Starcruiser Anonymous

(A Tale Within Sfstory)

Episode 17
Wherein the Empire
Strikes Back

Dave Menendez

There was a flash of off-white light, abruptly increasing the Zakavian Third Fleet’s size by one ship. Captain-General Mselt, who just happened to be on his flagship’s bridge at the time, smiled. At long last, Alpha Ra had arrived. Thanking his lucky stars that Prince Lotekh wasn’t also on the bridge, sparing everyone a long, incoherent speech, he quickly signalled Captain-General Tvanir to begin the plans. The rebels on Arorua were about to learn just who they were dealing with.

Tvanir, of course, was asleep when the signal came. However, once she had finished trying to find the snooze button on the Subcommander who had informed her of the signal, she was able to adjust quickly, ordering her command team to meet her in the newly-constructed communications shed.

“Gentlemen,” she said once they had all arrived, “the time we’ve all been waiting for has arrived.”

“We’re leaving?” asked Captain Kvirot, the eagerness to get off Arorua shining in his youthful eyes.

Tvanir sighed, pushing a stray strand of black hair from her eyes. (One of the privileges of high rank and a remote assignment was the ability to ignore regulations regarding hair length.) “In a sense. We are leaving the Mountains of Tallness, but we’re headed for Capital City. You’ll be moving out in an hour.”

“Won’t you be coming with us?” rumbled Captain Avotkesh.

Tvanir grinned, as if she was looking forward to something. “I have a different fight ahead of me.”

The Aroruan palace was quiet that night, which was not uncommon, as Aroruans tended to go to bed at sunset, since most of them had no artificial lighting. The palace, however, was equipped with such luxuries, allowing Roger Vasta to sit up late in the library, pondering the rather odd turn his life had taken in the last few weeks. Just a short time ago, he and his squadron had been living a fairly stable life on the Anonymous, and now four of them were charged with piloting a giant robot to defend a planet against interstellar invaders. As for their fifth member, he had no idea where she was. Probably still on Planet Gloom; possibly even doing well. Jen Kadar had always been the best of them at adapting to the unexpected.

He noticed a rhythmic sound, like a rubber ball repeatedly hitting a wooden paddle. Turning, he saw Prince Boltar walk over to Samantha Dixon, who was staying up late to ponder dark thoughts. “Good evening,” Boltar said to her in greeting.

“What do you mean?” Dixon asked absently, still staring out the window.

Boltar blinked in confusion. He stood, evidently deep in thought, for a few moments, still paddling. “I’m not sure,” he said eventually. “It’s just something you say.”

“But what does it mean? We only exist for such a brief period, it seems a shame to squander that time going around saying things and not even knowing what they mean.”

“True,” Boltar admitted, “but it is a good evening, isn’t it? Just look at the stars.”

Dixon shrugged. “They’re nice. It’s good to know that, as long as I’m trapped here, defending this primitive planet from vast alien armies by piloting an ancient robot of unknown design, I’ll at least have some pretty stars to look at.”

“Yeah,” Boltar agreed, evidently taking her statement at face value. It occurred to Vasta that with the Zakavians out of power and Princess Elim either a guest or a prisoner of the Third Fleet, depending on what side she was really on, Boltar was the legal ruler of the planet. He made a mental note to discuss that with Chancellor Elahte.

There were others awake that night as well. Most of them weren’t too pleased about it. “I hate this,” commented one of them, who evidently fell into the displeased category. “It’s well past the time any decent person would be in bed. Why do we have to stay awake?”

“Because the Zakavians know everybody’s asleep at this hour,” his companion answered. “Therefore, if they attacked now, no one would notice until it was too late to repel them.”

“Ah, but you are forgetting the four Giant Penguins, with which our forces were easily able to defeat the Zakavians in the last battle. Surely, they could be used again to repel any threat of invasion.”

“True, but the actual repelling would no doubt involve property damage the likes of which you or I could not imagine. Thus, we are out here to make sure that—” he stopped suddenly.


“Did you hear something just now?”

“I heard you talking, but then you stopped and I heard only silence.”

“You can’t hear silence. By definition, silence is the absence of sound. You can’t hear what isn’t there to be heard.”

“While that is true from a technical standpoint, I was using ‘silence’ in the sense of— Did you hear that?”

“What? I heard you say ‘that’.”

“No. I thought I heard a footstep outside.”

They listened for a few moments. For a few moments, they could only hear themselves breathing. Then: a crash, a muffled “Ouch!”, and a few angry cries of “Shh!”

“I believe something is happening outside,” the first guard observed.

The door to their guard post suddenly burst open, and six Zakavian soldiers stormed in, their gray combat armor rustling softly.

“Indeed,” the second guard agreed, stealthily pressing the “Alert!” button.

Within ten minutes of the alarm going off, the Ampron Force and Chancellor Elahte had gathered in the palace’s ultra-high-tech command room. It would have been five minutes, except for some minor trouble opening the secret passage that lead to the command room.

“Our fears have come to pass,” Elahte opened, once they were all settled.

“A giant spider attack?” McCurry asked, sounding worried.

“Er… no. The Zakavians have begun a ground assault.”

“Thank goodness,” McCurry sighed.

“Shut up, McCurry,” Dent advised.

“They’re still a good distance away,” Vasta said, continuing the explanation. “Dixon, Dent, and Boltar will go out and stop them. McCurry, you’ll stay here and defend the City, in case this is a bluff.”

“What about you?” Dixon asked.

Vasta shrugged. “I guess I’ll start looking for the navy key again. Any questions?”

Four hands shot up.

“Relevant questions?” Vasta clarified.

The hands were lowered.

“Then get started, the Zakavians are advancing even as we speak.”

Dent, Dixon, McCurry, and Boltar sprinted into the hangar, leapt into their transports, and were soon hurtling towards their Penguins. Elahte and Vasta, meanwhile, headed upstairs to the shrine to see if the navy key was hidden in an as-yet-undiscovered alcove somewhere.

One of the late Governor Jjana’s several public works projects was the small network of underground tunnels that connected the Aroruan palace with a few secret locations. Originally, they had been built to provide an escape route in the case of a revolt, but the Zakavians were quickly convinced that a revolt was rather unlikely. Jjana decided to continue the project, reasoning that the tunnels could provide electricity to the people of Capital City without requiring ugly above-ground cables. Tvanir had opposed this plan, feeling that other objectives, like paving the streets, should have higher priority. Now, however, she was glad that Jjana had overruled her, as the tunnels provided the perfect route for an elite band of commandos to sneak into the palace unseen.

“We’ve reached the palace entrance,” announced the team leader. “It appears to be locked.”

Tvanir nodded, moving forward towards the door. “Let’s see if my access codes still work,” she said. Her decision to accompany the strike force had surprised her command staff, but she had overruled their objections by reminding them that she was in charge and they were not. It was, she knew, a rash move. An act of senseless bravado. A stab in the dark. A pig in a blanket. Three coins in a fountain. But she didn’t care.

“Be careful, sir,” the Sergeant warned, “it may be a trap.”

Tvanir snorted. “I doubt the Aroruans would even think of that—assuming they knew about this entrance, which they don’t”. She tried her code. The door failed to open. “Odd,” she remarked, “they shouldn’t be able to change the codes.”

“Your passcard, sir?” the Sergeant suggested.

Tvanir blinked. “Right, thank you.” A few solders chuckled; she ignored them while she tried the code again, this time remembering to swipe her passcard through the reader. The members of her strike force had also been uncertain about her decision to join them, concerned that yet another clueless officer was trying to gain personal fame and glory by entering personal combat. However, Tvanir had transferred to ZIMA:Command after several years in the Ground forces, where she had been the only female to earn membership in the elite Order of Blargol. Once informed of this fact, the strike team had mostly accepted her as one of their own.

The door slowly opened. “Whoo-hoo!” one of the commandoes cheered, “we’re in!”

A short distance beyond the door sat several members of the Aroruan People’s League, who looked about as surprised as the Zakavian strike team at the unexpected meeting. The Zakavians, being skilled professionals, quickly began to attack while the Aroruans, being mostly volunteer amateurs, engaged in a equally quick strategic withdrawal.

As her commandoes surged inward around her, Tvanir smiled behind the opaque visor of her gray armor. Now it was only a matter of time before she could implement her revenge.

Outside the palace, Alex McCurry sat in the control module of the Saffron Penguin, waiting. Had the penguin possessed the appropriate range of movement, it would have mimicked his bored posture. He wasn’t exactly upset about his assignment to guard Capital City—he much preferred it to actually confronting the attacking force—but that didn’t make it any more interesting. After a few moments standing outside city limits and making sure that any hypothetical enemy forces in the area weren’t making a nuisance of themselves, he had started looking for a solitaire game in the Penguin’s computers. He was so involved in this search his first clue that the situation had changed was the proximity alarm.

“Waah!” he cried as the alarm went off, startling him. “What’s going on?” Glancing about the various displays, he discovered that something large was entering the area from … above? Curious, he looked up, his Penguin mirroring his actions, and saw what appeared to be a mid-size starship hovering over Capital City.

McCurry quickly decided that an unknown starship hovering over Capital City could probably be counted as a hostile force, which made it his responsibility to handle. The Saffron Penguin leapt into the air, headed towards the starship which, unexpectedly, backed off. While McCurry tried to figure out that strategy, the ship began reconfiguring. Before McCurry could reach it, the ship was gone. In its place stood a giant robot, far larger than his Penguin.

“Surrender,” the robot advised, its public address system awakening any residents of the City who had managed to sleep through McCurry’s arrival and subsequent launch, “you will be unable to defeat Alpha Ra.” As if to demonstrate this statement, it fired a salvo of missiles in McCurry’s direction.

McCurry dodged easily, as he was still airborne, and tried to consider his options. Alpha Ra looked a lot more powerful than the Saffron Penguin, and it was considerably larger, so physical combat was out. He guessed that he had air superiority, as Alpha Ra had needed to land immediately after transforming, but his flight fuel reserves were already running low, and gliding wasn’t a viable option (penguins aren’t really designed for it).

The proximity alarm startled him again, noting that the missiles he had dodged were evidently guided, since they were once again aimed at him. Annoyed, he activated the anti-missile defenses, and went back to considering his options. Behind him, Alpha Ra’s missiles met a fine array of airborne gravel and exploded, raining hot metal shards on whatever Aroruans were still running around the streets instead of getting to shelter.

The fuel alert began to sound, reminding McCurry that he needed to get out of the air before he lacked the fuel to fly his Penguin back to its secret hiding place. Deciding he didn’t feel like wasting the momentum he’d built up, he prepared to transfer it to Alpha Ra through his Penguin’s feet.

Unfortunately, Alpha Ra’s crew saw this coming, and dodged, taking care to swipe at McCurry while he hurtled past.

The resulting hit threw the Penguin’s balance off, forcing it to land in a particularly undignified manner. It rolled a few times before coming to a stop. “Okay,” McCurry noted, “that wasn’t smart.” While he tried to get the Penguin back on its feet, he noted Alpha Ra coming closer.

McCurry decided to call for backup.

Thomas Dent was enjoying himself immensely. The Crimson Penguin he piloted was, without a doubt, the most entertaining weapon of mass destruction he’d ever gotten to play with. It was probably the most dangerous as well, although the QuiteLarge Cannon he had been testing before he suddenly became an interstellar traveler had an edge in sheer destructive capability. There was just something more satisfying in being able to stomp on your enemy. Or shoot arrays of missiles. He was pretty sure the Penguins’ beaks contained energy weapons as well. Pity they hadn’t found a manual yet.

The only problem now was that the enemy kept running away from him.

“Cowards!” he shouted, his voice further amplified by the speakers somewhere in the Penguin’s head. “Come back and fight!”

The Zakavians chose not to answer, not that Dent could have heard them if they had. Spitefully, Dent obliterated a nearby barn. Scanning, he couldn’t detect any motion in the area. He decided to join the others, in the hopes that they had more enemies to fight.

He had just launched into the air when McCurry made his distress call. A giant robot attacking the City? It certainly sounded more fun than attacking Zakavian infantry. “I’m already on my way,” he told McCurry.

“What?” Dixon demanded. “Wait for us!”

Dent ignored her.

From his post of relative safety atop the palace walls, Bentor watched the fight between the Saffron Penguin and Alpha Ra with a growing sense of fear and anger. It just wasn’t fair. He had managed to lead the Aroruan People’s League to the successful liberation of Arorua (with some help from the Ampron Force, and despite Princess Elim’s treachery), and now the Zakavians looked ready to take it back.

“Surrender,” Alpha Ra ordered again, “rebellion against the Empire will not be tolerated.”

The Saffron Penguin chose not to answer, instead firing some missiles at its opponent. They were quickly shot down.

Alpha Ra pointed its right hand at the Penguin, forming its fingers into a blade shape, and launched it. The hand/knife struck hard, and the Penguin staggered back.

Bentor turned to Garav, who was standing nearby. “Quickly,” he ordered, “go tell Elahte what’s happening. I think he’s in the shrine.”

Garav nodded and ran off.

A sudden explosion brought Boltar’s attention back to the battle. The Crimson Penguin had joined the fray. “Die, foul robot!” it shouted, standing near its fallen companion.

Alpha Ra calmly fired its left hand at the new arrival. The Crimson Penguin, however, was able to dodge in time. Unfortunately, it dodged right into the path of the right hand, which was on its way back.

With a crash, the Crimson Penguin joined its colleague on the ground.

“Needlewarp!” Bentor swore. This was hopeless. He turned to follow Garav, but was stopped when he heard more noises behind him. Turning back, he saw the Teal and Ebony Penguins arriving.

Dixon sighed, quickly assessing the situation at the City. It was so typical of Dent to run off like that without considering the consequences. Now he looked to be out of the picture, leaving her with Boltar. Planning a coordinated assault with Boltar wasn’t high on her list of fun things to do.

“Quit destroying Capital City!” Boltar ordered.

“Surrender, rebel,” Alpha Ra replied.

“Never, Imperial scum!” was Boltar’s predictable response.

Alpha Ra shrugged and fired yet another salvo of missiles, which quickly followed Boltar as he tried to fly away. Unfortunately, the missiles were faster, and the shields on the Ebony Penguin were rather weak. Damaged, it slammed into the ground just inside city limits.

Leaving Dixon alone.

“So much for a massed assault,” she muttered, as she brought her Penguin into a steep dive. Alpha Ra, anticipating this, dodged, and tried to throw the Teal Penguin to the ground. Dixon had forseen this, and altered her course slightly to avoid Alpha Ra’s reach. At the low point, she fired the railgun, sending a ten-foot spike into Alpha Ra’s chest.

The robot staggered back, giving Dixon time to gain altitude. She didn’t expect it to do much good. The only weapons she knew how to operate weren’t going to be enough to stop this thing, especially not by herself.

Alpha Ra fired both fists at her, which she easily dodged. Keeping an eye on them, she maneuvered around for another pass. The Teal Penguin’s beak might do some damage in a ramming attack. Unfortunately, Alpha Ra chose this moment to reveal another attack. Two powerful deathkill blasts shot out of its eyes, both hitting their target.

Dixon swore. Her shielding had been enough to protect her, but who knew how many attacks this thing had? She decided to play dead, to prevent further damage to her Penguin. As it made a surprisingly soft crash landing, she imagined she could hear the disappointed cries of the Aroruans as their last protector fell.

She hoped Vasta and Elahte found something fast.

“Find anything?” Vasta asked.

“Not in the last five seconds,” Elahte answered. “I’m beginning to suspect the navy key isn’t here at all.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Vasta protested, “the other four keys were here and the control room is accessed from here. Where else would you put it?”

Elahte shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe some past king gave it away. Maybe it was hidden inside the control room itself. Maybe there is no navy key and only the True Heir can activate the fifth Penguin.”

“I hope not. There’s no way we’ll get her in time.” Vasta looked around. They had searched every conceivable place several times. The shrine really only had two altars: the main one, where the relics were stored, and a smaller one dedicated to Microtron. Everything else was either small alcoves or simple wall decoration. He paused for a moment, closing his eyes; perhaps something would come to him if he stopped trying so hard.

He heard footsteps and a rustling sound. Someone shouted “Freeze!” He opened his eyes to see an armed Zakavian soldier standing in the doorway. He froze, wondering how the Zakavians had breached palace security. Were things really that bad outside?

Carefully, the Zakavian removed the armor’s helmet while managing to threaten them both with the gun. “Tvanir!” Elahte gasped, recognizing the face behind the armor.

“Greetings, traitor,” Tvanir replied with a predatorial grin. “It’s so good to see you again.”

Is it so good?

Does Elahte think it’s good to see Tvanir again?

Will they ever find the fifth key?

If so, will the Navy Penguin be defeated as easily as the others?

To find the answers, one must first understand the questions. Focus your mind and eliminate all distractions. When your soul is at peace, then you can begin your quest for knowledge. Alternately, you could check out the next episode.

SFSTORY: Don’t Leave Home Without It