Starscape: Fire in the Soul
by Brad Aiken
  "That’s the last of them, Colonel.â€�
   The words seared a painful scar indelibly into the memory of Gandar.  The young Neanderthal was just twelve years
old when he first saw the video, a popular classic imported from Earth entitled “A Brave New World,� but
commonly referred to on Earth as “The Neanderthal Solution.�
   The son of a great warrior, Gandar was already accepted for admission in the Teconean Military Academy the
following spring.  His father had given the video to his son as a gift, a coming of age sort of present meant to stir the
emotions of a nacient imperial warrior.  Little did General Kolimar know how effective his gift would be.
   Now, on his forty-sixth birthday, Gandar watched the video again as he would do each year on this same date; he
did not wish to let the memory fade.  The movie told of the discovery of the original Neanderthal colony nestled in the
Himalayan Mountains by human explorers in the twenty-first century.  It depicted the Neanderthals as rude beasts who
could never live peacefully with their human counterparts.
   But Teconean textbooks told a much different story.  Gandar’s ancestors had been treated more like animals
than people back on Earth.  They were never given equal opportunity.  Humans were afraid of the Neanderthals’
superior strength, and equally afraid for many of their jobs; the Neanderthals’ aptitude for technical skills was far
greater than that of their human counterparts.
   Soon after the development of hyperspacial travel, the planet Teconea was discovered –the first off-world that had
the potential to support human life.  The Neanderthals were chosen as the first colonists.  The humans had said that
they chose the Neanderthals because of their tremendous strength and adaptability, but Gandar knew better; all
modern-day Neanderthals knew better.  It was human fear that drove the Neanderthals away from their home world,
the fear of the superior Neanderthal race.

   â€œThat’s the last of them, Colonel,â€� the young human lieutenant said into the radio on his wrist as he
watched the last of Earth’s remaining Neanderthals board the Alpha One transport ship.  He gave the door a slap
as it closed, and walked briskly away from the landing bay.
   The notorious ship was one of many that made the six-month excursion to Teconea before all of Earth’s
Neanderthals had finally been resettled there.
   General Gandar watched as the engines roared to life and the Alpha One lifted off toward Teconea.  A young
Neanderthal boy looked longingly back toward Earth as the ship accelerated out of orbit.  Gandar felt his pain.
   â€œTake solace, my boy,â€� he said to the vid screen.  â€œThe Earth will soon be ours.  We will rid our home
world of the human vermin and reclaim it as our own once again.  This I swear on my father’s grave.
   A firm knock on the door stirred him from his reverie.
   â€œCome,â€� he barked his annoyance.
   The door to Gandar’s quarters slid open with a hiss.
   â€œMy pardon for this disturbance, General, but the Flaming Arrow is cleared for departure in one hour and the
ship’s crew is already on board.  May I escort you to the spaceport, sir?â€�
   â€œI think I can find my way, Lieutenant,â€� he barked with disdain.
   â€œOf course, sir.â€�
   â€œDismissed,â€� Gandar said with a wave of the hand.
   The door hissed closed.
   â€œVid screen off,â€� he said as he grabbed his pack and walked to the door.
   â€œLights off.  Security lock-down on my exit.â€�
   He strutted out briskly without looking back; no one would enter his quarters and live to see the light of day again.  
The door sealed behind him.
   Within minutes, the general arrived at the spaceport.  As usual, the dingy gray halls were devoid of civilian activity.  
Most men of age were in the military; it was not mandatory, but no self-respecting Teconean would choose to do
otherwise.  The rare exceptions were the merchant traders, mostly older or disabled warriors, who carried out the
necessary task of exchanging merchandise with off-worlders, even humans when necessary.  The valuable viridium
ore, plentiful on Teconea, was a rare commodity in the Federation of Human Planets.  Federation traders were drawn
to the Empire by the rich rewards of the viridium trade business, at least those who had the audacity to risk landing on
a world full of the Neanderthals who resented them so deeply.
   Gandar seethed at the sight of the Stargazer in one of the few civilian landing bays in the port.  The gleaming
vitanium hull was a stark contrast to the sleek black ships employed by the Empire.
   â€œWhat is that doing here?â€� he barked at the guard on duty.
   The young man snapped to attention at the sight of the general.  Gandar was known to everyone on Teconea, his
face as familiar as the tales of his volatile temper.
   â€œMerchant traders, sir.  Piloted by two humans bringing supplies from Kennedy Prime.â€�
   â€œWho are these vermin?â€�
   The young guard checked his manifest.  Captains Stryker and McGee, sir.  Of the planet Earth.â€�
   â€œCaptains?  Federation Space Corps captains?â€�
   The guard tapped a few spots on his manifest tablet.
   â€œEx-Space Corps, sir.  Strictly civilian trade now.â€�
   â€œLet me see that.â€�  Gandar grabbed the tablet out of the guard’s hands and scanned the database on the
two traders.
   Danny Stryker and TC McGee, both graduates of the Space Corps Academy, had served only a few years before
resigning their commission.  They had a long record of flying trade routes to several of the planets in the Empire,
mostly with goods from the Federation's outworlds.  They rarely had contact with Earth and often flew routes that the
Federation had marked as ‘undesirable’, in clear disrespect for the authority of Space Corps Command.
   Gandar handed the tablet back to the guard with a grunt.  These two humans were not worth his time.  They posed
no threat.  Perhaps, Gandar made note to himself, these two Federation rogues may even be of use some day.  The
Empire often made use of human spies to obtain intelligence about the workings of the Federation, but the most useful
were those who were still in the good graces of the Space Corps.
   Time would prove Gandar very wrong in his judgment of Stryker and McGee.
   Gandar spotted the Flaming Arrow off in the distance and turned abruptly away.  The guard snapped to attention
and saluted, a posture that Gandar ignored entirely.
   â€œGeneral on board!â€� shouted The Flaming Arrow’s navigator as Gandar climbed aboard.
Gandar mirrored the navigator’s salute hurriedly, in a manner that made it clear to the soldier that his general held
him in no particular regard.  Sometimes with Gandar, this was best.  He hurried back to his station and prepared for
departure.
   "Set course for Tantra Terra,â€� Gandar ordered.
   The chamber of The Flaming Arrow was tensely quiet for a few long seconds.
   Colonel Hirtek broke the silence with trepidation.   â€œHave we changed our mission, sir?â€�
   Gandar glared at his second in command.  They were headed toward Tri-Luna in the Orion system, nearly the
opposite direction from the planet Tanta Terra, to inspect the clandestine fleet being amassed for the strike on Earth.  
Gandar was only willing to ignore the presence of The Stargazer to a point; he would not take a chance of
compromising the location of the fleet.  He also saw no need to explain himself to these underlings.
   â€œNo, Colonel.  Our mission stands.â€�
   Hirtek was tempted to remind the general that Tantra Terra would take them well off course and delay their
scheduled arrival at Tri-Luna, but he thought the better of it.  Gandar was not to be questioned by an inferior officer.  
He had answered the colonel with relative reserve the first time.  He was certainly not to be questioned twice.
   â€œLieutenant,â€� Hirtek said to the navigator, “lay in a course for Tantra Terra.  Inform me as soon as we are
prepared to engage.�
   â€œAye, sir.â€�
   Within minutes, the Flaming Arrow was aloft and darting out towards space.


   â€œDamn!â€� TC shrieked, cupping his hands over his ears.  â€œCan’t they muffle those engines better?
   He and Danny Stryker looked up as the Flaming Arrow streaked over their heads and out of the spaceport.
   â€œHell,â€� Danny said, “it’s bad enough that our scanners can’t penetrate their darned cloaking
systems.  At least this way, we can hear them coming.â€�
   â€œYeah.  If we’re standing under one of them.  A lot of good that does.â€�
   Danny slapped him on the back.
   â€œCome on, man.â€� TC shook his head.  â€œLet’s the heck out of here.  This place gives me the creeps.â
€�
   â€œNot until we check the containers.  Zulinar shorted us by a hundred kilos last time.  He’s always given us
good stuff, but the bastard tries to short us every time.�
   â€œYou don’t have to remind me.â€�
   TC remembered the last shipment of viridium ore.  The weight of the containers had checked out perfectly –
thanks to a false panel in the bottom of one of them that concealed a hundred kilos of useless rocks.  They barely
broke even on that trip.
   â€œSay,â€� Danny said, looking around the spaceport as they walked back to the Stargazer.  â€œDoesn’t this
strike you as kind of odd?�
   TC looked around at the relatively empty port.
   â€œDoesn’t what strike me as odd?â€�
   â€œWell, that was a Teconean starfighter that just zipped over our heads, right?â€�
   â€œYeah.  What of it?  This is a Teconean port.â€�
   â€œExactly.  You ever see a Teconean spaceport that wasn’t packed with starfighters?â€�
   The Teconeans were a largely military society.  They always had three times as many ships as they needed ready
for combat at any given time.
   TC looked around again.  â€œHumph.  Does seem kind of strange, now that you mention it.  You think somethingâ
€™s up?â€�
   Danny though a moment.  â€œNah.  Probably just war games.â€�  The Teconeans were always staging war
games.  â€œIf there were any kind of hostilities, they wouldn’t be so nonchalant about two humans strutting
around their capital city spaceport.�
   â€œI guess your right,â€� TC shrugged.  â€œJust the same…â€�
   â€œYeah,â€� Danny finished TC’s sentence, “let’s get the hell out of here.
   The Stargazer lifted off the landing pad of Bay 73.  Her engines were quiet compared with the Teconean starfighter
that had piloted out moments earlier.  Stryker guided the ship out of the planet’s atmosphere, then engaged the
warp engines.  It would be three days before they reached Federation space.  Three long, boring days.  TC was glad
that the ship was equipped with an extensive video library.


   â€œThe Stargazer has left Teconean space,â€� Hirtek informed his commander.
   â€œWhat is their heading?â€�
   Hirtek tapped the display panel in front of him, and the Stargazer’s path was superimposed on an astronomical
chart.
   â€œThey are heading directly for the Orion System!â€�
   â€œLet me see that,â€� Gandar barked, shoving his navigation officer out of the way.  â€œHumph.  If you studied
your prey, you would know that their home base is Kennedy Prime.  Their course to that world takes them past the
Orion System.        That is their destination.â€�
   Gandar began to walk away.  â€œStill…â€�  He turned back toward Colonel Hirtek.  â€œIt can not hurt to monitor
them closely.  After all, they are human.  Lay in a pursuit course.  Activate the cloaking system and engage engines
when ready.


   The long hours of uninterrupted travel through space could be quite boring.  Merchant traders did their best to make
accomodations on their ships for the void in time, though most were not as well-equipped as the Stargazer.  It had
been several hours since they left Teconea, and as usual the trip had been uneventful.  TC McGee leaned his massive
frame back into the custom leather chair that he had installed at the Stargazer’s navigation station.  A small
holographic monitor sat next to the navigation station, programmed with dozens of his favorite movies.  A classic
western, remastered in holovision, began to play.
   â€œAhh,â€� he moaned, rocking back into the chair, hands behind his head.  â€œHalfway home, and nothing to
do but a little R & R.�
   Danny looked over at his friend and smiled.  â€œJust don’t tell me how it ends,â€� he chuckled.  They’d
each seen it a    handful of times.
   â€œMum’s the word, Ace,â€� TC said.  â€œMum’s the…
   The Stargazer stuttered from its usually smooth course, and TC lurched sideways, nearly falling out of his chair.
“Whoa,� he said to Stryker, “what’re you doing up there?�
   â€œNot me, man.  We just dropped out of warp.â€�
   â€œPirates?â€� TC asked.  Space pirates weren’t usually bold enough to attack a battle-ship like the
Stargazer, but they were growing more daring each year.
   â€œNah.  I think we just took on too much viridium ore this run.  The weight distribution in the cargo hold put too
much strain on the warp field generator.�
   â€œI told you we should have gotten that thing tuned up before this run, but no,  you…â€�
   â€œAll right, all right.  Just see if you can patch her up.  I promise I’ll spring for the upgrades when we get back
home.�
   â€œJust patch her up,â€� TC muttered to himself, mocking Danny’s tone, as he pulled himself up out of his
soft leather chair.
   â€œWhat was that?â€� Danny called back as he replotted the ship’s course to keep her on target at impulse
speed.
   â€œNothing,â€� TC said.  â€œI’ll go check the warp generator.â€�
   â€œOf all the luck,â€� Stryker muttered to himself.  They had broken down just fifteen hundred kilometers from the
notorious ion fields of the Orion System.  The ion storms were handy for hiding from scanners in a pinch, but werenâ
€™t good for much else.  If they drifted too close, the ion fields could play havoc with their equipment.  Worse yet,
there could be pirates lurking within, laying in wait for a situation just like this; vultures awaiting their wounded prey.
   â€œWhat’s it look like, buddy?â€�  He laid in a course to keep them as far as possible from Orion, but the
going would be slow.
   â€œJust fried one of the circuit panels,â€� TC called back through the comm system.  It’s not too bad, but we
don’t have a replacement.  It’ll take me a couple of hours to patch her up.
   â€œGreat,â€� Danny muttered.  â€œWell, pick up the pace if you can.  We stalled out near Orion.â€�
   â€œDamn,â€� TC whispered.
   â€œWhat’s that, buddy?â€� Danny asked.
   â€œI said thanks, Ace.  I needed a little more pressure.  You know, to make the job go easier and all.  That’ll
help a lot.�
   â€œGlad I could assist,â€� Danny said with a smile.
   They were both silent after that.  They each had a task that would be best done without distraction.


   â€œThe humans have dropped out of warp fifteen hundred kilometers from the Orion storms, and just five thousand
kilometers from Tri-Luna,� Hirtek announced.
   â€œDamned humans!â€� Gandar shouted.  â€œNo matter how foolish, no matter how inept they appear they can
never be trusted.  I knew these two buffoons were spies.â€�
   Gandar was not about to admit to his men that he had been fooled by the humans.  He had nearly dismissed them,
even thought that they may be able to be brought over to his side with the right bribe – perhaps this was still a
possibility.  He was glad that he was blessed with the notion to at least monitor the Stargazer.
   â€œThat snake Zulinar must have informed them of the starbase on Tri-Luna.â€�
   â€œBut, General, Zulinar is a decorated war hero.â€�
   â€œWas,â€� Gandar corrected.  â€œNow merely a hobbled civilian.â€�
   â€œBut surely a former Imperial warrior would not betray the Empire.â€�
   â€œGreed is a powerful potion, Hirtek.  Especially to a businessman like Zulinar.  One does not become the chief of
a viridium mining company by idle fortune.�
   Colonel Hirtek paused.  He had not thought of Zulinar, or any Teconean, for that matter, in this way.  They were all
trained as warriors, all fiercely loyal to the Empire…were they not?
   "How long until intercept?â€�
   â€œThree hours, sir.â€�
   â€œThey could be concealed in the ion storms by that time.â€�
   â€œThey appear to be heading away from Orion, sir.â€�
   â€œDo not be fooled by these vermin, Colonel Hirtek.  Treachery is their forte.â€�
   Hirtek nodded.
   â€œScan the sector,â€� Gandar ordered. “Do we have any ships close enough to intercept the Stargazer if she
makes a run for the ion storms?�
   Hirtek checked his panel.  â€œOnly the freighter Nepal, sir.â€�
   â€œWhat is their armament?â€�
   Hirtek checked his files.  â€œJust phase one cannons, sir.  Primarily defensive.â€�
Gandar heaved a sigh of disappointment.  â€œPerhaps, with the element of surprise, they may be able to detain the
humans until we arrive.
   â€œOpen a secure channel to the Nepal.â€�
   "Aye, sir.â€�
   â€œThis is Captain Vrace, of the Nepal.â€�  A haggard older Neanderthal with a graying mane of hair hanging
loosely around his wrinkled face appeared on the view screen.  Hirtek was surprised that the captain did not appear
frightened at the prospect of a communiqué from General Gandar; most men would be.
   â€œI am Gandar, commanding the Flaming Arrow.â€�
   "I know who you are, General.â€�  Captain Vrace was battle-worn from his years in the Imperial Spacefleet; he was
not easily intimidated.  â€œWhat could you possibly want from a broken old freighter like the Nepal?â€�
   â€œThere is a Federation vessel in your sector.â€�
   â€œThe Stargazer.  A broken down ship limping toward Federation space.  What of it?â€�
   â€œYou are to engage the Stargazer and disable her until I arrive.â€�
   Vrace bellowed with laughter.  â€œIn this old tub?  You must be kidding.  We’re no match for a ship like the
Stargazer.  Even hobbled, she’d blow us out of space before we even charged our rusty old cannons.â€�
   â€œAre you not an Imperial warrior!â€� Gandar snapped angrily.
   Vrace's nonchalant demeanor faded from his face.  Gandar’s wrath was legendary.
   â€œWell, General, I…â€�
   â€œYou have the element of surprise.  With two blasts you can disable their weapons and fuse their warp
generator.  Are you telling me that you are not capable of such a basic engagement?â€�
   â€œIt’s just that the weapons on the Nepal are…â€�
   â€œPerfectly adequate in the hands of an
adequate Imperial Spacefleet captain,� Gandar finished his sentence.
   Vrace fell silent.
   â€œWe will arrive in less that three hours.  You have your orders.â€�
   Gandar motioned to Hirtek with a slashing motion of his right hand across his throat, and the signal ceased abruptly,
the face of the stunned Captain Vrace vanishing from the screen.


   â€œThat should do it,â€� TC announced as he entered the bridge of the Stargazer.
   â€œGood,â€� Danny said.  â€œThese ion fields give me the heebie-jeebies.  Get ready to engage warp.â€�
   â€œAfraid not,â€� TC said.
   Danny snapped his head around toward TC.
   â€œShe’s all patched up, Danny, but I had to shut the cells down.  It’ll take a good half-hour to regenerate.â
€�
   â€œGood for who?â€�
   â€œWell,â€� TC said, plopping back down in his leather chair.  â€œI, for one, am going to relax and enjoy the
ride.  It only takes one to pilot the Stargazer, and she’s your baby.  Right?â€�
   Danny couldn’t object.  There was really nothing else for TC to do now but wait for the cells to recharge.
   â€œYeah, well don’t get too comfortable.  We’re going to warp the second those cells are ready.â€�
   TC winced ever so slightly.  He always dreaded the feeling that a warp jump created.  Warp travel was smooth as
silk, but he could swear the initial jump turned his stomach inside out every time.


   Captain Vrace crept up on the Stargazer.  Even the decrepit old Nepal had been equipped with a cloaking device
since she began her runs to the Orion System.  He wasn’t sure exactly what was going on there, and he didn’t
want to.  He didn’t want to attack a Federation vessel either, not even a hobbled merchant ship, but he was about
to do just that.
   â€œTarget their weapons and warp generator, Ensign.â€�
   â€œBoth canons at once, sir?â€�
   The Nepal only had two canons, but still, firing both at the same time could well overload the patchwork system.  
Vrace was as well aware of this as his gunner, but there was little choice.  His orders were quite clear, and this was the
only possibility for the success of this ill-conceived mission.
   He nodded at the ensign.  â€œFire when ready.â€�
   The young gunner looked scared.
   
You should be scared, young man, Vrace thought quietly, watching the young Neanderthal’s face.  You should
be very scared.
   The weapons fired, but as Vrace feared, their power levels were less than half of what they were programmed to be.
The Stargazer shuttered meekly in front of them, and to make matters worse, the power overload deactivated the
cloaking device.  They were sitting ducks.
   â€œShould we take evasive action, sir?â€� the ensign asked.
   â€œNo.  Lay in a pursuit coarse and engage.â€�
   â€œBut, sir.  We have no weapons.â€�
   â€œI am well aware of that, Ensign.  However, with any luck, the Stargazer is not.â€�
   Vrace sincerely hoped that the Stargazer could still outrun the Nepal.  Any evasive maneuver on his part would only
reveal his weakness, and Stargazer would certainly attack.  But if they were spooked enough by the attack to run…
   â€œThe Stargazer just engaged warp engines, sir,â€� the ensign said with relief.
   Vrace did not relish the thought of facing General Gandar after his failed mission, but he had faced unhappy
generals before.  It was far more desirable to be dressed down by one's commanding officer than to be dressed up for
one's own funeral.  Many Teconean warriors did not feel this way, but Vrace had years of experience to dim the fire
that ran in a young warrior’s blood.  There was more to life than glory, but this was a thought that he would take
with him silently through the rest of his years.  To do otherwise would be the end of his career; this was the way of the
Teconean warrior.


   Gandar watched on his monitor as the Stargazer engaged her warp engines.
   â€œThey have changed their heading, General.â€�
   â€œI am not blind, Colonel.â€�
   â€œOf course not, sir.â€�
   They could both plainly see that the Stargazer was now headed for Earth at top warp speed.  There would be no
hope of intercepting it before it entered Federation space.
   â€œSend a message to Tri-Luna.  I want the fleet ready to launch upon our arrival.  Time is now of the essence.â€�
Colonel Hirtek sent the encoded message to the commander of the attack fleet that was already poised to launch the
invasion of Earth from their clandestine position on the beautiful planet of Tri-Luna.
   â€œAnd so it has begun,â€� Gandar muttered.