Brothers in Stars
Chapter 8: To Believe
The Perseus Sector’s IT Team stared at their screens, dumbfounded, at the message that was flashed.
Give me the Stellar Ray of Precision Plans through this simulation, or Team Alpha’s next destination will be to the center of a star.
The words lingered on their computers before vanishing, and everyone’s work returned to their monitors as though nothing had happened. Pyxis breathed a sigh of relief and hurriedly saved his progress in trying to recalibrate the Gemini’s flight path – which was, honestly, no progress at all.
“The Stellar Ray plans in exchange for Team Alpha,” said Reuben slowly, knuckling his temples. “This is a hostage situation.”
“Dad and I are gonna trace the transmission, see if we can find out where it came from,” said Vega. “And we’ll have to hope Team Alpha does their part to get out of the simulation and can find out something we can use.”
“We need to find something, anything, that will tell us the identity of our mystery hacker.” Reuben angrily stared at his empty coffee mug before looking up and around at his team. “There’s no time for me to rest. Each minute the Gemini gets closer to certain doom! Which means I need another cup of coffee. Where are they now?”
Elise glanced over his shoulder at the simulation progress and saw the unmistakable silhouettes of an Acara and a Blumaroo walking away from a winter town through the beginnings of a snowstorm.
“I think they already figured out what they need to do next,” the cloud Poogle said. “Come on, Chief. You need a nap. How many cups of coffee have you already had?”
“I lost track after seven,” mumbled Reuben.
“Wait,” Fenlix made himself heard over the hubbub. “The hacker broke into our system. We better check if we’re missing any data or files. What if that was a sweep of our system to see if they could extract the Stellar Ray plans from our computers?”
“I’m running a virus scan now,” said Pyxis. “So far so good.”
Vega stood up from her seat and walked over to Reuben, who was feverishly typing again. “You’ve done enough. Can’t you leave this to us for a few hours? If anything happens, we’ll wake you up.”
The white Blumaroo shook his head vigorously. “No. They’re in a more difficult part of the simulation, and this is just going to get even more difficult as they go. And we still need to figure out how to tell them about their situation.” He groaned loudly. “And, Dad never gave me directions for this stupid failsafe!”
“You seriously can’t keep going, can you?”
“Well, there’s your problem.”
“What is it?” asked Vega, Elise, and Reuben together.
Fenlix pointed to his computer screen, which had become a mess of static. His four long ears twitched with agitation. “Pyxis said the scan of our system is turning up clean, right? Well, we can’t say the same for the Gemini. No wonder we couldn’t punch through to them apart from short messages and clues – their data lines are clogged. The sentinel program I built for the Gemini and the ships of the Perseus Sector has been locked away.”
“How do you even lock away an anti-virus program?” said Elise, hurrying over to squint at the alien Aisha’s computer.
“Either have to be a really skilled hacker…or someone who knows the program well enough to overwrite it…”
“Or,” Pyxis offered, “create a virus powerful enough to beat the sentinel.”
* * *
Wind roared, snow fell, and in the distance, a monster howled its challenge to the skies and was answered by several more. Three adventurers huddled under a rock overhang as they gazed out at the pure white landscape waiting for them.
“You’d think someone would be selling a map in the Mountainside Inn, but noooooo,” Mipsy grumbled, drawing her brown fur-lined coat more tightly around her. Her wand stuck out from a front pocket. “Are you sure no one was able to give us a map or some instructions in that inn?”
Talinia shook her head. “No. While I was trapped there, I tried asking everyone there, but couldn’t get anything much. They mentioned monsters and the Snowager disappearing, though. So, we know we’re going to have to fight our way out of this part of the simulation.” The green Eyrie turned toward the white Blumaroo beside her, who had drawn a shining sword from his belt. Notably, another sword was sheathed at his side – one that had seen better days. “Captain, you said your brother was trying to send you hints.”
“That’s right,” said Rohane. The three of them watched as a small group of frost Spyders skittered past and desperately tried not to get blown away. “We found arrows through the last batch of caves we were in that helped us get through.”
“Couldn’t he have just hacked and taken out every single monster in those caves?” asked the blue Acara, whose fingers were closed over her wand.
“If he could, he would’ve done that already. But whatever or whoever’s keeping us locked in the simulation booths is probably also keeping IT from reaching us.” He leaned against the stone wall behind them, planting his sword point down into the snow.
The Eyrie looked at him in askance, noting his other sword. “By the way, why do you have two swords?”
“Oh.” Rohane chuckled sheepishly. “When I woke up in the simulation, I was at the replica of my old home back in Meridell, and my mom – well, Reuben really did make a simulation of our mom – gave me what was supposed to be my dad’s old sword.”
“General Reynold’s sword?”
He shook his head. “No. It’s just part of the simulation. But it did help me until I could buy new swords, and for some reason, sometimes it feels warm.” The Blumaroo closed his fingers over the old rusty hilt, the look in his eyes melancholy. “The comfortable kind of warm.”
Mipsy and Talinia fell silent, both raising their hands as though wanting to give their leader a reassuring pat on the back, or a hug. But they quickly withdrew their arms when they heard a chorus of ululating howls and tensed.
“What do we do now?” Talinia’s eyes were on a mountain Lupe that had climbed up on a snowy hill, a lone sentinel in the middle of the storm. “Are we just going to wait for Reuben to try and get something through again?”
Mipsy gasped. “Look!”
The cold air whipped past them, rippling through coats and sleeves. Then it whirled into the snow before them, carving out a sunken path in the middle. Over the wind was a passing, distorted voice.
“…middle road…next obstacle…”
It was Rohane’s turn to gasp. “Reuben!”
“You heard him again?” Mipsy stared at him.
“I think I heard it too,” said Talinia, tilting her head to one side. “There was something over the storm that didn’t sound natural. Maybe, since Reuben is communicating directly with Captain Rohane, he would be able to hear most of whatever he’s saying.”
“So, what did he say?” the Acara pressed.
“The middle…then that’s where we’re going!” Rohane plucked his sword from where he had placed it. “Come on! Brace yourselves. It’s time to fight our way through.”
Talinia nocked an arrow to her bow and narrowed her eyes at a few more mountain Lupes gathering near the first one. “I could really use a blaster right now.”
* * *
The various lines of code and numbers seemed to blend and meld together before Reuben’s sight. He blinked and clutched his forehead while clutching a full mug of coffee in a free hand. Then he looked away to focus on the map on the other screen, which depicted dark, damp caves – and Rohane, Mipsy and Talinia running through them before turning around to engage two amber dervishes in battle.
“Seems fitting for the markswoman of the Sagittarius Sector to have a bow and arrow in the simulation,” Fenlix noted as he passed by and placed a small bowl of peanuts on whatever free space he could find on Reuben’s desk. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Reuben muttered. “Any luck with the Gemini’s data lines?”
“No, not so far.”
The white Blumaroo seated at his desk took the peanuts and absently put one in his mouth. After chewing, he remarked, “Rohane and the others are having much better luck than we are. They’re real troopers, fighting through Terror Mountain.” He sighed.
“They have your help,” said Fenlix. “You got through to them again, didn’t you?”
“It’s not enough.”
“I know.” The alien Aisha nodded sagely and looked around at their workplace, where Elise, Pyxis and Vega were all fast asleep – or in Elise’s case, tossing and turning on her table. “But this is the best we can do for now, and we have to believe in Team Alpha, too. They’re doing everything they can, on their end. Don’t you believe in your brother?”
“Of course I do.” Reuben stared at the bowl as though the answers to all their problems could be found in the peanuts. “I’m just worried about him and the others, that’s all.”
“You have to believe in us, too. We’re a team. That’s why my daughter wanted you to take a break. You’re probably going to say I’m not your dad, but I may as well be everyone’s dad in IT.” Fenlix chuckled. “And as Team Nerd’s resident dad, I say you have to take care of yourself. You haven’t slept since we tried to reestablish a connection with the Gemini and Fyora knows how many cups of coffee you’ve had since then.”
Reuben decided to forlornly eat another peanut.
“Rohane and I lost our mom years ago, and Dad died in the line of duty. I just don’t want to lose my brother, too. Not after I promised I would protect him with everything I’ve got.”
“But if you keep pushing yourself like this, you’re bound to collapse. We don’t want to lose you either and there’s no doubt Rohane would feel the same way. He’s not going to fight his way out of the training simulation just to find you sprawled on the floor out cold. Think of what he’d say.”
“He’d say…” The Blumaroo took a deep breath and smiled ruefully. “He’d say I’ve been drinking too much coffee and working too much again. Maybe even kick me for good measure.”
Fenlix’s eyes twinkled with mild mischief. “And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“Trust me, you do not want a kick from him.”
A notification chime came from one of Reuben’s computers. Fenlix and Reuben turned to see what it was about – and saw the Snowager emerge from its cave to face Rohane, Mipsy and Talinia. A rolling line of text appeared at the bottom of the screen as the Snowager began to speak.
“The goal of the Terror Mountain simulation was to free the Snowager, which turned out to be my sentinel program!” the alien Aisha exclaimed. “Well, I’ll be a Mirgle’s uncle, Team Alpha took one for us!”
“You made your program look like the Snowager?”
“No! Not on purpose, at least.” Fenlix squinted at the scene playing out on the screen. “Wait, this should mean the data lines are clear, but they’re not! I see…they have to find another program that can unclog the lines.”
“Pyxis was right,” added Reuben. “The hacker inserted a virus into the system. It must be blurring the lines between the computer system and the training simulation.” He cursed under his breath. “They’re going to pay for trapping my brother and wrecking my – no, our hard work.”
The Aisha frowned, lines forming on his forehead. “If Team Alpha reached the sentinel program and must now search for the librarian – “
“The Library Fast Retrieval Archive.” The Blumaroo snapped his fingers. “Of course. LFRA. If we can get hold of that program, we can use it as a mouthpiece to tell Rohane what’s really going on.”
The image on the screen changed from white and grey to a vast expanse of yellow, beige and brown before zooming into a city in the middle of the desert – Sakhmet.
Fenlix gaped at Reuben. “I thought we only had two training simulations?”
His superior was equally dumbfounded. “We do. I wonder if this is more of the virus’ handiwork.”
“This means Team Alpha’s search is far from over.”
Reuben breathed in and straightened up in his seat. “When this mission started, I told Rohane I believed in him. It’s time to prove it. It’s time to believe.”
But just as he said that, the Lost Desert vanished from the monitor, to be replaced with glowing green text read aloud by a distorted, robotic voice.
“Your time is running out. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
To be continued…