No Place like Home
After a long tumble down the escape chute, the lot of us were dumped onto the collection of mattresses set outside the palace to break the fall of anyone the king had similarly dismissed. This time I managed to land on my feet. I leapt aside moments before Terry flew past where I had been standing. Arc and Mick came flying out of the chute moments later.
Mick rose to his feet quickly and caught Casey as she slid out of the chute, somehow still scribbling on her notebook.
“Oh! Thank you Mick.” She said absently as he set her on the ground.
As Mick helped Arc and Terry up, Casey said, “Incredible. I'd never met his Majesty before.”
“Incredible ain't exactly the word I'd use for it.” Arc said, a little unsteady on his feet.
“Now, now.” Mick chided, “He is the king.”
“He's a fruitcake.” To my surprise, it was Terry who spoke. “And don't even get me started on Councilor Trustworthy.”
Arc snorted. “What is up with that? I mean, seriously? That guy's got some sort of evil plan in the works.”
“He seemed fine to me.” Mick said. “After all, his name is 'Trustworthy'.”
Arc stared at Mick in disbelief. “Dude, his first name is 'Unne'!”
“Coincidence?” Mick suggested.
Scribbling in her notebook again, Casey said, “You have to admit, he's a perfect Councilor for Iniagus. The two of them seem quite entertaining.”
“To visitors maybe, but not if you have to live here.” Terry said, sounding distinctly annoyed.
Terry's sudden annoyance caught me a little off-guard. He had mentioned his rough childhood at the palace before, but he hadn't said anything Iniagus. I started to ask him about it, but decided against it for the moment.
“I was hoping to talk with Devon.” I said, glancing up at the palace, “But under the circumstances, I suppose it can wait. Let's just head home for now.”
No one was terribly excited about the walk home. Fortunately, it wasn't an issue; Casey, at least, had a floater license without a fine on it. After stopping for lunch, we rented a floater and were soon zipping through the sky toward home.
I kept glancing at Terry. Something was obviously bugging him.
He caught me looking at him. “Sir?”
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“I'm fine sir.”
I felt a strong aura of 'don't ask' radiating from him. This time, however, I didn't let it phase me. “You said you grew up in the palace, right?”
For a few moments, I thought Terry wasn't going to reply. Just as I decided not to press him, however, he said, “It's hard to have much pride in your country when your king is a nut job, you know? I thought I'd get used to it like dad, but I just can't!”
“Whoa, Terry.” Arc said, as startled as I by Terry's abrupt outburst.
“He seemed cool at first: like a big, goofy uncle always willing to tell me a story or give me advice. It was all nonsense of course, but I didn't mind. None of the other kids would play with me.”
I listened silently as he let out a frustrated sigh. “I don't know. Maybe it's because I had to grow up while he stayed exactly the same. He went from silly uncle to creepy friend; every time he saw me, he wanted to play video games or pull pranks on people in the palace, but I had schoolwork and training. No matter how many times I tried to tell him, he just couldn't understand that not all of us were free to remain children our whole lives. It got so bad at one point that I left to live with my mother instead.”
“Devon and your mother were separated?” I didn't mean to interrupt him, but I had no idea that Devon and his wife lived separately.
Terry winced. “Not really. Mom just couldn't stand Iniagus. They're still quite happily married. Dad makes a point to spend time with her as often as he can, which is why I came back.”
Seeing our blank looks, he sighed. “Dealing with one overgrown child is one thing. Do you have any idea how nightmarish it is to deal with twelve brothers and sisters?”
My eyes went wide. “Twelve?”
“At the time I left, yeah.”
“Woo-hoo!” Arc chimed in, “Way to go, Devon!”
“Shut up, Arc.” Terry said, glowering at the child-hero. “I knew if I came back, I'd have to deal with Iniagus again, so …”
“… so you came up with a disguise that would appeal to his childish side yet lets you remain incognito.” I finished.
Smiling, Terry said, “Dad came up with the power armor and had me listed as a non-relation to keep Iniagus from finding out who I really was.”
“Pretty sneaky for the Mox Wazoo.” Casey commented from the driver's seat.
Terry snorted. “Seems to run in my family. Still, it means I had to wear this armor through all my training. I've gotten used to having it on, so much so that I can't help but feel naked without it.”
“So that's why you wouldn't take your helmet off.” I said, feeling even more ashamed of my breakdown in the Genovis facility. “I'm sorry, Terry.”
He waved it off, saying, “It's okay, sir. You were stressed out because of Terra.”
“Yeah, about that.” Arc said, “You're seeing her in the day now?”
“I know.” I said, embarrassed about my episode in the throne room. “I'm going to ask Bethany to scan my brain for abnormalities.”
“I don't think that will be necessary.” Mick said.
“You saw her?”
“No, but I don't think that you are crazy. I've been thinking about this for a while, going over what information I have on mental disorders that could cause this kind of hallucination. Tell me, have you ever met a fional before Terra?”
“Well, no. There was a tigreth back in Rimstak, but we were just kids.”
“But you still care for her?”
“As a friend, yeah. She still writes every now and then.”
“So why would your fantasy woman manifest as a fional? Why not a tigreth, a rimstakken, or an idestan? Why not appear as a galden, the same as you? Why appear as a species you've never even seen?”
“If she was real, wouldn't you or one of the CICs have noticed her by now?” I asked.
“It isn't as difficult as you may believe. There are devices that can block stream energy and hide biorhythms.”
“I dunno.” Arc said, shaking his head. “That's awfully convenient.”
“But worth thinking about.” Said Mick.
“What about the throne room?” Casey asked. Glancing at me, she said, “I mean, can't you just rewind your video feed and look to see if she was there?”
“I already have.” Mick told her. “I found nothing, though I was picking up some unusual stream interference in the room.”
Arc snorted. “The tiles, man. Surely you heard them while we were walking.”
“Perhaps.” Mick said, “Or perhaps she had a wile.”
“In which case, how would Jimmy see her?” Arc asked, crossing his arms.
This seemed to stump Mick. Fortunately, a sudden beep from my wrist provided a convenient distraction. A miniature hologram of Bethany appeared on my PIM. She smiled up at me and said, “Jimmy. I'm glad you're back.”
“It's good to be back.” I told her. “Been catching up with your sisters?”
“Yes, I have. Thank you again for helping them.” She chuckled. “Of course, Cristlyn and Alaina are already bickering like the old days.”
Mick shook his head, a smile on his face. “Some things never change.”
“Indeed. In any case, I wanted to catch you before you returned; someone named Meryli called for you about an hour ago. Would you like me to replay the message?”
“Meryli?” Arc asked curiously.
“She's the mechanic at the Salutier floater rental.” I said, “Go ahead and play the message, Bethany. Please.”
“Of course.” After a few moments, there was a brief burst of static.
“Jimbo,” Meryli's voice said, “It's Meryli. You still lookin' for that dragon? Well, I might just be able to make your day. Come to the garage as soon as you can. Bye!”
I glanced at the others silently.
Plush One slapped his knee, startling all of us.
“Hot damn!” He said in a perfect imitation of Meryli's accent, “Don't that jus' beat all?”
“Ah, Mister One.” Bethany said, smiling at the doll. “Cristlyn mentioned you were helping out my Inheritor. After three-thousand years, you still keep coming to the aid of the Glyche.”
“What can I say?” One said, leaping off of Arc's head to sit on my knee. “It's a hobby. Looks like I came back just in time too.”
“Heck, yeah!” Casey said brightly. “A lead on the dragon, and a Dreamer on our side. Looks like our luck's turning!”
“Oh, yes.” Arc said, sarcasm dripping from his voice, “We've got the dragon right where we want it.”
“It's worth checking out.” I held the PIM up again and said, “Could you send her a message saying we're on the way, please?”
“But of course.” With a bow, Bethany vanished.
About ten minutes later, we landed in the Meryli's floater rental just outside Salutier only to find the place deserted.
“Huh.” One said, rubbing his plush chin, “Seems a bit odd. I mean, if I just saw a dragon, this place would be a lot more active.”
One was right; the passage of a dragon was the sort of thing that drew crowds, even in modern times. The streets were just as deserted as the floater bay … which, I realized with a sinking feeling in my stomach, was also a well-documented reaction to a passing dragon.
“I'm detecting a bio-form inside the station.” Mick said, his eyes glowing. “Female galden, from the looks of it. Her heartbeat is elevated, but otherwise she seems to be okay.”
Nodding, I turned to the others and said, “I'll check it out. Everyone else stay in the car in case we need to leave in a hurry.”
“Got it.” Casey replied, excitement in her eyes.
“Just enough time for me to go get my dragon-poking stick!” One said, the doll falling inert moments later.
We exchanged questioning glances. While I doubted there really was a proper stick for poking a dragon, I could nevertheless see a Dreamer being the one to do the poking.
Nodding at the others, I started toward the garage, my hand on the hilt of Glint.
Using my other hand, I slowly swung the door open. Meryli had replenished her stock of rental floaters sense my last visit. A few non-functional floaters sat silently in bays as well, some blanketed by dust-covered sheets. The work area was well equipped with various types of equipment needed to maintain and repair floaters: arc welders, power tools, and even a pair of Universal Builder's Tools. There was a lot of space, though only the area around the counter was currently lit.
“Meryli?” I asked as I approached the desk. “You here?”
Something rustled in the corner of the room, where a pile of boxes had been neatly arranged.
“Meryli? That you?.” I said, my hand already sliding Glint from its sheath.
There was a whimper just behind the boxes, but no other response.
Slowly, keeping Glint firmly in hand, I moved a stack of the boxes to reveal Meryli huddled behind them.
“J-Jimmy?” She rose and threw her arms around me, her whole body trembling with fear.
I patted her back awkwardly. “Easy, Meryli, easy. We got your message about the dragon. You know where it is?”
She pointed. I turned, my heart leaping straight into my throat as I saw a massive pair of red eyes watching me from the shadows.