by J.C. Shaner
The first two chapters of my science fiction epic, presenting two of the main characters
"We now commit the body of Colonel Xander Roth to the Earth, so that he might achieve union with the land he served for so long. Gone are his armor and his sword, his peerless vigilance at an end. What we commit to the Earth is a man at peace, a man whose life shall be remembered long after his death."
The minister went on to provide brief summaries of Xander Roth's career, though none of this information was new to the young man sitting closest to the casket. Josiah Roth sat straight in his chair, gazing into the glossy wood that now encased his father. One hand sat still on his left knee while the other held one corner of a folded flag, supporting it in unison with his mother on its other side. Together they listened to the chaplain finish his description of Xander Roth's many years of service to the Empire, and silence swept over them as the speech concluded.
Josiah caught several officers he wasn't familiar with glance his way during the ceremony. He was sure they were sizing him up; he was of age to join the Imperial Military, and many of the officers in attendance were no doubt wondering if he would follow in his father's footsteps. Yet while they wondered, Josiah was sure. He had been sure of his future before his father's death. As a Commander in the Imperial Scientific Service, Xander Roth traveled to sectors of space that had not yet been explored. He commanded a small fleet that colonized these undiscovered sectors, setting up military outposts to sustain future Imperial expeditions. While technically military operations, the Imperial Scientific Service was armed only in the event of an encounter with pirate vessels or any unknown enemy spacecraft. In the event of indigineous life discovered on a planet meant to be terraformed, a select few Imperial commanders would review the situation and form a plan of action.
Josiah's father was frequently requested in situations where a planet was found to be resource-rich, yet an indigineous species was located. Often the planet would be placed under survellance, monitored in order to judge the species' chances for long term survival, or if Imperial interference would prove damaging. In rare cases, Emperor Shieng himself would send a wave out to the science fleet with personal inquiries or input. More often than not, however, Xander Roth had the final say in whether or not the planet would be touched by Imperial ships. It was after he had deemed a planet with no intelligent life forms 'accessible' that everything had gone wrong.
Before Josiah could play through the report in his head again, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and saw his mother standing beside him, and he realized that he should have stood up a moment ago. In a swift, curt motion, Josiah rose and straightened his dress jacket. In silence, his father's coffin was lowered into the ground, making no sound until the pristine machinery had finished its task. The four mechanical arms that had been attached to the coffin slowly swung aside, and every soldier in attendance raised a salute. It was time for Josiah to speak, to say his finals words to his father. While the crowd was pure composure and no one stared, Josiah knew all attention was fixed on him. Stoically, he spoke the verse he had had memorized for almost a decade.
"Into the dark of space, light is sent. A sword unto evil, a shield unto innocence. While my days are numbered, I count them not. While my enemies amass, I hate them not. For The Emperor's will is unity, all who desire shall be equal in his embrace. Fear, rage, envy begone, for the mission of harmony is mine."
The crowd was silent for a moment, heads bowed in silence. Josiah, too, bowed for a time, then kneeled before the open dirt. He looked to the elaborate watch on his left wrist, contemplating it before removing it. He held it for a moment before gently laying it atop the coffin.
"It's yours now, dad," he whispered. "You wouldn't want me wasting time counting. Counting the time until we see each other again."
As he stood, he caught his mother looking sideways towards him, as opposed to straight ahead like the rest of the crowd. His gesture, and perhaps his words, had not gone unnoticed by her. Josiah rejoined the crowd and let others close to his father step forward briefly to say a few words. Most were fellow servicemen who had crewed under Xander Roth, sharing stories of his peerless quality as a captain in the Imperial Fleet. So many of the stories sounded the same: He was a great man, an honor to serve under, et cetera. Josiah didn't doubt the authenticity of the statements, but they all sounded rehersed and impersonal nonetheless. They lacked the quality of true knowing. They lacked the understanding that Josiah possessed.
No one recounted the months worth of training sessions learning foreign toungues, classes Josiah had requested, and that his father hadn't had to agree with, but did. No one recalled Xander teaching an adolescent Josiah the fine points of swordsmanship, despite being across the galaxy and on the other side of a holo terminal. No one but Josiah had Xander beside them as they experienced the heavy, bold taste of their first Penumbra Blue at mightnight of their eighteenth birthday. These were the true memories of Xander, the core of who he was.
The last officer had spoken of Xander, and now the service was officially over. Josiah released a deep breath, realizing that he had been keeping his breathing calm and quiet throughout the whole ceremony. But it was done now; now was the time for relief. The crowd slowly drifted apart, and as attendees parted Josiah remained. After a brief while he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see his mother looking fondly towards him. She glanced for a moment back at the coffin before she spoke.
“He would be proud of the man you've become, Josiah. He has taught you much about the galaxy, but you've learned so much more on your own. He would say that there is a universe full of possibilities ahead for you. That fate is of your choosing.”
“He certainly had a profound way with words.” Josiah returned. “But you sound as if you don't entirely agree.”
“In some ways, I do not.” his mother began. “Every man in attendance here today was no doubt waiting to hear you announce your entry into the Imperial Military Academy to follow in his footsteps.”
“Seeing how this is my father's funeral and not some public talk forum, I decided to refrain from heavy oration. And I haven't made up my mind yet whether or not I'll enter.”
“And you should not be pressured to decide, son. That is my point. All of these men will expect a certain thing from you, and you must decide only for yourself where you will choose to go. Just because a clear path is laid before you doesn't mean that that is the sole path you must walk. It can often be advantageous to tread the path one least expects to find you on. I learned that the hard way in the diplomatic service. Everyone sees you, sees where you come from, and expects that you live your life by that same image. But that can't be how you go on. Even if you do follow the path laid bare, do it for yourself, and not for them.”
“I understand that. I know they want me to join, to see me aboard a ship named after father's. But whatever choices I make today, tomorrow, or in the future beyond that, they will be mine, and I will own them.”
“That son, is all your father would expect.” his mother said with finality, before kissing him gently on the head. “And it seems you have a lingering guest,” she added before walking slowy away.
Josiah turned, expecting another captain or admiral, but was greeted by the sight of familiar face of lesser rank. “Well, an enlisted man lurks among the officers,” Josiah began.
“Up to no good, for sure,” Arn Hammond responded. The two embraced, then pulled away while Josiah inspected Hammond's uniform.
“Shameful cufflinks, a tilted beret, and boots completely devoid of shine. I should have you court marshalled at once!”
The two chuckled briefly before the mood once more became somber. “I'm sure he was a fine captain, and an inspiration to his crew,” Hammond began. “It would have been an honor to serve under him as my first assignment.” Josiah almost tuned out the words he had heard almost a dozen times before earlier today. “And,” Hammond began again “I found some information regarding the matter you asked me about.”
Josiah's attention was regained.
Hammond looked around, making sure there were no others within earshot. “I have some information about the ambush.”
“Spill it,” Josiah said, not sharing Hammond's caution.
Hammond pulled a small holo pad off his belt, turned it on, and swiped the screen to a specific image. It was a navigation chart displaying several hyperspace routes. “And?” Josiah asked. “We already know from the ship's log that it was on its way to a routine mineral survey when it was pulled out of hyperspace unexpectedly.”
“Yes, but here's what the ship's log didn't show,” Hammond responded, tapping the picture some more. “The ship was too busy charting a new hyperspace course that its computer never properly logged where the ship was. The data was all corrupted. But I had a friend of mine reconstruct it, and he found the exact location on the map. Recognize this orbit?”
Josiah took the holo pad and studied the map, noting the only large body orbiting the system's sun. “Ravek Station,” he uttered.
“Correct. A way station for pirates, bounty hunters, slavers, and you know who.”
“Chrome Command,” Josiah said, heart beating rapidly.
As the Empire had expanded far beyond Earth and into newer systems, there were many in Imperial High Command that did not take kindly to a slow, cautious expansion. Many urged for more military emphasis and agressive expansion, as opposed to the docile, more scientific approach. Many did not think that their Empire should have to wait before putting boots on the ground, nor feel any remorse about interfering with any indigenous life they encountered on occupied worlds. They wanted to steamroll anything in their path, clung fervently to their Manifest Destiny philosophy. As tensions grew, so too did the number of open displays of rebellion. Shouting matches in conferences rooms escalated into violence, and before long the divide became irreprable.
At the end of a mandatory military counsel session, three officers drew firearms and fired upon those in what they deemed an opposing faction. These three officers were found to be members of the military splinter cell, outraged commanders who demanded more military presence in expansion projects. After that attack, dozens more high ranking officers fled from Imperial Space, pushing their stolen military vessels out into regions not yet surveyed or colonized by the Empire. There they sunk into piracy, slave trading, and attacking any other unaffiliated ships that passed near them. It was rumored that many of the renegade officers grafted cybernetic implants into themselves. They had dubbed themselves the Chrome Command, and maintained a standing threat of obliterating any and all attempts to get in their way.
“This has to be their handiwork,” Hammond said. “It has their name written all over it; the ruthless attacks, heavy damage to any ships not blown apart, and even the hyperspace pull. All tactics they've been known to use.”
“But why attack the Corsellion? Why attack my father's survey team?”
“They must have gotten too close. Before they jump, one of the Command ships must have picked up their signature. Then they probably set up the net, and during the jump, the Corsellion got pulled out.”
“Are you sure this information is accurate? The official reports said it was a pirate ambush during the actual mineral survey, not that they were pulled out of hyperspace before they even got there.”
“The Engineer that fixed up this report had apparently seen others, and I trust the guy. He's a Qu'ar that had practically built the Military Academy's security system from the ground up, so he knows his way around. And he was just as curious to find out what had really happened.”
“How many ships were there? The official report said there were almost a dozen.”
Hammond hesitated, looking at the ground. He realized he was about to give Josiah hard news. “The datamined files said that only one Chrome Command ship was recorded, and the station before it was attacked too. But they couldn't determine the specifications because the ship was so heavily modified, but it picked up only one signature.”
Josiah suddenly felt uneasy, and gripped a nearby fence railing. One ship. His father's vessel had been annihilated by only one enemy ship. He realized Hammond's hand was on his shoulder, and he straightened himself.
“Can you send those reports to my personal terminal? I want to look over them. I want to know it all. How they did it, why, and where that ship is now.”
“But Josiah, you can't just-”
“Can you send it, or can't you?”
“Yes, I can. But it will take time to make sure it's secure. I'll do whatever I can to help. But I can't afford to have anyone else at the Academy find out that I've been digging through their classified reports. I'll lose my assignment and be discharged before I've even gotten to serve.”
Josiah felt a pang of guilt. It was only a week ago that he had asked Hammond to look into any hidden files he could find, since he had been newly assigned to the security division of a newly completed orbital station. Hammond didn't have to stick his neck out, but did anyway. He and Josiah had been friends since childhood. But Hammond was right. He had his own honorable post, and Josiah had no right to ask him to compromise that.
“No...no, don't bother sending it. And delete whatever records you have from that terminal. We can't risk you getting into trouble for it, and you've done enough for me already.”
“I'm sorry, Jo. I know this is important to you, and I know it must be hard hearing that the circumstances were covered up.”
“Yes and no. I know why they did it. I guess they didn't want it getting out that the Chrome Command was still a threat. But me. They lied, kept it from me. What else in the Intelligence division keeping? What else is out there?”
Hammond didn't know what to say, but the question was rhetorical. He and Josiah stood at the fence, looking out at the massive, glistening buildings of Collonade City. It was the capital of Fortress Earth, the center of Imperial civilization. And to Josiah, it felt like a destination.
“I should go,” Hammond said to Josiah. “I have a couple more days in the city before I go back to assignment, so we can meet up later. But Jo,” he said with a hand, more imploring, on Josiah's shoulder. “Don't start anything. Don't let this burn you up. I looked into this because I wanted to help you get closure. I know it must be hard, but you can't get burnt up by hating them. What Chrome Command did was monstrous, but every monster loses sooner or later. It's in their nature. So don't let that fire burn.”
Hammond released Josiah's shoulder and left, his friend's final words echoing in his head. Yet there Josiah remained, not releasing his tense grip on the railing for many minutes on end. His hand beginning to sweat, he finally let go. He turned, walking towards a considerably thinned crowd of what guests remained. After he spotted his mother, but before he could approach her, an admiral stepped in his path.
“Mister Roth, Admiral Hangrin” the admiral said, saluting.
Josiah saluted back, slightly confused. “No need to salute, sir. I haven't submitted any application to the Military Academy, and even if I did, I'm fairly certain I would be outranked here.”
Hangrin chuckled. “That would mostly likely be so, young mister Roth. A young man such as yourself could achieve something truly great in our ranks. He may even be able to forego any dull, standard application process.” Roth stopped, realizing that Hangrin was looking at him very expectantly. “You could choose to excel in whatever field you might choose, as your father did. Would there be any particular area of service you might be interested in?”
Josiah though for only a brief moment as a great wheel in his mind was set into motion. He looked back to Admiral Hangrin, meeting his gaze.
“I was thinking something along the lines of Imperial Intelligence.”
And as Admiral Hangrin went on about Josiah being a could fit, Hammond's words echoed through Josiah's head once more. Don't let the fire burn.
But the coals were already glowing.
According to the buzzing digital clock on the floor, it was dawn. The dormitories weren't close to any of the exterior decks, so there was no way to be sure. Usarra Allathrian hoped it was a malfunction. Pulling herself upright in her bedroll, she heard the clocks of those around her as well. No such luck, she thought to herself. The stupid things were mandatory in the dormitories, reminding everyone who had the good fortune of being crammed in that work assignment shifts were changing. Usarra would have woken up anyway; for five years it had been the same routine. Wake up, stand in line in front of the rusty computer terminal waiting your turn, getting your work assignment for the day, carrying it out and getting back to the cot for the few hours until it all started again.
Usarra was quick to get all the way out of her cot, slinking to the out of order bathrooms to change. She stripped down to her undergarments, looking mournfully at the defunct showers as she put on her second of two sets of clothes. This set was less baggy, though a little less clean than her sleeping outfit. She enjoyed the snug sleeves of her work clothes; they were less likely to get caught in something when she was out and about working in the station. She casually balled up her faded gray sleeping atire and went back into the common room. She shoved her extra clothes into the bedroll, then rolled it up and shoved it into a corner. Tying it shut, she made sure the area with her name written clearly was facing outwards. It had been defaced at some point; one of the other kids had added several extra “u”s to the beginning of her name. It was moronic, but that was part of what made her chuckle every time she saw it.
She was seventeen years old now, and she had been on Ravek Station for as long as she could remember. She had never left, not even been as far as the airlock of a passing ship collecting cargo. She had been here longer than most of the others, though a lot of the younger girls had gone before she even changed work schedules. Most of them were human girls, gone to station blocks or somewhere unknown. Every once in a while some men would come and look over the kids, focusing on strong looking boys or the adolescent human girls. Usarra rarely caught their attention; they didn't seem to take to aliens for whatever they needed people for. That didn't ashame her; she was, in a way, proud of her distinct look.
As a Maylor, she had vibrant green skin. Rather than being one shade, it was more of a gradient from head to toe, lighter at her scalp and darker as it went down, her feet almost black at their dirtiest. The hair on her head never grew very long, due to the ridges her skin formed on the top of her head. While some Maylor grew their hair out and wore it in various styles between the ridges, Usarra kept it shaven completely. She was told that was the custom for more affluent Maylor, who more often than not lived in central colonies and kept shaved to look more regal. On her darker days, Usarra would run her hands over her smooth scalp, pretending she too was a true member of the species, off in a well to do colony, running the place and giving work assignments to everyone else. Her fingers ran over her pointed earlobes, the other distinctive characteristic of her species. Some of the human kids used to point and make fun of them, though that had ended when she became one of the oldest kids in this work block.
Stepping up to the line, Usarra looked ahead and saw that she was fourth in line for the work assignments. A record, she though to herself. Maybe today she could get her assignment quick, then take her time walking through the station to get to it. She could walk through the neon lights of the market district, looking through all the merchant stalls and small cafe tents. It would be pheasable if none of the other kids screwed around with the STAT.NET connection and put lewd images of alien women on the screen again. The terminal had been nonfunctional for days after the last time that happened.
“Get it in gear, Lorsen!” She said after a sigh at the boy in front. Lorsen tapped the screen rapidly, his lurid scheme foiled this time. Usarra found herself playing with her fingernails impatiently when it was finally her turn.
She tapped her name and identification number into the screen, and the machine took its time loading her information and assignment. After quite a while the machine beeped, displaying in bold red letters NO REGISTERED ASSIGNMENT. She repeated the process, only to get the same bold letters. It was as if she was being scorned for not having a work assignment.
A human boy behind her snickered, then tapped her and said “I heard that fat foreman guy talking about you yesterday. He was talking to some big guys about moving you to another deck.”
Usarra sighed, shoved past the boy, and went back to her cot. She left it folded up and propped her back against it, folding her arms. If only that idiot kid had told me yesterday, she shouted in her head. She could have taken the battery out of her clock and slept in until the foreman came to get her for whatever movement was happening. It was only a few minutes before the rest of the dormitory's occupants had gotten their assignments and were gone. Soon enough the foreman came in from the front room after the kids had filed out.
“It's Allatian?” he asked in a low, uneducated voice.
“All-ath-ree-an” Usarra spelled it out for the moron.
“S' what I said,” the foreman argued back. “Anywho, get up. You got a new assignment in, on a new deck. Says Pleasure District.”
Usarra's heart skipped a beat. “What?!” she shouted.
“Pleasure District.” the idiot foreman repeated.
“But...I can't be there! I don't want to go there!”
“S' what the assignment says.”
Usarra lashed out and swung towards the fat foreman, knocking the data pad with her assignment out of his hand. For a brief moment he looked down at her in astonishment, then angrily raised his own hand next to his head. Usarra winced, but the expected blow never came. The foreman, his faced flushed, lowered his hand, and still furious he picked up his pad. “You had better hope I'm being transferred enough for a new one a' these, girl,” he said before hocking and spitting into a corner. Usarra sunk to the floor as the foreman shuffled back to the front room.
She couldn't go to the Pleasure District. Minors weren't allowed on that deck, but Usarra had snuck through once or twice. She knew what happened there. From what she had seen, there wasn't anything pleasurable about the place. But no one had come to this dormitory to take anyone there before. There had never been any mention of it. Unless the human girls...
Usarra's head shot up, blood rushing to it. She couldn't go there. She would go anywhere else but there. Suddenly she felt sick to her stomach, as if something more vile than yesterday's pathetic excuse for lunch was coming back up. She wanted to scramble back to the decrepit bathroom and lose it all, but before she could move she heard another, new voice from the front room.
“This the one?” the new voice asked.
“Yeah, that's it.” the foreman responded with a point towards Usarra. “Just get her outta my hair and make the transfer.”
One of the two new men occupying the front room took a plastic card out of a small pouch on his pristine leather belt. He held it up, and the foreman scanned it with some portable device. Showing no emotion, the two men turned their heads to look through the curtain at Usarra. She couldn't meet their gaze, but she slowly rose to her feet. She felt as if it was happening against her will, that some supernatural force was moving her. She wanted to fight it, to scream and run past the men and far away. To the Market District, the Reactor Core even. Anywhere but here. Yet she found herself moving into the front room, closing the curtain forever behind her.
“C'mere, kid.” one of the men said with some strange, heavy accent. He lightly grabbed her jaw, turning her head slowly from one side to the other. “She'll do fine,” he said while still looking at her, though clearly addressing the other man. Usarra turned her head out of the man's grip, and his hand drifted back to his side. He squinted at her briefly, then chuckled. “With me,” he said as he and his partner turned to leave.
The two men walked casually through the station, one in front and one behind Usarra. They often glanced around as they passed through various sections of the station. In nearly every room they went through, Usarra looked at every possible nook and crevice. She wanted to dart behind every stack of crates, make a break for every restaurant tent to scramble away. They were passing through areas she had been through hundreds of times, yet it seemed like an entirely different journey. Like she was leaving for good, as if her wish to leave her dreary routine had morbidly come true.
At the bottom of a narrow stairway, Usarra almost collided with the man in front of her. She hadn't realized he had stopped; she had been too busy futilely looking for somewhere to run. “Quiet,” he snapped to her. She leaned her head to see what the man was waiting for, what had made him nervous. She eventually heard voices coming down the stairway, two other men talking rather loudly.
“-and the payment's all settled. If you still have him on ice, we can take him straight off your ship and be out of your way in no time.”
The man whom Usarra observed speaking wore clothes that appeared to have once been pressed and ironed, though were incredibly disheveled, untucked and spotted with the occassional food stain. A dirty badge was clipped to a loop on his belt, flopping uselessly as he trotted down the stairs. It was the badge of a station security guard. Usarra had only rarely seen them in her section, and they all almost always appeared like this one. None of them seemed to take their role seriously. Behind him was another, taller man, this one wearing considerably cleaner body armor. It was almost all black, the joints a slightly luminescent green. A couple grenades were clipped to one side of his belt, a shiny blaster on the other. His metal boots clanked as he followed the officer down the stairs, and he had to lower his helmetted head as he came through the door.
Usarra thought to grab the blaster off the man's belt and use it against the two men with her. She would have to reach across the armored man to reach it, but if she had it then she could keep them all away. Without warning, the armored man hiked up his belt and continued to walk with his thumbs tucked in. Dammit, Usarra swore to herself. This brute had to pick just now to start strutting around all casual. So much for her latest plan of escape.
After the officer and his friend left, still talking jovially about bounties, the man behind Usarra shoved her into the stairway after his partner. She quickly check the one in front for weapons, but if he had any, they weren't hanging obviously off his belt. Seething, she followed the men a short while longer until they reached a set of wide doors. They opened, and Usarra felt a cold rush of air. She realized that they had come to a tram station.
They took her off to one side, instructing her to follow their example of leaning inconspicuously against the wall. Usarra gazed down the track, wondering if she could get anywhere by jumping down there and running for it. She might get splattered by a tram, but then again she might get away. She was roused from her pondering as she noticed that one of the men had wandered slightly in front of her. He had one hand raised to his ear, and Usarra could see that he was touching some sort of implant embedded behind his ear. He appeared annoyed and began to fiddle with a wire going from a small port behind his ear to another device inside it. The heavily accented man said something unintelligable, focusing on whatever his partner was trying to do.
“Tram messing with the harmonics,” the fidgetty man said.
Usarra looked down the track, and sure enough a tram was just arriving in the station. At first this made her tense, but she relaxed as she got the beginnings of a plan. She observed as both men now stood in front of her, though one shot a glance her way and reached out a hand as if suddenly remembering he was toting a slave girl to be. Usarra gently took his hand, and the three of them walked towards the opening tram doors. The two men, still in front of her, stepped aboard.
And that's when Usarra pushed with all the strength she could muster. She just barely escaped the first man's grasp when the second grabbed her. He grimaced as the tram's loudspeakers announced for passengers to stand clear, that the doors were closing. Feeling enraged, willing to do anything to achieve her escape that was so near, Usarra reached up to grab the man's ear implant.
She pulled downwards ferociously.
Her hand was out of the way just as the tram's doors closed, hissing shut with the two men on the other side of them. Blood had squirted onto the window, making Usarra feel sick once more as she watched the thick red paste trickle down. The wounded man fell backwards and screamed while the other pounded on the window to no avail. The tram hissed to a start and began moving away. It picked up speed until it was fully out of the station. Feeling warmth in one of her hands, Usarra looked down and saw that she was still holding her would-be-captor's ear implant. One end of it was dripping with blood; a cord that was longer than Usarra thought it would be. The gruesome sight brought something foul tasting into her mouth, though she managed to keep it down. She threw the bloody implant aside just as she noticed the other people on the platform staring directly at her. She backed away from them all, slowly making her way back to the stairwell. Her hands found the railing downwards, and she immediately turned and ran.
It only took two or three strides to make it down; Usarra couldn't bother to count. Her flight took her across the landing and halfway through the market center beyond before she even thought to look where she was going. She stopped in the middle of a crowd finally, catching her breath. She was free. Her legs were ablaze and her chest heaving, but she was free. She took off down the path with the most neon lights, her feet pounding the floor's metal plates so hard she thought her shoddy shoes would peel right off. She stopped suddenly as her eyes caught something familiar, and catching her breath she examined the path ahead.
It was the bounty hunter from not a minute earlier. He had stopped at one of the food stalls and was talking with the scrawny merchant within, his helmet sitting on the counter. His blaster was facing her now, the man opportunely placed. Still breathing heavily, she continued ahead at a brisk stride. Usarra froze as the bounty hunter turned his head, but he had only moved enough to look at some frozen delicacy sold within the tent. Onwards she went. She finally made the distance, making sure not to bump into other passersby but also not to be too visible to the hunter. Slowly she reached her hand out, the hunter looking away and the shopkeeper swiping the man's Bit Card at his register. The metal was warm in her fingers, the weapon heavy as she slowly removed it from its holster. She held it just for a second, staring at it almost with adoration.
Then her ears were filled with pain.
Red light filled the room, sirens and klaxxons blaring from all sides. The startled shopkeeper jumped backwards and the bounty hunter lept from his leaning stance. His muscular, amored thigh bumped into Usarra as she knelt beside him, nearly knocking her over. He felt the colission and his head swung towards her. Wide eyed, he appeared astonished that some young, slender woman would be lifting the weapon from his belt. Just as he went to lunge towards her, Usarra lifted the blaster up in both hands. She squoze her eyes shut and pulled the trigger three times. It was so easy, such a smooth mechanism. She wanted to keep pulling, and she couldn't even hear the shots or what they hit over the blaring alarm. After the third shot she opened her eyes, looking up to see three smoking holes in the ceiling plate above her. The ceiling flashed with red as the damaged areas smoldered. Remembering her peril, Usarra's attention returned to the bounty hunter. He had thrown himself backwards onto the floor to avoid her shots.
Realizing he was at a disadvantage, Usarra gripped the weapon tightly and bolted past its former owner. He shouted after her, though by the time his armored form was off the ground, Usarra was gone.
Her heartrate and breathing once more frenetic, she continued to sprint away from the troubles behind her. She was running alongside a great many people now, her slender, yet muscled form keeping her from being trampled. She only briefly looked at those around her. All seemed panicked, as if they were all fleeing from something terrifying like she was. Would this many people need to run, to escape if the alert was from Usarra attacking her captors? She dismissed the though and threw the blaster aside, confient she was lost in the crowd and devoid of any room to fire it. She kept her eyes on her surroundings as she continued to sprint shoulder to shoulder with the crowd. Just as she thought she might collapse, she spotted a broken sign indicating a nearby airlock. No one else seemed to be heading towards it, as its neon glow had ceased. Usarra shoved her way to the side, taking a massive, relieveing breath when she was finally free from the mob. She punched the airlock door open, going into the corridor and leaning against a railing. The sirens still carried on, but she needed to breathe before she ran again. And just as she caught her breath in the dark side corridor, the red light from the main hallway was suddenly eclipsed.
Standing in the airlock's doorway was the dark-armored bounty hunter, panting heavily himself with either fatigue or rage.
“You've got gall to touch my weapon, kid.” His deep voice began. “That was the finest thing I've ever owned. Well,” he added, looking her up and down. “Apart from you now, that is.”
With a roar he lunged at Usarra, and despite her attempt to leap out of his path, his heavy arms wrapped around her. She screamed, though she could barely hear herself over the still-blazing alarms. The struggle only lasted a short while longer, Usarra's well of rejuvenated energy quickly running dry. She collapsed, and the bounty hunter lowered her to the floor. He reached a hand under one of her legs to pick her up, but stopped abruptly. He turned around, and, following his attention, Usarra saw another man standing behind the bounty hunter.
This other man was also armored, though Usarra could tell that his was different. His armor shone with an otherworldly glimmer, from the alert lights or something else Usarra couldn't be sure. His suit appeared white, with intricate gold designs running throughout the layers of armor. Through both the silhouette against the alert lighting and the strange glow of the armor, Usarra couldn't make out much detail of the man's face. Before she could study him further, the bounty hunter had lept up to attack. Still missing his blaster, he swung out wildly at the new, armored stranger. The stranger dodged almost too quick for Usarra to see, and the hunter stumbled back into the main corridor. He swung again, though the stranger—whom Usarra saw was also unarmed—adroitly caught the hunter's attack with both hands. Locking the hunter's arms in both of his own, the stranger twisted, causing a look of severe anguish in the bounty hunter. Usarra could only imagine a yell of immense pain to go with it. The stranger let go, and the bounty hunter stumbled back in agony. The rushing crowd brushed like a gale just past his back.
As the hunter readied himself to attack again, the stranger quickly spun, raising bent leg as he did so. The raised leg lashed out into a kick, landing with perfection on the side of the hunter's exposed head. Unconcious as soon as the blow was struck, the hunter fell still to the metal floor.
“Young miss?” the stranger said, making Usarra jump. “Young miss, are you harmed?” he said again, shouting this time.
“I...”Usarra began. She attempted to stand, though felt rapid, shooting pain in both her left ankle and wrist. She fell back onto the floor.
Without any warning, the stranger scooped her up off the ground. It was so quick that Usarra felt as if she had been launched into the air. Seemingly without effort, the stranger took her back into the main corridor. With his presence, the crowd seeming to be shuffling forward in a more calm manner, though no less rapid. But still there was room for the stranger to maneuver, and he was quickly making his way ahead. There were two thunderous explosions from behind them, though Usarra and her rescuer continued onward. What the hell was going on?
The crowd surged up a wide set of stairs onto another deck. This one was far more open, and almost immediately they were running past a set of large windows. Usarra's mouth was agape as she beheld the chaotic nature of the events outside the station.
A colossal spacecraft drifted close by, its hull cracked in half. Countless points on the hull exposed inner portions of the ship, fire ravaging the craft's formerly pristine white paint. Dents and tears were visible everywhere, and despite a considerable amount of weaponry on the ship, none of it was firing. Motes of orange and red flame sprang up from many locations on the broken faces of the ship. As Usarra watched, another explosion rippled through the ship incredibly close to the station. Metal was flung towards the view ports, and while it struck either above or below the windows, the impact was still jarring. Usarra felt as if all her bones would break just from the sheer force of the station's sudden tremor. All lighting, even the red emergency lights, winked off with one of the great shudders, and for a brief, haunting moment, the deafening alarms ceased. A chill ran up Usarra's sweating back, and she noticed something distinct about the crippled ship outside. There was a name painted on the hull, damaged but still visible.
Startling Usarra once more, the alarms and red lights resumed. Blast shields outside the windows slid unsteadily down, and before they did so Usarra caught one last glimpse at the crippled ship's name. She then felt as if she were drifting, rather than being jostled amongst the crowd. She felt as if she were the one out in space, gliding past everyone else in the zero-g. She was awoken from her daze as another light, this one very bright and white, forced its way into her vision. She blinked rapidly and raised a hand to block the glow.
Above her stood her rescuer, his white armor no longer possessing the otherworldly glow. The gold designs against the white plating were still visible, and no less elegant. What was most startling was that she could see the man's face. His skin was a very light brown, and the hairline of his well kempt black hair was beaded with sweat. He appeared worn out, fatigued, as if he were as weary as Usarra despite his much more muscular frame. He gazed into her eyes, waiting to see if she was fully concious before he spoke.
“Young miss, this is where I must leave you,” He said, looking briefly back to the crowd.
“W-what? No, you can't.” Usarra protested.
“I must, young miss. There are a great many others here who need me.”
“But I can't get out of here on my own. I have nowhere to go. I can't leave.”
“You can, and you must, young miss. Through that door is a ship, and a brother whom I trust is aboard. You must go to him, and have him take off. He can leave, and you with him while there is still a chance.”
Usarra looked towards where the man was pointing, and saw that they were at another airlock. “Then you can come too!” she shouted.
“I cannot. A Paragon must place others before himself.”
“But I have nothing,” Usarra cried, becoming furious at herself for how pitiful her own words sounded.
“Remember the armor, young miss.” the man said with finality as he stood.
Doing as he did, Usarra, too rose to her feet. The man gestured to the airlock, and Usarra punched the button to open it. As it hissed open, she looked behind her. She felt warm tears well up in her eyes, greater with each step the stranger took into the still frantic crowd. After he rounded the bend in the great hallway, Usarra saw a telltale glow shine for a long moment. Almost unknowingly, she turned into the hangar and tapped the airlock closed behind her.
“Kendar?” a voice called from ahead. “Where is Kendar?”
A small transport sat alone in the hangar, its entry ramp down and another man in intricate armor stood within. He looked to Usarra with a worried, yet expectant look on his face.
With great effort she spoke. “He left,” she began. “To...to save more people.”
Both walked towards one another, the man meeting Usarra in the middle of the hangar. He reached out and grabbed her hands, closing his own eyes. A very faint glow shone through this man's armor, which Usarra noticed was more gray than the previous set she had seen.
“I sense truth in you. And you are innocent. Come,” the man said. He let her hands go and turned, beckoning her to follow him.
Walking forward on some reserve of energy she hadn't thought she possessed, Usarra climbed aboard and stood in silence as the entry ramp closed behind her. The man hurried into the cockpit. There was a resounding shudder, from the station's damage or the shuttle taking off, Usarra couldn't be sure. She buckled herself in to one of the seats lining the inside of the shuttle, craning her neck to see out the cockpit's window. She immediately wished she had kept her eyes closed.
Directly in front of he cockpit was an enormous, ovular ship. It was pierced by a great hole in the middle, a ball of rolling, crackling, green energy swirling within. Metallic tendrils swung from dozens of points on the ship, occassionally crackling with the same green energy before turning to fire at the crippled Corsellion. Dozens of blasts battered the alrready brutalized hull, each hit causing ripples of explosions further down the ship. Each attack was redundant; the Corsellion was long since gone. What monster would continue ravaging the enemy ship? Who were they? Whose ship was this other one, and why was it under attack?
Usarra shuddered as each question passed through her mind. She had no answers to any of those questions. She had nothing. Turning back to the inside of the shuttle, she closed her eyes. The blackness, the pain of her tight squinting, was preferrable to the horror outside. She rocked back and forth as far as the seatbelt would allow. As she leaned backwards, she reached up to wipe away more tears. Finally, she sat firmly straight, grasping the handles to the side of her seat. She focused all her attention on the Paragon's last words to her.
Remember the armor.
Usarra shut her eyes once more, focusing on that otherworldly glow, on the paragon, on the only hope she had ever known on Ravek Station. She pushed away the bounty hunter, the crowd, the slavers, the bloody implant, the running. She pushed it all away, and only remembered the armor.
Behind the shuttle, in silence and green flame, Ravek Station exploded.