[Note: This is a continuing tongue-in-cheek fantasy saga. In order to be fully enlightened, read the first installment of “The Quest for the Crystal Princess” before reading the following Prequel.]
First Officer Brax and his fellow bridge officer, Lieutenant Shazr, hid behind the rock-strewn outcropping of vegetation and watched as the ferociously hungry wolverhoke paused to sniff the air suspiciously. Here on the perpetually dark side of the Abysmal Mountains on O's ugly twin planet, Mich, the creature was at the top of the food chain. It was not used to being challenged, or even approached, particularly while feeding. For an animal that could consume its own body weight three times a day, it was dangerously nimble...and quick on the attack when it felt its food was threatened.
The real trick in bagging a wolverhoke was in knowing when to strike. Getting too close to one of these while it was feeding was paramount to asking to be sucked into that cavernous mouth cavity by the powerful suction vortex created by the rapid fire feeding frenzy of a dining wolverhoke. A gruesome death, to be sure.
“Shhhhhh", urged Brax, "Stay still and wait till he exhales. That's your only chance, bro.”
Lieutenant Shazr chortled softly at his companion and shifted his stance into a coiled spring of a crouch, tensing even as the words came.
“I'm gonna blitz him.”
Brax frowned. “You gotta be kidding if you think...”
Before his fellow officer could finish the admonition, the man leaped up and charged. Flashing a startled look of sheer panic, the wolverhoke flattened his ample bulk against the ground and inhaled sharply in mid chew. The ground seemed to swell toward the creature, and Shazr immediately felt the vise-like grip of the resulting vacuum envelope him as he tumbled forward, skittering at blinding speed toward the gaping maw of the wolverhoke, clawing futilely at the gnarled roots along his path. A look of resignation crossed his features as he twisted and bumped his way to an untimely demise.
Just then, the air around both men shimmered and crackled as the creature winked out of existence. The vacuum abruptly ceased, leaving the thoroughly disheveled Unit Chief crumpled in a heap on the now empty holoport floor pads. A face appeared in midair and spoke.
“Sirs, sorry to interrupt your time off, but the Captain said to tell you to get to the bridge, pronto.”
Brax tapped his wrist. “You can't give us two more minutes, Ohura? Shazr was fixing to be an after dinner mint, and I so wanted to watch that.”
The floating face cracked a smile, and shook its head. “You guys hunting wolverhoke again?”
Brax chuckled back. “Yeah, it just never gets old.” He paused a beat before adding, “Be there in five.”
As the face disappeared, Brax extended a hand to his still sitting partner, lifting him off the spongy mat floor of the holoport, a satisfied smile angled across his face.
“How many times have I told you there's no way you're gonna win that battle? There's not another creature in the multi-verse that sucks bigger than a wolverhoke. How many times, my friend?”
Wiping the non-existent dust from his trousers, Shazr stood and moved closer to his friend. “I stopped counting.”
Still smiling widely, Brax tapped his wrist again and intoned, “Bridge.”
An instant later, on the main bridge of the Oan flagship, the S.S. Woody, Captain Buck greeted his two officers, a raised eyebrow playing on his forehead.
“Sir.” Commander Brax immediately noticed the elevation in the mood of the crew. The entire fleet had been on repair standby and some were still off world, taking full advantage of the generous amount of leave afforded while the Woody was being retooled at Repair Station 12. Brax had the uncanny ability to read and assess people and situations incredibly fast, a genetic gift of some ancient ancestor, and he surmised the emotions of the crew as...anticipation? He turned to the captain.
“What's up, sir?”
“They're coming, commander. Finally. They're coming.”
Brax felt a rush of relief. He knew exactly what the captain was referring to. After nine long months of inaction, every member of the Oan Strike Fleet was on edge, ready for the coming war. But he also knew the length of inactivity was a necessary thing after having been relentlessly attacked over the last several solar periods by the hostile En-See-Yay-Yay Authority. The EA still believed it was in control of large parts of the galaxy, and continued to dip its claws into the economy of whole systems, attempting to extort everything it could in its last gasp at regaining the control it had inexplicably lost. It had successfully terrorized the outlying planets along the rim of the Midwestern System and various other worlds, nearly exterminating the proud race of the Lionmen of Penn, a neighboring planetoid. But the EA had made a dreadful mistake in targeting Planet O. Though actually one of the rim planets, the Oans were a far cry from rolling over for the former bully of the galactic playground. Although they had lost some good people in that dirty little war, the Oans had nevertheless come out of it stronger than when they had entered it, and the EA despised them for it.
“So it's begun. Who they sending, Captain?” Brax knew the Esseesee Cluster would exploit every resource at its disposal in order to quell any uprising it considered dangerous to their continued domination of the galaxy. And Brax also knew there would be multiple strikes before they could draw the cluster's main forces out in the open. There would be blood.
Captain Buck, though not as physically intimidating as the men under his command, held a wholly different type of intimidating power. It was forged in respect for and from his men, asking only unyielding loyalty, demanding four to six hours of intense focus in a battle. He was of the opinion that if a battle couldn't be won in those four to six hours, that you had better get back to the planning stage and stay out of the fight. He straightened and calmly surveyed the entire bridge crew before he spoke. Tightly cropped hair oversaw a lean and chiseled face, with steel-gray eyes that hid whatever inner turmoil existed behind them. His legacy was steeped in relentlessness...which had brought the experience and decision-making ability necessary to the task of leading men...sometimes to their deaths. The common golden cord that ran the length of his career was the incessant pursuit of excellence and the nurturing of leadership among his crews. His men, although grateful for the results, nevertheless invariably winced at the memory of the drills. The drills. Snapping his gaze sharply from man to man, his sort of authority had a gravity all its own. Finally, he leveled his stare at his first officer.
“According to long range sensors, Commander, it looks like...Buff.”
“From the Bull Nebula?” The question from behind him sounded incredulous. It came from young Ensign Wilsn, a new addition in charge of the ship's hyperdrive station. The people of Buff, the Bullites, were intergalactic pirates who fed off the misfortunes of others, striking quickly and without announcement against weaker foes, and taking great pleasure in pillaging and looting the hapless races they encountered. Sure, they were known for taking some booty over in their own corner of the MAC Cloud, but they were hardly a race to be feared, and had never attacked O before. The Bullites were well aware of the reputation of the Oans, and had kept their distance until now. The tentacles of the Esseesee had truly grown.
“That's right, Ensign Wilsn. The Bull Nebula. Right around the corner.” Then nodding to the sensor technician, “Punch it up on the holoscreen.” The air sizzled softly for a beat before the holographic deep space image filled the central bridge. Every eye looked up...and gaped. Captain Buck added, “The Buff armada is still nearly two weeks out.”
The battle-scarred cyborg was an imposing figure, even as he leaned forward in his seat, trying to voice his thoughts as he too stared at the unlikely image. His vocal emission was hauntingly humanoid, containing only very subtle clicks and whirs common to the first generation units.
“Their, uh...armada...it's like, uh...(click, whir) ...twelve ships...sir.” A crooked grin twisted crazily across his sleek metallic face, accompanied by the disturbing sound that passed for a cyborg's laugh. And oddly, despite the violence glittering from his gleaming eye-orbs, it made him look deceptively docile, a term that few would have used to describe the wrecking machine he was. The captain's look, however, clamped his jaw plate shut.
“I know, Myuhort. Eleven ships, actually. Get those eye-orbs checked out. But it might be a trap. Possibly a larger invasion force is dug in behind a moon somewhere. We've got our probes on it. However, until further notice, those eleven ships better get your full attention. They may be two weeks out, but we're still a long way from being full-up battle ready. As we speak, we're being fitted for some new...special...weapons. I've got a feeling we're gonna need them before this crusade is over.”
“Special weapons, sir?” It was a query from one of the newer enlisted crew, who had not been informed of the additions. Brax and Shazr exchanged knowing glances as the Captain seemed to freeze in time, a hardened caste of steel reflected in the cold glint of faraway eyes. For a moment, he seemed oblivious of the question, lost in a distant thought. Abrutptly, he shifted.
“Yes...weapons. All the weapons." A brief smile ghosted on his face, chased away by a dangerous tone of determination. "I will have my Crystal back,” he muttered in a barely audible voice. In that brief expanse of awkward silence, every crew member knew his pain. He had held his precious princess in his arms, and she had been lost. They knew the history, but none would broach it. The agony was deep...and palpable. Nobody spoke.
The captain shook himself away from his inner torment, and continued quietly. “The Bullites are well known in their home system for a solid array of ship defenses, and may well have added a few upgraded offensive weapons of their own. It only takes one stupid mistake to get one of us torched.” He turned to lock his eyes on his first officer.
“And you're not gonna let that happen, Commander Brax. Carry on." The Captain gathered reports, preparing to depart the bridge.
“Sir!” The First Officer took control of the crew immediately, barking orders, dividing assignments, returning the bridge to the sudden flurry and hum of active duty. Still reeling off instructions, he caught the captain's arm as his superior turned toward the exit. He looked calmly into his mentor's face.
“We got this, sir. We got this.”
[In Two Weeks: Chapter One: “Invasion of the Booty Snatchers”]