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When Ludolf mentioned there may be issues with going directly to the fundamentalist, she paused before she asked. "Do you have a way to contact them first without going back to your wolf? Going to him just might cause more trouble." She made the last statement in tones that one may use when talking about the weather.
The crew made it back to the ship with their intended cargo, sorta, and a passenger. Sakura immediately made her way to the cockpit to get the ship prepped, and start takeoff procedures. Freya, meanwhile, was now more focused on Ludolf. She watched him carefully as he went to work.
"Wonderful, more signals to dodge. More chances someone might realize the reality of this ship." She muttered in response when Ludolf mentioned the extra activity. "Let's hope we're not the cause of it, and that they're too busy with that cause to notice us." She frowned at the explanation that someone had seized the Xeros station, wondering just what game was being played with all this.
Freya's attention continued to be focused on Ludolf, and she seemed unperturbed by the prospect of scrutiny when they crossed into the asteroid belt; she had something else on her mind. She reached out, and her voice flowed into Ludolf's mind. Her lips didn't move and she made no sounds, yet it would seem to the bear that she was speaking clearly to him. "I can help you. There will be a price, but I'm sure it's not so high as the wolf has asked. I'll even answer some of your questions." The offer was on the table, now to see if Ludolf would bite.
As they cruised away from Feila, Sakura had the big drive warming up and soon they would be able to travel at full speed again. The speed would hopefully get them passed anything that may potentially block their path.
He worked his console for a few moments, then turned to face his captain and her guest. “I’ve sent a message to the fundamentalists, but we have no way of knowing if they got it. Not until we get much closer. They won’t risk transmitting a reply with enough signal strength to reach us. They protect the secret of their facilities’ locations very carefully, and all this activity isn’t going to make them more forthcoming.” He’d suggested they go to Robinson and had been overruled. And he was happy about that. Let nobody else become entrapped as he had, and as Sakura would be soon enough if events played out.
The bear become more acutely aware that Freya’s attention was focused on him. He’d been keeping an eye on her as well, as was his duty, but now he could feel her gaze more readily. He didn’t wilt under it. He wondered idly just what she saw when she looked at him.
Her telepathic communication was momentarily startling, but he realized this too fit the data they had on her abilities. After realizing what was happening he began to bring his thoughts under control, clearing his head as well as he was able. If she could directly touch his mind she might be able to perceive his thoughts as well, and he didn’t want that. He didn’t think long about the offer. He was intrigued and cautious and suspicious all at once. Two questions immediately came to mind, which he put to thought-spoken words “How can you help, and what is the price?”
Freya grinned as Ludolf considered her offer. Sakura seemed to be oblivious to the silent conversation between the older dragon and the bear. "I can remove the shackle that tethers you to the wolf. All I ask in return is that you tell us what you know of what he has planned, and that you stay with Sakura for at least a year or two and watch over her. She needs someone with experience that she can rely on at her back." She arched an eyebrow a bit. "You seem to have at least some small form of respect for her, and she is loyal if nothing else."
As the telepathic conversation took place, a familiar pulse washed through the ship, signaling that the big drive was ready to be used. "Here we go, just hope we continue to be the fastest ship in the sector." Sakura announced as she set a course. The course she chose was a little longer as it took them out of the system's orbital plane, covered the distance to their destination, then dove back in. She hoped that using this course would help them avoid some of the activity stirring throughout the system.
Sakura flipped a switch on her console, and the ship gently shifted directions before quickly accelerating to near the ship's top speed. With the ship moving on course, she spun around to face Ludolf and Freya. She looked at the pair and frowned slightly, tilting her head in confusion as some part of her knew there was something going on, but she had no idea just what it was. "Well, we're on the move, hopefully our course will keep us out of sight for the most part. I think I'm going to get some exercise. Let me know whenever..." She stopped as she again tried to figure out just what was going on, then shook her head. "Just come get me if anything comes up." The ships systems would also alert her if any issues with the ship or thier course came up. With that she walked past the pair and out into the portion on the cargo bay she had set aside for her exercise.
He closed his eyes and centered himself in space and time. He felt for that faint wind by which he’d charted the course of his life, and he frowned. More resolutely than ever, it blew toward Robinson. The old wolf was the future. The winds of time were on his side. Would any good come from sailing against that wind? He hadn’t thought so all those years ago when he’d betrayed Alswell to him. Had he been wrong? Should he have stood against it then? Should he now? He opened his eyes to see Sakura looking at the two of them, vague suspicion in her eyes. He did feel an affection of sorts for the young captain.
“She does what she feels is right, instead of doing what she knows to be wrong,” he thought to Freya. Of course Sakura didn’t always abide by laws in the strictest sense. You couldn’t make your way in Atalfa doing that. But there was a definite difference between being a rogue and being a monster. “She cares about other people. Its endearing, but if you’d asked me a month ago I would have told you it was foolish, liable to get her killed some day. It still might.”
“But maybe I can help her avoid that...”
He turned to face Freya squarely. He scrutinized her face, her eyes, trying to divine what she might be thinking, trying to find some unseen motive. There was a last moment of introspection. A last evaluation of a perilous new course. When the decision was finally made he was almost surprised by the suddenness of it, like it had been a forgone conclusion, long neglected. “…And that is what I will do.”
The bear was careful not to motion anywhere in the eye's view as he pointed to it, “but I’m not sure what you have in mind. If the eye stops feeling my heartbeat it will explode with enough force to kill me and possibly you as well. The delay before the explosion would be very short. Maybe half a second.”
Her smile widened as Ludolf shared his thoughts on her youngest daughter; she could that bit of genuine affection behind them. She nodded as Ludolf pointed out her care for others, and the thought that perhaps he could help her avoid being killed by that care. "That is my hope." She replied. "That you can share enough of your pragmatism with her that she will learn that there are some people in this existence that use that against her, and how to identify them. She's already had her first hard lesson at the hands of the wolf. She fears what she is quickly coming to believe is her only course of action to protect herself and those she cares about from him; that she is not capable of such an act. I would spare her that heartache, at least for now. Make no mistake, I am more than capable of ending a life to protect those I care about." The tone of Freya's thoughts hinted that Sakura had an important role to play in the future, though the dragoness wasn't revealing just what that role may be.
Her smile widened to a grin as Ludolf came to a decision. "Thank you." It was a simple and heartfelt sentiment, an now Freya felt some relief that Sakura had Ludolf to watch her back, and not because he had to.
She paused a moment, and arched an eyebrow when Ludolf asked how she planned to get rid of the dangerous piece of technology that kept him under the wolf's thumb. "Well, there are several options." She started. "The most efficient would be to teleport it somewhere else, perhaps to the wolf, a fitting resignation. Is it by chance, the only artificial part you have? I could also create a shield around it, and we can pull it out. If you can provide a schematic, I can just teleport the charge from it. We could also visit Lenares, she was able to meld magic with technology in many ways. Perhaps she can disable the charge." Freya provided several possible courses of action.
While Freya and Ludolf continued their telepathic discussion, Sakura stalked into the cargo bay, stripping out of her flight suit as she went. She was left in a pair of tight short shorts, and a sports bra as she snagged hold of one of the heavy resistance bands. Her muscles bunched as they worked against the bands and she thrust her clenched fists in front of her, one at a time. Strange emotions roiled within her. Primary among them were confusion with a strong undercurrent of fear; fear that she was in far over her head, and that those she cared about were going to pay the price. The worst part about that was the fact that she really wasn't even sure what the end game was. Now more than ever, she felt like she was just a pawn in a game that was much bigger that she could currently see. She was now beginning to get angry. She yanked on the band again and there was a sharp snap. The end of the band that broke whipped up and across her back. She let out a quick yelp before turning around and glaring at the offending piece of shredded band.
Before Sakura could dig out a new band, an alert went off throughout the ship. Sakura raced past Freya and Ludolf, not bothering to pull her flight suit back on. She sat down at her console, and quickly started pulling up screens and feeds. The computer had picked up something on an intercept course with them. "What the?..." Was all Sakura could think to say at that moment.
“You’re welcome,” was the bear’s short response to her thanks. He had never had children himself, so he wondered at what it must feel like to worry about them. Somehow he doubted he would ever truly know. He could not see children in his own future.
The discussion turned to how to dispose of the eye, and Ludolf grunted to himself. Teleport it away? Was it really so simple? A wave of a hand and it would be gone? Freya’s suggestion of where they might send it drew an immediate shake of his head, “no, it isn’t the right time for that. Sakura and I, and you; we are all mixed up in the middle of this right now. With all his enhancements, Robinson might survive the explosion, and he’s much smarter than he lets on. He’d figure out where the eye came from before too long. It’d bring him down on us. Removing the eye is going to burn that bridge one way or the other, but better it be a slow burn than an explosion we can’t outrun.”
He also frowned at the thought of just removing the charge and leaving the eye. He didn’t have schematics for it, for one thing, and for the other… “this eye means more than just the threat of the explosive charge.” She had been right before, when she’d described it as a shackle. “It needs to go. I need it to go. Take it away, leave it to expl-“
He was cut off by the ship-wide alert, and he was immediately fixated back at his console. He did not comment on Sakura’s state of undress when she arrived. It was her ship. She was his captain- well and truly now, though she didn’t know that yet. Also, as a man, he wasn’t in a hurry to complain.
“Torpedoes," he barked. The tone of the alert changed from simply an alert that something was on an intercept course to an alert that something had actively locked on to and was tracking them. The noise came in many different forms throughout history, and often it harkened back to the characteristic sonar pings of ancient pre-spaceflight submarine torpedoes. It was a sound meant to remind you that a machine was out there which had only the single resolute intent to make you dead.
Feila and Dimitri had spent decades filling the asteroid belt with automated weapons systems in preparation for a possible war, and now these long-dormant weapon platforms were coming online. Old systems firmware running on old hardware and making automatic decisions based on old assumptions had been brought back to life. At least one of these platforms had noticed the Inari, and it had decided to kill the hell out of it.
The torpedoes were actually much slower than the Inari, but even decades out of date, the weapons platforms were the culmination of hundreds of years of AI development. Ludolf couldn’t see the weapons platform- it would have been built to be difficult to find- but it was somewhere much further ahead on their current course, and it had fired its torpedoes so that the Inari’s own speed would carry the ship right into them.
“Those are nuclear gamma ray warheads,” Ludolf growled with urgency. “They only need to get within a few thousand kilometers. The energy from the explosion is captured and converted into a gamma ray laser. It’ll punch right through us, Captain.” His experience with these types of weapons was limited. They were old and large and unwieldy for the work of piracy. He knew they could ruin your day very quickly. Even if the ship survived the hit, they themselves would receive thousands of times the lethal dose of radiation in a fraction of a second.
They had to think fast, because the weapons platform could think even faster. It was already launching additional warheads on different courses. Ludolf could see what it was doing. It was trying to build a net; a grid of warheads all spaced closely enough so that the Inari must pass within killing range of one of them even were they to alter course. Of course, the Inari could always just stop, but the AI couldn’t know that. It had to guess at the Inari’s capabilities until it learned them.
Flying above the plane of the asteroid belt had seemed a sensible course. Ludolf had thought it was wise. But out here in empty space they had nowhere to hide, and hanging above the belt they were so very conspicuous to silent observers. “Down,” Ludolf suggested, “into the belt. Put rock between us and the torpedoes.” He’d suspected Sakura was a hot-shot sort of pilot, and it seemed he might get to see how true that was.
The bear himself didn’t wait to find out. He was on his way up the ladder to the Inari’s weapon station. Shooting down a torpedo was an iffy proposition, but Ludolf had an altogether different trick up his sleeve. He fired a pair of missiles on a course parallel to the plane of the belt. The hidden weapon platform immediately stopped deploying torpedoes as its AI tried to figure out if the Inari had somehow detected its location; it had no way of knowing those missiles were flying blind. That would buy them maybe a minute.
(I wasn't sure whether you had something specific in mind for the interception or were just leaving an opening. I hope this works. I can just lop the second half of this post off if it doesn't.)
Freya had been nodding in agreement to Ludolf's points about disposing of his artificial eye when the alert went off in the ship, and Sakura came rushing past them. She may have commented on Sakura's choice in clothing, but other things quickly took precedence for her attention.
She considered herself fairly educated in most of the basic concepts used in the technology of this day and age, but found that she was still fairly ignorant as she listened to the alarms, and Ludolf's description of what had set them off. She quickly decided that, for now, she would sit back and let the pair work in what was much more their element than hers.
"Shit.." Sakura exclaimed as Ludolf pointed out what the sensors had picked up, and the fact that some weapons platform was actively tracking them. her fingers danced across her console as she pulled up a small holographic representation of the space around their ship, little pulsing dots quickly illustrating the net that Ludolf pointed out.
She nodded at Ludolf's suggestion. "Right." She agreed. The unfortunate thing about traveling at great speed is that it made it harder to make accurate tight maneuvers. With this in mind, she didn't shut the big drive down, but disengaged it. She flipped a switch on the console labeled Inertia converters. A series of red lights lit up the cockpit as the ship quickly came to a near halt. Sakura deftly manipulated the controls of the ship to change their directions, flipping them ninety degrees toward the asteroid belt. She flipped off the inertia converters and reengaged the big drive, sending them diving back down into the plane of orbit. She pulled the maneuver again, shooting them into the belt itself around the current torpedoes which had thankfully focused on the missiles Ludolf had fired.
Unfortunately for them, the weapons station they had awoken was connected to others. The lock on alarms sounded again as Sakura was forced to dial back their speed enough that she could maneuver through the belt and around the huge rocks. "There's more of them, can you see anything?" Sakura called back up to the bear.
Freya, meanwhile, decided that perhaps it was time that she stepped in and offered some assistance of her own. She climbed up the ladder Ludolf had used, putting her head up far enough into the weapon's station that she could get a better visual representation of what surrounded them. She concentrated on several of the asteroids and they wavered for a brief moment before suddenly disappearing and reappearing in different places behind the ship in the predicted paths of several of the torpedos. "Try to locate their source if you can, I'll put obstacles in their path." She told Ludolf.
Sakura asked if he could see anything. It was such a tricky question! He worked the controls deftly in spite of meaty hands and claws, throwing plots of torpedo trajectories onto his own screen. The torpedoes were undetectable until they fired their engines, and the weapon platform wouldn’t fire their engines until they had deployed and moved some distance away, in order to mask the launcher’s position. But with enough of them… there! The points at which each torpedo appeared, they formed a rough ovoid in space. So the platform would be somewhere in there. He keyed his controls, cycling through available missile warheads until he found what he was looking for: scout probes. With a squeeze of a trigger he sent them careening toward a distant dense asteroid cluster.
Three minutes. They had to survive three minutes at least.
The weapon station’s viewport fizzled and snapped opaque. Alarms blared. A rain of sparks erupted from the Inari’s port hull plating. “Laser!” Ludolf shouted, working his controls to swivel the railgun turret toward its source; a close by secondary weapons platform. Conventional lasers were more or less useless against large capital ships, which had the thermal mass to absorb their energy. The Inari was a different story. He squeezed the trigger, throwing depleted uranium slugs at the target. The eruption of sparks ceased- the laser platform crumpled from railgun hits.
Freya’s head popped up into the weapons station turret. “Aye,” he barked when she asked him to locate the source, “already on it!”
As they rounded a larger asteroid something flashed by in his vision; a round metal porthole on its surface, circular door irising open. Three torpedoes launched from it. They were mere kilometers from the ship. This was death. His brain knew it, but his hands set the railgun turret swiveling anyway. In no time at all, one or all of those torpedoes would detonate their warheads, and the resulting gamma ray beam would incinerate them all.
Many things seemed to happen at once. The ship heaved into a crushing high-g turn. Almost of their own accord, Ludolf’s fingers set the railguns hammering away. And once more, Freya worked her magic. She bent whole great boulders in space to her will, willing them from one place to another.
Time seemed to catch up. Of hundreds of railgun projectiles, just one scored a lucky hit on the furthest torpedo, tearing it to shreds. One of Freya’s asteroids materialized in front of the remaining two torpedoes. It was ringed with fire as the nearest torpedo rammed into it and disintegrated. But the middle torpedo evaded. It skimmed just around the surface of the space rock, slipped just into view, and-
The world seemed to end. The sky flared bright white- Ludolf’s observation bubble once again snapped opaque but it also carbonized, visibly scorching black and then crisscrossing with cracks. The Inari lurched beneath them, slamming everything not tied down into the starboard bulkheads. The bear was thrown sideways in his harness with enough force to grey out his vision. He felt Freya’s head and torso collide with him. Below and behind them the ship made terrible noises. Outside, the starboard hull plating boiled. Sensors and other mechanical accoutrements vaporized. A new alarm blared. An insistent, penetrating, universally recognizable sort: they were venting atmosphere.
It had been a glancing blow, the gamma ray burst just barely grazing the Inari’s starboard side. These weapons were designed to deal savage blows to dreadnoughts.
Ludolf’s vision came swimming back. He twisted in his seat. Freya was coming to as well. She had almost certainly saved all their lives by teleporting those asteroids. But the weapons out in space weren’t the only thing that could kill them now. He could feel his ears popping. “We’re losing air!” He shouted to her over the commotion all around, “the breach is somewhere behind us, amidships!”
Alarms continued to blare as more blips popped up on the tracker Sakura was using, more torpedos and a laser station? She growled to herself as lasers hit the ship, and started to burn the hull plating. Thankfully Ludolf put them down before they did anything more than superficial damage. More blips, torpedos, this time too close. Sakura cursed as she flipped the inertia dampeners again, attempting another ninety degree flip in a last ditch effort to evade them.
There was a blinding flash, and Sakura was thrown against her own harness as the ship lurched. She shook her head as the alarms filling the ship changed. She realized their situation at the same time that Ludolf called down to her. The emergency systems should have sealed a breach already, they must have been damaged in the hit. She cursed again as she mentally flailed frantically for a moment before reaching over and hitting the contingency switch. The door separating the corridor to the cockpit from the ship's hold slammed shut, and sealed. It would at least prevent them from dying for now, but the rest of the atmosphere was still venting out into space.
Sakura blanked out for a moment as she realized that while they hadn't been killed, Inari had been crippled. The ship that represented so much work and sacrifice for her freedom. She screamed in frustration for a moment before slamming her fists down on the arms of her seat. As her fists connected, a wave rushed out from the ship, turning every bit of solid matter within a hundred kilometers into molecular dust much like that in the distant stellar nurseries. She heaved a couple heavy breaths, and blood began to trickle from her nostrils before she lost consciousness, and slumped over in her seat.
Freya had been taken by surprise by the violence of even a glancing blow from the warheads they had been trying to evade. She slammed against the side of the entrance to the weapons station and Ludolf as well. Luckily it was the side of her head that slammed into him, and not her horns.
She dropped down into the cockpit as Ludolf shouted about losing air. She started toward the cargo hold when the door slammed shut, nearly on her nose. She winced a little at Sakura's outburst and shook her head. "You're going to have to take the pilot's seat for a bit." She told Ludolf as she concentrated on the door separating her from the cargo hold. "Get us the rest of the way there. I'll see what I can do about the breach in the hull and any of those weapons left."
Without another word, Freya walked through the closed door. She created a barrier that would protect her from the lost pressure and air before making her way to the hole in the side of the ship. She shook her head as she inspected the ragged edges of the wound, pursing her lips a bit as she thought of the best way to fix everything. She settled on a simple shielding spell for the time being. Something that would keep any more air from escaping, and anything else from getting in.
Dealing with the weapons platforms was going to be trickier. She sat down in the middle of the cargo bay and concentrated. She created a field around the ship, something similar to what blocked Ludolf's eye from transmitting, but this one made them look like just another pocket of background radiation to the 4didar scanners of the weapons stations.
With those two problems solved, she returned to the cockpit. She again stepped through the solid door, and over to where Ludolf and Sakura were. She touched a finger to Sakura's forehead to check her condition, and nodded to herself. "She'll be okay...physically at least." She commented quietly. "That was some very well done work with those weapons." She complimented the bear.
He got himself situated at the pilots controls and glanced over them. Like the weapons station, everything here had a logic to its layout. But, while the logic was evident, the purpose of many of the controls was not. Well, he thought to himself, he’d be better than nothing. He suspected he was also the better choice than Freya. For all that the older dragon seemed wise, she seemed less experienced than his captain or himself in matters of spaceflight. The bear picked and poked at a few of the buttons and switches and took hold of the flight controls.
He’d heard his captain’s heartbreak from up at the weapons station. He thought he understood why. The ship had had such grace, but now the Inari was handling like a wounded beast, pulling this way and that as bits and pieces fell off it, and it continually listed to the port. It took him a moment to realize why; the boiling starboard hull plating was acting like a thruster. He wrestled the ship back onto a heading toward the fundamentalists’ asteroid, a few hours deeper into the belt.
Once he got their trajectory the way he wanted it, and he was confident they wouldn’t collide with anything for at least a little while, he shut down the engines and powered down as much as he could, and he allowed the Inari to begin to tumble slowly. He tried to make them look as little like a ship to sensors as possible. He was unaware Freya had cast a spell to conceal them. At any rate, thanks much more to her than him, the alarms all fell quiet. They were no longer being tracked. His screen showed ghostly beams of old style radar sweeping through the area- evidently the weapon platform AI was unwilling to trust the lack of reading from its 4didar- but eventually it relented.
The Inari drifted onward through a billowing cloud of dust and gas, the remnant of Sakura’s supernatural outburst. He’d seen it even through the charred black of the weapon station’s observation port. Perhaps it had helped to convince the weapon platform that they were dead, too. It must have looked something like an explosion from the outside.
Freya returned to the cockpit, passing immaterial through the door. She said Sakura would survive. Ludolf didn’t answer. She complimented him on his work. He shook his head, the tension obvious in clenched fists and the set of his jaw. “If I had just managed to hit that second torpedo…” but after a moment he waved that away with a gruff “forget it, it doesn’t matter now.”
He swiveled the chair to face her. “I don’t understand this, Freya. Taking Xeros station might start a war. I can’t see how that would help Robinson. It doesn’t fit into the plans I know.”
“Which reminds me,” he pointed up at the artificial eye. “Its time for this thing to go.”
And so it was. Ludolf was unflappable through the procedure. It wasn’t that he was difficult to impress. Freya’s capabilities continued to impress him. But he was not a person given to astonishment. If he saw a thing done, then he accepted that it could be done. Once one accepted that something like magic was possible, seeing it performed in different capacities was less jarring. At any rate, the eye stopped detecting his heartbeat and exploded almost immediately. Its new host, a few thousand tons of rock floating in space, did not flinch, and neither did it expose any of the energy of the explosion to prying eyes.
The temporary solution to missing an eye was quite fitting; an eye patch. Ludolf suddenly looked even more piratical, truly the image of a brute with his brigand’s accoutrements, his powerful musculature and ample girth, and his many scars showing through course dark fur. It was also a new handicap though. He was unsure when he would find a replacement. Any new artificial eye would remind him of the old one and what had become a very dark time in his life. On the other hand, missing an eye robbed him of much of his depth perception, and that was not a handicap he was willing to inflict upon his new captain. So… soon. Eventually.
None of this played out on his face. His expression was about as hard and closed as it always was, and tinged with the mild pain and discomfort from part of one’s face being missing. That would pass before too long. His eyes though- his one remaining eye- glinted with relief, ease, and a sharper clarity that hadn’t been there before. Again, he largely kept these feelings to himself. Instead he endeavored to pay the price they had negotiated for this freedom.
“I wish I could tell you more,” he explained. “Robinson is smart. Very smart. It is actually one of the more frightening things about him, once you can see past the violence. That is one of the reasons I decided to join him. Alswell was a good captain, but I realized then- I decided then- that he was just no match for Robinson. I knew that partnership wouldn’t last, and Robinson would come out on top.” That was another story forgotten by most. Robinson and Alswell had worked closely together for many years before the wolf had turned on him.
“He keeps his plans close to his chest. My understanding is that he sees himself like a Genghis Kahn of the modern era. Or, some other warlord. You read about them in books, and you see that they follow a similar path; they go from being brutes to being warlords, to being leaders and monarchs. They fight and pillage and plunder, but eventually they start to see themselves as Kings and decide it’s easier to rule the realm and collect taxes.”
“His plan, as I knew it, was to unify Atalfa under his rule.” The bear shrugged, “it sounds crazy, getting all those pirates and criminals to agree to something like that. But the plan was already underway when he sent me along to collect the artifact. I was there for many of the negotiations.” Negotiations was probably too civilized a word. The act could be petty, chaotic, and aggressive, when two pirate captains were trying to gain over the other. “Creating a… a state, I guess you might call it if you were feeling charitable, is expensive. It would be difficult to come by that kind of money in a bank on Feila, let alone out here. That is why delivering the artifact is important. The payout from the fundamentalists is huge.”
“But taking Xeros… if Feila and Dmitri go to war, Atalfa will be pulled into the grinder with everything else. Robinson must know that.”
There was a notification sound from the communications console and he went over to attend to it. The message was a cryptic string of digits. “We’re coming up on the fundamentalists’ base. They’re asking if we need medical assistance.” He peered over at Sakura. She was awake now, had been through most of his story, but to say she looked troubled was an understatement. She was unresponsive, almost like she was in shock. The help she needed wouldn’t come from a doctor.
He brought the Inari’s remaining flight systems back online- they’d lost a few more of them over the past few hours- and brought them into the cavernous space of the hidden docking bay inside the asteroid. The huge bay doors, disguised as rock on the outside, closed behind them as before. From the outside the asteroid was just an asteroid again. Pilot lights guided the Inari not to a docking port as before, but to a smaller bay behind a pressurized door. Which was good, because he wasn’t getting any indicator lights from the ship’s airlock. He carefully nullified their velocity and the miniscule gravity of the asteroid brought the ship down to settle lightly on the floor of the chamber, and there was an indistinct “woosh” as the area around them was pressurized.
Across the small chamber a door opened. Three powered armors waited there, apparently the same three from before.
“I’ve never seen them violent before. If they let us in here, we should be fine,” Ludolf explain to Freya and Sakura. Freya was listening. Sakura was not. Ludolf frowned his very Ludolf-like frown, though it was missing a subtle pain and anger it had held before. “Captain,” he prompted, the tiniest hint of worry in his voice, and then glanced between the two dragons with his one eye. His captain remained unresponsive. He stepped over, sat beside Sakura and gave her shoulder what felt to him a relatively gentle shake, but was more like a vigorous jostle, “captain, the things you feel for this ship, the things it means to you, they are not gone. Those things cannot be damaged by torpedoes. You should be proud in your work and proud in your ship.” He put a hand on one of the bulkheads, “she’s seen us through the worst. She’s taken killing blows for us and kept on going.”
“All that you put into this ship, you can put into it again. I can help you. Together we can find a way through this mess. We can find a way to stop Robinson, and keep him from carrying out his threats. We have our freedom in this moment! It is ours to take and hold on to!” He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, “you showed me that, during my time here. I’d like to stay on with you when this is all over. That is, if you’ll have me, captain.”
The actual process of getting rid of Ludolf's artificial eye was surprisingly quick. She made the briefest contact with the bear which was accompanied by the slightest warming spreading through him as she assessed just how entangled the eye was with him, and how much she felt she could safely teleport away. Once the decision was made, she didn't even bother to wave a hand. There was the briefest tingling in the area surrounding the eye, and it was gone. "When you decide to get something to replace that, you should visit Lenares. She has had some interesting success combining magic and technology." She commented before conversation turned to Robinson's plans.
Freya gave a brief look of disgust when Ludolf mentioned that Robinson likened himself to Genghis Kahn. While she couldn't dispute the ancient warlord's effectiveness, though she felt there were much less brutal means to accomplish such ends. "If he's not waiting for his payout, perhaps it wasn't as important to his plans as he let on." She mused. "Perhaps he wants a war...has a force hidden that he can spring on Feila, and Dmitri after they've exhausted themselves fighting each other." She continued, occasionally biting her lower lip as she thought. "Then again, that may be a bit blunt. Do you know who else he's had contact with besides the local pirates, the fundamentalists, and Sakura's father? Perhaps this is all a ploy to lure someone, or something else out into the open." She found herself wishing she had more information to go off, or better yet, the wolf in front of her that she could just rummage through his mind for what she wanted. "I suppose we'll have to see this through a little further, and hope we figure it out before it's too late." She eventually grumbled.
She watched as Ludolf guided them into the fundamentalists hidden base, and into a smaller docking bay. She saw the powered armors waiting for them, and barely acknowledged the bear's comment as to the fundamentalists disposition before she stepped out into the bay, not waiting for any doors to be opened. She seemed to have a rather cavalier attitude when it came to her own safety, or perhaps she just didn't feel there was anything in the vicinity that was capable of harming her.
She made her way over to the fundamentalists. "So, you're the ones seeking to return to Consensus and Dissent." She commented as she approached. "I have something you want, and you, hopefully, have information that I would like to have...primarily to sate some curiosity."
Sakura had regained consciousness during Ludolf's story, but was indeed in a state of shock. That moment looping through her mind, the blast, the sounds and smells of all that energy ripping through her ship, crippling it, destroying so much that she had worked for.
She winced ever so slightly when Ludolf jostled her, breaking the cycle long enough for his words to pass through to her. Her eyes came back into focus a bit, and she turned to face Ludolf as she again thought about what her ship had meant to her and how it had been all but destroyed. Ludolf squeezed her shoulder, and that triggered the release. She wrapped her arms around Ludolf, buried her face in his shoulder and cried. Ludolf was right, they could repair Inari, but there in that place and in that moment if just felt like such a monumental and overwhelming task. "How, Where?" She mumbled quietly through the tears.
After a short time, Sakura pulled herself together a bit. She snuffled a moment, and wiped at her eyes. "You...want to stay with me?" She asked, almost as if she didn't believe it was possible that he'd expressed that sentiment. "Of course I would have you stay if that's what you want, but what about Robinson?" She asked, her wit was returning, if a bit slowly for the moment. She had yet to realize that they were in the fundamentalists' base
“We wish to rejoin our Creators so that their light will shine on our lives once more, yes,” the centermost armor confirmed in its high-pitched voice. When Freya said she wanted information, the armor’s torso swiveled to its companions to either side, each in turn. They seemed to be conversing in private.
After a few moments of this silence the rightmost armor spoke. “You are the dragon Freya, are you not? According to our scripture, you were in league with the Demon three centuries ago. You would have known him as Etienne then, before he became the Immortal's Club. How can we be sure you do not still aid him? After all, he continues to aid you, erasing evidence of your activity from electronic records.”
“You are not the first person we would choose to divulge any information to,” the centermost armor clarified, “and we already have an arrangement with Sakura.”
“I worry that Sakura is not here with you now,” the leftmost armor spoke. The concern in its voice turned into something just shy of overt threat, tempered as it was by reluctance to commit violence, “If any harm has come to her, we may repay that harm to its perpetrator.” The three armors were facing Freya squarely now.
The fundamentalists were fundamentally non-violent beings under normal circumstances, which made it easy to overlook that their powered armors were formidable machines. They might not have magic on their side, but their machines, as cobbled-together and tinkered as they appeared, could crush bone and snap limbs like twigs. Someone who might well be a major threat to them had just strolled into their grasp. Even for them, the temptation to eliminate such a threat was strong. Their concern for the younger dragon’s safety only made this more acute.
Ludolf was taken momentarily aback by the embrace, unsure about the propriety of such close personal contact. It wasn’t something he’d had a lot of in the past, considering his profession and the ferocity of his previous captain. The sad truth was that some pirates became more acquainted with a warm body as something standing in the way to be cut down. But his hesitation did not last long. He put an arm around her, and then the other. The bear had an expansive, steady, warm embrace; something wasted in his previous line of work. He pulled her close, stroked the back of her head as she cried into his shoulder. His eye peered off toward a distant future.
“I don’t know how and where,” he replied truthfully, his voice a deep, calm rumble. “No, I do know how; using your smarts. As for where, that we’ll sort out as we go.” He rocked her back and forth for a moment, rubbed her back as she seemed to be pulling herself together, and gave both her shoulders a reassuring squeeze as she pulled away.
He nodded when she asked if he wanted to stay. “You’re a good person, Sakura. It has been so long since I’ve known such a thing… I couldn’t even see it at first.” Then she asked the difficult question. He turned a little so that they were sitting side by side, gazing at the opposite bulkhead across the cockpit.
“Robinson is only a man, captain,” he murmured.
Another silent minute passed. The bear glanced askance at her for a moment before casting his eye skyward- that is to say, at the bulkhead over their heads- and tried putting a little levity in his voice. “Oh, sure, he’s a living legend, with a whole fleet at his back, and thirty years of planning behind him, preparing to sink his bloody claws into a whole planet. He’s thinking on a scale the rest of us can barely fathom.”
He looked back to her, “he’s weighed down, Sakura. All of that is a burden he has to carry wherever he goes, whatever he does. It boxes him in on all sides.”
“Look at what we have; almost nothing. We can set whatever course we see fit, and if the course is bad, we can make an about-face on a whim. We are flexible. We have our wits, and I think we have your mother as well, at least for now. We can out-maneuver that wolf, picking at him at every turn.”
“You see, captain? We have the advantage after all.”
He gave her shoulder a last reassuring squeeze before heaving to his feet, “now, we have to keep moving.” He indicated the viewport with his gaze, and the interior of the fundamentalists base visible through it. “We need to meet the fundamentalists before your mother gets into trouble. But first, I think you should put your clothes on.”
She smiled when that asked if she was the dragon Freya. "I am indeed." She replied in pleasant tones. She frowned a bit when they mentioned her being in league with a demon. The look in her eyes went from thoughtful to sad when they mentioned Etienne. "I was in league with Etienne." She put very specific emphasis on the name. "What he became was not the Etienne I Knew, or perhaps I never really knew him as well as I thought I did. Maybe I blinded myself to warning signs out of love." She gave a heavy sigh. "As it is though, I am not currently aiding him, at least not to my knowledge, and I do not know why he erases evidence of my activities."
Her smile returned before she spoke again. "Ah well, to secure the item you desire, she had to make an arrangement with me. I remember Consensus and Dissent. I remember when they tried to wipe out every sentient being that didn't join them, and naturally with that in mind, you aren't the only ones with concerns."
She chuckled softly when they voiced their concern over Sakura's absence. "While I appreciate your concern for my daughter's safety, no harm will come to her by my hand. Sakura is here, she just needed a few minutes before getting off the ship. Our approach was a little harrowing as evidenced by the large hole in the side of her ship." She paused for a moment as if calculating something in her head. "She and her companion should be out momentarily.
Sakura found herself a little surprise at how comforting it was when Ludolf returned her embrace; a small part of her thought he may have missed his calling. The confidence in her that he projected went a long way in helping her pull herself together, and as he gripped her shoulders, she gave him the most tenuous smile. "Thank you." She said softly, though she didn't elaborate further.
Ludolf's reply to her question about Robinson, and the levity he put into it even went as far as to draw a slight chuckle out of her. As Ludolf continued to elaborate, some of her determination returned and she nodded. Ludolf was right, if they played their cards carefully, they could probably unbalance the old wolf, and hopefully make him topple. "Right, and we need to do something about those plans." She agreed as Ludolf got to his feet.
"yes, the fundamentalists." She nodded as she got to her feet, remembering all the questions she had about them, and what they planned. Ludolf pointed out her current attire, and she looked down at herself before giving a half startled gasp as she remembered that she had rushed back into the cockpit without putting her flight suit back on when the alarms had started going off. "Oh, yes. I should." She replied, her scales darkening a shade as she spoke. She went to her console to override the emergency seal, and open the door leading back into the cargo bay.
"Left my flight suit in the cargo bay." She explained quietly before she headed back into the cargo bay. When she made it to the cargo bay, the scene of utter chaos that greeted her made her legs go weak on her. She nearly collapsed and started crying again as stark reality slapped her in the face. She took in a deep breath, choking back her tears as she steeled herself and continued further into the cargo bay. She had no idea where the suit she'd left there went, and didn't want to waste too much time looking for it, so she made her way to her quarters instead. Her quarters had thankfully been spared, and she pulled out a new flight suit before pulling it on and zipping it up.
She made her way back over to Ludolf, then leading the way to the airlock. She took another deep shuddering breath, working hard to barely hold herself together, before nodding to him. "Ready. Let's go meet them." She said to the bear before she opened the airlock doors so they could step out of the ship and make their way over to the fundamentalists.
"And here they come." Freya announced as a door on the ship opened to reveal Sakura and Ludolf.
"I'm sorry for keeping you waiting." Sakura said as they approached. "We triggered an automated defense system on our way back into the belt." She explained. "We took a hit, and I had to make some overrides before we could get out." She told them, not wanting to admit to her fragile state of mind, and hoping they didn't pry too far. "She has the artifact you wished to procure." She continued, motioning to Freya.
Freya, for her part, smiled and nodded her head. She held out an empty palm as if she were some cheesy twentieth-century illusionist before clapping her other hand on top of it. When she pulled the top hand away, the very broken magicapacitor appeared in her hand. The artifact tinkled lightly as some of the shard of glass that were stored inside shifted as she swept the hand holding it toward the fundamentalists.
"Delivered as requested." Sakura commented before settling into waiting for the fundamentalists' reactions and further actions.
Inside her mech, passed down through her family from the very beginning, she seethed. It was an anger born more from frustration at her own uncertainty than any perceived callousness on Freya’s part. The unfortunate but necessary truth was that not all of the scriptures’ contents were public knowledge among their kind. Some of the oldest artifacts told a story so dark and disturbing, so contrary to everything their ancestors had experienced under their Creators’ care, so repugnant to their kind’s beliefs, that it had to be kept secret. Prevailing opinion among their elder scholars was that their interpretation must be flawed or incomplete; their Creators would never do such things, and in their ignorance they were just misinterpreting their Gods’ will and actions. Her faith was as strong as the next person’s, but all the while they pursued this quest the uncertainty gnawed at her. What if they were mistaken? What would that mean?
She shook those thoughts out of her head, put her hands back on the mech’s controls. She resolved to have a conversation with Freya in private, at some point. Assuming Freya would tell the truth, the ancient dragon represented a unique opportunity to gain a first-hand account of the time before their creation. First, though, she had to keep this meeting from devolving any further.
“Enough!” the powered armor in the center spoke, its shrill voice cutting through what had become a cacophony of meaningless anger. “She has not seen our scriptures, she cannot know what is right or wrong to say,” it temporized. “It is not our place, and it is not our right, to judge outsiders by a standard unknown to them, nor to press our own beliefs on them! Our Creators are not their creators!”
At length they all simmered down. Hearing that Sakura was fine and would be joining them soon helped. Conversation had ground to a halt though, and mostly they just stood in awkward silence.
Sakura’s arrival eased tensions further. The three armors expressed relief that she was safe. “Sending someone into harms way at one's own behalf is a hard thing to do,” the leftmost armor commented. “If that person is injured or killed… living with the guilt isn’t easy. I have enough of that already. I’m glad you’re safe.” The other armors agreed.
And then the crumpled magicapacitor made its appearance, with a flourish of Freya’s hands. An altogether more reverent stunned silence settled over the fundamentalists. That reverence was almost visible in their armor’s unmoving helmets. The armor to the right reached a gauntleted hand toward it, only to draw back at the last moment. For what seemed like a long time, none of them said anything, and none of them could bring themselves to touch the Artifact.
“So, very, long,” the armor in the center managed to say, after some time. Its helmet swiveled its cameras to face Sakura and Freya, and then back to the artifact. Gingerly the armor picked it up in its mechanical hands and just cradled it. “For eleven generations we have sought after this. Nearly half of our history…”
Ludolf, standing behind his new captain, worked through the math in his head. “That would make for very short generation,” he murmured. It would be about 9 years long. Feilan’s reckoned a generation to be about 25 years long. Given that most races had a natural, un-augmented lifespan of 70-80 years or so, if the same ratio held with the fundamentalists, they might only live into their mid-to-late 20’s.
The fundamentalists weren’t paying attention to the bear. They were knee deep in what was clearly a religious experience for them. The rightmost armor was holding the crumpled magicapacitor now, “they put their hands on this themselves. The creators touched this very thing. They studied it and learned from it, and they uncovered the Secrets from it.” One could hear the tears in its voice, even through the digital compression of the armor’s speaker.
“We must do the same,” the leftmost armor murmured in its kind’s characteristically high-pitched voice. “I hope…” but it stopped.
“Our Creators uncovered the Secrets with the Demon’s help,” the centermost armor put words to their fear. They would not have that resource. They would have to figure it out themselves. “We have our own advantages though. We have the other relics. We have so many pieces of the puzzle already completed. Back in the beginning, they had to start from nothing.”
“The Creators are testing us; they mean for us to follow, they want to see us succeed. They would not have made the task impossible.”
Mention of the Demon brought the armor’s attention back to their visitors. “You may ask your questions, Freya. We will tell you what we can, if it is safe for us to do so, but in the end it may be you who have more answers for us.” Its armored head swiveled to Sakura, “we will inform Robinson of your success and current situation. Perhaps he can send a ship to retrieve you.”
She was happy thought that the center armor seemed to have kept their head enough to bring her companions back into a somewhat calmed state. The fact that Sakura was fine and would be joining them thankfully helped as well.
Sakura gave a weak smile as the armors expressed their relief in her safety. "Heh...thank you." She replied softly. "Safe is a relative term in this situation...Inari still has a big gaping hole in her side." She explained.
She was again somewhat awed by the fact that Freya seemingly produced the artifact from nothing but the air around her. She held a silence of her own while the armors inspected the artifact, though it was out of respect for them more than any reverence for the object itself.
"Wow." Sakura replied to Ludolf as he mentioned what he thought the expected lifespans of the fundamentalists was. "I hadn't done the math, and I know they had said their lives were short, but damn." She commented to him quietly, and wondered again just was kind of creature was occupying those armors.
Freya was more concerned with the fact that the beings occupying these armors hoped to glean some sort of secrets from the destroyed ancient device than she was with the length of their lives. Another concern was that the magicapacitor was only a piece of the puzzle to them, but what was the puzzle; the device was originally built to power a magical drive system for an airship.
She frowned in thought for a moment when it was mentioned that she could ask her questions now. "Well, you probably won't have the answers to a couple of them, but I won't know if I don't ask." She stated "and I may have answers for you, but you may not like them." She continued before she started asking her questions. "Where are Consensus and Dissent? What do they plan? What do you hope to learn from this artifact? What is this puzzle that you're trying to piece together?"
Sakura nodded when they mentioned that they would inform Robinson of their success, though her eye widened and she shook her head quickly when they proposed having him send a ship for them. "No..No...I will not leave Inari here." She replied though her heart sank as she tried to finish her thought. "I...I'll figure out some way to get her out of here and...somewhere I can repair her." She replied before taking a deep breath, and leaning lightly into Ludolf. She still wanted to see what the fundamentalists were working on, but figured she would wait patiently for her mother's questions to be answered. She was still wrestling to come to grips with the revelation that she technically had a biological mother that was alive on top of the near destruction of her ship.
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