GRAG’S LAST ESCAPE
By Gary Phillips
The Unvarnished Gary Phillips: A Mondo Pulp Collection
(978-1-953103-36-9, October 10, 2023; 336 Pages, $17, Three Rooms Press)
Gary Phillips has been a community activist, labor organizer and delivered dog cages. He’s published various novels, comics, short stories and edited several anthologies including South Central Noir and the Anthony award-winning The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir. Violent Spring, first published in 1994 was named in 2020 one of the essential crime novels of Los Angeles. He was also a writer/co-producer on FX’s Snowfall (streaming on Hulu), about crack and the CIA in 1980s South Central where he grew up. Recent novels include One-Shot Harry and Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem. He lives with his family in the wilds of Los Angeles.
“You’re not authorized to be in here,” the senior Talusian engineer said upon entering the power core room. He gaped, fully realizing what the imposter was doing. “By the seven veils,” he muttered, advancing.
Undercover agent Grag stood from having been hunched down while she’d uncoupled the phasing device. She held this in one hand and in the other, the disguised cutter beam she’d just used.
“You must be a spy,” the engineer declared, reaching for the com to alert security. “Are you from the D’Noths? The Requan-Na’s? No matter, our interrogators will get the truth out of you.”
Grag sliced off the Talusian’s extended arm with her cutter beam. He wailed pitifully, his copper-based green blood spurting onto control panels and slicking the deck. Fortunately for her, the thrum of the scout ship’s engines muffled his cries. As he panicked and shook, she covered the distance between them and clubbed him unconscious with the phasing unit. Grag knew his name, Sisstran. She cauterized his wound with an adjustment to her tool’s beam. She dragged the alien across the deck behind the thruster reactor console where she’d bound the other two of the engineering crew on duty that evening. She exited via the main hatch which irised open then closed after she stepped through.
Grag, a lieutenant in the Solar Rangers military wing of the United Galaxy Alliance, hurried along the corridor, tucking the prototype she’d been sent in to steal in a tool bag, its strap slung across her torso. Her goal had been to pull off the theft undetected but it wasn’t the first time a plan had gone south on her. Rangers didn’t whine, they improvised or so the hooah went. At least, she reflected, she still blended in with the other Talusians with their ridged foreheads, highly arched eyebrows, and pointed ears. The surgically-altered soldier took a right at a particular juncture then down an access ladder to the lower conduits and ducts.
Expertly snaking through the river of tubes, she made her way to the landing craft bay, the visual of the ship’s schematic committed to her prodigious memory. A nano-tech enhanced memory that served her well over numerous espionage missions, taking on the persona of various humanoid alien life forms over the years.
Reaching the end of the deck, she took several more turns, ascending at one point, then got to the desired grate. She eased the panel open slightly, looking down in the bay. The air in there was rich with the aroma of machine oil and afterburner fumes. That smell was ever so inviting as she—
WOOGA! WOOGA! WOOGA! an alarm blared, everything suddenly bathed in red.
“Intruder alert, intruder alert,” declared a voice over the ship’s communication system. “Security to the landing craft bay. Medical triage to engineering,” the voice said.
“Shit,” Grag said as she kicked the grate free. It clattered on the deck below as she too dropped to the floor. Ahead of her the main hatch opened and armed personnel rushed in, firing their plasma pistols. A ray blast nearly severed Grag’s head but she was diving and got behind the stubby nacelle of a lander as the beam sizzled over her. She blasted back, the crossfire searing the bay in a lethal light show.
“Set on stun,” the captain of the guard ordered. “We need her alive to get answers out of her.”
Grag belly crawled between the skids of a lander. She took aim and used her cutter to slice through several particle module canisters stacked in a corner. The containers exploded violently, jagged energy bolts flaring in all directions. A nearby lander exploded when it was struck.
Several security members were sent flying due to the concussive force, while the rest scattered for cover. A lander was struck with a white-blue shaft and exploded, its solid star fuel supply liquefying and spilling across the deck on fire. Grag was knocked against a bulkhead, but she was only dazed and got her feet under her quickly. Yellow and orange flames clawed upward from the burning fuel, curling into black smoke that rolled through the bay. The automatic extinguishers came on, dousing everything in chemical retardant. Some of this got in Grag’s eyes and she had to blink hard to try and see.
A stun blast doubled her over and she stumbled backwards, falling to the deck.
“Got you.” A Talusian declared as he tried to wrench Grag to her feet. But the Ranger shook off the effects of the blast, its power attenuated by her uniform’s armored weave.
Not as weakened as she pretended, she jabbed her stiffened fingers under the Talusian’s ear right on his nerve point. He withered to the floor as two others fired at her. Breathing hard, she scrambled for his sidearm, its range much greater than her cutter beam and more precise. She took out one of the aliens shooting at her and the other ran behind one of the ships for cover.
Grag needed to be gone before more security swarmed through the hatch. Ducking behind a lander, she withdrew from her tool bag a large oblong egg—a darkling bomb. Underneath its translucent plasticine gray sheath was movement, a diaphanous life form flitting about in the viscous liquid.
This was an artificially grown construct that mimicked a sea creature known as a kadju, a cross between an Earth bat and a squid. She threw the egg at the Talusians and it burst open as one of them shot it. Now exposed to oxygen, the lab produced kadju swelled in size ten-fold. It floated in the air, its numerous tentacles interconnected by bat-like membrane. When the Talusians shot through the creature’s spongy body, the thing released through its wounds a velvety blackness that engulfed the area like reverse light. Grag’s attackers groped blindly in the opaque darkness.
“Goddammit,” a member of the detail swore. The epithet a rough translation from the Talusian as interpreted by the translator chip in Grag’s neck. He managed to get his hands on Grag and tried to get an arm around her neck to choke her out. She flipped him over her shoulder and karate chopped his neck. With him out of the way, she hurried inside a lander and powered it up. Like her brain, her eyes had been altered some time ago and Grag could see in the dark.
The computer-generated alarm echoed, “Warning, cargo bay doors opening. Warning, cargo bay doors opening.”
Security had to abandon the bay or die from suffocation. Some of them blazed their weapons set to full strength, trying to cripple the ship Grag had just highjacked. The secret agent stayed calm, her hands steady on the controls as she pulled back on the manual yoke and headed the ship for space.
A few blasts got close, one even nicking the hull, but she zoomed the craft out of the bay, only then allowing herself a moment of relief. But Grag knew she had to remain alert. She hadn’t had a high success rate by being over-confident. Escape was never certain. The Talusian scout ship was well-equipped to shoot her down. But as the ship turned her way, no plasma beams or pulse missiles came at her. She allowed a grim smile. Grag had planted a virus two days prior in the onboard computer affecting the weapons array. She soared away.
It wouldn’t take long for the bridge detail to override the sabotage so she knew she couldn’t be in flight too long. Grag inputted the override codes to hack the sub-space radio and tuned it in to find a specific frequency. “This is Solar Ranger Grag,” she said over the radio, also relaying the correct password. “I have the phasing unit but I’m on the run. Need to ditch my getaway ship. I’ll be making landing on Gastor-7 and engaging my homing beacon.”
Grag increased her speed, burning up the lander’s fuel supply at a faster rate than normal. This was going to be a one-way trip to Gastor-7, a jungle planetoid at the far edge of this quadrant. It was Type R which meant a breathable atmosphere for humanoid-like life, water, plant life, and carbon-based life forms. In Gastor-7’s case, this was represented by animals and insects of the prehistoric size variety. It was not hospitable and the average temperature was 40.5 Celsius, 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Old World reckoning. The planetoid came into view and Grag activated her homing beacon as she brought up a topographical 3D holo-image projected above the ship’s navigation panel. Her attention on the image, trying to determine a good place to land, she looked up through the plexi-shield in time to see a flying dragon-like reptile heading straight at her. Landers weren’t generally outfitted with proximity sensors, given that you flew by sight. And to her surprise, like the dragon of fables, it screeched a funnel of fire at Grag’s ship.
“Holy shit,” she cursed, steering away from the beast, part of the tail section of the craft on fire. Apparently its saliva was what burned and as this coated part of the lander, the fire would continue.
“Where’s that chemical retardant when I need it?” Grag quipped, seeing the flames through a side oval window. Digital readouts on several of her panels blinked on and off and the lander rattled. Grag swallowed hard and focusing, seared the dragon with a plasma blast. Wounded, it veered off. But sure enough, having swooped in from starboard, another dragon rammed the ship then latched its feet onto the hull to tear into the ship with its claws.
“Great,” Grag muttered. “It just keeps getting better.”
There was a way to surge an electrical charge through the hull but that took a few moments to rig and Grag figured her time would be better spent abandoning the ship. The one thing the lander did have was a parafloater. As she got the rig out of a locker near the hatch, she could hear the flapping of the air creature’s massive leathery wings. The beast bellowed at this impudent intruder to its world, using its claws to rend the lander’s alloy and carbon fiber casing. Damned if the thing didn’t rip a seam open in the hull and spewing in its fire, alighted the interior.
“Time to go.” Gritting her teeth, Grag blew the hatch and tumbled backwards out of the destroyed landing craft. The dragon was still interested in the lander and held on to it as it burned. Rather than engage her para-floater too close to the ship and become the creature’s appetizer, she let herself freefall toward the surface. The dragon then tired of its toy and threw the ship away. Above Grag, the lander trailed black smoke and slammed against a hill and exploded.
Her face grimly set, Grag crashed through a canopy of treetops, turning on the device. She came down faster than anticipated, branches tearing at her as the stabilizer initiated and fifteen feet from bashing her body against the ground, the anti-gravity buffer kicked in. She alighted on her feet.
Grag had to take a knee to gather herself. That was closer than she would have liked but she was still upright. She had a mission to complete. Rising, she unlatched the para-floater from her back and set it aside. She made an assessment of her surroundings. She was sweating from the tension and the humidity. It would at least be a day before help arrived and she hoped the Talusians didn’t find her by then. Grag had disabled the automatic tracker in the lander. There were several planets and moons in this quadrant she could have escaped to and the aliens would have to conduct a systematic search for her. She set about looking for food and water.
There were smaller animals she spotted that her handheld personal computer identified as edible. But she was a vegetarian and was glad to find several exotic fruits that would sustain her as well as water. She also came upon the skinned carcass of an amphibious reptile about the size of an alligator on Earth.
“Hunters,” she murmured, staring at their handiwork. Gastor-7 was on the United Galaxy Alliance’s no hunt list due to several of its animals being unique. Her being on the run would be deemed an exception if she did eat meat. There were on and off-world sensor devices for detecting the use of pulse rays and the like but she knew there were ways to circumvent such things. She sniffed the air and recognized the whiff of refined oil—gasoline. These kind of hunters were known to use old-style gunpowder, guns, and primitive hand-built vehicles which wouldn’t leave a digital footprint. They would also be using a liquid fuel ship to get them and their equipment to and from the surface, a regular pulse ship in higher orbit. Such an operation meant this was a costly enterprise, no doubt a trophy hunt for a wealthy dilettante. That meant these would take extreme measures not to be found out by the law.
She moved through the brush more carefully and soon found their camp. She wanted to observe them and figure out how best to deal with these beings. They must have been otherwise engaged when she’d arrived, she concluded. Two men and a woman were in the camp, talking. One of the males was human, the other two hairless, red-hued, four-armed Maldorans. Several carcasses were in freeze pods, the animals’ frozen and astonished expressions evident behind the frosted plasti-shields. There were two tents and assorted other outdoor gear including three gas-powered vehicles swarming with pipes and fat tires, the metal cobbled together from the scrap heap with big-bore gasoline engines mounted on their tubular frames.
Too late she sensed a fourth one moving in behind her.
“Who the hell are you?” said the human woman. Her antique .30/06 bolt-action rifle aimed at Grag.
Grag had shot that type of long gun at the range. But she knew it was foolish to try and establish rapport with her over their familiarity with old guns. “I’m a Solar Ranger.”
“You’re not in uniform and you’re a Talusian.” While several alien races were in the corps, the Talusians were not part of the UGA.
“I’m a human on undercover assignment.”
The others heard them talking. “What’s going on, Valmarr?” one of them said.
Valmarr jerked with the barrel of the gun toward the camp site. Grag complied. “She says she’s law.”
The human male roughly patted Grag down, relieving her of her tool bag. Given how they acted, she surmised Valmarr and this other human were the guides. The couple didn’t seem to want to drift far from one another.
He dumped the contents of her bag on the ground. He picked up the phasing device. “I’m fairly updated on astro tech, but haven’t seen this before.” He held it up to Grag’s face. “What is this?”
The female Maldoran was trying to hack into Grag’s comm-computer. “This thing has a sophisticated lock on it.”
“What do you think, Rodrigo?” Valmarr said to the human male.
He regarded Grag then motioned for Valmarr to step away. This was the time the two would decide her fate. They might tie her up and continue the hunt. But the Talusians might show up or, more likely, her fellow Rangers. Either way, they’d be in the shit. Disabling her might be an option as they packed up. But she could ID them. The Maldoran couple faced a stiff fine. It was the guides that had the most to lose. Judging by the way they carried themselves, this wasn’t their first poaching excursion and if they were arrested and their activities looked into, who knew what would be divulged, Grag evaluated grimly.
She was a liability and liabilities had to be dealt with, she coldly concluded. Fear didn’t well in her, only anger. They would try and take her life and she wasn’t going to let that happen.
“I guess you’ve figured how this would go,” Valmarr said, coming back toward Grag after her discussion with Rodrigo.
“Wait, what are you saying?” the Maldoran male asked, worried.
“You’re going to be an accessory to murder,” Grag said matter-of-factly.
An uncomfortable Valmarr chewed her bottom lip.
Rodrigo addressed the couple. “We told you there were risks.”
The Maldoran woman gestured with her four arms. “From the wild life, but not this.”
Grag said, “Your guides have much to hide.” She was sure their past included hunting exotic protected life forms up and down the evolutionary ladder. She shifted toward her tool bag on the ground.
“Let’s get this over with. We’re going to have unwanted visitors way too soon,” Rodrigo stated.
The Maldorans moved in front of Rodrigo to protest and Valmarr was momentarily distracted. Grag went low, extending her leg in a sweep, knocking Valmarr off her feet. Rodrigo lunged for his rifle leaning against one of the freeze pods. Prone on her stomach Valmarr rolled, also reaching for her rifle. The hunters weren’t the only ones with an old style weapon. In a tear away section on the exterior of the tool bag, Grag pulled a knife free and stabbed Valmarr through the hand, momentarily pinning her to the ground.
As her cry of pain and defiance had the red-hued Maldorans going redder with panic, Grag had the rifle and shot at Rodrigo, who dove for safety behind one of the freeze pods. Valmarr pulled the knife free and charged at Grag, trying to gut her.
The ranger blocked the attack with the rifle and swung the stock alongside Valmarr’s head, stunning her. Another blow to her temple sent her to the ground unconscious. Stepping in front of him, the Maldorans sought to interfere with Rodrigo again. Grag scooped up the phasing unit and ran to one of the motorized contraptions. She jumped into the driver’s seat and mashed what she guessed was the ignition button. The big engine coughed. The retort of Rodrigo’s rifle shots were gobbled up as the big block hemi with the double-barreled carburetor roared to life and Grag drove off.
With the open air engine behind her seat roaring and belching an odor of fuel in the exhaust, Grag had never piloted this kind of vehicle. She had virtually in a few holo-video games, so she had a kind of abstract knowledge of the throttle, brake, and steering wheel. Pressing on the pedal, she zoomed forward. She wondered if her teeth were going to rattle out of her head as she nearly smashed against a tree but got the machine under semi-control and tore off. Rodrigo shoved the female Maldoran aside and shot at the fleeing Grag. His bullet whined past her ear.
Still, driving one in reality was a much more challenging experience and she wasn’t adept. Rodrigo was coming up from behind fast in one of the others and handled his vehicle expertly over the rough terrain. Grag plowed through bramble, getting snagged by thorns and bushes, which cut her face and ripped her clothes. She heard an electronic sputtering noise and saw that the bullet had struck and damaged the phasing unit.
She bounced over a rocky patch of ground. A dog-like lizard creature bolted in front of her. She swerved to avoid colliding with the animal and skidded through a copse of giant mushrooms. As she side-swiped the plants, a dust rose from them and enveloped her. She sneezed several times. Getting clear, her eyes widened.
“Aw, fuck,” she swore as she went airborne off a cliff, water and rocks below her. The slapdash vehicle bounced once, twice off the sloping cliff face and landed with a jarring suddenness, pieces breaking loose. What was left of the vehicle was a mangled ball of metal.
Rodrigo, who knew this cliff was here, came to a stop near the edge. He got out of his idling machine, looked down at the wreckage, smirked victoriously, then climbed back into his vehicle and drove off.
Down below Grag’s sternum was caved in, a leg broken on one side, a hip on the other side of her body, and she was bleeding out from the second big artery in her thigh. What air she could take in wheezed out immediately. So this is what failure felt like, she thought; she was going to die alone and her mission a bust. That bothered her more than anything else.
Her hand felt around some and came upon the phasing device, which fizzed and crackled. What the prototype was designed to do was allow a solid object to phase, to become invisible and un-solid, thereby untouchable, yet able to fire its weapons on the enemy. It would surely shift the precarious balance of power in the galaxy.
Grag’s hand got hot as the phasing unit began to hum, throwing off a yellow light that grew in intensity. This didn’t panic her. Oddly she found the pulsations comforting, bracing her for the end to come. She gripped it tighter as if it were a life raft. The heat radiated up her arm and she would have cried out but her vocal chords could only manage a dry croak. The heat covered the rest of her, the phasing unit seemingly melting into her skin, motherboards and data chips stretching into the thinness of wires crawling up her arm like kudzu. Grag had the sensation of a ghost-like version of herself rising from the wreckage, looking down on what had been her corporeal form. Then that too blinked out of existence as her mind shut down . . . or so she believed.
Rodrigo calmed the husband and wife down by convincing them that the Ranger died in an accident. Yes, there were the tracks of his vehicle too but they’d be long gone and no record of them being here when others arrived. Packed up, he ushered them onboard the surface-to space craft. He turned at the sound of a footfall. He was on edge and had kept his rifle strapped on him. It was in his hand as he stared at a changed Grag.
“The hell,” he said.
Grag was partly coated in metal. Not as in an exoskeleton, but pieces of the ATV and the phasing unit warped and re-molded into attachments to parts of her body and her remaining torso.
Rodrigo shot and the bullet passed through her. He looked shocked and she amused. He quickly re-loaded but as he brought the rifle up again his throat was now in her fingers and she crushed his windpipe. He crumpled to her feet and died gasping.
Valmarr and the couple were in the ship’s doorway. The human woman had a med patch on her temple. They remained mute when Grag drove her metallic covered fist into the side of the ship, ripping out its guidance mechanism. Stoically she looked back at them then walked into the jungle. When the Solar Rangers arrived they arrested the three and listened to their story. They searched for Grag but didn’t find her. They did find the downloaded data about the phasing unit and so the precarious balance of mutually assured destruction was maintained, until the next means to threaten the fragile peace came along.
From the jungle, Grag watched them depart. In her transformed state, part machine and part flesh, her consciousness could reach out to the higher-level animals, phasing with them. It wasn’t as if she could communicate with them, but could experience Gastor-7 from their point of view. She felt protective of them. In this, her final act as a chameleon, a human who’d never truly been at home in her own skin and was thereby able to always disappear undercover, she was in a role she wouldn’t be abandoning.
She had a mission. She was home.
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