Chapter 12.2 – Exploring Ways
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Kryoon was a large domed city, erected on the great featureless plains of Terra Para's southern hemisphere. There was no snow here, only barren grey earth and shallow seas. The temperature was still well below zero, though waves lapped the sea shores.

"Why is the water not freezing?" Veralla asked, pointing a claw beyond Vorzii's observation window.

"Salinity saturation," Zuckeroff explained in a knowing tone. "I aced my test on basic oceanography in college!"

"That's not the case here," Stamat said. "And the temperature is too low anyway."

"Then what?" Kiana asked.

"Don't know for sure," the stout Highlander replied. "It's got something to do with the paraworld itself. Pressure's way higher in the seas than normal, keeping them liquid, but once you draw a cupful out, it takes only a little shake to make it freeze explosively."

"Huh, ain't that something cool," Kiana remarked.

The city was visible only with enhanced imaging, being currently nothing more than a glinting spec in the distance. Vorzii was several hundred kilometers away, keeping stable altitude in the high stratosphere. The skies were again crystal clear, and if it wasn't for the skyship's sophisticated stealth systems, their approach would've been detected long ago. Even so, Airo wasn't taking chances.

"How are passive sensor readings?" he asked.

"Nothing has detected us so far, Commander," Yeoman Cloud reported."We're practically invisible for baseline visual inspection, and the skyship's hull absorbs all known spectrums while simultaneously producing low-level emissions compatible with background noise."

"Impressive," Zuckeroff whistled. "But what if they have aethertech?"

"I doubt it," Stamat said. "Most of it was lost during the Starblaze."

It had taken three whole days to reach Kryoon City. Airo wanted to avoid the Beacon Highway – what remained of it, anyway – and thus Vorzii had to power through the perilous super-topography of the planet. The skyship frequently rose to the upper atmosphere to keep its bearing, and had to skirt around warpstorms several times. By the end of the journey everyone aboard was on edge. Only Airo's mood improved, as he felt he was finally making progress towards his ultimate goal. He used the downtime during travel to learn about Vorzii's combat and utility capabilities, and spent some time training in simulspace to use its systems, in case he ever needed to pilot the skyship or fire its weapons. He kept little contact with the Radiant Knights beyond learning their names and specialties.

"Is the shuttle ready?" Airo asked, studying Kryoon City and its outskirts through the skyship's sensors. He had ordered the Knights to strip down one of their transport shuttles, masking its appearance as a worn-out civilian model.

"Yes, sir," Stamat said. The large Highlander served well enough as an executive officer, though his demeanor carried a degree of uneasiness all Radiant Knights had around Airo. "All modifications are done as you requested."

"Then let us not waste any more time, and proceed with the matter at hand," Airo said. " Lieutenant Kiana, Lieutenant Zuckeroff, and I will be part of the away team. The rest of you will stay here and await our return."

"Wait!" Veralla bounced. "I want to come, too!"

"You cannot," Airo said firmly. "The Consortium does not take kindly to the presence of dragons." He looked around the bridge. "And neither to the Radiant Order. That is why those who are affiliated with either cannot go to the city itself."

"But I want to come with you," Veralla keened, wings drooping. "And I want to see what a city is like."

"Well, I can't do anything about your first request, whippersnapper," Kiana said, glancing with disdain at Airo, "but I can show you something which may satisfy your second wish." She gestured before the dragonet. "Skyship, cast an AR screen here."

A virtual display manifested at the indicated spot, showing a large city square ringed by tall buildings and teeming with people. The vidstream was a surveillance feed. Zuckeroff and Stamat gasped in awe, alongside the nearby Radiant Knights. "Neat trick," Zozzy rumbled approvingly from the helm.

Airo scowled. "I had forbidden all network traffic between the ship and the city. What is this?" he demanded.

"I'm not using the Viirt," Kiana said smugly. "This connection is made directly through the Æther." She grinned. "I'm a hacker and a Conduit, and easily bored – a combo that leads to the wizbang result you see now." Kiana gave Veralla a pair of specs. "Here, get a look through these, whippersnapper."

Veralla put on the specs, and rawr-ed. "I see so many people!" the dragonet said happily. "Thank you, Kiana!"

"My pleasure," the Conduit smiled. "You have access to the entire city's sensor network. You can see around almost as if you're really there."

"Can I access the Viirt, too?" the dragonet asked.

"Yep."

"Oh, that is so nice! But I still cannot come with you?"

"Ah, nope, unfortunately."

"If you two are done," Airo said impatiently, "I suggest we proceed with more significant matters." He turned, and strode away. "Zuckeroff, with me."

"On it, Boss," the astrior said dutifully, breaking into step.

"What a killjoy," Kiana muttered, reluctantly joining the walk to the docking hangars.

 

***

 

The shuttle was only seconds away from the skyship when Consortium long-range sensors detected it. Kryoon City immediately tried to respond with force, bringing missiles and other weaponry to bear. Yet with Kiana running network intrusion and spoofing targeting systems via her Conduit powers, Airo had enough window of opportunity to establish active communication. He identified himself as a Consortium Paladin to the monitoring personnel on duty, and presented his Omega-level clearance. This had an instant effect, and the attack was called off.

Airo then requested access to the city, and to have a meeting with those in charge of the local Sol Force branch. However, the Consortium military was still suspicious about a shuttle appearing out of nowhere and interfering with their systems – even if it carried a Paladin aboard – so they ordered Airo to land on the cosmodrome at Kryoon's outskirts.

Half an hour later they were still at the cosmodrome. Nobody had contacted Airo to address his request. He made another attempt to request a meeting with the upper command, yet surprisingly his call was ignored. Airo stood in the shuttle's nolreck, and watched grimly Kryoon City's domed skyline through an AR viewpanel. Kiana sat in one of the passenger's seats, zoned out into VR, while Zuckeroff was fussing with his uniform. Both of them were dressed in streamlined black commando garbs with green lines that were the standard Epsilon Corps uniform.

"Wowzers, they even got the hidden authorization chips in," the astrior said, tugging at his sleeve. "Boss, the Radiant Knights sure know how to nanofabricate stuff."

"Forge it, in this case," Airo replied absently. He stared sullenly through the viewpanel. This was a bad start. He was held up before even making his case. What little optimism he had gathered already dissipated. He tried to think things through, yet suddenly his mind itched. He rubbed his head angrily, unable to chase away the weird sensation. "Why are we waiting so long?" Airo snapped at Kiana. "I thought Paladins were a large deal in the Consortium. You certainly made it seem so."

"I was just checking the same thing," Kiana said. Her lavender eyes focused again, as she regarded Airo with distaste. "But proper network intrusion takes time. Unless you wanna wreck this diplomatic mission before it begins."

"Just give me the details," Airo said.

"The brass are scratching their heads over us, all right," Kiana said. "They've no idea what to make of us. Too many missing details from their point of view. But they know they have to acknowledge an Omega-level operative, especially if it's a Paladin."

Airo shook his head. "This does not–"

"Commander, there's a priority call for you," Yeoman Cloud interrupted. "It's from the Consortium's local SDO."

"SDO?"

"System Defense Operations," the SAI clarified. "They request a virtual meeting with you, Commander."

About time, Airo thought. Something nagged him, however. "Virtual?" he asked dubiously. "Why not in person?"

"Just fucking do it," Kiana sighed, exasperated. "It makes little difference either way."

He cast her a dark look. "If that is so," he said. "Patch them through, Cloud."

The SAI acknowledged, and brought up Airo's power armor helmet, engaging full VR simulation. Instantly, the shuttle's bare-bones nolreck transformed into an unremarkable office with sparse decorations and a window view to some unknown cityscape – possibly Kryoon itself. Airo appeared as he was, sans helmet, Kiana and Zuckeroff also with him. He didn't know how the astrior entered simulspace, but he reckoned Zuckeroff had his means.

The office had a strataplan table, yet no other furniture. At the other side of the strataplan, next to the fake window, stood a man dressed in a Sol Force blue-white naval uniform.

"Commander Airo, welcome to Kryoon City," the man said. "I'm Star Admiral Gideon Sorofoth El-Qadir, head of Terra Para SDO." The simulspace next to the admiral reformed into a screen, displaying information confirming his credentials.

Airo took in the man. Admiral El-Qadir was of medium height, athletic, and seemed no older than his thirties – though his eyes spoke of centuries of life. Except for his gaze, the admiral looked like an ordinary Drylander, yet there was some unseen quality to him that was somehow out of place, almost alien. Airo was immediately put on edge. Of all the individuals he had met since his re-awakening, from Yeoman Cloud's artificial, yet fully-characterized behavior, the strange visages and demeanors of Dragon Retreat's inhabitants and its Council, to Kiana's fantastic ability to alter the world with willpower alone, and the extreme heights Ferrtau had achieved in such feats, it was El-Qadir's normal-looking appearance which made Airo feel an uncanny disquiet, to realize how much the term transhuman had changed in the last seven centuries. If the human part was even still applicable.

"Thank you for receiving me, Admiral," Airo said. He knew from Cloud Paladins weren't under the command of other Sol Force branches, so he didn't salute.

"I hardly had choice, under the circumstances," Admiral El-Qadir said, his tone dry. "You have Omega-level authorization, after all." He eyed Kiana and Zuckeroff. "And personal escort. Though I admit, I was under the impression the Paladin Division handled things on its own."

"My mission requires joint effort from several Sol Force branches," Airo said. " Lieutenants Zuckeroff and Kawanaga are liaisons with the Epsilon Corps."

"I understand," Admiral El-Qadir said, though a shadow of incredulity passed in his eyes. "And what brings you to Kryoon City, Paladin-Commander Airo?"

The vital part came fast; Airo had expected longer verbal dancing. "Mission parameters changed," he said tersely. "I received instructions from core headquarters to take command over all Sol Force operations in the system."

Admiral El-Qadir hummed. "Our local branch hasn't received any such notice, and we have QE communication capability too, Paladin. Might I ask you to support your claim with some further evidence?"

Airo felt things were slipping. "I have Omega-level clearance, do I not?" he asked with all the authority he had as a division commander in his previous life.

"You do, this is beyond doubt," Admiral El-Qadir said in a cool tone. "Which is what makes this situation so bizarre. Beyond your clearance, you haven't presented any other identification about you, Paladin."

"Because it is classified," Airo said evenly.

"Classified?" Admiral El-Qadir raised an eyebrow. "I'm accessing your file right now, Commander Airo. Lieutenants Kawanaga and Zuckeroff's, too. Your identities are real enough from the database's standpoint, though there are some rather aberratic discrepancies in the details."

"Using quantum bandwidth to make background checks on an Omega-level authorized agent? You play a dangerous game, Admiral," Airo remarked.

"Not at all," Admiral El-Qadir said calmly. "You're the one playing games, Paladin. We are currently at war – a vicious one at that. Thousands have already died, and the enemy uses advanced, completely alien technology to defeat us. Then, in the middle of all this, a lone special agent appears, bearing the highest possible access clearance, and demands to take over the entire military. Tell me, Commander Airo, how would you react in this situation?"

"I would comply with orders," Airo said with sharp rebuke, though he knew the gambit was lost already. If he was in El-Qadir's place, he'd do exactly like the admiral implied. "At the very least, I would consult my superiors."

"In fact, I'm doing the very same as we speak," Admiral El-Qadir said. He paused for a second. "And according to Core HQ, you aren't given any orders to take over Consortium's forces in the Ascendancy System, Paladin."

"Yet if I want, I have the power to do so," Airo said.

"You do," Admiral El-Qadir agreed.

"Then I exercise that power."

"And I refuse to comply, Paladin-Commander Airo," Admiral El-Qadir said with a tone of finality. His eyes narrowed. "There was a very careful fact-checking and data analysis regarding your situation. Records show you made repeated requests a month ago for an extraction team at a remote location in the far north. Yet here you are today, Paladin, flying into the city out of nowhere and not alone.

"While you waited, your shuttle was examined. Its origin was well concealed, but we traced it to the Order of the Radiant Knights – an organization outlawed in the entire Consortium for war crimes on a galactic scale." Admiral El-Qadir glared at Kiana. "And there's evidence Lieutenant Kawanaga used Conduit powers for espionage purposes, subverting the city's Viirt network through the Æther."

The admiral faced the simulated window. "We are at war with the Union of True Humanity, Commander Airo," he said over his shoulder. "They attacked us first months ago, and they have found a way to weaponize the Starblaze. We're steadily losing strategic locations, and the conflict grows worse every day. The Union also employs dragons in their ranks, which means they and the criminal Radiant Order have joined forces. So you must realize how perilous it is to be in possession of Radiant Order technology these days."

"Your interpretation of events is wrong," Airo said. "I saw and fought the Revenant myself. They are not a product of the Union – or the Radiant Order, for that matter."

"And whose creation are they then?" Admiral El-Qadir asked, turning back to face him.

"A former Radiant Knight's, who has gone rogue," Airo said.

The admiral shook his head. "I hardly believe this is the work of a lone operative."

"The truth does not need your belief to exist."

"I'd choose my words more carefully if I were you, Paladin-Commander."

"And I would listen more closely if I were you."

"That's enough," Admiral El-Qadir said firmly. "I consider this meeting concluded, Paladin."

"So, you officially deny my orders?" Airo asked grimly.

"As head of Terra Para SDO and acting commander of all Consortium armed forces in the Ascendancy system, I do," Admiral El-Qadir replied. "If you insist on visiting Kryoon City to requisition military resources and personnel for specific purposes, you may do so in your capacity as a Paladin. However, you'll refrain from any further attempts at taking over or re-arranging the command structure. If you fail to comply, you'll be arrested, and I will personally start an investigation in regards to the true nature of your presence here. Good day, Commander Airo."

Admiral El-Qadir disconnected. The virtual office melted away, and Airo was again standing in the stark nolreck of the transport shuttle.

"Won't even bother with 'I told you so' since the whole idea was fubar from the start," Kiana said. Airo shot her a murderous look.

Zuckeroff seemed disappointed in a vaguely child-like manner. "What now, Boss?"

"We change plans and adapt," Airo said darkly. He gazed at Kryoon City through the AR viewpanel. He had no further business here. "Cloud, take us back to the skyship."

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