“It’s ahead, kupo,” Kupello said. Sel walked next to him, now that they were outside of Grand Casar. They moved light and quick to the wreck of the ship. The cars and rovers available to them were limited; if something was close by at all, the Far Patrol usually walked. Fuel was a precious resource indeed on Avalon, and their mining operations could barely keep up with the magilyte needed to provide every ranger with a vehicle.
If there were injured in that ship, though, Sel knew that they might need that fleet of vehicles.
“I can see that,” he answered the moogle. “Gods, look at it! It’s the size of a city.”
“Not quite that big,” the moogle replied, “but close enough. We’re lucky that it wasn’t closer. We might have gotten more than some broken windows if it had been. Doctor Foster’s gonna have his work cut out for him as it is.”
“How many people are in that thing?”
Kupello shook his head with doubt. “I couldn’t begin to guess.”
Sel squinted. He always had good eyesight – it helped with being part of the Far Patrol – and took a good look at the wreckage of the ship. He could make people out, distantly, walking about the shattered hull. He saw some pulling people out of the large tower, which had been dragged along with the rest of the ship and twisted around so terribly. They were loading them on stretchers, he thought, or maybe in body bags. He decided that Kupello was right: the doctor would have a long day ahead of him.
“Let’s hurry, then,” he said. “They’ve got wounded and they better know we’re here. I just hope they’re friendly.”
“With a ship in that kind of shape, they don’t have much choice. Let’s go.”
The two began to jog, then. They didn’t take more than twenty steps, though, when the sky above them roared. It moved faster than Sel could track and Kupello yelped, stopping short in his tracks so quickly that he fell over on himself. Sel’s reflexes were better than that, thanks to his training, and he stopped moving as the blur of blue from overhead took a more distinct form. It was humanoid and mechanical, which stunned Sel; the technology here looked decades beyond what he was used to on Avalon. It reminded him of the newer things – the handheld communicators, the magitech scanners, the like – that had been coming out recently, only magnified in scale.
The machine was all organic curves and artful lines, its armor painted in stunning royal blues and whites. There was true art in how it looked, and the crafted faceplate – despite being featureless, beyond the vents on the cheeks – had a faintly angelic quality. Its eyes glowed with a golden light, and its hands were articulated in a way that Sel had never seen a machine manage. Its back had a humming, cone-shaped mechanical device that somehow lowered it with incredible grace. Despite its size, it wasn’t lumbering. The machine moved with deliberate intent, like a human in more than just form.
It landed before them, which reminded Sel of its size after it made the ground shake. It dropped down to a knee, then, and its chest swung upward, revealing a hatch that he hadn’t seen before. The pilot hopped out; she wore a white and gold suit that fit snugly, revealing her gender, but her face remained hidden behind the helmet that enclosed her head. She looked in their direction, though Sel couldn’t say who she looked at thanks to that helmet.
“Locals?” she asked, her accent one that Sel had never heard before.
“Uh,” he mumbled, before thinking to answer intelligibly. “Yes. From the city of Grand Casar. What are you doing here?”
“I’m on vacation,” she answered cheerily enough.
Sel’s expression grew flat – and flatter still when Kupello laughed beside him. He felt his cheeks grow hot, which made it a good thing that the moogle spoke up before he could complain. “You could have picked a safer flight,” the senior ranger said. “That uniform looks like Grand Army.”
Grand Army? Sel’s eyes widened with the thought. Some of his annoyance vanished. He heard about the Grand Army, but all of the photographs that he had seen were in black and white. The pilot suit, now that he knew what to look for, had the distinctive lines of the GA, though it was far different than any of those old photographs.
“That’s right,” she said. She reached up to her helmet, twisting once; something clicked, and it came away. Long red hair spilled out, and the woman – Sel guessed her to be about his mother’s age, maybe forty – smiled easily. “Hauptmann Meriana Casterian. I’m afraid we ran into a little bit of trouble.” She looked over her shoulder at the wreck. “A lot of trouble. Is the town nearby yours? We might need some help.”
“It is,” Kupello said. “Grand Casar.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” Sel said.
“We’re in your debt,” Hauptmann Casterian replied. “Where exactly is this? We didn’t expect to find anything in this part of Carrionspace.”
“Avalon,” Sel said. “It’s a world called Avalon.”
She whistled lowly. Before she could explain, a faint buzzing came from her ear. She held her hand up, indicating for them to wait, and turned her head. She was speaking into a radio, Sel realized, though he couldn’t make out a headset. It might have been built into her suit. “Yeah,” she said, speaking but not to them. “I found the first band of locals headed this way. I intercepted them. They seem friendly and say we’re on Avalon–you’re close by? All right. Casterian, out.”
“A friend, kupo?”
“Another officer on the Reinhardt,” she said. “This is really Avalon? We thought that place was a myth. The Carrionese space program hasn’t done anything in years. We never thought…”
Sel felt a flicker of annoyance. A myth? It was his home; even if he dreamed about going to the Web beyond, the idea that the Web had forgotten them – or, worse, written them off as a legend – somehow rankled. “Well,” he said, his testiness entering his voice, “we’re here. Standing right in front of you. And it doesn’t look like you’re going anywhere soon.”
She frowned. “Sorry.”
Kupello smacked him in the leg. At first, Sel thought it was to correct him, but he saw that it was really to get his attention. He looked to the woods between them and the Reinhardt and saw why: a wolf, walking on two legs like a man, and of height with one came for them. Sel started to reach for his rifle, before he realized that it was no beast. This man – or whatever he was – wore a uniform in the same colors as Casterian. He also had an eye patch covering his left eye. Sel opened his mouth, but no words came.
“You’re right about that,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere anytime soon. The damage is severe.” He turned to Casterian, throwing off a quick salute. “Hauptmann. Glad you’re here.”
“You, too, Oberleutnant Kestrich,” Casterian said. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Kestrich replied. He didn’t say more than that; instead, his good eye turned towards Sel and Kupello, and regarded them for a moment. “You’re our locals?”
“We are,” Kupello said. He took a step forward confidently. “I’m Kupello, a senior ranger in the Far Patrol of Grand Casar. This is another of our rangers, Celiose Harcourt.” The two Grand Army soldiers gave each other a look at that, surprise written plainly on their faces, but there was something else there too. Sel wondered at that, but Kupello didn’t. The moogle kept talking, his tendency to take charge asserting itself. “We’ll need to alert the city elders. Probably the Chamberlain, too.”
“I understand,” Casterian said. “It must be a surprise. Oberleutnant, would you say we should begin arranging relief from the locals immediately?”
“That’s the thinking of every officer I’ve talked to,” Kestrich said. His snout wrinkled and he looked uncomfortable. “We’re still working out who, exactly, is in charge. There’s a lot of damage. If your people are willing…”
“We should talk to them right away,” Sel said.
“My overzealous subordinate,” Kupello said, giving Sel a look, “is right. Still, we need an idea of the damage, too. They’re going to want a clearer idea of the resources involved.”
“Understandable,” Casterian said. She looked back at the wreckage of the ship, still smoking and aflame in places. “It’s a right mess.”
“I suggest we split up, kupo,” Kupello said. He turned to look up at Sel. The expression on his face was deadly serious; in his year on the Far Patrol, he hadn’t seen this sort of look on the moogle before. It told Sel everything he needed to know: this was a complex situated, and it promised to get more complicated. He might have been impulsive by nature, but right now, that look cut through him with its icy intent. He knew to listen. “You go with her, I go with him. I can heal. Maybe it’ll help with their wounded.”
Sel nodded. “All right, Kupello.”
Kupello turned, looking up at Casterian. He stared at the far taller human, but in that moment, Sel could believe they were of the same stature in spirit if not body. “Is that all right with you and yours, Hauptmann?”
“It is, ranger,” she said, giving Kestrich a look. “Oberleutnant, I trust you can take it from here?”
“I can,” he said. He looked back down at Kupello. “If you can heal, we’ll be grateful. We’ve got a few wounded already.”
The moogle nodded. The two began to walk away, leaving Sel alone with the pilot. He looked back at Casterian, realizing with some nervousness that he wasn’t sure what to say now. He didn’t know quite where to begin with her, or what to say first. He cleared his throat, adjusted the way his rifle hung on his shoulder, and turned on a foot. “All right,” he said, “it’s about an hour’s walk. Follow me and keep that sidearm ready. The local wildlife–”
“Actually.” Even with his back to her, Sel could hear the smile in her voice. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder. She grinned. “You ever ride in a Seraphim before, kid?”
“Not so much,” Sel admitted. He looked up at the blue and white robot, still as a statue above them. A smile began to break across his face, as he turned to face her. “But there’s a first time for everything, right?”