“Dirk?” Angela peeked into the common room of a smaller tree house. It was cluttered and filled with art and art supplies.
“Angela!” Sarah peeked out from behind a painting. She grinned as she waved her brush. “You haven’t visited with Steven yet, have you?”
Angela raised her eyebrows. “Well, I’ve been busy.” Not entirely true. She was hesitant to face him just yet.
Sarah seemed to divine that little fact. “It would be good for him to reconnect with all of his friends. I know he’s fond of you.”
“Then why did he leave?” Angela retorted sharply. She sighed and looked down. “I’m just looking for Dirk.
Sarah looked at her for a moment, then nodded towards a corner of the room. Dirk was standing with his back to them while half dancing and preparing artwork for the next show.
“He’s playing his music again?” Angela tried not to smirk. Using Cooperative technology to funnel music directly into the brain rather than using headphones or speakers has been an obsession of Dirk for the past several months. She poked him in the back and he jumped, looking around.
“Angela!” Dirk yelled.
Angela just crossed her arms.
Dirk blinked and looked up in the air in front of him and adjusted a control only he could see. “Sorry.” He grinned.
“You know, overstimulating your neurons can be as bad as playing your headphones too loud.”
“Not. Fa’rin said it was fine.” He pointed to the Elf artist who was stacking the paintings near the entrance. “Gonna have a big show on Tannis Keep. Coming?”
Angela shrugged. She looked around, suddenly unsure how to broach the subject that was bothering her.
“You haven’t seen them yet?” Dirk crossed his arms, nodding. “It was kinda messy, how they left things.”
“They shipped you away too. Internment camps in the Cooperative? Tried to round the rest of us up,” Angela scowled, looking down.
“Yeah, but that was Orin’s crowd. Maran got us back and smoothed things over for us,” Dirk said. He looked down. It was still scary for him, having entire worlds not trusting him because he was Terran. “I’ve still been keeping to the friendly worlds, but I’m sure the rest will come around.”
Angela shrugged. “I’ve been working on several of those that voted for internment. They’ve been polite enough.” She pursed her lips, considering abandoning her question.
“Sis, you’re my twin. Something else is bothering you and I know it.” Dirk squinted at her.
“Do you remember when Daddy died, how he died?”
Dirk looked at her for a long moment. “I thought you were better.”
Angela shook her head. “No. I just, he died of cardiac arrest. Right?”
“There was nothing we could have done, Angela. The EMT’s were not even able to…” He sighed. “He’s gone. But he wouldn’t want us beating ourselves up over it.”
“No. That’s not it.” Angela lifted Dirk’s arm. “Our birthmark isn’t real.”
“What?” Dirk looked at it and held his arm up in the light streaming through the window. “You of all people should be able to tell the difference between this and a tattoo, Angela.” He squinted at it, then looked at hers.
“I had a scan done. It is a tattoo. Sort of.” She looked at hers. “It’s actually like the new tattoos I got on Endard. The pigment in the cells and the genetics were altered.”
“No way!” Dirk rubbed his birthmark. “You mean we weren’t born with these?”
Angela looked at his birthmark thoughtfully then sighed. “I met someone.”
“Someone Ted’rel has to worry about?” Dirk smirked. Angela just glared at him.
“One of the Order agents. Soldiers. I don’t know what they’re called.”
Dirk raised his eyebrows, curious.
“He was their commander. But Dirk, he took one look at my birthmark and knew my name. Yours too.”
“Sure you haven’t worked on his teeth before?” Dirk grinned.
“You know I don’t forget a tooth, Dirk.” Angela looked out the window at the forests as she thought about the ramifications. “Did they tell you how Steven and Asherah got together?”
Dirk nodded. “Should be a romance action novel.”
Angela gave him a look then shook her head. “He was shot by something that gave him a heart attack.”
“Um,” Dirk stopped, not sure what else to say. “Sis, Dad was just a Wushu teacher. He and his brother were our sifus all our lives. Nick is still around.”
Angela shrugged as she looked at Dirk. “What if he didn’t just die?”
“Angela, even his best competitors loved him. Who would want to kill him?” Dirk held his hands out, exasperated.
“For what? Did one of their agents lose a bet on his fight or something?” Dirk shook his head. “Please, you need to move on. This isn’t healthy.”
“Do you have any idea how much it hurt when you left?” Dirk put his hands on his hips. “That you’d rather live on the streets than with your own brother?”
Angela looked down. “Sorry.”
“I took his loss hard too. Don’t you realize that? It wasn’t all just you. I could have really used having you around. Instead, I was all alone in his house trying to settle his estate. Even his brother dropped out.”
“Dirk.” Angela wiped her eyes. “You know I didn’t mean to. I just,” she shook her head, “if I stayed, I would have ended up joining him.”
Dirk sighed and grabbed Angela in a big embrace. “I know we all grieve differently, but don’t leave me alone again, okay? You’re all I have now.”
Angela nodded as she returned his embrace.
Dirk pulled back and wiped his nose. “Okay, I have an art show to prepare for. If you are staying, you’re helping. Grab that painting.” He pointed.
Angela wiped an eye and grinned at him. “Sure. Anything for the great Dirk.”
~ ~ ~
“Okay, bring up targeting telemetry again.” Chad focused on the paper target across the room. He poked at one of the sensor’s connected to Laurence’s skull then returned his attention to the target. “Okay, I can see it now. Sort of.” He adjusted his own helmet and squinted. “Now, activate target acquisition.”
“What power level?”
“Doesn’t make a difference for acquisition,” Chad said absentmindedly as he adjusted a control setting on his tablet and looked intently at the target. “I think mirroring is complete. I can see what you see now.”
“Yay?” Laurence glanced at him. “Can I go shoot something now?”
“I need to test the control mechanism next.” Chad looked at Laurence’s head and adjusted another sensor. “Reverse engineering this has been a real headache.”
“Literally,” Laurence sighed.
“We could always just cut it out, you know,” Chad smirked.
“I’m beginning to think that is the preferable option,” Laurence snarked. “I need to be out there trying to find Steven.”
“You know as well as I do that we’ve had eyes on the homestead for months. Not a peep.”
“He’s bailed. He’s over there now.” Laurence looked at Chad.
Chad aimed his head back at the target. “Then it is even more important to figure this out. Going over there with what we currently have would be an act of abject futility.”
“You’re making me wish I was back with the linguists,” Laurence grumbled.
“At least I let you take breaks.” Chad looked at the target.
“Only because you have to reset the equipment and examine your test results.”
Chad shrugged. “You know we’re already benefiting from this, so stop whining.”
“But I haven’t killed anyone in months.”
Chad grinned. “I’ll have someone bring you a bunny to shoot.”
“I could demonstrate the power of this weapon personally if you want.” Laurence glared at Chad.
“You’re about to,” Chad said as he focused at the target again. “Okay, I’m pulling up targeting now.”
“I see it,” Laurence said. “Bring up power level and spread controls.”
“Getting there, okay. I have that up,” Chad nodded.
“Low power burst,” Laurence said.
Chad squinted at the target. There was a brief bright flash and it poofed into smoke. Chad hit a control on his tablet and a replacement target dropped in its place. “I call that a successful test!”
Laurence grinned. “Can I go now?”
“I’m still working from your circuitry. But,” he looked at his diagnostic readouts, “at least we know what control centers are being used. Just a matter of time before we have our own circuitry.”
Chad laughed as he pulled up telemetry and examined target details. “We’re starting to make some real progress finally.” He glanced at Laurence. “This will go a long way to giving us our own cerebral stimulation user interface.”
“I love it when you talk geek. Just makes my spine tingle,” Laurence smirked.
“Whispering sweet nothings in my ear again?” Chad grinned.
“What about my inability to acquire certain targets?” Laurence pulled up the administrative interface.
Chad shook his head. “We’re going to have to cross that bridge when we actually get a subject to test that on.”
“I tried to acquire Steven and it would not lock on. I had to use indirect methods to affect him.” Laurence frowned as he worked his way through the interface.
“We’ve already been over those controls. There’s not any target exclusion mechanism in any of them,” Chad said, squinting at what Laurence was working through. “There’s probably a lower level we’ve not been able to crack into yet.”
“I don’t like it. I want complete control over who I shoot,” Laurence said. “Anyone with this thing in their head is also excluded too.” Laurence patted his skull. Chad inspected and adjusted a couple of the sensor pads.
“That’s actually a very useful option. I know my team is looking into that,” Chad said thoughtfully.
“What about their computer?” Laurence scratched at one of the sensors. Chad readjusted it.
“Another team is heading that up. That is…” Chad shook his head. “Scans show it’s far more sophisticated than we have ever imagined. None of our scientists want to crack it open, so we’re trying to reverse engineer it from the outside in.”
“I could always go get another one.” Laurence nodded.
“And hunt Steven while you’re at it.” Chad grinned. “Have you seen the security of that place lately?”
Laurence looked at him. “Every day.”
“Their tech is all over that property. And they can sniff us out. We lost two plants assigned there by the military already.” Chad scowled as he played with a loose sensor.
“It was simpler when no one knew about them,” Laurence sighed. “Even the apartment in Seattle is compromised.”
“Gonna have to find a way to draw him out. Make him come to you.” Chad placed a dab of goo on the stubborn sensor and put it back on Laurence’s skull.
“I tried that. Kid nearly killed me,” Laurence said, shaking his head. “These new weapons may give us an edge, however.”
“Katy is focusing on developing them to fight the aliens. Not sure she’ll let loose of any to go after Steven,” Chad mumbled as he looked at his tablet. “Give me telemetry of the target now.”
Laurence rolled his eyes and focused on the target. Chad grinned. “I love the amount of information it provides. Even density of fibers in the paper.”
“I just need to find a weakness on that kid. Something to yank his chain.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “He seems to be partial to collecting people.”
~ ~ ~
“This is a joke, right?” Steven stomped into Orin’s old office. Maran sat at the desk looking over reports that hung in the air around him.
“Hello. Nice to see you again. You know, after you plunged into the Maelstrom,” Maran replied sarcastically as he closed down some of his screens. He looked at Steven. “You are aware that a lot of people risked their lives and well-being for you, right?”
Steven held his hands out. “Is everyone going to throw that in my face? I’ve only been back for what, three days, and,” he sighed, “you have no idea what I went through. And there was no way I wasn’t going to try. Period.”
“Diving headfirst into the Maelstrom…”
“Did you have a better idea of how to retrieve Asherah?” Steven interrupted him angrily.
Maran opened his mouth, then shut it, glaring at Steven for a long, awkward moment. “The Council was happy you left. Most of our work to get you accepted just vaporized. Now you’re suddenly back and it’s like we’re having to start over from scratch.”
“Stuff your Council!” Steven put his hands on the desk. The wood smoked where he touched it. “You can tell them that!”
“Steven.” Asherah pulled on Steven’s shirt.
“What!?” Steven turned around, fuming. He saw Sherry and Ra’esha standing at the entrance of the Temple chamber, appearing less than pleased. “Great. This day just keeps getting better.”
Steven rubbed his temples, then glared at Maran. “What was so important that you sent the one guy who hates me more than Orin to collect me?” He waved at the Or’uk who stood smugly by one of the massive skylights.
“What is so important is to have a discussion on logistics and limitations. Perhaps you need more time to cool off?” Aradia said as she entered the chamber.
“What is this? Some sort of intervention?” Steven waved at the two Councilwomen who stood by the entrance and Aradia. “Who else did you invite?”
“Steven. Please,” Asherah said quietly, putting her hand on his arm.
Steven glared at her for a brief moment, then sighed, shaking his head as he slumped. “I thought we were done with this, Asherah.” He pointed angrily at Maran. “It’s like they expected me to just leave you in there.”
“There were no easy choices…” Aradia started.
“It was easy for me!” Steven pounded his chest. “I didn’t have time to sit there and wonder if I was going to hurt someone’s feelings. Bring in a delegation to brainstorm on the different possible outcomes.” He leaned towards her, his fur steaming. “I would do it again.”
Aradia pursed her lips and glanced at Maran. “Perhaps this started wrong.”
“You think? Sending that,” Steven pointed angrily at Roth’kel, “to collect me was definitely not the best move.”
“That is your chaperone,” Maran said, crossing his arms. He glanced at Aradia.
Steven gaped, unable to process that. He looked at Asherah, then back at Maran. “My what?”
“You have a waiver on Syagria, Endard, and Senin. Legracia and Mor’ite are still voting on it.” Maran glanced at the two Councilwomen. They both nodded. “Okay, you have waivers there.” He glanced at Roth’kel. “But the conditions of that waiver requires checking in with an unbiased chaperone, and being escorted by him when you leave those worlds.”
“Unbiased? Really?” Steven was incredulous. “You’re assigning me a babysitter?”
“He was voted in. Roth’kel is actually a very fair choice.”
“He tried to commit suicide by deviant!” Steven yelled. “He wants me dead!”
“At one time I wanted you dead,” Maran said carefully. “Penipe, too. Sherry put an ax to your neck. Ra’esha voted to have Chasers execute you. Miryam nearly accomplished that, even.” Maran paused for effect. “Roth’kel was mourning the loss of his life-mate. Surely you can empathize with that?”
Steven tried to formulate a suitable response but everything he thought of fell flat. “I’m not a monster, Maran. How much more am I to suffer?”
“I would hardly consider this suffering, Steven. Our other guests all have chaperones.”
“Yeah, but their’s love them,” Steven grumbled, glaring at Roth’kel. “Mine wants to hold a magnifying glass over me like an ant in the sun.”
“A what?” Maran asked, perplexed.
“A Terran thing,” Steven sighed. “This isn’t fair, Maran. I’ve tried to do everything right and it just keeps failing. Like I’m some colossal loser.”
“Steven, please have patience. The Council will come to their senses, unless you give them reason not to. Like telling us to stuff it,” Sherry said. “We have to recover some lost ground, but it’s not as bad as it seems. You healed this Temple, after all. Every branch and leaf is alive because of what you did.”
Ra’esha approached Steven and put her arm around his waist as she tried to catch his eyes. He looked down, but she dipped down to look at him. “We suffered together, Steven. We were hunted together. We were tortured together. Both of us. Don’t think we’re not empathetic to your circumstances.”
Steven shrugged. Ra’esha grabbed his chin and pulled his face up. He finally met her gaze. Her eyes were striking. They were completely black, set on an albino face with almost translucent skin and flesh. Steven chewed his cheek as he looked at her again. “I had to try. After all I went through. We went through. I couldn’t lose her.” He wiped his nose and looked away.
“I’m not mad at you, Steven,” Raesha stated firmly. “The setback is what it is. Just something we need to deal with.”
Steven nodded, looking down. “Sorry.”
Ra’esha cocked her head.
“You know. You don’t have to stuff it.” Steven shrugged.
“Well, thank you,” Ra’esha grinned.
Steven glanced around the room then at Maran. “So, you wanted witnesses to my tantrum? Was this just something to embarrass me into submission?”
“It was determined that having some familiar and supportive people would be helpful when you were given news we forecast may not be taken well,” Aradia said.
“Chuckles over there didn’t have to come,” Steven grumbled, glancing furtively at Roth’kel.
“Introductions were necessary,” Aradia countered carefully. “He was chosen because he is not partial to you or your circumstances. The lack of bias allows him to observe you critically and provide unbiased reports.”
“You guys must really think little of me,” Steven sighed, looking down. He scratched his arm as he slumped a little.
“You are still raw and healing, Steven,” Sherry said.
“Now, you have more examinations this afternoon,” Maran interjected. “I’ll be covering the gatekeeping side of things. Then I want you to visit with Soretha.”
“Tomorrow,” Steven said, shaking his head. “Really, I need a day. Okay?”
“We want to see what changes the Maelstrom has had on your abilities. The sooner we can start, the better the results will be,” Aradia said.
“I wasn’t asking permission.” Steven scowled at her. “Tomorrow.” He looked at Roth’kel. “Is he allowed on Terra?”
Maran shook his head.
“Good. See ya.” Steven grabbed Asherah and the two of them vanished.