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Aeroquest… Canto 33

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Canto 33 – Dance of the Two Spiders

      Naylund Smith was dressed in a formal silk jacket with an embroidered Japanese-style phoenix raising its wings across the chest and turning to flaming ashes on the back.  A white chord ran down the left leg of the blue silk pants and ended in an embroidered white spider, the first time Ged was to see the White Spider’s personal logo on anything.

Ged couldn’t help but admire the strong-looking, erect posture of this amazing man.  He wore a gold earring in his left ear; his head was shaved and hairless except for white eyebrows, a white bun at the very back of the head, and a white goatee.  The man’s iron-gray eyes glared like the stare of an eagle.  Only the golden walking stick hinted at any weakness in the man, and he never seemed to lean upon it.

“The web of space is locked in an ever-expanding spiral dance,” said Naylund as ceremonial armor was strapped to Ged’s arms and chest.  “The spiders that move from strand to strand are merely a counterpoint to the great dancing flow of the web itself.  When spiders contend for space on the web, then the dance reaches its most violent and most beautiful point.  I cannot help you with the next few steps of the dance.  The prophecy says that you will be victorious, but no prophecy is ever absolute unless it can be proven to come from God himself.”

“You sound like I am about to have some kind of duel,” said Ged cautiously.  “I thought this was just a welcoming ceremony.”

“It is that.  It is also deadly serious.”

Little Ham Aero Junior was brought to Ged dressed in a milk-white kimono, and an embroidered white spider picked out in light blue covered the heart.  The female attendants left him with Ged.

“I am to stand with you, Ged-sensei,” the boy said.

“Did Frieda teach you to speak so well?” Ged asked the little Nebulon.

“No.  I learned your language long ago by telepathy.”

“Why didn’t you ever teach it to your mother?”

“She hardly ever spoke to me.  I was nothing but a reminder to her of the shame of her servitude.”

“I’m so sorry for you, Junior.”

“Don’t be.  Now I belong to you and you belong to me.  I will stand at your side and die rather than leave you.”

“A very handsome and noble child,” said Naylund.  “He deserves to be treated well by you, Ged.”

“Don’t worry, Naylund-sensei.  I am learning to love my nephew too.”  Ged smiled at Junior.

Naylund motioned to Ged to leave the tent where he had been dressed in armor.  He was now done up in the armor of a Japanese daimyo or feudal lord, a samurai.  He had everything but the demon mask on him.

As Ged, Naylund and Junior stepped out into the arena, 40,000 people cheered.  Ged was stunned to see so many people.  Being a spacer meant being alone more often than with other people.  He’d never in his life been with so many at once.

“Behold!  The so-called White Spider,” said a man across from Ged in the arena.  He gestured with a silver katana sword to Ged and his two companions.  “What do you say that I test this gaijin?  Do you really believe he is the white spider?”

The crowd roared that they did believe.

“Well, we shall see,” said the man, drawing his katana in front of him.

“He will now try to kill you, Ged,” said Naylund.  “If he succeeds, he will kill the boy and me as well.”

“But, wait!” said Ged.  “I am unarmed!”  He sounded panicky.

“According to prophecy,” said Naylund, “that’s not supposed to be a problem.”

“I am the Black Spider,” shouted the man.  Ged noticed his black silk robes bore a red spider-symbol on the chest.  “I will kill you now, Ged Aero!”

The man charged at Ged with lightning speed.  He was obviously martial-arts trained, and knew precisely what to do.  Ged tried to dodge, but the katana came down on his right shoulder in a perfect arc.  Ged’s right arm was neatly severed at the shoulder.

The crowd gasped.  Ged fell to his knees gasping also.  Junior tried to run to him, but Naylund grabbed him and firmly held him.

“Patience, little one.  Ged must pass this test himself.”

Ged’s mind swirled, but fixed on an image from his mind implanted there when Tara helped him return to his rightful form.  His inner eye sharpened and fixed the image with crystal clarity.  Immediately the arm grew back into place.  The crowd was silent with shock.

“So!” said the Black Spider.  “You are a magician!  It will help you not!  I have killed many magicians before you.”

Ged didn’t bother to listen.  Power was surging through him.  He could feel the rightness of each shape as it came to him.

“Tara?” said Junior, amazed at what he saw.  Ged had changed first into the lithe figure of Tara Salongi so that the bulky clothing and armor would fall away.  Then, as the nude female Ged stepped free of the binding clothing, he was already turning into the fearsome raptor dinosaur from Don’t Go Here.

“Try this!” cried the Black Spider as he leaped onto Ged’s scaly back and tried to sever the saurian head.  Ged’s clawed foot nimbly came up and swept the attacker off, as easily as a horse knocks flies off his flanks with a twitching tail.  The other clawed foot found the Black Spider as he hit the ground, the wicked hook slicing into the flesh of his stomach.

The Black Spider wobbled to his feet again, defiant and angry.  His intestines began to droop out of his wound. “Good trick, spider, but I’m not beaten yet!”

Even as the Black Spider was bragging, Ged remembered one other beast he had been forced to kill and eat.  He morphed almost immediately into a Samothracian Shadowcat, one of the most difficult creatures he had ever hunted.  On the colorful planet of Samothrace, with its many xeno-flowers, shadowcats had developed the ability to change color so masterfully; they could practically disappear from view.  As soon as the first paw touched the sand of the arena floor, Ged shimmered and disappeared.

“What?  Where…?” cried the Black Spider, swinging his sword wildly.  Attacks battered him from three sides.  Ged it seemed, had turned into the wind.  It looked like puffs of air were slashing the Black Spider; until finally, the sword fell from his hand and the Black Spider fell dead and thoroughly bloodied.  Ged remained invisible so as not to disgust the crowd as he replenished himself by feeding on the flesh of the enemy.  He also ate his own severed arm before he finally reappeared in his own form.

Naked, he quickly dressed in the samurai armor once again, though not bothering with the many straps and ties.  The crowd was utterly silent, which left Ged wondering what it meant.

Shen Ming approached solemnly, holding two sheathed swords in his hands.

“You have done well, my son.  Take your swords of office.”

Ged humbly received the swords from Shen-sensei.  He bowed.  There was a beautiful silver katana with a white ivory pommel and a smaller golden wakizashi with a blue woven pommel.  The crowd now began to cheer riotously.

“I have defeated the Black Spider?” asked Ged of Naylund.

“You have defeated the first of many Black Spiders, Ged-sama.  We will never be at a loss for villains.”

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Aeroquest… Nocturne 2

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Nocturne 2 – Treading New Pathways

Ham and the Madonna were given separate rooms in the inn, yet, somehow, she was in his bed the next morning, head pillowed on his bare shoulder.

“No, now wait…” he muttered as he stretched awake.  “I didn’t drink like poor Sinbadh.  I know what didn’t happen in the night!”

The Nebulon woman stirred and opened her sapphire eyes.  She smiled as she looked at Ham.  She was nude under the single sheet.  She was powerfully attractive.

“You and I need to talk about this,” said Ham.  “I’m a single guy.  You can’t be throwing temptation in my way every day like this.  Do you understand me?”

“Frieda teached me your speaking.  I know what you say.”

“But do you know what I mean?”

“You saved me.  You own me now.”

“Trav saved you.  You belong to Goofy.”

“He does not want me.  I offer.  He refuse.  I now pick man I love and I offer me to you.”

Ham started to say no.  Still, he had to admit, she was beautiful, and he was powerfully attracted to her.  He had to make her understand, though.  If he was going to get romantic, it wouldn’t be with a concubine.  It wasn’t that he meant to reject her; just that he didn’t want her to be that.  She would have to understand.  Love was complicated, and he’d never felt that way before.

A knock came at the door.  Ham nervously jumped into his pants and shirt, motioning for the Madonna to hide in the fresher.  She didn’t move or seem to care.

“Who is it?” Ham called.

“Let me in, old Jester.  I know about the girl.  We just need to talk.”

Goofy!  Ham didn’t care much to talk to that trouble-making clown, but he knew there wasn’t much choice.  Besides, Trav had freed the Nebulon Princess.  Maybe he still thought he had some say in her affairs.

“The door is open.”

Trav Dalgoda and the Duke of Coventry came in together.  The Duke raised an eyebrow as he saw the Madonna in the bed.

“It’s not what it looks like,” said Ham, furiously blushing.

“It’s not our business,” said Duke Ferrari.

“Yes,” said Ham, “well… What is your business?”

“I need to pursue the alliance Tron Blastarr is promoting.  Count Nefaria has removed me from Imperial politics.  If I am going to help my planet and my people, I have to return there and make the government secede from the Imperium.”

“So, why are you telling me?”

Trav lifted his bogus eye-patch and stared at Ham with two brown eyes.  “You’re a pilot, Ham.  You have your own ship.”

“You want me to take you to Coventry?”

“And possibly beyond,” said Duke Ferrari.

“Why would I be doing this?” asked Ham.

“For the good of your planet.  And because it’s the right thing to do.”

“And, also,” said Trav, “I may know where to find another ancient artifact.  I read through Nefaria’s cargo manifests.  He had something Ancient shipped to a warehouse he owns on Dancer.  That planet is right on our way.”

“The water world?”

“Yeah.  The pirate planet owned by Razor Conn and the Black Hawk Corsairs.”

“You won’t mind if I replace you with another engineer, Goofy?  You’re getting kind of independent of me and Ged again.”

“Oh, I might start my own crew if I can get a hold of the right starship… and find a good pilot.  I might even go back to working for old Jester Tron.”

“We have an agreement, then?” asked Duke Ferrari, offering a hand for Ham to shake.

“I’m a sucker for that it’s-the-right-thing-to-do argument.  Ged taught me to be like that,” Ham admitted.  “I also like a good adventure now and then.  Though I have to tell you, it’ll be going the opposite direction from the one I promised Ged I would go.  I hate to disappoint my brother.”

The Madonna sat up on the bed and hugged Ham around his middle.  The covering fell away.  Goofy and Ham both blushed.  “I go too.  I not want you dead.  I need you.”

Ham looked at the Duke.  Duke Ferrari was smiling wickedly.  Ham stuttered, “So… ah… Duke, can dukes perform marriage ceremonies?”

“Yes, Mr. Aero.  I will include it as a small part of the fee for your services.”

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Aeroquest… Canto 32

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Canto 32 – The Palace of a 1,000 Years

    The city of Kiro, Gaijin was a heavily populated place.  The city was full of high-rise pagoda towers and Kyoto-style castles.  Dominating the skyline was the huge obsidian sculpture of a Black Cat atop the Temple of the Four Pillars of the Secret Way.  Naylund Smith explained it all to Ged Aero as they made their way through the ornate city.

Ged and Dr. Smith were accompanied by the two children and Xavier Tkriashav.  All the newcomers were overwhelmed by what they saw.

“This place is more beautiful than anything I ever saw in my visions,” said Tkriashav.

“Do I understand correctly that you are the Master Telepath and Psion?” asked Naylund Smith.

“Yes.  I am a powerful telepath, teleport, and clairvoyant.  I am not the most powerful of my people, however.”

“Perhaps,” said Dr. Smith, “but you figure prominently in the Prophecy of Shan.”

“If that is a book, I’d like to see it,” said Tkriashav.

“In time.  It is a holy book to these people.”

All around the small group, silk-robed people had been gathering to watch as if the five people were a circus parade.  Many shouted “White Spider!” as if prayers had been at long last answered.

“Can you tell me why I am supposed to be this White Spider?” asked Ged as he took long strides to hurry past lemon-yellow-skinned admirers.

“It is destiny.”  Naylund smiled and nodded his head indulgently.  “The web of outer space has brought you to us to pick up the threads woven by the last White Spider.  The last spider wove this world and its society.  You have come to link it to other webs and expand this world.”

“You talk a lot of poetic nonsense.”  Ged looked away at the sky.

“Poetic nonsense is also sometimes Truth,” said Dr. Smith.  “I will help you to learn that in time.”

Finally, they came to a beautiful castle made of white stone and Gaijinese Teak wood, inlaid with bright blue sapphires.  It appeared to have been their destination all along.

“This,” said Dr. Smith, “is the Palace of a Thousand Years.  It is your new home.”

“We will live here?” asked Junior.

Dr. Smith looked at the blue boy.  “It is the palace belonging to Shen Ming.  It is the traditional home of the White Spider.  It is the place where the last White Spider, Shan Sasaki once lived and worked.”

“Do you expect me to give up space travel?” asked Ged.  “It’s the only life I’ve ever really known.”

“It will be part of the life you will lead as the White Spider.  It is the work you are expected to do for us.”

“Hmm.”  Ged stared up at the curved roofs of the Palace of One Thousand Years.

Naylund Smith led the way into the palace through a large wooden gate.  Inside they came into a courtyard that bustled with activity as if it were a small town all by itself.  The courtyard had an ornate Tori-i arch that marked the center of the great building.  There were practice yards there where groups of children under the care of a schoolmaster were learning martial arts, probably karate.  There was a large oriental garden for quiet contemplation inside the palace, as well as the entrance into a riding stable filled with two-legged llama-like mammals called kians.

Naylund pointed out the two master towers where the instructors lived.  There was a massive central building which Naylund called the Akito House.  It contained the vast White Spider library, a place that had almost as many bound volumes of books as books on computer memory crystals.  Finally he pointed out Shen Ming’s Hall, which, he informed them, was the White Spider’s official residence.

They entered Shen Ming’s Hall through a double door that proved to lead to a huge indoor bathing pool.  Naked yellow men, women, and numerous children were all bathing there.  Junior Aero would’ve blushed if his skin hadn’t been blue.  Ged’s skin turned crimson.

Up a marble stair, they came into the Administrator’s Hall, and a large, stately office.  Behind the desk was Shen Ming himself, looking spry for a man of nine hundred years.  He was bald as a cue ball and looked like a wrinkled Alfred E. Newman.

“Honored Shen-sensei,” began Dr. Smith.  “I bring before you Ged Aero.  He is…”

“I know, Naylund-sama, I know.  He is the new White Spider.  I would know him anywhere!  He is just as Shan-dono described him in the Prophecy.”

The silk-clad ancient moved swiftly out from behind the desk and took Ged’s hand.  He placed it on his own hairless head.

“I pledge to you all that I have, White Spider,” Shen Ming said in tones of awe.  “I will serve you all of my remaining days.”

Ged couldn’t begin to speak.  The place and the situation filled him up.  Tears welled up in his eyes.

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Aeroquest… Canto 31

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Canto 31 – Gaijin

      In Japanese the name Gaijin means “foreigner” or “gringo”.  It denotes a barbarian who is too close to nature to truly ever understand the ways of the celestial culture of the dragons.  It was an appropriate name for the planet.  All who came there, even the dolphins and whales, were foreigners and off-worlders.  The true culture was a secret deeply embedded in the planet itself.

Dr. Naylund Smith was an immortal.  He had lived on 17th Century Earth and been among the first explorers to leave the planet in space craft stolen from the invading Tellerons.  He had met the original Sylvani, and loved them as a people.  He used his vast knowledge and medical skill to help them evolve into the people they were now.  He and his young daughter, Sara, were standing outside the Celestial City of Kiro as the spacecraft Megadeath touched down on the plains outside the Dragon Wall.  They watched the sleek war machine settle gracefully to the soil where no starship had been for nearly 800 years.  It was with a mixture of emotions that he watched it.  He knew that the ship carried what his daughter needed most.  He also knew that it would bring an end to the peace and unspoiled beauty of the world of Gaijin.

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“Daddy, are they bad men?” asked eight-year-old Sara.  Her blond hair fell golden and beautiful over one eye.  Her little-girl body was nearly lost in the graceful white silk kimono she wore.

“No, Sweet One.  They are good.”

“Why are you so sad, then?”

“Because they bring the White Spider back to us.  Things will change here.  The Gaijin I love will be no more.”

“The White Spider from the stories?  That should be exciting, shouldn’t it?”

“Perhaps.”

The little girl put her soft hand into the gnarled old turkey claw that was Naylund’s hand.  He was comforted by the gesture.

The starship touched down in sight of the Dragon Gate.  The town was surrounded by an ornately carved wall that was shaped like a dragon’s body.  The only entrance was through the Dragon Gate, the open mouth of an ornately carved Celestial Dragon.  The city was secured behind the energy barrier created by the Sylvani Technology in the wall itself.  Naylund would have to escort whoever was inside the space ship through the Dragon Gate, because he did not wish them to run afoul of either the Gate Guards or the ancient energies of the wall itself.  Only those with proper chi, like himself, could pass through unchallenged.

He walked out to meet them.

The first down the starship’s exit ramp was obviously an Earther by heritage.  His skin was pink like Naylund and Sarah’s skin, not yellow or orange like the Gaijinese.  The boy that followed the man in the fedora hat, though, was a Nebulon, blue-skinned and yellow-haired.  The boy looked Naylund directly in the eye, and revealed himself as a telepath by doing so.  Naylund was not a Psion himself, but had come to know them because Sarah was a telepath, born of a Psion mother who died mysteriously during the birth.

“So,” said Naylund, extending a hand in a gesture of welcome, “welcome to the planet, Gaijin, Honored White Spider.”

“Why do you call me that?” asked the sharp-eyed man in the fedora hat.  “I am Ged Aero.  I am here because a Psion told me to come.  I don’t know you.  Why do you call me by that name that I’ve been hearing so much lately?”

“I hate to be the one to break it to you, Ged Aero, but by stepping out of that starship, you have fulfilled an 800-year-old prophecy.  The people here will hail you as a god reborn.  You are like Jesus Christ to them.  You are here to teach them, and lead them out of their millennium of isolation.”

“Perhaps you are mistaken.  What if I am not the White Spider you seek?”

Naylund laughed.  “Shan’s Prophecy tells how you would speak those very words when you arrived here.  The people would not follow a White Spider that never doubted himself and acted without reserve.  Those are the qualities of a Black Spider.  We have too many of them all ready.”

Ged looked the old man in the eye.  Naylund could see something there he had never seen before.  This man was a different sort of Psion.  He was a changer, one who could change himself, and by doing so, change the worlds around him.

“Exactly who are you, old man?” asked Ged.

“I am Naylund-sensei.  Naylund Charles Smith, Doctor, Adventurer, and Scholar.  I am from Earth, but from long, long ago.  Ged-kun, I will help you in your new role as leader of this planet.   I pray that you will learn to love it as I do.”

“Naylund-sensei?” said the little blue boy, “who is this lovely girl?”

Naylund looked at the bright-eyed boy.  He was a handsome child with the beautiful powder-blue skin of a superior race of beings.  Naylund felt attraction to him immediately, though he had no idea yet why.

“This is my daughter, Sara Smith.  I pray that you both will learn to love her too, just as I do.”

 

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Aeroquest… Adagio 7

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Adagio 7 – The Planet of the White Spider

      The planet Gaijin would prove to be the closest thing to home for Ged Aero since he and his brother left the planet Questor.  It was a singularly beautiful world.  A water world orbiting the star known as the Old Yellow Man.  It had sixteen continents all roughly the size of India on old Earth.  The ample oceans of the world teamed with sea life.  Like many places where the Ancients left their imprint, there was a substantial population of Cetaceans; dolphins, porpoises, and whales that were genetically identical to those of Earth.  The most common form, the Emerald Dolphins, had a language and a sort of non-tool-using culture based on the sharing of stories, songs, religion, and poetry.  They interacted with the native humanoids very little.  It is a shame that the dolphins didn’t care to be the dominant life form on the planet.  Their way of life was far less disease-like and virulent than the that of the eventual dominators.

The Gaijinese were themselves an artificially melded race.  They once had been purely a race called the Sylvani, inhabitants of the star lanes since before the memory of any living race.  They had been willowy humanoids with long, silky white hair and lemon yellow skin.  They were very intelligent and relatively long-lived, reaching ages of 500 Earth years and up.   Such racial goodness is supposed to be a star marked on the celestial score-card of existence. They had, however, run afoul of another pre-Earther space-faring race called the Tellerons.  The Tellerons of the planet Telleri were green-skinned amphibian humanoids, hairless, and possessing a single shark-like fin sprouting from the apex of their skulls.  They would do their best to undo Sylvani goodness.  The Tellerons had conquered and enslaved the gentle Sylvani before they met the first Earthers in space.  It is probable that most of the Telleron technology that Earthers stole in turn in order to become a space-faring race was originally created by the noble Sylvani.  The Tellerons, however, used the technology to colonize and conquer rather than study other worlds.  It seemed only fair in the long run that they would be displaced from their dominance of the Orion Spur by the combination of the primate Earthers and the reptilian Galtorrians who were both worse and more violently ruthless.

When humans conquered the star lanes held by the Telleron Star Empire, the suddenly freed Sylvani disappeared from known space.  On the idyllic world of Gaijin, Japanese Earthers and Sylvani met and fell in love with each other’s complex and poetic cultures developed separately.  The dually settled world of Gaijin eventually evolved into one culture made of equal parts of both.  Because the two races were entirely compatible, the people themselves changed from two races into only one.  They became very Japanese-ritual-oriented and very yellow in color.

So it was when Ged Aero dropped out of interstellar space into the unspoiled star system of the Old Yellow Man, he found a complex and peaceful world that had long awaited his coming to reach outward for greatness.

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Aeroquest… Canto 30

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Canto 27 – Worlds of the White Spider

      It is said that life in space exists on a spider’s web of invisible star lanes.  A photon drive can propel a starship only through certain well-defined mathematical probability arrays to a new location in geometrically-and-gravitically-folded space.  They work basically by popping in and out of reality, though you can only precisely describe the physics of it in mathematical terms.  So, of course, there are those who claim that if space is filled with spider webs, then God himself must be the Great Spider who spins it all.

The Megadeath roared into orbit around the bright blue planet that filled the life zone of a star listed on the charts as The Old Yellow Man.  It had been identified as a habitable system before, but no one had dared to come this far beyond the Imperial Borders to colonize before.  At least, no one these spacers knew about.

“This is a spectacular world,” said Vince Niell.

“Yeah, man,” said Nikki Sixx.  “Like a toatally gnarly hammertime world!”

“Wha…?” answered Cold Death.

Ged chuckled at the verbal density of his crew.  You have to be happy with the pick of the litter if the dog pound only has mutts.

“What do your sensors pick up, Cold?” Tkriashav asked Cold Death.

“Wha…?” the white-skinned bone man responded.

“Your instrument panel, you thick…” grumbled Ged.

“Oh,” Death said.  “Signal from the third moon of the big gas planet, man.  Like, ancient dudes put a scout base there.  Dead zone, dude.  No life.”

“Other signs of civilization?” asked Tkriashav.

“Stellar observatory in the third orbit.  Also dead zone.  One moon around this planet.  None around the planet in the first orbit.  Also dead zones, dude.”

“What about the planet below us?” asked Ged, beginning to grow impatient with the brain-dead zombie stoner at the sensor panel.  “Are there people or signs of civilization on this planet?”

“Whoa… Like two billion people.  Not human, man.  Humanoid, but definitely not human.”  Cold death shook his green Mohawk hair-do like a horse shakes flies off its mane.  He was definitely not human either.

“Vince?  Do you think you can land safely?” asked Ged.

“Yeah, boss man.  I can put her down on a dime.  I’ve never had such a sweet girl under my control before.  Yeah, baby!”

Ged ground a frustrated fist into his temple.  He knew there was something important about this mission because of Tkriashav’s damnable clairvoyance, but he felt he needed to know what.  Was it something for his own good?  Or something for the greater good that would mean sacrificing his own life?  He wanted to be able to make those choices himself.

“Cold Death?  I’m gonna hate myself for having to ask this, but do you find any signs of a starport down there?”

“Wha…?”

“A landing field!  A flat patch!  A place to put down where we don’t go CRASH!  BOOM! And blow up!”

“Oh, yeah, man.  Major city with walls, flat all around, dude.  Gnarly!”

“You see it, Vince?” asked Ged.

“I’m swoopin’, Daddy-o!”

“Ugh!  What does that mean?”

Ged looked at Xavier Tkriashav.  Tkriashav merely shrugged.

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Aeroquest… Canto 29


Aeroquest banner xCanto 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.”

“Oh.”

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.

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