Spaceman Spiff, interstellar explorer extraordinaire, readied himself for another astounding mission to the far reaches of the galaxy. As he suited himself up for what would be a long, arduous journey across a dozen star-systems, he checked his supplies carefully. Spiff knew he'd need his best equipment, for he'd find no allies on the long journey, and have no chance for resupply from Space Command until he returned.
The natives of the distant alien planet Chirrutzz were known hostiles, so his trusty Zorch-o-matic Blaster was fully charged, and set to Destructilate instead of the milder Zaparoni. Three Astro Bombs were all that would fit in his tiny ship, but he also had a secret weapon, not approved by Space Command—a giant shapeshifting Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tiger. A dangerous ally indeed, as it could turn on him at any moment, but one that could be invaluable in the toxic atmosphere of Chirrutzz. The Laser-Toothed Tiger didn't need oxygen, and its terrible roar would echo through the perilous sonic mountain ranges, distracting the aliens and allowing Spiff the freedom to complete his mission.
The freedom to complete his dangerous and daring mission.
(Spiff had to remember these details for his memoirs.)
Spiff approached the Laser-Toothed Tiger where it lay half-sleeping in its Nargolian-style Den. In his right hand, he carried a cage: a portable tiger carrier, reinforced titanium with an electrical containment field. ACME TIGER CARRIER was etched along one side. Also, CLOSE LATCH FIRMLY TO AVOID SPILLING CONTENTS. The carrier was much smaller than the tiger itself in its natural state—the tiger would need to be persuaded to shapeshift itself into its smallest size to fit in the case.
Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tigers don't like small cages.
Spiff faced the tiger, half-circling it warily. The Tiger opened one eye, and made a noise; half-growl, half-purr. Spiff gestured at the carrier; sometimes, the Laser-Toothed Tiger was willing to step into the case.
Not this time. The Tiger snorted and shook its head. Spiff tightened his lips and braced himself for a struggle.
Spiff approached the Tiger, case in one hand, tiger-prod in the other. The tiger snarled at him, twitching its tail as he moved closer. Its laser fangs glowed red, and tiny sparks flickered around them. It grinned as if to say, my laser fangs are shinier than your spacesuit.
Spiff took a step towards the Tiger. I have cool stompy boots, his pose said.
The Tiger narrowed its eyes. It stretched out its diamond-tipped claws, which glinted in red light from the laser fangs, and slowly traced one claw along the stone floor of the den. It left a deep, narrow line in the stone. My super-sharp claws will shred your boots. Diamond beats leather, it seemed to say.
Spiff refused to be intimidated. He stepped closer still, raising his tiger-prod, and waited. Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tigers aren't known for their patience.
Spiff watched as the Tiger tensed, bunching its muscles for a mighty leap. He braced where he stood, crouching a bit to be ready to keep his balance during the attack.
It leapt! Spiff stood his ground until the Tiger's claws were almost upon him—and then he shifted, dodging downward as he pushed the carrier up, putting it firmly around the Tiger's head. At the Tiger's full size, only its head would fit in the carrier, but as its momentum pushed it forward, its body instinctively shifted to a smaller form to avoid being crushed. Soon it was almost entirely inside the metal case. The Tiger snarled, and its laser fangs sparked on the metal of the carrier—but the cage held fast.
Spiff tugged at the Tiger's tail, which it promptly yanked away to curl around its body—inside the cage. In a trice, Spiff snapped the carrier shut, and the deadly Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tiger snarled and hissed as Spiff placed it into the passenger seat of his space ship.
"And titanium beats diamond," Spiff said aloud. The Tiger snarled louder and scratched at the side of the cage.
With his weapons all packed, Spiff turned to the last part of his equipment: the suit. Normally, Spiff loved putting on his space suit. But this time, because of the toxic Chirrutzzian atmosphere, he'd need the Throat-Mounted Rebreather: a complex device that converted the alien air into something humans could tolerate.
He despised the Rebreather. It had an array of pins that would puncture the side of his throat, and it was worn clamped around his neck so he could barely breathe. The Rebreather had a cluster of spikes in the center, thick tubes that ran along the inside of the base of his helmet, and the data display that had to be clamped down the front of his suit, with sensors monitoring every breath to make sure his lungs weren't getting too much of the toxic chemicals in Chirrutzz's air.
He'd told Space Command that he didn't need the Rebreather when he had his suit and helmet, but they insisted. All visits to Type ZZ planets required it. Spiff was sure the Rebreather manufacturer had an in with Space Command.
He wrestled with the contraption, trying to settle it in a less-painful configuration; he'd barely healed the scars from his last visit to a tox-air planet. He twisted the cords around, trying to lengthen the space between the clamps. His efforts were futile; the Rebreather had been custom-fitted to him. It was just as uncomfortable as the last time he'd worn it, and he coughed and gasped as he slowly fitted it in place.
Calvin's mother stood over him, arms crossed, tapping one foot as Calvin staggered around in his best suit, clutching his throat.
"That tie is a clip-on, Calvin. It can't possibly choke you."
Calvin scowled at her as he finished putting it on. Then he grabbed his Tony the Tiger lunchbox and ran off to the car before she could say anything else.
Spiff surveyed the slimy slithering shapes of the Chirrutzzians gathered at their leader's palace. They raised their voices in eerie chanting, punctuated by shrieks—they used the thick, poisonous atmosphere to create mind-splitting sonic waves, which was why so few spacemen had ventured into their realm. Spiff snuck between the shambling aliens, dodging random tentacles, creeping under bushes and leaping over the spires and muck-filled pits of the alien landscape.
He had to get to the throne room. Had to seize the sonic mind-control nexus device, to break their hold on this planet, make it safe to explore, safe for humans to conquer.
As he drew closer to the palace, the aliens grew more aware of him, more hostile. They shuffled towards him in groups, and he found it harder to dodge between them.
One long, suckered tentacle wrapped around his leg.
"I've got him!" the alien shrieked to its companions. It started to drag him towards its huge, befanged mouth, dripping with slime. The other Chirrutzzians huddled closer and droned encouragement.
"No!" Spiff yelled in reply. It was time to use his secret weapon. As the Chirrutzzian pulled on Spiff's leg, Spiff unhooked the tiger carrier from his beltpack. As quickly as he could, he turned the front to face the alien, and released the catch.
"Take that, you horrifible monster!" Sometimes, Spaceman Spiff wished he had a better scriptwriter. He consoled himself with the thought that he had a powerful ally.
Eight feet of Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tiger leapt out of the cage and into the alien's face, roaring in rage, its laser teeth flashing. Its gleaming fangs bit through several of the mottled green tentacles, and the Chirrutzzian pulled back, drawing its remaining tentacles inward—and releasing Spaceman Spiff.
When the alien and its companions flinched back in terror, Spiff took advantage of their confusion to dive under a nearby rock ledge. His heart pounded with adrenaline, but he dare not stop to rest just yet. He knew he must reach the palace's throne room! He wriggled to the end of the rocky overhang, then started running, dodging around the aliens who had not yet joined the fray.
As the Chirrutzzians circled around the tiger, prodding it with their sonic blasters, Spiff saw his chance. A clear path to the palace, unattended except for a single guard near the entrance! It was young—hadn't even grown its second pair of eyestalks yet—and obviously inexperienced; it fidgeted on its lower tentacles, looking unsure of its place. Spiff ran directly at it, and it flailed wildly and staggered out of the way, allowing the bold and clever adventurer to charge through the doorway.
Allowing the brave, bold and clever adventurer to charge through the doorway.
The brave, bold, clever and handsome adventurer to charge through…
(Spiff knew his memoirs would be much in demand someday. He ignored the disdainful growls of the Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tiger he could hear in the distance.)
Once inside the palace, Spiff's task was almost effortless. The internal palace guards were mostly ornamental and easily distracted; Spiff ran past them easily. They chased him, but could not catch him before he reached the throne room.
The Chirrutzzian operating the sonic mind-control nexus device was the ugliest Spiff had ever seen. Its purplish tinge indicated that it was female, or whatever was closest to female on Chirrutzz. Its six eyestalks glowed an angry green, and its hideous mouth was ringed with blood. It gibbered as Spiff edged closer. He knew he had only moments before the guards caught up with him—now or never! Seize the daycycle! He rushed around the huge sonic mind-control console that dominated the room, and grabbed the nexus device from its flailing tentacles.
Spiff turned to run. The guards were already pouring through the door, but he held the nexus device close to his chest and pushed forward. He charged into the thick of them, flinching and dodging as they crashed into each other, trying to reach him. Three of them collapsed into a heap, and Spiff stomped ruthlessly on their tentacles as he rushed out the door.
He'd gotten halfway down the hall when the door at the other end opened, and the tallest, most formidable Chirrutzian he'd ever seen stood between him and freedom.
Calvin's father stood with his back to the door. Calvin could hear Mrs. Stonkelson behind him, and he refrained from turning around. He'd already seen her hideous lavender dress, and her trifocals always looked freaky. His father scowled at Calvin as he held out his hand.
"Give it back, Calvin." His father looked exasperated. Almost angry.
"What?" Calvin said innocently, as he put his hands behind his back. His father narrowed his eyes. Calvin wondered if the vein throbbing in his forehead would burst, splattering blood all over the walls—
He'd forgotten Mrs. Stonkelson.
"Got the hymnal!" she crowed. "Now, you take this boy off to his Sunday School class while I finish the morning set."
As his father grabbed him by the ear to lead him off, he could hear Mrs. Stonkelson muttering. "Never did see a boy more in need of the Good Book. Possibly applied with great force to his backside."
Spiff was tied down in the interrogation room. White lights shone into his eyes, and the noxious Chirrutzzians surrounded him and spat questions at him.
Spiff resisted their efforts.
Spiff valiantly resisted their efforts.
Spiff, renowned hero of the spaceways, valiantly resisted their vicious efforts to break his noble spirit.
(Those memoirs were going to be bestsellers. A series of bestsellers, maybe.)
"I won't tell!" he shouted. "You can't make me betray the Space Corps!"
The aliens drew closer, twitching their tentacles, threatening dire consequences if he did not cooperate. They asked about his purpose on their planet, his history in the Corps, his reasons for taking the nexus device.
Spiff held his tongue. In silence, he suffered their vile attentions. They shrieked and gibbered, and he was silent. They lashed out at him with their poison-tipped tentacular barbs, and he remained silent. They showed him the bleeding and unconscious body of the Nargolian Laser-Toothed Tiger, and he almost wept—but he kept quiet. No torture would get him to talk!
But they were insidious, these aliens. They moved him from room to room, keeping him disoriented, changing his guards to keep him confused. They asked innocuous questions along with the important ones—would you like a glass of water? Perhaps a more comfortable chair? Spiff's resolve was wearing down, and they pushed harder. Here, Spiff, see this picture-book we share with our children—we're not so evil after all. Have some cookies, poison to us but imported all the way from Earth for distinguished visitors such as yourself.
It must've been the cookies. Or the punch. He was so hungry, so thirsty… the third time they offered him food and drink, he could not resist. He felt his resistance crumble, and in moments, he knew he'd been drugged.
They started again with the insidious questions, questions about Earth's history, biology, political and economic practices.
"Who was Ruth's employer?" the sharp voice demanded, and Spiff almost answered before he remembered where he was. Employment information was confidential! He pressed his lips together and shook his head. They pushed harder.
"What kind of tree did Zaccheus climb?"
"Syc—" Spiff choked and cut himself off. "You're sick! I won't tell you!" No telling what they'd do with knowledge of human interactions with Terran flora!
But his determination was wavering, and he knew it. The cookies were getting to him; he should've stayed away from the ones with sprinkles. Spiff hoped the next question was one he could safely answer without compromising Earth's security. He could feel his uncertainty—and he could see his captor's awareness of it. It closed in for the kill.
Spiff clenched the arms of the chair he was strapped to as the interrogator slithered forward. It pointed to a map on the wall—a map of strategic areas of Earth.
"What city," it hissed, "did Jonah visit after he got out of the belly of the whale?"
Calvin blinked up at the Sunday School teacher. "That's dumb," he said. "Why would anyone want to visit some boring city when he could be riding around inside a whale?"
The teacher sighed. She didn't—quite—whimper. "Calvin," she implored, "do you know the answers to any Bible Trivia questions?"
Calvin tilted his head and pondered for a long moment. His brows scrunched together and his mouth twisted back and forth as he mentally went through his admittedly small collection of biblical facts. Then his face lit up, and he turned to face the teacher. She managed to look both hopeful and worried.
He smiled widely, eyes smugly closed. "I know what Balaam tied to the tree," he announced.