Chapter One: A More Suitable Partner
Nothing good ever came of a surprise summons to report to the Commander. With each echoing footfall of her boots against the marble floors of the Academy, she felt the knot in her stomach sink lower and lower, tightening until her gut felt like someone had reached in and tangled her intestines. It wasn’t in her superior’s nature to deliver good news in person.
So this gave her quite a bad feeling.
Squaring her shoulders and tugging at the jacket of her uniform, she quickly checked to see that the blue stripe peeking out of the seam had an appropriate two inches of width showing, then straightened the singular pin adorning her chest that bespoke her rank. She licked her lips absent mindedly – a bad habit that always left her slightly chapped – and stuck out her chin as she put an extra ounce of weight into her steps. Normally, she didn’t like for people to hear her coming, but one should never surprise a Dorcini guard.
Consequently, the officer who guarded the Commander’s office waved her right in, recognizing her from her many, rather unfortunate number of visits. She never tried to make trouble, per se, but she had a slight hunch that someone on the dark side of the afterlife found it amusing to see how much of a nuisance they could make out of her existence.
She strode in with as much confidence as she could exude, and executed a perfect three fingered salute: beginning across her heart and ending hovering over her right temple, as she greeted her superior, “Sir, good morning, sir.”
The salute was returned, but the confidence was not. “Ensign Tekbli; good of you to finally join me.”
She never enjoyed chats with Commander Valiant. The war hero and commanding officer of the Dorcini Academy obviously disdained her, which she chalked up to her father beating him out of the role for Guardian years past when they’d been initiates like her. And she’d learned long ago that everyone suspected she had somehow gotten where she was by nepotism and playing favorites, but she’d also learned that she couldn’t complain about fairness when you’re the offspring of legends. Disdain would melt to respect when she won of her own ambition and talent.
“I’ve just finished compiling the Guardian teams after reviewing the requests for partners and conferring with the King; he was especially interested in your application. I just received his final decisions.” Valiant looked tired and bored as his bright eyes glanced over the paperwork on tablets and displays he shuffled across his desk, and extra ounce of disdain laced his voice as he told her of this personal interest from the royalty on high; none of it focused on the royalty in question, but all funneled on her. He wasn’t the only one at the school who gave her trouble, but it was one of the only times it actually bothered her.
If he had brought her down here just to tell her that her request had been denied, she didn’t know if she could bear the shame. But Valiant seemed content to draw out their meeting as he continued, “I hope his interest is well warranted; not merely based in familial history.”
She was used to this sort of unveiled banter. “I’m sure the King is capable of conclusions based on the facts.” Though it was unwise to provoke her commanding officer, she couldn’t bear to let the barb to her ancestry pass unscathed. “I have confidence in his discretion. Sir.”
“As do I.” Lazily adjusting one of the many medals adorning his black and silver uniform so much more impressive than her own, Valiant then checked the chronometer on his wrist and seemed mildly annoyed. As if awaiting someone’s arrival. “You may stand at rest while we wait, Ensign.”
She relaxed to the position of rest while the mystery of what she’d been called to the Commander’s office for heightened. “May I ask who we’re waiting for, sir?”
“Since your candidacy was accepted and I got the notice, I was so interested in your partner that I have decided to personally oversee the formation of your potential Guardian partnership. I’ll be interested to see how long it lasts under the Challenges.” He sounded as if he highly doubted she would ever gain the title in question, but she let that slide -
She had focused on the news of the King’s interest, but she willed her heightened heart rate to subside: she was in the program. She’d made it. This was the moment; the moment of absolute truth. The moment she was paired with the initiate that she would potentially spend the rest of her life working with in perfect tandem; synchronizing side by side in a harmony of effort and duty.
She refused to think in perhapses and ifs. It would happen. She would not be relegated to the ranks of those beneath the Guardians; those who became an elite, but still lesser, combat team at their leader’s personal disposal. She sent up a fervent prayer that it would be the partner she’d requested and that if the King was truly interested in her becoming his daughter’s Guardian that he would have taken her request into serious consideration.
“I’ve looked over the applicant in question,” Valiant noted with less disdain than normal, which was surprising in itself since she thought that perhaps he disliked everyone. “Very gifted. Incredible credentials. Someone really does like you.” The disdain came back in full force.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she knew that the King must have acquiesced to her request. It sounded like-
The door to the Commander’s office slid aside and in a flurry of words and graceful, nearly imperial dignity, a dark young woman carrying a tech tablet and wearing a floral dress stepped inside and immediately addressed the man before them. “Commander Valiant, I do apologize for my tardiness – I’ve only just come from a lecture on the application of quantum mechanics to-” she caught the stern gaze of Valiant and instantly changed gears while smiling widely. “But of course, you’re probably not interested in physics. I only just received your notice to report, and I practically flew to get here in time.”
Her green eyes floated to the ensign waiting who stared at her with obvious confusion, consequently turning to the Commander with the simple query of, “Sir?”
Valiant’s smile was on the verge of being described as dastardly. “Tekbli, this is Kayva Lenson from the Technological and Science Division. Ms. Lenson – Ensign Rayne Tekbli from the Intelligence and Combat Elite.”
A dark hand instantly shot out for Rayne to grasp and shake, coupled with a bright smile. “Rayne Tekbli! I’ve heard so much about you; it’s a pleasure.” As soon as the handshake was given and received, Kayva’s attention returned to the Commander, obviously expecting him to explain the purpose of her presence being required.
Rayne’s stomach reverted to twisting into an uncomfortable, gut wrenching knot. This had to be either a joke or a terrible nightmare. If the King was truly interested in the Tekbli family continuing their legacy as Guardians of the throne, this was not the way to show it. No words were forming in her mouth, so she waited for the Commander to deliver what she was sure was going to be the end of her promising career path. This was why he’d wanted to deliver the news personally – he was enjoying the absurdity of her predicament. “I’ve brought you ladies here to personally inform you that as of this moment, you are one of the fifteen Guardian teams to compete in the Challenges. Congratulations; you should be very proud of yourselves for achieving this honor.”
Rayne thought for certain that the world itself was falling apart as the young woman beside her instantly burst into a smile and gasped gleefully; the floor was going to open and swallow her. She was accustomed to unfair, yes, but this was the very definition- no, the epitome of unfair.
She’d given her entire life up until this moment; three years of dedication to the Dorcini Academy, cramming five years worth of study into that small frame of time, trying to pay family dues; trying to atone for family mistakes; laying personal dreams aside that she had worked towards since a girl. But her life and family had been all the training she needed; twenty two years of it, and this-
This overdressed geek in heels was going to mess it all up. She decided she couldn’t just take this silently; she had to try and remedy the situation before all hope of winning the Challenges was lost. “Sir, I respectfully disagree and request you reconsider a more suitable partner for me.” She tried to ignore the frown that crossed her new partner’s face; but she was a terrible choice, both personally and logically. They had to give her a new partner.
Preferably male – was the universe purposefully conspiring to screw this up for her by pairing her with another woman? Was someone intent on banishing the Tekbli name from the history of the Guardians? But no; Valiant had said the King himself had approved this partnership. Surely there was a mistake; a typo; one of those stupid autocorrects when someone filed the necessary paperwork. Or perhaps someone had talked the King into this; a phantom adversary she would very much like to meet.
She wasn’t about to let that happen; even if it meant tossing this student out on her perfectly ironed rump.
Valiant seemed to be enjoying this, “A more suitable partner?” he echoed.
It was all Rayne could do to keep her face composed as she looked across the room at the girl staring back at her with jade eyes and an innocent look plastered across her face. Part of Rayne, the part that had been trained to acknowledge authority and respect the higher ups, knew that she should be honored they were even giving her the chance to compete for the position of Guardian, considering some of the things that had happened in the past few years…
The other part thought that she had more than paid her dues, and didn’t deserve this obvious stab to the back. If she was half the brat this new diva probably was, she’d go cry to her father about it and demand reconsideration. She had to be paired with someone of surpassing intellect and extensive technical knowledge to compliment her tactical mind and combat skills. But this upper class, doe eyed girl standing in front of her was not what she had in mind.
There was no way anyone would ever take them seriously. And she had worked very, very hard to be taken seriously.
“Tekbli.” The Commander gave her his don’t-start-this-again look that he always gave her when she was being headstrong. Which was always, unfortunately. “I don’t make the pairs, and I don’t care who does normally, but it isn’t you. It was the King, and if you’d like to take it up with him, feel free to do so at your own risk. I have great faith in the monarchy; so should you. Your complaint is noted.” The man with ebony hair seemed about to dismiss her, but reconsidered to better enjoy the opportunity to further complicate her life. “Any further disagreements you choose to voice to me will be met with my removing your position as leader of the Cobalt Team. Is that understood?”
She wanted to scream at him to listen to reason, to realize this was not just unfair (a word she truly hated), but also a marked attempt to keep her from achieving the position she had worked so hard to gain. But her expression didn’t waver when she answered unflinchingly, “Understood, sir.”
Inside, her emotions roiled as stormy as the corundum blue of her eyes. She had held her precarious position in the Academy for the past three years, holding the much-envied position of a team leader vied for by her classmates. And if she had to heft this girl’s weight to carry on her family’s tradition, so be it. Even if it was despite every single odd in the history of Guardians being weighed against her all at once.
“Both of you are dismissed,” Valiant stated, as if anxious for them to disappear from his sight.
Rayne chose to take that as a sign that her mysterious adversary choosing Guardian pairs was not the only one who wanted her out of their sight and out of the way. Hadn’t she proven to them by now that her family’s honor was just as sure as ever? What in the dark side of the afterlife was still provoking what seemed to be a curse on the newest generation of Tekbli’s?
She left Commander Valiant’s office, aware of the shadow she’d picked up in the process, but she ignored her for several seconds as they walked down the corridors. Best to let silent intimidation take its course before confronting her head on. “Kayva, was it?” she finally asked, thinking it was a very hoity name.
“Kayva Lenson, Technological and Science Division,” her new partner spouted the words as if they were rehearsed. She was way too happy. “I specialize in theoretical science, software manipulation, and-”
“Kayva.” Rayne spun to face the dark haired girl, noting her placid expression, how calm and collected she seemed, even after being degraded in the Commander’s presence by her new partner. Well, at least she had her wits about her – most people didn’t even bother hiding their intimidation of her.
Not that Rayne’s presence itself was particularly intimidating: she was five foot four, pixie short blonde haired, electric eyed, and slender framed; rather plain, but not unattractive. It was her preceding reputation that made her a formidable figure. And only the incredibly brave or recklessly stupid crossed a Tekbli, though recent events had thrown a cloud over that good family name whose reputation she had worked so hard to rebuild. She’d striven for that reputation; sacrificed too much to lose it all now or give up at the first sign of trouble. “Do you have any idea of what just happened back there?”
The girl named Kayva took a few seconds to answer, as if evaluating before speaking, “… we were chosen as a pair to compete for the position of Guardian?”
Shaking her head, Rayne took a step closer. “Close, but no cigar. We’ve been paired together because someone doesn’t want me to succeed.”
Just the hint of a smile showed on Kayva’s face; a sweet, but patronizing smile. “That’s a little conceited, don’t you think?”
This wasn’t about conceit. This was about sabotage. “Are you even aware that every pair of Guardians in the history of Dorcin have either been male and male or male and female?”
That seemed to get the wheels turning. Finally. “No. I suppose I never noticed.”
Rayne wanted to bang her head on the nearest metal object. Instead, she quietly seethed, “So you see our predicament?”
“Do you want to be a Queen’s Guardian?”
The real question: “You willing to do whatever it takes?”
A sort of smile she wouldn’t have expected to see on this girl’s face spread like dawn just rising over mountains; sly and sure and mysterious. “Absolutely.”
Rayne began walking again, and Kayva had to run to catch up. This new turn of events was unsavory and undesirable, but perhaps it was still salvageable. If her father had taught her anything, it was to forge ahead, no matter the handicaps. “Excellent, then we want the same things. In order to get that, you’re going to need to follow my lead and do exactly as I tell you. If I have to carry you there on my back, I will get us there, but I’d really rather you pull your own weight; you catch my drift?”
Kayva didn’t seem to like that, but she was wise enough to nod her head. “Yes.”
“Good.” The hallway widened as they came to the school entrance, brightly glittering with all the flags of families whose members had become Guardians. The right hand side of the flag poles were dominated by the simple sygil of the Tekbli family for sixteen poles in a row, the motto “Do” superimposed above. There would be a seventeenth, or so help her, Rayne would travel to the dark side of the afterlife to apologize to her forefathers.
They exited into the sunshine of Dorcin, the greenish blue sky above beckoning gently. “Now let’s get some things straightened out before you get any misconceived ideas about me. Just because we’re partners doesn’t mean that I like you, trust you, or want to be your friend. You want to get on my good side, you’re going to have to earn it. I expect you to offer your insight in technical matters, but as the leader, you will respect my final say and follow instructions. Can you hack that?”
Kayva looked a little taken aback but her face quickly changed into a smile as she answered Rayne, “I can hack anything.”
One eyebrow raised indignantly as Rayne stopped walking and faced Kayva. “I mean, is that understood?”
Kayva’s smile vanished. “Yes.”
Rayne checked her chronometer, then ran a hand through her hair and looked across the circular center of the campus and blinked in the sunlight. “Have you ever participated in the mock Challenges?”
“No, but I understand all the rules,” Kayva quickly offered.
“Show up at twenty hundred hours tonight in the Sim room. That building in the west quadrant; follow the signs. We’ll see how that brain of yours serves you on a battlefield.” With that, Rayne turned on her heel and stomped away across the green, leaving her new partner baffled and rather shocked at the display she’d just been treated to.
When the blonde turned the corner behind the building and saw no one on the path, she stopped and leaned against the cool shaded wall and took a breath. She was tempted to sink to the ground and stay there, but that was exactly what her family’s adversaries would want her to do.
She struggled and wrestled with her heart, always begging her to give up this pursuit of duty in favor of what she had always really wanted. In moments like this, when she was tempted to pity herself the unfairness her superiors seemed insistent upon throwing at her simply because she was held to a higher standard, she wanted to disappear.
She silenced the complaints with stoic resolve and marched back towards her quarters, her mouth pressed in a hard, determined line.
They wouldn’t break her. She would rise above every time. Hers was not to do or die.
But to do.
Kayva took a deep breath and unclenched her hands; her fair features relaxed. That wasn’t so bad. It could have gone a lot worse. Gathering her wits about her, she headed in the opposite direction across the green trying to regather the remnants of her pride that had been just about blown to smithereens.
She had heard stories about her new partner, Rayne Tekbli. Kayva knew Rayne’s family had been Guardians for generations; probably not an easy footprint to fill. She also knew Rayne wasn’t known for her kindness and friendliness. As a matter of fact, if she had been informed correctly, Rayne had actually been uncommonly civil towards her. At least she hadn’t punched her. She wasn’t sure if it was good or bad luck that had gotten her paired with the most promising candidate in the Guardian initiate pool, but it was some kind of luck.
Though Kayva didn’t believe in luck. Luck was just understanding basic algorithms and patterns that anyone could exploit, if they chose to try.
Kayva had used her diplomatic training, a skill earned from childhood, to keep her mouth shut when Rayne had talked. No - more like barked out orders to her and expected them to be followed without question. She had grown up with people telling her what she could and could not do; but commanding her to do something like she couldn’t think for herself was something Kayva had never experienced. It frustrated her to no end that just because she was a … well, a geek, Rayne thought that meant Kayva couldn’t take care of herself. Couldn’t offer something undeniably important to their partnership.
Wasn’t that the entire point of strength paired with intelligence?
She had grown up always denying and unable to show her gift and talent she had with technology. Her family had never let her embrace or refine her skill. Here the I.T. had welcomed her and were impressed and amazed with what she could do. Her teachers were throwing around words like “genius” and “brilliant”. Kayva had been having an amazing time at the Academy; till she had met Rayne, that is.
To be fair, she’d never expected it to be a piece of cake, and it was nothing compared to what would have been awaiting her at home if they ever found out.
Rayne’s attitude and doubt towards Kayva just made her more determined than ever to show Rayne – and others like her - that she could and would carry her own weight. The Challenges were a perfect place to show people just what she could do. With a grim smile, she determined to make tonight’s challenge the most memorable ever.
She also had a move to make.
Many thousands of lightyears away, a small, silvery planet spun around a blue dwarf star. It was a quiet looking planet, insignificant seeming beside several gas giants in the same system, but it was not to be trifled with, which was fairly obvious by the barricade of cruisers and battle schooners floating listlessly above it. They were quiet for the moment, but the soldiers and officers aboard were more than ready to give attack at the slightest sign of danger, the least provocation, or the sudden order from their Leader.
Said leader was not aboard these starships, as he did not frequently trust himself to any technological wonders he did not construct with his own two hands. Instead, he chose to remain down upon that silvery planet, tinged metallic by the cities scattered across its surface. Where cities faded out, oceans met them, like quicksilver. One such city by the sea held a palace: the Renntian Command Center.
And that is where Netheran Hamer sat in counsel with no one but himself and considered his next move. He’d withdrawn from the Dorcini limits and some of the neutral borders between them so as not to overextend himself for the time being, reveling in the power he’d already attained, and reminding himself not to get greedy ahead of the well timed schedule. He would have what he wanted, if only he could be patient.
Patience was perhaps his greatest virtue.
His grey eyes were closed to near slits as he thought, strategized, moved the pieces of his board, reversed his steps and attempted again; more logical and precise than any simple computer attempting to make sense of seemingly random possibilities, sensing the underlying algorithms of the universe. He was so close to the perfect plan that would sweep Dorcin off its orbit and into his hands-
“Sir?” He was interrupted by one of the few individuals in the universe who had both the audacity and the trust to do so. “I’ve received a message from our man inside the Dorcini counsel.” The man, his aide Kelson, handed over a single leaf of paper folded over. He did prefer tactile paper to tablets for sensitive documents; he’d found this rather charming and old fashioned in his aide, though rather expensive. “For your eyes only.”
Taking the offered message, Hamer dismissed Kelson and waited until he’d left his office and closed the door, leaving him once more in silence and solitude. Then he smoothed the paper open and took his time reading the message, savoring each word.
Dorcin ready to unveil their secret weapon. Assume the boy will be revealed. Reason to believe there may be a second – searching for more information. Guardians chosen possible infiltration point. Standing by.
“Kelson,” Hamer called out and waited for his aide to return, then returned the message to him. “Activate Agent Imicus. He knows his prerogative.”
“Right away, sir.” His aide moved to take the paper, while quietly relaying the command through a headlink that he wore attached to his ears in a whisper that hardly betrayed the weight that it bore.
Leaning back, Hamer closed his grey eyes once more. Now, the pieces fit perfectly – the playing board was set. The game would run its course exactly as he foresaw.
But something was bothering him. There was a grain of sand in the gears, a small but annoying warning that he should oil the workings once more. But where was the circuit in need of repair – which cog needed tightening?
It clicked. He sat forward and reached beneath his desk. “Kelson, wait a moment.”
The older man turned back toward his leader, his greying hair still ginger around his ears where the link protruded. “Something else, sir?”
“You know how much I trust you, don’t you?”
Kelson’s eyes were a dark hazel, and they were concerned. “Thank you, sir.”
“Trust is not something I give to anyone lightly.” Hamer allowed himself a tight smile, one that pulled on the scar opposite his left eye. That was probably why he didn’t care to smile often. “I hope you know how much you have come to mean to me. Your loyalty is rare.”
Kelson didn’t dare to smile back. “It has been my honor.”
“That makes this decision very difficult for me, but it’s a necessary evil.” Smoothly, and without hesitation, Hamer removed the old fashioned combustion style gun he kept stashed beneath his desk, aimed, and fired. Bullets were difficult to come by, and expensive to make nowadays, so he considered the sacrifice of such a relic projectile appropriate to reflect the dignity and love of Kelson’s death. “Thank you, my friend. I’m so sorry you won’t be here to witness the fruit of your labor.” It was perhaps the highest notion of regard that Hamer had ever breathed to anyone.
The guards beyond the door were there in seconds at the sound, and he was mildly impressed by their reaction time. Without a question to their leader, they picked up the aide’s body and bore him out – sudden death may not have been common place in Hamer’s court, but it was never questioned. “Please send in Kelson’s right hand when you leave.”
The young man in question had skin as dark as midnight, and eyes that did not waver when he met Hamer’s. “We’re both going to have to brave our way through the loss of Kelson,” Hamer stated with sincere sympathy. “You understand that I can’t let my trust of someone cloud my ability to do what must be done. Attachment is dangerous.”
The man nodded. “My predecessor understood that as well. It will be my honor to take his place.”
“I’m glad you think so. What was your name?”
“Oscar, never bring me paper messages, and you’ll do just fine,” Hamer dismissed him, thinking his budget would now have a minimal reduction in cost. It was a small consolation as he sighed to himself and retrieved his personal tablet, keying the commands that brought up a playlist of classical music – rare recordings that were Pre-Information War, the name of the composer lost to the war and history. They always calmed him when he was upset.
But now was not the time to be upset, he reminded himself as the stir and strum of stringed instruments no longer used in modern music began to play.
Now was the time for war.
He smiled and relaxed as the lovely notes soothed him. His mind went to the petty Dorcini and their idealistic manifestos of hope; it reminded him of a legend older than the music he now listened to, from an era of the human race long forgotten except to men of knowledge like himself. A story of a girl and a jar that whispered hope would not leave mankind in peril unless they let it go themselves.
But he would crush it beneath his boot like the winged pest it was.