Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 4

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Chapter 4 - Colored Shades of Gray

"See, the Communication Ring is military -- well some organizations and individuals use it too. But the point is, it's a formal translator. You can't customize it for accents, styles, mannerisms, or anything like that! Basically, it's lossy translation!"

Kannon was already regretting her decision in asking Korey to explain the more esoteric pieces of equipment. The problem was that he was too enthusiastic. He ranted with such apparent excitement while chopping up onions it seemed like he was crying tears of joy from just the opportunity to talk.

"How so?" She asked while lifting the top of the tabletop electric grill. The salmon sizzling upon it was almost a golden-brown color, and the exquisite smell of miso marinate combined with fish oils was already beyond mouthwatering. She decided to give it another minute and closed the top again.

"You see, the ring uses telepathy divination to communicate, transferring both the words they picked and the brain signals used to select them. It sends the words directly to your head, but automatically translates the phrases and grammar that you don't understand by tickling your speech centers with the original brain signals. Basically it grabs the very words you would have used to describe the same thoughts, and then send it off to all your cognitive functions."

"But... that sounds like perfect translation." Kannon was totally impressed and confused at the same time. The technology was a clear cut beyond even the Empyrean Universal Translators.

"Nonononono, youseeyousee, it's what words you would use, not what words they did use. The Communication Ring doesn't transmit the emotions behind the choices. Otherwise everyone might as well be reading each others' minds rather than just the words we focus upon the ring -- baaaaaddd idea, as our psychology does require privacy."

"The thing is, we all speak a bit differently. Depending on culture, that difference could be quite a gap. The Communication Ring's translation will bring the thoughts across. But the way they said it, the tone they said it in -- all of those won't translate so easily. Hence, it's lossy translation!"

"Take Japanese for example," continued Korey as he finished chopping the onions, put them into a bowl, and began cutting the potatoes into thin shreds. "There are many levels of speech, not just accents and regional styles but multiple versions of the standard dialect used for different levels of respectfulness and familiarity. Honorifics, descriptions, and even the sentence structure changes. Someone knowledgeable about the language can tell what impression the other side wishes to make and what distance they want to keep the conversation at just from their speech. But since the official language English lacks the same... features, most of that is simply lost in translation."

"But... isn't that expected from any translation?" Kannon said while turning off the grill and taking out several plates.

"Not quite -- you see, a good human translator can take the details that would otherwise be lost in translation into account. They can adjust the words based on circumstances to make up for it, somewhat. Pick exaggerated adjectives and adverbs and whatnot. Automatic translation usually won't do that because it's not the scale of description they had originally used. After all, other than logic, our words are manipulated on a subconscious level based on emotions before they come out."

"...I don't see how the an implant translation component could solve this though."

"Oy! How long are you going to keep rambling on you culture nut!" Haidar complained from the corner with clear annoyance. But Korey simply kept talking like he didn't hear anything.

"It doesn't, not by itself. Our things might be magical but not that magical! The implant component simply offers more potential. Instead of tickling your brain, it relies on its own database and combine it with magical divination deduction -- if that makes any sense. You see, it's basically a magicked-up version of old auto-translators, but provides a breakdown of matches to the phrases and structures you focus on. Unlike the translation ring which basically does all your work for you, the implant allows you to build up your own experience with the language. Most importantly, it'll adapt to the way you choose to view the styles and mannerisms rather than just dump out the formal meaning behind them."

Kannon finished moving the grilled salmon onto the special serving dishes with built-in miniature gravity field generators. Then she added a scoop of lemon-seasoned onion rice and some orange-glazed carrots to each plate.

"Well... the food is done, so let's eat first." She finally gained a polite opportunity to stop Korey while bringing the first two plates to the common room table. Although interesting at first, Korey's enthusiasm on the topic had long exceeded the technicality a linguistics amateur like Kannon could take in one sitting, or standing.

Well, at least the conversation put him into a happy mood; or was it the cooking?

"Now This. Looks. Delicious!" Haidar declared in joy as he sat down, his hands rubbing anxiously. "It's been forever since we've had some variety around here!"

"...Your kitchen stock isn't that bad. At least you recognize more food groups than beer, caffeine, and instant meals."

"Of course, the nostalgic college diet," Arkadi sported a wide grin from the corner as his fingers danced across the air surrounding him, presumably closing the windows opened with his neural-interface. "Sadly, the only extra food group we receive is curry."

Kannon finally realized that he hadn't spoken or moved at all for the past few hours, not since he started working in that corner. His concentration easily rivaled that of her own.

"...Spicy tastes bring a spicy life, I guess?"

"Well, Korey loooooooves curry. Indian, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, you name it~" Lysette explained as she helped bring over another plate, setting it courteously between the utensils in front of the Captain just as he walked over to pull out a chair.

Between cooking and chatting with Korey, Kannon hadn't even noticed that Lysette had stopped reading at some point to set the table. She had even given each of the napkins a classic fan fold.

"He's very good at it too~ What was that nickname his friends called him by?"

"Don't say it!" Korey shouted with a flustered voice. But Lysette wasn't backing off as she tilted her head, clapped her hands together in a cute gesture, and called out with her sweetest voice yet:

"Kary-han!"

"It's curry bread!" he fixed her pronunciation before realizing what he did. "And don't call me that either!"

I think he actually said karepan, prior to the auto-translator kicking in.

"Awww~ but Korey I thought you liked cute aliases," Haidar joined in, "I mean those online names of yours and all--"

"Just not that one!"

His entire face was beet red as he spun on his heels and turned his back to the room while everyone grinned from ear to ear. Even Kannon joined them as she watched fondly. It was just like those video game skits -- they were but another a group of adventurous 'friends' having a good time teasing each other.

Really can't tell that these people were black ops at all right now.

It proved that no matter how gritty the job was or how experienced the members were, people were still people. The fact they were elite, militarily-trained terrorists didn't change things one bit. These casual, slice-of-life moments were just as important to them as everybody else.

"Either way, I'm fine with Korey's curry." Haidar continued with his fork already in hand and a smirk still spread across his lips. "But every meal, every day, every week, every month is just too much, even with a dozen different kinds."

"Hey, I cook other dishes too!"

"And they were indeed a most exquisite cultural experience, but perhaps a bit too exotic for most of us," replied Arkadi before changing the subject. "This really is brilliant handiwork, princess. The main course looks particularly delightful. What do you call this?"

"Miso-marinated grilled salmon," Kannon answered proudly. This was one of the simplest of her specialty dishes after all. "I had to synthesize a few spices so the taste may prove slightly dull. But since there was a decent stock of salmon I figured we would try this first. We were also preparing beef goulash stew for dinner."

"The first ingredient of deliciousness is always a girl's touch, just as--" Haidar suddenly cut off when Lysette hit him in the back of the head, hard enough to almost knock his face into the plate before him. Lysette then walked back towards the kitchen looking as peaceful and innocent as ever. Haidar, on the other hand, was flushed with anger for a split second, but said nothing of it.

Between a jester and a lady, however questionable, the victor had been decided even before it started. That was especially true when Lysette had the temperance of barbed steel -- polished and tough, but wouldn't hesitate for a second to bloody an offender.

"...But, Korey's an excellent cook." Kannon could tell by the adroit way he sliced through the ingredients. That clean and precise knifework wasn't something one could develop from just making a few meals.

"He already counts as a girl!" responded Haidar without the slightest hesitation.

Korey however, said nothing. He looked as though he was already used to it.

"...Do men usually not cook within the Republic?" Kannon asked with curiosity. It was always her father who cooked at home, and both genders of her acquaintances in college were equally disinterested.

Honestly, the concept of 'cooking was for women' is even more obsolete than silicon transistors.

"Oh no, that's not the case at all," Korey replied as he finished putting away the ingredients. "Although it is rather skewed... Gender stereotyping within the Republic had reverted back several millennia after landfall. You think the reconstitution of magical culture and northern paganism would push it the other way, especially since women, on average, have stronger magical potential. The downside is that their hormone imbalance periods also make their magic more unstable. Furthermore, the low population made governments encourage women to have as many children as possible and then stay home to raise them. In fact--"

Kannon realized too late that she stepped on another one of this ship engineering techie's unusually passionate interests in cultural studies.

"Why didn't you just show Kannon how to use the nanite multitool?" Lysette cut him off as she glanced over all the ingredient containers while picking up the last dish. "It'd be a lot faster than cutting it all by hand."

"Where's the fun in that?" Korey pouted for a brief moment before returning to his cheerful self, his eyes reflecting Kannon's agreeing smile.

"Where's Kaplan and Marius?" She asked. Other than those two, everyone was all ready to start. Haidar was already eating with a blissful expression.

"Marius is sleeping, and Kaplan's still on watch at the bridge. I called him to come down, since we can monitor the sensors just fine from here anyways. But you can guess how he responded." Arkadi shrugged.

The young serious knight with the armor of rules, firmly keeping everyone's head on the ground at all times, best paired with extravagant commanders... yep, I know the type.

"I'll bring his meal over then. It wouldn't be as good once it cools. You all go ahead and enjoy~"

Kannon picked up both of the extra plates on the table, carried one of them back to the kitchen, then went out into the hallway with the other on a small rectangular tray. The corridor was dimly lit with only two rows of emergency lighting on the floor to conserve the ship's power. There was also no artificial gravity; walking relied on the personal gravity field generator built into her boots. She went along carefully, making sure she didn't spill any of the food that she could barely see. Even then, she was at the bridge within two minutes.

The ship may be nearly two-hundred meters long, but the massive engines and power cores took up about sixty-percent of its volume. The rest was split between weapons and other systems; the space that remained for living-quarters was quite compact.

The bridge doors slid open with a single thought as Kannon focused on it.

"I should have known that you'd come," Kaplan spoke without even turning around from the captain's chair.

"...Why do you say that?"

"You're the type that can't leave people alone, aren't you?"

"...Lies! I just thought roleplaying a maid would look cute. I'll have you know that I'm very aloof normally, especially to stuck-up swordsmen."

Okay... that's bit unreasonable, but it's his fault for raising such a pretentious question. Besides, I'm not lying either.

Kannon was wearing one of Korey's flowery aprons and did hope to make a good impression on her new comrades by revolutionizing their diet. Her father once taught her that the easiest way to bond with any team was over the dining table, and the most straightforward way to personally impress someone was to make them a scrumptious home-cooked meal. He even made a point of this by hosting his weekly associate dinners at home once a month, particularly as a way to warm up to new subordinates or show immediate recognition for high performers.

Well... not like making acquaintances is a character skill of mine, which means taking the extra step to work on it.

"But your team did rescue me. The least I could do is give you all a warm, home-cooked meal."

Kannon moved up beside Kaplan and put the plate of food down at the open space to the side of his terminal and keyboard screens. With the availability of augmented reality (AR) interfacing, this sort of redundancy in controls could only be found on a military vessel.

"We didn't expend three members of our team to rescue you to become our ship's stewardess," Kaplan shot back harshly.

Kannon's annoyance towards Kaplan's attitude died almost instantly. It was reasonable for him to be upset, after watching three comrades fall in exchange for a stranger that's not even from his star nation. There seemed to be something else as well, but...

"I'm sorry," she said solemnly. "I knew about Edmund, but I didn't know there were also others... What were their names?"

Remembering the dead is the least I could do.

"Alicia Watkins and Kyrie Melges, REDEIN ops." Kaplan answered. His voice was cold but lined with a tinge of suppressed sadness. His eyes were still glued to the display in front of him.

No wonder why they seemed so short-handed during the last encounter.

"They knew what they signed up for... I just hope you are worth their lives."

Kannon felt the implications of Kaplan's words weigh down upon her. Regardless of circumstances and intentions, the lives of three people were lost for her sake. It was now her duty to take responsibility and make their sacrifices meaningful.

"I... I understand. I'll do my best to cooperate."

What else can I say?

Kaplan closed his eyes and sighed audibly. He then reopened them to examine the lunch while his hand picked up the fork on the plate.

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful -- but you know perfectly well how you can really help us."

"Yes..."

He doesn't have to remind me...

"...Don't worry. It's already in the works."

Kannon knew that they didn't rescue her out of pure goodwill. She knew that she was merely a source of knowledge to them: one who fell from the stars with an advanced prototype that could bring centuries of advances to their technology, as well as social information on the main branch of humanity that they left behind. They only broke her out so she could cooperate with them instead of their rivals in the 2nd District.

Kaplan picked up the knife, cut off a piece of the salmon, and delivered it to his mouth. He took his time tasting it before swallowing and commenting: "that being said, this is quite delicious."

"Thank you." Kannon finally brought a smile to her lips since stepping onto the bridge.

As Kaplan resumed eating silently, Kannon bowed lightly with the tray still in hand and took her cue to leave. Yet just before she reached the bridge doors, Kaplan called her attention back again:

"Miss Reginbrandt."

"Yes?"

Turning her head around, Kannon saw only the back of his head. Despite being the only other person on this bridge, Kaplan hasn't looked at her once this entire time.

"Please don't hesitate to talk to any of us if you need something," he said as his arms silently cut up another piece of salmon. "As long as you're our precious partner, we will do our best to make you feel at home."

Arkadi told her the same thing earlier, although without the 'as long as' part.

Kannon couldn't help but wonder what would happen to her once the partnership came to pass with the conclusion of the mission, once she told them all that she know. She couldn't even be sure they would spare her to fade away as some insignificant NPC in this fantasy realm.

"Thank you," she said with as appreciative of a voice as she could muster, before bowing again and leaving the bridge.

It always seems so easy from the protagonist side. I never realized before just how difficult it is actually to join the party when playing support -- if that really is my goal.


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


Thirty-six hours had already passed since that last encounter with 2nd District units. The crew had relaxed since then as they travelled deeper and deeper into the Logres B system, where not a single ship seemed to have even an inkling of their presence. But now that the Somerset was less than twenty-four hours away from reaching Broceliande orbit, the crew had began accelerating their preparations for entering hostile territory.

Among the preparatory items were two hours by Korey to add another major software update to Kannon's neural-interface controls, melding the two systems together with an even deeper link. He told her that he might be able to create a hybrid system to reinstall over both of them. But he would rather not play with that until they arrived in safer lands, just in case something went wrong.

Kannon was thankful. Since the chip connected to her spinal cord, 'something wrong' could easily translate to 'vegetable for life'.

Korey also ran another medical check on her and spent some particular time fussing about her eyes. There was nothing wrong with them, except that Kannon had a habit of not properly using them...

"Odd to see you here, princess."

Kannon almost jumped as the voice resounded from the dark corner behind her in a room lit only by a single display screen and several glowing crystals. Recognizing Arkadi's tone, she spun her heels around to see him walking out from the shadows, with a pistol in hand no less.

"Captain!"

Her pulse skyrocketed and her eyes grew as large as saucers... for a brief second. She soon noticed that Arkadi was grasping the gun by the barrel, pointed down and to the side, instead of by the handle and pointed at her. But calming down required far more patience than a simple, instantaneous shot of adrenaline.

"Gosh, that scared me -- what are you, a vampire?" Kannon voiced her thoughts before chiding herself.

Did I just say that out loud? I wonder if fatigue mixed with fear gave people death wishes.

"Only if I could bind your beautiful soul to mine for eternity."

Kannon found it surreal how the Captain could make even such ridiculous words sound sincere. But with less than half his black-clothed figure illuminated by the ambient glow, Arkadi seemed more like one than ever.

"Zero points. Cut the soul part next time. It's downright creepy when you say it like that."

She wasn't kidding. The gun even gave his line a bonus. She had to concentrate just to keep her eyes off the thing.

He shrugged as though this was completely normal.

"Sadly, not all attempts to appreciate beauty succeed, yet it cannot stop an admirer from trying. But to answer your thoughts, the core room helps me relax," he replied with a soft, somewhat nostalgic smile. "You may not see it since it's so dark in here, but there's a folding chair in the corner."

...A coffin would fit this atmosphere better, or is that too archaic?

"Ah... I'm sorry for disturbing you. I thought this was the reactor core room."

In-between cramming knowledge into her head from the ship's database, Kannon mostly took breaks through cooking and exploration.

Still, there aren't any bears to hunt that would warrant a gun.

As Arkadi put his pistol back into its holster, Kannon noticed the glint of something attached to the bottom of the handle: a silver rectangular locket. It was an odd accessory to keep on a firearm. But maybe it was also the real reason he had it in hand -- reminiscing the memories it held.

"No such thing as disturbance, princess." He said gently as he walked into the light. "In fact I'm enchanted by your presence. It is always an honor to accompany a lovely maiden in her noble quest for intellect and wisdom."

In just a few lines of dialogue, the atmosphere around Kannon took a completely one-eighty flip from strangely menacing to... bubbly pink.

Does 'building the atmosphere' mean anything to this guy?

Even worse, Kannon didn't know what was more embarrassing -- the courtly words Arkadi suddenly chose in such private circumstances, or the fact she was actually fazed by their abruptness, moving in just as her nerves were trying to settle down.

"...I guess I'm supposed to be blushing demurely here."

--Which is exactly what my cheeks are doing, the traitors!

His eyes twinkled as his smile stretched even wider, revealing the perfectly white teeth underneath that dazzled even in this dimly lit room.

"Really is quite charming, princess. Even the muses would be jealous at such a sight."

At least he doesn't actually sparkle, thank god for small favors.

But the smile was so bright she couldn't help avert her eyes, or so Kannon told herself.

"I-I have a name, you know. So you don't need to call me that."

"I humbly apologize, milady Kannon. I did not realize it was bothering you," He apologized with a courteous bow; his tone was genuinely worried but also betrayed a dash of playful curiosity.

"Nono! I'm flattered, really! ...It's just beyond awkward and excessive... and kind of embarrassing..."

Kannon doubted most normal girls her age could truly dislike being addressed 'princess' in an endearing manner. In fact, she considered it a compliment. Be it through fairy tales or mythological legends, the charm, grace, presence, and dignity of noble princesses continued to touch the hearts and dreams of every young lady at one point or another.

But... it's impossible for me to get used to such a lofty honorific.

Even as the heiress of a corporate magnate, no one had ever addressed Kannon as such. The few aides that mother had been forced to hire due to her busy schedule had, at most, gone to the extent of 'young miss'. Most of the time they had simply addressed her by name.

Even more importantly, I simply don't want to be seen through such a title.

After all, how many princesses actually undertook missions or came alongside the team? They were almost always in the background, serving as distant motivations and glorified prizes rather than directly partaking in any action that would aid the protagonist and serve the story.

"Besides, it's inappropriate for a guardian scholar to be addressed as such!" Kannon announced proudly as she laid her fingers down upon her best, albeit still miserable, attempt at puffing up her chest.

Arkadi smiled again and nodded in understanding.

"How does Miss Guardian wish to be referred by then?"

"Just Kannon is fine." She declared as her gaze met his earnest deep-violet eyes once again.

"Your wish is my command, Bodhisattva Kannon, O' Guardian of Humanity." Arkadi bowed again with his hands adding the full flair. He chuckled as he stood back up and noticed Kannon's awestruck expression, raised eyebrow and gaping mouth included.

"I'm joking, I'm joking... But honestly, Kannon really is a beautiful name. The goddess of compassion and mercy, bringer of liberation and salvation... I'm sure it fits you wonderfully."

"...And you sir, have a rank A talent for exaggeration." Kannon crossed her arms as she tried her best to suppress her coloring cheeks. Unwilling to let him ruffle her composure in one way or another every single time, Kannon shot back with the first thing that came to her mind:

"You know, you'd be more charming if you just played more honestly with your words."

I really don't think that came out right...

Feigned shock instantly spread across Arkadi's face.

"Your words wound me deeply! Never have I not expressed my most sincere beliefs!" His smile soon returned as swiftly as it left, with the slight twist of a smirk to look even more dashing. "I simply like to think that I have a far more... artistic, perception of others than my contemporaries."

Kannon couldn't help but grin back at his words. A feral grin only found between rivals in wordplay, of course.

I'm still inexperienced, but one day I will rise to his level and overcome this late game boss of verbal banter!

Kannon realized she claimed something she had no confidence in. Her spontaneous social skills were, unfortunately, on the side of lacking. But at the moment, that didn't seem to matter the slightest.

But... artistic, huh?

She agreed that Captain Arkadi has never lied, or even spoke with anything but candid sincerity, regardless of how ridiculous the words may seem. If that wasn't impressive enough for her, his knowledge of naming etymology certainly was.

...Liberation and salvation -- what an ironic name, when I couldn't even save myself from the bindings of my own past...

The unwanted voice was immediately crushed back down to the darkest corners of Kannon's mind, the false shadows from which it came from.

"What's your name mean?" She rushed to shift the focus.

"Arkadi? It comes of the Greek name Arkadios, meaning 'of Arcadia'. It's a region of Ancient Greece from Old Earth. But far more importantly, it's an euphemism for the lands of Utopia." An edge of bitterness revealed itself in Arkadi's smile as he continued: "strange, isn't it? My parents would name me after the most unattainable perfection, and now here I am, leading a team of black ops."

I must have a curse for asking the wrong questions.

Kannon's mind went blank for a moment as she chided herself...

But rather than sadness or regret, Arkadi's eyes hardened with determination. His expression resolved with acceptance, betraying only a hint of nostalgia used to steel his beliefs, while the faint shadow of hatred simmered below the surface.

He had already accepted his fate of walking this sinful path.

"I'm sorry," Arkadi said as his smile turned apologetic. "It's been a long time since I've thought about that, and I seem to have brought up something unpleasant."

Kannon shook her head and responded with a warm smile of understanding. "No, not at all... and I'm sure they wanted you to reach towards that seemingly unattainable dream in your own way."

For a brief second Arkadi looked taken back. Kannon wondered if she had said too much. But then his eyes softened, his grin widened, and he raised his right hand to gently pat her head.

"You really do remind me a bit of my oldest friend."

The joy she felt from the approval of his voice was short-lived. Even his composure couldn't fully contain the longing streaming out from behind those words.

A lost confidante, or even a severed soulmate... It was impossible for Kannon to guess the details, and she knew it was inappropriate to simply ask. But it was also clear that Arkadi held this person dearly -- a best friend who had the faith to believe in the Utopian dream; a romantic soul whose memories he would not discard.

Maybe Arkadi isn't such a dark person after all.

The hint of movement drew her attention to his left hand. His fingers gently touched the silver locket that dangled from the pistol handle.

Seconds dragged on in silence as neither of them could bring ourselves to say anything. Kannon looked up with her softest gaze, seeking to offer some comforting appreciation without unnecessary sympathy. She immediately realized that she was being conceited, believing far too early that she could attempt to reduce this distance that he purposefully kept others at. Breaking contact quickly, she called up another AR window and requested an outgoing file transfer:

"Since you're here already, I can just hand you this... I've been going through data on the general culture and technological base of Avalon. So I compiled this -- a comparison outline of the major similarities and differences between the society and technology here in Avalon versus that of the Terran sector. I think it will help your analysts pinpoint where they would want additional information from."

...And as long as they need more data, I can be sure of my safety.

Arkadi tapped the air with his fingers, and Kannon's AR window confirmed a successful file transfer. Scrolling down his display, Arkadi looked mildly impressed as he nodded towards the document in approval.

"Excellent! Our strategic planning analysts will love this! I'll forward it to them on the next dispatch."

Kannon's eyes sparkled as half her mind went into euphoria mode again, only to be dragged back as the Captain's focus returned to her.

"Well, since you're looking for the reactor core, allow me to escort you to the engine room."

"Oh... right... but then, what's this room for?"

"This place houses the arcane core... which is really just a fancy name for an ether extraction apparatus and a few Arvitor crystals."

Seeing her confusion, Arkadi pointed towards the three glowing crystals above and behind the chest-high display screen. "Look over there."

Kannon walked over to the side of the raised display and examined the device. Most of it was encapsulated by a massive black pipe that stretched from floor to ceiling but was no more than arm's length wide. It stood in the rear center of the room like a towering pillar, with three sets of tubes protruding out of the main structure, then going back in after turning around through a gradual U-bend. Three crystal rods were also inserted into the cylinder at a forty-five degree angle from below the tubes.

In the middle of each U-bend was a spherical, transparent glass bubble. A brightly glowing gem seemed to float within at precisely its center while clear water flowed around it. Each of the gems radiated a different color: aqua-blue from the left, peridot-green from the middle, and scarlet-red from the right. There was also something inside the gems...

As Kannon squinted her eyes against the light and peeked into the transparent gemstones, she saw something that my mind could barely believe.

Within the center of each crystal was a tiny person, who looked exactly like a human in their mid-teens, except only 1/25th in size. The left and right gems both encapsulated females, while the one in the center was male. Each of them also had the same hair color as their gems' glow, although two of their hues were a shade different from the radiance of their gem. They were all as naked as the day they were born, each of them curled up in a huddling posture.

"Are they really... humans?" Kannon pondered aloud even as she dreaded the answer.

"They were humans, you could say," Arkadi replied. "Right now, it's bit hard to define... I'm not completely sure if they even count as living, although they are conscious."

As if on cue, the tiny girl with the peridot-green hair opened her emerald-green eyes and stared blankly at Kannon. One look at those eyes sent chills down her spine -- they were completely blank, without a trace of emotion or thought behind them.

She staggered half a step back and looked at Arkadi's serious face. He was gazing upon the crystals with a mixed expression, one that laid somewhere between pity, disgust, and apathy.

"What do you mean?"

"We call them Arvitors, short for 'Arcane Servitors'. They used to be normal-sized, humans exactly as we are, just... modified."

"Modified?"

Does he mean genetically? Is that why they have such unusual hair colors?

Kannon's mind swiftly crushed any thoughts of comparison to her own hair. But even she could not stop the shiver going down her spine or the queasiness in her stomache.

"During the height of the Avalonian Dominion, the Great Magi Families learned how to modify a human not only genetically but also magically. It significantly improved the accuracy of engineering physical and mental attributes, and also enabled the ability to change one's magical traits. For instance, it could enhance your nerves' ability to conduct magic to your soul for processing, or your senses to perceive the flow of mana, or the range of your magical affinities. The full extent of the possibilities were never disclosed. Some rumors claim you could even grant powerful mythological abilities of legends or embed a Geas directly into the DNA to compel the loyalty of an entire bloodline."

"But regardless of what it could do, the Great Magi Families fell with the Dominion one-hundred-seven years ago after the people could tolerate their increasingly magically prejudiced legal code no longer. An revolution was started by several warlords and well, you know the rest about that part."

"...Every society grows biased towards its founders," Kannon nodded as she thought back through history, "religious believers, royals, cultural imperialists, democrats, they're all the same."

"Indeed. But what our history books doesn't go into detail is that the revolutionaries were almost wiped out at the beginning of the war. Not surprisingly, the Dominion's best weapon systems were all ether-tech; they required powerful mages to operate at full potential. While the rebels did have many supporters from magical bloodlines, they had very few 1st class mages -- the ones who had both the status and wealth to magically enhance their offspring."

"Then, all that changed when Doctor Leslie Manhattan managed to create the Soul Binding spellword. When used in conjunction with the ancient Crystal Prison spellword, it resulted in the crystals you see there. The powerful compound spell could imprison a mage inside a crystal, then allow anyone wielding it to utilize the mage's soul to process mana into ether. Basically, it packages a human being into a living ether refinery."

Forget the bad feeling. This is outright horrifying. I don't remember any mentions on the ship's database about it!

"T-that's barbaric!... I mean, Isn't that slavery?"

Arkadi shrugged. Although his expression was still mostly apathetic, it was getting grimmer by the moment.

"Yes. But when you're losing a racial war, that ceases to matter. The warlords who refused were soon destroyed, and those who remained quickly adopted this and began to kidnap and capture magically-enhanced humans wherever they can. I can't remember when the term Arvitor first came to use. But either way, using the enemy to defeat the enemy is standard military logic. By the time the war was over after five bloody years, the leadership was already used to viewing the Arvitors as mere tools rather than people. Pity from everyone else came limited after generations of magical prejudice where the class one mages more or less regarded non-magical people as sub-human, plus the war-time propaganda which completely dehumanized the Arvitors as unfeeling, inhumane machines."

"Still, the nail in the coffin only went in when they realized that the only way to grant the lesser social classes what they promised -- equal public benefits and everything -- was if they continue to use Arvitor Crystals. After all, only souls can refine mana to ether, and our society was simply far too reliant on ether-tech equipment. Since crystallizing only part of the Arvitors' population was just inviting unrest from those powerful mages, the three Marshals and their supporters simply went all the way. They outlawed the Arvitors' genetic alternation procedures, denied the entire subrace of their fundamental rights, and crystallized every one they could find during the Arvitor Hunts."

"...And the people are just, just fine with this?"

"No. Not everyone. In fact, Leslie Manhattan was so horrified by the law that she killed herself. Even today there are minor political parties and civil groups who wish to bring freedom to the Arvitors, not to mention terrorist groups. But their support base is too limited -- you'll be surprised how many people will turn a blind eye towards so-called morals when their quality of life comes into the question."

"But... slavery has been outlawed in human civilization since the 20th century!" Kannon could feel her astonishment over what she heard turn into something that was borderline anger.

Arkadi sighed before turning towards her with hardened eyes.

"Kannon, I understand how you feel. But I'm just telling you how it is right now. After all, social morality is subjective to eras of civilization. Belief of slavery by the earliest Republics of humanity didn't make their citizens evil by default -- in fact, the Romans considered it a necessity of 'civilized society'. I'm not condoning it as 'right' either. It's especially hard to think that way when I'm a quarter Arvitor blood myself, hence my eyes aren't a natural color and the same hue as my aura. But social views aren't something that most individuals could change."

Kannon's eyes quickly averted his gaze and looked down in shame. His statement embarrassed her far more than even his most embellished words. She realized that not only did she just try to take out her shock and frustration on him, but she was passing judgment on the society, the culture, and the world he grew up in when she was just an outsider who barely knew anything. Even if she was right, criticizing their way of life when she had so narrow a perspective was nothing short of hypocrisy.

"I-I'm really sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Arkadi replied while patting her shoulder with one hand. "In fact, I'd be surprised if you weren't shocked. Some of our world's ways have gotten a little... questionable, over the years, and this is one of them."

'Questionable' doesn't begin to describe the magnitude here... But I really should hold back my opinions until I see the full picture.

"I did forget to tell you that, technically, the crystallization doesn't mistreat them either, or so the argument goes. They're conscious, but their bodies are in an effective state of stasis while inside the crystal. They don't eat or drink, but neither do they age. Using a crystal also doesn't hurt the person inside. Basically, it's like they're trapped in a dream."

"...An eternal dream... trapped inside a translucent diamond and unable to do anything..." Kannon's thoughts came out in a trance-like whisper as her gaze shifted back to the crystals.

The girl that was conscious already went back to sleep.

"Sounds nightmarish, doesn't it?" Arkadi finished up for her in a nonchalant voice.

But... that doesn't quite add up...

"Even... even if the crystals are everlasting, how do they keep up with society's growth? Or military expansion?"

Arkadi grinned lopsidedly. "Now you see the real question! The answer is -- I don't know!"

Kannon wondered if his playful tone was a claim that he really didn't care much about this whole business, or if he was simply trying to keep the conversation from falling into darkness again.

"All I know is that we haven't had a shortage yet, which is suspicious in itself. There's speculation out there that someone is raising more Arvitors for crystallization, but no proof of such has ever surfaced." Arkadi shrugged again as he finished with an expression of finality.

Kannon's eyes narrowed as she realized that something wasn't right. Arkadi wasn't lying, but neither was he telling the truth for once. Her intuition felt that he had a very good idea, even if there wasn't any proof, on what laid beyond the shroud of secrecy.

It seemed Arkadi already learned to accept the existence of the Arvitors crystals. The grim shadow behind his voice recognized that there was a moral issue, but his surface indifference reflected the same view shared by most of Avalonian society -- this was just the way things were. The crystals were a necessity of this age, and few individuals were in the position to do anything about it.

Shifting his gaze, Arkadi looked straight into Kannon's eyes and spoke of his views as though reading her thoughts:

"I don't presume to judge society for what modernity embraces. In fact, I'm not really in the position to judge anybody. But everyone averts their eyes to one fact or another. Since it is not merely wrong, but outright impossible, to always impose one's values upon society."

"They say that turning a blind eye is negligence and cowardice. But it's also a nature of all living beings, a necessary instinct for survival. We all do it, in one form or another. The more intertwined we are with the problem, the more likely we are to ignore it. A selective application of morality in examining society isn't justice, but hypocrisy. In the end, it is self-interest that should truly stand as the foremost reason for revolutionizing change. One must stand up not for the righteousness of our ideals, but for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves."

His voice was harsh, but it wasn't accusatory. It felt like he merely wanted to state an opinion, one with completely seriousness and honesty but not a trace of expectations.

"If anyone is to liberate the Arvitors, it will be the Arvitors themselves who strike the deal. That... is my opinion on the matter, anyhow," Arkadi concluded with a shrug and returned to his smile.

Pragmatism at its absolute... just what kind of past did Arkadi live to develop such a view at that age?

"Speak of turning a blind eye, prin... Kannon," he grinned apologetically. "Why do you always keep your left eye closed? I thought it was an injury at first, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It is a shame that the world is only allowed to enjoy half of their brilliance and beauty."

I swear he's always saying lines that will purposely embarrass people!

Kannon thought back, taking the opportunity to avert his sight and distract herself. It wasn't the first time Arkadi asked about her eye; half the crew voiced their concern at some point, and Korey even examined it. But... try as she might, she couldn't remember when or why she started doing that anymore.

"I'm not sure... but at some point it became norm for me to keep only one eye open. Maybe I had an injury or something and got into the habit of it before I recovered."

"Then -- may I have the blessing to gaze upon both of your pristine gems? Lady Kannon?" Arkadi bowed his head with his hand over the chest.

Words and mannerisms alone, Kannon thought that Captain Arkadi should have been born during the golden age of knights and chivalry over a millennium ago.

"...Since you asked so courteously, it would be rude to deny a gentleman so small a favor."

Two can play at this game. Even if I'm not up to par, it would at least make his lines less embarrassing by comparison.

Kannon kept her eyes straight as she willed her left eyelid to lift. It felt strange that something which came so normally for others would require concentration from her.

Well, I guess it isn't the only one.

Surprise, but a pleasant surprise, filled Arkadi's eyes as he looked into the depth of her own.

"You're... heterochromic?"

"I know it looks weird..."

"No, it's gorgeous," he spoke in sincere admiration. "The clarity and depth of your lapis lazuli right, the purity and wisdom of your amethyst purple left, each holding a mysterious light and matching perfectly with your long cherry blossom hair."

Kannon's cheeks were positively radiating now.

Nobody except her own parents had ever spoken so fondly of her unusual combination of hair and eye colors with such honesty. In fact, she had such a problem with it that she had even tried dying her hair and wearing colored contacts as early as elementary school, but her mother would hear none of it. She would always tell Kannon to take pride in it, but the results were anything but that.

"Tha-that's just too much. There's no way..." Her voice trailed off into a dry whisper.

It had always been so much easier to simply classify that part of herself as an anomaly within normality. After all...

I'm definitely just a normal person -- weirdly so and with special circumstances, but normal. The alternative is simply unthinkable.

As Kannon felt two firm hands on her shoulders, she lifted her gaze back up and saw his deep-violet eyes staring straight into hers from no more than a hand's length away. He was leaning forward and still smiling gently, but his eyes were also determined and completely serious.

"You really shouldn't ever consider yourself weird," he stated firmly as if reciting God's very commandments. "No matter what others think, no matter what others say -- you should have the faith to believe in and accept yourself and the path you have chosen."

"It matters not what others say... believe in yourself."

Her mother's words echoed through her head as Kannon tried to bring words to her lips.

"But... I do..."

Her reply trailed off into uncertainty almost as soon as it began...

Why can't I answer such a simple question firmly?

Believing in herself -- that was exactly how Kannon thought she lived her life: always doing what she could, to the best that she could. Every problem, every obstacle, she had always relied on herself, relied on her faith in her will and her abilities. It formed the very cornerstone of her being. It was the reason she could adapt and make herself useful in any situation, even in a world as strange and hostile as this one.

"Stand up for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves..."

In the world where a person's individual value was judged by his or her abilities, Kannon has spent her entire adolescence improving herself and refining her skills -- so that her abilities could stand and speak for themselves; so that she could honor her parent's expectations and prove herself to be a helpful and worthwhile person, an invaluable partner.

She wasn't born with a great deal of confidence, nor did she have the natural charisma and leadership expected from a corporate scion. But she could rely on her knowledge and her persistence, her willingness to learn and adapt.

Isn't that enough? Then... why can't I say it?

"Sorry, it seems like I overstepped my limits," Arkadi apologized as he pulled back. "But really, I think they're magnificent. You should open your eyes, both of them, more often."

Kannon nodded silently, unsure of what to say. In a corner of her mind, she knew her eyes would return to how they were as soon as she stopped thinking about it. But that was fine as well...

The world doesn't need that part of me.

I don't need that part of me.

"Now, as I've sidetracked you long enough with these philosophical discussions," Arkadi's smile widened as he courteously knelt down on one knee, folded his left hand behind his back while offering his right hand. "Allow me to give you a much belated proper tour of this ship, Lady Kannon."

He's doing it again.

It astounded Kannon just how quickly Arkadi could switch gears. He had sent her into deep thought before leaping away from worries with naught but a second's notice. It was as if he never had to spend even one extra second rethinking his words or re-examining his beliefs.

Is it his preparedness and understanding of his own values? Or is it his confidence and assurance of his own decisions?

She wasn't certain. But she knew one thing:

It's a quality I don't have enough of myself.

Kannon decided to push her other concerns aside as she followed his pace and bent her knees with a well-practiced curtsy.

"The pleasure is all mine, sir."



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