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“But then They left. They left the whole of the world, they left the whole of this solar system… and they left us behind.”
“For many decades we lingered in confusion and despair. Why had they abandoned us? We feared we had failed them somehow. Whatever it was they had meant for us, we failed them so utterly that they’d taken paradise away and left us in darkness. We remained in the shattered remains of our home for many, many years, before deprivation drove us out into their abandoned tunnels, beneath Feila’s crust.”
“It was then that we began to find things they left behind- objects, artifacts, devices- and we realized that we had not yet failed. This was a test, our final test. The Creators were out there, in the galaxy, and we were meant to prove our worth by following them. We were meant to put the clues together, to find all the objects and artifacts and devices, so we could go out and live with them once more.”
There was a definite air of scripture to this story, like something recited again and again with solemn reverence.
The armor on the right, heretofore silent, picked up the narrative. Like its companions, it possessed an oddly high-pitched voice. “The broken device is the source of the Secrets.” Here was another word with obvious weight. “Our Creators uncovered the Secrets by studying the Device with the aid of the Demon; the Demon which now orbits Nantes, the Demon which has become Nantes. He presumed in his arrogance that he would share in the Secrets, but the Secrets are not for him, they are for our Creators and for us. When our Creators left they took the Secrets with them, but they left the device behind so that we might someday take it as our own and uncovered the Secrets for ourselves.”
“We are nearing the end of our quest,” the leftmost armor spoke, “we have followed the path laid out for us. We have gathered the relics and pieced them back together. This final challenge is before us now. We must recover the artifact and uncover the Secrets which are our birthright.”
“I suspect that these passages are not altogether satisfying to you,” the center armor spoke apologetically. “I’m sure they have left you with new questions. Ask if you must, but we don’t have many answers for you. We have been hunted relentlessly by the Demon for centuries. We have grown very skilled at concealing ourselves and concealing our truths.”
“What we have to offer is money. We have accumulated an enormous reserve of Feilan currency over the centuries. It is not worth much to us- it is devoid of spiritual meaning- so we offer it all to those who would help us; Robinson and those he brings into his employ such as yourselves.”
She listened closely as the armors spoke of being brought into the world 200 years ago and it continued forming an idea in her mind, though she didn't immediately voice it. She chose instead to listen to the rest of their story. The rest of the story unfortunately really didn't do much more enlightening as to what the artifact was specifically supposed to do for them. It really did leave her with more questions than answers.
Another thing that stuck in her mind was what they called the Demon, and the mention that it orbited Nantes. They mentioned other relics, and Sakura wondered if it was all part of some broken whole that they expected to be able to fix once they had all the components assembled.
When the story was over, Sakura couldn't help but nod in reply that she did indeed have more questions, though a question wasn't the first thing that left her mouth. "I don't think you actually wear those suits at all. You ARE those suits aren't you, AI implanted into power armors? What is the Demon? Why does the Demon hunt you? How do you stay hidden from it? What are the other relics that you have pieced back together, are they all part of a larger whole? Can we see it?" She fired off questions rapidly almost as if she were afraid that the longer she waited to spit them out, the less likely it was that they would be answered.
“These armors allow us to interact with beings like yourself on equal footing,” the rightmost armor squeaked, waving an arm to indicate something about Sakura’s general size. “We also wear them to honor past generations. They are family heirlooms, passed down through time. Some among us wear armors built only years after our Creators’ departure, forged from the very ruins of our former home. Each new generation contributes an addition or refinement to their family’s armor, leaving a mark to be carried through to the journey’s end. We will all reach the destination, at least in memory.”
“The Demon is the thing your people call the Immortals Club,” the centermost armor offered. “In actuality it is not a Club of any sort. It is a single creature, vast, abominable. It is a dead thing, with no feeling, and no spirit; a mind with neither limits to humble it nor a heart stay its hand.”
“The Demon hunts us because it still covets the Secrets. Even were it to recover the artifact we have commissioned Robinson to obtain, it would have only a few sparse pieces of the puzzle. It lacks the relics bequeathed to us by the Creators, and we dare keep our birthright to ourselves.” The speaker’s high-pitched voice lost some of its reverence and took up a hint of slyness, “one of our most effective methods of hiding from the Demon is to avoid telling strangers how we hide from it.”
The leftmost armor shifted forward slightly, seemed to nod to the others as it took up the task of answering the remaining questions. It was having just a little bit of fun with Sakura by creating the impression that it had a lot to say. “We aren’t going to tell you what the other relics are or whether they are part of a whole.” It shifted back a little, having finished its long speech. There wasn’t any maliciousness in its voice, but it did seem that these beings’ spiritual solemnity was giving way to show some of their underlying personality.
The leftmost armor apparently wasn’t feeling any of the levity. “It is good to be able to answer any questions at all, and it pains us to have to keep some things to ourselves. We are so pleased that you had at least some questions we could answer. It is such torture to believe in openness, heartfelt discourse and understanding, but to have to hold back lest the monster descend on us. Whatever your true intentions, Sakura, if you fell into its grasp the Demon would extract any secrets we gave you. And so we cannot answer all of your questions.”
There was a pause, and then the centermost armor said, “at least, not at first.” This drew the sharp attention of its cohorts to either side, but they did not interrupt. “If it will incentivize you cooperate, perhaps we can offer to show you the relics on delivery of the artifact we seek.”
“Will you help us?”
Ludolf turned his attention from the armors to his temporary captain. Their question was probably genuine in its sincerity, but Sakura did not really have a choice, did she? Robinson would come after her if she didn’t, and if she hid from him he would take his wrath out on her father. The bear was in a similar situation. Oh, he had no family to fear for, but his life would be just as forfeit. And with his artificial eye, there was nowhere he could hide.
She nodded as she listened to them tell how the armors were passed down, and each generation added to the armor, which explained the unique appearances of each one. She gave a small involuntary shudder when they spoke of the Demon, and couldn't help giving a small chuckle when they explained that they wouldn't tell her how they hid from it. "Fair enough." She replied, she couldn't honestly argue with the logic of it.
She was a little disappointed when they told her that they wouldn't share any information about the relics. At least not what she wanted to know. If she was honest, she had to admit that she hadn't expected to get as much information as they had offered. She nodded as they spoke about believing in openness, discourse, and understanding, and despite the fact that they were speaking to her through powered armor, she found herself wanting to believe them.
Her next surprise came when they offered to tell her more about the artifacts once she had recovered the one she was currently after. She grinned, obviously excited by the prospect. "I would love that, and yes, I will help you." She replied
"Before we head out to find that artifact, I do have a couple more questions; if you know the answers and can share them." She pulled up the old image Robinson had showed her of a certain dragoness. "Do you know this being, or of her, or anything about her really? And if you do, do you know where on Feila she might be?" She asked. She knew it was a long shot, but one never knew unless they asked.
With their meeting completed, Sakura got the ship ready to move again. They were bound for Feila, a wold she had never set foot on, and she knew she was likely to stick out like a sore thumb. Luckily, she had a Feilan on her crew, and hopefully he could teach her enough about the culture that she wouldn't completely give herself away right out the door, that and hopefully get them through Feilan space relatively unmolested.
Her thoughts began to turn toward another problem. She knew she was stuck under Robinson's thumb for this job, but what was to ensure he wouldn't use the same leverage against her in the future. She began to realize that there was only one way to do it, and she was unsure that she had it in her to follow through. Robinson knew she had abilities beyond what one would call normal, but she didn't know the exact depth of that knowledge.
After they had navigated back into open space, and Inari had been set on a course toward Feila, she turned her attention to Ludolf. The bear was hard to read. She knew he was one of Robinson's crew, but didn't know just how tight Robinson's grip was. She decided to see if she could at least tease some information out of him. "So, just how much about my abilities was in that file?" She asked, maybe not so subtle, but she had to start somewhere.
They watched as the video clip of the battle played. As it did so they seemed to turn or glance toward each other several times, probably conversing on a private frequency. They watched the clip a few times, occasionally pointing here or there on the screen while they conversed, before gently placing the tablet down on the table. At length the rightmost armor said, “this bares striking resemblance to a series of events called The Chase in our scriptures. The passages deal with the recovery of the artifact from its ancient resting place by the Demon and its cohorts.”
The armor ran the video back to a particular frame and pointed to a small figure behind an outcrop. “This might be the Demon, named Etienne at the time.” Its armored finger moved to the dragon, “which would make this… the dragon Freya.”
“Freya is a mysterious figure in our scripture,” the centermost armor explained. “The Demon seems to periodically reach out and destroy data and files pertaining to her, or put them behind encryption we haven’t been able to overcome.”
“Some of the relics left by our Creators make reference to her, and some of those references are over a thousand years old. This would seem to indicate dragons such as yourself are very long-lived beings.”
“I envy you that,” the armor said, picking the tablet up and handing it back to Sakura, “so very much…”
“Your envy is unbecoming,” the leftmost armor chided. “If we lived thousand-year lives, the task before us would not be an act of faith.”
“Yes,” the center armor conceded, though it did not sound very happy about it. The armor returned to the subject at hand, “it is written that she had many supernatural powers. The ability to move massive objects, of course,” it gestured back at the tablet. “It is also written that she could enter into the minds of others, to see their thoughts or even bend them to her will, though apparently our Creators were utterly inscrutable to her.”
“I wish we could tell you more, but this time our silence is not by choice: we simply don’t know. We don’t know where you might find her. We don’t even know if she still lives. She could make a dangerous adversary if she does. One more weapon for the Demon to use against you.”
Ludolf was monitoring the inner system news feeds when Sakura asked about the contents of Robinson’s file on her. The bear regarded her for several moments, his typical dour gaze full of calculation. He stared, studying her expression in silence, looking for… something. At length he turned back to the screen and the data feeds, “not as much as Robinson would have liked.”
That seemed to be all he was going to say. Minutes passed. He abruptly continued, “the file wasn’t complete. Your father was desperate to find you, but he had a way of talking in circles, avoiding questions. Robinson almost killed him for that.” He turned back to face the dragon, “Robinson mentioned he’d been watching you, over the years. That is how he learned about your powers. If they really exist.”
“We saw your trick with the decapitated heads, and other incidents. That and your father’s suspicious behavior was enough to convince Robinson. But I don’t know… video can be faked. It all sounds like spacer stories to me.”
Ludolf was much more forthcoming this time, which did surprise her a little bit. She was happy to hear that her father hadn't given up near as much information about her as she'd initially feared, though hearing it had nearly cost his life worried her some. She mulled over what the bear told her. It seemed that Robinson didn't know anywhere near the depth of her abilities as she had feared, which meant she could still take him by surprise...given the chance. She wanted dearly to bring Ludolf into her budding plans, but she didn't know how tight Robinson's hold on him was. She didn't know if he would be amenable to the idea of pulling something on Robinson, or even if it was safe to discuss with the bear.
Eventually she spoke again. "Does Robinson see and hear everything you do?" She asked, trying to get a feel for just how much she could talk to him, what she could safely talk to him about. She wanted to show him proof that it was more than just spacer stories, but didn't want Robinson to have confirmation.
A familiar pulse swept through the ship, and Sakura engaged the big drive. The ship once again accelerated to speeds that very few in the system could match, and they sped toward Feila. She silently hoped to herself that nothing would try to stop them or that they could blow past without being recognized.
((I don't know if you want to run through any encounters on the way to Feila, or play this conversation out a little further, or just skip to landing. If you'd rather skip, I can do that in my next post.))
Ludolf frowned at the question. “Not directly. The Black Agony’s computer sees and hears everything I do. It alerts Robinson if anything seems unusual or important, based on however he’s got it configured at the time.”
His expression turned grim, “the eye also contains a small explosive charge. Nobody betrays Robinson and lives long to tell of it.” He didn’t feel the need to explain why in any more detail than that. “Few have a chance, either. The eye’s powered by the body. If you’ve got two of them, they… compete with the brain for fuel. You shrivel, in your head. Only way to avoid that fate is to prove to Robinson that what you’ve got between your ears is useful to him, as I have.”
The bear turned back to his console. He wondered about that, himself. There’d been many crewmen like him, many years ago, but over the years more and more had received their second implant, and he’d watched them succumb to senility and turn into those things on the ship that looked like people but never spoke. He was the only one left, as far as he could tell. Was he genuinely so useful, or was his life just on a longer timer than the others?
He could still feel the wind, as he had before when he’d betrayed Alswell. The gut instinct, the pirate’s subtle sixth sense, guided him toward the future. Time’s wind gave Ludolf much of his apparent unflappability and assuredness. It still blew toward Robinson, and the bear had to set his course appropriately. Going against that wind was insanity. But what lay ahead? The wolf was at the center of it all, but what was ‘it’, and was it worth his very mind?
Entering Feilan space proved unusually easy. Suspiciously so. At least three separate frontier sentry stations scanned the Inari as it exited the asteroid belt, but for some reason none of them objected to the ship’s presence. The Inari’s surreal speed elicited no response either. Were the station crews all asleep at their posts? It was as if an invisible hand had cleared a path for them.
By the time anyone took interest they were well within Feilan space and were dealing with guard patrols policing trade routes rather than heavily armed military ships. They were just one more unregistered ship out of thousands. They mostly cruised by bewildered patrol craft at speeds they couldn’t hope to match. They were stopped now and then as they approached Feilan orbit, and one of the patrols even put a fine of several thousand credits on their logs along with an order to have the ship properly registered and documented within thirty days, but that was the most excitement there was to have.
Ludolf wasn't the only one confused by how easily they made it into, then through, Feilan space. They had obviously come from Dmitrian space and she expected to garner at least some sort of attention near the borders, even if they had to outrun it. The lack of excitement on the way to Feila was almost a disappointment....almost.
The strangeness didn't end with entering Feilan space though. As Sakura contacted planetside flight controllers over what had been Edwin, she was directed to a small private dock well away from the normal commercial areas. No questions were asked, and again there was a feeling that someone was clearing the way for them to get to their objective, or at least as close as possible with as little hassle as possible.
The Inari landed in a spacious, well appointed station with all the amenities needed to perform routine maintenance, and refueling operations. There was a decided lack of anyfur to do any of the work. There were no customs agents to check the ship and cargo, the station was completely devoid of life forms aside from Sakura and her crew.
With docking procedures complete, Sakura shut down the ship, and waited by the door for the green light that the dock was prepared for them to exit the ship. As the alert pinged, and Sakura opened the door, she couldn't help but address another question to Ludolf about Robinson.
"How is Robinson about keeping his word? Is he actually going to let us go after this is done with?" She asked as they stepped off the ship, and onto the dock.
There was one thing waiting for them on the dock. An automated message terminal flashed with in incoming message. It was only a couple lines of text telling them to proceed to an address in the heart of the above ground Old Nottingham. Sakura looked at her crew. "It seems we have some sort of invitation" She commented. She couldn't help but be a little nervous, and suspicious at the same time, about such a brazen move.
The landing station turned out to be deserted. This did nothing to put the bear’s mind at ease. If anything it was even more ominous and foreboding than a large “welcoming” committee would have been. Someone was manipulating events from the shadows. Figuratively speaking, of course; his artificial eye showed nothing lurking in the darkness. As he scanned their surroundings for threats he started connecting the dots in his mind. “The hybrid you were working for, she said her mother was Freya. The fundamentalists said the dragon in the video is also Freya, and that she might be an ally of the Club. According to Robinson, Freya was guarding the artifact we’re here to take.” He shook his head, “I don’t like any of this, captain. What we’re walking into, we’re running out of ways we could walk out with our lives.” He didn’t voice another growing suspicion: Sakura was a part of all this somehow, beyond just working for Robinson. What were the chances of going his whole life without seeing a dragon and then encountering 2.5 of them in the space of a week? What puzzled him was that she didn’t seem to realize. He didn’t think she was hiding that realization; he was usually a pretty good judge of such things. But he couldn’t be sure.
Another fur might have laughed at her question. Such furs usually didn’t last very long in the Agony’s crew. Ludolf thought carefully about his answer. “Robinson keeps his word, but he’s very careful about what word he gives.” As Ludolf remembered it, the wolf had said he would pay them, not that he would necessarily let them go. “He likes to keep things useful to him close at hand. He may let you leave his ship, but I don’t think he’s going to stop watching you. You’ll just have to learn to live with that.”
Whether any of them would have the chance to live with it was another question entirely. The address in Old Nottingham Town to which they were directed hardly mattered next to the name of the city itself. Old Nottingham had been hardest hit during the fall of the Party, and for over a century it lay under a suffocating cloud of poison and radioactivity and the stench of the rotting remains of its population, massacred by their own government at the outset of the war. Atmospheric processors had removed some of the poisons from the air, but it remained for the most part a vast ruin, a vast tomb.
Flying a spacecraft through the atmosphere would draw unwanted attention. The question of how to reach their destination answered itself upon further exploration of the station; an empty aircar waited for them just off the landing platform. The small vehicle was a lifting body with wheels that could retract for flight or extend for driving along a surface road. It was likely also equipped with the magnetic levitation technology for using modern magways, but they would find no such working infrastructure in Edwin’s interior.
The interior of Edwin was technically off-limits for public safety reasons, but the small nations which had emerged from the war policed the frontier to varying degrees. Ludolf and Alfred were able to come up with a route that avoided any complications. They flew part of the way before descending the vehicle to drive along disused roads. Entering the city was a surreal experience. Oppressively angular concrete buildings like great grey slabs hung cantilevered over the streets. Gaping, blasted-out windows watched them from all directions. Great tangles of trusswork jutted upward from piles of rubble like huge steel skeletons. At street level, plant life pierced the avenues and boulevards. In defiance of lingering radiation and toxins, nature was beginning to consume the Party’s metropolis from the ground up.
Their progress took them toward a relic even older than those ruins. Little of the industrial compound was visible any longer. Grassy fields and airstrips had become prime real estate for Party planners. Ancient Information Age factories and research labs were now cocooned on all sides by lifeless apartment high-rises. A few of the smokestacks belonging to those factories were still visible over the tops of the newer construction. “What is this place,” Ludolf wondered aloud. He’d never been to Feila, let alone this wrecked city, but there was an air of deeper history here.
She frowned when the subject of the connections between Freya and their other stops were brought up. "It would seem to me that Freya is at the middle of it all, well almost. Those fundamentalists are still a bit of an unknown factor. I would think though that if Freya was still an ally of the club, then the club would have already retrieved the artifact from her. I don't disagree that this reeks of a setup of some sort, but I'm not sure about the end goals of it."
She frowned when Ludolf explained some more about Robinson. "And what does he do if that's something I don't want to live with?" She asked in reply without thinking, then could have kicked herself. She didn't want to alert Robinson to her thoughts, but probably just threw up a huge red flag for the wolf.
She couldn't help but gape at the difference between the surface of Feila, and where she'd grown up on Dmitri. Even the poisoned interior of Edwin had a stark wild feel that just wasn't found out in the Dmitrian settlements where the environments had to be strictly, and carefully controlled. She was grateful that she had Alfred along to help Ludolf find a clear route, and that they had taken control of the aircar, otherwise she likely would have been lost. As it was her head swiveled this way and that as she tried to take in everything she possibly could during the trip.
When they found their destination, Sakura shook her head in response to Ludolf's question. She hadn't the first clue where they were. Something else did answer though.
"An old center of industry and invention" Came a reply in a feminine voice that seemed to resonate from everywhere at once, but made no sound that a microphone would pick up. "A titanic conglomerate corporation started by an old cat named Osborne Thatcher. Before that though, it was the home of the E.T.C., and before that, it housed the foundries that created Edwin's alchemical mortars; Edwin's answer to the cannons of Maze. Long before any of those though, it was a place where dragons worked magics that you couldn't conceive in your wildest imagination."
A shadow coalesced near the small group it had prominent shapes that couldn't be mistaken for anything other than wings. The shadow shrank as the one creating it touched down in front of them. It was unmistakably a female dragon, and she bore a striking resemblance to the one in the video. There was a glaring difference though; the one standing in front of them was covered in runes that spiraled down her body from just below her jaw to the tip of her tail, fingers, and toes, they even covered her wings.
"I heard you were looking for me." She said with a wide toothy grin as she looked at Sakura and her crew.
Sakura was, for the moment, stunned into silence.
Again, as with the hybrid Sakura had been working for, if one looked closely, there were many similarities between these dragons that could easily be called familial.
Ludolf noticed Sakura’s fascination with the world beyond the aircar’s windows. Though he continuously scanned the environment for threats, he was not completely blind to it himself. “It is a living world,” he commented, voice mostly lacking the wonder he felt somewhere beneath the duty and paranoia. He was particularly troubled by the sky, and he suspected it would be much worse at night when the stars were visible. Seeing the stars without a window or screen in-between meant you were a few seconds from death, out in space. Air and life clinging to an enormous sphere of rock and water, it was madness.
Yet, somewhere beneath experience and upbringing, it also felt natural. “This is where we came from,” he thought aloud. Sakura may have been genetically engineered, but surely even she could trace everything she was to this planet. Unless Dragons were aliens.
He was silent for the rest of the journey, until he wondered where they were. He reacted instantly to the feminine voice that answered, moving with a speed belied by his mass. He drew his pistol with one hand, though he didn’t point it at anything, and with the other hand he unceremoniously shoved Sakura’s head down between her legs, below the level of the aircar’s windows. His eyes darted back and forth. He turned his head to take in everything around their vehicle. Where was the voice coming from? His eye wasn’t picking it up, he could get no triangulation.
He didn’t know who this Osborn Thatcher was, nor any specific organization named ETC. After that the reply devolved into nonsense about alchemy and magic.
The shadow passed overhead. A figure alighted on the crumbling road ahead of them. This time Ludolf wasn’t thrown off as he had been with the hybrid from before. The dragon bore more than a superficial resemblance to his current captain. Much more. This was just too much to be coincidence. Surely even dragons varied from individual to individual as all other races did. They could almost be twins, aside from different coloration and what to Ludolf’s mind must have been illuminated tattoos sketching intricate designs across her scales. They could almost be clones-…
Ludolf’s expression- grim determination- did not change. Sakura had suggested earlier than Freya was at the middle of all this. He wondered if she didn’t have it the wrong way around.
The bear stepped out of the aircar, keeping the open door between himself and the dragoness, pistol in hands, arms steadied against the door’s frame. The pistol was a type of weapon a lot of pirates called Shredders or Rippers. It fired a cloud or stream of hundreds of tiny metal flechettes at very high velocity. Upon hitting a soft target like a person… well, the weapon’s name was very descriptive. Still, he didn’t actually point it at the stranger, but slightly up and to the right. He couldn’t see any weapon on her, and he didn’t quite believe in her kind’s supernatural powers, but he wasn’t going to bet his life on that skepticism.
If this was Freya, and she was here to kill them, there would have been easier ways to do it. But then, if this was Freya, would she kill her own flesh and blood. Ludolf blinked, struck by a thought. Did Freya- if this was she- even know?
First things first. “Identify yourself,” he demanded, his tone protective and cautious, “and state your intentions.” He was tired of guessing at shrouded half-truths.
Freya tilted her head, and offered a wide toothy grin as Ludolf pointed a weapon in her general direction. She didn't make any immediate moves, though that was more out of trying to keep Ludolf, and Sakura calm than any kind of fear or worry for her own personal safety. She laughed as Ludolf demanded that she identify herself. "Well now, since you've come here looking for me, shouldn't I be the one asking those questions?" She started, and only gave the briefest of pauses before she spoke again. "My name is Freya, and I've come to meet the crew that has recently become very intent on finding me." She continued
Freya took a step toward the aircar while she continued to speak. "Now, if you would please put that toy away, we can have a nice friendly chat; it will do you no good anyway." She said as she pointed to Ludolf's weapon. Even if she hadn't pointed it would have been impossible to misunderstand what she was talking about; as if something underlying her words were imparting her exact meaning. "Now, Sakura. Come out here, and let me get a good look at you." she stated, this time there was a strange resonance to her words.
Sakura lifted her head, and unbuckled her safety restraints before she opened her door to the air car. There was something about the way Freya spoke to her that she wouldn't have been able to disobey if she wanted to. Ludolf would have found it nearly impossible to restrain her if he tried as she had a dragon's strength which had been further enhanced by her creator's genetic tinkering. "We have been looking for you." She said quietly as she started toward Freya. She looked timid, and almost shy as she approached the much older dragoness.
"Come, let me get a closer look at you." Freya said as she moved to close the distance between herself and Sakura. "Hmm..." She continued as she got close enough to touch Sakura. She reached out and gently laid a finger on Sakura's muzzle.
Sakura's eyes crossed as she watched Freya's finger. She felt a strange warmth spread through her body, radiating from the spot where Freya's finger laid on her muzzle.
Freya's smile widened as she spread her arms wide and Sakura in an embrace. "Ah, the wayward daughter I never knew about has come home." She announced.
Sakura's eyes went wide, and she stiffened as Freya hugged her, then announced herself as her mother. "w-wha?" She managed to get out while she turned her head to look a Ludolf, completely off balance, and unsure just what the heck was going on.
She wanted him to drop his guard and holster his weapon. He was going to keep right on not doing that. The aircar’s frame would only provide so much protection for his captain. The pistol was his best solution to that problem. “That’s close enough” he growled, beckoning with the gun for Freya to keep her distance.
And then, at Freya’s behest, Sakura got out of the car and walked over to her.
Ludolf frowned his very Ludolf-like frown and lowered the pistol. One lesson he’d learned many times was that, ultimately, a fur would decide for himself or herself to live or die. You could do everything in your power to protect them, but in the end they would have to take their life into their own hands. That was their choice. It would always be their choice. This had become one of those moments. He could feel it deep inside. For this reason he did not try to stop Sakura, instead he came around from behind the car and stood to one side, keeping the pistol held low.
“We have been looking for you,” Freya said to Sakura.
“Who’s ‘we’,” Ludolf prompted, though he didn’t get an immediate answer. He felt something, as Freya touched Sakura’s muzzle. A stirring. That wind within his mind which guided him, which had been so steady for so many years, was momentarily fitful, blowing indecisively here and then there. It was unsettling, like watching the sails of an ancient sailing ship suddenly fall slack. What did it mean?
Sakura was also perturbed by this encounter. He could see it in her eyes.
Freya’s revelation did not surprise Ludolf, but it clearly shook his captain. What did surprise him and… touched that shriveled core of sentimentality in him, was that she looked to him in her time of bewilderment. On the other hand, maybe he just happened to be there. He holstered his pistol and took a step closer, mustering a somewhat gentler tone of voice than his usual rumblings to lay out his deductions about this sensitive subject. “Your father, Genma Takashi, built you from DNA salvaged from one of the early colony ships… That DNA had to have come from someone, Captain.”
“Look at her. Leave aside those… glowing tattoos, and the color of her scales. Look at her face, her hands, her shape. You might as well be looking in a mirror.” He tapped a finger near his artificial eye, “even your bones are the same. That kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident.”
“I don’t know if daughter is the right word, but I think this is where you come from.”
Sakura was still standing in a stunned silence where Freya had gently guided her. It was almost as if she was in shock over the revelation. slowly though, the wheels in her head started turning again and she blurted the first thing that came to her mind. "Are you really more than a millennium old?" she asked
Freya chuckled, as if she had anticipated the question, before she replied. "Yes, I am." She looked over at Ludolf, and back at Sakura. "Not that I don't trust your crew dear, but I think the rest of this conversation should stay with those of us that are here." She said as suddenly all communications were knocked out, much as they had been when they visited the hybrid from before. "Now, you're looking for something right?" She asked
Sakura Replied with a nod "An ancient artifact we were told was in your possession." She replied as she pulled up the view of the artifact.
Freya frowned as she looked at the artifact. "Why would you want this?" She asked. "It's broken, and there's little use for it in today's existence."
"Um, well...you see." Sakura started before Freya held up a finger, stopping the younger dragon.
"It will be easier for me to look." Freya told her. Sakura stiffened for a moment before Freya spoke again. "Ah, hired by a pirate, hired by....hmm...What's this about Consensus and Dissent?" Freya looked very intrigued. "I will give you what you want...in a way. You're going to take me with you and I will deliver the object myself." She held up a hand as if to forestall any claims that there was no proof that she had the object. She smiled again, before shoving that hand out to her side, except the hand seemed to disappear. When she pulled the hand back in close, it held the artifact.
She looked at Ludolf, then at Sakura before she spoke again. "Or are you going to be foolish enough to try to take it from me?"
Sakura looked at Freya then at Ludolf. "I don't think we have much of a choice." She told the bear, though she would have taken Freya regardless, if only for the fact that the older dragon seemed to be sincere about being her mother. She still looked very much in over her head, and trying to handle it as best as she could, and looked to Ludolf for another opinion if nothing else.
The older dragon claimed to be over a millennium old. Ludolf accepted this at face value. It matched the data and the fundamentalists’ scriptures.
Then, for the second time in so few days, he watched as all the virtual indicators in his field of view blinked from green to red, as his cybernetic eye lost connection. He’d gone years tethered- chained- back to his home ship, only to have that connection broken twice in so short a time. The difference this time was that part of his stony composure faltered too. The bear leaned back against the aircar, overcome all at once by the weariness of years aboard the Agony, living that life, taking commands from that wolf, watching him reshape Atalfa from the shadows. The weight of his burden was plainly visible in his eyes… for a moment. Then it was clamped back down, pushed away and into the background again.
It was being out in the system, aboard a small nimble ship, beneath a captain with a shred of feilan decency that was doing this to him, he realized. He had a decision to make, he realized, but he was torn in two directions. As he had been when Sakura asked what Robinson knew of her powers, he was paralyzed by indecision. His gut told him one thing, his heart another.
Seeing Freya’s hand vanish into nothingness snapped him out of his reverie. He didn’t scoff or doubt. He tended to believe what he could see with his own eye. He’d seen examples of supernatural abilities in videos, and Robinson seemed to have known enough to take them seriously. Seeing Freya do this now confirmed that the wolf had been right and Ludolf had been wrong.
She said she was going to come with them. Ludolf grunted. The fundamentalists would pay for the delivery of the artifact whether Freya was with them or not, though it might complicate things. “The fundamentalists aren’t sure whether you’re friendly. Going to them directly might cause trouble. We should probably take it to Robinson first, then,” he said. There was something in his voice, something unreadable, as there had been when Sakura asked him about her powers. He wanted to say more, to warn her away, but he couldn’t. Not yet. His eye was still recording, and it would transmit any treachery back to Robinson once communication was restored.
If only he could be rid of the cursed thing. But once he crossed that bridge, the wolf would burn it behind him and he’d be lucky to escape the flames…
The trip back to the Inari was uneventful, though they had to take a new route to dodge the exclusion zone patrols. The patrols seemed riled up for some reason, their movements more erratic. When the Inari boosted to orbit they found more commotion. “Lots of 4didar activity,” Ludolf grunted. “Lots of military 4didar activity.” The story playing out on their own screens was one of rapid, large scale naval mobilization. Someone had kicked the hornets’ nest.
Ludolf opened the intra-system news feeds on a console and the headlines leapt at them. All of them were a variation on the same theme: “Xeros Intra-Solar Station seized by unknown forces.” The giant intra-solar space stations had been built by Feila back before tensions exploded between itself and Dmitri. The intra-solar station around Dmitri had been destroyed during the infamous Scharnhorst Incident. Not long after that the crew of the Xeros station orbiting Atalfa evacuated the station as Feila pulled back to within the now-defacto border between the two powers; the Felicis Asteroid Belt.
The reports included a fragment of video transmitted from the station: it showed a fleet of what appeared to be pirate ships approaching, and then the video cut out. From here the narrative diverged with the source of the reporting. Dmitri was outraged. They were accusing Feila of retaking the station to outflank Dmitrian defenses. Xeros was equipped with a powerful automated defense system that no pirate had been able to penetrate, after all, and the pirates could not have disabled those defenses without top-level Feilan security codes. Feila, for its part, was accusing Dmitri of helping criminal elements hack those defenses to seize Feilan property.
“This is going to be a problem,” Ludolf rumbled. “All eyes are going to be on us the second we approach the asteroid belt.” ‘What is he doing?’ he thought to himself.
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