Monday, September 19, 2022

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Hunters of the Sky Cave

Recently, one of the players in my House of Worms campaign offered to referee Traveller for myself and several others. Since Traveller likely remains my favorite roleplaying game of all time, I jumped at the chance to participate. This will be the first time I've ever used the Mongoose Traveller rules, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they differ from the classic GDW rules I've nearly always used in the past (the exception being GURPS Traveller, which I last played more than twenty years ago – my goodness, how time flies!). 

Anytime I start thinking about Traveller and its Third Imperium setting, my mind inevitably drifts toward the science fiction authors and stories that inspired them. Standing alongside the Dumarest of Terra series by E.C. Tubb is the Flandry saga of Poul Anderson, the earliest stories of which first appeared in the 1950s, but were collected and anthologized throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s. That's how I first encountered them and I retain an inordinate fondness for the collections published by Ace with covers by the great Michael Whelan, like the one that accompanies this post.

The third of the Ace volumes, entitled Agent of the Terran Empire, included the story "Hunters of the Sky Cave," which was itself an expansion of an earlier short story originally published in 1959 under the title "A Handful of Stars" (and occasionally reprinted under yet another title, "We Claim These Stars!:). In terms of its writing, it's one of the earliest of Anderson's Flandry tales, though it takes place during the middle of the character's career as an agent of the faltering Terran Empire. Captain Sir Dominic Flandry is commonly described as a "science fiction James Bond" in that he's a debonair spy with an eye for the finer things in life, though his fans are quick to point out that he predates the first appearance of Bond by two years. 

At the start of "Hunters of the Sky Cave," Flandry is attending a feast and a ball thrown by Ruethen of the Long Hand, the Merseian ambassador to the Terran Empire. The Merseians are an alien species whose own expanding empire is a rival to that of the Terrans. The ball is thus an occasion for Flandry to gather intelligence on the Merseians – and attempt to seduce Diana Vinogradoff, Right Lady Guardian of the Mare Crisium, as part of "a thousand-credit bet with his friend," Ivar del Bruno, who insisted that the noblewoman "would never bestow her favors upon anyone under the rank of earl." This sort of behavior is typical of Flandry and is at least in part a consequence of his vocation, as he remarks to himself:

Terra has been rich for too long; we've grown old and content, no more high hazards for us. Whereas the Merseian Empire is fresh, vigorous, disciplined, dedicated, et tedious cetera. Personally, I enjoy decadence; but somebody has to hold off the Long Night for my own lifetime, and it looks as if I'm elected.

The eyebrows of Traveller aficionados should immediately arch at the reference to the Long Night, the collapse of interstellar civilization against which Flandry struggles vainly across his long career in service to the Empire. Marc Miller borrowed the name for the future history of the game's official setting to describe the period between the fall of the Second Imperium and the rise of the Third. 

In any case, Flandry never gets the chance to enjoy the company of Lady Diana. Instead, he's summoned to the office of Vice Admiral Fenross, his superior in Naval Intelligence, who tasks him with a mission to the planet Vixen. "A space fleet appeared several weeks ago and demanded that it yield to occupation," Fenross explained. The ships of the fleet "were of exotic type, and the race crewing them can't be identified." Fenross worries the unknown aliens occupying Vixen were secretly in alliance with the Merseians – which is why he intends to send Flandry to Vixen to find out what is actually going on and deal with it in any way he can.

To prepare for his mission, Fenross puts Flandry in touch with a Vixenite named Catherine Kittredge, who escaped the planet and headed for Terra with information about the invaders.

"They call themselves the Ardazirho, an' we gathered the ho was collective endin'. So we figure their planet is named Ardazir. Though I can't come near to pronouncin' it right."

Flandry took a stereopic from the pocket of his iridescent shirt. It had been snapped from hiding, during the ground battle. Against a background of ruined human homes crouched a single enemy soldier. Warrior? Acolyte? Unit? Armed, at least, and a killer of men.

Preconceptions always got in the way. Flandry's first thought had been Wolf! Now he realized that of course the Ardazirho was not lupine, didn't even look notably wolfish. Yet the impression lingered. He was not surprised when Catherin Kittredge said the aliens had gone into battle howling.

They were described as man-size bipeds, but digitigrade, which gave their feet almost the appearance of a dog's walking on its hind legs. The shoulders and arms were very humanoid, except that the thumbs were on the opposite side of the hands from mankind's. The head, arrogantly held on a powerful neck, was long and narrow for an intelligent animal, with a low forehead, most of the brain space behind the pointed ears. A black-nosed muzzle, not as sharp as a wolf's and yet somehow like it, jutted out of the face. Its lips were pulled back in a snarl, showing bluntly pointed fangs which suggested a flesh-eater turned omnivore. The eyes were oval, close set, and gray as sleet. Short thick fur covered the entire body, turning to a ruff at the throat; it was rusty red.

"Is this a uniform?" asked Flandry.

The girl leaned in close to see. The pictured Ardazirho wore a sort of kilt, in checkerboard squares of various hues. Flandry winced at the combinations: rose next to scarlet, a glaring crimson offensively between two delicate yellows. "Barbarians indeed," he muttered.

Once again, the connection to Traveller should be obvious, as the game's official setting includes a species of wolflike aliens known as the Vargr and whose fashion sense tends toward the garish by human standards. 

Of course, "Hunters of the Sky Cave" is much more interesting than as the source of inspiration for Traveller. Once Flandry gets to Vixen, he quickly discovers that there's more going on than anyone suspected and that, despite his own initial doubts, the invasion of the planet likely plays a role in the Merseians' ongoing attempts to undermine the stability of the Terran Empire. What follows then is a fast-paced and clever bit of space opera, filled with equal parts intrigue, derring-do, and, above all, interesting characters. Anderson excels at the latter, bringing surprising depth and complexity even to Flandry's antagonists, who are more than mere "barbarians." It's a great science fiction short story and well worth your time.


  1. When I think "scifi James Bond" Laumer's Retief is what comes to mind first. Then again, I never could take Bond seriously, so watching the espionage game (and diplomatic service, and military incompetence) lampooned fits well for me. My preferred version of Casino Royale will always be the 1967 spoof.

    Sadly, I don't think Traveller borrowed any of Laumer's many aliens, although a few showed up in the insane kitchen sink that was Gamescience's 1977 Space Patrol RPG.

  2. On the James Bond parallel: Poul said that Flandry was based on Leslie Charteris's character Simon Templar (aka the Saint).

  3. Who was of course, played in the 1960s TV series by... Roger Moore.