The cruel cries of her fellow schoolchildren made Sarah cringe as usual. She curled her skinny frame into a ball. Her stomach twisted with anxiety and she felt sick. She pulled at her red curls in distress. She was in a cold sweat and trembling like a butterfly’s wings on a windy day.
She blinked back tears. It was true. She was a cripple. Ever since the day that a drunken fool in a ground car slammed into her while on the way to school. It wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t make any difference to her jeering classmates. Children can be cruel, they say, and perhaps fourteen year olds, all messed up themselves with burgeoning hormones, are the cruelest of all.
“Sarah! Are you okay? Snap out of it!” Her father’s voice yelled from the dark.
It was a dream, then. A dream of the past. She opened her eyes, shook her head and tried to remember where she was now. Her body rested within hard metal, her floater, she recalled. Her head span. She moved her arms to make sure they still worked.
They still worked.
She had no legs, just a battered second-hand floater her Dad had picked up cheap and managed to repair.
That was why the other kids had called her a cripple.
She looked up and saw his face as he bent over her anxiously. The familiar care worn features with the fierce red beard and piercing blue eyes helped her recover some composure. “I’m okay, Dad.”
“I’ll try to keep you that way,” he muttered as the spaceship shook once again under the force of a nearby torpedo burst. The attacking aliens had not destroyed them because they wanted both the prisoners and their ship intact but clearly their patience was wearing thin.
Her father’s voice rang out again as he shouted into the communicator. “Mayday! Mayday! This is the space yacht Hope calling Gliese IV. We are under attack!”
The ship rocked violently again.
He managed a grin. “Senator Chang isn’t going to like the condition of his space yacht, if we manage to deliver it at all.”
Sarah nodded and checked her floater. There were a few dents from where it had crashed into the starboard bulkhead when the first torpedo shook them, but she thought it might still work. She pressed a switch on the remote control in her right hand and the device rose a foot or so into the air.
“I’m still mobile, Dad.”
“Good. Break out the spacesuits, darling. We may need to abandon ship, shortly. And check the lifepods are still intact, too.” The pods were basically metal eggs big enough for one person with a few days supply of air, water and food. He turned back to the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! Space yacht Hope calling Gliese IV. Please, help us!”
Even as he shouted into the radio he maneuvered the yacht, swerving this way and that to make it a more difficult target. Sarah knew her Dad was one of the best pilots in the Free Federation, which was why he had been hand-picked by Senator Chang, the richest man on Earth, to deliver the Hope to the Senator’s holiday home on Gliese IV.
Right now he probably regretted taking the job.
At first it had gone well. Her father, Mike Grady, had been delighted to get work as a pilot again, even if it was only a one off. He had been court-martialled out of the Federation space force when he refused to bomb civilian targets in the Mars rebellion. Word got around that he was out of favour with people who counted and he’d not been able to get a decent job. He had scratched along as a dishwasher, waiter, labourer and so forth.
When Sarah lost her legs in the ground car crash he couldn’t afford prosthetic replacements or even a new floater. For a few months Sarah had coped with an old-fashioned wheelchair. Finally Mike located an old broken floater that was going cheap and managed to repair it. Times had been tough.
So when the piloting job came up, father and daughter, both enjoyed the luxurious furniture, sauna, swimming pool and well stocked larders of the fabulous ship which they now had all to themselves. They had entered Hyperspace just outside the solar system and re-entered normal space a few parsecs from their destination star. Then, as they approached the Gliese system they encountered a mysterious, gigantic vessel hovering near one of its gas giants, Gliese VIII.
The vessel ignored them and Mike Grady had decided not to hail it. Because it was a huge sphere, completely grey all over with no protuberances or features of any kind. It’s size was mind boggling, he had told Sarah. Almost the size of a city on Earth. Pointing out no such ship had ever been seen before to his knowledge and probably belonged to an unknown species. As long as it ignored them, he was happy to ignore it.
They had been discussing the giant sphere when the other aliens attacked.
“What the . . . ! Mike jumped quickly to his feet as the space yacht rocked from side to side, its internal gravity systems disrupted by some exterior force. “Monitors, on!”
The screens lit up just as another explosion occurred. In space it was obviously silent, but they could see it, and they felt the force of the shock wave.
Seconds later the radio had crackled into life. “Earth ship! This is the Nautiwan ship Barefang. Surrender your vessel.”
“D . . . rat!”
Her father would have cursed more freely had his daughter not been present. She knew why. The Nautiwans were infamous, a reptilian race that thought war was the greatest achievement of sentient beings and pursued it endlessly. They were not numerous, yet, in the sectors of space which Earth had colonized they were reputed to be expanding their sphere of influence. There had been reports of Nautiwan raids on some outlying colonies, such as Gliese IV.
That’s when their next torpedo blast had slammed her floater into a bulkhead and she lost consciousness.
Now she leaned forward on her floater trying to extract the emergency spacesuits from a locker. She was in the cargo hold of the yacht, with the kitchen and living area between her and the control room where her father struggled. The space yacht was luxuriously outfitted and must have cost Senator Chang several million credits. He could afford it. His brother was the President of the Earth Federation, head of a network of corrupt business and political interests who ran the whole thing to suit themselves.
She yanked the last spacesuit from the locker and spilled the whole pile over the side of the floater.
“Oh darn it!”
Leaning sideways at a precarious angle she managed to scoop them off the floor and draped them over the front of her floater. Then she turned it carefully and moved forward to rejoin her father. They would don the suits, clamber into the life pods, launch them and hope the Nautiwan would ignore the prisoners in favour of the valuable yacht. When the aliens had gone they could start broadcasting distress signals and pray someone would pick them up.
It was a long shot.
It was their only chance.
At that moment there came the most violent explosion yet. A torpedo must have gone off very close to the ship. The Nautiwan were getting impatient.
Sarah floated into the control room. “Dad?”
Then she saw him, crumpled up in a corner and unconscious. Encumbered by the floater it would not be easy for her to help him. Without it she could not move at all. Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes.
“Oh darn it! Oh darn it!”
Then the communication speaker sounded.
“Surrender your vessel. Prepare to receive a boarding party.”
She turned and floated over to the control panel. There was a large screen at the front of the room, doubtless put there so that the important Senator who owned the yacht could hold conferences while in space. Her father had not turned it on before, mostly so that the alien attackers would not know there were only two of them. That bluff had failed.
Sarah thought she would try another.
She turned the monitor on and cut it into the communications channel. Now the Nautiwan could see her and she could view them. She saw a group of humanoids with lizard-like heads, sharp teeth and scaly green skin. They wore military uniforms and had pistols strapped to their sides. She knew that they were a very militaristic race who”s credo was the survival of the fittest. The weak, the disabled, even the severely injured were ruthlessly put to death on their home planet. No cripples on Nautiwan.
She was counting on that.
She moved the floater directly in front of the screen so that they would be able to see all of her.
“Who are you?” said the commander. The universal translator built into the ship”s computer translated his words into English but with an appropriate hissing intonation.
“I am from the large ship over there,” Sarah pointed vaguely in the direction of the huge grey alien sphere, “and we have claimed this small vessel for our own use. We wish to study it and the beings aboard. Do not interfere.”
The small group of Nautiwans stared at her from the monitor. She saw their eyes go to her floater, noticing the absence of human legs. Then the speaker crackled.
“What race are you?”
Sarah’s mind raced. Oh darn it, oh darn it, oh darn it – what race. “I am an Odarnit”, she said, trying to conceal her desperation.
“An Odarnit?” The lizard headed creature looked suspicious.
“You resemble the Earthlings,” said the reptile behind him. He glanced at the communications panel before him. “You speak in their tongue.”
Sarah bluffed. “Your translators could not cope with the sophistication of my own language,” she said. “We do resemble the Earthlings. In fact, we suspect that they may be a young offshoot of our own much older race, for when we were a younger species we roamed the galaxy and may have left some seed behind.” Sarah had picked up this notion from a comic book or possibly a movie. It might have been true.
“It is not usual in the galaxy for two races to look so similar,” said another. There was a small crowd of them in view now. Sarah could imagine them warily watching the giant alien ship on another monitor.
Sarah shrugged then realized the gesture was probably meaningless to them. “All the intelligent species we have seen are similar in shape. Obviously, your race evolved from reptiles rather than mammals but your limbs have the capability to make tools and your brains are large enough to organize societies. That is the key starting point for advanced civilization.”
The Nautiwan at the front pointed to the Floater. “You are short of limbs.”
“We have evolved beyond them,” said Sarah quickly. “We no longer need them.”
“Then what is the machine for?” demanded another.
It is lying!” said a third, pointing angrily. “It has no means of locomotion without the machine!”
“No!” Sarah shouted. “That’s not true.” Desperately she looked to her left. Her father was still unconscious in the corner, his four limbs tangled in an ungainly heap.
No help there.
Another Nautiwan stepped forward and spoke decisively. “The creature may not be human but it is not from the giant ship.”
The one nearest the front of the crowd nodded. “Prepare to board the human ship.”
“No!” Sarah almost screamed the word.
At that moment the image on the monitor shook violently. Sarah stared as the Lizards suddenly dashed about in confusion, shouting commands and looking, if reptile body language was similar to human, panicked.
A new voice came over her speaker, and she could hear it coming from the Nautiwan ship as well.
“Stop this,” it said. The voice came over as deep and authoritative in English, probably similar in the hissing tongue of the Nautiwan. “We will not allow you to steal what belongs to another, nor to kill sentient beings.”
The screen went blank. The Nautiwan had ceased transmission. Sarah dashed over to the exterior view screen and saw that the huge alien ship, the sphere, had moved and was now looming over the Nautiwan vessel. Abruptly the lizard ship activated its ion drive and moved quickly away from the Gliese system. The Nautiwan were fleeing.
Almost shaking with relief she moved the floater over to her father, landed it and tried awkwardly to make him more comfortable. He stirred and moaned then woke up. He blinked at Sarah. “What happened.”
Briefly she explained her bluff and the events that followed.
“That was quick thinking, daughter. And clever. You’re right, of course. The Nautiwan are such fanatics about strength and competitiveness that they allow no injured or wounded to live. They consider them useless. As far as they’re concerned a human with no legs is not a human because such a thing shouldn’t exist. You used their own prejudices to fool them. That’s my girl.”
“It didn’t work for long. They were about to board when the real aliens interfered.”
Mike scratched his head. “Yes. As to that . . .”
She heard the monitor behind her crackle into life and turned.
A face stared out at them. The being looked almost human but had a longer head because the forehead was twice the height of an Earthman’s. It also had no ears that Sarah could see. Hair did not hide them because the hair it had, more or less where a man’s would be, was close cropped and black.
“Greetings,” it said. Then it looked at her floater and frowned. “You are damaged, young one. I do not understand. Your race has the technology to fix this.”
Mike gave a short, bitter laugh. “My race has the technology but I don’t have the cash. And I’m not going to get it when I deliver a space yacht that’s been shot to pieces, either.”
The being on the screen looked surprised, then nodded. “Ah, yes. You still operate a primitive monetary system to distribute goods and services. We have observed this. Never mind. We will fix you. There will be no monetary compensation required.”
Sarah could hardly breathe. “Thanks for driving off the Nautiwans.”
The alien looked sad. “They are still a primitive race for all their technological development. As is yours.”
Her father had stood up and was almost dancing with excitement. “You can really fix Sarah’s legs. You can give her a prosthetic pair that will work. You would do this?”
“It will be easy,” said the alien calmly. “We will bring you aboard our vessel so that it can be done soon. Then we will, if you permit, use you to take a message to your people on the planet you call Gliese IV. It is time our races met formally.”
Sarah gazed at him fondly. The alien had saved their lives and now he was about to fulfill her wildest dream.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The alien remained calm but smiled slightly. “I suppose,” he said, “I am an Odarnit.”
Sarah laughed untill her ribs ached.
Eamonn Murphy lives near Bristol, England and has spent the last 55 years growing up, reading Marvel comics and Golden Age SF, doing lots of menial jobs, drinking too much and generally wasting his time. Finally mature-ish, he has settled with a nice lady in the countryside and works for an animal feed company. He has been a reviewer for sfcrowsnest for several years and has published a few fantasy and science-fiction stories, most recently in Perihelion SF magazine.