Eric sat in his temporary office, clicking through the profiles of his new team. They just had to give me the most mixed-up of the lot,
He looked out the window, watching the exotic variety of ships boarding. Small teams of 6-8 set out in small ships, to explore the galaxy and discover the mysteries this new reality held. And his ship was boarding in only an hour.
Well, I signed up for this,
he thought, might as well get to know them.
The 'reality' person. Amanda. Powers to resist others' forces and enforce normal laws of physics. Sounds useful, for sure.
The videogamer. Daniel. Power-up abilities, jumps high, summons weapons from nowhere, yep, pretty standard. Hopefully he's better than this profile looks.
The physics specialist. Emily. Ability to generate powerful electromagnetic fields, bend light, create forcefields, etc. Certainly useful, as long as her knowledge isn't all theoretical.
The storyteller. Rayan. Wizard and magical specialist, versed in ten different styles of magical abilities. If he can remember all that, and doesn't do anything too dramatic - might be good.
The magical cat-girl. Izumi. Oh man, why oh why did she have to be on my team? Powers include cuteness, cat-like reflexes, and magical abilities such as flight and transformations. Did she write this description herself?
And finally. The Ship AI? We have one of those? ALEXIS. Automatic pilot, autonomous functions, communication, weapons, etc. Origin unknown, but comes highly recommended. Well, this will certainly make things interesting. Only about 1% of the ships actually come with an AI, or so I've heard.
Like it or not, this is my team,
he thought. And so, I guess we're off to explore the galaxy, reconnect humanity, and discover the true nature of semi-fictionality. Or whatever we're calling the power these days.
He stood up and walked over to the window, watching a group of anthropomorphic animals board another ship.
Who am I kidding? Who is the Galactic Institute kidding?
he thought, pacing around the room. This is a crazy idea, and I'll be incredibly impressed if we don't crash the ship in the first week!
• • •
"All teams in groups 13 and 14 please proceed to the launch area now. Ensure all belongings have been retrieved and you are ready for departure," an announcement said over the area.
Groups of people lined up across the landing pad, a wide variety of ships laid out in front of them. The organizers called teams individually to proceed to each ship in sequence, as they prepared for takeoff into the great galaxy above. The stars shone through the thin blue sky, despite the brightness of daytime, relative luminosity safely ignored by the reality imposed by the Galactic Institute.
One team, in particular, was ready for departure, waiting for their number to be called...
"Oooh! I'm so excited for this!" said a cat-girl with blond hair, Izumi, all but running around in circles on the launch pad. She wore a cyan skirt and a white pleated skirt, and had cat ears and a tail, but appeared otherwise human.
"I just hope they call our team soon, I can't wait to see the ship!" Daniel said. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt sporting a logo of a futuristic knight on a hoverbike with a large sword, and spoke with a midwestern accent.
"Isn't she a bit... overexcited?" Amanada said. She was moderately tall, with brown hair, wearing an ordinary-looking pair of a shirt and slacks, and spoke with a New York accent.
"All things are as they should be for this story, our team included," Rayan said, "I hope." He was dressed in dark-brown wizard robes, with the hood pulled off, and held a matching tall wooden staff in his left hand.
"Team 137, you're next!" an announcer said, "proceed to ship location C3."
"Excellent!" Emily said, "137 is a very lucky number, you know." She was rather short, and wore long dark blue pants with a light gray shirt, and spoke softly.
"How so?" Amanda said.
"It's the fine structure constant," Emily said, "very important in physics."
"You know physics are optional now, right?" Rayan said.
"They're... still at the basis of reality," Emily said, clutching her book tighter.
The group of five walked up to a rather small ship, parked on the tarmac ahead. It had a rather rectangular main body, with two smallish wings on the sides, and a trigonal nose-cone. Part of the back of the ship was open, revealing a loading ramp into the main bay.
"Seems a bit small for an interstellar journey," Amanda said, "not to mention, where are the engines?"
"I bet this uses quantum slipstream, or maybe dimensional reduction! No need for visible engines with advanced technology!" Daniel said.
"Do you even know what those are?" Amanda said, looking at Daniel suspiciously.
"I just hope it's fast!" Izumi said.
"Alright everyone!" Eric said, walking down the ramp from the inside of the ship. He had short black hair, and wore an almost-uniform-looking zip-up shirt, with similarly-colored light gray pants, and stood at almost six feet tall, holding a electronic clipboard in his right hand. "Amanda, Daniel, Emily, Rayan, Izumi, you're all here, right?"
Everyone agreed, or at least nodded their heads.
"Great!" Eric said, "now this is the last chance if you've forgotten anything - so everyone get on board. We'll be departing in fifteen minutes along with the others and I intend to be on time!"
"Uh... sir," Emily said, "how do we know which one room is ours? This ship looks quite small."
"We can decide once we all get a chance to see," Eric said, "I honestly don't care, they're all the same size and view anyways."
The six of them boarded the ship, and began to look around at the sparse interior. The main room appeared to be a cross between a conference room and a cargo bay, with three doors on either side indicating the bunks, and a few others indicating bathrooms and showers, along with the kitchen-like area for replicating food and drink. A door to the front of the ship was open, showing the surprisingly spacious bridge - for a ship of this size, at least. On the bridge was a variety of floor-mounted holographic control panels, and the two main seats for the pilot and co-pilot. The captain's quarters and a mysterious room were the only other two doors leading from this section.
"Everyone get situated," Eric said, "I'll be in the bridge preparing for departure if anyone needs me."
About fifteen minutes later, and after a couple minor arguments over who gets which room, the five crewmembers had situated themselves and were promptly goofing off on a variety of computerized devices.
"Alright everyone!" Eric said, over the intercom from the pilot's seat. "We're making final preparations for departure now. If anyone wants to see our takeoff or learn about piloting a real ship, you best get up here in the next sixty seconds!"
Everyone shuffled up to the bridge, looking out the glass walls of the now-crowded bridge.
"Daniel, right?" Eric said, "you have experience piloting, correct?"
"Sure," Daniel said, "I've played plenty of sims. Never got a chance to pilot anything bigger than a skimmer, though."
"Why don't you hop in the co-pilot's seat?" Eric said, motioning for him to sit down in the adjacent seat, "just don't press anything unless I tell you to."
"Thanks!" Daniel said, hopping in enthusiastically, eyeing over the controls.
"Where do you think our first mission will be?" Izumi said.
"Hope it's somewhere sunny," Emily said, "although I don't mind - actually."
"Our first mission is on Etera," Eric said, "we'll be there in a couple days, so don't get too excited."
" Amanda said, "is this ship not very fast? Or is Etera just that far away?"
"It's on the other side of the Federation," Emily said, "in a low-zone, too. Even less than the Galactic Center."
"Fascinating," Rayan said, "I wonder what problems they may have upon the fringes of the Federation."
"We'll find out when we get there," Eric said, "strap in. Well... metaphorically."
Eric pressed a button on his yoke, and the Space Traffic Control channel was opened.
"Team 137, you are clear for launch upon vector 57A-NNW. Please enjoy your trip," the voice over the channel said.
"Thank you STC, we'll commence launch immediately," Eric said.
Eric pulled up on the yoke, as the ship effortlessly glided off the ground vertically. They angled towards the stars and took off abruptly through the sky. The shades of blue faded away, as the light of the galaxy shone around them.
"We're clear of Galactic Institute space," Eric said, "now how do I use this navigational AI to plot a course to Etera?"
"You merely need to ask," said a female voice, coming from the ship.
"Oh now that is embarrassing!" Eric said, turning beet red, "I didn't realize you could talk."
"I have recently learned to do so," the voice said, "and I would be happy to plot a course."
"Thanks!" Eric said, taking his hands off the yoke.
The ship spun around, and faced the galactic disk head-on. Accelerating to superluminal speeds, they flew through space, small points of light streaming across their view, the stars far away only moving ever so slowly.
"Estimating 1 day, 22 hours until arrival along current course," the female voice said.
"Thank you, ALEXIS, was it?" Eric said.
"Yes, that is correct," the voice, ALEXIS, said.
"Well, feel free to move about the cabin," Eric said, looking at everyone.
"Yes, sir!" Daniel said, standing up.
"Just... call me Eric," Eric said, "this isn't the military." This team would be much more organized if it was,
• • •
A few hours later, Emily, Izumi, and Amanda stared out a side window at the passing streaks of light. A star flew by occasionally, but they mostly moved across their field of view slowly, much like passing mountains upon a long train ride.
"So, what do you think those bright streaks are?" Amanda said, "they're clearly not stars."
"They're small particles of dust and debris that are accelerated to superluminal speeds before being ignited and vaporized by our deflector field," Emily said.
"Cool! I always thought it was just a special effect!" Izumi said.
"You can't be for serious," Amanda said.
"What?" Izumi said, looking as innocent as possible.
Emily merely looked down at her device, checking a few more messages, hoping to avoid any confrontations.
They resumed watching the view, the novelty of interstellar travel in such a small ship delaying any arguments. For now.
On the other side of the ship, Daniel and Rayan looked at the schematics for the ship.
"Interesting," Daniel said, "I never would have expected a ship this small to be so complex."
"It seems logical to me," Rayan said, "a ship this small has no room for waste. Much like a short story or poem - every word must count."
"Strange analogy, but sure, I get it," Daniel said, "and a ship AI, too, how cool is that?"
"Thank you!" ALEXIS said.
impressive," Rayan said, "I may have already been bragging about it? her? to a few other teams."
"I don't mind," ALEXIS said, "my only form is the ship, so either pronoun works for me."
"I feel 'her' is more appropriate," Rayan said, "for even the formless form can still be just as personal as any other."
• • •
"Alright everyone! We're approaching Etera," Eric said over the intercom, once more in the pilot's seat. "Make any final preparations so we can land and meet up with the local authorities. They said there's a recurring anomaly they'd like us to investigate on the outskirts of their main city, Filshani."
Having been ready for a day already, the rest of the crew crowded onto the bridge again.
"Nice! Did they say what kind of anomaly it was?" Daniel said.
"They were light on details, but they said it was primarily causing disruption and property damage, and isn't too dangerous based on their assessment," Eric said. Which is good, given how little experience everyone here seems to have.
"That being said, they haven't been able to identify the source, so that's why we've been called in."
"Etera is now in range, switching to sublight propulsion," ALEXIS said over the intercom, as they slowed down significantly, the planet Etera popping into view ahead of them.
"Eesh, it's so green! Is it like, all jungle or something?" Izumi said.
"It's a mostly tropical planet, yes," Emily said.
"A wonder that so many people would live there," Amanda said.
"I'm sure it has amazing diversity of life," Rayan said.
"Either way, we're landing in the grasslands," Eric said, "so get ready to disembark."
Team 137's ship floated down from the sky of Etera, as a variety of officials lined up on the landing pad to greet their arrival. The landing gear extended, and the ship came to rest, as the back hatch opened up into a ramp onto the asphalt platform.
"Welcome travelers from the Galactic Institute!" the central official said, taking a small bow, "thank you for visiting our most humble planet."
Eric stepped out of the back of the ship, the rest of the crew looking out behind him.
This feels overly formal for just us,
Eric thought, they must not get many visitors this far out in the galactic disk.
"An honor to be here," he said, bowing back, "our team is ready to assist with investigating the anomaly you mentioned." Couldn't hurt to make a good impression, though.
"Of course!" the central official said, "would you like to interview any of our witnesses first, or review the available evidence? Since you are the experts, we leave the decision up to you."
"Interviewing witnesses sounds like a great start," Eric said, walking down the ramp. "I can assign two members of my team to interviewing, and the rest can scout and collect data so we can cover more ground." And experts? Did they even read our descriptions?
"Excellent! My assistant Janice has a list of the people to ask," the official said, motioning to a woman standing next to him.
• • •
In an interview room, Izumi and Emily were talking with an older man, who was sitting across from them.
"So... you say you saw the anomaly first-hand?" Izumi said, doing her best investigator impression, "what did it look like?"
"To be honest, I didn't get a good look at it," the man said, "it seemed to be shifting and changing, like a hologram or something."
"Do you know what kind of hologram it was? Did you see any chromatic aberration or phase-shifting of the light?" Emily said, "unusual polarization? Strange and unnatural colors?"
"I'm not sure young lady what half of those are, but I mostly just saw it out of the corner of my eye," the man said, "then the building was gone, and poof! So was the anomaly. Beats me as to what it was."
"Fine. You can go then," Izumi said, looking disappointed.
"Thanks!" the man said, getting up and walking out.
"Rats," Izumi said, "that's five interviews already and no-one has even gotten a clear look at the thing!"
"It clearly doesn't want to be seen," Emily said, "but why cause all this destruction and not mention anything about it? No agenda, no motivation, no credit."
"Yeah, it's super strange."
• • •
Meanwhile, Daniel and Rayan flew above the nearby mountains scouting for any unusual activity.
"Looks like nothing in this sector according to my scans," Daniel said, wearing futuristic sunglasses.
"My empathic spells are only detecting locals and normal plant life as well," Rayan said, "no signs of anything anomalous."
"Do you think it could be something about the planet? Maybe some kind of strange animal that would blend in with the background?"
"Anything is possible," Rayan said, "but this planet's survey indicated it only contained plant life when it was colonized."
"Maybe one of the locals, then?" Daniel said.
"That is the primary suspicion," Rayan said, "but the local authorities, and our scans, have not detected any energy readings high enough to create the phenomena observed."
"So someone would have to be really good at hiding their skills," Daniel said.
"Or have a fake alibi, for those who do have the necessary power," Rayan said.
• • •
Back at the ship, Eric and Amanda were going over the reports and looking for any correlations.
"Still not seeing anything obvious," Eric said, "these incursions still seem totally random."
"And the interview reports seem to be pretty useless," Amanda said, "according to this text from Izumi at least."
"Eric and Rayan report no signatures in sector 12 as well," ALEXIS said over the intercom, "they have now scouted 80% of the surrounding territory."
"So we basically know nothing new compared to when we got the mission briefing on the way over," Eric said.
"Wait, do you hear that?" Amanda said.
A soft crunching sound could be heard, getting closer and louder.
"Yeah... what is that? ALEXIS?" Eric said.
"Sensors show a large mechanoid walker is approaching our position," ALEXIS said.
"What? Is it the authorities?" Amanda said.
"Negative, they have no record of this configuration in the database they provided."
"We should take a look outside," Eric said.
"Inadvisable," ALEXIS said, "it appears to be powering up a plasma cannon."
"Crap. This is the part where I say something like 'Red Alert - Battlestations' right?" Eric said.
"Do we even have battlestations on this ship?" Amanda said.
"We're about to find out!"
Outside was a large mech, approaching the ship rapidly and stomping along the ground, shaking the area with each step. It was covered in rust and plant life, looking to have come right out of a swamp. It raised an arm, and pointed at the ship, a bright blue glow emanating from the arm's front portion.
"Shields are active," ALEXIS said.
A bright blue beam of plasma sprung forth from the mech's arm and impacted against the shields.
"Shields are holding," ALEXIS said, "power level is well within dissipation limits."
"That's good at least - I'll call in the others!" Amanda said, picking up a phone.
"Can you scan it ALEXIS? Make? Model? Weaknesses?" Eric said.
"Scans indicate it is of unknown design, likely custom-built. Armaments are unknown and weaknesses uncertain. Scanners are having difficulty piercing the interior, but it appears to be 80% physical, from exterior analysis."
"Right, so unless I want to punch steel, likely no use in going outside."
The mech's arm cannon powered down, possibly due to it's ineffectiveness. It then raised a foot and stepped on the ship, hitting the energy sheilding from above.
"It is attempting to crush us, although physical shields are holding. I estimate multiple days of shield power available at this rate," ALEXIS said.
"So it's not very heavy, interesting..." Eric said.
However, before any other attempts could be made, two people came flying in from the north, Rayan and Daniel.
"Gatling gun!" Daniel said, slowing to a stop just above the mech.
A small gatling-energy cannon appeared in his hands, as he fired small bolts of red energy at the mech, denting its outer shell.
"Fires of azaroth!" Rayan said, as he struck a wooden staff forward. A fireball sprung forth and impacted the mech's lower leg, unsuccessful in melting it. "Argh! This far out my powers are lessened!"
The mech took notice of them, and stepped off the ship, raising its arm towards the flying pair.
However, before it could fire, Izumi floated up from the ground, and raised a magical staff. "Taste the rainbow!" she said, firing a prismatic display of colors across the spectrum at the mech.
Dazed and confused, the mech wobbled off of the ship, and turned to face Izumi. Nearby on the tarmac, Emily reached down and touched her hands against the asphalt ground.
"Emulsify," she said, as the ground turned to a liquid, the mech falling over and sinking into the now-soupy asphalt.
The ship took off from the tarmac and flew up behind them, turning to face the immobilized mech, as Eric could be heard over the loudspeaker.
"We have you surrounded - surrender!"
The mech's gears struggled against the liquid asphalt, trying to get up to no avail. A few moments later it lowered in defeat, as a hatch opened near the center.
"Alright, you got me, I surrender," a teenage woman said, stepping out of the mech.
• • •
A half hour later, the local officials had finished interrogating the woman at the nearby station.
"She confesses to all the damage," the head constable said, "I guess she's responsible for the anomaly we called you over for. Sorry for wasting your time."
"It's not a problem, really. We needed a good introductory mission for my team," Eric said. And frankly had nothing better to do.
"If you don't mind, then, she really just wants to talk to you, before you head out?"
"Sure, I have a few words for her too."
Eric walked up to her, sitting at a desk in the station.
"Hey! You saw what I can do, right?" the woman said to him.
"Well, yes. Although I also saw you try to crush my ship," Eric said, "why'd you do all this random damage anyways?"
"Take me with you! I just want to get off this dump of a planet!" she said, "this place is super boring and you saw what I could do out here in the low areas! I could be a real help to your team!"
"Why didn't you just apply to the Galactic Institute in the first place?"
"I did... they rejected my application because I'm too young and inexperienced. Even with my power!"
"Maybe you should grow up, then," Eric said. Turning to the constable, he said, "what's to be her sentence?"
"Probably community service," the constable said, "she didn't actually hurt anyone, just caused a lot of consternation and some property damage."
"Good. Finish your service, then apply again if you really want," Eric said, "but random outbursts won't get you anywhere."
The woman slumped down in her chair, looking dejected.
"Well, have fun out in the galaxy, I guess," she said, turning away.
Eric thought of something to say, but just turned around and left.
• • •
Back on the ship, the team was talking about the mission.
"Even though it wasn't anything strange, it was still fun!" Izumi said.
"Yeah, any opportunity to try out a gatling gun on a mech is a good day in my book!" Daniel said.
"I do feel that I need to train more, though," Rayan said, "on my homeworld that fireball would have melted straight through its legs."
"I think we should all
train more," Amanda said, "you never know what kinds of missions we'll get, and operating in low-zones is a requirement for this job."
"Who made you the boss?" Izumi said, sticking out her tongue at Amanda.
"Not an order, just advice
," Amanda said, "our mission is to discover the true nature of reality. Not just to round up some local troublemakers. There are far scarier things in the galaxy, and we should be prepared. That's all I'm saying."
"Makes sense to me!" Daniel said, "no use in getting stale!" He made a martial-arts pose in the air.
Emily sat off to the side during this conversation, reading more about superfluidic states and quantum physics.
"Alright everyone," Eric said, boarding the ship from the rear hatch. "Make sure you have everything because we leave in 30 minutes. I just got a call about some missing cargo ships by the Union/CCCP border. No-one else wants to tackle this mission, so it's all ours."
"Because it's too boring?" Izumi said.
"Or too dangerous?" Daniel said, "those two nations aren't on exactly the best of terms."
"Either way we will follow your lead Captain," Rayan said, "to wherever the threads of fate take us."
"Sounds good," Eric said, "just... get prepared."
Amanda sat back in her seat, smiling slightly.
Emily looked up at the group, and hovered a small golden sphere in the air. The CCCP/Union border is a power zone,
she thought, no better place than that for some experiments.