~*~ Lines of Convergence~*~
a Last Exile fanfiction by Naga
(part of ongoing 'Rainbirds' series)
Disclaimer : Last Exile is owned by Gonzo, there is no profit to be made from this fanfic and no copyright infringement is intended.
Series Summary : In a world that looks like the 19th century with anti-gravity devices, Klaus and Lavie are pilot and co-pilot of a Vanship and act as messengers for the Guild. The pilots become involved with a mysterious mission after rescuing a little girl from a strange star-shaped killing machine. Not willing to let the girl die, they complete the mission to deliver her to the mysterious mercenary ship Sylverna and her Captain Alex Lowe, only to become part of the crew.
Spoiler Warnings : For those who had not seen LE episode 14 onwards, SPOILERS below. This short fiction is set ten years before the event of Last Exile, on the defining event that turned two countries to war and Alex Lowe into the Guild's worst enemy.
Last Exile terms : For those who have not seen LE at all, go to the bottom of the fic for a few terms in the wonderfully complex world of Prestale that you would need to know.
Not everyone could have pinpointed the point in time where their life took a complete and radical turn into an unknown and completely unexpected vector. In retrospect, if one would have their life ruined anyway, it may as well be by something that had the distinction of being the single most momentous article in the entire world. Of course, that was the kind of distinction that can only be appreciated by someone whose life was not the one ruined by said article. For the one whose life had just been broken beyond recovery, there was only despair and desolation.
And the kind of soul-burning hatred that left precious little room for anything else.
The Grand Stream had gone mad.
Not that it was easy to navigate in the best of times, which was merely 'near impossible' instead of 'flat-out impossible'. But now…
Even with prior warning from Marius, Alex could never had imagined something like this, worse than his bleakest nightmare. Valka's account ringing in his head, Alex Lowe cursed himself for not believing more, for not taking further precautions, although for the life of him he did not know what he could have done that would have helped against this… this living calamity.
The Grand Stream was a twisting funnel of hurricane wind gone mad, the thick cloud cover streaming past, forming and reforming into ever changing boundaries of opaque walls. The vanships flew through sky the murky grey of storm-lashed night, the twilight world lit only by lightning that struck out again and again, their actinic brilliance giving flash strobes of luminescence that was too abrupt and too brief to be of much help. Alex's eyes ached with their abrupt brilliance, sudden light hurting his night-adjusted vision. But brief though they were, they were all that gave them even the slightest clue of what they were flying into. They were practically flying blind, relying on the pilots' sense of wind direction, gut intuition on what sudden gusts, downdrafts, and mini twisters would be thrown their way, relying on their navi to steer them in the right direction, and above all dependent on the infinitely precious map of the Grand Stream current that was all that would save their fragile crafts and the even more fragile lives they carried.
There was no way to communicate to Valka and Head, he could barely even talk to Yuris and be heard, the wind snatched the words almost the moment they left his mouth and drowned them in the shrieking pandemonium. And even if he could reach them, told them of his misgivings, what could they do? They could not stop their voyage, this was too important. And bad as it was, Alex was sure Valka and Head had been through something similar. They told him about this. Which was the reason, he supposed, why Valka had almost immediately taken the lead, flying to the left and in front of him, braving the Grand Stream first to probe the way for his less experienced protégée.
Why today? He thought desperately. Sweet Blessed Water, of all days, why today? He thought of the slim tube of message ensconced at the back seat with Yuris, the royal seal of Anatole and the ten stars of message ranking imprinted on the wax weighing it down like lead. So much riding on one little piece of paper.
He felt a light tap on his right shoulder and twitched with surprise. But he dare not turn his eyes away from the storm in front of him, just one little mistake could send their craft careening into a wind wall, or a downdraft that sucked them down and crushed them against the opposite streams.
The tap came again, several times, in rapid succession and this time he could discern the pattern. Courier code.
Will be fine.
Yuris, tapping his shoulder with a piece of spare metal tube, their method of communication during missions where absolute silence was required.
Alex took a deep, shuddering breath, and nodded abruptly. It was the only thing he could do, he dare not release the shuddering fly stick from his hands, and he could only hope that Yuris would catch his movement.
A tap on his shoulder, lingering slightly, then it was gone. She knew.
Alex kept his eyes on the vanship before him, bringing forth everything he had ever learned and experienced in his short life to keep up with the other ship, following the trail of safe air corridors the other ship had braved through.
It was thus that he missed seeing the first appearance of the behemoth.
The first indication that something was wrong was when Valka's vanship suddenly swerved to the left, the frantic movement jarring the small ship hard and left it shuddering in the cross streams. Alex stared, then snapped his eyes to the front, scanning the sky frantically, trying to figure out what the other ship had seen that he had missed. But such was his trust in his mentor that his hands had started to swerve the ship sideways even before his eyes finally spotted the anomaly, the covering storm clouds rupturing apart as it shredded through their cover.
His mouth fell open even as he automatically fought to steady his vanship through its direction change. Nothing can be that big, he thought wildly.It's just not possible.
But it was. In front of them and moving towards them with the ponderous might reserve for Juggernauts from Old Legends was something that defied the laws of nature with its very existence. Nothing in Anatole or Dussis could have build a Claudia engine that would float that much mass, but there it was. It was roughly oblong in shape but all Alex could see was the front half of its entirety, for the rest of it was still emerging from the midst of cloud cover. The effect was not unlike seeing a mountain range move. Even as he watched, more of it came out, endlessly and relentlessly plowing out into the open. It was still quite a distance away from them, if his skewed depth perception in this place was any reliable indicator. But as it was, whole squadrons of Anatole Battleships could have been swallowed inside that colossus without a trace.
What in the name of Blessed Water is that thing?
Valka had given the unknown colossus wide berth, and Alex followed, more than happy to stay far away from the mysterious stranger and the treacherous, swirling eddies its passing caused in the air currents. His eyes were helplessly glued to the gigantic ship, for an air ship it had to be, despite its ludicrous size. In a matter of seconds, their swift little vanships and the unknown ship's opposing vector brought them close and soon it was passing directly beneath them. Alex could see the rugged surface of the colossus, strange cubic patterns like cracks in dry skin, except that each of those 'flake' of skin would have been the size of a full Battleship. It made him nervous as hell, his instincts kept screaming at him to get further away, even as his mind told him that they were far enough away to be safe from the turbulent wind currents. Still, he was just starting to pull back on his flight stick, seeking to put more distance between his vanship and the unknown air ship, when the downdraft struck.
The downdraft struck Valka's lead vanship first, driving the little craft down with sudden force. Valka's superior piloting skill wrenched the little craft up before it had dropped more than a wingspan or two and recovered his bearing within a second, and Alex's quick reflexes took heed of the warning to veer his own craft in time away from the draft.
The move saved his life.
In the years to come, Alex Lowe would relive this moment in his life over and over again, in waking moments and in nightmares. With the benefit of hindsight, he would recognize it as the cross point in time where the path of his life took a sudden, screeching change of direction.
It was doubtful that he could have seen the attack coming, even with pre-warning, and there was no warning. Despite the strange appearance of the colossus, it was obviously not a Dussis ship, and they had not expected an attack at all. They thought that the only thing they had to worry about was the eddies around the stranger and the Grand Stream currents, and the mindset cost them fatally.
A blur, a darker shape in the shadowy innards of the Grand Stream, moving faster than human eyes could track. Alex saw the black length unfurled right in front of his eyes, snapping up from out of nowhere, a wall of metal as wide across as a Battleship, saw Valka's vanship climbing in a frantic, last ditch effort to escape the moving wall, saw the serrated edges whipping past like a chainsaw and caught a glancing blow against one wing, saw the wing snapped like a stick and the little ship tumbling in an uncontrolled, fatal spin trailing pieces of broken metal, and saw the line of chainsaw rising up to fill his entire vision with merciless finality.
Bone-breaking impact. Red pain burst in his head and he was dimly aware of the back of his flight hood slamming against the head rest. The wind screamed in his ears, and he was tumbling, tumbling in a gut-churning spin, free fall and g-force, gravity jerking and pressing his body in turns, seat belt cutting into his guts and bile choking his throat. He opened his eyes and could not remember when he had shut it, his view was blurred and one of his eyes was wet, vision red-tinted, and the world was spinning like a ferris wheel. A flash of sight, the juggernaut filling his entire view, and pure terror sent a spike of adrenaline straight into his heart.
He was shouting, did not really know what he was shouting. Somehow, his hands had retained their grips on the flight stick, years and years of training and habit kicking in even when conscious thought had lost it, and he gripped it like the lifeline it was, straining all of his strength against the wildly shaking metal and pulled, pulled, pulled. Vision of Valka's vanship spinning in its spiral of death and he strained, cursed, pleaded, and his faithful vanship, the ship he knew like an extension of his own body, responded with tortured metallic squeals and full-body shudders that threatened to shake it apart, but it responded, and slowly he pulled it out of its deadly spin. He took a shaking gulp of breath and shouted as loud as he could, "Yuris! Yuris, are you all right?"
No response.No, oh no, no…
"Yuris!" He screamed and, throwing all caution to the wind, he twisted in his seat and looked back towards the navi seat. His mind's vision was full of Yuris lying broken and bleeding in the navi seat.
Instead, there was nothing. No one.
The navi seat was empty.
For full seconds the sight refused to register and Alex just stared at the empty seat. It was not possible. She had to be back there, had to, maybe she was slumped beneath his view, maybe his spinning head and injured eyes were playing tricks on him, but she had to be back there. She had to, or else, where else would she be…?
… where else…?…no, no, no, no…
A shaft of light from one side falling on his face and he started, automatically turning towards the incongruent source of light in this twilight world, and saw a vision that was as surreal as his first sight of the behemoth.
A girl, a slip of a girl standing in the middle of the storm, holding a bouquet of red roses in full bloom. He was close enough to see the ribbons in her dress swaying in a gentle breeze out of sync with the Grand Stream's violent winds, thought for one hallucinatory moment that he could smell the lush perfume of the roses. A ship, he thought dazedly, a clinical part of his mind which could still observe such things noting the artificial conical rise of metal behind her, the straight platform that she was standing on. That part of him even observed dispassionately that it was a Guild ship, the distinctive starfish shape favored by the Guild proclaiming its origin. For a moment, he wondered whether they would help him against the behemoth, help look for Valka and Head, help Yuris…
And as the Grand Stream carried his vanship past, the girl lifted her face from behind her bouquet, her pale heart-shaped face as beautiful as the roses, and locked her eyes with Alex. And then, slowly, she smiled.
Alex just stared at her, at her smile, long even after the winds carried him away from the Guild ship and the behemoth moving ponderously and obliviously on its way. That clinical part of his mind decided that he was going into shock. It noted that his hands were trembling and his body was following suit. It also noted that the wind seemed to be dropping off, as if the behemoth had carried the worst of the Grand Stream along with it. And perhaps it had. Perhaps it was a creature of the Grand Stream, perhaps even that it had spawned the Grand Stream to hide its monstrosity from the oblivious world. He would not have been surprised. Nothing would surprise him again.
There was nothing in him to surprise.
For a long, timeless moment, he just drifted in the hole that had swallowed his life. The part of him that had not shut down from shock considered his situation dispassionately. He was alone. Valka and Head, the other half of their double team, were gone. His vanship was damaged. The blow that had flung his ship away from the behemoth was glancing enough not to be outright fatal, but he could hear the ominous creaking of the frame, the sluggish response of the rudder, and knew it was only a matter of time before his vanship fall apart. If by some miracle the Grand Stream map was still at the navi seat, it may as well be at the capital of Dussis for all he could do to reach it from the pilot seat.
And he had no navi.
He had no navi.
Involuntarily, he looked to the side and down, seeing the whirlpool of storm clouds funneling down into nothingness below. Yuris was down there. Had been thrown out sometime during their attack and he had never even noticed. How long would she keep falling? She might still be alive right now, lost and alone, eternally falling to her death…
There were noises in the cockpit, strangled and torn things, mindless noises that sounded like they had broken irreparable things on their way out. Or maybe they had been the last gasps of something important dying inside. He ignored them, just hunched over his flight stick, the only thing in the entire universe right now that made any sense at all.
Keep it steady, his instincts and training said. Keep it together. Don't let the ship run away from you. Easy. Watch where you are going.Where are you going?
His mind stuttered at that, confronted by this most basic of objectives. Follow the plan and go on to Dussis?
The plan was in shambles, his analytical side supplied. You have no resources to complete your original objective. Fall back.
Fall back… back to Anatole? Retreat in failure?
That jarred him back. Failure… mission failure. The most important mission of all, Anatole's missive for cease-fire with Dussis… and he had failed. The war would go on. Hundreds, thousands would die, for nothing.
Despair swallowed him, bowing him down like a man dying from a gut wound. He watched the flight stick bucked in his hands, the white-knuckled grips around it, the slippery redness from skinned palms that stained the leather-wrapped stick and made it doubly slippery and threacherous. He had only to let go. Just for a moment, a short moment, and the Grand Stream would do the rest for him, swallow him like it did Yuris, Valka and Head. His grip loosened minutely, and the vanship's bucking intensified, as if it knew its fate and was protesting against what was coming.
A gentle tap on the shoulder. Love you.
He flinched, rearing back and looking around frantically. But the back seat was still empty. He stared at it, seeing drops of red splattering against the windshield, blood from his head wound.
A large Dussis fleet reinforcement is massing at Nagaris border. Prime Minister Marius's frail voice, just before they had left the palace. They are ready to attack. If that fleet joined in, we would have no choice but to commit our own reinforcements. But the cost of war would be high, so much higher.
Marius was convinced Dussis desired the continuance of the war as little as Anatole did, and Marius had finally managed to convince the King to accept their offer of an equitable negotiation to stop the war. Four days from Anatole to Dussis capital, Durandal, through the Grand Stream, another four days back to Anatole or six days to Nagaris in Valiant continent, where Dussis battle line awaited, ready to commit to war. And if there was no news within ten days, their standing order was to attack.
But now… There was no more time to send another courier through to Durandal. Even if another group of couriers could make it, even if the Dussis Commander accepted it immediately, the order for cease-fire would not arrive to the Dussis fleet in time. Dussis fleet, not knowing that a cease-war missive was on the way, would open fire on the town of Nagaris, and all would have been too late.
And Anatole would have no prior warning that the peace mission had failed. Anatole would wait, convinced that the Dussis fleet would not act, and the town of Nagaris would have no warning whatsoever before the start of the massacre. They had not even started full evacuation yet.
He wanted to scream. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to just give up and let the stick slip through his fingers and end this pain in oblivion. But he still had his duty left. He owed the Anatole military, owed Marius who had entrusted his only daughter to him in vain, owed his Academy friends who would be in the frontline and who may be killed because of his failure.
He had to go back.
He pulled the stick back and the vanship executed a hairpin turn that brought it facing back to where it had come from. Alex blinked the blood out of his wounded eyes and stared straight ahead at the Grand Stream. His other eye was dry.
He would do what no one else had successfully done in living history. He would fly parts of the Grand Stream alone, without a navigator, with a damaged vanship, and took it all the way back to Anatole. If he survived, it would be a miracle.
If he survived, he would have the luxury of dealing with everything else… later.
If there was a later.
Last Exile terms :
Vanship: a small 2-seater air ship which was often used for courier missions (think WWI era plane). Long distance communication in Prestale depended primarily on its civilian and military vanships. A vanship uses a 'Claudia' fluid to give it its unique floating power and conventional combustion engine to power its movements. To fly a vanship, 2 persons were required, a pilot and a navigator or 'navi' in slang. The latter was also responsible for maintaining the pressure on Claudia fluid that gave the vanship its lift.
Grand Stream: an enormous, ever present hurricane-like storm that lie between the two countries of Anatole and Dussis. The wind speed inside the Grand Stream could reach 150 knots (Prestale term) and beyond. Any passage between Anatole and Dussis had to go through the Grand Stream. Its origin was unknown. Many vanship pilots view the crossing of Grand Stream to be the pinnacle of vanship piloting skill.
Battleship: Both Anatole and Dussis had developed huge airships which were used as battleships. It was powered by Claudia engine, developed by the Guild.
Anatole: One of the country at war and the country Alex Lowe and the rest of the team came from.
Dussis: The country which invaded Anatole. There was a very good reason why they invaded Anatole, but it was out of scope for now.
Guild: A much more technically advanced organization or race. Comparing Guild level of civilization and Anatole/Dussis civilizations was like comparing steam-age civilization against space-faring civilization. They were the neutral third-party in the war between Anatole and Dussis, or so everyone thought.
Water: Water is of special note in the world of Prestale. Good quality water is one of the most precious commodity in dry climate Anatole, and first rate water could be as expensive or more than good quality whisky.