The diminutive Peronese Queen, Mierpre, stood in the center of the royal meeting chamber of her home world facing the back wall, her tiny hands fidgeting, and the quills on the back of her neck, erect. Behind her stood Emperor Sera tone, deadly enemy of her people and leader of his world, Androl.

She exhaled deeply, finding comfort in the five armed sentinels standing at the room's entrance directly behind her. "Sentinels!" she commanded, "to your posts."

Then she heard a rapid series of muffled pops behind her. She spun around. Her breath caught in her throat. The Androlian Emperor stood opposite the remains of the five guards; his smoking scepter tucked deep into his shoulder like a weapon. With mouth agape, she stared in horror at the remains of her only protection sprawled in a pool of blood and bits of brain matter.

Emperor Sera tone turned and pointed his scepter/weapon at her gut. She wanted to run, but her legs were numb. Her stomach muscles tightened and she retched.

"So, my Lady," said the Emperor sarcastically, "you thought that bungling pack of misfits would be enough to protect you?"

She wiped away emerging tears. "But Emperor Sera tone," she said in a quivering voice, "why are you jeopardizing the peace of our two worlds? A peace you yourself worked for so diligently."

"Well, your Highness, I'll tell you why. I am not Sera tone!" He tore off his ceremonial veil exposing his face and its obscene looking, eight-inch, pulsating snout. Bending, he thrust his face in front of hers. "I'm his half-bother, Bera tone, and you are going to die."

His breath was vile and she shuddered. "Any moment now," she said, "the chamber doors will open and you will be seized." She glanced wishfully behind Bera tone at the entrance by the heap of lifeless gore.

He straightened and said, "Nice try, your Highness, but I've done my homework and I know once the chamber doors are shut and locked, a timing mechanism prevents them from being opened for ten minutes. I am also aware that the only failing in your imperial guards body armor is the head, and the only time I have all your guards together as a group is when we first enter these chambers, before they proceed to the five stations of the room. I had to strike early to kill them all. And now, your Highness, it is your turn." He jabbed his scepter at her face -- cutting her left cheek.

She put a quaking hand to her cheek and spoke low. "You won't get away with this. They'll know it was you -- and you will be captured."

"I think not, your grace," said Bera tone, reattaching his veil. "When the door opens, I will run out crying and whining of an assassin in the room. In the confusion of a panicked Emperor, five slaughtered security guards, and a dead queen I will simply walk out, board my vessel, and leave."

The queen felt blood trickling from the stinging gash on her cheek. She examined the room desperately for anything to gain an advantage, but the only weapons she saw lay next to the gruesome pile at the chamber entrance twenty feet away.

"Is there anything I can do to dissuade you from this course?"

He bent, thrust his face at her again, and said, "All I want from you is for you to die!"

* * *

War had raged for centuries between the peaceful Peronesian people and the dreaded Gonaxian Empire. When Gonax proposed peace talks, the 'Peronesians jumped at the offer. The talks would have Emperor Sera tone of the planet Gonax meet with the 'Peronesian queen on her home world, to discuss reestablishing trade routes, a non-aggression treaty, and the surrender of the Gonaxian terrorist and the Emperor's half-brother, Bera tone.

Weary of the constant hostility between the two worlds, the whole Alutionayian solar system held its collective breath; these peace talks had to work--the system's future depended on it.

The new man, Roanan, stood uncomfortably at attention on the Peronese procession grounds. The second sun was rising and droplets of sweat ran down his back.

"Surablin!" yelled Sergeant Grov, an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth, "front and center."

Shouldering his weapon Corporal Surablin stepped forward, clicked his heels together, and yelled, "I am ready to die for queen and Peron!"

"Very good, Surablin," said the Sergeant, "You'll make a fine squad leader." He turned and saluted Major Sizemore, "That's four, sir."

Major Sizemore stepped up to Sergeant Grov, handed him a slip of paper, and said, "We've had one more added to the list."

Sergeant Grov took the paper, and gazed at what was written. "But, sir, this ‘cruit only arrived two weeks ago. He's still raw and untried; plus he's as clumsy as a new-born gauchen. I don't think he's ready to be part of the Queen‘s Sentinels."

"It doesn't matter what you or I think, Sergeant, this order comes from higher up. There are to be five guards at these talks and the man on that paper will be the fifth."

"Yes sir." Grov turned toward the men and spouted, "PRIVATE ROANAN, FRONT AND CENTER."

"I am ready to die . . ." began Roanan, as he stepped forward, but stumbled over the stock of his weapon which he'd failed to shoulder. He fell face first. The calm was shattered by the discharge of his weapon, which narrowly missed Sergeant Grov's head.

The men in formation chuckled. Grov looked sternly at them and they snapped to attention. He grabbed Roanan's lapels, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him nose to nose with himself.

"Are you somebody's nephew or something, boy?" growled Grov, his full lips juggling his cigar.

"Yes sir," said Roanan, saluting Grov, "er, no sir . . . I eh, I mean, what're you talking about, sir?"

"For one thing, son, I am not a sir -- I work for a living. I am a Sergeant." His eyes darted over to the Major and back again. "And you don't salute a Sergeant! You'd have known that had you been through any kind of training."

"I'm just a little nervous, sir, er, I mean, Sergeant."

Grov's eye's narrowed as he looked deep into Roanan's eyes. He whispered, "There's something odd about you, boy. I can't quite put my finger on it, but -- "

"Sergeant Grov!" yelled Major Sizemore .

"Yes sir," said Grov, letting go of Roanan and facing Sizemore with a salute.

Sizemore returned the salute and bellowed, "March these five men over to the quartermaster and have them outfitted with the Queen's Sentinel attire."

"Yes sir." Grov ended his salute and about faced. "Alright you five, follow me. The rest of you -- five laps."

The selected sentinels marched in cadence with Sergeant Grov toward the quartermaster, except Roanan who stumbled over a pebble and fell into Surablin marching in front of him. Grov looked over at the klutz, shook his head, and yelled, "FALL-IN, ROANAN!"

At the quartermaster command center the men stripped off their shirts and were fitted with heavy, weapon resistant uniforms made from Meza A Comedor scales.

"Do we have to wear these uniforms, Sergeant? They're so heavy and cumbersome," whined Surablin.

"It's for your own protection," replied Grov.

"But isn't this whole thing just for appearance?" asked Surablin. "Nothing ever happens at these proceedings."

"Most of the time," said Grov, "that would be true. But we've received death threats on the Sovereign queen, so you boys better be on your toes."

"If you fear for our safety," Surablin replied, "why are our hats nothing but flimsy caps?"

Grov, obviously weary of answering questions, stopped, and faced Surablin, "You boys are expendable, Corporal. Studies show that terrorists shoot at the body ninty-two percent of the time and only eight percent at the head. Besides a hat made of Meza A Comedor scales would be too heavy for the head and result in severe neck strain."

Roanan looked up at the Sergeant and opened his mouth to speak, but just past Grov he saw a cute, lavender eye peeking around the door.

"Hello, daddy," said a squeaky voice.

Sergeant Grov spun around, his face softened, and his voice gentled. "Weeny! What brings you into the men's dressing room?"

A young woman in her late teens, cuter than a Sambian's ear, stepped in. Scarlet plumes dangled from her head to her shoulders. She glanced seductively at Roanan and said to Grov, "Don't worry, daddy, I peeked in before I entered to make sure everyone was decent. Besides, with four brothers there ain't nothing I haven't seen before." She wrapped her arms around Grov's waist and gave him a hug.

"Just like your sister," said Grov, smiling and shaking his head.

Weeny pulled away from the hug and said, "I'm nothing like my sister!" Then she gazed over at Roanan, twirled one of her bright red feathers between her fingers, and said enticingly, "Hello, what's your name?"

"R-R-Roanan, miss," he said, holding his shirt over his bare chest.

Grov looked from his daughter to Roanan and yelled at him, "Oh no!" He looked back at his daughter and said, "No, no, no!"

"What?" said Roanan.

"I know what you were thinking."

"I wasn't thinking anything, S-Sarge, I swear."

"Well don't think it again. And don't call me Sarge!"

"Yes sir, I mean Sarge . . . ant."

Grov glowered at Roanan, turned toward Weeny, and said in a sugary voice, "What did you need, hon?"

"Oh I almost forgot. Mom asked me to walk you home. Dinner will be early tonight and she didn't want you to make any unnecessary stops."

"Alright, sweetie, we can leave right now," Grov said pleasantly, then bellowed, "You men will report to me on the procession ground tomorrow morning at zero six hundred!"

#

The setting twin suns painted the evening sky with bands of scarlet and salmon and triberry. Roanan relaxed on his bunk, reading a book, and listening to a melodious song playing on a radio somewhere in one of the men's lockers. Occasionally he looked up and gazed at the striking sunset through an open window. A cool, refreshing breeze flowed in through the opening and revitalized his tired, dehydrated body.

Suddenly something tiny hit him in his eye. "Ouch." He sat up and after searching he found a pebble next to him.

"Roanan," whispered a female voice.

Roanan looked around the barracks and whispered, "what?"

"At the window, you goofball," said the voice.

"Oh, okay."

He stood up, walked to the window, and peered out into the enveloping twilight. All he saw were two glowing eyes. They were lavender and they were lovely.

"Miss! What are you doing here?"

"Please don't think me too forward," she whispered, "but I just had to see you again. Will you walk me home?"

"Eh, sure. I'll be right out as soon as I put on my boots."

Roanan turned from the window, slipped on his boots, and headed for the door.

Surablin sat up on his bunk and asked, "Where are you off to now?"

"Just going for a walk."

"You take an awful lot of walks."

"They . . . unclutter my mind -- helps me to think."

"You better think about this, if your not back in thirty minutes there will be hell to pay."

"Gotcha," said Roanan, and left.

He stepped outside, looked down the long billet to his open window, and saw a tiny shadow. He walked toward the shadow, stumbling over a small rock, and approached Weeny.

"If your father finds you here he'll kill you . . ." he said anxiously. "He'll kill me . . . heck he'll kill us both."

"I know, I know, but I just had to see you. I'm attracted to you."

Roanan was taken aback by her bluntness. "I'm . . . flattered miss, but I have obligations, and besides I don't think your father would approve."

They started to walk Roanan knew not where.

"Please call me Weeny and it was my father who told me to always go after what I want, and you are what I want."

"I don't think he had me in mind when he taught you that."

"Don't worry, I can handle daddy. He's just a little too . . . controlling since we lost my sister."

"Do you need my help finding her?"

"No, no. She's dead."

"I'm sorry. What happened?"

"She fell in love with a spice trader and ran off with him. They were going to settle on one of the moons of Alutionayah, but their transport crashed and all aboard were killed. Since then daddy has been overprotective of his only surviving daughter -- me."

"What a sad story," Roanan said dolefully.

They strolled about thirty minutes. The rows of barracks became private houses. Weeny said, "That's my house ahead on the right." She pulled Roanan behind a tree. To avoid tripping he focused on the dark about his feet, but unfortunately his head struck a low hanging branch.

"Weeny!" yelled Sergeant Grov from the porch. "Weeny, is that you out there behind that tree?"

"You better go," whispered Weeny.

"What about your father?"

"I can handle daddy, but if he finds you here handling him could be difficult." She stood on her toes and gave Roanan a kiss on the cheek. "Bye."

He felt her warm lips on his cheek and the softness of her breast brush against his chest. He smelled her perfumed plumage. His pulse thumped in his ears.

"B-b-bye m-m-miss, er, I mean . . . Weeny."

She smiled and said, "Better hurry."

"I'll run."

#

The primary sun had just poked over the eastern range of the citadel mountains encircling the palace. The secondary sun was still thirty minutes from appearing, and the Queen's Sentinel Five were on the procession field for inspection.

"You boys have less than a week to prepare for the Peronese/Gonaxian peace summit," bellowed Sergeant Grov. He pulled the stub of an unlit cigar from his clenched teeth, spat, and continued, "And you look like marquate shit!" A broad smile crossed his lips, "it's my duty to whip you lads into shape and I am going to love doing it.

"We're going to start by running five laps around the procession field track before breakfast. And since there‘s someone here who doesn't need his rest at night we will attempt to burn off that extra energy. Roanan will run ten laps."

"Holy crap," whispered Surablin, "what's up Grov's ass?"

"Don't know," Roanan whispered back, uneasy.

"After breakfast," continued the Sergeant, "we will spend the rest of the day working on close order drill. ARE THERE ANY QUESTIONS?!"

"NO, SERGEANT!" Yelled the five in unison.

"Then move out!"

After the customary five laps were completed the men proceeded to breakfast except for Roanan who continued to trudge, with weapon tight across his chest, his final five. While running he observed Major Sizemore approach Sergeant Grov and after the customary salutes and greetings they started talking and pointing at Roanan -- he could only guess what was said.

When he rounded a turn in the track near Grov and Sizemore he held his breath to hear what the two were talking about.

"‘Highly recommended?'" he heard Sergeant Grov yell, "who in their right mind would recommend that buffoon? He's as clumsy as a -- "

Just then Roanan tripped over his foot and landed on his chest on the ground. His rifle also hit the ground. The air was shattered by the thunderous report of the discharging weapon. Grov and Sizemore dove, face first, to the procession field, their arms wrapped tight around their heads. Sergeant Grov peeked from under his arms in the direction of the final destruction. A heavy duty light pole on the far side of the procession grounds fell noisily across a scoring table, crushing it.

Sergeant Grov jumped to his feet, spit out the stub of the cigar he'd bitten in two, ran over to the sprawled Roanan, and dragged him to his feet.

"Private! What the hell happened?" asked a disoriented Sergeant Grov.

"I tripped and dropped my weapon. I guess it went off and struck the light pole."

Grov's jaw tightened. "ARE YOU PUTTING ON AN ACT?" The words erupted from his mouth. His eyes flashed heat waves at Roanan.

Roanan looked at Grov's ruffled facial feathers and bits of cigar in his clenched teeth. He could tell Grov was pissed. "Eh, no Sergeant," he managed.

"No one is that clumsy, you big lout! Just for that you will -- "

"Sergeant!" Yelled a winded Sizemore as he caught up to them, "Remember our discussion."

Pursing his lips and snorting through his nostrils, Grov looked at the Major and then back at Roanan, "Give me your power pack," growled a more controlled but visibly shaken Grov.

"Sergeant," said the Major, "he'll need that for the summit."

"And he'll get it back in time for the summit, sir, but until then I'll keep it. At least we'll be safe."

Roanan disengaged the small box on the belly of his pulse rifle and the weapon whirred down. He handed the power pack to Grov who slid it in his shirt pocket and said, "Remind me to give this back to you before the conference."

"Yes, Sergeant."

"Now continue with your laps."

"Yes, Sergeant."

#

The bunk felt particularly comfortable that evening for Roanan after he took off the weapon resistant outfit and removed his oppressive, black boots. He sighed with relief as he dragged his blistering, bare feet across the cool sheets. Then a pebble struck his bare shoulder. He got up from his bunk to walk to the window, but his weary legs gave out and he fell. He grabbed the sill, pulled himself up to the window, and peered out.

"Where ya been, Roany?" came Weeny's voice from the dark exterior.

"Not tonight, Weeny, I'm too tuckered."

"Awww, is the big stwong queen gawd too tiwed fow a wahk?"

"Well, yes . . . I mean, no, I mean . . . I could probably come out for awhile." He limped to his bunk and slipped on his boots, buckled them, threw on a shirt, and stumbled out the door.

Before he left, Surablin said to him, "Roanan, you're gonna get your ass in hot --"

"I know, I know, hell to pay."

"Hi ya, Roany," Weeny said, when he finally showed.

"Hi, Weeny," he said, taking her arm.

They walked and talked like young people do, discussing everything under the suns from music to food.

"What do you like to eat?" she asked perkily.

"I like pretty much anything, but what I really miss, since mom died, is her homemade biscuits. Mom made the best biscuits. I'd give anything for one of her biscuits."

"Here we are," said Weeny. They stopped beneath the tree in front of her house.

"Weeny! Are you out there?" yelled Sergeant Grov from the porch.

"You better go," whispered Weeny. "He's getting more and more difficult. But I'll be by tomorrow a little earlier so be ready." She stood on her toes and gave him a kiss. He kissed back. After their kiss he stared into her lovely lavenders and she stared back into his. "There's something different about you, Roany," she whispered. Then she turned and ran toward the house.

"You were out there with that Roanan boy again weren't you?" Roanan heard Grov yell at Weeny.

"Oh daddy." said Weeny.

Roanan jogged back to the billets -- again.

#

The next morning Sergeant Grov, his hands clasped behind him and munching on a fresh, unlit cigar, paced in front of the formation. He turned towards the men and said, "It seems the extra laps imposed yesterday on our midnight lover went unheeded! So you will all do your regular five laps except for Roanan who will do fifteen today plus one hundred pushups. Go!"

They all started their laps, all except Roanan who stood at attention.

"Problem, Roanan?" Grov asked snidely, puffing out his chest and placing his fists on his hips.

"You're being immature, Sergeant."

"You are to mind your own business and stay away from my little girl!"

"She is not a little girl anymore, Sergeant. She is a full grown young lady."

"What do you know? Your just out of your first plumage; you're only a kid yourself. She will not be taken away by the likes of you!"

"If not by me, by someone else. Maybe someone less. . . responsible."

"She is too young to make these kinds of decisions," said Grov, his voice quivering, a vein in his forehead bulging.

Roanan replied softly, "Weeny is not her sister. She's going to make mistakes, sure, but she has to be allowed to make them."

Sergeant Grov stood for a long while, jaw muscles flexing, glazed eyes staring through Roanan. "It seems like only yesterday that I was changing their diapers, taking them on hikes in the citadel mountains, and teaching them to swim in a mountain stream."

Roanan studied the dark violet feathers on Grov's face -- darker than usual from too much sun. His heart went out to the aging Sergeant, so he put his hand on Grov's shoulder.

"Sargeant?" he said softly.

Grov's eyes focused back on Roanan and then gave the hand a "get away from me" look. Roanan quickly withdrew it. "Do your damn laps!" Grov snarled, then turned and strode from the procession field.

#

A pebble flew through the window a full hour earlier than on previous nights, but this time Roanan was dressed and ready for her. He ran outside and greeted her with a kiss. She carried a large basket and a blanket, which he took from her.

"What's this?" he asked.

"It's a picnic basket, silly. I've got a surprise for you."

They walked a different route this time detouring through the dark and deserted procession field.

"This looks like a good spot," she said, retrieving the blanket from a bewildered Roanan and spreading it out. He set the basket down on the blanket and they knelt in front of it.

"Guess what I made for you," she said.

"I haven't a clue."

She opened the basket and an aroma wafted past his nose. He knew then what it was and they smelled scrumptious.

"Biscuits. You made me biscuits. You didn't have to do that."

"It was nothing. Take a bite and see how you like them."

He grabbed one and attempted to bite it. Bearing down he finally bit through. They sure didn't taste as good as they smelled.

"How do you like ‘em?"

He chewed for a moment and swallowed. "Great," he lied, "I love ‘em."

"Do you really? You're not just saying that?"

"No, no, I think they're tasty." He gnawed off another hunk and chewed. "M-m-m-m good."

"I was hoping you'd like them. Mom helped me, but I'm afraid I left out a few ingredients."

That explains it. "Just like mom use to make."

She reached over, kissed him on the mouth, and said, "You're so sweet," as if she knew of his untruth. "Daddy says that I better learn to cook if I want to corral a man." Then she said pensively, "I guess he doesn't think I'm pretty enough."

"I'd have to disagree with him there. Your cranial feathers are the color of triberry blossoms in spring. Your eyes are as lovely as the five moons of Sambia on a summer night."

"You have seen these moons?!" she exclaimed in disbelief.

"Yes I have. And I speak the truth."

"Oh thank you, Roany. I really needed to hear that." She kissed him.

He kissed back and, as with most healthy young people throughout the universe, the picnic was soon forgotten.

#

The following day Roanan stood at parade rest on the procession field. Gazing at the spot where Weeny and he had both laid in each others arms the night before. He wondered if he was going to catch it in the lap department today.

Sergeant Grov stepped onto the field, pulled an unlit cigar from between his lips, and shouted, "Ten-hut!" The air popped as the men snapped to attention. "Today we will focus on target practice. Private Roanan!"

"Yes Sergeant," droned Roanan, "how many?"

Sergeant Grov stepped close to Roanan, narrowed his eyes, and said in a low voice, "I will temporarily return your power pack for target practice only." Then bellowed, "Everybody take five laps and report for breakfast. . . . Dismissed!"

What the . . . no twenty laps. Did he not suspect what happened last night? Is he getting soft? Maybe my words yesterday hit home.

Roanan's five laps with the others were a breeze after the countless laps of previous mornings. Then he proceeded to the chow hall.

#

"Roanan, you're up!" yelled Grov after the forth Sentinel finished firing his weapon.

Roanan moved to the front of the line and stood at attention in front of Grov.

Grov slowly reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew Roanan's power pack, and handed it to him. "I'm not real sure about this," he whispered.

"Thanks Sergeant," Roanan whispered back, "I won't let you down." He rotated the weapon -- butt end toward the targets -- for easy access to the power pack port and began sliding the power pack home.

The men behind him scrambled. Grov yanked the weapon from Roanan's hands and barked, "ALWAYS KEEP THE WEAPON POINTED DOWNRANGE!"

"Sorry, Sergeant," said Roanan, as he sheepishly took back the rifle and held the business end toward the target area to seat the power pack.

He shoved the power pack home, and the rifle came to life.

Dink!

"Now, Private," said Grov, "see if you can hit the bull's-eye."

Chuckling and joking, the men gathered around behind Roanan. He kneeled on one knee and set the sight on the target mounted between two posts.

He squeezed the trigger tighter and tighter until the weapon fired. The report was deafening. The men stared in anticipation at the concentric circles, but the right post exploded toppling the target.

In the midst of the men's laughter Sergeant Grov jerked the rifle from Roanan's hands and yelled, "Can't you do anything right?"

Your daughter thinks I do all right, thought Roanan, as he stood at attention in front of Grov.

Jutting his chin out, Grov glared at him for a few moments. Then he yanked the power pack from the weapon, stuck it back in his pocket, and thrust the rifle back at Roanan. "Here, if trouble arises don't shoot, use your weapon as a club -- the Queen'll be safer."

#

A pebble bounced off Roanan's chest, and he made his way from the barracks into the night.

"Hi Roany," Weeny said kissing him, a blanket folded in her arms.

"Where's the picnic basket?" he asked naively.

"I thought we'd skip the picnic tonight and go straight to making out. Besides you didn't seem too hungry last night."

He gave her a look of surprise, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and they strolled to the procession field.

Upon reaching their spot on the field Roanan rolled out the blanket and they laid on it. He started to comment on how pretty the setting secondary sun was, but she grabbed the front of his shirt, pulled him closer, and kissed him passionately on his lips. He kissed back and one thing led to another.

After half-an-hour of "making out" he rolled over on his back and said, "Maybe I should talk to your father."

Weeny nuzzled his neck and said, "Won't be necessary, I'll take care of daddy when the time comes."

"That's just it. I think the time has come."

"No it hasn't. I will let you know -- "

"WEENY!" Grov shouted, a few yards behind them.

"Oh my God!" she squealed, "it's daddy!"

Roanan and Weeny jumped to their feet as Grov marched up, glaring at Roanan.

"Get your goddam hands of my daughter, Private!" Grov yelled, pushing Roanan with his barrel chest.

"Sergeant, I think you are overreacting. We were just . . . admiring the sunset."

"My daughter is going to college on Remus II this fall," roared Grov, glaring at Roanan, "and some noncommissioned boob is not going to stand in her way. Speaking of boobs, put your shirt on young lady and get yourself home."

"But daddy, I love him," sobbed Weeny as she picked up her blouse.

"You don't even know what love is. Now get!" yelled Grov, still burning a hole through Roanan.

Weeny, with head down, donned and buttoned her blouse and glumly made her way towards home.

"But Sergeant, I won't stand in her way."

"You damn right you won't. I forbid you to ever see my daughter again."

"Now look here, Sergeant," said Roanan, fists clenched and standing nose-to-nose with Grov.

"Y-e-e-s-s?" Grov replied, his ridged fists at his sides.

Then Roanan noticed Weeny some distance behind her father, waving her arms, shaking her head, and mouthing the word NO.

"You were saying, Private!" Grov snarled, still bumping Roanan with his chest.

Roanan, staring at Weeny, jaw muscles writhing, exhaled aloud, and said, "Nothing . . . Sergeant. I'll get back to the barracks."

"That's what I figured. For a moment I thought you developed a backbone."

Roanan, still gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, returned to the barracks.

#

The following morning (the day of the historic meeting) everything went normal from the five-lap good morning run to the breakfast scramble. The sky and ground were abuzz with a Peronese military presence. Sergeant Grov kept a wary eye on Roanan who managed to stumble or drop items even more than usual.

After breakfast the Queen's Sentinels stood at attention on the steps leading to the entrance of the palace proper -- behind Sergeant Grov. He was smartly clad in his dress greens which included a tailored jacket bedecked with yellow service stripes, multi colored combat ribbons, and dark blue shoulder knots. A triberry red beret hung on the side of his graying/violet feathered head.

The Androlian Emperor was due to arrive before the second sun made its entrance, but the suns appearance had transpired some time ago and it was getting hot.

The emperor must not be familiar with our proximity to the second sun, thought Roanan, or he wouldn't keep us waiting.

Just then Roanan heard the shrill whoop! of a siren signaling the approach of a space vessel. An Androlian ship appeared out of a cloudless, emerald sky and was escorted by Peroneese gun ships to the openness of the procession ground. Grov marched his small detachment toward the transport vessel as it touched down.

When the group reached the spacecraft, and before the craft's ramp was lowered, Grov turned and approached Roanan. The Sergeant reached into his breast pocket, pulled out the power pack to Roanan's weapon, and thrust it at him. "Here!" he said heatedly. "Try not to shoot anyone."

"I will try, Sergeant."

Sergeant Grov glared at Roanan for a few moments then whispered low and forcefully, "You are here to protect the queen. Should trouble arise do not run."

Roanan stood at attention and drew his lips tight.

Sergeant Grov did an about face, returned to his previous position, and growled, "AT EASE, MEN! Looks like we'll be here for a while."

The dust from the vessel's landing dissipated. But the heat radiating from its skin combined with the outside temperature made standing next to the ship almost unbearable.

At length a ramp lowered and a large figure, dressed in fine cerulean robes, his face ceremoniously veiled, descended.

The figure stopped in front of Sergeant Grov who saluted and bowed.

Sergeant Grov was a large man, but the figure towered over him standing twice his height and three times his width.

"Sergeant Grov," boomed a voice from the inter- planetary translators on their belts, "how good it is to finally meet you. I have heard of your many exploits." The emperor extended a slimy, green hand.

Grov looked uncomfortable and taken aback. He stuck out his hand and positioned it on the back of the emperor's hand. After they made contact they simultaneously slid their hands toward themselves. A gesture of peace and respect. "I'm honored, your Highness," said Grov. "Where is your entourage?"

"I've decided to leave them on the ship. The . . . heat is too much for them."

The Emperor turned toward the palace. Grov furtively used his own jacket to wiped the slime off the back of his hand.

"POSITIONS, HO," yelled Grov.

With the warranted pomp accorded, the Queen's Sentinels shouldered their rifles, surrounded the Emperor, and escorted him to the palace.

Once in the palace, the Emperor proceeded to a newly installed weapons detecting arch. It sounded off as he walked through.

"With great respect, your highness," said Sergeant Grov, "we will have to ask you to open your robes."

The Emperor complied, keeping the veil over his face. He had no weapons.

"Probably my scepter, Sergeant," said the Emperor. "It was made centuries ago of many strange and exotic materials from my home world."

"Again," said Grov contritely, "we will have to ask you to leave your scepter here."

"Surely, Sergeant Grov, you can't expect me to leave this priceless, ancient artifact out here while I debate the future of our two worlds behind closed doors. It is merely a piece of wood decorated with metal, just an historic relic, a symbol; but a symbol representing my world."

"I'm very sorry, your Highness, but we cannot allow anything beyond these doors that will even hint at injuring our queen."

"Sergeant Grov!" Came a woman's voice behind the group. Grov spun around.

Her green cranial-feathers fluffed up high and wearing an ornately decorated burgundy robe, the queen stepped toward Grov.

"Yes, your Sovereign Queen," said Grov, bowing and clearly flustered.

She pointed at the sentinels, and said, "You have five armed guards escorting Emperor Sera tone and myself into the meeting chambers. I doubt an embellished wooden stick will pose much of a threat. We must learn to extend concessions if we are to have a lasting peace."

Sergeant Grov still bowing, replied, "I apologize your Majesty, but under the current threat, I was only doing my duty."

"Duly noted, Sergeant, but I think the scepter will not be a problem."

"As you wish, your Magnificence." Roanan could tell by Grov's response he didn't agree with the queen.

"Advance to the meeting chambers, men," commanded Sergeant Grov, "and await your queen and her guest."

The Queen's Sentinels marched into the meeting room and visually scanned it from the entryway. There was nothing in the room except the queen's throne, a half wall hiding shelves of filing discs to the left of the throne, and an overly large settee -- constructed for the Emperor's comfort -- opposite the throne.

The tiny queen walked in next followed by a stooping Emperor. Sergeant Grov closed the large door and set the timed lock. (Traditionally -- to help reduce tension and additional loss of life, early peace talks would open with a fist fight between the two leaders behind closed and locked doors. The timed lock had been installed centuries ago just for these types of talks. Later, the scrap was handled by two brawlers from their respective sides. The two opponents were left alone in the chambers for ten minutes before the beginning of the talks. After a time these frays were eliminated, but the lock, a time-honored observance of past talks, remained.)

* * *

The queen felt a trickle of blood from the stinging cut below her eye. She examined the room with a desperate eye for anything she could use to gain an advantage, but the only weapons she saw lay next to the gruesome pile at the chamber door some twenty feet away. "Is there anything I can do to dissuade you from this course?"

Bending at the waist so he was face to face with her, Bera tone said, "All I want from you is for you to die!"

Looking deep into Bera tone's eyes, the queen noticed an almost imperceptible movement behind him in the grisly heap.

Something is happening over there, she thought.

She said, "You went to a lot of trouble for this attempt."

"That's the way I accomplish my objectives."

She glanced back to the massacre at the exit and she stared in disbelief. One of the figures was rising.

Keep stalling.

"I have riches," she exclaimed. "I have jewels. I will gladly share them with you if you forget about this . . . heinous act."

"Go ahead, your highness, offer me more. Offer me the lost treasure of the Alutionayahs; offer me the diamonds of Gonax; offer me everything--for it will get you nothing."

She realized he was toying with her, but she needed to keep his mind focused on her. She looked past him once more and her heart skipped a beat. She almost cried out with joy. The young man, Roanan, was on his feet; his facial features were reforming. The gaping hole in his forehead was progressively closing and his eyes were renewing. The process was as slow as triberry syrup in winter.

"Is your brother aware of your interference in these peace talks?"

"Gonaxians do not make peace, we make war." He aimed the weapon at her face. She closed her eyes loosely and peeked over at the restored Roanan through her squint.

She prayed.

Roanan picked up his weapon and the power pack from the floor. He quietly slid the power pack into the weapon.

Dink!

Bera tone's eyes enlarged and his mouth dropped. He spun on his heel and fired his scepter at the noise. Roanan, already on the move, dove and flipped like a veteran gymnast toward the queen. He landed about ten feet from her behind the bejeweled throne. The wall, where he'd stood, exploded from Bera tone's weapon. Then the throne's backrest detonated in a shower of stuffing.

Bera tone ducked behind the settee and aimed his scepter at the queen‘s face once more. She back stepped to the wall flattening herself against it, threw both arms over her eyes, and screamed "NO-O-O-O!"

Roanan dove toward her. Bera tone swung his weapon. He fired at Roanan. He missed. While in the air, Roanan grabbed the robe of the queen with one hand and fired at Bera tone with the other. The shot struck Bera tone's scepter. It exploded in his face. Roanan and the queen landed in a heap behind the half wall, the queen sprawled on top of him.

Roanan quickly but gently pushed the queen from him and they peered around the corner of the half wall.

Bera tone mopped blood from a nasty gash on his face with his veil. Roanan rose and walked around the half wall, the queen close behind him. "I arrest you in the name of -- "

"You'll not stop me," said Bera tone, as he stood up. "I have come to kill your Queen and I will not fail." With his gaze fixed intently on the queen he stepped toward her. She used both hands on Roanan‘s arm to keep from trembling.

"Give it up, Bera tone," said Roanan. "I cannot permit you to harm her Highness."

Bera tone took his eyes from the queen and focused on Roanan. "You would not be so brave if you did not have that weapon. Dispose of it, and we will settle this like real men." He stepped closer to Roanan.

"Bera tone, you know I can't take that risk. But if I did you might be surprised."

Bera tone took another step and snarled, "Mighty brave talk for a young whelp just off his mama's teat. Come on, boy, let's see what you can really do."

"I must insist that you stop or I will be forced to react."

The quaking queen peeked from behind Roanan and said, "Bera tone, please don't take another step. It's not worth dying for."

"I don't think this boy has the berries to fight me man to man."

"Please, sir," said Roanan, "do not make me do this," pointing his weapon up at Bera tone.

"What's the matter, boy," said Bera tone, stepping so the weapon's muzzle was against his chest, "you scared? Of course you are, I'm thrice your size."

"BERA TONE HALT! I don't want to have to --"

With the speed of a marquat, Bera tone grabbed the pulse rifle and pulled. The sudden jerk caused it to discharge into his chest. Bera tone slumped to the floor as several of his vertebrae slid messily down the wall.

Roanan dropped his weapon, grabbed the queen by her arms, and said, "Are you all right, your Majesty?"

Still quaking and her insides a mix of panic and relief she blew a few ruffled feathers from her face and said, "I'm fine, thanks to you." Her eyes looked at the still dissolving wound in his forehead and said, "You are not Peronese, are you?"

Compressing his lips together, he barely shook his head.

"You are a changeling, or a shape shifter, aren't you?"

"We prefer the name Morphanese, your Sovereign Queen."

"But Roanan, I saw you shot in the head. How did a . . . a Morphanese escape death? How did you even know this incident would take place?"

"First of all, your Highness, my name is not Roanan, it's Uhmaa. Secondly, Morphanese brains are located deep in the center of our bodies. The head you saw destroyed was a fabrication every Morphanese child is taught in grade school. And thirdly, I graduated highest in my class at the academy. When our intelligence got word of an attempt to disrupt these talks, our president asked for a volunteer from the top five of our graduating class. I was selected. I apologize for the deception, but it was necessary until the first move was made."

"Your facade was quite effective and under the circumstances, I wholeheartedly forgive you for the ruse, Uh--maa."

Uhmaa smiled. "It's good to hear my name again, your Highness. I must ask you to keep my secret a short while longer if I am to continue to protect you."

Just then the door blew open with a loud report. Sergeant Grov and a group of grunts entered. Grov leveled a look of displeasure at Umhaa.

"I understand," the Queen whispered, staring into Uhmaa's eyes, "your secret will be safe with me."

#

The following day, Uhmaa was instructed to report to Major Sizemore's office. He approached the Major's door, dusted his shoes off on the back of his pant legs, and tapped lightly. A gruff voice said, "Enter!" Warily he opened the door and noticed Sergeant Grov sitting against the wall. The Major sat behind his desk.

Uhmaa marched briskly to the desk and snapped a salute, "Private Roanan reporting as ordered, sir."

Major Sizemore returned his salute, pointed at a chair next to Uhmaa's leg, and said, "Sit down, Private." He looked over at Sergeant Grov and said, "You've got it from here, Sergeant," then walked from behind his desk and left the room.

Grov rose and approached Uhmaa. "I need to find out exactly what happened yesterday in the queen's chambers," he said, hands clasped behind his back as he casually walked behind Uhmaa. "I need to know how four superior soldiers were gunned down, and you -- an oddball -- not only survived but rescued the queen and in the process, killed one of this system's most elusive and fearsome terrorists."

"Luck, Sergeant Grov."

"LUCK!" barked Grov, the word expelling from his mouth like venom from a snake. "Explain further, Private!"

"Well when we, the Queen's Sentinels, entered the queens chambers her Highness commanded us to take up our positions. We began walking to our respective posts, but I tripped over my feet and fell to the floor. At that same instant I heard a weapon going off and all manner of gore sprayed me. I hid behind poor Surablin's body, who had fallen in front of me dead as a stone. I peeked over his corpse and saw that the Emperor had a weapon and was going berserk. Scared out of my wits I took careful aim from behind Surablin's body and shot the Emperor in the chest before he had a chance to see me. And that's what took place behind the closed doors."

Sergeant Grov walked behind Uhmaa from his left to his right, stopped behind his right shoulder, and snarled, "You're a liar!"

Uhmaa slammed a fist on the chair arm, jumped to his feet at attention, and spouted, "Look here Sergeant, just because we have had our disagreements in the past that is no reason for insults!"

"You're still a liar, Private Roanan! Or should I call you Uhmaa?"

Uhmaa snapped his head to his right to look at Grov and blathered, "Huh? What? How did -- "

"We also heard of the effort to derail attempted relations with the Androliens," said Sergeant Grov, "and we took many precautions. Among these measures were the metal detection unit at the entrance, explosives on the chamber door, and a video feedback the queen was not aware of.

"So you graduated from the academy," growled Grov. "Well bully for you. I know for a fact that graduates don't emerge from there with a noncommissioned rank. So, Private, what is your real rank?" "Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant Uhmaa. Huh . . . you outrank me. Furthermore you have the training to tear out my esophagus."

"That is correct, Sergeant. But don‘t let that interfere with what you have to say to me."

"Oh, it won't. You are still a liar!"

"Why do you keep saying that?"

Sergeant Grov got in his face. "You claimed to be a lowly Private -- you weren't; you acted like a lumbering lout -- you weren't; you pretended to be Peronese -- you aren't. Everything about you has been a lie so far. Were your intentions toward my daughter also a lie?"

Uhmaa glared at Grov, and said, "While all those things you described were fallacious, and necessary deceptions, I'm sure you'd agree that they were essential to bring about a successful conclusion to my mission. However what I feel for Weeny is deep and abiding." He took his eyes off Grov and stared at a corner of the desk, "Since my arrival three weeks ago she's been the only one who has treated me decently . . . her smile . . . her laugh. Her desire to make me happy. I love her. I will till the end -- and beyond." He looked back at Grov. "But to keep you and she in concert, and she from ending up like her sister, I have elected to leave Peron as soon as a replacement can be found."

Grov stood and stared fiercely at Uhmaa for a long while. And then for the first time since the day at the quartermaster, his face softened and he said, "I sure wish you wouldn't do that, son."

"But . . . but I thought that was what you wanted," said an incredulous Uhmaa.

Grov walked to Uhmaa's right side, clapped him on the back, rested his hand on the latter's shoulder, and said, "What I wanted was for my daughter to be happy with a good man -- not a bumbling fool. You have proven to be a good man. Ya see son, having just one daughter has left me a little . . . overprotective."

"That's an understatement," Uhmaa mumbled.

"What was that?"

"Nothing."

"Anyhow the wife and I are having a cookout this weekend. How'd you like to come? We could patch things up."

"Well, Sergeant . . . that . . . sounds . . . delightful," Uhmaa said perplexed. They strolled toward the door, Grov's hand still on Uhmaa's shoulder.

"Good," said Grov. "We'll expect you around one. And bring an appetite. Weeny is making her famous biscuits."

CONTENTS


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