Surge: Chapter Three


Disclaimer: I apologise in advance for any spelling/grammar - this is an entirely unedited Work In Progress and therefore my dyslexia will be on full display. ^_^; If I publish this, I'll get it edited, but for now, enjoy the very, very first rough draft - let's have fun!


Chapter Three


Just take the first step. Begin the journey. Let the path forward make itself.

Otherwise, you may never leave the comfort of today.

And tomorrow will remain forever unknown.



Planet: Ghaliya

Litin Empire


The sword hissed by Tyrin’s ear. With a twist he glided past the swing, allowing his bare foot-paws to carry him back as his twin tails balanced his strides between the weapons’ twirls. He had missed the dance. Being able to read an opponent’s features, the way their eyes betrayed subtle little strains and stresses that he could pounce upon. Perhaps the tensing of muscles just under the hip that pulled on fur around an old injury he could agitate to his advantage.

If an opponent’s behaviour, their outward actions could be read, then his craft need not be activated to its full extent, and therefore, he could weld the blade most empaths loathed to touch.

His blade, an extension of his arm, that he could feel with a vibrating tone in his mind, counteracted his opponent’s strikes. Each collision sent a spark through his craft, cracking his mental walls, making him flinch at the physical manifestation of the pain marring his body. It would require time and mediation to repatch his protective shields. Though he had trained for combat, though he had forced muscles beyond their endurance time over time, nothing could prepare a crafter for the pain of battle. Emotions and thoughts would always bled through even the strongest mental armor, worse than any blade to his skin, and the distraction was devastating when in combat. He knew the dance though, through countless hours of vigorous training, and willingly committed himself to a final strike. He slammed his paw into the side of his opponent, striking at an old war-wound. The elder female reared backwards from the thrust. Taking the moment of imbalance, Tyrin coiled forward his blade, sliding it down his opponents and forcing the full weight of his far slighter body into a vice grip around the pulsing throat muscles. With a shout Tyrin swung them both and they landed roughly on the ground in a plume of dust.

“Yield, kopia!”

“I am not the one who must yield, cub.”

Tyrin froze stiff, growing aware of the buzzing dagger pressed into his neck, nestled beneath his sensitive tone glands.

“You are still letting your craft fight for you.” The elder rumbled a low chuckle. “It distracts you.”

Tyrin released his kopia. Growling with frustration. “I was so sure I had you!”

His kopia jumped up with too much of a spring for an aging litin. She dusted off her heavily feathered tail, and he glimpsed the dangerous poison spikes buried therein that she had not welded. He had none—he was not born of the Warrior Pride—his mutated twin-tail was for speed, his horns delicate and small, his body sleek and tiny. But his kafa’s sister, queen of the Warrior Pride, had been born for ground combat. His falathra often snidely commented that kopia was like the ancient tanks left in the wastelands; thunderous, heavy, strong and obsolete. Such comments often earned his falathra a fierce tongue lashing from kalathra.

Nothing about his kopia was obsolete, but falathra had remained painfully sore about never being welcomed into the Warrior Pride, though he never admitted such a thing aloud—a crafter did not need to speak for such resentment to be as obvious as a wet coat.

“If it is any consolation, despite your long stint away at the University, your skills have not diminished too much.” Kopia’s neck feathers puffed proudly as she ruffled his hair. She was the only one who could treat him thus without him taking offence, for she had at least respected him enough to take him on when he had begged her, bowed low on the dirt, sobbing—please—please—make me stronger. It had not been pity that he had seen in glinting in her eyes that day, long past, but deep sorrow. He had lost his brother, and with such a happening, his parents had lost two sons. One to death and the other to the poison of fear.

Tyrin’s ears perked up in relief at her positive comment. He climbed to his foot-paws, patting out dust from his kilt. “So, you’ll still sign off on my weapons test then?” He glanced at the sword by his foot-paws, reaching for it and twirling it skilfully. His kopia caught his wrist in an overpowering grip, taking the blade from him. Even without a craft, he could see how torn his kopia was. He had asked much from the leader of the Warrior Pride. To train a crafter in the Ways of the Warrior was taboo, and he knew his kopia had only done so out of love for a blood.

“I do not agree with what you are doing, Tyrin. I think it is a foolish endeavour. Your actions bring such pain to my sister…to us all…a part you is being selfish in this, you know that, do you not?”

Tyrin bowed his head. “I know.” He had not spoken to his kalathra in over a full rotation, and even then, their parting words had been one of anger and bitterness. That was the note he was leaving his home with. It left a foulness in his mouth to know she had no desire to reconcile with him—and he with her.

“You cannot change the traditions of an Empire overnight, and you know how deeply engrained litins are in our traditions.”

I know.” Tyrin gathered his cursed twin tails against his chest. “But the very fact that crafters are alive at all prove that traditions change, all it takes is one pebble…”

Kopia sighed, massaging her scalp with a claw. She gripped a horn, tipping her head to one side. He could sense the unease rolling off her in aching, palatable waves. She did not want to cause pain to her sister, and yet, a small little ball inside her was curious.

What if he could? What if he could change things—then even those born with crafts in her Pride would not need to leave in shame.

“Please, kopia. I need my licence. I cannot do this without it. Fafa can forged my papers but…not this one…”

“I know, cub, I know.” She repeated his phrase, mimicking his aspirated tone.

His blade was handed back to him in its shortened form.

“I do not know what good it will do for you in the long run though. When it comes down to it, Tyrin, you crafters simply cannot fight.”

“But—”

“I am your blood. You have been sparring with me most of your life. It will be a very different story when you are faced with those who truly mean you harm. That will be the true test of your spirit.” A paw was placed on his shoulder. He felt the weight of it; weight, and power.

“I will send your credentials along.”

Tyrin’s tone-glands puffed out in a vibrant show of green and blue. “Thank you, kopia!”

“Go. Go.” He was clapped heavily on the back, sent stumbling towards the dressing rooms. “I have more classes to teach. Get out of here. Find your answer in the stars, cub.”


***

The great metropolis of Yin shimmered in the twilight. Hanging lanterns cast dancing light across the canals and high aqueducts, wherein slow-moving boats or the faster paced speeders moved litinians throughout the city. There was a constant hum that Tyrin’s ears had long become accustomed to, and beyond that, a layer beneath the noise; the combined emotional swell of an entire city filling his tone glands with reverence for a deep sweet, favourable harmony. He would miss this incredible sensation of standing on the crux of a powerful, building wave with nowhere to send the energy. He was alone upon the lookout, in the red glow of the gradually darkening sky. But slowly the invasive cold—a bitter emptiness—crawling as ice through his veins—eased as the steady warmth of kindred affection approached, like the great winds of the Tandamine Deserts their Pride Castle Lands were nestled against. He acknowledged his falathra with a smile. Their minds met in a low hum of greeting. Falathra’s mental shields were down, his emotions raw and exposed. Tyrin blinked back his tears. His tone-glands stung from the invisible wounds. Over dried lips his tongue quickly licked, trying to dispel the taste of blood dribbling down this throat as the echoing memory of the shipyard’s desolation invaded his own mind.

That day—that day had altered his falathra. It had torn a hole through him that he had never managed to piece back together. Not even kalathra had healed it with all her skills in mind-healing. There was such shame, guilt, and bitter self-loathing within his falathra that it was too dangerous a symphony for his far too inexperienced craft to even attempt to unravel. Knots upon knots had gathered into a tight, black, tarry ball that none could ever hope to heal. It festered and poisoned him, gradually, over the cycles, weaking a once mighty craft.

Falathra leant wearily on the banister, the slight wind catching on the grey tinge of his braids and gills. When had his falathra aged? It had happened without him even noticing, rotation after rotation, the gradual etching of time being chipped away into the large litinian’s form.

Tyrin shifted on his foot-paws, casting his gaze to the shipyard across the city. It had been rebuilt, almost as a defiant testament to the will of litinians. Somewhere his brother’s name was on a memorial in the main auditorium. Since that day their Pride had not returned to the spaceport, for they had all felt the death of Zydra and like a lingering curse it had tainted them. Without truly noticing it they had become ever more recluse, and ever more planet bound.

Shackled—imprisoned—

And he was attempting to break free.

Tyrin breathed in deeply.

If that day had not happened, he was quite sure that he would now be applying to follow his father and kalathra, and all his bloods, in the set roles society had built for crafters; a diplomat, a peacekeeper, a negotiator. The streets of their great cities were kept in calm harmony because crafters made it so. Not since the War of Unification had there been a skirmish amongst the Prides, and it was all due to the work of crafters, loitering in the shadows, carefully keeping a marginal balance.

Well, in a manner of speaking, you are following our paw-steps.

His falathra’s tone rested gently in his mind. Tyrin gave a wiry smile. He had been broadcasting. He swung on the banister as though he were a cub.

I suppose so.

It is simply that none has considered the possibility that a crafter would be useful in space.

Oh, come fafa, we both know the possibility has been considered. Tyrin slouched back, staring up at the reddening sky, watching as several cargo-liners slowly climbed their way through the atmosphere. And we both know why it became taboo.

The heaviness rested between them as they jointly recalled the lingering ancestral pain. There was something about space—about the emptiness—about the void—the absolute lack of a tone a crafter could latch onto that drove a crafter to madness. After several instances’ centuries ago, no mature crafter was permitted beyond the First Moon.

And he was about to break that law.

Tyrin breathed in deeply.

“So…” he spoke aloud. “Did you…organise my placement?”

For awhile falathra was silent, watching the ships leave the port, their hulls glistening in the evening light. “There has been talk recently on the Joint World Council…”

Tyrin glanced around, a habit he had picked up from his stint at the university when trying to blend in with non-crafters. Though he knew there were no other litins around, the moment his falathra mentioned the high-profile nature of his position he was compelled to check their surrounds.

“Talk about what, exactly?”

Falathra’s thought patterns had grown jumbled—cluttered—unorganised. His gaze shifted to the darkening sky and the faint stars beginning to flicker in the velvet blanket over the ocean.

“The stars are vanishing.” Falathra murmured, “And none of us can figure out why.”

The insidious ice within Tyrin’s veins had become a part of his life, he had learnt to exist with the feeling, yet every so often it would rise to the surface like an invasive parasite—and suddenly—with his falathra’s words—it was there, hackling his fur as he shivered.

“That’s impossible…” he whispered.

His falathra nodded slowly. “Which is why the Litin Empire has been asked to send forth an expedition to the Frontier.”

Tyrin managed a weak laugh of disbelief. “Father, that’s…that’s a five-rotation journey.”

“I suggest you pack light.” There was a hint of jealousy—just a hint—in his falathra’s tone.

“Wait.” Tyrin touched his chest. “You…you got me a spot? How?”

“Captain Runeadine is an…old…acquaintance…” Falathra eased away from the banister. “Through her, I have worked to provide you with credentials, but, if you are discovered, she will deny all knowelage and involvement.”

“I see…” Tyrin rubbed an ear. Five rotations. This was not what he had expected.

“However, you are not going in wholly alone. You may have a shield. If you…accept it…”

His tense shoulders eased a little and he looked to his falathra in hope.

“It is Runeadine’s place to explain.” Falathra reached for his arm, firmly squeezing. “Tyrin, what you are attempting to do could very well have you imprisoned by the Military Pride, at the worst they will execute you. I cannot stress enough that you must trust the contact aboard the Celetris, no matter what your initial reaction may be.”

“I understand, Fafa.”

There was a serious tone of concern underlining his falathra’s mind.

“Fafa, I understand.” He insisted.

“No. You do not, but you will.”

Falathra tugged out a hologram slate, hesitating before he handed it over. “These are your new credentials, thank your kopia if you speak to her again.”

Tyrin frowned curiously at the holo-slate.

“I am in the Science Division? Ship’s Counsellor? Seriously…” He scratched an ear again. “Fafa…I…I…am not kalathra…”

“You are more like her than you give yourself credit.”

He was not entirely sure how he felt about that assessment, despite how honest of an appraisal it was from his falathra.

“But why the Ship’s Counsellor?”

Falathra waved a paw. “It will be made clearer when you get onboard.”

“Wait, wait, it has me down as kopia’s son. Kopia does not have cubs, she has never taken a mate.”

“Yes. Hence, she thought herself the perfect excuse for your cover story. No queen of the Warrior Pride would allow for a son such as you to tarnish her reputation. You are being sent away to…well…toughen up, so to speak…” His falathra gestured at him and his slight frame.

Tyrin glanced down at himself and sighed at the reminder that his scrawny state was not Warrior Pride material. “Nice to know I am an embarrassment to both my kalathra and my kopia.”

“Your kopia is not embarrassed by you. She would not be offering to take upon such a dangerous title as your blood, offering to be involved in our scheme, if she was embarrassed by you. Do not think so little of your bloods.”

Tyrin looked away, feeling the heat of his fafa’s chastising burn against his tone glands and seep into the skin of his neck. “Apologises, fafa.”

“She hopes it will offer you some protection. She has a reputation, and, truthfully, that reputation can protect you far more than I can within the Military Pride.”

“And…kafa?” He nibbled his bottom lip.

“You cannot expect your Kalathra’s blessing in this, Tyrin. You are our prides first born, your place is in the canals of Yin, making them safe…not searching the endless heavens for the dreams of cubhood.”

His shoulders slumped low and his twin tails flopped. He was abandoning his pride for his selfish wants to explore the heavens, to seek out why he could never find warmth. Dropping his head back, Tyrin studied the curtain of stars. His fur spiked as the soft, echoing call latched on to the tiny feelers of his tone-glands. He simply could not deny it—

The echo that called to him, like a paw reaching out across the vastness of space, trying so hard to grasp at something—anything—someone—

And it found him. Even now, the claws of ice that he usually ignored felt intensely more intrusive. It was not a choice—he had to go.

“I am sorry, fafa…but…I have to go. I just…I just have too.”

“I know.”

He looked back to his falathra. Briefly warmth brushed through him as the swell of gratitude and pride filled him. His falathra reached for him and gently pressed their foreheads together. “Go where I cannot, Tyrin, and find your answers.”

Tyrin closed his eyes. Thank you, falathra.



***


It was extremely disorientating to be back within the spaceport. While it was completely different from that which he had once walked through as a cub, with Zydra trailing along behind him, it was still the ground upon which he had lost his brother. The floor felt as though it burned through his boots into his foot-paws like the lava plains. There was death here—an unspeakable amount of death—and his craft wanted to absorb it like a sponge. Having to focus away from the lingering knowelage of death left him spinning, as though there was no solid ground beneath him.

Advertisements shone ostentatiously, playing loud jingles, they seemed to follow his steps no matter what direction he turned in. It was disgustingly busy, forcing him to keep a tight clamp on his craft as he was shoved and bustled about. By the time he found himself in the main auditorium his neck-feathers were frazzled beyond any sort of repair and a blistering headache was splitting his skull down the middle. Tyrin slumped into a plush couch, letting it take his weight as he mimicked turning into a puddle. He stared at the glass ceiling, watching the reflections of the holographic commercials and departure signs shimmer. If he released the tight hold on his craft, for even just a moment, he would be swamped with an overwhelming wave of emotions and thoughts from the patrons surrounding him. It would take all of two seconds before that wave caused him to flatten everyone nearby as he lost control. He had thought the rush of not having an escort would be liberating.

It was not—

This was stressful. Now it was clear why crafters did their utmost best to avoid the larger population as much as possible.

Slowly he sat forward, forcing himself to remain entirely calm with several deep, long breaths. It was organised chaos, with not just litins surrounding him, but several of the other Joint World races in the swirling whirlpool. He wanted to stare, especially at the boxy automations that allow the Qun-ar race to travel, but it would have been the height of rudeness to do so. He had to find something else to focus on. In the centre of the auditorium Tyrin’s eyes settled on a large, towering marble obelisk. His chest tightened. The monument. He stood fluidly, grabbing his pack and throwing it over his shoulder as he stepped back into the crowd to push his way through in a direct path towards the memorial. Fashioned out of stone from the depths of the fire mountain mines, it had veins of flecked gold throughout its darkened surface. It was a stone used only for death markers. Less common in this era, but they scattered the outer cities in the millions from the Unification Wars.

The obelisk was coated in shimmering names, from tip to base. Somewhere upon the hallowed stonework, his brother’s name was carved. Tyrin hesitatingly glanced down at the plaque by his foot-paws.

May they rest amongst the stars.

His paws clenched. What cruel words. What a mockery. His brother had never even reached the stars. He had never left Ghaliya.

“I’m sorry, Zy.” Tyrin whispered. He stepped away from the plaque, and its scornful words faded. In silence, he focused his attention to searching for his brother’s name. It was a useless task, but it distracted him from the burning pain in his skull and settled the growing anxiety he could feel balling up in his stomach.

“I understand you lost your brother.”

Tyrin almost jumped at the mild voice from behind. He had been so focused on finding his brother’s name that his area of awareness had pulled tight into himself. Slowly he turned, looking up at the towering litin dressed in a thick chromatic flight-suit, similar to his own. The blazon captain’s insignia shining bright on the breast was all that set them apart. Tyrin’s eyes were draw to the litin’s proud horns. Warrior Pride—for sure—most likely how his falathra knew the captain. They were both too young to have been a part of the Vernberi Wars, but, old enough to have been born in the breeding boom that had come after it.

He felt so small. He had always thought his falathra was large for a litin, and his kopia larger still, but even with his stint at the University, he had truly been sheltered from the majority of his people.

“Captain Runeadine, I presume?” Tyrin bowed.

An eyebrow was lifted. “You presume correct.”

He was receiving curiosity from the larger litin, curiosity and amusement that gradually faded into a deep, aching sorrow as the litin turned towards the monument and saluted solemnly.

“We had never had such a non-conflict related cause of mass death before. It was a terrible day.”

“It was.” Tyrin murmured.

Runeadine held out a paw. “Come, I have a private room for us to speak in.”

Picking up his sack Tyrin quickly followed, fascinated that one stride by the captain equalled two of his own. Would he even manage to match the speed and strength of the captain on the ground if they were to run the Plains? He felt so pitifully tiny, less of a cub and more a newborn barely crawling. Runeadine entered a room and Tyrin followed with a quick flick of his tails. The chrome-suit did its job in joining the two tails together into a single unit, though it meant he would never be able to move around without the suit if he wanted to keep his crafter identity hidden. It was irritating though, for both tails constantly wanted to move individually, and twitched with the frustration at being so restrained.

Runeadine rested against a nearby table. The way she folded her arms exuded an ease of authority. Tyrin stood awkwardly as the door sealed shut. The noise from outside abruptly ended, and he dropped his head to one side in relief as the tension from the maelstrom of minds and emotions battering his mental shields eased. The room was shielded for crafters. Someone had thought about his Pride when building the spaceport, despite their sheer lack of spacelegs. He felt airy, released from the pressure of the crowds.

“You did well. I presume you have been trained to withstand large crowds though.” Runeadine offered, reaching for a jug of water on the table, pouring out a cup and passing it to him. Tyrin took it gratefully.

“I would not have much use if I could not work in a crowd.” Tyrin sipped the water. “But that does not mean it is easy. Many of us struggle to do it, and can only maintain it for a short period.” He did not want to boast, but there was a reason his kalathra was furious with his decision to go into space. He was one of the few in their Pride who could tolerate crowds, and the cities were always seeking crafters for population control.

He could have so easily found a nice job, a good mate, raised cubs, and kept their Pride going for the next generation.

But instead—

He was going into space—

He was breaking the law, risking his life, for a taste of freedom—to find—something—

“Hm.” Runeadine settled her paws on the table, tapping the metal with her claws.

“But I am capable, kmahr. I assure you that.” Tyrin squared his shoulders.

“When your falathra came to me to finally call in a favour I have owed him since we were trainees this was not what I ever expected.” The captain massaged her temples wearily. “It is making my horns ache just thinking about it…a crafter…aboard my brand-new vessel…”

Conflicting emotions. Tyrin frowned. The captain was excited, elated, but fearful and angry. The anger, though, had an underlining of amusement. The excitement seemed to float around an irritation of boredom and the fear—

Tyrin flinched—

Stars—emptiness—the cold—

Dead space—

War—again—

Fear—

“Stop reading me, cub.”

“Sorry.” Tyrin scratched an ear.

Runeadine shook her head. “You crafters need to learn manners. You need a set of rules.”

Tyrin frowned. “I…I suppose we do…”

“You do know it gives us ordinary folk headaches when you do that?”

“It does.” Tyrin reared back. “I had no idea. I apologise.”

“Because you’re a bunch of secluded tossers, the lot of you.”

“That is hardly our fault!” Tyrin snapped back.

Runeadine grinned.

Tyrin breathed in sharply. “I apologise, madam.”

“You are going to be apologising a lot.”

“Sorry. Yes. Ah. Sorry.” Tyrin bowed his head, muttering. “Sorry.”

Runeadine chuckled. “You will be toughened up soon enough.”

Those words were not at all reassuring. While he had trained within the Warrior Pride with kopia, much of it had been with carefully selected individuals who would not have taken affront at a crafter attempting to circumvent their caste. The Warrior Pride—and the branch off from it, the Military Pride—may as well have been as foreign to him as any of the Joint Worlds within the Alliance.

“Your falathra and I, long, long ago, we once discussed the good your pride could do on long mission flights. There is a problem that neither the Military nor Warrior Prides want to address. They have dealt with it planet side by using your pride, but refuse to confront the issue in space.”

“Litins are a warrior race,” Tyrin surmised.

Runeadine pointed a claw at his chest.

“And we fight each other. So, time and time again I have seen it happen on long flight missions, folk get antsy, emotions get high, and fights break out. I loose at least ten to fifteen litins per rotation.”

“Rotation!” Tyrin spluttered.

Runeadine arched an eyebrow. “Now do you see why I agreed to this trial your falathra proposed?”

“Wait. Wait. You are wanting me to…stop the fights…” he squeaked out the last part of his sentence.

“That is what you are trained to do, is it not?”

“Well…yes…”

“Then yes, that is what I want you to do. This is a five rotation mission. I expect good results.”

“With a fatality rate that high, any crafter could provide you with good results.” Tyrin grumbled. “I gather…that is why I have been given the title of Ship’s Counsellor?”

“That brilliant idea was mine.” Runeadine’s neck feathers puffed out. “It’s a title used amongst the Luggers, but with our flights becoming longer and longer I figured taking a few scratches from their slate might help.”

Luggers—or Cargo-Luggers—a mysterious pride. What Tyrin knew of them was only from records on slates dug up during late night sessions in the University’s Library. They were one of the oldest prides of Ghaliya, with roots harkening back the hero of the Unification Wars, the great and holy Kulfiai. It was even whispered that it was the Luggers, and not the High Royal Pride, that had true claim to the Emperor’s Throne. Those were merely whisperings, though whispers enough to speculate that was why the pride had become exiles, choosing to move the massive amounts of freight and cargo between the Joint Worlds. Generations of litins had been born never having touched the soil of Ghaliya. Kopia had told him once that Luggers who had the gull to try and rejoin the flow of Ghaliya were treated far worse than even crafters. So, he was a crafter who was being given a Lugger’s title. This was going to go down splendidly. If he did not know better, he would have been sure his falathra was trying to get him killed.

“Do you think the older personnel will have difficulty with someone so young?” he asked.

“You are a crafter, sort it out.”

Sort it out. Yes. It was that easy. Tyrin scoffed inwardly. Did the captain think that the minds and emotions of those around him were so easy to manipulate, and ethical to toy with? Or perhaps the captain honestly thought highly of crafters and their skills. That was possible—Runeadine appeared to be on good terms with his falathra. What had his falathra done, so long ago, that held a high ranking Captain of the Military Pride to circumvent records and allow a crafter aboard a vessel? It had to be a life-debt. Tyrin shyly glanced down at his foot-paws. He had come to be here by relying upon those with greater strength, so now, he needed to show their trust was not misplaced.

Runeadine glanced at her wrist, checking the time on her chrome-suit. The moment she looked up, the door slid open, revealing a small and slender figure. It had to be a lost cub, considering its size, then it stepped into the room to reveal itself entirely. It barely reached his midriff, even with the floating, three golden rings that kept it suspended. They hummed in a tantalising, sweet tune that his craft seemed to snatch at as if it was grabbing for candy.

With such a smooth ease, it transitioned from flight to walk, the rings disengaging. Their glow shimmered away to hang loose like the links of skirts around its mechanical ball-joint waist. Tiny, thin legs that ended in delicate clear pikes made soft bell-like noises as they balanced perfectly to move forward in a rhythmic movement.

“Captain, it is good to see you.” A tinny, musical voice sung out.

“You as well, Little Doc. I am immensely grateful you have agreed to join this mission.”

“And missed a splendid opportunity to torture you for five whole rotations, never.” A thin, wiry smile twisted Tyrin’s gut as the alien glanced in his direction with lambent blue eyes, black-lit by a warm glow.

“Vernberni!” He stepped back in alarm, reaching for the blade at his side.

He had only read about them, seen holo-displays in slate-books and projected onto rocks at the University. Encountering one—and not even in space—but still planet bound—sent a rush of innate fear spiking his fur.

Runeadine grabbed his wrist. “None of that, cub.”

The vernberni’s fluffy ears had twisted backwards. “I had rather expected more from a crafter, but then, you litins are very emotion bound creatures. Perhaps it is more so for crafters…hm…we shall work on that…”

The vernberni flicked up a hologram, scrawling out notes quickly into the air in a boxy language before dismissing the notepad with a wave.

The Captain’s grip on his wrist tightened momentarily in assurance before it released. Tyrin rubbed at the aching limb with a frown. Even through the chrome-suit, the intensity of the grip had been impressive.

“Contemplating how worthless your spindly little limbs are?” The vernberni remarked. “I would wear your chrome-suit at all times if I were you. It will be the only thing protecting your fragile bones.”

“Stop frightening the poor cub, Little Doc.”

“Hm.” The vernberni rolled its eyes mechanical eyes.

“Prince Tyrin, I present to you Ambassador Little Doc, of the Vernberni System. It shall be your contact aboard the Celetris.”

“A vern is my contact.” Tyrin choked. “But…but…”

“Little Doc is willing to take the political fallout if you are exposed.”

He felt as if someone had kicked him, roughly, in the stomach. This had been what his falathra had been talking about—a Vernberni!

Runeadine gave his shoulder a firm pat. “From this point on, I do not know you as a crafter. You are merely another member of my Medical and Science Division. If you are discovered, Little Doc will take all blame for bringing you onboard and conspiring with your bloods. If anything is to transpire, if you are to go rouge, it will take the blame.”

Tyrin shifted uneasily as he looked down at the unblinking, blue mechanical eyes of the tiny, delicate alien beside him. He was being left with a Vernberni, a creature used to terrorise cubs into bed. Why—why would his falathra leave him with a nightmare?

“I…gather…the political fallout will be enormous.”

It shrugged, seemingly unphased by the possibility. Delicate metal limbs chimed as though wind had fluttered through the room. “Depends on you, litin. Slaughter half the crew, very bad, open an airlock and throw yourself out, I could maybe sweep that one under the rug.”

Tyrin gulped. “Oh.” He was not aware throwing himself out an airlock had been on the slate as an option. Runeadine’s paw on his shoulder tightened.

“You will be fine, Little Doc is perfectly equipped to handle these sorts of things.” The captain stepped towards the door. “See you both at the briefing.”

“Captain.” The vernberni lazily saluted.

Tyrin quickly followed the example.

He was alone. With a vernberni—

A vernberni—the tiny, swarming race that could destroy whole planets, nay, whole solar-systems! Whatever encountered their Web was consumed by it, did that mean he would be consumed too?

Tyrin’s head spun. Was a vernberni even allowed on Ghaliya? Everything he had heard the Professors at the University say had indicated that despite being part of the Joint World Alliance vernberni were forbidden from entering any Joint World space—so—what—was one doing standing beside him?

“So, how indoctrinated are you?” It quipped, turning its jewel like eyes in his direction.

“Indoctrinated?”

The vernberni began to float again, the golden rings thrumming with energy as they formed a spinning skirt, lifting it from the floor. It floated to the automatic door. Tyrin snatched up his pack and pursued it. The mental noise and emotional flood of the crowd beyond the shielded room struck him, almost making him stagger but he kept his balance, focusing on the vernberni. It wore a very loose, cotton robe, tied at its thin ball-point waist with a silver chain. The only defining feature Tyrin could see on the outfit, that gave any indication of cultural significance was the poncho hiding delicate shoulders. The pattern was foreign, unlike anything upon Ghaliya, interlocking in weaves of reds and blues that had a faint active glow.

“What do you mean by indoctrinated?” he asked again.

“Three generations ago our people engaged in a war.”

Tyrin nodded slowly. “The Vernberni War.”

“Hm. Yes, well, the Mother World has another name for it…” Little Doc turned a corner and Tyrin dashed after it, halting suddenly when they entered into a hallway exposing immense panoramic windows with a view of the shipyard that crawled out into the wider blue ocean. Tyrin’s tail tossed about in thrill. One of those idling vessels had to be the Celetris; a brand new ship, built solely for this mission, according to his falathra.

Some distance ahead Little Doc waited for him with a wry smile. The sunset tinted the vernberni’s metallic skin golden.

“Sorry,” Tyrin bowed his head. “Please, do continue.”

“For being so frightened of me, you are very well mannered. Someone taught you well.”

Tyrin rubbed his neck. “Crafters need good manners to cover up our idiosyncrasies.”

Little Doc sniffed. “Is that what they teach you, fascinating.” The vernberni turned its forlorn gaze to the windows. “I have noticed in my time amongst your people that your places of learning are staffed by those who were either born during the Vernberni War or just after it. They are extremely prejudiced, and have passed this prejudice onto the next generation.”

Tyrin frowned. He had never considered the Professors from such an angle before.

“However, I have observed that there is appearing to be a schism now. Litins who have fully absorbed the words of their teachers and follow blindly over a cliff, and those who have minds to think to turn off the path. I question, which one are you?”

Tyrin shook his head. “Truly, I do not know, sir. I seek to discover.”

The vernberni smiled. “That is a good place to start.”

“Can I ask something?”

“To stem off my boredom, you may.”

“Why did you accept to take me on, knowing that I…might…”

“You might lose your marbles and slaughter half the crew with your brain?” The vernberni paused suddenly, causing Tyrin to hop on a single paw.

“Marbles…” he whispered the foreign word.

“It was one incident, decades ago.” Little Doc sounded disgusted. “You cannot assume anything from a single happenstance. It is ridiculous to simply believe that crafters are incapable of long-space flight from a single unfortunate incident. Do not allow it to haunt you.”

“That still does not explain why you, personally, and your people are taking on this responsibility?”

“If you can make my life even a smudge bit better aboard the Celetris, than your mere presence will be worth whatever the Mother World will have to do for us, even if it is mopping up blood and brains.”

Tyrin’s tails flopped to the floor. “It has been that bad.”

“Let us just say, your reaction was the least extreme I have had, and I am head of the medical department within a ship entirely crewed by litins.” The vernberni sighed. “Even after the unification of your prides, you still all constantly hassle and swabble amongst each other. It astonishes me you even managed to figure out space flight. I rather expected you to blow each other up with the technology.”

Why did it feel as though he was being chastised by some far higher authority? Tyrin frowned, wondering how he could ever defend his own people against an argument he himself had often made. He breathed in deeply. “If we were not part of the Joint World Alliance, then there would be no Military Fleet. We are the only race who are willing to explore, to fight on the frontline.”

“What an interesting come back. Have you not once considered that the other Worlds of the Alliance are simply hiding behind your prowess, using your skills outwardly so you shall not turn them inward? Why, you fought a War with Us of the Mother World, surely…you could have…taken over so much space by now.”

The vernberni cocked its head curiously.

“We are needed on the frontline.” Tyrin replied automatically, blinking rapidly in surprise at his answer. He touched his tingling lips.

“Then I ask you, young litin, what exactly are we fighting? What is this frontline you speak of?” Little Doc twirled around him as he walked.

He hesitated. “I…I do not know…”

Little Doc made a flippant motion. “But you feel as though there is something that needs to be fought?”

“Well. Yes.” Tyrin frowned. “I do.” It was the collective sensation that crafters relied upon to solve the infighting of prides, and had been using it since the Unification Wars, the strange, eerie sense that something was coming. He could only describe it as a ball in the pit of his stomach, uncomfortable and constant.

“Litins intrigue me…” Little Doc clinked thin, metal hands together. “Eons have past and yet, that innate nature to reach out and explore has remained.”

Tyrin blinked rapidly as his mind was given several firm prods. Power. Unbelievable, immense power, brimming behind such a tiny creature, but it was not inside its body. It was—beyond—connected—by hundreds—nay—countless—threads—

Power. Surging through space.

His fur spiked beneath his chrome-suit. It was as though his craft had touched the surface of a star.

“What…are you?” he whispered.

That is the question, isn’t it? The reply came in a sequence of numerals that his craft translated. Before he had a chance to question why he could understand the foreign thoughts, his attention was caught by the sight of the Celetris. Tyrin sucked in a deep breath as he contained the immense swell of excitement that burst through him.

“It’s beautiful!” Tyrin bounced to the window. Oh Zy, how I wish you could see this.

Little Doc kicked the junction of his tail. “Stop acting like a cub, you are an officer now, and you need to earn the respect the crew.”

“But…it is…”

“Beautiful?” Little Doc’s laughter was tinny. “Well. I suppose so. If you like giant hunks of metal.”

That was not how Tyrin would have described the Celetris at all. Unlike the heavy and ancient cargo-liners of the Luggers that truly were enormous slabs of metal, or even the newer and smoother space-trains that ran between the Joint Worlds, the Celetris was primarily Litin in design. Sharp edges, glinting in the sunlight like the surface of their beloved oceans. Its main formation mirrored the Tyrin Pyramids—said to be the birthplace of all Litins.

While the focal aim of the Celetris was the discovery of new resources and knowelage, the Litin Empire had never moved away from its warmongering days before Unification, and the early skirmishes between the Joint Worlds. Travel into the depths of space was always done with the hidden intent of hungering after great, magnificent star-battles. Therefore, he was aware the Celetris was equipped with the finest weaponry the Military Pride could afford from the Science and Technology Pride.

“Come along. Do not dawdle.” Little Doc called out from ahead. Tyrin quickly scurried to follow, catching up with the vernberni.

“Our mission is five rotations, right? How are we going to reach the Frontiers in that amount of time, let alone leave the Joint World Systems.”

Little Doc lifted its brow and with a slender hand motioned to the ship they were approaching. “Solar-thrusters. I presume you at least studied them in your classes.”

The enormous, glass plates of either side of the vessel reminded Tyrin of the delicate petals of a waterlily lapping up the sun.

“I did, yes. Though, advanced space mechanics was not the field I majored in.” As much as he and his kalathra did not get along, he had ended up leaning heavily into her field of behavioural studies and mind healing. It had seemed like such a natural flow for his craft, especially after the—

Tyrin refocused away from the absence of Zydra, away from the cold chill that still owned his every step. He would not—could not—allow himself to be dragged down into the depths of the cold swirling darkness.

Little Doc’s ears flipped back. If the vernberni had noticed anything about the tonal shift of his craft, it did not let on. “As long as you have a rudimentary understanding of how things work so if something goes wrong, then you will not panic. As for the duration of our mission and if we shall be leaving the Joint World Systems, yes, we will be, though I presume the Captain does not wish for me to discuss our objective so openly.”

Tyrin frowned. “No, but…solar-thrusters cannot take us that far in that length of time.”

“They can, when modified.” The smile he received was strained patience. “We vernberni are experts in long distance space travel.”

Right. Of course. He could now allow himself to forget what he was conversing with.

A vernberni—

The one race in the whole of the Joint World Alliance that was capable of annihilating entire planets.

No—

Entire solar systems.



Litin Terms


Falathra – fafa - father

Kalathra – kaka – mother

Opia – Uncle

Kopia – Aunt


Litin Military Pride Terms


Kmahr - a formal way of addressing a female officer of higher rank, like ma'am or madam.


Mentioned Races of the Joint World Alliance

Litins

Vernberni (often shortened to Vern)

Qun-ar

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