I awoke with a start. The suns shone brightly in the sky through the open window of my room, but I barely even noticed. All I could think of was Terra.
I leapt out of bed and ran out onto the balcony, hoping to find something, anything that might prove that what I had seen the night before was real.
As I looked around the balcony, trying to ignore a strange chill in the air, a glimmer of light reflecting off metal caught my eye. As I knelt beside the edge of the balcony, I heard the door of my room open.
“Sir? Are you here?”
“On the balcony, Terry.” I said, resting a hand on my bare leg as I reached behind a row of flower planters and closed my fingers around a rubberized handle.
Lifting it up, I felt a surge of excitement; it was the handle of the energy blade she had been carrying! She must have forgotten to take it with her!
“Sir, are you … by the Creator!”
I turned to see Terry standing in the doorway. He was looking very intently at the room's dresser for some reason.
I held up the device, triumph in my voice as I said, “Take a look at this!”
“Y-yeah, I see it, sir.” Terry said, still averting his gaze.
Frowning, I asked, “What's wrong with you?”
“Your clothes, sir.” He said, the visible portion of his face was bright red.
“What about my-” Looking down, I suddenly realized why I was so cold.
With a yelp, I rushed back into the room. I couldn't find my clothes, so I just grabbed one of the quilts and wrapped it around myself like a toga.
“Sorry about that, Terry.” I said, my face burning. “But check this out. Terra left it here last night.”
Terry looked at the inactive weapon. “Hmm. It looks like a toy to me, sir.”
“It's some kind of energy dagger. Hang on.” I tightened my grip around the handle. Nothing happened.
“Come on,” I said, my fingers probing over the device.
I was still trying when Mick entered the room with my neatly folded clothes under his arm.
“I trust everything is in order?” He said, eyeing my impromptu attire curiously.
“My clothes.” I said, my attention moving from the dagger to the clothes under Mick's arms.
He handed them to me. “I removed your clothes for cleaning after you fell asleep. I didn't think I had disturbed you.”
My cheeks grew warm. “Uh, I guess you didn't … but in the future, please just ask me for my clothes. I'm not comfortable with the idea of being undressed.”
“My apologies.” He said, his cheeks slightly gold. “You're right, of course.”
They stood there in an uncomfortable silence until I cleared my throat meaningfully. I had to stop myself from laughing at the sudden look of realization on their faces moments before they hurried toward the door.
Once they had left the room, I quickly slipped into my clothing and did a quick sweep of the rest of the room for proof of Terra's presence: a finger print, a strand of hair, anything. Unfortunately, there was nothing; the weapon was the only thing of her that was left.
Sighing, I sat down on the bed and toyed idly with the device she had left. Nothing I could do activated it. Perhaps Terry was right. Perhaps it was just a toy some previous visitor had left. Perhaps the previous night had just been a dream or a hallucination hinting at serious mental issues that needed addressing. That last thought was not particularly comforting.
Sighing, I tossed the device in my pack. Maybe it was just a toy, but it was all I could say I had of her.
I met up with Arc, Terry, and Mick in the Lobby. Terry saluted as I approached; I waved him off, not bothering to ask him to call me 'Jimmy'.
“Heard you had another visit from your mysterious fional last night.” Arc said, an impish grin on his face.
I glared at him. “Just drop it, okay? I realize how pathetic it sounds.”
“Not necessarily.” Mick said. “You described her as a fional, yes? When a fional finds a potential mate, he or she will often stalk them for days, weeks, or even months before attempting to initiate a bond.”
“I'm pretty sure they'd prefer the term 'scouting'.” Terry said. “How do you know that anyway?”
“The Glyche did extensive studies of Vinta's native species before the Corruption. Some believed that the biological Glyche could be saved with the introduction of DNA from another race.”
Terry shook his head. “But that was over three millennia ago. How can you be sure the fional haven't changed since then?”
“I can't. Even then, they were secretive about their bonding ritual. I'm merely suggesting the possibility that Jimmy's fional could very well be real, but is avoiding the rest of us.”
“I don't know.” Arc said. “The whole stalking thing kinda creeps me out. It makes it sound like she's going to kidnap Jimmy and shove him in a pet carrier.”
“Let's forget about the fional.” Terry said, much to my relief, “We should be focusing on the task at hand: locating the dragon.”
“Right.” Arc said, smacking a hand on the dresser. “The dragon. Well, I haven't seen it either.”
Terry snorted. “Thanks Arc. Having you on the team's a load off my mind.”
“Oh, I'm sorry, Terry.” Arc said, sarcasm practically dripping from his voice, “Why don't you just tell us where the dragon is?”
I stepped between Terry and Arc, saying, “That's enough of that. Mick, is there any way you can contact Bethany?”
“No need.” Mick closed his eyes. When he opened them, they shone orange instead of their normal blue.
He smiled at me. “Jimmy. I'm glad to see you are well.”
“Bethany?” I asked, though it was clearly her voice that spoke.
Mick nodded. “This is unusual, I grant you, but it is much more secure than the Weave. Thank you for saving my sister, Alaina.”
“I'm glad we could help.” I said. “Has Mick updated you on our mission?”
“You mean your quest?” She asked, raising one of Mick's eye-ridges. “Do you truly believe a dragon is to blame?”
“The evidence fits.” I said. “Any chance you can help us?”
“As a matter of fact, I can.”
He held out his hand. Moments later, holographic map appeared above his palm, showing the layout of Wukice.
“Whoa!” Arc said, “You did a scan of the city?”
Mick nodded. “The satellite I'm using to transmit to Mick has fairly impressive scanning equipment, as well as a backlog of old readings. It's not as powerful as Yaevin, but I'm still having trouble establishing a firm connection to the station.”
I tried to make sense of the map, but engineering wasn't my strong suit. “Are there any mountains or caverns near here?”
“Not that I can detect, though the crystallic sand is causing some slight interference.”
Terry said, “How about a lifestream scan? Something as big as a dragon's gotta have a massive signal.”
“One moment.” The map changed to a view of Wenapaj. Aside from the cities, there were only a few blips of significant stream energy, but nothing that seemed spectacular.
I tapped my bottom lip. “Hmm. Maybe the crystallic is interfering here too?”
“Or maybe the dragon's not here.” Arc said, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Look, man, the transmission was more than likely about that prop you killed. It could've been a joke, or that the link operator was startled … or maybe the pot dealer in Iniagusville was full of crap.”
“I could run a more detailed scan.” Bethany said, lowering her hands. “I'd also like to run through the backlog of sensor data; perhaps it was in range when the princess was first taken.”
“Good thinking.” I said, nodding. “We'll start heading back; now that we can afford a floater, we should be back in a few days.”
Terry let out a polite cough. “Sir, there's still the issue of the broken link.”
“Oh, right.” To be honest, I had completely forgotten about that.
“Isn't that a problem for the local techs?” Arc said. “Let them handle it!”
I was inclined to agree, given the gravity of our quest. To my surprise, however, Bethany said, “One moment. My scans have revealed a possible connection with the sudden silence of the link to Iniagusville.”
“A connection to the dragon?” Arc asked, his tone incredulous.
“No, a link to another Glyche Facility.”
We all stared at Mick. Nonplussed, Bethany said, “I'm detecting a faint signal in your area, almost indiscernible from the background noise. I'm definitely reading a Glyche signal there.”
“What kind of signal?” I asked.
Mick shook his head. “I'm not sure. As I said, it is difficult to read, probably due to the interference from the crystallic sand. Given your recent rescue of Alaina at the Natalya facility, I would appreciate it if you'd investigate.”
His cheeks went gold. “I … miss my sisters. I realize the princess is important, but since you are already there, I hope you'll indulge my request.”
I couldn't help but smile. “Okay, Bethany. We'll check it out.”
“What?” Arc said, a note of panic in his voice.
Mick smiled and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were once again green.
“Hang on a minute!” Arc said, a hint of panic in his eyes. “We are not going into any more Glyche facilities!”
“Any idea where it might be?” Terry asked, also ignoring Arc.
Mick shook his head, his voice once again his own as he said, “The reading was from beneath Wukice, but it was impossible to get a more precise reading than that. Still, if the facility was also recently reactivated by Yaevin, the skrievers could have inadvertently caused the outage while harvesting materials for repairs and maintenance.”
“Wait,” Arc said, holding up a hand to stop the conversation, “You mean Yaevin the satellite?”
“Actually, it's more of a space station.” Terry said, a faint hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“In any case, the first thing we should probably do is meet up with Casey.” Seeing my questioning glance, Mick said, “We have a lunch appointment with her and someone named Maxis.”
“That would be Maxis Telangrin.” Terry said, “He's pretty much the mayor of Wukice … and quite an accomplished Director as well.”
“Fair enough.” I said, “I could use some breakfast anyway.”
We left the Laffer Estates inn and headed toward our appointment with the mayor of Wukice, Arc complaining every step of the way. He hated the idea of finding the Genovis facility, he hated the fact that the rest of us were perfectly okay with it, he hated Earth cuisine, and he even hated the nice sunny day. We didn't pay him any mind.
The Shangri-La Café was a cute Earth-themed restaurant that makes a little bit of everything, but is most well-known for its bacon cheeseburgers.
Casey caught sight of us as we walked through the doors (though upon further reflection, it would be pretty hard to miss a group like ours) and quickly waved us over. “Good morning, everyone! I'm glad you all could make it.”
As we drew near, she asked me, “Are you feeling better?” Without waiting for a response, she continued, “Everyone's talking about your participation in the fight with the dragon. I've spoken with fifteen directors just dying to have you in their movies.”
“As an actor?” I asked, intrigued.
“As a stunt man.”
She led us to a corner booth, where a dark-skinned man was lounging in one of the seats. At first I thought it was just some young actor who had wandered in from one of the sets, so imagine my surprise when Casey coughed politely and said, “This is Maxis, the head of the Wukice studios. Maxis, this is Jimmy and Mick Sakamota, Luminous …”
“Ugh, don't call me that!”
“Sorry. Arc Skylad and Terry Ulyndia.”
“Well, good morning to all of you!” Maxis stood up and shook hands with all of us. As he shook my hand, he said, “You're looking pretty good for a guy who tangled with one of Gilborn's props.”
He turned to the counter and said, “Charlene? Be a dear and bring us some breakfast.”
The harassed-looking woman at the counter turned to the grill and shouted, “Ordering! I need six flaming squealers and a pitcher of motor oil!”
“That is a common misconception.” Mick said, “I don't actually ingest-”
“She means coffee.” I told him. “At least, I hope she meant coffee.”
Maxis laughed. “Something like coffee, anyway. So, what brings you all to Wukice? My dear Casey mentioned something about the link to Yesrej being down.”
Everyone looked to me. Sighing, I said, “Well, to make a long story short, Princess Sera was captured by a dragon and we're trying to rescue her.”
It didn't occur to me how ludicrous that really sounded until I actually said it. I could tell by the look on his face that he wasn't sure whether or not he should take me seriously.
“I think in this case, the long version of the story would probably be more helpful.” He said raising an eyebrow.
The waitress set platters of pancakes, sausage, and eggs in front of all of us, giving Mick an odd look in the process. If he noticed, he didn't react.
As we ate, we told Maxis about the kidnapping of the princess, including how we knew it was a dragon, our suspicious about what he kidnapped her for, and what had lead us to Wukice.
Maxis nodded thoughtfully as the waitress cleared away the plates. “Well I can certainly understand the confusion about the prop. After all the trouble you've been through, I almost hate to tell you that there hasn't been a real dragon anywhere near here for almost half a century.”
“How can you be so sure?” asked Arc.
“Because he's a dryad.” We all looked at Terry as he calmly took a sip from his mug. Looking up at us, he said, “You didn't know? Maxim's been the mayor of Wukice for sixty years.”
Maxis gave Terry a shrewd look. “Your friend is right. I am a dryad, which means I'm in touch with trees as far as Iniagusville and Naidyr. If something as large and lumbering as a dragon had flown anywhere this side of Wenapaj, I'd know about it.”
This news didn't exactly excite our group, though Mick, said, “Well, look at it this way; we've eliminated half of Wenapaj.”
“I suppose you're right.” I said, finding myself smiling at his Mick's eternal optimism.
Terry asked, “What about the link? It's still down, right?”
In truth, I hadn't forgotten; telling Max about a hidden Glyche facility possibly beneath his city seemed like something to handle with some amount of caution.
“Small surprise there.” Max said. “The links have been falling apart for years, and I just don't have enough tekkers to keep everything up and running.”
“Haven't you sent a request to Iniagusville?” I said as I stirred a little more sugar into my coffee.
“Several times. Unfortunately, this is Wukice; as Jimmy learned yesterday, everyone entering this city gets swept into the movie business sooner or later. The people sent always ended up getting drafted for special effect projects and the occasional role. The last guy actually made a star out of himself. Unfortunately, that leaves me stuck with the same problem.”
Glancing at me, Mick said, “Jimmy has experience repairing machinery.”
“Obviously.” Maxis replied, looking over Mick; he may not have looked like a core unit with his clothes, but it was still pretty obvious that he was a robot.
His cheeks gold, Mick continued, “Perhaps we could help restore the link.”
“Hey, if you're offering, I'll certainly take you up on it. I'll pay you well too.”
“Deal.” I said, “I was hoping to look around a bit longer anyway.”
“Of course. Just … take it easy on the props, okay? You don't even want to know how much Ratchet spent on that dragon.”
“Understood.” I glanced at my friends. “Shall we check it out now?”
Arc opened his mouth, only for Terry to pointedly stomp on his foot with a metal-clad boot. As Arc grabbed his foot and swore, I said, “Excellent. Now we just need to know where it is.”
“That's no problem. Casey?”
Casey, who had been very quiet since we sat down, perked up. “Yes, Mayor?”
Maxis let out a sigh. “Casey, we've known each other for over a decade. Max is fine. Now be a dear and take them to the Iniagusville link facility, would you?”
She blushed and nodded, “Of course, M-max.”
He smiled; I noticed his hand twitch slightly, given their positions, I thought he was about to put his hand on hers. He didn't, however; instead, he stood up.
“Thanks, Casey. I appreciate it. I'm already late for an appointment with that twit, Uwen. He claims he's got the perfect script for a movie based off the Eternal Story series. I'm sure it's just as awful as his script for the last one, but I suppose I should at least look at it.”
I couldn't help but notice that Casey's eyes followed Maxis as he left the restaurant. I wasn't the only one, either.
“I don't mean to be rude,” Terry asked, “But are you and Maxis a couple?”
She turned bright red. “N-no! That'd be absurd! He's the mayor; I'm technically only a gardener.”
“Gardener?” Arc asked, giving Casey a strange look. “I thought you were just a tour guide or something.”
“I know a lot about the city.” She said, her eyes flashing to me. “And I've made a few notable contacts over the years.”
“Like Meister?” I said, remembering my encounter with her art-loving friend.
To my surprise, she let out a snort. “Meister's my brother. He's … special.”
“I remember.” I said with a laugh.
“The gardener thing is … well …” She sighed and said, “You know how King Iniagus offers a job to anyone immigrating to Wenapaj?”
“I'm familiar with the Immigration Employment Initiative.” I said, a smile slipping across my face. “So he made you a gardener?”
“Yes. I mean, I was put in charge of caring for the trees.” She said, “He didn't say anything about the dryads, though. I was here for a month before Maxim appeared to me, scaring the heck out of me in the process. He and the rest of his grove had been watching me since I arrived.”
She blushed and said, “We spent a lot of time together in those days. He showed me the whole city, introduced me to his siblings and his mother … he made me feel at home. He's my best friend.”
“Then why call him 'mayor'?” I asked.
“Well, he's the mayor. He's been elected the last four years, ever since we exposed the last mayor for the embezzling, black-mailing bastard he was. He didn't want to be mayor, but he was the corrupt mayor's official advisor, making him the next in command.”
She chuckled softly. “He was so nervous at first, his leaves wilted. He used to be so worried; I remember him talking for hours about mistakes he thought he'd made, fretting about even the smallest decisions.”
“Still, in the end, he did such a good job that the people of Wukice elected him again. He wasn't even running for the office; over half the population penciled him onto the ballet. He was going to turn it down, but he had a lot of support from his friends, his family-”
“-and you?” Arc said, a knowing look on his face.
“I … well, of course I supported him. He's my best friend.”
“Just a friend?”
Casey bristled at this. “Friendship and romantic attraction don't have to be the same thing, Luminous.”
“Don't call me that!”
“And what's wrong with 'just' being friends? Maybe we're comfortable with the way things are!”
“Yes, because you totally don't look like a love-sick high-school student.”
“Listen to me, you little-”
I rose to my feet to stop the argument, but wasn't quite as fast as Mick.
“My apologies.” Mick said, just a hint of impatience in his tone. “Perhaps we should continue this while heading for the link.”
“Agreed.” I said, nodding at him. “The sooner we get the link up and running, the sooner we can get back to looking for the dragon.”
With a final glare at Arc, Casey stood up as well and said, “Very well. Come on; the link stations are near Cassandra.”