Chapter 3 – An Imperium’s Home
The Next Day
“Oh man… I forgot how warm it can get around here.”
“It’s Texas,” Austin replied incredulously. “It’s barely over 80 degrees right now, that’s not even that hot for October. What’d you expect?”
“Hey now, even 80 can be a bit much if you aren’t prepared for it,” replied a man with a light complexion and short blond hair, covered by a backwards black baseball cap. The rest of his outfit consisted of a green t-shirt and jeans, mirroring Austin’s own casual wear of a blue t-shirt and jean shorts. “Still… I used to be able to stand this kind of weather just fine,” the man eventually continued. “Guess I’ve been gone for too long.”
“When was the last time you were here?”
“…Hmm… I guess it was when you graduated high school.”
“That was two years ago!”
“Ah ha ha… I guess it was, huh?”
Austin simply shook his head before turning his attention out of the car window next to him. The sun sat high in the sky, bearing down through cloudless afternoon skies on the vast flat urban areas of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex as Austin and his uncle — Captain Luke Travis, a member of CSF-1 — zoomed through the streets in a self-driving car. The car had earlier hosted Spike, Sky, Twy, Mark, and Danielle as well, with the crowd thinning as it stopped first at Spike’s home, and then dropped off Danielle and the Chao twins at theirs. Austin and Luke were the only ones left, now making their way out of Plano and to the hotel that Austin’s family was staying at while they awaited a new home to move into.
A new home…Austin mused, it’s been a month since EA destroyed our house… thankfully most of my stuff is in my apartment down near UT, but Mom and Dad and Madison lost a lot… fucking EA. What was he even trying to pull?
Austin glanced over at his uncle, who eyed him curiously. “…Nothing much,” Austin eventually replied. “First time I’ll see everyone in just over a year, though, I guess.”
“Didn’t go home during the summer break, huh?” Luke questioned.
“No. Spike did, for a month, so I figured I’d stay behind and take advantage of havin’ the whole apartment to myself.”
“Ah, yeah, I get that.” Luke sighed loftily. “I wish I had that chance, myself. You don’t get many chances to have your own room in the military.”
Austin’s expression collapsed into a resigned scowl. “Yeah…”
“…Oh, shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up…”
“Well it’s a little late to do anything about that, now, ain’t it?”
“…Well, at least on the bright side, now you get a free visit to an alien planet!”
“It would be better if I got to choose whether or not to go.”
“Heh…” Luke chuckled uneasily. “Yeah, I guess so…”
“Although…” Austin held out his right hand and summoned the Arcán claymore. In the fairly small car, there wasn’t much room to wave the sword around, but Austin still paused for a moment to inspect its gleaming blade and polished blue and gold double crossguards. “…I might be able to get behind this whole ‘Key’ business.”
“Oh? I didn’t expect you to come around to this whole idea so soon, honestly.”
“I still don’t like being conscripted,” Austin retorted, momentarily passing his uncle an irate glare. “But the ‘Key’ stuff… well, chosen ones always get preferential treatment, you know? It’s like I’m the main character of a new adventure story, and cool shit always happens to the main character!”
“Ha!” Luke grinned. “Guess I should’ve expected you to frame this whole thing like a story, huh? You were always doin’ that as a kid, it’s amusing to see that you still do.”
“Hey!” Austin protested, “now you’re just makin’ me sound like a kid!”
“Heh, sorry, sorry,” Luke replied, his grin gradually lessening into a slight smile as he looked down at the blade in Austin’s hands. “These weapons, though… they really are somethin’, huh?”
“Yeah…” Austin nodded as he eyed the sword again, only to dismiss it a moment later, causing it to disappear into thin air. “I tested its sharpness last night, and it’s really sharp. I could cut through metal with minimal effort, and I made sure that Spike and Mark weren’t around so that I wasn’t accidentally copyin’ their powers. I’m almost afraid to use it, it’s so sharp…”
“And here’s hoping you won’t have to,” Luke remarked.
“Yeah, I guess so…” Austin paused for a moment, his attention directed outward at the buildings that rushed past. Eventually he turned back toward his uncle and asked, “do you know exactly where on Nimalia we’re gonna be? And who we’ll be studyin’ under?”
Luke shrugged. “I don’t know any more than you do. Just that, supposedly, one of the former members of Hero Machina will be teachin’ you… maybe that Kievkenalis guy. I hear he’s a pretty powerful Chaotic.”
“All six of them are,” Austin replied. “I mean, how couldn’t they be? They saved the whole fuckin’ galaxy!”
“Well, they do have the word ‘Hero’ in their squad name.”
“Right? What a conveniently cool name! Not to mention the shit they pulled off 20 years ago against the Nanocreatures. The battle of Neticen especially, I mean, have you seen those videos? A massive, climactic battle against evil that resulted in the destruction of a planet… it’s like a fuckin’ anime!”
Luke smirked in amusement. “Sounds like someone has a celebrity crush.”
“Hmph. I’m just appreciatin’ everything they did,” Austin countered. “I don’t like bein’ forced to do anything against my will, but bein’ able to summon a cool sword at will, and study under a hero against literal evil… that almost makes up for it.”
“I’m glad to hear that, but try not to get too carried away. Chaotic training and combat isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows.”
“It could be if you were a Solartechnic.”
Luke passed his nephew an amused glance. “Been lookin’ up stuff on Chaotics, have we?”
“Well, I am a Chaotic now. A Simulator Psychotechnic, to boot, which means I can copy other people’s powers. I just figured that it’d be in my own bests interests to see what kind of powers are out there to copy.”
“Heh.” Luke reached over to ruffle Austin’s unkempt hair. “You really are the same as ever, huh? Once something catches your interest, away you go!”
“Hey! Stop that!” Austin batted away Luke’s hand and passed him an impatient glare. “I’m 20, you know! Stop treatin’ me like a kid!”
“Alright, alright, I’ll lay off,” Luke replied with a chuckle, and then directed his attention outside as the car slowed to a stop. “…Well, I guess we’re here.”
“Finally!” Austin exclaimed as he threw open the car door and leaped out into the sun and the heat. “Ugh…” He grimaced through squinted eyes. “I’m glad to be out of the car, but, damn, it’s really bright out here…”
“I’m with ya there. Let’s get inside.” Luke gestured toward the hotel entrance as the car drove away to rejoin the public transportation network. The two men then rushed through the hotel doors, where Austin stopped to sigh of relief.
“Wherever it is that we go on Nimalia, I hope it’s nice and cool,” he commented.
“Yeah… guess so.”
Confused at Luke’s apathetic response, Austin glanced over at his uncle, only to find him scanning the hotel lobby apprehensively. “…Somethin’ wrong?” Austin questioned.
“Uh…” Luke looked over at his nephew before shaking his head. “…No. I’m fine.”
“…I bet it’s Dad, isn’t it? You aren’t lookin’ forward to talkin’ to him.”
Luke smirked, though his brow was furrowed in frustration. “Saw right through me, huh?”
“You didn’t seem too thrilled to hear about Dad when I called him a while ago.” Austin crossed his arms. “What, you scared that he’ll take my side?”
“I’m scared because I know that he’ll take your side,” Luke replied, and then sighed. “Oof. The Colonel thought your Dad would take this whole ‘year on an alien planet’ business better if I delivered the news, since I’m his brother… but, personally, I think that’s just gonna make it worse. Chris has always been super protective of you and Maddie…”
“You won’t see much sympathy from me here,” Austin countered as he began leading the pair across the lobby and to the elevators. “I might not be opposed to spendin’ some time on Nimalia, but this conscription shit is still fucked.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Luke simply shook his head in resignation. The pair then entered into a conversational lull as they took the elevator up four floors and navigated the hallways to find the room where Austin’s family was staying.
“Not a very big place…” Austin muttered as they approached the door.
“It’s the best we can do on such a short notice,” Luke replied. “I’m tryin’ to get SERRCom to get your folks a better place, but, uh. It’s harder than you’d think.”
“An interstellar military that loves dropping billions of dollars on massive spacecraft can’t afford to get my family a better hotel?” Austin questioned incredulously as he gave the door a loud knock, “especially when they’re at fault for our house gettin’ destroyed?”
“Hey, that wasn’t us, that was EA.”
“And he wouldn’t have destroyed our house if SERRCom was competent at stoppin’ him.”
“Urgh…” Luke groaned. He then opened his mouth to respond, but just before he could, the door in front of them opened, revealing a tall, thin man with short black hair, an aging face, and a casual demanor.
“Hey, Dad,” Austin greeted.
“Austin!” The man’s eyes widened with glee. He took a step forward, his arms already out in preparation to embrace his son, when he froze in his tracks and locked eyes with Luke — at which point his expression and demeanor both rapidly cooled. “…And Luke. What a… surprise.”
“…H-hey, Chris.” Luke waved casually, though his tone immediately revealed his unease. “Uh, long time no see, huh? Ah ha…”
“Yes…” Austin’s dad stared at Luke for a moment before sighing and turning around. “Come on in.”
“…I see what you mean,” Austin whispered to his uncle before following his father into the hotel room. Luke simply responded with a resigned sigh and followed suit as well, making sure to close the door behind him.
Once in the room, Austin took a moment to look around, though what met his eyes seemed to be a simple, standard hotel room: two beds, with the off-white sheets made; a small bathroom near the front, just next to the room’s entrance; a window on the far side of the room, through which sprawling flat cities could be seen; and a small desk, on which there was an open laptop. Not much here… Austin mused, though I guess I should have expected that. Our house WAS destroyed, there wasn’t exactly much to recover…
“Are you doing okay, Austin?”
“Huh?” He looked up, to find his father standing in front of the window and looking out over the city. Austin passed Luke a quick glance before crossing the room to stand next to his dad as he replied, “I’m okay as can be, I guess.”
His father looked over at him, and then gestured for him to step closer. “C’mere.”
“Huh—? Aw, Dad, c’mon!” Austin protested as his father embraced him in a hug.
“I haven’t seen you in over a year, just give me this.”
“…Tch. Whatever, I guess…”
“Heh. Well it sure sounds like you haven’t changed much.” Austin’s father finally released him and stepped back, regarding him with a slight smirk. The smirk then quickly transformed into an irate frown as he turned around to face Luke. “So,” he began, his tone rapidly cooling, “…just what the hell is SERRCom tryin’ to do with my son?”
Luke released a lofty sigh as he scratched the back of his head, his eyes cast downward. After a moment of silence, he looked up to meet eyes with Austin’s father. “…Well, you’re not gonna like anything I have to say here, so I guess I might as well just lay it all out. First, the conscription order has been officially recognized by both the US and the UN, sooo…”
“What?!” Austin’s father’s eyes widened in disbelief, at which point he whipped around to address his son again. “Is that true?!”
“I looked it up earlier today, and, well… yeah, it is,” Austin replied.
“I can’t believe this. Not only does SERRCom suddenly whip this conscription bullshit out of its ass, with no warning whatsoever, but it also got the governments to all play along?” He glanced between Austin and Luke in frustration. “Does no one see this damned slippery slope that we’re on?”
“Yeah… you won’t see much argument from me there,” Luke responded. “It’s… a little messed up.”
“A ‘little’?! Apparently all SERRCom needs is one convenient excuse and they can suck up anyone they want! And before you start!” Austin’s dad pointed an accusatory finger at Luke just as the latter opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t give me any of those bullshit platitudes like you just did. Unlike my son, you voluntarily signed up for this mess, even after I and everyone else advised you not to. You’re a part of the problem!”
“Oh c’mon, Chris. Yeah, you and Mom tried to talk me out of it, but don’t act like you’ve been against my job at SERRCom for the entire past decade. You were just as interested as everyone else when I told you all those stories of working alongside the Eximius Vir!”
“That doesn’t make what I said any less true. If you’re the one workin’ so closely with SERRCom Chaotics, then why the hell couldn’t you have said anything against draftin’ Austin and his friends?”
“Look, it’d be nice if I had that much power, but I really don’t. I’m just a Captain.”
“You could quit.”
“You aren’t the first to have suggested that, but it ain’t that simple—”
“Not that simple?! It’s two words: ‘I quit’. It doesn’t get much more simpler than that!”
Luke released another sigh as he looked away, seemingly searching the walls for a response. Before he could speak again, however, Austin spoke up.
“Uh, Dad…” he said warily, “it’s… I mean, I’m glad you’re speakin’ up for me, but it’s not all bad.”
“…And why’s that?” His father replied tentatively.
“Well… it’s the other reason that I’m here. Or, I guess, it’s why Spike and the twins are in town, and I just came along, since there isn’t really anything for me to pack here, but, uh…”
“Ah, because of the destroyed house…” His father nodded along as he shot Luke a glare. “Yet another fault of SERRCom.”
“We weren’t the ones who blew up the neighborhood,” Luke countered. “That was entirely EA.”
“I still have a hard time believin’ this ‘EA’ person is real. He just sounds like a terribly convenient scapegoat, to me.”
“No, he really is real, unfortunately,” Austin interjected. “I don’t know how, but there really is a doppelganger of me out there, and he really did attack me and SERRCom.”
“…Right…” His father shook his head in disbelief. “…Anyways, I think I interrupted you. You were saying?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, uh… I’m gonna get to spend the next year or so on an alien planet!”
“…On an alien planet?”
“On Nimalia, specifically,” Luke clarified. “It’s the Homeworld of the Nimalian Union. It’s very advanced, and perfectly safe.”
“You don’t need to be a part of SERRCom to visit Nimalia,” Austin’s father argued, “it ain’t cheap, sure, but free trips are no reason to join a military!”
“‘Not cheap’ is a bit of an understatement, Chris,” Luke countered. “A stay on Nimalia for even one day is far too expensive for the average Earthian if they aren’t being subsidized by SERRCom somehow. The tech and economic disparity between Earth and Nimalia is just too great. And a whole year? There’s no way in hell that’s happenin’ without SERRCom.”
“That’s an argument for findin’ ways to make the trip cheaper, not for joinin’ the fucking military!”
“Dad, c’mon! Can’t you cut Luke at least a little slack?” Austin cut in, drawing the attention of his father and Luke both. “Look, I agree with what you’re sayin’, but, like… the opportunity to spend a year on another world is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Weren’t you always tellin’ me that I should take more chances, as a kid?”
“Well… yes, but not like this!” Austin’s father regarded him with confused surprise. “Are… are you really fine with this? What about your college degree? You’re already halfway through!”
“If it’s the cost of tuition you’re worried about, SERRCom will reimburse you,” Luke declared.
“What?! That’s not—! …Well, yes, that does help some, but… that’s not the point! The point is that SERRCom can’t be allowed to just run roughshod over people’s freedoms! This is a terrible precedent to be setting!”
“It’s a precedent that ends with Austin and his friends.” Luke nodded toward Austin. “Show ‘im why.”
“I dunno if that’s a very convincin’ argument, but okay…” Austin shrugged and held out his right hand, again summoning the Arcán claymore into his grip. He then turned toward his father, who was now staring at him in abject surprise. “This sword…” Austin looked down at the blade before meeting eyes with his father again. “…Being able to summon it isn’t a normal Chaotic ability. This is a unique thing that me and my friends can do. That’s why we’re going to Nimalia, to learn how to better use our abilities, and then do what no one else can.”
“…This story sounds mighty suspect to me,” Austin’s dad eventually responded. “How the hell do you know this is a ‘unique’ thing, huh? And what do you mean by ‘what no one else can’?! That sounds like a sappy line from a recruiter, to me!”
“Look, Austin, I’m sure you mean well, and I’m sure you do want to visit Nimalia, but how the hell are you trustin’ SERRCom with anything at this point? If you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take your whole life!”
“Now you’re gettin’ out of hand, Chris,” Luke interjected. “You were makin’ valid points before, but don’t let your dislike of SERRCom lead you to think that everything we do is bad, or a lie!”
“Bullshit. Even twenty years ago, SERRCom was content to use force against the nations of this Earth to get what it wanted! Granted, what it wanted was complete nuclear disarmament, so that, uh, wasn’t entirely a bad thing… but the fact remains, Luke, that your organization clearly thinks that they can do whatever they want, with complete impunity. The writing was on the wall two decades ago, and this conscription business merely confirmed what everyone already suspected. It’s ridiculous!”
“Twenty years ago…? Wait, are you talkin’ about that spat with the American government? The US started that, you know! You can hardly blame SERRCom for retaliating!”
“Maybe not, but I can blame them for punishin’ the rest of the planet for something one government did.”
“How is it ‘punishment’ to force everyone to get rid of their nuclear warheads?!”
“‘Force’ bein’ the operative word, here! It’s exactly like I said—”
“Uh, sorry, excuse me…” Austin dismissed his claymore and quickly made his way toward the front of the room, passing his father and uncle barely a glance and a wave as he said, “I’m just, uh, gonna go get some fresh air…”
“Huh? Is everything alright, Austin?” his father questioned.
“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” Austin replied. “You two just, uh… keep talking.”
“You sure?” Luke passed him a look of concern. “If you want, we—”
“You aren’t going anywhere, Luke!” Austin’s father interjected as he pointed at Luke. “I’m not done with you yet, and I’m not about to let you disappear for another two years with minimal contact before I’m done!”
“You’ve got to be kidding…” Luke muttered, “Chris, this is just…”
The rest of their argument quickly faded behind the room’s door as Austin closed it behind him, now standing in the hallway just outside. He took a deep breath and then released a weary sigh, at which point he glanced left and right to see if anyone else was around. Seems like no one’s here… he observed, and then turned toward the elevator. I guess that makes sense, it’s still mid-afternoon or so. Lots of people would still be at work, or school. As is, we only caught Dad ‘cause he works from home…
At the thought of his father, he sighed again. An argument between Luke and his father had been inevitable — he knew that from the start. However, the level of anger his father had shown surprised Austin, and the back-and-forth he had been witness to stressed him out. Part of him did agree with his father about SERRCom; there was little that the organization had done recently to encourage Austin to trust it in any real capacity. And yet, as he held out his hand and summoned his blade once more, there was another part of him that couldn’t resist the thoughts of embracing his supposed role in saving the galaxy. Someone, or something, had chosen him for some reason. Whatever that reason could be, it could lead to a far more interesting life than a degree in computer science and a career in programming could get him — or so Austin thought. The only problem was that this more interesting life also laid in the hands of an interstellar military with a fondness for throwing its weight around…
“Huh?” He looked up, momentarily abandoning his train of thought as he made eye contact with a young woman just in front of him, standing in the elevator. Her light skin and shoulder-length black hair matched Austin’s in color, though her orange t-shirt seemed to clash against his own blue shirt. “…Oh. Hey, Madison…” he muttered, dismissing his claymore again as she stepped out of the elevator. “You’re home— uh… back from school early.”
“This is the same time as always,” she countered. “Don’t tell me two years is enough for you to forget.”
Austin sighed warily. “I see two years isn’t enough for you to change.”
“I’d say the same about you,” she shot back, and then eyed him from head to toe. “…Hmph. Just as unkempt as always.”
“Unkempt?!” Austin reached up to brush his hands through his hair. “This isn’t… look, this is an intentional look, okay?!”
“Of course it is…” Madison shook her head. “…Damn it. I’m the one who actually studies, and does work. You’re just a good-for-nothing, so why the hell do you get the cool powers?”
“Good-for—?! Hey! I get good grades and shit!”
“And then you somehow manage to go and get our house destroyed. That sure isn’t good.”
“God damn it, am I gonna have to explain this to everyone I meet? It wasn’t me who destroyed the house, it was EA! My evil twin!”
“Right. Your ‘evil twin’. I guess I should blame this ‘evil twin’ for having to spend every night and evening in the same room as Mom and Dad?”
“Literally yes. What more do you want from me? There’s recorded footage proving I’m right, you know!”
“Hmph…” Madison simply turned away from him and began walking down the hallway. “Whatever.”
“Hey, wait a second!” Austin called after her, prompting her to stop and glance back at him. “Uh, well, Dad and Luke are having a… discussion. You might not want to interrupt.”
Madison’s eyes momentarily widened. “Uncle Luke is back?! When?”
“He came with me. But like I said, he’s… busy.”
“…Go figure. Everything’s gone to shit.”
“I think that’s my line. I’m the one who got fucking drafted, you know. Don’t forget that!”
Madison rolled her eyes in response. “Whatever. I’ll be fine, they never argue in front of me.”
“Wha—?! You entitled…! Argh.” Austin groaned in disbelief as his sister turned around to continue walking down the hallway. He whirled around and barged into the elevator himself, eager to take a step away from everything and get some time to himself. Everything really has gone to shit, he mused, I just… I don’t even know what’s going on anymore, do I? Fuck. Even this trip to Nimalia is basically just a distraction… what even caused everything to start going downhill? Oh yeah, that’s right… EA.
The elevator stopped at that point, opening its doors to show Austin the lobby. As he stepped out of the elevator, and began crossing the lobby, he couldn’t help but scowl to himself. EA really is at the core of all this, isn’t he? He’s the one who attacked SERRCom, who revealed me and my friends to them. He’s the one who unleashed a giant mech on my neighborhood… and then kidnapped a bunch of unrelated people, effectively forcing them into SERRCom’s hands, as well! Fuck that guy. I don’t even know why he has my face, or why he exists, or why he’s doing anything that he’s doing… but I do know that he’s an asshole, and that he needs to be stopped. Heh. I guess that should be my ultimate goal, then, huh? The one, concrete objective that does actually require joining SERRCom… With one final step, he pushed through the lobby doors leading to the world outside. You had better watch out, EA. All this frustration that people are feeling is because of you, and I’m going to make sure that you know it! Just you fucking wait!