Arcos Mini-Series Arc: Kaji

Disclaimer: the Honor Trip team does not, in any way, own any official property related Dragon Ball Z. Some of the original characters appearing in Honor Trip do belong to their respective creators, however, so please do not use them without permission.

Hi guys, Roketto here! As this is my first official fanfiction to be released on the Web, I would like to thank everyone who encouraged me and made this possible, especially my teammates: American Vigor, Ruga-Rell, and Genescritor. I'd also like to thank Davidstarlingm, who helped me with the technical aspects of micropropogation and who also served as the inspiration for Professor Ignai.

Also, be sure to check out my DeviantArt for the accompanying character art: If you have questions or comments about the Arcosians, go ahead & Note me there!

Planet Arcos, Age 732 - one year after Frieza encounters the Saiyans and takes over Planet Vegeta

Kaji scowled. The expression, worn out of habit, seemed all the more vicious because of the scarred contours of his face, which held one side of his lips in a permanent downturned expression. He hated waiting. He also hated being patronized, so this test of his patience was doubly such.

In the years after the war, which he hadn't even fought in, he had been shunted around in various military capacities, proving that blood and violence was his only true passion, but even the Arcosian military had standards, it would seem. One fight too many, and he had found himself in this mess. Grimacing in anger again, he thought back to the situation that had brought him to this fate.

"So Kaji, have you thought of what you will do when this unit is disbanded?" an Arcosian, tall for his age, asked while looking down at Kaji with a smirk on his face. "It's not as though you can teach, what with that unfortunate…temper of yours…"

Kaji growled, his clenched fists starting to shake.

"Oh, I had no idea that you were so concerned for my future, Liito," Kaji forced out. "Why don't you worry about yourself? Last I checked, you were at the top of the ranks, but only because of your political connections to the local merchants. What's that old saying, 'Hardship builds character; opulence builds depravity?' I think you've demonstrated the latter part fairly well."

Kaji glared up at the taller Arcosian, proud of his own wit. If he could just get this moron to back down, he wouldn't have to risk a confrontation.

What had Polaris always told him? 'Fight with your mind as well as your body'?

Liito, meanwhile, apparently did not adhere to that philosophy: he swung his fist full-force at Kaji, who quickly blocked it.

"You…you scum!" Liito yelled; his face was contorted in rage now, with his teeth bared. "How dare you accuse me of using my connections to succeed, when you're General Polaris' lapdog!"

Kaji stiffened at that remark.

"Not to mention, you're in good with the other royals, I heard," Litto said. "Guess it's nice to be able to badmouth anyone you want, even your superiors, without fear of retribution!"

Liito stalked toward Kaji, tail lashing. Kaji had not broken his gaze this whole time, but he could feel the anger welling up in him. Litto's insults were intolerable. Polaris was his mentor, nothing more than that…he would never give him special privileges over someone more qualified. He was anticipating a promotion because he was skilled, plain and simple.

"What's the matter, no witty comeback, lieutenant? Or are you afraid someone will actually stand up to you for once?" Litto asked. "I'm not afraid of you! You're all bluster and foul mood, but you're not strong enough to beat me!"

With that, Liito charged. He managed to catch Kaji off guard with his longer reach and decked him across the face, sending him flying into the opposite wall of the barracks. By this time, many others had gathered and were nervously milling about. Most of them had seen Kaji fight before, and no one doubted his brutality…but Liito was already galled, his pride challenged, and he could not be convinced to back down. Kaji assumed a fighting stance, only intending to teach this upstart a lesson and get back to proper rank and order. His first punch missed, as Liito feinted to his right side. His larger opponent took that opening to slam his left knee into Kaji's right side, and then stomp on his right foot. Kaji yelled with pain and a newly kindled rage, and thus began to fight back in earnest.

'That bastard! He must have read my files and memorized all my weak points!' Kaji angrily thought.

Kaji walked with a slight limp on his right side, a result of muscle and nerve damage from…that horrible time. The limp was bad enough to brand him as a survivor of personal tragedy in the war, but the scars practically screamed, to all who met him, 'This man witnessed Hell, and did not come away whole.' He hated how they looked at him, with that mixture of pity, fear, and revulsion. Like they wished he would just die and disappear, along with all other reminders of that time.

'Well, good luck getting rid of me,' Kaji defiantly thought. 'I'm determined to survive to spite you all.'

Focusing his attention back on the fight at hand, Kaji launched into a barrage of hits, forcing Liito backward. The thrum of blood pounded in his ears, his mind churning.

'How do they expect me to uphold what pride I have left, if I have to deal with these daily insults?' Kaji thought.

He indignantly thought of all the other incidents, the jeers, the whispers that ceased when he entered a room, all of it. Bellowing in rage, he kept striking his now-prone opponent. Again and again, until his fists ached and he could no longer make out the features of the man's face, he raged.

Someone was screaming at him. Hands pulled him backward, still struggling and lashing out. Someone big slapped him, across his face, hard enough to draw blood.

His eyes finally focused to see his master, General Polaris, towering over him, his eyes cold and hard. His eyes wide, Kaji peered around Polaris to see the wall spattered with blood, and… Oh god… He looked up at the general, searching his eyes for any sympathy.

"I…I didn't start this! I was only defen-" he started, his throat suddenly dry.

"Lieutenant Kaji, go back to your quarters. Tomorrow morning, I will send for you," Polaris coldly said.

That had been it. No corporal punishment, no lashes, not even any harsh words; just that single, calm order. He had walked back to his barracks in a trance, washed the blood off of himself, and went to sleep, like nothing at all was wrong. Now, the morning after, he dreaded what he knew was coming. Whenever his master failed to castigate subordinates immediately, it usually meant a much worse fate was in store. Kaji could be stripped of his rank, imprisoned, banished, or executed, he had no idea, and that lack of control over his own fate shook him to his core.

The messenger had come, as promised, bright and early that morning. A tall, lithe woman, who Kaji had never met before, but who he guessed was one of the many capitol secretaries/mail runners. She introduced herself curtly, he promptly forgot her name, and she told him where to go to meet with the general. A garden villa in the downtown district, not too far from their current location, she explained, so that Kaji could make his way there without attracting the attention of the media.

"The media?" Kaji asked with surprise.

"Yes lieutenant, the man you killed last night was very prominent," the messenger said.

He sat back in shock. This was really happening. He had beaten several of those who dared to goad him, but never like this. Not to death.

The reality of the situation sank in fully, and he tried to conceal the nervous twitching of his tail from the messenger. She noticed, barely hiding an expression of that accursed…pity…again before she politely said goodbye and left. Before she departed, she deigned to tell him that General Polaris had his best interests in mind, and to be grateful. That sentiment made him grit his teeth, frustrated that his master really was giving him leniency after all.

He hated being patronized like this. He was a hobbled, broken warrior, but a warrior nonetheless. Without thinking, he slammed his fist through the wall, putting a good-sized hole through the thick masonry. Calming himself, he steeled his resolve for the meeting. The short trip over to the villa was uneventful, with Kaji not seeing anyone up this early to antagonize him, least of all reporters. Thank all the spirits for that small mercy; he wouldn't have known what to do if confronted with them.

With an exasperated sigh, Kaji broke this brief reverie and, for what seemed like the hundredth time, stared at the door to General Polaris' study. The young male attendant who had met him at the door had said that the general would be out momentarily to meet with him, but "momentarily" could be anytime from a few seconds to a few hours, for all he knew. The door finally opening gave him a start, as he sat up straight on the couch in the airy anteroom. Without ceremony, General Polaris quietly walked in, pausing only momentarily to touch a button on his scouter before sitting down opposite Kaji.

"Lieutenant Kaji, would you like to know what I have been doing in the time that you have been waiting here?" the taller man started coolly, without a hint of anger in his voice.

Kaji shifted in his seat. He knew a rebuke was coming, but he still needed to find a way to soften the blow…what response would be appropriate?

"I…I am here because of my actions, which were rash and reflected badly on not only myself, but my superiors…sir," he ventured cautiously. He had kept his head respectfully low since Polaris walked in, trying to avoid any eye contact that might betray the fear he felt gnawing at his guts.

"A good standard answer, Kaji, one that seeks to appeal to etiquette and honor, but what I really want to know is - why do you think you're here? Care to tell me what exactly provoked you last night?"

Kaji dared to look up, keeping his scarred face devoid of any emotion. Polaris was staring him down, a slight smile on his face, but his eyes reflected no mirth.

'He's interrogating me,' Kaji thought. 'No use hiding the whole story now….'

He must have faltered with an answer too long, because before he could gather his thoughts, Polaris cut in, leaning forward in his seat so that he was much closer to the lieutenant.

"While you were waiting just now, and, I assume while you were either sleeping or stewing over your fate in this whole mess last night, I have been actively petitioning for your life, lieutenant."

Kaji unconsciously blinked and sat back, pressing into the cushion behind him.

"You see Kaji, I have been very lenient with you. To your detriment, it seems," Polaris said, with his voice starting to become sharper in tone, which Kaji knew to be a precursor to what was to come. "You have taken my kindness and concern, and returned to me shame and belligerence."

"I-I'm sorry, general!" Kaji said. "I…this wasn't supposed to happen, I tried to avoid the situation, but Liito…that bastard had it out for me, and I was just defending myself! Myself, and my honor!"

The young Arcosian had, without realizing it, stood up, and his voice had risen to a shout.

The older man glared up at him.

"Sit down, Lieutenant Kaji," Polaris said, as Kaji obeyed. "Your honor is one thing, but a fellow soldier's life is quite another. This is not a battlefield. There are rules to be followed, something that you seem to have trouble grasping."

Kaji's face twitched slightly, his fists balled up stiffly at his sides.

"With all due respect, sir, you seem to have trouble grasping the problem," Kaji said. "It's not me, it's them. All of them. Sneering at me, avoiding me, and treating me like I'm some kind of monster…I cannot abide by the rules if they don't allow me to have peace."

Almost immediately, he regretted saying those words, as Polaris' tail lashed out, the hard tip smacking him across the face, leaving his vision slightly blurred.

"Listen to me, you insolent worm, I know full well how you are treated!" Polaris shouted. "You think that you are the only one? That you are somehow special in your misery? There are those of us who have no scars marking our skins, and yet we are still shunned, even more than you, because of our actions during the war!"

Polaris' face was now twisted in anger, with his black lips drawn back against his teeth.

"You think you are the monster? Master Frieza surpasses us all in strength, a mere boy when he led the army, and if he wished, he could kill us all, on little more than a whim! Do not forget, Kaji, that you never saw battle due to your wounds – you have no right to judge yourself a monster, nor do you have the right to place your own unhappiness before others' lives!"

He punctuated the last word with another slap, knocking Kaji to the floor. The younger man lay prone for a few moments, numb at his master's words.

"You are selfish, and woefully short-sighted!" Polaris yelled. "I can't believe that, while the rest of the world is working on rebuilding, you'd rather feel sorry for yourself and lash out at anyone who irks you!"

'It's true,' Kaji thought. 'Since the war ended, I was so…so angry that I never got to take revenge, never even got to see one of those filthy Saiyans die for their crimes.'

He slowly got to his feet, his cheek aching. He could feel that there would be a nasty bruise there tomorrow.

Frowning, Kaji asked, "Is there anything I can do? To fix this, I mean…"

Polaris sighed, eyes shut, his hand going to the bridge of his nose as though he had a headache.

"Kaji…you have so much potential, which is why I took special interest in you to begin with," Polaris said, as Kaji shifted again nervously, his tail twitching on the floor by his ankles.

Polaris' voice had seemed to soften in that sentence, all the rage of his previous outburst evaporated.

"As I had started to say before, I have been lobbying all night to 'fix this', as you so crudely put it. It will not be a slap on the wrist this time, Kaji; no, it will be a much more severe punishment, and it is only due to my intervention that you aren't slated for execution."

The lieutenant's eyes widened at this. So, what Liito said was right. Polaris was giving him special treatment after all. That thought brought a grimace to his face, as he tried to control his tail from lashing angrily by coiling it around one leg.

This did not go unnoticed by Polaris.

"I see that now you are starting to regret your actions. Sometimes, when one is attacked by harsh words, they conceal a bit of truth," Polaris said, while rising from his seat and beginning to cross the room. "That is why you were so incensed, wasn't it? The thought that your own skill is not enough to earn you a promotion?"

Polaris poured two glasses of wine from the bar located in a niche in the room, then returned to his seat.

"Drink, you'll need this for what we'll be discussing next," the general said, handing Kaji one of the glasses.

Kaji again sighed, this time out of resignation, as he took a long draught. It was cool and sweet, sliding down his throat pleasantly. Polaris did the same, before clearing his throat to speak.

"As of now, I have been presented with two options of how to deal with you. These offers are very generous, given the circumstances, so I dare not ask the king to try to find you a better deal."

Upon hearing this, Kaji choked briefly, sputtering and trying to regain his composure.

"King Cold knows about this?" he asked, weakly.

"Yes, I could not keep such an incident from him; you know that," Polaris said. "Liito was very influential in organizing the off-planet trade markets, so you just reduced our planet's foremost expert on the off-worlders to a bloody pulp," Polaris said around another sip of wine. "It was all I could do to reason with him, he was rather…displeased with your conduct."

Kaji paled at the thought of Cold leveling punishment on him. Even before the war, Cold had been known as a ruthless, no-nonsense king. Any threats or injury towards people the king deemed indispensible were met with little mercy. Kaji shuddered inwardly.

"Now then, don't look so rattled; I dealt with it, you won't be sent to the labs, the prisons, or be put to death," Polaris smirked at his pupil.

'Just what is my fate, then?' Kaji thought. 'What else is left as a serious punishment?'

"I'll indulge your curiosity, because I know you're just dying to know what's in store for you," Polaris said, a hint of mirth in his face.

Kaji tried to keep a stoic face while his master seemingly enjoyed the younger man's anxiety.

"I told you before that you had two choices. Both of them are so-called hard posts, designed to remove you from the king's notice, and more importantly, from the public eye. This little skirmish of yours took a lot to silence thus far, but if you remain in the capitol, even I can't save you from what the gossipmongers will say."

Kaji winced.

'Just tell me already what the choices are,' he thought. 'I won't be happy with either of them, so why drag it out?'

"Now then, option number one: you will join a roving research team, in the jungles of Arcos, mostly around the southwestern regions, but mostly, you'll go wherever the head researcher tells you. I don't know about the research, and you won't have to know much either – you'll just act as protection against the dangers of the wilderness."

'Great, I'd have to babysit some clueless lab techs, and I'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere perpetually,' Kaji thought bitterly.

"I think I'll go with option number two, it can't be any worse than that," Kaji said, as he crossed his arms and tapped his tail against the side of the sofa. "Are you certain?" Polaris asked, with a sly grin. "There you go again, making a rash decision without thinking about the big picture. I assure you, option two is decidedly worse. There's a small permanent research station just past the tree line, almost at the North Pole. They're always short on research assistants and protection detail alike, because the temperature is so low up there that nobody is willing to stay long. Of course, you would be required to stay. Oh, and Kaji…you would have to wear shoes."

Polaris chuckled and drank again from his wine glass, seemingly unaffected by Kaji's now mortified facial expression.

"W-what?! The pole?" Kaji asked. "You're…you're joking, right sir? Nobody can survive up there for long; they all freeze to death or…or commit suicide!"

Draining his glass, Polaris gave him a cryptic smirk.

"That's the point, my reckless pupil. That's where my brother originally wanted to assign you, after I convinced him that killing you was beneath him."

Kaji felt a chill run up his spine at this realization. Everyone always talked about how Cold and Polaris were master strategists, both in battle and in politics. This was a reminder that these titans were not to be trifled with…even when Cold decided to show supposed mercy, his idea of a pardon was sadistic to say the least. Political opponents in the past had all been quietly dealt with, such that no one dared challenge Cold's authority now. They had all been "reassigned," "given special privileges," or otherwise manipulated like so many chess pieces, so that it was inevitable that they would self-destruct, either mentally or at least monetarily, leaving no opposition.

The biggest fear of any Arcosian in danger of displeasing their king was not death, although that could be slow and torturous at his hands. No, criminals singularly lost their nerve at the mere mention of being shipped out to the pole, to the infamous Polar Research and Atmospheric Monitoring Laboratory, or PRAML for short.

The irony of the acronym was not lost on anyone with more than a monkey's brain: pramer was the Arcosian word for despair, and criminals were known to commit suicide in transit, rather than willingly reach such an unforgiving place. Even if they lived through the trip, about a third of them died anyway of everything from exposure and frostbite to altitude sickness, not counting those who chose to end it themselves.

'When you get right down to it, we're just not made to live like that.' Kaji thought.

No sunlight for months on end, all those bulky clothes to keep out the cold…and shoes, for god's sake! He wrinkled his nose at the thought. He couldn't picture himself in such a ridiculous getup, not even to save his life.

"I guess that given the circumstances, I'm to believe that you want me to take the first option?" Kaji asked.

"Yes, that's the idea; I do want you alive and in possession of all your senses and what sanity you have, so that eventually, you can return to my side," Polaris said casually.

"By your side? After all that I've done, you'd still be willing to forgive me?" Kaji asked, incredulously.

"It's not a matter of forgiveness, Kaji. Ever since you were young, you showed a potential and drive that is a rarity. Prince Frieza possesses the same qualities as you do, and he is well on his way to utilizing them fully, but I have always believed that it's best to have more than one prodigy around, just in case."

Kaji looked at him skeptically. He didn't believe for a moment that Polaris thought he was the prince's equal. When they were younger, he'd had the upper hand in sparring, but beyond that, Frieza had everything he lacked. Confidence, the ability to analyze an opponent's weaknesses in a flash, and the ability to endure made him the superior fighter, something that Kaji realized when they were both older, and Frieza won more matches than he lost.

'And now he's in a league practically by himself…he may as well be a god, while compared to him I'm an insect,' Kaji thought.

Still, he wasn't going to argue with Polaris. Whatever plans he had, Kaji reasoned, they were beyond his capacity to understand, much less influence.

"So, that's it, then? You've made your decision?" Polaris asked, while refilling his glass and smiling broadly at the lieutenant.

Kaji looked glumly at his commanding officer and offered his now-empty glass. The general poured the welcome alcohol and raised his own glass.

"To new beginnings, Kaji."

The scarred lieutenant raised his glass.

"Ah, to new beginnings…," Kaji intoned somewhat flatly.

The formalities out of the way, he just wanted to drink, at least until he could quell the negative emotions swirling around in his head.

Polaris spoke up; clearly oblivious to the younger man's desire to put himself into a better state of mind, saying, "Now that all of that is behind us, you should probably meet up with your patrol unit. The head scientist of that region just came in the day before yesterday to get supplies…and a new team."

Kaji eyed him over the rim of his glass.

"What happened to his old team?" Kaji asked.

"Apparently their lead guide became ill, something he picked up in the jungle, so they lost their 'compass,' so to speak," Polaris said. "The other members of the team begged for reassignments, so Ignai – that's the scientist's name – is in need of a whole new exploration party. I heard they're sending some female lab assistant who worked with him before, but that's only one person, and the only willing volunteer for this expedition."

Polaris paused to drink, and Kaji mused, "Well then, where are they going to get the other party members? I'm only one person, then there's the girl, and the scientist…that leaves two mandatory spots open, if I'm up to date on exploration protocol."

The general nodded.

"Yes, that's right; we're working on finding you two more capable members, preferably with fighting experience," Polaris said. "I don't want to have you shouldering the entire burden for keeping them safe, after all." "Seems like you don't trust me, general," Kaji said, "but I'm more than capable of defending a group of noncombatants against wild beasts on my own."

Polaris frowned slightly at the rebuttal, but said nothing.

After a few more drinks, Kaji was feeling better about the whole situation.

'Everything turned out better than I could have hoped,' he thought. 'Besides, getting away from the city for a while, away from all those people, might help me in the long run.'

In truth, he still resented that Polaris had confirmed that his situation was indeed a result of favoritism, but for the moment being, he was content to let the effects of the wine take his mind off anything that vexed him. After thanking the general profusely, in a way that was more polite than anything he might have said sober, he made his way to the terminal port, where he had been instructed to stay the night and meet up with his party in the morning.

He hadn't bothered going back to the barracks to retrieve his belongings, few as they were.

'Why bother? I'll have no use for any of it migrating through the forest,' he thought.

He didn't have much to be attached to, he mused, neither person nor property. When the Saiyans had come, his ancestral home had been one of the first to be burned, because of his family's status. When the home burned, so had everything he'd ever known. And everyone. His hand unconsciously strayed to his face, to trace the livid scars that marred its surface.

'Yet I survived. Alone.'

Suddenly, through the impairing haze of the wine, he remembered something he did want to retrieve, before he left everything here behind. The terminal port wasn't far from the barracks, but he decided to take the back way, just in case someone saw him.

'To think…me, of all people, slinking around like this,' he thought with annoyance. 'But if a newsmonger catches me, I'd have to figure out how to explain last night.'

As far as he knew, the news hadn't broken yet, at least not the whole story. Better to be out of the city before whatever twisted version of events Polaris helped craft bubbled to the surface. Finally, he made it to the back door of his quarters in the officers' barracks. Stealing inside quietly, he made his way to a closet. Among his dress armor and a few extra items of clothing, there was a long, narrow box…a sword-case, in fact.

Opening it, he removed the blade and studied it under the weak moonlight streaming in through the window.

It was a traditional Arcosian sword called a faishin, or hook-bladed saber. Prized for its versatility in battle as well as in its capacity as a tool, this type of sword was wielded by royalty and commoners alike – a symbol of bridging all cultural bounds with its flexibility. His had belonged to his father, who had received it from his father. It had seen frequent use, betrayed by the small nicks and scratches along its length. It had also been one of the few intact things he'd been able to pull from the smoldering wreckage of his home. The blade had exquisite balance, the hilt and tapered blade in perfect equilibrium, while the sleek form of the sword belied its toughness – one stroke, if wielded by someone of skill, could lop off an arm, leg, or tail effortlessly with the leading edge. The backward-pointing hook from which it derived its name was the "tool" part of the versatile weapon. In a farmer's field, it was used as a scythe, in the canopy of a forest it acted as a climbing hook, and in battle it could be used to disarm opponents and access vulnerable elbow and knee joints protected by bony armor. In short, the perfect weapon, suited for every occasion and purpose.

Kaji smiled, for the first time in a long while. Changing into some fresh armor that had a belt and thigh-guard, he fastened the sword to the belt. He no longer felt trapped, or carried aimlessly by fate.

'Now, I can affect my own destiny,' he thought optimistically. 'Whatever the future holds, I will survive with this sword.'

After an uneventful trip back to the terminal port, Kaji collapsed onto the bed in the small traveler's room that he assumed had been paid for by Polaris himself. His last thought before sleep overtook him was that he'd have to find an honorable way to repay his master for all of his kindness. After what seemed only a few minutes since he closed his eyes, Kaji was awoken by an incessant buzzing from the door intercom.

"Urgh…" he cursed mildly as he rolled out of the bed, still wearing his armor from last night.

A glint of metal in the corner caught his eye – the faishin, he recalled, that he had retrieved. A brief look of confidence flitted across his scarred features, before the door began buzzing again, earning a scowl and a few choice curses muttered under his breath.

"Hold on, I'm coming…," he called in an annoyed tone – really, who was even awake at this hour?

The door gently whooshed open to reveal, surprisingly, the woman from before, the capitol messenger.

'Curses,' Kaji thought, 'I knew I should have committed her name to memory.'

He decided to ignore the situation and cut to the chase.

"Are you here to escort me to meet my new team?" Kaji asked.

The messenger nodded in affirmation, ushering him out the door.

"You have no possessions to transport, I take it?" she asked.

"No, just this sword," Kaji said, fastening the faishin to his belt once again.

"A wise choice; one really can't expect you to journey easily with baggage," the messenger said somewhat airily.

Kaji wondered if that was a thinly disguised jab at him, and he wondered if perhaps she knew the entire story.

'Hmph, well it doesn't matter if she does, soon I'll be out of sight, out of mind for all of these wretches, just as they all wished,' he thought.

It didn't matter now, at any rate. Soon he'd be meeting his new "team." He just hoped that Polaris had been able to find competent individuals to fill the two open spots.

As they rounded a corner, the messenger told him that his party was awaiting him up ahead, and her job was thus complete. Before he could protest or ask her anything further, she had vanished.

"Huh, strange…almost like she was avoiding meeting these other people," Kaji said. "Ah well, let's get this over with…."

His sword quietly clanking against his armor as he walked, Kaji approached the door to another traveler's room off the main hallway that ran parallel to the transport platform.

'Must be the place; there are no other rooms down this hall,' he thought.

He pushed the button to open the sliding vertical door, and crossed the threshold, stepping inside. An unoccupied room was all that greeted him.

'Where the hell are they? Aren't they supposed to be waiting?'

Kaji considered that he might have entered the wrong room, and turned to leave. At that moment, the door inexplicably whizzed shut.

"What the hell?" Kaji asked aloud, while trying the exit button. Nothing. Pressing a voice override on the panel, he gave the command "open." There was still no response from the door.

Then, a voice crackled to life over the intercom.

"Gooood morning Lieutenant!"

Kaji bared his teeth in a snarl.

"Who the hell is this, and why have you locked me in?" Kaji asked. "Are you here to assassinate me!"

His hand went to the hilt of his sword, his body tense.

"Oh no no no, nothing like that, Lieutenant! We just need a password from you." said the voice on the other end of the intercom, taunting in a jovial tone of voice.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Kaji snapped, his patience wearing thin. "Open this door this instant, or else!"

"Or else what?" asked the voice on the other end, with a snicker.

Kaji could hear stifled laughter in the background. That was the last straw. Whoever this was, they were mocking him! Outside, the door suddenly exploded outward in a blast of fiery, red ki. The heavily reinforced metal door, now dented, landed and spun to a stop in front of the now-charred entrance as Kaji furiously made his way through the smoky doorway after it.

"Oh shoot…."

Kaji swung his head to the side of the door, recognizing the voice that had taunted him. Standing about two heads taller than him was the largest Arcosian he'd ever seen. The big guy, about as wide as he was tall, seemed to be surprised that Kaji had broken down the door.

"You!" Kaji growled, while stalking forward. "You're going to pay for humiliating me, you…you fat bastard! I don't know who you are, but it doesn't matter now, because I won't be the one putting a name on your grave!"

The rotund giant had a frightened look on his face and quickly threw up his hands in front of him.

"D-don't take it so personally!" he said. "I was just kidding around, really! I didn't think you'd…well…that you'd bust down a door like that! Haha…can you please not kill me sir? I mean, I heard you were scary, but sheesh, they weren't kidding when they sai-"

He was cut off by Kaji grabbing him by the throat and forcing him down to his level.

"Who the hell are you?! Speak!" Kaji shouted.

The taller man looked positively petrified and could only squeak in response. Enraged, Kaji was about to punch him in the face, when another person interjected.

"Lieutenant Kaji, right?" the new speaker asked. "Look, I'm sorry about my brother, he doesn't really…ah…well, he's kinda thick, and maybe suicidal. Anyway, if you'll unhand him, we can get on with proper introductions."

The speaker, a tall Arcosian as thin as his brother was wide, stepped between Kaji and his hapless victim, taking a moment to gently slap the slightly shorter man on the back of the head.

"Idiot! You almost got yourself killed again!" he shouted. "Whatever possessed you to think provoking him was a good idea?"

"Oh come on, Hagala, how was I supposed to know he'd try to kill me?" his brother asked. "How was I even s'posed to know he'd get out before he'd calmed down?"

The shorter of the two brothers pouted, with a petulant look on his face.

The one called Hagala sighed in exasperation and turned to Kaji.

"Again, sir, I'm truly sorry if my idiot brother offended you," Hagala said.

Kaji, who had calmed down slightly, sneered at the much taller man.

"You're lucky I'm shipping out soon, or you'd both be saying 'sorry' from a regen-tank," Kaji said.

The two siblings exchanged glances, and then looked back at Kaji.

"Well, see, that's the thing, sir…we're shipping out with you," the older sibling said, while rubbing the back of his head in an apologetic manner, while the younger just grinned.

Kaji, in contrast, was practically crackling with red energy, his feet gripping the floor so hard it was beginning to crack, his fists held rigidly at his sides.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Kaji said, with a measured, yet unmistakably forceful voice.

The pair stepped back, laughing nervously, their tails twitching and curling behind them with unease.

"Oh, you must be Lieutenant Kaji," said a voice from behind him, an older Arcosian.

Kaji turned to face him. Frowning, he took in a tall, spindly man with a deeply lined face, wearing a lab smock.

'Must be the head scientist…but spirits above, what a decrepit old geezer!' Kaji thought.

"I'm Ignai, the head scientist on this honorable, peregrine, knowledge-seeking expedition," the man warmly intoned, bowing politely.

'Honorable…yeah, right…,' Kaji thought to himself, while feeling a headache coming on, no doubt the result of being bombarded with all of this ridiculousness at once. 'So we've got a disrespectful tub of lard, an overly-apologetic beanpole, and this old guy who looks ready for the funeral pyre…just great, what a winning team. No wonder the previous members asked for a transfer.'

Of course, there was one more member, right?

Kaji steeled himself to meet the research assistant, expecting someone loud and brash, a mewling, clueless whelp, or some other iteration of annoyance, sent by the spirits to test his resolve.

"Lieutenant Kaji, I would like you to meet my assistant, Kataba," Ignai said.

The scarred lieutenant turned to the female Arcosian who had finally made an appearance behind her mentor.

"Pleased to meet you, lieutenant. As Ignai said, I'm Kataba."

She bowed slightly, and then stood to face him. She had a pretty face, with wide, expressive eyes, a thin, feminine mouth, and graceful horns angled sharply back from her skull.

Kaji was pleasantly surprised that, at first blush, she didn't seem to be as worthless as the other three, but he hid his sentiment.

"Likewise. I see you all know about me, but that's to be expected, given my rank," Kaji said.

He puffed out his chest, confident that these weaklings would at least respect him for his title.

"Uhhh…not to interrupt, but we've been traveling the southern mountain range, so we really don't know you. We were just told to meet some guy named 'Kaji', and he was gonna be our new wilderness guide," the fat one said.

What was his name?

"You," Kaji commanded, "I didn't quite catch your name."

The fat man laughed.

"Ah, sorry, guess I was too busy trying to make you feel welcome, and then you almost ripped my head off, so I forgot my manners!"

He had a big, stupid grin on his face, and Kaji felt a growing dislike for his attitude.

"Th' name's Hufeh, and this is my older brother, Mr. Dour Face and Sour Attitude, but you can call him Hagala."

The thin Arcosian grimaced, elbowing his younger brother and hissing, "you moron, this is Lieutenant Kaji of the Royal Army, even though we've been out in the boonies, you should at least know that."

Kaji decided to change the subject before they decided to tell the world, or at least the few people now milling about on the transport platform, just how much they knew about him.

"If you know who I am, then you know the respect I am afforded, isn't that right, gentlemen?" he asked, while grinding out the last word and glaring pointedly at Hufeh. "What was this business of locking me in the room you were supposed to meet me in, some kind of test? Was it an early mutiny, perhaps? I was told that I'd be getting two more members for this team to fill the quota, but I do not tolerate the kind of aggravation you seem to delight in causing me."

Kaji's tail was waving languidly behind him, ready to begin lashing with real anger if their response was unsatisfactory.

Hufeh gulped nervously.

"Well…y'see…we were just playing a prank on you…to, you know…," he trailed off, staring at the floor.

"What my foolish younger brother is trying to express is that this is his idea of welcoming you, sir," Hagala said. "It's a twisted, reckless way, and better for making enemies, as I tell him time and again, but he persists regardless of what I say. In fact, it was just this penchant for pranks that got us this assignment, wasn't it, Hufeh? You just had to tick off Captain Eir by putting soap flakes in his drink, when you knew it'd mean getting us kicked from the unit! He thought it was an attempt to poison him!"

The lithe man punctuated his lecture by poking his brother in the side of the head with one bony finger, to which Hufeh responded by groaning, "Alright already! I get it; I screwed up, and you bailed me out, and now we both suffer! I get it!"

Brushing away Hagala's hand, he crossed his arms and looked, for all the world, as though he was pouting.

'Add "immature" to the list of qualities I do not like in these two,' Kaji thought with a frown.

He sighed. He would be spending the indefinite future with these insufferable morons…maybe he should have gone to PRAML, shoes and all.

At least that could have been a quick death.

He left his momentary brooding thoughts to glance at the brothers, who were now wrestling and bickering with each other, Hufeh having managed to put Hagala in a headlock. They were drawing attention.

Kaji was considering shouting at them, when Kataba instead strode up to the pair, angrily shoving them apart.

"You guys are something else, you know that!" she said. "Here you are, acting like a couple of still-wet hatchlings! We have important work to do, and you're holding us up. Now move! We need to catch the Southern Transport or we'll have to wait until this afternoon. If you keep this up, I'll just shove you both onto the rails and ask for two more-competent fighters to accompany us!"

The two stared at the small, previously demure young female, before smiling apologetically.

"Okay, okay, calm down little miss spitfire, we won't get in the way of your precious research," Hufeh said, while brushing off the outburst with a defusing grin, as seemed to be the norm for him.

Hagala just smiled somewhat woodenly and inched away from the edge of the platform, mumbling an apology. Her tail held high behind her back, Kataba turned her attention to Kaji. The scarred fighter was surprised at her show of dominance, but he was equally impressed at how well she'd hidden her power – his scouter had shown a slight jump when she had physically separated Hagala and Hufeh.

"Alright, now that that's taken care of, shall we be off, lieutenant?" she asked, smiling brightly at him.

"Right then, let's get going," Kaji said. "You can brief me while we're in transit."

Ignai, who had been quietly observing the others' interactions, remarked, "I'd say we have a strong mix of personalities with this bunch, what with my genius, Kataba's intelligence, Hufeh and Hagala's enthusiasm, and our lieutenant here in charge, we're sure to make some absolutely wonderful scientific progress!"

Kaji groaned; surely the old man was joking. With this group of clowns, they'd be lucky to survive a week without tearing each other apart.

On the transport, Kaji listened in near-total silence as the other members of the group explained their objectives, and how they had all come to be on this assignment. Apparently, Ignai, the doddering old fool, actually wanted to be marooned in the middle of nowhere, studying tree growth and animal life. Kaji could not figure out why anyone would want to be out there, away from all the comforts, or at least safety, of civilization, but he sensed that there was something the old man was holding back.

Letting his thoughts rejoin Ignai's long-winded explanation, Kaji learned that a big concern was the native flora and fauna making resurgences and edging out the transplanted life. He only half-listened to the whole explanation; all he knew was that Arcos was not their original world – he and most of his generation only knew this planet, but the older people talked about Old Arcos, and about how their species embarked on an exodus here to avoid sure extinction. Great old stories for the history books, but not something Kaji particularly cared about. The past was the past, as far as he was concerned.

Kataba was Ignai's old research assistant, from the days when he had been content to work in a laboratory. She was bright and driven to learn and explore, "ever since she was young", in her words. She proudly showed the others her scouter, which she had "tweaked" – she leaned in, conspiratorially, and warned them not to tell anyone, or she might have it taken away.

"What does it do?" Hufeh asked.

"Just about everything I can think of," she gleefully responded, "including sense really, really high powers without shorting out!"

"So, if you were to measure Lord Frieza, it could withstand that?" Kaji asked.

She flashed him a cocky smirk.

"Sure, I've used it on him before, from a distance, of course," Kataba said. "I don't think the royals would appreciate knowing they're being used as measuring sticks for my little science project."

At this, everyone nervously glanced around the pod to see if anyone had overheard; they didn't need scouters to know how monstrously strong their planetary leaders were, and Cold had eyes and ears everywhere.

Hufeh and Hagala told their stories next. The two brothers, close in age if not in appearance, had been in the army until their recent dismissal, Hagala said. They had not seen any real combat – "unless you count diggin' ditches and fighting th' other grunts" – Hufeh chimed in, interrupting his brother.

Hagala scowled, before continuing.

"As I was saying, that's right; we never saw hide nor hair of those repulsive monkeys, because we weren't anywhere near the big cities, and we were in the reserves to boot," Hagala said.

Hufeh leaned back languidly in his seat, sighing, "It was sooo boring, you have no idea! The food was terrible, too, and there weren't any modern facilities, and…"

Kaji absentmindedly tried to listen to Hufeh's whining, but he felt a headache coming on. Darn it. Plucked from civilization, and flung into the wilderness with these incompetents…maybe Cold and Polaris had conspired to kill him.

"…and then, you should have seen his face! It was hilarious!" Hufeh boisterously laughed, apparently relating one of the many pranks he had pulled on his commanding officer; it had been something to do with glue and some fireworks…at any rate, Kaji wasn't listening, having no interest in the brothers' puerile antics.

"Hey…uh…Sir? You okay?" asked the girl – Kataba, he remembered – who had slid into the seat across from him and was eyeing him with an unsure expression.

"I'm fine," he grumbled and turned towards the window.

The silence created by his curt response dragged on awkwardly, until Kataba tactfully joined the rest of the group's conversation, leaving Kaji alone, staring blankly out the window. As the buildings of the capitol gave way to fields, and as the fields morphed into trees, Kaji pondered again, for the first time while he was sober, what General Polaris had meant about having two prodigies around. He also pondered Polaris' comment about 'returning to his side'… Kaji had never been particularly close, hierarchically, to Polaris, other than deferring to him as a superior. What the hell was he getting at, when he had said that? It made no sense to the young Arcosian. General Polaris had treated him as his own son, in the wake of the war, when so many other orphans had simply been sent to be raised with distant relatives, friends, or even other people with whom they had no blood.

Kaji had thought, at first, that it was out of pity. After all, a horrifically wounded young child who had been pulled from the flaming ruins had to elicit sympathy. As he grew older though, Kaji began to have a different theory on why Polaris had committed to being his guardian. First, he had been a close match in age for Prince Frieza, who, after the war, had…changed. It was as though he'd become…darker, more sullen, and sharp, sharp as a honed blade, and just as dangerous. Add to that his unpredictable moods and Kaji could see why Cold might ask his brother, Polaris, to keep a stabilizing force in the prince's life. Not that it had helped – Frieza had shut down every attempt Kaji had made to be friendly. Whether it was on the training grounds or in the palace, Frieza was cold, distant, and utterly unsympathetic. It was like talking to a statue carved from ice, and just as unproductive and damaging.

Other than training, Kaji quickly learned to avoid Frieza, and instead sought out Polaris for any solace he had needed. It was then that Kaji had glimpsed another possibility for why the general cared about him. Being royalty, but not of the royal family, Polaris was disallowed from having an heir. When he was still very young, Kaji recalled that Polaris had asked him to treat him 'as a father'…it had been a puzzling request to him at the time, but he was grateful for anything resembling a family, after the loss of his own.

Looking back, Kaji saw that this was the one reason, above any other, that Polaris had taken him in. It was neither out of kindness, nor out of obligation to the king and to Frieza.

'And it was certainly not for his health and sanity,' Kaji thought, chuckling to himself. 'After all that he's done for me, even if it was selfish, I ought to at least earn his respect…but instead, I'm nothing but an embarrassment….'

Ignai, who was sitting next to him, interrupted his thoughts with some question.

"Huh?" Kaji blinked, snapping out of his reverie.

"I said, while we're on the subject, do you have any experience fighting?" the old man asked slowly, cautiously, as though he were afraid Kaji might leap at him, with fangs bared like a beast. "Where were you in the war, if I may ask?"

'Hmph, must be my appearance…well no matter, it'll be good for at least one person on this mission to respect me.'

He cleared his throat before responding.

"As per my rank, I'm very adept at fighting, and no, doctor, you may not ask where I was during the war," Kaji said.

Shutting down that little line of questioning was his top priority with these people; he didn't want to say anything about himself unless he had to.

'Let the small-minded people wonder and gossip. I'm not spilling my guts for them, unless the situation absolutely demands it.'

Ignoring Ignai's shocked facial expression, he glanced across at Hufeh and Hagala. They had been noisily arguing, adding to Kaji's burgeoning headache, but had stopped at Ignai's question. Now, they were staring pointedly at him.

"What do you want?" Kaji asked, while crossing his arms over his chest and scowling. "Anything you would like to say to your superior before we disembark? Choose your response carefully – I'm not in a lenient mood."

The three others either muttered or nodded 'no' and returned to their own conversation. He glanced sidelong at Ignai, who looked as though he were getting increasingly uncomfortable, seemingly unable to sit still in his seat beside the younger man.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kaji noticed a series of repetitive movements from the scientist, as if he were making furtive glances from side to side. What did he find so damn interesting? Ignai looked as though he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, seemingly unable to sit still beside the younger man.

Great. No matter where he went or what he did, everyone stared at him, treating him like a monster. Would it never end?

He steeled himself, the knuckles on his left hand cracking as they curled into a fist. Polaris wouldn't be particularly lenient if he killed the scientist he was supposed to protect on the first day; the pole would be the best he could hope for. Yet still the blasted doctor kept twitching beside him, as if he couldn't take his eyes off the warrior for more than a second at a time.

Finally, Kaji spun to face him.

"What the hell is your problem, doctor?" Kaji yelled, spitting the last word out sarcastically, and still feeling a little vindictive after Ignai's last query.

The elderly scientist jumped at Kaji's words, and his pale eyes bulged.

"Wh-why, whatever prompted such an impertinent question?" Ignai asked. "I know you outrank us all, sir, but is it too much to ask for a meager measure of respect for an old man?"

Kaji paused, slightly confused. Maybe Ignai hadn't been staring at him after all. He started to respond with a dry, rehearsed apology, but stopped when he noticed Ignai's hands. His long, spidery fingers were tapping a rapid beat on the side of his cushioned seat, and his tail kept flexing from side to side. Not at the tip, which would suggest nervousness or anticipation, but halfway down, as if it was simply moving of its own accord like some kind of snake.

Kaji's eyes narrowed.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

The older man's drumming increased in frequency and force until the tapping became audible. His eyes, still wide, kept flicking back and forth as his breath became strained. Finally, he gripped his tail with his tapping hand, squeezing so hard that the knuckles turned white.

"I'm...sorry, sir. You'll have to bear with me. I have a...condition."

The younger man cocked his head in mock curiosity.

"A condition?" he asked. "You have a condition that makes you annoying? If you're mocking me, doctor, I swear –"

He was cut off by Ignai's surprisingly loud outburst.

"I am not mocking you, and may the spirits strike me dead if I am!" he said, with a strained voice, and with his tail twisting back and forth with alarming speed. "I can't help it, and your confrontational attitude is only going to aggravate it! I truly cannot help it, sir, as much as I desperately want to! I can mask it for a little while, for appearances, as I have done for the past t-two d-days.…"

He stuttered and started to jerk his head from side to side in an alarming fashion. Kaji watched, his mouth slightly open with shock, as Ignai took a deep breath and composed himself.

"Well…as you can see, the more I contain it, the stronger it is when it comes back."

Kaji smirked slightly, as he now was genuinely curious.

"What is 'it'? This condition – does it affect your ability to work?" Kaji asked. "I'd like to know now if this mission is simply a waste of time."

Ignai took a deep breath and composed himself.

"I assure you it does not affect my ability to work," he said. "My condition is purely natural, not a malevolent spirit or something of the sort. Although there is no official scientific designation, my own tests indicate that it is a neurological misalignment of sorts that causes some degree of discomfort."

At Kaji's blank look, Ignai sighed and said, "Simply put, the more I repress my urges to twitch, the more difficult it becomes."

The whole head-jerking incident had attracted Hagala and Hufeh's attention, though Kataba was still sitting silently and nonplussed.

"It is not," continued Ignai pointedly, "a so-called mental illness or lack of sanity."

Despite the doctor's reassurance, Hagala was trying to distance himself from Ignai's still rapidly-twitching tail.

"Nor is it contagious, so there is no need for you all to act as though I have some sort of plague!" At the old man's angry tone, Hagala stammered an apology, but did not move back closer to the doctor. By now, Kaji was thoroughly convinced of the fecklessness of this "team", and wished more than ever that he had chosen to go to his death at PRAML.

'Rejects from society, all of them, myself included,' he thought bitterly.

The rest of the ride passed without incident, except when Hufeh saw fit to set off a small gunpowder bomb under his brother's seat after the other excused himself to the restroom in the adjacent car of the transport. Kaji glared at him reproachfully, but did not intervene. After all, as long as the pranks were not directed at him, they served as catharsis, and he inwardly chuckled when Hagala turned to punch his brother, revealing a hole burnt though the bottom of his uniform.

Kataba chastised them loudly for damaging the seats, while Ignai quietly laughed, his near-constant twitching and jerking momentarily abated. Hagala abandoned the ruined seat next to Ignai, squeezing in between Hufeh and Kataba on the bench opposite Kaji. A late midday meal was served aboard the train, with the usual wine to accompany the food, and everyone sat and ate in relative peace, chatting and carrying on as though they were on some pleasure trip, instead of being flung into the inhospitable wilderness. That fact, however, never escaped Kaji, and it dawned on him that, in addition to other hardships, there would be another, more disturbing deficit on this journey.

Absentmindedly twirling his wine in the glass, he remarked, "Ignai, how did you say we were going to get food, and more importantly, wine, on this expedition?"

The laughter died away around the table. For Arcosians, drinking wine was not a matter of imbibing now and then – it had a deep cultural significance, and wine was typically present at every meal, and for every occasion. How were they supposed to get it in the middle of the wilderness? Clearly, Kaji thought, this was a serious matter, and grounds for trouble from the start.

Ignai cleared his throat.

"Ah, Kaji, I see you've hit upon a dilemma that previous expeditions encountered," he said. "I myself remember the first few forays in this project, going into the wilderness to map terrain, and running out of our supply of wine from the supply drop in the first few days…oh it was miserable going, to be sure. Two-thirds of my original team abandoned the research and ran back to the capitol, eager for a drink. It was unbearable, just horrid, I can tell you from personal experience, it was like – "

Kaji, now almost grinding his teeth with worry and steadily rising annoyance, interjected, "Just tell us whether or not we'll have any wine! Or will we all be killing each other over the dregs in a few days?"

The taller man started visibly twitching his arms again, apparently in response to being startled by the scarred lieutenant's outburst.

"Well…as I was about to get to, before you interrupted my story, I was about to tell you all not to fear – I have hit upon a most genius solution."

The others leaned in expectantly – they were all heavily invested in this so-called solution. Ignai fidgeted in his seat, drumming his fingers again and opening his mouth to speak, before closing it again.

"Well?" Kaji asked tersely. "What is your solution?"

The older Arcosian, obviously frustrated, snapped, "Just give me a moment! It's worse, you know, when you pressure me like that!"

Ignai started jerking his head back and forth again. They all collectively sighed, except for Kataba, and gave the old man some space. In time, Ignai seemed to collect himself, and launched into explaining the solution.

"It's what's called a micropropogation system," Ignai said. "What that means is that, essentially, you introduce uncontrolled growth – a cancer of sorts – into the building blocks of the koru fruit that wine is normally made from. That altered fruit then reproduces rapidly, provided that it is grafted properly onto a functioning root system. The whole thing is suspended in a relatively small, mobile unit that one of you can carry, and it's all self-contained. Aside from adding water periodically, along with nutrient packs for growth and sugar during the fermentation stage, it's like a perpetual supply of wine. That, my dear comrades, is how I invented this invaluable technology, so essential to preserving our social balance!"

He sounded rather proud of himself, Kaji thought, and if this invention of his worked the way he said it did, he had every right to think highly of his accomplishment. Kaji, being less interested in book study than in military history and practical training, had no understanding of most of the concepts that Ignai had just spouted off about – they were just words to him – but he respected anyone who could find solutions to important problems under pressure, as Ignai proved he had. Singlehandedly inventing a perpetual wine maker was one thing, but doing so after at least a fortnight without wine in one's system…well, Kaji was beginning to respect this odd old man after all.

"So," Hufeh asked excitedly, "this wine is the good stuff, right? I mean, it's real wine, ain't it – not like that nechepo trash? I don't get all this stuff about micropropa-whatever, all I care about is the quality!"

Ignai twitched and a slight blush came to the old Arcosian's lined face.

"Well…it's real in the sense that it's made from koru fruit, and it is fermented the same way…but it's not quite anything I would serve to dinner guests of a higher rank than myself," Ignai said.

Hufeh groaned loudly, and sat down forcefully, causing Hagala to bounce a few inches into the air on the shared seat cushion.

Hagala sighed, "I knew it, I knew there had to be a catch…ah well, old man, 'if it's anything, it's better than nothing', as our father used to say…though he was a real connoisseur of nechepo, quantity-wise, if you catch my drift. I'm sure we'll all get used to it before long."

"Well, you'd better get used to it!" Kataba said. "The professor's genius is at least useful on this trip, whereas you two have yet to prove your worth. I'd like to see you come up with some first-class wine in the middle of the jungle. Ungrateful…"

"Now now, Kataba, there is no need to defend me, my dear," Ignai said, with a gentle smile. "They can decide for themselves if they want to partake in my little concoction, when the time comes and they're properly dried out."

The brothers groaned in unison.

Another meal, countless drinks, and a few sporadic naps later, the five-person group was roused by an automated alarm on the electronic panel in the wall of their cabin.

"Attention," the mechanical voice intoned, "your destination is at the next scheduled stop. Please prepare to disembark, and do not forget any of your possessions. We hope that you have enjoyed your journey."

Hagala stood up and stretched, cracking his back noisily.

"Ahh, finally, we can get out of this tin can and get on with this wilderness guide business," he said.

Hufeh yawned cavernously, having just woken up.

"Are we there yet?" he asked.

Hagala eyed his rotund brother.

"Yeah, we're here, wherever 'here' is," he said. "I'm guessing it's the last stop on the circuit before this transport heads back to civilization, so get used to a whole lotta nothin' from here on out…and I don't want to hear you complaining, considering this is your fault."

Hufeh made a face and grumbled, but otherwise did not protest.

Compared to the brothers, and Kaji's unease at stepping out of the train and into the wild, Kataba was positively giddy with excitement.

"Oh, look professor!" she excitedly said. "I recognize this species from the lab samples! These are Arsinth flowers, right?"

She stooped over a cluster of nondescript purple buds that Kaji had trouble distinguishing from the other flora around the transport platform.

"Yes, yes, very sharp-eyed you are, Kataba! Good job!" Ignai said, with pride in his voice. "We'll be making progress in no time!"

Kaji turned his attention on the dark woods that seemed to swallow the small clearing around the platform. He didn't much like the look of the gnarled, overgrown trees, from towering, thick wild koru trees to spindly trees he couldn't identify, with a tangled mass of vines choking the whole lot. It looked foreboding, to say the least.

Ignai strode over to where he was standing, and started explaining the route they would take to reach where his last team guide had fallen ill, forcing them to return. Kaji only listened to the generalities; Ignai had a tendency to ramble and go off on tangents, and besides, there were still other things weighing on the younger man's mind.

He swatted absentmindedly at an insect investigating his arm, and wondered why the hell he was here.

'Because you screwed up,' an inner voice told him. 'Because you're an embarrassment and a liability. Because Polaris is ashamed of you.'

He clenched his fists and bared his teeth at the dark, claustrophobic woods, as if to defy them. Ignai took note of the young fighter's face, twisted by scars and even more by anger, but wisely decided to hold his questions.

Kataba, Hagala, and Hufeh finished accounting for all their packs, and Hufeh was assigned the responsibility of carrying the portable micropropogation device, as punishment for the gunpowder bomb.

After they finished checking their supplies, Ignai declared them ready to set off.

Kaji ran his left hand, the one without scars crisscrossing it, along the hilt of his faishin.

'Yes, I suppose it is time to go meet whatever fate has in store for me,' he thought.

"Let's be off, then," Kaji said gruffly, unfastening his sword and slicing through a web of vines across the path.

The blade went through them easily, and the young Arcosian smiled with satisfaction at the blade, a smile that none of his companions saw.

'I will cut through this obstacle, and any others. I will redeem myself in General Polaris' eyes.'

With that thought setting the fire of determination in his soul, and the bruise blooming on his cheek as a painful reminder, he commanded the others to follow.

Thus, he began a journey that would be marked with many tribulations that would bring the five Arcosians together long before their unremarkable existence would be interrupted by a ship falling from the sky. That ship, so far in the future now, would spark a change whose ramifications would reverberate through the entire planet.