Chapter 1: Perspective
The chirping of crickets filled the night air, adding background noise to the otherwise silent forest of pine trees. From the unlit upper window of a squat cabin, a single pair of eyes glanced out through the ocean of brown and green, and a lone mouth let out a quiet sigh. Leaning further forwards, Wendy Corduroy brushed a loose strand of reddish hair out of her face.
Despite the serenity of her surroundings, her brain was whirring with the same train of thought again and again. This half term was supposed to be fun; why was her brain still ruminating on an already resolved and laughably stupid issue at two in the morning?
She had a feeling she knew what was going on, but she couldn't admit that, not even to herself. It had begun a couple of months ago, she was certain, but back then she had ignored it easily enough. The issue had not resurfaced until that morning, when a bus had pulled up in town direct from Piedmont. Apparently the twins had spoken so highly of Stan that their parents had decided to send them straight back at the next holiday. Or they just wanted the pair out of the way; Wendy wasn't sure.
A sudden movement outside drew her attention. Her first thought was a wolf, before she rapidly dismissed that as too normal. Even with Bill gone this was Gravity Falls; something roaming the forest at two in the morning was almost certainly not a regular animal.
Her hunch was proven correct when it moved again a second later, this time square into her view. A figure was stumbling up the track towards her cabin, hobbling over the rocks and branches in their path. At this distance, under the pale moonlight and shadows cast by the trees, Wendy struggled to make out who it was.
She was certain, however, that the figure was too short to be an adult, or any of her teen friends. Her first thought was one of the Pines twins, though she was fairly certain in her ability to recognise them even under the current light. Which meant it was probably somebody she didn't know, a child, wondering alone through the forests of Gravity Falls. Something wasn't right. With a feeling of uneasiness pooling in her stomach she stood up to her full height, stepping away from the window.
She pulled a pair of jeans on, cast onto the floor earlier in the evening, and hurried down the cabin's wooden staircase. There was no point in her sneaking or being quiet; her father and brothers had gone out camping two days ago, leaving her to guard the house until tomorrow. Still, she wasn't trying to be loud as she moved downstairs.
She opened the door warily, shivering as the early October air drifted through the doorframe. She wasn't exactly prepared for the chill in her loose sleeveless top and hastily grabbed jeans. One hand reached up past the doorframe, gripping the wooden handle of a woodsman's axe hooked on the wall.
Then she saw the figure again, stumbling past the doorway, and stifled a gasp. It was a girl of no more than twelve or thirteen, with deep brown hair pulled hurriedly and messily back into a ponytail. The light glanced across her face strangely, casting a dark shadow across her features, including an odd darker patch around her left eye, and preventing the teen from identifying her by her face. She wouldn't have been able to recognise the newcomer at all were or not for the distinctive cream sweater she was wearing, depicting a brown llama.
She released her hold on her axe, opening the door fully and stepping out with a shiver. By now she could clearly see the likeness of Pacifica Northwest in the shuddering, wide-eyed creature ambling towards her house, a streak of washed-out blonde dye in her hair. The revelation that the richest girl in town wasn't a natural blonde probably would've shocked Wendy, had she not been preoccupied with the gravity of the situation.
"Hello?" she called out. Pacifica stopped, turning so that her eyes locked with Wendy's. A wave of relief visibly washed over her face, and she started scrambling directly towards the cabin.
She stumbled up to the cabin door, a swirling mixture of fear and relief glinting in her pale blue eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, only to take a deep breath instead and then shut it again. She slowed to an unsteady amble as she neared the door, looking up at the redhead with a wary yet relieved smile.
"Pacifica?" Wendy raised an eyebrow. "What are you…?" Pacifica looked down and winced, as if fearing retribution. She took another deep breath before looking back up.
"I-I need to get to the Shack," she breathed finally, almost whispering.
"Huh?" Wendy stepped back. "It's two in the morning; what happened?"
"I just, just… need to get there," the once-blonde stammered around the lump in her throat. Wendy looked her straight in the eyes, and suddenly had to fight to prevent her jaw from falling open. There was no extra shadow around the younger girl's eye, at least not in the way Wendy had thought. Instead the darkness around her left eye was very much physical; the skin was purple and swollen, hallmarks of a black eye.
For the first time it dawned on Wendy how serious the situation really was. It was as if seeing the injury burst the bubble of how surreal all this seemed. In a moment she knew what to do.
She reached inside the cabin, palm closing around the cold metal of a keyring. She stepped outside, ignoring the chill, and slammed the door. Pacifica jumped, looking up at the teen in confusion.
"C'mon," Wendy forced herself to smile, for Pacifica's sake, "I'll drive you."
There was a click as Wendy twisted the key, and she slowly pushed the door open. The bell suspended above it barely chimed as the door brushed it. She gave a lopsided grin, winking at Pacifica and muttering something about 'employee privileges'. It fell on deaf ears, and she quickly returned to a more serious expression, realising how bad of a state Pacifica had to be in.
Heavy snoring echoed through the wooden building. Soos had no problem staying in a hotel so Stanley and Stanford had somewhere to sleep for the half term, before they returned to the ocean in just under two weeks. Clearly one of them, probably the former, had fallen asleep in front of the TV. Just like old times, Wendy mused, before refocusing on the task at hand.
She moved through the gift shop and into the living area rapidly, Pacifica quietly stumbling behind her. Sure enough, Stanley was passed out in the living room, slumped back in an armchair. As always his chest hair poked through his undershirt's neck hole and a line of drool ran from the corner of his mouth down his chin. The TV cast a flickering, cold light across his body.
She approached the slumbering man, grabbing his shoulder and briskly shaking it. He stirred, ceasing his snoring to mutter something incomprehensible. Wendy was certain she heard the words 'potato salad' and 'French toast', whatever those meant in the context of an old con-artist's dreams. She shook him again. This time he started suddenly, awaking with a splutter.
"Wendy?!" the old man blurted out, stumbling to his feet with a creak from the chair. "What are you doing here?!"
"Kinda an emergency," she said quickly, stepping aside so he could see her accompaniment, "I think."
"And why's she here?" he asked, more harshly than he intended. Pacifica flinched.
"Dunno," Wendy shrugged, "She just appeared at my place, said she had to come here."
"I…" Pacifica tried to speak, only to stop and glance down at her feet, silenced once again by some ineffable fear.
"Look, kid, we're all friends here," Stan grinned lopsidedly, hoping he at least looked somewhat reassuring, "Whatever happened-"
"I ran away!" she finally blurted out.
"What?!" Stan stepped back. "Woah, calm down. You actually ran away from home? Why? What about all that 'rich people' stuff?" Pacifica fell silent again, looking straight at him. Then it dawned on Wendy.
"They hurt you?" she asked slowly - cautiously. Pacifica hung her head in shame, sniffling quietly.
"Kids!" Stan spontaneusly bellowed, his voice reverberating through the wooden structure. He turned back to Pacifica, only to realise the effect his yelling had on her. She was creeping backwards slowly, blue eyes wide with unbridled fear. Her breaths were quick and ragged, and almost in slow motion her arms moved up, as if to protect her from blows that he had no intention of giving.
"Hey," Wendy forced a smile, shooting him a brief accusing glare, "Pacifica?"
The teen's words seemed to shake the runaway from her reverie. She stopped moving, dropping her arms to her sides and taking a deep breath. Stan glanced at her apologetically, before stumbling away rapidly towards the kitchen with a mutter of retrieving something. She stumbled forwards, gently easing herself into his armchair. Normally she wouldn't have touched the thing; it smelled of sweat and old-people musk, but right now she just needed somewhere to sit and calm her own racing heart.
"He wasn't actually angry," Wendy shrugged, resting a hand on Pacifica's shoulder. She winced as if in pain, and the redhead quickly withdrew her hand. "That's just how he is," she muttered after a moment.
The sound of sluggish footsteps echoed through the building. Wendy glanced over to the room's other door, through which Dipper staggered, still blinking the sleep from his bleary eyes. Mabel poked her head through the door frame not a moment later, not a hint of tiredness on her face despite the time. The room was suddenly flooded by a warm light.
"Wendy?" Dipper spoke first. "What's going on? Where's-"
A resounding crash cut him off, echoing from the kitchen. For a second silence descended upon the Mystery Shack, before the gruff voice of Stanley Pines burst forth.
The twin's attention quickly returned to the pair of arrivals in the living room. Mabel was the first to notice the slumped figure in the armchair, hurrying past her brother to get a closer look. She slowed once she saw the sweater; she knew the design well enough, having knitted it herself.
"Pacifica?" she asked, the quiet of her voice a rarity given her normal hyperactivity. "Are you okay?" The runaway shook her head.
"She showed up at my place just now," Wendy explained softly, "Her parents- d'you mind if I say it?"
"Nuh uh," Pacifica shook her head slowly, still keeping her gaze pointing down.
"They were hurting her," the redhead explained, before adding: "Physically."
"Oh," Mabel's face twisted with sheer horror. She opened her arms to offer an embrace, before blurting out: "Why didn't you tell anyone?!"
"I… I thought it was normal!" Pacifica finally admitted. "I mean, it was never that bad; I-I got used to what happened when I didn't listen to that bell. B-but then I lost at golf, a-and then I didn't listen to them at the party, and, and then there was the Bill thing and every time it just got worse." She threw herself into Mabel's waiting arms, tears beginning to flow.
"How long have they been… y'know?" Mabel asked, dark brown eyes filled with concern.
"As long as I can remember," Pacifica sobbed. "I-I didn't even realise it was wrong until I talked to you two. I… I was going to tell Dipper, after that night with the Lumberjack ghost, b-but I just couldn't." She clenched tighter onto Mabel, tears flowing freely.
Mabel reciprocated the embrace. She looked into her friend's eyes, only to see physical pain mixed with the blur of fear and relief in Pacifica's expression. Mabel released her grip gently, looking to those blue eyes for some sort of explanation as to why embracing had hurt her. Pacifica also let go, carelessly wiping her eyes with a sleeve, and looked down.
Wordlessly she shrugged off her sweater, letting the crumpled mass of cream knitting fall to the floor. Beneath her torso was covered only by a simple undershirt, baring her arms and the ugly purple of the bruises that marred them. Wendy stifled a gasp: from her position she could clearly see the angry red lines that criss-crossed Pacifica's back, layered above innumerable similar scars from days and years prior, all the mark of a cane.
"Pacifica?" Mabel embraced her again, this time taking care to avoid disturbing her injuries. "Why would they do this?"
"That's the thing," Dipper spoke up, "They think what they're doing is right, one way or another. It's not right, uh, I know that. Just saying."
"Uh huh," Pacifica agreed. "I… I can't go back, not after this evening-"
The sound of a small bell, hung above the Shack's main tourist entrance, suddenly silenced her. Her eyes went wide, and her breaths grew shallow and quick. Before anyone knew what has happening she was clutching on to Mabel, desperate.
"Paz?!" Mabel yelped in surprise, before realising the state her friend was in. "It's okay, you're okay; we're here, everything's fine. Nobody's going to hurt you."
Pacifica's grip on her released slowly, uncertainly. Her breaths stretched into long, deep heaves of air, in and out, in and out. Finally the fear dissipated from her expression, and a few stray rivulets of water coursed down her face as she struggled to say anything at all.
"Mabel's right; we're not going to let them hurt you again," Dipper said firmly, striding over to reinforce his sister and getting a murmur and nod of approval from Wendy.
"Thanks," Pacifica muttered, rubbing her eyes furiously with one hand.
"I'll go and see who that was," Wendy offered.
"But what if it's-"
"Then they're gonna wish they never came," she shrugged, striding confidently towards the door. She swung it open wide, stepping through into the darkened gift shop. It took a second for her eyes to readjust to the cool darkness, but she was able to tell it wasn't the Northwests long before she could see in detail.
In the other doorframe stood an unusual figure. They were stooped oddly, making height difficult to judge, and had a mess of tangled black hair falling in unruly curls down their back. By their body shape Wendy would have said the intruder was female, but a certain recent experience had taught her not to be so sure.
"Hey, dude," she challenged, "What're you doing?" The figure suddenly shifted, standing up to full height. They were almost as tall as Wendy, meaning at least six foot, and though not as lanky they were still of lithe build.
"You work here, right?" the intruder asked. There was something not quite right about her voice, though Wendy could not pin down what it was.
"Yeah, but we've been closed for like nine hours; it's two in the morning," she replied.
"Huh?" the intruder looked up. "Since when?"
"Since twenty minutes ago," Wendy shrugged.
"But you're all still up?"
"Family emergency," she said bluntly. "Sorry dude, but you'll have to come back later."
"I can't," the intruder said quickly, stumbling over their own words, "This is the only time I can be here."
"Why?" Wendy raised an eyebrow.
"Overprotective parents?" the intruder offered nervously, before adding, "Long story. They don't really know I'm here."
"Fine," Wendy put her hands on her hips, struggling to make heads or tails of this figure. At least she could see properly in the dark now, and had a much better idea of what the person looked like.
They were of medium skin tone, with wide, dark eyes that kept darting all over the place. Their face, though round, bore sharp features, and their stance was awkward, as if their limbs were slightly too long for their body. They couldn't have been older than seventeen, two years or so above Wendy. Their attire bared their midriff, revealing something unexpected. They had no belly button; instead its place was taken by a circular impression, about two inches across, filled with mangled scar tissue. Strangely enough, they were barefoot.
"So, uh, can w- I talk to the Pines Twins?" they stammered.
"Maybe," Wendy shrugged, turning around. She pushed the door open again, wincing at the sudden brightness of the light, and stuck her head through.
By now Pacifica looked to have recovered a little; the corners of her mouth barely twitched up as Mabel bombarded her with bad jokes, but it was at least something. Between both hands she gripped a mug from which she took frequent and brief sips, tendrils of steam rising from the hot chocolate that sloshed within.
Stan was leaning against one wall next to the other door, bags heavy under his eyes, fresh bandages enwrapping one hand.
"Who was it?" Dipper suddenly asked.
"Dunno," Wendy shrugged, "Not the Northwests at least. She's some teen who wondered in looking for you and Mabel."
"Okay?" Dipper raised an eyebrow.
"Also she had no idea it was this early," she continued.
"How did she get in?" Stan asked.
"Well duh, I had to unlock the door to get in," she shrugged.
"Umm, hi?" a voice asked behind her. She spun around; the intruder was directly behind her, a sheepish grin plastered across their face.
"Who're you?" Stan jumped.
"My name… my name is, uh, Stevonnie," they stammered.
"Ste- vonnie?" Mabel asked, sounding out the word, "Huh.".
"Uh, yeah?" they shrugged, glancing across the room. Their eyes settled on Pacifica and she gasped, horror frozen in her face. "Woah. Are you alright?" Pacifica hesitated, then nodded slowly.
"Thanks to them," she gestured to the room's other inhabitants.
"Alright," Stan was less than impressed, "So, why have you barged into my home at two in the morning?"
"I'm sorry, okay?" Stevonnie blurted. "It wasn't this early when I left home, and I didn't think there was going to be a time difference. Look, I'm… from another dimension."
"You'll want to talk to my brother then," he shrugged, "He's asleep at the moment… probably."
"After you yelled down the house?" Wendy teased.
"Ford'll sleep through anything," he offered, "His work tires him out."
"Actually," Stevonnie butted back in, "I wanted to talk to the twins. I need to make an offer."
"An offer of what?" Stan asked. She turned to the pair, standing beside the armchair in which Pacifica was still slumped.
"How would you like to be part of a starship crew?" they beamed, hands waving and all. "I've got some friends, and they're coming here in the next few days. They need a crew, so I came to you guys."
"Are they from another dimension, or another universe?" Dipper asked rapidly.
"One's from this universe, the other's from a neighbouring one," they explained, "Same dimension."
"What's the difference?" Mabel asked.
"A universe is like a clump of space-time, and stuff exists within it," Dipper's expression bore the faintest hint of a smug grin as he explained, "A dimension is basically a bigger clump that contains several universes. And all of that exists within hyperspace."
"How come you know this stuff?" Pacifica asked quietly.
"Grunkle Ford spent thirty years travelling the multiverse," he shrugged.
"Normally you only have one universe in each dimension," Stevonnie continued without missing a beat, "Yours is weird like that."
"Hold up," Stan butted in, "You want to take the kids away on some crazy expedition halfway across the multiverse?!"
"They'd be safe," they shrugged apologetically, "And there's a lot of money to be made in inter-dimensional cargo."
"You're sure they'd be safe?" he narrowed his eyes. "And why do you want them in particular?"
"I swear," they said simply. "I need you in particular because, well, you're close to the age of the people I'm helping, and you've already shown you can handle yourselves."
He took a moment to consider it, weighing in all the factors. He saw no reason to trust this newcomer, but no obvious points of distrust either.
"Dip knows a bunch about dimensional stuff," Mabel suddenly spoke up. "If things go wrong, we can just get him to contact you or something." She put on her best puppy eyes.
"Fine, fine," he waved a hand in defeat, "It's up to you… but I do get a cut of the profits, right, as guardian or something?" Stevonnie nodded.
"Can we both go?" Mabel gestured to Pacifica, who was more concerned with her thoughts and staying awake than any of what was going on around her.
"Uhh, sure," Stevonnie shrugged.
"Then I'm on as long as Dip is," Mabel smiled sweetly.
"Umm, how long would we be away for?" Dipper asked quickly. "How would we explain that to our parents?"
"I'll just fake Ford's signature again and send them a letter saying you reconsidered his offer," Stan shrugged, "And say we found a place for your sister. There's a school and stuff close enough to town. They'll buy it."
"Then alright," Dipper sighed, "I'm in, I guess."
"C'mon, get up!" the voice of Mabel Pines bounced into Pacifica's dreams, stirring her awake. It took her mind a moment to process exactly why Mabel was the one waking her up, before the previous night's events returned to her. A cold lump of fear settled deep in her stomach.
She sat bolt upright, eyes darting around the sunlight-flooded attic of the Mystery Shack. Ever indefatigable, Mabel was perched on the end of her bed, expression bursting with joy. A cursory glance revealed an empty sleeping bag on the rug between the two beds, tiger-striped by the shadows of the rafters. Dipper was notably absent.
"A-about last night…" she looked down, unable to face the bundle of pure excitement bouncing on the end of her bed. ”Could I like, pay you, to forget any of that happened? That I said anything?" She immediately regretted her words; if this did not work on her brother then Pacifica doubted it would work on Mabel.
"Paz?" Mabel's expression shifted to display a mixture of worry and hurt. "What's… you're not going back, are you?"
"I have to," Pacifica sobbed, "Or else my parents will come here and find me and you'll get hurt and-"
"They won't find you," Mabel said firmly, "Stan and Ford and Wendy and Soos won't let them. And anyway, you won't be here; we're going on that trip, remember?"
"I'm… coming with you?" Pacifica paused, trying to process what had just been said. She was going along, far away to where her family would never find her. She felt that fear begin to dissipate.
"Of course!" Mabel smiled, squeezing one of Pacifica's hands with one of her own. "I asked specially. You didn't realise?"
"I guess I kinda zoned out," the runaway admitted, "I was thinking about a lot at the time."
"Well, don't worry," Mabel's smile widened, "Me and Dip won't leave you."
The sound of hammer against anvil rang out through the Dimensional Hub's research centre, resounding off the pristine walls like some ancient gong. Technician Twilight Sparkle closed her laptop slowly, rubbing her temples in irritation and adjusting her glasses. Another day and the calculations still didn't add up.
Working for STAG, the Citadel Council's 'above the law' Special Forces organisation, meant she had to produce results. The teen was all too aware that she was a liability; to start with STAG was paramilitary, and she was underage. If the council found out about her mere existence there would be a scandal. Then there was the fact she couldn't hold her own in combat; her prowess at science was the only thing that kept her useful in the Hub.
She stood up, setting the laptop down on a counter-top and heading towards the door of the lab she currently occupied. Beyond the research centre, the hub of Development Division, stretched out before her, lights cycled to Night Mode over an hour ago, desks and workstations abandoned.
Yet there was light; in a far corner the burning glow of hot metal flooded across the walls. Electric heaters whined as a bar of metal was withdrawn, casting a shower of blazing sparks as it slammed against the anvil. Against the soft yet burning glow a figure stood silhouetted; Twilight could just make out bulging muscles rippling beneath pale blue skin - a rainbow of hair cascading across bared shoulders - the dark blotch of a tattoo.
The hammer came down again and again and again. Except it wasn't a hammer. The figure's hand became a blunt instrument, moulded to the purpose just like the metal beneath it. Every blow rang like a tolling bell, resounding through the air.
It occurred to Twilight then that she had never seen the anvil used at all, to the point of wondering why it had been added to the Hub at all. Now, seeing the smith work their craft of burning steel, she understood.
She crept closer, searching her mind for the smith's identity. It wasn't too hard to place the appearance, but the figure was nothing like this during the day. This effigy of the forge, standing amid the sparks and the glow, was an alien to the loud-mouthed, often-slacking lab assistant of the daylight cycles, known to all yet friend to none. It was as if Twilight was looking at another person entirely.
The smith stopped, head tilting slightly as if considering something. Then she spoke, in a voice wreathed in sorrows and regret.
"You sound like her when you move," the words rang in the air, hollow yet filled with emotion. "You're light on your feet, cautious, calculating…"
"Wh-who are you talking about?" Twilight stammered, afraid to come any closer.
"Somebody I used to know," the smith said wistfully, "Working the forge always reminds me of her."
"What are you working on?" Twilight didn't push the subject; old wounds did not need opening. Instead she crept forwards again, until she was beside the smith.
"Personal project," the smith shrugged. Twilight reached out a hand gingerly, feeling the heat radiating from the weapon. It was a conventional sword, with a wide, flat blade. The blazing metal shimmered unusually, tiny fragments of rainbow glinting amid the burning orange.
"Why?" she whispered after a moment. STAG had no need of such a weapon; what good was a sword in a world of lasers and plasma and gunpowder? Yet something about the weapon told her it could overcome all of those, if in the right hands.
"It was one of my best," the smith hung her head, "And I crushed it myself. So now I'm going to repair it. Better than ever. For her."
"Oh," Twilight looked away; once again her questions had picked at scars best left alone. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"Don't worry," the smith waved a colossal palm, "You didn't know, and it's my burden to bear anyway. I guess this is just me trying to fix a shattered heart with a band-aid."
"It's helping you feel better, at least," Twilight offered, placing a tiny hand on the smith's arm.
"Would you mind if I watched?" she asked softly. "You're amazing when you do your… stuff."
"Sure thing…" the smith nearly cracked a smile, trailing off only once she realised she had no knowledge of her new friend's name.
"Twilight," the teen said quickly, "Technician Twilight Sparkle, Development Division."
"Bismuth," this time the smith did smile, albeit barely, a strange relief glinting in her eyes as she returned to work.
Chapter 2: A Plan Comes Together
The door swung open with a creak, the chime of a bell notably absent. Wendy Corduroy pulled her feet from the counter, glancing across the gift shop with a mutter of irritation. Of course somebody had to walk in a mere ten minutes before closing, and dithering tourists tended to spend annoyingly long browsing anyway.
She watched the pair move through the shop, making no indication of heading to take a tour. Instead the moment they saw her they made a beeline for the desk. She watched them as they approached, trying to make heads or tails of the pair.
If she had been required to put an age on the couple, Wendy would have guessed fourteen. One, a boy with dark tousled hair, wore a red hoodie. There was nothing remarkable at all about him save for the presence of a large mole on one of his cheeks.
The other teen was a different story; she looked about as normal as Mabel on a good day. A pink heart shape decorated each of her cheeks, while messy blonde hair tumbled down her back, barely controlled by a red plastic headband bearing devil horns. She was grinning from ear to ear, dragging her companion by the hand towards the desk.
"Hi!" she beamed as she arrived, slamming both hands on the desk and leaning forwards.
"Hi?" Wendy returned, raising an eyebrow as she maintained a patient smirk.
"Let me do the talking," the boy said quietly, before stepping forwards. "Uh, we're here to see Dipper, Mabel, and Pacifica?"
"How come?" she asked.
"Stevonnie sent us," he explained, "You know who that is, right?"
"Sure do," she leant forwards, "They were here at two in the morning last night. So you're the pair they're protecting, then?"
"Yup!" the girl blurted out. "I'm Star Butterfly, and this is Marco."
"Diaz," he filled in, "Marco Diaz."
"So… which one of you isn't from this universe?" Wendy asked, eyeing them both. Nothing about either looked particularly odd, save for Star's heart-cheeks.
"I am!" Star beamed. "I may look like a normal Human to you, but I'm not! I am actually a Mewman."
"A 'Mewman'?" Wendy raised an eyebrow.
"From Mewni," Star nodded frantically, turning suddenly and bouncing so that she was sitting on the desk with her back to Wendy. She flicked her hair aside, revealing a pair of tiny, translucent purple wings protruding through her cyan dress between her shoulder blades. They fluttered rapidly, literally buzzing with excitement. "Cool, huh?"
"Woah," the redhead blinked in surprise. Star leapt down, turning around to look at her once more.
"Hey, uh, we're closing in a few minutes."
Wendy turned to see Melody ambling over, a bemused expression on her face. "Just letting you know."
"These aren't customers; they're the twins' friends," the redhead explained, "The ones they're going on a trip with."
"Oh," Melody smiled, "Then welcome to the Shack."
"Mind if I take them inside?" Wendy asked.
"Go ahead," her co-worker agreed, "I'll let Soos know you've gone, just in case he comes looking in the next few minutes."
Wendy thanked her rapidly and gestured to the pair to follow, striding quickly across the creaking floorboards.
They found the kids in the attic. Mabel was sitting on her bed with Pacifica, taking the runaway through her autumn scrapbook. The summer equivalent lay on the end of the bed, open to the last page. Dipper meanwhile had temporarily reclaimed his own bed, and was buried in Ford's new journal from his Atlantic adventures. Pacifica was the first to notice the new arrivals.
"Who are you?" she asked warily, nudging Mabel to draw her attention from the scrapbook.
"This is Star and Marco," Wendy introduced.
"We're your new crewmates!" Star blurted out.
"You are?" Dipper slid off the bed and onto his feet. "Is Stevonnie with you?"
"They're getting our ship ready," Marco explained, "They'll try and make it later."
"Okay," Wendy spoke up, "I just need to ask them something."
"Alright," he turned to the group, "So, did Stephanie tell you why we're here?"
"Not really," Dipper admitted, "She just said you needed a crew, and that one of you was from another universe."
"That's me!" Star beamed. "I'm from Mewni. It's a magical land ruled over by several kingdoms, and I am princess of the most important. Or at least I was."
"What happened?" Mabel asked.
"We had to run away," Star looked down, her enthusiasm fading a little, "My mom wanted me to be queen, but I really don't wanna. I can't spend my whole life being formal, ordering people around. I want to be me, not 'the queen of Mewni'. And besides I couldn't be smooch buddies with Marco if I had to go back there."
"So we left," Marco rested a hand on her shoulder, a hint of guilt working its way into his voice, "Told my parents I was going to stay at Star's for a week or so, and eloped. That's when Stevonnie found us."
"So where are you staying?" Pacifica asked.
"Up at the mansion on the hill," Star smiled again, "With the crazy old blacksmith."
"Smith?" Mabel raised an eyebrow in confusion, "You mean Old Man McGucket?"
"Yup," she continued, "He spends his whole time building stuff. Stevonnie got him to agree to fix up a ship for us."
"He says it'll be ready tomorrow," Marco explained, "So we'll all need to be packed by then."
"We'll need to go to the store then," Mabel said quickly, "So Paz can choose some clothes before we go."
"Huh?" Pacifica looked at her in confusion.
"You only brought one set of stuff to wear," Mabel reminded her. "You can't just keep borrowing my stuff; you've gotta find your own style. Plus I'm pretty sure none of my stuff will fit you except for the sweaters."
She had a point; Mabel was of normal size for her age, whereas Pacifica was notably thinner. To Mabel the runaway looked too thin, too small. It was as if, despite all their wealth, nutrients had been thin on the ground in the Northwest's mansion.
"It's not that," Pacifica struggled to explain, "It's just… I get to choose?"
"Why not?" Mabel's expression grew more concerned, "What you wear should be up to you, not somebody else. And if your parents think differently, well, they're not here, so you can be yourself all you want."
"Right," Star agreed, "C'mon, change it up a bit. Dye your hair or something; I know a spell to do that. Just give me a sec and I'll do it."
"I've actually just stopped doing that," Pacifica rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly, "Y'see, my parents wanted a blonde daughter, but they got me instead, so I had to have it professionally dyed twice a week."
"Your parents sound really bad," Marco observed.
"You don't know the half of it," Pacifica said somberly.
"Hey, cheer up," Mabel said quickly, putting on a brave face and taking one of Pacifica's hands in her own, "You're here now; they can't tell you what to do anymore. Let's go see if Grunkle Stan can give us a lift. It'll be fun."
"Yeah," Pacifica smiled faintly again, standing up in unison with Mabel, turning to her, "C'mon."
"Can I come?" Star asked, eyes wide.
"Of course," Mabel beamed, "We'll need all the help we can get. Wendy can come too if she wants."
"I'll pass," Wendy shrugged, "Somebody's gotta keep the dudes company."
"Alright," Mabel turned to leave, "Operation Find Paz New Clothes is a go."
"So then she reaches in, grabs the pilot by her suit, and flings her halfway across the battleground in one swing!" Bismuth gestured wildly, getting a chorus of approval from the surrounding soldiers. Their table was a blur of liveliness, the clatter of cutlery and buzz of conversation resounding throughout the Dimensional Hub's mess hall.
"Bet they went scampering home after that!" a soldier she didn't know slapped her shoulder. "C'mon, tell us another!" His words were echoed by a dozen others, the cacophony turning the heads of many a more conservative junior officer.
"Ain't it somebody else's turn?" she looked around, eyes searching for another veteran to call out. Many of STAG's operatives were more than happy to boast of their achievements in past conflicts. Instead her gaze fell between two of her companions; beyond, on one of the outlying tables, a shock of purple caught her eye.
Twilight Sparkle was eyeing her warily, her eating temporarily halted as she tried to reconcile the rambunctious scene before her with what she had been observing the past few nights. Her evening shifts in the deserted laboratory were no longer filled with endless equations and the mindless clatter of a keyboard, but the warm glow of the forge and the ringing of the hammer that sent chills down her spine.
"Hey, Bis!" Bismuth snapped around; another nameless grunt was calling her name. "Maggie's agreed to recount the 101 kid's battle at Hoover Dam!"
"He wasn't the 101 kid then," a middle-aged woman further down the table croaked, "By then he called himself 'the Courier'. 'parently didn't want anyone knowing he was the hero from the Capital; made too many enemies. Anyway-"
"This is Commander Autumn," the mess hall's personnel address system suddenly rang out, silencing their feast, "Researcher Bismuth is to report immediately to Briefing Room Auxiliary. That's an order."
"Gotta go," Bismuth said apologetically, standing up and stepping back over the spotless white bench. A series of annoyed mutters rose from the table, but no-one dared suggest defying Autumn. With a shrug she meandered away, heading out into the Hub.
Bismuth's journey took her past the power core, where four hypermatter reactors throbbed in time with a high-yield universe core. She threw a cursory glance inside, before continuing onwards to her destination. She arrived a second later, at pristine white door labelled 'Briefing Room [Auxiliary]'. She barely had time to read the printed letters and confirm she was in the right place before the door slid open automatically at her presence.
The Auxiliary room was unlike the others; while the three main rooms were smallish auditoriums, capable of holding hundreds, even thousands if the need arose, this particular room was more akin to a classroom, with desks facing a holodisplay and screen wall. She quickly sat down behind the nearest desk, glancing up to see the annoyed face of the commander eyeing her.
"Finally," he growled, "Ah don't suppose you have an excuse for bein' late?"
"Didn't know I was supposed to be here 'till now," she shrugged her mighty shoulders.
"Ah sent you a notification this morning; did you not check your personal computer?" he snapped.
"Nah," she replied absently. He let out a grunt of anger, muttering for a second before speaking again.
"Looks like we'll have to start from square one," he grumbled, activating the holodisplay beside him. It lit up with an image of a planet, or at least what had once been a planet. It was fractured in half, with one half further split and large cracks in the other. Two rings surrounded the whole thing. “Do you have any idea what system this is?"
"Nope," she admitted. He thumbed his PDA's touch screen, and in an instant the planet’s chunks fused back together and the planet grew a moon. Instantly she knew the place; the last time she had seen it had been from the hold of the Nephrite-crewed colony vessel, right before they hit the FTL and the world vanished in a blur of blue.
"Homeworld?" she gritted her teeth.
"Yes," he said simply, "Five thousand years ago, and today," he tapped his device again, and the image returned to the present.
"How’d it get broken up?” she asked.
"We have no concrete answers,” Autumn explained, “But our best guess says excessive resource mining. Your kind’s creation takes a toll on the surrounding earth, and scans indicate that beneath the surface is a honeycomb of quarries and ‘kindergarten’ facilities. Mining the core of the planet to create more of these probably triggered the partial collapse of its structure.”
"So, what's it to me?" Bismuth asked suddenly, causing him to snarl with irritation.
"If you had been payin' attention to your notifications, Researcher," he said slowly, "You would know to things. One is that here we have a chain of command that you must acknowledge, and that therefore ah am to be addressed as 'sir' at all times. The second is that yesterday the Citadel Council voted yes to aggressive military action against the Great Diamond Authority in response to their expansionism and multiple genocides against sophont races.
"As you should remember, we answer directly to the Council as the interdimensional governing body, and they have made it clear that they expect us to send a team to assist in the war effort. Normally our two vessels in the Joint Defence Fleet would handle this role, but unfortunately the Demiurg have volunteered to execute the campaign."
Bismuth almost cringed; the Demiurg Brotherhoods rarely went to war, but when they did the results were devastation all around. A nomad race of short, bearded asteroid miners, the Demiurg kept to themselves, but took care of their own by means of excessive force. They had an embassy in the Citadel, though not a seat on the Council itself, and the resources they produced cemented them amongst the most important members of the confederation of governing bodies who employed STAG.
Rumours abounded of their true firepower. According to legend they had once lost a large vessel to privateers from the port of Commoragh. Their response had been swift, and had come in the form of the planet-obliterating Crest Gun. Commoragh's present non-existence was blamed entirely on them.
"Your enlistment conditions stated that if we ever went to war with the GDA, you were allowed to fight," he continued. "This situation has occurred; as such you have been selected to lead our strike team in the Contra-Homeworld Campaign." She was pretty sure she heard him mutter 'against better judgement' under his breath before continuing.
"You will be accompanied by a full fireteam including a Shieldbearer Exoskeleton and four Development Division-standard upgraded E54 Bastion Siege Automatons," he explained. She looked around. Sure enough, eight other desks were filled. Autumn gave a false cough, drawing her attention back to him.
The holodisplay had changed, now displaying a rotating wireframe of a heavy weapon. Behind it the floor-to-ceiling LCD screen showed the blueprint, stamped with the logo of what the regulars had dubbed 'Flux' Division.
The weapon was large; it was at least four feet long and two feet wide for most of its length; if the underside grip rail was accounted for it was two feet deep as well. The upper surface lacked any form of casing, revealing first a ring of supercapacitors set radially around a hollow sphere of glass, and then the two massive conducting rails that ran the length of the barrel. The rest of the weapon was surrounded with three-inches of white plasteel lined with ceramite, formed into an angular casing dotted with glowing orange strips and lines of vents.
"This," he said with a grimace, "Is Development Division's contribution to this campaign. The second weapon of its kind to be developed: the Destabilising Arc Cannon."
"Hey, dudes?" Wendy pushed off the wall she had been leaning against, glancing across the attic. Dipper lowered the blue journal in his hands, her voice dragging him away from the high seas and the Stan-O-War II and back to the Mystery Shack. In the corner Marco looked up, dropping the pale pink diamond-shaped object he had been fiddling with back into a pocket.
"What's up?" Dipper asked, concern glinting in his eyes. There was something in her tone he wasn't sure about.
"I just wanted to ask," she began, "Would you mind if I came along on this crazy excursion?"
"Uh, no?" he stammered, growing the slightest bit red. "Who wouldn't want you on board?"
"We'd have to ask the others," Marco commented, "And Stevonnie, but I don't see why not. Can you drive?"
"I've learnt," she shrugged, "Dad lets me use the truck now and then. Ain't old enough for a licence yet. Why?"
"We're going to need somebody to learn to fly the ship, and Stephanie said it wasn't too different from driving," he explained, "If we can get you on board we wouldn't need to learn so much, and we could leave faster."
"Plus adults wouldn't be as suspicious if they knew we had somebody older with us," Dipper observed. Before he could say any more the sound of a door slamming echoed through the Shack, and a burst of footsteps thundered up the wooden stairs. The group turned to see Mabel stumble through the door, followed by Pacifica and Star, both carrying medium-sized paper bags stamped with the logos of clothes shops. Stevonnie was with them, having apparently arrived at the same time.
"Welcome back," Wendy smiled, "Get everything you wanted?"
"Uh huh," Pacifica nodded slowly.
"So," Mabel asked, "What have you guys been doing?"
"Not much," Marco shrugged. "Wendy wants to come with us though."
"You do?" Mabel's eyes went wide. "You should totally join us."
"More friends is always better," Star beamed.
"If that's okay," the redhead continued.
"Uhh, we don't exactly have enough beds," Stevonnie said apologetically, "One of you's already got to sleep across two chairs."
"Is there floor space?" Wendy asked on impulse.
"I guess so…"
"Then there's a bed," she continued. "I go camping all the time; a solid floor's gotta be better than some of the ground I've been on before."
"I'll try and get an air mattress or something," Stevonnie offered, "At least. If that's fine then you're welcome to come. Also, the ship's ready enough for you to see it."
"You're going to war,"
The statement lingered uncomfortably in the air between the pair, bearing implications neither party wanted to discuss. The hammer came down again, sending sparks cascading from the anvil and casting flickers across Bismuth's face. Despite the plain nature of the statement, she felt a need to reply.
"Yeah," she admitted. No use in hiding the truth.
"You've fought before," again, Twilight Sparkle spoke only the truth. "You talk about it a lot, at least your front does."
Her 'front'; Bismuth almost laughed at how right she was, nearly cracked a hollow smile.
"But you never talk about what you did; it's always what somebody else did."
"There's a lot in that war I never talk about," she took a deep breath, "It was a thousand year meat grinder. Nobody made it out unscathed. I did a lot during that war, fought, killed, but in the end none of it mattered.
"The war… broke our leader. She couldn't handle the reality of what she had started, couldn't believe that we were really doing what we were. She betrayed us, because she couldn't accept that a war meant death!" The hammer strike rang loud and long, echoing through the laboratory. A blanket of silence had barely settled when the smith spoke again, a heavy lump forming in her throat.
"I tried to stop her, but she trapped me, told everyone I was dead. I could've won that war, but instead she let it grind on for another five hundred years until… until they decided they'd had enough. They unleashed some kind of… genocide device, wiped everyone out. There were only five of us left. I could've stopped it, saved us all, if Rose hadn't-"
She stopped short, feeling a tiny hand take her own. Her other reverted, falling limply to her side. She could feel the tears now, running in rivulets down her cheeks and turning to steam against the anvil.
"If she 'trapped' you, however she did it, then logically it's not your fault when things go wrong in your absence," Twilight said quietly. For a second there was nothing but the faint hiss every time a tear landed upon the anvil. Then Bismuth spoke again.
"There's another story I haven't told," she said slowly, "For a different reason; I could never do it justice. It's about a serving girl who joined a revolution. A month later she was kicking processional soldiers' asses in the field.
"She used to sit and watch me at the forge, like you. She was always learning, bettering herself, and helping more and more. Yet she was never too sure of herself; only Rose could ever have hoped to convince her of how amazing she truly was. Her suggestions, her planning, her skill with creating, they saved my ass more times than I can count. She deserves a better idol than Rose, better ally than me…" she trailed off.
"She's the one I remind you of?" Twilight asked. "She's still around?"
"Yeah," Bismuth sighed, "Her name's Pearl."
"You don't talk anymore?" the teen questioned.
"I can't see her again, or any of the other survivors," the smith looked down. "There was a misunderstanding, when I joined STAG, and somebody they cared about a whole load ended up dead 'cause of me."
The gravel of the driveway leading up to Northwest Manor crunched underfoot as the group approached. In the last few months the building had changed greatly; the gates and fountain were long gone, and piles of scrap and salvage obscured much of the building. In one corner, near the door, a vehicle that could have only been their ship sat on a scaffold of rusting pipework and creaking wood.
It wasn't pretty, to say the least. The thing couldn't have been much more than twenty-five feet in length, with a large cockpit at the front made up of grimy, angular transparisteel plates. The hull behind this was obscured by four massive engines, the upper two partially covered by cyan plating and all four equipped with stabiliser vanes in the same colour. From the front quad lasers jutted forth around the lower engines.
"So, d'ya like it?!" the entire group jumped in unison. McGucket was right behind them, grinning wildly.
"Uhh, maybe?" Marco said slowly. "Is it safe?"
"Yup," McGucket grinned even wider, "It's got muh seal of approval n' everything. Class 0.5 Hyperdrive, state o' the art navigation with a few of muh own touches, you name it. 'S called a 'Quadjumper', but ah'm pretty sure you'll want to give it a proper name instead."
"So… how much more needs to be done?" Stevonnie asked.
"Jus' need to check the autopilot interface and fire up the reactor and she'll be ready to go," he waved a hand over the ship. "Then y'all just have to name her."
"Any suggestions?" Wendy looked around the group.
"It needs to be something really special," Mabel declared. "I vote we let Star and Marco choose, it's their getaway vehicle."
"Fine by me," the redhead shrugged, "Dip?"
"Up to you," Dipper replied, "Unless Pacifica has anything?" She shook her head.
"In that case, it's up to you two," Stevonnie turned to Star and Marco, who in turn glanced at each other.
"I dunno," Star shrugged. "I mean, it's supposed to be something important, and nothing's more important to me than Marco here, but naming ships after people is something you tend to do for dead people…"
"Echo Creek?" Marco suggested, getting puzzled expressions from everyone including Star. "It's where I'm from, and where we first met." He gestured to Star, whose eyes went wide with joy.
"Aww, that's so sweet," she pulled him in with one arm for a hug, "I so vote for his suggestion."
"Works for me," Wendy shrugged.
"Then, unless we have any objections," Mabel put on a voice reminiscent of an official figure, "I hereby declare this vessel the Echo Creek." She fell about giggling.
"Now," McGucket smiled again, "Who wants to help with the painting?"
A pillar of pale blue burst from the warp pad, sending a wave of light across the beach house. It subsided, revealing a tallish figure standing alone in the room. They tensed and glanced around quickly, before relaxing when they saw nobody. Taking careful steps, Stevonnie hurried towards their bed.
"Hey," a familiar voice stopped them dead in their tracks. They spun around, blinking in surprise and fear. "Wassup?"
"I-I, uhhh…" they struggled to think of a response, eyes darting around to avoid meeting the newcomer's gaze.
"Yo, Stevonnie, y'alright?" Amethyst's voice softened a little.
"Uh, yeah, I'm fine," they swallowed, still averting their gaze.
"I know you've been sneaking out," she said suddenly. They jumped, trying to work out when they had been compromised. "Don't worry, I ain't gonna tell Garnet or Pearl."
"Uhh, thanks?" they visibly relaxed, smiling slightly. She shrugged.
"So, what've you two been up to?" she asked. That was one of the things Stevonnie liked about her; she could tell whether it was Steven or Connie on control, or both, when their fused form spoke. "Meet anybody cool? See anything awesome?"
"We met these two kids our age, called Star and Marco, a dimension over," Steven was speaking now, she was sure of it, "And we're helping them run away."
"Why?" she asked.
"Star's mother makes mine look good," Connie took over speaking.
"Woah, that's bad," Amethyst cringed. "So where are they now?"
"Waiting for their ship to be ready," Steven spoke again, "Before they set out. We got a crew together. It's an ongoing project."
"Cool," she smirked, shifting her head to flick a stray curl of hair back behind her shoulders. "I've gotta meet 'em sometime. Can you get 'em to go to Maker Field?"
"Maker?" Stevonnie raised an eyebrow under joint control. "When are we going there?"
"Oh, right, you missed the briefing," Amethyst explained. "Knew I forgot something. I covered for ya, don't worry. Basically we're heading over to meet the Deckers tomorrow 'cause they’re worried about something STAG are doing. There's hope they've got some idea on how to separate you two. Peri's gonna be there an' everything." She beamed. Stevonnie stifled a giggle.
"Cool," Steven spoke once more, "Thanks for keeping this a secret; Pearl would go crazy with worry if she knew."
"Hey, what are sisters for?" the words were out before she even realised what she had said. She looked up at Stevonnie, Steven, who seemed to be struggling to process what had just been said. "H-hey," she averted her gaze, her face turning a darker shade of purple, "Y'know, sometimes I say stuff…"
"It's great," he said slowly, "Sis."
Chapter 3: Poor Decisions
Wendy awoke to the sound of pipes rattling. She stirred, barely opening one eye to get a look at her surroundings. It took her a second to work out exactly where she was; she wasn't in the cabin, that was certain. Then she remembered; she was on an airbed, at least most of her still was, though her upper body had slipped onto the floor, in the cabin of a Quadjumper dubbed the Echo Creek, hurtling through hyperspace away from the dimension she called home.
Either side of her were bunks, two set side-by-side into each wall; a mess of blonde hair hung down from one, while an arm enveloped in a cream sweater hung from the other. That meant two more were behind her, towards the aft of the ship. She was about to turn and make sure neither of the twins had fallen out of bed when she felt something brush against her.
It made contact with her again, before she felt a body shuffle up alongside hers. A quick glance revealed that, still deep in sleep, Dipper had managed fall out of his own bed and curl up against her back sometime during the night. Her first thought was to simply move him away; it was her bed, but at the same time she didn't have the heart to simply shove the little guy off. He wasn't exactly doing any harm.
The door to the cabin suddenly slid open, casting a rectangle of warm yellow light that stirred him awake. He looked around, before jolting into a sitting position the moment he realised where he was and who he had been lying against.
"Uh, h-hey, Wendy, I uh-" he managed to blurt out, turning beet red. She playfully rolled her eyes.
"Don't sweat it, dude," she smiled, turning back towards the door. Marco Diaz was silhouetted in the frame, looking at the pair in confusion.
"It's time to get up," he said after a moment, "We've arrived." There was a thud as Mabel rolled straight out of bed, only to leap to her feet. She was beaming from ear to ear.
"We're here?!" she smiled. "Can I see? Can I?"
"Sure," he smiled, "We just need to wake-"
"Morning!" a hug from Star cut him off. He smiled, returning the embrace.
"What time is it?" a mutter from the only remaining occupied bunk drew everyone's attention. Pacifica sat up slowly, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She glanced around the cabin, the realisation of where she was slowly dawning on her.
"We're… in space, right?" she asked slowly.
"Hyperspace," Dipper corrected.
"But we aren't going to be for much longer," Marco explained. "We're dropping into realspace soon. Everybody needs to get ready."
"We have a shower somewhere, right?" Wendy asked.
"You have to sit down to fit, but yup," Star smiled, pointing to the hatch in the back corner that lead down to the crawl space beneath that also held the toilet.
"Mind if I go first?" the redhead asked.
Wendy gripped the controls, easing into the red fold-down chair reserved for the Echo Creek's pilot. On two more behind her Mabel and Pacifica sat, while Marco and Star stood. Dipper was standing in the doorway, keeping his distance after the morning's embarrassment.
There was a jolt as the Quadjumper slowed to a halt, leaving the swirling colours of hyperspace behind in favour of a star-speckled black void. Directly ahead loomed a pale white planet, fragmented into two large halves which were further cracked and splintered. The surface glittered in the starlight, as if the whole surface was covered with gems. Above, two massive rings surrounded the whole thing.
"Woah," Mabel's eyes lit up, "It's like somebody bedazzled a whole planet!"
"Sure is," Wendy chuckled, flipping on the radio. A list of frequencies appeared on the small screen, all of them incomprehensible strings of letters and numbers and characters she had never even seen before. She looked them over, hand hovering by the selector dial. "Alright, now we need to find out where the spaceport is…"
"We could ask them," Star pointed out of the cockpit. Sure enough a second vessel, this one a bit larger than their own, had pulled alongside. It was a dirty, grey light freighter, christened by what looked like graffiti along its side as the Delinquent. The screen flickered, 'LF SR Comms' appearing at the bottom. Wendy flicked the dial, selecting the new frequency.
"-you hear me?" a voice burst from the speakers. Marco's hand stole to the volume and twisted it down two notches.
"Sure can," Wendy began, "You're the Delinquent, right? LS whatever?"
"Light Freight Short Range," the other vessel responded, "It's not a name. The hell took you so long to respond?"
"We had to switch channels," she explained, "And it took a moment for yours to show up."
"You weren't tuned already?" the other voice was flabbergasted. "Please tell me you didn't tune to anything else."
"We didn't," Dipper spoke up, "They're all in some kinda code I think."
"Incompatible programming language," the voice said simply. "The GDA don't use anything normal."
"The who?" he asked cautiously.
"Great Diamond Authority," came the reply, "The batshit insane, paranoid sentient rocks who run this planet. The guys who'll lock on and shoot ya down the moment you tune to their frequencies? Do you even know where you are?"
"Lattice?" he read off the navigation computer.
"That's the port," the voice replied, "The planet's called Homeworld. And the people who run this place don't know, can't know that Lattice exists. If you're trying to get there I suggest you get your asses out of high orbit and follow me."
"Alright," Wendy's grip on the controls tightened, "Thanks."
The Delinquent jolted forwards, engines flaring. The redhead opened up the Creek's throttle, the vessel jerking to life and accelerating towards the planet. As they approached they began to make out the surface; it was a planet-wide cityscape, all built from crystalline materials that shone pale colours.
The leading ship swung away, diving for the massive split that cleaved the planet in half. Wendy guided the vessel to follow, a jolt shaking the hull as the atmospheric thrusters came online. The sides of the split were filled with caverns branching off under the surface, the rock within them perforated with innumerable human-shaped holes.
"What are those?" Dipper muttered, pressing one hand against the vibrating transparisteel of the cockpit.
"Never seen a kindergarten before?" the radio replied. "What am I saying, of course you haven't. Those places make the gems who run this place, or at least they did, before they exported them offworld to fake a resource shortage back home."
"So the people of this planet are… gems?" he asked.
"Duh," came the reply, "Everybody from Homeworld or its colonies is a Gem. You'll see them in a minute- Hey, pull up!"
They were past the rim of the split now, and still diving. The other ship had pulled up, and was skimming along just beneath the level of the surrounding ground. Wendy pulled the control column. The nose rocketed upwards, throwing everyone off-balance. Artificial gravity could only do so much.
Their apparent destination was closing rapidly; ahead a mass of landing pads and jetties reached out above the great chasm. The structures would have looked normal in a less-wealthy area of earth, but were alien amid the gleaming angles of the city, cobbled together from rusting metal instead of the ubiquitous luminous crystal. Already several were occupied by freighters and presumably smuggling vessels.
Wendy brought the Echo Creek to a halt above one, dropping the landing gear and touching down with a clunk. The Delinquent took the bay besides them, boarding ramp dropping before it had even touched down. The moment the engines stopped glowing a lone figure stumbled out into the light, shifting onto tiptoes and squinting at the Creek with suspicion. Wendy stood up, flicking off the ship's vital systems one by one and releasing the door's remote lock.
"Alright," she smiled, "Everybody out." The group obliged, hurrying out of the cockpit. Star skipped through the cabin ahead of the rest, leaping from the rear door into the open and eschewing the ladder entirely. She fluttered down to the deck as Mabel slid down the ladder, hurrying out to join her. Wendy leapt to the ground, leaving the others to climb.
She turned, locking eyes with the pilot from the Delinquent. She was a tall, athletic girl who didn't look quite out of her teen years, with messy blonde hair that hung down past her shoulders. It seemed she had better things to do with her time than cut or style it in any way. Her attire was unusual; she sported a simple white top and blue skirt, and had what looked to be bandages wrapped around both forearms and in several places on her legs. From her shoulders hung what had once been a long dark jacket, now acting as more of a cape.
The girl glared back, striding slowly yet purposefully along the deck towards the gaggle of kids and teens. Her expression twisted into one of disdain, yellow eyes narrowing as she drew closer.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, voice coarse and harsh.
"Coming to the nearest spaceport?" Star shrugged, speaking before anyone else could.
"Nearest to where?"
"947-GFSV," Dipper recited, "That's the dimensional identifier, if you-"
"I can recognise an identifier when I hear one," the girl shot back. "And I know full well there isn't another spaceport in this entire region, so that leaves the question of where you got a ship?"
"Stevonnie got it for us," Mabel explained quickly, "They're really cool; they helped Star and Marco elope, and now they're helping us get into real-life space travel!"
"'Stevonnie'?" the girl raised an eyebrow, folding her arms. "Look, it's none of my business, but you really shouldn't go trusting random strangers, especially when multiple universes are involved. You don't even know who I am, do ya?"
"Nope," Dipper shrugged, "But you did offer to help."
"You know what, forget it," she grumbled, "Just, don't be so trusting-"
The girl jumped, a jolt running through her. In a second a revolver was pulled from inside her cape, gripped in a right hand missing both ring and pinky finger. Right in the firearm's line of fire stood a woman wreathed in a dark blue cloak, the one who had spoken, leaning against the Echo Creek's engine pod as if she had always been there. Under the shadow of her hood her skin was an unnatural blue, her short hair a darker shade.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "How do you know my name?"
"I am the Ocean," the woman said flatly.
"That's a Bluecloak pseudonym," Cream observed, sheathing her firearm in one swift motion, "So, you're part of the Shrike’s vigilante group then?"
"Yes," the Ocean said dryly, nodding.
"I'm assuming she sent you; why?” Osoro demanded.
"I am here because I need to be," the Ocean admitted, "No different from you."
"They're alright," the strained voice of Stanford Pines breathed as he stood up from behind a computer terminal, headset clattering against the desk surface. Across the room, Stanley visibly relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief. For the first time since telling his brother about the kids' expedition he allowed himself a reprieve; Ford's suspicions were incorrect, ‘Stevonnie’ wasn't an interdimensional slaver or pirate or anything.
He chuckled slightly. Of course he had been right; the twins and company were in no danger. Once again his judgement had proven correct. Still, Ford did not look happy as he strode over, away from the bizzare computer-contraption he had spent every moment since discovering the expedition tapping away on, muttering code-words and nonsensical numbers.
"I put out a call on the Network. Almost nobody had heard of them, but I did get one response from some old friends," he said slowly, taking deep breaths, "The Earth Splinter Cell. They've managed to pin down our vigilante."
"And?" Stan asked, his apparently nonchalant tone disguising real concern.
"They are genuine," Ford explained, "They've apparently helped runaways before; there was a girl named Constance whom the ESC were going to help, only to discover that Stevonnie had already intervened."
"Can they be trusted on that?" Stan raised an eyebrow.
"They are absolutely trustworthy," Ford rebutted, "I guarantee it."
The interior of Lattice was nothing like any of the group had expected. It consisted primarily of a circular marketplace, opening out onto the docks, surrounded by skyscrapers of green-white crystal. Hack-job storefronts jutted out into the circle, interspersed with vertical metal poles carrying space heaters and floodlights. Metal cable trays ran between everything, supported at various heights by improvised scaffolding. Above, a permanent night sky hung, stars drowned out by light pollution from the surrounding multicoloured districts.
One store in particular stood out; above the open front a sign proclaimed 'Heaven & Earth Wholesale'.
"Wholesale sells stuff in bulk, right?" Pacifica asked. "If we want cargo that'll be the first place to look."
"Good call," Wendy agreed, making for the shop's entrance. The others followed, only for Dipper to stop dead. A humanoid shape no taller than him was pressed up against a wall across the courtyard, half-hidden by a stack of crates. They were entirely red save for a black breastplate. Something glinted from their chest as they glanced side-to-side, before darting into an alley.
"Hey, uh, I'll be right back," he excused, turning to follow.
"Huh," Mabel tilted her head to one side, eyes filled with confusion, "What’s up?"
"I just need to check something out," he stammered, "There's something going on I don't like." He was away before anybody else could question him, reaching the stack of crates in a second. He glanced back at the group; everyone but Star was giving him odd looks, before ducking around the boxes.
Ahead the alley loomed into the darkness, lacking the improvised lighting and heating of the rest of Lattice. He wondered if this place even counted as part of the port, or if it was simply 'Homeworld' beyond this point. Still, with a shiver he pressed on, entering the alleyway.
The suspicious person was striding slowly ahead, glancing around but never back. He was pretty certain they were a Gem; two similar characters had been sitting by the dock, each one with a crystal embedded in them somewhere. According to what he had seen since then, that crystal was one of the species' defining traits, the other being unusual colours.
The one he was following suddenly rounded a corner. He shuffled to the junction, flattening as best as he could against the wall beside the branching passageway. He stole a glance after the Gem, and immediately snapped back to his hiding spot. They were right there, just inside the alley, back turned.
Another one had joined them, a second Gem of the same species with a gemstone set into their left eye socket. The pair had quite clearly arranged to meet up, away from prying eyes and open ears.
"You called," a female, almost childlike voice spoke. He could hear the lump in her throat from here.
"I wanted to say thanks," the second voice was almost identical, only slightly more distant, presumably belonging to the one-eyed Gem. "It worked."
"She's okay?" the first Gem blurted out.
"Mostly," the second responded, "She still reverts if she gets too angry, and the physical scars are still there, but it's more progress than any of us expected."
"I could try and get some parts from the actual machine," the first offered, "To improve your version. The technology isn't exactly easy to make."
"You've done enough, sarge," the second said firmly. "I don't think your superiors would be happy if they knew you'd given the plans to the Uncorrupter to a major enemy, even if it is to heal them."
"Don't call me that," the first corrected. "I'm not your superior."
"Forget it," the second said quickly, "You need to get back."
"What about you?" the first's breath caught in her throat. "Aren't you coming?"
"No," she said solemnly, "We'll buy you some time. We have our own way out."
The store the group had picked out was mostly deserted, with empty shelves stretching backwards towards a desk at the back. A slightly pudgy woman with pale teal skin and platinum blonde hair sat atop it, gaze diverted away at something obscured. There was a clatter from the corner she was watching, and a near identical woman, her longer hair and skin a dark grey-blue, poked her head into the light.
"Oh," she noticed the group, "Pren, we have guests."
"Huh," the other looked around, shoulder-length curls bobbing, "Ah, welcome!" She eased off the desk, landing and drawing up to a full height barely three inches above Mabel's head. "I'm Prehnite, and this is my girlfriend-"
"Also Prehnite," the other woman stepped into the light, carrying herself with far more grace despite being just as short and of the same build.
"Wait, you two share the same name?" Star asked. "How's that work?"
"We're both the same type of Gem," the darker Gem chuckled softly, "So we have the same name."
"Unless you use full designations," her teal companion said quickly, "In which case I'm 3CE and she's 1AD."
"But nobody uses that," the blue Gem spoke again, "So I'm Prehnite and she's just Pren."
"Uh, yeah, that's about it," Pren shrugged, "So… you here to buy stuff? Like Gem technology - the stuff we sell? Because we're kinda closing forever…"
"What?" Star blinked in surprise. "Why?"
"You don't know?!" Pren jumped.
"Lattice is closing down," Prehnite explained, "Very soon. Everybody, all the Gems who have sought refuge here from the Authority, they all are evacuating."
"Why?" Marco asked.
"Because the Citadel Council is sending a fleet to destroy the planet," Pren explained, "So we've packed up to go." She gestured to a large cardboard box lying open beside the desk, into which a few personal affairs and minor knick-knacks were still to be packaged.
Amongst the few things still waiting to be loaded was a series of photos, framed simply, each one displaying two or more people. Mabel approached them, glancing across each one in turn.
"Oh," Pren smiled, "Those were taken by one of the previous owners. They left a few behind when they moved on." Mabel stopped dead.
"Guys," she called, "You've gotta see this!"
The others hurried over; she was staring at a picture of a man with slightly greying brown hair and a square jaw, smiling awkwardly behind square-framed glasses. He wore a long, faded brown overcoat over a red sweater, and was gripping a lowered, clunky blaster in one hand.
"Is that your uncle?" Pacifica asked.
"Is it?" Wendy stared at the photo. "Sure looks like him."
"It's Grunkle Ford alright," Mabel confirmed. "But when did he come here?"
"Hard to say," Prehnite admitted, "We only became owners of this shop six months ago; the previous owner said he had inherited them from the Gem who owned the shop before him. Who can say when they were first taken?"
"He looks pretty young there," Wendy observed, "So it can't be that recent."
Before she could say anything more the sound of footsteps echoed through the building; Dipper stumbled in through the doorway, panic in his eyes.
"Uh, guys?" he stammered. "We need to move; they're evacuating the port."
"We know," Mabel shrugged. "Wait? You mean now?"
"Yeah," he said quickly, "There's a girl with purple hair outside who says she's from the 'Deckers', telling everyone to evacuate."
"Who?" Marco asked.
"The Deckers," Prehnite confirmed. "The organisation who volunteered to manage our evacuation."
"Volunteered?" Pacifica tilted her head to one side. "Who runs this place? Why are they not doing anything?"
"There is no government in Lattice," Prehnite explained, "All the Gems who live here are a part of the Collective-"
"Who are the Deckers' closest allies, but they have no military besides a single fighter flight which they use for escorting their flagship," Pren said quickly, only to blush and shrink back as she realised that her partner had not finished speaking.
"Yes," Prehnite began packing the last of the affairs into the box by the counter, pausing only when she arrived at the photograph of Ford. "You should have this. Sweetie, would you mind giving me a hand?" She handed the photo to Mabel as her partner hurried over.
The two Gems took each other's hands, beginning a rapid dance. Prehnite moved with grace, following the steps with an ease that could only come from practice. Pren stumbled after her, keeping up somehow despite looking like she could fall over at any moment. Their bodies began to glow, until the pair became a blur of white light with only a pair of teal gemstones visible within it.
The glow exploded in a shower of tiny droplets of light, revealing an entirely new Gem. She had inherited the length and shade of Prehnite's hair, with Pren's blonde highlights and curls. Her skin was an ethereal blue, a middle ground between the pale teal and near black of her constituents. She had grown too; while the pair of Gems were individually barely taller than the Pines twins, their combined form had at least three inches on Wendy.
"Never seen Fusion before?" she asked, taking in all the shocked and bewildered expressions. The group all shook their heads. "Ah, well now you have." She hefted the now-full box of junk easily. "We'd really love to explain it to you, but we kinda have to evacuate."
She strode towards the exit, easily sidestepping the group. She was almost at the door when she suddenly stopped, turning back to face the others.
"You should probably think about leaving too," she stammered, waiting for her guests to follow her.
"She's right," Dipper agreed, "We need to move." He started walking, the others moving to join him.
Outside it was chaos. Gems hurried towards the landing pads in numbers larger than Lattice should have been able to support, carrying boxes and bags full of personal belongings. All around the crackle of ion engines echoed between the crystalline towers as freighters lumbered into the sky, laden with goods and evacuees, to circle overhead.
"Stay close to each other," Wendy ordered, moving towards the exit of the market.
"Hey, you there!" a voice called out. She turned to see a girl with bright purple hair standing beside one of the shops, a spherical drone hovering by her shoulder on three propellers. She was wearing full-body combat armour, forged from carbon fibre with glowing neon-blue lines weaving between the plates, painted all over in wildly varying shades of blue and pink.
Beside her stood a gem, a squat, red creature with frizzy maroon hair. A gap in the upper section of her Decker breastplate bared a circular red gem set into her chest, glinting in the cold light.
Dipper locked eyes with her. She looked back, confused and startled. He looked away again, muttering about alleys and uncorrupters.
"You're the owners of the Quadrijet Spacetug out on Beam 7, aren't you?" the purple-haired girl asked. The group glanced at each other, unsure if she was referring to the Echo Creek. "Quad atmospheric turbine with ion bypass?" she clarified. "Ugh, blue casing?"
"You mean the Quadjumper?" Dipper asked.
"She does," the red Gem answered, nudging her companion. "You were saying?"
"None of you are registered for the Evac operation," the purple-haired girl spoke again, "There's stuff you need to know, stuff we've informed everyone who came to us to help."
"We can help," Mabel said quickly.
"Yeah," Marco stepped forwards, "We should do our part."
"Then get down to the docks," the girl huffed in irritation, "Pick up as much of the cargo there as you can get, and then join the others overhead. We'll all pull together to run the blockade."
"What blockade?" Dipper asked.
"This is the kinda stuff you should have been told," the girl rolled her eyes.
"Uh, guys?" Star said slowly. The others turned to look at her; she was staring up at the dark sky, eyes wide. Overhead, above the circling freighters and streams of Homeworld traffic, a dozen blocks of grey hung in the sky, orbiting the planet low enough to be visible. Another suddenly appeared, popping into existence directly above Lattice; the Citadel fleet had arrived.
Chapter 4: A Fool's Errand
The door sealed shut with a pneumatic hiss. Wendy gripped the controls of the Echo Creek tightly, her knuckles turning white. She flicked the main switches, feeling the airframe shudder as the ship roared to life.
"Everything's secured as best we can," Marco said quickly, perching on one of the chairs behind her.
"Any idea what's in the boxes we're carrying?" she asked. He shook his head; they had pulled them randomly from the pile of waiting cargo.
With a rattle the ship lifted off, the redhead guiding it up to circle above with the other vessels waiting to leave. She glanced at the radio; 'LFSR' had been joined by 'Decker-Collective Network Radio'. With a flick of the dial she selected the new station.
"We've got another one!" an enthusiastic voice announced down the radio.
"That's all of them; channel's full," a stern-sounding woman spoke. "Alright, all cargo boats, this is DN_Warpath. I'll be coordinating this operation."
"DN?" Wendy muttered, not realising how close she was to the Echo Creek's microphone.
"Database name," the earlier voice declared abruptly, brimming with excitement, "Every Decker has one. I'm Vel, Paige is Warpath, and on the ground there's Starbird, who's really called Sabine of all things, and Ruby… does she even have a real name? Anyway, there's also Robonerd-"
"Vel, we don't have time for this," Warpath said firmly. "Alright; the drone fighters we stationed at Lattice should be in the air now." True to her word, a wedge formation of five fighter aircraft streaked overhead, suddenly kicking around and braking, ending in a hover over the edge of the docks.
They were small for fighter aircraft, no more than angular shards of carbon fibre, inset with glowing lines of blue and purple, about ten feet in length. Four manoeuvring fins hovered around the tail of each craft, held but not physically attached to the vessel.
"Vel is going to remote pilot the lead fighter," she continued. "She will guide you to rendezvous with us in orbit. All boats are to follow her lead."
"Let's do this!" Vel declared, her voice that of a small child despite her apparent responsibility. "Right now, the blockade's too thick to get past overhead, but there is a gap in it, which we're going to hit. The Demiurg's flagship, the Moradin, is having a pretty big bust-up with the Homeworld fleet over the Diamond Palace, forcing the Berronar and Sharindlar to break from the blockade to back it up. They're engaged right now, but you'll have to watch out for them."
"Except this place was deliberately built as far from the Palace as possible," the voice of Osoro barged into the conversation. "Every air defence unit on the planet is going to be lit up, static batteries and artillery robonoids, and that's before anything the Demiurg send gets to us; we'll be toast the moment we get over an inhabited area. And don't forget: that trip's three hours minimum with my engines, not accounting for anyone who can't keep up. The Demiurg are going to fire the Crest Gun at the first opportunity they get and then there won't be a planet to escape."
"They can't fire," Warpath said firmly. "Their society is built on settling grudges, and right now every transmission channel we can hack says they've got troops on the ground who have a personal vendetta against the Authority. Until they do whatever they need to that gun stays silent."
"Plus, we've managed to flip the IFF so the air defences don't target us, thanks to Robonerd," Vel boasted. "And I know a route to the Palace that's unguarded and takes only a few minutes: we're goin' through the core!"
The drop pod landed with a crunch, swiftly followed by the clunk of bolts unlocking and the hiss of pneumatics. Bismuth stumbled clear of her restraints, ears ringing. For a second the world was a haze, as if she was looking through murky water. She shook her head, trying to clear whatever was dulling her senses.
She reached down beside where she had been strapped in, grasping for her weapon. Her hand slipped down the wall, until finally her fingers found the sleek black alloy of the updated Breaking Point. She pulled it free of its holdings, holding it up in front of her.
The blurring finally stopped, and she took a moment to appraise the weapon. Satisfied, she secured it to the armguard of her STAG body armour with a heavy clunk. The vents on the weapon sprung open, ready to go.
There was a series of beeps as four E54 'Bastion' Siege Units powered up, converting from transport mode to a boxy, humanoid form. With a series of clunks they armed their on-board laser SMGs and loaded the miniguns fixed to their backs. They were ready, and so were the human soldiers in the pod. Giving the Breaking Point one final nudge to make sure it was secured, she flicked on her personal radio.
"We've made it down," she said simply.
"Alright," it was a Demiurg who answered, "The trackers say you're on the opposite side of the Palace Plaza to yer target. Bombers are coming in now. Show 'em the fire of the forge."
"You got it," Bismuth smirked; she could get used to this species. "Okay, let's kick some Homeworld behind!"
Any response the troops could have given was blocked by the roar of airstrikes outside. One of her soldiers, fully encased in Shieldbearer power armour, strode up to the door. A raised particle cannon was gripped in his fists, while the Destabilising Arc Cannon was magnetised to his back.
The release unlocked with a heavy clunk. The door fell from its frame, thudding heavily on the cracked crystal outside. The Shieldbearer fired into the aperture, raking the immediate area with a continuous beam of energy.
As soon as the beam dropped he started running. Bismuth followed, leaping clear of the drop pod. She didn't stop until she was crouched behind a collapsed pillar, flanked by her own soldiers.
Similar structures littered the plaza ahead; the rubble of toppled statues and columns providing cover to multiple Gems. Most of them were jaspers, with diamond-shaped crash helmets and hard-light projecting rifles.
There were others as well, however: a carnelian, destabiliser spear in hand, commanded the defence from the front of the amassed forces. Multiple squads stood behind her, defending the Palace just like the Diamonds ordered.
Rubies scurried between the scattered ruins. Behind them stood larger threats: robonoid mechs lumbered towards the attackers, backed by golems of hard-light, huge, glowing white constructs with prisms set into their chests. With a smug grin Bismuth noticed they were shaped vaguely like stars, as if the Diamonds had managed to accidentally hide a symbol of rebellion in the design of one of their heaviest units.
Further back the Diamond Palace towered; a monolith of white crystal with yellow and blue shards rising around it, carved into the image of White Diamond herself. On the steps up to it stood the artillery, huge robonoid spheres hovering above eight stubby feet, bearing levitating cannons upon their backs.
A beam of burning indigo light swept over the top of the pillar. The Shieldbearer returned fire with a beam of his own. Something in the near distance exploded.
"Golem down," he declared. "They're pushing up; we need to move."
Before she could reply something detonated just beyond the pillar. The blast flung a ruby over the cover. She smacked into the ground in front of Bismuth, desperately trying to stagger to her feet. A single hit from the Breaking Point split her gem into fragments.
"It's the Moradin!" one of the soldiers declared. "They're shelling the plaza; the plan's working!" Another blast ripped through the air.
Bismuth looked up; the massive flagship was embattled, surrounded by Homeworld ships. Diamond-shaped cruisers and wing-shaped carriers held formation around it, unleashing hell with turbolasers. Smaller frigates, shaped like giant hands, fought alongside them, trying to draw return fire. In between it all smaller transports and fighters, both Gem-manned and robonoid, clashed with Demiurg strike craft.
The Moradin itself was pitched forwards, Crest Gun trained on the Palace. Several of the larger frontal guns pointed even further down, straight towards the plaza before it. But even they could only hold back the enemy so much.
"You know the plan!" Bismuth yelled over the din. "Move out! Spread out and pen then in so we can hit 'em with the destabiliser!"
The squad split. Two soldiers crouched by each end of the pillar, each man joined by a Bastion unit. As another bombardment began from above, all eight of them stood up, breaking cover to run for the sides of the plaza.
From her position Bismuth watched one of the robonoid mechs turn to the group on the left. Its hands reconfigured, four fingers closing around the now-central fifth to create hard-light autocannons.
It sprayed, eviscerating one of the STAG soldiers before cover obscured the rest. One of the Bastions reconfigured as a minigun turret, a shield forming in front of it. It opened up with retaliatory fire, poofing three rubies and a jasper. The mech remained unscathed.
The robot began to advance. The surviving gems followed it. Bismuth cursed.
They were supposed to be pushing the flanks, not the other way around. The other STAG fireteam was pressing hard, but the left group was pinned in front of a mech and four quartz super-soldiers.
"I'm going to back them up," she brushed the ruby dust off the Breaking Point. "Once that mech falls, press forwards." The Shieldbearer nodded in acknowledgement. A bubble of red energy formed around her; projected from his power armour. That meant he only had one left to project before needing to recharge.
"I can't keep it up for long," he explained, "But that should get you there."
She nodded in reply, vaulting the pillar. Rounds started thudding into the shield. She paid them no heed. The mech turned towards her, yellow energy crackling around its fingers.
It opened fire, bolts of pure light slamming into the shield around her. Cracks started to form in the bubble.
The machine staggered, both flanking Bastion units pouring fire into it. Still it focused on Bismuth, firing round after ineffective round. She leapt, clearing another felled column. Her protection evaporated into nothing.
She drove the spike of the Breaking Point through the green composite of the machine's face, shattering the internals. It pitched backwards, one hand reconfiguring to try and claw her off. It died before it could, collapsing into a mess of green and smoke and sparks.
She stood up quickly, yanking the Breaking Point free. The Bastions opened fire again, raining death at the remaining gems on the flank. Three more quartzes fell.
The fourth opened fire. Rounds thudded into Bismuth's breastplate. She charged forwards. The jasper dropped her weapon, rushing forwards with her body enveloped in orange energy. Bismuth dodged but not fast enough. The jasper clipped her shoulder. Bismuth spun, crashing to the floor. Her attacker overshot.
Bismuth leapt back up. The Shieldbearer was already advancing, protecting the last three STAG soldiers. The right flank was theirs, despite the loss of a Bastion. The left was almost in their hands as well, the last two rubies running for the relative safety of the centre of the plaza.
Then the barrage started. Blasts shook the plaza as the Moradin's cannons roared, only now they were falling behind the main Homeworld force. Bismuth cursed; they weren't supposed to do that until she ordered them to, until they were ready to drive the gems into Arc Cannon range.
She was supposed to be in the centre, leading the charge to box Homeworld's grunts in. Instead she was halfway to the left side of the plaza. She bolted for the advancing Shieldbearer, leaping over rubble, ducking under streams of tracer rounds. Several scorched her armour; none got through; if only such protection could have been issued to the regular soldiers.
A blast of fire flew from one of the enemy Light Golems. The shield protecting their power armour unit vanished amid smoke and flames. Still the Shieldbearer staggered forwards, now exposed to enemy fire. Bismuth pushed herself harder, closing on him and the other STAG troops. A laser from the Golem slammed into his chest and went right through. He fell, particle cannon clattering to the floor. Enemy fire downed one of the troops behind him. Then a second fell.
She threw herself in front of the third soldier, feeling more fire slam into her breastplate. Each round stung more than the last as the scorched composite gave way. She winced and powered on, snatching up the dropped particle cannon.
The Light Golem strode forwards, the prism in its chest glowing deep purple. The lines that snaked across its body mimicked the colour. It was charging another shot, she was certain.
She unleashed a particle beam straight at the golem's prism. The monster exploded in a burst of light. She swung the weapon around, turning the front rank of Homeworld gems to dust. Then the cannon flickered out, depleted.
She dropped it, leaping back to where the Shieldbearer had fallen. The Arc Cannon was still strapped to his back. She ripped it free, ducking behind a toppled statue beside the surviving soldier. More hard-light grazed her shoulder.
Hefting it to point over the rubble, she squeezed the cannon's trigger. The ring of capacitors started to spin, wisps of green energy crackling within the barrel of the weapon. The enemy started advancing, unaware of the weapon about to be unleashed.
The flanking units had penned the Homeworld troops in, but without the support of the Shieldbearer there was nothing stopping them pushing forwards to escape; there were far too many of them for the Bastion units' fire to contain. The bombardment faltered, then stopped as the Moradin turned its guns skywards.
"This ends now," Bismuth muttered. The energy building in the barrel crackled, sparking and flickering as it grew brighter and brighter.
She looked up, preparing to leap the ruined statue, and stopped dead. The skies above were still alight, with both sides pounding each other with everything they had. But one ship was much closer than the others.
It was like one of the hand-frigates, only far larger. Instead of a hand, the destroyer was shaped like an entire arm twelve-hundred metres long, coloured a bright yellow. Green flames burned in several places on the hull, while the ship's fingers clawed desperately at the air. It was plummeting, palm-up, towards the plaza.
There was no time. Homeworld's troops were advancing, spreading out beyond the Arc Cannon's range, and in a second that ship was going to come down on top of them. Bismuth snarled in irritation, and leapt clear of the statue.
The carnelian was right there, polearm destabiliser at the ready. She thrust it at forwards. But Bismuth was faster; the weapon bounced harmlessly off the case of the Breaking Point.
The parry stunned the carnelian for a second; her weapon tore through Gems and their weapons alike. Yet somehow the spear had been deflected. Bismuth smirked at her surprise, putting the Homeworld Gem directly in her sights. Before the carnelian could react the energy arcing in the cannon's barrel leapt on to her, and from her to every Gem behind her. Bismuth released the trigger.
Energy surged along the arcing current from the weapon. Every gem it had touched exploded in a blast of blinding green. The smoke of a hundred soldiers poofing at once flooded outwards, filling the courtyard.
There was a deafening crunch and several screams ahead as a massive shape swept down into the plaza. The arm-ship came down, more dust and smoke billowing outwards. The glow of burning wreckage illuminated the thick fog, glowing sickly green. The radio burst to life.
"Forwards! Regroup at the wreck!"
Bismuth surged forwards, not even stopping when she heard the crunch of gems shattering beneath her feet.
Yellow Diamond let out a snarl of irritation, watching the ruins of her personal transport crash into the plaza outside. That was it; they were trapped. She dismissed the floating screen before her with a swift swipe of her hand, cutting off the live feed from outside it displayed.
"Yellow?" White asked warily, standing beside her. Her face was set with grim resolve.
"My ship has been destroyed," Yellow rounded on her. "Those worthless Nephrites could not navigate through the battle. If any of your vessels are still airborne they will fare no better." There was no reply.
"I had a plan!" Yellow spat suddenly, driving a foot so hard into the floor that the sheet of crystal splintered around her heel. "If you and Blue had simply warped up to my orbital fortress, where my transport was docked, then we could have escaped this. From there a regroup and counterattack would have been simple! But you had to be stubborn, and demand I talk to you face-to-face! Now that they have jammed the warp system the only way to leave is by ship, and mine is now a ruin in the Great Courtyard."
"I could not have predicted they would interrupt the warp network," White defended, her voice nothing but calm, "But had we followed your plan we would have been shattered; that orbital platform of yours was obliterated in the early stages of the assault. Your Brachium-Class would have been destroyed alongside it had we been there. Staying on the surface allows us a chance to survive yet."
"How?" Yellow demanded, slamming a fist into the column beside her with a crash of shattering crystal.
"By standing together," White spoke slowly. "They have landed ground troops for a reason. They want something that is here. If we can capture their assault force, they will not risk firing their main cannon for fear of destroying both their objective and their own soldiers, allowing us a window to counterattack while they regroup."
"We cannot repel them!" Yellow roared, a second blow shattering the column. "We have nothing left to counterattack with, the enemy has a weapon that can destroy an army in a second, our fleet is crumbling, and you would have us face them head on?!"
"Yellow, please," the voice of Blue Diamond filled the air for the first time, "This arguing is not helping us-"
"Stay out of this," Yellow ordered. "You know nothing of war, of strategy. I am the supreme commander of Homeworld's armies! I am the one with executive power in any instance of war! You hold no authority in this situation and are of no use-"
"Enough!" White stamped a foot, her composure breaking for a split second before the calm returned. "We are in this situation, and throwing blame and insults will not help us escape it. Our enemies may be strong, but do not forget; they have not seen a Diamond in combat. We shall stand and fight them. Yellow, are you going to aid us, or not?"
Bismuth cursed, ducking behind a section of the crashed ship's hull. A beam of pure energy crackled overhead, so close she could smell the ionising air.
She glanced over the wreckage; there were two artillery robonoids ahead, pinning them behind cover. One was leaning, dead, its surface a forest of cracks and bullet holes from which white liquid seeped; one of its stump-feet was missing, leaving it listing on only seven. The other was scratched and scorched but still firing. A laser from one of the STAG survivors glanced off its hull. It fired in return, dead on target. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as more screams echoed.
She didn't need to look to know she was now down to four soldiers. A glance behind revealed the two remaining Bastions: one trying to self-repair, the other mid-reconfigure. Neither were in any position to help the depleted troops.
Pushing through the shipwreck had cost them, and now they were feeling the consequences of losing the Shieldbearer. STAG had bet far too much on the power of the cannon and their ability to see the plan through, instead of supplying their soldiers with enough armour.
There was a blast behind Bismuth. A shell sailed overhead, detonating in the plaza. She glanced behind to see the reconfigured Bastion; it had grown tracks, and some kind of miniature artillery cannon jutted out of it.
The machine rumbled forwards, firing again. The shell hit home, toppling the surviving enemy robonoid. The road to the Diamonds' Palace was open.
Bismuth vaulted her cover, clutching the Destabilising Arc Cannon close to her chest. She sprinted up the steps of the Palace, dead set on reaching the door. It was too close to back down now.
She could hear her soldiers running to follow as she stormed up the last few steps. Suddenly she was out of the pale starlight of Homeworld, hidden in the shadow of the Palace's massive arched entrance. Ahead a cavernous hallway stretched into the building, unguarded. She turned around to view the surviving STAG soldiers.
"Everyone, on me," she ordered. "This is it."
She strode into the hallway, the four troopers following in close formation. They moved through the darkness briskly, Bastion units limping along behind as an improvised rearguard.
Ahead loomed a massive door, sealed. As they approached it there was a faint hum, and a diamond-shaped aperture opened, expanding until it was the size of the corridor. Pale light streamed in from beyond the doorway, silhouetting two colossal figures.
Bismuth involuntarily stepped back, looking up until her gaze met the piercing eyes of White Diamond. In a second the glowing teal edge of a colossal spear swept around to point straight at her. A series of gasps erupted from the STAG troops.
A burst of gunfire erupted from the back of the group, ending as quickly as it began. The sporadic beeping of the Bastion units was no longer audible. In her peripheral vision Bismuth became aware of more huge shapes moving from alcoves in the walls, the pale light glinting off their multiple gems and the barrels of their weapons.
"Stand down," White Diamond commanded. Bismuth looked away, assessing their situation. Six fusions, all quartzes, had surrounded the group and eliminated their Bastion support, while two Diamonds stood before them, one with her spear, the other holding a sword that sparked with destabilising energy. And all of them were in Arc Cannon range. "I do not intend to repeat myself."
Bismuth's grip on the trigger tightened just enough. The capacitors started to spin.
"They are not going to comply," Yellow Diamond stated, before turning to gaze upon the fusions. "Ready," she ordered, pointing her sword straight at the group. The fusions gripped their weapons the slightest bit tighter. The Arc Cannon started to glow a pale green.
The fusions were aiming down their weapons now, each prepared to open fire. The glow in the Arc Cannon grew brighter, strands of electricity reaching from the barrel, searching for a target. One found the tip of White's spear.
"Too late," Bismuth smirked, swinging the Cannon up to point straight at White Diamond. The electricity leapt from her spear to her body and then to every other Gem in the room except Bismuth, the energy glancing harmlessly off her specialised STAG armour.
She released the trigger.
The surge of energy came instantly. Every hostile Gem exploded in a shower of glittering smoke that flooded the corridor and spilled through the doorway and sent the STAG soldiers sprawling. Amidst the clatter of weapons and gemstones hitting the floor, two heavy thuds rang out.
Bismuth stumbled to her feet, dropping the burnt-out husk of the Arc Cannon. The weapon had been overwhelmed by the energy needed to poof a Diamond.
She stumbled towards where the gems of the two dictators had fallen, a grim resolve filling her. A part of her said it was wrong to shatter a Gem whose physical form had been destroyed, but she drowned it out. If the Diamonds were allowed to survive, then all they would do was continue to wreak misery upon the galaxy. No, they had to be put down, for the good of everyone else.
She approached one, raising the arm to which the Breaking Point was strapped. On the pale surface of the massive crystal her own reflection stared back at her. She swung, driving the Breaking Point right between the image's eyes.
White Diamond split clean in two with an almighty crack. With a click the Breaking Point reset, and Bismuth turned to Yellow. Something moved in her peripheral, and she stopped, moving to look into the room beyond the corridor.
Through the smoke she could make out a huge, white chamber, with water features set periodically into the walls. Blue Diamond stood on the other side, her face set in shock and tears forming in her eyes. Beside her stood the ever-graceful form of a pearl, her eyes concealed by a mop of blue hair, in whose hands was gripped a Morningstar flail.
In front of both was another Gem, her face shadowed by a navy blue hood. In both hands she gripped a long rifle, sparking with the unmistakeable green energy of a destabiliser weapon.
"Secure these!" Bismuth yelled over her shoulder at her still-dazed soldiers, gesturing to Yellow's gem and the remains of White. "And call in the dropship."
Without waiting for a reply she took off, storming towards the remaining Diamond. As she approached, the hooded Gem swung around and fired her rifle straight at Blue Diamond.
She poofed instantly in a blast of destabilising energy from the gun, gem falling amid a burst of smoke only to be caught by a levitating orb of water. The hooded Gem slung her rifle, and with a wave of her hand every one of the wall-fountains exploded. Before Bismuth could react she was separated from Blue by a wall of water too high to scale, drawn from the ruined fountains and held in place by the hooded figure.
A lapis? Whoever she was, she beat a hasty retreat, joined by the pearl and the ball of water containing Blue Diamond. Bismuth didn't stop, rushing towards the wall of water. She braced herself, ready to burst through it, as her target disappeared into the next room.
Something blindsided her from the left, knocking her down. She looked up in time to see a jasper finish her spin dash and land in front of her.
Even for a quartz she was large, muscles rippling in her exposed arms. Her gemstone was set where her nose should be, cast in shadow by her weaponised helmet. Neither of those stood out, however, against her spines; twisted barbs jutted from her arms and shoulders, coloured a dark brown that gave way to mottled green at the tips. Behind her, peering through the hole she had made in the wall, a ruby with her gem where her eye should be brandished a knife.
Bismuth leapt to her feet, trying to gauge what exactly the jasper's defect was. She had seen what happened when injectors misfired before, on multiple planets; misshapen Gems, deep-cuts, and worse. But this was something else entirely.
The jasper was staring at her with pure fury, eyes burning with hatred. Her spines seemed to be growing longer, the tips of several more poking through the skin of her arms. Her fingers seemed to grow sharper and longer, shifting closer and closer to claws. For a moment Bismuth wondered if the deformities were just an elaborate shapeshifting ruse, but that couldn't explain the green tint.
Her radio crackled to life, almost intelligible. She barely caught the word 'dropship', blurted by a panicked voice on the other end of the connection, when the jasper let out a bellow and charged.
The sides of the split in the planet loomed, jagged outcrops leering threateningly from either side of the cockpit view. Wendy gripped the Echo Creek's control column, adjusting their course to hug the tail of the lumbering freighter directly in front of them. The other ships in the evacuation convoy tightened formation, wary of the sheer walls enclosing them.
"Lead boat is coming up on the core now," Vel declared across the radio. "Watch it: there’s a hard left in two clicks."
"This is the Caravan," a second, upbeat voice spoke, "Could whoever that is in the Quadjumper back off a bit? We need room to manoeuvre."
"I think they mean us," Marco observed, "Maybe we should-"
"Relax," Wendy put on a confident smile, easing back the throttle, "I got this."
"Cool beans," the pilot from the Caravan returned as the bow of his vessel turned into one of the larger caverns leading off the split. The other small freighters further tightened formation around the Echo Creek, preparing to follow.
The Caravan disappeared into the gap, only the blue glow of her engines still visible in the darkness. After a second the Creek followed.
Under the yellow glow of the cabin lighting and the flickers of daylight from various passing openings to the surface, Wendy felt the weightless sensation fade from her stomach. The ship started to lose speed, forcing her to open up the throttle again to keep their velocity up.
"We're through the core," Dipper observed, staring out of the cockpit at the hole-ridden cavern surrounding them.
"So we're halfway there?" Star asked.
"We've probably gotta go to somewhere else after we get off this planet," Pacifica pointed out, "It's still going to be a while until we stop."
Wendy nodded in acknowledgement, keeping the ship pointed towards the freighter in front. It yawed to the left, again heading for the bright circle of pale light that indicated the exit. They followed.
In a second they burst into the light, climbing away from the core and towards the surface. Around them a giant excavation opened up, widening until the far edges were almost too distant to see beyond the horizon.
Across the lip of the quarry a battle came into view, the sky lighting up with explosions. The multi-coloured vessels of the Authority were pummelling three Demiurg warships with everything they had in one last stand. It didn't seem to be working.
To the left of the colossal pit a building which could only be the Palace jutted from the ground, a behemoth of crystal rising far above the buildings surrounding it, shaped to resemble the head and shoulders of what could only be a member of the Authority. A massive plaza stretched out before it, pock-marked with ruined columns and statues, corpses and wrecked robots.
The ruined form of a giant yellow arm lay across the entire thing. Pale green flames burned in several places on the ruin, illuminating the ragged holes in its surface.
As Dipper watched a speck of orange and white swept down from the battle. As it got closer he could make out more clearly the shape of some kind of military transport. It flew over the plaza, coming to a halt just outside the huge doorway that lead into the Palace. From the building a group of white-clad soldiers hurried out, two of the men carrying glittering white and yellow objects in their arms. As they scrambled into their ship another soldier came flying out of the building, landing sprawled by the transport.
He could tell she was a gem; beneath scraps of white armour her skin was blue, and rainbow curls flowed from her head. She staggered to her feet, glancing back as she scrambled into the waiting ship.
Dipper pressed against the transparisteel of the cockpit, watching as the unfolding scene grew more and more distant. As he did a blur of orange raced from the Palace door. Gunfire from within the transport ripped towards it. Several shots hit home, their target exploding in a puff of smoke. Another gem, or something else - it was too far away to tell by now beyond its red colour, hurried out to where the orange creature had fallen and then darted back into the palace.
"Did you see that?"
Dipper jumped. Star was peering over his shoulder, watching the white ship take off.
"Yeah," he nodded, "Who d'you think that was?"
"No idea," she shrugged. "Maybe it has something to do with them?" She pointed to the left of the Palace, where a red, teardrop-shaped ship was taking off from a launch pad. What might have been the same red gem ran out to meet it, just before it lifted into the air.
"Attention all boats," the voice of DN_Warpath crackled through the radio, "We have confirmation that the ground assault has ended; all troops have been withdrawn. The Demiurg are preparing to fire the Crest Gun as we speak."
A chorus of concern from the other ships echoed out of the radio. The crew all looked out to the left. They were above the Moradin now, the massive concrete vessel slipping behind along with the planet and all the warships around it. The gun barrel that jutted from the bow of the ship was now wreathed in holographic light, forming what looked like a ring of blades around the muzzle.
With a rattle, the Echo Creek's thrusters switched to ion as they cleared the last of the atmosphere. An orange glow burned around the front of the ship, slowly fading as they pulled further away from the planet.
"Alright people!" Vel's voice declared. "Kill your engines; it's jump time. Just give us a sec to slave your hyperdrives." The convoy slowed to a halt, high above the blockade.
"Do what to the drive?" Mabel leaned over the control console, speaking directly into the radio microphone.
"Take it over remotely," Warpath explained, "So we all go to the same place."
"Aren't we supposed to be meeting somebody?" Marco asked, nowhere near the microphone.
"Yeah," Dipper replied, "They said-"
A static screech ripped from the radio, cutting him off. The hull creaked and groaned in protest, the entire ship rocking back and forth enough that everyone had to grab on to the walls. The onboard lights flickered.
Off the Echo Creek's port side a Demiurg cruiser had dropped out of hyperspace, mere yards from the convoy. It was larger than the entire group of cargo boats, stretching away from the planet for more than a mile. Across the side and upper surface of the concrete behemoth gun turrets started up, lazily swinging to aim at the convoy.
"We need to move," Pacifica observed. Wendy's hand stole to the throttle, ready to break and run.
A deafening boom shook the vessel again. Across the surface of the Demiurg ship a semicircle of translucent blue light spread, moving in layers that left a lingering cobalt glow in the lines on the concrete hull. All the lights it touched winked out, and the gun turrets fell dead in its wake. Arcs of lightning crackled and sparked across the darkened patch where the light had been as the last of the blue light faded.
A hemisphere of unlit darkness covered the side of the cruiser; any weaponry that could have targeted the convoy was dead and sparking, all sensors transmitting static.
In the space between the cruiser and the convoy, at the centre point of the semicircle, another ship flickered into existence. As whatever cloaking device it had been using deactivated, lines of neon blue and pink illuminated across its jet black hull. The thing was over four-hundred yards long, with weapons aimed at the cruiser.
In place of guns, the ship's main dorsal turrets held what looked like pillars, coloured a pale purple with angular lines carved into them that still glowed pale blue. On the side of the vessel an emblem lit up: a pink star, flanked by jagged wings of pink lightning, within two concentric blue rings. Beneath it was a name: Usenet.
"Take that you clods!" a new voice took over the radio. "Feel the force of my electromagnetic wrath!"
"Robonerd?" Warpath butted in. "You are aware they can't hear you, right?"
"Only because my great idea to use the pillars from the Communication Hub to focus weaponised electromagnetic radiation killed all their communications!" 'Robonerd' shot back. "I saved the convoy!"
"As much as I hate to admit it, she did," Vel joined the conversation. "It was her idea, Paige." Warpath huffed.
"Can we just get moving?" she asked.
"Not until I've finished recording the effects," Robonerd declared.
"Ugh, we already know how an EMP works," Warpath rebutted, before going silent for a second as an idea came to her. "Hey, you know Steven's going to be at Maker when we get back, right?"
"He is?" Robonerd blurted. "Why did you not tell me?! We must depart at once! I have got to tell him about this!" Vel sniggered.
"Alright people," she announced, "We've got all your drives linked. See you at Maker!"
With a flash every freighter, Echo Creek included, boosted to faster-than-light speeds, racing into the void beyond the dimension. Maker Field lay ahead.
Chapter 5: Antisocial Behaviour
The Butterfly royal palace stank of smoke and blood. The metallic tang filled the air, wafting from the blood-splattered everything of the royal chambers. They had barely begun to move the bodies out of here; the charred remains of the highest Royal Guard officers were still shoved against the walls beside where they had made their last stand, stripped of anything that could be sold or melted down.
Jet didn't look at them. They deserved this; they'd been the oppressors. They had doomed themselves to die when they had stood against the tide of revolution, the revolution the Vox Populi had encouraged, the revolution that he had lead.
But that was all over now. He strode to the nearest window, staring out at the shattered courtyard of the castle. There were no bodies; the fallen dictators were all in their mass grave and just beyond the wall funeral pyres blazed for the revolutionaries lost. The people in the court were all dressed in red, a mix of peasants, monsters, aliens, and human offworlders, all huddling around low-burning fires. They were playing music, the sound of bagpipes and improvised instruments echoing around the yard.
"Hey," a voice directly behind him said. He spun, reflexively reaching for the two hook-swords that dangled from his belt before it registered that what he'd heard was a greeting. He let his hands fall to his sides.
Before him stood a fighter he recognised: a teen a couple of years younger than him. The boy's hair was even darker than his own, with a seemingly natural blue tinge, and was growing out awkwardly after having being cropped short.
He had been part of a rebel cell in a distant dimension, not so different from Jet’s start. Except that cell had been put to the sword by the government they'd been fighting: jumped by two warships in the void of space while trying to group up with other insurgents, scattering them and leaving the only known survivor as a causeless renegade until the Vox rolled through. If any of the others had made it, he hadn't heard from them.
It was too bad the Citadel Council had decided to sponsor all subsequent rebellion in that universe; they considered the Vox a terrorist threat, effectively freezing them out of that battle.
"Ezra," Jet relaxed, smirking confidently at the other insurgent. "What's up? Don't feel like celebrating?"
"Something's come up," Ezra Bridger said quickly. "I need you to come back to the Throne Room with me."
"Alright," Jet strode over, following as Ezra turned and lead him back to the castle's main room. It was in an equally bad state, but with anarchist graffiti instead of blood splatters; this room had been the first part of the castle to be cleared. The thrones had long been toppled and burned publicly, leaving an empty platform above the rest of the room that another rebel had commandeered.
He was one of the locals, and a hero at that despite having probably never fought: the so-called 'voice of the revolution'. A mop of ginger hair flopped down to cover one of his eyes and a mangy goatee jutted from his chin, surrounded by stubble. He had taken one of the late king's jackets and dyed it red, epaulettes and all, hanging it from his shoulders like a cloak.
"You're back," the man waved a hand at Jet, going back to fumbling with a guitar-lute combo he had connected to several speakers set up on the platform.
"What's the situation?" Jet demanded.
"Take a look," Ezra said, pointing to the bottom of the stairs before them. There stood a mountain of looted furniture; blood-splattered tables and desks were stacked with urns and vases of gold. On the side of the heap facing the trio was a torn and stained painting in a golden frame, depicting the king and queen of the Butterfly Kingdom standing beside a young girl who could only have been their daughter.
Jet's smirk faded. He had been there when the queen fell, after she had sprouted wings and grown extra limbs and started flinging spells at the rebels that carved their ranks to shreds. He had seen her fall, after one too many direct hits from howitzers and rocket launchers, and be gunned down in a final blast of blue magic. The king had been amongst the last standing Royal Guard, when the Vox troops had flooded the last room of the royal chambers with flammable gas then pumped white phosphorous rounds through the door until the screaming stopped. But they had seen no princess
"You didn't say they had a kid," he deadpanned. "Ruberiot."
"I thought you knew," Ruberiot defended. "I thought you'd done some research. I was in line to write her princess song-"
"What song?" Ezra butted in.
"Mewnian tradition," the songstrel replied, "Just an excuse for hack musicians to write pretty lies about their dainty little princesses. Guess I got lucky mine decided to run for the hills."
"The princess ran away?" Jet demanded. "Where? Is there anywhere outside Mewni she could go?"
"Earth's huge," Ruberiot shrugged, "And she could easily have reached there; she was staying there at the time."
"She can't be in any of the Mewnian kingdoms at least," Ezra affirmed, "Or we'd have found them when we tore them down. Same for the High Commission buildings and that temple where we found the wand and the book."
"I still need to see those," Jet remarked. "Anyway-"
"Maybe she left the dimension entirely," another voice spoke. Jet turned, and felt a chill run down his spine.
On the stairs stood a figure who at full height was almost exactly four feet tall. Her skin was red, ideal for the Vox Populi, while her hair was a cube of crimson frizz. Her belly button was absent, replaced by a red, circular-cut gemstone that was half-hidden by her clasping her hands innocently in front of her.
Jet didn't want to admit it, but the Gem scared him more than she had any right to. He had seen her carve up much larger foes with the hand-axe she summoned, giggling with glee as her grin widened with each blow. That wasn't the thrill that came from battle, the righteousness that arose knowing you were helping to free the oppressed, that was just a joy sourced from the pain she was causing, and somehow that shook his core.
"Ruby's right," Ruberiot huffed, "She could be anywhere. The Earth Splinter Cell have been here before us for certain, and there's no telling if anyone else passed through. It's a long search ahead of us."
"If we choose to pursue," Ezra spoke up.
"We've gotta," Navy argued. "We can't just leave this unfinished. What would the populace think if they found out?"
There was a creak and a shudder in the Echo Creek's hull. Wendy shifted; feeling the wall rattle behind her did not make her feel particularly comfortable about leaning on it. Instead she stood up, rocking onto the balls of her feet and back.
She let out an almost inaudible sigh, blowing a loose strand of ginger hair away from her face. Despite her best efforts the same train of thought was still rattling through her head, making it impossible to focus on anything else during the flight to Maker. It just felt so stupid; this shouldn't have even been an issue, yet it had prompted her to make the leap and sign on for something as crazy as an interdimensional expedition.
She swung a leg loosely, letting out a long breath. Why did things have to be so complex? And more importantly why was the only person she could expect to understand her predicament also the only person who she absolutely couldn't tell about it?
Her foot connected with something, sending the object skittering across the floor. It came to a stop beneath an unoccupied bunk a few feet away. Wendy rolled her eyes and stepped over, bending down to pick up the item. Only then did she realise she had no idea what she was looking at.
It was about the size of a soda can, with a clear plastic midsection sandwiched between white plastic ends. A black cap sealed off each end of the can. The end sections had been moulded with multiple brackets extending, in order to hold a black hoop of plastic around the end. Through the clear section a swirling mess of colours, like spilt oil, shone in the artificial light.
Her first thought was that it was either Mabel's or Star's, given the rainbow colours, but that went out of the window the moment she felt the end caps. Something had been moulded into the black plastic: a raised, irregular shape. Wendy turned the can around to get a good look, and did a double take.
A depiction of a bag of ice was pressed into the plastic from behind, forming a raised impression of the symbol, her symbol. She raised the can up to the light, scouring its surfaces for any more clues. The only thing she could find was on the other cap; instead of her zodiac sign, the plastic was moulded to bear a feather sticking out of a small pot: a quill, she reasoned.
This had to be some kind of a joke. Maybe one of the twins had planned this as a gift for her? But then why was it just lying on the floor? She tried to think of other possibilities, but none were forthcoming.
She glanced down. Dipper was standing beside her, looking up at her with a confused expression. She felt an unwelcome warmth growing in her face, and quickly returned to looking at the can.
"I'm trying to work out what this is," she confided, holding it out for him to see, "Any ideas?"
"Uhh," he looked over the item, noticing the moulded impression on the cap, "No idea. It's got your zodiac sign on it though."
"I noticed," she shrugged. "I would've guessed it was one of your sister's craft supplies otherwise."
"You'd know if it was Mabel's," he explained, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly, "All her stuff's far more colourful. Maybe McGucket left it on the ship for you." Of course; McGucket had rebuilt their ship, and had been present for the zodiac attempt. A piece of weird apparent technology left in the vehicle was almost certainly his.
"I feel kinda dumb for not thinking of that," she admitted.
"You're pretty smart from that I've seen," Dipper countered, "You almost always know what to do, like during Weirdmaggeddon, with Gideon, or when we were in the bunker, and the shapeshifter became you, and I asked you for a sign…" He was cut off by an unexpected sigh from his companion. He looked up, only to see that her gaze hand wandered to the opposite wall, and her green eyes were distant. Something had dragged her attention away from the present. "Wendy?"
"Wha- oh, sorry dude," she looked back at him, something he couldn't quite read present in her expression.
"Wendy, are you okay?" he asked. "You kinda zoned out for a second there." She let out a deep sigh, shoulders drooping slightly.
"I'm fine," she assured him, "I've just been thinking a lot lately."
"About what?" he pressed.
"I keep thinking I made a stupid mistake," she admitted, "I did what I thought was the sensible thing, but then I look back and it feels like the wrong choice, like I missed an opportunity."
"What did you do?" he asked slowly.
"It's complicated," she shook her head. "Don't worry about it, I'll get over it eventually."
"You sure?" he asked.
"Yeah, dude," she sighed again, "I just need some time." Dipper was sure he heard her add a 'hopefully' under her breath.
There was a rattle as the Echo Creek dropped into realspace, the swirling void around the ship brightening to a blinding white that formed into the millions of pinpricks of starlight that dotted the black of space. They had arrived in the vicinity of a pale turquoise gas giant, lit by the faltering light of a pale star, and they were far from alone.
Ahead a space station sat in high orbit, surrounded by a cloud of small ships. It was an irregular design; a group of aging cargo barges and other derelict capital ships had been gutted and welded together, attached along the port side and aft of a central vessel. The centrepiece was trapezoidal, with its bow long sheared free to make way for rows of hangars.
To its exposed starboard side a familiar vessel was docked; the Usenet had already made the journey from Lattice, and had parked up. Despite being as long a cruise liner, it was again dwarfed by its neighbours; compared to the size of Maker it was nothing.
"Hey, you made it!" the voice of Vel suddenly burst from the still-tuned radio. "Paige! Another one's arrived!"
"I noticed," Warpath replied dryly. "Echo Creek, please head for the furthest left hangar, central row. It has been reserved for us and the Collective only. Maker Field Tower has cleared you for approach."
"Sure thing," Wendy shifted the controls, guiding them in as gently as she could. The ship skimmed easily into the hangar, past several of the other vessels from Lattice parked in specially marked bays on the deck.
The only available bay to land in was between two unfamiliar ships. To the right sat a sleek, seventy-foot craft built out of what looked like plastic, inset with large windows. It was mostly coloured white, with some red around the cockpit and engines, and stamped with the logo of 'SFIT', whatever that meant.
On the left side of the bay sat a ship three times as long, shaped like a disk and supported on three legs. It was made of some kind of stone or concrete, roughened with age and pock-marked with the scars of distant battles. On what was presumably the front, although the lack of any windows made it hard to be sure, four pink cannons had been mounted, barrels expertly carved into the shapes of flowers.
There was an awkward clunk and grinding sound as Wendy put the ship down, scraping the deck with the landing gear. She winced at the sound and released the controls; the ship stayed put, rocking slightly as she killed the engines.
"My bad," she excused quickly, hitting the rear door release. There was a rush of air as the pressure equalised, then silence. She stood up.
Outside it was a hive of activity; Gems, Humans, and other beings hurried back and forth, carrying crates brought from Lattice to and from a central pile of goods. 'Starbird' had taken up position beside it, her Gem companion from Lattice nowhere to be seen.
"We should probably take our stuff over there," Marco observed.
"What gave it away?"
He turned, the others following suit. The person who had spoken was standing beside them, her face set in irritation. She folded her arms, rolling her eyes with a huff as if just being there was an unwanted distraction.
She was a short, sullen girl in her late teens, with heavy bags under her eyes. Coppery hair fell down past her shoulders, held back somewhat by a black headband bearing a four-leaf clover. She wore a crumpled hoodie, striped with green and purple.
"Uhh, 'cause all the other cargo goes there?" Star replied.
"You weren't supposed to answer that," the girl said flatly. "To be honest, it's kinda good to have a group actually understand what we want you guys to do." She gritted her teeth.
"You're with the Deckers?" Marco asked.
"We don't all wear black and neon," the girl shot back, "Just look at the Spectres. Anyway, my database name's Clover, though you can just cut that crap and call me Vivian if you want. I'm supposed to be helping direct the arrivals from Homeworld, but Sabine just wants to stand by the crates and Ruby's off doing something with her old squadmates so it's just me. If you've ever worked in retail it's basically that, but with space rocks."
"Ah," Wendy nodded.
"So, just dump your stuff over there, and you're free to go," Vivian shrugged.
"Okay!" Star beamed, pulling an object from her belt.
"Star, I'm not sure that's a-" Marco was cut off by a blast of magic from the object. A flash of technicolour light erupted from inside the ship, followed by another above the pile of cargo. All four stamped steel crates appeared above the pile, falling with a deafening crash. The Decker agent besides the pile jumped, looking around in bewilderment.
"See," Star sheathed her wand, "Now we don't have to carry anything."
"You have magic?!" Mabel's eyes went wide.
"Of course," Star beamed, her hair bouncing from her back as her wings fluttered with pride. "How could I be a magical princess without magic?
"Okay," Vivian stepped back slowly. "I've probably got to go show another group what 'put it over there' means. So unless you have any more dumb questions I'm off."
"One thing?" Dipper asked quickly, glancing back at the others. Star had them all occupied with stories of Mewni; she probably would have had him engrossed as well, had he not been preoccupied."
"Sure," Vivian replied.
"What's an uncorrupter?" he asked.
"It's a machine used to heal corrupted AI," she replied. "We have a lot of AIs on-side here, almost all of them sentient, and if you'd seen the state some of them came to us in you'd know why we need that technology. Most of the time it's a software, but with Gems it gets complicated."
"Gems are AI?" he looked at her in disbelief.
"Yup," she shrugged, "Fully artificial; that stone's a computer and the body's just hard-light. They do have souls; pretty much any AI that gets intelligent enough spontaneously generates one."
"I knew that part," he protested.
"Yeah right," she rolled her eyes. "Anyway, Gems have more code than most supercomputers, all in languages we barely get, and you can't just plug one in to a mainframe. So we've had to develop new tech to deal with them. It's still early days yet: we're only six months in and we've only processed a couple dozen so far, mainly because it takes about a week a pop and we've only got one machine."
"How many are there left?" he questioned, trying to work out under what context two-dozen corrupted Gems would be a small amount.
"Maybe a million," she shrugged again, "We don't really know. They were all part of a rebellion against Homeworld, the one that spawned Lattice amongst other things, but the Diamonds used some kind of orbital superweapon to corrupt all those on Earth.
"When we came to that version of Earth there was only a handful left; they had just drafted in five more, Ruby's old squad, but two of them had turned traitor over some past incident and stolen the only spaceship plus one of the corrupted Gems. Never saw any of them again: not much we could do there.
"But we did get them a new ship," she nodded towards the concrete UFO that rested beside the Echo Creek, "And put them in touch with allies they didn't know they had; rebel sympathisers on Homeworld."
"Lattice," he said.
"Yup; the home of all Off-Colour Gems," she nodded. "They and the Earth rebels together is what formed the Crystal Gem Collective."
"Crystal?" he asked. "Aren't all gems crystals?"
"It's the name of the Sol System in their 'verse," she explained.
"Oh," he said, "Thanks."
"Dip, ya coming?!" the voice of Mabel forced him to turn away. She was waving him over to the others, who were already halfway to the hangar exit. He hurried over to join them.
They moved quickly through the exit and out into Maker proper. It was a strange place; the inside of the once-cargo ship had been rebuilt as a sort of shopping mall, with shops opening onto balconies and gantries around a central open space four stories high. All around a multitude of vendors cried their wares, while traders and smugglers of a hundred different races ambled between them.
For the first time, the sheer openness of what lay before them seemed to settle in. Dipper let out an involuntary sigh, glancing over the teeming masses. What now?
"I say we split up," Star said suddenly, "Not all of us have to go looking for cargo."
"I'll go," Wendy offered, "You're welcome to come if you guys want."
"I'll come," Pacifica spoke up. "I… know a lot about money."
"Aww," Mabel looked slightly deflated, "I wanted you to come exploring with me." She paused for a moment, before suddenly speaking again, more rapidly. "I mean, it's up to you. I don't wanna make you feel like you have to or anything-"
"I'll go exploring with you," Star declared. "C'mon, it'll be fun!"
"Sure," Mabel grinned, "Let's go."
"Alright," Marco turned to Wendy, "How long are you gonna be? We need to work out when we're meeting back up."
"It shouldn't take more than an hour," the redhead offered, "That enough for you guys?"
"Sure," Mabel said quickly. "Back here in an hour. Got it." She started walking away, Star at her side.
"Yup," Wendy agreed, turning to leave in another direction, "See you dudes then." Both groups set off, quickly leaving just Dipper and Marco by the door to the hangar.
"So," Dipper spoke after a moment, "Guess it's just us."
"Yeah," Marco sighed awkwardly. "Wanna go look around?"
Wendy paused, glancing across the storefront. From afar, the ground floor retailer had looked promising; up close it was a different story. This particular wholesale store had been shuttered, barred, and abandoned, waiting for somebody new to sweep in and buy the lot it occupied. It seemed, for all its shops, Maker struggled to cater for those needing bulk cargo.
With a sigh of irritation she sat down on the nearest bench: a plain, bare metal thing warped slightly from years of use. Pacifica perched beside her, glancing around the entire of the ground floor just in case there was another store they could try. She didn't see one.
Her stomach rumbled loudly. Wendy paused, turning to look at her questioningly.
"Hungry?" the redhead asked. "Didn't you grab some rations on the way here like the others?"
"I'm fine," Pacifica assured her. The rumble came again, louder, as if her stomach was protesting her words.
"Pacifica," Wendy looked straight at her.
"Alright," Pacifica relented, "I am kinda hungry. But it's fine; I'm used to it. I don't normally eat breakfast anyway." She noticed Wendy's fists clench.
"Don't say that," Wendy's voice was calm, but her expression betrayed concern. "If you actually aren't hungry then sure, don't eat loads, but you shouldn't be starving yourself."
"I'm not trying to starve myself," Pacifica said quietly, "It's just that, back home, my mom was always going on; 'if you eat until you're full then you start to fill out, and then what will people think of you, dear?' I know she was exaggerating but I still feel guilty every time I sit down to eat. 'If you aren't perfect, no decent boy will want anything to do with you' - that was her mantra."
"Look," Wendy placed a hand on her shoulder, "There's plenty of great guys out there, and if any of them actually 'decent' then they'll like you for who you are, not because your parents are rich or you've dyed your hair or you don't eat enough."
"I guess," Pacifica shrugged. "I mean, you're right, I just… I don't like boys."
There was a pregnant pause. She shuddered, trying to ignore the rising memories of the last time she had said that to anybody, a mere handful of days ago. She could still vividly picture the furious yelling of her mother, her father's stern face as he readied a cane, and her afterwards, sobbing alone in an empty bedroom, realising she couldn't stay in that house anymore.
"Oh," Wendy spoke slowly, "Well, all that stuff I said doesn't just apply to guys. There's loads of girls out there as well. And you don't have to be with anybody at all if you don't want to; some people just aren't into that stuff at all."
"I'm not sure if I am," Pacifica admitted. "I've known a few girls who I've wanted to be more than friends with, but I've never felt physical attraction the way others describe it. I just, I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Pacifica," Wendy turned to look her in the eyes, "Listen to me, there's nothing wrong with you. Doesn't matter what your parents say, or anyone else; what you're feeling is completely normal. And the others will say the same."
"I know," Wendy forced a smile. "We're all here for you."
"Thanks," Pacifica wiped her eyes with a sleeve. "You aren't going to tell them all that stuff, right?"
"Only if you really want me to," Wendy reassured her, "Otherwise, it's between you and me."
A miniature blast of magical energy burst into existence behind the head of a particularly grouchy merchant. He jumped, glancing all around in search of the source. He didn't find it, and with a snarl of irritation thumped the surface of his stall, before returning to work with a mutter about faulty electronics.
Behind another stall several feet away, two girls fell about giggling.
"Did you see his face?!" Star grinned.
"Serves him right," Mabel declared. "That's what you get for snapping at people like that." Her mood soured slightly as she thought of the unpleasant remarks the man had made to passers-by.
"You know it," Star agreed, taking another look to make sure the vendor wasn't paying their location any particular attention. He wasn't. "So, what now?"
"Uhh," Mabel stood up, picking up the bag of craft supplies and miscellaneous stuff that they'd accumulated in the last few shops. A quick reach into her pocket confirmed they had enough credits for another couple of stops, and they still had at least twenty minutes to kill.
She jumped, spinning around to see who had spoken. Her gaze settled on a girl a few inches shorter than her, with blonde hair that hung in a bob above her shoulders so that her face was framed by yellow bangs. She wore a simple blue top and trousers.
“Hi!” Star beamed. The girl smiled back.
“You’re from the Echo Creek, right?” she asked.
“Yup,” Mabel replied. “How'd you know that?”
“I saw you come in,” the girl explained, “You don't normally see ships without adults aboard. I thought it would be a good idea to talk to you.”
“Okay,” the brunette said. “Well, I’m Mabel, and this is Star.”
“Rachel,” the girl replied.
“Nice to meet you,” Star said. “So, what are you doing out here?”
“Waiting for my family,” Rachel shrugged, her tone shifting oddly as if the word was somehow unfamiliar. “We’re part of one of the merchant fleets, so-“
“What's a merchant fleet?” Star interjected.
“A group of large freighters that travel together,” Rachel explained. “People live on them permanently, going from port to port all over Citadel space and even further. Maker used to be one, but they converted it to a space station years ago.”
“So you live in space?” Mabel asked, eyes wide with astonishment.
“Yeah,” Rachel said. “Me and my family joined the fleet almost a year ago. Since then, I've only been able to set foot outside our ship on supply runs.” Her tone turned slightly sour.
“So, you're here for supplies?” Star asked. Rachel nodded.
“You can't grow much on a starship. Our hydroponics aren't great, so unless we want to starve we have to rely on outside suppliers.” She frowned again.
“So where are you heading next?” Mabel changed the subject, noticing Rachel’s expression.
“Omega,” the blonde explained, “And then on towards Charon. Most of the cargo out of here goes that way, unless it's headed for one of the local systems or out into the CN Nebula. I wouldn't be surprised if you were going the same way.”
“So we might meet up again?” Star grinned.
“Maybe,” Rachel smiled back.
“Hey, uh, mind if I ask something?” Dipper said slowly, turning to look at his companion. The pair were ambling along one of the higher balconies, trying to while away time until the regroup.
“Sure,” Marco replied, slowing his stride along the metal balcony to allow the younger teen to catch up.
“Are you and Star, uhh, y’know, together?” Dipper flushed, scratching his neck.
“Yeah,” Marco smiled awkwardly, “We’re ‘smooch buddies’, as Star insists on calling us.”
“How'd she come up with that?” Dipper asked.
“She didn't,” Marco admitted. “I did.”
“Oh,” Dipper said, “Okay.”
An awkward silence settled, punctuated only by the sound of shoes against the metal decking. Dipper looked back out over the balcony, watching the larger crowds milling below. He leant over the railing slightly, trying to spot the others amid the lower levels, only to stop at the sound of something crunching beneath his foot.
He looked down; a crumpled piece of paper was trapped beneath his shoe, fluttering slightly in the downdraft from the overhead ventilation. He bent down and snatched it up, unfolding it as he did so.
It was an envelope, coloured slightly off-white and marked with a brown imprint of his sole. Across the front an address was typed in neat, if slightly splotchy letters:
HRH M. Diaz
Echo Creek, NREG
“Uh, Marco?” he said, holding out the envelope. “I think you dropped this.”
“Huh?” Marco stopped, turning to look at the object being offered. He took it gingerly, growing pale as he saw the address. “How?”
“What's up?” Dipper asked uncertainly, worry growing at his friend’s expression.
“This doesn't make any sense,” the older teen flipped the envelope over, examining the back momentarily before ripping it open. “I know who sent this, or at least I think I do, but they shouldn’t know we’re out here.”
“You mean you didn't bring that with you?” Dipper said incredulously.
“No,” Marco replied, pulling free a folded sheet of paper from within the envelope.
“Who’s it from?” Dipper asked.
“The merchandise company I sold my likeness to,” Marco replied. “I'm kinda a celebrity on Mewni, so I let them produce my merchandise and get six-hundred and fifty dollars a month in royalties. The only problem is that they're a Mewnian company.”
“So they shouldn't know you're out here,” Dipper finished.
“Yeah,” Marco agreed, gingerly unfolding the letter. He looked over it quickly, his expression shifting away from fear and towards confusion.
“What does it say?” Dipper asked.
“They aren't from Mewni,” Marco said incredulously.
“It says so right here,” he continued, “Marzipan Merchandising is a multi-dimensional corporation originating from beyond 9876-BetaA-947-GFSV. As such we are aware of your departure from this dimension and have acted accordingly. We have opened an account for you with the Citadel Banking System; from this point forwards your royalties will be paid in Citadel Credits. Should you wish for this to be changed to any of the other Citadel recognised currencies (Galactic Standard Dataries or Xandarian Units), this can be arranged. A card for this account should be enclosed.”
He reached into the envelope, pulling free a rectangular sheet of translucent orange plastic about the same size as a credit card.
“So, we aren't being followed?” Dipper asked slowly.
“I don't think so,” Marco replied, turning the sheet over to continue reading. “Do not be alarmed; we have not informed anyone within 947-GFSV of your location, nor do we intend to. All we ask in exchange is that you transport the other letter enclosed in this envelope to H. Syndulla, a Decker operative, aboard the Usenet.”
He reached into the battered envelope again, this time retrieving another taped-shut folded document, stamped with the number ‘212’.
“So that's where we're going next then?” Dipper asked. “The Decker ship?”
“Looks like it."
Maker Field’s Hangar 21 thrummed with activity. By now the last of the freighters had arrived from Lattice, and the focus had shifted from unloading cargo to loading it up again. Crates from the pile were being carried away rapidly by ship crews, while automated gantry cranes bore cargo purchased in the station to the ships ready to deliver it.
In one corner, two rubies leant against a bulkhead while a third paced back and forth beside them. Nobody seemed to be paying the trio much attention.
“Don't call me that,” the pacing Gem snapped.
“Why?” Leggy asked. “Don’t you like it?”
“Yeah, Do- uh, 8GR, why not?” Army chimed in.
“I’ve explained this,” Ruby Cut-8GR replied. “It doesn’t make sense, okay? I’m not a healer, and that’s where they said it comes from. I don’t even know the ‘dwarves’ Steven mentioned when I asked him.”
“Oh,” Leggy looked down. “Okay. Sorry: I just wanted to ask if you were okay?”
“I’m fine,” 8GR growled, throwing her hands up in annoyance. Her appearance betrayed her words; her frizzy hair was a tangled mess that refused to remain square and was annoyingly obscuring the edges of her visor. The stress lined her face, and even now she was pacing the same stretch of decking she had been since they’d got back.
“What’s got you so worked up, anyway?” Army asked. “This isn’t about the others, is it?”
8GR stopped, struggling to keep her frustrations contained. The metal around her feet was starting to warp under the heat. She wanted to yell. Of course it was about the others! How could she not be stressed when Eyeball and Jasper hadn’t been seen since the fall of Homeworld and Navy had disappeared from Lattice months ago?
But she kept silent. The other two didn’t know yet that 8GR kept in contact with their traitorous squadmates, and she wanted to keep it that way. They were far too likely to end up spilling the beans to the Deckers or the Crystal Gem Collective.
“Now arriving,” the overhead PA system boomed, making all three rubies jump, “Light cargo ship Roaming Eye, carrying passengers only.”
8GR turned towards the hangar opening, eyes glancing over the many freighters awaiting berth. She felt her heart leap; heading for them was a battered red ship, her sides scorched from a bad jump through Hyperspace. It was unmistakably a Roaming Eye dropship, no doubt retrofitted with a hyperdrive.
The vessel touched down, her door opening with a hiss of escaping pressure. From inside stepped a blue Gem with short hair, clad in a blue hooded robe. She lowered the hood, revealing herself to be a lapis lazuli, and stepped aside. She was visibly tense.
The next gem disembarked, and all three rubies’ jaws hung open. Blue Diamond’s pearl stepped into the light, taking a long look around the hangar. Though her hair covered her eyes, the shivers in her form betrayed her fear. Blue Diamond herself was nowhere to be seen.
8GR started walking towards the vessel, waving to her squadmates to follow. They hurried behind her.
As they approached the ship, a third and final Gem stepped onto the exit ramp. She was a ruby, with her gem set where her left eye would’ve otherwise been.
8GR ran towards her, arms outstretched. They collided halfway down the ramp, throwing their arms around each other.
“Stars, I was worried about you,” 8GR admitted as they pulled apart. “You said you had a way out but then the warp system went down and we barely made it out of Lattice. I wasn’t sure if you’d…”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Eyeball smiled confidently.
“Yeah,” 8GR smiled. She extended a hand, feeling herself flush a deeper red.
Eyeball took it, and pulled her close. In an instant the two rubies blurred together, fusing in a flash of light. The fusion felt familiar, comforting. They were together, and that was what mattered.
Suddenly privy to all her partner’s surface thoughts, 8GR watched with interest as the day’s events were replayed in her mind. She saw Eyeball and Jasper make it through the warp system before it was jammed, arriving on a balcony beside the Diamond Palace where the Roaming Eye was parked.
She saw them meet a lapis lazuli; the Lapis Lazuli from the Earth Mission, now calling herself ‘the Ocean’. She saw Eyeball establish a partnership, despite Lapis’ outright refusal to talk to Jasper. She saw the rescue of Blue Diamond, the fight between Jasper and a STAG-aligned bismuth. She saw Jasper fall back into corruption before the STAG dropship poofed her. When the memories finished the fusion stood there, uncertain.
“Blue Diamond’s safe,” she murmered, turning to Army and Leggy, “She’s on the ship!”
She turned around again, casting her gaze inside the ship as the others hurried to join her. Sure enough, Blue Diamond’s gem was in the centre of the craft, frozen in a solid block of ice. Beside it hovered Jasper, contained within a crimson bubble.
Lapis Lazuli watched the rubies step inside, not bothering to stop them. If any of them caused problems, she had enough water around to incapacitate the group, and besides, she had bigger things to be concerned about. She looked across the hanger; at the entrance. A trio of hooded figures were waiting.
Wendy and Pacifica were already waiting by the Echo Creek when the others returned. They stood beside the cockpit, watching as one of the robotic cranes loaded seven large crates onto the ship’s upper surface.
The ship looked small amid the hangar; the bays painted on the floor were maybe forty metres to a side, and the Echo Creek was at most eight from bow to stern. The other ships were a better fit, though the Crystal Gems’ stone saucer was large enough that it stuck out around five metres each side.
The pair both turned at the voice. Mabel and Star were running over, the former carrying a large shopping bag. Behind them, Dipper and Marco were walking across the hangar to join the group. They all came to a halt in front of the ship, looking up at the loaded crates.
“HVM Haulage?” Dipper read off the side of the nearest one.
“Yes,” Pacifica nodded. “They’re a company who hire small ships like us to do cargo runs, so we don’t have to worry about buying and selling.”
“Ok,” Marco said, “So where are we taking it?”
“A station called Omega,” Wendy explained, noticing Mabel’s eyes go wide with excitement. “It’s already in the computer. We can leave whenever you dudes want, unless there’s something else you wanna do.”
“Actually, we need to go the Decker ship,” Marco replied. “I got a letter from a company who I’ve got a deal with, and it said they needed us to give a message to someone called ‘Syndulla’.”
“What kind of deal?” Pacifica asked.
“Merchandising,” he clarified. Wendy cracked a smile.
“You have a merchandising label?” she asked bemusedly. “How’d that happen?”
“Well, uh, back on Mewni I may have incited a revolution,” he said, before quickly adding, “In a school.”
“While dressed as a princess!” Star blurted. “You should’ve seen it; Princess Marco Turdina, the Heroine of Saint Olga’s!”
“Star!” he protested, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
“You mean with a poofy dress?” Mabel grinned. Star nodded. “Do you still have it?!”
“No, I don’t,” Marco said firmly, blushing furiously with embarrassment.
“But there is the entire merchandise line,” Star grinned. “Y’know: Princess Marco dolls, Princess Marco t-shirts, Princess Marco mugs, Princess Marco posters-“
“Can we please stop talking about Princess Marco!” he demanded.
“Fine,” Star rolled her eyes, drawing the word out.
“Thank you,” he huffed, “Now, can we get going?”
“Sure,” Wendy replied, suppressing a smile at his embarassment. “C’mon.”
She set off walking towards the hangar doors. The others fell in behind her, following as she headed across the deck. They headed through into the shopping area, out onto the same mid-tier balcony as before, and came to a halt.
“So,” Pacifica asked, “Where to?”
“That looks like the place,” Dipper offered, pointing across to where the balcony curved to meet the left wall. There, between two of the station’s shops, was a large doorway. The sliding doors and surrounding wall were splashed with paint in neon colours. Above, a large sign read ‘USENET’ in all capitals, while a screen on the wall beside the doors was lit up with green letters that said ‘DOCKED’.
There were murmurs of agreement, and the group set off for the entrance. The doors opened automatically, letting them through and into a wide corridor that was similarly painted. A few screens were fitted in the walls here too, displaying bright advertisements for concerts and drone racing events.
The corridor gave way suddenly to the connecting bridge between Maker Field and the Usenet. It was a long tube lit by soft lights in the floor, with the walls and ceiling made up of transparisteel panes held in a metal frame. The result was a near-unobstructed view of the surrounding space, and the Usenet looming before them.
Up close the ship was even more impressive. Its sleek hull was jet black, save for the angular lines of blue and pink neon inset between the surface plates. The rear was taken up by a lone cylindrical thruster, which extended to take up almost a third of the length of the ship. Turrets sat idle all around, including the massive dorsal and ventral weapons that had fired the EMP at Lattice. The bow was split in half horizontally, with the slit running almost a quarter of the ship’s length.
“Woah,” Dipper breathed, looking up through the ceiling at the massive ship.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Wendy smiled, moving to walk beside him.
“Yeah,” he agreed. There was silence for a moment, before he continued. “Y’know, I’m glad you decided to come along; it’s cool having you with us.”
“Thanks, dude,” she replied quietly, smiling fondly.
They kept walking, approaching the massive ship. The doors at the end of the bridge opened automatically, allowing them to continue inside.
It was nothing like Maker; instead of the industrial grey and exposed systems of the salvaged cargo barges, the interior of the Usenet was all sleek black walls painted over with neon colours. Designs swirled along the walls, glowing under the pale light emitted from bars in the floor and ceiling. Star lagged behind the others as she took it all in.
The corridor gave way to a massive room that had to be in the centre of the ship. It was decorated with massive murals in the same style as whoever had done the previous wall paintings only this time less abstract. They showed what could only have been famous locations; one had a massive statue carved into a cliffside, gazing out to sea, another showed a skyline at sunset beneath a fleet of multicoloured flying turbines, and a third had a rocket launch facility rising in the dawn sunlight. The largest of all showed Maker itself, surrounded by ships in bright colours.
A stage stood at one end, off to the far right of the group. Two vast areas of the opposite wall were covered in massive screens, showing footage of the ship, Maker, and the evacuation of Lattice. A third covered half of the left wall, displaying currency exchange rates and a list of the arrivals and departures at the station. The name of the Echo Creek was visible on the board, between the Heart in the Bay and the Rose Quartz under the heading for Hangar 21.
Members of the Deckers were everywhere; teenagers and young adults in dark hoodies and tops conversed with each other, watched the screens or sat using computers and tablets. Overhead several drones hovered on propellers and repulsorlifts, overseeing the whole room. Crates were liberally scattered across the place, mostly repurposed as seating.
“Wow,” Star muttered, eyes going wide in awe. She spun on the spot, taking in the huge room. “Look at this place!”
“And now, please welcome, DN_Toxic!” a voice boomed from all around, making her and everyone else jump. A spotlight suddenly shone down from overhead, seeking out the stage at the far end. A girl with white hair stepped into it, wearing a blue and pink striped top and carrying a guitar that was probably as tall as she was. A cheer went up from the Deckers sitting around the stage, and three of the drones flew over. One of the wall-screens changed, showing footage from one of them. She looked up and shot a smirk at it.
“Hey, you!” a nearby, familiar voice called. The group turned to see a woman with short dark hair striding over, dressed in a leather jacket and dark trousers with a glowing PDA screen strapped to her left forearm. She was probably older than anyone else there, save for maybe a few in the far corners of the room.
“Uh, hi?” Marco asked cautiously.
“You’re the crew of the Echo Creek, correct?” she demanded.
“That’s us,” Wendy confirmed, stepping to the front of the group.
“DN_Warpath,” the woman introduced, “Leader of the Lattice operation, as you know. Is there an adult with you?”
“Just me,” Wendy shrugged.
“I assume you’re the captain then?” Warpath raised an eyebrow, prompting an uncertain nod from Wendy. “In that case, I’m obliged to thank you for helping with the evacuation. That being said, it wasn’t a smart move to jump into the evac fleet without clearing anything with us first. I’d advise not doing it again.”
“We’re sorry,” Dipper spoke up, “We just didn’t know there was going to be an evacuation.”
“Who told you to come to Lattice?” she demanded.
“A friend called Stevonnie,” he explained. “They got us all together and told us to head there.”
“A vigilante, most likely,” she commented with no small amount of disdain.
“Likely?” Mabel asked. “Are there a bunch of them or something?”
“They’re common enough,” Warpath said frankly. “It’s almost a subculture: people with cheap, long-distance spacecraft or other interdimensional transport, jumping between universes at will out of some foolhardy desire to help people. Most of the Deckers will regale you with how amazing they are, but they tend to forget the risks with that kind of action. So just take care with who you trust.”
“That’s what Osoro said,” said Marco.
“Osoro Shidesu?” she raised an eyebrow. “Owns a freighter called Delinquent?”
“Yeah,” he nodded.
“She’s one of them, at least part time,” her brow furrowed. “If anything, I’d say she’s the one you shouldn’t trust. She’s supposed to be helping us on the Akademi case, but so far she’s done little good. Is she the only one you’ve met?”
“We met a woman who called herself ‘the Ocean’,” Mabel added. “She said she was from Bluecloak, and that she needed to be on Homeworld.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Warpath rebutted. She tapped the PDA on her wrist with her other hand, looking down as she typed something into it. A hologram materialised from the device, showing three women in hoods.
“This is Bluecloak,” she explained. “The one in the front is the Protector; protege to their leader, the Shrike.” She pointed to another of the holographic women.
“The final member is the Stranger; we don’t know much about her. What I can say is this is definitely the entirety of the group, at least as far as the wider community knows. Are you sure this ‘Ocean’ was one of them?”
“Osoro was convinced,” Dipper offered.
“I see,” Warpath scowled. “What did she look like?”
“She had blue skin!” Mabel blurted.
“Unusual,” Warpath conceded. “I’m going to have to go and report this; I’d ask you to come too but I assume you have some other purpose here.”
“We’re looking for someone named ‘Syndulla’,” Marco explained.
“Hera?” she raised an eyebrow, looking over the group again. “I see. I can send you in the right direction.”
She tapped her PDA again without looking down, hand moving on instinct, and then raised her forearm up to speak into the device.
“Deceit, do me a favour and find DN_PhoenixLeader,” she instructed, “There’s a group to see her.”
A hologram faded into existence between her and the group, projected from the PDA. It showed a model of the ship, done as a blue wireframe to reveal its interior. A single purple blip appeared amid it, in the room directly below the main hall. Judging by the diagram, they were right above the split in the bow, and the room they wanted was where the split ended.
“Main hangar,” a vaguely artificial voice chirped from the PDA, sounding more than a little annoyed. “Next time, ‘path, get Vel to do it.” Warpath rolled her eyes.
“Don’t mind her,” she shrugged, “Deceit likes to think she’s above menial tasks sometimes. Anyway, that’s the location.”
“We’re allowed down there, right?” Marco asked. Warpath rolled her eyes again.
“You have the run of the ship,” she explained, “Nothing’s off-limits except other people’s rooms. That’s how we operate.”
“So we can explore?” Star asked, beaming.
“Yes,” Warpath affirmed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and inform the admins about the new Bluecloak.” She turned to leave, heading away from the group. As she did a series of experimental strums came from the stage, mingled with the cheers of the teens watching, and she quickened her pace.
“So,” Marco turned to the others. “I’m going to head down to the hangar. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to; I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of other cool stuff to see on this ship.”
“Okay,” Star beamed. “I’m going to head off and see what I can find.”
“Stay safe,” Wendy reminded her, “And don’t be too long; we’ll probably head back here after we hit the hangar.”
“Sure,” Star agreed. She turned to leave, pausing to lean over and plant a quick kiss on Marco’s cheek. “See ya soon!” He flushed red, furiously rubbing the spot. She walked away, waving back as she did. The others all suppressed a chuckle.
The hangar turned out to be long and chaotic. There were no bays, leaving fighters, drones, and other small ships parked wherever they would fit. A few teens sat around, mostly engrossed in ship maintenance.
The most numerous ships by far were small fighter craft, with two engines sandwiching a main body that looked almost like a sports car. They were clearly made with Gem technology; every one was hard-edged and plated with the same crystalline composite the Gem ships at Lattice had used. Each one was painted differently, often with neon lines scored into the hull.
Towards the far end larger ships blocked the group’s view of the hangar’s exit into space. They were still smaller than most freighters, maybe fifteen metres end-to-end, but against the fighters they looked giant. Each one was customised with the same type of paint and lighting as their smaller counterparts, and carried a trio of gun turrets armed with a variety of cannons.
The group turned, looking away from the aircraft. The voice belonged to a tall, heavy-set boy in his late teens with darker hair and skin. He was leaning against a nearby fighter, tinkering with some component that were dripping oil onto his yellow overalls.
“What brings you to the hangar bay?” he asked, smiling warmly.
“We’re looking for Hera,” Marco explained. “I have a letter for her.”
“One of her contacts, huh?” the boy raised an eyebrow. “Just head towards the ship exit and look for the white Skipper with a phoenix symbol on the hull. Can’t miss it.”
“Skipper?” Dipper asked.
“Oh right, sorry,” the boy looked sheepish. “These fighters are called Star Skippers,” He patted the hull of the one he was leaning against, “They’re Gem technology-based; designed by Lars.”
“Okay,” Dipper replied, turning to head in the direction he’d indicated, “Thanks.”
The group set off, threading between the various spacecraft. A couple of the Deckers looked up as they passed, giving them confused but mostly welcoming glances. Nobody else tried to engage them.
Finally the correct vessel came into view: a Star Skipper coloured white with markings in blue, yellow, and orange. A depiction of a phoenix was painted along its engines, above a name printed in an unfamiliar language. A woman who could only have been Hera was bent over one of the engines, working on something beneath a removed hull panel.
Even from behind they could tell she wasn’t human. Her skin was pale green, and two long tentacles hung down from her head in place of hair. She was engrossed in her work, unaware of the group’s arrival. Marco cleared his throat.
She turned around and looked up, confusion filling her eyes.
“Hey,” Marco greeted, “Uh, we’ve got this note for you.” He held it out for her to see. She relaxed somewhat, a glint of recognition in her eyes.
“I see,” she reached and took it, flipping it open. Her eyes scanned the first few lines, before she closed it again and pocketed it. She looked back up, eyes meeting Marco’s. “Thanks for bringing this.” She hesitated for a moment, before continuing. “Did any of you hear about what happened in Virginia?”
She emphasised the last word oddly, clearly unfamiliar with the name. Considering that she didn’t appear to be human, that was probably to be expected.
“Which Earth?” Dipper asked. She shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, “I just heard one of the freighter crews from Lattice mention it.”
“We were at Lattice,” Marco explained, “But nobody we met mentioned anything about Virginia.”
“You were in the evacuation fleet?”
“Uh, yeah,” he shrugged. She looked surprised for a moment, before looking the group over with suspicion. Her gaze settled on Wendy. Everyone else glanced nervously at her.
“What ship did you come in on?” Hera demanded.
“The Echo Creek,” Wendy replied nonchalantly. “We turned up kinda last-minute, since we didn’t know exactly what was happening, but it all worked out.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Hera said. Taking in the group’s confused expressions, her own softened slightly. “According to Sabine, Echo Creek is a Quadjumper. That’s not a freighter, and it doesn’t support a crew of six.”
There was a moment of silence as what she had said set in. Wendy looked around, gauging the others’ reactions. Pacifica glanced at her for reassurance; Mabel noticed, and gently slipped her hand around Pacifica’s. Dipper looked at Marco in confusion, as if he would somehow know the answer.
“Not a freighter?” Wendy asked slowly. “We knew the crew was too big: Marco’s sleeping across two chairs and I’m on the floor. But I’m pretty sure you can use a Quadjumper for cargo; we’ve got a contract from HVM Haulage to take stuff to Omega, and they asked for ship class before they let us take it.” Hera seemed to pause, looking over the group again, before continuing.
“Quadjumpers are designed as tugs,” she explained. “They’re for hauling bulk cargo crates around in a spacedock. But they can be converted for other work; if a company’s agreed to give you freight then I assume you can carry it.” She paused, thinking for a moment. “You said you were heading to Omega?”
“Yeah,” Marco replied.
“If you’re looking for some extra credits, head up to the auxiliary hall on Deck 3,” she said. “According to Pidge there’s a delivery that needs taking to Omega.”
“What kind?” Dipper asked.
“You’ll have to ask her,” she shrugged. “Anyway, I appreciate you bringing the note, but there’s only so long I can take off work. You don’t mind if I get back to it, do you?”
“It’s fine,” Pacifica said. The others nodded in agreement. Hera nodded back, then turned around to where she had been working on her ship.
“Looks like we know where we’re going next,” Wendy smiled. “C’mon dudes.”
The elevator doors slid open with a hiss, revealing a small atrium area. Star stepped into it briskly, looking all around to see if she could spot any more murals. All that was visible was the typical black walls of the Usenet. The only change was behind her; between the elevator doors she had just stepped out of and another set belonging to the neighboring elevator. There a portion of the wall had been replaced with a screen which was playing live footage from the concert downstairs.
A doorway at one end of the elevator lobby revealed a long corridor stretching away, with doors set at regular intervals. There were no murals. Instead posters covered the walls. They advertised various musicians; she recognised DN_Toxic; others were unfamiliar like ‘Starbomb’, ‘Off the Hook’, and ‘the Improbables’. Lacking anywhere else to go, she headed through the doorway.
All of the doors were closed, but unlike the ones she had encountered so far these ones didn’t slide open at her presence. She approached the first, looking it over for some way to open it. Nothing immediately presented itself.
With a huff she stepped away, continuing down the corridor. The other doors proved similarly stubborn, refusing to open as she passed. After three she gave up trying and just walked past each one, heading towards the end of the corridor. There another doorway stood, pale blue light flowing from behind it.
A sudden whirring sound gave her pause, enough to make her stop walking. She turned to see that one of the doors, the one beside her, slide open to reveal the room beyond.
She paused in awe as it came into view. The room itself was unremarkable, a simple rectangular space of indeterminate purpose, but the murals were back in force. Clearly whoever painted them had claimed this room for practice space: every available surface had been decorated with swirling patterns and designs. To her right a squadron of stylised fighters flew through orange clouds; to her left a group of people, human and alien, were painted standing proudly; above her stars dotted the ceiling, forming a map of space.
The centrepiece was opposite the door. It showed a phoenix rising triumphantly from the rocky surface of a desolate planet. Within it a fleet of starships followed its path, with the Usenet leading from within the animal’s neck. Halfway up, around where the bird’s wings extended outwards, a blockade of dagger-shaped grey warships were trying to stop the exodus. Judging by the multicoloured explosions obscuring half of them and the fact that the Decker fleet continued to rise they weren’t succeeding.
As she looked it over a flash of white and red caught her eye, and she looked down to get a better look. At the bottom left of the phoenix mural another image had been painted, one of several smaller ones that interspersed the larger paintings. The others looked to be names, some readable, some in another language she didn’t recognise. This one stuck out; it was much more complex, with brash colours that clashed with the rest of the decor.
It had evidently begun with a yellow-brown symbol, half of which was still visible. To Star the visible parts had an air of menace, with what looked almost like an animal skull flanked by bladed shapes. Over it white paint had been splashed, forming a diagonal line of bright white over the emblem. On top of that, following the line of the paint, bright red letters had been roughly painted. They were unfamiliar, nothing like the alphabet used on Mewni and Earth.
Confused, Star stepped back again, her gaze returning to the main murals. Satisfied with her examination of the phoenix, she turned to look at the left wall. There an image had been painted showing five larger-than-life portraits, all except one labelled with a name written in the same unfamiliar language as the red writing she had already seen.
On the far left stood the only familiar face: the Decker girl with multicoloured hair from Lattice. Vel and Vivian had given her name as Sabine, so Star guessed that was what the writing beside her translated to. Beside her stood an unnamed boy with blue hair and an orange top, a confident smirk on his face. Sabine’s portrait had an arm over his shoulders, as did the man on his other side. He wore green, and had a short brown beard. His name was painted above his shoulder.
To his left stood a woman with green skin and a pilot’s cap, two green tendrils running down from her head in place of hair. Her name was written beside one of them. To her left stood another non-human, this one a male and the tallest figure of the bunch. He was covered in purple fur, with dark stripes and cat-like eyes. In front of him to one side the final character was a robot, a short cylindrical thing with an orange head and three eyes.
Beneath them, at waist height for the portraits and level with Star’s chest, was the only feature in the room. It was a single shelf set into the wall with several holograms flickering within it. She approached it, bending down to peer at the glowing shapes.
The first hologram appeared to be the basis for the painting above it, showing the same group of five. The second and third were more interesting; both were closeups of the nameless blue-haired boy, seemingly at different times. One had messy hair that hung in a bob, while on the other his hair had been cropped short and several new scars were visible on his face. It seemed his painted image drew mostly from the latter, sharing the short hair.
The final hologram was unlike the others. Instead of a person, the flickering image showed a scene. Two of the dagger-shaped warships from the phoenix mural dominated it, accompanied by a tiny freighter and two fighters almost too small to see. As she watched the two engaged the massive warships, trying to protect the freighter. One fighter managed to get close, unleashing a shot that skimmed between the two warships and hit something out of view. The resulting blast consumed both warships. The fighter was caught up in it, trying desperately to catch both its wingman and the freighter.
Before Star could see if it escaped the blast, the hologram abruptly cut out. In an instant it was back, reset to its original state, and the whole thing began again. Confused, she watched it play again. It cut at the same point, restarting for a second time.
“What are you doing?!”
Star jumped, jolting upright. She turned to the door; Sabine herself was standing there, her face twisted by fury into a scowl. “Well?” she demanded.
“I was just looking,” Star replied sheepishly, “Warpath said we could go anywhere, and I wanted to see the paintings.”
“That doesn’t include people’s rooms,” Sabine shot back. Star froze, looking around the room again.
“I didn’t know it was your room,” she wimpered.
“What did you think it was?”
“A storage room or something, that you used for practice. There’s not much…” She trailed off for a second, hands flapping in the air as she tried to think how to illustrate her point. “Room stuff in here, and the door opened.” Sabine paused, her expression softening as realisation replaced anger.
“You’ve never seen a Usenet bedroom before,” she said, stepping into the room, “Have you?” Star shook her head. Sabine sighed and raised one hand, pressing her palm against the wall beside the shelf. A tone sounded, and before Star’s eyes a bed slid out of the left wall. It was pressed up against the back of the room, obscuring the mysterious painted-over symbol.
“Wow,” Star gasped, before turning back to Sabine. “Sorry, I, uh, didn’t realise.”
“It’s fine,” Sabine replied, stepping past her and further into the small room. “What were you doing in here, anyway?”
“Looking at the paintings,” Star admitted. “I saw the ones downstairs and they were amazing, so I wanted to find more.”
“You like them?” Sabine smiled, sitting down on the bed.
“Yeah!” Star grinned enthusiastically. Sabine patted the bed beside her, and after a moment’s deliberation Star sat down beside her. “They’re all great, but I think my favourite’s that one.” She pointed to the phoenix on the wall. Sabine grinned.
“D’you know what it’s about?” she asked. Star nodded.
“The Deckers breaking a blockade, right? Like you did at Lattice.”
“Sort of,” Sabine explained. “It’s of the Battle of Atollon. At the time we were Phoenix Squadron, one of the biggest rebel cells in that galaxy. But then the Empire found us, and trapped us on the planet. The other cells didn’t come to help, but the Deckers did, and helped us break the blockade.”
“So Phoenix Squadron joined the Deckers?” Star asked.
“Those who survived, yes,” Sabine confirmed, her tone more sober than before. “That’s what it’s really about; us rising from the ashes of Atollon to fight with the Deckers.”
“Oh,” Star looked down. Noticing Sabine’s turn, she rapidly glanced around, looking for some way to change the subject. “What about that one?” she asked, pointing to the portraits on the wall behind them.
“Those are the Spectres,” Sabine turned around to look, fondness glittering in her eyes, “the founders of Phoenix Squadron: my family.” She sighed, before pointing to the robot on the far right. “That’s Chopper, then next to him is Zeb, then Hera, Kanan, and Ezra.” She spoke the last name much more quietly.
Star looked over the smiling faces again, wondering if any of them hadn’t made it at Atollon. Ezra at least seemed a painful memory for Sabine. She wanted to ask, but wasn’t sure how to without further opening old wounds. Finally she settled on something.
“Are they here?” she asked uncertainly. “On the Usenet?”
“Most of them,” Sabine replied, looking away from the portraits. “Ezra isn’t. He’s… missing, and has been since before Atollon.” She looked up again, not at the portraits but at the shelf. “He disappeared at Archeon.”
“What happened?” Star said quietly. Sabine stood up, walking over to the shelf.
“I’ll show you,” she offered by way of an explanation.
“If it’s personal then-”
“It’s fine,” she said quickly, “It’s not a secret. Most of the Usenet knows already.” She pressed the panel she had touched to open the bed. After a moment a tone sounded, and the holograms on the shelf vanished. The animated one reappeared in the centre of the room, much larger. Around it other things appeared: writings, images, and from where the lone fighter was last seen a series of lines out into space. Routes he could have taken, Star realised.
“We were caught off-guard by two Star Destroyers as we left the Archeon Pass,” Sabine said quietly. “He managed get close, and fired a torpedo into the Archeon Nebula. It took out both of them, but we didn’t have time to see if he escaped before we jumped, and he wasn’t there when we reached the rendezvous. Those destroyers survived, but they didn’t report any wreckage or captives; we don’t know what happened.”
“Oh,” Star looked down, “Is that why his name isn’t up there?”
“Yeah,” Sabine looked back at her. “I had everyone sign their own, even Chopper, but since Ezra wasn’t here…” she sighed again, turning away.
“What are they written in?” Star asked quickly, hoping to pull Sabine out of her mood. It seemed to work, because the older girl immediately looked up again.
“Aurebesh,” she explained. “It’s not a language, just an an alphabet that we use back home. I’ll show you.” She pressed the panel again, and the animation vanished. In its place was a holographic diagram, comparing the letters Star knew to the ones Sabine had used.
“So you write in those?” Star asked, looking over the image before glancing at the names under the phoenix mural.
“Yeah,” Sabine smiled, “I could show you, if you wanted.” Star smiled back.
“That sounds fun.”
Just for clarification: in this timeline during Room For Ruby, Steven and the Gems actually did retrieve the rubies, only for Eyeball and Navy to steal Jasper and the Roaming Eye and flee to Lattice. Everything then happened as normal until A Single Pale Rose; after that the Deckers made contact and Bismuth escaped, instead of what happened in canon.
I've also gone back and retconned some stuff in Chapter 3 which was bugging me; the Bismuth flashback, photograph of Ford, and some code names have changed.