Rhianne stood before the giant screen of the observation deck as it displayed the final stretch of their four month journey. The ship’s docking terminal unfolded slowly, and in her mind she could hear the hiss and echo of metal on metal as it merged with the space station’s outer doors. Archyon 4, it read on the massive ring that made up the station’s exterior. And just beyond lay the planet itself, almost close enough to touch.
Two years. Has it really been so long?
It seemed to her like twice more since she had felt her boots squelch half a foot into the mossy floor, face drenched in rainwater while living vines danced above from the trees. That was a typical day on Archyon, or as the natives called it…
Gallena. I should start calling it that now.
The screen felt warm as she palmed over a distant hurricane winding across the planet’s northern hemisphere. From this vantage the planet was mostly ice caps, nimbus clouds and vast oceans, but she could catch glimpses of the endless green forests that made up Gallena’s tropical belt.
She took a moment to note her reflection. The lines across her face were tight, but was that eagerness she saw? Trepidation? Perhaps a mixture of both.
Boots echoed behind her, one of her attendants coming up to escort her no doubt. She turned around and found a hulking man in white military garb. He gave her a stiff salute. “Greetings Your Highness. Guard Captain Cavish reporting for duty, here to escort you to your next destination.”
Rhianne narrowed her eyes at the man. “Is that how you greet your superiors, Captain?”
The officer’s grin instantly collapsed. “Oh...um...”
“Is that how you greet a princess of the immortal house Vandine? With a tepid salute not fit for a one eyed space pirate? Where is the bowing, and the scraping, and the genuflecting? Do I look like some common unwashed foot soldier that you would not afford me the proper respect? What have you to say for yourself, Captain?”
The man’s lips quivered. “Y-Your Highness...I...”
Her glare eviscerated him for only five seconds before promptly breaking into a guffaw. She pulled the captain into a hug, feeling him shivering in her easy. “You are too easy Cavish. Did you really think I became such a bitch while I was gone?”
“I admit, you got me,” he laughed, giving her shoulder a squeeze before pushing her away gently. He wiped a tear from his eye. “I thought I was going to be hauling helium in the outer systems for the rest of my life.”
Rhianne shook her head. “Did you think two years would change me so much?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. You nobles never make much sense to me. Your mother might have decided to make a real princess out of you.”
“Oh she’s tried,” Rhianne said, smirking. It was good to see Cavish again. They had been friends almost since infancy. His father was still her mother’s personal guard, and his father had been her grandfather’s guard before him. So naturally her family saw fit to foist Cavish on her.
In what was partly an act of rebellion, she had relegated Cavish to remain on Gallena to safeguard her work while she left to take care of things at home. It was an important role no doubt, but she still felt some guilt.
Especially when she looked upon him now. While he had been clean shaven years before, he now sported a thick copper beard. And while his uniform had once shown off miles of muscle, it now looked tighter in all the wrong places.
The captain caught her looking, and glanced at his stomach. “Must be the delicious Archyonan cuisine. The cultivators have become world class chefs since you’ve been gone. I don’t know how, but they’ve managed to make those giant blue fruits that glow in the dark taste like an omelette from home. Its incredible. The natives would be jealous.”
“I look forward to trying it,” she said. “Maybe soon we’ll be sharing the recipe with them.”
The big man nodded, fiery red whiskers wagging on his upper lip. If he held a grudge against her, he would never show it. “Well, lets be off then. The Director is dying to see you again.”
I highly doubt that, she thought to herself as they descended the observatory steps. She wasn’t ready to pull on that wound quite yet.
They rounded a corridor, halogen lights reflecting off the stark white walls. Crew and servicemen milled about, left behind to care for the ship’s needs while the delegation remained planetside. They bowed to her as she passed, mumbling “Ascendant”, her official title...and her eternal duty.
The ship’s captain awaited her by the exit, a woman of middling years in a white service uniform and cap. She clasped Rhianne’s hands and shook them. “It was an honor to have you among us Ascendant. It will be an even greater honor to take you home.”
You and one extra passenger, the captain left unsaid.
“I look forward to doing just that,” Rhianne said smiling, hoping the expression made her seem more confident than she felt.
At the antechamber leading to the docking bay, two young faces in soldier’s garb awaited them. She remembered them as part of Cavish’s retinue, and had apparently remained with him on Gallena. Back then they were no more than green nosed chicks, but life on the tropical planet had roughened their edges. Their prompt salute and simultaneous “Your Highness” was the same as ever though.
Cavish returned the salute and whispered, “She prefers bowing.”
The two men exchanged glances before dropping to one knee before her.
Rhianne laughed and pulled them up. “Please don’t listen to him. The salute is fine.”
They stepped through the double doors, which closed behind them. As the small room depressurized and they stood in silence, Rhianne could no longer hold her nagging thoughts in check. She turned to Cavish. “How is the director lately?”
’He’s...fine?” Cavish said uncertainly. No doubt the question was an odd one, for someone who had spent nearly every waking minute with the director during the last few years. “He’s excited. We all are. Haven’t you been reading his commes?”
“Of course I have. Backwards and forwards. They’re mostly status reports and daily logs. I don’t know if he...”
I don’t know if he still hates me.
Professor Ral Sallerin was the head researcher on the Archyon project, second in rank only to her, the Ascendant. He was a mentor to her, similar to what her uncle had been when she had taken on the holy mantle of Ascendant. He was a veritable font of knowledge, more so now that he had officially spent more time on Gallena than she had. The planet had become his life, and this ascension...failure would be unthinkable for him.
The captain seemed to have heard her thoughts, his expression uneasy. “Don’t let him get you down. He really is excited, just like the rest of us. I’m sure he believes in you.”
“He believes in our cause...not in me,” she whispered.
“Nonsense,” he said, not refuting her point. It was an extremely sensitive subject to her, and he no doubt was reluctant to shove both feet in his mouth. “You...are the Ascendant,” he said, finally. “You are the ambassador to the galaxy. You bring defenseless planets under our wing so they don’t get swallowed up by the fucking Sherrezai. You have quite the job, Princess. It wouldn’t do to have you feeling sorry for yourself.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, fists shaking. She would have clocked him right then if they weren’t friends. Hells, maybe she would anyway.
But she didn’t.
He was right, she grudgingly admitted. This was to be a new beginning, a chance to do right by her station. She was the Ascendant, one of the most important figures in the entire galaxy, third only to the High Queen and Minister of Law. And while they sat atop their perch in Aonar Palace in Anthira, it was the the Ascendant who ventured into distant solar systems and expanded their domain.
For centuries the Ascendant had scoured the galaxy for likely planets to elevate and absorb into the Vandine Hegemony. She looked for civilizations, sentient races that had achieved the technological and sociological levels necessary to warrant consideration. Not too advanced, or they would likely take their technology and attempt to destroy themselves with it. But not too primitive either, as they would be unable to comprehend the knowledge being thrust upon them. The Ascendant would watch, observe, learn all she could before attempting that final step, and add yet another jewel to the Queen’s crown.
The Hegemony had uplifted twelve worlds. Gallena was about to be the thirteenth.
Assuming I don’t fail, her mind supplied lethally. No, I must not think like that. Not this time. I’ve learned so much. This time will be different.
And then she was there again, that place she never wanted to return to. Coarse sand, searing heat, leaves rustling to her side...and blood. So much blood. And eyes...eyes so much like her own. They were empty.
Her legs felt like ice as they proceeded down the terminal, the bridge that connected the ship and the station. The corridor was zero G, but gravity wells in their boots activated automatically, keeping them tethered to the floor. Her raven hair danced about her face as they walked.
After the crossing representatives from the space station waited to greet her. They urged her to stay for a cycle to eat and freshen up, but thankfully Cavish was insistent that they continue on.
At the moment Archyon station was largely devoid of life, with the rotating inner ring completely deserted. There was a small biodome that housed some of the planet’s various life forms, all of which Rhianne and her team had discovered and classified years ago. Hard to believe the station was only five years old, having been constructed not long after they began their expedition into the planet. If the ascension failed, the station would likely be abandoned, or taken apart and transferred to another eligible planet, should one be found.
That won’t be necessary, she promised to herself.
Despite the well intentioned protests of the station’s meager crew, they continued into hangar and the awaiting cruiser, a sleek silver pod with room for eight passengers. It was small, silent, able to vanish into darkness and reflect light, perfect for entering planets where they didn’t want to be seen.
The pilot greeted them with a salute and offered to help Rhianne buckle up, which she emphatically refused. She leaned back and closed her eyes, meditating to the hum of the engine as the ship powered up. For a moment she banished them all, Cavish and his silly beard and concerned eyes, the muscled boys that flanked him on either side, her own doubts and fears. They all melted away until a soft sound of moving metal echoed from outside, then the ship began to plummet, and silence.
Her face warmed, and she opened her eyes. Far above, the space station rapidly receded until it vanished from view. The darkness of space all around them with its legions of stars made way for wisps of cotton; black, to white, to gray. Almost as quickly as it appeared the sunlight was gone too and rainwater began to batter the ship’s windows, thunderclaps echoing from far away. For almost a minute they fell, until with a lurch they stopped, with only the harnesses preventing them from slamming into the ceiling. The ship froze in place before turning and shooting in the direction of a distant mountain, the pelting rain barely obscuring it thanks to the cruiser’s powerful sensors.
From above she could see the tops of trees and roving green hills beneath them. There was every chance that they could be seen at that height, but the cruiser’s mirror-like shell allowed them to blend into the surroundings. Any natives brave enough to stay out during that monsoon would not be able to comprehend what they were seeing anyway.
“Are you feeling nostalgic, Princess? Bet you miss all this wet,” Cavish said derisively across from her.
“It never rains like this back home, that’s for sure. Or anywhere else. I’ve been to worlds made of nothing but ocean, and it never gets thrown around like it does here. Its amazing anything managed to evolved past all this mud.”
Cavish smirked. “That’s not a very scholarly thing to say, Madame Ascendant. The Director would cuff you in the head if he heard that. Mud is a profound catalyst for life,” Cavish said in a parody of an old man’s voice. It must have been accurate, as the Captain had spend most of his waking hours with the Director in the last five years.
“I’m not much of a scholar unfortunately,” Rhianne said wistfully, looking out the window. “Livia would have taken to that aspect much better than I. Maybe even Heleron...” she trailed off, watching one of the planet’s majestic sky eels fly alongside them.
If I hadn’t pulled the rug from under him and stolen his Calling, she left unsaid.
No use dwelling on that now. She was where she was, and they were where they were.
It seemed like the Captain was about to say something when the cruiser made a sharp turn, forcing them against their harnesses. The ship sidled up the side of a cliff face, rising slowly until they were above the lip of the stone outcropping, and then she saw it. At last.
It was a different location, but the same familiar home, no matter where it ended up. A massive white dome stood meters away from where the ship touched down. The structure was made out of multiple interlocking glass plates, translucent from the inside and opaque on the outside. Between the rocky ledge on one side and the cliff on the other, there was no way to get to the dome without a vehicle. That was how they wanted it.
Research Station Archyon. I’m home.
They had yet to disembark when the shutters opened and a figure ran out, carrying an umbrella that repelled the watery onslaught with waves of force.
Cavish helped her down unto the wet earth. She took a deep breath and felt her head swoon. The oxygen concentration was a bit lighter than what she had gotten used to at home, but it was nothing she couldn’t adapt to again.
The attendant came and waved the umbrella over her head. “Welcome back Ascendant. If you remember I was one of Director Hoff’s assistants.”
“Thank you. And of course I do.” The young man had arrived almost immediately before she had left. He had been clean shaven too, but years of living in the wilderness always saw to that habit.
They trudged the short distance to the dome. At the veranda she shook off what little moisture the umbrella hadn’t forced away. Cavish and the twins were drenched though, and she felt bad for not sharing the umbrella with them.
Before she could apologize another attendant came up to her, a female in a smock covered in earth and leafy residue. A botanist, of course. She bowed. “Lady Ascendant, welcome back! Would you like some refreshments? Rest? The directors would like to speak to you, but it can wait-”
“No, its fine,” she interjected. “We can have the meeting now.” She looked to Cavish with apologetic eyes.
“You go on. I’ll catch up,” he said, wringing the moisture from his coat. He gave her a warm smile. “Good to have you back Rhianne.”
She returned his look, then turned to follow the botanist. In truth she didn’t need her guidance, as she could still navigate the place by heart. Research Station Archyon was a maze of tall white partitions that divided the dome into distinct centers. There were no doors, not even to the sleeping quarters, which all members had to share. The loose architecture was so the dome could be packed up and rebuilt at a moment’s notice, and indeed they had done that at least six times in the three years Rhianne had been present.
Excited whispers and bows arose where she passed, mostly from unfamiliar faces. Aside from her, the Director, Cavish and his team, and some of the more senior roles, the members were frequently switched out every few years or so. During her tenure the dome had had thirty-five occupants. She didn’t know if that was so now, though surely Director Ral would have mentioned it in one his many reports.
In almost every corner was a pot with one of the planet’s native flora, no doubt to add some color to the rather drab surroundings. The biodiversity on Gallena was a strange one, many blues and reds with a tendency for luminescence. It was theorized that the lower gravity and higher moisture content tended towards large life forms, with plants that could swallow up buildings in only a few cycles of growth.
One such plant guarded a corridor like a sentry, crimson flecked leaves folding and flexing like an outstretched arm. The botanist gently swatted the leaf out of the way. “Sorry about that Ascendant. I got a little carried away with decorating. Bloody fashions herself as security.”
“You named them?” And ‘Bloody’ at that?
The girl looked embarrassed. “It gets boring around here. And we’ve found that the plants are more receptive to interaction than most we know of. The natives might even consider them sentient beings, the way they revolve their lives around them.”
Rhianne had indeed noticed that sort of behavior in her years there. Director Ral had even written papers about it. The native Gallenans regard for their plant life was almost religious.
At the end of a hallway was the only door in the complex. The girl knocked for her before bowing goodbye and scuttling away, no doubt to pot another sentient plant.
Rhianne stepped inside the meeting room. Sitting around a makeshift table were four figures, who all stood up to greet her. The first, a white haired woman with amber eyes, the Director of Botany and Zoology, hurried up to her and took both of her hands. “Oh Rhianne, it is so good to have you with us again. It has been a bit aimless here without you.”
Did she really just say that? With Director Ral in the room? “I’ve missed you too Faralda,” Rhianne said, touching cheeks, not letting her unease show.
“I wouldnt say aimless, but we’ve certainly stayed in one place more than we used to,” said the Director of Climatology, Edrun Fowler, a tall emaciated looking man who was the youngest of the directors, waved to her from his seat.
“Which suits me just fine,” said the Director of Medicine and Technology, who plopped right back unto his chair. While Edrun was skinny, Alistair Hoff could have fit three of him in his fat folds. “It is such a bother, moving all the time. Send the probes across the globe and let them do the reconnaissance. That’s what I brought them for.”
“Hello to you too, Director Hoff,” she said, bowing to the large man. “I see the local diet agrees with you.”
Director Hoff guffawed, slapping his rotund belly. “Indeed it does, My Lady! I never get tired of those large blue fruits. You should see what the cultivators can do with them. Its divine!”
“I look forward to it, Director.” She glanced around. “By the way, where’s Ellna?” Ellna was the Director of Geology, and her cousin; the face she looked forward to seeing most.
“Climbing a rock somewhere no doubt,” Faralda told her with a laugh. “She saw this oddly shaped spire south from here a day back, and she could’t wait to take-”
A throat cleared, and instantly the voices in the room settled down. Director Ral had a commanding presence; his stormy beard, perpetually frowning brows, and straight posture like that of a soldier, all contributing to the aura of a man with authority. But really he was a scholar. The most important and influential scholar in Rhianne’s life. “To Director Thrias and Fowler’s points, the reason we remain in place is that we have no reason to leave. In this mountain we have found a perfect vantage point that makes us impervious to discovery and attack. What’s more, we have an unassailable view of the village and its epicenter, the subject of our mission and possibly for elevation. Why would you ever wish to leave?” He gave the two directors a pointed look, and they both looked away, grumbling.
Rhianne was smiling to herself when Director Ral turned to her, not the least bit amused. There was some excitement in his eyes, and only a hint of softness. “Hello Ascendant Rhianne. Welcome back.”
She nearly bowed, before she remembered that she outranked him. Still, her heart fell at his tone, so cold. Disappointed. Why did that still hurt her so, after all this time?
Rather than allow him to cow her, she straightened her back as if to look down on him, though he was taller. “It’s good to be back, Director Ral.”
He did not even blink, before breaking contact with her gaze and sitting down. “Now that the greetings are out of the way, let’s start this meeting. Everyone please be seated.”
Fuming, Rhianne fell unto her seat with only a minimum of grace. Director Faralda gave her a concerned look. Thankfully that was the moment Cavish burst into the room, now wearing a dry uniform. He plopped down beside Rhianne. He winked at her, which only slightly calmed down her aching nerves.
“There is an incident that we need to discuss,” Director Ral began. “I believe you all know what it is?”
Five heads turned down or looked away uncomfortably, all except Rhianne’s. “What are you talking about? What incident?” she asked the room.
Director Ral nodded, as if her question confirmed something. “It is as I suspected. Have you not been receiving my commes?”
“No. Communication arrays on our ship were dodgy, so many of us weren’t receiving any messages. I believe they stopped when we had our first hyperjump, which was…about a hundred days go.” Rhianne looked around the room, worried now. “Why? What is this about?”
With a foreboding sigh, Director Ral turned to one of the monitors behind him, and flicked a wrist. An image came to life. The medical exam room.
There were three people in white robes, indicating them as part of the medical team, with Cavish standing to the side. Silver objects glinted from their hands, syringes. At the center of the room was an examining chair, and strapped to it was a man with light brown skin, shoulder length hair, dressed in crude sack-like shirt and trousers. He was not one of her people, not a valon of the planet Valonar. He was a local of this planet.
Why were they showing her this? She had witnessed these procedures countless times before. It was how they learned most of what they knew prior to elevating their colonists. For no more than a day they would capture and secure a native into that room, and talk. They would be sedated of course, and the cocktail introduced into their system would place them in a hypnotic state and make them more amendable to questioning, and not likely to turn violent or afraid. It was how they learned their language, their cultures, their philosophies, and what they thought of their place in the world. It was a paramount step to Ascension.
Then they would be released back into the wild, remembering nothing of the encounter but a passing dream. If there were problems, they didn’t know of any, as they always observed their subjects for a time after their procedure. It was flawless.
Rhianne was just about to ask them what this display was for, when it happened.
The man began pulling at his restraints, writhing and thrashing. One of the doctors came to his side but was shoved away with surprising strength. His mouth began to foam, open and closing with a choking sound; he looked like he was going mad. Cavish held him down, barking orders, while another doctor approached with a syringe, and shot it into the port on the native’s arm. Another dose of sedative, Rhianne guessed. Far from quieting him, his body only seemed to contort even more.
For the next few seconds all the spectators could do was stare in shock while the man’s face turned blue, his contortions slowing before ceasing completely. He was dead.
Rhianne felt like she was in that room with them, staring in shock. “How...how did this happen?”
“Anaphylactic shock,” Director Hoff said somberly, wiping sweat from his brow. “It seems he was allergic to the sedative we gave. While we’ve had reactions like that before, we’ve never experienced anything quite so violent. It was enough to-”
Rhianne didnt need to hear anymore. She shot up from her seat and meant to march out of the room when Cavish grabbed her arm. “Rhianne, don’t-”
“You will let go of me this instant, and you will address me by my station, Captain,” Rhianne hissed. They weren’t playing games anymore.
Cavish analyzed her face for a second before doing as he was told, and backing away.
Rhianne blazed past him. As she stomped, dark thoughts flooded her mind. This was why. This was why there were no colonists here, only the skin of her people. Because if they were allowed to participate, they would know the price that was paid for Ascension. The price their people paid.
This can’t happen. Not again.
Figures moved out of her way as she passed, and in their faces there was no surprise. They knew this was coming.
In the medical bay there were only two females. They had been waiting for this, fear palpable on their expressions.
“Where is he?” Rhianne snarled, frantically searching the room with her eyes, as if her target could be hiding in the cabinets or under the chair.
“He’s gone Rhianne,” a soft voice spoke up from behind her.
And there he was, Director Ral to the rescue. It seized her throat to see his eyes turned down in an emotion that wasn’t cold indifference. The sadness on his face clued her to the fact that were tears in her eyes. She batted them away impatiently. “What do you mean he’s gone?!”
“I mean I sent him packing the day this accident occurred.”
“You...you had no right!”
“I had every right. I am the director leading this expedition, and in your absence my word is law. There was no way to contact you; and I’ve tried, you can check the logs yourself. I made a decision that was in-keeping with protocol, and what I thought was right.”
“You think I should have punished him? He made a medical error. In that moment he froze and did not recognize the signs of anaphylaxis. He thought giving more sedative would quell the seizing. It did not. He was wrong. For that mistake he has been terminated.”
Rhianne shook her head, refusing to accept his ice cold logic. “I still think he should have been-”
“He will be punished enough. He was a recent entry, five months to be exact. After this mishap he will never find a role of this magnitude again, not in Valaron, or any colony and system. He has jeopardized the Ascension. Flaws will not be tolerated here.”
It was those last words that drained the rage from her completely. She felt like a child right then, an inexperienced greenhorn that knew nothing about her own world, let alone the twelve others she was meant to shepherd. How could she fault someone for making a mistake? By his logic, I should have been terminated long ago...
As always the old man saw right through her. He raised his chin. “I trust you’re starting to see reason?”
She nodded, shoulders slumped. “More than you know old man.”
“Oh, but I do know Rhianne. I’ve always known.” To her surprise he cupped her chin and raised her eyes to meet his. “You doubt yourself now. That’s why I am harsh on you, so you can be better. So we can be better, even when others let us down. Like the grayvines of this world we will rise from the muck even stronger.”
She jolted away from him, unused to his comfort. He had been a hard man even before her greatest folly, so this was a new sight for her. Still, there was something she needed to know.
“Who was he?” she demanded, no longer talking about the doctor.
“He was...he was nobody, Rhianne,” he said, his gaze scanning the floor.
Rhianne froze. Would the Director of Anthropology really call a living, breathing person a “nobody”?
He’s lying. Why is he lying?
“As I said, a nobody,” he went on, seemingly oblivious to her suspicions. “He was a villager from the settlement nearby. He had no wife, no children. He had no significant role in the community besides occasional laborer. By all intents and purposes, he was a wastrel and a vagabond. Alone.” He said the last word with finality, as if to placate her. “We made sure of that before we took him, in case of...situations like these.”
Rhianne nodded mutely. How much of that was truth and how much was fiction?
Several moments of silence passed before Director Ral sighed, motioning for her to follow. “Come Rhianne. There is someone I need you to see. Somebody.”
Unable to muster up any opposition, she followed. All eyes fell on her when they arrived at the meeting room, tension blanketing the air. But they needed not fear. Rhianne tumbled into her chair and stared forward, refusing to look at any of them.
Director Ral assumed his designated place and flicked his wrist once more. What appeared were several moving images of the same man in different locations. Even with just a cursory glance at the blurry videos, she could see that this man was strong. Not just muscular, but vital, far different from the man who had died in their care.
“We’ve found him Rhianne,” Director Ral sad, voice infused with pride like she’d never heard before. “This...is Aiden.”
“Aiden...” she whispered, testing the name on her tongue.
She watched enraptured as Aiden climbed a cliff face with a bundle of food on his back. She watched in awe as he assisted his neighbors in building what would become their settlement. She watched transfixed as he lead an exodus through the forest, clearly on the run from an unseen enemy. His people followed him without question. Deferred to him. Perhaps even worshiped him.
Aiden was the one.
They had found their Focus, the one exquisite being they would choose to Ascend, and lead their planet in the process. He will redeem me. He will solidify my place as an Ascendant.
His name...was Aiden.