— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
"Captain," Dwes said from his station, "I've just picked up the beacon from a Planetary Alliance outpost." He looked up from his monitor and smiled at his commander. "We're back in the Frontier!"
"Ree," Sahni said in high spirits. "Make the announcement."
Kehtan nodded silently as the message was broadcast over the ship-wide intercom. He smiled just slightly as he saw an indicator on his panel illuminate briefly. A moment later, there was a small jolt in the Zephyr's deck plates and a flash of light appeared out the starboard window.
"What the blazes was that?" Dayl exclaimed.
"Is someone firing at us?" Ellis asked.
"Captain!" Toco's distressed voice sounded from the intercom. "The central mechanism from the Parasite just ejected from the ship! The whole thing just blew out on its own!"
Kehtan smiled, having expected the engineer's report. "Yes, Toco, it was designed to do just that," he replied calmly. "As I told you so long ago, the heart of the Parasite would destroy itself as soon as we reached the Frontier. It is now impossible for the Planetary Alliance to confiscate my invention. This will put me into a great deal of more hot water with my superiors, but they will have to deal with me if they wish to build another. Don't worry, Toco. The integrity of the Zephyr has not been compromised."
As soon as the intercom link was closed, Sahni got up from her chair and approached the captain. "Sir," she asked in a quiet voice, "may I speak to you in private? I have an idea that may help."
Kehtan looked at her and lightly raised his eyebrows at her smile. He nodded quietly and stood up. "Dwes," he said, "you have the bridge."
* * *
Alex and Kehtan laughed and watched Brandon and Red as they chased each other around the room like cubs and tumbled over one another in their play, despite that the wolf was twice the boy's size. The forward observation deck was empty but for the four of them. The room had been rebuilt during the long voyage back from Shraelon and it had once again become a favorite gathering place. Further renovations would be required before it looked normal again, but no one seemed to notice the patchwork repair job that made it functional again.
Alex looked at his watch and said, "I wonder when they're going to show up? They were supposed to have been here fifteen minutes ago."
Kehtan quietly sipped his green coffee as Alex walked to the large window and gazed out into the stars. The Zephyr was only a few days away from Rona, and the constellations were once again familiar to him. Rojur had told him, weeks ago, that Rona was only a few light-years from the Earth, and that such astronomical distances would not show much change in the apparent shape of the constellations he knew from the skies over Oklahoma. Once again, he felt himself drawn into the depths of space; it had been a grand adventure, but he would be glad to be back home again soon. Very glad.
* * *
Rojur and Sahni talked quietly as they made their way down the corridor. They chatted idly, wondering why the captain had asked them to meet him in the observation lounge.
"Hiya, Sahni!" Brandon said with a smile as he greeted them at the door. The youth wore his uniform again and Red lay contented in a corner.
"Hiya, squirt!" Sahni smiled and tousled the boy's hair. Then with a mischievous grin, she tapped the buttons on his garment and watched his face light up from the effects of the fizz. Brandon giggled and dropped to the floor delightedly.
Alex and Kehtan were seated at a rectangular table and Rojur looked over at the captain. "Okay, we're here, he said. "You said you had some good news for us?"
Kehtan took a drink of his coffee and set it on the table. He nodded to Sahni and openly grinned. "Yes, I do," he replied. "Have a seat."
Sahni and the esper pulled up a couple of chairs and pulled themselves up to the table. Rojur picked up the coffee pitcher and poured himself a cup of the dark green liquid. All traces of the Amohalkonicin drug were long gone from his system so he could drink his green Roswein coffee again without fear of a reaction. He took a sip and smiled at the captain.
"I just deciphered some of the Shraeloni information that was uploaded to us that day of the planet's destruction. It was apparent we were supposed to get the opening message just before we were meant to die." He frowned slightly. "Even though I didn't get around to translating it until yesterday..."
The captain stood up and paced a few feet as the others waited for him to continue. "The message answered a nagging question I've had for quite some time."
"What question was that?" Sahni asked.
Kehtan gazed out the large window and gestured a hand toward the stars. "If the Shraeloni had wanted to keep everyone away from their fabled world of treasure, why did they spend so much time and resources to go to the effort of planting leads and clues to their world all over this part of the galaxy? It didn't make sense."
"Yeah, I've wondered about that, myself," Rojur replied. "They wouldn't have needed all those traps and defenses if there hadn't been lures to bring seekers of the legend out to them in the first place. It would have been easier to hide all traces of the doomed planet's location, I would think."
Kehtan returned to his seat and picked up his coffee. "It was a game," he said simply after taking a sip.
"A game?" Rojur exclaimed.
"Yes, a game." The captain leaned on the table after he set down his cup. "Before the destruction of their sun, Shraelon had been already been distributing their drones and Shroomers in key strategic places in the star systems nearest their own in order to defend themselves from the growing threat of attack. When a single enemy ship slipped through their defense net, they hadn't dreamed the target was their sun, not the heavily-defended planet, itself. It was the one thing they had not prepared for.
"After the sun was destroyed and their enemies annihilated afterward with weapons like the Parasite, the people of Shraelon were faced with extinction. As you know, those who survived became cyborgs and continued living in those two self-contained space stations." Kehtan paused a moment to collect his thoughts. "Decades passed and existence to them became dull, bland and dreadful. Without a planet and all the benefits of their culture, they were without a purpose, so they devised a plan to give them something to work toward. They began manufacturing more drones, Shroomers and traps within their fortresses, and with great patience, they began to lay them throughout this part of the galaxy. At the same time, others were assigned to plant clues and to start rumors and tales near areas of known populations. They were sowing the seeds of their own legend."
"What was the purpose in all that?" Alex asked.
"It was all part of their Game. They would lure treasure hunters to them and then play a strategic offensive to try to kill off the intruders. If the seekers survived the initial traps, the Shraeloni would grant more clues to lure the ignorant fools closer where the going got tougher and more dangerous. We had to fight for them, but all the data crystals we picked up along the way were intended to be found."
Kehtan sighed. "They have played this game for centuries against treasure seekers from all over this part of the galaxy. There have been others that had gotten close to the prize, but we were the only ones to actually get through everything that was thrown at us, and then only by using the Shraeloni's own weapons against them."
Alex looked puzzled. "If their goal was to play a game to keep us from their homeworld, why did they tell us at the end of our search that since we had defeated them all the knowledge and wealth of Shraelon would be ours — only to try to kill us even then?"
The captain answered with a slow shake of his head. "If they were eventually defeated, an idea they had trouble believing was possible, it would mean that the games were over. Without the Game to sustain them, the Shraeloni had no further purpose existing. The final blow, in destroying what was left of their own world, was their way of ultimately winning the game, in spite of their defeat."
"Sounds like a child throwing a tantrum," Sahni observed. "If I can't win, neither can you!"
The group fell quiet as the scope of what they had gone through sunk into their minds. It was Alex who finally broke the silence. "All those who have died... It was all because of a game. A game!"
"Such a waste of lives," Kehtan added. "The survivors of Shraelon did not place a value on life. Their only value was on the challenge of the Game."
Sahni sat quietly for a few moments and then suddenly remembered something. "Captain," she said, "are you going to give Rojur the other news?"
Kehtan looked up in embarrassment. "Oh yeah... I have some good news for you."
The esper grinned and replied, "I was wondering how the Shraelon Game amounted to some good news that you were supposedly going to tell me."
The captain refilled his coffee cup. "I've been in contact with Rayce Santrojur for the past week." Rojur's relaxed smile faded into a frown, but he said nothing. "I’ve made a business deal with him for the development of my Parasite in future military ships that his industries will build."
"Just great..." Rojur spat. "You’ve made a deal with my father and then gloat at me for it. Have you forgotten what he—"
Kehtan held up a hand for silence. "Calm down, Rojur, and listen to what I have to tell you." The esper said nothing more, so the captain continued. "I sent him a complete account of this voyage, something I haven't even done for the Alliance yet, and have detailed your part in all this."
He leaned back in his chair and took another drink of his coffee. "After reviewing everything that has happened, Rayce said he did some soul-searching and decided that even though his feeling against espers is still rather strong, he believes he can look past it due to certain circumstances, the foremost being that you are his only son." Rojur looked up sharply in disbelief, and then over to Sahni.
"He knows what you've done time and again for this crew," the captain continued. "You used your abilities to help those around you, rather than for harm - and he respects that."
"Just like that."
Rojur turned to Sahni and saw the moisture in her eyes. She laid her head on his shoulder as he looked back at Kehtan. He was speechless, so urged the captain to continue with a slight inclination of his chin.
"If you still want your job designing ships for his business, he says it's waiting for you," Kehtan said.
Rojur stood up, walked to the window, and then stared out into the stars. "Rayce doesn't simply change his mind about something that has hooks in his cold heart," he said quietly. "I'll think about contacting him, but I cannot believe he'd just casually accept me for what I am. But… just perhaps... he might be able to tolerate the knowledge of what I am in time." His throat tightened up and he could say no more. He was not sure what emotion ruled him the most at the moment – relief, disbelief or fear. Sahni moved up behind him and put her arms around his chest. She held him warmly as he put his hands on hers.
"There is one more thing," Kehtan said. "From your physical descriptions of those who tried to frame you for the deaths of two people, the Roswei Government found them a week ago. They've been interrogated and the truth squeezed out of them… with persuasion. You’ve been cleared of that crime."
Rojur turned around and faced his friends with a sincere sense of relief. "Thank you," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Maybe things are looking up."
* * *
A crowd surrounded the terminal as the Zephyr docked with the Rona orbiting spaceport. Rojur watched the monitors from the bridge and frowned.
"This is the part I hate," he said to the captain. "I still remember the media circus on our return on the Two Star." He made a face at the screen. "I don't like crowds..."
"Well, you have a handy talent that can take you past them," Kehtan said with a smile. "I still have to deal with them, however."
"Docking maneuvers completed, captain," Dayl announced. "We're home."
"Thank you, Dayl. Secure all systems and then confine yourself to your quarters."
The woman frowned, but nodded without looking at him. "Aye, sir."
Kehtan turned to his second in command. "All officers are to meet for debriefing with the Alliance representative in two hours. All other personnel are confined to the ship, pending the investigation into the mutiny. I want encrypted security locks on all outer hatches and bay doors. They are to be sealed so that no one escapes."
Kehtan stood up and faced the esper. "You told me a little while ago that you had a request to make. I can’t let you take Alex and Brandon away until they’ve made an official statement."
Rojur shook his head and replied, "That's not it. Since the Hidalgo is a Shraeloni-built vessel, the Planetary Alliance is sure to try to take it from me. Please do what you can to see that my salvage-claim is secure, will you?"
"I'll do what I can to make sure they uphold stellar salvage laws so you may keep her," Kehtan said with a smile. "Barring that, I'll claim it myself and store her for you."
"Thank you, Captain."
"One more thing you should know," Kehtan added. "Your father has arranged for a meeting with the Zephyr's department heads to discuss their critique on this ship. Since his company built the vessel for the Alliance from your designs, he wants you there as well. Before that, however, he wants a private meeting with you first."
"I suspected he might want a breakdown on the Zephyr. It's his standard procedure to debrief a crew that has finished a maiden flight on one of his new ships. I still don't trust his newfound convictions, so I will not promise to be there."
"Rojur, it was not a request."
The esper looked his former captain in the eyes and gave him a thin smile. "I am no longer under Rayce Santrojur's authority. We will cooperate with the inquiry concerning the events of our voyage, but I do not plan on putting my life in danger by locking myself into a room with a man who had sworn to kill me. I may consider it with a neutral party present, but I'm sure Rayce would be unwilling to say anything to me that might implicate himself with someone else there."
"Do you intend to be on the run for the rest of your life?" Kehtan asked him. "This could be your chance to patch things up with him."
"This could be his chance to finish me off." Rojur crossed his arms and assumed a defiant expression. "If I do have to run, I can go someplace where neither he nor anyone he employs will ever find me. I was there already, but I let Alex talk me into coming back here. Never again."
Before the captain could say anything more, the esper held up a hand and added, "I don't promise to be there at this meeting, but I will promise to consider his proposal. Nothing more."
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.