With a final wave from Alaina, the door slid shut. Moments later, a heavy bulkhead with enhanced force-fields slammed down with enough force to make Terry and me jump.
“Well,” I said, loosening Glint in its sheath, “Let’s go take care of the rogue core.”
Terry stopped me as I started forward. “Sir, considering the circumstances, maybe I should take point.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’d feel better with you watching my back. Besides, you’ve probably still got a good five minutes before your rifle’s ready.”
“Yensing plasma rifles take a little while to charge. You did activate it already, right?”
“Oh, right.” He flipped a switch near the grip of the plasma rifle. A shrill whine pierced the air, slowly fading until it was just a light hum that tickled my inner ear.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “I’m just going on the old J-27 model. Uncle Ann had bought back when I was still living in Rimstak. I’m sure they’ve upgraded the charging mechanism by now.”
Inwardly, I wondered how much help I could actually be; I had never been in an actual combat situation, and my weapon wasn’t exactly a Masamune.
We moved forward with deliberate care, even more than when we had first arrived in the facility Occasionally, Terry would abruptly spin around, presumably to make sure the Core wasn’t sneaking on us.
After about twenty minutes of sneaking up on corridors and nearly scaring ourselves to death, Terry surprised me by saying, “I never thanked you, sir.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For letting me accompany you on this mission.”
I grinned at him. “Are you being sarcastic, Terry?”
“No sir. I knew this was going to be a dangerous mission from the beginning. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to make of you.”
“I can understand that.” I said, chuckling, “Not many samurai running around Vinta these days.”
Terry let out a sigh. “Sir, please. I’m trying to be serious.”
“I understand what you’re trying to say, Terry.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it; to be honest, I wasn’t sure about bringing you along at first. You struck me as a little unsure of yourself back in Iniagusville.”
“And now, sir?”“
The compliment I was about to give Terry died in my throat as we both rounded a corner and found ourselves face to face with the rogue core unit. It might have just been my imagination, but it looked a lot meaner than Mick.
For a few tense moments, we just stood there. I guess the rogue was as startled by us as we were by it, though it didn’t take long for it to recover and raise its arm cannon.
I pulled Terry into a separate corridor, and not a moment too soon. A hail of energy fire tore into the corridor we had been standing in.
Drawing Glint, I managed to shoot a weak Force Edge at the rogue core as it rounded the corner, but it didn’t do much more than knock it to the floor.
“Shoot it!” I said, trying to focus my thoughts on another Force Edge as Terry scrambled to his feet.
Terry lifted his monster of a rifle, took aim, and pulled the trigger.
“I’m sorry,” A friendly voice coming from the rifle said, “The Yensing Y-73 Plasma Rifle is still charging. Please wait one minute and forty-seven seconds before-”
“Oh, for the love of … seriously?!” Terry shouted, drowning out the rest of the message.
We both dashed away as the rogue started to rise. Once on its feet, it ran very quickly after us. As soon as we reached the next intersection, however, Terry and I dove into opposite corridors. The rogue core, either going too fast to stop quickly or not anticipating this move, continued past the intersection. Still, our maneuver had only bought us a little time.
“Almost there!” he said.
The rogue core walked back into the intersection. As it looked from me to Terry several times, the words ‘threat assessment’ came to mind. After a few moments, it started toward Terry.
Terry tried to fire, but the rogue core knocked the heavy plasma rifle from his hands as though it were a toy. The rogue core raised his blaster arm as Terry backed against a security bulkhead, his hand going to his side, but I couldn’t see any side-arm.
All I could think at the moment was that I had to stop the unit before Terry was reduced to a pile of ash. Leaping forward, I swung a mighty blow straight at the unit’s head with all my strength.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of a hero focusing his strength and dealing a mighty blow that slays his enemy. Well, this wasn’t one of those tales; Glint just kind of bounced off the side of the rogue core’s head. The impact nearly shook Glint from my hand, and ultimately didn’t leave so much as a dent in the gray ‘skin’ of the core unit.
The rogue core turned and gave me a look that came off as contemptuous in spite of the lack of facial features.
I grinned foolishly and did something even more stupid; I punched the rogue core in the face. It didn’t make a move to dodge, nor did it need to; I felt as though I had just punched solid rock.
Wringing my now aching hand, I said, “Well, it was worth a try.”
The core’s eyes narrowed as raised its arm to blast me into oblivion. I closed my eyes, holding Glint in front of me as though it would somehow protect me from the inevitable hail of energy blasts.
I winced at a bright flash, but to my surprise there was no pain. I opened my eyes to see the core unit holding up the metal stump that had been about to blast me. Behind it, I saw Terry, plasma rifle in hand.
The rogue core barely had time to turn before another burst of plasma hit it full in the chest. The rogue core went completely still. After a few moments, I prodded it with Glint. It promptly fell over and lay still on the floor.
Slinging the plasma rifle over his shoulder, Terry approached me, what little of his face that was visible looking flushed. “You injured?” He asked, sounding worried.
“Just my pride.” I said, shaking my sore hand. “Thanks for the save.”
“Save for a save. We’re even.” He turned his attention to the core unit. “It is dead, right?”
I knelt beside the unit and looked in its chest cavity. Nothing remained of the heartstone that had powered it … or of the casing, for that matter.
“Looks that way.” I said. “Let’s head back to the Central Control. I don’t suppose you remember the way?”
Luckily, a whole bunch of skrievers came rolling through the tunnel toward us. In a matter of moments, they had torn what was left of the core unit to pieces and were scurrying back the way they had come.
One of the skrievers approached and clicked at us three times. Kneeling down, I asked, “Can you show us the way back to the Central Control?”
With an affirmative-sounding whistle, it curled back into a ball and slowly rolled down a separate corridor. Terry and I exchanged a nod before following it.
Alaina applauded us as we entered the Central Core. “My heroes!” She said, “You stopped the rogue core!”
I bowed respectfully. “I’m glad we could be of assistance. Are there anymore within scanning range?”
“No rogues. From what I’ve learned of the remains, I believe that this rogue core was simply a holdover from the time of the original Corruption. Yes, it was corrupted, though fortunately, its transversion cells were heavily degraded. I’ve got my skrievers analyzing the remains, but from the scoring on the armor, I’d say it had been buried for years.”
“But why did it come after you now?” I asked. “For that matter, why are you active now? Bethany had been asleep for centuries, most of her functions going on auto.”
“It was much the same with me.” She admitted, “I’ve been in hibernation mode since completing my mission over two-thousand years ago.”
“Your mission?” Terry asked.
“I was in charge of analyzing technology that was integrated into the core units’ original design, specifically in their arms. Fortunately, said technology was proven to actually help core units resist the corruption. Once I made this determination, I sent my results to Yaevin and went on standby mode.”
“Yaevin?” Terry said, “You mean the satellite?”
“Actually, it’s more of a space station.” Turning back to me, Alaina said, “Several months ago, I received a boost of energy from the station. Unfortunately, the communications array of Yaevin is no longer properly aligned; making communication with my sister CICs impossible. I attempted to correct the error from here for several months to no avail, and was about to go back into hibernation when the rogue core attacked. Fortunately, it wasn’t in particularly good condition.”
“Eh?” Terry said, freezing in place. “What do you mean?”
“My skrievers found high levels of corrosion on over sixty-percent of the core’s materials.” She shook her head and said, “Do not misunderstand me; your still did well to stop it. It was strong enough to tear through the wall and fight off my skrievers, after all.”
“I’m glad we could help.” I said, though I shared Terry’s sentiments.
“Not at all. Bethany is lucky to have you as an Inheritor, and is right to trust you to watch over Mick.”
“Mick!” I said, remembering why we stumbled into the Natalya Center in the first place. “He’s still missing! Now that you’re off alert, can you detect him?”
“I already have.” She said, a smug smile on her face. She made another monitor in mid-air. The monitor displayed a video feed of something small and moving, most likely a skriever. To my surprise, it was in the portable cabin’s kitchen.
“Would you mind turning, Nathaniel?” Alaina asked.
She must’ve been speaking to the recording skriever, for the video feed soon turned to reveal Mick’s curious face.
“Jimmy.” He said, sounding pleased. “So there you are! I see you’ve made some new friends.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank the Creator. You had us worried.”
“You were worried about me?” Mick said, a confused look in his eyes. “But I’ve been right here all night!”
I turned to Terry. “I thought you said you looked everywhere.”
He held up his hands. “I’m as surprised as you are, sir. Arc told me he checked the cabin.”
“I should’ve know.” Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the screen. “So you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. CIC Alaina’s skrievers have been upgrading my arms with the tech she’s been studying all these years. I must admit, it makes me feel a little more … complete.”
Smiling, I said, “Glad to hear it. We’ll be heading back to the cabin just as soon as we grab Arc.”
“Understood. Nice to make your acquaintance, Alaina.”
“And yours as well, Mick.” Alaina said kindly. “Good night.”
Moments later, the map was replaced with security footage of the Med Labs. To my horror, Arc was slumped up against a wall, unconscious.
“Arc!” I called out, “Are you okay?”
Arc shook his head lazily. “S’alright. I don’t have any classes today.”
“Thank the Creator,” I said, “He’s just asleep. ARC!”
Arc’s eyes flew open. He leapt to his feet, his hands on his outrageously large weapon. “Aaaack! My limbs!!”
“Relax, it’s just me. We took out the rogue core.”
“Really?” Arc let out a sigh of relief. “Whew! Any sign of Mick?”
“He’s still in the cabin, which Terry tells me you checked.”
Arc’s face went red. “Well, I didn’t see him in the bedroom.”
Shaking my head, I said, “It doesn’t matter. We’re getting ready to head out. Can you find the way to the facility entrance?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t even know where I am now!”
Alaina said, “I’ll move you there. Step out in the corridor and make sure you stand away from the walls.”
“O-okay.” Arc still didn’t sound completely trustful of Alaina, though I suppose I couldn’t really blame him. “I’ll see you guys back at the cabin.”
As the screen vanished, I asked, “Are you going to be okay by yourself?”
“Well enough, I suppose. I considered giving Terry Inheritor status.” She said, smiling at my armored friend. “But I think his path lies with yours for the time being.”
“In understand, ma’am.” Terry said with a bow of his head, “I appreciate the thought, though.”
“In the meantime, I’ve gone ahead and extended Inheritor status to you Jimmy.” She touched my PIM, making the device glow for a moment, “I’d like your help with finding a dedicated Inheritor for this facility once your mission is over.”
“I’ll be glad to help.” I said.
She beamed at me. “Thank you. I’m going to try to get in touch with the Saybaro again; my sister will no doubt want to know how her Inheritor is doing.”
“You might try connecting to her through the Weave.” Terry said. “But be careful; they regularly monitor connections for signs of Glyche corruption.”
“Understandable.” Aliana said, her head bowed. “I will be cautious. Goodnight Jimmy … and to you as well, Miss Ulyndia.”
“Mister.” He said, sounding a little annoyed.
Alaina’s cheeks glowed slightly. “Of course. My apologies, Mister Ulyndia.”
As we left the Central Control, Terry said, “Is it really that hard to tell?”
“Only for people who haven’t worked in the palace.” I said, patting him on the shoulder-plate. “C’mon; let’s go get Arc.”
We met up with Arc just by the entrance, which once again opened out to the moonlit patch of grass at the bottom of a large pit.
“Dudes!” He said as we approached, “You okay?”
I nodded, stifling a yawn. “Yeah. I’m a bit tired though. Let’s head back to the cabin.”
The entrance slid shut behind us. Moments later, the floor of the chasm slowly rose toward the night sky until we were flush with the ground.
Glancing at the disguised lift, Arc said, “Nice. I can’t even see where the edges are anymore.”
As we left the forest and started back toward the cabin, I once again approached the tree I had been sleeping beneath.
“I’m not terribly tired.” Terry said, “If you want to take my bed, I’ll keep watch until morning.”
“I appreciate the thought,” I replied, easing myself down, “But I’m more comfortable out here.”
Terry nodded. “I understand. Good night, sir.”
“Terry!” I called out as he started to walk away. “Thanks again for saving me back there.”
“Like I said, sir, a save for a save.”
“Still, you did good … and in case I haven’t already said it, thank you for coming along with us on this crazy quest.”
For the first time since I had met him, Terry smiled. With a final salute, he went inside the cabin.
I tried to go to sleep, but the fight with the rogue core had left me sweaty. More than that, it had me thinking; if the initial power surge from the Yaevin station had activated the rogue core as well as the facilities, what else could have been awoken? What other threats might I be facing as the Inheritor of the Saybaro?
I couldn’t really do anything about that, but I could at least wash off the sweat. Remembering the lake I had seen while looking for Mick, I pushed myself from the ground, pulled a fresh set of clothes from my pack, and walked back into the forest.
The woods seemed a lot more pleasant now that I was alone, though it might have been because I wasn’t searching for a friend this time. It was a warm night, but there was a cool breeze in the air hinting at the coming autumn.
It was a pleasant walk, and it gave me time to dwell on the events of the night. Why had it taken so long for the rogue core to reach Natalya? Had it been buried or damaged? I suppose that would’ve explained the delay, but if it truly had degraded over time, it was a miracle the rogue core’s brain functioned at all.
What if there were more? What if they found some other hidden facility? I shook my head; with any luck, hopefully, the other facilities remained well-hidden. If we did encounter any other core units, then we’d just have to deal with it.
The arrogance of that statement gave me pause. What was I gonna do? Hit it with Glint until … what? Until it got annoyed, plucked Glint from my hands, and bent it and me into a pretzel? Terry had a plasma rifle, but he was only one guy. Without a decent weapon, I was useless as anything more than a distraction. While Arc could lift his sword, his fighting style still heavily relied on hitting his opponent with the first blow. Mick could probably put up a fight, especially now that he possessed additional functionality, but pitting him against his own kind just felt wrong.
After a few more minutes of stewing over my growing concerns, I stepped out of the forest onto the shore of the lake. The moons of Everblue and Traysia hung high in the sky, their beauty distracting me from my worries. I slipped out of my clothes and left them neatly folded beneath Glint on an old stump.
I slowly eased myself into the lake, savoring the feel of the cool water against my face. The water was clear, so I opened my eyes and peered blearily into the depths of the lake. The way the moons shone through the water, sending patterns of light dancing beneath the surface was simply amazing.
My thoughts were interrupted when I felt a light ripple pulse through the lake, as though someone or something else had just stepped into the water. I looked around, but my eyes couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. I slowly surfaced, my eyes scanning quickly over the surface for who or whatever was interrupting my bath.
My jaw dropped, giving me a mouthful of lake water. It was the fional woman I had seen in Iniagusville! She was still close to the shore, stripping away her last few pieces of clothing and leaving them in a pile on a large flat rock. I have to admit, I found it a bit hard to not to stare; her body was lean and athletic, and at the moment pretty much completely on display.
She dipped her hands in the water and splashed the cool liquid on her face, a feeling of shame came over me. Watching her bathe was a violation of her privacy, and I should’ve known better. I wrenched my gaze away and started slowly moving to where I left my clothes.
I’m not going to lie; there was part of me that screamed every step of the way. She must’ve liked me, to follow me this far. Why not make my presence known? Why not make it seem like a complete twist of fate that we were both here? It’d worked before; rumor has it, Keysha Myssohn and his wife met that way.
I don’t have a proper reason why not. Maybe it was typical Galden skepticism at the whole Longshore bonding concept, maybe it was the code of armor I’d developed during my studies of the samurai, or maybe just because I wanted to meet her on equal ground, to just talk with her and get to know her like a normal person. Whatever the reason, I decided it would be best for me to just leave.
Unfortuantely, that was about the time my foot caught on something underwater. I fell face-first into the water, swallowing a mouthful in the process.
If the fional hadn’t felt the waves made when I tripped, she most certainly heard my sputtering for breath. Silently cursing my clumsiness, I abandoned stealth for speed and made a rush for the shore.
I was less than twenty feet from the shore when I tripped again. This time, however, it was different; my foot had caught on something the first time I tripped, probably a tree root. The second time, however, it felt as though something had yanked my feet out from under me.
Certain it was just my imagination making me paranoid, I continued hurrying toward the shore. I was only a few feet away when I heard a soft voice behind me murmur something I didn’t quite catch. You’re going to laugh at this, but the Rimstakken part of me made me instantly twist around and say, “Pardon me?”
The fional tackled me full in the chest. We hit the shore of the lake, my head landing just out of the water into the soft grass. She held me down, pinning my arms and my legs to the ground with hers. I was worried that she was angry until I realized the expression on her face wasn’t one of rage, but of curiosity. As the seconds passed, I realized there was something more in her eyes as she rubbed my cheek.
“Jimmy.” She said, her voice soft and full of emotion. “I like you.”
It was pretty clear she wasn’t thinking in the ‘as a friend’ category. Part of me wanted nothing more than to tell the gorgeous woman whose bare breasts now pressed against my chest that I liked her as well, but another question forced its way through the confusing mess of my mind, much to my libido’s chagrin
“Why me?” I asked, my heart racing, “I mean, I’m just a nobody. I guard a bridge in the middle of nowhere. Surely there are-”
“Shut up, Jimmy.” Before I could say another word, she pressed her lips against mine, her tongue darting between my stunned lips and ticking my own.
That was my first kiss; lying on the edge of a lake with a fional pinning me to the ground, nothing between our bodies but the water of the lake. Not too shabby, I suppose.
As we released, I tried to speak but found myself breathless. She had seemed such a stranger before, but all of a sudden I felt as though she was someone I should’ve known: an old friend from my youth who I’d forgotten, or a dear playmate from when I was just a toddler. I wanted to know about her … no, I needed to know her.
“W-who … who are you?” I finally managed to say, transfixed by eyes.
“Terra.” She gently took my hands and held them to her face. Again I was struck with her eyes, their soft purple just visible in the moonlight.
Fighting against the urge to kiss her, to feel her was too much. I pulled her closer to me, needing to feel her lips on mine again, when I heard her whisper, “Wake up, Jimmy.”