Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 4 Old

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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!"

I had asked Korey to explain the more esoteric pieces of equipment to me, and it seemed like we had stumbled across an enthusiasm of his.

Now he was speaking with such apparent excitement while cutting up the onions that it appeared as though he was crying tears of joy just from talking!

"How so?" I asked as I lifted 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. I closed the top again and decided to give it another minute.

"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!" I was completely impressed and slightly confused at the same time.

It was beyond even the technology of Empyrean Universal Translators, mostly because they couldn't duplicate the sensory of tele-empathy in creatures without such a biological function.

"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, combined with the words, everyone might as well be reading each others' thoughts in detail rather than just the words we focus upon the ring -- baaaaaddd idea."

"After all, we all think a bit differently; 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 doesn't have quite the same... features, most of that is simply lost in translation."

"But isn't that expected from any translation?" I 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. Other than logic, our words are manipulated on a subconscious level based on emotions before they come out, after all."

"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, clearly annoyed that our conversation was slowing the food down. But Korey simply kept talking like he didn't hear anything.

(It seems that the team's spellcaster is also the obligatory fool of roster. Although not quite comic relief -- he just gets ignored half the time.)

"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 phrase makes 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."

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

"The food is done, so let's eat first." I stopped Korey from going any further while bringing the first two plates to the common room table.

It had been interesting, but Korey's enthusiasm on the topic had long exceeded the technicality a linguistics amateur like myself could take in one sitting, or standing.

"Put the ingredients you cut into a covered container though. We can get back to it after lunch," I called back to Korey.

"On it~"

(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!"

"What do you usually eat?"

"Sandwiches, noodles, canned soup, grilled hamburgers and sausages, and curry; lots and lots of curry." Arkadi responded with a wide grin from the corner as his fingers danced across the air surrounding him, presumably closing the windows opened with his neural-interface.

I finally realized that he hadn't spoken at all for the past hour, not since he started working in that corner. His concentration really was quite something.

"Curry?"

"Korey loooooooves curry. Indian, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, you name it~" Lysette said 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, I 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 neat little 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 I joined up with them.

(It's just like those video game skits -- they're but another a group of adventurous 'friends' having a good time teasing each other. One really can't tell that these people were black ops at all right now.)

It seemed 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. It's just that there's only so many ways you can eat curry before you get tired of it." Haidar continued with his fork already in hand and a smirk still spread across his lips. "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 wonderful 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," I answered proudly. This was one of the simplest of my specialty dishes after all. "I had to synthesize a few spices. 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."

"Well, do excuse us for the limited ingredients. Other than Korey, none of us here can really cook. We stock salmon mostly because it's one of the few meats that's good even when uncooked."

"Well what do you expect from a ship full of guys! Good food only comes around when you add a gir--" 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 so 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." I 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?" I asked with curiosity. It was always father who cooked at home, and between my acquaintances in college both genders were about 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. The low population caused governments to encourage the women to have as many children as possible and then stay home to raise them. In fact--"

As the enthusiasm in Korey's voice rose again, I realized I had stepped on yet 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 of cooking in that?" Korey pouted for a brief moment before setting his plate down and returning to his cheerful smile.

I could kind of agree to that, especially when there was more than one person. It was a social experience after all.

"Where's Kaplan and Marius?" I asked. Other than those two we were 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 know how he is." Arkadi shrugged.

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

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

I 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, so I had to rely on the personal gravity field generator built into my boots. I walked along carefully, making sure that I didn't spill any of the food that I could barely see. Even then, I was at the bridge within two minutes.

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

The bridge doors slid open with a single thought as I 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."

(Bit unreasonable, but it's his fault for raising such a pretentious question. Besides, I'm not lying either.)

I was wearing one of Korey's flowery aprons and did hope to make a good impression on my new comrades by revolutionizing their diet.

(...And well, let's just say that making acquaintances isn't a character skill of mine.)

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

I moved up beside him 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.

My annoyance at his attitude died almost instantly.

It wasn't unreasonable 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," I 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."

The implications of Kaplan's words weighed heavily down upon me. Regardless of circumstances and intentions, the lives of three people were lost for my sake. I would have to take responsibility for it.

"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 didn't have to remind me.

I knew that they didn't rescue me out of goodwill. I knew that I 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 once left behind. They only broke me out so I 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." I finally brought a smile to my lips since stepping onto the bridge.

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

"Miss Reginbrandt."

"Yes?"

Turning my head around, I saw only the back of his head. Despite being the only other person on this bridge, he hasn't looked at me 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 had said the same thing earlier, although without the 'as long as' part.

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

"Thank you," I said with as appreciative of a voice as I 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 -- 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 we went deeper and deeper into the Logres B system, where not a single ship seemed to have even an inkling of our presence nearby. But now that we were less than twenty-four hours away from reaching Brocéliande orbit, the crew had began accelerating their preparations for entering hostile territory.

In fact, Korey just took two hours to add another major software update to my neural-interface controls, melding the two systems together with an even deeper link. He said 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 we arrived at safer lands, just in case something went wrong.

I was thankful, actually. This was my spinal cord that the chip was connected to. 'Something wrong' could easily be translated to 'vegetable for life'.

He also ran another medical check on me and spent some particular time fussing about my eyes. There were nothing wrong with them, of course; I just had a habit of not using my left eye...

"Odd to see you here, princess."

I almost jumped as the voice came out of the dark corner behind me in a room that was lit only by a single display screen and several glowing crystals. Recognizing Arkadi's tone, I quickly turned around to see him walking out from the shadows, with a pistol in hand no less.

"Captain!"

For a split second I felt my pulse skyrocket. It came down somewhat when I noticed that he was grasping it by the barrel, the gun pointed down and to the side, instead of by the handle and directed towards me.

"Gosh, that scared me -- what are you, a vampire?"

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

"I would gladly become one if I could have your life to myself."

With with less than half his black-clothed figure illuminated by the ambient glow, Arkadi seemed more like one than ever.

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

I wasn't joking. The gun even gave it a bonus. I had to concentrate just to keep my eyes off that thing.

He shrugged as though this was completely normal.

"Just trying it out. 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 my head from the ship's database, I mostly took breaks through cooking and exploration.

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

As he put his pistol back into its holster, I 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."

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

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

Even worse, I didn't know what was more embarrassing -- the courtly words he suddenly chose in such a private circumstance, or the fact I was actually fazed by their abruptness, moving in just as my 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 I couldn't help avert my eyes, or so I told myself.

"C-could you -- not call me that?"

"Does it bother you, milady?" He actually sounded somewhat worried, but also playfully curious.

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

I doubted most normal girls my age could truly hate being addressed 'princess' in an endearing way. In fact, I 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 maiden at one point or another.

But -- it was impossible for me to get used to such a lofty honorific.

Even as the heir of a business enterprise, no one had ever addressed me 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'. But most of the time they had simply addressed me by name.

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

After all, how many princesses actually came alongside the mission party? 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 to be addressed as such!" I announced proudly as I laid my fingers down upon my best, albeit still miserable, attempt at puffing up my chest.

Arkadi smiled again and nodded in understanding.

"How does Ms. Guardian wish to be referred by then?"

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

"Your wish is my command, Bodhisattva Kannon, O' Guardian of Humanity." Arkadi bowed with his hands adding the full flair. He chuckled as he stood back up and noticed my awestruck expression, raised eyebrow and opened 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." I crossed my arms and replied.

I wasn't going to just let him ruffle my composure one way or another every single time, so I said the first thing that came to my mind:

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

(I'm really not sure that came out right...)

Feigned shock instantly spread across his face.

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

I 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 defeat this late game boss of verbal banter!)

I claimed something I had no confidence in that. My spontaneous social skills were, unfortunately, on the side of lacking.

(But... Artistic, huh?)

Well he certainly was right that he has never lied yet, as far as I could tell, regardless of how ridiculous the words may seem... And if that wasn't impressive enough, 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...)

I immediately crushed the voice back down to the darkest corners of my mind, the false shadows from which it came from.

"What's your name mean?" I found myself shifting the topic.

"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.)

My mind went blank for a moment as I chided myself...

But rather than sadness or regret, Arkadi's eyes were 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."

I shook my head and responded with my own smile. "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. I wondered if I had said too much. But then his eyes softened, his grin widened, and he raised his right hand to gently pat my head twice.

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

The joy I 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 me to guess the details, and it was inappropriate for me to just 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 my 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 us could bring ourselves to say anything. Then, I looked up to send my softest gaze, seeking to offer some comforting appreciation without unnecessary sympathy, into his eyes.

But it seemed that I was being conceited, believing far too early that I could attempt to reduce this distance that he purposefully kept others at. Arkadi broke contact after only two seconds, looking clearly uncomfortable and changing the topic:

"Anyhow, 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 my confusion, he pointed towards the three glowing crystals above and behind the chest-height display screen. "Look over there."

I walked over to the side of the raised display and examined the device. Most of it was encapsulated by a massive metallic black cylinder that stretched from floor to ceiling but was no more than thirty centimeters (1ft) 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 before going back in after turning around through a gradual U-bend. Three rods were also inserted into the cylinder at a 45-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 continued to flow around it. Each of the gems was radiating a different color: aqua-blue from the left gem, peridot-green from the middle, and scarlet-red from the right. There was also something inside the gems...

As I squinted my eyes against the light and peeked into the transparent gemstones, I 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 were both 'inhabited' by females, while the one in the center was male. Each of them had the same hair color as their gems' glow, although two of them had slightly different hues than the radiance of their gems. They were all as naked as the day they were born, each of them curled up in a huddling posture.

"Are they really... humans?" I pondered aloud, unsure of what would even be the best way to phrase it.

"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 me.

One look at those eyes sent chills down my spine -- they were completely blank, without a trace of emotion or thought behind them.

I took 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 life-sized humans exactly as we are, just... modified."

"Modified?"

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

"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 them 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."

I nodded in response. I had a rough understanding of the Avalonians' history since they left old terran space with help from both the team and the ship's database.

(I have a bad feeling on where this is going...)

"What the 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 Dr. Leslie Manhattan managed to create the Soul Binding spellword. When used in conjunction with a 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 the crystal to utilize the mage's soul to process mana into ether. Basically, it packages a human being into a living ether refinery."

(I was wrong. This isn't just bad. This is outright horrifying. I don't remember any mentions on the ship's database about it!)

"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 had already gotten 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."

"Still, the nail in the coffin only went in when they realized that the only way to grant lower-level population groups 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 human 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!" I could feel my sheer astonishment over what I heard turn into something that was borderline anger.

Arkadi sighed before turning towards me 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. I'm not condoning it as 'right' either, but social views aren't something that most individuals could change."

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

"I-I'm really sorry."

"Don't worry about it," he replied while patting my 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 really 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..." I thought out loud as my gaze shifted back to the crystals.

The girl that was conscious seemed to have gone back to sleep.

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

(But there is one more thing that doesn't quite add up...)

"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!"

I 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." He shrugged again as he finished with an expression of finality.

(Something isn't quite right.)

Arkadi wasn't lying, but neither was he telling the whole truth... I got the feeling that he did have some clues, even if there wasn't any proof, on exactly 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 probably reflected the same view shared by most of Avalonian society -- this was just the way things were. The crystals were a necessity of the day and age, and no one individual was in the position to do anything about it.

Shifting his gaze, Arkadi looked straight into my eyes and spoke of his views as if reading my 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 are to free the Arvitors, it will be the Arvitors who must first stand up for themselves. That... is my opinion on the matter, anyhow," Arkadi concluded with a shrug and returned to his smile.

(Pragmatism at its absolute...)

I wondered just what kind of a past he must have had to develop such a view at this early an age. It contrasted so completely with his more 'artistic' perception of the world.

"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!)

I focused my thoughts as I held my composure firm. It wasn't the first time Arkadi asked about my left eye. In fact, almost everyone in the crew had wondered at least once if the eye was injured. Korey even examined it. But...

(I can't remember when or why I started anymore...)

"I'm not sure... but at some point it became the 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 asked with a courteous bow.

Words and mannerisms alone, one would almost believe that this man had been raised during the golden age of knights and chivalry over a millennium ago.

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

(Two can play at this game, even if I'm not up to par.)

I doubted Arkadi would be flustered by mere wordplay, but it would at least make his lines less embarrassing by comparison.

I tried to keep my eyes straight as I willed my left eyelid to lift. It was strange that something which came so normally for others would require concentration for me.

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

Surprise, but a pleasant surprise, filled his eyes as he looked deep into those of my own.

"You're... heterochromic?"

"I know it looks weird..."

"No, it's beautiful," he spoke in sincere admiration. "The clarity and depth of the lapis-blue right eye, contrasting with the spirit of the ruby-red left eye, matching perfectly with your long blossom-pink hair."

My cheeks were positively radiating now.

Nobody except my own parents had ever spoken so fondly of my unusual combination of hair and eye colors with such honesty. In fact, I had such a problem with it that I had even tried dying my hair black as early as elementary school. But mother would hear none of it.

"Tha-that's just too much. There's no way I could be like that..." My words came out before I could even stop myself.

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

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

I quickly shook it out of my thoughts.

(What am I doing? It's only round two of the exchange, and I already lost.)

As I felt two firm hands on my shoulders, I lifted my gaze back up and saw his deep-violet eyes staring straight into me 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."

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

Mother's words echoed through my head as I tried to bring words to my lips.

"But, I do..."

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

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

Believing in myself -- that was exactly how I've been living. Always doing what I could, to the best that I could. Every problem, every obstacle, I've always relied on myself, relied on my faith in myself to try my hardest.

It was precisely because of this self-belief that I could adapt and make myself useful, even in a world as strange and hostile as this one.

(Then, why can't I say it?)

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

Even though that was exactly how I've lived up till now. In the world where our value as people were judged by our abilities, I've spent my entire adolescence improving myself and refining my skills -- so my abilities could stand and speak for themselves; so that I could honor my parent's expectations and prove myself to be a helpful and worthwhile person, an invaluable partner.

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

(Isn't that enough?)

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

I nodded silently, unsure of what to say. In a corner of my mind, I knew my eyes would go back to how they were as soon as I 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 commented with a wide smile as he bowed lightly, folding his left hand behind his back while extending his right hand towards me. "Allow me to give you a much belated proper tour of this ship, Lady Kannon."

(He's doing it again.)

It astounded me just how quickly this man could switch gears. He sent me into deep thought before leaping away from the 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.

Was it just his preparedness and understanding of his own values? Or was it his confidence and assurance of his own decisions?

I wasn't certain. But I knew one thing:

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

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

"The pleasure is all mine, sir."



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