Chapter 57 – A Review of History

Chapter 57 – A Review of History

The Next Morning

“Wow… this place looks a lot like nature and science museums back home, huh?”

“Guess it does,” Spike replied flatly. “Though… it’s a museum. What’d you expect?”

“…Good question,” Sky responded, her hand held to her chin in thought as she and Spike looked around at their surroundings. The crowded cacophony of 150 excited college students filled the air as the travel group spread out through the open halls of Sikalia’s Museum of Nimalian Preservation History. Expansive ceiling skylights gave way to blue skies stuffed with fluffy white clouds, and a massive window on the far side of the hall revealed the endless sea of green that was the Ilia Preservation Park, with a singular massive tree standing in the distance among the forest of regular-sized trees. In the museum itself, a variety of exhibits lined the walls, extolling the virtues of natural preservation and explaining the how and why of current Nimalian preservation practices, all while decked out with examples of flora and fauna from all across the Union.

“There’s a lot of people here,” Sky remarked.

“Yeah, but not enough to fill the place,” Spike countered. While the travel group had crowded the Gatetrains and hotels en route to Sikalia, the group of less than 200 individuals appeared rather sparse amidst the planet’s largest museum.

“I guess it does look kinda empty, if you put it like that,” Sky admitted. “…But there’s still enough people to block my view! C’mon, Spike, let me ride on your shoulders!”

“I said no touching, remember?”

“Well, yeah… but a little bit wouldn’t kill you, would it?”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“You know what I meant.”

Spike grunted in response and continued surveying the exhibits, pointedly ignoring Sky as she glared at him. A second later he gestured toward an exhibit off to the side, showcasing what appeared to be several different Nimalian building styles. Most of the students were ignoring it, but there was still one person looking it over. “Hey, that’s Kaoné, right?”

“Huh? Oh!” Sky glanced in the direction he was pointing. “Ha ha, yeah, I’d recognize her anywhere! One of the few people around here even shorter than me!”

“You aren’t that short, for a woman…”

“Shut up. Still, she’s a Dean, right? I wonder why she’s all alone.”

“Who knows.”

“Good question…” Sky replied contemplatively, and then turned to march off toward Kaoné. “Let’s go ask her!”

“What—? Ah…” Spike released a brief sigh as he watched Sky walk off, and then followed after her. The two soon found themselves standing next to the Nimalian Dean, and she noticed their presence just as quickly.

“Do you need something?” Kaoné questioned.

“Just lookin’ around,” Spike said.

“You seemed lonely,” Sky remarked. “So I thought we’d come over to talk.”

“Sky, don’t just walk up to people and say they looked lonely,” Spike admonished.

“Ha ha! It’s fine, it’s fine,” Kaoné replied, adopting a warm smile as she turned to face the two Earthians. “I’m only here for you Keys, and Luke seems to be doing a decent job watching you, himself. Davídrius and the other WCU teachers are watching their students, so I have some time to actually look around.”

“You’re only here for us…?” Spike questioned warily.

“Part of this trip involves a visit to an NSD garrison, after all. They wanted someone to vouch for you Earthians.” Kaone then flitted her eyes to the side as her smile disappeared. “Someone who wasn’t Tresédian…”

Spike and Sky glanced in the direction Kaoné was looking, spotting Davídrius across the hall as he attempted to corral a handful of rowdy students. Turning back to Kaoné, Sky asked, “what, does Sikalia not trust them or something?”

“They’re being… distressingly blatant about it,” Kaoné said. “Have you not noticed? The museum is covered in CENT fields.”

“Huh?” Sky gave Kaoné a confused stare, and then looked down at her own hands. Her brow furrowed with focus for a moment. “…Huh! You’re right! I can’t make any fire!”

“…Well, everyone here is a Chaotic, right?” Spike pointed out. “I guess they’re just bein’ careful—!”

Spike suddenly stumbled back, caught off guard as Sky latched on to him, with her arms wrapped around his chest in a tight hug. With brow furrowed in confusion, he made to respond, but Sky beat him to the punch as she locked eyes with him. “This is fine now, right?” she questioned expectantly, “if there’s a CENT field, then you don’t have your crazy super strength right now, right? So touching is fine!”

Spike stared back at her, dumbfounded. “…I—“

“Touching. Is. Fine.

An exasperated sigh escaped Spike’s lips, his gaze quickly sweeping over the exhibits around them. When he realized that Kaoné was the only one paying any attention to the couple, he eventually relented, lifting his right hand to tousle Sky’s hair — to which she responded with a self-satisfied smile and a giggle.

Kaoné, meanwhile, regarded the couple with an amused expression. “Try not to get too carried away in public,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, but c’mon, this is a rare chance!” Sky remarked, still tightly embracing Spike. “I have to make the most of it!”

“Guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Spike commented with a smirk.

“CENT fields are somewhat rare…” Kaoné said. “Normally, I’d say it’s better to try and get used to your abilities, rather than using a CENT field as a crutch… but I’ll overlook this for now.”

“How generous of you,” Sky retorted.

“Ah ha ha…” the Dean laughed uneasily before returning her attention to the building exhibit in front of the three. “…Well, I hope you spend at least some of today looking at the exhibits. Have either of you seen anything here that piques your interest?”

“We’ve only been here for half an hour…” Spike commented, momentarily crouching down as Sky finally stopped hugging him, only to climb up onto his back.

“And still we’ve seen nothing, since you’ve been dragging your ass,” Sky replied, looking down at him as he wrapped his arms around her legs to carry her piggy-back style. “I know it’s the morning, but c’mon! We have things to see!”

“It ain’t just the mornin’, it’s also the mornin’ after a long travel day that ended in a different time zone. And on a planet with a longer day, too!”

“Oh stop complaining, you’ll be fine.”

“You say, after climbin’ up on my back…”

“Like I said, I have to make the most of this!”

Kaoné smiled as she watched the two banter — as much as Spike protested, he was smiling as much as Sky was. The Dean then turned back to the building exhibit. “Well, I suppose you could start here.”

“What, looking at how buildings are constructed?” Sky looked the exhibit up and down, eying the scale models of several buildings on the display. One of them appeared to be similar to the massive artificial tree that had disguised the space elevator on Sunidobu, while several others appeared to be skyscrapers designed with natural colors and contours, looking much like tall stone pillars or tree trunks. “…I guess it’s kind of a cool look,” Sky said a moment later. “All the Nimalian buildings I’ve seen seem to care more about aesthetics than the ones I’ve seen on Earth.”

“Nah, it’s more like the look is just different,” Spike countered. “Folks on Earth care about how buildings look, especially skyscrapers, but the look ain’t as unified as the Nimalians. Or nature-y.”

“It’s funny, I’ve heard similar from Citans and Siions. About the nature part, at least,” Kaoné replied. “I think Nimalians tend to care more about their environment than others. No one but us has such a widespread preservation program, after all.”

“What, does the CSA just build stuff too fast to care?” Sky questioned.

“Well, yes and no. Development speed isn’t really a problem. Nimalians can construct buildings and cities just as fast as the Siions, especially when you have a Chaotic like me around.”

“Bein’ able to summon up matter at will must be pretty useful for that, huh,” Spike observed.

“It’s still a little tricky, making sure that you make the building correctly,” Kaoné answered, “but yes, I can’t deny that my powers are incredibly useful for construction. In fact, I prefer using them that way.”

“Prefer? Prefer over what?” Sky asked.

“Over fighting, of course.”

“Oh… right…”

“So Nimalians like nature, huh?” Spike questioned, turning his attention back to the model buildings. “I guess that should be obvious, after seein’ that big metal tree on that last planet we were at…”

“The Tree of Konis is a gimmick more than anything else, honestly,” Kaoné refuted. “More show than substance. A tourist trap. It’s a pretty show, to be sure, but still… most Nimalian construction is more practical.”

“What’s practical about making your skyscrapers look like trees?” Sky questioned incredulously.

“It’s about the mindset, the psychology of it. I can’t speak for non-Nimalians, but many studies have shown that Nimalians benefit greatly from free access to green spaces. Even just looking at a nice park helps.”

“Same goes for us, I think,” Spike commented.

“Then I think you can understand,” Kaoné replied. “Which would you prefer for a building design: a giant glass block? Or something that evokes the sense of nature, something that has an open-air park every several floors, to maintain the presence of greenery even within a dense city center?”

“Well, when you put it like that, the answer is obvious,” Sky responded.

Kaoné nodded. “Exactly.”

“Must be expensive, though.”

“It is, but it’s worth it.”

“Now if only we could convince construction companies on Earth to think like that,” Spike drawled.

“All the more reason to check out everything here while we can!” Sky exclaimed.

“Ha ha, I’m glad to see you’re interested in how we do things,” Kaoné commented with a smile. “If you’d like, I can show you around the exhibits and give a better background on them.”

“Oooh, I’d love that! Let’s get going!”

“Alright! Now, let’s see… this is my first time here, as well, but I should still know enough to explain the things we see. Let’s start over here…”

As Kaoné led Sky and Spike over to an adjacent exhibit, Austin and Twy watched from across the hall, standing alone nearby a different exhibit.

“…How does Sky have so much energy?” Austin muttered groggily.

“Oh, you know how she is…” Twy responded in kind, and then covered her mouth as a yawn overtook her. “Ugh… my internal clock is all messed up…”

“Yours and everyone else’s,” Austin replied, finally taking his attention off of Sky and Spike to glance at Twy, and then up at the exhibit adjacent to them that displayed a handful of planets. “I guess when you think about it, it’s pretty lucky for us that Nimalia’s day is the same length as Earth’s, huh?”

Incredibly lucky,” Twy said, turning her attention to the exhibit as well. “As I understand it, all of the Homeworlds have 24-hour days. Pretty convenient…”

“Probably just ancient Aldredas meddling or somethin’. That’s always how precursor races go.”

“…Right,” Twy deadpanned. “In more modern news, this display about planet development levels is interesting.”

“’The World Tier System’,” Austin read out from the display, and then took a closer look at the exhibit itself. The display featured models of 8 different terran planets, all labeled differently and accompanied by images of skylines with decreasing height and density from left to right. On the left were two planets practically stacked on top of each other, with a small model of a space station attached to a giant black orb floating in between; these two were labeled “Homeworld” and “Transpace World”. The next model over was labeled “Fortress World”, and the remaining five were labeled Tier 1 through Tier 5, from left to right.

“A system that categorizes planets by their purpose and development level, all for the sake of organizing the Interstellar Gate Network,” Twy commented as she scanned the display. “…It never really occurred to me to rank planets like this, but I guess it makes sense.”

“Well, we Earthians don’t exactly have a lot of planets, so of course we don’t think about it,” Austin replied. “The biggest colony we have is Nova Terra, and that’s, what… Tier 3? I think? …What does Tier 3 mean, again?”

“500 thousand to 500 million people, and self-sustainable for critical supplies, like food and water… says the display,” Twy replied.

“Oh… right.”

“The exact population thresholds aren’t as interesting as everything else, though. Look here.” Twy pointed at the far right planet. “According to this, most Tier 5 Worlds are really just small colonies or military bases, and most take decades to make it to Tier 4 — if they do at all! If Tier 5s take so long to develop, but there are still hundreds of planets at Tier 4 and above… then just how abundant are terra worlds in this galaxy?”

“The galaxy is a big place. And the other races have had a long time to colonize it.”


“I mean, there are hundreds, if not thousands of colonized planets, but still only a few dozen Tier 1s, right?”

“If you exclude the Homeworlds and Transpace Worlds, which are technically Tier 1.”

“Yeah, but they’re their own category for a reason. What do Transpaces even look like, anyways?” Austin questioned, and then looked closer at the small space station model on the far left of the display. It consisted of a long tube — the actual livable area — connected to a couple of long manipulator arms that surrounded a giant black orb adjacent to the space station. “…Is that supposed to be a Transpace?”

“A small model of a space station, next to a model of a planet labeled ‘Transpace World’?” Twy passed Austin an incredulous look. “Hmm, I wonder.”

“Alright, you smart ass,” Austin retorted. “I bet you can’t explain how Transpaces work.”

“Of course I can’t, no one can,” Twy countered. “All we know is that they’re basically big, ancient space stations that can open portals to other Transpaces, portals large enough for entire space fleets to fly through. As far as I know, no one knows how the portals work, they just do. Just like the Interstellar Gates, really.”


“Maybe if you read the captions, you’d know that yourself.”

Austin rolled his eyes. “Oh please, readin’ is for chumps.”

“I’m sure,” Twy deadpanned, and then turned her attention back to the left-most models. “…Though, if you think about it… the Nimalian Union has a bunch of Tier 1 Worlds, right? And according to Kaoné, all of those planets used to be ruled directly by just two or three nations on Nimalia… that’s kind of ridiculous, if you think about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, just imagine it. Imagine if the United States, a country that’s only able to claim a part of Earth’s surface, was able to lay claim to multiple planets, each with several billion people living on them? All while China and Russia are doing the same?”

“…When you put it that way, yeah, I guess it does sound pretty ridiculous. Well, the Nimalian Union had to’ve been formed for a reason, right?”

“I’m just surprised it didn’t happen sooner. If it were Earthians in that position, I’m certain there would’ve been multiple wars for independence already… I guess the Nimalians are just peaceful people.”

“’Peaceful’?” Austin scoffed. “Did you forget what we saw on the last two trips we went on?”

“…I guess… but the Bleeders are clearly criminals, and not normal ones, at that.”

“The point still stands. Personally, I think that the Nimalians might just be too willing to bow to authority.”

“That’s a broad statement to make…”

“Maybe, but even Davídrius conceded to that Pallan guy, as much as he claims to hate him.”

A frown crossed Twy’s face. “…Is this about the conscription thing, again?”

Austin passed her a glance before looking away and sighing in frustration. “…Man, you’ve seen what’s happened since we got to Nimalia. And accordin’ to Pallan, we’re supposed to be ‘Keys’, we’re supposed to be the ones to fight all that! Can you believe that?!”

Twy released a weary sigh. “I’m not sure what to believe, at this point. All we can really do is keep moving forward, and try to adapt to anything that’s thrown at us.”

“That’s easy to say, but given the last month, fuckin’ anything could happen! It’s impossible to prepare for that!”

“I suppose… hmm, didn’t you have a vision, or something? Back when we first got our powers?”

“The vision…” Austin muttered, looking down at his right hand. “…Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to that crap, but…”


Austin remained silent for a few moments as he thought back to that fateful August morning, when the new Chaos Energy Quake began and he had had a vision. Several different scenes and people had flashed through his mind — he recognized one of the people as EA, but that wasn’t the part of the vision that stood out to him.


Austin— who was suddenly standing in front of a massive army of metallic creatures, his own face raked with metallic rashes—


At the time, Austin hadn’t recognized the metallic rashes for what they were, but now, he knew. Only two questions remained: was the infected man he saw himself, or EA? And was the sight he saw inevitable…?


He glanced over at Twy, finding that she was looking up at him with concern. I never told her about the full contents of my vision, did I? Austin thought, I don’t think I’ve told anyone about most of it. And I don’t know if I should… “…It’s nothing,” Austin eventually replied. “Just… a bunch of random crap. I don’t see any reason to expect anything in my vision to become true.”

“…I suppose,” Twy responded warily. “I guess it would have some uncomfortable implications about predestination and free will… still, what did you see? Was it anything you recognized?”

“Well, I saw EA, but the rest of the faces I saw, I don’t recognize— wait. Wait a second…” A wave of uncomfortable realization crashed over Austin as his mind raced through all of the faces in his vision. He hadn’t realized it until now, but there was one more aspect of his vision that he recognized:


a blond-haired man with a deranged look on his face and blood on his clothes as he whipped a massive chain weapon through the air toward Austin—


“Holy shit…” Austin muttered, and then turned to Twy in alarm. “I saw Pierce!”

“What?!” Twy returned the look. “Really? What happened?!”

“I… it wasn’t much, but…” Austin cast a wary glance across the rest of the museum hall, catching a glimpse of Pierce before returning his attention to Twy. “He looked, well… crazy. As in, like, psychotic. With blood all over him, and he was fightin’ me…”

“That sounds… not good.”


“…Well, like you said, there’s no reason to expect your vision to become true, right? I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Austin passed Twy a doubtful glance. Maybe, but the fact that I saw Pierce in my vision WAY before I knew the guy actually existed is… disturbing. That information had to come from somewhere. But where…?

“Anyways…” Twy spoke up, drawing Austin’s attention out of his own thoughts. “For now, let’s try to have some fun here in the museum, and not think so much about all of this… prophecy stuff. How’s that sound?”

“…Yeah…” Austin took a deep breath, after which he adopted a small smile. “…Yeah… you’re right. We’re on an alien planet, after all. Might as well make the most of it, huh?”

Twy smiled back. “Exactly. I know that’s what Sky would say, at least. Now…” She and Austin turned away from the planetary exhibit next to them and began surveying the museum. “What else around here looks interesting…?”

While Austin and Twy looked around the museum hall, Luke eyed them from near the hall’s entrance. He continued watching them for a couple moments before sighing and turning to watch over the rest of the hall.

Something wrong?

Luke glanced to his side, where Mark stood, dressed in a casual green and white baseball shirt and jeans, though his posture remained as square and impeccable as ever. “…It’s nothin’,” Luke replied. “What about you? You not gonna check out the museum with everyone else?”

Are you? Mark questioned.

“Touché,” Luke responded with a smirk.

It is interesting, though, Mark commented, slowly surveying the large student group as everyone in the hall roamed between exhibits. Traveling to other civilian planets, that is, and using the Gate Network to do it.

“Yeah, we really don’t do that, much, huh?” Luke remarked. “And even the few times we did go to Nimalian worlds, they were all Tier 4 or 5. Never seen anything like that space elevator on Sunidobu before. That was somethin’.”

Goes to show what you can miss if you don’t know what to look for, I suppose.

“Heh, suppose so.” Luke chuckled briefly, only for his faint smile to quickly collapse back into a neutral expression as he eyed the two major exits from the museum hall. Standing at stiff attention at each of the exits were two individuals, clad in green uniforms.

Mark glanced toward the exits as well before turning his attention back to the main hall. …So you noticed them, too? he questioned, his voice low.

“Yeah…” Luke muttered. “How couldn’t I? What museum needs armed guards? And from the NSD, no less.”

Armed? And from the NSD? How can you tell?

“They aren’t exactly bein’ subtle about it. That green uniform with the black trimming, that looks so similar to what you Eximius Vir wear? That’s the official uniform of the NSD. Your uniforms are actually modified NSD uniforms made specifically for Chaotics, after all. But back to the guards — if you look closely, you can tell that they have sidearms hidden under their jackets. Suela Laser Pistols, I’d bet.”

Mark passed Luke an incredulous look. How can you tell what kind of weapon they have? I can barely see that they even have one!

“Well, it’s obviously a pistol, by the size of it,” Luke explained. “The NSD uses two kinds of pistols, the Nitak Coil Pistol and the Suela Laser Pistol. In the field, you’ll run into the Nitak more often, since mag weapons are better against energy shields than lasers. But against an unshielded target, laser weapons are far better, and no one around here is wearing any energy shielding.”

True… still, that leaves a major question: why are there armed guards here? And why do the Deans and other teachers not seem to care?

Luke remained silent for a second, his gaze snapping over to Davídrius, who was currently speaking with a handful of students a few exhibits over. The Dean seemed absorbed in explaining something about the exhibit, but every now and then, Luke could catch him sneaking quick glances toward the hall exits. “…I think they do care,” Luke eventually replied. “I just think they expected this.”

What? Mark frowned in confusion. But… why? This can’t possibly be standard procedure for travel groups, can it? That seems a little aggressive…

Luke nodded. “I agree. The way I see it, there’s three possibilities, here. One, the guards are here for us — the Earthians. We are part of SERRCom, after all, and while we may be allies with the Nimalians, we’re still a different military.”


“Two, the guards are here because all of these students are Chaotics. This is supported by the activation of CENT fields around here — which I very much doubt the museum is normally equipped with, but hey, who knows.”

CENT fields? Wait, really?

“So said Dean Densalin, at least,” Luke replied with a shrug. “I’m not a Chaotic, so I can’t tell, and you’re part of the Eximius Vir, so you can’t tell… either way, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

I suppose… Mark muttered, but that seems like a very cynical move. Do the Nimalians really not trust their own Chaotics?

“Are you kiddin’? Of course they don’t. Why else is conscription a thing?”

“Ah… Dean Wrikax,” Luke remarked, glancing over as Davídrius approached the duo with his arms crossed. “Can we help you with somethin’?”

“Nah…” Davídrius glanced back at the students he had just been talking to, watching for a moment as they pointed at and discussed the exhibit near them. “The students are behavin’ themselves, for the most part. They even seem actually interested in all this history shit. Didn’t expect that, but, hey, guess Kaoné is right sometimes.” He then turned back to Luke. “All that aside, I overheard what y’all were talkin’ about.”

About the guards…? Mark questioned warily.

“What the hell else?” Davídrius retorted. He snuck a frustrated glance toward the guards before looking at Luke and Mark again, saying, “fuckin’ guards and CENT field bullshit… it’s to be expected.”

So this is normal, then?

“Now hold on, I ain’t said this is normal. This ain’t fuckin’ normal, Kaoné’ll tell ya that.”

“I suspected that might be the case, especially after what we saw yesterday,” Luke commented. “I guess possibility three is the answer, then.”

Mark passed Luke a confused glance. Possibility three?

“Yup.” Luke nodded. “That the guards are here ‘cause this travel group is from Treséd.”

“Well lookit you, figured it all out already,” Davídrius remarked with a bitter smirk.

Wait, really? Mark looked between Luke and Davídrius in disbelief. But… Treséd is a nation on an entirely different planet! Why would the people here care about any of that?

“Treséd’s history is long, longer than Nimalia’s history in space, in fact. And it’s known all across the Union,” Davídrius countered. “Not for good, either. Everyone knows Treséd’s rep. A massive, lawless wasteland, dominated by outlaws and criminals and savages.”

That’s not true…

“That’s the thing. It kinda is. And that’s why these assholes feel justified uppin’ the security for a Tresédian travel group.” A low growl escaped Davídrius’s throat as he passed the guards another glance. “Don’t like bein’ likened to the fuckin’ Bleeders, but I learned a long time ago that fightin’ this every step of the way doesn’t get you anywhere.”

…Wait a second, Mark responded warily. Is this… is this the same reason those people on Sunidobu acted so weirdly when they recognized you? Because you’re a Tresédian?

“You only realized that now?” Davídrius replied incredulously.

But… why? Is the fact that you’re a Tresédian really enough to override the fact that you were a part of Hero Machina?

“It ain’t like I go around talkin’ about the damn war all the time,” Davídrius pointed out. “Most of us would rather just not talk about the war if it ain’t relevant. It’s everyone else who keeps bringing up this Hero Machina shit. ‘Hero Machina’ this, ‘heroes of the galaxy’ that. Meanwhile no one cares about Siyuakén, or me… not to say I did anythin’ close to what Siyuakén did, but… well, you get the fuckin’ point.”

“Prejudice is rarely rational, anyways,” Luke replied.

“Aye. Don’t make it any less stupid, though.”

But… but that’s… Mark continued, distress painted across his face.

Davídrius responded with a bitter smile. “Really that unbelievable to you outsiders, huh? Bet things are just perfect on Earth, then.”

“I’d hardly say that,” Luke countered. “We still have our own fair share of problems.”

I guess… Mark commented, and then shifted his attention back to Davídrius. But, if you don’t mind me asking… it seems like you expected this kind of unfair treatment. Why arrange for a trip off-world, then?

“When I said I ain’t gonna fight things every step of the way, I didn’t mean I’m just gonna fuckin’ roll over and take it,” Davídrius retorted. He then turned to look out over the greater hall, where groups of students were gathered in front of all the different exhibits, talking about the sights that laid beyond their homeland. “…These students deserve to see Nimalian culture just as much as any other Nimalian, and that’s somethin’ I’ll fuckin’ fight to the death for. Just ‘cause they were born in some shithole doesn’t mean they gotta stay there their whole life, and trips like this are the best way to help ‘em out, by showin’ ‘em the world beyond. It sure ain’t perfect out here… but it’s better than a wasteland.”

“…That’s admirable, Dean,” Luke replied.

“Folks say that a lot. What would mean more is acceptance. Or even better, gettin’ rid of this shitty status quo in the first place.”

Is there any way we can help with that? Mark questioned.

Davídrius glanced back at Mark, his expression blank. A moment later, the Dean took on a bitter smirk as he turned away. “…Appreciate the thought, but this ain’t your problem to solve. A problem with Nimalian culture is an issue for us Nimalians to deal with ourselves.”

I suppose…

“It’s not like we don’t have our own share of problems to deal with back on Earth, anyways,” Luke remarked. He then glanced toward Davídrius, saying, “still, my offer to help out with more tangible threats, like the Bleeders, still stands.”

“Fuckin’ Bleeders…” Davídrius muttered. For a brief moment, Luke thought he saw intense fury flash across Davídrius’s face, but it was wiped out by a smirk just as quickly. “We’ll talk Bleeders when we get back to Compound Tresnon,” the Dean said, “for now, let’s focus on the trip.”

“Fair enough,” Luke replied with a nod.

“Speakin’ of focus… hey! Hey! Rok! Cut it out!” Davídrius shouted, leaving Luke and Mark behind as he jogged toward two students that had begun play-fighting in the middle of the hall. “Damn it, what’d I tell y’all about doin’ this shit…?”

On the other side of the hall, Phoenix glanced toward the center, her attention drawn by Davídrius’s shout. After watching the Dean split up the two students and begin scolding them, Phoenix simply shook her head and returned her attention to the holographic display in front of her, showcasing all sorts of animals. “There’s always someone who can’t just admire the exhibits…”

“I guess…” replied a young man with tanned skin, long dark hair, and a rugged build. He glanced down at Phoenix, saying, “I mean, this stuff is cool, I guess, but spendin’ a whole day here…?”

“Oh come on, Arn! You have to think about it more positively,” Phoenix insisted. “You get to spend a day here. And I have to say, this is an interesting museum…”

The young man, Arn, remained doubtfully silent, with a neutral expression upon his face. Phoenix attempted to read him, but to no avail; she’d only been with him for around a week, after all. Still longer than anything Pierce has managed, ha! She smirked as the thought crossed her mind, only to quickly shake it out and focus on the present.

“Well, let’s think about it like this,” she spoke up, meeting eyes with Arn. “What kinds of things do you like? I’m sure we can find some exhibit related to those things.”

“Hmm…” Arn’s brow furrowed in thought as he remained silent for several more seconds. Eventually, he replied, “I like fightin’.”

“…Right,” Phoenix deadpanned. “I’m not sure that you’ll find anything here about fighting.”

“Actually,” Arn replied, his eyes lighting up as he stared at some of the model animals in front of him, featuring several varieties of feathered birds, mammals that vaguely resembled forest creatures on Earth, and then a few other creatures with horns, spikes, claws, or blades that appeared extremely hostile and entirely foreign. “…I heard there’s wild animals on Nimalia that can be a fight for Chaotics.”

“What? Really?” Phoenix responded incredulously. “How? Where?”

“The Hazard Islands. I think they’re way up north, somewhere. I heard that they have all kinds of crazy animals up there that kill Chaotics all the time!”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“No, see, it’s right here!” Arn pointed at one of the models, resembling a long-limbed monkey with beady black eyes and a small razer on the end of its tail. He then pointed at the plaque under the model, which read out: “Deathtail. A deadly creature originating on Nimalia’s Hazard Islands. It can whip its tail through the air with so much force that it can shatter Velocitechnic skulls.

“…Huh,” Phoenix muttered after reading the plaque. “That’s… huh. Didn’t expect that.”

“The Hazard Islands are full of this stuff, from what I hear,” Arn said. “…Or used to be, at least. I just remembered, accordin’ to Davídrius, the Hazard Islands got destroyed 20 years ago, for some reason…”

“Wait, islands? Destroyed?!” Phoenix echoed incredulously, “h-how? Why?!”

Arn shrugged. “I dunno. I think it was… some infection, or somethin’? I don’t remember, I kinda slept through that lesson…”

“An infection? …Oh…” Phoenix’s face fell as she realized what Arn was unknowingly referring to. So the ‘metallic infection’ ended up on these Hazard Islands 20 years ago, and the Nimalians nuked the place to stop them? That’s what it sounds like happened. If so, then the infection must really be dangerous…

While Phoenix was absorbed in her thoughts, Arn returned his attention to the display, remarking, “before the islands got destroyed, though, I heard that Chaotics went there all the time to fight wild animals and unlock Overdrives.”

“…Really? That sounds incredibly dangerous.”

“Well, yeah. But you can’t unlock your Overdrive by bein’ safe all the time!”

“Right… well.” Phoenix turned back to the display, looking over the other two models of creatures from the Hazard Islands. One resembled a grizzly bear in stature, though with black fur, large boar-like tusks extending out from its face, and six long, thin tails, nearly thrice as long as its body and barely thicker than a strand of hair. The other model was a bird with a massive 2.5-meter wingspan and claws at the ends of its blue-and-white feathered wings, as well as a sharp golden beak strongly indicating that it was a bird of prey. “A Thrallbear and a Chaos Tisan…” Phoenix read from the plaques, “…these hardly sound natural!”

“Yeah, it’s crazy, right?” Arn remarked. “I heard that the Thrallbear can mind control people!”

“That’s half true, according to the plaque… they can use those hair-like tails to exert some control over other creatures by… inserting their tail into the ear canal and invading the brain? Where they hijack the creature’s nervous system??” Phoenix grimaced. “Ugh. How does that even physically work?”

Arn shrugged. “I dunno. Chaos Energy? Chaos Tisans can use Chaos Energy, so I bet other animals from the Hazard Islands can, too.”

“More than just ‘using’ Chaos Energy, according to this, Chaos Tisans are full-blown Chaotics!” Phoenix exclaimed. “What the… what? Since when was wildlife so hella dangerous?!”

“The Hazard Islands were called that for a reason,” Arn replied. “…Says Davídrius, at least.”

“Well if these plaques are right, then he’s a hundred percent correct. Ugh. I might be glad they were destroyed. Who the hell would want to go there, anyways? Anyone who did must have had a death wish.”

“…I wanted to…” Arn responded, crestfallen.

“…And if you trained enough, I’m sure you would’ve been fine!” Phoenix added while forcing a smile.

“True… I still got a couple years in WCU to go.”

You’ll probably need way more than that to face an island full of these monsters, Phoenix thought, casting an aside glance toward the three animals from the Hazard Islands. And these are only three of the animals. I bet there are tons more, and all just as dangerous. Eugh. What a fucking place

“Anyways… I guess we could go look at somethin’ else…?”

Phoenix glanced up at Arn, and then at the rest of the hall. “There are plenty of exhibits. I’m sure something here will have to interest you. Is there anything else you like, aside from, uh… fighting?”

“Hmm…” Arn’s brow furrowed in thought again. “Well… maybe… no… hmmmm…”

While Phoenix eyed Arn as he puzzled out his thoughts, she failed to notice the set of eyes watching her from across the large room. With his arms crossed and mouth turned down in the beginnings of a scowl, Pierce watched Phoenix and Arn from afar, only to rip his gaze from them a moment later.

“Something wrong?” Conrad questioned, noticing Pierce’s foul expression.

“Funny that you’d ask that,” Pierce shot back. “Who’s the one who’s been complaining about being ‘hella tired’ all damn morning?”

“Aw, c’mon, man,” Conrad responded in exasperation. “It’s the jetlag. Everyone gets jetlag.” He looked up at Kestrel. “Right?”

“…You slept ten hours,” Kestrel replied flatly.

“So what if I slept for ten hours? That was in the middle of the day, yesterday! My internal clock is all off, it’s morning here, but it still feels like evening, you know?”

“I don’t see any of the Nimalians complaining,” Pierce retorted.

“Yeah, well… fuck you,” Conrad muttered. He then slowly looked around, eying each of the large museum exhibits before sighing and returning his attention to Pierce and Kestrel. “Man, we got a whole day of this museum, too. Why a museum? Museums are some of the most boring places on Earth…”

“Conveniently, we aren’t on Earth,” Pierce pointed out.

Conrad passed Pierce an exasperated glance before looking up at Kestrel again. “C’mon, you’re with me, right? Museums suck.”

Kestrel glanced blankly at Conrad before surveying the museum herself, though her shoulders slumped slightly as she did. “Mm… sometimes.”

“What, are there too many people here for you?” Pierce questioned.

Kestrel nodded once, firmly and emphatically.

“Could definitely use less people,” Conrad affirmed.

Pierce shook his head in amused resignation. “You antisocial dweebs… this museum isn’t even anywhere near capacity. Look at the place! There’s so much empty space!”

The trio momentarily turned to look out over the hall again. The interior space stretched for dozens of meters both long and wide, and was clearly built to maintain hundreds of museum-goers with wide halls and large exhibits. By comparison, the less than 200 people in the WCU travel group made the museum look like a ghost town.

“…Look, it’s the thought that counts,” Conrad said.

“Whatever, you losers,” Pierce retorted, and then began walking toward the far side of the hall. “Now c’mon.”

“What for? So we can be bored somewhere else?” Conrad deadpanned, though he and Kestrel nonetheless followed Pierce.

“It figures.” Pierce snorted as he glanced back at Conrad and Kestrel. “Neither of you losers read anything about this museum before we showed up, did you? Of course you didn’t.”

“The hell are you trying to get at?”

“There’s a VR exhibit.”

Conrad’s eyes widened, and his pace quickened to fall in next to Pierce. “Whoa, really?!”

“Of what?” Kestrel questioned.

Pierce smirked, amused by the sudden interest Conrad and Kestrel were showing. As the trio arrived at the end of the hall, just outside a pair of double doors, Pierce replied, “it’s a flyover of the Ilia Preservation Park. You know, the one with that bigass tree and the rock pillars that’s just outside the city.”

“…Oh.” Conrad immediately deflated. “C’mon, man, a flyover is nothing. It’s barely VR.”

“Don’t give me that. Getting to look at nature as though you were there, but from perfect safety in an air-conditioned room? This is exactly the kind of shit you like.”

“…Well, got me there.” Conrad sighed and exchanged a glance with Kestrel. “Alright, then, let’s see it.”

“Heh. Thought you’d say that,” Pierce replied as he pushed through the double doors. The room beyond was modestly sized for a showcase room, at around fifteen meters a side, but the decor was anything but. Plants of all sorts — many of them real, by Pierce’s reckoning — decorated the walls, and faux rock pillars stood in the center of the room, acting as supports for dividing curtains. Combined with the bright late-morning sun shining down through the sunlights above, it almost seemed as though the trio had stepped outside, rather than into another room in the building.

Several of the dividing curtains were open, revealing modestly sized VR setups spread throughout the room. A couple of the headsets appeared to be free, and Pierce began to gesture toward one of them — only to stop himself as he spotted a familiar duo to the side of the room, about to engage with one of the empty headsets. “…Well, what do we have here,” Pierce remarked, his arms crossed as a snide smirk crossed his face. “If it isn’t the dweeb.”

“…Pierce,” Austin responded tensely, turning away from the VR headset.

“What do you want?” Twy questioned, eying Pierce suspiciously as he, Conrad, and Kestrel approached.

“Nothing, really,” Pierce replied, and then shifted his attention to Austin. “I just find it amusing that I’d find you here, at the VR exhibit. Go figure, you dweeb.”

“You’re here, too,” Austin shot back.

“Only ‘cause of these two losers, here.” Pierce gestured back at Conrad and Kestrel.

Conrad sighed and shook his head. “Not a great way to make friends, Pierce,” he said.

“As if I’d want to be friends with a dweeb like him,” Pierce retorted.

“I could say the same to you, asshole,” Austin countered.

“Seriously, what do you want from us?” Twy questioned, glaring at Pierce as she did. “What did we do to you?”

“Knowing Pierce? Could be anything,” Conrad remarked.

“The only thing I ‘want’ from you is to see less of you,” Pierce declared. “Seriously. Your loser attitudes about this whole Chaotic thing is going to make a bad look for all of us.”

“Are you…” Austin stared at Pierce incredulously. “Are… are you seriously accusin’ us of crimpin’ your style?”

“Whatever you want to call it.” Pierce snorted in derision. “Look, as far as I’m concerned, not only can you barely use your powers, you don’t even want to use them! What a fucking waste.”

“I— I can use my powers!” Austin replied defensively. “I mean, not here, ‘cause of the CENT fields, but, like… I can hold my own in a fight!”

“Might wanna back down, Austin,” Conrad interjected, “Pierce never takes a challenge lying down…”

“But of course. Losers who think too much of themselves always deserve to be put in their place,” Pierce declared, and then passed Austin an arrogant smirk. “If you think you aren’t bad with your powers, dweeb, then how about a race, huh?”

“Oh c’mon, I’m not a fuckin’ moron,” Austin countered. “How the hell am I gonna win a race against a guy who’s power is literally superspeed?”

“And yours is to copy other people’s powers, right? If you were actually any good at it, then you could do anything I could.”

“That’s— what? That’s not…”

“Austin…” Twy passed Pierce an annoyed glance before turning back to her friend. “C’mon. Let’s just leave him be…”

“After he comes in here and acts like an asshole? No way,” Austin countered, crossing his arms in a huff and glaring at Pierce.

Pierce chuckled in response. “Finally got some balls, huh? Alright, then, if not a race… how about this: tomorrow, we’re going to that Preservation Park near the city. The one of us that can take a picture from the highest point, while standing on something, wins.”

“That’s way more doable. And somethin’ I can actually win at,” Austin retorted with a spiteful grin.

“Don’t get carried away, dweeb. I’ll leave you in the dust, as with any challenger. My pic won’t just be the highest, it’ll be better than yours in every conceivable way!”

“We’ll fuckin’ see about that.”

“Riiiight. And with that out of the way…” Conrad stepped up, inserting himself between Austin and Pierce as he turned toward the latter. “C’mon, man, let’s go check out the VR thing already.”

Pierce glanced at Conrad, and then back at Austin. “…Heh. ‘Til tomorrow, dweeb. Don’t complain when I win.”

“Same to you,” Austin shot back.

Pierce flashed another snide smirk before turning away, leaving Austin and Twy to their own devices. He, Conrad, and Kestrel then approached one of the empty headsets on the far side of the room; Conrad quickly took to the headset and began fiddling with the controls, but the whole time, Pierce was distracted with thinking about his newly issued challenge. Fucking useless dweeb he thought bitterly, your evil twin is the reason we’re all here… so I’ll fucking show you what it’s like to lose…!