For a lark, I've decided to work on a Starbound fanfiction on top of my ongoing novel. I got the idea from seeing the change from racially unique starting stories to getting a shared one. As such, I decided to not only try and envision a mixture of the two, but also put my own spin on Starbound's story altogether. Planet ‘Apex One’, Settlement 78 Some years ago, during my early work as a mechanic, a Human trader told me a quote from one of his people’s great thinkers; “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” The reason he told me this was because in spite of having spent my adult life repairing starships, I hadn’t actually flown before. I’d felt the jackboot of the regime that had oppressed my people for centuries. I’d seen their figurehead’s face everywhere I turned. I’d heard what happened to those who try to dissent. But I’d never tasted flight. And life under the MiniKnog meant I can’t risk walking around with my eyes skyward. As backwater as my hometown may be, the spaceport sees its fair share of traffic from commercial and military flights. I know better than to ask questions about the latter, but it’s usually easy to surmise why they’ve come. And even then, supply shipments and personnel rotation are hardly noteworthy at all. Which is why the unannounced arrival of a high-ranking MiniKnog officer and a group of random soldiers seemed all the more unusual. I remember the woman vividly. She was wearing a meticulously kept uniform, and a scarf that was definitely not in accordance with dress regulations. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and was much taller than I regardless. There was a distinct air of discipline about her, with the scar across her right eye speaking volumes about her hardiness. She was escorted by at least a dozen soldiers and the odd officer, seemingly from different units based on their patches. Whoever they were, it wasn’t my concern. At least, if I wanted to live. There were the usual security checks, biosecurity examinations and payment arrangements to go through with the spaceport authorities, all while I waited at my assigned post. It gave me more than enough time to flick through my semi-censored copy of Routine Aeronautical Repair Procedures for Dummies to look busy. But the second she was done, the woman waved me over. “You, engineer. What’s your name?” Upon reaching her, I snapped to a salute. Military types love that sort of thing. “Vikton, ma’am. What can I do for you?” “Nothing major. Fill up the tank, fix the flickering light in the hold and clean the sticky buttons in the cockpit. My pilot will show you the ones.” Not the kind of work I’d spent years studying for, but I couldn’t complain. “Not a problem, ma’am. Charged to the MiniKnog?” “Correct,” the woman replied. “File it under Lieutenant Lana Blake, 117th Disciplinary Platoon.” I jotted down the name on my datapad. That explained the mishmash of soldiers, being all reassigned troublemakers. “As you wish, ma’am. I’ll get right on it” The Lieutenant and her officers cleared out, and I filled up a few containers of Erchius fuel. Given that the soldiers weren’t exactly paragons of our people, I gave them a wide berth as they unloaded their cargo. With the tank filled, I quickly located the flickering light and spoke to the pilot before he went on shore leave. It turned out that the light simply needed a new bulb, and the pilot needed to stop eating Lucky Dip in the cockpit. Cleaning the console wasn’t difficult, but at least it was tedious and time-consuming enough to eat up the rest of the day. Or, at least, I made it look that way. The following day, a Human ship arrived. Protectorate, no less. Outsiders visiting an Apex settlement are rare enough, making it a rather exciting occurrence. Their money and possibly even services are typically welcomed, even though the guards will barely tolerate their presence and won’t hesitate to drag off anyone caught sharing ‘undesirable ideals’ with the locals. But to see a member of the Protectorate arrive, embodying everything the MiniKnog would suppress, must have been like a slap in the face for them. After a significantly longer and somewhat more convoluted series of checks than what the military had to go through, the man approached me. He was at least twice as old as I, wearing an unfamiliar uniform emblazoned with what I quickly deduced to be the Protectorate logo. “Good morning, son. What’s your name?” “Vikton, sir. What do you need?” “Fuel. In fact, I don’t like the way this crate’s been guzzling it lately. Would you mind giving it the once-over? I’ll be leaving in about three days. Possibly sooner, if anything… unexpected happens.” I didn’t want to imagine. But assuming it was a routine efficiency tweak, I figured it would provide enough time. “I’ll see what I can do, sir.” “Please,” the man said, extending a hand. “Call me Declan. Protector Declan Matthews.” I shook his hand, after I’d glanced around for guards. And waited for the cameras’ line-of-site to rotate away. “As you wish, Protector Matthews.” Meeting a member of the Protectorate was interesting enough, but the interior of his ship was much more interesting. Besides stacks of crates up one side of the ship, the rest was a veritable home. Furniture made by the hands of other races, artwork from multiple cultures and even a few screens depicting alien worlds. I filled up the fuel tank while doing my best to ignore it. Appreciation of foreign designs may well constitute thought crime as far as the MiniKnog is concerned. After a few diagnostics, it quickly became clear that fuel efficiency was the least of the Protector’s worries. The hyperdrive had been overworked at some point in the recent past, leaving the fuel system in critical need of several replacement parts. Nothing hard to acquire, but it was going to take at least a couple of days to get them installed. Rather than risk the job going overtime, I glumly resigned myself to a bit of overtime. Such is the life of an engineer. The rest of the afternoon went well, with about two-thirds of the components replaced. The rest, along with the inevitable testing, could wait until the next day. I clocked off later than usual, and cut it a bit too fine beating the curfew getting home. But I was still able to sit down, relax and enjoy a nice Apex fritter that night, confident of a job well done. One thing you need to learn when living under the MiniKnog is what not to think about. My parents learned that the hard way, and I was usually very wary of heading down the same path. But I couldn’t help but look around my apartment and wonder. It was a tiny dwelling, and identical to countless others. There was no furniture there that you wouldn’t find next door, or across the street. And yet, in that spaceship I’d seen furniture and arts the likes of which I’d never see under the MiniKnog. Seeing as they wouldn’t appreciate that line of thought, I struck it from my mind. At least, until it returned the following morning. For breakfast, I had the same food ration and bottled water I’d eaten every day for as long as I could remember. Afterwards, I walked to work at the same time as always. Big Ape stared down at me from his posters, reminding me that he’s watching. A paperboy offered me the latest state-approved newspaper, with a headline about a resistance cell being crushed. A camera tracked my movement. All was as it should be for the MiniKnog, but it was slowly becoming clear that their sense of ‘ideal’ was not universal. Protector Matthews returned that afternoon, though I didn’t originally see him with my upper body still in the ship’s inner-workings. With work progressing so well, I was occupied to the point where I only realized his presence when I heard a conversation slowly getting louder. I stopped what I was doing and strained my ears, just in time to overhear an exchange taking place mere meters away. “Like I said, I’ll pass it on,” Protector Matthews was saying. “What I mean is that I just can’t make any guarantees on what they’ll do. We stand to protect those in need, but we’re more peacekeepers than warriors. Regardless, I’ll make a case for you, and see if I can’t scrounge up some support.” A woman’s voice spoke up. I could have sworn it sounded like Lieutenant Blake. “I appreciate it, Declan. Admittedly, I had my doubts about contacting you, but I’m glad you’ve proved me wrong. When the MiniKnog falls, I’ll be sure commission a statue in your honour.” The shock was almost enough to make me drop my wrench. There was a fairly high-ranking MiniKnog officer collaborating with a Human Protector, and I had knowledge of it. If Blake didn’t kill me for knowing too much, the MiniKnog would interrogate me on the off chance I was involved. And then kill me for knowing too much. Somehow, I had to get away from and make it seem like I was oblivious. The Protector laughed. “Don’t need anything fancy. Just stick it in a nice, quiet park somewhere.” “It’s the least I can do. After all, you had no obligation to come see me.” Meanwhile, I slowly eased myself out of the maintenance access. There were a few crates between them and I, so I hadn’t been spotted yet. At the same time, there was no way of getting out without being spotted. Hiding might be my best bet, if I could just collect my tools and… My fusion cutter slipped from my hands, falling to the deck with a clatter. The conversation behind me stopped, and I soon felt a weapon pressed to the back of my head. “What are you doing here?” Lieutenant Blake demanded. “Replacing some of the fuel line,” I explained meekly, looking over my shoulder. “It’s coming along well. Should be done by th-” “And did you hear what we were talking about?” I gulped. “Well, I was rather busy double-checking the alignment of the-” “Answer me.” Protector Matthews stepped forward, lowering the Lieutenant’s weapon with a light touch on the arm. “Relax, Lana. Wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure we can trust him to keep quiet.” “They have ways of making him talk.” The Lieutenant pointed out. Against my better judgement, I nod in agreement. “Assuming they suspect anything,” the Protector replied, before scratching his chin. “Although, I must admit, I wouldn’t want to leave too much riding on mere hope.” The Lieutenant looked me over. “Fine. Consider yourself drafted, then. You answer to me now, and I won’t tolerate disloyalty.” Not the most appealing idea, but it sure beat getting murdered. “I… I can do that. As long as I…” I trailed off as there was some kind of commotion outside. A soldier burst into the ship, looking around in panic. The only thing stopping me from freaking out was recognizing him as one of the Lieutenant’s. He saluted her on sight. “They’ve found us.” The Lieutenant looked to the Protector. “Damn MiniKnog has eyes everywhere. We’ll hold them off for you.” An outburst of weapon fire from outside added no small amount of gravity to the statement. “Thank you, Lana,” the Protector replied, seating himself at the helm. “Vikton, is the ship ready for take-off?” I stare at the mix of new and old components piled by the access hatch. All things considered, I wasn’t confident. “Maybe. I still need to replace a couple of things, and it won’t be pretty.” “Then get on it right away,” the Lieutenant said, priming her sidearm. “Vikton, do whatever you can to make sure Declan reaches the Protectorate. Our rebellion needs its assistance.” This rebellion business was all news to me, but it didn’t look like I had anywhere else to turn. “Yes, ma’am.” She nodded once. “Thank you both. Good luck.” With that, she dashed out of the ship, shooting as she went. Declan was already working away at the controls, and I felt the ship shudder beneath us. “Alright, let’s get the hell out of here. I can get us out of the atmosphere on the engine’s reserve energy supply, but we need the hyperdrive ready as soon as you can.” I was already furiously reinstalling the remaining components as best I could. Surely, I thought, the ship had lasted this long without replacement parts. One more trip wouldn’t hurt. What was the worst that could happen? An explosion from outside cause the ship to shudder, sending my tools sliding across the floor. “Missiles!” Declan shouted. “How’s the repairs coming?” “I’m working on it!” I scream, scrabbling after the wayward items. With shaking hands, I try prioritizing which parts needed to be replaced in order for the hyperdrive to work. It was being fed fuel by a mishmash of old and new parts by that point, but I did everything I could to make sure it held. The ship was jolted by another, closer explosion. “Vikton!” Declan yelled over his shoulder. “We’re almost out of the atmosphere!” I glance out a porthole, which was the worst thing I could have done. Spread out below us was the vast blue-and-green orb that was my homeworld. It had been host to the only life I’d ever known. My friends. My family. My home. All of which I suddenly realized I’d never see again. And that was assuming I didn’t die in the coming minutes. “Vikton! Snap out of it!” Fighting back tears, I focused back on my work. There was no time for the usual test procedures, but I still did a quick check to make sure the parts were secure. Gulping, I turn towards the cockpit. “It’s ready!” A deep rumble overtook the ship, and our speed increased exponentially. Awed, I stared out the porthole at the stars as they began streaking past us. The rumble peaked, and with a flash the stars were replaced by a stream of light. My homeworld was long gone, and my old life with it. It was at that moment that the fuel hatch exploded, and everything went black. Somewhere “… Protector...” Evidently, I wasn’t dead. If I was, would I have even noticed? Unless the afterlife was particularly dull, I was starting to wake up. I could remember glimpses of what had happened before. A frantic repair job. Yelling in the cockpit. An explosion throwing me to the floor. For a moment there, I thought it had been the end. But from what I could tell, that hadn’t been the case. “…Protector…” Opening my eyes was too much of a struggle, but I slowly regained some level of awareness. I was lying in a fairly comfortable bed by the feel of it, with what I assumed to be an oxygen mask strapped to my face. A machine was gently beeping nearby, and a conversation was taking place not far away. “If he wants to be,” a familiar voice was saying. It didn’t sound quite the same as the one that I’d just been hearing, but I chalked that up to my senses being out of whack. “It’s his decision, and he’s in no hurry to make it.” “Fair enough,” another voice replied, with an unfamiliar accent. “Well, no matter the case, we’ll be… oh, hello. Increased EEG activity. Looks like he’s regaining consciousness.” Some footsteps approached, and the curtain opened. “Vikton?” Declan asked, stepping over to my bedside. “Can you hear me?” I sat up as best I could. A tad painful, but nothing overwhelming. With renewed effort, I managed to open my eyes, though my vision was still fairly blurred. Sure enough, I was in a hospital, and Declan was seemingly in one piece. “Yeah. I… I’m guessing we made it.” “Sure did. We got close enough to our destination that our distress signal was answered quickly. Thought I’d lose you once or twice, but I’m told you’ll recover.” “That’s right,” said a doctor as he stepped into the room. With three eyes and amphibian features, I could only assume it was one of the Hylotl I’d read about in school. “Protector Matthews was able to stabilize you before the rescue ship arrived, and you took to the healing nanites rather well. You owe him your life.” I looked over to him to offer thanks, but he was already waving me off. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. Let’s call it even.” “Sounds alright to me,” I concede. “But what happens now?” “Well, I’ve passed on Lieutenant Blake’s message, but I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me assisting the Apex Rebellion. You, on the other hand, can do whatever you want.” A smile crossed Declan’s face. “You’re free.” Perhaps whatever medications I was on were still dulling my wits, but it took some time for the notion to fully sink in. Freedom. Something the MiniKnog were so opposed to, that a lot of people would be scared to so much as think about it for fear of repurcussions. And yet, here I was, able to do whatever I wanted. But that didn’t leave me with any idea what I was actually going to do. “Where do I even begin, though? I’ve got nothing.” “The way I see it, you’ve got two options,” Declan said, counting off his fingers. “First is that we register you with a refugee organization. They can set you up with accommodation, education and work, at least until you can stand on your own two feet. You’re not going to be the first MiniKnog escapee they’ve dealt with, so they’d be able to guide you every step of the way.” Fairly tempting, as far as offers went. I knew little of Humanity’s way of life, but it would be far better than going back to the MiniKnog. There’d be work out there for an engineer, surely. New hobbies would be open to me, along with the possibility of starting a family. Not an exciting life, necessarily, though still a peaceful one. But that was only the first option. “Or?” Reaching into his pocket, Declan pulled out a pamphlet of some kind, and handed it to me. On the front was a photograph of a group of people in Protectorate uniforms standing side-by-side on a clifftop, overlooking a vast alien world. Each of the civilized races were present, as far as I could tell. Something told me my old textbooks weren’t completely accurate; if the florans were mindless cannibals, why would they be allowed into an organization like the Protectorate? Curious, I opened the pamphlet up, and read the inside page. Do you dream of a future where races cooperate for the greater good? Have you ever wanted to help hardworking folks build a new home on exotic worlds? Perhaps you’re simply driven by the insatiable desire the explore this vast universe we share? If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of the above, the Protector’s life is for you. The Terrene Protectorate has stood proudly for over 500 years, striving for peace, and for unity amongst the many peoples of the universe. We exist to offer aid to the vulnerable and sanctuary to those living in fear. We endeavour to educate, protect and support all those seek our help. We are the Terrene Protectorate, long may we stand. The other pages had details on the application process, along with desired knowledge and experience. Sure enough, there was an engineering branch which roughly matched my qualifications. It was hard not to wonder if I should do it. I could travel the galaxy, experiencing everything it had to offer while helping right wrongs and save lives. All without leaving my profession. The fact that I’d nearly died did put a bit of a dampener on the whole adventure business, but I’d be damned if I hadn’t come out of it for the better. “I’ll think about it,” I replied eventually. “I’d like some time to process everything.” Nodding, Declan petted me on the shoulder. “You do that. Tell you what; you get some rest, and I’ll come back tomorrow so we can talk about it properly. I’ll even bring a pizza.” “A what?” Instead of an answer, I got a smile. “You’ll find out. See you tomorrow.” “Until then.” With a parting nod, he walked out, leaving the doctor to check a readout beside my bed. “Your Protector friend is right, Vikton. Rest is the best thing you can do for now. We’ll run some tests in the coming days, but you’re showing no signs of permanent physical damage.” “Good to know,” I reply. “Nothing mental?” “That remains to be seen. You seem alert, and have some amount of recollection. What’s the last thing you remember?” “The explosion of Declan’s ship,” I answered. “I must have been unconscious for the remainder. Wouldn’t have even noticed arriving here on… Earth, I take it?” “That’s right,” the doctor said. He walked over to the curtains to my right, slowly drawing them back, revealing a large window. “See for yourself.” Planet Earth, Geneva Apex settlements tend to lean towards the austere. Most people live in cheap brick-based apartments and occasional townhouse. Anything more would probably be seen as wasteful by the MiniKnog, which is why only those friendly to their regime receive more lavish accommodations. Having known nothing but their architectural style all my life, I was astonished by the vista before me. The first thing that stood out to me was the greenery. I don’t know if it was there for decoration or actual food production, but about every building I could see had plants being grown on them. And they were huge! Colossal spires of metal and glass, easily dozens of stories high for the bigger ones. In fact, I must have been a few stories up myself, as I couldn’t see the ground from where I lay. Only towers and the occasional craft flying between them. My reverie didn’t last long, with the doctor turning his attention back to me. First, he went through a series of questions and basic tests with me, aimed at determining if my mental state was as stable as my physical. Once he was confident that it was, there was some paperwork to fill out; mostly consenting to treatment, opting into organ donation and deciding what I wanted for dinner. With all the arrangements made, the doctor left me to rest. But not before showing me how to use the television. Every Apex home has a television, which isn’t as good an indication of our society as it would seem. The ‘educational’ broadcasts were anything but, the ‘news’ was unashamed propaganda, and the ‘entertainment’ typically consisted of knitting programs. In fact, there were even rumours that watching for long enough can find you watching a live feed of yourself, which would probably be the most exciting thing on. With the bar set so low, I had no doubt that Humans had something better to offer. So, I hit the ‘on’ button, waited for the screen to lower from the ceiling, and began to watch. The first thing I saw was some kind of news program, with an unseen narrator speaking over footage of a Human in a suit walking down a corridor. “… also slammed the allegations, pointing out that while the cost of geoengineering efforts have consistently run over-budget for five consecutive administrations, their effectiveness have also been exceeding expectations. He argued that the end result more than makes up for the costs…” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised to find that Humans had internal disagreements. But the fact that they were able to talk them out was strangely comforting. There were reasonable thoughts on both sides, with each being treated legitimately by the report. I watched the news through to the end, including special segments for finance and sports, despite much of it meaning little to me. Flicking to another channel, I was faced with another well-dressed man, this time sitting behind a brightly-coloured desk of some sort and speaking to the audience directly. “… other member of Bradley’s team tonight is the mind behind the hit docudrama series ‘Going to Ground’, putting the spotlight on the hardships faced by Grounded Avians fleeing the Stargazer regime. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to our feathered friend… let me see if I can get this right… Cuatlac!” There was applause, and the camera cut to an Avian waving to what must have been an off-screen audience. I realized that they were playing some sort of trivia game, as the host began the proceedings by proceeded asking a question about how Glitch reproduce. One of the Human contestants proceeded to imitate a series of robotic pickup lines, descending into exclamations from the intimate act. It was all eliciting a gale of laughter, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was grinning like a lunatic. The Avian proceeded to answer the question more seriously, and the host awarded him some points before explaining the full details about Glitch construction. I watched the show through to the end, learning new facts and laughing at surrounding jokes, before changing the channel again out of curiosity. This time, I was faced with a Human woman standing in a kitchen, talking directly to the camera. “… favourite of mine. Wartweed is an often-overlooked vegetable, what with it being unappealing and actually rather unhealthy when eaten raw. However, proper preparation can make it significantly more palatable, especially when other ingredients are brought in. Pearlpeas are a common choice, but I’ve found that tomatoes also complement its flavour rather well…” As ashamed as I am to admit it, this was the show that really got me hooked. Being so used to food that was bland at best and scarce at worst, I was fascinated to see people putting such emphasis on taste and exoticness. My mouth was watering long before the end, where I was pleasantly surprised to the discover that the entire channel showed nothing but cooking shows. Dinner that night suddenly became far more anticipated, in the hopes of trying the dish I’d chosen. From what the nurse explained, shepherd’s pie was an older recipe, but still unlike anything I’d ever tasted. All it took was one mouthful to realize my life was changing for the better. “I want to do it.” I said to Declan the following day, in between mouthfuls of pizza. That elicited a delighted chuckle, and a playful slap on the shoulder. “That’s good to hear, Vikton. I think you’ll find it’s fulfilling work.” “So I can imagine. But… ah… how dangerous would you say it is?” “It varies,” Declan said. “Depends on where you go and what you do. An engineer like you will probably spend most of their time on a ship or at a colony, which are typically pretty safe. But even if you do go get into a fight, you’ll have the necessary equipment and training.” “Difficult?” Declan rocked his hand in a ‘so-so’ gesture. “It’s not something you learn overnight, that’s for sure. Have some patience and listen to your instructor, and you’ll do fine.” I nodded, and took another bite of the pizza. Apparently the meat was synthetic and the vegetables grown hydroponically, but that did little to undercut the taste. “So, why did you join?” “Me? Oh, I got the idea back in high school, actually.” Declan explained, sitting back. “One of my classmates was a Grounded Avian, and another a self-aware Glitch.” “Sounds like the setup to a joke.” Chuckling, Declan nodded. “It did lead to some… interesting situations. But the whole reason both of them even made it to earth alive was because of the Protectorate. Beside that and all the stories about their exploits, and the places they visit… it’s hard not to want to join, really.” “So, what was your branch?” I asked, taking a sip of the drink that had come with the pizza. It was strangely… fizzy. “Soldier, though I did dabble in first aid a little. Figured I’d focus on exploration, and leave the science and engineering to smarter folks. Like you.” I smiled at the compliment, and it got me thinking. “So, you’d be in need of an engineer, then? “My friend, there’ll always be a place on my crew for you,” Declan promised, reaching out a hand. “I’d be honoured to have you join me.” Grasping the hand, I smiled back at him. It was then that I realized I’d made the right decision. “In that case, let’s do it.” Planet Earth, Protectorate Boot Camp Euro-2, just outside Yverdon-les-Bains The door to the gymnasium burst open, and a man in a red uniform barged into the room. “Alright, you lot! Form a line!” Hastily, I picked up my bags and got into position with the other dozen or so recruits. We’d already changed into our training uniforms, before having the opportunity to mingle somewhat. I’d only been out of hospital a few months, which had mostly been spent sitting in a Protectorate hostel and doing an engineering correspondence course to cover the gaps in my existing education. I did manage to find time for some sightseeing and the odd outing, so I’d met a fair number of people besides Declan. But I had a feeling my fellow trainees would be worth getting to know. Sadly, we didn’t get much of an opportunity. “I am Chief Instructor Gatwick,” the instructor continued, walking along slowly, and looking us over. “You will refer to me as ‘sir’ to my face, and ‘that bastard’ behind my back. That’s right, I don’t give a toss if you like me or not. You are here for basic training, just like every greenhorn before you. I don’t care if you’re a medic or an engineer or a bloody janitor; you will learn to fight, and I will make damn sure I teach you!” Gatwick stopped at the end of the line, and turned to face a particularly nervous-looking Human with light brown skin and black hair. “Name and hometown, recruit.” The man gulped. “Lorenzo Fonda, sir. Reclaimed Palermo.” “Sicily, eh? Bet that was quite a swim.” Gatwick pulled a datapad of some sort out of his pocket, and tapped in the name. “Let’s see… Bachelor of Biochemistry from Rome. Distinction and all, well done. Chemist?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, just because you’ll be spending your time playing with syringes doesn’t mean you get out of basic,” the instructor replied, lowering the device. “I don’t suppose you and the rest of the science faculty got into many rumbles?” Lorenzo shook his head, grimacing slightly. “Not really, sir.” Smiling, Gatwick simply walked onwards. “You’ll pick it up.” And so it continued with each recruit. Declan had warned me that the instructors might be a bit on the rough side, citing a few horror stories from his own training. Hadn’t exactly filled me with confidence, but so far Gatwick didn’t seem so bad. Then again, it wasn’t my turn yet. “Ah, an Avian!” he said to the woman beside me. “Grounded?” The blue-feathered Avian snapped to attention, complete with military salute. It was clearly a familiar gesture for her. “Yes, sir. Kluex was an influential man, but he was not a god.” “Well, I’ll defer to you on the theology, then. Name?” “Illinal, sir.” Gatwick consulted his datapad. “Ah, Stargazer defector. Quite the crisis of faith. Impressive military record, though. Something tells me there’s not a lot we have to teach you.” “It’ll be good to keep my skills, sharp, sir.” “That’s the spirit!” Gatwick declared, before moving on to me. “Now, either you’re an Apex, or you forgot to shave this morning. What’s your name, recruit?” “Vikton, sir.” After taking a few moments to read my records, he hummed to himself. “A recent arrival, I see. Hospitalized upon arrival, but discharged following recovery. Pre-existing engineering experience. Ever been shot at, Vikton?” I could only shake my head. Compared to Illinal, I was a positive amateur. “Only during my escape, sir. But that was only when a fighter came after our ship. We gave them the slip.” “I guessed as much,” Gatwick said, looking me over. “Well, lad, looks to me like we’ve some work ahead of us toughing you up. Think you can meet us halfway?” “Yes, sir.” “Sorry, I’m a little hard of hearing. You’ll have to speak up.” I could guess where he was going, and adopted a more boisterous response. “Sir, yes, sir!” “That’s more like it!” Gatwick exclaimed, clapping me on the shoulder, and moving to the next recruit. “Interested. You’re a Glitch.” “Condescending. You’re not wrong.” Once Gatwick had finished, he lectured us further on what our mandatory physical, combat and first-aid training would entail. Daunting stuff, but it had to be done. At least later on we’d get to focus on other skills vital to our work, such as intercultural communication and use of the matter manipulator. Then, and only then, would we be allowed to specialize further based on our chosen roles. I was looking forward to studying alongside fellow engineers from across the universe, but it was a good year away. Still, we started off fairly simple, with a jogging ‘tour’ of the facility. Hardly a beautiful place, being a military facility for all intents and purposes, but it was still going to be my home for a while. Besides the gymnasium, there were obstacle courses, outdoor training areas, firing ranges, a cafeteria, an infirmary and the all-important barracks. We were soon allowed to settle in there before dinner, providing a much-needed breather from the run. I had very little in the way of personal effects to take with me; mostly the clothes I came in with, along with a few bits and bobs I’d picked up while shopping. I’m not sure if Illinal wanted a lava lamp on the end table between our bunks, but she didn’t complain. “So, your ship got shot up during your escape from the MiniKnog?” the Avian asked as she unpacked her bag. “Did it happen to be a Protectorate vessel?” “It was. Why?” Smiling, she sat down opposite me. I couldn’t help that notice that she had put on a traditional-looking loincloth over her trackpants. An odd style, but it seemed to work for her. “Well, I heard a rumour that a Protector nearly got killed out on a secretive mission, and they only made it out alive because of a civilian engineer they’d encountered by chance. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” “Yes…” I replied, grinning to myself putting the last of my clothes away before sitting down myself. “Believe me, it wasn’t nearly as heroic as it sounds. Especially not when my repairs… backfired.” That elicited a snort. “Still sounds like you did alright to me. I’m guessing you joined the Protectorate to give something back?” “Partly. Seems like an appealing way of life. Visit new worlds, meet new people, that sort of thing. Very different to life under the MiniKnog.” Illinal nodded along. “I’ve heard horror stories. And coming from someone who’s lived under the Stargazers, that’s saying something.” I’d pieced together that the Stargazers were bad news. But if they weren’t as bad as the MiniKnog, did that mean that the Apex were worst off for the civilized races? Humans clearly had it good, as did the Hylotl. Something about that didn’t sit well with me. “So, the Stargazers are on the oppressive side as well, are they?” Looking away, Illinal’s smile disappeared. “Not quite as badly as you Apex have it. But things are better if you believe in Kluex. Then it’s less being cut open as a sacrifice, and more committing ritual suicide by jumping off a tower.” The mental image of an Avian merrily jumping to their death made me wince. “Nasty. Hopefully you’re finding Earth a bit… saner.” “Anywhere’s better than Avos. Earth’s not perfect, but… I like it. Humans have been through a lot, yet they have a lot to show for it.” “Just like us.” I noted. Illinal chuckled. “Just like us.” Besides Illinal, I struck up conversation with a couple of the other recruits before dinner. By then I was starting to feel fairly welcome, which bode well for the rest of my training. The feeling wasn’t particularly helped along by the food, which was a big step back from most of what I’d tried since leaving hospital. Still, I kept telling myself it was better than starving. Or, worse, MiniKnog rations. Once I had my meal tray filled, I left the queue to look for somewhere to sit. There were a few empty spaces near Starbolt, a Glitch who had apparently been apprenticed to a physician some years ago. Not the most outgoing of the cohort, but I decided to try and strike up a conversation. “May I?” I ask, gesturing to the chair. “Indifferent,” he replied. “Go ahead.” Somehow, I imagined it possible to get tired of hearing his sentence’s intent before the actual sentence. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that we were both eating the same steak-and-salad meal, in spite of his robotic nature. Based on what I’d seen on television, it was possible he was programmed to believe that he’s biological. That, or eating was the way Glitch refuelled. “You know, I’ve never met a Glitch,” I began. “If you don’t mind my asking, I’m curious how medicine works amongst your people. Is it more along the lines of a mechanic, or is it something to do with your programming thinking you’re organic?” The Glitch stared at me blankly. Not difficult, considering his robotic features. “Instructive. It depends. Surgery and other invasive measures can be used to repair damage, yes. However, our bodies are also capable of self-repair, though it only activates during the appropriate treatment. For instance, applying salve and a bandage would heal a gash, just as it would for an Apex or a Human.” “Right. So, does this mean you’ve broken your programming, that you’re aware of all this?” “Sentimental. I am self-aware, unlike most. But, in many ways, I am still beholden to the same fundamental programming. My body thinks it is organic, but I know better. It certainly doesn’t stop me from excelling at my profession.” It still struck me as odd to receive medical treatment from a robot raised in a Medieval society. “As long as you don’t start talking leeches and cranial drilling, I’m sure you’ll do fine.” The noise Starbolt made could only be described as an electronic scoff. “Indignant,” he replied. “I have you know, I am well-versed in the latest in medical treatments, be they for biological or mechanical beings.” “Sorry, I meant nothing by it,” I reassured him. “Besides, it turns out my engineering education is quite backwards compared to what Humans have. The Protectorate is probably used to dealing with that sort of thing.” The Glitch shrugged in response. “Laconic. I should hope so.” Clearly, I wasn’t getting anywhere with him, and an awkward silence fell across the table as we focused on eating. Other spaces were taken at the table shortly after, and I struck up a conversation with a couple of the others. By the time we finished up and returned to the barracks, I was in need of a good rest. It was almost enough to make me overlook how uncomfortable the bed was. Rain came during the night, and continued with a drizzle the following morning. I paid little attention, since it was still dark out. Despite an attempt to squeeze in a little more sleep, we were all soon roused by Gatwick rapping a baton against the metal bedframes. Apparently, it was perfect weather for an early-morning run. A course had already been marked out, taking us through the forest bordering the camp. It must have been used for training exercises, based on the presence of makeshift fortifications throughout. Hardly the most untamed wilderness, but still quite unlike anything I’d ever seen. If I hadn’t become out of breath so quickly and fallen very far behind, I might have actually enjoyed it. One leg of what I hoped was the final stretch brought me to a muddy incline. Not overly steep, but the wet conditions made me slow down a little. Lorenzo had gone one step further, and was at a standstill while he judged the slope warily. One of the other recruits jogged past us, and right up the slope without slowing down. “You can do it, Lorenzo.” I said as I passed, taking the slope a slowly but steadily. Nearly lost my footing at one point, but I made it to the top in one piece. The sound of scuffling and a pained yelp indicated that Lorenzo hadn’t. I spun around, and saw the now muddied Human sprawled at the bottom of the slope. “You alright?” I called, scrabbling back down. “No!” he cried, clutching his foot. “My ankle’s… damn it…” Looking around, there were no other recruits in sight. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the end, either. Without time to contemplate, I reached a decision. “Alright, let’s get you out of here. Think you can walk if I support you?” “Yeah… I think so.” Supporting Lorenzo by the shoulder, we managed to make a more successful ascent up the slope. Progress from there was slow, but thankfully we weren’t alone. Footsteps were fast approaching from behind. “What happened?” Illinal asked, slowing down to match pace with me. “Fell down the slope,” Lorenzo explained. “Ankle’s busted.” Illinal stopped, pointing to a nearby stump. “Sit him down, Vikton. I should check the wound.” We stopped a moment, with Illinal crouching to examine his foot. Obviously, her time as a soldier had taught her a thing or two about first aid. “Doesn’t look broken,” Illinal noted. “Probably just a sprain.” “Are you sure?” Lorenzo squeaked. “Yes, but we should still get you to the infirmary sooner rather than later,” Illinal said. As she moved to help get him up, she paused to look over her shoulder. A noise was approaching. “What… is that? It was surprising to learn that robots could pant. Starbolt rounded the corner, somehow out of breath. Presumably, there was some kind of internal conflict between his falsely exhausted body and his better-knowing mind. Regardless, Illinal flagged him down, presumably for the sake of a second opinion. “Sarcastic. Falling behind with us dregs, Illinal?” “This is my second lap. But Lorenzo here’s sprained his ankle. I don’t think it’s serious, but you might want to look over it.” The Glitch nodded, and examined Lorenzo’s foot. “Reassuring. It doesn’t look serious. The infirmary should be able to take care of it.” “Told you.” Illinal said, helping me get Lorenzo back on his feet. “Sorry I ever doubted you.” It would appear that we were the last of the recruits to arrive back at camp. Gatwick was pacing, consulting his clock, while the others sat around in various states of exhaustion. Our arrival was soon pointed out, and Gatwick approached with a couple of other instructors in tow. “What have we here?” Gatwick asked. “Day One, and you’ve already done yourself an injury. What’s the prognosis, Doctor Starbolt?” “Professional. Sprained ankle by the looks of it. Nothing major, as far as I can tell.” “Well, that’s something. Take him to the infirmary.” The instructors approached, and took Lorenzo away across the camp. As they did, Gatwick gestured towards Illinal, Starbolt and I in all our muddy, soaked glory. “Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Protectorate stands for. Between Illinal’s physical prowess, Starbolt’s medical training and Vikton’s… presence, they came together to help someone in need. You will never be the best at everything, but you will always have your fellow Protectors to fall back on. The right people in the right place can make all the difference.” Not a bad way of looking at it, I figured. Even if stopping for Lorenzo had been common decency. The rest of the recruits didn’t seem terribly interested. “Can we have breakfast now?” Sighing, Gatwick rubbed his eyes. “Yes, you may. We’ll meet back here in one hour, when the real training begins! Dismissed!” Planet Earth, Protectorate Boot Camp Euro-2, just outside Yverdon-les-Bains By the time I got to bed on my first night, I could understand why Lorenzo seemed to be having second thoughts. While a good shower had taken care of my muddied fur, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been before. Even as I settled in, I knew full well that I had another day of running, pushups and obstacle courses ahead of me. And that would continue for quite some time. But as the days turned to weeks and months, and we moved onto other aspects of training beyond pure exercise, I realized that I had changed. Every cross-country run had allowed me to get a little further before losing my breath. Each session on the firing range had helped hone my aim ever-so-slightly. Melee training had become more rewarding with every spar. We still had to keep practicing, even as we moved onto other elements of our training, but it was far less intimidating than it had been. In between exercise, first-aid courses, survival practice and culture classes, I kept in contact with Declan as best I could. Things were almost exclusively kept to email, what with him gallivanting around the galaxy. I sent updates on my training, and received exciting tales of adventures in reply. Despite a few hints of exaggeration, they still gave me a good deal of motivation to get through my training. Still, to make up for the physical and mental strain we were often under, we did get the occasional weekend off. Most were spent sightseeing, going out to lunch or popping down to the cinema with the other recruits. But one particular weekend of leave managed to line up with Declan returning to Earth, which we were quick to factor into our plans. We agreed to meet up for lunch on Saturday, but hadn’t decided which eatery we’d try. “I hear Ruven’s Beer Garden has a pretty good menu,” Illinal suggested, as we changed into our ‘civvie’ clothes that morning. “One of the few places around that does Feather Food, apparently. Been meaning to try it out myself.” I chuckled. “Feather Food? Made with actual feathers?” “Feathercrown, actually. Which is… pretty featherlike, now that you mention it.” Didn’t sound particularly appealing, admittedly. “Well, you’re welcome to come with us and try it out, if you like,” I offered. She was, after all, quickly becoming my second-best friend after Declan. “Unless you have anything better to do.” I turned around, and saw Illinal was dressed in a traditional Avian loincloth-and-shirt combo. Not an uncommon look for her people, but still one that made me wonder about their undergarments. “Not really, unless you count hitting the gym and going hiking. May as well come along.” “Great,” I replied, turning to the rest of the room. “Lorenzo? Starbolt? Either of you up for lunch?” “Sorry,” Lorenzo said, packing some clothes into a luggage bag. “I’m flying out to stay with my family overnight. Won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon.” Starbolt was also busy packing. “Insincere. As much as I would like to accompany you, I have other plans. I’ve been invited to give a keynote speech.” “Ooh. At a medical school?” “Rueful. No. A Medieval fair.” With our paperwork cleared, Illinal decided it best we walk into town instead of taking a cab. I couldn’t complain, having plenty of time and being more fit than ever. That, and it was nice to see the scenery. I rather liked how the local building styles had been updated with modern materials, to say nothing of some of the restored heritage buildings. The company made it all the better. “So, where were we meeting Declan?” Illinal asked, once we were in Yverdon-les-Bains proper. “Transit station,” I answered, consulting a public information console. “But he said he’d be getting in at around quarter past ten, so we have just over an hour to kill.” Nodding, Illinal looked around. “Well then… should we grab a coffee while we wait?” “Sounds good. I’m pretty sure there’s a café at the station, actually.” Consulting the digital tourist’s guide, it turned out there was indeed a Hot Shots franchise set up at the station. We set off again, strolling past bustling stores and eateries doing a roaring weekend trade. But as our destination neared, the usual hubbub of conversation and traffic was being interrupted by someone yelling in the plaza we were supposed to walk down. “The evil walk among us! There is a terrible scourge sweeping the planet! Heed my warning, before it's too late!” A man in a purple hoodie was standing on top of a box, holding out flyers to passers-by. Nobody seemed terribly interested, and even I chalked him up as some religious doomsayer. Practically unheard of under the MiniKnog, but I’d seen one or two since arriving on earth. Still, if he wasn’t hurting anyone, I figured I couldn’t complain. That was until he pointed squarely at me, face twisted into a snarl, and I realized that I was part of the ‘scourge’. “There!” the man cried. “Look at this scum, fellow Humans! These are the faces of our doom! The Apex, conditioned to live in a totalitarian nightmare! The Avian, raised under a theocracy of murder and suicide! How long before we’re asked to respect the practice of these so-called ‘traditions’? How long will it be before they ask that we be like them too?!” Illinal and I looked at each other, and reached an unspoken agreement not to comment. This was possibly the first time I’d felt remotely unwelcome on Earth, which was quite disappointing. We passed him by silently, and nobody stepped up to agree with him. But that wasn’t enough. “Give it up, you kook!” Shouted one passer-by. “You are like all the rest!” he shouted to the crowds. “You will not see the truth! On the day of reckoning you will suffer with the rest of the alien lovers!" Thankfully, we were quick to turn a corner, and leave him to his rambling. The station wasn’t far away by that point, standing out as one of the more modern-looking buildings around. There was already a fair amount of weekend traffic, though we still managed to find the café without incident. We got our drinks – a mochaccino with marshmallows for me, and a black coffee for her – and sat down at a table, but Illinal was still irritated. “And here I thought I’d washed my hands with religious bigots,” Illinal muttered bitterly, sipping her coffee. “I’d have kicked the crate out from under him, but it’d just gratify him.” “Probably. Still doesn’t seem like a common occurrence.” Illinal shrugged. “He’s hardly a majority. Makes you wonder who else is like that.” “You get ignorance anywhere, I guess. At least they don’t teach it at school, like back on Apex One.” “Oh?” Illinal raised an eyebrow. “Out of curiosity, what did they say about Avians?” I cast my mind back to school, trying carefully to avoid giving myself PTSD flashbacks. “Oh, the usual stereotypes. Religious fanaticism. Sacrificing people. Aversion to omelettes. That sort of thing.” “I’ll have you know, that’s wildly incorrect,” Illinal said playfully, pointing her spoon at me. “We may be sentient birds, but we have no problem with animal eggs. We just don’t read too far into it.” Smiling, I took a sip of my mochaccino. “Good to know. Most folks would think it typical that we sentient apes like bananas, but that’s just how it is.” “The universe is a strange place. When I defected from the Stargazers, I sheltered at this one Grounded colony on a snowy world. Every evening, I’d walk through this nearby forest, which was completely bioluminescent. To think that nature could give us such light and colour…” She trailed off a moment, staring back at her coffee. “I would never have imagined it, back on Avos.” “Me neither,” I admitted. “Only planets I’ve ever set foot on were Apex One and Earth.” “Well, I was thinking about returning to that colony one day, to repay them for their hospitality. In fact, I’m sure they could use the services of a good engineer, if you’re interested.” The offer was enough to give me pause. By that point in my training, Illinal and I had struck up a rather firm friendship. Even so, her wanting to travel with me wasn’t something I’d expected. Especially not when most of my future plans involved travelling alongside Declan. Then again, the two possibilities didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. “I’d love to, Illinal,” I replied. “In fact, Declan’s offered me a spot on his crew. You could join on as well, and we could help all the Apex and Avian rebels in the galaxy.” Despite a moment of thoughtful silence, I was delighted to see her nod. “You know what? I might just take you both up on that. Someone has to keep the two of you out of trouble.” Sharing a smile, we clinked our mugs together in an informal toast. For the rest of the wait, we moved onto other topics. We laughed at some of the funnier occurrences during training, enthused about the exciting elements, shared tips we’d picked up, and discussed plans for what we’d do once we started specializing. Apparently, she was giving serious thought to focussing further on melee combat, and doing some archery on the side. In all honesty, I’d be happy sticking to assault rifles for what little combat I found myself in. I didn’t see the appeal of letting enemies get close and trying to fend them off with archaic weapons, but I couldn’t judge. She was at the top of the class athletically, and had the physique to prove it. Not that I’d noticed. Much. By the time Declan’s train got in, we’d finished our coffees and found our way to the correct platform. Despite the throngs of tourists, backpackers and families out for the weekend, we were quick to pick Declan out as he stepped onto the platform. In lieu of his usual Protectorate uniform, he was wearing a casual jacket and pair of jeans, along with a broad smile. Before I could so much as greet him, he had gathered me up in a tight bear hug. “Good to see you, Vikton!” he said, as he set me back down, looking me over. “God, look at you. You’ve got muscles now! Looks like boot camp’s paying off.” “I think it is. Frequent exercise, good food, thorough training… I feel like a different man, most days.” Declan nodded in satisfaction, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s great to hear. I’m sure you’ve picked up a lot.” “But what about you?” I asked. “Back from some adventure, I’d bet.” “Oh, nothing special. Mostly just gathering some materials for the Apex Rebellion. Food, metal, flowers, that sort of thing. I’m sure you’d find it all very interesting.” “Indeed. I’m eager to hear how the Rebellion is going.” I turned to Illinal, gesturing towards her. “By the way, I’d like you to meet Illinal. She’s a classmate and good friend of mine.” Declan extended a hand, but she’d instinctively snapped to a salute. He quickly returned it, and only then did they shake hands. “A pleasure to meet you, Protector. Vikton has told me a lot about you.” “Likewise, Illinal,” Declan replied, as we walked down the platform towards the main hall. “You’re the former Stargazer, aren’t you?” “That’s right. Wish I’d jumped ship sooner.” “Well, the important thing is you made the right decision. We’re happy to have you with us.” Declan said. “Now, Vikton and I were going to have lunch somewhere. Will you be accompanying us?” Illinal nodded. “If it’s no trouble. In fact, there’s this place that I’ve heard good things about…” Thankfully, getting to Reuben’s didn’t involve going past the preacher again. The place was already packed, but we managed to get an outdoor table. Aside from a jug of the house special beer to share, Illinal ordered her much-anticipated Feather Food, Declan decided on a meat stew, and I simply couldn’t ignore a sampler platter of local sausages. Once we were settled in, Declan and I set about catching up. For a start, I was delighted to learn that Lieutenant Blake and the Apex Rebellion had survived. They maintained a series of heavily-fortified camps, scattered throughout the universe in the least likely of places. Teleporters and ships kept them all in contact, and able to strike swiftly where the MiniKnog least expected. The regime still held firm control over its core territories, but the more scattered colonies and facilities were fair game. There’d already been a few highly successful raids since I’d left, liberating civilians and seizing advanced technology. I could definitely see myself lending them my aid once I made Protector. But somehow, that was the least of what Declan had been through. On one planet, he found a place where geodes literally grew on trees, and the wind made haunting tunes as it passed through the crystal formations. On another, he saved a kidnapped Floran from a group of bandits, before being rewarded with a village-wide feast. He’d even vacationed at an undersea Hylotl city for a week, learning relaxation techniques by day and gaming at the arcade by night. To him, it was just another stretch spent out in space. But to Illinal and I, it was a series of adventures unlike anything we’d ever dreamed of. “Quite an experience you’ve had,” Illinal observed. “But it’s the Apex Rebellion I find interesting. How did you get involved with them?” Sipping his beer, Declan shrugged. “Long story. Came across one of their camps in my early adventures, took a liking to their cause, and made some solid friendships among them. Been focusing a lot of my efforts with them ever since.” “Ever worked with the Grounded much?” “Haven’t crossed paths with them, unfortunately,” Declan admitted. “Stayed in a few villages, and an airship once. Helped where I could, but I wasn’t being asked to conduct espionage like I was with the Apex. The Grounded seemed more focused on building a new life for themselves.” For a few moments, Illinal was silent. The way she usually spoke of the Grounded, perhaps she assumed they were more militant. That, or she wished they were. “Well, I’m still hoping to repay them for the aid they gave me,” she explained. “Vikton suggested I ask you if you’d need an extra soldier.” Declan didn’t need a lot of time to consider. “From what Vikton’s told me of your experience, Illinal, I’d be honoured to have you accompany us. We should be able to find plenty of time to lend the Grounded a hand.” Smiling, I refilled my glass. “Sounds like a plan. You might need a bigger ship, though.” “Yes, I think it’s time for an upgrade. But even then, space will likely be at a premium.” For a moment, Declan frowned to himself, tapping his fingers against the table. “Now that I think about it, if we’re going to do this, we’ll probably have to set some ground rules.” “Scared you’ll end up with a ship full of scavenged junk?” I asked. “I’ve seen it happen,” Declan said, with a small sigh. “Still, if we’ve finished eating, we should probably find somewhere a little quieter. What time do you two have to be back at base?” “Six o’clock. We might need to leave a little early, so we can detour around the religious whacko who harassed us on the way over.” Declan frowned. “What were they wearing?” I blinked. How was that relevant? “A purple hoodie. Why?” Looking over his shoulder, Declan eyed the other diners. Not one appeared to be anything other than a regular person enjoying a weekend out. Sure, one or two wore purple as a part of their clothes, but they didn’t appear particularly out of the ordinary. Whatever was going on, it had Declan on edge, and he was soon leaning in to speak to us quietly. “It was a couple of years ago, when I happened across an outpost. Nothing major; just one of those little facilities that some scientists teleport in and out of. But this one had been attacked. Badly.” Illinal glanced at me uneasily. “Bandits?” “That’s what I would have thought,” Declan replied. “But this was different. I found that the occupants, a pair of Hylotl, had been… beheaded. Left where anyone coming in could see, with a word written above them in purple paint. ‘Occassus.’” “Who are they?” I asked. “Human supremacists of some sort?” Declan nodded. “More or less. Loose collective, currently classified as a hate group. But their name keeps cropping up in Protectorate circles, usually linked to similar attacks. USCM’s investigated, but hasn’t been able to pin anything on them yet. According to the Occasus themselves, they’re a nonviolent group with violent actions being pinned on them. But it’s only a matter of time before they’re outed as terrorists, mark my words.” “Great,” Illinal muttered. “So, will we get to shoot them then?” Somehow, Declan managed to lower his voice even further. “Tell you the truth, if you’re nonhuman or wear a Protectorate uniform, they’ll attack first if they catch you out in the wilderness. But only if they see you before you see them, if you catch my drift.” Normally I’d object to shoot-on-sight arguments, especially coming from the Protectorate. I’d always imagined them as being well above that. But Declan was clearly speaking from experience. There may well have been some naivety on my part not to assume that there would be some frontier justice out there. “Well, thanks for the warning,” I said. “A shame it’s even an issue.” Sighing, Declan nodded. “It is indeed. But look at it this way; they’re a tiny group that uses lies and deceit to spread hatred. We’re a galaxy-wide organization openly fostering cooperation and prosperity. Which do you think people will be inclined to support?” “Good point,” Illinal noted. “Anyway, I think we have more important matters to discuss. Shall we go find a park, or someplace else to sit?” “Certainly,” Declan said, as we got to our feet. “Now, I’m thinking that the first rule will be a very strict regulation of pets…” He was soon leading us away, with one arm across my shoulders and the other over Illinal’s. Pets or no pets, I was just glad things were working out. There were so many adventures I was yet to have, and I’d be able to share them with my two closest friends. We were, after all, a crew.