The crews of the Faith and the Fox, save for Cane, had front row seats at the arena, as Tomoyasu had reserved those spots ahead of time. Unlike the last time Evangeline had visited this space, the arena was filled to capacity. Over 200 people had managed to squeeze inside, and some were forced to stand on the stairs of the bleachers just to get a view. The arena was ovoid, 50 meters on its long side, and despite the asteroid’s need to save power, Tomo had ordered the lights to be raised to full brightness. Even with the lighting, motionless stars could be seen through the dome that covered the arena.
A sense of anticipation hung in the air, though the atmosphere was solemn. There was no sport in this fight for the citizens of the Eagle, and no one seemed happy to be there. And yet, the guards had to turn many people away. The duel was being broadcast to anywhere with a screen, so those not fortunate enough to get a spot could still see the action in real time. Down on the floor, only the combatants and those they chose as their seconds were allowed. When Eva had fought Takeda, the previous Daimyo had allowed Taiko drummers to provide some additional excitement. Tomo had declined to use them.
The hushed conversation dwindled as the duelists and their companions entered from opposite sides. Tomo was dressed in a simple gray gi top and black hakama pants, with his favorite sword tucked through his belt on his left side. With similar attire was Ikari, his chosen second. Across from them were Cassie and Richter. Few words were exchanged between them as Richter handed Cassie the Tarsus blade, already unsheathed. She was wearing her normal clothing; form-fitting black pants, boots, and a black t-shirt, but had discarded her fur-rimmed jacket.
John whispered to Eva, who shared a bench with him. “Richter told me that he said very little to try to dissuade Cassie from this fight. He’s not happy about it, but agreed to stand by her side anyway.”
Eva nodded, and Tomo held up his hand for silence. He spoke, his voice easily carrying through the arena’s excellent acoustics.
“As most of you already know, Lyra Cassiopeia has challenged me to mononofu ketto, as is her right as a citizen. My official declaration is that if I am killed on this day, she will earn the rank of Daimyo and become your next leader. You are all witnesses to this declaration. That is all.”
Tomo drew his sword and handed the scabbard to Ikari, then strode forward to meet Cassie at the center of the arena. They remained separated by about three meters. He bowed to her, so she awkwardly returned the gesture. Her gaze was like stone, while Tomo seemed perfectly calm. He grasped his sword with both hands and held it forward. Cassie kept her weapon in one hand, down by her side. The arena was dead quiet.
“Begin!” bellowed Ikari.
Cassie ran forward with a shriek, raising her sword to her shoulder. Tomo didn’t move until she was almost on top of him. He sidestepped, easily avoiding a diagonal strike from her, and whipped around with a sideways counter. Her momentum carried her away from the blade, but the tip managed to nick her shoulder. She spun around and didn’t even glance at the wound.
Though both of them moved like demons, Tomo was better at dodging. After several exchanges, Cassie bled from minor cuts on her arms, legs, and left hip. The injuries weren’t slowing her down, and after a full minute of dancing around each other, both fighters were getting winded. For the first time yet, their blades actually contacted each other, the dull metallic report echoing through the arena. Cassie seemed willing to use her sword as a blunt object, but Tomo was making an effort to let her strikes slide off of his blade. During a lull in her recovery, he found the opportunity to land a front kick on her chest. She reeled back, in obvious pain, and at last an expression of doubt crossed her face.
As Tomo had hoped, her pain made her sloppy, and she lunged forward without thinking of her footing. When Tomo blocked her downward strike, she wasn’t able to shift her balance quickly enough, and stopped cold. Before she could step back, he severed her right leg at the knee. As she fell, Tomo planted the pommel of his sword on the ground and braced the spine with his left hand. Cassie fell on the blade, and ran it through her abdomen all the way to the hilt.
The audience gasped. Tomo allowed her to topple over, and gracelessly withdrew his sword from her body.
“Fuck,” said Cassie, and stopped breathing.
Richter rushed over and knelt at her side. The life was already fading from her eyes. Tomo bowed again, and accepted a rag from Ikari to clean the blood from his sword.
Speaking softly, Richter put his hand on Cassie’s shoulder. “I’m sorry your questions had to be answered like this.”
“I took no pleasure in this fight,” began Tomo. “I wish I could have convinced her that she would’ve had peace here. What do you want to do with the body?”
Richter picked up his sword and stood up. “Cassie was so sure she’d win, she never even considered where she wanted to be buried. I guess it will have to be here.”
“I’ll make the arrangements. Everyone deserves a final resting place.”
In the stands, the audience had begun filing out on either side of the arena. John shook his head.
“Such a pointless death,” he said.
“She never even landed a blow on Tomoyasu,” replied Eva.
“None of us ever really trusted her. Perhaps our sympathy after the destruction of the Vulture was misguided, but after that she never showed us any animosity. At least she died in a manner of her own choosing.”
John, Ari, and Eva left the stands and joined Richter by Cassie’s body. Four Eaglite citizens wearing dark blue overalls entered, carrying a stretcher. An unzipped body bag was on top. The four visitors stepped back while the workers collected the corpse. One of the workers spoke.
“Is she carrying anything you want to take before we go?”
“No,” said Richter.
Without ceremony, the workers zipped up the body bag and carried her out, leaving nothing but blood.
John looked at Richter. “I noticed you didn’t come back to the ship last night.”
“Yes, I stayed at the dojo with Cassie. It seemed like the least I could do.”
Ari asked, “So did either of you get any sleep? Talk all night?”
“Oh, there was very little conversation, really.”
John and Ari looked at him with mild surprise. He remained inscrutable.
“Okay, bud,” said John.
“Anyone want to go grab some lunch? I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
“No thanks,” said John and Ari.
“I’ll go with you,” said Eva. “John, what’s our current time table?”
“Christie and Cane are still working on the overdrive device for the Fox. Everyone is free to do what they want until they’re done. Just stay within contact, and I’ll give the word when we’re ready to head to Dellal.”
“All right then. I guess we’ll see you later.”
John and Ari headed to the exit where most of the others were waiting for them, and Eva and Richter went towards the opposite side.
“I didn’t know you had feelings for Cassie,” said Eva.
“She had stronger feelings for me than vice-versa. I was mostly concerned that she was making a rational decision going up against Tomoyasu. It was pointless since her rationale was perfectly sound to her.”
“And you didn’t think you were taking advantage of her, considering her state of mind?”
Richter looked at her. “Are you asking that because of what happened between us?”
“No, it just seems like an odd choice for you.”
“She offered, I declined. I was just screwing with Scherer. Under different circumstances, maybe.”
The pair exited the arena and paused on the street. At the center of the city, there were any number of places they could easily find a meal. After a brief discussion, they decided on a new sushi restaurant that had just opened. Prior to opening up trade with Primus and Secundus, the idea of fish on the Eagle was just a feverish dream. Eva had a pretty good idea of its location, so they resumed walking. Richter renewed the conversation.
“After that shit in San Diego, and you joined the CIA, we were too focused on our careers to allow for a relationship. I had always hoped that our paths would cross again. When I joined the crew of the Reckless Faith, I figured I’d never see you again. How odd that we’ve been reunited so far from home. Devonai always saw you as a sister, but I’ve always been attracted to you. I don’t regret what happened between us, Eva.”
Eva blushed slightly, the effect invisible due to the low light. “What if Cassie had been the victor today?”
“Then she would be far too distracted by her new role as Daimyo to pay me any mind. Just for the record, I never agreed to be her mate, First Gentleman, or whatever you want to call it. I found her suggestion that I could rule a civilization with her to be perverse. My role here is to win battles and to keep my people alive, and my allegiance is to the Reckless Faith.”
“Anything could happen from here out, and we’re assigned to different ships. My allegiance is to the Fox, just so we’re clear. As long as our goals coincide, then we’ll be allies. Since you seem to be asking for a relationship, all I can say is that I’m open to the idea, but we both have far more pressing priorities right now. I haven’t forgotten what you’ve done for me, Chance. And I’d be lying if I said our personal time together meant nothing to me.”
Richter sighed. “I’m not asking for a relationship, Eva. I just want to clear the air. I haven’t forgotten that from your perspective, a lot of time has passed since we went our separate ways. Hell, technically you’re older than me now.”
Eva smiled. “It is confusing. How old are you now?”
“Heh, you’re right. I’m 36. Funny how the universe works.”
“The universe flipped the script! You’re a cougar now! Sweet.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Just for that, you’re buying lunch.”
Four hours later, Daimyo Kitsune and his senior staff stood with the crews of the Faith and Fox in the Eagle’s frigid main hangar. It was time for the ships to depart, and Tomoyasu was there to give them a proper send-off. With the Secundian engineers left to design a new reactor, and the overdrive device successfully installed on the Fox, there was nothing keeping them on the Eagle any longer. The overdrive device was projected to boost the top speed of the Fox by a factor of 25, meaning the trip to Dellal would take 8 days, but they also suspected the boost would put additional wear and tear on critical systems. So they hoped that after the initial journey, it wouldn’t be needed again until the return trip.
Maoko had joined the group on the landing platform. She, Tomo, and Vecky were sharing a tearful farewell. Though neither of her parents had spent enough time with her for their liking, the girl was adamant about her new mission. Most of the crew of the Reckless Faith had already boarded, leaving just John, Ray, and Ari, and Evangeline waited with Cane and Talyn by the ramp to the Fox’s shuttle.
While Vecky and her folks exchanged their goodbyes, Ikari got a call on his radio. He waited until his boss and his family were done before speaking quietly to him. Tomo nodded, and turned back toward those on the platform.
“I feel foolish asking this question, but I have to. Did you decide to take Cassiopeia’s body with you?”
“Not us,” John replied.
“Same here,” began Eva. “Why, what’s up?”
Tomo said, “Her body is missing from our morgue.”
Vecky looked ashen. “We’re sure she was dead, right?”
“There’s no chance she survived that,” said Ari. “Her only genetic enhancement was longevity, not Wolverine regeneration powers. Richter almost killed her before, with a much less grave injury. No way she got up and crawled away.”
“You don’t have surveillance cameras in the hospital?” asked John.
Tomo shook his head. “Just on the exterior and in the lobby. We’ll begin a search and check the recordings. Most likely someone stole the body, for what purpose I have no idea.”
“Do you want our help?”
“No thank you, I have plenty of people for that. You should be on your way.”
With a final round of farewells, Tomo and his contingent headed back toward the city. The others stood on the platform, befuddled. John looked at Vecky and Eva.
“Tell me again what happened a couple of hours ago,” he said.
Eva replied, “Vecky, Miriam and I all got lightheaded and felt the presence of the Kira’To. For any one of us individually, it might have been nothing, but for all three of us? I bet they took the body.”
“What would they want with a corpse?” asked Ray. “And don’t you want to tell Tomoyasu about this incident?”
“No clue,” said John. “As far as the Daimyo, he already knows what happened. I left it up to him to bring it up, if he had any suspicions about the Kira’To.”
Cane said, “If they still have the ability to take people from the Eagle, even without one of their own present, then that’s troubling, to say the least.”
“If I had to guess I’d say it’s the 60kg of neptunium we brought aboard. We think it may be one way for them to reach beyond their dimension.”
“What else can we do?” asked Eva. “They need the neptunium. We won’t get any answers here, John. It’s time for us to find the Swan.”
It was a monumental day for the People of the Swan, and Acolyte Dann was beside himself with anticipation. He stood in the small personal chamber that was adjacent to his offices, painstakingly scrutinizing his ceremonial vestments in the mirror. It had been 117 years since the last Visitor had arrived, so there was no one left alive who remembered the last occasion. However, the procedures for the ceremony were meticulously described, and his role as Acolyte was clear.
In those many years since the arrival of the last Visitor, the Galactic Union of the Swan had expanded considerably. While the ceremonies and celebrations would be of little interest to the outer settlements, it was a pretty big deal at home. Dann smoothed out the front of his robe, and returned to his main office. His new assistant, another Kau’Rii by the name of Latael, stood out on the balcony. He joined her, and they wordlessly checked each other’s garb. Her robes were identical to his; resplendent crimson, hemmed close to the shoulders and hips, with wide, bell-shaped sleeves. As Acolyte, Dann also wore a royal purple sash. The colors did not work well together, but tradition was more important than aesthetics. She nodded at him, and they gazed out over the capitol city.
The oracle’s announcement of a Visitor has already been made public, but so far there was no visible change in the city. The Visitor would need several days of orientation before the parade could be held, so there was plenty of time to set up and decorate. The city was already a beautiful place, assiduously maintained and monitored, and the celebratory adornments would only add to the spectacle. Unfortunately the capitol was too small to accommodate all of the expected visitors, so aside from the required dignitaries and representatives, there would have to be a lottery. That was not, however, Dann’s problem; his role in the daily operations of the government was limited. All he had to worry about was the Visitor, and if everything went smoothly, he wouldn’t even have to talk to God.
Dann fidgeted with his communicator earpiece. In addition to keeping him connected with the command center, it would provide instantaneous translation of whatever language the Visitor spoke. If God wanted to talk to him, he would simply hear His voice in his head. Fortunately, God seldom spoke directly with Dann or anyone else, which was a good thing. God could frequently be quite a pain in the ass. Dann thought about this as he looked out over the city; the architecture and layout of the capitol was a perfect example of this.
For such a normally passive deity, His keen interest in city planning was strange, almost as if He treated it like one of those civilization simulator games. Every building, no matter how small or insignificant, was built with marble and alabaster, and the roofs were made of gleaming imported copper. In the mornings, once the sun rose over the dome, Dann couldn’t even stand to be on his balcony, the glare was so intense. It was pretty, to be sure, but if a terrestrial city tried the same thing then nearby pilots would be augering in their ships on a daily basis. Other than that, He laid out plans for every square inch of block, street, and yard. Every so often He would even order a building torn down and rebuilt elsewhere, with a new structure or park replacing it, for no apparent reason other than boredom. Such was the privilege of being God, Dann supposed.
A familiar voice buzzed in his ear. “Acolyte Dann, this is Commcent. Something is happening down here.”
“Acknowledged,” he replied, then turned to Latael. “It’s time.”
“I hope it is a nice person,” she said.
“Me, too,” he said, heading for the hallway. “We’ve never had a problem here, but there are stories of difficult Visitors from the other asteroids.”
Latael followed him, and they descended the stairs to the street. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but my parents used to tell me stories that were different from what I learned at school. They say that a Visitor revolt is the real reason we lost contact with the Eagle. Is that true?”
“Unofficially? Who knows. There’s no conspiracy behind it, as much as the Proles in the pubs would like there to be. We only know that a Visitor earned his citizenship, and sought to become their leader. If he succeeded, then obviously God would have to be okay with it. Either way, an asteroid in transit could suffer from a damaged transceiver and not find replacement parts for centuries. I wouldn’t assume an explanation any more complicated than that.”
“And the Vulture?”
Dann looked at her grimly. “We know even less about what happened to the Vulture.”
It was a five minute walk to the command center. They encountered few citizens on the street on the way there, but earned the stares of those they did. Dann couldn’t blame them for their attention, the ceremonial vestments were rarely seen. It bothered him a little, though; even as Acolyte he was normally a very private person. He found himself wishing that the day would hurry up and be over.
They arrived at the command center, and the guards quickly ushered them into the ground floor lobby. They were met by General Redcliff, a native Cygnian and a normally dour man. Today he was wearing his formal military dress uniform and a big smile. The uniform consisted of a dark blue suit, a crimson shirt and tie, golden epaulets, and his sidearm in a white leather flap holster. Standing beside him was Chief Medical Officer Herlen, another Kau’Rii. She was wearing her considerably less formal light blue surgeon’s gown and overcoat, and carried a full medical kit on her shoulder. They exchanged brief greetings, and headed for the elevator.
The four of them were the only ones authorized to enter the arrival chamber, so they began their descent immediately. The chamber was about halfway between the surface and the reactor at the heart of the asteroid. A humming vibration could be felt before the elevator even stopped moving. They stepped out into a cold, dark hallway, a feeling of excitement obviously mutual between them. They breathlessly traversed the hallway and, after the general had entered an access code, stepped into the chamber. The room was divided in half, with a large observation window and a sturdy door separating the sections. It had been recently cleaned, but still smelled of ancient dust.
The humming sound increased in volume. A point of light appeared in the exact center of the segregated area, and grew in intensity. The contingent stared in awe for as long as they could, until it was too bright to see. They shielded their eyes as the vibrations built to a crescendo. The room shuddered violently, and the noise and light abruptly ceased. They blinked and waited for their eyes to adjust. Dann felt all of his fur stand on end.
On the floor in the center of the room, there was no person, just a small, crumpled black and red object. The group glanced at each other in confusion. Herlen accessed a small panel on the wall, and spoke almost in a whisper.
“I’m getting a trace amount of ionizing radiation, nothing dangerous. It’s safe to go in.”
Dann stepped up, it was his job to make first contact with… whatever that thing was. Of course they expected it to be a humanoid, but one had to keep an open mind, of course. Air hissed past the door as he opened it, and he cautiously approached the object. He poked it with his foot, then bent over to pick it up. He recoiled in horror, utterly confused.
“It’s a leg.”