The Ophelian fleet managed to successfully evacuate the residents of both Pillars and Nywan—just barely. By the time the last dropship had exited Suragaa Three’s atmosphere, the Behraanese were long gone, and the Bentorii tightened their grip upon the world.
There were many in Nywan who would remain, hiding in the vast underground networks beneath the Groaning Giants. There, they would hold out for months, even years, until the time was right to usurp the new Bentorii occupants.
The Skyreign, accompanied by Maal’s Dragonfly and Jaegrynn, docked into the battleship Ophelia. Thereafter, as planned, the Ophelian fleet made its leap towards the lush Theyradaas nebula.
While in transit, Laura took the opportunity to do something she never got to do in her life.
On the bridge of this unfamiliar ship, she approached the tall man in the centre of the room, whom appeared to be the ship's captain.
“Hello, father,” said Laura, her words short, reserved, as she looked up to the man known as Zodiac.
The man returned the reserved look, nodding with a faint smile, "Hello, Laura."
"Have some time?"
“We have some time, yes,” said Terrance as he turned fully to face his daughter, “To my ready room. I imagine you have quite a lot to say. So do I.”
Seeing her father’s room reminded her of the office she used on Behraan to interview her own crew, months before. Clearly, the Ophelia was built to be solid, not luxurious.
“Please, sit,” he offered his hand to a chair which was positioned from across his desk in the middle of the room.
Hesitantly, she sat, legs crossed and still occasionally eyeing her silver bangs.
He slowly sat as well, placing his hands on the desk.
“You look well,” he said, not knowing what else to say. Then he added, "and you made something of the Skyreign, I saw. Glad you've been keeping that tough old ship running."
"You're my mystery benefactor," Laura concluded, "My academy instructor never did tell me who you were."
"I go by a few names," he replied, "Terrance Vinfield is, of course, the real one. Zodiac or Arden Bensen, with the Ophelians. Proteus Malus in some circles. Your instructor might have known me as Proteus Malus."
"I might have heard that name before," Laura thought back to those days, still unable to recall completely.
"Took a bit of jostling to get the school to accept such a...large award to give to you for your exemplary grades," he added, "of course, if they knew who I really was, the implications--"
“They told me you were a pirate lord,” said Laura, “I know better, of course, but—it’s so much easier to start hating, than it is to stop.”
“I may not be that pirate lord,” he replied, sighing, “but that does not excuse me for not being there in your life. I can never reclaim those years.”
Laura listened, remaining silent.
“You have your mother’s eyes,” he smiled, “and apparently, her gift. Some of the prisoners from Pillars told me about how two guards suddenly turned on each other in your cell. And Haren told me about the airship, at Nywan.”
“What was she like?” Laura asked, “I don’t remember her. All I knew about her, I got from the school, and from Olsein just days ago.”
Terrance sighed, looking at the desk as he pieced his words together. Clearly, the matter still weighed heavily upon him. “She was wonderful,” he mustered, “she was—everything. And when we had you, you became part of that everything.”
Laura listened, knowing he had more to say, but also trying to picture what could have been this picture-perfect family.
“Something changed,” he said slowly, “you were barely a year old when it happened. She became reclusive. Secretive. Overly protective of you. Then, I came home one day and you were both—gone, just disappeared without a trace.”
Laura was sympathetic. Not apologetic, but sympathetic.
“Took a while to find you,” he continued, “by the time I had, your mother had put a restraining order on me, you were in a military school, and before long, there was a bounty on my head. It would not have been responsible of me to try to come get you, so I left you in their care. I had an old friend in the Legion keep an eye on you, make sure you were being treated alright--”
“Olsein,” Laura concluded.
“Olsein,” Terrance affirmed, “Olsein was behind the plan to get you out, slowly so none would be the wiser. Turns out, General Alvoa sped things up a little. I bet it wasn’t ten minutes since you found out you were heading to Suragaa Three, that Olsein introduced himself to you.”
Laura nodded, laughing to herself as she stared through the wall, “I thought so little of him when he walked up. Saw his Sentinel pin and automatically, he was below me. It took Miya Alvoa trying to kill me to make me realize that Olsein and I had something in common. We were both nothing to Behraan.”
“Perhaps nothing to Behraan,” Terrance replied, looking squarely upon Laura, “but someone tried very hard to keep you away from me—to keep you in the Dominion. Probably not Vicken Alvoa, and probably not Miya. But someone went through great lengths to shape you up until the very day you were sent to Suragaa. And perhaps even thereafter, through Trilithe actions. And let me tell you something, Laura: a clandestine organization of assassins so seldom chooses targets that they don’t, in fact, want to kill.”
“My experiences tell me otherwise,” Laura argued, “if it weren’t for Sam, we would have been dead.”
“And if it weren’t for Miya, you would have died in your sleep,” Terrance retorted, “Trilithe assassins have a modus operandi: a long, fine needle—almost invisible to the naked eye, barely a hair’s width. Not a newton of force required to push it straight through a person’s skull. Painless. Almost invisible entry wound. Death is instantaneous. So it seems to me that you were marked for assassination—but not for death.”
Laura thought on the matter for a moment, then shrugged, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe they let us go, then.”
“Which makes me wonder,” Terrance hummed, “why would the people in question want you in their system—and then push you out of it? I don’t understand that. A question time will answer, I hope. What matters is that you’re out now, and among friends.”
Laura could only nod. Then, she thought on another matter. “What’s it like? Being an Aeonian? We don’t age. We’re like Janeth.”
He smiled slowly, “It is a welcome gift for a scholar. One could not learn everything in a single Behraanese lifetime. Ah, but if that lifetime was many times longer?”
Laura was quiet again.
“But the fact is,” he stated, the smile diminishing, “we still die, just like anyone else. One day, my time will be up. Your time will be up. Janeth’s time will be up. Even the Imperator’s time will be up. We all have a set number of days in this universe, before we are forced into the next. So—Aeonian or not, use what time you know you have, to better yourself and those around you. Don’t count on living for hundreds of years. Most of our kind don’t make it past fifty. Age is just one of thousands of ways to die.”
“And ageing is just one of a thousand ways to live that will never become me,” said Laura, standing, “Thank you—father--for seeing me. We’ll speak again, but I need some time.”
"Of course," he stood as well, "Shall I walk you to your ship?"
"No, that's alright," Laura smiled faintly, headed for the door.
"Hey Laura?" he piped up.
She looked back.
"Happy birthday," he smiled her way.
Laura raised her brows, then laughed lightly, "I'd forgotten."
"I didn't," he replied, "I've been counting the days."
Laura grew up knowing that one day, she would become old and decrepit just like any Behraanese soul. She even wanted that. She wanted to settle down with a husband or wife—she didn’t care—and have someone to grow old with. Perhaps she would have children. Perhaps she would become a military instructor at the Navy Academy. She would, in her finite lifetime, try her best to make Behraan a better place. She would leave her life as a warrior and officer behind forever.
She never had time to think of the implications of never growing old. Of watching painfully over the decades as others would age and she would not. Of having partners, mortal partners, who would one day be unable to keep up with her.
Immortality was a gift for a scholar indeed.
“Olsein,” she said to him, visiting him at his quarters on the Skyreign, “may I have a word?”
“You always get a word,” said Olsein, clearing the door frame to let her in.
She entered, walking towards one of the walls, which was laden with racks full of weapons of all kinds and all eras. She then turned to the older man, “I would like to request training.”
“You’re already a fine marksman,” Olsein snorted.
“I’m talking about—magic. I’m talking about developing these abilities. Harnessing them. Controlling them.”
Olsein froze, unable to reply.
“Can you teach me?” Laura asked expectantly.
“Magic is simply a word laymen use for something they don’t understand,” said Olsein at last, his tone completely different from his usual careless demeanour, “on Noregaa, it is an entire study, like physics. It’s broken up into many more specialized schools. I followed Divination—the science of telepathy, of profiling. Clairaudience, clairvoyance, the time-space continuum, that sort of thing. Saferon followed Transmutation. Manipulating energy, mass, volume on a thought. That’s just two of many schools. Even within those, there are subschools, such as thermokinesis, aerokinesis, hydrokinesis, geokinesis....”
Laura listened. Listen was all she could do as of late. Clearly to her, this was one of those days in which her ears would be better-exercised than her mouth.
“You’ve read minds, moved objects, possessed people, glimpsed into the future, and somehow you remained sane through all that,” Olsein continued, leaning on a vacant wall, “It’s very rare that even masters of our craft could display that kind of talent so early on in life. Developing it won’t be your problem. Controlling it. That will be the challenge.”
“I know,” said Laura, crossing her arms, “Grace once told me, that I had to decide whether to embrace my...gifts...or suppress them. When I was—when I was in that prison, I made that decision.”
“I knew that experience would change you,” Olsein said with just a hint of sympathy, “but I didn’t know how much.”
Olsein sighed, then nodded, “I’ll have to get Saferon in on this. We used to work together, back on Noregaa. We don’t see eye to eye, most of the time. But you? You’re...well you’re unique. She’ll make the exception.”
“Best that you let me decide what exceptions I make,” said Saferon as she walked in, looking to Laura, “Captain Vinfield. Did you know you were Ritana Caal’s dying wish somehow? In her last breaths, she told me to find you. Would you know anything about that?”
“I only just found out about that tragedy,” Laura replied, “she and I never spoke, but I respected her greatly. My condolences.”
“She seemed to think something of you,” Saferon continued, leaning next to Olsein, “though she didn’t speak of it until she was on her death bed. I wouldn’t suppose it would have anything to do with her vacant position as a General.”
Laura shook her head, “I could never replace General Caal. Perhaps her brother, Trabin, would be better suited.”
Saferon slowly nodded, “I’m glad you understand that. And you’re right, of course. Trabin will likely take her position in time, however reluctantly, and lead Nywan’s Hawks division.”
Laura only nodded.
“So,” Saferon glanced at Olsein, then back to Laura, “what is this about unusual gifts? Never mind—I already read what I wanted to know.”
“Be nice, Saf,” Olsein growled.
“You possessed a Behraanese guard and made him shoot another guard, then shoot himself,” Saferon continued, grinning ever so slightly, “Perhaps you could do Ritana some justice after all. She would be smiling from Kabaiila, if she was bothering to watch.”
Laura took a long look at her, then hummed, “You look a lot like Janeth.”
“She’s my mother,” said Saferon, “though she’s likely unaware of that. I’ll have to pay a visit to her on the Terraniia. Fill her in. In time.”
“She never mentioned a second daughter,” said Laura, “just Rose, her daughter by adoption.”
Saferon raised a brow, “The Oasiian? Truly? She’s my sister? Well—that explains her similar mentality. And likely why I cannot stand being in the same room as her. Did you know I cannot read her? At all?”
“Had the same problem,” said Olsein, “Rose is something else. Expert martial artist, linguist, pilot, hard-headed...yeah, actually, she really is a lot like you.”
“I suppose you’ll just have to talk to her, instead of prying information from her mind,” Laura articulated.
“Oh, she has a tongue,” said Saferon as she scrunched her nose, looking to Olsein, “you have a lot of patience, old man.”
“You have no clue,” Olsein lifted his chin as he iterated the words, “and I’m not that old.”
“Well,” Saferon cocked a hip, planting her hand on it, “alright. I’ll help train you, Laura Vinfield. But only on the dying wish of my friend—if that was indeed her intention. And because we have a common enemy. But Captain or not, you’re an apprentice when you’re under our training. You’ll be following orders to the letter, with no exceptions. And I won’t be accepting any giving up or under-performing on account of fatigue. Nor will I be giving you any leniency on account of your new responsibilities.”
“That’s the first thing you’ve said in a long time that I completely agree with,” said Olsein.
Laura looked between the two, then nodded. Response enough.
The Ophelian fleet arrived at the border of the Theyradaas nebula without a single issue. Entering it was not unlike entering a thick atmosphere, thick as that of Suragaa Three. The whole of the nebula glowed a healthy leafy green, and the atmosphere was at just the right proportions and temperatures for life. As there were no local formed stars, radiation was at an unlikely minimum, hardly more than on an inhabitable planet.
The Ophelian fleet knew the nebula well, having exclusive access, as permitted by the enigmatic Marioch that resided on the many paradise worlds within. The most dangerous sector of space known to the civilized galaxy, was also the safest haven for refugees of war.
The Ophelia barely got any attention, as she made her way to the prearranged destination, Marioch Twelve: an asteroid, terraformed by the Marioch hundreds of years before, suitable for small-scale settlements, benefiting from the nebula’s unnatural atmosphere.
This would be the new home for the Nywanese and the Pillarian nations, for a time. It was not a desert; it was not an underground cavern network; its gravity well was far weaker than that of Suragaa; they would have to build their own settlement.
But it would do.
The Skyreign crew received the highest honours Nywan had to give for finding the sacred vessel, and saving their people by disrupting the Bentorii. Each and every one of them were regarded as heroes--Grace included, for her ultimate sacrifice in giving herself to the Terraniia.
The Terraniia made its way into the nebula shortly after the Ophelian fleet. It pulled in some of the atmosphere around it due to its own gravity well, so large was this vessel.
The Marioch did greet them.
“There is one capital ship that is calling us,” said Wilhelm to Janeth on the bridge, “I am unaware of the make, but they do appear to have some hint of Oasiic architecture.”
<That is because we were Oasiian,> said one solid, male voice whose face appeared on the screen. It was one who looked just like any other Oasiian, save that his hair was white and his face did show moderate ageing He appeared to be the age of a Behraanese in his late forties The irises of his eyes were an icy white, while his pupils were blacker than the farthest reaches of space.
Wilhelm stepped forward, recognizing the Oasiian immediately, “Ionis”
<The same,> said the figure, <it has been—a long time, Verner.>
“That is Phetolaa Ionis,” said Grace aloud, “the one originally scheduled to connect to the Terraniia.”
<I was never able to arrive,> said Ionis, <a secret operation had taken place that not only saw to the end of Earth, but held me away as well. They allowed me to live. I know not why.>
“He was one of the oldest Oasiians,” Wilhelm explained, “even in our time.”
<We disassociated ourselves from the Oasiian Empire,> said Ionis, <We created this nebula. A rather beautiful phenomenon. We made it our home. Remained within it. Protected it from outsiders. We would have no part of the fire, that was the Oasiian Advance. We are the Marioch, now. And our wisdom in preserving peace, here, has prevailed. I am sure you are now aware of the fate of Oasiia.>
“Now known as Bentor,” Janeth added.
<That is unfortunate, but correct,> Ionis added, <I see the ANAMI candidate has taken her role well.>
Grace hovered down to the floor, the cables still suspending her, as she looked evenly upon Ionis, “you shared the technology with the Behraanese.”
<Astute conclusion,> he nodded, <it is fitting that an Angel guide such a sacred vessel. I could not have done better.>
“I am no angel.”
<How right you are,> he smiled faintly, <you are a Goddess now. And of course, the refuge you seek here, in our abode, is granted, until you and your—Unity?--can come to terms with the workings of this era. With the threats of both Behraan and Bentor.>
“It may have been thousands of years ago to you,” Verner crossed his arms, “but I just had lunch with you yesterday, so it feels.”
<What an illusion, time can be,> Ionis nodded, <We should have lunch again soon, friend. We have much to discuss.>
Both Darrick and Edge met the Ophelia’s chief engineer in the ship’s manufactory. He was Marl Savlik. Short, stout and middle-aged. His beard was grey, long and bearded.
“Oh hi,” he said in Behraanese, his voice raspier than Olsein’s, more guttural even, “you two be lookin’ into fixin’ up the old yacht?”
“Here to finish what we started, yes,” said Darrick, looking down at she shorter man.
“Oh aye?” Marl stroked his beard, staring blankly, “aye, well, there was this battle, once. Wee bit of plasma made its way thru the hull one day, and, uh...disintegrated our data core. Long story short, no more blueprints. Sorry, lad. Knew it was yer baby.”
Edge and Darrick looked to each other, then shrugged. Edge then spoke, “Alright, guy. We start from scratch, eh?”
The engineer had a wide grin on his face, “I be likin’ this one, Walson. Where do we start?”
“Core’s okay,” said Edge, “by Kabaiila, it’s a monster.”
“We have no fire coverage for the rear arc,” said Darrick, “the Cabin puts it out of my line of sight too, so all I get are sensors and the camera feeds.”
“Got a hardpoint in the bow end of the deck,” said Marl, “and it’s big enough an empty space. Already good for a landin’ pad.”
“Could get a turret there,” Edge suggested, “last I checked, we were constantly running away. Maybe with a big gun and that new reactor, we’d be the ones chasing people off.”
“What about the landing pad?” asked Darrick, “have a fighter there?”
“Yeah, and blind your front view,” said Edge, “you were just complaining about line of sight. Yeah, land a fighter in front of you. That’s just great, man.”
“Well, when you need to get into a fight, the fighter would be launched,” Darrick said, “make it a quick repair and refuel spot, instead of a permanent pad for it. Then there’d be nothing there and I’d see just fine.”
“Question?” said Marl.
Both looked to the shorter man.
“Fuck, why not both?” he continued stroking his beard, “plenty o’ room under the pad for, say, an artillery piece. Time to start blowin’ things up, up pops the cannon. Time to land your friends, back down it goes. That yacht of yers has a lot of empty spaces. Loads of goodies I be loadin’ into it. And with an energium core like that, I could look into overhaulin’ the distributor, the leapdrive--”
“Hey, the leapdrive is perfect,” Darrick argued, “leave it alone.”
Marl shrugged, “oh, aye, it would be, ye built it. Fine then. Let’s get to workin’!”
All of the visitors of Theyradaas still made sure to step outside the nebula and get a bearing on what happened elsewhere in the galaxy.
It became readily apparent that what started at Suragaa Three, or Earth, would not stop there. The Bentorii sought out Behraanese forces, worlds and people all over the galaxy. Outposts fell. Entire sectors of space went silent.
They came from nowhere. They came from everywhere.
Communications relays disappeared. The Behraanese, for the first time in a hundred years, was completely on a desperate defensive. Their own ships became that of the Bentorii. Their own worlds became fortresses of the Bentorii. Their own people were slaughtered by the Bentorii.
Still, no one party was aware of what forces stood behind the Bentorii, forcing them into coordinated action. They clearly attacked the Behraanese primarily, but whoever commanded them cared not what other factions lay in ruin at the end.
With the Imperator still missing, it fell to the military governors to recruit or conscript soldiers and pilots and redouble their efforts to maintain their great Dominion.
Rumours reached the ears of many about the upstart of a rebellion within Behraan’s own ranks, starting with a fleet that went renegade in the Suragaa system, which had disappeared and broken off all communications with the rest of the Dominion.
So began the great Demon War.
Two long years would pass, since the exodus from Earth.
Two long years would pass, since the beginning of the Demon War.
Two long years would pass, since Laura began her intensive training.
Nywan, Ma'guul and Pillars maintained their own nations upon Marioch Twelve, at separate ends of the asteroid. As the nebula was luminous throughout, there was no night except that decided by those two nations. Yet the days were not nearly as bright either, lacking a single star, or a single source of light. Thus, while both nations had to compromise, they could.
Janeth continued to reign over Nywan, yet at a greater distance, tasked with also being the Admiral of the Unity fleet. Executive control was delegated to the three living Generals, and they were given the option to choose a new ruler who would oversee their nation much more closely than she was capable of.
Winnibahn, Bryesco and Haren chose not to do so, for a time.
Nywan also adopted a unique advantage, with thanks to Saferon: The Liberated Bentorii. The Vel'aathii, or "awakened," they called themselves.
Angels and Demons alongside one another.
Their Oasiian heritage allowed them to quickly learn the Nywanese tongue and adapt to their society. With the help of the Unity, circlets were granted to those liberated, to provide protection against radio-based attempts to control them again.
They sought to see to it that the Bentorii were not destroyed, but instead, those who enslaved them and forced them to act against their free will would be.
They sought liberation, both in Bentor and in Behraan.
They sought Kabaiila's blessings.
Rose and Darrick declared themselves united to one another, aboard the Skyreign. The ceremony was small, simple, with just their own crew and a few friends they had made with others in the Nebula. A woman from a once-extinct race, united with a man of machine.
Fraemaal remained Rose’s permanent partner for sorties with the Malady. As a mechanic as well as a pilot, he often assisted in the full overhaul of the Skyreign, having knowledge of the subtle nuances and idiosyncrasies of Energium reactors.
Two long years.
Two long years passed, before the Skyreign would emerge. Before its crew would emerge.
Before Laura’s training would be complete.
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