Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 1 Old

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Chapter 1 - The Lost Gate of Avalon

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

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

Reaching out to grab the handrail with my quivering hand, I pulled myself up with all my strength. Momentum carried me further down the long hallway in this starship that already lost all artificial gravity. My right hand then released its grip before reaching ahead once again to grab and pull on the handrail. The repeated motion was quickly becoming automatic, as my mind battered aside creeping thoughts of 'death'. I tried my best to focused on the translucent digital display window floating in front of me, where a blinking green dot marked my position on a partial map of the ship.

(I am not going to die here!) I mentally shouted at myself once again.

It was supposed to be just a normal trip back to college from my cousin's 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 has entered a lasting era of peace unseen throughout history. Wars continued within the galaxy as the Empyreans expanded their dominance, but human civilization would spend these centuries enjoying their peaceful autonomy deep inside the Empire's defenses.

However, that did not mean that mankind was never involved.

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 fusion power plant under control. Without their security, the core that powered the ship was a nuclear bomb ticking down to detonation.

(I should make a turn here...)

My gaze turned left as I slowed myself down, then kicked off from the right wall and into the side corridor. Reaching out and grabbing onto the handrail once again, I restarted the cycle to push myself forward.

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

As I turned yet another corner by kicking off the walls, a massive transparent window revealed the service craft hanger bay and the old TSV-9 series survey craft parked within.

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

(If this doesn't work then...)

I didn't let that thought finish before shoving it aside.

(I don't have any time to waste on useless thoughts right now!)

Bringing myself to a stop beside the entrance, I pulled down the emergency unlock switch. The double sliding doors that also served as the inner airlock promptly opened by retracting into the walls.

Moving into the service hanger, I noticed that the TSV-9's cockpit hatch was already open. Its engines were active and on standby. The passenger ship must have activated everything that could be used when the evacuation order was given.

I closed the map display window floating ahead of me with a thought and kicked off straight towards the TSV-9 craft's hatch. The trajectory was straight and simple in the current ship's weightless environment. Within seconds, I flew into the craft's cockpit and grabbed onto the pilot seat's headrest.

The entire ship then shook as an explosion resounded through the hull. I was running out of time fast!

(Open link with TSV-9)

I passed the commanding thought through my head. It was an order to my neural-interfacing implant (a chip on the spinal cord that allowed my brain to directly link with digital networks) to establish a wireless link with the craft's control interface. Within moments, my implants projected a translucent-green 'SUCCESS' window into the feedback from my eyes -- augmented-reality (AR) technology which superimposed computer graphics directly into the user's perception of the real world. It was replaced a second later as the navigation menu and sensors display opened themselves before my eyes in the blossom-pink windows I had my displays configured to.

(Emergency launch)

I thought, using the order-by-keyword functionality that most control interfaces had. Another window popped up, and sure enough, 'Emergency Launch' was a pre-programmed command. I focused my sight on the 'Start' button until it became highlighted and then nodded. The window was then replaced by a text confirmation, and I heard the hatch behind me closing as the survey craft went through its automatic launch procedure.

The hatch soon closed with a sealing sound. Then the craft's own artificial gravity kicked in, pulling me down onto the pilot's seat with its gentle 0.5G.

I shifted to a comfortable position before reaching over my left shoulder and pulling down the physical seat belt. As it clicked into position, another window popped up to inform me that the shock dampeners on my seat has also activated. Feeling the floor rumble beneath me, I looked out through the cockpit window and noticed that the hanger had already been depressurized. The gates were opening to the vacuum of space as the TSV-9 craft turned to face it.

(Hurryhurryhurryhurryhurry...)

The same word repeated over and over in my head. I hoped some of its urgency would get across the neural link to make the craft speed up its departure.

Just as the gates opened, the entire passenger ship shook, and then again.

(Something must have set off a chain reaction.)

I was wondering how many seconds the passenger ship still had when the TSV-9 accelerated and sped out from the hanger. Time slowed to a crawl as I 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. I firmly grasped the seat as the blast wave rocked the survey craft. 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.)

I breathed out a deep sigh of relief. My tense body finally began to relax as I 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?)

I stared at the yellow blinking dots on the sensors display, each representing the active distress beacon of an escape pod. As far as I knew, the passenger ship had 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, the route I took 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 where they could expect a check-in, the odds of being rescued in time... weren't very good.

Unfortunately, this little survey craft 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 this, I could find a nearby starport or colony and call for help.

Opening the navigation window once again, I called up the star charts and zoomed in on my region. My 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.

I toggled the panel to display its station data. But instead of showing me what support facilities this 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 lights years around it...)

I switched the display to show its station database and searched for a starport within this region, or a starport named Hadrian; both searches came up with... nothing. I 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, I kept trying the same thing for minutes, but I couldn't even verify this station's existence.

(It has to be a software glitch.)

It was probably because this TSV-9 was merely a retired model used as a maintenance craft by the ship, so they didn't bother to take care of the navigation computers... just my luck.

But regardless of whether Hadrian existed, this was my 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 my odds were just as good as they would be right here.

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

My thoughts began to drift off as I sat in the pilot's seat without anything particular to do. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, my fatigue was also returning -- after all, I had only caught two hours of sleep before the emergency alarm woke me back up.

With a mental command, the seat slowly laid back into a full recline and I curled up on it, my long hair scattering around me as I twisted and turned to find a comfortable position.

It was cold. I was wearing only a thin red camisole and a pair of orange shorts, plus sneakers and underwear; all that I had time to put on during the emergency. I wanted to look if there might be a blanket around, however unlikely. But the rest of my mind didn't really care for getting up. All the anxiety built over the last half hour or so left me exhausted.

Yet even as the haziness of sleep overtook me, I could feel the warmth of a tear streaking down my cheeks.


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


*Beebeebeep*, *beebeebeep*...

The light yet sharp alert sounds woke me back up.

...Alone, cold, still trapped in this nightmare...

The last twenty-four hours had been a cycle of sleeping and waking up. Each time I had hoped this bad dream would finally end.

...But I just couldn't wake up from it...

I scrubbed my eyes to clear the mental fog that still filled my mind. Images of recent events quickly filtered out from the haze.

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

I brushed my long hair aside from my face to behind my ears, slapped my cheeks with both palms, and sat back up. I would wash my face for a better wake-up later, but first...

The alarm was to notify me of the TSV-9's departure from hyperspace. I looked over to the display window that was currently set to the sensors feed, and my heart sank once again.

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.

I knew it might come to this. But now that it did, I realized that I wasn't quite ready.

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

Disorganized information filled my mind instantly as if every related folder of files was dumped into it. My mind raced through all the images, my fingers navigating through every menu, and my voice mumbling barely relevant numbers. I couldn't think of a solution. No matter what I just couldn't think of something else I could still try. So I went over it all again, and again, and again...

Distance to the nearest colony, endurance ranges of the TSV-9 craft, list of nearby starports, etc, etc, etc.

I knew I was panicking. I knew there was no way I could come up with a solution using such a disoriented approach, but...

I plunged back down onto the seat and curled up once again with my long hair spread in a mess all around me. I was out of ideas. I was having a headache. My thoughts were blanking out again...

Then, all of a sudden, 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?)

I jolted back up in my chair and looked out the front window.

The whole area of space before me was distorting, as if some purple nebulous vortex of lightning storms suddenly conjured itself into existence before my eyes and was now multiplying in size.

I had left the survey craft drifting forward at stellar speeds. Now, even if I decelerated and turned, I doubted I could escape this... storm.

Seconds later, the craft 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 the back of my mind knew...

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

The shaking grew increasingly violent. The hull groaned audibly. I felt the chaotic clashing of gravitic stress waves as they overcame the cockpit compensator's ability. It was threatening to rip the ship apart. But even before that, it was threatening to rip me apart. My bones were being twisted, bent, stretched, and crushed all at once. I could feel my head being pounded flat, my lungs being deflated, my stomach being crumbled. I couldn't think, I couldn't breathe, I could barely see.

(It's going to kill me!)

For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, terror had completely overridden my senses, blocking out my train of thought... I 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 my sensors display. It was directly ahead of me. Further away, there were the planets, asteroids, and the twin suns of what appeared to be an astrometric binary star system (a twin stars system with their orbits looped like a figure-8).

Before I 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 me 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 I had ever been to, 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, I noticed that the starport wasn't painted a light color like all civil 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.

There was 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 that was 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?)

Was 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 my survey craft inside. As the TSV-9 entered its final approach, I noticed the large, white, and most surprisingly, Latin and English words painted on the sloped armor of the starbase:

PRAESIDIUM I - HADRIAN

"No... way..."

That was impossible. Maybe this really was a rebel system of sorts. There was no way this could have been on the official database. 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?)

Was this just a coincidence? 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...)

Before I realized it, the TSV-9 had passed the docking gates, went through some sort of translucent force field, and entered a massive hanger. An assortment of other ships were also parked inside, but I didn't recognize any of them. The TSV-9 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 in my mind wondered why... but it had been completely drowned out by frantic shouts from the rest of my head:

(They're coming to kill me!)

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

(Should I surrender? Will they even accept that? What else could I possibly do?)

Then, without any noise or sound, light suddenly poured in from behind me, followed instantly by a surge of electricity...


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


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

She had a thin, petite frame, and an innocent face with long hair dyed in blossom-pink that went down to her waist. Her arms looked frail enough to be snapped with one hand, and what she wore was barely any better than sleepwear. No matter how he looked at it, she...

"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?" responded Pavils with a chuckle as he cuffed her hands.

"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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