For several sleepy moments, Koz couldn't figure out what had woken him. He lay still, eyes closed, listening to the faint familiar hum of the ship's engines. The low rumble continued, a steady monotone note. Nothing amiss there. So, what was it? He gave the comforters a tug, bringing them up to cover his broad shoulders.
Cold. That's what it was.
The air around him seemed cooler than normal. Were the climate controls still broken? His mind, not yet fully awake, struggled to remember. No, the techs had assured him that aside from the cell block being a bit too cold, the other levels were back in order. Was he getting sick? That only happened once in a blue moon. Then, it must be... Gilded eyes fluttered open to be met by a faint, blueish glow. Koz sat up with a strangled yelp.
“Mmmph.” The Comet blinked sleepily up at him from his place curled at Koz's side.
“Get. Out.” Koz groaned, pinching his nose in tired irritation. “This is my bed, need I remind you.”
Jack gave a toothy yawn. “But, it's comfy.” His prismatic eyes widened. “I like it. And...I,” he looked away, his words trailing off softly. “I don't want to be alone. This whole place, it's new. It smells weird and all the sounds are different and I don't think I've ever been in space before...”
“Go.” Koz pointed a long finger toward the study. He could feel sorry for the young man in the morning. “You chose this completely of your own accord. I could always find a way to send you back to your little forest, if you like. Besides, you're not alone, we're practically in the same room.”
Jack's glow dimmed, but after a moment's sullen glaring, he drifted into the air and floated back to the makeshift nest as slowly as he could manage. Koz watched him settle in, stifling an enormous yawn. Once the sulky stowaway had burrowed into the pile of blankets again, the General sighed and buried his face back into the pillows, which still smelled faintly of Comet. The kid had spent most of his life sleeping in trees, you'd think high quality blankets and down pillows would be more than comfortable enough, even if they were on the floor.
Koz was startled into wakefulness a second time after accidentally kicking Jack off the foot of the bed. The Comet gave him a thoroughly affronted look before gliding off. Koz groaned, staring up at the ceiling as if it could understand his pain. Great, and now his feet were cold.
There was no apparent reason for it the third time he awoke, maybe it was just his warrior's brain expecting another ambush. Quietly, he sat up, blinking sleepily in the direction of the study. The faintly glowing tail protruding out from the lump of blankets reassured him that his guest was still in his place, and Koz was able to spend the rest of the remaining night in blissful silence and solitude.
Of course, the “silence and solitude” part couldn't last. Though there was no difference in the intensity of the swirling lights outside the window, Koz's inner alarm clock ensured that he woke up on time, steady as clockwork. Swinging his long legs over the side of the bed, he nearly stepped on Jack. The Comet had seen fit to move, blankets and all this time, right up to the floor at Koz's bedside.
“Jack-” Koz began, only to stop short. For some reason Jack had changed back into human form sometime during the night, and there was now one very naked young man blinking up at him. He was technically always naked, but in his true form that was kind of taken for granted. Now, however, it was much more obvious. At least he had the sense to keep the blankets over his lower half. Koz tore his gaze away swiftly.
“Why did you change-No wait, I don't care. Just put on some clothes. Now.”
“I don't want to...attract attention. By being... that.” Jack's eyes fell for a moment before rising to meet Koz's defiantly. “I only changed before 'cause I got scared. This is what I'm supposed to look like. It just takes me a while to get the magic under control. Anyway, this form's not really that inconvenient. Aside from the clothes thing. I guess you earthbound people need them though, you tend to have everything hanging out all the time, it's weird-”
Koz cut him off. “Clothes. Now.”
“Uh...I don't know where they are. I kind of left them behind when I got, uh, startled earlier. Pretty sure your men tossed 'em.”
Koz groaned, stepping carefully past the pale young man. As an afterthought, he dumped more blankets on top of him. “I'll find you something. Orion's belt, stay there until I get back.”
In response, Jack only smirked up at him, cheerily wrapping Koz's comforter around his thin shoulders. Koz nearly strode out of his quarters in his nightclothes, but managed to catch himself. It wouldn't have been the first time, and it wasn't as if anyone would dare question the Lord High General, but still. Ignoring Jack's questioning look, Koz locked himself in the bathroom long enough to change into a casual uniform and make himself presentable, then left in search of a way to make his uninvited guest presentable as well.
His crew came in all shapes and sizes, and it wasn't too difficult to find something that would fit Jack without making it look like he was an actual crew member. He tore his thoughts away from the image of Jack wandering around in uniform. He considered telling the Comet to just keep to his true form since there was no reason to hide it, but he had a sneaking suspicion Jack would refuse. This is all still new to him, Koz reminded himself. He's spent centuries thinking he's actually a monster. It's going to take him time to accept that he is what he is. Jack knew the name for his kind now, but it obviously didn't mean anything to him yet. Besides, a rather ordinary looking humanoid would attract far less attention than a glowing blue Comet, especially since they'd be spending time planetside today.
In the end, Koz salvaged an ensemble that should be appropriate for wandering the streets of a civilian town. He manged to get Jack to put them on with minimal fussing, although the brat refused to wear shoes, or footwear of any sort. Eventually Koz gave up. “Do I still have to wear this thing?” Jack tugged on the restraint collar.
“Yes. Remember what I said about it constraining your powers? You said yourself you can't control them. Until we can find someone who can help you do so, you will wear it.”
“It took three hours to defrost everything that you froze on your earlier adventure.”
“...” Jack glared, and then yelped as an announcement blared over the speakers. Ice shot from his alabaster fingertips, coating the edge of the bed and forcing Koz to leap back.
“I make my point. That could have been much worse.” Koz brushed away some of the shimmering blue frost.
“Ok, fine. I get it.” Jack folded his arms, tucking his hands in his armpits. “What was that?”
“The announcement that we have, at last, arrived. We'll be exiting warp soon. Sit down.”
For once, Jack obeyed. “Why?” he questioned, seating himself on the unfrozen portion of the bed.
“It's going to get a bit bumpy for a moment.” Koz, more than used to the Alnilam's speed changes, merely grabbed the edge of the nightstand to steady himself. There was a loud rumbling followed by a sudden jolt, and the swirling lights outside the window faded to reveal star-speckled darkness. Koz was aware of the engines making an unfamiliar noise as the warp disengaged, but before he could question it Jasper's voice crackled from the speaker.
“Made it, General. Engine's none too happy right now as you probably heard but hey, it did its job. We're where we need to be, and I'll have these guys back in working order in no time. You and the crew can go have fun down on some real, genuine earth while we good little worker drones patch up the engines.”
“Good man. At least make sure all of you there step out for a bit as well before we head out again. That's an order, worker drones. You've earned it.” Koz padded to the window, gazing out and the green-and-blue orb that was now visible. Gods, it was good to see an honest-to-goodness world, one with cities and shops and technology. It felt like it had been centuries.
“Whoa.” Jack's moonlight-pale hair appeared in Koz's view as the disguised Comet squeezed his way in between Koz and the window, shoving his face against the glass. “That's what a world looks like from space? Is that what mine looked like? Your book thing only had drawings in it.”
“Didn't you see it when we left?” Koz raised a brow.
“Your cargo thingie doesn't exactly offer a good view. In fact, it doesn't offer any view. All I saw were boxes.”
“Ah, yes. I suppose that's true.” Koz admitted sheepishly. “It wasn't designed to accommodate stowaways.” His gaze returned to the planet. “As for the worlds, they don't all look exactly like that. It depends on the terrain. Yours was much smaller, and seemed to be mostly land. This one, Nozama, also has a great deal of water, the blue that you see there is an ocean. The land is concentrated around its equator, so it's very lush and tropical. Some planets have rings, and some are just swirling bands of gas and clouds, with no land within. Sometimes they're a bit lopsided, and sometimes it's not the even the planet that's inhabited, but the moon instead.”
“I want to see them all.”
“Perhaps you will. Assuming you don't wander off and get lost today. If you're serious about going to the surface, then you must be prepared to stay with me, and follow orders. It's a big world, and I am not familiar with it in the least.”
“Uh-huh.” Jack nodded absently. “You said the blue was an ocean. What's that? A giant lake? Are there fish?”
“Yes and no. Imagine a lake that's salty and goes on for what seems like forever. They are often unbelievably deep, with waves that flow along the surface. Ships sail across them, and it may take days or weeks to traverse. Many beings sailed the oceans of their worlds before they learned to sail the stars. And yes, they are full of fish, and plenty of other things. Come now, it's time to prepare for the landing.” Koz turned away from the window, scooping up his portable communicator and securing it around his wrist before heading toward the doors. “We will be inland, in the great jungle, away from the ocean. I warn you, it's warm there, and full of all manner of beings. Stay by my side, and you'll be safe.”
Jack trotted along behind him. Even in this form, it seemed odd to see him walking on the ground. It was off, somehow. Jack fiddled with the hem of the short-sleeved blue shirt he'd been given. “I'll be fine. I've been looking after myself for centuries, remember?”
“You were in the Outer Reaches. The worlds of the galactic disc are as different as night and day.”
The Alnilam's corridors were a flurry of activity. Jack got many passing stares, but he looked rather normal now, and the crew were so excited to get off the ship for a spell that he and Koz attracted little attention. Normally they'd take the smaller landers down to the surface, but the need for repairs meant they had to land the galleon itself. Koz was just glad this world had a spaceport big enough to accommodate it. Jack trailed along behind him like a graceful shadow. His brilliant eyes, now a clear ice blue, took in every detail.
The fervor was a bit more toned down on the bridge itself, as the crew focused on landing operations. “What is this place?” Jack craned his neck to take it all in.
“The ship's control center. It's how we navigate the stars, operate the weapons, and such. Think of it this way: The engines, where we caught you, are like the ship's heart. This is the brain. Everyone here has a very important job to do, so don't go bothering them. I'd appreciate it if we didn't crash.”
Jack glared at him before turning his attention back to the rapidly approaching world. Koz had to give him credit, he managed to not freeze anything as the Alnilam lurched into Nozama's atmosphere. Beyond the arching viewports, stars gave way to swirling clouds, which in turn gave way to vast forests of every imaginable shade of green. “Whoa....”
It took them another half hour to get landed and settled, but finally everything was in order enough for the crew to disembark. Koz strode down the lines of waiting crew in the docking bay, Jack once again trailing in his wake. They stood at attention, every one of them exuding the air of a soldier of the highest order, even in casual dress. Koz smiled, knowing that as soon as he gave them permission to disembark they'd scatter like schoolkids at recess. How could he blame them? He was ready to run off this tub himself. “Alright, slackers. Go breathe in some real air for a change.” With a thunderous shout of acknowledgment, the waiting crowd flowed down out of the massive doors and into the sunlight.
Jack followed him to the doorway, and stopped short. Koz glanced back. “What's wrong? Change your mind?”
“It's hot. Like, a wall of hot.” Jack glared at the sunlit tarmac beyond the galleon. “And this air feels sticky.”
“Well, you could stay in my quarters for the day. I don't think they'll need to turn off the climate controls to fix the engines. But I could be wrong, that's not my forte.” Temperature extremes didn't bother Koz too much, Celestials had a high tolerance for that sort of thing. Even so, he could feel the heaviness of the moisture-laden air, and imagined it must be miserable for a creature of the cold. Still, it was real air, real earth, and real trees.
Jack stared at him in horror, then plunged forward once more. Determination was etched into his pale, elfin features. “I'll live. I've survived hot summers without melting. I want to see a new world, and I'm stronger than some stupid heat.”
“Orion's Belt, I am not dressed for this.” Koz groaned. He didn't know what he'd been expecting. Of course the population of the city would be out lining the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of him, his crew, and his ship. Word traveled fast, and even if it didn't, anyone with eyes would just have to look up and see the Alnilam's shining gold hull descending from the heavens. Thankfully, it didn't look like they'd thrown together anything official, and past the edges of the starport's clearing, where most of the gawkers were gathered, the forest rose up suddenly like a verdant wall. It shouldn't be too hard to lose himself in the city hidden beneath the living canopy. He'd just have to be careful not to lose Jack.
Even in casual clothing, Koz's height, profile, and hair meant he stood out from the rest of his crew like a sore thumb. Jack huddled closer to him, still staring open-mouthed at the myriad beings lining the streets. Thankfully, the same features that made Koz a beacon also made the crowd part for him. He'd long ago learned to combine a cheerful smile and wave with a gaze that said touch me and I will eat you. It kept his admirers happy and his path clear.
“So, you're actually kind of famous? I mean, I get that you're some kind of military person, but... ” Jack spared him a glance.
Koz laughed. In a way, it almost felt good to have one person in the galaxy who didn't know who he was. It made him feel like a normal person, something all too rare nowadays. It also meant that Jack truly had no idea what kind of world he'd thrown himself into. Now that he thought about it, he'd never formally introduced Jack to anyone. Including Koz himself. “Kind of famous? I'm only the Lord High General of the Galaxies, the hero of a thousand battles against the forces of darkness. The ship that you have decided to stow away on, and nearly broken, is the greatest of the golden star galleons, the Alnilam. People throughout the galaxies know it. Know me.”
Jack paused. “Wow. I'm impressed, really. Here I thought you were just a cranky guy in shiny armor.” He grinned cheekily at Koz, and trotted forward once more. “What's a galaxy, anyway? Is it a city even bigger than this?”
Now it was Koz's turn to stop, causing the disguised Comet to walk solidly into his back with a yelp. “You really have no idea, do you?”
“I'm sort of new to all this, remember? I mean, I know there's stars in the sky, and a sun and moon, and what soldiers are. Back on my world they formed a kind of army thing for a while to chase me off. And I know about Dream Pirates, I listened to all the travelers that came down on their fancy ships.” He shrugged. “And I guess according to you I'm from space, too. I don't really know, but I'll learn. You're already teaching me a lot.” He wiped an alabaster hand across his brow. “Can we go somewhere shady? I don't like this sun, or this heat...Do they even have winter here, I wonder.”
“So, you know of Dream Pirates yet you've never heard of me? Well, it was the Outer Reaches.” Koz sighed, shaking his head. Really, Jack wasn't going to be his problem that much longer. Once he got the Comet to the Archives he could learn all the things he wanted, under the eye of someone else. Jack could find out about his kind, and eventually go back into space where he belonged. In the meantime, Koz was stuck with him.
It wasn't too hard to oblige Jack's request for shade, since most of the city was hidden beneath the massive canopy of greenery that covered the planet's landmass. However, even below the soaring trees, the heat and humidity persisted. Despite that, the place was full of activity. Shops, cafes, and businesses were nestled in between the raised, crisscrossing roots of the ancient trees, or even set up in hollowed out trunks. There were a few paved roads for the transport of goods, but most of the city's pathways were smaller pedestrian footpaths. The inhabitant's houses were actually up in the canopy, where rope bridges spanned the heights as pathways for those without wings. Most of the Nozamians were brightly colored avians, with feathered wings and curved beaks. Jack craned his neck, staring into the heights.
“If it wasn't hot enough to melt here, I think I'd like it. The people here look like they all can fly.”
“It would seem that way. But, they build on the ground to accommodate trade and commerce with beings who cannot, or who are uncomfortable with great heights. Ah, now here's something I think you'll like. Ice cream.” Koz slowed, gazing into the window of one of the colorful storefronts.
Jack perked visibly. “What's that? Is it actually cold?”
“Yes. One of the foods that has spread almost universally. Especially on warm worlds like this, it's quite popular.”
A few crew members were already inside the shop hiding from the heat, and they greeted their General cheerfully. Jack trotted to the counter and stared at the colorful tubs. The shopkeeper cheerily offered them a few samples, which Jack eagerly accepted. “Ok, this is now my favorite food. Koz, you've opened my eyes.”
“I'm every so glad to help. Perhaps once you learn to focus your powers, you can open your own shop.”
In the end, Koz decided on something that tasted like cacao and spice, but was bright green. Jack, after much debate, settled for one that had dark blue and white swirls and seemed minty. Treats in hand, they continued wandering the streets. They got stares, and whispers, and the occasional giggle from passersby, but no one bothered them.
“Why are they doing that?” Jack tilted his head, contemplating the latest batch of observers.
“It's all part of having star status. Also, I am told that many species find me attractive.”
“Do they now?” Jack raised an eyebrow, a little smirk on his lips.
Koz sighed, ignoring him. “I don't really get it at all. I'm just a soldier, doing my duty. At least there's no cameras and vid crews this time. I'm sure there would be, if they had more warning that we were arriving. While I do enjoy a bit of attention now and then, it does get out of hand sometimes.”
“Uh-huh, I see.”
A nearby shop caught Koz's eye, and he wandered toward it. Inside, it was full of interesting jewelry made with local products. There were baubles of polished horn, and various colored metals. Koz picked up a little trinket for Seraphina, a green-gold necklace adorned with a charm containing a tiny jungle flower encased in resin. She loved botanical specimens from other worlds. Jack wandered from case to case, sharp eyes taking in every curiosity. He was too in awe of his surroundings to complain more, but Koz could see he was slowing down. The heat was getting to him. Leaving the shop, Koz gazed down the path. Ahead, he could see a branch in the walkway, one path leading off toward a large courtyard, a cooling fountain at its center. Koz herded Jack toward it.
Beneath the fine spray of chilled water, the temperature dropped to a more tolerable degree. The little square was busy with people taking a break from the jungle heat. Jack raised his head, eyes closed as he enjoyed the mist. Koz glanced around the courtyard. On one side, there was an exotic animal merchant. On the opposite end, a vendor was selling what looked like fried dough. Like ice cream, that seemed to be another universal food product. Behind them, the row of trees appeared to have been converted into a hotel of some sort, visitors hurried in and out of the doors carved into the massive trunks, their luggage in tow. In front of them, a lawn of short grass spread out, dotted with picnickers enjoying their afternoon snacks. Statues of sculpted metal stood watch on pedestals, one in each of the courtyard's four corners.
All in all, it wasn't a bad world. It was just too enclosed for Koz. He loved the trees, but after being aboard the galleon for so long, he was ready for open spaces and a truly unhindered sky. “It's going to be good to be home,” he said softly.
“Hmm?” Jack opened one arctic blue eye.
“The place that I come from is much more open. It's hills and fields, not thick forests. I haven't seen it in so very long. This place is beautiful, but it's not...home.” Jack was quiet again, and Koz glanced at him. “Ah, I'm sorry,” he began.
“No, it's ok. I don't miss that little world. It wasn't my home. It's the place I was used to, but it wasn't … where I belonged. But I'll find it one day.” Jack sprang to his feet with unnatural grace. “I think this water refreshed me a little. There's still so much more to see here, right?” He scanned the area. “Koz...is that a statue...of you?” He pointed to the golden sculpture behind the animal vendor. Koz followed his gaze.
“...Yes, it is. There's at least one on every world you'd care to mention, I'm sure. Like I said, Lord High General of the Galaxies. I've been doing this job longer than you've existed, probably. I'm a Guardian of the people, keeping the darkness at bay, a hero of the highest order. The citizens love to erect statues of their heroes. It was a bit unnerving at first, but I've grown used to seeing them. Don't worry, I don't let it go to my head.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” Jack made a beeline for the statue. “I think they got your nose wrong though-” his words cut off with a sharp cry.
One of the creatures in the pen nearest the Comet let out a sizzling hiss, rising onto its back legs. It was a slimy looking reptilian thing, its smooth skin seemed to glow in shades of orange and yellow. A salamander. Jack flattened himself against the statue's base, eyes wide. Their color changed from blue to brilliant rainbow hues. Koz raced toward him as the stall owner shouted something, pulling on the chain that bound the salamander. The creature hissed again, red flames blazing up along its back. It lunged forward, only to stop short. “It's chained! Can't get out! Special chains!” the Nozamian called out again, this time in Lunar. Keeping one eye on the flaming lizard, Koz repeated the assurance to Jack. It was to no avail.
There was a cry of terror, a flash of blue, and the thundering crackle of ice. Koz's long legs slid out from under him and he fell back hard, breath forcibly knocked out of him as he hit the ice. He struggled back to his feet, blinking the stars out of his eyes in time to see a streak of brilliant blue vanish into the emerald shadows of the jungle. Had the heat and the restraint collar truly done anything to quell his abilities? Just how powerful was Jack? Ignoring the stunned Nozamian, Koz grit his teeth, sprinting in the direction of the fleeing Comet. Jack was already tired, he couldn't make it that far. Could he?