Chapter 12: Crystal Palace
Palace of Light
I was caught by surprise and asked, "What? How? When?"

"She's dead. Hung herself last night. Didn't even leave a note. Guess you were right about her."

Shocked I dried myself off and accepted the clothes she offered. I asked if there was time for a personal investigation. To which she denied claiming that we must leave for the palace. A look at the time and a pounding on the door confirmed what she said. Larani called my name and demanded that I show myself. Eliza offered to cover for me while I made myself presentable. All I could hear through the door was mumbling and the occasional laugh. Curious about what they were talking about, I hurried to put everything on. When I emerged from the tiny subroom too see the whole team outside looking in. Eliza was smiling and blushing a bit.

"Conners," Larani said, "What you do on your own time and who you spend it with is your business, of course. But don't let it interfere with our assignment. Now get ready. We're leaving for breakfast in five minutes. And I was told to give everyone this, but I doubt YOU will need it."

She tossed me a pistol before she left, the others 'ooooo'ed and commented amongst themselves about how I was in trouble and hypothesized about how my relationship with Eliza would influence things. The pistol was nothing much, a child's toy compared with some of the things I had. On the off chance that Eliza and I would have anything more than a purely physical relationship, I chose to put on my everyday armor. Eliza questioned my choice of clothes. "Elaran is ruled by a warrior Queen, right? Well she might want to see what a typical Night City fixer looks like. If there's a problem, I'll take it off. If Larani saw fit to give us sidearms, there's a reason to want some protection."

I was still a bit skittish about being so out in the open during the day after yesterday's attack. I checked my weapons and groomed myself. Stubble had grown which I shaved off. I still hated shaving but one does not approach a queen with a five o'clock shadow. We were ready on time and went down to eat. The breakfast was very lavish. It was a buffet with Algolian breakfast foods. Nothing too unusual, in fact the similarities between Earth and Algolian food were so many, I decided to stop paying attention to them. While we were eating a package arrived for me. It was the computer I ordered the previous night. Did they have fast service here or what? Eliza was talking with Tammis and the other Kargans about proper conduct in the presence of Elaran royalty.

I took the opportunity to read the instructions. They seamed simple enough. I had a similar model on Earth. Yes, this is definitely going to be a help in the future. When breakfast was over we boarded the fan cars and left for the Crystal Palace. It took an hour through the winding streets to get to the bridge. Eiran said he had a headache from last night. Ariel, who was sitting next to him, complained of the same thing. Celine responded by getting aspirins out of the car's first aid kit. Homes and business lined the streets. Historical markings were less frequent from where I have been earlier. The bridge itself is a huge span connecting the cities of Arcol and Loriel. Near Loriel, in the bay, reflecting the morning light, is the crystal Palace. It is by far the most beautiful structure I have ever seen. Even those from Karga had to admit it was beautiful. The entire thing seemed to be made of reflective crystal, shining in the morning light. We were traveling slowly across the large bridge, enjoying the scenery.

Suddenly, Ariel screams out. Before I, or anyone else, could react, the large truck in front of us jackknifes, sending fresh fruit flying everywhere. Eliza yanks the wheel to the right, smashing the fan car into the protective barrier at the side of the bridge. Looking around, no one seemed to be hurt, but Eliza suddenly yells "Down!" as the sound of gunfire and shattering glass fills the large car.

She yelled out "Axis!" as she pulled out the pistol I gave her and returned fire. I peaked out the window and there were ten Axis agents coming out of the truck firing their SMGs and wearing armor. Larani shouted that we should try to break up the tightly knit group of Axis agents. I though she'd never ask. Sitting next to Eliza left me closest to the door. I dropped my heavy pistol for someone else to use and drew my two SMGs. Eiran was trying to protect Ariel with his own body. Tharis, Eliza, Tammis, Karin, and Larani were returning fire. The others were checking behind us for more agents. I shouted for them to cover me and burst out the door singing the most famous few bars of the 1812 Overture. With a thought my PUG emerged from my arm. On the tip of the barrel was my HEP pistol grenade. I fired it at the central Axis agent.

The explosion shook the bridge and made a decent replacement for the cannon used in the song. Burning agents were being thrown from the black cloud. Several were thrown over the edge and dropped to their death into the icy waters below. With both SMGs flaring, I sprayed the left group of the remaining Axis solders as the others fired at the others. I could hear the distinctive sound of my heavy pistol fire then the sound of someone being forced back against a hard surface. One of the reasons I like that gun is that it has a real kick to it. What remained of the enemy was severely hurt. Scorch marks covered their armor, where they had armor that is. On each of them, some pieces were missing. They pointed their weapons at me. But either they were lousy shots, the guns had bad accuracy, or both because they missed me entirely. I didn't, and that fruit truck became stained with blood. A bullet hit my shoulder but it didn't penetrate my jacket armor. I took refuge behind a dead Axis lackey. The remaining agents were caught in the crossfire and soon fell.

With our attackers dead, silence came over the bridge. Larani was furious, "Why did you use that grenade? Don't you know you could have destroyed the bridge and killed us all!"

"Well, you said to disperse the crowd. You didn't specify how you wanted it done. If you didn't want me to use a grenade, you should have said so earlier. As for the bridge, if it couldn't stand one puny pistol grenade, how could it have stood during a war?"

She visibly shaking, "You are absolutely correct. I just didn't expect you to do that. I do have to admit, it worked, even if it was a bit excessive."

The sound of sirens interrupted us. Several roadstrikers were coming from Loriel's side of the bridge. As they hauled the demolished truck out of the way, I checked the condition of the bridge where the grenade hit. It was scorched black, but didn't seem damaged. I noticed a pair of charred boots melted to the road. I remembered that they were at the same place where I fired the grenade. So this was all that was left of the Axis leader. Too bad I couldn't pry either of the boots off, it would have made a nice memento. Everyone made it through without a scratch. Mostly because of my quick solution to the problem. Some of the less combat experienced members were shell shocked. Aleoi and Laian where shaking a little, but they were getting over it. The normally calm Tammis was mumbling something and looked like he was reliving a bad memory. Ariel was clinging to Eiran who was trying to calm her down. The excitement generated by combat exorcized his shyness temporary. It would return just as soon as he realized that the girl he had a crush on was holding him tight.

Smoke from my SMGs could still be seen as I asked if there were any injuries. The local police, from both cities, converged on the battle area. They whisked us directly to the palace. Out of the windows in the police areocar I could see that the ambulances arriving didn't have much to do except help any civilians who were hurt by a crash or stray Axis fire. The ride to the palace was only a minute. Traffic was nil in the air. Eliza took Ariel, under protest, into another room. Eiran told her not to worry. We were led to a large library where two people were waiting. It didn't take much intelligence to figure out they were Queen Ymri and Dr.Tal.

Ymri was radiant; her beauty seems to only be enhanced by her maternal state. She was roughly six months pregnant. As we entered the room, she stood and welcomed us, putting down the rapier she was polishing. Tal sat quietly in one corner, lost in thought. Ymri spoke his name, but he didn't respond. It took two more tries to get his attention. Tal greeted us, bus said everyone must hear what he has to say, and he closed his eyes briefly. "Thank you for coming. Here is what we know. The unit you destroyed was an Aggendi, one of the ancient enemies of man. According to all the Murian records I have been able to study, the Aggendi operated on some sort of community intelligence. What one knew, all knew. That things was buried on the moon when man first come to Algol in the Black Tower. There are two possible explanations for it's appearance. It was left as a spy, and the Aggendi now know man has space-faring potential. Or it was left over from some ages-old battle, and was frozen in the lava like a fly in amber. We must assume for the sake of preparation that it is the former. The Aggendi existed; that we know as a fact. Whether or not they still exist as a race is undecided.

"Before it died, the thing sent forth a strong psychic signal. It was so strong that even though it was directed into deep space, I felt it here. The fact is, it may have called for help. If it did and the Aggendi still exist, we need to prepare for a possible attack. I and several others in the UAA feel that it is imperative that we prepare for such and emergency. Orders have begun for the construction of a second Overwatch cruiser, the Muria. Until then, as an Agent of the UAA, I assign your ship and squadron to investigation and first line defense against any alien threat. For simplicity's sake we are calling the program Operation Rimfire. You all know about the threat, and for all practical purposes you are the only ones with any experience fighting it."

Dr.Tal went on to explain the secrecy in dealing with anyone outside the information loop of the UAA. If the general public were to find out there was a possible alien invasion on the way, the panic would cripple all the governments of the world. The Rimfire and its crew was to go about business as normal. He also told us that a science station at the Solar Arrays in examining the outer system, to see if there was anything out there that the signal may have been directed at. Now it was Ymri's turn to speak, "Above and beyond all of this, the Axis seems to have taken an interest in you. This may simply be because of your organization is designed to confront them, but we don't think so. The Axis spy was pretty quick in getting that information to the planet. Whatever they are up to, you can bet that it has something to do with the current situation. Kerion thinks that they might use the 'alien invasion' scare to cause havoc as cover for another plan. We don't really know, so until we have solid information, assume that the Axis is acting to set up some sort of scam."

I ventured a question about how I got here and if there was a way back. Dr.Tal answered, "I don't mean to offend you, but we have not had any time to investigate this 'gateway' you described. This is something we have not encountered before so a way to reproduce it is out of the question. We were able to send a small team to your entry point on Dion. There was some unknown kind of radiation, but nothing more. The sample wasn't enough to make a wild guess as to what it was. He have made strides in the cybernetics you donated to the UAA. A sample had been sent to Muria several days ago. Fascinating devices I must admit. But in light of the current crisis I personally have not been able to look at them. But I understand that some practical applications in mekton technology have been discovered. We are able to reproduce everything you have donated. It turned out that we have had the capabilities to invent all of this, just never considered the potential of cybernetic enhancements. We already have cyber replacements for lost limbs, but they are primitive compared to this. We should be able to upgrade our own cybernetics within a week. The upgrades will be exactly like what you have now. Any improvements will be a long time coming."

Larani brought up the ambushes, both the one today and yesterday. Neither had any new information to present. I remembered my idea to counteract Dorian's powers. "I have heard of this Dorian. His ability is very rare. One even the Murians do not fully understand. I even had the opportunity to meet him before he crossed over to Axis. He is a vengeful person. If you humiliated him, you are on his hit list. He won't stop trying to kill you until you're either dead, prove to be too much trouble for him to handle, or you are forced to kill him. Your idea has merit. We developed the same thing ourselves some time ago. But we didn't make it standard issue because of the infrequency of it being needed. Rimfire will get such radios build into their communicators before you return to Dion."

Eiran asked, "We're going back to Dion?"

Ymri said, "Yes, transportation has been arranged to return you to Dion. The Sentinels have been completed and are due to launch from Kalia in a week; I have arranged for a second shuttle launch to accompany you. There is an Ettaran convoy heading to the islands and I have used my position to book you a passage there. It should take three days and leaves in two."

This was disappointing to Eiran for obvious reasons. I too was ambiguous about returning to space. There was much of this world I have not seen. Plus I was curious about the affect of my dealings at the party and it would take some time before it would be clear, good or bad. Well there was still forty eight hours before We leave. I guess I should make the most of it. With no further questions, we left the room.

"Sergeant Conners," the queen said right before I entered the doorway, "I have heard that yesterday you took Rimfire through a simulated urban combat. Is this true?"

"Yes, your Highness. If I may be so bold, I easily kicked their butts."

"This program intrigues me. Would it be possible for you to recreate this so myself and my royal guards can try it?"

"I saved the program in addition to the ... opponents. They were models after my friends back home. You should be able to transfer it to any VR system you have here. But I caution about using it. It may prove hazardous in your... condition."

Dr.Tal interjected, "Listen to him, Ymri. This person has personal experience in the real thing. The stress or shock could cause a miscarriage."

"What he said. I don't want this nation blaming me for the death of the heir of the throne. I put a code lock on the program. No one but me can get in."

OK the part about the lock was a fib, but the rest of it was true. Fortunately she seemed to listen to Tal and submitted to not going. But she did ask if I would be willing to let some of her personal guards use the program. I said I would think about it. Eliza and Ariel were outside waiting for us. Ariel was calmed down from the fight and took Eiran's hand. Eiran himself was returning to his shy self, the adrenaline that kept it away was wearing off. He still stuttered when he expressed his relief that she was well but it was getting better.

Eliza was sad and looked ready to cry. I went to her and asked what was wrong. "I'm being sent away because Grey Squadron is needed elsewhere. We're leaving soon."

I held her close and told her my regrets that it couldn't have lasted longer. "Hey, we both knew it wouldn't last. At least we both had fun and that's what counts, right?" she said putting on a face of false bravado.

"The mission won't last forever. I'm sure we'll meet again. But you should try not to worry about it. There will be other men you'll meet. We were great together, but fate says that it's time to move on. Look to the future." I said in an attempt to be comforting.

"Thanks, Nate. If we're even in the same area, we'll have to do something."

"That we will. Now I'll see you off."

We walked to the palace's hanger where I was introduced to her team and listen in on their mission. It was to check out something in a corner of Elara. A guard told me that this was classified and I must leave. The hanger was in a cave near the water line. I looked out into the endless sea. The sun sparkled off the wind-born waves. Eliza put her hand on my shoulder. "We're ready to take off. You'd better get out of the way. It's been a blast. Don't forget me."

"You don't forget me either, Beautiful." I said. We kissed deeply and I watched as Grey Squadron launched and flew off into the distance.

Well one more relationship with potential gone. The most recent out of many. I have never been able to keep a steady romance. Either she had to leave, like Eliza, or it didn't work out, or she got killed or went loony. I was used to it. But still I would have liked it to last longer. I returned to the others and we returned to the base. They offered their condolences, even Karin. She said she knew what it was like to break up. The freezer was finally defrosting.