The Xurian ship exploded in a blaze of flame, which was beginning to dissipate even as Alex drove his gunstar through the expanding globe of hot gas and vaporized metal. They were homing in on him now and he was forced to work twice as hard to dodge their attacks.
If the battle pattern held to form there ought to be a cluster of Ko-Dan fighters gathering for a flanking attack off in the fourth quadrant. He pressed on with his own assault, relentless in his pursuit of the Ko-Dan command ship, clearing one wave after another of the attacking enemy from the battle screen.
There they came! A host of them diving in on him from the side. But he was ready for them. The Ko-Dan were valiant fighters, and they came at you in unending waves, but if your reflexes were sharp enough you could out-maneuver them. Alex did so now, twisting a path through the assault as the attacking craft struggled frantically to regroup in his wake.
Too late for them now, he thought grimly. His fingers were tense on the gunstar’s controls and he kept his eyes riveted to the battle screen, not allowing his gaze to drift right or left. The screen was all he needed; plenty of power left, and all his weapons still functioned. But the Ko-Dan were crafty. Just when you thought you’d slipped them, another wave of fighters would appear and begin their attack.
But he was through them now, through them all, and his main target lay directly ahead.
“Approaching Ko-Dan Command Craft,” his computer announced eveply. “Prepare for final confrontation.”
Suddenly a host of lights proliferated on his screen. “Enemy squadrons in sectors three, six, seven and closing fast!”
Trying to catch him between them, Alex thought grimly. Well, he knew how to handle that maneuver. He thumbed the Evade controls and the gunstar rocked wildly. The images on the battle screen shifted as he swerved to avoid the new attack while still holding a course toward the command ship.
Then there was red light washing over the screen and his fingers trembled on the controls. Warning lights began to appear on the battle screen. He knew what they meant loss of life support imminent, loss of fire control imminent, loss of … loss of …
The screen shook from the impact as the gunstar took a direct hit aft. Loss of drive, the computer told him sadly, almost apologetically. He let his fingers slide from the controls. Too late now. Too late to try a different attack plan, too late to avoid the coup de grace. It was a matter of seconds. The Ko-Dan did not know the meaning of mercy.
The screen shook again and his field of view was obliterated completely. It was over. His ship was destroyed.
He was dead.
Alex Rogan sighed as his battle screen came to life a last time.
YOUR GUNSTAR HAS BEEN DESTROYED. YOUR SCORE ON THIS MACHINE RANKS YOU NUMBER ONE. PLEASE DEPOSIT ANOTHER QUARTER FOR ADDITIONAL PLAYING TIME.
Another quarter. Twenty-five cents a resurrection. Cheap enough at the price. He slipped the coin into the machine. A strong, insistent synthesized voice cut through the stagnant morning air, demanding and full of cosmic import.
“GREETINGS, STARFIGHTER! YOU HAVE BEEN RECRUITED BY THE LEAGUE TO DEFEND THE FRONTIER AGAINST XUR AND THE KO-DAN ARMADA!”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” he said impatiently. “Bring on the target lights already.” He leaned both hands against the console and waited for the game to commence.
Off to his left the sign on the trailer park general store popped and sputtered, fizzled and flashed. Sometimes it spelled out ARLIG ARBRI, and sometimes TARGHT IGHT, and sometimes it made sense. Like today.
The rest of the trailer park sprawled out across the dry ground behind the general store. It was Alex’s home, was the trailer park. His mother managed it. His father . . . he concentrated on the revived game. His father had been gone a long time. A picture or two on the end table in his mom’s bedroom. A photographic image. Not a real person. He went after the Ko-Dan fighters savagely.
The trailer park was a self-contained little community located on the outskirts of Nowhereville, California. A small village fashioned out of corrugated steel and fiberglass and plastic. Few transients stopped by to make use of the park’s facilities. The Starlight Starbright was not one of Southern California’s vacation meccas, and its inhabitants liked it that way. It was peaceful, and quiet, and safe.
It was driving Alex crazy.
As he pushed and shoved at the controls of the game, the park was waking up around him. Funny, the sounds a community makes as it comes to life. Toasters popping, percolators dripping, juice-makers whirring wetly, younger kids complaining (“Ma, you know I hate orange juice with pulp in it . . . it gets stuck in my braces!”), electric razors shearing male fleece, multiple throats agargling, and middle-aged adults wheezing weakly as they attempt their morning exercises.
Radios began to come alive behind the general store. Country-Western mostly, but some guerilla rock sneaking in here and there. Pork belly prices cohabited on the air with the news from the Middle East, while unseen hucksters hawked everything from underwear to pickup trucks. Striving to be heard above this din were the defiant peeps of finches and sparrows and the occasional stutter of a hidden roadrunner.
“Strange lights, they wuz, away up in the sky,” one voice was declaiming insistently over the local talk show.
“Sure they were, Mrs. Granwaters.” You could hear the false sympathy in the deejay’s voice, could imagine him winking broadly at his invisible audience as he replied to his guest’s declaration. “Now, how many colors did you say it was?”
An elderly gent clad in T-shirt, faded coveralls and a battered VFW cap opened the door of the trailer nearest the general store on the right side, holding a large dog dish. He set it in front of a waiting hound of uncertain pedigree and patted the long-eared head as the animal ate.
When he rose it was to eye the thermometer that was nailed to the outside of the trailer. Used to be he could read the height of the mercury inside the glass tube from across the road. Now he had to squint.
“Already up near ninety.” He eyed the dog again. “Gonna be a sparklin’ day, Mr. President. Sparklin’.”
A shout drew Alex’s attention to another trailer, though he didn’t look up from the game. That would be Elvira Hartford, from the sound of it. He fought to ignore the banal conversation as he blasted whole squadrons of Ko-Dan fighters from interstellar space.
Sure enough, the woman in question stuck her head out a trailer window. It was full of curlers, giving her the appearance of someone enduring an assault of giant pink caterpillars.
Across the walk that separated the trailers, her next-door neighbor Clara Parks was just settling into her sun lounge and lighting up her ancient corncob pipe in preparation for the first smoke of the day. Clara had smoked all her life and had put her feelings about the habit in concrete. She coughed a lot, Clara did, but no one dared to bring up the thought of quitting. Clara kept a .38 special in her bedroom dresser.
Now she peered across at her neighbor, having a fair idea of what was coming. Clara Parks was eighty-four.
“Clara, my ‘lectric’s out again! Pay attention, Clara, I know you’re listening to me! This is important. I’m gonna miss my soaps!”
“Settle your britches, woman.” Parks chewed on the stem of her pipe. “I’ll pass it on.” She turned in the lounge chair and cupped both hands to her mouth, dangling the pipe from two fingers.
“Oh, Bill? Bill! Elvira’s blacked out again. Pass the word on before the crisis hits.”
The next trailer in line belonged to William Potter, aircraft mechanic, retired. Potter shaved his face the way he’d bombed North Vietnam sporadically and ineffectively. Since no one tried to get near enough to kiss him, it didn’t trouble his lifestyle.
“Pass the word along to whom?”
“Don’t get funny with me, Bill Potter,” said Clara warningly. “Just pass it on.”
“Damn women and their damn soaps,” Potter muttered. He didn’t say anything out loud, however, lest it be discovered some day that he was a closet Days of Our Lives freak.
He walked along his porch until he could see all the way up to the Boone mobile and shouted toward it. “Elvira’s got no juice, and if she can’t see her soaps, she’ll hyperventilate!”
That was usually enough to provoke a response from the Rogan trailer. Jane Rogan was manager, bill collector, mail distributor, sector general, field marshal and repository of all complaints as well as dispenser of favors for the tightly knit community.
She was Alex’s mother. She was the Boss.