There were many things about Arorua that bothered Captain-General Tvanir. The spinelessness of the people, for instance. Or the non-automatic doors in the palace. Forgetting and walking into one of them was embarrassing. At the moment, however, they seemed less important than the aspect of Arorua than unnerved Tvanir the most: the night. It wasn’t that she was afraid of what might happen in the night—even the militant Aroruan rebels weren’t that threatening—it was just that night on Arorua was so dark. Hadn’t these people heard of streetlights? For someone raised on one of the urban worlds of the Blargol Conglomerate, the idea that the center of a city could be so dark was absurd.

Finally, she made it to the palace. She paused to catch her breath; she wasn’t used to running, but simply walking away from the rebels, even rebels as inept as the Aroruan People’s League, wasn’t something she felt safe doing. Once she was ready, she walked into the lit area before the gates to the palace, where two of her soldiers stood, guarding the door. Regulations called for six at the minimum, but her superiors had decided that was overkill on Arorua and had transferred her excess troops to fight elsewhere in the Empire.

“Halt,” the lead soldier said as he, or perhaps she (it was hard to tell in that armor, although women were rare in the Zakavian Imperial Military Aggregate), noticed her. “Who goes there?”

“Captain-General Tvanir,” Tvanir announced. “I’d like to go inside now.”

“Captain-General Tvanir vanished mysteriously,” the other soldier replied. “How do we know you’re really you, and not a clone or a robot or something?”

“I’ve got ID,” Tvanir said, fumbling for her wallet.

“All right,” the first soldier admitted, “but what if they stuck cyborg parts inside your body so you’ll look normal, but when the truth is discovered you’ll shed your Blargoloid skin and shoot out robotic tentacles that strangle people?”

The second solder shuddered. “I hate it when that happens.”

“‘Cyborg parts’?” Tvanir asked, raising an eyebrow. “Like they’ve got access to that kind of technology. Look, how about you let me in and I don’t have you transferred to Planet Gloom?”

“Well…,” the guards said, uncertainly.

“Are you mind-controlled?” the first guard asked.

“No,” Tvanir replied.

“Man, nothing ever happens around here.”

“Just let me in, okay? I’ve got to talk to Governor Jjana.”

“Jjana?” the first guard asked. “He’s dead.”

Tvanir blinked. “Dead? What happened?”

“Prince Lotekh said he had betrayed the Empire and then had you killed, so Lotekh killed him,” the guard explained.

“So … Lotekh’s in charge?”

The guards nodded.

“Then … I need to speak with him.”

The guards shrugged, and opened the gate. Tvanir walked inside, acting much calmer than she felt. She hadn’t counted on Lotekh being so … impulsive. If she warned him about the rebels’ plan, he’d probably have the entire planet destroyed, which would pretty much kill her career. Before acting, she would need to know if this “Ampron” was real or not. Hopefully, Princess Elim was still alive, and feeling talkative.

Starcruiser Anonymous

(A Tale Within Sfstory)

Episode 12
Wherein Orliss and Bob
Discuss Strategy

Dave Menendez

Roy Gaelen, member of the Anonymous’s Green fighter squadron and one of five people pretending to be reporters for the alleged magazine Conqueror’s Quarterly, watched Orliss SoFah, his colleague and theoretically the leader of the group, pace angrily around the living room of the suite that had been assigned to them. Like Orliss, he was still somewhat disturbed by the idea that the Zakavian Empire, which had abducted his friends in the Blue Squadron and, hence, was pretty low on the list of organizations he trusted, had its hands on a weapon as powerful as the EDIT was alleged to be. On the other hand, he was more concerned that they hadn’t found any information about the Blue Squadron or Megan Kadar, the youngest member of their group, who was also missing. Of course, she hadn’t been gone very long, but Roy was still worried. She was too young to be wandering alone around a hostile fortress like this one. He watched Orliss pace for a bit, sighed, and wondered if he should go join Horlun and Anme, who were in another room hiding their nervousness by watching unpredictable Zakavian sitcoms.

Before he could make the decision, the door opened and an armored Zakavian soldier walked in. At least, that was Roy’s first impression, although he revised it when he noted that the “soldier” wasn’t wearing a helmet and had the head of Megan Kadar attached to its neck. “Megan?” Roy asked. “Where’d you get the armor?”

“They left a store room unlocked,” Megan replied. “I figured, ‘Why not?’” She smiled. “I found someone you should meet.”

Megan moved away from the door, allowing the person behind her to enter. Roy idly noticed it was a reptilian alien in a trenchcoat, but his attention was drawn to the woman that entered last. “Jen!” he cried, leaping from his chair and rushing over. “It’s good to see you again!”

“It’s good to see you too,” Jen Kadar replied, looking a bit surprised by his reaction. He noted she was wearing an unfamiliar uniform, but decided to ask about it later.

“Are the others here as well?” he asked instead.

“I’m afraid not,” she said sadly. “I think they were going to Arorua. I was … accidentally left behind.”

“Who is your friend?” Orliss asked, looking at the trenchcoated alien.

“He’s called Bob,” Jen answered.

“It’s a code name,” Bob explained, seeing the look on Orliss’s face. “I’m here because the Zakavian Empire has built a very powerful weapon, which they must not be allowed to use.”

“The EDIT,” Orliss surmised, referring to the Mexican-food-based “ultimate weapon” that Emperor Vakaz had shown them recently. “Yes, clearly villains such as these should not have such power.” He turned to Roy. “I will get the others while you get reacquainted with your friend.”

“Right,” Roy replied. Turning to the others, he gestured at the dinner table. “I think we’ve got enough seats for everyone over there.”

“We should move as quickly as possible,” Bob cautioned. “And Jen and I have already eaten dinner.”

“So have we,” Roy replied, “but I assume we’ll want to do some planning before we go assault a ten-kilometer tortilla. I know I would.”

“Assault a what?” asked Megan, who had not been present when the others were shown the EDIT.

“Later,” Bob said. “Let’s sit down for now.”

Fortunately, the table had eight seats, which was enough for the seven of them (“Plus one for Elijah,” Roy quipped, prompting confused looks from the others). After everyone was introduced, Horlun began by asking the obvious question. “So, ‘Bob’, who are you and why are you working to stop the Zakavians?”

Bob remained quiet for a few moments, then answered. “Since I’ll be asking you to risk your lives, I suppose I should tell you the truth.” He grinned. “Or something fairly close to the truth, anyway.”

“‘A Space Hero does not lie—at least, not directly’,” Orliss quoted from one of his classes at Interstellar University.

Bob grinned again. “Ah, but I’m not a hero. I work for the Interstellar Security Organization. We’re sort of like an organized mercenary or bounty hunter group. We get paid to hunt down criminals, provide security, help old ladies cross the street—the usual.”

“Why would they pay for your services when they could get a hero’s for free?” Orliss asked.

“We’re usually easier to find: we’ve got a central headquarters and all that. Anyway, I’m getting paid to make sure the Zakavians don’t go around blowing up planets. A few years ago, right before the OmniDean attacked Time Central, there was a disturbing number of planets suddenly exploding, and we’re all eager to avoid another episode of that.

“I started helping Jen because I thought we could both use a helping hand. As long as we’re all on the same side, we might as well help each other.”

“I’m no so sure working with a bounty hunter is such a good idea,” Orliss said, distastefully.

“Does it matter why he’s on our side?” Jen asked. “Can’t you just accept help when it’s offered?”

Orliss sighed. “Very well, we will accept your help,” he conceded. “I have come up with a simple plan which I think could work. Would you like to hear it?”

“Certainly,” replied Bob.

“Here’s what we do: we sneak on board the EDIT, and then we disable it.”

No one spoke for a few seconds.

“It’s simple all right,” Megan commented, breaking the silence.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Orliss replied.

“Perhaps we could come up with something more detailed,” Bob suggested.

“I thought we were in a hurry,” Jen protested.

“Well, that was back when there were only two of us,” Bob replied. “With seven, we can afford to take our time a bit more—especially since one of us can pass for Zakavian.” He and the others looked at Megan, who was still wearing her “borrowed” Zakavian combat armor.

“I don’t like where this is headed,” Megan commented.

“…In other news, a petition signed by almost ten thousand civilians, crewmembers, and household pets was recently sent to Captain Harrison requesting that she return the Anonymous to the Solar system. A spokesperson for the petition committee stated that sending the starship on which all our lives depend into a potential war zone is an unreasonably risky act, and demanded that the Captain clear any such actions with an elected board of civilians. The command staff has declined to comment….”

The throne room in the Aroruan Palace hadn’t been used much since the sudden, unexplained death of King Gisp during the Zakavian invasion. His heir, Princess Elim, had never been allowed to use it, since her family no longer ruled, and his successor, Governor Jjana, had preferred to rule from his office. But now Jjana was dead, and Prince Lotekh had declared himself to be in charge, since he didn’t have the authority to appoint a successor. Lotekh, of course, had immediately taken over the throne room and ordered the palace staff to find some furniture that wasn’t so boring.

As far as the guard standing outside the throne room knew, they hadn’t found any. Captain-General Tvanir thanked him for the information, and prepared herself to enter. She wished she had had time to change into a fresh uniform, but it wouldn’t do to keep Lotekh waiting. “Okay,” she said, deciding there was no more she could do, “open the door.” The guard grinned and opened the door. Tvanir nodded and walked inside. As expected, Lotekh was sitting on the throne, although he had made some attempt to make it more impressive by stacking some telephone books underneath the legs. She ignored Captain-General Mselt, who was standing behind and to the left of the throne, mostly out of spite. She wasn’t too pleased that he commanded one of the Empire’s six main fleets while she, despite having been a Captain-General longer, was stuck with the Incredible Shrinking Army on a backwater world. He’d probably make Captain-Commander before her, too.

“Captain-General Tvanir,” Lotekh said, noticing her entrance. “We were told you were captured by the rebellion.”

“I managed to escape, your Highness,” Tvanir told him. “I may also have learned some important information about their plans, but I would like a chance to confirm some details, if that’s all right.”

“That seems fine to me,” Lotekh said. “I’d hate to think I was acting on unconfirmed speculation.”

Mselt coughed, prompting a suspicious look from Lotekh. “Excuse me, your Highness” he said, “something in my throat.”

“I see,” Lotekh replied, turning back to Tvanir. “Do you have anything to add, Captain-General?” he asked.

“Yes, your Highness. I recommend keeping a close watch on Chancellor Elahte, should he return to the palace.” She paused. “I should probably get going, to confirm those suspicions.”

“I’ll go with you,” Mselt said, abruptly.

“Good idea,” Lotekh agreed.

Inwardly, Tvanir swore. Her plans had backfired again, and she’d probably end up sharing credit with Mselt for any discoveries she made. “Yes,” she said, drawing on deep reserves of false sincerity that she had stored up for such an occasion, “it’s a great idea. If your Highness will excuse us?”

Lotekh did so, and the two military officers turned and left. Some days, Tvanir thought, it just didn’t pay to get up in the morning.

Elsewhere in the palace, Chancellor Elahte and the Ampron Force were busy sneaking through the halls as they made their way towards the Royal Shrine, where the holy artifacts of Arorua were stored. Fortunately, the cutbacks in the Aroruan Occupation Legion meant there weren’t enough soldiers to guard the entire palace, and the lower levels that contained the shrine were among those left mostly unguarded.

“Is it much farther?” asked Thomas Dent.

“Quiet,” hissed Samantha Dixon in response, “or do you want the Zakavians to notice we’re here and give us complementary vital-organ piercings?”

“Why would they do that? Aren’t we their enemy?” asked Alex McCurry.

“Shut up, McCurry,” replied Dent, secretly pleased at a chance to use his catch phrase.

Elahte held up a hand, quieting their somewhat pointless conversation. “We’re almost there. I have no idea if they’re guarding the shrine anymore: the old government did, because we kept some important things in there, but they aren’t things the Zakavians are likely to care about.”

“Like what?” asked Roger Vasta, who was co-leading the mission. He hadn’t been too happy about that, until the others had reminded him that he didn’t know anything about the layout of the palace.

“The Holy Harmonica of Astola, for instance,” Elahte answered. He turned to face Dent. “Please don’t shoot anything unless it’s shooting at us. There are many delicate things in the shrine.”

“Whatever,” replied Dent, hiding his disappointment behind a mask of boredom.

“I’ll go first,” Elahte said, “to see if there are any guards.” Vasta nodded, and Elahte moved forward, to where he could see the entrance and the others could see him. “It’s clear,” he said.

The others walked up to join him and the six rebels entered the Royal Shrine.

“Ooo,” McCurry commented, looking around. “Nifty place you got here.”

“We like it,” Prince Boltar replied.

Elahte moved to an alcove, where he retrieved four small devices. “I’ve got them,” he announced. “Here you go,” he said, handing McCurry, Dent, Boltar, and Dixon the saffron, crimson, ebony, and teal keys, respectively. “These will allow us to access four of the Penguins—we still lack the navy key, which gives access to the main Penguin, but even these four should be enough while we search for it.”

“We’d better get going,” said Vasta, who was keeping watch by the door. “I think we…,” he paused, holding up a hand. “I hear voices: someone’s coming.”

“Blast!” said Dent. “We were so close!”

Dixon, who was looking at the readout on her key, frowned. “Closer than you think, Dent,” she said. “According to this, there’s something pretty close in that direction.” She gestured at a wall with her key. In response, a panel on the wall opened, revealing a dark, mysterious staircase.

“That’s handy,” commented McCurry.

Vasta moved towards the others. “As I see it,” he said. “We can either take the dark, mysterious staircase over there, or we can stay and possibly fight whoever it is coming down the hall.”

“I vote for the stairs,” said Elahte.

“Right,” Vasta said. At his gesture, the six rebels headed into the unknown. The door closed behind them, and the same thought crossed all their minds: they had forgotten flashlights.

Tvanir and Mselt walked into the Royal Shrine. As usual, it was empty. “Hey,” Mselt said suddenly, “did you just hear something?”

“Like six people saying ‘D’oh’?” Tvanir asked.


Tvanir shrugged. “Every time I come down here, something weird happens. Don’t worry about it.”

Mselt looked around. He hadn’t been on Arorua long enough to explore the palace, and so he had never been in the shrine before. It didn’t seem that special, really, although the small altar to Microtron, Goddess of Giant Robots, caught his eye. “Why do you come here?” he asked.

“It’s quiet,” Tvanir replied. “People rarely come here … and there’s no security measures here.”

“What?” Mselt asked. “Why not?”

“Religious reasons,” Tvanir answered. “Anyway, I brought you here so we can discuss what I’ve learned without Lotekh finding out and doing something impulsive.”

“Good idea.”

“From what I heard, Elahte is working with the rebellion now. He plans to sneak into the palace and steal four ‘keys’ that will activate four segments of some legendary robot called Ampron and….” she trailed off, looking at an alcove on the wall.

“What?” Mselt asked, looking at the alcove and not seeing anything.

“There were four odd devices in that alcove, last time I was here” Tvanir answered. “Four of them. That can’t be a coincidence.”

“Needlewarp!” Mselt swore. “That means they’ve already been here. We’d better sound the alarm.”

“Alarm?” Tvanir laughed. “There is no alarm. This is Arorua: we’re lucky to have central heating.”

“Well, then we’d better … um …,” Mselt trailed off, as he realized he had no idea what to do. “I assume we won’t be mentioning this to Lotekh,” he said finally.

“How long is this staircase, anyway?” Dent complained.

As usual, no one answered. For the most part, this was because everyone was tired of Dent asking that, and hoped he’d stop asking when he realized no one was paying attention to him. Of course, there was also the fact that none of the six rebels knew the answer. Even Elahte, who had lived in the palace for years as he did the administrative work for several successive administrations, had never known this staircase existed. Despite that, he had made an educated guess about where they were headed.

“Ow,” commented Vasta. “I think we’re there.”

“How can you tell?” asked Boltar.

“I found the door.”

“You’ll have more luck if you open them before you walk through them,” Dixon reminded him.

Vasta didn’t answer, deciding to spend his energy looking for a doorknob. Eventually, he discovered something. “There doesn’t seem to be a doorknob,” he announced.

“Great,” Dixon replied. “We’re trapped in a dark staircase between the Zakavian Empire and a locked door.” She turned to where she thought Dent was and poked at him. “This is all your fault, you know. They were planning to send Gold Squadron out to test the QuiteLarge cannon, but no, you thought it would be a fun change of pace….”

“Like I could have forseen this,” Dent snorted. “I say we head back up the stairs and blast anyone we see.”

“If I may attempt an alternate plan?” Elahte asked.

“Go right ahead,” Vasta told him.

Rather than answer, Elahte took a deep breath, prepared himself for the inevitable embarrassment of failure, and clapped his hands twice.

The door slid open, filling the staircase with bright, painful light. The Ampron force quickly shut their eyes, and let out a sigh of relief. When they felt ready, they opened their eyes, and looked into the room beyond the door. As one, they closed their eyes and opened them again, but the room failed to transform into something more reasonable. Unlike most of the Aroruan Palace, this room was ultra-high-tech, assuming you define ‘ultra-high-tech’ as “made primarily out of chrome”. Every available surface that wasn’t already being used as a door, window, or monitor was metallic and covered with a random pattern intended to suggest that it concealed vast amounts of technological marvels. Even the floor and ceiling seemed to be hiding complex machinery of the future. It was, to put it briefly, incredibly dated. The ultra-high-tech look had been unfashionable on the galactic scene for decades now. Of course, the four Terrans didn’t know this, since they had spent the last few years on a starship that made this room look fairly new (of course, the Anonymous had been built by a far more advanced race, making discussions of relative age virtually pointless—not that that’s ever stopped us before). Elahte and Boltar also didn’t know this, since they lived on Arorua, which had fallen so far behind current fashions that they were in danger of being lapped.

“Aha,” Elahte said, recovering first. “The Command Room.”

“We have a command room?” Boltar wondered. “Cool!”

“If I’m not mistaken,” Elahte continued, “we should be able to access the Penguins from here.”

The Ampron force entered the Command Room, Elahte stopping to close the door by clapping twice at it again. McCurry headed towards one of the windows, wondering why they had bothered putting them in an underground bunker. Once there, he noted that they opened into a hangar of sorts, which was done in the same style as the Command Room itself. “Gosh,” he breathed, “they must have used all the planet’s chrome just on this complex.” Then he noticed five small high-speed trains leading into tunnels along one of the hangar’s walls. “Hey,” he said, a bit louder, “I think I know how we’re getting to the Penguins.”

Does he know?

Or is it just a desperate plea for attention?

Will Tvanir and Mselt tell Lotekh what’s going on?

What is Bob planning?

How come Orliss and Bob didn’t actually discuss strategy that much, despite what it said in the episode title?

Dunno. But maybe the episode title will be more relevant when giant penguins attack the Zakavians in the next gear-shifting episode of Starcruiser Anonymous.

SFSTORY: It Takes a Licking, and Keeps On Ticking