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The wolf’s face became a tapestry of emotion. He drew sharply aback from the dragoness, his mouth open, eyes wide with surprise. He looked through her, his gaze drifted to infinity, his hackles rose, and his pupils contracted. His ears twitched in response to what only he could hear- even now. He looked, in that moment, so very transfixed, so very powerless, and so profoundly, viscerally, afraid. But it soon passed. Robinsons snarled, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head vigorously. When he looked up, one could see in his face his mind racing in search of some offhand retort, some way to brush off what Freya had said and what followed. But none came, so with a grimace-turned-sneer by his mangled snout he just turned away.
The fundamentalists, for their part, were politely ignoring his strange behavior, which strongly suggested it wasn’t new to them. In fact, they had seen the wolf have various fits many times in the past, but as far as they were concerned, this had “always” been the case. Robinson was nearly four times the age of the oldest fundamentalist to ever live. And they were not unfamiliar with their own age-related infirmities. It seemed natural that a person nearing the end of his or her natural lifespan would begin to suffer in various ways.
"Goodbye Robinson. I'm sure we'll see each other again soon."
The wolf didn’t look back. He paused, and shuddered, and stalked onward. He resolved the privacy of his thoughts to kill that dragoness some day. As he reached his captain’s yacht, his thoughts turned to her daughter…
Oh, how deliciously ugly that would be.
As they were nearing the end of their journey, Freya commented on Tamaya’s success in convincing its leaders to trust her. “It was not easy,” the fundamentalist replied absentmindedly, engrossed in the strangeness on the pages before it. “Our leaders are risk-averse, given the stakes involved. Any lapse in security could bring the Demon down on us again. In the end I think it was Robinson’s support that finally tipped the balance. He is close to our leadership.” It turned to a new page and murmured, “some would say too close...”
The little rodent looked up at Freya, “I worry, sometimes, about our leaders. I fear they have fallen into the same trap I narrowly escaped with your help; the trap of believing that the end justifies the means, no matter what sacrifices it demands. I hope I am wrong about that.”
They spent the rest of the journey finishing their investigation of the tome. It would have been very clear to Freya that the things it described would always be just slightly beyond the fundamentalists’ reach, on their own. They were so disconnected from magic, and seemed destined to only ever understand it on a vague, hypothetical level.
“We approach our destination,” Tamaya announced, “and we may now permit you to take in the view from the airlock.”
The view in question was the Starship, looking much as it had in the strange illusory recording they had viewed at the asteroid base, floating amidst the dense mist of the cloud belt like a shard of obsidian, intricately engraved. The scale of the ship became more apparent as they approached. It was very large, easily larger than any Feilan dreadnought, though smaller than a Club Bouncer and soundly dwarfed by the rotating cylinder of Plan B.
The fundamentalists had affixed external engine pods spaced evenly around its circumference so they could move it if necessary. The small islands of conventional Feilan technology contrasted sharply with the ship’s construction. The ship was surrounded by a relative void of aetheric power. The background magic of the universe was drawn toward it like matter falling into a gravity field. This was a normal property of wardstone and its derivatives, though most constructs were small enough to make it unnoticeable.
The fundamentalist cruiser sidled up alongside the angular front section of the starship and reached a docking tube across the gap. The airlock opened to allow Freya and the other passengers to cross toward what looked like solid wardstone, but through which they could step as if it wasn’t there.
The interior was clearly not designed with bipedal people in mind. It was like an enormous rat warren of gaping tunnels reaching out in every direction. The exterior hull was angular, but these interior tunnels had an organic quality to them as they twisted and turned and came together in vast cavernous spaces. The fundamentalists had installed Feilan style artificial gravity magnets along with walkways and floors, elevators, stairs, catwalks, and motorized trams to facilitate moving throughout the ship. They had filled the cavernous spaces with condensed versions of the architecture of Plan B, though the buildings were almost completely unoccupied at the moment. The white polymers, bright metals and colorful fabrics of fundamentalist construction provided another example of stark contrast between their technology and that of their creators. The tunnel surfaces native to the ship seemed to be coated with something as mundane as compacted dirt, and they were grown over by webs and mats of mold and lichen glowing dimly with phosphorescence. That glow slowly pulsed and rippled and propagated in complex organic patterns along the corridors, periodically bathing the visitors with dim green and blue light.
“It is edible,” that was Ika, who had rejoined them from the bridge of the fundamentalist cruiser. “The Creators used it as food. It is also a computer network, carrying instructions and information throughout the starship. They could interface with it using their tongues. We have to make do with computer interface adapters.”
They boarded a tram that was just barely large enough for the dragoness to squeeze into and departed for the engineering sections and the FTL drive core…
Perhaps the best way to describe the appearance of the machine- if it could be called a machine- was that it looked like a black, 4-dimensional, skeletal octopus. Like a hypercube, but if the cube was a gigantic octopus made of metallic vertebrae. Its fractal limbs reached hundreds of feet in all directions to the walls of a room shaped like the inside of a pumpkin. They twisted and turned along the floor and ceiling and curved into themselves. For all the device’s strangeness, its center was very clearly derived from some form of magicapacitor of hideous complexity, or several magicapacitors likewise twisted into themselves. Visually it was strange and alien and hurt the eyes to look at; but it was the imprint of magic that gave it away.
And it was clearly inert. No magic flowed through it now.
Parts of the room and the FTL drive core were scorched as from an explosion. The fundamentalists had affected repairs to the tentacles, but their boxy computers and feilan-style machines looked utterly out of place. “We are fairly certain our repairs are effective,” Ika assuaged, “however incongruous they may appear. It is the core of the device whose mode of operation eludes us. After all these years, we still have hardly any idea where even to begin.”
Tamaya clutched the ancient tome in its tiny arms, peering up at Freya with its beady eyes. “Any ideas?”
Work on the new drive for the Avarice proceeded smoothly. Ludolf was pleased to be working with his hands again. It was an almost Zenlike comfort, working with one’s hands. Before too long they had built something vaguely similar to the Inari’s drive. Just rather larger. It would be a tight squeeze, but they had planned meticulously, and it would definitely just barely fit inside the smaller ship’s cargo bay.
Standing and admiring their work, wiping the sweat from his brow, Ludolf was probably the only person present to not feel the powerful aura wash over them. It would have been familiar to Sakura, and probably deeply concerning. Ironically it would feel less familiar to Lenares- so much time had passed, and its owner had become so… cold. So distant.
An alarm tolled; sensors had finally detected the arrival of a Club Dancer, a club vessel about the size of a Feilan cruiser but serving the purpose of a destroyer or interdictor. The Club’s spatial impellers were a very stealthy mode of propulsion. It had approached undetected. It was practically right on top of them; it had moved to take station above the canyon and the many weapons hidden there.
Ludolf couldn’t feel the aura, but he could certainly feel the tension ratchet up in his companions. A paw moved to the weapon on his hip. An ear twitched- he could definitely feel THAT- and in a heartbeat he had drawn the weapon and whirled around to face- an apparition. Ethereal forces corralled swirls of dust into the air and formed them into a feilan form, a canine, average height, lean build. He recognized it from the fundamentalist’s recordings: The Demon. Etienne.
The apparition took a step toward them. The bear moved to keep his pistol trained on it, for all the good shooting a cloud of dust was likely to do. He spared a glance to Sakura and Lenares, trying to keep them in sight as well. The apparition took another silent step forward. “What’re your intentions,” the bear growled warning.
Etienne paused. Eyes of grey dust peered at the bear, shifted to Sakura, then on to Lenares. For an agonizing moment, he seemed not even to recognize her- his own daughter. When recognition came, it seemed so very dim, so abstract. “Ma petite chèrie,” he said, but the term of endearment lacked feeling. Even accounting for the ethereal sound of the psionically transmitted voice, it sounded hollow.
“Your mother was here not long ago. Why?”
Freya frowned at the idea that it had been Robinson to push the decision in favor of contacting her. She knew the wolf had ulterior motives and the idea that his opinion held such sway frustrated her. "I would do my best to protect you should that happen in my presence" She commented when bringing the Demon down on them was mentioned. As Tamaya mentioned their leadership's closeness to Robinson, Freya nodded. "I'm sorry, but that may be true." She shrugged. "But, I know my opinion isn't likely to hold much weight, all things considered"
She nodded at them mention of the trap of believing that the ends justify the means. "It is an easy trap to fall into, but one can pull themselves from that trap. I've fallen into and pulled myself from that trap before, and I hope you are wrong about it as well."
Freya couldn't help a small pang of pity for the fundamentalists as she realized that they would likely never understand the magic that was so central to the 'technology' of Consensus and Dissent. She was brought from those thoughts though as it was announced that they neared their destination and she could look at the ship as they approached.
It was interesting and a little jarring to see the differences between the ship, and the parts added by the fundamentalists. None of that was near as intriguing as the the way that the aether around the ship was affected. She briefly wondered to herself how the Demon had not found the ship with the way it distorted the aether around it.
Freya was fascinated as they lined up next to the wardstone ship, and eventually crossed into it. The inside of the ship was enough to make her shake her head a bit as she tried to make sense of the twisted tunnel system that made up the interior of the ship. She was a creature of the air, and tunnels were not her strong suit. She quickly abandoned that track as she was again a little jarred by the differences between Consensus and Dissent's construction compared to that of the fundamentalists. And then, there was the glowing mold and lichen.
Freya watched the way it pulsed and rippled, nodding as she was told that it was edible. Being told that it also served as a computer network elicited a frown though. "I wonder..." She muttered before reaching out to touch some of the glowing organics. As she made contact, she reached out with her telepathy, wondering if it would allow her to interface with that computer network. She was quickly pulled away though as she was led onto a tram that had her feeling just a little claustrophobic and they headed toward the drive core.
The core was very much reminiscent of the constructs she was accustomed to seeing from Consensus and Dissent, though less spiky. She tilted her head as she stared at the construct, and tried to mentally dissect it's construction. "Well, there's definitely magic involved." She said quietly as she continued to look at the device. "I'm wondering if I may be able to find some sort of manual stored in the computer system." she thought aloud as she continued to stare at the core. "It's definitely far more complex than the device it was derived from." She approached the core itself and reached out to touch it, again she reached out with her telepathic abilities, though she was very careful and ready to pull away in case something attempted to create a full link.
Sakura wore a wide grin as they managed to fit the new drive core for the Avarice into Inari's cargo bay. "Ha Ha, we did it." she exclaimed as they took a moment to admire their work.
Sakura's grin disappeared in an instant though as a familiar aura washed over them. She became very tense in those moments, and a certain glimmer of dread crept into her eyes.
Lenares tilted her head at Sakura's sudden change in attitude. She didn't recognize the aura the way Sakura did. She didn't even recognize it at all at first. She was far more concerned with the alarms that had suddenly started blaring. She moved over to a console and pulled up a visual of the Club Dancer that had as much as dropped into her little corner of space. She frowned, and was about to set the defenses to work when Ludolf drew his weapon.
She turned and faced the apparition as Ludolf addressed it. She closed her eyes tight for a moment as recognition finally set in. "Papa..." She said in a voice barely above a whisper. There was a certain amount of disbelief in her voice as she said it. She took a half step forward, and raised her hand toward the apparition. Tears began to form in her eyes as the moments stretched out without any recognition from the apparition, her father. When recognition came though, it was everything she had been dreading: Cold, emotionless, and lacking any of the love one would expect in a father's term of endearment for his daughter. She closed her eyes again, and the tears fell as the apparition asked about her mother, and the true reason for the visit was revealed. at that moment, she wished to herself that her father had just died of old age rather than turn himself into this unfeeling creature. That he had left her with happy memories rather than continuing to tear wounds in her heart with reminders that even though he was still alive, he was no longer her loving father. "I'm not her keeper." She forced out through her tears "She came with Sakura, she's helping her deal with some personal issues." She finished as she turned her back on the thing that had once been her father.
Sakura watched the interaction between the Demon and Lenares, and felt a painful mixture of guilt and sympathy. She was reminded that her own father had cared enough to make deals with Robinson in an attempt to find her. She wanted to offer Lenares comfort, but couldn't let her guard down as long as the Demon was there.
An echo of Consensus existed in all that noise, countless tiny feral thoughts bouncing back and forth throughout the network as sound in an echo chamber, persisting across the centuries.
The core had a bizarre physical feel. It was the aetheric equivalent of metal feeling cool to touch because of its thermal conductivity. The core had extreme aetheric conductivity. Magic, left to its own devices, flowed freely and rapidly into it. The odd difference was that the magic did not build up in the core as it would have in the original magicapacitor. The trickle of magic flowed into the core, fell into an infinitely small point, and then re-emerged as… something else. Not-magic. Something aetheric but alien. This not-magic flowed out of the core- it seemed utterly unaffected by its usual properties- and out through the limbs of the machine, into the rest of the starship. The dragoness would be able to feel these flows, feel the presence of the core’s limbs snaking out and out, reaching through the bulk surrounding the habitable tunnels, bifurcating again and again to touch millions of points along the Starship’s hull.
The hull, meanwhile, attracted magic as wardstone always did, and conducted it into the interior of the ship, where it was carried by the organic network on the tunnel walls back toward the core.
This wasn’t just the core of the starship’s FTL drive, it was the core of the starship’s computer network as well. All those slow ripples of light converged on it, picking up speed, disparate waves interfering constructively and accelerating into the core where the ceiling and floor arched inward to cradle it.
There were points of turbulence scattered throughout this network of magic and not-magic conduits. Knots in the flow of power and computation. Some were obvious and nearby: the fundamentalists’ own repairs. The feilan technology did indeed bridge the gaps where the construct’s arms were broken, but they were inefficient and operated significantly slower than the native wardstone construction. The flows, waves, and crests were delayed at each point of repair. The starship was like a brain whose separate nerves were all out of sync with each other, trapped in an endless fugue state of overlapping, out-of-order thoughts.
“Personal issues… taking her a hundred million kilometers away from here?” The Etienne apparition turned its dusty grey eyes on Sakura. “I have developed the means to detect Freya’s position when she initiates a teleport. I can locate her point of origin within 3D space, and I can locate her point of destination. Her point of origin was here. Her destination was an arbitrary point in the Danaebe Cloud Belt, where there is no record of any celestial body or object of note.”
“Tell me, Sakura; when my ships reach her point of destination, what will I find there?”
Ludolf’s face tightened as he watched the interaction play out. He had little experience with familial relationships. He was a pirate. But Lenares’ pain was obvious. If this Demon really was her father, he should have been able to see it.
And, in fact, he could. Etienne hadn’t expected an immediate, useful answer from Sakura, and he hadn’t received one, so his attention shifted back to his daughter.
The voice did not soften. “Lenares. I told you many years ago that your biological life has no future. I warned you, and your mother, that an end was coming. Your only salvation, then as now, was to follow in my footsteps and leave this life behind. I begged both of you to come with me. But no matter what I said, I could not convince either of you to save yourselves, to follow the path I have left for you.”
“Instead I see you here, living a life whose end is not far,” he continued, speaking to the back of her head. “Whenever I turn my gaze on you, I see you dying before my eyes. I have mourned your passing, as I have mourned your mother’s, for centuries of subjective time. I have lived lifetimes in agony. But there was- and is- still so much to be done. I cannot go on that way forever, consumed by that pain until the end finally reaches the solar system, and so I allow you to live with your choice, and I do not allow myself to be injured by it further.”
“I have found that I possess this power, to choose to allow you to choose to die. I cannot say the same for your mother. A universe without her living in it is a universe without purpose or meaning. I may not be able to prevent her suicide, but I can at least postpone it until your own. And that is why you need to cooperate with me. I know that you care for her as well.”
“I think I will find your mother doing what she has always done; sticking her snout where it does not belong. Trying to save those who cannot be saved, be they feilan, or angel, or demon.”
“But this is not just another mission of mercy, or humanitarian intervention, or act of good will and compassion. The end is coming, and it sings to us all now. If your mother gets in trouble, if she realizes what is happening, if she stands in its way as I know she would choose to do, I may not have the power to save her.”
While the mending spell was being cast, she compartmentalized part of her mind as a safety measure. She used the portion she'd walled off to reach out again with her telepathy. This time she reached for a much more solid contact, something that she could use to hopefully guide the cacophony of feral voices into something that she could interact with, and hopefully glean some information from.
Sakura looked at the image of Etienne, and shrugged her shoulders. "It's not like she told us where she was going before she left. She just up and literally disappeared." she replied, knowing that it wasn't the answer the apparition was looking for, but it was pretty much all she had. "Could be any sort of uncharted body, perhaps a comet of some sort." She offered
Lenares whipped around to face her father again, she was hurt, and furious all at the same time. "You mourned me?!" She yelled. "I'm still alive. You couldn't wait till I was actually dead? You couldn't spend all that time you were mourning actually visiting? It's been centuries; centuries you could have spent with us instead of mourning us." By this point she was literally shaking as emotions ran through her, and tears still flowed down her cheeks. "Death is an intrinsic part of the universe papa, everything will end eventually. Why can't you accept that?" Her tones had become somewhat pleading. "This universe itself will eventually end. Why do you waste time mourning a death that hasn't even come to pass yet when you could be enjoying the company of those you mourn?" It was clear that Lenares had an outlook very similar to her mother's when it came to how a life should be lived.
She shook her head when Etienne mentioned that he couldn't allow Freya her choices in life. "You would change her against her will? You do that and she will no longer be what you seek to save, not truly." She gave the smallest smiles of satisfaction at her father's admission of ignorance as to Freya's activities. "You haven't kept as close of tabs on her as you would like to believe have you? She hasn't been idle since you decided that becoming THIS was more important than us. She went back to archaeology in earnest, she dug into the histories of the dragons found their ancient secrets." She paused a moment before she spoke again. "She survived for more than a millennium before she met you." She said as a reminder that Freya was quite capable of taking care of herself. She silently stared up at her father, all the pain, sadness, and anger plain to see in her eyes.
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