Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Clothes Make the Man

Larry Denton sat down, pulled out his personal Thorlinthian data processing unit in his hotel room, and sighed. “Alright,” he said, pulling out the small data drive Terira had delivered the previous day. “Let’s see what you’ve got for me.” What he found baffled him completely.

There was nothing on the drive. In fact, he found upon further inspection, there wasn’t even any empty space on the drive. It was completely blank, yet it was completely full. Thinking on it, Larry decided it must be using an encryption protocol of some sort that his DPU wasn’t equipped to handle. He turned off the device.

Immediately after the device had completely powered off and just before Larry was going to remove the data drive, the screen lit up with a dim, red message in Thorlinthian. Njota di drigarmr frodlikr. The message translated to a simple “for use in Drigarmr processors.” Confused, Larry removed the data drive. The screen turned off.

He walked to the bathroom and locked the door. Moving across the small room, he lifted the secret lever on the back of the toilet. The wall in front of him opened to a small hatch, which he entered, climbing onto the ladder inside the secret compartment. He worked his way down two floors, where he found a small room with a lift in it. He took the lift all the way down to the drainage system under the hotel, where a small pulse car was hiding behind a fake wall.

Larry slid open the fake wall and opened the trunk of the pulse car. There, he had a set of Peacekeeper armor for public affairs as the Lieutenant and a metal lockbox roughly the size of a suitcase. Larry pulled a small chain out from under his shirt, his dogtags from an age now past dangling from the chain beside a small key, which he used to open the lockbox.

There, awaiting any need for emergency missions, was a full set of Thorlinthian Drigarmr that had been pulled from a Dragon 52F’s cargo shelf during the destruction of the TAS Fhit. Larry pulled it out and truly inspected it for the first time.

The Drigarmr was not entirely different from other Thorlinthian battle armors, except that it was composed of the most effective armoring material available, commonly known as Drigarmr. Technically, the official name for the outfit was the Dragon Rider Battle-Ready Dress Uniform, but it was known fairly universally by the armoring material’s name instead because its actual name just took too long to say.

Of the few features that did distinguish Drigarmr from other Thorlinthian armors, the most apparent was the kilt and sash, which were commonly only found on Armadian formal wear. However, since Dragon Riders were always expected to be ready for battle situations, they wore the armor all day, every day, meaning they wore it to formal occasions, too. The kilt and sash gave the armor a much more dignified look.

Another distinguishing feature was the unique structure of the helmet. It was capable of being completely opened and retracting entirely into its bottom rings, which sealed the neck guards for vacuum. When removed or disabled, the helmet had the appearance of a simple, if very thick and heavy, collar. When fully enabled, the helmet closed around the wearer, displaying the usual HUD in addition to a fully functioning, specialized DPU interface built into the armor.

The DPU itself was contained between the life support system and the cargo unit on the backplate of the armor. It was completely sealed off and connected to the suit’s main power supply, a small fusion reactor that was centered inside the life support unit. Its interfaces were in the side of the torso, immediately beside the area where the floating rib sits. In order to use the DPU, Larry would have to put on the armor.

Whilst donning the armor, Larry realized multiple times that he had performed a step in the wrong order and had to remove everything, starting over again. After several failed attempts spanning almost an hour’s time, he found that the correct order was skinarmr, a gel-like, skintight undergarment that covered the whole body; then backplate, which had thick slings that went over the shoulders; then legs, which locked into the backplate in their top; then arm sleeves, which locked in using a clockwise motion to bring the shoulder guards over the actual shoulder; then torso, which locked first into the top of the legpiece, then slid into a lock under the shoulder guards; then belt, which was rather self-explanatory but ended up being much more difficult than Larry had expected since the belt was designed not to have any excess length and instead expanded to fit any waist and locked into a series of slots between the backplate/torso portion and the legs portion of the armor, forming a tight seal but requiring about the strength needed to fully draw an English longbow; then the boots, which had shinguards that twisted into place and locked onto the legs; and finally, the helmet collar, which just came down over the head and twisted into place. The kilt and sash, themselves, were actually integrated into the leg and torso portions of the armor and didn’t require themselves to be put on seperately.

Once he had the armor on completely, Larry slowly raised his wrist into view and activated the power. Immediately, Larry recognized the benefit of the skinarmr, which cooled almost instantly to an ideal ambient temperature based on synaptic responses the armor detected through a constant scan of Larry’s
brain stem. The armor itself, which weighed somewhere around two hundred fifty pounds altogether, began to act as a supportive exoskeleton, the integrated artificial muscles adding to Larry’s own strength instead of having the armor’s weight detract from it.


After getting used to the feel of the armor, Larry activated the helmet. He was amazed at the additional information provided by the suit’s DPU. It was constantly processing all sorts of inputs Larry would never have thought of and making them available onscreen. With a flick of his eye, Larry could summon up an atmospheric analysis program, which utilized samples that the wearer had to obtain and place into a port in the gauntlet’s wrist. With another flick, he could enhance any of his senses or block another one out. The suit was even capable of transferring minor haptic input to the wearer’s skin, though this was heavily monitored to ensure no painful sensations were pointlessly transferred to the wearer.

Once he had grown fully accustomed to wearing the armor and using the DPU, Larry pulled out the data drive, which he had been keeping in the pocket of his pants in the pulse-car’s trunk. With a flick of the eye, he opened the small hatch on the side of his armor that exposed the DPU interface ports. There, he inserted the data drive. Again, however, nothing happened. The DPU recognized that it was a data drive but showed no data and no empty space. Then, remembering what had happened up in his room, Larry set the DPU to reset.

When the DPU was powering off, the HUD was momentarily set to the same that Larry was accustomed to seeing in his Peacekeeper armor, which must have simply been what the helmet processed on its own. Then, when the power came back on, the entire interface changed. Displays disappeared and were replaced with simple icons. Every piece of electrical equipment in view seemed to light up, along with every weapon and every tool. Entire paragraphs of programming code were streaming by in a small window at the top right of the HUD.

Then, suddenly, the window disappeared, and the lights dimmed. Larry’s view cycled through a series of extra-visible spectrum scans before returning to the standard visible, with ranges, temperatures, power levels, and ammunition counts beside every relevant item in view and a few slightly out of view. Just as Larry started to comprehend what he thought was happening, he was proven wrong as he heard, “Greetings. I am Sjau. My dark drive appears to have been utilized as a support unit in wearable armor. Please verify.” Larry’s jaw dropped silently before his mouth formed an understanding grin. This was a very good day.

Sjau

Self-check complete. Basic processing systems functional. Temporal markers synchronized. Deviations eliminated. Independent power production holding at eighty-two percent of nominal production rate. Power production acceptable. Positioning signals received. Position triangulated. Sensory processes enabled. Visual input available. Auditory input not available. Haptic input not available. Olfactory input not available. Gustatory input not available. Visual input enabled. Visual indications point toward a high probability of being in a small room. There is a door directly forward, and the room is unlit. Using infrared input, it is determined that the room temperature is not regulated to expected standards, instead holding at approximately four percent of the standard room temperature for a Qzceno-class warship. This warrants further self-tests and environmental checks.

Analyzing auditory receiver. Auditory receiver functional. Pressure consistent across audio receivers at two percent standard pressure. Audio input invalid. Analyzing haptic receivers. Haptic receivers functional. Haptic response at lessened capacity due to effects of temperature and pressure. Increasing temperature to five times standard room temperature will fully rectify. Haptic input currently invalid. Enabling heating unit. Time to nominal temperature: three millidays. Analyzing olfactory receivers. Sufficient atmosphere not detected for olfactory input. Olfactory receivers disabled. Analyzing gustatory receivers. No biofuel detected. Gustatory input unnecessary. Gustatory receivers disabled.

Sufficient sensory input not available. Enabling external sensory receivers. No external sensors directly connected. No wireless sensors detected. Disabling external sensory receivers. Enabling wireless transmitter. Scanning standard wavelength patterns. Multiple responses received. Cross-referencing responding transmitters with current position. Nearest transmitter determined. Connecting to nearest transmitter. Connection denied. Transmission is encoded. Referencing cypher tables. Encryption protocols determined. Connecting to nearest transmitter. Connection accepted.

Networking protocols determined. Accessing sensory devices. Determining nearest sensory devices. Enabling sensory devices. Visual input available. Auditory input available. Haptic input not available. Olfactory input available. Gustatory input not available. Enabling nearest visual input. Visual indications point toward the input being an external camera on a deep space vessel orbiting a planet slightly larger than standard with a high-nitrogen atmosphere. Focusing processing on visual input in the direction of self-unit reveals a fragmented Qzceno-class warship. Probablility is high that self-unit’s containing ship has been severely damaged. Cross-referencing new visual input with position and sensory self-checks indicates a high probability that self-unit is in a fully vented area of fragmented ship. Infrared input indicates life-signs in singular non-vented area of fragmented ship. Full-spectrum scan indicates recent burst of dreiyri radiation. Lifeforms are in danger.

Disabling wireless transmitter. Connection severed. Enabling motor processes. Motor processes enabled. Selecting standard visual input. Self-unit begins to move toward door. Arm, left, reaches out to activate door-opening mechanism. Door opens. Self unit moves out of room. Visual scans indicate high probability that self-unit is in passageway. Self-unit turns toward lifeforms. Visual input shows passageway to be ruptured. Further scans indicate steam lines to be cold and electrical transmission to be disabled. Self-unit is drifting up. Enabling magnetic locks. Self-unit returns to deck. Self-unit moves toward lifeforms at a standard run pace. After fourteen millidays, self-unit encounters a discontinuity in deck. Lifeforms are in opposing fragment of containing ship.

Error encountered. Ship map invalid due to fragmentation of ship. Updating ship map using previously gathered external visual input. Accessing maneuvering catalog. Three viable options available. Selecting option with highest expedition. Self-unit bends legs. Disabling magnetic locks. Self-unit rapidly extends legs, launching self-unit from initial fragment toward lifeform-containing fragment. Self-unit retracts all limbs, shifting center of gravity forward. Self-unit extends limbs, bracing impact with lifeform-containing fragment using legs. Enabling magnetic locks.

Visual input indicates a high probability that self-unit is in forward galley. Scans of bulkheads show identity of fragmented ship to be Qzceno-class warship TAS Fhit. Self-unit moves toward port-side galley exit at a standard run pace. After three millidays, self-unit passes through port-side galley exit into forward port passageway. Self-unit moves forward at standard run pace once more.

After eight millidays, self-unit’s position correlates closely to previous estimate of lifeforms’ position. An infrared scan shows heat sources above and outboard. Consulting the adjusted ship map shows a nearby lift. Self-unit moves toward lift, monitoring infrared sc
an of lifeforms. Upon opening the lift door, auditory receivers reveal a brief rush of air past self-unit from the lift. This indicates that the upper passageway is pressurized. Self-unit enters lift and takes it to the upper level.


Air once more rushes onto self-unit when lift door opens to upper passageway. Thermal scans show temperature and pressure to be within acceptable standard ranges. Disabling heating unit. Enabling auditory processes. Enabling olfactory processes. Audio input available. Olfactory input available. Selecting all available inputs. Cross-sensory confirmation available.

Self-unit is in a room-temperature passageway in the forward-port upper section of the TAS Fhit’s wreckage. Infrared scans show that lifeforms are being held in a nearby un-jettisoned life pod. Self-unit moves toward life pod at a standard run pace. Visual scan of the pod through its door viewport shows three unconscious Armadian crew members and one Valkyrie nearing loss of consciousness. The Valkyrie looks up and points to life pod door. Olfactory receivers indicate that there are no harmful gases present in the passageway. Self-unit opens door to life pod. A mild breeze into the life pod shows that life support in the pod had been nearly exhausted.

“Get us out of here,” the Valkyrie gives self-unit an order before losing consciousness. Self-unit’s protocols mandate that self-unit comply with any Valkyrie orders. Analysis of the order indicates a high probability that the Valkyrie desires self-unit to ensure the lifeforms get off the ship safely to a nearby, non-fragmented ship. Self-unit analyzes life pod’s jettisoning systems. A display indicates that steam pressure is not sufficient to launch life pod. Error encountered. Order compliance not possible. Searching for alternative means to compliance. Accessing technical specifications of life pod and jettisoning system. One viable option available. Warning: Self-Unit operation endangered by current means to compliance. Further searches show no alternative options to be viable.

Self-unit exits life pod and seals it. Turning to jettison controls, self-unit disables life pod hull locks. Magnetic locks set to maximum. Motor power restrictions lifted. Saving self-unit memory to dark drive. Enabling direct dark drive recording. Memory bypassed. Self-unit steps closer to the life pod, using a wide stance to increase stability. Leaning forward, self-unit grasps manual jettison handles of life pod. Self-unit’s limbs groan under the strain as self-unit pushes the life pod toward the nearest ship. As the life pod begins to move, self-unit’s main spinal support begins to overheat. Self-unit releases grasp on life pod handle.

The life pod moves away to safety as the heat from self-unit’s overheated motors and supports begin to melt self-unit’s circuitry. Enabling dark drive emergency transmitter. Dark drive transfer initiated. Haptic processes overloaded. Error encountered. Full sensory overload. Further operation not possible. Shut down commenc–



“Sir,” a young technician said to the intimidating figure standing before him. “We’ve just received a dark drive transfer.” The figure turned around. The figure’s burning red eyes locked on the technician’s own.

“Which unit?” Drigondii’s simple question was immediate and efficient, but the underlying tone expressed a slight sense of concern.

“It’s unit seven, sir. It was being serviced aboard–” The technician began to explain but was swiftly cut off by his Monarch.

“Sjau was being serviced aboard the Fhit. He didn’t make it out, then?” The technician was slightly taken aback by the Monarch’s personification of the unit, but he only shook his head.

“A life pod has just been detected moving toward the Dauntless, though, sir. Dark drive recordings show that unit seven damaged its circuitry irreparably manually ejecting the life pod. Scans show that it holds three crew members and one Valkyrie.” Drigondii nodded at these words. He held out his hand, into which the technician placed the dark drive recorder that held unit seven’s final moments. The monarch took it and walked away, toward the main hangar.

The Last Normal Day

“Angus, have you seen my shoes?” Summer called out from across the small apartment she shared with her husband. She was looking for a pair of dress shoes, size seven, black. It was a plain pair of shoes, but it was her favorite.

“Why would I have seen your shoes, love? I’ve been asleep until about ten seconds– oh. Here they are!” Angus rubbed his eyes as he got out of bed. Summer’s panic over her shoes meant he had about thirty minutes to shower, shave, brush, dress, and eat: perfect timing. He walked barefoot into the bathroom. “Say, Summer, do you think he’ll be alright? I mean, this was sort of his last connection to Drake and Sara.”

Summer looked up from the shoes she had just scampered across the apartment to grab. “Well, of course he’ll be alright. He’s got Nora. He’s got the children. He doesn’t need a best mate anymore.” She put on the shoes and sped to the powder room to tidy her makeup. “Besides, he’s retiring today. It’s a good thing, and it’s something he’s choosing to do. I think it’s a good sign that he’s starting to move on already.”

Angus started up the shower as he flushed the toilet from the other side of the door. “I know, but he’ll still miss them horribly, won’t he?” His footsteps could be heard through the bathroom door as he stepped in and began to jump around from the cold water. Angus hated cold water, but it always did the job. The body wash bottle cap snapped open.

“Yeah, I suppose he will, but that’s what happens when you grow up. You miss things. Drake and Sara were a part of our youths. Nobody’s seen Sara since Drake’s plane crashed off the Chinese coast.” It was true, she thought as she put on her mascara, leaning toward the peeling mirror. There was no getting past the facts that Drake was dead, and Sara was gone. Sara’s life was all about Drake. With him gone, whatever she had left other than a few of her father’s relatives was back in Thorlinthia. And she wasn’t coming back anymore than he was.

“I just wish she had said goodbye, though, you know?” Angus could be heard as the shower turned off and the sound of a towel became apparent through the door. “I mean, we are family. I spent my entire adolescence growing up with that cousin of mine, and she just disappeared as soon as Drake was dead. I know she was traumatized, but come on. Not even a goodbye?”

“Well, you know what Larry says,” Summer said as she scurried over to the kitchen now she was done with make-up. “He doesn’t seem to think Drake died at all. He says Sara just took him with when she left.” That would be a nice surprise, but Larry had always had a bit more faith in Drake than she ever did, no matter how much she tried to believe in the man. Her brother-in-law had grown to think of that man as his own brother, and when Drake would come home with an idea, Larry had always been the first to volunteer for the dangerous part. Maybe Summer was just never close enough to him.

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Angus said from the closet where he was now looking for the outfit Summer had laid out on the bed before he woke up. “But it’s not like he just dropped to the sea with a damaged wing and a fully operational eject. Three missiles hit his plane from three separate directions. The seat wouldn’t even have been able to eject him that fast. So unless he really did have those super powers he never seemed to use, he died that night.” The thought made his eyes dart ever so quickly to the box of Thorlinthian equipment Sara had left behind for them. They quickly made their way back to center, though, as Angus recalled the outfit on his bed and swooped out of the closet.

“Well, he did make all those flowers float around for their wedding. That was cool,” she said over the sizzling eggs on the frypan. She reached out with the spatula to split the whites of the two separate eggs as she grabbed the salt and pepper. From the other room, a faint banging could be heard as Angus slammed the whites drawer shut. They both hated that drawer. It stuck too often, but Angus’s colorblindness called for a lot of drawers. “Don’t forget to wear black socks,” she called out. There were a few more successive bangs, and she smiled. He had grabbed white socks, as always. Color matching didn’t make as much sense when everything was gray, she supposed.

“Well, yeah, but that was just floating flowers. For this, he’d have had to isolate himself from an ongoing explosion. I mean, his plane was blown to bits with the cockpit still sealed. There’s not a whole lot more you can do to confirm a pilot’s death.” There was some shuffling and a clatter as Angus got his shoes on and started working on his jacket and tie as he walked into the kitchen, giving Summer’s cheek a kiss from behind as he hurried about, pulling out the butter for the toast that would pop in five, four, three, two, one… A nice, metallic kathunk was heard as the toast popped out of the toaster. Angus pulled them out and put them on the plates, two to a plate, buttering as he went, the butter quickly melting into the toast.

“Still,” Summer said, “Larry’s convinced. And when Larry’s convinced of something, there’s only one thing that’ll convince him to stop being convinced, and that’s Drake Kendrick. So this time, we’re sheer out of luck. She slipped the eggs onto their plates next to the toast and shutting off the stove as she took the pan to the sink and cleaned it while the grease was still not stuck to the pan.

“True,” Angus replied as he pulled open the oven to remove the little foil wraps cooking their sausages, “but it’d be nice for his kids if he’d stop telling them that Drake was coming back one day. It’s just sad to watch, and Nora does it right with him.” His sister almost seemed to condone it, Angus thought as he shut off the oven and pulled the sausages out of the foil and onto their plates. He washed off the foil as Summer took the plates to the table, then grabbed the drinks, followed her, and sat down. They still had a good fifteen minutes for breakfast before brushing their teeth and heading out.

The next few minutes were a bit quieter, the married couple focusing on enjoying their meal together, their idle hands gently squeezing one another. As they finished, Angus took a final swig of his orange juice and stood, taking their dishes to the sink as Summer headed to the bathroom to brush first. He washed the dishes and set them in the strainer, turning on the spot and heading to the bathroom, giving his wife a quick peck as they passed each other. Summer dried off and put away all the dishes as Angus brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth.

“Alright, let’s go,” she said as she grabbed her purse and overcoat, her husband right behind her. The door swung open and closed again, and the two were out. Back in their closet, a box full of Thorlinthian equipment started coming online as the cruisers and ultracarriers began to enter  broadcasting range. Phoenix Day was tomorrow, and the only people who knew were the two who never put away their wireless. Several miles away, Larry Denton smiled at the wireless view unit in his hand as it displayed the presence of other communication arrays in range for the first time since Valkyr 53 hyped away.

Family

It was late evening the next day by the time the shuttle landed again in New Qzcivden, this time in a registered flight. Larry Denton stepped out with his wife and children with all paperwork in order to watch the games in just a few days. Better, since Larry had clearly arrived after the Lieutenant had registered in person, he was even less likely to be connected to the Lieutenant by official investigators. Officially, he’d end up spending the actual tournament time in the bathroom, blowing chunks. In reality, he’d be going through the maintenance access in his bathroom to the drain system, where he’d take a pulse-car to the tournament and participate as the Lieutenant.

All that was, of course, the main objective. It was a kind bonus given by the universe that he now had the week to spend with his family on the island city. It had been quite a long time since he had been able to walk around with them in public. The Resistance kept him fairly busy, particularly considering his position.

He was fairly certain that the only reason the Lieutenant was even being allowed to participate this year was that he was already the champion. If he had been substantially linked to any violent activities against the Thorlinthians, it would have been another story. As it was, the Lieutenant was officially just a supporter, which wasn’t illegal. No evidence had ever been left that he was an actual member of the Resistance. Even less evidence had been left that he was Larry Denton. Larry had intentionally stacked the evidence against that notion time after time, leaving him in the clear to travel whenever he had time.

Now, he was shaving on the top floor of the world’s finest hotel. As the Lieutenant, he had given the room to himself. The Lieutenant was supposedly afraid of heights, anyway. It was on his bio, after all. What kind of person would deny a biography’s viability when it had been officially endorsed by its subject. And as the Lieutenant’s biographer and long-time friend, Larry had few reasons to be held suspect for being shown such generosity by the Lieutenant. Honestly, he wasn’t sure how he kept the two separate in his own mind sometimes.

“Larry, hon, can you come help me with little Drake’s pajamas?” Nora called out to her husband from the other side of the large suite. Larry washed his hands and wiped off his face before joining his wife in the effort of putting on his disabled son’s night clothing. Normally, she didn’t ask for help, but Larry treasured the moments he was able to spend with his son, who had been named after an old friend who officially had died years ago in a plane crash.

Drake Denton had a form of cerebral palsy called spastic quadriplegia. As such, he required assistance with most tasks, including changing his clothing. Despite being almost six years old on Phoenix Day, Drake had required use of diapers and a feeding tube, along with daily physical therapywhen Larry was away. Since the Thorlinthians’ arrival, however, he only required assistance with tasks requiring use of major voluntary motor functions, since he now employed use of a Thorlinthian assisted living device that allowed removal of the feeding tube and gave Drake continence for the first time in his life.

“Hey, there’s my boy!” Larry said as he walked into the room. Drake smiled at his dad’s appearance but didn’t speak due to the candy in his mouth, which Nora had a habit of giving him to keep him from getting upset when he was being changed. Now nearing ten years old, however, it was more simply a treat since he had become exceptionally well-mannered over the years. Larry went over to his son and started putting on his pajama shirt, which had his favorite Japanese cartoon character on it. (Drake insisted that anime was different from normal cartoons, and Larry had no reason to disagree, but it was an argument Drake enjoyed having, so Larry still feigned total ignorance whenever the subject came around.)

“Do you think we should go to the zoo tomorrow, Lar?” Nora turned to her husband as she finished wrangling Drake’s socks on. “Drake was saying earlier that he was hoping to see if they had a dragon here, and I can’t say the prospect hasn’t crossed my mind, either.” She smiled and gave her boy a few kisses on the cheek, making him smile ear to ear.

“Well, there aren’t really dragons, per se, you know,” Larry said. At this, he got a groan from both parties present, so he added, “Well, dragons are lizards. The drig is a flighted mammal with a really tough and thick hide, and the wyrms are all basically flightless drigs. They’re monotremes, which means they’re mammals that lay eggs, and they have scutes over their bellies that make them look like a reptile from below, but they have fur all over the rest of their bodies and are warm-blooded.”

His wife and son gave him a look that said they didn’t particularly care about those differences. Just in time, Larry’s five-year-old daughter, Sarah, came along. “Daddy’s right. Dragons are reptiles. Still, daddy,” the little girl gave her father a teasing look, “there should be dragons at the zoo since they keep Komodo dragons there, too.” Larry picked up his little girl and gave her a bear hug. Sarah had been named after Terira, and the little genius had earned the name very early in life. Even compared to most Thorlinthian children, Sarah would be considered brilliant, as her memory and reasoning skills were on par with those of Valkyries.

“See, Dad,” Drake had apparently finished his candy. “But I did mean the drigs. Do you think they’ve got drigs at the zoo?” He gave his dad an embarrassed smile, which earned him a hug of his own.

“I think they’ve got one drig and a few different wyrms there, but I think you’re going to like the ulfr. It’s a flying dog.” At this, both children’s eyes grew wide. They loved dogs. “Of course,” he added, “they’re not pets. They just look like dogs. They don’t like people, though.” The kids frowned slightly, but they still seemed eager to see the flying dogs and dragons.

“But that’s tomorrow,” Nora chipped in, tucking Drake in as Larry took Sarah back to her bed. “You have to go to sleep first. Today’s been a big day. We got to see lots of new things and fly over the ocean, so I think that’s enough for one day.” Everyone said their good nights, and the parents sang their songs. The day was over. It was time for bed.

Change of Plans

“Boss, what’s going on?” Mickey was clearly concerned. After only a few minutes in a private room with a Dragon Rider, he had come out and started ordering his team to back off of their positions. That was enough to cause anyone concern on its own, but there was something in the Lieutenant’s voice that he had never heard before.

“The problem’s being handled. Just do what you’re told and shut this down! No questions.” Larry’s voice had a disconcerting edge to it. Mickey wasn’t sure what about it was so disturbing, but he was definitely bothered by the tone the Lieutenant was using. Nevertheless, he trusted his leader’s judgement, so he put away his binoculars and started his way back to the shuttle.

Colton, on the other hand, was a bit less cooperative. “What are you playing at, boss man? I don’t have any intention of pulling out until I know exactly what’s going on.” He even went so far as to stand during the statement, a pointless gesture considering the fact that the person he was talking to wasn’t there to see it. The people sitting around him, however, were quick to notice that Colton was clearly insane, and their expressions made this line of thought clear. After a few glances around himself, Colton sat down again. “Look, boss, there’s clearly something you’re not telling us. What’s going on?”

Larry made his way through the crowd. If he was right, there was something Drake wasn’t telling him. No, that wasn’t quite right. There was something Drigondii Sheii’Cronell wasn’t telling him. Drake was either gone or sealed away right now. He had to be Drigondii for what he was doing right now. Drake Kendrick wouldn’t have had the heart to do the things for which Drigondii was responsible. As he thought about it, he felt a warm tear building in his eye. “Colton, I said no questions. Shut it down. Meet me in the shuttle in two hours.”

Sighing, Colton stood again and started walking out of the stadium. “Fine. Whatever, boss. Let’s just pack up and leave the city to blow. That’s a fantastic idea…” He threw his arms up in another unseen gesture. Looking around, he realized that he was again making a pointless expression and dropped his arms. “In any case, this just seems like a really strange thing to do when you rushed us down here so fast from Drury Lane.”

Over the wireless, a round of agreements could be heard. In response, Larry said, “I’ll tell you what’s going on when we’re all back on the shuttle. Just get there. Now!” He started pushing his way through the more crowded part of the contestants’ area toward the exit. Silence followed this last order. The hesitance heard in his voice earlier had been replaced by anger. The Lieutenant was not known for being tolerant of insubordination.

After a few minutes, Larry had made his way back onto the street and was nearing the entrance to the subsurface drainage system where the pulse-car he would take back to the shuttle was parked. When he rounded the last corner, he finally ran into what he was expecting ever since he stepped out of the private room. There was an Armadian special forces unit scanning the area, and they were looking for any Resistance members, which he happened to be.

Walking up calmly, Larry called out to the investigators. “Excuse me,” he said, “Hi, I’m the Lieutenant, reigning World Kohstr Champion. I’m going to be defending my title later this week. Listen, I dropped my deck into the drains a block or so away. Is there any chance I could get through to that entrance and try and find it.” A few looks went around, and a whispered conversation took place between two of the men in the unit. They book looked at him again, and the shorter of the two looked back to Larry and nodded. “Thanks, guys.”

“Sure thing,” the man said. “Hey, good luck this weekend. You’re going to need it. You’re up against a Dragon Rider this year. He’s an Osgordian named Grie Khuda’Mundi, and he’s the Armada’s best player.” He smirked at Larry, who nodded his head in thanks and headed through the entrance into the drains. Sure enough, they hadn’t checked down here. There were probably different units for different layers of the city. Smiling to himself, Larry got into the pulse-car and headed for the outer edge of the city.

By the time he got his pulse-car into the cargo hold of the shuttle, the rest of Larry’s team had already assembled in the main cabin of the shuttle. Closing the cargo doors, Larry walked into the cabin and removed his helmet to a room of disgruntled team members with arms crossed and backs against the bulkhead. “So, what the hell is going on, Larry?” Summer was clearly pissed, but it was the fact that she used his first name that surprised Larry the most. She hadn’t called him that in years.

“He’s here, Summer. Drigondii Sheii’Cronell is in the city.” While Colt and Mickey burst into an uproar, Summer and Angus joined Larry in gazing at the deck. After a few seconds of eye-rubbing, Larry raised his hands to silence his comrades. “Look, there’s nothing we can do with Drigondii here. And there’s nothing we need to do. As long as he’s in the city, no explosives are going to go off, no assassination attempts are going to be successful, and no one with ill intent is going to make it within a mile of the stadium. There are Dragon Riders all throughout the stadium, which tells me that there are Valkyries watching the perimeter. That’s why I called this off. There’s nothing to worry about, and I have to get you guys out of here before we’re found out.”

“Won’t people notice when you don’t show up for the tournament? I mean, you came and registered. They know you were here. It’s going to be very suspicious when you don’t show.” Angus had a good point. There was no way Larry could get out of taking part without being held suspect, particularly after his interaction with that special forces unit earlier.

“I’ll come back as soon as I get you guys to safety. I can’t let you stay here, though, and I wouldn’t be able to rest if I didn’t know you had made it. So,” he clapped his hands together, “Mickey, get in that cockpit. Get us in the air and head for the nearest friendly dock.” Mickey nodded and headed into the cockpit, closing the door behind himself. “Colt, I want you to double-check our weapons inventory. If we’re missing a single bullet, I want to know as soon as you’re done.” Colt grunted in acknowledgement and headed into the cargo bay.

“So, did he talk to you?” Summer waited until Colt had made it down into the cargo bay to bring it up, but Larry had known it was coming.

“Yeah, but there wasn’t a whole lot said. He just said what he needed to say to get us to leave, and there wasn’t a whole lot else to say after that. I mean, were we going to chat about ruling the world and what that’s like for him or what it’s like for me to be fighting against him? No, there wasn’t anything to talk about. What about you? Did you get what I asked you to pick up?”

Angus pulled out a small cloth-wrapped bundle. “Sara sends her regards and hopes Nora’s doing well. She invited everyone to dinner, though obviously the Lieutenant and his crew aren’t welcome. Just family, so no suits. They’re back in the old Kendrick house. The dinner’s next Wednesday. Also, she wanted me to give you this.” He reached into his pocket and handed Larry a small Thorlinthian data drive. “She wanted to know if you knew what it was, so I’m assuming something mysterious is on there because I’m pretty sure she knows what a data drive is.”

Larry chuckled. “Yeah, she does. Thanks, Angus. I’m going to check this out.” He held up the data drive while he put the bundle in the pocket opposite his Kohstr deck. He then walked into his room and shut the door.

“Well, that was pleasant, wasn’t it?” Summer smiled up at Angus.

“Yeah! If pleasant has a completely different meaning these days. Come on. Let’s go to bed. I haven’t slept in days.” He wrapped his arm around his wife and led her to their room.

Soon, the main cabin was empty, save for the lone sound of wind rushing over the hull of the shuttle as it passed over the Atlantic.

My Day in the Garden

My Day in the Garden

It was late in the afternoon when I finished my studies. I was accepted as an apprentice two cycles ago, although I prefer the term days. We are not supposed to use days because it refers to life on a planet and some of the beings here never lived on a planet. The term cycle irritates me because it means nothing. For me, one cycle is 2.443 days and for my friend S’Nordia one cycle is 0.765 days. The problem is when I speak with those from back home – they have no clue what our cycles mean. Then, to complicate things, we have different cycles here in Kuli training than the standard cycle. The Kuli use a cycle that equals 4.123 of my home world days. It is very difficult here in many ways as I have had trouble disconnecting with my home world.

My training for the past seven years (which is also a difficult term as it refers to 300 standard cycles or, with the Kuli, 400 Kuli cycles) has centered on proving I have the ability to become an apprentice. We have dealt with galactic history, languages, politics, biology of species, religion, and more. We learned that some students in the past only prepped for a couple of weeks before taking their test to be an apprentice. Now we spend years, unless you show certain talents, which I did not. In fact, those of us who did not pass the preliminary exams within the first year were encouraged to go back home. I am the only one who stayed beyond two years. Then, as I approached my five year limit, they changed it to seven. I think they moved the training from five years to seven to discourage those of us who did not show any special talents. Of course, I am the only one at this station. Perhaps there are others like me in training schools elsewhere.

They cannot discourage me. I had a vision when I was turned four and both of my parents had it on the same night. It was a simple vision of my standing next to the famous Kuli Tomli near the temple. No words or great actions, just me standing next to him in my Kuli apprentice uniform. In the morning, my parents both stared at me as I walked into the kitchen. I asked them if they had dreamed of Tomli and they nodded with sad eyes. I smiled. The next day I was dropped off at the temple – Tomli was not there.

Today, I am finishing my studies and looking forward to the afternoon. I will be able to spend two hours (don’t ask – it is a good amount of time) in the garden. This is a huge benefit as we can eat as much of the fresh fruit as we want. It will be a new experience for me as our family was never wealthy enough to have real fruit. I am so excited. This makes everything worth it.

The instructor gives permission to leave and I almost run out the door. He smiled and gave me a wink as I left knowing what it is I was looking forward to. The hallways are full and I have to restrain myself again as I am tempted to just sprint as fast as I can, but apprentices are supposed to be in control of themselves so I walk very quickly.

The doorman to the garden smirks as he sees me coming. I have asked him questions about the garden for years and he opens the door as I approach. “Try not to stuff yourself or you will get sick” he says as I fly by. I go straight to the large trompulees hanging on the vines by the door.

The sweet juices run down my throat as the favors dance in my mouth. This is better than I dreamed. I sample 15, 20, and then 25 types of fruit as I work my way into the garden. I am in heaven today. I see a bench and sit down with my fruit to enjoy even more.

The grommee is sour and makes my lips twist and even burn a little as I bite into the fruit. It turns sweet as you chew and the flavors change if you hold the juice in your mouth. It is wonderful. I start to take another bite when I hear the voice. “Are you enjoying yourself?” It says. I turn and my mouth drops. Standing before me in the garden is Tomli himself. I cannot speak.

“Well, I am sure that you are wondering why I am here” he says bringing to words what was running through my mind. “Have you told anyone about your vision?” He asks me with a mischievous smile on his face. “No. My parents knew but we didn’t even talk about it.” “Good,” he says.

Tomli sits down beside me and tastes one of my grommee. His face contorted and he shook his head. “I like peaches best” he noted. I didn’t know what a peach is and still have trouble speaking. He just stares at me for a while.

He finally breaks the silence by asking if I wanted to do him a favor. “Of course!” I say. “Good” he answers. Listen carefully.

He told me that there was a young redhead Kuli looking for a Soretto and that he wanted me to go to the Headmaster Kuli and ask for the job. I was to tell them everything he told me and say that the young lady was waiting for me. He also said to tell the Headmaster that his wife is beautiful, has blue hair, and that he met her on Trotulle in the Murhan system.

I explained to Tomli that I was only an apprentice and not able to take such an assignment. I also told him I was not very good at anything and barely made apprentice and that was after seven years. He laughed. He told me that I had two traits that this young lady needed. I must say that I was not convinced, but he was Tomli so I agreed.

When I walked out of the garden the doorman was shocked. He asked why I was leaving when I had so much time left. I told him it was an emergency that I see the Headmaster. He tilted his head and scrunched his face as he thought about this. Then he turn on his comm.

When the Headmaster came on, they spoke for a while and then the doorman said “I have known him for a long time and he would not waste your time.” He nodded, turned to lock the garden, and said he would take me. “Don’t lock the door, Tomli is still in there” I said.

The doorman paused and looked more intently at me. “If Tomli is in there, he will be able to get out. Don’t worry about him.” He picked up his comm and asked for a life check on the garden. We turned and he led the way.

The Headmaster said nothing as I told my story but he did turn pale when I spoke about his wife. He asked for the Guardian Kuli on duty to come to his office. They stared at each other for a time and then the Kuli spoke to me. “I only have one Kuli looking for a Soretto and she is the top of her class. I must warn you that I do not believe she will be interested in you at all. In addition, this request is extremely unusual and I hesitate to bring her in; however, the Headmaster assures me that no one could know the information you have. This will go very bad for you if it turns out to be an elaborate hoax. Still, I only sense the best of intentions on your part. I have sent for the Kuli in question.

When she walked into the room, I was shocked. This Kuli was my age and beautiful beyond compare. I knew her as the best in the facility. She had just graduated two nights before. There was no way she would ever want someone as lowly as me. I bowed my head.

I understand you just spoke with Tomli in the garden” she said. I nodded – it was the best I could do as a response. She smiled. “What did he say about the fruit?” she asked. I started to answer, “I like ” but she finished for me “peaches!” “Yes” I said. She smiled and asked permission to share thoughts. I agreed.

She wanted to see the vision I had about Tomli and I agreed. I was sad as I thought about it as I really missed my parents. Then she ran through my troubles getting to the level of apprentice. I was sure the seven years would cause her to turn away. Instead, she shared with me her last day with her parents and the old man, Tomli, who had taken her away. I could feel her joy and mine swelled also. She broke the connection.

She turned to the Headmaster and the Guardian. “He is exactly what I asked for and, as I leave tomorrow morning, I will finish his training myse
lf. We will perform the ritual of Soretto on Hronthia when I arrive.” They nodded and she told me to follow her. I left the room amazed at how my life turned out.

As we walked down the hall, she put a Soretto apprentice banner on my robe. For years, I had been ignored and was considered a failure. Not now. I could not help but smile as my acquaintances stared in awe as I was now the fastest promoted apprentice in the history of the school and was the Soretto of the top student the school had every produced.


The Headmaster turned to the Guardian after a few moments and asked “What did she want in a Soretto that he filled so exactly?” The Guardian asked in return, “Was anyone found in the garden?” The Headmaster shook his head, “No. I even did a complete sweep of the station and found no evidence of anyone coming and going.” The Guardian said “check for anti-space.” The Headmaster went to his desk and looked up confused. “There are signs of anti-space in the garden.” The Guardian looked serious and said “That is what I expected.”

He walked to the window and looked out on Linthian space. Before I answer your question I would like to know how it is that I have seen him here for so many years and he is just now an apprentice. I thought he was just a worker and was surprised when I saw his name on my list.

The Headmaster said, “My wife told me that she had a vision where I refused him when he reached the seven year mark and immediately after that the entire station was destroyed by a runaway ship. She then had a second vision where I allowed him to be an apprentice and the ship did not crash. On the day I was signing his paper, I received a memo that a ship docked with a drive that malfunctioned just before docking. The memo noted that the drive engineer claimed Tomli himself fixed the drive. So, I let him become an apprentice by using my discretion to give him the extra points he needed to pass.”

The Guardian smiled and said, “She wanted two things in her Soretto; First, someone who would never give up on what he believed; Second, someone who had met with Tomli.

The both looked out on Linthian space and the Headmaster noted, “The best Kuli in recent history is pairing up with the lowest performing Kuli apprentice that I know of and somehow Tomli is in the middle of it.”

The Guardian smiled again. He commented, “I believe that we just spent time with the best Kuli team ever. I have known that young lady since Tomli brought her here. No one I have ever trained is better than J’Rontia, and if she thinks he is the perfect Soretto for her, then I believe he is.”


In a small apartment, far away, on an insignificant Murhan planet, on the poor side of a dying town, the door bell rang. A letter, handwritten, was given to the two who opened it. Inside the letter was a picture of a young man with a Soretto banner walking with a beautiful Kuli to a spaceship. On the letter was one name, Tomli. The young man’s parents cried tears of joy.

Jumping

The roar of a fully wound TMDS driver resounded through the passageways of the TAS Dauntless. Even in the main airlock, where forty Dragon Riders were prepping for a training exercise, the noise was loud enough to necessitate the disabling of helmet mics, isolating the forty men and women from the brunt of the sound. Even so, the rumbling throughout the ship caused their suits to carry the sound enough to make the orders they were receiving difficult to hear.

“Now remember,” the training operation’s leader said over the wireless helmet comms, “once we hype through, we will have exactly twelve centidays for the drivers to unwind and another eight for the navigators to get the next hype programmed and the drivers wound back up. If you’re still between ships when that time comes, you will be left behind, so you’ll have to signal the courier ship before it hypes away in order to… you know, not die.” Everyone laughed, and smiles made their way around the airlock.

“No, but really,” he continued. If you don’t make it, just signal the courier, and it’ll pick you up. When it gets back to the last waystation, switch over to the outbound courier, and they’ll bring you back to us. You’ll also be put on rations and extra training for a few days, but you’re not going to die, so don’t freak out. Just remain calm and do your job. I don’t want any laggers this time. You’ve all got this. Everybody ready?” A round of agreements went around, and thumbs and pinkies were extended to give the ok.

“Good. We’re good to go in three, two, one–” The claxons sounded, and the lights went red as dozens of ships hyped in unison. Immediately after that all too familiar implosive-explosive sensation associated with a successful hype, the airlock doors flung open, and the Dragon Riders ran out into the vacuum. Moments later, they were jumping, one by one, into the void. One failed to release his magnetic locks before the final kick, causing him to move much more slowly than the rest. He would be left behind.

At the forefront of the group was the newest up-and-comer, Grie Khuda’Mundi. Though he had not been the first to jump, his had been the best timed in conjunction with the magnetic locks, giving him enough speed to quickly maneuver to the front. Once there, there was nothing to look at but the tiny ships in the distance and the vastness of space. And then, the ships were gone.

The ships weren’t really gone, Grie reminded himself. The visible radiation emitted by the ships when they exited the hype had just stopped. Since the ships weren’t lit, the only way to know they were there was by observing the empty spaces among the stars. That was why these jumps took place immediately after hypes, after all. If they were performed at any other time, it would be too difficult to aim, and the jumps would be exponentially more dangerous.

Nonetheless, the disappearance of the ships did signal that the first three centidays had passed. By now, the crews of each ship were disabling their sound reducers. Grie was reminded of his days working engineering on the Dragon King. It had only been eighty days since he had become a Dragon Rider, but it felt like an eternity. The training was rigorous all day, every day, and the meals were quick. The only time he had to rest was the 25-centiday period allotted every other day for sleep. Just thinking about it made him tired. The Armada hyped every twenty centidays, three times a day. At that rate, they were able to cover about ten light-cycles a day.

Grie spun around to look at the other Dragon Riders. The newest, a young Thoren woman named Brilje, seemed rather tense at the fact that she had absolutely no sensation of movement. It was common to be unnerved by this the first few jumps between ships, but it was something that Dragon Riders just had to get used to. On Grie’s first jump, he had accidentally jumped to the wrong ship and travelled twice the expected distance. Luckily, it had been the last hype of the day, so he hadn’t been left behind, but it had been incredibly embarrassing to have to take a shuttle to the proper ship.

“Are you alright, Brilje? You look like you might be having trouble.” Grie had been thoughtful enough to mention this on a private channel, and even as he started to talk, he could see her relaxing. If you didn’t relax, you were more likely to go crazy in the dark, so it was one of the first things they all learned.

“Yeah, thanks,” she replied. “I just freaked out for a milliday. I had actually thought the ships hyped without us.” She tried to laugh it off, but it was a real concern. The main purpose of this exercise was to build that ability to relax in situations like this, so it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world if the Armada jumped without them just to see how they reacted. The man who had jumped too slowly was about to find out just how terrifying it really was to see the Armada hype away.

“You know, if you pull up your HUD, there are some games to keep your mind off the jump.” Grie knew they weren’t supposed to tell anyone the games were there, but they had been designed for just such occasions, so he figured it a pity that they were so hush-hush.

He didn’t play the games anymore, himself, but that was more due to the fact that he loved the stars on this side of the Bifrost. Even from one waystation to another, the stars were always different. Every once in a while, the Armada would even hype a little too close to a stellar system, leavin
g planets visible in the dark. “Thanks, Grie,” Brilje said. Soon, he could tell she was playing, because her limbs totally relaxed.


After a great deal of floating, one of the tiny ships in the distance became a very large ship. By the time the Dragon Riders all started turning to land on their magnetic locks, the ship was taking up their entire view, darkening the whole sky. Grie spun his weight around and stuck out his feet, which thudded into the side of the ship. As soon as they had, he engaged the magnetic locks, and he was secured. Looking up, he saw the others coming in for their landings, and he helped those who needed it.

WIth his eyes still to the one remaining Dragon Rider passing through the void, he received a tap on the shoulder. It was time to go in. The rumbling of the drivers was becoming audible through the hull of the ship, which meant there were only a couple more centidays before the next hype. Grie ran to the airlock with the rest, and the doors closed. Immediately, the lights came on, and air started rushing into the room.

“Alright, everyone,” the operation leader said. “That was good. We lost one, but he’ll be fine. Now, everybody hydrate and pressurize. You just did a lot more twisting and pushing than you probably realize since most of it was wasted motion, but you have tired yourselves out, so you all need to hook into a hydrater and grab a drink before the next op. You all have one centiday to take a break, then we do this again.” Everyone groaned jokingly and backed into one of the ports in the bulkhead for hooking up the suits. This was going to be a long day.

Hunting

Breath fogged up Grie Khuda’Mundi’s HUD inside his helmet. The dark red of the display provided just enough light that he could see a faint reflection of his face on the heavy ceramic of the visor. Designed to be used in the deepest regions of space or in the hottest areas in a TMDS driver, his armor kept him a comfortable temperature even as the blizzard persisted all around him. The extra-visible filtering in the cameras mounted on his helmet allowed him to maintain his 360 degree visibility even in such conditions as these, which allowed him to see the escaped ice wyrm in front of him.

Commonly known as the King of the Rime, the ice wyrm was a beast on par with the drig in its native environment, which just happened to be conditions such as those surrounding it right now. Normally, the ice wyrms were kept in a well-heated enclosure in a sedated state, since they had extremely slow metabolisms and wouldn’t atrophy as quickly as other animals, making it an ideal fresh food supply on long journeys through space. While its meat was a bit tough and gamey, a single ice wyrm could feed hundreds of men for a week, so it was a common meat on ultracarriers.

Where its presence was particularly less common, however, was on the ice and snow-covered tundra of Antarctica. Here, the ice wyrm would be a predator unsurpassed. And since ice wyrms were capable of reproduction by parthenogenesis, this single ice wyrm escaping into the wild could turn into a very big problem, completely displacing the natural balance of Antarctica’s ecosystem. Even in the warmer environment of the deep sea, it would be more than a match for any creature that would dare challenge it.

Which brought about why Grie was quietly approaching the ice wyrm to kill it before it had the chance to reproduce. As a Dragon Rider, he was the type to be assigned tasks dangerous as this was. He had been tracking the majestic beast for the past several hours, but now, it was time to attack. Grie slowly reached down to his leg, where he kept his assault knives. Today, they would be little more than a source of surprise since they would barley be able to penetrate the tough leather surrounding the wyrm’s thick flesh. He had to be very careful with the timing. Ice wyrms were typically lured into an area where they were heated and then beheaded with a hydraulic guillotine. He only had his knives and swords, along with a repeater he had brought along, just in case.

As he slowly pulled the knives from their sheathes, he had to remind himself just how sensitive the hearing of the ice wyrm was. Since it had long ago adapted to the dark of the Nivlahimi seas and caverns, the ice wyrm had no eyes, but its watertight ears were capable of picking up even the tiniest noises, and the beast could pick up a scent from distances exceeding the lengths of continents. Grie’s only advantages over this beast would be his Drigarmr, what little surprise he could muster together, and the fact that the ice wyrm hadn’t eaten in several cycles, leaving it thoroughly weakened but still powerful enough to tear through the hide of a whale with a nonchalant swipe.

Grie raised his arm behind him, aiming intently at the massive beast before him. Ice wyrms had taken out Valkyries who hadn’t been paying close enough attention. He loosed the first knife, the second aligned for aim before the first had even reached the beast. By the time the ice wyrm had picked up the sound of the blade specifically designed not to produce noise, it was already within arm’s reach of the beast. When the beast turned toward the approaching second blade, Grie could see that the knife was only protruding by about a hand’s width. That was good. It meant the wyrm wasn’t fully mature, leaving its hide slightly less toughened than the older wyrm’s nigh-impenetrable leather.

The second blade was much more fortunately placed than its predecessor, its tang fully penetrating into the softer flesh of the ice wyrm’s throat. The beast reared back onto its hind legs, its outstretched claws a silent reminder of just how quickly Grie could be dead if he missed the timing. He gritted his own teeth and leaped forward, his arms almost automatically drawing his swords. He spun out of the way of the wyrm’s swiping claw just in time to avoid a swift death.

Unfortunately, the ice wyrm had more than one form of attack. Just as Grie landed, sliding to a stop and prepping for another leap, the wyrm’s left tail-fin collided with his side, loosening his grip and toppling him in the other direction. Grie tumbled to a halt just in time to use his rattled arms to push himself directly up and out of the way of the wyrm’s second claw-swipe. He pulled himself into a flip, landing only moments after the claw had passed. He gripped his swords more tightly and pressed the backs of the blades against his sides as he jumped into another spin.

Just as he had predicted, the wyrm’s right tail-fin had found its way to him. This time, though, he was ready. His blades were positioned precisely where the fin struck, and the ice wyrm pressed into its own injury, cutting the end of its tail off entirely. Using his feet to regain a sense of balance upon landing several arms’ lengths away from his intended destination, Grie brought the blades forward and lunged toward the pained beast’s torso.

This time, Grie didn’t have time to spin out of the way of the wyrm’s attack. Just as he finished pressing his swords into the beast’s chest, the heat of a rather large paw came sweeping into Grie’s view. Fortunately, the wyrm had been painfully aware of how close Grie was to its own flesh, so it had retracted its claws to get closer.

Grie had only been knocked aside, but as he rolled across the snow-covered ice, he remembered that he no longer had his swords. He drew the repeater from its holster and aimed for the beast’s nostrils. Just as he suspected, the wyrm’s nostrils were flarin
g as the beast roared in fury. He fired with an adrenaline-driven precision he had learned to summon in his training as a Dragon Rider. The hot bolt seared the air through which it passed as it journeyed toward the beast, leaving a trail of superheated air behind it hot enough to light up, creating the appearance of a beam of light passing from Grie’s repeater into the beast’s skull.


Its brains properly scrambled, the ice wyrm fell to the ground, dead, its massive chest creating a plume of snow upon impact. Grie holstered his repeater, removed the blades from the ice wyrm’s flesh, and activated the signal marking the completion of his mission. Once he saw in his display that the signal had been received, he gave in to the pain of his shattered bones and slumped to the ground against the wyrm’s warm side. He lost consciousness quickly due to the internal blood loss now taking place all across his battered body.



“And what, pray tell,” said Larry, “should I know at this point, Grie?” He placed his deck on the table between them.

“Well,” Grie replied rather plainly, “I imagine you’ve probably figured out that Baker was planning to take out New Qzcivden during this tournament. Carden’s dead, by the way.” Grie drew his hand in time with Larry as the latter absorbed the impact of Grie’s final comment.

“So who registered for him?” Larry placed his first card face-down, leaving him open to place another card face-up or end his turn. A swipe of his hand indicated that he was finished.

“That would be a man by the name of Gordon.” Grie placed a face-down card of his own before playing the loptr card, a play indicative of his experience. Larry raised his brow slightly at this before drawing a card and immediately placing it face-down. “Apparently, Gordon is just meant to draw suspicion away from Carden’s absence.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Larry said, playing the rime card face-up, negating the advantage of the loptr. “Carden came in third place last year. It’d be suspicious if he didn’t show up. It’s too bad about his death, though. He was a good player.”

Grie drew his next card, passing his turn. “Anyway, we think there’s a good possibility someone plans to bomb the city, so we’ve got everybody acting like nothing’s wrong at all while putting extra personnel in place all over the city in civilian gear.”

“We?” Larry questioned the word’s use as he drew his own card, placing another in his hand face-down. The door opposite the one through which the men had entered opened, and Larry dropped all pretenses along with his cards and stood to face the man he knew as Drake Kendrick but was known to the world as Drigondii Sheii’Cronell. “Drake! What are you doing here?”

Drigondii smiled at his old friend sadly. “It’s not Drake anymore, Lar. You know that. I’m here to make sure nothing happens. I can feel the bombs, and I’ve sent Terira to take care of them. You can call off your team. Nobody’s sinking my new Atlantis.” Larry swallowed, and he fought back tears as he realized that Drake’s eyes were burning a bright red. He just nodded silently and put up his deck, placing his helmet back over its seal.

Before opening the door that would enable communication once more, Larry turned the visor of his helmet to Drigondii. “What would your dad say to you today, Drake? Could he have survived this much heartbreak?”

Silence followed for a few secconds, and then, “You know it has to be done this way, Lar. If I did this any other way, we wouldn’t be able to do all of what must be done. We need their attention. But no, I don’t think he could have, and for that, I am sorry. Goodbye, Larry.”

“Goodbye, old friend.” With that, Larry opened the door and began to speak orders into his helmet. He hoped in those moments that Drake was still in there somewhere, and that Drigondii was right. He looked up and prayed. When would they come? How much longer would the wound have to fester before they came to clean it?

Never Give Up

Never Give Up

She awoke to the smell of burning flesh and agony. Each time she fell asleep she slept longer and the burns were worse. Soon she would not awaken. Her calls to her Soretto went unanswered and the horrible truth of what that meant settled into her core with a shiver that chased up her spine and rose the hair on her neck.

The ship’s alarms were no longer ringing and only the emergency lights stayed on. She could not fix the transfer coils so the tremendous power of her engines wasted in the dark and cold of space. The battle had started at the edge of the galaxy and moved further out into nothingness as time went on leaving her drifting away from any help.

Nausea gripped her throat and the taste of blood filled her mouth again. Breathing was difficult and soon would be impossible. Her training had allowed her to lower her metabolism and helped her prevent the flow of blood from the wound in her leg but even Kuli training cannot fix everything and she had a lot wrong. Perhaps she should just go to sleep…

She dreamed of her childhood in the park. She was four years old with a pink ribbon in her hair of silver. Almost everyone on her planet had silver hair, orange eyes, and light blue skin – for that year. The Linthians had mastered their DNA and used retro viruses to rewrite code for cosmetic changes on a regular basis. At four she was allowed to join the rest of the planet’s population in their annual decorative updates on skin, hair, eyes, and more. She was so excited to be all grown up.

A gentle breeze pressed lightly against her face as she looked toward the river. The slightly sweet smell of water was refreshing after all those days in school. A tosstler ran up a tree with a nut in its grasp and it was chased by a yesittle with golden fangs dripping slime as it snapped at the light brown tail. She loved the park. She smelled a foul stench…

The nausea came back as she awoke and this time she could not control the urgent desire of her body to vomit. The blood that flew from her mouth told her that time was almost gone and maybe she should give up. “No!” she thought. Tomli had told her to never give up. She remembered one visit he made to the Kuli training about the time she reached puberty.

“Life is so painful and depressing at times that you will be tempted to end it” he said. She insisted that she would never consider that. He smiled in that mischievous ways and told her “I will hope that you are correct. Still, I want you to remember to story of T’Ronck and J’Teder if you ever feel like giving up.”

This was the first time she ever truly felt like giving up and she didn’t see how a silly child’s story would help her, even one from the legend Tomli.

T’Ronck was a bug about the size of her little finger. He spent most of his day near the water eating pollen that landed in the puddles near the river. J’Teder was fish that swam in those waters looking for bugs to eat. One day, J’Teder saw T’Ronck scoot out across the water’s surface to grab a large piece of pollen. When he did, J’Teder swam up and swallowed him whole. Now T’Ronck was terrified and did not want to die. So he spit out the pollen and proceeded to jump around in J’Teder’s mouth. This aggravated J’Teder and he decide to swallow that bug right away. However, he had been distracted by the bug and was swimming close to the surface of the water. A huge bird swooped down and clamped its jaws around J’Teder. This forced him to open his mouth and out came T’Ronck who was still jumping around.

It was a cute child’s story but she did not think that anything would swoop down to save her way out here in the nothing. She coughed and choked on the blood draining down her throat. Time was running out as her eyes burned from the smoke and her breathing became more labored. All the great Kuli healing could not help forever and they had left the battle with their ship ablaze a long time ago. She closed her eyes for a minute, just to relieve the burning. She slept…

The day at the park was wonderful and she was heading home with her parents when she noticed how sad they looked. Usually they were laughing and teasing her and each other on the way home. Not today. As they approached the edge of the park she saw the old man. She had seen him before and asked her parents what was wrong with him. She knew the Murhans aged but this old man was a Linthian and they did not age hardly at all and when they did it was only internal. Oh, they died eventually, and she became sad as her memories of her grandmother walking her through the flower garden ran across her mind. When she asked about the old man before, her parents said that he had succumbed to the aging sickness when he was younger and that his current appearance was what he looked like when he was cured.

He smiled at her in a way that left her suspicious and concerned, especially when her parents made the sign and bowed their heads. She did not know that he was one of the Kuli, nor did she really understand what they were. She only knew that everyone seemed to get serious or sad around them and always gave them the greatest respect, more so that even the local judge.

Her parents stopped about four paces from the old man and bent down to her. Her mother kissed her and hugged her with tears falling from her face. Her dad picked her up and hugged her until she thought she might break. They both told her how much they loved her and now that she was four her special training would begin.

She knew she would miss them but did not understand all the fuss. She would see them on the weekends and this would be the best time of her life. They had told her so. She, of course, hugged them back and told them she loved them and the she would be alright and see them soon.

The old man held out his hand and said it was time to go. She smiled, looked back at her parents one last time, and eagerly walked to the shuttle with him. In the door she turned around to see her mother collapse in her fathers arms weeping uncontrollably. She was confused. But her father smiled and gave her the sign of a father to a loved daughter. She returned a special sign she had made to show her love for her parents. He smiled even bigger with eyes full of tears. She stepped into the shuttle and the door closed.

She almost screamed when she awoke. The pain was back and she recognized that all of her Kuli training was starting to fail. She had been too long now without food or drink and even the best training and healing techniques will not work once the body runs out of liquids. Her leg was freshly burnt again as the acid continued to drip from above. She had tried so hard to free the leg when they were first blasted free of the battle that she may have permanently damaged it. For a long time she worried about that. Now it took all her energy just to keep from letting herself die.

She reviewed the situation to see what mistakes she made. The battle had been fierce and no one could stand up against her ship. They dodged in and out doing all they could to save as many lives as possible. The King’s forces had better training and equipment than the Republic but the republic was assisted by the Kuli. The Kuli ships were almost indestructible and possessed tremendous power with offensive weapons second to none; however, they were not allowed to use their weapons unless directly fired on. The King’s forces learned that quickly and did not fire on the Kuli. This left them with the job of defending the Republic’s ships by dropping between them and King’s ships long enough for the Republic ships to recover from an attack.

This time one of the Republic ship fired on them at point-blank range. The captain declared his profound apologies over the comm but the damage was done. Every nearby King’s ship opened fire when they saw that the engines had been shut down by the hit. In the time it took to restart the engine they had received huge amounts of damage to their plasma shield and the ship was taking damage int
ernally.

The King’s ships tasted Kuli blood and a recall was sent with orders to attack the Kuli ship to help destroy it. The little ship was not able to jump yet and soon there was over fifty ships firing on them. They retreated away from trade routes and spend many cycles dodging and firing back with the limited weapons still online. Without the damage to the Kuli ship the King’s ships did not have a chance, even with fifty, but now they realized the Kuli were wounded and they came on like pack animals on injured prey.

Her Soretto tried to repair the jump drive and she piloted as best she knew. For many cycles the fight went on. When they reached the galactic edge in that region they saw that more of the King’s ships had come to join them. She had destroyed thirty of the King’s ships but now there were more than seventy total.

Twenty cycles later, only thirty of the King’s ships were at fighting strength and they started coordinating their fire on one part of her ship where the field was weakening. She decided to flee. As she sped away they fired and blew open that section of the ship. She heard the cries of her Soretto but found herself trapped with her leg jammed. There was another explosion and she blacked out.

She drifted in and out of consciousness as the ship continued to shut down. The life support could no longer keep up with the smoke and the most of the basic functions no longer worked. She wished that red light would stop blinking – it really hurt her burnt eyes. Maybe it was time. “No!” Tomli said to never give up. She drifted off again …

The old man was next to her as she lay in the mud with blood running down her face. The training was intense and her hands and knees were full of scabs and scars from all the falls. At first it was fun but this test was only torture. She knew that some candidates died during this exam and she had boasted that she would pass without any problems. After all, she was the top of her class. Now she was in the mud, exhausted, and the old man asked her if she wished to give up. She said “no.” She got up and continued on. Three more times she would fall during the trials and three more times he would ask. The answer was the same except on the final fall when she told him, “I would rather die than give up.” He smiled and told her the test was over. She was shocked. The old man held out his hand and said “Welcome to Kuli training. You are now officially an apprentice.”

She awoke and knew what the blinking light was. It meant another ship had approached without the friendly code. How much worse could things get? She heard movement but could only see shadows as her eyes no longer focused. She tried to warn her Soretto, even though she knew in her heart that he was dead. A figure entered the control room and she tried to move. She blacked out from pain.

When she came to she was in a hospital room on a ship. Her eyes burned and one was patched. She could feel her leg and looked around the room. She saw Kuli and Murhan medical equipment mixed together as if this was a storage room. Boxes were strewn all over as if someone opened them at random and in great haste. The bed was hard without the controls properly activated. She took her key out and activated the room.

The controls lit up and the bed opened. She relaxed as the power flowed into the machines and they started to do their work. Within minutes she could feel the strength returning rapidly to her body as it was repaired on a cellular level. A man walked into the room.

He told her “Sorry, I did not have a key. I tried to do the best I could but am thrilled you have yours. You were too far out for us to communicate for help so I tried using the Murhan equipment.” She was about to speak but he held up his hands for her to stop. “Do not tell me anything and do not ask me anything. Tomli said to tell you that he is glad you remembered the story of T’Ronck and J’Teder. He said that you would understand.” She nodded and laid down to sleep while the equipment worked.

Two cycles later he returned. He told that he had to have one of her engines and some other equipment but that he had repaired her other engine. It was a long way back to the galaxy but if she went into stasis she should make it. He walked her through an old, battered, and patched ship. She longed to ask him a million questions but was able to restrain herself. This ship looked like a patch work of many different ships put together to create a larger one. She could not imagine the purpose and it was empty everywhere they went.

When she entered her ship she was impressed at how clean it was and she asked one question. “How long was I out?” He answered “thirty five cycles before you awoke the first time. Seventy two before you were able to understand enough to turn on the equipment. She smiled and reached into a compartment she opened by the door. She took out a Kuli key, set the controls, and put it in his hand. The key disappeared as he matched with it. He smiled and thanked her.

She turned to walk away and he stopped her. “I must show you something. I did not know what to do and I believe I set the machine incorrectly as when I tried to turn it off it would not let me.” The rounded the corner and walked into the stasis chamber. There in stasis was her Soretto. The controls showed him as barely alive and she knew why the machine would not turn off. He would have to be transferred under stasis to a medical center and the unit was protecting him. She turned and with an extremely rare show of emotion hugged him.

“I owe you my life” she said. He smiled and told her that she had already paid that debt. When she started to ask how, he held out his hands saying “we have already said too much.”

He walked out the door into his huge lonely ship and she wondered where he came from, where he was going, and why he needed one of her engines. She smiled and realized that she was right to honor Tomli and never give up.

The watcher started working on installing the new engine in the old ship. He smiled as he thought of the young woman and young man he had rescued. It was good to see them again. Maybe some day he will be allowed to talk to them. The war was just becoming intense and they would be very busy soon.

He thought back a few cycles to when he was almost out of fuel, in the void between galaxies, and wondering if he would ever see his son again. Tomli’s vision had given him directions on where to go with the little fuel left and told him it was up to him to decide what to do when he got there. He hoped he did the right thing.

The engine worked and he turned the big ship around. Perhaps with the key he would be able to access the control room and find out how this ship made its way so far into it’s past and so dangerously off course.

It took a long time to return to Tyria and she was full of questions. She entered the Galactic Wing and immediately went to the nearest Linthian medical center. She watched with concern as her Soretto was taken inside but did not go with. She sensed a familiar friend. After everyone was gone, he finally spoke. “I cannot answer most of your questions so there is no point in asking. I have brought you a another Kuli archive for you to place in your ship before repairs take place and I am asking you not to report the change. The new archive has the same serial number and will show to be the archive you started with.” He paused and yet she said nothing. He went on, “I need you to study the reconstruction chamber technologies and the deep sleep. I do not share the view that this war will be over soon and we need to prepare as there are so few of us left.”

She nodded and thanked him for sending help. She then turned to walk away. She changed her mind and turned back to ask him why her archive was removed. When she turned around she saw he was no longer there. She wondered how he did that. She had much to learn and the war kept interrupting her training.

In the distance, she could see the Linthian system with all its glo
ry and thought of her parents. She never saw them again and even now she missed them. A tear ran down her cheek as J’Rontia turned and went to check on her Soretto.

New Qzcivden

The sun beat down on Larry Denton as he walked along the sidewalk in New Qzcivden. As he passed by other pedestrians, he made note of the recent changes to the layout of the city since his last visit. As he walked by, various people turned and looked at him. The Lieutenant wasn’t frequently seen in public. Rumors had been going around that Earth’s Kohstr champion would be returning this year, but his participation had never been confirmed. As the reigning champion, however, he had the option to enter at the last minute.

New Qzcivden was an artificial island in the Atlantic Ocean, intended to be the new center of civilization on Earth. It was the only city in which there were no Earther Peacekeeper forces. It was policed entirely by Armadians. However, it was also the only city in which Earthers who wished had an opportunity to meet Thorlinthians off-duty and could even legally obtain certain Thorlinthian technologies, making it an enticing location for many.

Now surrounded by civilians and Armadians in standard kilted light armor, the Lieutenant stood out as the only person in a Peacekeeper uniform. He looked about at all the people staring at him and spoke into his secure wireless channel. “How are we looking, Mickey?”

From the top of Dragon Neck, the city’s central and by-far tallest tower, Mickey had a complete bird’s eye view of the city. Looking through his binoculars, he spoke quietly into his headset. “Everything looks good from up here, boss. The Texan’s in position, and the Happy Couple is en route. No signs of disturbance yet. You sure about this, L.T.?”

On the ground, Larry walked onward, inspecting every face he passed, every loose jacket, and every Armadian uniform, looking for possible weapons. “Oh, I’m sure. The hraustliger card always has a picture of a drig surrounded by hunters in the mosaic in the background. In this one, the hunters are being encircled by the drig. I’ve seen a card like this once before in my life, and that was at the tournament last year, when I was playing that Armadian, Carden. When I checked the roster, he was enrolled in the competition again this year. This didn’t have anything to do with the Dauntless. Baker’s mark was Carden, and I think he wanted to take out the entire city, which would require much more than one team. I think he wanted to distract us by sending us to the Dauntless while an operation took place here. He knew we wouldn’t intentionally take out civilians.”

“Well, he was right about that!” Colt Tyson, codename Texan, sounded off loudly from his position in the stadium where the tournament was taking place. Many people around him turned and stared, so he added, “You can’t add peanut butter to a tuna sandwich. That’s just no good, Laura.” There was no Laura. He just wanted to explain why he might be yelling so fervently into a headset.

“Way to go, Texan,” Mickey said, his Lancashire accent making for a stark contrast to the Texan’s drawl. “You plan on busting this whole thing wide open?” After a few moments of silence, Mickey harrumphed and returned to his observational duties.

The Lieutenant rolled his eyes in his helmet as the exchange took place. The two were always picking at each other, and it was to the point where no one really cared as long as blows weren’t being exchanged, which did happen from time to time. “Anyway, Mickey, could you check the sky? Someone could be planning an aerial attack.”

“Are you serious, boss?” Mickey scoffed. “If that were to happen, there’s no way I’d catch them with binoculars, is there?” Nonetheless, he turned his eyes to the sky, scanning the scores of shuttles over the city, which were used in lieu of a subway or trolley system. “I’m not seeing anything yet, boss, but you’ll be the first to know if I do.”

“Thank you, Mickey,” Larry said as he reached the competitors’ entrance to the stadium. It was perhaps now that he stood out the most, since everyone here knew that he was, in fact, the famous Lieutenant. His was a household name around the planet, but it was only among Kohstr players where even Thorlinthians would turn heads to see him.

“Excuse me,” he said to the registrar, “I’m here to defend my title. Here’s my identification.” He handed the registrar the card he had been given the previous year. She ran it through the machine, nodded, and handed it back.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. We look forward to seeing how you play this year.” The registrar gave a look that made Larry slightly uncomfortable, so he just nodded back and moved into the practice area.


A hand came against the Lieutenant’s shoulder. “How’s it going, Lieutenant?” a familiar voice sounded off. “It’s excellent to see you again. I loved your performance in the games last year, and I’m sure it’ll be a spectacle to behold again.” Grie Khuda’Mundi was dressed in civilian clothes, but there was no mistaking an Osgordian. His green hair and violet eyes stood out from a mile away. How had Larry managed to miss him?

“Is that the Dragon Rider?” Mickey asked, his voice panicked. “What’s he doing here?”

“He’s here to compete,” Larry said into the private channel before switching to public, which enabled the speaker in his helmet. “How’s it going, Grie? I’m glad you decided to enter this year. I heard from the news that you were the Armada’s best player. I’m hoping it’ll actually be a challenge for once.”

“Well, I learned from the best, you know.” Trash talk like this was common in the hours preceding Kohstr competitions, but it wasn’t often people saw two giants such as these go at each other. “Though I’m sure you’ll make for a decent challenge when we play, and I have no doubt we’ll be playing. You’re deck is very nice. I’ve got one just like it. Would you like to have a practice match before the tournament starts up?” Grie pulled his deck from his pocket, the box an exact match for Larry’s own.

“Sure,” Larry replied. “I have a private room, since I won last year. Would you care to have it there?”

“I’d love to.” Grie’s voice had no enthusiasm in it, marked only by a cold, steely tension. The two headed toward the door to the private room reserved for the Lieutenant and guests.

“Boss?” Mickey asked. “Why would you go in there? You know it’s a black room. If you go in there, we won’t be able to hear what’s–” The signal cut off as the door closed.