Starcruiser Anonymous

(A Tale Within Sfstory)

Wherein Our Story

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.”


“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.


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)