Preview of Starman #8:
The Last Command
The following represents a collection of excerpts from various chapters in the book. Enjoy!
At a dozen consoles, Ahmanyan technicians were absorbed in their measurements as data streamed into the control center. On occasion, someone’s head would turn to check a data feed or refer to a side screen, then return attention to the screen in front of him. No one conversed. There were only the quiet sounds of a random tap, softly spoken command to the computer, or the squeak of someone shifting position in a chair.
Izmaka, accompanied by Commander Lewis and Karax, moved from station to station and stared unblinkingly for a time at each screen in turn. Pleera focused on inspecting the systems that maintained Ossëan’s position and sustenance capabilities.
Zip turned his eyes on the Ahmanyan woman and watched her actions. The more she paid attention to the programs, the more uneasy he became. The systems were automatic. If there were any danger, an alarm would sound. No one needed to watch them, least of all the commander of the spacecraft. Something was wrong.
Eventually everyone sensed it. Though no word was said, a feeling of heaviness pervaded the bridge.
After about half an hour, Izmaka moved to the operations tank and stared into it. Mark watched as his eyes shifted under thick brows from point to point as he stared into the tank. His face was drawn. Zip felt the oppression that filled the room soak into his body like tropical humidity. Suddenly he felt drained and heavy, as if he were on the surface of a large planet laboring under strong gravity. Without knowing why, bitter anger came over him and he began to breath heavily.
“We are here, Mr. Starlight,” said Zip, feeling foolish for stating so obvious a fact. After he’d spoken, he shut his mouth firmly, and waited. His eyes wandered around the room and noted the characteristic Ahmanyan love of beauty and attention to detail. The walls were ivory-colored with an understated pattern blended into the texture. A wide picture window opened beyond Richard, revealing a large tree to one side with leafy branches hanging down in a calm afternoon shadow. Golden fields spread beyond, rolling to blue hills in the far distance. The branches of the tree moved slowly in a nearly imperceptible breeze. With a sharp pang of appreciation, Zip was reminded of a beautiful southern Californian summertime, with dark green peppertrees verging on black, set at random in the gently sloping fields of dry blond grasslands that lay on the earth like fleece.
“Dear friends,” began Richard Starlight, with pain wrung across his features. “I have called you here to ask you to take on the most difficult assignment of your careers.”
“Sir,” began Zip, “we know what you want of us. You don’t have to ask us—”
“Yes, I do,” interrupted Richard firmly, lifting his eyes to stare for a moment directly into the redheaded Starman’s eyes before dropping them again. He looked at the Starlight symbol on Zip’s uniform. “I do have to ask. This is not an assignment I can possibly order anyone to take on. This is as hazardous a mission as I’ve ever asked anyone to accept. Vital as it is in the war against the enemies of our civilization, I cannot ‘order’ anyone on this assignment. So we here,” he indicated Commander Lewis and Izmaka, “realize that we can only… ask. Perhaps even beg.” Lewis kept his eyes on the design of the tabletop, and absently traced a line with his finger. Izmaka, though expressionless, looked from one Starman to the other. Mark glanced briefly at Joe, and then looked back at Richard.
“On most of your previous assignments, you fought human enemies, and you had the support of others. Joe and Mark, when I sent you to Mars,” here Richard looked up with tender regard toward the two Starmen in turn, “to free it from pirates, you had the assistance of Steve Cliff and an active resistance in the populace. When I sent you all to find George St. George and to track down Lurton Zimbardo, you were almost always close to friends, and you did not have the assignment alone. Even when you went to Omega Centauri you went with the entire power of Tharsos and its personnel—and you were only sent to the edge of the Xenobot empire, to a section the enemy had neglected for hundreds of years.
“Now—” Here he paused, pursed his lips and looked aside for a moment, then drew his eyes back to look directly at each Starman as he began the sentence again. “Now we are asking you to go into the heart of Luxa itself, against unknown odds, with little information, and no likelihood of getting any help if you need it. Though we may be able to communicate, there’s nothing we could do to provide you with assistance should you call for it. You will be on your own. The chances of your success are unknown but probably small. Your chances of survival are hardly better than that. Frankly, Starmen,” here he raised his eyes and looked at them face to face, “I think that there is a strong likelihood that I may be asking you to take on your last command. You are Starmen and among the best we have. Only you, if anyone, can achieve this end. But I cannot order you. I—we—must ask, though I know what your answer will be.” Richard leaned back with his fingers tented and his lips pressed together.
© 2011 by David Baumann, Jonathan Cooper, Mike Dodd. All rights reserved.