Molly Glenn, OfflineBy Kirk Trigon
Fifty-two hours ago, with Molly strapped into a big, puffy, vinyl chair, the Deep-space Shuttle Rainbow Raider rode a bright ball of fire into the skies over Houston, Texas.
A few hours outside of Earth's orbit, with an eyeful of stars, she flipped a switch on her console, activating the Raider's sub-light engines, ..and less than a minute ago, its engines roared on and off, pumping out a faint trail of energy in the ship's unsteady wake, as it sped toward the planet Venus. In the cockpit, alarms for every kind of emergency imaginable went off, simultaneously! Then, on the Raider's main monitor, the UFO Contingency Simulation played, as its commander's slender fingers raced over the three, blinking consoles in front of her.
The Raider'd had a special place in Captain Glenn's heart, since the first day she'd laid eyes on it.
It was, hands-down, the ugliest tank ever given wings.
Striped across the sides with red, green, yellow, blue and purple! Not big enough to be majestic, and not small enough to be Bond-flick chic, Molly's loathing for the deep-space shuttle had gone where no other loathing for anything or anybody she'd known had gone before.
It was a full-blown religion.
She'd made a daily ritual of pouting at it, nose to nose. Freckle to tile! Glowering at those unbelievably tacky stripes! On her lunch breaks! Before breakfast! On Saturday afternoons, when her her boyfriend, Buck, had made one too many Beam-Me-Up Barbie jokes! All the experimental heat-shielding, laser-guided navigation systems and hybrid fueling technology in the world don't mean squat, when you're flying around in Bozo's Sunday ride and a gazillion miles away from the nearest happy hour!
This had to be some kind of simulation, Molly thought to herself, as she stared at the Raider's central monitor.
"Captain's Log," she muttered, activating the flight recorder program. Pulling back her shoulder-length, auburn hair into a rubber band, she searched pensively for a switch or button that would deactivate the virtual drill. "It's 5:52pm, December 30th. The Raider has sustained damage to its onboard computer, during activation of the sublight drive. Navicron systems are offline and overridden by UFO Contingency Simulation .."
Molly's log entry was interrupted.
"Log Entry Auto-Correct, December 30th, 5:53pm. Captain Marlena A Glenn, .. UFO Contingency Simulation is not running. Repeat -- UFO Contingency Simulation is not running. Acknowledge."
Captain Glenn stared out of the window of her starship, through the stray lock hanging in her face and past her reflection in the glass .. to a Chrysler Building-sized thing off her starboard bow. A little chill slipped through her, when she realized the virtual UFO in the onboard UCS looked nothing like the ship approaching the Rainbow Raider.
It wasn't this big.
"Captain Marlena A Glenn, .. acknowledge."
Only seconds ago, the gargantuan starship in the window was framed by black velvet cosmos and little pinpricks of white, blue and violet starlight. Now, all Molly saw was white metal spreading itself out before the window, .. the Rainbow Raider began to shake.
"Captain Marlena A Glenn, .. acknowledge."
Without Navicron, the Raider was blind. No way to assess how far she'd traveled from Earth. No satellite recog scanners to detect Earth satellites operating nearby. No stellar cartographic programs to plot a return course .. back to Earth.
Molly was blind.
"Captain Marlena A Glenn, .. acknowledge," the onboard computer repeated.
"Correction acknowledged," answered Molly, steeling herself for what she was about to do. "Captain's Log, off. Load weapons systems. All of 'em."
"Happy New Year, Moll."
Captain Marlena A. Glenn spun her chair around. Toward the familiar voice that wasn't supposed to be there. Instinct told her to get her hands on something. A weapon. Anything. She had not been trained for this part of space exploration.
The going nuts part.
Barefoot, bare-chested and sporting a pair of very clingy cutoffs, a familiar, unshaven face grinned from under a cap of dark brown hair. Ignoring the shock of disbelief on Captain Glenn's face, the man offered her a can of her favorite beer. "You hear me, Molls? I said, 'Happy fuckin' New Year'!"
"Sure, .. Buck," Molly answered uncertainly, carefully taking the beer from his hand. She studied the beer for a second, before ripping off the tab and taking a sip. The sight of Buck Rodgers in cutoffs had always been as debilitating to her thought processes as a chainsaw lobotomy. Now, it just freaked her out. "So -- er-rr -- what're you doing way out here, .. in space?"
The man leaned against a wall, shoving one hand into a pocket, while he sipped his beer. His grin eased into a bemused smirk, as he casually rested one leg on a naked big toe. "I dunno. Y'wanna fool around?"
Buck mumbled something about the ship crashing again, and he was gone. Not that he'd been there to begin with.
Resting on the console at her right, a pint of Ben & Jerry's she was too busy to dig into melted. Water dripped over the edge and onto the floor.
Taped to the monitor's frame, at her left, a Polaroid of Buck Rodgers, naked in a hammock, grinned mischievously, and a faint echo of the lazy Sunday she'd snapped it made her smirk.
"You sure this is what'cha want, Moll?" Buck had asked, between kisses and margaritas in her backyard. Didn't seem to bother him a lick that the FSA had picked her for the upcoming mission over him. Now, wearing nothing but a white Stetson and some cologne she bought him for Christmas, the cocky ape damn near changed her mind about taking it. "Nothing I can do to change y'er mind, huh?"
Molly'd answered with a belch and a mumbled order to smile pretty. A few hours and many margaritas later, they wobbled indoors and humped like jackrabbits ..
And the next day, she was suiting up for a trip around Venus.
"There's a war going on down there, Molly," Buck grumbled, tonguing the froth from his upper lip. "There're these two jerks, .. Randor and Hordak. They're going at it like gangbusters, and it's ripping the world apart. Before them, it was two other guys, and so on and so forth, all the way back to the damned Ice Age. You're about to get mixed up in this $#*% pretty deep, but, .. just hang in there. Everything's gonna be alright."
Not entirely convinced she wasn't hallucinating, Molly stood up and walked over to the thing that looked like Buck in cutoffs. "You're not Buck, .. are you? The Buck I know would be on the horn to Houston, cussing out Mission Control for a way to get us down in one piece! You? You're not even sweating."
"You're pretty cool about all this, yourself," the impostor replied casually, revealing nothing. Then, he shot her this look Buck'd all, but patented - the "Wouldn't you rather screw me, than nag me?" look. "Why is that? Why aren't you bouncing off the damn walls, right now?"
"Don't know," Molly answered, suspiciously. "Who the heck are you, anyway? The Devil? My guardian angel, maybe?"
"Good and evil don't apply to us," the thing smiled, sipping his beer, as she circled him. "I'm whatcha' call Kodagon. We're non-partisan messengers for the Master of the Universe. Guess you could say I'm here to make a little .. delivery."
Shit. It's an alien.
This thing just walked right into your damn starship from lord knows where. Walked right into your fucking head. Like it was a sale at Macy's.
"Really?" Molly groaned back her brew, with poorly concealed worry. Worry that she was losing her mind. Six weeks of alien encounter training went right out the window, and poker instinct kicked in hard as hell. Turn on the charm, Captain Glenn thought. "So, what exactly is it you're here to deliver, cowboy, .. and why the masquerade?"
The thing that looked like Buck continued to nurse the can in his grip. "I'd hoped a little beer and a good #^@* would put you at ease -- make this all a little easier on you."
He's in your head, Molly thought. Get into his.
Figure the sunuvabich out.
"Wanna' put me at ease, .. Buck?" Molly leaned in really close. Her lips curled into a dirty, little smile she'd worked at a billion happy hours. "Lose the mask. C'mon. Don't be shy, now. Let's see what you really look like, before we .."
When Molly blinked, there was a very tall man in dark red armor standing where Buck had been leaning against the wall. The sight of him made her flinch, and her half-empty beer can rolled across the cockpit floor toward the rear of the ship. In the span of another blink, the Raider lurched sideways, and Captain Glenn found herself pressed against him.
"Oh, .. $#*%! $#*%!" Captain Glenn huffed, frantically pushing herself from the mysterious stranger's chest. "Who are you? What the hell do you want from me?!"
Bronze muscles swelled, where no armor protected the Kodagon enforcer.
What could be made of its face from beneath the crimson helmet, gave the suggestion of hardened, masculine beauty, but not the kind that made a girl blush. The jaw jutted menacingly, and orbs of black glass concealed the eyes. Upon its metallic breastplate, a fork-like symbol glowed, as though it had been painted in blinding white light.
"I am here to deliver you, human," Zodac answered mirthlessly, as he felt the terrified breath rush out of Captain Glenn against his lips. "I am here to see that you crash."
The Rainbow Raider lurched forward, spilling Molly against the ship's console headfirst. Her skull bounced off the plastic frame of the monitor and sent her twisting backwards onto her belly. Carefully, she raised her head to look for the strange visitor.
And the man in the red armor was gone.
"Mission Control! Mission Control!" Molly shouted into the ship's radio, steadying herself. "This is Captain Marlena Glenn of the SS Rainbow Raider! Do you read me? Over!"
The malfunctioning UFO Contingency virtual that seemed so real only minutes ago was gone. By playing it out, as if it were a standard drill, Captain Glenn had tricked the onboard computer into logging a score and closing the program, .. but something else had gone very wrong!
The huge alien starship in the simulation had fired on the Rainbow Raider.
In turn, the malfunctioning onboard computer logged the hit as ‘real’ damage and was no longer reading vital mission ops programs. Life pods, communications, stellar cartographics, navigation and self-destruct programs were offline. The Raider’s hard drive was drawing a zero balance.
And Molly was all out of tricks.
Earth was back onscreen, coming up fast! As the Raider plummeted toward what appeared to be the Japanese Islands, Captain Glenn struggled to hotwire the Auxiliary Communications Transmitter! "Mission Control! Mission Control! This is Captain Glenn, Rainbow Raider! I’m re-entering Earth’s orbit with no guidance systems! Everything's offline! Do you read me?! Over!"
Again, .. no answer.
"Houston, get your BUTTS on the com!! I’m riding a HYDROGEN BOMB into Earth’s orbit! All my systems’re offline! Self-destruct is offli -- Mission Control, do you read me?! Do .. you .. READ ME?!!
. . .
Far below the clouds, a loud crack of thunder, quickly followed by a deafening explosion, awoke the battle-weary soldiers of Point Vulnar from their muddy tents! Sirens wailed! Young men and women scrambled onto their feet, weapons-lockers were emptied and engineering crews powered up Attak Traks, Wind Raiders and mobile plasma cannons!
Man-At-Arms didn’t have to call it for anyone.
Point Vulnar, a little rock in the Berserker Islands and the last outpost of Prince Randor’s ragtag resistance, was now under attack by the Horde!
"To your posts, me beauties!!" Old Banquo cawed to them, when a hand touched his shoulder.
"Do you see what I see, Man-At-Arms?" Prince Randor asked, signaling Banquo to look up at the pink ribbon of energy twisting in the charcoal clouds. "The shield’s buckling."
"Goddess o’Grayskull," hissed Banquo. "The bastards got somethin’ through!"
"Enemy personnel scanners say it's alive," added Randor, looking off towards the coast. "I want five Gigan-Traks armed to the teeth, Banquo! We’re going to the beach."
As the sun set over the Berserker Islands, that ominous, pink ribbon of energy flickered overhead.
Prince Randor, Banquo and five, heavily armed Gigan-Traks combed Point Vulnar’s west beaches, accompanied by Bright Moon Company shaking down the surrounding woods on foot. In a clearing, surrounded on all sides by tall pines, a young soldier spotted a silvery fin sticking out of a smoking crater. As he moved closer to the crater, he could see it was attached to the most hideously decorated spacecraft any Eternian had ever set eyes on!
"Ye gods!" Molly Glenn heard someone whisper. "The ugliest ship I've ever seen!"
"Monkey-woman," whispered someone else, as she regained consciousness. "Hordak’s been mutating Mystic Mountain bat-monkeys to use, as drones in his war-machines, you know."
"How barbaric," remarked a bearded Hugh Grant lookalike in Elizabethan drag, as he leaned in for closer inspection. "As if flying that hideous space-tub wasn't torment enough! Do you think the neuro-semantomy cap worked, Dr. Geiger? Can this .. thing .. understand us?"
"I can sure can smell'ya, Hamlet!" Molly sputtered, fixing her half-crossed eyes on Prince Randor and choking on rocket fuel fumes. "Doesn’t anybody take a bath around – where the hell am I, anyway?!"
Howls of laughter erupted from the fog behind Hamlet, and his bearded, young face flushed with outrage! As Captain Glenn rubbed her eyes, she could see that she was laying in some sort of trench, and that there were other costumed figures standing around Hamlet, in a dense fog. Even through the haze, Molly could see they all had something else in common, besides the costumes and the laughing.
Every one of their fifteen rifles was trained on her.
Suddenly, the violence of the crash, the shock of the UFO simulation, the taste of anchovies and birthday cake, flooded Molly's brain! In her delirium, the madwoman grabbed Hamlet by his big, puffy collar.
And the fog around them abruptly stopped laughing.
"You .. filthy .. BEAST!!" Hamlet squealed, scrubbing Molly’s kiss from his lips and leaping to his feet. "No doubt, you've infected me with some synthetic germ that will .. eat off my HEAD!!"
As Hamlet raved about germs and barbarians and itchy undergarments, a loud crack of thunder sounded from the darkness overhead! The costumed figures instinctively ducked, cocked their plasma rifles and looked up. High, in the black clouds above them, snakes of fiery, pink electricity rippled across the sky in every direction!
The sound of their crackling bedlam filled the air, ..followed by a cold, dead silence.
Old Banquo rushed to Prince Randor’s side. "Sire, Bright Moon Company just picked up Duncan the Graylander on the north shore! I sent’im back to camp in a trak."
Randor turned to the old man, inquisitively. "Very well, old friend. Now, out with the rest! The force shield?"
Old Banquo nearly stammered. "Gone, milord. The Horde Skyslayer Rakash has been detected .. eighty kronars above these Berserker Isles, sire."
For reasons unknown to Captain Marlena Glenn, a sea of narrowed, hateful eyes turned to her. In the middle of all of them, Hamlet motioned some of the other costumed freaks to come closer. "She’s with them. Take this Horde spy away!"
Enraged, Molly struggled to stand! "What did you call me?!"
Prince Randor gestured to his soldiers.
A bolt of lightning tore into Molly’s chest, and her eyes closed.
When they opened, there was smoke everywhere.
The heat was suffocating, and Captain Glenn fumbled for her photon pistol. The ground beneath her heels shook. She stumbled slightly, and in that instant, her finger instinctively tightened over the trigger. A bright blue ribbon of light rippled from the weapon in her hand, and Molly was cutting down anything that came at her.
Was this real?
As she staggered through the smoke and heat, Molly realized everyone, who took a swing at her, was wearing a costume. Medieval-styled armor. Dog masks. Lizard masks. Roman-styled helmets. Some of them were working each other over with medieval weapons -- maces, hammers, broadswords and oversized axes. Others were spraying the scene with high-tech firearms that pumped out EM energy faster than anything on Earth could.
Run, Molly thought.
Nothing to run to, but the ground shook so hard that the rock beneath her feet shifted, and her legs just started pumping. In swift succession, five, big tremors hammered the land. Molly half-stumbled. Through the smoke, she saw a thick crowd of men and women in medieval-styled armor running in her direction, .. and with so wild a pace that they didn't seem to notice her. Shielding her head between her forearms, she slipped through the throng and into a shaft of light.
The wind kicked up. Hard.
Through the black clouds overhead, something moved. Even when the smoke had dissipated enough for Captain Glenn to see it, her eyes refused to believe it. A large, metal, cigar-shaped thing, the size of an ocean-liner, hovered in the sky. The glare of searchlights swept over her face. Blinding her.
She squinted before it. Her eyes fluttered, and she saw that the armored uglies she was elbowing aside were running away from the damned thing, .. and some of them were not running at all. A charred smell, like Jacksonville barbecue, filled her nostrils, and she followed it to a pile of metal and raw hamburger at her feet.
She was standing in it.
Something slammed into Captain Glenn from behind, knocking her to the ground and into a trench!
"Get the hell offa' me .. and keep your hands where I can see'em!" Molly growled, wriggling out from under her armored attacker and climbing on top of him. He had a hard face -- a strong face, with a thick, short red beard and mustache, framing a pair of piercing, iron-grey eyes. Molly didn't stare; she had the barrel of her laser pistol squarely up one of his nostrils, before the guy even knew what hit him. "Who are you?! Now!"
"Duncan." Armor-All hissed, in a heavy, almost-Scottish accent. "Duncan! Last of the Graylanders! I just saved your ..!"
Captain Glenn slammed her fist into her prisoner's cheek and climbed off of him. Bracing herself against the trench's side, she kept her weapon trained on him. "Answer the question! WHERE are we?!"
"Point Vulnar -- Beserker Islands," the man answered with an uncertain smile. "What's left of them. That was a bloody skyslayer back there, y'know. You ever seen what one of them can do to a city? I just saved your .."
"I heard you the first time!" Molly kept the weapon where she'd aimed it. "Some costumed jerk just called me a whore-spy and shot me in the chest! Don't even think about getting thanked right now! What the hell is ..?"
The armored oaf actually started laughing. Laughing his head off, .. with a gun in his face!
"What's so funny?!" Molly growled.
The big, doofus just kept laughing. "Horde."
"What?" Molly asked again.
"Not 'whore', woman," the laughing man choked, wiping his eyes. "Horde. Horde-spies are everywhere. You really aren't from around here, .. are you? Maybe, you banged your head in that crash, eh?"
Molly didn't answer, unsure just how much she should reveal about her situation .. or how much she should trust Highlander here. She tried to place him among the faces she'd seen earlier, when some other armored nutcases were pulling her free of her starship's wreckage. She racked her brains for some grade school memory of where the 'Berzerker Islands' was on a map. Neither registered.
"Where'd you say you were from, again?" Armor-All asked.
"I didn't," Molly replied carefully, but something broad and uncomplicated about this Duncan's face got to her - reminded her of Buck. "I'm .. from the U.S. I'm an American."
"Never been there." Armor-All grimaced. "Don't 'spect it to be there, when you get back, either. It's been a year, I've been fightin' these scum, .. alone! They wiped out my entire tribe in less than a day. Crushed the Black Desert Republics in a fortnight. Now the Eternian Kingdoms are .."
Duncan's words were cut off by laserfire. Something shot his American captor's gun right out of her hand.
"The Eternian Kingdoms, as usual, are surrounded by invading alien hordes, barbarian scum .. ," Prince Randor sighed wearily, waving his laser rifle over the trench and locking eyes with Molly, " -- and spies, .. like Monkey Woman, there."
At least, he didn't call her a 'whore' this time, Molly thought. Plain, old 'spy' was virtually a promotion. "This is the bum, who shot me in the chest. You two know each other?"
"Everyone knows his brother, now," Duncan snarled. "Eh, Randy? The Horde just made him the governor of Serpentia! How long's it going to be, before you fetch for'em, Your Highness, .. and sell all these good people to the sod-heap for a pat of butter?"
"That THING in the desert is not Keldor!" Banquo raved at Randor's side, as his soldiers gathered behind him. "I seen Lord Keldor die with mine own eyes -- saved us all, he did! E'was a good man!"
"Was." Duncan mocked, half-under his breath.
Old Banquo drew his dagger and lunged towards the trench, where Prince Randor had Duncan and Captain Glenn trapped, when his young lord held him back. "You godless, dog-eating savage!"
The old codger's fury was so palatable, Molly felt herself digging her heels into the dirt of the trench. She was sure he'd never admit it, but she'd seen Duncan flinch, too. This whole scene was getting too weird and too real.
"Easy, Man-At-Arms!" Prince Randor whispered to the heavily armored, old man, gently restraining him. "Stand down. Report."
"All shields secured, milord." Old Banquo answered him, composing himself. "The Skyslayer Rakash has been successfully repelled and was last logged proceeding South, at fifty hundred kronars a second. We suffer casualties. Many casualties."
Randor turned back to the trench, pointing an accusing finger at Captain Glenn. "You -- monkey-woman! You're the cause of all of this! You were sent here by the Evil Horde to destroy our shields and expose us to attack!"
"Evil Horde -- are you kidding me?!" Captain Glenn laughed. "Cut and print this, Polansky! That wreck you pulled me out of is the REAL THING -- okay? I'm a REAL as-tro-naut! Exploring the very REAL planet Vee-nus! Don't any of you Tinseltown geniuses read the papers?!"
A hush went over Randor's soldiers, as all very carefully turned to him, perplexed.
Even Armor-All slipped her a confused look, this time.
"Read the papers?" Randor's bluish-gray eyes narrowed at Molly inquisitively, and he paused. "You really are mad, .. aren't you?!"
"Could be, Shakespeare," Captain Glenn mused, with an awkward smirk. "Of course, if I was dreaming, you'd be barefoot, half-naked and repairing something. Y'know -- like light plumbing, puttin' up drywall, .. building me a new deck. Something greasy .. and sweaty! You'd also be wa-aay better-looking."
"Oh, yeah," Armor-All snickered, rolling his eyes. "She's mad."
"Actually, .. I'm lost!" Molly couldn't quite figure out where Hammy was going with this. "Somehow, my ship dropped off the radar and crashlanded in the middle of your movie set! What is this, High-Lander? Star-wars, maybe? What planet is this supposed to be?"
Hamlet and Armor-All searched each other's faces for some clue to what Molly was on about. Armor-All smiled politely, "Eternia. Planet Eternia."
"Eternia?!" Molly's eyes lit up. Then, just as quickly, she buried her face in her hands. "Okay -- don't tell me. Gimme' a sec, here. Oh, hell. I give up! What sci-fi franchise is that in? What movie are we shooting, here?"
No one answered.
Molly looked up at the outlandish collection of characters gathered around her. Not their costumes. Not the masks they were wearing, if they were masks. In each face, she read a long, rambling epic, full of triumph and sorrow.
Hunger. Hope. Grief.
Not the kind of crap you see on Lifetime between pints of Edie's. Oh, no. This was deep doo-doo of the Conrad-Mailer variety.
This was the goddam heart o'darkness.
Some fifteen paces behind Hamlet, Captain Glenn saw a heavily armored man on his knees, cradling the limp form of a teenaged girl. The girl's armor looked as though it'd been cracked open with a jackhammer. Her blood was all over him. His eyes, stretched wide and glassy with tears, made a scream his gaping mouth and throat could not find anymore.
His eyes asked Molly for a warmth and comfort that was spilling out into the scorched dirt underneath him.
And nobody said cut.
The smoke, the death and the bodies. The heat. The crash.
The war. It was all real.
Captain Glenn looked into the sky, as if she'd see something that resembled .. Earth. There was nothing up there but stars.
As far as her eyes could count them.
"Oh .. God."
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