Brothers in Stars
Chapter 5: Loss
The sun, partly obscured by fluffy white clouds, shone brightly upon the rolling hills and majestic mountains of Meridell – more precisely, upon a grassy backyard guarded by a large tree and surrounded by a neat white picket fence. Within the foliage of the tree, a few Crokabeks perched on the branches, cawing to each other as they watched three Blumaroos step out onto the grass toward a small stone statue that sat in the middle of the yard.
The statue was that of another Blumaroo with curly hair and a smile as bright as the sun. Great care was taken in carving out the creases in her dress, the lace in her sleeves, and her loving face.
The yellow Blumaroo who had come out of the house with his sons had a colourful bouquet of flowers in his hands, which he laid at the foot of the statue. Engraved onto the brass plate mounted on the stone base was her name, which he whispered reverently.
“Melissa.” Reynold sighed as he straightened up, stepped back, and allowed the teenage white Blumaroos with him to crouch down and leave their own flowers. He looked straight into her eyes – fully made of stone, yet he could almost imagine them dancing with joy at the sight of him. After Reuben and Rohane left their flowers alongside his bouquet, he reached out to place his arms on their shoulders, pulling them close to either side of him and blinking back tears.
They stood there, almost like statues themselves, for a moment that seemed to stretch for an eternity.
“It’s been two years,” said Reuben slowly, shuffling on the spot nervously as though breaking the silence was punishable.
“I still miss Mom.” Rohane sniffed, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Me too.” Reuben nodded in agreement.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her,” Reynold added, his voice wavering. He wrapped his arms more tightly around both his sons, took a deep breath and tried to stand taller, gazing into the sky where two of the Crokabeks had begun to take flight. “She’s gone, but I’m still here. And I will always be here.” His hands absently ruffled the other Blumaroos’ ears.
* * *
Standing next to an open desk drawer, Reuben gingerly turned the pages of a journal with a very well-worn cover. The strings from the binding were loose, and the pages were yellow and brittle. He read the last word on the final page out loud before reverently closing the journal and staring hard at the cover that had Reynold’s name written in hasty penmanship, and Melissa’s name in neat script. Then he set the journal on top of a small stack of books that had been gathered onto the desk and surveyed the office with its bare walls and almost empty shelves.
“Yeah, Mom and Dad always wrote in that journal,” said Rohane, his tone somber as he arranged files in a crate. “After Mom died, he brought it with him here, to Perseus.”
“I bet he read it, sometimes,” Reuben answered absently, rummaging through the drawer. He pulled out several pens, stray gears, and dusty, tarnished pieces of gold stripes and stars. After laying them out on the desk, he beckoned his brother over.
“What’s – wait, I know what those are.”
“Those were your badges and chevrons from when you were a private, until you became commander,” the older white Blumaroo observed, gathering them in a pile. Beneath them was a circular pin emblazoned with a star encircled with a ring. “And this was mine.”
Rohane looked over his shoulder and nodded. “From when you were first assigned to the IT team. Weren’t these supposed to be returned to the Keeper of the Stars? That cranky Krawk general who stores the badges?”
“Yeah.” Reuben frowned as he placed the little metallic bits and bobs into a box he had found. “Do you think he just forgot, or maybe he decided to keep them as mementoes?”
“I don’t know.”
For several minutes, they cleaned up the office. The only sounds to be heard were the opening and closing of cupboard doors, the rustling of items being stashed into boxes and bags, and Rohane accidentally bumping his knee against the desk while cleaning out more stray office supplies. When the place was finally empty, they stood back and stared at it.
Reuben swallowed hard. “Guess we’ll be sending most of Dad’s stuff back to the old house at Trestin.”
They grew quiet again, the silence ringing in their ears. Rohane grimaced, wrapping his arms around himself as though a stray draft had blown into the office. His next words were a hoarse whisper.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I failed the mission.”
“What?” Reuben’s voice rose an octave as he rested a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “No. It’s not your fault.”
“He…knew what he was doing. He got you and your team out before he…”
“If he hadn’t come with us…”
Reuben shook his head vigorously. “There’s no point in thinking about that. Dad chose to accompany you,” he said, blinking several times. “Didn’t he tell us he would always be with us?”
“Well, he’s not. Not anymore.”
The two Blumaroos whipped around toward the doorway, where a grey Wocky stood there with a knapsack and another bag slung over his shoulder.
“Hal?” Reuben asked, raising his eyebrows. “Where are you going?”
“I worked with General Reynold for years,” Hal answered solemnly, adjusting the strap of his bag. “But now that he’s gone…maybe it’s time for me to move on.”
“What? You’re leaving?”
“That’s what I said.” The Wocky shrugged; his bag strap slid down to his elbow again. “I’ve notified the higher-ups. The paperwork is on your desk, Fenlix signed for you.”
“But Hal, we still need you at IT!” Reuben exclaimed, his voice wavering.
Hal frowned, looking even sadder than he usually was. “You’ll be fine without me. I’ve worked here long enough; I need a change of scenery. In fact, I recommend you two get a change of scenery yourselves. The loss of the General hit you the hardest.”
“A change of scenery,” Rohane repeated listlessly.
“Or do something to take your mind off it. Didn’t the General want to take the Stellar Ray plans to Orion? They still haven’t gotten to Orion.”
Before either white Blumaroo could say anything more, Hal continued walking down the hallway without another word, without a backwards glance, leaving the two of them in the empty office to trade uncertain looks. Reuben touched the sword-shaped flash drive hanging from his neck.
“Even before he died, he thought of the mission, and of us.”
“I know. Dad gave his life for these plans.” Reuben held up the drive. “Maybe Hal’s right. The best we can do for Dad now is finish what he started. He believed in us.”
“I’m not sure I believe in me right now,” Rohane whispered, wincing.
“Well, I believe in you, and Dad believed in you,” said Reuben. “Chin up, little bro. It’s hard, but…the Perseus Sector has to keep moving forward. The Orion Sector still needs those plans so they can get the Stellar Ray going.”
“I remember when they made me IT Chief. Hal had been with the team longer than I was, but Dad…he chose me, instead. And you were promoted quickly, too.”
“Is that how much Dad believed in us?’
“Yeah.” The older Blumaroo tried to smile again, a faint, fleeting one. “Which means we have to do this for him. Are you with me?”
At first, Rohane looked at him as though Reuben had suggested that they fire a rotten cheese wheel at Dr. Sloth’s lair, wherever that was. Then he nodded resolutely, clenching one hand into a determined fist.
“It’s time for a long talk with my crew, because it’s time for Team Alpha to head out again.”
* * *
“Are you sure about this?” asked Vega, leaning back in her chair as they watched a lone starship traverse its way through space. “You and the Captain…” The pink Aisha’s voice trailed off and she glanced furtively at the alien Aisha chatting with the cloud Poogle at the coffee machine. “Ugh, I can’t even imagine it.”
“Isn’t it too late for you to be asking the chief that?” asked Pyxis. A trail of numbers scrolled across his screen as he furiously typed. “Got a message from Logistics…no, it’s a chain letter. ‘Send this to ten recipients and receive ten thousand Neopoints in a week. Guaranteed! This is not a joke!’ Sheesh.” The orange Grundo scowled as he moved the mail icon to the recycle bin.
Reuben punched in a few commands into his control panel. The map tracking the progress of the spaceship lit a path through the stars and listed the pertinent coordinates, which he scribbled onto a notepad. “We both agreed that we want to complete Dad’s last mission. We chose a longer route, but it should be safer. Judging from Rohane’s last captain’s log, they haven’t encountered anything or anyone.” The white Blumaroo stood up and stretched his arms. “Vega, Pyxis, can you two monitor the Gemini for a while? Let me know if Team Alpha has a message, I just need a cup of coffee.”
“You always need a cup of coffee,” Pyxis quipped as he parked himself in front of Reuben’s monitor. “How many have you had tonight since Captain Rohane and his crew left for the Orion Sector?”
“This is just my second!”
The alien Aisha left the coffee machine, a slight limp in his step, to sit next to Vega, his face extremely deadpan. “I almost envy Hal. He doesn’t have to put up with all your shenanigans, wherever he is.”
“Very funny,” Pyxis and Reuben retorted together.
“I didn’t know Hal worked with General Reynold for a long time,” said Vega.
“They go way back,” Fenlix explained. “They were classmates in the Academy before pursuing different fields. I imagine the General’s death was rougher on him than we think, since he respected him so much.”
“That’s right,” Reuben added, blowing on the steam rising from his filled cup of coffee. He sighed. “I was hoping Hal would stay and help us, but we can’t force him. Besides, he’s already done so much for Perseus, the guy needs a vacation. Anyway, Pyxis, what’s the status?”
Pyxis punched in several buttons on Reuben’s computer, and the view zoomed more closely to the Gemini.
“So far, so good. No one’s following them.” The orange Grundo stood up to allow Reuben to sit at his computer again, sipped his coffee and begin typing a line of code into his keyboard. The view zoomed away from the spaceship, and what he saw caused him to emit a strangled gasp, nearly knocking over his coffee.
“Chief?!” Elise cried.
“What’s wrong?” Pyxis asked. He was halfway back to his station when he scurried back toward Reuben. Then he and the cloud Poogle looked up at the projection of the map on the wall. Vega and Fenlix saw it too.
The Gemini was headed straight for the nearest star, a bright, burning globe that rivalled the Neopian sun.
“T-T-That wasn’t in the flight path!” Elise shrieked. She swooped down onto her computer and madly punched at the keys. “Abort, abort! Why isn’t it aborting!”
“Let me try!” The map flickered and zoomed in and out on Fenlix’s monitor, but to no avail. The ship continued to move toward the star.
“Why isn’t Rohane saying anything?” the white Blumaroo shouted as he grabbed the speaker from his desk. “Rohane, you and your team are headed for a star! Change course because we can’t change it!” A heavy weight seemed to descend slowly from his throat and into his stomach. “Hey! Pick up!” He pounded his table, causing a minor folder avalanche and a splash of coffee on the surface.
“I’m in the ship’s security system,” Fenlix announced. “Vega got me in, but there’s a problem.”
“We got hold of the last security footage, which is Team Alpha walking into their simulation booths on the Gemini,” said the pink Aisha as she played the video over the projection of the map. Her face fell. “This was an hour ago. There is no new footage afterwards. We’re going to play back the rest of it to see if we can find any clue about what’s going on.”
Elise extended a hand toward Vega. “Send me and Pyxis the rest of the footage, we’ll help you go through it.”
“No, I need you two to try and connect to the Gemini,” Reuben interrupted. “Hack into their system, see if you can change its course. Vega, you said they went into the simulation booths?”
“Maybe I can contact Rohane through there.”
To be continued…