Backdrop by Black Sword

"I'm telling you it's too big."

"It's fine, it'll fit."

"No, it won't."

"Well, it's not like we can make it shrink!"

Ryan grunted but said nothing as he poked at the circular loop of metal on the ground before him. Mieu had called it a "Restriction Ring." Apparently, when it was active, the device blocked Techniques, "android combat systems," and even plain physical strength diminished. The red cyborg said that the thing was not powered by magic and was just a piece of ancient technology. At this point, Ryan was finding it difficult to distinguish the difference.

"I am telling you that it is simply too big!"

The article in the Laya's hands was the source of her current disagreement with Mieu. Layan archer tunics were sleeveless red clothes that ended just above the knees and were secured at the waist by a wide belt. Archers typically had their tunics tailored to show themselves off to best advantage, something that Ryan had dismissed as a common womanly conceit. It was a bit disappointing that even the Holy One owned such a base impulse.

Nial spoke, his tone reasonable. "I know it's not a perfect fit, but it's the best Mieu could do."

Indigo eyes sparked. "Every archer I have ever met has made sure her tunic fit her well. It'll be obvious at a glance that I am not part of Lune's army!"

His faith restored by the revelation that his liege was more concerned about blending in than about her vanity, Ryan glanced at the two women who had unwillingly donated their uniforms to their cause this night. The red cyborg had ambushed them a little while ago as the pair had slipped through an alley together. Mieu had knocked the two out and brought them here to the inn, where they had been bound and gagged. Even now, stripped to their undergarments, they struggled against their hasty restraints, their faces red from anger as muffled curses filtered through the rags in their mouths. Ryan had tied strips of cord to the rags to prevent the furious women from spitting the awful-smelling things out.

"I didn't exactly have time to shop," Mieu said dryly. "Unless you'd like to wear what I'm wearing?"

Considering that the tunic the red cyborg wore over her usual leotard was easily three sizes too small for her, Laya sighed. "No. No, I would not."

"Then it's settled," Mieu said brightly before she turned to Ryan. "Now, out with you two while Laya changes. Out, out."

Hustled out the door alongside the Landenian, Ryan glanced around the inn corridor warily. The dim shadows made him jumpy, as anyone could conceal themselves and spy at leisure. They were on the second floor of the building, and so far as he had determined, the other rooms were currently unoccupied. That would be surprising, if not for the gruesome decorations on Aerone's town walls. Only the most morbid would want to visit a town where so many skulls hung from the defenses.

"Do you think it'll work?" Nial asked as he leaned against the door to the room Mieu had rented.

Ryan scratched his cheek as he considered their situation. Lune was their target, so they had to get into his headquarters. However, the holy girl had flatly informed them that Lune's guards would not believe she was Laya, which had put a damper on the Landenian's spirits and eliminated the direct approach. Since they couldn't walk in, they would have to sneak in. "It has its weak points, but it's the best we can do."

Nial sighed. "I know, but it's just worrisome."

Ryan grunted in agreement. The plan Nial had come up with was audacious: the red cyborg and Laya would be disguised as members of Lune's army, while Ryan, the Landenian, and the black cyborg would be their prisoners. The Restriction Rings would be active and their weapons would be in a sack on Mieu's back. The black cyborg had managed to rig a mechanism where the restraints would turn off at the flip of a switch, so if the worst arose, they'd be able to quickly abandon their subterfuge and fight, but it was still extremely risky.

Still, the idea spoke well of the young Landenian. It was bold and daring, with the only outcomes victory or death. It was almost enough to make him forget how idealistic the boy was.

The door abruptly swung open; Nial staggered back a couple steps but managed to retain his footing. Laya stood by their two prisoners, her white cloak over the red tunic. Ryan noticed that the archers' movements were far more restrained than before. He felt a trifle uneasy when he realized that the holy girl had used magic. He was not precisely afraid of the demigoddess, but the sheer gap in their powers still intimidated him.

"Why are you wearing your hood?" Nial asked.

Her face concealed, Laya said, "I don't want them looking at me. Soldiers, particularly Lune's, are... crude."

"How is you hiding your face supposed to help us get in? That will just make you look suspicious and ruin our chances of getting in!"

Ryan cleared his throat to head off the incipient argument. "There is a custom that girls who want to become priestesses conceal their faces, but it's pretty old. Not many follow it still, but most everyone knows about it."

"Then that is the reason I shall provide if anyone tries to question it," Laya said, her tone serene yet pointed. "Let us hurry, before our two friends are missed."

Mieu calmly walked toward them, two of the loops in her hands. The third was already around the black cyborg's arms. Ryan hesitated as Mieu tossed one of the rings toward Laya, who caught it smoothly. Resigned, he crouched down so the red cyborg would have an easier time of fitting the device on him. When it reached his elbows, the device suddenly snapped closed.

A strange sensation settled around him. It felt like his skin was two sizes too tight. Experimentally, Ryan attempted to move his arms and break the device by brute strength. The pitiful pressure he brought to bear on the Restriction Ring would be inadequate to break an egg.

"Well, then," Nial said uneasily as he tested his own bonds. "May as well get on with it. Don't forget the weapons, Mieu."

"Of course not," said the red cyborg as she put the sack over her shoulder. "Follow me."

Outside the inn, the moon Dahlia loomed overhead. The unmoving purple sphere dominated the night sky to the point where even the stars seemed insignificant. The streets were devoid of life: Aerone was under martial law, so almost all activity ceased after sundown. The few people they did see out and about were soldiers, who were either on patrol or staggering back from a night out. None of them paid any attention to their party, a comforting sign their subterfuge was working. Ryan tried not to think too hard about how easy it was for their deception to become a reality.

They walked in silence until they reached the massive centerpiece fountain that was considered the most beautiful piece of art in Elysium. Ryan could hear the pool foam as the sensation of mist descended on him from above. The fountain itself was impressive, two towering mountains of marble carved to depict a pair of goddesses. In daylight, one could see that the platforms the statues stood on were festooned with figures of Layan warriors and monsters. Given the hour, they were merely massive, indistinct monoliths.

Strangely enough, a dozen guards stood in front of the fountain. Lights suddenly fell upon Mieu's face. "State your business," a voice demanded in an accent similar to that of the demigoddess.

"We have a present for the General," the red cyborg said, her voice clipped and precise. "We've captured the rebel leader and his escorts and are sending them straight to Dahlia. Is a shuttle ready?"

What's a shuttle?

The light suddenly shone in Ryan's face. He did not flinch, as his glasses neutralized the brightness and prevented it from robbing him of night vision. "Well, damn me. Gotta give the bastard credit, he's got balls sneaking into the General's town. Too bad balls won't save you where you're going. Isn't that right, four-eyes?"

Ryan said nothing. Retaliation would make it impossible to sneak in. Besides, the Restriction Ring made the idea of turning the low-ranking peon's face into a smear on the pavement into a mere pleasant fantasy. The light suddenly shone to his rear.

"You! Why are you hiding your face? Take that hood off, right now!"

"My sister-"

"I don't care what your sister wants, Red. She's taking the hood off right now."

The guards stirred; Ryan did not dare look behind him, but the way Lune's soldiers stared made it clear that Laya had obeyed the barked order. He had been too long a mercenary not to recognize the primal lust in their expressions. Under most circumstances, he wouldn't have cared, but for them to look at the Holy One in such a way made his boil blood.

Before he could give the whole scheme away by opening his mouth, their commander spoke again. "Go right ahead, Red. I'll keep your sister company. I'm sure she'll be glad to get some lessons in weaponry while you're up. I'd like to show her my staff skills, personally."

Between one heartbeat and the next, the commander was flat on his arse, gaping at Mieu. The red cyborg had slugged the lecher a good one, and judging from the way she advanced on him, she was cross-eyed furious.

"You Ogress-kissing wastrel! You shit-licking reprobate! Who in Laya's name do you think you are, saying that to my little sister?" Even as the commander attempted to scramble away from the burning rage in Mieu's voice, she stomped her boot into the man's chest. "Do you know why she has her hood up all the time? Because she's a good girl who is on her way to being a priestess so she can honor Laya. She even joined me in fighting with the General because she thought it would be a good way to honor Laya until she's ready to be a priestess! Instead, she has all of you mongrels panting at the idea of taking her maidenhead! The last thing she wants is your disgusting gaze on her while you bloody well rape her in your filthy head! That's why she always has to hide herself, because dogs like you defile the memory of our goddess every bloody time you set eyes on her! Now apologize, because I don't care if you're a Dahlian, I'll rip off your balls and leave you singing soprano for the rest of your short, miserable life!"

The commander babbled something that sounded like an apology even as his minions deliberately looked up at the purple moon, intent on the appearance of innocence lest Mieu turn her wrath on them. If he weren't one of Lune's hand-picked cronies, Ryan might have sympathized - such colorful invective aimed at such a vulnerable place would unman anyone, let alone someone who knew his error.

"Let them through," the commander said shrilly. "Open the door!"

Suddenly, a section of the flagstones receded and disappeared. Enclosed fixtures emitted a gentle light that revealed the metallic nature of the staircase that led down below. Two soldiers hastily scrambled down into the depths. After a few follow-up threats, Mieu strode away from the commander and began to descend. Ryan followed her, the rest of the party close behind.

They traveled down a well-lit passage covered in vents that slowly whispered cooled air; panels of blinking lights also appeared at regular intervals. There was no room for anyone to hide, and the place itself was empty of any life. Their long, silent advance was deathly boring, as there was nothing to really see, and it had been decided beforehand that conversation would be dangerous, as it might give the whole scheme away. The downside was that they were all kept company by their thoughts, a tiresome prospect in such a dangerous ploy.

The corridor suddenly opened up to large, enclosed space. Ryan stared in shock; the only thing that got his feet moving again was a goad from Laya behind him. About a hundred feet below, a trio of large machines with roughly triangular shapes stood silently as dozens of soldiers milled about in organized chaos. Beast masters directed monsters out of the machines with calm, patience, and firmness.

Ryan tried not to swallow as he watched the steady progression of deadly creatures. Just out of the corner of his eye, he could see Harpies with their winged arms and taloned feet, golden-haired Beastesses with their trollish faces and clawed hands, hordes of beaked, bipedal Lizards, and more monsters besides. Layan breeders would have had to spend ten years to produce the swarm below, yet Lune seemed to have an unlimited supply of the most vicious monsters. It was yet one more reason to gamble like this, but no matter how he looked, Ryan saw nothing to indicate that the brute was here. If this was not his headquarters, why were they even here?

Mieu easily breezed past several more checkpoints; the soldiers whom had preceded them down had evidently warned their fellows, as they evinced neither surprise nor curiosity. They contented themselves with confirming that the Restriction Rings were operational and waved them on. At the last checkpoint before the triangular machines, the red cyborg smiled at the guards. "Hey, which shuttle is the next one to Dahlia? I want to take our prizes to the General."

The soldiers grinned back. One, a lanky fellow missing his two front teeth, pointed at the nearest of the black devices. "That one's the next one out. It's taking a couple platoons back for R&R, along with food. Food's almost done boarding, and there should still be enough seats left for your lot. Make sure to give 'em window seats. Oughta be good to break their brains a bit with the truth before the General sees 'em."

A grin was Mieu's only response. Ryan let himself get hustled up the entry plank and into the "shuttle." Inside were a number of seats, two to each side of a narrow aisle. They were forced to go towards the rear, as all the forward seats had already been taken. Once there, the red cyborg silently directed him to a seat by a window. Once seated, she pulled a heavy harness over his head and secured it. From the sound of it, Laya was doing the same service for Nial. Mieu finished her task quickly and went to do the same for the black cyborg. Uneasy, Ryan stared out the window. What had that guard meant by "the truth?"

His answer was not long in coming. Ahead of him, Ryan heard the entryway close. His ears felt strange as something hissed. The lights dimmed as the shuttle hummed softly for what felt an eternity. Ryan fidgeted nervously as he tried to put the entire surreal experience into a context he could understand. This...what is this? What's it supposed to do?

Suddenly a giant hand pressed Ryan back against his seat, or so it felt. A look out the window showed a darkness illuminated by two bars of solid light, one on top and the other toward the bottom. As quickly as the sensation of pressure had come, it vanished, replaced by a curious floating feeling. Ryan felt light, as if someone had abruptly stolen his weight. If he had not been secured to his seat, he was certain he would have drifted away.

Another look outside revealed what seemed to be the night sky on its side. It was incomprehensible. " this?"

The red cyborg next to him murmured softly. "That is the void. I guess you would call it a sea of stars, while this is a vessel to traverse them."

"A...vessel? Like a ship?"

Mieu nodded. Ryan stared outside. Through the window, three massive orbs became distinct. The top of the orbs were clear glass, similar to nivali, toys with enclosed miniaturized scenes and landscapes. Before Ryan could ask anything else, he heard murmurs behind him. "That's what our world really looks like?" Nial asked.

"Yes," Laya replied softly. "Its name is the Alisa III, after an ancient queen. It's a spaceship to sail across the emptiness between stars."

"But who built it?"

"Orakio did. Dahlia is also a spaceship."

Ryan sagged into his restraints as his most basic assumptions about the world itself began to collapse. Panic flooded him as his mental voice began to sound ever shriller. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand.

With a will, Ryan suppressed his numb terror. The only thing he knew was that Lune was near. Anything else, he would beg answers from the goddess' little sister.

It was all he could really do at this stage.

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