::Captain’s Briefing Room aboard the Iceni, Orbit of Mana III, Manaspace::
There was part of Fara that silently wondered if she could somehow use this newfound connection to Admiral Supreme Rycar Mountbatten to build up her resume without blowing the whole “secret mission” part of all of this.
She marveled, for a moment, at how little these big missions seemed to phase her. It all just sort of seemed routine by now: secret mission with the Admiral Supreme of the RAF to hunt down a rogue Grand Army officer and a stolen battleship? Sure. Esperian nationalist terrorists hijacking a luxury airship cruise? Why not. Battle to the death against the King of the Reklar in the Mana Pureland? Been there, done that.
She was more worried about her “history of the Fringe” paper, due on Monday, which she’d barely started and didn’t have all her sources lined up for. The secret mission thing had really cut into her budgeted study time.
Glancing around the room, she started to feel that familiar “how do I fit in here?” feeling – though, as she caught Terry and shared a brief glance and nod with him, she realized that she was feeling out-of-place in the hero game less and less since moving to Albrook.
Terry was one of a few familiar faces present; Osprey was there, too, choosing to stand apart from the rest, leaning against a wall, arms folded across his chest as he wore his well-practiced “I am the night” scowl. Biminberrick the griffin hand was beside Osprey, peppering him with observations and questions, which Osprey was trying very hard to ignore (because it was crimping his style). There were Butlesworth and Violante; the robot butler was standing at attention just behind Terry’s seat, while Violante had taken the seat next to Terry and the two were deep in conversation. And she was laughing at Terry’s jokes. Like, a LOT.
“Could it be?..” Fara wondered.
Roxanne was over on the other side of the table, talking with Eleod. There were three others with Eleod: another dwarf, this one with a thick red beard and long, dark crimson robes; a hulking todo dressed all in furs and leathers; and a tall, well-muscled woman whose pointed ears, white hair and red eyes instantly gave her away as a sheikah – the infamous and secretive Hylian tribe said to have been charged with the protection of Hyrulean royals for countless generations, and noted in lore for practicing what could well be the Hylian equivalent of ninjutsu.
These must have been the “Baneling Busters” Eleod spoke of.
Just then, Mountbatten emerged from behind a pair of sliding doors, sipping at a black-and-gold coffee mug. At his side were two others, humans, both dressed in lab coats: one a middle-aged man whose black hair was thinning away from his face, the other a younger woman with close-cropped blonde hair. Both wore glasses: the older man’s were thicker (more like goggles) and seemed to sit right up against his eyeballs; the young woman’s were thinner, set in fashionable silver frames that rested down toward the end of her nose.
“Just a quick update,” the Admiral said, as he took his seat, set his cup down on the table and briefly swiped through some screens on his console, making sure his presentation was ready to be shown to the whole group. “We’ve cast off and gone dark. So far as anyone in the RAF knows, this is a simple training flight with a skeleton crew. In case any of you were wondering: this is, officially, the point of no return. For real, because we can’t go back to let anyone off.”
As Mountbatten tapped at his console, the lights in the room dimmed. Those who were standing came to fill some of the vacant seats around the conference table. Near the center of the table, a state-of-the-art holo emitter projected an image just above the table. Fara overheard Terry whispering to Violante, scoffing at how the Iceni’s holo “… was way lower res than the one aboard the Crownguard.”
The holo image displayed a grainy image of a photograph, alongside holographic text detailing a Grand Army service record.
“Meet Sub-General Conn Guitierrez,” Mountbatten said. "aka Ricardo Montalconn; aka Conn Noonan; aka Conn Singher; aka Grumblestinck Connderbatch. More commonly, and infamously, just known as Conn. Little is known about his past, thanks to his preponderance of pseudonyms. We do know he claims to be the son of an Imperial Magitek knight, which seems to be true, as his Grand Army health profile indicates inherited genetic damage consistent with a parent who had a large number of magitek infusions. He has dwarfism – possibly an effect of the afforementioned genetic damage – but also possesses a superior intellect. We suspect, but aren’t certain, that his intellect is the result of a short-lived magitek infusion program conducted by the Gramones… but, like most things Conn, we’re uncertain.
“What we do know is that he was once a Lord General in the Dark Wrath and was known to be a devotee of Maitreya. Conn was the mastermind behind the Dark Gods’ victory at the Battle of Pang, repelling GA forces from Southern Ticondera. Before the formal establishment of the Dark Wrath, Conn was one of the Dark Gods’ greatest mortal strategists, and frequently consulted with Dorian while he commanded the Dark Gods’ forces. But Conn never really got on all that well with Burzmale; didn’t appreciate the direction he was taking the war. So, with the help of Praxer, we got him to defect. He got a GA commission, sold out his old Dark Wrath pals, and for a time everything was swell.”
The holo-image changed, showing the schematics of a very large spaceship.
“Until now. The Grand Army’s trying to keep this a secret, but Conn’s gone rogue. He has absconded with an Aquitane-class battleship and… something else. Something worse than an Aquitane battleship.”
Mountbatten swept out a hand toward the man in the labcoat. “This is Doctor Kino Tatsumota, a Celpo research scientist. He will explain further exactly what it is we think Conn has.”
Tatsumota adjusted his glasses, as Mountbatten again shifted the holo-image. Now, it was showing the schematics for a device that looked a bit like an Ultima warhead. Several parts of the schematic were blacked out.
“This,” the scientist began, “Is a Device With No Name. It was captured by the Celpo at the end of the Great War, with intelligence, helpfully provided by Conn, that intimated it was an experimental Dark Wrath doomsday weapon. After my departure from the Guardian Ministry of Science, I joined the Celpo and was placed in charge of a team whose job it was to determine what in all of the Hells known to Gods and Men this thing actually does. I remain the head of this team today, and our work – after all these long years – is still incomplete.”
The holo-image shifted again, and the schematic of the Device With No Name flew apart. Little white lines connected blocks of text with different close-in details of each discreet part of the device. Some parts of the blocks of text were, again, blacked out.
"I always suspected Conn knew more than he would tell when he lead the Celpo to the device. My examinations lead me to believe that the device had been sabotaged prior to recovery, but not in a way that would render the device useless… just in a way that would keep it from operating, or keep us from learning its secrets. This was done with intention… by, I believe it’s now safe to assume, Conn himself.
“But Conn did not anticipate that I would come into contact with his device,” Tatsumota’s voice somehow evidenced pride, despite his cool, level tone. “In spite of what must have been his very best efforts to disguise the Device, I have surmised that it is built upon the magiteknology of the old Vectoral Empire. While my team never filed any official findings on what the Device’s purpose is…” Tatsumota adjusted his glasses. His utterly flat, expressionless mouth briefly flirted with a grin. “My best guess – and my guesses are only very rarely wrong – is that this Device With No Name is a birthing matrix for Banelings.”
There was a silence as the words sank in with all assembled.
“What’s a… Baneling?” said Bim, who seemed to sense the apprehension of those around him, even if he did not yet feel it himself. Dr. Tatsumota took a beat, as he acknowledged that there was, in fact, a griffin hand randomly seated at the Iceni’s conference table. Likely, Tatsumota surmised, the creature boasted of some great and hidden power, or else there was no way Mountbatten would have brought it along on such a dangerous mission.
“I am so glad you asked,” Tatsumota said. The holo display shifted again, this time rendering an image of a terrible creature, built from shadow and malice. “Banelings originally were creatures called ‘hyps,’ stolen from Aryth by the Dark Gods and twisted into living arcane weapons by some dark combination of magic and science – an artistic hybridization that the Dark Wrath excelled at in almost every weapon they built, and which we presently understand only a fraction of.”
“Meanest sons of bitches the Hells ever shat out,” Eleod said, interjecting. “I saw more of my friends turned inside out by those Godspawned freaks than I ever want to remember.”
The red-bearded dwarf agreed, nodding solemnly, along with the todo and the sheikah.
“Lucky for everyone at this table, we destroyed most of them during the War,” said the todo, folding his massive arms across his chest.
“So, is that why they built this machine?” Osprey asked, “Because the big walrus over there went and ate all the Banelings?”
The todo eyed Osprey suspiciously.
The other scientist, the young blonde woman, spoke in answer to Osprey’s question: “I believe that after a while, the Dark Gods and Burzmale’s generals had something of a… falling out. There is a point in the history of the Great War where we see fewer monsters and magic in the Dark Gods’ force, and more of Burzmale’s soldiers, tanks and war machines. The device may have been an attempt by the Dark Wrath to compensate, to create more Banelings for the war effort after the Dark Gods themselves cut Burzmale off.”
Mountbatten cleared his throat, and interceded, covering for his own perceived lapse in etiquette. “This is Dr. Lana Dougal. She’s a senior member of Tatsumota’s research team, and a noted scholar of Great War history.”
Dougal nodded politely after being acknowledged.
“The history lesson’s all well and good,” Terry said, speaking up. “But can this ‘Conn’ character turn this Baneling machine on? I think that’s the important part.”
Mountbatten turned his attention from Terry back to Dr. Tatsumota. Tatsumota had been looking at Terry knowingly, as if sizing him up. He broke his gaze only when he noticed Mountbatten’s head turning his way.
“At this point all we have are guesses,” Tatsumota stated.
“But your guesses are supposedly never wrong,” Terry returned.
This time, Tatsumota’s smile was evident. “Only very rarely,” he corrected, seeming to relish the exchange. “If in fact it was Conn who sabotaged the machine before directing the Celpo to steal it, perhaps for the purpose of storing it until he could secure it for himself again, then we must assume that he has the means to re-activate it and that this is the final stage of Conn’s grand plan.”
“So it behooves us to have a plan of our own,” said Mountbatten. “And now that we’re all caught up, we can talk about what that plan is. We know that Conn’s stolen ship, the Storm’s Eye, is on the very edge of Manaspace, beyond the 9th orbital, in a nebula known as Sylphid’s Cloud. We know this because, until a few days ago, the Storm’s Eye’s transponder was still broadcasting the ship’s position.”
“Well, that’s convenient,” said Violante, scoffing.
“Yes,” Mountbatten said. “One might think that, maybe, General Conn simply didn’t know enough to deactivate his transponder after stealing his massive Grand Army battleship. But it would seem that even our Damcyanese outlaw mechanic friend, here, has doubts about that. I am inclined to agree: the superior intellect of Conn would not be so careless. He does not care that we know where he is. In fact, it is highly likely that he prefers it this way. He is leading us into a trap.”
The holo display shimmered and displayed a three-dimensional rendering of the Sylphid’s Cloud nebula.
“You seem fairly sure,” Roxanne observed. “Maybe he did just forget to turn the transponder off. How do you know?”
“Because I know the man’s mind,” Mountbatten shot back, with finality but not venom.
“By the Gods,” Bim said, hopping up and down excitedly in his chair. “The Admiral’s psychic!”
“Conn was one of us, once,” said the sheikah. She reached down to the bunched up turtleneck gathered at her throat, and reflexively stretched part of it up to cover the lower half of her face. It was an unconscious motion on the shiekah’s part; she did it because the thought of Conn was… unpleasant.
“Supposedly,” said the red-bearded dwarf, his bushy red eyebrows bowing under the weight of a furious scowl.
Mountbatten regarded the men of his former unit, and nodded. “After his defection, Sub-General Conn was attached to the Baneling Busters. He promised his inside information would help us wipe out the last of the Dark Wrath’s Banelings.”
Eleod absently stroked his long, dark beard. “We suffered more casualties under his command than we had for the entire rest of the war combined. And now we know for sure: he meant to get us all killed. All for this. So there’d be fewer of us here for the endgame.”
Mountbatten sighed. “We were never able to prove any actual malfeasance on his part,” the Admiral said. He rested his elbows on the table and folded his hands in front of him, his eyes playing the spaces between his fingers. “But with what we know now… much of what he did back then seems clearer…”
“You know what doesn’t seem clear?” the todo stood and pointed at the nebula. “That. Why would he run here, of all places?”
“True enough. Hiding in the giant space cloud does not seem the best opening gambit for someone who’s just stolen one of the most powerful starships in Web space. It’s an amateur move, but it does make a certain amount of sense for someone like Conn, who has little to no actual experience in space warfare…”
Mountbatten tapped into his console, and a section of the nebula on the display was highlighted.
“I have two theories. First, do not underestimate Conn. He knew it would be me coming for him, which meant that he knew I would be bringing the Iceni. Iceni’s a smaller craft – smaller than an Aquitane battleship anyway – but she’s very tricky, built to be a capital ship slayer, and she happens to be commanded by one of the greatest living starship commanders in the Web. So, knowing this, Conn chooses the nebula, a battlefield where short range sensors will be all but useless.”
“… How does that help anybody?” asked Fara, venturing to speak.
Mountbatten’s eyes fell upon the girl, and he recognized her from Eleod’s description. For a moment, his face softened. So this was the hero with the Mana Sword?.. He felt hopeful just to look at her, and somehow, Fara was encouraged, even if she had no way of knowing what the Admiral Supreme was thinking.
“Sauce for the goose, Miss Somers,” Mountbatten explained. Then, further, with a slightly arched eyebrow: “The odds will be even. Both ships blinded, my advantages will be diminished, as will Conn’s disadvantages.”
The Admiral continued: “My second theory: you see the highlighted sector of space within the nebula? My sources tell me that that’s the location of a secret Celpo research facility.”
“What kind of research facility’s built way the hell beyond all the planets in a dimension, in the middle of a giant space blinding cloud!?” Terry asked.
“The kind where we don’t want anyone to know what’s being done there,” said Tatsumota, matter-of-factly in spite of the chill in his voice. Fara guessed that creepy Dr. Combover was probably one of Mountbatten’s sources. “Isn’t that about the same idea King Derik had when we rounded up all Gate’s OmniSent agents after they so kindly identified themselves with bolt-badges?”
Terry’s face darkened. He still carried a lot of shame for things that both he and the Kingdom did during the OmniSent Crisis.
“I don’t believe Conn would activate his baneling birthing matrix aboard the Storm’s Eye,” Mountbatten said. “Too risky, not his style to put himself in danger like that. But this Celpo facility? Isolated on the far end of Manaspace. Hidden from view in a nebula. And leagues of vaccuum, ice, gas and dust between himself and his waking offspring. He could safely test the Device there and ensure that I split apart my forces, sending some of the brave souls I brought on the journey down to the facility to deal with the machine and its newborn banelings, while I’m forced to stay aboard my ship and face off with Conn and the Storm’s Eye.”
The Admiral nodded. He laid his hands flat upon the table. “So, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“Wait. What?” Osprey said.
“It’s why most of us were brought along,” Eleod said, “To fight Banelings. Unless your resume has a few lines about all the useful things you can do on a starship?”
“But what about the part where he thinks this was part of Conn’s plan the whole time?” Osprey said. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but as a rule I don’t like doing exactly what my enemy thinks I’m going to be doing.”
Mountbatten smiled. “It’s a good rule, I’ll grant you. But it’s amateurish. Sometimes it’s wiser to dance all the steps and wait for an opening. Which is what we’ll do: exactly what Conn has planned… only to feint and counter at just the right moment.”
“Your dance analogy brings me shockingly little comfort,” Osprey said.
“Get used to it, bird-man,” barked the todo, chortling.
Mountbatten tapped at his console one last time, and two small blocks of text filled the space above the table. “Our team assignments. Fara Somers, Terry Shale, Roxanne North-Star and Osprey, you will join Eleod Vrinnicus, Galgann Fireblaster, Horker Frostreaver and Thetrel Skysinger on the away team…”
“Dr. Dougal will ride-along,” Tatsumota said. The Admiral shot him a questioning glance. “You will need one of us on the ground who has some experience working with the Device. It is the only chance you will have to safely shut it down.”
“I think I know another way to shut it down,” said Galgann, the red-bearded dwarf, his eyes glowing with magical fire.
Tatsumota glared at the dwarf. Knowing that Galgann was a veteran of the Great War, knowing that he was a priest of Rubicant and a master fire elementalist, the Celpo scientist glared daggers, utterly fearless, and said in a tone that could rip the heart from a man: “You will not destroy the Device.”
After a tense moment of locking eyes with Tatsumota, Galgann backed down, covering the chill in his spine with a scoff and a grunt as he turned away.
“Thank you for playing nice, boys,” Mountbatten said, condescending to both the doctor and the fire-magic wielding dwarf. “Very well, Dougal rides along. And we try to recover the machine intact… but if that’s not possible, it must be destroyed.”
Tatsumota regarded the Admiral, but said nothing. Even his silence seemed off-putting.
Mountbatten returned to his team assignments: “Doctor Tatsumota, Violante Vaquero and… Butlesworth… you’ll join my skeleton crew. Miss Vaquero… how do you feel about helping to keep the Iceni from exploding?”
Violante’s eyes lit up. “It’ll be like a dream come true, Admiral, sir… my hands, elbow-deep in the guts of a spaceship!?!? I just, can’t even!!”
Tatsumota sighed. “Perhaps I could… supervise. In the interest of avoiding a cascade reactor failure.”
“Ooh! Ooh! What about me!?” Bim bounced up and down excitedly. He hopped off his seat, and scuttled over toward Mountbatten. “Which team do I go on, Admiral, sir!?”
Mountbatten was flummoxed for the first time he could remember. He blinked, and then, after deliberating, turned and looked back at his coffee mug sitting on the table. He reached over, picked it up, and regarded it for what seemed like forever. Then he reached down and set the mug on top of the griffin hand. He looked at what he’d just done, and smirked.
“Your post is next to my chair on the bridge,” Mountbatten said. “Don’t let it spill.”