Some Enchanted Evening Chapter 3
Somehow, Rena was eventually able to find her bearings and accompany me back to the bridge. The Admiral hovered over one of his officers when we got there, apparently finding out how much more time there was between us and the planet.
"ETA, 0.3 minutes," said the officer stationed at the conn.
"Open a channel on all known frequencies," the Admiral ordered. With a nod from his subservient, the Admiral began with a standard salutation. "This is Admiral Ronixis J. Kenni of the Earthship Calnus, requesting to speak with an ambassador or liaison from your homeworld."
At first, it didn't seem like anyone was going to respond. Rena did not take kindly to the silence at all.
"Just wait until they answer," she thought aloud, "I'm going to give those Rezonians a piece of my mind."
"You'll do no such thing," the Admiral warned her, "We're going to need their full cooperation on this one."
"But . . . they killed our survey team! Celine and Leon . . . and Claude!"
"It was one group of Rezonians that killed them, Rena."
"Admiral, Claude was my friend!"
The Admiral was getting furious by this time. "He was my son!" he barked back.
I could be nothing other than a passive observer for the two. It was a delicate situation that could have very easily escalated had it not have been for a fashionably late reply from the Rezonian homeworld.
"Admiral," said the one at communications, "we're receiving a transmission."
"Put it on the main viewer," he said, his hope suddenly renewed.
In the blink of an eye, everyone on the main deck was looking down the ugly muzzle of a green Rezonian with scaly skin and serpentine eyes.
"This is First Prelate Krosan of the Rezonian Hierarchy. How may we be of assistance to you, Admiral?"
The Admiral took a moment to consider his worlds very carefully before answering. "This could take some time to explain, First Prelate. However, the long and the short of it is that, an extraplanar force has been destroying inhabited worlds throughout time. We've come to ask you for your help in stopping it."
The First Prelate's scaly brow crinkled. "Throughout time?" he asked.
Rena continued to eye the alien with unquestionable hatred.
"That's correct," the Admiral said. "We're actually native to a planet eleven solar systems away, Space Year 420 by the universal calendar."
The Rezonian on the screen never blinked. "You're from four hundred years in the future?"
The Admiral nodded. "I won't deny that it all sounds a bit farfetched, but I can assure you it's the truth."
"Do not try my patience, Admiral. We have enough trouble dealing with raiding parties and ion storms to fret over some cataclysm that will supposedly begin four hundred years from now."
He made a motion to terminate the transmission when someone reached out from the bridge to try and stop him . . .
"If you don't listen to what we have to say, you won't have a planet left to worry about."
. . . and as it turned out, that someone was me!
"Identify yourself!" the First Prelate ordered.
I froze, not knowing what to say or do. I looked around the bridge for some help. The Admiral did nothing other than look at me with defiance in his eyes. Rena only stood there with jaw agape. Had I done something wrong, I thought?
"Uh, well, my name is Celes Chere . . ." I hesitated for only a second, trying to recall what it was that Rena had said about my homeworld back in the Admiral's ready room. "I, uh, come from a Class-M planet in spatial grid 532."
The alien allowed for the information to sink in before speaking again. "I see. And how is it that you came to be involved with these alleged 'time travelers'?"
I did my best to give him the most straightforward answer I could. "It was happenstance, really. These people were in search of Heraldry to help them stop this 'extraplanar force'." I could hear the Admiral grunt in the background from the way I tossed around his expression. Nevertheless, I went on. "As it turned out, the Heraldry they had detected came from me."
The Rezonian looked positively jarred. "You?!"
"Yes. I was infused with mag- . . . I mean, Heraldry when I was a child."
"And what was it that prompted you to go along with them?"
"Well, nothing. I was taken by force."
"I believe we've heard enough."
"No, wait! The fact of the matter is, my people are not a space-faring civilization, at least not yet, we aren't. And before Rena and her friends came along, I never would have dreamed that space travel would be possible at all. But if I can be led to believe such a tall tale, maybe you can, too."
The First Prelate paused to consider what it was I had told him. The Calnus, meanwhile, held its breath . . .
"Have you learned to completely trust these new companions of yours?"
"I won't deny that these people took me against my will, but it was the only way they could get me to understand what was at stake. It was their intentions that won me over in the end. It's friends, and family. It's having a home, and doing whatever you can to hang on to it, just as you do everything you can to watch over your homeworld."
At last, the Rezonian seemed to be taken in by my account.
"So," he said finally, "this 'extraplanar force', as your Admiral calls it. Quite powerful, I take it. What will it take for us to bring it down?"
I looked over to Rena and smiled. She smiled back. Maybe the gambler was right all along. Maybe I really would have made a good teacher.
* * *
"Heraldry is the key, First Prelate."
Rena, the Admiral, and I were back in the medical bay, this time accompanied with three burly Rezonians. Jean was all the more anxious in their presence but somehow remained steadfast enough to disclose our plan to them.
"Past scans have revealed that your people are an LEA-puissant species. Pushing your people's evolutionary clock forward may be the key to allow for the full potential of your people's Heraldry to come through."
The Admiral looked particularly pleased with Jean's power of persuasion. I had to tip my hat to him as well. There could very well have been a little diplomacy in him yet.
"Past scans?" Krosan retorted. "We've never detected your vessel in orbit over our planet before. We don't even have mention of you in our logs. How could you . . ."
The First Prelate stopped himself. Apparently, it was going to take time for him to accept the notion of having allies whose history had yet to be recorded.
"Ah yes," he added, "I keep forgetting. You're from the future. Very well. You may continue, doctor."
Jean nodded and instructed us all to accompany him into a small, isolated room filled with purple light. Inside, there was a small glass chamber cut off from the rest of us. A test subject could be seen standing on the other side. It was another Rezonian.
"Treachery!" one of Krosan's aides snarled at a turn. "You've turned our people into guinea pigs!"
"The Rezonian you see," Jean explained coolly, "is a willing participant from your planet's future. I assure you, he's quite safe."
The First Prelate grunted. "That is somewhat difficult to believe when you have him isolated with a glass shield."
Despite himself, Jean looked to be losing his patience with the Rezonians. "It is merely a precautionary measure, First Prelate. Allow us to explain.
"The Rezonian, as you see him here, is a native of the Rezonia that exists four hundred years from now." Jean reached out and pressed a few touch-sensitive controls on a panel affixed to the glass. The result was a darkened chamber, as well as a phosphorescent Rezonian. "The lighted areas are the glands of the Rezonian that are concentrated in LEA metabolism, the process by which Heraldry among biological beings is possible."
"Four hundred years have been good to our people," observed Krosan. "The LEA in his body is twice as strong as that of our people today."
"Granted," Jean replied. "However, the evolutionary process takes millions of years to find the momentum we need to confront Indalecio. Unfortunately, time is a luxury that we're quickly running out of."
"So, what did you have in mind?" grilled the First Prelate.
"We employ the same technology that allows for the Calnus to travel back and forth through time."
Having said this, Jean this time pressed a blinking red control on the panel. Almost instantly, our small room was filled with a clamor that could rip whole worlds asunder. We all came close to madness in those cacophonous moments. Rena, the Admiral, even the Rezonians were keeling over in agony from the discord. A simple glance at our test subject, however, seemed to make our pain come in second.
The creature's form bent and rippled while the holographic projections of the Rezonian's glands began to swell and change shape within its body. When the changes could no longer be borne on the inside, they pulsated and began to alter the Rezonian's appearance. The scales on his head and neck became more pronounced, and his shoulders began to expand and grow new appendages. Wings ripped themselves free from paper-thin membranes along its back. Before the transformation was complete, we were all staring up at a creature that was easily twice the size of its ancestors, with dragon wings and mandibles so thick that they could break a man in half.
The First Prelate was beyond impressed. "The future appears bright for Rezonia."
As if to reply, the mutated Rezonian inhaled and let out a gout of fire that shattered the glass enclosure around it. Everyone dived for cover. On instinct, Rena and I both raked the swords out of our scabbards and prepared for battle.
"The situation's under control," the Admiral assured us. "Everyone just calm down."
"Control, my scaly backside!" snarled the First Prelate, suddenly very upset. "You can't expect me to believe that this 'thing' can still respond to orders, can you?!"
"First Prelate, I instructed him to react that way." The confession caused more than one jaw to go through the floor. "I only thought that a little demonstration might help to convince you. Isn't that so, Kraylor"?
The beast nodded and snarled. Everyone seemed to let out a sigh of relief all at once.
"Well, alright then," Krosan replied, "So, we know that they're powerful and we know that they can be controlled. But ours is a planet of over seventeen billion. How do you intend to implement this plan of yours on a planetary scale?"
"It would require extensive modifications to our weapons array," explained Jean," but if we could emit a chroniton stream, directed at an isolated region of Rezonia, it should create a temporal shockwave strong enough to alter the physiology of every Rezonian on the planet."
The doctor in Jean stopped himself.
"Theoretically, of course."
I could tell from the Prelate's grunting that he didn't at all like the sound of 'configuring weapons'. My only hope was that he remembered what it was that I had told him about trust.
"Can the procedure be reversed?" he finally asked.
The Admiral stepped forward. "If we succeed in our mission, and Indalecio is defeated, this alliance of ours would have never taken place. To that end, your people would be as they are right now."
"If you say so." Krosan rubbed his scaly forehead exhaustively. "I am hardly the veteran on such a topic as temporal mechanics."
A smile fostered on the Admiral's face, his first since hearing news of his son's death. "I can assure you that, your people are in good hands. Now, if you'll be so kind as to accompany me to the bridge, we'll see if we can isolate an ideal focal point down on the planet."
"Indeed." Krosan then turned to his two colleagues. "You two will assist Doctor Bowman with the weapon modifications. Give him anything he needs, understood?"
Though noticeably irked at having to cater to a human's needs, the two Rezonians yielded without question.
"And as for 'you' two," the Admiral added, gesturing to Rena and I, "try your best to relax for a while. You'll be notified when we are ready to proceed."
* * *
With all of the excitement and responsibility of saving the universe, I had somehow forgotten how hungry I was. 'Can't save the world on an empty stomach', Sabin was often fond of saying. How right he was!
"Enjoying your steak?" Rena asked, sitting at the opposite end of a table in an otherwise empty mess hall.
"Delicious," I muttered through a mouthful of meat. "Mmmm, and these potatoes! My compliments to the chef."
"Actually, there is no chef onboard the Calnus." These were her words as she idly prodded a piece of shortcake with her fork. "The ship is equipped with food synthesizers that can replicate us anything we want."
"Oh," I said. "Very well, then. My compliments to your food synthesizers."
She smiled but, just like her words that evening, it was forced. I suppose it was only natural. Now that she had time to reflect on the loss, Rena was beginning to realize just how hard it would be without her friend.
"Tell me about him," I heard myself ask.
She looked up from her dessert. "What?"
"Claude," I replied, "what was he like?"
Despite the situation, I could see that Rena brightened considerably at the mention of his name. "Well, there isn't much to tell, really. He was my . . . my, um . . . well, you know."
I nodded, urging her on.
"He was really big on adventure," she continued, "he took risks that most of us would never even consider in our lifetimes. He had a good heart, though. Ah yes, and he loved children. I think that's what I liked most about him."
I smiled. "Sounds like someone I left back home."
"We had some rather fascinating adventures, he and I. I have all these memories of the places we went, the friends we made, the skills we learned . . ."
She paused to collect her thoughts.
"Hmmm, and I don't suppose any of them really happened."
"But when we do defeat him-" I began to say.
"When we do," she growled, "I'll have Claude back, yes! But then, you and I will have never met! 'Our' friendship will have ceased to exist! Trading one friend for another?! No, it isn't fair!"
I can't honestly say I understood what it was that she was trying to get out. One minute she was mourning over Claude, the next she was brooding over a friendship that time had yet to erase. The whole concept was beginning to give me a huge headache.
Now, I knew how the First Prelate felt.
"You're a real piece of work, you know that Rena?" I pushed the plate of food away from me. "You drafted me for this mission because you thought I could help. Yet every time I try, you blow me off. What is it?"
She seemed to grasp this, yet couldn't shake the funk she had slipped into. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . I'm scared. Now that Claude's gone, there seems to be this terrible finality to it all. I can't help but think that . . ."
She stiffened all of a sudden, eyes wide as though she had seen a ghost. "The Black Wind howls . . ." she rasped, her voice sullen but alert.
"An expression," she explained, "from a far removed friend of mine."
I couldn't be sure of what the expression meant, but I knew it wasn't good.
"What do you mean?" I pressed, growing more concerned over her expression.
"He's coming . . ."
"Who? Who's coming?"
"Indalecio . . . he's found us."
* * *
The speed of the Calnus seemed imbued in Rena's legs as we made our way back to the bridge. When we got there, the Admiral and First Prelate Krosan appeared in the final stages of chosing a target down on the planet surface. Rena wasted no time in delivering the news.
"We have to work fast!" she cried, almost tripping over her feet in the wake of her panic. "Indalecio has found us! He could be here any second!"
The expression on the Admiral's face told me that he knew better than to disregard a vision from Rena. "What will it be, First Prelate? I'd much rather not have to plead with your ancestors on this one. We need an answer now!"
"Very well," he answered, acting on an option that had probably been proposed before our arrival. "We'll have the chroniton stream target here, in the northern hemisphere." The viewing globe, which had once encompassed a system of stars, zoomed in to enclose the Rezonian homeworld. "The Phundara Plains are largely uninhabited. Casualties should be at a minimum. If anything should happen to the others though, something unforeseen . . ."
"If we do nothing," the Admiral warned, "we all die."
Without waiting to hear the Rezonian's response, Rena went over to a communications terminal and pressed a control. "Jean, what's the status of the chroniton pulse?"
"It's standing by," his voice replied, "I'll just need another ten minutes to plug in these new coordinates from the Admiral."
"You've got five," she ordered, and flicked the switch back off. "Why do we have to cut these things so damn close?"
"It wouldn't be exciting otherwise."
I had intended for the comment to be in jest but when no one so much as smiled, I decided not to speak again unless I was spoken to. The bridge was soon thrown into chaos, with crew members mumbling 'planetary vector' this and 'structural integrity' that. Even Rena, whom I had hoped would give me some task to keep me occupied, was too immersed in ship operations to pay me any mind.
So, I stood there, in silence, with my thoughts.
And that was when I heard him, his voice being everywhere and nowhere, all and one, familiar but threatening . . .
"Celes . . ."
I was taken aback. At first, I paid the voice no mind, assuming it was just a random thought of mine that had spoken too loudly. Then, it came again, as every bit determined as before.
"Come on, why won't you answer me?"
"I . . ." It must have been perculiar for the rest of the crew to see me like that, dazed and talking to thin air. But in that one instant, none of them seemed to exist, not Rena, nor the Admiral, the Calnus, Indalecio, none of them. Only that voice, the voice of a distant friend. "I . . . wasn't sure if it was you or not."
Rena's voice echoed weakly from somewhere as he moved toward me but it was as if she no longer mattered. He smiled as if from a tale which warmed his heart. The way his face dimpled, the way his bandana was tied around his forehead, how the trailworn leather accentuated his features . . .
How could it not be him?
"Celes . . ."
I swallowed hard. "Yes. I'm here."
He touched my face, and I was lulled.
"Celes Chere . . ."
"Wha . . ." With an agonizing slowness, my bliss became horror. "Locke?"
"You . . . belong to me."
I opened my eyes, unaware that I had closed them. "Who-"
Reality struck like a wrecking ball. All the ship was taken out from under me, rocking violently as a tangle of bodies sent me spinning through total darkness. All the while a sound, not entirely unlike that of a distant earthquake, emanated from somewhere down on the Rezonian homeworld . . .
"What happened?" I asked of no one in particular.
"Emergency lights." On voice command, all of the bridge was bathed in a dim red light as the Admiral helped me back to my feet. "It must have been the chroniton pulse. Displacement from the beam must have been greater than we anticipated."
"The pulse had nothing to do with it." Rena forcibly threw several crew members off of her before joining us. "It was Indalecio. I already said that! And you!"
She grabbed me by the collar and pulled me so close that our noses almost touched. "What's with you?! You're supposed to keep those thoughts of yours under control, else He'll take them and use them against you!"
I tried thinking of something intelligent to say, a difficult thing to do when a goofy-looking girl with blue hair has you by the throat. "Anyone ever tell you that you look kinda cute when you're angry?"
She growled and released her hold. "I can't believe you can pull jokes at a time like this! We've got to rally those Rezonians and do it quickly before-"
Everyone's eyes were fixed at once upon the sector of space before them. A creature, whose sheer size seemed to transcend the entire quadrant, left us all awestruck. The way it moved almost made it appear harmless, slithering through space as thought it were a serpent of the sea. But its form was another matter entirely. Hundreds of thousands of spiked mandibles reached out from a vast body that only vaguely looked humanoid. Miles upon miles of an arcane fabric, still recognizable as a sort of wizard's cloak, was swathed tightly about a horned exoskeleton. When, at last, its head could be discerned, its seething cobalt eyes and demonic visage came close to driving us all to despair.
"Report," said a badly shaken Admiral.
"Whatever it is, sir, it's coming up fast. And it's at least a quarter of a light year across. Theoretically, sir, anything with those kind of dimensions-"
"Could be generating its own gravitational field," the Admiral finished for him. "In which case, it's going to try and crush us like a tin can. Back us off, soldier, nice and easy."
"What the hell is that thing?" I remembered saying.
Everyone in eyeshot seemed to wear a pained expression, as though the inevitable would soon be upon them.
"It's the end," said Rena, shaking her head.
"Propulsion is off-line, sir. We can't even fire up the thrusters to back us off, much less pull a short jump out of here. We're dead in the water."
Everyone held their breath, waiting for the Admiral to make a judgment call they knew would not bode well for them, no matter what it was.
"Well, alright then," he said after much hesitation. Offhandedly, he dismissed the officer that was stationed at the comm terminal and opened up a channel to the crew. "This is Admiral Ronixis J. Kenni. All hands are to execute evacuation protocols twenty-eight and twenty-nine Beta. Report to your designated escape pods. We're abandoning ship."
Without question, his subservients abandoned their posts and left the bridge in single file. In minutes, all that lingered were myself, Rena, Admiral Kenni, and First Prelate Krosan.
"You're coming with us though, right?" Distraught beyond reason, Rena confronted the Admiral, not at all about to tolerate the foolish pride of a superior officer. "We're getting out of this together, aren't we?"
The Admiral shook his head. "Someone's going to need to stay behind and create a diversion long enough for you to get away." He smiled in an attempt to stave off a bitter farewell. "Besides, you said it yourself: our only hope is to make a difference in the Here and Now. Now, that hope lies with you and Celes. Make us proud."
"Damn you . . ." she told her superior before embracing him for old-time's sake.
I breathed deeply and chanced a look out through the glass. The creature was getting far too near to the Calnus for my comfort. Exciting indeed, I thought, mentally kicking myself.
"We probably should get going," I added. "You too, First Prelate."
After all this time, the burly Rezonian finally spoke up. "Admiral Kenni holds no sway over the Rezonian Hierarchy, thus I choose to stay behind. Besides, I was quite the tactician in my heyday. It could give our freedom fighters a few more minutes."
Although there was no smile upon the First Prelate's scaly features, the Admiral took his gesture as genuine and the two clasped hands only for a moment before taking their stations. Rena and I said our goodbyes and made for the lift, lingering only long enough to hear the Admiral address the onboard computer for the absolute last time.
"Computer: enable the Auto-destruct sequence. Authorization: Kenni, Ronixis J., Phi-nine-seven."
* * *
It was easier to make our escape from the Calnus than I had originally assumed, mainly because we were among the last to leave. Rena led us to the hangar where we would find our escape pod, understandably quiet the whole way. Our only company was the ever stoic computer voice, utterly oblivious of its own fate as it continued to remind us how many minutes were left before the ship was no more.
"Are you okay?" I asked as we boarded the pod, an elliptical miniature of the Calnus. "You just seem a little . . ."
"Fine." Her reply sounded mechanical. Her preparing of the pod for departure more so. "Just strap yourself in and be ready for the G-force."
I did what was asked of me. It must have been horrible, first losing one's best friend and then the father of that friend. Though I had only been part of the Calnus crew a matter of days, I could tell that the Admiral had been very much like a father to her as well. It probably wouldn't be an emotional stain that would wash away any time soon.
In a halfhearted gesture, she activated the touch-sensitive panel in front of her, causing the bay doors to yawn open before us. I was already holding onto my seat, expecting to be catapulted forward by the vacuum of space. When nothing happened, I looked back over at the glowing display on Rena's side of the cabin. It read 'LOCKING CLAMPS: ENGAGED'.
She gave me a neutral look. "You can fear for your life, now."
A fraction of a second passed between Rena's flick of the switch and our maddening exodus into the Great Beyond. The Calnus was gone in an instant. I had already forgotten how many minutes were left prior to destruction. Rezonia was coming at us almost too fast for any peace of mind. I was pushed so far into my seat that I didn't think it would ever be possible to pull myself out again.
"You do this often?" I tried asking over the clamor of space turbulence.
She didn't reply. Whether it was out of ignorance or just not being able to hear me I have no idea. Before long, the pod began to feel hot and our view of the planet was suddenly lost in a haze of red and yellow. Being my first entry flight through an atmosphere, I did the only rational thing I could think of.
"We're burning up!" I yelled, this time loud enough to get Rena's attention.
"It's to be expected!" she yelled back at me. "Don't worry! The pod'll hold out long enough for us to make a safe landing!"
I took her words at face value, but kept quiet all the same. Sweat began to roll down my forehead in beads, so quickly was our cabin turning into a sauna. The same must have been happening to Rena, but she was too busy piloting the pod to take any notice.
"Our descent ratio is nominal." The trembling of the shuttle trailed off and then stopped. "Switching to atmospheric thrusters. You okay, Celes?"
I nodded. "Is there any way for us to contact the rest of the crew?"
"I'll try opening a comm-link to the other pods." Her face had since rediscovered an old determination as she switched to communications. "This is Rena Lanford of the shuttlecraft Lacour. If crew members of the Earthship Calnus are receiving this transmission, they are ordered to respond. Over."
We exchanged an uneasy look as the static went on for two minutes . . . three . . . four . . .
"I repeat," she tried again. "This is Rena Lanford of the shuttlecraft Lacour. Is anybody-"
A spark of hope returned. "Jean?! I can't believe it! Where are you? Are the others with you? Over."
"I've set down in the deposition crator where the chroniton pulse struck. I overheard the First Prelate saying that the Phundara Plains were virtually uninhabited, so I landed there. No word of the others so far, though. Do you copy that?"
"I copy, Jean. That was good thinking."
"Where's the Admiral?"
An ultrasonic explosion answered from somewhere beyond the atmosphere. In the ashen skies of Rezonia, all that could be seen was a faint ring of blue, displacement from the wreckage as far as the eye could see.
It could have only been the Calnus.
"Guess," she said, after a pause that seemed to last forever. "Transmit your coordinates on an Earth Federation frequency to the rest of the crew."
"What about you? And Celes?"
"Just look after the crew, Jean."
She severed the comm-link and tilted her head wearily to look outside. Pieces of debris could still be seen burning in the distance, no doubt dampening her spirits even further.
"What have I gotten this crew into, Celes? Is there really any true hope left to finish what it is we've started? I'm beginning to wonder."
"Hey." I rested a hand on her shoulder. "You're not giving up on it all, are you?"
"I'm only being realistic."
I breathed long and slow before replying. "You know, if I had been realistic five and a half years ago, I probably would have curled up and died on some solitary island. Instead, I found my friends all over again and brought down a warlord. Are you really ready to just curl up and die when we're this close to the end?"
Slowly but surely, Rena found her smile again. "So, that's why I chose you for this mission. I was beginning to forget."