Chapter 1: ad initium (At the Beginning)
The young woman lets out a soft sigh as she readjusts the bag slung haphazardly over her shoulder. Her eyes anxiously sweep the ship-ridden sky and then the crowded town below before squeezing them shut, blinded by the glaring desert sun.
This is impossible and I must be out of my mind, her mind grumbles as she fans herself in an effort to keep cool, Okay. Deep breaths. You can do this.
She trudges on through the crowd dodging men, women, children, and work bots alike, stopping every now and then to try to get a bearing over the unfamiliar surroundings.
“Watch it!” a brawny man shouts and the woman promptly presses her figure against the brick wall of a tavern, narrowly avoiding the two ‘gentlemen’ hefting cargo boxes down the gritty walk.
The girl sighs with relief, sweeping a short strand of auburn hair behind her ear after she’s pushed off from the wall. She scans the area once more, this time much more cautiously, with the intention of heading out again when something catches her eye. There, across the way, sits a small child huddled up on the sidewalk in tears, his legs cradled within his arms. She pauses, waiting to see if someone will come to collect or comfort the boy, but no one does. The universe is much too busy and the people in it never seem to have much time for anyone else. The woman tears her focus from the child and shifts it to the path in which she must follow to get to the shipyard.
I can’t be late. I cannot miss this launch, but…
Glancing back to the crumpled boy is all it takes to reach a conclusion. She sighs with resignation, placing her personal quest on back burner for the moment. Mindful of the hefty foot traffic, she makes her way across the street and to the shaded niche towards the child.
“Are you all right?” the woman asks, looking down to the boy with a concerned expression upon her visage.
The boy glances up to her at the sound of her voice, blinking blearily as the sunlight invades his vision. He shakes his head before he decides to nod instead.
“I’m okay,” he mumbles through a hiccup, lifting a hand to wipe at his eyes with the back of a dirty sleeve.
“Hey. There, there. Don’t cry,” the redhead soothes with a soft smile as she sets her duffle bag down on the ground beside her, crouching before him, “What’s got you so troubled, hmm?”
He regards her before wordlessly opening his hand, revealing a palm-sized bug, a ToyBot to be exact. The device is motionless, lacking its usual glow, and the woman can’t make out the usual hum ToyBots emit at all.
“It’s special,” the boy stammers, his tears coming to a gradual stop, “It’s from someone special.”
She nods in understanding briefly looking down to the bot before returning her focus to the boy, “May I see it?”
The boy sniffles a bit, a misty wetness still clouding his eyes, and nods as he shakily hands over the tiny bot.
“Thank you,” she replies, flipping the bot over in her palm and observing the damage. It’s sparking a bit and the woman quickly recognizes it to be a wiring issue.
Like the old man used to say, sparks are a hell of a lot better than smoke, she ponders with a fond smile.
She glances back up to the boy and offers him a reassuring smile, “Oh, this isn’t bad at all. An easy fix really!”
The boy looks less than convinced, but the woman pays his dismay no mind. Reaching into her hair, the redhead withdraws a thin hair pin, prying it into a wider ‘v’ shape. She pushes an end into the slot that sparks and manages to get the back panel open. The moment the wire vault meets the air, the sparking withers out. Using the pin like a tong, the woman manages to tug the wire at fault to the front along with another one.
The woman dips her head down to bite the wires, breaking them both into two separate pieces. The boy cringes at the sight and the woman laughs before she fuses the two together. The ToyBot stirs and then whirs with electricity, glowing its manufactured blue color and humming with life as it wriggles its six tiny legs.
“Wow!” the boy cries eagerly as he accepts his bot back, grinning from eye to eye as he watch the bot march about the palm of his hand “Thanks!”
The boy dives forward to give her a brief hug before looking down to his bot with elation and dashing off into the crowd. The woman smiles as she watches him go, rising to her feet, bag and all. She glances down to the bent pin in her hand and shrugs, placing the item into the back pocket of her jeans. Dusting her herself off, the redhead retrieves her bag and heads off once more. The destination isn’t far and in no time the shipyard falls into view. The woman pauses, withdrawing her handheld digipad from the front pocket of her army-style jacket. The glare of the sun momentarily drowns out the words before the device adjusts and switches to holo-mode, an image of the shipyard settling into view.
“This is it,” she murmurs to herself as she glances back to the shipyard, observing the many ships illuminated beneath the light of the summer sun, “It’s now or never.”
She descends the small procession of sand dunes, stumbling her way into an entirely new crowd of people. Again, she dusts herself to be rid of and clinging sand before setting out to take in the new scene. Here there are only men and women, primarily men. Some of the women are teary-eyed as they bid soldiers farewell. Others are more affectionate, hugging and clinging as though their very lives depended on it. Across the way, the redhead notices the array of check-in lines, each and every one of them leading the most majestic human vessel of it time, the SIRIUS. The redhead pauses to take a moment to simply observe the ship as a warm familiar feeling floods her chest. It’s almost like a mirage settled there upon the sand, blanketed in heat waves and sand blowing in what little breeze that passes by, and the woman has to close her eyes just to be sure that she wouldn’t wake up and find it all to be but a lucid dream. When she opens them, the ship is still there, the heat of the sun is still so very real, and the smell of dusty air still lingers. Yes, there she was in all her regal glory and despite the circumstances, redhead still felt it was pretty good to be back.
Okay, here comes the hard part, she thinks to herself as she shifts her attention to the check-in lines, Stay calm, keep your head up, and make eye contact. They’ll never know.
Swiftly, but a bit shaky on her feet as she traverses through the deep sand, the young woman makes her way to the front of the line, silently lowering the baseball cap about her head; so close to boarding the ship and yet so distant.
Hurriedly she nods, fumbling about the side pocket of her duffel bag, retrieving the Holocard, and handing it to the burly militant at the final checkpoint. The unknown man eyes her coolly and the young woman finds herself holding her breath. To soothe her nerves, she looks about the station noticing all the other lines of people just like her each waiting to board. But unlike them she wasn’t here because she had been drafted nor because she simply wanted to help the cause out of the goodness of her heart. No. While these men were here to either fulfill their own goals or those of others such as the System, she was here for another reason altogether. The militant manning the station slides her holographic license across the illuminating silver console and it beeps with approval, briefly flashing blue.
The woman offers him a curt nod, fighting back a large sigh of relief. Readjusting the bag on her shoulder, she reclaims the license, slipping it into one of her back pockets, stepping through the gates. The atmospheric seal softly hisses with a rush of air as the woman crosses the boundary line, exiting the station and walking out into the heated desert air.
Calm down, the woman mentally soothes as she struggles to maintain even steps, You’ve made it this far…
The young woman takes a deep breath, pausing her swift pace to take in her surroundings. She takes in the way the sand flitters across the ground on the breeze and the heat of the sun on her skin, none of it artificial.
So this is Earth, she muses, dazedly resuming her trek to the ship.
Of course she’d learned about the planet in school, just as she had every other planet and lunar civilization and settlement. But hearing and seeing are two completely different things. A picture could only say so much, but experience spoke volumes. The woman shifts her gaze down to her feet. The sand seems to concede beneath her every step and suddenly she has the urge to slip off her shoes and experience the sensation against her bare feet. She returns her gaze back up to take in the scenery about her once more. There’s a sea of men, soldiers and soldiers to be, each pursuing the same path. The woman swallows hard, the thought leaving her a bit disconcerted. She shakes her head in an effort to abandon her unease, tucking a loose strand of short, auburn hair behind her ear. She draws her shoulders back with a determined intake of breath. She’d come much too far to back down now. The redhead pulls the cap on her head down to further obscure her face, having decided it’d be best to keep her head down to avoid drawing any unwanted attention this time around.
Another breath and she’s off, struggling through the sea of bodies, careful not to trip over any baggage and slight mounds of sand that had been kicked. The men are borderline brutal, all rough housing with their comrades and comrades-to-be. The sound of hurried and heavy feet across the sandy terrain is surprisingly disorienting as it mingles with the yelling and shouting. Despite being unsettled, the woman continues on, but is quickly halted when, in her haste, runs into a tall and large man with bronze skin. Instinctively she proffers him an apologetic look from beneath the hat, words faltering at the sight of the seemingly surly look upon his.
“So sorry,” she manages to utter, but stops short at the rather disquieting sound the man emits.
Did he just growl at me, she wonders with horror.
“Down, Brutus,” another voice, distinctly male, chimes in through hearty chuckles.
The woman looks right noticing the newest participant of this ‘conversation.’ This man is skinnier and paler than the other man, almost lanky with his thinness and excessive height.
“The kid’s already got enough to worry about,” he says as he punches the other man in his shoulder.
She’s certain he growls again, but this time it’s more of displeased grunt.
“Don’t mind him. That’s his happy face.”
The young woman glances back to the larger man and frowns. He certainly doesn’t look all that happy.
“What’s your name, recruit?” the lanky blonde inquires, stretching out an inviting hand.
“Recruit?” the redhead repeats and the blonde nods, “How did you…?”
The blonde chuckles before offering a beaming smile, “No uniform, silly?”
He waves a hand over her form, emphasizing his point before proffering his hand once more.
“Oh…” is all she manages as she observes the unknown man in silence, visibly surprised by the man’s sudden enthusiasm to make conversation with her.
“Oh, that’s right! You haven’t been assigned your name just yet, huh?” he steps backward as he withdraws his hand, linking his palms behind his back, “The name’s Caesar and this burly fellow here is Brutus.”
The redhead nods, instantly storing the information away for later perchance—sorting their names along with their faces.
“I’ll be sure to ask you for your name when you get one,” the man named Caesar says with a spirited wink and a grin, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
The sudden contact makes her tense and the man chuckles, “If you’re feeling tense about this well kid, you won’t last very long.”
The redhead swallows hard at the implications. It was already going to be difficult enough avoiding getting caught seeing as what she was doing was illegal on so many levels according to the System.
“Just stick with me and I’ll show you the ropes,” Caesar practically sings as he guides her up the crowded ramp and into the most magnificent of ships of its time, the SIRIUS.
It’s almost as beautiful as she remembers it excepting the fact that the ship is humming—thriving—with life, men bustling around and about, all searching for their posts and seeking out their designated areas. The seasoned soldiers are easy to spot as they effortlessly make their way through. The new recruits are just as easy to identify, with puppy eyes and mouths open in awe. The redhead chuckles to herself, assuming that she too would’ve been rather like them had she not already been so familiar with the majesty of SIRIUS already. Silently she follows after Caesar and Brutus onto the elevator pad. Unlike the new cadets embracing the scenery, she opts to take in the faces of every person she can. She’d always been one to take in the people inhabiting your surroundings first. Vantage points then came second.
The further the unlikely group moves from the entrance bay, the less dense the crowd becomes. Peering over the railings the woman finds herself falling prey to the awe of the uniform magnificence of the men here. The top ranking soldiers are all lined up in meticulous lines, backs to her and faces towards the large stage-like platform. The podium is a clear sign that someone of great stature was likely to speak soon.
An induction of sorts, I suppose.
Suddenly Caesar pokes her in the side and she jumps back in surprise. He laughs almost childishly before pointing elegantly to the platform below.
“Normally I stay on the first floor during initiation, but I wanted to give my new friend the best view!”
He offers a bright and casual smile as he rests his elbows on the railings. Nodding, the young lady looks back down. It really was a splendid view. The way the pale blue lights fell across the floor, blending beautifully with the navy blue uniforms of the high-ranked soldiers. One couldn’t help but be impressed. Soon she finds her enthralled musings interrupted when a blonde man prim makes his way to the podium. His posture is rigid and even from this distance one can recognize the intensity in his eyes.
“Who is that?” she whispers as she sidles closer to the platinum blonde beside her.
“That’s Lieutenant Colonel Steele.”
“The Lieutenant Colonel Steele!” she whisper-shouts with awestricken eyes.
Caesar’s eyes light up beneath his pale bangs and he grins before nodding, “The one and only!”
Everyone knew about Lieutenant Colonel Steele of SIRIUS’ Warrior Brigade. He was one of the greatest Warrior of his time, the hero who defended Persepolis, Earth’s first lunar colony, from a Slyverian attack during the Second Wave of 2143. A brave man and a force to certainly be reckoned with. The redhead only really knew such detailed information thanks to her brother Kaze, who had always been quite the Steele enthusiast and with good reason. The man was the Captain America of the 22nd century.
“If I didn’t know any better I’d assume you were one of the General’s fangirls,” Caesar teases as he pokes her lightly in the cheek.
The redhead leans back to stare at him, visibly flustered, “Fangirl? I’d have to be a girl for that!”
Caesar chuckles quite amused with her rattled reaction, “You’re right. A fanboy, then?”
“No. No. My brother is just avid fan is all,” she attempts to explain, keeping her voice low and trying to coerce her heart back into its regular pace.
Caesar throws a look that seems to say ‘sure, sure’ and she rolls her eyes at him. He laughs as his new companion elects to turn her attention to the Lieutenant Colonel.
“Allow me to be the first to welcome you all aboard the SIRIUS.”
A bout of cheers and applause echo at his words before they fall silent. His face remains neutral as he waits and he then continues to speak.
“I’m also afraid to say that I must also be the one to remind you men that this will be no trivial journey. We are at war and that concept must never be forgotten. All of you are here because you are the best of the best. Our job is to protect our planet and colonies as well as those of our allies, maladroit and bothersome behavior will not be tolerated.”
There is a sudden chill in the air and one cannot help but feel intimidated by his words. L.C. Steele is quite the orator. The woman attempts to shake off the frost by focusing once more on the remainder of Steele’s speech.
“Insubordination will by no means be tolerated. By article 457-section 101, I have the legal justification to evac anyone I have reason to believe is a traitor from the airlock.”
Well hell! That’s pretty terrifying. Note to self: don’t be a traitor.
“Abide by the IXA edicts and fight for your people. You are our future. Don’t let us down.”
There is a short lived silence, but the applause that follows is almost deafening as Steele exits the platform. Even Caesar and Brutus applaud, though Caesar’s cheering and shouts of ‘we love you, Steele’ are a bit peculiar.
“There you are, Caesar!”
Caesar leaps back into Brutus as the alarming call of his name resonates. When the redhead turns her head, she finds a dark haired man with narrowed eyes and thin lips. Whatever Caesar did this man is clearly upset about it.
“Oh my, look at the time! See ya around, kid!”
With that Caesar takes off, weaving elegantly through the throng of people as he went.
“Goddamnit, Caesar!” the unknown man growls through gritted teeth before he takes off in pursuit of the wry man.
Appalled the young woman turns to Brutus, who simply shakes his head as if saying it’d be best if she didn’t ask. She nods as she peers around the lingering male to see the two running and out of your sight. Brutus looks to her before pointing towards the retreating new recruits.
“You should start heading to your meet soon.”
It’s the first she’s heard him speak and his voice is surprisingly soft. But he’s right. She offers him a nod and a wave before heading off to her own meet. The meet consists of seven other men, not including herself. There her assigned team is debriefed on the expectations of being pilots here on the SIRIUS. It’s all rather straightforward and it takes no real effort for her to follow along, but the expectation is daunting. The thought of knowing so much rode on their shoulders, and now hers for the time being, was fairly difficult to swallow. Still she had a job to do and leaving was not an option.
When the meet is over the team instructor, Sergeant Matters, approaches her and after the appropriate exchange of salutes of acknowledgement he relays she is to head to Lieutenant General Caspar’s office pronto. Dutifully the redhead nods and properly salutes him before making haste to her destination.
There she knocks three times and waits, as is customary. The door slides open with a swish of cooled air and she steps inside. There are only two men in the room, one in the desk chair and the other standing beside him, prim and silent.
“Ah! There’s our new recruit!” the bespectacled man, Lieutenant General Caspar, in the chair says as he stands to his feet as makes his way over to her, stretching out an eager hand.
The young woman promptly shakes it and he grins. After he places a hand on her shoulder, steering her to one of the two chairs in front of his desk.
“Do sit. Tea?” he asks as he reclines back on the desk in front of her.
She shakes her head, declining the beverage and the man nods.
“You’re right. I’m sure you’re in no mood for small chat. You want to know your assignment and whatnot.”
Silently he holds out a hand and the quiet gentleman lingering on the sidelines moves to hand LTG Caspar a file. Swiftly he flips it open and scans the materials.
“Let’s see here. Former Pilot on the Nebulon. Graduated top of your class,” he pauses to peer at the new recruit from over the rim of his glasses with a smile, “Impressive.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He continues to cover her supposed ‘achievements’ and silently she listens. It really was such a shame that she had done absolutely none of those things, but she knew that she needed an eye catching portfolio. He snaps the folders shut with a single hand before handing it to her.
Her eyes widen at the name, but silently she takes the file. The redhead is genuinely curious about how they decided to name their recruits, but she holds her tongue. She is drawn from her musings when the door slides open and a blue haired man enters.
“Prometheus. You’re late, again.”
The man, Prometheus, snorts as he rolls his eyes and continues to make his way over, opting to stand rather than sit in the empty chair beside the newly named recruit. Ares blanches at the man’s audacity to dare speak to his superior in such a manner, but she keeps her lips sealed.
“This is Ares, your new Pilot.”
“Oh, a pleasure to meet you,” Ares greets politely as she stands to her feet, offering a wary smile and an outstretched hand.
He refuses her handshake, instead opting to observe his new partner. His face is flat as he eyes her with acute disappointment, as though he’d been expecting something better, something far more reliable.
“Do play nice and show him to the room,” Caspar says with a sigh as he moves around the desk to sit in his chair.
“Room?” Ares accidentally questions aloud.
“Yes. Associates board together, though I must apologize to you in advance.”
General Caspar’s smile is genuine, as though he really feels sympathy for her current ‘predicament.’ Slyly, Ares glances to the side to peer at her new partner. The other man is clearly displeased, but he doesn’t open his mouth again. The Lieutenant General’s gaze is upon her as he rests his chin upon folded hands.
“I do hope this arrangement works out. Ares’ resume is positively stunning and it’d be such a shame to lose such an experienced pilot in our brigade. Do I make myself clear, Prometheus?”
Prometheus' only signal as to having heard and acknowledged Caspar’s subtle threat is the irritated quirk of his lips. That seems to be enough for the Lieutenant General because he then smiles.
“Good. You’re both dismissed,” he says and Prometheus is quick to turn on his heels and head for the door, “And Ares?”
“Welcome aboard the SIRIUS. I look forward to seeing great things from you.”
The woman nods briefly before quickly moving to chase after the other man. Ares struggles to keep Prometheus’ pace as he guides her—at least that’s what she thinks he’s doing—to their assigned room.
“Would you mind slowing down?” she asks, a bit out of breath.
The man stops abruptly, spinning on his heels and glowering as he looms over her.
“Let’s make this clear. You may be my Associate, but we are not friends. Don’t talk to me like one either. I’ve got a reputation to keep and I can’t have some useless pilot dragging my name through the asteroid belt.”
Ares blinks absently before a heated look crosses her face, her voice appalled, “What?”
Prometheus rolls his eyes as though she were the dumbest lifeform he’d ever laid eyes on and Ares has to bite her tongue. The last thing she wants—or needs for that matter—is to wind up in a fist fight with her Associate on the first day the meet.
A tussle I certainly wouldn’t win either, she muses, slightly concerned at the possibility.
So with the shake of her head, Ares rids all vicious thoughts from her mind and inhales deeply.
“Well, I’d hate to keep you. I’m certain I can locate the room of my own accord," she scoffs as she snaps the file containing all of her assigned work and other such information against the palm of her free hand, “Good day.”
With that the new Pilot sweeps past him, eager to be rid of the man already.
Besides, she notes to herself as she speeds down the aisle past scattered groups of men in the practically empty corridor, I know exactly where I’m going. Not to mention that anywhere that jerk isn’t works just fine for me.
Still, it was a bit disappointing and almost discouraging altogether to know that she wasn’t compatible with her Associate, after all having a friend here certainly wouldn’t have hurt. But Prometheus is positively rude, relatively intimidating, and surely, Ares is fairly certain, the man’s bite is far worse than his bark.