In this short chapter, Michael Torres, the new First Officer of the I.F.S.(Imperial Freyan Starship) Pale Horse, meets the man he will be taking orders from.
I: First Impressions
Agartha: Planet Loki
“His name is Desmond. Desmond what? What is his last name?”
“As far as we can tell, Desmond.”
“Desmond Desmond?” Michael Torres shook his head. “His name is Desmond Desmond?”
The woman across the desk from him wore the expression reserved for those whose lot in life is to sit behind a desk and answer stupid questions. Michael didn’t like her. Her eyes looked more like a hawk’s than a woman’s.
“His name is Desmond. Just Desmond. Our records show no indication of any surname.”
“How can he not have a surname?” Michael demanded.
“I get paid to read forms, Commander Torres. I don’t have the time or inclination to reflect on them.” Michael had the feeling that if she had been smoking, she would have blown it in his face by this point. “If you want to investigate the etymology of his name, go ahead. He’s your CO. I have work to do.”
“Where am I supposed to find him?”
The woman handed him a piece of paper with an address.
“You may go, commander.”
Michael couldn’t believe it. He was being talked down to like an underling. Like a commoner.
Michael was a member of the Torres family, one of the oldest and wealthiest Houses in all the Freyan Empire. His family ruled an entire continent on the planet Odin, millions of people and thousands of soldiers answered to his father, Vigo.
It was common for members of the noble Houses to join the Imperial military, and thus set an example for the common folk to follow. They were invariably sent straight away to positions of authority, where they could send troops against Freya’s many enemies to die gloriously for the Empire. It brought much honor to your family.
Torres had been assigned, right out of the Freyan Officer Academy on the planet Tyr, to the battlecruiser IFS Pale Horse as second in command under this Captain Desmond. And where was Desmond to be found? Nowhere!
He looked at the note the unpleasant bureaucrat had given him. It was the address of some low end tavern down in the lower levels of Agartha. Why a respected ship captain would be there, or why he would want to meet his new first officer there, Torres couldn’t guess.
He was beginning to like this assignment less and less.
City of Aptera: Planet Tahara high orbit
Janis strode through the long corridor, his shoes clicking on the steel floor. The walls were lined by members of Aptera’s honor guard; they’re immaculate armor gleaming even in the dim light. With their ornate armor with high crested helmets, and the pikes in their hands, the soldiers looked positively archaic; more suited for public display than for actual duty. Janis knew however, how skilled each one of them was with the concealed pulse pistols they carried.
One false movement and they would vaporize him in an instant.
Although having lived for over six hundred years, Janis was more youthful looking than most Anasazi even half his age. His strawberry hair and beard was only just beginning to turn grey, and he walked with the strong confidence of a man in his prime. In his sky blue robes, signifying his rank as the Aedile of Aptera, Janis looked the very model of the Anasazi elite: elegant and powerful.
His eyes however, told another story. They were the cold grey orbs of an old soul, one who had seen much of life, and also much of death. There was no youth in those eyes, not anymore.
Janis reached the door at the end of the corridor, and after the routine security procedure with the guards, entered the chamber.
The Oracles were screaming.
There were five of them, their atrophied bodies hooked up to massive life support pods. They looked more like corpses than living Anasazi.
Oracles were Anasazi that had a particularly powerful connection to the magical eddies than ran throughout the galaxy. This was not a particularly uncommon trait: Janis himself was one of the most accomplished magic wielders alive. The Oracles however, so in tune with the supernatural force that they could barely survive on the physical world, had to spend their lives inside machines, sometimes for many thousands of years.
This attunement gave them vision of the near future, but made them incapable of understanding the past or the present. It was a horrible fate, worse than death, but the Oracles were too valuable and too rare to euthanize.
Moros, the Imperator of the Anasazi was waiting for him.
If Janis could be considered youthful looking for his age, than Moros was his exact opposite. His wizened, wrinkled features bore testament to his long life, over eight hundred years; longer than most Anasazi lived by a long shot. The demands of his position had aged him greatly.
Moros was anything but frail, however. One does not survive eight centuries without a great deal of inner fortitude, and Moros had much of that indeed. His magical prowess rivaled, perhaps even surpassed, that of Janis’s. His eyes burned with an inner fire.
Janis bowed and entered the room.
“The Oracles have been screaming for hours, Aedile. They have been unresponsive to our questioning.”
“What is your opinion on this, Imperator?”
Moros shook his head. “I don’t know. I believe it is something big, though. I have never seen the Oracles like this.”
Janis looked at the Oracle in front of him. The gaunt, hairless face was completely dead, aside from the mouth. Not even the eyes betrayed any emotion.
“Do you want me to look into it?” He said finally.
“Can you?” Moros asked.
“I am not sure. The Oracles do not have minds like mine or yours. There is no logic, no rhyme or reason to them. Simply pure, unbridled emotion. But I believe I can handle it.”
“Do it.” Moros said.
Janis opened the pod, its glass window sliding into the ceiling. The Oracle was female, a completely irrelevant fact considering her condition.
Janis gently touched his fingertips to her temples and worked his way into her mind.
Janis could not read minds. It was a common misconception that the mind was like a book, with its thoughts all written out. The mind was a chaotic and unfocused thing; any attempt to actually uncover individual thoughts would be impossible, there was just too much activity.
Janis could sense thoughts in a more broad sense, worming his way into a mind and empathizing with it. It was a rare talent, and a difficult one to master. Janis often felt disoriented after looking into someone’s mind, like he was somebody else.
He followed the Oracle’s stream of emotion into the unnatural realm where she resided, and looked into the uncertain future, seeing…
He screamed and fell to the floor, his body contorting from agony. Finally, he regained control of himself.
Moros helped him unsteadily get to his feet.
“What did you see?”
Janis struggled to find his voice. “There… there was a… It is difficult to explain. ”
“Try. What did you see?”
“I… I don’t,” Janis looked the Imperator in the eyes. “Something… something horrible is going to happen. Death on a scale unprecedented. I couldn’t figure out what it was, or when it would be, Moros. But it will be soon, I promise you that.”
“What do you propose we do?”
“I don’t know, Moros. I don’t know if there is anything we can do. Not against something of this magnitude.”
If Moros had any feeling, Janis could not tell. His face was unreadable. “We must set precautions. We cannot have this knowledge and refuse to act on it. I will summon the Council.” He started for the door.
“Moros.” Janis said.
“What is it?”
“The Oracles. We must kill them.”
Moros turned around to face him. His voice was livid. “Have you taken leave of your senses? The Oracles are one of our most valuable assets!”
“Moros, what I experienced was agonizing even for me.” Janis said, “The gods only know how tortuous it must be for them, whose minds are so focused on it. We must end their suffering immediately.”
“I will consider it.” Moros marched out of the chamber.
Janis’s entire body shuddered. He fell to his knees, breathing heavily. There was something else he had felt, barely noticeable. It had been so faint, he had almost disregarded it as merely a trick of his imagination.
There was a presence in the Oracle’s mind; a powerful emanation entirely separate from the vast source of horror. There was no way to know for sure, but Janis grew more and more certain.
The thing he had seen. It had been alive.
And it had looked back.
Lower Agartha was a cesspit.
That was Michael’s first thought. The dark black clouds above made the streets dark and shadowy, but this place would be dark even on a summer day, the sun blocked by the massive building reaching up toward the sky, where the wealthy and privileged citizens lived at the top, far above the filth of the lower level.
The word citizen didn’t seem to do the inhabitants of lower Agartha justice. Denizens would be a more appropriate term. Michael passed an emaciated lady of the night, who gestured rudely when he rebuffed her advances.
All around were the dregs of Freyan society; the mucus that oozed out from the Empire's proverbial sores. In the daytime these streets would have crowded with people going about their daily business, market stands selling all manner of "exotic" trinkets, con men with their various shell and card tricks, and the people who existed for them to take advantage of.
At night however, the only ones out were refugees from the outer, wartorn worlds of the Empire, prostitutes on the street corners, plague victims the hospitals had no room for, and anyone esle who couldn't find a place to stay for the night.
The streets were packed.
There was an odd stench to the place that Michael couldn’t place, but if he had to, would say it smelled like death and fornication and all around sin. Not for the first time, or the last, he cursed his luck for being under the command of a man who would set foot in a place like this.
He finally found the address on the note, a bar with pictures of nude women plastering the sign. He had expected as much. A woman stood outside, leaning against the wall and smoking a cigarette. A shotgun lay at her feet. She smiled at him. Michael tried to ignore her.
He pushed open the grimy door and ventured inside. The place was grey and drab, and there wasn’t an unclothed woman in sight, no matter what the sign said.
This was not a bar to have fun in. This was a place where sorrows came to drown.
The clientele were exactly the type Michael had imagined; large, hairy, smelly men and sallow faced chain smoking women. He sat down at the bar, after wiping down the stool first.
He looked at the man next to him on the left, laying face down and snoring loudly, drool coming from his mouth.
Another man sat to his right. He looked absolutely undersized next to the other men in the bar, although he was barely shorter than Torres himself. He was rather handsome, Michael had to admit. Under his black longcoat, Michael could tell he had an athletic build. His short black hair looked appropriate military length. If anyone in this bar was Desmond, it would be him.
But that couldn’t be, Michael thought. The man looked barely older than he was! Nobody that young could possibly have command over a battlecruiser.
One more thing Michael noticed: the man was pissing drunk. Two empty bottles lay in front of him as he unsteadily brought another one to his lips. It was a sad spectacle to say the least.
“Excuse me,” Michael said. “I’m looking for a Captain Desmond?”
If the man had comprehended a word he had said, Michael couldn’t tell. He opened his mouth to speak, and erupted into a fit of coughs.
Michael scowled. This was pointless! He had probably been sent here as some sort of hazing process.
As Michael stood up to leave, three heavily muscled men came through the door, shoving him out of the way. Michael felt the urge to shout at them, and put these commoners in their place for daring to shove a member of the nobility. His sense of self-preservation stepped in and stopped him.
“You!” the leader of the trio shouted at the young drunk.
The man turned around and tried to stand up, stumbled and fell to the ground in an unceremonious heap.
“He’s so tanked he can’t even stand!” one of the large men remarked.
“He ain’t gonna be able to when we’re done with him.” The leader said. “Take him outside.”
The apelike thugs went to grab him, when a loud bang interrupted the scene. The woman Michael had seen outside stood in the doorway, the barrel of her shotgun smoking and bits of plaster slowly raining on her from the newly made hole in the ceiling.
She was maybe as tall as Michael's shoulder, with a rather slender build, making the gun look even larger in her hands than it already was. Underneath her grey stocking cap, Michael could see light brown hair. Aside from the weapon in her hands and her wild looking green eyes, she was a mostly unremarkable woman. Michael found her strangely alluring.
“Step away from the idiot.” She said.
The thug leader chuckled. “You’d better watch where you point that thing, little girl. It might go off.” He looked at one of his lackeys. “Get her.”
The woman pointed the gun at him. “Don’t even think about it.”
The gorilla moved toward her, smiling. “You don’t have the guts to-“
The blast knocked him off his feet and opened a good sized hole in his chest.
“Get out of here.” She said, “I’m not going to ask again.”
The two remaining thugs shuffled out into the street. The woman pointed at Michael. “Help me with this big lug.”
Michael was in no mood to argue. Together, they picked the man up by his arms and supported him as he half walked, half stumbled outside, where he fell over and began to vomit.
“Wonderful.” She said, “You look terrible.”
“I suppose introductions are in order?” Michael said, “Who are you.”
She flashed him a grin. “Celine. Lieutenant Commander Celine. I guess I should be calling you sir.”
“And he is?” Michael asked with rising dread.
Celine kneeled down and patted the drunk on the back. “This fine specimen is the captain of our little ship.”