Alliances are forged and shattered, gods rise and fall, and faith is destroyed and reclaimed. The resulting chain reaction is shattering empires all across Aeron, and eventually forces a small group of people to come together and figure out exactly how one goes about stopping a force as old as the galaxy itself using three ships, a few stones and some pieces of paper.
For one month after receiving it, she believed that the box her brother was holding contained the pinnacle of her life’s work and the culmination of a galaxy’s faith. After the month was over, she refused to admit she had been wrong until conducting exhaustive research, and then did what any good scientist would do – sought help and answers. And after all that happened, despite losing her god, Liele never lost her faith.
She blinked. “This is from…”
“The Taren Empire, yes,” her brother nodded. “Are you just going to stand there staring at this box, or are you going to go upstairs and open it, watch the hologram, come back downstairs straight afterwards and repeat everything that it said to you?” He grinned at her, wrinkling the fur along his short, feline snout, and despite herself, Liele had to smile back.
“Alright. Wish me luck.”
“You won’t need it, genius.’ Yadis handed the box over. It was matte black with a small switch and gold lettering printed on the top. “If you’re not accepted- “
Liele’s grip on the box tightened.
“IF, hypothetically, you’re not accepted, the Tarens’ training facility just has incredibly bad taste in new recruits. But you will have be accepted. Go upstairs, watch your message, and tell me everything it says. And don’t look so stressed; it’ll be fine.”
Liele took a deep breath and hugged her little brother tightly, leaning against him for a moment. Despite being three years younger, Yadis was already taller than his sister, and his blue-black fur had already replaced the grey he had shed in early adolescence. They stayed like that in the hallway of the Emmersia Mansion for some time, both wondering how many more days they had before Liele would have to leave.
“I’ll go and tell Mum and Dad that you got onto the programme.” Yadis eventually broke away, moving towards a cylindrical door that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. “They’re in the second lounge on the third floor. I’ll see you there.”
“Yadis, you could just use the stairs instead of the conveyor chutes. They’re only two floors above us. Please don’t tell them anything yet; I don’t even know if I’ve got a place.”
“Of course you’ve got a place! Why else would they have sent you a message? Just go and watch it, and then come and find me with them. Okay?”
The door slid shut before Liele had a chance to reply.
Liele’s feet made a soft, thudding rhythm on the thick rugs as she hurried through the mansion. Slightly taller than the average Aspelin, she was covered in tawny fur right down to the tips of the two long, flat ears trailing down her back, and she pushed one behind her head as she moved, trailing her fingers through its short, silky fur; a habit she had picked up from her older sister. The pale brown fur always made her feel somewhat dirty when walking on such white carpeting. Corridor after corridor of it, step after step after step. Ordinarily, Liele would have used a chute as Yadis had done to reach her bedroom on the seventh floor, but she preferred to get a little exercise when feeling this tense. It helped to clear her mind, and she was only slightly short of breath as she finally trotted into her bedroom. She tapped a button on the wall to remove the window covers and activate the lights, taking in three deep breaths as the room was illuminated. The minimalistic colour scheme – gold, cream and taupe – was always something of a respite after the opulent décor that lined every single corridor in her parents’ mansion.
Liele set her box on a desk and sat down. She peered down at the lid, reading the golden words printed there.
It was hers.
Focus. Liele flicked the switch on the box and lifted a small hologram disc out from within. Her brown fur seemed to be duller than usual when held against the discus, coloured a shining turquoise – the identification colour of the Taren Empire. A red band of light circling the middle indicated that its recorded message had not yet been viewed. Liele briefly experienced the unnerving sensation of holding her life’s purpose in her hands. She screwed her eyes tightly shut for a second, then opened them wide, put the hologram disc beside its box, and tapped it twice.
The edges of the disc glowed, their bright light projecting the emblem of the Taren Empire above the metal shell. Its turquoise paint glowed a dark violet as the red light above it struck the casing. The emblem rotated slowly, suspended in the air for a moment before replaced with a small projection of a Taren – he had smooth skin with a faintly marbled pattern, thinly-webbed fingers and, unlike the Aspelins’ two thin, flat ears, many longer and thinner tendrils covering the back of his head. He was dressed in a highly decorated military uniform.
“Miss Liele Emmersia, I am Commander Ambith Cobive, the chief recruiter of new Captains in the Taren Empire. As you will undoubtedly recall, the final application exams for our training programme were completed by you and all other applicants in the empires of the Westexia Alliance precisely two months ago."
Even as a hologram recording, Liele felt the Commander's gaze intensify as he recited the next few sentences. Her eyes were fixed onto his as the red light glistened on her fur.
"After reviewing this year’s entire set of applications, you stood out to Eyde Katia and I as the applicant from the Aspelin Empire with the strongest potential as a future Captain.”
Liele’s small claws made slight scratches in the woodwork as she gripped her desk. The Eyde of the Taren Empire oversaw the applications herself?
I was accepted.
“I am offering you a position in our programme as one of a select few candidates from an empire other than the Taren. Unless you decline this offer, a ship will arrive to retrieve you from your current residence in two days’ time, taking you to our training facility on the planet Stellexis." The Commander nodded. “May Spia guide you in making your final decision.”
Ambith’s figure flickered away, the hologram container returned from violet to turquoise, and its edges faded from red to green.
Liele’s eyes were still fixated where Commander Ambith’s had been. Her mind felt strangely blank; a soft blur of incomprehensible thoughts. In a daze, she gazed out of her window, staring over the gardens and beyond to the multitude of cities dotting planet Olexia, the homeworld of the Aspelin Empire. The silver towers glittered above the green lawns and bright, meticulously-tended flowering plants in the sunlight. This view was one of the advantages of a bedroom on the seventh storey.
Leaving this behind… Yadis, my parents, my home… Is this what I want? Now it’s become a reality?
Of course, she really already knew the answer.
If it means a place on a Captain training programme, my chance to research the lessons of Spia over the entire Westexia Alliance - yes. I have to do this. I’ve always wanted, needed, to do this.
All the tests and training and examinations. The stress, the fears of rejection... all worth it. She would be on a ship to Stellexis in two days’ time. Just two days.
I've done it.
Liele dropped to her knees on the carpet and clenched one balled fist tightly in her other hand. Other than the subtle, soothing hum of the lights around the walls, the room was silent.
"Spia above us,” the Aspelin muttered, unsure whether she was speaking in prayer or in exasperation. She sighed quietly. “Spia, I thank you for this. For the strength and the motivation to work as hard as I have done, and for rewarding me with all I’ve ever wanted to come of my efforts. My duty as a Captain will be to spread your teachings across the entire Westexia Alliance.” Liele smiled and closed her eyes. Since early childhood, she had felt the desire to expand her mind and follow the teachings of Spia, and so had devoted her life to her studies.
“Spia, my duty has always been to learn of your teachings and to share my knowledge of them with others,” Liele finished. “As I begin this new stage of the life that you granted me, I will not fail you. Let it be as you will.”
The Aspelin glanced over at her bed, and suddenly collapsed face-down onto the white covers before fully realising that she had stood. She firmly believed that, if given the right training, she could help the entirety of the Westexia Alliance to discover more about Spia. The entity, its teachings, even its origins. Anything that would help to further the education and development of the Alliance. Spia was the embodiment of basic moral values – selflessness, acting honourably, acknowledging the equality of all races in the Aeron Galaxy – and their god’s teachings had formed the foundations that initially brought the five empires of the now-ancient Westexia Alliance together. And there was no better way of learning of these teachings this than becoming a Captain. Her only problem was that the training facility was on Stellexis. So far from home on Olexia…
“Is this just emotional exhaustion I’m seeing here, or did you just decide to take a nap after climbing all those stairs instead of using the chute like any normal person would?”
Liele jumped and sat up amidst a tangle of blankets and cushions to see her brother grinning at her.
“Yadis! How long were you there for? You said you’d wait in the lounge for me!”
Yadis snickered as the doors of the conveyor chute slid shut behind him.
“Sorry to make you jump like that. But I told you that you’d be accepted, didn’t I?” His eyes were full of happiness at Liele’s achievement, and already beginning to show a feeling of loneliness and loss at her inevitable departure. Liele’s eyes dropped to the carpet, but she looked back up at Yadis almost immediately, forcing herself to meet his gaze. It's the least I can do. Now that I'm leaving him.
"I'm… sorry. You know how much I want this; how much I need to do this." Liele's fingers clenched. Better my hands than the desk, she thought grimly, feeling her short claws digging into her palms. "I don't want to leave you. You're the best friend that I have ever had. I can't- "
"Liele, we've both talked about this happening for years.” Yadis interrupted, staring at her incredulously. “Being a Captain has always been your dream. And now it's a reality. Of course I'll miss you, and you’ll miss me. But, to be honest, we both expected this. With the amount of work you've put into your application over these last few years, how could the Taren Empire not accept you onto their training programme? One day, Liele, you're going to be the best Captain in the whole Westexia Alliance!" He laughed. "And so I've been ready and waiting for this to happen. Ah, don't look so upset," Yadis smiled, noticing his sister’s eyes suddenly filling with tears. "You shouldn't be getting so emotional about this. In fact, you should be totally prepared for it. And do you know why that is?"
Liele sighed. "Why?"
"Aw, Liele, you should know this by now. It's because… you should never underestimate any circumstance..." Yadis sniggered. Liele cuffed him on the ear, drawing a startled squeak and another laugh from her brother. "That hurt!"
"Good! I'm not even at the facility on Stellexis yet, and you're already trying to drill that into my mind!"
"Well, it’s important for all Captains to know the official mottos by heart, isn’t it? And you’re always lecturing me with that one, so I'm just returning the favour. Think of it as me helping you with your training!"
Liele laughed again, and pulled Yadis into a tight hug. "So, planet Stellexis, huh?” he mumbled. “Apparently, most of the Taren Empire’s star systems are amazing, but their home planet is the best. Better scenery than any other Empire in Westexia, from what I’ve heard. Not that I’ve had the chance to see anything of them before…”
"Yadis, you're going to explore the whole of Westexia one day, so you can come and visit me on Stellexis in the training facility. And you’ll go and see every other Empire besides us Aspelins and the Taren there. Right?” Liele’s little brother beamed down at her.
"I can dream, huh?"
"It will happen. I promise."
Yadis took a deep breath. "Alright. Come and find in a few minutes with Mum and Dad. This time, I promise to be in the lounge with them. I'm sure you have a few things to sort out right now, so don't rush yourself."
"I won't," Liele promised. "I need to send messages to my friends, pack my bags, clean up before I leave - and I have to send a hologram container to Audity."
"You're right; I haven’t made any contact with her in weeks. First Audity goes off to the Deondran Empire and moves in with her fiancée, and now you’re going to the Taren Empire to become a Captain… I would have thought that both of my sisters leaving home would be amazing, but apparently not.”
Liele stared at him flatly.
“I was joking. I’ll miss you both. Do you think I can persuade Mum and Dad to let me have your room while you’re away?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. Yes. You’re right,” Yadis said quickly. “I’ll record a message for Audity as well. In fact, I'll do that now. I’ll be in the lounge in five minutes." Yadis headed for the door, but spun around before he left, still grinning.
"Well done, Liele."
The door glided shut behind him, leaving Yadis a blurred black shape behind the frosted glass, before he raced off down the corridor.
Liele watched the empty space where Yadis had been for a moment, and then collapsed back onto her bed. She leapt up again a second later and threw open her wardrobe doors. She pulled her clothes from their hangers and began carefully organising them into piles – boots, cloaks, formal attire, her old flight uniform... they would be ready to pack after she explained the situation to her parents. The next two days would be busy, so as Yadis had reminded her, she needed to be prepared when the time came to leave.
Two more days. I need to start packing- No. Audity first.
Liele sat down heavily at her desk once more. Carefully shifting Commander Ambith’s hologram container to one side, she picked up a small, grey tablet from the back of the desk and tapped it. A keyboard lit up on the screen, and Liele paused, considering her words for a moment before tapping out the opening of her message. She knew what she had to write.
Yadis already felt alone.
He couldn’t record anything for Audity right now. His parents could wait in the lounge a little longer; Yadis had picked Liele’s box up from the delivery room, so they had no idea she had received her results yet, and it always took her a long time to find the right wording in her messages to Audity. He had a little time to himself. Yadis sighed, sitting on his bed and staring across the room to his favourite photograph of him and his sisters. Despite his countless similarities to his sister, Yadis had never really believed himself to share Liele’s flawless tenacity. He was the youngest of three, and soon to be the only heir to Lord Palentil and Lady Leta Emmersias’ fortune left on planet Olexia. Audity, the oldest, was to his right in the photograph, now living on planet Montawn and engaged to – of all the people – Edmas Aveja, the Heir to the entire Deondran Empire.
And Liele on his left, sharing Audity’s golden fur, and recently entering adulthood at twenty – four years younger than her sister, and three years older than Yadis. She was the middle child, and the most intelligent person that Yadis had ever met. The one person he had shared everything with, her lessons and advice, and in return supporting her when she took too much work upon herself, when she refused to let herself fail and studied for hours, days, weeks, months, until she reached her goal. Yadis smiled to himself, remembering the night before Liele’s final examinations for the training course she had now become a part of. He had to drag her from her desk and force her to sleep before her final test the next day; her hard work had now evidently paid off. And as far as he was concerned, Liele deserved no less.
But what would he do at home by himself? The Emmersia Mansion would seem bigger and emptier than ever now his best friend was leaving for a different star system in a different empire. He pinched his dark-furred snout and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.
“Liele, I’m going to miss you,” he mumbled to the empty room. “I know you’ll make Spia proud of you on your training. And I’ll visit whenever I can.”
A sudden realization pulled Yadis from his reverie.
“Yadis, you're going to explore the whole of Westexia one day, so you can come and visit me on Stellexis in the training facility. And you’ll go and see every other Empire besides us Aspelins and the Taren there. Right?”
The doors of the conveyor chute slid open, and Yadis stepped out into the hangar. Of course his parents could wait a little longer. Lord Palentil would never know that his son had been anywhere near his ships. Yadis walked slowly around some of the smaller ships, a small black blotch amidst the gleaming white walls and floor. The long lighting strips along the walls always made Yadis feel overly-exposed; the last thing he needed was his father knowing that he ever came down here. He ran his fingers over one ear, gazing at his reflection in the floor and listening to the echoes his boots made, the way they rippled around every ship in the building. The Aspelin considered each craft, taking his time, until the echoes eventually stopped and Yadis found himself standing before a small, sleek craft. It was painted a soft, dark blue; from his last few expeditions into the hangar, Yadis remembered that this one was minimally furnished, with an engine designed for short flights between nearby star systems. So there would be no furniture to remove; that would be helpful. And he could replace the engine easily. The difficulty would be in repainting over the blue before his father noticed.
Yadis circled the ship, briefly inspecting the back, the short wings, searching for any apparent damage before committing the make – ST3701, constructed on a nearby planet of the Aspelin Empire – to memory. Research the cheapest engines, print off colour charts – bright red would be a huge improvement on the navy paintwork – then perhaps order some cheap folding beds, check the water storage, and he would be set. Yadis had always wanted to explore the small region of the westernmost arm of the Aeron Galaxy, known to its residents as Westexia. He had never left the Aspelin Empire, and had heard so much about the other four empires forming the Westexia Alliance. Lord Palentil and Lady Leta had always said he was too young to leave home, but he had finished his formal education almost two years ago; there was evidently no reason to stay. And although Liele was leaving for Stellexis in the Taren Empire, on the other side of Westexia to where they were now, Yadis realised that his situation was already looking up. He smiled to himself as he trotted back to the chute doors. Liele wasn’t the only one who could do a little hard work to get where she wanted. Obviously, both of them had never felt more ready to leave.