Artwork by @Rex Blackbeak For a lark, I've decided to work on a Starbound fanfiction on top of my ongoing novel. I got the idea from seeing the change from racially unique starting stories to getting a shared one. As such, I decided to not only try and envision a mixture of the two, but also put my own spin on Starbound's story altogether. Planet ‘Apex One’, Settlement 78 Some years ago, during my early work as a mechanic, a Human trader told me a quote from one of his people’s great thinkers; “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” The reason he told me this was because in spite of having spent my adult life repairing starships, I hadn’t actually flown before. I’d felt the jackboot of the regime that had oppressed my people for centuries. I’d seen their figurehead’s face everywhere I turned. I’d heard what happened to those who try to dissent. But I’d never tasted flight. And life under the MiniKnog meant I can’t risk walking around with my eyes skyward. As backwater as my hometown may be, the spaceport sees its fair share of traffic from commercial and military flights. I know better than to ask questions about the latter, but it’s usually easy to surmise why they’ve come. And even then, supply shipments and personnel rotation are hardly noteworthy at all. Which is why the unannounced arrival of a high-ranking MiniKnog officer and a group of random soldiers seemed all the more unusual. I remember the woman vividly. She was wearing a meticulously kept uniform, and a scarf that was definitely not in accordance with dress regulations. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and was much taller than I regardless. There was a distinct air of discipline about her, with the scar across her right eye speaking volumes about her hardiness. She was escorted by at least a dozen soldiers and the odd officer, seemingly from different units based on their patches. Whoever they were, it wasn’t my concern. At least, if I wanted to live. There were the usual security checks, biosecurity examinations and payment arrangements to go through with the spaceport authorities, all while I waited at my assigned post. It gave me more than enough time to flick through my semi-censored copy of Routine Aeronautical Repair Procedures for Dummies to look busy. But the second she was done, the woman waved me over. “You, engineer. What’s your name?” Upon reaching her, I snapped to a salute. Military types love that sort of thing. “Vikton, ma’am. What can I do for you?” “Nothing major. Fill up the tank, fix the flickering light in the hold and clean the sticky buttons in the cockpit. My pilot will show you the ones.” Not the kind of work I’d spent years studying for, but I couldn’t complain. “Not a problem, ma’am. Charged to the MiniKnog?” “Correct,” the woman replied. “File it under Lieutenant Lana Blake, 117th Disciplinary Platoon.” I jotted down the name on my datapad. That explained the mishmash of soldiers, being all reassigned troublemakers. “As you wish, ma’am. I’ll get right on it” The Lieutenant and her officers cleared out, and I filled up a few containers of Erchius fuel. Given that the soldiers weren’t exactly paragons of our people, I gave them a wide berth as they unloaded their cargo. With the tank filled, I quickly located the flickering light and spoke to the pilot before he went on shore leave. It turned out that the light simply needed a new bulb, and the pilot needed to stop eating Lucky Dip in the cockpit. Cleaning the console wasn’t difficult, but at least it was tedious and time-consuming enough to eat up the rest of the day. Or, at least, I made it look that way. The following day, a Human ship arrived. Protectorate, no less. Outsiders visiting an Apex settlement are rare enough, making it a rather exciting occurrence. Their money and possibly even services are typically welcomed, even though the guards will barely tolerate their presence and won’t hesitate to drag off anyone caught sharing ‘undesirable ideals’ with the locals. But to see a member of the Protectorate arrive, embodying everything the MiniKnog would suppress, must have been like a slap in the face for them. After a significantly longer and somewhat more convoluted series of checks than what the military had to go through, the man approached me. He was at least twice as old as I, wearing an unfamiliar uniform emblazoned with what I quickly deduced to be the Protectorate logo. “Good morning, son. What’s your name?” “Vikton, sir. What do you need?” “Fuel. In fact, I don’t like the way this crate’s been guzzling it lately. Would you mind giving it the once-over? I’ll be leaving in about three days. Possibly sooner, if anything… unexpected happens.” I didn’t want to imagine. But assuming it was a routine efficiency tweak, I figured it would provide enough time. “I’ll see what I can do, sir.” “Please,” the man said, extending a hand. “Call me Declan. Protector Declan Matthews.” I shook his hand, after I’d glanced around for guards. And waited for the cameras’ line-of-site to rotate away. “As you wish, Protector Matthews.” Meeting a member of the Protectorate was interesting enough, but the interior of his ship was much more interesting. Besides stacks of crates up one side of the ship, the rest was a veritable home. Furniture made by the hands of other races, artwork from multiple cultures and even a few screens depicting alien worlds. I filled up the fuel tank while doing my best to ignore it. Appreciation of foreign designs may well constitute thought crime as far as the MiniKnog is concerned. After a few diagnostics, it quickly became clear that fuel efficiency was the least of the Protector’s worries. The hyperdrive had been overworked at some point in the recent past, leaving the fuel system in critical need of several replacement parts. Nothing hard to acquire, but it was going to take at least a couple of days to get them installed. Rather than risk the job going overtime, I glumly resigned myself to a bit of overtime. Such is the life of an engineer. The rest of the afternoon went well, with about two-thirds of the components replaced. The rest, along with the inevitable testing, could wait until the next day. I clocked off later than usual, and cut it a bit too fine beating the curfew getting home. But I was still able to sit down, relax and enjoy a nice Apex fritter that night, confident of a job well done. One thing you need to learn when living under the MiniKnog is what not to think about. My parents learned that the hard way, and I was usually very wary of heading down the same path. But I couldn’t help but look around my apartment and wonder. It was a tiny dwelling, and identical to countless others. There was no furniture there that you wouldn’t find next door, or across the street. And yet, in that spaceship I’d seen furniture and arts the likes of which I’d never see under the MiniKnog. Seeing as they wouldn’t appreciate that line of thought, I struck it from my mind. At least, until it returned the following morning. For breakfast, I had the same food ration and bottled water I’d eaten every day for as long as I could remember. Afterwards, I walked to work at the same time as always. Big Ape stared down at me from his posters, reminding me that he’s watching. A paperboy offered me the latest state-approved newspaper, with a headline about a resistance cell being crushed. A camera tracked my movement. All was as it should be for the MiniKnog, but it was slowly becoming clear that their sense of ‘ideal’ was not universal. Protector Matthews returned that afternoon, though I didn’t originally see him with my upper body still in the ship’s inner-workings. With work progressing so well, I was occupied to the point where I only realized his presence when I heard a conversation slowly getting louder. I stopped what I was doing and strained my ears, just in time to overhear an exchange taking place mere meters away. “Like I said, I’ll pass it on,” Protector Matthews was saying. “What I mean is that I just can’t make any guarantees on what they’ll do. We stand to protect those in need, but we’re more peacekeepers than warriors. Regardless, I’ll make a case for you, and see if I can’t scrounge up some support.” A woman’s voice spoke up. I could have sworn it sounded like Lieutenant Blake. “I appreciate it, Declan. Admittedly, I had my doubts about contacting you, but I’m glad you’ve proved me wrong. When the MiniKnog falls, I’ll be sure commission a statue in your honour.” The shock was almost enough to make me drop my wrench. There was a fairly high-ranking MiniKnog officer collaborating with a Human Protector, and I had knowledge of it. If Blake didn’t kill me for knowing too much, the MiniKnog would interrogate me on the off chance I was involved. And then kill me for knowing too much. Somehow, I had to get away from and make it seem like I was oblivious. The Protector laughed. “Don’t need anything fancy. Just stick it in a nice, quiet park somewhere.” “It’s the least I can do. After all, you had no obligation to come see me.” Meanwhile, I slowly eased myself out of the maintenance access. There were a few crates between them and I, so I hadn’t been spotted yet. At the same time, there was no way of getting out without being spotted. Hiding might be my best bet, if I could just collect my tools and… My fusion cutter slipped from my hands, falling to the deck with a clatter. The conversation behind me stopped, and I soon felt a weapon pressed to the back of my head. “What are you doing here?” Lieutenant Blake demanded. “Replacing some of the fuel line,” I explained meekly, looking over my shoulder. “It’s coming along well. Should be done by th-” “And did you hear what we were talking about?” I gulped. “Well, I was rather busy double-checking the alignment of the-” “Answer me.” Protector Matthews stepped forward, lowering the Lieutenant’s weapon with a light touch on the arm. “Relax, Lana. Wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure we can trust him to keep quiet.” “They have ways of making him talk.” The Lieutenant pointed out. Against my better judgement, I nod in agreement. “Assuming they suspect anything,” the Protector replied, before scratching his chin. “Although, I must admit, I wouldn’t want to leave too much riding on mere hope.” The Lieutenant looked me over. “Fine. Consider yourself drafted, then. You answer to me now, and I won’t tolerate disloyalty.” Not the most appealing idea, but it sure beat getting murdered. “I… I can do that. As long as I…” I trailed off as there was some kind of commotion outside. A soldier burst into the ship, looking around in panic. The only thing stopping me from freaking out was recognizing him as one of the Lieutenant’s. He saluted her on sight. “They’ve found us.” The Lieutenant looked to the Protector. “Damn MiniKnog has eyes everywhere. We’ll hold them off for you.” An outburst of weapon fire from outside added no small amount of gravity to the statement. “Thank you, Lana,” the Protector replied, seating himself at the helm. “Vikton, is the ship ready for take-off?” I stare at the mix of new and old components piled by the access hatch. All things considered, I wasn’t confident. “Maybe. I still need to replace a couple of things, and it won’t be pretty.” “Then get on it right away,” the Lieutenant said, priming her sidearm. “Vikton, do whatever you can to make sure Declan reaches the Protectorate. Our rebellion needs its assistance.” This rebellion business was all news to me, but it didn’t look like I had anywhere else to turn. “Yes, ma’am.” She nodded once. “Thank you both. Good luck.” With that, she dashed out of the ship, shooting as she went. Declan was already working away at the controls, and I felt the ship shudder beneath us. “Alright, let’s get the hell out of here. I can get us out of the atmosphere on the engine’s reserve energy supply, but we need the hyperdrive ready as soon as you can.” I was already furiously reinstalling the remaining components as best I could. Surely, I thought, the ship had lasted this long without replacement parts. One more trip wouldn’t hurt. What was the worst that could happen? An explosion from outside cause the ship to shudder, sending my tools sliding across the floor. “Missiles!” Declan shouted. “How’s the repairs coming?” “I’m working on it!” I scream, scrabbling after the wayward items. With shaking hands, I try prioritizing which parts needed to be replaced in order for the hyperdrive to work. It was being fed fuel by a mishmash of old and new parts by that point, but I did everything I could to make sure it held. The ship was jolted by another, closer explosion. “Vikton!” Declan yelled over his shoulder. “We’re almost out of the atmosphere!” I glance out a porthole, which was the worst thing I could have done. Spread out below us was the vast blue-and-green orb that was my homeworld. It had been host to the only life I’d ever known. My friends. My family. My home. All of which I suddenly realized I’d never see again. And that was assuming I didn’t die in the coming minutes. “Vikton! Snap out of it!” Fighting back tears, I focused back on my work. There was no time for the usual test procedures, but I still did a quick check to make sure the parts were secure. Gulping, I turn towards the cockpit. “It’s ready!” A deep rumble overtook the ship, and our speed increased exponentially. Awed, I stared out the porthole at the stars as they began streaking past us. The rumble peaked, and with a flash the stars were replaced by a stream of light. My homeworld was long gone, and my old life with it. It was at that moment that the fuel hatch exploded, and everything went black. Somewhere “… Protector...” Evidently, I wasn’t dead. If I was, would I have even noticed? Unless the afterlife was particularly dull, I was starting to wake up. I could remember glimpses of what had happened before. A frantic repair job. Yelling in the cockpit. An explosion throwing me to the floor. For a moment there, I thought it had been the end. But from what I could tell, that hadn’t been the case. “…Protector…” Opening my eyes was too much of a struggle, but I slowly regained some level of awareness. I was lying in a fairly comfortable bed by the feel of it, with what I assumed to be an oxygen mask strapped to my face. A machine was gently beeping nearby, and a conversation was taking place not far away. “If he wants to be,” a familiar voice was saying. It didn’t sound quite the same as the one that I’d just been hearing, but I chalked that up to my senses being out of whack. “It’s his decision, and he’s in no hurry to make it.” “Fair enough,” another voice replied, with an unfamiliar accent. “Well, no matter the case, we’ll be… oh, hello. Increased EEG activity. Looks like he’s regaining consciousness.” Some footsteps approached, and the curtain opened. “Vikton?” Declan asked, stepping over to my bedside. “Can you hear me?” I sat up as best I could. A tad painful, but nothing overwhelming. With renewed effort, I managed to open my eyes, though my vision was still fairly blurred. Sure enough, I was in a hospital, and Declan was seemingly in one piece. “Yeah. I… I’m guessing we made it.” “Sure did. We got close enough to our destination that our distress signal was answered quickly. Thought I’d lose you once or twice, but I’m told you’ll recover.” “That’s right,” said a doctor as he stepped into the room. With three eyes and amphibian features, I could only assume it was one of the Hylotl I’d read about in school. “Protector Matthews was able to stabilize you before the rescue ship arrived, and you took to the healing nanites rather well. You owe him your life.” I looked over to him to offer thanks, but he was already waving me off. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. Let’s call it even.” “Sounds alright to me,” I concede. “But what happens now?” “Well, I’ve passed on Lieutenant Blake’s message, but I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me assisting the Apex Rebellion. You, on the other hand, can do whatever you want.” A smile crossed Declan’s face. “You’re free.” Perhaps whatever medications I was on were still dulling my wits, but it took some time for the notion to fully sink in. Freedom. Something the MiniKnog were so opposed to, that a lot of people would be scared to so much as think about it for fear of repurcussions. And yet, here I was, able to do whatever I wanted. But that didn’t leave me with any idea what I was actually going to do. “Where do I even begin, though? I’ve got nothing.” “The way I see it, you’ve got two options,” Declan said, counting off his fingers. “First is that we register you with a refugee organization. They can set you up with accommodation, education and work, at least until you can stand on your own two feet. You’re not going to be the first MiniKnog escapee they’ve dealt with, so they’d be able to guide you every step of the way.” Fairly tempting, as far as offers went. I knew little of Humanity’s way of life, but it would be far better than going back to the MiniKnog. There’d be work out there for an engineer, surely. New hobbies would be open to me, along with the possibility of starting a family. Not an exciting life, necessarily, though still a peaceful one. But that was only the first option. “Or?” Reaching into his pocket, Declan pulled out a pamphlet of some kind, and handed it to me. On the front was a photograph of a group of people in Protectorate uniforms standing side-by-side on a clifftop, overlooking a vast alien world. Each of the civilized races were present, as far as I could tell. Something told me my old textbooks weren’t completely accurate; if the florans were mindless cannibals, why would they be allowed into an organization like the Protectorate? Curious, I opened the pamphlet up, and read the inside page. Do you dream of a future where races cooperate for the greater good? Have you ever wanted to help hardworking folks build a new home on exotic worlds? Perhaps you’re simply driven by the insatiable desire the explore this vast universe we share? If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of the above, the Protector’s life is for you. The Terrene Protectorate has stood proudly for over 500 years, striving for peace, and for unity amongst the many peoples of the universe. We exist to offer aid to the vulnerable and sanctuary to those living in fear. We endeavour to educate, protect and support all those seek our help. We are the Terrene Protectorate, long may we stand. The other pages had details on the application process, along with desired knowledge and experience. Sure enough, there was an engineering branch which roughly matched my qualifications. It was hard not to wonder if I should do it. I could travel the galaxy, experiencing everything it had to offer while helping right wrongs and save lives. All without leaving my profession. The fact that I’d nearly died did put a bit of a dampener on the whole adventure business, but I’d be damned if I hadn’t come out of it for the better. “I’ll think about it,” I replied eventually. “I’d like some time to process everything.” Nodding, Declan petted me on the shoulder. “You do that. Tell you what; you get some rest, and I’ll come back tomorrow so we can talk about it properly. I’ll even bring a pizza.” “A what?” Instead of an answer, I got a smile. “You’ll find out. See you tomorrow.” “Until then.” With a parting nod, he walked out, leaving the doctor to check a readout beside my bed. “Your Protector friend is right, Vikton. Rest is the best thing you can do for now. We’ll run some tests in the coming days, but you’re showing no signs of permanent physical damage.” “Good to know,” I reply. “Nothing mental?” “That remains to be seen. You seem alert, and have some amount of recollection. What’s the last thing you remember?” “The explosion of Declan’s ship,” I answered. “I must have been unconscious for the remainder. Wouldn’t have even noticed arriving here on… Earth, I take it?” “That’s right,” the doctor said. He walked over to the curtains to my right, slowly drawing them back, revealing a large window. “See for yourself.” Planet Earth, Geneva Apex settlements tend to lean towards the austere. Most people live in cheap brick-based apartments and occasional townhouse. Anything more would probably be seen as wasteful by the MiniKnog, which is why only those friendly to their regime receive more lavish accommodations. Having known nothing but their architectural style all my life, I was astonished by the vista before me. The first thing that stood out to me was the greenery. I don’t know if it was there for decoration or actual food production, but about every building I could see had plants being grown on them. And they were huge! Colossal spires of metal and glass, easily dozens of stories high for the bigger ones. In fact, I must have been a few stories up myself, as I couldn’t see the ground from where I lay. Only towers and the occasional craft flying between them. My reverie didn’t last long, with the doctor turning his attention back to me. First, he went through a series of questions and basic tests with me, aimed at determining if my mental state was as stable as my physical. Once he was confident that it was, there was some paperwork to fill out; mostly consenting to treatment, opting into organ donation and deciding what I wanted for dinner. With all the arrangements made, the doctor left me to rest. But not before showing me how to use the television. Every Apex home has a television, which isn’t as good an indication of our society as it would seem. The ‘educational’ broadcasts were anything but, the ‘news’ was unashamed propaganda, and the ‘entertainment’ typically consisted of knitting programs. In fact, there were even rumours that watching for long enough can find you watching a live feed of yourself, which would probably be the most exciting thing on. With the bar set so low, I had no doubt that Humans had something better to offer. So, I hit the ‘on’ button, waited for the screen to lower from the ceiling, and began to watch. The first thing I saw was some kind of news program, with an unseen narrator speaking over footage of a Human in a suit walking down a corridor. “… also slammed the allegations, pointing out that while the cost of geoengineering efforts have consistently run over-budget for five consecutive administrations, their effectiveness have also been exceeding expectations. He argued that the end result more than makes up for the costs…” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to find that Humans had internal disagreements. But the fact that they were able to talk them out was strangely comforting. There were reasonable thoughts on both sides, with each being treated legitimately by the report. I watched the news through to the end, including special segments for finance and sports, despite much of it meaning little to me. Flicking to another channel, I was faced with another well-dressed man, this time sitting behind a brightly-coloured desk of some sort and speaking to the audience directly. “… other member of Bradley’s team tonight is the mind behind the hit docudrama series ‘Going to Ground’, putting the spotlight on the hardships faced by Grounded Avians fleeing the Stargazer regime. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to our feathered friend… let me see if I can get this right… Cuatlac!” There was applause, and the camera cut to an Avian waving to what must have been an off-screen audience. I realized that they were playing some sort of trivia game, as the host began the proceedings by proceeded asking a question about how Glitch reproduce. One of the Human contestants proceeded to imitate a series of robotic pickup lines, descending into exclamations from the intimate act. It was all eliciting a gale of laughter, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was grinning like a lunatic. The Avian proceeded to answer the question more seriously, and the host awarded him some points before explaining the full details about Glitch construction. I watched the show through to the end, learning new facts and laughing at surrounding jokes, before changing the channel again out of curiosity. This time, I was faced with a Human woman standing in a kitchen, talking directly to the camera. “… favourite of mine. Wartweed is an often-overlooked vegetable, what with it being unappealing and actually rather unhealthy when eaten raw. However, proper preparation can make it significantly more palatable, especially when other ingredients are brought in. Pearlpeas are a common choice, but I’ve found that tomatoes also complement its flavour rather well…” As ashamed as I am to admit it, this was the show that really got me hooked. Being so used to food that was bland at best and scarce at worst, I was fascinated to see people putting such emphasis on taste and exoticness. My mouth was watering long before the end, where I was pleasantly surprised to the discover that the entire channel showed nothing but cooking shows. Dinner that night suddenly became far more anticipated, in the hopes of trying the dish I’d chosen. From what the nurse explained, shepherd’s pie was an older recipe, but still unlike anything I’d ever tasted. All it took was one mouthful to realize my life was changing for the better. “I want to do it.” I said to Declan the following day, in between mouthfuls of pizza. That elicited a delighted chuckle, and a playful slap on the shoulder. “That’s good to hear, Vikton. I think you’ll find it’s fulfilling work.” “So I can imagine. But… ah… how dangerous would you say it is?” “It varies,” Declan said. “Depends on where you go and what you do. An engineer like you will probably spend most of their time on a ship or at a colony, which are typically pretty safe. But even if you do go get into a fight, you’ll have the necessary equipment and training.” “Difficult?” Declan rocked his hand in a ‘so-so’ gesture. “It’s not something you learn overnight, that’s for sure. Have some patience and listen to your instructor, and you’ll do fine.” I nodded, and took another bite of the pizza. Apparently the meat was synthetic and the vegetables grown hydroponically, but that did little to undercut the taste. “So, why did you join?” “Me? Oh, I got the idea back in high school, actually.” Declan explained, sitting back. “One of my classmates was a Grounded Avian, and another a self-aware Glitch.” “Sounds like the setup to a joke.” Chuckling, Declan nodded. “It did lead to some… interesting situations. But the whole reason both of them even made it to earth alive was because of the Protectorate. Beside that and all the stories about their exploits, and the places they visit… it’s hard not to want to join, really.” “So, what was your branch?” I asked, taking a sip of the drink that had come with the pizza. It was strangely… fizzy. “Soldier, though I did dabble in first aid a little. Figured I’d focus on exploration, and leave the science and engineering to smarter folks. Like you.” I smiled at the compliment, and it got me thinking. “So, you’d be in need of an engineer, then? “My friend, there’ll always be a place on my crew for you,” Declan promised, reaching out a hand. “I’d be honoured to have you join me.” Grasping the hand, I smiled back at him. It was then that I realized I’d made the right decision. “In that case, let’s do it.” Planet Earth, Protectorate Boot Camp Euro-2, just outside Yverdon-les-Bains The door to the gymnasium burst open, and a man in a red uniform barged into the room. “Alright, you lot! Form a line!” Hastily, I picked up my bags and got into position with the other dozen or so recruits. We’d already changed into our training uniforms, before having the opportunity to mingle somewhat. I’d only been out of hospital a few months, which had mostly been spent sitting in a Protectorate hostel and doing an engineering correspondence course to cover the gaps in my existing education. I did manage to find time for some sightseeing and the odd outing, so I’d met a fair number of people besides Declan. But I had a feeling my fellow trainees would be worth getting to know. Sadly, we didn’t get much of an opportunity. “I am Chief Instructor Gatwick,” the instructor continued, walking along slowly, and looking us over. “You will refer to me as ‘sir’ to my face, and ‘that bastard’ behind my back. That’s right, I don’t give a toss if you like me or not. You are here for basic training, just like every greenhorn before you. I don’t care if you’re a medic or an engineer or a bloody janitor; you will learn to fight, and I will make damn sure I teach you!” Gatwick stopped at the end of the line, and turned to face a particularly nervous-looking Human with light brown skin and black hair. “Name and hometown, recruit.” The man gulped. “Lorenzo Fonda, sir. Reclaimed Palermo.” “Sicily, eh? Bet that was quite a swim.” Gatwick pulled a datapad of some sort out of his pocket, and tapped in the name. “Let’s see… Bachelor of Biochemistry from Rome. Distinction and all, well done. Chemist?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, just because you’ll be spending your time playing with syringes doesn’t mean you get out of basic,” the instructor replied, lowering the device. “I don’t suppose you and the rest of the science faculty got into many rumbles?” Lorenzo shook his head, grimacing slightly. “Not really, sir.” Smiling, Gatwick simply walked onwards. “You’ll pick it up.” And so it continued with each recruit. Declan had warned me that the instructors might be a bit on the rough side, citing a few horror stories from his own training. Hadn’t exactly filled me with confidence, but so far Gatwick didn’t seem so bad. Then again, it wasn’t my turn yet. “Ah, an Avian!” he said to the woman beside me. “Grounded?” The blue-feathered Avian snapped to attention, complete with military salute. It was clearly a familiar gesture for her. “Yes, sir. Kluex was an influential man, but he was not a god.” “Well, I’ll defer to you on the theology, then. Name?” “Illinal, sir.” Gatwick consulted his datapad. “Ah, Stargazer defector. Quite the crisis of faith. Impressive military record, though. Something tells me there’s not a lot we have to teach you.” “It’ll be good to keep my skills, sharp, sir.” “That’s the spirit!” Gatwick declared, before moving on to me. “Now, either you’re an Apex, or you forgot to shave this morning. What’s your name, recruit?” “Vikton, sir.” After taking a few moments to read my records, he hummed to himself. “A recent arrival, I see. Hospitalized upon arrival, but discharged following recovery. Pre-existing engineering experience. Ever been shot at, Vikton?” I could only shake my head. Compared to Illinal, I was a positive amateur. “Only during my escape, sir. But that was only when a fighter came after our ship. We gave them the slip.” “I guessed as much,” Gatwick said, looking me over. “Well, lad, looks to me like we’ve some work ahead of us toughing you up. Think you can meet us halfway?” “Yes, sir.” “Sorry, I’m a little hard of hearing. You’ll have to speak up.” I could guess where he was going, and adopted a more boisterous response. “Sir, yes, sir!” “That’s more like it!” Gatwick exclaimed, clapping me on the shoulder, and moving to the next recruit. “Interested. You’re a Glitch.” “Condescending. You’re not wrong.” Once Gatwick had finished, he lectured us further on what our mandatory physical, combat and first-aid training would entail. Daunting stuff, but it had to be done. At least later on we’d get to focus on other skills vital to our work, such as intercultural communication and use of the matter manipulator. Then, and only then, would we be allowed to specialize further based on our chosen roles. I was looking forward to studying alongside fellow engineers from across the universe, but it was a good year away. Still, we started off fairly simple, with a jogging ‘tour’ of the facility. Hardly a beautiful place, being a military facility for all intents and purposes, but it was still going to be my home for a while. Besides the gymnasium, there were obstacle courses, outdoor training areas, firing ranges, a cafeteria, an infirmary and the all-important barracks. We were soon allowed to settle in there before dinner, providing a much-needed breather from the run. I had very little in the way of personal effects to take with me; mostly the clothes I came in with, along with a few bits and bobs I’d picked up while shopping. I’m not sure if Illinal wanted a lava lamp on the end table between our bunks, but she didn’t complain. “So, your ship got shot up during your escape from the MiniKnog?” the Avian asked as she unpacked her bag. “Did it happen to be a Protectorate vessel?” “It was. Why?” Smiling, she sat down opposite me. I couldn’t help that notice that she had put on a traditional-looking loincloth over her trackpants. An odd style, but it seemed to work for her. “Well, I heard a rumour that a Protector nearly got killed out on a secretive mission, and they only made it out alive because of a civilian engineer they’d encountered by chance. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” “Yes…” I replied, grinning to myself putting the last of my clothes away before sitting down myself. “Believe me, it wasn’t nearly as heroic as it sounds. Especially not when my repairs… backfired.” That elicited a snort. “Still sounds like you did alright to me. I’m guessing you joined the Protectorate to give something back?” “Partly. Seems like an appealing way of life. Visit new worlds, meet new people, that sort of thing. Very different to life under the MiniKnog.” Illinal nodded along. “I’ve heard horror stories. And coming from someone who’s lived under the Stargazers, that’s saying something.” I’d pieced together that the Stargazers were bad news. But if they weren’t as bad as the MiniKnog, did that mean that the Apex were worst off for the civilized races? Humans clearly had it good, as did the Hylotl. Something about that didn’t sit well with me. “So, the Stargazers are on the oppressive side as well, are they?” Looking away, Illinal’s smile disappeared. “Not quite as badly as you Apex have it. But things are better if you believe in Kluex. Then it’s less being cut open as a sacrifice, and more committing ritual suicide by jumping off a tower.” The mental image of an Avian merrily jumping to their death made me wince. “Nasty. Hopefully you’re finding Earth a bit… saner.” “Anywhere’s better than Avos. Earth’s not perfect, but… I like it. Humans have been through a lot, yet they have a lot to show for it.” “Just like us.” I noted. Illinal chuckled. “Just like us.” Besides Illinal, I struck up conversation with a couple of the other recruits before dinner. By then I was starting to feel fairly welcome, which bode well for the rest of my training. The feeling wasn’t particularly helped along by the food, which was a big step back from most of what I’d tried since leaving hospital. Still, I kept telling myself it was better than starving. Or, worse, MiniKnog rations. Once I had my meal tray filled, I left the queue to look for somewhere to sit. There were a few empty spaces near Starbolt, a Glitch who had apparently been apprenticed to a physician some years ago. Not the most outgoing of the cohort, but I decided to try and strike up a conversation. “May I?” I ask, gesturing to the chair. “Indifferent,” he replied. “Go ahead.” Somehow, I imagined it possible to get tired of hearing his sentence’s intent before the actual sentence. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that we were both eating the same steak-and-salad meal, in spite of his robotic nature. Based on what I’d seen on television, it was possible he was programmed to believe that he’s biological. That, or eating was the way Glitch refuelled. “You know, I’ve never met a Glitch,” I began. “If you don’t mind my asking, I’m curious how medicine works amongst your people. Is it more along the lines of a mechanic, or is it something to do with your programming thinking you’re organic?” The Glitch stared at me blankly. Not difficult, considering his robotic features. “Instructive. It depends. Surgery and other invasive measures can be used to repair damage, yes. However, our bodies are also capable of self-repair, though it only activates during the appropriate treatment. For instance, applying salve and a bandage would heal a gash, just as it would for an Apex or a Human.” “Right. So, does this mean you’ve broken your programming, that you’re aware of all this?” “Sentimental. I am self-aware, unlike most. But, in many ways, I am still beholden to the same fundamental programming. My body thinks it is organic, but I know better. It certainly doesn’t stop me from excelling at my profession.” It still struck me as odd to receive medical treatment from a robot raised in a Medieval society. “As long as you don’t start talking leeches and cranial drilling, I’m sure you’ll do fine.” The noise Starbolt made could only be described as an electronic scoff. “Indignant,” he replied. “I have you know, I am well-versed in the latest in medical treatments, be they for biological or mechanical beings.” “Sorry, I meant nothing by it,” I reassured him. “Besides, it turns out my engineering education is quite backwards compared to what Humans have. The Protectorate is probably used to dealing with that sort of thing.” The Glitch shrugged in response. “Laconic. I should hope so.” Clearly, I wasn’t getting anywhere with him, and an awkward silence fell across the table as we focused on eating. Other spaces were taken at the table shortly after, and I struck up a conversation with a couple of the others. By the time we finished up and returned to the barracks, I was in need of a good rest. It was almost enough to make me overlook how uncomfortable the bed was. Rain came during the night, and continued with a drizzle the following morning. I paid little attention, since it was still dark out. Despite an attempt to squeeze in a little more sleep, we were all soon roused by Gatwick rapping a baton against the metal bedframes. Apparently, it was perfect weather for an early-morning run. A course had already been marked out, taking us through the forest bordering the camp. It must have been used for training exercises, based on the presence of makeshift fortifications throughout. Hardly the most untamed wilderness, but still quite unlike anything I’d ever seen. If I hadn’t become out of breath so quickly and fallen very far behind, I might have actually enjoyed it. One leg of what I hoped was the final stretch brought me to a muddy incline. Not overly steep, but the wet conditions made me slow down a little. Lorenzo had gone one step further, and was at a standstill while he judged the slope warily. One of the other recruits jogged past us, and right up the slope without slowing down. “You can do it, Lorenzo.” I said as I passed, taking the slope a slowly but steadily. Nearly lost my footing at one point, but I made it to the top in one piece. The sound of scuffling and a pained yelp indicated that Lorenzo hadn’t. I spun around, and saw the now muddied Human sprawled at the bottom of the slope. “You alright?” I called, scrabbling back down. “No!” he cried, clutching his foot. “My ankle’s… damn it…” Looking around, there were no other recruits in sight. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the end, either. Without time to contemplate, I reached a decision. “Alright, let’s get you out of here. Think you can walk if I support you?” “Yeah… I think so.” Supporting Lorenzo by the shoulder, we managed to make a more successful ascent up the slope. Progress from there was slow, but thankfully we weren’t alone. Footsteps were fast approaching from behind. “What happened?” Illinal asked, slowing down to match pace with me. “Fell down the slope,” Lorenzo explained. “Ankle’s busted.” Illinal stopped, pointing to a nearby stump. “Sit him down, Vikton. I should check the wound.” We stopped a moment, with Illinal crouching to examine his foot. Obviously, her time as a soldier had taught her a thing or two about first aid. “Doesn’t look broken,” Illinal noted. “Probably just a sprain.” “Are you sure?” Lorenzo squeaked. “Yes, but we should still get you to the infirmary sooner rather than later,” Illinal said. As she moved to help get him up, she paused to look over her shoulder. A noise was approaching. “What… is that? It was surprising to learn that robots could pant. Starbolt rounded the corner, somehow out of breath. Presumably, there was some kind of internal conflict between his falsely exhausted body and his better-knowing mind. Regardless, Illinal flagged him down, presumably for the sake of a second opinion. “Sarcastic. Falling behind with us dregs, Illinal?” “This is my second lap. But Lorenzo here’s sprained his ankle. I don’t think it’s serious, but you might want to look over it.” The Glitch nodded, and examined Lorenzo’s foot. “Reassuring. It doesn’t look serious. The infirmary should be able to take care of it.” “Told you.” Illinal said, helping me get Lorenzo back on his feet. “Sorry I ever doubted you.” It would appear that we were the last of the recruits to arrive back at camp. Gatwick was pacing, consulting his clock, while the others sat around in various states of exhaustion. Our arrival was soon pointed out, and Gatwick approached with a couple of other instructors in tow. “What have we here?” Gatwick asked. “Day One, and you’ve already done yourself an injury. What’s the prognosis, Doctor Starbolt?” “Professional. Sprained ankle by the looks of it. Nothing major, as far as I can tell.” “Well, that’s something. Take him to the infirmary.” The instructors approached, and took Lorenzo away across the camp. As they did, Gatwick gestured towards Illinal, Starbolt and I in all our muddy, soaked glory. “Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Protectorate stands for. Between Illinal’s physical prowess, Starbolt’s medical training and Vikton’s… presence, they came together to help someone in need. You will never be the best at everything, but you will always have your fellow Protectors to fall back on. The right people in the right place can make all the difference.” Not a bad way of looking at it, I figured. Even if stopping for Lorenzo had been common decency. The rest of the recruits didn’t seem terribly interested. “Can we have breakfast now?” Sighing, Gatwick rubbed his eyes. “Yes, you may. We’ll meet back here in one hour, when the real training begins! Dismissed!” Planet Earth, Protectorate Boot Camp Euro-2, just outside Yverdon-les-Bains By the time I got to bed on my first night, I could understand why Lorenzo seemed to be having second thoughts. While a good shower had taken care of my muddied fur, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been before. Even as I settled in, I knew full well that I had another day of running, pushups and obstacle courses ahead of me. And that would continue for quite some time. But as the days turned to weeks and months, and we moved onto other aspects of training beyond pure exercise, I realized that I had changed. Every cross-country run had allowed me to get a little further before losing my breath. Each session on the firing range had helped hone my aim ever-so-slightly. Melee training had become more rewarding with every spar. We still had to keep practicing, even as we moved onto other elements of our training, but it was far less intimidating than it had been. In between exercise, first-aid courses, survival practice and culture classes, I kept in contact with Declan as best I could. Things were almost exclusively kept to email, what with him gallivanting around the galaxy. I sent updates on my training, and received exciting tales of adventures in reply. Despite a few hints of exaggeration, they still gave me a good deal of motivation to get through my training. Still, to make up for the physical and mental strain we were often under, we did get the occasional weekend off. Most were spent sightseeing, going out to lunch or popping down to the cinema with the other recruits. But one particular weekend of leave managed to line up with Declan returning to Earth, which we were quick to factor into our plans. We agreed to meet up for lunch on Saturday, but hadn’t decided which eatery we’d try. “I hear Ruven’s Beer Garden has a pretty good menu,” Illinal suggested, as we changed into our ‘civvie’ clothes that morning. “One of the few places around that does Feather Food, apparently. Been meaning to try it out myself.” I chuckled. “Feather Food? Made with actual feathers?” “Feathercrown, actually. Which is… pretty featherlike, now that you mention it.” Didn’t sound particularly appealing, admittedly. “Well, you’re welcome to come with us and try it out, if you like,” I offered. She was, after all, quickly becoming my second-best friend after Declan. “Unless you have anything better to do.” I turned around, and saw Illinal was dressed in a traditional Avian loincloth-and-shirt combo. Not an uncommon look for her people, but still one that made me wonder about their undergarments. “Not really, unless you count hitting the gym and going hiking. May as well come along.” “Great,” I replied, turning to the rest of the room. “Lorenzo? Starbolt? Either of you up for lunch?” “Sorry,” Lorenzo said, packing some clothes into a luggage bag. “I’m flying out to stay with my family overnight. Won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon.” Starbolt was also busy packing. “Insincere. As much as I would like to accompany you, I have other plans. I’ve been invited to give a keynote speech.” “Ooh. At a medical school?” “Rueful. No. A Medieval fair.” With our paperwork cleared, Illinal decided it best we walk into town instead of taking a cab. I couldn’t complain, having plenty of time and being more fit than ever. That, and it was nice to see the scenery. I rather liked how the local building styles had been updated with modern materials, to say nothing of some of the restored heritage buildings. The company made it all the better. “So, where were we meeting Declan?” Illinal asked, once we were in Yverdon-les-Bains proper. “Transit station,” I answered, consulting a public information console. “But he said he’d be getting in at around quarter past ten, so we have just over an hour to kill.” Nodding, Illinal looked around. “Well then… should we grab a coffee while we wait?” “Sounds good. I’m pretty sure there’s a café at the station, actually.” Consulting the digital tourist’s guide, it turned out there was indeed a Hot Shots franchise set up at the station. We set off again, strolling past bustling stores and eateries doing a roaring weekend trade. But as our destination neared, the usual hubbub of conversation and traffic was being interrupted by someone yelling in the plaza we were supposed to walk down. “The evil walk among us! There is a terrible scourge sweeping the planet! Heed my warning, before it's too late!” A man in a purple hoodie was standing on top of a box, holding out flyers to passers-by. Nobody seemed terribly interested, and even I chalked him up as some religious doomsayer. Practically unheard of under the MiniKnog, but I’d seen one or two since arriving on earth. Still, if he wasn’t hurting anyone, I figured I couldn’t complain. That was until he pointed squarely at me, face twisted into a snarl, and I realized that I was part of the ‘scourge’. “There!” the man cried. “Look at this scum, fellow Humans! These are the faces of our doom! The Apex, conditioned to live in a totalitarian nightmare! The Avian, raised under a theocracy of murder and suicide! How long before we’re asked to respect the practice of these so-called ‘traditions’? How long will it be before they ask that we be like them too?!” Illinal and I looked at each other, and reached an unspoken agreement not to comment. This was possibly the first time I’d felt remotely unwelcome on Earth, which was quite disappointing. We passed him by silently, and nobody stepped up to agree with him. But that wasn’t enough. “Give it up, you kook!” Shouted one passer-by. “You are like all the rest!” he shouted to the crowds. “You will not see the truth! On the day of reckoning you will suffer with the rest of the alien lovers!" Thankfully, we were quick to turn a corner, and leave him to his rambling. The station wasn’t far away by that point, standing out as one of the more modern-looking buildings around. There was already a fair amount of weekend traffic, though we still managed to find the café without incident. We got our drinks – a mochaccino with marshmallows for me, and a black coffee for her – and sat down at a table, but Illinal was still irritated. “And here I thought I’d washed my hands with religious bigots,” Illinal muttered bitterly, sipping her coffee. “I’d have kicked the crate out from under him, but it’d just gratify him.” “Probably. Still doesn’t seem like a common occurrence.” Illinal shrugged. “He’s hardly a majority. Makes you wonder who else is like that.” “You get ignorance anywhere, I guess. At least they don’t teach it at school, like back on Apex One.” “Oh?” Illinal raised an eyebrow. “Out of curiosity, what did they say about Avians?” I cast my mind back to school, trying carefully to avoid giving myself PTSD flashbacks. “Oh, the usual stereotypes. Religious fanaticism. Sacrificing people. Aversion to omelettes. That sort of thing.” “I’ll have you know, that’s wildly incorrect,” Illinal said playfully, pointing her spoon at me. “We may be sentient birds, but we have no problem with animal eggs. We just don’t read too far into it.” Smiling, I took a sip of my mochaccino. “Good to know. Most folks would think it typical that we sentient apes like bananas, but that’s just how it is.” “The universe is a strange place. When I defected from the Stargazers, I sheltered at this one Grounded colony on a snowy world. Every evening, I’d walk through this nearby forest, which was completely bioluminescent. To think that nature could give us such light and colour…” She trailed off a moment, staring back at her coffee. “I would never have imagined it, back on Avos.” “Me neither,” I admitted. “Only planets I’ve ever set foot on were Apex One and Earth.” “Well, I was thinking about returning to that colony one day, to repay them for their hospitality. In fact, I’m sure they could use the services of a good engineer, if you’re interested.” The offer was enough to give me pause. By that point in my training, Illinal and I had struck up a rather firm friendship. Even so, her wanting to travel with me wasn’t something I’d expected. Especially not when most of my future plans involved travelling alongside Declan. Then again, the two possibilities didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. “I’d love to, Illinal,” I replied. “In fact, Declan’s offered me a spot on his crew. You could join on as well, and we could help all the Apex and Avian rebels in the galaxy.” Despite a moment of thoughtful silence, I was delighted to see her nod. “You know what? I might just take you both up on that. Someone has to keep the two of you out of trouble.” Sharing a smile, we clinked our mugs together in an informal toast. For the rest of the wait, we moved onto other topics. We laughed at some of the funnier occurrences during training, enthused about the exciting elements, shared tips we’d picked up, and discussed plans for what we’d do once we started specializing. Apparently, she was giving serious thought to focussing further on melee combat, and doing some archery on the side. In all honesty, I’d be happy sticking to assault rifles for what little combat I found myself in. I didn’t see the appeal of letting enemies get close and trying to fend them off with archaic weapons, but I couldn’t judge. She was at the top of the class athletically, and had the physique to prove it. Not that I’d noticed. Much. By the time Declan’s train got in, we’d finished our coffees and found our way to the correct platform. Despite the throngs of tourists, backpackers and families out for the weekend, we were quick to pick Declan out as he stepped onto the platform. In lieu of his usual Protectorate uniform, he was wearing a casual jacket and pair of jeans, along with a broad smile. Before I could so much as greet him, he had gathered me up in a tight bear hug. “Good to see you, Vikton!” he said, as he set me back down, looking me over. “God, look at you. You’ve got muscles now! Looks like boot camp’s paying off.” “I think it is. Frequent exercise, good food, thorough training… I feel like a different man, most days.” Declan nodded in satisfaction, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s great to hear. I’m sure you’ve picked up a lot.” “But what about you?” I asked. “Back from some adventure, I’d bet.” “Oh, nothing special. Mostly just gathering some materials for the Apex Rebellion. Food, metal, flowers, that sort of thing. I’m sure you’d find it all very interesting.” “Indeed. I’m eager to hear how the Rebellion is going.” I turned to Illinal, gesturing towards her. “By the way, I’d like you to meet Illinal. She’s a classmate and good friend of mine.” Declan extended a hand, but she’d instinctively snapped to a salute. He quickly returned it, and only then did they shake hands. “A pleasure to meet you, Protector. Vikton has told me a lot about you.” “Likewise, Illinal,” Declan replied, as we walked down the platform towards the main hall. “You’re the former Stargazer, aren’t you?” “That’s right. Wish I’d jumped ship sooner.” “Well, the important thing is you made the right decision. We’re happy to have you with us.” Declan said. “Now, Vikton and I were going to have lunch somewhere. Will you be accompanying us?” Illinal nodded. “If it’s no trouble. In fact, there’s this place that I’ve heard good things about…” Thankfully, getting to Reuben’s didn’t involve going past the preacher again. The place was already packed, but we managed to get an outdoor table. Aside from a jug of the house special beer to share, Illinal ordered her much-anticipated Feather Food, Declan decided on a meat stew, and I simply couldn’t ignore a sampler platter of local sausages. Once we were settled in, Declan and I set about catching up. For a start, I was delighted to learn that Lieutenant Blake and the Apex Rebellion had survived. They maintained a series of heavily-fortified camps, scattered throughout the universe in the least likely of places. Teleporters and ships kept them all in contact, and able to strike swiftly where the MiniKnog least expected. The regime still held firm control over its core territories, but the more scattered colonies and facilities were fair game. There’d already been a few highly successful raids since I’d left, liberating civilians and seizing advanced technology. I could definitely see myself lending them my aid once I made Protector. But somehow, that was the least of what Declan had been through. On one planet, he found a place where geodes literally grew on trees, and the wind made haunting tunes as it passed through the crystal formations. On another, he saved a kidnapped Floran from a group of bandits, before being rewarded with a village-wide feast. He’d even vacationed at an undersea Hylotl city for a week, learning relaxation techniques by day and gaming at the arcade by night. To him, it was just another stretch spent out in space. But to Illinal and I, it was a series of adventures unlike anything we’d ever dreamed of. “Quite an experience you’ve had,” Illinal observed. “But it’s the Apex Rebellion I find interesting. How did you get involved with them?” Sipping his beer, Declan shrugged. “Long story. Came across one of their camps in my early adventures, took a liking to their cause, and made some solid friendships among them. Been focusing a lot of my efforts with them ever since.” “Ever worked with the Grounded much?” “Haven’t crossed paths with them, unfortunately,” Declan admitted. “Stayed in a few villages, and an airship once. Helped where I could, but I wasn’t being asked to conduct espionage like I was with the Apex. The Grounded seemed more focused on building a new life for themselves.” For a few moments, Illinal was silent. The way she usually spoke of the Grounded, perhaps she assumed they were more militant. That, or she wished they were. “Well, I’m still hoping to repay them for the aid they gave me,” she explained. “Vikton suggested I ask you if you’d need an extra soldier.” Declan didn’t need a lot of time to consider. “From what Vikton’s told me of your experience, Illinal, I’d be honoured to have you accompany us. We should be able to find plenty of time to lend the Grounded a hand.” Smiling, I refilled my glass. “Sounds like a plan. You might need a bigger ship, though.” “Yes, I think it’s time for an upgrade. But even then, space will likely be at a premium.” For a moment, Declan frowned to himself, tapping his fingers against the table. “Now that I think about it, if we’re going to do this, we’ll probably have to set some ground rules.” “Scared you’ll end up with a ship full of scavenged junk?” I asked. “I’ve seen it happen,” Declan said, with a small sigh. “Still, if we’ve finished eating, we should probably find somewhere a little quieter. What time do you two have to be back at base?” “Six o’clock. We might need to leave a little early, so we can detour around the religious whacko who harassed us on the way over.” Declan frowned. “What were they wearing?” I blinked. How was that relevant? “A purple hoodie. Why?” Looking over his shoulder, Declan eyed the other diners. Not one appeared to be anything other than a regular person enjoying a weekend out. Sure, one or two wore purple as a part of their clothes, but they didn’t appear particularly out of the ordinary. Whatever was going on, it had Declan on edge, and he was soon leaning in to speak to us quietly. “It was a couple of years ago, when I happened across an outpost. Nothing major; just one of those little facilities that some scientists teleport in and out of. But this one had been attacked. Badly.” Illinal glanced at me uneasily. “Bandits?” “That’s what I would have thought,” Declan replied. “But this was different. I found that the occupants, a pair of Hylotl, had been… beheaded. Left where anyone coming in could see, with a word written above them in purple paint. ‘Occassus.’” “Who are they?” I asked. “Human supremacists of some sort?” Declan nodded. “More or less. Loose collective, currently classified as a hate group. But their name keeps cropping up in Protectorate circles, usually linked to similar attacks. USCM’s investigated, but hasn’t been able to pin anything on them yet. According to the Occasus themselves, they’re a nonviolent group with violent actions being pinned on them. But it’s only a matter of time before they’re outed as terrorists, mark my words.” “Great,” Illinal muttered. “So, will we get to shoot them then?” Somehow, Declan managed to lower his voice even further. “Tell you the truth, if you’re nonhuman or wear a Protectorate uniform, they’ll attack first if they catch you out in the wilderness. But only if they see you before you see them, if you catch my drift.” Normally I’d object to shoot-on-sight arguments, especially coming from the Protectorate. I’d always imagined them as being well above that. But Declan was clearly speaking from experience. There may well have been some naivety on my part not to assume that there would be some frontier justice out there. “Well, thanks for the warning,” I said. “A shame it’s even an issue.” Sighing, Declan nodded. “It is indeed. But look at it this way; they’re a tiny group that uses lies and deceit to spread hatred. We’re a galaxy-wide organization openly fostering cooperation and prosperity. Which do you think people will be inclined to support?” “Good point,” Illinal noted. “Anyway, I think we have more important matters to discuss. Shall we go find a park, or someplace else to sit?” “Certainly,” Declan said, as we got to our feet. “Now, I’m thinking that the first rule will be a very strict regulation of pets…” He was soon leading us away, with one arm across my shoulders and the other over Illinal’s. Pets or no pets, I was just glad things were working out. There were so many adventures I was yet to have, and I’d be able to share them with my two closest friends. We were, after all, a crew. Planet Earth, Protectorate Boot Camp Euro-2, just outside Yverdon-les-Bains Ultimately, the rules Declan, Illinal and I agreed on were fairly straightforward. We put limits on how much in the way of ‘collecting’ we were allowed to do, determined what food the ship would be stocked with, and had a very serious discussion on the all-important matter of the latrine. We’d have to make some sacrifices by the sound of it, especially if there was going to be three or more of us living communally in a cramped vessel. Still, the arrangement was shaping up well, and we returned to camp confident it was going to work. Even so, the Occassus cult remained in the back of my mind. Not that I was necessarily scared of them, but their existence perplexed me. What did they possibly hope to achieve? The galaxy was a diverse place, and Humanity represented but a fraction of the known population. They weren’t particularly superior; they did some things better and some things worse, like any race. In fact, if there was anything they unequivocally did best, it was cooperate with others. That made the Occassus all the more mystifying. But if there was one thing that was guaranteed to take my mind off them, it was our impending training in use of the Matter Manipulator. I wasn’t alone in anticipating it, with even the less technically-inclined recruits eager to try it out. After all, the Manipulator was the icon of the Protectorate, allowing us to set up shelter in mere minutes, and effortlessly clear obstructions between us and our goals. I didn’t see the Occassus making such galaxy-changing inventions. “Now, I’m sure you all know what this is,” Gatwick said, holding the device up to show the assembled recruits. “This is a Man-Portable Nanomolecular Disassembly and Reassembly Device. But since ‘mependerd’ is rather absurd as far as acronyms go, you probably know it better as a Matter Manipulator.” Aiming the device at the ground between him and us, Gatwick took a moment to aim before pulling the trigger. With a slight pop, a small cube of dirt disappeared from the ground, leaving a perfectly cube-shaped hole about fifty centimetres on each side. He then did the same a meter away, this time leaving a cube of dirt materializing before our eyes. Gatwick smiled at the various shocked faces before him. “Impressive, isn’t it? Do we have any questions so far?” “Concerned. Would it be possible to misfire, and… injure someone?” Starbolt asked. “In theory, no,” Gatwick assured him. “There are failsafes ingrained in the sensors to prevent complex organics or machines from being affected. Plant life and smaller animals like fish should survive, though the latter is best kept in a tank. But I’d still advise caution, as there are still plenty of ways these things can cause injury.” Illinal raised a hand. “What about objects, sir? How are they affected?” “I’m glad you asked!” Gatwick said, stepping aside to drag over the chair he’d brought outside with him. “The Manipulator doesn’t just disassemble things in cubes. Using the correct settings, it can be used to disassemble and reassemble entire objects under most circumstances. Like so…” Just like the dirt before it, the chair disappeared, before being reconstructed nearby without any sign of defect. Gatwick even sat down on it himself as proof, proceeding to lecture us on its operation more in-depth. Hardly anything complicated, but still not a device that could be used thoughtlessly. In fact, in the wrong hands, I imagine it could be rather dangerous. Nothing better to quickly destabilize a load-bearing support, or fill a room with a dangerous substance. One would hope they were in good hands under the Protectorate. Soon came the moment we’d all been waiting for; practice. The training models we received were clearly older than Gatwick’s, and proved to have stripped-down capabilities. They took a while longer to do things, despite working reliably enough. We spent an entire day just picking up bits of dirt, and depositing them back again. Simple on paper, but aiming right took a some practice. The real fun began after a few days of training with the Manipulators. As a test, we were to combine them with our survival training, and work in groups to assemble a shelter to spend the night in. Naturally, I worked with Illinal, along with Lorenzo and Starbolt. Our shelter wasn’t the most impressive, what with Illinal insisting we make defence a priority. The end result was a wooden foxhole half-buried in the dirt, with a few open slits peeking above ground. We assembled sleeping bags in a square around a crackling fire, which Starbolt had had the forethought to place on a stone hearth beneath a chimney. Darkness fell, and I went about heating up our field rations while Starbolt sat reading, Lorenzo examined the structure’s integrity, and Illinal stared out into the darkened woods. “I’m really liking these Matter Manipulators,” Lorenzo was saying, tapping the walls experimentally. “Imagine what you could do with a bit of imagination…” “Sardonic. And a few thousand pixels of debt, from buying materials.” Starbolt noted. Snorting, Lorenzo turned to him. “Oh, come on. Surely you’ve wanted your own luxurious castle at some point.” “Sarcastic,” the Glitch replied, barely looking up from his copy of Exotic Monsters and How to Cook Them. “I’m more of a pony person.” I was busy checking how our food was coming along, but Lorenzo did get me thinking. “But I’m sure a Manipulator would be useful for the Glitch. Building castles the traditional way must take time.” “Dismissive. Most Glitch are hard-wired to operate in the ‘traditional way’. To them, the Manipulator would be like magic.” Raising an eyebrow, I lifted the cooking pan off the fire. “So, they’d burn us at the stake if they saw it?” “Instructive. Not necessarily. You’d be surprised how much modern technology gets passed off as magic originating from a distant, arcane land. My old village thinks I’ve travelled away to join a prestigious college.” “They don’t know you’re self-aware?” Illinal asked, looking away from the opening she sat by. It took a few seconds for Starbolt to compose his reply. “Hesitant. No. The physician I tutored under was also self-aware, and he was the only one who ever found out. Considering what happens when a Glitch is… discovered…” He trailed off, staring into the firelight as it reflected off his metallic face. “Terse. They can never know.” Serving up the rations back into their original tins, I handed Starbolt his portion. “Hey, we understand. Illinal and I won’t be able to return home either.” The Glitch accepted his meal with a grateful nod, and proceeded to eat it as normally as any organic being would. “Saddened,” he said between mouthfuls. “Don’t get me wrong, I intend to return. Even if only to visit. But that doesn’t change the fact that everyone I love is living a lie, and would… reject me if they knew my true self.” “It hasn’t made you a bad person, Starbolt,” Illinal said. “Yes, you’ll have your differences with your family, but they’re still exactly that. If you can return home to them, and be welcomed with open arms, then you’re a lot more fortunate than a lot of other people in the galaxy.” “Solemn. When you put it like that, I suppose I don’t have much right to complain. Perhaps I should take that counselling minor next year…” Starbolt turned towards Lorenzo. “Inquisitive. I’m guessing you must feel quite out of place. Do you have anything to bring to the Familial Strife Club?” Lorenzo could only shake his head. “Nothing extraordinary. Wouldn’t dream of comparing it to what you guys have been through. Must have been hard.” “It was,” I agreed, taking a bite of my dinner. It was vaguely meatlike, with an ambiguously vegetable aftertaste. “But the MiniKnog don’t let you have much time to grieve. Especially when your parents were ‘suspected dissidents’.” “And that was enough for them to…” Lorenzo stopped, unable to find the words. “Jesus. I’m so sorry.” I nodded in gratitude, before looking to my meal. No need to reopen old wounds. “Thank you, Lorenzo. But the Protectorate is my family now.” “Our family.” Illinal corrected, taking her dinner gratefully as she joined us on the sleeping bags. I was inclined to agree with her. Good friends, important work and passable food… what else could I ask for? Between Illinal’s defences and Starbolt’s fireplace, our shelter was ranked one of the best in the following morning’s assessment. Certainly helped that ours hadn’t been built completely out of dirt like a couple of the others. But even it started to look positively backwards in the coming weeks, as we explored more functions of the Matter Manipulators. Modern materials like metal and ceramics were introduced. The handling of liquid was taught, alongside enabling modular upgrades to a Manipulator. Even wireless energy transfer was covered, which I’d never even thought was possible. I couldn’t even by surprised by the new things I was learning by that point. Eventually, however, it had to end. Final examinations were long, intense and draining, but I took every opportunity I could to be prepared. My grades were pretty average on the physical side, doing only slightly better in marksmanship and first-aid. What really surprised me was my marks for using the Matter Manipulator, which I apparently did quite well on. Lorenzo and Starbolt managed similar scores, albeit doing better with first aid than I did. Illinal surpassed us all, naturally. With physical training done with, we were free to specialize. That meant no more jogging around boot camp, and instead pulling all-nighters at the academy in Geneva. I’d assumed that the academy handled all the more theoretical disciplines, meaning doctors, chemists and engineers like Starbolt, Lorenzo and I would be the main ones present. Despite my fears of having to part with Illinal for a while, I soon learned that wasn’t going to be the case. “The Academy has the most advanced virtual combat facility in the world,” she explained to me, as we packed our bags. “Looking forward to clocking in a few hours.” “Almost as good as cutting up real Stargazers, is it?” “Almost.” “Sounds like you’ve got your plans ready for after graduation,” Lorenzo noted. “Sounds like this Protector you and Vikton joined up with liked a good rebellion.” “Who doesn’t?” I replied. “So, what about you, then? You have anything lined up yet?” Lorenzo shrugged. “Probably just lab work. Tempting to stay here on earth, but part of me wants to go to a research base somewhere. Who knows what new compounds are waiting for me to discover them…” That was a part of space exploration that hadn’t really occurred to me. “I’m sure you’d find something if you looked in the right places. What about you, Starbolt? Any plans outside visiting your family?” “Uncertain. Depends on how I’m received. I think I’d like to stay with them, if I can. They could use some modern medical care, if I can get away with it.” Lorenzo made a noise halfway between a hum and a sigh. “Sounds like we’ll be going our separate ways once we graduate,” he observed. “Would you guys be interested in keeping in contact?” I laughed, slapping him on the shoulder. “Of course! You guys are the best friends I’ve ever had.” Starbolt nodded appreciatively, while Lorenzo seemed quite moved by the sentiment. “Same,” he said quietly. “For a while, I really didn’t like it here. But lately… I think it might have been worth it. If only for the friends I’ve made.” “I suppose the Protectorate’s working then,” Illinal said, glancing at me. “Despite what some might think, it’s showing us that species is no barrier to friendship.” I thought back to the Occassus preacher. Preaching anger in the middle of the street, ignored by most. And here we all were, pursuing our dreams. There wasn’t any question of where I’d rather be. “Sure got that right.” I agreed, zipping up my bags. Planet Earth, Protectorate Central Academy, Geneva “Wake up...” My rather lovely dream about a delicious banana cream pie faded, and I rolled over with a groan. It was a Monday, I was pretty sure, so I didn’t have class until 10. Probably just another practice for the final exams… … that we’d had a couple of weeks before. Groaning again, I remembered why today was so important, and why I’d had so much trouble getting to sleep the night before. “Wake up. You have overslept. The graduation ceremony starts in one hour.” Slamming the off button on my alarm clock, I climbed out of my bunk. After two years at the academy, I wasn’t about to miss the day it had all been leading up to. Not after all the cramming, all-nighters and drinking I’d gone through. I wasn’t top of the class, but I’d worked hard to do more than simply pass. Surely being able to sleep in after a night spent stressing out was the least I deserved. The rest of the room was empty, with everyone else presumably more organized than I. At least Illinal had been kind enough to leave out my orange engineer’s uniform, along with a note promising to meet me by the auditorium, signed with a little ‘(^v^)’. Smiling, I got dressed before going about freshening up as best I could. By the time I was presentable, I still had three quarters of an hour to go. Walking as fast as I could, I made my way out of the residential building, greeting a few of the younger to-be-Protectors I’d met as I passed. Unsurprisingly, I’d enjoyed the academy much more than boot camp. Not only was the engineering-focused content more up my alley, but the city of Geneva was just a delight to look at. Even the academy itself contributed much to the slick architecture and abundant greenery, complete with a transplanted alien tree sitting right in the middle of the main walkway intersection. As usual, I slowed to smell the aroma of its blooming pink blossoms as I passed. “On your way to the graduation ceremony, I see,” observed a Hylotl sitting on a bench beneath it. “Hurried and stressed on such a fine day. Come, sit with me a moment. Let us enjoy these beautiful blossoms.” Glancing at the time on my datapad, I shrugged. I had a bit of time to spare, and perhaps I could use a moment to relax. “Um… sure.” “Some situations require haste,” the Hyltol continued, while several windchimes jingled gently in the breeze. “But don’t let life’s small moments pass unappreciated.” For a minute or so, I sat with my eyes closed, breathing meditatively. In a couple of hours, my friends and I would be Protectors, and the galaxy would be open for us. In many ways, I had a lot to be thankful for. And with so much lying ahead, there was no need to rush into things. “I suppose you’re right. It’s nice to be able to sit back and take things easy, after life under the MiniKnog.” The Hylotl nodded. “A terrible group, I hear. Still, the past need not define you, if you do not wish it so. The future is still ahead of you, especially on today of all days. I wish you all the best for your life as a Protector.” Thought-provoking stuff, as I’d come to expect from the Hylotl. Shame I didn’t have more time to think it over. “Likewise.” I left him to compose some poetry about the tree and its blossoms, and continued on my way. But as I did, I couldn’t help but notice that a flower had sprouted on the grass besides the walkway. Clearly related to the tree, given that it shared the same pink colour as its blossoms. But there weren’t any others like it around, and it didn’t seem to have been specifically planted. Curiosity getting the better of me, I picked it and gently put it in my pocket. Lorenzo might be interested in it, or at the very least could find a way of preserving it for me. Might make for a nice souvenir. As promised, Illinal was waiting with a number of the other recruits out in one of the side halls. The walls were adorned with paintings of former Grand Protectors and various scenes from the Protectorate’s past, while a small gallery of important objects sat proudly in glass cases. Illinal looked up from the robe of the first Grand Protector, smiling at me. But perhaps more importantly, Declan stood beside her. “Finally awake, I see,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “Rough night?” I nodded, returning the gesture. “Yeah, I was a bit worried. And excited, too.” “Yes, I thought you had trouble getting to sleep,” Illinal noted. “Have you had breakfast?” “No, I figured we can grab something for brunch. To celebrate.” Declan laughed, leading us towards the imposing doorway into the auditorium. “Something fancy, I think. From what I’ve heard, you’ve both done very well with your training. I’m proud of you.” I couldn’t help but smile. My parents had said the same when they were still alive, and it was refreshing to hear it again. Though I wasn’t sure if I’d call Declan a father, he was probably the closest to family I had. “Thanks, Declan. It means a lot to hear you say that.” “And it’s not something I give out lightly. There was nothing stopping you from leading an easy life after the MiniKnog, but you chose to make something more of it.” In the midst of all this, Illinal was watching the door, and turned to us as it opened. “Well, if you two are ready, it looks like we’re going in.” Declan nodded, ushering us along. “Best find your seats, then. I’ll meet up with you when it’s finished.” Sure enough, we’d been allocated spots in the first couple of rows, and sought them out as Declan headed towards the back. It was quite a big turnout, with easily a few hundred people there. Most were Protectors and civilians, but I spotted the odd USCM uniform here and there. Off to one side, I spotted Lorenzo waving to his family, before taking his seat. After about ten minutes of waiting, the lights across the auditorium slowly dimmed. The stage lit up, and an older woman in flowing robes walked out across it. As current leader of the Terrene Protectorate, it was only to be expected that Grand Protector Portia would be present. We’d probably get to shake her hand, and everything. Quite an honour. Silence had fallen across the room by the time she reached the podium, and she was soon addressing the room clearly and confidently. “My fellow Protectors and sentients... I welcome you here today as we come together to witness the Protectorate grow. For over 500 years we have stood proud here on Earth, drawing together races of all kinds in the name of peace. Our task is to protect our fellow beings, to support those that seek our aid, and to foster accord between those that aspire to it. We are the Terrene Protectorate; long may we stand.” “Long may we stand!” Chorused the Protectors in the audience. Gesturing towards where we were seated, the Grand Protector continued. “Today, in the name of peace, we welcome our newest compatriots. They have trained long and hard, learning alongside a diverse group of peers, in preparation for this day. We are proud to present them each with our greatest tool...” A hissing noise emanated from the stage, and a hatch in the centre opened. Slowly rising above the opening was a stand holding a now-familiar yellow device. “… the Matter Manipulator.” Some of the audience, presumably the civilians, ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed at the sight of it. The rest of us were more focused on an attendant, who was gesturing for the first row to get to their feet and follow her onto the stage. As they did, a cart containing a rack of Manipulators was pushed onto the stage while Grand Protector Portia continued speaking. “With this tool in hand, these brave men and women will go forth into the galaxy, using it to benefit the people of the galaxy. They will provide the essentials to those in need, bring security to those under threat and expand the horizons of-” Somewhere, deep below us, there was a deep rumbling. The building shuddered slightly, leading to gasps throughout the room. I froze, listening out for the evacuation alarm. It didn’t sound. “Earthquake, do you reckon?” someone was saying behind me. “Could be,” their neighbour replied. “Been a few years since we had one.” “Typical. Today of all days…” Meanwhile, the Grand Protector was speaking in hushed tones with another attendant. Both looked a tad shaken, but not overly stressed. The attendant scurried off the stage, and the Grand Protector straightened up to address the audience once more. “Apologies for the interruption, ladies and gentlemen. It would appear that we’re seeing some seismic activity this morning. We’re contacting the Swiss government for details, and in the meantime will push on wi-” For a moment, I didn’t understand what happened. Either a bomb had gone off, or the earthquake had caused part of the building to collapse. But as my training kicked in and I became truly alert, I realized what was happening. And there was nothing I’d learned that could have possibly prepared me for it. A giant tentacle had burst through the stage. It couldn’t have been real. And yet, there was no way in hell that they’d pull such a ridiculous and elaborate prank on a day like this. But the idea of it being a prank went completely out the window when the tentacle slammed into the left half of the audience. Panic exploded across the room. The air filled with screams of terror and the tearing of metal, as people began stampeding for the exits. Others ran to help the injured, including Lorenzo. As tempting as it was to run for my life, I knew that I had a duty to fulfil. And so, pushing past the tide of fleeing graduates, I ran towards the carnage. “Mum!” Lorenzo was screaming, barely making progress through the panicking crowd. “Dad! Where are you?!” There was no way he was going to be heard over the racket, especially as the alarm finally went off. I helped a dazed man to his feet and ushered him along, before seizing Lorenzo by the shoulder and helping him buffet through the chaos. “We can’t stay here!” I yelled over the pandemonium. “Let’s find them, and get out!” That was with the unspoken assumption that they’d survived. And to my astonishment, they had. Mr Fonda’s leg had been crushed, and Mrs Fonda appeared to be in the throes of a panic attack as she tried dragging her husband away. Wasting no time, I picked him up while Lorenzo went to his mother, trying to calm her down. Nothing he said make a difference, and the best he could do was guide her towards the exit as swiftly as possible. “What is it?” was all she could ask, pointing to the tentacle waving around above the stage, bringing down the overhanging lights. “What… what is it?” Lorenzo shook his head, not even looking at it as we got into the side hall. The displays were now completely shattered, and the paintings fallen to the ground. “I don’t know. Just… just keep moving. It’ll all be-” It was then that I heard Illinal scream. “STAY BACK!” There was a horrific sound outside, heralding a whole new bout of destruction and suffering. As I got closer to the jostling crowd, I realized that the walkway was gone. Just… gone. Along with everyone who’d been fleeing over it. All that stood between us and another waving tentacle was Illinal blocking the way. “We’ve got to go back!” she shouted, slamming a button beside the doorway, which immediately sealed with a heavy fire door. “The shuttle pad’s our only hope!” “But that thing is still there!” Lorenzo said. “Assertion!” Starbolt yelled from behind me, making me jump. “We need to evacuate! We have wounded!” Before he’d even finished talking, he was examining Mr Fonda’s leg. “Take him,” I grunted, letting Starbolt take over carrying him. “You’re right, Illinal. But if we go in there, it’s going to attack.” She wasn’t listening. Instead, she was picking up a former Grand Protector’s broadsword from what was left of its case. “I’ll distract it,” she said as she swung the sword experimentally. “Lorenzo, Starbolt, get everyone past once it’s attention is on me. Vikton, I need you to grab one of those Matter Manipulators. We may need it.” Nodding, I followed her back towards the now-deserted auditorium. Another exit stood directly across the room from us, but I could see some rubble further down the hallway. Even getting that far would be a challenge, with the tentacle now swiping across the room, as if to look for new victims. “Illinal?” I whispered to her. “Have you seen Declan?” Breathing deeply, she stared at the tentacle without so much as looking at me. “I… I don’t know. Everything’s happened so fast, I… let’s just focus on getting out of here. He can take care of himself.” I felt a cold feeling wash over me as I realized he may well be dead. He wasn’t with our group of survivors, and he didn’t seem like the type to flee when others were in danger. But if he’d been on the walkway when it got destroyed, then he wouldn’t have stood a chance. If that were the case, then I’d lost my family all over again… “Vikton!” Illinal shouted over her shoulder. “We need to focus!” Wiping tears from my eyes, I nodded. “Yes. Yes, of course. I’m ready when you are.” The noise Illinal made was somewhere between a warcry and a squawk, and she sprinted out towards the stage with her sword at the ready. I jogged a few steps behind, aiming to circle around to the other side, where the Manipulator cart now lay. The majority of its contents were intact, and I tried prying a Manipulator free while glancing over to where Illinal was carving the tentacle to ribbons. “Protector…” I looked over to a smashed portion of the stage where the podium now lay. Beneath it was a horrendously wounded Grand Protector, staring at me. I was no doctor, but even I knew there was no chance of recovery. “Grand Protector…” I whispered, hurrying over. “Hold still. I’ll get you out, and-” She shook her head, wincing in pain. “It’s too late for that. Are there survivors?” Already, people were streaming back across the room, fearfully watching the tentacle. But they were outnumbered by the corpses scattered across the seating. “Yes. We’ll get them to the ships.” “Good,” she whispered, grasping my shoulder. “Whatever happens… remember who you are. I fear you may not have an Earth to return to now, but the Protectorate must live on. Long may we stand.” “Long may we stand.” I replied sombrely, holding her hand until her grip loosened. She was gone. What happened after that was a blur, as if my body was on autopilot. Illinal dragged me away from the Grand Protector’s body, having emerged victorious with barely a scratch. We handed out a dozen Manipulators amongst the surviving graduates, and between us made short work of the rubble blocking our way. As we neared the shuttle pads, we passed numerous windows overlooking what was left of Geneva. The city was in its final throes, with tentacles sprouting from the ground as far as the eye could see. Buildings toppled, air traffic was swatted and countless innocents were crushed, leaving us powerless to do anything. The thought that this was happening across the planet was almost too much to realize. “Split up!” Illinal yelled as we streamed out onto the platform. A series of Hummingbird-class ships of numerous makes stood before us, awaiting their newly-graduated crews. “Take separate ships, and get into orbit! We can coordinate from there!” I followed Illinal to the ship closest to us, which was a Human-built Hammerhead. Of all the ships we’d looked at in our studies, it was easily one of my favourites. It actually looked like a proper spaceship, instead of the flying castles and pyramids certain races produced. The interior was bare however, with only a few crates of supplies present for its new crew to use. Lorenzo was almost immediately rifling through them for a medical kit, while his father was tended to by Starbolt and a hysterical Mrs Fonda. “Will he be alright?” She was asking Starbolt, who didn’t loom up from his examination. “Clinical. Chances are I will not be able to fully heal it with the resources available. But he will live, and likely retain a fair level of mobility…” Confident he was in good hands, I stood by the door as a few more survivors climbed aboard. Nobody else was emerging from the building, and I was grudgingly forced to close the door as someone turned the engines on. As the other ships began taking off around us, I headed into the cockpit where Illinal sat in the pilot’s seat. “Ship-based Artificial Intelligence Lattice engaged,” a robotic voice piped up, as a blue avatar appeared on one of the monitors. “Propulsion system online. Navigation system online. Life support online. All systems operating at full capacity.” Illinal glanced around the controls, before speaking directly to SAIL. “Um… get us into orbit,” she said, as one of the other ships ahead of us was swatted out of the sky. “Hurry! Be ready for evasive action!” “Acknowledged. Take-off underway.” There was a familiar rumbling sensation, followed by a lurch as the ship took off. The ship was flying itself, even managing to avoid getting us killed by flailing tentacles the size of skyscrapers. Slowly, less and less of the city became visible as we soared ever upwards, leaving the devastation behind us. I put a hand on Illinal’s shoulder as she turned on the communicator, hoping for something, anything that would give us guidance. There were no shortage of calls for help, but as I peered out the cockpit window I knew that it was too dangerous to land. More and more tentacles were emerging, and I couldn’t begin to imagine where they were coming from. It was all too much to process. Instead, we broke free of the atmosphere sitting in silence as we listened to the screams of a dying world. Planet Earth, High Orbit “-surviving United Systems personnel are to contact Langrage Station 4 with a status update, and await further instructions-” “-of the University of Luna. We have officially deployed the Leibowitz Protocol, opening the doomsday vault containing our people’s knowledge and culture-” “-civilians, be advised, habitats in Huygens are being brought online to serve as refugee shelters. Medical services are also available. Please contact colonial authorities for details…” Illinal tapped the communicator. “That sounds like what we need. SAIL, contact Mars on any channel. Try to raise Huygens.” “Establishing contact. Standby.” A monitor flickered to life, bringing up the red globe symbol of the United Systems’ Martian branch. “Connection established.” A man appeared, yelling to someone off-screen. “I’ll do it in a minute! Just wait!” He turned his attention to us, taking a deep breath. “Sorry… Protectors? Thank Christ, it’s good to see some of you guys still alive. How can we help?” “We have an injured man onboard,” Illinal explained. “Would you be able to receive him?” The man consulted another screen on his end, but soon nodded. “Yeah, should be able to. He’s not the first casualty we’ve received, so he’ll be subject to triage measures. But we have room. Will anyone be accompanying him?” Illinal looked at me, and I shrugged. “One, maybe two other family members,” I told the man. “I’ll check what’s happening.” I left the cockpit, legs still shaking slightly. Our escape was still playing itself over and over again in my mind, and I couldn’t begin to shake it off. There was some reassurance to be had that human civilization was still functioning to some degree, but I didn’t know how long that would last. So many dead, and so much lost… I snapped myself out of it. The best we could do was focus on the present. In the ship’s main room, Lorenzo sat beside his mother and father, with Starbolt just finishing his bandaging of Mr Fonda’s leg. The man was clearly in pain, but still alert. Starbolt beckoned me over. “Relieved. There you are, Vikton. I’ve done all I can, but it’s best we seek out a medical facility.” “Already ahead of you,” I replied. “Mars is accepting refugees. Illinal’s on the line with Huygens as we speak.” Lorenzo nodded, getting to his feet. “That sounds like our best bet. Mum, I want you to go and keep Dad company.” “What about you?” Mrs Fonda cried. “You’ve got to come with us! Who knows what that… thing was, and what else is out there!” Expression sullen, Lorenzo still shook his head. “My friends need me. The Protectorate needs me. Now, more than ever. We need colonies, and medical supplies…” For a moment I thought Mr Fonda had gurgled in pain, but it would seem he’d cleared his throat. “Dear… he’ll be alright. Let him go.” As much as it looked like she wanted to argue, Mrs Fonda remained silent. “Son…” Mr Fonda continued. “We knew that there’d be risks when you joined up. I… I never expected this, but we can’t dwell on it. Go and do your duty. Make us proud.” Mrs Fonda stared at him for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. “Just promise us you won’t put yourself in danger?” Lorenzo nodded, tears in his eyes. “I promise. And whatever happens, I’ll keep in touch.” Within minutes, two USCM medics teleported onto our ship to check over Mr Fonda. They hadn’t been left with much to do, what with him already being stabilized by Starbolt, so they wasted no time taking him back to their colony. Mrs Fonda lingered slightly longer, saying goodbye to her son and extracting a few promises to keep him safe from us. As much as I sympathized with her, I think we all calmed down a bit once she was gone. “Well… time for some introductions, I think,” Illinal said, looking to the other surviving graduates. “How are you two?” The first, a particularly androgynous green Floran wearing a soldier’s uniform, nodded eagerly. “Floran iss a bit sshaken, but glad we ssurvived that beasst. Sshame we couldn’t taste its flesh, though…” “Oh, ssssspare us…” the other graduate muttered. She was a purplish Hylotl, and a mechanic at that. “I’m fine as well. Though for a while there, I thought we weren’t getting out of there. It was like the season two opening from Huge Tentacle Attack Panic…” I glanced at Illinal, unsure how our new passengers were to get along, but she remained undeterred. “Well, at least we’re all in one piece. Anyway, I’m Illinal, ex-Stargazer turned Grounded. Vikton here fled the MiniKnog for a better life. Starbolt is a self-aware Glitch and a fine medic. And Lorenzo is… was a local.” “I am Michiko,” the Hylotl said, bowing. We all returned the gesture, aside from our new Floran friend. “At first, I came here as a missionary. But since reading Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance, I found mechanical engineering to be delightfully meditative. So, I figured I could kill two Florans with one torch.” Another glance at Illinal showed her patience wearing thin. “Right. Well, it’s good to have you onboard. Just don’t go picking fights with…” The Floran imitated Michiko’s bow. “Floran iss called Almar. Wantss to study the biology of as many animalss ass posssible. And no, Floran won’t go sstarting fights fith Hylotl. Floran better than that.” Illinal sighed, rubbing her eyes. “Great. Now, we need to decide what’s happening from here. The folks over at Huygens said that they have limited room for refugees, and that’s going to be the same case for the other lunar and orbital habitats. So, I’m thinking we find a place to set up a colony, and get as many survivors settled as we can.” “We’ll need resources for that,” I pointed out, mentally running through building plans. “Even if we just build wooden shacks, we’ll need seeds, water purifiers, solar panels…” Illinal shook her head. “Actually, I was thinking of reaching out to the Grounded colony where I stayed after the Stargazers. They don’t exactly owe me any favours, but they’ll respect me enough to listen. Perhaps we can convince them to expand a bit, and let some humans in.” “Guess it could work,” Lorenzo said. “But how do we get people there? It’s got to be pretty far from Earth.” “We could use colony deeds.” I suggested. “What are they?” Almar asked. “Wall-mounted computers with an inbuilt teleporter beacon. All sorts of people use them to try and get a place out in the colonies. Perhaps the Grounded will have a few spares, or could help us buy some.” Illinal nodded. “Sounds like a plan. If you all want to start going through those crates for anything useful, I’ll prepare the ship for warp. Vikton, perhaps you can help?” The others went over to the crates, and I followed Illinal into the cockpit. But instead of moving to the captain’s chair, she waited by the door and closed it behind me. We stood in silence for a few moments, as she opened her mouth to speak. Eventually, she just turned away, rubbing her arm. “Vikton… about Declan…” I knew where she was going. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” “He was helping people across the bridge. I… I wanted to tell you, but we had to focus…” “I understand,” I assured her. That didn’t stop the feeling of emptiness, or the tears welling up in my eyes. “It’s… it’s not possible that he...?” Illinal turned around. There was a distinct sadness in her eyes. “No. There’s no way he’d have made it off in time. I’m so sorry.” Unable to speak, I could only nod. Illinal stepped closer, drawing me close for a hug. Putting my own arms around her wasn’t much, but it brought some much-needed comfort. “I’m going to miss him too, you know,” she continued. “I was really looking forward to sharing adventures with the two of you.” Sniffling, I nodded again, even if she couldn’t see it. I’d spent so long wondering what we were going to find out there, and how we’d all react to it. Mysterious worlds to explore and bizarre lifeforms to study, before zipping back to Earth for a pizza. Now, it was never going to happen. Mostly. “I… I’m just glad you’re still here, Illinal.” “You too, Vikton. I don’t know where I’d be without you by my side.” I drew back slightly, a tad surprised. Ever since I met her, I’d figured she had a head start over me. She was an accomplished soldier, and already familiar with travelling to new worlds. To think that she thought that highly of me was rather humbling. “Well… um… we should get going,” Illinal said, as we parted. “Can you have a quick look at the fuel?” “Oh… sure,” I replied, stepping over to the fuel hatch. Had our embrace turned awkward? Or were we just wasting time? “Let’s see… readout’s looking good. Just a question of whether we have enough to get there.” Tapping at the navigation controls, Illinal sighed. “We do. Barely. Hopefully the Grounded can help us get some more.” The familiar rumble of the FTL drive started beneath us, as she turned to stare down at Earth once more. I was tempted to move over to reassure her, but I wasn’t sure if that was what she wanted. The ship was rapidly accelerating, and before I knew it we were in hyperspace. Nothing was exploding around me, which was always a bonus. Instead, I leaned against the wall, and sank to the floor. I closed my eyes and tried to push the day’s events out of my mind. Declan. The Grand Protector. Earth. All but impossible to ignore, but I did my best to focus. I was alive, as were my closest friends. And we had work to do. Phoenix Frontier III, High Orbit “Phoenix’s Roost, this is Protector Illinal. Do you copy?” The communicator indicated that our message was received, but a reply didn’t come until at least a minute later. “Sorry, Illinal. Wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Nice that you still have time to visit an old man.” The smallest of smiles crept across Illinal’s beak. “I promised you I’d drop by someday, Necuan. But I’m afraid I’m in need of a place to stay once more.” “We’d be happy to have you! But… are you alright? You sound a bit… troubled.” “That… that’s one way of putting it. I’ll explain when I land, if that’s okay.” “Of course, go ahead,” the man said. “There’s free landing space on the south side. Mind the crops.” “Will do. I’ll see you soon.” The planet beneath us was just as majestic as Earth, albeit lacking any sign of widespread civilization. Much of the world seemed to be a lot icier as well, though we were heading towards a more temperate region at the equator. Indeed, once we were inside the atmosphere and free of the cloud cover, endless plains, forests and mountains spread out towards the horizon. Having known little beyond the urbanization of Earth and Apex One, seeing so much untouched wilderness was quite comforting. Much had been lost on Earth, but there was still beauty to be found in the universe. Phonenix’s Roost wasn’t a huge settlement, but we got a good look at it as we came into land. The buildings were in a style I’d never seen before, being mostly stone and wood with no shortage of winglike eaves. I could barely make out what looked like plazas or markets, awash with the colours of banners and wares. One of the town’s borders jutted out onto a large lake, with the rest marked off by a perimeter wall enclosing various farms, paddocks and a couple of landing pads. Some kind of wooden airship already occupied one, so we had SAIL set down on the next one over. “Cautious. How should we proceed with these people?” Starbolt asked, once we were ready to disembark. “Just let me do the talking,” Illinal said. “These are good folks, and they’ll remember me from my last visit.” “You sure they’re willing to let others stay here?” Lorenzo asked. “I don’t see why not. It’s a sparsely habited planet at best, and there are few people more welcoming than the Grounded. I’m sure they’d love to have some human friends around.” Illinal opened the door, revealing a group of Avians already walking out of the town to meet us. “See? We’ve already got a welcoming party.” The group approaching us was every bit as colourful as the markets I’d from the air. Their feathers were a brilliant range of blues, yellows, reds and any other colour between, while their similarly-vibrant clothing consisting of everything from embroidered shirts to attention-grabbing loincloths. But the man at the front of the procession was the one who stood out the most, and not only because he was the most adorned of them all. He was also the oldest, using a walking cane but still completely attentive from the looks of it. Illinal approached him, and greeted him with a friendly hug. “It’s good to see you, Necuan. How’s everything going?” “Better than ever,” the man answered, looking her over. “But it looks like you’ve been in a bit of a scrape.” Illinal shook her head. “You don’t know the half of it. Earth’s been destroyed.” The gathered Avians murmured amongst themselves in horror. Even Necuan was aghast, lowering his head. “How is that possible? It’s one of the most stable planets in the universe.” All Illinal could do was shrug. “There were these… creatures. Tentacles. I don’t know how many, but Geneva was falling apart by the time we got away. From the communications we were getting, the rest of the planet was no better off.” Necuan nodded gravely. “Seems you’re as in the dark as we are. Were there survivors?” “Seems to have been. Humanity’s colonies on Mars and Luna are still functional, but I don’t know how many refugees they can handle. We were hoping you’d be willing to help some settle here.” “I’ll be happy to discuss it with the council,” Necuan said, gesturing for us to approach. “Come. Let’s get you all set up at the inn for tonight. Rest, and we can look at things clearly tomorrow.” Nobody complained. Instead, we were swept up by our welcoming party, who helpfully escorted us to the inn while pointing out every point of interest along the way. Some even peppered us with questions, either related to Earth or generally being non-Avians. By the time I’d reached the inn, I’d given my recount of events, explained my basic life story, admitted that I wasn’t a member of the Resistance and assured them that I didn’t have fleas. A couple still offered to go through my fur to check. The inn itself was quite a rustic setup. A fire crackled in a large hearth at the end of the main room, with the rest taken up by tables, chairs and the bar. Necuan spoke with the owner in hushed tones, and was soon handing out keys to us while meals were prepared. With three rooms available, Illinal was surprisingly quick to pair up with me. Michiko ended up asking Lorenzo to share her room, claiming he was less likely to eat her during the night than Almar was. The Floran wasn’t pleased by the sentiment, but they were quite quick to forget it once their meal arrived. Though, to be fair, he wasn’t the only one with an appetite. By the time evening fell and the inn began its roaring dinner trade, we’d all finished our third servings and had retired to our simple yet homely rooms. Personally, I was quite happy to avoid talking to the locals for the time being. They were friendly enough, but my first impressions weren’t going to be all that impressive while my mood was still pinballing between depression and terror. Illinal seemed little better off, but at least she had ways of coping. “I’m going to go take a bath.” “Sure, go ahead.” I said, not taking my eyes off the bizarre lamp that sat on the dresser between our beds. I’d read about Avian power crystals before, but I’d never seen their brilliant red hue in person. But I could tell Illinal was lingering, and I glanced over to see her looking down with a conflicted expression. She looked up, and our eyes met. “Would you like to join me?” I was thankful to have fur covering my face, since the power crystal wasn’t the only thing in the room with a brilliant red hue. “What?” Was all I could manage at first. “Bath? As in… naked?” Illinal shrugged, taking her eyes off me. “I won’t look if you don’t. Just thought that… since they’re communal, and it might help us relax…” “Together?” I asked, still sceptical. “Together,” She confirmed, throwing me a towel. “And that’s an order.” That sounded more like the Illinal I knew and… respected. “Yes, Captain.” Admittedly, she was onto something. The inn had a small adjoining bathhouse, with a heated pool that could easily have held another half-a-dozen people. There was plenty of room for an Apex and Avian to sit beside each other in the nude, looking everywhere but next to them. But even with the awkwardness, the warm water and humid air were doing wonders in easing my mood. “So… ah… how are you holding up?” I asked Illinal. She sighed, shaking her head. “Wish I knew. Feels like I’ve been on autopilot for the last day or so. Don’t know what else I could do, honestly.” “You’re doing great,” I assured her. “We got out because of you, and we’re going to do our part in recovering from what happened. All we need to do is take it one day at a time.” “But what happens after that? Earth’s gone. Billions are dead. The Protectorate’s probably going to collapse dealing with the fallout…” “You don’t know that. The United Systems is still functioning, isn’t it? And what about all the Protectors stationed off-world? Surely we can re-organize.” “I hope so,” Illinal said, voice barely a whisper. “The universe needs the Protectorate. Nobody else is trying to get others working together. Not even the Hylotl ever came close.” It was a grim prospect. Between an authoritarian police state, a sacrifice-happy theocracy, a simulated hive-mind and a series of tribes, there weren’t many places that would come close to what Earth represented. Even the Hylotl were more content to live in underwater cities rather than retake their homeworld. But if the Protectorate had defied the universe once, doing it a second time wouldn’t be that hard. “They did it before, Illinal. And we can help do it again.” Illinal sighed, but still nodded. “Thanks. I’m glad you’re still hopeful.” Admittedly, it was all for my benefit as much as hers, but I was glad it helped. “We can never lose hope, Illinal. If we lose hope, the other side wins. Even if they’re… tentacles…” “Yes, I hope we can figure something out what that was all about. There must be a way of stopping it from happening again.” “Well, there’s no sense worrying about it now. We can talk about it tomorrow.” With a nod, Illinal turned around and reached for her bag. Unconsciously, I’d turned my head to see what she was doing, but immediately looked away. “Well, Necuan did give me something to welcome me back,” she was saying, handing me a glass. “Might be just the thing to help us relax...” She presented a pink bottle with a red label around it. “Cyanide?” I read, rather alarmed. “Aw jeez, Illinal, I don’t think that’s-” She rotated the bottler slightly. “Cyanider,” she corrected. “It’s made from Ocumelon and Pussplum, if I recall. Local favourite. Especially Chitl’s Red Label brew, which is stronger than the regular stuff...” Although it wasn’t quite what I usually went for, I couldn’t turn down a stiff drink after what we’d just been through. And not only was it quite delicious, but it helped take the edge right off. After a couple of glasses, Illinal was sharing stories from her last trip to Phoenix’s Roost, and I piped up with some questions about Grounded culture. A few glasses after that, and we were teasing each other about our experiences back at the academy. But by the time we’d drained the bottle, Illinal had quietened, and was drowsily resting her head on my shoulder. Even in my half-inebriated state, I wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Probably time we got some sleep,” I said after a while. “What time is it, anyway?” Illinal gave an indecisive grunt. “Don’t know. But I think I’m happy here.” “Same,” I admitted, putting an arm around her. A bit of a risk, but she seemed to welcome the gesture. “I guess we can wait a little longer.” Sitting up, Illinal stroked my cheek gently. “Or, we could take this to bed.” Tipsy as I was, I wasn’t so drunk that I hadn’t had my suspicions as the evening progressed. They’d started with the invitation itself, and went into overdrive when she decided my shoulder made for a good pillow. The thought that Illinal was attracted to me was simultaneously reassuring and nerve-wracking. Declan, Earth and the Protectorate felt a million miles away. “You… you want to? With an Apex?” “Why wouldn’t I?” Illinal said, looking me in the eye. “You’re the smartest man I’ve ever met. Pretty cute, too. And you know what it’s like to have grown up under tyranny. We understand each other.” I drew a shaky breath. “Well… I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see anything in you. But I don’t want this to be the Cyanider talking.” “It isn’t,” she promised. “We almost died getting off Earth, and… I guess I want to make the most of our time together. Who knows what could happen moving forward.” It was hard to argue with that. Losing Declan was hard enough, but Illinal on top of that would have been unbearable. Besides, we were both under a lot of stress, and needed every possible outlet for it. If that just so happened to take place between the bedsheets, was that such a bad thing? Illinal had mentioned that the Grounded didn’t mind the odd interspecies tryst… “Makes sense,” I said eventually. “You… well, you mean everything to me, you know. It’d be a shame not to make something of that.” Smiling warmly, Illinal planted a gentle kiss on my cheek. More of a peck, some to think of it. “Let’s not wait around, then,” she said, getting to her feet. I couldn’t help but stare as she did, watching the water stream off her feathers. “The night’s still young.” I also stood, heart racing, and climbed out of the bath. We took a few minutes to help each other dry off, what with neither fur nor feathers being easy to get water out of, before heading back to our room. It was late enough that the inn was near deserted, which was just as well. The last thing I needed was to run into any gawkers. But as we reached our room, Illinal looked over her shoulder to give me a playful wink. Based on the fire in her eyes, and the fact that she was a lot less tense than before, I was deeply relieved that something good had come of recent events. I followed Illinal into our bedroom, and closed the door behind us. Phoenix Frontier III, Phoenix’s Roost As I’d suspected based on the planet’s climate, the morning air had quite a chill to it. Not that it bothered me much, nestled in bed with Illinal. If anything, the temperature only made the warmth of her feathers against my fur even more comforting. It certainly helped that we had our arms loosely around each other, still half-embracing from the night before. I was in no hurry to get anywhere. The town was starting to awaken based on the noise outside, but Illinal continued to doze peacefully. And all things considered, she deserved it. She’d taken charge amidst panic, risked her life for her friends, and wasted no time in searching for a safe haven. Next to me lay a true hero, as far as I was concerned. And eventually that hero opened her eyes, looking up at me with a smile. “Morning,” I whispered, kissing her forehead. “Sleep well?” “Very. Last night was just... incredible. Really helped take my mind of things” “Glad to hear it. We’ve got a long day ahead of us.” With a groan, Illinal rolled over onto her back. “Don’t remind me. Should be fun telling everyone about the tentacle apocalypse.” “Well, I’m sure they can forgive us if we have a bit of a lie-in,” I said, stroking the white feathers on her belly. “We could order some breakfast in bed. As long as you don’t mind people seeing that we… you know…” Illinal turned her head, looking me in the eye. “I’m not ashamed, Vikton. I mean, it’s not unheard of for two consenting adults to spend the night together.” “Even an Apex and an Avian?” “The Grounded tend not to get too hung up on it,” Illinal replied, running a hand over down my chest. “In fact, I hear Apex are prized for their… physique.” “Huh,” I replied, raising an eyebrow. “Never would have thought that under the MiniKnog. Then again, it wasn’t like you got much choice who you ended up with.” Illinal sighed, stroking my cheek. “Now, why doesn’t that surprise me? At least now you do have a choice.” “I know. And I definitely made the right one last night.” Chuckling, Illinal pecked me on the nose, before climbing out of bed. “Flatterer. Now, I don’t know about you, but I could use a quick bath before breakfast.” “Sure,” I agreed, sitting up. “So… ah… is this going to be start of something? Or should we just keep it to stress-relief?” Illinal paused a moment, but soon shrugged. “Honestly? Might be best to just sit back and see where it goes on its own. I know this doesn’t seem like a great time to worry about relationships, but I still think we should make the most of the time we have. Just in case.” I nodded, picking up my towel from where I’d discarded it amidst the previous night’s passions. All things considered, it was touching enough to feel wanted. Even a casual relationship was still something I’d never experienced in my old life. “Sounds good… lovebird.” Snorting, Illinal opened the door for me. “Oh, don’t you start… you big gorilla.” By the time we’d bathed, dressed and joined the others for breakfast, the inn was packed with the morning crowd. Our friends weren’t hard to find, being swamped by locals eager to hear about our narrow escape. Michiko was obliging them with a dramatic retelling, while Lorenzo sat away from her, staring at his bowl of corn peckers. Illinal went off to get us something to eat, and I seated myself opposite my Human crewmate. “Morning, Lorenzo,” I said, sitting down opposite him. “How are you feeling?” He shrugged. “Coping. Just so hard to believe it’s all gone. My friends. My home. Gone.” For a moment, I wasn’t sure what to say. How did you comfort someone after that? The only precedent I’d heard of was the Hylotl losing their homeworld to the Floran, but that had been more than a century ago. The dust was barely settling for us. “I’m sorry,” I said at last. “I’ll do everything I can to help. We all will.” “Thanks. It really means a lot to me. But I still don’t know how the hell we’re supposed to come back from that...” Starbolt petted him on the shoulder. “Reassuring. With time, patience and hard work. In time, both the Protectorate and USCM should be able to rebuild.” Illinal came by, handing me a plate of beakseed bread and crispy bacon. “Don’t worry. I’m sure Necuan will be willing to help us out.” Exhaling, Lorenzo nodded. “If you’re sure. What can the rest of us do in the meantime?” “Well… we should start gathering supplies. Even just some basic salves and bandages could come in handy. We’ll also need building supplies, and fuel. In fact, Vikton, you and Michiko might want to look into that today.” I nodded. The town was large enough to warrant some sort of fuel distribution. “Sure thing. But how are we doing for money?” “We found some back on the ship,” Lorenzo said. “Not an awful lot, though.” Illinal shrugged. “Well, we’ll probably have to earn a bit. Or ask Necuan to help us.” Seeing as the older Avian arrived shortly after breakfast, we did just that. And he was one step ahead of us. “Sounds like you’ll need to go on a trip to the Outpost.” Necuan said, as we walked outside into the bustling street. “What’s that?” I asked. “Old research base, turned trading hub. From what I hear, they were studying the ruins of some long-lost civilization, before the funding dried up. But it’s connected to a whole series of ancient teleporters, including one not far from here.” “Great,” Illinal said. “And they have fuel?” “They do indeed. Infinity Express has a branch there. I’ll loan you some pixels to cover your expenses, provided you return the favour.” “Of course,” Illinal replied. “Whatever you need.” “Well, there’s an abandoned core fragment mine nearby that we suspect’s now host to a monster nest. I’ve been meaning to send a team to clear it out and retrieve any useful salvage, but didn’t know if the local guards were up to it. ‘If only we had a decorated ex-Stargazer who could handle it’, I said to myself…” Illinal smiled, and turned to the rest of us. “Sounds like I’ve got my day planned. Any volunteers to assist me?” “Floran will go!” Almar said. “Monstersss are no match!” “Reluctant,” Starbolt muttered. “I’ll go and make sure nobody gets killed.” Both Michiko and Lorenzo remained silent. I was tempted to speak up, but Illinal didn’t seem bothered. “Alright, once I’ve had a talk to the town council, I’ll go with you two then. Vikton, you can take Lorenzo and Michiko to the Outpost. If that’s fine with you, Necuan.” “Absolutely,” the old man said. “Come, let’s get you all kitted out.” In the end, it took the better part of the morning to get prepared. Our first stop was the guard barracks, where we were issued with various surplus weapons that appeared older than we were. My rifle alone was likely more of a danger to myself than any opponents, but I wasn’t in a position to look a gift gun in the barrel. From there, it was a trip to the market for all the food, sleeping bags and camping supplies that we needed, using up the money we’d found on the ship. Necuan handed out fuel money to ‘Team B’, as Illinal had started calling us, along with a map to the teleporter. But as I slipped the pixels into my pocket, I realized something was still in there. A small, pink flower. The tree that once stood at the Protectorate academy was now gone forever, but a small part of it now sat in my hand. It was in remarkably good shape, too. Perhaps it was a particularly resilient species, just like Humanity. “Now, are you sure you can read that map, son?” Necuan was saying to Lorenzo as we neared the outskirts of town. “I think so.” Lorenzo said, looking between the map and a compass he’d bought. “Well, good luck,” Illinal said. “Don’t forget to swing by the ship to get a Manipulator and link up to the teleporter. If you get into too much trouble, teleport straight back here.” Necuan nodded in agreement. “Better safe than sorry. But the worst you’ll come across is the local wildlife. Some can be a bit aggressive, but they’re nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle.” Hopefully that would be the case, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I gestured for Illinal to step aside with me for a moment. Even though a trip to the shops didn’t seem like the sort of fatal risk that Illinal had mentioned the night prior, but it was still looking to be our first taste of real work as Protectors. “Good luck,” she whispered, touching her forehead against mine. “Contact me if you need anything.” “Likewise,” I replied, pulling the flower out of my pocket and handing it to her. “Here.” Illinal smiled. “Oh, Vikton. You… wait. This is from Earth, isn’t it?” “Sure is. And I’d like you to have it.” Carefully, Illinal took the flower, and slipped it into the feathers on her head. Once she’d made sure it was secure, she pecked me on the cheek. “Thank you.” I turned back to the others, and saw all of them were staring at us in varying states of confusion, surprise and wonder. Even Necuan was smiling. I could only gulp, and pretend that I wasn’t deathly embarrassed. “Right… well… shall we get going?” After a few brief goodbyes and a trip to the ship, we were underway. Apparently, it was going to be a fair hike away, so I focused on enjoying the scenery. The forest at boot camp had been nice and all, but this was the real wilderness. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and nobody bothered me about Illinal. For about half an hour “So… you and Illinal…” Michiko said. I sighed. “Yes. Me and Illinal.” “What’s it like making out with a beak? Can you do it, or do you have to find alternatives?” “It’s… possible. We just need to find the right angle.” “Huh,” Michiko replied thoughtfully. “I don’t mean to pry. It’s just not something you see every day. A mammal and an ave… I wonder what differences in reproductive biology mean for-” Lorenzo spoke up before I could. That was likely for the best. “Leave him be. As long as they’re happy, that’s the main thing.” Michiko scoffed, turning to look at him. “I wasn’t judging! I think it’s quite cute, actually. An intelligent young man, able to look beyond the soldier’s rugged exterior… just like in Beautiful Attempt VI: Wondrous Warrior Heart.” “Right,” I said, desperate to change the subject. “We still headed in the right direction, Lorenzo?” There was a ruffling noise behind me as he consulted the map. “Looks like it. We keep going northeast until we reach some ruins, then head about due east.” “Those ruins?” Michiko asked, pointing almost 90 degrees to our left. Sure enough, I could just make out a stone structure of some sort barely visible through the trees. “Ah… yes,” Lorenzo said, checking the map closer. “Oh! We’re on this trail, not that one…” Sighing, I turned and approached the ruins. There wasn’t terribly much left of the structure, beyond a couple of half-collapsed stone walls. Who or what had built them were evidently long gone, leaving behind little more than an iron chest containing some ore chunks and a couple of jars of what Lorenzo deduced was a salve. We weren’t really in a position to turn down extra supplies, and I ended up using my Matter Manipulator to disassemble the chest as well. You never know when a bit of extra storage will come in handy. Luckily, in the coming hours we had a much better time reaching the teleporter from there. In fact, calling it a mere teleporter would do it a disservice. It was more of a gateway, with a truly magnificent arch standing at least three stories tall atop a stone platform surrounded by small obelisks. I hung back a moment to examine the lighting mechanisms on them, but realized Lorenzo had stopped dead in his tracks. “Guys? Are you seeing this?” I turned, just as Michiko looked to where Lorenzo was pointing. Atop the arch, there were a number of intricate carvings, still mostly visible despite the structure’s apparent age. That made what I was seeing all the more worrying. Slowly, I pulled out my communicator. “Illinal? Do you read me?” “Loud and clear,” came the reply. “We’re heading to the mine now. The council seemed eager to help, and they’re going to put together a plan before I get back. How’s everything on your end?” “We’re at the teleporter. Gateway, I should say. I’m going to take a photo and send it to you. Something’s not right.” I snapped a picture of the gateway arch, and sent it off to Illinal. With little in the way of communications infrastructure beyond whatever Phoenix’s Roost had set up, it took several minutes for Illinal to receive. And for a while, she was speechless. “How old is that gateway?” she asked. “Whoever made it must have been around recently enough to know the civilized races, but I don’t see why they’d carve us into the arch. And the tentacles… that can’t be a coincidence.” “I don’t know,” I replied. “There must be someone at this outpost that knows about who built this. We can ask around, and see if we can work something out.” “Just don’t forget why you’re going there. Fuel is the priority. Colony Deeds too, if you can afford any. Might be worth asking around for news about Earth, too.” “Will do. Take care, Illinal. Stay safe.” “You too, Vikton.” Michiko gave me a smug look over her shoulder, but I ignored her and approached the gateway. “Well, prescient ancient aliens or no, we should get a move on. You two ready?” “Is it safe, though?” Lorenzo asked. “What if it was built by whatever destroyed Earth?” I shrugged, approaching what appeared to be a console sitting before the gateway. “Sounds like Necuan’s folk have used it before, and he didn’t mention any freak teleporter accidents.” Tapping the console produced more of a reaction than I’d expected, with a noise below me indicating that something was powering up. The console lit up with indecipherable text, and the archway flashed. In the middle appeared what was either a hologram or a hole in the very fabric of space, with a Human-built structure visible beyond. Suddenly, I had to wonder if Lorenzo was onto something. “Well,” I said, tapping the console again, and feeling the familiar tingle of a teleporter envelope me. “Here goes nothing.” The Outpost I’d never quite got the hang of teleporting. Having your body de- and subsequently re-materialized was bad enough, but having your consciousness punted halfway across the galaxy was the most disorientating experience imaginable. Still, I consoled myself that it was better than getting killed and replaced every time you needed to teleport to the shops. The platform we’d arrived on was largely similar to our point of departure, right down to the archway and its mysterious carvings. Before us was the exact same sight I’d seen in the rift; a human structure built of concrete and metal, standing several stories tall and bristling with air conditioning units, turbine generators and even what appeared to be a couple of makeshift stores. The surrounding was completely barren, to the point where I realized we were standing on an asteroid. There was even a gas giant and garden world visible amidst the stars beyond. But that wasn’t the only thing that I hadn’t expected. First of all, the area surrounding the Outpost had been turned into a refugee camp. Dozens of humans milled around, with some setting up tents, nanostoves and television sets while others sat in mourning. A Sparrow-class Hammerhead sporting USCM colours and signage had landed off to one side, where soldiers were lugging supplies and one officer was barking instructions from atop a crate. We weren’t going to have trouble finding refugees willing to come to Phoenix’s Roost, that was for sure. But what made me truly stop and stare were the ruins. They dwarfed the Outpost proper, with its dark entrance giving it the look of a colossal stone beast ready to swallow the trading post whole. The fact that its creators were formidable enough to have apparently predicted the future didn’t make me particularly keen to go tramping around in it, but I decided it might be worth checking out at some point. “Oi! Protectors! Get down here!” The USCM officer was gesturing for us to approach, which had caused quite a few of the refugees to notice our arrival as well. Glancing at each other, we slowly made our way down the platform towards the camp, saluting the officer as we reached her. “Sergeant Rowan, Colonial Marines,” she said briskly, returning the gesture. “What’s the status of the Protectorate chain of command?” “No idea,” I admitted. “As soon as we escaped Earth, we made our way to a Grounded colony that once took our captain in. We’re working on a settlement deal for Human refugees.” The Sergeant grunted in satisfaction. “Taking the initiative, I see. Excellent. I’ll get you to take in as many of these folks as you can, then. We can’t stay on this rock forever.” “Once everything’s ready, you’ll be the first to know. But right now, we’re looking for fuel.” “Good luck,” the Sergeant replied, with a snort. “The high school dropout behind the counter at Infinity Express has been giving us some cock-and-bull story about supplier problems to justify his exorbitant prices. If you go there, tell him he’s gone 24 hours to sort it out, or we’ll start siphoning it faster than he can say ‘weeaboo’.” I blinked. “It doesn’t sound like it’s his fault.” “And it doesn’t sound like many people got off Earth, either. I will not have our ability to handle the crisis jeopardized because of corporate incompetence.” “We’ll see what we can do,” Michiko said. Perhaps it was easier if we didn’t argue. “Where is Infinity Express?” Sergeant Rowan pointed off towards the Outpost. Sure enough, I could make out a smaller structure outside the main one, with a neon infinity symbol on a sign beside it. “Right there, next to the sign saying that fuel costs 999.99 pixels. Can’t miss it.” Lorenzo nodded. “Got it. We’ll keep you posted.” “Good luck.” Sergeant Rowan muttered, turning back to her men. “Pick up the pace, Smith! Those crates aren’t moving themselves!” We left her to her work, heading towards Infinity Express. While I could hardly blame the Sergeant for being on edge, she needed to find a better coping mechanism. I’d seen more than one ration riot under the MiniKnog, and I wasn’t about to let the same thing happen here if I could help it. ‘If’ being the operative word. Opening the shop’s door set off a small bell, filling the room with a joyful jingle. Not so joyful, however, was the Hylotl standing behind the counter. The Sergeant had clearly been onto something in calling him a dropout. Between the triple-lensed glasses and Numi T-shirt half-hidden by his jacket, he didn’t fill me with an air of confidence. The visible shaking wasn’t helping, either. “Good… day,” I said, walking up to him. I wasn’t sure how time worked on an asteroid. “I understand you’re having some supply issues?” The Hylotl gulped. “Yes. The Letheia Corporation apologizes for the inconvenience, and promises that normal services will be restored as soon as possible.” I nodded. “Right… and, what is the issue, exactly? Is it related to the destruction of Earth?” “The Letheia Corporation is not at liberty to speak about the matter. We apologize for-” “Answer the question,” Lorenzo interjected. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the most populous planet in the galaxy was destroyed a couple of days ago. My people’s civilization is on the verge of collapse, and you’re sitting here reading comic books.” The Hylotl balked. “They’re not ‘comic books’, they’re…” he swallowed. “The Letheia Corporation-” “Doesn’t concern me, six-eyes. We need fuel, and we’re prepared to help solve your supply problem if we can. Unless you’d rather we let the USCM take matters into their own hands.” Paling, the Hylotl leaned in for a whisper. I doubted we were being eavesdropped on, but the Letheia Corporation was starting to sound exactly like the kind of people who’d spy on their own employees. “Look… I shouldn’t be telling you this,” the Hylotl said. “But we lost contact with our supplier a week ago. We had enough fuel to last a few days, but it’s reached critical levels. The price hike was automatic, and I couldn’t roll it back if I tried. Only way to put the prices back to normal is to get another shipment in to replenish the supply.” I nodded. “And who is your supplier?” “We get it direct from a lunar mining base. It’s not far from here, but communication’s down. That either means a technical issue, or…” the Hylotl looked around again. “Security lockdown.” “Well, if it’s the former, we might be able to help. It’s just a matter of getting there, though…” The Hylotl reached under the desk, pulling out a datapad. “I can give you the teleporter co-ordinates. There’s a public teleporter in the Outpost, but it won’t work for this. If you have a Protectorate ship, its transponders should identify it for emergency response. That should let you past the lockdown as a rescue team.” “To rescue the base from a technical issue.” Lorenzo said drily. “Or a security lockdown,” the Hylotl reminded him, as he transferred the details to my datapad. “Either way… good luck.” Saying we had our suspicious would be an understatement. Indeed, I was quick to call up Illinal to explain the situation, and she also voiced her concern. “Whatever it is, don’t go there just yet,” she told me. “Wait until we’re finished up down here, and we all regroup. In fact, it’s best we look into getting some armour, too. That Mother Poptop took a nice chunk out of poor Almar...” “Run into some trouble, did you?” “Nothing too serious. There was a Poptop nest on the upper level, but we’re mostly just poking around for supplies and resources now. We’ll finish up in half an hour or so, and teleport back to the ship.” “See you there, then. Take care.” “Will do.” I pocketed my communicator, turning to the others. “How’s the missus?” Michiko asked. “Team A is doing well,” I said, ignoring the comment. “They’ll be teleporting back to the ship in half an hour, so we can discuss our next move then.” “We should probably let the Sergeant know what’s happening, then.” Lorenzo said. “Just a second,” Michiko said. “I think we need to talk about what you said back there.” Lorenzo nodded slowly. “I know I lost my temper, yes. The guy got on my nerves.” “I understand,” I said. “This is a hard time for Humanity, and it’s not going to improve overnight. But we need to remember what the Protectorate stands for, and strive towards that. Insulting people isn’t a part of it.” Michiko glanced between us in confusion. “I meant the comic book thing. I’ll have you know, Hylotl graphic novels have a long and storied place in our culture. More so than any mere ‘comic books’…” While I can’t say Sergeant Rowan was particularly impressed by our plan to investigate the base, she was at least willing to hold off until we did. Which was just as well, seeing as we’d likely need time to rest, gear up and conduct our mission. I just hoped it would be enough, and that we could deal with the situation before the USCM did anything hasty. Despite that, we still had a bit of time to kill, and took to wandering the Outpost proper. While hardly the technicolour bazaar that was Phoenix’s Roost’s marketplace, there was still an impressive variety of goods for sale. Everything from agricultural supplies to raw materials to furniture were available across the various stores, which would be incredibly helpful for setting up housing for the refugees. There was even a makeshift shipyard out the back offering ship upgrades and vehicles. But in order to truly kill time, we went to the Beakeasy. Back on Earth, the academy’s engineering faculty was no stranger to drinking. Even I’d undergone a couple of pub crawls with some of the other students, but not once did we come across an establishment that such a dive. Being located deep within the bowels of the Outpost’s maintenance tunnels was bad enough, but the mottled wooden panelling, broken neon sign and grizzled, flippered clientele sealed the deal. At least the drinks weren’t too badly watered down, as Lorenzo and I discovered. Michiko declined getting one herself, instead heading over to an arcade game in the corner, leaving us alone at one of the tables. “Vikton?” “Hmm?” “Been thinking about those carvings we saw on the gateway. Specifically, how they could have predicted the future.” I shook my head. “It’s not possible. That’s what troubles me about it.” “Exactly. Which is why I’m wondering if it wasn’t precognition. You know the Glitch were created by a long-lost species, right?” “Right…” I replied, taking another sip of my drink. Something told me I was going to need it. “And theories have always floated around that the Avians were uplifted by a superior species, which would be why they advanced technologically but barely culturally. So, hypothetically… what if whoever built that gateway was responsible for building the Glitch and giving technology to the Avians?” Not a bad theory on the surface, but the holes were readily apparent beyond that. “Then how do they know about all the other species? Could they have contacted us too?” Lorenzo shrugged. “It’s not impossible. For centuries, people have looked at certain ancient carvings and whatnot and claimed they depict spacemen. I’m sure Apex have similar things.” “Honestly wouldn’t know,” I replied. “Hard enough to tell what happened a year ago, let alone millennia. The only history I’ve learned about before the MiniKnog was after I fled them.” “Damn. Still, it’s not the civilized species that worries me. If these precursors knew about us all because it created us, how does it know about what destroyed Earth?” I exhaled. “Well… just because they created the Glitch doesn’t mean they made the tentacles. I mean, one’s a matter of robotics and the other biology. So… maybe the tentacles have existed for a while.” “Then surely something that destructive would have been noticed by now,” Lorenzo sighed, downing half his glass in one shot. “I don’t know. Not long ago, I thought humanity was quite possibly the most powerful of the civilized species. To think that something can just come out of nowhere and destroy so much in a matter of hours… it’s horrifying.” Not a sentiment I could possibly disagree with. “It certainly is. But we can't let it get to us. We’ve still got work to do.” Nodding, Lorenzo finished his drink. “We sure do.” Phoenix Frontier III, Phoenix’s Roost By the time we teleported back to the ship, Team A had already returned. Clearly their attempts to secure additional resources had been successful, as the hold was now host to a campsite. Almar sat nursing his bandaged arm on one of several folding chairs set up around a nanostove, which was being tended to by Starbolt. Beyond them, Illinal was setting up the third in a series of tents, which I figured was going to be our new sleeping quarters. I was going to miss that inn room. “Cordial. Welcome back.” Starbolt said, stirring a pot of something savoury-smelling. “You’re just in time for lunch.” “Floran sstabbed many preyss!” Almar said, clearly in good cheer in spite of his injuries. “Besst fight I’ve had in ages!” I heard Michiko groan behind me, but I didn’t comment. “Glad you all had fun. I take it Illinal’s brought you up to speed on the fuel situation?” Illinal turned away from the tent. “Sure have. As soon as we’ve had lunch, we should go into town and talk to the local blacksmith. We managed to collect some materials in the mine and on the surface, so we should hopefully be enough for a couple of sets of armour.” I nodded. “So, who’s going?” “I’m thinking you, me and Starbolt. Between the three of us, we should be able to deal with the situation if it’s security, technical or medical in nature.” As much as I wanted it to be one of the latter two, the fact that we were planning on getting armour wasn’t encouraging. “Only one way to find out.” After a quick lunch of meat stew and some fresh bread from the village, we tracked down the village blacksmith. She was quite happy to assist us, especially seeing as we’d need to buy extra materials from her. As we smelted the iron ore Illinal had collected, we handed the blacksmith our datapads so she could look over some armour schematics. In order to aid equipment acquisition in the field, every Protector is issued with digital crafting plans for armour that suits their racial physiology. In my case, I had plans for a range of armours derived from those fielded by the Apex rebellion, although we lacked the resources for anything other than the most basic iron set. To her credit, the blacksmith did a remarkable job. She could have done Illinal’s armour in her sleep, seeing as it was an Avian design. It consisted of little more than an iron circlet, breastplate and loincloth. Quite beautiful, although it seemed to favour mobility and aesthetic over outright protection. But she showed no sign of struggling with either my set or Starbolt’s, which weren’t exactly the pinnacle of personal protection themselves. My suit consisted of a small mask, a simple chestguard and a pair of trousers, while Starbolt’s was much the same except his headwear was actually something of a helmet. Truth be told, I wasn’t too impressed by the protection offered, but it was better than nothing. Once we got back to the ship, it was right down to business. Illinal got out the old Protector’s Broadsword, sharpening it on a whetstone she’d bought from the blacksmith. Starbolt and Lorenzo went through various plants that the former had collected, using them to mix salves and fashion bandages. Even I took inventory of the various tools and spare parts that had been stored in the ship, pocketing anything that might be of use fixing the lunar base’s possible technical issues. But I also checked over my rifle too, just in case. “Right, are we all ready?” Illinal asked, slipping her armour on over her uniform. I nodded, doing the same. “About as ready as I will be.” “Nervous. I’ve put together as many medical supplies as I can. Hopefully, it will be sufficient.” “Here’s hoping,” Illinal agreed. “Have you inputted the teleporter coordinates yet, Vikton?” I shook my head, stepping over to the SAIL terminal. “Doing it now.” Once I’d typed in the coordinates, a map came up highlighting the location. True to its namesake, the lunar base was located on a small moon a few systems away from the Outpost. A warning also appeared, stating that the base was under lockdown, but that wasn’t going to stop us. “It’s ready!” I called. Illinal nodded, powering up the teleporter. “Let’s do this, then. Lorenzo, take care of Almar until we get back. And Michiko, it might be a good idea to check the fuel system before we fill up. We’re not going to have much to spare if we need to travel, so we need it to be as efficient as possible.” “Sure,” she replied, cracking her knuckles. “Picked up a few tricks I can use. Should be pretty safe, too.” Memories of desperately fixing a ship’s fuel system and having it backfire horribly replayed in my mind, eliciting a shudder. “Good luck,” Lorenzo said. “We’ll be here if you need us.” With one last nod, Illinal tapped the teleporter controls, and disappeared with a flash. Starbolt did the same, and I followed. As I came to, standing with the rest of the group in an abandoned lobby, alarms blared around us. Letheia Corporation Lunar Mining Base “Anyone there?” Illinal called, for whatever good it did. The lobby was completely deserted, without any sign of people. Chairs lay overturned by tables, while a half-eaten meal and logged-in computer sat on the reception desk opposite the teleporter. Whatever was happening in the base, it was serious. “Looks like everyone left in a hurry,” I observed. “Anything on that computer?” Illinal circled around the desk, reading the monitor. “Yeah, there’s a warning about the lockdown. ‘This facility has been put into full lockdown in accordance with procedure Alpha1a: Awakening.’” “Concerned. Awakening of what?” Starbolt asked, looking out a window at the lunar surface. “There’s something here about an ‘erchius lifeform’,” Illinal replied, scrolling down. “The rest is just corporate babble. Sounds like they’re covering up what’s happening here.” I scratched my head. “Erchius? As in the fuel? Never heard of any sort of lifeform being connected to it.” “Disgusted. I don’t know what it is, but they knew about it in advance. Probably didn’t even warn the workers until it was too late.” Illinal didn’t comment, instead tapping the keyboard. “I’ll try the intercom, and see if we can contact any survivors.” She leaned in towards a microphone beside the computer, clearing her throat. “Attention. This is Protector Illinal of the Terrene Protectorate. I am leading a team responding to the distress signal sent out by this facility. If you are able, make your way towards the reception area for protection and medical treatment. We will be dealing with the situation here presently.” Within seconds, a speaker crackled, and a voice spoke up. “This is Overseer Harris. I’m sending some of the other survivors to greet you. Unless you’re with Letheia, in which case we’ll shoot you dead.” Illinal glanced at Starbolt and I, eyebrow raised, before giving a reply. “Acknowledged. But rest assured; we’re here to help.” A hollow assurance, as it turned out. After only a couple of minutes waiting, a group of Human and Hylotl miners came into the reception area. All of them carried firearms and sledgehammers, but seemed to relax upon seeing our uniforms. They still weren’t much in the way of conversation, though, simply asking us to follow them. We were led through a winding series of corridors, passing more than one passageway blocked off by thick fire doors. Eventually, we were ushered into the base’s barracks, which had been turned into something of a refugee camp. Several injured miners lay on stretchers along one wall, and Starbolt was already consulting with a Hylotl doctor before Illinal could order him over. She made a beeline for the far end of the room, where all manner of communications equipment had been set up. A man I assumed to be Harris was waving us over. “Welcome,” he said, shaking our hands. “Sorry about the welcome. Had to be sure your message wasn’t a decoy sent by some cover-up team.” Illinal nodded. “It’s nothing. From what we saw of Letheia’s warning message, you’re right to be paranoid. Sounds like they know full well what’s going on here.” “Damn right they do,” he said, getting out his communicator. “We found this a few months ago.” He handed the device over, which was displaying a photo of what appeared to be an enormous pink crystal. “Is that an erchius crystal?” I asked. “Didn’t realize they formed that large.” “They don’t. We’ve detected a few ruins around the moon, so we thought it was a statue at first. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Orders came through to crack it open, and nothing we threw at it did the job. Only thing that even left a dent was a mining laser, but that only started our problems. People began falling ill…” That got Starbolt’s attention. “Worried. If there’s been an outbreak, we’ll need to implement quarantine procedures…” “It’s no disease,” the doctor assured him. “It’s the crystals. They’re emitting some sort of radiation that’s causing mutations with prolonged exposure.” “How’s that even possible?” I asked. The doctor shrugged. “I have absolutely no idea. From what little we can tell, symptoms first appeared in those who had been present in the mines the longest. It started with increased aggression, before developing… physical deformations.” Harris took his communicator back for a moment, opening another image. This one showed a figure further down a dimly lit corridor. I couldn’t make it out, but it definitely wasn’t Human or Hylotl. “The second the higher ups learned what was happening, we were cut off,” Harris continued. “We’ve evacuated to the upper levels to get away from the crystals, which seems to be working. But the mines themselves are practically overrun, and it’s only a matter of time until we run out of supplies.” “So, none of this happened before you damaged the crystal?” I asked. Harris shook his head. “No. Only in the days after.” “So… perhaps our best course of action may be to destroy it,” Illinal said. “We need to lift the lockdown, and resume fuel deliveries to the Outpost restored as soon as possible.” The miners glanced among each other, and Harris got to his feet. “Oh, no. We’re done with Letheia. Losing their supply is the absolute least those slimy bastards deserve. No offence, Mika.” “None taken.” The doctor replied indifferently, turning back to her patients. Illinal nodded. “I understand where you’re coming from, but things have gone downhill since you were put under lockdown. Something’s attacked Earth, and the USCM needs fuel to deal with the fallout.” She proceeded to fill them in on recent developments, from Earth’s destruction to the USCM threatening to plunder Infinity Express. I’d expected the miners to be onboard with the latter, but learning of what had happened to Earth had left the room in stunned silence. “Good God,” Harris said. “What… what caused it?” “We still don’t know,” Illinal admitted. “Our immediate focus is on getting the fuel flowing again.” “Alright. If you can take care of that thing on the lower levels, we might be able to lift the lockdown. In which case, we’ll deal with the Infinity Express directly, without getting Letheia involved.” The arrangement seemed fair, assuming it held together. The miners gathered up their equipment, and we helped them move the injured to the reception area. One by one, we teleported them to Phoenix’s Roost, where Lorenzo sent us a message reporting their safe arrival. With the last of them away, we made our way over to one of the sealed doors. It was larger than the others we’d passed, clearly the main thoroughfare for the base. “This is it,” Harris said, tapping a nearby console. “We’ll open it up for you, but you’re on your own from here on out.” The door opened with a metallic clamour, and Illinal readied her sword. “Alright. Seal the door behind us, but be ready to open it again if we run into trouble.” Harris nodded, and Illinal led Starbolt and I down the corridor. We crept past overturned carts and spilled ore parts, weapons ready, as the door closed behind us. Lights flickered and alarms blared, but the hallways were empty as close as we could tell. At least until we heard a loud clang from an adjoining room. “What the hell was that?” Illinal said, readying her sword. I trained my rifle on the door, but it didn’t open. “Don’t know. Should we check it out?” “Terrified!” Starbolt replied, summing up the mood rather well. “No! It could be one of those… things!” Illinal exhaled. “It could also be a survivor. Vikton, you get the door. I’ll take care of whatever’s on the other side.” Reluctantly, I got in position, and opened the door when she gave the signal. She crept in, checking her corners as she went. The room was some sort of storage space, filled with shelves and crates untouched by the unfolding emergency. The only thing out of place was a vent grill lying discarded in the middle of the floor. Illinal looked up to the ceiling above it, where a vent shaft access hatch had been forced open. “Oh, hell…” She began to back away, just as something thumped against the vent. I brought my weapon up and caught glimpse of something moving inside. Something wearing a hi-vis jacket. For the briefest of moments I hesitated, until a pink, deformed head emerged. I fired without hesitation. The thing spasmed, falling to the ground in a heap. Illinal sprung forward, driving her sword into its neck. It let loose an otherworldly scream, but quickly fell silent. “Are you alright?” I asked Illinal, as she backed away from its pooling blood. “I’m fine,” she replied, staring at the body. “But this guy...” Starbolt stepped forward for a closer look, trying hard to avoid standing in the blood. “Uneasy. He appears to be… to have been Human. Underwent rapid mutation to his bone structure and pigmentation at the absolute least. Most likely irreversible.” I exhaled uneasily. “We probably did him a mercy, then.” Illinal nodded. “I hope he’s better off now. Still, we can’t get bogged down. Help me check these crates for anything useful.” We scrounged around the storage room for anything we could use; flares, ropes and bandages, mostly. There was also a whole cache of blueprints for base-standard equipment, which I couldn’t help but pocket for later. If we were going to be building a new home for Human refugees, it wouldn’t hurt to know how to assemble something a tad more advanced than wooden furniture. Thankfully, we didn’t have any further issues back in the corridor. At its end stood another sturdy blast door leading to the mines proper. This time we were more prepared, with Starbolt and I assuming firing positions while Illinal opened the door. Sure enough, we found ourselves facing off against another group of mutants, and opened fire immediately. They dropped like stones, but not before one sprayed some sort of pink slimy substance at us. I dived out of the way, but not fast enough. “Damn it!” I screamed, resisting the urge to clutch my arm. Starbolt leapt over, rummaging through his pack. “Panicked! Hold still! Don’t touch it!” I slumped against the wall, teeth clenched. “Do something! It burns!” “Panicked! Here!” Starbolt opened up a container, and poured salve all over the wound. After a few minutes of massaging it in, he applied a bandage. The pain began to subside, but not by much. “What the hell was that?” Illinal asked, standing guard at the threshold with sword in hand. Starbolt shook his head, examining the floor where the liquid had landed. “Anxious. It would appear that the mutants have developed a means of expelling some sort of acid to defend themselves. Harmful to organics, but not strong enough to melt through much more.” “Great,” Illinal muttered, peering deeper into the mine. “Vikton, how are you doing? Think you’re going to be up to continuing?” I hefted my rifle experimentally. My aim still seemed fairly steady, despite the searing pain in my left arm. “I think so. How far away is the crystal?” “Still a fair hike. And it just got harder, too.” Nodding, I got to my feet, and strolled over to Illinal. “We can’t give up now. Just need to take it slow, cover our flanks, and keep in cover. Just like the simulations.” Illinal sighed, stepping out into the mines. “I hope so. Let’s do this.” And so the battle began. The mines were an absolute rabbit warren of tunnels, caverns and the occasional building. We fought dozens of mutants, and with far more caution than before. Luckily, we managed to avoid major injuries aside from a few cuts and a splash of acid across Illinal’s side, though our supplies dwindled nonetheless. Hours slipped by and progress was slow, and I began to seriously regret ever coming along. But after what felt like an eternity of slogging ever deeper into a mutant-infested hellhole, we found our target. Compared to the others we’d passed through, the cavern was enormous. Equipment stood abandoned around the floor, and I was able to quickly identify a mining laser and a series of generators connected to it. But above all that loomed the erchius crystal, floating in the middle of the cavern. Definitely larger than what the textbooks said to expect, and seemingly different in appearance. Still a few cracks in the surface, but the surface was otherwise smoother than would be natural. And there definitely shouldn’t have been outlines of people inside. “They’re trapped inside it,” I breathed. “If we blow the crystal, that might kill them.” Illinal stared at the crystal, shaking her head. “I don’t think we have much of a choice at this point. Go see if those-” Without warning, the crystal spun around to face us. In its centre was a single, humungous eye. “Horrified! What the hell is that?!” “Cover!” Illinal screamed, diving behind a pile of crates. Starbolt and I barely made it before a bright purple beam of energy shot out to where we’d just been standing. And it was still moving towards us. “Move!” I yelled, pushing Illinal and Starbolt away. “Go get those generators! I’ll get the one over here!” We bolted away from the crates seconds before the beam reached them, and a glance back showed the beam was following after Illinal and Starbolt. With my heart in my throat I sprinted towards the generator, throwing the switch as I passed. The machine hummed to life, and a sound from the other side of the cavern indicated Illinal had just done the same. “Go for the next one!” she called to me, deftly sidestepping the beam and sprinting towards the laser. “I’ve got the laser.” I obeyed, running full-tilt towards the next generator. By the time I’d reached it and flipped the switch, another beam had emerged and was also headed towards Illinal. Just as she was about to dive out of the way, Starbolt turned on the next generator, and Illinal slammed the button on the laser. A bright blue pulse shot out of the laser, slamming into the crystal. It unleashed a horrific screech, shaking as more cracks emerged in its surface and its beams cut out. But behind me came a whine, and the generator cut out. Cursing, I pulled the lever again, bringing it back to life. “Start the generators again!” I called to Starbolt. “We’ve got to get that laser ba-” A beam shot out from the crystal, hitting me squarely in the chest. Energy enveloped my body, and I collapsed in a heap in the ship’s teleporter. Phoenix Frontier III, Phoenix’s Roost “Medical evacuation. Medical evacuation. Second degree burns detected. Psychological shock detected. Recommend triage level yellow.” SAIL began repeating the message, as footsteps clamoured over. I couldn’t open my eyes. “Oh, hell…” a familiar voice whimpered. “Doctor Mika! I need help here!” “Calm down, Lorenzo. Let’s see… okay, I don’t think it’s too bad. Protector, can you hear me?” I managed a small groan. My chest felt like I’d just hugged an active heating coil. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. We’re going to put you under, and get you to the town clinic. You’ll be alright. I promise.” Try as I might, I couldn’t so much as open my eyes, let alone nod. I felt a sharp jab in the arm, and let myself slip into unconsciousness. Someone was gripping my hand. “… Protector…” A voice. Muffled, but there. As I came to, I could feel that I was lying in a bed. My chest felt strange, too; the pain was dulled significantly, but there was a tightness to it. Bandages, I figured. “… Protector…” I managed to open my eyes, and through the blurriness could see yet another hospital. An Avian one, by the looks of it. There were a few other beds around me, occupied by Human and Hylotl miners. Others were on their feet, comforting injured friends and telling tales about Illinal’s fight against the Erchius monster. It sounded like it had ended in victory. Sure enough, Illinal was sitting on a stool by my bedside, toying with the flower I’d given her. Next to her stood Necuan, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, Vikton,” Illinal said quietly. “How are you feeling?” “Sore. You alright?” “I’m fine. Starbolt and I managed to complete the mission.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “The… thing’s dead?” “Blew it to pieces. Even managed to free the people inside it.” “That’s… that’s great, Illinal,” I replied, immensely relieved. “I’m proud of you.” Illinal didn’t smile. “Thanks. Just wish you didn’t have to get hurt in the process.” I tried to sit up, but immediately lay back down wincing in pain. The attempt didn’t do much to reassure Illinal, so I made do with grasping her hand. “Not your fault. No way we could have known what we were up against.” “I know,” Illinal replied. “And that’s what scares me. This is the second time we’ve nearly been killed by something we don’t understand.” Necuan stroked her shoulder soothingly. “And you made it out alive both times, saving others in the process. You should be proud of that.” Lowering her eyes, Illinal sighed. “We might not be so lucky next time.” For a moment, I stared into her eyes, losing myself in their black depths. The only other time I’d seen her so worried was after Earth. Even then she’d said she’d be lost without me, and that was before we’d spent a night together. I wanted to say something, anything to comfort her, but we were approached by a Hylotl doctor before I could think of anything. “Ah, you’re awake,” Doctor Mika said, picking up a clipboard from the foot of my bed. “How are you feeling, Vikton?” “A little woozy. Not a lot of pain, though.” Doctor Mika scribbled a note down. “Good, good. You’ll likely need at least a week to recover, but it seems you’re responding to treatment quite well.” Just as she was replacing the clipboard, Overseer Harris approached us. He hesitated upon noticing Illinal and I holding hands, but neither of us withdrew. “Well, if it isn’t our wounded warrior,” Overseer Harris said. “Good to see you pulled through. From what your… ‘captain’ tells me, it was a tough fight.” “That’s one way of putting it. Heard from Letheia yet?” “Not a word. We’ve made the USCM aware of what’s happened, and they claim there’ll be an investigation. But with Sol still a mess, who knows when that will be.” “At least you can get them their fuel now.” Illinal said. “Yes, our shipments to the Outpost will resume soon,” Harris told me, nodding towards Necuan. “We’ve even agreed to trade raw materials for food with your Avian friends. Everyone’s a winner.” “Except Letheia.” I replied. “Except Letheia. They’ll get what’s coming for them. I’ll make sure of it.” Doctor Mika glanced at him sceptically, but didn’t comment. “We should see to our crew,” she said, ushering Harris away. “Thank you for your help, Protectors. It’s been an honour.” The coming week was fairly quiet, but the rest of the crew managed to keep me in good spirits. Starbolt helped me through a few exercises to keep me fit, Lorenzo brought me a couple of books he’d purchased at the market, and Almar presented me with the bloody carcass of one of his hunting kills for lunch one day. But the most interesting company came in the form of Michiko, who dropped by with some USCM sappers to consult with me about refugee housing. Together, we managed to put together a solid enough plan, although Michiko frequently turned her nose up at the ‘unsophisticated’ furniture blueprints I’d found and the ‘distasteful’ house design the sappers favoured. We pushed ahead in spite of her objections, but once I was out of hospital I could see that she was onto something. The few houses that had been built by that point were very utilitarian. ‘Humantown’, as the locals had dubbed it, was going to consist of squat, concrete rectangles that resembled bunkers more than dwellings. Thankfully, that meant they were very resilient, and I soon learned that they were very easy to assemble with the help of a Matter Manipulator. And there was some precious little deviation from the blandness; each house was given its own spacious greenhouse garden (tripping up Almar with a literal interpretation of a ‘green house’), while the USCM troops were already in the process of converting one building into a neon-draped drinking hole. The Human style still contrasted with the local Avian architecture, but the important thing was that two species were still getting on well enough. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Illinal,” I said, as I finished installing the roof to our first house of the day. “Your plan’s worked out very well.” Illinal nodded, tapping her Manipulator a few times, and laying down some bunk beds against the far wall. “I’m glad something’s going right. At this rate, we’ll be able to bring in the first round of refugees in a matter of days.” “Taking less time than I thought. We’ll have to put together a little welcoming party for them. I’m sure we could all use something to lift our spirits.” “Necuan’s putting something together, from what I’ve heard,” Illinal replied, laying down a table and some chairs in the middle of the house. “I definitely wouldn’t mind something to take my mind off things.” I put my Manipulator aside, and walked over to hug her from behind. “How about we go out for dinner sometime? I’m sure there’s somewhere we can get a romantic meal around here…” Illinal paused her interior decorating, placing an arm atop mine. “Well… I have been meaning to ask if you’re up for a little overnight camping trip. There’s something outside of town I’d love to show you. We can take a picnic with us.” “Sounds lovely,” I replied, kissing the back of her head. “You deserve a night off. Things have been so hectic lately.” “True. As long as we keep on schedule to-” Someone opened the door behind her. “Illinal? Vikton? Are you in… oh. Sorry, I didn’t realize…” Illinal stepped away from me, turning around. “It’s alright, Lorenzo. What’s up?” “I just got word about my parents. Dad’s out of hospital, and Sergeant Rowan’s arranging for him and Mum to be transferred here.” “That’s great!” I said, clapping on the shoulder. “Should be a real weight off your mind.” “Oh, definitely. Don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if something happened to them. I lost enough people on Earth.” Illinal also placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s hard, I know. And we’re here for you and your family as you go through this.” Smiling, Lorenzo nodded. “Thanks, Illinal. I can’t wait to introduce you all to my parents properly. They’d love to get to know you better, with everything you’re doing.” “Looking forward to it already.” Illinal said. But as Lorenzo left, she turned away and got went back to work, distant expression on her face. After some brief preparations, Illinal and I set off late that afternoon, though it was well and truly dusk by the time we reached our destination. One minute we were hiking along through a darkening forest, and the next we were walking in an increasingly well-lit grove. Everything around us, from the bushes to the trees to the very rocks, glowed faintly with breathtaking bioluminescence. Once we’d reached the spot Illinal intended to camp, I was lost in the blue and yellow hues surrounding us. Despite having our Manipulators with us, we still set up camp the old-fashioned way. In other words, I spent at least a quarter of an hour fumbling with the tent, while Illinal scavenged for branches since she was reluctant to cut down any of the trees. But at long last, we could sit back and relax by the warmth of a crackling fire, munching away on Feather Food baked that very morning. For the first time since leaving Earth, I felt something resembling genuine peace. “Lovely little slice of heaven you’ve got here,” I said to Illinal. “You really know how to pick a good camping spot.” Illinal smiled, looking up to the treetops. “Been waiting to come back for a long time. Spent a lot of time here after I deserted, thinking things over.” “You’ve definitely earned some time to yourself. I can tell you’ve been a bit troubled lately.” “Fighting eldritch abominations will do that to you,” Illinal remarked, staring into the fire. “That, and I was afraid I’d lost you. I’m sick of losing people.” For a moment, I wasn’t sure what say. I’d had more than a decade to come to terms with losing my parents, but Declan’s death was still hard to believe. Shifting closer, I put an arm around her. “I know how you feel. You’re the closest I have left to family.” “Same,” Illinal agreed, resting her head against my shoulder. “Last time I was here, I didn’t even have that much.” “You lost someone before that?” I asked quietly. Illinal nodded. “My sister. She was an Ascendant.” I didn’t know much about Illinal’s family, but I knew enough about Avian culture to know what she meant. “You mean… oh, Illinal, I’m so sorry…” “It’s not your fault. She chose to throw herself off that tower, and our parents supported her decision all the way. None of them listened to me, so I left.” “That’s horrible. How could they do that?” Illinal shrugged. “They believed it was Kluex’s will. Exact same belief that drives the Stargazers’ atrocities.” I exhaled uneasily, shaking my head. “Same with the MiniKnog and their ‘rebels’.” “And it’s going to be much harder to stop either of them now,” Illinal muttered. “The United Systems are going to be so busy dealing with Earth that they’ll be lucky they can even hold their existing territory. And we still haven’t heard what’s happening with the Protectorate…” “We’re not out of the game yet, Illinal. In fact, once we get the refugees settled, we can use that to our advantage. Show the universe that the Protectorate lives on, and that there’s still hope.” Illinal sighed, but still nodded. “That’s about as much we can do at this point. Training couldn’t have possibly prepared us for this. I know how to fight people and animals, but cosmic horrors are beyond my expertise.” “Well, I’ve got your back, no matter what,” I told her. “You’ve still kept us alive and together this long. I’d say you’re handling things better than most people could have.” Illinal nodded appreciatively. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. It really means a lot to me, coming from you.” Staring into her eyes, I could sense my heart pounding in my chest. The soul-crushing horror of watching a planet die was beginning to fade, and my mind was no longer addled by Chitl’s Cyanider, but my feelings for Illinal hadn’t changed at all. The universe may have become a much darker place, but she was one of the few lights I had left to keep me going. “I care about you, Illinal. Things may not have turned out how we hoped, but I wouldn’t dream of doing anything other than travelling the galaxy with you.” “I feel the same way,” Illinal replied, giving me a gentle peck on the cheek. “Just a shame we couldn’t be together under better circumstances.” “We’ll just have to make do, then.” I replied, drawing her closer for a kiss. Phoenix Frontier III, Phoenix’s Roost The arrival of the Human refugees was shaping up to be a major event for Phoenix’s Roost. When the big day finally arrived, the marketplace had been decorated with even more colourful banners than usual. Locals hurried around laying out a veritable feast for the new arrivals, though I mostly stayed out of their way. I had my own vitally important job to supervise Almar, who was barbecuing an entire animal of some description over a crackling fire. Standing there with a cup of avesmingo punch in hand, breathing in the delicious scent of cooking meat, I was starting to envy the refugees for their new home. “How are the steaks coming, Almar?” Illinal asked, walking over. “They’ll be here any minute now.” The Floran cut a sliver of meat from the animal, sampling it. “Nearly finisshed!! I’ll carve it sshortly!” Illinal nodded, walking over to stand beside me. “Good. It smells delicious, by the way.” “That’ss because of my sspecial ssauce!” Almar replied, holding up a bottle of moderately brown liquid. “Old family ssecret!” “I’m sure it’ll be… interesting.” Smiling, I filled up another cup of punch and handed it to Illinal. “So, got your speech ready?” “More or less,” she said, accepting the drink with a gracious nod. “Necuan helped me tweak it a little. Sounds a bit sappy to me, but it might inspire the refugees. Hopefully.” “You’ll do great. They’re going to love their new home.” “It’s really something, isn’t it?” Illinal agreed, gazing out across the marketplace. “Always figured I’d retire here, when my adventuring days are done.” I nodded in agreement. “Wouldn’t mind joining you. It’s great feeling like I’m a part of an actual community. Only time you’d ever see a gathering like this under the MiniKnog was for a political rally or public execution.” “And I’m guessing they didn’t offer much in the way of free food,” Illinal replied drily, sipping her drink. “I remember some of the big feasts the Stargazers held on religious holidays. The people there were… happy. Genuinely happy. Even at the Ascensions.” With a sigh, I put an arm around her waist. “And we wouldn’t have places like this if all Avians were like that.” “But there’s still more work to do,” Illinal said, huddling closer to me. “Did Necuan tell you that there’s going to be some news crews here?” “I must have missed that. Are there any Human news outlets still functioning?” “A few on Mars, by the sound of it. And I want to show them that today’s about more than just giving people a new home. It’s about cooperation, and the Grounded having Humanity’s back.” I had to smile at the sentiment. “Well, we certainly can’t say the same of the Stargazers. People ought to know they still have friends out in the cosmos.” “And so much more.” Illinal said, pecking me on the cheek. Excitement soon gripped the crowds, as a USCM ship entered the atmosphere and touched down on the landing pad outside of town. Minutes later, a procession of Humans came into town, all visibly fatigued but gaping in awe at the colony. Once the welcoming began in earnest, fatigue appeared to give way to relief. All around us, Humans and Avians came together to share their new home. Some of the refugees shared embraces with their new feathered neighbours, thanking them for the warm welcome. Others helped themselves to the buffet tables, evidently tired of emergency rations. In one alleyway, a group of Avian children introduced their new Human friends to some sort of ball game involving a vertical hoop attached to a wall. Amidst the bustle, Illinal and I stood with the rest of our crew, greeting the new arrivals and giving out directions. We received more than a few hugs in the process. Eventually, Necuan and several ceremonially-dressed Avians emerged from the council chambers, walking up onto a nearby stage. Just as expected, a group of reporters were set up nearby, with cameras and microphones at the ready. Necuan took position behind a podium, tapping its microphone and waiting for the crowd to turn their attention to him. “Good morning, everyone!” he said, voice ringing out across the marketplace. “I am Necuan, elder of Phoenix’s Roost. And on behalf of everyone in the colony, I bid you all a warm welcome to your new home!” Cheers and applause emanated from the crowd, much to his delight. He raised a hand in gratitude, before continuing on. “Now, we were all horrified to learn what happened to your homeworld. Such a tragedy will undoubtedly live on in infamy, and will not be overcome easily. But today, we are gathered to do our part. Here, you will find safety and prosperity, along with the opportunity to begin again. It may take you some time to get your bearings, but our community will be by your side.” The crowd expressed its excitement once more, before Necuan moved on to introduce other important figures from the colony, including the council, guard captain and doctors. He saved Illinal until last, inviting her to take to the stage to say a few words. I petted her on the shoulder reassuringly as she passed, receiving a nod in return. Necuan welcomed her similarly as she climbed onto the stage, taking her position before the crowd. “Thank you, Necuan,” she said, placing her hands on the podium. “Greetings, everyone. I am Protector Illinal, and I am joined today by my fellow Protectors Vikton, Lorenzo, Starbolt, Michiko and Almar. We have been working closely with both Phoenix’s Roost and the United Systems on the resettlement project, and are excited to finally have you all here safe and sound. “The attack on Earth was unexpected and devastating, but Humanity does not stand alone in facing it. My crew and I, along with other surviving Protectors, remain committed to the Terrene Protectorate’s goals. For centuries we have protected the universe and its inhabitants, and will continue to do so despite the loss of Earth. I also call upon my fellow Grounded Avians to provide whatever aid you can; many of our people called Earth home, and the Protectorate has aided us on numerous occasions. “But in light of this unprecedented event, it is imperative that all races work together to combat it and any threat posed to other worlds. The people of the universe have always been at the strongest when working together, and that is truer now more than ever. Thank you.” Illinal’s speech was met with another round of applause, and I joined in proudly. It was hard to tell whether or not the Humans bought into it much, but they still appeared to be in good spirits. With the speeches concluded, the celebrations resumed for a time. But some of the refugees simply wanted nothing more than to make themselves at home, so I joined the rest of the crew in assigning them to their dwellings. The ones who had been prioritized for resettlement mainly consisted of families and people recovered from minor injuries. Lorenzo’s parents were among them, following after their son as he led them towards Humantown. Illinal soon did the same with a family of five, but not before kneeling down to introduce herself to the children and offer some reassurances. I was about to accompany her, before a woman approached me. At first I thought she might have been crippled during the attack, considering she sat in some sort of hovering wheelchair. But I quickly realized that it may simply have been age-related, considering her long grey hair and wrinkled face. Whichever was the case, she was clearly ready for life on the frontier, as she was sporting khaki clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and all manner of supplies hanging from her chair. I could have sworn I recognized her, too, but couldn’t be sure. “Greetings, Protector,” she said, coming to a halt before me and extending a hand. “You must be Vikton.” I reached out and shook her hand. “That’s right, ma’am. Are you ready to be assigned a dwelling?” Chuckling, she shook her head. “Oh, no, dearie. I’m here to speak with your captain, actually. But would seem she’s not wasted any time getting to work.” “That’s Illinal for you,” I remarked. “Perhaps I can be of assistance, Miss…” “Bright. Esther Bright.” It suddenly struck me where I knew her from. “As in… former Grand Protector Bright? It’s an honour to meet you, ma’am.” Esther laughed. “I see somebody paid attention during history class. But it’s just Esther now. I’ve not quite come out of retirement yet.” “Then what brings you all the way out here? The resettlement?” “In part,” Esther said. “It’s encouraging to see Protectors so swift to help out in a crisis, and I hope your work here serves as an example for others. But I’m also here on account of my own work, which I need like your crew’s assistance with.” I nodded slowly. “Well… I’m sure we’d be happy to help, if possible. What do you need us to do?” “It’s… difficult to explain. Perhaps it would be easier if we caught up with the rest of your crew, so we can discuss it as a group?” It took me a while to gather the others, from helping Starbolt unpack medical supplies from the USCM ship to dragging Almar away from the buffet tables. From there, we made our way through Humantown, giving Esther a tour as we went. All around us, Humans were unpacking and settling into their new homes, including Lorenzo’s family. While Esther introduced herself to them, I managed to track down Illinal at one of the other houses. “I can’t thank you enough, Protector,” the mother was saying to her. “We’d have been left with nothing if it weren’t for you and your comrades.” Illinal nodded. “It’s what we’re here for. If you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask.” “Can you teach me to be a Protector?” asked one of the children. Chuckling, Illinal ruffled his hair. “Perhaps when you’re older. For now, just make sure you help your family out around the house. Everyone’s got to do their part now.” The child saluted. “Yes, ma’am!” As the family entered their new home, I beckoned Illinal over. “Esther Bright’s here.” “Really?” Illinal asked, tilting her head. “She’s the last person I’d expect to see today.” “Apparently she needs our help with something important. Didn’t say what, exactly.” “We’d better go get some more details, then. The resettlement’s coming along well enough that we can probably spare some time.” “Probably,” I agreed, as we walked back towards Lorenzo’s parent’s house. “Nice job on the speech, by the way. Seems to have gone down well.” Illinal smiled. “Thanks. But I think I’ll be sticking to my duties from now on. Never been much for public speaking.” “Same. At this point, we can probably do the most good out in the field anyway. Especially under a former Grand Protector…” With the crew finally assembled, Illinal and Esther shared some brief introductions. As they chatted, we headed back to our ship, where we seated ourselves in a circle around the nanostove. Esther landed her chair at the head of the circle, looking around the room. “So, you’ve built more than a dozen houses in a week, all while living in a campsite built in a starship hold.” she said, shaking her head. “I see you’ve got your priorities straight.” Illinal chuckled. “We’ve had more pressing concerns than interior decoration. A sleeping bag in the hold is more than a lot of folks have at the moment.” “Indeed. But there’s a lot more to this crisis than the humanitarian fallout. We still have a lot of work to do understanding what caused it.” “We’ve had a few theories,” Lorenzo said. “I’m guessing you’ve been looking into it?” “In a sense. You see, for many years now, I’ve been conducting an archaeological study into the precursor species that built the ruins by the Outpost and its connecting gateways...” “Which have carvings of the thing that attacked Earth,” I said. “They knew about it all that time ago.” Esther nodded keenly. “You noticed. Excellent. Yes, what we’re facing is not a new entity. It’s one that was sealed away long ago, and is beginning to break its bonds.” Illinal exhaled uneasily. “Beginning? It’s all but destroyed one of the most populous planets in the galaxy. What else is it capable of?” “I shudder to think. But I believe I have identified a weakness we may exploit before its full power is restored. That’s where you and your crew comes in…” “Wouldn’t the USCM be better suited for this?” Illinal asked. “Even with the loss of Earth, they’d have more resources and combat experience than we could possibly muster.” “I’ve already approached them, but I’m afraid General Kale and I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on the value of my work. At this point, all I need is a small team to help investigate some leads. With evidence in hand, we should be able to convince the USCM to do the heavy lifting.” “What sort of investigation do you have in mind?” “It would be easier if I show you, actually,” Esther said, tapping a few buttons on her chair’s armrest. It began hovering once again, and she manoeuvred it towards our teleporter. “If you’d kindly follow me to the Oustpost, I’ll tell you everything I know about The Ruin.” The Outpost In my naivete, I’d expected the number of refugees at the Outpost to have decreased. Surely, after all our hard work and the generosity of Phoenix’s Roost, we could make a dent in the crisis. The numbers had only grown. They weren’t going anywhere, either. A series of prefabricated greenhouses had been set up to one side of the main facility, while someone had landed a water tanker shuttle not far away. There were still tents galore, though they were now joined by prefabricated housing and recreational vehicles. Some bright spark had even decided to start stacking them on top of each other, surrounded by slightly-rickety scaffolding. But our destination lay on the opposite side of the asteroid to the gateway. “So, the precursors that built the gateways built this place as well?” Illinal asked Esther, as she led us up the hill towards the ruins. “Indeed they did,” Esther replied. “This facility has become the cornerstone of my research into their civilization, and their knowledge of the Ruin.” A suitable name, all things considered. At the top of the hill sat the entrance to the ruin, dimly illuminated by lights on the surrounding columns. But as we began our descent into the building’s depths, light only became scarcer. Once we reached the interior proper, the only light came from blue holograms lining the floor and adorning the walls. The closest to us depicted a squat figure in tribal garb, holding up a pair of planets. “Is this a precursor?” I asked Esther. “No,” she replied, moving her chair closer to the hologram. “This is the precursor, so to speak. The Cultivator. I’m unsure of the exact details, but it would appear to have been a being of great power.” “An anti-Ruin?” Illinal asked. “Essentially, yes. It appears to have been able to influence biological forces, to the point of directing evolution. I have a hypothesis that it did so using some form of quantum entanglement, but it’s difficult to prove.” I had to raise an eyebrow at the thought. Manipulating quantum entanglement would require very advanced technology. “There’s no way it could do that on its own. What you’re talking about would be something like a… like a physical god.” Esther shrugged. “As I said, I don’t know the details. But from what little documentation from the precursors I’ve examined, it was regarded as a force of balance and harmony.” “What happened to it?” Lorenzo asked. Instead of answering, Esther led us further long to a second hologram. This one depicted several planets being destroyed by tentacles. I exhaled uneasily at the sight. If these precursors were to be believed, Earth wasn’t the first planet to fall. “The Ruin happened to it,” Esther explained. “A being of incredible destructive power, destroying life in any form it could find. Its origins are even more of a mystery than the Cultivator.” Illinal stared at the hologram. “Did it destroy the Cultivator?” “The Cultivator sacrificed itself,” Esther said, leading us to the next hologram. Sure enough, it showed the two beings locked in mortal combat. “It sealed the Ruin away, in doing so depleting its powers. Whether or not the Cultivator survived is unclear.” “And now the Ruin is breaking free,” Illinal replied. “If this Cultivator couldn’t stop it, we don’t stand a chance.” Esther raised a finger. “Don’t panic just yet. The Cultivator lingered long enough to leave us one last gift.” The final hologram she showed us took my breath away. Six figures, each similar in stature but with wildly varying faces, stood holding orbs above their heads. One had three eyes, obviously a Hylotl. Another, an Avian, had a beak. It wasn’t hard to work out the rest. “Long before we reached the stars, six chosen species were given a gift,” Esther said. “Together, they form a key to our secret weapon…” Esther pointed behind us, and we turned around. Looming high above us were a pair of statues; one of the Cultivator, one of the Ruin. Between them sat a tall arch, which looked like a larger version of the precursor gateways. It even had similar carvings of the major species, and the tentacles of the Ruin. But in the middle was a strange, sunrise-like carving with several indentations among the rays of light. “A gateway?” I asked. “Straight to the heart of the Ruin,” Esther said. “From there, we can deliver a crippling blow, and end the threat of the Ruin. But that’ll be a task for the USCM.” Illinal nodded. “You want us to find the six artefacts.” “Five. I have a promising lead on the Human one, which I’ll handle personally. The locations of the rest are still unclear.” “That still doesn’t narrow things down at all,” Illinal replied. “These artefacts could be anywhere. We don’t even know what they look like.” “You’d be surprised. One way or another, the artefacts hold significant value to their corresponding species, be it cultural or scientific. My advice would be to go speak to citizens of the universe, and look for clues about any objects or locations central to their culture.” “Where would we even start?” Lorenzo asked. “I would suggest investigating the Florans,” Esther answered. “Their society is highly decentralized, so wherever their artefact is it should be easiest to retrieve.” Illinal stared up at the gateway, but still nodded. “Alright. Give us a day or two to put together a plan and gather up some resources, and we’ll see what we can do.” Esther nodded. “Fair enough. Keep me posted on whatever you uncover. No detail’s too small to be overlooked.” It was hard to gauge the rest of the crew’s mood on the way back to our ship. I know I was struggling to wrap my head around much of what we’d just heard, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the others felt the same way. We certainly didn’t talk much over dinner, but Illinal wound up holding a crew meeting afterwards while we sat around the nanostove. “Well, I’m sure you’re all as confused by this as I am about what Esther told us,” she said. “So I won’t make a decision until we’re all in agreement about this.” “I don’t think we have much choice,” Lorenzo replied. “If the Ruin’s as powerful as Esther said, it’s only a matter of time before it threatens Mars. Earth was bad enough, but there’s no way the United Systems could recover from that. Not now.” “He has a point,” I agreed. “We don’t know what sort of timeframe the Ruin’s operating on. Could be next week. Could be next year. Either way, the sooner we start, the better.” Michiko shook her head. “Doing what, exactly? A wild Tidefly chase across the universe? Who knows how long we’ll be searching.” Starbolt stroked his metallic chin. “Ruminative. There must be ways of narrowing down the search. People more familiar with history and culture than we are.” Illinal turned to our Floran companion. “Any ideas, Almarr?” “Floran not sssure,” he replied. “Greenfinger might know.” “Who’s Greenfinger?” Michiko asked. Almarr scoffed. At least, that’s what I assumed the noise he made was. “Greenfinger a leader! Sssmartest in tribe. Teach our hissstory to the hatchlingsss.” “That sounds like as good a place as any to start,” Illinal said. “Do you think your village would be willing to help?” “Yesss!” Almarr cried, jumping to hisss – sorry, his – feet. “Floran was hoping to go home sssometime. Mussst tell family Floran sssafe.” Illinal smiled. “Sounds like a plan. Let’s get a good night’s rest, and start stocking up on supplies tomorrow. Look like we’re going on another adventure.” With only so many tents to go around, Illinal and I naturally shacked up together. But seeing as the rest of the crew was in earshot, we didn’t get quite as intimate as we had previously. Instead, we brought our sleeping bags together, and lay staring at our tent’s canvas roof. “You know, you sound a lot more confident about this little treasure hunt of ours,” I said quietly. “Should be a little more doable than fighting giant space monsters.” Illinal sighed. “I hope so. Not looking forward to the Avian artefact, though. I’ll bet you anything it’s in the hands of the Stargazers.” If that were the case, the prospects for the Apex artefact weren’t that great either. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s focus on gathering information before we go charging into any strongholds.” “Not a bad idea,” Illinal replied, smirking. “I do hope Esther’s right about the Florans, though. Their artefact could be anywhere.” “Well, if Almarr’s anything to go by, they’ll be willing to help us. Whatever happens, we’ll work it out.” Illinal shuffled deeper into her sleeping bag, trying to find a comfortable position against the cold, hard floor. “I hope so. One way to find out.” I turned my head, watching her silently for a few moments. In the gloom of the ship’s darkened hold, I could just make out the outline of her body. I couldn’t see her face. “Illinal?” “Yes, Vikton?” “I just want you to know that no matter what happens in our search, I trust you to get us out of it alive.” Illinal looked over at me, before rolling over and putting an arm around my waist. “No pressure.” The next couple of days were even more chaotic than the leadup to our last mission. Now, all six of us were gearing up to venture onwards, necessitating the purchase of more supplies and fuel. The USCM were kind enough to provide us with some surplus weapons; a cut above what we’d been fielding before, though still very much outclassed by newer hardware. The miners also generously gave us some tungsten they’d dug up, which we had crafted into new sets of armour. I was rather pleased with how my iron mask complemented by new tungsten hood, even though Almarr’s decision to embed an animal skull in his helmet put mine to shame in the intimidation department. Even our ship ended up getting the once-over in preparation for our departure. Not only did Michiko and I give the engines and fuel system the once-over to increase efficiency, but with a little help from the local council we were able to afford an upgrade to a Sparrow-class configuration. After a few days of being worked on by moderately trustworthy shipwright at the Outpost, ship soon had an extra room at our disposal. Just as well, as it quickly turned into our new cargo hold to hold our new supplies. The other room we converted into some formal crew quarters using surplus bunks from the mining base, along with some donated furniture from Phoenix’s Roost. Not a lot of privacy, but it was certainly homier than a campsite. When the day came to head off, I wasn’t expecting much of a going-away party. Nevertheless, a veritable crowd of local Avians and Human refugees assembled to see us off. They’d long since learned of our mission, to mixed reactions. I’d heard some thought it a fool’s errand, but others viewed it as the galaxy’s only hope of finding some way of defeating the Ruin. But nobody held our mission in higher esteem than Necuan. “I don’t think I have to tell you to be careful out there,” he said to us, as we bid the crowd farewell. “But I cannot begin to imagine what your mission will put you up against. No matter what you face, we’ll be here rooting for you. Even after losing almost everything, you’ve still worked tirelessly to bring hope.” Illinal touched his shoulder. “We’re just doing our duty. Besides, we’ll be back here before you know it. Sounds like this is going to be a long journey.” “I know. And that’s why I want you to have this.” Reaching into a pouch on his belt, Necuan pulled out a magnificent-looking necklace. It was strung with beads of every possible colour imaginable, but the centrepiece was the Avolite crystal attached to the middle. As Illinal took it in her hands, it began glowing softly. “Oh, Necuan…” she breathed. “I… I couldn’t possibly accept this.” “I insist. It belonged to my wife, passed down from mother to daughter for generations. The gods saw fit to give us sons, but that changed when you came to our colony. I’d have been proud to call you my daughter.” Illinal was silent for a few moments, staring at the amulet. It wasn’t hard to imagine she was thinking back to her own parents. I still knew so little about them, and I had no reason to believe I’d ever meet them. But it was still a heartwarming reminder of what we were fighting for. Even it was only a matter of time before going up against the unknown once more, we’d be doing it to protect the people we love. “Thank you, Necuan,” she said, wrapping her arms around you. “For everything.” “It’s been my pleasure dear. No you go out and make us proud. You’ll be back before you know it.” Lorenzo’s mother, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as reassuring. “Now, promise me you won’t throw yourself into danger.” “Yes, mum.” “And don’t eat anything without testing it first.” “I won’t, mum.” “And be careful around those Florans. If they say they want to have you for dinner-” “Mum, I’ll be fine,” Lorenzo said, clasping her shoulders. “Almar’s tribe doesn’t eat sentients.” “Too ssstringy!” Almar added, with a rasping laugh. Lorenzo winced, leading his mother away from the laughing Floran. “We’ll be okay. It’s not like we’re going to try taking on the Ruin by ourselves. All Grand Protector Bright wants us to do is locate a few artifacts.” “And we wish you all the best,” Lorenzo’s father said, hobbling along after them. Even though his leg was apparently healing, he was still stuck with a cast and walking stick. “But there’s no telling what you’ll be up against. All we’re asking is for you to do is be careful.” “Don’t worry about us,” Lorenzo assured him, looking to Illinal and I. “We’ll be fine, won’t we, Captain?” Illinal put on a brave face, and walked over to the family. “I’m not about to take any unnecessary risks on this mission. Our primary goal is largely diplomatic at this point.” “And we have every faith in you, Captain Illinal,” Lorenzo’s father replied. “Just bring our boy back safe.” “I will.” Illinal said, saluting. Not long after, we were in the air. Something swelled inside my chest as I watched Phoenix’s Roost shrink into the distance through a porthole. Homesickness, perhaps. Some general anxiety about our mission. Even though we’d likely be back there before long, a part of me just didn’t want to leave. After losing Earth, I was thankful for having a place to finally call home. I’d fight for it if I had to. Up in the cockpit, Illinal was seated in the pilot’s seat, issuing instructions to SAIL. Meanwhile, Almar sat crosslegged behind her, consulting a starmap. “Here!” he said, jumping to his feet and handing Illinal the map. “Thisss where Floran livesss!” It took Illinal a few moments to decipher the coordinates. Most starmaps weren’t etched in charcoal on animal hides, after all. “Alright. SAIL, lock in coordinates for Hyrdrae Prime.” “Acknowledged. System located. Coordinates locked.” “Do we have enough fuel?” I asked. “Affirmative. Trip will consume 73% of current fuel reserves.” “Looks like we’ll need to get some more while we’re there,” Illinal said. “SAIL, run system diagnostics, and prepare to jump.” For a few tense minutes, SAIL ran its diagnostics on the ship’s various subsystems. Everything came back fully operational. No sooner had we received the results did the familiar rumbling begin, and the ship began to move into position. I had just enough time to look out over Phoenix Frontier III, admiring its beauty. I had to wonder what Almar’s homeworld was like. He’d spoken of it from time to time, from playing in the river as a sprout to hunting in its vast forests as an adolescent. Meeting an entire tribe of Florans was set to be quite an interesting experience. But hopefully it would be one that brought us closer to our goal. As the ship began to accelerate, I quickly lost sight of the planet beneath us. Stars streaked past the window, and we were on our way. Hyrdrae Prime, High Orbit Ever since I first laid eyes on Phoenix Frontier III, I’d been beginning to grow accustomed to seeing large swathes of nature. Both Apex One and Earth were heavily urbanized and had suffered from heavy deforestation at one point or another. But not even the pristine forests surrounding Phoenix’s Roost could have prepared me for Hyrdrae Prime. The planet was green. There was no other way of putting it. Just about every continent looked teeming with forests and jungles, aside from the icy polar region and a couple of deserts around the equator. There were some fairly expansive oceans too, but it didn’t sound like Almar had grown up anywhere near them. Even if he had, we didn’t have time for a seaside vacation. The actual jump to Hydrae Prime hadn’t taken particularly long. The Hydrae system was quite some distance away from the Phoenix Frontier system, but not exactly beyond the edges of chartered space. We’d had enough time to prepare our equipment and have a quick meal, but we were soon gathered around the central table of our new crew quarters. “Okay, here’s the plan,” Illinal said. “First, we all go down to Almar’s village, where we’ll interview the local Greenfinger for information on this artefact. Since we don’t have enough fuel left for a return trip, we’ll also need to try and get some from the locals. We should have some excess supplies we can barter, or we can do some odd jobs to get goods we can sell off at the Outpost. The ship’s teleporter should still work, shouldn’t it?” I nodded. “We can draw energy from networked teleporters if the ship’s reactor isn’t sufficient. We should be okay on that front.” “Good. Now, if you all do go out into the sticks, remember that we could always use some more raw materials. Medicinal plants, metal ores, salvage.” “Better make sure we have permission first.” Lorenzo said. “Floranss won’t mind,” Almar said. “Jusst take what we need and no more. Don’t upsset nature’ss balance more than we musst.” “Sounds reasonable enough,” Illinal replied. “But we’ll still need to work out where your village is. Do they have a communicator?” “Yess! SSAIL, contact Longwood Hollow!” The computer’s voice rasped over the speakers. “Acknowledged. Sscanning local communication channelss.” Apparently Almar’s vocal patterns had tripped SAIL’s Floran ssubroutine. “Channel located. Esstablisshing contact.” After a few moments of silence, another voice piped up. Definitely a Floran accent, albeit heavily distorted by what I suspected was old hardware on their end. The end result was very unnerving to listen to. “Greetingss! I am Bahre, Greenfinger of Longwood Hollow. What bringss you to our humble abode?” “Greenfinger Bahre! It’ss me! Almar!” “Ah, young ssapling! You are alive! We feared the worsst when we heard the newss about Earth.” Almar paused a moment. “My friendss and I barely esscaped. Now we are trying to ssolve the mysstery of what happened. We need your help.” “Then come on down! Tell your friendss we’d love to have them for dinner!” The Greenfinger gave himself a moment to laugh before closing the connection. Ambiguous syntax aside, I was admittedly curious to see a Floran feast. Declan had always spoken highly of their cuisine, and Almar’s cooking wasn’t half bad. But apparently not everyone was quite as excited. “Captain?” Michiko said to Illinal, once Almar was out of earshot. “Might I have a word?” “Certainly. What’s on your mind?” “Um… well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay here on the ship.” Illinal sighed. “Michiko, it would be better if we stuck together on this one. There’s probably a lot of hostile wildlife down there.” “Including the Florans. They’re not exactly… welcoming of Hylotl.” “That may be a premature assumption. Now, I do understand that your peoples have a history-” “They invaded our homeworld.” “I’ve done my history homework. But you can’t blame Almar’s tribe for that.” “I don’t. But all it would take is one or two of them who hold a grudge.” Illinal looked at me, and I decided to pipe up. “We’ll be their guests, Michiko. The Protector who saved me from the MiniKnog spent a lot of time among the Florans, and it’s obvious from what he told me that they take hospitality very seriously. Especially for those who do favours for them, like we’re about to.” “Besides, I think it would do you good to try and work past this distrust,” Illinal added. “Look at what’s happened since the Ruin emerged. We barely made it off Earth. Vikton almost died. Our work in Phoenix’s Roost hasn’t made a dent in the refugee crisis. And now we’re combing the galaxy for a set of mythical artefacts on the off chance we can stop The Ruin. We can’t afford to be distracted by arguing among ourselves.” Michiko nodded, but I didn’t get the impression she was convinced. “Alright. I’ll come along, but I’ll be teleporting out if they so much as look at me funny.” “I think that’s fair,” Illinal said, before addressing the rest of the crew. “Five minutes to planetfall. Move it, people!” I’d assumed I was included in the address, but Illinal instead beckoned me into the cockpit. I followed after her as she ran a scan of the surface. “Do you think she’ll be a problem?” Illinal asked. I shrugged. “We had to address it sooner or later. She deserves a chance.” “I hope it pays off. I’ve never talked to a tribal Floran before, so this is new territory for me.” Once Illinal had traced the source of Bahre’s transmission and locked in a nearby landing site for the teleporter, Illinal turned to me. “Tell me the truth, Vikton. Do you think we have a chance?” “Esther said the Florans have a pretty decentralized society. Might be too much to expect success on our first try. We may need to try some other tribes.” Illinal nodded. “I thought the same. But I meant… overall.” I exhaled, leaning against the bulkhead beside her. “I don’t know. Considering we don’t fully know what the Ruin is capable of, how we’re going to find these artefacts, or how we’re going to stop the Ruin after we collect them…” “Not good odds.” Illinal noted. “No,” I admitted. “But we don’t really have anything to lose. If Esther’s right, the Ruin will come for all of us sooner or later. May as well go down fighting.” Illinal grinned. “Wonderful. If faith in our abilities fails us, at least nihilism will see us through.” “Good thing I do have faith in you, then. In all of us. Even if the worst comes to past, I know we’ll have done our best.” “Let’s hope that’s enough, then,” Illinal said, petting my shoulder on the way past. “Come on. We’ve got a whole village of Almars waiting for us.” Teleporting down to the planet’s surface was no more disorientating than usual. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the assault on my senses. The humidity was thick enough to cut with a violium energy blade. The calls of half a dozen bizarre species surrounded me from all directions. The scent of rotting plant matter and fresh soil filled my nose. Everywhere I looked was a kaleidoscope of colour from every type of plant imaginable. It took me longer than usual to get a hold of myself. Almar, on the other hand, took in one big lungful of air and released it just as theatrically. “Ah! Home, ssweet home!” As it turned out, we’d arrived in a clearing not far from Almar’s village. We were close enough that he was able to quickly scale a tree to get his bearings. Watching him scramble up and down the treetrunk made me realize how little nature I’d seen growing up. The only trees I’d ever really seen were in the local park, where you could get shot just for walking on the grass. Then there’d been the forest near the Protectorate’s boot camp, but the thought of climbing them had never crossed my mind. Still, considering the trees surrounding us easily stood several storeys high, I decided I was happy keeping my feet on the ground and let Almar do his thing. After Almar had familiarized himself with the local landmarks – namely a mountain range a few dozen clicks from where we landed - he was able to lead us in the proper direction. Even though Illinal had a map on her datapad based on a scan made from our ship, Almar managed to get us where we needed to go without missing a beat. We soon crossed a river using a bridge made out of a fallen log, some vines and a disconcerting amount of bones, and we found ourselves in a settlement unlike any I’d ever seen before. I was starting to get a taste for what sort of architecture the universe had to offer. Excluding Protectorate-mandated cultural studies, I’d seen conformist Apex urban sprawls, gleaming Human megapolises and rustic Avian villages. But all of those had recognizable elements. Here, instead of paved streets, there were dirt tracks between huts. Instead of buildings, there were a range of huts and half-underground caves of all shapes and sizes. The skyline was dominated not by skyscrapers, but by mighty trees holding even more huts. The sight was utterly alien to me. And then there were the locals. I’d thought the people of Phoenix’s Roost had a diverse range of appearances. They turned out to have nothing of Longwood Hollow’s citizenry. Even though their clothing was far more primitive than the typical Avian’s already traditional garb, the range of colours was just as vibrant. But the people themselves fascinated me. Some had what looked to be large flowers growing on their heads. Others were host to fungal growths. I even spotted one who had some sort of flytrap sitting open in wait for insect prey. Having never studied biology beyond the mandated first aid course, I couldn’t begin to imagine how to explain the variety. I almost didn’t want to know. Several of the locals were quick to recognize Almar, and gather him up in a hug. I couldn’t tell if there was any family resemblance or not. At least a dozen people had gathered around him before he gestured for us to follow him. As we did, I noticed Michiko noticeably drift towards the back of the group. A few of the locals didn’t seem to be giving her particularly friendly looks, either. Without saying a word, I also drifted back and walked beside her. “This was a bad idea.” she whispered to me. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “Look at them. They’re friendly.” “So were the Floran cheerleaders in Horrible Floran Cannibal Attack Highschool AU.” I glanced at her in confusion. “Right. Well, let’s focus on the Florans here and now. At least until they break out the pompoms.” “Laugh all you want. You haven’t lost your homeworld.” “I have. Twice. We lost Apex One – or whatever it was originally called – to the MiniKnog long before I was born. Then I lost Earth to the Ruin.” “We all did.” I nodded. “But you weren’t from your people’s homeworld, were you?” “No. I’m from Deepheart.” Not surprising. It was one of their bigger colonies from what I understood, and the seat of the otherwise scattered Hylotl Preservation Council. Declan had been there numerous times for business just as much as pleasure. “And you’ve got family there?” “I do.” “Then how about we make that our first stop when looking for the Hylotl artefact? That ought to make up for having you come down here. It’d be a pretty logical place to start asking around, anyway.” Michiko nodded. “It’s got the biggest library outside of our homeworld. We might be able to get help from the Preservation Council, too. But I wouldn’t bet on it. They need to hold a vote just to open a window.” “Would they need to do that underwater?” “It’s a metaphor.” In the centre of the village sat a ship. Not an unfamiliar one, either; the vessel was a mass-produced civilian model of Apex manufacture. I’d worked on dozens like it over the years. But you didn’t need much engineering experience to call this one a write-off. The ship still looked largely intact, if a little worse for wear. But I’d never seen a vessel that had been completely overrun with vines. At least not outside of Hylotl special interest literature. What surprised me most was the interior, which the locals led us into. Although the ship was quite small – comparable to our own before we’d had it upgraded – it had clearly become a centre of the community. A dozen wooden benches had been set up in the hold, surrounding a crackling firepit built into the centre. At the far end stood what must have been the oldest Floran I’d ever seen. His green face was noticeably wrinkled, and he had a long beard of what appeared to be moss. Jewellery and colourful clothing adorned his body, which as I got closer realized consisted of circuitry and an old Apex uniform. The man got to his feet stiffly and ambled towards us. Almar bowed, and we followed his lead. Except Michiko. “Greenfinger Bahre!” Almar said. “It’ss great to ssee you again!” “Likewisse, Almar! Are you alright? It musst have been terrible having to flee Earth.” Almar nodded. “I misss it every day. It wass a magnificent planet.” “I’m ssure it was,” Greenfinger Bahre replied. “But iss it true what they are ssaying? That it was desstroyed by a colosssal beasst?” “It’ss true. They call it The Ruin. It iss an ancient beasst determined to destroy all life in the universse.” The Florans whispered among themselves nervously. Just in case they didn’t believe him, Almar launched into an enthusiastic retelling of our tale. His tribe was thoroughly disturbed as he described Earth’s collapse. Even their Greenfinger looked quite sobered. “Have many humanss ssurvived?” He asked Lorenzo. “We don’t know… ah, Greenfinger. Our government is still operational. And we know that a lot of people managed to get off Earth. But we’re still not sure of the damage. We’re still struggling with the refugee crisis.” “I ssee. Well, we have ssome hutss your people are welcome to usse. We can build more, too.” “Thank you, Greenfinger. I’ll notify the United Systems, and have them get into contact with you.” “Certainly. But you ssaid you needed asssisstance in defeating thiss Ruin?” “Yes, Greenfinger,” Illinal said. “We have been in contact with former Grand Protector Esther Bright. She’s uncovered something that may give us a fighting chance.” Suffice to say, that got the Florans’ attention. They listened to her carefully as she explained the Ruin’s past, right up to the existence of the artifacts. That was when my heart began to sink. Floran body language wasn’t my expertise, but Greenfinger Bahre didn’t seem to have any moment of sudden epiphany. As Illinal finished talking, he only nodded slowly. “I may be able to narrow your ssearch sslightly. I am familiar with many of our taless of mythical objectss. Grattal’ss Drum. The Sspear of Fate. The Bone Trophy. Ssome are known to exisst, while otherss are losst to time. It’ss sstill not much to go on, though. Esspecially not on ssuch a thin lead to begin with. What reassurance do I have that thesse artifactss will help defeat the Ruin?” “I can introduce you to Esther personally, so she can demonstrate her findings,” Illinal replied. “It’d be quickest if you accompany me through our ship’s teleporter.” “We have our own. It’ss a little temperamental, but it’ss only malfunctioned once!” The Greenfinger pointed at a pair of completely identical Florans. They waved to us in unison. “Ah… I think I’ll stick with ours,” Illinal said. “In the meantime, my crew offers its services to you to return the favour.” After a few moments looking each of us over in turn, the Greenfinger nodded. “I think I have ssomething in mind. There is an old Glitch casstle not far from the village. Been abandoned for centuriess. But our hunterss say they’ve sstarted sseeing lightss inside at night. Could jusst be ssome of the Sprouts messing around. Could be a nesst of ssomething. Could be sspirits of itss inhabitants.” “Intriguing,” Illinal said. “Lorenzo, what do you think? Could an animal make that much light?” He could only shrug. “It’s not impossible, but it depends on the native fauna. Some planets are known to have a high incidence of bioluminescence.” “Could be scandroids,” I suggested. I’d read a fascinating paper on the rogue robots back on Earth. “They’re not unheard of on jungle planets. Even if they’re just attacking vermin, the electrical discharge from their weapons would produce a lot of light.” Even Starbolt chimed in. “Sceptical. It would be more logical that the light is produced by sentient inhabitants. Likely Floran.” Illinal nodded. “Well, whatever’s in there, take no chances. It could be dangerous.” “Perhapss Almar sshould take the lead,” Greenfinger Bahre said, looking to him. “It would be a good opportunity for your Proving.” Something struck me about the way he said that. But what really stood out were a handful of chuckles from the crowd. I glanced over at Almar, and for the first time I’d known him he looked genuinely taken aback. Even so, he was quick to regain his composure. “It would be an honour, Greenfinger!” he said, turning to the rest of us. “Ssquad! Prepare to move out!” And so began our preparations. Illinal teleported back to the ship with Greenfinger Bahre, and from there off to the Outpost. The rest of us already had all the equipment we needed, but the Florans were kind enough to provide us with some additional food and medical supplies. Granted, that consisted of spicy eye-shaped fruit and several jars of foul-smelling sap, but we weren’t about to look a gift fluffalo in the mouth. Instead, we thanked the locals profusely, before making our way out of the village. “Hey, Almar!” We looked up to the treetops, where a group of young Floran adults were hanging from or kneeling on the branches. I couldn’t begin to imagine their age, but they weren’t far from our boy Almar. “Finally going to catch ssomething for once?” one Floran called. Almar snarled at them. “Sshut up, Deka! What have you ever done for the tribe?” The other Floran only laughed. “I killed a whole nesst of Ssnaunts four moonss ago! You’d know if you hadn’t run away to Earth to learn how to hunt with books!” Laughter filled the branches. Almar looked about ready to start spraying the treetops with bullets. I decided to go out on a limb – hahaha – and called out to the Florans. “Hey, Deka!” The Floran regarded me coldly. “What iss it, meat?” “You know Almar helped us take out a Mother Poptop?” A few of the Florans ‘oohed’ enthusiastically. Much to my surprise, Deka grinned. “Oh? Did he catch it assleep? Perhaps he ussed one of your bomb launcherss?” “I sstabbed it!” Almar shouted, rolling up his sleeve. “Look at this sscar! I fought it, and won!” “Then besst of luck to you, ‘Hunter’!” Deka called. “Perhapss you’ll bring us back a Bobfae or two. Asssuming they don’t kill you!” By that point, Alamar was storming off away from the village. The rest of followed him, though most of us remained a few paces behind him. I jogged on forward to try and keep pace with him. “Almar!” I said. “What’s going on?” “Nothing. Let’ss jusst get this over and done with.” He pushed on ahead, almost disappearing into the surrounding foliage. I couldn’t spare any time hanging back to ponder what was going on. Almar had told us bits and pieces about his life in Longwood Hollow, but nothing indicating a reluctance to return. It was just another mystery for the pile. Sighing, I hefted my rifle, and jogged off after our troubled guide through an uncharted jungle to face an unknown enemy. Hydrae Prime Bugs. Humidity. Mud. Thorns. Predators. Our jungle trek was going swimmingly. When I wasn't swatting at insects buzzing about my face, I was training my weapon on suspicious movement in the underbrush. My armour was definitely not suited to the climate and was making me sweat to the point of drenching my uniform. At least I was luckier than Michiko. We weren't hearing the end of how long it was going to take to get the mud out of her uniform. It was a shame, really. If it weren't for the (potentially lethal) annoyances, I'd likely have enjoyed the scenery. The calls of distant animals formed a chaotic but no less magnificent choir. Everywhere I looked had a natural vista worthy of being framed and hung on a wall. But it was all still very overwhelming for a raised city-slicker like me. It was Almar who was truly in his element. He'd taken down several beasts before the rest of us realized we were being stalked. The lack of a well-trodden path didn't seem to hinder him from leading us to our destination. But he remained unusually quiet. I decided it was best not to pry. At least until we were out of immediate danger of being mauled. The castle wasn't entirely what I'd expected. Two spires of darkened bricks soared high above the canopy, bristling with scaffolding and platforms. The base of the structures was surrounded by a walled courtyard, outside of which was a deep pit filled with spikes. The only ways in were a pair of rickety bridges protected by fortified guardhouses. If the place didn't look deserted, I might have been worried how we'd get in. “So, what's the story on this place?” I asked Almar as we surveyed one of the approaches from an overlooking ridge. The Floran shrugged, eyes on the top of the towers. “Glitch lived here long ago. Before I wass born. Greenfinger ssay they dissappeared without a trace one day.” I wasn't filled with confidence. “Well, unless their souls have descended from Silicon Heaven, we're likely facing something very alive. We'll need to exercise the utmost caution. Starbolt? Any insights on what we're looking at?” The Glitch crawled up beside me, still panting from the trek despite a lack of lungs. “Uncertain. I'm a medic, not an architect. I'd hazard a guess and say this was just an outpost. Hiveminded Glitch would build a colony resembling a village or a more traditional castle.” While he talked I looked over the building with a pair of binoculars. The stonework was weathered and host to vines in numerous places. The metal platforms between buildings looked rusted, or had collapsed outright. Somehow, it didn't look like a place tended to by industrious robotic craftspeople. “Looks like the original owners are long gone,” I noted. “Question is what they left behind.” “And who's moved in.” Lorenzo added. “Only one way to find out,” Almar said. Our approach was slow and deliberate. Those of us who favoured ranged weapons covered those armed with more up-close weapons. Not that we appeared to need them. We tiptoed over the creaky bridge one at a time, but we didn't spy a thing out of place. I know I was busy staring at the pit of endless spikes as I crossed over it. The interior of the building was every bit as dilapidated as the outside. A fine layer of dust coated every surface. Cobwebs filled the corners with silken mazes. Furniture and cutlery were scattered about, impossible to tell if they'd been there for a decade or a century. But that didn't explain who'd lit the torches. Nobody had to say anything - a few looks among ourselves was enough to realize something was not right. We crept onwards with added caution, through the abandoned entry hall, past the musty kitchen, towards the empty stables. There was a sizeable courtyard between the two towers. In another life it had been a garden, but much of it had long since grown beyond any semblance of order. The spaces and planters around the edges resembled miniature jungles, while vines clung to the surrounding walls like spiderwebs. But the middle of the space was remarkably ordered. A grid of makeshift wooden planters had been erected, each containing an ordered collection of plants. I recognized the types immediately – the same sort of genetically-modified vegetables we’d been planting for the Human refugees back at Phoenix’s Roost. They were specifically modified to grow in days instead of weeks. Judging by the maturity of the plants, they’d been tended to recently. “This doesn’t make any sense,” Lorenzo said. “Tomatoes. Carrots. Grapes. Why would Glitch be growing Human crops?” “Worried,” Starbolt replied. “That’s not the issue here. We can eat Human food as well as any. But these crops are new. Somebody is living here in the-” Weaponfire erupted behind us. The cacophony echoed around the courtyard as I dropped down into cover behind one of the planters. I quickly realized Michiko was the one firing, her submachine gun aimed above our heads. Her target was a window several stories above us in the tower opposite the one we emerged from. Aside from stonework chipped away by her projectiles, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Not until a figure suddenly stepped forward, bringing a weapon to bear down on us. “There’s someone up there!” Michiko yelled, dashing back towards the stables. “Move!” I was already bolting after her when the shooting started. Leaves were shredded and trestles blown apart by the hail of weaponfire, driving us into the opposite tower. I ducked down behind the cover of the wall, readying my rifle. A glance around showed no injuries, but that might not be the case for much longer. “Anyone get a good look at them?” I asked, readying my rifle. “Humanoid,” Michiko said, pulling a small hand mirror from her pocket and holding it out to the doorway, squinting at the reflection. “Still there. Waiting for us.” I cast my mind back to combat training. We were pinned down in unfamiliar territory through an ambush by an unknown assailant. Probably a group of them, based on the amount of food they were growing for themselves. Very poor odds for us. We’d need to even the odds. Slowly, a plan began to form in my head. “Michiko, Lorenzo, Starbolt, you stay here. Fire blindly through the doorway. Distract them without endangering yourselves.” I looked to Almar. “You’re with me. We’ll find a way upstairs. See if we can’t find our own window to shoot from.” A grin crossed the Floran’s face as he gave an excited nod. The others didn’t quite share his enthusiasm, but were quick to prepare their weapons and get into position. We left them to it, slipping out the back of the stable just as they opened up a volley of return fire. We dashed back through the kitchen and into the entry hall, taking a side passage to a set of stairs. The second floor held a library filled with decaying books and sagging shelves. The third floor appeared to consist of a large chess set. But the fourth showed promise – an armoury and attached forge. Better yet, by my reckoning it was at least a floor above our attacker. Almar giggled like a kid receiving his weekly candy rations as he browsed the weapons that had been left behind. I paid him little mind, stalking over to the nearest window and listening out. Weaponfire still echoed out from the empty courtyard and echoed through the stone hallways. But none of the projectiles were coming towards us. That offered all the opportunity we needed. I was about to round on Almar to have him hurry up, but he was already moving into position by another window. In one hand he held a small spherical object, bouncing it up and down. With his other hand, he produced a lighter from his uniform pocket and flicked it alight. I could almost swear I saw the small flame reflected in his black eyes. “Ssay when,” he hissed. I held up my hand and began counting down, one finger a second. At the count of five, I swung about and trained my weapon on the window. The figure was there, and barely had enough time to respond before I fired a volley of shots at them. I was certain at least one hit as the figure staggered out of view. I wasn’t able to fire again, as Almar held his lighter to the object in his hand, setting fire to a small fuse on the top. He proceeded to fling the sphere squarely at the window where the figure had been standing. The resulting explosion tore away the stonework on all sides of the window, leaving a blackened hole in the side of the opposite building. A few chunks of rubble toppled down into the courtyard, providing a few deep thuds to follow up the blast. A few seconds after the last thud, my communicator beeped. When I answered it, Michiko’s voice immediately came through. “Vikton! Please tell me that was you.” I shot a glance over at Almar, who was already rifling through a crate and pocketing more grenades. “Yeah. That was us.” “Well, if you could avoid bringing the building down on our heads, I’d greatly appreciate it.” “I’ll see what I can do,” I replied. “What’s the plan now? I doubt our friend was alone. And if they didn’t know they had company before, they do now.” Michiko made a small noise that I took to be a sigh. “What do we do, then? No point waiting around to be picked off like the teenagers in The Floran that Lived in-” “Almar and I will check up the upper floors of this tower,” I said, cutting her off. “You and the others can dig in. Make sure they don’t cross the courtyard, or come around the other side of the compound.” “Ah… okay. We’ll hole up here. Try not to get killed or anything.” “Let’s keep our expectations realistic,” I muttered, ending the call. A quick glance around the armoury turned up little more beyond some more grenades in more-or-less functional shape. Fascinating how long Glitch engineering could last despite its outwardly primitive design. But at the same time, we didn’t walk away with much else. The stock of weapons and armour offered little beyond some rusted iron equipment, likely inferior to our own gear. Though some of them might make for good conversation starters. Our progress through – or, rather, up – the tower was slow. Despite the numerous windows and torches, shadowy nooks and corners were abundant. So too were blind corners, closed doors, and any number of hiding places. I swear I could hear noises above us, and distant voices. They seemed to be moving in the direction of the other tower. And that didn’t count the uneaten meal and active nanostove in the middle of what looked to be a makeshift barracks. While I was no chef – having once managed to cut myself making a bowl of cereal – I deduced that the boiling pot on the nanostove contained some sort of vegetable stew. The biscuits on a nearby plate were much easier to identify, since the half-empty packet sat beside them. It was a Human brand. Not that that meant much in the age of interstellar commerce, but Human crops and Human food products were starting to paint a very Human picture. The rest of the room only added more brushstrokes. The hall was lined with camping beds and sleeping bags, along with various personal effects. I recognized several books and magazines from Earth. A collection of Wonders of Earth Monthly seemed harmless enough. A well-read copy of The Xeno Problem, less so. The only non-Human item was a small Numi doll. It was fastened to a dartboard, and had several darts sticking out of it. It also helped explain why most of the clothing scattered around the room was purple. I fumbled for my communicator, contacting Michiko with a shaking hand. Almar eyed me worriedly, and I hastily gestured for him to cover the door. “Trouble?” Michiko asked. “Looks like it,” I said. “I know who we’re dealing with. Occasus.” Michiko inhaled sharply. “Occasus? I thought they were just a bunch of bigots with too much time on their hands.” “That’s not what my old mentor told me. They wouldn’t be camped out on an alien world if they didn’t mean business. My money’s on them eyeing off Almar’s village for some reason.” The Floran shot me a nervous glance, but I gave him a gesture of reassurance. “Whatever they’re after, we need to investigate further,” I added. “And to end whatever threat they might pose.” Michiko was silent for a few moments. “We need to warn the village.” “I’ll contact Illinal in a second. For now, keep your eyes peeled like I said. We haven’t seen any sign of them in this tower yet. Might be that they’ve moved over to the other to try and ambush us.” “Alright. We’ve got the entrances covered down here, if you want to secure the upper floors. Looks like there’s a few walkways connecting the towers.” I gave Almar a reassuring smile. “There won’t be for much longer.” After a quick call to Illinal explaining the situation – and receiving word that the village was sending warriors to aid us – Almar and I made very short work of the walkways with our scavenged grenades. The courtyard didn’t exactly fare very well under the falling rubble, but our little demolition job at least closed off an avenue of attack. That still left the possibility of whoever was left in the tower escaping out the back. Or that the majority of the occupants were already out in the jungle, and would outnumber us with their return. But the arrival of reinforcements put my mind at ease. As Almar and I descended the tower, a quick glance out the window showed at least a dozen Floran warriors taking up position in the treetops, spears and bows at the ready. Returning downstairs to join up with Michiko and the others showed that even more had joined us. Several Florans poked around at the various detritus littering the entry hall as though they were priceless relics. Illinal stood among them, and was quick to walk over as I entered. “Vikton,” Illinal said, touching my arm. “Are you alright? Any injuries?” “No, we’re fine. Barely. We’ve only encountered one person so far, and they were well-armed. Safe to say the group poses a threat to the village.” “Agreed,” Illinal replied as she beckoned the rest of our crew closer. “Here’s the plan. First, we’ll get the Florans to take up positions around the tower to box the opposition inside. The hunters didn’t find any fresh tracks leading away from the towers, so we assume the rest of the Occasus folks are still inside.” “Then we charge in?” Almar asked. Illinal shook her head. “First step is to tighten the leash. Make them more likely to make mistakes. Or to open to negotiation.” “Or more likely to panic and do something dangerous,” Lorenzo said. “Might be a bit late for negotiation,” I agreed. “They shot at us on sight. And we’ve killed or at least wounded one of their number already.” Illinal nodded. “And all indications are that they’ve abandoned this tower, and holed up in the other. They’re on the defensive. Quite possibly outnumbered. We can’t allow them the opportunity to fortify. We’ve got to push the advantage while we have it.” “And what advantage might that be?” Lorenzo asked. A small smile crossed Illinal’s face as she turned to Almar. “Got any of those grenades left?” Hydrae Prime It was comforting to have Illinal back in charge. Especially since my last active combat mission had almost cost me my life. She had more battlefield experience than the rest of us combined, and the natural leadership that I could only dream of. And even though Avian combat tactics bordered on anachronistic, she was soon moving through the hallways with the speed and efficiency of a Human commando or an Apex execution squad. Our dash across the ruined courtyard was swift but unopposed. Every corner and every doorway we treated as though a dozen gunmen were hiding on the other side. We kept our eyes peeled for everything from tripwires to landmines. And yet, we encountered no opposition. At least until we reached the room at the top of the tower. I was sweating laserbolts by that point. Not least of all because I was starting to wonder if we’d missed something. A secret room or basement somewhere on the lower floors. I kept checking over my shoulder to see if a group of fanatics were creeping up behind us. But as we reached the top of the stairs, I could just make out the sounds of conversation from within. “Quiet!” a voice hissed. “I heard something outside!” Illinal glanced at me. I assume she would have rolled her eyes if hers hadn’t consisted solely of black sclera. “I think we found them,” I whispered. “What’s the plan? I’m guessing they’re ready for us.” Illinal glanced at the rest of us. Michiko and Lorenzo were shaking slightly. Even Starbolt managed to convey an air of fear despite his ever-dormant expression. Almar, on the other hand, looked determined. “I will draw their fire,” he said. Illinal shook her head. “Too dangerous. You could be cut to pieces in seconds.” Reaching into his satchel, Almar pulled out his last couple of grenades. “I refusse to let thiss sscum endanger my home. Bessidess…” He looked to each of us in turn. “I trusst you all to have my back. You are the mosst loyal and fearssome warriorss I’ve ever fought alongsside. There iss nobody elsse I’d rather sstand by right now.” I raised an eyebrow at the sentiment, but didn’t expect it to stop a laserbolt. “I appreciate it, Almar. But that’s still very risky. We need to try and outflank them.” Illinal nodded to the doorway. “This looks like it’s the only way in.” I shook my head, reaching down for my Matter Manipulator. “Then we’ll just have to make a new one.” It’s easy to view the Matter Manipulator as a defensive weapon, or even just a tool. After all, it can fill either role effectively. It’s equally as effective building a house as it is erecting fortifications. But with a bit of creativity – and a smidge of engineering knowhow – it could give us the tactical advantage we needed. My plan was elegant in its simplicity – an enemy entrenched in a structure’s upper floors shouldn’t expect an attack from above. At least assuming that they looked down on us aliens enough not to expect anything clever. With any luck, they wouldn’t expect us to use our Matter Manipulators to build a makeshift staircase onto the roof. And with a little more luck, we wouldn’t fall to our deaths as we did. That is to say, Almar, Lorenzo and I did. Illinal, Michiko and Starbolt remained in position by the door, trying to open negotiations – just as much a distraction as a legitimate attempt. The rest of us scouted out the rest of the top floor to find a suitable spot as far away as possible from the main chamber where the cultists were making their stand. We eventually found a place ideal for the task in the form of a small balcony overlooking the courtyard far below. Piece by piece, I disassembled one of the interior walls, making sure not to bring down the entire building. Entire bricks were broken down into their component atoms, absorbed into my Matter Manipulator’s hyper-dense storage segment. After a few mental calculations, I brought them back, fusing the bricks to the outer walls to form a rough stairway to the rooftop. There was no way it was going to pass workplace health and safety laws, but it was holding. Once we were certain that the stairs wouldn’t collapse underfoot – namely by me going up first – we gathered on the roof to plan our next move. Our options were quite limited: either we could open up a hole on the roof, or use the belfry sitting at the far end of the roof. Edging closer, I could make out a muffled conversation in the chamber below. “I know you can hear me in there!” Illinal called. “We have the building surrounded! We’re willing to negotiate!” A few moments passed before a voice – Human, as best I could tell – responded. “No negotiation! You scum will pay for what you did to Earth!” Even at a distance, the exasperation in Illinal’s voice was clear. “That had nothing to do with us! We barely made it offworld with our lives!” “Liar! Xenos ruined Earth long before the Ruin did! You made us weak! We would have stood a chance if you hadn’t infected our society!” I exchanged a baffled look with Lorenzo, before carefully leaning over the edge of the belfry to peer down into the chamber. It had clearly been some sort of throne room, seeing as the majestic chair in question still sat at the head of the room. But it was now surrounded by folding tables covered in laptops, maps and half-disassembled weapons. A few more tables had been flipped onto their sides as makeshift barricades, manned by our opponents, now in full view for the first time. They were definitely Human. Their sexes, ages and skin colours varied, but their species was one of two things that united them. The other was the mismatched collection of purple-trimmed clothing. A shirt here. A bandana there. Even a few coats that almost resembled robes. The rest of their attire was a mismatch of camouflage clothing and civilian attire – clearly not those of a professional army. But the pistols and rifles they wielded were no less intimidating. And yet, there was a far bigger concern on my mind. Illinal seemed to have the same thought. “How do you know the name of the Ruin?” she demanded. “And how do you know about it?” the apparent ringleader called back. “For all we know, you Protectors could have been the ones to release it!” “That’s ridiculous! My crew and I have been working hard around the clock to help people resettle. My people have welcomed them with open arms.” “Aha! Capitalizing on the opportunity! Absorbing our people into your inferior culture! You degenerates will pay for preying on our people in our darkest hour!” The ringleader reached down and unhooked a grenade from his belt as he spoke. I scrambled for my rifle, bringing it to bear as he pulled the pin. My sights were firmly on him – the first time I would have to shoot a sapient being outside of immediate self-defence. But that didn’t stop the man from pulling his arm back to toss the grenade in Illinal’s direction. Without hesitation, I opened fire. The man dropped like a sack of automatoes. The grenade fell to the ground, handle free from its wielder’s grip. A few of his nearby comrades had the sense to dive for cover, but it was too late. I slipped back behind the roof just as the explosion rocked the building. The deafening noise was following up by screams of pain from below. I chanced a peek over the edge of the roof. The sight below would haunt me for the rest of my days. At least I didn’t get to see much, as I was forced back into hiding by the survivors returning fire. Projectiles and laserbolts soared over my head and chipped at the stonework of the roof. I shuffled back, gesturing for Lorenzo and Almar to do the same. Not that it mattered, since they were already ducking for cover. Before I could even begin to formulate a plan of counterattack, another wave of weaponfire opened up in the room below. The hail aimed at us stopped, seemingly redirected at a new target below. A peek over the edge of the roof showed the few surviving Occasus in a firefight with Illinal and Michiko. I brought my rifle back up, opening fire to support my crew from above. With two different lines of attack at different elevations, the disorganized Occasus stood little chance. Those that hadn’t fallen to the grenade were still thoroughly disorientated by its detonation. I cut down one fighter as he attempting to bring his gun to bear on me. Another fell to a volley from Michiko’s machine pistol. That gave Illinal a chance to charge in with her sword, giving a hawklike battlecry as she went. Whether it was from the noise or the sight of an Avian warrior bearing down on her, Illinal’s target wisely raised her hands in surrender. Especially since the other two survivors were slain mere seconds later. “Good choice,” Illinal said, as the sole survivor surrendered her weapon. “Vikton! You good up there?” I glanced over at Lorenzo and Almar, who were both still in one piece. “We’re all good up here!” I called back to her. Nodding, Illinal looked back to our prisoner. “Name?” “Ah… K-Kara. A-are you going to… you know? Sacrifice me?” Illinal glared at the woman for a moment. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would a Stargazer Avian join the Protectorate? That makes no…” She trailed off, rubbing her eyes with a sigh. “No. You’re our prisoner, subject to the full legal protection that entails.” Kara didn’t look overly relieved by the new. “And you won’t let the Florans eat me?” I glanced over at Almar, who scoffed in disgust. “Floran wouldn’t eat you if you were cooked to perfection and drizzled with gravy!” Illinal ignored him. “Not on our watch. But you best start talking. What are you doing here?” “W-we were ordered to establish a base of operations here. It’s right on the edge of Floran space, see. Someone said something about launching expeditions.” “Would that involve wiping out the Floran village near here?” Kara gulped. “We… we had plans. In case they attacked us.” Illinal folded her arms. “Right. And what of these expeditions? What was Occasus going to be looking for?” “I don’t know,” she said, glancing over at the ringleader. She was quick to look away – even I could see her shiver at the sight. “Only he had the full details. All he said was something about some sort of relic. Not even a weapon or anything.” Obviously, he wasn’t in any shape to talk. Even I couldn’t stomach to look at his remains, instead focusing on disassembling part of the roof and using it to build a staircase back down into the throne room. Even then, I kept catching sight of the remnants of the firefight. Damaged furniture. Chipped stonework. Lifeless bodies. The latter sent a chill down my spine, and I struggled to keep a hold of my concentration. The Occasus may have been aggressive, and one day posed a threat to Almar’s tribe. But they were now dead by our hands. “Alright,” Illinal said. “Lorenzo, Almar, see if you can salvage anything here. Preferably data storage and documents. Starbolt and Michiko, check on the rest of the Occasus. If any of them are still alive, treat their injuries as best you can.” “We ought to give the rest a proper burial,” I added. “I mean… it’s the least we can do.” Illinal looked at me a moment, before giving Lorenzo a nod. She then turned her attention to Kara. “As for you, Vikton and I will be escorting you to the USCM. But I have another question first – how did you know what the Ruin was called?” “I don’t know,” Kara said. “It was in a message from the command cell. All it said was that Earth had been destroyed by it, and that it’d dealt a crippling blow to the Protectorate.” “And likely killed billions,” I said. “We were there. Things were so chaotic, there was no way a major evacuation would have been possible. Humanity’s just been subjected to a gigantic loss.” Kara stared at me. “What about the colonies?” “Overwhelmed, by the sounds of it,” Illinal said. “Mars and the rest of the Sol colonies are still functional, but they won’t have enough room for everyone who got off Earth. The United Systems and the Protectorate might be able to regroup at some point, but it’s not clear whether the Ruin will move on or not. Either way… there doesn’t seem to have been anything we could have done. Most of humanity is dead for no reason whatsoever.” For a moment, Kara was lost for words. She slumped back against the wall, sliding down into a sitting position. I couldn’t blame her; I don’t think any of us were remotely close to coming to terms with what happened. But I still pitied Kara. She was likely so caught up in Occasus’ ideology that she may well have tried and use that to frame the issue as a coping mechanism, same as the ringleader seemed to have been doing. Considering the stories I’d heard about Occasus, there was no telling how that was going to end. “And it’s true that you helped us?” Kara asked. Illinal nodded. “My home settlement’s taken in a large number of refugees. And before you ask, no. We’re not going to sacrifice them. We’re Grounded. We don’t believe in that sort of thing.” Kara remained silent for a while longer. “Um… thanks. I guess.” “I didn’t do it for you,” Illinal said. “Come on. After taking a moment to check Kara for weapons, Illinal and I frog-marched her onto the roof and set up a teleporter connection to our ship. A few Floran warriors were arriving downstairs, and were quickly press-ganged into helping move the bodies. Luckily we managed to get the connection established before the warriors could encounter Kara – I can’t imagine they’d be particularly pleased to meet her. Illinal teleported to the ship first, followed by Kara and then myself. We repeated the process to the USCM ship parked at Phoenix’s Roost, interrupting a card game a few off-duty soldiers were holding nearby. They were initially sceptical of our explanation, at least until we mentioned that Occasus had some knowledge of the Ruin. That alone was enough for them to agree to take Kara in for interrogation. She looked visibly relieved to be in human hands. But Illinal still looked rather distant. When we teleported back to the ship, she didn’t immediately beam back down to the fortress. Instead, she headed into the cockpit, and began typing some coordinates into the navigation console. As she did, she kept referring back to a set of coordinates written on a leaf. She glanced back to catch my look of bewilderment. “I’ve got a lead,” Illinal said. “Oh?” Illinal nodded. “Greenfinger Bahre and I went over a list of major artefacts in Floran culture. Given how diverse and tribal it is, there are few that are widely known. Of those, a lot of them are well-documented, so we can safely say they’re not what we’re looking for. So, I figure we can look into the most mysterious, but most well-known of them – the Bone Trophy.” “A trophy, huh?” I folded my arms. “Well, the Occasus seem to know something. Could be that they’ve reached the same conclusions as us and are on the same path. Assuming that’s correct, maybe they were setting up a foothold to find the relic as well.” “Who knows. But assuming Kara is to be believed, a trophy would make sense. It’s not a weapon, unlike most of the other artefacts. But being a hunting trophy also makes it an encapsulation of Floran culture.” I’d seen firsthand how determined they could be when ‘on the hunt’, at least with Almar. “Again, that’d make sense. Whoever built the gate knew about the Florans, after all. So, what do we know about the Bone Trophy?” Tapping in the last of the coordinates, Illinal sighed. “Almost nothing. It’s said to be the prize for defeating the greatest prey in the universe.” “Such as the Ruin?” “It’s a stretch, but it fits. I figure we should check it out regardless. At the very least, we should warn the Florans that the Occasus have an interest in them.” Illinal stepped away from the controls, wandering closer to me. “How are you holding up? You seemed pretty torn up over the Occasus.” I exhaled uneasily. “How couldn’t I be? We just killed several people.” “I know. It never gets any easier. But we both know that there’s more to Occasus than meets the eye. They’ve killed before. They’d happily do the same to us, or to Almar’s village.” She paused, reaching up to stroke my chin. “Vikton, taking someone’s life is not to be taken lightly. I’d be far more concerned if you weren’t having second thoughts.” I nodded. “I won’t let it get in the way of the mission. I just… I never expected this was how it was going to be, you know?” “I do,” Illinal agreed. “But you handled yourself well back there. Starbolt, Michiko and I might not be here if that grenade reached us.” Considering the aftermath of the grenade’s explosion, I didn’t want to think about what might have happened. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Illinal.” “Nor I you, Vikton. Come. Let’s get back to the others. We’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us.” “Right behind you,” I said, watching her head over to the teleporter. But before I followed, I lingered in the cockpit a moment glance out at the green expanse of the planet beneath us. My only hope was that, in some way, my actions had made it just a little safer.