Though the light was fading, the docks still bustled. Crowds of passengers dotted the district, and between them wove trains of crewmen still in the process of loading and unloading their ships. Foremen barked orders at their underlings, and taximen called for their passengers, holding up signs and gesticulating wildly. The whole thing was a tangled mass of bodies and noise, radiating heat and stink.
Malik hardly noticed. His column of black of gold cut right through the mundanity of the docks, and he led the way, unimpeded, to his new assignment.
Though Malik would never admit it, the expedition was an answer to hundreds of furtive prayers to whatever deity happened to be listening. He was a soldier, which meant he carried himself with discipline, following his orders without question or complaint. He fought for his country. Killed for his country. Died for his country.
But it was peacetime... and Malik was a soldier.
When news of this expedition surfaced, he was prepared to call in every favor he had to ensure his regiment was selected to accompany the venture. It offered the first real chance at action he'd seen since the end of the First Uranopan War.
Malik considered the seven years since V-day, and his hands clenched. Seven long years of nothing. It grated on him.
But he had refused to let it show, because he was, ironically, a solider.
A circle of deckhands stepped aside to let Malik pass, and suddenly there it was: The Noctis Accipiter.
The ship was beautiful. It hardly looked like it had been sailing for over four years. Though Malik reminded himself it wasn't a war vessel, and this, their mission, was not in the interest of combat.
Calling his men to a halt, Malik continued up the gangplank alone. Stepping aboard, he nearly collided with a cabin boy, who muttered hasty apologies before actually turning to look at the offended party. Seeing Malik in his captain's dress, the boy's eyes grew wider than Malik would have thought possible. The boy offered a clumsy salute, as if he wasn't sure whether or not it was the appropriate response. A nod from Malik and the boy was gone, before he could even be asked to point in the direction of the Captain's quarters.
Ultimately it was unnecessary, as Amalia Vega, Captain of the Noctis Accipiter, and Malik's personal savior, had been informed of the regiment's arrival, and chose that moment to appear.
"Welcome aboard Mr. Wescott."
Vega met the salute with raised eyebrows, and turned away to hide a smile. "At ease Mr. Wescott. You're a Captain yourself, no need for pleasantries."
"Perhaps. Though not of this vessel."
"Well I see the stories got that part right," the Captain said with a chuckle. Turning away she motioned for Malik to follow, and led him back in the direction from which she'd entered.
"Which part would that be, Captain?"
A snort. "The part that describes you as a major hardass. After you." She pulled open a door, and motioned for Malik to enter. He followed, waiting at attention as the Captain shuffled some papers on her desk and took a seat.
"Well Mr Wescott. I hear you are never shy about suggesting ideas? How do you intend to work with us? And for heaven's sake, loosen up a little!"
Malik let his hands hang at his sides, but changed little else. "I intend to do the job I was sent here to do. Protect the ship. To do that, I'll need more information. I wasn't given much regarding our assignment. Or the people involved."
"Then let me fill you in." Vega stood and again began to sift through the papers on her desk, before plucking a sheaf from the pile and offering it to Malik.
"Here is a list of all my crew, supplies, weapons and machinery. Our exploration will take us through the galaxy, to the Alatheia Nebula, and beyond."
Vega, who had been pacing, came around her desk to stand in front of Malik. "It is a mission that is rarely attempted. I intend to be the first to succeed."
Malik busied himself with the papers, looking for some clue he could use to cover his ignorance. He found none.
"Forgive me, but my talents lay outside the realm of astrology. Why isn't it attempted? And more importantly, why do you think you can do it?"
The Captain launched into a grandiose speech, one that Malik suspected had been prepared, rehearsed, and recited on numerous prior occasions. Caught up in her lesson, Vega might have passed as a professor, with her gestures and exclamations. At one point she even pulled down a map from the ceiling. Rehearsed or not, the woman was clearly passionate about the subject.
"...A month and a half travelling through a space cloud is difficult enough. But when we get to the other side, who knows what we may find? Ellin himself took nine months just to travel there and back. And the nebula, well... he speculated it was wider than anything we've ever seen."
Vega went silent for a long moment. The only sound in the room came from her pointer, which had been procured from somewhere inside her large coat. Staring at her map, Vega idly tapped her chin with the long wooden stick.
"Hm? Ah, right. Anyway, why do I think I can do it? If you need to ask that, Wescott, you clearly haven't been listening to the right rumours about me."
Malik shrugged "I don't listen to any rumors. It's bad practice. Easiest way to misjudge an enemy."
Vega gave the man a look, and, realizing what he'd said, he rushed to cover it. "I mean... on the battlefield. My apologies."
Smiling, the captain waved away Malik's concern. "In the world of exploration it's the easiest way to have your triumphs become legends."
Malik noticed a far away look take residence in the Captain's eyes. Turning away she wandered over to gaze out the window.
"Of course, anyone who wishes for their triumphs to spread on everyone's lips, does not explore for the right reason."
"And what is your reason, Captain?"
As if she were alone, Vega whispered her words, and a keen observer might have noticed Malik lean forward ever so slightly, in an effort to hear the Captain.
"To reach out, across the endless stars, and discover something that no one has ever seen before."
The moment that followed might have gone on for quite some time, but for a shudder that rocked the airship, startling both Malik and the Captain from their reverie.
"Blasted fools," cursed Vega. "We can't afford any damages before we've even left port. We're in for enough trouble as it is."
Malik perked up at this. "So you think there'll be trouble?"
"I hope not, but given that we are travelling such a great distance, there is no doubt that we will come across something which requires your expertise. If not, I'm sure you can learn to clean the ship like the best of them." Vega smirked, and waved a hand, identifying the comment for the joke it was.
Malik hardly noticed. His mind was once again turning, thinking like the soldier he was.
"You've captained this ship for what, four years? If the report was correct. And sailed longer than that. No doubt you've made a few enemies in that time..."
"It's only to be expected" Vega said, coming away from the window. "But it is not my enemies that I fear I will need your help with. It is more likely to be my fellow explorers."
Though she was now moving about the room, rolling up maps and rearranging papers, Malik noticed the wistful look was back in her eyes.
"Succeeding where Nathaniel Elin failed. Now that is a prize that some explorers would kill for. Besides, we have to pass Praedonum on our journey. Planning for that should take a good deal of your time."
"Pirate territory," Malik said, trying to keep an eager smile from his face.
Sensing the conversation was nearing its end, Malik straightened.
"Are there any other concerns I should know about Captain? Or shall I bring my men aboard for inspection?"
"Not as far as I'm concerned. Bring them aboard. I want everyone, including yourself, to work as if you are a part of my team. I am aware that you are separate, but it is better for morale if everyone is seen to be working together."
Malik nodded, all too aware of the truth behind her words. "Very good, Captain."
The man turned to leave, but hesitated when he reached the door. For a second his body went rigid, the soldier trying to reassert control, but it was to no avail.
"And... thank you Captain."
Vega looked up, surprised. "For what?" she asked.
But Malik was already gone.