Author's Notes: I'm back! It took me a while to get this cranked out. I'd actually stopped working on fanfiction for a short while, but I've resumed.
Written for Zen! And she approves this chapter!


Albel wasn't much use on a spaceship. He lacked the patience to learn how to properly use a computer beyond playing a few games (Fayt had gotten him addicted to the battle simulators, though he'd stab the first fool to even suggest as much) and reading a few books here and there. Beyond that, he was hopeless. His gauntlet proved to be too detrimental to the sensitive creations of the humans. When he wasn't confining himself to his quarters for his own sake of maintaining his sanity (Quark, in his opinion, was rife with fools and maggots all destined for death at his hands, all more annoying than the Aquarian maggots – those women, he understood and at least marginally respected, thanks to their battle mage prowess), he utilized the battle simulator the way that Fayt had taught him.

Under normal circumstances, he preferred the battle simulator over reading bland reports from some lowly peon filled with self-importance. At least in the simulator, no one cared if he spent five or six hours at a time in there. As long as he released his anger in there, no one dared to bother him, and no one cared to, either.

Heading to the Arcturus system was anything but a normal situation for the Glyphian. While he needed to vent his anger and frustrations, Fayt's disappearance and the dream he'd had before the buffoon told him what had happened to his blue-haired friend left a growing sense of unease in Albel, one that had never failed to let him know when trouble was brewing.

'And where there's trouble, there's death,' he mused blinking and rubbing his eyes before trying to read the reports again. 'Leingod, you fool, you better not have gotten yourself killed.'

The thought itself was an absurdity. Fayt? Dead? A possibility, yes, but Albel trusted his instincts, and they whispered to him the blue-haired young man still lived. For how much longer, though, was the question, but there was no way for The Diplo to reach the Arcturus system any faster than the engines currently allowed. It was something else that Albel cursed, though, when he thought about it, space travel was hardly any different from flying on an air dragon. Both took time to get from one place to another, albeit it was quicker than conventional traveling by foot, horse, or wagon.

'And here is where that old fool Woltar is right, has always been right,' Albel told himself. 'Patience. It is a virtue in some cases. Learn more about the enemy. When you have everything you need to know, you can form your plan then act. And I intend to act with a vengeance on anyone who's harmed Fayt.'

He shook his head, drew in a deep breath, and returned to his self-appointed task at hand, reading over reports to discern Fayt's potential location in the Arcturus system. Information on the Federation's stance in the conflict between the Cardianon and the Morphus filled the computer screen. The report said a lot while saying very little at the same time.

Both the Morphus and the Cardianon possessed technology. The buffoon had admitted as much when he dropped by to talk about Fayt and to give Albel an idea of what to expect upon reaching the Arcturus system. What Cliff had not mentioned was how behind, apparently, both the Morphus and the Cardianon were when compared to the likes of the Federation and even to Quark and the blasted Vendeeni. Not that Albel himself could tell the difference himself, but some of the notations made by someone with the name Cake Saionji indicated the two were woefully behind on the times, from their spacecraft to their weapons, though members of both wielded runology. If anything, Cake wrote that their technology was reminiscent to species encountered in Earth's early stages of space exploration. The Cardianon, however, were extinct according to the Federation's records (and to Quark's, oddly enough), and the Morphus had long since disappeared. No one in the Federation or Quark ranks knew whether to classify the Morphus as extinct, like the Eldarians and Cardianon, or whether to list them as missing in action, wishing to be left alone. This had been so for over seven centuries. The last ones to make any type of a notation on the Cardianon and Morphus were a Lieutenant Heinz, the personal secretary to President Stephen D. Kenny (oddly enough, one of Fayt's ancestors), and a Captain Edge Maverick, another soul who disappeared some time later. The Cardianon were a violent, lizardlike species, one that evolved too quickly somehow (the reports didn't say, much to Albel's frustrations), and they'd also allegedly destroyed themselves, according to Maverick. How, yet again, weren't in these reports or ancient records. Cake noted that the only ones who might have kept better records were President Kenny himself (those records now long since missing, as noted in the report) and Edge Maverick, presumed dead after his disappearance. The Morphus chose to remain separate from the humans and other worlds slowly developing space travel, and that had been the last time anyone had contact with the alien race. Details on the Morphus were more forthcoming than on the Cardianon, but it didn't help the last known contact with the elf-like race was before 15 S.D.

Albel frowned as he read over those particular bits of information for the third time that he couldn't read past for some reason. Idly, he wondered who in their right name named a child Cake (or even Fayt, for that matter – seemed like, to him, their parents hated their children for whatever reason), but the reporting officer's name was hardly the issue. Something about the situation was off. He skimmed over the report again, looking for something new and any mentions of Fayt and the team's mission to the Arcturus system in the first place. There were none, just the information on the two alien races at war.

'How can the Cardianon be both extinct and causing trouble at the same time?' he mused. 'Was there an error on the Federation's part? And on Quark's?' He shook his head, his mood darkening with each moment. 'And where does Leingod fit into all of this? This is the very place they said he disappeared. Are the Cardianon and Morphus behind his disappearance? If so, I'll shred every single one of them until I find him.'

"Focus, Albel," his father's voice floated to him. "Remember what Woltar and I have both taught you. Focus. These visions of blood and killing do you no good."

"Albel . . . Help me . . . Please . . . I can't . . ."

Darkness lingered around him and in nearby crevices. Creatures skittered around in the inky blackness. A shaky, raspy breath entered his hearing, and fingers grasped feebly at his feet.

Albel jolted forward those words floated to him, almost upsetting the chair he sat in, and he glanced around wildly. That had been Fayt's voice undoubtedly and very much weakened, like he'd been injured to the point where he couldn't cast his own healing spell. However, when his eyes focused once more, he remained in his room, lights on, and he was alone. Fayt wasn't there at all, asking him for help. No creatures scurried about, no danger lurked in dark crevices. The younger man's presence somehow lingered in the room, but there wasn't anything to indicate the blue-haired man had been there at all.

"What the . . ." Albel flexed his clawed hand. His heart thumped heavily against his ribcage, and his breathing quickened. To make matters more baffling, blood and the unique scent that was and had always been Fayt – pine mingled with ocean waters – filled the room. He shook his head. "Not possible. There's . . . there's no way . . . is there? No. I'm imagining things. Leingod couldn't have been here. Could he?"

When no answers presented themselves to Albel, he exhaled a breath and returned to his seat, trying to focus on the task at hand. The feelings of unease refused to leave him, however, along with Fayt's scent. He closed his eyes and practiced a few breathing techniques the younger man had taught him in order to keep from losing his temper all of the time and to aid him in keeping his focus. Once again, Fayt's instructions were more than useful. In battle, if he closed his eyes and took a deep or breath or two, Abel noted that the younger man's ability to fight with greater efficiency and deadliness increased greatly. He'd been on the receiving end of Fayt's techniques a few times, with him coming out the victor, just barely, in those instances. Fayt often put up on hell of a fight.

"And that's what he better be doing now, wherever he is on this accursed planet," Albel growled. "Putting up a fight and surviving."

He called up the report one final time and read through the beginning one final time. This time, however, he looked for no mentions of Fayt or the team the younger man had joined for recovery and research efforts. If he continued, he wouldn't find what it was about the whole situation that screamed that something was incredibly off to him.

The Cardianon are a violet species, Cake wrote. Much like they were when humans first encountered them at the beginning of our space exploration efforts. We know this because of Captain Edge Maverick, though when and where Maverick encountered the Cardianon remains a mystery, even to this day. There are mentions of the Space Reconnaissance Force in various Eldarian transcripts, what little we have left of them, but there are no official records of the Space Reconnaissance Force, or SRF, anywhere in our databases. Former Deputy Director Shimada claimed to have no knowledge of such an organization when faced with an Eldarian refugee crisis, yet a few Eldarians disagreed with this statement, including someone known as Supreme Commander Gaghan. The Eldarians never mention the Cardianon in their records, either, or their tendencies for violence towards other species. The only one to mention this, as I'd written before, was Maverick, and even he doesn't scratch the overall surface. It's presumed Maverick is the only one, along with his crew of Reimi Saionji and Faize Sheifa Beleth, to encounter the Cardianon. His accounts of Captain Crowe F. Almedio encountering the Cardianon before him have been discarded. Almedio was listed as dead before any reports could be received from him. At this point, we only have Maverick's word on anything, and, given what some of my ancestors wrote about him after his disappearance, it's long since been presumed doubtable that he ever encountered them in the first place.

It's been noted that, until recently, there were no habitable planets in the Arcturus system, which has lent to the belief the Cardianon never actually existed. The appearance of Arcturus IX is completely suspect at this point, at least in my opinion. Maverick claimed the Cardianon destroyed their home planet by evolving too fast. There has been no corroboration on this matter.

At least, until now. I believe the Saionji family prestige was used to destroy potentially valuable information of the time. The Kenny family isn't known for distorting history, at least not without good reason, but there are, from what I've uncovered, large pieces of history missing that could have corroborated Maverick's claims. This is much to our current disadvantage here. I'll be speaking with a representative from the Morphus in the next hour or so to hopefully find out more.

The Cardianon, as many psychologists would put it, have a massive, species-wide superiority complex, something they demonstrate with the Pangalactic Federation and the Morphus in every interaction. What was initially believed to be a technology theft was, in fact, something else entirely. Rather, it is, I personally believe, an attempt to eradicate what they believe to be inferior beings, namely anyone and anything who isn't Cardianon. In just the few times I've encountered them, one has declared them to be gods of the cosmos. They seek their Epiphanies of Guidance, something also noted by Maverick as being completely destroyed. It has been brought up to them in repeated conversations that what they seek no longer exists. Based on what I've read from Maverick's meager reports, I daresay he encountered them, though I do wish he had mentioned how they supposedly ended up extinct. The ones I've encountered have been very much alive and extremely dangerous.

They've indicated that they don't believe us about these Epiphanies, that they'll do whatever it takes to get their hands on this new form of their Epiphanies. In fact, we were accused of stealing them not that long ago, and it's only been twelve hours since our encounters with them have taken place. What these Epiphanies look like or could have looked like, we don't know. Once again, for reasons all unknown, Maverick never said, though I daresay any descendants of Stephen D. Kenny will know.

The Morphus are doing everything they can to be helpful, but they have yet to corroborate anything out of our historical records. At the same time, there is hesitation on their parts when it comes to trusting us. Why this is, no one has been able to discern. Yet. Communications are open with them, at least, and they're trying to be as helpful as possible.

However, it's important to note that our efforts to retrieve our last research member, Fayt Leingod, have been thwarted at this point. Whenever we try to scan the planet's surface for his location, the Cardianon either attack us or the Morphus contact us. Each attempt disrupts our scanners. Search teams barely get far onto the planet's surface before they're under attack by the Cardianon or greeted by the Morphus. Quad scanners are rendered useless by something else on the planet's surface. If the last member was anyone other than Fayt Leingod, I'm certain the Federation would have abandoned the search at this point. As it is, they're close to declaring him dead – too much time has passed since his disappearance – if the interference keeps up. If not for his experiences on underdeveloped planets and the survival skills he's attained because of them, my superiors would have done so by now. And, because it is Fayt Leingod, even if they do declare him dead, leaving his body in the hands of either the Morphus or the Cardianon is not an option. The Federation president has made it clear – Fayt's abilities are to die with him. To ensure that, we must recover him, dead or alive, at any cost. Those are the wishes of Professors Robert and Ryoko Leingod. Given what we endured because of the Vendeeni attacks, I can't say I blame any one of them for not wanting to take such a risk. It's my hope that Fayt is alive and trying to find his way back to us, but it's a hope that's growing dimmer as more time passes.

Side note: It is my personal wish that our research and recovery team had not failed in their overall objective. While Fayt Leingod can come across clueless at times, I personally know from experience with him that it's just a façade, and he is actually quite observant and intelligent, especially when it comes to symbology and genetics. His knowledge on ancient history, at least where the Morphus and Cardianon are concerned, would be extremely invaluable right about now, given his family's origins. His mother, the remaining Professor Leingod, is searching for Commander Kenny's old diaries, but she's so far come up empty-handed. I have noted to my superiors that recovering Leingod would be of great value to us, and I know they have agreed with me.

The only thing stopping us, to my knowledge, is the terrain of Arcturus IX. Since the disappearance of the Executioners, the planet itself has become seismically active. From what the survivors of the recovery team have told me, the Cardianon and Morphus appeared around the time the first wave of earthquakes hit. That's when they were separated from Leingod. They believe him to be alive, and it's hoped we'll find him in that state. However, that hope grows dim with each passing moment we're unable to continue our search for him.

Albel leaned back in his chair and exhaled. For someone like Cake Saionji, there would be no direct correlation between the defeat of the Creator and the appearance of two alien races long since thought to be extinct. Only those who fought Luther could possibly even make that connection, and he doubted that someone like Cake even knew about the Creator and the battle that took place to save the Eternal Sphere. Even that ended rather disastrously for Luther had managed to delete everything.

'Yet, here we are,' he mused darkly. He glanced at his clock. In the same moment, the communications console on his desk beeped to life. 'Still alive and now dealing with something that should have stayed dead by the sounds of it.'

"Yo, Albel," Cliff stated. "Gear up. We're taking a smaller ship with a cloak to the surface of the planet."

"Aren't we still several hours out?" he asked. Normally, he wanted to snap and snarl whenever the buffoon interrupted him. The chill in his heart, his fear for Fayt's survival, however, tempered his rage.

"We are," Cliff confirmed. "However, we have reason to believe that the Cardianon, at least, won't take too kindly to us searching the planet as we like, so we're, uh . . ."

"Circumventing any potential fights at this point?" Albel finished. "Smarty pants words are not your forte, buffoon. Just stick with the truth. And I'm on my way. That place you call a docking bay, correct?"

"Yeah. The brand-new cutter. She'll get us there in half the time it'll take The Diplo to arrive. See you in five?"

"I need a few things first. Make it fifteen." He flipped the console off and set about gathering what he knew he needed, mainly his weapons and a few healing provisions. He disliked embarking on a mission of any type unprepared for any circumstances that could befall him. His first battle against Fayt, in which the younger man had used Albel's own words about trouncing on weaklings against him, had taught the Glyphian as much. The pain from hobbling as far as Kirlsa remained fresh in his memory, and it had all been because he'd gone into battle unprepared and cocky. That blue-haired upstart had taught him a thing or two then and continued to do so, even now. Albel glanced at what the Earthlings called a photo, one of Fayt only. In it, the younger man remained unaware of the camera on him, the sadness in his eyes profound even as he'd tried to smile at something. Albel no longer recalled that moment beyond what the picture depicted. Then, with a growl, he left his quarters without looking back.

xXx-Crystal-Geode-xXx

Azazer groaned as consciousness returned to him. His head pounded with a great intensity that escaped words. His entire body ached, like he'd joined one of Sphere 211's many marathons to keep employees fit, both physically and mentally. Luther was such a slave driver like that, but then Azazer hadn't minded. He'd enjoyed watching the blond hone is his abilities and come up with even more fantastic ideas than before. His focus scattered a moment later. The rustling of insect legs on stone and the dripping of water in the distance only compounded the intensity in which his head ached . . . wait. Insects and dripping water?

'I was in a forest last, and something was shooting at me,' he told himself. He opened his eyes, only to be greeted with the dim lights of luminous moss. He lay on cold and wet stone, a small puddle of water not too far from his face. Something small and reflective rested a few feet away. Given his vision blurred, Azazer could only presume the small something were his glasses. Groaning, he reached for them and slid them onto his face. Miracle of small miracles, they were his glasses, and they remained intact.

Once he could see better, Azazer pushed himself upright and scanned his surroundings. Aside from the moss, no other light penetrated the darkness, not even a sliver of sunlight. Moisture clung to the stone surfaces and rolled along in skinny rivulets. A few feet away from him was the very sword he'd tried to grab to defeat that mechanical monstrosity he encountered from before.

'I've seen that sword before,' he told himself. 'That aberrant AI wielded that very weapon against me. If it's here, then he must be, too. Maybe he can tell me what's going on and how I ended up being here.'

Azazer winced as he got to his feet. His muscles ached and protested his movements. His knees threatened to buckle, and his right ankle barely tolerated much weight being put upon it. Still, if he'd fallen down a crevice, he was in far better shape than what anyone else might have been.

'It's because I'm strong and because this is only a simulation. It isn't real,' he told himself. 'It's only meant to deceive the mind.' A wave of nausea overwhelmed him, but he fought it. There were things he needed to do, and getting out of the Eternal Sphere was one of them. "Now to find that AI," Azazer muttered to himself, picking up the sword. He hobbled a few more steps. "And . . ."

He faltered. Ever since he'd encountered those Eternal Sphere denizens inside of Sphere 211 and woken up in the medical word, thoughts of revenge consumed Azazer, especially on the blue-haired AI. He'd not failed to notice the blue-haired youth's willingness to sacrifice himself to save the citizens of the Eternal Sphere. He'd even relayed as much to Luther while in he was the medical ward and the Owner was in his Workspace.

Oh, the tirade from Luther! Not only had Azazer passed up a golden opportunity to be rid of those pesky viruses but he'd also passed up the chance to save the entire Eternal Sphere from complete eradication.

"You should have agreed!" the message had read. Azazer recalled it perfectly. "You could have spared me this agony of trying to eliminate such problematic data and we could have figured out how they managed to invade our world!"

'If I find him,' Azazer mused darkly. He pushed himself forward, 'I will make him pay dearly for the humiliation he and his friends caused me. Perhaps then I can redeem myself in Luther's eyes and get myself out of this accursed game.'

"How?" a little voice asked. It sounded very much like the blue-haired AI. "You're stuck in the Eternal Sphere. How do you hope to find anyone? You don't even know where you're at in the Eternal Sphere."

Azazer faltered. Again. If he recalled correctly, most of the highly advanced civilizations in the Eternal Sphere didn't have very many places like where he found himself. Every aspect of their planets was thoroughly explored and exploited, including Earth. Wherever he was, the planet's inhabitants lacked the technology necessary for him to locate the AI in question and extract his revenge.

'Yet that one creature possessed a high level of technology,' he told himself. 'Higher than what's supposed to be here, or so I'm presuming. How is that even possible? What exactly is going on in this wretched dimension? Wait . . . I should still have my access codes. That should tell me everything I need and want to know.'

He leaned against the wall and rubbed his eyes. His head ached in ways he never thought were possible, and Azazer knew headaches. Migraines often plagued him, thanks to the in-fighting at Sphere 211. If it wasn't Luther fighting with Belzeber, it was Luther arguing with his sister, Blair. Everyone, it seemed like, was hellbent on making Luther's life miserable, at least whenever Azazer was around.

'Ignore it,' he told himself. 'Like you've always done. Focus on what you need to do, and that's to find that AI and get out of here.'

Placing the sword in front of him, Azazer typed the codes into where he believed the console would be . . .

xXx-Crystal-Geode-xXx

The situation in the Arcturus system wasn't what Cliff was expecting upon his arrival. Then again, he wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. He'd passed through the system many times before and never once had there been anything there. It had always been empty space.

'But that was before Luther decided to destroy everything,' he reminded himself, almost bemusedly. 'Who knows what happened when Blair tried to fix everything. Maybe . . . this is how things were supposed to be.'

This was on the viewscreen, a diamond-shaped planet a relatively safe distance from an organic planet with a high heat signature, almost tropical in nature. The readouts on his screen indicated temperature levels similar to Hyda IV before the Vendeeni attack. Two Federation ships faced each other in the space between the two planets. Several smaller vessels hovered in orbit around what Cliff presumed to be the Cardianon home planet.

"What kind of ship is that?" Albel muttered.

"Which?" Cliff asked in clear frustration. Albel glanced one more time at the main screen and made a noncommittal noise of some kind, but whether it was frustration or agreement, Cliff couldn't tell. The only things that even resembled ships belonged to the Federation. What the other two objects were, if they were even ships at all, remained anyone's guess.

"Hrmph," was all Albel mustered. In the adjunct's chair, Mirage typed away, her silent presence both intimidating yet soothing and stabilizing. Cliff cocked his head in her direction.

"Anything?" he asked in a quieter, less frustrated tone. "And we're still cloaked, right? How much longer can it hold up?"

"Based on these readings," Mirage began, "both appear to be more planet-like than actual ships. Though which is which, I'm not certain. No one has seen a Morphus or a Cardianon in over seven hundred years. As for our cloak, it's a combination of Vendeeni, Quark, and Federation specs. It's more advanced than anything out there. We're good for several more hours."

"Morphus have elongated ears," Albel stated automatically. "The Cardianon look like lizards." Cliff glanced at him in curiosity – how did Albel know that? – and the swordsman scowled. "I read the report from the Federation science officer. He said as much."

"Huh. Guess I should have read it a little closer," Cliff muttered.

"Or more than once," Albel retorted. He let out a growl of frustration. "He gave as much information as he could to Quark, but there's still something not right with everything."

"Is that a hunch?" Cliff teased. Everyone loved to tease Cliff about his hunches so he only felt it fair he return it. He could tell by Albel's expression the Glyphian was resisting from punching him.

'And if he does,' Cliff mused, 'he'll use that gauntlet on me. Anything to make it hurt worse.'

"If you mean instinct, then yes," he snapped. "Coupled with experience. Or don't you find it odd that these Morphus and Cardianon appear shortly after we defeated that scumbag, Luther, and on a planet that quite possibly shouldn't even exist at that?"

"You think Luther mighta done something to cause this? Not meaning to, of course," Cliff said. The idea intrigued him. He hadn't considered it before, and he was privately thankful that Albel was there with them.

"If not him, then Blair when she tried to fix everything," Albel huffed. "But that isn't the only thing I find off about Saionji's report. I just can't determine what that other thing is."

"It was incomplete somehow," Mirage announced, maneuvering their cutter closer to the planet. "Like he somehow didn't get all of the information that he needed before sending it to Quark."

"Yes," Albel agreed. "And why are these Morphus being so cautious, not when it seems like they have a common enemy in the Cardianon? Why hesitate to corroborate what could be considered ancient history?"

"Shall I send your questions to Maria?" Cliff asked, amazed at the insight he was gaining from them. "They're good, and they deserve to be answered."

"Do what you wish," Albel responded coolly. "I simply plan on asking the first Morphus I see."

"You think that we will? Encounter a Moprhus, that is," Cliff stated.

"This planet, according to Saionji, isn't supposed to exist," Albel pointed out, leaning back in his seat. "The Morphus were also around when this system was supposedly inhabited and ultimately destroyed by the Cardianon. If this planet didn't exist when the Morphus were around the first time, they'll probably be trying to investigate its existence to determine why it's even here in the first place, much like these Federation scum. There will be some Morphus on the surface."

"I'm not entirely sure I know how you're drawing that conclusion," Cliff drawled out, "but somehow, it makes sense. Still, Maria and the others are going to be meeting with the Morphus, Cardianon, and Federation. Perhaps she can put some pressure on them to give some answers."

Albel said nothing in response. Though he leaned back in his seat, his muscles were taut, ready for action. Cliff wondered if anxiety gnawed at the pit of Albel's stomach, and if he yearned for Fayt's presence. He knew he did, but he did so for entirely different reasons. That kid was a wonder when it came to history and science. Seeing something like this felt like it would be right up Fayt's alley.

'And from the dark looks on his face,' Cliff mused, 'he's probably telling Fayt he better not have gotten himself killed, that it's his job.' He fought back his own sigh of frustration. 'How many times has Albel said that with the same expression on his face? How many times did Fayt just laugh and say, Okay? Dammit, kid, I'm agreeing with Albel on this one. If you've somehow managed to get yourself seriously hurt or killed, well, I won't kill you. I'll leave that to Albel, but he'll have to wait his turn because I'll be giving you a smackdown like you wouldn't believe. Hell, we're going to find you alive, and I'm still going to give you a smackdown like you wouldn't believe. This is insane, what we're going through right now.'

It didn't take long for Mirage to maneuver the cutter onto the planet's surface. With a few button presses, she announced, "Ship's cloak is still holding, gentlemen. Time to disembark."

"It's about time," Albel muttered. "First thing that tries to attack us, I'm killing."

"We need to get you out more often," Cliff joked.

"Bah."

"Easy, boys," Mirage cautioned. She strapped on her gauntlets as Albel stood up and stretched. "We're not here to hunt or fight. This is a rescue mission. Our priority is finding Fayt. Cliff, do you have Fayt's DNA signature in your quad scanner?"

"Yep!" Cliff cheerfully replied. "Loaded and ready to go! You, too?"

"Absolutely," she answered. She slipped her device into a pouch on her belt. "Let's go."

Albel followed the two of them to the hatch, taking the occasional breath as Fayt had instructed him to do. He wasn't trying to be audible, Cliff presumed, but he caught the Glyphian doing the practice all the same. It didn't quite alleviate the combination of nervousness and excitement mixing in his belly, but the breath allowed him to keep his trigger-happy reflexes in check. For that, Cliff was doubly grateful for Fayt and his efforts.

The planet's surface wasn't all that different from Elicoor's, Cliff decided upon stepping out of the ship. Mirage had landed their cutter in a clearing with a small amount of large rocks. Tall trees ringed the area in a wide radius. In what he could only presume was north, a large cliff face interrupted the tree ring. Cliff noticed Albel frowning when they caught a glimpse of fresh dirt falling.

"That doesn't look right," he remarked, gesturing to the high rise of earth.

"That's why I chose this area for landing," Mirage stated. "There's a fissure just before that, and it heads deep underground. According to the additional data sent by Officer Saionji, this is the last known location for the research team, where they lost most of their members and were separated from Fayt."

"This is where Fayt fell is more like it," Albel murmured.

"That would be one hell of a fall," Cliff muttered. "Don't tell me that we're looking for a corpse."

"No." Albel shook his head. "He's alive. I know it."

"Without food, water, or medical treatment?" Cliff shook his head. "It's quite the long shot."

"What's quite the long shot?" a woman's sultry voice asked. The three of them whirled around, Albel drawing his weapons while Cliff and Mirage took up fighting stances. Behind them and striding towards them was a woman with elongated ears, long pink hair tied into a tail, and ample enough breasts. She wore a scant amount of clothing, much like Nel had when he and Fayt first met her, and bright red markings like runes graced her flesh. She carried a staff in her hand, a staff she halfway pointed at them.

"Well, there's a surprise," Cliff remarked in appreciation, fighting the urge to whistle. He didn't, however, move from his stance. Experience with Mirage alone told him beautiful women weren't to be trifled with.

"And what's that?" the woman asked, somewhat bemused.

"A beautiful lady sneaking up on us is what," came the answer. "Mirage didn't say we had company, though I daresay, Albel, you called it."

"Bah." Albel narrowed his eyes and aimed his blade at the newcomer. "You must be one of those Morphus scumbags."

"Scumbag?" the woman echoed, scowling a little. "Is that any way to talk to a lady?"

"When I see one," Albel began then stopped. He shook his head, making Cliff wonder what was going through it. "Never mind." He kept his eyes narrowed, though. "I suppose that means I get to ask you this."

"You don't," the woman began.

"Oh, but I do," Albel growled. "Your people have been in an excellent position to confirm a few things from Earth's history, but, according to what I've read from those Federation scumbags so far, you've refused to do so. In fact, you've done everything you could to prevent them from retrieving a human lost and quite possibly injured on this planet's surface. What reasons do you have for being so evasive and from preventing them from rescuing one of their own?"

"History?" the woman asked. Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by history? I know human technology has advanced since we've last encountered them. Too fast, if you ask us, but it hasn't been that long . . ."

"Hold up," Cliff interrupted. "Time out. What do you mean by that it hasn't been that long? What year do you think it is for humans?"

"It's 15 S.D.," the woman answered with confidence.

At that, Cliff glanced at Mirage, and she glanced back at him. They eased up their stances just a little bit, and he shook his head, saying, "Actually, it isn't 15 S.D. any longer. It's 773 S.D."

"What?" The woman's face paled.

"Earth's calendar is 773 S.D.," Albel repeated. "Federation Officer Saionji has mentioned a Captain Edge Maverick in his reports over his dealings with you and the Cardianon, but he's said you've refused to corroborate anything with them about the Cardianon home world destruction and the appearance of this planet. Why? What did happen with the Cardianon? And who are you, anyway?"

"My name is Myuria Tionysus," she answered. "I knew Edge Maverick, and I was there when the Cardianon destroyed themselves." Myuria lowered her staff. "You said you were here to find someone, right? Someone in need of medical attention, right? If he fell down that crevice, I don't know how he'd have survived, but I'll help you in your search. I'll tell you what you want to know in the process."

"Sounds good to me," Cliff answered. He turned to Mirage. "We're heading for that fissure to find Fayt, right?"

"This is his last known location," she confirmed.

"Then let's get to it," Cliff stated. "The sooner we find him, the better off we'll be."

He shouldered his gear and started trekking to the cliff-face, his quad scanner back in hand.

'Please, Fayt, be all right,' he prayed. 'If Albel's correct . . .'

He didn't finish the thought. He didn't want to finish the thought.

Cliff didn't think he could bear it.


Final notes here: Not sure when the next update is going to be on this one. I'm back to working on Destinies. That's been languishing for way too long. Thanks for reading!