Chapter I: The Paladin, the Everyman, and the Damsel
27 October 2998
Rokk Krinn of the Magnetic Knights watched from the window of the cruiser as it descended to the docking station. This would be his first time to Earth, and the child-like excitement bubbling within him at the prospect reminded him that, despite being a sports star of galaxy-wide fame, he was still only a teenager.
Opposite him, Hercule Herdoni, the Knights’ first-choice left vanguard and Rokk’s closest friend on the team, said with a grin, “So, Krinn, first time on tour as captain of the Knights – and on the most prominent planet in the United Planets, too. How does it feel?”
“It feels amazing,” Rokk answered honestly. “I can’t believe this is happening. The last three years have been like a dream come true.”
Herdoni scoffed. “A dream? This is much better than a dream, Krinn – it’s a blissful reality.”
Nevertheless, it was a dream, Rokk mused as he continued staring out the window. There was a significant crowd gathered around the docking station – Earth fans of the Magnetic Knights. Although Magnoball could only be played by Braalians, it was a popular spectator sport throughout the United Planets.
When Rokk started playing Magnoball for his small school team, he’d never imagined that his talent for the sport would propel him first into the regional team, and then into one of Braal’s six planetary teams that competed for the highest trophy in Magnoball: the Braalian Magnoball Cup. The Magnetic Knights were the current champions – in no small part due to Rokk’s truly incredible skill at the game – which was what had led to this galaxy-wide tour after the end of the Magnoball season. And at the tender age of 17, Rokk was both the youngest player ever to be named Braal’s number one Magnoballer and the youngest team captain in the history of the Magnetic Knights. It was a far cry from his under-privileged background, when he’d had to spend hours after school helping his father in the mines just to make ends meet.
Rokk’s amazing story was another reason for the tour – the galaxy wanted to meet the famous young Magnoballer who had achieved such spectacular success and captured their hearts with his swashbuckling talent, extraordinary leadership, and dashing good looks.
“Look, there’s your crowd of adoring fans,” Herdoni teased.
“They’re the team’s fans, not mine,” Rokk reminded him with the well-practiced tone of someone who had had this conversation before. While the other members of the team liked and respected Rokk, that didn’t stop them from teasing him relentlessly about his age, his fame, and anything else they could think of.
Herdoni smirked. “If you say so.”
Rokk didn’t care. He truly was living the dream. He was able to support his family by playing a sport he loved. He was happy. Life was good as a Knight.
Garth Ranzz stepped off the transport shuttle and looked around the station with interest. Having lived on an agricultural planet like Winath for the entirety of his almost 16 years of life, he was used to wide, open fields and the natural hues of greens, yellows, and browns. Here, in New Metropolis, the predominant colors were white, grey, and electric blue, and the largest open space was the City Botanical Gardens, which – judging by the map on the street directory holoscreen – was at least four miles south of the station.
Winath rarely got news of the rest of the galaxy, so Garth knew precious little about what was happening on Earth, let alone New Metropolis in particular. Thus, the first thing to do was to get caught up on current events; Garth believed nothing good ever came of being ignorant. To that end, he made his way to the station news screen, groaning when he saw how many people were clustered around it. Garth decided to wait a few minutes for the crowd to disperse.
However, after three minutes (Garth was not very patient), the crowd had not thinned one bit – in fact, it had grown bigger. Curiosity piqued, Garth edged as close as he could, glad for his recent growth spurt because if he’d been standing here a year ago he would never have been able to see over the swarm of heads blocking the way. Garth was honestly amazed by how many people there were. What in Nath’s name is so interesting?
Garth found a strategic spot that, if he stood at just the right angle, allowed him to see through the gaps in the people all the way to the screen. From that distance, he should not have been able to see the news clearly, but a recent incident had sharpened his eyesight to the point where he could easily make out what everyone was so excited about.
While the left side of the screen was scrolling all the latest news updates, the right side was taken up by a live video of a sports cruiser docking at the New Metropolis Spaceport. The cruiser was a sleek, cobalt grey color with purple accents. The video zoomed in on a logo on the ship’s hull: a solid black horse standing stoically on all fours in side profile, with its medieval rider depicted in dark purple, holding a Magnoball instead of the traditional lance or sword.
Garth felt a thrill. Even Winath, isolated thought it was from the rest of the United Planets, had a strong Magnoball following, and Garth’s favorite team had always been the Magnetic Knights. Their style of play reflected characteristics of his own personality – they were fast, instinctive, and innovative, and had shown in their triumph at the Braalian Magnoball Cup final a willingness to take daring risks.
Garth watched as one by one, the members of the Magnetic Knights exited the cruiser, some with a wave and a smile for the cameras, some with just a nod. The last Knight to come out was the young team captain, whose appointment Garth had disagreed with because he felt he was too measured and composed to lead a team that relied as much on blitz attacks as the Knights did.
The caption at the bottom of the video announced that the Knights would be playing an open-to-public Magnoball game in the Botanical Gardens (oh, the coincidence, Garth mused) tomorrow morning. Garth was on Earth for another reason entirely, but he decided at once to go for it.
After all, when was the next time he’d have a chance to watch Magnoball played live?
“Stop that thief!”
The blonde teen knew what was happening before the shout, and she whirled on the spot, sticking her arm directly in the path of the fleet-footed robber who had made off with a man’s credit stick. Her elbow sank painfully into the crook’s stomach as he ran full tilt into it.
16-year-old Imra Ardeen plucked the credit stick from his hands as he doubled over, wheezing in pain, and returned it to the well-dressed citizen who ran up behind them.
“Here you go, sir.”
“Thank you, young lady.” The man frowned at the gasping thief. “Why don’t you go on with your business – I’ll call the Science Police.”
“Actually, sir,” said Imra, “I’m a Sci-Pol cadet. I’ll take him back to headquarters.”
The man looked at her, impressed but uncertain. “Are you sure? He’s twice your size.”
“Don’t worry, sir, I can handle him,” Imra assured him. As if to prove her point, she produced a pair of handcuffs and locked the criminal’s hands behind his back. “Have a good day.”
Imra capably steered her captive through two streets to get to the NMPD HQ building; he wasn’t keen on the idea, but a subtle telepathic nudge kept him compliant.
At the entrance to NMPD HQ (otherwise known as New Metropolis’ 1st Precinct), Imra encountered a brown-haired boy of about 14 who observed her and her arrestee with an amused expression.
“You know you don’t graduate from the Academy till next month, right?”
Well-used to his remarks by now, Imra merely rolled her eyes. “What are you doing here, Lyle?”
“Dropping off EI reports for my dad.” Lyle’s father, Lon Norg, was the Chief of the New Metropolis Police Department, but Lyle himself had been working for Earthgov Intelligence as a spy from a young age. “Hey, guess what?”
“What?” She couldn’t linger long; her captive was getting fidgety.
“I finally perfected the invisibility serum!” Lyle’s grin was triumphant. He’d been working on that serum for months.
“That’s great, Lyle. You can demonstrate it to me later. Right now I’ve got to get this guy in before he decides to make a break for it.”
“Fine, fine,” Lyle agreed, skipping on his way. “See you later.”
“Later.” Imra prodded her thief firmly in the small of his back and marched him into the building.
“The game will start at 1000 hours sharp,” the Magnetic Knights’ manager informed them in the hovercar on the way to the hotel. “The members of each team will be selected at random at 0930.”
“Wait, wait, random?” said Herdoni. “What if we end up with all the defenders on one team and the attackers on the other?”
“The selection software isn’t that primitive,” Rokk pointed out reasonably. “Since we’ve already programmed our specs in, it will undoubtedly balance the selection on both teams.”
“Which means you and I are most likely going to be on separate teams.” Herdoni gave an exaggerated sigh. “Life is so unfair.”
Rokk looked amused. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, of course everyone is going to cheer for your team,” Herdoni said patiently. “So I won’t be getting much love from the audience. Of course,” he added smugly, “that also means the pressure is all going to be on you. You’re gonna have your work cut out for you, Captain Fantastic.”
Rokk rolled his eyes. “Shut up, idiot – you have your own fangirls, you know.”
“Yeah,” Dar Frol, one of the Knights’ controls, chimed in. “Remember, ‘Pretty Knight’?”
“Ugh!” Herdoni made a face. One misguided fan at their Braalian Magnoball Cup final had made a banner that proclaimed him as ‘Hercule Herdoni, the Pretty Knight’ – and his teammates weren’t going to let him forget it. “We are not talking about that.”
“But I thought you liked being appreciated?” Jaxok Kreel, the vice-captain and sentry, chortled. It was he who had first noticed the banner midway through the game. He hadn't played the final, since the Magnetic Knights had done what no Magnoball team had ever dared to do before and opted to go with an attack-minded formation that included no sentry.
Rokk smirked. “I’ll tell them to stuff it if you quit teasing me about being ‘Captain Fantastic’,” he offered.
Herdoni pretended to think about that. Frol caught Rokk’s eyes and obligingly called out, “Pretty Knight thinking!”
“Deal,” Herdoni said hastily. The hovercar filled with laughter from his teammates.
Garth wandered aimlessly on the roads, realizing belatedly that he had no idea where to begin his search. New Metropolis was a sprawling megalopolis that stretched over much of North America’s eastern seaboard, with almost 70 million residents to its name. Trying to find one person was like looking for a needle in a haystack – and he knew from firsthand experience exactly how impossible that was.
“I really should have thought this through,” he muttered under breath. He walked under a shadow, and raised his head to stare at the towering skyscraper. “How do people live in these things?” he wondered. His own two-storey home on Winath was a ground hut by comparison.
Garth’s tastes were simple, but his thoughts were anything but. Right now, they were running in a multitude of directions – where he should stay tonight, where he could start looking, whom he could possibly ask for help, what Ayla was probably doing on Winath right now, where Mekt might be, concern about the electricity that always lay just beneath the surface…
On cue, his fingers began to tingle, and before he could control it he’d singed a hole in his shoes.
“Sprock,” he muttered, shaking his hand to discard the excess sparks from his inadvertent lightning discharge before bending to observe the damage. Luckily, the lightning had only burned through the first layer of his left boot, not the second, insulating layer.
A glance up at the sky (what little he could see of it amid all the skyscrapers) told him that dusk had fallen; the sunlight was fading even as the city’s nightlights started automatically switching on.
“You look lost,” a voice commented, and Garth turned to see a girl about his age standing behind him. Her shoulder length hair was blonde and slightly wavy, and her eyes were a unique deep pink color. Under her autumn coat she was wearing a pale pink knit top made of natural fibers – a relative rarity in the ultra-modern 30th century – and practical white jeans. Garth felt something strange flutter in his stomach.
“I…uh…kind of am,” he admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.
The girl gave him a once-over; Garth subconsciously straightened his spine under her gaze. “New here?”
“Arrived this afternoon,” Garth confirmed.
“Where are you headed?” the girl asked.
“Um…honestly? I have no idea.” At her puzzled frown, he explained, “I’m here looking for someone to help me with…something – but I don’t know where to start.” He cast another glance at the darkening sky. “And I guess I should find some place to spend the night.”
“Yes, you should,” agreed the girl. “The Science Police do their best, but New Metropolis can be dangerous at night. An alley like this is no place for someone unfamiliar with the city.” She pointed the way she had come. “There’s a boarding house about five blocks back and to the left. They should have a room for you to stay the night.”
“What’s the price like?” he asked warily.
The girl smiled briefly. “Cheap.”
“That’s good – I don’t have many credits. I probably need to get a job while I’m here…”
“You really didn’t think this through, did you?”
Garth shrugged. “Guess not.”
The girl shook her head. “Well, I need to get going. I hope you find who you’re looking for.”
“Hey, wait,” Garth called. “Should you be out here alone?”
The girl smiled. “I walk home this way every day. It’s a shortcut to where I live. Goodbye.” She rounded the corner before he could say anything else, and Garth was left to lament the fact that he hadn't asked for her name.