The Ruklan soldier tapped a few points on its body armor. The visor of his helmet became transparent, revealing a crescent moon shaped eye arching along his forehead.
“Surrender or die, Rigellian scum!” the soldier said with the measured tone of one repeating a well-rehearsed line.
“Yep, sounds good,” Izzy replied. “Take us to your leader, please. Do people actually say that?”
“In movies?” CMO Carter offered in response.
The Ruklan soldier furrowed his brow. “Surrender…” he said, pausing. “Excuse me a moment, I apologize. The software for the translator unit just updated and I’m not entirely sure I heard you correctly. Did you say you surrender?”
Izzy nodded, offering a thumbs up briefly before considering she didn’t know what it may have meant on this planet. “You heard right,” she said. “Thing is we aren’t Rigellian, though. I’m Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. This is my crew, more or less. Plus one. My crew plus a guest.”
Fontaine chittered nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“We have no quarrel with you or your people, then, so why are you here?” the soldier replied.
Izzy tapped at the chin of her helmet as she considered her response. “First thing’s first,” she said. “How about a nice icebreaker? Get to know each other. What’s your name, soldier? Rank? Reason for going all pewpew on the Rigellians? Oh, and favorite dessert! What’s your favorite dessert?”
“I fail to see how this is even remotely productive!” Fontaine snapped, shrinking back upon realizing he’d captured the Ruklan soldier’s attention.
The soldier blinked. “This conversation seems a bit unorthodox,” he said.
Fontaine threw all four arms up, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Thank you! See? Finally, someone with some sense!”
The Ruklan soldier responded by delivering an audible jolt of electricity to Fontaine’s midsection with his weapon, causing Fontaine to drop to the ground.
“I’m not saying he deserved that, Captain, but I’m also not saying he didn’t either,” CMO Carter said, glancing down at Fontaine’s unconscious form.
***Far from Rigel Six, in a Ziggaraut-class war-fortress***
The assembly line upgrades were completed, producing three times as many plasma cannons and neutrino grenades as they had been only a week prior. There was, naturally, no shortage of interested customers, and that knowledge brought an unsettling grin to Weapons Master Roderick Weston’s face.
His teeth were of his own design, sharpened to points so fine they could pierce like hypodermic needles while still packing enough of a punch thanks to his augmented jaw that he could bite through the hull of a ship should he want to do so. The significant tuft of clay-red beard that dominated much of his face did little to reduce his general appearance. Sweat glistened on half of his bald head–the other half of his head was polished titanium, left visible by choice to remind any who saw Roderick that much of his brain was a sophisticated computer.
A small light blinked in the periphery of Roderick’s vision, prompting him to glance over.
“Incoming communication from Eyes in the Sky Epsilon,” a computerized voice announced.
Roderick waved a hand through the air. A screen manifested, and two shadowy figures appeared.
“Ruklans overthrow the Rigellian High Court yet?” Roderick asked, an edge present to his question that suggested he had a particular answer in mind.
The two figures exchanged glances.
“Actually, sir, there’s been an anomaly,” one said.
“A Spiral Reach Academy vessel showed up,” the other added.
Roderick stroked his beard, grumbling under his breath. “One ship, you say? What’s it’s name? Who’s her Captain?” He held up a finger, making it a point to stare down both of his lackeys.
“You’re not calling to say you expect an issue in my flawless coup, are you?” Roderick asked. It was a question but also a very clear threat.
“No, sir!” said the one.
“Not in the least,” said the other. “Getting that information for you right now.”
Roderick huffed. He gestured at the screen, moving his fingers through the air with skilled precision. A smaller screen appeared next to the original. It began to play video footage of Rigel Six’s orbit. He watched eagerly as the unexpected vessel appeared. He closed his right fist, and the footage paused with a clear view of the ship.
“The Lofty Albatross,” Roderick muttered to himself, his face scrunched as though the name he’d just spoken had left a foul taste in his mouth. He manipulated the second screen further, and after a moment a placeholder Captain’s photo appeared.
“Get me visuals on the Ruklan Citadel immediately,” Roderick snapped. “Something is askance here. This operation is too valuable to leave anything up to chance.”
“Yes, sir!” the two said in unison.
***Back on Rigel Six***
Izzy sat on a rock, occasionally glancing at Fontaine. “He’ll be okay, right?”
The soldier shrugged. “We avoid lethal force when possible,” he replied. “Your Cicardox friend will wake with a very unpleasant headache and need of an electrolytes patch.”
Izzy nodded. “Didn’t hear you say he’s dead in there so that’s one for the win column,” she replied. “Anyway, we need to speak with your leader. Don’t suppose you can arrange that, can you?”
“To what end?” the soldier asked defensively. “We have had plenty of talks. Rigel Six belongs to us as much as it does the Rigellians. More, perhaps, as we were here when they first arrived. They took endlessly and left us with little.”
CMO Carter stepped forward. “Permission to speak freely, Captain Warpt?”
“Granted,” Izzy replied.
“My understanding of this conflict is there are more than two sides to things,” CMO Carter explained. “The issue, of course, is that there’s a number of contradictions in each, both against the opposing narratives as well as to their own. Correct me if I’m wrong, Captain, but I believe Captain Warpt’s intent is to help shed light on the truth, and to bring both sides to an agreeable conclusion to this conflict.”
“True story, every word of it,” Izzye replied.
The Ruklan soldier laughed until tears streamed from his eye. “From anyone else I would say such thinking is the mark of hubris,” he said. He pressed a finger against the side of his helmet and spoke briefly, but without translation.
A Proteus Tank–something Izzy had only ever seen in pictures and video games–emerged from the ground behind the soldier like a great white shark breaching the ocean’s surface. A hatch on its front slid open.
“This way, please,” the soldier said.
Professor Everest reached down and scooped up Fontaine like he was the morning newspaper, hoisting his unconscious comrade over his shoulder.
“We have your word you will take us to your commanding officer?” Izzy asked.
The Ruklan soldier flinched in response. “Inar. General of the Ruklan Seventh Heavy Arms Battalion,” he replied. “I have a fondness for Saturnian Custard Biscuits, if you must know. Is that enough?”
Izzy smiled. “Respectfully, you skipped a few questions but I suppose we can get to those later. Plenty of time to talk and get to know each other, right?”
They boarded the tank quickly, and the hatch slid shut once everyone had entered. Inar approached a small console hanging down from the ceiling. The tank shuddered, tipped forward, and began its descent.
CMO Carter tapped Izzy on the shoulder, motioning for her to step aside. Izzy followed to a small bench along the outer wall of the tank.
“That was a bold approach, playing on the Ruklan’s sense of honor like that,” CMO Carter said.
“Oh, that?” Izzy said. “I wasn’t sure what to say in the moment, honestly, so I went with my gut.
“Strong intuition,” CMO Carter said. “I can appreciate that. A Ruklan is only as good as his or her honor, so to suggest Inar would have duplicitous intent likely hit him hard. I don’t want to speak prematurely, but I dare say we are making some very promising progress here thanks to you.”
Izzy nodded. “Sure, nice progress,” she said. “Good news all around. Glad to be able to help.” She walked away without another word, unaware of CMO Carter watching her closely.
“Hey, General Inar,” Izzy said, approaching. “A word, please? Well, more than one. Like, maybe a paragraph or two worth give or take? I can get a little winded. Or so I’m told, at least.”
Inar glanced at Izzy, eyebrow raised, but said nothing. He piloted the tank without watching, waiting for Izzy to speak.
“Hope I didn’t offend you back there,” Izzy said. She hesitated, then added, “No, that’s shitty of me. What I said, I mean. I’m sure you’re a very honorable soldier doing what’s best for your people.”
Inar placed a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Should I be so inclined to guess, you are perhaps no older than my daughter,” he said. “There is a hunger in your eyes I know too well. For knowledge. Glory. To leave a lasting impact.”
“You will not always be right, and you will not always do the best thing,” Inar said.
Izzy winced, the words hitting her hard.
Inar raised a finger. “That isn’t to say you won’t learn and grow,” he added. “I accept your apology, Captain Warpt.”
Izzy nodded. “Thank you, General.”
The tank shuddered to a stop, and the hatch opened once again. General Inar walked around the control panel and out, motioning for the others to follow without looking back.
First Officer deCourville began to stir. He groaned, looking around. “Where are we now?”
“Best keep your mouth shut,” Professor Everest said. “Let me help you up.” He assisted the First Officer in standing, and all eyes fell on Izzy.
“Come on, then,” Izzy said. “Forward march. One foot in front of the other. All that jazz.” She half-marched, half-skipped out the hatch, and the others followed along.
The cavern was awe-inspiring, lit by glimmering geodes and long strands of omnidirectional plasma lumites.
“Welcome to the Citadel,” Inar said, waving ahead. The pride in his voice was undeniable, and not unfounded.
The Citadel was carved out of the very bedrock itself, modified only as much as necessary but largely carved earth. Elaborate spires flanked its central structure, which ran from the cavern’s ceiling down into a large pit dug out of the floor. A bridge spanned the gap to the Citadel’s looming main entrance, a number of guards standing at the ready outside.
Nothing was visible in the abyss beneath the bridge.
One of the guards spoke to Inar as they approached, and he laughed and gave an untranslated response. The other guards laughed as Inar, Izzy, and her crew entered.
“What did they say?” Izzy asked. “Er, that is if you don’t mind me asking of course.”
Inar chuckled. “They asked if you were prisoners of the war effort,” he said. “I told them you might be. That’s still to be determined.”
“Oh. Ha. You’re a funny one,” Izzy said nervously.
The interior of the Citadel was even more breathtaking than its exterior. The central room was alive with activity, soldiers and civilians milling about. Two long, elaborately carved stone staircases rose into the higher reaches, disappearing from view where they passed beyond the ceiling.
“We will meet with Prime Minister Todan, President Kelran, and the Archbishop Geln,” Inar said. “They will no doubt be eager to hear what you have to say.”
Izzy nodded. “Right, what I have to say,” she said. “The words I’ve carefully planned out to really make a point.”
They ascended the stairs almost complete silence, save for Fontaine’s occasional pained grumblings, and emerged in a second large room. A large monitor adorned its far wall. Similar to the room below, soldiers rushed around from one console to another as they monitored live footage of the battle on the surface.
“General Inar, it is good to see you have returned safely,” boomed a voice from behind. Izzy tried to hide having jumped, staggered forward, and spun around to face the speaker.
“I see you have brought guests.”
Three Ruklans, each at least twice as tall as General Inar, sat in thrones. Their eyes were fixed on Izzy.
Izzy studied each of the three carefully. The one in the center was dressed in a plain suit. She wore a hat that, at a glance, looked to be an impossible shape.
The man on the left throne was adorned in armor marred with deep gouges as though he had just returned from battle. A scar ran from his scalp and crossed his face diagonally passing along his eye.
The woman on the right throne wore a bright, expensive-looking garb that glittered with fine jewels.
Izzy inhaled deeply, sighed, and bowed. She glanced to the occupant of the left throne first. “President Kelran,” she said.
“Prime Minister Todan,” she said, turning to the occupant of the right throne, offering another bow.
Izzy then turned her attention to the center throne’s occupant and offered a particularly deep bow, her eyes locked with the Ruklan royalty she was about to address.
“Archbishop Geln,” Izzy said. “I am honored to be in your company. To have your time? Excuse me, this is foreign territory in more than one way.” The woman nodded approvingly in response.
“Tell me, Inar, did you school her before they arrived?” Archbishop Geln said with a chuckle.
Inar shook his head.
“All me using my noggin,” Izzy said.
“And what business do these interlopers have here?” Prime Minister Todan barked, her voice sharp and cold.
Izzy waved a hand enthusiastically. “Oh, this is an easy question to answer,” she shouted cheerfully. “I’d like to offer my suggestion on how you can finally end this fight with the Rigellians once and for all. It’s a crazy, one-in-a-bajillion chance idea, but I have like ten of those before breakfast every day and most of them are pretty solid.”