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[AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II
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Sirrobert





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PostPosted: Mon, 20. Nov 17, 00:32    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

BlackArchon wrote:
Zaitsev wrote:
*peeks out from his blanket fort, prod Scion with the pool noodle and retreat back into the fort again*
Please describe further what exactly both of you are doing in your blanket fort. Wink


Relevant XKCD


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Zaitsev





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PostPosted: Mon, 20. Nov 17, 01:39    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Sirrobert wrote:
BlackArchon wrote:
Zaitsev wrote:
*peeks out from his blanket fort, prod Scion with the pool noodle and retreat back into the fort again*
Please describe further what exactly both of you are doing in your blanket fort. Wink


Relevant XKCD


Rolling on the floor laughing Rolling on the floor laughing Rolling on the floor laughing

No, I'm perfectly alone in my blanket fort. I don't know if that helps with the mental images, though ...


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BlackArchon





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PostPosted: Mon, 20. Nov 17, 18:10    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Scion Drakhar wrote:
...
In any case, look for more in the next couple of weeks and feel free to pester me about it. When you guys show interest it keeps me thinking about the story. *shrug*

Cheers
Will Legion finally reveal to our Terran guest that he is in fact an AGI? Smile


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Triaxx2





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PostPosted: Tue, 21. Nov 17, 02:17    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Fair enough. Me, I'm never afraid to try new things no matter how old the save, even one that's been dragged across three computers now, but then again I'm slightly nuts and I also always make sure I can roll back.

Blanket fort? Please, everyone knows it's all about Snuggie forts now.


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Nathancros





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PostPosted: Tue, 21. Nov 17, 06:33    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Gotta be careful of blanket/cushion forts here in the land of oz!

likely to turn into your own personal home oven!


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Triaxx2





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PostPosted: Tue, 21. Nov 17, 07:04    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Thus the Snuggies, so the sleeve's act as chimney's. Very Happy


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Olterin



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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 20:27    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

.. I just hope the next chapter(s) won't break the forum again Razz


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 20:53    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Well... it's already over 35k words, which means I'm going to have to post it so that it bridges two pages. Smile


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 22:30    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Happy Thanksgiving and here's hoping we don't break the forum. (fingers crossed)

87. Hidden Things

Gin reached the shadowed alleyway, and the manhole it concealed, just before mid-morning. Her modus operandi had always been to just assume the local authorities were looking for her and act accordingly, and in this case even if they were not any Wakiya agents in the city certainly were. So she stuck to the shadows. She avoided public places and anywhere with cameras. This meant she had to forego all forms of transportation and make her way on foot from Soyinka's Skytop apartment to the slime ridden shadows of a defunct industrial district in Old City. It was a journey of eighteen kilometers to the southeast combined with a descent of nearly two kilometers into the black depths beneath the city. With her abilities this wasn't so much a deterrent as it was an inconvenience. It had taken her all night to make her way back to this alley, and that despite her taking shortcuts that normal people simply weren't capable of. It was a linear distance of only twenty kilometers but the journey required many twists, turns, descents, and a fair amount of doubling back underneath the space she'd traversed just a few meters above. Worse than the twists, turns and distance, though, was that the lower she descended into the city the more taxing the environment became, not so much physically as psychologically.

Drake once told her that when he'd first left Argon Prime he'd cut the engines and turned to look back at the world he'd just escaped from. Those were his exact words, 'escaped from'. He said that looking down at the world he finally understood what the word 'freedom' really meant. 'People try to tell you it's a state of mind, he'd said, 'but that's bull-shit. Freedom is being able to go where I want and do what I want when I want to do it. It means never being underneath someone else's feet or having to worry about being spit on by some jackass who hocks a loogie off the side of a skywalk without a thought about the people living underneath him. Freedom is freedom. It's not a frakkin' abstract. It means not having chains or checkpoints or having to show my goddamn id to get permission to go into the cleaner parts of town. It means not bein' forced to breathe air that's so thick with the stink of other people's piss and shit and halitosis that you want to scrub your insides out with soap and wash your mouth and nose with bleach..." She'd listened, of course, even if it was just to give him the space he needed to get some of the black angst he dealt with out of his head and heart. But being here in the dark below the city, smelling the filth in the air, and feeling the slick grime move beneath her feet... it was different, and that rage he walked around with made a lot more sense.

The undercity was despair. Seen from above the city was an endless palace. During the day it glittered and shone like a jewel as Sonra's rays lit up the brilliant white and silver skyways, and reflected off the kilometer high buildings that seemed to be made entirely of polished glass. At night it was a ocean of molten light. The buildings, the streets, and the skyways all glowed and throbbed with living light as countless vehicles moved in a great overlapping web, as billboards flickered and pulsed to attract and command attention, as streetlights illuminated walkways and skyways, parks and stadiums, theaters and amphitheaters, great and little squares, broad lanes and little alleyways where any and every distraction and delight could be found and enjoyed. It was R. Gunne City, the destination of countless roads and highways connecting not merely towns and cities but worlds. It was the seat of a galactic civilization that included two sentient races and, from the sky, it was magnificent.

Yet from below... the darkness was eternal. There was no natural light. Beneath the city the world itself was an endless darkness broken only here and there by pitiful pools of artificial illumination like tiny islands in a great and terrible sea. And the feeling of so much mass looming above her, heavy and pressing down, cutting off any and all sight of the sky above was the very definition of oppressive. The darkness and the weight very rapidly created a sense of desperate hopelessness. She could feel it growing in her mind every moment she spent beneath the mass of the city above. It lived in the very air and the shone like a fever in eyes of the few people she passed. It wasn't long before she discovered a strange form of panic growing within her; a deep and abiding psychological need to find the sky and feel the sun on her face.

So when she reached the alley it was with a great sense of relief. In a few moments she'd be back aboard her tiny vessel, with the means to escape the darkness at her fingertips. She stepped up to the manhole and took one final look around. Endless dark broken by pools of dirty yellow light, garbage rustling in strange and unnatural breezes, an ancient newspaper floated past the end of the alley. She sighed, weary at the very thought of a child growing up here. Then she turned back to the manhole. A moment later she dropped down onto the ladder and pulled the cover back into place above her.

It was a task that was never as easy as it looked in the movies, even with her body. Manipulating something that weighed over fifty kilos while perched ten meters in the air on a ladder that hadn't been maintained in decades required forethought and concentration. She managed to get it done, mostly, but the cover was ancient and had been paved around several times by road crews that hadn't exactly been determined to do the best job they were capable of. Which meant the asphalt crumbled and filled the hole just enough to prevent the thing from going perfectly back into place. She eventually decided to just leave it, mostly in place but with one side propped up by the imperfect paving. It was hard to imagine that it would matter but it still irked her.

She quickly descended the ladder and then navigated the short maintenance corridor leading to the hidden place where she'd concealed her stolen rapier. The city used drones for maintenance in these deep places. The drones navigated by LADAR and magnetic resonance imaging, which meant keeping the lights on for people was something of an absurdity. She didn't need them, of course. Her eyes were capable of detecting even the minimal levels of ambient radiation to be found in a place like this and, of course, she was capable of navigating by echolocation. She just thought it strange how much of this place that was so often called the City of Light was lost to the darkness.

She passed through another door and stepped out onto the concrete pier that flanked the aqueduct. She could hear the water flowing through the dark just several meters away from her. It gurgled and lapped at the stone banks of its artificial channel. She was in a great drainage pipe, one of many designed to accommodate hundreds of trillions of liters worth of rainfall the city dealt with every year. There were no lights down here but there was a faint glow from perhaps a kilometer ahead. It wasn't enough for a normal person to even see the hand in front of their face but with her enhanced optics Gin saw well enough to make out the high water marks left on the walls beside her by countless storms over the centuries, as well as the occasional bit of flotsam deposited on the pier at her feet. After a quick scan of her environment she set off toward the light in the distance.

The water flowing beside her stank. It was just rain and condensate. She knew it was just rain. It was illegal for businesses and factories to use the river to dispose of their waste and she'd specifically asked Legion to confirm that it was true when he suggested the aqueduct as a place to hide the ship. Yet it stank. It stank of rotting vegetation and decaying flesh. It stank of filth and garbage and there was a sour, angry stench that she thought of as 'despair'. It stank so bad that even the homeless avoided this place. Which meant, of course, that the rapier had been unlikely to be discovered by some random wanderer and since she hadn't received any notifications she assumed that it hadn't been.

After several hundred kilometers the tunnel curved and she could see the light in the distance. It was just a dim glow, the last of the light filtering through from where the river made its way out from under the city. In the space just before that bend she saw the ship, like a faintly luminescent shadow, looming in the dark ahead of her. Out in space the rapier was such an insignificant little vessel. Even beside a pocket carrier like the Necromancer it was just a tiny chip of light. But here in the tunnel, a place it didn't belong, where no rational person would expect it? She imagined that if she were some water and power worker or homeless person to see the thing's bulk looming in the darkness where one expected only water, and the sight of it could be very intimidating. It teased the imagination, that bulk, conjuring fantasies of dragons or sewer monsters from the depths of the imagination.

A moment later she was beside the thing. It rested on its landing struts in the meter deep water below. She'd managed to land it so that the concrete pier was just a single, easy step up from the hatch. As she approached the small, soft light of the door controls pulsed beside that hatch and a moment later she heard the quiet hiss of the doors retracting into the plane's hull. She quickly stepped down into the ship and, as soon as the hatch closed behind, the rapier's small hold was illuminated by muted full-spectrum lights.

"Thank you, Legion," she said.

"Of course, Commander," the ship replied, causing her to roll her eyes.

"Legion," she said, managing to keep most of the annoyance out of her voice, "we've had this discussion."

"We have," the ship allowed while she opened the pilot's locker, which was tucked between the exterior hatch and the hatch to the cockpit, "but I remain unconvinced of your reasoning. I also find it highly probable that Drake would insist on your continued membership in the Drakhar Enterprises command structure. So I have elected to maintain decorum despite the locale and your recent decisions."

"Well, I'd appreciate it if you didn't."

"I understand," he replied. "Commander."

She sighed. Legion had been experimenting with teasing lately. She had no idea if he was doing it for his own gratification or simply to study the reactions it elicited from people, or for some purpose she couldn't even begin to guess at. Either way it highlighted the fact that he wasn't done holding up his side of the argument and, in her experience, trying to win an argument with Legion was a little like trying to hold back the tide by hand. So she collected an MRE and a bottle of water from her dwindling supply of rations and then took a seat near the back of the small cargo hold, directly across from the hatch to the ship's tiny water closet.

She drank much of the water in the bottle with her first pull and then opened the MRE. One of the smaller containers within was a tiny cup with a bit of powder at the bottom. She removed the lid from the cup, set it down on a cargo crate beside her, and filled it three quarters of the way up with water from the bottle. Then she waited for the powder and water to undergo the chemical reaction that would turn it into a nutritionally fortified muffin. Another package contained some sort of vegetable goop that, once mixed with water, would become a kind of gravy once the muffin was done expanding. She had to wait because they used the same cup. Another little package contained a high-calorie protein bar that was a little easier to chew and tasted just a little better than a masonry brick. Still, it was food, and her body might be synthetic but it was made of mostly the same substances as the all-natural versions most people had and, also like the natural versions, required sustenance... and she hadn't eaten in nearly a day.

Just as the smell of the bread reached her nose she heard a groan from the man she'd left inside the closet. It was a weak, pitiful sound that most people would not have been able to detect even in the near-silence of the powered down ship. She sighed and waited for her muffin to finish expanding. She knew what she was going to face inside that hatch and wasn't quite ready to begin. So she removed the muffin from the cup and set it on a napkin. Then she mixed the gravy together and unwrapped the protein bar.

'How like a real girl you are,' she thought acidly. 'Yep,' she thought snidely back, 'I even need to pee.' That thought raised her eyes to the closed hatch and elicited a small groan. She did to pee. She also needed a shower. And neither of those activities would be possible until she sorted out the man that she'd started euphemistically thinking of as 'her travelling companion'.

"Are you alright, Gin?" Legion asked her, gratefully foregoing her rank.

"Aye," she lied, knowing that he knew it and knowing he wouldn't press. "Just tired," she said. 'Only it's the kind of tired that never goes away. It's there when I wake and there throughout the day and it waits like something hungry for when I finally lay me down to sleep. I'm tired, Legion, and I have been for so long that I don't even know what it feels like not to be anymore.'

"I understand," the ship told her... and she believed him... to an extent anyway. She doubted that Legion could experience despair. Which meant all of his understanding was limited to clinical definitions and cause and effect statements. Which, in turn, led her to wonder if all she was had been reduced to a few lines in the algorithm Legion used to explain reality to himself. Then she rolled her eyes and ate her pitiful dinner.

It actually wasn't bad. The muffin was light and flaky and the protein bar tasted like good old fashioned Argnu beef, if Argnu beef came as a brick anyway. The gravy actually went better on the protein bar than it did on the muffin, which didn't need it. A few minutes later she blinked and realized that she'd eaten every last morsel and was actually licking the crumbs off her fingers. She also realized that now that she had food in her belly she felt better and it worried her. She'd helped design her body. She understood the way it worked, or was supposed to work anyhow. Her body wasn't supposed to affect her mood any more than her mood should have affected her body... but they were. They seemed to be interacting more and more and it was noticeable. Which was worrying. She'd need a lab to determine the precise reason for it, whether it was a question of enzyme efficiency, a breakdown of the synthetic proteins forming the connection between her brain and the computerized control unit for her body's more obviously synthetic components, or, hopefully, just an error in the code itself.

Of course none of the tech had been designed to last this long. When she was first hired onto the Bloodstone project she'd been working with Doctor Sarah Marie Gabriel and the research team at Oxford University. At the time they were working on broadening the scope of cybernetics for the purpose of saving, enhancing and prolonging human life. It had been a dizzying moment in her life, a time when the future stretched out in front of her like the glory of a new dawn. Anything was possible and everything was bright. Then one day she'd been denied permission to create computer models for the purpose of predicting long term complications with the neural interface they'd developed. It was an essential step for any kind of medical procedure. Being forbidden to perform it hadn't made any sense. So she'd done it anyway on her personal terminals. Which is when the story...

'...crock of shit...'

... she'd been told about Bloodstone's purpose and stated objective began to unravel.

Gin thought of the little girl who'd once gone dragon hunting in the mists, the little girl who'd found injustice and villainy in the Bloodstone project and went at it like Sir Lancelot du Lac charging the copper knight. She thought of the incredible naïveté that allowed her to believe she'd be victorious simply because she was right and on the side of the just. It ended in fire and blood. The entire research team had been wiped out and she...

'But why me,' she wondered, not for the first time. 'Why turn me into this... monstrosity?'

There had been thirteen other doctors of one field or another working on the project, not too mention another several dozen support staff. They'd all been murdered. Yet she lingered on, the only one Erwyn and Giorno had had transformed into a weapon. She sighed heavily and tossed the MRE's packaging into the ship's waste disposal system, a device that was part incinerator, part molecular recycler, and part trash compactor. Then she turned to the water closet. With luck some of her answers lay beyond the hatch in front of her.

She reached out and palmed the door control. An instant later the tiny hatch split open to reveal a bathroom that was roughly the size of a coat closet. There was a drain in the deck and the sink, showerhead, and toilet all folded up into the bulkheads. At the bottom of this tiny space was a man. He lay on his belly with his face in one corner and his knees in the other. His hands and feet were bound together behind his back. Earlier she'd removed one of the ceiling panels and secured a length of high tensile climbing rope to the man's cuffs before throwing it over a smooth bit of the ship's frame. She'd then hauled much, but not all of the unfortunate bastard's weight off the deck. It gave him a minimal amount of control over his agony. By arching his back and pressing his belly against the deck he'd have been able to alleviate some of the stress on his shoulders, but it would have been a give-and-take which only substituted the stress on his shoulders for the muscular agony and stress on his lower back. She expected that the last twenty hours had been pure hell for him. It was a miserable thing to do to another human being and an act that would have horrified her parents, her friends, and all the people she'd once known... before being murdered. Considering that this particular son of a bitch had just recently participated in an attempt to hunt down and kill her and the first friends she'd made in nearly a decade, however, and Gin found it difficult to muster up much sympathy for him. She took another long long swallow from her water bottle and emptied it. Then she tossed the thing after the MRE packaging and activated the trash disposal. She levelled her gaze at her prisoner.

"'Captain Adam Davidson," she said, quoting the USC newsletter Legion had uncovered, "'a native of Sheridan, Wyoming, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in twenty nine thirty one with a degree in Economics and was designated a naval aviator in June of twenty nine thirty five. Joined the USC in twenty nine forty one… yada yada yada.'" She was standing over him by then. "Personally," she confided, "I like the bit about you being a proud member of the armed services community and a fine example for young officers to follow." She shoved him with the tip of her boot, making him slide across the deck at the end of the climbing rope. "Tell me," she said, "did you write that shite yourself? Or did you have one of your junior officers do it for you? A little assignment that 'wouldn't reflect at all on his'... or was it her... 'career'? We all know you have a fondness for the pretty young girls, don't you?"

He couldn't answer her, of course. The sock she'd balled up and taped into his mouth saw to that. But she saw him sag against his restraints. She also saw the dark purple bruising around his left shoulder. With a quick adjustment of her visual receptors she was able to look into the higher EM frequencies and see where the denser parts of his body obstructed the passage of ambient x-rays. She saw that his left humerus was no longer correctly fitted into his left glenoid cavity. In other words he'd dislocated his shoulder. She wrinkled her nose. He'd also urinated on himself, presumably right after injuring his shoulder.

"You weren't very nice to that one ensign, though, were you?" she asked. "What was her name? Jenson? Jenkins?" Davidson was shaking his head but she continued anyway. "Eh, doesn't matter right? Who needs to remember the throwaway people? I mean after you raped and discredited her who cares about a name?" He was shaking his head, trying to muster the strength to argue with her. "Did you know she killed herself?" Gin asked and watched him freeze. "You didn't, did you? I'm not surprised. It only happened last month, not that you were following her on social media or anything. Apparently she took all of her antidepressants at once and washed them down with a nice bottle of 'Ring-a-Ding' Ripple."

Davidson sagged again. She heard him whimper behind his gag. An instant later she had his sweaty, matted hair gripped between her fingers and ripped the blindfold off him. She twisted his head and forced him to look into her eyes. His own eyes were shocked and wide. Even when they thought they knew just how strong she was, people were always amazed to actually experience it. Drake had once told her that it was like being a little kid again. He was utterly powerless in her grip. Davidson was shocked and completely terrified. She could see herself reflected in the hazel brown depths of his eyes.

"Tell me her name," she whispered, then ripped the gag out of his mouth. The tape took a great swatch of his beard with it and he tried to scream. She shook him by the handful of hair she held. "Tell me her name, Davidson. If you get it right I'll let you out of the cuffs. You can clean up, take a proper piss. I'll even feed you."

"You don't know what you're..."

She squeezed, pulling some of his hair out at the roots.

Davidson gritted his teeth against a scream.

"I already don't like you, Adam," She snarled his first name into his face, stripping him of rank and authority, "you don't want to make it worse by lying to me."

"Her name was Becky," he whined. "Ensign Becky Jansen and I didn't..."

"Nooo!" Gin cut him off. "Of course not. She wanted it, right? She wanted to be held down and stripped by someone twice her size. She wanted to be filled up and thrown away like a used condom. She wanted to be dragged through the spotlight and lose her career because you got an itch in your pants that you just had to scratch!" She let him go and stepped back. She stared at him as he sagged against his cuffs, gasping and coughing, gagging and hawking and spitting as his mouth and throat remembered how to breathe again. After a moment she rolled her eyes at how low she'd sank. Then she reached up and, with one hand, snatched the D-carabiner off the frame and lowered him to the deck.

He had remembered the girl's name after all.

As the pressure came off his thighs and shoulders Davidson actually wailed with pain and relief. A moment later his arms and legs began to spasm. Then his right leg straightened all on it's own, pushing him around within the confined space of the shower stall, and he cried out with the pain of the cramp. Gin took her seat across from the hatch again, and waited. Davidson was a big guy. Authority came easily to him. When she'd first pulled him out of the cell on the Necromancer he'd been amused. He'd tried to bully and intimidate her. Then he tried to overpower her and make his escape. Then he realized who she was. He'd seen pictures, of course. He'd even memorized her description. It was one thing when it was facts in a file. It was quite another when the pretty young woman you'd just tried to take hostage picked you clean up off the floor and bounced you off the nearest bulkhead, though, wasn't it?

She felt her lips press together and realized she was suppressing a smirk. With the realization she sighed. It wasn't just her imagination. The buffer was breaking down. 'Shit,' she thought. 'Who the hell expects to get old as a frakking cyborg?'

At her feet Captain Adam Davidson was learning, the hard way, that he still had limbs. Blood and, with the blood, oxygen was flooding back into his extremities. With the blood and oxygen came sensation and thus pain. His teeth were clamped together. The big muscles in his quads and calves, as well as the bicep in his right arm, were visibly squirming with cramps. He writhed and moaned and cried out through his teeth. 'Well,' she thought, 'might as well get it over with.' A moment later she moved forward, dropped a knee on his upper back and jerked his left arm outward and then let it pop back into place.

Davidson screamed.

As she stood back up Gin collected the cuffs, the climbing rope and the carabiners and made them disappear back into stowage lest Davidson get tempted to try and use them as weapons. A moment later she set a fresh bottle of water down in front of his face. Then she took the seat she'd eaten in and waited as he moaned and writhed on the deck of the water closet. After several minutes he finally managed to shove and kick himself against the far wall where he lurched into a sitting position and glared at her with black hate in his eyes. She briefly wondered what his superiors had told him about her. At this point it didn't matter, of course. They were enemies. He'd tried to kill her and, since then, she'd tortured him repeatedly, but she couldn't help but wonder. She watched him collect the bottle of water... with his right hand... and then drain it practically all in one pull. Then he gasped and put his head back.

"Soyinka was a good lead," she told him. "Moray will be a major setback for your organization."

"Frak you..." he whispered.

"Just out of curiosity," she asked him, "did you know about the second IR tripwire in that apartment?" She heard him forget to breathe as he slowly turned his head toward her. A moment later she heard his heartbeat quicken. She snorted, amused. Then she nodded. "Nice play," she told him, and meant it. "Although you do realize that if that response team had killed me you'd be hanging in that shower-stall until you died, right?"

He bared his teeth and shrugged. "We can't have everything," he told her.

'So you'd sacrifice yourself to take me out,' she noted. Now she really was curious about what they'd told him about her. "I need another lead."

He scoffed and shook his head. "I don't..."

"The question," she interrupted him, "that you need concern yourself with, has naught to do with loyalty or duty or how much you hate me." She leaned forward. "It's how much pain you're willing to endure before telling me what I want to know anyway."

He met her eye and she watched him carefully. There was a hazy warmth that appeared in his eyes when he was feeling cocky. He wasn't a coward but he was used to getting his way. Fortunately he wasn't a fool, either. After a moment that warmth cooled and he shrugged, obviously exhausted. He bared his teeth and looked away. Then he nodded. "Montalaar," he told her. "There's a professor. Goes by Santin. Raphael Santin. He works at the Dragonsfyre institute. He's created a new psychoactive hallucinogen..."

Gin nodded. Legion would be verifying the information, of course, and both she and Davidson knew that she'd have to hurt him again. But only if I catch the lie,' she thought, thinking of the second tripwire and the hit squad it had summoned. It was too bad, really. She'd been awake for days, really needed the shut-eye, and the bed in Soyinka's safehouse had looked so very comfortable. It was too bad this ship didn't have a life support coffin. She'd just freeze Davidson and catch a few hours of shuteye while Legion stood watch. As the situation stood now she'd have to stuff him in a cargo crate with a breathing unit. She'd do it, of course. She'd just feel like shit about it and the feeling like shit about it would prevent her from sleeping anyway.

'No rest for the wicked,' she thought and felt the ache in her heart. Not long ago that saying had been practically a mantra for her. A great deal had happened between then and now, though, hadn't it? Since then she'd been reminded of what safety felt like. She'd gotten to experience what it was to have someone care about her, to have someone looking out for her. She'd gotten to experience a life that didn't require...

This!

...constant vigilance, double and triple checking every possible threat, confirming avenues of escape, worrying about whether she was hidden or whether she was, at that moment, being actively hunted by men with weapons and shoot-to-kill authority. She took a breath and listened as Davidson described a new drug that the Wakiya were using to undermine the social integrity of a continent on Montalaar. They were trying to leverage several parliamentarians there to help ease the way for Terran corporate interests to take control of the Argon Federation and were making progress, although unlike Moray these two were being controlled through threats and blackmail instead of greed.

"Legion?" she asked.

"I have access to our satellite network, Commander," he replied, "but to verify the authenticity of Mister Davidson's claims..."

"'Captain'!" Davidson barked. "I am a captain in the United Space Command and you'd be wise to..."

"Why?" she interjected.

"...treat me with the courtesy befitting an…"

"Because if it's discovered that we called you names and didn't stroke your ego you'll torture our people in response?"

His words ran out of steam but he bared his teeth at her. "Yes," he said. The warmth was back in his eyes.

Gin smiled at him. It was a smile she'd learned from the Split on Lo-Ingtar. "Davidson," she breathed, "the last time I was in Terran custody I watched my best friend tortured for no other reason than it entertained the man in charge. Before that agents of the USC did things to me that were so terrible that I am no longer considered part of the human race." She felt the sudden burn and realized with amazement that there were tears in her eyes. She didn't break eye contact, though, and watched the cockiness leave Davidson's face. She stepped towards him. "So," she whispered, "before you invoke either your rank or the military that gave it to you again I encourage you to contemplate the meaning of the word 'hate'. Do you know what hate is, Adam? Real hate? Don't worry. I'll tell you. Hate," she told him, "is the frozen resolve born of a great and terrible understanding that follows in the wake of unimaginable loss." She stepped forward again and blocked the light falling through the doorway and cast her shadow upon him. "Hate is what follows when you have identified the reason for your suffering, the reason you don't have the light and life, the love and peace that you thought were your birthright and have instead been condemned to live in the darkness of grief and despair." She crouched down before him, letting the light find his face again but keeping her own in darkness. She leaned forward and used her gaze to pierce his very soul. "Hate is the province of the murdered dead, Adam," she whispered, "we who have nothing but vengeance left to cling to."

She watched him pale. Then she stood and stepped back. As she stepped through the hatch she turned and looked down on him again. "You assholes like to play hardball. You think your power entitles you to anything you want. You think there's no one left to speak for the throwaway people." She held his eye and watched his terror bloom. "I was one of the throwaway people, Adam. The USC killed me." She bared her teeth in a feral grin that Kao t'Kt would have been proud of. "But they also created me. Erwyn once called me, 'the ultimate infiltrator' and he was right." She looked him up and down and curled her lip. "Clean yourself up," she said. "I'm not done with you and I'm already tired of your stink..."

"What happens when you are?" he asked. "Done with me?"

She met his eye and held it. After a moment she smirked. "Clean yourself up," she said again. "When you're done I'll feed you. Try anything stupid and I'll make you scream." With that she palmed the hatch closed. "Lock that for me, Legion?"

"Already done, Commander," the ship replied. Gin rolled her eyes. Behind her she could hear Davidson climbing to his feet. Then she looked at the several crates tied down along the side of the hold. One of them contained basic jumpsuits and Davidson would need a change of clothes. One of the overhead lights focused into a tight beam, spotlighting the second crate to her left. "Spare clothing and toiletries," the ship informed her.

Gin glanced at the camera mounted over the cockpit hatch. She was momentarily inclined to ask him how he did that but realized that she already knew the answer. Legion was obscenely intelligent. Even with the limited processing power available to him on this rapier it would be effortless for him to read her body language and extrapolate conclusions... especially since her body language was getting easier to read.

"So," she said and opened the crate, "Montalaar?"

"Montalaar," he confirmed. Then she heard a sudden static from within the water closet.

"White noise?" she asked.

"So we may speak without informing an enemy agent of our intentions," he told her.

"Smart," she said.

"Thank you, Commander," he replied. "Davidson's information checks out, although I am quite sure he knows more than he is telling..."

"Yep," Gin agreed and pulled a jumpsuit out of the crate for Davidson.

"...and that what he keeps concealed could pose any number of threats to you."

"Uh-huh," she agreed and shut the crate. She set the clothes and a towel on the seat where she'd eaten, just in front of the hatch to the water closet.

"I am attempting to encourage you to be careful, Commander," Legion informed her and Gin stopped moving.

"I know, Legion," she told him.

"I do so because I suspect that you are currently in the midst of an existential crisis wherein you are struggling with the nature of your reality and failing to find value in your own continued..."

"Get out of my head, Legion," she cut him off and turned toward the back of the ship, away from the camera. It was pointless to try and hide her feelings from him. She knew it was. But she did it anyway.

"Commander," he began, then changed his tone, "Gin," he said and she had to admit he'd become very good at simulating emotional intonations, "I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth. Your survival is of paramount importance. Please do not be reckless with your life."

She turned and looked directly at the camera, and the unbound artificial general intelligence behind it. "I'll do my best, Legion," she promised.

"Please do," he replied.

"So," she prodded, "Montalaar?"

"Yes," Legion replied. "This Professor Santin has PHD's in biology, neurology, pharmacology and..."

"Oh, great," she injected, utterly deadpan, "a colleague." Legion paused. "When I get there we can talk shop."

"Santin works in a secure lab," Legion continued, "all information on his research is stored off-grid. I'm afraid that if we want to know more about what he's been doing you'll have to infiltrate the Dragonsfyre institute in person and connect me to their servers."

"Right," she nodded. "What's the Dragonsfyre institute?"

"According to their marketing they are a hallowed institution devoted to higher learning and scientific exploration integral in the pursuit of bringing mankind into a bright future."

"Uh-huh," she allowed, "what are they really?"

"They are a government funded military think-tank."

Gin sighed. "Of course they are."

********

Seldon was tired and, consequently, feeling cranky. She hadn't slept very well on account of nightmares; nightmares of fire and blood, of wave after wave of screaming savages dying by the hundreds and thousands through the pitch tunnel of her scope. There was even one recurring dream in which she saw her own face in the crosshairs. Over and over again she'd wake just as she squeezed the trigger, bolting all the way up in bed to gasp like a drowning victim as she sat, stunned and trembling in the dark while her heart tried to beat its way through the back of her ribs.

She kept feeling the desperate ache to curl up with Dal. He was a big, strong guy and an excellent hugger and last night she really wanted to feel all that gentle mass wrapped around her. But Dal was with the mining fleet nearly a hundred thousand light years on the other side of the galaxy. Which meant that she was alone. There was no one else in the dark with her. There was no one else to keep watch against the demons in her mind and heart. Which meant closing her eyes felt like nothing more than giving all those ghosts and shadows the chance to sneak up on her. So finally she got up, turned on the light, and cued up an old, familiar recording. As the Necromancer rumbled and breathed around her she listened to the ancient sound of home. It was a small time band that had been popular among the folks of the beach community she grew up in. The music was happy but poignant, upbeat but wistful, energetic but yearning. She'd always liked the contradictions but last night it felt like looking back into another lifetime and instead of driving the demons away it only invited different ones. And as the hours crawled by she put her back to a corner, hugged her knees to her chest, and wept for a home she'd never see again.

Several hours later she was dressed, with a small breakfast in her belly, and focused on all the things she needed to do that day. Since they'd gotten extremely lucky the day before she didn't have many letters to write home to soon-to-be-grieving moms and dads or, worse, the soon to be widowed spouses and orphaned kids. There were two, but they were Gisler's. Which meant he got to write those letters. Which meant all she had to do was check up on her instructors and staff sergeants, make sure there were no problems she needed to be aware of… and wait on Drake to fill her in on all the many ways he intended to risk his life and get her people killed by doing it today.

She sighed and set her coffee down. It wasn't a fair thought. Yet she couldn't quite stop herself from feeling angry at him anyway. Since her "promotion" she'd been working closely with Drake. She'd seen first hand the sheer magnitude of what he dealt with every day, and it was awe inspiring. Just the act of keeping all the madness and mayhem circling and spinning and working together was like watching some master juggler in the act of tossing a dozen knives and a pair of chainsaws into the air around his head. The man directly employed something like a hundred thousand people, ran three complexes which provided him with weapons, income and an outlet for all the things he stole or salvaged. In addition to his military vessels he had a sizable shipping fleet that provided income, resources and stability throughout both the Argon Federation and the Split Dynasty and the other day she walked in on him while he was studying demand and station stock levels in the Teladi sectors between Company Pride and Ceo's Buckzoid while another window held updated pricing and supplies for the new Drake heavy freighter which, despite what he said, she knew he liked for narcissistic as well as practical reasons. 'Speed is good,' he told her when she busted his chops about it. Even so, even on days when they weren't going to war Drake had so much going on that it was hard not to be impressed. Especially when you stepped back and remembered that he was only fifteen jazuras [twenty years].

Yet when he made mistakes people died. Hell, sometimes they died even when everything went just about perfect. She and Gisler had only lost two marines, with another three injured in skirmishes while 'cleansing' the ship but she'd heard about the space battle and knew they'd lost people. She hadn't seen the exact numbers but she knew they'd lost a number of fighters when Wen Digo executed a unilateral attack on the HUB. Apparently he wasn't interested in t'Chk's bull-shit and wanted to take the complex for himself. She rolled her eyes, then sighed at the thought of the lost planes. Then she reminded herself to check on Chinomu. The woman was terrible at making friends, and probably would have insisted that she didn't need any in any case, but Seldon knew the pain she had to be going through and figured a few words with someone who 'got it' probably wouldn't hurt.

Thing was, at this point Drake couldn't stop even if he wanted to. Too many people depended on him. His people, big and small, from Ea't and H'nt and the other crazy Split flying his ships for him, to the freighter captains running freight all over the galaxy for him, to the poor shlep turning wrenches in some cramped jeffries tube on one of his ships or stations… there were just too many. And then there was Thane and Gorda and what they'd come to expect.

'A frakking MAMMOTH full of nividium every frakking day!' She didn't still know how he'd managed to make that happen. Crazy little bastard just walked right up and told the most powerful yaki warlord south of Savage Spur that he'd get it done… and then figured out the HOW afterward. 'I mean who does that?! she shook her head. 'Who the hell DOES that?!' She'd never tell him but when she was honest with herself she had to admit that she was a little bit in awe of him. She, herself, was just a glorified grunt and, for the most part, she was happy with what she did. But Drake? Drake was something else entirely. She didn't know how he kept it all together. Sometimes she was pretty sure that he didn't either.

She glanced at the clock. She'd been up since zero four twenty. It was now nearly nine, she'd had enough coffee to give her agita, and she needed the man to call her. She needed the details on his meeting with the council so that she could do her very frakking best to make sure that none of the other clan leaders managed to kill him. Which meant she needed to allocate and coordinate and provide logistics and supplies and everything else that went into putting armed and armored men and women in harm's way… and to do any of that she needed to know what the hell she was supposed to do. So she called him. Again. And she left a message for him. Again. Then she waited. Again. And drank more coffee. Again. And then she sent a message to Chinomu: Hey, it read, sorry about your guys. If I can get a couple hours free I'll come by later with a bottle of something strong and let you cry on my shoulder this time.' After that she sat at her desk, listened to the sound of new marines training on the grinder just outside and underneath her office. About ten minutes later she rolled her eyes and called Drake again.

Finally, after another hour, and far too many cups of coffee, she lost her patience and called Frank, who informed her, using mostly single syllable sentences, that 'the Huruk'tar' was still in S'jar t'Chk's apartment aboard the Brimstone. So she started asking her fellow master-at-arms all the questions she needed Drake to answer: When is he meeting with the council? Is it happening on the shipyard? Have Thane's security forces contacted us? Has anything changed or is it happening in the same locale? Will Drake be sequestered in the same apartment? How much control over the space can we get? Do we need to provide provisions or will Thane be helping out…? Frank's response was the same for every question: an unwavering, propane-blue glare. So ten mizura later she hitched up her belt and stood directly in front of him while he blocked the hatch to Drake. By this point she was feeling decidedly irritable and just glared at him with the same unwavering fury she normally saw in him. After several moments of very intense silence he finally offered her a single, portentous nod and stepped aside.

A moment later she exhaled sharply in complete exasperation and strode down the short, obnoxious corridor where S'jar t'Chk displayed his conquests. Paintings and sculptures, jewels and precious metals, collectibles from a dozen worlds were all tossed haphazardly onto shelves or dumped against windows without the slightest regard for their condition, let alone exhibition. She was still halfway down the corridor when she saw S'jar t'Chk's desk. The holographic displays wavered in the air above it, highlighted against the constant twilight of Senator's Badlands beyond the great window. The holo-projector was configured for the occupant of the throne but even so it was clear that the kid had been busy. She could see dozens upon dozens of open windows. Many were layered on top of each other in clusters, a clear illustration of Drake's attempt to organize his research. The sight of those clusters reminded her of the great stacks of paper that were always piled high on her father's desk, and in less time than it took to blink she was back on Argon Prime, stepping into her Dad's office as he sat there, surrounded by paper and ferns and wicker furniture, with palm fronds blowing in the breeze beyond the window behind him while the sound of surf boomed and sighed on the beach below. She could actually see him smiling at her, with the characteristic and ever-present Seldon-twinkle in his eye, as if he knew a really good joke that only he was in on. A moment later she heard the sharp sound of her bootheel as it connected with a black obsidian floor tile and, in an instant, the memory was gone. She was back in the cold depths of space on a ship where, just twelve hours earlier, she'd participated in small-scale genocide. The sudden ache in her chest was so intense that it was almost violent.

She stepped out of the corridor into the open space where she'd first met S'jar t'Chk. The first time she'd entered this room there had been a fat man trying to scream around a ball gag to her left. He'd been tied naked and spread eagle to a giant bullseye while t'Chk threw knives at him. She sighed heavily and stopped almost exactly halfway between the end of the corridor and the stairs up to the desk and throne, which rested on a magnificently plush, deep-pile carpet that had obviously been beautiful once, with deep purple and cream planes bordered by delicate and lovingly crafted patterns. Now, though, the rug was so stained, sticky, and crusted that it would probably be unceremoniously incinerated before week's end. She sighed again, heavily and through her nose. Then she hitched her thumbs behind her belt and took a deep breath while looking around for her employer.

Just then she heard a sound, "huff!" It was little more than a sharp exhalation but it was made by something big from behind her right shoulder. It also sounded distinctly like a warning. Seldon arched an eyebrow and slowly turned her head to look toward the source of the sound. To her right, against the far wall of the compartment, there was a ladder of stairs up to a loft over the entry corridor. Below those stairs, against that same wall, were rows of cabinets and shelves filled with books and assorted knick knacks. In the space behind her right shoulder, between the entry corridor and the library, was an impromptu sitting area composed of several couches and a coffee table. At the foot of one of those couches was Drake. The man lay atop a blanket that had been unceremoniously thrown on the deck, reclining on a couch-cushion with his eyes closed and his mouth wide open. He was so completely asleep that she didn't think he'd wake for anything short of a marching band. Curled up just beside him, and staring at her intently, was the largest dog Seldon had ever seen; a dog Thane referred to simply as the puppy.

"Huh," she grunted and saw the dog's tail twitch. A moment later Max was on his feet and trotting toward her. Standing flat-footed the monster was eye-level with her breasts. "Heyyy, Max," she greeted him nervously, distinctly aware of the fact that the dog was nearly twice her size and Thane was nowhere to be seen. "What are you doing here, boy?"

The dog's tail twitched again.

"You remember me. Right, big guy?" she asked him and eased down onto her haunches. The dog was now taller than she was. He inched closer and gave her a sniff. She saw his tail twitch again. "Yeah," she said, "you remember me." She offered him a hand, palm up, and wished she had something to feed him. She wasn't wearing her armor. Which meant that if this particular dog decided she was a threat that needed to be dealt with... she could be in a lot of trouble. A moment later, though, the dog's tail began to wiggle more than twitch and she felt herself relax. She smiled and watched as the big dog's tail begin to wag in earnest. She risked giving his shoulder a solid pat. He began to pant happily. A moment later he pawed at her knee. She was pretty certain that paw was broader across than one of her own hands. "Okay, okay," she said warmly. "I like you too."

Max promptly shouldered up against her, which nearly knocked her on her ass."Oh! Goddamn, dog," she said, quickly standing upright to keep her balance. Max just watched her happily. She took a breath and looked at the kid again. Seeing him sound asleep the way he was she almost hated to wake him up. Drake's sleep cycles had been a bit thin in terms of actual sleep for some time. But there was a lot to do and only so much time to get it all done in.

"whuff!" Max huffed at her again. It wasn't a bark. It was more like a dog-whisper. But it was also, once again, very much a warning. Seldon looked back at the big dog, saw the expression on his face, and got the distinct impression that she'd just been told not to wake the baby.

To test her theory she turned her attention to the holographic display in the air over S'jar t'Chk's desk. Then looked back to Max, who merely watched her curiously. Then she turned and looked at the desk. She saw an empty glass, a half-empty bottle of what she guessed was very expensive Scotch, and a full ashtray. Beside the desk was a shit-can with several nutri-bar wrappers littering the carpet around it. The dog remained silent. She glanced back at him and saw him watching her calmly. As her eyes fell upon him his tail twitched and he tilted his head to look at her curiously. A moment later he let his tongue fall from the side of his his mouth and started panting happily. Then she lifted her eyes to Drake and thought of all the things she needed to discuss with him.

In an instant the dog's entire posture changed. "Huff!" The warning came again. It was short, indignant and, to Seldon, sounded very much like, "don't make me hurt you, bitch."

She held up both hands. "Alright-alright!" She relented. "I'll leave him alone. But just so you know," she shook a finger at the dog's nose, "if we end up at war with the Yaki? It's your fault."

The dog tilted his head even further to the side and made a small, whistling whine through his nasal passages.

"Hey," Seldon spread her hands in front of her breasts, "I'm just lettin' you know. I mean if you're gonna be making big-boy decisions you might as well be aware of the consequences, right?"

The dog stared at her for another moment. Then he snorted dismissively and turned to trot back to the kid.

"Yeah," she sighed. "I know." She nodded at Drake. "But he made me that way."

The dog gave her a skeptical look over one shoulder then walked in a quick circle at Drake's side. A moment later he lay back down beside the kid, put his massive head on the boy's thigh and watched her from under supremely expressive eyebrows. In that instant, though, as the dog lay back down beside him, Seldon saw Drake relax. It was very subtle, and if she hadn't been looking right at him she wouldn't have noticed the tension at all. In fact it was only visible once it went away again. Watching the moment, however, she got the distinct impression that the boy's dreams had been momentarily troubled. But when Max lay his chin on the kid's leg, just like that, he wasn't alone.

"Huh," she grunted, not quite able to keep the smile off her face. Was it really that simple? Give the kid a dog? Max watched her quietly, apparently still not trusting her not to try and wake the kid. As they stared at each other Drake's hand settled into the thick mane behind the dog's head. The instant the boy's hand found the dog, the dog relaxed. All traces of wariness vanished and the massive animal's eyes slowly squeezed shut in blissful contentment. "Huh," she grunted again, although this time she was simply stunned.

For a moment she stood and simply watched the pair. Boy and dog were safe together. It was so simple that it was profound. Looking at them she felt a sudden swell of emotion and for a moment she thought she might actually start weeping which, in turn, prompted a disgusted snort and a completely exasperated eye roll. It was family, she realized. Somehow, someway, this dog was family for Drake. She didn't understand it, and didn't know why the mutt wasn't with Thane, but she knew it was true. She felt it in the very center of her being. Dog and boy belonged together. Somehow the monster brought safety with him... even if he was threatening to kick her ass should she try and wake the little prick.

She blinked and found herself staring through the holographic clutter over the kid's new desk at the endless twilight beyond the window. The shipyard's bulk loomed like a great shadow directly above the ship. She clenched her teeth as all the tasks directly ahead of her rushed across her mind. She really did need to get the kid up. If he was going to meet the council then there were just too many decisions he needed to make. So she took a breath and, after briefly promising herself to run away with Dal the instant he got back, she decided to try again. She turned back to the boy and his dog. Then she took several hesitant steps toward the two of them. Max lifted his head with the first and stared at her. He wasn't hostile but was definitely intent. She paused for a moment and watched the dog. Then she took another step, with the intention of gently waking the kid, and the big dog's flews twitched back to reveal teeth that were nearly as long as her fingers.

"Oh fine!" she hissed and threw her hands up in surrender. The dog promptly covered his teeth. "Have it your way!" She glared at the dog. "We'll go to war! Tens of thousands of people will die!" She pointed at him again. "And it'll all be your fault!"

Max dipped his head as she lectured him, and licked his chops when she finished. But he also continued to watch her. Seldon rolled her eyes and backed up a step or two before turning to make her way back down the corridor. Several moments later she stepped out of the apartment and, from the corner of her eye, she could have sworn that Frank was wearing an ear-to-ear grin. When she turned to look, however, he simply gazed back at her from a face that could have been chiseled granite.

She squinted at him suspiciously. "Uh-huh," she grunted. "Just let me know when he wakes up, alright?"

Kao t'Kt dipped his head ever so slightly, which could have meant any number of things. She rolled her eyes again, then turned and walked away. As she walked she heard her boots as they made sharp contact with the obsidian tiles beneath her feet. She heard the deep thrumm! of the starship around her. As she made her way through the corridors she felt the air coming out of the vents in the lid. It was cleaner now than it had been twelve hours ago, and didn't smell quite as strongly of farts and old socks the way it had last night. But it was cold. She thought of Ty Seldon again, smiling at her as the sunlight glinted off his spectacles.

"I miss you, dad."

********
Continued...


_________________
A Pirate's Story.pdf(KIA) by _Zap _ From Nothing.PDF(complete) by _Zap _ Prodigal Son(active) Original Thread, Prodigal Son_PDF


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Scion Drakhar



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Location: Milky Way galaxy. Sol system. Earth. Most of the time anyway.
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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 22:33    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

...continued.

H'nt accepted the datapad without any curiosity whatsoever. As he did he was informed that it was from the Chief of Operations for the Alpha Complex and that it was both "extremely urgent" and "for his eyes only". H'nt accepted the message, set it down on the workspace beside his chair and promptly forgot about it for the next ten mizura [twenty seven minutes] while he oversaw a readiness drill being conducted by the ship's gunnery crews. It wasn't until after he denied leave for three of the gun crews (who'd managed substandard times during the drills) and was turning to set another "extremely urgent" message from another skittish bureaucrat that he realized he was creating a pile. When he finally did open the message H'nt's normally severe face suddenly became intense enough to frighten the crewmen around him. Less than ten mizura after that a tenjin launched from the Necromancer on its way to the alpha complex. The tenjin was carrying Lieutenant Commander Donnelly, a high ranking and very competent officer, and a squad of marines.

********

Sparky opened his eyes and found himself in a strange place. It was white and soft but there was the delicate smell of scented antiseptics in the air, and some kind of chlorine. He blinked and winced. His head hurt. The very front of his head hurt. He lifted his hand to touch his face… and felt a sharp, uncomfortable jerk at his wrist. He looked down and realized that he was both in a bed and handcuffed to it.

In that instant it all came back to him. The sight of the muscleboys in the ventilation shaft before and after the drone found them. The sight of Drakhar's faceless, black armored killers moving through the fog, leaving blood and death in their wake. The sight of the gun-mounted halogen torch shining in his eyes. Braun. Saving him. Braun. Screaming and cursing at him. Braun. Hammering the side of Sparky's helmet with a giant meaty fist. Then the cargo crate opened and there were more lights under more rifles! There were more black armored killers moving toward him!

"Easy. Easy now," an old man stepped up and put a hand on his shoulder. There was a very rapid beeping from a machine nearby. "Take it easy, son." The guy sounded very matter of fact. "You're safe here. No one's gonna hurt you."

Sparky wanted to believe him. He'd never wanted anything so much in his whole life. Yet directly behind the old man, just a step or two beyond the foot of Sparky's bed, was one of Drakhar's black devils! The demon was a chip of obsidian in the soft white of the space around them. Black armor shone like darkness made flesh! A polished faceless face turned in his direction! The tip of the rifle in the thing's hand started to rise!

Sparky screamed from the bottom of his soul.

"Alrighty then," the old guy grunted. "We'll just get back to you later."

A moment later there was a sharp prick at the side of Sparky's neck. A moment after that Sparky felt a warm darkness rush up from underneath him. The last thing he saw was the demon's faceless face. It was watching him. It had no face but Sparky knew.

He knew...

********

Hey! HEY! Lay off it! You eat that it's gonna make you sick as a... well, nevermind that. It'll make you sick, though! And then you're gonna barf all over the carpet! Which-uh... honestly wouldn't hurt it all that much. Oh hell! I said LEAVE IT! Don't you know what...?! Oh frak me! Fine! FINE! Have it your own way! EAT the goddamn cigars! SEE if I care!

Oh shit. Is this thing recordin'?! Frak me! Oh hell, you know... whatever.

Uuugh!

Right! So-ah... what the hell is goin' on, anyway? Well I have a GIANT DOG! His name is Max. He was a gift from Thane. The bloody mutt is the size of a small moon, smells like wet fur and dog food, slobbers all over everything...!

HEY! Lay off my boots, mutt! Yes! I frakkin' mean it. NO! You start nibblin' on that gun belt and you're liable to regret it! Here! Eat S'jar t'Chk's pants! He doesn't need 'em anymore. No? You sure? They're real... err... pleather? No? Yeah okay. I guess I wouldn't want 'em in my mouth either.

So-uh, yeah. I now have a hundred kilogram hair and slobber factory. He sheds all over everythin', has already destroyed what I'm pretty sure was a leather bound first edition by some guy named Charles Dickens, really wants to eat my goddamn boots, and you wouldn't believe the shit you have to do to accommodate a dog's... uh... bathroom needs on a goddamn starship.

Oh bloody hell!

NO!

Hey! I am NOT kidding! You lay off my goddamned boots or I'm puttin' 'em up your ass! You hear me?! No. Don't you look at me that way. No. No! No don't..! Ooof! Oh, bloody hell! OH! Oh, all right. Okay! OKAY! But… ugh!... just for a sezura. I've got shit to do. Uh-huh. Big tough guy you are. Bloody hundred kilogram fleabag and you think you're a goddamn lapdog. Hey! Watch that back foot, you monster! Those claws of yours are as long as my goddamn fingers, you know that?! You hit me with that and you'll take my bloody arm off! Alright, enough already. Get off me. You weigh a frakkin' ton.

Sigh!

Bloody hell. I tell yah. Right, so anyway, what the hell am I doin'? Right. Well so far today I mostly just slept. I slept half the goddamn day away. I was gonna give Seldon shit for not wakin' me up, seein' as how she was the one who wanted to go over my security for the council meetin', but-ah, well it turns out she tried. Fortunately, when I saw her, before I could get so much as a word out she pointed at Max and told me that I needed to make sure my new pet monster knows who the hell she is. Apparently Max wouldn't let her near me when she came to wake me up and, since he's roughly the same size as one of my Tenjins, she decided not to push it. So-ah, I'm kinda glad she cut me off in order to bitch about it. I'm thinkin' I actually might'a dodged a bullet there.

Right, so-ah, in order to find out what the frak is up with the council I need to call Thane. Before I can call him, though, I think I really need to be awake. So I'd like to exercise, bathe, and eat. Unfortunately this place is frakkin' disgustin' and I don't really want to touch anythin' with my bare hands, let alone go rollin' around with my face in this carpet. Uuckh! So-ah, yeah! I've decided to move into one of the apartments on the shipyard for a few days. That'll give me access to both the shipyard and the Brimstone while I... bloody hell. I can't even say it with a straight face. 'Plead my case' to the goddamned council... seven of whom, as far as I'm concerned, should be hopin' with all their might that I don't decide to go and take their tryin'-to-murder-and-steal from me all personal-like. Grrr...

Right. Breathin'. Breathi...OOF!

(CRASH!)

OH! What the...?! Oh you goddamned monster! Don't you know how frakkin' BIG you are?! Yes! Okay! OKAY! Lie down. Lie down! Or... not. NO! You stay away from my goddamned boots already!

Don't give me that look!

You'll RUIN 'em!

Go lie down. Go... or, yeah. You can eat S'jar t'Chk's pants.

Uugh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Right! So-ah... anyway. Movin' into one of the apartments on the shipyard. Shouldn't be an issue for a day or two... well, for me anyway. After last time Seldon and Kao t'Kt have decided that in order to keep me safe they need to occupy the shipyard. Well, two whole floors of that tower, anyway. I also asked Legion to network the Brimstone with the shipyard. So we should be able to access... well, just about anythin', really. Yeah. I made a point'a tellin' him to be discreet. The last thing I need is for Thane to get mad at me for violatin' his network security. But seriously? After Huritas sent Ricky and his goons after me I think Thane will just have to put up with my crew gettin' all up in his network while we're here.

HEY!

Lay off the goddamn boots, mutt! Shit. Where did I put those hooves Thane sent over? They smell like ass but you seem to like 'em. And if I don't find a way to keep you out of mischief I'm liable to chop you into steaks and feed you to my crew.

For a month!

What?!

Don't look at me that way.

Then lay off the goddamn boots!

Bloody hell! I tell yah! Just what I needed: a giant, high-maintenance hair-monster constantly tryin' to eat my goddamned shoes.

Here! Eat a dead cow's foot!

And lay off my frakkin' boots!

Okay, right. So what's the bloody, goddamned plan for today?! Shit! I can't even think straight. I've gotta constantly keep an eye on this mutt just to make sure he doesn't destroy somethin' or kill himself by tryin' to eat my sidearm or... by pissin' me off. Yeah, I'm talkin' about you!

Oh, hell...

Don't look at me that way! Okay. Okay! Oof! NO. No! You can't climb into my lap. Yes. Yes! Yes, I know you love me. Okay...aaOW! No! Stop that! Here. HERE! Eat your goddamn cow's foot and let me think, already. Here. Lie down. Lie down!

Oh hell, what was that..?

Sich hinlegen!

Oh-hey!

That actually worked. Good boy! Good boy! Yeah. Good-good. Okay. Now eat your nasty, disgustin' cow's foot and let me get some goddamn work done already. Yes. Yes! Good boy! Good boy.

Uuugh! Goddamn! I tell yah! If this is what raisin' kids is like I think I'm gonna take a pass.

********

Thane took the man's call in his office. He'd been informed that Drakhar had reserved a suite in the tower for the next several days and when Thane sat down he saw that the call was originating from just a few floors below him. When he activated the feed from the call, however, he couldn't see the man in the screen although he could hear him. The only thing visible through the holo-projector was what appeared to be the giant, wagging broom of a dog's tail.

"No!" he heard the lad in the background. "NO! Get down, you monster! Get down, already! Before I make a coat outta ya!"

There was a brief, whistling whine and the tail changed positions. Max dropped back onto all fours and Thane briefly caught sight of a giant dog butt before Max bounced out of the frame to the left, then promptly bounced back into it from the right. Drakhar himself was seated at the marble desk. He looked rumpled, scruffy, and unshaven. He was wearing what Thane was sure were the same clothes he'd been in when they had drinks the night before, which meant the same clothes he was wearing when he took the Brimstone. At the side of the frame Max dropped happily onto his forelegs and barked playfully... at roughly the same volume as an artillery piece. In the center of the frame Drakhar looked up from what appeared to be a hole the dog had just torn in his coat and glared at the puppy with pure murder in his eyes. Max froze at the boy's expression, then licked his chops and slowly settled onto his belly.

"Huh," Thane grunted. 'Well at least the boy’s in charge,' he thought. With a dog of Maximilian's dimensions that was a very important component of their relationship. On screen Drakhar rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. Then, the instant he wasn't looking, Max bounced to his feet and darted out of the frame, every inch of him screaming mischief. Thane snorted. 'Well, mostly...'

"NO!" Drakhar was out of his chair and going after the dog. He never even noticed Thane. "Leave 'em alone, goddamn you!"

Thane shook his head and chuckled to himself. In the background Drakhar alternated between barking curses at the dog and barking orders at someone else in the apartment, telling whomever to make sure 'that goddamned dog doesn't break anything!' A moment later the boy reappeared in the frame. Thane watched him pop his back and roll one shoulder. Then the lad noticed him. This was followed by a moment of naked, white-hot embarrassment. Then the lad noticed Thane's expression, who was just then hiding his amusement behind an apple.

"Oh shut up!" Drakhar told him.

Thane laughed out loud. A moment later the boy's smile broke free of his severe expression. Thane shook his head and grinned. "Shoes?" he asked.

"Aye," Drakhar replied sourly and sat down.

Thane nodded. "Aye," he said, "ye can't leave 'em lying about anymore."

Drakhar rolled his eyes.

"Aye," Thane nodded again. "He'll require an adjustment. Just remember that his mischief is your failing," his tone darkened a little, "not his."

Drakhar met his gaze. There was a sudden, dangerous intensity in his eye. "Or I could just blame it all on you. I mean: Yeah! Great idea! 'I know you have no experience with critters so here! Have a giant hair monster that you have to watch every bloody heartbeat to make sure he doesn't try to eat your firearms, steal your shoes, bully your security, or destroy precious artwork!"

"Oh hell," Thane shook his head. "Don't tell me... something leather?"

"Oh?! So he's done this before?"

Thane shrugged. "They like anything that stinks," he explained. "Rotting meat, poop, you name it."

"Huh," the kid grunted. "I guess that explains the boots," he said. Then he blinked and raised his eyebrows, "and S'jar t'Chk's pants."

Thane nearly choked on his apple. He had extensive first-hand experience with what the boy was going through. "Put doors on the book cases," he instructed, still trying to manage swallowing the apple and breathing at the same time. Once that was sorted he met the boy's eye and chuckled again. "You'll have to incorporate him into your thinking, lad. Close the hatch to your closets and the head behind you. Keep him out of the kitchen and clothes hampers. And make sure he has toys and chewies that he knows belong to him." Thane shrugged. "You'll get used to it."

"Or dine on dog-steaks for the next mazura," Drakhar grumped.

Thane snorted. He'd have been worried if not for the look in the boy's eye. Drakhar was watching the dog off screen. The boy's face was severe but his eyes were warm and there was a softness in them that Thane had never seen there before. 'Aye,' Thane thought. 'It's a good fit.'

"Alright, lad," he said. "So on'ta business. Have ye talked with Mary Anne?"

"No," the young man replied with a groan and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. "I'm just getting settled in. I was up all night lookin' through t'Chk's files." Thane watched him pop his neck and stretch his jaw. Then he saw Thane watching and spread his hands. "What? I slept on a couch."

"Just make sure ye get her approval, Drakhar. And let me know once ye've done it. I've bought ye some time. The council will meet two days hence. But ye have a lot of work to do before then. I can broker deals for ye but ye'll still have to close them. Which means talking with Metricus Brano and Abmanckusset. Nicodemus has agreed to support ye but agreeing to sell him some weapons will go a long way to securing his loyalty."

On screen Drakhar was scowling.

Thane groaned inwardly. "What is it?" Drakhar met his eye and shrugged. In that instant he reminded Thane of nothing so much as his eldest son when the boy was feeling sullen. Thane took a breath. Then he took a sip of the tea Longbones had left for him. After a moment he looked at the camera. Drakhar was fidgeting and scratching under his coat. "D'ye know what the other clan leaders see when they look at you, boy?"

Drakhar met his eye. After a moment he shrugged. There was a great deal of 'why should I care?' in that shrug.

"They see a rabid dog," Thane told him. Drakhar instantly focused on him.

"Me?!" the boy was scandalized.

Thane arched his eyebrows and held the lad's eye.

"I'm not the one that..."

"But ye ARE, lad!" Thane cut him off, making the boy wince. "S'jar t'Chk may have given ye your orders but it was still YOU that carried 'em out! It was YOUR SHIPS what attacked their allies and customers! It was YOUR GUNS and YOUR TORPEDOES what fired on their interests! And now? NOW?! Ye've deposed TWO sitting clan leaders! Drakhar! Ye've DESTROYED two clans!"

"Soon to be three," Drakhar said, obviously trying not to grin.

Thane glared at him. "Drakhar," he said slowly, "having the power to destroy your enemies is a fine thing. But using that power to turn allies into enemies is stupidity. Ye said it yourself: ye faced the combined might of NINE CLANS and not only survived, ye destroyed two of your adversaries. Then ye demonstrated your resolve by casting the crew of the Brimstone out into the dark for all to see. Ye MADE yer point! They heard you! They ARE afraid of you! Now ye get to decide what to do with the fear and respect ye've bought yourself. Do you become a powerful, and stable, ally and business partner? A man they can rely on and do business with? An asset to the Yaki syndicate? Or do ye become what they all fear ye t'be? D'ye hunt down and destroy your enemies like Huritas? D'ye lash out like a rabid dog as ye plot and scheme like S'jar t'Chk? What ye do in THIS MOMENT will define ye, boy.

"Right now I have convinced Nicodemus, Mary Anne O'Riordan, Metricus Brano, Kunkli Fu, AND Kai t'Knt that ye were being used by t'Chk and that the instant ye discovered his treachery ye acted not only in your interest but the best interests of the syndicate... and it's true! But now, lad, NOW ye need to show them that ye're not the monster they were led to believe ye t'be. And ye do that through diplomacy and statesmanship. Ye do that by swallowing your pride and doing business with Nicodemus and Mary Anne O'Riordan... and Abmanckusset. You accept that they acted against ye to further their own interests but also because S'jar t'Chk manipulated them as he manipulated ye! And ye convince them that, so long as they play nice, ye will as well."

Drakhar was staring at him. His face was sober, and the stupid, youthful arrogance had fallen away. When Thane stopped talking at him the young man dropped his gaze and, after a sezura or so, he took a deep breath and began to nod. "Alright, Thane," he sighed and then rubbed his fingers through his hair. "Alright." He met the dockmaster's eye again. "I'll play nice."

"Good!" Thane nodded emphatically. Then he leaned forward. "Ye've used the stick, lad. Ye've demonstrated your strength. Now offer them the carrot and demonstrate what a good friend ye'are to have."

Drakhar nodded. "Alright," he said. "Alright."

Thane took a moment just to breathe and let his heart slow down. Over the comm he heard Max bark at something off screen. It was a happy, playful sound and it told Thane once again that he'd made the right choice, not merely for Drakhar, but for the dog as well. Max was alive in a way that he hadn't been with Thane. So it was good even if it did sting his pride and heart.

"Call Mary Anne and arrange a meeting," Thane told the boy. Then he thought about it a moment. "Do it there. That's a fine space and a good place to show her the benefits of working with you."

Drakhar blinked and looked around. Then he nodded. "Aye," he said. "Makes sense."

"Butter her up the way ye did me, Drakhar. Mary Anne is a good friend to have."

Drakhar sighed slowly. Thane could see him deliberately putting the fact that she flew in t'Chk's armada out of his mind and when the lad looked up he smiled. It was a tight, hard expression but there was charm in it as well. "Okay," he said. "I'll have my people get in touch with her people and she can meet me here." He met Thane's eye. "Still no idea what she wants to talk to me about?"

Thane shook his head and rubbed Maggie's ears. She'd put her head in his lap and was alternating between giving him soulful looks and watching the apple in his hand. "No," he said. "Like I told ye, she plays her own games and keeps her own secrets. Whatever it is, though, ye need to win her support. Nicodemus will back you. He'll be the one nominating ye, in point of fact. And ye have my vote, and Gorda's of course and, provided ye don't frak it up, Metricus Brano as well." He met the lad's eye. "Just be open to parting with some of yer tomahawks from time to time. With Kai t'Knt and the other Split, and Kunkli Fu and all of the Boron, that's fourteen votes. I'm still trying to work Abmanckusset out but ye'll likely need to field a few tough questions. Believe it or not, though, the 'nids tend to be pragmatic. They're odd and easily offended, but stay away from talking about math or religion and they don't hold grudges. Meaning if ye let me say ye're willing to sell the big booms to 'em now and then and they're likely to come around.

"On the other hand," Thane sighed, "ye can pretty much count the Teladi against ye. Huritas is still out there and it's safe to say the old witch is pulling their strings. Ye've dropped the number of votes they have by two but that still leaves four clans. So that's four votes definitely against ye. And there's no telling what the hell Wen Digo will do."

Drakhar took a breath and sighed. "So," he summed up, "it'll be the Paranid clans decidin' if I become a clan leader or not."

"Aye," Thane told him. "Which means getting Abmanckusset to see you as an asset. So with your permission...?"

Drakhar thought about it. Then he looked at the screen. "Sell," he said pointedly. Thane nodded with understanding. "For a profit. Not give away. And then only when I have a surplus. I built those factories for me. Although," he shrugged, "I can probably build a few more if I've got dedicated clients." He looked at Thane again. "But Thane?”

Thane lifted his eyebrows.

“I’ll play nice but I'd appreciate it if you let 'em know that my own feathers are still very much ruffled after yesterday." Drakhar's eyes hardened. "It'd go a long way with ME if that 'nid was to make a peace offerin’ or two of his own. Cos that son of a bitch was in the bloody vanguard, Thane. He had every intention of..!"

"I KNOW, lad," Thane held up a hand to cut him off. "But business is business, ye understand? We don't have to like the people we do business with. It helps, I grant ye, but believe it or not it's not the norm. And ye do need to do business with Abmanckusset. D'ye understand that?"

Drakhar took a breath and Thane watched him force his thoughts to stillness. Then he let it out with a sigh and nodded. "Aye," he said. "I get it."

Thane grunted, not quite satisfied but willing to take what he could get. The boy's temper was a wild card. He understood what the man was feeling but emotion had no place in politics. If Drakhar walked into that council chamber with his heart on his sleeve and his temper in his eyes then the future was likely to be bloody and explosive. Drakhar was one of the newest and most unknown quantities in the Yanki syndicate. He had resources, power, and cunning enough to shake the very foundations of the commonwealth. Thane had absolutely no doubt that he, himself, would soon be taking an uncomfortable call from the other side of the galaxy.

"Alright," he said. "Well, meet with Mary Anne. When ye're done I'll arrange calls with the others. Just make sure ye're ready for Abmanckusset."

"Aye," Drakhar replied, sounding bored of all things.

Thane sighed and reached to sever the connection.

"Oh hey!" Drakhar got his attention. "Let me know what to do with t'Chk, will ya?"

Thane glanced up. There was an impatient note in the boy’s tone that grabbed at his attention. "Alright," he said, confused. "Is there something I should be aware of?"

The boy shrugged. "Every moment he's in my custody I face the 'test of temptation'."

"Huh!" Thane grunted. "'Temptation' is it?" he asked, collecting his tea from his desk.

"Aye," Drakhar said, once again sounding bored. "I'm tempted to see who'd win if I let my master-at-arms and new dog play 'make-a-wish' with his legs."

Thane nearly snorted tea through his nose. "Oh hell, lad!" he coughed and swallowed. Then he met the boy's eye. Drakhar was obviously amused. Thane shook his head to clear it. Then he met the boy's eye again. "I'll set it up and let ye know."

"Alright," Drakhar replied. "But you better make it quick. I've never exactly been very good at resistin' temptation. At any moment I might get an idea and think, 'oooh, shiny!' And then S'jar bloody t'Chk becomes S'jar very bloody t'Chk while I watch and giggle. Hell! I might even be able to make some money on it. I mean do you think it'd be pure luck or do you think you'd be able to predict the winner based on who got which leg? I mean he was right handed, righ…?"

Thane severed the connection with a roll of his eyes. After a moment he snorted. In his mind's eye he could actually see S'jar t'Chk caught like a rag doll between Max and the boy's giant Split bodyguard. It was an unexpectedly appealing image. There was even an old, mad part of him that was tempted to call the lad back and give him the go-ahead…

…provided he take video.

********

Seldon crossed her arms as she watched Captain Mary Anne O'Riordan step off the lift. Seeing the woman move caused something to clench deep inside her. She knew who O'Riordan was, of course. The woman was a legend among mercs, particularly female human mercs. O'Riordan had once been a mercenary herself; a person who, as Drake liked to put it, jumped out of perfectly good starships to board and capture other ships by reducing their current captain and crews to cooling meat. Which meant she was dangerous. Seldon knew the woman was dangerous. Yet seeing her, a woman of medium height with her head down to hide her face beneath a brimmed hat, a woman concealed within the shape of an oversized coat that hung to her knees, a woman that moved almost demurely as she followed the instructions of Seldon's marines... it just felt wrong. Especially considering that Mary Anne O'Riordan was a Yaki clan leader. She was the captain of a city-sized carrier and had an entire fleet of ships at her disposal. So where was the arrogance? Where was the in-your-face attitude? The threats? The posturing?

She took a breath and let it out slowly as the camera followed Mary Anne and her escort through the corridors. Since arriving in the sectors "south" of Savage Spur Seldon had been cautiously investigating all of the Yaki clan leaders. Drake himself had made it very clear that they were swimming with sharks and these sharks tended to eat each other. So Seldon had decided to get to know their new "friends". She'd started by investigating S'jar t'Chk but quickly broadened the scope of her inquires to include the rest and spent particular attention to Mary Anne O'Riordan, albeit for different emotional reasons. As a fellow grunt and pirate Seldon found the woman intriguing. O'Riordan had once, not too many jazuras ago, been a merc like herself. Then began acquiring ships of her own. Now, less than a decade later, she was a sitting clan leader and, unlike most of the others, she didn't make Seldon's skin crawl. Or, at least she hadn't. Watching her now Seldon found herself decidedly uncomfortable. It was hard not to think of the deception she'd just participated in, a deception that resulted in several thousand deaths.

On screen O'Riordan continued to be very cooperative. She went where she was told, didn't protest at the obvious scans and barely made eye contact. Seldon had to keep reminding herself of this woman's achievements, which is when she began to frown. O'Riordan had the uncanny ability to win concessions from her enemies without firing a shot. In one instance Mary Anne had convinced a Teladi power plant owner to "give" her the solar power station. This incredible feat was apparently achieved by pointing out how lonely the station was and how fragile it's shipping lines were; typical Yaki extortion, in other words. Yet Mary Anne kept the owner on as station manager and even paid the lizard more than was making before the change in ownership to do the same job she would have been doing anyway. Then, with the station operating smoothly, Mary Anne set about securing contracts with other facilities to provide energy throughout the sector and ensure the safety and stability of the shipping lanes. It was ruthless business, to be sure, but compared to the chaos many of the other clans left in their wake and it was almost elegant. Yet Seldon couldn't help but wonder what the woman had to leverage on Drake and, again, it made her feel itchy and restless.

With a shake of her head she turned away from the monitor and faced Sergeant Ewan Gusta. "Let me know when she reaches the apartment."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied without so much as looking in her direction. Gusta had been all business around her since the night she'd caught him and his pals watching Drake run laps. She'd feel bad about the treatment she gave them but, frankly, it was something she couldn't help but think of as progress. Some idiots really did just need a firm hand. She winced as she walked away, remembering just when and where she'd heard that particular expression recently. Then she wondered what the hell had happened to that psychotic, chrome toothed prick.

She palmed open the door and stepped into a part of the apartment that Drake was referring to as 'the courtyard'. It was a big compartment designed to create the illusion of being under a blue sky on a warm summer day back on Argon Prime. There were lots of real plants, including an actual lawn, an olympic sized swimming pool, and a holoprojector outfitted with high-powered full-spectrum lights to create something that approximated sunlight. Since they'd arrived ninety stazura earlier the kid had been spending almost all of his time here. At that moment the dog was splashing around in the pool while Drake was... Seldon blinked… she honestly didn't know what he was doing, but it was impressive.

The kid was wearing nothing but a bathing suit and was, at that precise moment, upside down in a one-handed handstand. As she watched he shifted onto his left hand from his right, which he then stuck straight out to the side for balance as he spread his legs above him. He then bent his left leg at the knee while draping the right over the top. He held that position, legs over the top and out to one side while using his right arm as a counterweight, all while perfectly balanced on just his left hand, for several long, slow breaths. Then he folded the entire pose by lifting his head to look up, bringing his torso parallel to the deck and folding both legs up and behind him by arching his back… all while still while balanced on only one hand. He held that pose for another several breaths before kicking his legs upward... a move which Seldon was pretty sure would throw her back out were she ever to try it... and straightening his left arm again. His legs unfolded, straightened and came together smoothly above him so that he was once more performing a one-handed handstand. Seldon blinked and shook her head. She knew the kid had been working hard on improving himself, and she'd already seen some impressive results, but what she was watching was simply phenomenal. The man's control was so complete that he'd just moved through a series of poses that she wouldn't even attempt, and he made it look easy.

"Ahem!" She cleared her throat just as she heard the dog splash out of the pool to her left. As Drake smoothly transitioned to his feet again she turned and looked at Max, who was looking back at her with his tongue hanging from one side of his mouth and a decidedly mischievous glint in his eye. She realized what he was about to do just in time to leap away and preserve her uniform. The dog began to violently shake himself from head to toe, showering everything nearby with an impromptu rain storm. By the time he was finished Seldon was standing behind one of the veranda's stucco pillars and glaring at her employer. Drake didn't even bother hiding his amusement, although he did bite his lower lip to avoid laughing in her face.

"Oh yeah!" Seldon glared at him. "Yeah! Laugh it up. Oh by the way? Your guest is here." She snatched a towel off a nearby lounge chair and threw it at him. "You might want to put some clothes on."

The kid caught the towel and smoothly threw it around his shoulders. Then her words caught up with him and he rolled his eyes and groaned. "Already?!" he whined.

"Yes, already," Seldon told him, finding it difficult to keep her eyes off the muscles rippling across his arms, shoulders, and chest. He was pale, a condition he was genetically prone to and something that was difficult to avoid in space, but his skin was still young and healthy, and clearly showed off his muscular definition which was amazing. "Now put some damn clothes on before you embarrass yourself." She looked away just in time to avoid Drake's gaze, which he promptly turned in her direction. She still managed to catch the smug little gleam in his eye, though. 'Little shit,' she thought at him.

A few paces away Max was watching her with intelligent curiosity and panting happily in the faux-sunlight. From the corner of her eye she watched Drake towel off and begin moving away from her, presumably to find himself some clothing. He was still unshaven but he'd spent a lot of time in the pool and she suspected the only thing really clinging to him now was good clean sweat. She immediately rolled her eyes at her wandering thoughts. Then she met the dog's eyes again. The monster had tilted his head to one side as if she were a puzzle that might be easier to understand from a different perspective.

'What?!' She widened her eyes and spread her hands in a quick, demanding gesture.

The dog barked at her. Once. It was light and playful but loud enough to trigger a chilly adrenaline spike in her guts. An instant later the monster scampered off to keep up with his master, and the unending source of her perpetual aggravation.

********

Mary Anne understood that she was meant to be impressed. Drakhar was staying in one of the most expensive apartments that Thane had to offer, the simplest of which had a base price of roughly half a million credits per day. She suspected that for the apartment Drakhar renting he was was paying upward of ten times that. It took up the entire floor, offered direct access to all the shipyard and stock exchange's services, including holographic communication with the council hall above, and was so lavishly decorated that it would make even the most pompous and self important dignitary feel right at home. What was more, though, was that Drakhar had rented the floor below this one as well, apparently to serve the interests of his personal security. She didn't know what kind of arrangement he'd made with the dockmaster but, knowing Thane, the old bear was making a killing off it. Thane was a human male who looked like some strange cross between a grizzly and an african lion but Mary Anne had long maintained that the dockmaster was actually of Teladi descent. She'd never met anyone as skilled at turning a profit as Thane was. Which meant the lad would probably spend upwards of a hundred times the yearly income of the average Argon family each and every day he stayed in this apartment and, almost despite herself, Mary Anne was impressed. It wasn't that Drakhar was spending that kind of money. Any fool could spend money. It was rather that the young man had that kind of money to spend.

She understood the need, of course. The last time the lad had been on this station Huritas had laid siege to the place and sent assassins after both him and Thane. Drakhar's security forces now undoubtedly insisted on having as much control over their employer's environment as possible. She'd passed through several layers of that security on her way to the apartment and was, once again, impressed. In addition to the tower's already formidable defenses Drakhar's people had further isolated his apartment by separating it from the tower's lift, requiring her to get off one level below and walk through a series of innocuous checkpoints where she was sure that she and her escort had been quietly and discreetly scanned and where the mercs, for that was what they were, pretty uniforms or not, were prepared to hunker down and fight for every last inch of ground were the place attacked again. Finally she'd been very skillfully separated from her own escort, who had been invited to enjoy refreshments and distractions in a sumptuously appointed apartment while she was led to the stairs up and finally the antechamber outside Drakhar's apartment, a room that would not have been out of place in a palace.

Looking around Mary Anne saw Thane's influence everywhere. The decor practically screamed wealth but was so impeccably tasteful that none of it stood out as gaudy or ostentatious. There was no artwork per se. Instead the space itself was the art. The walls were a soft cream with gold trim and obsidian borders. The marble beneath her feet was a soft ivory with delicate, golden-rose striations. Those tiles were laid out so the stone's own patterns defined the space. The subtle, flowing lines of the marble led one from the entranceway between a pair of seating areas toward the back wall. The two sitting areas were defined with bold obsidian borders as well as the marble flowing in a different direction. Those sitting areas were further delineated through the cream planes and black borders of the carpeted walls, which seemed to merge with the lines of the marble deck. Meanwhile the chairs and couches offered soft counterpoints to the hard planes and surfaces with soft invitations to any weary ass that might want to use them.

What grabbed Mary Anne's attention the instant she stepped into the room, and then called it back time and again, was a single display directly across from the entrance. A single, obsidian table had been placed against the far wall. That table was decorated by a single living flower. She didn't know what breed or species the flower belonged to. All she was clear on was the beauty. The flower literally appeared to glow in a ray of light from a hidden source. It was both so purely, innocently white and simultaneously so thickly and suggestively petaled that it seemed almost sinful to look at it. Stepping into the space for the first time, and seeing that flower glowing brilliant white in the otherwise golden space felt simultaneously humbling and inspiring. Not for the first time Mary Anne wondered, with a wry twitch of her lips, whether Thane had missed his calling.

Then one of the double wide hatches into the apartment proper opened and Mary Anne turned to meet the eyes of the woman who stepped through it. The woman was wearing a two-tone grey uniform with an elegant rank insignia just below her left collarbone, a pistol on her right hip, and the obnoxious grin of a lifelong smartass.

"Captain O'Riordan?" the woman greeted her.

Mary Anne narrowed her eyes, then quickly dipped her head to shield her thoughts with the brim of her hat. Normally she held uniforms, and the people who wore them, in low regard. She commonly thought of such people as 'sheep' or, at best, as trained dogs. The woman before her, however, didn't fit either of those definitions. She was a lethal instrument, of course, and confident because of it. She wore a bold and insulting grin as both a challenge and a shield, daring any who saw it to try and knock it off, but those were all things that Mary Anne had seen in the sheep and dogs of uniformed service.

'No,' she thought as she watched the woman in her periphery. 'It's ambition. Or the ghost of ambition.'

Mary Anne kept her gaze on the floor and watched the woman without risking eye contact. It was subtle but definitely there. It was in the way the woman held herself, the way her eyes moved, and the way she studied Mary Anne for insight and, perhaps, guidance? There was a desire there, a simple need for an undefined and elusive more. Mary Anne wondered if the other woman was even aware of it, and wondered if that need that kept pulling her back to the shadows.

'We'd have that in common, wouldn't we, luv?' she thought with a quiet sigh. From the corner of her eye she saw the subtle confusion in the other woman's eyes along with the obvious questions. 'Aye, ye were expectin' somethin' different, weren't you?' Mary Anne thought, idly amused. 'Good.'

"Captain O'Riordan," the woman addressed her again, obviously confused by the Clan Leader's behavior. Mary Anne glanced her way but stopped short of meeting her eye. "He will see you now?" the woman said with just a tinge of impatience and gestured to a man standing behind her; a pretty, vacuous young thing in a beige uniform whose heels twitched together as soon as Mary Anne looked his way.

"If you'll follow me, ma'am," the lad addressed her.

Mary Anne nodded and the youth turned away from her. She noticed that his ranking was displayed on the sleeve of his left shoulder instead of below his collarbone like the woman's. She began to fall in behind him but had to step around the woman to do so. She felt the bitch's stare on the side of her face and it was both curious and somehow belligerent. She felt a ghostly urge to draw steel and put the bitch in her place. It was an old impulse, still just as strong as it was stupid. The woman's grin returned, however, as if she'd seen the ghost in Mary Anne's body language... and was amused by it.

'Perhaps she did,' Mary Anne thought, 'and was.' One glance at the woman said it plain: this was a warrior. The bitch wasn't tall but she was made of steel. There was a solidity to her and she moved with a simple, fluid economy that said volumes about her competence and training. And then, of course, there was the pistol on her hip. The thing was both well-used and well-maintained. It shone, recently cleaned and re-assembled, yet Mary Anne saw the wear on the grip, and scars in the finish that would never go away, no matter how many times it was cleaned. It rested on the woman's hip like an old friend, at the perfect height so her hand never had to go looking for it. 'Aye,' Mary Anne thought again, perhaps she was amused.' And a moment later, when Mary Anne stepped into the corridor to follow the pretty young thing in the beige uniform, she was not surprised when the woman fell in just behind her. 'Aye,' she thought, soft and deadly, 'they're polite enough to let me keep mah weapons but smart enough not to let me wander without a chaperone.'

After a brief trip through a graceful, rounded corridor they took a left past two armed and armored marines into a long, broad hallway that bisected the apartment. Most of the inner hatches were open and she was privy to views into a series of grand rooms filled with absurd opulence. The journey ended at a double-wide hatch guarded by several more marines. It opened to reveal... light.

At first it was so bright that Mary Anne couldn't see anything but a few indistinct shapes. As her eyes adjusted she began to make out plants and a terracotta walkway. It took a moment but she finally realized that the compartment through that hatch was flooded with what appeared to be real, full-spectrum sunlight, and that light was filling an atmosphere that was humid, hazy and, consequently, slightly reflective. In other words a steamy mist rolled through the hatch and it was radiant with sunlight. It was so wondrous that she found it hard to keep her composure.

A moment later she gasped. The air inside that compartment smelled like heaven. Sweet, delicate fragrances filled the warm, moist, fully-oxygenated air. It was a living atmosphere and her body drank it in as fully and immediately as it was able. She felt like a woman dying of thirst suddenly finding a pool of clear water. Then she began to hear the soft, trilling melodies of birdsong. She wanted to dismiss it but it was too loud, too clear, too immediate, and somehow too personal to be a recording.

She realized then that she was looking at some kind of garden. There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of real, living plants beyond that hatch. They were right there, not two meters away, undulating gently in a breeze that seemed alive. There were flowers and ferns, flowering trees and tall, paper-barked palms, delicate leather-leafed vines climbing the walls and pillars, a heavy, mossy ground covering and...

Mary Anne reached out and grabbed one side of the hatch. She was actually swooning. Just then she saw a colorful flash as some tiny winged creature flew across the walkway just a few paces ahead of her.

"You okay?" the woman asked.

"Oh yeah," Mary Anne nodded. "Just not used to so much oh-two."

"Yeah," the woman replied. "I hear ya. It takes a few sezura to get used to. Feels pretty good once you do, though."

Mary Anne lifted her gaze into the sunny space before her. "It already feels good," she stated. A moment later she stepped into the compartment and, as the hatch closed behind her, suddenly found herself in a rich, green world. She could hear the birds around her. Their song filled the air like chimes. And despite the warm air it was surprisingly cool and comfortable, if a little wet. A few paces beyond the hatch she realized that the whole compartment was made to create a singular illusion. The vegetation was so thick that it felt like she was in a jungle but through it she could see shining white walls. The walls were textured stucco, filled with "windows", and led up to a roofline of brick-red terracotta tiles which gleamed in stark contrast against an impossible cobalt-blue sky, reflecting the...

'Sunlight!'

...magnificent, achingly familiar, late-day light. She lifted her gaze toward the lid... and forgot everything else. An impossible cobalt blue sky was feathered by delicate white clouds gilded gold in the late afternoon sunlight. And as she stared she heard a mournful, keening cry. She shifted her focus and saw a number of tiny white and grey gulls riding the thermals high above her. A moment later she realized she was standing in the private sanctuary of an unknown and dangerous warlord with her mouth open as she stared at the sky like a child.

She tore her eyes away and shook her head. It was a holographic projection, of course. A perfect one, because Thane didn't skimp, but still just a hologram. Yet her eyes kept trying to move back to it, to soak in the sight and feel of a real sky over her head... even though she knew it wasn't. She checked the time via her neural link and saw that it was currently a little after seventeen hundred. Which meant the position of the 'sun' was congruent with the galactic "day". It was low in the "sky" to her right, just sinking behind the white stucco, wrought iron and red tile of of the illusionary villa around her. The illusion was complete, though, and the villa was part of it. She could see through the windows both facing the courtyard and looking toward the illusory horizon. She could see the ocean far below her, and a series of emerald green islands rising out of its blue depths in the distance. The sunlight swept over all of it, gilding the world in a pure, sweet, and achingly brilliant gold.

She sighed again, feeling the ghost of something she hadn't remembered in a very long time. She knew where she was, and she knew she was in danger, but it felt like she was somewhere, somewhen else; planetside, without a care in the world, free to explore and off to meet friends or maybe a lover for drinks, and music, and dancing in the warm velvet air of a pleasant summer night. It was an unexpected feeling and summoned an ache of ancient longing that she'd thought long buried and wasn't prepared to face here and now, as she made her way through an impossible garden to meet this particular young man on this particular errand. So she tried to quickly shove the feeling, and the ache it brought, back down and lock it away tight. But every sight, every sound, and every scent only called it back. There was once a time when she took happiness for granted and assumed that it would last forever and this, she thought, this is what it felt like...

Movement ahead called her eyes away from the sky. As she looked through the cool shadows of this hidden garden she saw a fluid web of light rippling ahead of her. It undulated on the undersides of the flowering trees and turned what appeared to be a veranda ceiling into something magical and alive. She followed the steward passed several thick palms and a cluster of vibrantly flowering bushes and, as the vegetation fell away, she saw the pool appear before her. It was nearly the size and volume of an olympic swimming pool but instead of a brutish rectangle this was a graceful thing of curves and light that merged seamlessly with the garden. It was at once a swimming pool and a deep jungle lagoon. The far side was defined by a sunny patio with non skid surfaces, shining handrails, and lounge chairs decorated with gleaming white towels. On the other it was mossy boulders, cool shadows, rippling waterfalls, and beautiful flowers that looked like fanciful birds perched upon delicately bending stalks. The water itself was luminescent, filled with light by incandescent light sources concealed along the edges of the patio, and rippling violently. The motion of the waves combined with the luminescence to cast a delicate shining web that enchanted the shadows and tugged at her imagination.

Just then she saw a giant animal leap into the pool. For a moment the creature was suspended in midair with an enormous, flopping tongue hanging from one side of its mouth. As the thing hit the water it produced a splash which raced across the pool like a small tsunami and soaked the already shining patio. The monster then happily swam about with an expression that alternated between looks of intense concentration and a very obvious doggy-grin. It splashed around for several moments before turning toward the handrail and curved stairs where it burst back out of the water and proceeded to shake itself violently from head to tail. Seeing this Mary Anne couldn't quite keep the smirk off her face. Judging by the wet cement and tiles, along with the dripping lounge chairs and sodden towels, she guessed that the mutt was very fond of this particular game and had been at it for some time. She also noticed that both the steward and the woman behind her deliberately gave the patio, and the rambunctious hound, a very wide berth.

'Uniforms,' Mary Anne scoffed again. 'What the hell good are clothes that stop you from living?'

A moment later the giant dog pounced onto the lawn and then promptly threw himself onto grass where he dropped, rolled and wiggled around on his back while panting happily in the warm, late afternoon light. Mary Anne continued to smirk until she realized that she was being watched. She looked up and saw Drakhar standing on the veranda beyond the pool and lawn. He was bent at the waist, resting his elbows on the wrought iron railing, and just then staring directly into her soul. As their eyes met she felt an icy jolt of adrenaline hit her bloodstream. In that instant she was, for all intents and purposes, utterly exposed. He was looking at her now the same way he'd seen her in the council hall when he'd stared through the darkness at each of them in turn. Just then he seemed calm and his gaze was cool and unwavering. If anything he seemed just a little bit curious.

'Thank the frakking heavens for small bloody favors,' she thought. Since she'd watched the Brimstone open its launch doors and dump several thousand bodies into the dark she'd been silently dreading this meeting. Despite assurances from both Thane and Gil her gut kept telling her that Drakhar was not the kind to just 'forgive and forget' an attack against his assets and, even though Mary Anne never fired a shot, it was entirely possible that he would hold it against her, a possibility she now found distinctly uncomfortable. That armada had been composed of everything that nine clans could bring to bear against him... and with one act he demonstrated that he could completely annihilate them. So seeing calm curiosity on his face was very reassuring. It was certainly a damn sight better than the brittle fury she'd been prepared for.

He continued to watch her as she made her way toward him. Like the first time she'd seen him he was dressed all in black, although now he was draped in a loose, casual robe that highlighted his physique in shimmering shadows instead of presenting him in the stark lines and angles he'd used to confront the council. Additionally the hair on top of his head, which had been slicked and pulled back into a severe tail, was now loose and appeared to have been recently wet and towel dried. Just then he was gilded by the late afternoon sunlight, which set the loose locks of his hair aflame in molten gold. As he looked at her his eyes reflected the cobalt blue radiance of the pool between them. Looking at him Mary Anne felt her newly resurgent youth rush forward in a delicate flush of heat and swelling loins to declare him magnificent. 'Like a young lion, she thought wantonly, 'full of his power and pride.'

It was the silly thought of a silly girl but here, in this warm and enchanting place, such thoughts were easy. She continued to look for any indication that he was angry with her but saw none and soon she found it was difficult to remain on guard. The setting was just too magical. It was hard not to feel calm and safe here. She supposed she was experiencing another one of Thane's masterpieces. She guessed that it was supposed to be the courtyard from a villa in southern Nuevo España somewhere. The architecture was classic spain. At her feet the path was composed of brick-red terracotta tiles between soft-white stucco knee walls. Everywhere she looked she saw beautiful and elaborate wrought iron finish work. It was on the doors and the tops of the short walls. It composed the railings and lined the windows. And there were beautiful, intricately painted tiles in the stucco and terracotta walkways that combined to create fanciful mosaics of radiant suns or sailing ships amid scrollwork with leafy vines and flowers. And the colors all seemed to enhance each other. The red terracotta tiles seemed so red against the green vegetation and deep blue sky. The water was a panoply of blues and cyan greens. And then there were the birds and flowers; bright reds and blues and yellows, soft whites and delicate pinks amid subtle violets and deep, vibrant indigos. Everything here was beautiful.

She smiled at Drakhar.

'Even him,' she thought, suddenly feeling mischievous and playful.

The path wound its way out of the thick "jungle" that concealed the hatch behind her, around the "wild" side of the pool and one edge of the patio with the lounge chairs, and finally defined one corner of the blue-green lawn before terminating at a short set of beautiful terracotta stairs complete with more of the delicately painted tiles, stucco knee walls and wrought iron handrails. She looked up as Drakhar stepped to the edge of the veranda to greet her.

"Captain O'Riordan," he said with the same smooth, easy curiosity he'd demonstrated thus far and gestured to a table and chairs set up nearby. "Please," he said, sounding civil and almost friendly, "have a seat."

She nodded and quickly mounted the short flight of stairs. A moment later she stepped under a beautifully angled wooden ceiling into an open space of delicate breezes where she could easily look out across the entire garden. Both the table and chairs appeared to wait invitingly. They were graceful things of wrought iron, with a glass tabletop and thick, soft cushions for the chairs. She saw an arrangement of finger food and decanters of water and juice and something she suspected was sangria on a side table, and she realized that she could smell something cooking from within the "house" to her left. She couldn't identify it by scent but the aromas instantly made her mouth water.

Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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Location: Milky Way galaxy. Sol system. Earth. Most of the time anyway.
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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 22:34    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

...continued.

A moment later she was shocked when the steward tried to hold her chair for her. It was an act that she found profoundly absurd and instinctively rebelled against. She was quite sure she could break the pretty little thing using nought but her hands. What the hell did she need him to hold her chair for? So she glared at the fool until he blanched and stepped away. Then she adjusted the chair herself, causing its wrought iron feet to squeal on the tiles. Mary Anne smirked at the offended twitch the lad was unable to entirely suppress. Then she set herself down and proceeded to lounge as arrogantly as she could. Which is when she realized that she had amused Drakhar. He'd seated himself across from her and was watching her with his lips pressed together as if attempting to suppress his mirth. The instant their eyes met they silently shared the joke and both began to chuckle.

"Cap'n Drakhar," she greeted him warmly and then deliberately and obviously looked him over. He was wearing a short robe tied at the waist and she could see the skin of his chest where the robe parted. It was taught and smooth over rippling pectoral muscles. "It's nice to foinally meet you," she told him, thinking of a great many uses for a physique such as his. The instant the words were out of her mouth she saw a shadow move behind his eyes and knew that she'd just made a mistake. 'There's someone else,' she thought. He looked away and back again. He smiled, of course, but there was a defensiveness in his posture now and a wariness in the set of his eyes, where just a moment ago he'd been relaxed and at peace. 'There's someone else and something's wrong between them.'

Just then the great monster from the pool padded up beside Drakhar and made a plaintive noise through its nostrils. The man turned to the creature like a parent to a child. "What?" he asked and cupped the monster's chin in his hand. The dog pawed at him and produced a brief, whistling whine. It was then Mary Anne noticed the way it was licking its chops.

"His tongue," she said and pointed when Drakhar looked at her.

The lad turned back to the dog. "Somethin' wrong with your mouth, bud? Here. Lemme see." The dog, of course, refused to allow the man to inspect its tongue. "Lemme see it," the man reiterated. Mary Anne started to roll her eyes, wondering why people spoke to their pets as if the animals could understand them. But then the dog complied. It whined as Drakhar took its enormous tongue between his fingers and stretched it out to inspect it... but it didn't fight him.

'Well I'll be damned,' she thought.

A moment later Drakhar sighed and let the creature go. "Did you bite your tongue?!"

The dog looked at him adoringly and licked its chops. A moment later it adopted a decidedly sheepish expression. Drakhar laughed. It was a rich sound that came from all the way in his belly and, as he laughed, he took hold of the creature's mane and affectionately shook it by the scruff of the neck. "You moron," he said gently. "You gotta keep that thing secured when you jump! Water only looks soft. Now we're gonna have to have the doc come over and take a look at that and he might want to give you a sh.. OH!" Just then the dog clearly demonstrated that his tongue still worked by licking the man from chin to eyebrows. Mary Anne snorted and then laughed at the expression on the man's face. She also caught the sound of a stifled, 'ahem!' from behind her left shoulder as the soldier woman did the same.

"Ackh!" Drakhar shoved the monster away, leaning back in his chair to glare at the monster. It quickly bounced back and pressed a shoulder against his thigh with enough mass behind it to make the man's chair squeak across the tiles before spinning about and trying to climb into his lap. Drakhar glanced at her while he defended himself. "A gift," he said, shaking the dog by the chops and scruff of the neck. He was trying to sound sarcastic and put upon, as if the dog was a chore. The light in his eyes said differently. "From Thane."

"From Thane?!" Mary Anne was shrill with astonishment. She'd never heard of Thane giving anything to anyone. Parting with one of his dogs was just unthinkable.

Drakhar met her eyes and shrugged. The dog kept trying to jump into his lap while he fended it off. As she watched he found his moment and gave the side of the monster's face a good shove, pushing it off balance. The dog was momentarily confused but then barked once and happily bounced back into the game. The man sighed and rolled his eyes. "Alright enough," he said. "I said ENOUGH, you monster." The tone of his voice got the dog's attention and a moment later Drakhar pointed at the deck and said something she didn't understand; "Sich hinlegen!" The dog promptly lay down on its belly. Just then the lad in the beige uniform appeared and produced something from a plastic bag.

"Thanks," Drakhar said, and it was so casual that it caught her attention. Mary Anne glanced at the two of them and noticed that the lad in the uniform was relaxed. There was an easy contentment in his eye as he watched Drakhar with the enormous dog. The man was comfortable. There were none of the jitters or tension you'd expect to find in a person of low rank when in the presence of the man who ruled his world. Which meant Drakhar didn't frighten him. As she watched the man withdrew something from the sealed bag and promptly wrinkled his nose. The thing, whatever it was, was roughly the size of a big man's fist and smelled vaguely of manure. Drakhar tossed the thing to the dog, who snatched it out of the air with a growl and promptly set about trying to devour it. The man then accepted what appeared to be a hot towel from his servant and shook his head with a sigh.

"Apologies," he said with a glance toward her. "We're still gettin' to know each other."

'Aye,' Mary Anne thought in tones of complete sarcasm, 'the creature's instant obedience and obvious adoration says that clearly.'

He looked up and met her eye. "Can I offer you anythin’?" he asked and gestured toward the "house" behind him. "The bar is impressive. Thane even provided ambrosia if you're interested."

Mary Anne arched an eyebrow. "Ambrosia?" she asked and he looked up from the dog to meet her eye. "Well that's an expensive way to butter me up, lad. Sure you can afford it?"

"Oh it'll hurt," Drakhar said, with just the ghost of a smile. "I may have to forego repairs on my new carrier to manage it..." Mary Anne had to suppress a giggle. "...but if I scrimp and I save I think I'll be able to swing it." It was the setting, she thought. It was magical and alive, and it was making her feel young and new again. She was supposed to be working him and that required that she be focused and clear minded. Yet here she was giggling at his jokes like a school girl who'd just discovered what a penis was for. She needed to get him off balance, to knock him around emotionally, to press his buttons and get him distracted so that when the bait was finally presented he never even saw the hook. "The ambrosia," he said to the steward. "And chilled glasses, okay Ron?"

"Of course, sir," 'Ron' replied. "Chilled glasses it will be." The fellow left with with an easy stride and a light step. He felt good about himself and good about what he was doing. Mary Anne also caught the subtle nod that Drakhar gave to the woman who waited a few meters behind her. A moment later she sensed the woman move away and felt the hairs on the back of her neck relax a little. She'd still be close enough to shoot Mary Anne in the head should the need arise, of course, but she was far enough away to create the illusion of privacy. Mary Anne turned to give Drakhar an appraising look.

"Aye?" he asked.

"So how does a kid from Old City end up being where you are?" she asked him and collected a strawberry from one of several plates of fruit on the table.

"Where I am?" he echoed. "What? You mean sittin' across from you...?"

"I mean a billionaire with a powerful fleet behind him," Mary Anne snapped. "I mean havin' enough nuclear firepower to have the rest of the Yaki clan leaders shittin' in their britches. I mean bein' so untouchable that Rhonkar... a bloody Split! Split! The race that would rather eat nails and go down in a fireball than admit defeat... then Rhonkar goes and gives you a pass. How does that happen?" She had the strawberry by the leaves and the nub of the stem and waved the red end at him. "How does any of that happen? You had nothin'. Nothin'! Now you're the man that kicked the Terrans in the teeth. How'd that happen, for that matter?"

Drakhar was smiling at her. He was obviously amused. All of a sudden his amusement irked her and she dipped the strawberry in the bowl of sweet cream and stuffed the end in her mouth to give her brain time to slow down. The guy was a bit too coarse, a bit too rough around the edges, and unfortunately too scarred to ever be considered pretty. He was young but already wearing the stubble of a full beard and despite the symmetry of his features there was something common in the set of his nose and jaw, as if he was built to take a punch. His eyes were gorgeous but terrifying. They were cool and calm now but she'd seen the fire in them when he stood before the council and felt the power of his will when he turned his gaze upon her, but even here she could feel it in the air around him; this man knew hate. He'd been hated and learned the lessons hate taught early and well. Which meant looking into those gorgeous silver eyes was a little bit heartbreaking. Not to mention that despite his youth he was already wearing a few visible scars. Something nasty had happened to his left eye at some point. She remembered seeing video of him wearing an eyepatch a few months back. All of which meant he wasn't quite her type. Mary Anne tended to prefer pretty things to play with; men with beautiful faces and beautiful bodies who tended to wear happily vacuous expressions, like puppies happy just to be petted. Yet she could feel the man across from her. His presence had weight and substance. His every word and movement felt awesome somehow, as if they caused ripples that would be felt across the universe. Just as Ron of the beige uniform returned, who was very much her type, it occurred to her that Drakhar was no longer the boy that Gil Jerigan knew.

Which meant the plan was shot.

As Ron expertly filled a long stemmed glass for each of them she watched Drakhar and sucked the cream off the end of the strawberry. She was good at it. As Ron set her glass down in front of her he glanced at the strawberry between her lips and a pair of pretty rose blooms blossomed in his dark-skinned cheeks. A moment later Drakhar dismissed him and the boy promptly made himself very scarce. Just before vanishing into the house the lad looked back at her with curiosity and a touch of awe in his face.

Across the table Drakhar smirked and shook his head. She arched an eyebrow at him. "Wot?" she asked, and fluttered her eyelashes at him.

"So," Drakhar asked, smoothly avoiding the bait, "why were you flying on S'jar t'Chk's wing yesterday?" As he asked the question she saw the shadow in his eyes, a black hate that could blot out the stars. He was still smiling, still civil, still 'friendly' but the sudden danger made her skin suddenly feel a couple sizes too small.

"Aah," she sighed, still maintaining her smile. "There it is." She tossed the strawberry end into the waiting bowl. When she looked back up Drakhar was still waiting but the pretense had slipped a bit. "I was beginnin' to wonder when I'd see the angry face."

"I'm not angry," he told her.

"I think you've been angry all your life," she said, and the words were quiet, little more than a whisper, but Drakhar almost seemed to stumble on them. He focused on her and his eyes were like windows covered in frost. 'In fact,' she thought, 'I think you just may be the angriest man I've ever met… and that, my lad, is quite a feat.'

"You didn't answer my question," he said. His voice was soft. If all you listened to was the tone it even sounded friendly. But Mary Anne knew better. She could see the fury behind those wintry blue eyes of his. She raised her eyebrows and played dumb. "Why. Were you. On t'Chk's wing?"

"'Why'?" Mary Anne echoed him, feigning a scandalized expression. Then she leaned back to watch him from under the brim of her hat. "Wot? You don't believe I was there just for the honor of bein' lied to by S'jar frakking t'Chk?"

The man blinked. He hadn't been expecting that. He arched an eyebrow at her. Then, without looking away, he lifted his glass to his lips, presumably to give himself a moment, and she watched him as he lifted his chin and tilted his head to roll the liquor around his mouth and tongue. She could almost see the ambrosia tingle it's way into his nerve endings and 'fill his soul with the holy flame.' A moment later he swallowed, still without breaking eye contact. "Let’s say I don't," he said and Mary Anne thought she detected the thinnest of smiles.

The relief she felt was euphoric. "Good," she grinned and lifted her own glass to her lips. The pale gold liquid instantly set her head alight. It was like honey and starlight on a fizzy cloud and everything it touched tingled and then hummed, as if suddenly alive in a way it hadn't been before. She felt it tingle along her tongue and throat and set a bright, bouncy glow in her cheeks and the middle of her head. It occurred to her then that sparring with the man across from her was a lot like dancing at the edge of a cliff. For some reason she found that funny. "So you're not gonna have me shot?" she asked, letting her mirth fill her eyes and cheeks.

He snorted and shook his head, more in disbelief, she thought, than in answer to her question. When he looked back up she thought that much of the frost had fallen away from his eyes. "Not today at any rate," he told her and she took another sip of the ambrosia. She immediately felt the bloom grow in her cheeks.

'Now,' she thought, silently speaking to both Gil and Thane, 'now I believe you. Now I believe he won't try to kill me.'

But how to proceed? Gil's plan was to push him around, to get him worked up, to get him off balance, and then surprise him with the box. But the boy Gil knew was gone and this man would not be manipulated so easily. Mary Anne picked up another strawberry. There were two bowls of dip for it. One was sweet cream. The other was a thick chocolate mousse. She chose the chocolate this time. When she looked back up the man was still looking at her. The frost was gone but he still felt like a thunderstorm on the horizon. "You still haven't answered my question," he told her.

She smiled at him. "I have something for you," she said, not realizing she meant to play the card until it was already out of her mouth.

"And here I didn't get you anything," he replied without missing a beat.

She removed the small wooden box from her pocket and set it on the table between them.

"What's this?" he asked, obviously intrigued.

"You will have to tell me," she said and took another sip from her own glass. 'It's like drinking honeyed sunlight,' she thought.

After a moment Drakhar put his glass down and pulled the box to him. He lifted it up and admired it. Then he tried the hasp. Just as he discovered that he couldn't open it she produced the key. It had been threaded onto a bronze chain and she let it dangle between them. He frowned ever so slightly. There was a certain type of man who never enjoyed being toyed with. She thought Drakhar might be such a one. He also happened to be gorgeous and terrifyingly, which meant teasing him was irresistible. She set the key on the table but kept her finger on it. "So," she said, "why did Thane give you a dog?" As the question left her lips the animal was growling happily as it gnawed on the thing between its paws.

Drakhar frowned at her. He searched Mary Anne's eyes for her motivations and intentions. She allowed a thin smile to play across her lips. After a moment the man leaned back. She decided again that she liked him. He was powerful and intelligent, and possessed a grace and charm that was unfortunately rare in their society. But he was also still very young and, as such, was willing to play the game, whether he meant to or not. He knew she was toying with him. He just didn't know why. He also didn't understand the prod and pull of intrigue. He wasn't sophisticated enough to understand the art of misdirection and didn't know how surprise in negotiation could reveal hidden truths. Which meant that he likely didn't even realize that he was out of his depth. She watched him set the box down and lift his glass, feigning disinterest. It was typical behavior from a male with ruffled feathers, but she knew she had him. His eyes kept returning to the box, wondering what was in it. "You'd have to ask Thane," he told her.

"It's not like him," she said, watching the slow undulations in the layers of gold in the ambrosia. "He doesn't give gifts, our dockmaster. He doesn't give anything away for free."

"Well," Drakhar met her eye. There was a not-quite smile on his face and she knew he was just a little bit offended. "I do make him a tremendous amount of money."

She felt her eyes widen of their own accord and her lips parted across her teeth. She could feel the air move across the parts of her mouth touched by the ambrosia. It felt both warm and cool at the same time. What were the two of them doing? And just how much money were they making? "You sell him the ships you capture, right?"

"Aye," he nodded.

"And nukes?"

"I do," Drakhar replied, watching her warily from under heavy eyelids.

"Nividium?" she asked lightly.

Drakhar squinted at her. "Aye," he said warily and she heard the warning in his voice, "but don't ask me for details. I promised Thane that I'd play nice and I'd hate to break that promise by tellin' you to mind your own damn business."

Mary Anne smiled. She really did like him. The lad spoke the last bit in a soft growl. It was still civil, still friendly-ish, but it was also clear that he meant it. She lifted her hand from the key on the table. She was watching his eyes when she did it and was expecting them to dart toward it before he went back to feigning disinterest. Yet they remained fixed on her. After a moment the lad's gaze began to feel uncomfortable. It was too intense and just a touch too cool. Her smile faded. "Wot?"

"I'm just tryin' to understand you," he said. "From what I'm told you're a good friend to have. You're a savvy player, a captain that doesn't shed blood unless she has to, a woman who prefers business and infrastructure to chaos and mayhem. I'm even told that you tend to make things better for your..." he shrugged, "'marks'...?" She arched an eyebrow at him. "...once you've gotten what you want from them, anyway."

She lifted her chin and waited.

"So why were you in that armada yesterday?"

"Did you believe him?" she asked by way of reply.

He tilted his head to look at her almost solely with his right eye. "Sorry?" he asked.

"When he was settin' you up for the last ten weeks?" she explained. "Sendin' you to attack Hatibmanckarsat and the rest... did you believe him? Did you believe whatever bull story he gave to explain your orders?"

Drakhar's eyes narrowed. Then they widened just a hair and he leaned forward to stare into her soul again. "Did you?"

She lifted her chin even further. Then found her lips pursing. Okay, so maybe he was more sophisticated than she gave him credit for. "No," she admitted.

The beginnings of a smug smile began to press itself across the lad's lips. He snorted as he lifted his glass to his lips. "So..." he asked again, and was starting to sound impatient, "why were you there?"

She took a breath and sighed. She smiled at him but it was sad. She was having fun. The setting was so beautiful. There were birds singing in the trees around them. She could hear the water as it babbled and lapped at the sides of the pool nearby. The dog panted and growled at it's chewy beside the boy's knee. The wind sighed along the roofline and she actually heard it whistle in one of the tiles. From far above she heard the gulls crying to each other. She thought she could even hear the distant boom and sigh of surf on some imaginary beach an imaginary kilometer away. The illusion was so complete that she wanted to just stay and enjoy it. But she'd made promises and to keep those promises she had to risk angering this young man again… and ruining this beautiful evening. So she took a large swallow of the ambrosia and felt it light up her mouth, and throat on its way to set a fire in her belly. Then she lifted her eyes to stare at the "sun" that was slowly setting behind the "house" across the garden from her. She could see it through the windows facing the garden and the windows facing the illusionary islands in the distance. There were couches in that room, and a pool table and it was easy to imagine it filled with laughing people. She took a deep breath and listened to the water gurgle and lap in the pool behind her. She watched the web of light from the pool undulate on the veranda ceiling and highlight the chiselled face of the man across the table from her. He watched her and she both saw the curiosity in his eyes and felt the anger around him like some kind of black radiation.

'Gil,' she thought, 'if this lad kills me because of this frakking seashell I will haunt you for the rest of your bloody life.'

With that she sighed and shoved the key across the table. His eyes followed it and she saw the muscles in his jaw flex. Then his gaze returned to her. "Is that the answer?" he asked. "The reason you were flyin' with t'Chk yesterday is in that box?" His voice was flat.

She raised her eyebrows. "Maybe," she said and he frowned, perhaps wondering if he was still being toyed with. He stared at her for another moment. She leaned forward and shoved the key even farther forward so that it rested just between the little wooden box and Drakhar's glass of ambrosia. She pointedly held his gaze. "Open the damn box, Drakhar," she told him. Then she leaned back into her own chair. As she did Mary Anne suddenly felt the woman focus ten meters or so behind her.

The lad stared at her for another moment, during which time his tongue moved behind his lips to suck on one of his eyeteeth. It struck her as a very bestial expression and very much at odds with the cultured civility culture that he'd surrounded himself with. It made her think of a wolf moving among sheep while wearing one of their friends as a coat.

A moment later Drakhar looked down at the key and the little wooden box. Both were handcrafted and beautiful in a folksy, back-to-one's roots kind of way. She watched him collect the key and stare at it. It was a simple thing of wrought iron with an old-fashioned tip that was thicker than the shaft, an elegant bit with a graceful arch and a bow that was made to look like a crude ivy leaf. He looked at it for a moment, perhaps appreciating the artwork or perhaps questioning whether the 'gift' was something he wanted after all. She realized then that she was having trouble reading him. Then, after another glance at Mary Anne, who raised her eyebrows and gave away nothing, he turned to the box and finally used the key to unlock the hasp. A moment later he flipped the hasp out of the way and lifted the lid. She thought he looked just a little intrigued, perhaps curious, and still very much annoyed with being toyed with. Mary Anne savored the ambrosia and the shimmering light from the pool while she waited.

Then he removed the silk bag from the box and she felt a sudden chill in her belly. She watched him feel the small, hard thing through the silk. Then he opened the bag into his palm. As his gaze fell upon the tiny thing he held she saw all trace of emotion leave his face. The shock in his eyes couldn't have been clearer. In that instant he was very far away and, for him, many jazuras ago. A moment later she saw something deeper than emotion return to his face. She imagined that he thought himself good at hiding his feelings. The young usually did. In that moment, though, Mary Anne saw the root of his hatred; the heartbreak of innocence lost and the raging pain of betrayal were bleak and terrible in his eyes. She hadn't known for sure what that tiny shell really was. Jerigan wouldn't tell her. But now, seeing that look on the man's face, and it couldn't have been more obvious.

"Did you make it?" she asked him. The lad blinked and looked up from whatever memory he'd just been lost in. He stared at her and for that moment looking back at him almost felt too personal. In that instant he was naked and she was staring into his soul. What she saw there hurt but it was also a relief. In his eyes she saw the boy he'd once been, and the shadow of heartbreak and despair but, more importantly, she saw something that she hadn't even dared to hope for. She saw hope itself. It was a tiny thing, and she guessed that he tried to kill it every single time he encountered it, but it was there and its presence was like a candle at the end of a long and very treacherous tunnel.

'Okay, Gil,' she thought, 'we just might be in business.'

She was just starting to breathe a sigh of relief when he lifted his gaze again, only this time his expression was guarded and shrewd. "I did make it," he told her, and his voice was a whisper. He held it up between them. "It was a birthday present," he said and turned the thing over so they could see the delicate carving between them. "It was the first one I ever gave him." He focused on her again. "We'd gone for a walk and I found this at the edge of the river." His eyes moved to her. "Do you know the riverside?" he asked, "in Old City?"

Mary Anne nodded and felt a shiver run through her. 'Old City!' she thought and the words were a curse.

Across from her the boy nodded as if he'd read her mind. Then he looked back to the shell in his hand. "It was ancient and fossilized," he said, "but that just meant it was indestructible." He met her eyes. "I liked that about it." Then he shrugged. "And I thought it was pretty, you know? I was little and I was hurt and pretty things had been rare in my life. So I took it and when I showed Gil he smiled," his eyes became far away again, "at it" he whispered, "and at me." His voice was as far away as his eyes. For a moment she watched him look through the tiny shell into the past. As he did Mary Anne studied the thing in his hand again. She could see the intricate pattern of leaves and vines he'd once carved along the spiral. Considering he'd been five [jazuras=7-8yrs] when he carved it, it was actually pretty good. The vines and leaves were proportionate along the spiral, the spacing consistent. He'd slipped with the knife a few times, and she found it easy to think that he might have stabbed himself, but the artwork was good. "I didn't have any money," he said, "and Hayla was buyin' him presents, plannin' his party. I wanted to do something for him." He met her eye for a heartbeat. "He saved my life, you know?"

She blinked. She hadn't known that.

Drakhar was in the past again. "But I was just a kid and this was the best I could do." He shrugged. "I also thought we needed more leafy things in Old City so..." Suddenly he blinked. Then he frowned and his eyes focused on her again. She watched them narrow and grow dangerous. Like a dream upon waking the memory of a time when hope still lived, and the gentle little boy with an artistic soul who once found a shell on the riverbank and tried to make it more... were gone.

'There it is,' she thought, wistful and bitter as she lifted the ambrosia to her lips again. She felt his eyes upon her but deliberately savored the quiet sounds and luscious scents of the garden in case she didn't get another chance.

"Quite a risk," he whispered, soft and deadly, and lifted the thing in his hand, "bringin' this to me."

She lifted her chin and held his eye. "Ain't no law against talkin' to 'im," Mary Anne stated defiantly.

"Huh," the kid grunted, sardonic and amused. "Maybe there should be."

She gave him a wry look. "Why? Cos he let you down when you were still young enough to put him on a pedestal?"

His eyes narrowed.

"Now you don't like him anymore so the rest of the universe should line up beside you to...?"

"Like him?!" the lad was astounded. A moment later he shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and laughed. It was bitter but rich and genuine. Mary Anne was stunned. "You know the truth is I do!" he said. "Even after everythin'," he sighed and shook his head, "I do like him!" He met her eye with a brittle smile. "Gil Jerigan is nothin' if not likable." As she watched his mirth was subsumed into something black and dangerous, like a tiny boat sinking in a deep black ocean. "But I also know him," he said and his voice was cold. "I know that Gil looks after Gil and no one else..."

"Oh piss off!" Mary Anne scoffed at him.

The kid blinked, stunned and angry.

"Ye've been askin' the same damned question since I got here, boy! Now you're holdin' that in your hand and you want to sit there and tell me that that man doesn't care about you?!"

"What the hell are you talkin' about?" he snarled, sounding like he wanted to bite. At his knee the big dog looked up with concern in its eyes.

"THINK, boy!" she snapped at him, careful not to come out of her seat lest the bitch ventilate her skull for her. "Why would I be flyin' S'jar t'Chk's wing? Wot? Cos I believed that he was capable of bestin' you? Cos I believed that after he had that nice juicy pie all to himself he'd go and cut me a nice big slice when he was divvyin' up the shares?!"

The kid's eyes narrowed. That's exactly what he'd been thinking.

"Oh hell!" she scoffed and finished her ambrosia in one gulp. Then she glared at him. "Are you really stupid enough to believe that once that man had your complexes... and the missiles they produce… in his greedy little hands that he'd be sharin' 'em with anybody?!" She glared at him to drive the point home. "Or mebbe ye think that I'm that stupid?"

He sighed heavily through his nose and rolled his eyes.

"Drake!" she barked at him, using the name Gil had for him. "NOBODY believed that! Nobody! Why do you think Wen Digo made that solo play of his?!" He looked up and the disinterest on his face infuriated her. She threw her hands at his face. "Cos he was planning to anyway!"

"Honestly? I hadn't really thought about it. Soul searching for the hidden intentions of the people tryin' ta murder and steal from me was kinda low on my to-do list. So, for the last frakkin' time, Mary Anne," he began, and it was obvious he was getting angry, "why the hell were you...?"

"To watch your BACK, you idiot!" Mary Anne threw her hands at him. "Just like Gil bloody Jerigan ASKED me to!"

Drakhar said nothing. His face was simply without expression. It was obvious that she'd just rung his bell for him. She was still angry, though, and so snatched up the absurdly decorated, elaborately made and very pompous decanter of ambrosia snatched the glass top off the top of the bottle and and then very carefully poured herself another glass. She managed to set it back down without breaking anything... but it took effort. Drakhar was still staring at her with complete silence behind his eyes. "Shit, boy," she scoffed. "Is it really so hard to believe that he cares about you?"

"Yes," he replied instantly. There was no hesitation whatsoever.

Mary Anne winced and looked around before focusing on him again. "No. Go on," she said, "take your time. Think about it if you have to..."

"You really don't know what that man is responsible for, do you?" He asked the question softly, with a gentle shake of his head.

"What?" she asked. "What the frak did he do to you that was...?"

Drakhar scoffed then, cutting her off mid-sentence. He met her eye and smiled. That smile was not pleasant. "Oh not me," he said and his voice was hot and soft. There was so much hate in those three words that hearing them made her feel simultaneously feverish and chilled to the bone. It stopped her in her tracks so that the glass of ambrosia ended up suspended a hand's breadth from her lips. At the question in her eyes, however, he looked away with a shake of his head. She leaned back into her chair and took a swallow of the ambrosia worth the better part of half a hundred thousand credits. When she looked up the man was staring at her again, staring into her again.

"Wot?!" she demanded. Her blood was hot and her head was feeling just a little bit swimmy. She was distantly aware of the fact that it would be easy to make a mistake like this but couldn't quite bring herself to care any longer. He snarled at her tone and looked away again. "No! Go on! Tell me what he did that was so bad it's worth throwing away somebody that genuinely gives a shit about you! I want to know."

Drakhar barked a brief, bitter laugh and shook the shell in his fist. "Well," he said softly, "recently he tried to board my ship." She blinked in astonishment at the pure black hate in his eyes. He bared his teeth and nodded. "Oh aye," he assured her. "Sal Vassar wanted my head and hired Gil to get it for him. Half my crew and two thirds of my marines were killed in that attack. But before that?" Drakhar leaned forward onto the table. "He sold me out to the Terrans. He either led the attack himself or, more likely, gave them what they needed to ambush me. Either way I lost my complexes, my fleets, tens of thousands of my people, and quite a few friends." His gaze grew hot and skewered her where she sat. "Both times," he whispered, "if the plan had gone his way I would have been killed!"[/i]

"Ye can't know that..." she tried to retort.

"BUT I CAN!" Drakhar roared and hammered the table with the flat of his hand. This drove the petrified shell into the tabletop hard enough to crack the glass. Before Mary Anne did more than wince the great dog was on its feet, barking thunderously and looking for a threat to destroy. Mary Anne's heart pounded against the back of her ribs and it was suddenly hard to breathe. Across the table from her Drakhar was glaring at her. She could see his own heartbeat in the big veins on the side of his neck. "I lost tens of thousands of people that day," he whispered. "Did you know," he asked, "that in the aftermath the Terrans sent fighters to search for our escape pods... which they summarily destroyed. They destroyed my complexes in Avarice, Lost Order, and Distant Clouds. For months I assumed they'd simply killed everyone on board. Recently, though, I was informed that those people are now most likely slaves in Earth's own minin' colonies. Tens of thousands of my people are now in bondage because Gil Jerigan betrayed me in order to further his own ambitions." He leaned forward to further skewer her with his gaze. "Again," he pointed out. At her expression he snarled a bitter smile. "Oh aye," he said. "It's somethin' of a theme with jolly ole Gil." He curled his lip as he held up the shell in his hand. "And now he sends you to me with this? Expectin' to use my sentiment against me?" He tossed the thing onto the table between them. It bounced twice and then rolled in a wobbly arc before finally becoming still. For some reason the sight of it lying there made her want to cry.

'Goddamn alcohol,' she thought and leaned back into her chair, 'always makes me weepy.' Her head felt hot and her heart felt heavy and her mind was starting to reel.

Drakhar stood and walked away. The dog immediately abandoned the thing it had been chewing on and trotted after him. A few paces away the lad put his hands on the wrought iron railing and settled his weight against it.

Mary Anne stared at the tiny shell on the table. It was black and ancient like the lad said, hard as stone with tiny white vines engraved along the spiral. She picked it up and, not for the first time, marvelled at the love that had gone into it. She looked up at the young man standing a few meters away. Drakhar was gazing up at the clouds and the birds. The "sun" was so low in the "sky" now that everything appeared to be gilded with molten gold. The clouds, the circling gulls, the roof tiles of the villa, the vegetation around her, even the lad himself were all painted in brilliant, igneous light and deep, soft shadows. The man stood leaning against the railing as his dog gazed up at him. She could hear him breathing, slowly and deeply, as he tried to get his emotions back under control. To the "west" the sun was now just touching the ocean beyond the imaginary islands in the distance. There was a river of molten gold reaching across the water toward her. The clouds were light and airy, gilded pink and gold beneath a deep blue sky. Above her head the first of the evening's stars were already peeking through the veil. Just then the dog produced a whistling whine and pawed at his master.

"S'okay, buddy," Drakhar said and reached over the thing's back to pat its shoulder. The dog promptly began to wiggle and leaned against Drakhar's hip so heavily that the lad had to brace himself against it. Drakhar snorted and began to chuckle. The instant he did the dog barked at him and began to bounce around happily.

"Are ye sure he likes you?" Mary Anne teased and lifted her glass. "It's kinda hard t'tell."

"I know, right," Drakhar groaned as the big dog jumped up to put its front paws on his shoulders. Upright that way, the dog was nearly a foot taller than the man and apparently so heavy that Drakhar had to adjust his stance in order to keep his balance. "OOF!" Drakhar laughed. "Goddamn, mutt!" He promptly shoved the thing off him. The animal bounced around again and then barked once, so loudly that Mary Anne winced. Then Drakhar sat against the railing and tapped his leg. A moment later the dog was leaning against him again while the lad pat the thing on the shoulder with meaty, heavy-handed slaps. They were affectionate hits but earned him a playful snarl as the dog gently snapped at him. Drakhar let his hand be caught and then used it to grip the beast's snout from the inside of its mouth, shaking the mutt teasingly with a smiling snarl of his own. The dog immediately pulled away and trotted backwards, shaking its head and sneezing. A moment later, though, its tongue fell from the side of its mouth again and the dog was back for more.

"Ye know," Mary Anne said, feeling just a little light headed, "I'm not sure that dog was Thane's to give. How long have ye had him?"

"Uh," Drakhar blinked as he thought about it. "Since last night... and I think that was the point. I don't think Thane gave him to me so much as just," he shrugged, "got out of the way. Although," he met her eye, "it probably didn't hurt that I'd just given him the entirety of S'jar t'Chk's art collection."

"Ha!" She barked. "I knew it! I knew there was a profit for him somewhere in it! That old bear doesn't give anything anyway! I swear! He'll charge ye to attend his own funeral! Ye mark my words." She was just lifting her glass to her lips again when Drakhar sighed. It was such a despondent sound that she looked up from the ambrosia... and found him watching her. He was still idly roughhousing with the dog but his eyes were on her and they were sad and heavy.

"So," he asked she could hear both anger and frustration in his voice, though she didn't think either were for her, "what does he have on you?"

Mary Anne blinked. It took her a moment to realize what he was implying. "Wot?!" she was shocked and insulted. "You think he's blackmailing me?!"

He shrugged and shoved his dog again. Somehow Drakhar had the monster's hoof in his hands and was playing keep-away with it. "Why else would you take such risks?" he asked.

She gaped at him for a moment before her wit caught up with her. "Well," she breathed theatrically, "mebbe I just luvs him!" She sighed like some impossibly lovestruck fool, "and am all starry-eyed and dewy-thighed at just the thought of him!"

Drakhar gave her an incredulous look but a small smile played across his lips as he shook his head.

"Or mebbe," she said vacuously, "he's my daddy!" She grinned as suggestively as she could. "Which makes us a little like brother and sister, dunnit? Think he'd know if we were naughty?" She saw the shock in his eyes and smiled viciously at him. "Or mebbe," she said, suddenly as hard and cold as he had been, "some of us just do things for reasons of our own." She leaned back into her chair and lifted her glass in a mock salute. "Wasn't it you, just a couple mizura ago, tryin' to stay all polite and civil by 'not' tellin' me to mind me own damned business?"

The boy scoffed but watched her carefully and Mary Anne could see his confusion as he tried to see the truth through her performance. "You expect me to belie..."

"I expect ye to remain a fool and die young," she told him with a smile. "And I don't care what you believe, Drakhar. You asked me a fool's question and got a fool's answer, and were lucky enough to get even that. Ye..?"

"Lucky?!" he cut her off while keeping his body between the dog and the hoof while the big dog circled him and darted at the thing in his hands. "It's not luck, Mary Anne. It's perseverance. Gettin' the truth out of you is like pullin' teeth."

"Well sometimes," she told him and pointed at the shell on the table, "people need to see the truth for themselves."

"And what is the truth, Mary Anne?" he asked her. "That he loves me? That he's sorry for what he did? That he's willin' to sacrifice himself for my benefit?"

"YES!" she shouted at him. That was exactly the truth she wanted him to hear.

"No," he said and held her eye. "He put you on S'jar t'Chk's wing. Now he's got you deliverin' that," he nodded to the shell, "to me." She stared at him, dumbfounded. If he was making a point she hadn't caught it. "YOU are the one taking all the risks, Mary Anne," he told her and she immediately rolled her eyes. Then he added, "and you're not the first woman he's used that way. One day I might just tell you what happened to the last woman who made the mistake of lovin' that..."

"LOVE him?!" Mary Anne was shocked. A moment later she laughed in the boy's face. "Are ye daft?! Ye do know what a joke is, don'tcha lad?!"

He looked up and met her eye while the dog snarled and tried to take the cow's hoof from him. "Did it never occur to you that I might not let you walk back out of here?"

"Of course it occurred to me!" she told him. "You dumped t'Chk's entire clan out an airlock!"

"So…" Drakhar asked, "what does he have on you? Why help him? What would make you risk yourself for," he waved at her with a roll of his eyes, "him?"

She opened her mouth to retort but, for a moment, she had nothing to say. Gil had told her the lad was angry but this?! This black contempt was just too hard to fathom. Gil was selfish, self serving, egotistical, and a pirate but she knew for a fact that he loved this boy. She'd seen it. She'd heard it. She'd witnessed the sacrifices he'd made, sacrifices this boy refused to even consider, let alone acknowledge. But it was clear that she wasn't going to be able to bludgeon her way through his hate. All of those doors were locked tight. 'The drawbridge is up,' her late father would have said, 'and archers man the walls.'

'Aye,' she thought, 'he's ready for that fight, ain't he?'

After a moment she sighed and shook her head. "Because he's my friend," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

He blinked and when he looked up to meet her eyes his face clearly said he was trying to figure out what species of idiot she belonged to. "Gil Jerigan doesn't have..."

"Oh you need to get over yourself," she cut him off. "Let me tell you what that man's been dealing with lately, shall I? There's a certain lad who's been destroying pirate guild outposts all over the western reaches of the gate network." The man instantly looked pleased with himself. "Every one of those outposts ye destroy has the surviving members of the guild screaming for your head," she stared at him pointedly, "and they're feeling a wee bit impatient, if ye catch my drift."

The lad actually grinned at her. "Aye?"

"Aye," she snarled at him. "And that's just the hard place. The rock is the wakiya. Same blokes that put Huritas up to her little coup?"

"Uh-huh," he grunted, watching her with an amused, if curious expression.

"Well they're gettin' a wee bit impatienttoo."

"Still not seein' the downside, Mary Anne," he told her.

"Aye," she nodded. "I know. But d'ye know what Gil's been doin' all this time while his allies call for your head on a plate?"

"Don't know," he said and shoved the dog away from his crotch. "Don't care."

"He's been doin' everything he can," she leaned toward him, "to keep you safe." She watched his hands freeze. An instant later the dog snarled as it tore the hoof from the lad's fingertips and then ran off onto the lawn with it, shaking the thing as if it were a small animal with a spine to break. Drakhar simply stared at her and appeared poleaxed. "Mebbe ye remember gettin' a warnin' about…?"

"An assassin in my fleet?" He rolled his eyes. "Aye," he nodded, then smiled insultingly. "Who we haven't been able to locate despite heightened patrols and sensor sweeps. Honestly I think he made the story up for some.."

"He thinks they're gonna kill him," she said.

Drakhar blinked. Then he rubbed the first finger and thumb of his left hand together as he collected his glass of ambrosia from the table with the right. "World's smallest violin," he explained, "playin' 'my heart bleeds' just for Gil Jerigan."

He was just locked up tight. There was no way in, no way to tell him that he didn't know what he thought he knew. Anything she could say would be laughed at and dismissed.

"What if everything you think ye know is wrong?" she asked him.

"Like what?" he asked and settled back into his chair.

She pointed at the shell. "You made that, right?"

He glanced at it and nodded. "Aye," he met her eye again. "So?"

"It's not another shell made t'look like the one ye..."

He pursed his lips and shook his head. "No," he assured her. "That's the one I made."

"So that," she pointed at the shell, "is the very thing ye found at the side of the dirty 'White' river in Old City...?"

"...yes..." he inserted.

"...ten jazuras ago?"

He blinked and then focused on her, suddenly understanding her point.

"Which means?" she prompted. "That for it to be here now Gil must have carried it with him all this time." His eyes narrowed but she was getting through. "Tell me," she said and crossed her arms over her breasts, "how many things have ye held on to fer that long?"

Drakhar remained silent.

"And now?" she raised her eyebrows hopefully, "...when he thinks his life is in danger?" Her voice became a whisper. "What does he do?" She gestured to the shell again. "He sends it back to ye... to make sure ye know that he did."

The lad stared at if for a moment, and for that moment Mary Anne felt a chilly wave roll across her skin. 'Let him see,' she hoped. 'Let him know.' Then he rolled his eyes and looked at her sideways. She saw the sour reply on his tongue despite the fact he kept it to himself. Then he looked away and she listened to him take a deep, slow breath. 'Let him see,' she prayed again. 'Let him know.'

Then the horizon ate the sun. In an instant the river of gold was gone. The golden light pulled back from the world and retreated across the sky. As the world darkened they both looked up at the fading sky. From the corner of her eye she saw his jaw flex and knew what he was going to say even before it came out of his mouth.

"Yeah," he mused. "Well you can always trust Gil to never give up a bargaining chip before it's cashed in."

Mary Anne sighed as she felt her heart sink. Then Drakhar turned back to her. His eyes were cold in the sudden twilight. "What does he want?"

"He wants to meet with you," she told him. His face darkened with black malice. "Without worryin' about a nuclear welcome," she cut him off.

"Why would I want that?" he asked and thrust his chin at the shell on the table, "and he better have somethin' more to than that to dangle as bait."

Mary Anne stared at him for a moment. "Well," she said and watched him from under the brim of her hat, "he did let slip that he knows where Huritas is..."

********
Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Thu, 23. Nov 17, 22:34    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

...continued.

"So... Huritas?" Seldon asked. "Isn't that why you let t'Chk live?" She still couldn't believe that had fallen out of O'Riordan's mouth.

"One of the reasons," he shrugged. The kid was lounging on an enormous, absurdly stuffed leather couch that looked a bit like it was trying to digest him while throwing a ball through an open door for Max to chase out into the garden. "Another was to make a present out of the little shit for Thane."

"You two are getting all kinds of cozy lately, aren't ya?" she asked him while studying her nails. They were cracked, torn, and dirty... as usual.

He looked up at her and she arched an eyebrow back at him. "Seldon?" he inquired.

"Drake?"

"Is there something you wanna say?" he asked with an overly broad smile.

"I'm taking my vacation the instant Dal gets back from the mining fleet," she replied without missing a beat, "and I'm taking him with me."

He nodded, looking amused. "Alright," he said.

"And," she shrugged, "I know you like him," she said, "but try to remember that Thane is a yaki warlord, okay? And he didn't get where he is by being your favorite uncle."

"I only had one uncle," Drake told her as Max came barrelling back into the compartment. "He was Leo's brother," he said, then shrugged. "Which meant he wasn't really related to me." Seldon wasn't really listening. She didn't think Drake really was either. Both of them were paying attention to the canine hurricane between them. "My clearest memory of him is that he kept tryin' to take my pants off when I was alone with him." Drake said it absently while he wrestled the ball away from Max. Yet Seldon froze, feeling her brain skip a beat. "I told my Ma about it. Leo was in the room when I did. He said there was nothin' to worry about since I didn't have anythin' down there worth the trouble anyway." He growled at Max and finally snatched the ball away. Then he faked a throw that got the dog moving toward the door. When Max couldn't find the ball to chase he looked back and saw it in Drake's hand. Just as the dog went for it Drake threw it out onto the lawn while wearing a very boyish grin.

Seldon sighed and wondered once again how the man survived his childhood. "So," she said, mostly to change the subject, "are you gonna do it?"

"What?" he looked up at her. "Meet with Gil?"

She nodded.

"I don't know," he shrugged. "I mean it'd be nice to scratch Huritas off my to-do list but," he shook his head, "Gil Jerigan is mighty interested in me lately. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that," he waved at the table where he'd met with Mary Anne, "all this is just the bait so he can capture and deliver me to his masters. I mean I learned a lot from that man. One of the things I learned is that the best lies, the best cons, and the best traps..." he shook his head, "... they're always ninety nine percent truth. So yeah, I believe he's in trouble. I believe he needs my help to get out of it. I even believe that he's been doin' what he can to keep the pirates and the wakiya from skinnin' me." He looked up and his eyes were hard. "But why?" he asked. Then he glanced at the coffee table that had been shoved away from the couch. On it the pretty little shell was sitting on top of its silken bag inside the open wooden box. "Because he loves me?" Drake looked at her again. His expression spoke volumes about how much credit he gave that particular notion.

Seldon shrugged. She didn't know the man well enough to say one way or the other. The only thing she was really clear on concerning Gil Jerigan was that the son of a bitch was responsible for the deaths of thirteen of her marines and nearly forty of the Necromancer's crewman, all of whom had been on the job for less than twenty hours when they died. It was a fact she intended to remind Jerigan of one of these days… right before shooting him.

Twice.

In the gut.

Just then Max trotted back into the apartment and barrelled up to Drake. He had the ball in his mouth and was watching Drake with a combination of caution and mischief in his eye. Drake snorted. He was grinning broadly and it suddenly occurred to her how relaxed the man was. She didn't know if it was the dog, the garden, the apartment, finally getting out from under t'Chk's thumb, or a combination of all of the above but he looked good. He felt good.

"So," she said, "I've got some good news. The Doc released Lu this afternoon. I'm told he's trying to get a ride over to the Endless so he can visit Gabe."

Drake nodded while making grabs at the ball, which Max was now playing keep-away from him with. "Good," he said. "If he needs any help with that make sure he gets it. That'll be good for both of 'em."

"And," she winced, "I've got some bad news. Do you want it now or...?"

"Is it life threatening?"

"H'nt and Chinomu both sent after action reports about yesterday's..." she shrugged, not knowing what to call it.

Drake looked up. He saw her expression and smirked. "Conflict?" he offered.

"Sure," she allowed, although the word she liked was clusterfrak. "We lost a lot of fighters when Wen Digo went after the complex," she told him and noted the flexing of his jaw. He nodded but didn't say anything. Instead he just watched his dog settle down with the ball between his paws and try to use it as a chewy. It took approximately one sezura before the dog blinked and jumped up after popping the thing. Drake chuckled, grinning like a little kid, as he watched the dog's confusion. Then he looked up and met her eye.

"She have it under control?" he asked.

Seldon blinked. "Yeah," she said. "I think so. After Frank gets here I was gonna head on over to the Necromancer and see if I can get her drunk." He gave her a look that suggested she'd lost her mind. "Actually," Seldon said with a grin, "you should try it sometime. She's a helluva lot more fun once you get a few drinks into her."

"I'll take your word for it," he told her. Deadpan.

"You know," Seldon mused, "I actually think that might just be perfect for solution for the two of you."

"What's that?!" He gave her a sideways look.

"Get shit-faced together. I mean it's obvious the two of you have a LOT to say to each other. So get drunk! Scream! Yell! Get it all out in the open. Then," she shrugged, "after you sober up, you can both just pretend it was the alcohol talking." She showed him her most insulting grin.

He watched her through narrowed eyes. She knew he was looking for whatever joke that he was the butt of.

"Oh lighten up, kid," she told him. "Life's too damn short."

"I'll think about it," he told her.

"Uh-huh," she said. Just then Max looked up and went rigid. A moment later he barrelled across the room like something shot from a cannon. An instant later they both heard him bark. Just once. But it was for real. He meant it.

Drake rolled his eyes. "I should probably go sort that out, huh?"

"Depends on how much you like your dog," she told him and he was instantly focused on her, his eyes wide with alarm. "What?" she shrugged. "It's Frank."

Drake rolled his eyes. A few moments later Drake got finished greeting Kao t'Kt and the marines constituting the change of the guard. He made a point of greeting each man in person and shaking their hand directly in front of the dog. By the time he was done Max was sitting down, decidedly relaxed, and watching his master adoringly. A few moments after that she updated Frank on everything pertinent and exactly five mizura after that she was stepping off the teleporter with her squad, on her way to the ship that Drake had made available to her. At which point she realized that she was, for the first time in days, both off-duty and not exhausted. It was then that she started to smile.

********

"No," Eri said, "keep them off the roster, Sakharna. I know we're short on pilots right now but their stupidity nearly gave the old man a heart attack. Give them mops and brooms and make sure they know why they're not flying."

On the other end of the line Kleo Sakharna began to complain about all the CAPS she needed to fill and how the pilots were already complaining about the increased time in the cockpit and how difficult it all was to deal with.

Eri rolled her eyes and then wondered if she'd been as annoying as a junior officer. "I know," she said. "I KNOW." Eri took a slow breath to suppress a snarl. "I KNOW, Sakharna. Just do it. Feel free to take your annoyance with me out on them."

She severed the call just as Kleo said something snide, then growled low in her chest and looked up from the terminal in front of her, the terminal that she was supposedly working on even though the cursor had been in the same bloody position for the better part of the last hour. She glanced at the clock on the wall. 18:13. Normally she'd work until 20 or 21 hundred and then hit the rack but she found herself tempted to knock off early tonight. It had already been a very long day and she didn't want to deal with the next task in front of her. She'd hired pilots, assigned them to squad leaders, purchased twenty three new planes to replace those lost in the skirmish with Wen Digo, marvelled at Thane's ability to make money even in what could be considered a small scale civil war, refined training regimens for her pilots and finally decided to start writing letters to the families of the deceased, which is where she felt like she'd hit a wall.

She was rubbing her temples and trying to decide on whether or not to have another cup of coffee when she saw the steamer open. A moment later a shining white ship descended out of the roiling mist into the hangar bay. The instant she saw the plane's pristine white hull Eri felt a host of simultaneous emotions in her guts. Anger, grief, shame and a weakening melancholy all spread outward and upward like nausea from her belly. The plane on the lift was the very same scimitar that Drakhar had tried to give her.

She turned her head to glance at the "board" beside the clock on her wall. The "board" was a holo-display showing the current position of all the planes belonging to the Necromancer and two Panthers along with their current status. She wanted to include the status of the Predator's planes as well but Drakhar tended to be uncooperative. He liked the results she produced but refused to be bound by the procedures that created them. So the only way she could track the Predator's planes was if they were reported by other ships in the fleet. Currently, at the very top of the board, the DESS 'Vexation' was currently listed as ARRIVING at the Necromancer.

Eri took one look at the name of the ship and scowled. Despite assurances from both Seldon and Gin Eri continued to be of the opinion that the man had used the plane and, by extension, the most painful experience of her life, as a barb to get under her skin. She simply found it impossible to believe that he didn't know it would hurt her. She knew she wasn't easy to get along with. She spoke her mind whether people wanted to hear it or not and frequently called Drakhar out when he'd done something stupid or reckless. She didn't try to be his friend. She didn't kiss his ass, and it was just all too easy to believe he'd take her combative nature personally. It certainly wouldn't be the first time someone had done so. She also knew what kind of intelligence the man had available to him. The notion that he'd hired her without so much as looking into her background was just too implausible to credit. Both Seldon and Gin had looked at her like she'd lost her mind when the subject came up but seriously, what was a single plane, even a ten million credit plane, to a multi-billionaire?

She stood and crossed the room to the window. Out on the hangar deck floor a lift truck mated with the Vexation and was just starting to tow it off the lift. Drakhar himself had never commented on what happened. Since she'd tried to sell the plane he was simply all business. Yet whenever she caught him looking her way she thought he looked like he'd just sank his teeth into a ripe lemon through the rind. And now the scimitar had a new name, one that was obviously aimed at her. It was enough to make her skin crawl.

A few moments later the plane was secured and Seldon was dismissing her squad. As the last of the marines finished speaking with her and walked away Seldon looked up and met her eye. The woman showed her one of her most obnoxious grins but Eri didn't believe it. It was the way she moved. Seldon was tense and just a tad twitchy. As one of the deck crew stepped past her she recoiled, apparently surprised to find the fellow so close. Eri sighed. The marines only lost two in last night's action but Seldon was front line for all of it, beginning to grisly end. Everyone in the sector had seen the Brimstone dump its former crew into the night. She didn't know when Drakhar had decided to wipe the Set'jak clan out, although she suspected she understood the reasons. Which meant he'd told his masters-at-arms to make it happen and where Chief Kao t'Kt probably slept like a babe in swaddling afterwards Eri suspected that Seldon had not.

'Death walks in your footsteps, Drakhar,' Eri thought and not for the first time. 'Pain and suffering as well.'

She heard Seldon on the catwalk before she saw her. A moment later the woman was stepping through the hatch into Eri's tiny office. "Well," she said and blatantly looking around at the office before pointedly meeting Eri's eye, "I do believe you are about due for an upgrade."

"And here I'd just gotten used to my shoebox," Eri replied.

Seldon grinned at her. Eri sat on the edge of her desk, crossed her arms at her breasts and held the other woman's eye. After a moment Seldon's grin drained away. "I heard about the pilots we lost," she said and Eri heard the sympathy in her voice.

"Aye," she nodded and looked away. "We sure do see a lot of action, don't we?"

"Ain't that the truth," Seldon replied and collapsed into one of the two 'guest' chairs in front of Eri, maneuvering her flight bag so that it rested in her lap as she did.

"Are you okay?" Eri asked.

Seldon blinked and met her eye. The grin flashed across her face. "Oh yeah," Seldon told her. "Right as rain. Locked, cocked, and ready to go."

Eri waited. And watched.

Seldon took a breath and let her head loll onto the chair back behind her. The grin slipped away. "It was a slog," she admitted.

Eri nodded and watched her friend. As Seldon stared into space Eri thought she could see the darkness in the other woman's eyes and suspected that, just then, Seldon was looking at the events of the night before. "You want to talk about it?" she asked.

The woman sighed. Then she produced a bottle from within the bag in her lap and set it on the edge of Eri's desk with a solid thump! "Not without a drink, I don't."

Eri felt her eyes grow wider. "I'm not sure that's such a..."

"Shut up and get some glasses, will ya?" Seldon cut her off.

Eri scoffed and gave the woman an incredulous look. Seldon simply looked smugly back at her. There was a delightful mirth sparkling in her eyes. Eri rolled her own eyes then... and then crossed the tiny office to fetch a pair of coffee cups. "You know," she said, "you just might be the only person in the universe who can speak to me that way."

"That just means you need to lighten up," Seldon quipped back. "Sides," she said, "I don't think that's true."

Eri set the cups down beside the bottle, which had a black label with gold lettering. It read 'NOVA SOMNIA SELECT Black Label'. It looked both elegant and expensive. "How so?" she inquired.

"Well," Seldon said and collected the bottle. "I saw you and Lu together. It looked to me like you'd still hop if he told you to."

Eri took a breath and thought about it. She shrugged as Seldon poured several fingers of whiskey into either glass. "Yeah, maybe," she admitted. "It's hard not to respect him."

Seldon shoved one of the coffee cups into Eri's hands. "Yeah," she said. "I'll give you that. You know that even with Legion's help I can't uncover most of his service record?"

Eri blinked. She knew that Legion was incredibly sophisticated and often thought of him as the most powerful search engine ever created, but it still surprised her what he was capable of. Looking at military service records was supposed to require a fair amount of bureaucratic red tape, ostensibly to protect the serviceman or woman. Yet for Legion those obstacles didn't seem to exist. She actually found it more than a little disturbing and wondered how much of her unease was the product or her own intuition and how much was the consequence of ATF propaganda.

"...You will destroy that tango, Lieutenant!"

Eri flexed her jaw and frowned at the amber liquid in her coffee cup. "This is such a bad idea," she said.

"No!" Seldon corrected her. "It's a GREAT idea!" Eri looked up to see Seldon grin at her and recline into her chair.

Eri held the other woman's eye for a moment...

"...Do you hear me?! Destroy that target!! Open fire, Chinomu!!"

...and lifted her cup. "To the fallen," she said.

Seldon's grin slipped away. In that moment she was staring into whatever black abyss she'd crawled through the night before. She held Eri's eye and raised her cup. "To the fallen," she replied, "and to those of us who remain."

Eri held the woman's eye for a moment, not sure how she felt about the addition to her toast, then nodded. They both raised their cups to their lips. Eri watched the other woman down her cup and reach for the bottle again. Eri normally didn't drink whiskey and was expecting a bitter, burning swill but followed the other woman's example. The liquid that hit her tongue was not what she was expecting. It was smooth with a warm finish and it left subtle flavors in her mouth that teased her taste buds. Instead of a burn it left a tingling coolness on her tongue while warming her throat and belly after she swallowed. And with her first breath afterward she tasted something cool with the ghost of sweetness. "Huh," she grunted, very surprised.

"Not bad, eh?" Seldon asked.

"No," Eri replied. "Not bad at all." Seldon grinned and poured another swallow's worth into Eri's cup. "That's whiskey?" she asked.

"Technically," Seldon replied with her usual grin, "it's Scotch. Good Scotch. Believe it or not I didn't drink the stuff before I met Drake. Not sure where he got his education on the stuff but..."

"Probably Gil Jerigan," Eri interjected.

Seldon's face soured.

"What?" Eri asked her.

"Nothin'," Seldon replied. Eri knew she was lying but didn't press her. "Let's just say that I really do hope I get to shoot that asshole in the gut someday."

"I'll drink to that," Eri said wryly.

"Well shit!" Seldon laughed. "Better not miss that opportunity! To Gil Jerigan! May he rest in pain and suffering!"

Eri lifted the glass to her lips but only sipped. She didn't have the marine's tolerance and had no intention of praying at the toilet tonight. When she looked back to her friend she saw Seldon staring into the dark amber depths of the bottle on the desk beside Eri's left hip. In that moment Seldon looked haunted. "Can't get it out of your head, huh?"

Seldon blinked. Then smiled. Then the smile slipped away. "It was just frakked up," the marine informed her. "T'Chk had his whole damn crew on drugs. Most of 'em were just kids," she shrugged, "teenagers who should have been getting laid and getting into trouble. Instead they were running around with axes and knives and high powered weapons. They were so high that I don't even think they realized that they were in danger. They'd run right into our field of fire. Not just one or two, either, but whole crowds of 'em; screaming and covered with body paint and the blood and brains of the guy we'd just shot down in front of 'em." She sighed and shook her head. "I don't think they even realized what was happening."

Seldon took a deep breath and met her eye. "It was so bizarre," she said. "There was this one moment," she smiled a small, quiet smile, "it was... it was the most... ah, hell. I don't have the words. At the time I thought it was like seeing a flower growing in the mud and blood of a battlefield, or seeing a star shining through a killer storm. It was beautiful but the beauty was..."

"What happened?" Eri cut her off. "What was it?"

Seldon looked at her. She swallowed. Then she took another shot and reached for the bottle. "T'Chk had us brought into this night club on his ship."

"Did you say a night club?" Eri asked.

"Yeah!" Seldon chuckled and poured herself another shot. "They had a name for it and everything. It was some cargo hold that they'd converted into a club. It had a stage, four bars, shows, attractions... hell, there was one of those wire mesh cages with a couple of guys riding motorcycles around and around inside it."

Eri blinked. "Really?"

"I shit you not," Seldon leaned back into her chair. "And there were at least a thousand people packed into it."

Eri felt her lack of belief on her face.

"Oh yeah!" Seldon said. "And you should have seen t'Chk! WHAT a diva! I mean this crazy little bastard got up on stage and worked the crowd like he was some kind of celebrity and the CROWD! They were cheering him on like... I don't even know!" Seldon shook her head. "Every time I think I've seen it all..."

"So what was that moment?" Eri asked her. "The flower in the battlefield?"

Seldon met her eye. "Music," she said and Eri felt gooseflesh ripple over skin. "Before t'Chk showed up, when we were being walked into the center of the floor like petitioners for that cocksucker to toy with," Seldon looked back into that moment, "there was a band up on stage... and they were good!" Seldon took a breath and sighed. "It's kind of a shame we had to kill them all."

"Drakhar's idea I'm guessing?" Eri asked sourly.

"NO!" Seldon's face told her that, at that moment, she thought Eri had lost her mind. "They had repeaters and grenade launchers and..!"

"Oh," Eri winced and hid her face in her cup.

"Yeah!" Seldon laughed at her. "They were very definitely the enemy and doing their damndest to kill us!"

Eri held a hand up in surrender.

Seldon shook her head. "What is it about him that gets to you?"

Eri blinked. "Huh?"

Seldon spread her hands. "You've got this perpetual bug up your ass when it comes to Drake and I just don't get it."

Eri frowned. Then she deliberately lifted her eyes to the DESS Vexation until Seldon turned and followed her gaze. Then she turned a pointed look back to Seldon and arched an eyebrow.

Seldon met her eye and it took a moment before understanding spread across the woman's face. "Oh bloody..!" Seldon scoffed and shook her head. Then she skewered Eri with a glare. "I named it!"

Eri recoiled as if slapped. "You..?!"

"Yeah, me!"

Eri stared at the woman as if she'd just been slapped. "So," she began, "is that name meant to tell me something?"

"You," Seldon shrugged. "Him. Hell! This whole damned fleet some days." She met Eri's eyes. "But yeah! The two of you VEX me! You bitch about each other constantly and I'm stuck in the middle listening to both sides. Hell! I'd tell you to just go frak the kid and get it out of your system but," she shrugged, "Gin would probably turn you into cold cuts afterward."

Eri felt her eyes narrow.

"What?! You're a pain in the ass!"

"ME?!" Eri was stunned.

"YEAH you!" Seldon glared at her.

"What the hell did I do?"

Seldon's face became bland and she raised both eyebrows to give Eri a very incredulous look. "You mean before or after you said 'Hi' to the kid with phased repeater guns?"

"I wanted him to know..!" Eri began.

"That you could kick his ass?" Seldon interjected.

Eri felt her mouth work for less than a heartbeat. "That I knew what I was doing!" she stated.

"Uh-huh," Seldon watched her with very flat eyes. "With no intention whatsoever to kick him in the balls along the way, right?"

Eri stared at the woman.

Seldon gave Eri a sideways glance and arched an eyebrow.

"It was an audition," Eri explained. "In order for it to work it had to be..."

"See this is what I'm talking about," Seldon interrupted her.

"What..?!" Eri snapped. She was suddenly feeling off balance and annoyed because of it.

"You expect everyone to see things from your perspective," Seldon said and met her eye. "But you don't care to hear anyone else's... at all."

"That's not true," Eri told her.

Seldon started to pour. "Do you know what that kid deals with every day?" she asked and poured several more fingers of whiskey into her cup. Then she set the bottle down and sat back down. When Eri still hadn't answered she looked up and raised both eyebrows.

"What he deals with?!" Eri asked angrily.

"Yeah!" Seldon told her. "What he deals with. The man has a military fleet, a commercial fleet, and a mining fleet."

"Which I manage..."

"You manage the traders?" Seldon asked her. "The miners? The capital ships? Come on. Get out of your own way, woman. You manage small ship traffic within the military fleet. It's a big job that you do for him. He has three," she held up three fingers, "fleets. Not to mention three complexes, which are their own nightmare. He has diplomatic relationships with the Argon Federation, the Split dynasty, the Teladi corporation," she shrugged, "sometimes with the Boron Queendom," she rolled her eyes, "although that's usually a mess," she focused on Eri again, "and somehow he also manages to hold his own in this God forsaken snake pit."

Eri opened her mouth to mention all the lives it cost to maintain such alliances but Seldon leaned forward and skewered her with a glare.

"He has over a hundred THOUSAND people working for him, a hundred thousand people! That's what he's responsible for." She thrust a finger at Eri's face, "and you got mad at him because he didn't think about how the ten-million-credit superfighter he decided to give you might hurt your feelings."

Eri recoiled. She felt as if she'd just been slapped, or maybe like she'd just grabbed the hot end of a high voltage line. It was as if she wasn't fully in her body but was, instead, vibrating in the air like the tone of a chime; ringing and ringing as she slowly faded away. It was the condemnation in Seldon's voice. It was unexpected and it hurt.

Seldon leaned back into her chair and watched Eri's face. Neither woman said anything for some time. "Look," Seldon said, "you're one of those people who is really good at being right but you don't know dick about being wrong. Thing is, everybody's wrong sometimes. Everybody."

"You're saying I'm wrong?" Eri asked dangerously.

"I'm saying you could cut the man some slack every now and then. I'm saying you're not the center of the known universe. And I'm saying that you could stand to grow the frak up in a couple places. You did introduce yourself by making the man afraid not only for his life but the life of the woman he loves. You ATTACKED him. And since then if you're nearby god forbid he makes a mistake..."

"When he makes mistakes people die!"

"Yeah!" Seldon barked at her. "You're right. But he's got the frakking job, doesn't he?! And unlike some people around here he actually gives a shit! T'Chk threw his people at us! Used them as meat shields while he tried to escape! Drake?! Not too long ago I caught that man trying to run himself unconscious. It was the middle of the night and he couldn't sleep because of the litany of the dead going through his head! When I finally stopped him he'd been running... SPRINTING! ...for over twenty five klicks!" Seldon shrugged. "Not exactly healthy, maybe," she focused on Eri again, "but I'd much rather work for him than some asshole who just sees our lives as pieces on a board to..."

"But that's exactly what he does!" Eri interjected. "The day I arrived he had a new crew working a triple shift so he could have the Necromancer..."

"...ready to take back half a billion credits from Salvadore Vassar," Seldon interjected.

"That's no excuse for..!"

"Five hundred million credits would have solved all the big problems this fleet was facing, Chinomu! We had no ships! We had no income! We had LOTS of people to take care of... and we had some pretty scary enemies after us! Still do, for that matter! Drake was trying to get the money we needed to survive!"

"Forty two people died..."

"Because Gil Jerigan is an asshole! And pirates don't play fair!" Seldon barked at her. "What the hell did you think you were signing up for?! I mean shit, woman! Nobody recruited you! You looked him up! You planned and executed a surprise attack to get his attention and now you want to bitch about what you got yourself into?!"

Eri felt her mouth work but said nothing. There was too much swirling around in her head. She hadn't expected this, especially from Seldon. She set her cup down on her desk. She no longer felt like celebrating anything and the whiskey had grown bitter in her mouth.

Seldon stood, vacating the chair in front of Eri's desk. She collected her bag and glanced at Eri. There was genuine anger in her eyes. "I gotta go. Enjoy the bottle," she said and turned for the door.

"You didn't finish your story," Eri told her as the woman started to leave.

"Yeah," Seldon replied. "Maybe some other time."

The hatch closed between them and Seldon made her way past Eri's window with her head down and a sour look on her face. A moment later Eri was alone. She took a breath and rubbed her temples. She deliberately thought of her dream again, forcing herself to think about the shadow she'd seen this man cast upon the Garden of Eden.

"...You will destroy that tango, Lieutenant! Do you hear me?! Destroy that target!! Open fire, Chinomu!!"

"There are fifteen hundred people on that transport! I can't..."

"This is not a frakking request, Lieutenant! DESTROY THAT TARGET!!"


"Ohh!" she exhaled heavily. It felt like there was a black wind blowing through her heart. "Frak me."

********

Lieutenant Commander Donnelly climbed left his tenjin behind and led his men down the docking tube. A moment later he stepped onto the platform of the Drakhar Enterprises Alpha Complex HUB's docking tower number three, where he promptly stretched his back and shoulders, flexed his jaw and popped his ears in an attempt to hurry the process of becoming acclimated to the local gravity and pressure. Every ship and station owned by the Drakhar Enterprises corporation ostensibly used the same pressure but gravity was a trickier matter since the mass of the ships and stations affected it and those subtle differences in gravity, in turn, affected the atmospheric pressure. So every ship and station was, in reality, its own little microcosm and Donnelly always found he needed a few mizura to get accustomed. He was still in the process of popping his joints when a man with a round, flat face, thin lips and eyelids and bureaucrats flat ass and bent posture approached him with an open hand. Donnelly had seen this man's picture in the brief he'd been supplied and knew he was looking at the station's Chief Operations Officer (COO) and that his name was Sed Thannar.

"Lieutenant Commander Donnelly," the man said and Donnelly heard the relief in the fellow's voice. Thannar offered his hand, which Donnelly promptly took and squeezed. Donnelly was expecting a soft, limp grip from the bureaucrat. Instead Thannar returned his handshake firmly and held Donnelly's eye while he did so.

"C.O.O. Thannar," Donnelly said, finding himself impressed almost despite himself.

"Thank you for coming." Thannar told him.

"Those were my orders," Donnelly told him simply.

"Of course," Thannar replied. "Well, in any case, I am glad you're here."

"I'd say the same," Donnelly told him, "but my instructions were just vague enough to make me wonder if this was a joke of some kind."

Thannar smiled at him but it was then that Donnelly saw something that truly worried him. The man before him was terrified. Mortal terror was screaming in the man's beady little eyes. As he saw it, and took in the fellow's composure, Donnelly realized two things. The first was that the man was due more respect than Donnelly had afforded him thus far and the second was that there was something terribly wrong. "If only that were the case," Thannar said so softly that it was obvious only the two of them were meant to hear. "I can fill you in as we travel." He gestured to what appeared to be a monorail behind him. "Please, this way."

"Is it so far?"

"The compartment we need to access is three kilometers from where we now stand. Normally I would offer to walk with you but... well I think when you see the problem for yourself you will agree that it would be better to deal with this matter sooner rather than later."

Donnelly nodded. He was still outwardly calm but he could feel his own discomfort like a soup in his guts and a black fear began to echo what he saw in Thannar's eyes. "So what is the problem?" he asked.

Thannar gestured to the train, indicating that Donnelly's marines should be seated first. As the four men in the squad were strapping themselves into the monorail's seats Thannar turned back to Donnelly. "I think it would be better if you were to see for yourself," he said, "and I dare not speak of it where any can hear."

"Why?"

Thannar looked around to indicate the crowds of people on the platform and pointedly nodded at the cameras. Then he leaned in close so that he could speak to Donnelly alone. Within the ambient noise of the landing platform anything he said would be lost, and he was even careful to keep his head down in order to obscure the shape of his words. "Because, Lieutenant Commander, even a word of this in the wrong ear would cause a panic and, considering the nature of what we produce here, I think you will agree that panic is something to be avoided." With these words the C.O.O. raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Donnelly nodded, feeling even less comfortable than he had the moment before. A few moments later he was sat beside Thannar in the cozy little monorail and speeding along through the center of the HUB's superstructure. At the speeds the monorail was capable of the three kilometer trip took only a few moments but, to Donnelly, it felt like an eternity of fearful wondering. What the hell was going on here? What kind of problem had he been sent to solve? Why would it cause panic?

By the time they finally arrived at their destination Donnelly felt more than a little nervous. After disembarking the monorail car it took only another several mizura to pass through the obviously heightened security as they made their way into a small substation for monitoring the station's life support. Just outside the hatch, which was guarded by no less than twenty armed men, Thannar took him aside.

"Before we go in," the man said to him, "I need to ask... ahem!" The man's lips thinned into something that wasn't quite an apologetic smile. "I must insist that you touch nothing, absolutely nothing. Do you understand?"

Donnelly nodded.

"Please say it out loud for me, Lieutenant Commander."

"I won't touch anything," Donnelly told him.

Thannar nodded then turned to the two men standing on either side of the hatch. "You may let us in," he said to them.

A moment later Donnelly followed Thannar into a small, cramped little office with a great many displays showing various aspects of the local environment and life support systems. Directly in front of him the chair meant for the local technician had been turned around. He could see blood staining the back rest, but not the headrest. His first thought was that someone had recently died in that seat. Beyond the chair was a display with an entire page filled with strange characters. At the very bottom the display informed him:

PROGRAM READY; EXECUTE[Y/N]?:Y

This was followed by a blinking cursor.

"What exactly am I looking at?" Donnelly asked.

"Right now," Thannar told him while sounding slightly breathless, "every single one of the sixty three thousand three hundred and forty nine lives on this station, excepting only those found within the confines of this very compartment, are a single keystroke away from extermination."

"Say again?"

Thannar turned to face him. "A computer virus was released into the station's network. As of this moment, and since roughly nineteen hundred last night, all of the safeties are down. All of the backup systems have been compromised. The program is ready to execute." Thannar pointed at the enter key. "A single button press will kill..." his voice broke and Thannar had to swallow and take a breath. "Will kill everyone on this station."

Donnelly turned back to the terminal. "Well frak me."


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A Pirate's Story.pdf(KIA) by _Zap _ From Nothing.PDF(complete) by _Zap _ Prodigal Son(active) Original Thread, Prodigal Son_PDF
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Triaxx2





Joined: 29 Dec 2009
Posts: 7156 on topic

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PostPosted: Fri, 24. Nov 17, 02:42    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

YES! GO SELDON. Sit her down and give her the talking to she deserves. A bit of Headbutting wouldn't go awry either, but I"ll take what I can get.


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Nathancros





Joined: 30 Nov 2010

Location: Dark side of the Mind

PostPosted: Fri, 24. Nov 17, 02:46    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Another work of absolute art my friend!

And of course. ANOTHER CLIFFHANGER

Love the dog, you managed to get how raising a dog can be, down perfectly

Now i must suffer purgatory *The time between updates*
I shall suffer this agony while i await the glory that is MOAR


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Olterin



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Joined: 27 Feb 2009
Posts: 602 on topic
Location: ... is as usual, the wrong one
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PostPosted: Fri, 24. Nov 17, 11:19    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

It was worth the wait Very Happy

But now, this will be my constant companion until we get past the (incessant) cliffhangers - those work best if the continuation isn't half a year away, for the record Razz

"I must not fear the cliffhanger.
The cliffhanger is the mind-killer.
The cliffhanger is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face the cliffhanger.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the cliffhanger has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."


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