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…”

Warpt Factor – Installment 15

Izzy sat in the captain’s quarters of The Lofty Albatross, and appreciated how it wasn’t over-the-top. It was, in terms of size, perhaps a little larger than a broom closet. A reasonable bed, a small desk equipped with outdated tech, and a miniature nutritional station that fed from the ship’s automated kitchen took up most of the space, with little of the floor unoccupied.

It felt like what life at Spiral Reach should be like, she thought.

“Wonder how Ursula’s doing,” Izzy muttered to herself. “And good, old what’s-his-face.”

The ship’s commlink blinked, indicating an incoming transmission. Izzy sat up in the bed, leaning forward just enough to reach the desk. The alert shifted to the wall behind the desk, and the wall converted to a secondary console. The contact was heavily encrypted, and indicated for Captain’s Viewing Only.

Izzy exhaled slowly. unclenched, and selected to accept the communication. She presented her best diplomatic smile as the communication was patched through, and Izzy found herself smiling reflexively.

High Chancellor Kadimova smiled in return. “How fare your travels thus far, young Captain Warpt?”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Izzy said. She slumped. “Y’know, I’m not sure. You could’ve warned me the First Officer on this ship is…A challenge.”

“And deprive you of learning experiences? Never a chance of that,” Kadimova said. He wagged a finger. “Don’t sell yourself short, by the way. I’ve heard some very promising things through all of the right channels. Word is already spreading of a Spiral Reach Academy Captain who brought improbable peace to Rigel Six.”

Izzy reflected on the events on Rigel Six, and what she learned about the Rigellian and Ruklan leaders.

“Didn’t feel like much of a win to me,” Izzy replied.

Kadimova waved a hand dismissively. “To be perfectly frank with you, Captain Warpt, you managed what many higher ranking Spiral Reach Academy officials have long avoided. When I’d gotten word of where you were, I might have needed a strong drink or two.”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Thanks…For that vote of confidence, I guess?” she said. “Anyway, their politicians were all working with someone to get weapons or tech to fend off the weapons. So they were all scuzzy scumbags stuffed full of corruption.”

“You did magnificently, and you should be pleased with yourself,” Kadimova said. “You’re already doing splendidly on our mission, and so long as the crew remains unaware we will be able to recall you sooner than later. Make you an official Captain. Godspeed, child, and take care. You’ve got someone debating whether or not they should disturb you outside your room.” Kadimova winked, then ended the communication.

Izzy swung her feet over the edge of her bed, leapt up, and opened the door right as CMO Carter had raised her hand to knock.

“Oh, good. You’re awake,” CMO Carter said, lowering her hand. “Didn’t want to disturb you, but the crew wanted to see if you were hungry.”

Izzy smiled. “I guess I could use a snackaroo or two,” she said. “You draw the short straw on who had to come check on me?”

CMO Carter stifled a laugh. “Perhaps, but I was concerned about you as well,” she said. “That was certainly an unsettling note on which we left Rigel Six. Sounded like they had quite a bit left to sort out.”

Izzy nodded. “So what’s our destination,” she asked, stepping out into the corridor.

“Can’t say,” CMO Carter said. “I’m sworn to secrecy. Fontaine wrote up a very formal document and made Professor Everest and me sign it, and then he signed it as well. It’s a secret until we arrive.”

“What a uniquely First Office deCourville thing to do,” Izzy said, shaking her head. “Wish I could say I’m surprised. Even a little surprised. Like, just a smidge. I’m not. Here, watch this.”

They passed the cramped kitchen and dining space, the AI that ran it watching them intently and with an air of wanting no visitors. Izzy opened the door to the bridge of the Albatross. Both Fontaine and Professor Everest turned to look.

“Good to see you, Captain,” First Officer deCourville said, both sets of hands clasped behind his back. “Is there something you need? Are you all right?”

“Don’t you fret about the state of things out here,” Professor Everest said. “We’re on our way.”

“Yes! On our way, and no more need to be said on the subject,” First Officer deCourville.”

Izzy looked from her First Officer to Professor Everest and back. She smiled. “Nah, no needs here. I emerged from my hermitage for just long enough to get a snack and bumped into CMO Carter. Either of you want anything before I stop by the kitchen?”

A sharp buzz resounded throughout the bridge, followed by the cooking AI’s voice. “Please refrain from ‘visiting’ the kitchen, as you are a collection of potential contaminants. Order from your quarters and you will receive your desired sustenance in a timely manner.”

Izzy shrugged. “Moody, isn’t it? Guess I’ll just have to be patient and see what kind of adventures you have in mind for me. You know where to find me if you need me, crew.” She nodded, turned, and began to walk away.

“You’re welcome to join me if you wanted to chat for a bit, Carter,” Izzy said. The two walked back to her room, ordered a number of snacks, and CMO Carter politely listened while Izzy speculated on their secret destination.

***

Weapons Master Roderick Weston hated having to waste perfectly good equipment, but in some cases he knew it couldn’t be avoided. The flunkies he had assigned to Rigel Six, after all, had failed, and so they had to be eliminated.

He sat at his desk, a drink prepared for the transmission he knew was pending.

The screen shifted to a heavily encrypted communication, overriding the numerous firewalls. An individual, cloaked in digital shadow, sat centered in the screen.

“Suspend your current project,” commanded the individual. “You are to shift the entirety of your focus to The Lofty Albatross. Discover what makes its Captain tick. When you do…”

Roderick nodded. “I’ll figure out what makes her Captain tick, and then I’ll take that apart gear by gear until she breaks.”

“Good. Don’t fail me, Roderick.” The communication ended. Roderick switched to the NavCom dashboard and punched in a series of commands. An icon appeared moving along the gulf of open space. Roderick sneered, tapped a series of additional commands, and set a course to pursue The Lofty Albatross.

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.”

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 – 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.”

Follow The Ashes: The Betweenways

Cas stepped beyond the door and winced. The air was stale and cold, the path ahead obscured in darkness. There was a subtle, familiar dull hum, barely audible. Cas hesitated, uncertain of her next step.

Behind her, the door swung shut and clicked loudly. She turned and tried to open the door again, only barely surprised to discover it had locked.

“Only one way to go, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. Dim lights flickered to life as she turned back to face the room.

“More walkways,” Cas said to herself. The path she stood on forked into two staircases leading upwards where it met the wall. The twin staircases reached landings, then turned back towards the catwalk she stood on. They gradually, Cas saw, seemed to spiral upwards to a latticework of walkways. Beyond that, however, was too dark to see in the low light.

Both staircases looked identical, and so Cas chose one and started her ascent. As she made it to the landing, she caught a glimpse of something on the opposite landing. Motes of dust suspended in the air, she thought, or perhaps a trick of the light. She continued up the stairs, pausing on the next landing for a moment. Nothing above was visible yet, but she could hear faint noises drifting downwards. Cas tensed. It sounded almost like conversation to her. She continued upwards, slowly and ready to make a run for it if the need arose. Unfamiliar but not unpleasant scents made their way to Cas, further piquing her interest.

At the next landing, Cas could see flickering lights up ahead. She could hear the conversation clearer now, and it was punctuated with moments of laughter and warmth. In an instant, Cas let her guard down as she found herself entering a collection of makeshift tents and huts suspended over the catwalk intersections. People milled about, some pausing to exchange pleasantries with each other from time to time as others entered and exited the various makeshift dwellings. Some wore similar uniforms to the ones she’d seen earlier while others wore things ranging from simple outfits to ones showing off quite a bit of color and flair.

No one seemed to give Cas so much as a second glance, which put her further at ease. Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, Cas approached a small tent. A series of levitating steps bobbed gently in front of the entrance. She pulled aside the flap covering the entrance – an old solar sail, Cas thought, from the feel of it – and entered. The first thing she noticed was that the tent seemed to be larger on the inside. Had she been her a day ago, she pondered, this may have seemed remarkable, or perhaps even shocking, but it seemed almost familiar.

The woman on the opposite side of the tent sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She was remarkably tall, her eyes meeting Cas’s gaze without having to look up despite being seated. She held a long, wooden pipe between thin, spindly fingers. A series of elaborate tattoos formed a mural from just above her eyebrows all the way along the top of her head disappearing along her neck. A series of eyebrow rings glimmered in the simulated candlelight.

She inhaled deeply, exhaling smoke that spun and twirled like distant galaxies.

Cas cleared her throat, unsure what to say. “Hello,” she ventured.

The woman smiled. “Expected you hours ago, darlin’,” the woman said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Strange shadows passing over the visions these days. Everything’s thrown off by the sudden, new light.”

“Excuse me?” Cas asked.

The woman pointed with her pipe at a small cushion opposite her on the floor. “You’ve got questions,” she stated in a way one would observe the weather. Cas nodded, sitting down in a way that mirrored the woman.

“I’ve got answers,” the woman continued. “Well, I don’t, but…” She trailed off as she reached in between layers of her flowing robes. She produced three metal cubes, each one held between her fingers. Gingerly, she set them down between Cas and her.

Cas looked at the cubes for a moment. They were smooth, devoid of any noteworthy features, and looked to be made from solid metal. She glanced up at the woman and frowned briefly. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

The woman smiled, but said nothing.

“What is this place?” Cas asked.

The woman smiled again. “You’ve made it to the Betweenways,” she said. “Or perhaps you’ve returned.” She offered a sly wink, and Cas felt a touch of heat at the back of her neck and around her ears. These weren’t answers so much as they seemed like coy riddles.

“I want you to think long and hard, darlin’,” the woman instructed. “Then ask the Oracle Cubes the first big, scary question that comes to mind.”

“What is this place?” Cas asked immediately.

The woman clicked her tongue. “Give it a little more thought than that,” she said. She took another long pull from her pipe and exhaled. In a fluid motion, beautiful as a well-choreographed dance, she turned her pipe over and tapped it against her free palm. Replacing the pipe between her teeth, she rubbed her hands together, causing a fine dusting of ash to drift to the floor.

Cas raised an eyebrow. “I’m lost, I think,” Cas said.

The woman smiled. “We’re all a little lost, darlin’,” she replied. “Go on.”

“The only reason I’ve made it this far is by following something I saw when I first woke up,” Cas continued. “So…I guess my question, then, is where do I follow the ashes to next?”

It started subtly enough. Fine lines moved along the surface of the cubes, beginning on one and ending on another. Faint lights emanated from within the metal, glowing in gentle hues of green and blue before giving way to deep purples and vibrant silvers.

The center cube jostled, followed by the one to its right rolling from one side to another and another. A humming sound began to build, and with a sharp snap the three cubes came together to form a short tower. Vibrant silver lines navigated the cubes’ exteriors, and upon a closer look Cas could see places where the lines vanished into the cubes.

The woman smiled once again. “The journey ahead of you will be long and not without its challenges,” she said. “And at its end, who is to say what you will find? Perhaps you will discover the truth? Or perhaps you will create your own truth.”

Cas considered this a moment. “That leaves a lot to interpretation,” she said at last, and the woman burst into laughter.

“The Oracle Cubes’ wisdom is one of databases and algorithmic predictions, darlin’,” the woman said. “But you’ll want to take those. That map should get you to where you need to be.”

Cas reached out to take the cubes. She flinched when the three cubes jostled suddenly, gradually combining and shifting until a thin, flat layer remained. Faint outlines now surrounded the original silver lines. Cas picked up the map and looked it over.

“I still don’t know where I really am,” she admitted, an edge of defeat to her voice. “Or what it is I should be doing. I’m just running from people.”

The woman produced a small satchel from in her robes, untying it with one hand while she moved her pipe into position with the other. She tamped down its contents with her thumb, a thoughtful expression the whole time. There was a soft popping sound from the pipe followed by a slow, serpentine curling of smoke. The woman inhaled, then puffed out a thin silver wisp that spiraled around her. The smoke snaked its way to, and then around, Cas before sharply changing directions and passing through the tent wall behind the woman.

Cas watched as the smoke didn’t seem to dissipate, lingering improbably.

“Speaking of running, perhaps you should resume doing so,” the woman said, her eyes darting to the back wall and then to Cas. “Right now.”

Cas became very aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. They were measured and deliberate, producing a crisp sound against the metal of the catwalks outside.

“Thank you for your help,” Cas said, leaping to her feet. She paused just before exiting. “I hope.” She pulled aside the tent’s wall and exited.

The woman’s focus, however, remained on the front of the tent. A single, glowing eye appeared in the dim light.

“Come to get your fortune told, darlin’?” the woman asked, smirking.

As Cas stepped out of the tent, her feet landed softly. Storm clouds rumbled in the distance as they drifted further away, the grass beneath Cas’ feet flattened from the rain. She glanced back to discover the tent, the catwalks, and the Betweenways were gone. Or, she considered, perhaps she had gone from that space. Pulling out the map, she tried to regain her sense of direction.

A small, blue-green dot blipped to life on the map’s surface. Cas took a step forward, and the dot mirrored her movement.

“It’s a start, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. “All right, then. Off I go.”

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.

Follow the Ashes: Put on a Happy Face part 2

“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”

              Cas was surrounded, an island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything, that would act as a saving grace.

              A hand closed around her wrist, and she heard only one word.

              “Run.”

              Without other options present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the crowd with improbable ease.

              Cas started to glance back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance away.

              “Don’t,” commanded her rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.

              Cas realized, as their pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden stop or along drop.

              “This is some sort of trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.

              “I said,” Cas began to repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.

              The darkness was absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls, each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.

              “Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the land.

              “Don’t thank me yet,” the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”

              Cas placed her hands on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.

              “This isn’t a good start,” the woman replied.

              Cas removed the helmet, tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.

              “Kaye,” the woman who rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”

              “The Speaker?” Cas asked.

              Kaye shook her head, the short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.

              “Someone from on high in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”

              Kaye frowned for only a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,” Kaye said.

              A panel in the wall between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.

              “Brought home a stray, did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough food,” the man snarled.

              “She’s not staying long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”

              Rel narrowed his eyes at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about that so freely?”

              Kaye shot a glare over her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who had that happen still lives here.”

              Rel furrowed his brow. “I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”

              “That’s not what I said in the least,” Kaye shot back.

              Cas cleared her throat, and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by Cas.”

              Rel raised an eyebrow, an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.

              Cas nodded. “I have a number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”

              Kaye smiled, looking back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”

              “We’ve worked on one such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the Speaker’s command over the others.”

              “That sounds simple enough,” Cas conceded.

              Kaye shook her head. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be difficult.”

              Cas stroked her chin, lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”

              Rel and Kaye exchanged glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.

              “Truthfully, we don’t know,” Rel conceded.

              “We’ve been holed up in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something to make living in the open safe again.”

              Cas clapped her hands together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly, responsible for righting.

              Rel turned and disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.

              “I’ll trade you,” Rel said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it on, but was stopped by Kaye.

              “Don’t,” Kaye ordered. “Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs right to us.”

              Cas nodded. “Any words of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.

              “Don’t die,” Rel offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.

              “I don’t have anything I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you have.”

              Cas smiled. “I’ll see you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary button on the panel, and the doors slid open.

              As Cas stepped out into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision, scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.

              The interior of the helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered, and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.

              She trudged through the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.

              A small image of a book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.

              The fans shuddered to a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored the expression.

              “Curious,” Cas muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been shown to her.

              “Best keep moving,” Cas reminded herself.

              A crowd had formed at the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke through text.

              Enter, and present yourself, the words read.

              Cas blinked, but maintained a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”

              The cursor blinked again. The name you speak of is a familiar one, but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much more.

              Cas felt herself compelled forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable.  She found herself approaching the dais in the center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like seat.

              Join us, won’t you? Join our happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness. All it takes is just letting go.

              The inside of Cas’s helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.

              “No,” Cas spat back.

              The villagers moved in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.

              My family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into a matching expression of glee.

              “No!” Cas shouted, her voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.

              Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own now.

              A blackness crept into the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to realize, where she belonged. She was home.

              Home, she thought again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted to process this.

              Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his words seemed to come across as slick as oil.

              The faces turned placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.

              No, she thought. This is wrong, she told herself.

              If she couldn’t convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen earlier. She picked one and focused.

              There was a series of confused looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.

              Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I offer.

              The Speakers words seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.

              Suddenly, without warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then another still.

              No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!

              “You fear it,” Cas replied.

              You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s helmet covered his face.

              And a gentle breeze blew the smoke away.

              One by one, the other helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next command.

              Cas inhaled deeply, holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew breath.

              “It’s safe now, I suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”

              One by one, the villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.

              “I told you I wasn’t making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards the dais with Rel in tow.

              “You got lucky,” Rel barked back. “Admit it.”

              Kaye leapt up onto the dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the moment.

              “Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”

              Kaye reached over towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.

              “Whatever was in this,” Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”

              Cas frowned. “I’ll have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said. “More answers to seek.” She sighed.

              The villagers had begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant and awkward, but gradually grew less so.

              Kaye clapped a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously. It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center, adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.

              “There’s not likely much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I reckon you’d best be on your way now.”

              Cas felt a brief pang of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift off.

              “I suppose you’re right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for the door to snap shut behind her.

              The room she had entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.

              Cas sighed, a battle between uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she approached the door.

              “Suppose all I can do for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”