Jjanus was on the verge of complete and utter exhaustion. There could be no doubt about it. He had experienced symptoms of this nature often enough before: gritty irritation of the eyes, fogginess of the brain, arms, and legs that felt like lead weights.

His energy reserves were definitely running low. His arms trailed listlessly by his sides, and he could only just lift his feet, each step requiring a definite, conscious effort of his mind.

Janus had never felt quite as lethargic as this before, but that was probably because he had always had ample rest following each task, which he had been commanded to perform. This time it had been different. He had no sooner returned from his previous, exhausting assignment than he had been delegated this top-priority, secret mission. Time was the one thing that he had so little of. Time was running out, and thus there was to be no rest for his weary body. No! Until this job was completed, Janus could hope for no relaxation either of muscles, or of mind.

He forced his tired and wandering mind, normally so active and analytical, to concentrate on walking. To keep placing one foot in front of the other, again and again, was almost as much a problem as playing three-dimensional chess while wearing a blindfold. How he wished that he could rest! The red dust rose from the ground beneath his plodding feet with each dragging step that he took. The fine particles wafted toward his face, on the stirring of the air that he made as he walked. His silver-grey uniform no-longer shone brightly enough to reflect the dancing light of the hot, yellow sun. The outfit, like his silver boots, was dulled and lifeless, well hidden beneath a thick coating of red dust. There was no wind. It seemed that, in the entire world, he was the only thing that moved.

“One — two — three — four —“, he counted his steps aloud, in order to stay awake, to keep his body and mind functioning, “five — six — seven — eight”.

A shadow crossed his path, merged with his own, passed over and beyond him, and then circled back. At first, he gave no thought to the dark shape: on Earth, where clouds, flying creatures, and machines all invaded the atmosphere, such shadows were commonplace. On Earth, such a shape would not necessarily forebode evil but this was not Earth: it was Hooja, planet of death!

All at once, Janus’ senses, previously dulled by exhaustion, came to life, the spark of danger igniting his brain into action. In one breathless moment he recognized the shadow for the danger it was, and took immediate, evasive action. Janus had met this type of danger before and he knew, from experience, the best way to cope with it. That was why he had remained alive so long; why he was still active, while so many of his associates had perished. That was why he had been chosen for this important task.

In less time than it takes to tell, he had flung himself to the ground. At the moment of impact, his left shoulder had taken the weight of his fall, but before then his right hand had grasped the hilt of the broadsword at his hip. He was no longer an unarmed, defenceless man. As he rolled upon the flat, featureless Hoojan plain, the fine red dust rose in voluminous clouds, to irritate his nostrils and eyes and Janus tried desperately to keep his weary brain focused on the task at hand.

One moment of inattention could prove his undoing. He knew this attacker would neither ask for nor give any quarter. His tactics had the desired effect. The Hoojan, for such it was, that had attacked him, was confused by the man’s defensive actions. Expecting to find another easy victim, the large bird-creature had been content to take its time in making its kill. Now, it did not know what to make of these strange antics and it hesitated.

This was what Janus had counted on, he was quite aware of the slowness of the Hoojan mental processes. It could solve complex and abstract problems, it is true, but it was not sharp-witted enough to quickly take stock of a strange situation, and to act accordingly. This quickness of mind was the one advantage the Earthman had over the Hoojan, after all, did not he, Janus Philk, have an intelligence quotient of 205? His quick-witted actions had resulted in the fact that, although still kneeling, he was now facing the winged creature, which had halted its own attack.

As Janus rose carefully to his feet from his squatting position in the thick red dust, the Hoojan flapped its wings and continued to warily circle the man. Janus waited and, as he waited, he cast his eyes over the hideous form that he had only encountered before in holographs, or on MP3 records secured by other Earth agents. He would never forget how repulsed he had been on the occasion that he had observed, on file, the first of the Hoojans. This Hoojan was no exception: it was exactly like the others of its race. A slight tremor ran through Janus’ light frame, a shudder, not of fear, but of revulsion. The creature was two metres tall, half-man and half-bird.

Its skin was purple in colour, but not apparently opaque, as was human flesh. It was transparent, so transparent that its skeletal structure could be seen through the skin. It always made Janus quite uneasy when he saw the bones, at the creature’s joints, swivel and turn in their sockets. Somehow, this sight seemed an invasion of privacy, almost obscene. Apart from these obvious differences, the creature was built very much like a human, except that its face was dominated by a hawk-like beak, framed by a pair of large, owl-like eyes. A pair of wings seemed to sprout from the Hoojan’s back, and, with these, the creature was able to travel very rapidly through the rarefied atmosphere of the planet Hooja.

Now the Hoojan dived to the attack and Janus forced all excess thoughts from his mind, and concentrated on the movements of his attacker. Its beak gaped open, the awful curve and sharp point catching and reflecting a shining sliver of light. Drops of yellowish saliva ran along the undercurve of the beak, to smear down the creature’s bare chest. Its green, forked tongue shot, snake-like, in and out of the yawning chasm exposed by the gaping, red beak. Its eyes burned with a hatred Janus had never before seen in the eyes of any creature that he had encountered. The bird-creature’s sword was in its left hand; a short dagger occupied the right.

With wings neatly folded upon its back, the Hoojan dropped like a stone, expecting the man to either stand his ground, or, even better, to run and expose his back. However, Janus’ computer-like brain had long since analysed the situation and its possible outcomes. He now did that which the creature least expected and, with a precision and speed unapparent in his light frame, Janus launched himself at the onrushing Hoojan. Although he did not possess the power of flight, the lighter gravity of Planet Hooja permitted Janus to leap considerable distances, and to do things impossible on Earth.

The two adversaries met seven metres above the red plain. The Hoojan had not expected such tactics. Again, its inability to reason quickly gave the Earthman the opening he required. There was a clash of steel as Janus expertly parried the downward thrust of the Hoojan’s sword against his own. The man’s other fist, delivered with all the impetus of his leap behind it, connected with the bird-creature’s exposed jaw with stunning force. Then, before the Hoojan could comprehend what had happened, it had somersaulted in mid-air to fall heavily, like a disabled Catherine wheel, to the dusty surface of the planet.

A thick cloud of fine, red dust obliterated the scene from Janus’ eyes as he alighted, three metres from the Hoojan. Had it not been for the concealing dust, he would have dashed straight to his dazed opponent and immediately finished the fight. The creature was not beaten yet, it shook itself, like a giant vulture, shedding water from its feathers, and struggled to its feet. Janus did not hesitate; to do so would have given the Hoojan a chance to recover and Janus had neither the time nor the energy for such luxuries.

He covered the distance between them with a mighty leap that launched him full upon the Hoojan, before that creature was even remotely aware of what was happening. The impact of Janus’ dive crushed the Hoojan to the plain once more. The Earthman’s left hand gripped the creature’s throat as Janus attempted to conclude the Hoojan’s life but he had reckoned without the alien’s knife. A searing pain in his left shoulder reminded him of what he had momentarily forgotten. The Hoojan forced Janus from itself and both fighters rose to their feet, panting.

Again, they dashed together and swords clashed, one upon the other, as each combatant strove to end the life of the other. Clouds of red dust billowed around them, stinging Janus’ squinting eyes and threatening to stifle his breathing, as the two creatures shuffled back and forth in their desperate fight for supremacy. The Hoojan was stronger than the Earthman and with each blow of its heavy broadsword, the half-bird, half-man forced Janus to retreat. The heavy blows jarred through Janus’ arm, seeming to reach to his very soul, and tiring him even more than he had been, before the Hoojan had attacked him.

The Hoojan’s knife had already sampled the Earthman’s blood, thin streams of which ran down the latter’s chest from several minor wounds while, by contrast, the Hoojan appeared completely unharmed. A great wave of tiredness swept over Janus. He could barely keep his eyes open, let alone raise his arms, and he knew that he must finish the fight quickly, or he was lost. Utilizing his extraordinary powers of concentration to fend off the tiredness, Janus threw himself desperately at the Hoojan in one last effort to save himself.

The slow-witted Hoojan warrior stood his ground. Blow after blow it took on its sword, as Janus put every ounce of his remaining strength into his sword arm, apparently with little or no effect. Then, as the Hoojan began to realize that the Earthman was weakening, the bird-creature threw caution to the winds and moved in close to finish off his opponent. This was what Janus had been counting on.  With one swift, easy motion, the Earthman eluded the thrusting blade and grabbed the creature’s right wrist, then, before the alien could utilize his superior strength, Janus entwined his legs around those of his opponent.

This had the immediate desired effect, and the two combatants crashed to the ground, a cloud of dust rising above and about them. A sword rose above the swirling dust; it descended once, twice, and then was still. As the dust began to settle, Janus wearily picked himself up from the prostrate form of the Hoojan. His surprise tactic had momentarily dazed the alien into leaving its body open to the man’s sword. Janus had killed his adversary at last, but at great expense to himself.

His energy reserves were now at such low ebb that he knew he could not continue his quest without first resting his tired brain, and exhausted body. He staggered a few halting steps, his sword so heavy in his hand that it dragged along behind him, in the dust, its trail a meandering furrow ploughed by some drunken farmer. At last, Nature could no longer be thwarted and Janus could no longer deny his body the rest that it craved. He collapsed and lay still, his urgent task no longer of importance to him.

As Janus slept, his subconscious mind released vague images of past lives and experiences. He dreamed of strange enclosed vehicles with four wheels that sped along paved ribbons criss-crossing the countryside; of weird, flimsy craft with two wings, one atop the other, that danced hither and thither about the skies, like vagrant butterflies; and of men dressed in white, and masked, gathered around a low table on which lay a strangely familiar figure. Although Janus could never recall any of these strange images in his waking mind, his conscious mind now struggled with the unconscious imagery, trying to fit it into more familiar concepts, and thus retain his sanity.

Every time Janus dreamed, these same weirdly wonderful and often frightening pictures filled his mind; yet, upon awakening, he retained little more than a vague memory of his dreams. While Janus slept, rested and dreamed, mechanisms were also in operation of which he had no knowledge, awake or dreaming, and over which he had no control, mental or physical. Electronic relays, cleverly inserted and hidden under the skin at the base of his brain, had begun to take over certain parts of the Earthman’s highly intelligent and highly trained mind.

This was a safety device created by technicians of Janus’ department for just such an emergency as faced the Earth agent, at this very moment. A mental image of Janus’ headquarters on Earth was automatically formed in the man’s mind. The electronic relays clicked, formed a familiar pattern of impulses, and Janus’ body suddenly disappeared; all that remained to show where the body had been was its impression in the fine, red, Hoojan dust, and the sword, previously dropped.

It had been two centuries since Earth scientists had first discovered and managed to control personal teleportation, but a person had to have a very high level of intelligence and had to be conscious to operate and control such a method of transportation. Quite a number of Earth agents, like Janus, had been lost while engaged on important missions, until the safety relay had been devised. Now, when an agent lost consciousness, or was killed, his body automatically teleported back to his headquarters.

The chamber was white, bright, and spacious, and completely bare, except for the solitary piece of sculpture that dominated the entire room. The sculpture, created from bio-aluminium and, pulsating with the vitality of life, was of a woman and child, motherly love and innocence coupled with the purity of the newborn. This symbol, of all that mankind stood for; of its fall from innocence, of its redemption, was the emblem of mankind’s striving for perfection. As such, it was the insignia of the organization to which Janus belonged, the statue being used to focus an agent’s thoughts on his headquarters, when he wished to be teleported home.

It was into this room, on Earth, to which Janus’ body suddenly materialized. A warning light flashed in another room, where a group of white-clothed figures awaited just such a summons. The figures rushed to the receiving room and gathered about Janus’ unconscious form.

“Get him to the op room immediately.”

The speaker was a tall man, the number seven appeared on a small plastic disc self-adhering to the upper right-hand side of his uniform.

“He’s pretty far gone,” spoke up one of the assistants, who had just arrived and who had briefly, but expertly, examined the unconscious Janus.

The assistant was dressed in light blue and his number was 302.

“My ears tell me it’s his heart.”

“Has it stopped beating?” queried Medico 7.

“I’d say it almost has,” responded 302. “I’m not a high-ranking, low-numbered medico, but my stetho-ear tells me that this man’s heart is only operating on auxiliary power. We have ten minutes, at the most, to save him!”

“A fine diagnosis, 302. I’d say that you’re almost ready for promotion. Now let’s get a move on with this patient.”

Once in the op room, modern and mechanized with computers and other complex machinery lining three of its walls, the medicos surrounded Janus’ body and commenced the task of saving his life. The chest of the patient was quickly opened and bloodlessly, using a laser beam, modified for just such a purpose. Various electronic cords that carried messages to banks of computers and analysing machines lining the walls of the room were then attached to the main body organs: heart, lungs and liver.

Another machine was similarly attached to the base of the brain, to supply this organ with blood, in the eventuality of the heart failing altogether. Within seconds, the computers had diagnosed the cause of Janus’ exhaustion: the power pack that drove his heart muscles had begun to weaken under the continual stress of his profession, and was thus not pumping sufficient blood through his system, to sustain his life.

Immediately the medicos removed the patient’s heart.

It shone, reflecting splinters of light back at the brilliant arc lights illuminating the op room; but its living aluminium outer-shell no longer beat with artificial life. Medico 7 tossed the heart into the waste-disposal unit as another heart appeared in front of the chief medico, handed to him by his assistant, Medico 302. In contrast to its lifeless mate, this body organ pulsed beneath the bio-aluminium casing. Within minutes, the new artificial heart had been inserted into Janus’ body, all circuits had been tested, and the machines and computers disconnected. It was only then that the medicos relaxed.

“I never cease to be amazed at how easy these replacements have become now that we use artificial organs and limbs instead of real transplants,” commented Medico 302.

“Rejection was the biggest problem,” replied Number 7. “Transplant techniques were held back over a hundred years until artificial organs were first perfected.”

“And now you can’t tell the difference, once they’re inside a patient and operating,” added 302. “Take this patient, Agent Philk, for example, he’s had five artificial transplants in the last hundred years, and he does not remember one of them. And there’s probably not an original organ left in his body. Why, there’s probably not –”

“Why are you standing there, nattering, when an important agent’s life is at stake?” The voice that interrupted the medicos’ conversation was harsh, chilled, and authoritarian. It came from behind the two medicos; the speaker was the Director of Earth Security, Janus’ Superior.

“The patient is alive and the operation is completed, Sir,” replied assistant Medico 302, his voice quavering. 302 spoke to a video screen located at one side of the op room.

The Director, whose face dominated the screen with its cold, grey eyes, thin lips and bald head, answered harshly. “Right! Take him to the indoctrination centre. He must remember nothing of this.”  “He won’t remember any of it,” assured Medico 7. He resented the implications of the Director’s last comment. “No more than he’s remembered any of the past operations, or his past lives. We’ll see to that, as usual.”

“Good!” It was little more than a grunt. “When he’s ready for action, have him teleported back to Hooja. He has an important mission to complete.”

The screen flickered into blankness, and Janus was removed to a room across the hallway. Electrodes were attached to the control centres of Janus’ brain, and the dreams of his subconscious and the memory of the recent operation were forced to hide in the dark corners of his mind, perhaps to be awakened when the indoctrination process began to wear off.

Janus opened his eyes. He blinked them several times, trying to recall who, and where, he was. Then with the flood of memory, the opening of the sluice gates of the dam of his mind, he recalled the recent battle with the Hoojan. He whirled, picking up his fallen sword as he did so, but he could see that there would be no further danger from that particular creature. Of the operation and the trip to Earth, he remembered nothing: the indoctrination had completely erased all memories of these experiences. He now felt fully recovered.

Approaching the body of the Hoojan, purple and transparent before him, Janus looked down at the first Hoojan that he had had the chance to study closely. The creature was naked, except for a harness that normally held its knife and sword. Janus could look right through the skin and flesh to the human-like skeleton, and even see the red dust beneath the creature. Apparently the creature’s organs were, like its flesh, invisible as well, for Janus could see nothing of a heart, or lungs.

Upon rolling the figure over, however, Janus discovered an unusual thing: the Hoojan’s wings were not a part of its body, as he had previously thought, but were attached instead to the creature’s back by a series of belts that formed part of the Hoojan’s harness. Quickly removing the harness, Janus strapped the wings to his own back. A small power pack located between the two wings operated these outer members while control of the wings was by a series of studs located on a front section of the harness straps. By pushing any one of the several buttons, eight different movements of the wings could be elected. Janus chose the lowest wing speed control and pressed it. Instantly the wings began to beat slowly, and he felt himself rise from the ground. He was determined to explore further this new method of transportation.

As Janus experimented with the new wings, delighting in a freedom of flight that he had never encountered before, a dozen dots rose from above the far horizon and headed towards him. Janus was totally engrossed in his new wings. He banked, climbed, soared and, all the while, the dots grew and as they grew, they took on the form of a squad of Hoojans returning to their camp. There could be no doubt that they had seen Janus, for they had already altered their course in order to intercept him. The Earthman frolicked in the sky, oblivious to this impending danger while the Hoojans flew closer and closer. There was no warning of their attack.

One moment Janus was gliding through the air as peacefully as a seagull; the next he was beset by a number of bloodthirsty Hoojan warriors. A misdirected stroke by one of the Hoojans caught Janus a glancing blow, on the head, with the flat of a sword. He cartwheeled in the air, spinning towards the ground, one hundred metres below.  This poorly-aimed swing probably saved Janus’ life as the next cutting stroke, delivered just a fraction of a second after the first, by another attacking Hoojan.

It was meant to cleave the Earthman’s head from his body, but the cartwheel movement saved Janus from decapitation. Instead, the blow meant to take the man’s life, severed his left arm just below the shoulder. A fire of pain flashed through Janus’ mind and had he not been so refreshed he would have passed out. He used his powers of concentration to fight against the agony, subdued it, and pressed a button on his borrowed harness. Instantly Janus’ wings beat with tremendous speed. His downward plunge stopped and he began to regain altitude. His right hand had already found, and drawn, the sword at his hip and there were few swordsmen in the Universe who could match the Earthman’s skill.

A Hoojan warrior, over-confident because of Janus’ injury, and over-anxious to kill the interloper, placed himself within easy reach of the Earth agent’s sword. Janus swung his broadsword, evaded the blade, thrust out to block his blow, and struck the Hoojan in the chest. As Janus continued to gain height, he saw the bird-creature plummet towards the ground. Now Janus had regained the altitude at which he had being flying prior to being attacked and he looked about for the rest of his adversaries. The remaining Hoojans had scattered; two of them seemed to have left the battle area, but the rest were winging their way towards the Earthman from nine different directions!

Janus searched the sky about him. He was out of immediate danger. No other Hoojans sought to take his life but there, flapping rapidly into the distance, were two more Hoojan warriors, obviously extremely anxious to put as much distance between themselves, and this seemingly invincible, Earthman as they could. Despite the pain in his left shoulder and the weakness that he felt from loss of blood, Janus gave chase after the rapidly diminishing bird-men. They were the only clue left, on this deadly planet that could lead him to a successful completion of his mission. Across the empty, endless, red Hoojan plain the chase led.

Janus had one major advantage over those he was pursuing: he was somewhat smaller and lighter than were the Hoojans. This meant that he could fly faster than could they. Besides, now that he was flying much closer to the two fleeing bird-creatures, Janus could see that they were burdened by some heavy object. This also increased the Earthman’s advantage. A wave of nausea passed over Janus, dizziness that was born  of pain and the loss of blood. He turned his mind to fighting the weakness, momentarily overcame it, and continued with his quest.

Ahead of him, Janus could see that the two Hoojans still shared the burden that slowed them down. What was it they so desperately wished to avoid having him possess? Janus’ artificial heart almost skipped a beat. Could it be that which he sought? Could he, at last, have found, almost by accident, that which he had been sent to Hooja to locate and bring back to Earth? It seemed impossible that Fate could have played so easily into his hands. Yet, he must believe the evidence of his own eyes.

Janus flew as close to the two as he dared. He altered the beat of his wings so that he could climb to a position of advantage above the Hoojans. Then he attacked. The first Hoojan fell instantly, a victim of the Earthman’s keen blade. The bird-man did not even have a chance to unsheathe his own sword before he was diving to his death on the ground below. This left the last Hoojan bearing the sole weight of the burden. Janus could easily see now that it was a figure, and that the figure was that of a girl. It was she whom he sought!

Realizing that his end was near, the Hoojan dropped the girl and immediately turned on Janus, but the Earthman was not to be cheated of the successful completion of his task, especially as it was so close to fulfillment. With one mighty sweep of his sword, Janus snapped the Hoojan’s blade and at the same time drove the edge of his weapon through the creature’s neck, cleaving the head from the body. Headless, the purple, winged body fluttered about aimlessly. Janus did not even pause to note the effect of his last blow. He sheathed his own sword and dropped like a stone after the falling girl.

There would be only one chance to save her and Janus was handicapped by the fact that he now had only one arm with which to catch her. He could not afford to miss for the fate of the Earth depended on his being successful! Janus plummeted towards the red Hoojan plain, all thoughts of his own safety thrust aside, in his desperate effort to save the girl. Would he be in time to save her from death, and the human race from extinction? With only a metre to spare, Janus swooped upon the unconscious girl and made a desperate lunge at the material of her gown. His fingers grabbed at the cloth-like metallic dress, and held.

As he had been falling even faster than the girl, Janus was not dashed to the ground by the sudden arrest of the girl’s fall, instead, he continued to fly parallel to the plain, but only centimeters above it. Now, the extra weight of her slender body began to tell on his waning strength. Janus alighted in the red dust, his task almost completed as, all that remained, was to return the girl to his superior, the Director of Earth Security. At that point, with complete success almost within his grasp, Janus lost consciousness. His drained body could no longer cope with the loss of so much blood and he fell to the ground, the girl still tightly cradled in his one remaining arm.

Janus knew nothing then of the teleportation back to Earth. Thankfully, the girl had been teleported, too, as is any object being held by a person transported. Both arrived safely at Janus’ headquarters, beneath the sculpture of the saintly woman and the innocent child. Again the images crept from their hiding places and Janus’ mind lived again those previous experiences that he could never recall while conscious, and in his dreams Janus thought that he heard voices; voices he would not remember when he emerged from the op room and the indoctrination.

“How bad is he this time?”

The chill in the Director’s voice was strangely absent for a change, but the tone was overlooked by the medicos, who were too busy, examining their patient, to notice trivialities.

“He’s lost an arm, Sir, and a lot of blood,” replied Medico 302, without looking up from his work.

“Can you replace it?” asked the voice that went with the cold, harsh, grey eyes and thin lips. “He’s a valuable agent, you know.”

“We’re going to try the new artificial arm, Sir. It can be grafted to the shoulder stump, and the recipient will never know the difference.”

“Very good, Medico 302. Proceed!”

There was a pause.

“What about the girl?”

“She’s fine. Sir,” answered the medico. “She’s in indoctrination now, and when she emerges she won’t remember a thing.”

“Good!” It was almost a grunt. The Director’s voice was beginning to adopt its usual tone.

“Good. Treat her well, Medico. Remember, she’s the only female left alive on this planet. Without her the human race would eventually die. She is mankind’s only hope for continued survival. The Hoojans knew this when they kidnapped her.

“We may be able to replace worn-out parts to an existing body, but we can’t create life artificially, as yet, despite all the advances we’ve made with cloning.” There was just the slightest touch of sadness in the Director’s voice.

There was another pause.

“How long will Philk be in repair?” The harshness and chill had returned completely to the Director’s voice.

“About two hours, Sir.” This, still without Medico 302 taking his eyes from the operation, now in progress.

“That long!” The voice had a slight trace of irritation. The Director was not a man to be kept waiting. “When you’ve finished, send him to me. I’ve another important assignment for him to tackle.”

The screen went blank, leaving the medicos to complete their work.

The End

Barry William Metcalf can be contacted at: Rowdy45@austarnet.com.au

Copyrights reserved by the author.