… from The Celestial Way:

Chapter 3
Beginning of the Way

Airo followed the signal’s indicated direction. It came from the bottom of some kind of small gulch, which cut into the place where the two cliffs met. The weather had worsened, the blizzard becoming more intense, and it was difficult to see what was below, even with the power armor’s augmented reality filters. Airo weighted his options. Taking a risk, he decided to slide down.

He descended in a semi-controlled slip. Thankfully, the gulch’s floor was covered by snow, stopping his slide before he hit something hard. According to the sensors, the signal was nearby.

He saw something on the ground, and looked at it carefully. The snow was spattered by large spots of black liquid. Airo kneeled and examined the spots. Their blackness was glossy, with the faintest sheen of purple. A dark, ugly thought flared in his mind; at the same instant, the power armor sensors beeped urgently about elevated background radiation.

The cargo was no cargo at all.

It was a dragon.

Airo stood up, and gazed through the gusting blizzard. A little further away, he saw a nearly swept disturbance in the snow cover, made by some incredibly large feet. Black streaks of dragon blood ran along the faint tracks, unable to freeze despite the cold. They made a trail which led to the yawning mouth of a large cave, and according to the sensors, the transponder signal came from it.

How convenient.

Airo approached the cave. In one smooth, deliberate motion, he drew his katana. He glanced at the unusual, crystalline blade of the weapon, its pale blue color almost matching the hanging icicles over the cave’s entrance. His thoughts were roiling. They made him deliver a dragon to this deusforsaken place? Had he been taken out of cryostasis to be reinstated into society by some cruel and unusual method? Why had that mysterious jerk chosen him of all people trapped in a frozen hell?

Was this entire scenario a deliberate set-up?

Cold hate enveloped him, and he clenched the katana’s grip.

He needed to finish the mission to earn his freedom. It did not matter.

Airo had already made his choice.

He entered the cave. It was much bigger than it seemed on the outside, with a high, arching ceiling, and vast passageways, which became wider as he got further in. The walls had a smooth, almost unnatural look. Large, intricate crystals grew along the sides of the cave, emitting a soft ambient glow. Ice shards and clumps mixed with the crystals, forming alternating patterns of shining lights and dark reflections.

Airo retracted the helmet of his power armor. Cold air wafted over his face. He did not trust the helmet’s sensors, and wanted to use his own senses. Along the tunnel, he found a very, very large composite collar, broken. The signal came from the collar.

Water dripped somewhere deeper, the sound a gulping echo. Small white puffs escaped Airo’s nostrils as he breathed. Warded against the chill air by the power armor, he stalked forward. The tunnel went deeper and then forked, yet the streaks of blood were like a guiding light. He followed them, keeping to the cave wall, crouched and alert.

The floor began to slope gently, the ice patches becoming rarer. The sound of dripping water intensified. The air grew warmer, almost heated. Airo gritted his teeth. He was close. The tunnel ahead of him was devoid of crystals, a sharp turn barely visible in the gloom. He paused, considering. Then he raised his katana, and rushed into the darkness. As the tunnel curved, light suddenly assaulted his eyes.

He dashed inside an enormous grotto, shallow pools ringing the walls.

Water reflected the soft glow of cave crystals, illuminating the grotto’s center.

And at the center of the grotto was a dragon.

And it stared at him.

Airo stilled, gripping the katana tightly.

The dragon was the largest he had ever seen. Its size was colossal, more akin to a city-razing mythical beast than a living being. Its scales were midnight blue, colored almost black in the low light. Its fiery amber gaze fixed upon Airo. “Human,” the dragon rumbled in a deep, yet feminine voice. “I remember you.”

Airo cautiously moved forward, transfixed. How … how did this creature know him?

The dragon lay low on the ground, one enormous claw pressed limply against the cave wall, great wings and gigantic tail folded tightly around her body. “Come closer,” she said, and even as she spoke, strength left her voice.

He silently complied, struggling to hold back the storm in his mind. The dragon watched pleadingly the weapon in his hand. There was not going to be a fight; he realized as much. He came closer, and slowly sheathed the katana.

The dragon blinked, then lowered her head tiredly.

“I … I am dying,” she whispered. “And you shall be the one to witness … my passing. I came to see him … to rekindle our love … and … show the result of his efforts.” She shifted her foreclaw carefully, revealing a large, dark egg. “Yet … the Great Cosmos has decided … that my Way … is complete.” She pushed the egg very gently with one huge talon, bringing it before Airo. “And now,” she continued, “there is no one … to look after my offspring … except you.”

Airo stared in disbelief, his throat clenched tightly.

“No,” he said, hard.

The dragon looked at him sadly, then laid her head down, and closed her eyes. After a long time, she opened them weakly. “I only … want my child … to survive. Please. If … if you … truly know love … please, take my child … and give it life. This … is my plea.” She smiled faintly. “And … no matter … your choice … I thank you … for giving me … hope. May the stars … always … shine upon your soul.”

The dragon closed her eyes again, and with a final sigh, lay still.

Airo stood motionless, watching mutely the forlorn scene.

The egg lay on the cave floor, partway between him and its departed parent.

Thoughts rushed and scattered in his head. Emotions raged inside him. Memories flared into his consciousness; flashes of colors, confusion, vivid images of twisted metal, fiery blazes, roaring shadows, gleaming edges. Anger, grief, pain, tears; all rose like a great tidal wave, drowning him. He held a blade in his hand, not realizing when it had been drawn. He pointed it at the egg. Wrath burned his spirit, fear chilled his senses; and somewhere deep, in a small dark corner, was a glimmer of light. His hand shook violently; his vision blurred.

He had a choice.

To grant the final wish of a dying mother. To slay the spawn of a hated foe. To uphold the highest honor. To avenge his keening soul. To stand tall. To fall.

It was too much. His tears flowed freely, his body trembled fervently. He sobbed. Willpower retreated from his limbs, and he slid to his knees.

And he screamed.

“Damn you! Damn you all! Why?! WHY?!! WHY DID YOU GIVE THEM HUMANITY!!”

He collapsed, quietly weeping.

The rage passed. Gradually, the tears dried. Composure returned hesitantly, giving back his strength. Calm settled again upon his shoulders, and cleared his head. Slowly, he sheathed the katana with shaking hands.

He lifted his gaze and regarded the dragon egg. It had a black, glossy shell with swirling lines of deep purple.

He searched for something to take the egg with. Taking out the virtualizer, he fiddled for a while with it, and retrieved a flexpack from the device’s pseudo-spatial depths. He activated the flexpack, and the compact black cylinder began to expand, becoming a thick, voluminous bag. He took the dragon egg and put it inside; it was warm and smooth to the touch, and surprisingly heavy, yet he had no difficulty stowing it away thanks to the power armor’s built-in exoskeleton.

As soon as it hatches, I am driving it away, he thought bitterly as he fastened the flexpack’s straps onto his back. He looked one last time at the dead dragon. He could not help feeling a shade of regret as he gazed at the still form. He shook his head angrily and turned away, sliding the helmet back on. He walked along the tunnels, using the trail of blood to find his way, and left the cave.

SECOND INTERLUDE

I stepped out of what one day would be called null space, and my feet touched the brilliant, azure surface of the Terra Para Shard.

The headquarters of the Order of the Radiant Knights.

Home.

I breathed deeply, the evanescence of my body again present, and cast my gaze around. The Shard was as grand as the one on Utopia Draconis, a crystal mountain towering over the gray, lifeless expanses of Terra Para. During the centuries of the Order’s stewardship over this unique landmark, many edifices and structures had been erected. Houses, workshops, barracks, gardens, training grounds, cosmodromes, plazas, factories, monuments, libraries and museums, all those and more constituted the largest community and safe haven the Radiant Knights had had since the Dragon Independence War. It was the heart and soul of an organization which had endured and assisted in galaxy-wide conflicts spanning centuries of history.

It was the home of the most enlightened individuals in the Sector.

Individuals who I was sure would come this time around and see reason, instead of casting out revolutionary, nay, visionary ideas merely out of fear.

I was wrong.

My sudden arrival startled my former comrades. Though I had been cast out by the very people I returned now to, they gave me a warm welcome, in light of the circumstances. They asked for Her, of course. I said nothing, biting down the hellish screams struggling to burst out from my burning soul. Instead, I drew the power of my grandest vision, and heralded before them the new, final Great Age I was going to bring upon Creation. I told them Salvation was upon us All, and we were soon to become One. Forever.

Oh, how foolish they were.

The merest of pauses was their only response. After that instant, they fell upon me in absolute earnest, in complete unison. They were the wisest individuals of the galaxy; and they were also the deadliest and most powerful, save for the greatest of dragons. And though it burdened their hearts, they carried out any hard decisions to the end.

Yet I was prepared for such mindless, reality-bound rejection. Saddened, yet prepared. I summoned the entirety of my existence, the very definition of my being, and cast it into the mirror of the Universe to magnify its light thousandfold. I flared with the greatest, purest radiance of the stars themselves, a Beacon for all the souls in the world, an Avatar of the Great Cosmos itself. With merely a gesture, I controlled everything; I foiled their attacks, averted their powers, prevented their retreat, and broke their resistance. My Will was Law, and with that gesture, I bade them become Enlightened, see the One Truth. They were not ready for Ascension; each one burst into a brilliant spark of pure Essence, their individuality severed, yet their Spirit Enduring.

My own soul was swiftly evaporating into the ephemeral song of Entropy, due to the terminality of my own actions. To keep the flame alight inside me, I took the warmth of others, forever merging them into my Pattern. Despite this angelic fuel, Time still cast a shadow behind my back. Yet I kept my movements smooth and my mind clear, as the moment of Salvation was at hand.

I defeated my former comrades most immediate to me, and turned toward the Shard itself. Near its summit, I drew my Starblade, and did what I had done to its twin on Utopia Draconis: I tore open a Rift in space-time itself, collapsing the boundaries between Here and There. Yet now I went one step further and reached out Beyond Everything. Darkness rose, followed by Light, crashing down, teetering on the Edge of Collapse. The Spiral of Time distorted, twisting, leaping, lashing, and Reality itself began to topple. I held my Starblade high, its Radiance a blazing Purity with which I would light the Way.

I prepared to cast out my soul into the Abyss, and make All Into One.

Then things changed.

The lover of my former mentor appeared. She charged at me, bearing his Starblade. I turned to face her, almost annoyed at this trifle interruption. She was a master of the Æther but her powers were nothing compared to mine.

I underestimated her.

We clashed with blade and spell, will against will, while around us the World ended. My concentration was split three ways: to keep the Shard intact, to defeat the opposition, and to protect the wavering fire of my soul. Reinforcements arrived, more Radiant Knights entering the fray, seizing the opportunity to destroy my Legacy before it was created.

No. I would not let this Come To Pass.

I reached into the depths of my being, gathering the Essences of those whom I had forcefully thrust into the Light. With a resolute gesture and a shout of power, I brought them back again into a separate existence, their mind Whole, their body pure Light, their cause Just, and their spirit Enlightened—and the Revenant were here once more, Heralds of the Coming Age of Eternity.

They became the executors of my Will and of the Great Cosmos. They charged upon their fellow companions and devastated their ranks, while I reaved the souls of the Knights to add their Essence to my own Power, to continue fighting for what was Right. For each fallen Knight, I won a new Revenant at my side, and soon the field was mine again.

And then they outwitted me again.

In a bid of desperation, she, the lover of my former mentor, encased the Shard in an utterly impregnable energy veil, phasing it out beyond anyone’s reach, even mine. Then the remaining Knights carried her aloft, retreating into the farthest reaches of Terra Para. I stayed behind, unable to pursue; I had to stabilize the raging Entropy, or risk the entire planet destroyed.

Thus began what they would call, after my time, the War for Ascension.

I stood alone at the Shard, my first legion of Revenant ready to do my bidding with absolute loyalty. I could not enter the Temple, for the Keys had been torn from my hands and cast Far Away where I could not reach. Darkness reigned, and Thunder roared; the Vortex of Void was engulfing the horizon, held back only by the sheerness of my Will. The Flame inside Me was Dying. Yet that single, burning desire, bright as the greatest Virtue, held my Vision clear, and my Mind focused on the task at hand.

What was I to do?

I knew only one answer: go to war.

I am a veteran of the Supremacy Wars, of the Axiom Crusades, and of the Starblaze. I have faced the countless horrors of the Void Demons, and I have survived the massacres of the Dragon Independence War. I have mastered the Æther, and I have unlocked the knowledge of the Universe. I have peered into the Abyss, and I have walked the everlasting path of the Celestial Way. I have traveled among the stars for centuries, and I have known both peace and conflict. I have fought, and I have counseled; I have sought enlightenment, and I have risked my life in the name of my vow and the sacred duties I uphold.

And So Shall I Do Again.

It was time to make my own crusade.

I was the Messiah, and yet to them I was the Devil. I rose from the darkness, and Saw the Truth. I wanted to give them the greatest Gift, and in return, share Our ultimate Joy as I reunite with Kalessia while everyone Prevail in Paradise.

Yet instead they cast Enlightenment aside, and label my Vision madness. So be it. They could Ascend willingly, or they could see the Light nonetheless, for Ascension would Not Be Denied.

I descended from the Shard, the Revenant at my heels, and went directly into battle. The Consortium, the Union, the H’raal—the enemy did not matter; they were all mortal, and they all, to my greatest grief, abhorred the idea behind my Vision.

I reaved the souls of thousands upon thousands, renewing my faltering vitality, expanding my retinue, and bringing enlightenment to those whom I assimilated. In truth, it was a terrible event, an atrocity of untold magnitude; for I sundered the very fabric of every individual, no matter how eager or ready to accept Unity, in order to keep my own self above the rest. In the end, it did not matter; I was a sinner now, a horrendous monster as my enemy wanted me to be, yet when Salvation finally came, I knew it would not matter. For then, All will be One.

Still, as much as I searched, I could not find the Radiant Knights. They had the Keys to the Temple, without which I could not access the Shard to bring Singularity Once and For All. I devoted much of my concentration to slowing down the Reality Vortex I had torn open, yet I could not stop it completely without depleting myself beyond the critical point. So now, I was in a race against Time itself: I had to find a Way to reach the Shard before it was completely lost and before I collapsed in perpetual Failure.

And I would not let that happen.

Eternity lay ahead of us, and behind.

We were yet to drink our fill.

I regretted only one thing: I, who fought against monsters so long, became one of them in the end.

The only ray of hope was that, soon, there would be No End.

Chapter 4
No Way Out

The landscape was the same as it had been in the beginning.

Airo lifted burning eyes toward the cloudless sky. Two days ago, he had reached the summit, towering over the entire mountain range, and had spent hours staring at the horizon in every direction. In the distance, the energy pillar blazed as intensely as always, its radiance reaching the very sky and going beyond. For the aeonth time, Airo had tried to establish connection to the Transnet, any net, without success. Finally, he had trudged downward, shoulders slumped in bitter disappointment.

Now, his defeat was turning into anger.

“Why was I awakened from oblivion?” he shouted at the sky, the sound vibrating inside his helmet. Retracting it, he yelled, “To die a cold, lonely death—truly?”

The sharp slash of icy air in his face was the only reply.

“I should have died then!” Airo screamed. “Not her! I should have fallen amid the ruins! I was the soldier! I was the killer! ME!!! SHE DID NOT DESERVE THIS!”

His shouts washed across the silent mountain.

“Why am I here now? Why am I carrying a dragon with me? WHY? To fulfill some cosmic plan? To claim vengeance after seven centuries in darkness? WHY NOW? WHY HERE?”

Again, distant silence.

He roared the words, putting every ounce of his pain and fury in them.

“Answer me, filthy gods of Creation! Answer me, pissful Great Cosmos! Answer me, useless Ancients! I DEMAND IT! ANSWER ME!!!”

CRACK.

High above, a thunder echoed over the mountain. Airo turned and saw the summit’s face split. The white mantle of snow and ice fell from the shoulders of the ridge. It turned into a wide, majestic wave, which began to descend, swelling greatly as it rushed downward. The rumbling crash of hundreds of tons of frozen water and rocks heralded the coming of the avalanche.

Airo ran.

He dashed madly down the mountainside. In his panic, he completely forgot about the fri-skis. Behind him, the avalanche thundered, sweeping everything in its path. Airo jumped and leapt, narrowly avoiding tripping down the slope. He turned his head in every direction, desperately looking for a solid overhang to take shelter. He had only a minute before the avalanche reached him. He slipped, overbalanced by the flexpack he carried, and tumbled head-over-heels along the slope. His fall ended at the base of a huge rock, near a narrow cleft. As the thunder of the avalanche came closer, Airo made to crawl into the cleft, when he noticed his load was lighter than usual.

He turned, and saw the dragon egg had tumbled free from the flexpack, lying in the snow some twenty meters away.

The world slowed down. Airo watched as the impending doom approached the black-purple egg. For a second, he decided to abandon it and leave the avalanche to claim it. One less dragon in this galaxy.

Then it struck him that this creature, no matter his hate, was still unborn.

Fuck this. He rushed toward the dragon egg. He leaped across the last two paces, shielding the egg with his body, just as the billowing front of the avalanche hurtled over him. The force of the wave threw him clear off the ground, spinning him wildly in all directions. He tumbled among the hard whirlwind of snow and ice, clutching the egg to his chest. Debris smashed into him from all sides like hammer blows, the power armor ringing and crunching loudly. Airo gritted his teeth, enduring the overwhelming assault, while the heads-up display blared with various alarms.

Just as he thought he was going to be buried alive, the avalanche threw him off a cliff.

Abruptly, gravity drew back. In one long moment, Airo felt completely weightless. As the cloud of debris cleared, he glimpsed a ledge and the sheer, icy wall of a precipice. Huh, I have not seen this place before.

Next, he was falling down.

The overlay flashed in red, indicating he was in free fall with approximately seven seconds until impact. Another message was urgently reporting the auto-landing system had failed. Struggling to keep hold of the dragon egg, Airo freed one hand and drew his katana. Wind rushed around him, carrying thick drifts of snow. Hoping he would not lose either his life or his blade, he gripped the katana and thrust its edge into the cliff beside him.

The sudden drag would have torn his arm from the shoulder, had it not been for the power armor. Airo gasped in pain as he stopped, dangling from the blade above the chasm’s bottom, when the avalanche caught up, and a huge boulder smashed into him.

He had time only to grip the dragon egg before he plummeted into the chasm.

***

Airo opened his eyes, and coughed. His helmet was gone, and his face was numb with cold. He was half-buried at the bottom of a fissure, sunlight streaming from somewhere high above to the left. Airo shivered and dragged himself out of the snow pile. He lifted his gaze, and saw the dragon egg right before him, lodged between two stones, its black-purple shell glistening …

… and cracking.

Airo stared dully, still working out the ramifications, when the egg shook vigorously, and another crack split its smooth surface. Then another crack appeared, then several more, and in less than a minute, bits began to fall from the shell. A tiny wing tip poked from one hole, a clawed appendage burst from another. With a crack, a large section of the eggshell flew away, and a long, sinuous tail tumbled out. Then the remaining shell shook harder, and with a final push shattered. The hatchling dragon surged from the egg’s remains, unfurling its wings, and stretched its body.

Then it lifted its head, and Airo was lost in the brilliant amethyst sea of its gaze.

Chapter 8
Haven by the Way

Veralla was astounded by the myriad sights before her.

She had never been to a town before. Well, understandably, since she was very young and had not much exposure to the world in general. Yet her imagination was starved for new experiences, and she indulged fully in the marvel that was Dragon Retreat.

She ate a delicious meal, prepared by the nice red-skinned human named Usylor, and after thanking him went outside to wander the wide walkways. So many lights! So many new shapes! She relished the sensation of smooth stones against her feet, curious how her claws clicked against the pavement. She tried to lessen the sound, shifting her weight, changing her step, hrrr-ing in joy when she discovered different ways to walk other than the bounding gait she used when she traversed the snow-laden wilderness.

She coursed around the thoroughfares, staring and gazing at everything. Her webbed ears pricked at waves of new sounds, her forked tongue snaked out constantly from her jaws to explore complex blends of tastes and smells. Her small wings fluttered instinctively at the sight of the dragon statues in their regal splendor, and she compared her own body with those of the stone-and-crystal replicas of her kin down to the last detail, noting differences and similarities with playful abandon.

And the humans, so many humans! As she walked around the town, they stopped and stared at her, calling and trying to talk to her. She was a little nervous at first and could sense their bewilderment. Yet as she spoke, the others smiled broadly at her, asking questions and inquiring about her well-being. She replied to the best of her ability, noting all the different faces and shapes as the crowd grew. In mere minutes, almost the entire town had gathered at her location, people babbling merrily among themselves, calling out to her, and marveling at her exotic appearance. She asked many questions in turn, and the others were quick to answer. After a while, the crowd dispersed, many asking her to join them for a meal and make herself at home in their abodes. She received such invitations with joy, yet she expressed her desire to continue her exploration, and moved farther along the walkways.

She entered various public buildings and temples, eagerly observing furniture and decorations, greeting the patrons, and happily accepting the treats they offered. She went to the town’s communication complex, examined the interior of the fusion power factory, and stepped inside the geodesic dome, where she saw rows upon rows of exotic, vibrant creatures in various kinds of shapes, colors, and sizes, all silently accepting her presence, and somebody explained they were called plants. She squealed in glee when she saw tiny beings looking just like her, whizzing around on miniature wings, and she thought she had finally found other dragons, but she learned these little siblings were called dreyks and were only a distant kin to her.

Night truly fell, and the town submerged in a soft radiance of its own. She stood before the glowing obelisks and the light pylons, awed by the gentle pulses of energy coming out from the shining orbs. She was sure only she could see them, since no one else stopped to admire the magical display as it weaved its harmonics through the wide canyons in intricate patterns, which rivaled the splendid facades of the temples and cliffside caverns. She spent hours watching this endless spectacle, long after the walkways became empty of humans and the stars rolled slowly overhead.

Finally, she felt her limbs growing heavier, and she struggled to keep her tail from dragging along the ground. Her snout stretched in a yawn, and her eyes began to close by themselves. She wondered if Airo and the others were still in the High Temple. She wanted to go back to search for them and see the majestic showers of light again, but more than that, she wanted to sleep.

Veralla climbed the base of the nearest dragon statue and curled down, taking shelter beneath one of the great stone wings.

***

Airo took his katana and the veronite blaster and left the room. The cavern was well lit by glowing crystals and bioluminescent panels, and daylight poured from the entrance. Airo took the stepped walkways which led to the ground level, and went outside. It was early morning, and people strolled leisurely around, each on their way to their daily routine. Dragon Retreat had an environmental shield stretching across the entire mesa, and as a result the air was pleasantly warm, and the canyons were free of snow and ice. Airo set out to search for Kiana, and his intentions were immediately rewarded: she and Zuckeroff were sitting at a table on one of the wide terraces at the cliffside.

He approached and sat at the table without waiting for an invitation. Kiana made a face as soon as she saw him, but Zuckeroff smiled broadly. “Morning, Boss!” he said, raising a beer can in his hand. “Wanna drink?” He jerked his thumb at a nearby food maker, styled as an open-air minibar.

Airo shook his head. “I will pass,” he said. He noticed both officers had discarded their Consortium uniforms. Zuckeroff wore a colorful local garment, which was already rumpled and looked out of place on him, while Kiana had put on some kind of ultra-stylish clothing, all sleek edges and flowing cut, and where her wardrobe exposed russet skin, subdermal tattoos pulsed with neon light.

She folded her arms. “What do you want?”

“I need your assistance,” Airo said.

“Oh? What happened with the military tribunal and not being part of the Sol Force anymore?”

“Sol Force?” Airo asked.

The official name of the Galactic Stellar Consortium’s suprastellar administrative organization governing the armed forces, Commander,” Yeoman Cloud chimed in helpfully.

“You know, for an official who claims to be from the Paladin Division’s upper echelons, you seem strangely clueless,” Kiana said. “Probably no one at the office told you where you work?”

“I have both identification and clearance,” Airo said coldly.

“Yes, you do,” Kiana said. “Which makes it so inexplicable. I’ve tried hacking into Sol Force in the past. I wanted to strut around as a Paladin, too. Instead I was thrown into interrogation simulspace, and given a one-sided deal: work for the system or face rehabilitative psychosurgery. So how did you do it?”

“Is that why you did not contact the Consortium?” Airo asked. “You wanted to get away from them?”

Zuckeroff slurped from his beer can. “Well, actually we—”

“Quiet, gamebrain!” Kiana cut in. She turned to Airo, arms still tightly crossed. “You’re an enigma, Commander. I don’t think you’re from Sol Force at all. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re a time traveler, or an alien from another galaxy. Void it, you could be a H’raal agent, for all we know.”

“Or perhaps he is a Templar who pretends to be a Paladin!” Zuckeroff burst out, worry and amazement written on his face.

“It’s possible. A bit far-fetched, but not any more so compared to the other options,” Kiana said conversationally, as if Airo wasn’t there.

“Boss, are you a Templar in disguise?”

“Honestly, gamebrain, you’re dumber than anyone expects.”

“Look,” Airo said, trying to be patient, “think what you want. However, I need to contact the Consortium.”

“Well, go right ahead,” Kiana said. “Don’t let us stop you.”

“I tried,” Airo grated. “And I cannot. The remaining infrastructure cannot overcome the paraworld’s interference. You, however, can create a working connection.”

“Huh, can I? And what makes you think that?”

“Cease obfuscating. You are a Conduit, specialized in Technotics. You admitted so yourself. You repaired my armor with willpower alone. You said yesterday you boosted the comm tower’s signal. You have the ability to contact the Consortium.”

“Okay, I have it,” Kiana snapped. “So what?”

“So do it,” Airo said. “Help me contact them. When they come, you two can do whatever you want—stay here, go with them, I do not care. As soon as an extraction team comes, we go our separate ways.”

She let out a drawn-out hmmm. “Well, no.”

“No?” He glared at her. “Why?”

“Why should I help?” she asked, spreading her hand out, palm turned upward. “I have only your word on what’ll happen. You appeared out of nowhere, you coerced us to submit to you, and you don’t tell us who you really are.”

“And,” Zuckeroff burst out again between slurps, “you had a real dragon with you!”

“That too,” Kiana said. “Where are Veralla’s parents anyway? Or is this also ‘classified information’?”

Airo leaned forward, putting his hands squarely on the stone table. “You are not without secrets, either,” he said, voice edged with steel. “Do not delve into things that are none of your skyline. Now, I give you a choice: either help me voluntarily.” He made a pause. “Or I will force you to do so.”

Zuckeroff paused mid-drink, eyes wide. Kiana, by contrast, narrowed her gaze. “Don’t try to play tough with us again, gumshit!” she snapped, and slapped her palm hard on the table. Her hand scintillated with a nimbus of blue sparks.

“Woo!” Zuckeroff said, fascinated.

Airo chuckled darkly. “I can break your arm before you even lift it.”

“Only if you can move, asshole!” Kiana snarled and balled her hand into a fist. The nimbus became a miniature electrical storm which enveloped her whole body, and her violet eyes lit up. At the same time, a similar spark cloud appeared on the surface of Airo’s power armor. He reacted instantly, reaching to grip and shatter Kiana’s arm at the elbow.

He could not move.

The power armor had locked up, becoming as implacable as a skin-tight prison of nanofabricated metal and polymer. Airo struggled furiously. “Release me at once!” he growled. The other people on the terrace saw the commotion, and hurried to leave the area.

Kiana faced Airo with a grim expression, her fist spewing bolts of static. “Zuckeroff,” she said without moving, “point a gun at him.”

“Um, Ki, you sure about—”

“Do it!”

“SAI, override the controls!” Airo commanded, teeth bared.

System failure,” the power armor speakers replied mechanically.

“You blackguardly traitors! No wonder you want to desert the Consortium!”

Zuckeroff fumbled through the folds of his clothing, and produced a high-powered maser pistol. He pointed it at him, and Airo saw the astrior’s hand was steady despite his uncertain expression. Kiana continued to glare, concentrated on maintaining her Conduit power.

“Now,” she said, her eyes bright with unearthly light, “time for some answers.”

“Or what?” Airo taunted.

“Or Zuckeroff shoots you,” Kiana said.

“Fine.”

Silence. The light of the morning suns played off the canyon walls, and the smoothed, ocher stone blocks of the terrace gleamed in it.

Kiana balked. “Fine??” she repeated.

“Um, fine?” Zuckeroff asked, dumbfounded.

Airo waited. He said nothing else. He was again filled with calm detachment.

“Uh … Ki?” Zuckeroff prompted.

“Shut up, I’m thinking!” She met Airo’s implacable stare and suddenly became angry. “Deusforsaken void-blooded psychopath! You really are waiting for us to shoot you!”

Airo kept silent.

“For Great Cosmos’ sake, say something, you uplimal half-breed!” Kiana shouted. The sparks around her intensified. “You want to die? Is that it!? That’s why you took us into the warpstorm? You have a deathwish or what??”

Airo said nothing.

“Uh, Ki, maybe we were wrong about this?” Zuckeroff asked. “Maybe he’s a Paladin after all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, gamebrain! He’s a spaceman out of vacsuit as much as us!”

“Well, what are we gonna do now?”

“Release me,” Airo said quietly. “Help me contact the Consortium.”

“Or we just blow your CPU.” Kiana turned back to him, seething.

Airo’s mouth widened into a humorless smile. “You cannot kill me in cold blood. That much is evident. And I will not give up in my pursuit of … the mission. You can either continue this stalemate, or you can cooperate.”

“Or I tell Zuckeroff to call the town council and tell them to throw you in a cell. Without your fancy toys.”

“This is a valid leverage indeed,” Airo said sourly. “So, it appears we have to negotiate. What do you want in exchange for your assistance?”

“Answers,” Kiana shot. “Tell us who you are and what the void is happening, and we’ll call the precious cavalry.”

Airo stood paralyzed by his power armor, and realized he was on his own. Even if he contacted the Consortium and asked for their support in his dubious capacity as a special agent, it was entirely possible their reaction would be similar to Kiana’s; which meant he would be truly without allies in his quest for revenge. Fury smoldered in him at that thought. For a minute, he wondered why somebody had woken a living relic like him from cryostasis and sent him to kill a man who had lived for centuries. Perhaps he should learn more about the circumstances of his revival. Then he remembered Zenassa and her final moments, and everything ceased to matter.

He desired only vengeance.

Let us see if the half-truth will be sufficient.

“Deal,” he told Kiana. “Ask what you want.”

“First, tell us who you are,” she said. “I know you aren’t a Consortium Paladin.”

“No, I am not. I was awakened from cryostasis several standard months ago, and sent on a mission to this planet in exchange for my freedom.”

Kiana and Zuckeroff stared at him. They glanced at each other meaningfully and turned back to him. “Cryostasis? Seriously?” Kiana asked, her luminous eyes looking odd in her confusion. “They still use that tech?”

Airo tried to shrug, but the power armor prevented the motion. “You wanted answers.”

“What about the armor? The Consortium ID? Your Omega-level clearance? Where did those come from?”

“The … benefactor who set me free gave them to me. It was my … cover, I guess,” Airo said.

“Somebody who can pull strings in the Paladin Division just casually gave you one of the highest levels of authority in the galaxy?” Kiana asked, incredulous. “How did you come to Terra Para anyway? Interstellar travel is expensive as fuck. Don’t tell me guy also gave you an FTL starship.”

“He did.”

“Balls,” Kiana said. “What a load of dragoncrap. You believe this, Zuckeroff?”

“Well, uh, yeah,” the astrior said.

“What!?” Kiana glanced sideways, throwing a flare of blue sparks from her shoulder. “Why!?”

“Well, the Boss did show up out of nowhere when we first met,” Zuckeroff said. “And he did say he, uh, had a mission to catch a dangerous criminal or something.”

Kiana was speechless for a moment. “Yeah, he did say so,” she conceded. She turned back to Airo. “And what about Veralla? Where did she come from?”

Airo did not reply immediately. “There was a dragon aboard the starship,” he said at last. “The beast … she was her mother,” he added sullenly. “The starship was attacked shortly after reaching the planet’s orbit, and crashed. The dragon died in the accident. I found the accursed creature in its last moments; she swore me to look after her spawn,” he spat. “I did. Now I am done with her.”

“Another closed-minded dragon hater,” Kiana muttered. “Did the Union attack your ship?”

“Possibly,” Airo said noncommittally. “Remember, I am not up to speed with recent events.”

“Neither—” Kiana began, but caught herself. “Tell us why you were sent here.”

“I am here to … track down a certain individual,” Airo answered, barely suppressing, “take revenge.”

“Who?”

Did a name mean anything in a galaxy full of people? “His name is Tungust Ferrtau,” Airo said, the words bitter on his tongue.

Kiana and Zuckeroff stared mutely; she with her luminous eyes and crackling aura, he from behind the maser’s blunt muzzle. The stone terrace and the surrounding walkways were completely devoid of people, so their voices echoed in the open space when they shouted in unison, “THE LIGHTBRINGER!?”

“The who?” Airo frowned.

“Ferrtau the Lightbringer!” Kiana exclaimed.

“He’s, like, the greatest Radiant Knight ever!” Zuckeroff said. “Well, perhaps after the Grandmasters, but still!”

“I see,” Airo forced through clenched teeth. So the bastard became a symbol. I will make sure to remind him his sins before cutting out his heart.

“Why for the Dude’s sake are you searching for the Lightbringer?” Kiana asked.

“I want to k … capture him,” Airo said.

Kiana and Zuckeroff stared at him again. Then they burst into laughter. “Apprehend the Lightbringer?” Kiana chortled, struggling to keep her concentration. “Good luck with that. The Consortium and the Union have been trying to eradicate the Radiant Knights for the last two hundred years. You have a better chance of attaining escape velocity on this planet by freerunning than singlehandedly taking down the leader of the most powerful Æthereal organization in the galaxy.”

“That is my concern, not yours,” Airo said icily.

Kiana paused and regarded him. “You’re insane,” she breathed. She laughed again, almost doubling over. “How … how much do you give him, Zuckeroff? Three seconds?”

“Five,” he said, wheezing with amusement. “But they’re gonna be negative. The … the Boss will realize he’s been beaten five seconds before the fight even started.”

Kiana lost control of her concentration. Her energy aura dissipated. Airo’s power armor came back online, and he stretched unobtrusively, loosening his stiffened body.

“I have done my part of the deal,” he said coldly. “Now help me contact the Consortium.”

Kiana regained her composure and straightened. “Yes, yes,” she said, annoyed. “Just remember, no glitches and cheats when the goon squad comes. I can do the same trick I did on your armor to an entire skyship.”

Airo did not believe her; she seemed quite tired from the effort of holding him for so long. Nevertheless, he had no intention of double crossing. While Kiana and Zuckeroff might have some unknown agendas, Airo could not care less. As long as they did not stand in his way, he would rather forget about them.

***

“Why are you telling me this?” Airo interrupted, unable to grasp the astrior’s rambling.

“Simple, Boss,” Zuckeroff said, his idiotic grin dawning back on his face. “You gotta play computer games.”

Airo balked. “What?”

“You gotta play computer games,” Zuckeroff repeated. “You’re stressed. Stress goes away when having fun. The way I see it, you probably got into the stasis pod even earlier than us, so I’m not suggesting VR or, uh, later stuff, ’cause you’d have to learn that first. But learning’s no good when you’re stressed. So you should do something that makes you relax. You said you know flat-screens. Play some, Boss.”

Airo watched mutely as Zuckeroff waved at the other side of the room. There was a small desk in the corner, with a comfortable-looking armchair in front of it. An antique computer case stood on the desk, connected to a solid-state display screen and peripherals.

“I asked around town, and I found a gal who’s actually from the Ground Age. She still plays Alpha Centauri,” Zuckeroff said. He rose, and tossed Airo a bag of fabricated onion rings. “Here, have some snacks. The drive’s stacked to the registry with excellent stuff. I’ll get another room, the place is half-empty anyway.” He paused by the door. “Have fun, and tell me later how it went,” he winked and left.

Airo stared at the closed door, absently clutching the bag of onion rings. What the void happened? He felt sober, and restless. He glanced at the old computer. It was not like he had anything better to do, not in his current broken state. He was sick and tired of the synthetic crap which passed for booze around here. Maybe he really needed to do as Zuckeroff had suggested and at least try to lose himself in his half-forgotten hobby.

The image of the Starspire Academy and its recreation commons flashed before him again. The three of them had spent many hours on the ancient flatscreen terminals, playing together and testing their mettle against the other cadets.

He, Zenassa … and Ferrtau.

Airo shook his head. It was never going to be the same. Those days were forever past.

Yet at least he should try.

He rose from the couch, turning off the widescreen, and slowly crossed the room. He sat down before the computer. He launched the device, and was greeted by a familiar, if subtly different interface. He searched for a list of installed games. There was a large number of them, thousands of titles, of which he knew only a small portion.

He loaded up a game at random and began playing.

After a while, the intercom chimed, and the door opened on its own. Veralla entered the room.

“Hey!” she said brightly. “What are you doing?”

Airo lifted his head in surprise. The room’s light had been discreetly dimmed, probably by Zuckeroff. According to his power armor’s heads-up display, hours had passed. “I am … playing games,” he said, blinking away the confusion.

“Oh! Games! Can I play, too?”

“If you want to,” Airo said patiently, and the dragonet hrrr-ed in joy. He moved to free the seat, but Veralla jumped and landed straight in his lap.

“How do you play?” she asked, standing on her hind legs and watching the screen eagerly.

Airo, still in shock, struggled to find his voice. “You use these buttons, and—”

“I know, I know,” the dragonet said impatiently. “Kiana showed me how to use all kinds of interfaces, even a keyboard, if I had to. I am asking, how do I win?”

Airo explained the rules of the game. The dragonet began to play. She clicked the keys clumsily with her claws, her eyes narrowed at the flatscreen, forked tongue flicking out in concentration. Airo watched her in stunned silence, paying no heed as her absently lashing tail swatted him on the head. She was heavy for her small form, weighing about as much as an adult human. He noticed she had grown a little since her hatching, though her body was still rotund and puffy-looking. Her limbs had become a bit longer and her wings, though now tightly tucked against her back, were visibly more developed.

He was about to say something, when Veralla’s sinuous neck curved and she turned her head to him. “Are there any games with dragons in them?” she asked.

Airo winced but nodded. “There are.” He had found one entry earlier during his play. “Search the index directory for Soukou Zmei.”

She did, and loaded the game. The intro played, and then a dragon with a human on its back began flying through grand ruins amidst a vast ocean and endless skies.

“Why cannot I turn around?” Veralla asked, frantically pressing keys.

“The only way is forward,” Airo said. “You must control both the rider and the dragon.”

Veralla grabbed the aiming sphere. The human avatar onscreen lifted his enchanted cannon, shooting a stream of glowing bolts. Enemies exploded in brilliant clouds of multi-colored lights. Epic symphony and haunting chimes flowed from the speakers. Veralla hrrr-ed, enthralled.

Airo checked surreptitiously his HUD for historical data about the game. He stared at the display in awe. The game was one of the recovered infoclusters from the Codex. It had been made in the time of the Ancients, before the Cataclysm. More than thirty millennia ago.

And yet, perfection reigned immortal.

Veralla played for a long time. Airo sat there, pinned by her, watching her, thinking … thinking nothing. He felt eerily relaxed, despite the fact he was in physical contact with a dragon. Veralla struggled with the controls. Without realizing what he was doing, Airo bent forward and put his hand on her foreclaw, steadying her aim. The music flowed in harmonic resonance, the levels scrolled through dozens of magical vistas, dragon and human united in their quest for good prevailing over evil. Airo guided Veralla …

Why did he call her by name?

… and together they finished the game when the early light of pre-dawn threw a pale halo on the wall. Airo had not realized this room had a window.

“This was so beautiful,” Veralla said in a small voice.

Airo was silent. His tired mind was still going through the ramifications of what had happened, when Veralla suddenly turned, peering intently at him, the tip of her snout inches away from his face.

“What do you know about dragons?” she said.

Caught off guard, he stared at her.

“Why are you asking me?” he said, forcing himself to speak.

“I want to know what dragons truly are,” Veralla said earnestly. “I searched about them in the mesh, and read and read and read, but there is just so much! I found thousands of stories about dragons, and each describes them differently: some are small, like the dreyks in the geodesic dome; some are large and strong, like the statues around town; and some are … something strange, called ‘symbol.’ And here is this dragon,” she added hastily, tapping the flatscreen, “who does not look like me at all.” She looked back at him, downcast. “Am I the only dragon … here?”

“No,” Airo said very quietly.

“Where are the others, then?”

His gaze drifted toward the ceiling. “I fought on a distant planet long ago,” he whispered. “Dragons lived there. I imagine … they still do.”

“You fought … dragons?” she asked, her purple eyes wide.

“Yes,” he said, his voice oddly strained.

“Why?”

“They were … not like you. Different, as you say. Lost.” Strength returned to his voice. “They attacked us. We attacked in return. Some of us tried to help the dragons. There was a war, and many died, both humans … and dragons.”

“What happened to the dragons?” Veralla prodded.

“I do not know,” he said honestly. His tone was bitter. “More than seven centuries have passed since.”

“You do not remember what happened?” she gasped in awe.

“No. I was … away, for many years. I was told many things have changed during my absence.”

“Oh,” she said, relieved. “Then why have you not learned what happened?”

Good question, Airo thought. Out loud he said, “Maybe I should.”

“I can help you!” Veralla said. “We can use the Viirt! You can learn about anything in there! And if there is too much to learn, you can use virtual time-dilation, to use less time while you learn! Kiana showed me how to do that.” She yawned widely. “I feel sleepy now. We can start tomorrow, yes?”

“Okay,” Airo said, glad this awkward situation was resolving itself. Veralla jumped off him, and climbed on the couch, where she curled upon herself, and promptly closed her eyes.

He left her to sleep, and went outside. He sat on one of the observation terraces, the tables around empty in the early morning. He watched the rising suns for a few minutes, fighting his urge to keel over from exhaustion.

Finally, he got his tired body under control. “SAI … Yeoman Cloud,” he called.

Yes, Commander?” the power armor speakers responded at once.

“Does this armor support time-dilation interfacing?”

Of course, Commander. All Orion-class PPGs are equipped with an advanced MMI suite enabling the wearer to modify their sensorial perceptions and stimuli, even in the absence of physical access sockets or implanted wetware.”

“Right …. Put me into the maximum possible state. Collect all historical data for the last seven centuries in the available databases, and prepare the thirty-seconds version for each major event. And give me something to juice me up.”

At once, Commander!” Yeoman Cloud boomed zestily.

With the assistance of the SAI, Airo began the daunting task of catching up on seven centuries of history and progress.

He read about the Supremacy Wars, and how they had led to the rise of the Galactic Stellar Consortium and the Union of True Humanity. He learned about the wonders of the Æther Age, and studied the Axiom Crusades which followed in the wake of the first Conduits. His eyebrows rose when he read about the Order of the Radiant Knights, and went even higher when he got to the Dragon Independence War. Finally, he reached the brutal conclusion of the Restoration Era’s first millennium: the Starblaze, an event even this hyper-advanced galaxy described as supernatural. At the same time, he explored all the marvels science had uncovered throughout this time: harnessed gravitonics, transcendence of the body, mind over matter, aethertech, dark energy manipulation, quantum leaps in FTL travel and starship technologies, creation of new life in the forms of true AIs and uplimals, and clinical immortality.

However, some periods of history were strangely unknown to these modern information-laden societies. He found almost nothing about his own time, or the years before, or about the Transhuman Order, the forerunner of the current galactic civilizations. Records regarding Utopia Draconis, the homeworld of the dragons, were also scarce, to the point it seemed as if there had been deliberate omissions in the archives.

In the end, his search for knowledge was satisfied despite these historical blank spots, and he had no desire to delve into the past more than necessary.

He had only one database query left: Ferrtau.

He keyed in the name, and read the results.

Tungust Ferrtau was a Radiant Knight. He had been part of the Radiant Order since its founding. He was cited as one of the greatest Conduits to have ever lived, and his reputation was on such a legendary level that practically every source called him by the sobriquet his reputation had earned him: the Lightbringer.

Throughout the long centuries while Airo had been tormented in the dark limbo of cryostasis, Ferrtau had participated in every major galactic event. He had freed their common homeworld of Arceria during the Supremacy Wars, protecting the then-backward colony from any interstellar harm. He had acted as a mediator during the Axiom Crusades, traveling around the galaxy, promoting peace and defending the weak, abiding by the values of justice, honor, enlightenment, and the tenets of the Radiant Order. And in the end, he had become a hero for any and all by playing a key role in ending the terrible ragnarok known as the Starblaze.

And during all this time, his companion, Kalessia—to whom future-past archivists referred as the Firstborn—had been at his side, equally devoted to those same ideals of the highest caliber.

Airo saw their picture at some public event centuries ago, and the revelation staggered him. He stared at the image of Kalessia, and suddenly saw Veralla in a completely new light.

If cosmic irony was a physical force, Airo would have been falling into the depths of a black hole right now.

After what was probably more than a day in time-dilation, Airo emerged from virtual space. The stimulants Yeoman Cloud had given him through the power armor had worn off, leaving him fatigued, and he went back to Zuckeroff’s old room. Barely an hour had passed in real-time, and Veralla still slept on the couch. Airo silently contemplated her peaceful slumber. After a while, he left, and went to the room assigned to him by the town council when he, Kiana, and Zuckeroff had arrived at Dragon Retreat so many days ago. And Veralla. She had come, too. Airo collapsed on the bed in his room, not bothering to remove the power armor.

He slept.

He was awakened several hours later by a sharp noise. He propped himself, and looked around sourly. Veralla was in his room, making strange, high-pitched screeches, flapping her wings and lashing her tail in unison.

“What are you doing?” Airo demanded.

“Oh, I am trying to imitate the dragon from the game,” Veralla explained enthusiastically. “Do you think this is how it speaks?”

“Hardly,” Airo said, getting up. He rubbed his neck, but his gauntleted hand felt only the outer layer of reinforced polymers. “The game was made by the Ancients, long before dragons were thought to be real. And if your kind developed language at any point, I am not aware of it.”

“Yes, I forgot! We had to interface the Viirt and learn more about history!”

“I already did,” he said, looking at her and thinking about what he had found.

Veralla made a small sound in her throat, equally surprised and pleased. “Can you tell me more about dragons now?” she asked eagerly.

Airo took a deep breath, and gave an exasperated sigh.