Chapter 29 - Not Over Yet
When I woke up the next morning, Terra was gone. Perhaps it was the bond between us, but I somehow knew she wasn’t anywhere nearby.
Trying not to dwell on it, I hopped out of bed, dressed, and started to clean up the room. I was half-hoping to find a note, but all I found was her kuon sitting on top of my clothes. As I picked up the instrument, it let out a reedy hum that subsided moments later.
“Where have you gone off to now, my love?′ I asked, staring at the polished instrument.
Sighing, I slid the kuon into my pack and left the room, trying to remember which door led to the bathroom. My first guess put me in the living room, where Jenna was sleeping on the couch.
I closed the door quietly and found the bathroom behind the next door. After finishing my morning business, I headed back to the kitchen. When I went back in, Jenna was still asleep on the couch. Oddly enough, she was also standing beside the couch, staring curiously at herself.
It wasn’t until I noticed the sleeping Glyche’s clothing that I realized who it was.
“Neeko?” I asked curiously.
She stirred from her sleep and glanced up at me. Now that I knew who she was, I could see the difference in their faces, not the least of which were her bright amber eyes.
Rubbing the back of her head, she murmured, “Jimmy. Jenna. Is it morning already?”
My mind was running furiously. She was Cleftan, but she looked like a Glyche. That’s not to say she was identical to Jenna; if anything, Neeko seemed much more sophisticated. I could even see the musculature in her neck move realistically as she yawned. If it weren’t for her silver skin, she could’ve passed for a Galden in a heartbeat.
“What’s wrong? Why are you looking at me?” She held an ungloved hand to her mouth as she yawned again and immediately froze. As her fingers touched her uncovered face, her cheeks turned gold.
I didn’t say anything as she hurriedly reached for her scarf; I wasn’t sure what to say.
Jenna, however, didn’t seem to have a problem asking, “I’ve never seen a Glyche so advanced. What generation are you?”
She let the scarf fall again, looking crestfallen. “You … you know then?”
Jenna put her hands on her hips, saying, “Of course I know! I’m a Glyche too! You think I wouldn’t recognize one of my own?”
“By the Creator, I can’t believe this.” She murmured, “Over three thousand years, and I go and blow everything.”
“You’re three-thousand years old?” I asked.
She stared at me open-mouthed, which made me realize the ultimate truth. “All the Cleftan? You’re all core units?”
“Not all.” Neeko said defensively. Sighing, she let her head fall into her hands. “What will everyone say?”
“Neeko, it’s okay.” I said, sitting down beside her, “We won’t tell anyone. Right Jenna?”
Jenna, however, was still looking at Neeko. “You were never a first-gen core unit, were you? One of your parents was a bio-form. You’re a natural-born Glyche.”
I looked at Neeko only to see her nod. “My mother is Rimstakken, and my father’s already at the height of his evolution. I was born like any other bioform, but-”
“But your skin is still silver.” Jenna finished. “We were researching whether or not evolved Glyche and bioforms could have children together. It was always the intention, but none of the core units reached the necessary evolution level.”
“I guess we know the answer.” I said
Neeko sighed. “Skin’s the tricky part, apparently. Even with inter-marrying with non-Cleftans, the best we’ve seen is a child with white skin. It’s a problem our people have been working to solve for millenia.”
I was amazed that the Glyche could reproduce with native Vinta bio-forms, but it made a strange amount of sense the more I thought about it. From the growth I’d seen in Mick and the level of sophistication I’d seen in Jenna, core units were clearly evolving to be more like the other races of Vinta. What better way to integrate than to intermarry and reproduce?
Neeko eyed the scarf from the floor, bitterness in her voice as she said, “I know it’s for our protection, but I hate wearing all this. I want to wear pretty things, like you, Jenna, or Terra. I want to walk around in the light of the suns, and to feel the warmth on my face.”
The door creaked open. Jenna and I jumped in front of Neeko as she scrambled to put her scarf on again.
It was Smokes. He looked half-dead. “Mornin’. Any breakfast?”
“I, uh …” Jenna and I both said at the same time.
“Oh well. I’m gonna have my morning pick-me-up.” He ducked around us and to our great surprise gave Neeko a kiss on her silvery cheek.
“Mornin’, Neeko.” He said in a surprisingly tender tone.
“G-good morning!” She stammered, her whole face turning gold again.
As he walked off whistling to himself, Jenna glanced at Neeko.
Her face still gold, Neeko said, “What? He’s nice.”
“I think it’s cute.” Jenna said, much to Neeko’s obvious embarrassment.
“I agree.” I said, earning a sharp look from Neeko. “He’s a good guy. A bit odd, but then again, this is Wenapaj.”
After an awkward moment of silence, Neeko snapped her fingers. “That reminds me. Terra left this morning, something about some business she had to take care of. She wanted me to tell you that she’d meet up with us at the Center later.”
My face fell slightly. Neeko cocked her head. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I just wish she had told me herself.”
“I got the impression that her departure was sudden even for her, but it important. Maybe she just didn’t want to wake you.”
Part of me wanted to believe that was true, but another part of me wanted to know what she was really doing. Was she keeping something from me?
I shook my head again, muttering, “Focus, Jimmy.” Louder, I said, “We need to get back to the Center.”
Neeko hurriedly wrapped herself back up and slid on her gloves. “So you won’t tell anyone about … y’know.”
“You have my word.” I assured her. “I am a Glyche Inheritor, after all.”
“I promise as well.” Added Jenna, putting a hand on her shoulder and smiling pleasantly.
“Thanks. Well, let’s go see if Thyme is up. I’m sure you’re both eager to return to the Center.”
With a final goodbye to the cats, we left Neeko’s home. Smokes was outside; looking as mellow as ever.
“Hey, Neeko.” He said as she stepped outside. “Uh, it’s not a big deal, but I couldn’t help but notice-”
She poked his nose with the tip of her gloved finger, saying with surprising force, “Not a word. Not to anyone, not to anything. Understood?”
He stared cross-eyed at the tip of her finger as though it were loaded. “Perfectly.”
She put her hand down and handed him a slip of paper, saying in a much kinder tone, “Here’s my number. Call me later?”
He took it, looking both bewildered and happy. “Definitely!”
We walked the rest of the way to Thyme’s place in relative silence. The passersby all waved cheerily, some still wearing crumbs from the previous night’s feast. The whole town seemed to be bustling with activity.
We found Thyme in his workroom again, hunched over something. As he turned to greet us, I saw it was the zelestra, flying in place. It had been painted like a miniature globe of Vinta. One was still holding a paint brush with both hands, his brow furrowed and his tongue sticking out as he put on the final touches.
“Good morning, all.” Thyme said. “I trust you had pleasant dreams?”
“As good ever.” I said, taking a seat at the table. “Whatcha up to?”
“Just adding a few decorative touches to the zelestra. Functionality is only part of an invention’s appeal, you know.”
Standing up straight, Thyme said, “Now, let’s get you back to the Center; the teleportation room’s just through here.
He tapped one of the plans on the wall, which immediately rolled up to reveal a heavily modified multi-person waystation node. I’m no magi-tek expert, but the node definitely looked to have some magical components.
“Melchior built it for me.” Thyme said, noticing my look. “Excellent man, that one. A bit on the eccentric side, but …” Chuckling, he continued, “I’m not exactly one to be talking about that now, am I? Everyone step into a ring and make sure you keep your hands at your sides.”
Everyone except for Neeko and Thyme did as instructed. As Thyme started playing with the machinery, Neeko said, “Jimmy?”
“Yes?” I asked curiously.
Fidgeting with her gloved hands, Neeko said, “Terra probably doesn’t want you to know this, but … well, it’s about Terry.”
My mind leapt. “What is it?” I asked, not bothering to hide my interest.
“Well, I slipped in to grab something while they were talking, and I couldn’t help but notice that they both seemed to be-”
“And off you go!” Thyme slapped a button on the controller.
“Wait a-” I began before I was engulfed by a white light.
When the light faded, Smokes, Jenna, One (with the zelestra floating close by on a leash), and I were in the Seed’s office. The Seed himself was sitting behind his desk and smiling at us, his mustache stretching across his face.
“-second.” I finished despondently.
Thamasa put a hand to his ear. “Pardon?”
I sighed and shook my head. “It’s not important.”
Melchior rose from his chair to greet us, “Well, in any case, I’m glad you’re here. Safe trip and all?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but the Seed didn’t wait for a response. “Good, good. Now I hate to put you to work so soon after arriving, but I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a problem that needs your immediate attention.”
I groaned. “Don’t tell me Zig escaped!”
Melchior shook his head. “Oh, no! Certainly not! Erris sent him back hours ago, corruption free. No, this problem concerns your friend, Flip.”
“Is she all right?” Jenna asked, a worried look on her face.
“Oh, fine, just fine. Her form’s stable, she’s in perfect health, and all that. The problem is, well …” He took a deep breath and said, “There’s no good way to say this; Flip’s gone a little insane. What’s worse, she’s been displaying a surprising aptitude for manipulating energy and stream flow.”
“Which meant she’s magically gifted.” One said, his tiny brow furrowed. “I’m guessing it’s not one of the nice flowery kinds either.”
“Better take us to her immediately.” I said, wondering what kind of mess I was about to step into.
“Sadly, I have another urgent matter than needs my attention.” He said, looking apologetic, “However, I’m sure Smokes would be glad to show you the way. It’s the old med-lab, Smokes.”
Smokes snapped his fingers and pointed at Melchior. “No problemo!”
We hurried through the Center with Smokes in the lead, heading toward the side that had formerly been occupied by the Magic Faction. Everything seemed to be in order now; I even spotted a few techs chatting amicably with mages. I have to admit, it was nice to see that they were able to put aside their differences so quickly.
While we all garnered some attention, Smokes seemed to be everybody’s friend; everyone seemed to greet him with a wave or a ‘hello’ as he passed by. He returned them all cheerily, telling us things like, “That’s Conan Holmes, he’s an expert at manipulating Kindred tech. His body’s been translucent for about a year.” and, “Oh, look, it’s Theresa Tillman. Nice little Xemptarian girl, grade A student. Mother’s Alcian, so there’s no telling what kind of wings she’ll end up with.” I listened with interest, marveling at how Smokes seemed to have a little story about everyone.
We were passing a branch of the Center that Smokes informed us was the ‘Experimental Enchantment’ wing (“See that guy with the donkey ears? He learned the hard way why you don’t bully spellshapers.“), when I heard the first scream. A confused look around the area showed me nothing at first, but after a few moments I realized that everyone in nearby area seemed to be looking with concern at a door marked ‘Lab C-32’.
We found out why as we approached. The door shook with an earth shattering boom that made all the lights flicker. Amazingly, the door remained on its hinges, if only barely.
I glanced at the others, only to find them not there. Smokes and Jenna had also taken shelter behind an overturned cabinet, leaving only One riding the zelestra still with me.
“You go ahead,” Smokes assured me from behind the table, “We’re right behind you.”
Shaking my head, I bit back a negative remark and approached the door with extreme caution. Taking a deep breath, I tensed myself and shot through the door ready to dodge.
It was good that I was prepared. I immediately flipped to my right, narrowly avoiding being blasted by a burst of electricity that would have toasted me. Landing lightly on a table, I looked around quickly for Flip.
She was hovering in the air, her overlarge wings more than capable of keeping her in the air. She was still wearing my keikogi, though on her, it was more like a robe. Ell stood near an entrance on the other side of the room with a pained expression. My guess is that he was trying to talk her down.
Unfortunately, my appearance didn’t improve matters. With a shriek, she shot another lightning blast at me. I deftly leapt over the passing bolt and hit the ground rolling.
“Flip, it’s me, Jim-ACK!” I threw myself backwards as she shot another blast at me.
“You! You did this to me!” She shrieked, hand raised to fire another blast.
Ell quickly moved between us, arms spread out to protect me.
The electricity that had been bathing her died away slightly. “Ell, MOVE!”
Ell shook his head. As usual, I didn’t hear the exchange between them as much as saw from the look on his face that he was telling her something.
“I don’t care what he was trying to do, I still ended up like this!”
I had the distinct impression that anything I tried to say would only make things worse, so I remained silent.
After another brief pause, Flip said angrily, “I know he’s not the only one. That stoned moron had something to do with it too!”
Most unwisely, Smokes chose that moment to poke his head through the door. He quickly disappeared again before the blast of lightning hit where his head had been.
Sighing, I said, “Flip, I’m sorry! I was trying to protect Jenna! If I had known this would happen-”
“What?” She shouted, “What would you have done?
I sighed. “The same thing. Still, at least you’re alive! You might have died, or ended up in an even worse shape!”
“What could be worse than this? T-this furless, weak, clumsy … this …” She started sniffling, “slow … ugly …”
She slowly fell to the ground, tears streaming down her face as she whimpered, “I-I hate this body. I want to be like I’m supposed to be!”
Flip looked up as Jenna walked into the room. “Jenna?”
“This happened because you tried to protect me. If I’d been more careful, if I hadn’t been so slow, it wouldn’t have been necessary.” Jenna knelt beside Flip and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Flip broke down and started bawling. Jenna lifted the winged cat-girl into her arms and hugged her close. “Shh. It’ll be okay.” she cooed softly, running her hand through Flip’s pink hair.
“Flip.” Jenna said, raising the little girl’s head so their gazes met. “Jimmy, Terra, and Smokes were just trying to protect me, just like you were.”
“I-I know.” Flip sniffed. “It’s just, I’m so hideous now.”
“Are you kidding?” Smokes blurted out. “Just look at you! Pink hair, feathery wings, cat ears. How can you think you’re hideous? You’re adorable!”
Flip rubbed the tears from her red eyes. “R-really?” When Jenna nodded, Flip looked to me.
“Indeed.” I said, nodding in agreement.
Ell put his hand on her shoulder, smiling. Flip’s cheeks went bright red, but from her smile, I could tell that he shared our feelings on the matter.”
She flew out of Jenna’s grasp and slowly approached me. “Cuter than Terra?”
I was saved from having to answer as One poked his head through the door. “Uh, everything okay in here?”
Flip fluttered over to One and spun in mid-air. “What do you think, Mister Dreamer?”
One staggered backwards, clutching his plush chest. As he collapsed to the floor, he muttered, “Can’t … take … cuteness … overload!”
She giggled and kissed him on his little plush cheek before flying back to Ell to sit on the big man’s shoulder. Hugging his head, she said, “Well, then I guess it’s okay.”
She suddenly gave me a stern look. “But if we find a way to change me back-”
“Of course.” I replied, not daring to argue, “We go for it. No questions.”
“Good.” She settled back down. “So, where’ve you been for the past few days?”
I looked to Jenna and Smokes only to see them both looking back at me. Sighing, I filled Flip and Ell in on what had happened in Erris.
“Sounds like you had some fun.” Flip was pouting. “And all I was doing was lying here.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” I assured her, “Plenty of fun left. We’ve still got a witch to investigate.”
“Witch? Oh, right!” She glanced at Ell, but didn’t say anything. He just shrugged, a grin on his face.
“Uh-huh.” Flip said, a sly smile on her face. Before I could ask, she turned back to me. “Why are we going to see the witch again?”
“Because the strange but nice people of Brigsonstrat asked me to see why she’s shooting fireballs at the stream generators.” I sighed. “Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Arc had something to do with it. Speaking of which, where is that little bugger? I trust he was sent back with Zig.”
Ell snapped his fingers. Flip listened a moment before saying, “He’s gone. Melchior had him expelled from the Center; he made a big show of it too, literally dragging him to the front door and booting him out into the courtyard.”
Despite the trouble the little brat had caused me, this seemed a little extreme. The small bit of sympathy must’ve shown on my face; after another glance from Ell, Flip added, “It wasn’t just for attacking you; he was expelled for stealing bits of Kindred technology. They found a bunch of artifacts in his dorm room, some disassembled. Apparently, the volatility of Kindred technology makes that a massive safety hazard.”
I felt a little better … and a lot alarmed. “What was he doing with all that stuff?”
Ell just shrugged. Flip did the same. “No idea. Probably trying to make a weapon or something for his ‘heroic quest.’”
I snorted derisively. That sounded about right, though it still didn’t explain his sudden antagonistic behavior.
“He’s probably out causing more trouble.” I said. Shaking my head, I said, “I’ll worry about Arc when I get back to the Saybaro. For now, let’s head out to the-”
I suddenly remembered Terra. Sighing, I said, “Hang on, we can’t leave without Terra. She said she’d meet us here.”
Jenna offered, “I was going to stay to help with the reconstruction of the Cylell facility. I’ll tell her you went ahead, if you want.”
I thought about it; part of me wanted to wait for her. She already expressed worry about the way I just threw myself into danger, and waiting for her would no doubt make her feel better.
On the other hand, the fireball that had nearly toasted us on our approach to the tower was no joke. If those things had been continually firing since then, there was no telling what kind of state Brigsonstrat was in at that point. The sooner we got there and stopped it, the sooner what was left of Brigsonstrat would be safe.
At least, that’s what I told myself. As much as I hate to admit it, part of me was still bothered by her abrupt departure. She apparently didn’t think it necessary to discuss her comings and goings with me; why did I need her approval to attend to the witch situation?
Nodding, I said, “Okay. Tell her we’ll wait for her at the tower.”
Flip flew over to Jenna, looking sad. “You’re not coming with us?”
Jenna raised a hand to Flip’s cheek, caressing it gently. “I have my own work to do. Besides, now that the constructer’s working, I’d like to get myself back in full operating condition. Kanook’s constructors did well enough, but there are still a few kinks I need to work out.”
Flip threw her arms around Jenna. Jenna seemed a little taken by surprise, but wrapped her arms around the little girl. Closing her eyes, she whispered, “Thank you for saving my life, Flip. I’ll always remember it.”
After a few more moments, Flip pulled away and wiped her eyes. “We’ll be back.” She glanced at me. “Right, Jimmy? We are coming back, right?”
“You can count on it.” I said. Glancing at Jenna, I added, “After all, I have to introduce you to Mick, don’t I?”
She tinged gold. “Of course. Good luck, and stay safe, all of you.”
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