A Dreamer's Knight II: Machinations, Chapter 11 - Strategy
 
Mikaen let himself fall back onto the bed with a sigh. The day’s ride left him sore and more than just a bit sleepy. Flipping over, he glanced around the room. The chair was well-worn, the dresser’s varnish had begun to fade, and the carpeting was growing a little thin in places. It may have not been very formal or ritzy, but there was definitely an air of comfort in the room.

He started to turn again when a glint of metal caught his eye from beneath a cushioned chair in the corner of the room. Curious, he rose from his bed and looked beneath the chair. An old notebook with a black leather cover and tarnished copper edges was sitting beneath the chair, collecting dust.

Mikaen pulled the book out from under the chair and carried it back to the bed, wiping the dust from the black leather cover with the tail of his shirt. Sitting down on the bed again, Mikaen opened the notebook to find it a journal of sorts written in slightly messy handwriting.

There were quite a few spelling and grammar errors, but the pages seemed to be a recollection of dreams that together formed interesting story about a young boy from pre-Devastation Earth and some of his friends who fought against a mysterious organization that was trying to take over the world. Mikaen’s interest was piqued, even more so when the author described himself as wearing a green and gray-striped shirt.

He read on, fascinated by the tale. The boy and his friends had discovered a plot against their nation, and after pulling a few strings, found themselves caught in a much deeper plot involving magic and prophesies and Arthurian legend, including mention of the legendary sword, Excalibur.

The story wasn’t perfect; just as the focus of a dream shifted and changed, the story branched off onto long subplots regarding the side characters and their past, all surrounding the wearer of the green and gray-striped shirt. Although they could easily have been omitted, or grouped into a collection of short stories, Mikaen nevertheless found himself enjoying the book.

He was halfway through an entry regarding one of the main character’s friends and his burgeoning romance with a genie formerly bound to an old amulet when he heard a knock on the door. 

“Come in,” He said, continuing to read.

“Hungry yet?” asked Tirinia as she walked into his room.

Mikaen glanced up, startled. “Dinner’s ready? But it’s only been …”

He stopped when his eyes fell on the clock by his bed and her realized that three hours had passed.

Tirinia sat down beside him and looked curiously at what he was reading. “You’ve been reading for three hours?”

“Yeah,” Mikaen said, his gaze inexorably drawn back to the hand-written pages, “It’s just a story, but some of this information about pre-Devastation Earth is very accurate. Y’know, I think One wrote this.”

“What makes you think that?” 

“The central character mentioned that his favorite shirt has green and gray stripes. Sound familiar?”

Laughing, Tirinia said, “That sounds like One, all right. I can’t see him sitting down long enough to write, though.”

“Hmm.” He ran a finger along a split in the old black leather. “Tirinia, I’ve been wondering ... why did Teria run away?”

“Mum, mostly. She wanted Teria to go to the Center, and Teria wanted to do whatever she wanted to do.” A smile crossed Tirinia's face. “I think she had her eye on the Longshore Melee even then. She certainly started enough fights. My fault.”

“Your fault? How?”

Sighing, Tirinia lay back in the bed. Mikaen followed suite a moment later.

“I had trouble fitting in when I was young.” She said, rolling over to face him. “While most of my peers were starting fights or pulling pranks, I …”

“Go on.” He prodded.

“I …” Blushing, she said, “I wanted to paint. I love to draw, even now. It was considered … well, kind of a boy thing to do.”

“A boy thing to do.” Mikaen repeated.

“Yeah. Like writing or cooking, or cleaning.”

She glanced at Mikaen, who was looking at her with a raised eyebrow. “What?”

“I'm sorry.” He said, shaking his head. “It's just … that's the exact opposite of how it was back on Earth. You'd think the Devastation would've helped bring about the idea of gender equality, but you'd be surprised how many times I ran into that wall. Be a man! Don't cry like a girl!”

“Really? That’s so weird.” She laughed. “Mom told me not to act like a boy, but I just … I didn't want to fight. I just wanted to paint in peace. Teria was the only one who stood up for me, usually with her fists. She taught me how to put up a fight as well.” 

Mikaen thought to what he knew of Teria. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“Mom was harder on her, believe it or not. Kept telling her not to pick fights, to focus more on her studies. She never really listened. When we graduated from intermediary school, Teria was all set to go to the Karrek Academy of Combat. Mom had different ideas.”

“Center of Knowledge?” Mikaen asked.

Tirinia nodded. “It was so weird. Mom was pushing me to go to Karrek well before we graduated intermediary school, but Dad knew I wanted to pursue my artistic studies and convinced her that the future leader of Longshore would be better served by a thinker than a fighter. I guess that’s why it was such a shock when Mom outright forbade Teria from going to Karrek.”

“She ... oh. Wow. Did she say why?”

“Not really. When mom stops a converstation, there’s no restarting it.” Tirinia sat up and rested her elbows on her knees. “Next week, Teria was gone. I was terrified, of course; she protected me since I started school. Over time, however, I remembered what she taught me and learned to stand up for myself. Almost a year and a half later, she shows up with Glen. I'll admit, I was just glad to have my sister back.”

Mikaen hugged Tirinia to his side. She rested her head against him, smiling as her fingers intertwined with his.

They sat their in silence, simply enjoying each other’s presence until Jeronem poked his head through their door to let them know dinner was ready.

Lauren had prepared a small feast for them. While they ate, Alex told them the story about how he met his wife and killed the dream demon that had been slaughtering the villagers of Altier in their sleep.

The meal ended with a tasty cake and funny stories about the Elsewhere Incorporate told by One and Alex. One particular tale concerning a duo of norms known as ‘Sir Froderick Rottingham the Third’ and ‘Squiggles’ had most of the table laughing to the point of tears. Mikaen offered to help clean up after dinner was over, but Lauren would have none of it. Excusing himself from the others, Mikaen hurried back upstairs to his room, eager to resume reading the book.

He opened the door to his room to find Tirinia already sitting on the bed, her eyes poring over the old notebook.

With a sigh, Mikaen sat behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and peering at the notebook over her shoulder. “Piqued your interest, love?” 

She purred softly, taking her eyes from the book long enough to give Mikaen a tender kiss.

They read the story together, following the tale of a rather timid young couple pulled into a shadow realm within the mirror of an old mansion. Neither of them heard the knocks on the door until Alex called out, “Mikaen?  Tirinia?  Come on now, I know you’re both in there.”

Mikaen glanced up as Alex entered the room. When the Dreamer saw what they were doing, he shook his head, smiling. “Ah, so that’s where it ended up.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Tirinia mumbled, not looking up.

Alex beckoned to Mikaen. “Sorry to interrupt, but could I have a word with you, Mikaen?”

Mikaen nodded, hopping off the bed. Alex nodded at him before turning back to Tirinia. “You can come too, if you want.”

“No thanks.” Tirinia said, not looking up. “I’m good.”

“Very well. I’ll return your bondmate in a few minutes.” As he closed the door behind him, Alex said, “Jek brought me up to speed on the Galden and the Revs. I had a feeling something was up when Triumvate Jures was ousted, but I didn’t expect to find out the Revs were behind it. I sure as heck didn’t expect to find out Liegan was in Ronisgald.”

“Liegan?” Mikaen asked, startled. “You mean Liegan, leader of the Revs? The guy who single-handedly started the genocide against the phreacs?”

“I’m afraid so.” Alex said. “I had a hard time believing it myself, but it’s definitely him. My contact found him working closely with one of the Triumvates, which makes the news all the worse.” 

“Maybe not. If he’s here, then I can finish some Knights of the Star business.” Mikaen couldn’t help but smile at the thought of settling scores with the man who was responsible for so many innocent deaths. “First things first, though; we need to find proof that the Revs are influencing the Ronisgald government ... something we can show the Council.”

“I understand. To that end, I may be able to provide some assistance. Follow me, please.”

He led Mikaen downstairs into a large study filled with books neatly arranged in bookcases. A large monitor with what looked like some kind of virtual reality suit occupied almost half of the room.

“What is that for?” Mikaen asked curiously.

“Full-body weave interface. It lets a user take complete control of an avatar without the need for cybernetics. Why use a keyboard and mouse to navigate the weave when you can soar through the digital skies like a vagrant A.I.?”

Mikaen wasn’t sure what to say that. Fortunately, Alex didn’t seem to expect a response.

“So,” Alex said, gesturing at an empty chair, “what’s your plan of entry?”

“Not sure yet. Normally, when infiltrating a Rev base, the strategy is to analyze possible entry points and make a decision based on the highest probability of success.”

“I see. Well, seeing as you’re One's friend, let me give you a little advice.”

Alex tapped a button on a console at his desk. A hologram emitter beneath the desk activated, displaying seven spheres of varying sizes arranged in a circle. A series of web-like threads connected all of the spheres to a central disk, in the center of which was a small sphere with a glowing red dot inside it.

“This is a fairly precise replica of the underground part of Ronisgald.” Alex said. “The spheres on the outside are the subterranean biospheres where most of Ronisgald’s population lives. The disk in the center is the Hub, which is where all environmental systems and communications networks are controlled. The center sphere is the Central Core, the heart of the Ronisgald information net.”

“So all of Ronisgald is underground?” asked Mikaen as he looked over the projection.

“There are a few surface settlements, but most are either abandoned cities well over a hundred years old or simple farming communities, neither of which will be of much use in your investigation, as even the farms don’t have direct access to the biospheres.” Alex pointed to the series of shafts that extended upwards from the Central Hub as he continued. “The only openings that’ll get you down there will be the vents and the surface lifts, and I know from experience that the vents are heavily guarded with state-of-the-art security. Laser grids, heat sensors, the whole works. As the ventilation system is damn near impossible to infiltrate, I’ve concluded that the only way into Ronisgald is one of the main elevator shafts.”

“The elevators aren’t protected?”

 “Ronisgald is one of the most technologically advanced nations on Vinta. Naturally, they are a little over-confident. Although the ventilation security is top notch, the security in the main elevator shafts that lead directly to the biospheres are in relatively poor condition. With the right access codes and a little luck, I’m sure you’ll have no problem circumventing any security that is still functioning. Still, security in the biospheres has been on alert, so I would recommend bypassing them altogether by entering Ronisgald through the Central Lift.”

Alex pointed to a lift tube near the center of the continent. “Back when the biospheres were being constructed, this was considered the main entrance into the underground parts of the country. The lift was used for bringing in what supplies Ronisgald couldn’t get on their own. These days, however, the city has become fully self-sufficient. As such, the Central Lift sees little use.”

 “Why would they beef up security in the ventilation, but not the lifts?” Mikaen asked curiously. “You’d think the Central Lift would still be heavily guarded.”

“Which is probably why it isn’t. Ronisgald doesn’t have an unlimited budget, and maintenance on the Central Lift has been kept to a minimum.” Sighing, Alex said, “Simply put, it just doesn’t see much use anymore, so the government pinched pennies by taking away all but the barest technical support under the belief that only idiots trying to invade Ronisgald would consider it.”

“Well, that would be us.” Mikaen rolled his eyes.

Alex smiled. “Hypothetically speaking, of course. Now, watch this.”

The center sphere magnified. A small sphere surrounded by a series of rotating rings was suspended in the center of the chamber.

“This is the Central Core.” Alex tapped his finger on the center orb. “The computer is directed by a core intelligence construct known as Angela.”

“Teria mentioned her before. Some kind of artificial intelligence?”

“Not exactly. AIs are designed with a purpose and later gain personality. CICs were designed as personalites from the get go, usually based off the personality of a living person. This has the advantage of avoiding the usual issues leading to a standard ‘robot overlord’ scenario while making them much more personable.”

The hologram changed to an image of a glowing woman, her body translucent at the tips of her arms and legs and growing more solid closer to a face that could only be described as angelic. A mass of glowing blue hair hung from her head and swirled around her body as she floated in mid-air.

“Woah.” Mikaen said, eyes widening. 

“Bear in mind that Angela herself created this persona.” Alex said with a grin. “The face was probably someone from the time of her creation, but the rest is exactly what she wants people to see: ethereal, mysterious, and beautiful.”

“And manipulative.” Mikaen said, turning away from her. She still didn’t hold a candle to Tirinia in his book. 

“Very much so.” Alex told him. “Angela’s been controlling the Ronisgald systems for well over a millennium. Although it isn’t commonly known, she has been subtly influencing the country’s movements since the banishment of Lucaius Calliban. Some even think it was her actions that led to his fall.” 

Alex deactivated the holo-emitter. “In addition to her connection with the weave, Angela is completely integrated into Ronisgald. Every microphone, every camera, every portable laptop serves as a way for her to keep an eye on the populous. If anyone knows what the Revs are up to, it’s her. She should also be able to provide proof of the Revs’ activities, provided you conduct yourself in a respectful manner.”

 “Thanks,” Mikaen said, a little surprised at Alex’s helpfulness. “I have to ask, though, why go to all this length to help us? Teach seemed quite unhappy at One for his meddling.”

“Whatever Teach is up to, he has no actual authority over any Dreamer. I can help whomever I wish. I’m helping you because you’re One’s friend, and because you make my niece happy.”

 “Whatever the reason, I appreciate your advice.” Mikaen shook Alex’s hand. “I’ll tell the others the plan tomorrow.”

As Mikaen reached for the door handle, Alex called out, “One more thin ... a small favor, if you will.”

“Sure. What’s the favor?” 

“I have the feeling that One might be in danger.”

“One?” Mikaen said incredulously, “I’d think he’d be the last person I’d have to worry about.”

“All I ask is that if he does get into trouble, look after him.”

“I don’t know what help I’d be against something that could endanger a Dreamer.” 

“I know, just … promise you’ll try.”

Mikaen solemnly bowed his head. “I promise.”

“That’s good enough for me. Goodnight, Mikaen.”

Once Mikaen left the study, Alex stood and approached the closet door.

“Did you get all of that?” He asked, not unkindly.

Teria stepped out of the closet, a worried expression on her face. “Is One really in danger?”

“As I told Mikaen, I’m not sure. We may be able to jump around your timestream, but we cannot pass through our own, nor can any predict what lies ahead for any of us. Nevertheless ... or perhaps because of that, I am worried about him. He is a close friend mine, after all … of both of us, if I’m not mistaken.”

When she didn’t answer, Alex told her, “Mikaen is an accomplished knight, but he cannot be everywhere at once, which is why I want you to go with One should your team split up.”

“That’s fine, but Mikaen’s right. What can I do against something that would threaten a Dreamer?”

“Simply being there may be enough. You'd be surprised how often a friendly face can change the entire dynamic of a situation. If it isn't, I’d recommend a two-by-four to the base of the skull. It should knock him out long enough to drag One to safety, but not cause any lasting physical damage.”

“I think I understand.” She said, smiling a little.

“I think you do.” Alex replied with a chuckle as he guided her to the chamber door, “And now, I think it is time for you to get some rest. I still have some work to do.”

Teria gave him a hug. “Thanks, Uncle Alex.” 

Her hand paused as it touched the door handle. “Uncle Alex, do you know of a Dreamer who calls herself Mixe? She appears fairly young, maybe fifteen years at most, has dark skin and white hair, and wears a black robe with silver embellishments?”

“Mixe,” Alex repeated. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Could be a rogue Dreamer, of course. Is this Mixe a friend of yours?”

“I’m not sure. In the very least, she seems to be watching us.” Shaking her head, she said, “It’s not really important anyway. Goodnight, Uncle.”