A story that explores Inva's past. Probably not done yet.
The Torn CurtainEdit
Inva took a deep breath and attempted once more to clear her mind and calm down. The subdued tickling of anxiety refused to let go, and not even reading some of her favorite books was helping. Time and time again she found herself staring at the elegant letters on her datapad and realized she had utterly lost focus and read the same paragraph six times. She felt like she was preparing to commit treason, or become a criminal. She should be proud on this day. She should be joyous. Her final grades had exceeded expectations and comfortably placed Inva near the top of her grade. And yet, when she had received her final examination result by her teacher there was only a profound sense of loss and unhappiness.
Inva had not been able to bring herself to say anything to her teacher's face. The woman had taught Inva and her yearlings ever since they first became enrolled, and she seemed to consider them all her own children by extension. And yet Inva could not shake the feeling of distrust and unease. Her classmates all seemed to be content with the result of their evaluation. She had tried talking to them about her concerns many times over the years. She had shown them the clues and let them read the same documents she had. And yet they just seemed to shrug off her worries like a siralar-bird shakes water from its feathers.
Why didn't they understand? Why didn't they care?
Frustration was a familiar companion for Inva, but tonight she had to do something about it. For the most part Inva had kept her troubled thoughts from her parents and other relatives, but now it was just impossible. If she didn't speak to them tonight, made them understand, she would just have to accept her ordained fate and become yet another in the endless number of smiling, content bluspalven living in the colony. Inva looked out the window of her room into the golden spires of the great city beyond. Once, when she was just a little girl, the colony had seemed like a magical wonderland, stretching out endlessly beyond her window. She had imagined all forms of wonders and mysterious creatures hidden in the beautiful city and dreamed of the day when she would be old enough to explore it on her own. Now the colony seemed so small. She had seen its boundaries, explored every landmark and historical building, delved in every library of ancient datapads, visited every theatre. The city held no more wonders for her. She looked at her reflection in the window and noted that she really was a young woman now. Her deep blue skin was smooth and reflected the dying sun's rays in a clash of colors. Her face was clean cut and attractive, if not properly beautiful, with a strong nose and elegantly pointed ears. She normally wore her long hair in a simple ponytail, but knew she would have to change that for tonight.
- "Inva? Uncle Enari and his wife are here, are you ready?"
The voice of her mother from outside the door made Inva almost jump out of her chair. She switched off the datapad and took one last look out the window. The last dark red rays of the sun were painting the spires a fiery orange as the gold plating looked like it was on fire. Turning from the sunset, Inva felt the nervousness almost overwhelm her as she began getting changed into her finest evening dress. Like any good bluspalven youth she had always been taught to love and respect her elders, and to trust her parents and teachers to guide her through life until she was of sufficient age to mate herself.
She felt like she was about to betray a sacred trust.
The family were all gathered at the table when Inva stepped down the last step of the narrow stairway that spiraled up to the upper floors. She had somewhat half-heartedly arranged her hair in a fashionable style (although she had a sinking feeling it looked more like a bird nest) and while she was not a great beauty, she did look pretty in her expensive evening wear. As she looked into the smiling, proud faces of her family, Inva once more felt a pang of shame. She distracted herself by coldly noting that the dress she was wearing had been designed and worn in the same style for over six generations in the colony, and that her mother and cousin were both wearing the same style of garment.
- "...hi" she said, walking over to the table as her uncle held her chair out so she could sit down.
Present at the table were Inva's father Oronal, mother Anleen, uncle Enari, Enari's wife Emiin, younger cousin Samani and grandfather Amal. Her maternal grandparents had once again claimed to be too busy to attend the family celebration due to their stage play still selling out for every performance, and Amal's wife had passed some years ago. Any other family was too distant to have much interest beyond sending the obligatory congratulations and presents. Inva shuffled uncomfortably in her seat, feeling everybody's eyes on her.
- "My daughter ranked best in her year in literature and science." Oronal said with a tone of intense and sincere pride. "And tonight we honor her final examination and graduation from school."
- "Hear hear." Enari chuckled.
- "Seems to me she was born only yesterday." Grandfather Amal said.
As the praise continued it faded into a sort of background noise as Inva once more felt herself going over the words she had tried to rehearse for the better part of a week. She slipped her hands from the table into her lap to hide the fact they were trembling badly. She looked down into her food, feeling her cheeks burn as she tried to work up the nerve.
- "...and I always knew my daughter would be following me into the dancer's profession. I guess we had some foresight when we named her." Anleen said, breaking Inva out of her introspection.
- "I don't want to." Inva said.
Inva's mother fell silent, as did everyone else at the table. They all looked over at her, each family member trying to figure out what she had just said. Inva could hear the traffic outside, and even some faint tunes from an evening concert somewhere in the beautiful towers nearby.
- "Sorry honey, I didn't quite hear-" Oronal began.
- "I said I don't want to!" Inva blurted out. "I don't want to be a dancer. Why do I have to be some kind of performer?"
Inva's aunt turned very pale, and her uncle gave her a worried look. Cousin Samani just looked amused and fascinated by the unexpected turn. Oronal and Anleen shared a concerned glance as well. Only grandfather Amal appeared to be taking the whole outburst in stride.
- "Honey" Anleen began "you know as well as we do that your career assignment is based on rigorous testing and analysis of your merits and weaknesses. They have compared your grades and your aptitude and decided that you will do the most good as a performer. And you should be proud, not many are selected for that. I know I was very proud when I was selected."
- "Your mother beamed like the sun that day" Oronal chimed in. "And she is right. The aptitude board is very skilled and very good at its job."
- "It's not what I want" Inva said with such conviction that her father blinked. "Why do they have to decide for me? Why do they have to decide for any of us? Why can't we decide ourselves what we want to do with our lives?"
- "Because this is the best system to preserve and balance the happiness of the populace, Inva" uncle Enari said calmly. "Our social system is carefully constructed to balance our society. That is why we have such happy and content citizens."
- "I don't understand" Inva snapped. "Someone, very very long ago decided that it had to be this way and we just sit here and smile and accept it?"
The young woman felt the nervousness in her stomach change into what she could only describe as irritation. She was getting the exact same pat answers from her family as she had from her teachers and classmates. Why could they not listen?
- "Our ancestors decided that, Ina. And do you know why? Because they wanted us to be happy. Because they made our colony to last thousands of years, or even more. " Enari said calmly.
- "Happy? I'm not happy" Inva snapped.
- "Honey, we just want you to be happy. Any way we can" Anleen said, now clearly worried. "Just talk to us. What is it you want?"
- "Why can't I be a scientist? I want to do research, discover things. Go outside, survey. I need to see things for myself, not... stay in a theatre and play out some part written 800 years ago... No offense mother."
There were more worried looks exchanged before Enari seemed to give Inva's parents a look that said 'I'll handle this'.
- "Ina. Please listen to me. We don't have a large number of scientists because there just isn't much that needs to be researched or surveyed right now. We are in a very stable phase of our culture where we can focus on other arts. And the planet outside the colony is mostly uninteresting anyway, just untamed nature and animals."
- "How do we know it's uninteresting if we never go there? I'm tired of just looking out on the towers every evening and every morning. I've toured outside the walls just once in my life, and that was with my school class."
- "We know it's uninteresting because we do constantly scan the rest of the planet, and we have satellites in space to keep an eye out on things. And our ancestors, when they in their wisdom selected this world, charted it quite carefully."
- "Our ancestors... who were so wise and sagely that they knew exactly what our society should be thousands of years later? Who made sure our culture keeps reiterating the same old themes and rehash the past?" Inva said, her tone a little more sharp now.
- "What do you mean, honey?" Oronal said with some concern in his tone.
- "Oh come on father. You're not blind. You either, mother. You know as well as I do that our most popular plays and songs and poems are all many many generations old, and when you look past that you find older plays and songs and poems which are just like them with small variations. That thing that grandmother and grandfather perform? That was also performed in a very slight variation 900 standard years ago. Doesn't that tell you something is wrong? We're stagnated, and we're taught that stagnation is good. We rehash the same themes in our fiction and while away the evenings with arts that tell us to stay calm, to love beauty and never expose ourselves to danger!"
- "Ina, all of that is just because our people have found the true meaning of beauty. Once one discovers the true virtues of existence, what use is there in speaking about anything else? Our society is stable. Happy. We don't need to change. It is very childish of you to believe that you know better at your young age. We-"
- "You're wrong, uncle. We're complacent. And I don't know why. I went into the historical records, you know" Inva said coldly.
The stares from her father and uncle were now wary, while her mother and aunt looked shocked beyond words.
- "You... did what?" her father said in a terse tone.
- "I've done it many times. Top grades in sciences, remember? I've gone looking in the oldest archives we have, dredged the databases of every library. You know that there are almost no texts which accurately describe the founding of our colony? Nothing about why our social order was established? Nothing about the history of the bluspalven race? We came here from somewhere, we all know that. But where? Where are our kinfolk? Are we the last in the universe? Are there other worlds with other bluspalven out there?"
- "Inva, that's enough" Oronal said.
- "There's nothing! All I found was one old, half-deleted text that said-"
- "Inva! That's ... enough! Can't you see your aunt is really upset? Why are you even bringing all this up tonight? This was going to be a celebration, an evening of joy!"
Inva saw that her aunt was indeed looking like she was close to tears, while cousin Samani was patting her comfortingly on the hand. Grandfather Amal was watching Inva with an unreadable expression, while Enari's stare held deep disapproval.
- "Why...?" Inva finally said. "Because if I don't, you will ship me off to the dancer academy in a few months and I'll be stuck doing something I don't want. Because you want me to listen to all the morals about settling down and not questioning, and singing and drinking my life away and never once ask why."
The fire was leaving Inva's stomach. She felt tired, both physically and mentally, and the now cold food on her plate looked disgusting to her eyes. She had just poured her heart out, her deepest fears and doubts about their whole existence, and she had been met by patronizing and fearful responses. She was tired of fighting this fight.
- "Honey, we won't do anything if you don't want to" Anleen finally said, breaking the silence. "Nobody is forced to do anything, you know that. We'll talk about this again tomorrow, and see what we can figure out. You may be able to talk to the aptitude board and find another profession that is more to your liking. Except scientist, of course."
Inva looked up at her mother's reassuring smile and knew that they did not understand. All they wanted now was for her to calm down so they could convince her that she was being silly.
- "I guess so, mother." Inva said, sinking back into her seat.
- "Well then" uncle Enari grinned "let's have some food, and celebrate little Ina's first step on the path of adulthood."
Inva stuffed the final datapad into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. It was very early in the morning, several hours before anyone normally got up, and yet Inva was already prepared. She had realized the night before that her parents and family would never really understand. Only she could find her own truth, and she needed to seek it herself. She was dressed in a rough workout overall and the best boots she owned, and her hair was back in its familiar tight ponytail. Hefting the bag containing tools and supplies over her shoulder she crept down the stairs, past the floor with her parents' bedroom. Once out in the empty streets of the city she peeked up at the first rays of the rising sun and decided she had better get started.
Dashing through the streets she occasionally fished the printed map she had prepared out of her pocket and consulted it to make sure she was going in the right direction. She was heading towards the outer rim of the colony of course, but as the regular street level of the city was elevated quite a bit compared to the surrounding landscape, first she had to go down. Stepping off the unmanned shuttle at the right stop and made her way down to an alleyway and found the door labeled with a number of warning signs about restricted areas and danger. She crept into the maintenance tunnels, prepared to meet a patrolling guard or sanitation worker, but she found nobody in the acrid-smelling chill air of the metal corridor. Onwards she went, down stairs and ladders and through narrow hallways until finally she found her destination.
The small alcove was very utilitarian and unaesthetic compared to the polished, sleek city above in which Inva had lived all her life. It had grating for a floor and the walls curved into a large semi-circle on the opposite side of which was a large, heavy-looking hatch that was taller than the bluspalven girl. The control and maintenance consoles spread around the room blinked softly, casting azure shadows on the poorly lit walls as Inva walked up carefully to the hatchway. She feared that any movement would trigger some alarm system, even though she had been assured many times that any colonist was free to leave the confines of the city at any time. She tapped the large console next to the hatch and pulled the heavy, encrusted leaver down to the symbol which read "Open".
The hatch swung outwards with a heavy, droning screech which made Inva cover her ears.
Cool air that smelled heavily of moist dirt and other unfamiliar scents flooded the alcove. No alarm sounded. Inva stepped towards the doorway, and when she was sure it wouldn't slam shut and crush her if she approached, she dashed through it. As she did, a computerized voice buzzed at her from a speaker next to the doorway.
- "Please enjoy your tour, citizen. Remember to not stay outside for long."
Inva paid the recording no heed. Her eyes were drinking in the landscape beyond the door. There was a line of dark trees along the horizon to the east, and far beyond that a row of mountain peaks reaching up to the clouds. The dirt beneath her boots was quite heavily trampled, presumably by guards and maintenance workers, and thus she could make good speed towards the forest. She pulled up the map sheet again, and flipped it around to where she had copied out a makeshift map based on the ancient text she had found. It referred to many odd things that she couldn't decipher, but it very concretely spoke of "the other place" as a definite physical location some distance east of the colony itself, and had a simple map showing a route between the two.
As the sun began to rise in the morning sky, Inva headed towards the forest, not knowing what she would find.
It took Inva a few days to relax when sleeping in the dark forests and hills of the untamed land outside the colony. At first she was nervous around every little noise and rustle, which soon made her exhausted and listless during the days. But as nothing attacked her and she discovered nothing particularly threatening she began to relax, almost sleeping comfortably on the dirt floor of the forest. The trek was actually less eventful than she had believed, and no patrols from the colony came looking for her either. She didn't know if that was reassuring or disappointing, but at this point she might as well just keep going.
On the fourth day she finally saw it.
As she stepped out from the treeline Inva saw a small stretch of grass plain ahead which became a series of small foothills ahead. As the hills climbed higher and higher they became mountains, their jagged peaks like teeth pointed at the sky. But the thing Inva was most interested in was much closer, nestled among the closer foothills. A cracked, overgrown and barely visible causeway curved up a low hill and on top of the flattened surface was something so incredible Inva almost lost her breath. She ran out of the forest and into the grass, desperate to get closer to her goal lest it vanish like a mirage.
The statue was enormous, as large as the great golden statues lining the great opera home in the colony. It's dilapidated frame was heavily eroded and cracked, and covered in clinging vines, but even now Inva could recognize that it was another bluspalven like her. One of its massive arms had broken off in ages past and now lay shattered in fragments on the hillside, but the other arm was still thrust towards the heavens, the blank stare of the statues eyes directed towards the stars. The features of the statue were impressive, strong and hawkish, and its garments also seemed to speak of some great leader. Inva ran up the shattered causeway towards the statue as fast as she dared, tripping several times over the treacherous broken pavement as she ascended. But soon she was standing next to the statue and right ahead of her was the goal she had barely dared to believe in.
The edifice was carved into the wall of the large hill ahead, and once it had had spires just like the city back home emerging from the top. Now it was just a yawning opening surrounded by rusted, pitted metal and long-gone smaller support structures. Inva fished out her flashlight and with one final gaze up at the statue's face she carefully walked towards the yawning mouth of the entryway into the ancient structure. The floor inside was just as strewn with rubble as the outside, and the delicate mechanisms of the computers had long since succumbed to the ravages of the elements. Guided by the beam of her light Inva penetrated into the musty air of the deeper rooms of the complex, taking a wide stairway down when she reached the back of the first floor.
It was like walking into the unknown for Inva, but it was also deeply exhilarating. She had dreamed of the unknown all her life, a desire to go beyond the familiar and find out more than the trite truths she had been taught in school. As the cone of the flashlight darted over ancient mechanisms and piles of dust indicating where elegant pieces of furniture had once stood, Inva walked on until she descended yet another stairway even deeper into the building. The air down here was even thicker with dust and the acrid smell of rust and corrosion, but she still kept going. Finally she came upon a half-open door which looked important, and with some effort she pushed it open, wishing once more that she had been a more active athlete.
Beyond the door there was a huge circular chamber with ancient computers lining the walls, great viewscreens now cracked and useless and consoles in various states of disrepair everywhere. Thinking this was just another scrapheap, Inva took a few steps into the room before she realized some of the consoles were still glowing faintly. Suddenly there was a flash of pale bluish light ahead of her, and Inva yelped and fell on her back. The holographic figure of a bluspalven man stood in front of her, his eyes narrowing as he looked down on her with disdain. He was tall and seemed in very good shape, with an ornate uniform covering his taut ghostly body. His features were elegant and strong, with a firm jaw line covered in a well-trimmed beard and piercing eyes gazing down at her.
- "Who are you, child?" the hologram asked in a quiet, slightly annoyed voice.
- "I-Inva. Inva Ralaedra. I'm... from the colony." she said, feeling like a child being chided by her father.
She was suddenly aware that the hologram must be the same person depicted by the ancient statue outside, and that he must be immensely important for be honored thus.
- "From the colony, eh?" the hologram replied, seemingly considering her for a long time. "And what is it you want to learn, child?"
- "Anything you can teach me" Inva said confidently.
Inva sat perfectly still, gripping the butt of the elegant blaster in one hand. The musty scent of the forest filled her nostrils, and the calls of animals occasionally echoed between the gnarled Temba trees. That's what Iro said they were called, and Inva had finally managed to make the fact stick in her mind after the thirteenth time the holographic teacher repeated it. Inva was not stupid, but she was, as Iro liked to put it, spoiled. Even though she had grown up feeling different, and tried to learn about many things that nobody in the colony talked about, she was still fundamentally a product of that society. She was predisposed by selection and breeding to be lazy, forgetful and sedentary, and though she had long ago made learning her passion and trained her mental sharpness, her physical skills left much to be desired.
And so here she was, dirty, crouching between two massive Temba roots, clutching the ancient blaster in her hand and staring intently at a small mound of dirt in the glade ahead of her.
Inva tried to force her mind not to wander. It was all so boring, it smelled bad, she was tired, she wanted a shower and a hot meal... and yet she was still determined. She knew that every time she managed to toughen up and push through one of Iro's challenges, be it by sheer stubbornness or luck, she came out a little bit ahead. Just a tiny bit. The next time she could force herself a little further, lift a little bit more, endure longer. Even after all this time living in the ancient bunker with only the hologram as a companion, she still felt like she was still a novice.
The pile of dirt stirred.
Inva's eyes registered the fact and yet it took a moment for her brain to kick in. She almost cursed herself. She'd let her mind wander again, but thankfully this time she was still focused enough on the task that she had noticed in time. She crouched down further between the Temba roots, forcing her knees down into the moist, dark soil.
A dark red snout emerged carefully from the mound of dark dirt, and the small row of nostrils on the tip sniffed the air. Inva gripped the blaster tighter, checking the charge for the hundredth time. Still set on low-yield blast. Energy pack still full. The snout briefly retracted, and then an elongated reptilian head emerged fully, its eyes blinking in the filtered sunlight of the forest floor. Apparently deciding no threat was clearly present, the lizard-like creature quickly pushed up through the dirt covering the entrance to its lair, and skittered out onto the forest floor. It was about a meter and a half long, with eight clawed legs supporting the elongated body, and the vicious-looking pointed head completing the image of a predator. Iro had called the animal a Miner lizard, citing an old story that these creatures would burrow deep in the earth and occasionally bring up valuable gems into their lairs. The lizard skittered around a bit, appearing to wait for something. Inva knew this was her one and only chance. She carefully aimed for the Miner's center mass, waiting for it to calm down and stop drumming the dirt with its eight legs. Finally, seemingly content, it stopped. Then its head suddenly snapped around to stare directly at Inva.
She pulled the trigger.
The lizard was quick, but not quick enough. As it was twisting to flee down into the burrow, the energy blast of Inva's weapon struck it in the side of the elongated torso, causing a smoking wound. The Miner collapsed, its legs twitching helplessly. Inva emerged from her concealment, stepping carefully closer. Iro had warned her many times that a wounded animal, even one that was dying, could still lash out and cause grievous wounds. She walked closer, watching the thrashing of the dying Miner die down slowly. Calmly, trying to keep the wrenching feeling in her gut from overpowering her, Inva placed another shot straight in the head of the lizard.
It slumped down and lay still.
Inva looked around, making sure to look up into the forest canopy for signs of scavengers or other predators. There were other creatures out there who wouldn't mind a free meal, and she wouldn't want to attract the attention of too many of them. Quickly she holstered her blaster and knelt down next to the Miner's corpse. Most of the meat would still be good, she reasoned, and was about to hoist the carcass over her shoulder (another trial, to see how far she could go before needing rest) when she heard a scuffling sound behind her.
Inva spun around and pulled her blaster in one smooth movement, a standard practice Iro had drummed into her after countless fumbled attempts. The burrow behind her gave off some strange noises which she wasn't familiar with, and she approached it carefully. Miner lizards were supposed to be solitary, so there shouldn't be a second creature down there, but she wanted to make sure before she burdened herself down with the carcass. Peering over the edge into the tunnel leading down into the lair, Inva squinted her eyes to adapt to the murk at the bottom of the short burrow.
There was a makeshift nest down there, composed mostly of old grass and sticks, and on top of it lay a large egg.
Inva blinked. She felt queasy again, realizing the Miner she'd killed was a nesting female. She tried repeating Iro's teachings about the circle of life, and about survival taking priority over other concerns. And yet she could help herself. The noise she heard came from the egg, a faint scratching noise and the sound of something hard tapping on the shell from within.
On impulse, before common sense or Iro's imagined stern face could dissuade her, Inva loosened the satchel she was carrying on her back, carefully leaned down and with great difficulty carried the egg up to the surface and wrapped it in a few rags. Slinging the satchel over her shoulder, she once again holstered her weapon and then hefted the dead body of the adult Miner over her shoulder. She made sure she hadn't squished the satchel, and then set off, with the scratching sound growing ever louder. Inva knew she would be chewed out for this, and she knew she was taking a foolish risk. But she had been a rebel against established wisdom long before she met Iro, and she saw no reason to stop now.
Breaking into a slight jog, the blue-skinned girl left the forest glade and headed back towards the bunker.
Inva sat down in the battered chair as the hologram emitter buzzed to life. The spectral form of a tall, well-groomed male of her species flickered into existence, his uniform eternally spot-free and newly pressed. Despite being only a simulation of someone long-dead he had an uncannily penetrating gaze, which he now fixed on the young woman sitting before him. One of his translucent blue eyebrows arched at the sight of a red form peeking out from under Inva's tattered brown hood.
- "I told you not killing that creature was a mistake, child. I do wish you followed my advice more often."
His voice was somewhat dry and very formal, with intonation and odd inflections that Inva had never heard before activating him for the first time. He also always sounded like he was a schoolteacher and she was a child who had been caught chewing re-taff during class.
- "I do follow your advice when I think it's good" Inva said calmly. "This is not one of those times."
She reached out and gently brushed the ridges on the head of the small Miner lizard, and it arched its back and emitted an odd whistling noise which seemed to indicate intense contentment. The hologram merely shrugged and walked over to the ancient console of the holo-emitter array, tapping in a series of commands. Inva knew that the physical motions were merely for show. In actuality Irodael controlled the system purely by interfacing with is processes, just as he could with anything within the ancient bunker.
- "Now then. I believe I promised you the truth about our people on the day I deemed your physical training to be... sufficient" he began. "I believe this is that day."
The emitters flickered to life, projecting the vaguely translucent image of the galaxy into the center of the room. As the lights dimmed, the tiny stars became brighter, and Irodael loomed next to the projection like a ghost.
- "What I am about to tell you, Inva Ralaedra, is something that only a handful within your colony know about, and even those few know but slivers of the truth as a whole. I was created to oversee this military installation and serve as a keeper of this knowledge in the case of... trying times. But with the abandonment of most settlements in this sector, I believe the time has come to pass my knowledge on."
It was the first time Inva could remember Irodael calling her by her full name. It felt odd, like a parent addressing you as an equal.
- "So you're going to tell me about the Bluspalven history? About why our colony is th-"
- "Please do not use that word. I have told you, that name is a derogatory term used only by other species or those who do not know better. The proper name for our race is Azalfi."
Inva rolled her eyes in frustration.
- "Right, well can you please tell me about Azalfi history then?"
Irodael nodded curtly and waved his hands across the holographic display. As he did, many of the stars and planets dimmed, while a small solar system at the center of the zoomed-in section began glowing in a deep, intense azure blue. Inva squinted and could see a number of tiny blue planets orbiting a sun.
- "The great First Age of the Azalfi began upon the achievement of intra-galactic space flight, some ten thousand standard years ago. Previous to this we had conquered our own solar system and made our glorious home world Azal Prime into a virtual paradise. But this was not enough. Our people wished to grow further, to spread our wisdom and culture beyond our home. Vast, elegant ships were constructed and large colony fleets assembled as our race expanded into space."
As the old Azalfi spoke, a holographic screen appeared next to the blue planetary system. It began displaying a number of great, sleek ships plowing through space like a shoal of impossible fish, with elegant cruisers and battleships protecting bulky colony ships at the center of the swarm.
- "Soon our great fleets were plying the spaceways and laying the foundation of our great empire. The colonies of the First Expansion were founded at this time as we expanded into the neighboring sectors. We also made our first contacts with alien species at this time, and brought them the light and wisdom of Azal's children."
As Irodael spoke, the view of the solar system zoomed out again until it was merely a blue blob. Suddenly the neighboring systems began lighting up, becoming the same shade of azure. As this happened, Inva watched the holographic display next to the star map as a number of pictures of various aliens were displayed in succession, complete with short textual descriptions.
- "Fortunately, a number of these first contacts proved peaceful, despite none of these other races being anywhere near the level of organization and spread as ours at that time. The Teuthoids and Facerenti both proved to be valuable, if sometimes frustrating allies, though neither species ever wished to join in a military alliance with ours. Unfortunately, other species proved that diplomacy and cultural understanding is not always possible."
The viewscreen changed to display a number of odd creatures with blade-like limbs and chitinous armor. The multitude of claws, spikes and sharp edges immediately made Inva realized these were creatures to beware.
- "The first Cruixir nest-worlds were found during this period, worryingly close to our core systems. The creatures proved adaptable and extremely savage, and to make matters worse they proved impossible to deal with. Their minds are just too alien, too different from ours. Our encounters with the Cruixir soon became a standardized planetary purge stratagem, and with great difficulty we exterminated the creatures from threatening our home space."
As Irodael spoke, the viewscreen displayed an Azalfi cruiser bombarding a planet's surface form orbit, lances of light slamming through the atmosphere like vast comet trails.
As this happened, a number of newly revealed red dots at the fringe of the expanding Azalfi space went dark grey and then slowly changed to the same blue as the other colonized worlds.
- "So these creatures were the only real enemies we had? Why all this military hardware, then?"
Irodael regarded her silently for a few moments.
- "I'll tell you in a moment. Suffice to say that the end of the First Age occurred with the establishment of our declaration of supremacy in our part of the galaxy, and the formal establishment of the Azalfi Empire."
As he spoke the words, an ancient symbol formed over the large blue area carved out of the galactic cross-section, reminding Inva somewhat of a large crown with many thorns.
- "The Second Age began some eight thousand years ago with the Second Expansion, where we pushed beyond our home space into the unknown regions. Many new colonies were established, and our territory grew. This was the age of might, when our fleets kept the spaceways safe and our merchants and scientists truly enlightened the galaxy in the name of the Empire. Glory for us and our allies, death for our enemies. And... unfortunately... this is when we found that the Cruixir were not the worst threat we would face in the depths of space."
Irodael took a step back as the viewscreen changed. Inva recoiled in her chair as a cold shiver ran down her spine. She had no idea why, but just looking at the creature now displayed there made her uncomfortable, as if she was remembering a nightmare she might have had as a child. The creature was thin and tall, covered in a suit made out of black, elongated plates. A thick black collar covered the lower half of the head of the creature, and for some reason Inva was happy it did. Over the plate loomed a pale white cranium and most worryingly a pair of huge, purely black eyes. There was a slight ethereal presence to the being, as if even through the holographic projection it was not entirely in focus and partially in shadow.
- "We had previously encountered the Vreen during the First Age, though many of these encounters had been written off as tall tales and superstition. Upon finding a Vreen colony, it turned out that they were not merely a story that sleep-deprived spacers told each other in bars. The Vreen were creatures of darkness, apparently subsisting without the need for light or warmth. Although our people attempted diplomacy, it soon became evident the Vreen saw us as intruders, and... well. Their philosophy and mindset proved incompatible with ours. Soon we were embroiled in our first galactic scale war. "
As Irodael spoke, flashes of red erupted along one border of the blue Azalfi Empire, with blue worlds occasionally turning grey, and grey worlds turning blue.
- "This conflict lasted for a very long time, but ended with the Empire victorious. Even our allies joined in once the Vreen became desperate enough to prey on their colony worlds as well. We drove the Vreen so far past our borders we could find no more trace of them, but our forces remained on alert for their return for the remainder of our history. They became the bogeymen haunting our nightmares, the first and harshest reminder that our might and rule was not as supreme as we wanted."
Inva rubbed her chin a little, watching as the map kept changing as Irodael talked about a number of historical events she found less fascinating.
- "So did you live during this age, Iro?" she said nonchalantly, and was rewarded with the hologram freezing.
- "Yes. As a matter of fact I was. I... that is to say my original was born at the end of the second millennium of the Second Age. And, I regret to say, lived to see its end."
Inva felt her focus return quickly and leaned in. She had long harbored the desire to know the life story of her teacher, given the many scraps of information she had picked up so far.
- "My original was one of the most highly decorated officers in the grand Imperial Navy of the Azalfi Empire."
- "He rose to the rank of Fleet Admiral in the Imperial Navy and was soon famous from one end of the Empire to the other. He performed purges against Cruixir hive worlds, smashed pirate nests in nebulas no other captain dared enter, and brought freedom to countless worlds within our grand Empire. But alas, his curse was to live in the age where our Empire fell."
Inva had almost missed it, but the map had changed while she was listening to Iro talk. She started and stared at the map again, trying to figure what had happened.
- "Those worlds. They went grey. Why did they go grey? Wait... that's at the center of the Empire. Iro? What happened?" she blurted.
Irodael's hologram froze and was so still Inva thought his program had glitched for a moment. Then his ghostly blue shoulders slumped, and he looked old for the first time since she had first seen him.
- "The exact information is not available to me. For some reason those specific files are gone from my registry. But suffice to say that the Second Age ended and the Age of Lethargy began at this point. It was... a difficult time. We became something we had not been before, and we paid the price for it. The Empire was... crumbling. There was a belief that our race was plunging quickly towards extinction."
- "But... why? What could happen that would affect an Empire that big? What happened to those worlds?"
- "I told you, I -don't know- anymore" Irodael snapped so forcefully Inva recoiled. "I... my original was trying to hold the center together. It was a fall from grace, but he would not let our people fall into oblivion without a fight."
- "Did he... die?"
- "He was old, Inva Ralaedra. Fleet Admiral Irodael Urdaness, recipient of the Silver Star three times over, commander of the Third and Fourth Fleet, hero of Saliir..." the hologram trailed off.
- "Teacher?" Inva asked.
On the map, more blue spots went grey.
- "He was over three hundred years old, Inva Ralaedra. He was neither young enough nor strong enough to hold the Empire together. So he sought to save what he could."
- "Three... hundred... standard years?" Inva said incredulously.
- "It was not uncommon at the time. Anyway, my original knew he was dying, so he implanted a sub-space recording device in his head which slowly built a replica of his mind, including all his knowledge. He read as many history texts as he could, and the knowledge was copied into the new receptacles. He studied as many books on tactics as he had time, and the knowledge was preserved. And those replicas..."
- "You're one."
- "I am one, yes."
- "So what happened to him?" Inva asked.
- "As our Empire descended into chaos, several minor races which had barely been capable of spaceflight saw their opportunity to gut a dying titan with their tiny barbs. Our colonies on the eastern border were invaded by a reptilian race called the Ssura, an overtly violent and militaristic race piloting huge, lumbering behemoths studded with destructive weaponry."
The map displayed a number of blue dots slowly flaring red, as the viewscreen displayed a reptilian alien carrying a huge energy rifle with a bladed attachment.
- "Fleet Admiral Irodael assembled his fleet and led a series of colony ships there, beginning an evacuation of the surviving colonies to within the Oroel Line. While evacuating the last colony, his fleet was ambushed by a vast number of Ssura ships which began bombarding the departing colony ships. Knowing that they would never reach the warp gate in time, Fleet Admiral Irodael made a decision."
Inva stared as the viewscreen grew to show an external view of a vast number of Azalfi ships engaging an enormous swarm of ugly, spherical ships bristling with weaponry as if they were huge spaceborne spikefish. Explosions racked both fleets as a number of huge, slow colony ships attempted to disengage the alien craft.
- "There comes a time when you must decide how much your personal pride is worth. How many lives are you willing to sacrifice for your visions of glory? And so Fleet Admiral Irodael came to a decision. He had done things he was not proud of in his long life, and many other things he was very proud of. And he knew it was time. Feeling oddly calm, he ordered his surviving fleet to push forward, straight into the heart of the Ssura fleet."
Inva witnessed the Azalfi ships suddenly kicking into motion, the swarms of fighter craft around them scattering like flies as the behemoths began moving. Slowly at first but then faster and faster, the Azalfi pushed straight towards the alien force, taking tremendous punishment as they did.
- "They were forced to recall all their ships from attacking the colony vessels, just as he had hoped. And even as he saw his fleet slowly shatter and become as dust around him, he knew it was the right choice. They had pledged to preserve the Empire. What is an Empire without people?"
On the screen, the Azalfi fleet cut through the Ssura dreadnoughts like a hot knife, but there were many more alien ships than there were Azalfi, and slowly their numbers whittled down.
- "He kept transmitting into the hyperspace beacon every moment of the battle. We, his children, the keepers of his self, his knowledge, we were all there with him on the bridge. He sat in the commanding chair until his first pilot was killed by shrapnel, then he rushed down to man that station himself. And as the might of an Age now gone crumbled around him, his last thought to us was 'For our children' "
On the screen, the Azalfi flagship detonated, internal explosions racking its vast hull as it flared up like a miniature sun. The screen blinked out of existence, now showing only the star map, with a much reduced collection of blue worlds, but no more red dots. The ephemeral crown had vanished from the map, but instead a thin, bluish-white line surrounded the central blue area.
- "The Oroel line was his other legacy" Irodael began. "A defense perimeter designed to preserve and defend or remaining core worlds for future generations. But there was no stopping the decay in power. No more fleets, no more galactic peace enforced by strong Azalfi hands, no more scientific enlightenment. The rulers of the new age quickly conceived of their final solution to the situation, a desperate measure to preserve our people."
The viewscreen reappeared, and the star map blinked out behind it. On the screen a lumbering colony ship approached a world and released a swarm of drop ships into the atmosphere. Cut to a number of Azalfi building structures in their new environment, and then to a glorious, shining golden city.
- "My... home." Inva mumbled.
- "Yes. The Age of Lethargy began with the collapse of Imperial rule and the creation of the Haven program, where colonies were established and old ones changed. No longer would the populace be told of our glorious history. No more scientific advancement or great space flights. Instead each was created as a world in a bottle, situated on planets so heavily terraformed and pacified that there were no dangers to be had. Flooded with literature, music, poetry, but nothing that would challenge or hone the mind. Worlds established merely to perpetuate our race without the dangers of throwing themselves back into galactic affairs."
- "But... why?" Inva asked. "I can't believe our people went from virtually ruling this part of the galaxy to covering behind their defenses, or even living in some form of oblivious fantasy. Why? What happened to scare our ancestors so much?"
- "Again... I do not know. When I was brought to this world, I was already missing several key historical files. I believe whoever spread me and my brethren across our worlds did not wish us to remember."
Inva bit her lip as the holographic display died down, and the pale lights of the bunker hummed back on. She felt exposed in the bright light, still reeling from the grand narrative she had witnessed. But one question was now burning bright and urgent in her mind.
- "You said our colonies were designed to perpetuate our people, correct?"
- "So how does that work, if our colonies are all isolated?"
- "Ah yes. Have you never wondered why some young Azalfi simply... vanish? No less than five percent of the youths born in the same year as you are no longer in the colony. Why is that?"
- "They ran off? Like me? Or died...? I don't know, I was never very good at keeping friends. They were all so... well. So Bluspalven."
Inva almost thought Iro was about to chuckle, but his stern expression reasserted itself so quickly she might just have imagined it.
- "No, neither of those are true. Those people were chosen for their makeup and background to be moved to other colonies for repopulation or genetic diversification. A standardized screening process occurs every ten standard years where the central council assess the state of the colonies. On rare occasion a ship may even be dispatched to move a colony wholesale, though that is very rare. Equally rare is some of the colony Azalfi being moved to the core worlds."
Inva's interest piqued.
- "So... there are spaceships that come here? Regularly?"
- "Oh yes. Quite often, in fact. They land in areas where the colonists are not allowed to go to deliver supplies, deliver and receive important news and the like as well as move selected colonists."
Inva's expression became thoughtful, and she scratched the head of her Miner lizard.
- "...what are you thinking about, Inva Ralaedra?" Irodael said with a resigned tone.
- "I'm thinking about a way off this rock, Iro. Remember what you said about deciding what was important in life? Sitting around here and rotting isn't it."
Irodael's hologram affected a deep sigh.
- "I was afraid you might say that."
- "Did you remember to get the extra packs for the gun?" Irodael inquired as his holographic form hovered behind Inva.
- "Yes I did" Inva replied.
- "And you examined the maps and the schedule of arrival and departure of the supply ship?" Iron continued, completely unaware or uncaring of the irritation in Inva's voice.
- "Yes mother" the young woman said, rolling her eyes.
- "I am merely being thorough. An ordered mind is a strong mind, an ordered life i-"
- "...is a life with purpose. Vaeliyan Canto XII:V" Inva said.
She moved over to re-check the datapad she had prepared. Hooking it up with the ancient records of the long-abandoned bunker she was content to see that the precious records of Azalfi history, literature and art that had survived the centuries were now safely contained in the storage device for her journey.
- "Yes. Well. At least you do listen sometimes." Iro said almost tetchily.
Inva checked her bag again, carefully sliding the datapad into its protective case and packing it in with the rest of the scavenged artifacts she thought she could carry with her. Her training over the last year was now invaluable because she could easily run and jump while carrying that kind of weight and that would be essential if she were to make her escape. She triple checked the contents of the bag, vaguely aware that Iro was talking about something in the background. As she straightened up again she realized the time had come.
- "Yes, child?" the hologram queried, raising an eyebrow at the sudden attention.
- "You're sure I can't copy your program into an extra datapad?" Inva said, already knowing the answer.
The hologram's hawkish features fell and his ghostly blue form slumped just a tiny bit.
- "I am sure. My matrix is too complicated to be held by any storage device that crude. Only the cybercore in the system here, the device that was slowly built up with the memories and experiences of the original Irodael Urdaness, is sufficiently advanced to contain me."
- "Right. But you don't actually take any system damage from being offline, right?" Inva asked.
- "No, my system can lie dormant or even powerless for extended periods. As long as there is no structural damage to... Wait. Inva Ralaedra, why do you ask me this?"
Inva was walking over to the bunker's central data hub and started tapping in a series of commands as the hologram followed her.
- "Child? I asked, why are you d-"
Iro's hologram flickered and vanished as Inva cut the power. With a determined grin Inva began unscrewing the main access hatch into the datacore. This was going to be a delicate operation.
It felt almost like a dream for Inva to retrace the path she had taken over a year before when she first found the bunker and discovered the truth about her heritage. She passed familiar hunting grounds and landmarks where she had strengthened her body and sharpened her senses, and felt a slight pang of melancholy as she did. She would probably never see these places again, and although she was determined to see her course of action through, the feeling was still there. She wondered what it would have been like had she been more like her peers, not questioning or thinking beyond what was necessary to get by day to day. Listening to the droning, indoctrinating wisdom of the colony leaders and letting it direct your path in life like a shuttle following a tunnel.
Inva's pet miner lizard poked out from underneath the hood on her shirt and fluted gently, making her pet it a little as she continued. There was no point burying herself in the past. Not when there was a future now, for herself and maybe for others as well. She gently padded the hacking probe in her jacket pocket, quietly wondering if her plan would even come close to working. Regardless, she was going to give it her best. She set off again down the dirt path leading back towards the colony, leaving her proving grounds behind.
The several days of travel back to the golden spires of the colony were in fact rather dull. As she had learned from Iro, the planet's jungles had mostly been pacified of any life considered too dangerous for the Azalfi of old. The colonists were to be able to travel into forests, jungles and oceans without fear, even in an age when their warrior instincts had been lulled to sleep by time and forgetfulness. As a result, Inva no longer feared these woods as she once had, knowing nothing larger than Miner lizards and Cadron birds inhabited their depths. It was almost a relief to her when she spotted the tall steeples of the colony in the distance, its towers and spires reaching for the darkening purple-streaked sky.
Inva approached the outer perimeter of the immense colony perimeter, searching for some time before she found the door where she had escaped so long ago. Naturally it was closed, and no signs of her exit remained after well over a year. The metal wall of the outer structure was unyielding, too tall and slick to climb, too thick to cut through with any available tools. So Inva did the only thing she could do. She walked up and knocked heavily on the closed door, which immediately set off a number of blearing alarms and a forcefield around the closed entryway. Inva grinned and then stared up to where her studies suggested the surveillance camera was. She put on her best horrified face and stared up into it, waving her arms about wildly.
- "Heeeeeelp! I got locked out! Please help me, there's monsters out here!"
The young woman kept up this act until her arms got tired, and then slumped down, looking as horrified and resigned as she possibly could, sitting close to the shielded doorway. For a very long time she sat there, her throat hoarse from screaming in the dusty air. She was thirsty and hungry, but if she pulled out a bunch of rations in view of the camera her plan would be in danger, so she stayed calm. After a seeming eternity watching the unyielding golden surface of the door and seeing the shadows lengthening around her, suddenly there was a faint noise. She forcefield flickered and vanished, and then the door slid open with a hiss.
- "Are you alright, miss? Is there anything out there?" came a worried-sounding voice from within, just before a colony guard stepped out, stun-baton held in a firm grip.
- "I... I'm fine. Can I please come back inside? I just walked up to the door and it opened, and it's dark and cold out here." Inva responded, sounding as pleading and scared as she could.
The guard waved at her, and she scrambled to her feet and rushed into the cone of light around the door, past him and into the maintenance corridor beyond. A long, narrow stairway led up into the underbelly of the colony itself. As Inva brushed herself off, the guard sealed the door again and deactivated the remaining alarms. He gave a brief report into his intercom while Inva turned to climb the ladder.
- "Hey. Wait"
- "If you just wandered outside, why are you carrying that big bag...?" the guard asked, sounding very confused.
Inva sighed. She spun around and socked the guard in the weak part of his synthetic weave armor, making him gasp and bend over. She then kneed him in the jaw and finally knocked him out with a strategic punch to his exposed face.
- "I really hoped you would be less attentive." Inva muttered as she propped the guard as comfortably as she could against the wall of the maintenance station.
Since the guard had reported everything as being fine, it would be some time before he would be missed, she reasoned, but there was still no time to lose. She quickly scaled the ladder, brushing off as much of the dirt and dust of her travel as she could from her rugged clothing. She quietly rehearsed her plan in her head while running through the deep corridors of the colony, but by the time she exited into the city itself she began focusing totally on the job at hand instead. She had discussed this part many times with Iro during their planning of the escape, but it bore repeating. Stashing her gear somewhere to retrieve it later in order to change into a more Colony-like outfit was too risky, both because the bag might be discovered while she was gone and also because she was less protected without her accumulated tools. The ancient stealth field generator Iro had had her retrieve from the Bunker's armory was on the fritz half the time, meaning it could just give out in the middle of her trek.
That left trying to sneak through the shadows or simply just walking through the streets as if you belonged there. Inva had decided on the latter. She simply adopted a casual gait and smiling expression, skipping through the evening streets of the colony. Sure, a few heads turned as she went past, but none seemed to be that interested in her that they bothered to think about her for more than a few moments. Slipping into an automated shuttle, she peered through the windows as it darted through the city like a silver bullet. The other passengers barely looked at her after their original dismay at her shabby clothing wore off. The apathy and lack of curiosity of her own people was both sickening and a relief. Soon Inva stepped off the shuttle in a familiar neighborhood. Digging through her pack she produced a small package, and then quietly entered the passcode into a familiar living block.
The house had been her whole world, once. The fortress protecting her against the unknown at first, and then slowly the prison keeping her trapped as she grew older. Now she knew she might never come back here, and that made her oddly sentimental, so much so that she had taken time out of her plan to do this. She dashed up to the front gate and put the package there, then pushed the doorbell. Before the sound of delicate silver bells had died down, Inva was gone again, vanished back out through the front gate into the shadows. She wondered if her parents would understand the holopad explaining why she had changed, why she -had- to leave... She didn't think so, but still it felt right that they should know. For the first time since she was a little girl there was a tear in her eyes as she ran, leaving the house behind in the growing shadows and pale light of the colony street-illumination.
She had a few hours to go before the arrival of the supply shuttle, and she intended to make the most of them. At this time in the early evening most of her people would be engaged in poetry evenings, gentle concerts in the perfectly regulated breeze or opulent dinners. They would be watching plays performed either live or on the holonet or playing games. Few paid attention to a single young woman making her way through the city into a restricted area near the central spires. Iro had shown her extensive holomaps of the landing platforms where supply ships landed covered in cloaks, near the central monitoring tower of the city guard and the Colony administrative buildings. She knew exactly which platform was due for use on this day, and she knew the unloading of goods would be almost done by now.
The landing area was one of the few areas of the colony that had anything resembling internal security. Stoic but bored guardsmen stood in key spots, wielding their ubiquitous stun-sticks, but Inva was quick and silent and dashed past them when their backs were turned, or distracted them by tossing a rock into a distant corner. Only once she had to disarm a guard because he was too dedicated to his mostly honorary position to be distracted. She did so as painlessly as possible, faking being lost to get close before dropping him. Iro would chide her for not using her blaster and instead risking personal injury, but Inva was not ready to be a kinslayer yet, especially not against someone who bore her no ill will. She ascended into the main tower housing the city guard, containing their broadcasting and surveillance stations, but instead of using the elevator to go up into the tall structure to where it connected to the massive building housing the concealed landing platforms, Inva instead descended into the lower levels.
Checking her watch, Inva knew that time was growing short. She needed to be on that landing platform well before the supply craft took off, but she also had to see the second stage of her plan through. Activating her hacking key, another ancient device she had salvaged and repaired under Iro's guidance, she checked the holo-pad attached to it again, and then headed straight for the main data hub in the cellar of the guard building. It was a much more harrowing journey than infiltrating the main security zone because Inva felt increasingly trapped by the narrow corridors and rooms, but she once again got past most of the occupied ones by faking it like she belonged there. The advantage of infiltrating her own home city was that nobody here expected intruders from anywhere, so as long as she walked casually and smiled and waved she didn't attract much attention. Firing up the hacking key again she sliced it into the code-lock on the door she was heading for, and soon she was standing in the middle of a massive computer nerve center.
The air down here was very cool compared to the carefully modulated warm breezes on the surfaces, and Inva shivered as her blue skin rippled. She checked the schematic quickly before finding the correct datajack and quickly ripping out the component stuck there. Attaching her own datapad to the hacking key she pushed it into the card slot as carefully as she could, and then reattached the wires according to the schematic. She waited breathlessly in the cool air for what felt like an eternity before the hacking key blinked to life, rows of numbers and letters flashing past as it sliced into the colony mainframe, heading straight for the public broadcasting system. As much as she wanted to stay and make sure it got done, Inva knew she couldn't. Her trip had taken longer than she had hoped, and now she had to hurry if she was going to make it to the platform.
She threw caution to the wind and dashed out of the room, slamming the door behind her before running as quietly as she could through the bowels of the communications center. She regretted having to leave the hacking key there, since it would have made her continued progress a lot easier, but she had no choice. She had made a choice between this final gift for her people and her own continued safety, and decided that even if she missed the shuttle or got caught, that risk was worth it. As she entered the elevator again she heard a cry from the corridor behind her and turned to see a security guard run towards her. She stepped into the elevator and quickly punched the button, smiling and waving to the guard as she was rocketed upwards into the building. Unfortunately the speed of the elevator could evidently not match the speed at which someone could sound the alarm, because when the doors slid open as Inva reached the floor she wanted there were two security guards standing right outside waiting for her.
- "I'm not sure what your game is, citizen, but we will need to escort you from these premises" said the older guard politely, but slightly tersely.
- "Oh, I'm sorry. Please do. I'm so lost..." Inva said.
She knew they wouldn't believe her bluff at this point, but it only existed to make them less on edge. She stepped out of the elevator smiling and holding her hands up, palms open. The two guards nodded to each other and one fastened his shock-stick in its holster to walk behind Inva and restrain her. As he did, Inva spun around faster than he could react and grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip. As his colleague raised his shock-stick to strike, Inva dipped down and flipped the guard over, straight into the path of the descending weapon. There was a discharge of energy and Inva felt a slight charge jump through her body as the guard she was holding screamed and went limp. With a grunt she dug her heels in and pushed his insensate body straight into his comrade, pushing them both into the wall with a crash. The pinned guard screamed and tried to reach his intercom, but before he a strong blow to his jaw laid him low. Inva let the two guards slump the floor which made it look like they had simply fallen asleep on top of each other. Allowing herself a quick smile she turned and rushed through the corridor, all thoughts of stealth abandoned.
At several points she was sure that she would be intercepted by a larger patrol, but by some miracle she made through the sky bridge connecting the two buildings undiscovered, and quickly made her way to the landing platform. She cast a quick glance to the square far below and saw guards swarm around the entrances, likely trying to secure them to catch her in their net when she tried to escape. Of course none of them believed that she would run -up- instead of down. Using her blaster to melt through a final security door, Inva slowed down again. The corridors here were much sturdier and workmanlike than the constant embellishment and polished surfaces of the colony in general. She snuck through whatever shadows that existed as well as she could until she knew she had to get close, the map still imprinted in her mind's eye after hours of study.
Inva felt the warm breeze of the open air waft against her face and as she snuck down the corridor she saw the doorway ahead. To her relief it was still open. The guard station was, as she had hoped, abandoned, the guards likely somewhere far below in the building trying to secure the exits. Inva darted her head around the corner and gasped. Despite seeing the ship on schematics and holos a hundred times, seeing the real thing perched on the large, open air landing platform, high above the glimmering lights of the colony was... breathtaking. The large rear hatch was still open, and the cargo hold illuminated and empty. The ship was not that large, but spaceworthy, and an actual starship was something Inva had never expected to see. She darted out onto the landing platform, happy that the heavy blast doors protecting against the exhausts from ship takeoffs were still open. She hid behind some crates as a loudspeaker began an announcement, but to her relief it did not indicate that she had been found or that the launch had been delayed.
She straightened out and left her makeshift hiding place, hoisting her backpack. Her pet Miner lizard peeked out, its many eyes reflecting the light of the platform and the shuttle. It fluted gently, and Inva reached over to pet its head. She walked purposefully towards the ship now. There was no need trying to sneak anymore. She would either get on board or she would not, there was no more time for stealth or tricks. She had considered waiting for one of the annual ships that took young people from the colony to other worlds in Azalfi space and trying to mix herself into that group, but Iro had reminded her that each chosen colonist was carefully picked based on genetics and predisposition, and Inva would not be good enough to fool the battery of scans each colonist was subjected to before admitted. So it had come down to this, waiting for a simple supply ship to drop off a few select luxuries, and then hitch a ride. A plan so easy and so brash it almost had to work.
- "And that's all of it. Have a nice flight, Aorna, an- Inva? What ... what are you doing here?"
She froze at the voice and realized she'd let her mind drift off on the final few meters towards the ramp leading into the shuttle. Two Azalfi, an older man and a younger woman wearing a uniform Inva had only seen on holo-pictures had emerged from the ship and walked down the ramp, and Inva had stepped into the light just as they did. And what was even worse than standing there right in the open, her face clearly visible in the light emerging from the ship's hold, was that the older Azalfi was someone she knew.
- "Uncle Enari. You knew? You worked with this all along, and you never once thought about telling me?" Inva felt the words tumbling out before she could think.
- "Knew? What do... Oh. You know, then?" the older man said, his face sinking.
Inva looked at him and felt a pang at the betrayal. The kindly brother of her mother, the man who had told her stories when she was little and answered as many of her curious questions as he had dared... had known. He'd known all along about the fact that there were other worlds where their people lived, that there were ships coming and going from the colony in secret, that they weren't alone... that they didn't have to be alone.
- "I know." she snapped
- "Then you also know that I cannot allow you on this shuttle, Ina"
She felt a chill down her spine at the nickname. She didn't want to hear it again.
- "You knew all along, while I was tearing myself apart trying to find out the truth of our race. You knew about the supplies, the quiet exchange of people... You could have just -told- me instead of watching me despair while you just smiled and assured me I was being silly."
- "Calm down, please. I only said what I said to protect you. And everyone else. Your mother does not know, nor does your father. I didn't even know until I was picked to serve the administration, many many years ago. This is how it is for a reason, Ina. You have to accept that."
As Enari spoke, Inva noticed that the pilot was moving around behind him. Inva didn't know what she was planning, but whatever distraction they were plotting was making her lose her temper. She drew her blaster from its holster faster than the surprised pilot could even unclip her shock-stick. Enari's face went pale and Inva's pet lizard darted under her hood with a musical hiss.
- "Ina, what are you... that's a forbidden weapon inside the city! You can't j-"
- "Uncle, shut -up-" Inva snapped. "You, pilot. Step away from him and drop that weapon. Kick it across the platform.."
The woman in the pilot uniform did as she was instructed.
- "I'm going on that ship, uncle."
- "You can't be serious. You won't make it more than a few systems before they catch you. What could you possibly hope to gain?"
- "My freedom. Freedom from your system of lies and fantasy. Freedom to see for myself and decide based on that."
Inva held the blaster aimed squarely at Enari, who stood still as if he had been petrified.
- "You'll die." Enari said plainly, dropping all pretense.
- "Maybe." Inva responded equally plainly.
- "So you're going to shoot me to make your escape? We really don't do any of this to hurt or threaten you, you know. We do it to make sure future generations are safe, and that the Empire will survive whatever hardships it may encounter. Do you really think we're doing it out of spite?"
Inva approached Enari, the blaster still aimed straight at the older man. The lines of his face looked much heavier in the sporadic light of the platform and for a brief moment his hawkish nose reminded Inva or Irodael. She absentmindedly noted the comm of the pilot buzzing out a query on whether she was ready to take off or not, probably emanating from the flight control tower above them.
- "Tell them yes" Inva instructed. "And for the record, uncle? I believe you. But that doesn't mean I share your belief."
- "Then do what you have to do, child." Enari said, lowering his arms. "I will not try to stop you, but I will also not move out of your way."
- "I know that, uncle." Inva said.
The blaster whipped around so quickly Enari didn't have time to react before he slumped over unconscious. Inva quickly checked him while training the gun on the pilot who had just finished talking with the flight command. Enari's pulse was steady and he had no lasting injuries. He'd wake up with a pounding headache at most. Inva stood up and directed the pilot closer, and the woman quickly pulled Enari back over the platform to just behind the blast doors. With a final nod to the old man slumped against the corridor wall, Inva egged the pilot back to the ship.
Moments later, with the sound of blaring sirens behind them, the small supply ship rose into the night sky, and not a person in the colony could do anything to stop it.
Inva stretched out where she sat on top of an old crate inside the small freighter ship as it jaunted through hyperspace. The pilot, Aorna, was a much less difficult captive than Inva had prepared for, and if everything went well within a few days Inva would leave the ship on a bustling nearby spaceport, and from there seek passage elsewhere. Aorna seemed somewhat understanding of Inva's burning desire for freedom, and after the initial few uncomfortable hours they had at least reached a truce. Inva still didn't let her guard down with the pilot, knowing full well that at any time the other woman could try to covertly signal a pursuit ship or try to overpower her, but for now it seemed they had an agreement.
Inva completed the complex wiring to the heavy metallic object she was working on. With a careful push the connected the last cable rerouting a small amount of the ship's energy into the device. And if she had done the procedure correctly...
- "...oing? I was stationed here for a... Ah... ah. Oh."
The ghostly hologram of Irodael flickered to life in the small room, his narrow eyes quickly surveying his new surroundings.
- "...where are we?" he said in a tone which indicated that whatever the answer was he wouldn't like it.
- "We're going on an adventure, Iro!" Inva said with a smile.
- "Oh. Marvelous." Iro said with a deep sigh.
Inva's Miner lizard fluted happily.
The small caravan of people finally scaled the path out of the dark, foreboding forest up onto the hill crested by the immense dilapidated statue. The crowd wasn't large, but they were dedicated. Ever since the image of the young woman had appeared on all public broadcast screens in the colony, replaying her message over and over until the guard finally located her hacked-in transmitter and disabled it, the rumors and talks had spread like a fever among the colonists. Not many had believed in it, and fewer still had been willing to risk finding out for themselves, but in a city that size that still meant a decent amount of people had been touched by the recorded speech. They now climbed up the hillside along the shattered causeway and followed the path into the ancient bunker as the message had instructed.
There were old Azalfi there supported by their younger peers, there were starry-eyed youngsters who had barely ever left sight of their parents, there were workers, guards and entertainers... Together, still unsure if they had been fooled and would only find dust and emptiness at the end of their long journey, the group made their way to the computer room, which showed clear signs of someone having lived there fairly recently. As one of them curiously walked up to a console that was blinking clearly and strongly, there was an electronic buzz in the air and suddenly the holographic representation of a young woman was standing in the middle of the room. A hushed whisper spread through the group as they all recognized the woman from the illegal transmission.
- "I don't know who you are. I don't know your name, or names, or if you are even Azalfi... or Bluspalven as you might know our people. Sadly, unlike the one who taught me, I am merely a recording and cannot interact with you. I cannot answer your specific questions. I cannot reassure you, or learn about what drove you here."
The group gathered around in hushed fascination.
- "But what I can do, is respect your intelligence and judgment by telling you the truth about our people. I am Inva Ralaedra, and this is our story."
The crowd began trying to find seats in the room, quickly hushing and scrambling as the woman in the recording cleared her throat.
- "The great First Age of the Azalfi began upon the achievement of intra-galactic space flight, some ten thousand standard years ago. Previous to this we had conquered our own solar system and made our glorious home world Azal Prime into a virtual paradise. But this was not enough."
Later, she's forced to evade members of her race who are part of the Galactic Peace Keeper unit in her region of space.
Randor is genuinely a good person. Mirda is a sort of dark mirror of Inva. Fierce and determined, but prideful, always angry, and quick to violence. Hallick speaks little and enjoys combat perhaps too much. Raelys is a quick thinker and incredibly devious, but ultimately kind and very considerate of others. Allindir is completely fearless and is never unnerved, without any sense of shock or disbelief at the cruelty of others.
They're a sort of people that simply don't fit in with what the Azalfi government was looking for in colonists. They're all from the restricted regions, and had to be removed for the smooth operation of their policies.
The chest plate Inva wears was taken from one of them. She's fully aware of them and has a respect for their abilities, but thinks Randor is an idealistic fool. She's managed to escape at least once before simply because Randor was going easy on her while trying to recruit her.
- Raelys: Sir, Pod 6 has issued a contaminant breach warning and the computer is running a countdown to jettison it.
- Randor: Put a hold on it and prep hazard suits. I want to check this out.
- Raelys: Uh... Sorry, sir, it seems like an auxiliary program issued permission to jettison it. It was already launched 17 minutes ago, but the alert was delayed and then buried in a dozen other alerts.
- Randor: ...
- Randor: I think I already know this, but tell me what was in Pod 6.
- Raelys: ...
- Raelys: Inva, sir.
- Randor: (sigh)
- Randor: Well, she wouldn't be our hunter if she gave up that easily.
- Mirda: Sir, I'd like to point out that Inva is not our hunter.
- Randor: (laughs)
- Randor: Looks like the two of you finally have something in common, Mirda.
- Mirda: Sir?
- Randor: You're the only ones that believe that.
Inva would later make her way out of Azalfi space and hear of a human colony world.
- >Australia-2, a class 2 death world discovered by a human ship
- >The only known settlement is a human colony that thrives despite the harsh conditions
- >The inhabitants are commonly referred to as "insane" by the intergalactic community
- "This 'Australia' you mention. I must go there."
Inva's adventures are continued in The Pineapple Cake's Ship Logs