Canto 29 – Games with Bread and Cheese
Ham and his little crew were taken to one of Oasis City’s finest inns. It was a quiet little place called The White Sands. The name was appropriate for the dry little desert world of White Palm. The inn had a cozy restaurant and pub attached. Having eaten Sinbadh’s stew, the crew of the Leaping Shadowcat opted for drinks. Ham ordered a Questorian Ale, while the Madonna found a Nebulonin Root Beer on the back of the menu, and Sinbadh ordered an infamous Pan Galactican Gargle-Blaster, not knowing what it was or how it cleaned out both your sinuses and your bowels.
“You are most welcome to anything on the menu,” said the fawning gray-plated metalloid waiter. “I understand it is all being paid for by Count Nefaria himself.”
“It is…?” Ham was stunned.
“Yes, by means of his new heir, Count Tron.”
Tron and a man with a handlebar moustache appeared from the back hallway. Tron nodded to Ham and came straight to the copperwood table where the three crewmen of the Leaping Shadowcat sat quaffing their various brews. Or, in Sinbadh’s case, quaffing, choking, and sneezing them.
“May we sit?” asked Tron.
“Who’s your friend?” asked Ham as innocently as he could muster.
“This is Han Ferrari, Duke of the planet Coventry. Duke, this is Ham Aero, the safari master and explorer I told you about.”
Duke Ferrari shook Ham’s hand firmly. “Ah, Mr. Aero. I’ve heard of your brother Ged. I understand he’s something of a crusader along the Imperial Rim.”
“Yes,” said Ham suspiciously. “What are you doing so far from home, your lordship?”
“Being rescued from kidnappers by Captain Tron, it would appear. I am also a leader of the militant opposition in the Galtorrian Imperial Court. Emperor Slythinus has apparently tried to do away with me by recruiting Count Nefaria to do his dirty work.”
“What are you here at my table for, Tron?” asked Ham nervously. “I know Goofy is probably dead by now. Will you take it out on me, too?”
“Now, Hamfast,” said Tron with a smile, “I bear you no ill will. Trav Dalgoda is fine. I have the Crown of Stars and the so-called Orb of Essence as well. I even now own the planet of White Palm. I couldn’t be happier.”
“The Galtorr Imperium won’t claim the planet for themselves now that Nefaria is dead or in prison?” asked Ham. Purple gargle-blaster ooze was leaking out of Sinbadh’s mouth and nose. His eyes were rolling back in his head and the Madonna was trying desperately to help him. Ham tried to concentrate on Tron and the Duke.
“I am declaring independence from the Imperium,” said Tron with a satisfied smile. “Arkin Cloudstalker and I will use our corsair fleets to defend this place. Let Admiral Tang try and retake it!”
“You’d take on the whole Imperial Fleet?”
“He won’t have to,” said Duke Ferrari. “The Imperium is tied up with both a border war with the Nebulons and another unification war with my planet and the planet Farwind. They can’t spare enough of the fleet to defeat two corsair fleets.”
“And I’ve seen your setup at Don’t Go Here,” said Tron. “You have a large ground-bound population depending on you and Ged for release into the stars. I know because I’ve added to it myself on occasion.”
“So, what’s your point?”
“Don’t try to hornswoggle me, boy. You are a nominal ruler of a high-population world beyond Imperial reach. I know you came here to kill me and rescue Goofy Dalgoda and win back the Crown of Stars, but you are in a position to commit your new planet to an alliance with my new planet. We can help each other.”
“You want to go into planetary government?”
“We can’t screw it up any worse than the Emperor and his cronies. And besides, I want to throw in with Duke Ferrari here and help his interplanetary civil war. I want to see an end to the Imperium. You know, pirate is just another word for freedom fighter in many ports.”
“And you expect me to go along with your plans because you know where to find our planet and you have all the forces you need to take it from me and my brother?”
“I expect you to talk it over with Ged Aero and have the two of you on my side. You both know it’s the right thing to do. I’m not the criminal you think I am. I know Ged sees things the way they really are. You tell him my plan and see if he doesn’t agree.”
“Ged went further into the unknown. I don’t know where he is or when he’ll be back. I only know he will meet me at Don’t Go Here sometime in the future.”
Tron’s sudden anger was all the uglier because of the scar he wore through one eye. He was about to start shouting when the Madonna diffused everything.
“We say with you, Tron. Nebulonin, human, cave men, all one side…”
“You have a pretty accent, Sweetness,” said Tron, calming down instantly, “but what the heck do you mean?”
“She says we agree,” said Ham. “You are right. I know Ged would want to help you. My planet and yours, then. Two new worlds in a new alliance. The only question is… what will we do next?”
Over ale and good, hot pretzels with cheese from Coventry, in front of a roaring hearth-fire, the fate of the Imperial Rim was altered once and for all time.