Follow The Ashes – The Steep Cost of Failure

Cas stepped back, hand clasped over her mouth as she struggled to swallow the scream that threatened to rip loose at any moment. The world around her wavered and disappeared, the simulated memories no longer there. Replaced by the room with the overly extravagant desk and the window that afforded a perfect view of Terra below.

Earth, or what was left of it.

“I know you’re there, damn it,” Cas said, not bothering to turn around. “Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”

“It would have killed you, I’m afraid,” Gavin said, walking around the desk and into view. “Frankly, I’m quite surprised it didn’t kill you. I don’t believe you were meant to learn the truth just yet. There are still too many loose ends.”

Cas glared at Gavin, whose expression was unreadable as ever. “Can’t you just speak plainly?”

“If only I had the time,” Gavin replied, shaking his head. “A risk I had taken knowing the potential consequences. You’ll need to find the others. They’ll have been reassigned again now that your actions are coming together.”

“My what?” Cas demanded.

Gavin shook his head. “High Command knows what you knew, and what you did about it,” he replied. He reached into his shirt pocket and handed Cas a card key.

“You’ll need this,” Gavin instructed. “I’ll leave you with an old quote I’ve been fond of ever since we embarked on this journey you don’t yet fully recall. The risk I took was calculated, but man am I bad at math.”

Cas couldn’t help but smiled. “What do you mean, though?”

The sound was soft and faint, and suddenly was quite horrible. It happened slow, then suddenly. The iris of Gavin’s cybernetic eye flashed red, followed by a blinding light. The heap of ashes resting where Gavin had stood seconds before seemed so small compared to how much space he took up–both physically and personality-wise.

His cybernetic eye sat atop the ashes, staring at Cas though there were no longer any signs it was still functional.

“Probably not what I had in mind, but best not risk it,” Cas said to herself. She reached down and plucked the eye from the ashes, wiping it off before placing it in one of her pockets. She shuddered.

Something called out from somewhere partially obscured in memories she couldn’t quite reach. She bowed her head, her eyes shut, and silently offered up a prayer. It felt like a foreign gesture to Cas, but seemed appropriate all the same.

The Earth burned in the corner of her vision.

“I have to make this right,” Cas said. She turned her attention to the door, then glanced at the card key in her hand. “And now I know where I can start.”

Warpt Factor – Installment 16

Izzy had tried, unsuccessfully, to return to the bridge at least three times only to be thwarted by her crew.

“Mustn’t spoil the surprise,” First Office deCourville insisted.

“Back to your room now, little missy,” Professor Everest said, quickly correcting himself by adding, “Begging your pardon, Captain. No offense meant.”

That was when Izzy learned she reminded Professor Everest of his daughter, a fact that made her warm and fuzzy and full of rainbows and joy inside.

CMO Carter took a more direct approach. “I brought a deck of Adventures in Speculation cards and two mugs of hot chocolate with little marshmallows shaped like asteroids.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Damn you, Carter,” she said. “Well-played. Come in, but know that I am a champion without rival at Speculation. You doomed yourself before you even knew what you were doing.”

CMO Carter entered the room, placed the hot chocolate down on the anti-grav table, swiveled the desk chair around to face Izzy’s bed, and cracked her knuckles.

“I’ll certainly test your skills, then,” CMO Carter replied.

The hours rolled by in an instant, several rounds having played out with no victor able to be chosen. Numerous mugs of cocoa were enjoyed.

“Clearly, I underestimated you,” Izzy said. “A mistake I won’t make again!”

There was a soft knock on the door. Izzy frowned, “Perhaps another time,” she said. “Who goes there? State your business!”

A grumbled response, followed by a clearer one. “First Officer deCourville. I thought you may like to know we’ve arrived at our destination. I had tried to contact you on your Commlink, but it seems you’ve shut it off.”

Izzy responded with a sheepish grin, and CMO Carter stifled a laugh.

“Be right out, First Officer,” Izzy replied. “Sir. Thank you, sir.”

The hatch was open, waiting, and the lights dimmed on the bridge. CMO Carter followed Izzy. She kept smiling, but wouldn’t admit to why.

Izzy stepped out onto the docks. The lights and sounds were all-encompassing. She blinked and tried to adjust, and as she processed her surroundings she couldn’t help but smile as well. She danced in place a moment, before turning to CMO Carter.

“You knew?” Izzy demanded.

CMO Carter nodded. “We considered your personnel file while you were dealing with the diplomatic parts during the tail end of our visit to Rigel Six,” she admitted. “It’s very clear you like thrill rides, and I happened to have an uncle who holds season passes.”

“Halcyonland,” Izzy said, a hint of tears welling up in her eyes. Antique roller coaster cars soared along modernized versions of their tracks overhead, no longer bound by the limits of old construction nor the dangers of naturally occurring gravity. Rides like centrifuges spun riders wildly while simultaneously rotating on multiple axes.

“You three thought of this for me?”

Fontaine, Professor Everest, and CMO Carter nodded.

“What you did back there was something amazing,” Professor Everest said. “Hurt like hell to see you so sad with what came of it, so we put our heads together…”

“Did a little research,” Fontaine said.

“The rest is, well, history,” CMO Carter said. “We’ve got the entire day off without issue. High Chancellor Kadimova approved it himself, actually. It was meant to be.”

Izzy looked around, soaking the entire place in. It was a one-of-a-kind attraction, its artificial atmosphere a thin, translucent fog barely visible at the edge of the park. In addition to the rides, there were so many food stalls and restaurants drifting about the sphere the park occupied in space.

Izzy’s eyes lit up as a thought occurred to her. “We have just enough that we can all be ride buddies!” she declared. “No one gets left behind this way. Oh wow. Wowwie wow wow, this is amazing!”

Fontaine began to raise a hand in protest. Professor Everest shook his head, and Fontaine lowered the hand.

“Yes, I suppose that will be quite nice,” Fontaine said, barely concealing his fear as his eyes followed a train as it ran through a series of loop de loops while also completing a barrel roll.

“Not as bad as it looks, or so I’ve heard,” Professor Everest assured him quietly.

Three rides later, however, had left Professor Everest asking if a break was in the future.

“Goodness me, a break?” Fontaine chittered excitedly. “We haven’t the time! We must maximize our ride-to-line-time ratio so as to enjoy as much of our time here as possible! Did you see the shooting star ride? Perhaps we could do that one next?”

Izzy laughed. “Didn’t think you’d be having so much fun, First Officer,” she said. “This is a little less formal than you seem to prefer and all. Not as stick-in-the-mud as you normally do?”

“I don’t know what’s come over me, to be honest,” Fontaine replied. “I feel light as a feather, filled with glee. I should do this more often, I think.”

“Adrenaline rush,” CMO Carter whispered. “Probably the most excitement he’s ever had in his life.”

Professor Everest winced as Fontaine continued to suggest rides. “Perhaps we could go on something a little slower to switch things up a little,” he suggested. “The Phantom Zone, perhaps?”

The Phantom Zone was modeled after the haunted houses of old. The facade of a derelict house floated in the air, its enormous doors opening to a wormhole. Carts of four riders disappeared into it, reappearing seconds later.

“Fair. Very diplomatic indeed,” Izzy said. “As Captain of this adventure, I’ll allow it.”

Fontaine frowned, but quickly recovered. “Very well. If it’s the Captain’s will, I’ll indulge. Only if I may ask for some more of the loop-and-twist rides afterwards.”

“Suppose so,” Izzy said.

They moved to the front of the line quickly, thanks to the nature of The Phantom Zone’s quantum ride duration. They boarded the ride’s vehicle, fashioned after an old mine cart. The restraint bar that lowered was more for show than function, an authentic throwback to amusement parks of yesteryear.

The doors opened like a gaping maw, the space beyond them a swirling opalescence that stuck out against the surrounding facade. A quiet countdown whispered from ten to one, and the cart lurched forward.

“Woah,” Izzy blurted out. “Ears popped just there.”

The space within the ride was made to look like an old mansion. Its physical details were in constant flux, however, shimmering gently in the low-light as simulated spiders the size of freighter ships moved around the ceiling. The cart followed its pre-set path, climbing a tall set of stairs.

Suddenly, the lights flickered. The cart stopped.

“Uh…Is that supposed to happen?” Izzy asked.

Fontaine and Professor Everest shrugged.

“New feature since the last time I visited, perhaps?” CMO Carter offered in response.

The lights flickered again, and Izzy was gone, replaced suddenly by a young woman in curious, Medieval garb.

Follow the Ashes – The Price of Success

It was a celebration that put all other celebrations to shame. Cas arrived early and still felt as if she had gotten there late, shocked by how many people were already milling about the dimly-lit room. Brilliantly colored lights played around the ceiling and glimmered up from within the floor. Simulated shooting stars passed through the air without bothering the partygoers.

Cas inhaled deeply, braced herself, and entered the chaos. She couldn’t shake the feeling something was off, but whatever that something was eluded her. Her silver dress shined brilliantly, her matching gloves held in place with micro-gravs – just enough give to look like they were slipping off without the hassle of having to adjust them.

It was not a look Cas enjoyed, but the communication was clear. Everyone was to look exceptional. There were stakeholders to please, to wine and dine, and to fleece for every penny they were worth. The Rings depended on it.

“The Rings,” Cas muttered to herself.

Someone tapped on her shoulder, and Cas spun around. Raph, Ismeria, and Gavin stood together, smiling.

“Great to see you Commander,” Raph said, smiling especially broadly.

“Color me surprised,” Gavin added. “I distinctly recall you having indicated you were busy and would not be able to put in an appearance.”

Ismeria chuckled. “You’re just pissed because we owe Raph money,” she said. “My apologies, Commander, but I figured you would prefer paperwork over partying.”

Cas shook her head. She couldn’t help but smile back. “Hardly appropriate, but you can square away paying Raph later. Of course I’m here. Speaking of being here, where’s…” She trailed off. A blank space where a name should be in her memory. Odd, Cas thought.

“Maeve is on security duty, per your command,” Gavin replied. “Or are you having a brain lapse? No need to pretend you forget her name when she’s not around.”

“Right. Of course,” Cas replied. “Excuse me, I believe we were instructed to mingle.” She excused herself, and disappeared into the crowd. Screens moved along the edge of the room. They showcased beautiful forests with opulent tree houses, Medieval castle-towns with modern amenities, and collisions of past and future.

“What amazing habitat offerings,” one guest said to another. “I can’t choose which I’d prefer.”

“Any of them are an improvement over old, sad Terra,” replied the guest’s companion.

“Terra,” Cas muttered to herself. She noticed she was being watched, so she turned around to move among the crowd and bumped into someone. He was tall and portly, dressed in a forest green suit with a soft blue vest visible.

“Oh ho, if it isn’t the favorite Commander. Good evening,” the man said.

Cas smiled. “Bertie. A sight for sore eyes. Join me for a drink and conversation, would you?”

Bertie nodded. “Of course, of course, but I’ll have to make myself scarce before long,” he replied. “I do believe your bosses hate the idea of investors being treated as friends.”

Cas intercepted one of the hospitality droids drifting among the crowd just long enough to take two glasses of champagne. She handed one to Bertie, who raised it in a toast.

“To your extraordinary success,” Bertie said. “You solved the riddle no one else could unpuzzle. An awesome feat.”

Cas hesitated. What, she wondered, had she solved that was so important. “Thank you,” Cas replied, raising her glass to meet Bertie’s.

There was a murmuring among the crowd, attention shifting to the entrance. Bertie shook his head, downed his drink, and offered a lazy salute.

“We’ll talk again soon, I’m sure,” Bertie said. “You’ve got a very important guest to speak with, I believe.” He walked away before Cas could reply. The crowd seemed to be moving away from Cas, she noticed.

“The Commander of the hour.” The speaker’s voice deep, its intent carried on murky undertones like a wave rolling off of a storm.

Cas turned around, and looked up. There was no mistaking Vittorio Prosseur. His head floated suspended in a Vitalis Solution in a globe, separate from his custom built body but quite alive. An enormous, cybernetic heart pumped visibly within a similar, translucent dome in the body’s chest.

“Doctor Prosseur, it is always an honor,” Cas replied. The words were foreign, but fell effortlessly from her mouth. “I assure you, of course, it has been a team effort.”

“Please, call me Vittorio,” Vittorio said. He placed a cybernetic hand on Cas’s shoulder, its palm larger than her head. “You and I are of a higher calling than most here. We operate on a level of skill and wisdom that’s…not always appreciated. Walk with me.”

The room was empty, save for Vittorio. The party seemed to have ended. The screens had turned off.

“I’ll admit, I would have never thought to reverse the Simulation Engines like that,” Vittorio said, standing at the largest screen in the room. “It was a very calculated move on your part. The losses great, but the gains? Let’s just say our profits have never been greater.”

Cas approached slowly, cautiously. This screen displayed a far more dreary place. Fires raged across a planet’s surface, seas boiling. Parts of the land were visible only as blackened ruin, storms of ashes swirling across them from time to time.

“You solved the problem of providing power to the Rings, Commander,” Vittorio said. “And all you had to do was burn up Terra like charcoal in an old fireplace.”

Cas felt her stomach drop as she realized the scene unfolding in front of her was no display.

“What have I done…”

Follow The Ashes – Fragments of Memory

Cas was aware something was different the moment she stepped into the control room. Fresh, modern, functional displays dominated an entire wall, lines of fiber optic cables tethering them to consoles below. The wall opposite from the door, however, is what captured Cas’s attention.

There was a desk that radiated luxury. It was the most low-tech piece of the room. The woodworking was impeccable, and it looked to be antique but well cared for despite no one being around.

Two trails of ashes ran parallel to each other as if to create a walkway to the desk, but instead went around it. Cas followed them, wary she was likely being watched. The path created by the ashes didn’t stop at the desk, but went around it and met their endpoint at the wall.

The display fitted into the wall was different, however. It didn’t display data streams or schematics for other rooms like the ones she’d previously encountered. This screen displayed a series of interwoven, concentric metal rings. Points of light were visible with windows showing hints of what was within the rooms beyond.

At the heart of it all was a planet, its surface visibly scarred to the point of not being habitable. Some points on the planets surface were still ablaze, the fires so large they were visible from this distance.

“This is a window…” Cas gasped, the realization settling in. She felt her stomach as it bottomed out. Dread mingled with familiarity, and Cas felt as if she had found herself standing at a precipice. Ahead was a point of no return–a sharp drop and a guaranteed sudden, final stop.

The desk featured one notebook, plain in its appearance but without even a hint of dust unlike the desktop which was covered in a fine layer. Someone had put it there recently, and deliberately.

Cas opened the notebook, her eyes drawn to the writing immediately. She snapped it shut and set it back down on the desk again, looking away.

“This is another trick, isn’t it?” Cas said to the room. “I know you’re watching me, Gavin. Just show yourself and explain this.” She gestured to the notebook and waited patiently.

No response came.

Her patience failing, Cas reopened the notebook and confronted her own handwriting. It was unmistakably hers, but she had no recollection of the thoughts on the pages in front of her.

Progress is slow and time is limited. We work endlessly, foregoing meals and sleep in favor of solving the final hurdle – how do we make the environments on the Rings permanently habitable? I cannot seem to solve one problem without creating another. Too many factors to consider.

Cas turned the page and continued reading.

We have received orders on a means to meet the power needs of the Rings, but few details have been relayed. Gavin remains optimistic, always pointing to that unsettling eye of his and saying how he’s got an eye for spotting wins. I suspect he means to be charming and conversational. I have little time for such pleasantries. There is something deeply concerning about the solutions – they present more questions than answers. Meanwhile, the various themed living quarters seem to be failing one by one. Their inhabitants are unaware they live in simulated realities, and so they scramble to survive. I cannot intervene or the integrity of all we have worked for will evaporate, and the entire project will inevitably be terminated.

Cas paused, her eyes shut tightly for a moment. A dull pain rolled from the base of her neck along the top of her head. She breathed through it, opened her eyes, and continued reading.

I’ve been running equations with Raph’s help. Maeve continues to complain that she is being under-utilized. Word, however, is that we are expecting a visit from much higher up. The name Vittorio has been mentioned, and if that rumor is even remotely true then we must work with haste and care.

“Vittorio,” Cas repeated aloud. “Why do I know that name…”

Vittorio’s visit went as expected. He focused largely on profitability and problem-solving, and only provided half-answers and misdirecting questions when asked how we would be improving upon meeting the power needs of the Rings. He left without joining the staff for dinner, his personal spaceship destined for a private planetoid somewhere far from here. Gavin continues to speak highly of the progress, but I cannot shake the feeling things are not as they appear. I need to have a contingency plan in place should there be difficulties ahead.

Cas turned the page. The very edge of the next five pages was all that remained, and the ones beyond that were blank.

“Rings…” Cas muttered to herself. Her eyes shot open wide as a rush of memories hit her. Maeve. Lieutenant Ismeria. Raph.

Gavin.

Blinding pain erupted behind her eyes, the world spinning around as she fought off a wave of nausea. She fell to her knees, her fists clenched so tightly that her nails drew blood from her palms.

The footsteps were soft, deliberately so, and measured.

“This has finally accelerated,” Gavin–his voice now unmistakable–said. “And yet you are nowhere near ready.”

“Go to hell,” Cas spat. The world rocked and lurched one final time, and Cas’s vision went black.

Warpt Factor – Installment 14

The room was so quiet the anti-grav thrusters in the tables could be heard clearly–something that, with a gathering so large, should have been impossible. Whoever had hacked the system to contact the Rigellian Palace remained cloaked in artificial shadow, their voice altered several times over.

Neither the Rigellian Supreme Leader nor the Ruklan Leadership trio spoke up, and so Izzy turned her chair and stood on it, waiting for it to adjust to the shift in weight so as to not fall off.

“Sorry, don’t see you on the guest list so maybe, I don’t know,” Izzy said, “Maybe just leave. Especially if what you said is true. You’ve done enough here, thanks. But no thanks, ever, actually.”

The figure on the screen tilted their head. “Forgive me, young woman, but I can’t say I’m familiar with who you are,” they said. “I am addressing the Ruklan and Rigellian leaders.”

Izzy huffed. “And I’m talking to you, creepazoid! Show your face and stop hiding behind boring, old spy tech.”

“Supreme Leader Rigellus, were you not pleased to have the defensive capabilities to keep the Ruklans at bay?” the shadowy figure on the screens asked. “Archbishop Geln, do you not recall your promise to topple the Rigellian Empire?”

Archbishop Geln has gone a sickly shade of green, sweat accumulating along his forehead.

“Fortunately, I was made aware of the circumstances of your collective…” the shadowy figure continued. “Well, failure is the only word that really encompasses it properly. Geln failed to lead the Ruklans to victory. As for you, Calvin? Perhaps you’re more clever than I thought, as you found the kill-switch I had built into the shielding equipment.”

The atmosphere in the room great significantly less warm and jovial, with many of the people at neighboring tables having hushed conversations.

“I bought plasma-driven shielding for the Capitol and the palace, these things are true,” Calvin replied. “From a reputable seller with Orion’s Blade.”

Geln didn’t speak a word, his face a mask of horror.

“As for you, child, perhaps you would do well to learn when you should speak up and when you should stay silent,” the shadow-shrouded figure said. “Eagerness to stand out can have unfortunate consequences.”

Geln let out a strangled gasp. “Give me another chance, please,” he begged.

The figure on the screen shook their head. They held aloft a modified comm-link–a very old model, modified from the look of it. They pressed a button.

Archbishop Geln fell the short distance from his seat to the floor, motionless upon landing.

“A pity,” the shadowy figure said. “I had such high hopes for our relationship once he had taken Rigel Six. Do take care, everyone. Remember that life and government are fleeting, unstable things, and one never does quite know when their role or their rule may come to a sudden end.”

The transmission ceased and many of the guests fled the room. President Kelran leapt down to the floor to examine Geln. CMO Carter ran past Izzy and began attempting to resuscitate the fallen Archbishop.

“What in the hell just happened?” Izzy asked. “Who was that?” Before she could register what was going on, her crew was by her side.

“Are you all right, Captain?” Brannigan asked, looking her over as if he expected her to combust at any moment.

First Officer deCourville rested a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “That was quite concerning, Captain, so I must echo Professor Everest on this. Are you quite all right?”

Izzy blinked, staring off into the distance.

“Thank goodness you didn’t immediately declare who you are, as you do,” First Officer deCourville added. “Whoever that is would have found out very quickly where to find us, I fear.”

“Yeah,” Izzy replied. “You’re right.” She got down from her chair and approached CMO Carter.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Izzy asked.

CMO Carter sighed. “Whatever killed him left no physical evidence of what it did. His heart stopped.” She stood, turning to face Izzy.

“It’s okay to not be okay right now, Captain,” CMO Carter said. “No amount of training truly prepares for this moment. When you see someone die, needlessly, for the first time. Wish I could say it gets any easier.”

“Thank you, Carter,” Izzy said. “Mel. I’m sorry.”

Izzy returned to Professor Everest and First Officer deCourville, who stopped speaking to each other in hushed tones when they spotted her.

“I’m fine, you two. Right as rain,” Izzy assured them. “What a dumb saying.” She shrugged, shaking her head.

“Time to depart,” Izzy said. “We’ve done enough here.” She turned and whistled sharply.

“CMO Carter!” Izzy shouted.

CMO Carter raised an eyebrow.

“Ship departs…” Izzy hesitated. “Whatever, just be aboard in the next hour, please. I’ve got a headache that could kill an AI and I need a nap.”

Calvin went to follow, but Prime Minister Todan stopped him as Izzy left the Grand Dining Hall, tracing her steps back to her room. She gathered her things and made her way back to the private hangar The Lofty Albatross where The Lofty Albatross waited. It sparkled with a newfound shine.

“Damn it, they washed you,” Izzy muttered. “They washed my ship with blood-money from being awful.” She let out a strangled scream, covering her mouth halfway through.

The Lofty Albatross’ crew was waiting on the bridge of the ship when Izzy boarded.

“I’ll be in my quarters,” Izzy grumbled.

“Captain,” Professor Everest said. “A word, please? Just a moment of your time, we promise.”

Izzy hesitated at the doorway, turning around. She realized she had missed seeing CMO Carter, but it looked like the Lofty Albatross had gained a crew member after all.

“Go on,” Izzy said.

“Well, we did some talking, as we do,” Professor Everest said. “This one especially.” He pointed at Fontaine but didn’t allow enough time for a response, the Cicardox already clicking his mandibles in frustration.

“General consensus is we find a nice make port and unwind for a bit,” Professor Everest said. “You’ve certainly earned it, Captain.”

Izzy frowned. “I did no such thing,” she said. “If anything, I deserve to be thrown into a black hole far away from an inhabited system. By a robot so a person doesn’t get stuck with me that long.”

“That was…specific,” CMO Carter replied.

“Someone is dead because of me!” Izzy shouted.

First Officer deCourville stepped forward, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Captain, what you did today…What you achieved? You brought peace to two warring factions, and in doing so you uncovered something far more insidious at play. We’ll have to report the details back to Spiral Reach, but…”

First Officer deCourville hesitated. “You’ve earned a measure of rest first before we tackle filing the various reports needed.”

Izzy offered a half-hearted smile. “Very sweet of you, First Officer,” she said. “Guess I’ll leave it up to you three. Give me a heads-up when we’re there, okay? Like, more than a five-minute warning.”

“Of course, Captain Warpt,” First Officer deCourville said, offering a salute.

Izzy returned the salute. She turned to leave the bridge. “If you guys need anything, not that you’ll need anything of course,” she said before she departed. “If you do though, my door’s always open to you, my crew.”

Follow The Ashes: Splinters of the Past

Cas remained still as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could see the shape of a small tent in the distance. A small light from within the tent cast Raph’s shadow against the cloth wall.

“I know you’re watching me, asshole,” Cas said to the darkness.

“Not very nice of you, but I’m hardly surprised by your hostility,” Gavin replied, his voice echoing from all around. “Given how busy you’ve been, how could I not keep an eye on you? You’ve caused a lot of problems.”

Cas massaged her temples. “I don’t feel like playing games with you,” she snapped back. “What did he mean when he called me Commander? Who are you people and why am I here?!”

Gavin’s laughter was quiet enough that there was no way Raph could hear it, but loud enough to ensure Cas heard it loud and clear.

“Asking the big questions now,” Gavin said. “Perhaps you should investigate and see what you learn on your own.”

There was a shift, small but perceptible, in the atmosphere, and Cas could tell that Gavin was gone. At the very least, he had stopped watching for now.

Cas sighed, considering her options. Talking to Raph could very well be part of an elaborate trap, as he had helped her escape Gavin before but showed no signs of recognizing he did as much. She steeled herself for the worst, took a deep breath, and walked towards the tent. Raph’s silhouette indicated he was sitting with his back to the door, hunched over something. Cas cleared her throat and watched as Raph turned around. He poked his head out of the tent’s opening seconds later.

“Yes, Commander? Didn’t expect you so soon. Is all well?”

Cas considered her words with care. “At ease,” she said, and Raph seemed to relax a little. “Let’s say I am testing you. Care to answer a few questions?”

“Of course, Commander,” Raph replied. He stepped out of the tent. “Ask away.”

Cas paused, wondering what a good starting point would be. “This is all artificial,” she said gesturing to the field around them, pausing to point at the trees before gesturing towards the sky. “What purpose does it serve?”

Raph smiled. “An easy first question, Commander,” he said. “We are here to rigorously test the simulated environments before they are deemed acceptable for population. We evaluate the quality of each simulation and pass those evaluations on to high command.”

Cas nodded. “And from there?”

“Well above my pay grade, Commander,” Raph replied.

“Good answer,” Cas lied. She decided quickly this was not a line of questioning worth pressing and moved on. “Have you seen Gavin?”

Raph raised an eyebrow. “The Lieutenant? Not since you sent him off on his special assignment.”

“Special assignment?”

Raph blinked. “You wouldn’t tell me and he kept very quiet about it, unlike his usual routine,” he replied. “Highly classified from the sound of it.”

Cas nodded. She considered her options as she didn’t know what would or wouldn’t raise red flags. “All right. Good answers so far. Last question.”

Raph offered a polite smile. It was only at this point that Cas realized what seemed off about him. He had none of the scars she was used to seeing on his face.

“First thing that comes to mind when I give this command,” Cas said. “Follow the ashes.”

The stars went out, and with them all light left the wooded area. Cas couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and suddenly she felt very alone.

The room lit up, the metal poles that stood in place of trees her only company. The walls were covered in endless data streams, the information moving too rapidly for Cas to process. The only detail she could focus on was a solitary word present on each wall.

“Rebooting.”

“Just another simulation,” Cas muttered to herself. She looked around until she spotted a door. She walked over to it, absentmindedly allowing her hands to graze the placeholders for trees and shrubs as she walked. She half-heartedly acknowledge the presence of ashes on the door handle before she opened it, stepping out into a control room.

A series of panels stared down at her from their lofty posts along where the wall met the ceiling.

She hesitated, however, when she spotted an envelope propped up against one of the consoles. It was plain and unassuming, the only markings on it her name in swooping, elaborate script. Not just Cas, however.

Sharp pain rolled over Cas as her vision grew dark. She tried to muscle through it, and when she felt herself getting the better of whatever was happening she noticed the envelope was gone.

The door on the opposite side of the control room was slightly ajar, and so Cas approached it, opened it, and crossed the threshold without hesitation.

She needed answers, and she was determined to stop letting them slip between her fingers.

Warpt Factor – Installment 13

Izzy stood in the guestroom she’d been guided to upon arrival at the Rigellian Palace. Stars twinkled in the ceiling’s perfect recreation of the night sky. A bed bigger than Izzy’s room took up a great deal of the floor, and on the bed rested a dress the color of vibrant rust.

“I’ve got my eye on you, fancypants formal nonsense,” Izzy said. “Sure, you’re very nice looking, and wow you are soft. But you’re so boring.” Izzy huffed, plopping down on the enormous bed, sinking into its sea of softness.

Everything about the room looked like big dollar signs, and the whole thing was enough to make Izzy want to find the nearest, greasiest fast food place.

There was a soft knock at the door.

“Captain Warpt,” CMO Carter said. “May I enter? Sorry, are you decent?”

Izzy stifled a laugh. “Sure, come on in,” she replied. “This room’s big enough for, like, a family of five and their twelve pets.”

CMO Carter opened the door, peering into the room. “That was an oddly specific number. Speaking from experience?” She hesitated, her eyes falling on the dress. She was still in uniform. She exhaled slowly.

“Not a fan,” Izzy said. “Is it poor manners to refuse?”

CMO Carter looked as if she was fighting against a smile that was winning out. “Truthfully, Captain Warpt, I was hoping to take my lead from my commander on duty.”

Izzy stared blankly for a moment, the words processing. CMO Carter continued to stand at attention.

“Oh, duh. Sorry, Carter. Still getting used to that,” Izzy said. “Izzy, please. Call me Izzy when we’re not doing official stuff. I can’t do serious twenty-four seven, it’ll kill me.”

CMO Carter smiled. “Duly noted, Izzy,” CMO Carter said. “Still getting used to helming a vessel?”

“Adjusting to the crew,” Izzy said. “It’s just First Officer deCourville, Professor Everest, and me on the Albatross. What’s your story, Carter?”

“Mel works better since we’re not being so official,” CMO Carter replied. “I was stationed at Medical Station Astras. Not much going on out here since the other Spiral Reach stations were decommissioned, so I keep an ear out. There are some interesting music stations out here if you figure out the right CommLink protocols. Heard some interesting chatter, so two others and I chose to investigate.”

Izzy nodded. “Heard there could be danger and didn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive.”

CMO Carter replied with a sheepish grin. “When you put it like that.”

“No, no,” Izzy said, holding a finger up. “I’d rather do the right thing a hundred times over doing it by the book once. Yeah, there are loads of rules you’ve got to follow, but Spiral Reach extends its arms to those in need. Right? I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation there.”

CMO Carter smiled. “My colleague have been released,” she said. “Though I suspect they are on their way back to the station as they didn’t seem particularly keen to join in this, well, very formal dinner with our captors.”

“Not up for being pals with the people who threw them in a dungeon,” Izzy replied.

CMO Carter laughed. “No, I suppose not. On the subject of dinner, however.” Her eyes shifted back to the dress, then to Izzy.

“Nope, no thanks,” Izzy said. “I think it’s best we represent Spiral Reach in uniform. We are proud officers who have no need to fancy ourselves up. These uniforms? Fancy enough.”

“Captain’s orders, then. I wouldn’t want to disregard those.”

Izzy furrowed her brow, her lips pursed. “Orders nothing!” She paused, considering the rest of what CMO Carter had said. “Sorry, I had a little crazy stuck in my ear. What was that?”

There was a second knock at the door, the rapid and urgent one of someone with something important to say. “Captain Isabelle Warpt,” said a nasally from outside of the room. “Please follow me to the grand dining hall. Dinner is about to be served.”

“To be continued,” Izzy said. “I’m bookmarking this conversation for later.” Izzy motioned for CMO Carter to follow. Beyond the door was a long hallway lined with doors, which Izzy assumed opened into rooms similar to the one she was in. No one, however, was waiting to guide her and CMO Carter to the grand dining hall.

“Apologies for the confusion,” a voice resonated from nowhere, but sounded like its speaker was directly next to Izzy. “I am one of the many autonomous Helper units. We have been summoned to bring you to dinner. Please observe the lights in the floor as we guide you to your destination.”

The beautiful, red carpeting glowed faintly to Izzy’s left. Izzy turned and stepped in that direction, and more of the hallway began to light up. She continued along, CMO Carter following suit.

Antique candelabras fitted with arcing plasma in place of flames lined the hallway.

The hallway reached a junction, at which point the Helper guided them to go left. This hallway had fewer doorways, paintings occupying the space between the rooms. They loomed from the floor to the ceiling, and were each different styles of painting that all depicted the greatness of the Rigellian Empire.

The hallway split off to a long, winding stairway, mirrored by a twin stairway further down the hallway. The stairways reunited at a landing just before the floor, a short few steps flowing down to just below magnificent double-doors like a pooling river.

The doors opened with ease, automated but programmed to await someone to reach out to open them. The grand dining hall was true to its name, vast and bustling with people. The center of the room was dominated by a long banquet table, levitating at just the right height thanks to the anti-grav boosters on its underside. The Ruklan President, Prime Minister, and Archbishop had gathered with Supreme Leader Calvin Rigellus.

Prime Minister Todan spotted Izzy. She smiled, waving her over. “Thank goodness, child, you’re a breath of fresh air,” Todan said, excusing herself from the group. “None of the servants bring the good sweets over for fear of some sort of political faux-pas. I don’t suppose I could convince the two of you to join me in seceding to form our own table, can I?”

“It’s tempting, but decorum or whatever,” Izzy replied. She glanced around the busy room, then returned her attention to the Prime Minister.

“Where’s the rest of my crew?”

Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Your First Officer is still being calmed down, I believe, the poor darling. I’ve never met a Cicardox quite so…easily upset.”

“Oh man, the stories,” Izzy started. She took a deep breath, and continued. “I understand where he’s coming from, I think. He’s got brains for days and I bet he’s all soft and warm under that barrier of snootiness he puts up. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him, I’m sure. I’ll do what I can to get him there.”

Whatever thoughts Prime Minister Todan had in response to Izzy were never fully communicated. She gave a simple nod, placing her hands on Izzy’s shoulders.

“The tall fellow was looking after him, I believe,” Todan continued. “I’ll make sure a Helper is sent for them. And then perhaps a Helper for the Helper, just to air on the side of expedience.”

“There she is,” rasped the now-familiar voice of Calvin Rigellus. He was shorter in person, the wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes far more pronounced. His face was one of someone who hadn’t slept in days, but his energy was contagious. Izzy couldn’t help but smile back.

“You remind me of my Gramps,” Izzy blurted out before she could stop herself.

Calvin rumbled with laughter. “I’ve got quite a few grandbabies of my own, but given what you accomplished in so little time I think I could take on an honorary one. We’ve been busy talking, and have come to some very interesting conclusions.”

“Care to continue?” Izzy asked, eyebrows raised.

“Those details will wait for the speech I’ve prepared,” Calvin replied. “For now, please mingle. Enjoy the food and drinks! I promise you this will be a wondrous meal to signal wondrous beginnings! Excuse me, I believe the Ruklan Generals have arrived. I’d like to greet them.” He rushed off into the crowd.

Izzy watched as Calvin disappeared from sight, then turned to Prime Minister Todan.

“He’s not the same guy I threatened with a doomsday device earlier, right?” Izzy asked. “Doppelganger? Good twin to the evil one from before?”

CMO Carter and Prime Minister Todan both laughed.

“My dear, the delicate minutiae of diplomacy are tedious and boring, but when utilized well they make for all the difference,” Todan explained. “Getting a message of peace across to all of our people will take time, but it has to begin somewhere. We’ve already had a number of breakthroughs in this short time.”

“Things can only get better from here,” Izzy replied.

“With the right effort, yes,” Todan said. “I don’t suppose you’ve got your remarks prepared, do you? After all, you did threaten to blow up the planet.”

Izzy looked around the room for a quick diversion, and happily found one in spotting Professor Everest.

“Oh, hey. Brannigan’s here. Better go rendezvous with him to, uh, ship captain stuff,” Izzy replied rapidly before rushing off towards her crew.

Brannigan greeted Izzy with a warm smile and a thumbs-up. “Quite the plan you cooked up there, Captain!

“Hardly a plan,” First Officer deCourville snapped, appearing from behind Brannigan. “You could have gotten us all killed, you know, along with every Ruklan and Rigellian.”

“Didn’t hear you offering up anything better,” Brannigan chided.

“No, Professor, he’s right,” Izzy said. “it was the best I could come up with in the moment, but it was a gamble. A crap-shoot. A real roll of the dice, yeah? So next time we go in better prepared.”

“Exactly the kind of contrary response I expected…” First Officer deCourville snapped, stopping mid-thought. “Beg you pardon, what did you just say?”

“Attention, esteemed guests,” the Helper voice boomed throughout the vastness of the grand dining hall. “Please locate your designated seats as dinner is about to be served. Speeches to follow from our Magnificent Supreme Leader and his Ruklan cohort.”

“Leaving you on a cliffhanger,” Izzy said with a wink. “Speech to give and dinner to not eat because speeches give me anxiety. See you around!”

Izzy’s place setting was directly next to Prime Minister Todan’s, though she distinctly remembered it being to the immediate left of the Supreme Leader. CMO Carter was seated with the rest of the crew at one of the smaller tables that seemed to be slowly gravitating around the main table.

Prime Minister offered a polite smile and a pat on the back as Izzy sat down. “You’ll do just fine, Captain Warpt,” Todan said. “I believe in you.”

Food was brought out course by course, with each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Izzy had provided no information beforehand, but was offered dish after dish of her favorites. By the time dessert had arrived, the only thing she could think of was how nice a nap would be.

“Honored guests, Rigellian and Ruklan,” Calvin said, his seat having shifted to become a floating platform upon which he could stand. “And what an honor, I would like to add, is it to be able to greet Rigellians and Ruklans together on good terms.” He paused until the applause quieted.

“I am not always quick to admit my faults and failures, and it took our fair planet reaching the brink of war and destruction to get there,” Supreme Leader Calvin said, pausing until the laughter at his self-deprecation died down. Video screens manifested in the air around the room displaying pictures with dates from hundred years prior.

“The Ruklans and Rigellians lived in harmony for years, and though we did not always approach issues the same way we were still able to put our differences aside. We allowed a grievous and terrible rift to develop, and I certainly did my part to only worse than. I am so sorry for that, but will not stop with mere words. An apology is only as good as the actions that follow it.”

Calvin gestured to President Geln. She stood, her seat becoming a platform similar to Supreme Leader Calvin’s.

“There is still much to discuss, and even more rebuilding to be done by both sides,” President Geln added. “The road ahead is long and will take time and hard work to traverse. I am confident we will get there together.”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “As part of the first step, I am stepping down as Supreme Leader as of this moment.”

“And I as President,” Geln added. “Today marks the end of old, divided factions, and the beginning of a unified government on Rigel Six. One that is an extension of Rigel Six’s people.”

“All of them,” Supreme Leader concluded. “It took a substantial wake-up call for us to come to these terms, and it is in no small part thanks to the actions of one very brave, perhaps unorthodox, Captain of the Spiral Reach Academy.”

Izzy felt her face warming and knew she had to be blushing. She quietly cursed herself as she knew what would follow.

“That very Captain, Isabelle Warpt, has joined us with her crew to celebrate on this evening as we move forward together to begin repairing our broken and divided past,” Calvin continued. He gestured to Izzy, who stumbled to stand in time before the seat was gone completely.

The room roared with applause from both Ruklan soldiers and Rigellian civilians. Brannigan, taller than anyone in the room, hooted and hollered as the crew’s table moved past. He half-stood, precariously balanced on his chair. CMO Carter also applauded.

Izzy saluted her crew, and found herself a little surprised when all–including Fontaine–returned the gesture.

“Hey, everyone!” Izzy said cheerfully. She paused, startled by the unexpected magnification applied to her voice. She couldn’t help but notice everyone in the room was watching her, and a nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her of every nightmare featuring a similar situation. She cleared her throat, straightened up, and continued.

“Families are crazy,” Izzy said. She paused, aware of the people looking around to see where this was going.

“Families are crazy. They’re a little bit of all sorts of people, with different personalities and interests and so many feelings,” Izzy continued. “And so many arguments, like when your uncle decides he’s going to try to rob a bank and no one has the sense to stop him until, like, halfway through the whole mess, but then it turns into a big, confusing conversation about who has to bail him out of prison.”

Murmurs of confusion rose among the gathered crowd.

Izzy took another deep breath and continued. “You’re all like a family,” she said. “I look out at you and I see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. You don’t always get along, but you make the best of it. Tonight? Totally making the best of it. Tomorrow? Only one way to find out.”

“But I believe in you all. I believe you’ll all take those nasty thoughts and toss them in the trash where the belong, and give each other a chance. I may have helped push things along, but the rest is up to everyone here, and everyone across Rigel Six. The best part? You can definitely do it, and it’ll be amazing! Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”

Izzy could feel the sweat on her forehead and her palms. She shook slightly, but not enough to be seen, and waited.

Both Geln and Calvin lead in the applause. A number of others joined in, and before long the roar was so great that nothing could be heard over it. Izzy sat down as soon as her platform cooperated.

“Very personal,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ll have to ask for the stories behind it some day, I think.”

“A toast to Captain Warpt and Spiral Reach Academy!” Calvin added.

Glasses were still raised high in the air when the screens abruptly cut out. They returned featuring a single figure, shrouded in darkness.

“Forgive my interruption, but I would hate for such a momentous gathering to go without giving a few words,” the shadowy figure said. “After all, I sacrificed a great deal of time and money to provide the Ruklans and Rigellians with such impressive arsenals. It’s the least I deserve.”

Follow The Ashes: Familiar Faces, Familiar Foes, Familiar Places

The door threw Cas forward into the room beyond, slamming shut behind her. She turned around to discover a featureless wall emitting a dull, white glow. The room was entirely plain, save for a simple, metal table and a simple metal table with one polished metal chair standing next to it. A dull hum resonated from all around.

A door, its surface like a mirror, occupied the space where two of the walls met. No soft, white light came from the door.

“Back to square one, I see,” Cas muttered to herself. She approached the door and saw her reflection staring back at her, as she expected. The surface of the door wavered, revealing a familiar face wearing a familiar smirk. A cybernetic eye glistened and blinked. Cas gasped, stepping back, and the door vanished.

There was a soft crackling sound accompanied by a soft inhale.

“You’ve been very busy, Cas,” Gavin’s voice said from all around. “Very busy indeed. Yet here you are, back where you started. Or are you?”

Cas clenched her fists, ready for a fight. “Why don’t you say that to my face, coward?”

Gavin’s laughter surrounded Cas as it echoed within the small room. “Temper, temper. Short a fuse as ever, Cas,” Gavin taunted. “I would be a fool to approach you in such a state. Oh, no. We’ll talk at a distance for now, I think.”

One of the walls disappeared, and beyond the room was a lush, sprawling forest.

“A trick, I’m sure,” Cas muttered.

A soft breeze rolled into the room, and with it the aromas of fresh rain, pine trees, and a hint of campfire smoke.

“A very convincing trick,” Cas said as she stepped into the forest. Tall grass waved gently. Numerous stars twinkled above in a cloudless, pitch black sky. Numerous trees stood tall and proud, their leaves vibrant, warm hues of near-winter autumn. Cas reached out and touched a tree, surprised to feel bark and not metal.

“There had to be a baseline to build the simulations from, naturally,” Gavin’s voice said. It was softer now, no longer amplified by the size of the space Cas occupied. The room behind her had vanished, or perhaps the wall had closed again.

“Where are you?” Cas demanded. “You can obviously see me, so why not just show yourself?”

“In due time, I assure you,” Gavin replied.

Cas inhaled deeply, eyes shut. She exhaled slowly, turned, and started walking in the direction of the campfire smell.

Wisps of smoke drifted gently through the air. A faint, warm glow was visible in the distance, casting curious shadows on the trees and along the grassy field. Cas walked towards the fire cautiously, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.

Anything more suspicious than a real, live forest among the endless catwalks, strange places where the past and future seemed to converge, and the simulations of places Cas was certain she had been once before.

“You’ve been very busy,” Gavin said again. ” Fixing your past mistakes.”

Cas froze, suddenly tense. “What did you just say?” she demanded.

Gavin chuckled, a sound deliberately amplified to roll across the forest like thunder.

“You heard right,” Gavin said. “Fixing your past mistakes. There should have been a familiarity to the things you’ve encountered.”

Cas fell to her knees, a sharp pain suddenly present just behind her eyes. “What the hell are you doing to me?”

“Nothing,” Gavin replied flatly. “You did this all to yourself, but that’s a topic for another time. You’ve still got plenty to do before we can discuss that. Until then, Cas.”

There was a soft, metallic sound, followed by only the gentle breeze rustling through the trees and rolling along the grass.

Cas waited, and the pain slowly seemed to subside. She slowly stood up, every fiber of her being aching slightly from whatever had just hit her.

The glow of the fire seemed far closer now, and so she willed herself to continue.

The fire was bright and its warmth pleasant, even from the modest distance from which Cas watched it. She could see a solitary figure, hunched over something by the fire. The wind picked up ever so slightly, casting just enough light over the person’s face.

“Raph!” Cas cried out, running over. “Thank goodness you’re okay!”

Raph blinked, his expression blank. “Is this another test of yours, Commander? I must admit, I’m a little confused by it but I suppose I’ll play along. Yes, I’m quite adequately all right. I’ll turn in now. Your turn to keep watch.”

Raph stood quickly, turned, and walked away. A chill wind blew through, extinguishing the fire. The stars still twinkled pleasantly overhead.

Cas felt the hair on her neck stand up. Someone or something, unseen in the cloak of the darkness, was watching her intently.

Follow the Ashes – The Attempted Coup

A soft breeze carried a curious blend of smells–campfires and diesel fuel–across the field. The skyline in the distance was a curious fusion of Medieval architecture blended with towering skyscrapers, curls of smoke drifting upwards from lovingly hand-crafted stonework chimneys.

Cas stood in the field, once again uncertain as to where she was going. What might be waiting for her. She was alone in the field, having just emerged from a tent moments before only to find the tent was no longer there. Wild grass swayed gently around her, patches of it rising up as high as her waist. Behind her, Cas noted, was a vast expanse of field whereas ahead there was at least signs of civilization.

Or perhaps, Cas thought, echoes of civilization.

The ashes were sneaky this time. More subtle. Cas spotted them finally as they drifted along a mischievous wisp of chimney smoke that had curled and weaved its way across the field.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself, curiosity renewed. “A trip to the city is in order.” She walked across the field, the grass bowing around her footfalls, bursts of wild mint and onion exploding up from the ground as she moved along. She quietly made a mental note to return to this field, if she could, once she had gotten some answers.

If you ever get answers, said an intrusive thought.

There was music, soft but still vibrant, spilling over from the city as Cas got closer. By the time Cas reached the city’s edge she could feel the songs, the rhythm of the music performing a pleasant dance with her heartbeat. The air was warm and rich with celebration, lantern-light and bright neon illuminating every inch of the road ahead.

Cas glanced along the length of road before stepping into the city, and once she was certain there was no one around she stepped onto the road. Immediately, seemingly from nowhere, a large crowd moved along the street and around her. Everyone was dressed in brilliant, vibrant clothing. Frills and accents flowed over her as people passed, hooting and cheering. A portly man bumped into Cas, backpedaled, and smiled.

“Goodness, Miss, didn’t see you there,” he said. He looked Cas over for a moment, clicking his tongue. “We’ve got to liven you up. Today’s a celebration!”

Cas realized then that the man was wearing a mask around his eyes. It sparkled with a mix of small gemstones and embedded LED lights that flickered on and off at odd intervals.

Considering her words carefully, Cas smiled. “Forgive my, ah, lack of attire,” she said. “What is the cause for celebration?” The crowd continued to move around Cas and the man, singing and dancing their way along the stretch of road as they went.

The man roared with laughter. “Not from around these parts?” he asked. “You’re in for a treat! It’s coronation day! The Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is being crowned.” He rifled around in his jacket pockets.

“Here we are!” He produced another mask similar to his. It was a soft, wine red velvet mask with flickering points like starlight. Cas smiled, realizing the constellation it formed was familiar.

“I’ve nothing to give in exchange for such a generous gift,” Cas said, though she still reached for the mask.

The man shook his head. “I’ll hear nothing of the sort. Today’s a day of jubilation and celebration,” he boomed. “Walk with me. Nobody should be alone on a day like today.”

Cas hesitated, and was met with another broad, toothy smile. “If it perturbs you so greatly, let’s make a deal of it,” the man said. “One mask in exchange for sharing in your company on this most auspicious day!”

“I think that sounds like a most pleasant exchange,” Cas said, accepting the mask. It fit her face perfectly.

The man nodded in approval. “Doesn’t do much for the drab gray affair you’ve got on, but it’s far from my place to judge,” he joked. “Come along! We’ll miss out on the food stalls if we keep lazing around.”

Cas followed the man, watching in amusement as he shuffle-danced his way along the stone-and-steel roadway. They turned, joining another roaming celebration on a larger street. Stalls and carts and trucks lined the sides of the street, vendors throwing food out to anyone who asked. The man raised a hand, shouting something Cas couldn’t quite hear over the surrounding din, and one of the vendors threw two brown paper bags.

“Try this!” he said, stuffing one of the bags into her hand. It radiated a pleasant warmth.

“Thank you!” Cas replied. “Forgive me, but I don’t believe I introduced myself. Cas.”

“Bertram Cornelius Andromedus the third, though I prefer my friends call me Bertie,” the man, Bertie, said. After a deliberate pause and a sly smile, he added, “You can call me Bertie.”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Andromedus?”

Bertie winked. “Eat! They’re not nearly as good once they get cold,” he demanded, pointing at the bag he’d given Cas before turning his attention to his own.

The bag’s top was rolled shut. A puff of warm, cinnamon-and-sugar sweet air hit her immediately upon opening it. She reached inside and retrieve some of the bag’s contents, which looked to be some kind of candied fruits. Bertie had already started indulging in his own, and so Cas followed suit.

“Delicious,” Cas said, enjoying each bite. There was a tartness to the fruit that was balanced out by the crunchy, sticky, sugary exterior to the treats. Before long she found her fingers meeting the bottom of the bag.

“Ah, but let’s not forget,” Bertie instructed as he flipped the bag inside out in a swift series of motions. He licked the bag clean, and Cas followed suit, smiling.

The party continued moving along, Cas and Bertie among the others, until it reached a towering building with three immense wooden doors swung open at its front. The crowds poured in, people from other streets joining the group Cas was in.

The chamber inside must have taken up much of the building, the ceiling so high above that artificial clouds drifted around in its recesses.

“The Room of Unity,” Bertie said. For an instant he looked somber, but just as quickly as his jovial demeanor had left it returned full-force. “It’s almost time!”

A bell sounded, resonating throughout the room and rippling across everyone within. The doors all shut slowly, and torchlight and spotlights illuminated the room so as to draw focus on a throne. Even without the lighting, it would have been difficult to miss as it stood high above the crowds.

A long, wide staircase lead to the throne, and two figures stood on those stairs. One was a man dressed plainly, in a gray uniform that looked familiar enough for Cas to actively try blending in with the crowd. The other was the picture of elegance, undoubtedly the Lady Imperious Regina. She wore a beautiful, sparkling sapphire gown that flowed around her slight frame as though she were standing in a rushing river.

“Good people of Junction,” the man said, his voice amplified to fill the air. “It is my great honor to present the crown to our beloved Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus. May she watch over us and guide us to continued prosperity for one hundred years or more!”

The crowd let out thunderous applause and cheers. Bertie’s voice, Cas was certain, could be heard over all of the others.

Someone caught Cas’s eye, however. A cloaked figure moved through the crowd, noticeable for remaining silent among the roar of cheering surrounding it. Cas followed behind behind them, keeping distance and careful to avoid being noticed.

The figure stopped at the foot of the stairs, still unnoticed by those around them. There was a glint of metal at their side, which was enough for Cas to leap into action.

“No!” Cas shouted. She leapt towards the cloaked figure, knocking them to the ground. The woman staring up at Cas, eyes full of fury, looked familiar. Before Cas could determine why, she heard a voice from behind her.

“No, no,” boomed a man’s voice. “This isn’t right at all. Let’s try this again.”

Before Cas could react she felt a jolt of something. It was harsh and sudden, spreading outwards from the back of her neck. She felt a dizzying, sick feeling as the world rolled and tumbled around her. She felt herself falling forward.

The grass was soft and smelled pleasantly of wild onions and mint as Cas fell onto the ground. She stood up, dusting herself off. In the distance ahead stood a curious city, a conglomeration of Medieval building styles and towering skyscrapers. She was certain she’d never seen such curious place in all of her life, and was once again left wondering where she was to go next.

Something small emerged from a hole in the ground. It squeaked, startled by Cas’s presence, and then took off across the field. Cas turned and watched as it ran, surprised to see the creature leaving a trail of faint, gray ashes in its path.

“Very well, then,” Cas said to herself. “I suppose I’m off to explore the fields then.”

Stories ahead

It’s the start of a new week with a new month just days away, so I wanted to start something new as well. No, I’m not just talking about the EVO planner I caved and bought.

(I’m an Oracle, by the way – we’ll see how well this Oracle utilizes this planner, I guess.)

However!

In the spirit of new months and trying new things, I wanted to announce the beginnings of Fantasy Fridays and Sci-Fi Saturdays! This Friday kicks things off with the next installment of A Puzzling New World. As for Saturday? Next Friday and Saturday?

Those are surprises.

I promise they’ll be worth it, though.

And! Most amazing of all, so long as I keep with it, is there will be a regular schedule.

I’m very excited, and I hope those of you who have been kind enough to follow along (and maybe some more folks, I hope) will enjoy where these stories are going.