“Steady now!” Claudius Vault ordered, gripping the captain's seat tightly as the ship jolted from hyperspace. Sparks flew all about him, briefly illuminating the room, as wires dangled from the broken ceiling panels.
“We're here, sir,” the only remaining pilot reported. Vault rose from his chair and gazed out at the viewscreen of the command bridge. Cracks chiseled in from a few corners, the screen displayed the space around Neptune.
Massive chunks of GAM vessels drifted in orbit, with sprays of smaller shrapnel, wires and even dead crew mingled with them. Among the broad cemetery were several Nektro battleships as well, splintered apart by the devastating GAM cannons. And through all the space rubble, Vault could make out the capitol, which was not as he remembered, even from that distance.
“Life sign report,” he commanded, still staring at the lifeless, cold battlefield.
“A few faint traces here and there. Human. They're fading quickly though, we don't have enough time to reach them before they flatline,” the technician reported. He tried to focus on his work, and not his fallen comrade lying two feet beside him. “And...oh god, there are several large ships closing in on our location now, from the other side of the planet. Nektro. What are your orders?”
Vault was silent. He could see the Nektro battleships prowling from the far side of the planet. Despite the obliteration the battle left, he counted at least two dozen Nektro warships still majorly undamaged, and approaching the Indefatigable.
“Arm the torpedo bays,” he commanded.
“Sir, the torpedoes are in a very risky position currently, due to the damage we've sustained,” the gunner notified, clutching the side of his head with one hand to stop the bleeding. “If we fire, or even load them, we are putting the entire ship at high risk.”
“Proceed with my orders, Lieutenant,” Vault told him nonetheless, still watching the battleships advancing. He almost forgot to blink. “Notify me when ready, and fire on my command.”
Fifty seconds later, the gunner notified, “Torpedoes are armed and ready to fire, sir. Targeting systems still online.”
Vault hesitated. The Nektro fleet stopped, like a pack of wolves before their prey. The flagship emerged from the fleet, on a direct, steady course for the Indefatigable. “Wait...” he told the gunner.
“Incoming transmission,” the technician reported. “It's from the Nektro flagship.”
Vault was a bit perturbed. He had never even heard of a Nektro ship sending a transmission. “Accept it,” Vault ordered with both suspicion and curiosity.
There was a short chirp as the command bridge's speakers came back online, and a Nektro voice began, “This is Duk Revi'ktas, supreme commander of the Nektro order. Is Captain Claudius Vault still alive?”
“You're speaking to him,” Vault answered, an air of pride about him. He was still prepared to open fire, and was not about to relinquish such a liberty. He took little note of the fact that he was speaking with a Nektro in the human tongue.
“Excellent. My associates have requested your presence,” Duk informed Vault.
“Associates?” Vault asked. He was deeply interested now.
“Your squad of soldiers. Traw, Moore, Aveer, Clayton and Sanchez. You know of whom I speak?”
Vault laughed to himself. “You made it, boys,” he said half to himself, looking at the ground and placing his hands on his hips. With a relieved smile, he ordered, “Disarm torpedoes, Lieutenant.”
As the gunner dealt the orders to disarm the ship's weapons, Vault told Duk, “I will join you then.”
“We have no further business here,” Duk corrected. “At this point, I fully expect Venko to be dead. That being, I trust you will inform the rest of your command that the Nektro have no further interest in war with mankind. That is, unless you bring it with you.”
“I'll make certain that's clear to the other commanders of the GAM,” Vault told him. He realized for the first time the true nature of his adversaries.
“Let us work to maintain this peace. But should you mount any sign of attack...there will be another war a thousandfold the one we just ended. And men will lose,” Duk told him with a foreboding tone. It was not quite menace, but it easily could have been.
“Understood and agreed,” Vault confirmed. Duk cut the transmission.
With a slow, lurching motion, the flagship turned away. The fleet followed it, gathering into formation with the speed of whales and the dominating presence of sharks. As soon as the fleet jumped to hyperspace, Vault turned about to face the rest of the crew aboard the bridge, few as they were. They looked at him, some with relief, others with confusion. No one spoke a word, mostly out of reverence for the historic agreement that was just made between man and Nektro. Every man who witnessed it had a deeper sense that what they had beheld was a pivotal moment in human history to be made, though none of them said a word of it.
“Drop us down to the Trinity. We'll make port there and wait for the rest of the fleet,” Vault ordered with a newfound humility. “Maybe we can salvage what we have left and come up with a plan to rebuild. Engage thrusters.”
The Indefatigable cut through the field of shrapnel and destruction, making her way toward the planet, and more importantly, toward the capitol.
It docked at the closest available port to the Trinity, where the Death Squad was bunkered down among the rubble waiting for some kind of air support. Traw lifted his head and saw the Indefatigable landing nearby. “Take a look, boys,” he muttered, pointing to the ship as the landing gear extended with no small deal of difficulty. Moore looked out and saw the ship, almost laughing to himself.
“Gutsy son of a bitch,” he grinned with a haggard face. “You made it, Vault.”
With scraped and dented armor, Traw emerged from the rubble and made his way toward the ship. Then he turned and saw a man standing among the rubble. He stood as if he was just on a morning stroll, and he was watching the birds congregate in the trees. Traw could tell the man took note of the ship landing, but he seemed to dismiss it with an air of nonchalance.
Traw decided to approach the peculiar man as the rest of his team made their way toward the more obvious sign of life. As Traw drew well within speaking range, the man remarked, "Fascinating how this city is nearly reduced to ash simply by five traitors."
Traw stopped in his tracks; the man bore no threatening appearance, but there was a different danger about him. It was a danger of intelligence rather than strength. "Who are you? How did you know that?" Traw asked suspiciously. The man had still not turned to face Traw.
"I go by many names, young one," the bearded man answered. "Most common among them is the Disciple. Perhaps you've heard of my lifelong task in service of the State."
Traw conceded, "I'm afraid not." He ignored the fact that the Disciple had not answered his second question.
"I study history with the purpose of understanding it, so that we as a race would not be condemned to repeating it endlessly. I am a Disciple of history. Let me take you to the chamber, it will do more explaining than words ever could." The Disciple began to leave for apparently a particular spot, and Traw considered following him. He looked back toward the rest of Death Squad, who was already meeting up with a group of crew members.
The Disciple pushed aside some rubble with his weary, wrinkled hands and revealed a hatch in the ground. "Do you intend to come?" he called back to Traw, who was still watching his squad. Traw looked back, escaping from his thoughts. He joined the Disciple at the hatch, and they both looked down. "It's been quite some time since I climbed these twelve ladder bars," he remarked, as he descended into the hole.
Once Traw reached the bottom, he glanced about. He was in a large tunnel, relatively clean and well maintained. The lights were still at full power, and everything seemed to be completely operational. "Ask no questions as to why this place is completely fine. The priorities of the State are often misplaced: that's all you need to know," the Disciple mentioned as he made his way down the tunnel. Traw scanned around him, half for threats and half for curiosity's sake.
Finally, they reached a massive steel door with a small keypad at the center of it. The Disciple checked behind him out of habit, then punched in a sixteen-digit code. With a contented chirp, the door unlocked and slowly began to turn open. "Ever wonder where a word or a term comes from? Ever wonder what that bird is on the GAM logo? Ever wonder the origins of the sword or the hammer? Or anything at all?"
"I always assumed it was just an earlier time in the State," Traw shrugged, watching the door revolve open at a snail's pace.
"Contrary to the common propaganda, there was a time before the State. The old world ended with the event known as the Exodus. Humanity dwelt on earth for many a century before the State ever existed. Then the war came." The Disciple walked into a broad room, Traw close behind.
The room stretched out in all directions, with countless bookshelves towering nearly to the ceiling. Several study tables were arranged near the door, each of them with a collection of books and artifacts. Archaic paintings and posters hung on the wall, many of them with glass cases around them to preserve their qualities. "This is all that remains of history. And I have devoted my life to its protection and preservation. I am the third Disciple. And I am seeking my scion."
For a moment Traw drew himself back from the sheer awe of the room. "Wait...do you want me to take up this mantle?" Traw wondered, a bit confused.
The Disciple laughed, cracking open a book with a man on a ship holding a harpoon on the front cover. "Of course not. You're far too old," he answered. "I simply wanted to show another person, in case the designated heir has fallen in the fire. Please, take your time and look about. I'm in no rush. Not at this age." He chuckled to himself once more and sat down with the book in hand.
Traw scanned the walls first, as they were adorned with paintings and posters that were easy to understand. There was one with a strange-looking man in despair, people in the park by a pond, a vase of yellow flowers, a woman rolling up her sleeve, all of which were framed and protected by a layer of glass.
Though they each intrigued him, he lingered on one particular piece on the wall: it was a picture of a man raising his right arm stiffly and wearing a decorated military uniform. Traw squinted and looked a bit closer, noting the unique cut of his moustache: it was small and rectangular, sitting directly under the bridge of his nose above his mouth. "Who is he?" Traw inquired, pointing to the poster and turning back to the Disciple, who was deeply engaged in his book.
The Disciple looked up, and a grave shadow overtook him. He stood up and joined Traw, looking the poster over. "That is a man not unlike the one you just killed," he commented gravely. "His reputation has been largely described as the incarnation of evil. He is one of the main reasons I study history, that I may play a part in the prevention of it being repeated. He represents a dark time for humanity."
"Why was Venko allowed to be so much like him?"
"Evil always finds a crack in society. There's always a flaw in the system. I can advise, not control. It would seem the State has become no better than any other human civilization, though they seem to boast moral and intellectual superiority. History will always repeat itself. I cannot stop that. No one can."
For longer than either of them could track, they both stood observing the poster.
Interrupting his meditation on the ominous man, Traw heard Moore's muffled voice from the speakers inside his helmet, saying, "Traw, I don't know where the hell you are, but Vault wants you here now, so you'd better haul ass." Traw sighed and put his helmet back on.
Turning to the Disciple, he said, "Keep this safe."
The Disciple concluded, "This will always be safe. Humanity will never fear a lack of intellect. It's a lack of humility that will bring about its undoing."