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Thread: Convergence

  1. #1
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    Convergence

    Part 1 – The End



    Duke Aleithian eased the control stick forward, pitching the deep range explorer ship INV Illumination into a dive, away from the burning blue intensity of the O-class star S171 46. The Duke grimaced. This just isn’t a Clipper, he thought. His Gutamaya Clipper, the INV Paras Ascendant, was even this minute berthed at his estate on Shambhala, its crystalline skin no doubt glistening like white waves in the sunlight. Where the Asp was efficient and utilitarian, the Clipper was elegant and exquisite. The Illumination responded quickly enough, to be sure. But the Paras Ascendant growled with barely restrained power, ready to roar at the twitch of the wrist and leap forward in a primal unleashing of potential.

    The Duke smiled, recalling his last deep range venture. It had been an abortive attempt to reach the Core, misguided in its intent and flawed in its execution. He had ordered the Paras Ascendant stripped down to its frame to extend its range, only to see the weakened ship damaged about 8000 lightyears from the Bubble. He had had much time to think while he and his crew limped back to Paras.

    His reverie was broken by a female voice on the ship’s comms channel.

    “System scan initiated, Commander,” she said.

    “Copy, Lieutenant Commander,” he replied.

    After four days of intense jumping, the INV Illumination had finally reached the NGC 7822 Nebula, their first waypoint on the way to the Formidine Rift. Back when he was trading around Sothis, Aleithian had noticed a red glow in the galactic southwest, a pinprick of ruddy light beckoning like an ancient lighthouse from the Perseus Arm. Aleithian had asked around about it and learned that it was the NGC 7822 Nebula, a great red expanse of gas illuminated by an arc of O-class blue stars running through it. Like a spine, he thought. The nebula was the stuff of legend in the sector around Sothis. It was the object of both fear and excitement among the explorers and wayfarers of the region. In addition to its bright stars and plentiful resources, the nebula housed a series of black holes, variously enticing pilots to skirt the nebula entirely or dive in to “hole surf” – a crazy sport in which the intense gravitational waves of black holes are used to propel ships at incredible speeds. Aleithian shuddered at the thought. He had never seen a black hole, but the thought of the singularity of gravitational might terrified him.

    I must see one.

    The voice came over the comms channel again.

    “Scan complete, Commander. The report shows a number of gas giants and rocky worlds, even some orbiting stars. We’ll be able to set down here for the night and enter the nebula tomorrow.”

    Lieutenant Commander Talena Kai was equal parts coldly efficient and fiercely passionate. Aleithian had recruited her shortly after the war in Paras, during a trade run from Marrallang. In an episode in which her more impassioned nature took charge, Kai had been seized by the Coggia Station garrison for assaulting her commanding officer, one Count Delaine (a man known to then-Baron Aleithian as a fool and a serial political hack), and then opening fire on his combat-rigged Python with her sidearm after he fled inside. Aleithian had investigated the matter and intervened, impressing upon the Count the wisdom of allowing him to deal with Kai’s transgression. Citing the name of Aleithian’s liege lord, then-Prince Elenar, had helped smooth the discussion. And thus, Talena Kai became Lieutenant Commander Talena Kai.

    “Plot a course to the nearest rock planet and take us in, Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “I’ll be inside.”

    I’ve had enough of flying this box for now.

    “Aye sir,” she replied.

    The Duke unclasped his harness and pushed himself out of his seat. Kai, who was seated in the secondary pilot’s cabin directly beneath him, was more than able to complete the landing. Aleithian floated to the cockpit door and compressed the release button. The door slide aside and Aleithian pushed himself into the interior. Though he wore maglock books, he enjoyed the occasional drift through his ships.

    A small command room lay on the other side of the door. Several doors led off on either side to crew compartments, nothing more than holes with bunks really. Another reason to miss the Paras Ascendant. A low room divide separated the command space from the mess hall and kitchen further back in the ship. Steps led down on the right to the lower deck. Three members of his crew sat at holofac consoles collating the system data or monitoring the ship’s functions as it made its approach for landing. A holoimage of the system crowned the room.

    No black holes.

    “Shep, what’s this planet we’re going to look like?”

    The nav officer, an older man who the Duke had recently hired on Shambhala, isolated the planet on the system display. “Small world, about .1 Earths. High gravity though. The system’s still computing the data, but it looks to be in the 3G range, Commander.”

    Aleithian groaned. “There isn’t a lower-G planet in the system?”

    “Sorry Commander, this is the lowest reading in the system.”

    I guess I’ll have to dea…

    There was a crash. Aleithian was thrown across the command room. He struck a wall hard and rebounded. He flailed, trying to grab a handhold on something, anything. The holofacs and ceiling lights flickered and shut down, plunging the room into darkness. Aleithian’s head struck something solid. Instantly he felt pressure in his head, and pain. His vision blurred and bright lights danced before his eyes, the HUD within his visor dimming as he felt the creep of unconsciousness. His back struck something and his hand somehow found a grip, stopping him. There was another crash. This time he heard the sound, faintly, beyond the pressure in his head.

    “Kai, what the hell’s going on!” he yelled over the sound of metal tearing, pushing through the enclosing pain.

    Kai’s voice came over the comms channel, broken and distorted amid the damage. “Someth….Lig….N….de….Canopy brea….Ca.…t….ld…G….ng….dow…”

    “Dammit, hold on! I’m coming forward!” he shouted back.

    Aleithian wrenched himself up, trying not to overbalance. His head rang from the crash and he could still feel the pressure behind his eyes, but his helmet and flight suit had absorbed most of the shock. He locked his boots to the swaying deck. The inertial dampeners must have been damaged: he could feel a slight G-force.

    “Shep! Get some lights on!”

    There was no response.

    Dammit!

    Aleithian blink-activated his helmet’s lights. Only one activated, casting the room in a white glow. He looked around, trying to determine where his crew were. Shep was leaning back in his chair, his head floating limply, rocking with the ship. His suit’s visor was smashed and his face was a bloody pulp. Gobbets of blood floated in a macabre dance above his head. The other two command crew were quiet, but Aleithian couldn’t see any obvious signs of injury. Who knew what state the slaves below would be in.

    Stepping gingerly, Aleithian moved as quickly as he dared down the steps to the lower deck. Fighting the ship’s motion, he made it across the rec room to the secondary pilot’s cockpit and opened the door.

    Lights.

    A mass of flickering lights of all colors flashed by outside the canopy. They glittered like little twinkling lamps set in a pattern, burning an intense contrail on his retinas. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. The lights disappeared.

    Then the reality of their situation struck.

    The planet was approaching fast. Kai held her flight stick with both hands, fighting to hold the ship steady and angle it away from the atmosphere, her whole body shaking as the Illumination rocked back and forth in the upper atmosphere. By the looks of things, she wasn’t having much luck.

    “Kai! What’s our situation?” he yelled.

    “I can’t control it! We’ve lost lateral thrusters and one of the primaries burned out. Your canopy’s blown and there’s damage to the dorsal vents. Systems are wrecked. Go back in and strap down!”

    He wanted to shout at her to come inside too, but he knew he couldn’t. Someone had to try to steer the ship, and if she opened her harness she’d be thrown from the seat. The ship lurched to the left as a lateral thruster activated briefly. Aleithian held onto the railing and felt something in his arm pop under the force of the blast.

    I have to go inside.

    Aleithian stepped back into the ship and sealed the cockpit. He pulled down a seat beside the door and strapped himself in. He compressed two buttons on the harness to release the impact absorption gel. There was a puff of cold air on either side of the seat and the gel-like semi-organic substance flowed around his body. Its various strata hardened to various degrees and secured him in place. Chemicals within the gel interacted with his flight suit, which acknowledged their presence and perforated to let them seep inside. Aleithian shivered briefly before the chemicals absorbed through his skin and entered his blood stream. Instantly his body relaxed and went limp, prepared for the coming impact. He could only hope the ship’s core was still operational and had responded to the emergency by sealing the rest of the occupants…assuming they’d all made it to chairs.

    The ship’s shaking intensified. Aleithian closed his eyes tightly, trying to blot out the pain in his head. He felt moisture around his eyes. Tears.

    Please…Not yet.

    Then everything went black.
    Last edited by Aleithian; 10-14-2017 at 20:06.
    These are the stories of searchers and dreamers, makers and tellers...

  2. #2
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    Part 2 – Twilight of Purpose



    Aleithian opened his eyes.

    Everything was dark. A beeping pounded in his ears incessantly, getting stronger and more painful with each new thump. As he awoke, Aleithian’s flight suit detected his return to consciousness and booted up the HUD display in his helmet. Data poured forth and blinked on the display. Aleithian squeezed his eyes shut to avoid the cacophony of information and flashing light.

    The beeping persisted, undaunted by his closed eyes, demanding attention. Aleithian reopened his eyes, slowly, almost groggily, and began to process the information scrolling by on the HUD. Red block letters flashed in the center of the display in sync with the beeping: OXYGEN LOW. His heart began to beat faster. He had to move, had to fight.

    I’m alive.

    The Duke tried to move. He was secured in place. Instinctively, he tried to tug and struggle against his bonds. Still plunged in darkness, he couldn’t see what restrained him. Then he remembered. The crash…the gel!

    Kai!

    He looked to the bottom right of his HUD and blink-clicked the gel-release trigger. The substance slid back and retracted into a series of pouches within the seat. Aleithian rotated his head, cracking his stiff neck and trying to stretch out his joints. He blink-clicked to the medical data analysis in his HUD and was happy to see that he had sustained no injuries in the crash. He sighed, releasing some of his tension.

    Releasing the clasps fixing the safety harness in place, Aleithian carefully stood up and steadied himself. The floor was at a slight gradient – to be expected after a crash. He looked around to take in the room, but the lights were still off. He blink-clicked his helmet lights. One flickered to life. The rec room was devastated. Furniture was cast around in heaps and some panels were hanging from the ceiling. He couldn’t see any of the slaves.

    The beeping still demanded his attention. Aleithian turned slowly to a panel on the wall and tapped it on. Thankfully, there still seemed to be power in the system. The plant is still active. Thank you Kai! He quickly tapped a series of buttons. Hull integrity: 34%. Major systems: drives offline, shields offline, weapons offline, cargo bay doors offline… He checked the oxygen levels within the ship: 0%. He frantically accessed the life support subsystem and rebooted it. There was a squealing hiss as the interior atmosphere was vented and fresh oxygen poured in. The HUD display in his helmet flashed a comforting green: OXYGEN REPLENISHED. Aleithian breathed deeply and sighed. That’s that dealt with. Now to find Kai.

    The likelihood that Kai was alive was slim. But he refused to acknowledge that. The fierce pilot had become one of his closest friends. She had to be alive. Aleithian turned from the panel and fought his own weight to get to the cockpit door. At 3gs, he felt closer to 600 pounds than 200. Each step was a challenge. He felt his muscles straining to move him. The floor inclined up toward the door due to the crash, so he was effectively pulling himself toward Kai, bracing himself with a railing on the wall. He tapped a button on the door’s control panel to activate the field to preserve the ship’s atmosphere: he couldn’t count on the canopy surviving the crash. Then he opened the door.

    The canopy was indeed shattered. The cockpit pointed toward the sky at about 30 degrees. The planet lacked an atmosphere so he could clearly see the stars – it was night, and the Perseus Arm shone crisply in the black sky. He wrenched himself forward into the cockpit and found Kai encased in gel, apparently unconscious. Hurriedly, Aleithian tapped a series of buttons on the chair’s control panel and the gel released. He rushed forward to look into her helmet, checking for any signs of breathing.

    She’s alive!

    Struggling the whole way, Aleithian managed to drag Kai into the ship and close the door. He deactivated the atmospheric field – they needed to preserve power. He laid Kai on the floor and logged into her flight suit computer. Vitals looked good, oxygen had replenished. Somehow, she’s landed the ship and activated her gel. He owed her his life. Pausing to let his heart beat slow, Aleithian looked around at remnants of the Illumination’s interior.

    Time to check on the rest.

    * * * * *

    Kai awoke a few hours later. A patina of foggy pain clouded her mind as she rose tenderly and took in the interior of the ship.

    So I survived, she thought.

    The rec room, in which she was now sitting, looked very different. The landing had been hard and the damage looked severe. A few lights were active and lit the space with a slightly wavering luminescent glow. Furniture was set around the room very differently than it had been before the crash. Kai heard a rustling from above, from the command room. Cursing the pain in her body, she rose by leveraging herself up with a railing and the arm of a couch, an electric jolt racing down her spine and into her right leg the cost. She limped carefully to the steps rising to the second floor, straining against the heavy gravity.

    At the top of the steps, Kai took in a scene of chaos. The command room was essentially destroyed, the consoles burned out and much of the paneling torn from the walls, leaving electronics bare to the touch. She heard noise on her right. Looking, she saw Commander Aleithian working with Bill and Coran, two of the nav officers, to fix up the mess room, their helmets set on a counter. Her heart leapt.

    I’m not alone!

    The Duke heard her rustling toward them and he shuffled as swiftly as he could toward her in the oppressive gravity. He grabbed Kai’s arm and helped her to a chair in the mess hall. She tore off her helmet and breathed, brushing back her long brown hair and smiling painfully at Bill and Coran, who smiled back and helped Aleithian get her comfortable.

    “How are you doing?” the Duke asked.

    Kai looked at the three of them, wincing under the effort of sitting down. “Better than I thought I’d be doing. Are we the only ones who made it?”

    “Yes,” he said, exchanging a look with the other two men. “Shep died in the initial incident and Andrea, Dana, and Kim all died sometime between that and the crash.”

    Dammit! she screamed in her head.

    Kai closed her eyes and teared up. Slavery in the Empire riled Kai, particularly given the treatment she had seen some slaves receive. But the three girls had been her friends, and the Duke treated his slaves like members of his family, legal status notwithstanding. Shep had been new to the crew and to the Duke’s estate, like her, and they had bonded quickly. He had become almost like a grandfather to her.

    Aleithian motioned for Bill and Coran to step back and give them some space. The pair busied themselves arranging the detritus cast around the mess hall into piles, so they could measure their supplies.

    “Kai, none of us would be alive if you hadn’t landed us. You saved us all.”

    “Goddammit I know, and I’m glad I could do it. But why did they have to die?” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I just wish this hadn’t happened.”

    Aleithian sighed. “I know. So do I.” He looked down, unsure what to say next.

    Kai wiped away her tears. I’ll remember them. She coughed and looked at Aleithian.

    “What condition are we in, Commander?”

    He sat on the floor beside her, looking around the room. “Well, none of us are injured. You were beaten up the most by the crash, but nothing serious according to your computer. The ship’s a wreck, so we have to hope someone detects our beacon. We have life support and a few other systems, but not much. And the SRVs are functional but currently jammed in the bay. We were gathering supplies when you came upstairs.”

    Kai watched Bill and Coran sorting packs of food and water for a second, then looked back at the Duke. “Well, you wanted something new and exciting, Commander. How’s this?”

    Aleithian looked around the wreckage of the flight deck and sighed. “Not quite what I had in mind.” He paused for a moment then looked back at Kai. “Honestly, I wanted something more. Not just breaking old habits and getting away from the Bubble. I was hoping to find something.”

    “What?” asked Kai, puzzled.

    “Myself.”

    * * * * *

    Two weeks before the crash, Aleithian sat within his study, looking out over Photian Bay in the last heavy pastels of twilight. His estate encompassed several hundred square miles of coastal land in Shambhala’s northern hemisphere, including the entirety of the Photian Bay and extending out into the sea and several island chains. The estate was largely unspoiled subtropical land and was centered on a town composed mostly of white limestone buildings wrapped around the bay, rising up to the Duke’s spacious palatial gardens. Atop the palace, a gold-topped tower of crystalline white stone housed his personal quarters and his study, a sprawling library overlooking the bay, the town, and the open plains and forests to the east.

    Sitting in his chair, taking in the encroaching darkness, Aleithian reflected on his rise to power. He had been raised by former Imperial citizens in the Federation but had grown dissatisfied with life as the Federation shaped it. His pedigree, his abilities, his vision of human possibility – these could only be recognized, praised, and given scope within the borders of the Empire. His future had been clear: he traded for awhile in Federation space, acquired a Cobra, and left. That had been three years ago. It seemed like a lifetime had gone by since then. During the intervening time, he had risen from obscurity to a Dukedom, now one of the most powerful citizens in Shambhala. He had a fleet spread across this system and those of his liege lord, King Elenar, in Paras, Kartamayana, and Liu Di. He had fought for the Emperor and invested millions in the defense of his lord’s estate and Her Highness Arissa’s domain. He had returned to the Federation only twice: once on a pilgrimage to Sol en route to the Core, and once in a covert operation to seize a naval corvette, which was now resting in Wilson Orbital in Paras, renamed the INV Achenar Rising.

    These and more have been my achievements, he mused poetically. But still I sit looking out a window at the sky, like I did as a boy.

    A faint noise broke this train of thought. Someone was approaching from the entrance of his study. He rested his head back and closed his eyes serenely. He amused himself for a moment trying to determine who was approaching. A light soft step. A woman wearing comfortable footwear. A quick and steady step. Not Kai – her stride is long. Not Vanya – she skips and runs. He smiled.

    Anri.

    He allowed his consort to approach in mutual silence. As she got closer he noted the faint wispy brushing of a wrap or skirt on the marble floor. Finally, Anri stood beside his chair. She was a short woman with long jet black hair, falling at the moment in a cascade over a white diaphanous garment wrapped loosely around her body. Where Vanya was abrupt, fast, effervescent, and without rule, Anri was steady, calm, serene, and measured. The woman stood quietly and observed the fading twilight with Aleithian for a moment, before turning her black eyes on him.

    “Quietude and withdrawal, my Duke? What troubles you?” she asked.

    How well you understand me, Anri.

    “Nothing as such,” he responded gently. “Something is lacking.”

    Anri paused before answering. She and Aleithian shared a vocabulary, a way of capturing experience – a rare pairing, particularly for a slave and a master.

    “Your wealth, your position, your consort aren’t enough, my Duke?” she asked, knowing he meant something deeper, but needing to begin the search with something tangible.

    “Life is more than these things, Anri.” I know what you’re doing, my sweet. “There’s a drive that I haven’t unleashed yet – haven’t known how to unleash.”

    How quickly he gets to the core of the issue today! I must move as fast. “My Duke, you have achieved much and have much to be happy in. But your soul stretches beyond these things.”

    Aleithian smiled. He paused before responding, watching as the last of the pastel purple-blue faded into a sharp blue-black, punctuated by the harsh electric glow of the town’s lights. She understands that these twilight reveries are a way of stretching beyond. But she is right – they are not enough.

    “Anri, I need to leave here. I need to see what the galaxy offers. I need to travel beyond the Frontier.”

    He needs to find something. This is not new – he has always sought. Why does this feel different now? “What has brought this on, my Duke. This drive has always been with you.”

    Aleithian’s voice caught in his throat. He knew the reason, but speaking it was not easy. Much had happened since then. Kai, Tun, the trip to Sol and toward the Core, his Dukedom. Yet it stood like a leaning, leering face, always behind or at the side, always seeing what he did, always there.

    “The war.”

    Anri paused. The war!

    “The war. The aftermath,” he said. “It is always there. But more than the war – what the war revealed, what it brought out. Alone it was bad enough. But it tore off a cover that had been laying over me since I left the Federation. I saw the truth of things: of me, of this,” he said, drawing his arm around, gesturing out to his estate. “It is merciless. It is always there, always seeing, always knowing.

    Anri remained silent, watching the lights twinkle in the town, waiting for him to complete his thought. A fear gripped her heart, rising into her throat. The war. He has not been the same since.

    “It reveals the truth, Anri. It is me. It is a part of me, the scarred part that lives without the possibility of pretense or peace, which tears through the comfort of my achievements.”

    “What does it reveal, under the cover,” she asked, afraid to hear his answer.

    “That I don't know myself as well as I thought. That I need to find myself.”

    Anri nodded, a tear falling from her face. She had wisdom enough to understand the magnitude of what he was saying, and foresight enough to know what was coming. What had to come.

    “Do you know what Shambhala means?” Aleithian asked, his eyes staring out of the window but looking like they were staring into the Core itself.

    “No.”

    “It was a kingdom, a pure land, a place where only those who saw reality as it was could enter. Many sought it as their salvation and as a place of healing.” He looked at Anri, her black eyes glistening and aware. “But imagine a place of absolute truth, of absolute reality, where you could no longer hide from yourself and could no longer take satisfaction and comfort in your current life. What can be more frightening than understanding yourself, fully and without escape?”

    Anri looked down.

    “I must go,” the Duke said. I am sorry, my sweet. “Shambhala has lived up to its name. Anri, please have Kai come here.”

    “Yes, my Duke.”

    Anri turned and walked to a desk. She turned on an intercom and asked for Kai to be sent to the Duke’s study. She then returned in silence to Aleithian’s side. Both silently watched the bay and the twinkling lights.

    After a few minutes, Lieutenant Commander Kai arrived in the study. She walked swiftly and smartly to the Duke’s side, her boots clicking heavily on the marble.

    “Commander, you asked for me,” she said, saluting.

    Aleithian stood. He turned to Kai and saluted in return. “Lieutenant Commander. Talena. Please acquire an Asp Explorer and fit her for long range exploration. She is to be named INV Illumination and made ready within the week. Ensure that Shep, Bill, and Coran are comfortable flying her, and take her around the system a few times yourself to get the feel for her.”

    Kai looked at Anri, who turned away and looked once more out of the wide windows. Something is out of place. “Yes Commander. May I ask why?”

    Aleithian smiled. “It’s time to break old habits. Trading, the Bubble – it’s time to see something new. We’re heading to Formidine.”

    Kai gasped. Formidine! What would possess him to go that far? And to such a dangerous place! She glanced back toward Anri, but the consort refused to turn from the window.

    “Formidine, Commander?” she asked hesitatingly.

    “Yes, Talena. Formidine. There’s a mystery there and I’d like to take a shot at it.”

    Kai saluted. “Yes sir. The ship will be ready.”

    “Thank you Lieutenant Commander. You’re dismissed.”

    Kai turned smartly and left. Aleithian watched her go. Long strides. He smiled. When she was gone, he turned back to Anri.

    “I will be back,” he said.

    Anri turned, fresh tears in her eyes.

    “You can’t promise that, my Duke. We both understand why you are leaving, what you are seeking. Who can say what you will find?”

    She’s right. I may never see this place again. May never see any of them again.

    “I must go,” he said.

    Anri nodded tearfully, shaking. “I know.”

    She fell forward into his waiting arms.

    * * * * *

    Kai turned away from Aleithian, processing what he had told her.

    “I think I understand.” She paused, considering what to say next. “We need to try to retrofit the ship with the parts from the damaged systems. We should have supplies for months. Power and parts are the problem.”

    Aleithian nodded. Now we just need to survive.
    Last edited by Aleithian; 03-28-2017 at 22:37.
    These are the stories of searchers and dreamers, makers and tellers...

  3. #3
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    Part 3 – A Light in the Darkness



    Three weeks had passed since the crash.

    They had been grueling. Though the power core was intact and enough supplies had survived the crash to last for several months, the futility of their situation coupled with the excessive gravity had worn the survivors down.

    Worse than their predicament and limited supplies, after they had made their initial assessment of the situation, the crew had decided that Andrea, Dana, Kim, and Shep’s bodies needed to be buried – which meant leaving the ship. The planet outside was no more than cold rock and space dust. They had dragged the four bodies outside – a difficult task in the heavy gravity – and buried them as best they could, marking the graves with their names and other such details as seemed appropriate using small lasers designed for cutting rock samples. Kai had been inconsolable throughout the procedure. The depth of Kai’s grief had shocked Aleithian: she was a passionate woman, but rarely showed any sign of grief or suffering in the time he’d known her.

    Aleithian had taken to sitting alone among the ruins of the nav consoles. Bill and Coran played cards in the rec room under the low half-light of the remaining halogens. Kai spent much of her time outside near the graves of her friends. The interminable creep of hopelessness clawed their hearts, approaching the strangulating tightness of panic. The nebula was not unknown among spacefarers, but trips this far were rare and those who ventured out this way typically bypassed the exterior systems and traveled straight through to the more interesting core.

    Though Aleithian spent most of his time alone, his thoughts were busy with people and places he had been, and with recrimination.

    We are here because I wasn’t content with peace, safety, abundance, and limitless possibility.

    He frequently clenched his fists and ground his teeth, shutting his eyes tight against the pain of their approaching death and the pointlessness of their being here. The moment of the crash came to him often in these moments of quiet.

    Please…not yet.

    The expectation of rescue of was nonexistent. Each had to accept, in their own way, their approaching death. Bill and Coran seemed to be weathering it reasonably well, at least for the moment. They did what they could – enjoyed their life as they could, while it remained. Kai was stoic. At first she had calculated, planned, arranged. With Bill and Coran, she had organized their survival. But, since the burial, passion had replaced logic, then melancholy had replaced passion, and now she seemed devoid of any emotion at all.

    What drew me out here?

    I had no goal, no purpose. I had the opposite.

    Whim! Reaction!


    Aleithian frequently sat watched the pulsing light marking the transmissions of the emergency beacon. The small red dot, alternating on and off, served to focus his mind and burn away the guilt and shame.

    Whim! Reaction!

    In the emptiness of the pulsing dot, he felt himself shedding layers of rationalization and ideology. All that remained when he looked at the dot was the simple act of awareness. An empty mind. Silence. He had heard about such clarity, read about it, even practiced peaceful emptiness with Anri at the height of his palace. But only now, after weeks of sitting in silence, fighting his own pain and facing his death, staring into the redness of the dot, did he feel like he could just let it all go and simply see.

    Whim! Reaction!

    This has been my life. From the Federation to the Empire. From a trader to a client lord. From a liege lord to this rock.

    Always whim. Always reaction. Never control. Never purpose.


    He had heard of a group that lived on the far side of the Empire, several hundred lightyears from Shambhala and Paras – a group of witches if the rumors of mindless citizens and slaves were to be believed. They tended to the education of the children of certain Senators and noble families, teaching them the ways of control and purpose. Certainly not without self-interest, he thought. He had met one of their students once, a baroness from one of the slaveless Imperial systems. He had not doubted the possibilities deriving from their teaching after that.

    Aleithian was sitting now in front of the red dot, three weeks after the crash, watching its repetitive on-off cycle. He heard a click as the airlock engaged below. After a minute, there was another click and the door noisily opened. There was a shout from downstairs. After another moment he heard heavy steps plodding up the stairs. Kai appeared, her eyes wild and hair in disarray.

    “There’s ships!”

    Aleithian blinked. “What?”

    “There’s three ships flying toward us!” She gestured furiously to the northeast.

    Aleithian reacted and rose swiftly, everything instantly clear. “Tell Bill and Coran to get their suits on. Start a scan, find out who they are. Arm yourself – we don’t know who they are yet. Why didn’t the scanner pick them up?”

    Kai acknowledged his orders and shouted them down to the first floor, then began typing into a console. “The passive scanner must have been damaged. The system didn’t detect them. Active scan initiated.” She looked at the Duke as he rushed over to the console, his flight suit half pulled on. “Scan shows a Python and two Asps, in formation. They’re definitely coming this way.” She paused and frowned. “The system can’t identify them.”

    “Their tags aren’t in the registry?”

    “No,” she said, shaking her head. “They don’t have any tags. I’m not picking up transponder signals either – that’s why the passive missed them.”

    “No tags and no transponders? Who the hell are they? Even pirates fly with transponders.”

    Aleithian hobbled downstairs, fighting his own weight, and grabbed a gun from Bill’s outstretched hand. He sealed the cockpit doors then they formed a line in the rec room facing the airlock on the starboard wall. Kai followed him down. Aleithian looked at each of them. “No one fires until I give the order or they shoot first.”

    They waited.

    After about 15 minutes, a light blinked beside the airlock. They activated the external door. There was a beep and, after another minute, the airlock door opened.

    Men rushed in, weapons leveled. Aleithian and his crew raised their own guns and stepped back. More men poured in until eight were formed up in the room, silently, weapons ready. One of them began accessing the ship’s computer through a console on a wall.

    The men were dressed in gear unlike Aleithian had ever seen on a ship’s crew. They wore flight suits, but unlike the standard tight-fitted padded material, or the various kinds of military suits, theirs were loose and a shimmering black, more reminiscent of a kaftan than flight gear. Unlike the standard visors, their headpieces almost resembled skulls – sharp lines and small sunken eyepieces.

    The men were silent, simply keeping their weapons trained on the crew. There was another beep and a hiss, and the airlock opened again. Another man stepped out. Like the others, he wore the strange flight suit, but unlike them he also wore a heavy overcoat. He was tall, and precise in his steps, seeming at once slow and measured as he entered the room. He looked around carefully, methodically, identifying the room’s condition and points of interest. He said nothing to the other men, who kept their weapons up. He paused calmly among the armed men, clearly a person of authority.

    Seemingly satisfied with the room, the man turned to face Aleithian, apparently having concluded that he was the Commander. He ignored the others, staring fixatedly at the Duke, his visor betraying nothing of his underlying expression.

    Kai gestured furiously toward the man. Her voice simmered with outrage and shattered hope. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” she yelled.

    The armed men remained still. Their leader turned his head slowly toward Kai, who didn’t repeat her demand. The man had heard her – it was his turn. He raised his hands and unclipped his headpiece, which he carefully removed and handed to his nearest subordinate.

    He appeared middle-aged. His face was square and deeply lined with weathering. A man accustomed to a harsh planet, Aleithian thought. His mouth was tightly closed. His eyes, however, spoke for him. They were deep and penetrating, aged yet driven by a powerful intensity. They remained fixated on Kai. The Lieutenant Commander held his stare, her own eyes challenging him vainly. The man held her gaze but did so without reaction – he merely examined her as a bored child would examine an exhibit in a museum.

    I have never seen such eyes!

    Aleithian gestured for Kai to relent. “Kai, hold on. Let them talk,” he said.

    They entered – they will speak.

    The man turned his uncompromising eyes from Kai to Aleithian. He held the Duke’s gaze now, but this time not without interest. He is not afraid and he isn’t resisting, the man thought. He is curious – even now! He watched Aleithian for a moment more, then spoke.

    “I am Cepheus. These are some of my crew. We detected your emergency beacon.” His voice was slow and measured, like his walk, a deep voice with an accent Aleithian couldn’t place. It was certainly not Imperial. Perhaps from one of the Alliance worlds: there was a hint of a dialect that suggested those regions.

    Aleithian didn’t respond. He could feel Kai burning to challenge the man again, but knew she would respect his command to step back. Aleithian kept his eyes firmly on Cepheus. They don’t know who we are and they held back who they are. Can I risk revealing my identity?

    Aleithian said nothing. Cepheus spoke again. “You have nothing to say?”

    “What is there to say, Cepheus? You’re armed and you outnumber us – you’re in charge here. You are hesitating. Why?”

    A curious man indeed! Cepheus thought. He sees this situation for what it is.

    “Indeed, you are correct,” said Cepheus. “I was waiting for you to speak in order to determine what lies behind your hope of rescue.” He looked at the four survivors. “Are you pirates? Looters? Thrill-seekers? Madmen pursuing dreams in the dark? I don’t know.” He paused, then spoke again. “Let me begin again. I am Cepheus. These are some of my men. We, and those of us who are not now present on this moon, are the Children of Raxxla.”

    The Children! That Senator – Kahina. Salomé!

    “Perhaps you have heard of us?” Cepheus mused. “We are here patrolling the edge of the Rift – a dangerous place for anyone, let alone a single Asp shining in Imperial white without escort or assistance.” His eyes fixated on Aleithian again. “Now, I believe, it is your turn.”

    Aleithian took a moment, considering Cepheus’ words. The Children. Raxxla. The Rift. Patrol. So many possible questions. The man spoke with a gravity Aleithian had rarely encountered, his words balanced but effortless.

    Aleithian looked at Kai, then back to Cepheus. He lowered his weapon.

    “Cepheus, I am Duke Aleithian, client of King Elenar of Paras,” he said, removing his headpiece. “This,” he said, pointing to Kai, “is Lieutenant Commander Talena Kai. And these are Officers William Clynn and Coran Abed.”

    Cepheus glanced over the crew and inclined his head slightly. They followed their Duke’s lead and lowered their weapons, removing their own headpieces. Aleithian resumed. “We are here exploring. We were making for the Rift when we encountered an unusual light phenomenon and crashed here. We have been here for three weeks. We lost some of our crew.” He paused again, noting how Kai’s throat had tensed at the mention of their dead. “I would like to request rescue and return to the Empire.”

    Cepheus returned his gaze to Aleithian. “What light phenomenon was this?” he asked, ignoring the request.

    “We don’t know. A series of lights, of various colors, in what looked to be a three-dimensional arrangement. They seemed to describe a shape, maybe seven or eight sides. I only saw it for a moment, but Kai’s description concurs with mine.” Aleithian looked over to Kai, who nodded her head in acknowledgement of his description.

    Cepheus nodded gravely. “I find it interesting that a prominent member of the Empire – a Duke no less – would be out here alone simply to explore.” He is hiding something, Cepheus thought. His true purpose.

    “That is, nevertheless, why we are here. I wished to see the Rift for myself,” Aleithian replied.

    “Indeed,” said Cepheus. “As you say.” He is driven by something more than curiosity. He doesn’t have the supplies for a settlement, so he isn’t fleeing a person or power. Perhaps he was fleeing something else. I see something in him – he wants something. Perhaps…Yes, I must try.

    Cepheus spoke again. “Duke, the Children will give you rescue. We will shortly be returning to the Bubble – our patrol is complete. We will bring you and your crew with us. Your ship, I fear, will not fly again.”

    Aleithian breathed and released a tension he didn’t know was there, his head feeling suddenly light. “Thank you, Cepheus. You can set us down anywhere in the Empire – we can make our own way back to Shambhala from there.”

    Cepheus smiled, his deep eyes twinkling for the first time. “Oh, I’m afraid we won’t be going to the Empire, Duke.”
    Last edited by Aleithian; 03-28-2017 at 22:26.
    These are the stories of searchers and dreamers, makers and tellers...

  4. #4
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    Part 4 – The Beginning



    “Please have a seat,” said Cepheus.

    Aleithian pulled the light metal chair out from under the desk. He sat. He ran his calloused hands over the surface of the metal table, feeling its cool hardness, almost tasting the aluminium as he did so.

    Cepheus remained standing on the other side of the table. The room was coated entirely in metal, with one door opening to a corridor on the far side of the room, ahead of Aleithian on the left, no electronic devices visible other than broad halogen lights in the ceiling. Cepheus was silent, waiting calmly.

    “Why am I here, Cepheus?” asked Aleithian, ire crackling like lightning on the edge of the question.

    Cepheus examined the Duke’s face for a moment. His eyes were clear, but softer than normal.

    Was I wrong, he thought.

    “Duke – Aleithian – I have come to know you, to a degree, during our transit here,” he said, slowly and without emphasis. “I see signs in you, portents of greatness beyond the scope of your current employment. I saw these signs, these portents, within you on the Illumination. Human greatness is rare, but when it exists it is a beacon outshining any star, awaiting only the sight of one watching for its aurora.”

    “And you see such greatness in me?” pressed Aleithian, unimpressed by Cepheus’ poetry.

    Cepheus nodded. “The Children are, among other things, watchers. We have each been reborn through a baptism of convergence – the convergence of such an inner light and, shall we say, opportunity.”

    “And this is my opportunity?”

    “Yes. I see the light in your eyes – what is to be offered to you is possibility.”

    He speaks of possibility. What do these Children want?

    “What is the nature of this possibility?” asked Aleithian, leaning over the desk and clasping his hands together.

    “Freedom.”

    He would buy me with platitudes?

    “Freedom?” asked Aleithian, laughing. “What freedom can this band offer me? What freedom can I find in this anarchy on the edge of Federation and Alliance space? Neither are free, nor have they ever been. What freedom does your budding democracy offer me, Cepheus? The freedom of taxation and the subordination of myself and my wealth to your majority? Only the Empire is free. There, each is free to live as he chooses, wherever and on whatever terms. They are free to pursue the life they are capable of achieving, whether material or spiritual, without interference or impediment. We lords may rule the Empire, but we and our people are free.”

    “There is another freedom, Duke.”

    Aleithian’s response was interrupted by the opening of the door. A woman stepped lightly into the room and closed the door. Her head was concealed with a dark red cowl drawn tightly around her features. She turned to Cepheus who bowed his head and stepped aside so that she could sit in the seat opposite Aleithian.

    The woman drew back her cowl and looked at Aleithian. Immediately she seemed out of place here, surrounded by the fabrications of industry. The woman was smiling. Her features were sharp, her nose a touch short and her lips open and suggestive of a slight underbite. Her skin was clear and tanned, naturally so with an olive tint. Her vibrant eyes shone in the artificial gleam of the overhead lights, a deep black-brown that glistened with life. Her hair was long and matt black, curly and falling around her face. She was thin, but not overly so – obviously strong.

    Such a woman should only exist in myth!

    The woman spoke. Her voice was accented, clearly marking this as her second language, her first aspirated with marks of gutturals. “Duke Aleithian, First Lord Emell of Shambhala. I am Gal.” She inclined her head slightly, still smiling.

    Aleithian returned the nod of respect. “Gal, a pleasure to meet you. I am Aleithian Emell, as you say.” He paused to allow her to speak, but she remained silent. “Where are my crew?” he asked.

    Gal watched him without answering.

    She is examining me.

    Aleithian continued to look at her, holding her gaze, not repeating his question. Her eyes were a lattice of crystalline intensity. His perception narrowed to encompass just her eyes. The room disappeared from his sight in a peripheral darkness which was punctuated only by her. He felt a warmth in his cheeks as they held each other’s gaze. His lower lip quivered momentarily and he felt his eyes glazing. His heartrate increased.

    She sees me!

    Gal broke contact. “Your crew are safe, but elsewhere. Rest assured, Duke, we intend them and you no harm. Quite the opposite.”

    Aleithian shook his mind clear. He unclasped his hands and leaned back in his chair. “Cepheus spoke of opportunity. I assume you are here to offer it to me.”

    Gal nodded. “Indeed I am, Duke. Do you know who we are?”

    “Yes. You are the Children of Raxxla.”

    Her smile widened. “Correct. And do you know our purpose?”

    “No,” he replied.

    “Good. Few do, and we prefer that it remain that way.” She hesitated a moment, then continued. “I believe I can speak clearly with you, Duke. And Cepheus speaks highly of you. I trust his judgment. The Children are a movement, we might say. We are not an organization, a hierarchy, or a faction. We are an omen of the potential of the human race. We are also, and more particularly, followers…followers of Salomé and of her dream.”

    “Indeed,” said Aleithian. “Tell me, Gal. Which is first for you: Salomé or her dream?”

    “Neither. Salomé and her dream are one. They are made possible by something more fundamental, and that is already in you. Salomé and her dream are the opportunity you are being offered.”

    “They are this freedom that Cepheus mentioned?”

    “Yes,” replied Gal.

    “Freedom for what?” asked Aleithian.

    Gal leaned forward. “For redemption, Duke.”

    Aleithian was silent. His heartrate increased again. She is serious, he thought. His voice caught in his throat. Unprompted, he again remembered the moment of his crash.

    Please…not yet.

    Why not yet?
    he thought. What is left?

    He remembered his words to Anri before he departed Shambhala. Something is lacking. He had gone to the Rift on a whim, seeking purpose and meaning. I was wrong to leave as I did – but my reason for leaving was true. Something is lacking.

    I don’t know myself as well as I thought. I need to find myself.


    I wanted a second chance. That’s why I left.

    A second chance for what?

    To correct my mistakes.

    Why?

    To redeem myself.


    For whom?

    For myself!


    “Gal,” Aleithian said, his voice serious. “What do the Children seek?”

    She smiled. “Truth. Answers. Ourselves. We seek whatever there is to seek.”

    “I can seek answers where I am. What do you – what does Salomé – offer that I don’t already have?”

    “You seek answers to questions, Duke. We seek the questions behind the questions, and thus the answers behind the answers. Such questions cannot be asked or answered amid the trappings of politics and power.”

    “You promise something other than politics?”

    “I have heard of how you conduct yourself on Shambhala, Duke. Your life resembles that of a monk, not a Duke. You see the truth of politics and politicians.”

    “You seem very sure of that,” he replied.

    “I am. You betray yourself, Duke. Your eyes. Your speech. The self-awareness that flows like an undercurrent beneath your every choice and inflection. You are an open book, awaiting only a reader.” Her eyes held him, demanding he deny the truth of what she had said.

    “And you are that reader?” he threw back, trying to deflect her.

    “Yes.”

    Aleithian paused before responding. An anger rose in him. It burned and grew upon itself in his chest and throat. The sorrow and withdrawal that had dominated for so long fell into its coruscating intensity and were burned up.

    “I’ll tell you what I’ve seen of politics. I’ve seen a war, unjustly initiated and waged across systems. I fought in this war. Intently, and at great cost. I saw friends die. I saw civilians die. And then it ended.”

    “A desirable conclusion, surely?”

    “Yes, better than more death. But then I saw the aftermath. The jostling for power in the new world. The reconstruction contracts. The favors and gifts. How quickly the deaths were forgotten. But more than that, I saw the leaders of both sides…I saw the betrayal of the dead and the exploitation of those who survived them.” He stopped, his hands once again running over the hard metallic surface of the table, an anchor to reality amid the storm of emotion. “I left. I traveled far, lost myself in wealth and the stars. A mix of power and excitement.” He stood, throwing back the light chair and punching the table. “I don’t need you and your religion to seek redemption!” he yelled. “I can redeem myself where I am!”

    Gal remained seated, her eyes holding him.

    “Then why haven’t you?”

    Aleithian’s voice caught. I don’t know what to say.

    Gal stood. Her deep red robe parted, its winey hue revealing a milky white dress beneath. She leaned over the table, still staring deep into his eyes. “You lack fellowship, Duke. You lack fellow sufferers. You lack the opportunity for redemption because you are still trapped by the demands and necessities of your current life. You lack true freedom, a freedom gained only in the presence of those who are like you. The freedom to grow, not just in yourself, but with others.” She lowered her head and look up into Aleithian’s eyes. “Aleithian, we see you, and we want you to join us.”

    A tear fell from Aleithian’s eye. He looked down, refusing to meet Gal’s eyes. He pressed his watery eyes shut against the pain. And against the longing. She is right, he thought. Dammit she is right! She has seen me!

    Gal stood straight again. “We don’t seek power, prestige, or your wealth. We don’t issue demands or requirements. We make this offer only to those who have the potential to grow. We have no grand solution to humanity’s problems nor do we seek the overthrow of the empires of ambition and weakness. We seek, and we watch. We seek answers, and we watch for fellow questioners. Join us.”

    Aleithian looked up, raising himself as he could from his prostration over the table. He refused to wipe his eyes clean. These tears are me, he thought. To wipe them away would be to wipe myself away.

    I have finally allowed myself to see me…or been forced to see me.

    “What must I do,” he asked.

    “Pause for a moment, Duke,” Gal said. “Do not choose in haste. The true light will reveal many things and free you of many burdens. But the true light also reveals many secrets, and many terrors. This is a weighty choice for any person. But for you, a Duke, a Client, a man of wealth, power, land, and slaves, this will require many changes. If your conversion becomes known, you will be as an enemy to many in your current life. They will be threatened by your choice to pursue yourself rather than the satisfaction of their needs. Those dependent on you may be endangered. This choice will not affect only you. We make no requirements of you, but your conversion cannot occur without changes.”

    Cepheus stepped forward. “Duke,” he said, his deep voice gravelly with intensity. “You have been led along a wooded path, sheltered for a moment from the glare, thereby to have this opportunity. You have seen glimpses and greatly prepared yourself before this. I saw this in you from the start…and I think that you were not unaware of the possibilities I might represent. You stand now at a threshold, Duke – Aleithian. You must cross it. We stand here, on the other side, but you must come to us. Do not delude yourself now as to what awaits you on the other side.”

    Aleithian nodded. He looked at each of them, the pain and longing etched in the lines of his face. “I have no doubts as to what this entails. And…I’ve seen what you describe, Cepheus. I’ve seen glimpses. But I’ve never had the chance to follow them.” He looked into Gal’s eyes. “I will have to be careful. Tens of thousands are dependent on me. I can’t reveal this. A war approaches and the Empire won’t look kindly on what it regards as weak links.”

    Gal nodded again. “You are right.” She leaned forward and grabbed him with her eyes. “Are you ready?”

    Yes.

    “Yes,” he said, nodding.

    Gal motioned to Cepheus. “Ask him.”

    Cepheus stepped forward. “We have no oath of allegiance. We are not an organization that you become a member of or adherent to. We are each here by our own reason and past. We are a congregation of individuals, and we are sealed one to another by the personal bonds we see in each other’s eyes.” He paused, then reached out his hand. Aleithian took it. “Aleithian Emell, I believed your tears. I believed the look I saw in your eyes in the darkness of Rift’s edge. Now I need to believe your words. Will you walk with us across the heavens, through the fire of the stars and the storms that are coming? Will you look with us into the darkness and seek out what no eyes have yet seen? Will you swear to me and to Gal, here and now, that you will protect us and Salomé, even against those you previously called friends?”

    Aleithian looked into Cepheus’ face. He speaks the truth. He is serious – perhaps the most serious man I have ever met. He looked at Gal, her eyes holding as if on a precipice, her face no longer smiling, gripped in the pain of anticipation.

    “I will.”

    “You have crossed,” said Cepheus. He grinned and grabbed Aleithian in a great bear hug, crushing the breath out of him. Aleithian pushed him back, fighting his own grin. Gal approached, her sharp features softened in joy. She leaned forward and kissed Aleithian on the cheek. “Welcome, Duke,” she said. “You must now prepare yourself.”

    Aleithian looked at both of them quizzically. “Prepare myself for what?”

    “For your journey,” she said.

    “Where am I going?”

    Gal smiled.

    “Everywhere.”
    Last edited by Aleithian; 03-28-2017 at 22:21.
    These are the stories of searchers and dreamers, makers and tellers...

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