Since his retirement as a
commander in the Galactic University Space Force, Gamitof Pym-Larko's life had
not lost much of its excitement. He glanced-for a glance was all he dared risk
right now-at his distorted reflection in the tall glass bottle that stood
before him on the little round table and frowned. His face was fuller these
days-okay, fatter-and the soft curly brownish fur that covered his head had
turned mostly white. The small black eyes, however, remained shiny and alert.
Nearly three decades, he thought, since he and his crew members had driven
Moleloch, the Dark Mistress and Empress of the mole race, from her subterranean
lair. The disappearance of her major domo, Lord Butae, and the insidious device
called Deep Thought, still worried him at times, but nothing had been heard
from them in all this time and everyone believed both were lost somewhere in
the void of space.
Unfortunately, in the
end, the notorious demon hedgehog Walpole, more dangerous than both of them, had escaped.
"No, I can't believe
we've seen the last of him," he muttered, lifting the nearly empty bottle
to his lips to mask his words. Just thinking of Walpole was enough to send
chills down his spine. Even after the mind-twisting hedgehog's existence had
become little more than a memory, his dark legacy carried on.
Because of that, life for
the retired captain and hero in the HHMW (Human Hedgehog Mole War) remained
hectic. The pension from the Galactic University had been generous, but boredom
and a fear of losing the full use of his faculties to old age had driven him to
accepting a new occupation. Spy.
His new boss, Chief of
Planet Security Oris Folpole, did not sugar coat the latest situation. "It
involves running interference on a dangerous splinter group of known Walpole
loyalists here on Yurle Prime. I must warn you, though. The job is very
dangerous. A number of our best operatives have been killed in recent
Larko suspected that, if
he didn't stay on his eight toes, he himself might be the next to die. It was
hard to put a finger on exactly what had changed. But there was definitely something different in the air, a strange
tenseness. Someone was planning something.
And it was in Grumpole's
Hideaway-quiet, peaceful watering hole of the retiring sort-that he sensed was
where to look for the next spot of trouble. He didn't have long to wait.
A tall, handsome and slender middle-aged man entered the inn. He was
dressed in a Yurle Prime Space Force officer's uniform, his thick black hair
slicked back with a shiny, gooey gel.
Jonathan Quintain, a face
Larko had been familiar with since the man had been a squalling boy wrapped in
the baronial towels of the House of Glauwer, adjusted the cap on his head and
peered into the gloom of the smoky room. He spoke for a moment to Big Dale, the
proprietor. The fat bartender nodded in Larko's direction. Jonathan nodded and
marched quickly across the room. He gave Larko a firm handshake, pulled up a
chair, and sat down grinning.
"You, my friend, are
a very hard fellow to track down," Jonathan stated.
Larko stared hard at the
man. "Well, Jonny, what a surprise," he said. "It is you, isn't
"I know, I know. I haven't had a chance to stop in to see you since the
Day of the New Harvest Party at Bogo's place. They keep me busy, you
Larko nodded, sighing.
"I realize that. It's not that I'm not delighted to see your face, my good
fellow. It's just that things are a bit hot at the moment.
And, I occasionally confuse one face with another. Must be the local ale."
Jonathan took off his
pilot's hat and placed it on the table between them. He studied his old
friend's face. It was lined with worry.
"I've heard about
the rising heat. That's why I stopped in. Someone told me you were all alone on
this case. Very foolish, even for Gamitof Pym, my resourceful mage."
"That someone was
named Folpole, no doubt." Larko was about to shoo Jonathon away to safer
places when his eyes darted toward the door. Two hooded figures dressed in gray
robes entered the alehouse, paused in the doorway to survey its customers-the
usual mix of human expatriates, Dinhari time spinners, and reformed moles-and
sat down at the bar.
"I think it might be
best if you left," Larko whispered. "For your own safety."
Jonathan noticed now that
Larko had his back to the wall. His shining black eyes blinked, nervous. He
suddenly had the feeling someone was watching them.
"Your chief was a
bit vague," Jonathan stated, perplexed. "You wouldn't want to fill me
"I forget you're not
the little boy with the rather useless parents, wandering around that damp
castle with only a silly rat mage for a friend," he said, then lowered his
voice to a bare whisper. "The Crimson Quill Guild."
A hedgehog waitress,
wearing a dress far too tight for her rather corpulent figure and staggering
about in high heels that didn't remotely suit her little feet, weaved past
carrying a tray of drinks. She stopped at a nearby table and began chatting
with a group of ogling young pilots.
Neither Larko, who was
Tandaran, nor Jonathon, a human being, were particularly attracted to
hedgehogs, female or otherwise, so it was curious that certain of them were so
intent on following human or outer Galactic fashions. The poor little waitress,
Kookie, cute in her own hedgehog way, had clearly been torturing herself. Her
legs were smooth, plucked clean of spines. Jonathon tried not to think about
how much it must hurt to be quilled-a
process that involved tweezers and daily molephine injections to prevent future
growth. Happily, most of Grumpole's Hideaway clientele were hedgehogs, even the
fliers from the nearby base. They certainly liked the waitress' new look.
"Big Dale must be
really hard up to keep the clientele happy," Jonathon said.
Kookie finished telling a
joke to amuse the pilots, then approached Larko's table.
"You gentlemen look
really thirsty," she observed. "Can I get you something?"
Larko shook his head, still keeping an eye on the newcomers.
"No. Nothing for me.
Doctor's orders." Larko smiled nervously at the waitress and then at
Jonathan. "My friend is thirsty. Please bring him some of this inn's
The waitress nodded and
hurried off toward the bar. She returned moments later holding a tall mug of
brownish liquid with a thick head of foam. She set the drink down in front of
Jonathan, then hurried off to replenish the drinks at the fliers' table.
Jonathan took a sip of
his drink. "You mentioned a certain Guild. Are we looking for anyone in
"They have their
spies everywhere. They're definitely growing in numbers."
Jonathan nodded toward
the beggar's table. "Him?"
Larko followed Jonathan's
surreptitious gaze. A skinny human, dressed in a ragged trench coat, scraggly
beard, and black glasses, hunched down in the shadows, almost out of sight. He
appeared to be talking to a glass ball in the handle of his white cane.
"Looks like a blind, and admittedly, crazy beggar."
Jonathan conceded, "but not blind."
Larko studied the beggar
some more, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"He seems to go in for the latest in hedgehog fashions. Or he just has a
thing for high heels. He's definitely not blind."
Larko smiled. "I
think you've spotted yourself a spy," he said. "So, he's not just
making conversation with his cane. Well, that doesn't mean he's part of the
"So tell me,"
Jonathan urged. "How do we find these fellows, then?"
Larko took a deep breath.
"It shouldn't be hard. The Crimson Quill Guild is looking for me," he
said, trying hard to suppress the nervous tension in his voice. "They'd
like me dead."
Jonathan quickly glanced
about the room.
"What do they look
like, these Guild fellows?"
The rat-man's nose
quivered. "That's just it," he lamented. "It's not like old
times when all of our enemies were moles. It was hard to hide that star-shaped
nose. Our new enemy comes in all shapes and sizes. Well, hedgehog sizes. Being
this is a hedgehog planet, they tend to be everywhere," he whispered,
leaning toward Jonathan. "And they're getting close."
"Don't take this
wrong," Jonathan replied. "But you sound a little paranoid."
Larko sat forward, his
dark eyes glittering. "I wish the chief hadn't got you involved," he
pleaded. "You can still leave. I'll get back to you later."
Jonathan stared at him,
"Tell me more about
these...what do you call them?"
"The Crimson Quill
Guild is an extremist hedgehog organization made up of thugs, cutthroats, and
assassins," Larko explained. "They idolize Walpole and are determined
to put him back in power one day."
Jonathan tried not to
look too skeptical.
"It doesn't surprise
me that the old hedgehog demon would still have some dedicated followers on
this planet," Jonathan conceded. "You don't seriously believe,
though, that the majority of Yurle Prime's citizens
would ever want him back. Besides, no one's seen him for years. He's probably
Larko's eyebrows shot up.
"No, he's not.
There's every indication Walpole is using the Guild to get a new claw-hold on
this world. His efforts have been mainly covert."
"So covert no one
knows if he's still around. I suppose the Guild could be..."
A burst of laughter drew
Jonathan's attention to a nearby table.
hedgehogs-Dinhari, Jonathan surmised- played a game of Capture the Quill at a
nearby table. It was a game of strategy that required a steady hand. The basic
goal of the game, as Jonathan understood it, was to pull as many quills as
possible from a tall pile without upsetting the whole stack.
Since the time of
Walpole's fall from power and the death of the insidious mole empress,
Moleloch, the Dinhari had become less insular. It gave Jonathan satisfaction
knowing that he and his friends had played at least a small part in the
mystically inclined sub-race of hedgehogs' emergence. He had never favored the
Dinharis' decision to hide out inside the Great Storm. Despite their high level
of mechanical expertise, it had left the sect cut off and unprepared to face
the rise of Moleloch.
"The Yurle military
will never let Walpole back," Jonathan pressed.
"The military has
always been susceptible to the lure of a powerful leader," Larko said.
"It's been nearly thirty years since there's been a major conflict on
Yurle Prime. They are itching for action. That's why all the interest in the
extra-solar colonization project, Fresh Start."
Larko looked up inquiringly.
Jonathan took another sip
of his liquor, a slow grin appearing on his face. "I wasn't just looking
for you for Folpole. Fresh Start needs us."
Before Larko could
respond, a drunken hedgehog, fat and boisterous, with a long mane of
transparent spines that shimmered like diamonds, swaggered up to a piano atop a
platform and started to play and sing. Several others joined in the dancing and
stumbling about in intoxicated merriment.
"What's on your mind, Jonathan?"
"We have to get the
crew back together," Jonathan blurted. He hoped that hadn't sounded as
desperate to Larko as it had to him. "Our world needs us."
Larko sat back in his
chair, holding up one hand. "Whoa. Slow down. Our world needs us?
Jonathan wiped some foam
off his upper lip.
Start is in serious jeopardy," he stated.
Larko sighed. Fresh
Start-the joint government-military plan to seek out a new healthy planet upon
which the dwindling populace of poor contaminated Yurle and Yurle Prime could
settle now that they had effectively destroyed two worlds of their own.
Frankly, he had a hard time mustering much sympathy for beings who repeatedly
exhibited such irresponsible behavior.
"All the news has
been good. Regular launches like clockwork," he urged. He saw Jonathan was
impatient to continue. "Go ahead; I've gotten pretty good at listening and
watching my back at the same time."
Jonathan took another
drink, trying to relax.
"I don't need to
tell you what a mess this planet is in. Space Force decided it was time to take action. Our military scientists have identified a
planet not too far away that has a similar chemical composition and atmosphere
to Yurle and Yurle Prime. Its name is Yurle Minor."
Larko leaned forward in
his chair, interested.
"Ah, the hedgehogs,
always full of original ideas. Since this discovery is not common knowledge, I
take it there's a problem."
As Jonathan continued,
Larko kept an eye on Big Dale, who seemed to be holding an extended
conversation with the individuals dressed in gray robes at the bar. One glanced
over his shoulder in Larko's direction and smirked. It was a hedgehog, a very
large one, its snout quivering.
"Yurle Central is
facing a big problem," Jonathan explained. "All of the missions
they've sent out to colonize Yurle Minor have failed to return."
Larko grunted and gulped
down the rest of his drink noisily. He made a satisfied sound. "That is a
problem." He paused. "But it's their
problem. Not mine. I'm retired. How is it your problem?"
Jonathan swallowed hard.
This was going to be a tough sell.
"I've signed on to
Fresh Start. Six missions have vanished and I want to know where they've gone.
You know I've had some background in space flight, but not enough. They need
your experience, sir. The brass has done a thorough post-analysis of the
situation and decided that the crews they've sent, all hedgehog members, were
just too green. They've ordered me to come to you because... " Jonathan
stumbled, thinking, and then pulled out an official looking document folded up
inside his uniform pocket. He opened it and read, "'We need a strong
leader with experience, someone with true grit, someone who is resourceful,
someone who does not know the meaning of failure, someone... '"
Larko waved at Jonathan
to put away the note.
"I get the
idea," he said, flattered. "But trust me, Jonathan. I'm not the guy
they're looking for. I've got my hands really full
right now. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to respectfully decline."
Jonathan crumpled up the
note. He felt as if the fate of the galaxy, if not the universe, hung in the
"If you don't agree
to lead the seventh mission everyone on this planet could die," Jonathan
pleaded. "The scientists say this world is irrevocably damaged. They've
poured poison into the water for too many years. There's a hole in our ozone
layer as big as the moon and its increasing in size daily. Even the big storm
has become erratic. The Dinhari have abandoned it pretty much altogether. Its
course is bringing it several degrees closer to the capital and government
buildings. Planetary officials are calling the situation urgent."
Larko took a deep breath.
"I know all that." He sighed, tired. "Everyone does. But it's
their own fault. They've done this to themselves."
Jonathan knew Larko
believed that people should actually take
responsibility for their actions. He took one last shot at his old commander.
"So the Tandarans and the Galactic University have written off the
hedgehogs. Too far gone?"
"Retired means from
the Galactic University, too," the old space explorer said. "I
suspect, if you ask, that they probably have. Two dying worlds and now the
hedgehogs are planning on going after a third. I don't know if I even approve
of this mission."
Jonathan studied his old
friend a moment. A thought leaped to his mind just as he was about to surrender
to the inevitable.
"As an operative in
Planet Security, you might be interested to know that there is some evidence to
suggest that a powerful intelligence seems to have caused the failures on Yurle
Minor," he blurted.
Larko's eyes grew wide.
"You're sure? Is it possible? A powerful intelligence could
"Space Force HQ
received a few short messages from one of the missions once they reached Yurle
Minor," Jonathan said. "One of the transmissions suggested the
presence of hostile natives, and the clear worship of one called the Great
Larko cleared his throat.
"The planet could be close enough for Walpole to instruct his people here
by mental transmission. He might even be able to train them on this other
world, then teleport them here. My stars, this might explain everything. The
sudden rise of a well-organized cult, its diabolic efforts to destroy the old
order, and to kill off those who thwarted Walpole the last time."
Jonathan tried not to
look too eager.
"You think so? That
would make Yurle Minor a dangerous place to colonize."
"But it must be
done, if only to bring Walpole to justice and secure the safety of the galaxy.
This might be just the thing to throw the Crimson Quill Guild off my tail. I
doubt they'd expect me to fly right into Walpole Central."
"Whoa, where did she
Jonathan eyed a shapely
woman in a black leather body suit. She had suddenly seemed to materialize in
the gloom and was sharing a drink with one of the gray-robed figures at the
"Part of the Crimson
"I'm not sure,"
Larko said. "Probably."
The room grew a little
darker. The woman in the bodysuit and her two male friends in gray at the bar
suddenly transformed into leering hedgehogs, their bodies covered in red
spines. They pushed into the milling throng of patrons.
"Yep, Crimson Quill
Guild. Better put off these travel plans for the moment," Larko whispered.
"Things are about to get interesting."
The three hedgehogs
pulled out weapons hidden beneath their robes-short clubs made of black wood
with spikes in the end. They rushed toward Larko and Jonathan, snarling. A
moment later, things went from bad to worse, as the friendly barkeep, Big Dale,
also transformed into a slightly heavier set hedgehog and joined the attack.
"Well, I am
disappointed in him," Larko said, snatching the heavy bottle in front in
The other patrons dodged
out of the way, the menace in the Guild members eyes making it clear this
wasn't just another bar room brawl.
Larko leaped up to defend
himself, but Jonathan held his arm.
"Don't worry. We
Larko placed his hand
under the tabletop, and taking a firm grip on one of the legs, flipped it over
and into the path of the oncoming attackers. The first hedgehog slammed into
the table head on, momentarily stunned. The other three were forced to take evasive
action to avoid being hit by the table as it smashed against the front of the
The hedgehogs quickly
regrouped and closed in. They growled and bared their sharp yellow teeth,
holding up their weapons, preparing to strike.
Suddenly, however, the large
hedgehog pianist stopped playing, spun about on his stool, and leaped from the
platform. He threw off his disguise of shimmering spines and it crashed to the
floor like a suit of glass armor. The hairless,
swollen mass of pale flesh lumbered across the floor. Jonathan recognized the
man almost immediately. It was his former crew mate, the eunuch Bogo Grandmont.
Apparently, Jonathan thought, the effects of the rejuvenator-that incredible
technological wonder which had transformed the eunuch into a tall handsome man
with thick black hair-had been only temporary.
At that same moment, the
female hedgie waitress in heels stripped off her own head mask and coat of
spines, revealing a striking woman of voluptuous proportions. Her fiery auburn
curls fell out of the mask and over her shoulders.
Jonathan whispered, stunned. She still looked gorgeous. It had to be molephine
A pair of colorful hard rubber balls suddenly appeared in her hands.
She flung these with great force and exact precision, striking and knocking
cold one of the surprised hedgies and dazing a second. The two remaining Guild
members hesitated, confused, and were bowled over by the charging Bogo. They
picked themselves up, and seeing that the odds were now stacked against them,
fled out through the front doors of the inn.
amazing," Jonathan stated, dumbfounded.
"I wanted to tell
you I enlisted Bogo and Emenine as colleagues of mine," Larko stated.
"But as they were undercover, I didn't want to take the chance of giving
them away. You can see why."
performance," Jonathan said, shaking hands with his old friends.
Suddenly the doors of the
inn swung open. The two fleeing hedgehogs backed slowly into the room their
hands in the air. An extremely short man with the delicate features of a
ballerina entered, holding a laser rifle on the pair of surprised hedgehogs.
Lavolier nodded, never
taking his eyes off the prisoners.
"Ugh, pretty boy
Quintain," he said, "slumming down here with the common folk, are we?
No precious rockets to pilot about, burning up the last of the world's fuel
If Lavolier had a middle
name, it was Envy.
"I swore you were
still in detention," Jonathan said. "Who did you sell out to get free
"I have devoted my
talents to the betterment and protection of this world," the knight
proclaimed to everyone in the place. "But, I'll regale you with my
wondrous adventures later. What do I do with these scoundrels, old boy?"
Memories-most of them
distasteful-suddenly besieged Jonathan. This obnoxious little man who in
Jonathan's early youth had held a variety of titles-the captain of the guard,
Sir Lavolier, chief scout, and court majordomo-had
what might best be described as a checkered past. He
was an accomplished fighter with an unpredictable temperament. In the past, he
had used his position as an excuse to mistreat the peasants who worked Baron Glauwer's fields. He also patronized the castle stonemason,
Odd Bob, a talented and compassionate fellow for whom Jonathan had developed a
profound respect and deep friendship. Moreover, Jonathan contemplated bitterly,
Lavolier had never passed up an opportunity to ridicule Gamitof Pym-Larko,
former court magician, and now, ironically, spaceship captain and Lavolier's superior.
Another of the dazed
hedgehogs staggered to his feet. Lavolier eyed him wearily and pointed the
laser rifle at him.
"Don't move a muscle
you spiny devil," Lavolier growled. "I'm placing you and your
anarchist cohorts under arrest."
Lavolier motioned with
his head and began to march the hedgehogs out of the inn.
Jonathan called out to
him. Lavolier stopped, glancing back.
"Don't leave just
yet," Jonathan said, sensing a chance. "I have just been discussing a
project with Commander Larko." He glanced at Bogo and Emenine, as well.
"I hardly think any
project you would come up with is worth my time," Lavolier sneered.
"It might just make
you famous. Shoot, it might make us all famous."
Lavolier stared at
Jonathan. His eyes narrowed and shifted toward the hedgehog prisoners still
standing nearby, hands raised. They looked, however, like they might bolt if
given the least opportunity.
Lavolier squeezed the
trigger on his laser rifle three times. A thin green ray shot out striking the
hedgehogs; their bodies went suddenly rigid and they crumpled to the floor at
his feet. "I stunned them," he said to Jonathan with casual
satisfaction. "Now we can talk without being interrupted."
Jonathan motioned for the
former crewmembers of the Duweena's Courage
to sit down. They pulled up chairs to the table.
Jonathan glanced at
Larko. The old commander nodded.
"Okay, you've heard
of Fresh Start."
As Jonathan continued his
pitch, the group of red-spined Dinhari, who had set up their table again and
started another game of Capture the Quill, glanced over at Jonathan from time
to time, listening. They completed their game and departed as the occupants of
the other table rose and left, still arguing details.
Not long after, the place
nearly emptied, the grizzled old beggar in the trench coat shook his head and
stood up without the aid of his cane. He crossed his arms and shook his head.
"I could have killed
Larko ten times tonight, and thrown in the rest for free," the man
grumbled as he made his way to the door. "But no, the Guilders got to
learn, he says. Just keep an eye on them, Verlag. It'll work out. Well, you got
your troubles down, Walpole, my chum. Yes, you do."
The spy, Wenlock
Verlag-aka Arg Strapper, cruel torturer, and Unger Fry, gourmet chef-walked
toward the exit but stopped suddenly to study a poster hanging behind the bar.
A wide grin formed on his pimpled face.
this?" He hadn't seen the poster before.
Dead or Alive
(but mostly dead)
(Aka The Sacred
Hedgehog of Yurle)
"A lovely likeness.
Well, Verlag," he said. "At least until he makes a better
He tore the poster off
the wall and stuck it in his pocket just as the doors of the inn swung open.
Wenlock Verlag jumped,
startled, as a striking gentleman dressed in a Space Force Special Forces
uniform entered. Verlag adjusted his beard, nervous, and quickly leaned on his
cane, hunching over a bit.
He stared hard at the
officer. There was something familiar in the handsome face, he thought, an
almost god-like aura. It was the vestiges of gills, barely visible, looking
like pink tattoos on the man's muscular neck, that gave it away.
Verlag thought, it was the son of Baron Glauwer's mistress. Lawson, his name was. Not
the Baron's son, however, but the offspring of some perverse union between that
flirtatious juggler and a god. Verlag shuddered: by all the dark gods, that
woman got around.
Lawson glanced about at
the almost empty inn, the corners of his mouth turning down in disappointment.
He eyed Verlag, perplexed.
everybody?" he groaned. "This is Tuesday, right? It's the
all-you-can-drink tanagi fruit spritzer night."
Verlag lied. "The owner's house caught on fire. Everybody went to watch...
I mean help."
He spun smartly on one
heel and marched out.
"Don't let the door
hit you in your scaly behind, fish boy," Verlag mumbled. He pulled the poster
out of his pocket and stared at Walpole's mug shot, smirking. "Just stay
out of my way. I've got bigger... um... hedgehogs to fry."
He stuffed the poster
back in his pocket, adjusted his beard, and hobbled out of the inn.