Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 - The Lost Gate of Avalon

"I met that odd third-year girl the other day..."

"The one with pink hair and weird eyes?"

"Eck. Why would anyone coming here dye their hair like... like some street tramp!"

"Just whoring attention. She's even got the boys wondering if that's her natural hair color. Apparently all her official info has it too, and same as her mother's--"

"The Reginberaht family? They're like one of the top ten top families in business!"

"They're pretty private about things though -- hardly ever hear about them -- but word has it that their eccentric current head married some faerie."

"Well I guess you can call her pretty in an otherworldly way, almost like some collectible trophy. But have you talked to her? She's sooo slow, literally, and dull in every sense of the word."

"She has to be good at something though. This isn't an easy university to enter, and even then washout from the first two years is over half!"

"Probably just family connections; must be nice to have the parents arrange her dreams for her."

"Well do they have any choice? With such a useless heir, her parents must have sent her here husband-hunting!"

Most people wouldn't be able to hear the malicious words tinged by jealousy. The four girls who voiced them in hushed whispers sat in an isolated corner on the far side. The study hall was massive enough to fit two basketball courts, and only those who chose to turn up the audio through their sensory implants -- a recipe for maximizing distractions -- would be able to hear.

But Kannon Reginberaht's keen senses were far from average. She could hear every syllable with just enough clarity, even though she did her best to pretend she couldn't. Years of honed experience made her excellent at ignoring unwanted commentary... except they hit one too many hated keywords and drew her attention.

Kannon wasn't a social person by any measure, especially without preparation. Her mind relied upon visual thinking with a build-up approach, which forced her to consider as much detail as possible before advancing to deliberations. It excelled at tackling large-scale tasks where she could take 'setup time' to absorb the complete picture, leading to a highly productive session. The downside was a long gear-switching time for simple activities which did not limit themselves to one topic, like daily conversations. It resulted in a noticeable delay to her response time measurable in seconds, making ninety-some percent of the people Kannon met quickly form the impression that she was slow, and therefore no mental giant.

Challenging yet pointless encounter...

The circumstances made action difficult for her. Impromptu social confrontations were steep fights, especially against multiple opponents whom she knew next to nothing about. But those girls had a perfect vantage point over the hall's entrance; if Kannon just walked out, she would seem like a pushover and only embolden them in the future. After self-deliberation, she concluded that the best option was inaction: to feign ignorance and absence by staying behind the privacy screen of her single-person study desk.

Still...

Pot calling kettle black. Who's really the useless husbanding-hunting tramp here? Go study already.

Unwilling to start a confrontation that wasn't on her terms, Kannon could only retort silently to words spoken a minute ago. Her thoughts were delayed by earlier deliberations, leading to even more holdup in her mental pipeline. It was a common occurance for her in social situations.

To be fair, access to elite families ranked as high on her charts as anyone else. In the business world, connections were just as important, if not even more so, than competence. Cinderella tales of marriage between commoners and nobles may be better known, but upper class scions had more incentive, and more pressure, to seek partners among themselves. After all, marriage between two corporate heirs yielded obvious financial and political gains.

Yet although status may bring her invites from collegiate secret societies, it was not enough for any self-respecting daughter. Kannon dreamed of a perfect romance like most girls her age, but she also kept the wise words of her mother to heart: On the upper levels of society, people married for partnership. History has proven that most ambitious individuals of greatness were rarely satisfied for long. A successful life-long relationship laid in the reliance between two strong individuals in assisting each others' dreams, not temporary factors like status, interests, or even youthful passion born of hormone-driven emotions. Therefore, "a true princess commands the respect of her prince through personal ability, loved regardless of how many mistresses he may or may not have."

But through her twenty years of life, Kannon never had a boyfriend. She had received plenty of offers, but she simply had more pride than to date someone who only wanted a rare trophy or connections to her family. Highly sensitive to other people's intentions, she knew perfectly well that the number of men who have genuinely interacted with her could be counted on with her fingers.

Whatever...

She mouthed as she repeated one of her mottos:

Ideals about princes can wait, achievements in life comes first.

With a silent sigh, Kannon refocused her attention, only to close the Augmented-Reality (AR) windows -- computer graphics superimposed into her perception of the real world through her implants -- that displayed her study material.

Since I can't concentration enough to study, let's utilize this time for something I can concentrate on.

Kannon opened her schedule to organize her plans for the days coming up. The summer research trip with her astrophysics professor had taken far longer than expected since their survey craft broke down. By the time she returned, it was already close to the first round of exams. After that was... a whole week crossed out for her cousin's wedding, prompting a round trip back to that 'main family home' she hated so much.

Dear life: please give me a break already.


----- * * * -----


Red lights swept through the hallways as alarms continued wailing throughout the ship.

"CORE STABILITY DROPPING. ALL PERSONNEL PLEASE EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY..."

The main corridor stretched on for hundreds of meters and was wide enough to accommodate aircars. Floating debris scattered through its expanse -- decorations and abandoned belongings left drifting in weightlessness due to the loss of the ship's gravity control. It had the feel of an abandoned space station, except for the presence of one girl.

She was around one-sixty (5'3") and looked just over fifteen, despite being of college age. Her thin, petite body was as delicate and frail as a flower, one still in the process of maturity with few curves to speak of. The bedroom clothes she wore didn't help with that impression, although their floral patterns in cherry blossom color matched the blossom-pink shade of her straight, waist-lengthed hair. Her otherworldly appearance was accentuated by her lapis-blue right eye; her left eye stayed closed, and would have given her a still-half-asleep look if it weren't for the alertness of the other. With fair skin the tone of porcelain, her quarter Asian blood also revealed itself through her small nose and lips. This only accentuated her innocent features which ideally defined a maiden of Western culture just prior to blooming, delicate and pretty as a doll with a lingering childness to match.

Her situation was anything but that, as she continued to pull and push herself using the handrails, creating the momentum to propel herself down the hallway.

I am not going to die here!

Kannon mentally shouted at herself once more, pushing all creeping thoughts of doom back into a corner of her mind. She focused on the translucent digital AR display window floating ahead of her, where a blinking green dot marked her position on a partial map of the ship.

It was supposed to be just a normal trip back to college from the wedding. Yet despite the ten year old peace treaty between the Empyrean Empire and its foes, despite the entire route being deep within friendly territories, the passenger ship TT-671 nevertheless fell under attack from a hostile flotilla while traveling across hyperspace.

Five hundred years have passed since the squid-like Empyreans conquered mankind, steamrolling over the Terran Sector almost immediately after first contact. But ever since initial resistance was squashed, human civilization had entered a lasting era of peace unseen throughout history. Wars continued within the galaxy as the Empyreans expanded their dominance, but mankind would spend these centuries enjoying their peaceful autonomy deep inside the Empire's defenses.

The last human ship lost to stellar aggression had been over a century ago, yet that was of little console right now. The passenger ship had transitioned from hyperspace back to normal space. The attackers had not found it worthwhile to give chase. But the damage had already been done. A penetrating hit had damaged the fusion core's containment nodes, which kept the thermonuclear power plant under control. Without their security, the core that powered the ship was a nuclear bomb ticking down to detonation.

It was even worse luck that the attack happened while Kannon was taking a nap, sleep deprived from working 'overnight' to finish a report. By the time she made her way towards the nearest escape pods, every one of them on her side of the ship was already gone. It was then, when she searched for the next cluster of pods, that the map alerted her to the presence of an odd craft.

After leaving the main corridor and making several turns, Kannon found herself looking through a transparent window at the service craft hanger bay. Placed inside was an old TSV-9 series survey craft, the same ship series that she spent half the summer working with.

"CORE FAILURE IMMINENT, ALL PERSONNEL PLEASE EVAC..."

If this doesn't work... She swiftly cut it off. I don't have time to waste on useless thoughts right now!

Kannon brought herself to a stop beside the entrance and pulled down the emergency unlock switch. The double sliding doors that also served as the inner airlock promptly opened by retracting into the walls. She noticed that the TSV-9's cockpit hatch was already open. Its engines were hot and on standby, presumably activated by the ship when the evacuation order was given.

With a single thought, Kannon closed the map display window floating ahead of her, then kicked off straight towards the TSV-9 craft's hatch. The trajectory was straight and simple in the weightless environment. She flew into its cockpit within seconds and grabbed onto the pilot seat's headrest, just in time to brace herself as the ship shook violently while an explosion resounded through the hull.

Open link with TSV-9!

Her command came as a mental shout. It was an order to her neural-interfacing implant -- a chip on her upper spinal cord that allowed her brain to directly link with digital networks -- to establish a wireless link with the craft's control interface. Within moments, her sensory implants projected a translucent-green 'SUCCESS' window into the feedback from her eyes. It was replaced a second later as the navigation menu and sensors display opened themselves before her eyes in blossom-pink windows.

Emergency launch!

Another window popped up as the computer sought a more secure confirmation for the pre-programmed command. Kannon focused her sight on the 'Start' button until it became highlighted and then nodded. The sound of a hatch sealing accompanied the confirmation window as the survey craft went through its automatic launch procedure. The craft's own artificial gravity then kicked in, pulling her down to the pilot's seat with its gentle 0.5G. Both a physical seat belt and gravitic shock dampeners soon joined it in pinning her against the cushioned seat.

Feeling the floor rumble beneath her, Kannon looked out through the cockpit window and noticed that the hanger was already depressurized. The gates were opening to the vacuum of space as the TSV-9 craft turned to face it. Then, just as they finished, the entire passenger ship shook, and again.

Something must have set off a chain reaction.

The TSV-9 sped out from the hanger as Kannon sat wondering how many seconds the passenger ship still had left. Time slowed to a crawl as she opened a window to display the rear camera view while counting each second that passed before the ship's fusion core inevitably blew. Then, thirteen seconds after leaving the passenger ship TT-671, the entire vessel exploded into a ball of expanding plasma as its fusion reactors went critical. The blast wave rocked the survey craft, for even its energy shielding wasn't able to block the incandescent fury at this short a range. The information panel flashed red as it reported damage to sensors and hull. But although the plasma wave overloaded the shields, hull integrity managed to hold.

I'm safe, for the moment.

Kannon breathed out a deep sigh of relief. Her tense body finally began to relax as she leaned back into the seat.

Then another alert window popped up.

Having left the vicinity of any nearby ships, the TSV-9 has finished its emergency launch procedure. It was now cutting its acceleration, leaving the craft to continue its drift across open space.

...

Now what?

Kannon stared at the yellow blinking dots on the sensors display, each representing the active distress beacon of an escape pod. The passenger ship made an emergency hyperspace exit in middle of nowhere. Most of the pods launched had a seventy-two hour life support span. But unless another vessel noticed their beacons and picked them up, the lives of those survivors would soon be forfeit. However, this travel route had so little traffic this time of year that only one passenger flight was available every week.

Since the flight had been thirty-hours short of the destination when they could expect a check-in, the odds of being rescued in time... weren't very good. Unfortunately, the survey craft she commandeered didn't have a docking bay and certainly couldn't retrieve pods.

No, there is still one thing I could do for them.

The TSV-9 was a rare hyper-capable corvette-class spacecraft. It was originally designed to survey nearby star systems and probe wormholes without requiring the expensive costs of deploying full-sized survey cruisers. With it, Kannon realized she could find a nearby starport or colony and call for help.

Opening the navigation window once again, she called up the star charts and zoomed in on the local region. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the diamond symbol of either a nearby starport or starbase on the map. It was small, with the odd name Hadrian. But it was also the only settlement within the craft's maximum one-way range of twelve light years.

Kannon toggled the panel to display the station data. But instead of showing what support facilities the starport offered, the symbol simply vanished.

Is there a software malfunction? Or am I seeing things? Why is there a starport out there in the middle of nowhere anyways? There isn't even a star system for light years around it...

Kannon switched to the station database and searched for a starport within this region, or a starport named Hadrian; both searches came up blank. She tried it again twice, thrice, even expanding the range and looking through every station beginning with H in this sector, but still nothing. Frustrated and out of ideas, she kept trying the same thing for minutes, but couldn't even verify the station's existence.

It has to be a software glitch. Probably because this TSV-9 is merely a merely a retired model used as a maintenance craft by the ship, so they didn't bother taking care of the navigation computers... just my luck.

But regardless of whether Hadrian existed, this was her only option of getting help on time. Even if it came up blank, the TSV-9 would still have enough endurance to return to a nearby space lane, where the odds of being discovered were just as good as they would be right here.

Kannon double-tapped the exact location where she saw Hadrian's diamond symbol. It wasn't accurate; but even with damaged sensors, the craft should still be able to notice a space station within that small an area. She confirmed the destination and laid back on the pilot's seat. A sharp burst of rapid acceleration followed as the craft launched into hyperspace.

Her thoughts soon began to drift off as she sat in the pilot's seat without anything to occupy her mind. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, her fatigue was also returning. After all, she only caught two hours of sleep before the emergency alarm woke her up.

With a mental command, the seat slowly laid back into a full recline. Kannon curled up on it, her long hair scattering around her as she twisted and turned to find a comfortable position. The cabin temperature was chilly for someone wearing only a camisole, shorts, and kneesocks, but Kannon didn't care. All the anxiety over the last half hour left her completely exhausted.

The haziness of sleep soon overtook her, but not before she felt the warmth of a tear streaking down her cheeks.


----- * * * -----


*Beebeebeep*, *beebeebeep*...

The light yet sharp alert sounds forced a return to consciousness, again. The last twenty-four hours had been a cycle of sleeping and waking up. With each nap she sought solace in her dreams; with each awakening she hoped to end this nightmare. Neither wish came true.

Scrubbing her eyes to clear her mental fog, Kannon soon filtered out her mental scrapbook of recent events from the haze.

Shipwrecked, piloting a lifeboat through its meager fuel, and looking for a remote island with a rescue ship... right.

She brushed her long hair behind her ears and slapped her cheeks with both palms for a quick wakeup call.

The alarm notified Kannon of the TSV-9's departure from hyperspace. However, one look over to the display window, currently set to the sensors feed, was enough to sink her heart back into the abyss. There was nothing there. Except for the translucent azure glow of space, the blossom-pink window frame, and the bright-blue grid lines, the local map was completely empty.

Kannon knew it might come to this.

This is my one chance of getting help on time and what do I find? Nothing!

Information filled her mind instantly as every related folder of data spread over it. Her thoughts reviewed every correlated file and reassessed every menu, looking for an alternative solution of some kind. Yet no matter what, she just couldn't think of anything else to try, even after going through everything a second time, a third...

Have I hit my limit?

Initiative and courage, the willingness to take action, was only as good as one's ability and the availability of information to back it up. Kannon still remembered the first time she finished reading a young adult fiction, her father immediately rectified her views: "willpower alone opens nothing", as even animals displayed far more courage and guts than man will ever know. Man had neither physique nor numbers nor fearlessness, yet humankind once grew to dominance through preparation, knowledge, ingenuity, and organization. In his exact words, "one must grasp true understanding before determination created results."

But limited data was all I had; an informed guess the best I could...

She plunged back down onto the seat and curled up once again with her long hair spread in a mess all around. Her mind had no choice but to face her own inexperience...

Suddenly, the spacecraft began to pitch and shake. It felt like a shuttle meeting turbulence; except this was deep space, and there were no atmospheric streams.

What's going on?

Kannon jolted back up in her chair and looked out the front window. The whole area of space before her was distorting. Some purple nebulous vortex of lightning storms suddenly conjured itself into existence before her eyes and was now multiplying in size. Her amateur experience in spacecraft piloting had left it drifting forward at stellar speeds. Now it was too late to escape the 'storm' even if she decelerated and turned.

The survey craft soon pitched forward, rolled halfway onto its side, and hurled into the vortex at increasing speed. It was actually the view that changed, as the TSV-9's internal gravity and inertial compensators completely negated the physical effects. But Kannon knew enough basics to recognize the signs...

The craft had lost control and was now being sucked in by this 'storm'.

The shaking grew increasingly violent. The hull groaned audibly. The chaotic clashing of gravitic stress waves overcame the cockpit compensator's ability and lashed out within. It was threatening to rip the ship apart. But even before that, it was threatening to rip Kannon apart. She could feel her bones being twisted, bent, stretched, and crushed all at once. She could feel her head being pounded flat, her lungs being deflated, her stomach being crumbled. She couldn't think, she couldn't breathe, she could barely see through tears of pain.

It's going to kill me!

For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, terror had completely overridden Kannon's senses, blocking out all trains of thought... she simply didn't have a clue of what to do except to sit there helplessly.

Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. Only a lingering pain remained as the craft shot out of the nebulous cloud.

And it reappeared...

A starport sat in the middle of the sensors display. It was directly ahead. Further away, there were the planets, asteroids, and the twin suns of what appeared to be an astrometric binary star system -- twin stars with their orbits looped like a figure-eight.

Before Kannon could even sort out just what was going on, the craft briefly shook again. A warning message popped up on display that a gravity beam had locked onto the vessel. The starport was towing her in.

That's... unusual, even with my distress beacon active, they should at least attempt communications first.

As the starport came into sight range, a flicker of light appeared in the viewing screen between the orange and amber stars of the nearby system. It quickly grew in size, becoming a recognizable man-made structure in mere seconds.

Its design was unlike any space station Kannon ever visited, and looked more like the starports of the old Terran Republic. The station had a thick central shaft with two massive conic structures slowly rotating around it, with each apex pointed outwards and connecting to two smaller disk-like structures near the ends of the main shaft. As the steel behemoth loomed closer, she noticed that the starport wasn't painted a light color like all civilian space stations, but in dark gray and navy like an old terran military starbase. Instead of large windows, its surface was covered in thick diamondsteel armor and bristling with clusters of point-defense lasers.

Kannon had little doubt that this starbase was of Terran design. But the only military-grade space armament the Empyrean Empire allowed mankind to build over the last four centuries was the recently commissioned Alpha Centauri System Defense Force, a political achievement celebrated by every news channel in Terran space for weeks. Yet even then, it was mostly just a few guard outposts and patrol cruisers. It didn't take a military expert to recognize the sheer scale of this starbase as a frontier fortress built to defend against an interstellar invasion.

Just what have I drifted into? Is this a rebel system of sorts? But the last Terran resistance group of this scale should have fallen apart centuries ago!

A window of light lit up near the base of the 'upper' conic superstructure -- a docking bay opened its gates, leaving the gravity beam to do its job in dragging the survey craft inside. As the TSV-9 entered its final approach, Kannon noticed the large, white, and most surprisingly, Latin and English words painted on the sloped armor of the starbase:

PRAESIDIUM I - HADRIAN

"No... way..."

Kannon's first instinct was to deny this as outright impossibility. The sheer existence of such a heavily-armed Terran starbase would break the entire Treaty of Alpha Centauri.

But then... just what am I seeing?

At the very least, this was no way this could have been on the official database. But that didn't explain how she saw it on this craft's navigation display on the other side of the wormhole where transponder signals didn't reach. Was it a fluke? Or was this craft, and this navigation computer, loaded with something special that should not be seen?

Maybe there's another reason why a passenger ship would have a survey corvette instead of a repair corvette for maintenance...

As Kannon debated with herself, the TSV-9 passed the docking gates, went through a translucent force field, and entered a massive hanger. An assortment of other ships were also parked inside, but she didn't recognize any of them. The survey craft glided towards the nearest empty platform and landed smoothly as the docking bay's internal gravity beams laid it on the ground.

The instant landing completed, two rows of Terran soldiers rushed out from behind cover, their hands grasping swords instead of guns despite the age of space-faring, gravity-manipulating technology. A tiny voice within Kannon's mind wondered why... only to be completely drowned out by frantic shouts from the rest of her head:

They're coming to kill me!

She had no clue what else they would want, or what she could do, only that she definitely wasn't wanted! This was a top secret base of a military she didn't recognize from a hidden Terran faction she didn't even know existed!

Should I surrender? Will they even accept that? What else could I possibly--

Then, without any noise or sound, light suddenly poured in from behind her as the cockpit hatch simply vanished. A surge of electricity followed, knocking Kannon out cold before her head could even turn.


----- * * * -----


Captain Marius of the Avalonian Republic 2nd District Grenadiers watched as Corporal Pavils placed the unconscious girl onto a levitating stretcher.

Her frame was too thin. Her looks were too young. Her arms looked frail enough to be snapped with one hand. Her clothes were no better than sleepwear. No matter how he looked at it...

"What're the Empyreans thinking, sending a girl like this on a wormhole expedition?" Chief Warrant Officer Cezary asked, his disbelieving words reflecting Marius' own thoughts perfectly. "I mean comeon, which part of her looks even remotely military? Even civilian space-faring agencies have uniforms! She's more casual than my teenage daughter!"

"Maybe they think humans don't deserve uniforms?" Pavils chuckled as he cuffed her wrists to the stretcher.

"Not what the reports say," Marius countered as he turned towards their tech expert, whose eyes were continuously sweeping back and forth across the Heads-Up Display light screen being projected by the linker helmet he was using to hack the craft from. "Cezary? Anything?"

"Impatient, aren't we? I'm barely past the interface here -- it's very... different, but no real security to speak of. This is definitely a survey ship alright. Data core's damaged though; need some coaxing to get any kind of a log here. But I can tell you one thing: this ain't a high priority mission if they'd send a ship this old."

"I could've told you that the moment we disintegrated the door." Sarcastic mockery from a superior officer aside, Marius' tone was nothing but cheerful, and it wasn't just because of his close bonds with the men. "The commander was half-expecting an entire assault fleet to follow when this little bugger came through. I'm perfectly content with the Empire not actually knowing what's on this side of the wormhole, thank you."

Marius then nodded towards Pavils, who had finished strapping the girl onto the stretcher and was awaiting permission. He then passed the orders with biting sarcasm:

"Take her to Captain Steinberg's black-hooded inquisitors please. I'm sure their whips and branding irons are eagerly awaiting."

"Can't say I feel happy sending anyone to those guys, let alone girls her age."

"You're not supposed to," shrugged the Captain, "but I'm sure it'll get better soon. The higher ups will have other plans for her."

"Affirmed."

Just not your higher ups, the Captain thought.



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