Saturday, March 17, 2012

Star Haven; Departure

"Commander, what did the envoy have to say?"
"We have a heading.  We're going to track down a beacon, rescue an immortal, and change the course of this war."
"That's all the answer we get, isn't it?"
"I didn't get much more.  And I'm not really sure what to make of the rest of it.  The important thing is that I know who we're looking for, and I know how to get there.  Is the crew all aboard?"
"The last shuttle just docked.  We can leave as soon as..."
Natalya tuned out the rest of the details.  They were just procedure.  She turned her attentions to the navigational computer.  The display booted up slowly, adding individual points of light to a circular orb.  It was a representation of the entire known universe.  Tradition dictated that the center of any map was Krove, home of the Arcane Academy, and crossed by more intergalactic level ley lines than any other known planet.  A line drawn between it and the homeworld of the Nielda, and capitol of the Empire, marked galactic north.  A line drawn from Tara in the east to Medea in the west completed the compass.  By some coincidence, the whole series of planets were roughly level with each other, anything above Krove's north pole would be up, and below its south pole was down.  Over the years, the known universe had gotten somewhat lumpy.  Seclora  and Gravaga both occupied vast expanses to the south, and the Harakai war had lead to the mapping of billions of star systems beyond Seclora's southern borders.  Both the Harakai and Ga-Vok held tracts of space just north of the empire, and slightly up.  Humanity lived primarily just east and west of the empire, with the heaviest concentrations just to the north of Gravaga's holdings.
The Djin's location was marked on the map by a little purple dot.  Natalya reached into her pocket and pulled out the compass she'd been given by Empress Thalia earlier.  It still pointed forty degrees up, north-northwest.  She drew an open ended line from the purple dot using the compass to keep it even.  The computer automatically registered the line as the heading for subspace travel, a necessity for a search.  Normally she'd have plotted a tesser jump, simply submitting a destination and engaging.  But without a certain destination, a fact that seemed odd considering that the beacon was still active, such a jump was impossible.  Besides, subspace left more potential to react to enemy movements, and it let them gather invaluable scans on their surroundings.
"Sir? You ready to depart?"
"I think you'll find that our course has been laid in.  Inform command that we've departed and lets get under way."
"At once commander."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Star Haven; The Envoy

"You probably don't know who I am..."
"The Dark Lady."
Thalia rolled her eyes.  "Alright, so you do know who I am.  Books, show, or politics?"
"Books, show, and politics."
"Ah, so you're a fan then.  Not of me personally I expect, but probably of someone in the family.  What've you got in your pockets?"
"Multi-tool, rope, wallet, a few trinkets, and a much loved copy of 'Adventures of the Lost Princess'."
The Empress of Gravaga chuckled and paced at the other end of the room.  "It would be, wouldn't it?  Petra you old hag, never would leave well enough alone, would you?"  She lightly brushed the air and pulled a copy of the book from it.  " 'Adventures of the Lost Princess' by Petra Laerdsfeld.  If anyone ever knew a lost princess, it was her.  I think she's been abusing the gate or something; no way she could have known all of this so long ago."  She sat down on a very soft looking throne that rose from the deck to meet her.  "But in any case, I'm sure you'll find the circumstances quite familiar.  You'll play only a small part I'm afraid, but a part that many things hinge upon.  The General, who I didn't need magic to bewitch by the way, gave you a proper briefing already.  The form I used to sneak in here undetected is that of the immortal you seek, Hariel.  Your crew will be able to supply you with all the needed documentation to confirm her identity when you locate her beacon.  Finding her will be...comparatively easy.  That is to say, you will enter the blizzard unopposed.  But you will leave it in the face of the full might of Arcania's fleets, and I fear she may even deign to stop you herself."  There was saddness in her mention of Arcania.  A shared history perhaps; maybe Arcania was one of the villains she had brought up herself, only to have her go rogue.
"We'll punch through and bring her back.  I've never let anything stand between me and an objective before."
"That's why we picked you.  There are only a few I would rather entrust with this mission; Hal, Kate herself, a few others who are not yet, some who are no longer, but you are here and you can succeed."  Thalia set a packaged down on the table and walked to the door.  She traced a pattern on the frame and when she opened the door it opened into a hallway full of large, breakable urns and racks of weapons.  "Its not from me.  A much better enchanter decided to give you something to help you find your way in the storm.  I think you should be sure to thank him some day."  And she closed the door behind her.
Natalya watched the pattern smolder and then turned to face the only physical trace of the Dark Lady's visit.  It was a small package, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.  She gingerly untied it and opened the box inside.
It was a compass.  It was a three dimensional compass, the sort that always pointed directly at the nearest magnetic north.  Handy if you knew how to use it, and she did, but mostly a novelty.  It came with a note, in unfamiliar handwriting.  It was very nice, whoever's it was.  She could tell they'd put some time into working on their penmanship.  It read simply; 'It will always show you where you're needed most.  I know that one day it shall point only to home.'
It pointed Forty degrees up, north northwest.  She took a deep breath and restrained the urge to send a letter to her mother saying that she'd just met Thalia, and she was even better dressed in person.  She had her heading, she had her orders, and she had her ship.  Now all she had to do was use them.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Star Haven; Suspicions

"Commander, a strange woman is waiting for you in the briefing room.  Her documentation checked out, but we've run it through to the Guard to have it double-checked."
"Well done Jenson."  Natalya accepted the file that her Executive Officer, Colonel Helix Jenson, handed her.  He was a stalwart lad, good soldier.  His entire family was in the fleet somewhere or other, and she knew he'd already lost a nephew in delaying actions out on the fringe of civilized space.  It gave him scale, a means of converting the threat from a mere 'destroy the known universe' into a more personal 'destroy the part of the universe I know'.  Most people didn't make that distinction, not consciously, but it was the difference between doing your duty because you said you would, and doing it because you wanted to.  She respected that difference, and it was one of the reasons she'd picked him to serve under her.  The other reason was that he was exceptionally good at his job; men did what he ordered them to do, and he had no problems conveying orders that didn't make a great deal of sense at the time or which seemed dangerous.  Natalya could come up with the plans, and they nearly always worked, but she lacked the presence needed to get men to override their fears and do things.  At least in part, it was simply because at seven foot eight inches, he had a good foot on your average Nielda.  Combined with a stocky build and well defined musculature, most of the crew were simply unwilling to cross him.  The rest quickly found that he had a voice as strong as his body, and the ability to use his words like a scalpel, cutting through red tape and all but the most resolute arguments.  Conversely, Natalya was barely an inch over six foot, had tried her best to put on muscle mass and achieved nothing, and was easily frustrated when faced with debate.  To worsen it all, she was assured by all of her superiors, family members, and friends both romantic and otherwise that she was down right adorable when she got angry.  It didn't make her any less capable a commander; her brains and skills were more than adequate for most tasks, but it did not make her especially fearsome, nor did it instill obedience in her men.  Not coming up to her XO's armpit didn't help her any, but at least she could be certain they'd listen to him.
"Commander, if I may have a word before you meet with this woman?"
"Yes Jenson, of course."
"I believe our guest may be...out of the league of our security personnel."
"And why is that?  Is she a Guard or something?"
"I recognize her from..You may find this somewhat improper commander, but I believe our guest bears a remarkable resemblance to a hero from Ol' Cloaky forty years ago.  He lead the party to a woman on a mountain who taught them how to use advanced fire based destruction magic.  I'm not certain of it, but I wanted you to be aware of the possibility, as a precaution."
Jenson didn't tend to act on whims.  Not that he never did, but it was uncommon.  So at times like this, when he did, she had learned to take him seriously.
"Thank you Jenson.  I'll be sure to take extra caution when dealing with her then."
He saluted and closed the door on the shuttle.  The rest of the crew would be aboard shortly, and he would join them.  Normally only one of them would be off the ship at a time, but she'd had special clearance from command to leave the ship before he returned.  It didn't make her any more comfortable about having the guest already on board.  If she'd bewitched Harn, and Jenson's suspicions gave her cause to believe she could indeed use magic, then there was plenty chance she could do the same to the crew.  Good as she was in a scrap, Natalya knew she wouldn't be able to fight off half her crew.  She'd picked them because they were some of the best, and that would be quite the disadvantage if they turned on her.  She could only hope her men were loyal enough to her to resist any magic the envoy used.

It was a short, slightly anxious, flight, and Natalya didn't even bother looking out the window.  She'd brought her copy of 'Adventures of the Lost Princess' to tide her over on the flight.  Kate and Zero's adventures in deep space had always ensorcelled her.  She'd have liked nothing better than to travel through the stars with their sort of adventurers; seeing things no one had ever seen before and brushing shoulders with the upper crust of intergalactic society.  Thalia Immersfeld, the Dark Lady and Empress of Gravaga; Tala, the Storm Mage and head of the legendary immortal pantheon; and a score of other even more mysterious figures ranging from the nameless assassin who always lurked in the shadows of the Immersfeld family to Petra, a demon-hunting warrior who fought her way across the cosmos.  But such was more than she could ever hope for.  She was a soldier, an officer, and adventure was for immortals, tragic orphans, and the children of nobility.  Natalya was not a hero, and the great didn't have time for public servants.
The shuttle landed with a light thump as the anti-gravity field deactivated inches above the deck, dropping the small vessel to the floor of the hangar.  Natalya disembarked and, after necessary protocol was observed, proceeded down to the Briefing Room.  There were no signs of bewitchment, and the crew seemed to go about their business in much the way she had become accustomed to.  It was unexpected, but entirely welcome.  As such, she was able to manage a smile as the door opened and she was presented with the envoy.
"Commander Natalya Oerin, Commanding Officer of the D.E.S. Djinn, 42nd fleet, assigned to patrol the edge of the blizzard and prevent infiltration by hostile forces." The woman spun around and snapped.  Instantly she seemed to shrink, lose muscle mass, and her outfit changed dramatically.  It went from simple compound armor, the reinforced leather preferred by Nieldic mages for ages,  to an ornate, and somewhat intimidating, gown of infinite intricacy.  "I'm sorry to have decieved your crew like that, but knowledge of my presence cannot leave this room.  You are the only one with whom this mission can be entrusted."
Natalya almost fainted as she recognized the tiara on the envoy's head, and when it dawned on her that the great villain of her childhood was in her briefing room her mind blanked out.  Thalia Immersfeld von Gravaga, The Dark Lady, Empress of Gravaga, and High Necromancer of the pantheon was on her ship.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Star Haven; Briefing

The forward command post wan't much to speak of, a holoprojector in a hotel ballroom with a lot of desks around it.  It looked impressive, but that was mostly just because it was a very tall room.  After serving at a dozen posts across the universe, Natalya wasn't really impressed by what she felt was an unnecessarily luxurious accommodation.  It spoke poorly to the character of her superiors that they had insisted on staying here.  There were plenty of more suitable quarters, and a warship in orbit would have had vastly superior communications equipment, better combat mapping, and the ability to pick up and go when the battle became a lost cause.  She intended to fight to the death some day, but not because her superiors had failed to provide an exit and needed her to buy them time.

"Commander Oerin, good to see you again."
There was a word that the Nielda saved for those they held in deepest contempt.  It was used to describe individuals who could assign a title to every single one of their ancestors, tell accounts of their ancestor's magical prowess, and never deliver so much as a puff of smoke of their own power or display any nobility of their own.  The word wasn't even positive in most human communities, it spoke of someone who was unwashed and unclean.  The word was greasy, and it fit the general like a glove.  To the Nielda, it meant inbreeding, uncommon among the truly great families but a deciding factor in the fate of those who had let greatness pass them by.  Many of these ignobles had shunned the company of those they deemed low born and unwittingly removed the very influx of power and innovation that kept the greatest families great.  No Gascan monarch had married within the nobility, either local or from any where else in the Empire, in nearly five thousand years, and their line had neither faltered nor been lost in the political crowd; a fact its citizens, like Natalya, were always proud to share.  The Tarans were much the same, and of old the Anatolians were as well.  The children of the Emperor were forbidden from marrying anyone who could be found within their relations on a tree set four generations back.  It was for everyone's good really, no one wanted to have to look at a tubby, pimply little git when they swore allegiance or watched an Imperial address.  It just didn't inspire confidence.  Besides, the Emperor was expected to be able to fight, and she couldn't see a man like General Harn waddling into battle.  It'd be like giving a duck a sword; and a fat duck at that.
"What are your orders, sir."
Harn began to pace in front of the holoprojector as it activated and a series of numbers and letters began streaming upward.  It was a familiar pattern; filing system information, coordinates, timestamps; most of it bueracratic crap but she commited it all to memory anyways in case she had to quote it back to someone later.  The relevant information was always in pictures.  Unlabeled picutes at that, to make sure anyone not present at the briefing couldn't just read it and know what was going on.  Of course, the pictures prevented audio bugs or limited telepathy from working it all out either.  All just security countermeasures easily circumvented by any major power, and almost certainly the enemy.  Gravagans would have just posted a cloaked spy in the room, Ga-Vok would have bugged the room and then hack the main frame afterwords.  The Seclorans would probably kidnap one of them and Psych it out of them, and the Harakai..well they wouldn't dare violate the treaty, especially not with winter nearing their borders.  They'd already begun wartime birth control restrictions.  In a matter of only a few years they'd have a horde of their own to send into battle.  The Empire was starting its own equivalent recruiting programs, and crackdowns on deadbeat senior officers like Harn were, at most, only a few years off.
"As you know, the evacuation of civilians is almost complete.  Myself and many of the senior military officials will be joining them shortly.  However, we received an envoy this morning requesting military support for a special mission."
Oh damn.  He was going to send them on a suicide mission, wasn't he?  This was not how she intended to die.
"Apparently a beacon was detected deep within enemy territory.  It was identified as belonging to one 'Hariel', another envoy.  You and your ship are to venture into enemy territory and determine the nature of this beacon.  If it is an enemy trap, destroy it or pass information back to command to ignore it.  If it is a friend, provide any assistance possible.  The Envoy will meet you at your ship.  Any questions should be directed to the Envoy.  Dismissed captain."

Natalya had no interest in looking into anyone's 'Envoy'.  And why hadn't he identified their allegiance, or even their species?  It was suspect to her, and frankly she felt like there were better uses of military resources than investigating ghost beacons and this 'Hariel'.  The thought glimmered that perhaps Harn genuinely didn't know,  and she had to admit, it did seem horrifically likely.  Still, didn't this seem suspicious to him too?  And if he did, then why didn't he voice his concerns, or at least warn her with his own suspicions?  Had he been ordered not to say anything, or worse, bewitched into silence?
She clenched her fist reflexively.  Her Mother had been a healer, her Father a soldier, and she'd inherited the most dangerous possible combination of their abilities.  She doubted she'd be any match for a professional mage, but it wouldn't stop her from trying.  No one bewitched her superiors; greasy, worthless pimples that they were, every being had the right to decide its own way through life.  Even if that right did often manifest itself as a curse.  In any case, she would not be asking her questions politely.