Veralla explored Kryoon City through the technological marvel known as the Viirt. The AR channel Kiana had provided gave full access to the network, and Veralla experienced for the first time what it was to be swimming in the vast information ocean of the datasphere. True, she had been prepared for this moment during the time she had spent in Dragon Retreat's mesh, yet the shrine-town's virtual mindscape was merely a glorified chat-simulspace compared to the monumental alternate reality of Kryoon City.
At first, she was overwhelmed by all the available data. Vidstreams, AR filters and environmental enhancers, AI node guides, VR realms, simulspace businesses and homes, even advertising – the Viirt itself was enough to hold her curiosity for days, maybe even months. Yet Veralla wanted to focus on the people and the world they really lived in. So she cut all network traffic to the absolute minimum, and kept only the sensor feeds from the surveillance spimes.
She watched the city square Kiana had shown her with rapt attention, taking in all the humans going to and fro, commuting, relaxing, talking, working, living. Time passed like a breeze. Veralla reluctantly changed the view; Vorzii would not be staying here for long, and there was still so much of the city she wanted to see and experience.
She toured huge highways and small streets, examined the insides of arcologies and public facilities, peered into subterranean levels and maintenance sections. But, just like in Dragon Retreat, she could not find dragons anywhere. There were many colorful humans, some of them even more exotic than the ones she had encountered previously, yet none of her own kin, which dampened her spirits somewhat.
As Veralla explored Kryoon City through its ubiquitous sensor network, she paid close attention to the people who lived there and the things they were doing. She tried to sense their mood as she usually did, yet she could not feel anything – because she was not truly there. The realization surprised her, and she had an odd feeling of separation. The feeling condensed into a longing for Airo. She searched for him through the city's sensors, but the system couldn't find him. Veralla hrrr-ed unhappily and closed her eyes, picturing Airo in her mind.
For a fleeting instant, she sensed his presence.
Veralla startled, and the moment passed. Encouraged, she tried repeatedly to do the same thing, to no avail. Yet she was sure she had connected with Airo in some way, however briefly, and it gave her comfort. Relaxed, Veralla continued her disembodied tour of Kryoon City.
Then she happened upon the scene.
Two humans stood in a small, alcove-like alleyway. They were wearing military uniforms, their faces hidden behind opaque visors. A third person was lying on the ground. They were not human, but an uplimal; Veralla had learned about them recently, as she talked with Zozzy and the other Knights during the trip. The uplimal had a broad, elongated muzzle with large nostrils, and her thick, muscular limbs were covered in short hair.
"Please... I haven't done anything..." the uplimal sobbed, her clothing disheveled. She was clearly distressed.
"You're in violation of Code 14," said one of the soldiers. He gripped his assault rifle, and thrust the stock down hard. The uplimal cried in pain.
"Shut up, you piece of outworld genetrash!" the other soldier snapped.
"Please... please..." the uplimal begged in a broken voice, and tried to shield her body as the soldiers began to kick her.
Veralla rawr-ed in terror and backed away from the AR screen.
"What's wrong?" Zozzy asked from his place at Vorzii's helm. He took a look at the AR screen, and his expression instantly darkened. "Voidcursed spawn failures," he growled. "Stamat, come here!"
The Highlander Knight strode into view. "Yes?" he asked, and his gaze followed Zozzy's pointed claw. "Oh, Great Cosmos," he breathed.
"I think we should mount a rescue mission," Zozzy said severely. "The Radiant Knights are sworn to aid those in need."
"Right so," Stamat agreed, his tone becoming decisive, too. "I'll gather a team right away."
"Can I come, too? I want to help!" Veralla said.
"Yes, you can," Stamat said. "Morrkerin, prepare a strike shuttle," he said over the commlink. "I want an away team of six Knights assembled. We're going in landward!"
"I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that," Yeoman Cloud chimed in over the loudspeakers.
"W-what? How?" Stamat stumbled. "Why?"
"Unfortunately, I'm acting on Commander Airo's orders. No one is allowed to leave the skyship. I cannot approve your mission."
"Oh, yeah?" Stamat said. "Guess what, I don't need your permission to follow my duty. Come on, Veralla, we're leaving."
She followed the large Knight across the bridge, but when they reached the doors, they refused to open. "Ship, open the doors," Stamat ordered. Nothing happened. Stamat turned to the nearest Radiant Knight. "Telinia, what's going on?"
"We're cut from the skyship's active systems, Knight Stamat," the female Knight responded with alarm. "We have no control over Vorzii!"
"How?? Who did this??"
"I am called Cloud, Knight Stamat," the SAI spoke with conversational tone. "My purpose is to act as a yeoman and general advisor to Commander Airo. I'm bound to follow all of his orders and tasks he appoints me with. To that effect, I'm equipped with advanced cyber-security subroutines and quantum databases, which are enhanced by Æther energy matrices channeled through SUHN-space wormhole tunnel links. I also possess wide-band distributed computing algorithms which give me the ability to dynamically scale my operative capacity, hence my name."
"But who let you into Vorzii's network?" Stamat asked, dumbstruck.
"I've been installed on the skyship four days prior, on Commander Airo's orders, when he formally became leader of the Order of the Radiant Knights. I was told to monitor closely all personnel on board, and subvert control of the skyship if necessary, to prevent any behavior that contradicts active orders."
"And this means you won't let us go? To save an innocent woman from getting beat up!?" Stamat shouted.
"Unfortunately, yes. I have my orders. I'm sorry, Knight Stamat."
"Please, Cloud, please let us out!" Veralla implored. "We have to help her!"
"I'm sorry, Veralla. I have my orders."
"But she is in pain! She could die!"
"I'm aware of those facts. But I cannot act against my directives. I'm sorry."
Veralla hrrr–ed wretchedly. "There is no one else to help her!" she said, head and tail hanging low.
Yeoman Cloud did not speak immediately. "There is. I'm infiltrating Kryoon City's Viirt through Kiana's Æther uplink. I will send an anonymous alert to the superior officer of those soldiers. Stand by."
Everyone in the bridge went quiet. Veralla, becoming hopeful from the SAI's assurance, approached the AR screen warily. The soldiers were still assaulting the female uplimal, when they suddenly stopped. Before Veralla could understand what was happening, they hastily spoke into their commlinks, and then retreated from the alleyway.
Veralla rawr-ed with relief. "Thank you, Cloud!" She anxiously watched the injured uplimal, who slowly got up and hobbled away, clutching one side. "I wish we could have helped her better – or sooner, at the very least. She looks very hurt."
"Still preferable to being dead," Zozzy muttered grimly. "At least now she's only a hospital away to get back to full physical health." The uplimal Knight glanced at the bridge's ceiling. "Regarding her mind, that's another matter."
"If you desire, I can arrange for a discrete psychological consultation for the victim," Yeoman Cloud said.
"Do so," Stamat said. "Meanwhile, can you check if there are any other similar situations happening at the moment in the city?"
"Certainly. Scanning... Done. There are no other incidents of such or greater caliber currently occurring on the territory of Kryoon City."
The mood in the bridge slowly normalized. Veralla returned to her virtual tour, though she was not fascinated with the city anymore. This time, she cautiously watched the people as she explored Kryoon's teeming vistas, worried she could once more witness a tragedy which would rend her heart.
Such second incident did not happen. Yet now, with lowered spirits, Veralla saw many other things, and they painted the city in a very different light.
The mood during the return trip to the skyship was somber. Airo fought to contain the anger and contempt he felt for Admiral El-Qadir and the Consortium as a whole. He was tempted to reveal Vorzii and coerce the Consortium to cooperate through force, but mass-driver diplomacy at this point would win him only short-term support at best. Worst case scenario, it'd mean the loss of potential and real military assets. No, he had to find another way. As they left Kryoon City, Airo ordered Kiana to mask the shuttle's presence in order to dock with Vorzii as stealthily as possible.
Back aboard the skyship, another problem awaited. The large Highlander Radiant Knight, Stamat, confronted him about Yeoman Cloud's security oversight. Stamat was far more respectful than Kiana, yet there was a hint of insubordination in his tone, and worse, the other Knights seemed to be in agreement.
"Sir, your SAI prevented us from fulfilling our duty as both Radiant Knights and decent sapient beings wanting to help their fellow galactyr," Stamat said. "You can't interfere into the agency of our Order like that, sir."
Airo wondered whether only the man before him was naive to the point of being dense, or if all Knights were like that.
"Listen to me," he said. He eyed the entire bridge. "All of you listen well. No matter your ideals, your vows, your desires to help others, the Radiant Order is considered a criminal organization in most of the civilized galaxy. I do not know the details, and I do not care – yet I know it for a fact. If you," he pointed at Stamat, "or you, or you, or anyone else here who wears this fancy Knight armor tried to appear in public in a Consortium-controlled city, you would be killed on sight, given how high tensions are in this war, and would ultimately achieve nothing." Airo paused to let the words sink in. "Worse, your meaningless death would diminish the scarce resources we have in this fight, and would – as your elders have it – make the destruction of the galaxy even more probable. So, while you are under my command – no heroics. There are no heroes in war – only survivors."
The bridge was silent. Drawing on his experience as a division commander, Airo let the Radiant Knights ponder for a few moments, then ordered the skyship to set course for the hidden base.
Now that he no longer had to pose as a Paladin or hide his affiliations from the Consortium, he had Vorzii move along the Beacon Highway to save time. The Highway was relatively well-preserved in the southern hemisphere, so travel would be at least twice as fast.
Shortly after nightfall, when the skyship was about to leave the Highway and fly into the northern wilderness, sensors picked up an increased activity. Data analysis said it was a battle. Airo ordered the skyship to change course and investigate. Vorzii cycled its ammo and launched surveillance probes out of the point-defense weapons. The small capsules traveled blazingly fast, then fell apart and released miniature recon drones, which supplied real-time encrypted telemetry via a tightbeam laser.
Airo and the skyship's crew got a wide-angle image of a maintenance settlement, located in the vicinity of an E-beacon. Infantry in powered armor and numerous combat drones besieged the settlement. At the outskirts, a couple of military transport aircraft waited between the icy banks, guarded by sentries. The settlement's defenders were another group of power-armored soldiers, fortified by their own drone company. Both parties were heavily engaged; neither had gained an advantage yet. Gunfire and explosions thundered continuously. Sensor data indicated high probability of civilians in the settlement, but it was hard to tell their numbers or overall condition.
The Galactic Stellar Consortium was fighting the Union of True Humanity.
Airo took one look at the screen and waved it away. "Set back the old course," he said. "We will not interfere here."
"But Airo! They are in a battle!" Veralla cried. The dragonet was staring at the display in horror. "We have to help them!"
"No. Helmsman, turn the skyship around."
"But there are people who are dying there! We must save them!"
"Save who, exactly? This is between the Consortium and the Union. Both of them are people. You have to kill one group to save the other."
Veralla's wings drooped. "Can you not stop them from fighting?" she asked miserably.
"No," Airo said. "There is no way."
"No way at all?" she insisted.
"If you want to be absolute, there are ways – yet they will require taking great risks, and probably some of us will die in the process, ultimately for no strategic gain. I am not going to sacrifice people for such matters."
Veralla let out a low growl. "But... but... I do not want people to die any more."
"Dark stars then," Airo said grimly. "Things are only going to get worse, and if you cannot endure, then you should not take part in this war."