A Firesetter Short Story
J. Naomi Ay
Published by Ayzenberg, Inc
Copyright 2015- 2016 Ayzenberg, Inc.
Cover design by http://www.selfpubbookcovers.com/woofie_2015
Cover art by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / TsuneoMP – spaceship
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / rebius – smoke trail
© depositphotos.com / diversepixel – space background
J. Naomi Ay
A Thread of Time (Book 1)
Amyr’s Command (Book 2)
Three Kings (Book 3)
Exceeding Expectations (Book 4)
A Cosmic Dance (Book 5)
The Two Moons of Rehnor series
The Boy who Lit up the Sky (Book 1)
My Enemy’s Son (Book 2)
Of Blood and Angels (Book 3)
Firestone Rings (Book 4)
The Days of the Golden Moons (Book 5)
Golden’s Quest (Book 6)
Metamorphosis (Book 7)
The Choice (Book 8)
Treasure Hunt (Book 9)
Space Chase (Book 10)
Imperial Masquerade (Book 11)
Rivalry (Book 12)
Thirteen (Book 13)
Betrayal (Book 14)
Fairy Tales (Book 15)
Gone for a Spin (Book 16)
“Duck!” someone yelled, and I did.
Unfortunately, I was a fraction of a second too late. With a resounding thunk, the ball collided with my head, or perhaps, it was my head which collided with the ball.
“I hate baseball,” I muttered, right before the world went dark. “I will shoot myself before I ever play this game again.”
I heard someone scream. I heard what was most likely a collective groan reverberate across the stands. This was followed by the most severe pain I had ever experienced in my relatively short life.
Before I passed out, I recall writhing upon the ground, clouds of dust and sand wafting around me and into my nose.
“Not only do I hate baseball,” I declared, probably only inside my brain. “I hate all of them. Everyone. Everywhere. I hate my life.”
“How ya doing there, Mike?” I heard the coach’s voice. “You didn’t see that curve, now did ya, pal?”
No. I hadn’t, and I decided, I hated him most of all. When I was King of the World, I would sentence him to the gallows.
After that, my father must have arrived, although I have no memory beyond the horrific pain in my head. My father, as he always did, had been sitting in the stands, cheering me on no matter how haplessly I played. And, I did play haplessly, for I was easily the worst player on the team. Despite my father’s lectures, despite the private coaches and tutors that were hired to drill me and instill me with proper skills and sportsmanship, the ball connected far more often with my head than with bat or glove.
Immediately, I was whisked into the car, whereupon I was flown to the nearest hospital, which happened to be in the oldest part of the city. There, I lay immobile for days while the crack in my skull healed and my brain swelling abated, or so they thought.
Of course, I didn’t know this until I awoke a few days later, confused, hungry, and very annoyed.
“What’s the matter, dear?” my mother asked, her hand clutching mine, the faint lavender scent of her perfume drifting across my nose.
“Everything!” I wanted to vehemently proclaim as if it were all her fault.
At eight years old, I still assumed my mother was in control of the universe, or at the very least, my universe. If I had been hurt, surely, it had been at her behest. After all, I had never wanted to play baseball, not for a minute.
I had never wanted to leave my home. I had been perfectly content in my life, despite my lack of friends or even acquaintances my age. However, it was my mother who had insisted I venture out of my safe space and beyond our walls. Probably, she had only intended for me to take leisurely walks, while my father was insistent that I needed a team and a sport.
“I’m totally blind,” I declared in the politest tone I could muster considering the circumstances I was in.
“What do you mean?” my father asked.
“I mean, I can’t see a damn thing, more or less.”
“Oh!” my mother gasped, her hand quickly drawing away as if my infirmity was contagious. Probably, she placed it over her heart, as her posture shifted away from my bed. “Thunk?” She called my father, her voice sounding choked and far away.
My father’s footsteps crossed the room, away and back again. He cleared his throat, stalling, unable to respond. Most likely, he was confused, as he made this noise three times. In the meantime, I lay there in darkness, listening as his thumping, awkward gait carried him to my side.
“Look at me,” he ordered, now in his most commanding tone, declaring this of me as if I had been faking my infirmity. “Open your eyes, Mikal and look at my face. See here. Do you see this brown spot on my nose?”
Mikal, he had called me by my given formal name, something generally reserved for occasions of either grandeur or punishment.
Did he think I was fooling? Could I be faking this trauma, and if so, for what possible purpose? I had more than enough attention, and surely, there had to be an easier way to quit that blasted baseball team.
“I can’t see anything,” I repeated, recalling the particulars of my father’s nose from an earlier viewing. “I’m sorry, sir. The spot was quite large, was it not?”
“Oh!” my mother gasped again.
This was followed by another cough from my father’s throat. “Indeed, it is quite large. Are you absolutely certain of this, Mikal?”
Yes, I wanted to scream, the spot is enormous. What would it take to convince them of something plainly obvious to me? My eyes were open, but registering nothing, save the darkness.
“Please, will you get a doctor?” I shrieked. “I should very much like to see!”
Probably, my condition was temporary. Probably, it was a result of the swelling and pressure in my brain. Unfortunately, no one knew for certain, and neither did they know how to repair me. As to this revelation, I can only assume I was in shock, else I might have bolted upright in the bed and started screaming. Instead, my parents did the screaming for me.
“Have you no doctor here who understands these things?” my father demanded.
“But, he’s my son!” my mother cried, as if her esteemed position should have shielded me from this pain.
“So sorry, Ma’am, Sir,” a polite voice tried to explain. “Often these things happen and resolve themselves in due course. Give it some time.”
“Time?” My father gasped, as the doctor exited, or so I assumed from the footsteps that carried him from the room. When the door was safely shut, such that no stranger would overhear, my parents began to quarrel, blaming each other for my failings.
This was a fairly common occurrence in our home, although it was something only my grandfather and I ever witnessed. Most of their arguments tended to center upon me and whether or not I was being raised correctly, or overly pampered, or conversely, overly neglected.
“You and your bloody baseball!” my mother shouted, her fists most likely flailing at my father’s chest.
“You can’t coddle and baby him forever,” my father retorted. “If he is to become a king, he must first become a man.”
“And, you think baseball will do that? Instead, it has made him a cripple just like you! One would have thought you had learned you lesson after having a ball thrown at your head. But no, you must repeat it with your son. My son has been hurt!”
With that, she departed, her tiny footsteps stomping across the room. This was followed by the sound of a door opening and shutting with an angry force.
“Now Sara,” my father mumbled, his voice directed at the floor.
For a moment, he did not speak, and neither did I. With my mother’s departure, the angry wind had been sucked from all of our proverbial sails.
“I am sorry,” my father declared eventually, his voice now directed at the door.
“I am sorry, too,” I replied. “It’s all my fault.”
Clearly, I had been proven a failure at his favorite sport, having no natural skill nor instinct when it came to bats and balls. However, I also had no desire to remain my mother’s pampered prince, an effeminate baby coddled and cuddled as if my every breath was sacred.
Seeking to prove myself as a man, as a prince and future king, even though I was only eight years old, I had bought into my father’s promise of the benefits of baseball. Of course, at the time, I had no clue I would end up blind and utterly useless, hating everybody and everything associated with the game.
“It shall be good for him,” my father had insisted. “No, it shall be great. Baseball is, after all, the sport of kings.”
“No, it’s not,” my mother had snapped. “My grandfather, the Great Emperor, loved football more than anything.”
“Drinking and smoking are the sports of kings,” my own grandfather, the Imperial Prince added, he being an authority on those, and many more vices.
“You’ll be fine,” Father said now, although his voice lacked anything remotely close to certainty. “Temporary. Only temporary. We must focus upon that.”
Focus, I tried, concentrating on the darkness in my brain, despite the dull ache that mocked my medications. I wondered what fine would be in this new nightmarish world. Would I end up ruling from a throne I would never again see? Or, would my birthright be whisked out from under me, the blind King Mikal, forever displaced by some scheming politician and political party?
“I am so sorry, Mike.” My father’s rough hand reached out to caress my hair, tugging gently at a wayward curl as he was wont to do. His hands were always chapped and calloused despite being a pampered Prince-consort himself, due to the rubber handholds on his crutches. “My little man. I never meant for you to be hurt. You know that, don’t you? I would give anything to make you whole again. If I could have taken your place, I would in half a breath.”
“It is my fault altogether. I was the one who enrolled you in the PeeWee League. I was certain you would enjoy playing with the Mishnese Hummingbirds, learning important skills, the camaraderie, the friendship of men and women in arms.”
“Yes, Father,” I said again, despite having acquired neither the skills, nor the camaraderie, nor a friendship of anyone.
“I always loved playing the game myself, back when I could. Hard to imagine me your age, I suppose, imagining me able to run, chasing a ball. Indeed, there was a time I did not have these blasted braces upon my legs.”
“Yes, sir.” Quickly, I feigned an enormous yawn before he launched into another story of a neighborhood park filled with children from identical houses on a suburban street.
My father had also been hit in the head with a baseball, leaving him comatose for weeks, subsequently damaging his brain and nervous system. Only after years of rehabilitation did he regain both his mental faculties and motor skills, although most of the time, he still struggled to walk.
“Perhaps, you shall be visited by an angel, as was I.” He said this nearly completely under his breath.
My mother scoffed whenever he related this silly tale, while my grandfather usually swore, mumbling something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ll bet.”
“You believe me, Mike, don’t you?” my father always said, to which I humored him and nodded, while knowing full and well that angels didn’t exist.
Now, I yawned and made a groaning noise, preferring not to hear this story yet again.
“Ah, I see you have grown weary,” he said, taking the clue. “Well, I shall be leaving you to rest, unless you wish for me to stay?”
“No, Father.” Turning my face into the pillow, I pretended to snore.
“Are you certain? It’s quite alright. I can sit here as long as you desire.”
I didn’t respond, but instead made a concerted effort to keep my breathing steady and even.
He sat for a few more moments, his gaze intent on my face. Even though I couldn’t see him, it was almost as if I could feel his eyes upon my skin. Eventually, he rose to his feet, thumping across the room, his braces clanking.
“Goodnight, sweet Mikal,” he whispered. “Tomorrow will be better.”
I wasn’t certain about that. In fact, I was resolved to the prospect of tomorrow being worse, as would everyday after that forevermore.
My father had been born and raised on Earth, in a town that seemed straight out of ancient film, while my entire life had been spent in the Imperial Palace. Although, the Palace wasn’t the original massive structure once occupied by my mother’s predecessor, my great-grandfather, the Great Emperor, it was still quite impressive, especially when compared to my father’s childhood house.
Built entirely of marble stones that cast a pink shadow across the valley when the sun set, in the moonlight, our Imperial residence rose like a giant monolith nearly as high as the stars. Whilst the interior was no longer trimmed in gold or crystal as in the Great Emperor’s days, it was still quite luxurious, a fitting residence for the Empress Sara and her consort.
Having lived there since my first breath, I had no conception of the world beyond those palace walls, nor did I understand the people to be anything beyond subjects of my future crown. Thus, my father forever made it his task to keep me humble and human, even though, technically, I was only sixty-two and one half percent human, twelve and one half percent Xironian, and twenty-five percent Rehnorian.
In addition to my parents, my mother’s father, the Imperial Prince lived with us. Steve, as we called him for a reason that was never fully explained, was the eldest son of the Great Emperor. Throughout his life, he had been a colossal screw-up, such that for a time, he had been banished to a frozen planet on the outer banks of the Empire. When he returned, he had continuously lived in fear of execution at his father’s hand.
“You think you’ve got it bad,” he’d tell me, whenever I complained about my schoolwork or having to eat my peas. “If I dared to open my mouth and object to anything my mother said, my father would glare at me with his silver eyes and threaten to send me flying across the ceiling.”
“Oh, he never did that,” my mother scoffed, glaring at me with her own bright blue eyes. “Eat your peas, Mike. They’re good for you. Full of fiber. Afterward, I expect you to finish your math problems.”
“How do you know? You weren’t there. Just because Senya turned into a marshmallow around you, doesn’t mean he wasn’t a vicious bastard around me. He was.” Steve leaned in closer, nodding to me as if I was complicit in some sort of scheme. “He was a great king, though, a great emperor when he wasn’t mad out of his brain. You’ll be a great king, too, Mikey. You stick with me, bud, and you’ll be called the Great Emperor, version 2.0.”
Usually, at this, my mother sighed dramatically, and my father rolled his eyes. We all knew Steve was pretty mad out of his brain, too, but we all accepted it, and did our best to ignore him. At the time, Steve was something like a hundred years old, and he was allowed to act and say bizarre things despite how annoying and embarrassing he could be. To that end, I did my best to avoid him whenever he came around.
“What’s up, junior?” he would call, offering a hand for a high five, a fist to bump, or if his sciatica wasn’t acting up, his butt.
“Nothing, Steve,” I would mumble, and hurry off before he trapped me in an endless conversation about the past. “School. You know, I’ve got to study.”
“Well, that’s a fine pickle you’ve got yourself in,” Steve announced, shuffling into my hospital room. A chair scraped against the floor, followed by the sound of his body collapsing into it. “Oof! Are you awake, Mikey? It’s me, Steve, your grandfather. Remember me? How’s about I take you to a baseball game?” Then, he started laughing, a cackling sound intermingled with his usual hacking coughs.
I had been asleep, but there was no point in telling him that now.
“Oh, so you do remember me. Good. Your brain isn’t completely fried. Can you see anything yet?”
I opened my mouth to explain that my world was still completely dark, when more footsteps crossed the floor, along with a gust of very flowery perfume.
“Oh!” a high feminine voice proclaimed. “Sir! I’m so sorry to interrupt.”
“That’s alright, sweetheart,” Steven insisted. “Too bad you can’t see this dish, Mikey-boy. She’s a real looker.”
“Oh, Sir!” She giggled nervously and touched my arm with her soft hand. This was followed by a not-so-soft poke.
“If I was only eighty years younger,” Steve chortled. “I’d let that nurse poke me. But, I’ve had my share of hospital rooms. Yes, I have. You couldn’t pay me to swap places with you, junior. Did I ever tell you about the time my father beat the bleeding shit out of me? I was in the hospital for a month after that, but I learned my lesson. Yes, I did. I didn’t have another drink for at least the next ten years. Well, maybe eight years. Six tops. Although, I did have a beer or two in between, and occasionally, a glass of wine. Can’t go through life without good wine. Trust me, Mikey-boy. I could have stopped any time I wanted, though. Really, I could have.”
“Yes, Sir,” the nurse said politely, her hand still clutching my arm, the viperous needle still drawing an obscene quantity of my life’s blood.
“Maybe, it wasn’t ten years,” Steve continued. “No, come to think of it, it was definitely closer to five. I started drinking again when Joanne left me for the second time. No. It was the first time, but that doesn’t matter. Every time she left, I got drunk just to celebrate.”
Joanne wasn’t my grandmother, but rather Steve’s second and third wife, of which the first one had also left him in a rage.
As for my grandmother, I knew basically nothing, except that my mother had been conceived during a one-night stand. Later, she had died in a spaceplane crash when my mother was still a child.
“Caused by my father, no doubt,” Steve always insisted, growing increasingly remorse, “because I loved her.”
“No, he didn’t cause it,” my mother snapped. “It was a mechanical malfunction. And, you didn’t love my mother at all. You can’t even remember her name, Steve. Stop filling Mike’s head with these ridiculous stories.”
“She’s right.” Steve chuckled, cheering up again, while nudging me conspiratorially. “I have no clue who your grandmother was, but I’m certain she was totally hot. Hot women love princes like us, Mikey, even when we look like toads.”
“Do I look like a toad?” I had asked, being an impressionable five year old at the time.
“Not at all, little dude. You’re fortunate in that you look like me and not your old man, Thunk.” Steve stuck out his tongue, pronouncing my father’s nickname with a great deal of aspiration. “Actually, you look like my old man with your curly black hair and all. The Great Emperor, version 2.0, that’s gonna be you, Mikey-boy. You stick with me and we’ll make you a better king than even mad Senya.”
“Stop it, Steve!” my mother probably cried, hustling me off to bed, or bath, or school. “I ought to banish you to your suite before you corrupt my child.”
“I wish you would banish him to an old folk’s home instead,” my father undoubtedly added. “But, I doubt there is a single facility on this entire planet willing to take him.”
“If I go, you’re coming with me, Thunk,” Steve spat, waggling his tongue at my father’s name.
“Fine by me,” my mother added. “I’ll gladly put you both away. Mikey and I will be just fine on our own.”
The nurse, having acquired numerous vials of my royal blood, curtseyed and giggled her way out of the room. I was left alone with Steve, who undoubtedly took a few moments to enjoy the nurse’s parting view.
“Well, Mikey, what are we going to do about you now?” His voice circled from the door, to the windows, before settling back upon me.
“Shoot me,” I suggested. “I’m damaged goods.”
“Ha! You just need to get yourself repaired.”
“The doctor said it’s going to take time. We can do nothing but wait it out.” I felt a tear trickle down my cheek as the prospect of extended blindness sounded daunting.
“Harrumph.” Steve paused and clicked his tongue. He scratched his head, and I imagined a cloud of dandruff snowflakes swirling in the air. “You know what I think, junior?”
“I think we need to take you to another hospital. This one has gone to hell anyway. Obviously, the doctors here are incompetent ignoramuses. Now, back in my father’s day, this place—ach! You don’t want hear about that now. I’m thinking we need to go to Planet Rozari. Those dudes are smarter, much more on the ball. Are you up for a ride in space, buddy boy?”
Normally, I would have been up for anything. Normally, a trip across the stars to the neighboring system of Rozari would have thrilled me beyond measure, especially since I had never left the planet Rehnor. Frankly, I had never left my future kingdom of Mishnah. In fact, I had hardly ever emerged from the palace gates, except to go play baseball, which of course, was how I ended up here.
However, at this particular moment in time, I wasn’t certain interstellar travel with my grandfather was the best idea.
“You had better ask my mom about that,” I advised. “She trusts the doctors here.”
“We won’t tell her,” Steve announced, pushing back his chair and shuffling to his feet. “Be ready to blow this Popsicle stand in the morning, kiddo. You and I are going for a ride.”
“Wait Steve!” I started to panic as I realized Steve might actually want to go through with this plan. If he intended to break me out of here and take me to Rozari, chances were, he would. I imagined my mother and father arriving for a visit in the morning, only to discover my hospital bed empty with no trace of where I had gone. “We can’t just leave without telling.”
“My mother is the Empress Sara. You have to ask her permission for everything, especially when it comes to me.”
“Bah! Empress schmempress. Her bloody empire is the size of my big toe. Back in my father’s day, we ruled half the stars in this galaxy.”
“I know. I know.” Back in the Great Emperor’s day, everything was always so much better. “She’s my mother.”
“So? She’s my daughter, or at least I think she is. I can’t remember if we ever did genetic testing. She could be totally somebody else, although that wouldn’t explain why you look so much like my old man.”
“Still, Steve. We had better ask.”
“Are you going to be a king or a princess, Mikey? Come on, boy. Where’s your spine? Did your mother take it? I bet she locked it in the same box with your dad’s. You’ll probably find his balls in there, too.”
“I’m not ready to be a king, Steve. I’m only eight years old.”
“That’s irrelevant. King training starts at birth, or at least it should have. Back when I was your age, my father had me—Ach! You don’t want to hear about all the hell I went through. Don’t worry about your mother. I’ll call her when we get there. We’ll get you fixed up and be back in time for your next baseball game. Ha ha! Unless you want to stay and do some sightseeing. How about a little vacationing while we’re there? I can take you to the beach. I know a great one where the sand is pink.”
“I don’t know, Steve.”
“Come on! It’ll be just you and me, Mikey-boy. It’s about time you had some real family bonding with your old gramps. I’m not going to live forever, you know. I got the short end of the stick in the gene pool and ended up totally mortal unlike my old man. See you at oh-six-hundred, bright and early, kid. Be ready to fly.”
“Wait! How are we going to get there?” I called as Steve’s footsteps took him to the door. There weren’t any spaceplanes around these days.
“Ha ha!” Steve chortled again, and although I couldn’t see it, I imagined he was waggling a finger at me. “You just wait. I have another trick up my sleeve that involves an old spaceplane and an old Imperial SpaceNavy pilot, who just happens to be Moi.”
“Oh no,” I muttered aloud.
“Oh yes,” he replied as he left the room. “I’ve still got it. Like riding a bicycle, junior. Flying a spaceplane is something you never forget. Hey ya, dollface! How’s about you check out my blood pressure. I can tell it’s rising at the sight of you.”
“Oh, Sir!” some nurse giggled, just as my door slammed shut.
“Oh no,” I sighed, hoping that by morning Steve would have forgotten all about this.
That night, at least I think it was night, as in this eternal darkness, I really couldn’t tell, my door opened and something was rolled into the room.
“Ach, there you are little one. Lucky you. You’re to room with the Crown Prince.”
This statement was followed by some more noises as machines were attached to my new companion and blankets were adjusted on his bed.
“Goodnight then, boys,” the nurse called, her footsteps once again taking her to the hall, followed by the door closing softly in her wake.
This was odd, I thought, my ire rising like the hair on the back of my neck. I had a roommate, something I had never had before, and didn’t necessarily want. After all, I was the Crown Prince, born and raised to believe I was far too precious and too important to share my air with any old common child.
On the other hand, all this cuddling and coddling had left me with exactly zero friends. In fact, I had no clue what a friend was or how one went about dealing with one.
At any rate, I figured, being that I was stuck in this bed, it wouldn’t hurt to attempt to converse with my new companion.
“Hello,” I said, and instinctively held out my hand for the requisite kiss of respect and obeisance. “How do you do?”
No response came, save a soft intake of breath, giving me pause to consider how my hearing had sharpened even while my eyes had failed. I could appreciate that, even if I didn’t like it. However, I was less appreciative of my sense of smell and the faint scent of fire which emanated off the boy.
Drawing my hand back, especially as no introduction was forthcoming, I feared the lad might have suffered tragic burns. I imagined him encased in gauze, a veritable mummy covered in weeping and oozing wounds. Not wanting to blindly touch or disturb this poor and even more unfortunate child, I decided a friendship was not in store.
Turning my back to him, I tried to sleep, yet an odd sensation coursed down my spine. I grew cold despite the warmth of the room. My head, already fuzzy with both my injury and the strong pharmaceuticals pumping through my veins, felt like a blanket had been thrown over me.
I coughed and gasped for a breath, trying to shake this suffocating feeling away, and a moment later, it cleared, leaving me with a sensation I could only describe as joy. For a moment, I felt inexorably happy. I felt as if just this second, I had been reborn. I still couldn’t see, and my head still ached, but somehow, I was renewed.
Was it my roommate that caused these feelings in me? I didn’t know for certain, but inexplicably I attributed them to him.
“Tell me your name,” I cried jubilantly, turning back and extending my hands, determined to declare him a knight, or at the very least, a squire in my future realm.
Before he could speak, the door opened again and Steve’s shuffling footsteps hurried through.
“Ready to go, buddy?” my grandfather called. “Your chariot is parked in the back lot. It only took me the last seven hours to service the transmission and plug the leak in the hydraulic cable. We’ll make it to Planet Rozari in no time flat. I’ve still got it, Mikey-boy. This old man can still fly. Ach! Kari-fa!”
“Ach!” I shrieked, echoing Steve’s shout, minus the obscenity, fearing I knew not what in my darkened world.
“What in the hell are you doing here? Did someone unlock the door to your prison cell? Get out! Kari-fa! You’re the last one I want to see.”
“Steve?” I gasped, and then, sighed as I realized my grandfather was having one of his fits. He had gone off his rocker again, his ancient mind mistaking now for long ago. In addition, did I smell a bit of alcohol on his breath? Was he smoking something other than his usual tobacco?
“Are you okay, Mikey? He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Him, of course,” Steve snapped, his breath coming hard. Probably, he was waggling a finger at my roommate, the fire-burned kid.
“Now Steve,” I said, sounding amazingly like my mother and using her same placating tone. “The poor child is ill. He hasn’t said a word to me. He’s far too sick.”
Storming over to my bed, my grandfather practically threw himself on top of me. “Yeah, he’s sick alright, but not in the way you think. Listen to me, you devil, you leave my grandkid alone. Don’t you touch him. If you do, I’ll—I’ll—I’ll do something.”
“What?” I heaved an annoyed sigh. “Nobody has touched me except for you.” I pushed Steve away before I choked on his stale alcohol, cigarette, and old man smell.
“He doesn’t have to touch you, Mikey. He can do things with his mind.”
“Mhm.” I sighed again. “Steve, I think you had better go home. You best sleep off whatever it is you have consumed. Would you like me to ring my mother and have her send a car?”
“Kari-fa! I don’t need an eight year old telling me what to do, especially when I’m trying to save his ass.”
At this point, I was thoroughly embarrassed by Steve’s behavior, and glad my roommate was probably asleep. It was definitely unbecoming of a prince to storm into a public room and carry on with such a fit. Had my mother been there, she would have been horrified, while my father would have laughed and threatened Steve with the Home.
“I apologize,” I told my roommate on the off chance he was awake. “My grandfather, the Imperial Prince sometimes becomes quite confused. Clearly, he mistakes you for someone else.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mikey,” Steve growled, his voice now coming from across the room. “I know exactly who he is, but what I don’t know is why he’s here. What do you want? Out with it.”
“Shut up, junior. I’m going to handle this. Are you just going to sit there? State your business, and then, get going.”
“But, I find you so entertaining,” a boy replied, startling me, for clearly he was wide awake. His accent was from the city, his lilt like that of the children on my baseball team. “Hello again to you, Steve. It has been some time.”
“Not long enough!” My grandfather snapped. “And, I’ll gladly take a rain check for another hundred years.”
The boy laughed, the sound as pleasant as the chiming of soft bells, or the tinkling of a forest brook as the water drifted across a path of shiny stones.
Inexplicably, I laughed with him, as if his joy was a contagion. I didn’t stop to think how my grandfather was acquainted with this boy, nor did I question how he came to address the Imperial Prince by his given name.
“Stop that! Both of you!” Steve declared, even more irate than before. “You’re not funny, and you’re not wanted here.”
“I could have sworn I heard someone call,” the boy replied, a puzzled tone to his voice. “Well, in any case, I am here now, and here I shall be.”
“Fine. We’re leaving. The room’s all yours. Mikey, get out of bed.” Steve’s feet shuffled as if he was turning around to me.
“I can’t, Steve,” I protested, just as he stumbled. This was followed by the sound of a chair screeching as it was dragged across the floor.
“Ow! Damn this sciatica. I hate being an old man.”
“There is an alternative,” the boy suggested.
“Sit down, Steve!” I begged, half bolting from the bed myself. “Please don’t hurt yourself anymore.”
“I am sitting. Now.” The chair exhaled a breath of air as his weight fell into it. “Give me a minute to rest.”
“Take all the time you would like,” the boy replied. “Well, not all the time. You know what I mean.”
Steve groaned, exhaling a full dictionary’s list of profanities. A moment later, he began to snore.
I sighed with relief and leaned back on my pillow. I couldn’t relax though, not until I found out who my roommate was and how he came to know my grandfather.
“Tell me your name,” I commanded in my most imperious tone. “You know who I am, do you not?”
“Indeed,” the boy replied, a hint of laughter in his voice. “You are the Crown Prince Mikal. As to my name, it is the same as yours, more or less.”
“You are called Mike?”
“Close enough.” He laughed again, just as Steve snorted awake.
“What? You’re still here? Kari-fa! I was hoping you were just a bad dream. Come on, Mikey. We’re late to our appointment in the stars.” Before I could protest, my grandfather bolted to his feet, shuffled over to my bed, and picked me up. “We need to get you out of here. We need to get you away from that demon before he corrupts your soul.”
“I’m not a demon,” the other Mike said. “I thought you knew.”
It was at just that moment the door creaked open again.
“Now, where do you think you’re going?” the night nurse demanded. “Put that boy back in his bed!”
“I’m just giving my grandson a hug,” Steve declared, dropping me back down. “I can do that, can’t I, or is that against the law?”
The nurse didn’t respond. Instead she took my temperature and pushed some buttons on the machines.
“You go back to sleep, Your little Highness.” She patted my cheek.
As soon as the door was shut again, Steve hurried to my side.
“Let’s go, junior. We’ll climb out the window if we have to.”
“Steve? I can’t! I’m totally blind.”
“That’s no excuse, Mikey-boy. Are you a prince or a frog? Sometimes life requires clandestine maneuvers in the dark. Stick with me, junior, and I’ll turn you into a king.” With that, he pulled open the window. Steve, despite his sciatica, despite his constant cough, climbed out, a second later, I could hear him drop into the brush. Fortunately, my room was on the hospital’s first floor. “Come on. What are you waiting for, kiddo? If this old geezer can do it, so can you.”
What was I waiting for? I sat there in the bed thinking myself the wimpiest Prince around.
“Go on,” the other Mike said. “You’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?” I snapped. “Do you have any clue what it’s like to be blind?”
“Mikey! Come on, dude. We need to fly,” Steve called, and then under his breath, he mumbled, “Before your mother finds out.”
Partly to prove it to the other Mike, but mostly to prove it to myself, I slipped out of bed and felt my way to the open window. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought as I could feel the fresh air on my face and hear the sound of the morning birds in the trees outside. In only six steps, my hands found the window ledge.
“See, you did it, Mikey-boy,” Steve cried, pulling me through.
Now, even though I was outside and in a place I had never seen before, I could almost visualize the parking lot, the street, and the building behind me.
“Well done, partner,” my grandfather declared, slapping me on the back, before slamming the window shut. “So long, evil angel. Go back to hell.”
Steve’s spaceplane was parked behind the lot in a grassy field that was newly mowed. I could tell by both the fragrant scent and when he set me down, clippings stuck to my bare feet.
“What’s the matter, partner?” my grandfather asked, extending the boarding ladder and placing my hand upon a rung. “Why are you frowning? Are you feeling sick?”
I wasn’t felling all that bad, but now that I realized he was actually going to take me to space, my head began to pound and my stomach roiled.
“Yes,” I must have said, a tear trickling down my cheek. “And, I’ve changed my mind, Steve. I don’t want to go to Planet Rozari after all. I want to go home.”
“Kari-fa! Don’t tell me that! After all the trouble I went through to get my spaceplane here. I spent half the night just trying to get the engines started. We’ll be damn lucky if they turnover again. Climb up that ladder, junior, and buckle yourself in. We’ve got a mission to complete in the deep dark recesses of outer space.”
Although I wanted to protest, although I wanted to beg him to let me go back to bed, or if not, back home to the palace and my room. But, I didn’t. I climbed the ladder, angry at Steve and even more so at myself. What kind of King would I be, when even a crazy old man could push me around?
“Take a seat anywhere, Mikey,” Steve said, following me into the belly of the plane. His voice echoed off the walls just as a dusty, musty scent assaulted my nose. “Kari-fa!”
“What?” I screamed, my own voice bouncing back at me.
“Ach, Steve,” the other Mike sighed, that faint burning smell now mixing with the dust. “You’re frightening him. Clearly, he doesn’t wish to come. He’s just a kid. What is he, five or six years old?”
“Eight!” I snapped, suddenly filled with righteous indignation. How dare this stranger accuse me of being a child?
“You stay out of this,” Steve snapped, either at Mike, or me, or both, while shoving me into a seat and slipping a safety belt around my waist. “In fact, I don’t even know why you’re here. Get out. Go away. I’ve got this handled and I certainly don’t need your help. Now, if I could only remember where I set the keys. No worries. I can alway hotwire the ignition if I have to. You stay right there, Mikey. I’ll be right back.” My grandfather wandered off, and it sounded as if he bumped into a few doors and walls himself.
“We’ll never get to Rozari,” I mumbled, convinced that we’d explode in space instead.
“Actually, we won’t,” Mike said. “But, neither will we arrive at Rozari.” He sat down next to me, that faint scent of fire washing over my face.
“How do you know?”
“Oh, he thinks he knows everything,” Steve scoffed, returning with a set of keys jingling in his hand. “He always did.”
“That’s because I always do,” Mike replied, a hint of laughter in his voice. “Steve, the cockpit is over there.”
“Right, right. I knew that. Thank you very much. You’ve done your good deed for the day, so now, you can leave.”
“I want Mike to stay,” I decided, raising my chin and using my most royal tone. To this day, I don’t know why I said this, other than I figured it would be worse to be left alone.
Steve snorted, a huffing, chuffing, long exhalation of breath. “His name is Mike? You’ve got to be kidding me, right?”
“It’s correct,” Mike said. “More or less.”
“Trust me, junior. He’s no friend of yours,” my grandfather’s voice turned back to me. “Trust me, you don’t want him around. Ever. No way, no how.”
“Yes, I do,” I declared, asserting my Royal Privilege, while at the same time, realizing I might have just made a friend. Here he was, right next to me, something I had never had before, a boy like me, and from the sounds of it, of a similar age. “We’re both Mikes. That makes us a team. I might just declare him my Royal Squire.”
“Give me a break,” Steve sighed. “Kari-fa. You’re already corrupting him.”
“I have done no such thing,” the other Mike replied. “Why do you always think the worst of me?”
“Experience. Go back to hell. I’m going to start this plane.”
Steve shuffled away, and a moment later, a door swished shut behind him. This was followed by the sound of the ancient engines attempting to start. Several times, Steve cranked them, and several times they coughed and belched acrid smoke. Finally, when I was nearly certain this bad dream was about to end, the engines settled into a soft rumbling rhythm, only occasionally punctuated by some squeaks.
Then, the plane began to vibrate. The landing legs retracted, followed by the ship rising like a very fast elevator into space.
“Is he going to kill us?” I murmured aloud, as my breath caught in my throat and for a few moments, it felt like my heart had ceased to beat.
“No,” Mike replied, as casually as if we were out taking a stroll. “But not from lack of trying.”
Actually, as the spaceplane accelerated, I felt as if my lungs were being squished in a vise, while my stomach was crawling laboriously up my throat. I decided that if I were to survive this, I would never ever go to space again. I would be perfectly content to spend everyday from hence forth on the ground.
“Yee haw!” Steve yelled from the cockpit. “I love flying!”
“So do I,” Mike remarked. “But not in a spaceplane.”
A short time later, I started to relax. We were no longer traveling vertically, but instead, sailing as swiftly and smoothly as if floating on a cloud. Space travel wasn’t so bad, I decided. Steve was an Imperial SpaceNavy pilot, after all. Even though that was something like seventy years ago, clearly he hadn’t forgotten everything.
That was until a horrific clanging noise echoed throughout the ship, which was followed by the engines going silent.
“Kari-fa!” Steve yelled from the cockpit. “What the fuck is happening now?”
“Kari-fa, indeed.” Mike sighed heavily, and unbuckling his belt, he rose to his feet.
“Where are you going?” I asked, not wanting to be left alone.
“I’m going to help him. Steve needs all the help he can get.” Then, he chuckled as if this whole situation was not terrifying but funny.
“What about me?”
“What about you?” Mike repeated.
“Then, you must think of a way to help.”
“Help?” I gasped. “I know nothing about spaceplanes, and furthermore, I am blind. Not to mention, I am the—”
“Yes, I know. You’re the Crown Prince. I heard all that before. However, that doesn’t mean that you should sit here on your ass.”
“Ach crap!” Steve yelled again, as the clanging sound grew louder.
“If you are useful, you will forget your fear,” Mike said. “Once we are on our way again, I shall teach you how to play chess. It is a good skill for a man who wishes to be a king.”
“Chess?” I cried, thinking Mike was as crazy as Steve. “I told you, I can’t see anything.”
“You shan’t need to. You shall learn to memorize the board, to know each figure in your mind. This way, you shall stay ten steps ahead of your opponent. ‘Twas a pity Steve was never very good at that. I suppose he has other redeeming qualities, although I haven’t yet discovered what they might be.”
This was followed by Mike’s light footsteps as he hurried toward the cockpit. I was left alone in the dark and once again terrified out of my wits. I tried not to cry. I tried to think of myself as the future king dealing with all the stress and problems of my realm.
Surely, every day would require more fortitude than this. Surely, this was only a tiny bump in a road that would forever be filled with rocks. Straightening my spine, I raised my nose, visualizing myself issuing orders and royal proclamations. My mother always said that if my posture was that of a king, so would be my mind.
It didn’t work. I felt like a stupid, useless, blind little kid, who was already a complete failure at this life. Someday I might be King Mikal, but I’d probably end up a failure at that too, and neither baseball nor chess was going to change that.
The cockpit door swished open again, followed by Steve shuffling across the floor. “Are you coming?” he barked. “Or, do you expect me to do this all myself.”
“Me?” I began to say, but was interrupted by Mike.
“I thought I wasn’t welcome,” he replied. “You did ask me to leave, did you not?”
“Several times,” I told him. “I heard you. You were quite adamant, in fact.”
“Well, I take that back,” Steve snapped. “Get down below and figure out what’s gone wrong.”
“It’s the transmission. You have a leak in a hydraulic cable.”
“No, I fixed it.”
“No, you did not. Not recently, in any case. It is old and quite worn, and dripping in several spots.”
“Yeah, well so am I.”
“You should have checked before you left, Steve.”
“Kari-fa!” my grandfather swore. “Can you repair it? Maybe, you can patch it until we get somewhere. Weld it together. You know, with that finger thing.”
“I suppose I could,” Mike demurred. “Although, you are also completely out of fluid. Did you happen to bring any spare?”
“I didn’t have any,” Steve snapped again.
“Of course not.”
“In case you didn’t notice, it’s not like in the old days. There’s been a huge recession or depression or whatever. Spare parts and transmission fluids just aren’t around. It would probably take me a year of searching junk yards for a part, and I didn’t have time. The kid needs medical care.”
Mike made a snorting sound, as if he didn’t believe Steve’s excuse.
“Come on, dude,” Steve begged. “Please help us out. Just this once? That’s my grandkid over there. We’ve got to get him fixed up. Hey! You could cure him, while you’re at it!”
Now, Mike made a humming sound, and his weight shifted on the floor. “Yes, I could do that as well, but then, you would owe me. Actually, you already owe me quite a lot.”
Mike snickered. “I would have to collect.”
Steve gasped as if all the air had been sucked from his lungs. “Not the kid. Come on, dude. Please tell me not the kid.”
Mike shook his head, his hair rustling softly as it rubbed against his shoulders. It sounded long, much longer than mine.
“Me, then. It’s me. That’s why you’re here.”
“Indeed. I must be paid.”
“Kari-fa.” Steve exhaled the word along with his breath. “You’ve been waiting to do this, haven’t you? You’re probably enjoying this.”
“Not really. You think too highly of yourself.” A whiff of fire crackled, followed by the scent of fresh tobacco turning to ash. Mike was smoking a cigarette.
“Give me one of those,” Steve coughed, and a second cig was lit. I could hear him inhale deeply, before hacking a few more times.
“That’s what did you in, you know,” Mike said, conversationally. “Smoking. Lung cancer and all that.”
“Yeah, whatever. Come on. Let’s get below.”
Steve and Mike headed down the hallway, where they released a latch that opened a hatch in the floor. From there, Mike scaled a ladder to the plane’s lower bay, followed by Steve, who began to cough at every step.
“Wait!” I cried, fumbling to unbuckle the safety belt. I didn’t want to stay up there all by myself. “Wait for me, Steve! I’m coming, too.”
“What for? There’s nothing you can do here.” His voice echoed up the ladder well, bouncing off the spaceplane’s narrow, metal walls. “Go back and sit down, junior. Remember, you’re ill.”
“No. I want to help.” Whether it was the fear of being left alone, or Mike’s lesson had sunk in, I realized I wanted, and I needed to be useful. “Please, isn’t there something I can do?”
“Go to the galley and get some water bottles,” Mike ordered. “Find the coffee pot and some straws. Bring them to me.”
“Coffee?” Steve scoffed. “It’s hardly time for breakfast. Cut the kid some slack and let him sit. He just got out of the hospital a few minutes ago.” Now, Steve began to cough. “Kari-fa! What have you done to me? I can hardly breathe!”
“I didn’t do anything. I told you, you did it all yourself.”
“I was fine until you showed up.”
“Actually, you weren’t. Go on, Mike. We have only a little time.”
“Okay, Mike,” I replied, and quickly rose to my feet, almost immediately tripping and falling on my face.
“Use your other senses, Mike. There is more to sight than what you see before your eyes.”
No one answered as something in the engine room began to buzz. So, I fumbled my way forward to where I guessed the galley would be, stretching my hands out in front of me to keep from colliding with the walls. Finding the cockpit door straight ahead, and the forward boarding ladder just to the right. On the left, I discovered a counter with a small fridge beneath it.
I was proud of myself for having done this, and also from having recalled the layout from an old picture book my mother read to me when I was younger. It was called, Flying to Space with Fanny, or something like that, and it featured an elephant who was also a pilot in the once great Imperial SpaceNavy.
“My dad, Steve, was once an Imperial SpaceNavy pilot,” my mother would always say, which usually made me fall over, rollicking with laughter, as I imagined my grandfather dressed in the elephant’s silly uniform, a long trunk hanging from what should have been his nose.
Now, as I searched blindly through the galley’s cabinet drawers, I began to worry about Steve and his cough. Despite our dire situation, this was the first time, we had been together without my dad or mom around. I realized, as I put my hands on a coffee pot, I really liked Steve, and even though he was sort of crazy, and most of the time, embarrassing, I was also really proud of him.
“Whoa Nelly, don’t you fall down that ladder,” Steve called, his strong hands surrounding my waist, lifting me to the engine room floor. He took the coffee pot and the three water bottles, as well as the handful of straws.
“Well done, Mike,” the other Mike said, his voice sounding as if his head was inside a compartment. I could hear the faint echo as it resonated off the metal walls. I could also smell the scent of fire, an odor reminiscent of burning oil, wafting through the room.
“Thank you,” I replied.
I was proud of myself, too. Not only had a managed to traverse the plane entirely in the dark, but I could identify sounds and smells with a clarity I had never known before.
There was also something else I was sensing. I had a feeling, a new empathy for my grandfather. As we stood there waiting for Mike to repair the transmission, I felt a sadness deep in my bones. Every time Steve coughed, which he was doing with increasing frequency, my heart lurched as if it were I who could not breathe.
Without knowing why, and without a glimpse at his face, I knew that Steve was going away, and it disheartened me more so than my lack of sight.
“Why?” I asked, reaching for my grandfather’s hand.
“Well, you know, I’m getting up there. What am I, like a hundred or so? I can’t even remember. And, you know, time has to happen in the way it has to happen, more or less.” He squeezed my hand. “That’s what my old man used to say.”
Mike climbed out of the compartment and proceeded to turn on the coffee pot.
“What are you doing now?” Steve asked, as the water began to boil. I could hear the tiny air bubbles rising to the surface, bursting upward in miniature breaths of steam. “Time for a coffee break? You want I should send Mikey back upstairs to look for donuts and sweet rolls?”
“I’m going to distill some hydraulic fluid,” Mike replied. “I shall use our engine lubricant oil, refining it until ‘tis it is light and sweet. That shall suffice for the reminder of our journey.”
“And, it probably tastes better than the coffee your mother makes. Right Mikey?” Steve nudged me. “Your mother may be the Empress, but her coffee tastes like shit.”
I laughed and nudged Steve back, following which he wrapped an arm around my waist, and together we waited while Mike poured something thick and heavy into the coffee pot. Only a few moments later, I could smell the acrid stench of oil cooking, and hear the drips of the newly refined oil siphoning through the straws.
This process seemed to take forever, and Steve began another coughing fit, after which his breath sounded hoarse and thick with phlegm.
“Go on upstairs,” Mike suggested. “I’ll come up when I’ve made enough.”
“Thanks, man. I appreciate it,” Steve replied, guiding me to the ladder. “Me and Mikey are going to sit down and rest.”
“Well, what should we do now, buddy?” Steve asked, once we were seated in the cabin again. “I suppose were going to be waiting here for some time. We ought to make it good.”
“Can we play chess?”
“Chess? You’ve got to be kidding me. You can’t see a thing.”
“Mike said I don’t need to. He said—”
Steve drew in hoarsely. Even I could hear the rattling in his chest. “Yeah, yeah. I know. I know all about it. Alright, partner. Let’s play, but I gotta warn you, I can whoop your ass.”
“No, you can’t.” I laughed, “Mike said you were never very good.”
“That’s not true.” Steve started rasping, so much so he sounded as if he was choking on nothing but air. For a moment, I sat there waiting, holding my breath, willing his lungs to fill.
“I got it. I got it.” He inhaled deeply, that rattling sound more prevalent than before. “Let me fetch the chess set. You want white or black?” He stumbled to his feet, opening a cupboard in the wall across the room.
“Black, I guess.”
“Yeah, of course. Mike tell you to only play black?”
“But, he would. That’s all he ever did play.”
“When did you play him?”
“Ach, you don’t want to know. Trust me, kiddo. Some things are better left unexplained.”
As Steve’s fingers moved across the board, setting the pieces in their rows, I noticed the king sounded heavier than the queen. The knight had a hollow sound, and the rook echoed slightly deep inside. The bishop slid almost silently, while each of the pawns made a tiny tap. I could clearly see them all in my mind’s eye, and by concentrating, I knew exactly where they were. Even after I moved them. Even after Steve moved his. Most amazing of all, I knew where they ought to go.
“Check,” I proclaimed on my twelfth move, attacking with my queen, just as the ship’s engines began to hum again and in a normal tone. The clanging noise had ceased, and we were moving, the ship sailing as smoothly as a boat slicing through water.
“Ach, you got me, Mikey,” Steve declared, his voice even more weak. “Do me a favor and play the game the same way when you’re king. Keep everyone around you off guard, and your eyes closed so you can hear their silent clues.”
“My father used to tell me that, but of course, I never listened.”
“Well, it’s a long story, one I don’t want to go into right now. Listen, partner, the truth is, I’m going to be leaving you soon.”
My heart lurched in my chest, as tears formed in my useless eyes. “Do you have to?”
“Yeah. It looks like I overstayed my welcome. But, don’t you worry, little dude. I’ll make sure you’re fixed up first. Ach, Mikey. Just so you know, you’re my favorite grandson.”
“I’m your only grandson, Steve.”
“That makes it even better.” He wrapped his arm around my neck. He ruffled my hair with his knuckles, and then in a rare moment of tenderness, he kissed the top of my head. “You have hair just like my dad’s, black as night, but with a silvery sheen. He had the same curls, too. In fact, you take after him in a lot of ways. Let me tell you the secret to being a good king, kiddo,” he said, now holding my hands tightly in his. “You remember this, junior, and you’ll be the Great Emperor v2.0. Otherwise, I’ll be back to haunt your dreams. Give me your oath that you’ll do as I say.”
“Yes, Steve,” I swore, waiting anxiously for the answer to be revealed.
“Good. The secret is this, to be a good king, you must first be a good man. To be a good man, you must be a good friend.” With that bit of sage advice, he let go of my hands.
“Are you going now?” I asked, as he pulled himself to his feet.
“Afraid so. The boss is waiting, but don’t worry. At least, with him, forever isn’t really forever.”
I listened as Mike’s soft footsteps climbed the ladder and joined us in the room.
“Fix the kid first,” Steve ordered.
“I’ve already done so,” he replied. “Son, open your eyes.”
For a fraction of a second, in a blink of an eye, and in a flash of light, I opened my eyes to Steve smiling at me. Next to him was a boy of my size and age, with my face and black curly hair. For a moment, I thought he was me, both here and standing over there. That was until he opened his eyes and I saw the light.
“Son? Mikey? Wake up now, son. Look Sara, he’s waking up.”
“Sweetie?” It was my mom. “How do you feel, baby? Can you see me now?”
I opened my eyes again to the hospital room, to my mother and father’s faces, to the bed I had never left. “Steve!”
I learned a lot that day, the day my grandfather died, not the least of which was that I loved him more than I had ever thought. I also learned that oil could be refined in a coffee pot, and traveling to outer space wasn’t very much fun. Most of all, I learned that blindness was unrelated to one’s sight, and that sometimes, one’s vision is clearer in the darkness than in the light.
Many times over the years, as I grew to become the man and king that I hoped would have made my grandfather proud, I recalled the lessons of that one odd night among the stars. Often, I would close my eyes and listen carefully to the unseen and unspoken clues of the world around me. I also grew famous for playing a wicked game of blind chess.
As for the Pee Wee Baseball League, my mother insisted I quit the team, but I refused her Royal Command and returned to the diamond. With new insight and new desire, as well as incessant practice both day and night, I improved my batting skills. While in the outfield, I developed an uncanny ability to catch by closing my eyes and listening to the faint whisper of a ball displacing air.
I enjoyed being part of a team and developed a new empathy for my fellow man, as I realized none of us were perfect, nor would we ever be. With that empathy came friends, some who remained throughout my life. Later as King, I was called good and kind. Though a far cry from being considered the Great Emperor v2.0, to me, goodness and kindness were more important virtues.
As for the other Mike, my visitor that night, I believe I saw him often throughout my life. Sometimes, I’d feel his presence behind me, or I’d catch a glimpse of him in the mirror. Sometimes, I’d spy him out of the corner of my eye, only to disappear the moment I turned.
Sometimes, if I was about to make a mistake, I’d feel his presence stay my hand, and sometimes, if I was hesitant, I’d feel him push me from behind.
Although I never discovered conclusively who he was, I had a suspicion, especially after my mother’s death when I found myself in possession of a purse of old gold Imperial coins. Each one bore the likeness of my great-grandfather, the Great Emperor, a man who looked surprisingly like me, and a man who many believed was also Someone Else.
A Preview of Firesetter, Book 1
A Thread of Time
Available at all of your favorite ebook retailers.
I joined the Allied SpaceForce for one reason and one reason alone, I was flat broke and I needed money. After hocking everything I owned at the local pawnshop, or selling it on Craigslist, I was down to forty-three dollars and thirty-seven cents, in addition to the ancient Euro my father had left me as an inheritance.
“What the heck is this?” I had mumbled, holding the single coin in my palm, while at the same time, the lawyer was informing my brother, Hank that he was bequeathed everything else in my father’s estate.
Granted, Dad was no billionaire. His estate was pretty simple, a modest house in a not-so-great town, in the center of the continent, affectionately referred to as The Armpit. Still, it was worth something, and undoubtedly, more than this useless coin. I mean, a Euro? Europe hadn’t existed for several centuries!
“Ha!” Hank had laughed in his annoying nasally voice, gloating over his victory in this final round of the sibling game. Yep. Dad loved him best, and that was now proven without a doubt. I was the loser when it came to paternal affection.
“Congratulations,” the lawyer said to Hank, but not to me.
Hank nodded regally, savoring his win. Had the lawyer not been there, my brother would have left with a minimum of a bloody nose and a maximum of a five month stay in traction.
“I’ll just have you sign off on the deed.” The lawyer presented the documents to Hank as I rose from my seat, flipping my precious antique Euro coin between my fingers. “Good luck, Lance. Hank, let me take you out to lunch.” The lawyer scumbag barely glanced in my direction, as I let myself out.
I didn’t really blame him. He knew this cow was dry. He’d milk no costly legal fees from me and therefore, I didn’t merit even a handshake.
Stepping out into the street, after leaving the dark and overly air conditioned building, I was momentarily blinded by the sudden burst of sunlight. I thought the crosswalk light was in my favor. I thought there were no vehicles on the street and the heat that was washing over me was merely the sun, while that roaring sound was a bus on the next corner. I thought wrong on all four counts. The next thing I knew, I was bouncing off the hood of something, only to end up beneath its wheels. Fortunately, by this point, I wasn’t awake.
Three days later, I was, and less than delighted to discover I was in traction, the sort that I had wished upon Hank. Karma could sure be a bitch.
When my brother came to visit me in the hospital, sitting by my bedside and describing in great detail the renovations he was going to make to Dad’s house, if I could have, I would have reached up and smacked him. Alternately, I would have yanked his tongue from his mouth, or removed his eyeballs from their sockets with my fingernails. As I couldn’t lift a finger, and was far too drugged to even spit in his direction, I lay there prone, subjected to yet another round of fraternal gloating.
Six months passed until my back was more or less healed and I was released from the hospital, a new, but not improved man. I was also totally broke, so much in debt that four lifetimes of delivering pizzas, my previous occupation, wouldn’t yield enough to ever make me a free man.
Briefly, I considered stepping into the street again and encouraging another vehicle to roll over me, this time finishing the job completely. That was the only way I could foresee escaping the hospital’s payment plan, which as I departed, was detailed on an invoice that would follow me for the next forty years.
Instead, I headed to a local pub where I spent the next day and night drowning my sorrows in beer, drinking up what little remained of my money. It was stupid, of course. I should have put it toward the hospital’s first installment. Somehow, and at some point, I managed to stagger home to my flat, where fortunately, the landlord had taken pity upon me during my absence.
Gloria didn’t evict me, or toss my things in the street during my convalescence. This could have been entirely due to the fact that no one else was willing to rent that dive. It also could have been because she liked me. Poor Gloria was on the wrong side of forty, nearly twenty years my senior and throughout her life, had a habit of selecting the wrong kind of guy. This included me.
I regretted what happened. I became a whore. While I scrambled to pay the hospital bill by selling my stuff and raising money in any way I could, I kept Gloria entertained in exchange for the rent.
Every month, on the first, it went like this. Gloria would knock on my door, usually bright and early, undoubtedly, waking me from a sound and contented sleep that was much nicer than my reality. Groggily, I’d stumble from the sofa, swing the door wide open to admit her and feign surprise at her arrival during this ungodly hour.
“The rent, Lance,” she’d say frostily, holding out a hand, the other knuckled into her side, a foot tapping out an impatient rhythm. “I can’t let you go another month without paying.”
“Rent,” I’d mutter sleepily, running a hand across my night’s beard. “Oh. Gloria. Yeah, the thing is—-”
“I’m a little short again this month.” I’d pat my hands against my hips as if checking inside the nonexistent pockets of my marginally clean and slightly torn boxer shorts.
“Mhm,” she’d mutter, her eyes drawn to my hands, where inevitably she’d find a prime example of morning wood. “Oh. Is that for me?”
“It’s all I’ve got right now,” I’d say, which was followed by the old couch being cleared of my ratty blanket and the even older sleeper mattress beneath extended to its full size.
Then, I did what I did best, because at twenty-four, I was a loser at every other round in this game of life. Gloria left happy, and my lack of rent was forestalled for another month.
Eventually, Gloria tired of this game, or maybe, she preferred to play it instead with the guy in the apartment across the hall. At any rate, she gave me an ultimatum. At the end of the month, pay up or get out.
“You got anything else?” the pawnbroker asked, as I stared at the measly number written on my ticket.
“Hey, that ring is worth more than that!” I insisted. “It was my mother’s. She left it to me to give to my future wife.”
“I’m doing you a favor then,” the guy replied. “You give a girl this piece of crap cubic zirconia and she’s liable to throw it back at you and walk out of your wedding.”
“It’s not a fake.”
“Listen to me, son. I’ve seen a lot of rings in my day, and that one’s about as real as my tooth.” He proceeded to reach into his mouth and pull out a shiny, white incisor. “Look’s nice, eh? Indestructible, too. Better than the real thing, but my wife doesn’t wear it on her finger. So, you got anything else for me to look at?”
I would have liked to offer him my fist, but I didn’t. Since Gloria dumped me, this guy was about the only friend I had. Putting my hands in my pockets to restrain them, I pretended to consider the paltry offer on my mother’s ring. I was going to take it. I had no choice. I was down to my last nickel, or rather, the forty-three dollars and thirty-seven cents which were already promised to the hospital.
“Just this,” I said, finding that stupid Euro coin in my pocket. “Maybe this is a collector’s item?”
“Let me see.” The guy dropped his loop over his eye and turned the coin this way and that way. He murmured something, while trying to read it. “I don’t know what in the hell this says. It’s a piece of crap. Not worth a nickel.” He tossed it back, whereupon it rolled the distance of the counter, before falling flat.
Heads. Some dude in a crown looked off across the horizon at the ancient toasters and television sets with orange price tags hanging from them.
“It’s an ancient Euro.”
“No, it’s not. What language does that look like to you?”
“I don’t know. Greek? Russian? Portuguese?”
The pawnbroker shook his head and glanced at the door. Another customer had come in, or more likely, another victim of the decrepit economy came to hock whatever he had in order to eat. “Are you taking my offer on the ring, or no?”
“I guess so,” I said, studying my not-Euro coin again. “You sure this isn’t worth anything?”
“Not to me.”
“That’s worth a fair amount in the old Empire,” the new customer interrupted. “Although, it’ll cost you a heck of a lot more to travel the ten lightyears to get there.”
I turned to look at my neighbor, only to discover he was wearing a SpaceForce uniform and carrying an old iPad from the twenty-first century.
“I found this in a rummage sale on Darius II. Is it worth anything, Pops?” He set it on the counter for the old man, and then, held out his hand to take a look at my coin. “Yep, this is an old Imperial dollar. It’s definitely worth something to collectors around the galaxy. It dates back to the reign of the Great Emperor. That’s who this guy is on the front. You wouldn’t want to sell it to me, would you?”
“I will buy it first,” the pawnbroker interjected.
“No way.” I snatched it back from the spandex-clad spaceman. “You can buy his iPad, Pops. You missed your chance with me.”
Grabbing my mom’s cubic zirconia wedding ring off the counter as well, I left the pawnshop with a new spring in my step. I was determined to take my coin to a place where its value would be appreciated. Worth something could mean several thousand and several thousand would easily pay off the hospital bill. This coin would give me a chance to restart my life debt-free. On the other hand, if I had to take the coin across the galaxy, why would I bother coming back?
Unfortunately, the fare on a spaceplane to the nearest port where the coin could be exchanged, cost more than I would have gained selling the ring and the clothing off my back, as well as the old sofa, and the toaster in my flat. The only way to get myself from here to there was to get on a ship that didn’t cost me anything.
“The dude’s spandex uniform wasn’t all that ugly,” I told myself, walking into the SpaceForce recruiting office down the street. “And, I’d get three squares a day, a hot shower, and a clean bed without any aging landladies in it.” That didn’t sound a whole lot different than prison, but at that point, I didn’t care.
An hour later, I walked out, officially a recruit with a contract in hand, and an induction physical scheduled for the following day.
Let's face it, Mike is a loser. Despite being born with the proverbial silver spoon, he's a failure at just about everything. After being hit in the head with a baseball, Mike wakes up unable to see, prompting his grandfather, Steve to take him across the stars in search of cure. However, Mike and Steve end up finding something more than just Mike's lost sight, something that will turn Mike into a king.