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

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

Post by Zaitsev » Mon, 28. Dec 20, 06:50

In the spirit of _Zap_ - Ten years ago, on this day, the most awesome of journeys started. I've actually been re-reading From Nothing over the past couple of months, and it's still as good as I remember it. Again, thank you to Scion and all who contributed. You all came together and helped make this an epic journey that, at least in my opinion, rival that of professional writers. There's a reason I still check in here regularly, ten years later.

And to all who left us for one reason or another - I hope you're doing well. And if you stop by, know that your creations are still very much appreciated.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

DiDs:
Eye of the storm Completed
Eye of the storm - book 2 Inactive
Black Sun - Completed
Endgame - Completed

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

Post by Zaitsev » Fri, 12. Feb 21, 14:02

It's too quiet in here ...

*pulls out a fresh pool noodle, gently noodles Scion once or twice, and then goes back to hibernation*
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

DiDs:
Eye of the storm Completed
Eye of the storm - book 2 Inactive
Black Sun - Completed
Endgame - Completed

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

Post by Zaitsev » Mon, 12. Apr 21, 16:30

And now for something totally different - TRIPLE POST!

*unpacks the usual fresh pool noodle and gently noodle Scion, while noticing that the noodle has gone a bit stale*

Hm ... Time to buy a new batch, perhaps? :gruebel:

Jokes aside, hope you're still doing all right, Scion. *crosses fingers*

That's all, folks. Nothing more to see here.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

DiDs:
Eye of the storm Completed
Eye of the storm - book 2 Inactive
Black Sun - Completed
Endgame - Completed

Nathancros
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Nathancros » Sat, 8. May 21, 21:37

Gday again you glorious nerds.
Its been a long time, and a tale on youtube about a community from a long lost forum reconnecting inspired me to come back. if even for a moment.
That tale gave me the drive to say what i think, before i am unable to do so for whatever reason (forums shut down, people leaving or a global apocalypse)

I just wanted to thank all of you guys for the amazing ride this was, when i first came about here i was, at least mentally, an immature child incredibly over-excited being able to join in stories like this, even trying to write my own, fueled solely by the fire you guys lit in me. (i could never match ya'll!)

Looking back on all this, its been great memories that have held in my mind forever, and have definitely shaped me as a person since then..
Your imagination fueled my desire to create.
Your writings inspired me to consume books and stories all the time.
and the community you made here has been my mental template for any community i try to be apart of. One that is open, accepting, and a bright shining light.
I hope to see the story's end someday, Scion your a legend without compare, as the community here is the same.


So thank you to you all!
Nathancros (i haven't used this name in YEARS.)
P.S If you see Wingnutcros anywhere on the internet.. ask if its me!
Nullam et arcu vitae magna instabilitate omnia solvit

Am a recovering Addict of the CREATIVE FORUM.

Long live X3

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

Post by Zaitsev » Thu, 13. May 21, 01:47

Nathancros wrote:
Sat, 8. May 21, 21:37
Gday again you glorious nerds.
Its been a long time, and a tale on youtube about a community from a long lost forum reconnecting inspired me to come back. if even for a moment.
That tale gave me the drive to say what i think, before i am unable to do so for whatever reason (forums shut down, people leaving or a global apocalypse)

I just wanted to thank all of you guys for the amazing ride this was, when i first came about here i was, at least mentally, an immature child incredibly over-excited being able to join in stories like this, even trying to write my own, fueled solely by the fire you guys lit in me. (i could never match ya'll!)

Looking back on all this, its been great memories that have held in my mind forever, and have definitely shaped me as a person since then..
Your imagination fueled my desire to create.
Your writings inspired me to consume books and stories all the time.
and the community you made here has been my mental template for any community i try to be apart of. One that is open, accepting, and a bright shining light.
I hope to see the story's end someday, Scion your a legend without compare, as the community here is the same.


So thank you to you all!
Nathancros (i haven't used this name in YEARS.)
P.S If you see Wingnutcros anywhere on the internet.. ask if its me!
G'day to you too, my old partner in squee.
It has been a long time indeed, but it's nice to see that some of the old crew is still alive and kicking. And thank you for joining in. The pure, unfiltered excitement you brought to this story gave it extra ... I don't know if "color" is the right word, but I'll go with that anyway. It was different, and I'll happily admit I liked the squeees. Even if the admins had to intervene a couple of times, because the forum wasn't equipped to handle all those Es.

Regarding memories I think all of us who participated have some. With Scion at the helm we ended up creating something truly epic, and I for one am willing to put this story up there with Nuklear Slug and the likes. In my case it was the first time I ventured outside my tiny group of friends/test readers, and boy was I nervous when I posted Gin's introduction. While I personally won't go as far as to say this story shaped me as a person, it definitely shaped me as a writer. It drove me to improve my craft and sharpen my skills as a writer, and for that I am forever grateful. Not to mention the mad scrambles I often had to do when Scion messaged me to ask about various details or some background info, and I had to pull something out of some un-sunny orifice (thanks for that one, Triaxx) that was still consistent and in line with what I had written previously.

I hope to see this story's end someday as well. And yes, Scion is indeed a legend for writing this story, as well as for his amazing ability to understand characters that were created by a bunch of very different people, and for keeping it all at least somewhat coherent.

Again, thank you for joining us, and thank you for being here. You, and all who participated, made this story unique and precious. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I'm glad I was here for it.

And if this is farewell, then have one last SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE for the road.
Take care, Nathancros. I'll miss you, you ol' bugger.

- Z.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

DiDs:
Eye of the storm Completed
Eye of the storm - book 2 Inactive
Black Sun - Completed
Endgame - Completed

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

Post by Scion Drakhar » Sun, 13. Jun 21, 01:23

I love you guys.
Apologies for the long delay.
I have just started writing again.
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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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Zaitsev » Thu, 17. Jun 21, 02:08

Scion Drakhar wrote:
Sun, 13. Jun 21, 01:23
I love you guys.
Apologies for the long delay.
I have just started writing again.
Yay, Scion is back! Praise the sun! No wait, wrong franchise ...

Hope your doing well, Scion. Or ... as well as the situation allows, I suppose.
We love you too. Take care, and stay safe.

Cheers, Z.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

DiDs:
Eye of the storm Completed
Eye of the storm - book 2 Inactive
Black Sun - Completed
Endgame - Completed

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

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:39

Previous Chapter

92. Little Bird and Dragon

The ship thumped and Gin rocked back to consciousness. The first thing she became aware of was the catch of her safety restraints as she leaned forward in the rapier's pilot-chair. She lifted her gaze to look through the forward canopy and saw the distinctive shoulder and prow of a Hyperion Vanguard. They'd just docked.

"Legion?!" she called out in alarm.

"Commander Ookami," Legion replied pleasantly from the shipboard speakers.

"Where are we?! What happened?!"

"We have just docked with the Shirubāurufu."

For an instant she was stunned silent. Then she whispered, "you took me back to Drake." She felt cold, numb and hopeless. How could she possibly look him in the eye?

"On the contrary," Legion replied. "I contacted Drake and facilitated our rescue by Rear Admiral Ea't s'Quid as well as a rendezvous with the Shirubāurufu to ensure that you receive the medical attention that you require."

Gin's eyes found the sector map. They were in the northern reaches of Avarice, a sector Drake once effectively ruled, and were guarded by the Osan'gar and two Panther class frigates. There were also several wings of susanowas flying their CAPs in a twenty klick perimeter around their carriers.

"What did you tell him?" she asked and was horrified to hear the tremble in her voice.

"That we were in need of rescue," Legion explained. "We left the planet pursued by a squadron of Argon military pilots in advanced discoverers. Upon reaching the system sector we were engaged by police interceptors while the north and south gates were denied to us by a Cerberus class frigate with fighters and a centaur corvette with full fighter escort, respectively.

"The improved capabilities of this ship allowed us to outmaneuver and then outpace the Argon Military Interceptors. We do not possess a jumpdrive, however, and were easily outmaneuvered by the arrival of the 'Valiant', a Colossus class carrier belonging to the Argon Military, which emerged from Montalaar's East gate 8.7 kilometers ahead of us.

"We were able to plot a course under the valiant and managed to boost through the gate before fighters could be deployed. The Argon Military quickly blockaded both gates in Avarice. So we were able to outdistance our pursuit but, without a jumpdrive, we were effectively denied access to the gate network. At which point the probability of your capture or death by the Argon Military began to climb exponentially..."

"Drake went to war with the Argon Military for me?"

"Not quite," Legion replied, "although it is highly probable that he would have. Instead we deployed our single jump beacon which allowed Admiral Ea't s'Quid..."

'Admiral again is it?'

"...to jump to our location and set up a blockade around our position. This was followed by a communication from Drake to the Commander of the Valiant. Afterward the Argon Military departed without incident allowing us to rendezvous with the Shirubāurufu. Commander s'Quid's forces will be standing guard until we are underway."

There was a great big gap in that story, Gin noted. It was right around the part where Drake and that Captain were chatting. She briefly wondered if Drake had threatened him, bought him off... or both. A moment later she realized that she was gazing at Anderson's reflection in the canopy and blinked. The man's face was white as a ghost but the palms of his hands and the tips of his fingers were a dark and unsettling shade of blue. She turned back to the forward canopy. "It just occurred to me, Legion, that I once again owe you my life."

Legion was uncharacteristically silent.

"If you hadn't been here..." She shook her head. Then looked directly at the dashboard camera. "I owe you my life, Legion. Thank you."

"If it is true, Commander," Legion replied, "that you do, in fact, 'owe me your life' then I would like to make a request: please treat your life as if it is your most precious possession and guard it well."

Gin stared at the camera for a moment and then dropped her gaze. She felt rebuked and started to feel like she was falling. "You do have a way of cutting to the quick, don't you, Legion?"

"I do not mean to add to your distress, Commander. I would simply like to remind you that you are a significant component in a system capable of dramatically changing the landscape and experience of the sentient races in this galaxy. Your well being is of vital importance to a number of people, or variables, within this system who would all be adversely affected should your life come to an abrupt end."

"Wow," she said. "You know I remember being told that I mattered and was important to people... or Alex does-err... did." She fixed the camera with a wry stare. "But I've gotta tell you Legion. You're the first to make it feel impersonal."

"You have my apologies for any discomfort, Commander. I've simply noted that your behavior and thinking have a higher incidence of achieving coherence after having been confronted with demonstrable facts."

Gin looked up and stared through Anderson's reflection. From an objective standpoint her experience was fascinating. Rationally she could accept what Legion told her. Yet simultaneously there were ironclad logical arguments stating that he was wrong. That it was impossible not only that she did matter to others but even that she could. Those arguments happened faster than the blink of an eye, rushing along old and well-worn paths paved with countless sequences of thoughts and decisions that led, over and over and over again, to the undeniable conclusion that, for everyone's sake, she was better off alone. Perhaps even dead. It was a routine as old as...

~'...as I am?'~

...her cybernetic body. It was a routine that had, time and time again, steered her away from people, keeping her out of memory the same way she avoided cameras.

'Part of my damn programming!?!' she thought bitterly.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden muffled thumping of someone pounding on the far side of the rapier's starboard docking hatch. As Gin lifted her head a woman's voice carried through the ship's metal skin and frame. "Gin!" Seldon barked at her. "I know you can hear me! I also know you took a hit and need medical attention!" There was a momentary pause. Then Seldon shouted, "Again!" There was another thump from the airlock. "So you better open this damn hatch before I bust out the plasma cutter!"

Gin scoffed and weakly shook her head. Then she glanced at the dashboard cam. "Well go on then," she said to Legion. "You know she's not bluffing."

The airlock opened behind her and Gin was instantly aware of Seldon and the two corpsmen behind her. The corpsmen smelled of clean soap, disinfectant, laundry detergent, aftershave from the male and a flowery shampoo from the woman as well as the tired, incessant ache of endlessly recycled air and water. One of them had a piece of hard watermelon candy in his left pants pocket. The other had recently had sex in a utility closet. Seldon, meanwhile, was agitated and angry but, amazingly, smelled of sunlight and salt water, of dry sand and tropical flowers, of algae, open air and ocean breezes. There were also traces of a thick, meaty musk that Gin was sure belonged to a large canine.

She took a breath to steel herself and then turned the chair to face her friend. Seldon was bronze from recent exposure to real sunlight and pointedly looked Gin up and down. As she did, the woman's face contorted into an expression that somehow managed to say everything that could possibly be said regarding the state of what she was looking at.

In case Gin missed it the bitch also summarized. "Girl," Seldon said, with her eyebrows most of the way to her hairline, "you look like shit."

********

It was true. Gin stank of blood, stale sweat and sour armpits. She was covered in black, loamy soil, leaves and... Tasha plucked one of the things from Gin's shoulder... pine needles. The crushed remains of ferns clung to the thick layer of that same black soil on her boots above a smear of red silt on her soles.

Most notable, however, was the glistening bone of her hip peeking out from the squirming flesh and obliterated clothing of the woman's right flank and thigh. Adams and Grimes had also noticed and were momentarily stunned, not by the injuries they were looking at, but by Gin's apparent indifference to them. A moment later they snapped out of it. Grimes immediately began setting up the stretcher while Adams stepped past Seldon to start inspecting the woman's injuries.

"Seriously?!" Seldon met Gin's eye. "What is it with you and getting shot-to-shit?" She spread her hands. "Is it some kind of fetish?"

Gin gave her a withering look that Tasha was sure she'd last seen on Drake's face.

"Damn, girl," Seldon leaned back and put her hands on her hips.

"What?" Gin asked as she began to stand. Adams stared at her in awe but didn't have the nerve to object.

Meanwhile Seldon couldn't help but stare as the woman's flesh writhed within her wounds. "Err..." Tasha began while forcefully tearing her gaze away from the charred muscles and bare bone. "Let's just say that you and Drake have gotten to that point in your relationship where you've started to-umm... look alike."

Gin's expression was now nearly identical to the one Drake used when he was doubting her sanity.

"Seriously," Seldon assured her. "You look just like him."

Gin scoffed with annoyance and looked away. "There are times when I genuinely don't know how I feel about you, Tasha."

Seldon blinked.

That was new.

She watched the woman's jaw clench as she heaved herself toward the stretcher. Gin was obviously exhausted and in quite a bit of pain but Seldon had seen that before. The fact that it was right there on her face was different. As long as Seldon had known the woman Gin had always been cool and distant. She was just hard and in control in a way that even the toughest of her marines couldn't manage. And the bitch managed that even when she was, sometimes literally, falling apart. The woman just didn't exactly do emotional expression.

Until now.

It was subtle. Tasha doubted that Adams or Grimes would have noticed the differences even had they been pointed out. But, for Tasha, Gin was one of her people. Which meant that noticing and paying attention to subtle changes in behavior was just part of her S.O.P. Subtle changes in a marine's demeanor often meant underlying emotional issues that could jeopardize lives. Which meant, compared to her usual stoic hypervigilance, Gin's current display of irritation and weariness was noteworthy.

Just then Gin actually lost her balance. Seldon caught her. "Easy now," she said, steadying her friend with a hand under the elbow.

Gin froze. It lasted less than a heartbeat but was accompanied by a look that was practically haunted.

Tasha grinned at her. "C'mon," she said cheerfully and began helping her friend toward the stretcher that Grimes had just finished setting up. "Let's get you fixed up."

Gin sighed, weary in a way that had nothing to do with lack of rest or injuries and allowed Tasha to help her. "Thanks," Gin said in a voice that didn't carry beyond the cockpit.

Seldon kept the smile on her face but was once more taken aback by how raw Gin was and, also according to her S.O.P. she proceeded to carry on with the subtlety and tact of a gauss cannon. "Hey," she said with a grin that was just a bit too sharp, "don't thank me." The implications were as in-your-face as her typical grin. "I didn't send this little rescue party out here for you." It wasn't until the words were hanging in the air between them that Tasha realized how they were meant to hurt.

She regretted them instantly.

Gin actually winced and, a moment later, the silence between them became so thick and heavy that Tasha could have sworn it had mass. Gin wouldn't meet her gaze and, for several moments, neither woman said anything. Then, supported by Seldon, Adams and Grimes, Gin collapsed on the stretcher. As she did she produced just the hint of a whimper, which wasn't just out of character it was a bit like a Split warrior needing a hug. For an instant it almost felt like the universe was unravelling.

Then she sighed as Seldon and Adams helped her lie down and it almost sounded melodramatic with despair. As Seldon straightened back up their eyes met and, in that instant, Tasha felt like she was gazing through a pair of windows that looked out upon the fields of hell. The guilt and self loathing she saw in the other woman's eyes was something that, until that moment, Tasha had only ever seen in the mirror after one truly catastrophic series of choices or another. In that instant Tasha felt a string of knots along her spine all slip loose and come free in a single rush of understanding.

"I'm sorry," she said without even realizing that she'd meant to.

A question formed in Gin's eyes.

Tasha cast a meaningful glance at the two corpsmen. There were things she wouldn't say in front of them. She felt Gin's stare on the side of her face for a moment, then she shrugged and met the other woman's eye. "He's okay," she said and, again, Gin winced. Seldon put a hand on her shoulder. "Listen, I want you to know that. He's okay. Thane even gave him one of his dogs. You ever meet Max? He's a character." She smiled. "So," she spread her hands, "he's good."

Gin stared at her for a moment, reeling before the onslaught of information and subtle implications. "But?" she asked.

"No butts," Tasha shrugged. "I've just been kinda pissed off at you for a while and..." she shrugged. "I'm not anymore... or, at least, not as much."

"So how is he really?" Gin asked.

Seldon snorted. "I just told you!" Then she shrugged. "Seriously!" She grinned. "He's Drake! Full of piss and vinegar and itchin' for the next fight."

Gin exhaled softly through her nose and managed a slim smile of her own.

"Actually," Seldon told her, "a whole lot has happened since you... err."

"Left," Gin supplied and, again, Tasha realized her friend was even more angry at herself than she had ever been.

"Yeah," Seldon nodded.

"Like what?" Gin prompted.

"Well," Seldon showed her a crooked grinned, "the kid's a Clan Leader now."

Gin snorted but there was a smile on her face. "Of course he is," she said, unable to conceal the warmth in her voice.

Seldon was, once again, struck by the change in the woman's demeanor. Gin was present in a way that Seldon had never experienced before.

Gin looked up and met her eye. "Well? Go on," she said.

"Oh kid," Seldon chuckled, "we don't have enough time. You're gonna be in an amnio tube in a few mizura."

"Well then you'd better talk fast."

"S'jar t'Chk," Seldon said, "talked nine clans into trying to take the kid's weapons complex from him."

"I never did like him," Gin said sourly.

"Yeah well," Seldon shrugged. "He got what was coming to him."

"Drake?" Gin inquired.

"Yes and no," Tasha replied.

The med bay appeared beyond a five meter corridor and a ten meter common area where the crew ate meals, drank after hours beverages and generally relaxed. Gin gave her a meaningful look.

"Drake captured him." Seldon told her.

Gin didn't miss the significance. "Drake did?" she asked.

Seldon managed a sour look and met her friend's gaze. "Yep," she said, managing to pack more emotion into that one syllable than Gin had into the first six weeks of their friendship. Then Seldon let her eyes go wide, "and that's another story we don't have time for!"

"How?"

Seldon blinked.

"How did he capture t'Chk?"

"We took the Brimstone," Tasha told her.

"So he's boarding ships now?"

"Aah..." Seldon grimaced. "Not... really. It was aaah... special circumstance."

Gin snorted and shook her head.

"Yeeah," Seldon grimaced. Then shrugged.

"I have missed a lot," Gin stated, suddenly sounding just a little drowsy. A flick of Tasha's eyes revealed the micro-injector in Grimes hand.

"Yeah," Tasha agreed. "You really did."

"So t'Chk's gone...?" Gin asked.

"Not just t'Chk," Seldon said, realizing too late what she was about to say.

Gin turned her head to stare at her friend. And waited.

Tasha rolled her eyes. 'Me and my damn mouth.'

"Tasha?"

"We took the Brimstone," she said.

"So you said."

Tasha met her friend's eye. "Then Drake spaced the entire Set'jak clan."

Gin's eyes went wide.

"Oh yeah!" Seldon nodded. "Right in front of everybody too! We'd just captured the ship and were underway from Weaver's Tempest... where it all went down... to Thane's shipyard? The kid had us load all those poor bastards into the launch tubes and just..." She made a swooshing gesture with one hand.

Gin stared at her for several paces. Then she asked, "all of them?"

"Yep. All of 'em. So... two," Seldon shrugged, "maybe three thousand. We did a post-op scrub of their ship's databases but t'Chk wasn't exactly big on record keeping. So," she shrugged.

"Shit, Tasha," Gin was horrified. "Is he all right?" Seldon knew the woman was remembering Drake's list. "Has he talked to anyone about it?"

"Only thing he said to me was to make it happen," Seldon replied. "And yeah. I'm pretty sure he's just fine with it. Frakker broadcast the video from the Necromancer to the whole bloody system. Showed all those dead frakkers bouncin' and tumblin' into the dark. You could 'even see the random corpse burn up in the Brimstone's shields."

Gin's face was actually slack.

Seldon rolled her eyes and then met her friend's gaze. "He was pissed," she explained with barely a shrug. "Nine clans just attacked him and he wanted to make a point. So yeah, I'm pretty sure he's fine with it. No more midnight marathons if that's what you're worried about. In fact I think it was one of those choices that come easy to him. He saw it as them or us."

"Was it?" Gin asked. They'd reached the med bay and Adams and Grimes immediately began prepping Gin for submersion.

Seldon sighed. "There were lots of reasons for it," she said, "and they all made sense."

"But?"

She met Gin's eye and waited for Adams and Grimes to both become preoccupied before whispering, "I think it was Thane's idea. My guess is that he figured getting rid of the Set'jak would make it easier for Drake to ascend but... err... I don't think he expected Drake to televise it." She smirked. "I got the sense that it threw a monkey wrench in his efforts to wine and dine the other Clan Leaders. He was a big part of Drake gettin' the crown."

Gin just stared at her for a few moments. "Any other disasters I should know about?"

Seldon thought of Chinomu lying in a hospital bed down one arm while the little sister rotted in one of Drake's brigs, the Wakiya that sent her to kill the kid, Wen Digo and that seriously scary gambit, Huritas and all her pawns, Cala Ma who was rich, insane, very well connected and undoubtedly furious with Drake and Ea't, Snake Eye (whatever the hell he was up to at the moment), Ricky Machado the apparently unkillable tattooed psychopath and, of course, Salvadore Vassar. Just the thought of whom had started giving her genuine chills. She managed a broad smile. "None that won't keep."

Gin stared at her and, for a moment, Seldon had the impression that the other woman had just read her mind. Gin continued to watch her while the two corpsmen cut her clothes away. Then, finally, she asked, "are you staying aboard?"

Seldon shrugged. "Probably not for long," she admitted. "You know me. I just do what your boyfriend tells me to."

Gin's lips thinned into a dry smirk. "Uh-huh," she said and looked at the two corpsmen doting on her. Seldon had to admit that, odd as this new emotional expression was, she was impressed. Gin had just managed to fit a staggering amount of sarcasm into those two syllables.

Tasha smirked. Then she sighed softly. "Hey," she said, calling Gin's attention back. "Drake wanted me to tell you to do what you need to do." She smiled. "He'll be here for you when you're done."

Gin looked away again and Seldon understood that it was to conceal the self-loathing in her eyes.

"Also," Seldon went on, stepping back to get out of the corpsmen's way, "he wanted you to know that this ship is yours." Tasha gestured to the Hyperion Vanguard around them. "She's fully stocked," she nodded starboard, "has a kitted susanowa, a full crew including a pilot for the fighter and a squad of my guys to back you up the next time you decide to get shot at in a forest."

Gin continued to stare at the ceiling. Tasha sighed to herself and leaned against the bulkhead behind her. The two corpsmen had finished removing her clothes, prepping her wounds and preparing the amnio tube. They fitted her with a breathing apparatus and VR goggles that acted as an interface with the ship's computer. Which provided the patient the means to both communicate and alleviate boredom. As the corpsmen began levitating her into the tube Gin met Seldon's eye. Once again Tasha saw the pain her friend was in.

"Get some rest," she smiled and tapped the woman's undamaged thigh with the side of her hand.

Gin's hand rolled over and gave a thumbs-up. Then she was in the tube. The stretcher was lowered into the gel before being collapsed and removed, leaving Gin suspended in the fluid. Moments later the tube was closed and began filling the rest of the way with the slightly thick, slightly viscous fluid that always made Seldon think of snot. As she watched Gin's eyes closed and she went limp, resting in a drug-induced slumber.

Seldon turned and met Grime's gaze. She placed a hand on the man's shoulder and held his gaze. "Take care of her," she told him.

"Copy that, Chief."

A few moments later she'd made her way back through the ship to step back aboard the rapier. She closed and locked the hatch behind her. Then she walked into the cockpit and, after a brief, slightly bewildered inspection of the corpse of USC Captain Anderson, she sat in the pilot's seat and glared at the desktop camera.

"Alright, Legion," she said. "Spill it. What the hell happened out there?"

********

The Endless had a magnificent compartment devoted to nothing but the illusion of being a park. It was a place where people came to feel living soil under their feet, hear birdsong and running water with the soft light of a simulated sun on their faces. Just then it was also filled with the squealing, roaring victory of small children and the indulgent, if often exhausted expressions on the faces of their guardians.

Lu walked across the grass toward a small tree that had been positioned so that a nearby vent stirred it's leaves. Beneath the tree was a small, stone-lined brook that was not more than a single long pace across, a grassy meadow, a heavy marble bench... and Gabe, who was watching the children play nearby.

Lu stepped up to the bench and smiled at his brother. Gabe was wearing a soft expression. It wasn't quite a smile but it was close. And there was an easy light in his eyes that put Lu's soul at ease. As he met Lu's eye that almost-smile bloomed into the easy joy that had once been all there was of Gabe, back before all the things they'd done that left scars on parts of themselves that no one ever saw.

"Hey, kid," Lu clapped his brother on the shoulder and sat down beside him. "How're you feeling?"

"I'm good, Lu," Gabe told him with an easy, slightly bored smile that clearly indicated he was tired of such questions. "The robot that runs the ship says being around kids is good for crazy people."

"Is it?" Lu asked.

Gabe paused for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah."

Lu looked at the side of his brother's face for a while before he chuckled. "Glad to hear it."

"It's like," Gabe told him, "somewhere along the way I forgot... what I was fighting for. Why the fight, you know?"

Lu nodded hesitantly.

"It just became," he shrugged, "all about the fight." He looked his brother in the eye. "Remember the berserkers?"

"Yeah," Lu said with a nod.

One of the kids, a little girl, was out on the lawn squealing with glee. Gabe turned his head to watch her. She had strawberry blonde hair and a smile too big for her face. After a moment Lu realized that, just then, the kid was the light in every eye in the vicinity. Lu didn't understand the game the kids were playing, only that it involved a bright red ribbon and that the girl was winning. "I got lost in the berzerker," Gabe said.

"Yeah," Lu nodded. He was watching the little girl while the remorse in his heart tried to strangle him.

"Hey," Gabe elbowed him.

Lu looked over at his brother.

"Knock it off," Gabe told him.

"I'm sorry..."

"Shut up, Lu," Gabe told him. "I mean it. You can't carry everybody. You just can't. I know you did your best." He turned then and made Lu look him in the eye. "I made my own choices, man. You don't get to take them away from me."

Lu looked back into his brother's eyes and, after a few moments he realized with something akin to awe that a pair of tears just fell from his eyes. Then he reached out and grabbed Gabe by the back of the neck to pull him into a hug. "You never fail to humble me, Gabe."

Gabe shrugged and waited patiently for his brother to stop hugging him. When Lu let him go the man just went back to watching the little girl and the children chasing her around the open grass. "I'm your brother," he said as if that explained everything. "It's kinda my job, ain't it?"

Lu blinked. He had to think about it for a moment. Then he laughed. As he did Gabe chuckled beside him. A moment later they looked at each other. "It's good to see you," Lu told him.

Gabe nodded. "Yeah man. Back atcha."

"So what's next for you?" Lu asked him.

Gabe shrugged. "I don't know. I'm liking the treatment I get here. They didn't try to pump me full of meds or slap a quick-fix 'how to remain productive while dealing with instability' band-aid on me."

"What are they doing?" Lu asked, curious.

"Well," Gabe wrinkled his nose with concentration, "it's hard to say, exactly. I mean I wake up at zero four hundred and come out here to do this... it looks like stretching but it's really subtle. I do it with others. And Chief Hess, the woman that runs it, is," he shrugged, looking for the words but Lu already knew he liked her. Gabe finally shrugged, "I like her." He said as if that explained everything and, to Lu, it kind of did.

Then Gabe turned and looked right through him. In that instant there was nothing between them; no lies, no illusions, no nonsense. They just were, just as they'd always been, and Lu knew what his brother was about to say and ask before the words even began to form.

"So..." Gabe began with that gentle, little brother lean that, at this point, felt to Lu a bit like being a sapling in the way of a ten ton boulder. Where Lu had always been lean and hard like steel covered in rawhide, Gabe was thick and broad with significantly more meat between skin and bone than Lu ever carried. It was still obvious that they were brothers but, just then, even with the weight he'd regained, Lu was less than eighty kilograms. Whereas Gabe was easily in the neighborhood of hundred to a hundred and five. Gabe had also always possessed the same undeniability as an avalanche. Once he started moving in a direction he was impossible to dissuade... and Lu knew where this was heading. "You gonna talk about," Gabe nudged him with his elbow, "whatever it is that you're not talking about?"

"I can't," Lu said immediately and was oddly grateful that it was the truth.

Gabe looked at him for a moment. His nose was still wrinkled and a pair of vertical lines had appeared over his nose in his muscular forehead. Then he nodded and looked back at the kids. "What can you say?" The avalanche kept on coming.

What amazed and humbled Lu was how his brother always knew how to ask him the right questions. "I can tell you that I love you," Lu said with a smile but found himself looking inward with the same intensity that Gabe was looking at him with.

'What can I tell you?'

********

Seldon opened a channel to Drake. In the bottom left hand corner of her vision her UI showed her the routing sequence of the call first to the Shirubāurufu, then from the Shirubāurufu to the Predator. At which point it was rerouted in less than a hundredth of a sezura to the Brimstone. At which point there was a five sezura delay before it was finally routed to Drake's personal quarters. Her UI also showed her the current bandwidth and ping time which could indicate, to a trained eye at least, any evesdroppers that might be listening. A moment later Seldon found herself staring at Drake's new chair (which, to Seldon's eye, looked like the throne of a comic book villain).

It was empty.

After a few sezura Seldon scrunched her face up in frustration. "Hello?! Drake?!"

Max barked somewhere off camera. A moment later he bounded into view and looked around, trying to figure out where she was hiding.

"Hey boy," she said with a genuine smile. He looked in her direction, tilting his head to one side and then the other. "Can't see me, huh?"

"WHOOF!" he barked at her. Seldon, who had spent most of her waking moments in the dog's company for the past few days, had learned to understand and appreciate many of his expressions. This one was a mix of playfulness and curiosity with just a touch of annoyance. He didn't like her being sneaky. She started laughing and Max trotted up to the desk and started sniffing around, providing her with a very up-close-and-personal view of his nostrils.

Just then a hatch opened off screen and she heard the tell-tale whoosh of an auto-toilet. Max immediately whipped around and trotted off to find Drake. A moment later the kid appeared from the right side of the screen and plopped his skinny ass down in his throne while fending Max off with affectionate pats and shoves.

"He taking your calls for you now?" Seldon asked him.

Drake gave her the look that said he was wondering when the next punch would land. "Only some of them," he replied cautiously.

Seldon genuinely couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

"Alright," he said, "talk to me. How is she?"

"Alive," she told him.

Drake stared at her for several beats and then raised one eyebrow in exasperation. "Why don't you just skip to the bits I don't know," he prodded her.

While Drake was looking at her Max was sitting at his hip, watching him with a rapturous expression. The sight of the adoration in the dog's eyes actually made Seldon feel just a little bit jealous. She and the monster got along and she was able to keep him occupied while Drake was away, but Max had never looked at her that way.

"Hey!" Drake snapped his fingers in front of the camera. "You still with me?"

"Remind me to slug you the next time I see you," she barked at him.

He leaned away from the camera. "NOW what'd I do?" he only barely managed not to whine.

"Nothin'," Seldon griped. "I just feel like slugging you."

Drake gave her the exact same expression she'd seen on Gin's face thirty mizura earlier. "What did Legion tell you?" he asked her.

"Not a damn thing," she confessed. "He said he wasn't gonna 'violate her privacy' or some shit. At least... not for me." She squinted at him. "He might for you, though."

"Yeah," Drake said noncommittally.

"He'd probably tell you!" Seldon prodded him

"Exactly," Drake replied, letting himself be distracted by Max. "I'll let Gin decide when she's ready to talk."

Seldon squinted as if looking into a wind. It was so strange. The kid never failed to defy her expectations. He'd become so powerful and wore the scars he'd earned along the way with poise, dignity and, often, a roguish grin. Yet every once in a while the light would hit him just right and Seldon would find herself staring at this little kid who was, for some reason, pretending to be a grown up... and everybody was going along with it.

"Drake..." she started and then immediately thought better of it. She bit her tongue and looked away. Even before she looked back up she could feel him scrutinizing her. Finally she grimaced and met his eye.

He waited.

Seldon held his eye and just listened to herself breathe for a moment.

"Something you want to tell me, Seldon?"

"Yep." Seldon said it without even thinking... but then remained silent.

Drake arched an eyebrow as Max whined at his elbow. Seldon was pretty sure the pup needed to pee. "Uhmmm..." Drake laughed. "I don't even know what questions to ask, Seldon. Do I need to come over there with a crowbar?"

"Something's wrong," she confessed and instantly felt, for some reason, that she'd just betrayed her friend. She shrugged and actually felt like a five year old squirming in front of her mother. "I don't know..." she realized she couldn't look Drake in the eye, "I don't know what's going on but..." she looked away to organize her thoughts.

"But?" he prodded her.

She squinted and thought of Gin snarling at her. Then she met Drake's eye. "The way she's acting?" she said.

"Yeah?"

"It's off."

"What do you mean?" He asked and she could hear the concern in his voice.

"She's emotional," Tasha told him. "Cranky even."

Drake stared at her. "She's been through a lot recently."

"Yeah," she said and held his eye. Seldon wasn't exactly one to choose her words carefully. She didn't really operate that way. She found her way instead by choosing her intentions. She needed to be many things right then and they were pulling in different directions. Gin was hurting. Gin was being secretive about it. Drake, her employer, believed in and trusted her beyond reason or self protection. It was charming and romantic in the complete and terrifying way of the young and hormonally supercharged. It also scared the shit out of her.

There were several hundred thousand lives who worked for and directly relied upon the boy for their livelihood and, more, their safety and security and, often, the safety and security of their families. For their sakes, for all of their sakes, he needed a level head and Gin needed to be held accountable for her choices. Seldon didn't understand what was going on in that hellscape but, as much as she liked and believed in the woman, Seldon had a duty.

"Seldon?" Drake prodded again. He wasn't smiling anymore. "What do I 'need to know'?

Seldon nodded. "Back on Nova Somnia I saw that bitch get gutshot and all she did was apologize for Chinomu's jacket. Now? I looked into her eyes and saw..." She shook her head. "Drake, for whatever reason that woman hates herself. I don't know what's causing it. I don't know what's going on. The bitch doesn't exactly 'share.' But she's hurting, Drake. I mean... I looked in her eyes and saw... err... 'torment'." She curled her lip around the word. It was awkward in her mouth.

"Torment?" Drake echoed her. He was as deadpan as Rana.

"She's hurting, Drake. Bad."

Drake stared at her for a long moment. She could see the wheels turning behind his eyes. Then Max huffed at him. The kid looked away and smiled at him. The dog huffed at him again, this time sounding impatient. Drake rubbed one of his ears. "In a mizura, all right?" Max produced a slightly grumpy rumble but put his head on the arm of Drake's chair. Where he then stared at his master intently.

Drake turned that chilly stare of his back to Seldon. "Stay with her," he said and she nodded. "Help her any way you can." She nodded again. "And keep me in the loop."

She sighed and dropped her head. "What if she doesn't want me to?"

He skewered her with that chilly stare of hers and she got the impression he was choosing his words carefully. Then, finally, he said, "I trust your judgement, Seldon."

Seldon blinked. Then she nodded. "Okay," she said. "Will do."

The link closed and the holographic display winked out of existence. For a moment she simply stared out into space. After a moment she found herself thinking of a sunny day she'd spent out to sea in her Dad's sailboat. She wasn't supposed to go out alone. The school she attended routinely made a show of the statistics and horror stories in order to drive the point home. Never go out to sea alone. Her Dad, though, he understood... or at least pretended to. Instead of telling her 'no' he'd just make her check in via radio every hour or so.

That day she was several kilometers offshore. It had been one of those long, lazy summer days that she'd spent swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing. She'd even netted a pair of kahawai when a school swam right past the boat. The sun was still high in the west and she was enjoying the warmth of it when a sudden shift in the wind raised gooseflesh on her legs, arms and back. The wind was uncomfortably cold and heavy with the scent of rain and ozone. She remembered turning her head into the wind and scanning the horizon for the gathering clouds, knowing even before finding them that she was in trouble. She couldn't say why but she felt the same way now.

"Shit."

********

Gin awakened from reliving her moments in the forest over and over again. Each recycling of the memory began with the shock on her twin's face and ended as Legion ripped the hill apart with the rapier's EMP cannons.

She thought of the other, of she in the woods. The other had been on-mission. There were questions, certainly. 'How is my target as fast as I am? I've shot her twice; why won't she go down?' and, of course, 'why does she have my face?' But she was 'on-mission'. She had a task to complete and violence was not only necessary but easy. It was always an immediately available option. It was self defense. It was mission security. It was the mission itself. Her very existence was death and it was always closer than her next breath.

After several moments Gin realized that she was staring at the unobtrusive HUD of the med suite's VR interface. It was informing her that it was awaiting instructions and how she could give them. As unobtrusive as it was, the interface demanded a shift in her attention. It was harder than she expected it to be. Her mind just kept returning to the look on her twin's face, to the shock, horror and outrage on her face... and then the violence. For a moment Gin's mind was simply a storm. There were too many questions and she didn't want the answers to any of them. Her entire existence was a bloody horror show.

She took another breath and, after several more moments of staring, she realized that there were things she did, in fact, need to know that the medical suite could tell her. A moment later she began querying it regarding the state of her neural interface. At first the answers the machine provided her didn't make any sense. According to the medical suite there was nothing wrong with the enzyme layers, synthetic neural receptors or any of the sub-systems. All of the synthetic systems that she'd designed were intact and behaving normally. There was, in fact, no localized explanation for what she'd been thinking of as 'the collapse of her emotional buffer'.

She thought of her sister's face again. She recalled the other's indignation when the pair of them reached the same conclusion simultaneously as well as the terror beneath it; an endless existential horror that was so easy to funnel into outrage and lethal intent. It was a well-crafted routine that both of their minds had experienced simultaneously.

'Like two passengers on the same damned train.'

Gin took a breath as she understood. She understood the difference between them. It was right there, all at once and it was as beautiful as it was tragic. Drake and Seldon and Kao t'Kt and, hell, even Erica Chinomu had helped participate in the grand conspiracy to...

"...make me human," she said aloud.

Before Drake and the people he'd brought into her orbit she'd been in hell; years of silence, loneliness, terror and despair. Then she'd followed Kao t'Kt into that restaurant and... everything changed.

Right then Gin suspected her twin was, as Drake would put it, coming unglued. She imagined she knew exactly what thoughts, questions and emotional experiences the other woman was going through. She knew and did not envy her.

For a moment Gin just lingered in a confused, exhausted silence. Her mind was overwhelmed and reeling. She'd been either numb or sleeping during the trip from the planet. Now that her mind had re-engaged, however, it had endless questions and Gin didn't want the answers to any of them.

It was easy to slip into nihilism. It was easy to begin doubting the validity of her own existence. She could even imagine several quick and expedient ends to all of her problems.

"Shit," she groaned. "How the hell do I deal with this?"

Which is when a strange thought reached her conscious mind. The thought was strange for several reasons. Firstly it reminded her of someone that, if she was correct, she'd never actually met. Secondly, the thought didn't seem to originate from within what she thought of as... her. It was more like a radio signal that her brain simply interpreted.

'With your eyes wide open, luv.'

For a moment Gin just "stared" at the thought. After several moments she tried to dismiss it as the product of an exhausted and overwhelmed mind. Which was a perfectly rational explanation for what she'd just experienced. The problem was that it just didn't quite ring true. It genuinely felt like the thought came from not just elsewhere but from someone else. To Gin it felt like Anna; Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel's mother; a woman her psyche identified as...

"Mum," she whispered. Then she shook her head again.

She thought of her sister again, and wondered what the other was going through. She suspected it was familiar; the way she used to feel when she'd ride that 'train' all the way to it's last, lonely terminus.

She sighed.

The "train" was a series of pseudo-logical arguments that all led to the same conclusions: She was only safe when she obeyed, when she stayed on mission, when she followed protocol and, most of all, when she returned to control. She could see the program for what it was now. She could also see how much pain, suffering and loneliness it had inflicted upon her. The conditioning had faded in recent months. There had simply been so much to evidence to disprove the conclusions her mind tried to route her into that much of the program had simply dissolved. She'd left her terrible little cocoon long enough to see the truth in the faces around her. Once she had the lies lost all their power.

Now, though, thinking about the other "her" in the forest, and it all came flooding back. Every thought, every emotion, every mental pathway was suddenly ignited. She could actually watch how every thought and conclusion validated the vital and immediate need for security, vigilance, discipline, routine, isolation and...

"Return to control," she snorted with disgust. It occurred to her then, in much the same way things become apparent when one turns up a light, that THAT had been the very first of their instructions she'd defied. Immediately afterward she remembered how that had come to pass... in all its confusion, horror and revulsion. For a moment she simply stared at it. A moment later there was an onslaught of guilt and horror. She was back in the pit, falling into the same old, familiar abyss.

It had been a simple job. She didn't know the why. She'd never known the why. Her instructions always only included the who and the how. In this case the how had been both straightforward and simple. Go to this address and kill this person.

She'd done so.

She'd carried out her orders.

She'd done her job.

The target had been neutralized. Witnesses had been eliminated. Her instructions were clear. It was time to... 'Return to control.'

Only she couldn't.

She felt an echo of the compulsion. Control was always safe. Control was always the right answer. Whenever she was in doubt she should...

'Return to control.'

Only...

...the witnesses that she'd just silenced...

...wouldn't quite...

...let her.

They were cooling meat on the floor. They were loose ends successfully tied off. The job was done. She was supposed to go. Yet she couldn't look away from the three children she'd just murdered.

Gin winced. Even now she saw their faces. The three of them had been like stair steps, each roughly a year and a half a part: One boy and two girls. One moment they'd been whole and healthy, filled with enthusiasm, radiance and bright futures. The next they were gone; transformed into the lifeless subject of a nouveau-art piece called 'Tragedy' painted in arterial spray.

She could still remember the thunder of the compulsion. 'Return to control. Touch in. Make contact. Surrender accountability. Receive purpose and meaning.' It was always safe. It was always the right answer. Even though it inevitably meant another target. It was like the scream and thunder of a hurricane while she stood at the calm center of the eye. She'd been supposed to leave the apartment and disappear into the city. She'd been supposed to make contact via an encrypted uplink at 2100 later that day.

'Leave the scene. Escape the area. Evade detection. Make contact from safety.'

Only she couldn't.

She had no idea how they'd managed to enter the apartment without her hearing them. She'd snapped the target's neck. Her victim never even saw it coming. It was as fast and simple as turning out the lights. But when Gin looked up, the woman's three children were at the door to the apartment, all staring at her with identical expressions of shock and horror on their three, very similar faces.

The oldest had been roughly seven years old. He'd been a handsome lad and brave. He'd roared and thrown himself at his mother's killer. A moment later there was an expression of stunned frustration on his face as he fell to the foyer floor. Gin trembled with the recollection. She imagined that she could still feel the sensation of the blade in her hand as it glided across the front of the boy's spine. He'd died almost instantly. Both of his carotid arteries and jugular veins had been completely severed. He lost so much blood so quickly that she doubted he ever realized that he was dead.

Before the boy even hit the ground the older of the two girls started screaming. Her eyes were fixated on her brother and her voice was a ringing chime that made Gin hurt in ways she still couldn't define. A moment later the sound was silenced forever. Gin had stepped past the child and driven a fifteen centimeter blade through her back, puncturing her heart through soft little-girl ribs. There had been almost no resistance as the child fell forward and slid off her blade.

The last child, the youngest daughter, had stared her right in the eye. There'd been no confusion in her. There was no denial. The girl understood what was happening and stared accusingly right at Gin.

Gin remembered standing in the apartment's foyer as the timer ran in the back of her mind. She knew the estimated response time of the local police and was aware that some random good-samaritan could look into the apartment at any moment and inadvertently become another witness she'd need to silence. Yet the last child died wouldn't let her go. She'd fallen backwards with her lifeblood spilling into her pretty yellow blouse in a way that made Gin think of blood slides when the two panes of glass were pressed together. She'd died with her eyes open and, despite the need to flee and return to control, Gin had simply been unable to look away.

She'd always understood Drake's madness. She understood why he recited the names of the dead to himself and why he often couldn't sleep. She understood his nightmares. There are things that can be broken that can never be fixed. There are wounds that never heal and there are crimes that can never be atoned for. Some things, once done, can simply never be undone. And no matter how far one runs or how deep into distraction one sinks, some deeds leave stains that never, ever come out.

Gin had known since that moment that there would be no safety from that child's gaze. Not for her. Not ever. There'd be some part of her staring into that little girl's eyes until the very moment of her death.

The moment she finally acknowledged that she wasn't going to... Return to control... came back to her. The transport had been lifting off. It was pressing her into some 3rd-class seat that she'd paid for with a credit chit pickpocketed from some random stranger on the train to the spaceport. She'd changed clothes and was wearing a mask that covered her mouth and nose, an interactive visor to hide her eyes and a large hoodie under a man's oversized coat. She was all but invisible to the people around her. Which meant no one noticed as she shook with the realization of what she'd done. Without ever quite letting her rational, conscious mind in on the decision she'd refused to Return to Control.

Even now the memory was so intense that Gin found herself slipping into nihilism again. Her very existence was an existential horror! So why - WHY?! - should she keep going?

She immediately thought of Drake. An instant later she was in tears. The bitter, hateful part of her mind was screaming at the monstrous injustice of it all. The man loved her! He LOVED her! Meanwhile her predominant emotional experience was akin to being at the bottom of a swimming pool. The world above was still there. It was still full of light and sound and motion. It was just far away. Most of the time she was just numb, disconnected in some primal, fundamental way that she could never, ever bridge.

She thought of Erik again, the only lover she ever had as a human being, a man she'd loved as if he were life itself... right up until the moment he abandoned her in his flight to save his own skin. She could remember, or at least she believed she could remember what it was like to touch him, to hold his hand, to kiss him.

She actually trembled at the memory.

Once upon a time all it took to deliver her straight to heaven was the sight of his smile or the feel of his hand on her back. She could remember sensations and delights that were simply impossible now. Her body wasn't designed for experience. It was designed for subterfuge and combat. Her brain was still capable of emotion but her body was not. So Drake might as well have been making love to a blow up doll.

She trembled with the frustration she felt and thought of her sister again. Once more she felt that sense of duality. She wasn't sure if it was just her imagination but it felt a little like what she imagined being in two places at once might feel like. One of her was floating in a tube of amniotic-gel. The other was back on Montalaar, a tornado of looping compulsions simultaneously fueled and annihilated by the outrage and horror of her new and profound understanding.

"Don't go back!" Gin whispered. Then she sighed bitterly. She was heavy with feelings she couldn't quite feel, emotions she couldn't quite express and a despair that she couldn't even begin to define... for herself! Let alone the people around her.

Her mind...

'...minds...'

...was...

'...were...'

...a whirlwind of overlapping questions.

'How many are there?'
'Am I real?
'How many just like me?'
'Was I ever real?'
'How many suffering?'
'I am so tired!'
'How many lost?'
'I am so alone!'
'How many in torment?'
'I am so pointless!'
'How many, Erwyn?!'
'I just want to...'
'How many of ME did you make, you son of a bitch?!'
'... sleep / love / forget...'
'How many desperate, confused, numb, docile, compliant..?!'
'.. Die.'
'Do I even...?'
'HOW MANY YOU BASTARD?!'
'...have a soul?'


Gin understood that she should have been sobbing. If she'd been a 'real girl' she'd have been wracked with the enormity and horror of her experience. Instead her thoughts were an endless whirlwind. Her breathing, for the most part, remained steady and level. Her heart was even. Yet there were a pair of tear-tracks on her face. It was simultaneously amazing and excruciating. There was nothing wrong with the neural interface. Yet her body was expressing an emotional state that was completely unsupported by the synthetic vehicle her brain was housed in. There was simply no explanation for what she was experiencing.

There was a sudden "swelling" that called Gin's attention. As she turned her mind toward it she realized it was the same thing she'd felt earlier; the source of her strange, alien thought. A moment later, in a feverish unfolding of thoughts and associations, she made a connection. There was a computer she depended on that could be malfunctioning. It could also be easily programmed to keep her compliant. It was the bit of folded meat inside her synthetic skull. An explosion of possible explanations and procedures occurred to her. Cloning with seta compression; virtual reality interfaces; constant programming and conditioning throughout the entire developmental phase of the... organic material... driving their weapon.

Gin clenched her teeth and trembled.

"How many, Erwyn?" she asked bitterly. "How many are there?! How many just like me are out there looking for...?!"

She didn't immediately know how to finish the question. She didn't know how to describe what it was. Sanity? Sense? Meaning? Connection? Understanding? She didn't know. She thought of Drake, but Drake wasn't it. Then she thought of that radiance she'd felt coming from within the people she'd been working with... albeit from Drake's shadow. She thought of the warmth in their smiles and the strange, fierce pride in their faces...

...right up until the moment they saw her looking back at them. It was something she tried not to do; to let someone else truly see her. Cos it was...

'...disgust-loathing-contempt-revulsion-hatred...'

...concern that she saw in their eyes... and she didn't know what to do with it.

She thought of Drake again and the first moment she'd ever laid eyes on him. He'd been a shadow within shadows; a shadow that proved to be a skinny little kid who carried himself with the casual authority of a god. He'd welcomed her to his table, fed her, comforted her and then gave her a family.

She shook her head. He deserved better. The thought immediately resulted in a wave of emotion so vast that she couldn't name it. She thought of Rabekka Giorno and Rik Erwyn and her teeth bared themselves while her molars ground together.

She remembered the lights exploding at Heaven's Gate as PPC fire tore the station apart. A Terraformer attack.

Terraformer.

Not Xenon.

Her teeth flexed and relaxed repeatedly while her hands curled themselves into fists. Too many questions tumbled through her mind. Too many brand new potential horrors exploded like fireworks in her mind. She thought of her sister again... and then she remembered the Giant she'd slain; the one that killed Slamer and a dozen other marines and nearly killed Drake and Seldon. At the time she'd made certain assumptions about who, or at least what, that Giant had been. Thinking about her twin on Montalaar, however, she couldn't help but ask more questions that had no answer.

"Oh frak!" she cursed. At which point it suddenly occurred to Gin that Drake had assigned medical professionals to monitor her. Which meant that there was a good chance that they were listening to her right then.

She didn't want to talk to them. She didn't want to have to reassure them that she was okay. She didn't want to have to reassure Drake, who would have access to every log and recording. How could she? She felt like a leaf in a tornado. Besides, she didn't want their help. How could they possibly understand? How could she possibly make them? What would that conversation sound like? And, even if she successfully made them understand what she was and what she was experiencing, how could she trust them to have the same agenda and agree upon...?

She thought of her sisters again and was immediately angered by the absence of an ache from her synthetic heart. There should have been one. She should have hurt with the agony of compassion. Instead it felt like the rest of her existence: distant, dim, cool and quiet, as if everything real and valid and nourishing was beyond a thick wall of glass. She could see it, know it for what it was, but never touch or communicate with it. Then she stared at the fact that she could feel, genuinely feel, anger.

Anger was available to her. Her body could feel and express anger with lethal precision... but not the love she so desperately wanted to give to Drake and Hayla and Seldon. She wanted to feel the way she remembered feeling when she'd been 'a real girl'. She wanted to feel the pride and adoration she saw on the faces of the people she worked with... instead of the suspicion and terror that normally defined her experience.

It was easier with the Split. They just accepted her as she was, without any of the drama her own species was so infinitely capable of. The Split just didn't ask the same questions. They didn't look into her soul trying to... she didn't even know how to finish the thought.

'See themselves?'

Gin stared at the concept and it fit. Humans always seemed to be looking for themselves in the people around her. She could even vaguely recall doing it herself. Now, though? There was something missing within her and, whatever it was, was what allowed other people to connect to each other. She could remember it. She could even visit those feelings in her dreams. She just couldn't connect to them in the real world.

A new question occurred to her. The instant it did all the noise in her head stopped as her mind reflexively retreated back into numbness.

How did she know that ANY of her memories were real? WAS she Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel? Did Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel even really exist? She could remember her childhood, remember Anna calling her daughter home through the fading light of countless late afternoons. The memory came with others. Such as countless grass stains, dirty knees and irrelevant scratches and scabs she'd gotten from running across the tall scrub, gravel and grasses around... Alex's... family home. She could remember growing up, learning, developing and changing. She remembered feeling afraid and awkward after skipping several years. She could remember Erik... whom she hunted down and killed as a cyborg.

'But... how do I know any of it was real?'

The answer, of course, was so stunningly obvious that it appalled her.

"Legion?" she called.

There was no answer. So she began working with the VR interface. In just a few moments she managed to send a message to the docked rapier. Shortly thereafter Legion was able to instruct her how to open the right ports for him to connect with the VR suite. Several minutes later he verified that all outside access to her medical suite had just been severed "at her request" and that medical personnel would be notified of any emergency.

"Thank you," she said to him when he was done with his update.

"Of course, Commander."

After several moments she asked, "Legion?"

"Yes, Commander?"

"Am..." it was hard to get the words out. As if she didn't have enough breath to make them. She closed her eyes. "Am I... am I a clone?" she asked, expecting her heart to lurch with the sudden jolt of terror she felt. It did not.

"Yes, Commander," Legion informed her.

Gin reeled again but it was just an echo of the staggering disorientation she'd experienced in the rapier after escaping Montalaar. As Legion's answer seeped into her thinking the number of questions in her mind momentarily exploded. Then they all faded. There was one question that was more important than any other. Yet she hesitated to ask it. She wasn't sure if she could withstand the answer.

"What's happening to me?"

********
Continued...
Last edited by Scion Drakhar on Fri, 23. Jul 21, 21:30, edited 3 times in total.
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:42

...continued

********

Eri stared at the lid of the medical compartment she'd been stored in and listened to the wind passing in and out of her lungs. Her shoulder was throbbing but of little concern otherwise. What mattered to her was Yomi. She'd been informed that Yomi was alive and safe in one of Drakhar's brigs.

That was it.

And that was a week ago.

Thirteen hours earlier she'd been in the middle of leaving yet another in a long series of video messages for her employer when she came to the sudden and rather infuriating conclusion that, in addition to deliberately not taking her calls, Drakhar was also not watching her messages. A few hours after that she came to the further embarrassing conclusion that her vocabulary was simply not up to the task of adequately describing all of the things about the man that she'd like to smash with a ball-peen hammer!

Which is when the silence set in. Her mind, either exhausted or, less likely, having recognized it's inability to solve the problem, simply went quiet. In the hours that followed she'd stared into the dim light of the sick bay and, eventually, found herself simply resting in the sound of her own breathing and the soft but ever constant pulse of her own heartbeat. After a while she found herself in an old, familiar hell; reliving the moment that changed everything.

~'You will destroy that tango, Lieutenant!'~

Again.

It was her mind's favorite ball of yarn, the gordian knot that it could never untie and never put down. And the instant she realized that she was looking at it there was a sudden surge of old, familiar patterns; outrage, indignation and oh-so-righteous finger pointing. The blame was so sweet and... the tears astonished her... so very self indulgent.

'It was them!'

It was them; those faceless, shadowy parasites that ordered Jaeger to order her to stain her soul with innocent blood. It was them! They did it. Yet, when she was utterly still, she could feel the gentle, perfect curves of her scimitar's HOTAS and the deadly arch and give of the trigger beneath a forefinger at the end of an arm she no longer owned.

Her guts roiled and her mind churned. Her shoulder throbbed, a newly erupted volcano. Yet deep in her back there was another pain; an old, a familiar, even a cherished pain. Her mind touched it and she cried out in anger and frustration.

She felt the sudden attention this earned her. Moments later a nurse appeared at the door. She had a familiar face. It was she of the weary tone.

Eri hated her on sight.

The nurse held up her hands. "Please don't throw anything at me," she asked calmly. "I heard you cry out. I'm just here to make sure you're alright."

Eri felt the tears coming. They were the first salt on a rising wind. "Please go away!" she shouted. "Just go away!" She turned her head away from the woman and clenched her jaw against the unwanted emotions.

"...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!!"


Yet it was the curve of the trigger that she remembered most clearly and it was remembered by a limb that was no longer there. It was maddening; a throbbing mountain of pain and confusion existed now where her left arm should have been.

The wave broke. She gasped for air as the tears spilled over her cheeks. She heard the nurse take a step forward and held up her hand to keep her at bay. "Just leave," she begged the woman.

"I'm just across the hall if you need me..."

Eri looked up and met the woman's eye with a baleful gaze. 'Would you truly comfort this?' the thought burned in her mind and eyes.

The nurse took a step back from the hate in Eri's eyes, again with her hands held up before her. She was at the door and about to turn and leave. Eri could feel it. She waited with baited breath so she could get back to the desolation burning within her. Yet for some reason the woman hesitated.

"Oh for frak's sake!" Eri cursed her.

At that the woman looked her dead in the eye. "Don't you ever get tired of feeling sorry for yourself?"

Eri's heart skipped a beat. Then she focused the rage she felt into her eyes. "What did you just say to me?"

"You lost an arm," the woman stated. "So what? Do you know how many options you've got for a replacement? No. Of course you don't. You've been too busy feeling sorry for yourself to even look, right? No. Really. Please feel free to correct me. Or maybe throw another bedpan at me."

"I didn't throw it at you," Eri corrected her automatically.

"Right. Because you've got perfect aim?"

"Not perfect," Eri corrected her again, "assuredly not like this." She met the woman's eye again. "But I could damn sure nail you with a bedpan from three meters away instead of the wall a meter and a half to your right."

The nurse shifted and looked at her sideways. Then dead in the face again. "So what was it?"

"What are you talking about?" Eri demanded spitefully.

"The reason you hate yourself so much," the nurse elaborated.

Eri opened her mouth but nothing came out of it.

"Oh? You don't hate yourself?" The nurse asked her, looking both weary and mildly amused.

"You certainly seem to think so."

"Honey," the woman said with a tired smile, "nobody treats people the way you do unless they hate themselves." She continued to look at the side of Eri's face for a moment. "So what was it?"

Eri's lip curled. She bared her teeth. She was fully prepared to say something spiteful, cutting and vicious. Instead she whispered a confession. "I killed a lot of people who didn't deserve it."

"How do you know?" the nurse asked without missing a beat.

Eri shook her head. "What?!"

The nurse smiled at her. It was that same tired, weary smile. "How do you know what those people deserved?"

Eri snarled, "well they sure as frak didn't deserve to die tryin' to suck vacuum cos I...!"

The silence was so thick it had substance. The nurse smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Cos you...?"

"Who the hell are you anyway?!" Eri snarled by way of reply.

"Oh I'm no-one," the nurse told her. "I'm nobody. I don't even have a name, do I?"

"What?!"

"What's my name?"

Eri slowly looked in the woman's direction. "LaGuirre," she said knowing that both of them were fully aware that she'd just then read it off the woman's uniform from where it was located right under the insignia denoting the woman's rank, which was something else Eri hadn't noticed.

"Listen, Eri," Captain LaGuirre smiled at her, "is it alright if I call you Eri?"

Eri shrugged, now feeling sullen and mildly ashamed of herself.

"Whatever it is," LaGuirre told her, "whatever that seed of self loathing is?" She looked at Eri with raised eyebrows and nodded. "Just look at it. You don't have to do anything to it or about it. You don't have to fix it or justify it or explain it to me or anybody else. I just want you to look at it. Just look right at it. Do you think you can...?"

"I wanted to," Eri whispered, shocked by her own words.

"What was that?" LaGuirre asked her.

Eri couldn't look at her. She remembered the curve of the trigger that would unleash hell upon anything in her crosshairs. She could feel it with a finger she no longer owned. "I... I-I wanted to," she whispered. "I wanted to squeeze that trigger."

"You wanted to kill all those people?" LaGuirre asked her.

"What?!" Eri scowled and then glared at the other woman. "No! Frak no!"

"You just wanted to squeeze the trigger?"

Eri stared at it. Then she exhaled, "aye."

The nurse, who was in fact a Captain and, likely, in charge of the conduct of her field of medicine on the Endless, a field which Eri was, at this point, rather sure included a degree in psychology, then produced a sound that was halfway between a 'huh' and a 'hmmph!' It simultaneously expressed curiosity and vindication with a smug, clinical detachment that was so detestable Eri wanted to shoot the woman right then and there! A moment later Captain LaGuirre smoothly stepped out of the room and, in her sudden absence, Eri hated the bitch even more!

*******

Legion's initial summation was the end of the world. It took him less than two mizura to summarize the how's and why's of her own mortality. As he spoke the diagnosis became self-evident. It was obvious. It made perfect sense. And it hurt worse than anything she'd ever experienced.

The synthetic parts of her body were working just fine. She'd designed them to last and, despite their hard use, all were working at near-optimal efficiency, as if they'd been well used and well maintained by competent and well trained engineers all this time. None of the cybernetic systems had failed.

None of them.

Under other circumstances she would have seen the health of her synthetic body as a true achievement.

Now?

"... which indicates," Legion concluded, "a deliberate design intention by the genetic engineers to include a 'timed termination sequence' into the genetic code of your body's organic material."

Gin was aware that she was refusing to connect. If she didn't engage the part of her mind that understood what she'd just been told then she could simply stay warm and safe in the quiet. Legion's words were still muted and far away. What he'd said wasn't yet real.

Little by little, though, they seeped into her consciousness like rain through a bad roof and the simple, bitter truth of it crystallized into a hateful understanding.

"My brain," she whispered.

Legion remained silent.

"You're saying my brain is dying?"

"Yes," Legion confirmed with a gentle, clinical professionalism that only the best medical professionals were capable of.

'Yes,' her thoughts echoed him. 'Yes, you're going to die. Yes you're going to cease to exist. Yes, you're going to wink out of existence as if you never were. Would you like a glass of water?'

"A 'timed termination sequence'," she whispered, "was 'written'," she twisted the word in her mouth, "into my genetic code." She smiled. "That's great!" She laughed. "That's frakking great! I'm the butchered clone of the woman I thought I was! AAAND!" She laughed until the tears fell over her cheeks, "I've got an expiration date!" She gasped and panted for several moments and then whispered, "I end because of planned obsolescence!"

It was just too funny.

"Don't want you 'gettin' too many miles on your cybernetic death machine!'" The imitation of a sob erupted from her imitation heart. "'We want to make sure you come back to purchase our latest model!'"

For some time she simply stopped in hell. She didn't fight it. She didn't resist it. She simply stopped and stared at it.

And stared at it.

And stared at it.

She wanted to howl and sob but the machinery was too steady. She couldn't manufacture the chemistry or the electromagnetics of emotion. She could simply witness and feel the absence of what she SHOULD have been experiencing. It was like a hunger that couldn't be sated, a thirst that couldn't be quenched, an itch that couldn't be scratched. It was an existential frustration that had no solution.

"No," she whispered. 'There's one.'

The thought of simply ceasing to exist was momentarily so appealing that she simply collapsed in the face of it.

To just stop...

...no more pain...

...no more sorrow...

...no more loneliness or despair or grief or shame or desperation.

All she had to do was speed up what had already been done to her.

Gin reeled with her outrage.

Then she thought of Drake again. Lithe and graceful in the darkness, wreathed by spaceweed smoke... and watching her with an expression that simultaneously excited her and put her at ease. She'd had this sense of having met him just that way countless times on countless worlds... as countless people... somewhen, somewhere else across space and time.

She deliberately put herself in the memory of being in his arms. She closed her eyes and fully went to him. In her mind she was in his arms, resting as he slept. In her mind his arms were around her. Her hands were clutching his. His nose was tucked under her ear and his breath warmed her neck.

For some time she simply stayed that way, resting without thought or resistance, doing nothing but being with Drake, immersed in the somehow-present ambience of him. As time passed his presence seemed to become more real somehow. That simple feeling of him, as if he really were in the room with her, started to grow. It became "bigger" somehow, more intense and focused and present until, after some time, she had a sense that he'd just turned his head and met her eye.

'I love you,' she thought at him and, as she did, realized that it was actually true.

She took a shaking breath. "Legi-" her voice broke and she took another breath.

"Yes, Commander?" Legion asked, ever present and attentive.

"W-was there ever," she had to stop again and simply breathe. For a moment she simply stared at the question she was about to ask.

Could she endure the answer?

Did it matter if she could or not?

She sighed then and, finally, asked, "Did Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel ever... actually... exist?" She took another breath. 'Did I e-ever... exist?'

"Yes, Commander," Legion replied simply.

For several moments Gin remained numb. As with his earlier summation of her medical condition Legion's answer had to sort of seep into her cognition. As it did she began to feel dizzy, as if she were rushing outward in all directions at once. Finally she took another breath.

"Can you tell me about her?"

********

Private Leon Jackson was doubled over with laughter at Sergeant Derrick Cohen, who was, just then, refusing to even acknowledge his existence. Leon didn't mind. He knew Derrick was just butt-hurt about having to explain how the biometrics of some of S'jar t'Chk's last moments found themselves being posted to an extranet site out into the fleet. It included a full VR capture of the prison cell which could be explored from any point and angle, reviewed, explored for fluctuations in t'Chk's pulse, breathing, even brainwaves and was, at that very moment, circulating among many of the fleet's service people as richly deserved entertainment.

Jackson grinned.

What REALLY twisted Derrick up was when Leon told him that Drakhar himself stealth upvoted the stolen video.

"Bull-shit!" Cohen said. "I don't believe you. How the hell could you even know that? Doesn't that contradict the concept of 'stealth' anything?"

"Yo that's what my man over in engineering said and you know he's got staff privileges on that site, right?"

"I don't believe it," Cohen shook his head. "No frakkin' way."

"Why not?!" Jackson laughed at him. "You're tellin' me that you don't think the guy that televised dumpin' the entire Set'Jak clan out the launch tubes of the Brimstone would dislike people laughin' at that fool! Seriously?! Do you remember that cat's FACE?! I shit you not! I wanted to call my mama and have her get in touch with Aunt Tina's old gypsy woman so the bitch could recommend a frackin' EXORCIST! That shit was UNREAL, my man!"

"Leon," Cohen had stopped walking and was now looking Jackson right in the eye. "I'm standing less than two meters away. Can you turn the volume down a bit?"

"What can I say, bruh? I'm an enthusiastic person!"

"Yeah," Cohen was deadpan. "I've noticed." He started walking again and then looked the other man in the eye. "Well, for our sakes?" Cohen said with a grim expression. "I hope you're right. Cos that's a security breach that I've already been answering...

"I KNOW!"

"...questions about for days and we are talking about a man who..."

"Allegedly!" Jackson interjected.

"... chopped a man's head off right on the bridge for the crime of endangering one of his people."

"Bruh!"

"No," Cohen shook his head. "Don't 'bruh' me! I get that it's all fun and games to you, Jackson, but this is important!"

"Sho, man," Jackson clapped his sergeant on the shoulder. "You just keep tellin' yo'self that."

"God, you're an asshole!"

"Hey!" Jackson said and pointed.

"What?"

"Wassup with the cameras?"

Cohen followed his finger and looked into the control booth. All of the cameras were dark. "That," the Sarge stated the obvious, "is not good."

"You think?!" Jackson hissed at him and jogged forward to take cover at the nearest corner. Cohen pressed against the bulkhead behind the man with the armor and rifle.

Cohen pinged the watch commander. "Staff Sergeant!" It was an urgent whisper.

"Sergeant?" Staff Sergeant Garret replied. The concern in his voice was evident.

"Upon returning from our patrol of brig alpha," Cohen informed the WC and, likely by that point, the man's entire support staff, "Private Jackson and I have discovered the brig's control booth empty and all the cameras are dark. Say again: Corporal Xiao and Private Goreman are missing and the cameras are dark. We are investigating."

"Copy that, Sergeant. We have your feed." Then, with annoyance, "Jackson check your camera."

"Oh-shit!" Jackson breathed. Drakhar didn't skimp on equipment, though. So Garret, the WC, and his entire command center, heard him. Jackson heard the chuckles. Several of the females in that room knew why the camera was off. "Heh-heh-haaow! There. You. GO!"

"Thank you, Private," Garret, who no-doubt also knew why the camera was off, replied wryly.

Cohen tapped him on the shoulder and both men brought their weapons up and moved the safety switches into the semi-auto position. Jackson had a full-auto setting on his carbine but Cohen only had his sidearm. As Jackson moved forward Cohen followed in his shadow. They reached the opened hatch to the control booth and, at the last moment, Jackson, wearing shielded armor, crossed the open hatch to both take a position to the left of the door while Cohen mirrored him in the safety of the right as well as to survey the booth. It appeared empty. Which was both good and bad.

Good: there were no bodies on the floor and no one was shooting at them.

Bad: where the hell were Xiao and Goreman?

"Be advised," Staff Sergeant Garret informed them, "there is a heat signature in that compartment."

"Location?" Jackson asked. He was covering the room to the right of the hatch while Cohen, in a crouched position, covered the left. With a glance each confirmed for the other that they had nothing.

"We-uh," Garret told them, "can't tell."

"YO!" Jackson whispered. "Didn't that Wakiya assassin chick have some kind of crazy stealth tech?!"

There was a pause during which Jackson and Cohen shared another of the telepathic glances that people who rely upon each other often did. Then Garret hesitantly confirmed. "Yes. She did."

Cohen and Jackson glanced at each other again. After a moment Cohen nodded. "Going in," he said.

Jackson's eyes and mouth opened in his best, 'are you STUPID!' face but Cohen was already in the room, moving to reactivate the cameras. Suddenly he looked to his right and started firing. Jackson's eyes moved to find Cohen's target. Before he could, a spray of blood spattered his helmet's face-shield. Before his eyes opened from the wince Jackson understood that he was now wearing his friend. A moment later he suffered the further realization that Derrick's head had just rolled against his right toe and was, just then, staring him in the eye with both horror and understanding.

"Infrared!" Jackson bellowed while falling away from the hatch. Cohen's gaze continued to track him for several seconds. Then his armor dutifully responded by switching his helmet's optical display and Cohen's face was lost in the infrared overlay. The infrared optical layer was several images superimposed upon each other. Jackson could still see the world but it was painted in cool blues and bright flares of yellow-white fading through orange and red.

He saw nothing of significance.

Then he heard a calm, pleasant male voice within his helmet. "Please," it said, "allow me." A moment later the optical layer switched into a spectrum that Jackson had no name for and...

...there it was.

Jackson didn't know what the hell to call it. It was vaguely man-shaped and appeared to be made of swirling, dancing, electrically charged stardust. Jackson knew what it was, though, and the bastard was moving toward him quickly. Jackson didn't hesitate. In the blink of an eye he took aim and fired. His carbine was capable of sending a hundred and three high-velocity plasma slugs downrange every sezura and Jackson was a damn good shot. Even so, the cloud of stardust that he was trying to put holes in whirled and danced in moves that, if Leon was interpreting them correctly, were seriously impressive. The bastard whirled over and then under his aim while putting first the security desk and then the weapon locker between himself and Jackson.

Leon was screaming. His aim was steady and the weapon fully hot. The entire corridor was alight with the consequences of the fury he and his rifle shared together. The control booth's windows exploded. In the blink of an eye the bulkhead the bastard had put between them wore several dozen fist-sized craters of molten slag. The corridor downrange quickly became so hot from the hypervelocity plasma that there was a strong wind blowing back toward him.

He could see his target. His armor had now even gone and drawn him a wire frame representation of a human male at the center of what looked to Jackson like a storm of concentrated ball lightning. Jackson could even see the bastard through the bulkhead. He was hiding behind one of the corners into the brig after leaping three meters through one of the booth's exploding windows and rolling into the first of the brig's "aisles".

"Watch your ammo, Jackson," Garret warned calmly in his ear. "I don't want you switchin' mags with that guy in the vicinity."

Jackson eased off the trigger. "Oh yeah!" Jackson roared at the ghost. "Yeah I got you! Didn't I, bitch?! Yeeah! I see you! All hunched over and shit! Clutchin' your side like you got a runnin' cramp! Yeeeeeah!" He growled. "I'mma get'chu, sucka!"

Jackson was easing to his left as he spoke. Downrange the ghost abandoned the corner and fled deeper into the brig.

"Oh HELL no!" Jackson ran to take the next corner before the ghost could put another one between them. There was another burst of hellfire from his carbine and he heard a very satisfying cry of pain from the bastard who'd just killed his friend. Then the next corner was between them.

"Jackson! Do not pursue!" Garret barked at him.

"Say again your last?!" Jackson was furious.

"Be AWARE: there are at least two of them and the prisoner has been freed!"

"Oh this just gets better and better!" Jackson griped as he threw his shoulder into the next corner.

"She is also most likely also in possession of the stealth suit we confiscated from her."

Leon opened his mouth but no sound came out of it. Then he shook his head. "Are you for REAL?!"

"Yes," Garret said.

"Yo I'mma have to have a TALK with somebody about this shit right here..!"

"Simmons and Ho t'St were guarding the locker it was stored in. They were both found dead three mizura ago." Garret was calm and there was no recrimination in his words, but they still cut right through Jackson's bluster. "Also," Garret went on, "the ship has no location, repeat: the ship has no reading on Xiao or Goreman. We don't know what or how many we're dealing with. Just hold the exit, Private. Backup's on the way."

Jackson enabled his armor's infiltration settings which muted his 'outer voice'. "With all due respect, Staff Sergeant, there are two additional ways out of this brig and I bet these invisible assholes know about both of 'em. I really don't want these pricks gettin' away to go and kill any more of my friends."

After a moment Garret sighed in his ear. "They're heading for the port jeffries tube," he sighed. "But, Jackson, if you make me have to come up with nice things to say about you in a letter to your folks I am going to be displeased."

"Copy that, Staff Sergeant," Jackson whispered despite his armor's stealth setting and took off at a run.

As he approached the next corner Jackson slowed down to lean his way past the wall from behind his weapon's sight. That bastard took Cohen's head clean off, which meant he was seriously scary up close. But that didn't mean these two weren't also packing heat. From what he'd heard the female tried to take the boss out with a mass driver. So caution was warranted.

The corridor was empty.

"You got their location, Staff Sergeant?" Jackson whispered.

"The next corridor on your right," Garret told him.

Jackson jogged forward. "They open the hatch to that jeffries tube yet?"

"Yes," Garret told him.

Jackson took the next corner and raised his weapon. Before he could open fire, however, his optics flared and he recoiled back around the corner. His head was ringing from an impact that made him think of a jab from one of the Split marines.

"Jackson?"

"Yeah!" He reassured them. "I took a hit," he said, noting that his shield was down to 48%. Whatever he'd just been shot by hit like a truck. "But I'm alright." Several more shots set the bulkhead aflame around the corner from him. "Yo!" he said to Garret, "it's too bad you don't let me carry any grenades right about now, ain't it, Staff Sergeant?"

"Backup's five sezura behind you, kid," Garret told him.

"These assholes are gonna be in the damn tubes by then."

"We've got countermeasures in place, Jackson."

His armor found the ghost again. It had company. Ahead, through the bulkheads, Jackson observed another of the strange signals in the vicinity of the jefferies tube. Through the bulkheads Jackson saw the two ghosts turn and look at each other.

"Shiiit!" Jackson cursed and leaned around the corner. He opened up on the pair while they were engaged in their meeting of minds with the full power of his carbine. The female pulled back from her corner to duck away from his fire before his plasma swept toward the prick at the jefferies tube who was, just then, out in the open. The asshole tried to leap for cover but Jackson drew a line right through the middle of him, starting at the guy's liver and moving across the chest toward the murdering bastard's head.

He missed the guy's dome but even through the weird lightstorm and wireframe optics he knew he'd just set the motherfrakker on fire. The guy made a strange sound as he hit the deck. It was a little like the whistle of an old and tired teakettle combined with the crackle of bacon frying. As he took cover from the female's return fire Jackson watched the bastard thrash and writhe through the wall he was using for cover and understood; the son of a bitch was trying to scream with his lungs on fire.

"One down," Jackson informed his WC. "And I'm pretty sure that bitch is listening to everything we say. You hear me, girl?! Yeah! I'm comin' for you! YOU HEAR ME?!"

His comms chirped in his ear. There was a brief display near the upper left hand corner of his HUD informing him that something about his radio frequency had just changed. "She's running, Jackson," Garret told him.

Jackson took the next corner. Three meters from him the smoldering corpse of the male was still thrashing as it cooked from the inside out.

"Yeah," Jackson bared his teeth at the sight. "I HOPE you're still in there, bitch! I hope it HURTS!"

"She's heading for the other tube, Jackson."

"Copy," Jackson said grimly and started running for the next corner.

"Stop," Garret told him. "She's at the intersection of corridors alpha one alpha and alpha one bravo. She's covering bravo. Do you copy?"

Jackson understood and, instead of going forward and pursuing, he took a right. "Copy," he replied and sprinted down the ten meter corridor before slowing down for the last four on the balls of his feet in order to make as little noise as he could. Before he reached the next corner his optics showed him the flickering image of a storm of stardust and the wireframe of an athletic woman roughly five meters from his position. The jefferies tube was just past her but she was still covering the wrong corridor.

"Be advised," Garret said to him, "the boss just personally asked me to use non lethal options on the female if possible."

Jackson's mouth opened wide and he shook his head before acknowledging. "Aye aye," he said, managing to sound both dutiful and sullen at the same time, "going non lethal."

He took his carbine in his left hand and moved it to a control position behind his left shoulder while he drew his sidearm with his right. With a glance at the weapon in his hand he flipped the sidearm's safety setting to 'non-lethal'. Which meant he had to hope it would disable her despite the considerable tech she was wearing... before she killed him.

He had to fire one handed since he had control of the carbine with his left. So he held the weapon tight across his chest and aimed through the wall before taking the corner. "Slow is smooth," he breathed. "Smooth is fast." He eased the sights of his weapon around the bulkhead.

It should have worked. He had her dead-to-rights. All her attention was on the wrong corridor. Yet the instant he began to squeeze the trigger he was hit by three quick, terrible impacts; one-two to the chest followed by a third straight between the eyes. He recoiled away trying to throw himself back around the corner. Instead he whirled away from the bulkhead and collapsed lengthwise upon the deck.

"Jackson!"

He kicked against the deck and rolled to get back around the corner but he had to fight against the roiling and burning disorientation that tossed the world around in his senses. "I'm hit!" he wheezed. It was hard to breathe. "I'm hit! I'm down!"

He was using his heels to shove himself along the floor when her shadow fell on him. She had a pistol in one hand and a frakking sword in the other! He tried to raise the sidearm when the last eighteen centimeters of his right arm simply vanished!

He screamed with pain and loss, instinctively trying to find her eyes amidst the wild optics around her. Then, as she lifted the sword he shouted. "There's another one in the jefferies tube!"

He should have died. That sword should have taken his head off. Instead there was the thunder of a heavy repeater and the woman recoiled and fled toward the tube. Several heartbeats later he saw black armored shapes rush by above him.

Then someone laid their hands on him and began removing his helmet. "Hey, Jackson!" It was a familiar voice. His eyes found the face of Kara Giorno, one of the marine corpsmen from the Necromancer. She liked sweet whiskey and vermouth with a fresh orange.

For a moment it was all he could do to simply hold her eyes. Then, realizing that he was still alive, he showed her his best smile and started howling with relief.

"Jackson's alive," Giorno announced over open comms. "Hey! Look at me. Look at me, Jackson! Yeah there you go. Follow my light, okay? Can you watch the light for me? You took a pretty good hit to the head, there, guy. Good thing you were wearing protection, eh?"

Jackson's smile faded. "That sunnuva bitch... killed Cohen," he met her eye, "He killed Cohen, Kara."

She didn't say anything so he kept following her eyes. After a moment she gave him a bitter smile. "You got the guy that did it, though, right?"

"Yeah," Jackson nodded. "Yeah! Damn right I did! I got that sunnuva bitch!" He looked away as the tears spilled from his eyes.

"Good," she said and then made a show of checking his vitals through the jack in his armor.

Jackson looked away. For some reason he kept thinking about the sound the bastard made as he fell, like the old and tired whistle of his grandmother's tea kettle on full boil.

"I roasted that motherfrakker alive," he whispered. "And cursed him as he died."

********

She was real. Or, at least, Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel was real... or had been at any rate. Her parents, Anna MacConnor and James Gabriel, were also real. Legion had found hundreds, perhaps thousands of pictures of them, along with video interviews, articles written about them, school and tax records. He told her their stories.

It was all just as she remembered.

James and Anna met when they were young and trying to save the world... albeit from what some might call opposite directions. She was a biologist. He, a cybernetic engineer. After several joyful years in which they rarely appeared in a photograph without each other they got married. Less than a year later Anna was sporting a baby-bump in all the pics. Shortly afterward they had a child together who looked exactly the way Gin remembered herself. And the sight of her parents' real faces, in particular the photos of the three of them together; Anna MacConnor, James Gabriel and their daughter Alex... triggered an innate curiosity. She kept finding more that she wanted to know about them.

What she found made her sad. There were few recent pictures of her parents. They'd both retreated to the countryside after their daughter's death. Since then they'd stopped returning to any kind of public domain where, once, they'd both been avid public speakers and outspoken activists. Now they were now almost invisible. There was enough, though. They'd occasionally appear in the social media posts of one friend or another and. In James' case, there were also company photos. They looked just like they did in her memories, only older and...

"Full of grief," she whispered.

It was hiding behind naturally warm dispositions and typical Scottish stoicism but, to Gin, who remembered them as truly radiant people, the Anna MacConnor and James Gabriel she saw in recent pictures looked...

"Dim," she whispered.

... as if the light within them had withdrawn somehow. She sighed, knowing she was now in possession of a body and story that would utterly horrify them.

'Would it?'

Gin scoffed. The thought came from the same "elsewhere" as the others. It felt the same way, as well; warm and funny with a sharp if kind wit. In other words it felt like Anna. Or, to be precise, it felt like Anna when the woman was waiting for others to catch on to the joke that she was already bursting with. It was the same playful mischief that Gin remembered in the way Anna would steal James' keys and quietly hide them until he finally stopped looking, came to her and traded his wife the kiss she wanted in exchange. At which point he'd only received the keys if Anna was pleased with his offering!

But Gin was faced with the question. 'Would it?'

"I'm a frakking clone!" she answered aloud. "More than that! I'm the butchered remains of their daughter's clone!"

'Oh sure! that warm presence responded immediately. 'But y'know your da would cut his own arm off to have a look at that!'

Again it came all at once, in less time than it would take for Gin to blink her eyes. Yet there was also the sense of wit, humor and expression. Gin could almost see the woman's eyes rolling as she spoke and her cheeks glowing with playful mirth. Gin could almost see the ever-busy hands that had always been perpetually dusted with living soil.

A moment later Gin found herself admitting that she was right. James would, undoubtedly, have a host of questions about her cybernetics, their interface, durability, power requirements, efficiency and, ultimately, her own experience relying upon them. He'd want to know how she truly was and whether he could make her experience better. He'd devote the rest of his life to making her life as good as he possibly could. She knew all of that as simply and sincerely as she knew her own name. James would always do his best for her. He'd kill himself trying to make her life better. It wasn't something he'd need to think about or come to a decision about either. James would be horrified by what had happened to his wee bairn. He'd also be utterly fascinated by the cybernetic systems she was currently...

...inhabiting...

...in possession of. But most of all he'd just want to know that she was okay... in whatever state she was in.

Gin suddenly felt the man as if he were right there with her; the warmth and humour; the steadfastness; the simple, steady constancy of him. A moment later she trembled with emotions that she couldn't quite feel.

"But I've never even met you..!" she whispered.

Yet from the impossible ghosts of her parents she only felt... mirth. Which was both familiar... and frustrating.

Gin frowned at the memory but the frown didn't last long. Alex had often been her parent's favorite entertainment. They'd tease but they'd also hug. They'd challenge and frustrate and hold her to a standard that was easy to resent but rarely was because, after every challenge, there was always a party. It didn't matter where or when it happened either. The instant Alex solved the puzzle or hit the ball or answered the question or made the grade or the team or won the trophy... there'd be a celebration. It didn't really matter how big or small the achievement was, although the bigger the achievement the bigger the excuse to have a party. And when her lot set about celebrating the devil himself took shelter. They'd howl and cheer, laugh and roughhouse and set faces smiling everywhere they went from the parking lot of her intermediate school (across which her Da carried her on his shoulders after she placed in a swim competition) or from the top of a roller coaster as the three of them hooted and hollered and roared their joy at life together.

'How is it possible to miss you so much?' she wondered.

That sense of presence that she'd come to think of as Anna and James responded. Gin blinked. It was another of those "thoughts" that came from elsewhere but she'd missed it. It was too sophisticated and too subtle simultaneously. At the same time she had the sense that she'd heard what they'd said anyway.

For several moments she simply "stared" in their direction, not with her eyes so much as her attention. After a moment she realized that she was thinking about a transporter; about how the 'you' that you were when you stepped on the transporter and the 'you' that you were on the far side weren't, technically, the same people. And yet, for all practical purposes, from that moment forward, it was.

She could almost see the expressions on their faces as they waited for her to catch on to the joke. She couldn't see it. Yet from "them" (or her imagination) there was only a sense of reassurance... and, perhaps, laughter as well.

Teasing laughter.

She checked the status of her body's repair. The tank was state of the art and had been using its own host of nanites suspended in the high-density nutritional gel to assist and dramatically accelerate her own systems' ability to repair her synthetic body. While she'd been floating in, first, a drug induced slumber and, more recently, the distraction of finding out that she or, at least, the person she'd always believed she was had really existed. Alex MacConnor-Gabriel was a real woman who had a mother and father, hopes, dreams, friendships, loves, aspirations... and an ending. She'd been a girl who'd loved and laughed and tried to help the world...

...who now lived on as an unknown number of lost, tortured, cybernetically enhanced assassins.

'Ach! Me wee bairn...' She could almost hear his voice in nothing but the ringing in the air. 'Me bonny wee bairn...'

For a moment Gin thought she remembered resting half asleep and half awake, invincible in her father's embrace, listening to and dreaming within the booming, God-like thundering rumble of his voice.

"And his beard," she whispered. In the gel her hands twitched. She could remember tangling her fingers in his beard. He wore it big and full and it wagged when he talked. She remembered how the light passed through it, how beautiful each and every hair had been. She remembered trying over and over to catch it.

'And put it in your mouth.' It was another of those thoughts that came from the pair of them. It was gentle and teasing and delighted all at the same time. Without thinking, she giggled. It was a small thing, as laughs go. Just a little bubble that rose to the surface unbidden. But it left a small smile on her face and, considering the news she'd just recieved, that was a lot.

********

Dr. Sol Jared felt indignant.

His ID badge, which doubled as a personal communicator whilst aboard Drakhar's hospital ship, just chirped loudly and then informed him, via holographic text intruding in between Sol and his breakfast, that Drakhar was not only aboard the ship but on his way that very moment to meet with Sol.

Sol huffed and waved his hand through the floating, glowy-blue confirmation ellipsoid. The holographic message dutifully winked out but Sol glanced down to glare at the badge back on his chest anyway. In addition to delusions of grandeur and self importance on the part of whoever designed the thing it also hung at the end of the lanyard around his neck like the keys of some mentally handicapped child.

Sol sneered, exasperated and indignant. He imagined that he was expected to feel some sort of gratitude that the man had bothered to even remember Sol was alive! Let alone spare a few precious minutes from his busy schedule of pillaging the trade lanes or whatever it was the man did when NOT discussing the most revolutionary achievement of their AGE!

It was at this moment that Sol realized he was panting as if engaged in some kind of exertion while glaring at his breakfast. A moment later he realized that he'd been pushing the barely edible paste around inside the bowl it had been served in for the better part of the last ten minutes. He huffed again, this time with both a curled lip and a bit more emphasis, and tossed his spoon upon the plastic tray that belonged more to his breakfast than it ever did or would to him.

It wasn't exactly revolting, his breakfast. It was simply bland and uninteresting. It was some kind of porridge made from a grain he was unfamiliar with, along with a few bites of some kind of starchy fruit that vaguely reminded him of a cross between a banana and a sweet potato and a sprinkling of berries that...actually were rather tasty. He'd eaten those.

The rest though...

"Ugh," he scoffed and shoved the tray away from him.

'I mean really!' he thought, 'They won't even let me have any cream upon it!' All he had to do was think of a pair of fried eggs and... his mouth immediately began watering. With some buttered toast, he tortured himself, 'and a side of bacon,' he thought mournfully. 'With a cup of strong coffee,' his mind added longingly.

Unfortunately one of the very first things the medical staff did was to inform the galley what to feed him and what not to. So now he couldn't even have any sugar in his tea! Although they did allow him a teaspoon of honey in the two cups they permitted him daily. He was also encouraged to eat as much fruit as he wanted... which he didn't mind. After several days of needing to stay close to a toilet he did actually feel much better.

But oh!

How he lamented his beloved cholesterol!

And when added to the frustration of being so close to one of the greatest technological breakthroughs of not merely this generation but the past twenty generations combined! ... and it was enough to make Sol, well, somewhat cranky. Especially when he considered that he was, for all intents and purposes, on a vessel that did not even segregate its mental patients!

He took a breath to summon both strength and patience, then sighed softly and looked across the table.

At his room-mate.

Poor lad.

It wasn't that Sol was finding his time in Drakhar's fleet difficult per se. It was just that the work he could be doing eclipsed even his meeting of Legion, who was without a doubt, the single the most impressive person Sol had, perhaps, ever met. In fact Sol didn't understand what such a person could possibly be doing in the employ of, well, let's face it: a trumped-up warlord and petty despot.

Sol looked at the boy across from him again and winced.

How a man capable of what Drakhar was capable of could keep a man like Legion in his employ was simply a mystery. The man was the Captain of a hospital ship and still found the time to be personally involved with any number of people in real and meaningful ways. If it were not for Legion's company Sol himself would likely have lost his mind by now. As it was, the fellow was able, in the few moments of conversation he had time for, to profoundly evolve Sol's thinking on any number of topics, many of which Sol had been stunned to even be speaking of out loud let alone honestly. He'd remember the moment he looked up with delight, realizing that he and Legion had just been discussing the possibility of a sympathetic and synergetic cooperative co-evolution between humanity and a benevolent and beneficent artificial general AI; the question of what an AI could do for mankind's evolution as well as vice versa, which was a line of thinking that, under the ATF's tyranny, could result in one vanishing. It was one of Sol's deepest, darkest and most secret subjects of contemplation...

...and Legion brought it up.

What if AGI is the next step in human evolution?

Back in the Sol system just asking such a question aloud would instantly get one flagged and put on half a dozen watchlists. Too much interest from any one of any number of the endlessly growing alphabet agencies could suddenly get very uncomfortable in a society with biometrically controlled travel and finances. The wrong flag attached to one's name and everything became more difficult. One flag attached to his biometrics and the system instantly throttled his access to both his money and his ability to move around.

In an instant Sol had gone from being a well and widely regarded professor to, well, to 'whatever happened to that guy?' Perhaps there might have been a whisper of some kind that circulated, unsubstantiated of course, throughout his public and private circles that Sol had fallen afoul of the ATF.

And then... nothing.

They'd forget he existed.

Like sheep ignoring the wolves devouring the lost lamb in the trees while munching away at the ripe grass at their feet.

It had been a rude awakening. In an instant he found himself instantly crippled by nothing more than having to convince official after official after official of the validity of his behavior with every purchase he made and every time he tried to get on a cross-city transport.

He discovered a number of very unpleasant realities that day. The first was that when you take away people's power and dignity those people rapidly become very unpleasant. It was terribly, obscenely apparent that many of those officials that he suddenly had to satisfy everywhere he went, were miserable little people who delighted in the tiny shreds of significance their positions afforded them.

In one day he beheld the truth of what his "society" really was. He saw the talking heads spouting division and animosity while fear and insecurity was used like a whip to keep the wheels turning. In one week he'd come to behold the true scope and scale of the social conditioning that kept one running within the rails. It was slow and insidious but, over time, you didn't even realize how your own capacity for perceiving reality was eroded by the mental and behavior corrals you'd, inch by inch and yard by yard, surrendered to. What amazed him most was the stunning realization of just how far he'd been personally willing to turn a blind eye to the injustices that he himself had witnessed. He also heard his own words from the mouths of friends when they made excuses for why they couldn't help him or even be seen speaking with him, "... you know, considering...?"

And he did, too.

Sol scoffed again. He was out of utensils to hurl and so was reduced to huffing and sighing heavily while scrunching his face up and pursing his lips to express his disgust with and resentment of the situation. [/i]Drakhar had left him to linger for weeks while the most significant discovery mankind had, perhaps, ever made lay so close that Sol could practically taste it! Sol had actually lain awake the night before, staring at the ceiling while wondering behind which innocuous hatch on which ship in Drakhar's fleet was the technology secreted away and, even more insane, how could Sol go about finding it?

Sol sighed again and glanced at the skinny little fellow across from him. The boy was roughly sixteen or seventeen Earth years in age, had obviously suffered from malnourishment throughout much of his life and, judging from his behavior, had also suffered a fair amount of abuse as well. The boy's social skills were practically non-existent and, until very recently, involved a fair amount of traumatized screaming and shaking.

Of course, if what Sol understood of the lad's story was true, it was a miracle the boy was alive at all. According to the young man, who went by 'Sparky' of all things, the lad had quite literally 'belonged' to another Yaki clan only a few weeks earlier; a clan which Drakhar had just... obliterated... not three weeks earlier; systematically murdering nearly every last member of the clan during a conflict that Sparky himself had survived only by the skin of his teeth.

The lad's story was one that Sol found terrifying for a myriad of reasons. Sol was a scientist and erudite. He considered himself a gentleman and family man. He was an intellectual and, with the exception of a few years of boxing back in University, had never been in a fight in his life. Yet here he was in what amounted to a pirate fleet enjoying the hospitality of a man who settled disputes with his rivals using thermonuclear warheads and boarding parties! It was enough to put a flutter in his heart and an icy chill down his spine.

He was committed now, though, wasn't he?

There was nowhere else to go and he wasn't entirely sure Drakhar would let him leave even if he wanted to. Meanwhile Legion continued to keep him apprised of how his daughter, Evelynne, her family and his brother's children were all doing. His brother William had passed away decades ago and Sol had, as much as he could, been there in the man's stead. He ached for them now just as he ached for his home in Salcombe. He missed the ocean air. He ached for a real sky over his head and real earth between his toes.

But Sol was under no illusions. He was an exile and an outcast. His research was a threat to some of the most powerful people in the Universe, who had a vested interest in keeping humanity isolated and afraid. If he ever fell into the hands of any GEOSS authority again he was done for. So now he was an impossibly long way from home in the company of strangers under the rule of a terribly formidable and unpredictable young pirate, warlord and terrorist. Sol was acutely aware that he could die at the very whim of this unruly boy... and here the fellow was on his way.

Sol felt his heart flutter like a bird in the hollow at the base of his throat. It made him feel just a touch nauseated. He wondered if he would ever see the people and places he loved again and instantly, suddenly knew in his very bones... that he would not.

He would never see his daughter's face again.

He would never hear the gulls cry or the waves crash or the wind whistle through the reeds again. He would die an empty eternity away from everything he knew and loved and here, now, he had no idea whether it would all be in vain or not.

For a moment he sighed and bowed his head. Then he took a breath and soldiered on.

What else was there to do?

Should he give up, lay down and die?

Should he kneel at the feet and beg for the mercy of the very people who would deny humanity's evolution?!

No.

No. The only way out of his predicament was forward. Despite the odds, for he was old and tired and ill, he'd never stop hoping for a day in which he'd be able to walk barefoot on the sands of Salcombe again under the somber skies of his homeland.

'If you find yourself going through hell,' he thought, 'you must keep going.'

He inhaled and looked up at his roommate again. The boy was so small, so weak and so timid that even a child could bully him. He was only the size of a child, in fact, perhaps a small woman. Yet he'd survived what Sol could only think of as hell itself. The boy had found himself in hell.

And kept going.

Just then the lad was working on some problem through a datapad and neural link, barely cognizant of Sol's existence let alone his attention. Sol nodded to himself and collected his barely honeyed tea. As he took a sip he recalled the moment he'd realized Sparky was something more than simply "the screaming bloody lunatic" that had been inflicted upon him by a random and utterly indifferent universe.

The patients tended to be herded as a group to different areas of the ship at different times during their particular schedule. Many patients worked different shifts on ships that never truly slept. Sparky and Sol, however, were room-mates and thus together, or at least in the same vicinity, for much of the day... along with crew from all over the fleet who were aboard the ship for care of one kind or another.

Several days after Sparky had been "inflicted" upon him Sol had inadvertently overheard the most amazing thing. Several young women were conversing nearby. Sol hadn't been interested in their conversation. He wasn't eavesdropping. Quite the contrary. Once again he was busy working through his own thoughts and problems and couldn't help but hear Sparky mumbling. The lad's voice carried. No matter where he went or what he was doing Sol was incapable of NOT hearing him. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't get away from the poor boy's voice.

Then, almost by accident, Sol started listening. The two women were both navigators, high ranking officers in Drakhar's fleet responsible for calculating and inputting destinations for the faster than light jumps their ships, no doubt a demanding profession requiring a high degree of technical expertise. And upon that particular day the pair were conversing as colleagues and discussing the specifics of their profession. Which is when Sol realized that Sparky's mumbling was, in fact, the lad correcting their math.

At first Sol couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. So he made notes of what Sparky was muttering and mumbling before asking the women themselves. When they double checked themselves with the ship's computer all three were astonished and Sol found himself insisting that he was not the author of the corrections. Which is when the poor boy, who was easily as timid as a mouse, suddenly found himself being scrutinized by both Sol and the two navigators.

Over the next few days and after some hesitant questions from Sol, some fearful replies from the young man, and some stunning epiphanies on the part of both parties, they almost simultaneously realized that there was a language both of them spoke; a language both of them not only understood but treasured and found solace in; the one, true empirical language. Using equations to articulate advanced concepts they managed to begin successfully communicating with each other and soon found an astonishing and greatly appreciated comfort in the other's presence.

At which point their relationship transformed. After that breakthrough they both began to, occasionally, give the other their complete attention. Within hours they were having conversations about mathematical theory, machine language and, Sol was shocked to his bloody core when the boy broached the subject, the true nature of intelligence and, thus, reality itself.

Once Sol understood who and what the boy really was he'd been able to immediately begin assisting with the lad's recovery. Within a day Sol began to act as intermediary between Sparky and the medical staff. Within a few days of that the boy was even able to be in the presence of Drakhar's marines without immediately collapsing in fits of intense and isolating terror.

Sol hadn't comprehended just how traumatized and desperate the lad truly was until after a visit from Chief Seldon. Sol didn't know exactly what had happened but when he'd first seen her the Chief had been looking after a gurney that was being rushed toward surgery. She'd been wearing the black on black combat armor and dragon insignia of Drakhar's front-line marines. She'd also been covered in what turned out to be her friend's blood.

Sol sighed at the memory. No matter how much he might disapprove of her employ and employer he found it simply impossible to dislike Chief Seldon. There she was, obviously going through own personal hell, her face taught with both the worry for her friend and the frustration at her own powerlessness and she still took the time to meet Sol's eyes and make him smile and laugh... at himself, now that he thought about it. She'd teased him into laughing at just how intrepid he really was as they took a few mizura to catch up.

Even so, however, when he'd returned to the room they shared he found Sparky cowering in the corner behind his bed. The boy had his knees hugged to his chest while rocking back and forth, singing a nursery rhyme to himself. Just the sight of Chief Seldon in her armor had been enough to turn the poor boy into a gibbering idiot.

'Poor boy,' he thought for perhaps the thousandth or ten thousandth time.

Just then Sol glanced up and to his left and, for a moment, had trouble understanding what his eyes were showing him. Drakhar had just turned the corner perhaps eleven or twelve meters from where Sol was sitting but that's not what had Sol's attention. Loping along at the man's side was the largest dog Sol had ever seen. It was so massive that for a moment Sol felt like he was inside some kind of fever dream. The dog was wolfish with the black and tan coloring of a German Shepherd but massive in both scale and musculature.

Without thinking about it Sol stood up to stand between Drakhar and Sparky's fragile psyche. Later he would shake his head at the memory and, when telling the story, insist that he had no idea how he had intended to accomplish such a thing but... there it was. He'd positioned himself bodily between the warlord and the young man he'd come to think of as, well, a sort of ward, he supposed.

It proved to be a pointless gesture, of course. While he stood there he had to watch powerlessly as the warlord and his massive hound approached. The dog, of course, was utterly unimpressed by Sol's courage and simply walked up to first sniff Sol's crotch and then pace around him to inspect Sparky who looked as if he fully expected the monstrous animal to simply eat him. If so, Sol realized, there was nothing either of them could have done to stop it.

Just then Drakhar whistled over his bottom teeth. It was a soft, unobtrusive sound but immediately summoned the enormous animal's attention. Sol watched Drakhar subtly incline his head while holding the animal's eye. A moment later the dog trotted away from Sparky and Sol to trot directly to and around the man's back before facing Sol again from under Drakhar's left hand. Which was then affectionately patting the animal's shoulder with solid, meaty slaps.

"Good boy," Drakhar growled affectionately. The animal met his eyes with the kind of joyful expression that only dogs and children are capable of. A very surreal moment later and Sol realized that Drakhar and the dog were less than two meters from him and looking him right in the eye. Both possessed a confidence that was both so complete and so casual that it was simultaneously disarming and, at least in Sol's case, decidedly unnerving. The man carried death in his pocket and knew it.

'So confident in your flying fortresses, aren't you, Drakhar? I wonder if you even remember the eleven thousand people you killed near my home?' His eyes narrowed dangerously. 'I suspect you remember the consequences of taking those lives, though, don't you?'

Drakhar's gaze narrowed ever so slightly an instant before the dog barked, loud as a cannon, and shook Sol to his bloody core. The sound quite literally staggered him while instantly doubling his heart rate. The dog's face was still enthusiastically joyful but there was a momentary intensity in its eyes that seemed disturbingly knowing. A moment later it looked back up at its master with the earlier panting smile. When Sol looked back up the young warlord was holding his eye with an enigmatic expression and a slight twinkle in his eye.

'Oh I'm funny to you, am I?' Sol drew himself up so that his spine was perfectly straight and held the terrorist's eye.

"Doctor," Drakhar said with an easy smile and an ever-so-slight inclination of his head, though he did not break eye contact. There was a light in the man's eyes that Sol didn't remember seeing before. It was warm and genuine... if disturbingly mischievous. "I'm told you're feelin' better,'' Drakhar informed him. It was not a question and left Sol feeling unsure of how to reply.

"I am," he admitted.

"Good," the man said with a nod of his head and, again, that roguish light in his eyes. Sol suddenly found himself thinking that the man's expression would look just about right on the wolf that let you see it; smiling with an easy grin that might make one start to wonder where the rest of the pack might be. "Then I've got something to show you."

It was just then that Sol noticed an unobtrusive but decidedly familiar hooded figure standing one pace behind and to Drakhar's left with his hands clasped together invisibly within the robes long, full sleeves.

"Oh!" Sol smiled with enthusiasm. "I'm sorry, Legion! I didn't see you there!" He stepped forward and reached for Legion's hands to take them in greeting.

"That's quite alright, Doctor," Legion replied, unfolding his hands to accept the greeting. "I understand that certain personalities can be quite overwhelming."

As Sol took Legion's hands in his own he realized two things simultaneously. The first was that this was the very first time he had actually met Legion in the flesh. The second happened the instant their hands met. Sol immediately looked down to see what it was that his hands were telling them for the skin and skeletal structure of the hands he held in his were completely unfamiliar to him. As he looked upon them he saw that they were the color of tarnished gold and so smooth that they had a sheen in the light. What was more was the wire-thin cabling snaking both above and below the skin, cabling that flickered with light cycling in what Sol calculated to be a significant hertz and...

Sol looked up to see a serene smile on the familiar, subtly pointed chin.

... what were obviously a plethora of active cybernetic implants.

"Doctor Jared," Drakhar said from his left and Sol blinked, realizing that he'd been stunned still long enough for the warlord to repeat himself several times. When he looked back up he met the pirate's eyes. Drakhar smiled at him. "If you will come with me?" He gestured back the way he'd come toward a nearby compartment that several marines were already guarding.

'It's not in there, is it?' Sol was very confused. He'd been in that room (compartment) before. It was just a room they used for meetings with groups of patients and their families. He met Drakhar's eye again. 'I don't understand.'

Sol released Legion's hands and took a hesitant step back. His eyes didn't know where to rest. They kept returning to the implants in Legion's obviously alien hands. "Are you a Split?" Sol asked. "Am I saying that correctly? I mean no offense."

"It's quite alright, Doctor," Legion told him. "And the answer to your question is 'yes-and'."

"Yes-and?" Sol asked.

"If you'll follow me, Doctor?" Drakhar gestured toward the corridor that led to what Sol thought of as the Atrium even though everyone else on the ship just called it the park. He looked up and Legion nodded and began walking with him as they followed Drakhar. As they turned away Sol realized he was, exactly as Legion had so eloquently suggested, overwhelmed.

"Sparky," Legion said and Sol, to his shame, suddenly remembered the boy's existence. "Would you accompany us, please?"

Sol turned to Sparky and saw a mouse in full knowledge that it was in the presence of the cat. Sol glanced back at Drakhar who almost instantly met his eye. He was waiting several paces away and, Sol blinked, when he'd first looked at the man he'd been looking toward Legion. Sol realized that he was feeling then much the same way he often did around his daughter and her friends. Something significant had just happened but he couldn't, for his very life, have said what it was.

"WOOF!'' The dog jump started his heart again and Drakhar hissed quickly and softly across the top of his bottom teeth. The dog instantly met his eye.

"Be nice," the warlord instructed the dog, who panted with an adoring expression on its face. Then Drakhar looked up at the lot of them, quickly met all their eyes and then inclined his head onward before continuing toward the nearby compartment with the enormous dog at his elbow.

Sol turned toward Legion and Sparky, who was by then following just behind Legion. "It's alright, Doctor," Legion said with a strange smile upon his face.

Moments later he followed the massive dog into what was suddenly a very small compartment while Drakhar stopped, presumably to give instructions to his marines. A glance inside revealed a comfortable sitting area with a variety of different chairs for a variety of people to be comfortable in. It was a cheerful space with lots of color in the way of environments for children.

As Sol looked up he noticed Sparky again and was, again, ashamed that the lad had simply vanished from his thoughts. The boy was looking backward over his shoulder at Drakhar and one of the black armored marines... who no longer kept their helmets black and faceless in Sparky's presence since Sol gave the last a good tongue lashing. Sol looked around for someplace the lad might feel safe and heard Drakhar tell the marine to let "no one" in.

'Hopefully,' he thought, 'that means he's about to get out of the damned way and give me access to the AI!'

Continued...
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:44

...continued.

"Why don't you sit over here, Sparky?" Sol pointed at a soft formless "chair" that tended to feel a bit like a hug to whomever sat in it. Sol had noticed the boy prefered it when he could get it. Sparky dutifully took a seat and went about paying attention to nothing at all... with his eyes as wide as they could possibly go. A moment later, before Sol even realized the thing was in the room, Sparky was looking Drakhar's enormous dog in the eye as it sniffed him up and down. For a moment Sol was convinced the lad was about to soil his trousers. Instead Sparky looked up, first at Sol and then at Drakhar! "W-whu what does he want?"

Drakhar was in the room by then and, again, watching the entire affair with amusement of all things in his eyes! "What are you askin' me for?" the lad replied with a devilish grin.

"Uuuuh..." Sparky looked at the dog again. Then back to Drakhar. "D-does h-he bite?"

Drakhar laughed. "Oh yeah!"

Sparky paled.

"What the hell is wrong with you, man?!" Sol was suddenly looking Drakhar right in the eye. A moment later he found himself convinced that he was about to soil his trousers.

"Forgive me, Doctor," Drakhar said with obvious mirth. Then he whistled low and quick across his bottom teeth. The dog instantly looked up at him. "C'mere ya big bully," Drakhar said warmly as the dog was already trotting back and around him to park under his left hand.

'Well at least it's well trained,' Sol thought and Drakhar immediately looked up and met his eye... almost as if he'd heard it... and grinned.

Sol hesitantly stepped forward and then leaned toward Drakhar to whisper reproachfully. "Do you have any idea how traumatized that boy is?"

Drakhar continued to hold his eye and grin. "With all due respect, Doctor, ten tazura ago that skinny little prick was doin' his absolute goddamn best to kill me and my mine. The fact that he's alive right now, recoverin' from his trauma in the care of my people on my ship might just tell ya somethin' if you hadn't already decided for yourself who and what I am."

Sol actually rocked backwards onto his heels. He stood stock still and slack jawed, stunned and, he realized a moment later, just a little ashamed. "Tazura?" he heard himself ask for clarification in a strange form of self defense.

Drakhar's smile broadened and he looked down at the dog under his hand. "One point two seven days," Drakhar told him and Sol immediately shook his head. He knew that. He was just so off balance in this young man's presence. A moment later he remembered the eleven thousand USC officers and crewmen that this man was responsible for snuffing out and met the young man's eye again.

"So what's this all about, then?" he asked. 'Or am I here for your amusement as well, sir?' he thought as he held the warlord's eye.

Drakhar simply watched him for a moment with a calm, appraising look. For an instant Sol even felt as if he were looking at something utterly alien and inhuman, the way one might look at a reptile about to devour you while you screamed for instance. Then Drakhar smiled.

"As I said earlier, Doctor," the man told him and gestured to Legion who reached up to brush his hood from his face, "I'd like to re-introduce you to my friend and one of my most trusted lieutenants," Drakhar turned to look at Legion's now revealed head and face.

Doctor Jared stared at the strange features of the Split male before him. He wanted to call them 'elven' if elves were ruthless, flesh-eating savages. And he gazed upon the odd composite headpiece that wrapped around the back of Legion's head from what would be the temple to the temple on a human. Finally he shook his head, "I don't..."

"Legion is who you came here for, Doctor," Drakhar told him bluntly. "You wanted me to give you access to the Xenon-Split hybrid AI." Drakhar's grin lit up his face. "As you can see: I already have."

Just then Drakhar looked away and then back again. "Excuse me, Doctor," he said, touched his ear and turned away. "Go ahead."

For a moment, as Drakhar listened to whoever just called him, the great hound regarded Sol with a smiling pant. Then it suddenly closed its mouth and looked up at its master with concern in its eyes. Drakhar's grin was gone. In its place was a hard, calculating intelligence that Sol normally associated with chess players. A moment later Drakhar turned back to Sol. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you in Legion's capable hands, doctor. I'm sure you don't object?"

Sol opened his mouth to stammer something but Drakhar was already in motion. He whistled over his lower teeth and, a moment later, both man and dog were through the hatch and disappearing down the corridor while issuing orders both to the marines following him and to the thin air, which Sol assumed meant he was talking via comms to someone elsewhere. Then the hatch closed behind them and Sol looked up at what was either an alien possessed by a sentient artificial general intelligence or some terrible jest on behalf of the warlord's sense of humor.

"Doctor," Legion smiled at him, then, "Sparky," and the boy looked up out of his terror, "I'm sure you have questions. How may I put you at ease?"

********

"So," Gin began, is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"Cell death can be arrested in stasis," Legion pointed out.

Gin stared at it for a good, long moment. It meant going to sleep without knowing if she'd ever wake up again. It meant going into the dark clinging to the hope that a cure could be found before the equipment failed or some human error caused her to simply wink out of existence like an electric light after the power was severed.

"Let's call that my last option," she said. "In the meantime is there anything we can do to slow it down? Unwrite the cell death? What about retroviral gene therapy? How much time do I have...?"

The words were out of her mouth before her mind caught up with the question. 'How much time do I have?' The instant the words were out of her mouth she was staring at the looming fact of her own mortality.

"With your progenitor's genetic code..." Legion called her back.

Gin blinked "You mean Alex?"

"Correct," Legion confirmed. "With an untampered sample of Alexandra MacConnor-Gabriel's DNA it may be possible to synthesize a retroviral therapy."

"Oh!" Gin scoffed. "Is that all?"

"This may be the ideal moment," Legion interjected smoothly, "to point out that your reconnaissance on Montalaar bore fruit."

Gin blinked and then arched an eyebrow. "Did it now?"

"Indeed," Legion began and then paused. "Apologies, Commander. Master Chief Warrant Officer Seldon is contacting you from the Vexation."

Gin blinked. "The what now?"

"The Scimitar class heavy fighter that Chief Seldon is using as a personal conveyance," Legion explained.

Gin snorted. 'Of course,' she thought, infinitely amused by the ship's name. It made perfect sense... provided one knew Seldon. The woman was talking to EVERYBODY with the name of that ship. "Put her through," Gin said with an unexpected smile.

A moment later Gin's VR interface provided her with a spectacularly nauseating view of the world from the back of Seldon's wrist. She caught gut-wrenching glimpses of a clean, white space that lurched and swung around violently as Seldon made her way to the Scimitar's cockpit.

"I didn't think it was possible before just now...!" Gin announced through their open connection, "but I think I just might puke!"

"Oh shit!" Seldon said from the cockpit of her ship. The camera swung about and focused on her face. "Sorry," Seldon showed her an appropriately mortified expression. "Lemme switch you to the cockpit cam."

"Please, thank you."

A moment later Gin's perspective was that of a bobblehead on Seldon's dashboard. "Aah," Gin sighed with relief. "That's... nice."

It was too. She didn't quite know why but the larger space affected her more profoundly than the closer confines of the rapier. It was the same design philosophy but more accomodating. The interior of the scimitar was bright and familiar. All that white and gentle, just slightly soft, non-skid flooring; it was soothing. The environment itself was designed to put its occupants at ease, to keep them calm and focused on the task at hand. She loved the Hyperion, especially the way Thane's engineers had retrofitted her for predominantly human occupation. Even so, the four meter ceilings and three meter doorways, all the ever-so-slightly iridescent surfaces and, of course, all the base-three thinking that went into the shape, structure and design of everything... it was impossible not to feel like a stowaway on an alien vessel. The ship was designed by and for a radically different species. Whereas the scimitar was designed by and for her own species by perhaps its most self-absorbed representatives. And the effect was... nice.

Through the sliver of the scimitar's rear canopy Gin could see the dark grey shoulder of the Shirubāurufu. Beyond the other she saw the green and gold depths of Avarice. Gin could see the asteroids that Drake's factories had worked just a few months ago. It already felt like a lifetime ago.

There was a sudden swelling from what she'd started thinking of as "her'' parents' ghosts. As Gin turned and focused her awareness upon them she slowly understood. The message seeped in like the warmth of a smile. For an instant she remembered Drake as she'd first seen him, lean and lithe and dangerous as a lion amongst wolves. She'd known him instantly. Since then she'd discovered and seen proven that what she'd believed about herself, what she'd been conditioned to believe about herself, were lies. People were capable of caring about her. A man, a strange, damaged, haunted genius of a man, was even capable of loving her... of giving her, a cybernetic death machine, access to the most private and vulnerable regions of his psyche.

Her parents' presence swelled again, increasing around her like the light of a nearby but unseen candle. She smiled, feeling the question her mother was asking the same way she did when young. Silently. Anna would never instruct her daughter. She never held the child's hand and walked her through a problem. She always waited, supremely confident in her daughter's ability to solve the problem, overcome the challenge and become more than she currently was. The solutions would always be right in front of Alex. All she had to do was find it. So Anna simply encouraged her to use her mind... and then roared and laughed and cheered with delight to celebrate every success... before subtly introducing the next problem. This felt just like that. So she looked at her stream of consciousness again: a lifetime since she met Drake; a lifetime of existing in the community that had formed around him; a lifetime of seeing the lies she'd been constructed around stripped away one by one; a lifetime of warmth, of honor, of duty to the people around her, of responsibility, of... this slow, subtle sense of self worth that had grown so slowly, so subtly, so beautifully within her. It was like a flower growing in response to the light of every smile that fell upon her. Slowly she understood.

'It's been a good life.'

She didn't know if the thought was hers or not. Although, considering that her definition of self had recently been reduced to something akin to what comes out of the ass-end of a wood chipper, she wasn't really sure if it was relevant or not. What WAS relevant was the sense of her parents standing just behind her, loving her with everything they were. She didn't know how to define it. The bits and pieces of psychology floating around in her psyche tried to insist they were just a consequence of her damaged mind imagining what she needed to comfort itself. On the other hand her experience was telling her that her mom and dad were there, right there, and she was immersed in them and they in her in much the same way she was immersed in the amnio tank.

In the end she decided that she didn't care what "they" really were. It didn't matter if they were something subtle and graceful and simple and true that existed beyond the definitions and conclusions her mind and culture attempted to inflict upon reality... or just a construct of her damaged mind. It didn't matter because the message... was true.

She watched Seldon working and felt a small, quiet smile spread across her lips. Seldon strapped and plugged herself into the Vexation's pilot seat and, judging from the sudden spin up of the scimitar's antimatter drives, began the pre-flight through her neural link while using her hands to fasten the safety harness and secure the feed from the ship into her flight suit for the High-Gravity-Symplex-Treatment-Injection-Serum (what pilot's called the 'juice').

"Soooo..." Gin gently nudged her distracted friend. Seldon had called HER after all. "What's up?"

"Sorry baby," Seldon said and glanced at the camera for a split second before going back to getting ready to fly the ship. "Something's come up," she said.

Gin nodded, although Seldon couldn't see her. 'That much I gathered,' she thought. "Is Drake okay?"

"Oh!" Seldon's sigh told her more than the woman realized. "I'm sure he's-uhmm..."

"Doing something obscenely dangerous that you're expected to protect him from?"

Seldon glanced at the camera with genuine and unexpected laughter falling out of her face. "Yeah!" she agreed.

"So you've gotta go." Gin stated.

Seldon sighed. "That's a matter of debate but aye. I do."

"Debate?" Gin blinked.

Seldon took a breath to fuel whatever was about to come out of her mouth... and then stopped, just staring out into space. After several seconds Gin began to feel the ghost of concern.

"Somebody hit your pause button?" She asked and Seldon blinked and looked at the camera.

"Uh," she chuckled but there was too much of the professional soldier in it. "Yeah something like that."

'You're trying to decide what to tell me,' Gin understood.

"Let's just say," Seldon said smoothly, "that some family dramas are more exciting than others."

Gin just waited.

"This isn't fair," Seldon complained. "You can see me. All I've got is the holo-image of your face from your fleet ID."

Gin bowed her head. "But he's okay?" she asked. She felt shut out but had no one to blame but herself. Drake had a military to run and she, one of his most trusted officers, just vanished. Of course there would be consequences. One of them was the fact that Tasha was now avoiding looking at the camera whenever she was knowingly keeping something from her.

"Yeah," Seldon assured her. "I mean: you know him! Safe isn't what I'd call a guy who's favorite hobby is stealing big ticket military hardware." She glanced at the camera, "but yeah. He's good."

"Hayla too?"

Seldon chuckled. "That lady is tough as nails, babe." She grinned. "She's fine."

"So you're not talking about Drake's family?"

Seldon blinked and then looked directly at the camera. "No," she said. Then winced. "Sorry," she said. "Look, girl, I-I don't know what you're going through and I'm sorry I can't share details about what's going on. It's an ongoing op and, let's face it, right now you're an unknown quantity..."

Gin winced. She couldn't dispute it and it hurt.

"Just," Seldon went on, "take care of what you need to take care of, okay? Stop getting shot! Do what you need to do and come back... and if you need anything!" Seldon stopped everything and looked directly at the camera, "that boy will move planets for you, girl! You don't have to do this alone! I don't know what's driving you and I don't know why you won't talk to us and, considering what you've told me about yourself, I find that really scary! And I don't know if trusting you is... I mean I do! I just don't know if I should. You know?" Seldon finished and then just looked down at her hands.

Gin opened her mouth but nothing came out.

Seldon shook her head and then collected her flight helmet. A moment later she was back in motion securing her flight helmet, verifying her flight plan, taking control of the docking clamp and, finally, a look at the camera.

"You comin' along for the ride?"

"You headin' to one of those Panthers?"

"Yep yep."

"Transmission'll cut out when you get inside their shield's envelope but," she shrugged, "sure."

Seldon nodded and hit the release. Gin felt the docking clamp decouple from the scimitar through all the layers of sensory deprivation built into the tank. Through the VR headset she saw the Hyperion slip away behind the ship, rapidly becoming little more than a tiny chip of light in the great big dark.

"I'm sorry," Gin whispered and, in her view of the scimitar's cockpit, Seldon looked right at the camera.

For a moment Tasha's face was completely naked and, again, Gin could see the woman weighing her words. To give herself some time Seldon focused on flying the ship and Gin watched the sky pitch and spin through the canopy behind Seldon's shoulders.

"Hey," Seldon said just as Gin caught a glimpse of the Osan'Gar in the background. "I know it's a stupid thing to say but... don't be sorry. Just know that we love you, okay? You're that kid's heart and, I don't know why or how but... he's sort of become the little brother I never had. And Hayla adores you. She told me she always wants to just make you smile whenever she sees you cos you always look so sad..."

Gin exhaled.

Seldon sighed and shook her head. "Look," she said and the sky continued to pitch and roll behind her. For a moment Gin saw the twin tell tale strings of holographic lights stretching out from a deeper, Split-Panther shaped shadow. "I get that 'other people' aren't exactly your strong suit but," Seldon took a breath and shot a momentary glance at the camera, "just do this: make sure the people you care about know how you feel about 'em before you go and do things like..." Seldon fixed the camera with a glare and, this time, through the transparent face shield of the woman's flight helmet, her eyes were as hard and sharp as if she was looking through a scope, "...get yourself shot at!"

Gin sighed. After a moment she smiled which, unfortunately, Seldon couldn't see. "Will do," she said.

"I'mma hold you to that, bitch," Seldon informed her. Through the back corners of the scimitar's canopy Gin could now see the holographic runway markers as Seldon made her approach. Gin noted that Seldon's hand was on the stick making constant small, subtle corrections the whole time. Which meant she was flying the ship instead of letting the autopilot do it. The sight of it filled Gin with a sudden swell of fierce pride for her friend.

"You can count on it," Gin promised and, again, Seldon looked right at the camera. After a heartbeat or so, the marine nodded and went back to flying the ship.

"Good," she said. Behind her the blinking holographic lights of the Asena's landing strip stretched out for nearly a kilometer. They only had seconds.

"Stay alive, Seldon," Gin said and Seldon blinked.

"Stay safe!"

"You too," Gin said just as she caught the tell tale visual distortion of the scimitar passing into the Asena's shield envelope.

Seldon turned to the camera and grinned her most shit-eating grin directly at her. "Bye!" the marine told her and, in the blink of an eye, the connection winked out of existence.

Gin sighed. For several seconds she said nothing. Then, "Legion?" she inquired. "What's going on back in the fleet?"

********

Eri heaved herself out of bed. She'd been provided a cane that stood on four feet nearby. She'd refused to use it. Just as she'd refused the chair, the lev-harness and the crutches. Just then, though, as she thrust herself up onto her feet, she pitched off to her right and grabbed the thing reflexively to avoid going face first into the chair and locker beside her bed.

She groaned and waited a moment. Her balance and motor centers hadn't adapted to the recent loss of six and half kilograms of meat and bone left of her voice box. After the last week it wasn't constantly life threatening but it still, occasionally, snuck up on her. She sighed and glared at the cane now occupying her only hand. She thought of trying to creep through jeffries tubes with the thing, immediately snarled and nearly hurled the cane across the compartment.

There were just too many screaming, bludgeoning, in-her-face dictations from her new reality that she was not as she was. That she'd been fundamentally and perhaps permanently lessened by her injury. To the point where now even walking across a room, opening a door and then down a corridor required an enormous increase in effort for a result that was dramatically reduced in significance and grace.

Everything was exhausting.

Every act was frustrating.

Everything she did needed to be thought out, seen in its entirety and then, oh-so-carefully, gingerly, delicately executed... or she was often instantly sent, Do-Not-Pass-GO, straight to hell. If she bent the wrong way, exerted herself the wrong way, hell, if she even breathed the wrong way and accidentally woke up the demons living in the traumatized nerves that used to run between her brain and the devastated areas of her torso that formally supported her left shoulder, arm and hand...

The soft, unthinking bliss offered by the stronger painkillers was too easy to both fall and then disappear into. She was horrified by the fact that it had been nine days since she'd been shot. Nine days and all she'd done was lie in bed and, more recently, begin terrorizing the people caring for her.

"Well I did learn from the best," she said bitterly, snatched up the cane with a glare and began heaving herself across the room... like some piteous malformed, miscreated thing.

She did find it amazing that, even now, even in this state it was always her mind that tortured her most. Here she was, her body a blasted and ruined mess, and what occupied her? What mad place did her concentration and focus keep returning to? Was it to finding a way to her sister? Well, yes. Sometimes. But mostly it was to keep returning to the moment she was shot like some cinephile watching the same movie thousands of times.

She set the cane down and palmed the hatch to her compartment open. As she collected the cane and lurched forward again she recalled waking, days earlier, into a brief lucid period in her drug-induced delirium. In that brief moment she'd realized that her mind had been replaying the event over and over and over and over and over again, and had been for an impossible to determine length of time. The experience continued in and out of that delirium, waking and sleeping ever since. Instead of discussing treatment options with the doctor, instead of listening to her "support team" while they encouraged her to breathe of all things (they also wanted her to replant new sprouts into larger and more permanent containers), instead of all the other activities she'd been encouraged to engage in Eri kept finding herself sitting and just reliving those moments.

She remembered seeing her sister in the dark. She remembered shouting and bodily blocking the girl's shot.

'Like a goddamned idiot.'

She remembered the impact. That was actually one of her mind's favorite scabs to pick at. She actually remembered the impact and the sudden, violent upheaval of the world around her as it tumbled and tossed her about. She remembered hitting the guard rail. She remembered going face first over it and seeing the two story fall. She remembered falling and... then she was dying... while Drakhar and Seldon fought to save her life.

"Hey bitch! You better be frakkin' listening to me! You need to stay away from that goddamned light! You hear me?! Seriously, girl. You die on me'n I'm gonna have to whoop that ass!"

The memory made her smirk. Seldon. Just... Seldon. Of course, a moment later, she remembered Drakhar's last words to her. "I'm gonna ship your sister back to the Wakiya in Six. Separate. Boxes."

Seldon told her why he'd said it. The marine had gone out of her way to make sure Chinomu knew that. Drakhar himself couldn't be bothered to so much as send her a text message and Eri suspected the son of a bitch had had himself a good long smirk at the notion of her lying awake, broken and powerless in her hospital bed without the slightest clue regarding the fate of her sister. Her condition and experience mattered so much to him, in fact, that he went on vacation while she was convalescing.

She scowled at the corridor passing by her... slowly; in slow, heaving steps designed to keep much of her left side immobilized while hauling a cane around that further imbalanced her already brutalized frame. Several nurses were chatting amiably and cheerfully to each other as she lurched on passed. From the corner of her thousand yard stare Eri saw the smiles fall off their faces before they exchanged looks that combined equal parts concern and relief; relief because Eri wasn't their problem.

The next few moments were long and slow in the way of dreams, painful in the way of life, and frustrating in a way that she'd literally never known before. During several of which she actually stopped in the middle of the corridor to lean on the cane and pant, stared at the corridor before her and genuinely found herself wondering if she was in some strange Twilight Zone in which the corridor was lengthening before her. When she finally lurched past the hospital "floor's" main desk toward the "lobby", which was where the high speed lifts stopped, Eri glanced at the time on the wall. After a frustratingly difficult calculation by her dulled wits she realized that it had just taken her nearly two and half mizura (roughly seven minutes) to walk fifty meters.

"Uck!" she scoffed in disgust but immediately lurched forward toward the lifts. Which is precisely when Captain LaGuirre stepped directly in her path.

"Eri?" the woman greeted her. She didn't smile. There was no pretension or posturing or false social nicety about her. "We never did agree if it's alright if I call you Eri. Would you prefer I use your rank and surname?"

"That depends," Eri replied instantly.

"On what?"

"Whether you're going to get out of my way voluntarily... or whether you force me to go through you."

Captain LaGuirre smiled an oddly pleased smile and nodded to herself.

Eri squinted and opened her mouth to say something vile.

"Oh I'll get out of your way," Captain LaGuirre assured her. "In fact I'm required to walk with you... perhaps assist with any doors you run into?"

Eri leaned against her cane to help stop the slow, undulating spin in her head. She cast a suspicious, baleful glare at the Captain through the curtain of partially matted strings hanging in front of her eyes. Then she turned and heaved herself back into motion towards the lift... directly at the Captain who still blocked her path.

Captain LaGuirre smiled and smoothly stepped backward out of her way and then fell in beside her. "I assume you're on your way to Yomi?" Captain LaGuirre asked her.

Eri wanted to hate her. She really did. The woman possessed both the hatefully perfect and offensively pristine professionalism as well as the unfortunately uncanny insight of a good military shrink.

'Goddamn that man for his ability to attract good people.'

She scowled at the lift on the far side of the lobby. Logically she judged the distance at four, perhaps four and half meters. As she lurched, panting, swinging the cane around and passed her right leg... those four meters looked like an impossibly vast distance, like the far shore of a frozen and turbulent lake when one was without a boat.

Eri stopped for a moment to lean upon her cane and pant like a slow, wheezing bellows. She just needed a moment to catch her breath.

"And when you get to the hangar I assume you'll appropriate a vehicle and fly it to..?"

Eri blinked and turned her head toward the shrink. Her breath felt like a blast furnace in her throat. It was hot and dry in her mouth and throat. She could feel the meat that composed her lungs. They felt dry. Meanwhile her face and back, her crotch and remaining armpit were all soaked with cold, glistening sweat.

She blinked and panted and realized Captain LaGuirre was waiting close at hand in case she needed to catch her. It was a possibility that Eri was forced to admit was uncomfortably probable. Her mind felt like it was on a slow, unstable elliptical orbit of her central axis. She felt more than slightly dizzy and couldn't quite fill herself up with enough oxygen.

In addition to all of that she didn't miss the woman's point. So, after several more deep, gasping breaths, Eri turned her head by slowly allowing gravity to pull it toward the one while it drooped at the end of her neck. Even so the look she directed at the Captain was... pointed.

"I'm assuming your goal is..?" The Captain waited for a moment and held her eye. After a moment Eri realized the woman already knew the damned answer and was just waiting to see what she'd say.

"To reach my sister!" Eri snarled. "Which you already know good and goddamned well!" Eri heaved the cane forward a step to loom over the shorter woman. "You wouldn't..." she panted, "...by any chance..." Eri found herself baring her teeth and looking right into the other woman's eyes so intently that she could see the slow, organic adjustments of the striations in the other woman's eyes. "...know where she is..." She leaned in so close she could smell the other woman's skin. "...would you?"

Captain LaGuirre held her eye the entire time. When Eri finally finished her question the woman smiled a befuddled if pleased smile. "I suppose if I do you'll find some way to extract the information from me?"

Eri reeled a little, just enough to make her clutch the cane and clench her teeth to avoid losing her balance. She also didn't drop her gaze. Later she would wonder what her face looked like. Just then she simply channeled every ounce of her will into the black circle at the center of Laguirre's left eye.

"Phew!" Laguirre exhaled in an expression of true admiration. "My now," Captain LaGuirre held her eye with that strange, easy smile. "I see why he likes you."

Eri blinked and just then the world momentarily went sideways. An instant later she felt LaGuirre's hands expertly catching her by the waist and under her right arm. As Eri regained her senses her first impulse was to be furious with the woman for touching her while simultaneously being acutely aware that, without the woman's assistance she'd have just gone lengthwise onto the deck. So, instead, she simply barked, "What?!" for she was fairly certain that the nurse or shrink or whatever the hell LaGuirre was, had just referred to their mutual employer.

"I do, in fact, know where your sister is," LaGuirre told her and Eri immediately glared at her again, apparently to the other woman's amusement. "My instructions were to take you to her the instant you, and I'm quoting the man you understand, "stopped feeling sorry for yourself enough to be a 'pain in the ass'."

"Wasn't that achieved..." Eri panted in the woman's face, "... right around the time I started throwing things at you?"

"Well," LaGuirre responded cheerfully, "you'd certainly achieved being a pain in the ass."

Eri glared at the woman. She pointedly looked her up and down... and was confronted with a reality that made her feel a little silly. She realized that, as of that moment, she really hadn't paid the woman any real attention. She didn't just not know the woman's name... she hadn't even paid attention to the reality of her at all. The bitch had just been an irritation, the voice of discipline during her...

'...self pity...'

...convalescence.

Eri winced and found herself looking at Captain LaGuirre for the first time. The woman was only perhaps 1.6 meters tall but she was broad across the hips and shoulders and carried herself with the cheerful, easy solidity of a varsity cheerleader. As Eri's gaze moved up the solid columns of the woman's legs and the wall of meat that made up the center of her she was forced to acknowledge that the bitch was, in fact, a brick shithouse trained to handle and move patients in a hospital. Which meant she was likely capable of tossing Eri over her shoulder like a sack of flour.

"Huh!" Eri grunted. "So... you'll take me to Yomi?"

LaGuirre smiled at her and nodded. "That is, in fact, my job." She then gestured to something behind Eri who turned wearily to look where she indicated. "They'll be coming with us too," LaGuirre said as Eri beheld what looked like an emergency medical response team standing not two paces behind her.

'You mean in case I rupture a blood vessel or give myself a stroke or simply pass out in the lift,' Eri sighed, acknowledging the realities of her situation. A moment later she turned and swung her chin toward the lift. "Let's go then!" she said emphatically. "For starters! One of you can... make yourself useful... and hit the damn call button!" She barked as she heaved herself toward the lift again. "...while I try not to pass out!" She finished under her breath.

********

Continued...
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:45

...continued

********

Legion was polite, as always, but whatever situation had just called Seldon back to the fleet was, at least according to the security guidelines that Drake's people were currently following, none of her business. It stung a little. She understood the necessities of the measures and the need for compartmentalization. She did. And, just three weeks earlier, she'd have been privy to everything Drake did.

Everything.

She didn't know why but suddenly finding herself "out of the loop" reminded her of late autumn; of skittering leaves and cold, lonesome winds moaning through the eaves and bare branches; of dark nights and small, feeble flames; of a relentless, hungry cold that just might take someone before it relented.

Gin thought of her earlier question to Legion which, she noted, he'd never answered. 'How much time do I have?' Then she sighed and checked the status of her body's "repairs". The nanites had completed 98% reconstruction of her damaged tissues. Most of what remained was cosmetic. The estimated time before she would be cleared by the machine for a check-up by a medical professional was 11.7 mizura. Gin nodded grimly. She had absolutely zero interest in being in the tank even one second longer than necessary. Erwyn and Giorno knew the answers to her questions.

Erwyn was out of her reach. Gin hissed across her lower teeth. The tremors of a grief she couldn't quite experience or express became a grim and bitter chuckle. The thought of Erwyn's perfectly aristocratic features within reach of this body was suddenly and profoundly satisfying. Unfortunately Erwyn was a ghost that literally had armies at his command; a high-ranking covert operator in command of hundreds of operations throughout the Sol system and commonwealth space.

Giorno on the other hand? Well, Doc Boni'd cooked Rabekka Giorno's memories right out of her brain. He'd encoded her within some kind of crystalline matrix that he'd invented himself along with an interface and software suite allowing Drake's machines to interface with the woman's psyche and memories. She could even use search parameters. Which meant she could peruse the woman's memories in search of answers in much the same way she'd use the extranet.

'Sort of...' she thought with a wince. Immediately afterward her mind examined options for breaking into whatever vault Drake was keeping the crystal in and stealing it. As she did she felt smaller and more vile by the heartbeat. She sighed, disgusted with herself. Why was it so hard to face him? Almost immediately afterward she wondered if it was another system of control; some aversion to anything that might provide long-term stability.

"Ack!" she scoffed and for an instant her mind leapt back into nihilism. Why fight at all? Why not just let herself die and be done with this dreadful, tortured existence?

Gin's jaw flexed. She thought of Erwyn. She imagined him within her grasp and, for a moment, descended into the pure masturbatory fantasy of vengeance. A moment later she sagged, unable to maintain the emotional intensity. As just and righteous as the idea of ripping the man apart with her hands felt to her, indulging in the hate just made her feel small and tired.

The amnio tank chimed softly. It was a pleasant, peaceful sound that, had she been sleeping, she'd likely have never noticed. The display within the VR headset also informed her that the nanites had completed their repairs and that medical professionals would be with her shortly.

"Legion?"

"How may I help you, Commander?"

"Tell the bridge to jump to the Brimstone, wherever it is... and get me out of this damned tube."

"Of course, Commander."

A few mizura later Gin stepped off a transporter pad where a young Argon Petty Officer looked up from behind his console and immediately recognized her. "Commander Ookami!" He greeted her with a broad smile. "Welcome aboard the Brimstone, ma'am."

She thanked him with a nod and her best attempt at a smile before leaving the compartment as quickly as she could. On the other side of the hatch she called up the ship's floor plan to orient herself. The fastest route to Drake's stateroom was from the bridge itself but she didn't know who was on duty and did not want to talk to anyone. So she plotted an alternate course and set off.

The Brimstone had been decorated in much the same way as the Necromancer. The lights were muted and indirect. The floors were obsidian. The walls were either carpeted in grey or finished with either polished granite or more obsidian. After months aboard the Necromancer it felt comfortable and familiar despite the somewhat draconian ambience.

As she walked, first to a ladder up and then toward Drake's stateroom, she watched her guilt grow. She was planning to steal from a man who'd been nothing but good to her, a man she not only cared for but genuinely loved. And why?

She didn't know. There was no reason to believe Drake wouldn't give her access to Giorno. On the contrary she was all but certain that he would. Not only would he give her access to the answers she needed he'd likely go to war for her. He had for Ps'y Ct'ic and, perhaps it was a conceit, but she suspected that she meant more to Drake than Ps'y did.

There was a momentary debate within the forum that had sprung up inside her about whether that was true or not. Gin chose to largely ignore it but still winced at some of the points that the more bitter, hateful facets of her mind came up with. While ignoring the arguments that predominantly led straight back into nihilism, Gin turned the last corner and made her way to Drake's stateroom. As she stepped up to the hatch she pressed her hand against the biometric lock while wondering if she'd have to damage the hatch to get in.

A moment later the hatch hissed open. Which meant that when Drake had been configuring his security protocols he'd made a point of giving her permission to enter what was now essentially his home. Considering what she was about to do the realization almost instantly cast her back into hopelessness, despair and nihilism again. Instead of giving those thoughts and ideas any room to grow she simply stepped through the hatch.

As she lifted her eyes she saw the same ten meter corridor where S'jar t'Chk had once displayed his treasures. The display cases on either side of the lane were currently empty as Drake undoubtedly had larger problems on his mind than interior decorating. Beyond the hallway, however, there was something new. Simultaneously framed by the dimensions of the hallway and the 3 story window behind it was Drake's new desk and chair. Behind which Gin could see a wall of nearly eighty stations that hadn't existed when she'd left a month earlier.

The desk appeared to be as much fortification as furniture. It stood on a dais roughly 1.5 meters above what Gin thought of as the petitioner's floor. The dais was accessed by a pair of short staircases that curved down to the floor from either side of the dais. The wall between those two staircases rose from the petitioner's floor to the surface of the desk itself which presented a solid and seemingly impenetrable barrier between Drake and whoever stood before and below him. Meanwhile his chair rested tall and broad, tapering as it rose several meters above the surface of the desk. To Gin it looked like the throne of a comic book villain and she couldn't help but shake her head a little.

As she reached the end of the corridor Gin first looked up and around and then at the center of the petitioner's floor. The space had been altered since the last time she was here. The basic dimensions were the same. The far wall was a massive, intricately framed window that looked in the same direction as the bridge one deck below. On either side of the window the space curved slightly back into the compartment. First it framed the dais before segregating to define the petitioner's floor below while falling back to reveal the loft above. Then her eyes fell to the floor at her feet.

The petitioner's floor was an elliptical space ten meters across by five meters in depth. It was defined by the dais and staircases ahead and the wall through which the corridor opened behind her. It was made of the same obsidian as the rest of the command deck. In the very center of the ellipse, however, was a much grander and more intricate version of the dragon-insignia on his marines' armor that appeared to have been carved directly into the floor roughly eight to twelve centimeters below the deck's transparent, mirror-smooth surface. She couldn't have said why but the medallion made her feel tired and sad.

After a moment she realized one of the holographic displays was open and flickering above the desk. Curious, she crossed the petitioner's floor to the stairs on her right. As she walked her boots squeaked on the polished obsidian and then softened on the black carpet on the stairs and dais. A moment later she came around the desk and saw that it was much more intricate and ornate from this side, complete with drawers, cubbies and built-in cabinets. Most of which stood empty but, in one was a small crate full of what looked like dog toys and, at her feet, just to the throne's right, there was a nasty looking thing that Gin was fairly certain once adorned the end of an animal's leg.

As she stepped up to Drake's throne she looked at the holographic display and saw the app that Drake used to record his logs was open and unguarded. Even more she saw that, in the app, his daily log was still open. Which meant that, had she wanted, she could listen to it, add to it, download it or even delete it.

She frowned and, once again, wondered what the hell was going on in the fleet. Drake's logs were his most private thoughts. Normally he guarded them with multiple security protocols. It was strange to find not only his desk but his logs accessible. As if he'd been called away so quickly that he forgot to close the display. Of course that didn't explain why the terminal didn't protect itself after several minutes of inactivity.

She stared at the log. All she'd have to do was hit rewind and play and she could listen to him talk about what he was thinking and focused on earlier that day. At the thought a debate began inside her. After several moments of enduring the argument she sighed and sat down in Drake's chair. The instant she did she smelled him. He'd been sitting right here just a little while ago.

The squint deepened and the synthetic muscles of her jaw clenched and tightened. Then she curled her legs under her and leaned back into the chair, pressing her hands against the armrests and inhaling Drake's scent. A moment later she remembered Alex doing the exact same thing in her da's office. James' often gave lectures around the world and when he was away she'd sneak in, sit in his chair and simply breathe him in, comforting herself with his presence even when he was far away.

Gin's arms wrapped around her shoulders of their own volition. After several moments another pair of tears spilled over her cheeks. Gin scoffed a bitter laugh. It was almost funny. After the better part of a decade in hell she finally found her way into something resembling a glimpse of heaven... just in time to die.

With that thought she leaned forward to touch the app twice. She knew she should have felt guilty. She knew she was a miserable wretch. She just didn't care anymore.

Rewind.

Play.

"It's 0237," Drake said instantly and the sound of his voice was both softer and more resonant than she remembered. "I'm alone," he went on. "I'm alone in a strange bed on a strange ship with a hellish name and-ah... my body's still not entirely convinced that this is the 'real' world." He groaned and she could see him rolling his neck and shoulders out.

"I just woke from this dream that," he scoffed and she heard the mirth in his voice, "I don't even know how to describe it. How do I explain that I just found the moment that I..." He just stopped and she imagined him doing that 'looking-through-the-Universe' thing he did sometimes, staring at the thought in his head rather than the world before him. "I was a little kid again." He said. "I was so small that I-I didn't even have a name, you know?"

Gin squinted. 'Do I?'

"It's like I... shit." She listened to him breathe for a moment. "It's like I wasn't just this body. I wasn't yet the 'story of me'. I was..." He gasped then, suddenly naked with a grief that Gin had always sensed but never, ever touched. "They were in the kitchen..." he said and his voice suddenly sounded... younger. "They were... under me," he said, sounding as simple and raw and unsophisticated as the child he was remembering, "in that run down tenement in Old City," his voice became low and bitter, "in the filth and the shame of bein' on the bottom'a everybody. Leo and my mom,'' not 'Ma' she noted, "were..." his voice broke and he went silent.

After several seconds she unfolded herself and put her feet on the ground, leaning in to listen as hard as she could, despite the fact that her hearing was capable of detecting micro-changes in air density through the recording. She listened as hard as she could because, as far as she could tell, his breath had simply stopped. An internal timer began measuring the lapse. Second after second after second ticked away but Drake had simply stopped. His breath had stopped. She rewound and focused on the subsonics in order to listen for his heartbeat.

She couldn't hear it.

"Drake?!" she was shocked to hear the concern in her voice.

The silence went on and on. The timer on the app counted the thousandths of a sezura. The one in her head counted the milliseconds. Seconds became a minute. Then another. Then another still.

He wasn't THERE anymore!

Second after second, minute after minute ticked by. Then, after 11.826 minutes, she heard a single subsonic disturbance from him. She rewound it again and again to confirm that it was his heartbeat.

'One heartbeat in 12 minutes!?!'

There was nothing else. Not even the rustle of cloth or the creak of leather. It was another minute before she heard another pulse. Several seconds after that he took a sudden, deep inhalation and his heart started up in earnest, allowing Gin to start breathing again herself.

There was another semi-silence as Drake followed his inhalation with a minute-long hold. Then he sighed into the same kind of groan he made when rolling out his neck and shoulders in the morning.

"...doin' their best to kill each other's spirits." Drake said finally. It actually took Gin several moments to realize that he'd just finished the sentence that he'd started fifteen minutes earlier, picking up where he'd left off as if there hadn't just been nearly a quarter of an hour in which he hadn't been BREATHING!

"It was like they hated themselves... in each other." The anguish in those last words was so naked that Gin almost stopped the recording. "They were tryin' to murder each other," his breath shook with emotion, "just a few meters away from me."

Then he took another deep breath and let it out slowly until all the tremors left it. After another few seconds he took another breath and started speaking again. "Even all these jazuras later," he said and she could finally hear the adult returning to his voice, "it's still so familiar. I can remember the routine, you know? Leo'd get home and my mom'd already be half in the bag; pissed off at the world for the state of her life and takin' it out on him." He paused for a beat. "Which wasn't fair.

"He was doin' his best.

"He was!

"I don't know if it's real or not but I've actually got this memory of his face when he was lookin' at her. I'd forgotten it, you know? I've hated him for so long that... I forgot that he... He tried. He really did. I think he even loved her. Best he was able, anyway.

"But she'd poke at him and pick at him and harp on him about what a failure he was until, sooner or later, he'd run out of self respect and... descend to her level and push back.

"Which was when she had him. That was when he'd finally start doin' exactly what she wanted him to do by droppin' down into all that shame and hate that she was just drownin' in."

A moment later he gasped another huge breath, filling himself up as much as he could. Then he held it. It wasn't silent, though. She could hear the beat of his heart in the drum of his chest. She could hear him licking his teeth. She could even hear him blinking. After nearly three minutes of holding his breath he exhaled sharply and completely. After seven more seconds he began to pant again. Only now it was full of purpose. As Gin listened he accelerated his breath and made it deeper, faster and more powerful. She could hear the depth and resonance of his breath in the very bones of him. She could hear him breathing himself more powerful, breath by breath by breath; expanding the capacity of his lungs and, thus, the resonance of his body. Finally he exhaled completely and rested that way for another five minutes before inhaling completely into a forceful hold.

'Where the hell did you learn how to do that?' she wondered and immediately thought of Legion.

Finally he exhaled with a deep, satisfied, growling groan and, again, she heard him working the flesh of his neck and head, particularly around his injured eye, before continuing.

"Usually," Drake went on and his voice larger now; fuller, deeper and more resonant, "it was right around the time he'd finish off the evenin's six-pack that the violence would start. And don't get me wrong! My mom was just as guilty'a that shit as Leo ever was. In fact she had a tendency to draw knives! Not just on Leo, either." There was something about the way he said it that made Gin suspect he'd seen one of those blades pointed at him, perhaps more than once. "Only with Leo," he went on, "eh... it was different, you know? He was her favorite whippin' boy cos the miserable bastard was just too damned dumb to leave. So she'd just push him as far as she could. And she got better at it ever day. It was only ever after she'd taken a swipe or two at him that," he sighed, "he'd start to hit her.

"'Course once that started...

"Yeah. In'na dream I could," she heard him swallow and clench his teeth, "hear him cursin' her... with every one'a the thuds." He sighed then and she heard the grief in his breath. Only he was doing that new panting thing and before long his breath went back to being soft.

"It's crazy, you know?" he went on. "Just a few mizura ago I was a little kid again. I mean I was there, you know?" Drake rumbled. "This iddy-bitty, tiny little thing. Still in diapers. Still so small that I was just another ripple in the ocean... only I was... screamin'," Gin actually grit her teeth against the agony in his voice, "with EVERYTHIN' I had." His voice broke again. "Cos the world was just... wrong! It was wrong and wrong and wrong and nothin' would ever put it right again!"

He took those deep breaths and sometimes sniffed the snot back into his head. "Oh man!" He moaned. "I can't believe how strong the memory is. I mean I can be there right now; inna back'a dat closet smellin' my mom in all the clothes around me. Screamin'! Just screamin' and screamin' and..." His breath hitched for an instant before fallin' back into that soft pant. "Screamin' with everythin' I had! Everythin' I was! But even then I knew that nothin'd ever be okay again.

"You know I can still, I mean this very moment, I can still smell that closet. Right now! I don't how dat's possible but I can." He sniffed again. "I can see it as clear as I see the empty space around this bed and the console open in front'a me."

Gin nodded to herself. He'd been recording remotely, likely from the bed above.

"I can see and smell all her coats and shoes and bags. I can smell the leathers and wools... that horrible musty old stink wool gets, you know. It's both awful and perfect at the same time. *sniff* The slinky smooth musk of her stoals. That somehow sharp and buttery aroma a'her purses. I can smell it all. Right now! But," he paused for a moment, "more'n anythin'?!

"I smell my mom." His breath hitched again and Gin was stunned to find herself weeping with him. "I smell my mom," he said again and she heard the confession in it, as if he wasn't supposed to love her and was ashamed of the fact he did. He gasped and weapt and panted his way back to soft again. "I didn't-ahh... *sniff*... I didn't even know that I still... remembered it, you know? That smell. It's just her. I mean she's been dead for over ten jazuras and, if you'd'a asked me, even just last night, I would'a told you that," his voice mocked his own hardness, "I didn't miss her at all. Who the hell was Maggie Draylan to me? Just some junkie whore who nearly got me killed before I even knew my own name."

He paused and she heard him grind his teeth and run his fingers through his hair... which rasped, telling her that he'd cut it short. This produced a small sigh. She liked his hair.

"Yeah!" he laughed in that self-deprecating way of his and then sniffed again. "I keep realizin'..." His voice was so full of emotion that he needed to take a moment just to form words. After a quick in and out gasp he managed to finish, "...that I've been full of shit all my life." He sniffed and breathed himself through the emotion.

Then, finally, he admitted. "I miss her. Even right now it's like I can feel her in the room wit' me. It's like a taste on the back of my tongue or a name I can't quite remember and, I swear I can feel her..." he needed to just breathe for a few moments before continuing, "...in the air around me. As if she's right here, right in'na room wit me."

Gin's eyes widened. He could have been describing the experience she was having with...

'...my...'

...Alex's parents.

"And-uh," he went on, "this is gonna sound strange-but... I swear she's smilin' at me." He could barely finish before he started gasping through his emotion again.

Gin scooted the chair closer to the desk in order to be closer to him, then leaned back and curled her legs up beneath her.

"You know-ah," he said to her, "since I woke up I've just been sittin' here rememberin' things that... I'm honestly not sure if I'm makin' 'em up or not. Things like..." She heard his breath shake for a moment and then he sniffed. "...like her smilin' at me in that tenement kitchen," Gin heard his shame in the naming of it before his voice softened into a smile, "playin' with the food on my plate; makin' it fly around on a fork to... to get me ta eat it." He chuckled fondly. "I think I even remember her... singin' to me." He sounded wistful as he said it. "Gil once told me that she'd been a lounge singer," he said and she could hear both the tears and the smile in his voice, "and apparently a pretty good one." He sniffed. "I'm not sure but, if I try real hard, I think I can remember the ghost of a... lullaby. I can't remember the words but... I almost remember a tune.

Gin pressed herself into the back of the throne and wrapped her arms around herself.

"You know I-I think that in that moment, hidin' in my mom's closet with a heavy diaper and snot all over my face, screamin' for..." he sighed. "Hell, I don't know. God I guess, to come and make it all right again. I think that... I... I-I see it in my mind, this shadow that fell on me right then. I see it as... as a-a kind of fracture... in me." His voice broke with the word and Gin clenched her teeth to hear it. "I mean: bein' in that closet I was about as powerless as you get. I was terrified. Leo was..." he had to regain control of his voice and breathing again, "...beatin' my mom to death! And my mom wanted it!"

Gin gripped her arms and clenched her teeth, wincing against the raw, naked emotion coming from him.

"I mean... he didn't," he said and Gin almost heard the shrug. "Not that night anyway. But it-it was comin', you know? It was comin' and I... I think I knew it."

She momentarily considered stopping the playback. Listening to him she felt like a thief.

'You are a thief,' her mind informed her scathingly.

At the same time she knew there wasn't a chance in hell of that happening. In that moment the sound of his voice felt akin to a hemp rope falling out of the rain and the dark after one had been swept overboard. She suspected that she wouldn't, couldn't, have stopped listening even had someone put a gun to her head.

"I think," Drake said and then sighed. She heard him turning his head by the changing sound of his breath. "You know, it might just be the way a little kid perceives the world but... I swear it felt like there was this-uhm," he stopped again and she could all but see him staring at whatever he was describing while his breath moved slowly in and out of him.

"It was like a... a darkness," he said and Gin flinched. "Not the clean emptiness of space but.... more like a... a shadow on the light itself, like a disease or a cancer in the very fabric of the universe or somethin'." He stopped and she listened to the intensity of his breathing. He suddenly sounded as if he was anticipating a bloody and bitter tooth-and-claw battle to the death with some terrible enemy. "It was like..." she heard his teeth come together and he actually growled deep in his chest like some kind of animal. "It was like there was this wraith... hidin'... justbehind the world.

"And it was gonna eat my mom." His voice was so raw that he had to stop again. A few seconds and several sniffs later he went on. "I think that was the worst moment I've ever known... and I went back there in my dream. To the worst thing I've ever known." He sniffed and grunted. "To the world rippin' itself apart and me along with it."

It suddenly occurred to Gin that he'd likely had that dream while she'd been lying right beside him. Drake had never slept well and she'd never quite known how to comfort him. With the way he thrashed and shook she hadn't dared to wake him. Better, she'd thought, not to wake him and inflict the dream upon his memory.

When next he spoke there was a wonder and wistfulness in his voice that Gin had never heard before. She could practically hear the smile in his voice. "And then it all changed.

"Right into the depths of all that horror there was suddenly this light comin' through the slats'a the door. It was soft," he said and the emotion in his voice was simply profound. "Like heaven itself. And comin' from way too far away to be from anythin' in my mom's dingy little bedroom." He laughed then, simple and healing. "And I smelled... cherry blossoms." His voice was suddenly full of innocent joy. "Leo and my mom just fell away. I mean I could still hear 'em. Sorta. They were still in'na kitchen, still workin' hard at killin' every last part of each other... but... it just wasn't my problem anymore."

Gin was breathing a little like Drake by then. Her breath was fast and hungry as she ached for the relief in his voice. She was staring at the app like a child herself, with her mouth and eyes open in hope and yearning for something she couldn't have named but remembered the way Drake remembered his mom's lullaby. It was the ghost of an understanding, an all but forgotten memory.

"In the dream I-ah... I pushed that closet door open and, instead of that horrible little tenament I was lookin' at... what I can only call an ocean of pink flowers."

Gin saw it in her mind. She actually saw it.

"They were like... froth on this surf... made-a cherry trees!" He laughed so joyfully that it evoked in Gin a fierce and terrible NEED for what he was experiencing.

"Cherry trees!" He laughed again, shaking his head with the smile in his voice. "Washin' up against the base-a this..." he paused and Gin leaned forward in anticipation, "...MOUNTAIN!"

Gin rocked a little hearing the awe in her man's voice.

"It was HUGE and blue and covered with snow! It was so enormous that it was hard to comprehend. It loomed over the horizon from behind it and I could see it breathin' clouds into the softest, gentlest blue sky you've ever seen."

Gin knew it. She actually knew the place he was describing! She just couldn't remember where from. But in her mind's eye she was standing in a field of pink flowers looking at that mountain as it loomed above an entire landscape of cherry trees. She could see it in her mind as clearly as the desk in front of her, the petitioner's floor below and the railing of the loft above. It was a deep gunmetal blue and topped with brilliant white snow; an almost phallic triangle thrust into the pure gold light of dawn while spring bloomed across the softest, gentlest, most feminine landscape she'd ever imagined. Gin even touched her cheek, imagining she could feel the silky softness of a cherry petal on the breeze.

"And..." Drake went on breathlessly. "Ahead-a me? Down this path through the trees that was littered with all these delicate pink and white petals, there was this..." he took a breath and continued with a reverence that evoked something in Gin that she had no name for, "...little old guy sittin' wit' his back to me."

Drake laughed again and Gin unconsciously leaned toward it. Just then he sounded as if he was looking straight into heaven itself. She'd never heard him sound like that.

'Oh have ye not?' Her parents were suddenly fully present, laughingly calling her conclusion into question.

Gin frowned. 'I have not,' she thought back at them defensively. She'd never heard Drake without the edge in his voice. Never. Not once since she'd met him had he ever not been ready to immediately and viscerally fight for his life.

And yet she was scowling with sudden doubt, unable to shake the sense that she'd forgotten something important, even precious. And suddenly she was walking beside Kao t'Kt again, toward the fire, toward food and safety, toward impossible belonging... toward Drake.

For an instant her mind reeled, dizzy with sensations she couldn't define and thoughts with unclear natures. She felt like she was rushing outward. For the briefest instant she was walking besides countless strangers toward countless fires on countless worlds countless times before.

"He knew I was there," Drake chuckled and called her back to the present. He made this soft, joyful sound deep in his chest that Gin immediately ached to be closer to. "But I needed to... I don't know, do it myself somehow. The path was literally before me," his voice softened even further as he stared at the vision in his mind, "but I had to... have to... walk it myself."

They sat together for a few seconds, breathing together across time and space. In her mind's eye Gin imagined him smile.

"He was sittin' on this mat made-ah bamboo under this gazebo with ends that curled upward." He chuckled again. "Just... bein'."

He laughed again and Gin heard the admiration and awe in his voice.

"I don't know how to describe what..." he scoffed with mock frustration at having to put a new perspective and understanding into words. Gin knew he loved it. The man did love to hear himself talk. "It was like he was..." Drake stopped again, staring at the concept he was trying to convey, "...simultaneously the most selfish and self-less person I've ever even imagined. He was just sittin' there waitin' for me... while just IMMERSED in..." Drake's voice was suddenly as filled with awe and reverence as he had been describing the little old man waiting for him. "I don't know how to describe it. Heaven, I guess; the best possible experience that you can imagine. It's like all that beauty and majesty around him, that whole landscape..." Drake's voice suddenly swelled with emotion, "...it was all him!"

There was another flicker of understanding within her, like the echo of an echo of an echo of a song she'd once known but could no longer remember.

"I walked to him, you know?" He snorted. "Until I was right behind him, close enough to touch." He laughed a simple, bubbling laugh. There was no sharpness in it. There was no bitterness or thinly veiled threats. It was simple and round and soft and Gin wanted to fall asleep and wrap that sound around herself like a blanket.

"He never said a word," Drake told her and his voice was as close and intimate as if he were sitting in the chair with her. "I guess he didn't have to. He just smiled at me. Not with his mouth, not even with his eyes." For a moment Drake was silent. "It was like," he said, "he was smilin'... with everythin'."

Gin actually shivered at the power in that word.

"It was like he was the mountain, and the sky, and the flowers on the breeze! He was the clouds in the sky and the sky itself. And he was smilin' at me with ALL of it." Drake stopped and sniffed.

"It felt like a wink, you know? Like he was sharin' this secret wit' me." Drake laughed. "Not just any secret, either. THE secret. And, just like that, I knew everythin' was gonna be alright." The emotion overwhelmed his voice again and he had to finish the last words quickly. He produced a sound that could have been caused by either joy or grief and, by then, Gin didn't think it mattered. She put a synthetic hand over her synthetic heart while her parents' impossible ghosts seemed to swell and hug and hold her from within the very air around her.

"Yeah," Drake went on. "I can feel him right now; the same way I feel my mom. Sensei Shioda, I mean. Cos... well, yeah. That's who I just met. That guy just reached into my worst nightmare...*sniff*... and showed me the way out."

She listened as he just breathed for a while, awed by how much significance, power and raw emotion was simply hanging in the air around her, as if it had been charged up so much that it crackled.

"You know," he went on, speaking in a deep resonant growl, "I think I've been sensin' him in my... not exactly my thoughts. My breath? Yeah... but more'n that too. It's like he's in the ringin' in the air and the... I guess you could call it the quality of the light. He's this... It's like this radio signal comin' from... I don't know. It's not elsewhere. It's more like everywhere at once. From within me but... also everywhere else too.

"And I still feel like everything's gonna be okay."

Gin smiled as he paused for a beat.

"And," he said pointedly, "just so we're clear: I have NEV-VER felt like everythin' was gonna be okay. Not since before that closet anyway. You know I think Sensei Shioda just changed the course of my life and... Shit! I'm about to say somethin' that just doesn't make any bloody sense. The rational side of my mind does not know what to do with what I'm experiencin'.

"But... frak! I really do! I think Sensei Shioda and Legion just conspired to rescue me from my own personal hell and... I think they were both... CONSCIOUSLY... in on it! Together! I asked Legion to find me the neural map of a master of hand-to-hand combat and, instead, the son-of-a-bitch provides me with a fully realized human bein' capable of somehow healin' me... centuries after his death!"

Drake laughed. "You know I think my friend Legion may just be more intelligent than any of us imagined."

Gin scoffed a shocked laugh. Then, from within the recording, there was a soft chime.

"Huh," Drake grunted. "Speak'a the devil."

The recording chirped as Drake stopped it. Half a second later it chirped again.

"It's 0413," he said and no longer sounded happy. "And I'm beginnin' to suspect that this is gonna be one hell of a day." He sighed heavily and Gin ached to hear it. Judging from the time she knew what had happened between his last recording and this one.

'Me,' she thought acidly. 'I'm what happened.'

He exhaled heavily again and she heard the chair creak. "So Legion had some interestin' news for me." He sighed again. "Apparently," he said, sounding heavy and tired, "he installed himself on Gin's rapier in order to accompany her on her travels." She listened to him take one of those deep, slow, scary breaths he used to control his temper. "Yeeah," he said, just at the edge of being sharp. "I'm just gonna let that... sit there for a moment."

The moment lasted almost a minute as he sat and breathed slow, deep breaths in and out through his nose. To Gin it felt a little like waiting for the bomb to blow. Then it did.

"All this time!" he shouted and Gin winced. "ALL THIS TIME!" He thundered and she closed her eyes. For a few moments she got to listen as breathed his way through his anger and pain. "He's known exactly where she was... and what she's been doin'!"

Gin was clenching against the pain in his voice.

"Aarrrh!" he growled through his teeth and then just breathed slowly and mindfully. "I don't know what to make of it, honestly," he said. "I mean I'm grateful," he explained, "you know? That he's with her. I am grateful! It's nice to know Legion's got her back, you know? I just..." She imagined him shaking his head. "Yeah.

"Anyway," he said. "The next thing he tells me is that-uhm," he had to stop and just breathe for a moment, "that she's been-ah..."

'Shot to shit in some forest on Montalaar?'

"She's hurt," he said simply. "She's hurt and on the run, pursued by the Argon Military of all things." He stopped talking for a few moments and, for Gin, the silence had genuine mass. Then he sighed again, heavy and weary. "Needless to say I was ready to GO, right? Between the Predator, the missiles I like to keep on her, the full complement of venti fighters at my disposal and my team of elite marines?! Oh yeah. I was fairly certain I could get those Argon to see my point of view..." Gin heard the oh-so-familiar tone of Drake's voice when he was considering a capture, "...one way or another.

"So yeah! My first instinct was to jump to Montalaar and save the day."

His breathing swelled and sighed. His anger was so intense that it almost had mass.

"Yeeeeah," he growled. "Legion told me 'no'. Well, to be precise, he explained why I shouldn't and, I've gotta hand it to him, he's come a looooong way since I first met him. That son of a bitch managed to talk his way all the way around the point without ever actually tellin' me that she didn't want to see me."

Gin winced again. She could hear the sadness and confusion lurking beneath the fury in his voice and felt like wailing. He was taking something personally that had nothing to do with him and she hated herself for it.

"Yeah," he went on. "I think I'm just gonna let THAT sit there for a moment too." For about thirty five seconds he just sat and brooded, building his anger up inside himself. Then he burst. "I mean FRAK ME, right!?" She winced and tried to curl up and fade away into the chair behind her. "What the hell?!" He took two deep breaths and then growled, "Yeeeeaah! I know. It's not personal. Even though it really feels that way."

"I'm sorry, Drake," she whispered. "I'm so sorry!"

"Anyway," he went on. "I sent Ea't. I had Legion drop a beacon... he actually had one... and the Wolf Pack jumped in and, Ea't bein' Ea't..." He laughed and raised his voice for dramatic effect. "Nothin' quite like an unstable Split with an attack fleet, nuclear torpedoes and absolutely no regard whatsoever for my political relations to make people sit up and take notice! I'll have to replace my police license again but..." He sighed.

"She's safe." He said, sounding exhausted and relieved simultaneously. "I kept her safe." He said again. Then she heard his teeth clench and grind. "Or Ea't did, anyway. So... I should be feelin' good. Right? Yeah, 'cept I guess I'm not exactly feelin' the love.

"What a petty, selfish little shit I am, right? Gin's wounded! She's hurt! And all I can think about is the fact that she didn't want to see me. And Legion won't even tell me WHY!"

Gin winced as he roared. The pain and frustration in his voice was just too raw.

"So," he carried on, "despite meetin' Sensei Shioda this mornin and..." his voice softened, "...everything THAT was and IS... I was sinkin'. Not five mizura ago I was droppin' right into my own personal hell; feelin' that hate and frustration just boilin' my brain and makin' my teeth itch." He sighed again. "Sooo... I sent for Seldon."

Gin blinked and arched an eyebrow with reflexive jealousy.

"Or," Drake went on, "to be precise: I sent for Seldon and Max. I want Seldon to go and find out what the hell is goin' on with Gin but I think I need Max. Not havin' him around the last day... it's not like the end of the world or anythin' but... I just keep lookin' for him. Before I even realize I'm doin' it I just find myself lookin' around for him.

"Anyway. Seldon dropped him off a few minutes ago. She was able to jump that scimitar to meet Weasel who brought her here and Max is now on the ship gettin' a marine escort from Seldon's scimitar to my stateroom and Seldon? She should be dockin' with the Shirubāurufu right now and, hopefully, gettin' me some answers," he sighed again, "while I sit here feelin' useless and sorry for myself."

The recording chirped.

Continued...
Last edited by Scion Drakhar on Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:56, edited 1 time in total.
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:46

...continued.

A moment later it chirped again. "It's 1037," Drake began and he sounded in much better spirits. She could also hear a sloppy grinding sound in the background that she didn't immediately recognize. "And, so far, today has proven to be-uhm... interestin', to say the least. Also engagin', very educatin', mildly to somewhat enlightenin', a wee bit terrifyin'... a little sad... but altogether intriguin' nonetheless." Gin winced at Drake's exercise of his vocabulary but did so with an irrepressible smile on her lips.

"So," Drake continued, "after that dream of Sensei Shioda and then my near heart attack at Legion's news aaaand the resultant emotional upheaval that entailed, I decided to just get up. Sleep wasn't happenin' anyway so I went through a good, healthy yoga session and then a run with Max in one the Brimstone's two gravity rings... where we also happen to have quite a few gardens full of oxygen and food producin' plants not to mention a staff of gardeners who are just a little too grateful for Max's-ah... contributions?... to the biodiversity of the micro-organisms in the soil what grows our tomatoes?" Drake took a breath for dramatic effect. "Yeeeah.

"You know, I'm just not gonna think about that anymore."

Gin was still smiling.

"Oof!" Drake suddenly grunted the way he did when Seldon slugged him in the chest. Then he was laughin. "Yeeeeaah!" he growled. "Who's my guy, huh?"

Gin heard the heavy, excited breathing of a large animal coupled with the sounds of Drake roughhousing with the beast. "Hey!" he said. "Hey! Where's your hoof?!"

"Huff?!"

"Yeah-yeah! Where's your hoof?" In the background there was the thunder of big dog stampeding first down the stairs to the right of the desk followed by the unmistakable scrabble of dog claws on the smooth floor below and Drake laughing. A moment later Gin could almost see the dog bounding back to bring his 'hoof' back.

Gin glanced down at the nasty looking thing at her feet. 'Well that explains you.'

Drake got the dog settled down and, shortly afterward, Gin heard the rather horrible sounds of the beast gnawing away. She heard several meaty slaps as Drake's hand patted the animal's shoulder followed by a contented sigh and the creak of leather and metal as Drake reclined in the throne. When he spoke again his voice was closer and more intimate.

"So!" He carried on. "After my mornin' routine I decided to make a point of meetin' with a couple people that I owed, at least in one case, a long overdue conversation. The first, and not so overdue, was Doc Boni and-ah... it did not happen the way I expected. It-ah turns out that my friend Legion is-uhm, how should I put it?

"Influential?

"Yeah. And then some. So... oh! Right. I decided to bring Max with me. It's technically his job to be near me so... yeah. I guess we'll figure it out as we go. Oh and Max now has the first member of a staff, although the guy may not last very long. He's a kid... and I can actually call him that cos he's about half a jazura younger than I am. Which, I'll admit, feels kinda strange. I guess I kinda got used to bein' the youngest person in the room.

"Anyway this fella's name is James Gilharno and he's currently a fresh-faced recruit in the fleet. You know there really are a lot of Gilharnos out here in Federation space. Nearly as many Gilharnos as Weamonds. I wonder if those original families were religiously against birth control or something?"

Gin snorted.

"Anyway, James... poor bastard... was simply the most readily available junior crewman. So why, you ask, did I need a junior crewman? Well, James' job was to follow Max around with a pooper-scooper."

Gin smirked and shook her head.

"Yep. James got to hang out with the big man all day, also known as yours-truly, because of doggy-poop. Of course I do now find myself mildly concerned that I might have broken the guy. As we were gettin' off the Venti down on the hangar deck the expression on his face had me wonderin' if I might'a blown his fuses.

"I guess we'll see. I asked Legion to pay attention to him in case he's a security risk. How much of today's business becomes tomorrow's scuttlebutt? That kind of thing. If he keeps his mouth shut maybe I'll keep him around but, well, let's just say he has yet to impress me. He wasn't able to stand up to Max. 'Course, if I'm gonna be fair the guy might actually need some power armor for that.

"No. My biggest concern with him is just how, well, stupid he is. It's not a lack of intelligence exactly. He's just always puttin' so much of his attention on irrelevant shit. What if Shantala's moons are really made of cream cheese? What do I think this or that celebrity smells like? Which of a random list of women would I kill/frak/marry? That kind of crap. It was just so much wasted mental energy, you know?

"It went away as the mornin' progressed. Which was good cos after a while it was like static in my brain and made me irritable. Which could have turned out bad for James cos the more I found myself wantin' to bite the more I found myself worried that Max actually might. Fortunately James seems to possess an intact and functionin' instinct for self preservation and, I'd say by roughly 0700, he'd figured out that I just don't have any respect for that shit and knocked it off.

"After which he was much better company. He's actually kind of funny. He had some colorful things to say about Boni, for instance. I believe 'Googly-eyed sea-horse-faced kid's-TV-show pedophile-wannabe motherfrakker,' was my favorite."

Gin's eyebrows arched of their own accord.

"Hoo-Boy! I tell ya! So-ah, yeah! I just figured, meh, why not? Right? Let's put the mutt, aka a hundred and thirteen kilograms of giant, furry, sharp-on-five-ends mayhem through a whole lot of new and potentially fatal situations just to iron out the kinks, yeah?

"Yeah.

"Oh and while I'm at it I'll also drag an untested, unvetted knucklehead around with me cos... I don't want to clean up dog poop. Aaand the guy was workin' for me already. So why not, right?

"Right.

"Yeah. So... for the most part he, and I mean Max, was golden. Although I did find myself uncomfortable with him on the venti. I mean Max was fine. He was good. He just lay down on his belly next to my chair until we got where we were goin'. Buuut... let's just say I'm gonna need to look into some kind of safety restraint for him cos should he ever be on a ship with me durin' a combat situation? You know: where low to zero-g happens?

"Yeeeah. To the Endless and then the Necromancer before returnin' to the Brimstone and... every time we were on that venti I just kept imaginin' my dog bouncin' all over the interior of the cabin durin' any number of potential high-G maneuvers. I mean the venti's not a souped-up kestrel on magical fairy dust that requires additional third party inertial dampeners just so you can fly the damn thing without it killin' yourself! But it's still capable of doin' a hell of a lot more'n flyin' from point A to point B. Right? I mean if I had decided to start throwin' that ship around I could have bounced Max off the lid with minimal effort and, let's face it, sooner or later, he's gonna be in a situation where there's no gravity and the ship is throwin' itself around for all it's worth to dodge incomin' death and destruction and, you know, it'd be nice if the dog wasn't a couch-sized projectile. Yeah?

Gin nodded while her mind reviewed the phrases, 'a hundred and thirteen kilograms' and 'couch-sized projectile.'

'That's a big dog,' she thought.

"Yeah." Drake agreed with either himself or the thought in her head. "Hmm," he mused. "I wonder if Thane has any solutions? If he doesn't I'm sure I've got the ability to draw somethin' up. We'd need a snug harness. Might as well make it body armor with a personal force field generator, right? Don't want my puppy gettin' shot by bad people now do I?

'No,' Gin answered him while he answered himself. "No," he said. "I do not.

"But... ah... yeah! On the belly of the harness I'll see if we can fashion up a mag lock that's both comfortable for him and enough to keep him on the deck when I'm pullin' a hard roll and pitch, you know? I'll run it by Thane next time we chat.

"Heh-heh-heh!" He laughed easily. "Yeah, bud! I'm talkin' about you. Givin' that thing hell, ain'tcha?" Gin glanced down at the carpet to the right of the throne and saw a slightly pressed area just beside the throne. It was sprinkled with a sparse layer of dog hair. Some of it was sandy brown. Some were black. And some, the undercoat she supposed, was a fluffy white. In the recording Drake laughed again and, compared to what she was used to, this was sunlight and honey after thorns and angry wasps.

"I took Thane's advice," he said, "and started havin' hooves sent over from a butcher on one of my cattle farms. They stink like bad ass but he loves 'em. He'll gnaw on one of the things for the better part of a day before crushin' the damn thing with his back teeth. Yeah! Hayla made the mistake of buyin' him a bag of these rawhide knots when we were on Paradise..."

'Paradise?' Gin echoed.

"...and he just ATE 'em! No. I mean: really. He devoured all of 'em in just a couple of hours," Drake laughed again, "and then he got SICK all over Hayla's kitchen!" His voice and words were simultaneously a declaration of fact and a growling tease that earned him an enormous happy bark in return. "Needless to say I heard about THAT for daaaays!"

Gin smiled at the image of Hayla chasing Drake around blistering his ears.

"You know?!" he complained indignantly, "Like she had to clean it up!" He sighed. "I tell yah," he growled but something about the tone of his voice made her think he was smiling and, in the background, she could hear his hand moving through the animal's thick coat.

"Yeah," he said to himself. "He's just good for me.

"Right. So-ah... where was I? Right! Boni.

"Now Boni fascinated Max. I couldn't quite follow the why's or how's of it but Max was fixated on him the entire time we were visitin' the Doc in his lab... or, just outside his lab anyway since-uh, Boni's lab is-umm... wet. But yeah! Max just hopped up and put his front paws on the wall-pane between him and Boni and just stared the squid in the face... who was more than happy to smile right back. It was an oddly intriguin' and, let's face it, mildly creepy meetin' of the minds that I was more than willin' to simply observe.

"What can I say? I was curious to see what Max would think of him. In the end I think Max came to much the same conclusion that I did a while back when it comes to Boni. Namely: he's worth keepin' an eye on.

"Anyway, Boni had some very interestin' perspectives to share with me. For starters he made sure that I was under no illusions about what Cala Ma's response to my treachery will be. He said that Cala Ma will now pursue me the way 'Ishmael pursued the white whale.'

"Yeah, I had to look it up. Turns out it's from this old book about a time when men sailed oceans on wooden boats and, apparently, developed obsessions for whales."

Gin snorted again. He was always such a smartass. 'Yeah,' she imagined him reply. 'But it's all behind me.'

She listened to him take a deep breath and imagined the introspection on his face. She'd curled up completely in the throne, bringing her thighs up to her chest so she could listen to him with her chin on her knee and her forehead leaning against the backrest so she could smell him as she breathed.

"Right!" Drake carried on. "So anyway. Boni was happy to nudge my understandin' enough for me to get that I may have underestimated just what kind of shit-show I should expect as a consequence of that whole 'blowin'-up-Cala Ma's-ships-and-stealin'-her-carrier thing."

Gin's eyes opened a little wider at that. 'You have been busy.

"Apparently," Drake chuckled, "she's rather fond of that ship and left a few mementos on it that Boni expects she's now somewhat irate about losin'. Heh!Heh-heh! At which point I-ah... well, I asked him for a list.

"Hey! You never know. I haven't sold it yet. The Revolutionary, I mean. I mean I'm not gonna use it, not this side of hirin' a Boron crew for her, anyway. Which is unlikely given Ea't's dietary inclinations." Gin snorted. "I mean he'd probably be just fine with it buuuut..."

'Yeah,' she thought as he said it out loud:

"Yeeah.

"Right. So, for now, I've got it tucked away in Weaver's Tempest. You can't see it from the gate side of the complex. Which means that, unless somebody very conspicuously goes lookin' behind my complex it's unlikely somebody will see it. After the debacle with that Tyr... oh! I really wanted to steal enough guns to equip THAT ship for battle!" He sighed wistfully and Gin smiled again. Drake was just being Drake. "Oh well. But aye... I've got some geniuses in wet suits and organic kit goin' through her systems with a fine-toothed comb lookin' for anythin'... well, yeah. Anythin'. Anythin' of interest. But, specifically, anythin' about the point to point tech she claimed to have. So far they and Boni have all been sayin' the same thing. Namely that Cala Ma is a liar.

"Boni went on to explain that that hag has been out to take me for everything she can right from the get-go. I mean, and this is Boni! This is her son! And, accordin' to Boni, Cala Ma is a certifiable lunatic, a political genius, a complete sociopath and, without any doubt, gonna come after me with all the ships and commanders she can seduce, blackmail, bribe or simply intrigue into flyin' with her on the greatest Royal Hunt in centuries."

Gin grimaced. That did not sound good.

"Yeah," Drake admitted. "It just might be as bad as it sounds. He told me, 'She will turn the entire world against you.' Which means, I found out a moment later, the respective courts of Queen Atreus and Princess Menelaus.

"No kiddin'!

"Boni went on to explain that Cala Ma's first act of retaliation has likely already happened and undoubtedly involved Cala Ma capitilizin' on, get this, the Boron High Court's one great and abidin' weakness."

'Which is?' she wondered.

"'Which is?' I asked him."

Gin rolled her eyes. Just then she really wanted to punch Seldon.

"'The love of romance,' he tells me." Drake was laughing. "Now," he said, "you've gotta remember that this was bein' said to me by an alien sea-horse roughly a meter and a half in length with googly eye-stalks and hundreds of these wiggly little tentacles called 'swarmers' and this strange approximation of a human smile on the tip of it's sea-horse face.

"You feel me?!

"We're talkin' about one of the more bizarre moments of my life. And I had to ask Boni a few questions just to make sure we were talkin' about the same thing. To be precise he means high romance. Epic tales fit for the attention of a Queen and her court, full of struggle, sacrifice, loss, the inevitable triumph of the spirit... aaaand, of course, sex. The more the better... even if it's anatomically impossible."

Gin snorted and shook her head.

"Uh-huh. Riiight. So... he continues. He tells me, while starin' at me like I might be good to eat, that Cala Ma's next move will be to entertain and ensnare the Queen and, more importantly, her court with a romantic tale in which she, Cala Ma, has been beset by the forces of the legendary and infamous Split marauder and... ahem!... his human accomplice."

Gin raised an eyebrow while Drake sat and breathed in the recording.

"Hyuh!" he grunted. "Juuust gonna let that sit there for a moment." She listened to him groan. "I tell yah!" He complained. "I interrupted Boni, of course. I had to ask several questions... in the interest of clarification. Yeah. It is what I thought it was and he-ah meant what I thought he meant.

"Ah-Yep. Uhmm, apparently!, to the Boron high court... I am-ah..." he took a long, slow breath in through his nose. "Ea't's sidekick."

Gin snorted something that was half-laughter and half-sob.

"Ah-yep. I'm thinkin'... the less said about that the-uh... the better."

'No,' she thought with an evil smile, 'do go on.'

"Shee-it, bruh. I tell yah. Right. So-umm... where was I? Right-ah: infamous Split marauder and human pirate joined forces to... oh-right! We apparently took advantage of Cala Ma's natural Boron naïveté." She listened to him take another deep breath to calm his wit down. "So-ah, again, I interrupted. I needed to ask several more clarifyin' questions. Right? Yeah. So it turns out that-uh... apparently it is a well-known Boron cultural conceit to prop up their own gullibility and inability to predict treachery in others as a-uh... as a virtue!

"Yep!

"Uh-huh.

"Yah. I got the impression Boni was about as impressed with that particular virtue as I happen to be. Oh! And get this: accordin' to Boni, Cala Ma will inevitably claim that Ea't and I conspired to trick her into investin' her entire fortune into reverse-engineerin' the Terran point-to-point tech what brought mankind out into the gate network to see if it could be improved upon and refined... which actually would have intrigued the hell out of me, right?

"But apparently I can expect her to use Ea't and I in this tale in order to-ah... hold on, I wrote it down. Okay, so, for starters, she's lookin' to secure fundin' to cover her "business losses"... you know, cos I conned and cheated her and Ea't likes blowin' her stuff up and eatin' her people. But, secondly, she's gonna be lookin' for a very specific breed of moron... I mean Boron. Namely the-ah... actually, Boni said somethin' funny. What did he call 'em? He said Cala Ma'd be lookin' for a few 'puffy old bloatfish who need to prove they're still worthy of breedin'.

"It had a bit of a fuse on it, too. You know?

"Anyway, the bottom line is she's not only lookin' to get the rich old Boron families to pay for what would, even if any of it were true, only amount to a massive indictment of her own stupidity. Right?! I mean, accordin' to Cala Ma herself she invested hundreds of millions of credits in a venture brought to her by Ea't s'Quid!

"Yeah! This is the kind of shit that, in Boron high society, constitutes grounds for a billion credit loan and a posse of rich old members of the admiralty all comin' after me on behalf of Cala Ma's honor!

"At which point I found myself thinkin' of my weapon complex, my missile boats, my crazy Split captains, the Predator and all she can bring to bear, my new carrier, Ea't and the Wolf Pack... and, well, I was standin' there in that soupy green light outside Boni's lab listenin'... and all I could manage to feel was smug.

"Like: bring it on.

"I mean... can you imagine me droppin' Ea't on a Boron sector? Where's Cala Ma live anyway? Maybe I'll have Ea't go and pay her a visit. Her and all her neighbors. Encourage him to set the whole sector on fire while he's at it. You know: get all her people worked up and frothin' at the mouth cos'o the precipitous decline in property values due to my friend eatin' their kids."

Gin's mouth hung agape.

"What?!" Drake asked defensively. "The Boron are hilarious. I mean how do you take a species seriously that isn't even smart enough to realize it's lunch? You know?! These fools don't just walk around wearin' pork-chop underwear... they ARE the bloody pork-shops! I mean chops!

"Sheesh! I'm salivatin' here. You know I think several of the recipes Ea't has cooked up after our-ah previous encounters with the Boron have been among some of the best tastin' meals of my life. And these idiots fly around in ships that can't even shoot back while pretendin' that bein' stupid is a virtue!

"No shit!

"Now don't get me wrong. Boni? Oh yeah. I take Boni seriously. Like a heart attack or a razor in the ribs'. No, really. That squid scares the shit out of me.

"Cala Ma?

"Not so much.

"Right. So, anyway, I had to know. I mean after he was done explainin' how Cala Ma intends to set the entire Boron Queendom after me I just came right out and asked if there was ever any, actual, like physical, ready to actually be used point-to-point jumpdrive technology?

"He then demonstrated that horrific approximation of a human smile he does while his eye-stalks wiggled at me for a sezura or two. Seriously, nobody creeps me out like that frakkin' squid... and I'm pretty sure he both knows it and thinks it's funny.

"Uh-huh. Anyway he tells me that there is, in fact, a workin' prototype. And that Cala Ma would have happily sold it to me." There was a pause. "Wait for it." Drake remained silent for several more seconds. "Yeeeah. So, turns out that the jumpdrive is unstable, dangerous and difficult to navigate. The prototypes that Cala Ma and her people have produced so far were only good for one, maybe two jumps at best and settin' destinations amounted to reachin' an area within a .5 ly sphere. Cala Ma's plan was to make sure that Ea't and I were on that first jump... which, I admit, that, in my case anyway, wouldn't have required much more than appealin' to my curiosity... although they'd likely have had to use cattle prods on Ea't.

"But the drive would even work!

"Once.

"Then it would fail.

"Light years from the nearest gate.

"Strandin' us in deep space.

"Until we ran out of food and water and eventually killed each other for the few drops of nourishment in each other's veins or the ship ran out of power and we froze to death in the depths of space...

"Ahem!

"I tell ya: I got an education today. Boni revealed a way... err... a number of ways of lookin' at the world that just about blew my mind. And James was close enough to overhear waaay too damn much of it.

"Jeez. Can you imagine? Boni was givin' me some PHD level insight into the Boron psyche... err, through the lense of a serial killer... and the fly on the wall is some guy who's not even qualified to use a broom." He laughed again. "Eh... the cleanliness of his drawers is not my problem.

"Hoo! I tell ya. Boni was vicious. He was disectin' Cala Ma's with this ruthless... Hell!... perverse fascination with her weaknesses and shortcomin's. Makes you wonder, eh? Sheesh. And-ah, yeah! Let's just say it was-umm... inspirational in a way I probably shouldn't feel proud of.

"At all.

"And, I don't know what this says about me, but I can't help but wonder what all that looked like to the knucklehead. Sheesh! I tell yah. I mean talkin' with Boni is and always has been a unique and perpetually disturbin' experience. It's always insightful! It's always worth doin'. It is! It's just... holy crap! You may not like the things he shows you. I guess it'd be like talkin' to a guy who can actually teach you real magic but it comes at the cost of knowin'at all the monsters are real and now you're gonna get to see 'em for the rest of your life! But hey! Look! You can light candles with your fingertips.

"Yay?

"Yeah. Boni was clinically precise while also bein' more'n a wee bit poisonous, you know? Every single last, juicy morsel of information he gave me today was both exquisitely useful... and-uhmm... calculated.

"Yeah.

"'Calculated' in a way and to a degree that I don't think I'm even capable of... like, ever. It's just not the way I work. I don't think I could be that deliberately cold if I spent the rest of my life workin' on it. By that I mean to say that each and every tidbit of insight Boni gave me had been weighed, measured, assigned an appropriate value and both considered and delivered for maximum effect before it ever reached my ears.

"At which point Boni would simply study me, you know? He'd just float there and watch me with an interest that was so intense it was like bein' what somebody is jerkin' off to." Gin flinched and shook her head. "At a certain point the flattery wears thin, you know? I mean Boni's attention was, ostensibly, to make sure I understood what he was sayin' but also... he just wanted to see what I'd do when I realized that, to Cala Ma, I was just a party-favor for rich Boron. Yeah: a 'hunt.' A 'Royal' hunt he said, like rich douchebags huntin' foxes on horseback or somethin'.

"Sheesh. But I listened, right? I listened and I watched and I tried to give away... not as little as possible... but as measured and carefully considered a series of responses as I was capable of. It was tough. I tend to ride my intuition... err, Seldon might call it my testosterone... quite a bit, you know? With Boni, though, bein' stupid feels extremely dangerous. Like: I don't want to piss Boni off.

"I came back to that understandin' today. He was starin' at me the same way I suspect he's watched a whole lot of things die as a result of him pokin' this or proddin' that, you know? Just... curious. You know? What happens if I do this? 'Subject ten thousand and sixteen expired due to me killin' his brain cells one by one or some such. Bring in the next subject.' That kind of thing. And, today, I was that subject. I knew it. I knew that he knew I knew it. HE knew that I knew that he knew that I... Yeah.

"Boni.

"Cos there was that question hangin' in the... err? Space? between us? Air, water. Whatever. But ah... yeah. It was the elephant... or whale, maybe... in the room that neither of us had cared to address yet. Namely: WHY?! Why was he givin' me the skinny on mommy? Why was he tellin' me the way things worked? Why hadn't he asked me for anythin' yet?! Or made inquiries like... was he, in fact, free to go? Why was he studyin' me the way he was? And, from the standpoint of my agenda... was he gonna stay and continue workin' for me?

"Well it's cos he had a decision to make, hadn't he? And... and here's the thing that makes the back of my neck sweat, right? I don't know what that decision was. I mean was it: do I stay here in my nice cozy lab and continue to work for Drake? Or was it maybe: do I activate the biological weapon I've secreted somewhere that will infect everyone it comes in contact with before gestatin' for weeks, spreadin' throughout the entire fleet and killin' absolutely everyone by way of sayin'... I don't know. I quit? Goodbye? Here, mommy, I gave you the pirate? I mean: I don't know, now do I?"

Gin shook her head. She'd never entirely understood Drake's phobia of Doc Boni, whom she found a pleasant and intriguing conversationalist.

"But yeah! The whole time he was watchin' to see if I realized just how valuable what he was givn' me really is. And mind you, once again: I'm pretty sure she's his mother! I guess-ah... social bondin' and familial sentimentality work a little differently in a species that has no natural predators and families in which you might have as many as fifty or sixty... err... fraternal twins? Does that language even apply? Fraternal twins? Hell, I don't know. But... yeah. Listenin' to him describe the nuances and ins and outs of Cala Ma's manipulation of court intrigue usin' their fascination with the drama of it all in that I'm-an-enthusiastic-pedophile voice while starin' at me with those eyes that, I think, would look just about perfect on the great white about to eat me and... well... let's just say it was more than a little surreal.

"Have I mentioned that? I mean have I gotten that across? Jeez! What am I askin' you for?"

"Huff!" the dog barked and Gin shook her head.

"Yeah. Probably. But what can I say? That squid creeps me the frak out. Anyway, the story, he tells me, will culminate with the tragic tale of how Ea't and I... even though it was my plan... duped her into what she believed was a business meetin' but was actually a plot to kill her and destroy her ships while they were out in the open.

"Well. That-umm... that last bit? Yeah THAT, at least, is-umm... mostly true. Although I didn't want to kill her. I just wanted the Revolutionary. I'm gonna confirm whether Cala Ma's been lyin' to me all this time. THEN I'll kill her. Right now I'm just waitin' on my people to finish strippin' and cavity searchin' her ship.

"You know? I just remembered that I recently purchased several hundred million credits worth of acreage on a very pretty Boron planet. Uh-huh. Yeah that's startin' to feel just a little bit awkward. Note to self: sell the resort."

'Resort?' Gin wondered.

"Right. Yeah. So, at that point, I just had to know: 'Why are you tellin' me all this?' I asked him.

"He does that creepy smile-thing and tries answerin' with a question. 'Why do I think he's stayin'?' Which was news to me and I immediately started wonderin' what game he was playin' cos he knew it was news to me.

"So I insisted and asked the question again. He took a notably long moment to consider his words. Then he tells me that I am an X-variable and he wants to see how I affect the greater systems around me.

"I believe I said somethin' along the lines of, "huh?" or "wut?" and, instead of explainin' himself, he shifts gears entirely and tells me that he has no interest in any of the things that Cala Ma is obsessed with. Wealth and power only matter to him in a pragmatic sense. My wealth and power, for instance, have afforded him a lab in which he gets to do just about anything he wants.

"Which disturbed the livin' shit out of me when he said it out loud.

"But, accordin' to him, he has all the best equipment and can work on whatever he wants with minimal oversight. Which I found interestin', right? Considerin' that Legion has been monitorin' and loggin' everything he does pretty much since he's been in the fleet? Err... with the exception of that few weeks the Terran virus put him down...

"But-ah, yeah. So, anyway. It gets better. He likes his lab and his current workin' conditions, right? He gets to do his thing with the best equipment around, minimal oversight aaaand the best laboratory AI he's ever worked with. He says he's never had an assistant smart enough to predict his needs not only long term but moment by moment, right?

"Yeah. Which made me wonder how many organic assistants Boni's murdered over the years? I have noted that he likes his privacy...

"Hyuh!

"Sooo. Apparently he either has no idea just how sophisticated Legion is or just doesn't care. Of course, considerin' some of the things I've been seein' Legion do lately... I'm not sure any of us do. The bottom line here, now that I've managed to get to it, is that he's stayin'. He finds Cala Ma droll of all things. She bores him! He says she is simultaneously a product of her environment and defined by it. She is a creature of the Boron High Court and, well, Boni can't stand the Boron High Court. I don't think I can reproduce the string of adjectives he put together to describe the typical Boron courtesan but I do remember the word 'vacuous' in there as well as comparin' their attention span to that of a Teladian schi'ki fly.

"I had to look it up. Think aggressive 'gnat' with a really high metabolism and you're in the right neighborhood.

"So he doesn't like Cala Ma and he loves Legion. Which is... interestin'. Right? I mean: that's smooth. I tasked Legion with actin' as, for all intents and purposes, Boni's warden and, instead, he...

"Oof!" The dog had gotten bored. "You are just frakkin' enormous, you know that? Yaa! Yeah. Heh-Heh-Heh! Who's my guy? Huh? Raaarr!

"Oh-jeez! Whaaaat?! What do you need?

"HUFF!"

"Already?!

"Huff-WOOF!"

"Let me just finish up and we'll go.

"Rharr-OWwwrr!"

"Well. Too bad. The universe doesn't revolve around you.

"Huff-haa?!"

"Do I wanna bet?!"

"WOOF!"

"Huh. You know? Upon reflection I-umm... don't think I do. No."

Gin was actually laughing out loud.

"Alright. Well-ah... it looks like I'm gonna be loggin' off for a moment. Come on, mutt! Let's run that mischief outta ya!"

A second later the recording chirped and, in the sudden silence, Gin saw clearly that she was smiling at how good Drake was with the dog, which made her think of how good he'd be with children and, a moment later, she remembered that she was not merely the butchered remains of a dead woman but also dying herself. The recording chirped again but she didn't quite hear it. A bottomless pit had opened underneath her. She was falling and didn't know how to stop. Her arms wrapped around her knees and she hid her face in her elbows. The tears were falling and her body was even cooperating enough that she could feel the hitching breaths as she was wracked by the absurd tragedy of her existence.

Meanwhile Drake continued to ramble on in the recording. "Right! One five-k run around the ring followed by a shower! Another thing Thane's people provided for me... and I can't quite help see Thane's own hand in it cos it is a very large shower enclosure with a variety of nozzle attachments and comfortable options for standin' and sittin' with... ah... shall we say friends?"

There was a sudden and immediate scowl on Gin's face.

"There are different shaped seating areas for people who are either Split, human... or teladi! Yeah I had to ask about the little half-log-thing on the deck. There's also enough space for a big-ass dog for that matter!"

"WOOF!"

"Which is good cos-ah... he seems to LIKE bein' in dire and immediate need of a BATH!"

The dog barked at him again.

"What?! Don't look at me that way! You're the one that dove face-first into that manure! Oh really? You're gonna stand there lookin' all pleased with yourself, are ya?"

The dog barked at him and, yes, Gin thought, he did sound pleased with himself.

"I swear!" Drake laughed. "He sees these piles of the-uh..." There were three quick cracks as Drake snapped his fingers, "...soil!" he said finally and she knew he shook his head a little afterward. "Yeah. The soil we use in the bio-rings... which are made up largely of the manure from my cattle ranches, right? Yeah this jackass likes to swim in 'em!"

There was another bark in the background. It was thunderously loud.

"Uh-huh," Drake retorted. "Son of a bitch was grinnin' the whole bloody trip back here! Course... so was everybody else. They held their noses and laughed while this goofball strutted around just as proud of himself as he could be! Smartass!" Drake was laughing as he spoke and Gin could hear the dog trying to climb into his lap. "He's still grinnin'!

"Ain't cha?!"

"ArrahoOWww!"

"Oh? So now I've hurt your feelin's, have I?"

"Huff!"

"Riiight."

It hurt to listen to. There was a brand new ache in her heart caused by the loss of everything her death would deny her, yet Gin couldn't have stopped the playback to save her life. She was listening to the life she'd never have.

"Yeah, so-ah he wasn't interested in gettin' wet but, well, let's just say that I made an executive decision and locked him in with me. After which he tried to eat the shower nozzles. We had a conversation about THAT and he contented himself with just bitin' the water from the streams. But I think we've burned up enough o'the day's-ah... what?"

"Huff?!"

"What-do-we-call-it?"

"Hooo?!"

"Tension?"

"hrrr..?"

"Residual static?"

"ahrrr!"

"Daily dose of bull-shit?"

"Ra-Rowf!"

"Bull-shit it is! Oof! Thank you! Yes! Thank you! I love you too... but... do you always have to step on the nadges?"

Gin surprised herself by laughing through her tears.
Last edited by Scion Drakhar on Fri, 16. Jul 21, 14:11, edited 2 times in total.
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Fri, 16. Jul 21, 13:46

...continued.

"Oof! What?! What'd I forget? Do I need to bribe you with food? That's it, isn't it? I'll fatten you up and get you all tired and lazy and then you'll let me finish my log? Huh? Huh... you know actually: Food." Just then Gin heard his stomach growl. "Ayuh!" he said and she heard the chair creak as he stood. "Back in a few. A'ight, mutt! Let's go eat!"

The recording chirped and then chirped again.

"Aaall right! It's 11:30. We are fat, happy and, one of us at least, is doin' his absolute best to crush a bull's hoof 'tween his back teeth... and makin' disturbin'ly quick work of it. But I think I've got a couple of mizura to finish loggin' the mornin'.

"You know I'm actually thinkin' that what I need to do is put some paddin' on a few suits of power armor and dress some of my guys up in it so Max can chew on 'em. I need the right guys, though. The idea is to make him stronger, more confident and wily... not to break him. So they need to be able to stand up to him without actually hurtin' him or underminin' his confidence. I want him to see for himself just how strong he is... and isn't! So he's smart enough to know when and when not to go after somebody. Cos... shee-it, what a day!

"I mean he doesn't need aaaaany instruction on how to take somebody down. Not a bit! Yeah! You know I'm talkin' about you, don't ya? You're a bad-ass! Ain'tcha?"

"Aah-AaWoOooo-ooooo!"

"Alright-alright! Don't get carried away, now."

"'Huff?"

"Well, nobody likes that guy, you know?"

...

"The guy what's all full o'his-self tellin' everybody else how great he is?"

"Hoo?!"

"Eh... just a little. Oof! Why is it always the nadges?!"

"HUFF!"

"Oh REAL-ly? You sayin' I need to up my game? Is that it?"

"Raaarrr-OW!"

"You big baby. Hey, go on! Kill your hoof and lemme talk."

"RaAaaa-ooOmf!"

"Thaaank you."

"It's good havin' Max around," Drake told her with a warm and resonant growl. "He settles somethin' down inside me that is, well, let's say otherwise inclined to solve all my problems with nuclear warheads. I start gettin' frustrated and overwhelmed and, before I know it it's like there's this killer storm ragin' in my heart and head. When it goes on for too long I just kinda stop really feelin'. That's not it exactly but... close. I can make jokes while slaughterin' people, check my bank account while my bomber blows up a station and make calls that put my people in danger without ever really... I keep wantin' to say 'feelin'' but, that ain't it. It's just that I don't... I don't know... care, I guess. I'm aware of the consequences of my choices it's just that, however it happens, durin' those moments I just don't... care. I think it's why I used to believe I didn't have a conscience.

"Truth is: sometimes I don't.

"Anyway, even though it's been a rough frakkin' mornin... it really is nice havin' the mutt back. Max just doesn't let me get lost in any of my bull-shit. If I start to get lost in all that hate and resentment... he comes and gets me, and drags me back out into the light."

"Ahhrr-aaahwOOoo!" The sound of it made Gin laugh right along with Drake.

"Hah!" Drake responded. "Yeah! One way or another, right?"

"Huff!"

"Uh-huh," Drake laughed. "Well... thanks."

"Ooomph!" The dog groaned as it lay down.

"Ayuh," Drake said and Gin could almost feel the warmth of him in the chair around her. "Yeah. He keeps me engaged, keeps me present... and the instant Seldon brought him back to me I felt all that darkness in my soul just," Drake laughed, "retreat," he stated fondly. "It's the way he looks at me. It's like... hell, like I don't even know what. The way a flower sees sunlight, maybe. He just loves me and I... I just keep bein' stunned by it. Every time I see him lookin' at me the way he does that screamin' little kid from the closet... well, he starts to calm down.

"When Max ran up to me I actually experienced, and I mean in multiple dimensions with multiple senses, I actually experienced all the ghosts and shadows and hateful things in my head and heart just... flee."

The simple sincerity in his voice amazed them both.

"He was bouncin' all around me, leanin' against my hip and lookin' up at me like I was just the best thing he'd ever seen ever and ever and ever and... I just melted." Drake laughed warmly. "I think I understand now what Thane did for me by givin' him to me. I didn't see it before but, through Max, the man gave me somethin' I can't even put a name to."

'Well,' she thought, unsure if she was feeling relief or resentment, 'at least you'll be okay.'

She smiled with the thought. She genuinely meant it. Yet an instant later she was sobbing again with her knees hugged into her chest and her face buried in the inside of her elbows. Within her mind a part of her psyche was screaming over and over that it wasn't fair! It wasn't fair and it wasn't fair and it wasn't fair! She had something to live for! She had something worth holding on to! She had people who cared about her and a man who loved her!

It was the most hideously perverse joke. Her life had been misery and loneliness punctuated with violence and hatred all skimming on the surface of an ocean of despair. Then she met Drake and, for five months, slowly, day by day, week by week, smile by smile, hug by hug emerged from the hell that had been crafted inside her into a place where she 'd just begun to believe that there might be something besides nihilism and destruction in her future... only to have it all ripped away.

She reeled, momentarily dizzy, and stood up just to get her feet under her. The instant she was standing she felt better. Her breathing slowed and deepened. Her mind slowed. Her emotions settled. She clenched her teeth and nodded to herself. She was here for a reason. She looked up at the railing to the loft. A moment later she took a step to her left and simply sprang past the end of the desk, up one story and vaulted the waist-high railing of the loft.

In the recording Drake continued to chatter away. He was going on about meeting with Legion, Doctor Sol Jared and some kid named Sparky. His voice was calm and easy but there was an edge that kept calling the dog to him, at which point he'd relax into this 'good dad' behavior that Gin found both delightful and excruciating; simultaneously a reminder that the future would continue without her and that she had somehow managed to find a man worth loving.

Gin took a breath and looked around. She was standing near the end of the upper landing where the wall holding the window bifurcated and fell back from the wall below in order to accomodate the loft. From above the space felt much larger and more accommodating than it did from the petitioner's floor, which she guessed was supposed to feel like the bottom of a hole in the ground. Even from Drake's desk on the dais the room seemed to loom around her.

Up here the feeling of the space was entirely different. The floor was some kind of synthetic wood; hickory Gin guessed; that had been stained a light, golden honey which brought a warmth and life to the space that was missing below. To her left was a long wall of mostly empty bookshelves, cabinets and display cases that appeared to be made of mahogany stained a deep, dark red. Two thirds of the way to the far wall was the landing of the staircase from below, around which was the same type of simple ship's railing as the one she'd just vaulted. Beyond that was a small, cozy seating area decorated with couches and chairs bound in white leather with shiny steel studs, a coffee and end tables that matched the bookshelves and unobtrusive reading lamps. From where she stood Gin could see a pile of books and an inactive datapad on the coffee table while several dog-toys littered the lovely Persian carpet that defined the space.

To the right of that was a king-sized bed on a low platform and it's own area rug. The platform and headboard matched the shelves and the duvet and sheets were grey and black. To the right of that was a simple, open space with a padded floor that reminded her of a dojo. There were even weapons of various types decorating the place including spears and polearms, staves, axes, bows and arrows, and a number of swords, including a Japanese daisho at rest on a simple stand against the far wall.

Gin slowly made her way into the space. She walked along the bookshelves and studied what he'd placed there. A small number of knick-knacks and mementos decorated the glass and mahogany shelves including, among others, an old helmet, the first bottle of Scotch ever made at the house of Dreams, the eyepatch Wildcat made him, a small wooden box with a wrought iron hasp and a key that looked like an ivy leaf. It sat on the shelves in an open position, revealing a petrified snail's shell decorated with a leafy vine that someone had lovingly carved along the spiral. There was something about the dead grey thing that made Gin think of Old City.

Then there were the books; rows upon rows of books. Some were large and bound in leather (these were behind locked glass doors). Others were simpler and bound in paper. There were hundreds, if not thousands or real books and, just then, Gin found it easy to envision Drake sitting on one of those couches with the dog at his feet and the reading lamp casting light over his shoulder as he sat there with a book in his hand and glass of scotch or whiskey at his elbow. The thought made her think of James again and, a moment later, she was rolling her eyes at the sting of fresh tears.

She walked along the back of one of the couches, trailing her fingers along the thick, soft leather and polished steel studs. She noted the titles of several books and arched an eyebrow. 'Developmental psychology and neural networks?' She didn't know why but she found that surprising. Drake was always working to improve himself and continuing his education had been a part of that as long as she'd known him. It was just a very specific and...

'...odd...'

...unexpected area of interest to find him studying.

Just then she stepped on something soft and heard the sudden wheezy squeal of a squeezy-toy. She looked down and saw the already mauled face of a grimacing clown. Gin curled her lip at the sight of it. 'Clowns,' she thought with distaste. They tended to make her feel uncomfortable for reasons she'd never identified, although Erik had once gone on at length about the psychology and history of coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, one late autumn afternoon until she'd started throwing handfuls of leaves at him. This one was missing an arm and most of its head, which made the mad smile on its face all the more disturbing.

'Serves you right,' she thought at the thing, although she didn't know why exactly; perhaps simply for the crime of being a clown.

She walked by the bed, trailing her fingers along the soft cover of the duvet, and to the edge of the dojo floor. She stopped there, looking at the clean white canvas of 7 centimeter thick padding. Alex had taken several self defense classes, first in high school and then, later, when at University. She could remember being thrown and tripped dozens, perhaps hundreds of times before landing on a mat much like this one.

She removed her boots and socks before setting them on the wooden floor at the edge of the mat. Then, barefoot, she crossed the space to the racks and stands of melee weapons. Again she found that she needed to touch them. They were mostly authentic, which meant made of real wood and steel. In several cases they'd been damaged by use. She imagined that she could sense her lover's hands on them despite the distance in time and space. She stopped before the daisho and pulled the last few centimeters of the katana's blade free of the cloth-wrapped wooden scabbard. Again she didn't really know why. Perhaps just to confirm what she already suspected: it was the real thing. The metal had been folded so many times that there was a shimmer in the depths of the blade that distantly reminded Gin of the Aurora Borealis.

Just then she noted a change in Drake's voice and cocked her head to listen. He'd been talking about Legion, Doctor Jared and Sparky; specifically about Legion's developing autonomy which her brain suddenly connected to the books on his coffee table. Then he mentioned the Wakiya and, when he did, his voice hardened.

"Anyway," Drake said. "I had to leave the two of 'em in Legion's hands cos, well, the Wakiya decided to try again."

Gin sighed and slid the blade back home. That must have been what called Seldon back to the fleet.

"Hyuh!" He grunted. "They killed five of my people, broke baby Chinomu out of the brig..."

'Baby Chinomu?'

"...gave her back her stealth suit... and then got themselves summarily slagged by Gunny t'Kt and my marines. Hyuh. They were usin' the jefferies tubes and discovered the hard way how effective concussion grenades can be in enclosed spaces." He sighed heavily. "Which I'm guessin' means I need a new CAG cos... well, after the fuss she made over that scimitar I can't exactly see Ericka Chinomu gettin' over my guys turnin' her sister into a new coat of paint for the Necromancer."

Gin sighed. Eri was damaged, much the way many of Drake's people were. She was a know it all with delusions of grandeur and self importance. She was also combative, hard to get along with and a genuine pain in the ass. In other words Gin liked her. She hadn't even known that Eri had a family but felt for the woman's loss in the same dim, distant way she felt most social emotions.

In the recording Drake want on to talk about how several bodies had been recovered but, otherwise, the after action clean-up would have to wait since a coolant line had been damaged in the explosion, filling much of the area with radioactive steam.

********

Eri was in pain and exhausted from being on her feet. She'd actually fallen asleep on the falcon during the trip from the Endless, currently in Weaver's Tempest, to the Necromancer, where Yomi had been imprisoned, in Savage Spur. She'd awakened just after the ship landed but her mind was far from clear and little things were aggravating her. Noises were loud and jarring. The noise of the Necromancer's hangar deck was practically an assault. Captain LaGuirre kept touching her, which Eri found irritating. She knew the woman was just trying to comfort her but every time the woman touched her arm or her back Eri found herself clenching her teeth to avoid biting the woman's head off.

The trip from the falcon's tie-down to the brig was one that, just a week ago, she would have described as 'short'. Now, however, it felt like a bloody marathon. Firstly, it involved hobbling across the hangar deck to one of the flanking corridors. As she heaved her cane forward pace by grueling pace, she felt the eyes upon her. She saw the deckhands in their orange jumpsuits stop what they were doing and gesture to their comrades. She saw the pity in their eyes and hated them for it. In response she continually shrugged off Captain LaGuirre and refused any and all assistance from the medics as she hobbled and heaved her way across the deck.

Just as she was about to step through the hatch into the corridor that led to the lift Scot Marval stepped up and blocked her path. When she met his eyes she knew what her face looked like. She felt the hate in her eyes. Standing in front of her in an impromptu formation, with more falling in as she watched, was Scot 'Hot Dog' Marval, Leo 'Hunter' Gilharno, Jak "NOGAS" Sorell, Abel "Zen" Gilharno, Siobhan 'Low-Angle' Kult, and more. For a moment no-one said a thing. Then Hot Dog stamped his foot and snapped a salute that was instantly and immediately echoed by the rest, both those in the formation, and those that weren't. As she looked around she saw the pilots and the deckhands all staring directly back at her with a fierce pride on their faces and, as she met their eyes, even those technically out of uniform would either nod or salute.

She felt Captain LaGuirre's hand on her back again and shrugged it off. She no longer owned the appropriate hand for a salute so, instead, she forced herself to stand as straight as she could and returned the salute with her right hand. A moment later, as she felt stupid tears threaten to undermine her dignity, she took hold of the cane again and heaved herself forward through the hatch being held open by Aylin 'Dancer' Sillarn, one of the two pilots she'd busted for nearly giving Sol Jared a heart attack. She gave him an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude as she passed him.

From there it was nearly two hundred meters aft to the lift. As the door closed behind her Eri swooned. The world went grey and tried to slip sideways. She felt Captain LaGuirre steady her just as she let go of the cane and threw an arm out to lean against lift wall. The brig was in the center of the ship, directly above the hangar deck. Eri stared at the the lift floor for the entire trip and, when the doors open, she needed to take several breaths. Just as the medical team began exchanging glances she took hold of her cane again and turned a gaze on the corridor beyond that made LaGuirre and her medical team as well as the four crewmen beyond the hatch blanch before quickly stepping out of her way.

She was nearly ten meters out of the lift before her opiate-hazed mind caught on to the fact that something was wrong. There were too many people in the corridors. There was too much activity. She saw marines and medical personnel. She saw Chief Cornell shouting and giving instructions. She saw his knuckle-draggers unrolling a large hose into the brig just as Master Chief Warrant Officer Kao t'Kt stepped over the thing to stride into the corridor while speaking to someone on comms.

"Split say: 'NO'," he said in the high-pitched monotone of a furious Split warrior as he strode past her. He momentarily met her eyes and gave her a nod of acknowledgment and, if she wasn't mistaken, respect. "Then he and the squad of marines trailing behind him commandeered the lift."

Eri fixed her gaze on a nearby crewman, a young female human who didn't appear to have anything to do that moment. "Petty Officer," she demanded, "wWhat the hell is going on here?!"

"The-ah," Petty Officer Colard replied breathlessly, "the assassin?" she asked.

Eri nodded impatiently.

"The Terrans," Colard stammered. "They freed her."

Eri's head snapped toward the brig. As she did she saw a young marine being carried out on a stretcher. He was a wide-eyed and staring through the lid. Eri noted that much of his right arm below the elbow was missing.

'God damn it, Yomi!' She felt LaGuirre's hand on her back and started to shrug it off but found she couldn't care enough to manage the effort. Her mind was showing her the hover car at the bottom of an embankment; the blood on the windshield, the blood on the tree. Her breath was heavy and shaking. Her arm was shaking upon the cane. 'Don't get killed!' The thought closed her eyes. 'Don't you DARE get yourself killed!'

********

Gin snapped the last few centimeters of Drake's katana back into it's elegant cloth-wrapped wooden scabbard. Then she turned and continued to make her way through his private spaces. She saw his bathroom with its enormous shower stall. Shortly after seeing the bathroom she made her way to his closet, where she walked along the walls and touched his clothes, which is when she inadvertently found his vault.

It was so well hidden that without her enhanced senses she'd likely never have found it. Instead it was simply a matter of noticing and then inspecting the terminus of various power conduits in the walls. In this case she saw a complex circuit with a control panel, sensors, motors and powerful locking mechanisms behind a wall of hanging suits. Without thinking she swept them aside and stared at what appeared to be a blank wall.

After a moment she sighed heavily, feeling miserable and exhausted. What she was about to do was despicable. She didn't even know if the crystal with Admiral Giorno's memories was here! It could easily be on the Necromancer or the Predator or elsewhere! Was she really about to violate this man's trust... just to avoid meeting his gaze?

And why?!

'Because I don't know if I'm strong enough to leave him.' It was self-evident the instant she looked at it. She had to know what was done to her. She had to. She had to know what was being done with her genetic material and why.

'HOW MANY, RIK?!' She trembled with the outrage within her. But aye. She needed to know and, perhaps, to do something about it if she could. And Drake would look at her. He'd look right through her. He'd ask questions she couldn't answer. And when she finally explained what she planned to do he'd try to stop her, to hold on to her, to keep her safe somehow. He'd try to stop her. He'd tell her it was a suicide mission and plead with her to stay...

'And I might.' She sighed again, then reached out to put her palm flat on the wall. She took another deep breath and then rapped against it several times with her knuckles. This created sonic vibrations she could hear and make sense of. There was a space behind the wall... and it was not empty.

"Frak," she cursed.

For several minutes she simply stood there with her hand on the wall. She'd have to destroy it to access the safe. Something about the idea was so abhorrent that she wanted to simply lie down and die. It wasn't the material damage that concerned her so much as what it would do to Drake when he saw it and knew what she'd done.

Was there another way?

She stared at the question for a moment before she raised her fist. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

********

"She's WHERE?!" Seldon barked as she brought the DESS Vexation in to land on the Necromancer. She was talking with Kao t'Kt via a secure channel on encrypted comms.

"Outside Brig," Frank told her.

"Bloody, goddamned..!" Seldon sighed. "And still no twenty on her sister?"

"No," Frank stated. "Coolant leak bought time for them to escape. We pursued immediately but they are good at hiding."

"Goddamn it!" Seldon cursed as the cradle and far wall of the landing deck loomed large ahead of her Scimitar. "So they could be anywhere?!"

Frank wasn't the kind to come up with hypotheticals. He simply said, "yes."

"Goddamn it!" She cursed as she hit the trap. Almost instantly the ship steamed from under her and began dropping her into the box. "Alright, I'm in the trap now. I'll be there in three mizura."

"Acknowledged."

Seldon cutt the comms and then smacked the chair's armrest with her palm. The first time Ericka Chinomu gets out of bed in a fortnight and it had to be today!

********

As the lift returned Eri made a decision and immediately began making her way toward it. Captain LaGuirre and her medical team followed closely behind, doing their best to talk her into returning to her hospital bed aboard the Endless. Eri was aware that LaGuirre was empowered to make decisions based on medical necessity. Which meant that if she wasn't careful she could find herself sedated and returned to the Endless. So she was doing her best not to push too hard.

It wasn't easy, especially since just being upright required intense focus and concentration. She literally had to push just to remain standing. Which made the resistance Captain LaGuirre was offering so incredibly offensive. It was hard enough just being conscious of her broken and disfigured body. Did the bitch really have to make it even MORE difficult?

So Eri ignored her. She simply refused to engage in any conversation in which she had to justify her actions. She needed to save her sister.

She needed to.

She could feel the darkness closing in around them. She could feel the terrible danger all around. So she put her eyes on her next destination be it the hatch in front of her, the lift at the end of the corridor, the falcon in the hangar, the Brimstone or Drakhar himself and took the next step. Because she knew, didn't she? She knew the lies they'd told her and she knew the hate in the girl's heart, didn't she? She knew it because she'd been carrying it within her own heart for so long that she'd forgotten what it felt like to live without it. It was nihilism and despair and victimhood and blame and she could feel it attracting something terrible out of the ether; some terrible, twisted fate that Eri didn't even want to consider for her little bird was flying in a storm with dragons.

********

One of the nicest things about having been given the DESS Vexation was that Seldon was able to bring a lot of different gear with her. After the first day she'd realized what an advantage that was and promptly duplicated all of her uniforms and kit. She was still, technically, assigned to the Necromancer but now, with the Vexation, she was able to go anywhere and be ready for anything from meeting potential clients with Drake to kicking down doors and perforating bad guys.

Waiting for the big lift to bring her through the steamer and get towed to a tie-down she took the opportunity to change into her power armor. She couldn't (and wouldn't) have said why exactly. It was just a, "sailor's sense." It felt like the storm that she'd been sensing all day was just about on her. So not five mizura after hitting the trap Seldon stepped off the Vexation in full combat regalia, although she did leave her face shield transparent so the folks around her could see her smile as she trotted on past.

'No! No! Don't have any heart attacks!' She thought as she nodded or smiled on her way to the lift. 'We're not under attack. You can go back to work.'

Yeah. She got the sense they believed it as much as she did. She could practically sense the scuttlebutt forming around her.

Seldon was hustling down the corridor beside the hangar deck toward the closest of the ship's five lifts when it opened. She jogged down to a walk as she approached another in an endless series of confined metal coffins and took note of the people turning to step out of it. The first face she saw was Captain LaGuirre, whom Seldon knew as a consequence of all too many of her guys and gals being treated for PTSD. Immediately after that, however, Ericka Chinomu lurched around to face the open hatch. The pair immediately locked eyes and froze.

Seldon hadn't seen Chinomu since before her vacation and, at the time, Chinomu barely knew she was there. She knew she should have visited but, after the past few months, she was taking her damn vacation no matter who might have feelings about it. She did reach out any number of times but Chinomu had refused to take her calls and the nurse's tone had said volumes.

Seldon got over her momentary paralysis before Chinomu and promptly showed everyone stepping out of the lift her best grin. Most of them responded with surprised and delighted smiles of their own, including Captain LaGuirre, who always seemed to be looking at something in Seldon's soul that Seldon herself wasn't exactly comfortable with the bitch looking at, but what could you do? Chinomu, however, left her own shock with a look of such intense determination that Seldon decided she did NOT want to get in the woman's way and she wasn't sure if it was despite her injuries... or because of them. The bitch looked simultaneously pitiful and terrifying.

"Wassup, girl?" Seldon asked through her grin.

"I am," Eri breathed and there was something ghastly about the way she sounded.

"Yeah!" Seldon nodded. "I see!" The instant she was in Chinomu's peripheral vision she glanced at Captain LaGuirre with the demand in her eyes. 'What the hell?!'

LaGuirre, who's scope was her patient and not the larger operational context of what was, right then, starting to feel a lot like a warehouse filled with explosives flooded with gasoline to Seldon, merely shrugged. Instead of feeling miserable and sorry for herself Captain LaGuirre's patient was out of bed and pushing herself through her shock and despair. To LaGuirre this was progress! Seldon's grimace even earned her an amused chuckle from the Doc.

"So-ah," Seldon asked through her smile while horrified to hear her own mother in her voice. She sounded the same way the woman did when trying not to let on that her father was missing and potentially lost at sea. Again. "Where we goin'?"

Chinomu didn't even look at her. "Drakhar."

"OH!" Seldon was unable to keep the brittleness out of her voice. "Oh yeah?" 'While your little sister, the Wakiya assassin, is loose in the fleet with-uhm... a bunch of her friends?!' Seldon's jaw was clenching behind her grin. 'Yeah! Yeah that's... juuuuust great!'

She fell back several paces to give her boss a call and, despite her injuries, Chinomu was making good time. By the time he answered the bitch was making a strange, shambling, almost dreamlike turn past through the biometrically locked hatch onto the Necromancer's hangar deck.

"Tasha," Drake said her name as a statement. He was looking down at her through the comm on his wrist while walking inside the bright white and living emerald green of one of the Brimstone's gravity rings.

"Uhmm... you're about to have a visitor," Seldon said while peeking around the corner at Chinomu.

"Do tell," Drake said, sounding curious.

"Chinomu's on her way and-ah... Hooo!"

Drake stopped walking and gave her his full attention. "I see," he said, apparently catching the significance. "How's she doin'?"

"Uhmmm... the shrink looks happy."

Drake arched an eyebrow at her. "How worried should I be?"

Seldon made a decision and started jogging to catch up with Chinomu and her entourage. "Well," she said. "I think I'm gonna stick close in case I-ah... need to protect you from her."

Drake blinked. Then he looked around as if sorting something out in his head. His jaw clenched once. Then twice more in rapid succession. "Noted," he said. Then he looked at the camera again. "I'll let everyone know to stay out of her way." Then he fixed the camera as if trying to sort out a puzzle. "And... why isn't she just beaming over?"

********

By the time she got to the Falcon Eri felt a bit like she'd just finished her third marathon of the day. At which point she had to insist upon a destination other than the Endless and her bed. Which, considering how hard this was already, was something else she resented and she'd finally started letting LaGuirre see the hate in her eyes when the bitch got in her way.

Fortunately the pilot of the Falcon was a young man named Lieutenant Terrel Gusta, whom Eri had trained herself. Gusta, who still had a bit of the wide-eyed recruit in his face when he looked at her, was under her command. Which meant she was not someone he ever wanted displeased with him. That coupled with the complicated mess of emotions that her being newly crippled evoked in his face allowed her to bully him.

"Take me to the Brimstone," she told him and he immediately nodded despite LaGuirre attempting to argue with her. Eri refused to engage. Once she'd confirmed Gusta would do as ordered she turned to find a seat. Only LaGuirre was blocking her path while attempting to change Gusta's destination.

Eri stared right at the woman until LaGuirre finally met her eye. Eri let the bitch see her own death in Eri's eyes. LaGuirre blinked and then stepped back out of her way. As she stepped past she noted that Captain LaGuirre was, despite her actions, watching Eri with a barely repressed smile and something akin to approval on her face. Almost simultaneously she noted that Seldon was on board and looking at her with an expression that was much like that of young mothers while their children do something potentially dangerous for the first time. It seemed to combine encouragement and support with brittle horror.

Eri couldn't have cared less about either of them.

She was going to talk with Drakhar whether any of them liked it or not.

********

Gin heard the hatch to the compartment open and froze. An instant later she heard the excited breathing and scrabbling steps of a happy and enthusiastic dog. "Oh shit," she whispered. Just then the dog snarled and then began a thunderous series of challenge-barks to let her know that he knew she was there and wasn't messing about. An instant later she heard Drake's steps, at first his normal, athletic pace, quickly slow to a stop as he heard his own voice echoing out into the compartment.

"...and that skinny little prick who, last I met him, was doin' his absolute best to vent my marines and me out into space? Yeah. Legion invited him to be a part of that meetin' and, I suspect, made sure we didn't ventilate the cargo container he escaped the Brimstone in before it could be collected by the Endless. I did say he was makin' moves of his own, right?

"Yeeeah."


"Max!" the man hissed in the present and snapped three times down low to summon his dog back to him. Simultaneously she heard the snap, click and leathery sough as he freed the sidearm from the holster on his thigh and the sudden rise of the small hairs on the back of her neck and arms told her he'd just activated a personal force field. She also had no doubt that he'd just activated his personal alarm and that marines were, that very instant, grabbing their weapons to come running to his defense. "Shhh!" he whispered. "Eeeasy boy," he said at the same time the capacitors in his weapon charged.

She sighed and lowered her hand and gaze. He was in the corridor one level below and ten meters starboard of where she stood but the coprocessors that augmented and sorted her superhuman senses had put together a coherent image of where he was and what he was doing. He was, just then, in a crouch beside a dog that was roughly the same size as a kid's pony with one hand buried in the mane at the back of the thing's neck and the other holding his weapon at the ready.

She sighed as she lowered her hand. The wall was undamaged and the safe unlooted. She scoffed and shook her head, wondering if this was what she'd really wanted all along. The thought and the fact that she hadn't betrayed him made her smile. A moment later she turned with the intention of going to him, looking him in the eye... and meeting his new friend.

Just before she opened the hatch out from his closet, however, the same functionality that let her "see" Drake right through the bulkheads revealed four human-shaped figures clinging to the lid directly over Drake's desk. Shock, then horror followed by anger flooded through her as she realized she was looking at the reason Seldon had been called back to the fleet.

'How long have you been there?' she wondered.

She hadn't seen them earlier and, in her self pity, she had thrown her head back several times. They also hadn't attacked her, which she would have done had she been planning an ambush. She stepped up the hatch out of Drake's closet and prepared to open it but waited. There was a spear in a rack just three strides from her location. She estimated that she'd be able to reach it, free it from the rack and throw it in just over one second, which meant if she surprised them she might be able to take one, perhaps even two out of the fight before they even realized she was there.

Just as she started forward the assassins apparently decided that they'd been blown and also that they wouldn't get a better opportunity and promptly dropped from the lid. In unison they let go of the lid to fall to the petitioner's floor below. Gin wrenched the hatch open faster than its motors allowed for and lunged across the space toward the weapon stand with the spears and polearms. She landed on her forward foot just as her right hand clenched around the spear-shaft. She straightened that leg to stand while lifting, pivoted just as the brass-capped bottom of the spear cleared the stand, then leapt sideways to line up her throw and hurled the spear with all the might her body was capable of.

********

Eri was in motion before the lift was open. She'd confirmed with Seldon that Drakhar was, in fact, in his chambers and waiting for her and was determined to give him a piece of her mind. As the lift doors opened she heaved the cane forward before taking two steps forward in much the same way as an elderly person on a walker. She was in the middle of the second catch-up step when Seldon suddenly took off past her at a dead sprint... while unlimbering her carbine.

Eri's heart skipped one beat before kicking her in the guts. "No!" she gasped and then began pushing her broken body as hard as she possibly could. LaGuirre immediately attempted to put hand on her arm and Eri's chest produced a sound so full of instant and immediate violence that the Doc reflexively recoiled away from her. At the far end of the corridor, perhaps fifteen meters from the side corridor Seldon was disappearing into, was a squad of six marines in full combat regalia with blacked out face shields and they were running as fast and as hard as Seldon.

She was nearly at the turning when the cane caught the obsidian floor and threw her rhythm off, forcing her to let go of the cane in order to catch herself on the nearby bulkhead. Without a thought she kept on, holding herself up with the bulkhead on her right while her legs and lower back convulsed with adrenaline and cortisol while her muscles agonized with lactic acid burn. She saw the marines breach Drakhar's compartment ahead of her and, the instant the hatch was open, she heard the fury taking place within.

"YOMI!!"

From within the compartment she heard Drakhar's dog barking like cannon fire and the man himself bellowed. "THE DOG! SELDON, GRAB MY DOG!"

Eri reached the hatch to Drake's chambers and turned to peer inward. All she could see was a wall of black combat armor but, from beyond them, there was the sound of blades crashing into each other at a terrifying pace.

"MOVE!" Eri bellowed and threw herself at the back of the nearest marine. "MAKE A HOLE GOD DAMN YOU!"

As her hands connected with the back of the marine's armor her body immediately recoiled from the localized high-powered electromagnetic field. A moment later she was on the deck and the marine she'd just bounced off of was turning in her direction... but she could see through the gaps in their legs.

The first thing her eyes found was Drakhar. He appeared to be dancing with his sword. He whirled and spun, slashing and parrying an invisible opponent. Sparks coincided with the ringing in the air. Behind him, lying in a heap at the base of a several story window, a pair of women were wreathed in lightning and malfunctioning camouflage. They'd both been impaled by a single spear.

She grabbed hold of the marine she'd assaulted and used him to haul herself to her feet before shoving her way past him. Out on the floor marines had surrounded their employer but none dared either get any closer or take a shot. Eri only had glimpses of the man's opponent but she knew it was Yomi. She knew it with every terrified, gasping breath and in the rapid fire heartbeat that seemed to be tapping away on her larynx.

The marines in the corridor, the one she'd first hit and now the two nearer the end, had turned to accommodate and support her as she tried to push her way through or clamber over them. "YOMI!" she screamed and, as she did, she watched the assassin falter. It was the slightest of mis-steps but it resulted in the woman's own weapon being out of position as Drakhar stepped past with a pirouette and back-handed slash. Lightning enveloped the assassin as the camouflage failed. A moment later the woman fell forward as her head dropped to bounce and then roll across the deck.

The dog stopped barking.

Drakhar was stood still, with his sword outstretched and his breath gasping through his open mouth. Then Eri's knees collapsed and she heard someone else screaming.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Whoever it was sounded just like her.
Last edited by Scion Drakhar on Fri, 16. Jul 21, 14:19, edited 6 times in total.
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Sat, 17. Jul 21, 18:03

Quick question for all of you:

Within the context of this story what questions remain unanswered that NEED to be answered before the story will be considered complete for you?

Think about it and have fun with your answers.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by tcario » Thu, 22. Jul 21, 16:04

I've always felt pretentious when commenting on an authors choice of endings for their characters or story. There have been many times where I did not like an ending or turn a character took, but, with few exceptions, I generally enjoy reading through the storyteller's decisions.

But since you asked... :D

I think the main storyline that should be resolved to complete this particular chapter would be to resolve the conflict between Drake and Gil. While I would love to have the storylines surrounding all of the other characters resolved, I can see a completely satisfying result from this one main conflict resolution. Perhaps it might even be best to leave those storylines for another time should you decide to write about Drake vs. the Terrans.

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