The Ballad of Omega Brown:
Omega and the Tellerian Shapeshifter
by Tom Vaine
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Omega and Hoonra stalked their prey, moving quietly through the mounds of scrap metal and damaged starship equipment. As though moving between huge termite mounds, they slipped from shadow to shadow. Ahead of them, just out of sight in the statuary of junk, they could hear their target shuffling onward.
As if the landscape weren’t strange enough, the hunters had to pursue their quarry at night. Though the rain had stopped, the moon cast oblong shadows, forcing Omega to activate his helmet’s night vision display. Despite the fact that he could still hear the thing ahead, he was not sure he and Hoonra were really the ones in control.
Granted, Hoonra had tagged the creature pretty hard. The spear with the makeshift tracker had been his idea but, given how hard she’d hit it, Omega wasn’t sure his innovation was needed. He certainly hadn’t needed to use the receiver in his helmet yet, as the creature hadn’t been able to recover enough to properly run off. That is, unless it wasn’t really trying to.
Omega sidled up to one of the larger piles and watched as Hoonra ghosted past him. Her movements were smooth, assured. Omega marvelled at her utter silence, following her as she made for a nearby garbage column. Just as he reached her, there was a tremendous crash and a groaning scream split the night.
Hoonra nodded. “Did you hear it, Omega? Have you listened to its footfalls? It is badly wounded.” Even in the inky dark, Omega could see the flush running through Hoonra’s scales.
“Yeah, I heard it. That last crash was a bit theatrical, though. Don’t you think it might be leading us on?” The Karakian’s expressions were not always obvious to Omega, but he could tell Hoonra was genuinely taken aback.
“Leading us? Were you not in the medlab?”
“Yes, Hoonra, I was certainly in the medlab.”
“Then you saw me hit it.” Her predator’s muscles clenched at the memory, testing the heft of her sword as she spoke. “You saw the wound. To use your expression, I ‘walloped’ it. No, it is prey running for its life. It is for us to finish the job.” Before he could say anything, Hoonra turned and slipped away. Cursing, Omega followed.
* * *
Looking back on it, Omega wasn’t really sure which of his answers had enraged the pirates more. Refusing their demands to accept a boarding party would be upsetting, he supposed, but fairly par for the course. Surely most of the ships they inconvenienced shared this attitude.
No, if Omega had to choose, he’d place his bet on their anger stemming from the allegations he’d made about the captain’s mother. It was difficult now, amidst laser fire and screaming sirens, to recall those details clearly. Still, he was fairly certain that he’d been more than averagely rude about the whole thing. Regardless, there wasn’t much point in dwelling on it. So long as he managed to avoid being vaporized, he’d call the trip a victory.
Omega leaned forward in his seat, coaxing every ounce of speed he could marshall from the Buccaneer’s nonessential systems. He threw the joystick left as he did, rolling the ship between laser blasts. From somewhere in the hold, he heard a loud thump.
“Some warning would be welcome before you try that again.” Shouted his bodyguard.
“God’s of Chaos, Hoonra, are you not strapped into the gun turret yet?”
“You didn’t mention anything about the—”
“Now is really not the time for this. If we’re getting shot at, you can safely assume I want you in the turret.”
The Buccaneer’s hull shuddered in agreement. Even with Hoonra at the guns, things were beginning to look tight. The pirate vessel wasn’t too large, and its pilot seemed pretty comfortable at the controls. Staying fully out of its sights was becoming an increasingly difficult chore.
The onboard systems panel flashed, and Omega could see Hoonra had powered up the turret. His sensors reported the pirate vessel moving suddenly back. It was good to catch them off guard, but he doubted it would last. Time to go with the flow. If the pirates were no longer chasing, now was likely the best opportunity to run.
Omega pulled out of the defensive spiral he’d started and gunned the engines flat out. The solar system they’d been cruising through was a lesser-used trade route, the planets unexplored, as far as he knew. Omega decided it was time to change that precedent. In particular, the closest planet, the one covered by swirling grey storm clouds, seemed like the most expedient if risky choice. As they approached it, Hoonra seemed to be thinking something of the same nature.
“Are you certain this is the best call?” The intercom buzzed beside him.
“Hoonra, what did we agree on?”
“You told me to stop questioning your improvisations. I didn’t agree to anything.”
“How about we talk it over after the landing?”
The planet was far closer now, its grey cloud cover giving way to tones of bruised purple and sudden blue lightning. Omega considered his copilot’s wisdom, until his ship’s sensors informed him that his pursuers were back on his tail. Back and gaining, by the looks of things. A bright orange warning light informed him that the pirates had locked onto the Buccaneer with missiles. He flicked the intercom back on.
“Get out of the turret, Hoonra.”
“You just told me to get in it.”
“Well, now I’m telling you to get out. Come back up and buckle yourself in. The next few minutes are going to be pretty unpleasant.” He could hear her grumbling in Karakian as she started her ascent. Among the many things she’d proven adept at learning, languages were near the top of the list. Omega was pretty sure she only bothered to speak her own in his earshot when she was cussing him out.
They’d entered the upper atmosphere, and immediately turbulence began affecting the ship. Nothing left to do but double down. As Omega pushed into the first cloud bank, the Buccaneer informed him that the pirates had fired their missiles. Fired, and followed after them. Both ships were hurtling through the storm now, the missiles struggling to follow their target amidst the turmoil outside.
Truth be told, Omega was struggling a little himself. He leaned over the intercom once more. “Hoonra, I don’t know where you are but if you haven’t—”
His words were cut short as one of the missiles found its target. The Buccaneer heaved and began to spin. Before him, Omega could see the dark brown of a soaked landscape circling wildly beneath. He was just righting his ship when the second missile destroyed his primary engine. Flaming, debris flying in all directions as it fell, the Buccaneer hurtled towards the planet’s surface
* * *
The shuffling sounds which had led them were replaced by a heavy panting. Nearby, Hoonra crouched in the shadow of another cyclopean pile of debris. Omega moved behind her and peered over her shoulder.
The creature had indeed stopped moving. The area around it was somewhat more spacious than the rest of the rubbish-strewn landscape. It stood hunched over half of a pillar that it appeared to have knocked over in its fatigue. It still looked mostly like an alien peasant, its disguise when it had entered the medlab. Hoonra pointed to the long metal shaft that stuck fully through its torso.
“Walloped,” she whispered back to him.
“Yeah, fair enough.” Omega leveled his ray gun over her shoulder. “Like you said, time to finish the job.”
“Wait, don’t!” whispered Hoonra.
“Seems like a pretty poor choice to stop.”
“Let me.” Hoonra stood, shrugging Omega off with her customary grace. “It was a worthy foe, and an accomplished hunter in its own right. Honour demands, Omega.”
“Best not to. Your blood’s running pretty hot right now, Hoonra.”
“My people are cold-blooded.” Hoonra began backing away from him, keeping herself between Omega and the thing.
“You know damn well that’s not what I meant,” Omega hissed. “Now get out of the way. What good are bodyguards that don’t do what they’re told?”
Hoonra skipped back a few more steps and then turned, raising her sword above her head as she closed in. Omega craned his neck, but the creature seemed oblivious to her. He cursed again and began circling the columns, trying to find a better vantage point. He moved past two or three before he found a better view.
Omega had always been of the opinion that his timing was good, but maybe just off being good enough. This seemed to be an excellent case in point. In this scenario, his timing was good enough to get a clear view of both Hoonra and the creature, but he was just shy of being able to get his ray gun aimed before the shapeshifter moved.
Just as Hoonra took her last step, the thing whirled, its heavy panting replaced by an animal scream. Before Hoonra could react, the creature tore the pole from its body. Spinning, swinging the pole like a club as it went, the monster caught Hoonra in the chest as her blade swung down, lifting her clear off the ground and sending her flying into a pile of refuse. Omega’s jaw dropped.
The thing turned to him as he yelled. It took a few hobbled steps towards him, throwing the spear haphazardly as it did so. Apparently not all of its injuries were feigned. The monster’s features shifted then, the peasant’s face melting into something longer and more sinister. Its legs and spine stretched, its fingers elongating into huge carving-knife claws. It screamed again as it charged, breaking Omega’s shock. He fired, his shaking hand sending the bolts wild.
The creature leapt and was nearly atop him when the ray gun caught it. The blast landed somewhere on its upper body, sending it spinning. Omega felt the claws flash past his face before the bulk of the creature’s shoulder bowled him over.
His headset worked to recalibrate itself after the impact, but Omega was still up before the creature. He could see the thing dragging itself to its feet only a few meters away. When his display came back online, Omega saw that the creature’s vital signs were fluctuating heavily. It turned, seemingly dazed. In its chest, just below the shoulder, a dark hole smoked. Something black oozed from the edge.
The creature shook its head and focused on Omega. It wasn’t until it took another halting step forward that he realized that he’d dropped his ray gun.
* * *
After the crash, the first thing that struck Omega as he opened his eyes was the headache. It seeped down from the crown of his skull and trickled its way across his neck and back, soaking through the whole of his nervous system. The second thing that struck him was the garbage. It wasn’t the smell, though that certainly was omnipresent, so much as the sheer quantity of it all.
While the Buccaneer was falling, Omega had seen what he had taken to be a field of irregularly shaped rock outcroppings. The truth of them was not much better. Piles of starship wreckage littered the ground before the cockpit window, while further back heaps bigger than his ship filled his view of the horizon. He eased his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.
“Omega?” His head jerked involuntarily and he winced. Opening one eye a slit, he could see Hoonra’s concerned bulk bent over him.
“I never get used to how quiet you are.”
“Are you all right?” He touched the bandage around his head.
“You tell me.”
“You certainly weren’t for a while there. The bandage comes from your shirt. There wasn’t anything else at hand. Omega, the Buccaneer is destroyed.”
“Yeah, tell me another one. What happened? I remember the first explosion but nothing else.” Hoonra brushed shattered chunks of console from the seat beside him and sat down.
“Well, I don’t know everything, but I can guess. For a start, you were the one who landed us, more or less. It’s how you hit your head. Obviously we were coming in too hot; I assume that the terrain tore most of our landing equipment out as we skidded through.”
“I landed us, eh? And about when did I perform this miracle?”
“That was two days ago.”
Omega began to sit up at this, but groaned and fell back. “What about the pirates?” he asked when his head had settled.
“No sign, which I take to mean they’re either dead or in even worse shape than we are. It’s hardly as if we lost them; anybody could have seen the wreck we made from the ground, let alone flying right behind us. Since our crash, I have been outside surveying the damage whenever I wasn’t keeping track of you.
“Given how much of the engine appears to be missing, it’s likely the Buccaneer took them out with her debris. Their scopes would have been just as dead as ours on the way down.” Hoonra patted what was left of the consol. “A fine ship, she was. A fighter.”
“A pile of garbage more like.” Omega didn’t try to hide the bitterness he felt. “Not that I’m not grateful, Hoonra, but how did you manage not to get hurt?”
“I have always been lucky. Also, when we entered the atmosphere, I rethought what you said about strapping myself in. Very occasionally, your tactical appraisals are spot-on accurate.”
Omega gave a weak shrug. “I was due,” he sighed. “So what now? Do I sit in this chair forever? Are we stranded here till someone else crashes? I mean, then, of course, we’ll still be stranded. We’ll just have more company.”
“When I first found you, I was too worried to move you, but now that you’re awake, things are different. Can you open your eyes?” He did so, the effort clearly a strain. Hoonra stood, and guided Omega gently into a sitting position. She pointed out the cockpit window.
They didn’t stick out to him at first; their clothes were too close in colour to the junk around them. Still after a moment of searching, he could see four humanoid shapes dressed in a mottle of rags.
“No pirates, Omega, but as I said before, it’s been two days since the crash. In the time you slept, there have been some developments.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Tom Vaine