Chapter 9: Somewhere Else

Location: Imperial Airship Rocksalt, 11 AM

The airships that dotted the Imperial skies. Along with the railways, they were a true testament to the craftsmanship of the Empire. They were to the sky, that the trains were to the land. Giant flying ships that hung high in the air, sailing through the sky as calm as a ship floated on water, but able to travel faster than any previous achievement of aeronautics. Their white and gold sheen on the lavender sky, regarded as a thing of beauty, a subject of many a poem or war song. Those looking up at this specific airship from the Imperial base directly below, would be able to hear the sound of music. Hearing the tail end of the Imperial Anthem.

As fear sets in and blood does pour,

When all hope seems lost,

Seven stars light our way,

For Qest we carry on!

It was a promotion ceremony! The top deck, a wide open area like you would expect from a ship, was populated by the entire staff of the ship, from crew members of various roles, to the soldiers of various ranks. The engineers, the medics, the gunners, and the captain; all of them present and accounted for. Their eyes were focused on the bow of the ship. Two women and one man, the subjects of the ceremony, the three of them standing rank and file before their superiors.

One of them, a petite Schipperke woman, with pitch black fur that contrasted heavily on her white uniform, who despite her small stature, standing at only 5 feet tall, carried herself with a stern and fierce demeanor. Her single eye, the one on the right, locked in a perpetual scowl. Her empty left socket was fitted with an eye patch displaying the Empire's symbol.

"Trusted Io Olander!" The man standing directly in front of the three spoke up, addressing Io specifically. He was a tall but stout Ibis. The Master of Ceremonies aboard the ship, Gozalli. A retiree of the Reborn Legion, still sticking around to crown people with new ranks, with the permission of the higher ups, of course. Behind him were 4 officers and Trusted of various ranks. Them being the highest ranking members of anyone aboard the airship.

The woman next to Io was someone who contrasted with her completely, both in appearance and in demeanor. An extremely tall and slender woman, sporting curly white fur. The length of her snout was unmistakable, she was a Borzoi. She was completely calm, no hint of emotion on her face, eerily so. While Io stood below 5 feet tall, the Borzoi stood far above her, just scrapping the edge of 7 feet tall.

"Trusted Janie Olander." Gozalli said, nodding.

The last soldier standing among the three was an old looking Tiger. For lack of a better description, he wasn't in the best condition. His left arm and leg were severed, now wrapped in fresh looking bandages. His leg was replaced by a simple prosthetic, a shabby temporary model before the real one was implemented, his arm had yet to be replaced. Part of his face too was wrapped in bandages. Yet, despite all the recent injuries, he was still standing strong, showing no apparent signs of weakness or exhaustion.

"3rd Chair Officer Variot Stelton." Gozalli said, looking at the injured Tiger. The Ibis then splaced a small decorative wooden case in front of himself, opening it up, before addressing the prying issue. "You may sit down, Variot, if you wish. If your injuries are too much after all." He spoke with a friendly tone. A tone one would use for their acquaintances.

"Forgive me for my refusal, but I will remain standing." The Tiger grunted, cracking a proud smile, "Got to show an example, eh?"

"Very well," Gozalli nodded, before taking a medal from the box, clearing his voice. "Variot, 3rd Chair Officer of the Reborn Legion. For your service and achievements, in defending Fort Gold after the fall of Fort Whispers from the Amalgamate attack, the Chairman have seen it fit to grant you with the rank of 2nd Chair Officer." Gozalli then placed the medal upon the Tiger's bandaged chest. "May the Seven Stars guide you!" Gozalli's voice boomed through the deck of the ship. The badge was a heptagon with two large stars within it, now placed alongside Variot's 3rd Chair medal; a similar badge, but with three small stars inside of the heptagon. Still smiling proud, his ears perking up, Variot placed his remaining arm across his neck, palm flat. How an Imperial salutes.

As Variot remained standing, Gozalli then focused his attention on Io. The pitch black dog, with her dark hair flowing free in the wind; it was always windy on the deck of an airship after all. Her always present scowl on her face shifted to a less threatening one as Gozalli stood in front of her. The Ibis did a similar speech to the one before, as he placed a 3rd Chair Officer medal on Io's lapel. "Io! Trusted working under now 2nd Chair Officer Variot! For your service in the Reborn Legion, including your assistance in the defense of Fort Gold, the Chairmen have seen it fit to promote you to 3rd Chair Officer!" Ibis lowered his voice a bit, adding on a small personal message, "…And saving my friend's life, I especially thank you for that." He said, nodding in Variot's direction. "But, no matter the conditions of your promotion… May the Seven Stars Guide You!"

The Schipperke stood there for a moment, not speaking, her eyes looking down at the medal, focused on just how she earned it. Just what was sacrificed for it to be placed upon her. The first sacrifice was Fort Whispers, a barricade against the Amalgamates of the Weald, once standing tall only to be destroyed in a single night. Fort Gold was, of course, the last line of defense against the oncoming wave of aggression, lest the tide reach civilian packed areas. The second sacrifice was Variot. Not dead, but maimed, dismembered, and disfigured. Io's only scars were deep, but insignificant to what Variot had suffered. Looking up at Gozalli, Io gave a salute. With the big sacrifices in mind, she spoke up, "If I may make a request, Master Gozalli," Despite her high youthful voice, she still spoke with a degree of power. Her request, a request for a request, incited some chatter among the audience members. Much debate was being had over what such a request could be.

Tapping his beak, his feathers suddenly raising up, Gozalli nodded, "Granted."

"Fort Whispers, may all those who fell find peace, fell because of Amalgamates coming in from the Weald." She said, reiterating information that was already known, "But the beasts still lurk in our homeland. Even in places not yet fallen." Still saluting, she raised her voice, making her point known to all those in the audience, heard loud and clear. "If we are to prevent being attacked on both fronts, progress must be made! That is why I wish to lead the Extermination Project!"

A pause fell over the airship, the chatter that was heard before had only picked up. Some questioning just who Io thought she was. Some scolding her under her breath. Others, praising her.

The Ibis held the medal box in his talons, staring Io down. He then looked to the high ranking officers behind him. An Ape, a Chameleon, a Wolf, and a Chimp. The Ibis then went back to dressing Io down with his eyes. The other two soldiers to both Io's sides didn't quite have much of a reaction to her boasts. With a quiet sigh, the Ibis nodded, giving a friendly, "We'll put you down for consideration."

Io lowered her arm, her stern expression remained, and nodded. "Thank you."

But, this was but a brief distraction, there was still one more promotion remaining. As Gozalli removed one last medal from the box, it was revealed to not be a 3rd Chair medal. Instead it was a simplistic solid heptagon. "Janie Olander! Trusted working under now 2nd Chair Officer Variot! For your achievements gained alongside now 3rd Chair Officer Io, you are to be promoted alongside her. To ascend to 3rd Chair. However, things are different. As per your request, you are to remained at the rank of Trusted. Is this true?"

Janie silently nodded.

"Very well. For this, the Chairman have seen it fit to oblige your request. If you wish to ascend to the rank of 3rd Chair, then you may turn in this medal. Until then, you are to continue serving as a Trusted, now under Io Olander's command… As you requested." Gozalli lowered his voice, staring up at the taller woman, "This is a very special request… Take pride in that it was granted as such. Whether or not you do, May the Seven Stars guide you!" Due to the significant height difference between him and the Borzoi, Gozalli had to stand on the tips of his claws to place the medal on her lapel. Janie did help him by kneeling down slightly, instigating some laughs from the audience.

Janie only saluted and gave a quiet, "Thank you."

One by one, the audience stood up, now that the last of the promotions was finished. Even the officers, who were previously sitting down, all stood up. All of them saluted in unison. All of them standing beneath the flag of the Empire, the 7 sided symbol. All of them standing above a damaged world that they all watched and ruled over. The Rocksalt slowly flew to its next destination, the Imperial haven of Blue Iron City. All to rest up and lick their wounds. Some of them, such as the newly promoted trio, deserved it more than others.
The Empire's cities, with their glowing lights that shined bright at night, their towering buildings that reached the lavender skies, and their populace went about their daily lives, holding loyal to the Chairmen. Every city, surrounded by the giant metal walls, keeping everyone safe from the constant Amalgamate threat. Not even the invasive roots and the crawling vines of the Jinmenju trees couldn't break their way through the metal defense of an Imperial wall. In the words of those behind the walls, the slogan of the Reborn Legion, "May the Seven Stars Guide You!"

Location: Blue Iron City, The Fairy Circle, a bar located near the outer wall of the city.

It was a small bar, with a quiet, homely atmosphere. Less populated and popular than the other shiny, modern day taverns; at least in the eyes of the common populace. However, its lack of crowds and huge gatherings made it a good choice for tired soldiers after a long day, looking to unwind; a huge campaign of fighting off violent scavengers, bloodthirsty Amalgamates, and clearing areas of the constantly growing Jinmenju, the proper remedy for such exhaustion was cheap booze and nice music. No loud folks to ruin it. Even its interior was quite outdated, looking like something people would have in areas outside of the city; the people who built the place did say, after all, that it was inspired largely by Pre-Bloom archetechture.

Its owner, bartender, waitress, and cook, was an old Fox woman. Clad in an lavender kimono that went well with her brilliant white fur. Despite her elderly age, she was described as being quite attractive by the young soldiers who would often visit. But, in Variot's humble opinion, he didn't quite see it and he was just a few years younger than her. So he would often tell these young soldiers to not lust after old ladies and find someone in their age bracket. She went by Aiko. Although there were rumors going around that it wasn't her real name. Stuff like how she changed it because of past events. Variot too stayed out of it, scolding the rumormongers on this too, and decided to sit back and drink his beer. Rumors are only rumors.

Variot was by himself for now, smoking a cigar in a corner of the bar, idly watching Aiko clear some mugs; her assistant was gone for the night so it was only her. Nothing but the sound of a jukebox playing his favorite song, as well as some young soldiers playing some card game. They referred to it as Emperor Card, or E-Card for short. Variot thought to check it out sometime.

Soon, Aiko came over to him, with a pair of mugs, full of cheap ale, a brand that Variot was very fond of. "New medal? You're finally moving up in the ranks, Oldtimer?" She said with a smile, her yellow eyes focused on the medal on Variot's bandaged chest.

"Who you calling old, Granny? But ai," Variot nodded, setting his cigar aside, his tail flicking back and forth. Little by little, his injuries were healing, but his chest was still breathing up and down with visible strain. "It's new! Was worth the price of my arm and leg, if I lost all for of my limbs, maybe I would've gotten promoted twice," Variot said with a loud laugh, "But thanks for the drinks, Aiko. The boys and girls like it here… " He said as he reached into his pocket, pulling out a 5000 Shell bill, and handing it off to the old Fox. "A small tip for your service."

Taking the bill between her finger, she gave a gleeful smile, "Thank you~ I'm sure I'll be seeing you and your entourage again. Us oldies must look out for each other no?" She said, before walking off with a swagger, taking the empty mugs of ale that she had replaced. But before she was out of earshot, she added, "Heard your daughters got promoted as well~ Tell them congratulations."

At her remark, Variot smiled and nodded, "Gladly." Before he could go back to his mastered art of drinking alone, another Fenrir showed up. With her onyx black fur, dressed in a faded band T-shirt and jeans, Io was on the scene. Variot, even with his impressive hearing, didn't even hear her approach. He had to applaud her sneaking skill.

"Hey now," She said, taking Variot's cigar from the ashtray, "They told you not to smoke until you're fully healed," Her brow furrowed, her remaining right eye burning a hole into the Tiger, "Besides, don't you have paper work to do?" Instead of tossing the cigar aside, she wiped the filter end of it, and took a puff on it. There was an odd sight, to seeing a petite girl like Io, smoking on a cigar more suited for an old general like Variot.

The type of thing that even Variot gave a hearty chuckle at, "Cigars, Io? You really are what they say, an old man in a little girls body. But if you really want to know, paper work can wait until tomorrow." With a look of concern, he hummed, Io was adopted yes, and she was in her 20s, but that didn't mean he still didn't treat her like the baby he met her as. "Don't tell me you already finished yours? That's insane…"

"I… kn- know!" Io said, putting the cigar back down, coughing and gagging the on smoke, looks like it was too much for her. "Yes it's done, is that a problem?! Besides, they haven't even told me where I'll be assigned, I'm not working under you anymore. They say its because of the hastiness of my promotion." She said, doing air quotes. Mumbling, she sat down next to Variot, now wondering where Janie could be. "Pain in the ass."

"Yes, yes." Variot nodded, going to pick up his cigar once more, only for Io to go for it, grabbing it and giving Variot a shake of the head. "Rude. Anyways, about that new assignment thing. After the promotion ceremony, I spoke with one of the 1st Chairs. They approached me actually. He was one of the ones present. He wanted to speak to me about your wish to be a part of the Extermination Project." With a nod and a purr, he let go of the cigar that Io was still holding. "I made sure to make a point of how much it would mean to you too."

"The Chameleon right? What did he say?" Io said, again taking a puff on the cigar. She was going to be the only one to destroy her lungs this night.

"Well, not to make light of such a tragedy, or to view it as an opportunity. But after the fall of Fort Whispers, one of the lives lost there was a prominent member of the Project. Rest his soul… All their souls. While he wasn't in charge of it, he was still working under the current leader of the Project. The man in charge was the Officer who approached me, 1st Chair Officer Arms." Staring into his mug, he sighed. "So, you get where I'm going with this?"

Io's eye widened, taste of cigar smoke still in her mouth, the foul taste of tobacco not lessening the impact of what she was hearing. "Are you saying that…?" It was hard to break her out of her perpetual scowl, but this was one of those moments where it was gone. Her ears were perked up and she was trying hard to not wag that curly tail of hers.

"To fill the spot that was lost with him. Janie, being one of your Trusted, will take part in it as well." Variot hastily said, taking a piece of paper from his pocket, along with a pen, and began to scribble down a note, "Here, take this note, and give it to someone at the Amalgamate Research branch back at the base. You can do that tomorrow or the day after, but don't hesitate or the opportunity will be lost. They were told were you coming after all." The note was a signature from Variot, as well as a few words that Io couldn't quite read; Variot's hand writing continued to be awful.

But no matter how good or back it was, she knew what it was; a letter of permission. She pocketed the note, looking to the corner of the bar, watching the numerous soldiers drinking and gambling with each other, watching the old fox, cleaning things up and closing up for the night. Io's heart was strong, her path was set, and her mind was clear.

"It's a bit anti-climatic, but it calls for celebration." Variot raised his glass, "Welcome to the Extermination Project."