Hey guys-apologies for the four-year hiatus. I didn't mean to take so long, about it, but this chapter got me stuck and then I moved on to other projects for awhile. Not sure how many people are still interested in this story, but my creative muse for it fired up again and here's the result. I've got more on the way-for now, anyways, here 'tis. Happy reading!
Every imperial leader that had attended the meeting on Bastion joined Lelouch's cause, even if some did so reluctantly. The plots against their new-made emperor began immediately. Meanwhile, the few imperial groups outside the control of those leaders who answered the call were dealt with, one by one. Planet after planet fell in surrender to or under the assault of the Chimaera, its fleet, and the newly-christened Imperial Knights onboard. Emperor Lelouch's forces moved quickly in a lighting advance out of Bastion, and only a few dissident imperial groups had time to flee Imperial Remnant space. One fled as far as Mandalore, the ancient home of the Mandalorian clans.
Having made a dangerously reckless jump across an unlikely route, their arrival caught the defense forces off guard.
The fight over Mandalore was as fierce as it was one-sided. While the Mando'ade had long since broken free of Imperial rule and aligned itself with the New Republic, most of the defense fleet they'd been working to build was concentrated on strategically important hyperspace lanes passing by planets leading into Mandalore itself. The handful of corvettes and cruisers with the single Keldabe-class battleship—The Spear of Canderous—that happened to be in orbit were no match for the five fully-fledged Star Destroyers that emerged suddenly and without warning out of the void. Even so, they managed to destroy four of the five before Canderous and most of the cruisers were blasted out of space. The final surviving Mandalorian ship-a Crusader-class corvette called Duskfire-rammed itself through a squadron of TIE fighters and exploded through the shields last Star Destroyer, Tarkin's Hammer, critically damaging many of its systems but failing to deal a killing blow. As swarms of gunships and landing craft poured out of the Hammer and blazed down towards the surface, no one paid much attention to the chunks of debris raining down through the sky—certainly not enough attention to notice the one piece that was suspiciously different. Noticed or no, one piece-of-debris-that-wasn't dove towards the surface among the slag.
Warm… that was the first thing he noticed. It was like he was floating in warm water, but he didn't feel the need to breathe. Was this real? No… the space in front of his eyes was too white, too bright to be real—yet it didn't hurt like such brightness should have. Somehow he was certain this light would have burned out his eyes and then destroyed the rest of him for good measure if he were actually seeing it in person. This had to be a dream.
There were two spots that were somehow brighter still—two spots that, as he was watching, blinked.
"Hello?" He said.
"Hello," the air around him replied. "I the Queen of the Light… at least, I am known by that name, but I would prefer if you called me Ashla."
"Um… ho there, Ashla," he said, not quite sure how to respond. Her laughter reverberated throughout the space around them.
"Ho there, indeed! And who would you be, then?" Her eyes glanced away for a moment, and for some reason he thought she sounded almost bashful.
"I do know your name already, by the way—I simply do not wish to be so rude as to usurp your introduction." Ashla said.
"Oh," He said. This dream was bizarre in a way he hadn't had to deal with before; no nightmares about boys or aliens dead by his hand, no dreams of a peaceful lake and a sister who loved him or friends who had been closer to him than anyone, friends he would never see again...
It wasn't unpleasant, though—just strange.
"Well, I'm Ender. It's nice to meet you, Ashla." He said. Ashla's laughter came again, sounding happy rather than just amused.
"It's nice to meet you, too!" She said. There was a pause.
"Don't you want to shake my hand?" She asked.
"I can't see your hand," Ender said after a moment. "It's too bright."
"Oh! Whoops—sorry, one moment." She said, and suddenly the light faded to a point where it might have even been tolerable to a non-dreaming eye. He could see her now, brighter light outlined against their white-gold surroundings. He reached out and shook her outstretched hand.
"Thank you." She said, and Ender could make out an outline of her smiling by the light bursting through her closed lips, almost as bright as the infernos that were her eyes.
"It's been too long since I've touched someone…" She continued, looking down at her feet for a moment. She suddenly seemed sad, somehow… Ender was confused as to why he was dreaming up a woman made of light, but was even more so that he dreamed her up to seem so sad.
"I'm sorry." He said, not quite knowing why it was the right thing to say but highly suspecting that it was. She smiled back up at him.
"It's hardly your fault. I shouldn't be putting my sadness on your shoulders… if anything, I should be apologizing," Ashla said. Ender felt a small jolt of alarm in his gut at her words.
"Apologizing? Why?" He asked. Even behind the light he could see her face morph into a guilt Ender recognized as I've done something horrible to you but you don't know it yet.
"I… I needed help. The help only someone like you could give me. You were by far the best option, but… well, I just wish I could have asked before this all started. Of course he would do this, start without even warning me." Ashla said. Ender felt cornered, almost feeling the approach of some sort of disaster—and on an unrelated note, he suddenly felt the air around him get noticeably warmer-it had been doing so for the entire conversation.
"Start what? Asked me what? What are you talking about?" Ender asked.
"A battle for the soul of a galaxy, If you would consent, and lastly… I am talking about resolving unfinished business with an old friend of mine… Bogan, or as he likes to call himself, 'The King of Shadow'. I'm afraid I don't have much time, so I will have to be blunt—I've drafted you to lead an army and win a war." Ashla said. Ender froze.
"Excuse me?" He said.
"I apologize, but you're my best hope—" Ashla said.
"No. I will never fight a war again." Ender said. This dream had gone on far too long.
"It's not a dream." Ashla said, quietly, and Ender's train of thought slammed into a mental roadblock.
"How did you—" Ender said.
"There's no time. I'm so, so sorry." Ashla said, sounding genuine but failing to quell the tide that was Ender's steadily growing alarm.
"I'm not fighting another war. No. Never again." Ender said.
"If you don't fight this war, a galaxy will fall to unending tyranny, slavery, misery, genocide, and death." Ashla said, laying a hand on Ender's shoulder.
"I can send you back, right now. I can return you to your time, to the place I took you from, if you truly desire it. I can even take away your memories so you remember none of this and don't have to live with any feelings of guilt or remorse. Understand that, in doing so, you might be dooming a galaxy forever." Ashla said, calmly.
"That's not fair." Ender replied, hating how childish it sounded.
"No, it's not—but I understand. This doesn't have to be your fight or your burden—but I would be eternally in your debt if you would only help me win it. The entire galaxy would be in your debt." Ashla said.
"I've heard this sort of thing before." Ender said. The surrounding heat had risen to what felt like dangerous levels. He was beginning to see a glint of orange at the edges of his vision.
"I know." Ashla said, shame seeping into her words. "You want to speak for the dead, not make more of them. Understand, I don't want Bogan or anyone else dead either, but this war is coming and there's nothing I can really do to stop it without a champion. As I said, you're by far the best I could find—enough Peter to win, enough Valentine to do it mercifully." Ashla said.
"Don't bring my siblings into this," Ender said. He had to think, for a moment. He didn't want to fight another war. The one he'd fought had been so, so wrong, and the reasons behind it sounded vaguely similar to the fight Ashla was proposing.
He'd been made to fight and win wars. He'd done his best to separate himself from that, to become a better person, to make up somehow for the crimes he'd mostly-unwittingly committed… but that part of him was still there, still yearning to be unleashed. If he did fight for a good cause, a better cause, would he be able to accept that part of himself again? From the sound of it this was no war of annihilation. He'd never fought for a cause other than survival before. If there was the slightest chance that this was what Ashla said—a war for the freedom of a galaxy—could he afford to turn her down? More importantly, could he thrust this uncalled-for duty on someone else, and bear the guilt of turning them into as much of a monster as he was? He wouldn't remember it then, of course, but… no. No one else would ever have to bear this guilt—not if he had the choice to keep it from them.
"…fine. I'll be your champion," Ender said at last. He saw Ashla's eyes light up a bit brighter and her lips curve into a sad smile.
"Thank you, Ender… thank you so much." She said, and then she moved forward. Suddenly, Ender was wrapped in her arms, her embrace so warm it should have been uncomfortable but instead seemed to radiate throughout his body, soothing each small ache and pain it came across.
She began to whisper into his ear, telling him much—a rebel alliance resisting an empire, a war between dark and light, his task as champion opposed to his rival, to find all the allies he could in his fight, all at an unbelievably rapid pace. All of the information lingered in his mind, and Ender realized it would not be easy to forget, even if he tried. At last she was finished, and pulled away from him a little to look into his eyes again.
"You're too kind, you know." She said, and Ender saw what he somehow knew was fondness in her eyes; it was as if he could feel it, somewhere deep within his being.
"I am in your debt. There is not much time left now—Bogan has already set his piece in motion. You will arrive soon. There will be dark times to come, but don't worry—I'll be looking out for you." Ashla said. The heat had built to an unbearable degree, and Ender's vision was almost blocked by swirling orange and yellow light.
"Thank you, Ender." Ashla said. Ender felt her lips brush against his forehead, and then—
"Ah!" Ender said, lurching up. His vision swirled, a dark mass of blurriness. It took what must have been a minute or so to fully settle, allowing Ender to get a good look at his surroundings. He'd heard metal creaking and smelled oil and dirt, but it wasn't until his sight cleared that he realized he was in some sort of crashed ship. He appeared to be in a cockpit of some kind, albeit one that had buried itself upside-down into the ground. Light streamed in through a hole in the side of the ship several meters behind him. He was strapped into some sort of chair that had come loose from its moorings and by some miracle landed with him laying on his back, unharmed. From where he was sitting, he could see up to the unfamiliar control panel and the few still-blinking lights that were on it. His clothing, at least, was familiar—his old admiral's uniform; a blue coat with a broadly flared collar trimmed in red—cut high enough at the waist to show the white shirt underneath—a pair of blue pants that matched the coat, and the brown boots that came with it all. It felt strange to be wearing it again, but as the weight of the deal he'd just made came crashing down on him he realized it was oddly appropriate. The medals were still there, too. He hated them, but they reminded him of his friends... and the Formics. He couldn't just take them off.
Ender fiddled for a moment with the unfamiliar harness buckle before managing to find the right clasp, and then he was free. He stood, realized there was more than enough room between him and the top of the now-crashed ship, and stretched. It felt good, even if whatever Ashla had done had cleared away any aches there had been for him to stretch out. From there, it was fairly easy to climb up the inclined deck of the ship and get a glimpse through the jagged tear in its side.
It appeared that the ship had crashed in some sort of canyon. Cliff walls rose high on either side of the place the ship sat, layers of yellow and rust-colored rock stretching at least sixty meters into the air. There was a small stream winding down through the middle, and Ender thought he could make out some trees on the top of the cliff walls. The stream was moving downhill from the ship—going down that way was only going to lead him deeper into the canyon. If he wanted to leave, going uphill was probably wise.
Before that, though, Ender decided it would be a good idea to take stock of what supplies might be laying around the ship. As it turned out, not much had survived the crash; given that it seemed to be some sort of shuttlecraft, that wasn't surprising; it appeared to have gone through atmospheric re-entry if the still-steaming outer shell was anything to go by, and he doubted it would have been built to survive that sort of impact. If he hadn't been protected by—well, whatever Ashla was—he imagined he'd have probably been just as slagged. Some of the storage containers had come through intact, but there weren't many useful items inside. One of them contained a brown satchel with what appeared to be a bottle of water and a protein bar. Ender slid the satchel over his shoulder, and after searching the other containers he found the only other thing still intact—a fairly innocuous looking tube, which Ender picked up. One of the ends screwed on, and he unscrewed it, finding a blue scroll of paper wrapped up inside.
As he took it out, he noticed two things—first, that it was not one scroll but several all wrapped together, and secondly that there were words printed on the top of the outermost scroll, words that read "WARNING: SECURITY CLEARANCE 7 REQUIRED—and underneath that, "Project No. 35709, "ANSIBLE"".
Ender stared at it, dumbfounded. There was no way that Ahsla had managed to get those blueprints… then again, she'd somehow gotten him here out of his relatively secure bed on Shakespeare.
Then, a sound made him break off his musings; an unfamiliar whine that was echoing off of the canyon walls, getting louder and louder by the moment. He slid the blueprints back into their container and sealed it, before sliding that into the satchel as he moved to the exit-hole. For a few moments, there was nothing but canyon and the steadily growing noise. Then, out of nowhere, some sort of aircraft blazed around the distant canyon bend and rocketed towards Ender's position—a beige, green and red blur with what appeared to be a pair of golden cockpit bubbles at the front and what Ender distinctly hoped were not numerous gun emplacements, including what looked like two gigantic maroon cannons mounted where its outspread wings met the ship's hull. Instinctually, he ducked to the side, peering out through a smaller rend in the wall a meter away.
The ship slowed to a stop, hovering only a few meters above and in front of the crash wreckage. Now that it was so close, Ender could make it out better—the red was mostly confined to the front, where the open maw and glaring eyes of some sort of toothy predator had been painted. While that set off Ender's internal 'probably not safe' alarms, those alarms doubled as three heavily armored people jumped from the ship itself. Ender couldn't help but stare as the they activated what appeared to be jetpacks and came to a smooth landing; they were distinct, each with a different set of colors and patterns on their armor. The one that Ender immediately pegged as the leader was mostly red, the disturbingly tall one to the right was mostly blue, and the one on the left was mostly green.
As interesting as that was, each of them looked like they were pretty heavily armed. Red held what looked like a pair of silver pistols, and given how quickly Red began to stride forward after landing Ender got the impression Red was looking for some sort of fight. Blue didn't seem to have any problem keeping up with Red, and Ender got the impression Blue wasn't expecting trouble—though the huge blade Blue was casually swinging in one hand or the orb he kept tossing in the air and catching that Ender was guessing was a grenade told Ender Blue was ready for it. There was something else—Blue's legs were wrong. Ender couldn't get a good enough look to see how, exactly, but he knew that something was seriously off with whoever was under that armor. Green seemed nervous; Ender could see the T-shaped visor on Green's helmet scanning back and forth, taking everything in. The long gun Green was cradling looked like some sort of sniper-rifle.
Without saying anything that Ender could hear, the three stopped. They were only a few meters away from the wreck.
"Any of you Imperial dogs still alive in there, you'd best come out now before we blow that hulk to pieces." One of the three said, voice crackling out of some sort of speaker. It sounded like a woman's voice—in English, somehow. Humans. Given the threat, however, Ender realized there wasn't much of a chance of a peaceful first contact. That aside, there weren't many other options than showing himself and doing his best to facilitate communications. Calming himself in preparation, he stood and made his way to the opening.