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Aeroquest… Canto 37

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Canto 37 – On To Dancer

      Arkin Cloudstalker was a natural-born starship captain, the way Ham Aero was a natural-born pilot.  Their abilities and sensibilities meshed in ways Ham had never thought possible.  Arkin took command of the mission without needing to be asked.  Aboard the Leaping Shadowcat Ham had always had the say, but since he retained the captain’s cabin, he had no trouble yielding command.  Arkin was berthed in Ged’s stateroom, a suitably Spartan and undecorated place.  Duke Ferrari took over the Madonna’s stateroom since she moved in with Ham as his wife.  The Duke was made Astrogator and Navigator since he knew the way to both Dancer, and Coventry beyond.  Sinbadh was relegated to ordinary crewman and cook.  Trav was still nominally the engineer.  The young Lupin, Sahleck Kim, was taken on as the cabin boy.  His job was to clean the air systems, wash the freshers, and generally swab the decks.

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The Shadowcat had two decks, an upper deck with the control pit and bridge, computer access room, six staterooms, and three storage lockers.  The lower deck had the trophy lounge in front, under the bridge, and two more staterooms.  It also had a skinning room, a galley, and two large capture tanks which hadn’t had a xenomorph in them since before reaching Don’t Go Here.

Duke Ferrari stood over the Astrogator’s holo-pit on the bridge, studying the route from White Palm to Dancer.  The jump would take them thirty hours over 16 parsecs and nearly exhaust all of the Shadowcat’s fuel.  “Who will take care of your corsair fleet, Cloudstalker, while you’re away?”

“They take care of themselves, Duke,” he answered from the Captain’s chair.  The chair itself had hardly been used the last ten years, since Ham always used the pilot’s seat.  “Besides, we’re allied with Tron Blastarr now.  There aren’t many pirates you can really trust, but I know my Lady Knights are safe with him.  He’s a good man underneath.”

“I sensed that too,” said the Duke.  He twirled the right end of his moustache between thumb and forefinger.  “I know he set me free and offered to help me, but beyond my desperation, I could sense that the man is a hero.”

“He’s a bit boring at times,” offered Trav.

“Explain what you mean to the nice gentlemen, Goofy,” warned Ham.  “They don’t understand your sense of humor.”

“Ach!  I’m just saying, Tron never takes advantage of opportunities the way a good pirate should.  That old jester just doesn’t have it in him to steal the way a pirate should.”

“Sir, I see why they call you Goofy,” said the Duke.  “You are something of a cad yourself.”

“We’ll see who’s goofy when we find the relic on Dancer!”

“Remember, sir,” warned Ferrari, “this is a critical diplomatic mission intended to forge a planetary union to fight against the Imperium.”

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten.  I will use what I gain from the ancient device to help fight the lizard-men of Galtorr.”
“That’s assuming you can get it out from under the nose of old Razor Conn,” laughed Arkin.  “He’s a corsair that knows how to hold onto something that’s valuable.”

“I’m not afraid of the old pirate,” said Trav.  “He’s just another spacesuit full of gas and hot air.”

Ham looked at Goofy hard.  The dumb nut was wearing a bright yellow tie with a screw and a baseball pictured on it.  It was little wonder Trav was willing to put both feet in his mouth at once.

“You will belay such talk, Mr. Dalgoda,” said Arkin.  “If I am to be captain here, then you must show respect to other spacers, especially the ones I most respect.”

“Yes sir, old Jester captain, sir!”  Trav saluted mockingly.

“What do we actually know about Dancer, Duke?” Arkin asked Ferrari.

“Well, Captain, it is a water world.  No land masses exist anywhere.  The limited civilization there dwells in undersea domes.  The Blackhawk Corsairs own and operate out of a domed city called Castle Orpheum.”

“Do we have an underwater vehicle aboard?” Arkin asked Ham.

“No sir, but the Shadowcat can travel underwater herself.  She’s air tight and streamlined.  We can scoop up water for fuel and just extract the hydrogen from it.”

“How cool is that!” said Trav.  “I bet this old girl is more rugged than any of your corsairs.”

“I have to hand it to you there, Mr. Dalgoda.  No White Sword or Pinwheel I ever saw could travel in space, air, and water too.”

Ham’s breast swelled at the unexpected compliment to his space ship.  Few realized how worthy a safari ship could be.  It was designed to get into and out of exotic environments with both the game and the game-hunters alive.  It had to be quite different from the run-of-the-mill space craft.

“I am hoping this mission goes smoothly,” said their new Captain.  “A lot is at stake here.  If we are going to make things work, we are going to have to be more tricky and adaptable than our enemies.  That means we have to out-think the likes of Admiral Tang and the Generals of the Galtorr Imperium.”

Ham nodded in silent agreement.  What he’d taken on was daunting, more daunting than merely jumping out into unknown space.

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Aeroquest… Nocturne 3

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Nocturne 3 – At the Community Bath

      Junior Aero was relaxing in the hot bathing pool in the Palace of One Thousand Years.  The concept of community baths was definitely new to him, but he had seen so many changes in his short life that he could get used to anything quickly.  The warm salty water felt good on muscles made to ache by Ged’s intense martial arts training.  His small body was not meant for such vigorous exercise.  Still, anything that Ged taught was the word of God to Junior Aero.  He needed Ged to believe that he was to be Ged’s faithful disciple.

Across the patterned mosaic tiles of blue and white walked young Sara Smith.  She came directly towards Junior wearing nothing more than a towel around her neck and a sweet, shy smile on her face.  She was lovely with golden-peach skin and brown eyes like a doe in the forest.

“Umm… uh… I’m naked here,” warned Junior.

“I know.  I’m naked too.”

“Aren’t you supposed to bathe somewhere else when I’m here?”

“No.  I came to bathe with you because I like you and want to get to know you.”

Her open-faced charm was irresistible.  Junior was still too young for this boy-girl bathing to be too dangerous.  He decided it would do no good to protest.

“I’m curious,” said Sara, “does a blue-skinned boy have a blue penis?  Stand up and let me see?”

Junior was astonished.  “Doesn’t anything embarrass you?”

“Why should it?  I’ve been bathing in public baths all my life.  I’m used to seeing humanoid bodies with no clothes on.  Besides, I like how your body looks.  I will probably marry you when we both get older.”

Junior shrugged.  He stood up in the knee-deep water and offered his hand to Sara Smith.  She took hold and drew herself up close to him.  Together they settled down in the warm water.

“What’s he like?  Your White Spider, I mean?”

Junior looked into Sara’s huge brown eyes.  “Ged?  He is a very good man.  He and his brother rescued my mother and me from slavery.  I was born a lowly slave, and he has always treated me as a member of his family, even though I am obviously not.  I will serve him all my life.”

“He sounds wonderful,” said Sara.  “My Daddy is like that too.  He’s an Immortal, you know.  He cannot die of old age and it would take a sudden and complete destruction to kill him.  He protects this world from evil, too.  I can’t think of a better man anywhere.”

“Does he treat you well?”

“Oh, he treasures me.  I have always been the most important thing in his life, at least, since I was born.”

“Do you have a mother?”

“No.  She died when I was born.  Daddy blames himself.  He thinks the disease that keeps him alive may have caused her to die.  That’s nonsense, though.  How can something like that help one person to live and kill another?”

“That’s very sad.  I still have my mother.  She doesn’t really love me, though.  My father was one of her slave owners.  She hates me for reminding her of her life as a slave.”

“Ooh, that’s even sadder!”  Sara kissed him on the cheek as she reached around him and began soaping his back.  “How could anyone not love you?”

“I never really thought about it,” Junior said.  He reached over and put soap on Sara’s neck.  His hands caressed her shoulder.  “I was worried about survival before.  Life was hard.  Now that I don’t have to worry about how to stay alive, I have Ged and you to love me.  I really don’t think about her much anymore.”

“That makes me happy to hear,” said Sara.  “You’re a telepath, aren’t you?”

“You can sense me the same as I can sense you,” said Junior matter-of-factly.  “You know what we both are.”

“Yes.  But I’ve never had another telepath to play with.  Have you ever thought about what you’d do if you met one?”

“No.  What do you mean?”

“I want to join minds with you.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.”

“You don’t want to?”

“I don’t know how.”

“I can show you.  You put your hands on my temples as I put mine on yours.”

Both children came together at that moment as only a pair of Psions ever could.  Two bright and beautiful minds flowed together and combined.  Together they could see not only into each other’s personal minds, but they could see the future, and the past before their births, together.  They could see a time when they would be man and wife.  They could see each other’s powers, Junior’s techno-telepathy, and Sara’s healing telepathy.  They saw their time as Ged’s students together and their time as teachers, and of course, much of the dark and troubled times ahead.  Someone else looking upon them at that moment would never truly be able to see the miracle of a naked boy and a naked girl holding each other tightly, mind to mind, in the bathhouse of the Palace of One Thousand Years.

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Aeroquest… Canto 36

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Canto 36 – Aerobase Frieda

      Frieda began to enjoy lots of company both from the planet Don’t Go Here and from the Imperium beyond.  Tron Blastarr had shared Frieda’s location as an open port to all his merchant and corsair friends.  Arkin Cloudstalker’s Lady Knights were frequent visitors and one of them, Tabitha Blue Arrow, opened an inn and entertainment center at the starport.  Don’t Go Here Downport began producing merchant ships of a superior kind designed by Frieda with no input from anyone else.  The controls were so high-tech and simple that even cave children from Don’t Go Here could fly them.

Frieda found herself entirely too limited with the spaceport as her only body.  She needed a more humanoid-friendly interface, and began work on a human-shaped robot body.  She scanned Tara Salongi as her model, but improved upon the design by making the body out of gleaming, chromium-alloy high tech metal with black adamant metal for the hair.  She made the body anatomically correct and even designed for herself modest black synth-leather attire.

It was during a high-activity business day that the Monopoly Brigade came to visit.  Fez Amin docked three Brigade Corsairs at the starport with a password that Frieda would later determine came from a tortured prisoner, a captured Pinwheel Corsair.

Trouble began at the administration desk at the center of Aerobase 1.  Fez Amin and two tattooed cohorts started an argument there with the Dion girl who was working the desk for the Salongi family.

“I don’t show any of my documents to a Scaly who isn’t even a Galtorrian,” said Ox, the Monopoly Brigade Lieutenant who wore snake tattoos all over his naked chest and arms.

“Yeah,” said Fez Amin.  “How does a low-level Scaly like you get such a job?  They must really be raking the bottom of the barrel at this world.”

The girl was a brown-skinned Dion.  She was as naked and as vulnerable as the day she hatched from her egg, but you really couldn’t tell by looking at her.  She could have been wearing a dino-skin swimsuit as far as her outward appearance went.  She had no hair, as with all Dions, male and female alike.  Her shapely brown tail switched nervously back and forth as she stared at the tattooed men before her.

“All right!  What’s the problem here?” asked Bam-Bam Salongi, approaching the desk.

“No problem, Alley Oop.  We just don’t want our papers examined by a Scaly witch like this one,” growled Ox.

Mustapha Aga, the third Brigade Commander, added, “She’s been staring at our human beauty with those ugly snake eyes of hers.”  He flexed a bicep with a tattoo of a woman on it.

“Let me see your documents,” said Bam-Bam coolly.

“Look at this,” said Mustapha Aga.  He pulled out a laser pistol and shot it.  Bam-Bam was wearing a leather administrator’s suit, more protection than his old Fredsuits would’ve afforded, but the ray burned right through his chest, killing him instantly.

The Dion girl began screaming.  Ox grabbed her and put a gun to her head.  Everyone in the spaceport office froze with fear and indecision.

Tara came storming into the room, livid with the offenses against her people, and shocked with the suddenness of her father’s death.  A spear of raging hatred lanced out of her mind and turned Aga’s brain into boiled peanut butter.  The tattooed pirate fell dead in writhing agony that lingered for ten minutes.

“Well, well.  Some of the cave people have some real fight in them.”  Fez Amin folded his arms and grinned at Tara, daring her to try the same on him.

“Let Taquira go, pirate!” Tara ordered.

“Make us,” said Amin, putting a booted foot on the back of Mustapha’s corpse.  “I dare you.”

Tara didn’t waste a heartbeat with her deep probe.  Most men would’ve crumbled before her powerful mental attack, but Fez Amin radiated a powerful mental shield.  He was not a telepath, but no stronger mind could be found among non-telepaths.  She tried to probe and take control of Ox instead, but he had some sort of metal plate in his head that reflected Psion energy.

“What do I have to do to make you release the girl and go away?” asked Tara.

“I like you,” said Amin.  “You have spunk.  Take the Scaly’s place and come with us.  Your life for hers.”

“You will leave this planet alone?”

“You have my word as a gentleman bandit.”

Frieda’s robot self had arrived in the office and stood looking at Amin with expressionless silver eyes.  “Don’t do it, Tara.  You are more valuable than the Dion.  I can destroy him and his ship if I don’t have to worry about you being on board.”

“My, my!  What a testy little toaster you are,” said Amin.  “Go away and leave this between the girl and me.”

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“If I assume I’m somehow superior to the rest of my people, then I am no better than he is,” said Tara.  She looked at Frieda with a hard set to her jaw.  “Tell Ged Aero that I love him, and I will come back to him as soon as I can.”

“How can I help you now?”

“Keep this world safe for me.  Don’t let any more creeps like this in if you can stop it.  Goodbye, Frieda!”

Tara dropped her guard and let Ox take her.  Taquira the Dion girl ran to Frieda as soon as Amin let her loose.  Tabitha had also shown up to see the end of the exchange.  She ran to the body of Bam-Bam Salongi and cradled his head in her lap.  Fez smiled like the fox that just ate the fattest hen in the coup.  He and Ox backed away toward their ships with their prize.

“I can ready my corsair and go after them, Frieda,” offered Tabitha Blue Arrow.

“We cannot put Mistress Tara’s life at risk,” said Frieda.  “Trust that the girl is clever and powerful enough to find her own means of escape.  I don’t believe we’ve seen the last of either one of those two people, the Princess or the Bastard.”

Taquira, the Dion girl, cried on Frieda’s cool metal shoulder.  Frieda petted her comfortingly with a metalloid hand.

 

 

 

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Aeroquest… Canto 35

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Canto 35 – Stardog Attack

      As the Megadeath popped out of jump into the Phoebus IV Star System, the crew was amazed to find a school of Lupin corsairs in an apparent feeding frenzy.  The old merchant vessel that they were attacking carried a Psion Empire logo.

“Vince!” cried Tkriashav, “Take us into attack mode!”

“Um… Yeah.”  Vince Niell locked on a nearby target and drove at it in flank speed.  “Cold Death!  You got weapon-duty, dude!”

“Wha…?”  Cold Death grabbed the controls for the rail guns in both shaky white hands.

“Vince, babe, we don’t know how to do this stuff!” cried Nikki Sixx.  “We never got this far in the space academy!”

“Oh, great!” swore Tkriashav.  He probed with his mind and locked onto the weak brainwaves of Cold Death.  He took control and aimed the weapons with Cold Death’s hands.

“Wha…?”  Cold Death popped three super-accelerated slugs through the hull of the nearest corsair.  The Stardog warrior spewed sparks, parts, and dying crewmen into space.

“<Who are you, friend?>” called the merchant ship in the Zaradese language.  “<We thank you for the help.>”

“<I am Tkriashav, returning home with great news!>”

“<You are a miracle, then!>”

The Megadeath was faster and more deadly than anything the Lupins had to fight back with.  Vince’s able piloting combined with the ship’s superior design to lay waste to sixteen of the clunkier Lupin vessels.  Finally the Lupins signaled surrender.

“Prepare to be boarded!” commanded Tkriashav to the Stardog flagship.

“Wha…?” said Cold Death.  “How we gonna do that?  There’s only four of us!”

“They don’t know that,” answered Tkriashav.  “Grab laser rifles and come with me.  We will all go across and accept their surrender.”

“Dude, I hope you know what you’re doing,” said Vince.

“I hope I do too,” said Tkriashav with a sardonic grin.

The boarding party took an air-raft, a small open-top anti-gravity vehicle, and made the crossing to the largest Stardog corsair.  The Lupin vessel was, of course, in a sorry state of disrepair.  These corsairs had all been used excessively with only a bare minimum of maintenance.  It was little wonder that the Megadeath, newest vessel in this part of space, could cut through the corsair ships like a hot knife through lukewarm cheese.  Xavier could count the scratches on the portal side and classify them as plasma burns, bullet holes, or near-miss collision marks.  It was amazing that Lupins could still get these ships to fly.

Inside the airlock, the crew removed their vacuum helmets and breathed the stink of Lupin-befouled air.  These space mongrels apparently knew little of the steward skills necessary to maintain shipboard environments.

“Welcome Psion Master,” said a red-furred Lupin female who appeared to be the Lupin leader.  “We surrender all our treasures and our ships to you.”

“That’s very generous,” said Tkriashav, “but what are your terms for surrender?”

“Unconditional, right?”  She looked at the five crewmen who accompanied her to the docking bay for support.  They all nodded vigorously.  “Yes, unconditional surrender.”

“Very well, then.  Follow us down to the planet.  We will put your people under the authority of the planet Zarane.”

“Okay,” said the unnaturally pleased Lupin leader.

“Why are you so darn agreeable?” asked Vince, giving voice to the unease that Tkriashav had hoped not to let slip.

“Oh, we need a new government,” said the Lupin Lady.  “Our homeworld has been overrun by Nebulon colonists.  There are so many Smurfs on Zaell right now that a Stardog can’t spit without messing one.”

“Nebulons?” asked Tkriashav.  “I thought they all lived in stars to the leading edge of the Orion Spur.  What are they doing trillions of miles from home?”

“Colonizing,” said the Lupin Lady.

“So why were you attacking a Psion merchant if you meant to ask us for sanctuary?”

“Bad habits, I guess.  We don’t mean to offend.  We even brought a Psion prisoner here to return him to his home.  We thought it would be a sign of good faith.”

“A Psion?” asked Xavier, “Who?  And where from?”

“He was living in a Psion colony overrun by Nebulons.  Mattey!  Produce the boy!”

A blond-haired, blue-eyed boy wearing a white cowboy hat and a white tunic was lead into the docking bay.  He smiled shyly as Tkriashav was pointed out to him.

“Are you a Psion, boy?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m a Pyro.  I can’t help it most of the time.  These Stardogs have been bringing me back to Zarane.”

“What’s your name, child?” asked Tkriashav.

“I am Rocket Rogers, sir.”

Tkriashav laughed.  “I suppose your father’s name was Buck?” he jested.

“Yes.  And my grandfather’s name was Will and my Uncle was Roy.  We were all Pyros.”

“What happened to your family?”

“All killed by pirates before the Nebulons tried to colonize our world.  The Monopoly Brigade wiped out Bradalanth Colony.  Stardogs found me in a raid just as the Nebulons were entering our solar system.”

“So they helped you?”

“Well, yes.  They helped me and looted what was left of our colony before the Nebulons got there.”

“All right, Stardogs,” said Tkriashav, raising both arms dramatically.  “I may not be the leader of the two Psion planets in this system, but I can promise you help and safe harbor.  I come bearing good news to the people of the Psion Empire.  The Prophecy of Xan is being fulfilled even as we speak.  A new White Spider has arisen!  A new realm is about to take shape!  You will be a part of that, Lupin and Psion alike!  Come with me to Zarane and we will make History!”

Both crews cheered, but being rather slow, neither crew probably fully understood what was being said.

 

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Aeroquest… Canto 34

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Canto 34 – Slinking Out of Paradise

      Gaijin is one of the most beautiful worlds in human space according to those humans who have visited enough of them to compare.  Its lush, tropical-sea environment is pleasant always and fully climate-controlled by old Sylvani technology.  It has far fewer cold places than an Earth-like world such as Talos III or Martin Faulkner’s Dream.  It has more resources than an ocean-world like Dancer or Design where no land masses are present.  And its greatest features are the people themselves.  They are disciplined by the Bushido code, and beautified by the natural Sylvani grace.  It was no surprise, then, that Vince Niell and the crew of the Megadeath did not want to leave.

     “I have to go to at least three other worlds,” argued Xavier Tkriashav.  “I have important missions to complete.  You have the only available spaceship on the planet.”

     “Dude, like, we don’t got no orders from Ged boss-man,” said Vince Niell.  “This ship is his.”

     “Ged is very busy now.  I am his friend and agent.  I tell you, I have important things to do for Ged Aero!”

     “And we tell you, Psion Dude, that we don’t go to space for nobody but Ged Aero.”

     Xavier smiled.  “Can you call him and ask?”

     “Dude, we have commo units on board.  Did he take a walkie-talkie or a commo dot?”

     “No.”

     “Then ain’t no way we’re gonna move from this spot.”

     Tkriashav looked at the stubborn rock-and-roll starship pilot.  He saw only two angry reflections of himself looking back from Vince’s mirrored sunglasses.  The hippie freak had started wearing a pair of red Moko-bird feathers in his hair as if he were some kind of Native American.

     “I am going to go and disturb Ged now, and get him to write a note to let me use this starship while he is training to be Gaijin’s new White Spider.”

     “Sounds good to me, Daddy-o.”

     Fuming, the turbaned Psion stalked back into the city, making his way swiftly through crowded streets to the Palace of One Thousand Years.

     Ged was on the practice field with Junior, teaching martial arts.

 

     “You were impressive in the arena,” Tkriashav said when Ged acknowledged his presence.  “Tell me, how is it you already know the martial arts they teach here?”

     “It’s not something I’m proud of, but I absorbed it by eating the flesh of the man they called the Black Spider.  I inherited the ability to alter myself into the patterns of his finely trained muscles.  Muscle memory is the key to absorbing the skill.  Just like the instincts I’ve absorbed from animals I’ve eaten.”

     “Did you actually eat one of those invisible cat things?”

     “It was during an episode of survival training on the planet Samothrace when I was young.  I guess I had my powers even then, though I didn’t know it until the last few years.”

     “It’s that kind of knowledge I need you to pass on to other Psions, Ged.  Do you mind if I use your starship to round up a couple of students for you?”

     “I would be honored to serve,” said Ged with a bow.  “Teaching seems to come naturally too, though I don’t ever remember eating a teacher.”

     Xavier laughed.  “I need a note for your crew, Ged.  They don’t want to leave this place.  They won’t take my word.”

     “No problem.  Will you revisit Don’t Go Here?”

     “Yes.  Young Friashqazatla is there.  I want you to teach Freddy especially because he is a shape-changer like you.  He is another Psion that we would’ve lost without Tara Salongi.”

     “Check on Tara for me.  Tell her I miss her.  And tell Ham about what’s happened here.  I want him to come here and learn about this place too.”

     “I would be happy to.  You like it here, don’t you?”

     “How could I help it?  I’m not a monster here.  I’m a hero to these people.  But I have to say, I don’t understand the praise anymore than I understood the fear.”

     The message was quickly written, and within the hour, the Megadeath roared out of Gaijinese orbit, headed directly into trouble.

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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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