Chapter 56 – Travelers’ Arrival
3 Days Later
— Sundia, Aldredath 1, 8054 —
(Saturday, November 26, AD 2129)
“Wow! Actual clouds! I can barely remember the last time I saw clouds!!”
“Yeah?” Conrad idly glanced skyward, through the massive overhead windows that exposed the blue skies — filled with billowing, fluffy clouds — overhead. “…So?”
“What do you mean, ‘so’?!” Sky retorted incredulously, “there are never any clouds in Treséd, and when we were in Relédiaka, all of the trees blocked the sky, so you couldn’t see anything! But here, in Nimaliaka, we finally get to see some not-boring skies!”
“Really livin’ up to your name,” Austin deadpanned.
“Oh shut it, you,” Sky countered, returning her attention to the above as she did.
Austin briefly followed her gaze, only to drop his head and rub his tired eyes. Morning light shone down upon him through the windows of the train station in which he stood, but the chaos and cacophony of nearly 150 unruly college students prevented him from appreciating what would normally be tranquil morning silence. Austin, as well as Spike, Sky, Twy, Pierce, Conrad, Kestrel, Luke, and Mark, stood apart from the crowd of WCU students, though the Earthians were nonetheless waiting to begin the same trip: a visit to the Nimalian Tier 2 World of Sikalia.
As Austin yawned, he briefly thought over the past day or so. Yesterday, the students — led by Davídrius, Kaoné, and a handful of other WCU teachers — had traveled from the dreary wastelands of Treséd to the clean and beautiful oceanfront city of Nimaliaka Central, in preparation to use Nimalia’s Interstellar Gate to leave the planet. The travel group had awoken early in the morning and arrived at a train station nearby their hotel to do just that, though as Austin looked around, nothing about the station seemed to have anything to do with the Interstellar Gate. In fact, the structure appeared to be similar in form and function to regular train stations on Earth, with several pairs of railway tracks running in parallel alongside boarding platforms. Large, crystal clear windows dominated what walls and ceilings existed in the station, allowing for a clear view of the rising sun and the distant skyline of downtown Nimaliaka Central — but none of what Austin saw matched what he recalled seeing of Nimaliaka Central’s Gateport back when the Earthians first arrived on the planet.
“So, uh… why’re we here?” Spike questioned, putting to voice Austin’s own thoughts.
“We’re about to visit an alien planet, duh!” Sky remarked. “Isn’t it exciting?!”
“I think Spike meant, why’re we at a train station?” Austin clarified. “Weren’t we gonna use the Gate?”
“Yeah,” Spike affirmed, his voice several tones lower than usual and filled with the timber of one who had just awoken. “What’s the deal?”
“Ha!” Pierce scoffed in response, his arms crossed as he turned his chin up at Austin and Spike. “You don’t even know how Gate travel works? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“What, and you do?” Austin shot back.
“Of course I do. I’ve actually been to alien planets before this whole SERRCom thing.”
“Planets?” Kestrel echoed.
“Yeah, I thought you just went to the one,” Conrad added flatly.
“We only had one destination, yeah,” Pierce replied, “but with Gate travel, you barely ever ever go straight to your destination. C’mon, Conrad, don’t tell me you didn’t know, either!”
Conrad shrugged. “Whatever, man.”
“Y’all really are feisty this morning, huh?” Luke said. “We only just got up, what, an hour and a half ago…?”
Pierce smirked. “What, can’t handle a little—?“
“I looked up Gate travel last night, so I can explain how it works,” Twy began, pointedly cutting off Pierce as she turned toward Austin and Spike. “You remember those railroad tracks on the ground back when we first used the Gate to get to Nimalia? Those are for trains. ‘Gate Trains’, they’re called. The vast majority of Gate travel involves boarding a train and then riding it through the Gate, instead of just walking through yourself.”
“I guess you could get a lot more people and cargo through the Gate that way, huh…” Spike commented.
“But why did we walk through it the first time, then?” Austin questioned.
“That was a special trip,” Luke remarked. “Usually, Homeworlds will never have a direct Gate connection. There are reservation and military travel slots in the Gate Network timetable, so Archoné Culana likely arranged for us to use one of those. The lines for reservation slots are predictably very long, though, so I suppose the Archoné might’ve pulled some strings to get a connection on such short notice…”
“The rich and powerful getting special benefits? Wow. I’m shocked,” Conrad deadpanned.
“Why wouldn’t there be direct connections, though?” Austin asked, “wouldn’t that be faster?”
Twy shook her head. “Remember, Austin, there are a lot of restrictions around Interstellar Gate travel. You can only have one active Gate per solar system, and a Gate can only be connected to one other Gate at a time — and the connection is 2-way, so if, say, Nimalia connected to Earth, then Earth wouldn’t be able to connect to anywhere else until Nimalia disconnected.”
“Heh, you’re actually pretty on point,” Pierce commented, only to then throw a snide look at Austin. “You should really learn from her.”
“Shut up. What do you know?” Austin snapped.
“Way more than you, apparently. Look, dweeb, just think about it: there are hundreds, if not thousands of Interstellar Gates in the galaxy. Now imagine that everyone wanted a direct connection to their destination. The line for that would be months long! Years, even! I don’t know about your slow ass, but the rest of the galaxy can’t wait that long.”
Twy simply shook her head before turning back to Austin. “That’s why we have the Interstellar Gate Network. Each planet in the galaxy has a small list of other planets that they connect to, and cycle through daily. Getting to your destination, then, just means finding all of the right connections. Our trip to Sikalia will only take two jumps, I believe.”
“That’s right,” Luke affirmed. “We’ll detour to Sunidobu first, a Nimalian Tier 1 World. After a few hours there, we’ll be able to jump to Sikalia. As Gate travel goes, that’s one of the shortest chains you’ll ever see.”
“I guess I see…” Austin commented. “It’s annoying, but I guess there really is no way around it, huh?” He then looked around at the train station, watching as a train pulled into the station several platforms over. Sleek contours and soft blue paints adorned the engine and the several cars connected behind it, giving off a similar vibe to passenger trains on Earth. “…So we’re here at this station to catch the train that’ll take us through the Gate to Sunidobu, then?”
“Now you’re getting it,” Twy replied with a smile.
“Strict timetables, a whole planned-out network, even using trains to maximize how many people can move through a Gate…” Conrad shook his head wearily. “The galaxy really has figured out how to do things with maximum efficiency, huh.”
“It’s the only way to do it,” Luke pointed out. “The reliability of the Gate Network timetable is the only thing that saved interstellar communication during the Chaos Quakes.”
“Hey, I bet you’ve done lots of Gate travel, right?” Sky questioned, her attention directed toward Luke. “What’s the longest detour you’ve had to take?”
“Ah ha…” Luke smiled sheepishly and glanced toward Mark, who simply returned the look. “Well, military travel has less restrictions than civilian travel. We can shortcut through an independent Fortress World network.”
“CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir don’t often travel by Gate, anyways,” Mark explained. “We usually travel by spacecraft.”
“Aw, well that answer isn’t very fun,” Sky pouted.
“What’s this about a Fortress World, though?” Spike questioned.
“Fortress Worlds are planets that are set up entirely for military use,” Luke said. “SERRCom doesn’t have many, but the other galactic nations have tons. Their militaries will use them to shortcut around the civilian network, among other things.”
“Entire planets? For military use?!” Sky echoed incredulously.
“That does sound like a bit much…” Conrad commented, with Kestrel beside him offering a brief nod of agreement. “What use could a military have for an entire planet? Or multiple planets?”
“Spacecraft construction, mining, refueling and repair depots… anything that causes a lot of pollution or ecological damage, really,” Luke listed off. “Better to keep those operations away from the planets that people actually live on. Not to mention the ability to use an entire planet as a strategic distraction without havin’ to sacrifice civilians.”
“Oh, like the Citans did at the end of the Nanocreature War!” Austin remarked.
“…Well, that one was a little extreme, but yeah, I guess.”
“Man…” Pierce shook his head in disappointment. “You guys didn’t even know that? I already wasn’t expecting much, but this is a new low.”
“You…!” Austin bristled with irritation. “Can you not keep your ego in check for two seconds?”
“I wouldn’t be pointing out your deficiencies if you didn’t have any, dweeb.”
“If you’re so good and smart, then why are you here?” Twy shot back with a spiteful smirk. “Phoenix is off with her boyfriend right now, or something. Could it be that you’re only here because you don’t have a relationship, yourself?”
“That—!” Pierce’s haughty smirk was instantly wiped clean by a foul glare, directed at Twy. “That bitch doesn’t have anything to do with this. Besides, I’m just… taking my time scoping out the field. And saving my energy for when we get back to Treséd.”
“Is that so,” Conrad deadpanned.
“Alright, y’all, let’s stop arguing with each other,” Luke cut in. “We have almost a whole week on an alien planet ahead of us, after all. Let’s try to enjoy it!”
Austin and Pierce briefly made eye-contact after Luke’s proclamation, only to immediately scowl at each other and look away. Upon noting this, as well as the sour atmosphere that threatened to set in over the group, Spike soon spoke up, asking, “so what’re we gonna be doin’, exactly? There’s a plan for this trip, ain’t there?”
“Oh c’mon, you didn’t even read the itinerary?!” Sky responded incredulously. “…That’s so like you, isn’t it?”
“Ignoring travel, we have four days to see the sights of Sikalia,” Twy explained. “Tomorrow, we’re going to see the Museum of Preservation, which I believe is something about Nimalia’s preservation efforts across the Union. The day after that, we get to actually visit one of Sikalia’s preservation parks, which as I understand it, is a lot like the national parks back home.”
“The day after that is a trip to Sikalia’s local NSD garrison,” Luke said. “Since the Nimalian Systems Defense is Nimalia’s official military, and we’re, well… with SERRCom, we’ll be accompanied by Dean Kaoné Densalin for that part of the trip. Be sure to stick with her while we’re on the base.”
“Why are we even visiting the garrison in the first place, then?” Austin questioned.
“Because this trip isn’t just for us,” Twy pointed out, and then gestured to the large crowd of WCU students gathered down the platform. “This is a trip organized primarily for them. We’re just along for the ride.”
“And what a fun ride it’ll be!” Sky remarked. “Because the last full day on Sikalia is their Brightest Day celebrations! A full day of partying! I can’t wait!”
“Partying…?” Austin echoed uneasily.
“Can’t handle a little social interaction?” Pierce taunted.
“National holiday celebrations are rarely ‘little’…”
“Don’t worry, Austin, I’m sure there’ll be something that even you can enjoy,” Mark commented. “One thing that might interest you all is Sikalia’s Brightest Day Talent Show. According to the Relaynet, the local NSD Chaotics always participate. I think it could be interesting to see what talents Chaotics can use their powers for.”
“Oh, wow! That sounds like loads of fun!” Sky exclaimed. “Spike! We’re going to see that if it’s the last thing we do!”
“I figured you’d say that,” Spike replied.
“Still, now that I think about it…” Twy frowned. “All this talk of holidays reminds me… Thanksgiving was two days ago, wasn’t it?”
“Wait, hold up. What?!” Sky questioned incredulously, “no way!”
“Ah, sorry,” Mark apologized sheepishly. “I wanted to cook up something special for dinner, but I got caught up packing my things for this trip…”
“Don’t feel bad, man,” Spike replied. “You already cook dinner for us every day, you could use a break every now an’ then.”
“Yeah, yeah, but hold on one fucking second,” Sky interjected. “Thanksgiving was two days ago? What?!”
“On Earth’s calendar, today is November 26th. A Saturday,” Twy commented.
“We’ve been on Nimalia for just over a month, huh…” Austin mused. “I guess we lost track of time…”
“Not like there’s much point in tracking Earth time, anyways,” Conrad said. “We aren’t on Earth, after all. Might as well stick to the local calendar.”
“Well, yeah, but still…”
“Yeah, I still want to celebrate our regular Earth holidays, too!” Sky insisted. “Damn it, we missed Thanksgiving?! This is insane! We better not miss fucking Christmas!”
“I’ll try to keep a note of that,” Luke replied, his attention directed to his left as a train came into view in the distance. “…But for now, grab your bags, everybody. Looks like our ride is here.”
“Fucking finally,” Pierce huffed as he heaved his lone bag over his shoulder, his foot tapping impatiently while the train rushed into the station and then rapidly slowed to a stop at the platform. “We’ve been waiting here for forever!”
“You should be ready for more waiting, then,” Luke remarked, lining up behind the group in preparation to board. “There’s a reason an entire day of our itinerary was booked for travel, and we still had to wake up early. We have a long day ahead of us, folks. Better prepare for it!”
Several Hours Later
“Huh, this is actually kinda good.”
“It’s fucking leaves on a stick. With sugar on it!”
“Yeah? So? It tastes good. It’s sweet and the leaves have kind of a bready texture, but with a little bit of spice, too. It’s weird, but I think I like it.”
Pierce shook his head as he watched Conrad bite out of a large leaf, covered in some kind of shiny brownish texture, reminiscent of caramelization. “You really will eat anything.”
“Your loss,” Conrad replied around a mouthful of caramelized leaf. He then broke off one of the leaves from the stick in his hands and held it out toward Kestrel, who wordlessly accepted it. “See? Even Kestrel likes it,” Conrad declared.
“I think it’s just the sugar that’s getting to you,” Pierce countered. “That just looks like tourist trap food. Which should be obvious, given where we are.”
As if in response to Pierce’s statement, he, Conrad, and Kestrel all glanced around at their surroundings. They currently sat at a table in an open-air food court atop a five-story building, overlooking a sprawling city covered in sunlight. The skyline appeared similar to that of the other Nimalian cities Pierce had seen, with rolling contours couched in natural green, blue, and brown tones. But one key thing stood out: a massive structure in the center of the city, towering over everything around it at over a kilometer tall. Bark-like contours in the building’s steel structure, combined with leaf-shaped solar panels attached to metal branches, contributed to a metallic tree appearance — and extending out of the top of the metal tree and disappearing into the sky above was a massive black tether. As Pierce eyed the tether, he spotted a small metal carriage descending the cable and disappearing into the metallic tree, confirming what he already knew: the massive structure was a space elevator, disguised as an aesthetically pleasing metal tree. From reading a tourist brochure, Pierce knew that this elevator was the Konis elevator, named for the city in which it was anchored on the Nimalian Tier 1 World of Sunidobu — and also the same facility that housed Sunidobu’s Interstellar Gate.
After watching the elevator for a moment, Pierce dropped his attention to the land and city around it. Stretching far to the west and east of the space elevator was a large, forested park, with no actual buildings to speak of. The city of Konis itself was built into two halves: a northern half that ended almost a kilometer north of the elevator, and a southern half that stopped just short of a kilometer south of the elevator, with a thin strip of streets, Gatetrain railways, and buildings running from the south to the north in line with the towering tree. According to the same tourist brochure from earlier, the city of Konis was originally built with the massive east-west stretch of undeveloped land as a precaution in case the space elevator ever collapsed or became unanchored; due to the planet’s rotation, in such a situation buildings to the east or west would be most at danger. Modern construction techniques meant that there was no real risk of the space elevator failing, but the long equatorial park in Konis remained as a peculiar aesthetic.
And as a draw for tourist money, I bet, Pierce mused, glancing toward Conrad and Kestrel as they finished off the caramelized leafs. Certainly worked on them. And everyone else. I guess we DO still have several hours to burn before we can leave this place for Sikalia, though…
“Ah…” Conrad released a pleasant sigh as he leaned back in his chair. “That was good! We should get more of that.”
Kestrel nodded in affirmation.
“Man, you guys are hella weird,” Pierce replied.
“C’mon, man, you can’t expect things to be ‘normal’ around here,” Conrad countered. “Not when there’s a big fucking metal tree in the middle of the city! Now that’s cool!”
“…Well, I’ll give you that. Still…” Pierce frowned as he glanced over the brochure on the table next to him. “Is there anything to do here that isn’t just tourist trap bullshit? Anything of actual substance?”
“Yeah, like a place to take a post-lunch nap?”
“Shut the hell up, dude. It isn’t even lunchtime for the people living here, anyways. It’s still morning for them.”
“Well it’s lunchtime for us.”
“Yeah, because we’re fucking interplanetary travelers, you dumbass.”
“Man, you really are no fun when you’re grouchy like this.”
“Grouchy? The hell are you talking about?”
“Oh, gee, I wonder,” Conrad deadpanned, his eyes flicking off to the side. Pierce followed his gaze, ultimately landing his attention on a table across the food court. On one side sat Phoenix, smiling contentedly as she chatted away and shared lunch with a young man across the table from her, with tanned skin, long dark hair, and a rugged build.
A scowl crossed Pierce’s face as he turned back to glare at Conrad. “The fuck are you trying to say, here?”
“I’m just sayin’, dude,” Conrad replied innocently, “you’ve been pretty sour ever since Phoenix started going out with that guy. Sounds like jealousy to me.”
“Jealous? Of a dude named ‘Arn’? Yeah fucking right.”
“Contest?” Kestrel questioned.
Pierce eyed her for a moment before scoffing and glancing off to the side, at the cityscape all around the food court. “So what about the contest? Phoenix still hasn’t won. She won’t last, either, you just watch.”
“Says the guy with no girlfriend,” Conrad replied.
“Hey, look, I’m just taking a short break,” Pierce countered. “After this trip, the regular WCU students have Finals week, and the ACT signups open next week, too. I’m just, you know, giving people the chance to focus on what’s important.”
“How generous of you.”
“Naturally. I am a generous guy, after all.”
“Ha!” Conrad let out a loud, but brief guffaw in response to Pierce’s declaration. “Alright, c’mon, man, you can’t seriously believe that.”
“Why the hell not? Explain to me what’s wrong with what I just said.”
Conrad stared at Pierce blankly for several moments. He then exchanged a glance with Kestrel before sighing loudly. “Man… I don’t think you realize it, but you’ve been way more abrasive than usual, lately.”
Pierce frowned and sat back in his chair. His gut reflex was to immediately counter Conrad’s claim, but Pierce was able to suppress the reflex before any words left his mouth. Shit, maybe he’s right… “…So what if I am?” Pierce eventually replied.
“Well, at least you aren’t fighting me on this one…” Conrad took a deep breath before continuing, “look, man, I think this dating contest you and Phoenix have is bringing out the worst of both of you.”
“Phoenix… gone all week,” Kestrel commented.
“Yeah, she hasn’t spent much time with us since going out with that Arn guy, and when she does, it’s just to rub it in Pierce’s face,” Conrad declared.
A relieved smile began to appear on Pierce’s face. “Ah ha, so you do agree—“
“Hold on, Pierce,” Conrad cut in, “like I said, you’ve been really abrasive lately, too. And not just toward Phoenix, but everybody. You really need to chill.”
“Hmph. I’ll chill once I’ve won.”
“But that’s the problem, dude! C’mon, man, just think, when was the last time any of your contests with Phoenix ended well? Or even with a real victor?”
“…This time is different. I’ll win for real this time, you’ll see. I guarantee it.”
“Fuckin’…” Conrad threw his hands up in resignation. “Whatever you say, dude. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“…Hmph…” Pierce snorted and turned his attention to the surrounding city once more. …Conrad’s right, I should tone it down a little, I guess… but I still refuse to give up. I WILL have a longer, more successful relationship than Phoenix, and I won’t settle for anything less!
“Change subject?” Kestrel suggested, drawing Pierce’s gaze back to her and Conrad.
“Yes please,” Conrad replied. He looked up at the towering metal tree in the distance, his gaze lingering for a moment before dropping to the low skyline of the rest of the city. “This really is a cool place,” he commented, “that space elevator disguised as a big tree is a cool look. I wonder if there are more like that in the galaxy.”
“Unlikely,” Pierce replied, his tone flat as he leaned to the side, his elbow on the armrest of his chair and chin in hand. “Anti-grav tech makes space elevators redundant. The ones on this planet were basically a big engineering experiment that’s only maintained for the novelty.”
“How do you know that?”
Pierce grabbed the tourist brochure with his free hand and held it up.
“…Oh,” Conrad muttered, and then reached for the brochure. “Wait, let me see that…”
“Huh?” Pierce eyed Conrad with confusion as the latter grabbed the brochure and stared at the back. “What? It’s just a stupid tourist brochure…”
“Maybe, but… hey, Kestrel.” Conrad held the brochure toward her and pointed at something. “That look familiar to you?”
She idly glanced over, staring at whatever Conrad was pointing at before nodding her head once. “SFC…”
“SFC?” Pierce echoed, “what’s that?”
“According to this, it stands for ‘Stealth and Force Corps’… a Nimalian private military contractor, originating in Riverana,” Conrad replied.
“A PMC? Why the hell is that on a tourist brochure?”
“It’s a recruitment ad, it looks like. I thought I recognized the uniform. Kestrel and I saw a couple guys wearing this uniform last week, on the WCU campus. Davídrius was real mad at them for some reason.”
“Well, they are a PMC. Basically mercenaries. Not many people have good opinions of mercenaries.”
“If that was true, then why would the galaxy have so many PMCs? Actually…” Conrad frowned in confusion. “Why are there so many PMCs? What do they even do? The nations of the galaxy don’t really fight each other, do they? The only conflict I know of is that stuff with the Drakkars, but the CSA already handles that, I thought…”
“Man, what are you asking me for?” Pierce countered impatiently, “I don’t know anything about this PMC shit. Why do you even care? It’s just more military bullshit to worry about.”
“…I guess so…”
“…Damn, there really isn’t anything pleasant to talk about,” Pierce muttered with a scowl. “There has to be something we can do while we wait for the end of this damn half-day layover…”
“Souvenirs?” Kestrel suggested.
“Yeah, didn’t Twy and Sky go souvenir shopping?” Conrad pointed out. “I think they took Austin and Spike with them, too.”
“Forget it,” Pierce countered. “Souvenirs are already stupid, and now you want me to go shop for them alongside the dweeb? Count me out.”
“Ever the pleasant one. Well, hmm… what about…”
Pierce, Conrad, and Kestrel then continued spitballing ideas as they whiled away the time, hoping to find something to distract themselves with before their eventual trip to Sikalia.
“Still shopping, huh?”
“That they are,” Mark replied as he stepped up next to Luke, joining the Captain in leaning on a railing overlooking the equatorial forest of Konis. He then glanced behind them, at a souvenir shop across the walkway; the shop was one of many in a long stretch, all featuring brightly decorated signs meant to draw in tourists. “…Sky in particular seems to really enjoy looking at all the souvenirs,” Mark eventually continued as he turned back to look over the forest with Luke.
“That’s Sky, for you,” Luke replied with a chuckle. “I bet she’s dragging the other three around with her, isn’t she?”
“I suppose you could say that…”
“Well, at least they’re sticking to the one shop, for now. Sure makes our jobs easier,” the Captain remarked as his gaze slowly swept across the forest laid out in front of them, and the massive space elevator off to the left. He then shifted his attention to the right, where a number of WCU students could be seen along the long shopping strip — as well as a handful of WCU teachers attempting to corral them.
Mark glanced in the direction Luke was looking. “…Oh, yeah. The Tresédian students do seem to be enjoying themselves, don’t they?”
“They’ve gotten pretty rowdy. I don’t envy the teachers right now, that’s for sure.”
“Perhaps, but can you really blame them? This trip is the first time most of those students have even left Treséd, let alone stepped off-world.”
“True, true… can hardly imagine what that’s like.”
“Yeah… I wish I could understand their situation better,” Mark said with a sigh. “It’s just hard to believe that Nimalia has an entire continent that everyone’s written off as a lawless wasteland…”
“It’s not like most nations on Earth don’t tunnel vision on their own problems,” Luke pointed out. “…Still, you’re right. A wasteland that spans an entire continent does seem like a bit much. Hmm…” As the Captain looked over the wide walkway behind him, busy with all manner of tourists, his gaze soon fell upon a certain three individuals walking toward the WCU students: Davídrius, Kaoné, and Karísah. “Well, we could always try asking the Deans about it.”
“Hmm? Oh, right,” Mark replied as he spotted the three as well. “They do seem to be coming this way. I’m not sure if I want to bother them, though—“
“Oh, skies be with me! You’re Kaoné Densalin, aren’t you?!”
“What the…?” Luke and Mark both turned their attentions toward a young Nimalian couple, who had just stopped in front of Kaoné — who herself bore a bashful smile.
“That would be me, yes,” Kaoné replied cordially, while Davídrius looked on with a cross expression. “Can I help you with something?”
“O-oh! N-nothing of the sort!” the Nimalian woman exclaimed, all while grinning from ear-to-ear. “It’s just, you know, I never thought I’d run into one of the members of Hero Machina while on vacation! An actual galactic hero!”
“We’re huge fans,” the man next to her remarked, “I mean, how couldn’t we be? If not for you and your friends, we probably wouldn’t even be standing here, right now!”
“If not for her and her friends, right,” Davídrius drawled.
“It really was a team effort, anyways,” Kaoné responded, smiling at the Nimalian couple while eying the ever-increasing number of glances thrown her way. “In regards to ending the Nanocreature War, I really didn’t do that much…”
“Ah, ever the modest hero!” the woman remarked, her attention still fully on Kaoné even as several other tourists began to gather around. “That’s why we love you!”
“Are the two of you friends of hers?” the man questioned as he looked over at Davídrius and Karísah.
“…Could certainly say that,” Davídrius deadpanned.
“You don’t recognize him?” Karísah replied, and then smiled as she patted Davídrius on the shoulder. “This is Davídrius Wrikax! He was in Hero Machina, too!”
A pained expression rapidly crossed the Dean’s face as the Nimalian couple — along with the mass of tourists that had gathered behind them — turned to look more closely at Davídrius.
“O-oh!” the woman exclaimed, “I-I’m so sorry! I, I didn’t recognize you! I guess you being here would explain all those rowdy students back there, though, huh?”
“Ah ha ha… Hero Machina’s quite the group, huh?” the man replied, “you even had a Tresédian with you. Just goes to show the diplomatic skills of that Captain of yours, right?”
“’Diplomacy’ has nothing to do with Davídrius’s presence on the team,” Kaoné quickly countered. “He contributed just as much as the rest of us. I might even say that he was more useful than I was.”
“Now that’s a lie,” Davídrius replied. “But even so, sometimes I wish I did even less, if all my achievements were gonna get written off as shit that everyone else did.”
“W-what?” the man stared at Davídrius, wide-eyed in horror. “I, no, I didn’t mean to diminish what you did, I just—!”
“Save your excuses, I don’t want or need them. I didn’t help save the galaxy for the recognition, anyways. That said…” The Dean turned his gaze toward the woman, his arms crossed. “You keep my students outta this. Sure, they’re excited right now, but who the hell wasn’t the first time they went off-world?”
“Um… s-sorry…” The man and the woman exchanged an uneasy glance; the rest of the tourists who had gathered around had already dispersed. “…A-anyways!” the woman remarked, turning to flash a quick smile at Kaoné. “We just, um, wanted to say hi, I guess! But I guess you were busy, huh? Sorry. We’ll get out of your hair, now!”
“Oh, it’s no problem. It was nice to meet you!” Kaoné replied, maintaining a polite smile as the Nimalian couple turned around and walked off. Once their backs were turned, Kaoné finally relaxed her smile into a concerned frown, her attention immediately snapping to Davídrius.
“Don’t,” he pre-empted her. “I don’t need words of consolation.”
“But still, that was…” Karísah stared after the retreating Nimalian couple, and then glanced around, noting that there were no more tourists gathered — and the remaining walkway traffic was giving the trio a slightly wider berth than before. “…That wasn’t just me, right? The way they reacted when they recognized Davídrius, that wasn’t…”
“Sure didn’t look very nice to us.”
“…Tch, now y’all show up,” Davídrius said with a scowl as he eyed Luke and Mark, both of whom had just approached. “Don’t tell me y’all saw that.”
Mark flashed an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”
“That was one hell of a backtrack, though,” Luke remarked as he looked out over the crowd, and then turned his attention back to Davídrius and Kaoné. “Is that a normal crowd reaction to you guys just walking around?”
Kaoné sighed warily. “Unfortunately… yes.”
“I’ve never seen that kinda reaction back on Nimalia…” Karísah muttered.
“That’s ‘cause you’ve barely ever left Treséd,” Davídrius countered.
“Most people on Nimalia don’t call out to us if they see us on the street, anyways,” Kaoné pointed out. “We live there, after all, so people are used to seeing us. When we go to another planet, though…”
“That doesn’t explain why everyone just suddenly left when they recognized Davídrius!” Karísah exclaimed. “That’s hardly fair! You were a member of Hero Machina, too!”
“Sure, but that ain’t the part people remember,” Davídrius countered. “Doesn’t help that I didn’t do any of the flashy shit. That was all Siyuakén, Christeané, Kevken, Rebehka, even Kevérin… hell, Siyuakén sacrificed the most, and you can see just how the rest of the galaxy treats her.”
“It’s a shame, but… I can understand it,” Kaoné said. “She was able to break free of Morcii’s control in the end, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of the galaxy only saw her while Morcii was controlling her…”
“Understanding it don’t make it better.”
“It also doesn’t explain how people treated you,” Mark pointed out while looking at Davídrius. “You were never corrupted, right? So what just happened, earlier?”
The Dean simply leaned back and crossed his arms while glancing incredulously between Luke and Mark. He then shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “It ain’t worth dwellin’ on or talkin’ about. This is a Nimalian problem, anyways. Ain’t somethin’ you Earthians could help with.”
“Davídrius…” Karísah muttered.
“Hey, don’t worry about me,” the Dean replied as he reached up to ruffle Karísah’s hair. “I’m used to this, it’s nothin’ to me. If anyone ever talks shit to you, though, you let me know, a’ight? I’ll tear ‘em a new one for you.”
“A Nimalian problem, though, huh…?” Luke muttered under his breath as he watched Karísah bat away Davídrius’s hand. The Captain then shifted his attention down the block toward the groups of WCU students, noting this time that — despite the heavy morning traffic — the surrounding crowds maintained a notable distance from the students. …Even on another planet, huh…?
“Anyways, I’m very sorry you had to see that,” Kaoné apologized to Luke and Mark, and then turned toward Davídrius and Karísah. “And I’m sorry you had to sit through that. I should’ve said something sooner…”
“Ah, it’s whatever,” Davídrius waved her off. “I would’ve preferred they just not recognize me in the first place. Just ‘cause I got free time doesn’t mean I wanna use it chattin’ with random fucks.”
“We do still have a couple hours until we leave, don’t we…” Mark mused.
“And on that note, we should probably head back,” Luke commented. “Don’t want to let Austin and co. get out of our sight in these crowds.” He then offered a casual wave at Kaoné and Davídrius. “Sorry for bothering y’all.”
“Oh, no, you’re no bother, really!” Kaoné insisted. “I’m on this trip for you, after all, as well as the Keys. If you have any questions for me, don’t hesitate to ask!”
“But let’s save it for later, we’ve been standin’ around long enough,” Davídrius interjected. “Let’s get lunch already!”
“Then we’ll leave you to it,” Luke remarked, watching as Davídrius began leading Kaoné and Karísah through the crowds — albeit at a somewhat faster pace than before they had been stopped.
Once they were out of earshot, Mark leaned down to speak softly to Luke. “…Do you know what just happened, here?” he questioned. “Davídrius brushed it off, but…”
Luke, however, simply shook his head and turned back toward the souvenir store. “It’s as he said, Mark. This is a Nimalian problem. Let’s not butt our heads in where we aren’t welcome.”
“…If you say so, sir.”
“Hey, what’d I say about calling me ‘sir’?”
“Ha, right… sorry, um… Luke.”
“There we go. Is that really so hard?”
“More than you’d think…”
With that, the two continued back toward the store, exchanging friendly banter while awaiting their departure from Sunidobu.
Several Hours Later
“Man, what’d we stop for? I thought we were good to go!”
“This is standard procedure for Gate travel,” Kaoné replied from a couple seats back. “The early trains always stop just outside of the Gateport while they wait for the Gate connection to clear. Don’t worry, we’ll be on our way soon.”
“Soon…” Austin grumbled as he glanced around impatiently. He, the other Earthians, as well as the other WCU students and teacher chaperones were currently sitting aboard their outgoing Gatetrain, parked on the narrow north-south strip of developed land running between the northern and southern halves of Konis. The train itself, while crowded with travellers and baggage, remained surprisingly comfortable — similar to that of long-distance passenger trains on Earth, by Austin’s reckoning. Two seats on each side of a comfortably-sized aisle made for a pleasant amount of room, and overhead baggage bins kept bags and suitcases out of the way of legs and passengers. Next to Austin sat Twy, with Spike and Sky a row ahead of them, Luke and Mark a row behind, and Pierce, Conrad, Phoenix, and Kestrel across the aisle. Kaoné accompanied the group this time as well, sitting across the aisle from Luke as she looked up through the passenger car’s glass ceiling.
Austin briefly followed her gaze, sighting the massive metal tree that disguised the Konis space elevator. Its metallic branches and solar panel leafs extended out over their train, and the massive metal trunk that was the actual space elevator occupied a large percentage of the northern horizon. To the west, Austin could see the late afternoon sun descending over the forested equatorial park, casting long shadows over the train as it sat in preparation for Sunidobu’s Interstellar Gate to connect to Sikalia.
“This does seem like a lot of waiting, though,” Phoenix commented a few moments later. “We’ve been sitting here for almost ten minutes. Isn’t Gate travel supposed to be more efficient than this?”
“We sure as hell didn’t have to spend this long sitting on our asses while traveling to Ainminthalus, that’s for sure,” Pierce muttered.
“It’s inconvenient, but delays happen sometimes,” Kaoné replied.
“You’ve all flown before, I’m sure,” Luke commented. “Delays aren’t the end of the world.”
“You don’t have to wait a whole day if you miss a flight, though!” Sky countered.
“I know we’ve all had a long day,” Kaoné responded calmly, “but just have a little more patience. Once we’re on Sikalia, we can all rest.”
“’Long day’ is bit of an understatement,” Austin grumbled. “We left our hotel in the early morning on Nimalia, left Nimalia mid-morning, only to arrive here in the early morning, and now leave in the late afternoon! It’s gotta be nighttime back on Nimalia!”
“Of course it’s nighttime somewhere on Nimalia, it’s a fucking planet,” Pierce retorted.
“You know what I meant.”
“Yes, dealing with timezone jumps can be taxing,” Kaoné said. “I’ve traveled through the Gate Network a lot, and watching the light level change completely as you go through the Gate is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to. At least our destination is nice, so I hear.”
“You’ve never been to Sikalia?” Twy questioned.
Kaoné shook her head. “No. In hindsight, I feel like I really should have. Sikalia is one of the oldest Tier 2 Worlds in the Nimalian Union, and is largely responsible for the number of preservation worlds within the Union.”
“I guess that’s why we’re goin’ there, then?” Spike asked.
“Yes, that’s a big part of it.”
“I bet the whole Brightest Day thing is part of it, too!” Sky exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see what that’s all about!”
“You and me, both!” Phoenix quickly affirmed with a grin. “A day-long, city-wide party is something I can always get behind!”
“…Brightest Day is often exciting,” Kaoné replied. “I bet I know most of what Sikalia is going to do, too. They used to be under the Nimaliakian government, after all, before the creation of the Union 9 years ago.”
“Wait, what?!” Sky remarked incredulously. “Only 9 years ago?!”
“Sky…” Twy softly facepalmed. “That’s basic galactic history. Not even history, really, it was all over the news, even on Earth.”
“Ha, well, the average Nimalian doesn’t concern themselves too much with the affairs of foreign governments, so I wouldn’t expect the same of Earthians,” Kaoné replied. “The official formation of the Nimalian Union was a long time coming, anyways. Once the Nimalian Systems Defense came into being 20 years ago, it was inevitable.”
“Still, with how many planets you Nimalians have, I would’ve thought that you’d’ve set up a centralized government sooner,” Mark commented.
“It probably would’ve helped with some things along the way…” Kaoné sighed, and then shook her head. “Well, before the Union came along, pretty much every Nimalian world fell under one of three jurisdictions: Nimaliaka, Tekdecé, or the then-ill-named RPF, or Riverana Protection Force.”
“Another PMC, I assume?” Conrad deadpanned.
“Yes. Originally created to, well, protect Riverana. That was a long time ago, though, and for most of the past couple centuries, they’ve been colonizing planets just as much as Nimaliaka or Tekdecé. They only stopped 20 years ago, when the NSD absorbed the interstellar arms of the Nimaliakian, Tekdecénian, and RPF militaries. The Union did the same to the interstellar arms of their governments, really, once it came around. The RPF now is a shell of its former self.”
“I’m sure plenty of people weren’t pleased with that kind of centralization of power,” Twy commented.
Kaoné shrugged. “There were some complaints, yes, but most Nimalians were actually in favor of creating the Union. When you live on, say, Sikalia, it can feel a little disenfranchising to have your laws controlled by a government focused on an entirely different planet. So far, the Union and Sidonté Demerin have been doing a good job giving everyone a voice, I think.”
“Everyone except for Chaotics,” Austin retorted.
“Well, actually, I think Demerin is our best shot at finally ending the practice of Chaotic conscription in Nimalian space,” Kaoné refuted. “Even if we don’t actually get all the way there, he’s expressed that he’s open to progress. Personally, I’m hopeful.”
“…Personally, I’m just waiting for this train to fucking move,” Pierce muttered, only for an electrical whirring noise to slowly build up from below. “Huh. Finally.”
“Yeah, looks like this is it,” Luke remarked as the train began to move, slowly picking up speed as it rolled toward the Gateport built into the base of the Konis space elevator. Barely seconds later, the waning sunlight through the train’s windows was blocked out by a long tunnel, which itself soon gave way to a large underground cavity littered with rails and other trains waiting to navigate out of the Gateport.
“Looks like we’re in an underground train yard,” Austin observed.
“Or like we’re about to take off from an airport!” Sky remarked. “This train really got moving, fast! How long until we’re through the Gate?”
“It shouldn’t be long, now,” Kaoné replied, leaning over in her seat in an effort to look through the side window toward the front of the train. “Ah, here we go—“
Just as the words left her mouth, the large blue, silver, and white ring that was the Interstellar Gate appeared in view — and half a second later, it engulfed the train, its black event horizon sweeping across everyone in the passenger car before Austin could react. By the time he was able to jump in surprise, the event horizon was behind him, and the view through the Gatetrain’s ceiling and side windows had changed. Instead of the large, underground train yard of Konis, Austin now saw a glass tunnel surrounding the speeding train… and through the glass tunnel was a wide-reaching view from atop a towering mountain, overlooking a massive sprawling city below.
“…Alright, I have to admit, this isn’t bad,” Pierce remarked as the train’s speed slowed a little and it entered into a downward-sloping right turn. A rock face soon appeared on the right side of the train, while through the left windows, lines of railway tracks could be seen spiraling down the mountain and eventually entering the city around it. More mountains could be seen in the distance, along the north and west horizons, but the mountain down which the Gatetrain traveled seemed to be the only one in the immediate vicinity — and it easily dwarfed even the distant mountains in size.
“I hear this is the typical reaction upon arriving on Sikalia,” Kaoné remarked with an amused smile, sweeping her gaze up and down the passenger car to see both the Earthians and WCU students eagerly staring out the left-side windows. She then turned to look out the windows herself, watching the city slowly spiral around as she explained, “Sikalia’s Interstellar Gate is located atop a tall mountain; an extinct volcano, if I recall correctly. According to the history books, there was a lot of debate about whether to move Sikalia’s Gate or not when they first began colonization, and for a while, they did. But after setting up the Gatetrain tracks, they moved the Gate back to the mountain’s peak, so that travelers can have this magnificent panoramic view of Ilia when they arrive and leave.”
“I bet that brings in lots of tourist money,” Conrad remarked.
“Oh, now you’re savvy about tourist traps,” Pierce retorted.
“So… this city is called Ilia, then?” Phoenix questioned.
“That’s right,” Kaoné replied, and then pointed at a large swath of forested land as it came into view, and a singular massive tree that towered over the rest — although still much shorter than the mountain they were currently descending. All throughout the forest, particularly near the massive tree, were thick rock columns tall enough to tower over all but the large tree itself. “And that, over there, is the Ilia preservation park, one of the largest non-continental parks in the Union. You can only see a small part of it here, but it stretches out for millions of square kilometers.”
“Millions?!” Sky echoed incredulously, “that’s huge!”
“I read on the Relaynet that many Nimalian Tier 2 Worlds have these kinds of large parks,” Twy commented. “In many cases, only one or two continents are actually developed, and the rest of the planet is left in its natural state.”
“That’s correct,” Kaoné affirmed. “I’m pleased to hear someone’s done their reading!”
“I was just curious, that’s all…”
“And it’s all a great sight, for sure,” Austin drawled, staring out the windows with everyone else before glaring up at the bright blue skies, and the sun slowly rising over the eastern horizon. “But has no one else noticed that it’s the fuckin’ morning here?”
“I did warn you it’d be a long day,” Luke said with a sigh.
“In the literal sense, as well,” Kaoné replied. “Sikalia’s days are longer than Nimalia’s by around an hour and 12 minutes.”
“The days are 25 hours and 12 minutes long?” Spike questioned. “Oof. That’ll take some gettin’ used to…”
“At least we’re only here for a few,” Luke declared. “Make sure you all have your bags, y’all, we should be pulling into our station here soon. The itinerary says we’ll have today to rest and adjust to the local time, and tomorrow, the activities fully begin!”