophe on the same scale as a nuclear war."

At that instant, there was a rustling in the underbrush beside the trail. George's rifle was instantly in his hands. "Who's there!" he yelled. "Stop right where you are!"

Instead, there came a stream of bullets out of the brush that barely missed George. George fired from the hip, and the streak of blue light hit home. A camouflaged body with a hole burned through its torso fell right in front of us. George turned the man over with his foot. He was holding one of the new Mac-9 submachineguns, and his uniform had an American flag on it.

"Oh, no," George muttered. "I've killed one of our own men." Then he said, "Oh, no!" again, louder, as he realized the implications. "We must get back to the ship!" He turned and started running.

Like an idiot I stood there and asked, "Why? What is it?"

He turned and glared at me. "I don't know how, but somehow the government found out about our little technology heap! They waited until it was back, and now they're coming to take possession of it because they want weapons that could help them win their little Global Civil War!"

I finally understood. "Oh my gosh, let's move!" We ran back through the jungle to the site. As we ran, George pulled out what looked like a stylized walkie-talkie and yelled into it, "Bergman! Needlethorpe! Stand by for emergency defense plan Theta 99! Stand by for emergency defense plan Theta 99! Execute on my orders! Out!"

"What was that?" I asked.

"To tell them to prepare to destroy the records if anything should happen. I have to get to the ship." He pulled out his walkie-talkie again and yelled orders at various other crewmen, ordering them to man the gun turrets or take up rifles to form a defensive perimeter.

Back at the ship, Thompson, the electrician, was passing out particle beam rifles. I took one and armed it with ease, as I had learned to do with the samples we had taken earlier for testing. "Don't let them get to the ship!" George yelled.

For a while, nothing happened. We were beginning to think that it had all been a coincidence. Then we heard the wop-wop-wop-wop of helicoptor blades as a gunship drew into position overhead, and knew it was anything but. A loudspeaker blared out, "This is the U.S. Army! We have you surrounded! Throw down your arms!"

Several of us aimed our rifles at the helicoptor, but then I realized what we were doing. "Don't do it!" I yelled. "Don't shoot at that helicoptor or we'll be just as bad as the aliens!"

The person in the helicoptor must have thought I was crazy. But I was getting through to those on the ground. George realized what I was saying and lowered his weapon as well. "All of you! Hurry! Throw your rifles into the ship! I'm going to take it where they'll never get their hands on it and we don't want them to get those weapons! Bergman, Needlethorpe! Execute Theta 99!"

The two crewmen in question turned their particle beam guns on a small pile of disks, tapes, and printouts that had been made by the ramp. It caught fire and burned rapidly. They threw their guns through the hatch along with the others, then jumped back. George ran up the ramp, stopping just long enough to say, "So long! We'll meet again someday!"

The ramp slid shut. The helicoptor continued hanging there. No doubt its occupants were baffled by our strange behavior. I siezed the initiative and yelled, "Hey! Everybody! Into the jungle! We'll meet at the airstrip, if the Army hasn't gotten there already!" Before I could have counted to three, the clearing was bare of people.

Fortunately, the Army hadn't gotten around to landing anybody at our airstrip. We all piled aboard the Lear jet that had brought us all to that place and left. I was the last one aboard. I had stopped at our blockhouse to activate the plasma device we had built in as a self-destruct, just in case. As we took off, there was a gigantic fireball behind us in the jungle, a fitting end to our doomed attempt at bettering mankind.

After that, we all went into hiding in various places around the world, to keep away from the clutching arms of any world government that could use our knowledge for war-like purposes. As for the research we'd been conducting at the university, a phone call from the cabin of the Lear jet took care of that. I was very glad that I had allowed for this happenstance by salting a good deal of money away in a Cayman Island bank under a different name. It wasn't a very great sum, but certainly enough to allow me to live out the rest of my years in security.

So I lived for almost eight years on a small island in the Pacific, getting all my news from the television and the radio. After about the fourth year, it became too depressing to listen to anymore. I packed away my radio, sent my T.V. set to the bottom of the ocean, and spent the remaining time reading and rereading my great library of books and looking at the sunsets.

But then, eight years after my self-imposed exile, it happened. A great streak split the night skies overhead, and there was a great explosion seconds later, somewhere over the horizon. I survived only because of the nuclear fallout/storm shelter I had constructed deep inside the island.

When I emerged, days later, I discovered that there was nothing left of my house except a few randomly scattered boards.

Fortunately, I had stored my radio in the fallout shelter. I turned it on and heard the news about "the visitor" who had come in the night, the mighty star-behemoth destined in future years to become the SDF-1, and, I later surmised, Zor's errant fortress. How ironic that, despite all that we had done, we were to get that alien technology at last!

But at that time, though I had my suspicions, I wasn't sure of them. I used my motorboat, which I always moored in a cave connecting to my fallout shelter, to get back to the mainland and join an expedition of scientists who were to explore the ship. For me, it was deja vu, and for others, as well. Among the number of that expedition, I noted several of the scientists who had been maintainance techs, later hired scientists to help with the technology analysis, or even crew of the Sanga Stentor. I managed to talk to them, and found to my surprise that they were now working for the newly-formed world government. None of them had heard anything from George, so we surmised that he probably didn't feel it was safe to bring the Sanga Stentor back to earthspace quite yet.

Another member of the expedition was Dr. Emil Lang, one of the scientists I had tried to get for the original repair and again later for technology analysis, but the first time he had been unwilling, the second time unavailable. I chatted with him some, and he told me that he was aware of the earlier UFO landing. "It is too bad that the government moved so quickly," he said. "Think of all the good things we could have done for mankind with that technology. Ah, well, what's done is done. We'll speak no more of it, and I will not tell anybody else about your background. I would advise you, however, to tell the Council about it, as your colleagues did. Because of your experience, they would assign you a high position on the exploratory team."

"Thank you for the advice, but I think I prefer being the little guy, remaining unnoticed and in the background," I replied.

We were airlifted by helicoptor to the carrier Prometheus, Henry Gloval's ship, and from there to Macross Island, site of the crash. We explored the ship, set up a camp, and finally built cabins.

Two months after the landing, George stumbled into my house.

He was haggard, pale, worn, and wearing the tatters of a uniform similar to the one he'd worn the last time I saw him. It was all he managed to do to stumble into the place and collapse on the floor. I transferred him to the bed and called the island medic, slipping him a hundred dollars to stay quiet about the strange man on the island. It was then that I noticed that George's eyes were like Dr. Lang's had become after the accidental Protoculture infusion (for thus I had realized it was) on the exploration mission.

It took several days for George to recover fully. On the day after he staggered in, when he was able to talk, I asked, "George? Did you come back in the Visitor?"

He nodded.

"Is the Visitor Zor's lost fortress?"

He looked like he really didn't want to answer, but he realized that he would have to. "Yes. But--" he gasped for breath "--but you must never tell anyone else about it, or about Protoculture. Tell the others. Call it--" and here I sensed a touch of humor "--call it the last wish of a dead man. For the old me is dead, and dead it will stay."

"But why not? Why shouldn't the world know?" I asked.

George took another few gasping breaths. "I can't tell you what's happened to me in the years since the government invasion, but I can tell you this. I have seen the future. I have seen the course of human history over the next fifty years, and I know that it must continue as I have seen it, without the great revelations we could provide. Call it--the will of the Protoculture, or the shapings. Dr. Lang would probably understand, but you are not to tell him, not until he discovers it for himself. Then--then I may not be around.

"Just do as I say. It isn't good for any culture to know its future or to know anything that it will not learn for ten or twenty more years. Less so for any one individual of that culture.

"Our talk has exhausted me. Let me rest."

That was the last productive talk we had on the subject. He never would say anything more about it, always repeating, "There are some things humans were never meant to know."

But he talked in his sleep. He would make cryptic references to Protoculture and the 'shapings', and sometimes address Zor. Had he met the scientist, talked to him? I was never able to find out, nor were any of the others whom George called in one by one to deliver his cautionary address regarding knowledge. And one by one, they all promised to hold back on the knowledge until that time when all might be revealed.

George had been right when he had said that he'd changed. In my eyes, the old George was truly dead. Before leaving in the T'Sentrati ship, he'd been a happy, carefree person. Now he looked and acted like he carried the weight of the world on his troubled shoulders. And, bearing in mind what he had said, perhaps he did. To know all the triumphs and failures, gains and losses, and other important events of the next fifty years, but able to do nothing to stop or change them would be a horrible burden for any man to carry.

When he was fully recovered, George left the island. He told me he was going to retire to a small farm of his in Connecticut where he could contemplate the strange nature of the universe without interruption. He told me that he wanted to be as far away from the SDF-1 as possible. When I asked him what SDF-1 meant, he gasped and looked very guilty. "Sorry. Slip of the tongue. You'll know what I mean soon enough." And then George was gone, taking a jet I chartered back to North America.

And now, three years later, I do know what George meant. Barely three weeks ago, the United Earth Government council announced that SDF-1 was to be the designation of the Visitor upon the completion of its repair. That was what inspired me to write this story, although it will not be published until everybody else has learned exactly what Protoculture is. I promised that to George, and it is a promise I intend to keep. I have placed a clause in my will to that effect.

At the beginning of this tale, I said that mankind had missed a great discovery. Now, I think we have another chance.


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