June 30th, 802 AT.
Two weeks had passed all-too-uneventfully since the crew made their two strange communications. The search among the refugee fleet for Skunk, Owl, and Spider had continued, but it still turned up no results. The confirmation they were alive had bolstered the crew’s hopes, but there was no sign of them among the two-hundred-odd survivors of Sector Four.
At long last the Quinn, and the refugees it led, was coming up on Sector One.
((69 — Tower of the Gods))
Here, near the center of the Nebula, the fog was clearer, but due to the density of the crystals visibility was about the same. For the last few hours, though, something had been growing ahead of them.
The heart of the Void itself.
A massive crystal, hundreds of kilometers across, but uniquely non-gemoetric. Whereas every other crystal was a regular shape—a cube, a dodecahedron, an icosahedron—this one looked like a misshapen snowflake, spikes of all sizes jutting out in every direction. The huge spires made a roughly spherical formation, a ball of jagged chunks and crystal towers. The valleys between the largest peaks were filled with smaller crystal spears.
The crystal filled the world below and ahead of them, looming in its immensity. They had seen other crystals this size, certainly, but always shrouded in mist, just shadowy edges and sheer faces. Sector One was impossibly huge, far larger than anything any of them had seen with their eyes. All four crew members were gathered in the cabin, awestruck by the sight.
The radio crackled suddenly. "Ship Quinn, ship Quinn, this is Sector One, do you read?" The voice was young and male--the same radio operator as before.
Kasby was startled out of the near-hypnotism of the crystal, and pushed the talk button on the radio. “This is Captain Bellwood, of the Quinn.”
“Good to hear from you, Captain Bellwood. Hope your journey hasn’t been too eventful.”
“Afraid it’s been eventful enough.” Kasby raised an eyebrow at Goat, who was getting back to his feet. He had been so startled by the radio that he’d fallen over. Goat shrugged apologetically, and dusted himself off.
The radio operator continued. “Mm. We’ve cleared a landing zone for the… ah... fleet, just outside the city proper. Your ship has a berth in the private zones up near the Inner Chamber.” There was a pause. "Forwarding you the telemetry data for both now."
“Much appreciated. Should be landing soon.”
“Talk to you planetside, then. Sector One out.” The rudimentary navigation computer beeped affirmatively, confirming the receipt of the data. The data instructed for the Quinn to orbit the crystal ahead of them another three-dozen degrees.
"Planetside. Interesting concept," said Kasby without much inflection.
“Like, one side is a planet and the other isn’t?” Goat said. “Cool! What’s a planet?”
Kasby's leather-gloved hands pulled the controls back, tilting the Quinn upwards and around the crystal. "Reaaaally big landmass, Goat."
Slowly, the Quinn made its way around the crystal. Gravity was strange, this close to the heart of the nebula. When they’d left Sector Four, they’d been in freefall, down towards the Void’s center. As they’d gotten closer, the crystals had gotten dense enough to make blind freefall suicidal, so they’d cruised downwards at something of a steep spiral. Here, gravity pointed inwards towards Sector One. By driving the Quinn what felt like upwards and forwards, they were really orbiting the massive crystal. The rest of the refugee fleet would be doing the same, when it arrived. For now, it was several hours of travel behind them, dimly visible in the rearward distance as a cluster of dots and blinking lights.
As they orbited, something began to come into view. Nestled between three of the immense crystalline spires was what could only be described as a city. Easily thirty kilometers across, the buildings of it filled the chasm between the spires fully, running up the sides of the spires as well as spilling out between them.
As they came closer, details became visible. In the center of the city, a fourth, smaller spire jutted straight up, pentagonal in contrast to the triangular prisms of the main three. Wires connected different parts of the cities, and small boxes hung from those wires, moving slowly back and forth. In the flats of the city, rails connected different areas, and high-speed vehicles moved along them, all over the place.
The data pointed to a spot just below the pinnacle of the central spire. Kasby tried to keep his eyes focused on the landing point, instead of letting them wander across the gleaming, manmade landscape. The last thing he wanted was to crash the Quinn into one of these beautiful buildings. It didn’t help that Goat was leaping around the deck excitedly.
The pentagonal top of the spire came into focus. The spire itself seemed to be hollowed out and inhabited--balconies and bridges jutted out of it at odd angles. At the top of the spire sat dozens of intricately designed ornate houses, though none as grand as the building at the very top.
The Quinn flew towards this tallest building, a masterwork of sweeping angles and buttresses, to a small landing pad on a balcony near one of the edges.
Finally giving into the temptation, Goat leapt onto the building. He jumped up to the very top, finding nothing but a communications dish, and, having satisfied his leap-lust, came back down.
Kasby activated the landing pads and gently set down the Quinn just as Goat leapt back.
A man stood on the pad, watching the ship descend. He waited patiently for the crew to disembark.
Kasby was the first to step off, and was just pulling on his brown long coat as he left the Quinn. Zebra and Giraffe followed him quietly, with Goat leaping down to the landing pad in his usual fashion, coming down behind the waiting man.
The large man smiled at the crew, and walked towards them. He had thick brown hair all over the top and bottom of his head, and wore a thick coat. "Welcome to Sector One, Captain Bellwood! I'm Anton Vojtek, Transportation Secretary." The bear-like man's voice was gruff, but friendly. He extended a hand to Kasby.
Kasby hesitated for a moment before clasping it in his own. "Warmer welcome than last time.”
"You'll find nothing but friends here, Captain."
"I get the feeling somebody probably wants to speak with us."
"I daresay just about everybody here does! The, ah, Inner Council Chamber has actually put together a bit of a reception in your honor."
“Hooray!” cheered Goat, still behind Vojtek.
Kasby opened his mouth as if to respond, but couldn't find anything to retort to. He quieted himself and merely wore a small smile. "All friends, eh?"
Kasby breathed out. "That's... good to know."
"Now, if you'll be so kind as to follow me, the reception is being held at the Articulate Gardens. We'll take a tram." Gesturing for the quartet to follow, Vojtek began walking down a set of stairs from the landing pad.
“Take a wha?” Goat asked, following.
“A tram, my boy!” Vojtek smiled. “Do they not have them where you come from?”
Giraffe gave him a skeptical look, as if to say “duh.”
“No, of course they don't, none of the bases are large enough to merit transportation systems as sophisticated as ours." Vojtek laughed to himself.
The stairs wound down around the edge of the building, and into a large open room inside. They stood on the metal upper balcony of a pentagonal room, the central floor of which was full of hundreds of people, hurrying forth and hither across the room. Openings at various points around the room held the wire-boxes they'd seen from the air, which would quickly fill with people and then depart down the wires.
Vojtek spread his hands wide, and boomed, "Welcome to Central Transit! My pride and joy."
Kasby looked around, no real evidence of his amazement beside his wide eyes and high-set brow. “Impressive.”
“Where are we headed?” Goat asked, gesturing to the large map of the city that covered a nearby wall.
Vojtek pointed to an area halfway up one of the spires. "The Articulate Gardens. Very beautiful place, fabulous for receptions and parties and such. We've got a private car waiting just over here." He walked over to one of the boxes, sitting just through a door on the balcony, and gestured for them to enter.
“Swanky, even,” Kasby said quietly as Vojtek walked off, seeming to finish his earlier thought.
“You guys have fun with that,” Goat said. “If it’s all the same, I’ll get there on my own.” He set off for the nearest window.
“Yeah, uh, I choose cool moving boxy thing,” Giraffe muttered. “If it’s all the same to you.”
Vojtek raised a curious eyebrow as Goat threw himself out the window, then turned to Kasby. “Will that boy be alright?”
Kasby nodded absently. "Goat's fine. He's just leapy."
“Leapy. Sure. But hey, if he wants to miss out on the best transit system in the Void, his loss."
"Best adjective available," muttered Kasby with a half-smile.
“I always thought springy also worked,” Giraffe said, as the trio followed Vojtek into the box.
The inside of the tram car was roomy, with about a dozen seats lining the two edges, and windows just above them.
“Off we go!” Vojtek said, smiling. The door closed, and the car disconnected from the station, sliding smoothly out along the wire, carrying them over the city.
From closer-up, they could see the sprawling buildings below. Many of the buildings lower-down were ramshackle-looking, cobbled-together from strange bits. Only the areas higher up the four spires were shiny and strangely artificial.
Giraffe didn’t notice the city, cowering in the corner of the ‘car.’ Zebra looked over at her, vaguely concerned, but not enough to keep her distracted from the view. They passed another car, heading back the way they'd come.
Their destination became readily apparent ahead of them, halfway up one of the outer spires. It was a massive swath of greens, reds, browns, purples, blues, and other "natural" colors. Plant-life as none of them had ever seen it before, at least two kilometers across. It climbed and interwove and spread in great open patches, all forms of strange and unfamiliar foliage. It had a truly alien beauty to it.
“Gah! Stable ground! Not some zippy little box with no engines!” Giraffe whispered shrilly.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Vojtek's grin widened. "You've got Thalia Ayara to thank for it. And these days, her daughter Suraya."
“It’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it,” remarked Kasby. “How did you grow all these plants?”
“Years of study and work. We have such efficient hydroponics that we can afford to grow unnecessary plants. As such, we’ve bred many of these simply for their beauty.”
Kasby looked back, seeming a little distracted. “Giraffe, are you alright?”
“I don’t like these tram things! I’m fine with big ships, but these tiny things are going to crash.” Her eyes were wide with uncharacteristic fear.
Vojtek frowned, but continued about the gardens. "Some in the gardens do serve other purposes, such as medicinal or otherwise, but most are simple for relaxation and the enjoyment of all."
There was a thunk and the car swung slightly to one side, prompting a yell of fear from Giraffe. It was just Goat, though, hanging onto the outside of the tram car. His hair was full of leaves, and a flower was caught in one of the horns of upswept hair. “It’s so beautiful that I crashed!” he said happily.
The tram drifted into a small building, where it stopped. Even the building was natural-looking, built out of interwoven wood branches, their flowers still blooming off of them. It bordered on a dense copse of trees, shielding the station from whatever was just on the other side of it.
Vojtek opened the door and led into the tram station, gesturing to the trees around him. "It's so massive we had to go hunting in the dictionaries for an Old Earth word for it. We had a few different ones, but we settled on 'forest.'" He laughed.
Kasby let out a whistle. “Impressive.”
Giraffe jumped out and pressed herself flat against the floor. “Ahhhh, safety!”
Vojtek stepped past her, to the door. “Alright, everybody try to look fancy. The whole city is watching!”
“Aw shit,” Giraffe muttered and she stood up, dusting herself off. Goat ran his fingers quickly through his hair, trying to get some of the plant life out. Kasby didn’t seem to react much, just pulling his coat a little straighter before he walked through the door.
((70 — Spectre Induction))
Outside, hundreds of people were standing in a clearing, watching expectantly. As the four walked--or leaped--out into their midst, wild cheering broke out. The people were of all ages and types, dressed in leather jackets and lab coats, cloaks and light shirts. Many were armed openly, unsurprisingly. Goat grinned as he spotted a young woman carrying a spear much like the one he had stashed on the ship.
The four of them stood on a small platform, suspended above the main crowd. A small bridge connected to another pedestal, where Vojtek stood with five other people. The back of the pedestal descended into the crowd, and the staircase was covered with various finely-dressed attendants, crew members, and so on. The six people atop it smiled, waving as well, all dressed in various suits and dresses.
Vojtek motioned with one hand for the crew to join them on the pedestal. As if summoned, Goat jumped out, giving a hearty wave at the vertex of his leap. Kasby stepped forward, pushing aside his coat to let it billow a bit in the breeze. He stepped up onto the pedestal with the others.
“Right-o, onward we go,” Giraffe muttered, shuffling after the others.
An elderly woman, with white hair and a sharply-cut suit stepped forward to greet them, shaking each of their hands in turn. Her voice, artificially amplified, boomed out over the still-cheering crowd. "I am Mercuria Barret, Defense Secretary, of the Inner Chamber Council, and it is my utmost pleasure to formally welcome you to Sector One!" As she spoke, a sextet of cloaked attendants moved into position just behind each of the Councilors.
She turned to the crowd, gesturing with one hand to the crew. "Please, join me in extending our warmest welcome to the heroes of the outer Sectors! The noble crew of the good ship Quinn!" The crowd erupted into even wilder cheering than before.
Barret turned and whispered to the crew, out of her microphone. "Do you have a few words for the people? The cameras are on, and the entire city is watching."
There's no place for heroes in the Void. Kasby remembered his own words well enough. Why he had said them—the memory was still clear and harsh. Still stung. But in front of all of these people—civilians defended daily, cheering for a fleet of underdogs... it was enough to make the young captain doubt his own words.
Barret watched him, her face an unreadable mask, a blank smile.
His own words still ringing heavy in his ears, Kasby turned to the microphone presented to him and opened his mouth for a second, pausing before saying anything. As he moved to the mic, the crowd quieted considerably, waiting to hear what he had to say. "Thank you. I don't know how much we deserve your praise, but it's nice to see that someone cares. That so many people care so strongly. It... it helps." He looked like he might have wanted to say more, but stepped back before saying anything else.
The crowd paused expectantly, listening for more, but, realizing that he was done, went back to vague cheering.
Mercuria nodded, then turned to the rest. "Let me introduce you to the rest of the Council. "You've already met Anton Vojtek, Transportation Secretary." He waved. She gestured to each person in turn as she named them.
"Symphet Hollum, Habitation Secretary." An old man, with thick glasses and no hair. He nodded sharply.
"Daniel McKojiro, Education Secretary." A short man, with spiky black hair and many freckles, who smiled at them.
"Monash Wallace, Communication Secretary." The middle-aged woman Barret gestured to had an earpiece affixed to the side of her head, and didn't even look up from the conversation she was having quite intensely with it.
"And lastly Suraya Ayara, Supplies Secretary." The youngest member of the Council had dark skin and darker hair, in a long braid hanging over her shoulder.
Giraffe nodded at each of the Secretaries, forgetting their names almost immediately. Zebra, meanwhile, had lost interest in the introductions, and was looking around, observing the crowd.
The six cloaked attendants took another step forward, falling into a matched line behind each of the Councilors. The crew only had a flash of warning. A gleam of crystal. A hint of mottled skin under brown cloth.
((71 — Decisive Battle))
Then a metal blade was sticking out of Ayara’s chest.
The three fell, bleeding from brutal wounds in their backs.
“Shit!” Zebra backed away as quickly as possible, shocked.
Secretary Wallace spun to face her attacker, but was cut down almost immediately by the sharp sound of a gun at close range.
Barret fared better, bringing the blade from her belt up to block the swing of the assassin coming for her.
Behind Vojtek, a crystal blade raised, coming out of the sleeves of the attendant behind him. Kasby didn’t so much think as react—no time for shock. A click as he whirled the crystal blade of Quinn out of its sheath, slicing masterfully at the blade meant for Vojtek. The sharp sound of crystal on crystal rang out as Kasby’s blade met its perfect twin.
Shock passing, the crowd erupted into horrified screams as four of the six Councilors fell bleeding from the pedestal.
“Trouble, trouble, everywhere,” Giraffe said, stepping back across the bridge, hands burning. She locked her eyes onto the assassin that had just killed Hollum, and raised her arms, letting loose with twin jets of flame. Its cloak ignited, but this only got its attention. It leapt at her, a burning assailant.
Goat, meanwhile, had leapt into the crowd, heading for the woman with the spear he’d spotted earlier. He landed in front of her, and grabbed it out of her hands, shrugging apologetically. “Gotta borrow this!” She blinked in confusion as he threw himself back up to the fray on the pedestal.
Zebra, recovering, looked around for a makeshift weapon. After a moment her eyes settled on the heavy metal microphone stand. She ran to it, ripping the wires out of the back, and hoisted it into the air, looking for a target.
Barret kicked out, landing her foot in her attacker’s chest, throwing it back. She pressed on, swinging her sword viciously. The cloak made her opponent’s movements hard to judge, but she felt the blade slice through flesh on two swings before the enemy managed to regain its footing and get its own blade up to block.
Kasby spun, putting himself between Vojtek and the assassin with the crystal blade, swinging a fast horizontal strike with his own. Behind him, Vojtek had fallen to the ground, and was crawling hurriedly down the stairs, clearly terrified. The assassin danced back, matching Kasby’s swing easily. The movements beneath the all-encompassing cloak were all too familiar.
Giraffe aimed again at the burning man coming at her, sending out more fire. Her target roared an angry challenge, the sound simultaneously human and not, but it burned out in a column of flame as the man skidded to a dead stop at her feet. Not stopping to think about the kill, Giraffe looked for her next target. One behind her, raising a blade, not enough time to bring her hands up—
Goat came down out of the sky with deadly accuracy, spear piercing straight through the attacker as he landed on its back. Leaving the weapon embedded in the assassin, Goat kicked the cloaked figure off of the pedestal, nodding sharply to Giraffe.
Zebra ran to a second one heading for Barret and swung the podium as hard as she could. It connected with a sickening crunch, the impact almost breaking Zebra’s grip on the metal pole. The figure went down, but Zebra hit it again just to be sure, then adjusted her grip.
Kasby followed his target step for step, slicing and twirling with all the violence of a hurricane. She matched him blow for blow, stepping lightly down the stairs, cloak still swirling around her. Kasby took hold of his blade with both hands now, spinning and striking, trying to find an opening, but there was none.
Giraffe watched Kasby fight, hands at the ready, trying to help, but the swordfight was too close-quarters. At this range, her fire would burn her captain just as badly as it would their enemy.
Zebra watched as Barret ducked under a violent swing, the woman surprisingly agile for her age. The Councilwoman threw herself forward, impaling her assailant on her metal blade. With a single practiced motion, she pulled the blade back out, wiping the blood on the sleeve of her coat.
The second-to-last assassin threw itself at Goat, a metal blade shining in each hand. He leapt back, dodging its first swing, then jumped forward to attack. He planted both feet on the attacker’s chest and kicked off, sending the figure flying. “Zebra!” He called out.
Zebra turned as the assassin landed with a thud in front of her, coughing loudly. She swung the stand hard, bringing it down into the would-be-assassin’s head, crushing it solidly.
Kasby tightened his grip on his blade, and with one great swing tried to knock the last assassin’s blade to the side. She ducked under his attack and darted past him, launching herself back up the stairs with almost supernatural speed. He reached out a hand to grab her cloak, catching the soft brown fabric. He tugged hard on it, trying to pull her back.
Instead, the cloak swirled off from the assassin as she reached the top of the stairs. She laughed, a sound that had haunted their best dreams and worst nightmares.
Standing atop the pedestal, in the midst of the corpses of the Inner Chamber Council, was Jazrill Quinn. Her skin was red and black, covered with bulging red veins, and her hair was a tangled spiky affair. Her goggles seemed to blend fluidly into her forehead, just as her crystal blade melted out of the end of her right arm. Her eyes glowed an unmistakable bloody red.
Kasby felt his knees almost give out underneath him on the sight of Jazrill Quinn—this mockery of Jazrill Quinn—upon the podium. He wavered, unable to move. To his side, Giraffe mumbled incoherently, as Goat and Zebra stared in shock.
The creature that had once been Jaz laughed again, a sound like glass breaking, and leapt backwards off of the pedestal, landing in the grass below.
Barret scowled, looking up. “AFTER HER! I’ll deal with this mess! CATCH HER ALIVE!”
The words snapped Kasby into motion. Over the pedestal and the stairs in one vault, he chased after her with all the determination and madness of a man possessed.
“Well, that explains THAT,” Zebra muttered under her breath. Goat scrambled for his spear, and leapt after his captain, already a few precious seconds behind.
The creature ran terrifyingly fast, making for the tram station. Her feet flew over the grass, propelling her forward.
Kasby pulled his pistol from his coat and lined up a shot. With a click of the trigger, he fired a crystal round into the gears of the tram, jamming it in place.
She leapt, scampering up the wall, and into the tram house.
Kasby kept forward, after her, at a breakneck speed. Pushing himself forward and off a wall, he grabbed the branches the tram house was made of and vaulted upwards, after her into the tram house.
Jaz paused, turning to look at him with no recognition in her eyes, and let out another blood-curdling laugh. She leapt backwards, landing on top of the halted tram car.
The captain screamed back a reply at her—incoherent and full of anger, full of despair.
She smiled down at him, a smile that was at once painfully familiar and horrifically alien.
Kasby raised his pistol at her, hand trembling, taking aim—and froze as his eyes met hers.
Then she turned her back on him, stepped onto the wire that carried the tram and, balancing on it, darted away.