Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 3

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Chapter 3 - Daggers Under The Round Table

"So, you're a student from the University of Titania? Who just happened to stumble into the wormhole due to a military incident?"

Although Captain Arkadi's expression was still serious, there was an incredulous edge to his voice. Sitting from across the round table in the center of the crew common room, he held a massive cup of steaming coffee in between his hands and brought it to his mouth after each question.

Kannon couldn't help but feel exasperated, especially after working up her courage to go through it all, again. The Justiciars also refused to believe her, and their unnecessary torture still lingered fresh on her mind.

"...No, I'm obviously a saboteur zealot recruited freshly from the idealistic youths of college and sent by the Empyrean Star Forces to destroy your civil sovereignty."

"Well, fair enough," he smirked with amusement. "Grenadier Captain Marius, who first captured you, was one of our operatives in the fortress. As soon as we received his report, we realized that there was no way this could have been anything more than a poorly funded and reckless civilian operation. Otherwise, whatever problems we may have with the 2nd District, it would be downright foolish on our part to destroy even a star fortress as obsolete as the Hadrian on the dawn of a likely incursion."

He leaned forward and nodded apologetically, "I'm sorry for sounding like I doubted you, milady. I just found that second part a little too -- convenient."

Well, at least we agree on that one, Kannon almost voiced out loud.

"Then why did you have to destroy it? Weren't you from the same side?"

"Ooooohh no, not even..." interjected assistant and acting tactical officer (ATO) Haidar from his seat. He looked a lot younger when his baldness was fully covered by a fishing hat, although the meshed taupe-gray cotton cloth really didn't match with the stiff design of his black uniform.

Guess the designated mage of the party needs some eccentricities in his wardrobe.

From a young age, Kannon learned how to recognize and classify the roles of others at a glance -- a skill essential for those in leading positions. But this habit also took an unexpected turn for her, as she often compared roles of real people to archetypes found in her fantasy literature and games.

"On the surface, the Avalonian Republic may be a single stellar entity governed by a tricameral legislature," Arkadi began explaining in detail. "But the three houses and all its bureaucracy never gets anything done by themselves. Instead, it is the three Marshals of the three military districts that hold the real power -- both the political connections and monetary clout to push through the bills they want passed."

"The system was set up this way by the three Marshals and their supporters who toppled the Dominion's tyranny one hundred and seven Terra-years ago. They were originally rivals to the same throne of authority, but emerged from the revolution with similar power blocs. To maintain their power bases rather than continue an unpredictable war that everyone was tired of, they cut the Republic up into three separate military districts, each with an independent command structure."

"Except--" began Haidar, but Arkadi cut him back off as though he said nothing:

"But the distrust from the start soon developed into antagonism with an almost cold-war mentality. There are legal and civil administrative deterrents to prevent open war from breaking out between the districts, but assassination, sabotage, proxy terrorism -- those are common. Given our history of blaming one another for everything, the political backlash is minimum as long as one keeps proof out of the enemy's hands. Although, what we just accomplished is probably a bit... unprecedented."

Kannon realized soon after boarding the ship that Arkadi and his group were what history would call a 'Black Operation' team -- agents of the government who carried out missions so illegal that even their superiors couldn't admit to their existence. However, this group seemed to be hiding their true roles under the guise of an esoteric military branch.

Arkadi shrugged with a forced smile, "You could basically say that we're actually three warring states, each with our own warlord; but somehow we managed to play happy family together under one dynasty."

Altogether considered, not that different from dozens of eras in history, concluded Kannon. The only unusual trait is that they somehow managed to sustain peace for so long. But more amazing is the fact...

"I'm surprised you're telling me this from such a neutral perspective. No dramatic propaganda to convince me that you're the righteous cause in need of help against tyrants or barbarians or anything."

Arkadi chuckled before his deep-violet pupils gazed directly into Kannon's eye. "It would be folly to try to fool such an intelligent and beautiful lady as yourself, miss."

"I must advise our heroic captain that flattery is only marginally more effective than manipulation."

Flowery words weren't new to Kannon. Beautiful was always among the first words those seeking to take advantage of her would shower her with. But thanks to her mentality, few individuals ever seriously considered her intelligent; even her mentors usually settled on 'hardworking' and 'creative'. Without catching even a trace of insincerity in the Captain's words, Kannon unexpectedly felt her cheeks warming up by a few degrees.

What's wrong with me, getting flustered this easily? Now isn't the time to get sidetracked when I've been mentally preparing myself for this for hours! Besides, this man is definitely not the princely character he presents himself as!

With a brief image, Kannon reminded herself of Arkadi's bloody sight when he killed his own comrade without mercy.

"I prefer the phrase sincere compliments." Arkadi flashed a perfect smile that would have made anyone envious, be it star actors or charming villains. "Of course, I am interested in knowing what you can help us with. Since you're a university student -- what did you major in?"

"Astrophysics and business management."

Kannon swore all three other people in the room just synchronized the raising of their eyebrows, down to the exact millisecond of the start and finish.

"Odd combination," navigator Lysette remarked from her seat at the edge of a nearby desk. Her shapely legs swung back and forth underneath and her eyes focused on the empty air in front of her chest, where she kept an AR window open.

She was around twenty years old -- the same as Kannon -- but already a good ten centimeters taller (4") at one-seventy-three (5'8"). She had short, straight black hair partially tied back with a large red ribbon and a bob cut neatly just above the shoulders. Her burgundy-red eyes occasionally sparkled with either longing or fascination at what she was reading. Her beautiful face cast an atmosphere of serenity that didn't match at all with the bloodthirsty words she yelled during battle, and her smile ranged from Mona Lisa to eerie and bloodchilling. Even her lithe arms and the creamy-white skin accentuated by her pitch-black uniform were impossibilities for military commandos of non-magical origin.

Kannon wasn't fooled by her piloting position for a second. Between her angelic countenance and the demonic temperament that laid underneath, not to mention her choice of daggers for armament...

Definitely assassin; maybe femme fatale... any commando team could use one of those.

"The biggest industry my family's enterprise has been developing into is defense contracting. I needed to at least understand the fundamental technologies involved when dealing with the Empyrean Star Forces."

"Wooooah, a real corporate scion!" Haidar commented as he examined Kannon, his eyes shifting up and down her body. It sent a faint shiver down the back of her neck and made her skin crawl.

"They'd let humans get involved with their most advanced military hardware?" Arkadi's curiosity peaked with his surprise.

"We're the first, and only because recent political shifts opened opportunities... I also wouldn't quite call it the most advanced."

"No need to sell yourself short, princess," Arkadi continued with an encouraging smile. "You probably already know way more than we do anyhow. What can you tell us about that survey ship's propulsion?"

"It runs a GXE-LC330 gravitic induction engine with hyperspace tunnel drive--"

"And we're still stuck on ion drives!" Haidar chimed in again.

Wait-- Kannon's mind braked hard as the latest comment made absolutely no sense.

"But... reactionless engines were already in development five centuries ago before your ancestors first came to this system after escaping the Empyrean conquest."

"We've... lost a great deal of technology during landfall," Arkadi scowled at the scientific tragedy. "The Nine Archmagi Families that mutinied and overtook the expedition from the authorities didn't want non-magical military-applicable technology to proliferate. They sealed much of it away in secret research laboratories hidden in the depth of space. After the revolution, we lost all information on many of those locations. It's been over a century since we overthrew the magi of the Dominion, and we still haven't recovered the original Fleet Carrier Caliburn that brought us to these worlds..."

Kannon soon recognized the implications: the people of this world were centuries behind on even civilian technologies, let alone military.

There may still be a way to make myself useful after all! It's a little more real than I would like, but I did score the 'Guardian of Knowledge' role this time.

"...Since then, most of our research had gone into ether-tech -- magical technology -- development, so some of our pure-tech that wasn't as compatible had fallen quite behind. The drives are one example: the starwarp ether-tech drive that we use for FTL travel is far superior to any theory of hyperspace physics that we know. But so far, high-powered magical gravity manipulation has proven far too ether-intensive for them to develop the next generation of subspace drives. So we've simply built larger ion engines and more efficient fusion reactors to feed them," he shrugged. "You could imagine how excited some of the engineers were when they saw the reactionless drives on your craft..."

Kannon couldn't help but appreciate the fact that when Arkadi said 'work together', he meant it. Outside of confidential data, he and his shipmates were completely forthcoming about information, often filling her in on the details before she even needed to ask. In the past few hours, she learned far more about this world than the days she spent aboard star fortress Hadrian.

But -- what are the chances they will let me go back to my world after everything?

...I should try not to think about that for now... warned a little voice from the back of her head.

That's right, focus on the present!

"...You'll probably come to the opinion that our technology base is quite disproportional and unbalanced," continued Arkadi. "Some of our fields, particularly in life sciences and transit networks, have made incredible advances over the years. Others, like in subspace drives, we've barely caught up to even pre-landfall levels. It wouldn't be an understatement to say that our society became so dependent on magic and ether-tech over the past few centuries that we often find ourselves clueless when magic is not a viable answer -- which, I must apologize again, for our current lack of solutions in cutting off that chain without hurting you."

"...There's no need to apologize; it wasn't your fault to start with," Kannon replied with a meek smile.

The ten foot long, five kilo heavy starsteel chain and weight was still attached to the shackle locked onto Kannon's left wrist. Arkadi explained earlier that starsteel was a composite made using special meteorite ore that survived re-entry into Avalon's dense magical atmosphere. It was similar to the diamondsteel used to armor starships, with a mostly carbon-bonded crystal-lattice structure similar to diamond. However, it was also virtually impervious to any direct-effect magic short of Grand Sorceries. As a result, it was nearly impossible to cut or break without extremely powerful reactions, which would easily vaporize her arm before it could destroy the shackle itself.

In the meantime, they gave Kannon three straps to minimize the chain's hindrance. Wrapped around her upper left arm, left thigh, and attached to the belt, two of the straps held the chain up with hooks before letting it trail back down -- leaving her arm unimpeded -- while the third buckled the end-weight to her thigh.

Kannon also wore a set of 'uniform' in the same design as Lysette's, made with her help using the ship's nanite synthesizer. It included a white, sleeveless blouse, worn underneath the black, form-fitting sleeveless vest stiff white lines. A short, deep-red tie wrapped loosely under her square collars, and long gloves hugged her arms up to the bared shoulders. Under the utility belt were pleated black miniskirt and its attached petticoat layer. A set of black running shorts underneath, plus black over-the-knee socks and calf-high steel-toed boots completed the ensemble.

Nothing about the outfit met the common conceptions of military standards, which spoke volumes about the Avalonian Republic's philosophy in uniform design. Lysette commented that 'since the uniforms weren't there for any practical defensive or camouflage value, why not make them look good?' She then showed Kannon it was just one of several options available in the armed forces. The only difference between the organizations was the color scheme used.

"...But where did you learn to pilot a spacecraft?" Arkadi continued his questions after another coffee break.

Kannon shook her wandering thoughts back in order. The entire session was basically a dreaded interview, except instead of some internship role under one of her father's directors, her life was at stake here. With the decision-maker none other than the leader across the table, Kannon knew that she would either join the team or vanish into the background as the story pressed on... and 'vanish' was a dangerous term when it came to special operatives.

"I didn't. I simply called up a few pre-programmed command protocols. I had some experience using them and navigating from assisting my professor's research expedition last--"

"Captain Arkadi, please come to the bridge," executive officer (XO) Kaplan's voice interrupted over the telepathic channel.

Kannon still wore the Communication Ring. The crew did speak mostly English, as that was the official language of the Terran sector, even five centuries ago when their ancestors first left. But terms from other languages were common, with some members of the team using them more frequently than others. This meant it wasn't merely a problem of the English language adopting more words since colonization, but the widespread use of secondary languages. All of this forced Kannon to continue relying on the ring's abilities and hope it wasn't broadcasting any thoughts other than those she willed into it.

To be on the safe side, she decided hours ago that it was best not to lie while wearing the ring -- not that she was any good at lying to begin with.

"What is it?" Arkadi asked as he strode out of the crew common room at a swift pace, followed by the rest of them.

"We're detecting faint sensor ghosts up ahead, closing in at 4500KPS. Based on the formation, they're most likely a sensor web of stealthed recon drones. I doubt we've even seen the tip of the iceberg here -- sir, they really don't want us to slip away this time."

"Full power to stealth fields... looks like I pissed them off a little."

"Maximum ether investment to stealth fields," Korey's voice repeated.

"Just a bit, sir," Kaplan's sarcasm was impossible to tell from his flat tone of his speech. "Scattered ships from Task Force Seven of the Home Defense Fleet is following. Nearest battlecarrier 550,000 kilometers behind detected screen section, 72 degrees to port."

"Think they've noticed us yet?"

"Unlikely. The Arcani-class is built for stealth. Our sensors are twice as effective as that of those drones... And their ships' vectors do not indicate any awareness of our presence."

"But at this range, they'll probably pick up enough emissions leak through our stealth fields if we activate engines, even on minimum... What are our chances of passing them undetected?"

"None. We can't get past them without entering their Aurasense detectors' range in five minutes' time; that'll pierce through anything short of Sanctum wards."

Arkadi sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose just before he stepped through the bridge doors. For a split second, Kannon watched his countenance reveal the exhaustion that he was hiding. Haidar had mentioned to her that the past hour was supposed to be Arkadi's first break after the mission, yet he had chosen to spend most of it gathering information and answering her questions.

"Launch REDEINs one through four on minimum power. Drift away from the ship for 120 seconds before engaging drives. Haidar and Lysette, take the controls! We have to destroy the nearest drones before they get in range to pinpoint our vector."

Kaplan vacated the Captain's seat for Arkadi just as Kannon stepped onto the bridge. The XO was in his early twenties, built on the thin side with an average stature and about one-eighty centimeters (5'11") in height. His well-groomed black hair leaned towards the right, long enough to cover his ear and reach the base of his neck. His skin was paler than the usual Caucasian, and he had a small Asian nose and a pair of soft yet serious dark-blue eyes that gave him a surprisingly innocent expression when they weren't focused with determination.

Serious young knight, check.

Being Arkadi's deputy gave him extra points in Kannon's book. Although she wouldn't count on the idealistic and naive attributes though, given the nature of the party...

Marius was joined by Haidar and Lysette at the tactical readout. As newest 'member' of the team, recently switched over from his last job title of 'Infiltrator' assigned to the Hadrian, Marius was also the oldest-looking and somewhere in his mid-thirties. Broad-shouldered and over one-eighty-five (6'3"), Marius was built like a drill sergeant. Combined with his ashen-gray hair, thin grayish-black eyes, and a stiff mouth that seemed unlikely to bend a smile, it gave him a formidable appearance with a natural hard-to-please look.

Gruff old veteran, check.

Kannon wondered whether he was cynical or kind-hearted deep underneath -- probably not the latter if he was working here...

Okay, now I'm just jumping to unfair conclusions.

Engineering officer Korey, the last member of the ship's current crew, sat at the engineering terminal twirling his hair between his lithe fingers. He had an average build at one-seventy-five (5'9") in height, but with a distinctively feminine appearance with his large emerald-green eyes, thin arms, and long brown hair that went halfway down his back and draped forward over the shoulders. Both his delicate skin and hair seemed well cared for, and he always showed a gentle and attentive smile. His speech also used more words from the Altaic languages -- of the Japanese, Mongolian, Turkic, and Siberian regions -- than English, making it impossible to understand him without relying on the Communication Ring.

Gender-ambiguous character, check.

Kannon has never seen that role as the 'tech geek', although it had to happen somewhere. Thousands of years in both literature and reality did not leave any room for originality. Stereotyping existed because it tended to happen, but that only applied as long as one did not try to fit into square archetype holes too closely.

Must be willing to round it out a bit, or sometimes a lot... like, what role would the Captain be?

...Sparkly and princely on the outside, dark and wicked on the inside, naturally found inhabiting the shadows...

He must be a vampire.

She sat down at one of the extra seats in the back, legs already tired from the short hustle to the bridge. Then she called up the Somerset's system information panel with a thought.

Korey had reinstalled the main accessor chip on Kannon's neutral-interfacing implant at the back of her neck. The overall system architecture had enough similarities remaining from five centuries ago that he was able to link the two modes together with relatively few difficulties. Now, while Arkadi continued to issue orders across the bridge, Kannon began searching the database for the terms that she couldn't understand. She knew she had zero military experience and no understanding of this world, but...

Every being adapts to survive. A new world is no different from a new market. I'll learn and prove my value, just watch.

"...We can't get a lock on their drones' location at this range without using active sensors," Kaplan pointed out while both Haidar and Lysette leaned back on their chairs with closed eyes. The extended neck guards from below their headrests indicated that their consciousness had formed a physical deep-link with the ship through their neutral implants.

[ REDEIN - REmote Drone Escort INterceptors are the primary atmospheric and space fighter craft of the Avalonian Republic. They use telephased FTL communications to maintain link with their control terminals aboard starships and bases. The Arcani-class Strike Destroyer carries a maximum of eight REDEINs with two telephased control terminals... ]

"Isolate their prospective locations and hit as much of what remains as possible."

Given the ranges involved in starship sensors, that was a risky proposition at best; but Kannon heard neither fear nor anxiety in Arkadi's voice. His eyes remained as composed and focused as ever, scanning through row after row of sensor data as he adjusted the computer's frame of analysis.

"Match the triangulated returns from the combined sensors feed with the electromagnetic emissions map and regional distortions from stellar radiation. I'll do the former. Kaplan, help me with the latter."

His request was more or less a formality. The executive officer started even before Captain Arkadi finished his order.

"REDEINs away," reported Marius. The fact that he, an infantry captain, was filling in the role of a tactical assistant revealed just how understaffed this ship was.

"Kannon, you've dealt with navigation data before right? Give me a hand -- combine my results with Kaplan's and run a trajectory match on them at 95% confidence, then send what remains to Haidar and Lysette."

"Yes!" Kannon replied reflexively in surprise. Even with the staff shortage, she didn't expect him to ask for help from an amateur like her!


Pushing away all unnecessary thoughts, Kannon immediately opened several windows to display the coordinates the computer was sending her: four sets of minuscule stellar regions, each less than 0.002% of a light-second in diameter, but nevertheless over 100 cubic kilometers of space each. A conjunction operation cuts down each region by nearly another magnitude. Repeating the process for older data gave her the 'rough trajectory' for the paths of the nearest four recon drones over the past minute.

Since Kannon didn't know what the drones' thrust vectors may be, a trajectory calculation would be useless unless she could assume zero acceleration. It was likely that the drones wouldn't be able to use their maneuvering thrusters while maintaining stealth at such low ranges. That meant any shift to their initial velocity should match the stellar pull in this area, mostly the gravity wells of this system's stars and planets.

Accessing the ship's navigation data, Kannon quickly assembled an algorithm that would process and trim down the drones' prospective locations. The final result was four mobile regions of space based on the estimated velocity of the targets. At nearly five cubic kilometers each, they were far too much volume for just a few fighter weapons to sweep through in any reasonable time.

But with the clock ticking by, Kannon sent the data stream off without further delay. She closed her eyes to pray to whatever gods they believed in out here for their success.

The odds are horrible, I know; but it's still better than nothing.

"Opening fire!" Haidar's voice came through the bridge speakers.

As Kannon opened her eyes and looked at the AR windows before her, a red star marked one exact position within each of the four regions that the computer was tracking through the ongoing sensor feed data and algorithm calculations. Each of the drones was even labeled with a four digit ID code and numerical coordinates.

What's going on here?

"Focus all fire on region three!"

Kannon barely even registered Arkadi's order as her mind grappled with the implications of what she was seeing... It was exactly like what happened when she saw the Hadrian on the survey craft's star map, which should have no knowledge of its existence!

"Third pass, no response!"

"Stupid junk metal needs to learn how to just die!"

What should I do? Am I just seeing things due to fatigue again? There's only a minute left! We don't have time to deal with false data!

"Two Comitatensis-class battlecarriers advancing towards us. They're launching!"

But it was 'right' the last time wasn't it?

It may not had been what she expected, but both the coordinates and the Hadrian name proved themselves correct.

"Got it!"

"Switch target to region two!"

Kannon took a deep breath and raised her fingers.

Better to trust this weird intuition while we still have the chance, right?

She read the three remaining red stars' coordinates, one at a time and each for several seconds, while passing it straight through the neural-link to the computer. Then she ordered it to send out the updated tracking data...

"Take that!" Lysette shouted over the audio.

"Drone destroyed!" Marius reported again, hope rising within his solemn voice.

"Switch to region four. Tear it open!"

"Swinging about... firing..."

"Drone Destroyed!" Even Marius' report was halfway between ecstatic and incredulous now.

Three shots. Haidar's REDEIN destroyed the the elusive target with just three pulse laser bolts. Lysette just two against the one before.

Incredible! The data must have been spot on!

"Region one!"

"Drone Destroyed!"

I can't believe it worked! And so perfectly!

"We'll clear the net in twenty-three seconds," Kaplan said with just as much disbelief. "Recon drones powering up -- they're attempting to fill the gap!"

"Destroy them! Don't let any of them get close!"

Haidar and Lysette's names separated on the display, each controlling the leading craft of one REDEIN pair. They easily picked off the approaching recon drones before any of them could get into range. The other side was clearly panicking as their sweep operation met its catch-twenty-two: with a gap torn by interceptors already within the drone formation, the enemy will slip through if the gap wasn't closed; but to close the gap, the drones must fire up their engines, painting bullseye markers on themselves for the enemy REDEINs.

More drones from the sensor net activated their engines and tried to close the net around the Somerset; but Haidar and Lysette were cutting through the cords and tearing the hole further apart with even greater speed. It would take over another minute before the hostile REDEIN force, even with their 900Gs of acceleration, could reach the area to clear the way for their drones. By that time it would be too late.

"Any sensor ghosts remaining?" Arkadi asked as the enemy finally realized the futility of activating more drones.

"Five, nearest at 470,000 kilometers to starboard."

"That should give us enough distance, especially with all the weapons fire. Drop both decoys on drift! Followed by minimum thruster burn at 50Gs towards B-11 for 10 seconds," the Captain ordered. "Let's change our vector before they try to match our trajectory using the gap we blew apart."

"Affirmed. Decoys dropping," Kaplan confirmed.

"Affirmed. Minimum thruster burn to B-11 for ten seconds," Korey repeated before he began the countdown. "Nine... eight..."

"Twenty-second! Three actives remaining," Haidar's voice came over the audio as he continued to eliminate the last of the active drones.

"Five... four..."

"What's to be excited over mere target practice!?" Lysette mocked with malice. "Wait till we can tear up something real!"

"One... zero... engines shutting down. Course change completed."

"No course shifts detected from the enemy ships or REDEINs," Kaplan reported.

"Activate decoys at five percent. Mimic the emissions leak of a destroyer running under stealth. Set thrust vectors to one-thirty-five degrees of our heading and sixty degrees to each other. Arm proximity self-destruct sequence."

"Affirmed," responded Kaplan before repeating Arkadi's orders while he focused on inputting the decoy drones' parameters into the computer.

Talk about quick thinking... wish I could come up with layered ideas that fast.

Kannon was impressed. With the ship powered down after a brief course change, it would be difficult to track them down based on the section of the search net they broke through. That task just grew expontentially worse with two decoys mimicking the stealthed destroyer, each heading off on a course possible from the original breakthrough point. Even if the enemy attempted to trace them, they're far more likely to chase a sensor ghost for hours instead of finding the real ship.

"Looks like that's a wrap," Arkadi declared with unwavering confidence. "Sorry to burst your bubble Lysette, but crash your REDEINs with Haidar's at opposed velocities with self-destruct armed. I want not a scrap remaining."

"Yessir~!" The innocent and cheerful tone of Lysette's response felt like a whole different person's compared to her sharp, twisted voice from merely moments ago.

Seconds later, all four REDEINs blinked and vanished from the area display at once. Both Haidar and Lysette then rose back up from their chairs after disconnecting the physical uplink between their implants and the control system.

Meanwhile, the green circle marked Somerset that represented their ship was cutting a sharp vector out of the area. The trajectory was almost perpendicular to the hostile red cruisers' and REDEINs' inbound course. The enemy was activating more drones from stealth now that the interceptors have been destroyed, but it was already too late. The bridge remained tense for another few minutes as everyone watched the sensors carefully. But as the distance between the Somerset and the red-highlighted ships opened further and further, everyone began to relax back into their chairs.

"Good work, everyone!" Arkadi stood up and congratulated the crew with a brilliant smile before turning towards Kannon. "Especially you, princess. I knew we could rely on your help."

Every pair of eyes in the room turned towards Kannon. Kaplan looked indifferent but nodded once in begrudging acknowledgement. Marius cracked an amused and almost-unnatural smirk before crushing it under a steep frown. Korey smiled encouragingly as usual, while Haidar and Lysette were just surprised. It was a mixed reception at best, yet Kannon hardly even noticed. At the center of attention, Kannon's expression was virtually glowing. But rather than her usual embarrassment from the sudden, unexpected attention, it was from the sheer exhilaration of receiving the praise and acceptance after passing the first test with flying marks.

I totally did it~!

With her eyes sparkling in joy, Kannon found herself dazed by a brief moment of complete euphoria. In the game of life, recognition of success was her drug. Nothing could send her to greater heights than the rows of check marks on exams, the acceptance letters of institutes, the approving words of professors, the ravishing performance evaluations of supervisors, and most of all, the pats on the head from her own parents. It took several moments before her senses returned. Her excitement almost yelled out loud as she hurrily bowed her head:

"I-I'm honored to be of help!"

"We'll be counting on you," nodded Arkadi. He then closed his eyes for a brief second, exposing his fatigue, before suppressing it once again as he continued.

"Unless they luck out enough to hit the proverbial jackpot, I'd say that we're safe from detection now. We'll hold this vector for twenty more minutes before changing course with another timeboxed minimum burn. Kaplan, how are sensors and plotting?"

Before Kannon even had time to think about what Arkadi implied, Kaplan began yet another long-winded explanation that required all of her attention just to comprehend...

Kaplan turned back to his terminal for a second before responding "not good". He then switched the main display to show a holographic three-dimensional projection of the entire star system. The two class-K orange-red dwarve stars Logres A and Logres B of the astrometric binary star system were both near the apogee of their highly elliptic orbits around the barycenter -- the area where the figure-eight shaped twin star orbits cross over one another -- with a distance of 97 astronomical units (AU) between them. Along with the Avalon Wormhole, the three almost formed a right triangle, with Logres A 92AUs away from the wormhole and Logres B 34AUs away. The A-primary was orbited by six planets, with the second planet Avalon and third planet Caerleon forming a binary planet system on the ecliptic plane. Both of them were highlighted for their colonized status. Four other planets surrounded the B-primary, with its first planet Broceliande similarly highlighted.

"Most of the 1st District Battle Fleet is now gathered on the far side of the wormhole, with 2nd District's Home Defense Fleet in between us and them." Kaplan explained as he highlighted various sectors on the map where entire fleet formations were displayed. "Due to our launch direction from star fortress Hadrian, we've had no choice but to proceed towards the far side of the Logres B system to avoid the sensors of the 2nd District fleet. But since we didn't have time to resupply after our last trip or aboard the Hadrian, the last REDEIN launch had pushed our strained fuel reserves to critical."

"Given the situation, our arcane core won't be able to spare much ether outside maintaining the stealth field. Worse yet, there isn't a single 1st District capital ship left within the Logres B system to receive us. It would also be difficult for Marshal Comorus Kernow to find an appropriate excuse to dispatch another ship here right now."

"So... we're all going behind enemy lines? Again?" Haidar asked with obvious distaste.

"Yes. At this point, we have no choice but to rely on Logres B's gravity well to help pull us in, make for Broceliande's orbit, and then find another way back to Avalon."

[ Broceliande - The 1st planet of the Logres B system. Broceliande is a forest planet dominated by gigantic ironwood trees with an atmosphere harmful to unenhanced humans due to its concentration of airborne heavy metals. Although the 2nd planet to be settled by the Avalonian Dominion, it is today the most populous planet and under the care of the 2nd Military District... ]

"So be it then," Arkadi declared without a shred of the worry that clouded the other crew members' faces. "We've all been to Broceliande on mission before, and I've been there dozens of times. The Black Hand has more than enough contacts and agents on the planet to help out, and this mission is alpha-priority." He told everyone with confidence before curling his lips into a smirk of eager anticipation. "I'll take care of the arrangements. We'll be back on Avalon before you know it. In the meantime, unless special circumstances arise, I want everyone to get as much rest as possible before we arrive in planetary orbit."

"Affirmed!" replied the team before they each sat back down at their terminals.

Lysette and Haidar were still on their off-duty time slot. They took only enough time to examine the sensors before standing back up from their seats. On the other hand, Arkadi went straight back to work after sitting down with slower and more careful motion than usual.

With a frown towards the Captain, Kannon slowly stood up as she pondered over his behavior. As a heir to the family enterprise, she spent much of her life learning to read others. The fact her slow thought process couldn't keep up with everyday speech only emphasized this, forcing her to always try to prepare for conversations ahead of time. But try as she might, she just couldn't quite figure Arkadi out.

On one hand, he was a villain. There was no doubt about that.

On the other hand, he seemed like a honest and truthful person. He didn't try to hide anything except his own weaknesses. He may seem exaggerated or impossibly confident at times, but Kannon couldn't fault him for a single time in being insincere or deceitful in the words and emotions he expressed.

Yet... if his expressions were genuine, how could his words be so kind and gentle one moment, yet turn so callous and ruthless the next? How could he kill a comrade he clearly trusted with unhesitating ease, yet push himself to the limits for the sake of those who remain? How could he wipe out thousands without even blinking an eye, yet provide her, a mere civilian from a hostile star nation, with more care than her role warranted, even trusting her enough to watch his back at the most critical moment?

It was like he switched between the kindness of a chivalrous leader and the brutality of a merciless killing machine with complete freedom, without the slightest reserve or moral restraint to hold him back. That simply wasn't natural for human psychology. But unless this man was a liar of such finesse that it fooled her completely...

Not likely.

Interpreting others was one of Kannon's natural talents that she took great pride in, but...

Arkadi turned his head around in surprise as Kannon, after walking over absentmindedly, laid her right hand upon his shoulder.

"You should take a rest as well, Captain," her thoughts voiced themselves. "You're utterly exhausted."

Time stood still as both Kaplan and Korey stopped what they were doing to stare upon the other two. Even Arkadi was staring back with a sign of mild surprise in his fatigued eyes. Meanwhile, Kannon found herself frozen, unsure of how to continue without a response, only to gaze back with adamant eyes. For a long minute, the bridge was completely silent except for the clicks coming from Marius' terminal.

Then, it was Kaplan who broke the peace. He was serious and formal like usual; yet both gratitude and concern also worked its way in as he gave the Captain a knowing look:

"She's right Captain. You haven't slept for forty hours even before the operation. It'll take, at the very least, fifty-six hours more before we arrive in Broceliande orbit. That should provide enough time for you to prepare -- after you take a proper break."

Arkadi turned to look at Kaplan like this was the last thing he expected. But Kaplan's face held firm, his lips tight and his eyes unwavering.

"Very well, you win, you win," Arkadi replied, lifting his arms off the terminal as if admitting his defeat. "Kaplan, you have the bridge."

"Affirmed, I have the bridge."

Arkadi's eyes began to droop as he slowly stood up from the captain's chair. He patted Kannon's head twice with his large hand as he began to walk towards the doors.

"Thanks, princess. You should get some rest as well."

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

Three hours and thirty-seven minutes later, Arkadi stepped back onto the bridge. It was the longest he had slept in months. Combined with the restoration magic from his ether-tech sleep module, it was far more than the two hours normally required to fully revitalize him.

"Morning, ladies and gentlemen. How's the day treating?" He greeted Lysette and Korey, who were the current ones on watch.

"Silent and undetected~" Lysette playfully responded as she flashed an innocent smile towards Arkadi. "We're en-route towards the mystical forests of Broceliande~ ETA fifty-three hours."

"Our guest is sleeping peacefully right now," Korey followed with his usual cheerfulness. "I doubt they have the same longevity treatments on the other side for the restoration magic to link with, so it may take some time."

"Keep up the good work," responded the Captain as he sat down on his chair. He activated the terminal and called for half a dozen windows to open up around him, each filled with information regarding the Somerset and the surrounding space.

He needed to go back to figuring out what to do once they reached orbit. But first, there was something that has been bothering him...

He had thought that Lysette and Haidar simply got lucky in the last encounter. It hadn't occurred to him to check the data until he woke up minutes ago and mentally reviewed all of the events in the last two days. It was a habit he had originally adopted to help refine his once-poor short-term memories, but he also found it to be an excellent way of reflecting upon recent events under different circumstances.

Now, accessing the REDEIN's targeting logs, he realized it wasn't just luck. Somehow they managed to narrow each of the drones' locations down to almost an exact point in space.

He examined the algorithm that Kannon created and the data stream it provided back during the skirmish. The calculations definitely resulted in an approximate area where the computer deduced its target to be within. But forty-three seconds after the REDEINs began firing, Kannon somehow mentally figured out, and began inputting, the precise locations of the drones over a five second interval each. The trajectory plotted by the computer using these coordinates proved to be exactly right.

Arkadi leaned back and closed his eyes in thought.

Even if she didn't come from the other side, even if she was from one of the original archmagi lineages, there was no way she could have activated a divination magic powerful enough to pinpoint the exact positions of three different targets with neither a spell focus nor a trace object, within the span of mere seconds and without any of them on the bridge noticing the aura expansion of a spell that should have been at least class seven. But if that wasn't the answer, then...

Just what did she do?

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