Still waiting to get the critique back from the editor, but here’s a little treat for you in the meantime. 😉
(Remember, this is an *unedited* version of Chapter 1, and may not reflect the final work.)
“You’ve definitely got a screw loose. What else do you think the Kierdans could possibly be hiding up their sleeves?” Director Rinard protested, sleep deprivation obvious in his eyes and demeanor. “I mean, they only just attacked us with that giant pyramid thing! Which, by the way, we barely managed to incapacitate in time! By any measure, I’d say they’ve used their last ace-in-the-hole?”
“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and just say that you’re optimistic,” a similarly weary Fleet Admiral Krane responded.
“As opposed to?”
“I’d rather not say in front of the ladies.”
“Focus, gentlemen,” Venarya said, the corners of her lips betraying a slight smile, despite the circumstances. “We still have to consider what our next moves are going to be in response to this latest incursion.”
“Indeed,” Intendant Yazril agreed. “I agree with Krane. All my instincts are screaming to me that this whole business is far from done.”
“If I could make an observation?” Nolan offered.
“Go ahead. Everyone’s input is valued here,” Krane replied, giving a sidelong glance to Rinard.
“Whatever Kierd is up to,” Nolan began, “there’s absolutely no way that we’ll be able to counter them effectively, not if we’re working from a strictly defensive standpoint. All we’re essentially doing right now, no matter how well we’re doing it, is reacting to their moves. We’re basically playing a game where we don’t even know any of the rules beforehand!”
Taking a breath, Nolan continued, “I guess my point is that we absolutely have to get current intelligence on whatever their grand plan is.”
“Well said, my friend. I’m one hundred percent behind you on that,” former Fleet Admiral Petrarca agreed. “Or, to rephrase, I’m already ahead of you on that.”
“How so?” Yazril asked, one eyebrow raised.
“As of approximately four hours ago, our home base deployed a small fleet of submarines to investigate the shores off of Narad.”
“Good thinking, but are your Serpents built for that sort of job?” Krane asked, remember the relatively slow speed and large size of the vessels.
“Most definitely not,” Petrarca laughed. “Which is why we’re not using them. The ones I’ve sent are a new type we’ve had in development. They’re much smaller and faster than our Serpents.”
“Not as such,” Petrarca replied. “Which is to say, well, not armed at all. I may need to speak with John and Nolan afterwards about that, but it’s not relevant right now. They’ll strictly be doing reconnaissance for this mission.”
“How much will you be able to spot from out in the water, though?” Yazril asked.
“Well, we’ll be able to ascertain quite a bit of their logistical support just from observing what’s coming and going,” Petrarch said. “But, we’ll also be deploying some, shall we say, ground-based resources in order to gain some more solid intelligence.
“I see,” Yazril said. “Just a fair warning, though. We’ve already tried to get spies inside their camp on more than one occasion.”
“With no success, I take it?”
“You take it correctly,” Yazril said. “Unfortunately, everyone I’ve sent to investigate is currently lying dead in a ditch.”
“Well, that’s never a good thing,” Petrarca commented.
“Now, not to play the part of a pessimist,” she continued, “but, what makes you so sure you’ll be able to get a group of spies inside their base of operations?”
“Well, for one, we’re not sending a group. We’re only sending a single person. One of our best, which I guess goes without saying,” he said with a chuckle. “I mean, wouldn’t make sense sending over one of our trainees for something like this. Even I’m not that crazy.”
“… I see,” Yazril said with some hesitation. “And you think your agent will be able to effectively infiltrate them?”
“Well, I’ll say this much, if they can’t do the job, I don’t know anyone else who can,” Petrarca boldly stated. “I’ll be receiving an update after they’re deployed in a few hours, and I’ll let you know in the morning how that went.”
“Fair enough,” Yazril said. “Now, to more immediate matters. What are our plans for this pyramid that’s currently sitting out in the bay?”
“Well, to start,” Nolan said, “I don’t think they expected us to disable that thing quite so fast, if at all.”
“So you think we’ve managed to get ahead of them?” Rinard asked.
“I’d love to say yes, but I doubt it,” Nolan interjected. “To be perfectly blunt, all we’ve really done is park a potential invasion force just offshore from Iathera. Mind you, we have managed to stop them from deploying those forces at a time or place of their choosing. However, we still need to neutralize whoever, or whatever, may be holed up in there.”
“Even if that storm wasn’t howling outside right now, we can’t do anything until those Ranger reinforcements from Freewater arrive,” Yazril commented, “which won’t be until dawn at the earliest.”
“And that’s where we come in,” Krane said. “Once the Rangers get here and fortify the city, we’ll ferry our marines over to that pyramid and try to capture it as fast as we can.”
“What do you mean? Try to?” Rinard echoed. “I thought that this was basically a mop-up operation now?”
“It’s like I said before,” Krane explained patiently, “Simply put, we’ve really got no idea what we’re dealing with here. To that end, I’ve got to entertain the thought that this operation may end somewhat catastrophically. That’s another reason why we want those Rangers in place before beginning. If we lose our marines, they’ll be the only thing standing between the city and whatever’s lurking in that pyramid.”
“Lose our marines?” Rinard sighed. “Well, if that happens, you might as kill me before the old man does.”
“Speaking of which,” Yazril interrupted, “I forgot to mention this earlier, but Garh’s brought back another invitation for you, John. Seems like the old man’s pretty insistent on having both you and Ganz over tomorrow.”
“Well,” John began, caught off guard, “I’m not sure if that’s the best course of action right now, considering all that’s happening?”
“I think it’ll be okay for you to go,” Petrarca assured him. “No slight intended, but I think your man Nolan will be more valuable to us tomorrow.”
“I agree,” Venarya concurred, nodding. “Plus, it’s not often that the old man extends any sort of invitation. I can’t say I’m not a little curious about this.”
“Besides,” Krane added, “as much as I like to poke fun at Rinard, it’s probably for the best if you stay on the old man’s good side. I’ve never known him to do anything on a whim, so chances are he’s probably got a good reason for this.”
“There’s also this,” Yazril said, pulling out a piece of paper and handing it to John. “His message instructed me to give this to you. It said that this note would explain everything.”
“Er… ok,” John said, grabbing the curious note and putting it away. “I’ll take a look at it after this meeting.”
“I think we’re pretty much done for now,” Krane admitted. “All that’s really left is to coordinate the deployment and logistics of those Rangers, as well as create a battle plan for the attack on the pyramid. Unless, of course, anyone had anything else to add?”
Seeing a table full of shaking heads, Krane added, “Very well. If I may, would you care to join us, Nolan? I’d be a fool to discard any military advice I can get.”
“Sure, I’d be more than happy to help,” Nolan agreed.
“Don’t stay up too late,” John chided with a grin. “Remember, you old timers need your beauty sleep.”
“I’m think I’m beginning to like this one more and more,” Petrarca chuckled. “Remind me to thank Mag for inviting you over, John.”
“Don’t bother,” Nolan said dryly. “The novelty will wear off soon enough, I’m sure.”
‘I’d best take a look at this,” John said, opening the note from earlier.
The others having departed to make plans for the attack, only John, Venarya, and Yazril remained in the temporary headquarters.
Wordlessly, the other two watched on as he read the message.
Allow me to re-extend an invitation to both yourself and your associate Dr. Ganz. It would be most appreciated if you were to pay me a visit for a meal of your choosing tomorrow.
If all went according to plan, the devices I provided to Garh should have been sufficient to deter, disable or destroy Kierd’s newest little toy.
If so, the pyramid has either fled back across the sea, or is sitting immobilized off the coast.
If the latter, I understand that you may be loathe to leave. Rest assured, there is a greater need for you here. Let my military commanders handle securing the pyramid.
All the necessary questions will be answered to the best of my ability once you get here.
Should you need further convincing, this very letter should provide a measure of incentive once you’ve examined it a little more closely.
“That’s… interesting,” John said, slightly perplexed at the cryptic last statement in the message. What was the old man referring to? How exactly was John supposed to examine the letter? Not much else you could do, other than reading it?
“I’m not sure I understand,” he muttered, turning the paper over to search for any other clues, but revealing only a completely blank underside.
The others had remained silent as John looked at the note. Yazril spoke up first, “Sorry, John, but I don’t think we’ll be of much use to you. To be truthful, I was hoping you’d be able to shed some light on that message. Personally, I speak quite a few languages, and still couldn’t make heads or tails of that writing.”
“Wait,” John said, holding up the note in confusion. “You couldn’t read this?”
“No,” Yazril replied, her confusion mirroring John’s. “Can you?”
“I… yes… hold on a second, please,” John trailed off, a faint suspicion taking hold in his mind as he gave the note a closer inspection.
Narrowing his eyes and concentrating on the letters, he stared at the note.
Upon arriving on this new world, the eccentric Rheus had used an odd device to link his mind to that of the relatively diminutive dragon Mag. Had the message had been written in one of the languages of this world, the mind link would have allowed to effortlessly read it as if it were written in English.
However, the effects could be temporarily rendered null by the simple trick of intensely concentrating on the words being spoken or written.
He stared harder. Nothing was happening.
The note was written in English.
Understanding finally clicking in, John wasn’t sure if he was now surprised or simply more confused.
Looking at the ladies, he saw faces that definitely expressed confusion.
“This… this is written in my language,” John began to explain. “I didn’t realize it until you had mentioned the writing. Seems that Mag’s translation gimmick is pretty seamless, unless you deliberately try to peek behind the curtains, so to speak.”
“How does the old man know your language?” Yazril asked.
“I couldn’t even begin to speculate,” John said. “I’ll have to make a point of asking him that.”
“I suspect that Mag may have had a hand in that,” Venarya suggested. “She’s the only one that could have allowed for him to learn your language.”
“Where is she, by the way?” Yazril asked. “I was hoping she could provide some assistance with the battle tomorrow.”
“I was hoping you knew,” Venarya shrugged. “Then again, it’s not the first time she’s disappeared without notice.”
“Considering the circumstances, should we be concerned?” John asked.
“I don’t think so,” Venarya said. “She’s a tough girl. Moreover, if anything were to, well, happen to her, your mind link would instantly be severed. In other words-”
“-I’d stop seeing all the street signs in English, and you’d all be speaking gibberish?”
“To put it candidly, yes,” Venarya smiled. “Still, I’d feel a little better if I knew where she was right now.”
“Well, I’ll try to remember to ask the old man if he’s seen her for you.”
“So, you are going then?” Yazril asked.
“To tell you the truth, I had already sort of decided to. But, this just cements it,” John said. “Besides, from what everyone’s said, I don’t think I’ve got anything to worry about from him.”
“Of course not,” Venarya said. “Now, I had planned on accompanying you when you received the first invitation, but it does sound like he wants a private audience with you and Ganz. Yazril, would you be able to arrange for an escort?”
“Not a problem,” Yazril said. “Let me know when you want to leave, and I’ll have Garh take you there.”
“Thanks. I’m sure Ganz is going to love that,” John chuckled, remembering the scientist’s discomfort at first encountering the fearsome looking creature. “Perhaps we can head out first thing in the morning?”
“Sure,” Yazril said. “Meet me back here and I’ll have some transportation to the edge of the swamp ready for you.”
“Was that true?” John asked.
“Hmm? What’s that?” Venarya replied, as they walked back to her manor house.
“That thing about me effectively becoming functionally illiterate, and having to resort to grunting and pointing if something were to happen to Mag.”
“Crudely put, but yes,” Venarya smiled. “Well, for the most part at least. You’ll still have the pleasure of being able to chat with me.”
“Really?” John asked, one brow raised. “I thought that crazy telepathic thing that you did only let you have a peek at my memories?”
“It did,” Venarya said. “But, getting a frame of reference for many of those memories would have been troublesome if I didn’t also learn your language in the process.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” John shrugged. Considering what he had seen so far in this world, he was almost willing to accept anything at this point. “But, judging from that last conversation with Yazril, I’m guessing that you didn’t tell anyone else about that little detail?”
“A girl’s got to have her secrets,” Venarya smirked. “Worst case, if anything were to actually happen to Mag, I could still translate for you if needed.”
“That’s a little reassuring, then,” John said. “We’ll just have to hope that Mag’s okay, whatever’s she’s up to.”
“Like I said before, I wouldn’t worry too much about her,” Venarya softly laughed. “Mag’s been around for a long time. She knows how to take care of herself, and the heavens help anyone insane enough to interfere with her.”