Into the Mystic

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The ride home was beyond tense. Gloria kept glancing at her passenger. She had a thousand questions, none of which she would have felt comfortable asking. The Captain’s palpable aura of intimidation did not invite small talk and she remained silent throughout the trip. It was with great relief therefore that Gloria pulled into the driveway, with Lex right behind. Ever the gentleman, he held the door for the Captain, then assisted her out of the car.

Hannah opened the front door as they approached. "Who are you?" she demanded.

"She's a friend of Lex's," Gloria explained. "Let us in before we attract any attention."

Hannah hesitated, then stepped aside. Polglase's entry caused quite a stir. Zoot in particular eyed the newcomer with amused suspicion. "I should have known the Tin Man was going to show up, sooner or later," she said.

"Tin Man?" Polglase growled.

"Oops! Sorry lady. It's a little hard to tell by the way you're dressed."

"Do you need help taking off your armor?" Hannah asked politely.

"Thank you, child, but no." The Captain's breastplate detached without any overt action on her part. The rest soon followed, and Hannah helped stack it in a corner where the surprisingly light, three-quarter inch thick armor pieces rearranged themselves so as to take up the least amount of space.

"You gonna make introductions, Lex?" Tully prompted. "I assume she's not some hitchhiker you just happened to picked up."

"Oh yes," Lex started. "My friends, this is Captain Polglase of the Imperius Dragoons. Captain, may I present Zoot, Tully –"

"Captain Jethro Hanrahan, United States Army, retired," Tully interrupted. Polglase gave her fellow officer a curt nod of recognition.

"Um, and these are Gloria's sister and brother, Hannah and Nate."

"So these are not your offspring, T'Lexigar?" Polglase asked.

"What?!" Lex, Gloria, Nate, and Hannah chorused together. Zoot started laughing.

"What made you think that?" Gloria inquired, blushing at what that implied. Was she wearing a big I ♥ LEX without her knowledge?

"I was uncertain how long T'Lexigar has been here," Polglase replied. "Time could operate differently on this side of the portal."

Lex laughed. "I have only been here for five local days, Captain. I estimate three days have passed since you last saw me?"

Polglase nodded. "So, temporal distortion is not a significant factor? Good to know."

"Why don't we all sit down?" Gloria invited. "Captain Polglase, can I offer you something to drink?"

"Ale," she replied, taking a seat on a couch. Gloria noticed Lex shaking his head emphatically, as did the Captain apparently. "On second thought, water will suffice." Gloria returned shortly with a glass and a small plate of Thin Mints. She set them on the coffee table, then sat on the arm of the chair Lex had taken.

"What's your armor made of?" Nate asked. "Do you know magic like Lex?"

"Cobalt Mithril Steel alloy, and yes, I do."

"Wicked! Can you teach me some? Lex won't."

"T'Lexigar is wiser than he looks."

"Nate," Gloria chided, "let the Captain alone."

"What do you do in the Dragoons?" Nate persisted.

"I could tell you, but then I would have to destroy your planet."

Nate laughed at that, but seeing that Polglase did not share in the jest, stopped abruptly. A tense silence filled the room.

"You were joking, right?" Zoot asked at last.

"I am sure she was," Gloria hastened to say. "After all, she's here to help… right?"

Polglase nodded noncommittally.

"The plan didn't exactly work, huh?" Tully asked.

"You had a plan?" Polglase sounded incredulous. She addressed Lex. "Did it involve that machine you were riding when I stopped you in your tracks?"

"How did you manage that, by the way?" Gloria inquired.

"Inertial Drain," Lex and Polglase responded as one.

The Captain pressed the issue, "Well, T'Lexigar, did it?"

In short strokes, Lex explained. The Captain waited several beats, then burst out laughing.

"Lad, you must be several runes shy of a casting! That is without question the stupidest excuse for a plan I have ever heard!"

"Hey!" Hannah protested.

Polglase spared her a quick glance, then continued, still amused. "What did you expect to find inside that tunnel, boy? A paved road with waystations where you could stop for a pint and a popkin? The walls of that tube are frictionless! They do not really exist except as theoretical constructs. They are the four dimensional manifestation of an Nth dimensional phenomena. Even had you been able to resist the turbulence, you would have spent the rest of eternity trying to advance. I assume you cannot fly."

"No," Lex admitted sheepishly.

"I give you points for bravery, Minstrel." She reached over and smacked him hard on the knee. "Not much in the way of brains, but great big hairy ones between your legs."

That struck Nate as very funny, but Lex less so. He looked down at his boots, and Gloria rested a hand on his head in commiseration.

"Is that how you're going to take Lex back?" Hannah demanded, clearly offended that her plan had been dismissed in so cavalier a fashion. "Fly with him on your back?"

"That should not be necessary," Polglase replied.

"Then what is your plan?" Hannah inquired, perhaps a touch more petulantly than Gloria thought wise.

"The specifics are unimportant. Rest assured that there is a strategy in play, and let it go at that."

Lex spoke then. "If I am to place myself in your hands, Captain, I think I am entitled to know what you have in mind."

"I have in mind that you cease asking damnfool questions!" the Captain barked. "By the by, have you perchance seen a Forest Troll 'round these parts?"

"He's dead," Nate stepped in. "I killed him."

"I helped!" Hannah punched him on the arm,

"You lit a match. Whoop-de-friggin'-do."

"You striplings killed a Forest Troll!?" Polglase sounded impressed for the first time. "What magics did you employ?"

"None," Nate replied smugly. "Just good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity."

"We had to do it," Hannah added. "That thing was going to kill Lex!"

"I see," the Captain nodded thoughtfully. "You people are full of surprises. What of the heartstone?"

"We destroyed it, of course," Nate said cheerfully. "We're not totally dim."

"Nate, enough!" Gloria scolded. "Captain, with all due respect, you've been evading the question. Are you certain this plan of yours will work?"

"Reasonably so, yes."

"How certain is that?" Lex asked.

"I project an eleven in twelve chance of success," Polglase replied. "There are a few variables that need to be finalized, but in another day we should be safely home."

"What kind of variables?" Hannah asked pointedly.

"Yes, what kind?" Lex added, getting a little testy.

"Civilians!" the Captain sighed, shaking her head. "If you must know, it depends upon my assistant doing his part… I assure you he is highly motivated."

"Assistant?" Lex queried. "Who would that be?"

"Um, Shim Po," Polglase mumbled.

"Shim Po?!" Lex exclaimed loudly. "You cannot possibly be serious!"

Tully raised a tentative hand, "Excuse me," he said, "but who is this Jimbo character?"

"Shim Po is the smelly old curmudgeon of a Mystic responsible for my being here in the first place!" Lex explained, then turned to confront Polglase. "And now you say that my fate... no, our fates rest in his gnarled and unmanicured hands?"

"Well, yes," Polglase conceded. "But he is a very capable wizard and should be able to reverse what he did."

"Should be is hardly sufficient!" Lex shouted. "That is it – I stay here!" He folded his arms across his chest in defiance.

"One must have faith, boy."

"Stop calling me boy," Lex snapped. "I am 56."

Polglase looked at Lex long and hard before responding. "My apologies, lad. I did not mean to condescend. Still my earlier statement stands. I believe this will work, and you should as well."

Lex leaned forward in his chair. "Pardon my bluntness, but everything I know about Shim Po suggests that placing your trust in him makes our so-called plan look like an act of unparalleled genius! Do you have, as Gloria would put it, a Plan B?"

Polglase cocked her head to one side quizzically.

"B for Back-up." Gloria translated.

By way of reply, Polglase took out a pipe and tobacco pouch.

"No smoking!" Hannah said. "House rules."

Polglase glowered at her for a second then put her smoking gear away. "If, for some unforeseeable reason, Shim Po does not perform his assignment successfully, then I suppose we shall have to stay here. In that eventuality, T'Lexigar, you can continue to sing your little songs and will almost certainly become the greatest entertainer this primitive backwater has ever known, and I will simply conquer the planet in the name of the Imperior and wait for reinforcements."

Her words hung in the air, untouched, for a good ten second.

Gloria decided she'd had "Enough of this crap. This time you have to be joking."

If the Captain was bothered by the iciness of Gloria's tone she skated right over it. "No, I honestly believe that T'Lexigar has the potential."

"We meant about the whole Conquer the Planet thing," Tully responded. "That was you having fun at our expense, wasn't it?"

"I have to do something with my time," Polglase commented evenly. "What would you have me do? Take up gardening?"

"Not exactly the 'I Come in Peace' type, are ya, sister?" Zoot observed.

Hannah looked extremely distressed. "You can't do that! Don't you have some sort of Prime Directive regarding less advanced planets?"

"Of course: conquer them before someone else does," Polglase answered.

"What did we ever do to you?" Hannah seemed close to tears.

"Hannah," Gloria interjected soothingly, shooting daggers at the Captain, who reached for a cookie. She fought to keep her temper in check, otherwise this whole situation would go up like a powderkeg. "I'm sure it was this person's idea of military humor. Besides, I don't think one Dragoon could take over the whole planet single-handed, even if she knows magic and has some shiny armor. Anyway, it's late. You and Nate had better scoot."

After the obligatory argument, the kids departed. Gloria stood at the foot of the stairs, waiting until she heard their doors close, before returning to confront the brassbound bitch. "Where do you get off, lady, coming here and threatening an entire planet? Leaving aside, for the moment, the sheer unmitigated gall that makes you think you can take on the combined military might of almost two hundred separate nations, what gives you the right?" Aware that she had started to shout, she took the volume down by half but kept all the intensity "You arrive here and thirty minutes later it's 'Nice place. I think I'll take it.'? Is that what you do in the Dragoons; visit peaceful planets and take them over because the alternative's being bored?"

"Gloria –" Lex started, but she waved him off.

"Lex, love, stay out of this. This is between me and G.I. Joan. If the future Military Dictator of Planet Earth is sitting here eating Girl Scout Cookies I paid for, I think I have the right to know, this being an historical moment and all."

"G, she did say she was going to do that only if the first plan didn't work," Zoot observed.

"That's right, babe," Tully added. "She said there was like a 96% chance that they'd catch the next flight home. You're getting all worked up over what's probably nothing." He turned to Polglase. "And ma'am, you may be underestimating us. We might give you a harder time than you imagine."

"Perhaps," Polglase replied steadily, "you underestimate me. Besides, it might be in your best interests to capitulate gracefully."

"How do you figure?" Zoot asked.

"You said this is a peaceful planet?" Polglase quoted. "Two hundred nations, all living together without conflict?"

All three natives exchanged guilty looks. "Not exactly," Tully conceded at last.

"Then what makes you so sure that all these countries would work together to stop me?" Polglase asked.

"You'd be a common enemy," Tully pointed out.

"There is no such thing as a common enemy, sir," she said gravely. "Which among them has the strongest military?"

"We do," said Tully. "The United States of America."

"But you are not strong enough to impose your will on all the other nations, correct? Otherwise there would be one country, not hundreds. And how did you come to be the most powerful? Through sheer moral authority? By holding yourselves up as a shining beacon of what is right and true and fair?"

The last was directed at Gloria. "No," she admitted. "We fought our share of wars."

"Then how is what I envision as my back-up plan any different? Besides, did I say anything about facing your combined military forces in some glorious melee? There are other much subtler ways to take control. If I offer my services to your rulers, will they not leap at the chance to use my talents against their enemies? And do not tell me you have no enemies, my dear. A powerful nation cannot exist without them. I have time on my side, and experience in such matters."

"Lex?" Gloria looked at him, hoping for some sign he disagreed.

None came. "She may be correct. The Dragoons are Elite shock troops, experts in invasion and infiltration."

"So I guess we better hope that this Shim Po is a wizard who can wiz," Zoot commented. "Or else we might all wake up some day as part of the glorious Imperius."

"There are worse things than being part of the Imperius," Polglase countered.

"Worse than being part of some galactic empire run by a bunch of jackbooted military overlords?" Gloria scoffed.

"That is unfair. The Imperius is in no way like that," Lex protested. "The military serves the Imperior, not the other way around. Most dominions and protectorates have prospered under the banner of the Imperius and the Lords of the Yokoria!"

"Dominions? Protectorates? Lords? As in feudalism? It just gets better and better. So how does it work? As long as we toe the line you keep the trains running on time?" Gloria snarked.

"Dial it down, G," Zoot advised. "Lex, what exactly is this Imperius? It sounds pretty harsh, but maybe that's just because we're used to something so different."

Lex looked overwhelmed by the question, and after a moment's consideration deferred to the Captain.

"The Imperius is the greatest empire the Universe has even known," the Captain began, her tone brooking no interruption. "The Imperius is no hegemony or monopolity. It is a confederation of many tens of thousands of nations. At its head sits the Imperior who rules over thousands of races and hundreds of thousands of diverse cultures across countless worlds. But his is not an absolute rule and he is as much servant of the people as their master, as are in theory all the noble houses, although I would lie if I said that all took their sacred responsibility equally to heart. The Imperior and the Yokoria, our body politic, decide matters of military and diplomatic concern, and oversee the general infrastructure of the realm. Local peoples do pretty much as they will, and hardly notice Imperius rule at all."

"What about taxes?" Tully asked. "Who pays those?"

"Everyone," said Lex, "according to their income and ability."

"The Imperius itself collects no taxes," Polglase reported. "It levies them, but collection is the job of the Bureaucracy, the most boring and tedious people imaginable, who do so for all the polities of Novagrove and much of Beyond. They are also efficient and incorruptible and owe allegiance to neither House nor nation but transcend borders. "

"You did say you had universal health care," Gloria conceded, "which puts you one up on us. But what about hunger, unemployment, homelessness, and oppression? Have you eradicated those?"

Lex and Polglase exchanged looks and then shook their heads. Polglase elaborated. "In the Imperius? Yes. In other realms? No, but still we try. It is our responsibility as a great nation."

Lex raised his hand. "I would like to make a point. I profess no expertise in matters politic," he continued, "but in my admittedly short time here I have heard no favorable word spoken of your chosen leaders. We have no choice in ours, but in all my years in the Imperius I have seldom heard a word spoken of them that was not in praise."

"Never is heard a discouraging word?" Tully scoffed. "They're probably afraid to."

"Why would you say that?" Lex asked, perplexed. "Are you afraid to criticize your government?"

"Depends on the decade," Tully commented. "But is the Imperior's word law, son? Can he dictate what people think and believe and do?"

Lex looked aghast at the mere suggestion. "Of course not! Everyone in the Imperius has rights, as well as responsibilities. That applies to the nobles and Exalted as much as to citizens and civilians." He shook his head. "No one has unlimited power. I doubt there is anyone in the Imperius who would want that."

"Well said, lad!" the Captain applauded. "Although, the other hyperpowers are less, shall we say, enlightened regarding social programs and personal freedom."

"What other hyperpowers?" Gloria asked, becoming less antagonistic and more curious.

“The Empire of Esarnia, and the Illuminates of Moran and the Saradominions are the Imperious’s allies. Then there are The Zodal Alliance, the Draconic League, the League of Shadows – nasty folk." Polglase replied. "You would not like them. What they conquer, they destroy… or enslave."

"Enslave?" Zoot echoed.

"The Imperius has labored for eons to eradicate slavery, but all the other powers maintain the practice in one form or another... our enemies to a far greater extent than our allies but even they have not fully abolished the practice," Lex said sadly.

"Slavers are the worst scum extant," Polglase agreed.

"Amen to that," Zoot muttered.

Polglase regarded Gloria. "Given a choice between joining the Imperius, which would unify your fractious planet while guaranteeing its relative autonomy, and being taken as slaves, would you not prefer the former?"

"Who says we have to pick one or the other?" Gloria retorted.

"You cannot remain isolated forever," Polglase answered. "One day, a transdimensional power will find you. Pray that its ships bear the golden sunburst of the Imperius, because the alternatives are far less pleasant to contemplate."

"When and if that day comes, we will deal with it, Captain," Gloria declared.

"I pity the poor fool who's in the White House when that happens," Zoot laughed. "It'd be 'Mr. President, we've come to take over your planet; hope you like your new national anthem.' "

Polglase took the last cookie and stood up. "Enough speculation along these lines for one evening," she said. "If you do not mind, I should like to make camp so I can enjoy my pipe and get some rest."

"If you like, you can smoke on the deck." Gloria pointed. "And I'm sure I can find you a place to sleep in the house."

"Thank you, no. I prefer the privacy of my own quarters." Polglase paused. "My engine indicates a small cove near your dwelling with a sizable beach. Would it be permissible for me to set my tent up there?"

Gloria nodded. "I don't see why not." She went to turn on the outside floodlights.

Polglase turned to Lex. "Minstrel, would you accompany me and help me get settled?"

Lex blanched. "On the beach? I – I – "

"I'll show you," Gloria volunteered hastily. "Maybe Zoot can help us carry your armor."

"No need," Polglase waved a hand and the pieces rose into the air. "T'Lexigar, will you join me for morning prayers?"

"I shall meet you on the deck at dawn," he promised.

"Very well. Lead on, Gloria."

Gloria opened the sliding door for Polglase. As the Captain's armor floated towards them, a small fuzzy head popped out of one boot, then ducked back inside.

"Hold on," Zoot laughed. "You've got a stowaway." She ran over, reached into the boot and removed the pudgy wee beastie, who licked her hand. "All right troops, forward, harch."

As Gloria led the Captain outside and down the stairs to the water's edge, Polglase asked, "Why did T'Lexigar decline to accompany me?"

"He doesn't like the ocean."

"Are there monsters out there I should be aware of?"

Gloria chuckled. "Nothing so dramatic. He simply prefers not to be near open water. It is personal and a long story." She sighed, then. "Will this do?"

Polglase looked around and nodded in satisfaction. "Handsomely," she said. The armor lowered to the sand.

"Captain," Gloria said as Polglase removed a leather wallet from her uniform pocket, "I want to apologize for my outburst earlier. You pushed a few of my hot buttons. I really do appreciate your being here. Forgive me if I gave you another impression."

"No need to apologize," Polglase assured the other woman. "I enjoy a spirited discussion from time to time." She unfolded the wallet, then unfolded it again. And again. And again. Before Gloria's eyes it grew to the size of a suitcase. At that point, the Captain set it on the ground where, to Gloria's astonishment, it continued unfolding on its own. In a matter of minutes, a capacious tent – tall as a Winnebago and almost as large – stood on the shore, complete with pennants and banners flying from its poles, most prominent among them the golden sunburst that she now knew to be the symbol of the Imperius.

Gloria gaped at the structure. "When you said 'tent,' I expected something a little, well, cozier," she commented.

"I see no reason to skimp on creature comforts," Polglase replied.

"Is this like Lex's purse... where everything is much smaller inside?"

"That is null space... and no. My pavilion uses something better: a tesseract; instead of merely shrinking things, it creates extra volume by folding space in on itself. Do not ask how that works, every time someone tries to explain I get this nasty pain right above the bridge of my nose." Polglase held the front flap open. "Allow me to show you the interior."

"Oh my," Gloria gasped as she entered. "It's huge!"

"Would you care for the grand tour," Polglase offered and Gloria accepted with a nod. "This is the conference table. It expands to seat a maximum of twenty-four, although I do not require so much table at the moment. The crystalline plate in the middle is a communications and tactical array. This is the kitchen, complete with stove, oven, grill, and a well-stocked stasis larder. In here is the bath chamber, and here is where I sleep." She pulled aside a curtain revealing a large round bed. There was a full wall of closets as well.

"What are those?" Gloria pointed at the wall opposite the kitchen.

"Battle trophies, mainly. Enemy flags. Interesting weapons. Souvenirs. That sort of thing."

Gloria went over to take a closer look. There were hundreds of items, the most prominent a black and copper helmet on a pedestal. It had horrific wings, a row of spikes down the center, and a fearsome expression frozen on its metal face. "You've been busy," she commented. "I don't see any family pictures, though. Are you an orphan?"

"Far from it. No, I had a large family… They're all dead by now I imagine. I lost touch over the years."

Gloria fingered a ragged multi-colored ensign. "Sorry to hear that." Something occurred to her then. Normally, she'd hesitate before asking an older woman her age, but these circumstances had left normal in the dust a while ago. "Captain, how old are you?'

If Polglase found the inquiry impertinent she showed no sign. "I am 596. Why do you ask?"

"Lex said his people live an average of 3,000 years," she explained. "Aren't you a bit young to have outlived your entire family?"

Polglase found that amusing for some odd reason. "Do you see any pointed ears on me, girl?"

"What's your point?"

"Your Minstrel is Imperial," Polglase explained, "I am a Lavatru, also Wer like him, or you, but of significantly lesser stock. My kind live only 400 years, give or take."

"But you said –"

"I said my people, not myself personally. First off, I am a Wizard and that extends the lifespan greatly by itself. But even before I became a battlemage, I underwent longevity treatments. The Imperius does not spend years training a soldier just to have them wear out in a few centuries, you know."

"Longevity treatments? How does that work?"

"For civilians? Depends on what you can afford. There are pills and potions at the lower end, various treatments in the middle, and full species transformation for the very wealthy or highly placed, though that process is fairly new. If I make General, I might be in line for it. Perhaps I’ll request Tazyr, I’ve always thought I’d look good with a beard.” She chuckled. “As it is, I am probably good for another thousand years."

"I see," Gloria commented. "Maybe we should let you take over after all, if you'd bring such technology with you."

"I knew I could make you see reason," Polglase clasped her companionably on the shoulder. "I would not worry overmuch about my conquering your planet, though, despite my earlier words. In a day, I should be but a memory to you."

"So will Lex," Gloria said gloomily.

"You care for him very much," Polglase noted.

"I love him," Gloria replied. "And he loves me."

"That does present you both with a predicament," Polglase responded sympathetically. "I suggest you enjoy the time remaining."

"We will. Is there anything else I can do for you, Captain?"

"No, I have everything I need. Thank you for the offer."

"Then I'll say goodnight," Gloria said, starting for the exit. She stopped before leaving. "I guess all we can do until the portal reappears is wait and hope for the best. Until then, may I suggest you keep a low profile? I don't think it would be a good idea to call too much attention to ourselves over the next couple Earth days."

"That sounds prudent," Polglase agreed. "After all, in a world as uncomplicated as yours, how difficult could that be?"

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