Slowly the white light of the fading dream dimmed and a slight panic began to creep into his mind as his vision adjusted to the dark room around him. ‘Who am I?’
‘How easily you forget…or do you just not want to remember all the things done in your name?’ said a soft, multi-toned voice from deep within his dream fogged mind.
‘My memory is as good as it ever was so leave me alone,’ he thought back at the voices.
‘Then what is your name?’ the chorus intoned with a hint of glee as it filled every corner of his mind.
He was surprised he had to think about the question. What was his name? He had gone by so many over the millennia; Bram, Hister, Motaar, and Orkemlis. ‘Orkemlis, yes that’s it, my name is now Orkemlis,’ Relief washed over Orkemlis like a warm breeze with the thought of his name. He rubbed his broad face with his hand, trying in vain to dispel the ache of sleep from his thick baltek bones.
He smiled slightly then, amused at how silly it was to have forgotten his name for any length of time. As his vision cleared, Orkemlis found himself back in his small cabin onboard the Sparrow, the fading vales of sleep no more a danger to him than the blanket he now threw aside. As he continued to lie in the large bed, he could feel the pulse of the sub-light engines of the small craft reverberating through the bulkheads. Each wave of sound a warm whisper that reminded him of the long dead coast side he had just dreamt of.
‘Perhaps your lust for this life has finally eroded. Perhaps you simply do not wish to play the game anymore,’ said the voices in a tone of waxing bitterness. ‘There is a reason the Vakaal gave me the name, Star of Life. They understood and feared the gifts you have received from me. Those gifts are not to be taken lightly, even after two thousand years. Nevertheless, here you are questioning once more. After all this time, you still refuse to see the reality of the game or of my need for that matter and I grow weary.’
A spark of anger cut across the darkness of his mind which he hurtled at the voices. ‘If you are so weary, then find someone else to toy with and torture, I don’t have time for your incessant prattling. Stop interfering in my mind and thoughts! For long moments Orkemlis waited for a retort from the voices but only a heavy silence answered his waiting mind.
Orkemlis sighed then, releasing the tension from his shoulders that he only now realized he had. The voices were a constant companion. Even when they were silent Orkemlis could feel their ever-present gaze, waiting to comment on his next action or criticize a lapse in judgment. It had not always been so. He had long ago learned that the voices and the Star of Life were connected somehow and in the beginning, the voices had been a source of strength and assurance. But over the centuries they had grown less and less helpful, becoming more an annoyance with each passing year. In two millennia, he had yet to fully understand the reason behind the voices or their refusal to leave him alone. They simply were an unpleasant fact he had accepted.
Orkemlis got up from his bed and reached for his night robes which wrapped him in a comforting warmth. His head throbbed slightly and his muscles ached from the tossing and turning his fitful sleep had produced. For weeks now he had had this damned reoccurring dream and once again he could not remember anything but the coast and waves, white light and the sense of unease. Something glorious and terrible had happened. Why could he not remember it?
‘Why is it so important for you? Have you made your choices yet? Who will they be? Who will earn their existence?’ the voices asked out of the shadows of his mind. ‘Why are you distracting yourself when you are on the eve of the greatest game you have ever undertaken?’
“I don’t know,” Orkemlis said aloud simply. “I suppose it is because the last game was so grand. How could this one possibly surpass it?”
‘Yes, the last game was exceptional, wasn’t it? The great Alliance, a shining beacon of hope and stability, crumbled to its foundations and left the galaxy in a state of chaos.’ The voices chuckled slightly as a wave of joy filled Orkemlis from head to toe. ‘Unfortunately, the Frontier has finally stabilized-somewhat. No single race or faction having supremacy over the other. They are divided, their true natures finally winning out over the hypocrisy of their false efforts at civilized cooperation.’
‘True.’ Orkemlis thought back at the voices as he left his cabin and walked down the small, cramped corridor that had not considered the realities of his baltek physiology. Orkemlis’s barrel-shaped body barely fit past the wall support beams and more than once he found his fine bed clothes snagging on a stray bolt or imperfection in the wall and the multitude of devices mounted on them. The Sparrow was nothing like the Darkheart with its small passages and overworked, out of date equipment. The Darkheart, on the other hand, had been a marvel of the best frontier technologies and artisanship.
That was until the Alliance had fallen. The Game had been a tapestry of subtlety and treachery that had surpassed every predicted outcome of the algorithms he had designed to guide him. With the weapons trade scandal and K’jarain Clan War still raging, it had been surprisingly simple to turn the already squabbling representatives of the Galactic Parliament against each other. The downside had been that he had lost most of his contacts within the Alliance and it had taken several decades for the general chaos within the Frontier to stabilize. Thus, the Darkheart had become outdated in a very short time by his reckoning. After seventy-five years of quiescence and contemplation on his remote base of Alcross, Orkemlis had decided to overhaul the Darkheart. With no one in the Frontier to call upon, the who became a simple matter. There was only one race whose technology could be of any use to him, the fierce and dreaded Amarogray.
A cold shudder rippled down Orkemlis’s spine. The Amarogray were the greatest threat the Frontier and the Alliance had ever known. Their technology was like nothing conceived of before and their biology was such that they were so difficult to kill that many scientists had thought them immortal. They were also a race of extreme contrasts. Where their technology was greatly advanced, their culture was almost primitive and tribal, never quite stable and always highly unpredictable. None of that mattered, however. Orkemlis needed the best advantages he could get from their technology if the new game was to be a success. Thus, he risked contacting the closest Amarogray clan chief, a rather gullible creature named Sklaar and managed to have his clan overhaul and retrofit the Darkheart-for a price.
That had been six months ago and that decision had left him without a majority of his crew and staff. That had been part of the price Sklaar demanded; skilled people to help him conquer a resource-rich world far from Amarogray space, though not the only thing he had demanded. It was risky, but after reviewing the opening algorithms for the new game, Orkemlis found the variables worth the risk. Sklaar would be an interesting and challenging pawn, the first of many. There were other more interesting elements he was going to enjoy very soon.
Orkemlis finally reached what was laughingly referred to as the command center of the Sparrow. The room was small and crowded even without the handful of crewmembers staffing it with every surface covered in a multitude of buttons, switches, lights and computer screens of every shape and size. In the center of the room was his command chair, which Orkemlis now sat down in heavily. “Report,” He muttered into the crowded space.
“Sir, we are on approach vector for the Zancozy mating world. We are secure from jump and fully discharged. We will be on the surface in less than three-quarters of a unit.”
“Understood helm,” Orkemlis said in a tired voice that seemed to echo the mood of the room. As Orkemlis let his gaze wander, his large dark eye finally came to the two forward viewports. From his chair, he could see their destination growing with every passing breath.
It was a small planet, covered in lite wisps of blue-gray clouds that stretched over a growing landscape of blistered and ruined land that once held lush vegetation and a sizable population. Sklaar and his clan had been thorough and very smart. It was the height of mating season for the Zancozy and Orkemlis would not doubt that almost every member of that race had been down on the planet when the attack had come. If there were any Zancozy left, they would have to work hard to bring their race back from the brink of extinction at which they now found themselves.
Orkemlis shook his head in disgust at the waste. The Zancozy were a robust race of saurians. They made excellent soldiers and more than once, he had employed several them in his business dealings. Orkemlis turned away from his musings and saw off to his left that the comm officer was looking rather agitated. “What seems to be the problem, Folmos?” he asked in a forced pleasant tone.
The human pulled off his comm headset and turned to Orkemlis with a look on his face that spoke of unpleasant news. “Sir, I’ve just received an update from Felix.”
Orkemlis did not like the hollow tone of the man’s words. “And? What has happened?”
The officer walked to within an arm’s length of Orkemlis’s chair and handed him a databoard which Orkemlis took in a slow, measured movement. As he read the communication, Orkemlis’s anger grew and by the time he finished, it was clear that this game was going to cost him a lot more than he would have ever guessed.