Disclaimer: This is a copyrighted work of fiction.  Any similarity to any actual events or characters, living or deceased, is merely coincidental.  The author of this manuscript reserves all rights.  All illegal copying, distributing or publishing is strictly prohibited.  Only one (1) copy of this text may be downloaded to be read off-line.  ©2000 Panic Attack Productions, Author: John Hammersmith.

The Valerian Invasion
By John Hammersmith

Part Thirteen

Katherine Ross kicked her feet up onto her desk as she viewed the much-cherished Pure Adrenaline program.  After twenty minutes of anxious critique, she slowly found her frown turning into a smile as she found herself thoroughly enjoying the activities flickering on her holograph screen.  Once she’d seen the dramatic climax in the thorn fields, she heard herself let out a joyful holler as she studied the ratings results.  “Alright!” screamed the beaming executive.  “One hundred ten million strong.”  Pumping her fists into the air, she suddenly felt exhilarated by the unprecedented success of her program.

Popping open a bottle of bubbly champagne, she poured herself a foamy glass.  ‘The magazines should be jamming the switchboard with interview requests,’ thought the ecstatic programmer as she began to field imaginary questions from the press corp.  “Yes, why thank you very much,” played Katherine as she slammed down half a glass.  “I always knew the ratings slump would turn around.  We are all very pleased with the global success of Pure Adrenaline.”  Giggling loudly to herself, she instantaneously refilled her empty glass, still shining with utter pride.

Within moments, her telephone began to ring.  Fully expecting to receive hearty compliments, Katherine quickly picked up the handset in excitement.  “Hello, this is Katherine Ross.”

“Katherine, this is Turner,” said the serious voice on the other end.  “We need to talk.”

Instantly, Katherine could feel her warm buzz quickly fade as she began to address her powerful supervisor.  “Did you see the show? We topped out at one hundred ten million!”

“I did see the program,” said Turner, hardly enthusiastic about the viewing statistics.  “I’m afraid we are facing a serious security breach.  As you probably know, Katherine, each camera automatically records a time stamp along with the footage being edited.  Well, my advisors have evaluated Eddie Lambert’s finished edit, and they have discovered several gaps in the thorn field footage.  In total, nearly three minutes are completely missing from the final cut.”

Katherine pondered his statement, still stunned by his complete lack of praise regarding her overwhelming success with the ratings.  “Well, Mr. Turner, we commonly edit out the less than entertaining footage before it hits the air.”

“I am well aware of that, Katherine,” said an exasperated Scientist Turner.  “However, in order to finish my investigation, I will need all of the raw footage from the thorn fields.  I consider this to be a top priority,” finished the impatient leader harshly.

“I assure you, sir, I will take the initiative.  You shall receive a copy of all of the footage within a few hours,” replied Katherine.

“Good.  I’m glad to hear you will personally be handling this project for me,” said Scientist Turner with a hint of relief in his voice.  “One more thing, Katherine.  I need you to keep a close eye on Eddie Lambert.  If we discover his edit was intentionally streamlined to hide evidence of misconduct, or if we are unable to recover the missing footage, we’ll need to eliminate him from our staff… permanently.”

Katherine let out a silent gasp as she realized the severity of Scientist Turner’s statement.  With steady breaths, she replied, “Understood, Mr. Turner.  Eddie Lambert will be under tight scrutiny from now on.”

As the hovercraft sped through the sprawling underground tunnel, the five adventurers on board struggled to keep up their guard within the thick darkness surrounding them.  Still sloping in a downward motion, the vessel almost seemed to pilot itself as it traveled through the tight cavern.  With bright deck lights illuminating their meager craft, they each worried about being discovered by the Nil Corporation’s security forces.

Suddenly, Sergeant Magnum pulled himself up wearily.  Turning to Commander Kari, he said adamantly, “Shut down those deck lights! I can hear somebody approaching!” Kari instantly complied, automatically throwing the switch that immersed them in absolute night.  In silence, they each listened intensely as they continued to plummet through the deep corridor.

Slowly, they could hear a faint murmur in the distance, emanating from directly in front of their moving position.  By the ominously increasing volume, the far-away commotion seemed to be approaching at incredible speeds.  Fumbling in the dark, each of the five crew members reached for weapons in preparation, pure anxiety motivating their hasty actions.

As a pinpoint of light began to shimmer ahead of them, Sergeant Magnum studied their desperate situation from every conceivable angle, hoping to stumble upon an effective strategy.  In the pitch-black surroundings, Magnum could feel a pair of hands reaching for him as he sprawled on the surface of the deck.  Immediately recognizing the scent of Meg, he reached out for her, gently pulling his adored friend closer.  “What are we going to do now, Magnum?” asked the timid voice of his beloved.

Sergeant Magnum analyzed their collision course with dire determination, hoping beyond hope that they could avoid the dreadful confrontation.  Then, an incredibly wicked idea popped into his throbbing head.  Gently, his kissed Meg’s sweaty forehead, saying delicately, “I think I’ve got an idea, Meg!” Passionately, the sweet-smelling vixen halted his hopeful outburst with a warm kiss on the mouth.  They rolled around on the deck for a few moments, temporarily ignoring their terrifying situation as they shared a glorious embrace.

After enjoying their brief moment of release, Meg whispered into Magnum’s ear.  “Just in case we don’t get through this alive, I want you to know how much I love you, you crazy bastard.”

Sergeant Magnum tightened his grip on the sultry lady, saying warmly, “I love you, too, darling.  It’s funny, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever been truly scared in my whole life.  Now that we’ve finally found each other, Meg, I don’t want to lose you.”

“Don’t worry about me, my love.  Even if I should die, I promise to wait for you.”

Commander Kari quickly approached her sergeant in earnest, asking in a rushed tone, “What are we going to do?”

Sergeant Magnum quickly gathered everyone together.  “We don’t have much time left, folks, so we’ll need to work quickly if we’re going to pull this off.  Tell me, Commander Kari, does this hovercraft have a self destruct switch?”

Commander Kari swiftly replied, “Yes, I found the auto destruct mechanism earlier.  Why?”

Wasting no time, Sergeant Magnum instantly briefed the entire team, explaining his plan in full detail.  Once finished, he could hear the whole group howling in support, fully aware of their new duties.  As the distant enemy vessel began to loom larger, Kari triggered the auto destruct mechanism.  After setting the countdown to one minute and rigging the thrusters to full forward throttle, she shouted excitedly, “Okay, we have one minute, people! Let’s move!”

Quickly, each of them rolled off of the hurling craft, landing onto the rocky floor of the cave.  Once certain they were all accounted for, Sergeant Magnum yelled to them in a panicked tone.  “Hurry, everyone! Link arms and follow me! We need to cover a lot of ground quickly if we don’t want to get burnt to a crisp out here!” Ignoring the shooting pain in his right knee, he fought relentlessly, nearly running at a full clip.  As the hovercraft lunged forward into the distance, the fleeing team sped uphill on foot along the wall of the cave, struggling to reach safe ground.

Meanwhile, the empty vessel continued to plow towards the security team dispatched to eliminate them.  As the dim craft began to appear within their view, the armed commander ordered his staff to halt the abandoned ship’s forward velocity.  Using a tractor beam, the crew slowed the buzzing craft to a complete stop.  Lowering a docking platform, the men instantly secured a long bridge between the two vessels before running across to investigate the unknown ship.

“The ship seems to be unoccupied,” bellowed a voice over the radio headset.  As a pair of officers approached the empty helm, they both gasped as they saw the auto destruct mechanism counting down, chirping loudly as each second ticked away.

“Oh, no! We’re doomed!” screamed a horrified voice as the final second clicked down to zero.  Instantly, the tiny hovercraft blew up into a million pieces, sending flaming shrapnel flying in all directions.  The immense force of the blast immediately created a chain reaction as the docked security craft also lit up like a Roman candle.  In an instant, both vessels disintegrated into a colossal fireball that burned with severe intensity.  Quickly, the scorching outburst began to flow up the tight cavern, immediately seeking out the oxygen rich air on the outside.

“Oh, shit!” screamed Lady Hydra as she felt the heat lapping at her heels.  In her peripheral vision, she could see the titanic fireball lunging towards her at incredible speeds.  Just before the destructive blast reached her terrified position, she felt herself pulled forcefully into a gaping crack in the wall of the cave.  A seething howl of flaming energy rocked past as she fell to safety inside the tight confines of a small electrical closet.

“Is everyone alright?” screamed Sergeant Magnum over the roar of the blast.  Still in complete shock, each member of the team studied the blazing commotion outside, thoroughly amazed by the sheer magnitude of the thunderous explosion.  As the loud crackling began to fade, they began to grasp each other tightly in reassurance.  “Is everyone alright?” repeated Magnum anxiously.

Slowly, each of the members began to announce their condition.  “I’m hurt, Sergeant Magnum,” said Lieutenant Tatiana in a halting tone.  Commander Kari quickly fumbled in the dark, trying to locate her medical supplies.  Crawling over to her brave lieutenant, she held a lit flashlight in her mouth as she searched her ally’s battered body.  Spying a pulsing flow of blood emanating from her left forearm, she quickly cleansed the wound with some saline, then applied a suitable gauze bandage to the stinging gash.

“Do you feel pain anywhere else?” asked Commander Kari in a tender tone.

“No, commander,” replied the shaken woman.  “Thank you for taking care of me.”

“No problem, Tatiana.  If you need anything else, let me know.”  As she crawled back over to Sergeant Magnum, she asked frantically, “Does anybody else need medical assistance?”

Sergeant Magnum replied, “Well, we are all quite shaken, but I think we’re all okay.”  Quickly, Commander Kari shined her flashlight on Magnum’s exposed right leg.  Immediately, Kari rolled a fresh strip of gauze over the blood-soaked wound, swiftly repairing any damage to her previous application.

While the excursion team struggled to reorganize their forces, the substantial explosion continued to travel at blinding speeds to the mouth of the cave.  As a large security craft persistently sped in direct pursuit of the enemy craft that leveled their security outpost, the members on board could feel the ground suddenly shifting beneath them.  Before anyone on board could even begin to ponder what was occurring within the quaking cavern, they could see a definitive flash of orange light directly within their line of sight.  Quickly, the destructive fireball overtook the sturdy craft, throwing the vessel violently against the jagged roof.  In an instant, the speedy craft burst into flames as it impacted with massive force against the solid surface of the rocky ceiling, immediately decimating everyone on board.  Without even planning for it, Sergeant Magnum inadvertently managed to destroy two pursuing enemy vessels in one fell swoop.  As the firestorm exited through the mouth of the cave, the mammoth force blowing through sent piles of rock and debris toppling, effectively sealing the outside of the cave under several tons of hardened earth.

Hearing a trembling explosion in the distance, Sergeant Magnum smiled, immediately becoming aware of his incredible good fortune.  Meg huddled next to her gruff friend, asking in a concerned tone, “Did you hear that explosion in the distance?”

Gently stroking her precious face, Magnum replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, my love.  I think I just accidentally destroyed our lateral pursuer.”

As he worked intently on the new footage delivered by the Nil Corporation, Eddie slammed down a burning swallow of black coffee.  Already spending several long, sleepless hours tossing and turning, he struggled to regain his peak performance by whatever means necessary.  Now functioning on only two hours of sleep over the course of three long days, the pressures were beginning to mount for the weary editor.

The red-eyed man quickly sputtered as he heard the intercom begin to whine.  “Eddie, this is Katherine.”

‘Great, they’re gonna start with me first thing today, aren’t they,’ thought the exasperated producer to himself.  After swiftly cleaning up the small drips of coffee on his console, he replied, “Hello, Katherine.  How do the ratings look?”

“Well, the ratings were outstanding,” said the forceful woman, much to Eddie’s amusement.  “However, I’ve been ordered to gather all of the raw footage from your edit for analysis.  Can you quickly bundle all of the clips from yesterday and bring them to my office?”

Eddie’s heart immediately began to sink as he realized the dire consequences awaiting him.  He had hoped the dramatic scope of the previous program would be sufficient to appease his aggressive boss, but now he understood how much trouble he would be facing once the missing scenes were discovered.  Steadying his quivering voice, he replied, “Give me a few moments to produce the original discs, Katherine.  I should be able to deliver them to you within a half an hour.”

“Make it twenty minutes, Eddie.  And don’t hold back any clips, the management wants to see everything filmed out there.”

“Understood,” said Eddie with a lump in his throat.  As the line fell silent, he could feel the room spinning.  ‘What will they do to me?’ thought Eddie anxiously.  Reaching into the recycle bin, he produced the many discs previously edited last session.  With sweat dripping from his brow, he began to shuffle the fifty odd discs, hoping to at least make it more difficult to follow his meticulous work.

Returning to the flickering editing machine, Eddie tried again to focus on his duties but couldn’t halt the panicked sensations throbbing through his body.  Looking busy for the benefit of the cameras, he waited until the last possible moment before rising from his chair.  As he tucked the altered raw footage under his arm, he thought worriedly, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing, Lillian.’

To be continued...

On to Part Fourteen