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Sfstory Log 095

=========================================================================
Date:         Sun, 13 Jun 1999 01:20:15 -0400
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #24

                            STARCRUISER ANONYMOUS
                           (A Tale Within Sfstory)

                                 Episode 24
                             Wherein a Multitude
                              of Things Go Boom
                                     by
                                Dave Menendez

                             -------------------

If anything, the arrival of the EDIT only made the fighting fiercer.
Rtali's rebels immediately stepped up their attacks, perhaps on the theory
that if they defeated the Third Fleet quickly enough, the EDIT would just go
away.  Mselt's forces also stepped up their attacks, on the theory that just
sitting around when someone steps up an attack on you is generally a bad
idea.  The _Anonymous_ kept to itself, and surprisingly the combatants
respected that, although both sides used the great ship for cover.  Ampron
and Green Squadron hid behind the Ultimate Defense Barrier and were
generally ignored.
    Fighters fought, missiles flew, Megadeathkill blasts, er, blasted,
drinks were spilled.  It was unpleasant all around.  A squad of fighters
from Rtali's fleet broke through the Third Fleet's perimeter, weaving their
way past attacks and other fighters.  Being small, speedy craft, there
wasn't much they could do against Mselt's capital ships except distract
them, but powerful forces were sent against them anyway.  People don't
_like_ being distracted during combat.
    Overwhelmed by superior forces, the fighters pulled back, dashing their
chances of being immortalized in song.  There isn't much of a market for
stuff like "The Brave Warriors Who Retreated When Outmatched".  But not all
were so cowardly (or 'prudent', as they called it).  One unfortunate pilot
saw a chance to strike at Mselt's flagship, the _Absurd Physical Harm_.  He
knew that a fleet which has lost its flagship is often at a severe
disadvantage.  Of course, the fleet commanders know this too.  That is why
flagships are typically very heavily defended.  Attempting to take one out
alone is a brave gesture, but ultimately a futile one.
    On the bridge, Prince Lotekh and Captain-General Mselt tracked the
pilot's progress with varying degrees of concern.
    "Are you certain it poses no threat?" Lotekh asked nervously.  It was
his first time on a ship being attacked, and he was not entirely comfortable
with the idea.
    Mselt nodded.  "It's a brave attempt, but ultimately futile."
    As if to illustrate his point, the pilot dodged in a way the targeting
teams had anticipated and was tagged by a Megadeathkill blast.  With the
list moments of control, the pilot managed to give the crippled fighter a
new trajectory that just happened to intersect the _Harm's_ bridge.
    "Increase power to the deflectors," Mselt ordered calmly.  This was not
the first time he had seen this tactic.  Though less destructive than a
missile, as missiles tend to carry an explosive payload while doomed
fighters do not, fighters are actually more difficult for deflector shields
to stop.  Missiles explode on impact, releasing their energy in a single,
easily-blocked spike of energy.  A large, fast-moving object crashing into
the deflectors will transfer its momentum to the shield and then sit there,
irritating the shield generators like a fleck of dust caught under a contact
lens.
    Lotekh watched the fighter's progress with badly-concealed concern.
"Will that be enough?"
    "Don't worry, Your Highness.  We know how to deal with this sort of
thing.  Otherwise, all our enemies would have to do is throw big rocks at
us."  He chuckled.  "I'm sure they'd like that.  Rocks are a lot cheaper
than missiles."
    "What about diamonds?"
    "_In general_, rocks are cheaper than missiles."

    Any deflector shield has weak spots and holes for the gunners to fire
through.  Creating these portals is a complex business involving all sorts
of advanced calculus, which is why most crews leave it to the computers.
Often, there are unanticipated weak spots caused by the interaction between
portals.  The fighter didn't hit one, but it came pretty close, which was
enough to briefly overload the generators.
    The resultant power surge momentarily scrambled electronics all over the
ship.  Lights flickered, monitors blinked out, non-backed-up files in
progress were lost forever, and a few electronic locks switched state.
    In the brig, Princess Elim of Arorua looked up from her solitaire game
when the lights flickered and a loud click came from the door.  It was the
door part that really interested her.  When the guard didn't come by to
check things or explain what was going on or make vague threats, Elim
decided to see what had happened.  A quick look around the room revealed the
guard's location: asleep at his desk.
    "Moron," she muttered.  She gave the barred door an experimental push,
and was pleasantly surprised to see it quietly swing open.  Glancing warily
at what was probably a security camera but could easily have been a smoke
detector or a ceiling-mounted automated shoe polisher for all she knew, she
crept over to the guard.  Being asleep, he didn't seem to notice.  Her eyes
fell on the combination deathkill/sleep-o-stun blaster leaning against the
desk.  He didn't wake up when she grabbed it.  He also didn't wake up when
she snuck out of the room.  He did wake up when his superior checked in, but
by then it was too late.
    Despite already being armed, Elim headed for the armory Lotekh had shown
her on one of his ship tours.  Escape was at best a minor part of her plans.
She wanted revenge.

                                  *   *   *

From the outside, the _Anonymous_ had little reaction to the EDIT's arrival.
The inside was a different story.  Over Captain Harrison's objections, the
general public was kept informed of the status of the battle outside.  As
she had predicted, the result was mass hysteria.  Entire squadrons of crazy
old men with placards foretelling doom milled around the residential
sectors.  Concerned parents called to excuse their children from school,
wanting to spend what might well be their last day together.  The schools
refused, wanting to spend what might well _not_ be their last day educating
their charges.  Eventually, they compromised by letting the parents join the
children in class.  The teachers weren't too pleased by this, but they were
used to being ignored.
    On the bridge, Harrison watched the tactical displays with her usual
look of half-amused detachment.  Her voice betrayed no concern over their
situation.  Still, many in the bridge crew had worked with her for years and
could recognize the subtle signals that showed she was upset, like the way
she was slowly pounding her forehead on the inactive console before her.
    "Captain?" asked Commander Gerhardt.  "How do we react to this?"
    Harrison glanced at her second-in-command and then looked at the
tactical display.  The Zakavians' newly-arrived Enormous Destructive
Interstellar Tortilla was still a ways off, but it dominated the display,
represented as it was by a big cylinder glowing an evil red with exclamation
marks and skull-and-crossbones orbiting it.  "Has Green Squadron contacted
Blue Squadron yet?"
    "Yes."
    "Tell them to get back here.  I am not staying in the same system as
that thing any longer than necessary."
    "The EDIT, you mean?"
    Harrison quickly rechecked the tactical display, concerned that perhaps
she'd missed a second terrible threat that could destroy them at any second
without expending much effort on its part.  To her relief, there didn't seem
to be any.  "Yes," she said.  "The EDIT."
    "What about it?"
    Harrison's eye twitched.  In the bridge crew's experience, that was not
a good sign.

                                  *   *   *

It is dark in space, but it was even darker behind Ampron's Ultimate Defense
Barrier, which blocked missiles, death rays, space debris, radio waves, and
the light from the stars with equal effectiveness.  It was kind of spooky.
Vasta could understand Dixon's reluctance to stay in the control pod, where
the simulated blackness surrounded her on all sides, but this time she
hadn't asked if she could return to the command center.  She knew they'd be
going into action soon, and getting in and out of the control harness was a
pain.
    The command center itself was abuzz with conversation, as Dent and
McCurry chatted with the newly-arrived Green Squadron.  Vasta was keeping
out of it, trying to think of their next move.  Prince Boltar was also
keeping quiet, probably because he didn't know any of the newcomers.
    "We're receiving a message from the _Anonymous_," Boltar announced.
"They say a burrito-like superweapon has entered the system, and we're
supposed to hurry over to safety."
    Vasta frowned.  "Let me talk to them."

    Outside, the five members of Green Squadron held formation a safe
distance from Ampron but within the confines of the Barrier.  They were
taking a break after their skirmish, and Daniels was telling the others how
he'd accidentally saved the life of the enemy squad-leader he'd been
duelling.
    "So, then the jerk says 'Thanks for the save'!  Can you _believe_ that?"
    "I can believe that," said Losar.
    "Actually, it sounds like something _you_ would do," said Roy.
    "I _know_," complained Daniels.  "That's what's so irritating!"
    They all laughed, even Daniels.  No point in holding a grudge against
someone you would never see again, right?  He resolved not to let it get to
him.
    "Say, Roy," started Winters.
    "'Roy'," repeated the others.
    She ignored that.  "I was wondering if you were all right.  You were
flying kind of funny before."
    "I've been feeling weird since we found Beth," Roy replied.  "I think I
caught something from the rebels."
    "'The path of righteousness is beset with inconvenience'," Hydrospok
quoted from something, possibly his overactive imagination.
    "Why can't we ever take the path of worldly pleasure?" muttered Losar.
    Before anyone could answer, Vasta broke into the conversation.  "I just
spoke with the _Anonymous_ about our status."
    "Commander Vasta," said Hydrospok, who had been itching to formally
address Blue Squadron's leader since his own team had arrived, "let me
express Green Squadron's delight at finding you and your companions safe and
well."
    "Uh... thanks, Hydrospok.  Anyway, there's some Zakavian superweapon
here that's even more powerful than the _Anonymous_, so they want us to
hurry back over there so we can all get out of here."
    "If it's the EDIT," Roy said, "we could be in serious trouble."
    "But we can't let them blow up my planet!" Boltar protested.  "We're the
Ampron Force!  We _defend_ Arorua."
    "It would be ungracious for us to abandon a people who have provided so
much assistance to our colleagues," Hydrospok declared.  "We cannot retreat
simply because the enemy has a weapon of terrible power that could easily
destroy any of us."
    "I don't know," said Losar.  "If anything would be a reason to leave, it
would be that."
    "It's kind of a moot point." said McCurry.  "We've been ordered to
leave."
    "Actually," said Vasta, "I think I've found a way around that."

                                 *   *   *

Gordon rushed up the steps to the command deck, and Harrison waved him over
to give his report.  "We've received word from Green and Blue squadrons," he
said.  "They, er, have decided to attack the EDIT instead of returning here
to escape."
    "Did they say why?" asked Harrison with a deceptive calmness.
    "Um," said Gordon, who was not at all deceived.  "Blue Squadron is
evidently working with the local ruler, and they've evidently sworn to help
defend the planet.  Oh, and Squad Commander Hydrospok said something about
the lives of innocents being more treasured than even a warrior's career."
    Harrison suppressed a laugh.  She wasn't entirely successful.  "Yeah,
that sounds like something he'd say."
    Gordon glanced at Gerhardt, uncertain what to make of the Captain's
sudden change of mood.  "If they attack," Gerhardt noted quietly, "it's
likely to break the truce."  Harrison had that gleam in her eye again; it
was making him nervous.
    "They broke it first," she said.  "And besides, I don't really care."
    "Captain--"
    "LAUNCH THE ATTACK ON THE ZAKAVIANS!" she ordered loudly.  "THEY CANNOT
BE ALLOWED TO USE THIER SUPERWEAPON FOR EVIL!"
    The cheers from the more overzealous bridge crew members drowned out the
odd strangling noises coming from Gerhardt's throat.  Picking a fight with
the Zakavians seemed like the worst course of action available to them, but
he didn't vocalize his objections.  He could tell it was too late.  The dice
had been cast, and the gauntlet thrown down.  They had crossed the point of
no return and left the bridge that spanned it aflame.  They could not back
up, or they would face severe tire damage.  Captain Harrison was gambling a
great deal with this move, but the stakes were high all around.  Would it
pay off, or would the _Anonymous_ be revealed as a paper tiger with feet of
clay living in a straw house of cards?
    Gerhardt hoped it wasn't the latter.  That would just suck.

                                 *   *   *

The shouting match in Captain Etsushin's office eventually worked its way to
the inevitable conclusion: the Captain remembered that he was in command of
several dozen armed guards and ordered one of them to shoot Jen if she
didn't shut up.  (Jen later claimed this as a moral victory.)  Having ended
that minor unpleasantness, Etsushin returned his attention to making threats
and demanding information.  Who were they working for?  Why were they here?
What was their favorite color?  Jen didn't answer, either out of irritation
at Etsushin's heavy-handed debating tactics or fear of being shot if she
said anything.  That left Bob to answer the questions, a task he accepted
gladly.  He fancied himself a master of saying nothing at great length.
    He was busily explaining how relativistic effects combined with Faszger
of Octaleb Minor's teachings on the universal dignity of laborers (except
telemarketers) made it _impossible_ to truly know who he worked for, when
the Captain was paged by the bridge crew.  The leaders of the Zakavian
forces at Arorua wanted to talk with him.  He replied that he would be there
shortly; he had unfinished business to deal with.
    "Guard," he ordered, "take these two to the brig."
    The guard glanced at Jen and Bob and then looked at his Captain.  ((I
don't think we have room in the brig.  You've, er, uncovered so many
traitors that we're running out of places to put them.))
    Etsushin blinked.  "I had not realized that, but surely there is room
for two saboteurs such as these."
    ((I don't know, sir.  The brig filled up a while back.  We've been
sticking people in extra conference rooms, but I don't know how long we can
keep that up.  Our pastry supplies are dangerously low.))
    "That is distressing news."  He gave Bob an appraising glance, and the
trenchcoat-clad bounty hunter casually smiled back.  "I don't think we can
hold spies of their caliber in a mere conference room."
    "Sure you could!" Bob said cheerfully.  Jen just sniffed in derision.
    "Silence!" Etsushin shouted.  "No, we must find another way.  Our foes
must have forseen this and deliberately choked our brig with so many
traitors that we would be unable to hold their real agents should we
successfully capture them."
    ((The fiends!)) gasped the guard.
    "I don't have time to consider this decision fully," Etsushin continued.
"The fleet commanders have summoned me, and I dare not keep them waiting
longer."  He looked at the guard.  "You have disarmed them?"
    The guard gestured at Etsushin's desk, where Bob's utility belt and
Jen's super-advanced handgun sat.  The status lights on the latter blinked
hypnotically at them, as if to say, Look at me!  I'm a Handgun With Blinking
Lights!
    "Excellent."  He turned to address Bob and Jen.  "No doubt you were
hoping I would send you away so that you could make your move.  Well, forget
it.  I'm keeping you two where I can see you.  Guard!  We're going to the
bridge; make sure they don't touch anything."

    "Where have you been!?" shouted an enraged Prince Lotekh as soon as
visual communications were established.  "Do you think Captain-Commanders
have nothing better to do than twiddle our thumbs and wait for you?"
    "Where is Captain-General Mselt?" asked Etsushin.
    Lotekh paused.  "He's coordinating the battle efforts, but that's not
important now.  _I'm_ the ranking officer here.  You will respect my
authority!"
    "Did they get back to us?" asked Mselt as he stepped into frame.  He
squinted through the visual link-up at the group on the EDIT's bridge.  "Ah,
Captain, we--YOU!"
    "Me?" asked Etsushin in confusion, but Mselt wasn't addressing him.
    "Weren't you one of the Terrans I captured back at Sol VI?" Mselt asked.
    Jen started to answer, but stopped with a look at Etsushin.  She was
taking his gag order quite seriously.   _Too_ seriously, in Bob's opinion.
    "One of _your_ captives?" Etsushin was saying.  "I've read your report.
I rather doubt an agent of the Guild of Vending Machine Technicians would be
hanging about some backward star system."
    "_I_ rather doubt she's a Guild agent," Mselt replied.
    "And what about the uniform?"
    "It's most likely stolen."
    There was an audible gasp, both from the EDIT's bridge crew and from
those on Mselt's ship.  Even Etsushin was taken aback by that suggestion.
The idea that someone would _steal_ from the Guild... well, suffice it to
say that being in the general area of such a person was likely to be
hazardous to one's health.
    "Getting back to the point," Mselt said, "your arrival appears to have
upset the balance of power somewhat.  We're now under attack from three
sides: the Aroruans, the _Anonymous_, and the rebel forces.  I think it
would be most effective to destroy the _Anonymous_ first and then move on to
Rtali's fleet."
    The mention of rebels had caught Etsushin's attention, but he simply
declared, "I have been ordered to destroy the planet Arorua."
    Now Mselt looked taken aback.  "We still have troops on Arorua."
    "Those are the orders that came directly from His Majesty the Emperor."
    "Prince Lotekh and I are in command here," Mselt said coldly.  "You will
get your chance to destroy Arorua, but there is a battle to be won first.
Is that clear?"
    Etsushin started to protest, but then Lotekh stick his head into the
shot and glared.  He gulped.  "It shall be as you desire.  First the
_Anonymous_, then the planet."

                                 *   *   *

Thus far, Ampron's attack on the EDIT hadn't been very dramatic.
Acceleration was difficult but not impossible while the Ultimate Defense
Barrier was active, so they had decided to leave it up while they moved
closer to the titanic tortilla.  Well, closer to where they thought it was,
anyway.  They couldn't see through the Barrier, and the telemetry the
_Anonymous_ had sent them was only good for guesses unless it got updated.
Unfortunately, the Zakavians had started flooding the hyperwave with noise
and "lite" music, making communication impossible.
    The control pod was helpfully projecting the telemetry readings,
augmented by the projected locations of the various starships.  Those in the
command center could see essentially the same information, but the control
pod's 3D effect made it look like one was right there, although "there" was
looking more and more like a scene from the movie _Tron_.
    Dixon was only half paying attention to the increasingly speculative
data surrounding her.  Her leg itched, and she was trying very hard to
ignore it.  It was a simple five-minute procedure to deactivate the control
link, release the catch on her arm straps, unlatch the leg greaves, roll up
her pant leg, scratch the itch, and then put it all back, but she knew that
scratching the itch was only a temporary solution.  In a few minutes, it
would just start itching again.
    ((We're almost there,)) came Vasta's announcement over the intercom.
They were approaching the sphere the computer projected as the EDIT's most
likely range of movement.  Better to drop the Barrier too far from the
target than to run into it.  (Unless one is on a suicide mission, which the
Ampron Force repeatedly assured itself it was not.)
    Dixon watched as Green Squadron moved into position.  They weren't sure
where the enemy would be once the Barrier was deactivated, so they were
trying to cover Ampron as best they could.  Hydrospok signalled that his
team was ready, and Vasta dropped the Barrier.
    Immediately, there were five missiles flying at them.  Green Squadron
took out two, and Dixon frantically managed to dodge two others.  The last
hit Ampron's deflector shield, weakening it but doing no lasting damage.
    "Wake up!" Dixon yelled at McCurry through the intercom.  He was
supposed to be handling large-scale maneuvering; she couldn't dodge
effectively if he froze up.
    Over the intercom, she could hear Boltar's panicked ((How did they know
when we'd drop the shields?)) and Vasta's less panicked explanation that the
missiles had probably been programmed to follow them and attack as soon as
the barrier dropped.
    Out of the corner of her eye, Dixon could see that the EDIT was still a
ways off, but the two missiles she'd dodged were headed back, and she
couldn't be distracted by more distant concerns.

    Daniels had been surprised by the sudden missile attack, but he wasn't
able to do more than blast the one that came near him.  The _Squat Crimson
Pig_ had followed them, and its fighters were closing in rapidly.
    "I hope these guys are worse than that last batch," he muttered.
    As it happened, they were, but there we so many of them that it didn't
matter.

    McCurry had recovered from his surprise and was piloting the mighty
robot towards the EDIT like a hummingbird filmed by MTV.  Dent and Dixon
were holding back the fighters while Vasta kept an eye on the capital ships.
Some of those nearby were moving to join the _Squat Crimson Pig_, evidently
figuring that Ampron and its escort would be easier to handle than the
_Anonymous_ or Rtali's fleet.
    Ahead of them, the EDIT loomed closer, its open end slowly angling to
face the _Anonymous_.  They would arrive before long and... do something.
Hopefully not die.

    Daniels glanced at the tactical display and swore.  There were _more_
enemies coming.  Ahead of him, the fighter he was following swerved left,
then right, then left, then right, then left, and then right into the shot
he'd fired.  He grinned, but there wasn't time to gloat.  Enemies were
coming as fast as he could deal with them.
    There was one coming up fast behind him.  He tried a few tricks he'd
picked up, but it kept getting closer.  Soon, he wouldn't be able to dodge
reliably.
    He spun around without changing his direction of travel.  Flying
backward like this was risky, but it gave him a better shot at his pursuer.
Or pursuers, as the case seemed to be.  He was attracting a crowd.  It was
not a trend he liked.
    With a sudden burst of speed, his tail shot off to the side and started
to swing back well outside Daniels's's range of fire.  He started to swivel
to face his opponent, but before he could do so his opponent abruptly
exploded.  A familiar fighter flew by.
    ((Now we're even,)) signalled the pilot.  It was the one Daniels had
accidentally saved during the previous battle.
    Not about to let this stand, Daniels moved to follow... but then he
noticed something.  The enemy fighters were gone.  Even the one who had
saved him was leaving rather rapidly.  Ampron and Green Squadron were alone
in an eerily empty swath of space.

    "What happened?" asked Dixon.  "Did someone declare peace while I was
distracted?"
    ((No,)) replied Vasta, ((they just don't want to follow us into the
EDIT's line of fire.))
    Dixon called up the appropriate display mode.  Sure enough, they had
just crossed into the projected path of the Zakavian superweapon's
kilometer-wide beam.  She could understand the Zakavians' reluctance to
follow them.
    "Has it occurred to anyone else that this is a really bad place to be?"
she asked.
    ((Don't worry,)) said Vasta.  ((These super-big guns always have a light
show before they fire.  We'll have time to get out of the way.))
    Dixon didn't find that thought very comforting and was about to say so
when Dent fired their second Plasmic Destructo-Pod.  The blue energy sphere
flew straight down the EDIT's gaping throat, or would have, if it hadn't hit
the EDIT's powerful deflector shield first.
    This development did not bode well for their chances of victory.

                                 *   *   *

An alert from the computer snapped Megan out of her daydreams.  She and
Orliss were still holed up in the EDIT's Shield Control Center, and the
thorough job they'd done blocking the only entrance, combined with the angry
crowd of Imperial guards just outside that entrance, meant that they
wouldn't be leaving any time soon.
    "What was that?" asked Orliss.  He was trying to be heroically stoic
about their situation, but Megan could tell that he was rattled.  Not having
an escape route really bothered him.
    She called up more information about the alert.  "It looks like
something big hit us," she reported.  "Most likely a weapon."
    "Thank the stars," Orliss breathed,  "We have allies also seeking the
EDIT's destruction... who don't know we're here."
    "Or don't care," put in Megan.
    "This is terrible!  If the Empire doesn't get us, those idiots outside
will!  How can we save Arbora--"
    "Arorua."
    "How can we save Arorua if our enemy, or our enemy's enemy blasts us to
smithereens?"  He staggered about dramatically.  "What cruel fate has lead
us to this point, has set us on the path of righteousness only to dump us
into a quagmire of despair?  We've detoured off the road to victory and
ended up in a four-way gridlock of disaster!  What vicious humor is this?
What gods have we upset?  What... what, exactly, are you doing over there?"
    Megan looked up from the console.  "I figure, if I'm going to die, I
want this thing to go with me."
    Orliss grimaced.  "I suppose that _would_ be the heroic thing to do."
He sighed and took a seat next to his teenage co-conspirator.  "It is a pity
that I failed to inform Interstellar University of my activities.  Although
I cannot vouch for this myself, I have heard that those who perish that they
might aid others receive hefty bonuses to their GPA."
    "How noble."  She was in luck: someone had forgotten to reset the
maintenance password, despite the "Please reset the maintenance password, or
people will break into your system with presumably malicious intent" warning
that popped up when she logged in.
    "What _are_ you doing?" Orliss asked curiously.
    "I'm not sure yet," Megan replied.  She'd given herself full access
privileges and was looking for something she could use against the
Zakavians.  She tried a likely candidate and got the message:

        ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DISABLE THE DEFLECTOR SHIELD?

With a grin, she chose "OK".

                                 *   *   *

On the bridge of the EDIT, the nerve center of the Empire's most dreaded
superweapon, a place where dastardly schemes were a dime a dozen and sold at
that price by a little, ragged orphan girl, Captain Etsushin stalked back
and forth like a jungle cat pacing its cage like a big, powerful thing
moving back and forth in an enclosed environment.  There was tension in the
air.  Captain Etsushin could feel it.  The crew could feel it.  Jen and Bob
could feel it.  The little orphan girl could feel it.  In mere moments, the
last Zakavian ship would be out of their way, and they would activate the
Spice Beam.  Once fired, it would destroy everything in it's path, be it a
massive starship or a puny, irritating robot.  The anticipation in the room
was think, like a gooey paste.
    "Great Amsa!" cried one of the bridge staff.  "The deflector shield just
deactivated!"
    Etsushin leapt to his feet.  "What!?"
    "The deflector shield just--"
    "I _heard_ that!  It was a rhetorical question!"  The Captain seemed
quite agitated by the news, as did the rest of the crew.  Jen didn't blame
them.  The news had startled her, too.
    While Etsushin and the bridge staffer attempted to determine what had
happened, Bob leaned over and whispered, "This would be a perfect time to do
something."
    "I've got just the thing," Jen whispered back.  Keeping an eye on
Etsushin, she reached for her boot, as if to scratch an itch.  The guard
looked at her--or something in the same direction as her, the helmet made it
difficult to tell--but he didn't say anything.
    Etsushin had finished talking with the crew member and was stomping back
to Jen and Bob.  "This was part of your plan, wasn't it?" he growled.  "Your
saboteur friends waited to strike until I got distracted by _you_!"  He
started doing that scary laugh again.  "But that's okay.  I have you two,
and soon I'll have you all!"
    "Planning to collect the whole set?" Jen asked lightly.
    Etsushin was instantly in her face.  "You may joke now, but soon it will
be _I_ who jokes!  Puny Vending Machine Technician!  I--gllk!"  He cut off
and stared at her, his eyes bugging out so far that they seemed in danger of
flying out and smacking her in the face.  He made some incoherent noises of
rage, but didn't say anything.  He couldn't see the gun Jen had pulled from
her boot, but he could feel it pressing against the soft part of his chin.
    ((Hey!)) said the guard once he noticed what had happened.  ((We told
you to give us all your weapons.))
    "Yeah," Jen agreed.  "You did tell us that."  She looked around at the
shocked and confused faces of the bridge staff.  "Why doesn't everybody
leave Bob and the Captain and me alone for a while?"
    "Wouldn't that be a security breach?" asked one of them.
    Jen nodded.  "Allow me to rephrase that: Clear the bridge, or I will
shoot the Captain.  You don't want that, do you?"
    The bridge staff looked at each other indecisively.  "I think this is
one of those cases where the good of the ship comes before the good of the
Captain," one of them said.
    Etsushin didn't seem very happy about that sentiment, but the gun kept
him quiet.  Jen adopted a sad voice and said, "Well, I guess if you don't
leave, I'll just have to give up and let Etsushin free... here... in the
room with all of you who were willing to let him die."
    She had never seen a room empty so quickly before.

    "What now?" asked Dent.  "We tried the big gun, and they shrugged it
off."
    "That's true," said McCurry, "but perhaps that strike weakened them so
much that _another_ one would destroy them."
    ((We only have one of those left,)) noted Dixon.  ((If it doesn't work,
we'll have to take on the whole Zakavian fleet with just the small stuff.))
    "Not the _whole_ fleet," argued McCurry, "most of them are busy fighting
the _Anonymous_ and that other Zakavian fleet."
    ((They won't be fighting the _Anonymous_ if the EDIT destroys it, and
there's already a big crowd of Zakavians just waiting for us to try and
dodge the EDIT's beam.))
    "Once the EDIT gets a clear shot, we're space toast," said Dent.
    "Yes, but--"
    "Shut up, McCurry."
    "So why don't you tell us _your_ plan, then?"
    Dent didn't have an answer for that.

    "What do you _mean_, there's no self-destruct mechanism?"
    "Are you dense? I meant just what I said!  And even if there _was_ a
self-destruct mechanism, I certainly wouldn't be telling _you_ about it."
    Jen glared.  Etsushin met her stare with a sneer.
    "Have I put a crimp in your plans?  You and your buddies thought I'd
just let you win?  'Oh, here's the keys.  Go ahead and blow up my
spaceship.'  Hah!  Your cleverness is but a candle in a tanning booth next
to my superior intellect!"
    "Perhaps that giant robot out there could help us," Bob suggested.
    "Forget it!" said Etsushin.  "Our wheat-alloy hull could take a thousand
shots like the one they fired."
    Bob shrugged.  "Let's talk to them anyway."
    "Oh good," Jen grumbled, "more talking."
    "All the talking in the world won't save you now! There--"  Smack!
Etsushin glared at Jen and rubbed his cheek, but he didn't comment further.
    "I've got them," said Bob from over by the communications console.
"Let's see if they can hear us....  Hello?"
    A familiar voice came through the bridge speakers.  ((Um... hi?))
    Jen blinked.  That had sounded like Roger Vasta.  "Boss, is that you?"
    ((Kadar?  Jen Kadar?  This is incredible!  We thought we'd never hear
from you again.))
    Jen gritted her teeth.  "You know, you could have spared yourself that
uncertainty if you had waited for me when you left Planet Gloom."
    ((Aheh... sorry about that.))
    Jen started to reply but was cut off by Etsushin's sudden laughter.
While she had been distracted by her old squadron leader, he had snuck off
to a nearby console.  She immediately retargeted him with her backup gun.
"What," she snarled, "have you done?"
    The Zakavian captain had that maniacal gleam in his eyes again.     "I
don't care if our ships aren't all clear," he raved, "we're firing this
thing!  The _Anonymous_ and your friends on the robot are as good as dead!"
    "Oh no they're not," Jen countered, waving her borrowed handgun for
emphasis, "because you're going to stop the firing process or we're both
going to discover just what this gun does when I pull the trigger."
    "Wouldn't it be nice if I could do that?  Unfortunately for you, the
process is unstoppable.  It's an automatic, self-powered chain reaction."
He gestured to the communications system.  "You still have a few seconds, I
suggest you clear up any unfinished business while you still can."
    Jen glanced at Bob, but he shook his head in defeat.  "I'm out of ideas,
I'm afraid.  At least we saved the planet."
    "How comforting."

    "We're almost out of range," McCurry reported.
    Vasta nodded wordlessly.  He felt ill.  The _Anonymous_ was about to be
destroyed and there was nothing he could do about it.  He had met many nice
people on Arorua, but it was no replacement for his home.  His friends and
family lived there.  It was where he kept his stuff.  About the only thing
worse than knowing that the _Anonymous_ was doomed was knowing that as soon
as Ampron got out of the EDIT's line of fire, about half the Third Fleet was
going to do its best to kill them.
    ((Wait!)) said Jen over the communications link.  ((Don't get out of the
way yet.))
    Vasta waved Boltar into silence and answered her himself.  "Um, if we
don't get out of the way, we'll kinda get obliterated."
    ((The shield is down; fire another one of those blue things!  Fast!))
    Before Vasta could say "Why?  It didn't work before," Dent had already
launched their last Plasmic Destructo-Pod.  The blue energy sphere rocketed
towards the oversized fajita's cavernous maw faster than Vasta imagined
possible.  Dent must have traded power for speed, making it even less likely
to have an effect.  In less than a second, it disappeared, lost in the
EDIT's formidable interior.
    Vasta turned to his weapons officer.  "I assume there was a point to
that?"
    Dent didn't look up from his display.  "We'll find out soon enough."

    Deep within the EDIT, the great induction machines were silent.  The
fuel they had drawn from the altiverse of fajita toppings was being
compacted by the slightly-less-great-but-still-impressive compression
machines.  The process would stop just before the high-energy Dense Spice
Matter reached critical mass and exploded in an unstoppable salsa of death.
At that point, a controlled explosion would create the fearsome Spice Beam,
which would lash out and destroy all in its path.  It was a simple process,
but one which called for great precision.  A premature explosion--caused,
say, by an underpowered Plasmic Destructo-Pod slamming into the fuel--would
be disastrous.
    The walls of the reaction chamber were strong, but they were designed to
withstand stress in specific places.  Faced with an explosion in the wrong
place, they passed the stress to the EDIT's durable wheat-alloy hull, which
blew apart like a cheap water balloon and sent a shockwave along its entire
ten-kilometer length.
    The shockwave moved faster than the eye could see, but it had such a
great distance to travel that Captain Etsushin had to time to consider the
honor of going down with his ship.  He made a quick decision to reject that
honor and slammed the panic button hard, blowing the command complexes free
from the EDIT's hull before the weapon's death throes tore them apart.
    Tortilla chunks the size of Buicks flew in all directions, crippling
nearby Zakavian warships and sending the EDIT's abandoned control complexes
spinning through space, but mostly burning up in Arorua's atmosphere.  The
entire planet smelled like charred toast for days, but this was a small
price to pay for peace of mind.
    The EDIT had been destroyed.  A terrible shadow over Arorua had been
lifted.

                                 *   *   *

Of course, this left over two dozen _other_ terrible shadows over Arorua, in
the form of the Zakavian Third Fleet.  Their greatest weapon had been
destroyed and they faced a renegade fleet, an giant starship, and a
relatively insignificant robot, but they could still strike Arorua with
deadly force.  They were down, but they were not out.
    "That looks like our cue to get out of here," Mselt said.  His fleet was
still in good shape overall, but he was not liking the way the battle had
gone at all.  Seeing the Empire's most fearsome tool of destruction tear
itself to pieces before it could dispatch its enemies had sapped his
confidence.
    Prince Lotekh did not share his misgivings.  "We fight on!" he shouted
over the general channels.  "Our ships are strong, our crews are skilled,
and our planet-killer bombs are pretty darn destructive!  The Aroruans must
learn that to cross Lotekh is to invite death into your homes and places of
business!  Renew the attack!  Let none who stand against us be spared!  We
may be down, but we are not out!"
    "Much as I hate to douse your righteous fire of rage," Mselt said
quietly, "we do need to consider the odds against us.  We don't know what
the _Anonymous_ is capable of, Rtali has a spotless combat record, and
Ampron _did_ manage to take out the EDIT.  I don't think preserving our
control over Arorua is worth dying for."
    "Speak not of odds to Lotekh!  We will come out of this battle
triumphant, or we will see to it that _nobody_ wins.  Ready the planet
killers!  Let the Aroruans feel our wrath!"
    Mselt winced.  Devastating a planet's biosphere was unlikely to win the
Empire any friends in their sector of space.  Except maybe the producers of
The Galaxy's Scariest Planetary Disasters.  He felt a vague sympathy for the
Aroruans, but he wasn't going to save them.  That would imply that he was in
some way in command of the fleet, and therefore responsible for its actions.
Mselt was quite content to let Lotekh take credit for its successes and
failures.  Mostly the failures.
    "Sir," said a nearby bridge staffer, "we've detected an escape pod
launch."
    Mselt blinked.  An escape pod launch was unexpected.  Why would someone
leave the relative safety of the flagship for the uncertainty of space?
"Was anyone on board?"
    Before the officer could reply, the lights died and the artificial
gravity lurched.  Within a second, the emergency lights came up, but many of
the bridge displays remained dark.  From the looks of things, there had been
explosion somewhere in the power distribution systems.
    "What happened?" asked Lotekh, his aggressive confidence gone as quickly
as it had come.
    Mselt glared at the prince.  "If I had to guess, I'd say it was a bomb
planted by someone who has become intimately familiar with our ship--say by
being led about on numerous tours."
    Lotekh paled.

    From her escape pod, Elim could see the running lights on the _Absurd
Physical Harm_ go dark.  The bombs she had placed had worked as hoped.
"Take that," she said quietly.  They couldn't hear her, but it made no
difference.  She had escaped and taken her revenge; she had nothing more to
say to them.  Now all she had left to do was clear her name among the
Aroruans.  She would prove she was no traitor if it killed her.
    Before she could even begin, she needed to reach Arorua.  She estimated
that her pod had enough fuel to weave through the fleet and avoid burning up
on re-entry.
    ((Princess Elim,)) came Lotekh's voice over the ship-to-ship
communications.  It was not a good omen.  ((You'll be happy to know that
your little sabotage has convinced us to retreat.  Normally I'd launch our
planet-killer bombs and lay waste to your planet, but it seems we can't with
our power failure.  Very clever.  It's too bad you weren't able to affect
any of the _other_ ships.))
    Elim gasped.  A quick glance out the window showed several nearby ships
firing on her planet.  "You monster!" she cried, not caring that he couldn't
hear.
    ((Oh, it might also interest you to know that our Megadeathkill cannon
are independently powered.))
    It became clearer what he had meant by that when her pod suddenly jerked
and the world went dark.

    "The Third Fleet is retreating.  It looks like they had some sort of
failure on their flagship and decided to cut and run."
    Rtali waved his hand in acknowledgement.  That, at least, had gone
according to plan: they had defeated the local Zakavian garrison.  Said
garrison had been far stronger than anticipated and they'd received some
unexpected assistance and the world they were trying to liberate was all but
dead, but at least the garrison was defeated.  It was sort of like victory,
just a lot less satisfying.
    "Recall the fighters and signal our retreat," he ordered.  "We got what
we came for, and I don't want to be around if the Terrans get all bent out
of shape when Arorua dies."
    It wasn't the most inspiring victory speech he had given.

    "Hurry!" cried Prince Boltar.  The first bomb had almost reached the
atmosphere, and none of the Ampron Force particularly desired to know what
would happen when it detonated.  Green Squadron had abandoned its role as
body guard once it became clear that the Zakavians were retreating, and its
members were busily taking out the rearmost bombs.  Only Ampron was fast
enough to reach those furthest along.
    They had exhausted their long-range weapons fighting the fleet and the
EDIT, so they moved in close.  Dixon drew the Penguin Spear and stabbed it
at the deadly warhead.  It exploded quite dramatically, almost blinding the
Ampron Force before the anti-flare windows could compensate.
    "Let's not try that again," said McCurry.  They had taken almost as much
damage from that one blast as from the entire battle before it.  They had
even lost their grip on the Penguin Spear, which was tumbling towards the
surface.
    Dent was too busy searching the weapons database to tell McCurry to shut
up.  "I've found something that should work better," he told Dixon.  "Just a
second, I'll get it ready."
    The mighty robot reached into the space frame and drew a flat,
oval-shaped object with a red sphere attached to its center and a handle on
one end.  It held the weapon perfectly still for a few seconds.
    "Dixon?"
    The bombs drew closer to Arorua, while Green Squadron continued to
destroy those furthest from Ampron.  In the distance, the _Anonymous_ dealt
with Zakavian stragglers.  Arorua's defender hung in space, its arms and
legs motionless.
    Dent turned to Vasta.  "I think something's gone wrong."
    Before Vasta could answer, Boltar leapt from his seat and ran for the
control pod.  With an order for Dent and McCurry to stay where they were,
the Ampron Force's commander followed.  They found Dixon hanging from the
control frame, her pose mimicking Ampron's.  But where Ampron held its head
high, a stern, unyielding expression carved onto its face, Dixon appeared to
be unconscious and was bleeding from the forehead.
    "What happened?" wondered Vasta, but he knew it didn't matter.  He and
Boltar quickly got their wounded friend detached from the frame.  Vasta was
about to get in himself, but Boltar stopped him with a raised hand.
    "Let me do it," he said.  Vasta didn't feel like taking the time to
argue.  He nodded and carefully carried Dixon back to the command center.
    McCurry had maneuvered Ampron to a safe distance from the bomb nearest
Arorua.  Mirroring Boltar's movements, the mighty robot drew back its weapon
and swung, sending the red sphere flying towards the bomb.  It struck with
tremendous force, detonating the bomb, and then returned to Ampron, pulled
by the super-stretchy Space Elasto-Band which connected it to Ampron's ovoid
device.
    Boltar expertly met the returning sphere with another swing, sending it
towards another bomb with similar results.  McCurry quickly grasped how the
system worked and guided Ampron towards other targets, mindful of the red
sphere's angle of return.
    They moved from bomb to bomb, slowly taking Lotekh's revenge apart,
piece by piece.  Green Squadron worked the edges until its ammunition ran
out, stopping the warheads too far away for Arorua's protector to handle.
The rest were Ampron's responsibility.  Boltar was having a great time,
albeit a stressful one.  He had made a great study of the interaction of
ball and paddle, and now it was time for him to use the skills he had
learned.  If the ball picked up a bad vector from a bomb, he could
compensate.  If the ball lost its momentum, he could restore it.
    On the surface, the Aroruans watched the explosions in the sky, breathed
the burnt-tortilla-scented air, and wondered what in the gods' name was
going on up there.
    Some targets were easily hit, others presented a challenge.  Boltar met
them all, and eventually none remained.  The tactical readouts showed no
active Zakavian ships in system.  The Ampron Force had successfully freed
Arorua.  The _Anonymous_ had finally located its missing pilots.
    That night, there would be a celebration.  Until then, it was nap time.


DID ANY OF OUR HEROES ONBOARD THE EDIT SURVIVE ITS DESTRUCTION?
DID PRINCESS ELIM SURVIVE THE ATTACK ON HER ESCAPE POD?
WILL PRINCE LOTEKH SURVIVE ONCE THE EMPEROR FINDS OUT WHAT HAPPENED?
WILL THE AMPRON FORCE SURVIVE, OR WILL ITS MEMBERS RETURN TO THEIR OLD
    LIVES?

The battle may be over, but Starcruiser Anonymous has one more episode to
go.  The epilogue is coming, and there's nothing we can do to stop it.
    SFSTORY: It's Sfstoriffic!
--
David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)    |  "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.personal.psu.edu/dmm264/  |        of thermodynamics!"
=========================================================================
Date:         Wed, 30 Jun 1999 20:49:12 -0400
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #25

                             STARCRUISER ANONYMOUS
                            (A Tale Within Sfstory)

                                   Epilogue
                               Wherein Our Story
                                   Concludes
                                      by
                                 Dave Menendez

                              -------------------

Bob left the victory party a few hours after it started.  It had been fun,
but once he had eaten some food, mingled with the guests, and had his turn
at the karaoke machine, it was time to move on.  It was a considerable
distance from the party at Chez Casa to the hangar where his "borrowed"
Zakavian shuttle sat waiting, so he was glad Jen had decided to accompany
him.  It was an equally long distance getting back, so he was glad Roy had
decided to accompany Jen.  It all worked out nicely that way.
     Their goodbyes at the hangar were brief.  To Bob's way of thinking,
there wasn't much point to a long, tearful goodbye, since he figured he
would run across Jen again sooner or later.  He would get that recruitment
bonus eventually.
     He had fully refueled the shuttle, so he could afford to take his time
getting back to headquarters.  He spent some time poking through the
wreckage the Zakavian fleets had left behind.  The _Anonymous_ had already
done some scans, and found Megan and Orliss fairly quickly.  That was
fortunate, as the air in their sealed chunk of superstructure wouldn't last
forever.  Bob didn't expect to find anything so dramatic, but there was no
telling what interesting stuff he might come across.
     For a while, the most interesting stuff he came across was an incomplete
set of collector's plates featuring the Blargoloid epic hero Shiskvela and
his quest for tax-exempt status.  Try as he might, Bob couldn't find the
plate depicting the audit of his companion Abbmane that marked the turning
point in the epic.  It was a little disappointing.
     "Well," he said aloud, "I guess there's nothing more I can find here."
     His shuttle drifted away from the wreckage he had been sifting.  The
scanner examined the empty space around him and confidently reported that
there was nothing of interest in the immediate vicinity.  It was sure of it.
Off in the distance, Bob could see other scattered bits of wreckage slowly
tumbling through space.  Some he had visited, and some he had not, but from
here they all looked equally worthless.
     The reptilian bounty-hunter adjusted his trenchcoat and frowned at the
scanner.  "It sure does look like there's nothing here."
     The scanner picked up a faint distress call.
     "That's more like it."
     It turned out the call was coming from a damaged Zakavian escape pod.
The battle over Arorua was over, and the EDIT was destroyed, but the pod's
occupant was still very likely Zakavian, and therefore technically an enemy.
Bob decided to render assistance anyway.  Suffocation alone in the cold,
heartless void of space was not a fate he would wish upon some random
person.  He had a specific list of people he wished it upon, and none of
them were in the Aroruan system.
     Like all random space debris, the pod had picked up some angular
momentum--the bane of space scavengers everywhere.  Just once, Bob wanted to
happen across some junk that _wasn't_ rotating.  He extended the shuttle's
grasping claw and clamped on.  The shuttle automatically applied some thrust
to prevent damage to the claw or the pod.  Once he had it gripped, Bob
brought the pod into the cargo bay, pressurized the bay, and went out to
have a look.
     The pod's occupant was not Zakavian.  Given the circumstances, Bob
guessed that the young woman was Aroruan, but she could easily have been
Terran or Foobarhian or any of a half-dozen other generic biped races.  She
was alive, which was fortunate, and didn't seem very injured, which was more
fortunate.  Especially given the damage to her escape pod.
     The dark-haired girl groaned as she regained consciousness.  She glanced
around in confusion before noticing Bob.  "Where am I?" she asked.  "And who
are you?"
     "In reverse order: I am called Bob, and this is a Zakavian shuttle I
stole.  Now that I've told you that, perhaps you could tell me who you are
and how you ended up on a Zakavian escape pod."
     "'Bob'?"
     "It's a code name."
     "Oh."  She looked around again and relaxed a little, seeing that they
were alone.  "I'm Elim Ri'Tala.  I was taken prisoner by the Zakavians
during the revolution, but I escaped."
     "I think I met your brother at the victory party," Bob said.  "Prince
Boltar?"  She nodded.  "He seemed convinced you were working with the
Zakavians."
     Elim sighed.  "I was trying to get information from Governor Jjana, but
my ruse backfired.  I didn't learn anything, and the rebels all thought I'd
betrayed them.  The whole planet probably hates me now."
     "That's a shame, especially after all you did for them.  I'd been
planning to take you home, but maybe that isn't the best idea."
     "Where else can I go?"
     Bob put his arm around her shoulder and gave her his warmest, most
comforting smile.  "Have you considered a career in bounty-hunting?"

                                   *   *   *

Chez Casa had emptied somewhat by the time Jen and Roy returned, but the
celebration was still going strong.  They split up, Roy going to rejoin his
fellows in Green Squadron, while Jen headed back to the Ampron Force.  They
had sought her out early on and had a joyous reunion, accompanied by Vasta's
profuse apologies for leaving Jen on Planet Gloom.  During that, she had
noticed that Prince Boltar, the new member of the group, seemed a little
nervous around her.  Evidently, he had been under the impression that she
had died on Planet Gloom.  Jen had laughed and told them the story of how
she survived in the Zakavian capital.  That started an exchange of stories
that lasted until Jen left to see Bob off.  While she was gone, Boltar and
Vasta had left the table, but the others were still there.
     "How was the trip?" asked Dixon as Jen took her seat.
     Jen shrugged.  She had taken the "trip" between Sector 7G and the hangar
dozens of times, and it had never been particularly exciting.   "Same as it
ever was.  Roy was telling me about his sister's adventures with the local
rebellion."
     "He does that often?"
     Jen chose not to answer that.  She glanced at the mostly-empty cups on
the table.  "Which one of these was mine?"
     "I think the waiter took it," McCurry told her.  "We can probably get
you a new one.
     "That's all right.  I'm not very thirsty.  So, what were we talking
about?"
     "Dent was describing his first encounter with the cave squirrels."
     Jen's uncertainty must have visible, because Dixon quickly assured her
that it was a good story.  Dent quickly summarized the parts he had already
told, and then switched to his more dramatic storytelling style.  By the
time he started describing his descent into Ampron's kneecap with only a
broken knife and a flamethrower, surrounded by a dozen of the small beasts,
Jen had to agree with Dixon's assessment.  The fact that Dent was obviously
cribbing from the plot of _Aliens_ didn't diminish the story at all.  Vasta
and Boltar arrived as Dent was reaching the end.  They took their seats and
waited for him to finish before delivering their own news.
     "Captain Harrison, Prince Boltar, Chancellor Elahte, and I have been
talking," Vasta said.  "Now that the Zakavians are gone and Ampron is back,
there's a good chance would-be conquerors will be coming to harass Arorua in
the near future.  Since there's nobody on Arorua who knows how to pilot
Ampron--"
     "Except me," Boltar interjected.
     "Except for Boltar, yes.  But since he can't do it on his own, someone
else needs to help out.  The simplest solution is to keep the Ampron Force
together, if only until we can train some replacements.  That would mean
staying on Arorua for a while."  He looked around the table.  "What do you
guys think?"
     "I do hope you say yes," Boltar added quickly.  "I'll never find four
other people who have actually piloted Ampron."
     "Helping out the Aroruans in their time of need seems like the decent
thing to do," said McCurry.
     "Shut up, McCurry."
     McCurry gave Dent an annoyed look.  "I take it you disagree?"
     "Actually, no.  I want another shot at those cave squirrels."
     "They why... oh, never mind."
     Dixon swirled her glass of tonic water.  "Considering how much
humiliation we've handed the Zakavians, Ampron's likely to be their first
target for revenge.  How could I pass _that_ up?"
     "Then it's unanimous," said Vasta.  He looked at Jen.  "I know you, uh,
missed out on the trip to Arorua, but you've been part of Blue Squadron
since the beginning.  If you want to join us in the Ampron Force, we'd love
to have you."
     Jen tapped her finger on the table for a moment.  She noticed Boltar
looking at her anxiously.  In the distance, she saw Orliss talking with her
brother, Tom.  "I'd love to join you," she said.  Boltar looked crestfallen.
"But I'm afraid I have a prior commitment.  I'll have to decline."
     "Yahoo!" cheered the prince, leaping to his feet.  "I'm still in the
Force!"  He did a little happy dance.
     "We're glad to have you," said Dixon.  "Now why don't you get us another
plate of nachos, teammate?"
     "Sure thing, Sam."  He rushed off to the buffet table.
     Jen looked at Dixon and raised an eyebrow.  "'Sam'?"
     "It's short for Samantha," Dixon explained.  "I thought you knew that."
     "I think someone has a new friend."
     "What?  Don't be ridiculous.  We have a strictly professional
relationship."
     "Is that so?" Jen asked, her eyes glittering with amusement.  "The lady
protests to much, methinks."
     Dixon looked around the table for support and, finding naught but
grinning faces, carefully selected a discarded slice of jalapeno and flicked
it at Jen's forehead.
     "Very well," said Jen, reaching for a napkin.  "I accept your rebuttal."

                                   *   *   *

Breakfast was on the table by the time Megan crawled out of bed and into the
kitchen.  None of it was for her, of course.  Her parents had already left,
presumably to go to work, and neither of her siblings had felt any need to
prepare her food.  Why should they?  They were all tired out from the
victory celebration Megan hadn't been allowed to attend.
     "Good morning," said Jen between spoonfuls of cereal.  Megan was a
little surprised to see her, as Jen had moved out of the family suite some
time ago when she joined Blue Squadron.  At least, that was the theory.
Most of Jen's stuff was still in her old room.
     Tom, the eldest, noticed Megan searching through the refrigerator and
informed her that they were out of eggs.  Unlike Jen, Tom hadn't even
theoretically moved out.  Megan figured he hoped to inherit the suite and
wanted to make sure nothing happened to it in the meantime.
     Megan selected a breakfast cereal and took a seat at the table.  "How
was the party?"  She only asked because she was curious, not because she
wanted to experience it vicariously.  She was not at all upset that her
parents had forbidden her to attend, even if she deserved to go more than
certain peripheral players like her brother.
     Jen and Tom agreed that it had been fun, although Jen seemed more
enthusiastic.  She described Dent's encounter with the cave squirrels, which
the sisters agreed they were sorry they missed.  Tom disagreed, predictably
pointing out the dangers involved.
     "Speaking of danger," he continued, looking meaningfully at Jen, "I was
talking to your alien friend Orliss last night.  He said that you'd agreed
to check out the Space Hero program at Interstellar University once
everything with the Zakavians finished up."
     Jen nodded.  "He described the program while we were prisoners on Planet
Gloom and it sounded pretty interesting.  The rest of Blue Squadron is
working with the Aroruans, so I don't really have any obligations here."
She grinned proudly.  "Orliss thinks I'd make a good Space Hero."
     Tom shook his head.  "You barely know him, Jen.  Now you're going on
some trip to a place we've never heard of before?  That's madness!  How far
can you trust these people?"
     "I don't think Orliss is capable of deceit," Megan said.  Mostly because
she didn't think he was smart enough to carry it off, but she kept that
aspect to herself.  Her parents had been quite upset that she had stowed
away with Green Squadron and gotten involved with the struggle against the
Empire.  If Orliss and Bob hadn't vouched for her, she would probably be
grounded for twice as long.  Hence, she had decided to cut them some slack.
     Tom gave his youngest sister an annoyed look.  He seemed to take Megan's
adventure as a personal affront.  Orliss's defense of Megan's actions did
not improve his standings in Tom's eyes.  "What if this Interstellar
University isn't to your liking or you don't get accepted?  What then?  How
will you get back?"
     Jen shrugged.  "Something will come up."  She rinsed out her cereal bowl
in the sink and placed it in the dishwasher.  It was a complex process,
since the dishwasher was nearly full and the flatware had to be arranged so
they wouldn't crash into each other once the water started.  This did not
even begin to faze Jen, who Megan suspected had some sort of Zen
Dishwasher-loading training.
     "Excuse me?  'Something will come up'?  Do you intend to petition the
space gods for good fortune or something?"
     "Lighten up, Tom."  Jen turned to Megan.  "They just located the Penguin
Spear and a bunch of us are gonna join the retrieval crew.  You wanna come?"
     Megan put down her spoon.  "I'd love to, but I'm sort of grounded until
Boltar's coronation, remember?"  It was amazing.  Even when she was trying
to be nice, she was a jerk.  Megan hadn't thought it possible.
     "Sorry, I wasn't thinking.  I'll see you two later."
     Tom waited until she was gone before shaking his head and muttering, "I
just don't get her.  She's even more reckless that you, sometimes.  At least
you're not part of this insanity."
     "Orliss wanted me to ask Mom and Dad before he'd let me come, and you
can imagine what their answer would be."  Megan smiled a bit at her
brother's reaction.  He was the only person she knew who actually did
double-takes.
     Tom eventually fought down his boggle reflex and said, "You asked to tag
along?  Have you taken leave of your senses?  You're still in high school!"
     "Yes.  I am still in high school."  It wasn't like she was going to
forget.  Not when everyone around kept reminding her.
     "Exactly."  He checked his watch.  "I've got to get to work.  Beth and I
have a spec sheet to revamp.  I'll see you later, and remember: you're not
to leave the house unless it's absolutely necessary."
     "I know how being grounded works, Tom."  Too bad it wasn't a school day;
at least then she would get to see her friends.
     Throughout her life, Megan had heard people say that life wasn't fair,
and now she could confirm it for herself.  Her role in saving Arorua from
destruction was at least as important as Jen's, but did _she_ get a hero's
reception and a trip to Interstellar University?  No!  She got house arrest
and a lecture about not endangering herself.  The fact that everything
worked out for the best, they said, did not justify her actions.  Bah.
     If someone else had come out of the affair worse than her, Megan did not
want to hear about it.

                                   *   *   *

"I've been assigned to assist Prince Lotekh in a goodwill tour of the outer
systems and some of the neighboring states."
     "Wow.  You must have really screwed up."  Captain-General Tvanir had a
look of sympathy normally reserved for people about to have their limbs
amputated, but Mselt could see the corners of her mouth twitching with
suppressed laughter.
     "We lost Arorua, Alpha Ra, and the EDIT.  I suppose that counts as a
royal screw-up."  He didn't put any particular emphasis on 'royal', but
Tvanir seemed to catch his meaning.
     Lotekh.  Central Command had stuck him with the mad prince for the
forseeable future.  He had hoped that Lotekh's insistence of being in charge
would shield him from the disaster's fallout, but Central Command had seen
right through that.  Kvasha himself had reprimanded him for letting things
get so far out of hand.  In a way, Tvanir was lucky to be so seriously
wounded before things got as bad as they did.  Mselt wasn't about to tell
her that.  Losing an eye was not something you could turn around and joke
about.
     "Well," Tvanir said, "at least you're working."
     "They haven't reassigned you?"  That was a surprise.  Even with the
stain of Arorua on her record, Tvanir was enough of a legend that Central
Command couldn't just fire her.  They might put her in command of an
occupying force on a remote, boring planet, perhaps, but they couldn't just
abandon her.
     "I've asked about it a few times, but they keep telling me I should
relax and get back my strength."  She hissed in frustration.  "I hate
bed-rest."
     "Yeah.  You spend all your time watching the vid-casts, and then when
you get out you're weak and flabby, and all the time..."  He trailed off,
feeling her eye boring into him.  "Aheh.  Sorry, no offense intended.  This
Lotekh thing has me all--"  He cut off more sharply this time, an
inexplicable dread gnawing at him.
     "What?"
     Mselt was starting to wonder if he had become paranoid.  His instincts
were screaming at him to flee, but he couldn't come up with a rational
reason why.  Then he noticed the faint sounds of talking in the distance and
realized what his subconscious was trying to warn him about.
     "What's wrong?  You look like you're ready to bolt."
     "Yeah, well, um, good luck getting a new assignment."  He dashed for the
door and scampered off, ignoring the nasty looks and shouted warnings from
the nurses he passed.  He had months of close proximity to the prince in his
future.  There was no need to start it just yet.

     Prince Lotekh dropped by Tvanir's hospital room moments later, looking
confused at finding her alone.  "I was told that Captain-General Mselt was
here," he said, eyeing the bed-ridden soldier with contempt.
     Tvanir decided not to be helpful.  "You just missed him."
     The prince frowned.  "There's a hunting party leaving soon to go after
the local giant dust-spiders.  I need another person for my group."
     "I'm afraid I'm busy."
     "_You_ were not invited."  He paused.  "Did you happen to see where
Mselt went when he left?"
     Ah.  Now that he had actually asked directly, she had to decide whether
to tell him.  It was pretty clear that Mselt would prefer she didn't.  She
considered what, if any, loyalty she owed the Third Fleet's commander.  "He
went that way," she said, gesturing.
     "Right.  If he comes back, tell him I'm looking for him."
     "I'll keep an eye out."
     Lotekh paused in the doorway, looking vaguely disquieted, but he quickly
recovered and headed off to continue his search.  Tvanir smirked and went
back to her book.  Perhaps Central Command would deign to speak to her soon.
She secretly suspected the delay was caused by a protracted search for a
worse post than Arorua.  At least they wouldn't send her out to find Rtali.
That job had already been given to Etvol, of all people.
     She laughed.  Like her mother had said, sometimes the misfortune of
others was all it took to chase the blues away.

                                   *   *   *


Chancellor Elahte stood in the Aroruan library, watching the sun rise.  He
wasn't usually one for rising before dawn, but this would be an important
day.  The last vestiges of the Zakavian occupation would be swept away, and
Prince Boltar would formally take command of the planet.  With him was
Bentor, who had assumed command of the rebellion after Princess Elim's
resignation.  Elahte had offered him and his subordinates positions in the
new government as a way of giving thanks and hopefully preventing future
uprisings.
     "It's hard to believe," Bentor said quietly.  "The Empire is gone and we
have a new ruler.  I never thought I'd see Boltar in charge of things here."
     Elahte had to admit that this was an unexpected turn of events for him,
as well.  He would have preferred Princess Elim as ruler, but he knew the
public would not approve.  The girl had shown an amazing ability to walk
right into scandals.
     "Do you think the Prince has the makings of a good ruler?" Bentor asked.
     Elahte chose his words carefully.  "With luck and a hard-working staff,
his reign will be peaceful and prosperous.  That should be good enough for
now."
     "And if not, we can always overthrow the government again."
     "I'd prefer to keep that to a minimum.  It upsets people."
     Bentor shrugged.  "As you like."  He glanced at his watch.  "When are
the space-men coming?"
     "The Terrans will be arriving around one o'clock."  Prince Boltar had
returned from the celebration on the _Anonymous_ a few days ago, but the
remainder of the Ampron Force had stayed on the ship to visit friends and
relatives and to pack for their stay on Arorua.  The need for packing was a
sore spot between him and Captain Harrison.  She wanted the _Anonymous_ to
stay in Arorua's orbit until they could train new members of the Ampron
Force, while Elahte didn't feel comfortable with a huge, powerful starship
hanging over his head.  Harrison eventually agreed to take the ship to one
of the outer planets and wait there while they decided where it would take
permanent residence.
     "Noon, huh?  You figure the Prince will be awake by then?"
     "He had better be.  We haven't been able to hold the rehearsal ceremony
yet."  Elahte had worked too hard to free his planet to have Prince Boltar
mess up some critical part of the ceremony and bring the wrath of the gods
down on Arorua.  Between the _Anonymous_ in orbit, the captured Zakavian
army on the ground, and the usual array of natural disasters, the gods would
have no trouble finding some way to smite them.
     And just to make things more fun, Boltar was still too young to
undertake the Challenge of Death and assume the full title of King, which
meant they would need to have _another_ coronation in a few years.  Assuming
he survived.  If not... well, perhaps they might try that "democracy" idea
that dark-clad alien had been talking about at the victory party.
     "You okay, Your Excellency?  You're shuddering."
     "Just thinking about the future."

                                   *   *   *

There was quite a crowd gathered to watch the coronation.  The cityfolk, who
had weathered more than their share of the ground conflict, were all there.
The nearby farmers had left their fields, and the inner ring of towns was
nearly depopulated as whole families rode their horses and ox carts and
sport utility vehicles into the city.  The criminal element would have had a
field day, except that it, too, was in attendance, honoring Prince Boltar
and celebrating the end of Zakavian rule with its cruelty, oppression, and
effective law enforcement.
     Nearer to the Plaza of Kings sat representatives from the outlying
towns, who had come from as far away as Asthenai on the southern continent
to witness the event.  Closest were those who had actively participated in
the resistance: the Aroruan People's League, the Ampron Force, and a
contingent from the _Anonymous_, who had arrived by shuttle a few hours
before.  At the temporary dais before the palace's ceremonial gates, were
the High Priest, representing the authority of the gods; Chancellor Elahte,
representing the authority of the state; and Captain Harrison, representing
the authority of a big-ass orbital cannon.
     The Ampron Force, being colleagues of the prince himself, had snagged
some good seats under a canopy.  Hydrospok and Stanford were engaging in
some sort of dominance struggle over who got to join them.  It seemed rather
silly to Roy, as the sun had nearly set.  By time-honored, mother-approved
tradition, the coronation was to be held at dusk, when the sun had set but
its light remained.  That meant Boltar needed to walk the length of the
royal road, from the edge of the city to the gates of the palace, before it
got so dark that the ceremony couldn't continue, so he had practiced doing
the royal stride very quickly.  He had discovered that it was very difficult
to appear casual while walking hastily.
     Beth leaned over and quietly said, "Are you sure about this?"
     Roy glanced at his older sister, puzzled.  "These seem like good seats.
We'll have an unobstructed view of the ceremony, the acoustics are good, and
the sun's almost down.  We're a little far from the concession stand, but--"
     Beth shook her head.  "I meant about going along with Orliss and Jen to
Interstellar University."
     "Oh."  They had discussed this before, the evening after he made the
decision, during the shuttle ride to Arorua, and after the pre-coronation
rite of Ultimate Frisbee.  Either Beth was having trouble accepting his
decision, or she _really_ wanted to make sure he was certain.  He had
already ruled out possible short-term memory problems.
     "You'll be breaking up Green Squadron, and you know they don't like
that.  Sally's been so upset since she heard, and, well, I've never heard
Rick quote Sophocles when he's happy."
     It was true.  Winters had always been Green Squadron's number one fan,
and breaking up the team was bound to distress her.  As for Hydrospok, well,
he had been very depressed after reading _Antigone_ in high school, and it
seemed to have made an impression on him.  As always, he expressed it in
weird ways.
     "They'll find someone else," Roy said at last.  "I'm not irreplaceable.
It won't be the same, I guess, but I'm not going to pass this up.  It's my
chance to see the universe, meet new people, learn new things, to boldly go
and, y'know, do different stuff."
     "And you'll be with Jen."
     "Yes, she'll be there."  He paused.  "Not that I'd abandon my friends
and go off on a mad quest just so I could follow some girl."
     Beth gasped, her eyes wide.  "I'm sorry, Roy.  I don't want to imply
that you would."
     "It's all right."
     The sun had set, which meant Boltar would be arriving in a few moments.
Roy looked around the crowd.  Stanford had evidently beaten Hydrospok and
was smugly sitting with the Ampron Force under the canopy.  The rest of
Black Squadron, sitting just outside, looked less-than-thrilled by their
leader's victory.  Hydrospok and the rest of Green Squadron were sitting a
short distance away, waiting for Boltar.  As if she could feel him watching,
Winters turned to face Roy and glowered.  He quickly averted his gaze.
     He could see Anme and Horlun nearby, acting all cutesy-poo lovey-dovey
in their cool, detached, vaguely-beatnik sort of way.  Next to them, Orliss
looked like he would prefer not to be sitting so close.  On his other side
were the Kadars.  Jen was dividing her attention between the walk of honor
and Orliss, while Tom eyed the student hero with flat suspicion.  Megan
looked happier than Roy had seen her since the end of the battle, and had
found, bought, or stolen some Aroruan clothes that were probably quite
fashionable, judging by what the Aroruans themselves were wearing.  That,
and the way people kept asking her what part of Arorua she was from.
     The cheers from the visitors standing along the royal road were getting
closer.  Soon, Roy could see the prince himself.  Boltar was walking as fast
as he could while wearing heavy ceremonial garb and maintaining an air of
casual authority.  He looked like someone in a film being played too fast.
     Boltar reached the dais without tripping, a good omen, and the High
Priest said a few words to run down the clock.  At the reception afterwards,
they all agreed it was a memorable and inspiring speech, although none of
them could quite recall what had been said.  There followed a few minutes of
impenetrable ceremony involving the Holy Harmonica of Astola and the
mystifying Cube of Rubyx that had much of the audience squinting at their
programs to see if any of it was explained.  Roy didn't bother.  He had
looked through it earlier, when the light was still strong enough to read
by.
     Finally, Boltar swore to uphold to state and was presented with a
circlet representing the full crown that would be bestowed on him after he
came of age.  Posthumously, if the Challenge of Death went poorly.  As the
last hints of blue faded from the sky, the High Priest turned to the crowd
and presented their new leader.  Backlit by an array of torches behind the
dias, Boltar stepped forward, looked to the crowd, and declared that a new
day had dawned for Arorua.
     The crowd let out a good, long cheer in response, while Boltar called up
the winner of the Dance With The Prince lottery so they could do the
traditional coronation jitterbug.  Roy smiled, getting into the spirit of
things as the masses clapped to the beat.  He took a second to glance at the
sky, and saw that the first stars had appeared.  Beth noticed and pointed
out the _Anonymous_, which had just passed out of Arorua's shadow and into
the light.  Roy waved.
     A new day indeed.



                          (SFSTORY: It Won't Go Away)

-- 
David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)    |  "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.personal.psu.edu/dmm264/  |        of thermodynamics!"
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