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?”

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,” Izzye replied.

The Ruklan soldier laughed until tears streamed from his eye. “From anyone else I would say such thinking is the mark of hubris,” he said. He pressed a finger against the side of his helmet and spoke briefly, but without translation.

A Proteus Tank–something Izzy had only ever seen in pictures and video games–emerged from the ground behind the soldier like a great white shark breaching the ocean’s surface. A hatch on its front slid open.

“This way, please,” the soldier said.

Professor Everest reached down and scooped up Fontaine like he was the morning newspaper, hoisting his unconscious comrade over his shoulder.

“We have your word you will take us to your commanding officer?” Izzy asked.

The Ruklan soldier flinched in response. “Inar. General of the Ruklan Seventh Heavy Arms Battalion,” he replied. “I have a fondness for Saturnian Custard Biscuits, if you must know. Is that enough?”

Izzy smiled. “Respectfully, you skipped a few questions but I suppose we can get to those later. Plenty of time to talk and get to know each other, right?”

They boarded the tank quickly, and the hatch slid shut once everyone had entered. Inar approached a small console hanging down from the ceiling. The tank shuddered, tipped forward, and began its descent.

CMO Carter tapped Izzy on the shoulder, motioning for her to step aside. Izzy followed to a small bench along the outer wall of the tank.

“That was a bold approach, playing on the Ruklan’s sense of honor like that,” CMO Carter said.

“Oh, that?” Izzy said. “I wasn’t sure what to say in the moment, honestly, so I went with my gut.

“Strong intuition,” CMO Carter said. “I can appreciate that. A Ruklan is only as good as his or her honor, so to suggest Inar would have duplicitous intent likely hit him hard. I don’t want to speak prematurely, but I dare say we are making some very promising progress here thanks to you.”

Izzy nodded. “Sure, nice progress,” she said. “Good news all around. Glad to be able to help.” She walked away without another word, unaware of CMO Carter watching her closely.

“Hey, General Inar,” Izzy said, approaching. “A word, please? Well, more than one. Like, maybe a paragraph or two worth give or take? I can get a little winded. Or so I’m told, at least.”

Inar glanced at Izzy, eyebrow raised, but said nothing. He piloted the tank without watching, waiting for Izzy to speak.

“Hope I didn’t offend you back there,” Izzy said. She hesitated, then added, “No, that’s shitty of me. What I said, I mean. I’m sure you’re a very honorable soldier doing what’s best for your people.”

Inar placed a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Should I be so inclined to guess, you are perhaps no older than my daughter,” he said. “There is a hunger in your eyes I know too well. For knowledge. Glory. To leave a lasting impact.”

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.”

Warpt Factor – Installment 8

Previously on Warpt Factor:

Isabelle “Izzy” Warpt dreamt of becoming the greatest spaceship captain to ever graduate Spiral Reach Academy, the Milky Way’s most prestigious academy founded on a mission of spreading peace, prosperity, and good across the Universe. On her 18th birthday, thanks to a modest donation by Izzy’s Gammy Margaret, Jett Sketter–Spiral Reach’s most famous, most handsome Captain–made a special guest appearance to give Izzy the good news that she had been accepted to begin her first year as a cadet at Spiral Reach Academy.

Shortly after arriving at the Academy, through a curious incident involving her future self, some time travel, and a bad pun featuring two innocent dachshunds, Izzy found herself having gained the attention of Headmaster Archibald Cosgrove as well as High Chancellors Bennett Kadimova and Cecilia Amadeus Driscol.

Instead of facing punishment for potentially dismantling the fabric of space-time, Izzy was told the Academy needed someone of her enthusiasm and energy to help revive Spiral Reach. She’d been selected to be fast-tracked through the Captain’s program. High Chancellor Kadimova assured Izzy he would explain the details along a short walk.

The good news was that Izzy would be a Captain far sooner than expected. The bad news? She had to steal a ship to do so. Under Kadimova’s instruction, Izzy commandeered the Lofty Albatross, the only ship without a captain, and met her crew – First Officer Fontaine deCourville, a Cicardox with a chip on his four shoulders, and Professor Brannigan Everest, the ship’s mechanic. They had little time to get to know each other before they received a distress signal from Chief Medical Officer Melissa Carter.

Izzy, a Captain whose bravery knew no bounds, ordered the crew to chart a course for Rigel Six to answer the call for help. They arrived to find the Ruklan Liberation Army had launched a rebellion against the ruling Rigellians. Facing insurmountable odds, Izzy decided she needed to face the Ruklans in-person.

“Forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with all of the current approaches to Gamma Class crises,” CMO Carter said, the first to break the silence. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a classroom. Did you just suggest, perhaps, that we enter a hostile battlefield while vastly outnumbered?”

Izzy nodded. “Find their leader and talk it out with them,” she replied. “Oh, hey. Do we have any tea? Fruit baskets? It’s bad manners to show up without something. Makes you look cheap.”

CMO Carter arched her eyebrows. First Officer Fontaine chittered and clicked his mandibles, the secondary membranes on his eyes allowing him to look both concerned and furious at the same time.

“Captain Warpt has herself a bit of,” Professor Everest said, pausing to consider the rest of his thought. “She’s not the most orthodox in her approaches, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders that one.”

“Which will make it all the more troubling when we get court marshaled for letting her get it shot clean off in what is clearly,” Fontaine shouted, his voice increasing in volume with each word, “a suicide mission!”

Izzy shook her head. “I doubt we’d have anything too fancy in our rations,” she muttered. She noticed all eyes were on here.

“Oh wow, I’m so sorry,” Izzy added. “Spaced out for a second there. Deep in thought. Did I miss something important?”

“Captain Warpt, do you have a plan?” CMO Carter asked, her brow furrowed. It was an expression Izzy was used to seeing her mother wear when she’d discovered Izzy had come up with big ideas that could be misconstrued as minor crimes in the wrong light.

Izzy tapped a finger to her lips, her focus clearly nowhere in the room. “I remember some things I learned about the Ruklan people,” she said. “I’ll need you to follow my lead, though. No weapons.” She eyed Fontaine suspiciously.

“Give me one reason to not relieve her of her duty right this moment,” Fontaine snarled.

Professor Everest cracked his knuckles, his neck, and a number of other joints in rapid succession. Recordings used later for archival purposes picked up a sound not unlike the ancient wooden roller coasters of Earth.

“I’ve got two compelling reasons for you right here,” Professor Everest replied.

“And you, Chief Medical Officer Carter?” Izzy asked. “Are you packing heat? Got an omni-plasma bazooka you’re hiding?”

CMO Carter smiled. “I’m a medical officer,” she replied, a chuckle escaping as she spoke. “Not a single weapon on my person.”

“Good, good. But I’ve got my eye on you all the same!” Izzy replied. She waited patiently while both First Officer deCourville and Professor Everest disarmed.

Professor Everest set aside two sidearms, a matching pair of plasma knuckles, and a weapon with a barrel large enough Izzy could fit her head in it with the word “Persuasion” engraved on its handle.

First Officer deCourville produced one sidearm. He hesitated, then removed what looked to be a walking stick from his side. Izzy eyed it with no attempts at masking her curiosity.

“Don’t even think about touching that,” Fontaine said. “I’ll know. And now, Captain, I must ask how you expect an audience with the Ruklan leader.”

Izzy rolled her eyes, huffing for emphasis. “First we need to get transported down to the surface,” she explained. “Each of you has an emergency return, yeah?”

One by one, the others nodded.

“Good. Cool. So only use them if we absolutely have to, but otherwise we zip down to the surface and immediately surrender,” Izzy said.

CMO Carter blinked. “I’m very sorry, I don’t wish to come across as insubordinate,” she replied. “Did you say surrender? I must’ve had something stuck in my ear.”

“That she did, I believe,” Professor Everest said. “Clever enough plan, too.”

Fontaine started to speak, but was quickly hushed by Izzy. “On my mark, we teleport to the surface of Rigel Six. Middle of the fray. Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” CMO Carter replied.

“Let’s get diplomatic!” Professor Everest responded.

First Officer deCourville sighed. “At least I’ve ensured my family is well taken care of,” he huffed.

The world shimmered and stretched around the four of them as their synchronized transports initiated. In a flash of blue light they all landed softly on the soft red sand that made up much of Rigel Six’s coastal landscape–the planet’s landmasses consisting of a handful of islands largely covered in resorts that, at a glance, looked to have been converted into expensive-looking fortresses. Several Ruklan soldiers stormed past without giving Izzy or her crew a second look. They towered over all of them save for Professor Everest, their normally sparsely-clothed bodies covered in some of the best armor on the market.

Izzy watched the soldiers charge past in small packs, each one armed well enough to act as an entire militia. She spotted one who looked to be moving a little slower with a bit more calculation to their movement, took a deep breath, and stepped in front of the soldier.

The soldier clearly had not planned for this, attempting to stop so as to not bowl down the sudden intruder in its field of vision. The terrain did not lend itself well to a sudden shift in momentum. The soldier stumbled forward awkwardly before it planted face-first into the sand. It leapt to its feet, weapon at the ready–it pointed a long, two-pronged pole at Izzy, jagged arcs of starlight jolting between the prongs.

“We’d like to offer our conditional surrender,” Izzy said cheerfully, hands in the air.

The Ruklan soldier cocked its head, its facial features hidden by the helmet’s visor. It replied in a series of guttural growls and grunts, pausing periodically as if waiting for a response. Izzy offered a polite shrug, at which point the soldier tapped on a circular interface on the chest plate of its armor. It pointed to its helmet around where its mouth would be, then pointed to Izzy and her crew.

“Talk? You’re in luck,” Izzy said. “I could do that all day long if I have to, or if I want to even.”

The interface flashed a dull, white light with each word Izzy spoke, settling on a steady pulse after she’d stopped speaking.

“Calibration complete,” spoke a robotic voice from the armor. The Ruklan soldier pointed to Izzy, then to where its mouth likely was beneath the helmet again.

“Right, sorry,” Izzy said. Behind her, Fontaine began to step forward but was stopped short by Professor Everest. One hand was enough to stop Fontaine from continuing forward and the other covered his mandibles completely.

“Conditional surrender,” Izzy repeated, smiling. “Old movies used to have aliens say something like take me to your leader, I think. Do that, please?”