They Stumble That Run Fast

Chapter 1

"And This Was Good And The World Was At Peace And Stuff."
-Excel '97 Flight Sim

On this specific Thursday, something was moving through space, quite quickly, several solar-systems away from Earth.  If you had looked at that particular object, you would have seen gold. 

And gold. 

And gold.

It was the sheer size of the vessel that demanded that repetition.  Because it was difficult to see where it started or ended, at least with the naked eye.  Because this particular space-vessel was longer than an entire solar system.  Because it was a big thing.  A BIG thing.  A big massive mind-bogglingly-long golden disc.  If one looked at it from far enough away one could see the captive planets set in it like gems in a gaudy golden trinket.  Which, really, was what it was: a massive bejeweled golden florid ornament in praise of the Nerillian Queen, mad ruler of a mad, dead-end, useless race.

If there was one flaw in the ship's design, it was the single gaping hole where another planet was obviously intended to be placed.  The Nerillians had recently found a planet aesthetically pleasing enough to fill the gap, a lovely blue and green world, and had assumed that acquiring it would be simple.  Such achievements always had been in the past.  So, in the typical Nerillian fashion, they had shown up in the planet's orbit and arrogantly challenged the local inhabitants to an athletic duel for ownership of the world, smugly confident in the artificially enhanced prowess of the Nerillian team (and the effectiveness of their underhanded tactics).

As one might expect from dramatic convention, the people of Earth kicked the aliens' butts.

Which was why, in her throne-room, seated on her massive throne, high upon a preposterously elevated dais, the Nerillian queen was visibly upset.  Her beloved and gorgeous athletes had just lost a contest to a species that hadn't even mastered organic technology yet, a species that, in her mind, had only just crawled out of the primordial soup.  As far as she was concerned, that meant she was jolly well going to have a good sulk.  She certainly didn't need any new problems.  But the viewing screen of her throne-room did not care about the Queen's emotional state; it merely showed what was happening outside.  Which, at the moment, was something very interesting indeed.

The blackness of space before the Nerillian mother ship had just been entirely obscured by a torrid, undulating, just-plain-evil-looking cloud.  Then, without warning, a vast metallic shape sliced through the broiling darkness, breaking the harsh mist into baroque ribbons that promptly curled away.  Although it was impossible for any craft to make a noise in the vacuum of space, making it superfluous to point out that this vessel was noiseless, there was something about the vessel's design implying that it wouldn't have made a noise even if it had been possible, if only out of mean-spirited spite - other people, the ship design seemed to indicate, weren't important enough to deserve a sound to hear.  It was an illogical for a ship design to convey such a feeling, but the concept admittedly had a certain arty charm.  The designing feat of conveying such an attitude was all the more impressive when one considered the vessel's shape: a simple square form, remarkably thin, several planets' length in all directions.  The architects had spent considerable time working out how to make such a simple shape as defiant and condescending as possible, and clearly they had found very effective methods, against all the odds, and really did deserve a great deal of praise and recognition.

It hardly needed mentioning that this ship had an important destiny.  

            Nonetheless, the Nerillian mother-ship still dwarfed the new vessel, and menacing-looking spaceships were a dime a dozen these days.  Perhaps believing that good sport was at hand, the Nerillian Queen decided to (temporarily) interrupt her sulk and broke into a arrogant smile, smoothly shifting the mass of purple and white exoskeletal plates that made up her face into new positions.  She waved a hand imperiously, and gave the formal order: "Convey a challenge to that vessel."

            What happened next, however, had never happened on a Nerillian vessel before.  The queen's order was not carried out. 

"We… cannot, your Highness," came a nervous explanation.  The next five words had never been said to the queen before, and they froze the smile upon her face while simultaneously managing to work a little apprehension into her eyes.  The words were: "they have already challenged us."

The Nerillian queen's lips stayed upturned at the sides in a rather desperate and lonely attempt at a smile, but the rest of her face wasn't even bothering to try and conceal its growing worry.  She was starting to learn a little something about dramatic conventions, and something told her that this latest turn of events was very bad for her.

.

It was like… Well…

It was like something difficult to explain.

If there were any anomalies at all, then there were two, and this would have been the first one.  But really there were never any anomalies, unless you looked at the matter in a certain way.  For the sake of argument though, if there were any anomalies, then the first one would have been something like a mandala, except, instead of different types of colored sand, it done with different kinds of space and time, quarks and muons, reality and anti-reality.  If these things had been sand, then they would have been scattered across everything and nothing, starting at a point that was infinitely small.  And from this point, the colored sand (if it had been sand and not something far more wonderful) would have swelled outward, slowly but inexorably, rising and falling in five dimensions, randomly trickling outward in a great swirling oil-slick-rainbow.  But the truly amazing thing about this spreading irregularity would have to be the twinklings of order which evolved in it, as absolute randomness gave birth to a pattern here and there, which replicated and unfolded, recoiling and echoing, steering and disrupting other patterns before at last becoming lost in the overall disarray.  The outermost part of it was continually unfurling off, "peeling" into space and time like a ripe fruit even as the exponential growth whipped the "peel" around.  A fine tuned patch of possibilities sprouted, only to be overgrown by a new reality moments later.  But moments hardly mattered, since it was growing backwards as well as forwards in time.

            It really was quite impressive, but unfortunately nobody could see it.

As a matter of fact, there was only one instrument panel in the whole universe that could even detect it, and while those instruments hadn't discovered it yet, it would be noticed around the time that the story really kicks in.

.

            The losses to Earth had seemed like something out of a bad dream, but this had been nothing but a nightmare.  Mabuko had been out-swum, Countach-ko had been out-raced… one by one, the best and mightiest that the Nerillians had to offer had stepped forward to be challenged, and one by one they had been defeated.  No, against Earth they had been defeated, this latest stretch of losses had been nothing short of an absolute massacre.  The Barelians (that was what they were called) were demanding a fitting reward for their victory (and, according to the scans the Nerillians had made of the Barelian ship, they had the martial might to just take whatever they wanted).  And now she was about to meet with the Barelian Queen in a last minute attempt to keep the price for this loss a minimum. 

She watched with growing unease as an ensemble of crescent shaped fighters and one mammoth falcate shuttle left their mother-ship in perfect synchronization, bearing down on the cleaved-crystal world that housed the Nerillian sports arena.  Each of the ships bore the red crescent she now recognized as the emblem of the Barelian race; and one of them contained the leader of that selfsame group.  Quietly, the escort moved from a stationary orbit around the Nerillian ship and landed, again perfectly in unison.  The Nerillian monarch quietly composed herself, watching ships' ramps descend slowly to the ground.  She assumed that the shuttle would contain her fellow regent, but was surprised to see nothing but lightly armored soldiers file down that ship's slope.  The Barelian queen appeared in the mouth of one of the fighters' entrances, the corner of her mouth lifted in a smile that sent a shiver down the Nerillian queen's back; a disdainful little smile that looked quite vicious with her sharpened teeth; and a condescending chortle bubbled up from her muscled stomach as she saw the Nerillian's surprise.  Even were it not for the honor guard, the Nerillian Queen would have realized she was in the presence of another royal.  The Barelian regent's garb consisted of soft, tanned leather, one length strapped to crisscross a delightful cleavage, another fashioned into a loincloth tied to muscled and bronzed hips.  The curves of her muscles were etched distinctly against skin browned by the sun.  Pride shone under a salting of whiskey-ginger, arched brows, in eyes so hard and sharp they could have been used to cut diamonds.   She was slim and athletic; her heather colored hair cropped short, exposing delicately pointed ears.  She was attractive in a quietly ambiguous way, like a wild animal, with sharply sculpted cheekbones, a pert nose, and movements that combined the grace and style of a dancer with the barely-restrained intensity of a raptor.  Descending the short metal ramp she inclined her head slightly.

"Ah," the Barelian purred, "you must be owner of fine vessel, which I could easily claim as spoils for my victory. Might I suggest you don't waste too much time in getting to the point…?  I hope that what you have to offer is more worthwhile than competing against you was."

The usual pleasantries, regarding trusting that journeys had gone well, died on the Nerillian Queen's lips.  "We did our best," she replied, meekly.  How could her beautiful Nerillians have failed so badly?  First Earth, now this.  It really was enough to make one cry… 

The Barelian queen sighed.  "A pathetic showing.  I had hoped…" and here she paused, a queer look on her face illuminating that she spoke from the heart and not from mere arrogance, "for a challenge… we had heard that there were creditable competitors in this area, but you were hardly worth our time".

A slow smile crept onto the Nerillian Queen's face.  She was hideously insane and ludicrously flamboyant, but she could be shrewd when she had to be.  "Worthy?  You want a worthy challenge?  Yes… I may be able to help you.  Would directing you to a worthy adversary be compensation?"  Her mind was racing.  She might be able to get rid of this problem and have a little revenge to boot…

The Barelian arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips.  "Show me."

.

It was painful to watch even a recording of the crushing defeat in the Mega Competition against Earth, but the Nerillian Queen could tolerate it, if it meant satisfying the Barelians.  She gestured to the screen as it began to show highlights from the competition.  "Her name is Midoh Tomoe, and, as you can see, she is truly a remarkable athlete.  Enormously beautiful… even more than the bio-engineered perfection of my Nerillian All-Stars..."  At that the screen smiled.  Well, not so much the screen as the Nerillian athlete with the screen built into her.

The Barelian Queen's lip curled in disdain at the mention of bio-engineering.  She had already made it plain that she had nothing but contempt for any species that built its athletes.  Still, she was obviously very interested in what she saw.  "And you say that this woman raced for your side?"

"Her people did not possess the technology needed for her reanimation.  Since we were the ones to bring her back, we claimed her for our side of the competition."

The Barelian did not take her eyes of the living monitor, but simply nodded, apparently accepting the argument.  "And you say you will tell us where to find her planet, and give us all the data on her people?  The proposition is… beguiling.  Yes… this woman is incredible.  How was it that you did not defeat the Earth team with her on your…"

And then the Barelian Queen fell absolutely silent, her breath catching in her throat.  The first athlete was being overtaken by something so compellingly and so unutterably beautiful that the monarch fell profoundly and eternally in love.  Her life, she realized, would never, could never, ever, be the same again.  Her hands falling limply at her sides, the Berillian Queen stared in childlike worship.

"Who," she breathed at last, "who is that?"

The Nerillian Queen, mistaking the victor's reaction for the thrill of finding a worthy adversary, beamed and turned her gaze back to the giant screen.  "That is the premiere athlete of Earth, Kanzaki Akari, daughter of Midou Tomoe." 

 Although the Barelian Queen spoke, eventually, it was not consciously.  Her attention was fully upon the vision before her, her lips seemed to move of their own volition.  But consciously or not, she still whispered, "Earth?  Third from sol?  We had already been traveling toward the planets Earth…"

.

As the Barelian mothership slid undetected past humanity's early-warning-systems, Kanzaki Akari was enjoying herself immensely, the wind gently wafting through her short auburn hair, her bare toes digging into sand that felt like sugar under her feet.  She was on the large island of Iriomote, one of the lesser-known marvels of Japan.  Aside from two small and quiet towns, the island was mostly tropical rain forests, long ago set aside as a national park.  Development on the island had been cautiously prohibited, so the natural beauty was all but untouched by mankind.  Earlier she had traveled through the thriving jungle to the Mariudo and Kampira falls.  From up there, the view had been stupendous.  Lush forest had surrounded her in every direction, forest of wonderful intensity and variety, crowded with life.  She had taken a dip in the gloriously pure pools beneath, idly floating in the breeze-stirred, crystal-clear water, and had even swum with the magnificent giant manta rays, some of the most breathtakingly beautiful, majestically peaceful, timid, and gentle animals in the world, found between Iriomote and Kohama islands.  The scuba diving had been like something out of a James Bond movie, only without the harpoon-guns – glorious and gorgeous.  Now, however, she was content to lie on her back and soak up the warm Okinawan sun, her eyes closed to the sky.

Laughter came from somewhere up the vast, white sand beach: Tanya, giggling at a crab, barely audible over the crashing, foamy breakers lapping feebly around the shore.  From the other side she could just barely make out the sounds of the Headmaster Oldman as he flipped shells into the tiny ripples of surf.  Gulls played on the beach and flew overhead, searching for a meal, squawking at one another.  In the distance, Lahrri skimmed her aquabike out against the rollers, waiting for the dark blue sea to send her a big rolling wave to test her skill against.  Tanya raced happily down the narrow sandy beach tumbling headlong into the cool, clear water.  Her arms flailed wildly for a moment, like a playful seal, then she stood up, rubbing the water from her eyes with her knuckles.  Akari could feel a not-entirely-unpleasant sensation along her thighs, signifying the sun could burn her… but not just yet.  She smiled for a few wasteful seconds… this was the sort of relaxation they needed, after competing in Ultra Competition.

The first that any of them knew that something was wrong was when the cloud appeared.  Everything went almost pitch dark - it was like someone had thrown a carpet over the sun.  A flame resistant one, of course.

.

As the Barelian mothership slid undetected past humanity's early-warning-systems, Kanzaki Akari was enjoying herself immensely, the wind gently wafting through her long auburn hair, her bare toes digging into sand that felt like sugar under her feet.  She was on the large island of Iriomote, one of the lesser-known marvels of Japan.  Aside from two small and quiet towns, the island was mostly tropical rain forests, long ago set aside as a national park.  Development on the island had been cautiously prohibited, so the natural beauty was all but untouched by mankind.  Earlier she had traveled through the thriving jungle to the Mariudo and Kampira falls.  From up there, the view had been stupendous.  Lush forest had surrounded her in every direction, forest of wonderful intensity and variety, crowded with life.  She had taken a dip in the gloriously pure pools beneath, idly floating in the breeze-stirred, crystal-clear water, and had even swum with the magnificent giant manta rays, some of the most breathtakingly beautiful, majestically peaceful, timid, and gentle animals this side of Anna-chan, found between Iriomote and Kohama islands.  The scuba diving had been like something out of a James Bond movie, only without the harpoon-guns – glorious and gorgeous.  Now, however, she was content to lie on her back and soak up the warm Okinawan sun, her eyes closed to the sky.

Laughter came from somewhere up the vast, white sand beach: It-chan, 

cool salt water washing over her, laying flat on a surfboard, shooting past breakers, swimming out further, hoping to ride the superb waves.  From the other side, Akari could hear the low tones of Kris' gentle voice as she talked soothingly to Gyubei… the cow had apparently been startled by a passing crab.  Gulls played on the beach and flew overhead, searching for a meal, squawking at one another.  There was a shout of surprised bewilderment as It-chan lost both her balance and her board, splashing headlong into the dark blue water. Akari could feel a not-entirely-unpleasant sensation along her thighs, signifying the sun could burn her… but not just yet.  She smiled  for a few wasteful seconds… this was the sort of relaxation they needed, after competing in Mega Competition.

The first that any of them knew that something was wrong was when the cloud appeared.  Everything went almost pitch dark - it was like someone had thrown a carpet over the sun.  A flame resistant one.

 Of course.