As with most inhabitants on a world with limited resources, the hovering ship that carried the Skyreign crew captive was built with efficiency in mind. No more lights than needed to see ones way; framework built strong and light, so as to lessen the consumption of energy; simple nanosteel bars, as opposed to a power-hungry force field, to hold Laura and the other prisoners.
The soldiers had not harmed any of them, though they certainly carried the diligence to keep an eye on them and remove their weapons—in Rose’s case, more weapons than the rest of the crew combined, concealed in every fold of her clothing.
“Well,” Laura sighed, sitting on a simple metal bench against the far wall, kicking at some of the sand in the cell, “now what?”
The first words spoken at all in the hour that they had been held in that cell.
“Now we wait,” Olsein grunted, leaning on the bars and looking out to the rest of the ship’s minimalistic interior.
“Okay,” Laura crossed her arms, eyeing the other crew, all having picked their spots in the cell, “anyone have a more productive idea?”
“I assure you,” Haren attempted to whisper, his deep, bellowing voice not permitting him to do so, “patience will bring about a solution yet.”
“But we didn’t shoot at anyone on that plateau,” Laura shook her head, “we kept our course straight on Nywan. Why did they capture us?”
“Had we harmed any Nywanese vessels,” Haren looked directly to the young Captain, “even if by mistake--they would surely have killed us.”
“Yeah, probably,” Edge rolled an old golden coin across his knuckles, staring intensely at it, “wondering what they’ll do to our ship.”
“Once the battle subsides, they will with certainty tow it to Nywan,” Haren stated.
“If there’s anything left of that wreck,” Rose sighed, “did you two have to push it so hard?”
“His fault,” Edge pointed at Darrick with his free hand, still rolling his coin.
“This isn’t the time to point fingers,” Sam said coolly. Out of all the crew, his patience and stillness even outdid that of Haren.
But Laura knew, from the unlikely aversion of Miya’s plans, that in that cool, loyal, patient mind, gears must have been turning, plotting, observing. Poised. Laying in wait, perhaps, until the next time to spring into action.
“Well,” Darrick shrugged and kicked back, “at least we get a free ride. We’re probably headed deeper into Nywan, so that just furthers our mission, doesn’t it?”
“Assuming we’re released,” Edge said.
“Well it’s a fair assumption, I think,” Darrick grinned, watching Edge and his coin, taking some interest in the golden disc himself, “hey, where’d you get that coin?”
Edge shrugged, “found it, a long time ago.”
“Lemme see that,” Rose snatched it so quickly, Edge barely saw the hand come and go with his coin. But, moments later, she handed it back, “It’s Khrynthoss Gold. Khrynthoss mint, too. Dated by the ruler of Kadaar Prime, King Ceruleus “Bluestone” the First. That dates it...some twenty years or so.”
“Oh,” Edge hummed, looking at the coin heads-side, then tails-side, showing the Kadaar national creature, a Royal Dragonfly—much like the others of its kind, only twice the size of a horse, and of a wide range of chromatic colors. They were intelligent for insects, tolerable of civilization, and uncommon, though not endangered.
He reminisced the one time in his life that he had seen just one.
“I have heard only stories of that world,” Grace said, “you have been there?”
Ejjar nodded once, “it’s home.”
“You, are Khrynthoss?” she asked.
“Passably,” he shrugged, “no big deal.”
“I believe it is important to recognize where you come from,” Grace stated, looking Ejjar in the eye, with such intensity, that he could not look away or even blink, as if fascinated, “for it plays a great part in where you will go.”
Edge could not speak, or even budge. The coin he had resumed rolling along his knuckles, tumbled to the floor, making a ringing tone, almost melodic, that shook him from her enchanting gaze. “Huh,” he muttered.
“You know,” Laura sighed as she looked blankly to the bars holding them in, mouthing the words she wanted to put together, “I miss seeing green.”
“Green?” Edge turned an eye to her.
“Plants, or something,” Laura gave him one look, then returned back to the imaginary portrait she was painting for her wandering mind, “trees. Grass. Moss. Crops.”
“Wasn’t any of that on Behraan,” Olsein said coarsely, “well, then there was the sky. That was always an eerie green.”
“I have difficulty in imagining such things,” Haren stated with some sadness, “for all that grows must do so below ground, or within a house of sun, where the sacred water remains whole.”
“You couldn’t tell us about that before, could you,” Laura glared at the dark-skinned native.
“That water dissipates to nothing when in the plain?” Haren nodded, “I apologize. It is not something I often think of, as it is commonplace here. Yet, I have heard of other worlds that bear their water on the surface. I can only imagine what flora and fauna and fungi might flourish upon such a world. A world where water openly falls from the sky, would be a sight of beauty indeed.”
“Behraan has plenty of water on its surface,” Olsein hummed, running his fingers between the bars, “of course, it’s all polluted. Can’t drink it.”
“Better the need to clean water, than to create it from nothing,” Haren argued, “I would count my blessings in such a gift.”
“We’re not gifted,” Laura shook her head, kicking some more sand, “this planet’s cursed.”
Haren slowly shook his head, “I disagree. This is a golden, glorious world. That we have a place upon it is a privilege, not a right. We struggle and toil and suffer. Yet we bask and enjoy and appreciate as well.”
“Huh,” was all Laura could respond with.
“We’re slowing down,” Olsein’s ear was turned up, as if tuning into his audible environment, the way one whose eyes were farsighted would move a piece of literature further from oneself in order to read it.
Two guards then approached the cell, armed with hefty, wide-barreled rifles clearly meant for mass stopping power—or more accurately, prisoner stopping power. One spoke harshly through his helmet, as if barking an order with some hint of condescension.
“He says to clear the door,” Rose gathered, adding in undertone, “that’s the nice version of it.”
The rifle was brandished in their general directions, as if it was the pinnacle of the guard’s authority—and as Olsein examined their weapons closely, just one eye scanned the guard himself as he backed away with the rest of the crew. He believed such authority was genuine, for he could tell that the way the guard carried himself and his weapon, he was no mere guard—at least not by the measure one would apply to a Behraanese guardsman.
Nor was he a soldier, for Olsein could clearly detect a level of intellect, just in the way he felt and the annunciation of his every word. This was a warrior. Perhaps an officer, or someone who had a job of some other kind beyond simply muscle.
The rifle was then used to herd the crew out, and the second, shorter guard, was following suit and making the same, less-certain motions. Perhaps younger and greener, thought Olsein, the last to leave.
A complete difference of scene was witnessed by the Skyreign crew when they took the last step off the ramp of the vessel that held them, into a forest of metal that transcended beyond imagination. The trunks of these pillars spanned easily hundreds of meters from one end to another. Domes hugged the sides of many of these edifices, large enough each to fit a dozen of the kind of ship they just left. Bridges extended each and every way between the structures, and the towers at the outermost edge of the perceivable city shone with gold.
Huddling around the buildings, many of which were tattered and beaten by time, wind and sand, were numerous smaller buildings of various qualities, from simple sandstone villas, to impressive nanosteel structures, often defensive points such as gatehouses or towers. These were clearly built well after the giant skyscrapers and towers, likely within the last handful of decades. The city itself could have easily been thousands of years old, and extended from that continental shelf, to well beyond the horizon in all directions save east.
But the most fascinating aspect to Laura was the people that crossed their paths. Some of whom would stop and stare, not in malice but in simple curiosity. Most of these people were tanned by the sun, yet their hair ranged in a near-rainbow array of colors, a sign of multiple cultures and descents living together. While there was a clear military presence--a fair call in times where war was just at the doorstep of the city--most just minded their own businesses, and every person seemed to have a sense of purpose. Everyone was doing something and not a soul seemed to complain, for they were wholly happy to live yet another day in the peace granted by Nywan’s vast, ancient walls and the numerous towers that held a proverbial wall against attacks from above.
Every so often, a streak of fire would extend to and be completely absorbed by that proverbial wall, as a reminder that peace, even in the most unassailable of places, was finite and capricious.
The guards led the crew into one of the central buildings of the district, past numerous defensive perimeters and soldiers. It felt strange to Laura that they would be escorted, on foot, several kilometers into the city as opposed to taken all the way to this one place in the vessel they disembarked. The highways crisscrossing on the ground and in the air were well large enough for it.
Yet Laura did not press the matter. The scenic route to an unknown fate far outweighed the swift one.
Within the grandiose tower, the halls were lit barely by a sparse line of diodes, until they reached the grand chamber within its heart. Light seeped in from the gaping holes torn into the building by the inevitable jaws of time.
They were led onto a large, disc-like pedestal with rails surrounding it, and a small console in the center of the pad. Once the Skyreign crewmates were herded onto it, a guard stationed there pressed a few buttons on the dusty touchscreen, causing the pad to rumble, gurgle and choke, before lifting up through a hollow shaft spanning the endless height of the building.
“Where are they taking us?” Laura asked, her eyes turned skyward.
“I am sure we shall find out soon enough,” Haren replied.
“Well it wouldn’t be a prison so far above ground, right?” Laura continued.
“I think leaving someone on top of a building, unable to get down short of jumping, is a great idea!” Darrick grinned.
The guard leading them turned and blurted a few imperative syllables, his finger pointing directly at the loudmouthed pilot.
“He says to shut up,” Rose added nonchalantly.
“Sorry,” Darrick said quietly, not looking forward to the prospect of being a prisoner once more.
The lift halted at a floor close to the highest. The number of holes greatly increased and the stability of the metal floor panels more questionable. Most of the hallways were unreachable, save one that appeared to be well-maintained. The guards ushered the prisoners down that one narrow hallway.
Their footsteps filled the vast chamber behind them with echoes. But before long, those echoes were superseded by the telltale sound of bickering and squabbling in the room at the end of the hall, past a steel door with ancient symbols and markings, clearly of a long-dead language.
Even at these heights, there was sand.
“It really does get everywhere,” Laura whispered to herself.
The lead guard uttered one or two more harsh syllables, pointing down to the ground, as if commanding that the captives stay put.
He then knocked upon the door in an elaborate pattern, as if to a song, and parted the door to the left as if it were as light as paper, closing it behind him, giving no view beyond himself so as to not have eyes prey upon whatever laid beyond.
The two other guards ensured the crew did not pass them, but were perfectly comfortable and relaxed, knowing that the prisoners knew they had nowhere to run.
Moments later, the door opened to reveal the same lead guard, only unhelmed, showing his grey hair, tanned face, jutting features but intelligent, stern eyes, as he waved them in with one hand and put a single finger in front of his closed lips with the other.
So, timidly, Laura entered, followed by her crew.
The room was windowless, nearly featureless, and the ceiling was low—not a meter higher than the highest head, Haren’s. In the center of the room was a table comprised of two crates and a slab of metal not unlike the panels covering the old structure. Atop the makeshift table was a dated projector disc, the only thing illuminating the room with an eerie green glow. It displayed three-dimensional, near-holographic images of buildings, walls, and more notably, the many vehicles and airships involved in the battle just outside the city. As per the nature of most intelligent beings Laura was aware of, they displayed their enemy in red.
Around the table were four completely unique individuals, all clearly frustrated, pointing here and there and making elaborate gestures.
One was a woman, black-haired and pale with pointed ears, slim and edgy. Her attire was black and leathery with multiple pockets on her tunic, chaps and belts. Her voice was clear and cutting, and she pointed mostly at the airships and strike craft of both sides. She was clearly concerned, but her voice never had to be raised. Laura had never seen a species with pointed ears, assuming she must have been some subspecies of one of the Oldworlds.
To her right was a similarly wiry fellow with similarly pointed ears, tall and gaunt, red hair sprouting from his head and face. The rest of his body armoured in brilliant red, nearly untouched plate mail. Yet Rose could see more about that armor. It wasn’t untouched—it had seen numerous reparations, and this was just well-maintained.
He was the fire of the four, slamming his fist on the table and pointing out all the troops and making much greater emphasis on his words. His accent was mildly similar to the first woman’s, perhaps also from another world...which didn’t make sense to Laura, since Suragaa’s inhabitants clearly lacked the technology to leave the planet. What was more probable to her was that he simply came from another region on the planet, but given the wide variety of physical and cultural differences between people in Nywan, she simply couldn’t say.
She did, if for a fleeting moment, surmise that he could have ended up on Suragaa just as she herself did, and simply accepted it as his new home.
Even more unlikely still in appearance was the other woman in the room, with black, feathered wings sprouted from her back, blood-red hair rippling down her cheeks, and an unnatural paleness in her skin. Her eyes seemed to glow black, if that were possible, nearly taking away from the already-limited lighting in the room, like some mythical demonic creature she read about as a child. Her tongue iterated every word slowly and with care, and while Laura could not understand a word, she knew that just by the way she spoke, there were words between words; multiple layers of context. The winged woman barely made gestures at all, unless absolutely necessary to get a point across to, say, the taller and angrier man across the table from her. She never made direct points. Always to the side. Flanking. Surprise. Thinking three or four steps ahead, perhaps.
Finally, one last figure stood over the whole thing. The person was somewhat shorter than the winged one, about Laura’s height, but with the heavy black cloak covering them and veiling their face. Without a single word coming out of their mouth, Laura could make no judgement.
Haren then stepped forth past the guard, still at the door, and began speaking to the squabbling tacticians as if they were long-time friends—and indeed, it seemed they were. The guard certainly knew who he was, giving him a nod of salutation.
It seemed as though they recognized his broken prosthetic arm, but he shrugged off the sympathies and joined the squabble.
All but that one cloaked figure, which seemed to look at nothing. Their hands rested on the table as they leaned forward, perhaps simply listening and analyzing everything.
“What’s going on, Rose?” Laura whispered.
“Battle talk—apparently, they’re all Generals.”
Rose nodded, “Yeah. Him too. Go figure.”
“Surprise number one,” Edge tapped his nose.
The guard put his one finger to his lips, and the crew fell silent.
A minute or so passed and more arguing went on, though it appeared Haren did serve to mediate and mitigate, as he had done for the Skyreign crew. Finally, he pointed to the prisoners, beckoned them closer, and the guard stepped around them, closing the door.
“Captain Laura Vinfield of the Skyreign, and crew,” he introduced in Behraanese to the other Generals, pointing first to the thin, pointy-eared woman, “That is Winnibahn Milamar, who commands the skies.”
Winnibahn nodded to them.
“That is Bryesco Milamar—yes, the two are siblings. He leads the ground forces.”
The tall man bowed only slightly.
“And Ritana Caal, of the covert Hawks,” Haren did not point to the winged woman.
Ritana only eyed the crew, displaying no interest in them.
“Who is the one in the cloak?” Laura asked, stepping into the light of the projector.
“They will make themselves known when—“
“No, it’s quite alright,” a female, even voice came from within that cloak, speaking to the Generals the words only Rose understood as, “leave us.”
With some hesitation, but no sense of doubt, they and the veteran guard left the room, the door closing behind them. Winnibahn eyed Laura once as she passed by, not with malice, but to study the face, perhaps any intentions the young Captain might have had.
It went without saying that whoever this woman was, she was the true power of Nywan.
With that, she pulled back her hood, revealing a face Laura knew all too well. That long, silver hair; that pair of blue, cutting eyes; that full and ageless face.
“You—“ Laura could not believe her eyes, but all the while, she couldn’t deny what was plainly in front of her, “you—“
“Know who you are, yes,” she stepped forth, her words falling easily one before the other, “Laura Vinfield; Darrick Walson; Roselii Khental; Grace Lafiere; Ejjar Levee; Samuel Good; Olsein.
“I do not presume to be psychic,” she continued, “we read your ship’s logs. You came from Behraan. Why are you here?”
With some pause, Laura sighed before she spoke, “to find you, Admiral.”
“Surprise number two,” Edge added.