Spring Break [Ep 8]

[Obligatory for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI3rlJdGHZk – Ed.]

Fara should’ve known something was going to go horribly wrong.

It had all started out so charming, so pictureseque, like something from one of the Gabbiani Enterprises advertisements. When she had seen the airship moored at the Zepplinbourg Aerodrome, it looked like it came straight out of a fantasy book. The Esperians still had a deep-seated fascination with airships, and although the Daryl’s Dream was built to be the last word in luxury, from the outside it was possible to imagine it that it was practically the same ship that had borne the Fourteen Against Kefka on their legendary journey to save the world, or one of the ships that inspired Mic Hosluft to start the Sky Riders.

Denise had invited all the roomies on the trip – her dad was an investor in Gabbiani Enterprises and she got a good price on a package deal.

Fara herself jumped at the chance, but it was no sure thing that she would be able to go on spring break – her parents had wanted her to visit home, and Eleod had wanted her to spend every spare minute training. Fara had to promise Eleod that she would train every day while on vacation, and promise her parents that she would call everyday. The truth of the matter was that she wanted to get away from it all, get away from Mana Knight-ing for a bit, and just have some time for sightseeing and partying.

As to the other roomies, Kamiko had politely demurred, saying that she wanted to spend spring break with her family. Violante also said she wanted to wanted to spend time with her family (though, in truth, as a Damcyanese national it was quite difficult for her to legally travel to the Esper Union.) This opened up two spots that Denise suggested Fara extend to “your hunky Guardian friend and that amusing bird-man.”

Terry jumped at the chance – an all-expense paid, luxury vacation was too good to pass up. However, Osprey insisted his job search had reached a critical phase, and didn’t want to be out of town when opportunity knocked.

That left Fara, Denise, and Terry to make a grand tour of the Esper Dimension in style, aboard a luxurious airship featuring food from a SimaFort-trained chef, a theater with the latest holographic technology, high-end casinos, and Web-renowned service, with stops in Jidoor, Nikeah, Maranda, Zozo, and the Veldt.

Fara should’ve known something was going to go wrong.

Things started out fine.

The Grand Ballroom of the Daryl’s Dream was a spectacular sight, with red imported Sarha and baroque, gilded wood. Although the ship was the latest in airship technology, the ballroom hearkened back to some lost gilded age, a time when Esperian guildmasters might toast to the Returners. High over the ballroom was a glittering chandelier of gold and crystal, illuminating the revelers of the ship as they began their epic journey across the Esper Dimension.

The whole surroundings were quite a bit more luxurious than Fara’s old family trips camping in the upperlands – the setting felt too rich for her blood. She felt incredibly underdressed in her jeans and Screaming Eagles hoodie. Denise, as usual, looked as though she had stepped off the billboard of a fashion advertisement, wearing a sheer, gauzy red dress that had the whole room tilting its head over. Terry similarly cut an impressive figure, having recently acquired a deep navy blue double-breasted suit tailor-made by Klyde Munro for his muscular frame.

“So,” said Denise, sizing up Terry approvingly, “how is it that you keep in such…fine…shape?”

“Well,” said Terry, “there’s no secret to it. Hard work and exercise.” He smiled, although if he was honest with himself, the hard work and discipline to keep in shape was relatively new to him. Back when he had been powered by the spirit of Shiryu, his body had been transformed, and even without having to exercise he could eat all the maple-frosted donuts he wanted. But ever since he lost his powers, he had to work to keep a crime-fighting level of fitness, routinely hitting the gym like he never had in his life. Fara had had to show him the proper form for squatting weights after he pulled a muscle, and although he missed the ease of his old, effortless musculature, he had to admit that he appreciated the discipline of his new lifestyle.

“Yeah, but you had to start from somewhere,” said Denise. “Were in the GA, like everyone else in Albrook?”

“…yes,” said Terry. “Though, not for very long. It was nice to be part of something larger than myself, but army life didn’t agree with me. Thought I’d stick around Albrook, though.”

Denise smiled, showing pearly, dazzling white teeth straight from a dentist’s advertisement. “So, that’s how you ended up in Albrook after your tour with the Royal Baronian Dance Theater company?”

“….of course,” said Terry. “You see, I wasn’t all that graceful, so I thought I’d join up. You know, join the GA, save the Web, see the world. Fight giant space termites, things of this nature.”

“So where’s your hometown?”

“Arris,” said Terry, telling the truth for once.

“What’s that like? I’ve never been to Guardia before.”

“In some ways, it’s like Albrook…bit military town. I haven’t been back in a while.” Terry had few fond memories of his time in Arris, before becoming the Shield, working as a janitor to make ends meet in the hopes that his dreams of becoming a writer would someday pay off.

“Planning on visiting soon?”

“Not likely,” said Terry.

“So,” said Denise, “you’re from Arris, and then you got a gig in the Baronian Dance Company, then you joined the GA?”

“More or less,” said Terry. “There was one or two odd jobs in Aryth….that’s when I met Osprey, actually.”

“Aryth!” exclaimed Denise, “is it really as great as they say? I’d like to visit there sometime…maybe spend some time there to find myself.”

Terry smiled, remembering one of his first missions, when he was in an Omnisent prison facility, chained up with Osprey. “I can’t say I was there under the best of circumstances…but, sometimes its not where you are, but who you are with.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Denise, raising her glass of expensive Winlanese champagne.

“Cheers!” said Terry, hoisting his cup, a bit of warm Guardian [sake] (the only decent Guardian [sake] he’d had since leaving home.)

Prost!” added Fara, raising a large stein of Sam Amadson – somewhat intimidated by the airships extensive and luxurious drink menu, Fara had adopted for a frosty glass of the classic Tasnican beer, which was, after all, always a good choice.

After they’d clinked their glasses and had a good swig, Denise leaned back in her chair, moving her finger around the edge of her glass. “So, I am curious, Terry,” she said, “how does an exciting, Web-hopping, handsome man like you know a small town girl like Egmont, here?” she gestured at Fara.

“Hey!” exclaimed Fara. “Egmont is not a small town! It has more people than Centwerp!”

“Yeah, whatever, Fara,” Denise rolled her eyes. “I mean, were you in Egmont for that rock demon thing?”

“…yes,” said Terry, carefully. Keeping a secret identity sucked…it was probably best to cleave to at least some truth, when it was possible.


Terry wracked his brains for an acceptable lie that would fit with the rest of his story, but Fara spoke first.

“Well, Terry’s embarrassed to say so to a girl,” Fara said, grinning, “but he and I used to be avid writers of video game fanfiction. Egmont just so happened to be hosting a small fanfic convention at the time.”

“….you write fanfiction, Fara?” said Denise. “You don’t seem the type.”

“It takes all kinds!” Fara protested.

“What do you write about? Swords? Soccer? Playing soccer with swords?”

“Well, the geopolitical history of a mash-up of video game worlds, of course!” said Terry. “I mean, you ever wonder what would happen if Mega Robo became leader of the Steambots from Battle Engine Online?

“…no, actually,” said Denise. “…but Battle Engine Online…that’s an Esperian game, isn’t it? We could visit their studios on this trip if you want…I’m sure my dad knows someone.”

“Nah, it’s just going to be a bunch of coders at their desks,” said Terry. “Although, I am really excited to see the Skygon. It’s one of the places I’ve always heard about, but I’ve never actually been there. That, and all those national parks…it’ll be good to get out of the city.” During his tenure as de facto head of government, TO Halberg had designated several areas of Esper natural parks, and they were definitely becoming a big tourist draw.

“I’m excited for Jidoor,” said Denise. “Maybe we can buy Fara some proper clothes before we hit up Zozo…oh, Gods, Zozo – that’s a town that knows how to party!”

“I’m looking forward to Maranda, myself,” said Fara. “There are some friends I want to visit.”

And then things started to go badly – though it took a bit for anyone to realize it.

Everyone had been drinking – the atmosphere was quite festive. When the platoon of soldiers in Ifrit battlesuits burst into the ballroom, there were initially cheers – people thought there would be a show, as what could be more Esperian than a bravura military spectacle of battlesuit acrobatics?

The soldiers fanned out over the room, quickly and efficiently. The combat shotguns should’ve raised some alarms, but for a moment people believed it all part of the show.

Then there was a deafening thunderclap – the revelry was ended, the room was silent. The massive gold-and-crystal chandelier suspended in the center of ballroom exploded, shattered into millions of tiny glass shards, falling over the room like razer-sharp snowflakes.

All eyes turned towards the front of the room, where stood a barrel-chested man, his impressive physique noticeable even while wearing a battlesuit. His body was charged with electricity – quite literally, as sparks arced off his hands. He had his helmet off, displaying a massive dark forked beard and piercing blue eyes. On the shoulder pads of his battlesuit was emblazoned a large, stylized cross. When he spoke, he bellowed, with a voice like a cannon:

“This ship is now the property of the Neo-Returners Front,” he boomed, “and all aboard are our hostages. I am Captain Graegor Idran, formerly of the Sorcerous Tactical Operations Marines. We have seized control of this vessel in order to prevent a tragedy. The Neo-Returners Front has information that on board this ship is an envoy conducting secret negotiations between the government of the Esper Union…and the Scandian League.

“This is a stab in the back to all those brave men and women who fought to save the Web from communism during the Leviathan War. The current government of the Esper Union has abandoned the path laid out for us by Hosluft and Hannibal. They treat with communists, even as they allow Tasnican parasites to infest our cities. This…morass of a bureaucracy allows our once-proud country to decline into a second-rate power.

Idran punched an electrified gauntlet into the air, forefinger extended. “This cannot stand. The Esper Union must retake its rightful place as the Web’s true Great Power.”

“To the…inept and moribund bureaucrats calling the shots in Nikeah, we present an ultimatum. First, the Esper Union must end all negotiations with the Scandian League. Second, we call for an immediate resumption of the war with Scande, a war that will not stop until Tzen and the rest of the so-called “Occupied Zone” is freed from communist tyranny.

“If our demands are not met in 24 hours, we will begin killing prisoners, beginning with the envoy sent to facilitate this travesty of diplomacy.”

There was a pause, as Idran let everything sink in for a moment.

“So,” said Terry, low under his breath, “he just said unless the Esperian government starts a Second Leviathan War, he was going to kill all of us?”

“…well, scheisse ,” muttered Fara. Immediately she began to glance around the room, a random assortment of families, tourists, and students who were just hoping for a good vacation. Her blood boiled; all of these people were in danger over a political spat that they had nothing to do with.

Her gut urged her to fight; on a pure twitch level, she wanted to take these terrorists down. But she had been in enough scrapes to know that would end badly –she was facing a platoon of battlesuited troopers, all with shotguns, in a space that was close enough for them to easily hit but large enough that they could stay out of sword-reach, at least one spellslinger, and a bunch of innocent people in the crossfire. Even if she could pull out a fight here, the thought that the stray bullets and spells would almost certainly get some bystander killed churned her gut.

Idran’s voice boomed again – even without a loudspeaker, his speech deafened the room. “Until such time as the Esperian government renders its decision, you will be escorted to your rooms. It is my sincere hope that we end this night with nothing worse than a shattered chandelier, as I hope that all true Esperians recognize the justness and righteousness of our cause.”

One of the battlesuited troopers approached their table, and gestured with his shotgun.

“…are we all going to die?” asked Denise.

“Well,” said Terry, “it’s also possible that we could live, if the Esperian government agrees to start a war that will kill millions of people.”

It got worse after that.

The trooper escorted Fara, Terry, and Denise through the halls of the airship, ostensibly to return to their state rooms. Terry supposed that the “Neo Returners” wanted to break up the crowd into smaller groups that were easier to control.

Denise was freaking out; she was sobbing, her makeup was running, and she could barely control her trembling body. “…fuckfuckfuck, we’re going to die? By the elements, motherfucking Rainere, we’re going to die…”

“Quiet,” said the trooper, his voice filtered through a speaker. He prodded Denise with the butt of his shotgun to emphasize the point, but it just made her even worse. She collapsed to her knees, sobbing.

“Denise, chill,” said Fara.

“’CHILL’!??!” shrieked Denise. “At a time like this? How the fuck are you so calm, Egmont? This kind of shit happen to you all the time?”

Fara suppressed a half-hearted chuckle. “Well, actually…”

Denise cried out as the trooper cracked the heavy butt of the shotgun against her face, knocking her out. Her body crumpled on the floor, her beautiful red sarha dress spreading out over the elaborate mosaic tilework. “She was getting annoying,” his voice crackled through the speaker. “I’ve half a mind to just waste her and be done with it.”

“Most people don’t respond well to having their lives threatened,” retorted Fara, manifesting the Mana Sword. In a swift motion, she sliced the barrel of the shotgun in half.

If the trooper was surprised, it was impossible to see it in his visored face. “Cute,” he said, “you brought a sword to a gun fight.” He raised his right arm, as the forearm opened to expose an SMG gunport.

Fara grinned. “It’s magic , dummkopf .” Focusing on the power of Undine, a chill ran through the sword; with a swing and a solid hit, she froze the Ifrit battlesuit solid.

“Ok, the frostied guy will thaw out in a few hours,” said Fara. “But I’m sure we’ll do our hero thing and have the situation well in hand by then!”

“I dunno, Fara,” he said. “There was at least a full platoon up there. And you got the drop on this one in close quarters, but you won’t be so lucky with the rest. And this Ifrit battlesuit…that’s military tech.”

Fara rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, I took care of that ‘military tech’ in Damcyan, remember? And that was a GIANT robot. These guys aren’t even GIANT!”

“Those isn’t like those Fabul conscripts, Fara,” said Terry. “These guys are…or were…some kinda special forces unit. Those suits are designed for flight and aerial combat…they must’ve boarded the airship after we took off.”

Fara swung the sword around. “Yes, but they will be no match for us and our team-up!” she said excitedly. “We can call ourselves something clever…like ‘Sword and Shield’! We’ll just get back to your stateroom, you can suit up, and we’ll clear these guys out easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy!”

“Fara, I think you’d better think about this.”

“Why is this such a problem, Terry? We’re like, most of the way back to the stateroom already, I’m sure I can take out anyone else we run into –“

“Fara – I don’t have my suit,” admitted Terry.

“….what do you mean, Terry?” asked Fara. “Like, you mean it’s in your checked bags? I’m sure we can find the luggage compartment or something…”

“So, first of all, a high-tech suit of Seraphim Armor is not going to get past customs,” said Terry. “Secondly, the thing weighs a ton. I wasn’t about to schlep it all around the Esper Dimension on the off-chance we ran into terrorists or giant space roaches or something.”

“Well, that’s remarkably shortsighted!” shouted Fara. “Of COURSE we were going to run into an ancient evil conspiracy or Foo shadowklowns or fucking something! What about your wristwatch energy shield?”

“…Violante has it….she wanted to tinker with it a bit…” said Terry, meekly, then sighed. “I was just looking forward to getting away from it secret magical societies and crime syndicates, if only for a little while…and now here I am, without the Seraphim suit, and with no powers. I’m no hero.”

“Powers don’t make a hero, actions do,” said Fara.

“Easy for you to say. You’re the one with an incredibly powerful magical weapon inseparably bonded to your very spirit.”

“Fine!” snapped Fara. “If you want to host the Terry Shale Pity Party, I’m going to RSVP ‘no’. I’m going to fight.” The Mana Sword lit ablaze, powered by flame. Fara was well and worked up now, her green eyes hot with anger. “Gods, man, were you such a whingey sad-sack before you became a superhero?”

Terry felt ashamed, but he couldn’t help but chuckle lightly. “You know, I was a janitor before…” Fara nodded. “But even as a janitor, I beat six of the finest soldiers in the GDF to win the honor of wielding the Shield.”

“That doesn’t sound like the kind of person who would be sitting here while a bunch of terrorists murder innocents to try to start a war.”

Terry stood up straight. “No,” he said. “No, it isn’t.” He looked around. “Well, I guess I could take the trooper’s gun…but you cut in half.”

“You wouldn’t want it, it was made by Saeder-Krupp anyway,” retorted the Kuat fangirl.

“Ok,” said Terry, “then maybe my best bet is to make sure people are safe…I can get Denise, here, to an escape pod or something. I’ll try to get as many people as I can.”

“Great!” said Fara. “And I’ll go hit their leader with my Sword. This is a fantastic plan! See, we’re having a team-up after all!”

“Os will be so jealous he missed out on this,” agreed Terry. “Better get moving, Fara…we don’t have that much time. You should go to the bridge…if you can force the ship to land, we might be able to get help."

Fara nodded. “Ok, let’s go….though, Terry…I’m sorry I called you a whingey sad-sack.”

“It’s ok,” said Terry, “let’s go stop a terrorist plot.”

Fara had her mad on.

She made her way to the bridge. She had the Mana Sword out; her blood boiled for a fight. Just a day before, the Daryl’s Dream had been bursting with life as people celebrated started the trip of a lifetime in the ship’s dance floors and bars, expecting to see the wonders and beauty of the Esper Dimension. Even the lights and noises of the casino slot machines made no noise, their frivolous amusements deafened by the gravity of the situation.

All Fara heard was the clomp-clomp, squeak of her own boots. She had to imagine that no one could sneak up on her; those Ifrit battlesuits didn’t seem particularly stealthy. Her stride was defiant; haughty, even. In the open spaces of the banquet hall she would have been at a disadvantage, but in the narrow confines of the hall – in swordfighting range – she knew she could take whatever they threw out here.

She was almost disappointed when she made it to the bridge without getting to pick a fight.

“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey, terrorists!” she announced as she sliced through the armored, bulky door. Fara had decided that terrorist scum don’t deserve the honor of a full aristeia challenge.

Graegor Idran, the terrorist leader, grinned at her, revealing a grimacing visage of chipped, blackened teeth. “Welcome,” he said, his deep voice filling the chamber. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” he gestured around the bridge.

It was quite a sight. The bridge of the ship was a glass blister on the front of the airship, made entirely of transparent material, as the three main pilots sat suspended in the center of the room on a walkway. Whispy clouds raced by; looking down, Fara could see a roiling ocean. It was like flying without a ship; Fara found it vaguely disorienting.

“We Esperians have always had a special relationship with flight,” said Idran. “Always going higher…faster…better.” He shook his head, and stroked his luxurious beard thoughtfully. “At least until SRAN sold us out by going international…I guess the allure of the Tasnican geld was too much to pass up.”

Fara lit the Mana Sword ablaze, the power of Salamando coursing through her; after all, when all else fails, choose fire. "I’m not here to talk. I won’t negotiate with terrorists."

Idran chortled. “Great line! Did you see it in some summer action movie?” he chided. The gauntlets of his battlesuit crackled to life with lightning. “You may have gotten the drop on poor Corporal Abernathy, but now you face the stormfront!” Jets of blue-hot lightning arced through the air, casting the bridge-cabin in a radiant blue hue; the reflected off the glass, giving the emblazoned crosses on his shoulder pads a blue-gold tint.

Fara knew the STORM would be a spellcaster, so she was ready; the Mana Sword cut through the weaves of magic, and the dissipated, leaving only the ionized, static smell of electrified air.

“I’m going to change the forecast to clear skies,” retorted Fara.

“You think this is a game, you stupid girl?” said Idran. The gauntlets of his battlesuit opened up; there was a clattering of machinery. Two mechanical arms – one from each gauntlet – lanced outward, then flipped to reveal a jagged-toothed buzzsaw, sharp as diamonds. They started to whir, the whine cutting through the air. Idran tensed his muscles, and lightning crackled down the blades.

Fara did her best to concentrate, focusing on Sylphid – matching the element of the electrical attack would shield her from harm. She managed not a moment too soon, as Idran rushed her like something superhuman; Fara had to remember that his battlesuit could also fly.

Idran swiped vertically with one of the whirling lightning blades, and Fara sidestipped and counterthrust, piercing the armor and tasting flesh, sending her own jolt of electricity into man and suit.

“You would fight me with thunder?” chortled Idran. “The essence of Ramuh, Esper-Lord of Lightning, runs through me!” The flesh wound did not slow Idran down a bit; he unleashed a series of swipes with the shrieking volt-saws.

Fara had practiced with (and against) many, many different types of swords and melee weapons. This was a new one. Instinctively, she raised her sword to parry, trying to create an opening. But deflecting a rapidly spinning object threw off her balance; the rotational momentum of the spinning blade made her lose a stance, and the second blade slashed into her belly, gashing right through her University of Albrook “Screaming Eagles” hoody and tearing into her flesh. Losing focus for a moment, she lost Sylphid’s ward, and the electricity lit up her in sensors.

Fara collapsed. She heard a scream. An instant later, she realized the screaming was hers.

She forced herself to focus, to build the ward, brick-by-brick. Despite the red haze, she readied her sword again, determined to fight.

“Not bad,” said Idran. "You’ve got some spirit…"

Fara lunged forward, but Idran jetted away.

“You’re not a bad fighter,” Idran admitted, "but you’re a piss-poor soldier. You’ve been outflanked."

There was the loud belching of rapid-fire shotguns behind Fara as multiple, forceful impacts ripped into her body. A squad of soldiers was behind her, unloading their full clip into her back.

This time there was no screaming, only darkness.

“Where’s Fara?” Denise asked Terry when she came to. “Oh Gods – did they kill Fara!?”

“She can handle herself,” said Terry. He tried not to think too much about the very real possibility that Fara had gotten herself killed. “But, we’re on our own.”

“Well, scheisse .”

“I’ve got this,” said Terry. He stood at full height, doing his best to project confidence.

“You gonna dance the terrorists to death, Terry? Are you a half-moogle prince or something?”

"…you know, I’ve sometimes wondered how that actually works.“

Denise flashed a smile. “Mmm. Kinky side to you. Who knew you were into Mog XXX?“

Terry blushed. “Well, it’s not like…I mean, it’s just that, a moogle and human interbreeding?..I mean, I was only curious from a purely biological perspective.”

“Well, there’s quite a lot to be interested in…biologically speaking, of course…” Denise’s voice was breathy.

“…Denise, are you trying to --”

“Fuck you? Oh yes. If we’re going to die, I’m damn well going out happy. I can guarantee that you will go out quite happy, too. I can guarantee you that I know quite a lot about how to work your --what did you call it? – your ‘air conditioning unit.’”

”…we’re not going to die,” insisted Terry. “…though, really, in this situation, that’s all you can think about?”

“Can you think of anything better?” purred Denise.

“We can try to find a way out of this.“

Denise sighed. " Men ,” she said, “Have it your way, big boy.”

“So…do you have any skills?” asked Terry. Given how many people he had run into recently who had a wide variety of surprising superpowers, he thought surely Denise would have some surprises.

“Like what?” said Denise. She straightened the folds of her dress, adjusting it, trying to keep it straight.

“I mean, like martial arts, or maybe magic? Magic would be really ideal right now.”

”…uh, no, not really,” said Denise. “how about….Fashion? Makeup? I’m good at makeup.”

“Anything more…physical?” inquired Terry.


“Besides that,” insisted Terry.

“Well, yoga, but that’s mainly for the awesome yoga butt. And ballet, but that I was never good at it and I stopped at 12 when I had boobs happen to me.”

“Are you, by any chance, a veteran of one of the Web’s various wars?” asked Terry. “Maybe you helped in the defense of somewhere, for example?”


It figured that of the roomies Fara had gone on spring break with, she hadn’t chosen the samurai warrior or the gearhead smuggler. Of course, it had to be the one that was worthless in a fight.

”…we’re not going to make it, are we?" asked Denise. The hysteria in her voice was gone; now she seemed sad.

“I’ve been in tough spots before,” said Terry. But always, he’d had his powers or his suit to fall back on – except for the time he got his powers originally. “Did I mention I was a janitor in Arris Dome?” he said. “This was some time ago, before the adventures in Aryth, before I came to Albrook…honestly, my life had reached kind of a dead end. I had dropped out of school…I didn’t really feel like I had much of a future.”

“I’m not sure where this is going,” said Denise.

“Humor me,” said Terry, “by a trick of fate, I ended up in a competition with six others. It was some higher-up’s idea of a joke…these six competitors, well, they were the best Guardia had to offer. No one expected me, the lowly janitor, to beat them.”

“But you did, right?” asked Denise.

Terry smiled. “Of course,” he said. “I had some luck on my side…but more importantly, I knew that that was my chance. I knew that if I wanted to change my life, I had to win.” That’s how I became the Shield. “That’s how I became…the first Guardian to join the Baronian Royal Dance Company…an inspiration to all Guardian boys who love dance everywhere!”

“But you left the Dance company,” asked Denise.

“I made some…mistakes,” admitted Terry. “But…well, as they say, dance is in your heart.”


The interruption startled Terry and Denise; they jolted around, facing a battlesuited trooper. Clad in his Ifrit aerial battlesuit, the terrorist barely looked human, with a horned helmet that showed no face. He leveled his shotgun menacingly.

Terry, thinking quickly, smiled at the man. “Good afternoon, my good man,” he said. “Could you direct us to the performance hall? This is quite embarrassing, but we’re a bit lost.”

"All performances are canceled. Get to your rooms."

Terry turned his face into an excessive, mock-frown. “Well, what a pity,” he said. “You see, my friend and I are this evening’s entertainment. You see, I’m the Terrific Terry, formerly of the Royal Baronian Dance Company…this is my lovely assistant, the Dazzling Denise!” He gestured at Denise, giving her a quick glance.

Denise tossed her hair back, and opened her mouth in a bright, wide smile that lit up the hallway. Even after being knocked unconscious, even with broken shoes, Denise was still really, really ridiculously good-looking, ready for her photoshoot or to walk down the runway in her striking red dress. “Charmed,” she said, breathily. “What’s your name, soldier boy?”

“Um…Soban?” the soldier sounded unsure of himself.

Denise gave her long, blonde hair a flirtatious hair toss. “Mmm,” she purred, "you know, I’ve always had a thing for men in battlesuits."

Terry stepped to the side, skirting the edge of the trooper’s vision.

Denise pouted. “Can I, maybe…see you without your helmet off?”

“Well, I really should be escorting you back to your rooms…” Terry took a step closer.

Denise giggled. “Do I look dangerous to you? I just want to see what you look like without your helmet, is all. Then we can go back to the room and do whatever you want.”

“Well…ok…” slowly, the trooper removed his helmet, a small, audible woosh of pressurized air escaping.

From behind, Terry smashed down with his two meaty fists, cracking the trooper over his head and knocking him unconscious. The trooper collapsed, his battlesuit ringing all a clatter on the hard, faux-marble floor of the hallway.

“Poor guy,” said Denise. “It must’ve been a really long time since he’s been laid.“

Terry rolled the trooper over, and picked up the shotgun.

“You know how to use that?” asked Denise.

”…it’s not exactly my best subject,” said Terry, checking the gun. “But in close quarters, with a shotgun, I don’t need to be an expert marksman.” He opened the clip to check the bullets. “Gel rounds?”

“Nonlethal bullets?” asked Denise. “What kind of terrorists take over an airship and threaten to kill everyone, but use knockout rounds?”

“I dunno,” admitted Terry. “Maybe they don’t want to kill anyone unless it’s part of the plan?” He shook his head. “But that’s not how a terrorist would act…”

“Well,” said Denise, “what now?”

“We try to free other hostages,” said Terry. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I don’t like it…maybe you should go back to your room, where it’s safe.”

“I think I’ll stick with you, instead,” said Denise. “Somehow, I think that’s the safest place on the ship.”

" Madchen? Madchen? Guten morgen, madchen!"

Fara shook her head, groggily. She struggled to open her eyes; her lids felt heavy; her wounds had been bandaged and treated. She took in her surroundings: an opulent, luxurious cabin, and a man that she had seen on television since she was a child. “This is stupid,” she said, “I’m clearly still dreaming. What the hell is Rhodes Palmerston doing here?”

“It’s no dream, madchen ,” said Rhodes Palmerston, who was eating breakfast from a magnificent spread of eggs, sausage, bacon, and fruit. Despite his age and gray hairs, Rhodes still exuding preternatural energy and charisma. “You should try this novalox, it’s pretty good.”

“So…you’re the Rhodes Palmerston?” asked Fara. “Former Prime Minister of the Tasnica Republic, Sovereign Executive of the Alliance Congress…all that kind of thing?”

“Well, I could add original signatory of the Grand Army Charter, architect of the New Peace, avid sports fan, and a few other odds and ends,” said Rhodes.

“…I had no idea you were on board this ship,” said Fara.

Rhodes grinned. “My reputation for flash is quite handy for when I wish to travel in cognito.” He gulped down another forkful of eggs. “Though, perhaps, it is cause for our current predicament.”

"…you’re the negotiatior?" asked Fara. “The one the terrorists were looking for?“

Rhodes nodded. “Well, who else would the Esperians and Scandians both trust?” he asked, rhetorically. “I suspect that Idran’s original plan was to kill the diplomat to end the peace negotiations…but he didn’t realize that I was the diplomat. To kill some faceless bureaucrat, some name-on-a-page Esperian agent would be one thing…but to kill me, Rhodes Palmerston, well, I don’t think he was quite ready for that…but where are my manners? I haven’t allowed you to introduce yourself.”

“I’m Fara Somers,” she said, “From Egmont.”

“Ah, an Egmonter,” nodded Rhodes. “Nice place…pity about those soccer playoffs, though.”

“Fuck Centwerp,” snapped Fara.

“Well, as a former Prime Minister, I would never favor one city’s team over another,” Rhodes said. “But as a loyal Tasnicaport fan, I must agree. Fuck Centwerp.”

”…so, how did I end up here?”

“Well,” said Rhodes, “I’m not totally sure either. You must’ve done something to make Captain Idran angry…very angry. I suspect he wants to put his high-value prisoners in the same place, to keep a close eye on us.”

“I did try to beat him up with a sword,” said Fara. “You see, in addition to being a freshman at the University of Albrook and a proud Egmont sports fan, I’m also the Mana Knight.“

Rhodes smiled. “Really?”

”…you don’t believe me?“

Rhodes chuckled. “I’ve seen too much to be surprised by much of anything. Have you ever met Rainere, Goddess of Magic?”

“Yeah,” said Fara. “Like, when I first got the sword.”

“Terribly cryptic, isn’t she?”

“Beyond belief.“

Rhodes waved his hand. “Celiose says they’re all like that,” he said. “I suspect that was a big reason he was not fond of them.”

“Ever meet a Valkyrie?” asked Fara.

“Can’t say I have,” said Rhodes. “Not one that introduced themselves as such, anyway. I wasn’t sure they existed.”

“Eh, they’re kind of a mixed bag,” said Fara.

“And what were you doing on this ship?”

”…would you believe I just wanted a little vacation?” asked Fara.

Rhodes chuckled lightly. “Well, that’s fortunate.“

Fara shook her head. “This is supposed to be my spring break. I wanted to get drunk and party in Zozo and visit friends in Maranda. I don’t quite see why this is fortunate.”

“Well,” said Rhodes, “you can help stop a war. I’m sure you’ve been following the Web political situation -”

”…not really?” admitted Fara.

“Well, imagine that the Web’s Great Powers are engaged in an elaborate chess match,” said Rhodes. “You play chess?”

”…no.” What the hell was it with people and chess?

“Ok, I’ll do this without a metaphor,” said Rhodes. “A few weeks ago, there was an attempted communist coup in Eblan – they’re calling it the March 16th Incident. As a result, the Eblanese look likely to join Guardia’s anti-communist Coalition. This has the Scandians quite concerned, though they would never admit it. They’re very worried that the Esper Union could also join the Coalition, so they’ve sent peace feelers to the Esperian government. They’re willing to give a quite substantive deal – allow families to visit their relatives in the Occupied Zone, settle a few long-standing territorial disputes around coastal waters, sign a formal nonagression pact, and normalize relations with an exchange of ambassadors. The current Esperian regime is quite receptive to this deal – it was quite a miracle for TO Halberg to pull an army out of a hat to save the country in the Leviathan War, and no one is quite sure how a Second Leviathan War will go down…and the current Esperian regime isn’t willing to gamble millions of lives to find out if the Grand Marshal has another miracle in his great pack.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Fara, “fate of the Web, peace in our time, things of this nature.”

“Of course,” continued Rhodes, “both parties desired that the negotiations be conducted in secret. The Scandians were worried that willingness to talk would be interpreted as weakness. The Esperians, well, they knew that making a deal with the Scandians would be massively unpopular and could provoke a backlash…some of disgruntled veterans could hijack a civilian airship and threaten to kill everyone on board, for instance.”

“Yeah,” said Fara, “or they could sign an OmniNet petition!”

“Sadly, Captain Idran appears to have chosen political violence over forum trolling,” said Rhodes Palmerston. “Tell me…what do you know about him?”

“Big guy, big beard, big voice, shoots lightning. He’s our bad guy for this evening.“

Rhodes’s lips curled upward into a smile. “Our Web of the Worlds defies such a…manichean…worldview…things are more complicated then black and white.”

”…we live in the same Web, right?” asked Fara. “The one with walking, talking good and evil gods?”

“And yet our greatest hero banished both Light and Dark God alike,” said Rhodes. He waved his hand. “Forgive me, I have perhaps been given too much to philosophizing in my advanced age. I was speaking of our captors, the self-styled ‘Neo-Returners Front’…I don’t know if they’re quite ready to be terrorists yet.”

“Coulda fooled me,” said Fara.

“And, perhaps, they’ve even fooled themselves,” said Rhodes, “but they’re using gel rounds in their shotguns…that’s law enforcement, riot control issue. And they bandaged your wound…that’s how one treats a prisoner of war, not a hostage. And Idran…well, do you know that big cross he has on his shoulders?”

“I noticed it, yeah,” said Fara. “Figured it was because he was the leader.”

“It’s the Cruce Hannibalus , or Hannibal Cross. It is awarded for ‘outsanding conduct in the honorable defense of the Esper Union.’ It’s not that sort of thing they pin on just anyone…do you know how he got it?”

“No, but you’re going to tell me, right?” said Fara. "You’re a veritable fount of useful information, Mr. Sovereign Executive."

Rhodes shrugged. “Sadly, I don’t know,” said Rhodes, "but it’s perhaps worth finding out."

Fara rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll add that to my to-do list, somewhere between saving everyone on board the ship, restocking the fridge with Kuat Kola, and passing math.“

A booming voice filled the room – the whole ship – the rumbling basso of Captain Graegor Idran, formerly of the STORMs, now of the Neo-Returners Front.

“The Esper Union has abandoned us!” His thunderous voice made Rhodes’s breakfast plates and orange juice glass vibrate. “Even when confronted with proof of their heinous crime of seeking to treat with our vile enemy, our once-great nation remains unmoved…they have become soft, their strength sapped by foreign parasites.”

“Once, under Hannibal, the Esper Union bestrode the Web like the gods…the other so-called ‘Great Powers’ either sought our favor, or cowered from us in fear. But now we are the sick man of the Web…unable to raise a finger even as the cancer of communism courses through our dimension.”

”…he likes these speeches,” said Fara.

“To be fair,” said Rhodes, "it is a bit of a Web tradition."

Idran’s voice, now seeming to shake the ship itself, roared through the speakers like a storm. “If our nation will not answer the warrior’s call,” he said, "I will thrust greatness upon it. I have altered the course and speed of this airship. We have a new destination: Emerald City, the Scandian League Combined Military Headquarters in the Esper Dimension. At full speed we will launch into the beating heart of their evil occupation, incinerating it as a thunderbolt!"

Idran’s voice continued, taking an almost conciliatory tone. “I know that many of you on board would not have chosen this,” he said. "But your deaths will usher in a new era of glory for Esper, and you will be the first honored martyrs in a crusade to purge communism from the Web once and for all!"

The loudspeakers fell silent.

“…oh,” said Fara, "so now he’s turned the ship into a missile. And everyone’s going to die in a crash instead of getting shot.

“Well,” said Rhodes, “the Scandians will almost certainly shoot us down before we get anywhere near Emerald City.”

“WHAT?” said Fara. “I mean, I did the Scandians a solid a few months back. They fed me borscht and everything. Now they’re probably going to kill me?”

“That’s politics,” said Rhodes dryly. “Idran is, to use the diplomatic term, ‘fucking with’ Scande. And Scande, like all Great Powers, hates to be ‘fucked with’. I suspect they’ll blow us out of the sky as soon as we reach OZ airspace.” Rhodes sighed. “And Idran gets to die a hero’s death, at the hands of his hated enemy. And the Scandian League will be blamed for the deaths of civilians from over a dozen countries.” Rhodes shook his head. "I take it back. Maybe Idran is ready to be a terrorist.“

Fara stood up, manifesting the sword. “Ok. Talk time over. It’s time to smash things.” She sized up the door to the cabin, assuming it was reinforced and blockaded. The Elemental Sola would give her the sonic oomph to smash through it; or she could burn through it with a Salamando saber. But she’d have to be ready for the guards on the other side.

Rhodes waved his hand. “Don’t be hasty,” he said, and opened the door. " Madchen , I’d like you to meet Lieutenant Samantha Biben, from Narshe.“

One of the battle-suited troopers entered the room, still holding her shotgun. The visored helmet betrayed no speck of emotion or remorse.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said the trooper, with a half-sarcastic tone.

Fara tensed for a moment, but a quick glance from Rhodes stopped her. “Lt. Biben comes from an esteemed military family,” Rhodes said. “Her father was an Imperial Trooper…though, sadly, he now suffers from Tuvin’s Syndrome. She has a younger sister who very much wants to study at the Palmerston School of Law and Diplomacy.” Rhodes smiled. “She was quite fortunate to be assigned as my guard…as, of course, I am a scintillating conversationalist…and I can easily arrange for her sister to get into the Palmerston School, and for her father to get the best Tuvin’s Syndrome treatments available.”

”…and she’s going to let us out of the cell?” asked Fara.

“Nothing’s more important than family,” said Lt. Biben, “and the Captain…well, I don’t know what happened to him. He’s popped a stitch or something. I signed up to kill communists, not tourists.”

“You negotiated with the terrorists!?” asked Fara. “I thought you didn’t do that! In the movies, it’s all like, ‘the Tasnica Republic does not negotiate with terrorists!’”

“The Tasnica Republic became a Great Power by negotiating,” said Rhodes. “You will find there are problems that can be solved through diplomacy even if they will not yield to force.”

“Oh,” said Fara, then smiled. "Like, the pen is mightier than the sword!"

Rhodes sighed. “If you want to be cliche about it.”

“Terry, maybe we should just get to a lifeboat,” said Denise. “We were lucky before, but are you really going to clear out the whole ship with just a shotgun?”

“I can’t leave these people behind,” said Terry. "Look, we used the trooper’s radio to listen in on their communications. We know there’s a bunch of hostages in the casino…it’s around the corner."

As quietly as they could, Terry and Denise peered around the corner. Some automatic timer or system error had activated the casino; holographic dealers called for bets, slot machines jingled and sang, and honeyed synthetic voices proclaimed FABULOUS PRIZES for any willing to take a chance. Terry was lucky; the noise of the casino had concealed his approach. It put him in a gambling mood, willing to push his luck a little bit farther.

There was a group of hostages on the floor, zip-tied. They seemed agitated, as about a half-dozen battlesuited troopers patrolled the area. One hostage asked for water; he got a kick to the gut.

One of the troopers was talking. “I hate to disagree with the Captain, but he didn’t even try killing hostages to show we were serious.” He shook his helmeted head. “I say we waste a couple anyway…if nothing else, it will keep the others in line.” He walked among the hostages, stopping at a dark-furred moogle. “This one maybe?” he said, leveling his gun at the moogle’s head. “Or maybe this one?” he turned to face an older, wrinkled woman, who was obviously traveling with the older man next to her. "Some retirement trip, huh, lady?"

The old woman spat. “Fuck you. I was at Trianable. Do you know I had to go through so you could have a Web free from the Dark Gods?”

“Never met a member of the Great War generation who wasn’t eager to tell me,” said the trooper, and punched the woman in the face with his battlesuit gauntlet. "Some Web you left us, bitch."

Terry took careful aim with the shotgun – he was only going to get one chance at the element of surprise. He squeezed the trigger, and a burst of rounds belched out from the barrel. The kick of the recoil surprised him; this was not like the WonderShot weapons he had used way back in basic training at Arris. Quickly he sighted another, and pulled the trigger again, scoring another hit.

He ducked behind the corner; he was taking return fire. He knew the troopers would come for him soon; he had to be ready. His heart was pounding; there was something about using a gun that was so uncivilized, so unchivalrous. And his tailor-made double-breasted suit looked great, but it wouldn’t afford him any protection against the inevitable return fire from the terrorists.

For a moment, there was silence, except for the thump-thump of Terry’s own heart – even Denise was holding her breath.

Then, he heard the terrorists chatter amongst themselves.

And then….laughter.

“What a dumbass,” said one of the troopers. “Who uses nonlethal gel rounds to attack battlesuits?”

“I think he scratched the paint,” chuckled another. “I spent hours getting those cool flames to look exactly right.”

“Whoever did this is no soldier,” agreed another.

In an instant, all the troopers froze; their helmets were synced to some kind of tactical datanet. In near perfect unison, they trained their guns on Terry’s position.

“Come out,” barked one, the squad leader. “Come out, or we’ll start wasting hostages.”

Terry stepped out, holding the gun in one hand.

“Put the gun down. Slowly. And get on your knees, with your hands above your head.”

Terry put the gun down, racking his brains, reflecting on how incredibly handy heat-based eye lasers or near-invulnerability would be right now. He slowly bent his knees, kneeling on the floor.

“Where you from, boy?” demanded the squad leader.

“Foo,” spat Terry.

The squad leader marched closer, and kicked Terry in the face with his heavy metal boot. Terry felt some of his teeth knocked loose; he felt blood run out of his nose and onto the ground.

“I want a real answer,” demanded the squad leader. “Only clowns and talking pie charts come from Foo.”

“Guardia,” Terry answered, truthfully.

The squad leader sniggered. “Should’ve known,” he said. "All that muscle…but no strength. Tell me, you ever have to work a day in your life, boy? Or has their always been some machine to do your work for you?"

The leader kicked Terry again, knocking him on his face.

“The Guardians are all about their machines, yessir,” the squad leader continued. "In the Leviathan War, they couldn’t even be bothered to bleed with us…they just sent us their machine soldiers. They deserve what they got with Rajaat."

The squad leader kicked Terry’s shotgun across the room.

“I wondered during the Leviathan War why the Guardians didn’t send us any real men,” continued the squad leader, "I wondered why me and mine had to suffer in the trenches in Hosluftgrad because they couldn’t be bothered to send their vaunted supersoldier, ‘the Shield’, to end the conflict."

Terry did his best to roll with this kick. His abdomen was bursting with pain, his ears were ringing, his head was swimming. He thought he heard someone sobbing – Denise, or one of the hostages.

“But I suppose the Guardians no longer have any real men.” The squad leader leveled the shotgun at Terry’s head – at this range, a lethal shot, even with gel rounds.

Terry lunged into the sqaud leader, and grasped his legs. Getting his feet under him, he had the leverage for a mighty lift and a powerful body slam. Roxanne had taught it to him – the ‘Sabin Suplex’, so named for the famous Esperian hero who, according to legend, once wrestled a train.

Terry lifted the squad leader into the air with a grunt – in full armor, the man was heavy, almost as heavy as Terry’s maximum weight on the squat rack. But that weight just made it all the easier to slam the squad leader with locomative force. The squad leader was stunned, unable to escape Terry’s meaty grip; his soldiers took aim with their shotguns, but they couldn’t get a clear shot.

Terry ripped off the squad leader’s helmet, and locked his big meaty hand over the back of the leader’s head.

“I know this suppression hold hurts,” said Terry. When Roxanne did it to Terry in practice, he typically lasted less than a minute before tapping out. The squad leader was begging for mercy in less than ten seconds, well aware that it would be trivial for a man of Terry’s strength to snap his neck.

“Call your men off, tell them to put down their weapons, and free the hostages.” The squad leader gasped an affirmative answer, before passing out.

Terry shot Denise a glance. “They play real rough in the Baronian Dance Company.”

Fara was still angry, but it had cooled and condensed; it had become a focused fury, deep in her gullet. Try as she might, despite everything Rhodes had said, she couldn’t understand what it was that was worth killing a ship full of innocent people for.

Again, she stormed her way to the bridge. Again, she was momentarily disoriented by the clear-glass cockpit as the sky and clouds streamed all around her. And again, Idran seemed to be expecting her.

“Back for more, little girl?” his voice boomed. Beneath his big beard, Fara could see a faintly smug grin. “You’ve got some spirit, I’ll give you that…but I’ve killed better than you.” The buzzsaw blades folded out, attached to the end of long arms, and started spinning, electrified. With his jetpack, he charged Fara like something superhuman.

Fara had the Sword ready – big bad bastard sword, with a big bad crossguard. This time she knew better than to try to parry the rapidly rotating buzzsaws. She cut back at the arms connecting the saws to the suit, slicing through them cleanly (she had to her kenjutsu practice to thank for the beautiful draw cut). The unpowered blades clattered to the ground.

Fara focused on Gnome, knowing that his next move would almost certainly be to go for a gun. Instead, Idran surprised her by pulling out a regal-looking cutlass, and slashed attacked her with it in a broad slash.

Fara parried, deflecting the blow without a great deal of trouble. “Been awhile since you’ve been in a sword fight, old man?” Fara taunted, countering with a big overhead swing that landed a big hit on Idran, slicing through his armor and biting flesh.

Idran grunted. “Don’t get much practice with this old thing,” he said, “but I thought it…appropriate I meet you blade for blade.” Idran attacked again. “After all, I’ve already beaten you.”

Fara deflected the cutlass again, stepping in close, and delivered a punch with her sword’s crossguard. “That’s not what it looks like to me.” With a quick strike of the pommel to his face, she knocked out one of Idran’s teeth.

Idran spat blood, coloring his beard. “The ship’s course is locked in,” he said, his eyes lighting up with thunder. “Even if you kill me, the Scandians will still shoot down us down.” Idran unleashed a bolt of lightning, the booming thunder filling the glass cockpit.

Fara shredded the strands of mana powering the bolt, leaving only a faint, ionized scent in the chamber. “Why?” Fara attacked again, thrusting forward; though he thrust was deflected, she could bring her sword around in a cut and score another hit, hacking through the armor and into flesh and bone again.

“Isn’t there anything you’d die for?” bellowed Idran, pointing his two gauntlets at Fara. A pair of SMGs unfolded from his battlesuit, and opened up with a fusillade of bullets, but Gnome’s power protected her from harm.

“You’re not dying for anything, you’re killing people to start a war!” Fara really wish she could go into some other Elemental for offensive options, but with all the guns Idran was likely packing she had to stay in Gnome for protection. It would be nice to have Lumina for speed, or Salamando for fire, or Undine to freeze him…but with no other armor but her badly shredded, long-suffering Screaming Eagles hoodie, she had to rely on her elemental shields.

“People die in war,” retorted Idran, glumly. “That’s why they call it war, little girl.” The bullets not working, Idran went back to his regal cutlass, though it was clear he was outmatched as a swordsman. “Not that you would know…you were probably in pigtails while me and mine were dying to save the Web from communism…”

Fara was deflected the attack, but she was careful to be aware of her flanks; she didn’t want to be caught off-guard by extra soldiers again. Fara had to think. Idran was right, even if she won the fight, there was no way to get him to change the ship’s course; and he was totally willing to die, so there was no threat she could make to get him to change. “You’d be surprised,” she said. “I’ve had quite a few run-ins with Esperians recently.”

“Yes, I’m sure having one Esperian friend makes you understand our struggles,” chortled Idran. There was chatter over his radio; something about trouble in the casino, but Idran ignored it.

“Yeah, I didn’t actually get a chance to become besties with TO Halberg while he was helping to save my home from rock demons,” snapped Fara. “Somehow he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would approve of this.”

The mention of Halberg seemed to enrage Idran, whose eyes filled with stormclouds again. “You don’t get to say his name!” his voice boomed as more lightning erupted from his body, all but filling the cockpit.

Fara was stunned; though with the Sword she could carve out a ‘safe spot’ absorbing the lightning energies, she hadn’t seen Idran so unhinged before.

“Halberg saved our country – saved the Web…it was my honor to serve under him!” he struck again with his regal cutlass, a harder, faster, but sloppier blow.

“…is that where you got that… Cruce Hannibalus ?”

Idran pulled back; his voice going soft, for once. “It was during Second Hosluftgrad,” he murmured. “The Scandians had overrun our section of the line. My platoon was protecting a hospital…there must’ve been around a thousand wounded in it….a lot of them were civilians, but at that point in the war, the Scandians weren’t taking prisoners. So I stopped their push…me and four others, but I was the only one who made it….you ever see a Dracoform up close? A monster given form, belching lead and missiles and fire…”

“So you stopped them, and saved the innocents.”

Idran nodded. “I did what I had to do….what any soldier would’ve done…”

“And now you’re killing them instead of saving them.”

Idran didn’t like this answer, attacked with renewed vigor. “It’s necessary!”

Fara deflected the sword-blow, stepping inside and stripping the sword from Idran – the disarm move she had admired from Kamiko during practice. Fara had all but won the physical contest, but that was no longer the fight that mattered.

“Necessary to what?” asked Fara. “During the war, did you attack ships full of tourists? People who just wanted to see the Esper Union that you claim to cherish?”

“…the country has lost its way…”

“And you would rather commit suicide – because that’s what this is – rather than build your country’s future?” asked Fara, turning her mouth into a frown. “You’re a coward.”

“You dare insult me!”

“You would run from your problems rather than face them,” said Fara, resting on her back foot. Both swords were raised in a defensive position – they were no longer her primary offense. “Even know when you decided to become a terrorist, you attacked a cruise ship…you could’ve attacked any of a dozen Scandian military facilities in the dimension, but you went after a diplomat on a mission of peace. That’s what you are now: A terrorist, a murderer, and a coward.”

Idran tapped his Hannibal’s Cross decorations; “Cowards don’t earn this.”

“That was then, this is now,” retorted Fara. “I have both your swords. Your guns won’t work on me, and I can slice through all your lightning. It’s time for you to decide if you’re really a soldier, or if you’re just a killer.”

“Why don’t you just kill me already?” snarled Idran.

“It won’t save the ship to give you your coward’s end,” said Fara. “But you can choose to live for your country’s future.”

For a few moments they regarded each other, the skies hurling past them at near-sonic speed. Fara had won the fight, but prevailing in the duel was not enough.

Idran grimaced, revealing his row of broken, blackened teeth. Grudgingly, slowly, Idran walked to the pilot’s console, and punched a few commands in. He turned suddenly at Fara, a grenade in his hand. Giving it a light toss, it struck the glass floor, deforming slightly; this was a directional charge, but the explosion still rocked the chamber.

The explosion blew a hole in the glass cockpit; at this altitude, the chamber started to lose pressure rapidly. Air was being sucked out; pads, pens, and other random flotsam from the cabin whooshed through the cavity. Fara thrust her sword down to give her some purchase to avoid being sucked out herself.

“GODS SAVE THE REGENT, GODS SAVE THE ESPER UNION! “ bellowed Idran, as he activated his jetpack, dove out the exit, and escaped.

“It’s still a beautiful ship,” said Terry, looking over the Daryl’s Dream from the deck of the Kriegsnavee cruiser.

Fara sighed, though she had to agree. The airship had made a slow, graceful landing in the oceans of Esper, and although it was not designed as a sea vessel, its emergency flotation devices had engaged to keep it afloat long enough for GA rescue vessels to arrive.

Fara sat on a bench with Denise and Terry, chomping a GA-issue combat ration, which was every bit as bland and tasteless as its reputation. She would read later that almost all of the passengers survived – but that almost all of the “Neo-Returners” had escaped.

“Maybe my parents were right,” grumbled Fara, “I should’ve just gone home to Egmont.”

“It would have been attacked by insane aluminum demons from the future or something,” said Terry.

“So…” asked Denise…”what do you want to do for summer vacation?”