The Three Queens.

There was a kindly king living in a beautiful castle in a peaceful kingdom who began his search for a queen. He sent messengers to every kingdom in the known world seeking the loveliest women in each. Each woman who came to him had something not quite right. The first was too short. Another was too tall. Another too round, and another too skinny.

With each, he found something he didn’t like. Body. Voice. Hair. Eyes. Each was not perfect for him.

Our king, though was looking at the outside, not the inside. Thus, he passed up many a wonderful prospective queen. And the most perfect queen, you see, had slipped through his fingers because he only saw the outside. She had been one whose body had not the curves he desired, so she was sent away.

But before she left, she gave him a warning. “Three queens you will have, and three sources of sorrow. Each will despise you, but love your money, power, or fame. In the end, you will still have nothing more than yourself. Unless you begin looking beyond the outside beauty.”

Yet, our king, though at peace, was not a wise man. And so, he ignored the wise advice of the young lady he had sent away. A year to the day, the first queen arrived. She had all the right things in all the right places. Her hair was flaxen, her lips of ruby, and her eyes of emerald. And so, our king was overjoyed.

In a whirlwind, the couple was married. The first few months were fine, but then the queen’s true desire became clear. She was the one who loved only wealth. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds. Pearls of great size. And gold and silver.

The only thing she loved more than these was spending extravagantly on things that she didn’t need. Desiring to save his treasure house from becoming empty, he had her imprisoned and the things she had bought, sold. Their marriage, he had annulled. He had married to produce an heir, but was still without, so he sent the call out once more.

His second queen appeared as if in a dream. Again, she was everything he sought. As with the first, things seemed alright for a few months, then her true colors surfaced. This one loved power and even tried to usurp his throne. She sank his kingdom, once beautiful and peaceful, into a long fruitless Civil War.

His loyal soldiers, having found out where she had imprisoned him, came and set him free. With this handful of friends, he took back control of his kingdom. This time, he heeded the advice of a stranger and commanded that she be executed. But this still left him heirless.

And so, he sent out the call once more. Again it was answered by someone who was a bit too perfect. And, again, being a little too eager, our king jumped in feet first. Again, the marriage was fine for a while, then again she showed her true desire.

This time, she was for fame and glory. As Queen, she had both. She was adored by the public, loved by her king. But she could love no one, and soon it began to show in the way she treated the king. The king, appalled, commanded that she be seized and banished from the kingdom.

With three queens now come and gone, our king decided to sit down and think about things. Thrice he had married, and thrice he had been fooled. Then he remembered the young lady who had given him the warning.

“Bring the maiden who warned me of fates unseen. Search high and low for her. Leave no place unsearched. I would talk again to her and see what I must do to break her curse.”

And so his messengers went out into the surrounding kingdoms, to the corners of the earth. But while the messengers were gone, and his soldiers standing watch, she came to him in secret. With hood over her eyes, and her face shadowed, she came before him.

“Has the king finally learned his lesson?” She asked. “Or must his eyes deceive him three more times before he realizes that all is not what it seems?

“I warned you once that you would not find happiness with your vision of the perfect queen. Just because a person is beautiful on the outside does not mean that they have a beautiful soul. Some are darkened by greed. Others by lust for power. And others by need of flattery and worship. But a truly beautiful person will have wisdom, love, and kindness within their hearts and desire only what’s best for those around them.”

The king bowed his head. He knew not what to say. He had misjudged three times, and three times got burned.

“I was wrong, Oh lady. Please take away this curse you placed upon me.” The king was desperate.

“But I did not place a curse upon you, Oh king. I only warned you where your decisions were going to lead. You judged many unworthy on thing so unimportant. But did not take the time to look into their heart. You should have paid closer attention to the hearts, not the shapes, my king, and you would have recognized the only one who came before you in love.”

With that, she cast off her robe and the king saw how truly beautiful she was. Though not perfect in shape, she was more beautiful in her ways than any who had ever stood before him. She was more pure than even his best knights.

“However did I miss such beauty?” he asked.

“Because you did not look deep enough, milord.” was the answer.

At once our king became aware that he had found his queen. Within a week, they were married. Within the year, they had their first child. And they lived happily ever after.

Rivers Of Blood: All Guns Blazing

ALL GUNS BLAZING

“There are just some people who hate the idea that they were born. And so they set out to punish the whole world for their mothers giving them life. With them it’s either kill or be killed. There is nothing in between.” ~ Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone”

1.

He was known as Cold Cirrus. No one knew what his name had been at birth, they just knew the name that spread fear throughout the galaxy. At some point, it had been whispered, he had been one of the empire’s greatest commanders. He’d fought alongside the great Col Durin. He’d even been one of the great commander’s best friends and most trusted companions. But that had been decades ago.

Since then, Col had vanished. Many a rumor claimed that Cirrus was the reason. Some said he had killed the mighty commander, others that he had done something that had caused the great commander leave the empire forever. Few could have realized how far from the truth they could’ve been.

They were wrong about the man himself. He was no killer. He had been a friend of Col’s, but that had been before Col had disappeared. He thought his friend to be dead. And it was this grief that drove him to the brink of sanity.

The Emperor could see what the loss was doing to his second best commander. It hurt to see the man go through so much. He had to allow Cirrus in on the secret.

“C.C.,” he said, as the tall youth appeared before him, having been called forward, “come. I must show you something.”

Cirrus followed his Emperor out of the throne room and down a secret hall. Cirrus had never known this hall ever existed until now.

“Where we goin’?” He asked with trepidation, fear growing in his otherwise fearless heart.

“You’ll see,” the Emperor replied softly, “don’t worry, there’s nothing to fear.”

The hallway opened into a large spherical room lined with stasis chambers. In the center stood one with Col in it. He glanced at the Emperor questioningly.

“It was his design, C.C.,” he replied., “it was his wish to be put here after that last battle secured our Empire and brought on peace. He wanted to sleep until he was needed again. There’s even one here for you and hundreds more who have proven, or will in the near future, their undying loyalty to the Empire. Just say the word and you can join him in the same sleep he is enjoying.”

“I’ll train the next generation, Sire,” C.C. replied, relieved, “for a short while, then I’ll be ready to join him. I must pass on what he taught me.”

“Ah, yes,” the Emperor sighed, thoughtfully, “I forgot. You were his most trusted lieutenant and protégé. Not to mention his best friend, not counting myself, of course.”

“So this is sort of a Valhalla for our most valiant commanders?”

“I suppose you can look at it that way. Only the most loyal will be allowed to sleep here. No warmongers. No rebellious glory hogs. Just the best and most loyal. Heroes of our time.”

“The only heroes not here are Col’s grandparents, Orz and Danneah. They were the architects of the empire, before there was an empire. It’s sad, too.”

“They never desired immortality or future use. They served their purpose and gladly accepted sleep through death. They could have opted for stasis, but they didn’t want it. Too much has changed since their time.”

“Gimme a couple of years, Sire,” C.C. replied. “then I’ll be ready for the sleep he’s enjoying. There’s a few others, too, I believe are worthy of being down here. Goschen. Mo’olan. Tro’az. Logan. Thronax. And twelve others who fought valiantly with Col and I at Crulu Crossing and the other battles that helped forge our mighty Empire. But are there enough space for them all?”

“Yes. And hundreds of others,” the Emperor replied, “and since you have recommended them, I shall see to the induction of those you have named…and any who you list when we leave here. But whatever you do, you must keep this place a secret.”

“Don’t worry, Sire,” C.C. vowed, “the secret is safe with me.”

The two figures turned and walked out of the hall of heroes, heading back to the throne room. Both felt better. The Emperor felt he’d eased C.C.’s mind, and C.C. suddenly felt as if he had something to look forward to.

*********************

One by one, the old salts began vanishing. Rumors spread that they had dishonored the Empire and had been executed. No one knew that they had all been given a place of honor. Nor would they.

Young commanders began appearing where the older commanders had been. C.C. trained all the teachers in the Imperial Academy who were to replace those going to their rest. He trained the commanders who were to replace those who were in command of many of the garrisons throughout the Empire.

Two of his trainees he found in his group were Col’s twin sons, Ar’an and Scelon.
Unlike the rumormongers, they knew the truth. They thought of C.C. as an uncle. He was a beloved part of their family, honored as their father had been. Being Col’s youngest, it was widely known that their older brothers and sisters had fought alongside their father and “Uncle C.C.”. Some had died valiant deaths, while others had been listed as missing in action. Many of those were later found to be prisoners of war. And there were numerous Durin offspring. Their father had been married at least a hundred times during his three hundred years on earth. Hell. The Durins, alone, were a formidable army by themselves.

And only a Durin knew where the rest lay in stasis. Except their father, and only the Emperor knew where he lay…and it was probably where the elder warriors were vanishing to. Whatever the case, the two boys knew their father was safe, and so they came to C.C. so that they could follow their family legacy.

Strangely, all the Durin scions looked alike. They could all pass as their father, despite the fact that he no longer roamed the earth. And it would be this fact that would keep the rumors of “Col Durin” sightings running rampant for the next hundred or so years. And it would bring great amusement to the Emperor and his successors over that length of time, especially since the Durin Twins would become close friends and staunch supporters of the Emperor…becoming tutors to more than one Imperial heir apparent over the time they served. They would become so beloved at court that they, too, would be put into the hall of heroes. Their children would be courtiers for millennia to come.

2.

There had been trouble brewing somewhere beyond Crulu Crossing. There had been rumblings of a traitor, but nothing had been substantiated. Many had insinuated that it was Cold Cirrus, but their guess had been wrong. But there was a traitor. He had gone without detection for several decades.

Fla’agar Gri had bided his time. His father and grandfather had suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Empire. His home world had been swallowed up into the Empire upon the death of his father at Crulu Crossing. He’d been forced to cede his rights as heir to his father’s own Empire, one that had existed long before the upstart Empire that had absorbed it. But his proud empire had ceased to exist as an autonomous state of its own.

Never mind the fact that his grandfather, then his father, had been trying to conquer an untested empire which had been steadily growing in strength and numbers. He didn’t see it as their fault he’d lost it all. He hated the empire that had supplanted his own as the most powerful. They had stripped him of everything.

He fancied himself a cowboy of sorts. He’d practiced the quick draw he’d seen in the ancient picture stories of earth. Never mind the reality that laser pistols were extremely unpredictable and would often discharge without warning. He felt he could challenge the only legend left from the battle of Crulu Crossing. He could finally face Cold Cirrus. After defeating Cirrus, he’d go after the scions of the Durin house. And he would finish by killing the Emperor.

Sounded easy. He thought it would be. Maybe he’d get all done in one fell swoop. He smiled. His father and grandfather would be avenged. The Imperial line of Gri would once again rise to power.

As he sat in his family home on Arghan, he began constructing his challenge to Cirrus. He wanted to make it as irresistible as possible. Maybe he would send it on the false pretense of wanting peace. But he would not really want peace. He couldn’t have peace until he restored the former glory of his bloodline. He would be imperator come hell or high water.

But even to his own son, he looked like an oversized buffoon. Dressed as he’d seen the actors dressed in those old picture stories-cowboy hat, simulated denim jeans, simulated cotton shirt, simulated cowhide vest, kerchief, and faux leather boots, as well as the obligatory set of western-style holsters for his laser pistols-he looked like a caricature of a stereotype, with a futuristic flair, not the real deal. Unbeknownst to him, even his intended subjects laughed at him behind his back. No one took him serious.

He had no idea how big a mistake he was making, challenging a proven warrior. Nor did he realize that the Durins were all endowed with super-quick reflexes. With Cirrus and the Durins, it didn’t matter about the unpredictability of their laser pistols. They always hit what they aimed at, not themselves. And it was always seemingly faster than their opponents could react.

But, stupidly, he would take a chance. He would destroy his family’s last chance for a place at court as anyone important in his lifetime. He would never see what his sons would do with their lives. Or what would happen to his poor, embarrassed wife.

*************************

C.C. was in the Emperor’s presence when the communiqué arrived from Arghan. He suspiciously looked it over for any type of devious booby trap, before he listened to it.

“Dear Cirrus,” Fla’agar’s holograph began, C.C. was having a hard time not giggling, “I cordially invite you to a peace talk. I can tell you what happened to your friend Col Durin if you wish to know the truth. Orionites never tell the truth, you know. But I can tell you. Please accept my invitation. We’ll enjoy the ancient earth picture stories as we come to an agreement.”

C.C. began gritting his teeth. He was of Orionite blood. His grandfather had been the great Araz Noth, who’d been instrumental in the destruction of many of the nomadic threats that had wandered through the universe. Hell. His grandfather had helped Danneah and Orz in defeating Gundahl Gri, Fla’agar’s grandfather.

“Easy, Zhau’nah,” the Emperor soothed, “don’t lose your cool. He has no idea who you really are. He only knows that you were one of those who’d destroyed his father. He doesn’t know your Orionite name. Only your universal one. Keep your cool, and you’ll take him down.”

“Don’t worry, Sire,” C.C. replied, “I won’t allow him to get under my skin. I’ll tell him as he’s dying, though, just who I am. I’m kind of glad no one knows who I really am. Col knew what he was doing when he gave me the nickname I have.”

“Of course,” the Emperor countered, “when you led your men, you led with a cold efficiency that only matched his. You fought as if you felt nothing. You won without hogging the glory. You were as cold as the stellar winds that blow through the Cirrus System. That was where he got your nickname. And people forgot who you were. They forgot the proud history of your family’s legacy and how it was linked to Col’s. And it really doesn’t matter. Not really. As long as you know.”

C.C. nodded. He did know. That was why he would always be blood-brothers with Col. They would be comrades until the end of time. Even if he had to find a serum to keep himself from dying. Damn, those Pyzaxians had long lives! Seemed almost immortal at times.

“Take a message,” he stated, looking at the Emperor’s court scribe.

The scribe looked at his master. The Emperor nodded his approval. The scribe, then, looked at C.C.

“Yes, sir?”

“Let’s make it a holograph. Erase this message and record over it.”

It only took a second, maybe not even that. Then the scribe was ready. “Ok.”

“Fla’agar Gri,” C.C. began, “I shall be delighted to meet with you. But I will not be alone. Anything you have to say to me, you can say to Col’s youngest sons. We will be on Arghan within a fortnight.”

“I will call for the twins,” the Emperor stated, “and show them what I showed you. That way, whatever he has to say will be negated by the fact that Col is not dead or being held prisoner.”

“That is probably a wise thing to do, Sire,” C.C. agreed.

*******************

Hours later, the trio were on their way. The trip seemed shorter than in the past. Maybe it was because there was no fighting going on to slow the ship’s progress. Fla’agar stood at the pier waiting.

“Have a nice flight?”

“Fair.”

“What do you think of my fair planet?”

“Nice, but I’ve seen nicer.”

“What does that mean? Are you insulting my home?”

“Not at all.”

“Yes you are! I demand satisfaction!”

Fla’agar whirled and smacked C.C. in the face with a pair of gloves. Cirrus merely peered at him.

“Challenging me, are you?”

“Duel to the death,” Fla’agar spat, “a showdown at high noon.”

“Accepted. Oh, and you’ve mistakenly mixed different eras, you stupid buffoon. I’ve watched all those shows too. And they’re movies. Not picture stories. I was raised on them. They were the proudest moments of the era before the Empire. You wouldn’t know that, though. You don’t have any human blood coursing through your body. I do.”

“Well, your precious Emperor killed your best friend,” came the frustrated attempt to cause pain, “I saw it with my own eyes. He killed him and ate him!”

“Col lives, you idiot.”

At this, Fla’agar whirled around and went for his pistols. C.C. was quicker, as were the twins. Three pistols went off simultaneously. Fla’agar’s pistol never even cleared the holster.

“It’s called a hip-shot, Fla’agar, and it’s used commonly in war. Saves time and is more accurate. Always beats a western quick-draw. Oh, and before I forget. I am Orionite. My name is Zhau’nah Noth. I am the grandson of Araz Noth. The very Orionite who helped defeat your grandfather. When will your family ever learn?”

Kael’on Gri stepped forth. He looked, disgusted, at his father’s corpse.

“My brothers Gundahl and Culun have fled toward the forbidden zone. They are the last of those of our house who would offer any dissention. I, on the other hand, think that the Gri name would better be served if we offered our fealty to the kind Emperor and forgot our former glory. Our predecessors were all despotic tyrants, not kind rulers. My father and brothers chose to forget this fact. There is no glory in being a tyrant.”

“Well spoken, last son of the house of Gri.”

“Call me Kael’on. It means wise one. It is also my given name.”

“You are indeed wise, child.”

Kael’on brought his mother forth from the spot where she had hidden herself. Quivering in fear, she came forward. Her beautiful features were marred by bruising and the evidence of old injuries.

“Did your father do this?”

“Yes.”

“There are laws against such vile acts, you know. Why didn’t you step forward in her defense?”

“I-I couldn’t risk him killing her in my absence. Thus, I could never leave.”

“You were all that stood between her and death?”

“Yes. I was the only child he feared.”

“Why?”

“I have nearly killed him more than once for this very reason. My brothers fear me, too. But for a much different reason.”

“Come,” C.C. began, gently touching Kael’on’s mother’s arm, turning his attention to her, “don’t be afraid. You’re among friends.”

“F-friends?” she stammered, shyly, “I-I haven’t been allowed to have f-friends. H-how c-can you b-be a f-friend?”

“You husband is no longer alive. You have nothing left to fear. Not even your other sons. You and Kael’on are among friends. We won’t harm you.”

As C.C. spoke these words, she glanced down at her husband’s dead body. Then, without warning, she rushed the body and began kicking it as hard as she could. Words such as “bastard” and “ass” flowed freely from her lips with every kick. Years of abuse had caused a buildup of violent tendencies. As she used up the final ounce of anger and pain, she began sobbing uncontrollably.

Kael’on went to her and helped her back to where C.C. and the twins waited patiently.

“To the victor go the spoils,” he stated simply, “If you wish, my mother is yours to wed. it’s the custom of my people. And I will serve you eagerly as a son should a father.”

The youth bowed. His mother grasped C.C.’s hand, kissing it profusely. He looked over at the twins, who merely shrugged.

“I have to contact the Emperor,” he stated, dumbly, “and see what protocol calls for.”

“Then do so,” Kael’on replied humbly, “but with Godspeed. Do whatever is honorable in all respects.”

************************

There had been a wedding set at the Palace. C.C. had been given the command to honor the Arghani custom and heal the breech. So, Cirrus accepted the fact that he was about to have a new family. He would accept it as a duty to the Empire. And Kael’on would prove to be a most faithful son and bring honor to the family.

3.

Culun Gri was not happy. His father had just been killed by the horrid Orionite Zhau’nah Noth, known widely as Cold Cirrus. The Gri family had been slighted once again. It was as if the gods were out to punish them for being strong and glorious. Now, they had been reduced to being outcasts. Outlaws. Emperors without a system to lord over.

Neither brother had married yet, either. For the most part, they were like their father. They loved violence. They loved fighting. Beating on people with their fists.

They were bullies. Plain and simple. They thought they could bend anyone to their wills. And those weaker than they could be. Just not those who knew right and wrong and were strong enough to stand up for what was right.

Yet, there were others out there who were just like Culun and Gundahl. And the two Gris would find them and plot. Culun would even attempt to lead a raid. But that was still in the future. Now, Culun sat white-knuckled at the control panel of the ship he and his brother had stolen to flee in. They had been cowards. Instead of standing and fighting, they had fled. They had left the odds in the favor of those their father had intended to kill. Now, they had no home. No kingdom.

He frowned. They would’ve been joint rulers after their father stepped down. He could just imagine what they would’ve been capable of doing had their father been successful. They could’ve made the whole universe shudder. That thought made him smile.

In that, the glory of the Gri would have returned to its former infamy. But now, they would never know. Damn them both, he thought. Cowards.

He was suddenly brought out of his thoughts as the instruments on the panel came to life. Alarms started buzzing wildly. Lights began blinking. Frantically, he fought to find the reason why.

“What is it?” Gundahl asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

“Dunno,” Culun replied angrily.

“There patrols on the edge of the Forbidden Zone?”

“Dunno. I’m checkin’. Can’t seem to find nothin’. You c’n help, ya know.”

“And what the seven hells can I do?”

“Check the damned periphery radar. Perhaps whatever it maybe is behind us.”

**********************

The pirates hadn’t had this much fun in quite a while. Imperial ships avoided this area altogether and most sane people stopped at the last colonies at the edge of the outer galaxies, but not whoever was guiding the ship they now toyed with. And toy was all they’d do with the Arghani small craft.

They had no interest in capturing the vessel. Wasn’t big enough to even have anything worth taking. And two people wasn’t enough to bolster their ranks. Hell. They didn’t even want to destroy the tin can. Wouldn’t be worth bragging about.

They’d stop messing with the people inside as soon as they got to the very edge of the Zone. Until then, they would have their fun. Perhaps it would remind the occupants why most people stayed away from the Forbidden Zone. Or, if not that, then possibly make them more determined to reach their destination.

Then, they stopped. Someone had sent an escort out to meet their toy. Scattering, the pirates vanished.

“Identify yourselves,” the escort commanded, “or be destroyed where you sit.”

“We are the last scions of the Arghani royal house of Gri,” Culun responded, “and we seek asylum within the Zone.”

“Asylum granted,” came the reply, “follow me. Do not attempt to pass me or land before permission is granted or you will be destroyed.”

Things were suddenly looking up for the sons of Fla’agar Gri. Here was a whole system of people with the same ideal as they. Perhaps they could talk their way into positions of power.

*************************

The beliefs within the Forbidden Zone had greatly changed since it had formed. None of the original hate groups had survived. Instead, a larger, more malevolent group had grown to take its place. Old idealists who remembered the former glory of the universal democracy had come here after it had crumbled and declined during the Second and Third Revolutions. Their numbers had grown after the Second and Third Civil Wars, then after the Third World War and the subsequent Galactic and Universal War that had solidified the Empire.

The religion that had evolved from those that had been carried into exile with the fanatical religious groups was nothing like the religions they’d been pieced together from. It was more fanatical. More dangerous. More militant.

Political views had a twisted view of democracy. No longer was it truly democracy. It was more like the legacy that the Gri brothers shared. It was only a democracy in name. in practice, it was a dictatorship based upon distorted views of the many important eras of earth’s past, most noticeably the ancient Roman Republic complete with a triumvirate.

It was into this that Culun and Gundahl disappeared. Culun would resurface, but not for a while. Gundahl would help give rise to those who would later kidnap one of the infant Tulon from the palace, killing the princess and cause a schism between the Emperor and Col…though, he would not be known as Col Durin.

But all that was still in the future. Col, later named Hirak, still lay in a deep stasis-induced sleep, unaware of what trouble was brewing.

4.

Kael’on was proving to be a very capable Imperial Governor for his people. Arghan was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. They were now free of the tyranny of the former Gri masters and their new governor, though the last of the Gri bloodlines, supported advances in arts, science, and architecture among the many advancements being made in the many different areas. Arghani architecture was the most sought after in the universe. Durability was planned in every piece.

Art, too, was greatly sought after, being worth much more than many of it’s Terran counterparts. Many of the new medicines coming from Arghan were being implemented into medicine throughout the universe. And Arghan was starting to become very prosperous. Very wealthy.

Many youths from Arghan entered the Academy, becoming some of the top commanders and generals in the Empire’s military. An equal number were becoming top fighter aces.

C.C. had taught Kael’on well. He had also been able to break down the barrier Kael’on’s mother had placed around herself. She had grown to love her new husband, something she had never thought would ever be possible. But she loved him. And he loved her. Never again would she ever have to fear anyone. The abuse was in the past. Her new husband was a gentle man, not bent toward violence. An oddity, she thought, since he was a military man.

But she was excited this day. Very much so. She hoped he would be pleased. She was pregnant with their first child together.

“Love?” She called, as he walked through the door of the home they shared at the Academy.

“Yes, Dear?” He answered.

“I have some of the most excellent news.”

“What is it, Dear?”

“I’m–we’re pregnant. We’re going to have a child! Isn’t that wonderful news? “Definitely,” he cooed, happily, as he embraced her and gently swung her as if they were dancing.

She looked into his eyes and smiled. He was her heart and soul. The air that she breathed. He had set her free. He still set her heart free.

***********************

In the Forbidden Zone, Culun was raising a raiding party. He’d found the token priest to make it seem like a divinely sanctioned raid. Now he searched for some pilots who were somewhat adequate as fighters. Who knew it’d be so hard?

In a short time, he had a small raiding party raised, and they were on their way. This time, the pirates left the party alone. Wise, Culun thought, seeing how he had a small army. But he only had a small flotilla of transports and freighters. He didn’t have anything the pirates really wanted. They hadn’t won any booty, hadn’t captured any prisoners or slaves. Nor had they proven themselves.

There had been no raiding parties ever to leave the Forbidden Zone. This was the first. The pirates hung back to see whether they would come back successful. No need in wasting ammo on nearly empty ships.

So they slowly watched Culun’s ships disappear into the void in the direction of the colonies. But the pirates weren’t the only ones who noticed the little convoy. An Imperial cruiser patrolling the frontier had seen them appear out of the Zone. Sending communication to all bases to be on alert, the commander decided to follow them at a distance.

Thinking ahead, the commander also sent a communiqué to the Emperor…and to Cirrus. They would, after all, need to know of this uncharacteristic activity from the Zone. C.C. shook his head and went to ask the Emperor his opinion.

“Come in, old friend,” the Emperor stated as he saw C.C. at the door of the war room, “let us explore our options.”

“Hell,” C.C. replied, grinning, “why not just send me and Col’s boys to meet them? We’ll give ’em what-for.”

“Precisely my thought,” the Emperor stated seriously, “I need my best commanders in control up there. That would be you and the twins. Their appearance only means one thing: a raiding party. Too small to be a full scale attack. Give ’em a reason to regret entering our space. Chase ’em back to their hiding place.”

“As you wish, Sire.”

“Show the bastards why you were nicknamed Cold Cirrus, Zhau’nah.”

C.C. got an icy look in his eye that sent shivers down the Emperor’s spine. He watched as his one remaining legend left. Once C.C. went into stasis, there would be no more legends like him. More of a mystery to the citizens of the Empire, he was almost a myth. They would be sorely lacking when he was gone. Perhaps his legacy would be carried on by his children.

********************

Zhau’nah entered his home. Telling Araneah was going to be hard. She had not had to deal with life without him around since they’d married. Maybe he’d ask Kael’on to keep an eye on his mother. C.C. knew how busy Kael’on was, but it was for the best.

Stepping back out the door, he called for a cadet. When one of the youths appeared, he quietly instructed him on what to do. The youth nodded. Then C.C. reentered the house. She stood before him, waiting.

“What’re you up to, Zhau’nah Noth?”

“How would you like to see Kael’on?”

“You didn’t answer my question. Did you say Kael’on was on his way?”

“Not yet, dear. Soon, though, if you wish.”

“Why? What’s going on?” a spark of fear rose in her eyes.

“Nothing big. Just a small raiding party from the Forbidden Zone. His Eminence wishes I help lead the force being sent to repel them. I am going to ask Kael’on to come and keep you company while I do my duty.”

“Don’t be gone too long, love. I wouldn’t be able to live without you.”

“Nor I, you.”

It was decided, then. He would call for Kael’on. As soon as his eldest arrived, he could leave for the front.

5.

War is hell. Even small conflicts have their price. Even C.C. knew this. He knew that every battle he fought could be his last. Yet, with the best forces available to him, he knew he would always return home.

This, he promised himself, was going to be the last battle he was going to fight in this lifetime. No more. He wanted to see his infant son, Thran, grow into manhood. He wanted to teach him all he knew. Then, he would go into stasis with his beloved wife, if it were permitted.

Right now, though, he had a job to do. Upon his arrival, the massive star cruiser was turned over to him, his rank having changed from commander to Imperial Admiral. If Col was still around, he would’ve teased him. His friend knew how he detested the office of leadership. C.C. had always been a fighter, first and foremost. People just tended to follow him where no sane person would normally go.

And at the present time, C.C. was chomping at the bit to get back into a fighter. It was where he was most comfortable, and his men knew it. He was uncomfortable on the bridge. His discomfort showed.

He turned to those on the bridge.

“I may be an Admiral, but the command of this crate is in the hands of the commander who was in charge. I will only lead when we start close combat. I’ll take the lead fighter. Understood?”

A second and third ship hailed the cruiser.

“Admiral,” the com officer interrupted, “the commanders of the ships hailing us ask permission to hold a parlay with you.”

“Permission granted.”

“Hey, C.C.,” one Durin began.

“Ready to kick some raider butts?” the other completed.

“Sure am. You ready to follow my lead?”

“Yes, Sir,” they both reported, saluting.

“Then, let’s get this show on the road. Move out!”

The ships slid into the void without a sound. Soon, there would be battle. The men had to ready themselves for that. Some would not be going back. Some would. But none knew who would or would not return. They only knew that they were under the command of a legend and the sons of a legend.

This made them all proud. Those who would return would proudly brag of their service with their esteemed leaders in times when these raids were but a bad memory that had been relegated to legend and myth like those who valiantly fought the skirmishes and died.

They were all ready to ride through hell with C.C. They had heard of his fearlessness and cold efficiency. They hoped they would see it in action. They wanted to learn from him all that he had to teach. He had taught many in the Academy, but nothing taught what they were about to learn.

********************

Culun was amazed that no one was trying to stop him yet. Perhaps he had been correct. Perhaps the Empire really was getting weak. Or maybe these outlying colonies weren’t important enough for the Empire to defend.

He had no idea that there were always the garrisons on the planets that defended the colonists. There was also the cruiser that shadowed his fleet. Not to mention the small Imperial detail headed his way that he knew nothing about.

But he was in for a very rude awakening. Everything that could go wrong was about to do so. But, at this point, he felt extraordinarily lucky. The first planet seemed unguarded. Still, he approached cautiously.

Then, he gave the order. The charge begun. His first mistake. But not his last.

The ion cannons opened up with a barrage upon the raiders, catching three of his freighters–vaporizing them instantly. Sounding a retreat, he suddenly found himself caught. From nowhere, a small fleet of Imperial ships appeared. Suddenly, he began believing he’d underestimated the Empire.

“Hello, Boys,” a familiar voice came across his com, “remember me? I’m ba-a-a-a-ck!”

Damn. They sent the one man he didn’t want to face.

“Diversionary tactics,” he ordered, “so we can retreat.”

Aboard the Imperial lead ship, C.C. gave the order.

“Saddle up, boys,” he quipped, “lock and load. Give ‘em hell. Show ‘em they can’t come to a gun fight carrying knives.”

The com officer looked at him suspiciously.

“An old Earth saying,” he said, grinning.

He went to his own fighter and patted it on the side. Get me through this, he thought to himself, as if he were talking mentally to the ship, and I will retire you so that you can rest. Hell. He was going to retire. He was going to live the good life with his beloved wife.

He climbed in and checked all the gauges. Clicking the on switch, he started the old girl. Ah, the memories she brought back. He’d noticed that his own personal fighter, the one he’d flown when he accompanied his old friend Col into battle. He smiled. At least some things never changed.

The battle was quick and decisive. Beaten and in serious need of regrouping and repair, Culun retreated without gaining a single thing.

“If you keep coming, we’ll keep expecting you,” C.C. commented over the com so that Culun could hear, “send your worst and we’ll send our best.”

It had been a promise. C.C. never made threats. He always kept his word, too. And he would see that a contingent of the fleet was kept out here to keep the threat of more raids to a minimum. It was the least he could do.

As Culun’s ships, what was left of them, vanished back into the Forbidden Zone, C.C. turned his attention back to those under his command.

“Time to think about heading home, boys. Ride on back to the corral and dismount. Our work here is done.”

They had lost only ten. Could’ve been worse, but it hadn’t been. They had a few wounded, too, but the wounded would heal. The dead were gone permanently. But their mission had been a success. That was all that counted.

************************

Thran was growing so fast. Seemed like yesterday he was a baby. Now, he was in his teens and planning to go to the Academy. Zhau’nah was so proud of him. He’d learned all Zhau’nah had to teach him easily. Araneah also taught their son much. After all, he was a combination of both of them. And he was their only son together.

“Ma, pa,” he began thoughtfully, one day, “if you want to go ahead and go into stasis, I understand.”

Zhau’nah looked at him surprise.

“Where did you learn of our plan to go to sleep?”

“Kael’on keeps no secrets. I knew when I was five. He sat me down and explained it all to me. You don’t have to worry. Kael’on will be able to keep an eye on me. I’ll make you proud. I promise.”

“Kael’on needs to be here,” Zhau’nah objected.

“He’s on his way,” Thran replied, “he’ll be here in a few hours. He thought it was time for you two to go rest. You’ve both been through a lot. Pa, you’ve fought your wars. You need to join your friends and go into stasis-sleep. Ma, you had a rough life. You need to go and be with pa.”

Neither Zhau’nah nor Araneah were really all that old. Still, their only son had a point. They were both tired. They both needed to get away. Yes, he was right. It was time.

6.

A small group had congregated in the Hall of Heroes. Ar’an and Scelon were there to represent their family, even though their father was already present. Several of those who’d served under Zhau’nah in the defense against the raid were also there. And his sons, their sons, were there. He stepped forward.

“It is my wish that many of you join me here. It was never my life’s aim to be a warrior. It was just in my blood, from the time of my father’s father. Just as it had been in Col’s blood. We came, both of us, from two very distinguished families. His parents were Danneah and Orz Durin, the architects of the Empire. My grandfather was Araz Noth, the leader of the Orionite Union. Together with the Durins, he helped forge the Union that would later become the Empire. I hope that I did them proud.”

“What is your final request, my friend?” the Emperor inquired, “Col’s was that he be awakened when his services were needed the worst.”

“My only request is that you wake me before him so that I may be there to greet my friend. If it’s possible, set the timer for three hundred years. I will know if the times call for heroes such as Col.”

“Then so shall it be, my friend,” the Emperor replied.

Hugging all who had come to witness their last hours among the living, Zhau’nah and Araneah said their good-byes. Then, with one last glance around, they both stepped into the stasis chamber.

*********************

Ar’an strode the deck of his cruiser at the threshold of the Forbidden Zone. For months, he’d been thwarting Culun’s every attempt to raid the outer colonies. He figured that the outlaw would give up eventually, but not a chance. Apparently, he would only stop if he were killed. But would there be another who would take his place?

There was no telling. Only in time would anyone know. Suddenly, his attention was drawn by a motion on his view screen.

“Damn!” he breathed in frustration, “the idiot never learns, does he?”

“Sir?” the com officer inquired.

“Nothing. We’re gonna have company. Lieutenant, take the bridge.”

“Sir?”

“I’m going to put an end to this once and for all. I’m tired of people who just can’t seem to learn that they can’t attack our colonies and win.”

“Crap!” the Lieutenant muttered, “he’s gonna go attack them by himself. Contact his brother, quick!”

“I keep tellin’ ya, Faisal,” Scelon replied over the com from his home on earth, “nothing I can say or do will stop him. He’s just plain crazy. That’s what happens when people don’t get the picture and he’s the one givin’ the lessons. He just goes nuts. Just do as you always do. Order a small number of fighters out to make sure he isn’t killed, and hope that he knows what the hell he’s doin’.”

“Ok, Sir,” the Lieutenant replied, relieved, “I’m sure glad you’re there to give me advice. You fought alongside him a lot more. You know all his quirks.”

“He got our father’s recklessness, Faisal,” Scelon replied, “that’s all. He gets crazy about somethin’ then he goes off without thinking bout what he’s doin’.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. And take care.”

“Now, Faisal. What kind of trouble can I get into teaching at the Academy?”

“I see your point. Farewell.”

So all he had to do was send out a “guard” group of fighters. Not hard.

“Send a small group of fighters out. Tell them to hang back, but give aid if it looks as if our fearless leader is in trouble.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

The order went out. The fighters slid from the hangar. But Ar’an was already harassing the lead frigate. Then, inexplicably, he moved away from it and it exploded. What had he done?

One by one the other shipss in the group inexplicably exploded until the whole fleet was vapor on the stellar winds. The small group of fighters slid back into the bay first and the pilots went back to their bunks as if they’d never been out. Yet, what had happened had mystified them all. What had happened?

After a short time, Ar’an returned to the bridge.

“Sir?” Faisal began, “May I have liberty to speak?”

“Sure, Faisal.”

“Sir, what just happened?”

“I gave them a surprise package of my own design. When there are not so many people around, I’ll tell you. But until then, just be thankful we’re rid of those idiots. I was getting tired of their games. Thought I’d show them one of my own.”

Then the bridge went silent. Ar’an just wished Zhau’nah could’ve been there to see the whole thing. He’d have to tell him when they all woke up. But until then, he would have to let the Emperor know.

“Lieutenant, take the bridge.”

“Sir?”

“I have to go and send a private communiqué. You’re in command for the rest of the patrol.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Ar’an left the bridge. He had to contact the Emperor and find out what he wanted them to do now that the threat that Culun represented was gone. Damn, he was feeling tired. Was this what constant battles did to you?

********************

Just before the flash overtook him, Culun saw what Ar’an had done. Still, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what difference it really made. Then the explosions began. And finally, the flash. Then, he knew no more.

Although the other ships tried, vainly, to retreat, they all ceased to exist. Whatever he’d done, Ar’an’s gamble had paid off. None of the raiding ships ever returned to the Zone.

Back in the Forbidden Zone, Gundahl awaited his brother’s return in vain. When he felt the wince of pain, he knew that his brother had been killed. Sadly, his nephew would have no father. Happily, he could now move in on his brother’s widow and add her to his harem. Hell. That would give the boy a father. He smiled evilly.

In time, he would have his revenge. Those who’d killed his father would pay. So would those who’d taken away his inheritance. He would see to it.

************************

“Return to earth, Ar’an,” the emperor commanded, “give command of the patrol to Faisal. I shall send a transport to get you.”

“Yes, Sire,” Ar’an replied.

So that was it. Time to head home. No last hurrah. No fanfare. Just head home. Had he went at the Culun problem wrong?

He had seen no other recourse. The raider just hadn’t had the brains a gunderath had, and that wasn’t saying much. Even a gunderath wasn’t very smart. It was still smart enough to avoid being eaten or, in this case, blown up.

He headed for the bridge. He had one last thing to do. Turn the command over to Faisal. Then, he had to go back to his quarters and pack. Faisal would be moving into them as soon as he was gone. How he hated to leave.

Faisal’s mouth dropped open when Ar’an handed command over. Never had he ever thought that his commander would ever relinquish command. But here he was, doing just that. Had he gotten in trouble?

Moments later, he was finishing packing when the com officer let him know that the transport had arrived. He acknowledged receipt of the message and then took enough time to leave a note for Faisal.

*************************

The emperor met him. It was raining at the port, but he didn’t seem to notice. He had something on his mind.

“Sire, permission to speak.”

My friend, when have I ever required you to ask such things?”

“Never, but–”

“But what?”

“I thought I was in trouble.”

“For what?”

“How I handled the Culun problem.”

“Now you should know that your father would have done the same thing. That is why your family has always been honored by the Imperial family. I have no problem with how you handled anything.”

“Then why did you have me come back to earth? Why did I have to give up my command?”

“I need both of you boys here on earth, Ar’an. Not light-years away. Besides. I thought maybe you’d like a rest from battle. Faisal is more than capable of holding a command.”

7.

Ar’an watched his son as he ran to greet him. It’d been a long time since they’d seen each other. Hell. Families of commanders were lucky to ever get to see them. Yet, here he was, walking toward a youth who was running full-speed toward him. Dagmar had been born before the fiasco on Arghan. It had been at least ten years since he’d been home last, and the boy had been about ten, then.

How old was he now? Fourteen? Sixteen? Twenty? How many birthdays had he missed?

“Pa!” the youth exclaimed, excitedly, “Ma! Pa’s home!”

Ar’an’s beautiful wife, Darleah, stepped out from inside their modest home. Spotting him, she dropped whatever she’d been drying and came running toward him. The boy reached him first and, for the first time, he realized his son was no longer a boy. His son was now a man.

When Darleah reached him, they embraced lips locked in a kiss. It had been so long. Now, he was home. He would spend more time with them both.

Nearby, Scelon also enjoyed life with a family. His wife, Lelandreah, had bore him two sons. Althyr, the eldest had already graduated from the Academy. Lothanax, the youngest, had been in the Academy for two years. Not being Alyx’s father, Scelon had told him to wait until Ar’an came home…and he had.

“Pa,” Alyx began, “I wanna go to the Academy like Lothanax and Althyr. I’m eighteen, that’s old enough to register.”

“Alyx,” Ar’an corrected, “you were old enough at fifteen. I only wanted you to stay here to watch over your mother until I got back. In case she needed your help. But I’m home now, so you are free to go to the Academy. But first, there is somewhere we need to go.”

They met Scelon and his sons near the secret mausoleum where the stasis chambers of the Durin family members lay. As they entered, the boys peered around.

“What is this place?” all three asked in unison.

“This,” Scelon answered, “is where all our ancestors are kept in sleep-state. Even grandfather Orz and grandmother Danneah are here, but few know that fact. The only ones who won’t be here are your grandfather Col and your uncle and I. the Emperor has our places ready for us somewhere else. Your mothers will probably join us there, so there are spots here for you and your offspring. Here you will sleep until you are awakened to help defend the Empire.”

The group silently left the hallowed mausoleum. The boys would grow to understand. Their fathers knew they would. All Durins did.