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.

Warpt Factor – Installment 11

Izzy held her finger above the big, red button. It was the oft-spoken about, often-depicted Big Red Button. Izzy tried to keep her attention on the four world leaders she had very much gained the attention of by threatening to atomize their planet, but the button kept grabbing her attention. It was a bit underwhelming.

“You’ll kill us all if you do that,” the Supreme Leader said flatly, the sweat rolling down his face as he spoke.

Izzy shook her head. “Doubt it,” she replied. “A big, scary bomb like this doesn’t show up for free. It’s to look scary and sound scary, but there’s definitely fine print attached to it.”

Prime Minister Todan raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile on her face. “I wonder if you’re right,” she said. “How to determine such a thing?”

“Todan, have you gone mad?” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This isn’t a matter of trial and error. She presses that button and none of this matters. The Rigellians and the Ruklans all…” Geln trailed off, realization bright in his eyes.

“Press the button,” President Kelran said.

Fontaine gasped audibly, having regained consciousness just long enough to hear the exchange, process the gravity of the Big, Red Button, and faint back into Professor Everest’s arms.

“If this actually kills us, might I offer my heartfelt apologies and a hearty oops,” Izzy said, pressing the button. A countdown appeared in the upper right corner of the monitor, beginning at 30.

“You know, this is highly irregular,” CMO Carter said. “I’m beginning to fear you’re not exactly fit to lead such a complex mission.” It was a type of doubt Izzy had grown accustomed to and learned to ignore.

Izzy instead offered a smile. “You seem nice enough, CMO Carter,” she said. “Smart, I’d bet. Looking forward to getting to know you better. How’s about this? If we all die, you’re right and wow will I be embarrassed. If I’m right, you join my crew. We could use a medic.”

CMO Carter blinked a number of times, her response stopping short of being spoken as her eyes kept moving back to the countdown.

“This wasn’t planned for at all.”

“Shit. Shitshitshit. What do we tell the Weapons Master?”

“Transmission received. Response pending…”

A sigh. “Something tells me he already knows.”

Long strings of red text, unintelligible coding language, moved up and down the display, the countdown suddenly disabled. At the same time, the Supreme Leader let out a startled cry.

“My Superheated Plasmoid Barriers are down!” the Supreme Leader shouted. “You monster, you’ve let the Ruklans right into my palace!”

General Inar’s communicator began to chirp madly. He glanced at it, then to the three leaders. “A million pardons, but these are all…Quite urgent. Excuse me.” He walked to the back of the room, towards the entrance, briskly before answering the first of many commlink calls.

Izzy couldn’t stop smiling.

“The timer,” CMO Carter muttered. It had stopped between numbers, a solid block of black.

“Color me awestruck,” Professor Everest said. “Brilliantly done, Captain!”

“Lieges of the Citadel,” General Inar said, returning. “Our troops are reporting their weapons have failed. None are functioning as the should.”

“Excellent! They will be taken into custody and interrogated,” the Supreme Leader said. “Whoever gives up the location of your wretched Citadel will be given a light sentence.”

General Inar held up a finger. “They have reported the Rigellian weapons are not working either,” he added. “The troops have set down their weapons and are…Conversing, from the chatter I’m picking up.”

“Conversing?” Prime Minister Todan asked, smirking.

President Kelran held a hand up. “It would appear there is much to discuss,” she said.

The Supreme Leader deflated, the bluster gone from him. “May a moon fall upon my house, I never thought I’d arrive at the day when I’d say this,” he said. “You’re right. We have much to discuss indeed.”

Izzy held up a hand. “Slow it down a little there, buddy,” she said. “Let’s start off with an easy-peasy question to answer. What’s your name? You weren’t born as Supreme Leader, or if you were I don’t know how you dealt with the bullying.”

Prime Minister Todan stifled a chuckle. Archbishop Geln shook his head, but a hint of a smile played at his lips.

“Calvin Rigellus, of the ruling Rigellus family,” the Supreme Leader, Calvin, replied. “Captain what was it, again?”

“Izzy Warpt,” Izzy replied.

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “I would expect these talks could only benefit from you and your crew present,” he continued. “Are there any objections among the Ruklan leadership?”

“I should think not,” President Kelran said, looking to the Archbishop and Prime Minister.

“Then it’s settled,” President Kelran said. “Should I assume you will be expecting us shortly?”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “Our mutual troops appear to have set up small encampments around the Palace, so I’ve requested the staff to begin preparing suitable rations for all.”

“I’d like to bring Captain Warpt along if that’s quite all right,” Prime Minister Todan said.

“I see no issue with your request so long as Captain Warpt does not,” President Kelran said.

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “No problem here as long as you don’t try anything shady with my crew,” she replied. “No surprise imprisonment, please. Not a fan of that kind of thing.”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” President Kelran said.

Prime Minister Todan rose from her throne gracefully, gliding down the stairs. She stood at least twice as tall as Professor Everest. Two of her arms were folded behind her back.

“This way, Captain Warpt,” Prime Minister Todan said, leading Izzy to a small alcove off to the side of the Citadel’s main chamber. Izzy followed, stopping at the wall they reached. The Prime Minister placed her right hand against it. A panel flashed with a dully, mossy green light for a brief moment. When the light had gone, the area that had illuminated was replaced by a simple doorway. Beyond it was a cavernous chamber lined with burrowing tanks similar to the one they’d arrived in.

“Easiest way to travel is to do so unseen by prying eyes,” Prime Minister Todan said.

Izzy chuckled. “A friend of mine’s got a similar philosophy,” she said, following the Prime Minister.

“I’d ask you listen and consider what I have to say with care,” Prime Minister Todan said. “With some measure of luck, perhaps my words will have some use to you.”

“Listening,” Izzy said. “Ears wide open.”

“You seem to be a clever young woman, full of energy and enthusiasm,” Prime Minister Todan continued. “Not everyone you meet will appreciate that. Some will twist it and try to use those qualities against you.”

“Uh-huh, I’m already noticing,” Izzy muttered in response. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Prime Minister Todan shook her head. “I’ll have no apologies from you, young Captain. Your bold approach was exactly what Rigel Six needed. Not just the Ruklans. Not the Rigellians. All of us. I’d very much like to send my regards to your commanding officer on your performance here.”

Izzy stopped dead in her tracks. “Ah, yeah,” she said. “Maybe…Oh, right. Duh. This was actually a very secret mission. Couldn’t discuss much with my immediate CO, so best to keep it under wraps.”

Prime Minister Todan stopped and smiled. “Is that so? In that case, your confidential mission will remain as such for the time being.”

“Can you make sure you mention that to the others, too?”

Prime Minister Todan’s smile was a warm, summer day back at home for Izzy, pure comfort in a simple gesture.

“Don’t you worry about them,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ve got my ways of sorting them out, whether they realize it and admit it or not.”

They arrived at a plain tank, unremarkable in its outside appearance. Its front hatch opened, revealing a luxuriously comfortable interior. Izzy ran past the Prime Minister, leaping into the cushioned seat. She felt the tension leaving every fiber of her body as she settled in, the Prime Minister joining her.

“One last thing,” Prime Minister Todan said as the tank closed up and began its ascent. “How are you with formal dinners? I suspect this one will have all of the trappings of one.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Never been to one? Last time I had to do something even a little fancy I got my family banned from the restaurant, but to be fair it was awful and stuffy and full of people who thought their farts had greater worth than us.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Did I mention you’ll certainly be the guest of honor? May want to consider having a few words prepared before we arrive, Captain Warpt.”

Follow the Ashes: A Tale of Two Rulers

Cas paced, piecing together what the curious man in equally curious clothes–no, more a costume, really–had told her.

“So your name is Bertram,” Cas said. “And this is the second time we’ve met, correct?”

“Bertie to my friends, and I like to think of you as a friend,” Bertie corrected. He added, “Third, technically, as I did knock you unconscious prior to the reboot that lead us here. Sorry about that, by the way. A necessary evil.”

Cas stopped, turning to look at Bertie. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Reboot?” The rest of what Bertie had said processed.

“Hang on, you said you knocked me unconscious?”

Bertie offered a half-hearted smile. “It’s complicated and we haven’t the time for me to properly explain,” he said. “You’ll remember some day, I hope. Meanwhile, do you understand why I’m just approaching this in such a forward way?”

Cas nodded. “I have an assassination attempt to stop, but I have to do it right or Junction will be decommissioned. I feel as though I should know what that means, but…” She trailed off, a dull pain creeping in behind her eyes.

“Easy does it there,” Bertie said. He patted Cas on the shoulder. “The celebration is winding through Junction towards the Room of Unity. Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is preparing her remarks there.”

“And Gin of Datum Junction is moving to the Nexus of Unity to make her way to assassinate Regina,” Cas said. A brilliant starburst of agony erupted, her vision briefly going entirely white. Cas faltered, steadying herself.

Two faces drifted across her vision, afterimages imprinted against the backdrop of the field she and Bertie stood in.

“Are you all right?” Bertie asked, the concern on his face both apparent and sincere.

“There’s more to all of this than just a murder plot,” Cas said. “That’s all very old-timey Scottish play, but I remembered something more to it that I’m not sure I should know?”

Bertie scratched his head. “Forgive me my confusion, but I’m not certain that’s how memories work. I hope I didn’t administer too high voltage a jolt.”

Cas frowned. “We’ll return to that point of conversation later,” she said. “I have two lives to save.” She took off across the field before Bertie could respond, unaware someone else was crossing the field towards Bertie from the opposite direction, also watching her intently.

The crowds were dense, and Cas had to navigate them with great care. She stole a spare mask from one of the many people enjoying a tall glass of potent-smelling alcohol and donned it, its sparkling features hiding her own quite well. She feared she would be recognized by someone and stopped, but somehow she found herself at the doors to the Room of Unity. Guards stood posted at either side, their smiles warm but their grip on their weapons sent another message entirely.

“Early arrival, I see,” said the guard to the left of the door, her eyes sparkling in the LED lighting. “I understand, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed with joy. Just a few minutes and we can let you in.”

Cas hesitated, a dozen possible responses sprinting through her thoughts before she settled on one. “I can hardly contain my excitement,” she said, offering a polite bow of her head. “I waited all day, hoping to get a good vantage point from which to see the Lady Imperious deliver her speech, as it’s…” She paused.

“It’s the anniversary of my arrival in junction,” Cas said at last.

The guards leaned towards each other, and a whispered conversation ensued. They opened the doors, just barely.

“In you go, but don’t tell anyone,” the guard to the right of the door said, her smile warmer than the false torchlight. “Joyous Junction Anniversary to you, deary.”

“You have my deepest gratitude,” Cas said, rushing through the doors.

The Room of Unity was dizzying in its size, but the focus was clearly on the throne at the heart of the room. A dozen or so guards surrounded the small, square dais, all heavily armed. Their attention wasn’t on Cas, however, but the numerous doors along the walls that had started opening to allow the many people in who had previously been celebrating their way toward the Room of Unity.

Cas knew time was short, but how she would achieve the outcome she knew she needed to occur wasn’t a thought she’d managed to come across.

“Damn it,” Cas muttered to herself, the crowd filing in around her. She was as close as she could get to the throne’s dais without encroaching upon the guards’ space, but she couldn’t quite remember where the cloaked figure would appear. There was a cloaked figure, wasn’t there? There almost always was under such circumstances.

Time seemed to slow as Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus was announced, and Cas caught sight of the cloaked figure at the edge of her vision.

She watched herself call out that something was wrong, only for the cloaked figure to be taken down by the guards.

At the same time, she also saw what happened when the cloaked figure succeeded.

“Regina,” Cas muttered. “Gin.” She blinked hard, slapping herself on the forehead.

“Gin!” Cas shouted, her voice carrying over the din of the crowd. Both the Lady Imperious and the cloaked figure froze, their eyes suddenly fixed on Cas.

They spoke simultaneously, their words not the same but their voices identical. The walls went white, and a large message appeared high above the center of the room.

“Error Located,” the message stated. “Initiating repairs…”

Cas was thrown backwards at startling speed, the Room of Unity racing far from her view as she hurtled through Junction and back towards the field. Aromas of food and drink and diesel rapidly gave way to wild onions and flowers.

She awoke in the field, standing at a simple, silver door. Once again, Cas was alone. She found herself puzzled, having lost a chunk of time without realizing it. Had she come across the door and gotten lost in thought over whether it was safe to proceed?

A telltale smudge of ashes occupied the door’s handle. Cas sighed, hoping that her time spent in the field–however long it may have been–had been well-spent. She opened the door and walked through, unaware of the message above her in the sky and equally unaware of the bustling city far behind her.

It was both a Medieval castle and a remarkably sleek series of metal spires, and it was alive with celebration. The Feast of Unity Day had commenced.

The message ready, quite simply, “Reboot successful.”

Bertie sat on a tree stump, a snifter of something exquisite in his hand. He swirled it, appreciating notes of caramel and tobacco, aware of his guest’s impatience.

“Why so sour, Gavin?” Bertie asked, taking a sip of his drink. “Was this not what you had hoped to observe? Junction is restored.”

Gavin’s robotic eye zoomed in on Junction, a series of statistics displayed only for him to see.

“She successfully defragmented your living hard drive,” Gavin said.

“One Regina, one Junction,” Bertie replied. “A pity she won’t remember until later. She saved thousands of lives.”

Gavin nodded

“Are you certain you don’t have time to pause and enjoy a drink?” Bertie asked. “It’s been so long since you last visited this sector, after all, and it seems like things are heading in the right direction for a celebration.”

Gavin shook his head. “Not yet, no,” he said. “There is much to be done still. Things are accelerating, but her memory remains as stubborn as ever. I have much to do before she and I can meet again.”

Bertie sipped his drink again. “Do you think she knows you pursue her through this twisted maze of memory?”

“How poetic of you,” Gavin said as he turned to leave. “No. But I continue to be careful to keep an eye on her.” He tapped his cybernetic eye, offered a quick wink, and disappeared, leaving Bertie alone on his tree stump.

“Such strange behavior,” Bertie mused to himself. “But then again, what do I know of siblings.” He shrugged, returning his attention in equal measure to the city in the distance and his drink. Both brought him warmth and comfort.

Fireworks dazzled brightly in the simulated night sky above Junction, its people celebrating as one.

Warpt Factor – Installment 10

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances, then returned their collective gaze to Izzy.

“We will not rest until we are given what is owed to us,” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This war, thanks to the anonymous gift of weapons and armor, shall ensure as much.”

Izzy wagged a finger. “It’s a lot of shiny guns and ways to keep your people safe, but you didn’t once think to question where it came from? And if there’ll ever be a bill that comes due later?”

President Kelran smiled. “That is a matter we have already begun to address,” she said. “Our payment is the removal of Rigellians from power, which we find most agreeable.”

Izzy frowned. “Why’s that, though?” she asked. She turned to face CMO Carter. “You’re familiar with this. Explain, please.”

CMO Carter shook her head. “We don’t have the kind of time necessary for such an explanation, Captain Warpt,” she replied frankly.

Izzy tapped the tip of her nose with her right index finger, her eyes focused on a point well beyond the confines of the Citadel.

“Is there a comm-link in here I could use?” Izzy asked at last. “I promise this isn’t me just trying to buy time.”

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances once again, a muttered conversation going on among them.

“Out of the question,” Archbishop Geln snapped.

“And do you agree with that, Prime Minister Todan?” Izzy replied sharply.

Prime Minister Todan laughted, a soft and sinister sound that chilled the room.

“I will allow it,” Prime Minister Todan said, waving one of her hands.

A panel at the base of their collective thrones swung open revealing a screen and controls. It was rudimentary, and undoubtedly not the one used by the trio above, but Izzy knew it would suffice. She approached and began tapping away at buttons. The screen betrayed little of what input was being entered, and Izzy only paused her feverish typing to look up briefly.

“Sorry, total dummy moment,” Izzy said. “Any chance someone could tell me the signal to contact the Rigellian…” She glanced back to CMO Carter again.

“Supreme Leader,” CMO Carter provided.

Izzy winced. “Not a great start with that title,” she said.

“This young woman is wise, as I have been saying the same for years now,” Prime Minister Todan said. “Sol Nebula Gamma Foxtrot is the code you’ll need.”

Izzy entered the information provided and the communication link began to reach out. “Bingo!” she cried out. “Big thanks to Prime Minister Todan, the real star of these efforts so far.” She winked at Todan, and the color drained from Inar’s face.

“We’re all going to be executed for this,” Inar muttered. He leaned toward CMO Carter and added, in a whisper, “Prime Minister Todan is often referred to as Lady Death. She is quick to anger and does not allow for second chances.”

“Ah,” CMO Carter said. “This surely will end well.”

A round, anger-reddened face, framed by a receding gray hairline and a dense beard appeared on the screen. “You have the audacity to make contact as your troops storm the Palace.” He blinked as he seemed to register he was not speaking with the trio of Ruklan leadership.

“And just who the Hell are you, young woman?” the Supreme Leader demanded.

Izzy grinned broadly. “An exceptional question,” she said. “Gold star to you, Mister Supreme Leader of Rigel Six. I am Captain Izzy Warpt of the Lofty Albatross, flying under the banner of Spiral Reach Academy. We have come to de-escalate this situation.”

The Supreme Leader’s face reddened considerably more. “You should be stopping the lunatics with whom you are currently company! This is all their doing!”

“A fine thing to assert from your palace, as you continued to subdue us with excessive taxes while preventing us from voting,” President Kelran said.

“You’re not true Rigellians, and so why should you have the right to vote?” the Supreme Leader barked back.

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Listen, buddy,” she said. “Supreme Jerkface. I regret to inform you that I have an ace up my sleeve and so you should probably try to check that ‘tude at the door.”

The Supreme Leader narrowed his eyes. “Or what will you do?”

Izzy smiled. “Terrific question,” she said. “The longer answer is that nameless benefactors, which is a bonkers term since we’re talking a ton of death machines being gifted out of the blue, included an easily accessible list of the goodies they sent to the Ruklans should someone need it.”

Izzy paused for dramatic effect, leaving her crew looking particularly concerned.

“And so upon looking through that list of goodies, I found one that really grabbed my attention, pulled it in, and said it was up for a good time if I was,” Izzy continued.

The Supreme Leader leaned forward, his face looming larger on the screen. “And just what the Hell does that all mean to me? I’m safe in my bunker.”

“Party-pooper,” Izzy replied. “Short version of the answer, since that seems to be what you wanted, is that the Ruklans were provided with a secret, end-it-all kind of weapon, and it’s near here. I just happened to unlock it.”

“You did what?!” Archbishop Geln howled, leaping to his feet. The other two maintained their composure, though a hint of sweat made an appearance upon President Kelran’s forehead.

“Just in case you’re not sure why the good Archbishop here definitely just soiled himself,” Izzy said. “Sorry, by the way, I know that’s a total overshare. Where was I? Right.”

Izzy raised a finger and dramatically positioned it over a large, red button on the console’s control board. “There’s a Magnetar-Heart Warhead. I’ve got it primed and ready to go, so unless you four feel like maybe putting aside your differences for a bit I might just feel crazy enough to see what happens if I detonate this big, bad boy.”

Follow The Ashes: An Attempted Coup, Take Two

Cas walked along the field, the tall grass swishing gently at her sides. There was nothing particularly striking about the landscape–the occasional boulder here or tree stump there, but otherwise it seemed like there was nothing, and an abundance of it extending far into the distance.

“Question everything,” Cas muttered, thinking back to her time with Raph. “Well, what am I looking for here? How do I proceed?” She sat down on a tree stump to pause for a moment. There was a sharp clicking sound, followed by the click-click-clicking of gears. The stump rose up, lifting Cas just high enough her feet weren’t touching the ground. Before she could react, the field in front of her lowered into sharp decline into darkness.

“Oh, shit,” Cas said as tilted forward, dropping her down the ramp. She fell into the darkness. Every muscle tensed as she focused on not screaming. She landed on something smooth and continued her descent, sliding along without control nor any light to allow a guess as to what her destination may have been.

Cas’s downward journey ended as suddenly as it began. She fell forward onto something soft, face-first, and groaned quietly.

“I should hope I don’t experience that again any time soon,” she muttered to herself.

The room exploded in blinding white light. Cas shielded her eyes, wincing in pain. There were footsteps very near. Someone pulled Cas to her feet and bound her hands behind her back before shoving her away. She landed on the soft surface of the floor, and waited.

“Who sent you?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Cas couldn’t place it. She hazarded opening her eyes slowly, the sting from the shift from absolute darkness to blinding light still lingering. The room was less harshly lit, and outlines of several people–blurred, but gradually coming into focus–surrounded Cas.

One leaned forward and snapped in front of Cas’s face. “Who sent you?” she demanded.

Cas blinked. The woman wore a simple gray jumpsuit, a patch sewn on above her heart depicting a phoenix rising from flames.

“No one,” Cas said. “I was lost, and found this place purely through bad luck.”

A man, remarkable in how average he was, stepped approached the woman. “Ma’am, the footage shows our guest wandering the Stratofield outside of Junction proper,” he said, adding. “She’s clearly lost, if not perhaps even clueless.”

Cas narrowed her eyes at the man. “Yes, thank you for vouching for me, a stranger who is also obviously a buffoon,” she snarked in response. “And what is Junction, exactly?”

“Junction’s the reason we’re down here,” the woman replied. “If you’re not with them and you weren’t sent by them, you’re about to get put to work. we need all the able bodies we can get for this mission and you look capable enough.” She extended a hand to help Cas to her feet, then smirked.

“Hang on a second,” the woman said. She reached into a pouch on a small belt around her hips and produced a thin strip of metal that gave off a dull blue light. The woman squeezed the piece of metal between her thumb and index finger, and Cas felt whatever had held her hands together behind her back as it fell away.

“Thank you, I suppose,” Cas said, massaging her wrists where she’d been bound. “If I am to aid in whatever it is you need of me, perhaps some details could be provided. Is that fair to ask?”

The man looked nervous, but the woman shrugged. “You’re here, like it or not, but I don’t see how having some intel on what you’ve gotten yourself into could hurt,” she said.

“Call me Gin,” she said. “Good a name as any. You got a name, newbie?”

“Cas,” Cas replied. “Also good a name as any, as I’m not even certain if that’s my name.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Gin replied. “Don’t need to know your past. Walk with me.” She offered Cas her hand again, and Cas accepted. Gin pulled Cas to her feet effortlessly, turned, and walked towards a large opening.

Cas followed, finding herself on a long catwalk flanked by modest dwellings.

“Welcome to Junction,” Gin said. “Datum Junction. Or Neo-Junction if you ask the Stratodwellers. Sometimes they even call it Dead Junction when they don’t realize we’re still around, walking among them.”

Cas attempted to take in her surroundings while also focusing on Gin as she spoke. The technology of the houses looked very modern. Display panels in place of windows, each capable of going fully transparent on command. Doors opened and shut based on the approach or departure of the homeowner.

“Dead Junction?” Cas repeated, curiosity piqued. “This seems a bit too lively to have been labeled as dead.”

“You’d think that, right? And I can’t fault you for thinking that way,” Gin said. “Makes sense.” She stopped, turning around on the catwalk. She gestured broadly at the homes and people.

“You’re looking at one of the last pockets of our society,” Gin explained. “The Imperious family, wealthy and endless in their ability to overlook their least cared-for people, ceded control of the oxygen pumps to the power barons. Rich goons running the power plants that keep the lights on in Junction. They keep the party going, sure, but there’s a cost. Only so much power to go around.”

Cas considered this. “And so it’s diverted from here to keep things moving there,” she thought aloud.

Gin snapped her fingers, pointing at Cas. “You got it,” she said. “They make sure the lights stay on there and, hey, if part of the less important population suffocates in the middle of the night it’s not a major loss.”

“That’s monstrous,” Cas replied.

“A strong grasp of the obvious,” Gin said. “We’ve tried reasoning with the Imperious family, but haven’t made any progress. Tonight’s the night that’ll change.”

“How so?”

Gin tilted her head to the left, then to the right. “Good question,” she asked. “Let me answer with a question of my own. Ever overthrow a government?”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Not that I can recall, and I suspect that’s a detail of one’s life they would remember,” she said.

“I’d hope so, or you must have a pretty damn intense life,” Gin said. “Anyway, you’re here and you’re going to help assassinate the Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus tonight. The coronation ceremony has already begun, a long party in the streets before they arrive at the Room of Unity.” Gin laughed mirthlessly.

“If I refuse?” Cas replied.

“You’d be dooming the rest of these people to untimely deaths,” Gin said. “I’d ensure your survival just so you knew what you did. One death versus hundreds. That sit well with you?”

Cas tensed. “I have no choice, then,” she replied. “What role will I play?”

Gin stared at Cas for a moment. “That’s it? No other questions?”

Cas looked around. There was little effort by the many people watching from their homes to hide that they were watching the conversation between her and Gin. Many of them looked anxious or afraid.

“No,” Cas replied.

“One death over hundreds of murders it is, then,” Gin said. “You and I will be there to see this through while a handful of my most trusted soldiers will keep Junction’s guards busy.” Gin turned on her heels and continued forward. The catwalks sloped gently upwards, stopping at a tall building that reached into the earthen ceiling.

“The Nexus of Gathering,” Gin said. “It’s directly beneath their Room of Unity, and how we’ll arrive to the party in time to put a very early end to Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus’ reign.”

They entered the chamber. Gin paused at the doorway, retrieving a hooded cloak and two pistols.

Cas froze as Gin donned the cloak, her face shrouded by artificial shadow upon pulling the hood over her head. Gin held out a pistol, which Cas reluctantly accepted.

“Something wrong? Or have you had a sudden change of heart?” Gin asked.

Cas shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused. “There’s no way I’ve met you before, is there?”

Gin shrugged. “I’ve lived in Datum Junction since I was a child,” she said. “Never met an outsider until today, so I’d say no. Don’t know you. Never met you.” She pointed upwards.

Staircases lined the walls, crossing overhead before winding their ways back to the walls. Points of artificial light were barely visible high above.

“Better get moving,”

Gin approached the stairs along the left wall and started walking up them, not waiting for Cas.

“Suppose I should follow.” Cas began to climb the stairs, pausing for a moment. Gin moved with purpose, the pistol at her side. Cas glanced at the identical pistol she’d been given. It looked simple, almost primitive, compared to some of the tech around them.

“Hurry it up or we’ll miss our chance,” Gin demanded.

Cas climbed the stairs faster, ignoring the dull ache beginning in her legs. Above, she could hear a crowd cheering. The door they arrived at was concealed in a pillar. Gin pushed it open silently, disappearing into the room beyond. Cas followed, and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd on the other side. Brightly colored clothing and masks everywhere.

“Good people of Junction!” boomed a man’s voice. “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!”

“Now!” Gin shouted over the roar of the crowd. “They’ve spotted me! Do it now!”

Cas looked to the stage ahead, targeting Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus with the pistol she’d been given. Cas froze, unable to process what she was seeing.

The woman on the stage – Regina Andromedus – looked exactly the same as Gin.

There was a loud crackling sound and a blinding pain. She fell forward hard, and the world went dark.

A deep, warm voice said something Cas could barely hear. “This didn’t go as it should have either. Third try’s the charm, yes?”

The field was empty, stretching out far in each direction around Cas as she staggered to her feet. A dull ache pervaded the back of her head.

“What the hell happened?” Cas asked.

“An excellent starting point,” boomed a warm, familiar voice. “Asking questions.”

Cas spun around, fists raised. A portly man stood where Cas was certain no one had been seconds before, dressed in an elaborate, garishly colorful outfit. He offered a polite smile.

“There isn’t much time,” the man said. “Very little time indeed. We must get it right this time, so I’ll need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say. I know that’s asking a lot, but can you do that?”

Cas winced, the throbbing pain in her head rearing its ugly head again. She squinted through the pain, and when her vision refocused she noticed something out of place. A smudge of gray-white among the bright colors.

Ashes.

“Something tells me I’ll want to hear what you have to say,” Cas said. “What is it I must get right?”

News, Present and Future

Happy nearly-Friday, everyone! Unless it’s already Friday when you read this, in which case Happy Friday! Or if it’s another day or if you’re a time-traveler, in which case I invite you to stop making things so difficult for me. What should’ve been a simple greeting became something far more convoluted because of you. Especially you damn time-travelers.

With that out of the way, some news about Misadventures In Fiction and my current projects!

If you’ve been keeping up with this page at all lately, you’ll have noticed I’ve settled into a regular rotation of posts – Fantasy Fridays and Sci-Fi Saturdays. I have two serialized stories for each, which I’m alternating (Fantasy Fridays switches between A Puzzling, New World and Wanted Adventurers, while Sci-Fi Saturdays consists of Warpt Factor‘s triumphant return and Follow The Ashes). It’s been a wild ride keeping up with those self-imposed deadlines, but I love the stories I’m writing and they’ve gotten quite a bit of love especially in these dreary times. I have each of them outlined quite a bit ahead, and so thankfully there shouldn’t be a hiccup for some time.

I say for some time because time is a strange, broken construct in 2020, and before we know it November will be here (and here I am speaking such a time-leap into existence). I made the mistake of suggesting I may participate in NaNoWriMo this year and my wife, Steff, has thrown all of her support behind that very bad idea*. To balance my sanity and not burn myself out, I’m deciding well enough ahead of time that I will be on a hiatus from all other stories during that time. Sure, I may jot down some ideas here and there, but I don’t think it would be wise. Additionally, a wise friend from Twitter (Nisha) suggested such a hiatus and she’s one to juggle projects with ease while knowing a writer’s limits. So great minds think alike, but also if I don’t heed her advise she might kill me in a short story. Which isn’t a bad thing, really? I don’t know, I lost my train of thought since it’s very nearly midnight and I work in the morning.

*NaNoWriMo eats me alive each time I participate, but that’s partially because I let it and I’m too hard on myself for not meeting the word count each day. Yes, I’m finally admitting to those things.

Now, as you’re reading this you may also notice something else different. There aren’t ads currently! Huzzah, yeah? I opted to take advantage of WordPress’s sale and so the domain name is mine until next July now and I also have an ad-free site. Sure, it could use work in other areas, but this feels like a step in the right direction for someone who often…neglects his site entirely.

At any rate, those are the serials I’m working on, but there are short story ideas ready to get drafted so hopefully I can share good news about those in the semi-distant future.

For now? Take care, stay safe, wear your damn masks when going out, and be sure to pause and find magic in the world when you can. It’s still out there, still brilliant, and available to any who seek it. Until next time, fellow Misadventurers!

Warpt Factor – Installment 9

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,” Izzy 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.”

Izzy smiled.

“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.”