Llannaeia did as the voice commanded. She was in no mood for arguing.
“Where are we going”?
The creature turned and headed for the door. Llannaeia took a second to stretch before following. They set off in silence. Around the corner, she was surprised find other members of the Rimor’s crew being herded single file by their hosts.
Llannaeia joined the back of the line. The crew member in front looked over his shoulder to her. “Do you have any idea what the fuck is going on”?
“The fuck if I know”.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.
“You’re not the only one”.
The line grew longer as more were added to it. Curiously, Llannaeia never noticed any of them until they’d already joined the line, as if having appeared from nowhere. She tried looking for Guhn and Jace but they were nowhere to be seen. There was no sign of the Chancellor either. They arrived at an area that looked like only a bigger version of the cell she’d been languishing in for the past few days, empty save for a row of long, metal cylinders. It took a couple moments to realize: ships; it’s a hangar, only it looked like no hangar she’d ever been in. Where were the bright lights and machines? The other vehicles and storage containers? Where were the engineers and technicians hard at work on fighters and transports? Now Llannaeia was convinced the ship was inside her head and distorting the world around her. Something was keeping her from seeing her environment for what it really was. There should have been pilots getting ready to head out on patrol and custodians keeping the place tidy, but there was nothing. The place was bare, and, apart from them, deserted. Even the ships looked nothing like anything she’d seen before, their dark blue surfaces devoid of features.
They were divided between the craft whose upper halves flipped up to reveal the compartments within and climbed inside. As soon as they sat down, they found they couldn’t move a muscle. The seats must have had gravity binders built into them. Llannaeia wasn’t surprised; their hosts still had no reason to trust them though she couldn’t help but think the situation might be a little less tense if they just told them what was happening instead of herding them around like cattle.
Some of the escorts climbed aboard and the doors swung down. The aliens stood like statues but Llannaeia knew they were keeping a close eye on them. She didn’t hear or feel a thing, nothing to indicate whether or not they’d taken off yet. They must have arrived at their destination. That was the only reason she could think of for why they were being moved. She didn’t particularly care as long it meant a change of scenery.
“What have you done with our ship”? Llannaeia didn’t expect an answer but couldn’t contain her frustration. “Hey! Can’t you just answer the fucking question”?
The creature closest looked to her. “Your vessel will be held aboard our own until you leave”.
“Thank you”. Llannaeia almost couldn’t believe her anger paid off.
They spent the rest of the journey in silence. Llannaeia passed the time imagining the kind of world that awaited them. She pictured skyscrapers floating above the ground, changing their shapes throughout the day, and trees that reached past the clouds, or maybe even an entire planet covered by oceans, its cities situated thousands of leagues beneath the waves.
The compartment opened and a warm glow seeped in, like from an evening sun. That was different. They could move again, and then were being ordered out of the craft. Llannaeia stepped into the light and was relieved find her surroundings like nothing she’d seen so far. These walls and floors were made from a wet-looking, yellowy-brown stone, and carved with intricate markings and glyphs. Everywhere Llannaeia looked, she saw them. They looked like lettering. The opening at the end was covered by a purple energy field that obscured everything beyond it. It seemed their perceptions were no longer being distorted. She could see what appeared to be another hangar in its entirety, and not just a featureless version of it. There were other ships sitting in their berths, and even members of staff going about their duties. They were dressed similarly to the escorts except their suits were orange. Some worked on the ships while others carried tools and materials about, all acting oblivious to their human visitors.
Once they were out of the transports, it was back to being herded around like cattle for the slaughter. Llannaeia looked around for the Chancellor, Guhn and Jace but they remained elusive. That wasn’t a surprise; the crew of the Rimor numbered close to four hundred. They were shepherded into a tunnel whose walls, floor and ceiling even were littered with the same symbols as the hangar. Llannaeia couldn’t help but be drawn to them though it was impossible to get a good look with so many people around her. She was reminded, uncomfortably, of the club in Auremeb; so many people so close together, bumping and rubbing against her. It wasn’t a good place to be.
They came out in another large area, not as wide as the hangar but taller, so tall Llannaeia couldn’t see the ceiling even when she tilted her head all the way back. Rows of doors extended along its walls and, above, metal walkways stretched around the perimeter; a cellblock. As the crowd thinned, Llannaeia was directed to the stairs leading to the upper levels. There were no handrails. She’d never been afraid of heights, but, as she climbed the eighth flight, Llannaeia experienced a few nervous flutters.
That was the last flight before she was shown to her cell. The world outside seemed to vanish with the closing of the door. Inside was gloomy to say the least. All she had for furniture a was stone slab and a hole in the floor. Fucking brilliant.
Llannaeia lay down on the slab. Getting anything close to decent sleep was next to impossible. She guessed she was in for another painfully long wait. It didn’t take long to give up on trying to sleep. Llannaeia then took to pacing. These walls and floors didn’t have the strange markings on them. She didn’t even have them to provide refuge from the boredom. Keeping track of time was all but impossible. In there, one hour could have been ten. Llannaeia soon found herself thinking of things she’d rather not have. Most of her time was spent reliving her and Iona’s last conversation, every harsh thing she said, every word a sharpened blade meant to cut as deep as possible. How could she speak to her the way she did? What kind of person said those things? She could only imagine what their parents would say if they knew, how ashamed they would be, even more so than she was herself.
Iona. Please forgive me.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Llannaeia felt tears forming. She was about to let them escape when the sound of screeching metal almost made her hit the ceiling. The door was open now, most of the light from outside blocked by one of their captors clad in its black rubbery suit.
“What the fuck do you want”? Llannaeia quickly wiped her eyes. The creature didn’t speak . She was about to hurl more obscenities when the Chancellor appeared, forcing her to bite her tongue.
The Chancellor turned to the guard. “Thank you”. The door slammed shut and they were left alone. “Hello Captain”.
“How are you holding up”?
There were many things Llannaeia wanted to say but decided against. “About as well as can be expected”.
The Chancellor smiled. “This isn’t exactly ideal treatment for visiting dignitaries, is it”?
“It’s not the worst hospitality I’ve experienced. What can I do for you, Madam Chancellor”?
“Might I sit”?
The Chancellor sat down on the slab. Llannaeia stayed standing. “I was just informed that the Emperor has granted me an audience. They are going to take me to him as soon as I am ready. They initially wanted me to go alone but, after some discussion, they have allowed a small party of companions to accompany me. I would like you to be one of them”.
That was a surprise. “Why… if you don’t mind me asking”.
“Not at all. I was impressed with the way you handled yourself back on the ship, and I have heard many things about you during our journey. Your comrades say you are strong, tenacious and reliable. You are competent, steadfast, and unafraid to speak your mind. That’s the kind of person I would want at my side for something like this. But only if you want to, of course”.
“Of course I will. I’m honoured that you would ask me to accompany you”.
“Excellent. I’m glad to hear that”.
“Who else will be coming with us”?
“I’m going to ask Captain Oross along”. Llannaeia’s heart sank when she heard that. “My assistant, Toma, also, and my bodyguards, and, finally, I want to bring a couple marines. I was hoping you would be able to recommend some of your people”.
There were many names Llannaeia could have put forward but two stuck out in particular. “Sergeant Runnell, and Private Thelton”.
The Chancellor nodded. “Very well, Captain. If that is your recommendation, we’ll bring them”.
Guhn was, without a doubt, a good choice, just as strong and capable as her, if not more so. Jace on the other hand, not so much. Llannaeia wasn’t sure why she put his name forward. He was competent for sure but possessed of a soft heart. He wasn’t made for the military, and definitely not for entering a world as harsh and alien as the one they were about to. But he was loyal, and, when the situation called for it, able to act like a good soldier.
“Forgive me, Madam Chancellor, but I must ask, don’t you think bringing so many people might make you look weak”?
“I have considered that, Captain. But you also have to consider what it is we’re walking into. I’m sure the only reason the Emperor has agreed to speak with me is for his own amusement and that he fully intends to reject my proposal. He will have his guard up. But if I make myself look a little weak before him he might just lower it. He will be more likely to underestimate me and that will increase our chances of success”.
That made sense. The door opened again and then they were on their way back to the hangar. As they were led from the cellblock, Llannaeia thought about the things the Chancellor said about her. Indeed, she was all of those things but, clearly, The Chancellor didn’t have the full story. Llannaeia doubted she would have been brought along if she did. The things she’d seen and done would have shocked even the hardest officers and commanders. She considered coming clean but decided against it, not wishing to risk the Chancellor changing her mind. Right now, Llannaeia longed for nothing more than to get away from that cell.
The hangar was just as busy as when they left it. They were led to a teardrop-shaped craft with a clear top that showed the cockpit inside. Llannaeia didn’t see any place for the engine, nor any thrusters. They waited there while the rest of their party was retrieved. Captain Oross was first to arrive, much to Llannaeia’s disappointment. He looked well, if a little confused. Llannaeia avoided his eye as he approached. The Chancellor waited until everyone was present before she explained what was happening. The reactions ranged from surprise to nervousness to barely anything at all in the case of her bodyguards.
It was time to begin their journey to see the Emperor. The top of the craft opened and they climbed inside along with the escorts. There were no controls or steering devices as far as Llannaeia could see. The top closed and they began to rise. They heard and felt nothing. The craft rose silently before accelerating toward the purple energy field. Once they passed through, Llannaeia expected to get her first proper look at the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld. Instead, she saw only turquoise. No buildings or trees, not even the sun or the sky, just the turquoise mist that obscured everything around them. Llannaeia was about to give up on seeing anything remotely interesting or breath-taking. Then the fog disappeared. She hadn’t realized they’d been travelling upwards. Llannaeia was almost blinded as they cleared the fog, the sun so intense it seemed the sky itself was on fire. They were soaring above a megalopolis that was mostly hidden beneath the pea soup fog so only the tips of the pointed spires poked through like stone spines. It looked to stretch for miles though they could only see so far before their view was blocked by the colossal structure that seemed so close and yet so far away. It looked like a wall, metallic grey but bigger than any Llannaeia had ever seen, reaching to the sky and melting into the orange, the same lengthwise, fading into the distance with no ends in sight.
“What the fuck is that”? Jace gasped.
“Hutreeva”, the Chancellor replied.
“I saw it before they brought me to the hangar”.
“What the fuck is it”?
“You’re speaking to the Chancellor, Private”, Llannaeia hissed.
“Oh… of course. My apologies, Chancellor”.
“It’s quite alright, Private. I think we’re all a bit shaken by everything we’ve seen”. The Chancellor went on to explain what this “Hutreeva” thing was though Llannaeia didn’t really understand. Apparently, most Aq Quhn Ran Asten throughout their empire lived on that thing and their other worlds at the same time, their minds beamed across space. She had no idea how that worked.
The craft took a nosedive and they were engulfed again. They were now zipping between the spires. Every once in a while, Llannaeia would catch a glimpse of the side of a building. The mood inside the craft was awkward and tense, but mostly just awkward, the humans packed like sardines with their escorts sitting around them, silently watching from beneath their helmets.
“This is messed up”, Jace muttered
“Will you just relax”? Llannaeia whispered.
“How the fuck can anyone relax at a time like this”?
“Just be thankful you’re out of your cell, Private”, Guhn growled. “And mind your language in front of your superiors”.
“You think all this is for real? How do we know they’re not gonna kill us all as soon as we step out of this thing”? Llannaeia was fast regretting recommending Jace.
“Shut your mouth, Private”, Captain Oross cut in. “We’re here at the request of the Chancellor to provide support and so far you’ve done a pretty poor job. Pull yourself together”.
“Yes Captain”. Jace said no more.
“Besides, If they were going to kill us they would have done it long before we got this far”.
They came to a halt and the craft began to descend. Everything went black, except for above where they could still see the fog in a perfect circle. They were going down a hole, the opening getting smaller until it was just a dot. Llannaeia couldn’t even see Guhn or the Chancellor’s second bodyguard on either side of her. They came out in yet another hangar. It looked almost exactly the same as the one they’d just come from.
“What is this place”? Llannaeia asked.
“The palace of the Emperor”.
They touched down and disembarked. An entire legion of the black-suited creatures awaited them. The one at the front stepped forward, nothing about his appearance to distinguish him from the others. “You will come with us”.
The Chancellor answered with a nod and they were led into another dim and narrow tunnel. Llannaeia could barely see where she was going. The lanterns sticking out of the walls did the bare minimum. There were more of the strange symbols here. Llannaeia guessed they had something to do with their hosts’ religion. To her, they were little more than a mess of lines and shapes. She was near the front of the line, behind only the Chancellor and their guide. It was so dark she only noticed they’d stopped about a millisecond before it was too late. The doors in front parted to reveal the inside of an elevator. The shuttle ride had been awkward but the elevator was downright unpleasant. They were stuffed inside with almost a dozen aliens, leaving little in the way of personal space. The tight squeeze was made all the more uncomfortable by the distrustful eyes trained on them every second of the way.
The doors parted again and they stepped into a hallway with brown walls and pillars painted blood orange red by the torchlight. Llannaeia guessed they were now within the palace itself. Next came a curved corridor that didn’t let them see more than a few metres ahead. More alien writing covered its moist-looking walls, this time accompanied by pictures. At first, Llannaeia took the figures to be the Aq Quhn Ran Asten, but then realized were anything but. They had the same bodies but their heads were square with what looked like antlers coming from them and what appeared to be rays of sunlight or energy projected from their hands. Knelt before them were their hosts, apparently worshipping the other beings, like gods. Llannaeia knew it was irrelevant, but she couldn’t resist any longer.
She pointed to one of the pictures. “What are these”?
The group came to a stop. There was an awkward silence. Llannaeia felt uneasy, worried she’d offended their hosts. “Our kind expressing their eternal gratitude to the Creators for the gift they have given us”.
“The gift of life”. One of the escorts stepped forward. “The Creators made us and gave us life so that we could inherit their world and maintain it in their stead”.
“You believe that”? Llannaeia couldn’t fathom how a race so advanced could believe such bullshit.
“It is written in the scriptures”. The creature gestured to the wall. “So it must be so”. Llannaeia realized the meaning of the symbols though she could hardly believe it. These things are insane. Even the craziest zealots back home weren’t anywhere near as fanatical as them, not crazy enough to plaster their beliefs over almost every single wall and floor, at least. Llannaeia said no more, remembering how protective their hosts were of their beliefs, and on they went.
The corridor ended at a hallway like the one it led from. Llannaeia almost believed they’d walked in a circle, until she saw the archway. Beyond it lay the biggest room yet, the red walls curving up from the ground and becoming the ceiling thousands of feet above, every inch carved with more delusional ravings. It was mostly empty, nothing but the tall, trapezoidal rock at the centre and the curved benches around it. Their occupants turned in eerie unison, like flowers turning to the sun. These looked different to the creatures they’d seen so far. Their heads were bigger, and instead of the one-piece suits, they wore long, creamy white robes. Their eyes remained fixed on the humans at all times, heads turning in sync as they passed. Llannaeia felt the hostility in their glares. They weren’t welcome here.
They were stopped a few feet from the bottom of the trapezoid. Everyone looked to the top where, staring back with wide, emotionless eyes, sat the Emperor of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. Even from so far away, Llannaeia could see him quite clearly. He looked the same as the ones in the benches, even wearing the same robes.
Silence followed, the humans staring up at the big-headed creature some fifty feet above. Llannaeia felt the alien eyes drilling into them from behind, no doubt curious about the beings that had come stumbling into their midst. The silence persisted. Llannaeia wondered if the Emperor was waiting for the Chancellor to speak first.
“Indeed, these are most uncertain and treacherous times”, the deep voice boomed inside her head. Llannaeia had no doubt as to whom it belonged. “Never in the history of my kind has such strange and primitive creatures stood in this holiest of holy places. But now they come with their heads held high to ask something of me”. Judging by their expressions, the rest of their party were hearing the voice also.
The Chancellor took a step forward. “I take it you are the leader of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten”?
“I am Jakafur, Emperor of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten and sacred instrument of the Creators, and you need not speak so loudly. I can hear you perfectly well from here”. For a moment, Llannaeia heard nothing, inside or out. “I was most surprised to learn that the armada had apprehended humans within our dominion, but imagine my surprise when I learned that one of their highest leaders was among them and wished an audience with me. Such a thing has never occurred in the history of our kind. It would be foolish not to find out why it has now. So now I ask, what is it that you want? Why do you desecrate this holy ground with your presence”?
The Chancellor took a breath. “It is a great pleasure to finally meet you, Emperor. I am Marsa Calsen, Chancellor of the United Galactic Confederacy’s Human Sovereignty. I have come on behalf of the Executive Council, the leaders of the Confederacy, to seek aid from you and your people in a time of great crisis for mine”. She was answered with a hail of chattering from the aliens in the benches. Over her shoulder, Llannaeia watched the white robes talking among themselves. Their snarling, clicking and grunting echoed through the atrium. The Emperor waved a big, spindly hand, and there was silence again.
“And why do you come to me for the help you seek”?
“Because your kind possess power unlike anything else in the galaxy. Already we have seen technology beyond anything we have in the Confederacy. We don’t know a great deal about your kind but we know that your empire is the most widespread with a population greater than all others combined. And we also know that you possess weapons whose powers are unmatched by anything developed by our own species and others. We need that power now more than ever. The survival of the Confederacy and its people depend on it”.
The Emperor’s eyes betrayed nothing. “The troubles of you primitives are of no concern to us”.
“No, they’re not. But if you don’t listen they soon might be”. There came another uproar from the white robes. They seemed offended, as if the mere thought of their kind being concerned with anything related to those they considered primitive was an insult.
The Chancellor was forced to fight to be heard over the furore. “Tensions between the Confederacy and the Imperium are at an all-time high. Every day war between our two sides becomes more likely. If, or rather when, it happens, countless people will die and many worlds will be lost”.
With another wave of the Emperor’s hand, silence was restored. “We care not whether your kinds live or die. This is your battle, not ours”. There were cheers from some of the white robes.
The Chancellor looked worried. “But it soon might be. We know your kind has been watching ours for centuries. The Confederacy, the Imperium, the FPR, the Free States. We know you know everything about us, and that means you know what the ultimate goal of the Imperium and its leader is: to conquer the universe and dominate everything within. The Confederacy won’t stand a chance in the coming war with the Imperium and, when it falls, they will come for you next”.
What sounded like laughter erupted from behind. It was hardly surprising the Aq Quhn Ran Asten would believe themselves to be untouchable. From what they’d seen so far, that seemed like a somewhat justified attitude.
“You primitives all think you are different from one another. But you are not. You are correct; my kind has observed yours for a very long time and we have learned much. We know of your greed and your ignorance and your pride, your obsession with yourselves and your riches, your lack of regard for that which gives you life. Which leaders you follow is irrelevant. Your Confederacy and your Imperium are one and the same. Your technology is primitive, your will is feeble and your people are undisciplined. You are of no threat to us”.
The Chancellor hesitated, the cracks in her exterior widening. “Your species is powerful, but the Imperium is stronger than you think. Even if you defeat them, the war will be costly for you and your people. The Imperator is tenacious. He will not back down without a fight. There will be death and destruction like nothing your kind has ever experienced and you will lose so much. But if there is an alliance between your species and the Confederacy, we can stand together against the Imperium and prevent such loss. So much needless suffering could be avoided if we set aside our differences now, before it is too late”.
The Emperor made a sound that resembled a sneer. “You presume to tell me of my kind when you know so little of your own. You have no knowledge of what we have endured and conquered. There will be no alliance. The lives of you ignorant troglodytes mean nothing to us. We care not if you live or die, and when your Imperium comes we will be waiting and we will send them running back into their space, just as we did the lizard people before them”.
The Chancellor looked to the ground and sighed, apparently having exhausted every strategy at her disposal. That couldn’t be it. She couldn’t be giving up so easy. Llannaeia couldn’t believe it. She of all people couldn’t have expected to get what she wanted so easily, that the Emperor would set aside all of his species’ distrust and hostility just because she asked. The white robes were chattering behind them, probably mocking the “weak and feeble” female who thought she could walk in there and bend the will of the Emperor. Llannaeia wouldn’t let them get away with that, and she wouldn’t let them walk away empty-handed.
“Then what the fuck did you bring us here for then? If you don’t want anything to do with us, why didn’t you just kill us when we first arrived”? Llannaeia could see the Chancellor out the corner of her eye, and the look of horror on her face.
The Emperor leaned forward. “And who might you be”?
“This is Captain Llannaeia Aventius”, the Chancellor answered. “A loyal soldier of the Confederacy and one of my companions on this mission”.
“A soldier? A soldier who speaks without its commander’s permission. Tell me, is it a habit of yours to treat your betters with such dishonour”?
“No. I just don’t appreciate being dicked around”.
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed. He growled. “Myself and my people were merely curious as to what petty trivialities you primitives would come to lay at our feet”.
“I don’t think so. You said it yourself. You know everything about us, our language, our culture, our technology. You already knew about us and the Imperium. You knew we were coming, and why, and you know the Imperium is a threat to everything, including you and your people”.
“We will stand victorious against your Imperium and any other threat from your space! The empire of our creators will not be defeated, not by your Imperium and not by anything else”.
The creators? Llannaeia saw an angle. “Maybe not. But war with the Imperium will never be a good thing for you. If you didn’t like it when one ship entered your territory, just imagine when thousands come. The Imperium will throw everything it’s got at you. All those worlds you let no one but your own people set foot on? All that sacred ground? They’ll be landing troops on them, and not just soldiers, tanks, artillery, and mechs too. They’ll desecrate everything you worship. They’ll burn your temples and slaughter your people, smash all your relics and every wall you covered with your beliefs. They wouldn’t even have to land. They could just nuke it all from orbit. They’ll destroy everything that crawls across your worlds. Even if you beat them, how many do you think you’ll lose before you do? Hundreds? Thousands? You really want to risk all that? Is that what your creators would have wanted”?
A wave of screams crashed through atrium. Llannaeia looked over her shoulder to see many of the white robes standing up and shouting in her direction. Their escorts stepped closer, looking ready to pounce on her. She’d really pissed them off. That was her intention. The Emperor himself stood up. “You are not worthy to speak of the creators! What arrogance of such feeble-minded beasts to stand in their halls and presume to know their will. You know nothing of the creators”!
“They gave you their empire to look after, didn’t they? How’d you think they’d feel if they saw it burning? If they are looking down on you right now, what do you think they’d say if you let the Imperium come and destroy it all? I think they’d be pretty pissed off, don’t you”? The shouting grew louder. She looked set to start a riot. “But if you join us now, we can stop the Imperium before they come here. Your people and mine wouldn’t have to suffer. With our combined forces we could get the drop on them and destroy them before they ever attack. They wouldn’t stand a chance against both our sides. Not only that, but there’s many there who hate them just as much as you and I. They would rise up and join us. There’s no way we could lose”.
Llannaeia had ran out of things to say but her audience still had plenty. The Chancellor was staring at her, bottom lip practically touching the floor. Despite the distance between them, Llannaeia noticed a change in the Emperor’s expression. She no longer saw contempt in his eyes, but rather consideration, maybe even a little respect. The shouting continued but now seemed directed at the Emperor himself. Llannaeia didn’t need to know what they were saying to understand. Clearly they didn’t approve of what she proposed, and were worried their leader had been swayed.
The Emperor lost his temper, raging at the white robes in their own language. He then seemed to calm down and beckoned a few of them forward. They mostly ignored the humans as they passed, gathering around the steps and looking up at their leader as they held their own incomprehensible discussion. Llannaeia listened carefully. The Emperor was at least somewhat swayed by her words. He was discussing with the white robes whether they should accept her proposal. She guessed they were advisors of some sort. They were doing all they could to make him see things their way. He then waved them off and they returned to the benches. Then he called the guards over. All they could do was wait.
“You have given me much to consider, human. You and your companions will remain here until the necessary discussions have been concluded”.
“How long will that take”? the Chancellor asked. “You must understand that time is of the essence”.
“As long as I say”. The Emperor gave a command and the humans were being ushered from the atrium. Llannaeia couldn’t quite believe what just happened. A lowly and damaged marine who faced down the leader of the most powerful species in the galaxy and convinced him to listen? That was a turn she’d never envisioned this mission taking. She’d never been one for optimism, but it was all Llannaeia could think about on their way to wherever they were going next.