Prologue – A Beginning From Present Experiences

“Holy shit, dude, hurry it up already!”

“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying.”

“C’mon! Everyone else has left, already.” A tall, lanky boy with short, dirty blond hair and a light complexion glared at the empty locker room around him before returning his attention to his compatriot: a lethargic tan-skinned boy with long brown hair. “Like, damn, Conrad! How the hell did you make it on the team when you’re so slow?”

“Not everyone can be a speed demon, Pierce,” the slower boy responded flatly. He continued moving at a leisurely pace as he pulled a t-shirt over his head and tied back his hair into a pony tail. “…And I’m only here in the first place ‘cause my parents forced me.”

“Yeah, but if not for that, you never would’ve met me!”

“I could’ve lived with that.”

“Ah, you don’t mean that.” Pierce threw his arm around Conrad’s shoulder and flashed a self-assured grin. “Your life would be hella boring without me, and you know it!”

“If you say so…”

“I do say so!” Pierce drew away and crossed his arms impatiently. “Now are you ready to go yet, or what?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Conrad replied airily as he stepped around the bench and toward the locker room’s exit. Pierce quickly fell into step beside his friend, his gait one of supreme confidence — a stark contrast to Conrad’s casual, laid-back posture.

“Ah, about fucking time!” Pierce exclaimed as the two stepped out of the locker room and into the twilight-flooded hallway. “Man, what a first day!”

Conrad smirked. “You really like runnin’, don’t you?”

“Well, naturally. It’s only natural to like what you’re good at doing.”

“I guess you are pretty good at it.”

“Of course I am! Did you see how the coach and the upperclassmen were all over me? I’m gonna be the star of the team in no time!”

“You know we’re in 9th grade, right?”

“Exactly!” Pierce grinned and pumped his fist. “It’s gonna be great!”

“Mm…” Conrad simply grunted in response.

The two boys fell into momentary silence as they walked down the short hallway of the athletics building. After rounding a corner, they found themselves standing outside, right on the curb of the school’s old parking lot.

“Alright!” Pierce began stretching. “How ‘bout a race home?”

Conrad glanced over at him blankly. “…How ‘bout ‘no’.”

“Aw, c’mon. Put just a little effort in, and you might even be able to keep up with the champ!”

“Little early to be calling yourself ‘champ’…” Conrad looked off to the side, and then snorted with amusement when something caught his eye. “Besides, it wasn’t like you had all the attention today.”

“Huh—? Oh.” Pierce’s expression rapidly soured as he caught sight of what held Conrad’s attention: just now, exiting the girls’ locker room were two girls — one short, with a dark complexion and short black hair; the other surprisingly tall, with pale skin and long white hair. They appeared to be absorbed in conversation with each other — or at least, the short girl seemed to be contentedly chattering away to the tall one, who simply responded with slight nods or shakes of her head.

Pierce snorted and snapped his attention away from the girls as they walked off. “Ha! Like I have to worry about the Monochrome Duo challenging me.”

“Wow, that’s rude. I’m pretty sure Kestrel has a skin condition, you know.”

“How the hell do you already know her name?”

“Figures that you don’t. Phoenix and Kestrel both were drawing just as much attention as you, you know. Well, mostly Phoenix, I guess.”

“Hmph.” Pierce crossed his arms impudently as he glared at the back of the shorter girl. “…Just because she can throw hella good doesn’t mean anything.”

“The coach sure seemed to disagree.”

“Yeah, well, when you’re talking about movies and shit, no one cares about anyone but the track star. And that’s gonna be me!”

“If you say so, dude.”

“Damn straight I do.” Pierce scowled. “I’ll show you. And her! And everyone! I’m gonna be the fucking best!”

Conrad smirked. “Sounds like someone’s got a crush.”

“Ha! As if!” Pierce snorted in derision. “I could never like someone like her. I can feel it in my bones already, she’s gonna be trouble. We could never be friends!”

“Yeah, she’s gonna be trouble. Sure.”

“Shut up.” Pierce then glanced around at their rapidly darkening surroundings. “Why the hell are we still standing here, anyways? Let’s go home already!”

“Yeah…” Conrad released a lofty sigh as Pierce took off running. “For once, you say something I agree with…”

Chapter 1 – Awakening

— Sunday, August 28, 2129 AD —

(Sundia, Beauth 19, 8054)

“Ah…”

A young man awoke slowly, unconsciously fluttering his eyelids as he transitioned into a state of wakefulness. He stretched his arms out and yawned broadly before throwing the covers off of his body, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, and pulling himself into a sitting position. The small room in which he slept was softly lit by the rising sun; the man moved over to the window and pushed it open, allowing a cool morning breeze to flow in.

I love a good morning, the man thought to himself, …though I hate having to keep track of three different date systems. I can’t wait to get back to Earth.

He remained standing in front of the window for another few moments, soaking in the sunrise, the cool air, and the massive planetary rings that dominated the northern sky. They spanned the sky like a massive white and yellow arch, extending all the way from the eastern horizon to the west as they guided the sun along its morning journey over the city. After a brief moment of admiring the distant arches, the young man turned around and threw open his bedroom door. What laid beyond was a modest apartment: a small hallway to the left led to the living area and the kitchen; across the hallway from him was a closed door; and to his right was the bathroom.

Figures she isn’t up yet, he thought to himself smugly as he eyed the closed door. Score one for Pierce. Ha!

With no particular care for keeping quiet, Pierce stepped into the bathroom and flipped on the lights. He took a brief moment to examine his appearance: tall and slim, with a runner’s build, topped off with light skin and tousled dirty blond hair. On his chin was a modest beard, which he poked at for a moment before grabbing a comb and tending to his hair. As his hair was short and straight, it didn’t take long for him to achieve his desired look, with his bangs swept to the sides and the rest of his hair combed back. He then tossed the comb aside and turned on the faucet to begin taking care of the rest of his morning hygiene.

Halfway through brushing his teeth, Pierce noticed the lights come on under the closed door in the hallway. However, he was able to both finish brushing his teeth and washing his face before the door eventually opened. Out stepped a short young woman with an athletic frame, ebony complexion, and long, black hair. She rubbed her eyes wearily before turning toward the bathroom and glaring up at Pierce.

“Ever consider being quiet in the morning?” she questioned irately.

“Just think of me as your morning alarm,” Pierce replied.

“Sunrise was literally half an hour ago.”

“And rising with the sun is healthy for you. I’d think you should know that, with a name like Phoenix.”

Phoenix simply rolled her eyes. “Right. You done with the bathroom yet?”

“Please. You took so long to get up, I could’ve moved half as fast and still been done by now.”

“Always a fucking race with you,” Phoenix grumbled as she pushed past Pierce into the bathroom and then shoved him out. “Now get out, it’s my turn.”

“How nice of you to ask,” Pierce responded dryly, but moved out of the way all the same. He then stepped back into his room to continue his morning preparations, but before closing the door behind him he leaned back into the hallway and glanced toward the bathroom. “Better watch that attitude though, I don’t want to fail our exam ‘cause you’re being bitchy!”

He quickly ducked as a brush came flying through the air and whizzed over his head. He then flashed a cheeky grin at Phoenix, who simply glared back until he finally retreated into his room, shutting the door behind him.

Once alone in his room again, Pierce quickly pulled off the undershirt and pajama pants he wore for sleeping. Now half-naked, he stepped up to his closet and began dressing himself for a new day. A deep blue v-neck short-sleeved shirt, covered by a black, unbuttoned casual button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, to emphasize his toned forearms; followed by a pair of nice fitted jeans, stored in such a way to minimize wrinkles in the fabric. He then tucked in the short-sleeve shirt and slotted a belt through the belt loops of his jeans, finalizing the day’s outfit. He paused for a moment to brush off his shoulders and adjust his clothing to work out any wrinkles before turning back toward the door to his room and opening it.

Phoenix barely offered even a glance his way as she brushed her hair, but Pierce still passed her a brief nod as he turned down the hallway into the living room. The morning had progressed far enough for the living area to be completely lit through natural light, so Pierce didn’t bother to turn on the artificial lighting as he stepped into the kitchen and began hunting for something to eat. Normally, he would be content with a simple bowl of cereal, but today was special — he needed something more substantial. So instead, he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the eggs and bacon in preparation for a more hearty breakfast — or at least, what he assumed was the closest equivalent to eggs and bacon. He wasn’t on Earth, after all, so the food was rather different than what he was used to. The items he now held in his hands certainly appeared to be similar to the eggs and bacon he was familiar with, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about them. Guess it could be worse, he thought idly as he began making breakfast, it’s alien food, so it could’ve been some kind of weird slop. Good thing aliens are weirdly similar to humans.

Several minutes passed in relative quiet as Pierce fried the bacon and cooked the eggs. Right as he was just about finished with preparing the meal, Phoenix appeared in the living room, now dressed for the day. Her hair was tied up in a high, loose ponytail that sort of splayed out behind her head; a long, thin braid extended down the right side of her head just in front of her ear; and she now wore a crimson short-sleeved crop top, a black jacket, and black capri pants.

“You make enough for two?” she questioned hopefully as she entered the kitchen.

“Course I did,” Pierce replied. “I’m not that heartless.”

“That’s news to me.” She then sniffed the air and glanced around. “…You didn’t make any coffee, though, did you?”

“Damn right I didn’t. If you want to drink that nasty shit, then brew it yourself.”

“Coffee is only nasty if you drink it black…”

“If you stuff a bunch of sugar and milk into it, then what’s even the point? Might as well drink hot chocolate.”

Phoenix simply shook her head as she began preparing herself a pot of coffee. “…We’re up pretty early now, though, aren’t we?” she eventually questioned, “how long do we have before Brikén expects us to show up?”

“About an hour, before we need to be at the spaceport,” Pierce replied as he moved the bacon and eggs off of the stove and began divvying them up onto two plates. “You know Brikén, she likes to start early.”

“Everyone on this damn planet likes to start early…” Phoenix grumbled.

“Maybe you’re just the one who starts late.”

“Mmm… at least wait until I’ve had my coffee before you start trying to push my buttons.”

Pierce smirked. “You make it too easy, you know.”

“Fuck you,” Phoenix retorted.

“Still, though.” Pierce dropped one of the plates on the counter in front of Phoenix and then began eating from his own. “Today is the culmination of the three months we’ve spent here, you know. You better be at the top of your game, I don’t want to be part of the reason this new program fails the first year it starts!”

“I should be the one telling you that,” Phoenix countered. “Getting you to actually pay attention to your surroundings was like pulling teeth the first month we were here. The Nimalians were nice enough to pay our way, you know, and we were incredibly lucky to be chosen by the ETAA for their new college outreach program. I mean, c’mon, we’re only in our early twenties and we already get to see one of the most advanced worlds in the Nimalian Union! Not even most of SERRCom can say they’ve had this privilege. So you had better not be treating all of this lightly.”

“Ah, now you’re being too serious. All this trip has shown me is that interstellar travel is a pain in the ass. You’re telling me we have to keep track of three different date systems, with one of them off of the others by, like, ten minutes? It’s a pain in the ass. I’d rather just stay on Earth.”

“Three?” Phoenix passed Pierce an incredulous glance before taking the now freshly-prepared pot of coffee and pouring herself a cup. She began adding a variety of sweeteners as she said, “I know you mean Earth’s, and Ainminthalus’s local time would be two… don’t tell me you’re also trying to track Nimalia’s date, as well?”

“It’s supposedly the official interstellar calendar of the Nimalian Union, so why wouldn’t I? We’ll need to know it for when we travel back to Earth, because that’s a whole thing.”

Phoenix opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a soft ringing sound. She and Pierce both snapped their attention to the front door.

“It’s unlocked,” Pierce shouted.

“Excuse me, then,” came a man’s voice through the door. It opened up, revealing a tan-skinned man with an average height and athletic frame. His black hair was short in front, but in the back he had a ponytail tied low. He wore a dark green jacket with black lining, as well as gray pants with dark green chaps — the official uniform of the Nimalian Systems Defense, the interstellar military of the Nimalian Union.

Pierce casually nodded toward the man as he stepped into the apartment. “Hey, Trenon.”

“You’re here early,” Phoenix remarked, a hint of annoyance in her tone.

“Ah, a little bit.” Trenon shrugged and closed the door behind him. “Figured early was better than late. You know how Brikén gets.”

Pierce snorted. “You know you don’t have to walk us to the spaceport, right? We aren’t fucking kids.”

“Sure, but you still need me to get through spaceport security.” Trenon casually leaned back on the door as he slotted his hands into his pockets. “Figured I’d meet up with you guys here, instead of wasting time waiting around at the port. See how you’re doing on your last day here.”

“Third to last,” Phoenix corrected, and took a sip of her coffee. “Are you that eager to be rid of us?”

“Nah, I wouldn’t say eager,” Trenon replied. “I am gonna miss you guys, you know. You’re the first Earthians I’ve ever met, after all!”

“Well now you make us sound like zoo animals.”

Trenon frowned. “That’s not what I meant…”

“Relax, I’m just teasing you,” Phoenix responded with a smirk.

“Shit, Trenon, you almost sound more tense than us,” Pierce remarked.

The NSD Officer sighed and shook his head. “The two of you are relentless.”

“The two of us? Ha!” Pierce snorted. “I know I am, but Phoenix?…”

“Not gonna take that bait,” she retorted, and took another sip of coffee. “…But seriously, Trenon. You’re literally superhumanly fast, why the hell do you care about being late?”

“Just because I’m a Velocitechnic doesn’t mean I can’t be late,” Trenon refuted. “…Though being able to run at supersonic speeds does help, I’ll admit. Still, though. Can’t be too careful.”

“You do know that you aren’t being tested today, right?” Pierce questioned, “Brikén’s exam is all us. You don’t even have to do anything.”

“Sure, but… I still want to make sure the two of you aren’t late. I don’t want to sound selfish here, but I was incredibly lucky to be assigned as a liaison on this Nimalia-Earth outreach program, you know? I just don’t want to screw up what little I’m responsible for.”

“You’ve done well enough so far,” Phoenix commented. “I’m honestly not sure what you have to stress out about.”

“Yeah, you seem like a pretty cool dude to me,” Pierce declared.

Trenon smiled. “Thanks, guys. The two of you seem pretty cool, too.”

“I know I am, but—”

“How much longer do we have?” Phoenix questioned, cutting off Pierce’s words. He passed her an annoyed glance, but she pretended not to notice.

“We still have some time,” Trenon answered. “Long enough for a short run before showing up at the spaceport, I’m sure.”

“Now that sounds like a great idea!” Pierce dumped his now-empty dishes in the kitchen sink and began stretching. “Phoenix, you up for that?”

“…I might as well,” she replied with a sigh. She promptly downed the rest of her cup of coffee before continuing, “I have been pretty bad about keeping up my routine these past few months. I really ought to get back into it…”

“This is exactly why you’ll never beat me in a race, you know.”

“I am not about to have this argument right now.”

“Heh, you two really never change, huh?” Trenon observed with a smirk. “You’re so competitive. Reminds me of my sister…”

“Dude, everything reminds you of your sister,” Pierce pointed out.

“Wha-what? That’s not—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Phoenix cut in, having already deposited her used dishes in the sink and slipped on her shoes. “Are we going for a run, or what?”

“Trying to get ahead of me, are you?” Pierce quickly tied on his own shoes before throwing open the door to outside. “Can’t have that!”

“Seriously…” Phoenix muttered as she exited the apartment after Pierce and Trenon. “Sometimes, I really wonder why I’m still friends with you…”

Chapter 2 – Tests Abroad

3 Hours Later

“What? This is our exam?!”

“You’ve been working on this stuff for three months! What the hell were you expecting?”

“More than repairing a fucking generator! I’m not studying to become a damn mechanic, I’m here to be a mechanical engineer! Emphasis on the ‘engineering’ part!”

“You’ve got to be kidding…” A woman with red hair sighed irately before spinning her chair around to face the dashboard in front of her. “Alright, alright, give me a moment to work something out…”

Pierce nodded in approval as he sat back in his chair. His intended major back on Earth was in mechanical engineering; he was far more interested in design than he was in the physical nitty-gritty of spacecraft operation, and to suggest otherwise would have been a blow to his pride. Any low-life with a wrench could become a mechanic, after all, but engineering required years of learning and a signed degree. There was no question as to which was more prestigious — or so Pierce thought.

As the woman continued working in silence, Pierce took a moment to idly check out his surroundings. He was currently sitting in one of four seats in a small cockpit, barely tall enough for Pierce to stand up straight in. The seats were arranged in two rows of two, with the front two situated right in front of a large dashboard panel and the back two folding out of the side bulkheads, as though they were only intended for temporary seating. Pierce himself was seated in the back left; to his right sat Phoenix, who held her arms crossed in impatience, and in front of Pierce sat Trenon — or, more properly, Trenon Rakos, a Lieutenant Green in the Nimalian Systems Defense, the official interstellar military of the Nimalian Union. Pierce and Phoenix were mere 21- and 20-year-olds who hailed from Earth, so when they traveled to the Nimalian Union for their summer program, the Nimalians saw fit to assign them a liaison to help them adjust. In that role, Trenon had served well.

To Trenon’s right was the red-headed woman whom Pierce and Phoenix were actually studying under: Brikén Krosin, an interstellar courier who owned her own small spacecraft. She didn’t take kindly to Pierce calling her a “space trucker” when they first met, but her muscular physique and rugged manner of dress reflected what Pierce imagined a space trucker would look like anyways. She wore thick boots, into which she tucked a pair of thick, denim-like gray pants; on top of that she wore two shirts, with the undershirt appearing to be made out of a coarse black material that extended just beyond her crotch like a mini-apron. Due to the shirt’s dark color, Pierce couldn’t see any stains on it, but he had seen Brikén use it like a rag while working on the internals of her spacecraft, so he was certain it had to be covered in oil stains and shock absorber fluid. Her crimson overshirt was comparatively clean, and was further covered by a longcoat of sorts that covered most of Brikén’s right leg, but left the other exposed. The sleeves of the coat were rolled up past her elbows, and her long red hair was tied back into a ponytail, further contributing to her rugged look.

Despite her rough appearance, Brikén had proved to be rather knowledgeable regarding the operation of all sorts of spacecraft, and had picked up a fair amount of wisdom as well. While her primary interactions with Pierce and Phoenix over the previous three months had been in teaching them about spacecraft operation, they had also grown friendly with each other and would often talk of subjects completely unrelated to spacecraft. Even Trenon would join in on their banter and off-the-clock bar visits, leading the four of them to grow comfortably familiar. With that said, Pierce and Phoenix would occasionally butt heads with Brikén over what she was teaching them — the two Earthians were pursuing science-oriented degrees, mechanical engineering for Pierce and physics for Phoenix, while the vast majority of Brikén’s knowledge was hands-on. She often complained that they were pushing the limits of what she could teach, though she nevertheless rose to the occasion each time.

Pierce passed her another glance, but Brikén still seemed absorbed in working out new material, so he contented himself with further investigating the craft in which he sat. Behind him, in the back of the cockpit, was a small door that led to the rest of the craft; the surrounding bulkheads appeared to be an unpainted dull gray, and almost completely featureless. Attached to the ceiling of the cockpit were several metal handles, no doubt intended to be used as hand-holds by anyone standing in the small space. Within the cockpit itself, the most visually interesting object was the dashboard, which contained dozens of switches and buttons, and also projected a holographic HUD onto the cockpit window — which itself led straight out into space.

Three months of spacecraft-related training — most of which had been in actual space — had somewhat numbed Pierce to the dangerous beauty of the dark abyss well beyond the surface of planets. The idle time he was now experiencing, however, gave him the chance to properly observe the vista in front of him. Out the cockpit window of Brikén’s spacecraft was the surface of a planet, covered in blue and green and swathed in wispy white, not too unlike Earth. In a significant departure from Earth’s appearance, however, the planet below possessed a magnificent set of rings, with a width nearly a quarter of the planet’s diameter. The visible rings were split into three distinct sections, with the innermost being a dense, thin band just outside the atmosphere, and the outermost being a sparse field that dominated almost half of the rings’ total width. Pierce couldn’t help but stop to admire them for a second; Earth-like Terra planets, with abundant liquid water and life, seemed plentiful enough throughout the galaxy — but Terra planets with rings were a rarity.

The particular planet which Pierce was currently staring at was Ainminthalus, a Tier 2 world belonging to the Nimalian Union. As a Tier 2 world, Ainminthalus only possessed a population of around 1.5 billion, with most of that number concentrated on a massive continent in the southern hemisphere. Vast swaths of Ainminthalus’s surface were reserved for preservation and scientific efforts, thereby confining development to the one currently inhabited continent. Pierce expected this to lead to a greater urban density than he was used to, but between the use of several habitat space stations and general Nimalian urban design, much of Ainminthalus’s inhabited space felt far less dense than even Pierce’s home near San Fransciso on Earth.

“Alright… I think I’ve got something.”

Pierce brought his thoughts back to his immediate surroundings as he turned to look at Brikén, who had finally turned away from the dashboard to address Pierce and Phoenix.

“Is it a good challenge?” Phoenix questioned.

“I’m not convinced anything I’ve taught you folks has been a ‘challenge’ for you,” Brikén retorted with an amused smirk on her face, “but I’ll try.”

“Damn straight,” Pierce replied. “This spacecraft shit has been way easier to grasp than I expected.”

“Alright, hotshot, don’t take it too far,” Brikén countered. “Today is exam day. I could just fail you both, you know.”

“Don’t fail me because of his attitude,” Phoenix responded with irritation. “I’m not about to go down with him.”

“And I won’t go down with you,” Pierce declared before turning back to Brikén. “C’mon! Give us what you’ve got!”

“Competitive as ever, right to the end,” Trenon remarked with an amused smile.

“Competition my ass, this—”

“Alright, alright, cut it out,” Brikén interrupted and snapped her fingers multiple times to draw everyone’s attention back to her. “Behave yourselves, or I really will fail you, got it?”

Pierce and Phoenix exchanged annoyed glances, but then they turned toward Brikén and nodded.

“Alright. Great.” Brikén momentarily turned around to input some commands into the dashboard, prompting the holographic HUD to minimize the various information displays and replace them with a view of Ainminthalus’s solar system, which contained three rocky planets — of which Ainminthalus was the outermost — and two gas giants. “What I’ve got here, as you can see, is a map of our current solar system. Phoenix, you’re the physicist, right? And physics is about gravity and shit, right?”

Phoenix stared at Brikén incredulously. “I mean… there’s a lot more to physics than just gravity.”

“But gravity is part of it?”

“Uh, well… yeah. The part that I’m studying, at least.”

“Good enough. Your test is to plot a course from Ainminthalus Prime — which is the Terra planet, here,” Brikén pointed at the third rocky planet in the display, “to the second moon of Ainminthalus IV, here.” She then pointed to the first gas giant, and its ten moons. “And then get back to Ainminthalus Prime.”

“You want me to… plot a course?” Phoenix frowned. “Can’t the computer do that?”

“Yes, but I want you to do it without the computer.”

“Do you have any idea how much work that would require?!”

“I don’t need an exact course, just give me an approximate. And before you say that this is pointless, this is actually a useful skill. Computers plot optimal courses, but they only have access to mapping data from the Relaynet. Sometimes you’ll know something that the computer doesn’t, and it’s easier to wing it than it is to update the system.”

“That doesn’t sound quite right…”

“Who’s the experienced spacecraft pilot, here? The two of you are the ones who wanted a more challenging exam, anyways.”

Phoenix sighed warily. “Fine…”

“Good. You and Trenon swap spots, so that you’re closer to the display.” Brikén then turned to Pierce as the other two cockpit inhabitants swapped seats and Phoenix began investigating the solar system display. “Now for you, Mr. Mechanical Engineer, I want you to name the most important systems of a spacecraft, and give me a general overview of how they work.”

“What?!” Pierce scowled. “Isn’t this just more mechanic bullshit?”

“‘Mechanic bullshit’ my ass. Telling you to fix the damn fuel injector would be a mechanic job. Hell, even fixing the reactor regulator would be a ‘mechanic’ job, as advanced as that is.” She paused for a moment to stare pointedly at Pierce, who pretended not to notice by suddenly distracting himself with the holographic HUD. “Anyways,” she continued, “if you’re going to be designing spacecraft, then you need to know the key systems and how they work. I would think that that’s obvious stuff, but I suppose I’m not the one going after a degree here, so what do I know?”

“Okay, okay, I get it. Damn.” Pierce shook his head in annoyance. “Just describe the key systems, right?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Hmph. Well, obviously, there’s the propulsion systems. On your dinky little civilian craft—”

“My respectably sized courier craft.”

“…My point being that you only have rocket engines — for atmosphere escape and maneuvering — and Ion Drives, for in-space propulsion. If you actually had a military ship, then you’d also have Fusion Torch Drives.”

“Wow, I don’t remember teaching you that part. I see you’ve been reading up on the Relaynet,” Brikén drawled. “I don’t care what NSD ships use — no offense, Trenon.”

“None taken. I’m not a naval officer, anyways,” Trenon replied.

“Anyways, just stick to the specs of my ship, and similar civilian craft,” Brikén insisted as she turned back to Pierce. “We’ll be here all damn day if you try to list off all the systems of a military ship.”

“Damn, I was hoping for extra credit,” Pierce snarked.

“Just get a move on, already. What other systems are there here?”

“Hmph. …There’s the anti-gravity systems, which let us actually walk around on the craft while in space. You also use them in tandem with the rocket engines for atmospheric escape, and for planetfall. As for how they work, I hear it’s just Chaos Energy bullshit.”

“Bullshit that you’ll have to work with as an engineer. Now how about the FTL system?”

“The Chaos Drive? That’s, like, the epitome of Chaos Energy bullshit. Do you really want me to tell you how it works?!”

“Just tell me what you know.”

“…It’s some bullshit about shoving the spacecraft into the ‘shadow’ cast by Chaos Energy, where it moves at a constant speed of 21 light years per hour. And since Chaos Drives rely on Chaos Energy, they don’t work in space where there isn’t any, like Dead Space.”

“Wow, a full answer with no snark. You’re doing better!”

Pierce made a face at her, but otherwise didn’t snap back.

“Alright, let’s go for three more. The power system, and the two systems that keep us alive. What do you know?”

“Your craft’s powered by a fusion reactor. A small one, since your craft’s so damn small, but it’s fucking fusion anyways. Seriously, fusion? Talk about overkill.”

“Don’t complain to me about Earth’s lack of technological advancement. Besides, between propulsion and one more system you haven’t named, the fusion reactor is necessary. What’s the system I’m talking about?”

“The Energy Shielding, obviously. Which is a whole complicated piece of shit.”

“A ‘piece of shit’ that you’re going to explain to me.”

“Seriously?”

“Hey, if you want to fail, that’s fine by me. I would’ve thought that you’d revel in this opportunity to boast about your knowledge, anyways.”

“Yeah, but you turned it into a lame trivia quiz.” Pierce sighed impatiently. “But, whatever. The shields are supposed to protect the craft from, well, fucking everything. Harmful radiation, space debris, fucking nuclear weapons—”

“In what world is a civilian craft going to be hit by a nuclear weapon?”

“The tonnage rating on your shields could take a hit from one, that’s for sure, which is pretty fucking crazy for a civilian craft.”

“Those must be some small nukes. But you still haven’t explained the actual shield systems.”

“And stop complaining so damn much,” Phoenix piped in. “I’m doing actual work here, and you don’t see me whining my ass off.”

“Yeah, because you’re doing something actually interesting,” Pierce countered. “You hear this shit I have to sit through?”

“Alright, alright, cut the chatter,” Brikén cut in. “Pierce, this is getting ridiculous. If I promise to buy you a beer tonight, will you please stop complaining?”

Pierce clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, a smugly amused expression on his face. “Well, when you put it that way, I suppose I can hold my tongue.”

“You really are a piece of work,” Brikén muttered. “Now, about the shields?”

“Well, the shield ‘generators’, as they’re called, are actually made up of two separate pieces of tech: the projector, and the capacitor. The projector is the part that actually, you know, projects the energy shield in space. Easy name. And the capacitor stores the power that the projectors actually draw from. Any time the shields absorb a hit, they use up energy that was stored in the capacitor relative to the magnitude of the impact, and then the capacitor starts recharging using power from the craft’s reactor. And if the capacitor runs out of charge, then the shields go down, which is why shield strength is often reported with percentages — you’re actually just saying how much power the capacitors have left.”

“Alright, good. And what are the two metrics that we use to grade shield capacitors?”

“Threshold force and recharge rate. The threshold force is the total amount of force you need to drain the capacitor from full charge, without any recharging, so a capacitor that’s rated at 1 kiloton would need to be hit with that much energy to overload its shields. And the recharge rate is, you know, how fast the damn capacitor actually recharges. So, like, if a 10-kiloton shield has a recharge rate of 10 percent per hour, then if it takes a 9-kiloton hit and then recharges for 9 hours, it would be back to full charge and could take another 9-kiloton hit with no problem.”

“Good, good. Then what, exactly, would a shield array be?”

“That would be when you use a system of multiple individual shield generators, spread out all over the ship, to provide better shield coverage and redundancy. It’s what lets you project shields that closely follow the contours of the spacecraft’s hull, to reduce the shield cross-section that might actually get hit.”

“Alright! Now, one last question — if you get this right, I won’t even make you explain the life support system.”

“How generous of you.”

“It really is. Now, what are shock absorbers?”

“They prevent blows to the shields from ripping the shield generators out of their anchors. ‘Cause, you know, shield generators always project their shield a set distance away from the generator. So if a force pushes on the shield, then it’s also, effectively, pushing on the generator. The shields can absorb and cancel out most of that force, but to absorb the rest, the generators are surrounded by shock absorber tech to let the generator move a little without ripping it out of its housing or moving the whole ship with it. Nimalian shock absorbers use some kind of compressible fluid… well, yours does, at least. The absorbers aren’t always able to absorb all the force, though, which means that hella big shield impacts can cause the whole ship to jostle.”

“Hmm, alright, alright…” Brikén nodded along, and then began moving her hands as though she were taking notes in thin air. Pierce knew that she — like most space-faring denizens of the galaxy — possessed ocular Augmented Reality implants, so she was definitely actually interacting with something, but from an outside perspective it looked rather silly. He then glanced over at Phoenix, who seemed to be absorbed in drawing paths on the holographic solar system; he wasn’t too knowledgeable regarding setting spacecraft courses, but it looked to him like she had figured out a reasonable path.

Brikén then looked up, drawing Pierce’s attention back to her. With a smirk on her face, she said, “well, you lost a lot of points for your back-talk in the beginning—”

“The hell does that have to do with passing the exam?” Pierce exclaimed.

“Success in life isn’t just about what you know. You’ve really got to work on keeping that tongue of yours in check.”

“Hmph…” Pierce scowled and glanced aside. “…Don’t tell me you fucking failed me.”

“Ha!” Brikén let out a brief, but loud guffaw. “I really considered it, let me tell you. But I ultimately decided otherwise.” She smiled again. “Congratulations, Pierce. You passed!” She held out her right hand in a fist; Pierce promptly responded by hitting the back of her fist with his own, in what he had learned to be a form of Nimalian handshake. “Now don’t make me regret it!”

“I guarantee you never will,” Pierce replied with a self-satisfied smirk. “But with that out of the way… spacecraft design, here I come!”

Chapter 3 – Effects of Chaos

That Evening

“To a successful mentorship!”

“To a successful mentorship!” Pierce, Phoenix, and Trenon heartily echoed as they clinked mugs with Brikén and each other. The four then took deep drinks from their mugs, though Phoenix was quick to set hers down before the rest.

“What’s the matter, Phoenix?” Brikén questioned, a taunting smirk playing across her face. “Nimalian beer too much for you?”

“I’d say any beer is too much for me,” Phoenix replied as she readily grabbed a piece of fried fish from the center of the table. “I prefer lighter stuff.”

“Like fish?” Trenon observed as she practically wolfed the item down.

“Nah, just coffee,” Pierce remarked. “Super sweetened crap coffee, at least.”

“Hey now,” Phoenix cut in just after swallowing another chunk of fish. “I am a girl, and everyone knows we’re made of ‘sugar and spice, and everything nice’. I’m just doing my part.”

“Oh, so that’s why you drink so much latte and mocha, huh? To make up for all of the ‘nice’ you’re missing?”

Phoenix momentarily stopped chewing to shoot Pierce an unamused glance, to which he responded with a smirk and a chuckle.

Pierce then took the opportunity to grab a chunk of fried fish for himself. As he happily chewed on the surprisingly well-prepared bar food, he took a quick look at his surroundings: the group of four currently sat at a table in the corner of a small bar, located within the city of Alus on the surface of Ainminthalus. Several hours had passed since his exam in space; shortly after Brikén gave him a passing score, she had turned to check Phoenix’s work. As part of that, she ended up jumping her small spacecraft all around the solar system with the ship’s FTL Drive — though Pierce suspected that she had just been using Phoenix’s exam as an excuse to check out the various planets. He wasn’t one to complain about an impromptu space tour, though, particularly after taking a look at the massive blue rings of Ainminthalus IV, the swirling green gases on the surface of Ainminthalus V, and the sprawling mining facilities built across the barren surface of Ainminthalus II. They then returned to Ainminthalus Prime, where Brikén officially passed Phoenix and then landed her spacecraft at Alus’s spaceport. That was when Trenon suggested visiting a local bar to celebrate, and Brikén had been quick to agree — so it wasn’t long before they had found a free table and Brikén ordered everyone a round.

“Sugar and spice, huh?” Trenon spoke up, drawing Pierce’s attention back to the present. “Is that an Earthian saying?”

“It’s hella old,” Pierce commented. “And super obsolete. And kinda sexist.”

“You sound real mad about it,” Phoenix replied cheekily.

“Ha!” Brikén grinned as she took another swig from her mug and slammed it down on the table. “Guess you Earthians really aren’t so different from us Nimalians, huh? We have all kinds of stupid sayings like that.”

“Even back home in Treséd, we have stuff like that,” Trenon remarked. “We tend to be a bit harsher than other people, though… like saying men are sand, and women are mirages, or something like that.”

“Alright, now that sounds actually hella sexist,” Phoenix countered.

“Wow, way to judge a whole damn culture on one paraphrased quote,” Pierce snarked.

“No, it’s pretty spot-on, unfortunately.” Trenon smiled sadly. “I’m proud to be from Treséd, but the culture back home is all kinds of messed up. Lots of rough edges and fighting.”

“Well that’s a first.” Brikén leaned back in her chair and slung her left arm over the chair’s back. “Someone actually proud to be from Treséd. I think you’re one of a kind, Trenon.”

“Ah, it’s not that bad. I mean… well, it kind of is that bad… but it’s, you know, it’s getting better.”

“Shit, dude, it sounds like you come from a shithole,” Pierce said.

“Pierce! Really?” Phoenix reprimanded.

“C’mon, he said it himself, you know? ‘Sides…” Pierce elbowed Trenon cheekily. “If it was really that bad, he wouldn’t talk about it so much.”

Trenon frowned. “I don’t talk about home that much…”

“Trenon, I feel like I know your sister better than the back of my own damn hand,” Brikén countered. “And I’ve never even met the girl!”

“What? I haven’t said that much.”

“Her name’s Liask, she’s 20 years old and currently attends Wrikax Chaos University in Treséd, just like you did,” Phoenix rattled out. “She’s a Forcetechnic, who you had to protect from gang attacks for years until she suddenly got her powers and saved you by carrying you on her back for… three days, was it?”

“Nah, it was four,” Pierce replied. “Also she wet the bed until she was 11 and apparently has a favorite stuffed animal that she named after you.”

“Yeah, telling us that stuff was a bit much…” Phoenix said.

“A-alright, alright, I get it,” Trenon laughed uneasily. “It’s just, for a long time, she was the only person I had in my life, and I was the only one she had. So we’re real close, because of that.”

“Trenon, we aren’t on your case because of how close you are with your sister,” Brikén responded incredulously, “we’re on your case because of how well we know that you’re close with your sister!”

“But the closeness part is also pretty weird,” Pierce added. “I have a younger sister, too, and we’ve never gotten along as well as you and your sister. Fuck, I wouldn’t even want to be that close to the little bitch.”

“I get that a lot, actually…” Trenon sighed. “But… like I said, Treséd is kind of a bad place. If you don’t grow up there, it’s hard to understand what that really means. I’m sure if you lost both your parents to a gang attack when you were 12, leaving you to take care of your 3-year-old sister all by yourself in the middle of a wasteland — I’m sure you’d get close to your sister, too.”

“…I was not prepared for you to get all real on me all of a sudden.”

“Sounds like the two of you are doing fine now, though,” Phoenix commented.

“Yeah? I think so, too,” Trenon replied, a faint smile on his face as he stared down into his half-empty mug. “We both made it into adulthood okay, and I even managed to join the NSD. It’s looking like Liask is going to get that same chance, too. All thanks to Dean Wrikax and his school.”

“Oh boy, now it’s the other person you like to talk so much about,” Brikén responded as she leaned back and rubbed her temples. “Trenon, if I didn’t know any better I’d’ve said that this Wrikax guy was your dad.”

“Oh, not even close! He doesn’t get very close to any of his students, really. But he’s done so much for Treséd and its people, and he’s done a lot to bring Nimalian attention to how bad it can be. He’s the reason I can say I’m proud to be from Treséd, because as bad as the place is, he’s shown that we can still make the most of it and turn what we have into something good. I’m not even joking when I say that his work is probably what saved the lives of me and my sister.”

“Dude, you might not be joking, but I’m pretty sure Brikén was,” Pierce deadpanned.

“Damn, Trenon, you really are solemn all the damn time. Drink up, man!” Brikén leaned toward Trenon and threw her arm around his shoulders while shoving her mug in his face. “It’ll lighten you up! ‘Sides, this was supposed to be a celebration for Pierce and Phoenix, here!”

“Ah… heh, yeah, sorry guys.” Trenon bowed his head sheepishly. “Didn’t mean to bring the atmosphere down.”

“It’s fine,” Phoenix replied airily. “I’m not about to judge you for having a tough life. But it sounds like you’re in a good place now!”

“Yeah…” He then extricated himself from Brikén’s grasp, at which point she shrugged and took another swig from her mug. As she gestured toward the bartender for a refill, Trenon glanced between Pierce and Phoenix. “You guys are in school too, aren’t you? How’s that going for you?”

“Ah, it’s going.” Pierce shrugged. “School’s school, whatcha gonna do.”

“It was your schools that got you involved in this outreach program, wasn’t it? They must have a lot of pull back on Earth to make that happen.”

“You’re really overplaying how important they are,” Phoenix countered. “They’re good, but not really the best. We’re here out of luck, more than anything.”

“Maybe it was luck for you,” Pierce replied haughtily, “but for me, it was sheer effort and skill. You know how much work I put into getting the recs for this?”

“‘Work’ my ass. Caltech literally has a summer program set up for exactly this kind of thing.”

“Doesn’t mean it was just handed to me, you know. I still had to go through the whole damn application process. It was a real pain in the ass!”

“I know that, I went through the same process. That’s how I know it was luck that got us here!”

“And was that ‘pain in the ass’ worth it?” Brikén questioned, interrupting the brewing argument between the two Earthians. “I hope your three months here with me weren’t quite as much of a pain.”

Pierce smirked. “Well, the exam was a real piece of work—”

“What Pierce means to say,” Phoenix cut in, drawing an annoyed glare from Pierce, “is that yes, our time with you has been worth it. We’ve learned a lot from having hands-on access to a working spacecraft. It sucks that the only way for us to directly use that knowledge is to get involved with SERRCom, but a lot of the second-hand knowledge I’ve gained should be hella useful for my classes.”

Pierce snorted. “Spoken like a fucking nerd.”

“As if you aren’t one yourself, you fucking Mech E.”

“Of course I’m not a nerd. I’m an actual athlete, you know?” He briefly made running motions with his arms before snapping his fingers into finger guns. “Even in college, I’m still the track star!”

“Yeah, because your school for nerds fucking sucks at athletics.”

“Please, like MIT is any better.”

“We aren’t, but at least my school is a household name.”

“Ah ha ha ha!” Brikén let out a hearty guffaw, startling both Pierce and Phoenix. “Getting along as well as ever!”

The two glanced at each other before turning away.

“Sorry about that,” Phoenix muttered.

“And what about us Nimalians?” Trenon questioned, momentarily ducking to the side to let a waiter drop some more fried seafood onto the large plate in the middle of the table — food that Phoenix eagerly dug into. “I know SERRCom and the Union are on good terms, but I’m curious to hear what Earthian civilians think of us.”

“Shit, dude, you might as well just be more Earthians for all I know,” Pierce remarked. “You all look the same as us, and you don’t really act much different, either. You’ve just got a lot of fancy tech and more planets than us.”

“I don’t know about the Union as a whole,” Phoenix commented. “Ainminthalus is the only Nimalian planet we’ve spent longer than a day on, after all. But I’m impressed by what I have seen — it’s so beautiful here! You have skyscrapers, and a heavily-built-up city, but there’s just so much green space in and around everything that I constantly feel like I’m in a quiet suburb. Not to mention those rings! I swear, the sky here is straight out of a fantasy novel! I wanted to bring back some souvenirs, but nothing I’ve found could compare to just taking a few pictures.”

Brikén stared at Phoenix in surprise. “Wow. Wasn’t expecting such a ringing endorsement.”

“I’m glad to hear that you like it, though!” Trenon smiled broadly. “Most Nimalian worlds have the same design philosophy as Ainminthalus. We Nimalians value nature, and we try our best to collaborate with it when building our cities.”

“Now that’s just a little too poetic,” Brikén countered. “Sure, we make our cities look pretty, but otherwise we stamp all over nature just as much as everyone else. We just hide it better.”

“That’s a cynical take,” Pierce remarked.

“Running a courier business will show you every side a nation has to offer,” Brikén declared. “I’ve seen a lot of good, and a lot of bad. It averages out.”

“What is it like, running a courier business?” Phoenix asked. “You’ve spent the past three months here, mentoring us, so you had to have put your business on hold, right? Will that hurt you in the long run?”

“Eh, I didn’t put it completely on hold,” Brikén responded. She grabbed a chunk of fish and took a large bite, chewing and swallowing quickly before continuing, “I found the time to run a few smaller jobs in-system. Running a one-woman courier business like this means keeping some tight margins, and shit can get tough at times. I’m getting paid for this mentorship thing, at least, so that lessens the impact of not running jobs. But, honestly, the only reason I signed up for this was to get a chance at owning a Subspace Drive.”

“Wait, what?” Pierce, Phoenix, and Trenon all turned to stare at Brikén incredulously.

“A Subspace Drive?” Trenon echoed.

“For a civilian?!” Pierce exclaimed.

“Aren’t we talking about the type of FTL tech that can, and has, been turned into a weapon of mass destruction?!” Phoenix questioned.

Brikén rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m aware of the danger of Subspace Drives. Chaos Drives are definitely safer… but they’re so damn restrictive! If I had a Subspace Drive, I could run laps around my competition!”

“And then blow up a planet when the Drive malfunctions,” Phoenix retorted.

“There’s never been a recorded incident of a Subspace Drive malfunctioning. Not in that way, at least. Trust me, I checked.”

“I’d still be surprised if the NSD allowed a civilian to have one,” Trenon commented. “They keep a tighter leash on those things than even SERRCom. And for good reason, given their destructive power. Who told you it was a possibility that you’d get one?”

“Some NSD officer affiliated with the Earthian outreach program.” Brikén shrugged. “It’s not the end of the world if I don’t get a Drive, but the chance to have one seemed credible enough.”

Pierce snorted. “Sounds to me like you’ve been fucking had.”

Brikén cast him an annoyed glance. “Don’t take me for a fool. You don’t get as far as I have without knowing how to accurately judge risk and reward.”

“Well there’s a lot of risk in handing out Subspace Drives to civilians, I can at least say that for sure,” Trenon said. “I’m just not seeing what the NSD would get out of it.”

“Alright, alright, I get your point already. Lighten up.”

“You can dish it out, but you can’t take it, huh?” Pierce smirked. “Sounds like you should be doing the lightening up for once.”

Brikén simply rolled her eyes and took another swig from her mug.

A brief moment of silence followed as the four continued eating, drinking, and taking in the relatively calm bar revelry around them. Two of the bar’s walls consisted of massive windows for the sake of natural lighting, but day had long since given way to the dark of night, leaving the bar itself rather dim.

“I suppose it’s getting late, huh,” Trenon eventually commented. He glanced between Pierce and Phoenix. “Will the two of you be fine?”

“It’s not that late,” Phoenix remarked incredulously.

“Yeah, we aren’t kids, you know,” Pierce added.

Trenon put his hands up, as though surrendering the subject. “Just checking. I know you’re supposed to leave for Earth soon, and Gate Network travel can be stressful for civilians. Wasn’t sure if the two of you wanted a full night of sleep beforehand.”

“Relax. We don’t even leave until the day after tomorrow, so we can stay up as late as we like tonight,” Phoenix declared.

“Says the night owl,” Pierce countered. “I like to rise with the sun. No better time for a run, you know.”

“Wow, actually being ‘responsible’ for once, huh?”

“Either way— agh!” Trenon started, but stopped and clutched at his chest.

“Trenon?” Brikén set her mug down as she glanced at the officer in concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Ah… I don’t know…” He exhaled deeply and shook his head, as if trying to clear it. “That was, just… I suddenly felt this kind of… sickening feeling.”

“Is the food bad?” Phoenix frowned as she began inspecting the chunk of fish in her hand.

“No, not like that.” Trenon began scanning the interior of the bar, his posture stiff, and body tense. “I’ve felt like that a couple times before… but only when I was about to go berserk.”

“What…?”

“It’s a Chaotic thing. If we use our powers too much, or get too stressed, then we can end up going berserk,” Trenon explained. “There are other causes, too, though they’re rare… but that has to be it, since I don’t feel stressed, and I haven’t been running around much…”

“Are you saying we’re under attack?” Brikén questioned.

“I don’t—” Trenon started, but again stopped himself. He glanced off to the side, as though distracted by something; he then stood up and promptly disappeared, leaving behind only a small breeze that sent a few napkins fluttering.

Surprised, Pierce quickly began searching for Trenon. Just as he located the officer across the room, staring out one of the massive wall windows, a soft rumbling washed through the building.

Phoenix looked around in mild alarm. “Earthquake?”

“No… something weird’s going on,” Trenon countered, reappearing next to the table in an instant. He leaned down and lowered his voice, so that only Brikén, Pierce, and Phoenix could hear him. “There’s reports of Chaotics going berserk all over the city, unprovoked.”

Brikén scowled. “Shit.”

“Yeah, it’s bad. I’m being summoned to help get control of the situation.” He paused and glanced back at the window as a flash of light momentarily illuminated the building, raising surprised gasps and yelps from the patrons in the bar. “…Whatever you do,” he said as he turned back to the three, “lay low, and stay out of the way. Don’t go outside until you hear back from—”

A loud CRASH interrupted Trenon’s speech as a piece of metal debris smashed through one of the bar windows. Immediately, he rushed over to the flying piece of debris and managed to kick it back outside before it could harm any of the bar patrons, but he was then forced to duck backwards as another three stray pieces of metal zipped through the air.

“Holy shit!” Pierce exclaimed in disbelief, and then found himself being shoved under the table. “Hey, what the fuck—?”

“Be quiet and stay low,” Brikén hissed, holding her arms around Pierce and Phoenix’s shoulders as she ducked under the table herself. “I’ve seen this once before… if I’m right, shit is about to get bad, and fast.”

“What do you mean?” Phoenix questioned warily.

“Just keep quiet! Don’t draw the attention of a berserk Chaotic!”

Pierce eyed Brikén uneasily before turning his attention back to Trenon’s location. From his position in the back of the bar and under a table, Pierce couldn’t see exactly what was going on, but the chaos and cacophony of battle filled the air just outside of the building. Chunks of metal whipped into and out of view, masked by the darkness of night as they ripped into the buildings beside the bar and across the street. Blaring fire alarms, panicked screams, shouts to take cover, shattering glass and collapsing concrete — never before had Pierce been witness to the level of chaos he now heard, and he hadn’t the slightest clue how to react or otherwise process it.

Another flash of light and the hissing of steam drew Pierce’s attention back to the bar’s exterior — just in time for the table above him to suddenly zip up into the air, tear itself to shreds, and then launch itself toward the bar’s exterior.

“The hell—? Ow!!” Phoenix winced and held her hands up to her ears. “…My earrings?!”

“A Metallitechnic? Of all the damn things…” Brikén muttered as she hastily undid her coat’s buckle and removed the clothing article. “Get rid of all your loose metal, now—!”

Just as the words left Brikén’s mouth, Pierce felt a fierce tug on his waist, yanking him forward. He reflexively clutched at the floor in an attempt to hold himself in place, but the force still dragged him a couple meters before his belt practically disintegrated and the metal buckle instantly disappeared into the air. Pain shot through his lower back, as he had just effectively been dragged around by his belt, but the pain quickly fell into the back of his mind as the lack of a table over his head allowed him to fully grasp the scene in front of him:

Illuminated by floodlights shone from on-high was a veritable whirlwind of metal debris, whirling around at high speeds in a loose dome. Nearby buildings, street lamps, and signs were crumbling and disintegrating as the dome absorbed all nearby metal; several nearby individuals, dressed in the same kind of green uniform as Trenon, seemed to be trying to stop this process by freezing items in place with ice or obscuring the street with steam, but nothing seemed to be working. And then, in the middle of the whirling dome of metal, was a hunched over silhouette — it looked something like a dark, feral wolf, but with no tail, nor snout. Wait… is that… a person?!

“Agh—!” Pierce released a pained grunt as a chunk of metal flew through the air from behind him, lacerating the side of his torso. He immediately clutched the wound with both hands and clenched his teeth, trying his best to put the pain out of mind.

“PIERCE!!”

“Huh…?” He looked up, his face scrounged up into a pained grimace — and then his eyes widened in panic…

…for the silhouetted person in the middle of the whirling dome was staring directly at him.

Shit… shit…! He immediately tried to stand and search for cover, but stumbled as the pain from his torso wound shattered his concentration. A sort of gargled snarl reached his ears, drawing his attention back to the feral silhouette, just in time to spot several chunks of debris zipping through the air toward him —

Before he could process what was happening, Trenon appeared in front of him and snatched one of the chunks out of the air, managing to keep it from hitting Pierce. The Velocitechnic visibly winced as a second chunk pierced his left arm, but he managed to keep his composure together and spin around to deflect the rest of the incoming pieces of metal with supersonic punches and kicks. He then dropped to one knee, panting heavily. Pierce wasn’t sure what he had just watched, as it had happened so quickly, but he could at least tell two things: Trenon had just saved his life, and he had taken injuries to both an arm and a leg to do it.

“Just… lay low,” Trenon managed to grunt out as he climbed back to his feet.

Pierce stared up at him with a mixture of awe and incredulity — the officer clearly had metal sticking through both his left forearm and right lower leg. He couldn’t seriously be considering continuing to fight, could he?

“Don’t worry…” Trenon glanced back at Pierce and forced a smile. “We’ve… got this taken care of.”

Bewildered, Pierce couldn’t help but simply turn his attention back to the street. The feral silhouette seemed to have lost interest in Pierce and Trenon and was now staring up at a hovering Chaotic a block over who was flooding the street with water. Several pieces of metal debris whipped through the air toward the distant Chaotic, forcing them to evade as the silhouette began to advance on them. A cage of ice then appeared around the silhouette, only to be obliterated a moment later by metal debris. With a snarl, the silhouette began looking around for the source of the ice — at which point a flash of light drew both it and Pierce’s attention toward the other end of the block. Pierce could see flames, and then a second later, steam erupted across the entire block and obscured the street.

“Here we go…” Trenon muttered, and crouched down, as if preparing to start a race. Before Pierce could say anything, a loud THUNK emanated from somewhere within the steam — and immediately afterward, as if on cue, Trenon disappeared in a cloud of dust. The whizzing sounds of the whirling metal debris continued on for a second, if somewhat dampened, and then they suddenly faded into nothing.

Alarms and shouting continued to fill the air, but no longer was it accompanied by the noises of building destruction. The relative, yet sudden quiet left Pierce’s ears ringing, but he managed to put it out of mind and finally pull himself back to his feet. A quick check of his torso wound revealed that the cut didn’t seem to be that deep, but before he could investigate further, the steam that previously obscured the street finally dissipated. There was no sign of the metal whirlwind or the feral silhouette; all that was left was a scarred battlefield, as if someone had taken a sandblaster to the street and the buildings all along the block. Broken glass and debris littered the street and the sidewalk, several buildings had collapsed altogether, and in the middle of the street…

“Shit! TRENON!” Pierce rushed to the Velocitechnic’s side just as he collapsed to the ground. The NSD officer was wounded and lacerated all over, his uniform torn to shreds, and multiple thin, sharp chunks of metal now protruded from all over his body. From his hands, from his shoulders, from his legs… from straight through his torso.

“Trenon, are you—? Holy shit…”

Pierce looked up to see Phoenix and Brikén approach, only to stop short as they witnessed Trenon’s wounds.

Brikén scowled and looked away. “Damn it…”

“Is he…” Phoenix kneeled down beside Pierce and Trenon, and looked down at the Velocitechnic’s still body. “…Is he—?”

“Agh! Ow… ow…”

“Whoa! Dude, careful, careful!” Pierce quickly grasped Trenon by his shoulders as the latter coughed and attempted to sit up. Phoenix and Pierce carefully helped him up, with Pierce holding him up in his arms. “Dude, are you okay?”

“Hurts…” Trenon muttered, his eyes fluttering open. He slowly looked up at Pierce, but he seemed to stare straight through the Earthian. “Li… Liask? Is, is that…?”

“It’s— it’s me. Pierce. It’s Pierce.” He forced a smile as he attempted to ignore the growing dampness against his arm that supported Trenon. “I’m here, dude. It’s okay.”

“…Oh… r-right, Pierce…” Trenon’s eyes finally managed to focus, and his mouth turned up into a pained smile. “Ah… ha ha… never was… good at fighting…”

“You were— you were good enough. The, that weird fucking silhouette’s gone. So is all the metal.”

“Ah… good…”

“Look, dude, you’re gonna be okay,” Pierce insisted, casting a side eye at Brikén, who had left to find help. “You— look, man, you saved my life. I’m not gonna let you… …”

He noticed Phoenix’s gaze on him as he failed to finish his sentence, but he pushed her attention out of mind.

“Thanks, Pierce…” Trenon muttered weakly, and then coughed again, this time spitting up blood. Pierce couldn’t help but note that his blood was a deep red — just like Earthians. “H-hey, listen…”

“Yeah?” Pierce forced himself to focus on Trenon’s face.

Blood slowly dripped out the corner of the Velocitechnic’s mouth, yet he wore on his face a sort of serene, resigned smile. “If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”

Silence followed for several moments as Trenon’s eyes lost focus, and his body fell limp. At a loss for words, Pierce quietly and carefully allowed Trenon’s body to lay down on the ground. He then sat back, and looked down at his right arm. All the way up to his rolled up sleeve, his arm felt sticky, and was dyed a deep red.

In that moment, Pierce’s vision went black. A moment later, he found himself staring up at a bright, clear sky — and a moment after that, the sky was replaced by the darkness of night, backlit by a deep red hue. He saw burning buildings, collapsing buildings… and then, simply nothing but a desolate wasteland. Then, a man’s tan face, framed by dirty black bangs and a rough goatee — following that, a young woman, with tan skin, shoulder-length black hair, and a prominent scar stretching from just above the left corner of her mouth, down her neck, and disappearing below the collar of her shirt. She seemed to smile at Pierce, before she turned around and ran off, disappearing into the darkness… which was quickly replaced by the sight of a singular, feral, wolf-like beast with silvery, metallic rashes covering its body. It snarled, and then lunged at him—

“PIERCE!”

“AH!” Pierce yelped, his vision instantly yanked back to the dark and battle-scarred urban scene before him. He looked around frantically, wide-eyed, before feeling something grab his chin and forcefully move his head.

“Pierce, look at me!”

“Ah, ah, uh… huh?” He slowed his breathing and blinked repeatedly in an effort to clear his sight. A moment later, he realized that he was mere inches from Phoenix, who was staring at him in concern.

“Finally! Are you okay?” she questioned, “you just— you just zoned out there.”

“O-oh…” Pierce stared back at her for several seconds before finally shaking her off of him and climbing to his feet. “I-I’m fine. But…” He stared down at his blood-covered arm and grimaced. “I, I just… fuckin’ hell…”

“Come on… we need to move.” Phoenix glanced backwards, prompting Pierce to do the same. From farther down the block, several individuals were approaching, all dressed in the NSD uniform.

“R-right…” Pierce took a deep breath and looked down at Trenon’s body one last time.

 

“If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”

 

Trenon’s final words echoed through Pierce’s mind. He bowed his head solemnly, muttering quietly to himself, “don’t worry, Trenon… I’ll remember.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the NSD soldiers were on the scene, clearing up debris and gesturing for Pierce to leave. He obeyed quietly, backing away before turning around to follow Phoenix, who had already reconvened with Brikén.

“Oh, fucking thank the skies! You’re both okay.” Brikén released a sigh of relief as Pierce and Phoenix approached her. “Not everything’s gone bad, at least…”

“What’s going on, Brikén?” Phoenix questioned, “you said earlier that you’ve seen this before. What’s happening?”

“The one thing that the galaxy had hoped to never experience again…” Brikén sighed again, this time of apprehension. “It’s the beginning of another Chaos Energy Quake.”

Chapter 4 – Failed Dependencies

— Monday, August 29, 2129 AD —

(Mondia, Beauth 20, 8054)

“Gah…!”

Pierce awoke with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a few moments before pulling himself up into a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. The morning sun shone through his room’s open window, brightly illuminating the small space and demonstrating just how long Pierce had slept in.

Must be a few hours past sunrise, he thought wearily. Damn… I really overslept.

A yawn soon overcame him, at which point he vigorously shook his head and jumped to his feet in an attempt to fully awaken himself. As he did so, an intense feeling of unease washed over him, as though he had forgotten something important. He paused for a moment, holding a hand to his head as he attempted to recall whatever it was that he was missing, but it felt like trying to see through a fog.

“…Damn. Did I come down with something?…” Pierce muttered. “Shit… figures I’d get sick on the second to last day. Really need to get back to Earth…”

He sighed wearily and approached his bedroom door, throwing it open to begin his morning hygiene routine. Brushing his teeth, washing his face, fixing his hair — he went about his business quietly and sluggishly, spending half of his effort the entire time trying to puzzle out the cause for his unease. Still nothing came to mind as he dressed himself for the day, though in so doing he discovered that his belt was missing.

What the…? Where the hell did I put it? He began searching his room for the missing article. The room wasn’t large, so it didn’t take long for him to determine that the belt was no where to be found. Damn. How the hell did I manage to lose a fucking belt? Maybe Phoenix knows where it is

With that, he stepped up to his bedroom door once more and threw it open. This time, however, he noticed that the door to Phoenix’s room was also open, and the room itself was empty. At the same time, the distinct smell of coffee reached his nostrils, prompting him to conclude that his friend had already awoken. Must’ve been before me… that’s a first.

“You’re awake.”

Pierce glanced down the hall toward the living room, where Phoenix was standing with a cup in hand. He nodded toward her, though she didn’t respond in kind.

“…Did you not sleep well?” she questioned as he moved into the living room and then walked around her to enter the kitchen.

“I slept fine,” he responded flatly. “Why?”

“It’s not often that you get up so late. I was just… worried.”

“Ha! No need to worry about me. I’m perfectly fine.”

“What…?” Phoenix’s expression clouded. “Are you sure…?”

“The hell are you on about?” Pierce passed her an annoyed glance. “Why are you being so weird this morning? This doesn’t have anything to do with where my damn belt went, does it?”

In that moment, realization rushed across Phoenix’s face, followed by troubled concern. “Pierce… do you remember what happened last night?”

“Last night?” Pierce echoed irately, “what are you…?” He stopped mid-sentence as a dull throb drew his attention down to his right torso, followed immediately by a sharp pain in his head. And then — as if the fog cleared all at once — the memories of the previous night rushed to the forefront of his mind. The memories of Chaotics going berserk, the memories of several blocks of the city getting trashed, the memories of the start of another Chaos Energy Quake, and…

 

“If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”

 

…the memories of Trenon’s death.

Pierce found himself staring down at the kitchen counter in confusion. Now several hours and a night’s sleep removed from these events, they hardly seemed real. The sun outside shone as brightly as it had yesterday morning, the skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the world outside was as green as ever. Could such an apocalypse have truly befallen this idyllic scene? And beyond that — Pierce suddenly recalled the odd vision he had had shortly after Trenon died. None of the images made any sense to him, though one in particular stood out: the image of a beast, covered in silvery, metallic rashes. What was it that he saw? And why did he see it then?

“Pierce? Pierce!”

“Ah—!” Pierce’s attention dropped back into the present, where he found himself staring, wide-eyed, straight at Phoenix. “…Oh… ah ha…” He quickly tore his gaze away and chuckled uneasily, at which point he realized that he was tightly grasping his right torso, where he had suffered a minor wound the previous night. In one motion, he withdrew his hand and turned back toward the kitchen, doing his level best to distract himself by preparing a quick breakfast.

“Hey, if you want to talk…”

Pierce cast a sideward glance toward Phoenix, who herself was watching him with concern. He simply snorted in response. “I said I’m fine, didn’t I? I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? I saw your torso wound last night—”

“I said, I’m fine.”

“…If you say so.” Phoenix sighed and took a seat at the small table just outside the kitchen.

A heavy silence befell the apartment as Phoenix continued nursing her coffee, and Pierce hastily poured himself a bowl of cereal. He took a seat at the table across from Phoenix and began eating quietly, not once looking up to make eye-contact with her.

Another minute passed before Phoenix cleared her throat, drawing Pierce’s attention. “…We need to talk about what we’re going to do, now,” she stated uneasily.

“What we’re going to do?” Pierce echoed incredulously, “the hell do you mean? We just go home tomorrow, that’s what we’re going to do.”

She shook her head. “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. This… ‘Chaos Quake’ has caused a lot of, well, chaos.”

“What’s that mean?”

“According to the news feeds, everything is shut down. The Gate Network’s been restricted to military and emergency use, and all spacecraft currently docked in the spaceport have been grounded until further notice. All the spacecraft up in space have been forced into perpetual holding orbits, as well. There’s no way for us to leave Ainminthalus.”

“What? Why the hell is that?!”

“You know how most FTL tech is based on Chaos Energy. This new Quake — it’s made it impossible for us to access Chaos Energy. That means no Chaos Drives, no anti-gravity. Even the Relaynet is down. The Interstellar Gate still seems to work, but now it’s Ainminthalus’s only connection to the rest of the galaxy — the only source of information from beyond this solar system. The NSD has declared a state of emergency and commandeered use of the Gate, so they can stay as up-to-date as possible.”

“Well, shit. You’re telling me we can’t even contact Earth? Not even by Relaynet?”

Phoenix shook her head. “The Data Relays use Chaos Energy. No Chaos Energy, no FTL communications.”

“Shit… does it get any worse than this?”

“Yeah… everyone is panicking. The last Quake the galaxy had lasted for a year. All kinds of Chaos Energy-based infrastructure collapsed during that time, space stations included, and people are afraid it’ll happen again. You know those space stations up in orbit? Normally they can use their anti-grav to adjust their orbits to avoid debris from the rings, but they can’t do that now. They have to rely on conventional fuel for station-keeping, and as far as I know, they only have enough of that to last them a couple months. That’s an incredible eminent danger right there, and the NSD isn’t taking any chances. They’re already evacuating the stations… but that’s several million people that suddenly need room on the planet’s surface.”

“Damn. And people thought the homeless problem in San Fran was bad…”

“…About that…” Phoenix frowned uneasily.

Pierce looked up at her, his eyes narrowed. “What?”

“You know how the lease for this apartment was supposed to expire tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but we can get that extended, can’t we? These are clearly extenuating circumstances, the landlord has to see that.”

“But they don’t. I talked to them, and they aren’t willing to give us an extension.”

“What?!” Pierce scowled. “You have to be kidding! Why the hell not?”

“The reason they gave me was that they’ll need the space to house evacuees from the space station.”

“And they’re willing to kick us out onto the street to do it? Bullshit. Sounds like an excuse to cover up the real reason.”

“That we’re Earthian?” Phoenix sighed. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But even if that is what’s happening, there isn’t much we can do about it right now.”

“What?! C’mon! This is the difference between having a roof over our heads and being homeless on an alien fucking planet, this isn’t the time to be passive!” Pierce threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair in annoyance. “There has to be something we can do. There’s someone we can contact about this, right?”

“You think I haven’t already checked?” Phoenix bristled irately. “There’s no embassy or anything of the sort here. The Gate and the Relaynet were supposed to be how we’d contact Earth, because they were supposed to always work. No one expected that a one-time freak incident like the Chaos Quake would happen again!”

“What about someone in the local government? That’s supposed to be our second line of contact, right?”

“Yeah, but our liaison there was…” Phoenix pursed her lips and glanced away.

Pierce stared at her impatiently for a moment before realization dawned on him: Trenon had been their Nimalian liaison. He exhaled warily and began rubbing his eyes in an attempt to work out his stress — and to ignore the dull throb in the side of his torso. “Well, fuck.” He then looked back to Phoenix. “Is there really no one else we can talk to?”

“I tried calling in to one of the government hotlines, but the hold times are ridiculous. The local government has its hands full dealing with all of the people who actually live here.”

“Figures…”

“Yeah. So there’s really only one other person we can go to, now…”

“…Brikén…”

“Yeah. But I tried getting into contact with her this morning, and couldn’t.”

“She’s never told us where she lives, either…”

“So we’re back to square one.” Phoenix stared down into her cup before looking up at Pierce again, worry wrought across her features. “What do we do?”

Pierce shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He then stood up and carried his now-empty bowl back to the kitchen, where he quickly washed it out and dropped it on the drying rack. “…Damn…” he eventually muttered as he returned to the table, where he simply stood behind the chair with his arms crossed. “Why did this have to happen now?”

“It’s just our luck,” Phoenix responded with a bitter smile. “We were lucky enough to get to spend our summer away from Earth, I guess it’s only fair that we’d also be unlucky enough to find ourselves in this situation.”

“‘Luck’ my fucking ass…” Pierce grumbled. “I’m not just going to sit around and let this happen to us.”

“And you think I want to? The only reason I’m still sitting here is because there isn’t anything for us to do!”

“Hmph… we just need to reach Brikén somehow, right?”

“That would be ideal, but like I said, I’ve already tried.”

“And we don’t know where she lives… but we do at least know somewhere she frequents.”

“…The spaceport?” Phoenix regarded Pierce with a doubtful expression. “Why would she be there? All spacecraft are grounded.”

“It’s still our best bet,” Pierce insisted. “If it’s a choice between trying to find her at the spaceport and just sitting around at home, hoping she’ll reach out to us, then I’d rather pick the former.”

Phoenix sighed. “…You’re right. I suppose it really is our only option.”

“I’m glad you agree.” Pierce moved over to the front door and began putting on his shoes. “Now let’s get going. The sooner we resolve this, the better.”

*     *     *

30 Minutes Later

“…Didn’t you say that spacecraft were grounded?”

“I did, and they are,” Phoenix replied, her tone filled with a mixture of annoyance and bewilderment. “I didn’t expect this, though…”

“You don’t say,” Pierce muttered as he beheld the scene before him. The Alus spaceport, from the outside, looked much like an airport from Earth. The terminals were built up to two or three stories and extended horizontally for long distances, making enough room for dozens of airliner-sized spacecraft to dock simultaneously. Normally, spacecraft would be frequently landing, docking, being ferried to the launch zones, or launching, though today the air above the spaceport remained eerily empty, and the grounds all around the port were covered in grounded spacecraft. Essentially, the spaceport appeared to have been completely frozen — except for the massive crowds that gathered around each of the terminal entrances. A sea of people collected around the port, consisting of angry and panicking citizens who wanted either access to their own spacecraft or to otherwise find some way off of the planet’s surface. Occasionally the crowd would surge forward as groups of people attempted to rush into the terminals, only to be stopped by groups of NSD soldiers who had been charged with keeping all of the spacecraft grounded.

From Pierce’s position across the street from the terminal entrance and the crowds, the idea of making it into the spaceport seemed to be a complete nonstarter. He may have been taller than average by both Earthian and Nimalian standards, but he was still no where near large enough to force his way through such a massive crowd.

“This could be a problem,” Phoenix eventually commented, speaking aloud Pierce’s own thoughts.

“Yeah, this is fucking ridiculous,” Pierce remarked. “Just what the hell do all these people hope to achieve?”

“You can’t really blame them for acting in desperation. Everyone here was caught off-guard by the Quake, just as we were. Hell, we’re here. Why do we get to complain about other people doing the same thing?”

“…Doesn’t change the fact that we need to find Brikén.” Pierce jumped onto a nearby bench and began scanning the crowd from across the street. “With that bright red hair of hers… she shouldn’t be too hard to find, right?”

Phoenix glanced up at him incredulously. “You don’t really think that she’s the only redhead around, do you?”

“Alright, what’s your genius idea?”

“Well, assuming that she even is here, she’d probably be trying to access her own ship, right? So if we can find her ship, then we should be able to find her. Hopefully. Although…” Phoenix frowned. “I don’t remember where she docked at last night…”

“It was somewhere in the Northern Block. Dock 3, berth 9, I’m pretty sure.”

“I’ll take your word for it. But how do we get there? It looks like they’re not even letting people into the terminals, there’s no way we can get access to the docking bays…”

“We’ll just have to get as close as we can.” Pierce jumped down from the bench and began jogging east. “There’s a back entrance to the docks that Brikén used once. It looked pretty small and unheard of; with any luck, there won’t be as large a crowd around there.”

Phoenix ran to catch up before falling into pace beside Pierce. “And you remember where this is?”

“Of course I do. As if I could forget anything even slightly important.”

Phoenix opened her mouth, as if to respond, but then made a face and glanced away without saying anything.

The two continued jogging around the block, following the high barrier walls that surrounded the spaceport until the walls finally turned northward. The streets around the spaceport were far emptier and quieter than Pierce was used to; it seemed that the crowds were limited to the spaceport entrances themselves. A disturbing stillness had befallen the rest of the city, and even the trees and greenery that were incorporated into building structures seemed to lie completely still.

Before long, the two found themselves approaching the back entrance that Pierce had mentioned. Sure enough, the area was significantly less crowded, with only a few dozen individuals arguing with a couple NSD soldiers standing guard in front of the entrance. And at the front of the crowd…

“Why the hell can’t I access my ship? It’s practically unaffected by the Quake!”

“Ma’am, all spacecraft currently docked at this spaceport are models that would be affected by the Quake.”

“That’s not my point, you dolt. My ship is small enough to not need the anti-grav for takeoff or piloting. I can still use it!”

“That still does not change the fact that your craft is grounded until further notice.”

“Damn it, leave it to the NSD to lay down a blanket ban that doesn’t make any sense. You fucking idiots…”

Phoenix sighed warily as she watched the red-headed woman continue to argue with the NSD soldier. “That’s Brikén for you…”

“At least we found her,” Pierce pointed out, and then began approaching. “Hey! Brikén!”

“Huh?” The red-headed pilot whipped around and began scanning the crowd; the moment she laid eyes on Pierce and Phoenix, she waved them over. “Finally! Some people who actually know something about spacecraft! Tell these idiots here that my ship doesn’t actually need Chaos Energy to function.”

The NSD soldier standing in front of her sighed and rolled his eyes as Pierce and Phoenix approached. “Once again,” he replied flatly, “the grounding is not only due to Chaos Energy being unusable. Evacuations for the space stations are starting up, and we need to keep the airspace clear. Any crashes would be made significantly worse without Chaos Energy-based technology.”

Pierce stared up into the sky, where he found nothing but blue, sunlight, and white rings. “Doesn’t seem like evacuations have started to me,” he remarked.

“The cleared airspace extends all the way up into actual space,” the soldier countered, as though his statement should have been obvious. “In-atmosphere collisions are not all the NSD is worried about.”

Apparently, they think that the risk of collisions with the rings is much higher without anti-grav tech, and that those collisions could cause a debris cascade,” Brikén drawled. “I say the risk isn’t as big as people think; ring debris burns up in Ainminthalus’s atmosphere all the damn time. Besides, I’ve actually practiced flying my ship without the Chaos Energy systems. If anyone can handle this situation, it’s me!”

“Wait, a debris cascade?” Phoenix questioned incredulously, “what, like a Kessler Syndrome thing?”

The NSD soldier regarded Phoenix with confusion. “What’s a ‘Kessler’?”

“Oh… right. You wouldn’t know. It’s an Earth name.”

“An Earth name? …Wait a minute…” The soldier narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at Phoenix and Pierce. “…The two of you are Earthians, aren’t you?”

“Uh…” Phoenix glanced uneasily at Pierce. “I don’t like where this is going…”

“Yeah, we’re Earthians,” Pierce declared, drawing a few odd looks from the crowd. “So fucking what?”

“You two… you’re the ones who are here on that outreach program, aren’t you?” The soldier’s expression flared with anger as he glared at Pierce. “I heard about what happened last night. If not for you, Rakos would still be alive!”

“Dude, what?” Pierce scowled. “You mean Trenon? What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t kill him!”

“If he hadn’t been forced to protect you, then he would’ve been at a hundred percent for the final strike. There’s no way he would have died otherwise!”

“You’re blaming me for that shit? Like I asked to be attacked by some feral wolf monster!”

“I can’t help but notice that you didn’t have a problem until they came around,” Brikén remarked, her arms crossed. “Trenon and I were working together, as well.”

The soldier turned toward her in surprise. “Y-yes, well… you still weren’t the one Rakos had to sacrifice himself for!”

“Bullshit. If you’re trying to pin blame, then I’m the one who suggested we visit that bar in the first place. I’m just as responsible for Trenon’s death as anyone else,” Brikén countered, her voice low. “But instead, you decide to pick on the two Earthians. I wonder why?”

“Th-that…!” The soldier’s face contorted in anger and confusion. His attention momentarily shifted away from Brikén and Pierce, at which point he cleared his throat and straightened up his posture. “Ma’am, sir, if you’re going to continue causing a disturbance then we will have to arrest you.”

“Dude, what the fuck?!” Pierce growled in fury. “You can’t just—!”

“Pierce,” Phoenix interjected quietly, “I think we should leave…”

“Huh?” He turned to face her, at which point his attention drifted to the crowd behind her — the crowd of people who had distanced themselves from Pierce and Phoenix, and were looking on with varying degrees of confusion and annoyance.

“Why am I not surprised,” Brikén deadpanned. She glared at the crowd before turning back to the NSD soldier. “Fine. Have things your way. But this won’t be the last you see of us.” She then whipped around and stomped off, gesturing for Pierce and Phoenix to follow. “Come on. We’re leaving.”

Pierce stared after her incredulously without taking a step. He looked over at the crowd again, and then turned back toward the soldier.

“Pierce…” Phoenix muttered again.

“…Hmph…” Pierce snorted before turning around and taking off after Brikén, with Phoenix hot on his heels.

The red-headed pilot glanced back at them as they caught up. “Sorry you had to sit through that,” she said, her voice low.

“It’s not your fault,” Phoenix refuted. “If anything, we’re sorry for getting in your way.”

“Ah, that’s not your fault either.” Brikén sighed. “I doubt they would’ve let me see my ship even if you hadn’t shown up.”

“That was hella fucking weird, though,” Pierce said, “I thought Nimalians were supposed to be all buddy-buddy with Earthians. That’s what led to this damn outreach program, wasn’t it?”

“That’s what the government would want you to believe,” Brikén remarked cynically. “But when disaster strikes and it’s every man or woman for themselves, that’s when the truth comes out. And I find that it’s very rarely pretty.”

“So it would seem…” Phoenix responded quietly.

“But enough about this.” Brikén finally stopped walking and turned to face the two Earthians directly. “What are the two of you doing around here? Trying to find a way off this planet, like everyone else?”

“No, but it’s related,” Pierce replied. “Apparently, our asshole of a landlord won’t extend our lease, and there’s no way for us to contact or return to Earth, so we need a place to stay.”

“Ah. And you wanted to crash at my place?”

“That’s what we were hoping,” Phoenix said.

“Well, it’ll be a little crowded… but it should be fine.” Brikén nodded.

Phoenix smiled with relief. “Thanks a lot, Brikén. You don’t know how much this means to us.”

“You might be surprised. Though we’ll need to look into a better long-term solution, just in case we’re in this for the long haul.”

“No arguments here,” Pierce commented. “Just give us your address and we’ll bring our shit.”

“Yeah, I’ll message you. Do you need any help carrying your things?”

“Nah, we should be fine.”

“Alright. I’ll see the two of you back at my place, then.” Brikén waved as she began walking east.

Once Brikén disappeared around a street corner, Phoenix sighed in relief. “I’m glad something worked out.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Pierce scowled as he recalled their brief encounter with the NSD soldier, but then he shook his head to clear his thoughts and began walking. “Anyways, let’s go pack our shit. The sooner we’ve got this done, the better…”

Chapter 5 – Unlocked

“You know, I never really realized just how much the galaxy depends on Chaos Energy.”

“Seemed pretty obvious to me.”

“Yes, it’s obvious enough, but just because you know something doesn’t mean you truly understand it. And this Quake has given me more understanding than any lecture or mentorship ever could.”

“Mm…” Pierce grunted as he walked down the street beside Phoenix. Her statement wasn’t wrong; the currently ongoing Chaos Energy Quake was one of the best examples of “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” that Pierce had ever seen. Even hovercraft, one of the most popular means of intracity mass transportation, relied on Chaos Energy for their anti-gravity functions. Without mass transit, among other things, the entire city had practically shut down, with the vast majority of the residents holing up either at home or a local bar. What was already a surprisingly quiet urban area, by Earth standards, was now almost completely devoid of human noise.

Pierce idly looked up at the environment around him. Tall, old-growth trees and shrubs framed both sides of the wide street that he and Phoenix were walking on, casting shade over enough of the street to give off the impression of walking down a tunnel. These “tree tunnels” were a popular street decoration method throughout the city of Alus, even in the well-built-up city center. Along the outskirts of the city, the tree tunnels dominated the visual landscape, as most buildings were built no taller than the trees that bordered them, resulting in an effective floor limit of two or three. Within the inner limits of the city, however, buildings began to grow taller and taller, ultimately creating the familiar skyscraper skyline that many cities back on Earth possessed. However, as opposed to the randomness of Earth city skylines, the skyline in Alus appeared to be intricately and purposefully arranged. Maximum heights were imposed on buildings relative to how far they were from the city center, and the buildings themselves were constructed to have natural contours, as though they were faces of a hill, pillars of stone, or tree trunks. The end result was that, from afar, the Alus skyline reflected that of a towering mountain. Additionally, all of the buildings in the city were either constructed out of glass or possessed a color scheme consisting of natural blues, greens, and grays, and most of the skyscrapers featured open-air plazas every ten floors or so, on which a number of trees, plants, or water features were installed. When combined with the mountain-esque skyline, it almost appeared as though the city had been constructed by hollowing out an already-existing mountain — and yet, due to an intricate system of lenses and holograms, citizens standing deep within the forest of buildings could still glimpse the blue skies and shining sun in every direction.

The mountain skyline was a sight that Pierce and Phoenix were able to enjoy daily, due to their apartment being located in the city outskirts. Normally, the skyline would be accompanied by the tiny dots of hovercraft and the silhouettes of coming and going spacecraft, but today, only the clouds gathered around the tallest buildings.

“I wonder how Conrad and Kestrel are doing…”

Pierce glanced down at Phoenix, her comment having returned his thoughts to the present. “…Ah, I’m sure they’re fine,” he eventually replied as the two turned down a path that led to their apartment complex. “This Chaos Quake stuff — it’s only bad because the Nimalians rely so damn much on Chaos Energy. But we don’t have any of that shit on Earth. I bet they’re just living life like normal, the lucky bastards.”

“Even so, surely the Quake will have some kind of impact on Earth,” Phoenix countered. “The original Quake coincided with a freak series of intense natural disasters on Earth. If that happens again, then things could get really bad.”

“As bad as the last one? No way. All the biggest fault lines and volcanoes blew their loads already. There’s no way forty years is enough time for them to trigger again.”

“You can’t be certain of that. The first Quake was a freak incident as is, who knows what could happen this time around?”

“Well there’s no way for us to know, so why bother freaking out about it? We’ve got more pressing shit to deal with, like—” Pierce stopped mid-sentence and mid-stride just after turning a corner. In front of him and Phoenix was the two-story building that contained their first-floor apartment, which had one front door that faced directly out toward the path they were walking on. Little about the building stood out from its surroundings — aside from the fact that the door to their apartment was ajar.

Phoenix looked up at Pierce, a wary expression upon her face. “We closed the door when we left, right?”

“We did…” Pierce scowled. “…Don’t tell me the landlord is already evicting us.”

“If that was the case, I’d expect to see movers, or something.”

“…Well, we can’t know unless we check, can we?”

“I don’t know, Pierce…” Phoenix eyed the open door with unease. “I have a bad feeling about this…”

“What, you scared?”

“That’s not what I meant, you dumbass. But if you want to charge your way into the middle of a home intrusion and get yourself shot, then be my guest.”

“What? I won’t get shot. Most Nimalians don’t even have guns.”

“That’s not what I— you know what? Whatever. Do whatever you want, see if I care.”

“I will, thank you very much,” Pierce retorted. He then turned back toward the entrance to their apartment and began to approach. His pace started out normal, but he felt himself reflexively slow as he got closer — and as he heard someone rummaging around inside. He pursed his lips and glanced back at Phoenix, only to be surprised to find her right behind him. He opened his mouth to address her, prepared to jab at her obvious concern, but before he could she held a finger over her lips and quietly gestured toward the door, as if to say, “keep going.”

A loud bang, as though someone had just dropped a large object on the floor, emanated from within the apartment — followed by some cursing and a hushed exchange of words. Pierce and Phoenix passed each other wary glances, but Pierce continued his approach. Within moments, he had reached the door, and sidled up against the doorway. Phoenix took up position against the opposite side of the doorway, giving her a better vantage point than Pierce to peer into the apartment. She narrowed her eyes, in what Pierce guessed to be an attempt to see better through the interior darkness — the curtains and blinds had been closed. After a moment she looked back to him, shook her head, and shrugged. Assuming that meant she didn’t see anyone, Pierce took it upon himself to slowly open the front door and make his way in.

Once inside, the evidence of an intrusion was painfully obvious. The living room couch was overturned and the cushions scattered across the floor — and from what Pierce could see of the kitchen and dining area, the drawers and cabinets had been roughly filed through, and kitchenware covered the floor. What the hell? …Looters? Already? This is fucking ridiculous. Pierce continued to look over the scene with an irate scowl for several more seconds before he felt a tap on his left shoulder. Glancing over, he found Phoenix looking up at him; as soon as he made eye-contact, she quietly gestured toward the back hallway, where the bedrooms and the bathroom were — as well as the sounds of rummaging. With pursed lips, Pierce slowly stepped toward the kitchen, grabbed one of the knives laying on the counter top, and then began to approach the back rooms.

“Damn, there really is nothing useful here. Hey, Nisanin, you find any—?”

A stout man stepped out of Pierce’s bedroom, his attention and voice directed toward Phoenix’s bedroom. Pierce and Phoenix froze where they stood, completely caught off-guard; before either thought to hide, the man stopped mid-sentence and turned their way. What followed was an awkward silence as they stared at each other, both sides apparently equally surprised — and then the man reached toward his belt and whipped out a gun, holding it toward Pierce and Phoenix. “Stay right there! And drop the knife!”

“I fucking told you,” Phoenix hissed at Pierce, her attention focused entirely on the gun as she held her hands up.

“You can’t be serious…” Pierce muttered under his breath as he released the kitchen knife to clamber to the ground. He then raised his voice to address the intruder as he gestured at the mess in the living room. “Hey, dude, what the fuck is this?”

“I’m the one with the gun, I ask the questions,” the man countered, his brow furrowed.

“What’s going on?” A female voice floated out of Phoenix’s room, followed by a lanky woman, swathed in enough dark clothing to hide her face and body. “…Who the hell are you?”

“Who are—? What do you mean, who are we?!” Pierce questioned irately, “we fucking live here!”

“I don’t think it was a good idea to tell them that…” Phoenix whispered to him.

“You live here?” the man responded incredulously. “…Well, that makes things easier, then, doesn’t it?”

“It will if you guys leave, immediately,” Pierce shot back.

“And who has the gun, here?” the man retorted as he brandished his weapon.

“Oh sure, I guess I’ll just tell you all about where I keep my hidden stash of valuables that I totally have.” Pierce snorted in derision. “I’m not telling you shit. And if you do anything to us, I guarantee you’ll regret it!”

“I’m sure we will,” the woman retorted, rolling her eyes and then stepping back into Phoenix’s bedroom. “Listen, boy,” she shouted from inside the room, “there’s no one in this city who will help you. Even if you go to the authorities, they’re all too busy right now to bother with a couple of looters on the outskirts of the city.”

“You opportunistic…!” Phoenix cut herself off and pursed her lips in irritation. “…Looters really are the same, no matter where you go.”

“Shut the hell up,” the man with the gun snapped. “Listen, you idiots. I’m already doing you a favor by letting you live this long. If you die here, no one will bother investigating — they’re all busy with the Quake. So for your own good, just sit still, and be quiet.”

“Doing us a favor my ass,” Pierce muttered irately. “I bet that’s just an excuse, huh?”

“You—” The male intruder scowled. “Didn’t I just tell you to shut up?”

“If you were really willing to kill us, you would’ve done it already,” Pierce countered. “I bet a dumbass like you doesn’t have the balls to pull that trigger!”

“Pierce…!” Phoenix muttered, “what are you doing?!…”

“You trying to test me?” The intruder moved his gun to the side and fired, triggering a brief flash of light — and then the couch exploded under the force of a single bullet. He then aimed the gun back at Pierce. “The next one goes in your head!”

“Yeah fucking right. You’re scared, aren’t you?” Pierce sneered. “You don’t even believe yourself with that investigation bullshit. Hell, we’re guests from another nation, you know. If we die here, there’s no way in hell Earth or the NSD would let that fly, you know? They’d hunt your ass down faster than you could plead guilty! So how about you just leave now, and we’ll pretend this never—”

In the middle of Pierce’s sentence, the muzzle of the gun flashed. Shit, the fucker actually did it—! Reflexively, he threw himself to the side, leaping over a cushion to land in the middle of the living room. Just before he landed, he glanced back at the gun — and then snapped his attention to the bullet that was flying through the air at an easily watchable pace. …What the? Since when were bullets so slow…?

By the time his thought completed, the bullet had accelerated back to supersonic speed and hit the front wall of the apartment, where it blew open a hole several inches across. Phoenix reflexively ducked to the side as soon as the bullet hit, but the man with the gun simply stared at the wall in confusion before looking over at Pierce. The man’s face then contorted with anger as he whipped the gun around to fire again at Pierce — only for the Earthian to leap out of the way once more, causing a loud crack sound in the air as he escaped the incoming bullet just after it left the barrel of the gun. Once again clear of immediate danger, Pierce stopped to look down at his body. What’s going on? Was that… a sonic boom?!

“…The hell?!” The intruder stared at Pierce with a mixture of confusion, awe, and anger. “How… this shouldn’t be possible! The Quake—!” The man stopped as Pierce suddenly appeared at his side faster than he could react.

“I told you,” Pierce spoke into the man’s ear, and then grabbed the gun out of his hand and smashed it over his head, sending him crumpling to the ground. “You really should have left.”

“Hey, what’s going on—?” the female intruder began to question as she peaked back into the living room, but the moment she did, Pierce chucked the gun at her head and cleanly knocked her out.

Once her body hit the floor, Pierce stopped to stare at both her and the male intruder. Now that he was clear of danger, his mind slowly began to catch up with and process everything that had just occurred. It had barely been ten seconds since he first dodged a bullet, and yet…

“Pierce, what the hell was that?!”

He slowly turned around to face Phoenix, who was still sitting on the ground where she had collapsed after the second gunshot. She stared up at him in shocked confusion, evidently unable to process exactly what had happened. Pierce remained uncertain of exactly what was going on as well, but as he considered the events that had just transpired, there was only one answer that came to his mind: he had just moved faster than sound.

“…I can’t believe this,” Phoenix muttered, drawing Pierce’s attention back to her. She climbed back to her feet and rubbed her temples, as though trying to massage away a headache. “I must be seeing things…”

In response to her voiced doubt, Pierce leaped across the room and appeared at her side in a split second. She promptly recoiled away from him in shock as he crossed his arms and grinned smugly.

“Well, would you look at that,” he exclaimed proudly. “I guess I’m a Chaotic!”

“But that… that doesn’t make any sense,” Phoenix responded. “You… you’re an Earthian. Right? Aren’t you…?”

“Oh c’mon. As if I could be from anywhere else.”

“But there’s also supposed to be a Chaos Quake right now… even if you are a Chaotic, it shouldn’t be possible for you to do anything!”

Pierce immediately sped into the kitchen, picked up all of the kitchenware off of the floor, and replaced them in their proper drawers — all in under a second. He then stopped and casually leaned against the kitchen counter tops, his expression and posture brimming with pride. “Sure looks like I can move faster than sound to me,” he remarked.

“I don’t understand what’s going on…” Phoenix pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “Chaotics can’t use their powers without Chaos Energy. That’s just a fact. So how the hell—”

“Hold on,” Pierce interjected as he eyed Phoenix warily. “…Say that again.”

“Say what again?”

“That— what you just said. All of it.”

“What, that Chaotics can’t use their powers without Chaos Energy? …Wait…” She gingerly held a hand to her throat, and then repeated, “Chaos” As she spoke the word, her voice was accompanied by a barely perceptible, yet clearly unnatural echo, as though the word itself held the power to influence her environment.

“Sounds like I’m not the only one who’s a Chaotic,” Pierce observed.

“What the— what the hell?!” Phoenix began massaging her throat with increased intensity. “Chaos. Holy shit. Chaos! What the fuck? How long has this been happening?!”

“I’m not sure. I want to say that something seemed off about your voice earlier today… this would certainly explain that.”

“But, this…” Phoenix stared at Pierce with a mixture of panic and confusion. “This doesn’t make any sense at all!”

“Isn’t that the whole point of Chaos Energy?” Pierce questioned, “you know, that it doesn’t make any fucking sense?”

“It doesn’t make any sense in relation to standard physics, yes, but it still has its own rules! Very clear rules, that have been established by millennia of tests and experience by the other races in the galaxy! And what’s happening right now — it defies all of them!”

“Well I’m not complaining. Do you have any idea how much easier this is going to make moving?”

“No! We can’t do that! We can’t use our powers so blatantly!”

Pierce passed Phoenix an incredulous glance. “And why the hell not?”

“Well, first of all, we should really figure out the limits of what we can do before we start trying to exploit our abilities,” Phoenix pointed out, “but that’s not the worst of it. Chaotic conscription is a universal policy in the galaxy, you know!”

“For everyone else, sure. But SERRCom only has, what, four Chaotics? Those Eximius Vir guys, right? There’s no way SERRCom has a conscription policy in place, there just aren’t enough Chaotics on Earth for it.”

“Do you think that will stop SERRCom from trying to draft us the moment they learn about us?”

“I expect them to try, but I don’t expect them to succeed.”

“Don’t be stupid. There are all kinds of ways to neutralize Chaotics — hell, just think of Trenon! He had superspeed, too, and look where that got him!”

Pierce’s expression collapsed into an annoyed scowl as a dull throb passed through his right torso. “…Yeah, but that’s only because he was weakened beforehand. Last night was just a clusterfuck, anyways. If I’m careful, I won’t suffer the same fate as him.”

“You? Careful?!”

“Just shut up. SERRCom doesn’t have any weird shadow monsters to throw at us, anyways, so we’ll be fine.”

“‘Shadow monsters’ or not, there’s still no way that you’ll be able to evade SERRCom for long. And even if you could, you’d never be able to live your regular life when SERRCom is constantly chasing you. Do you really want that?”

“Please, like I could give two shits about my regular life when I could be off doing superhero work. You know, saving people and shit. Imagine all the accolades, rewards, and recognition we could get!”

“Leave it to you to find the worst reason to become a hero…”

“Oh c’mon. If the end result is good, then who fucking cares about the motivation?”

“Look, just…” Phoenix sighed warily. “Just try to keep your speed in check at least until the Quake is over, alright? In the very least, we don’t want to give the Nimalians any reason to think that we might be responsible for the Quake.”

“But we aren’t.”

“I know, but if they learn that a couple of Earthians can suddenly use Chaotic abilities when their world is going to shit, do you really think they’ll just let us be in peace?”

Pierce sighed and shook his head. “Alright, alright. Fine. I still think you’re taking this too seriously, though.”

“And you’re taking it too lightly,” Phoenix countered, and then turned her attention to the two unconscious intruders. “We already have a whole situation to deal with here, because you just can’t resist goading others on. Even when it almost costs you your life!”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Fucking whatever, it worked out in the end.”

“And what do we do when they wake up and tell everyone they know that the people who live here are Chaotics who can use their powers during the Quake?”

“Hey, you said it yourself, this should be impossible. There’s no reason for anyone to believe them.”

“That’s…!” Phoenix closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and took a deep breath. “…Alright. Fine. Whatever. Let’s just… let’s pack our shit and get out of here already.”

“Won’t hear me argue with you there,” Pierce remarked as he sauntered into his bedroom, prepared to gather together his things and get on with the day.

Chapter 6 – Insights

Next Morning

“Damn, this meat is hella tough…”

“Hey, you’re the one who cooked it,” Phoenix retorted.

Pierce scowled. “Don’t blame me for this shitty meat. If it starts bad, it’ll end bad, no matter how you cook it.”

“Oh, suck it up,” Brikén responded from her seat on the couch. She took another bite of her own breakfast meat before continuing, “get used to it. With this Quake, all of the good stuff will just get more and more expensive.”

“Hmph…” Pierce grunted in annoyance as he continued eating his breakfast and contemplating his life in misery. After dealing with the looters the previous day, he and Phoenix had packed up all of their things and moved over to Brikén’s apartment — only to find that hers was even smaller than theirs, with only one bedroom, a living room, and a tiny kitchen. The Nimalian’s apartment was at least clean, which Pierce was thankful for; however, as the lone man, he had been forced to sleep on her tiny couch. At six feet tall, Pierce wasn’t too much taller than the average Earthian or Nimalian man, but he still turned out to be half a foot too long for Brikén’s couch. As a result, he had had a terrible night of sleep, compounded further by the substandard food items he found in Brikén’s kitchen that morning. She claimed that the food wasn’t actually that bad, and that it was far cheaper than any alternatives; Pierce and Phoenix could at least agree with her frugality in principle, but neither felt that her judgment of the food’s quality was in any way accurate.

As much as Pierce disliked the situation, however, it was what he had to deal with. So he sat down at Brikén’s small table across from Phoenix and miserably consumed the breakfast before him that tasted so terrible, despite his best efforts.

“Maybe you just don’t like it because it’s not the meat from Earth,” Brikén eventually suggested. “Food always tastes different, from planet to planet.”

“Sure, but I’ve had better meat than this while here,” Pierce countered. “I’m pretty sure your tastebuds just suck.”

“Whatever you say,” Brikén replied flatly, her attention primarily directed somewhere else. From Pierce’s perspective, it looked like she was simply staring into empty space, but he knew that she was actually just reading virtual articles fed directly through her eyes via Augmented Reality ocular implants. The technology was widespread throughout the galaxy, particularly among those who engaged in interstellar travel; however neither Pierce nor Phoenix were quite so lucky. As Earth was so technologically primitive compared to the rest of the galaxy, foreign technology was prohibitively expensive, so the Earthian Technological Advancement Agency — better known as the ETAA, the organization that managed the outreach program Pierce and Phoenix were participating in — could only afford to grant Pierce and Phoenix the bare minimum of implantation they would need: a set of realtime audio translation implants. These RTA implants allowed the two Earthians to communicate verbally with non-Earthians, but they remained locked out of all the other implantation-based conveniences of the galaxy.

Up until this point, Pierce hadn’t cared much about not having AR implants — he didn’t need them for running, to have fun, or get news, after all. But after the start of the Quake and the effective shutdown of the city, he found himself growing more and more restless and bored. Normally he would simply go for a run to cool his head, but given his and Phoenix’s recent experiences, Phoenix and Brikén both advised against spending much time outside. So instead he was left to stew in boredom, with nothing to alleviate it. Damn it, this fucking sucks, he thought, if only SOMETHING would happen—

“Oh for fuck’s sake! I can’t believe this…”

Pierce and Phoenix both snapped their attention toward Brikén, who now wore a scowl on her face.

“What’s the matter?” Phoenix questioned.

“Some idiot managed to crash up in space,” Brikén responded irately. “Apparently they lost control of their craft and hit the inner rings. The resulting debris started a collision cascade…”

“Wait, really?!”

“Yeah. The NSD forecasts that, by the end of the day, the planet will be surrounded by a debris field that could persist for months… or even a few years.”

“That sounds bad,” Pierce commented.

“Of course it’s bad,” Phoenix replied, “handling spacecraft and setting up satellites with the rings around must be dangerous enough as is, but to then throw a bunch of uncontrolled debris into the mix? I’m sure this is bad for the space station evacuations, as well…”

“It’s a fucking mess, that’s for sure,” Brikén declared. “All because pilots refuse to learn how to pilot their spacecraft without relying on the Chaos Energy-based systems. This is basic shit.”

“To be fair, though, no one expected the Quake,” Phoenix refuted. “Can you really blame someone for relying on something that, historically speaking, has almost always worked?”

“That ‘almost’ is the problem. If you told me this during the first Quake, I could sympathize, but this is the second one. People should’ve been prepared. Hell, the last Quake was only 40 years ago, that’s still within living memory. I remember the first Quake!”

Pierce regarded Brikén with surprise. “Hold on, what? You’re telling me you’re over 40?”

“I’m actually 52,” Brikén replied. “I don’t see why you’re surprised.”

“52?!” Phoenix exclaimed, “you barely look a day over 30!”

“…Oh, I see.” The Nimalian smirked. “This is a racial difference. Nimalians usually live for around 125 years, going by the standard Union calendar. Most Nimalians look as, er, young as I do at my age.”

“Damn.” Pierce whistled. “Life expectancy on Earth still caps out at 100…”

“Though, now that I think about it, we use a different calendar than the Nimalians,” Phoenix pointed out. “We can’t really directly compare those numbers.”

“Ah, the Nimalian year is only five days shorter than ours. So they gain one year over us every, what, 60 years or so? That’s nothing.” Pierce snorted. “Hell, that means Brikén is older than our parents!”

“Alright, I really did not need to hear that,” Brikén responded in annoyance.

“You look a lot better than my mom does, though,” Phoenix declared, “and my mom doesn’t look too bad, herself.”

Brikén scowled. “Enough with the parent talk, already.”

“…Sorry…?”

“Now that we know that you lived through the first Quake, though,” Pierce spoke up, “just what the hell was that like? Did everyone panic their damn heads off then as much as they are now?”

“Worse,” Brikén replied. “At least this time, everyone knows what to do… sort of. But the last time, it was a complete surprise. Complete chaos. No one knew what caused the Quake, or how long it would last, and it took weeks before people were even able to confirm that the entire galaxy was affected.” She sighed and shook her head. “It was… crazy. I lived on a Tier 3 world at the time, called Chiníka. Back then, it only had a population of 20 million, or so — basically, everyone lived in one of three cities. Like most Tier 3 worlds, Chiníka was self-sustaining when it came to food and water, but almost everything else was imported from elsewhere in the Union — actually, at that time, the Nimalian Union didn’t even exist yet. We were just the Nimalian Territories.”

“You’re making it sound like it was more than just four decades ago,” Pierce remarked.

“It sometimes feels like its been longer, with everything that’s happened during those four decades…” Brikén sighed again. “But, as I was saying, we were huge importers at the time. Then the Quake hit, and suddenly we could only use the Interstellar Gate to travel to other planets — that placed a hard limit on what we could ship in. One lone Gate can’t compare to the shipping capacity of a whole fleet of spacecraft, after all. Barely a month later, most of the luxuries people were used to started to dry up.” She chuckled bitterly. “You don’t realize how much you take soap for granted until you suddenly don’t have it anymore.”

Pierce and Phoenix responded with uncomfortable silence.

“…And then, about six months after the Quake started, the power plants started running out of fuel,” Brikén continued. “We still had some solar plants, thankfully, but the nights got rough, fast. A lot of people ended up going without fully-functioning heat for a winter, my family included. By the time the winter was over, at least a million people had died from exposure. …My mother included.”

“…I’m sorry to hear that,” Phoenix commented quietly.

“Yeah, well, it was 40 years ago.” Brikén shrugged and smirked, though Pierce could tell that the expression was forced. “But that was just my experience with the Quake. Honestly, Chiníka got off easy. Dozens of lower-population worlds were completely wiped out, since they were dependent on incoming resource shipments that couldn’t reach them. And the Tier 1 and 2 worlds all had to deal with de-orbiting space stations. Most stations at the time relied entirely on anti-gravity for station-keeping, which, I’m sure you can imagine, didn’t turn out so well for them.”

“Is that why everyone’s panicking about the space stations here?” Pierce questioned.

Brikén nodded. “That’s exactly why everyone’s panicking. That said, Ainminthalus’s stations were retrofitted with non-Chaos Energy-based station-keeping systems as backups some time ago, so the stations should be fine. But who knows. This new debris field sure won’t help at all, that’s for sure.”

“When you put it that way, I can understand why people are panicking,” Phoenix responded solemnly.

“I can, too, but it’s still no excuse. We should have learned from the first Quake. People should know that they can’t always rely on Chaos Energy.” Brikén scowled. “We could have prevented this debris disaster, if pilots just learned how to use their ships without relying on Chaos Energy, like I have. But they don’t, and now look where that got us.”

“Sounds like there really are dumbasses everywhere,” Pierce remarked.

“They ruin everything for everyone, don’t they,” Phoenix lamented. “Just one mistake, and space travel for an entire planet is ruined!”

“At least it should be easy enough to clean up once the Quake ends… assuming it does end,” Brikén said. “But in the meantime… orbital maneuvering will be tough.”

“Hold on a second…” Pierce glanced at Brikén with confusion. “I thought spacecraft were supposed to be grounded. What the hell was a civilian craft doing up in space?”

“That’s only half of it. Spacecraft that were already on the ground were grounded, but spacecraft that were in orbit at the time were told to remain in orbit.” Brikén smirked bitterly. “Most spacecraft use anti-gravity to manage their descent. Without that, they can’t exactly land without a skilled pilot at the controls. And larger spacecraft won’t even be able to land at all.”

“The galaxy sure loves anti-grav tech, huh?”

“It’s incredibly useful, I won’t deny that. It’s incredibly versatile, in the kinds of structures and transportation that it allows. But without Chaos Energy, it’s useless.” Brikén sighed. “There was actually a big push for non-Chaos Energy systems to replace most Chaos Energy-based tech after the first Quake. Or at least, to build in redundancies. The CSA made a lot of progress there for a few years, but then… people just started to forget. Chaos Energy is too damn convenient. And by the time of the Nanocreature War 20 years ago, it felt like people had basically just completely forgotten about the first Quake. It’s insane.”

“I guess everyone was hoping that the Quake was a one-of-a-kind event,” Phoenix commented.

“Would’ve been nice if it was,” Pierce muttered. “It sounds like a fucking nightmare.”

“The galaxy’s had its fair share of those over the past few decades,” Brikén said. “…I really hope this is the last of them…”

“Well, while we’re on the subject — and if you don’t mind of course,” Phoenix started, “…if you lived through the first Quake, then you had to have lived through the Nanocreature War, as well. What was that like?”

Brikén passed Phoenix a weary glance. “…Even worse.”

“…Oh…”

“Didn’t last nearly as long, though. Only about a month for the first part, and then there was a second attack a few months later, but that only lasted a day.”

“I heard that the ones who stopped the war were Nimalian.”

“That’s how the story goes. A bunch of young Chaotics, in the name of the fledgling NSD, went around and kicked ass. Ha.” Brikén snorted. “Sounds a little too convenient to me.”

“Isn’t that literally the officially accepted story, across the whole damn galaxy?” Pierce questioned. “What’s so weird about it?”

Brikén passed Pierce an incredulous glance. “You’re telling me that a group of less than ten people were able to stop an enemy force that threatened the entire fucking galaxy?”

“Yeah, but they were all Chaotics, weren’t they?” Pierce pressed; through the corner of his eye, he caught Phoenix giving him a wary glance, but he ignored her. “Chaotics are supposed to be hella powerful, aren’t they?”

“Sure, but they can’t do everything,” Brikén countered. “People give them too much credit.”

Pierce smirked. “Sounds like jealously to me.”

“No one who understands how things work in this galaxy is jealous of Chaotics,” Brikén refuted. “Sure, it could be useful, or even fun to have superpowers. But I wouldn’t be able to own and fly my own ship if I was scooped up by the military when I was 10 years old.”

“…Good point…”

“Not to mention how dangerous they can be. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Battle of Neticen, during the Nanocreature War?”

“You mean the battle where a fight between two people blew up a whole planet?” Pierce snorted. “Yeah, you could say that’s a popular story.”

“And that was just two people,” Brikén commented. “Two people! That’s just too much power for one person to hold. And that’s not even considering the fact that Chaotics can go berserk.”

“What does that even mean?”

Brikén pursed her lips, her brow furrowed. “…You remember two nights ago? That was all because of a berserk Chaotic.”

“What? …Oh…” Pierce’s expression clouded as the memories of that night momentarily flashed through his mind — chief among them, the memory of Trenon’s death. From what Pierce could recall, all of the damage he had seen that night had been caused by a sort of feral-looking silhouette. So… that was a berserk Chaotic? Didn’t it take three or four other Chaotics to stop them? And even then, Trenon… A dull throb passed through his torso, prompting him to gingerly grasp his wound. If I hadn’t been there, then… no. I can’t think like that. He shook his head and looked back toward Brikén. “…Sounds like you aren’t a big fan of Chaotics, huh.”

“I have mixed feelings about them, really.” Brikén sighed wearily. “I’ve worked with and talked with many Chaotics, and most of them were like Trenon. Honest, earnest people who tried to do the best with what they had. But… it’s tricky. I don’t like discriminating against people for something they can’t control, but when that something can literally kill other people at a moment’s notice… well, that changes things.”

“Do you think Chaotic conscription is a good idea?” Phoenix questioned.

“That one’s a little over my head,” Brikén replied. “I don’t like conscription in general. But with Chaotics… I don’t know. Someone needs to keep an eye on them, I guess.”

Pierce and Phoenix exchanged wary glances; neither offered a counter to Brikén’s argument.

“…Well, anyways.” Brikén stood up from the couch and stretched. “That was a good talk, but I have some work to do.”

“What work is there to do, now?” Pierce questioned incredulously, “the whole city’s basically shut down!”

“We’re working on that,” Brikén countered as she retrieved her long coat from her room and began putting it on. “The local government is breaking out some non-antigrav transports today, and I happen to be one of the few people qualified to handle them.”

“Sounds like you were prepared for this kind of situation.”

“Only as much as everyone else should have been.” The pilot stepped up to the front door of her apartment. “I should be back by evening. Until then, sit tight.”

“Be careful out there,” Phoenix replied.

“Ah, don’t worry about me.” Brikén then opened the door and stepped outside. “See you later.”

Chapter 7 – Memories of Home

3 Days Later

“And what are you having?”

“You have any fireball?”

“…Fireball?”

“Oh. Right. It’s this, uh… it’s like a cinnamon whiskey. Wait. You don’t have cinnamon on this planet, do you…” Pierce scowled.

“We don’t have whiskey, either,” the bartender declared. “Ran out last night.”

“The hell? Damn. …Ah, fuck it. Just give me the cheapest shit you have.”

“One Tresédian Ale, then.”

Pierce watched the bartender retreat to the back before hanging his head and sighing warily. Then he leaned back in his chair and glanced to his side, at the rest of the local bar. While the bar was situated in the outskirts of Alus, where the buildings were shorter and sparser, it was still crowded with rowdy and irritable patrons. Even the sun had yet to set, though it currently hung low to the horizon on the other side of the city, casting the area Pierce was in in near-complete shadow. Pierce regarded the crowded bar with a small amount of amusement — while some Nimalians seemed to look down on Earthians, they certainly reacted to disaster, stress, and anxiety in similar ways.

Pierce turned his attention to the window he was sitting next to, and at the street below him. From his position on the second floor, he could easily see two separate checkpoints set up a couple blocks from each other, each manned by soldiers in green uniforms. While the local government of Alus remained nominally in charge, they were so swamped with dealing with the Quake that they had requested the local Nimalian Systems Defense garrison to step in and manage law enforcement. As of a couple days ago, the NSD had set up checkpoints all across the city and instated a curfew, mandating that everyone be home or otherwise indoors by an hour before midnight. Pierce hadn’t the slightest idea of why — it wasn’t as though the city had devolved into any sort of lawlessness, as far as he could tell. Even looting incidents seemed rather rare, his encounter earlier in the week aside. All the NSD “law enforcement” managed to accomplish was add to the already dystopia-like atmosphere that had befallen the city since the beginning of the Chaos Energy Quake.

The distant sound of flaring rocket engines reached Pierce’s ears, drawing his gaze toward the spaceport in the distance. There, he could see a lone spacecraft taking off, with additional rocket boosters and fuel tanks attached — it looked incredibly similar to the ancient space shuttles used during the first fifty years of space travel on Earth, except several times larger. He watched the craft take off and slowly disappear against the backdrop of the rings above, presumably to help with the ongoing evacuation of the orbital space stations. Ever since the debris cascade several days ago, the NSD had taken over the evacuation operation with incredible swiftness and placed further restrictions on space travel in an attempt to reduce the chances of more collisions — and the creation of more debris. The result was an incredibly slowed evacuation, but to their credit, there had been no further collisions since.

Pierce frowned as he further considered the situation. While the steps taken by the NSD had indeed seemed to prevent any deaths, the fact still remained that Alus — and the other cities on the surface of the planet — were not equipped to deal with the space station evacuations. Namely, they simply didn’t have enough space for an influx of over a million people in such a short time period. So far, only a few thousand people had been shunted from the stations down to Ainminthalus, and the local governments had managed to find room for them — either through commandeering empty apartment units, or generous civilians opening up their homes to house evacuees. But according to projections in the local news, it wouldn’t be long before the cities would have to come up with alternative solutions, and Pierce did not look forward to what that might look like. Least of all due to the fact that it could end poorly for him and Phoenix, as non-citizens.

“Here you go.”

“Huh—? Oh.” Pierce watched as the bartender placed a thick mug on his small table, filled to brimming with a deep golden-brown liquid. The bartender then left as quickly as they appeared to tend to the other patrons, leaving Pierce alone. With a sigh, he grabbed the mug and took a large swig — only to grimace and gag at the overwhelming bitterness. I guess I did order the cheapest shit they had, he thought miserably. I wish I could afford better, but without knowing how long this Quake will last, I have to conserve my money. If this Quake ends up being a whole damn year, though… fuck. Fuck my life…

As he forced himself to continue drinking, his thoughts drifted to home. If not for the Quake, he and Phoenix would be home on Earth by now, preparing for the upcoming academic year. Even if the Quake were to end immediately, Phoenix was still on track to miss her first day of classes; luckily for Pierce, he still had another month before classes at Caltech would begin. With any luck, the Quake would end with enough time for him to return to Earth before then. Too bad my luck’s been almost nothing but bad this week… shit. What if this damn Quake goes for a full year, just like the last one? I’ll miss an entire fucking year of classes… not to mention a whole track season. This is fucking crazy…

“Figures we’d find you here.”

Pierce glanced over his shoulder, where he found Phoenix and Brikén approaching. He offered them a half-hearted wave before turning around and taking another drink. “Took you guys long enough to find me.”

“We shouldn’t have had to ‘find’ you at all,” Phoenix admonished, coming to stand next to the table and glare down at Pierce. “The hell are you doing on your own?”

“Oh lay off,” Pierce retorted. “I’m not getting into trouble.”

“But trouble might still find you. As non-citizens, that could be bad.”

“You don’t say,” Pierce drawled as he passed a glance at the NSD checkpoints out the window.

“I can’t believe you,” Phoenix muttered. “Do you ever think about the potential consequences of your actions?”

“Come the fuck on, I just went to the fucking bar,” Pierce countered. “What kind of fucking consequences are there for going for a damn walk? I was getting cabin fever just sitting all cooped up in Brikén’s apartment.”

“I can understand that,” Brikén remarked as she took a seat at the table across from Pierce. “Well, I don’t know what ‘cabin fever’ is, but I think I get your point. I don’t know what I’d do if I was trapped at home all day, every day.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t go for a walk, either,” Phoenix refuted. “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be going off on your own!”

“Who are you, my fucking mom?” Pierce scowled. “We’re all adults here. I can handle myself.”

Phoenix sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration.

“I just need something to do,” Pierce continued after taking another drink. “You know? Something. Anything. But with the damn city shut down, and our mentorship over, there’s nothing to do!”

“…I can’t really argue with that…” Phoenix conceded. She then glanced over at Brikén. “How’s your truck-driving job going? Do you think we could help you out?”

“I would love nothing more than to be able to give the two of you something to do,” Brikén replied, “but my job is pretty heavily regulated. The fact that you’re Earthians aside, I doubt you have the permits and licenses required to handle the machinery and systems.”

Pierce snorted. “I’d probably go fucking crazy driving trucks around, anyways. …Why do you even have to drive them in the first place? Even we figured out fucking self-driving tech.”

“I don’t recall ever saying that I drove them,” Brikén countered. “I help oversee the loading process, and manage the routing. The actual driving is all computers.”

“I guess that sounds better…”

“It can get tough at times, though. The ground streets of the city weren’t really designed for being driven — they’re all primarily pedestrian paths. Figuring out how to get shit from point A to point B in that situation, without anti-gravity systems, can be… annoying.”

“I bet it is,” Pierce drawled as he took another drink, nearly finishing off his mug.

Phoenix eyed the mug warily. “…You know, speaking of pedestrian paths, how about we go for a walk?”

Pierce passed her an incredulous glance. “I thought you didn’t like the idea of going for a walk.”

“I said I didn’t like you being out by yourself. A concern which is totally justified if you’re just going to go off and get drunk.”

“I’m not going to get fucking drunk off a single beer.”

“Maybe, but no one drinks Tresédian Ale for the taste,” Brikén remarked, a slight smirk on her face.

Pierce glared at her for a moment before shaking his head. “Whatever. I guess I could use a walk. Or a run.”

“Let’s stick to walking… for now,” Phoenix commented, her voice stiff. “Just, you know… to be careful.”

Pierce turned to look at her in annoyance. It was clear that she was referring to his newfound superspeed — while he did indeed long for an opportunity to try out his speed for longer periods of time than short bursts when no one was looking, he had still managed to keep his power concealed for the several days that had passed since discovering it. Yet Phoenix still wouldn’t let up with her concern. Shit, she barely trusts me, it seems like

Brikén promptly stood up. “A walk sounds fine by me, too.”

“Sounds like we all agree, then,” Phoenix declared, turning her back on the group as she began maneuvering her way through the crowds to the bar exit. “Let’s go!”

“Yeah, yeah…” Pierce muttered as he followed suit. Just before leaving, he stopped near the front to flash his wrist at the payment processor. A second later, the computer had read the chip in his wrist and deducted the funds for his ale, at which point it flashed briefly, signaling that he was clear to go.

A minute later, the trio found themselves down on the street just outside of the building that hosted the bar. The air outside was crisp and clear, while the environment was shrouded in shade cast by the tallest buildings in the city center. Sunset had yet to properly take place, with the mountains to the east of the city still illuminated with sunlight, yet street lamps provided the primary source of light at this point in the evening.

“There really are checkpoints everywhere…”

Pierce glanced over at Phoenix, and then followed her eyes to where she was looking: at one of the NSD checkpoints he had seen from his seat in the bar.

“Yeah…” Brikén sighed. “It’s security theater. They aren’t actually accomplishing anything, but apparently the thought that they might be is enough for most people.”

Pierce passed her an incredulous look. “You have some pretty cynical takes, you know?”

“Is it really cynicism if it’s the truth?”

“Heh.” He simply chuckled and shook his head as he began walking down the street in the opposite direction of the checkpoint.

“At least it’s a nice evening,” Phoenix commented as she swept her gaze across the shadowed trees, the sun-lit mountains to the east, and the clear skies and distant rings above. She then turned her attention down to the tall buildings to the west, and their gradual ascent into the sky the farther away they were. “And the city itself… it’s pretty amazing, when you actually stop to look at at.”

Pierce glanced up at the buildings himself. The city center stood many kilometers away from their current position, but the skyscrapers there extended well over a kilometer skyward — some of them even surpassing the two kilometer mark, making them more than visible from a great distance. Furthermore, due to the contours of the city skyline, looking at the buildings felt much like looking at a man-made mountain instead. “I guess it is pretty neat,” he conceded. “Those buildings are hella tall, that’s for sure.”

“If you think those are tall, then just wait until you see more built-up planets,” Brikén remarked.

“Brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘skyscraper’, doesn’t it,” Phoenix said.

“Must take a lot of work to make buildings that tall, though,” Pierce stated. “I bet they use anti-grav tech somehow, huh?”

“You’d be right,” Brikén replied. “Construction benefits massively from anti-gravity technology. Many CSA planets will even use anti-gravity generators to support massive buildings that they wouldn’t be able to construct otherwise. Of course, that becomes a problem when something like the Quake happens…”

“…Still, the fact that the buildings here are so tall is incredible,” Phoenix commented. “We still have just barely broken the one kilometer limit on Earth, but Ainminthalus… this is just a Tier 2 world, right? If just a random Tier 2 world looks like this, I wonder what your Homeworld looks like…”

“Must be hella crazy,” Pierce remarked. “Cities and buildings even bigger than this? Shit…”

“And if they all look like Alus…” Phoenix looked up at the trees lining the street and the rolling contours of the buildings. “I can only imagine what it must look like…”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Brikén countered. “Nimalia has some great views, sure. Some better than I’ve seen elsewhere in the galaxy, to be honest. But it’s also tainted by pre-space development, war scars, and more political bullshit than you’d find on a world like Ainminthalus.”

“What does that mean?” Phoenix questioned.

Pierce snorted. “I bet it’s just more of her cynicism showing through.”

“It’d be nice if it was just cynicism,” Brikén replied, “but it’s not. As our Homeworld, it’s definitely true that Nimalia has a lot more history than any other planet in the Union, which can be neat at times. But that history will get in the way of the present in ways that aren’t possible on a planet like Ainminthalus. There’s a lot of shitty cities and places on Nimalia, either due to bad planning in the past or an unwillingness to build over historical landmarks.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Phoenix said. “Historical landmarks can have a lot of value.”

“Sure, but history is history. It’s all recorded in the history books anyways, there’s no need to keep physical locations intact for sentimental value alone.”

“And you wonder why I call you a cynic,” Pierce retorted.

Brikén pursed her lips in annoyance. “Look, I’m not advocating we tear the whole damn place down. There are some genuinely beautiful places on Nimalia, from the giant tree forests of Relédiaka, to the massive built-up cities of Tekdecé, to the towering mountain ranges of Nimaliaka… but there’s an equal amount of shit, too. Hell, there’s a whole continent that’s entirely a lawless wasteland, and it’s been a lawless wasteland for centuries because the other nations just don’t care to deal with it.”

“A whole continent?” Phoenix echoed, “how is a whole continent a wasteland?”

Pierce cast her an amused glance. “I dunno, I bet you could say something similar about Australia.”

“Australia isn’t a wasteland, it’s just… a bunch of unused land.”

“A bunch of unused land that’ll fucking kill you. I’d call that a wasteland.”

“Try saying that to someone who lives there.”

“I would, but they’re all too busy trying to stop their environment from killing them.”

Brikén watched the two with a mild smirk on her face. “This ‘Australia’ place sounds interesting.”

“It is, but not as interesting as most people would have you believe,” Phoenix countered. “The whole ‘deadly environment’ thing is more of a stupid meme than it is reality, honestly.”

“First of all, all memes are stupid, so saying ‘stupid meme’ is redundant,” Pierce pointed out. “Second of all, you sound like someone who’s never been there. Actual Australians say the same things as I did, you know.”

“And actual Americans will claim we have it the worst in the world, but we don’t take them seriously, either.”

“Wow, that’s one hell of a comparison you just made there.”

“I must say,” Brikén interjected, drawing the attention of Pierce and Phoenix, “hearing you two talk about Earth reminds me a lot of Nimalian Homeworlders talking about Nimalia. It’s kind of amusing.”

“…I guess shit-talking your home is pretty universal, huh,” Pierce commented.

“Yeah, now that I think about it, we could say the same of Earth as what you said of Nimalia,” Phoenix said. “There’s a lot of beauty, but there’s a lot bad, as well…”

“Well, if I ever find myself on Earth, you’ll have to show me around,” Brikén remarked.

“You’re asking the wrong people for that,” Phoenix replied. “I barely have enough money to show you the local supermarket, and I’m sure Pierce isn’t doing much better.”

“Hey! I could at least reach the beach with what I have,” Pierce countered.

Brikén frowned. “What? How expensive are things on Earth?”

Pierce and Phoenix exchanged uneasy glances. “Well…” Phoenix started, “it’s, uh… less about how expensive it is, and more—”

“Wait. Hold that thought…” Brikén held up her hand as her attention shifted away. As far as Pierce could tell, it looked like something on her AR implants had distracted her — and when her expression collapsed into a deep scowl, he knew that it wasn’t good.

“Did something happen…?” Phoenix questioned warily, having noticed Brikén’s expression as well.

“You could say that.” Brikén turned back to face them, her tone solemn. “There was another ring collision, and a new cascade. The space station is fine, but a handful of satellites have de-orbited… and their inevitable debris is likely to come down right on top of Alus.”

Chapter 8 – Falling Chaos

“…Their inevitable debris is likely to come down right on top of Alus.”

“What?!” Phoenix exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Are you saying the city’s going to be destroyed?!”

“Shit, that can’t be right. Can it?” Pierce questioned, his attention on Brikén.

“Not the entire city, no…” Brikén replied, her eyes jumping back and forth as though reading an invisible book. “…There’s a handful of satellites coming down, as well as a bunch of rocks from the rings. The ring debris isn’t threatening any settlements, since there aren’t any cities on or near the equator… but the satellite debris is going to be spread over a large area of the planet’s surface, and Alus is included in that area. The city won’t be leveled, but if debris reaches it, then it could take out several of the buildings.”

“That still doesn’t sound good,” Phoenix responded uneasily. “Are we in danger?”

“It’s impossible to say. There’s too many variables in play. We won’t know exactly how many pieces of debris there will be, and where they’ll land, until it’s too late.”

Pierce glanced down the street at an NSD checkpoint several blocks away. The soldiers stationed there had already begun spreading out and entering nearby establishments, presumably to ensure that the inhabitants were aware of the new disaster. “Just our fucking luck,” he muttered, his expression sullen — until an idea suddenly formed in his head. Turning back to Brikén, he asked, “just how big are these satellites?”

“Not too large. According to the reports, they’re mostly communications and global positioning satellites, so… under a thousand kilograms?”

“And how small is the debris likely to be?”

“It’s hard to say. Maybe they’ll break up into a thousand tiny pieces, maybe they’ll stay completely intact. Who knows? They’ll be dangerous either way.”

“Yeah…” Pierce nodded absentmindedly, “…but one is easier to deal with than the other…”

“Oh no…” Phoenix grabbed Pierce’s sleeve and yanked him down to hiss into his ear, “you are not thinking of doing what I think you’re doing.”

“Why the hell not?” Pierce shot back, his voice low in an effort to prevent Brikén from hearing. “I have fucking superspeed!”

“And how the hell is that going to help you stop a bunch of de-orbiting satellites?!”

“There’s a lot you can do with superspeed besides just running hella fast. You just have to be creative!”

“Creative my ass, you just discovered your powers four days ago! There’s no way you have enough practice or control to handle this!”

“What are the two of you whispering about?”

Pierce and Phoenix both glanced back at Brikén, who was eying them warily.

She then jerked her head toward the NSD checkpoint. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but we need to go find the safe spots, now!”

“Yeah. Of course.” Phoenix cleared her throat and stepped away from Pierce. “You hear that, Pierce?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Pierce nodded… and then whipped around on his heel and ran in the opposite direction of the checkpoint, making sure to keep his speed down to a human level as he shouted over his shoulder, “I’ll meet you guys there! I just have to do something real quick!”

“What?!” Brikén stared after him incredulously. “You dumbass! What are you—?”

“Damn it!” Phoenix shouted in anger before taking off after Pierce. “You stupid bastard, get back here!”

“Wait, Phoenix! What’s gotten into you?!”

“Just go on without us!” Phoenix replied impatiently, “I’ll make sure Pierce doesn’t get himself killed!”

“Ha! Like that could ever happen,” Pierce retorted under his breath, just as he and Phoenix rounded a corner and Brikén fell out of sight. “I’ll save this city from destruction, and I’ll do it all without getting hurt. Just you guys watch!…”

*     *     *

“Pierce, you fucking idiot!”

“Hey, you’re the one who decided to follow me.”

“Yeah, to try and talk you down from getting yourself fucking killed!”

“I won’t die. In fact, I’ll be the one preventing tons of other people from dying!”

“Argh…!” Phoenix threw her hands up in frustration. “I can’t believe you!”

Pierce simply snorted in response as he continued scanning the twilit skies from his position on top of Alus’s tallest skyscraper. Shortly after he and Phoenix had escaped Brikén’s line of sight, Pierce had scooped Phoenix up into his arms and then taken off across the city as fast as his legs could carry him — and then, in one clean motion, he had jumped from the ground to just over the top of the two-kilometer tall skyscraper he now stood atop. It had been the first time since discovering his powers that he had allowed himself to actually run with them, and the experience was — in a word — exhilarating. Without access to a speedometer, he had no idea how fast he had actually been running, but he felt certain that he surpassed twice the speed of sound at a minimum.

As his thoughts lapsed into reminiscing over his brief run through the city, Pierce felt a satisfied smirk spread across his face. With a power like this… heh. No one can stop me!

“Alright, you dumbass, what exactly is your plan, here?”

Pierce glanced back at Phoenix, who had her hands on her hips as she glared at him expectantly. “Well,” he began, “as you just saw, I have fucking superspeed. I just jumped two kilometers like it was nothing!”

“And how the hell is that going to help us here? Don’t tell me you’re going to try redirecting the incoming debris by jumping at it.”

Pierce grinned. “That’s exactly it.”

Phoenix stared at him incredulously. “You can’t be serious! Do you really think that will work?!”

“Of course it will. Just think about it.” Pierce turned around to continue searching the sky for signs of any incoming debris. “Some satellites were de-orbited, but they’re still going to be coming in at an oblique angle. Hitting them with a high-speed object should be enough to deflect them.”

“The scales are all off, though,” Phoenix countered. “Objects on atmospheric re-entry are often hypersonic, especially if it’s an uncontrolled re-entry! That means that any debris will be moving so fast that you’ll only have one chance to hit them. If you miss, you’ll never return to the ground fast enough to try again!”

“That’s no problem. I might be a track star, but I’m no slouch in jumping and throwing events, too. I’ve got plenty of control over aiming my body.”

“You think your fucking track practice is going to help you here?!”

“It should help you, too,” Pierce replied as he glanced back at Phoenix. “You’re supposed to be some javelin-throwing, shotputting goddess, aren’t you? That should help out a lot with your Chaos abilities.”

“That doesn’t even—! Argh, you’re so dense!” Phoenix scowled. “Skill in one area doesn’t transfer to another so easily!”

“You might surprise yourself if you actually tried.”

“…You really aren’t going to let me talk you out of this, are you?”

“Nope.” Pierce shook his head and grinned again. “C’mon, think about it. We could save a whole damn city from calamity! That’s the kind of hero story that’ll have chicks dropping their pants for kilometers!”

Phoenix responded with a deadpan stare before closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. “…I should’ve known your primary motivation was getting laid.”

“Of course it is. All dudes’ primary motivation in life is getting laid.”

“For fuck’s sake…” She sighed warily. “…Well, fuck it. If you’re so intent on getting yourself killed, then I might as well watch so I can tell Conrad and Kestrel how pathetic you looked.”

“As if I could let myself die here. This is only the start of my heroics!”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure.” Phoenix made a grandiose show of rolling her eyes. “But if that’s the case, then we should actually work out exactly how this is going to work.”

“Finally, some cooperation,” Pierce remarked. “But this isn’t hard. Just spot a piece of debris, jump at it, deflect it — bam, done.”

“It isn’t that simple. Like I said earlier, this debris is likely to be hypersonic — and even if the satellites break up, their debris is likely to weigh a lot, as well. Certainly more than you. That means a lot of momentum, a lot of kinetic energy. You, by comparison, will have far less kinetic energy, even with your superspeed. If you want to deflect the debris, then you’ll have to hit them at just the right angle — an oblique angle, rather. Like, you won’t stop them if you jump at them head-on.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Pierce retorted. “C’mon, this is basic kinematics.”

“And who had to tutor you on kinematics back in high school?”

“Please, that was, like, four years ago.”

Phoenix shook her head in disbelief. “Anyways, the speed of debris will be the biggest issue. We should still have some time before it actually comes down, but when it does, it’ll all come at once. You won’t have time to jump at one piece of debris, return to the ground, and then jump at another.”

“Why the hell not? I have superspeed!”

“Yes, and you can run fast, and use your speed to jump high. But can you make yourself fall faster?”

“…Okay, good point…” Pierce regarded her with a questioning look. “What, do you have a solution?”

“I do, if you’re really as good with your powers as you think you are.”

“Of course I am. Hit me with what you have.”

“…Well… it might sound silly, but what you’ll probably have to do is use each piece of debris you deflect as a springboard toward other pieces of debris. So instead of returning to the ground, you’d launch yourself at one piece of debris, hit it feet-first, and then jump off straight at a new piece of debris.”

“Ah, like a wall-jump, but all the walls are in the sky and hurdling toward the ground at Mach speeds.”

“Uh… sort of.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. But what about you?”

Phoenix gave him an odd look. “What about me?”

“I’m not the only Chaotic here,” Pierce declared. “We established that, haven’t we? So what can you do? You’re a Chaostechnic, right?”

“What? How do you know that?”

“Do you really think I’m that stupid? Your voice did that weird echo thing when you said the word ‘Chaos’, that’s literally the signature ability of Chaostechnics.”

“No, I know that, but how do you know that?”

“I looked it up on the Intranet earlier this week. You know, when I was bored out of my damn skull.”

“You looked up Chaostechnism on the Intranet?! Do you have any idea how that could trace back to us?”

“Fucking relax. No one will suspect that the two Earthians were Chaotics. Besides…” Pierce passed Phoenix a knowing glance. “You knew I was right when I called you a Chaostechnic. You looked it up too, didn’t you?”

“…Hmph. So what if I did?”

“If you did, then you should know what you can do with your power, right?”

“…Theoretically, yes. And… I suppose there are a few abilities that would be useful here, if I could use them. But I don’t know if I can.”

Pierce glanced into the now dusky skies; in the far distance to the east, he could make out a handful of lights slowly growing in size. “Looks like the show is about to start soon.” He looked back to Phoenix. “If you have something in mind, now is the time to try it!”

“Don’t you order me around,” she snapped, and then sighed. “…But you’re right. Damn it. I hate it when that happens.”

“You hate when I’m right?!”

“Just… keep your distance.” She took another deep breath, turning away from Pierce to look out into the rapidly darkening skies. “…Alright. Let’s try… Chaos Assist!”

Nothing happened.

“…Nope. Okay, then. Chaos Surefire!”

Still, nothing happened.

“Damn! That would’ve been useful.”

“Surefire?” Pierce questioned.

“It would’ve increased my accuracy,” Phoenix replied. “But apparently I’m not a weapon-type Chaostechnic, so I can’t use it. As for other options… hmm… Chaos… Void? Shit.”

“Better hurry it up,” Pierce muttered, his attention now focused on the incoming debris — which had now come close enough to see, as they glowed from the heat and pressure of re-entry.

“Damn.” Phoenix scowled, and then reached her right hand outward. “There’s only one more type that could be useful here. Here’s hoping I can use it… Chaos… Cannon!

The moment the phrase left her mouth, a small purple projectile appeared in her hand and immediately launched into the distance, where it nigh-instantly disappeared from sight.

“A projectile attack! Perfect!” Pierce exclaimed.

“Yes, but it’s small…” Phoenix frowned uneasily. “Who knows how much it will actually help.”

“Well we’re about to find out,” Pierce remarked, his eyes skyward. The sun had now fully set, allowing him and Phoenix to easily see the glowing pieces of metal that rocketed downward to the planet’s surface. If Pierce hadn’t known any better, he would have thought they were simply shooting stars; but unlike shooting stars, these burning chunks were straight on track to slam into Alus’s large collection of skyscrapers.

Chaos Cannon! Chaos Cannon! Chaos uh… wait— shit. Chaos… Mach 2 Cannon?

Pierce glanced over at Phoenix just as she launched a volley of three energy projectiles at the incoming debris. He couldn’t track the small projectiles themselves in the post-dusk darkness, but a couple seconds later, one of the debris chunks in the distance appeared to slightly alter course. Alright, close enough! He took a brief moment to locate the nearest piece of de-orbiting satellite debris, and then one moment to work out in his head the best trajectory to deflect it, at which point he crouched down in preparation to launch himself into the sky. Here… we… GO!

Instantly, Pierce’s feet pushed against the roof of the skyscraper with enough force to accelerate him to well beyond the speed of sound. The skyscraper disappeared underfoot as he sailed through the air over Alus, and the sea of buildings below — but Pierce hadn’t the time to take in the sights. He quickly whipped his body around in the air, bringing his feet in front of him as he neared a piece of debris. Alright, just one chance! Deflect it, and then…!

A split-second later, he found himself near enough to the debris to see the actual shape and texture of the object. It looked like a piece of a solar panel — but that was all he was able to discern before his feet found purchase against it. Time had already seemed to be progressing slowly to Pierce, but now it slowed to a crawl as a million thoughts raced through his head. The right angle to push against the debris to deflect it from the skyscrapers, the location of a nearby piece of debris, the right angle to launch himself toward it, the fact that the piece of debris he was just next to felt searing hot— shit, shit, this is fucking hot!!

The realization that the heat of re-entry was incredibly high momentarily distracted Pierce, forcing his body to act on instinct alone. Instantly, he slammed his feet into the side of the debris, launching himself through the air. …Well, all things considered, that could’ve been a lot worse, he mused as he glanced down at his shoes — which, surprisingly, remained completely intact. I did read on the Intranet that Velocitechnics have increased durability, and that that durability passes on to anything that’s in contact with their skin… but man, this is hella useful—!

His thoughts were cut short as he slammed into another piece of debris. Caught completely off-guard, he was unable to position himself to launch off of the debris again, and so simply rebounded and began falling toward the streets below. Shit! Damn it, Pierce, stay focused! He momentarily glanced back at the piece of debris he had just slammed into, watching as it clipped the side of a towering skyscraper, but continued on without hitting anything else. Good, looks like I AM helping! Now, for the rest!

At that point, his vision of the sky was eclipsed by the walls of another skyscraper that he had just fallen below. As his falling trajectory took him closer and closer to the building’s side, he whipped his legs around — and then slammed his feet into the outer wall as soon as he was in range. The wall immediately gave way, but just before it did, Pierce was able to launch himself upward, toward the wall of another skyscraper. Alright, that’s less than good. At least its not enough damage to bring down the building, so as long as I can deflect the rest of the debris, it’ll be worth it!

He then kicked off of another skyscraper wall, sending him further skyward until he found purchase against a third skyscraper. This time, he took a split-second to reorient himself toward the oncoming debris — just in time to spot one chunk that was on a collision course with a nearby building. Immediately, he launched himself toward it, slamming into it feet-first within a second and rebounding off of it violently, deflecting it just enough to miss the building.

As Pierce sailed through the air once more, he took a quick moment to investigate the state of the situation. Much of the debris had shot past the city; he could see a few areas in the distance where a chunk of debris had landed in the middle of some shorter buildings and caused damage, but all of the skyscrapers toward the center of Alus appeared to be be intact — or at least, mostly intact. As he took note of this, he also noticed that several pieces of debris were being deflected long before they could enter either his or Phoenix’s range. Do the Nimalians have deflectors of their own? But what? Some kind of lasers, or guns, or something? Well, whatever it is, the more help, the better!

A split-second later, Pierce whipped his legs around just in time to kick off of a skyscraper toward another piece of debris. With a little bit of experience under his belt, Pierce was able to deflect the satellite chunk and rebound directly toward another piece of debris with ease. He hit that piece and kicked off toward another, and then another, and then another again — in the span of only a few seconds, he had managed to deflect five pieces of debris from their building collision courses. With a satisfied smirk on his face, he allowed himself to fall onto the roof of a shorter skyscraper before looking up at the sky to see what was left. The vast majority of debris chunks had passed by at that point; judging by the dull red glow that seemed to fill parts of the sky, he could tell that not all of the debris had been stopped from hitting the city. Even so, the tallest building remained intact — and as far as Pierce was concerned, that had been his main objective. Allowing a massive skyscraper to collapse when surrounded by a veritable forest of other skyscrapers would have been disastrous—

Wait a minute— shit! He pursed his lips as he noticed one last piece of debris hurdling through the sky toward the city, having already made it past the Nimalian deflectors. It only took a brief moment for Pierce to figure out where the debris was headed, and once he did, his expression collapsed into a scowl. It’s going to take out the building I left Phoenix on! Shit!!

Without wasting another moment, Pierce launched himself into the sky, using other skyscrapers as further springboards to rapidly close the distance between himself and the piece of debris. A split-second later, he was rocketing toward the chunk of metal, his feet angled upwards in preparation to kick it. Fuck, it’s too big! I’ll have to hit it more than once! A moment later, he landed against the debris — ignored the heat — crouched his legs — and then kicked off as hard as he could, sending himself hurdling toward the ground so fast that he slammed into the surface over two kilometers below before he even realized what he had done. And yet he still didn’t stop, as he immediately leaped back toward the piece of debris, prepared to deflect it once more. A quick look at the metal’s trajectory suggested that one more good push should properly alter its course to miss Alus’s tallest skyscraper, but a quick look was all Pierce had the time for. Barely a second after he had kicked off of the debris the first time, he slammed into it again, grunting in pain as he kicked off it once more. In an effort to more severely alter the course of the debris, Pierce angled his kick to send the debris up and to the east, sending him down and to the west — and straight through the wall of the skyscraper. He rolled to a painful stop within the building, completely unable to properly catch himself against the broken glass and furniture that stood in his way.

Ow… ugh… Pierce gingerly rubbed his back as he slowly picked himself up. Damn… that—

An intense rumbling threw Pierce off of his feet and knocked several pieces of furniture over. Instantly, he jumped back to his feet, only to feel continued rumbling throughout the building around him. The shaking now was less intense than the first shock, but as he witnessed a shower of glass and metal fall past the window outside, he felt a terrible wrenching in his gut. Shit, I didn’t deflect the debris on time! This building’s about to come down!

Pierce crouched down and prepared to launch himself laterally out of the building, but just before he did, he remembered one important fact. He immediately adjusted his footing and stared upward, bracing for a vertical jump. Velocitechnics are supposed to have increased durability, to account for the fact that we can accelerate to high speeds so quickly. If that’s true, then hopefully, this will work!

The sound of shattering glass reached his ears, followed by the rumbling screeching of metal beginning to buckle under stress. Without wasting a single moment more, Pierce held his arms up to shield his head and then launched himself straight upwards, puncturing through the floors above through sheer momentum alone. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes, trying his best to maintain his focus as he repeatedly broke through metal flooring — while all around him, windows began shattering, and supports began to collapse.

And then, he found himself once again exposed to the night air of Alus as he sailed upward over the city’s tallest skyscraper, having misjudged the necessary amount of momentum to perfectly reach the roof. As his upwards speed rapidly decreased and eventually turned into downwards speed, he stared down at the building roof below, the roof that was beginning to collapse under the blow from the debris — the same roof on which Phoenix remained.

“PHOENIX!” he shouted, reflexively kicking in an effort to launch himself downward, but there was nothing for him to kick against. He was solely at the mercy of gravity now.

The next several moments passed in a crawl. Phoenix glanced up at Pierce; he reached out to her; the building shuddered, and released a piercing metallic shriek; the roof under Phoenix’s feet collapsed; she shouted something, something that Pierce couldn’t quite decipher; and then she disappeared from view, blocked by the collapsing building debris.

A moment later, Pierce touched down on what little remained of the roof. As soon as he did, his perception of time returned to normal, with him dashing toward Phoenix’s former position and then launching himself downward into the debris cascade. Immediately, he found himself on top of a pile of debris, stable for the time being — but certainly not for long. “Phoenix! Phoenix!” he shouted, whipping his head to and fro as he searched for any sign of his friend. “Damn it! Phoenix, answer me!”

A muffled clang reached Pierce’s ears, drawing his attention back to the pile of debris. He cautiously approached, unsure of what caused the noise — only for it to repeat again, only less muffled, and accompanied by a minor shift of the pile. Pierce jumped back, somewhat confused, only to lose his footing as the skyscraper began rumbling again; just as he managed to leap to his feet, the pile of debris in front of him exploded outward. “Wha—? Shit!” he exclaimed, reflexively throwing himself to the floor in an effort to evade the flying pieces of building debris.

“You’re here! Finally!!”

Pierce looked up just as Phoenix rushed to his side, her entire body encased in a veil of purple energy — a veil that seemed to have a similar shape to protective armor. His first impulse was to ask what the veil was, but he quickly shook that thought away and leaped to his feet, just in time for the remaining pieces of the roof above him to collapse.

Chaos Deflection!

Startled, Pierce glanced over at Phoenix just as she jumped toward him and shouted the phrase. Immediately, a rotating sphere of purple energy appeared around both her and Pierce, shielding them from the debris directly above them.

A moment later, the sphere dissipated, but the debris remained — as did the collapsing building. Without sparing a moment for recognition or thanks, Pierce scooped Phoenix up into his arms and launched himself up and at an angle, escaping the building and sending the two careening through the air high above the city. Pierce remained mentally on alert, scanning the sky for any final pieces of debris, only to find none remaining.

Several seconds later, as they began to fall toward the ground, a low rumbling reached their ears. Pierce kept his eyes forward in preparation for landing, but he noticed Phoenix turning her head to look behind them — at which point her eyes widened in awe.

Before long, Pierce found himself again on solid ground. With no other people around as far as he could see, he carefully set Phoenix down and then kneeled down himself. Now that the primary disaster was over and he was out of danger, Pierce realized that his veins must have been filled to brimming with adrenaline — and he was starting to come down from the momentary high. His breathing ragged, memories of the past several minutes flashed through his mind. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes — or even five — since he launched himself at the first piece of debris, and yet it had felt so much longer. Was this the regular experience of a Chaotic? Had Trenon felt this much stress during his final moments…?

A dull throb prompted Pierce to grasp at his torso again. …I guess this is what it feels like… to keep on living. Damn… well, all that’s left is to make the most of it.

“Pierce?”

He glanced over at Phoenix, who stood next to him and looked down at him in concern.

“You alright?” she questioned.

Pierce exhaled deeply and hung his head. Then he shook it in an effort to clear his thoughts before leaping back to his feet. He forced a smirk and beat his chest once as he replied, “hell yeah! Damn, that was really something, huh?”

“I’ll say…” Phoenix responded, her attention shifting to the skyline of Alus. Pierce followed her gaze to look at the skyline himself, only to find that something about it seemed off.

A moment later, it hit him. “Shit. The building…”

“Yeah… it’s gone,” Phoenix finished solemnly, and then smiled — though Pierce could tell that it was forced. “Well, at least we were able to save part of the city, right?”

“…But not all of it…” Pierce muttered.

“…True… but some is better than none.”

Pierce glanced down at Phoenix, who returned his gaze with the forced smile still on her face. He simply snorted and turned away in response.

“Well…” Phoenix sighed. “We should probably head back to Brikén. She has to really be wondering where we are right now.”

“…Heh. I wonder what she’d think if we told her that we rushed off to try and save the city.”

“You know we can’t say that.”

“Man…” Pierce scowled. “What’s the point in having a hella cool story if you can’t even tell it?”

“I told you when we started that your motivation was all wrong,” Phoenix shot back. “Fame and glory don’t work in this world.”

“Clearly it works for some people. That Nanocreature War 20 years ago was stopped by Chaotics, and they got hella famous for it!”

“I really hope you aren’t trying to compare what happened here to the Nanocreature War.”

“Hmph. One day, I’m going to show you that you’re wrong.” Pierce smirked, puffed out his chest, and planted his hands on his hips. “Some day, I’ll be hella famous for being a hero!”

Phoenix rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you will.” She then turned and began walking off. “Now let’s get going already. We shouldn’t leave Brikén waiting for much longer.”

“Alright, if you say so!” Pierce exclaimed as he rushed to Phoenix’s side, scooped her up into his arms again, and blasted off at Mach speeds — more than ready to return home and rest after a stressful night.

*     *     *

3 Days Later

— Monday, September 5, AD 2129 —

(Ligdia, Beauth 27, 8054)

“Well, we’re here.”

“So we are,” Phoenix remarked as she stepped out of the hovercar and grabbed her suitcase.

“You didn’t have to tag along with us, you know,” Pierce commented as he followed suit.

“Sure, I didn’t have to,” Brikén replied, “but this will be the last time I see you two in quite a while — maybe even the last time ever. I’d have to be an insensitive idiot to miss out on saying good-bye.”

“Heh,” Pierce offered a brief chuckle in response as he glanced toward the large building that the trio now stood in front of. The main building appeared to be just over three stories tall and featured the same rolling contours as the rest of the buildings in Alus, though it also featured glass walls covered in some sort of abstract art. To the left of the building and down a story, Pierce could see a large trainyard, with train tracks running into the yard from almost every direction and criss-crossing each other until condensing into two pairs of rails that ran directly into the building. On these rails were a variety of trains, not too different in appearance from the mass transit trains he was familiar with at home. He watched for a moment as one of the trains disappeared into the building, where it would soon disappear from Ainminthalus altogether by traveling through its Interstellar Gate — for the complex in front of Pierce was none other than Ainminthalus’s Gateport.

During the previous week, the Gateport had been closed to civilians and commandeered by the NSD, as an emergency response to the sudden Chaos Energy Quake. However, just as everyone was beginning to settle in for the long haul… yesterday, Chaos Energy inexplicable became usable once again. The Relaynet came online, anti-gravity technology re-activated, and spacecraft were once again able to use their FTL Drives. In less than an hour, the entire galaxy came back online, and not even an hour after that, the NSD had released its hold on the Gateports across Nimalian space, thereby restoring the Interstellar Gate Transportation Network within the Nimalian Union. There still remained a small amount of chaos, of course, as people scrambled to sort out the disruptions caused by the week-long Quake; but, to Pierce’s surprise, the entire galaxy seemed to have immediately resumed operating as normal.

Well… most of the galaxy, he amended mentally as his attention drifted back to the city of Alus. The distant skyline remained mostly intact, backed as it was by the planet’s magnificent rings, but the point that had once served as its apex was now conspicuously missing. The skyfall — as many of the city’s citizens had taken to calling the debris storm — had caused a significant amount of damage to the city. Pierce remained glad that he had successfully mitigated much of the damage, but his and Phoenix’s ultimate failure to protect the entire city still didn’t sit well with him. Thankfully, there had been enough time between the initial emergency warning and the actual skyfall for many people to evacuate the largest and tallest buildings, so casualties were at an overall minimum. Too bad we couldn’t drop the casualty count all the way to zero, Pierce thought bitterly, as he absentmindedly grasped his torso wound. Shit, it’s harder to save people than I thought. Maybe, if I had just tried harder… like Trenon…

“Is that all your stuff?”

Pierce shook himself of his idle thoughts as he turned to face Brikén, who now stood outside of the hovercar while leaning on it. He then looked down at his single suitcase; it was larger than a typical piece of airline carry-on luggage, but thankfully, Gate Network travel featured less stringent luggage restrictions. “Yeah, this is everything,” he eventually replied.

“It’s kind of a weird feeling, to finally be standing here,” Phoenix commented, her attention on the Gateport’s main entrance. “After spending three months here, especially after the ch— uh, the wildness of last week… Alus almost feels like a second home.”

“I find that people often feel that way after their first long-term trip away from their home planet,” Brikén remarked.

“No, it’s not just that.” Phoenix glanced back at Brikén. “I legitimately enjoyed my time here, last week aside. I really did learn a lot from you.”

Brikén smiled in response. “Glad I did my job successfully, then!”

“Eh, you might teach well enough,” Pierce countered, “but those exams… those could use some work.”

“I still haven’t officially submitted the results, you know. Don’t make me retroactively fail you.”

“Ah, c’mon, as if you’d fail a great guy like me.”

“Don’t oversell yourself, buddy,” Phoenix interjected.

Brikén chuckled. “The two of you never change.”

“Well of course I wouldn’t change, why would you change perfect?” Pierce smirked. “Phoenix, though…”

“If this is what you call perfect, then your outlook on life must be in a real sorry state,” Phoenix retorted.

“You just say that because you’re jealous.”

“No more than I am of an untrained dog.”

“Alright, alright, no need to keep the argument going,” Brikén cut in. “A little bit is charming, but too much is just sad.”

Pierce elbowed Phoenix cheekily. “You hear that? She called us ‘charming’!”

Phoenix simply rolled her eyes in response.

“Anyways, I did enjoy teaching and hanging out with the two of you, despite all your quirks,” Brikén commented with a smirk. “With a job like mine, you spend a lot of time on your own. You don’t often realize just what you’re missing until you get to spend time with people long-term again — and these three months I spent with you two, and… with Trenon…” She glanced down for a moment before returning her attention to Pierce and Phoenix, her smirk now a genuine, if somewhat morose smile. “…It’s been a fun three months. I’m glad I signed up for this job, even if I don’t get that Subspace Drive.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” Phoenix replied.

“Don’t know about the Subspace Drive, though,” Pierce remarked.

“Yeah, yeah…” Brikén simply waved him off. “Well, how long is the trip home?”

“We should be back on Earth within a couple days,” Phoenix replied.

“How many Gate trips is that? Three, four?”

“Four,” Pierce answered. “What a pain in the ass. I get why the network is set up this way, but it’s still hella fucking weird to have to detour across three other planets when we could just go straight home.”

“If the Gates operated on ‘first come, first serve’ then the backlogs would be incredible. No one would ever get anywhere,” Brikén countered. “…But you are right that it can be a pain. That’s why I fly a ship instead.”

“Which takes even longer!”

“Not if I get a Subspace Drive, it won’t.”

“Oh please, we both know that’s never happening.”

“Anyways…” Phoenix interjected, “our train should be boarding soon, so we should really get going.”

“Alright. I’ll stop holding you up,” Brikén replied. “Even if you never come back to Ainminthalus, maybe we’ll see each other again elsewhere. I am a courier, after all. I go all over the Union, and sometimes even in the CSA!”

“We’ll be sure to keep a look out for you if we’re ever off of Earth again,” Pierce said. “Don’t expect that to happen for a while, though.”

“Still. Don’t forget me, you hear?”

“As if we could.” Pierce snorted and grabbed his suitcase.

“I guess this really is good-bye, now,” Phoenix remarked as she picked up her own suitcase.

Brikén nodded. “So it is… Have a safe trip, you two!”

“We will! See you later!” Pierce replied, waving as he and Phoenix began to approach the Gateport entrance. After three months away, and late by a week, the two were more than prepared to finally return to their home on Earth.