Lon Triton took a final walk up toward the bridge from the cargo deck. He was walking with a bit of a limp in his center foot; he must have twisted it on something, or it was his old plantar fasciitis acting up again. Fortunately, Dr. Scholl’s was one of Ophiuchus V’s largest companies, second only to the Trimon Brothers Glove Emporium. In fact, as he passed by Cargo Bay 7, he had an urge to grab one of the 500,000 Ophiuchian orthopedic shoe inserts, but he knew that was verboten.
He passed by Cargo Bay 2—where 500 special pianos were being held (they were the ones with black, white, and gray keys)—and heard what he assumed was Dun Tridwell, his young deckhand, playing a beautiful and wistful piano solo. He was quite the talented young Ophiuchian, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he left the crew and went to piano school. He smiled sadly; in his own youth, Lon had entertained fantasies of being a pianist but he was literally all thumbs. It was a very rare genetic defect, but still occurred on occasion on Ophiuchus.
“Captain,” came a voice over the intercom, “please come to the bridge. We will be exiting the wormhole in two minutes.”
And none too soon. Lon was looking forward to some shore leave. He had been on the road—or, he should say, in the wormhole—for the better part of the past two years and he needed a little bit of downtime. And the time was right, too. His son Lop was about to undergo The Nosing, and there was the celebration to prepare. Ophiuchian children are born with very small noses; it isn’t until their sixteenth year that the nose literally bursts forth from the face to its full extent. It happens in the space of about two hours, and it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that the proper ritual is prepared so that when The Nosing takes place, the youth in question is surrounded by his or her closest family and friends who all take turns wiping the emerging protuberance with sacramental facial tissue. To miss one’s own child’s Nosing ceremony was one of the most shameful things a parent can do on Ophiuchus.
Lon strode into the bridge and stood behind the pilot. Out the front window, he could see the twisting undulations of the wormhole.
“About to hit exit point,” said the pilot.
There was a bright flash out the front window, and the ship exited the wormhole and re-entered normal space. Off in the distance, Ophiuchus V gleamed. To the right, the blinking dodecahedron that held the wormhole depot. Lon stared, and furrowed his brow as he saw several dozen pinpoints of light swarming around the planet like what humans would call fireflies. As the ship headed toward the planet, the fireflies began to get closer, and Lon and the pilot both noticed simultaneously that they were heading right for them.
“What are those?” Lon asked.
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
They neared quickly, and Lon could soon make out that they were fighters of some kind, looking like two steam irons welded together. Thin beams of light shot out of the hole from which, had they been irons, steam would have sprayed. The beams hit the top of the cargo ship, and it lurched. Fortunately, Lon had the stability of a tripod, so he kept his feet as the ship shuddered.
“Are we being attacked?” said Lon, obviously rhetorically.
“It appears so,” said the pilot.
The enemy ships began to swarm and take more shots at the cargo ship, which rocked back and forth. Pieces of the hull began to rain down on Lon and the pilot.
“Bon, send a distress signal to Ophiuchian Space Central. Then open a channel to...whoever those ships are. And take evasive action.”
“Distress signal sent. We don’t have the maneuverability to evade fighters like that.” The pilot pressed some buttons. “Channel open.”
Lon grabbed a handset from the console. “To the attacking ships, this is Lon Triton, captain of the Tribay III. We are a cargo vessel transporting pianos and foot care products. We pose no threat to you or anyone else. Please break off this attack.”
There was a crackle of static, and a deep, gruff voice said, “No.”
Lon and the pilot looked at each other. Lon said into the handset, “Can you at least tell us...why you’re doing this? Do you have something against piano music?”
“Like you don’t know,” came the response. It was a voice that sounded like what an Earthman would liken to a bullfrog with a mouthful of live crickets talking over a bad cellphone connection. “Look at my face.”
Now Lon was even more confused. “But I can’t see your face.” And, if it was anything like the voice, he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.
The connection went dead. The ships continued to swarm and fire upon the cargo vessel. Soon, Lon could see several pinpricks of light rising from the plane surface. The Ophiuchian space defense. They arrived quickly and began firing upon the attackers, which began to scatter. Within a few moments, the Ophiuchian fleet had scared off the intruders. Lon and the pilot looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Bon, open a channel to the Ophiuchian fleet captain.” The pilot twiddled some more knobs. “Thanks, guys. Who the hell were they?”
“No problem, Captain,” came a voice over the loudspeaker. “Ships looked to be Ziij in configuration.”
“Why on Ophiuchus V were they attacking a cargo ship, of all things?”
“Unknown, sir. We will be launching an investigation. In the meantime, you are cleared for docking at the Ophiuchian Port Authority Terminal 5, Bay 6.”
“Thanks. Over.” He turned to the pilot. “Damage report?”
Chattering came over the speaker. “Some minor structural damage....One minor casualty...” As he listened, his face turned grave, and his nose drooped. “Sir, it’s Dun Tridwell.”
“Is he okay?” asked Lon.
“In a way. He was in Cargo Bay 2 during the attack. As the ship pitched, the pianos began slamming against each other. His hands were crushed. He’ll never be able to play again.”
Lon looked downcast. “I don’t care what the space command says, this means war. Even if I have to fight it myself."