Episode 104

Inside the busy main room of the Precipice Inn & Tavern, the team sits around the larger table in the eclectic mix of furniture. Aristespha sorts through messages on her tablet and Sebastian peeks over her shoulder. Cideeda eagerly reviews pictures of the Vukasin Amarok on her aetherphone, and Dretphi nods interested between judging the eggs upon her plate of breakfast. Sotalia glances over at the occasionally glitching broadcast coming in on the television. Bach closes his eyes, rests a cheek on his fist. He gradually puts more weight upon it as his drowsiness gains a lead over his consciousness. Returning her attention to food, Sotalia notices Bach nodding off and eyes his plate. She spots an empty space devoid of bacon, and frowns slightly. A faint smile cracks from the corner of her mouth, and she deftly maneuvers the fork to plop a strip of bacon off her plate onto Bach’s. Glancing around for a few moments, she nudges Bach with her elbow and smirks. “You should really finish up your breakfast before you doze off and let it gets cold.”

Fluttering his blue eyes open, Bach darts his gaze around, remembers his surroundings, and shakes his head. “Oh, yeah... Sorry... Still really drained from yesterday.”

With a genuine smile, Sotalia playfully rolls her golden eyes and giggles softly. “Oh, I wonder why. I guess a little mechanecromancy does that to someone.”

Bach grumbles lightly, sighs hints of embarrassment, and wanders his attention down to his plate. “Gods, is that even a real term?”

He pauses a moment, tilts his head as he stares at the lone piece of bacon on his plate. He turns his head towards Sotalia. She nonchalantly shifts her attention back towards the television screen, combs her wavy, fiery orange hair over her shoulder, and scratches the pointed tip of her gray ears with her long black, thick nails. Bach smiles, and enjoys the crispy strip. Sotalia smirks with the nearby clank of a fork and subsequent crunch.

Aristespha places down her tablet, rubs her violet eyes, and tosses back her silvery blue hair. “Okay, that’s all the messages I needed to read and send right now. I think they all got out. So... What is next?”

Hovering into an empty seat next to Aristespha, Sebastian’s ethereal visage crosses his arms, searches his mind, and shrugs. “Head towards Perimeter, back to Amaranth Valley, and start searching, dear? I haven’t gotten much further than that.”

Sotalia sighs with a frown, and shakes her head. “Yeah. Noxian has got days ahead of us now. We MIGHT be able to find his trail in Perimeter.”

Presenting a toothy grin, Cideeda chuckles wryly as she flutters her emerald green eyes towards Sotalia. “Well, he’s going to have a few more days, since we still have to get our ride back from where we left it.”

Dretphi draws in a long frustrated breath, and twists her mouth. “Unfortunate.”

Sotalia blinks a few times, rolls her eyes with an irritated grimace, and tugs at the corner of her mouth. “Gods damn it... I keep forgetting that.”

Covering a yawn with his hand, Bach stretches out his neck and smirks. “So, I guess that’s the first thing we need to do.”

Sebastian shrugs his shoulders and nods. “Apparently, bro.”

The entry door into the main room opens and Amos steps in. He guides the door the rest of the way and holds it with his robotic hand. Ryos, Cedric, and Suzie rush in afterwards. Aggie finishes wiping down the bar top, gazes over at the children, and quirks her brow. “You’re all back early.”

Cedric huffs with a frown, and slumps his shoulders. “The playground is closed! Nothing is open!”

Elissia steps out from the back kitchen area, stands next to Aggie, and shakes her head. “I’m sorry to hear that. It might be that way for a few days.”

Ryos scratches his head of long, dark blue hair, near one of his coiling horns, and glances around the busy main room. He settles his attention to the television, and points it out to his mothers. “Can we watch something?”

Elissia surveys the room of patrons, and gauges the amount of interest on the current broadcast on the screen. She grits her teeth briefly, gazes down at the children, and shakes her head. “Not right now. Everyone is paying attention to the news. Maybe when everyone leaves after breakfast.”

Suzie glances between the disappointment on Cedric and Ryos, and notices Ishmael motioning his simple cloth arm towards the surge shelter door. She smiles, hugs Ishmael tightly in her arms, and brightly inquires. “Can we play down in the shelter? Mr. Ishy would like to play some of the board games with us.”

Elissia and Aggie exchange glances, and both shrug in quiet agreement. Aggie grins, waves towards the stairwell down, and nods. “That sounds just fine with me. Just play fair and be nice to each other.”

Ishmael bows in Suzie’s arms towards Aggie and Elissia, and fashions a smile on his simple doll face. “I’ll do my best to make sure they do. Right, Ryos?”

Ryos flits his purple on black eyes wide, glances around with a bit of guilt, and nods. “Yes.”

As Suzie walks towards the shelter with Ishmael, Cedric leans close to Ryos and whispers. “I think he made up that rule.”

Ryos smirks at Cedric, and the two rush past Suzie and Ishmael. Suzie waits by the doorway, turns to Amos, and smiles brightly. “Mr. Amos. Thank you for keeping Mr. Ishy safe.”

Amos displays a bold grin on his facial screen and bows towards Suzie with confident flare. “Of course. He certainly needed all the help he could get, and I was happy to assist.”

Ishmael rolls his eyes, and turns his head towards Bach. Seconds later, Bach glances around and notices the attention from Ishmael. With brief ethereal visage overlaying, Ishmael smirks to Bach and bows appreciatively. Bach nods back with an awkward grin. After Suzie departs with Ishmael down the stairs, Amos wanders over to the bar counter near Elissia and Aggie. Leaning close to Amos, Aggie queries in a quiet tone. “So, why is the playground still closed?”

Amos pivots his head around the room, props his mechanical elbows upon the bar, and speaks between Elissia and Aggie. “They just found that straggler Red Gear that Miss Reena said ran off before she got a clear shot on him. She was very insistent that no one go near the school grounds until she had cleared it herself.”

Elissia perks her brow, and tilts her head curiously. “So, is that Red Gear still alive?”

Rocking his metal head side to side, Amos emits a synthetic chuckle. “Presently. He was quick to surrender when he kept finding his squad mates with holes in their heads.”

Aggie smirks towards Elissia and holds a hand near her mouth. “I wonder if she had anything to do with what happened in the forest near the main road?”

Elissia twists her mouth and slowly shakes her head. “No. I don’t think so. She wouldn’t have left the school.”

Amos straightens up his posture, shrugs his shoulders, and crosses his robotic arms. “That one everyone is still debating. So far, it seems like it was a really powerful magic user. But, the strangest thing is that the area is covered in a magical residue that no one can quite identify. It’s very strange. Not even zone energies quite matches up to this stuff.”

The collective attention from Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Sebastian and Sotalia briefly snaps towards Amos as his voice carries out the pertinent information during a lull in surrounding conversations. The team glances between themselves, and arrives at a silent consensus. The entry opens, and Max’s tall frame walks in. He quickly scans the room, spots the team, and steps over. With a relieved smile, he nods to group and eases out a sigh. “It’s good to see all of you. It seems like the strangest and best thing that could happen... Did. Still can’t quite believe it myself.”

Sebastian’s ghostly form grins, and shrugs his shoulder. “Yeah. This place is just full of surprises.”

Max lifts a curious brow, cracks a smirk, and chuckles. “I guess so. Well, before I set out for the ruins, I was curious if you all wanted to hitch a ride with me.”

Cideeda’s emerald green eyes widen, and she pivots in her seat to face Max. “That sounds great! When do we leave?”

She pans a demanding stare to the team. Quickly, the group arrives to similarly eager sentiments.

Around a modest camp fire, Chad stands up from tending the flames, stretches his back, and surveys the site. Tassilda leans out with her aetherphone signal guiding her hand outside her tent flap. She holds the device place a moment, and a message chime rings out. An excited giggle escapes her and she brings the phone back inside. Deedri arranges some supplies within her tent, lays down on her bedroll, and rubs the stress of the day from temples. Slipping a bookmark between the pages, Trakenthin closes a book, stands up from a seat against a large tree trunk, and walks towards his tent. He glances over to Chad, grants a friendly nod of acknowledgment, and settles in for the night. From shadows outside the perimeter of the firelight, Modoran slides out into view and stands next to Chad with a directed whisper. “The night crew is taking over now. Usual camera coverage. But, they’ve got a few extras aimed at the Odellon’s and Veevi’s tents.”

Struggling with a grimace, Chad rolls his brown eyes, strains a sigh, and grumbles. “I don’t know why they need to watch both tents. They’re only going to use one.”

Cracking an ill-humored smirk, Modoran snorts and shakes his head. “Yeah... But, which one?”

Chad slowly turns his head to face Modoran, pauses in thought, and groans. “Point taken.”

Modoran bows his head down to a shake, lightly fist bumps Chad’s shoulder, and chuckles. “Get some sleep. We’ll at least be rid of him tomorrow. I’m sure the days of wandering through empty ruins will help him get into character, or whatever.”

Squelching a snort, Chad sighs out his stress, and smirks to Modoran. “Yeah... I’m sure. Night.”

Modoran walks near the perimeter of campfire illuminated tents nonchalantly. He freezes. Glancing down at his leg, and he watches a familiar tail slip away under a tent flap. The fabric parts briefly, and Deedri’s auburn eyes gaze up. She smiles slyly, winks, and mouths. “Good night.”

With a half grin on his dusky bluish gray face, Modoran calmly nods, and returns the wink. He casually resumes his stroll to his tent, and slips inside. Chad rolls his shoulders, and scans over the quiet camp site. Lights within tents dim and the surrounding noises of nature fill the area. Pivoting towards his tent, Chad steps slowly while gazing out into the peaceful night forest. He crawls inside his tent, removes his boots, and settles into his bed roll. Minutes pass on by and his gaze to the top of the tent grows heavy. Closing his eyes, he yawns, wiggles to comfort in his sleeping bag, and relaxes.

As conscious starts to fade, a series of noises starkly contrast the ambient night. Flits of a grimace twist Chad’s face, and he stirs back from the edge of unconsciousness. Cringing slightly, he lifts his head up from a pillow, angles his ear towards the source of the noise, and listens. His eyes spring open. He turns onto an elbow, and blinks his confusion. Recognition leads the ways to disgust and annoyance, and the muffled sounds of Veevi’s and Odellon’s distant voices mix with faint tinges of carnal gymnastics. Chad rolls back down onto his bedroll, and quietly grumbles out. “Shit...”

Venting out a frustrated sigh, he sits up slowly, and searches around his tent with mumble. “Got to have something...”

A minute hunt turns up nothing of use, and he flops back down onto the sleeping bag in defeat. Light rapping upon the tent fabric captures his attention. Chad sits back up, unzips the entry flap, and puzzles at Deedri kneeling next to the tent. With a smile, Deedri holds out some cotton balls, and whispers. “This helps keep the... um... noise manageable.”

Relief escapes Chad through a sigh, and he graciously accepts the gift. “Thank you. I was looking for something...”

He pauses a moment, grits his teeth, and draws in a long humbling breath. “Okay... Um... I have to ask... Were Veevi and I, um, this loud?”

Deedri narrows her auburn stare at Chad, lifts an eyebrow, and tugs at the corner of mouth. In the moments of silent confirmation, Chad slowly nods with emerging embarrassment and drops his head down. “Oh gods. I’m really sorry. It’s has to be really annoying for you.”

Deedri droops her furry ears, cracks a dry smirk, and rolls her eyes. “The noise isn’t that bad. It’s the lingering smells that really bother me.”

Chad reflexively cringes as the connotations circle around in his head. A sly grin slips out onto Deedri’s fair skinned face, and she chuckles. “Maybe they’ll really hit it off and she’ll ditch the show for him.”

Snorting, Chad shakes his head and softly laughs through his whisper. “Gods, that’d be way too convenient for us. It'll never happen.”

Deedri sighs, shakes her head of tied back, multi-colored hair, and perks her furry ears. “Yeah. That’s true. We can hope, though.”

Chad nods with a smile. “That we can. For now... Stick to the plan.”

With a tight smile, Deedri agrees with a sigh. Her ears flick over to the mix of partial, repetitive sentences interrupted by bodily contact. A mean grin sneaks out on Deedri face and she directs her voice. “If it’s any comfort, it sounds like she’s really putting on act with him.”

Keeping an amused snort back, Chad cracks an ill-humored smirk. “Should I be surprised he can't tell?”

Deedri shakes her head as she stands up, and steps back over to her tent. Chad zips back up his tent, readies the cotton, and places the noise barrier into his ears.

The Next Adventurers of Nexus camera crews slip into available recording angles, and a few passive aggressively compete with Odellon’s entourage for ideal positions. Standing tall with his flowing golden hair, Odellon straightens his posture in his elaborate armor, and presents a bright white smile to Chad. “Again, I would like to thank you Chad Bosch for generously granting me the opportunity to adventure with your team. It has been greatly insightful and enlightening.”

Chad dons a modest smirk, nods towards Odellon as he stands in front of the gathered team, and extends a hand. “It has been a delightful experience, Odellon. I hope the experience will prove useful in your future ventures. If you want to go on another mission, feel free to contact us again.”

Odellon firmly shakes Chad’s hand, grins wide, and chuckles. “Of course. I think I might be up for a greater challenge next time. I’ll be keeping track of the Flames of the Phoenix’s accomplishments well into the future.”

The two stand in places for a few seconds. A voice from Odellon’s crew shouts out. “And, CUT! We got it!”

Releasing a short sigh of relief, Odellon shakes head and guides his golden locks over his fair skinned, very long, pointed ears, and rolls his blue eyes. “Very good! I’ve GOT to get this armor off me. I’m going to melt in it.”

He pauses a moment, stares inquisitively, and cocks his head curiously. “I have to ask, how do you stand it all day?”

Chad points to the shirt under his breastplate and smirks. “Specialty undershirt. Wicks all the sweat away.”

Leaning slightly into the conversation, Trakenthin motions to his under armor. “Under armor with thermal thread helps.”

Odellon glances over to a young evuukian woman, and quirks his brow. “Did you get that?”

The young evuukian woman nods quickly, finishes up a notation on her tablet, and smiles. “Yes, Lord Odellon. I’ve already sent a message to the production company’s equipment manager to procure a selection of such for you to try out.”

With a confident smile, he winks to the young evuukian woman. “Excellent.”

He turns towards Chad, Trakenthin, Tassilda, Deedri, Modoran, and Veevi. “Well, thank you all for your time, but I have business to handle elsewhere. If you happen to be around where they are shooting a movie I’m starring in, please let my agent know and I’m certain we can get you a free day tour and full access to the catering. Until then, I bid you all a good day.”

After a respectful bow, he pivots, walks towards an awaiting luxury vehicle, and holds his arms out. “Someone get this off of me! I’ve got at least a whole day at the spa before I feel right again.”

Tassilda twists her mouth in a failing attempt to hide her amusement, and rests her hands on her hips. Deedri sneaks out a snort, and slowly shakes her head. Modoran crosses his arms, exchanges a glance with Deedri, and smirks humored. Trakenthin blinks his hazel eyes, tilts his head of dirty blonde hair, and puzzles. Chad shrugs his shoulders, and rolls his eyes. Veevi blinks her pink pupil eyes, flicks her fuzzy ears, and rushes up to Odellon. She presents an eager, sharp grin, flutters her eyes, and tosses back her pink hair. “So, have you given some thought to my proposal last night?”

Odellon drifts his attention over towards Veevi. “Huh, what proposal would that be?”

Holding back flit of frustration on her tan face, she crosses her brown striped arms behind, arches her back slightly, and accentuates her figure through her tight fitting clothing. “Well! Considering me for a lead actress in an upcoming project, of course! I think I have MUCH to offer.”

Perking his brow, Odellon twists his mouth in contemplation, and molds a sly smirk on his face. He pauses, turns to face Veevi, and presents a bright white smile to her. “Of course... I have a few projects on the table, and I MAY be able to use my clout to convince a studio to take a chance on such a PROMISING star like yourself. But, these things take a little time to get going. You understand certainly.”

He glances over to an assistant orbiting him, snaps his fingers, and points to Veevi. “Please give her my agent’s card.”

A business card appears in Veevi’s hand, and she blankly stares at it perplexed. Odellon grins with a nod, and turns around swiftly. “Have your agent call mine, and we’ll see about lunch in a month or so.”

With the last piece of armor off, Odellon power walks to the awaiting luxury vehicle’s open door, and slips inside. The driver quickly closes up the black sedan with tinted windows, and rushes over to the driver’s seat. As the vehicle speeds off, a swarm of other support staff board crew trucks and depart in a growing horde down the access road. Veevi blinks, and tilts her head to the side as her eye twitches. Tassilda covers her mouth over a soft snicker and glances around at the surprised expressions of the rest of the team. Chad grits his teeth, pivots around, and motions towards the camp site. “Well, that was an interesting mission. Let’s pack it up and head home, everyone!”

The team disperses slowly, keeping an eye on Veevi. As the Next Adventurers of Nexus crew wander close to Veevi with cameras focusing, contempt and fury swell upon the half-fvalian’s tan face and her long, short hair tail whips around in forming rage.

Dretphi hoists up the last sack of supplies into the back of the humvee, and closes up. In the front driver’s seat, Cideeda inspects the latest diagnostics readout on the center dash console, and releases a breath of relief. Adjusting her front passenger’s seat, Sotalia leans into the cushions, stretches out her arms, and peeks at the display. “Everything still look good?”

With a nod, Cideeda grips the steering wheel, flexes her claw tips, and grows a toothy grin. “Yes, it does. So nice to have her in my hands again.”

Sotalia rolls her golden eyes with smile, gazes out into ancient, decayed architecture surrounding the ruin, and watches the orange darkened skies of evening fade towards night. “And, we still have to travel back to Precipice... Then Perimeter... Then, wherever the hell else, I guess.”

Cideeda closes her emerald green eyes, puts her arms behind her head, and yawns. “Yeah... What a way to start the work week.”

Flicking her fluffy tail with her thoughts, she twists her mouth between calculations and sighs. “It’s Monday night. So, if we take it easy on the main route, we should get back to Precipice Thursday. Maybe a little sooner? I don’t know.”

Sotalia nods, closes her eyes, and relaxes as the glow the sun filters in through the windshield. Max sits outside the entryway into the ruins upon an old crate, rests his back against the age beaten wall, and sighs. Sebastian’s ethereal form quirks his brow, and crosses his arms with a curious tone. “So what’s your plans now, Max?”

Bach nods, settles to a seat on a large boulder of broken masonry, and smirks. “Yeah. I mean, not to be nosy, but I don’t think you can keep doing what you were doing.”

Max chuckles, cracks wry grin, and groans. “No fucking shit. I was already thinking about that. Recent events have made me make up damned mind finally.”

Aristespha rests her hands on her hips, glances towards the direction of a breeze blowing her silvery blue hair, and smirks. “What is your decision?”

Leaning forward, Max rests his elbows on his knees, bows his head down thoughtfully, and sighs with a grimace. “I’m going back to the Grand Library. I’m going to report everything that’s happened down here. Then... I’m going kick a stupid old man’s ass. Gods damned Emanuel.”

He shifts his glare towards the entryway to the ruins, grits his teeth, and growls his frustration. “But FIRST, I’m going to seal off these ruins. I can’t bring myself to destroy and all the information that could be inside... But, I can certainly hide it and keep it out of curious hands for a little while longer. As is the unfortunate Grand Library tradition these days.”

With a hopeful tone, he gazes up to Bach, Sebastian, and Aristespha, and cracks a humored grin. “But... I’d like to think what you all are planning to do next will make it all moot and safe to be studied once again.”

Bach blinks uncertainly and musters up an awkward smile. “Uh, sure. We’ll try. Right.”

Aristespha perks her brow, retrieves her aetherphone, and sorts through the menus. After a few moments, she turns the screen towards Max, and directs his attention to the information. “When you get a chance, you may want to contact my friend Nash. He’s the current chair of the computer science department.”

Max furrows his brow suspiciously, and mulls it over with a hesitant tone. “I don’t know. I didn’t care for the last one of those.”

With a pleasant smile, Aristespha laughs, and shakes her head. “Oh, he’s nothing like the last chair. I think they made sure of that when he got hired. He’s been doing investigations of his own.”

She leans forwards, smirks slyly, and directs her voice to Max. “And, I think you owe him a full explanation for what got stowed away in his server room and prompted a massive investigation due to Isaac sneaking in to get it.”

Max blinks a few times, searches his conscience, and awkwardly smiles. “Yeah... I probably owe him at least that much. That wasn’t his to have to deal with.”

Pulling out his aetherphone, Max taps in the information, and confirms it with Aristespha. The group idles in the calm breezes swaying tall grasses filling the landscape around the ruins. Moments of peace drift by with the small clouds overhead tinting to the setting sun. Exhaling out his last thoughts, Max eases himself up, brushes off his pants, and motions towards the door. “Well, let’s get settled in for the night. I’m going to cook up feast for you all. It’s the very least I could do... And, I REALLY don’t want to have haul all these supplies back.”

Dretphi perks up, cocks her head to the side as she approaches, and inquires. “Do you require assistance?”

Max gazes towards Dretphi, nods appreciatively, and gestures her ahead. “Of course. If you can make what I have more appetizing, please do so. It not exactly fine dining here.”

As Dretphi ponders possible options, the rest of the team follows inside.

Gerald pushes his bed pillow under his head, angles his aetherphone, and taps through messages. He glances out the doors to the balcony, watches Samantha pace down the center of the room, and rolls his dark brown eyes. Samantha brushes back her shoulder-length brown hair, sorts through pages of notes on her clipboard, and grins eagerly. “We can definitely work with that schedule, Howie! This is going to work perfectly. We can record a down time episode and lead straight to this event.”

From an aetherphone on a desk, Howard’s voice sounds out into the room. “That was what I was thinking. We got enough clips for the crews to weave together a good episode for this coming Friday. Then, we can mix the remaining bits with some after mission house events.”

He draws in a long breath. “All the delays may have lined everything up just right for us for once. Our little fan expo is going to work out just fine. We have the place, time, and merchandise. We need to do is to get the team there for a few days to entertain our... Lucky... contest winners.”

A smirk grows an evil tinge on Samantha’s face, and she directs an intrigued tone towards the phone. “Have Modoran’s, oh, I guess, fans confirmed their attendance?”

Howard laughs from the other side of the call, and exhales with smug contentment. “Yes. Yes, they have. It didn’t take much. Once we confirmed their receipt of the prize packages, they informed us they had travel already booked. Even informed us they have booked their own lodging.”

Samantha quirks her brow, tilts her head curiously to the side, and ponders out loud. “Interesting. I mean, the Special Quest tickets from the contest included everything. Now, I’m curious who these people are. Did they mention where they got rooms?”

An amused tone resonates through the aetherphone speaker, and Howard explains. “A very nice hotel. One that is often favored by visiting Evuukian noble houses. I’m not fully versed all the politics of Evuukian Houses, but everything points to these people being from a prominent house.”

Samantha’s hazel eyes widen and she cocks her head to the side as her thoughts wander. “Really? Oh, this is going to be very interesting. We’re going to have to watch Modoran like a hawk all the time for this event.”

She pivots around, gazes over to Gerald, and grins eagerly. “Okay, Gerald, who do you know that can properly keep track of Modoran?”

Gerald tilts his phone down, glances around his head, and twist his face. Seconds of deliberation later, he grits his teeth, and hisses reluctantly. “I’ve got a few that I could probably teach. Modoran’s tricks and magic have a few tells, and they’re observant enough to spot them once they know what to look for.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he grimaces and groans. “But, that’s going to take some extra time to do with our regular filming schedule. The crew is a little worn out right now, and they’re not exactly yearning for extra hours-”

Howard sternly echoes into the room from the speakerphone. “Double pay for you and them to get this training done as soon as possible.”

Gerald lifts his head up from the pillow, and blinks surprise onto his face. Moment pass, and he draws in a long breath, flops his head back down, and grumbles. “Okay. I might be able to convince them with that. I’ll see what I can do.”

A satisfied chuckle sounds out from the aetherphone on the desk, and Howard sighs contentedly. “Good. Very good. I get the feeling this little local fan expo is going to be a big highlight for this season. There’s going to be so many surprises. I can just feel it... Yes. A capstone maybe.”

Watching Samantha grin widely and snicker with Howard, Gerald shifts his attention towards the noon light out the balcony, and frowns. He squints his eyes, notices a colorful bird upon the railing, and rolls on his bed. Deftly reaching into a bag next to his bed, he retrieves a photography camera, removes the cover, and feels around. Finding his target, he grips tightly, removes a lens, and carefully secures it on the camera. In fast, well rehearsed motions, he readies the unit, adjusts settings, stabilizes the camera up the pillow, and takes aim. The colorful bird twists and turns its head curiously, and watches the movement inside the room. Gerald waits patiently, keeps his focus through the viewfinder, and maintains his shot. The creature glances over towards Gerald. A satisfied smile appears on Gerald’s face, and he presses the button. A series of fast clicks fire off. The bird’s attention wanders elsewhere, and it flies away.

Eagerly, Gerald resettles on the bed, turns the camera around to the back display, and turns a mode switch. Vibrant images of the colorful bird show up on the screen, and Gerald slowly studies them with a grin on his face. Samantha’s and Howard’s plans fade into the background noise while he judges each photo in the series.

A lone evuukian man stares over a large, long computer console, and drifts his yellow eyes between readouts. His gaze wanders over neatly organized piles of notes underneath sections of the control systems before him. Reaching down deep into a backpack at his side, he retrieves a worn binder and opens it up. Reading the information on the page, he idly rocks in an old office chair. His attention wanders around the dusty room with multiple computer stations, and drifts into the illuminated space beyond large, full wall window. He tosses back his long, black hair over his very long, pointed ears, and cracks a plotting smirk on his light-gray, green hinted face. Furrowing his brow, he returns his focus upon the main computer screen in front of him.

Upon the display, a cursor blinks at the start of an empty line below a buffer full of different complicated commands and various error messages after each entry. The lone evuukian man rests his fingers upon the keyboard, starts typing up a series of keywords and variables, and narrows his stare. He presses enter, waits patiently, and watches the screen. Seconds pass with a still display. Text appears below the echo of the command, and another intricate error output spells itself out. The man grits his teeth, grumbles out in an evuukian dialect, and shakes his head. Leaning back into the old office chair, he growls out, rubs his temples, and draws in a slow breath.

His concentration wanes. His stare idly rests upon the age stained ceiling tiles and avoid the bright lamps overhead. He reaches out to a table, and picks up a stick with roasted meat on it. He bites a chunk off of it, mulls over ideas while he chews, and huffs after a swallow. He shifts his stare down to the main computer screen, and twists his mouth. Minutes of thought pass. He blinks his yellow eyes, and cocks his head to the side. Pulling back stray strands of his long black hair, he focuses his gaze upon the display. Reaching out to the keyboard, he taps up through the long history of commands. His eyes dart between entries and settle briefly upon key pieces. He scrolls through faster as his visual hunt focuses upon parts of preceding entries. In blur of text rolling down, a break in the pattern halts his progress and he leans forward, close to the display. An eager grin grows upon his light-gray, green hinted face, and he readies his hands upon the keyboard.

Glancing over nearby notes and documents, he carefully types out a complicated string of instructions, deviates from previous attempts, and rearranges other components. Thoroughly reviewing the latest manifestation on the screen, he hover his finger over the enter key. Seconds of deliberation pass, and he finally hits the button. In the silence, he intertwines his hands and waits hopefully.

The cursor shifts, new lines appear, and an explosive amount of text floods the screen. Other displays nearby flicker to life, hums of subsystems sound out as they revive from their slumber, and a large monitor on the wall illuminates. Upon the huge screen, a large map appears with specialized data layers, territory lines, road routes, and icons peppered throughout. An overlay process charts out a central triangle, scattered squares, and a mesh of connecting lines. The lone evuukian man stands up, narrows his stare at the screen, and steps closer.

From the central triangle, pulses of illumination travel through the network of squares and lines. The brightness fades down some routes. But a few paths maintain and then slowly branch out to other locations. Squares flicker between red and yellow. With a chime from a degraded speaker in the monitor, a square flashes to a bright green. Moving close to large, flat screen, the lone evuukian man taps his finger upon the central triangle. As recognition of the map grows, he traces a path down roads, routes around sections with recent familiarity, and arrives at the bright green square. Studying the surrounding area, a sinister smile spreads wide on his face, and a hints of devious grin part his lips.

He exhales long and hints of accomplishment slip out. Walking away from the display, he picks up a notebook, flips through pages, and settles upon an annotated, recent geographic map. He glances between the display and the page, and taps a spot near a major city. He closes the binder of notes, slowly nods, and chuckles to himself. Stepping close to the large, full wall window, he stares out into the large illuminated space. Far below upon a concrete floor, bipedal robots stand upon designated platforms and recently stirred layers of dust.

A plotting grin widens on the lone evuukian man’s face, and he gazes over the status reports streaming in on a nearby display, and watches a small maintenance bot roll on the floor with a fresh robotic arm for one of the large machines.

The humvee rolls to stop in the rough gravel parking lot near the town center. As the powerplant spins down, the doors open. Sotalia hops out, stretches, and fluffs her fiery orange, wavy hair. “Gods, I’m so glad we don’t have to make THAT trip again.”

Bach steps out, shifts his seat forward, and sighs in agreement. “I mean it was interesting once, but... Yeah, the fourth trip in a week gets a bit old.”

As Dretphi slides out from the far back seat, Bach scans the town square around the main loop, and settles his attention upon new vehicles and people in the area. “Huh, looks like things have picked up.”

A large armored hauler turns down a wide main street, and a blue angular wolf logo upon it reflects the late afternoon sun. Dretphi narrows her steely gray eyes briefly, and flits them wide with recognition. “Vukasin. Securing the area.”

From a side street, a light scout vehicle slows down around the square, and parks behind another similar truck with Perimeter Defense Force insignia. Aristespha glances around after closing her door, and studies the uniformed troops walking around. “Reinforcements from Perimeter, too. They must have arrived after we left.”

Sotalia rests her hands on her hips, and glances over towards Bach with a grin. “Good, someone else can summon up military equipment to fight off roving bands of cybernetic raiders. You’ve got the night off, Bach.”

Bach quirks his brow, dons a grimace, and sarcastically grumbles. “Oh, great. Didn’t know it was my night again to defend the town. Glad someone else can take the weigh of responsibility from my hands.”

Walking along in his own thoughts, Mavian's faintly glowing, green eyes search his mind. He watches a progress bar on his aetherphone, stops in place, and holds up the device as the signal indicator fluctuates. The team notices him nearby, and wait as curiosity keeps them quiet. After a few moments, Cideeda cracks a toothy grin and yells out. “You should try over here, the signal might be better!”

Mavian shudders, glances around, and spots the team. With a smile and a quick wave, he steps on over next to the humvee and gathering. “Hey! Sorry, I’m just trying to get a message out over the radio relays. The system is almost back to normal after all that's happened.”

Motioning towards the activity in the town, Bach furrows his brow and inquires. “So, what’s the news around here? It seems everybody showed up after we left.”

Watching the progress bar finish, Mavian stows away his aetherphone, glances over to the PDF and Vukasin units wandering around, and chuckles awkwardly. “Yeah. It’s been a bit crazy lately. PDF arrived into town and relieved the militia for local patrols. And, Vukasin arrived just afterwards and started hunting for any Red Gear remnants in the area.”

Dretphi stares stoically and perks her brow. “Have they found any?”

Gritting his teeth brief, Mavian twists a smirk on his face, and rocks his head side to side. “Well. Yes and no. They certainly found a few stragglers. But, mostly... Um, zone leftovers. It’s a strange thing, too. Areas I and others have known for years to be completely safe... Well, they found A LOT of dead Red Gears in those places.”

Flits of intrigue spread through the team as they puzzle. Sotalia narrows her golden eyes, and cracks a smirk. “Sounds like a few people took care of the problem themselves.”

Mavian slowly shakes his head, and crosses his arms. “That’s what I thought originally, too. But, none of the zone runners have a clue who did it. If anyone actually did it.”

Sotalia cocks her head, furrows her brow, and blinks her bewilderment. “What are you saying, exactly?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Mavian cracks a smirk and laughs. “Well, I guess they over stayed their welcome and the Zone showed its mercy. It’s not the first time something like this has happened.”

He darts his eyes around, adjusts his green knit scarf, and contorts his face. “It’s just one of those secrets the Zone is going to keep.”

Aristespha smiles intrigued. “Anything else going in town we should know about?”

Mavian snorts, shakes his head, and points over to the top of the Vukasin Amarok cresting over the buildings in the distance. “Well, all the officials are arguing about what to do with the huge, old war mech that... Somehow...”

He narrows an amused stare towards Bach and continues. “Rose from its rusty grave after the Zone struck down a massive bolt of lightning to give it new life, and joined the defense of the town, driven to seek justice for the souls wronged by the Red Gears.”

Crossing his arms, he rolls his eyes and sighs. “Or, that’s the latest tale that Amos is spreading around.”

Awkwardly averting his eyes away from the examining gaze of Mavian, Bach weakly laughs and uneasily agrees. “Yeah, that’s quite the tale. I mean, given all the other strange things that happen in the zone... That sounds about right...”

Presenting the best innocent smile he can muster, he glances to the rest of the team and seeks confirmation. “Right, everyone? Weird zone stuff. Fire blobs from the sky. Flowers that roast people in plumes of plasma. Pools of rainbow rocks. That totally sounds par for the course, right?”

Mavian shakes his head, and smirks with a nonchalant tone. “Yeah. The usual drill around here. If it happens to be anything else, most people around here are really good at keeping secrets... Especially, for those that help out when we need it the most.”

He leans forward slightly towards to the team, and cracks knowing grin. “So, thanks for all the help.”

Relaxing his shoulders, he scratches the back of his wild head of brown hair, snorts, and rolls his faintly glowing, green eyes. “Anyway, there’s a whole debate going on between the mayor, PDF, and Vukasin about what to do with the fully functional battle mech. So, that’s going to be weeks of local politics there... That I look forward to staying far away from with my trips into the zone.”

Sotalia lifts an eyebrow, cocks her head, and smirks slyly. “Anything new from Rhian? I was curious if she had heard what happened out here.”

With an awkward smile, Mavian taps the pocket with his aetherphone, and chuckles. “Oh yeah. I just actually sent her a message about it all. I’m sure once the relays sync up enough for voice calls, I’ll be getting a-”

A ring sounds out from Mavian’s aetherphone, and he quickly scrambles for the device. “Of all the times they get those things working-”

He excuses himself, and walks towards the Precipice Inn & Tavern as he answers his phone. “Hey! Yes, I’m fine... ... Well, it’s long story and- ... I guess I got time to tell it...”

A few snickers and snorts escape the team while Mavian departs. Aristespha rests her hands on her hips, yawns, and stares towards the Precipice Inn & Tavern. “If there’s no objections, I think we should arrange our lodging for the night, and enjoy a nice meal.”

Cideeda flicks her furry ears, wags her tail, and grins toothily. “Sounds good to me. I’ll sneak over to the junkyard one more time and take a few pictures of the Amarok before we leave.”

Bach glances down towards Cideeda, and tilts his head to the side with a smile. “More reference material for your next miniature build?”

Tapping her claw tips together, an eager smirk widens on Cideeda’s light brown face, and a spark illuminates her emerald green eyes. “Yes, and so much more. It’s proof I was RIGHT on the aethersite forums about the historical alternative equipment load-outs for that mech.”

The team walks towards the nearby establishment, while Cideeda recounts a summarized debate to Bach.

The bright early morning sun rises up higher over the horizon, and a blue all terrain vehicle rolls down smoother, packed dirt roads. As the truck travels down the path, signs of civilization emerge in denser clusters. A metal road sign appears off the side of the highway listing kilometers to various Perimeter destinations ahead. A smaller placard shows in front of it displays. “Entering Perimeter Territorial Limits.”

Isaac glances over at the signage, nods to himself, and returns his attention to the road ahead. The wind slipping through the cracked window flows over his blue scarf, and lightly rustles pages in a notebook in the seat beside him. With a confident smile, Isaac eagerly gazes upon the documents. A spark of determination pulls a grin on his face, and he navigates his blue all terrain vehicle over the transition to rough, paved roads. He stares ahead at the hints of city skyline in the distance, and accelerates faster down the road.

On top of a tall lamp post next to an intersection, a camera pans over, spots Isaac’s ride, and tracks his progress.

From the dark skies above, stars reflect upon the rolling seas below. Within the wheel house of a cargo ship, Boss frowns heavily and stares out into the empty seas ahead. He glances out to the sides and eyes the other similar vessels slowly trolling near the shore in rough formation. With a groaning sigh, he shakes his head, crosses his arms in thought, and fights off the persistent frustration upon his face. A crew member with minor cybernetics smirks towards Boss with a reassuring tone. “It’s alright, Boss. We’ll try another town along the coast. Plenty of other places on the east coast.”

Boss glances over, cracks an amused smirk, and sighs. “Yeah... I’ve actually heard New Valdo is nice this time of the year. Ever been there?”

The man shakes his head. Boss sports a grin, eases back in his chair, and chuckles. “Well, looks like we’ll be visiting soon enough. We’ll be sure to enjoy the tourism a little more beforehand this time around.”

Distantly, multiple ethereal figures flit and flicker into view at the border between shore and forest. The translucent manifestations shift in sync with the movement of the cargo vessels departing. The entities dissipate and reform into fast moving specks and clouds of magical energy. Many dive into the water and jet off towards the ships. Another batch zip low above the surface in the opposite direction. The aquatic swarm condenses below the keels of the vessels, and a faint pulse of energy radiates out into the surrounding waters.

Minutes later, a periscope breaches the black, starlight speckled surface of the deeper sea. It slowly rotates, and the internal optics adjust towards the distant horizon. Dim specs of light appear, and hover idly in front of the lens. The periscope stops. The motes of illumination slowly, purposefully orbit around as the optics follow. The specks stop, and dissipate into the darkness. The periscope shifts gradually side to side, then freezes. The lenses inside quickly rotate. Immediately, the device maintains a stable position against the waves, and focuses upon a dark fleet of cargo vessels moving slowly near the shore.

The scope drops into the water. Within the shadowy depths of the water, a black cylindrical mass creeps silently towards the ships.