Shield of the Federation
by Randy O. Green
Part SIX of six
For the second time in the battle, Shrin Tasrt stared in amazement. The Groton was launching torpedoes. Two brilliantly glowing orbs of destruction were flying toward the Romulan's down rear shield with a speed that seemed agonizingly slow. The torpedoes, obviously fired in an all or nothing gamble as a narrow salvo, traveled so close together they were almost touching. There was a sudden hush on the bridge as all eyes were drawn to the main view screen which showed the Romulan limping away.
Antonius Terralis scowled in the gloom of his bridge, the dim glow of the safety lights. The main and emergency lights were all burned out, and only the safety lights (little more than glowing strips between some of the panels) cast any light at all. They were intended to allow the bridge to be evacuated after a complete power system shutdown, nothing more.
"The warp engines are gone," the Centurion reported. "The cloak is running on reactor power. The Federation ships have lost track of us entirely, or they would still be hunting for us. They must have assumed that the entire ship exploded in that blast."
"It may as well have," Antonius Terralis shrugged.
"Major-Commander," the Centurion said, "with all respect, you must grip with your talons and face the universe as it is, not as you would have it. We are not dead, and even if we float here in space for a few weeks the ship will be recovered and rebuilt. We will all serve the Empire. At worst, your house will find you an honorable job contributing to the economy. As the fleet expands, you may even command a ship again."
"I have failed twice, Centurion," Antonius Terralis replied. "I will never command a ship again."
"You command this one now, Major-Commander," the Centurion rebuked his superior, "and your duty is not done. An eagle must soar until he lands, not until he falls. If you are going to kill yourself, be done with it and I will assume your burden, but if not, then the crew, the ship, and the Empire has further need of your service. There are repairs to make, and the crew needs to see that their commander will get them home."
"Very well, Centurion," Antonius Terralis said. "You are right, and I thank you for your words. We will bring this ship home and report our actions truthfully and the Empire will decide what is to become of us." He rose from his seat and followed the Centurion to the escape ladder. The turbolifts no longer worked.
What Terralis did not know was that in the multitude of disasters that had befallen the right wing of the invasion, his actions stood out as a near success. He would not only retain command of the Furious, but would eventually reach the exalted rank of Admiral.
Ante-Admiral Androcus Marrak of House Casifax was not pleased. In fact he was furious. Antonius Terralis had failed him. He had given the man a chance to redeem himself and he had failed utterly.
Joseph "Lucky" Arnold stared emotionlessly at the Rigellian seated across from him. The Rigellian was average size for a Rigellian, which put him at about seven feet, Arnold guessed. He was garishly clothed as seemed to be the norm on Vegas II, with a wide-brimmed purple hat, an orange shirt, and a green pair of snake skin trousers. He shook his head at the atrocious color combination, knowing it was just another attempt to unsettle his nerves.
Arnold knew it was rare to see a Rigellian on this desert planet and even rarer to see one in the occupation his opponent was in. Gambler. It was almost unheard of in Rigellian culture for one of them to take up this roguish way of life. Arnold had wasted many minutes questioning others about what the Primacy Fathers thought when one of their own became one of the best gamblers in the galaxy. He needed an edge against the Rigellian and he had hoped to find one.
In the end though, he had learned not a thing. Which left him stuck trying to decipher what his opponent was thinking. He tried to read the Rigellian's eyes, but they were hidden behind sunglasses that had snake eyes imprinted on them. He could see nothing. There was no "tell" on display.
He took a moment to look around himself. Everywhere he could see, there were cameras and video feeds, gaudily clothed beings and Tri-Vid commentators. It was amazing how popular this ancient sport brought into space by humanity had become.
He grinned, thinking back to the Day of the Eagle. His career as a gambler had been sidetracked for sixteen years by the war, most of it spent hiding in the forests and caves of McPherson's world after the Groton was destroyed, but now he was where he wanted to be. There had been little to do for the last sixteen years except play poker, and he had perfected his ability to calculate odds and read faces. There had been a Rigellian in his group, and Arnold knew every muscle of his face. He could also read the antennae of an Andorian, the cheek twitches of a Cygnan, and the ears of an Arcturian.
And now, here he was at the Galactic Series of Poker, playing in the final game. If he won this hand, he would be regarded as one of the greatest card sharks ever. His fantasy, so long delayed by the war, would become true.
But first he had to win.
He scratched absently at where the skin was still puckered on his neck from the noxious coolant fumes. The plastiskin had never grown in right and it still irritated him from time to time. He looked at the cards that had been dealt face-down before him and picked them up. Then he froze. He stared at the cards for a full minute. Then he slowly pushed all his chips into the pot.
The Rigellian looked at him for a moment, his eyes inscrutable behind the snake-eyed sunglasses. Then he looked at his hand, smiled for the first time that Arnold could remember, and pushed all of his chips into the pot. There was a sudden hush. Around them, Arnold could feel the tension build as the sports commentators spoke quietly and urgently into their microphones.
The Rigellian flipped his hand over. A straight flush. A nine, ten, Jack, Queen and King, all in the suit of clubs. Arnold felt his knees go weak, and he almost slid out of his chair. He flipped his hand over and heard everyone gasp. The audience broke into a roar, and several scantily clad females from various races ran to the table and smothered him with kisses. The Rigellian glowered at him, and then stormed away, kicking chairs out of his path and shoving his way through the crowd, yelling at the commentators that failed to move out of his way in time.
Lucky Arnold allowed a beautiful Cygnan to pull him away from the table. He was the champion of the Galactic Series. It felt good. He grinned again. The last time he had felt this good was when he had shoved two photons up a Romulan ship's warp exhaust. The smile faded as memories of the friends that had died in the war rose up before his eyes. He pushed the ghosts away. That time, he had been unable to enjoy the feeling for long. This time would be different he swore, as the beautiful Cygnan pulled him along. The crowd thinned rapidly. Within a few minutes the gargantuan room was empty. And only the ghosts of the Day of the Eagle were left to watch over the Royal Flush lying abandoned on the table