By Michael Merrett


Chapter One


            The cacophony of sounds resonating inside the cabin of the little star-cruiser blended together to form a monotonous drone that caused Klaatu to become very, very sleepy. The steady pulsating hum of the engines and the soft-intermittent beeping of the ships on-board equipment had a way of lulling him into such a relaxed state that at times he would drift right off to sleep while sitting in his command chair.

            As he snored softly with his head tilted to one side, the entire ship shuddered slightly as if being shaken by an unseen force. Klaatu shifted in his seat but resumed his cat-nap with his head now slightly tilted to the other side.

            “Ion storm approaching,” said the ship’s computer in a monotone masculine voice. His command console was located just a few feet in front of his command chair. From this position, he could control every function on the ship. The myriad of dials and indicators were purely for informational purposes as most functions were carried out through simple voice commands to the on-board computer.

             Klaatu didn’t flinch. The ship shuddered again but with greater force this time.

            “Ship entering Ion storm,” the computer announced with no sentiment. It was merely a machine and not programmed to convey alarm or emotional duress. Klaatu had once quipped that no matter where he traveled in the universe, no matter which species he encountered, their machines were every bit as heart-less and soul-less as a pair of shoes.

            Klaatu took no notice and continued snoring softly.

            “Evasive action is strongly recommended,” said the computer.

            Klaatu shifted his weight again. He responded with a few indiscernible snorts and grunts, then he settled back into his comfortable chair. Visions of his home planet danced in his mind as he remained locked in a nostalgic state of reverie.

            The outer edge of the storm hit the tiny ship with full fury. Klaatu was lifted right out of his seat and nearly thrown to the deck.

            “What the hell is going on here?” he shrieked as he grudgingly returned to consciousness. He clutched the arms of the chair to steady himself. The craft was buffeted again as he was thrown forward onto the ship’s computer panel. He tried to grab hold of the edges to break his fall with no success. He landed on his rump in a seated position against the side wall of the cabin. A panel flew open just above his head as packages of food rations rained down upon him.

            “Damn! Why didn’t you warn me about this?” he shouted at the computer.

            “Warnings were issued but ignored,” came the monotone electronic response.

            Klaatu tried to regain his feet but another violent impact sent him sailing into the opposite side wall of the cabin. Another panel popped open as packets of medical supplies showered down upon him.

            “Well get us out of here!” he shouted. “Evasive maneuvers!”  The ship tilted to starboard and almost flipped. Klaatu grabbed on to a side rail and hung on for dear life. As the ship righted itself, he crashed to the deck striking his knees against the metal plating. The air temperature rose sharply from the increase in internal cabin pressure and droplets of sweat began to form on his brow.

            “Damn it!” he shouted at the computer, “Reverse direction now!”

            The ship started to roll again as he struggled to hold onto the metal rail, then he felt the engines surge as the computer laid in the new course. In a few moments the impacts ceased and the cabin went deathly silent. Klaatu slowly rose to his feet and staggered over to his command chair. He sat back and took a few deep breaths trying to clear his head. His knees were still throbbing with pain as he looked around the floor of the cabin at the debris that was strewn everywhere.

            “Well,” he chuckled, “that was invigorating, don’t you think?” There was no response. “Check for structural integrity and any hull damage,” he ordered.

            “Complying,” answered the computer.

            “Guess that’s what I get for dozing off on the job,” he said softly. He walked around the cabin picking up the dislodged items and put them back where they belonged. He sat back down and breathed an enormous sigh of relief as his pulse gradually returned to normal. Then he stared out towards his main viewing screen. The large, three dimensional panel was capable of displaying a panoramic view of the galaxy that had taken Klaatu’s breath away the first time he was introduced to it. These newly installed devices had holographic capability and the clarity was simply the best quality current technology had to offer. Despite his many years of service and millions of miles logged however, the limitless dangers that could virtually come out of anywhere out here in the vastness of space never ceased to amaze him.

            Although it was a reality he had become somewhat accustomed to, every so often a gut-wrenching thought gripped him like an iron vice. The only thing standing between his frail ageing body and the crushing, deadly zero gravity environment of empty space was the three-inch thick cobalt –reinforced outer walls of his ship.

            During his long career, he had covered a fairly large segment of the immediate vicinity which constituted “Coalition” space. While it spanned 31 solar systems, he was fully aware that it was nothing more than a tiny pin-prick in a universe that stretched beyond the imagination.

            Klaatu got up and prepared a hot beverage. The ship’s ‘galley’ was located to the right of his command chair. It was fully automated and any number of beverages or food items could be obtained in mere seconds with the wave of his hand. All he was required to do was keep the food processor stocked full of the small food ration packages that were loaded before every mission and the ship’s ‘vito-sequencer’ was designed to prepare them automatically. As he sipped an amber colored vitamin –rich liquid, a nutritional supplement that resembled Chinese tea, he perused his next assignment which had been relayed to him via sub-space communications just prior to the storm. The communiqué was from his dear friend Em Diem. He could only hope that it would be far more pleasurable than his last assignment. He wasn’t exactly sure as to the reasons why but it was beginning to feel like each new mission was exponentially more nerve-wracking than the one that preceded it.

He had been part of a six-member Coalition task force that was sent to the planet Terim to confront a notorious group of galactic pirates. They were engaging in the age-old practice of abducting young females and selling them into slavery. The sex trade throughout the galaxy was an increasingly disheartening problem and was one that struck a nerve in particular with Klaatu. He had a daughter and the thought of her being forced to endure such cruelty was simply unimaginable. Females from the planet Terim were known to have remarkably sensitive nervous systems and were reputed to have almost mythical levels of sexual prowess. They brought a huge sum on the black market but to Klaatu, it was one of the most heinous of offenses. The girls were wrenched away from their families to be abused on some alien world, then discarded like worn-out clothing once they outlived their usefulness. The task force had managed to rescue an entire ship full of terrified victims and Klaatu was moved beyond words by the looks of gratitude in their tear-filled eyes. He sometimes liked to think that over time he had become immune to all the suffering he encountered in his line of work, much like a doctor becomes numb to the emotions his wounded patients contend with. Deep down though, he was only fooling himself. Like most sentient beings, Klaatu had a reasonable tolerance level for most indiscretions accepting the fact that no one is perfect. Cruelty was where he absolutely drew the line. That was something he simply could never tolerate under any circumstances. 

Klaatu ordered his computer to soften the lights in the cabin. Due to the fact that he was expected to live within the relatively comfortable but sometimes confining interior of his Class 3 Star Cruiser, a wide spectrum of lighting conditions were pre-installed to conform to daily cycles. Bright yellow was employed during work periods, soft blue for relaxation periods and blue-green for sleep periods.  Klaatu was partial to the blue as it masked the somewhat cold, austere appearance of the gray metallic room he called home for much of his existence.

Klaatu reminisced about his friend for a few moments. He and Em Diem had attended the same university on their home planet Golon and pursued similar majors but Em had taken a different path than Klaatu after graduation. Rather than enter the CIPF (Coalition Interplanetary Police Force) which is the path Klaatu had chosen, Em seemed more attracted to the diplomatic side of inter-planetary affairs and had run for public office. He was a man of good will, an articulate and convincing public speaker and eventually rose to a high ranking position with the Council of Civil Affairs. It was their function to investigate and resolve disputes between member planets. It was the CIPF’s job to enforce their rulings.

Like Klaatu, Em Diem was in the twilight years of his life. He had given many years of highly distinguished service to his planet and those around him knew that he was contemplating retirement. He was the kind of individual who would give you the shirt off his back and few members of the Coalition Council were held in higher esteem but he had one major flaw in Klaatu’s eyes. He was far too trusting. By remaining back on Golon and confining himself to matters of diplomacy, he had not been directly exposed to the often seedy “underside” of the universe as Klaatu had. As a result, Em was far too willing to extend to all parties the benefit of the doubt when called upon to mediate interplanetary disputes. Klaatu had learned through countless experiences dealing with humanoids that the best approach was to immediately nullify every visible threat and ask questions later. Nevertheless, he was very fond of Em and trusted him implicitly. The two did have something very much in common that they each remained oblivious to, however. Age and years of sometimes very unpleasant experiences was causing them to become terminally cynical.

            Klaatu glanced down at the electronic clipboard containing his new orders. As he read through the text revealing his next destination, his nerve endings felt like they had been struck by a mild electronic charge.  He was instructed to head for “The third planet” in the distant system its inhabitants fondly refer to as the “Milky Way”. The mere recollection of his previous visit there brought back a myriad of emotions. First off, he could never understand why the planet’s inhabitants chose to name something as vast as a solar system after a chocolate candy bar that shared the same name. He had forgotten to ask someone of influence that very same question during his first visit. Then there was the infamous first encounter. No sooner did he step off his craft, he was fired upon by a nervous member of the planet’s military forces. Fortunately it was nothing more than a flesh wound but then the distrustful buggers had the unmitigated gall to shoot him in the back during the latter stage of his mission. They seemed to harbor an inexplicable, downright primitive fear and distrust of alien life forms. If not for the quick response by his traveling companion, CIPF enforcement-robot Gort, he wouldn’t be here today reading this communiqué. Gort had retrieved his lifeless body and placed him in the regeneration tube located in Klaatu’s ship. Their advanced medical technology could restore life functions for an indefinite period of time. Klaatu was fully aware that as he sat there remembering the experience, it was now a half-century later. Most of his peers marveled at his astonishing resiliency and longevity. In Klaatu’s mind however, he was painfully aware that he was living on borrowed time.

            In fairness to the planet’s incomparably irrational inhabitants, Klaatu grudgingly admitted that there were some fond moments during his visit to Earth. While the hairs on the back of his neck bristled with the thought of having to go back there, the idea did, on some level, intrigue him albeit in a distinctly apprehensive sort of way.

            The primary purpose of his mission had been to inform leaders of planet Earth that the Coalition of Planets he represented wasn’t trying to interfere in their affairs. However, if the planet’s inhabitants insisted on developing weapons of mass destruction which in time could threaten their celestial neighbors, there would be dire consequences. On the surface at least, it seemed so ridiculously simple that Klaatu fully expected to rap up the entire mission in a single day. He was instructed to leave behind a monitoring device in a non-conspicuous location so that the Coalition could  track their levels of progress, or lack thereof whichever the case may be. The good people of Earth would be given seventy five years before the Coalition would send another emissary. It was estimated that based on his planetary research, it would be at least 100 years before Earthlings would begin to send manned atomic-powered crafts to the outer edges of its solar system at their present rate of development. It had only been fifty years. So why the return visit, he thought to himself?

            Klaatu felt the ship lurch in reverse causing him to spill his beverage all over his gray, one piece flight suit.

            “What in blazes!” he gasped as he reached for a towlette and dabbed at his uniform. “Computer! What was that?”

            “A passing ship has locked on to this vessel with a tractor beam,” answered the computer.

            “Didn’t ship scanners notice its approach?!” he said still dobbing at his uniform.

            “Ship was in sheer mode and scanners were unable to detect its approach,” came the response.

            “Sheer mode?” muttered Klaatu. The only ships that were equipped with such capabilities within the Coalition’s sphere of influence were those used by the CIPF. Any member planet using ships with any kind of similar stealth-like technology were severely punished with economic sanctions and could even risk expulsion. Which meant that his ship was in the grip of a violator or…

            “Hey there buddy!” said an affable voice through his ship’s communication console. Klaatu recognized the voice immediately. It was his fellow officer and close friend Ecko Moov.

            “You son of a Talon bog-beast!” snapped Klaatu with a smile. “You’ve spilled my beverage all over me!”

            “Sorry about that old buddy,” came Ecko’s response from his ship which was now directly behind Klaatu’s. “I just thought I would drop by and say hello.”

            “Is that your idea of a simple hello?” asked Klaatu whimsically.

            Klaatu and Ecko had been classmates for the final two years of their CIPF training. Their class featured many outstanding cadets and it was widely considered to be one of the finest graduating classes in the academy’s history. Klaatu had developed a strong bond with Ecko and during the extensive training maneuvers; the two had become so familiar with each other’s moves, tactics, and ways of thinking that they had developed a sense of confidence in each other’s abilities that transcended mere camaraderie. Klaatu trusted Ecko with his very life and he was reasonably sure that the feeling was mutual.

            The practice of sneaking up on a fellow agent and successfully locking onto his ship with a tractor beam was an age old prank throughout the force. It was a symbol of competence and any agent unable to perform the feat was considered a flunky.

“You’re just angry that I sniped you so easily,” responded Ecko. “I heard you were in this sector and wondered where you were going next?”

            “You won’t believe it…” answered Klaatu as he walked over to the laundry shoot and threw his towlette into the metallic bin. He pushed a button on the panel above it and the cleaning cycle whirred into motion.

            “Do you remember that planet I told you about where I got shot with a lead projectile not once but twice in the span of one week? The one that makes my ribs ache every time I think about it?”

            “I remember” said Ecko. “I thought they weren’t scheduled for a return visit for another 25 years or so.”

            “They aren’t,” said Klaatu. “I am not sure what the reason is but I’m sure I will find out in good time. So, where are you bound for my friend?”

            “Actually, I’m due for some R and R for a couple weeks. I’ve been working straight out for 4 months and I’m looking forward to just taking it easy for awhile. Wish you could join me.”

            “Yes, me too,” muttered Klaatu remorsefully. He would have liked nothing better than to get away from the rigors of the job for a while but judging by the orders he had just received, the Council obviously had other plans for him.

            An alarm sounded indicating another ship was nearby.

            “Scanners are tracking ship of unknown origin three parsecs distance traveling at high rate of speed,” announced the computer.

            “Put it on screen,” ordered Klaatu. He gazed at his ship’s main viewing panel. In the distance, he could just barely make out the glimmer of a small craft. Whoever it was, they were in a hurry to get somewhere.

            “Are you tracking that?” he asked Ecko.

            “It is a Tilatin explorer according to my previous scans,” answered Ecko. “They are elusive little creatures and I haven’t been able to get close enough for a better scan. Now what the hell would a Tilatin ship be doing way out here?” In another moment it was gone.

            “Ship has moved beyond scanning range,” said the computer.

            “That’s odd,” muttered Klaatu as he continued to search the viewing screen for any trace of the craft. “They have no business being in this sector.”

            “Oh well,” said Ecko. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll see if I can pick them up on my way back to Central. Listen, check in with me when you get back huh? You still owe me that hiking trip, remember?”

            “Yes I remember,” answered Klaatu thoughtfully. “I’ll give you a shout when I return. Justice be with you.”

            “And with you my friend,” answered Ecko.

With that, Klaatu watched as Ecko’s ship disappeared from his viewing screen. At its current location patrolling the outer rim of the Ceti Alpha system, Klaatu’s ship was three days away from Earth at maximum speed. That would give him a few days to re-familiarize himself with the planet’s geographic complexities. By tracking current radio and television signals, he could bring himself up to date on just how far Earth had progressed or regressed, whichever the case may be. He had, on occasion, glanced at the data being sent to the Coalition’s monitoring center from the transmitter he had left behind on his previous visit but he had never had the time to study the data in-depth.

            “Computer, lay in a course to designated new assignment,” ordered Klaatu as he walked over to replenish his beverage. Then he ordered the computer to open a channel to Em Diem at Central Command to clarify the reasons for his return to Earth. The electronic servant complied and within seconds had made the communications connection.

“Klaatu?” came a voice over the intercom. It was the unmistakable tone of Em Diem. “Good to hear from you. I had a hunch you would be checking in. Are the Golon moons smiling upon your travels?”

            Klaatu felt a deep sense of connection whenever he heard Em’s voice. He confided in him often and would accept anything he told him without hesitation. In all his years of service to the Coalition, he had counted on Em’s advice and guidance more times than he could count. Through all of their interactions, the bond they shared remained as strong as ever.

            “The glow from our lovely planet’s two moons is with me always,” answered Klaatu, “But I am a bit perplexed. I didn’t think we were scheduled to go back to Earth for another 25 years. What has changed?”

            “There are two reasons, my friend,” said Em. “The first is that we think the monitoring device you left behind is malfunctioning. It is indicating that the Earth inhabitants have accelerated their nuclear weapon programs to frightening levels. The numbers are so high we can only assume the information is faulty which will require you to merely repair the transmitter or replace it. You do have a few on board as standard cargo, correct?”

            “Oh sure,” answered Klaatu. “I have at least three in my inventory at all times.”

            “Good,” said Em. “The first and highly more preferable scenario would not require you to make any contact whatsoever. They have already informed us that they have no desire to become members of our little Coalition of Planets and we respect their decision. We don’t respect them enough to refrain from spying on them mind you as they still could represent a threat to our stability if they continue to pursue their present course but that is an issue for another day. For the present at least, try to get in and get out, no fuss, no muss.”

            “And the second reason?” said Klaatu. He knew that first scenario sounded far too easy. If there was one constant that seemed to dog him throughout his entire career up to this point, it was that few things ever came to him easily.

            “The second scenario only becomes an issue if the signals we are receiving are accurate. Then…you will have to take action.”

            “What kind of action?” asked Klaatu, his nerve endings tingling with every word? He could still picture Earth in his mind. It was to the best of his recollection one of the most beautiful planets he had ever seen. He had thoroughly enjoyed his interaction with most of the planet’s life forms, particularly the incredible assortment of birds and mammals, with the exception of humans of course. He grudgingly acknowledged that they possessed some moderately likable qualities, depending on one’s perspective. Their culinary arts skills were without equal and they could spin a yarn with the best of bi-peds, a combination that often resulted in a reasonably pleasurable evening of dining and entertainment. But they could also, often with the slightest of provocations, be far more disagreeable than most species he had encountered over the span of his eventful career. “Perhaps they had mellowed with age,” he thought, “but then again that might be too much to hope for.”  Klaatu was widely described by his peers as an incurable pessimist.

            “It may require you,” said Em earnestly, “to perform a far more extreme demonstration of the consequences they face if they do not cease and desist with their continuing efforts to build bigger and more destructive weapons. I fail to see why they cannot recognize the dangers this kind of shamefully aggressive policy poses to every living thing on their planet’s surface.”

            “Well,” said Klaatu. “Let us hope it is merely a faulty transmitter. We can always cross that other bridge when we come to it.”

            “Agreed,” said Em. “Have a safe trip. Contact me again when you get there and have an update.”

            “Will do,” answered Klaatu. Then he remembered his encounter with the Tilatin ship. “Oh, by the way, I scanned what appeared to be an explorer-class Tilatin vessel leaving this sector. Are you aware of their presence here?”

            “A Tilatin ship?” said Em with genuine surprise. “They have no authority to be exploring that area. That would represent a serious violation of territorial mandates. I will check into it though.”

“I just thought you should know about it,” said Klaatu. “I too thought it was a bit strange. I’ll get in touch with you again when I am on the ground. Take care my friend. Computer, end transmission.”

Klaatu got up and walked around the ship’s cabin to the empty alcove where Gort would normally be standing. All senior officers of the CIPF (Coalition Interplanetary Police Force) were accompanied by enforcement robots. Gort had been his traveling companion since Klaatu’s very first mission after graduating senior officer’s training at the police academy. The ship felt empty without him and somehow Klaatu felt vulnerable going off on any mission without him. Gort had been malfunctioning and was desperately in need of routine maintenance. He had dropped him off two weeks earlier with engineers and was told it would be another week before he would again be ready for service. His ship was equipped with weapon systems with a myriad of enforcement capabilities and Klaatu had nothing to worry about for the most part but something inside kept nagging him that it was bad luck to travel without his fellow officer, robot or no robot.

“Oh what the hell,” he muttered to himself. “He would probably just scare the skin off the Earthlings again like he did last time.”

Klaatu glanced down at the time piece on his wrist. It was time to consume nourishment. CIPF officers were required to adhere to a strict regimen of proper exercise and diet. Klaatu was a seasoned veteran of the force however, and the time allotment he was required to devote to each function had, over time, shifted ever so slightly. The required one hour of exercise shortly after each fifteen minute eating period had gradually morphed into a regimen that was a bit more to his liking. Fifteen minutes of exercise per day if he could find the time with four leisurely eating periods, each followed by a short nap. It was a regimen eminently more to his liking and far more suited to a man of his age he rationalized in his mind.

            He got up and walked over to the galley. A daily menu was posted on the wall indicating portion sizes and daily items to be consumed in order to maintain proper weight and muscle mass. The CIPF standard-issue meals would bore a billy goat so everywhere Klaatu went he would pick up a healthy supply of contraband items to sustain him to his next destination. He was well aware he could be suspended and even fired for such rule violations but if the CIPF suspended every officer who had contraband food items on board, there wouldn’t be anyone left to patrol the galaxy.

As he loaded up his tray with twice the allowed daily allotment of calories and filled a glass with a wine-like beverage compliments of the gracious families on the planet Terim, he retook his seat and a devilish grin came over his face. “It pains me to admit it,” he said to himself, “but I have reached a point in my life where I am forced to confess I enjoy eating more than I do sex. How pathetic is that?” He flipped a switch on his command chair console and the cabin filled with the sounds of relaxing Golonian music.  Klaatu’s personal favorite was an orchestral piece titled “Flight of the Cybids’ performed by the Fantara Orchestra based in Golon’s capital city of Fantar. Cybids were the most plentiful of all the bird-like species on Golon. They were sky blue with white feathers and as they soared majestically through the Golon skies, their wings emitted a soft melodious shrill that was simply alluring to anyone within earshot.

He deftly cut into an 8 ounce filet of snarl-beast and popped a piece into his mouth. It had a similar consistency as the portion of cow he had once enjoyed on planet Earth all those long years ago. He closed his eyes and began to chew, savoring its natural juices.

Ahhhhh!” he sighed, wafting in the culinary ecstasy of the moment. “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” He raised the glass to his lips and prepared to enjoy its contents.

“Ion storm ahead,” announced the computer matter-of-factly.

“Of course there is!” snapped Klaatu. “You wouldn’t have it any other way.” He so loathed computers. He put down the drink for a moment and stared contemptuously at his command console. “Plot an evasive course.”

The on-board computer managed to plot a course around the second Ion storm. Klaatu had noticed of late that these galactic phenomenons were occurring with greater frequency. There were some scientists in the Coalition’s employ who insisted it was incontrovertible evidence of universal warming but there were many skeptics ready and willing to refute these findings. He finished his meal and put his head back for a few moments wafting in the orchestral magnificence.


Klaatu was grateful for the few days of travel time which gave him the opportunity to catch up on Earth Lore. As he monitored signals being emitted by the transmitter he had planted decades earlier, it did not appear, at least on the surface, that it was malfunctioning. The signal was clear and crisp but the data it was transmitting was nevertheless intriguing giving him much to digest. Time passed in what Klaatu often referred to as “the blink of a cosmic eye” and before he knew it, his ship had reached the outer edge of Earth’s solar system. Pluto, the furthest planet from their sun was just off to his right. Approximately 1,475 miles in diameter, its icy lifeless surface appeared barren and uninviting.

“Computer,” he said, “Scan for atmospheric readings as we pass each planet in this system. Transmit all findings to Command Central. Might as well conduct a little constructive research along the way.”

“Affirmative,” responded the computer.

Klaatu was fully aware that it would slow his progress a bit since the planets were not in straight alignment but conducting research was part of his duties as a CIPF officer. Besides, it was a great way to break up the day-to-day routine. In a few hours he had passed Uranus, Neptune, Saturn with its awe-inspiring rings, the mammoth Jupiter and was just shy of Mars. The “red planet” was reading little more than minute particles of bacteria at its lowest levels. Klaatu was fascinated upon his first visit here that of the nine planets in this system, only one was currently supporting corporeal life. That was very unusual and something he had not found anywhere else in his travels. Usually when he encountered a cluster of planets so closely aligned, a greater number of them would indicate some forms of life. In this group, eight of the nine were virtually dead planets.

As the afternoon waned, Earth loomed majestically in the distance. As his ship drew closer, the fog began to clear in his head and the hazy images that had faded with the passing of time all came back to him. He gazed intently at his viewing screen with renewed vigor as it grew larger and larger. It was like a big blue liquid bubble slowly rotating in the empty void of space. Klaatu recalled upon his first visit here how incredibly naïve the Earth’s inhabitants were to the fact that they resided on one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the galaxy.

His ship entered the atmosphere taking readings as it descended. After passing through the thinly layered exosphere, the ship entered the thermosphere and began vibrating slightly. Klaatu immediately noticed something very different from his previous visit. There were electronic satellites orbiting the planet in vast numbers. His ship’s sensing equipment continued taking readings as it passed them by. He noticed that some were functional while others were not. Klaatu couldn’t understand why the satellites that were no longer functional still remained in orbit. From his vantage point, the planet’s inhabitants either lacked the technology to retrieve them or, they were content to just leave them there as floating garbage, a decision that would only come back to haunt them in the not too distant future as there orbits decayed.

A large craft came into view off in the distance. “What is that?” Klaatu mumbled in an intrigued tone.

“Craft is a manned exploratory vehicle of Earth origin,” answered the computer.

“Manned craft!” said Klaatu. “Amazing! They really have progressed haven’t they.

As the International Space Station grew closer, Klaatu was impressed with its size and complexity. It looked like a huge metallic butterfly floating in space. It appeared to be powered by solar arrays, a form of energy that did not exist when he had last visited here. He ordered his computer to give it a wide berth. He did not want to alert the good people of Earth to his presence just yet.

The ship entered Earth’s stratosphere where the ride became a bit smoother. It orbited the planet and began scanning for changes in air quality, water quality and relative size of the ice packs at each pole. He would compare the readings to those he had taken five decades earlier. The ship was flying in sheer mode, unlike his first visit when he allowed himself to be tracked. There was no need to let anyone know he was here unless it became absolutely necessary.

As his ship soared above the continent of Antarctica, scanners picked up a large group of Emperor Penguins huddled together in a tight group. Klaatu watched his main viewing screen in amazement as a blizzard battered the defenseless creatures in what had to be intolerably cold conditions.

“Hover here for a moment,” Klaatu ordered the computer. “What is the temperature down there?”

The ship was hovering about two thousand feet above the ice pack but the intense winds still pushed the engines to their limit as they struggled to maintain a stationary position.

“Surface temperature is currently -10 Celsius,” stated the computer. “Winds are at 40 knots combining for a wind chill of -35 Celsius.”

“Good God!” remarked Klaatu. He had never seen anything quite like this before. They were just standing there tightly huddled together in a desperate fight for survival.

As he continued to watch in amazement, the penguins at the outer edge of the circle appeared to be on the verge of freezing to death.

“Why don’t they seek shelter?” he wondered. “This can’t be some form of mass suicide can it?”

“A search of ship’s records indicates the event is a normal occurrence which takes place in this region of the planet every 12 months,” reported the computer. “Male penguins are required to keep newly formed eggs warm by shielding them for the entire winter.”

Klaatu’s heart ached for the defenseless creatures. “This is remarkable,” he muttered. “What determination and sacrifice. A truly extraordinary species.”

He continued to watch as two of the penguins at the outer edge fell to the ground. They appeared to have succumbed to the extreme cold and driving gusts of icy pellets.

“I can’t just sit here and watch this,” he said in anguish. “This is more than any living creature should be expected to endure.”

Klaatu’s mind raced in a desperate search for a solution. He was absolutely forbidden to interfere in the normal ecological progression of any planet. The Coalition had learned through many centuries of experience that even the best intentions to help a given species can have dire consequences when all factors are not carefully considered. Nature as a whole, regardless of the planet in question, had proven time and time again to require a very delicate balance in order to remain healthy and vibrant. If he had had the time, there were countless examples he could have studied where humanity had dealt with serious ramifications after introducing new plants and animals into areas of the planet where they had never existed before. Even on a planet as small as Earth, the inhabitants had managed to establish a strict set of rules regarding the transportation of potentially dangerous species of plants and animals across inter-continental boundaries.

But these were creatures on the verge of freezing to death, Klaatu thought. He wasn’t going to move them which might upset the planet’s delicate eco-system. He just wanted to keep them warm. What could possibly be wrong with that, he thought?

“Computer!” he said with utter resolve. “Drop a thermo-pod over them. Set duration for 7 days. That should get them through the worst of the storm.” A thermo-pod was a light-weight hovering device that generated a radiant heat over a designated area, then dropped harmlessly to the ground once its energy was expended. It could then be retrieved and re-charged for further use.

“Temperature setting?” asked the computer.

Klaatu thought for a moment. If he made it too warm, their body temperatures could rise causing an increase in metabolism. This would force their systems to burn more calories and they might not have access to food supplies until the conditions improved.

“Let’s just make it more bearable,” he said. “Set it at 0 Celsius. I would like to do more but it may cause them more harm than good.” 

The computer complied. As it dropped the device it descended to within twenty feet above the ground, stopped and began emitting a warm infra-red glow that would be uninterrupted no matter how strong the winds became. Its aerodynamically designed frame allowed it to remain in a synchronous position just above the penguin’s snow-covered heads.

As Klaatu continued to watch for a few moments more, the two penguins that had fallen, gallantly trying to protect the others from the merciless forces of nature stirred to life. They floundered for a few moments, then staggered to their feet. Their heads bobbed side to side as if they were thinking, “Is it springtime already?”

“That’s better,” he muttered. “I just hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me. Although a planet over run by penguins might be a refreshing alternative to one over run by humans. Computer, let’s move on.”

The ship proceeded north over Patagonia where he made a brief stop to pilfer some fresh coffee beans from the over-abundant jungles of South America. Coffee was a beverage he remembered thoroughly enjoying during his first visit. As every CIPF officer is fully aware, it is morally unethical to pass up on any opportunity to obtain contraband food items, just so long as no one is financially adversely affected in the process. Graft is definitely off limits. His ship then lifted off again and swung out over Brazil and the Equator. He crossed the Central Atlantic Ocean and decided to take some readings while flying over the Sahara, the largest desert on the planet. His ship’s surveillance equipment was far more advanced than anything found on Earth. As his ship crossed over Nigeria and circled south towards Angola, Klaatu was stunned by the conditions that prevailed throughout the region. The entire area was riddled by political unrest and turmoil. Millions of residents had been displaced and were on the move. It was difficult to watch so many unfortunate victims desperately trying to seek refuge from the violence. Many appeared to be on the verge of collapse from malnutrition. The images were gut-wrenching. There were long lines of people of all ages, most of them barefoot, some carrying small children in their arms. An overwhelming sense of anguish gripped Klaatu as he watched in horror. This is not what he expected to find here.

“How can one region of this planet live in such lavish abundance,” he thought to himself, “while just a few thousand miles away entire cultures teeter on the brink of starvation?” Once again, Klaatu’s emotions were getting the better of him.

Judging by his readings, much of the African landscape was either too arid or underdeveloped to produce sufficient amounts of food to sustain its burgeoning population. He carried in his ship’s hold high-yield grains and other food staples that could be used during moments of crisis. A quick scan of available inventory revealed that a hybrid, rice-like grain that had thrived in similar conditions on the planet Tarsa may prove equally vibrant here. Unlike many grains native to Earth which relied on an intricate system of roots and irrigation to draw up moisture from the ground, this grain required a minimal root source and derived its nutrients by absorbing necessary elements directly from the air surrounding it. Even under the driest of conditions, as long as there was a sufficient source of wind to provide a minimal supply of moisture, this alien grain should thrive and multiply. Two thirds of this planet’s surface was covered by water, a statistic that was unsurpassed throughout the immediate galaxy. Humidity levels here were off the charts compared to those on Tarsa. When fully grown, the adult plant very much resembled the tumbleweeds that rolled across the American Southwest, only these were edible and quite tasty.

He got up from his command chair and walked around to the back wall of the cabin. He opened a panel, then descended three stairs that led into his ships storage compartment. He found the large sacks of seeds he was looking for, then placed them in the jettison tubes. Once they were properly positioned, he headed back up to the main cabin and returned to his command chair.

He once again gazed at the ship’s main viewing screen and searched for a suitable location to drop the seeds.

            “Unauthorized substance has been detected in jettison tube one,” announced the computer.

            “Is that a fact?” said Klaatu, still gazing at the viewing panel. “How observant of your little transistors.”

            “Unauthorized seed distribution in areas that have not previously been scientifically examined for suitability is expressly forbidden,” said the computer.

            “And I thank you profusely for pointing that out to me,” said Klaatu impatiently. He waited a few seconds more until the ship was directly over an area that was devoid of any human life forms that may be frightened at the sight of seeds raining down upon them. Then he pushed the jettison button sending the seeds tumbling to the ground.

            “Unauthorized distribution of…” said the computer but Klaatu cut it off in mid-sentence.

            “Will you please shut up!” he snapped. He laid in a new set of coordinates and sat back in his chair. He could only hope that his action, which he was painfully aware, might pose a great risk to his career if discovered, would bear fruit. Or in this case, bear grain. His mind was momentarily awash in self-doubt as he had never done anything like this before no matter how severe the conditions. He had always adhered to the rules, just as he was taught to do. That doesn’t mean he liked the rules however. There were many occurrences where Klaatu could have helped a particular species in need but was prevented in doing so by these infernal rules. Many of those missed opportunities continued to weigh heavy on his conscience. That was something he was growing increasingly weary of as the many years passed by. Virtually every action in the universe has a reaction, most of them unpredictable. He could only hope that this particular action’s eventual positives outweighed its negatives. Either way, he was determined to never again sit idly by while innocent victims suffered through no fault of their own.

The ship again crossed back over the Atlantic and proceeded up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Klaatu’s heart began to race a bit as a feeling of intense Déjà vu overwhelmed him. This was the same path he had taken upon his first visit when he landed in the middle of a baseball field in Washington DC scaring the bajeezes out of a good many unwitting little leaguers.

After completing the difficult mission, his departing flight path had taken him up over the Northeast section of the continent. Out of sheer convenience, he had decided to plant the monitoring device in the White Mountains of New Hampshire near Mount Washington. It was the highest point in the Northeast region of the United States. Its dense forestry which was protected by the government made it an ideal location. He imbedded it beneath the ground under the cover of darkness where it would hopefully never be discovered. The signal it was designed to transmit was light years beyond anything humans could trace or track. It was a highly sophisticated bugging device that tapped into radio and television frequencies, then relayed the signals to Coalition government agencies on the planet Obo in the Alpha Centauri system. The device and the readings it was transmitting were virtually undetectable. The only way it could be discovered is if the exact location, twelve feet beneath the ground at latitude 44° 16' N, longitude 71° 18' W was excavated. Because it was a National park, Klaatu knew the device would be completely safe high on that ridge and away from prying eyes.

But then again, Klaatu had never heard of condominiums, which didn’t come into being until the 1980’s. How could he have anticipated that a greedy developer would pay off the right politicians, allowing the construction of a ski resort that now sat right on top of his transmitter?

“Those Cretans!” he shrieked as his ship slowly circled the area scanning the ground below from an elevation of 10,000 feet. While his ship was virtually invisible to Earth’s radar tracking equipment, it could be seen by the naked eye if he wasn’t careful. He waited until the cover of darkness and found a suitable place to land just west of Mt. Washington. He chose a clearing within a state park that seemed to be totally deserted and closed for the season. As he approached he felt reasonably sure that the cloud-filled October night sky would offer him the kind of cover he would need to land undetected. The summer tourist season had ended and this was a relatively desolate, sparsely populated area.

It wasn’t completely free of residents however. Tom Gibson’s house was located on Pine Hill road just off of Route 302 and a few miles from the campground. As he sat in his living room enjoying his evening fix of “Wheel of Fortune”, he heard a soft hum that seemed to be crescendoing outside his window. As he reluctantly tore his eyes away from the shapely, blonde-haired woman who was gracefully turning letters on the display board, he looked out into the darkness just in time to see the silhouette of Klaatu’s ship sail by.

“Lucy,” he said in an unconcerned voice to his wife who was baking an apple pie in the kitchen, “a flying saucer just flew by the house. It looked like it was coming in for a landing.”

“That’s nice dear,” Lucy muttered, then she went back to her rolling pin.

Tom just shrugged and turned his eyes back towards the television set. If she wasn’t going to worry about it, he sure as hell wasn’t going to worry about it either.

Moments later Klaatu set the ship down and disengaged the engines. It was eerily quiet in the cabin of his ship but it felt good to be on solid ground again. He ordered the computer to do a complete scan of the surrounding area for life forms.

“No humanoid life forms have been detected within a two mile radius,” said the computer.

“Good, good,” said Klaatu. “This spot should work perfectly. I can plant another transmitter if necessary and de-activate the faulty one from this remote location. Hopefully I’ll be out of here by tomorrow morning.”

He got up from his command chair and walked over to the weapons rack. He removed a blaster pistol and strapped it to his waist. He was reasonably sure he wouldn’t need it but the thought of traveling without Gort on board was still a bit unsettling to him.

“Then again,” he thought to himself, “maybe it is just the memory of my previous encounter with these buggers coming back to haunt me.”

“Extend exit ramp,” ordered Klaatu as he prepared to leave the ship. The exit hatch opened and he stepped out as the long, smooth, gray-colored ramp slid to the ground before him. He filled his lungs with the cool invigorating air and walked down the ramp to the grass below shining his porto-light in front of him.

As he scanned the tree line around his ship, he surmised that the computer had picked out the perfect spot. The ship fit into this little clearing like a glove, the trees surrounded him in a tightly formed circle and the only access road from nearby Route 3 seemed totally deserted. He relaxed his guard and felt at ease as he walked around the ship and surveyed it for damage from the Ion storm. The outer hull didn’t show a scratch and while he knew subconsciously that the shielding the ships were equipped with was time tested and of the highest reliability, Klaatu always felt more comfortable doing a visual inspection of the hull whenever he landed on solid ground. “’To hell with technology,” he once told a colleague. Always trust your senses.”

He paused and listened for a moment. He was miles from civilization and the only sounds the night was offering up was that of the slight breeze whistling through the trees, the incessant chatter of crickets and the occasional “hoot” of a nearby owl.

He bent to his knees and ran his hand over the cool green grass. It was a much-welcome alternative to the cold, lifeless metal of his ship’s cabin that he had been exposed to for too many months. He walked slowly away from the ship and out onto the access road. The asphalt was cracked in many places from frost heaves and the extreme weather this area was prone to during the winter months.

He heard the sound of a babbling brook nearby, but rather than trying to find it in the unyielding darkness, he wisely decided to wait for daylight to explore it further.

The cool night air was intoxicating as Klaatu closed his eyes and drew it all in with unabashed glee. His lungs filled with the oxygen-rich air and Klaatu felt completely rejuvenated.  He glanced around and continued to waft in the ambiance. “What a great place for a camp fire,” he said to himself.

Klaatu went into the ship and retrieved a small heating device and a porto-chair. Then he returned to the grass below. He activated the heater and sat down to enjoy a short respite with nature. The porto-heater emitted a warm radiant glow as he rubbed his hands together and held them just above its metal casing. It wasn’t the same as an open fire but foraging for the necessary elements to get one going was out of the question. This was still unfamiliar surroundings and in total darkness, wandering around might be unwise. “No,” he said to himself as he carefully scanned the forest, “this will have to do.”

He stared up at the night sky. The stars were only dimly visible through the thin clouds but he still visualized them in his mind. It always fascinated him how the cosmos appeared from the vantage point of each planet he had visited. The humans had given the constellations some very interesting names based on how they appeared from their vantage point in the universe. “The Big Dipper” and its younger brother, “Little Dipper”. “Hercules”, “Orion”, and “Gemini”. Most of the names were derived from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. From his home planet of Golon, Earth was part of the “Zepala Ta” system. 11 months earlier during his last visit to his home world, Klaatu remembers staring up at the Golon night sky and searching for some of the various planets he had visited. He had located Earth as well as a good number of others and had charted them as a personal diary. Here it was almost an Earth year later and he found himself looking back at Golon from the other side of the galaxy.

“This mysterious thing we call Fate is so full of wonder and surprise,” he once read. He never could have guessed that he would be covertly re-visiting this species that was in the early stages of development. He imagined for a moment what it would be like when humanity finally reached that landmark moment when they would visit some other inhabited world for the very first time. The mere thought of that inevitable event made him chuckle for a moment. “When worlds collide,” he mused.

            Klaatu heard his sensor beep softly. He reached down and unclipped the small cigarette-pack sized device from his belt and looked for where the indicator needle was pointing. He was being scanned. He continued to watch as the needle pointed towards the night sky in a direction of approximately 1 o’clock. There were hundreds of Earth satellites in orbit around the planet but none of them were capable of scanning at a frequency level that would cause his sensor to activate. Then again, it had been a long time since his last visit. Perhaps their satellite technology had advanced to a sufficient level to cause such a reaction. He couldn’t be sure. If it was an Earth satellite, he was reasonably sure they couldn’t get a visual lock on his ship through that kind of cloud cover. The beeping stopped so whatever it was, it had either moved beyond scanner range or had shut down altogether.

            “Curious though,” he muttered to himself as he returned the sensor device to his belt.

            He heard the haunting call of a Hoot Owl off in the distance. The wind continued to buffet the trees in a crescendoing, then decrescendoing “whoosh” of cool air. The hour was late and Klaatu gave a momentary thought to sleeping outside the ship for a change of pace. He decided against it however. It would be just his luck to wake up with a large hungry black bear staring him right in the face. They were indigenous to this region and not to be trifled with.

            Klaatu felt a tinge of loneliness come over him. While he understood the CIPF’s reasoning for employing one-man crews to patrol the galaxy feeling they could cover far more territory, it sure could foster a somewhat melancholy existence over long periods of time. There were missions when his job would require him to go days, even weeks on end without any human contact. Gort may have made him feel more secure but he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Klaatu wasn’t one to wallow in self-pity though. He had learned through decades of experience that the best way to ward off loneliness and depression was to immerse himself in work. As long as he kept his mind active, it served as a much-needed diversion from the many pratfalls of his occupation.

He picked up his gear and returned to the ship totally unaware that a 350 pound black bear was watching his every move from thirty yards away just beyond the tree line. Fortunately for him, the bear had already had his supper that night compliments of the nearby brook and its ample supply of tasty trout.