". . . and that's it?"
General Handly nodded. "That's it. We've looked at it from every angle, but basically it's beyond us. It'll be here in one hundred and eleven hours, twenty seven minutes and . . .," he checked his watch, "fourteen seconds. Mark."
Admiral Greene turned back from the window. "I just wanted to be sure we hadn't missed anything."
"No sir," Handly replied. "Pluto Station is tracking it, but that's about all we can do. The Cit'chen boosted it to 99.9 Percent Light and nothing we have can touch it. A few more years, we would have kicked their collective asses, but . . ." He let the point drop.
Greene threw himself into his leather bound chair. "Odd thing is, I always figured we were the meanest SOBs on the block. Then we run into the Cit'chen, who're not only as xenophobic as hell, but genocidal to boot and just that touch technologically more advanced." He leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "Does the President know?"
"No one that low on the totem pole needs to know," Handly sneered. "In about two days, it'll be visible to any backyard optical telescope. That's when it'll really hit the fan." He paused. "I'm going to be with my family behind many, many armed men."
Rubbing his face, Greene lurched upright again. He stabbed the button on his intercom and said, "Send in Lieutenant Pond." Seconds later, a tall young man, blond with chiseled features entered the Admiral's office and stood at attention in front of Greene's desk.
"Sir, Lt. Pond reporting as ordered."
Greene took in the meticulously uniformed youth. Word was that Robert Pond was willing to do whatever was necessary to boost his career. Greene passionately hated sycophants. Still, it looked like this ass-kissing twerp with a bad case of the career hots was just what the doctor ordered. He'd do anything and keep his mouth shut so long as it looked like he might get a promotion out of it.
"Lt. Pond, stand easy." he said. Pond relaxed a millimetre.
"Pond, this is General Handly," Greene said, waving in the General's direction. "He isn't here and neither am I. In fact, none of us never met. Got it?"
The corners of Pond's mouth curled and he said, "Yes sir."
"I've got some work for you, Pond." As he talked, Greene unbuttoned his shirt. Pond nodded as Greene pulled out a small flat plastic envelope suspended on a chain around his neck.
"Whew! I've been carrying that thing around my neck since forever. Now it's yours." He slid it across the desk to Pond.
Buttoning his shirt, Greene said, "Here's what you're gonna do: you will not open those orders until you are off this base. You will requisition a car and proceed to Bitterson Naval Hospital in San Columba, where you will open your orders. You will follow those orders to the letter. Do you understand me, Pond? To the very letter."
Again, Pond nodded.
Softening slightly, Greene perched himself on the edge of his desk. "Son," he said, "this is very important for the war effort. If you fail, the Cit'chen will clean our clocks. And while I'm sure this doesn't matter to a patriot like yourself, anyone who comes through this can look forward to a very grateful government. You read me, Pond?"
Straightening to full attention again, "Sir, you can count on me." Pond took the obligatory step back, about faced and left the room.
Greene smiled wearily at Handly and said, "You handled him perfectly. Nothing works better than good old human lust for position."
Greene activated the intercom again as soon as Handly left to take up his own command. "As of 0001 hours tomorrow morning, all military bases on the South Pacific coast will be closed to all traffic. No one may enter or leave without my express permission. Please ensure all commanders receive a copy."
Leaning back, Greene's eyes fell on a picture of his wife and their two sons. His wife long gone, a casualty of his career, and his boys with her. Oh well, he thought, when you swim with the sharks, better do it alone.
After stopping three times for directions, Pond finally found the Bitterson Naval Hospital. The square white building sat well back from the highway, in a large grove of trees with a small parking lot in front. Taking in the pristine setting, Pond wanted one final moment to himself before getting into the war. As a naval officer, his involvement in the Cit'chen War had been minimal at best. The Cit'chen were a paranoid people certain that any sapient race worth its salt would soon be coming after them with all guns blazing. They let humanity know this by wiping out the Diplomatic Fleet soon after First Contact. Despite its fast-paced opening, though, the realities of interstellar travel soon reduced the so-called war to a series of cunning moves on a titanic chessboard, the results of which might not be seen for years if not decades. The enemy was far away and most people never gave the war a second thought. Indeed, most military officers had no idea what the insectile race even looked like. What glamour and the opportunities for promotion there were went to the Aerospace Force. This, whatever "this" was, could be his big chance to start climbing that Ladder again.
Ripping open the plastic envelope, Pond found three smaller white envelopes. One was addressed to "the Courier," another to a Dr. Hiram Estrada and the third to the Commander of the San Columba Naval Station. Assuming he was the "Courier," Pond opened that envelope. The letter provided little additional information; apparently, as part of something called Project Tripwire, he was to locate this Dr. Estrada at the Bitterson Naval Hospital, give him the rest of the envelopes and follow his orders to the letter. The envelope also contained a small card holder. When he opened it, he gasped and almost dropped it. Inside was a small card which empowered the holder to act with the direct authority of the President and the National Security Council. Fabled in military lore as a "Get Out Of Jail Free Card," Pond knew he now had more power than he would ever have, no matter how high he rose in the ranks. Goddamn, my life is finally working out! he thought.
The reception area of the hospital was dusty and the furniture and fixtures were clearly from the Vietnam era, indicating Bitterson Naval Hospital was at least sixty years old. It was all slightly depressing to a military man; obviously the thanks of a grateful nation didn't really extend all that far.
The receptionist looked up from his newspaper. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"I'm here to see a Dr. Estrada," Pond replied.
The receptionist frowned. "Estrada? Which one's that? Don't have no Estrada on staff that I know about." Pulling out a clipboard, he slowly read through the list of names. Finally, "We've got a patient named Hiram Estrada. That who you're looking for?"
"What!" sputtered out Pond, "but Hiram Estrada is important . . ."
The clerk smiled and said, "Of course he is. They all are. Let me get you a doctor."
A few minutes later, Dr. Campbell arrived.
Pond repeated his request. Campbell asked, "So is Estrada a relative of yours?" Pond shook his head and said, "Ah, no. Family friend."
"OK, then I can afford to be blunt. Lt. Pond, Bitterson Naval Hospital is a warehouse. We care for serving personnel or retirees who are catatonic, brain damaged, profoundly autistic or schizophrenic. Basically, patients with little prospect of ever coming back to reality. We keep them as clean and comfortable as possible, but Bitterson is still just someplace to keep useless people out of the way until they die."
Pond could feel his stomach jumping. "And Dr. Estrada?" he asked.
Dr. Campbell consulted his notes. "Estrada, Hiram T. PhD in Cultural Anthropology. DOB and POB, blah, blah. Military service as a Commander in the Fijian War. Hmmm! That was definitely not a Good War. Anyway, he entered Bitterson about eleven years ago, diagnosed with severe schizophrenia. Apparently, he fainted during some sort of expedition in the South Pacific. From that point on he's been living in his own little world. Civilian hospitals did what they could until his medical insurance ran out and they shipped him to us." He looked up and smiled gently. "I know it's a bit of a shock. Would you like to see him anyway?"
Pond was stone-faced with shock. "Ah . . . yes. It's rather important."
Campbell replied, "Well, Estrada hasn't had a visitor the entire time he's been here, so it isn't like his dance card is full. Come with me."
The rooms they passed were all cheery and well lit, but each was as silent as a tomb. Pond followed him into the last room off the hall. Campbell pointed toward the closed door with his chin, "Dr. Hiram Estrada."
Pond looked through the peephole. The room was small and sunny as all the others, but every square inch of the walls were covered with drawings in charcoal or other substances that Pond did not wish to think about. The drawings featured something that looked like a gigantic walking octopus or cuttlefish, Pond couldn't be sure. Legs and tentacles, that was all he could make out. In a cot in the center of the room laid a figure in a straight jacket. Dr. Hiram Estrada, I presume.
He turned to Dr. Campbell, who shrugged. "Sedation," he said. "It's the only way we can handle him."
Pond pulled the hatch open and entered. The room reeked of still air and unwashed flesh. He stepped to the cot and looked down at Estrada. The years had not been kind. A small, thin man to begin with, eleven years in a mental hospital had reduced his muscle tone to almost nothing. His skin, brittle and yellowish like poorly tanned leather, was stretched tight over his skeleton and fairly gleamed against the white of the straight jacket. Death, when it finally came, would probably be a relief.
Swallowing his bile, Pond continued staring at Estrada as his chance for glory and honors slowly faded. Finally, turning to Campbell, he said, "I need a phone. Right now, please. I need to talk to someone."
As the words left his mouth, Pond suddenly felt his sleeve being tugged. Looking down, he saw Estrada gripping his sleeve with his teeth and smiling. Campbell grunted and ran to get more drugs while Pond pulled free.
The cloth out of his mouth, Estrada managed to say, "You wish to speak to me?"
It took some very fast talk by Pond to convince Campbell that Estrada didn't need more sedation. At first he ignored Pond's repeated requests to leave, but when he waved his credentials, Campbell got the message.
Groggy and weak, Estrada tried to climb out of bed several times. Finally, Pond pulled him erect.
"Hello. And you are?" Estrada asked.
Startled, Pond stepped back. Estrada started sliding off the bed and Pond had to hold him upright again.
Pond leaned close enough to whisper in Estrada's ear. "I'm from Admiral Greene. It's about . . . Tripwire." He hissed out the last.
Estrada replied, "My, you are quite the Greek god, aren't you? I'm sorry, young man, but I don't know any Admiral Greene. In fact, I'm not sure what year it is." He paused. "What year is it, anyway? And do you have something for me?"
Pond pulled an envelope from his pocket and gave it to him. Estrada slowly ripped open the flap and pulled out the letter. By his watch, it took Estrada thirty minutes to read it.
Pulling a rectangle of metal on a chain from the envelope, Estrada turned away from Pond and slipped the chain around his neck. Facing Pond again, Estrada asked, "So! Who is it?"
Puzzled, Pond asked, "Who? . . . What 'who'?"
Estrada smiled slightly and repeated his question slowly and carefully as if speaking to a mentally challenged child, "Who are we at war with this time?"
"Oh. Well, that would be the Cit'chen, sir. As far as I know, they're some type of intelligent insect, home planet's a bunch of light years from here . . ."
"Enough," Estrada interrupted, and he started trying to get to his feet again. "Unfortunately, Dr. Campbell's reliance on drugs as a means of therapy has left me a tiny bit disorganized. Your assistance, please."
The hospital staff, still working under the assumption that Pond acted with the direct authority of the President, quickly found a pair of coveralls and manhandled Estrada into them. Pond carried Estrada to the car and wedged him into the front passenger seat.
When they were finally on the main interstate, Pond broke the silence, "So, I guess we're headed to the San Columba Naval Station."
Estrada grabbed at Pond's arm, barking, "What do you know about San Columba? Who are you working for?"
The car bobbed and weaved while Pond fought to keep it on the road. Finally ripping his arm out of Estrada's grip, he steered the car onto the shoulder. Whipping around to face Estrada, he snapped, "Are you trying to kill us? Of course, I know we're on our way to San Columba! It's on the final envelope!"
Estrada relaxed as quickly as he had blown up. "Mr. Pond, please understand: you're the courier on this mission, yes? You really don't need to know anything further, yes? So please, just drive." The car rapidly filled with silence.
When they finally arrived at the San Columba Naval Station, things were definitely not business as usual. There were armed men stationed everywhere along the Station's perimeter. Pond pulled up at the guard house.
"What's going on, Chief?" he asked the Chief Petty Officer at the gate.
Examining Pond's service ID, the Chief said, "Damned if I know, Lieutenant. We're under strict orders right now, and you know that means no one gets on or off this base. Now, turn this car around . . ."
Pond passed over his credentials. He loved the look on people's faces when they saw the Card and the Chief did not disappoint him.
"Well now, I've heard about these, but I never saw one. You'll want to be seeing Admiral Pang. He's the Base Commander. Just park over there," he said, pointing. "Oh, and Lieutenant?"
The Chief loudly sniffed. "You might want to hit the shower and change your uniform before seeing the Admiral, orders from the President or no."
After showering and changing, Pond prepared to check in with Admiral Miles, but Estrada said that, after eleven years in one small room, he needed to "get out and about." The precise role Estrada was to play defeating the Cit'chen was becoming more obscure by the second, so Pond let him go with a warning not to discuss the mission with anyone.
Pond marched into the Admiral's office and stopped in front of his desk. Staring into the middle distance, he waited for the Admiral to invite him to speak.
"So what do we have here?" Miles asked.
"Sir!" Pond responded. "I'm here by order of Admiral Greene, Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have this for you." He handed over the final envelope to the Admiral.
Miles scanned the orders for a few seconds. Then he sat bolt upright and started rereading them, line by line. When he was finished, he said, "Please wait outside. I need to confirm these."
When Pond reentered the Admiral's office, he was shocked by the change that had come over him. His face beet red, Miles appeared to be laboring for breath.
"Sir! Are you all right?" Pond asked.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Miles gasped out. "Where's this civilian specialist mentioned in the orders? A Dr. Hiram Estrada?"
Just then, there was a knock on the door. The Chief Petty Officer from the front gate popped his head in the door and said, "Sir, the civilian that came aboard with this officer . . ." and he nodded towards Pond.
"Yes?" the Admiral prompted.
"Well, sir," the Chief continued, "I'm afraid we've taken him into custody. Charge is breaking into the Base Hospital's blood bank and stealing . . . it's kind of disgusting, sir, better come quickly."
"I'm so very sorry, Admiral," Estrada said with an ingratiating tone. "I went for a walk while Mr. Pond was chatting with you and I saw your lovely hospital. While I was looking around, I ran across the blood bank. I needed some supplies for my work and, well . . ." He shook a plastic bag and there was a clanking noise. "I haven't used any if you want it back."
The Admiral turned a ghastly white. "Why, you little . . . Pond!"
Pond stepped forward. "Sir!"
Miles snarled out, "This . . . person is your responsibility. You have your orders from Admiral Greene. Make Tripwire happen. I have . . . a family emergency." And then he bolted from the room.
Pond grabbed Estrada by the arm and said fiercely, "I don't know how a psycho got involved in Tripwire, but I'm not risking my career for you!"
Twisting out of Pond's grip, Estrada turned to face him. "It's clear you know nothing about Tripwire or the real role you are playing in our little drama. As I said, you are the courier and only that. Why, oh, why does the Navy always saddle me with its refuse?" And then, so quickly Pond couldn't follow the motion, Estrada smashed a bottle of blood on the top of Pond's skull.
Pond was awakened by a dull ache in the back of his skull. He tried to open his eyes, but all he could make out were shades of grey. He heard some odd flute music. Something about it reminded him of a dream he once had . . .
When Pond came to again, the pain was gone, but he couldn't move at all. He struggled and managed to work his way upright. Alerted by the noise, Estrada walked over.
"Hello again!" he said. "You've been away for a whole day and I missed your sterling company. I used the opportunity to take care of some things for Tripwire."
Pond saw that he was in a huge enclosed space, perhaps an aircraft hanger. His wrists were secured and there was duct tape over his mouth. He could try and roll to safety, but Estrada could easily brain him again with another bottle, or perhaps a hammer this time.
Estrada laughed. "Already plotting your escape, I see. Very good. Still, time is a precious commodity at just this moment, and I really don't have any to waste."
Still laughing, Estrada dragged Pond by the collar to the center of the space. "Now, Mr. Pond, just a few questions and answers before we begin," he said. "I trained as a scientist and an academic, but I never had the opportunity to engage students in the Socratic method. I would have liked students. Their enthusiasm is always so . . . delicious. Now, what do you think is humanity's greatest strength?"
Unable to speak, Pond only shook his head.
"Oh, how silly of me!" Estrada said and tore the tape from Pond's mouth.
"Sweet Jesus!" Pond bellowed.
"Oh no, Mr. Pond. Not even warm," Estrada chortled. "Now, my question again: what is humanity's greatest strength?"
Pond struggled to free his arms. "I don't know," he grunted. "Whatever you say it is."
"A failing mark, Mr. Pond. No, our greatest strength is our awesome vindictiveness. Humans will do anything and everything to hurt those who have hurt us. We are, to put it bluntly, sore losers on a monumental scale. And our second greatest strength? And no, it isn't our supposed toughness or our technological toys."
Pond was terribly confused. What did this question and answer session have to do with Tripwire, whatever the hell that was? Why did Admiral Greene entrust their chance at winning the war against the Cit'chen to this maniac?
"No?" asked Estrada. "No, I suppose not. Few people realize humanity's second greatest strength is that we don't actually own this planet. In point of fact, Mr. Pond, we are squatters."
Startled, Pond asked, "The Cit'chen? What . . .?
Estrada laughed and began pouring bottles of blood into a bucket. "No, not the Cit'chen. I don't mean anyone so mundane as that. I mean beings of such power, their ownership of this mud ball is as important to them as owning an ant hill in your backyard is to you."
With that he began to very carefully paint a wide circle in blood round Pond.
Pond still could not understand what Estrada was getting at. He asked "So, are these all-powerful beings supposed to fight the Cit'chen for us?"
Estrada straightened and laughed again. "Oh yes, indeed." He resumed painting.
Seconds ticked by while Estrada painted.
Finally, Pond said, "Look, this is ridiculous. You can't keep me here forever. Sooner or later someone is going to find us. Just let me loose and I'll help!"
Estrada finished the circle before answering.
"My goodness, you certainly are out of the loop!" he said. "Just so you understand, twenty-three Earth days ago, the Cit'chen launched an asteroid roughly the size of Alaska at Earth."
Estrada slowly paced the circle, ensuring it was as perfect as possible.
"Nice work that, don't you agree? The landlord can be rather impetuous when hungry. The circle will slow him down somewhat when he comes to call. In any case, this asteroid is moving at almost light speed. I'm informed we have nothing fast enough to stop it, so in about, oh, fifteen minutes or so, this planet will cease to exist. Gone. Poof. Unfortunately, so will the infestation known as humanity. The news finally broke and all your stout comrades have faded away. They want to be with their mommies and daddies and sweethearts and babies. So no rescue for you."
Pond leaned forward and vomited.
"Very good, Mr. Pond!" Estrada chortled. "We're going to need as much of your bodily fluids as possible to call the landlord to complain about the noisy neighbor."
Dazed with nausea, Pond pleaded, "God, Estrada! You have to get these things of yours to help us! My mother's still alive and . . ."
Estrada ran over to Pond and put his hand over his mouth. "Mr. Pond! That will be enough of that, thank you! I have been all but dead for the last eleven years, and I can tell you that most people vastly underrate death as a way of spending your time."
Softening slightly, he took his hand away from Pond's mouth. "And 'my things', as you call them, are asleep right at the moment. I must awaken them before we can ask them for help."
Estrada moved out of Pond's field of vision, but returned with a large briefcase. Sitting on the floor, he quickly opened it and, mumbling to himself, began pressing buttons on a control panel inside. "According to the manual, this should just about do it."
Pond shouted, "What the hell are you doing over there?"
"Hm? Oh, I'm going to knock on the landlord's door," Estrada said. He removed a key from around his neck, placed it into a slot and, with a smile, clicked it home. In the distance, Pond heard a muffled thump and then a whoosh.
"Actually," he continued, "it's a Tomahawk cruise missile with a nuclear warhead, but I'm sure you've noticed that I dearly love a good metaphor. The plan originally called for a small nuclear missile, but times and devices change. A very good thing someone left the instructions for me."
Estrada stood and faced Pond. "This is one of those things that has to be timed just right. In about nine minutes, twenty seven seconds, some very old, very powerful things will be awakening. After that, we'll see."
Estrada joined Pond in the center of the bloody circle. "I'm sure you're wondering just what this is all about, yes?"
Pond could only stare.
"I served in the Pacific during the Fijian War, attached to Civil Operations. I advised our leaders how to keep the hearts and minds of the locals. Anyway, I met some very odd people there, members of a cult worshipping an ancient deity called Thu Thu or Tulu. Variants were spread out all over the South Pacific. Interesting, I'm sure you'll agree, but nothing to get excited about."
Pond continued to stare at him.
Estrada smiled. "Yes, well, with the war over, I finished my degree in Cultural Anthropology, specializing in the people of the South Pacific. It was a nice way to travel the Pacific for free.
"After a lot of travel and some research, it became clear that the worship of Thu Thu or Tulu was in fact a corruption of an older myth, the worship of a truly amazing race that walked this earth long before humanity climbed down from the trees. Things became clear to me. Very clear, yes . . ."
He shook himself and continued, "It all came together when I was conducting some research in the South Pacific. I inquired about this Tulu and my local informants agreed to show me something wonderful. Indeed it was! We were diving quite deeply when suddenly, there it was before me. Caked with mud and filth, but all the more amazing for that: an immense monolithic black door, resting on the bottom of the ocean. The walls around this door were so very odd, looking at it made me ill. Before too long, we had to surface.
"Later, my informants told me that we had visited the home of their god, Thu Thu. Someday, it seems, things would be just right, that immense door would open and Thu Thu would again walk the earth. Apparently this Thu Thu is not what one might call a happy deity. When it does walk again, all but the most faithful of its followers would be crushed, eaten, eviscerated, whatever."
Estrada looked at his watch again. "So anyway, making a long story short, I suggested the original idea for Tripwire to an old Navy chum of mine. Oh, how they loved it, even if it was all a bit of mumbo jumbo to them. Think of it: cheap Mutually Assured Destruction. The military has many odd little projects like Tripwire, set up to fight the oddest enemies imaginable. All they had to do was set some paperwork in motion and forget about it. Needless to say, they signed on.
"As for me, I continued my research into the Thu Thu/Tulu Mythology. In fact, that's how I ended up in that hospital. Funny story, that: on Bora Bora, I came across another Thu Thu variant. I started reading some of the more obscure carvings aloud, and the next thing I know, your smiling face was hovering over me."
Estrada looked at his watch again. "Oops! I'm sure you want to hear more, Mr. Pond, but it appears it's just about time. Up, young sir. It wouldn't do for us to greet the Lord of the World sitting on our backsides."
Pulling Pond to his feet, he said, "Now, just relax. There's no need for you to do anything. Just be your usual charming self. The firing device will tell us when the Tomahawk has battered down Thu Thu's door and I'll do the rest." And Estrada smiled.
He stretched his arms out and slowly started spinning in the blood circle. At first Estrada murmured to himself, but his voice grew louder with each revolution. "Ia! Ia!! Cthulhu ftaghn! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! IA! IA!! Cthulhu ftaghn! Hgl'aai Yog-Sothoth!" he said over and over again.
Pond could not make any sense out of the words, but it didn't matter; sweat poured from every inch of his body and his eyes darted from the firing device to Estrada and back again.
Estrada was fairly screaming now. "Ia! Ia!! Cthulhu ftaghn!"
Pond wanted so very much for him to shut up so he could just figure out what was going on. Suddenly, the firing device started beeping, over and over again. This was it. "Oh my God oh my God oh my God . . .," he repeated over and over again.
Estrada was bellowing and spinning like a top, his voice drowning out all other sounds. Pond gave up his sanity and cowered in a foetal position.
Suddenly, Estrada stopped. Directly in front of them, a huge black disk began filling the room. Estrada dropped to his knees and continued chanting.
The disk solidified. Lightening leapt from its edge and grounded to the floor. Pond groaned as if his body were on fire.
Without warning, a voice that filled their minds boiled out of nowhere. Thick and syrupy, it seeped through their every thought like a river of honey. They struggled against it, but it engulfed them like a fly in amber. It brooked nothing less than complete and total obedience.
And the Lord of the World said, "I am come."
Pulling himself erect, Estrada said, "We bless your comings and your goings, Lord Cthulhu. We worship your every step, Lord Cthulhu. We live but to serve you, Lord Cthulhu."
The voice rumbled again, "It is as it should be. You knocked the gates down in my holy city of R'lyeh and called me. Thus, I will grant you a boon before I retake my world. What would you have of me, small thing?"
Estrada suddenly stopped bowing and scraping and lifted himself to his full height. "Lord Cthulhu, we ask that you avenge us. You may devour each and every single soul on this world, starting with us here in the Blood Circle, but we ask you to bend the full force of your mighty strength against those who would wrong us."
There was silence for several seconds, then Cthulhu said, "A strange request, but it shall be done. Let all the universe tremble! The Great Old One Cthulhu will avenge any wrong done to these."
"We humbly thank you, Lord Cthulhu," Estrada said.
Within seconds, both Estrada and Pond felt the force of the river of honey crush through the temporary barrier of the blood circle and envelop their minds again, slowing their thoughts down to a crawl. The great and terrible voice said, "And now it is time to become part of Cthulhu!"
The full horror of what was happening overcame them, and they screamed and screamed. Cthulhu was going to eat them alive from the brain out.
At the height of the horror, though, a thundering sound grew in the sky. Cthulhu turned in surprise and released Estrada and Pond. Light filled the room, and their pain stopped. Pond knew it was the Lord God of his childhood, come to take him home. He reached up to embrace the light, and he was gone.
The Cit'chen asteroid smashed into the Earth with all the power of Armageddon, leaving nothing more than rubble and rocks endlessly orbiting the sun. The remote stations soon followed, their crews either committing suicide out of utter despair or dying from more mundane causes when the station ran out of fuel and food. The results were as predicted by the Cit'chen scientists. Humanity was at an end.
The universe shook as Cthulhu howled in hunger and frustration.
On another planet in another solar system much closer to the hub of the Galaxy than the third planet in the Sol System used to be, a meeting of the Ruling Council was underway.
Turmwosk, First Herdmaster of War, was holding forth, "The planet-destroyer has done its work and we are at last free of another sentient race that might, one day, challenge the Cit'chen!"
The Council, lumbering upright as one, signaled their pleasure by clicking their thorax in the traditional manner. It was clear that, very soon, Turmwosk would be called upon by the Leader of the Race to procreate.
After the meeting, Rechnar, the Second Herdmaster of War, positioned himself closely to the hero of the hour. If a human still existed, he or she would have immediately recognized the very-human technique. Sycophancy.
"My lord," Rechnar said. "I see wonderful things for you in this. You will gain great promotion and may even be asked to sire offspring with the Leader. I only ask you remember such as me in your rise."
Turmwosk grunted. Blatant favoritism disgusted him. It is perhaps time to consider a new Second, he thought.
At that moment, Turmwosk's radio beeped an alarm. One of his underlings screamed that something huge was rushing down on the Homeworld at an incredible speed. A number of anti-spacecraft missiles had already been launched, all to no avail. Now they needed any advice or orders the new hero might have.
Turmwosk was going to ask for additional information when suddenly his mind began to slow. His brain refused to think and his body to act.
As every Cit'chen in the universe slowly slid into torpor, they heard a voice that was mighty in its power. It said, "You have injured those I have sworn to avenge. Worse, I have missed my meal because of your actions. I will raze this planet down to the very bedrock and I will make my new home here. But before I do, I must assuage my hunger."
Then came a horrific laugh, and the voice said, "You will make most suitable substitutes."
Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004