Albus and Kramer had spent the last few hours in their room, arguing with each other.
“I'm sorry, but I just can't allow you to come with me.” said Albus severely.
“I stunned that Stinger; I'm now a part of this!” said Kramer fiercely.
Shortly after Albus had told Kramer his secret, the two of them had learned the full effects of the Stingers' attack. Four students of the Mariner Valley had perished; three had been hit by Killing Curses, and the fourth had been crushed by a falling slab of masonry dislodged from the roof of Halsef Hall by an explosion. About two dozen others had been injured. All of the other students were either with a team of grief counselors who had been summoned two hours ago, or else confined to the dormitory in South Hall.
“I've already been responsible for enough deaths since my friends and I arrived in this time.” said Albus. “The Stingers killed a Hogwarts teacher looking for us. They killed Aviva while trying to find out where we were. And now, four students here are dead too. These people only died because they were in the way. When the Circle becomes aware that I have an accomplice...”
“I don't care about dying.” said Kramer, and his voice was full of a burning intensity that Albus had never heard before. “I have nothing!”
“What?” said Albus.
“I didn't tell you the truth about my life either.” said Kramer, his voice low and quavering. “Like you, like your brother and sister and cousins, I have been living a lie.”
“You have?” Albus said incredulously.
“I'm an orphan.” said Kramer. “Two years ago, the Stingers attacked the Partnership Monument. It was an enormous statue commemorating the union of wizard and Muggle society. And...and I was there, with my family. We had come from our home on Earth to see it. I remember the whole structure trembling, and…and then it began to break up, and rain down on us all.”
Kramer's eyes began to water, and he looked down. “I can’t explain why I lived. Luck, I suppose. It was all a blur; I can't remember much of it. Only the noise, and the terror. But...but...my parents, and my sisters...I had no one left.
“The government took charge of me. I was sent here, and the school has looked after me ever since...the only way I could stave off the horror was to pretend it had never happened...to pretend that my family was still alive, and that they had simply sent me here because they thought it would be best. There were times I had almost convinced even myself...”
Kramer looked up at Albus once more, glaring at him. “I want the Circle to pay for what it has done. For the death of my family, and for all the others who have died at their hands. I have no direction in life. All I know is pain.”
Albus couldn't believe that Kramer had kept all of this from him. He had thought that his own fake identity was hard to maintain, but this...
“You, Albus...you stirred something in me that I couldn't understand at first.” said Kramer. “Somehow, you eased my suffering, and made me feel like I wasn't alone. There was always something about you, but I couldn't figure out what. Now, I know what I was feeling. You and I have both suffered at the hands of the Circle. I suppose on some level, I sensed it.”
“I had sensed nothing,” muttered Albus glumly, patting his friend on the shoulder. “I had no idea of what you've been through. I'm so sorry, Kramer.”
“So you see, Albus, there will be nothing here for me when you leave. I must come with you. It's not just about revenge. We...we need to stick together.”
Albus rose to his feet. “Well, we'll have to leave now. It's not just the Stingers who will be after us. The Feather of Fawkes will chase us too; they'll be determined to protect me, and see I come to no harm.”
“But that's good, isn't it?” asked Kramer.
“It should be,” sighed Albus. “But there's no way they'll let us go off and try to rescue my friends. And...and they're not as powerful as the Circle is. They haven't got a hope of finding them.”
The two of them opened the door and crept along the hall. They could hear muffled talking, raised voices, and crying from behind every door in the dormitory wing. Out into the elegant entrance hall they went, past the high windows and statues, and through the front doors, to find...
Nabus Rucolfix was standing at the bottom of the steps. Albus and Kramer froze.
“I knew you would do this.” said Nabus, walking up the steps, taking Albus by the arm, and beginning to steer him away. “I'm sure your father would have done the same thing. But I cannot allow it.”
“I have to do something!” snarled Albus, trying to wrench his arm free of the old man. But Nabus's grip was surprisingly strong.
“Albus, I know that you're angry and scared. But you risk revealing your true identity to the Circle.”
“They already know it.” said Albus. “They know where we're from, and who we are.”
“I suppose they have proven that.” sighed Nabus. “It's a miracle that no governments have gotten wind of your presence. But the fact remains that what you want to do is foolish and reckless, and fueled by emotion.”
“Do you honestly think the Feather of Fawkes can rescue my friends?” shouted Albus. “Face it, Nabus. The Circle has the upper hand.”
Nabus did not rise to the bait. “Do you honestly think that you can do it?” he said.
Albus looked down, his face burning. Nabus was right. How could he, Albus, a thirteen-year-old boy, have any hope of challenging a shadowy terrorist network which possessed the strongest Dark magic of the age?
“We'll look for your friends, Albus. If we can, we'll try to rescue them. But it may not be possible.” said Nabus sadly. “Even if we locate them, and if they are still alive by that time, we have no offensive weaponry or tactics that would allow us to safely strike. They would crush us, and probably uncover the location of our headquarters in the process. We must always keep sight of what is most important.”
A leaden sense of hopelessness and despair was forming in the pit of Albus's stomach. The way it was looking, he would never see James, Lily, Rose, or Hugo again...unless the Stingers got him too. He almost welcomed that idea. What was left for him now? Now he knew exactly how Kramer felt.
“Wait, sir!” said Albus, and pointed back to his friend, who was still sitting on the steps. “Kramer Grove knows my real identity. He lost his family in the attack on the Partnership Monument. Can't he come with me?”
Nabus stopped, and considered for a moment. “We would only be endangering him by getting him roped into all of this.” he said solemnly, shaking his head, and continued to pull Albus away from South Hall.
“He's already in danger.” Albus said fiercely. “He saved me from a Stinger...hit him from behind with a Stunning Spell. They might come after him!”
Once again, Nabus halted in his tracks. “That changes matters.” he said. “If he already got himself involved, we must protect him. Young man!” he called out. “Come with us.”
Eagerly, Kramer jumped off the steps and came up to them, grinning. “Let's get you both to the headquarters.” said Nabus.
A few hours later, Albus and Kramer were sitting in the vast conference room beneath the cloud bands of Jupiter. This time, only about half of the people who had been present last time were sitting at the table. Evidently, the others were currently at their jobs on the outside.
The atmosphere was heavy, miserable, as though everyone present had lost a part of themselves. Having thought of nothing but his siblings and cousins for hours, Albus had almost forgotten about Aviva, but as he gazed around at the many faces, their heads bowed, the memory of her flayed, slash-covered body came back in full measure, more real to him even than it had at the moment when he had witnessed it.
After a few minutes of silence, punctuated by weeping from various individuals up and down the table, Nabus rose to his feet.
“We must not forget that Aviva Gregarum did not die in vain.” said Nabus, his voice magically magnified once again. “Though the whereabouts of the five children were forced out of her, she never revealed the information of her own will. Her brain revealed signs of magical damage that could only have been created by the most brutal kinds of Legilimency. Furthermore, when the five Stingers departed for the Mariner Valley Academy, leaving her for dead, she managed to use her remaining strength to Apparate to the school, and deliver a warning. Were it not for her final act, the Stingers would likely have taken Albus as well.
“Which brings us to an urgent matter. Where do we send Albus and his friend now? I believe that we should immediately transport them to our outpost in the crystal mines outside Nereid City, at least until we come up with a better idea. Does anyone disagree?”
No one said anything.
“Then we will act immediately.” said Nabus, rising to his feet. “Albus, Kramer, come...”
Suddenly, there was an enormous BOOM, and the conference room shook violently. Shrieks filled the room, and several people toppled out of their chairs. A blaring alarm sounded, and the light in the room began to pulse red.
“The Stingers!” shouted a man. “We've been discovered!”
“Nobody panic!” bellowed Nabus, his voice thundering through the vast room. “Action stations! NOW!”
Half of the people ran to the elevators on one side of the room, and half ran to the elevators on the other side.
“Rob, take Albus and Kramer.” said Nabus quickly, as Rob Carter came running towards the old man. “Only fight if you have no choice, or risk being followed. Get them to Nereid at all costs.”
“Aye, sir.” said Rob, then, turning to Albus and Kramer, he said, “Come with me. Quickly!”
Another BOOM, and the room juddered again. Albus and Kramer were knocked off their feet, but Rob managed to stay upright. Pulling them to their feet, he dragged them over to an elevator and hit the button. It slid open at once, and they dashed inside.
The doors closed, and the elevator began to rise a tremendous speed. Through the window in the elevator, Albus could see a dark shadow rushing towards the conference room. As it hit, the room trembled for a third time, and then the shapes were lost in the swirling clouds.
“What's going to happen?” said Albus, terrified.
“Half of the Feather of Fawkes is trained to use the cannons mounted on the sides of the space station.” said Rob, “and the other half is trained to pilot the Axis ships.”
“Axis ships?” said Albus, confused. “What are...”
“You're about to see for yourself.” said Rob.
Albus had expected that the elevator would break the clouds, but when they began to slow down, they were still within Jupiter's atmosphere. The doors parted to reveal what looked like an enormous, smoke-filled aircraft hangar. The hangar was completely open, yet the swirling gas outside did not seem to be seeping in. It was as though an invisible shield was keeping out Jupiter's atmosphere, ensuring the air was clear and safe to breathe. The whole place was stiflingly hot and seemed to crackle with the energy of people dashing this way and that.
Even stranger were the odd vehicles poised for launch. They looked rather like enormous gyroscopes, with propulsion jets attached to the rings, and small cabins in their centers. Each one was surrounded by people, some of them pumping chemicals into the machines, others shouting complicated incantations and waving their wands, creating flashes and ripples in the air. There were also several people seated at desks positioned around the walls of the hangar, frantically performing calculations and checking data.
“Rob Carter!” said a witch at a desk nearby, waving her wand at a computer screen and rapidly scanning the readings. “You're clear for Lane Three!”
“Come on!” said Rob, tearing across the hangar, Albus and Kramer sprinting in his wake. Rob stopped in front of one of the curious ships, this one positioned at the back of a strip demarcated by a line of blue paint and below a large, floating number three. Turning to the maintenance workers, who were not working on the ship but merely standing around it, shuffling their feet, “I can't do magic. Can you activate the ladder?”
One of them drew pointed his wand at the ship and said, “Descendo.” A narrow ladder appeared, leading up into the cabin. Rob tore up the steps, opened the door, and said, “Albus, Kramer, get in!”
The two of them followed Rob up the ladder, and Rob closed the hatch. There were two seats on either side of the Rob. Kramer sat on the left, while Albus took the right.
Albus looked down at the controls. Aside from a series of small buttons which seemed to control temperature and other minor settings, there were very few controls. A pair of joysticks sat side by side in the center of the panel. The joystick on the left was set into a circular groove; it seemed that, in addition to pulling it in any direction, the entire lever could be shifted across the panel in a circle. The joystick on the right looked rigid, and its groove allowed it to be moved up and down only. It also had a red button on the top.
Rob took a joystick in each hand. “Okay...let's roll!”
The ship rose gently into the air. Rob shifted the left joystick to six o'clock and pulled back. Suddenly, they sprang forwards, and flew out of the hangar, pressing Albus and Kramer into their seats.
“Magic keeps the Axis hovering when it's inside a planet's atmosphere, but when it's in space, it relies solely on physics to keep it going.” Rob explained. “The left joystick controls the yaw and speed of the ship; the thruster's position is controlled by the joystick's position in the groove, and the speed by the direction of the stick itself. The right joystick controls our pitch, and the button on its end fires destructive beams of magical energy.”
“Will we have to use that button?” Albus asked apprehensively.
“I hope not.” said Rob. Pulling back the right joystick and pushing forward the left, Rob put the Axis into a vertical ascent. Soon, they broke through the clouds, into the blackness of space.
Kramer gasped, and pointed out Albus's window. Albus looked, and saw a large flying warship hovering above the space station they had just left. The hull was black but inlaid with many windows, and on the front of the ship Albus could see a great jagged purple star emblem, with a scarlet “C” in its center. Threads of light from the bottom of the vessel were causing small white flashes on the side of the space station, and every now and then, a small missile dropped into the cloud bands below. It was these which had hit the conference room.
“That thing is huge!” said Albus, horrified. “How many Stingers are there?”
“Not that many.” said Rob, shifting the joystick to three o'clock. “Stingers are only the elite figures in the Circle. There are maybe ten or fifteen thousand men and women who also work for the organization, some of them under the Imperius Curse.”
“And who's in charge of it all?” said Albus.
Rob sighed. “No one knows. They say that the Circle was created by a pair of wizards, but one of them got cold feet and was imprisoned in the dungeons of Victoria Perfectus by his partner.”
“The dungeons of what?”
“The central fortress of the Circle.” Rob explained.
“Where is Victoria Perfectus?”
“In the core of the Sun.” said Rob. “And placed upon it are the strongest enchantments known to man. The Stingers have placed upon it protective Dark magic of incredible power. It is possible for anyone to enter Victoria Perfectus unscathed...but unless the Stingers consent to his departure, he will die if he tries to leave...exposed to the full energy of the Sun.”
Albus stared at Rob, horrified. “But what about Apparition? Portkeys? Protective shields?”
“None of them work unless the person in question has been cleared to leave.”
Albus sat there in silence. If his friends had been taken to this stronghold, rescuing them would be truly impossible.
“Rob...we've got trouble.” said Kramer, pointing out the other window. Three small, spiky ships were following their Axis.
“Nothing for it.” said Rob. “We'll have to fight.”
Rob shifted the left joystick around to twelve o'clock and pulled back. The cabin swiveled around and the Axis immediately changed direction. He then squeezed the button on top of the right joystick, and, a series of brilliant streaks of light flew towards the pursuers.
Caught by surprise, two of the ships were hit. The moment the shots made contact, the lights of the vessels died completely. With no power, the ships aimlessly continued forwards, carried by their inertia. The third, however, changed direction to avoid the shot and came at the Axis from another angle.
Rob instantly swiveled the Axis to face the enemy ship, and shot upwards to avoid two throbbing red orbs of light fired at him. He responded with a volley of his own shots, and this time, they found their mark. The other ship, which had been suspended in space, went dark and hung there, immobilized.
“Good shot!” said Kramer.
“I've had a lot of practice.” said Rob, as he sent the Axis heading off in a new direction. “Now, no more delays. Let's get to Nereid!”
As the Axis accelerated to tremendous speeds, Albus's mind was racing. Things now looked bleaker than they had ever been. Not only had James, Lily, Rose, and Hugo been taken by the Stingers, possibly to a fortress from which there could be no escape, but his only protector, the Feather of Fawkes, was now gravely threatened. What was happening back on Jupiter? Had the warship been defeated? Or had the Feather of Fawkes fallen?
A few hours later, the planet Neptune loomed ahead of them, its dark rings barely visible, its blue bands of gas swirling across the great body. Not long after that, they were approaching a small, dark gray moon. “This is it.” said Rob.
The surface of Nereid came closer and closer. Soon, a vast mound of rock was visible. As they approached, a hole opened up in the top of the feature. Rob steered the Axis towards this hole.
Albus, Kramer, and Rob landed in a small rocky chamber, quite unlike the grand hangar they had departed from. A man stepped from the shadows, and, with a wave of his wand, caused the ladder to appear yet again.
“Rob Carter.” said the man in a deep voice, as the three of them disembarked. “And...Albus and Kramer. Welcome to Nereid.”
“Hello, Booker.” said Rob, shaking hands with the man. “It's been a while.”
“Has the Circle really found the headquarters?”
“Yes, but I don't know what's going on right now. I'm waiting for word.”
“Usually it doesn't take this long to get updates on what's happening.” the man called Booker commented, sounding worried.
“Usually we're not holding off an invasion.” pointed out Rob.
“True...you'd think someone could keep us posted, though.”
Albus and Kramer stood there, awkwardly looking around at the walls of the dark, cold chamber. “So, is that it? Do we wait?” asked Albus.
“Yes.” said Rob heavily. “We wait.”