Brothers in Stars
Chapter 10: The Final Boss
General Reynold sat at his desk, storing something that Hal could not see into his drawer. What Hal could see, however, were the bookshelves on the walls of the yellow Blumaroo’s office, a nondescript file cabinet, a corkboard with star charts and a to-do list tacked onto it, and framed pictures of Reynold with his family, four Blumaroos full of joy.
The grey Wocky crossed the room to stand in front of the desk.
“General. We need to talk.”
“What is it?” Reynold asked, clasping his hands onto the surface of his table, which didn’t have much aside from his brass nameplate, a pen holder, and a couple of closed folders.
“How long have we been working together at Perseus?”
Reynold’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “I believe it’s been seven years. Why?”
Hal folded his arms across his chest and looked the general straight in the eye. “And how long has your son been with our department?”
The Blumaroo opened and closed his mouth. “Is this about Reuben being promoted to IT Chief? The other generals approved his recommendation.”
“So, you admit that you promoted him over me. After all these years I’ve spent working under you, General Reynold…”
“Hal. Are you accusing me of favouritism?”
“If the boot fits,” Hal replied swiftly, his eyes narrowed.
“We promoted Reuben because we saw great potential in him,” said Reynold, standing up from his seat, hands behind his back. He didn’t shrink back from Hal’s glare. “He learns fast, he graduated from the Academy as one of its top students, and I know I can trust him.”
Seething, the grey Wocky shot back in a subdued but venomous voice, “And you can’t trust me? Even now?”
“It’s not that, Hal. You have to understand – “
“Oh, I understand. I understand plenty, General.”
* * *
There was a lull in the control room after Reuben named their mystery hacker. Vega was the first to break the silence.
“Hal,” the pink Aisha said steadily. “You think he’s the one responsible for everything that’s happening to us and the Gemini?”
“I don’t think, I know,” the white Blumaroo corrected her as he headed for his desk. “Someone who knows about the Stellar Ray plans, someone who can hack into our own training simulation and into the Gemini, someone who can turn the computer system of the Gemini into a simulation. And remember, he left after Dad died, saying he couldn’t work at Perseus anymore.”
“But why would he want the plans?” Pyxis asked. “And more importantly, all that time he was with us…he could’ve stolen them at any time! Like when the folder was handed off to General Reynold before he boarded the Fornax!”
Reuben shook his head and stood next to his workspace. “No. This is more than the Stellar Ray plans.” He gasped softly and began to pace. All eyes were on him. “When Rohane and I cleaned out Dad’s office, we found our old badges, stars, and pins from before the two of us were promoted. Normally, old badges are sent back into storage, but Dad kept ours. Dad accompanied Rohane on his first mission as captain. And more importantly, even though Hal and Dad worked together for years, I was promoted to IT Chief, not him.”
The orange Grundo goggled at him. “Then, it’s a revenge plot.”
“Hal could have tipped someone off about theFornax’s last voyage.” Reuben stopped, pulled up a chair, and sat down next to Vega at his position. The pink Aisha promptly vacated that seat and hurried back to her father’s side.
After a quick glance at the monitor that told him Team Alpha was still trekking through the Haunted Woods, which was lit by more sunshine than was normal for the place but was as grim as ever, Reuben picked up the speaker, breathed in, and spoke loud and clear.
“Hal. Can you hear me? We know you’re the one who trapped Team Alpha in the simulation. Let them go. Rohane has nothing to do with you not getting promoted.”
At first, there was no response, and everyone’s computer screens showed endless lines of code, several program windows open at once, text documents, or the path of the Gemini headed toward certain doom. Then the face of a disgruntled grey Wocky appeared on Reuben’s second screen, right next to the one depicting the Haunted Woods.
“Took you long enough,” he sneered, a terrible expression on a grey Neopet. “But you know this also has something to do with your brother. I have had enough of Reynold’s brats rising through the ranks, so I tipped off some of Garoo’s minions about the Stellar Ray plans.”
“But did you have to get Reynold killed?” Fenlix protested. “Hal, you two worked together for years!”
“And what did that get me?” Hal snarled. “The honour of being bypassed for his son?” For a moment, he looked genuinely contrite. “I admit, I didn’t expect Reynold to die. But he deserved it. Everyone respected him, turning a blind eye to how he favours his sons above everyone else!” Then his face morphed into a horrible grin, and he laughed breathily before leaning in closely. “Did you really think you were a hotshot, making Chief of the IT department, Reuben? In the end, all you and your little brother ever had was your daddy pulling the strings to get you what you wanted!”
Reuben froze. Hal’s grin widened, which probably took a herculean effort on his part.
“Reynold was a pathetic, sentimental fool who would burn all of Perseus down just for his worthless sons. And I was right. You still haven’t freed poor Team Alpha from the Gemini’s computer system. But if you give me the Stellar Ray of Precision plans, I might be persuaded.”
“After my dad died to keep them away from jerks like you, not on your life,” the white Blumaroo retorted, but his tone was subdued and uncertain.
“Your brother’s life it is, then.”
Hal’s face vanished from the screen, leaving Reuben to sit motionlessly and silently, staring at nothing as a chill ran down his spine and all the way to the tip of his tail.
“Reuben?” Vega reached out to touch his shoulder.
“Are you all right?” asked Elise.
“Rohane and I always thought we had worked hard enough to get promoted,” whispered Reuben, slumping in his seat. “But what if Hal is right? Dad really did play favourites, didn’t he?”
Fenlix rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “Well, he isn’t wrong about your dad playing favourites.” Reuben moved to say something; the alien Aisha cut him off with a wave of his hand. “But he’s wrong about you and Captain Rohane being worthless.”
“Maybe he did treat you differently, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t talented,” Vega added. “You don’t hear the rest of us complaining about our work being your dad’s ‘family business’.” At those last two words, she made air quotes with her fingers and rolled her eyes. “Besides, building that training simulation shows that you’re really good with the tech and coding.”
“General Reynold believed in you, sure, but we also believe in you, Chief,” said Elise. “Your brother believes in you.”
“Why? I haven’t even been able to pull Team Alpha out of the simulation or change their ship’s course.” Reuben buried his head in his hands. “And it took me this long to realize that it was Hal all along…”
“You will get them out,” said Pyxis, giving him an encouraging smile. “We’re dealing with a former member of Team Nerd here, but if there’s anyone here who can out-nerd old Hal, it’s you.”
Vega squeezed Reuben’s shoulder. “Look, the longer you sit there goggling like a Meepit, the longer Captain Rohane and the others have to march around in all that virtual muck looking for answers. We can’t do this without you.”
“Besides,” Fenlix pointed out, “are you going to let Hal get to you like that after you got promoted over him?”
That elicited a short chuckle from the Blumaroo.
“Thanks, guys.” He straightened up and grinned. “Thanks for believing in me. It’s time to show Hal why I deserved that promotion.”
* * *
“Duck!” Talinia cried while perched on a thick bough of a dried-out oak. All around her, other bare trees extended their gnarled branches to the midday sky as though imploring the sun to grant them even a short respite.
Mipsy let out a squeaky scream as she ducked. The spell blast from a robed, bearded red Chia singed her ears and reduced a mossy log into splinters, prompting her to cover her face. Then she retaliated, flicking her wand and creating a jet of sparkling crimson light toward the Chia’s general direction.
“Any word from Reuben? We could really use his help!” the green Eyrie called out as she nocked two arrows to her bow and let them fly toward a charging blue Chia in armour. Cackling recklessly, he dodged the arrows, swung his sword, and met Rohane’s broadsword with an almighty clang that echoed throughout the woods.
“Me too, but we can’t keep depending on him every step of the way!” the white Blumaroo yelled as he and the blue Chia continued crossing swords, neither of them gaining the advantage as they kicked up dead leaves and dust.
Velm yelped when his boot sank into a particularly wet and unpleasant patch of grime while evading a yellow Chia’s staff strike. As he pulled his foot out, it made a squelching sound. Before he could do anything else, Talinia felled the Chia with a well-placed arrow, the staff flying into a muddy patch of grass. The red Chia was hurled backwards into a tree after Mipsy blasted him into it, and the blue Chia crumpled to his knees before Rohane, dropping his bronze sword.
The red Techo breathed a sigh of relief, placing a gauntleted hand on Mipsy’s ears to heal them. “We’re not depending on your brother, but we are stuck in a simulation on our ship while it’s headed for a star! We could use all the help we can get!”
“I know Reuben’s doing his best, whatever he’s doing!” Rohane retorted, sheathing his blade.
“Then why are we still stuck in our ship’s computer?” Velm threw up his hands. “I can’t even tell what’s reality and what’s not at this point…”
“Have you even been in my shoes, or Mipsy’s? The two of us really thought we were adventurers! I thought I lived here!”
The blue Acara couldn’t help but comment, “It was fun, until, you know, we found out we were headed for the nearest star!”
“I never even wanted to think of myself as an adventurer!” The Techo raised his voice steadily as though wanting to be heard by someone else besides his team.
Talinia cleared her throat. “Guys. Did those Chias drop something?”
Rohane and Velm stopped arguing, and the latter started picking up gold pieces from where the yellow Chia and the red Chia had been. “Oh, here’s a healing potion…”
“This one hasn’t vanished yet,” said Rohane, pointing to the armoured blue Chia. “Wait, I think he wants to say something.”
The blue Chia had indeed opened his mouth to say something as his entire body flickered. The Blumaroo took a big step back when he heard the voice of his older brother issuing from their fallen opponent.
“Hey, bro?” This time, the voice was clear, unmistakable, and uninterrupted. “I believe you and your team can get out, but I need you to believe in me, too. Trust me.”
At that last word, the Chia finally dissolved, leaving a shining sword with an ornate brass hilt on the ground. Rohane finally unfroze, bending down to pick up the sword, before focusing on his team with a determined gleam in his eyes.
“We need to believe in him,” he said, his tone – and the glistening sword in his hand – leaving no room for argument. “But I believe in us, too. I believe we’ve gotten stronger as we defeated the previous simulations. Let’s finish this so we can get out of here.” He turned on his heel and marched onward without even glancing behind to see if the others were following him.
* * *
One of Reuben’s monitors read, “Father’s Sword.exe, extracting 60%.” He typed madly, creating more lines of text underneath the command box. The other screen showed Team Alpha dashing through the glistening pink, lavender and purple halls of Faerie Palace.
“This is bad,” Pyxis reported grimly. “The Gemini is less than two hours away from impact! The virus really has gotten faster! What else can we do?”
“Scream?” Vega offered. “Panic?”
“Besides scream and/or panic,” the orange Grundo clarified. “We already did that when we found out that the Haunted Woods got eternal sunshine because the Gemini’s protection programs backfired when it tried to take down Hal’s virus.”
“He must have done something to cause the Gemini’s anti-virus programs to malfunction, too.” Fenlix paused to take a swig from his coffee mug. “But he didn’t get my sentinel program.”
“No, but I was able to trap it even for a while.”
Hal’s voice startled the IT team, but once that initial moment of surprise was over, they simply glared at the face of the grey Wocky on Elise’s monitor before carrying on their efforts to hack into the Gemini’s system. Vega even stuck her tongue out at him before turning back to her work.
“Still not giving me the plans, I see.”
Reuben narrowed his eyes, biting back a curse when he got an error while decoding his father’s failsafe program. “Go away, Hal. Your new boss must be calling you.”
“You said you tipped Garoo off about the plans when they were headed to Orion,” said the white Blumaroo as nonchalantly as possible, without looking at Hal. “Working with him? Or maybe, with Sloth himself?”
The Wocky growled. “Never mind what I’m doing now. Give me the plans!”
“Can’t you take no for an answer?” Reuben couldn’t help but smirk. “Just like when you couldn’t take no from Dad when he promoted me instead of you.”
“Just for that, let’s see your brother fight off one of my rogue programs!” Grinning widely, Hal raised a finger and made a big show of pressing a button somewhere off-screen. He cackled until his image vanished from the screen and Elise breathed a sigh of relief.
Vega scolded Reuben. “Did you really have to bait him?” But he didn’t even glance away from the failsafe program he continued to unpack. His progress had moved up to 70%.
“First of all, I couldn’t resist. Second, they’ve made it through four simulations, including the crazy ones Hal made to trap them in their starship’s computer. At this point, they can take on anything, and we’ll be here to back them up.” Finally, he decided to shift his attention to the simulation of Faerie Palace, where the so-called Faerie Thief was engaged in a battle with Team Alpha. When she took flight, Talinia did the same to chase her down with a spray of arrows. From down below, Mipsy and Velm fired off multicoloured blasts of magic. Those spells and the Faerie Thief’s own brand of magic destroyed nearby crates and barrels and left ashen marks all over the posts and floors.
“How are they doing?” Fenlix called, straightening up from his chair and clutching his back. “Ooh, back. I’m getting too old for this.”
Reuben couldn’t help but smile proudly as he watched Rohane parry and block the Faerie Thief’s long dagger before knocking her out by striking her with the hilt of his sword. Sprawled on the floor, the Faerie Thief’s body disappeared in a puff of violet mist, leaving behind a large bag of gold, some healing potions, and a few weapons. “So much for Hal’s ‘rogue program’. Now come on, are we going to let them beat us to the virus?”
“Your brother really is a pathfinder,” the alien Aisha said. “Meanwhile, we’ve been able to take down some of the minor viruses that have spawned in the computer system. We can buy some time, but unless we find and destroy the virus Hal let loose in the system, we’ve got nothing.” He leaned back in his chair and stretched before placing his fingers on his keyboard again. “Or, unless General Reynold really does have one last trick up his sleeve.”
“Pathfinder,” the white Blumaroo mused to himself, scratching his cheek. “Pathfinder…The Pathfinder.” He bolted upright in his seat. “Wait!” He scanned the letters and numbers on his screen, scrolled down, and gasped. “What if…”
“What if what?”
“The Pathfinder! The constellation Rohane is named for!” Reuben began typing, copying, and rearranging bits and pieces of the code. “I was wondering why there were so many R’s scattered in this part of the code!”
Pyxis perked up from where he was monitoring how close the Gemini was getting to the star. “Nice! Did you get it?”
“Almost! If I can assemble the constellation within the code…” Reuben let out a whoop and jumped up from his seat, punching the air with his fist. “Yes! I’m in! I’ve got it! Now all that’s left to do is steer Team Alpha to the end!”
“To the virus!” Fenlix proclaimed before wincing. “Ugh, I think I need a pillow for my back. Serious pain-age.”
* * *
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Velm nervously. “We defeated Terask, and now we have to find Fyora, but we’re still running into monsters along the way.” A Halloween Nimmo dropped down from the rafters of the ceiling and hissed at the group, but a well-placed blast from Mipsy’s wand drove him away. “What does it mean? I thought Terask would be the big virus we were looking for.”
A large Skeith blocked their path to a staircase and bared his sharp claws. He swiped, only to meet polished steel.
“These are definitely not the viruses we’re looking for,” said Rohane through gritted teeth as he disengaged to find an opening. Talinia drew her bow and fired, prompting the Skeith to try and dodge. He charged at them but howled in pain upon contact with a wall of flames that Mipsy had conjured out of nowhere. Though he lashed out again, he eventually met his end by Rohane’s sword.
“And we’re still trapped.” Mipsy made a face and threw up her hands as they walked up the stairs. “I’ve had enough of being a wizard, can I go back to being regular Lieutenant Mipsy again?”
They emerged into the topmost room of the tower, and saw the Faerie Queen frozen in one spot at the far end. As they approached her, the floor beneath their feet began to shake and creak. Debris and dust began to rain down from the ceiling, prompting them to shield their faces and heads, but when the sounds of cracking and crumbling grew louder, they ducked behind a large column in time to see a gigantic, four-armed red Draik crash into the tower room, roaring his challenge.
“Oh, dung,” muttered Velm.
* * *
“Oh, dung.” Reuben’s jaw dropped. “I thought that was too easy, guiding them to the virus and all.”
“Too easy?” Pyxis repeated in sheer disbelief. “Your brother and his friends nearly got stomped by a huge red Draik! And now that red Draik is back, bigger and badder than ever!”
The white Blumaroo pulled up the Father’s Sword.exe program again. “Dad, is this all you’ve got? Did you even think of mutating viruses? Because Hal sure did!”
Hal’s face appeared on Reuben’s screen before disappearing and then emerging on Fenlix’s, giving the alien Aisha a nasty surprise. “Oh, I certainly did. Years of practicing with information tech and coding teaches you a lot of useful things.”
Reuben spread his arms. “Look, I’m sorry you didn’t get promoted, but can you just leave us alone? We’ve had enough of your stupid games!”
“And stop popping up like that!” Vega complained, stamping her foot from where she was stretching her arms.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the Wocky drawled. “I have come this far to take revenge on Reynold and his family. Let’s face it, you have nothing left, and their starship is still headed for certain doom. For the last time, where are the Stellar Ray plans? I won’t ask again.”
“Then don’t ask again,” Reuben shot back. “I’m going to get my brother out without giving you the plans! I have one more trick up my sleeve!”
“Oh? Humour me. What is it?”
“You’ll see,” was the automatic reply. No one saw the Blumaroo cross his fingers briefly behind his back.
“Suit yourselves.” Hal shrugged before leaving yet again without another word.
Vega strode back to her workspace, but not without glancing at her father’s computer just to make sure Hal was no longer around. “What do we do now, Chief?”
“We’re starting to hit roadblocks. The rogue data and programs are getting harder and harder to stamp out,” said Pyxis. “Does this mean there’s more to the General’s program?”
Reuben knuckled his temples. “Ugh. I decoded the program, and for what? Nothing! This can’t be the end. This can’t be all Father’s Sword is good for!” He gazed upward and shook his head in frustration. “Some sword it turned out to be. I guided Rohane and his crew straight into a…a…”
“A what?” Pyxis blinked.
“A…” The Blumaroo’s eyes widened. “A sword…Dad’s sword…” He gritted his teeth and clapped his palm against his forehead. “All this time I thought he was having fun naming his program, but the clue was there all along!”
“What clue?” asked Fenlix urgently. “What is it?”
Reuben slapped his hands to his cheeks. “The program is named ‘Father’s Sword’. Rohane was given an old sword that was supposed to be from his dad, when he still thought he was part of the simulation!” He took a deep breath, stared hard at the code on his computer, and began to type and edit it. Suddenly, it was as if it were only him breaking through to the simulation, the rest of the sounds and conversation of the control room muted and distant.
It was just him, the code, and the image of his younger brother fighting a grotesque Draik that had taken over Faerieland.
* * *
Terask raised his claws into the air, and a huge ball of crackling, flaming energy gathered between them. This he hurled toward Team Alpha, which scattered in four different directions to avoid the magical blast – Talinia flew up onto a rafter that was exposed when the Draik had crashed into the tower room, Mipsy and Velm dived aside to the left and to the right, while Rohane backed away, tripped over an upset tile, and fell, facing their adversary and breathing hard. His armour was scuffed, scratched, and scorched in several places.
“Captain, he’s too strong!” Talinia cried from above as she fired a salvo of arrows. They just scratched Terask’s scales, and he reached up to swat her like an annoying petpetpet. Before she could evade his palm, she was sent plummeting to the floor.
“Commander!” Velm hollered, sprinting for her and raising his staff to cast a healing spell. The Draik reared up, ready to blast them again, but this time, the red Techo held out his staff. “Protection of Infinity!” A delicate, misty veil descended upon himself and his teammates, and Terask’s next spell struck the shield with a sound like that of a ringing gong. But Velm and Talinia were safe.
The same could not be said for Rohane, who had to dodge flames from Terask’s mouth. He yelped; his tail was singed, and Velm was still busy tending to the fallen green Eyrie. The shield had managed to keep most of the heat away, but it hurt nevertheless. The white Blumaroo hid behind the column in the tower room, trying to think of something to do. Unfortunately, the pain from Terask’s flames was clouding his judgment.
But it was strange; the uncomfortable warmth had radiated from his tail to his hip. When he glanced down at the old sword strapped to his belt, he noticed that the sheathed blade was glowing with a faint white light.
And in that moment, Reuben’s voice pierced through his skull like a bolt from the blue.
“Use that sword! Father’s Sword!”
“What?” Rohane said again, more than a little confused. But he heard nothing else, except a scream from Mipsy, who was knocked backwards and slid onto the tiles, the hem of her robe smoking.
It was now or never.
Dropping the ornate sword he had been using, he drew the old sword that he had carried with him ever since he left “Trestin”, the sword that had helped him gain his bearings in this simulation until he and the others figured out how to navigate it. Then he ran toward Terask and swung with all his might at the Draik’s exposed flank. As he did so, a ghostly figure of a weathered Blumaroo reared up from the rusty blade, from whom Terask shrank back in fright.
“Leave my son alone!”
“General Reynold?” Talinia said, her voice barely a whisper as she watched the scene with bemused eyes.
“No way!” Velm shouted as Terask reeled in agony when Rohane finally recovered enough to strike again. “That old sword…”
Mipsy struggled to get back onto her feet. “We can talk about that old sword later! We have to help the Captain!”
“It looks like it’s not just the Captain,” Talinia noted. Each time the ancient blade slashed and cut, the ghostly Blumaroo was always there, crying out for vengeance and in anger. And each time, Terask howled as though the steel was made of caustic poison.
* * *
On Reuben’s computer screen, the grotesque Draik writhed in agony as he succumbed to the combined efforts of Team Alpha to defeat him. Mipsy fired a blast of blinding yellow light at about the same time Talinia shot several more arrows while Rohane blocked Terask’s claws with the old sword in his hand. Eventually, Terask crumpled to the floor, never to raise another claw or cast another spell. The simulation of Fyora unfroze and approached her four rescuers. After a brief mention of “rebuilding” after the alleged chaos in Faerieland, the image on the screen vanished.
Elise let out a cry of joy. “They did it! They defeated the virus!” Vega and Pyxis jumped up and gave each other a high five.
“Simulation doors open! They’ve got control of the starship again!” Fenlix announced. “Uber pwnage!”
“Now they just have to steer the starship to safety,” Reuben reminded them. “Stand by in case they need help. It’ll be faster if they do it themselves, but…”
Pyxis gestured wildly to the map. “No, they’re doing it! The Gemini’s shields are damaged from getting so close to the star, but it’s turning away!”
“We did it!” Elise did a little jig.
“Yes!” Reuben smiled so widely the corners of his mouth ached. He sniffed and reached out for his computer speaker, clearing his throat before he adopted a more businesslike tone of voice. “Well, Hal? I told you I had one final trick. No, we had one final trick.”
There was silence at first until Hal responded, his voice sullen and somber like it always was. “So what? Now you’ll be sending the old generals after me? Curses, foiled by Reynold’s brats again.”
“No,” was the simple reply. “Failing to get the plans for whoever your boss is should be enough of a punishment for you.”
Hal mumbled something inaudible.
“But before you go and take whatever punishment that’s going to be, I’ll tell you one thing.” Reuben inhaled slowly before continuing. “Look, I’m sorry about your promotion. I probably should’ve turned it down or called Dad out for playing favourites. That’s all. We’ll be blocking your transmissions from now on; we’re done. I have someone more important to talk to.”
He switched off his speaker before the grey Wocky could say anything more.
“Pyxis, can you connect us to the Gemini’s comms?”
“You got it,” the orange Grundo answered, saluting. “We should be able to get through without the virus, and…there we go!”
At first it was only the sound of crackling static. Reuben swallowed hard when he finally heard his brother’s voice.
“Rohane. Is everyone all right?”
“We just managed to steer the starship to safety. We’re all okay…thanks to you and the rest of IT.”
Reuben sighed and sniffed again, blinking rapidly.
“Are you crying?” Elise asked from where she was pulling up a map of the Gemini’s new flight path.
“I’m not crying!”
Vega nudged the cloud Poogle and whispered, “Oh, he’s crying, all right.”
“I knew it,” said Rohane, prompting the two ladies to stifle giggles.
Reuben groaned softly before gathering his composure to be able to speak again. He leaned against his table and chuckled softly. “I’m…I’m just glad you and your crew are still alive.”
“I’m glad we’re alive too, Reuben. Thanks again.”
“No, thanks for believing in me. You guys did great, too.” The older white Blumaroo glanced at the map projected on the control room wall. “Did you set a course for home?”
“Yeah. Our shields are in no shape for travel. Besides, there’s no place like home.”
“And you don’t mean the Trestin in the simulation, right?”
“No, I don’t think I want to enter your simulations for a long, long time. But I do want to go back to the real Trestin one day. I suddenly missed Mom.”
“We’ll go together. But first, get yourselves home to Perseus. To your real home.”