Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 21 April 2643 AST. Captain Julia Andreys recording. The Aurora has arrived over the planet Arc-Royal in Universe F1S1 with an Alliance diplomatic team to observe talks between the Great Houses of the Inner Sphere and the Clans of Kerensky. Secretary Onaran has spent weeks arranging this summit in order to stabilize the existing Clan-Inner Sphere truce and, it is hoped, establish the possibility of a more permanent peace.
In addition to our role in the talks, we will also be providing some of the security forces to ensure the safety of the negotiating teams.
On another matter, the new commanding officer of the Koenig has arrived to take up his post.
The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig gathered in the conference lounge to greet the new arrival when he entered the room via the starboard-side lift.
The officer that Ensign Jean Hajar, a helm and engineering officer of the Koenig, escorted into the lounge was young as well. Well-combed and cut blond hair gave him the appearance of a disciplined young officer, as did the controlled expression on his round face. Light brown eyes surveyed those present and betrayed, just a little, the emotions under the surface. The newcomer looked almost uncomfortable in his Alliance military uniform, with the three gold rank strips of a full Commander on his collar. Julia introduced him to the others. "Everyone, this is Commander William Atreiad, formerly of the Colonial Navy, and the new Commanding Officer of the Koenig."
There was polite applause. Everyone was trying not to hold the fact behind Atreiad's appointment against him; specifically, the slow degradation of their friend, Zack Carrey, former commander of the Koenig. Nevertheless Julia noticed that Tom Barnes had an unhappy look. She restrained herself from sighing.
When the greetings finished, Julia nodded to Atreiad, who replied, "Thank you for the warm welcome." He seemed a little nervous himself. Julia couldn't be shocked; after a brief promotion to Captain in the Colonial Navy due to his role in Adama's ploy to delay the Cylons, he had transferred to the Stellar Navy with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander, just to have the service bump him another rank in the span of a month to fill one of the needed command billets. The rapid rise was certain to jolt anyone.
"I understand I am taking a post held by someone that you all care deeply for," he continued. "Commander Carrey enjoys the respect of the Colonies as well, and I have to say that I'm daunted by the prospect of commanding the Starship Koenig in his absence. I pray that I'm capable of being half of the commander that Zachary Carrey is."
Those self-deprecating remarks won Atreiad the audience. Lieutenant Commander Creighton Apley, the First Officer and Navigation Officer of the Koenig, was the first to start applauding. Julia was the third.
When the applause ended Atreiad stepped up to Julia and handed her a datapad. On it were his official orders. "Commander Atreiad reporting as ordered, Captain," the young Colonial officer stated.
"Welcome aboard, Commander. Go ahead and take a seat, I'll give everyone a final briefing."
Atreiad nodded and did so, taking up Zack's usual seat beside where Julia herself used to sit, now Meridina's seat. Everyone took their typical seats and Julia settled into her own. "As you've all noticed, we've made orbit over Arc-Royal. Under the political system of the Federated Commonwealth, this planet is ruled by Grand Duke Morgan Kell, whom you may remember."
There were nods. Julia imagined Barnes was ready to call him the "cool old guy", but he said nothing and was merely frowning in his seat.
"The Grand Duke is a most remarkable individual," Meridina said. "I sensed there was something unique about him."
"Duke Kell has agreed to a request from ComStar's Primus Mori to host this diplomatic summit," Julia explained. "All of the Inner Sphere and many of the Periphery states are attending, as are representatives of the Clans' Grand Council."
"Huh." Jarod showed surprise at that. "That's quite an accomplishment. I didn't think the Clans would ever agree to talks on this scale with the Inner Sphere. Even the Wardens don't seem to actually like the Great Houses that much."
"The war against the Reich is the ostensible reason," Julia noted. "Officially the Clans are here to join in planning further invasions of the Reich's central worlds. To bid for them in their style. However, Secretary Onaran believes that ilKhan Kerensky can use any agreement as the basis for expanding, or maybe extending, the Tukkayid Truce."
"It won't be easy," Locarno said.
"Likely not. And it assumes the Inner Sphere can work together and present a united front." Jarod shook his head before looking to Julia. "So what are we doing here?"
"Observing, mostly," Julia said. "The Alliance is remaining officially neutral in Clan-House relations for the moment."
"Really? I thought we told both sides we'd help the Inner Sphere if the Clans invaded," Angel pointed out.
"That was before the Clans agreed to join the war too," Julia replied. "That complicates matters. Our guarantee wasn't withdrawn, of course, but we can't be assertive about it if we want to keep the Clans in the fight. Onaran may play peacemaker if he wants to, but our part is to simply watch, and to provide extra security. There are parties that would love to derail these talks."
"I will have security teams ready for your use, Captain." From her seat, one wouldn't imagine that Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond was barely two weeks away from having been stabbed to near-death by one of the rogues of the Avenger crew. "And we'll coordinate with ComStar and Kell Hound security easily enough. Might I borrow Lieutenant Lucero?"
"And Commander Meridina, yes," Julia said. "Any other questions?" There were none. "Then you're all dismissed." The assembled stood from their chairs. As they went to leave, Julia called out, "Lieutenant Barnes?", prompting Tom Barnes to stay. "How are you feeling?" she asked him once everyone was out of the room.
"Fraking lousy," the foul-mouthed engineer declared. "They… He's really done it." There was sadness in Barnes' eyes when they met Julia's. "Zack's gone for good, I mean? Because they've got that Colonial guy taking his ship now."
"He resigned, Tom," Julia reminded him. "For the moment Maran is holding the resignation on the grounds that Zack may not have been of sound mind, but if nothing changes he'll accept it. He'll have to. And in the meantime, the Koenig needs a commander."
Barnes clenched his fists. "Dammit, we let him down. We let Zack down. He needed us and we just… y'know, we just let things go."
Julia felt a lump in her throat. She knew he was right, even as she knew nothing was going to stop Zack from leaving when he did. "He has to want our help, too," she said quietly. "And he didn't."
"There has to be something we can do."
"Right now? No." Julia shook her head. "Wherever he is, Zack has to figure this stuff out on his own. All we can do is hope and pray he does, and that he's okay."
It was obvious Barnes did not like that answer. That was fine to her, as Julia didn't either. Her mind wandered for a moment, thinking of Zack and everything that had happened since the New Year.
"Mind if I go?" Barnes asked her. "Scotty needs me to finish a visual inspection of our impulsor engines."
The request forced Julia out of those thoughts. "Of course," she said. "You're dismissed, Lieutenant."
Barnes let out a deliberately-drawn out sigh at her formality before heading to the lift.
Julia watched him go and turned to face the windows. Arc-Royal hung in space "below" her, at the bottom of the gravity well that was keeping the Aurora in roughly the same relative position through a geosynchronous orbit. She watched the planet alone for several moments. The task ahead was going to be another difficult assignment, but the tricky diplomacy of the F1S1 universe was not what was on her mind. She found herself thinking, instead, of missing friends.
Zack, Rob, wherever you guys are… I hope you're alright.
Zachary Carrey was used to headaches when waking up. It was not an encouraging sign, given what it said about his drinking habits of late.
But now it was joined by nausea, nausea that drove him to scramble out of his bed. It was a softer bed than he'd enjoyed in weeks. His mind couldn't think of why, at the moment. The last few days had been a bit of a blur. Faces he was unfamiliar with, and only one he could put a name to. And even that one didn't fit his thoughts anymore.
A search of the room indicated the small closet space with a commode. Zack stumbled over to it and retched into the metal receptacle. It took a few minutes for him to regain control. His throat and nose burned from the stomach contents that had come up through his throat. His hand reached and reached until he found the switch for the commode. Jets of water forced the vomit through the bottom and to their final destination in the ship holding tank.
Standing up, Zack could feel his head clearing enough to recognize himself in the mirror. He was in a pair of white boxers with a blue line pattern. His bare chest showed muscle definition, but it was starting to atrophy from lack of sufficient exercise, or food for that matter. His face was pale.
"I look like crap," Zack muttered to himself, even as he tried to figure out where he was. This wasn't his room in the Deng Guo City traveler's motel he'd picked. Had he boarded another ship while drunk? The thought briefly scared him until he noticed the fading bruise on his stomach. He'd been punched, hard. Other remaining spots spoke of other blows. He'd been attacked. That had been stopped, and now he was…. here?
As his thoughts cleared, a face came to mind. Familiar, save the facial hair.
There was a knock at the door. Zack grabbed a pair of trousers from his open travel bag - when had he gotten his stuff? - and pulled it on while approaching the door. "Coming," he grumbled. His head still hurt. When he reached the door he tapped a key to open it.
The figure outside was one of those he wasn't sure about. A male humanoid alien in a jacket and leggings. After a moment Zack's brain registered the appearance. I'm on a ship with a Minbari? he thought, looking at the white bone crest on the alien's head. "Are you well?" the Minbari asked.
"I just puked and my head feels like an elephant was sitting on it. So no, I'm not," Zack answered irritably.
"I see. Your symptoms have not cleared yet."
"Who are you anyway?" Zack asked. The hall outside of the room had doors to what he assumed were other rooms. A control cockpit or bridge was visible to his left, through a sliding double door, with the streaks of warp space faintly visible. The color and look of the interior was definitely Dorei, vibrant shades of green on the walls with purple trim around the doors and panels. "What ship is this?"
"You are aboard an independent vessel, the Keyeri," the Minbari replied. "I am the co-owner of the craft. My name is Lennier." Lennier gestured toward the rear of the central hall. "Our eating area is open for you to use. You most likely require some form of sustenance given your condition."
Zack felt his stomach gurgle. Some of it was hunger, but the rest was queasiness. "No point until I know I won't just throw up," he replied quietly. With the moments ticking by his thoughts were focusing better. "I have a friend aboard."
"Yes. He is in the cargo bay."
Zack nodded and stepped out. "Thanks," he said. Lennier nodded and returned to the ship's cockpit area. Zack went in the other direction, toward the stern. A turn to his right led to a platform overlooking a relatively small cargo bay and a set of steps down to it.
There was little cargo in the cargo bay. In the middle of the open space two people were seated with crossed legs, in a way Zack associated with "meditation". The figure closest to him was a woman, a Dorei with blue skin and hair and light purple spotting. The latter was visible down the rear and front of her bare shoulder blades, as she was wearing a yellow tube top and thigh-length shorts of white color.
Opposite her was Zack's friend Robert Dale. He was in a white sleeveless undershirt and blue boxers. His hair was slightly longer than was normal for him, now approaching the base of his neck, and for the first time in his life Robert was letting his facial hair grow, with a trimmed beard and mustache of the same dark hair as on his scalp.
A bleary image came to Zack's mind. Of the look of his oldest friend as he reached down and helped Zack up. "It's been a while" echoed. It had been quite a greeting.
Zack's attention was now drawn to an object, or rather set of objects, hovering in mid-air between Robert and the Dorei woman. The frame suggested a rough cylinder, with parts creating a housing attached to a power cell and a control. A shining green crystal moved through the air and fit into a cradle in the housing.
Or so it seemed. A moment later a part fell from the housing. It came apart, the crystal next, and in a burst of invisible power the entire thing seemed to explode. Parts flew everywhere. One stopped in mid-air before the Dorei.
Another piece, small and stinging, struck Zack. Right between the eyes. He let out an involuntary cry and reached for the impact point. "What the hell?" he said a moment later.
Attention turned to him. Robert already had frustration on his expression, but now it turned to concern as well. "Zack, are you alright? I'm sorry, I didn't mean…" He sighed and started to stand. "How are you?"
"Feeling like crap," Zack answered.
"Hopefully you'll be through the withdrawal soon," Robert said. "I'm more worried about your head. Julia's message said something about potential brain damage from Niltox?"
"It's fine," Zack insisted, glowering. His bad judgement over the Niltox was another unpleasant sign of how low he'd gone. "What was that anyway?"
"Yet another failed attempt to follow Lucy's instructions," Robert said, looking disappointed. "I'm still trying to get a handle on my abilities now that they're stronger."
"I thought you were going to do that in some super-remote Gersallian monastery?"
"That was to help me get enough control that I wasn't spontaneously knocking things over," Robert pointed out. "I managed that after about a month." After that he gestured to the Dorei woman. "Anyway, this is Druni Jestani, formerly of the Order of the Silver Moon, and co-owner of this ship, the Keyeri."
"I met her partner already," Zack noted. His brow furrowed in recollection. "Silver Moon? The order of lesbians with the bondage sex rituals?"
Robert sighed while Druni snorted. "If you weren't his friend and clearly affected by drinking too much, I would smack you for believing that lurid nonsense," Druni grumbled. "We're not all yassi - lesbians, I mean - and banno egh banno is not sexual!"
"Remind me to remind Tom to stop watching those things," Robert moaned. "They'll just get him into trouble."
To that Zack snorted. Given his headache, he immediately regretted the reaction. "Getting Tom away from his porn is like getting you away from your heroics, Sir Robert the White. Although come to think of it, for you they might be about the same thing..."
That won him a playful glare, the playfulness made clear by the smile on Robert's face. "Well, I see your sense of humor is still intact," he said.
For a brief moment, Zack did feel like things were… normal? Right? Here he was, bantering with his close friend like the old days. But it's not the old days anymore, and Clara's still dead, and I've become a Goddamned drunk just like Dad.
Robert's smile faded. He could sense the shift in Zack's mood and, if not the thoughts themselves, the general thought behind them. Before he could say anything, a tone came from a panel on the wall.
Druni walked over to it and tapped a key. "Yes, Lennier?"
"We have arrived. I have brought the ship out of warp and requested landing clearance. We are standing by."
"Ah. Good." Druni nodded and looked to Robert. "We're here."
"I guess it's time to get dressed," said Robert.
"Huh?" Zack blinked. "Where is 'here', then?"
Robert responded by activating his omnitool. It was an amber-colored model, one of the M4P2 civilian omnitools instead of the blue lighting of a Stellar Navy-issue one. An image popped up of a garden planet. Tall, wide mountain ranges were visible on a great continent. The orbital space was full of starships, many of them utilizing solar-sails or, Zack realized, subspace-sails. And he could only think of one species that used such ships widely.
"Gy'sara," Robert answered, as if the ships themselves hadn't given the answer away. "The Gy'toran Homeworld."
"Where the Wind Takes You"
The Keyeri descended through clouds on her way to her destination. In the ship's cockpit Zack and Robert sat toward the rear while Lennier piloted and Druni supported him. They were watching as the clouds parted for good, giving a spectacular view of Utal Pranam, the capital city of the Gy'torans.
A G2 star, the same type as Earth's, shined golden rays upon the scene. Below them a city was sprawled among the hilltops along a great river and the canyon it had carved into the planet's surface over the last eon or two. The buildings were blocky structures of lavender, burgundy, and golden shades, with some other colors mixed in, some rising high enough that they were actually above the walls of the canyon. Said walls were not bare either, but rather bore structures built into the canyon sides. Long bands of nets connected some of the buildings to others at varying altitudes. Signs in the blocky cuneiform of the primary Gy'toran trade language were set into many of the structures.
The Keyeri remained over a hundred meters above the canyon on its approach, and for good reason. Just below them, a large craft made of wood and steel was gently plying its way through the air. Zack was astonished to see that the vessel was covered in great white canvases, like an old sailing ship before the days of steam, spread out above, to the sides, and even billowing out from the bottom of the ship. Small figures were hustling across the sails' attached netting, manipulating the sails with pinpoint precision. One sail began to fold in on itself; it was being furled in. Then another.
"A wind-sailer airship," Robert noted. "Just like their starships."
"Goddess, it is amazing," Druni breathed. "I had heard the stories…"
"How could that work?" Zack wondered aloud. "I mean, a ship that size would need an active anti-grav engine or a lot of speed and lift to stay aloft."
"It most likely has a gravity drive for these approaches," Lennier stated. "However, Gy'sara's gravity is lighter than many other species' homeworlds, and the mountain and canyon formations on the continents encourage higher wind speeds. Wind-sailing airships are quite feasible."
"And an integral part of their culture," Robert added.
"I am bringing us in to their aerospace port," Lennier added. "We will be landing momentarily."
Their course took them to the north of the main city. The buildings started to diminish in size, clearing the skies over the canyon below for greater aerial traffic. And that was precisely what was there. More wind-sailers were evident, some no larger than a rowboat with gliding sails. The Keyeri remained in her own approach vector that took her past a large, elegant wind-sailing ship with multiple internal decks and massive, furled sails. Zack looked over said ship with a keen eye. Its very size seemed to defy its ability to remain aloft, even if for the moment it was docked in what looked like a cradle extended from the canyon wall.
Said wall was their destination as well. Along this entire section door after door had been carved; the Gy'torans had turned this entire area of Utal Pranam into an aerospace port to service their capital. One such set of doors, a smaller set near the top of the canyon, was open for them. Lennier flew them in with quiet precision. The dock inside was a basic hanger. Visible fuel cells allowed for a variation of ship types to have vital fuel recharged or replenished. Work-coat clad Gy'torans scuttled along on four limbs to secure the Keyeri to her dock.
"Here we are," Robert said.
"Yeah." Zack blinked. "Uh, why are we here?"
"Why else would we be here?" Robert asked, his eyes glinting with humor. "Sightseeing."
Securing the Keyeri hadn't taken long, and Zack spent that time packing his bags. A part of him considered telling the others "No thank you" and going off to book passage on the next ship leaving for Alliance space. But he couldn't bring himself to do that. Not yet. It didn't feel right, not given the effort Robert had clearly spent tracking him down.
Besides, he wanted to see the Gy'toran homeworld too.
The aerospace port's main facilities were actually above the docks, built on the surface of the forested plateaus that overlooked the canyon. From the windows that lined the pathways of the terminals Zack could look out at the trees. They were primarily red, with pale violet and purple leaves, although some of the species evident were of a dimmer red color. An eight-legged animal of almost feline appearance darted up the surface of one of the trees, disappearing into the canopy. An avian with blue and green feathers swooped in close to the window before banking out to land on another tree.
"Zack?" Ahead of him, Robert broke off from the others and looked back to him. He was wearing the same Gersallian traveling robes he'd worn when rescuing Zack from his attackers on Guanxi, although he kept the hood down around his neck here. "We're heading to the hotel, we probably shouldn't split up until we get there."
"Right," Zack murmured. He walked toward Robert and they kept going.
"You've been traveling a bit yourself, haven't you?" Robert asked. "I mean, I almost caught up to you in M4P2, but you left Eden Prime before the Keyeri could get there."
"I heard it was beautiful there, wanted to see it," Zack said.
"I guess I'm jaded by New Liberty and New Caprica," Zack said. "Because it looked like just another garden planet to me."
Robert shook his head genially. "It had its charms though. And the Prothean ruins are spectacular."
"They were, I guess," Zack conceded.
When he didn't say anything else, Robert continued to speak. "I don't blame you for wanting to just get away for awhile. With everything that's happened…"
Zack said nothing.
"...anyway, I'm looking forward to this." Robert kept a friendly grin on his face, even as he felt like he was forcing it. "And look on the bright side. We lost a lot of weight coming here. That might have been useful back in school."
"Ha," Zack chuckled, but only slightly. He knew what Robert was trying to do, and he didn't feel like humoring him for the moment. He wanted some time to process his thoughts. Particularly the memories of talking with Clara. While she'd never mentioned Gy'sara in particular, this was the kind of traveling she'd talked about doing if Zack ever left the Stellar Navy. And now he was here doing it, and she… she was gone. Dead, not coming back.
Robert went to open his mouth again and stopped. Zack wasn't ready. He had to be patient.
They caught up to Druni and Lennier at the mass transit terminal. A large air-bus - not a sky-sailing model either - was already pulled up to the terminal and docked, taking aboard passengers. They got in line and waited.
The estate of Grand Duke Kell was the locale for the summit, in the planetary capital of Old Connaught. Julia looked out a window in the upper floor room set up for the talks and considered the city. While named for an Irish province, the capital of Arc-Royal was built more like the kind of homey, small German towns that Julia had seen in old photography in history classes or in Anna Dale's family photographs. Indeed, it was almost hard to believe it was the capital of a planet.
"It is quite a sight, isn't it?"
Julia turned and faced the man speaking to her. He was roughly her age, a little taller, wearing a dress uniform of light beige with brown on the chest. A brass-colored rank square with a red star was located on both lapels of the uniform's neck while the arm bore a red star with one ray longer than the rest pointed downward, a "daggerstar". Green eyes a different shade from her own eye color met her eyes. "Khan Ward," she said respectfully.
"Captain." Phelan Ward - formerly Phelan Kell - nodded once. "How do you like Arc-Royal?"
"It's… certainly a lovely world," Julia answered. "It's your homeworld, right?"
"To some extent, although I spent part of my youth traveling from world to world with the Kell Hounds." Phelan looked out over the town again. "Congratulations, by the way."
"On your promotion, and your command," he answered. "And on some of your accomplishments as well. I took the time to read up on your career so far as a captain. You seem to have had quite an eventful year."
"You could say that." Julia grinned slightly at that. "I'm surprised the Clan Grand Council let you come. Wouldn't they consider you biased?"
"They would have to defend such an argument if they argued it in the Council," Phelan said. "And I would have been honor bound to challenge them to a Circle of Equals." His mouth formed into an appropriately-wolfish smile. "And I'm not the easiest opponent to face, inside or outside of a 'Mech."
"Ah." Julia nodded once.
"Of course, that will not stop certain Khans from using my presence to debate against whatever arrangement we make," Phelan continued. "Which is why I am only here as an observer for the ilKhan. Khans from the Ghost Bears, Star Adders, Snow Ravens, and Nova Cats are the primary negotiators for our delegation."
"Right." Julia tried to remember which Clan was which. She recalled the Bears and the Cats as Invading Clans, but the Adders and Ravens were more of a blank. "The Clans have already taken a few worlds for their own, I believe?"
"Neu Brandenburg, Wesselwelt, and New Denmark," Phelan said. "And we have enclaves on ten other planets taken from the Reich, although your Alliance has insisted we honor your Harris Station Charter, so we do not enjoy full control of those other worlds."
Julia nodded in reply. She was familiar with said Charter, signed a month after the Battle of New Austria. It guaranteed political liberty to the communities of subjugated nationalities and ethnicities. The original intent of the charter had been to grant entire worlds freedoms, but between the needs of the war and the demands of the Turians, the charter allowed for the coalition members to maintain their own enclaves and bases on those worlds, even if the communities there would gain independence. Clearly the Clans were getting the same arrangement the Turians enjoyed.
"I had better go see to my fellow Khans," Phelan said. "Have a good day, Captain."
"Thank you, Khan," she answered. She took a final look out the window before walking away herself.
Julia soon found Meridina and Lucy in the company of Commander Richmond. They were with a Kell Hound officer, an older one with clear authority. "I can have the field ready within the hour, Colonel Allard," Richmond was saying, her upper class Australian accent a marked difference from the usual accent one expected of Australians.
"That will be acceptable, the first meeting is in ninety minutes," was the reply of Colonel Dan Allard, the commander of the Kell Hounds. He was checking his timepiece. "And speaking of that, I have to go assure Curaitis that everything is ready."
"Curaitis?" Meridina recognized the name, that of Archon-Prince Victor's security advisor. "Is he participating in security planning?"
"More like he's being given a partial say in it," explained Colonel Allard. "As are the security people for all of the House delegations. And the Clans for that matter. It's not making it any easier. But between your security and our forces, we'll manage. Please excuse me."
With Colonel Allard gone, it was just the four ladies from the Aurora. "What do you think?" Julia asked the others, specifically Meridina and Richmond as the former and the current security chiefs of the Aurora, respectively.
"I would feel better hosting these talks aboard the ship," Richmond admitted. "The Aurora is a more secure environment and it would be far easier for security to control access. The Kell Estate and Kell Hound Headquarters employ dozens, hundreds, of local civilians for their functions, and even with control checkpoints and other security measures, someone with the right tools and skill could penetrate the system anyway. We recently learned this the hard way, you may recall."
Julia nodded. She mentally flashed back to prior incidents in these situations. The attack at New Chicago when Draconian operatives attacked a diplomatic reception was a particular memory. Of course, even the Aurora had faced a similar security breach: the reception in the Lookout over the Dilgar survivors on Tira, when the renegade leader James Hawk nearly killed Warmaster Shai'jhur, the leader of the remnant Dilgar government. She suspected most threats wouldn't have access to the top-model Darglan technology that had let Hawk and his ally slip aboard the Aurora, but there were still plenty of stealth technologies and other methods a potential assassin could use.
"I would recommend you leave myself and Lucy on security assignment, Captain," Meridina stated. "Our presence makes it more likely we can detect a threat before it strikes."
"I agree," Julia said. "I'll ask Colonel Allard to prepare rooms for you so you can remain on site."
"Jarod's going to have to re-assign someone else for the port lateral sensor array's inspection," Lucy pointed out. "I was supposed to start that tomorrow, and we're already a day overdue."
"We'll handle it," Julia promised. "Your priority is protecting the summit."
Lucy nodded. "If that's where you need me." She looked around. "Maybe I should go swap into a security uniform then?"
"No, stick with what you've got," Julia said.
"Your call, Captain," Lucy replied.
Julia checked the time and looked to Meridina. "The other leaders should be arriving soon, Secretary Onaran will be expecting us to join him in welcoming them. We'd better get going. Let me know if anything develops."
"Of course, Captain," Meridina said.
"I'll inform you of any further issues, Captain, Commander."
After a final pair of nods, Julia and Meridina departed to join the Allied Systems Foreign Secretary. Richmond checked the latest report on her omnitool before looking to Lucy. "If you don't mind me asking, Lieutenant, why are you still in the operations branch?"
Lucy almost missed the question, as she was busy running a diagnostic on one of the security scanners they'd placed. "Huh? What do you mean?"
"Well, while you often do operations duties, during crisis moments you are usually in the field performing combat duties," Richmond pointed out. "It seems a waste to keep you in operations branch."
"There are times I feel the same way," admitted Lucy. "But I like some of the work. This," she gestured toward the lightsaber hilt on her uniform belt, "isn't all of what I do."
"I understand that, Lieutenant Lucero, but I think it's wasteful," Richmond said. "Whatever your role was on the Aurora when she first launched, your place on the crew has changed substantially. Your capabilities as a field officer with your metaphysical talents call for a re-evaluation of your assignment."
Lucy took a moment to consider the argument. Julia had made similar remarks not too long ago. She wasn't just an ops officer anymore, and hadn't been for nearly two years. Richmond wanting her transferred to security did make sense.
Although, when it came down to it, she didn't want to devote her time to security either.
"I'd like you to think about the transfer, Lieutenant," Richmond said. "I have an open billet for my second-in-command coming soon. I think it will be a good fit for you."
"We can decide it later," Lucy said. "We should finish getting everything set up first, though."
"Agreed." With that Richmond keyed her omnitool's comm system and said, "Taggart, Ihjamal, I need your status."
"Yes ma'am. We just finished installing the sensors on the ground floor dock. We're moving on to the interior foyer…"
The light in the temple was faded, reflecting the twilight sky outside. Low flames licked at the walls where the torches gave scant aid to the illumination of the room.
The flood of light that suddenly made the chamber as bright as a sunny day came from the armored figure in white that, even now, thrust her shining, almost-blazing sword into the flesh of the great wyrm guarding the chamber. Its powerful claw swiped at its foe and created sparks along the shield, also colored white with silver and gold symbols upon it.
Ensign Talara, the only non-Human of the party and the only one still standing, finished her casting a moment later. It took most of her remaining MP to cast the once-per-battle raise spell, but the circumstances demanded it. The bright light that emanated from her coated the fallen forms of her compatriots. They stood rapidly, as if freed from invisible bonds, although the truth was that the fallen forms had merely been holograms; the real players were, to reflect their status, merely locked out of the game.
Ensign Violeta Arterria acted first. She nocked an arrow into her glistening, silver-hued bow, sending said arrow into the eye of the great wyrm. "We've almost got it!" she shouted. "It's down to five percent!"
The next figure to strike was Angel Delgado. Clad in a crimson chongseom garment with gold embroidered figures, and defiantly missing the feathered headband that rounded out her class uniform, Angel rushed in and landed a punch on the scaly body off their foe. Faint, flaming light formed around her as another punch landed, and then a powerful kick.
"Angel, we would have won already if you'd just use the chakras right!" The protest was from her sister Caterina. At barely five feet she was the smallest, least intimidating member of the party, wearing voluminous blue robes and a floppy yellow hat that virtually obscured her face. It was perhaps fitting that she was also the one with the most powerful attacks.
"Don't worry about that, Cat!" Violeta shouted. "Another Flare should do it!"
Cat nodded and held her rod up. She began reciting words in Spanish. The actual words didn't matter for the game, and she could have used any language she wanted, really any words she wanted, so long as she identified the trigger word of the spell she wanted to use. But Cat felt that Spanish worked best for reality-warping spells, at least in lieu of actual Latin.
The great wyrm lashed out at Angel, who ducked a swing of its mighty tail, but wasn't quite fast enough to avoid a hit that sent her flying. The green bar on her wrist display dropped to twenty percent. Any follow-up blow would sent her back down, and for the rest of the fight.
Talara clanged her shining holy sword against her shield, creating a flash of light that seemed to get the dragon's attention. In the second before it attacked she cast a quick cure spell, which enabled her to survive the massive blow that struck her despite her armor and shields. She was knocked backward. "Are you ready?"
With a defiant "Flare", Cat unleashed the spell she'd been channeling. Red light gathered around the dragon. It looked like fireflies were suddenly gathering, all rushing in on the wyrm's body regardless of how it moved. The energy suddenly burst outward in red light and flame. The wyrm screamed in agony.
But it still wasn't dead.
Violeta put an arrow into its neck. Angel landed another series of punches. It struck out again and Talara, aided by the abilities she'd picked, intercepted the blow before it could level Violeta. Again her shield and armor absorbed some of the damage, but now her health was blinking red; she couldn't take another hit.
But because of those same abilities, Talara found herself allowed to make an immediate counterattack. She lunged with her blade and drove it into the scaly flesh of the creature's hand. It gave way, letting her cleave so far that the wyrm's hand was bisected by the blow. A colored marker appeared over its head.
Cat cast another spell, this time with blasts of blue energy from her rod. Violeta followed it up with an arrow. Their efforts hit the head directly. WIth a final cry, the creature toppled over.
A victory fanfare played around them.
"We… we did it…" Cat gasped for air for a moment. "We finally beat the Dragon King!"
"Without a dedicated healer," added Violeta. "That's the surprising part." She approached the fallen body, which faded away and revealed a chest. She opened it and grinned. "Ha!" She reached in and pulled out an elegant purple cloak that matched her eyes and hair. She unlatched her current cloak and put it on. "Diana's Cloak," she boasted. "I can't believe it dropped."
Angel reached in and retrieved a leather vest of dragonscales. "So… I wear this for now on?" she asked.
"If you want," Violeta said. "You can also set the game to consider it equipped without actually wearing it."
Talara pulled out a silver helmet with eagle wings on either side, wings that were twice as long as the pointed ears showing from the sides of her current white-coated helmet. "This is… an improvement?"
"Oh yeah, that's a Tier 10 helmet, your helmet is only Tier 8." Violeta giggled. "The drops are worth it, aren't they?"
Cat found a new rod, with a bejeweled tip. "That's a real rare drop!" Violeta proclaimed with awe. "The Starbringer Rod! You can use it to cast Comet four times per battle without draining MP."
"Oooh." Cat put the rod on her waist, unequipping the old one in the process. "So what now?"
"Given we finally cleared the Dragon King? I'd say we play the cutscene and then cast the Teleport spell to return to Caer Draconis. We have to turn the main quest in to get the full XP reward for the module."
"We can do that tomorrow," Angel said. "I need a dinner after that workout."
"And I need to change and get ready for my shift," Talara added.
"We can do that," Violeta said. "Computer, save progress and shut down."
"Processing… progress saved."
The Hall of the Dragon King disappeared, as did the empty chest. They were in a chamber of blue walls that wasn't even a quarter the size of where they'd just been. "The next module's a fun one," Violeta assured them. "The Palace of Cagnazzo. It's an underwater level."
"I am not swimming around," declared Angel.
"We can set it to behave like we're on dry land," replied Violeta. She grinned at Cat. "You'll want to practice your Thunder magic abilities."
"It'll be fun," Cat said. "And then maybe we'll be ready for the Floating Islands of Djubara?"
Violeta nodded as she walked past Cat. For a brief moment a look of what seemed like resignation formed on her face, but she didn't give any of them a chance to notice by assuring she was in the lead as they departed the holodeck.
The bus brought the four travelers into the heart of the Gy'toran capital city. A traveler's hotel catering to alien visitors provided rooms at an economical cost. Lennier and Druni departed for their rooms.
Zack nearly did the same, but ultimately he decided to follow Robert out of the hotel's front entrance and into the city proper. Utal Pranam buzzed around them. With some exceptions the figures that milled around them were Gy'torans. They were a six-limbed species with flexible sectional positions that allowed them to potentially run on four of their limbs. Even all six, if they had reason to stay low and needed to really move. Their faces broadly resembled koalas, while their fur ran a spectrum from blue through shades of purple to reddish colors.
Now that the two were on ground level, they could see the reason for the netting covering so many buildings. As they watched, one Gy'toran simply grabbed hold of said netting at the ground and began climbing up the side of the building. Within thirty seconds he was six stories up and entering a door set into the netting. "Woh," Zack said. "I guess they don't need elevators."
"Well, they probably do have them, if just for the injured or for carrying freight," Robert pointed out. Nearby another pair of Gy'torans lowered themselves to ground level from another set of netting.
"In this gravity climbing must be pretty easy."
"I'm not sure I'd want to give it a try, either way," Robert said. "Not without climbing harnesses."
"Don't you have superpowers now?" Zack asked. "You could just will yourself to float or something."
"It doesn't really work that way, Zack." They walked past what looked to be a shop. Gy'torans were burbling away in their native language outside.
The next shop they saw had holoscreen frames on sale. Test models were set to Gy'toran news casts and a couple of offworld ones, including the Interuniversal News Network (IUNN). Two smaller Gy'toran, youths, were staring at the screens. One turned and looked up at them as they walked past. His - or her, perhaps - face betrayed what looked like bewilderment. The Gy'toran nudged their compatriot and now another set of dark eyes focused on them.
"Um… hello," Zack said. He wondered if either had auto-translators.
"Hel...lo…" one said with a high-pitched voice. "Not speak Human well. Te'kam ri… you want buy?"
"We're just sightseeing," Robert said.
"Sight-see?" There was momentary confusion on the Gy'toran's face. Slowly realization seemed to dawn for the young alien. "Ah! Sight-see! Yes! I sell sight-see!"
Zack gave Robert a bemused look. "I don't think he understands that. Maybe you should say 'visiting'?"
"Visit! Sight-see!" The Gy'toran reached into a box and pulled out something that looked like a brochure. On the front was a ship much like the giant wind-sailer they'd seen while the Keyeri was on final approach. "We sell sight-see!"
The two immediately comprehended what the child was talking about. "You sell tickets to one of those big wind-sailers?" Zack asked.
The Gy'toran's nose tilted back and forth. Robert, for his part, sensed the answer was yes. "Sounds interesting." He took the offered slip of folded paper and unfolded it. A map showed the vessel in question and its route, connecting Utal Pranam to a major regional city of the north, Ilam Tran. The route, back and forth, went between Gy'sara's two greatest mountain ranges. Robert read descriptions in English, Lushan Dorei, Common Gersallian, Alakin Trade, and what looked like Asari Standard. He was pretty sure another set of characters was Vulcan. The designer of the brochure used every bit of space for either imagery or text. "It looks good." Robert handed the paper to Zack. "What do you think?"
Zack looked it over quickly. A part of him didn't really care. But there were some magnificent views. Finally he said, "Sure, let's go. I mean, nothing better to do, right?"
"You buy?" the Gy'toran kid asked, hope in his voice. He presented a digital device. With a keypress the Gy'toran cuneiform characters turned into English, listing the price of various tickets. Robert was thankful that he'd kept his savings up and ultimately decided on one of the better sets of rooms, a two-bedroom suite on the second-highest deck, with round trip tickets. Two days there, a day in Ilam Tran, and two days back sounded about right. He used his multidevice to connect to the Gy'toran sales device and confirmed an encrypted payment. He took special care to ensure safety protocols would keep his account information secure. A glance over the information showed this was some sort of vendor arrangement; the kids sold the tickets on behalf of the ship's operators in exchange for a small cut. He wondered if some cynical Gy'toran clerk figured aliens would be more likely to buy from Gy'toran children on account of how cute and furry they looked.
Then again, the Girl Scouts always did good selling their cookies, so the fur might not have had anything to do with it.
Once the transaction was complete Robert and Zack moved on. "Well, I didn't plan on this," Robert admitted. "But it should be fun."
Zack nodded once, trying not to think of how much he wished Clara was here to see this. Or, come to think of it, of how much he wanted a drink. Those thoughts he was especially careful to avoid as much as possible.
The Meinhoff House was an extended-stay residence in Old Connaught, one that was seeing a lot of business with the summit. Every room was rented out due to the offworld business.
One longer-term customer, who had been present for a number of years, was an uninteresting man named John Goddard. Goddard had an extensive history with the planet, being a resident of Arc-Royal for most of his adult life. This background had been instrumental in getting him hired as janitorial staff to the Kell Estate. His work was diligent, the quiet competence that rulers and their managers loved to see in domestic staff.
But the truth was, John Goddard didn't exist.
The man who wore the identity like one might wear clothing was a very plain looking man. He was Caucasian, average build, average height, and a face that easily gets lost in the crowd. That was the important part in his line of work. Having a face that never gets a second look from the viewer.
He was looking over the data again. The money being offered was quite good, but the real draw was the challenge. The chance to prove that even the high and mighty Alliance couldn't stop him was just the thing to cement his reputation in the underworld.
Plus… it was fitting, what he had been hired to do, and that always worked for someone with such a meticulous approach to life, granting further order to something normally so messy.
And it was indeed fitting that the man who killed Melissa Steiner would now claim the life of her child.