Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 3 Old

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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.

After working my courage up to tell him that, I couldn't help but feel a little exasperated. The Judges wouldn't believe me either, and their unnecessary torture still lingered fresh on my 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 in response. "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.)

"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.

(Well, designated mage of the party needs some eccentricities in his wardrobe.)

Recognition and classification of others at a glance was a skill essential to those raised to lead and manage. But for me, this habit took an extra turn -- I tend to compare people to character roles too often. I had read my share of fantasy literature growing up. Although games weren't a common pastime due to time constraints, I did enjoy reading reference fan-sites and letting imagination fill in the rest.

"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 heard 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."

Arkadi and his group seemed to be 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. Although this group was probably 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."

All put together, it wasn't that different from dozens of eras in Earth's history. The only unusual trait was that they somehow managed to sustain peace for so long. But what I was more amazed by was...

"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 my eyes. "It would be folly to try to fool such an intelligent and beautiful lady as yourself, miss."

"I see our heroic captain prefers flattery over manipulation."

Flowery words weren't new to me. Beautiful was always amongst the praises any of father's associates would shower me with. Yet I felt my cheeks heating up again as a reminder that few individuals ever seriously called me smart due to my slow responses. Even my research professor merely settled on 'hardworking' and 'creative'...

I quickly shook those thoughts aside.

(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, whatever else, this man was definitely not the princely character he presented himself as. I shouldn't even need to remind myself of his bloody image 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."

I swear 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 probably had an AR window open.

She looked about my age, but already a good ten centimeters (4") taller than me at one-sixty-five (5'5"). She had short, straight black hair partially tied back with a large red ribbon and 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 had a serene appearance that didn't match at all with the bloodthirsty words she yelled during the last battle, and the creamy white skin accentuated by her pitch-black uniform was an impossibility for military commandos -- at least, one of any non-magical origin.

The piloting position didn't fool me. Between her angelic countenance and the 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 looked up and down my body, and again. It sent a faint shiver down the back of my neck... Somehow I doubted that I would want to know what went through his mind that moment.

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

"We're the first... and I 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--)

"But we already had that 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."

That meant these people were centuries behind on even civilian-grade technologies, let alone military.

(There may still be a way to make myself useful after all!)

The guardian of knowledge -- I always pictured myself playing that role when I read up on adventure games -- although this was far more serious.

"Since then, most of our research had gone into ether-tech 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."

If nothing else, I could at least 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 me in on the details before I even need to ask. In the past few hours, I learned far more about this world than the days I 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...

(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 solution -- 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," I responded with a meek smile.

The ten foot long, five kilos (11lbs) heavy starsteel chain and weight was still attached to the shackle locked onto my left wrist. Arkadi explained earlier that starsteel, made from special meteorite ore from the planet of Avalon, was no more metallic than the diamondsteel used to armor starships. Its construction and durability was similar to diamond, being also made from mostly carbon and using the same crystal-lattice structure. But 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 my arm before it could destroy the shackle itself.

In the meantime, they gave me three items to help minimize the chain's hindrance: a strap for my upper left arm where a small hook held the chain up from the shackle to give my arm unimpeded motion; a second hook strapped onto the belt where the rest of the chain hanged from; and a holder strapped to my left thigh that held the weight.

I 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 with square collars and stiff white lines. A short, deep-red tie wrapped loosely under my collars and long gloves hugged my arms up to the bared shoulders. Under the utility belt were a two-layered pleated black miniskirt with white trim, a set of black running shorts underneath, plus solid-black thigh-high stockings and calf-high steel-toed boots.

It was an unusual design given the militant intent, and Lysette showed me it was just one of several options available in the armed forces. The only difference was that, as the name implied, the Black Hand special forces wore them in pitch-black color instead of the normal slate-gray.

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

This whole session would feel like an interview if the Captain was more stern and disagreeable...

(I guess I have to thank him then.)

I hated interviews, and this time it wasn't for just some internship role under one of father's directors. No, given what these people do, this was my life at stake here.

(With the decision maker being none other than the party protagonist across the table too. Either I'll be recruited, or I'll vanish into the background as the story pressed on...)

...And 'vanish' was a dangerous term when it came to special operatives...

(Being a support character could sure be tough at times.)

"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 us all over the telepathic channel.

Of course, I still wore the communication ring. The crew spoke mostly English. After all, it was the official language of the Terran sector, even five centuries ago when their ancestors first left. But every other line they would use a term or two from another language. Some members of the team did so more often than others -- which meant it wasn't just a matter of more words adopted into the English language since the colonization of this star system.

As a result, I had no choice but to rely on the ring's abilities. I hope it wasn't broadcasting any thoughts other than the ones I willed into it. But just to be on the safe side...

(Best not to lie while I wear this -- not that I'm any good at that to start with.)

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

"We're detecting faint sensor ghosts up ahead, closing in at 4500 kilos per second. 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 responded. "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, his countenance revealed the exhaustion that he was hiding.

Haidar had mentioned 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 my 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 had just vacated the Captain's seat for Arkadi as I stepped onto the bridge. The XO was in his early twenties, built on the thin side with an average stature of about one-eighty (5'11"). He had slightly long black hair that covered his ears and just barely went past his neck at the back. 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. I 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 probably 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.)

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

(...Maybe I'm judging too quickly.)

Engineering officer Korey, the last member of the ship's current crew, sat at the engineering terminal twirling his hair between his thin 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 skin and hair seemed delicate and well cared for, and he always showed a gentle and attentive smile. His speech also used more words from the Altayic languages than English, and it was impossible to understand him without relying on the communication ring.

(Gender-ambiguous character, check.)

I haven't seen that role as the tech geek before. Probably existed out there somewhere though. Thousands of years in literature didn't exactly leave any room for originality.

Stereotyping existed because it tended to happen, after all.

...As long as one didn't try to fit them into the square archetype holes too closely... Must be willing to round it out a bit, or sometimes a lot...

(Mmmh, 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.)

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

Korey had reinstalled the main accessor chip on the neutral-interfacing implant at the back of my 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, as Arkadi continued to issue orders across the bridge, I began searching the database for the terms that I couldn't understand.

I didn't have any military experience. I didn't know a thing about this world. But that was why I had to learn and make myself useful...

"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 there was 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 meant that this ship was severely understaffed.

"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!" I responded reflexively in surprise. Even with the staff shortage, I wasn't been expecting him to ask for my help!

(Focus!) I mentally shouted at myself, pushing away all other unnecessary thoughts.

I opened several new windows to display the coordinates the computer was sending me: 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 me the 'rough trajectory' for the paths of the nearest four recon drones over the past minute.

Since I didn't know what the drones' thrust vectors may be, a trajectory calculation would be useless unless I can 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, I 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, I sent the data stream off without further delay. I closed my eyes for a brief second 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 I opened my eyes and saw the windows in front of me, 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!"

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

"Third pass, no response!"

"Stupid pieces of trash need 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 I expected, but both the coordinates and the name had been correct.

"Got it!"

"Switch target to region two! We must open the gap further before they close the net!"

I took a deep breath and raised my fingers.

(Better to trust my instincts while we still have the chance, right?)

I 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 I 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!"

"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 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 us; but those two were cutting through the cords and tearing the hole further apart with even greater speed.

It would take over another minute before the enemy REDEINs, even with their 900Gs of acceleration, could reach this area to clear the way for their drones. By that time it would be too late to ensnare us.

"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. "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.

"Looks like that's a wrap," Arkadi declared. "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 her response felt completely opposite 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 our ship was cutting a sharp vector out of the area. The trajectory was almost perpendicular to the enemy 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 us and the red-highlighted ships opened further and further while they scanned the area without any sign of realizing our true heading, we began to relax back into our chairs.

"Good work, everyone!" Arkadi stood up and congratulated all of us with a wide grin before turning to me. "Especially you, princess. I knew we could rely on your help."

Everyone suddenly turned to look towards me. Kaplan looked indifferent but nodded once in appreciation. Marius cracked a surprising and almost-unnatural smirk before crushing it under a steep frown. Korey smiled encouragingly, while Haidar and Lysette were just surprised...

It wasn't an overwhelming reception, but I still felt the heat rising as my face began to glow. Some of it was the embarrassment. Despite my upbringing, I never could get used to being put in the spotlight without prior preparation. But mostly, it was just the sheer exhilaration of receiving praise and acceptance, by the leader in charge no less, after I passed the first test with flying marks.

It was like when I received my first internship offer; better yet -- when my parents and teachers congratulated me afterwards; or after my first college acceptance email; or when I scored top marks on final exams and won regional contests...

"I-I'm honored to be of help!" My excitement almost yelled out loud as I bowed my head.

"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?"

I didn't even have time to think about what Arkadi implied before Kaplan began yet another long-winded explanation that required all of my attention just to comprehend...

He turned 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 (far ends) of their highly elliptic orbits around the barycenter (the area where the figure-8 shaped twin star orbits cross over one another), with a distance of 97 astronomical units 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 Brocéliande 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 2nd District's ships. 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 pull us in, make for Brocéliande's orbit, and then find another way back to Avalon."

[ Brocéliande - The 1st planet of the Logres B system. Brocéliande 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 Brocéliande on mission before, and I've been there over two dozen 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 each of them 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.

As I stood up, thinking back to his words and actions, I couldn't help but ponder:

I spent much of my life learning to read others from a distance. My thought process was slower than usual, barely able to keep up with my speech; so I always tried to prepare myself for conversation before I speak, to anticipate their responses before I approach. But try as I might, I just couldn't quite figure this man 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. While he may seem exaggerated or impossibly confident at times, I couldn't fault him for being insincere or deceitful in the words and emotions he expressed.

But...

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 so clearly trusted with such ease, yet push himself so far for the sake of those who remain? How could he wipe out thousands without even blinking an eye, yet provide me, a mere civilian from a hostile star nation, with more care than my role warranted and trusted me 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.

It could be that he was simply lying, hiding his true feelings with such finesse that it fooled me completely.

(Not likely.)

Interpreting others was one of my few special skills that I took great pride in, but...

Arkadi turned his head around in surprise as I laid my right hand upon his shoulder.

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

Time stood still as both Kaplan and Korey stopped what they were doing to look upon us. Even Arkadi was staring back with a sign of mild surprise in his fatigued eyes.

I didn't know what I should say next. I wasn't sure how he would respond yet. For a long moment, the bridge was completely silent except for the sounds coming from Marius' terminal.

Then -- it was Kaplan who spoke up. He was serious and formal like usual; yet both gratitude and concern also worked its way into his words:

"She's right Captain. You haven't slept for forty hours even before the operation. It'll take at least fifty-six more before we arrive in Brocéliande orbit, assuming no unforeseeable circumstances. 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."

His eyes began to droop as he slowly stood up from the captain's chair. He patted my 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, and combined with the restoration magic from his ether-tech sleep module, it was more than enough 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 Brocéliande~ ETA fifty-three hours."

"Our guest is sleeping peacefully right now," Korey followed with his usual cheerfulness. "I don't think they have 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 thought back to review all of the events that passed over 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 reviewing 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 calculated 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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