A'zani slid silently through the darkness. Ahead, the Mitaka System with its' four planets awaited. One of these planets, Mitaka III, was a Confederation colony, home to nearly one hundred seventy-five thousand people.
"Target acquired, Captain," said T'kul. "Beginning analysis."
R'gal nodded dispassionately. He seemed almost detached from the process somehow; it was as if a bad dream was running through his mind.
Not long now, Mother,' he thought, This star, and one other...and you may rest in peace...your dishonor will be avenged.'
T'kul watched him carefully. That his Captain was under tremendous strain was obvious, and T'kul worried about his state-of-mind. Could he have cracked under the strain? What, indeed, were his orders?
A sudden thought sent chills tingling up T'kul's spine. What if he didn't have orders - what if he was insane? It all fit - the sudden outbursts, the refusal to let T'kul communicate with the fleet...could R'gal be acting on his own?
The analysis was completed. The computer chimed.
"Analysis complete, Captain," called O'tar, the second officer. R'gal started...why had T'kul not spoken? He looked at T'kul, and noted the questioning look on his face. He suspects,' he thought. He may become a problem.'
"Transfer data to main battery and fire."
The whine of the capacitors charging filled the ship. The sound droned on for what seemed like an eternity, and then the ship shuddered as her weapon fired.
In the viewscreen, the star Mitaka suddenly collapsed, and flared. The shock wave spread out from the flare, and the four tiny planets were overtaken and shattered. The system was dead.
T'kul felt sadness. if R'gal was acting on his own, then they had just murdered innocent people...three systems destroyed, millions dead. He shook his head.
He had to know. After the Captain had gone back to his quarters, he would discuss the problem with the other officers. But how to prove it - to contact the fleet would bring the Confederation's ships down upon them immediately. There had to be another way. Perhaps the message he had received....he would talk to S'lena, the communications officer. Perhaps she would give him a copy of the message..
T'kul started. He realized that R'gal had called him several times before shouting his name.
"I'm sorry, Captain, forgive me. My thoughts had taken me away."
"Well, then," seethed R'gal, "Nice of you to rejoin us. Always good to have the First Officer paying attention to his Captain again. Set our new course, T'kul. 198.3 by 97. Maximum thrust for seven hours, then run silent, and call me."
"When your duties permit, T'kul, report to me in my quarters."
"While she was there, a young naval officer saw her. He admired her beauty, her calm determination, and her dignity in the situation she was in. He found himself in love with her, and when he was kind to her, with respect for her honor, she in time returned that love.
"Against all convention of the times, they were married. Janet Rosenthal became J'net N'rthan. I was born on T'garl, and you were born there also, two years later, after the war had ended.
"Our father had been ordered to return to the homeworld a few months before you were born. His father was ill, and all of his brothers had been killed in the war. He left us behind on T'garl, and when transport became available, our mother took us to the homeworld.
"We never made it. The transport we were on was destroyed by a magnetic smartmine, and during the confusion, our mother lost sight of the crewman which was carrying you. The ship was exploding around us...I remember being very frightened. We managed to make it into a lifepod and ejected from the ship. Seconds later, it exploded.
"We were picked up a day or so later. Our father arrived on the rescue vessel, and he scoured the area looking for you...there was no trace. The crewman who had been carrying you was never found, and the ship had been completely fragmented. They scanned the wreckage for bodies, but it was no use.
"We never gave up and admitted that you had been killed. Somehow, we knew that you had survived, and would be found. Someday, the sons of K'val N'rthan would be reunited."
"K'val....N'rthan. Not G'rvan...Your..our name is N'rthan. That's the Emperor's name." Ryan was in shock.
"Quite correct, brother. You are Prince G'val N'rthan, the youngest son of Emperor K'val. And by now, they should have checked out the data I sent them and know the truth for themselves."
"I suspected," said N'tal. When I first saw you, I noted the similarities in our appearances. Later, when I heard your story, I knew it must be you. However, we had to be sure...so I send some files I begged out of your doctor on the guise of trying to identify your family through the War Orphans Ministry."
"I would like to see them...talk with them," said Ryan. "Is that possible?"
"Yes. I'd get permission from your Captain to make a personal transmission first, just in case he thinks that you've switched loyalties."
"Good idea," said Ryan. "And that opens up a whole different can of worms.."
"Brother, you may decide yourself where your loyalty lies. You have family in the Empire, but your life has been here. I do not envy you the choice."
"Get some rest, N'tal. I'll be back to see you later."
"Damn!" exclaimed Stancil. "Well, that probably tears it. Inform all personnel to stand ready for battle. I'm sure that the Confederation Council isn't going to take this lightly."
"Probably not, Admiral."
The aide turned and walked away. Stancil was left alone to consider the possibilities confronting him.
It was coming down to one thing: war. Stancil didn't like it, but it was out of his hands now. He was a Confederation Officer, and would follow his orders, whatever the Council decided.
And Stancil was pretty damn sure what they would decide.
Ryan sought out the Captain. He found him resting in his quarters.
"Captain?" he said, "permission to enter?"
"Come in, Mr. Ryan," came the gruff answer.
Ryan entered. The Captain lay in his bunk, a cool cloth across his forehead.
"Headaches again?" he asked.
"Again," winced the Captain. "The doctor has made a most interesting report, Mr. Ryan," he observed. "My compliments upon finding your family."
"Well, there's a bit more than that to it, Sir. There's something you should know."
"And that would be?"
"N'tal isn't who he said he was. His name isn't G'rvan...it's N'rthan."
"N'tal N'rthan. He's the Emperor's son...and you! You're ...my God!"
"You see my dilemma. One minute, I'm just a naval officer. A minute later, I'm a prince..trouble is, I'm a prince on the other side."
"Why would the Emperor's son come aboard my ship incognito?"
"I m not sure. I believe it has to do with R'gal being his adopted brother. Apparently, the Emperor was sent his son to deal with his other son."
"If that's the case, then he's serious about wanting to prevent a war." Sanderson looked thoughtful for a moment. He looked keenly at Ryan.
So what's your next move, Mr. Ryan?"
"I'd like permission to send a personal transmission. N'tal has given me the personal codes."
"By all means, Mr. Ryan. Or should I start calling you Prince...what's your name, anyway?"
"G'val. I'm G'val N'rthan. But please, let's keep this quiet for the moment. Ryan will do."
"I agree. There's no telling how this will effect the crew. I have already ordered the doctor to keep the lid on this; I was hoping you would to. And I think we can depend on N'tal keeping a secret."
"I would say so, sir."
"Make your call, Mr. Ryan. I know we've never seen eye-to-eye, and I know that I've given you a hard time over your T'zirian blood. But your brother saved my ship, my crew, and my life...and I shall have to re-examine my opinion of T'zirians."
"Aye, Sir." Ryan took his leave, then, and the Captain lay back in his bunk. His head hurt terribly, and he was plagued by a thought nagging in the back of his head that he was forgetting something...that somehow he had the answer to all of this. He ran it through his mind, again and again, but nothing appeared to be significant.
Sooner or later, it will come to me,' he thought. Sooner or later.'
His hands toyed with the controls for a moment before activating the unit. He punched in the key code N'tal had taught him, and waited.
Who would answer? What would he say? What would Ryan say? Ryan had no idea. His mouth was dry, and suddenly he felt weak.
The screen illuminated, and Ryan saw a face. He could clearly see the resemblance in the other man's features. This was indeed his father, the Emperor. He was not looking directly at the screen.
"Yes, N'tal. what is the situation there?"
"I'm not N'tal."
The Emperor looked up slowly, and looked at him. He suddenly leaned off screen, whispering rapidly to an aide. Ryan saw the man depart in the background as his father looked into the screen once more.
"You are the one called Ryan?"
"Then you know. You are G'val, my son."
"Our doctor confirmed it here about two hours ago. I had a long talk with N'tal after that."
"Where is N'tal?"
"He was injured, not seriously. He hit his head when R'gal fired at us...the shockwave tossed the ship and N'tal wasn't strapped in."
"And R'gal? Did you stop him?"
"I'm sorry. We only escaped with our lives. We're tracking him from the point of his last attack."
"That would be the system you call Mitaka. G'val, my son, listen: there are things you and the humans do not know. It is imperative that war be averted. That seems unlikely now...a fleet has been dispatched along our border. They will be ordered to attack. I have sent my own ships to stop them...I do not know if the human in charge will see reason. For that reason, you and N'tal must be prepared to leave that ship at a moment's notice. You would make far too good hostages for the humans."
"I'm not sure where my loyalty lies just yet. These humans are all I know."
The Emperor nodded. "I understand, G'val. Make your own decisions on that matter...but know that it is in the best interests of both the humans and the T'zir to avoid this war...more than you can know just now."
"We shall do our best, Father."
A woman entered the room and crossed to the Emperor. Even before she spoke, Ryan remembered her.
"It's true!" she said. "G'val, you're alive!"
"Mother...it's been a long time."
"You remember me, then?" she asked.
"Yes, Mother. Listen, when this is all over, I'll come to see you. But right now, we have a war to stop."
"Be careful, my son," said the Emperor. "R'gal is shrewd, and cunning."
"We'll be careful. And we'll get him."
"Security Override. T'kul M'urien, First Officer. Open the hatch to the Captain's quarters."
The hatch slid open, and T'kul entered. There were no lights.
"Lights," T'kul said. There was no response. He began to be uncomfortable, and he reached for his sidearm.
A sudden blow crashed against his head. He went down on one knee, and rolled. No use, another blow landed across his back. A club of some sort. T'kal forced himself to roll the other way, across the patch of light streaming in from the companionway through the open hatch. His attacker followed through the light, and was momentarily illuminated. It was R'gal.
"Captain!" T'kul choked out, "What are you doing...are you mad?"
R'gal grinned, a horrible demonic grin. He raised his club over his head and brought it down on T'kul's head again. It connected with a bone-jarring crack.
T'kul's senses whirled. He was nauseated, and the pain was unbearable. His sight swam, and through his distorted vision, he saw the club coming down again. The blackness reached up to engulf him, and he knew no more.
He thought about the men that were with him that day. Johnson, the big man...he had been a good friend of Sanderson's at one time. They had spent some shore leave at Johnson's home on Darwin IV. Wait..Johnson..Darwin IV...Lee...Lee was from Coby V...Mbute...Mbute was from Mitaka III. That was it. That was the key. He was destroying their home systems. And he, Sanderson, was the only one left, which meant only one thing.
He knew where R'gal was going.
"Captain," said Ryan. "You want to let us in on what's going on?"
"I know where he's going, Mr. Ryan."
"How?" asked N'tal.
"You told me that this was a revenge motivated attack. R'gal's mother was raped by four Confederation Officers while he was forced to watch."
"Correct, Captain. That is our assumption."
"I'd say it was valid, Commander. Johnson was one of the attackers, and he was from Darwin IV. Lee was another, from Coby V. Mbute was from Mitaka III."
"And that leaves only one unaccounted for. Do you know who he was, too, Captain?" asked Ryan.
"I do, Mr. Ryan. He was from Valia."
"Who was he?" asked N'tal. "How do you know these things?"
"It was me, Commander. I was the one who held the boy and made him watch."
"Why, Captain?" asked Ryan, disgusted. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"It was war, Mr. Ryan. She killed one of our best friends as we cut through her hatch. We were tired, angry...and wrong."
"So,' N'tal said, "We now know what his final target is. That gives us an advantage."
"Correct, Commander. If we can get there first. Zeigler, give her all she's got all the way to Valia."
Illustration by Robert Sankner, Copyright 1997
R.R. Bennett resides in Bel Air, Maryland, with his wife and children.
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