Sunrises in Nexus City weren’t all that interesting. The traces of pollution from years of industrial activity had turned the sky there into a fine mesh of particulates, and whatever first rays of sunlight that did manage to get through in the morning were weak, badly refracted from the journey and would have been gasping and wheezing if they could.
Sunrises in the middle of the ocean, though, those were simply breath-taking. Their radiance made the sunrises in the city look like a poorly funded birthday cake that the heavens had lit for Nexus City. Those strong yellow streaks smiting the clouds as they slashed through the morning sky were a sight for sore, sea-battered eyes.
And behold them she did. Every single morning that she spent on the ship.
Although she had eventually gotten used to it, waking up to the sound of the clarion hours before even the Sun itself did hadn’t been a pleasant experience for Katherine. The mornings back in Nexus City were cold and dreary during that time of the year, polluted not just by a touch of smoke but also by the tone-deaf sounds of what was probably the biggest city in the world pumping itself up for the rest of the day.
But out here, oh goodness; what a difference a few kilometres and several thousand less people made! There wasn’t even a clarion call yanking the soldiers out of bed and yet there she was, snappily putting on layers of clothing to defend her against the bite and bark of the ocean breeze before bouncing onto the solid wooden deck of the ship.
“Buen diu, belle Kenway!” called out one of the Pirates who was tending to some of the rigging on deck.
“Buen diu, Dupri!” called back Katherine, smiling. Dupri was another morning person like her, although in his case he had to be up here this early because being a crewman on-board the ship demanded it of him. The sails weren’t going to catch the wind just right by themselves.
“It’s another beautiful sunrise, eh, belle Kenway?” asked Dupri, allowing himself a small break from the ropes.
“Yes!” said Katherine, her face glowing in the morning light, “I wish I could live out in the ocean, just so I could wake up to this every morning!”
“Then you’ll need to work on getting your sea legs a lot harder, mamseille,” said Dupri, his dark, roguish features quickly arranging themselves into a suitably roguish grin.
As if on cue, Katherine’s stomach gave a wobbly groan of agreement. “Ugh, don’t remind me,” she said as she began to concentrate very hard on the fiery horizon in the distance, one of the few things not bobbing around like the small fleet of ships around them and the waters underneath.
Dupri chuckled as he leant on the railing beside Katherine, his sleeveless tunic unapologetically showing off very attractive-looking biceps and triceps that had been toned and conditioned by many years of tending to ships like this out in the ocean. Katherine had a sneaking suspicion that he was flexing them a little extra for her viewing pleasure. Not that she minded.
“You know, you’ve been very lucky on this voyage,” began Dupri as he too gazed at the sunrise, “All the bad weather has been in the day or at night. Lez Dieus must really like you, to leave the sunrises and the sunsets alone.”
“What can I say, I guess I’m a very likeable person,” joked Katherine.
“Arr, no disagreements there, belle,” said Dupri, drawing a little closer.
Katherine responded by increasing the gap between them back to where she had been happier with it. Dupri had been nice enough company during the moments like this, and his chiselled torso was definitely a nice addition to the scenery, but he could be a little too friendly sometimes. It was probably a Pirate thing; Katherine remembered learning about how their society was a lot more casually intimate with each other, and not all too bothered about personal space. She supposed spending most of their lives cooped up in cramped ship cabins made it even less of a concern.
“Is that Mortanny in the distance there?” she asked, turning around and pointing to a thin line of what looked like land far ahead of the ship’s bow.
“Aye, it is,” said Dupri, strangely unconcerned with yet another rejection of his advances, “We’ll be there before night falls, given how the winds have been blowing for us so far.”
“What’s it like there?” asked Katherine, “I remember how shocked I was to find out that not everything there is diseased and decaying like the Zombies.”
“I’ve never gone much further in than the shore,” said Dupri, “mez oui, if not for the Zombies walking around and all the dead-looking animals too, the place doesn’t look all that different from Imperica, I think. The trees have green leaves, the water is blue-ish, that sort of thing.”
“I know a few Supers who were a little disappointed about it even,” said Katherine, “They were hoping we’d be going into some desolate, alien-looking world like nothing they’d ever seen before.”
“There are stories that even the trees and stuff are dead right in the middle of Mortanny, where Zyltravania used to be,” said Dupri, once again looking into the distance, “Of course, not too many people have gone in that far and come back out again en una piéz.”
“Makes sense,” said Katherine, more to herself than to Dupri, “it’s the place where it all began. Or where it all ended, depending on who you ask.”
She then noticed a familiar aura beginning to develop around Dupri.
“Dupri, move!” she said a little loudly, before shoving him out of the way.
A second later, with a rush of sound that had a strange tinkling to it, the aura collapsed as Lizbeth materialized in its place. In the same instant, the sound of a whoosh to Katherine’s right announced the arrival of Kenneth.
“Ahoy, amios!” said Dupri with a smidge less enthusiasm than the greeting he had given Katherine earlier.
“Ahoy, Dupri!” said Kenneth.
“Wha’penin, Dupri?” asked Lizbeth playfully, taking in his uncovered arms with far more appreciation than Katherine had earlier.
“Haha, it’s all good, belle Langdon,” said Dupri, flashing her that roguish grin of his, “but sadly I must return to my duties. Take care, amios!”
“You too, Dupri!” said Katherine as she and Lizbeth both took an extra-long look at Dupri’s retreating form before striking up their own conversation.
“If I was you, Big Sis,” began Lizbeth teasingly, “I would have taken him to my bunk and made some sweet and spicy love to that succulent arse by now.”
As any group of friends who have known each other long enough are bound to do, they had given each other nicknames. Katherine’s had stuck, much to Kenneth’s annoyance, more because of her abilities than her relation to him.
“Twinkle!” said Katherine in mock horror.
“I’m right here, Twinkle,” said Kenneth with some annoyance.
“I’m just saying, he must get really lonely out at sea all the time with only these hunky men for company,” said Lizbeth in a voice that would have winked if it could, “Plus, with your ability, Katherine, you could show him something really spectacular under all those layers.”
“Still right here, Twinkle,” said Kenneth.
“Oh please, Zippo, I’m sure you and the boys talk about us ladies like this all the time,” scoffed Lizbeth.
“Must you have such a low opinion of us, Lizbeth?” asked Kenneth in a pretence of being affronted, “Just so you know, we don’t talk about you all the time.”
Katherine raised a questioning eyebrow at the tone in which he said that.
“Plus, who would talk about their own sister like that? That’s just gross,” continued Kenneth.
“Adopted sister,” said Lizbeth slyly. Katherine shoved her playfully in return.
“Just so you know, you nearly teleported into Dupri again,” said Katherine afterwards, desperate for a change in topic, “Couldn’t you aim for a spot that’s less likely to be inhabited? Such as, let’s see, the Pigeon’s Nest?”
“It’s called the Crow’s Nest, Katherine,” reminded Kenneth.
“That’s not how my powers work, remember?” replied Lizbeth, “If I’m trying to teleport to a place I can’t immediately see, then it needs to be a place I’m very familiar with, so I can visualize it in my head. I’ve never even been up in the Bird’s Nest.”
“If I grew myself big enough, I could fling you up there,” suggested Katherine, “Although the extra mass might rock the ship a little.”
“If it doesn’t sink it first,” said Kenneth.
“I think I’ll pass on the offer, Big Sis, if you don’t mind,” said Lizbeth before staring out into the now brilliantly lit ocean. The sun had already cleared the horizon by a fair amount by now.
“I’m going to miss this view once we’re in Mortanny,” mused Lizbeth.
“Which is going to happen pretty soon, if that line in the distance is what I think it is,” said Kenneth, looking behind them at the front of the ship.
“Yes, that’s Mortanny,” said Katherine, “At least, Dupri told me it was.”
“It’s finally happening then,” said Kenneth, a little bit of awe leaking into his voice, “We’re about to properly, officially join the Crusades!”
“Isn’t it exciting?” chirped Lizbeth, “We’re going to go out there and kick some real Zombie behinds!”
“If they still have them, that is,” said Katherine, “They’re undead, remember? I think the behinds on most of them must have rotted off by now.”
“Is it just me, or do you two talk about behinds way too much?” joked Kenneth.
“I don’t think we talk about them enough, actually,” said Lizbeth, and then giggled at Kenneth’s resulting frown.
“You are unbelievable sometimes, Twinkle,” said Katherine in a quantum state of both awe and disgust, “Anyway, I hope all that training we dragged ourselves through was worth it!”
“Same here,” said Kenneth, before stifling a yawn, “Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m feeling a little peckish. Shall we join the others down in the cabins for breakfast?”
“Good idea, Kenneth,” said Katherine, “Let’s go.”
As Dupri predicted, their ship reached the shores of Mortanny in the evening, not long after the sun had dipped below the oddly familiar looking landscape of the continent, spurting reds and deep oranges into the sky as it did.
“Welcome to Mortanny, new recruits.”
The announcement had a mechanical whirring quality to it, with a little rusty timbre thrown in for good measure. It was the kind of voice one would expect from a Robot, so no surprises there. What was a little more surprising, though, was the presence of said Robot on the pier that their ship docked itself at.
“They brought Robots all the way out here too?” asked Anthony as they disembarked from the ship along the gangplank.
“Why wouldn’t they?” asked Oliver, “Robots are perfect for the Crusades! They’re durable, they can take in a lot more damage than people can, they’re resistant to most environmental effects, they’re good at following orders and nobody important would miss them if they were destroyed during battle.”
Katherine took a good long look at the Robot who was greeting them; she had always found them fascinating. There was something very alien about their completely mechanical bodies, lumbering constructions of clay and steel powered by oil and steam and electricity and instructed by the words in a book called the Code of Conduct (or Code for short) that every Robot had inserted inside of themselves.
Just less than a century ago, a Super by the name of Arthur Azmov developed the ability to create mechanical wonders from very simple blocks of raw materials. One of his creations would become the original sentient mechanical being that he later called a Robot. In his lifetime, Azmov created many more Robots, each one an improvement on its predecessor. By the time he died, there were enough Robots in existence that, given the instructions in the final Code of Conduct that Azmov wrote, they were able to sustain a community of their own. A community that, somewhat uncomfortably, worshipped Azmov as a God figure.
“This one looks like it’s long overdue for a repair job,” observed Kenneth as they walked past their mechanical greeter. The Robot’s forlorn, badly looked after visage could definitely have used a few upgrades.
“If you say that loud enough, you might just hurt its feelings,” cracked Anthony.
“Robots have feelings? Since when?” asked Kenneth, giving the Robot another glance as though expecting it to burst into dramatic oily tears.
“The newest generations have got them written into their Code, actually,” said Lizbeth, “There were some pro-Robot scientists about fifteen years ago who wanted to improve relations between Robots and other people, so they took a few Robots and edited some of the words in their Code so that they could feel and describe basic emotions such as happiness and sadness. The experiment turned out to be a success, so many of the newer robots began to copy the changes into their own Code, or got help from the scientists in making those changes.”
“Yeah, I, um, definitely knew that,” said Anthony, staring slightly slack-jawed at Lizbeth.
“I had a friend in school whose parents had a Robot,” she explained in answer to all the silently questioning looks, “we used to play with it when I went over to her place, so of course I ended up reading a lot about them as I grew up. It was a very effective butler.” She had a strangely sad smile on her face as the recollections began to seep into her mind.
“Well, that pile of rusted sadness on the pier can’t possibly be from a new generation of anything,” said Kenneth.
“What’s that thing they do when they get very old, where they get broken down into parts and then re-something, what was it...” began Katherine.
“Regeneration, I think it’s called,” said Oliver, “You’re talking about the process where they upgrade all the parts and put them back together to make a brand new Robot, right?”
“Yes, that!” said Katherine, “It’s fascinating, isn’t it? They’re like mechanical versions of a Phoenix, rising from the rust and bolts of dead Robots!”
“They’re nowhere near as pretty looking though,” said Anthony, almost in a grumble, “You would think they had learnt a thing or two about aesthetics by now.”
“Maybe they just haven’t had the right teacher yet,” said Lizbeth, with a hinting look at Anthony.
“Oh no, I don’t think so. If Anthony could design the way they look, they would all be copies of you, Twi – omph!” said Oliver, who was very discreetly elbowed in the stomach before he could finish.
Lizbeth simply giggled to herself.
They were now walking past the gates that took them to their first base of operations, Fort Ridley, a foreboding mishmash of concrete and stone built on the ruins of what might have been a fishing town in the days before the Great Plague. Inside the walls, the buildings were not all too different in structure from the ones at the training camp back in Nexus City, but they had a look of permanence to them here that hadn’t been there on the other side of the ocean. They also seemed a little edgier, as though they had been designed by someone with an unhealthy interest in pointy things.
A few more Robots caught her eye as they trudged towards the main square in the fort. These too looked like their better days were in the past instead of the future; it struck her that there hadn’t been so many of them in the training camp. And then it struck here that they probably didn’t need to train, when anyone could simply tell them what to do and how to do it by writing it inside their Code.
When their whole squadron was assembled in the main square, a less mechanical figure with a moustache that looked like it had war stories of its own to tell began to welcome them in the kind of booming voice that seemed to be a shared characteristic among all military commanders beyond a certain rank.
“Eagle Squadron 8, welcome to Mortanny! This is where the Crusades will really begin for y’all! Don’t you dare be fooled by the very normal surroundings ‘n peaceful reception y’all ‘ave had so far – there are Zombies ‘n other undead dangers even in the wilds around here, stalking us as I speak!”
He should have paused to take a breath here, but somehow he soldiered on.
“I am Captain Daniel Masterton, ‘n I will be commanding y’all on your first tour of duty here, along with Captain Carol Carpenter, my second-in-command! I expect every single one of you to be enthusiastic, energetic young soldiers who will be able to adapt ‘n react to every single threat this forsaken country throws at you! And in return, I ‘n Captain Carpenter will guide you with our expertise of the lands ‘n the locals, so you’d better damn well listen to us if you want to survive this place! Those vaccinations you were given before you left Nexus City aren’t strong enough to help you all that much!”
If the moustache didn’t quite give it away, the manner of speech and the slightly out-of-place hat did; Captain Masterton was quite clearly a Cowboy, through and through. Katherine began to feel the familiar sense of distrust and bias growing inside her; she wondered if this was going to lead to any trouble in future. Better start becoming real friendly with Captain Carpenter then, she thought to herself.
“Now, Captain Carpenter will take you to the barracks, ‘n you had better get yourselves some solid rest on solid ground, because we ride out to Fort Newstead tomorrow at the break of dawn! Troops, dismissed!”
While Captain Carpenter didn’t quite have the resounding voice of her superior, she had more than enough of his commanding presence. She very quickly and precisely took them to the barracks, where several bunks had been prepared for the shipload of new recruits.
“You will find tonight’s rations laid out on your mattresses along with the bed linen,” she said, after she had finished pointing out where the shower and toilet areas were, “Remember to sleep tight, soldiers. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow!”
And with that, she briskly left them to settle down in the somewhat lumpy slabs of straw that were what passed for mattresses in this camp, apparently.
“Is it wrong that I’m a little excited?” asked Lizbeth, as she and Katherine went over to the bunks that had been assigned to them.
“No, I feel it a little too,” said Katherine, who was a little disappointed to find that she had been paired up with Anthony, of all people. Oh well, at least he was a familiar face. “There’s something in the air. It feels like we’re at the edge of something, something exotic and potentially dangerous.”
“Yes, exactly!” said Lizbeth, before teleporting up to the top bunk on her assigned bed, “We’re so close to the battlefield that I can smell the Zombies!”
“And that smell excites you? Really?” asked Oliver sceptically, still looking for his bunk, “Not to mention all I can smell is a bunch of worn out soldiers, many of whom are in desperate need of a shower.”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think she was speaking figuratively, Dodo,” said Anthony, who also seemed a little disappointed in his assigned bunk, “Top or bottom, Big Sis?”
“Bottom,” said Katherine, before beginning to lay out the bed linen, “What do you lot think of the captains?”
“I would make ritualistic sacrifices if it means I get to have a moustache like that,” said Kenneth, who was already digging into his rations.
“Are you sure? All that hair in front of your face would probably play havoc with your super speed,” pointed out Lizbeth.
“I’d find a way to make it work,” replied Kenneth offhandedly.
“I think we’re in safe hands with both of them, based on what I’ve seen so far,” said Oliver carefully, “They both look like they’ve had a lot of experience fighting in the Crusades, and they’re clearly survived long enough to be here, leading us.”
“My thoughts as well,” said Anthony, clambering onto the top bunk, “Plus, you saw that look in his eyes, right? Captain Masterton looks like a man who won’t hesitate to kill anything threatening out there. That’s the kind of leadership I like to follow; hard-nosed and hard-arsed!”
“I was too busy staring at his facial hair,” joked Kenneth, “but yeah, I see what you mean, Trigger.”
“Are you worried about him being a Cowboy, Big Sis?” asked Lizbeth, picking up on the odd tones in her friend’s silence.
“You shouldn’t be, really,” said Oliver, before Katherine could frame a reply, “I mean, you remember all the trust and teamwork drills they ran us through in camp, don’t you? How they kept harping on the fact that nobody gives a damn what race you are once you’ve joined the Crusades?”
“Sure, but has anyone else noticed that we’ve seen a few other Cowboys and that one Cowgirl back in boot camp, and now a couple of Robots, but no Indians or even half-Indians on these Crusades?” asked Katherine, “I can’t shake the feeling that they only don’t give a damn if you’re one of the ‘right’ races.”
“I think you’re reading too much into it, Katherine,” countered Anthony’s voice from above her; based on the intermittent munching noises, Anthony had started eating his rations, “Maybe it’s just that most of the Indians back in Imperica don’t feel too strongly about trying to take back Mortanny from the Zombies.”
“He’s got a point, Katherine,” said Kenneth, who had at some point finished his rations and dumped the empty box somewhere are returned without any of the others the wiser, “I’m pretty sure they’re more worried about their own ancestral homeland. I mean, even you’re not exactly motivated by the dream of taking back Mortanny, are you?”
“No, but then again, most of us aren’t all that motivated by that particular dream either,” mused Katherine, “Wouldn’t you say that you really just wanted to be going on adventures in the Super armed forces, no matter who the enemy or what the objective was? I know that’s why you’re here, Kenneth.”
“It’s a pretty great dream, as dreams go,” said Oliver, “Plus, with all the Robots and guns and exciting new technologies we have on our side now, that dream’s a lot closer to being a reality!”
“Too bad all that new technology can’t do much to put some taste into these rations,” said Lizbeth, “Am I the only one who feels like we’re eating solidified cotton wool with some water in it?”
“Did you really expect the food to get better once we got here?” asked Katherine, almost laughing, “I’m pretty sure the rations from the canteen were a training drill for tolerance of tasteless food all by themselves.”
“If you don’t want your rations, Twinkle, I’ll be more than happy to relieve them from you,” said Anthony.
Oliver rolled his eyes, while Lizbeth declined, saying jovially that “I didn’t say it was inedible, you glutton!”
An hour later, with everyone having finished their rations with varying levels of satisfaction and taken a shower (with much more consistent levels of satisfaction), Katherine lay on her bed with a notebook while the other four were playing card games with some of the others in the barracks.
She would have loved it if she could have brought her typewriter along for the trip, but that was a futile exercise. The scribbles and doodles she had written in her notebook would have to do. She tried to remember the last time she had kept a journal; it was before she had finished schooling and moved into the professional world, of that much she was certain. It seemed a little strange, now that she thought of it, how she had taken up a career as a journalist, a career that had writing as its core foundation, and yet had abandoned the idea of maintaining a journal sometime during the years since she had begun said career.
She looked over the scribbles that she had so far logged in for today. A decently sketched doodle of Dupri’s face and torso watched over the first half of them, his muscles a little exaggerated in places. He had looked very upset to see them go, but Katherine had a feeling that he wouldn’t be pining after her too much; there would probably be more Super women to keep him company on the return trip that the ship would make at some point.
The lower half of the scribbles were the ones she had put in just now. Phrases such as “surroundings with flora very similar to that found in Imperica” and “more peaceful and alive than expected” lingered in her vision. Even though she was well aware that the Great Plague had only affected animal life on Mortanny, there was something unsettling about the fact that all other life on the continent seemed to have continued to thrive as though nothing of importance had taken place. It was as if the land didn’t really care who or what lived off of it. Or even if it did, it cared a lot less about it than the leaders of the Crusades did.
Then again, maybe it was a sign that there was something here that was worth taking back. That once the Zombies were eradicated, restoring Mortanny to its former glory would not take very long; those who fought at the end of the Crusades might just be able to see a new version of Faeritalum in their lifetimes. The latter train of thought definitely had a much better ring to it than the former one.
“We’re starting a new round, Katherine, do you want to jump in?” called out Kenneth.
“I’m not done yet,” she called back, “I’ll join you during the next round!”
She looked at her notes again. All that was left was to write about Fort Ridley and the reception they had received here. Oh, and probably a few notes about the Robots. She wondered if any of them were going to join the platoon when they set off for the next fort tomorrow. Probably not; they were going the whole way on horseback, from what she had gathered, and she highly doubted that a horse would be able to support a Robot. She involuntarily giggled when the image of a grumpy looking horse pinned under all that clay and steel trotted unbidden into her mind.
A few scribbles and a doodle of a moustache wearing a Cowboy hat later, she considered herself satisfied with the day’s writings. Carefully placing her notebook and pen inside her backpack, she got up and joined the group playing cards.
“Ok, friends, deal me in the next – wait, are you playing Twins? Really?”
“Well, we can’t play any games of strategy with Matthew’s ability,” explained Kenneth, “And this was the only game of pure chance that everyone already knew.”
“For the last time, friends, I won’t use my ability during the card games, I swear!” said Matthew, his short bristly brush of hair quivering in frustration. Matthew’s ability was to be able to stealthily invade other people’s minds and perceive the world through their senses while still controlling himself at the same time. It made playing cards against him an obviously daunting task.
“Oh, that’s what he said the last time,” said another woman, her green eyes flashing in the dim lantern light, “and the next thing we knew, he was handing us our arses, one card at a time. Sorry, Matthew, I may trust you with a gun but I don’t trust you with a pack of cards!”
“It’s too late to learn a new card game, I suppose,” said Katherine, sliding in between Lizbeth and another man, “But the next time we play, I vote for learning a different game that’s more fun!”
“If there is a next time,” morosely said the man to her left.
“Ignore Samuel, he’s just being prematurely pessimistic,” said the green-eyed woman, “There’s plenty of time to fear for our lives once we go further inside Mortanny, where the fighting’s really intense!”
“I doubt that sentiment is going to make him feel better, Gloria,” said Oliver.
“Enough sad talk, let’s play, people!” said Anthony, preparing to place his card, “Time is ticking away here!”
The flame inside the lantern crackled in relief as the game picked up once more.