Out of Space

A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 4: Ambush

For some reason, Horlun was selected as the spokesman for the newly-captured prisoners. Possibly because he was the only one who was present, conscious, and not snared in a big net at the time of capture. They had been taken deeper into the abandoned city to a large structure whose roof had collapsed long ago. Inside were tents and huts and more people wearing silvery labcoats. Horlun tried to find out who these people were, but his captors were very firm in their suggestion that he keep quiet, alluding to terrible consequences that might befall him if he didn’t.

They left Orliss, Anme, and Jen in a crude holding cell while Horlun was taken away to speak with the leader. He wasn’t especially thrilled about being alone, but at least he wasn’t helping carry Jen. She wasn’t particularly heavy for her height, but she was very tall.

After a few minutes standing alone in the largest hut, Horlun was joined by the leader of the tribe or whatever they were. He wore a labcoat like the others, but underneath was a futuristic business suit. His eyeglasses sported elaborate antennas on the corners. An off-center row of amber lights on his tie blinked in complex, possibly random patterns.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” asked the leader.

“My name is Horlun SoFah, and my friends and I were just looking around,” Horlun told them. “Who are you people?”

“Silence!” said the guard who had spoken during the capture. He sounded excited that he had the appropriate line for the situation memorized. “We shall ask the—”

His leader cut him off. “That’s all right, he may as well know who has captured him.”

The guard looked crestfallen. Horlun almost felt sorry for him.

“I am Doctor Knapsack. My colleages and I were researchers stationed here on Tangerine, but poor treatment by the Sonar Men and their less-sophisticated underlings forced us to walk out on our contracts and retreat to the forest for our own protection.” He looked pained. “Breaking a contract is something none of us enjoys, but conditions were simply intolerable. We could stand it no longer.” He stared at the tabletop, lost in angry memories.

After a few seconds of silence, Horlun couldn’t help asking for clarification. “Intolerable how?”

“They wouldn’t let us publish!” shouted the doctor. “The pursuit of knowledge is glorious in itself, but you can’t get work as a high-level scientist if you haven’t written any papers.” He started pacing, gesturing forcefully with one arm. “We’re here on some unknown, backwater planet pursuing ground-breaking research, and getting nothing for it. No recognition, no wealth, not even a decent cafeteria! And everywhere we looked, there were budget cuts—even though our project was successful. We surpassed expectations, so they gave us less money! What kind of logic is that?” He collapsed into the throne-like chair at the back of the grand hut and tried to regain his calm.

Horlun’s guard shifted uncomfortably. “Also, there were all those mysterious disappearances.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Between the budget and the staffing problems, I don’t know how they expected us to accomplish anything.”

“What sort of research were you doing?” asked Horlun.

Knapsack was instantly suspicious. “Why do you want to know? That information is proprietary, and we don’t take kindly to industrial spies.”

“Very not kindly,” affirmed the guard, poking Horlun in the back.

“I retract the question,” said Horlun.

Knapsack nodded. “Very well. Now, you claim that you and your friends are ‘passing through’, but there are no tourists on Tangerine and you clearly aren’t natives. The obvious hypothesis is that you work for the Sonar Men. What do you say to that?”

“Didn’t you just accuse me of trying to steal secrets from the Sonar Men?” Knapsack’s eyes narrowed, and Horlun quickly rushed on. “Our ship broke down in space, and the Sonar Men found us and brought us here. We started to think something was wrong, so we escaped and wandered this way. We have nothing to do with research or spies or anything.”

Knapsack leaned back and steepled his fingers. “What you say may be true. Mr Tangyfruit, take him back to the cell with the others. Once the hunters return, we’ll discuss our options.”

Jen should have recovered from the stun blast she had received, but perhaps like Orliss she had decided to take advantage of the forced inactivity to get some sleep. From what his cousin had said, there were two theories about sleep popular with space heroes. The first said that heroes should sleep soundly, so that they could catch quick naps under any circumstances and be well-rested when the need for quick action arose. The second said that heroes should sleep lightly, so that their enemies couldn’t kill them when their guard was down. (Those heroes whose species did not require sleep found the whole discussion amusing, although a few took sides for the sake of principle.)

Orliss, unsurprisingly, was partial to the first viewpoint.

“I don’t understand how he can be so relaxed,” said Anme once Horlun had settled himself in the cell and received the customary threats from the guards.

“It has something to do with being a hero,” Horlun explained.

Anme was not impressed. “Is his inability to figure out the washing machine also part of being a hero?”

“No, that’s just laziness.”

Jen groaned and rubbed her eyes. “I gotta stop doing that….” she mumbled.

“Doing what?” asked Horlun.

“Getting shot. One of these days, it’s gonna be something fatal.” She yawned, tried to stand, and quickly determined that her legs were still a bit wobbly.

Horlun nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I think Orliss took a course or two in Not Getting Shot.”

“And yet he falls asleep when being held prisoner by wrathful campers,” said Anme, poking the hero with a short twig. (When later asked why he hadn’t reacted, Orliss explained that he had subconsciously determined that Anme’s twig-poking was not intended as a serious threat and thus didn’t require him to wake up and defend himself.)

Jen returned to full consciousness in short order, gratefully accepting some of the water the scientists had left them. “My mouth gets really parched when I’m shot,” she explained. “I don’t really understand why. Just one of those things, I guess.”

Sensing that this conversation was not going to lead anywhere productive, Horlun suggested that they wake Orliss so he could explain their situation. He looked so peaceful, though, that none of them had the heart to disturb him. In fact, Anme and Jen started talking more quietly, despite his demonstrated ability to sleep through louder circumstances than these.

While the women exchanged increasingly cynical theories about what Roy was up to in his absence, Horlun sat quietly against a wall and tried to think. Normally, in situations like this (by which he meant the enforced waiting; he had been held prisoner very few times in his life) he would have his pad with him so he could take notes or listen to music. It was back on the ship now, of course, since he had been taken to the research center while he was unconscious and hadn’t been able to pack. That meant any creativity he experienced while on the run was unlikely to get recorded. The best he could do now was repeat phrases to himself in the hopes of comitting them to long-term memory, and he knew he had forgotten a few good ones. Worse yet was the possibility that he had come up with even better ones and then forgotten even that he had forgotten them.

He spent a few moments debating whether to ask their guards for some paper, but he couldn’t think of reasons why they would have any, much less be willing to share it.

Orliss awoke in time for supper, which their guards provided with less than their usual cheerfulness, such as it was. Horlun, unable to distract himself from the world, had noticed a gradually increasing agitation among the scientists in the camp. Now that the guards were becoming even more surly, he debated asking them what was happening. On the one hand, he was curious and there was a chance that whatever it was might affect them. On the other hand, he didn’t want to annoy the guards if they were already in a bad mood.

It was Orliss who guessed the most likely cause for the agitation, reminding Horlun yet again that his cousin did have training in these things, no matter how useless it seemed at times. After they finished eating, Horlun described his conversation with Knapsack.

“He said they’d decide what to do when the hunters returned,” Orliss noted. “Perhaps there’s been some evil afoot.”

“Or good,” countered Anme. “These guys might be the evil ones, so whatever happened to them would be the work of good.”

Orliss shook his head. “Not all battles are between good and evil, just the best ones. You can’t judge people by their enemies. It gets too confusing.”

“You think it could have been Roy?” asked Jen quietly.

That possibility made Horlun nervous, primarily because it would be very bad for the four of them if the scientists reached that conclusion. “Let’s not give people any crazy ideas. We don’t even know for certain that something went wrong.”

Jen wasn’t the only one to suggest that possibility. That night, Horlun struggled with sleep but it kept slipping from his grasp. The others had all gotten up earlier than him that morning, so they had drifted off without much trouble. Also, the ground wasn’t very comfortable. Supposedly, he and Anme had rejected the bourgeois need for ultra-plush slumber furniture, but in practice that just meant that they purchased lower-end models. Twigs and leaves were not his style.

While he lay there, he sensed the presence of one of the scientists who had captured them.

“Hey,” said the scientist. It was Fondao, the one who had been holding the gun.

“What?” asked Horlun.

“Lotsa people worried about the hunting party. Should have been back by now, but aren’t. If your friend did it, things get real bad for you.”

“Did what?”

Fondao just smirked and walked away.

For some reason, sleep did not come easily to Horlun that night.

Last to bed, first to arise, it seemed. The guards roused him shortly before sunrise, and Horlun sat up, blinking in the eerie light of the false dawn. Tangyfruit and the woman who had helped capture them were standing just outside the cell.

“You,” said Tangyfruit, pointing at Horlun. “‘Come with us if you’—ah—‘want to live.’”

Horlun did want to live, so he stumbled to his feet. Still, he tried talking them out of it before he let the two scientists lead him away. They didn’t say where they were going, and he didn’t ask, but even in the unfamiliar pre-dawn light he recognized the way to the Grand Hut, as he mentally called the place where he had met with Dr Knapsack. He wondered what had prompted them to summon him so early in the morning. One horrible possibility was that they were simply early risers.

There was a crude table set up in the Grand Hut, and seated around it were Knapsack, Fondao, a few silver-labcoat-clad people Horlun didn’t recognize, and Roy. Both the Terran and one of the new scientists were bandaged.


While the scientists discussed something among themselves, Horlun was shown to a seat next to Roy, who leaned over and asked how it was going.

Horlun was more interested in knowing how Roy could be so calm under the circumstances, but Knapsack spoke before he could ask. “Mr SoFah, you’re here. Excellent. We’ve just finished discussing what happened to the hunters and were preparing to get some coffee. Would you care for some?”

“Uh, no. Thanks.”

“Very well. Perhaps your friend could summarize events while we get ours.”

“Certainly,” said Roy.

Horlun watched as the scientists left, leaving him and Roy alone and unguarded. Perplexed, he turned to the grinning Terran. “I take it something good happened?”

“From a certain, unlikely-to-be-popular-among-our-hosts perspective, yes. But, based on what Knapsack and the others were saying, it’s good for us.” He glanced at his watch, then realized that he wasn’t wearing one. “I’ll try to make this short. After you guys got caught—”

“We were all caught,” Horlun corrected. “You just ran off afterwards.”

Another grin. “If you can run, you’re not caught. Anyway, I tried to follow you guys, but they took you through the middle of the plaza, and I couldn’t cut across without them seeing me. I skirted the edge, but you were moving diagonally and I couldn’t keep up. I saw where you left the plaza, but by the time I got there, you were long gone and I couldn’t pick up the trail.” He paused. “I’m not that good a tracker. It doesn’t come up much when you’re a space pilot.

“So anyway, I tried guessing which way you had gone and heading in that direction. After a while, it occurred to me that if you were released, you wouldn’t have any way of finding me, so I decided to go back to the plaza. I figured I’d stick around for a while and then leave a note or something.

“I think you can guess what happened next.”

Horlun thought for a moment. “You were jumped by elves who stole your smooth jazz recordings?”

“Not exactly, I… huh?”

“Sorry, I just hate that ‘I think you can guess’ cliché.”

“Okay. But as less avant-guarde people might have guessed, I was lost. Really lost. As in, alone on a planet with no food and no idea where anything is. It’s a terrible feeling, and for a while I thought it was the worst in the world, but then I thought, what if you were starving in a cage next to a big pile of food so you could smell it but not eat. That’d be worse.”

“You think distressing thoughts, Roy.”

“That’s why I try to avoid being lost and alone. After wandering around for a while cursing my stupidity and thinking very dark thoughts, I heard some shouting nearby. I ran over to see what was going on and slammed into Dr Zlakvr as he was turning a corner. He’s the one with the insect-looking eyes and the sideways mouth.

“I apologized and asked who he was, and he shouted, ‘There’s no time! It’s after us!’ That sounded like an invitation to me, or at least a warning not to stick around, so I followed him and Mr A’a, who had caught up while we were lying on the ground. We ran into a nearby building and climbed up to the roof. I wasn’t too sure about its stability, but I wasn’t too keen on meeting whatever we were running from, either, so I kept quiet.

“After a minute, nothing had happened, so I asked them what was going on. They were suspicious, so I told them I had been stranded on the planet and was looking for a way off. They knew I was hiding something, but I didn’t offer to explain further, since I was pretty sure they weren’t telling the truth about being here selling cookies to raise money for needy research projects. For example, they didn’t have any cookies.

“‘What are you running from?’ I asked.

“They looked at each other uncomfortably. ‘Nothing,’ said Zlakvr. ‘Just a local predator.’

“‘An origami, or are there things here worse than them?’

“‘Let’s not talk about it.’

“Now that seemed like a pretty strange attitude, but I decided to move on to other matters. ‘How long should we stay up here?’

“‘Until it goes away.’

“‘Where is it now?’

“‘We’re not sure.’

“‘Maybe it went away already.’

“‘No. Now that it’s seen us, it will assuredly attack. It’s just a matter of time.’

“‘Maybe we should go somewhere easier to escape from, then.’

“They looked at each other like I was crazy. I can’t read Zlakvr’s expressions very well, but that one seemed pretty clear to me. So I asked, ‘What should we do when it attacks?’

“They both lifted these sharpened metersticks they were carrying and pantomimed spearing. It looked like they knew what they were doing, so I relaxed and tried to get comfortable on the roof.”

“You didn’t ask why they were running from it instead of stabbing it with their spears?” asked Horlun.

Roy scratched his head. “No. That’s a good question, actually. It’s probably because they prefer to attack from above.”

“Hence the rooftop.”

“Yeah. So, eventually it arrived, and it was a blue origami like I thought.”

“The same one we fought?”

“If it was, then it managed to heal pretty quickly. It certainly looked the same, but how different can a folded paper monster look? Zlakvr and A’a both started watching it closely, while it paced back and forth in front of the building. We were two stories up, so I didn’t think it could jump up, but the smaller ones can fly so I asked if it could, too.

“‘With luck, it will take the stairs.’

“So we watched it for a while, but it just kept pacing instead of entering the building to get to the stairs or trying to climb the walls. Then suddenly Mr A’a gets attacked from behind and goes right over the edge. I think he managed to land well, but I was paying more attention to the rooftop where there was another blue origami, which was heading right towards me.”

“Must have been difficult running away when you were on the roof.”

“Hey, there’s no shame in retreating when you’re outmatched. I don’t carry around an armory like Jen; my weapon options on the roof were pretty much limited to loose shingles. Fortunately, Zlakvr was armed, and with the origami focusing on me, he was able to get close and spike it.”

“Spike it?”

“He held the meterstick up, over the center of the origami, and thrust straight down. The spearpoint went right through it and stuck into the roof. He wasn’t able to get a good shot in, because he was standing on the same level as the origami. They prefer to attack from above, because you can make a stronger thrust.

“Anyway, the one on the roof was still alive, but immobile, so we ran down the stairs to see what happened to A’a. It’s starting to get dark, and Zlakvr’s really nervous. Origami are tough to fight in the dark, apparently, because they don’t see the way we do. I also heard him mutter something about ‘Alpha revenge packs’, but then we’re on the ground floor running for the door.

“A’a’s outside, and he’s got some cuts on his face and arms. Otherwise, he looks really good for someone who just fell off a two-story building right next to a nasty predator. Those labcoats are more protection than you’d think. Zlakvr and I try to run and help, but we realize that neither of us has a weapon, since his spear is still with the origami on the roof. A’a’s using his to block, so he can’t really counterstrike. Zlakvr’s looking around frantically, but he clearly doesn’t have any idea what to do.

“I remember how the first one went after me, so I try waving my arms to get its attention. It works, and suddenly it’s lunging at me. A’a figures out what I’m doing, and tries stabbing it, but this one’s too smart. It kicks the spear out of his hand and leaps on top of him. They roll around for a bit and… well, I guess you don’t need a play-by-play.”

“Thank you.”

“Eventually, I get the spear and when it jumps between me and a wall, I stab it horizontally. It’s stuck to the wall, but it can wiggle its way out easier than the other one, so we take off. It’s dark now, and A’a and Zlakvr want to get home but they also don’t want to lead the origami back to the camp, so we take a really convoluted route.

“We got in a few hours ago and caught a short nap before the meeting this morning.”

“I think I can fill in the rest. The only part that confuses me is the way you started telling the story in past tense but ended it in present tense.”

Roy blinked. “Well, uh… that’s appropriate, I guess. It did end in the present, after all.”

“I suppose.” Horlun was pretty sure that changing tense in the middle of a story was poor style, but it was too early in the morning to think about that sort of thing. [@@lose the tense change?] Somehow, Roy had timed his story to end almost exactly as Knapsack and the others returned from getting the coffee. Horlun could recognize Zlakvr and A’a based on Roy’s descriptions, since one looked like a standard biped, while the other looked like a biped wearing a mask.

“Can I correctly assume that you understand the situation?” asked Knapsack as he took his seat at the head of the conference table.

“Roy explained what happened with him and the two scientists,” replied Horlun, “but I’m not sure what it means for our situation.”

Knapsack nodded approvingly. “Admission of ignorance is an essential part of the learning process. As it happens, this meeting will determine your fate.” He addressed the assembly: “We have two agenda items for today. First, we have captured five prisoners. They claim to be refugees from the Sonar Men, but might be spies or sabateurs. We must decide their fate.

“Second, there are at least two Alphas prowling around. We will need to determine an appropriate response from a security standpoint.”

Tangyfruit raised his hand, and was acknowledged by Knapsack. “Given the urgent nature of the second point, I move that we dispense with formal meeting proceedure according to section 4.16(a).”

A’a seconded and the motion was carried. Expediency would be the watchword of the day. Horlun watched the group reach that conclusion with a sense of growing dread that he couldn’t quite explain.

Roy passed Horlun a glass of water. “I think it’s going well.”

Horlun groaned. “I want to die.” The sun had risen hours ago, but the conference in the Grand Hut showed no signs of reaching any sort of conclusion. They had considered the same topics repeatedly for so long that Horlun couldn’t even say what had been discussed when.

They were on break now, and he and Roy had grabbed some snacks from a table at the side of the room and gone outside to breathe fresh air and feel the sun on their faces. Roy, in fact, was just leaning against the wall with his face upturned and his eyes closed.

“I think you’re being overdramatic,” he said.


“About wanting to die. Although if you’re really set on it, we might offer it to Fondao. Sort of a compromise.”

Horlun shook his head. “He wants us all dead. Just me wouldn’t be enough—if I had been serious when I said that, which I wasn’t.”

“I thought not.” The Terran returned his attention to absorbing sun rays, prompting Horlun to wonder where, exactly, Roy had acquired this sudden equanimity.

“You seem remarkably calm,” said Horlun. “What’s up?”

“I have a good feeling about this,” Roy explained. “These people have resources and know-how, and hate our enemies. Assuming we can convince them not to kill us, things could go pretty well.”

Unnerved by Roy’s abdication of doom-mongering, Horlun joined him in leaning against the wall and watched the activity in the camp, where a cluster of lab-coat-clad researchers were trying to work out the optimum shear angles for constructing stone hand-axes.

Almost before he knew it, it was time for the meeting to resume.

“—wouldn’t you agree, Mr SoFah?”

Horlun started, suddenly conscious of the reality around him. “I’m sorry, my mind must have wandered. What were we discussing?”

“Possible irrigation procedures. The details are on this handout, here.”

Horlun looked over the possibilites, and absently scratched his chin. I need to shave, he thought. Another disadvantage of being stranded on a backward planet. “What does this have to do with anything?” he asked finally.

Fondao snorted in derision, but Knapsack forestalled any further commentary. “You raise an excellent point,” he said, flipping through the agenda. “This issue doesn’t really relate to any of our urgent topics. Perhaps we should table it for now?”

“But we’re making such progress!” objected Dr Oebp. “We’re closer to a coherent irrigation policy than we’ve been for months.”

“Nonsense,” countered Zlakvr, “you only call the current policy incoherent because you disagree with it.”

“Perhaps,” noted Fondao, “irrigation policy more important when having actual agriculture.”

“Excellent point,” said Knapsack. “Someone make a note of that.” He looked around the table. “Has anyone been taking notes?”

By the time someone answered, Horlun’s mind had drifted back to Tumbolina.

Lunch was good, in that it was a lot better than the prison food he had eaten the previous night and the primitive coffee cake he had eaten that morning. Unfortunately, it was marred by the knowledge that it represented only a hiatus in the brief emergency meeting. Once it concluded, the memory of the meal slowly dissolved, like an early-morning dream.

Once everyone had been seated, Knapsack summarized the conclusions reached so far, forcing everyone to confront the fact that none of the considerable progress made that morning had dealt with either of the urgent issues the emergency meeting had been called to address. They spent some time denying individual responsibility until Roy suggested they provide some background on the blue origami.

An uncomfortable silence fell on the room. “What sort of background?” asked Knapsack, suspiciously.

“Well,” said Roy warily, “it’s clear from the way everyone gets real quiet when the subject comes up that your research team has no mysterious connection to them, and—”

“What do you know?” interrupted Knapsack.

“I’ve only been on the planet two days! Maybe three! My experience with the origami consists entirely of being attacked twice.”

“Twice?” asked Fondao. There was an edge in his voice.

Roy blinked. “Didn’t I mention that? We fought one off yesterday, before we visited the city.”

Knapsack, Zlakvr, and Fondao began a heated but quiet discussion at their end of the table. A few of the others watched Roy and Horlun with looks of anger, fear, resignation, and, in one case, indigestion.

“This doesn’t look good,” whispered Roy.

“If you get us all killed,” Horlun whispered back, “I will kill you.”

The trio at the other end looked up and Knapsack asked, “Can I assume that the… origami survived?”

Roy glanced at Horlun, his expression saying, You think you can do this better? The answer was no, but Horlun wasn’t in the mood to step down from a challenge.

“Yes,” he told Knapsack, “it crawled off after my cousin landed on it from above.”

Fondao stabbed a finger at them. “They brought it here! They have responsibility!”

“Let’s not be hasty,” said Knapsack. “Science teaches us not to jump to conclusions before the all evidence is considered.”

“Bah! You always saying science this and science that. If you love it so much, then marry it!”

Horlun caught a possible flicker of irritation in the leader’s expression. “I will take that under advisement.”

“I’m confused,” said Roy. “How could this possibly be our fault?”

“That is proprietary information,” said Knapsack, “further queries may result in—”

“Just tell them,” interrupted Zlakvr. “There’s no economic value there anymore.”

“It reflects badly on the company,” explained Knapsack.

“We don’t work for them any more. We’re in hiding from them. I say, to Gloom with their image.”

Knapsack tapped one finger on the table, then sighed. “Very well. The blue origami you fought is known as an Alpha. Our research team created them.”

Roy nodded, as though he had been expecting that.

“We were attempting to develop a creature that could be used for security or combat purposes, and this planet’s origami seemed well-suited. Their genetic structure is well-suited for modification, and they’re already flexible, resourceful, and prone to violence. The Alpha was our first attempt to refine those characteristics, but it turned out to be unsuitible for commercial use.

“In particular, we accidently gave them a strong revenge instinct. If an Alpha loses a fight, it tries to get reinforcements and attack again. They’re very persistent. Normally, origami won’t cross the band of megapapyrus reeds around the city, but they’re crossing now to try to kill you.”

“I thought the Alphas couldn’t survive in the wild,” said Oebp.

Zlakvr shook his head. “We added the chemical dependency with the Betas. That was another reason why the Alphas weren’t commercially viable: too big a risk they’d go off on their own.”

“So, if anything,” said Horlun, “this is your fault.” He realized what he just said and started furiously backpedaling. “Not that assigning fault is our foremost priority. No one can predict all outcomes, and fate is often a matter of chance. Or, free will itself may be an illusion, in which case no one is responsible for anything!”

There was a pause.

“Who’s up for another break?” asked Roy.

It was eventually decided that Orliss and Jen would replace Horlun in the conference, given their greater experience with violent action. The renegade researchers reluctantly granted their prisoners some freedom of movement, so Horlun and Anme spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on an uncollapsed section of the roof, talking and watching the camp and the city.

Anme had been simultaneously annoyed at being excluded from the planning meeting and opposed to the idea of organizing a hunt for creatures that were, after all, only doing what came naturally to them. (Privately, though, she admitted that a creature’s right to be a predator did not, in her opinion, include a right to kill her personally.)

The council unanimously agreed that they needed to assume the Alphas would attack that very night, since they preferred to operate at night and didn’t have a history of procrastination—particularly when they had been rebuffed twice before. With that rather urgent deadline to motivate them, the council was able to develop a plan by dinnertime.

Dr Knapsack declared that dinner would be a feast to celebrate the upcoming hunt. It was a pretty transparent attempt at morale boosting, since there would be no need for the hunt if the travellers hadn’t come, and in any event it was rarely wise to celebrate something before it happened. Horlun wasn’t sure what their status at the feast was—Prisoners of Honor, perhaps, or Guests Who Bring Disaster—but they ate at a table with Knapsack and his primary advisors, so that was probably a good sign.

The food itself was more of the mysterious gray mush the Sonar Men had given them. Horlun found the strangely-appealing wet paper taste good enough that he preferred not knowing exactly what it was, as the truth was probably to horrible to know. Or something really obvious, in which case he would feel pretty stupid for not figuring it out.

As the horizon rose to block the sun, the renegade researchers lit great bonfires. It enhanced the “feast” mood, but it also seemed like a beacon for anyone trying to find them. He turned to Dr Zlakvr, who was seated nearby, and asked, “Are the fires a good idea? The Sonar Men may still be trying to find us, and the bonfires seem like obvious signposts.”

Zlakvr shook his head. “We’ve taken measures to keep the Sonar Men away from here. The entire city is protected by a magnetic destabilizer, which prevents effective navigation in the area. If the Sonar Men came near, they would get so lost that they’d never be able to find us.”

“But… isn’t a big disruption in the magnetic field a clue that someone’s nearby?”

“It could be interpreted that way, yes, but they might also figure we were trying to throw them off by disrupting the field somewhere other than our location. Logically, there’s no reason to assume one or the other.”

Horlun kept calm by remembering that Orliss, Jen, and Roy had also contributed to the ambush plan.

“The night sky here is a lot like Arorua’s,” Anme commented.

Horlun put aside his futile attempt to see anything coming at them in the darkness. “How so?”

“There are so many stars. I thought Arorua had so many because it was a different planet, but the sky here is the same.”

“In galactic terms, we’re not that far from Arorua, I think,” said Horlun. “Most of the stars should be in the same relative positions.”

Anme shook her head. “Foobarh’s just as close to Arorua—maybe closer—but its sky is totally different.”

“You think that because you spend all your time in the city. The stars are there, but you can’t see them because the lights drown them out. If you go out into the prairie or there’s a power outage, you can see more stars than usual.” He pointed to four bright stars in a lopsided rectangle. “See? There’s Microtron defeating Evilbot 6000. Just ignore the dimmer stars and you can see it.”

Anme stared at the indicated area for a few seconds. “Yeah, I can make it out. With the extra stars, it almost looks like Evilbot 6000 is winning.”

“What?” Horlun peered at the stars. “The constellation clearly depicts Evilbot 6000’s defeat. I don’t see how adding some extra stars could change that.”

“I’m just telling you what I see.”

“So this isn’t an attempt to create a conversation to distract us from our tedious job?”

“Of course not! We may not have the skill or experience or weapons that Orliss and the other have, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play a part in the plan. If one of those origami come this way, we’ll be right here to… watch it go by, I guess.”

“Don’t be so negative.” He hefted his sharpened meterstick. “We have pointed sticks. That’s apparently adequate armament against artificial war monsters.”

“You’re proposing we attack them?”

Horlun laughed as dramatically as he could. “Perish the thought! If the Alphas want us, they can climb onto this rooftop and get us!” He stabbed the roof with his makeshift spear. “Right here. This is where we’ll be if any origami wants us.”

That was a perfect dramatic moment for an Alpha to appear and attack them, which was why Horlun was confident that none would. It would be a cop-out for the universe to spring such an obvious bit of irony on them.

“Yesiree,” said Horlun once a few moments had passed. “No origami anywhere in sight.”

“Don’t taunt fate,” warned Anme. “It’s déclassé.”

“I fear nothing!” shouted Horlun. “I am invincible!”

He actually heard a bit of echo off the wall of the building across the street, then silence. There were no cars or trains or buzzing lights in the city, obviously, but there didn’t seem to be any nocturnal insects or birds or other creatures, either.

“You’re in a strange mood tonight,” observed Anme.

“It’s quiet,” muttered Horlun.

“Except for the shouting.”

They heard hurried footsteps on the stairs behind them. Fondao had returned from checking with the others below and looked winded. “You see origami? Or just shouting for no reason?”

“Oh,” said Horlun sheepishly, “the no reason one. Sorry.”

Fondao strummed three fingers on his temple, which was apparently the way his people expressed exasperation. “Lotsa people trying to make ambush. You help by taking this seriously.”

Horlun bowed his head and shuffled his feet and generally acted contrite enough to get Fondao off his case. He knew that the trap was important. The Alphas were a threat to the camp, and would continue to be a threat until all involved in the attack were dead. (The disadvantage of breeding for tenacity.) He understood that the trap plan was the best way to ensure that all the involved Alphas were eliminated. He did not understand how the observation work he, Anme, and Fondao were doing contributed to the overall effort. It seemed more likely that the planners wanted him and Anme to be involved, since they helped bring the Alpha threat in the first place, but were aware that they couldn’t contribute in any meaningful way.

As a general rule, Horlun preferred making no contribution to making a meaningless contribution. It was equally effective and required less work.

“Has there been any sign of them?” asked Anme.

Fondao shrugged. “No one has died yet. We must try to wait.”

“That’s what we’re doing now,” said Horlun.

“We wait, we wait, and we fight. That is the plan.” [@@idiom?]

And so they waited. Eventually, the Alphas would attack en masse and attempt to kill everyone. According to the people who had developed the plan, they would instead be drawn into the center of the camp where Orliss and Jen and the others would be on-hand to kill them. Horlun didn’t share Orliss’s confidence that fighting deadly monsters bred for combat capability in an enclosed space was a particularly smart idea, but he accepted that he wasn’t an expert on the subject. Neither was Orliss, technically, but a great many intelligent people had agreed to his plan, so Horlun figured there must be something to it.

He, Anme, and Fondao were stationed atop a tower where they could watch the entire camp. This was safer than being part of the actual attack force, which Horlun liked, but their purpose wasn’t especially clear. There were scouts on the ground already, and there wasn’t any way for the three of them to signal the forces on the ground if they saw anything the scouts had missed. Their part of the plan felt like something that had been proposed in committee and couldn’t be eliminated even after its original purpose became unnecessary. Still, the Alphas were coming, and there was a small but non-zero chance that one of them might work its way up to the tower. They didn’t want to be caught unawares should that happen.

And so they waited.

Despite having the best vantage point in the camp, Horlun and Anme didn’t see the Alphas until they attacked. A shout from one of the lower-level researchers was all the warning they had before the chaos began.

“Nine of them,” breathed Fondao. “Very bad.”

In an alarming display of organization, the Alphas had surrounded the camp and were attacking from all sides at once, bursting in through doors and windows in the building shell that sheltered the camp. The defenders still had the numeric advantage, of course, but the margin was a lot lower than they had hoped. In any case, it was too late to transfer some of those protecting Knapsack and the others at the double-secret safe house to the trap. They were on their own.

The defenders had been placed in strategic locations around the camp, the idea being that those closest to the attacking Alphas would hold them off while reinforcements came from the other groups. No one had anticipated such a large number of Alphas to attack, nor had they anticipated an attack from all sides at once. Thus, the defence was scattered in groups too small to take on an Alpha with the intent of defeating it, except for Zlakvr and Jen, who seemed to be doing pretty well together.

“Should we go down?” asked Anme worriedly. “Is there something we can do?”

“I’m not much of a fighter,” Horlun told her.

“We keep an eye on things from above,” Fondao said uncertainly. “Not good to abandon post.” He pointed. “See? Improvement.”

The situation below had gotten better for the defenders, in that four of the Alphas had suddenly latched onto Roy as their target. The sarcastic Terran warrior was apparently unconfident about his chances against four at once and was leading them in a frantic chase around the center of the camp. This freed nearly half the defenders to assist their companions against the remaining four Alphas.

“Very brave,” observed Anme, as she watched Roy duck through an outbuilding, followed by his persuers.

“Say who is brave when you have fought,” said Fondao. He tapped his fingers on his spear and looked like he would have preferred a more active role in the ambush.

“Orliss!” shouted Horlun. His cousin was advancing on an Alpha that Tangyfruit was keeping at bay, seemingly unaware that another Alpha was crouching on a ledge above him. “Behind you!”

Orliss spun around, his foot slipping on a loose stone and bringing his whole body crashing to the ground—just as a deadly, paper-like claw sliced through the space just vacated by his head. He shouted and hurled his spear at the creature, which batted it away contemptuously. Leaping to the side, he caught the spear on the rebound and rolled to a crouching position. Signalling an apology to Tangyfruit, he moved towards the Alpha on the ledge.

The scientist and his cohorts, their reinforcements diverted, moved back, looking for some way to gain an advantage.

Nearby, Jen and Zlakvr mananged to divert one of Roy’s group and spike it into a wall. Seeing Tangyfruit’s problem, they moved to strike from behind.

“Alarm!” called Fondao. Horlun looked up, curiously, and froze.

An Alpha had joined them.

“Another one?” said Anme.

“Four chasing Roy, four fighting,” said Fondao. As much as Horlun could read his tone of voice, it sounded like he had just noticed a stupid mistake. “The ninth… perhaps here to observe?”

“Well,” said Horlun, “at least we hid in a place where it’s almost impossible to escape. There must be some advantage to that, or they woudn’t do it in every horror movie.”

“I guess I can live with a dramatic death,” said Anme. “I hoping for minimal pain—”

The Alpha leapt, and the three scattered to get out of its way. Anme and Horlun immediately realized that they had neglected to pick up their spears before leaping, but the time for recriminations would come later. If they were lucky.

Will Horlun and Anme survive the sneak attack at the top of the tower?

How long can roy keep ahead of his deadly pursuers?

Can Orliss’s baffling luck keep him alive?

Will there be time for recriminations later?

SFSTORY. For people who enjoy that sort of thing.