Original Content Bought and Sold. Chapter 34, Arc 3

MyNameMeansBentNose

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Did you guys enjoy Lonely Souls? I really enjoyed writing that blurb and I look forward to the day I can pursue it. But. That'll come after B&S whenever that time arrives. For now, back to the story you guys all know.

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Previous | Beginning | Technology | Wiki | Next
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Chapter 34
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Chase hopped down from the APH, moving quickly to remain out of the path of the following Ytheon and Veprutasian officers. He couldn’t resist the urge to turn around however.

The weight of the larger transport had done a number on the smaller raiding craft despite it’s armor.

The vehicles he saw moving around The Peaks lacked character in general, sticking to simple or streamlined shapes. That transport had been little more than a flying box. The APH managed to look like those slanted red erasers he used to see in highschool when he was a kid.

He’d exited the same side that bird had smashed the transport into. The forward armor along the side was partially crumpled and the whole damn side was badly scarred from the grinding of the two vehicles. The opposite side was probably the same after being ground into the concrete wall of the transport tube. That wasn’t the key damage though. It was near the front where the power couplers had blown, disabling the big AI core dataspace router thing. Chase still couldn’t generate much interest in anything that didn’t involve physically moving.

But that bit of grinding sure got his blood moving today.

He walked down the pier until he could see the front of the APH where the bird had tried to squish the transport. Chase cringed as he saw the damage. The whole front window was smashed. The Vep pilot had been driving with the wind in his face the whole time.

“Chase,” the drone called.

“Did you guys catch them?” Chase asked.

“The search is ongoing,” Bob answered.

Four APH’s had gone out in each possible direction after finding the attacked Sapient Resources empty. It was pure dumb luck Chase had been in the one that found the Humans, not that it really mattered. He’d only half maybe glimpsed one of the Humans through the front window of that transport.

“Any news of Hatherkey?”

The square body of the drone turned away slightly, one of the arms extending from the side waving towards the door back into the building. “You have been thrown about, a quick health inspection is in order.”

“What? Got nothing for me?” Chase asked, moving off to do as he was told. Not that he expected an answer. He still had a feeling the fact that building ‘belonged’ to Hatherkey was the whole reason for the delayed response. That name was the difference between instant response and ‘oh just heard about it, we might be too late’. Chase wasn’t so dumb as to miss the signals.

“There is no news at this time, but you are still required to be in top health.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Chase answered, but he hesitated for a moment. “What about you?”

“I received notable damage from the impact we experienced. As per Commissioner Kruent’s directions, I am also to immediately receive maintenance.”

“Okay, I'll see to myself then.”

Bob wouldn't have been hurt- damaged, if Chase had remained in his seat. Not that he felt bad.

Personally he hoped those people stayed at large, these Veprutasians were no fun. That crash was scary, but it was good seeing a bunch of fellow Humans and their friends making a mess of things.

Chase headed through the door into the main facility. He was allowed a small amount of autonomy within the halls of enforcement headquarters, and he was pretty much up to speed on where everything was located.

A couple minutes later found him in medical. They had an on site facility for non life threatening injuries with an Ushen ‘tech medic’ and a supply of nanofix and spare parts for the augmented members of the force.

Chase was surprised to find the commissioner already present, although facing away. The little Ushen medic was doing a series of scans on the old bird’s implants. Kruent was seated on a stool with a minimal frame as a seat back. As Chase stepped in Kruent spread out his right wingarm for inspection.

The little Ushen waved at a stool next to the door Chase had come through. Chase took the hint and took a seat.

“Chase,” Kruent greeted, his tone just a shade friendlier than usual. “I have seen the preliminary report, the offenders escaped from you?”

“Well, I can't do much if they don't move around on foot… sir.”

“Understandable. The alert arrived later than it should have. It was… fortunate that you found them at all.”

“Lucky maybe, but not good luck, sir.”

Kruent clicked his beak once, then remained silent as the Ushen’s vision drifted, likely referencing dataspace reports.

“I do find it interesting,” Kruent remarked, his sudden comment making the Ushen jump slightly

“What is that sir?” Chase asked.

“That this group is picking a fight with Hatherkey, whether this is a brave decision or a foolish risk will have to be seen of course,” Kruent paused as the Ushen moved around to his other side. The old Veprutasian folded his right wingarm and opened up his left for inspection. “An early investigation revealed most of the stolen products were debt slaves and abductees as well.”

“That's… interesting?” Chase replied, unsure of Kruent’s point.

“Indeed, they left a full third of the slaves behind, all of which were crime slaves,” Kruent turned his head sideways to look at Chase. “An interesting distinction, and one among many subtle details. Their operator endeavored to leave as many systems open to us as possible while covering his tracks as well as he could, part of the reason the preliminary report came in so quickly.”

“You… you think he's being friendly?”

“I am inclined to believe he doesn't want to be our enemy. Perhaps he considers our pressure on Hatherkey to be important to his plans. To be clear, this does not mean they deserve to be free,” Kruent’s voice changed slightly and Chase could feel the change behind the intent of the commissioner's words, “but I will insist that you endeavor to keep them alive, unless I personally order you otherwise. Capture these individuals, not kill.”

“Uh, yes sir. They seem pretty dangerous to be honest, but with a little luck…”

The Ushen clicked at Kruent and did a little half bow as he stepped back.

“Chase,” Kruent said, regarding the Human with a single golden eye. “I do not believe in luck.”

With that said, Kruent marched out of the office.

Something in what Kruent said caught Chase up. But he lost it when the Ushen waved Chase over, looking at him with solid blue eyes.

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Tanktantun
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“Uuuurgh,” Otto groaned from his spot on the floor.

“Otto?” Aurula asked, clearly worried.

“Mmmm…” The man unconsciously replied. Tanktantun had placed Otto against the front console on the floor. He sat slumped but slowly picked himself up as he came to. The man attempted to raise his left hand before dropping it.

“Take your time,” Tanktantun offered. Otto nodded in replay and Tanktantun turned to look at Aurula. “Give him a moment.”

“Yes,” she replied, her feathers shrunk closely in her body showing her stress.

“Where…” Otto whispered. “Oooouuugh, gotta put myself together… did everyone’s fuses work?”

“Yes, all of our harnesses are broken now,” Aurula confirmed. Not an accusation, just a confirmation that no one had remained vulnerable. “What happened?” the Leralin asked, clearly wanting to go to Otto, but her hands were stuck on the control pad of the transport.

“AI core attack, it’s safe to reconnect… but not to me.”

Tanktantun felt his tailtip still, he stood up and kneeled next to Otto, placing a hand on the Human’s shoulder. “Not to you? Are you compromised?”

“I’m fragmented,” Otto sighed and then squinted, “I’ve got sensory damage if nothing else… also, don’t touch me, it’s too bright.” Seeking any sort of contact despite his complaint, Aurula stretched her left wing outwards towards Otto. The man took a deep breath when the long feathers brushed his shoulder. The action seemed to provide a least a moment of release. “But… where are we at?” Otto asked.

“We’re into the deactivated tunnels,” Aurula explained. “Not far now according to Daniel’s information.”

“So the gate worked… no more trouble?”

“No more trouble,” Tanktantun confirmed. The gate had surprised him. They had pulled into a short dead-end tunnel that led to a single small loading bay hanging from the ceiling. But the end of the tunnel had cracked, revealing an uneven square portal that slowly swung backwards out of the way. Passing through and seeing the door closed, someone had built a massive mechanized hinge and then cut the wall according to what they needed after the fact. The cut had only wandered according to some invisible arrangement of material in the wall by Tanktantun’s guess.

While oddly shaped, the workmanship was absolutely impressive and Tanktantun could only wonder how many more smuggling tunnels like this were hidden around The Peaks. Although, probably there weren’t many in the upper districts as opposed to the lower industrial section they were currently traveling through.

The walls were still solid, but occasionally they would fly past sealed outcrops, ledges and doorways, much of it crumbling and in disrepair. It was difficult to guess how many centuries these areas had been off limits.

“I will let the rest know you are well,” Tanktantun reassured Otto as he stood up.

“... Thanks Tank.”

Tanktantun sighed at the nickname. He was mostly used to it by now, but he really wished they’d call him by his full name at least once in awhile. He’d long given up trying to correct them however.

He didn’t miss Aurula reaching out with a foot, placing it into Otto’s left hand. Leralin feet were strong and taloned and built much like their hands. The birds just didn’t have reason to use those feet when interacting with other races on flat land. Otto gripped the offered foot in return.

The door made a slight grinding noise as it slid open. Those impacts had knocked a few things out of alignment, but there was no arguing with Aurula’s decision making when enforcement decided they didn’t want to play Aurula’s game anymore. It had been telling however. That hover could have gunned them down. City enforcement really wanted to catch the group.

The door ground its way closed after he stepped into the rear section. The Gerlen were seated as well, Tsalay and Tsury seeing to them. The crashes had thrown everyone in the back compartment around rather violently, causing many bruises and even breaking a couple bones.

“Otto has awakened,” Tanktantun reported. “He is mostly well, although his implants are badly disordered.”

“Makes sense,” Mike answered, “We all got a hint of what hit him after all.”

Tanktantun bobbed his head forwards in affirmation. That first blast had been very painful, he hadn’t even noticed the small pop of his safety disconnect blowing and disabling the harness. He’d gone from seizure inducing noise to deafening silence.

“We are about as put together as we can get,” Stacey noted from helping one of the Gerlen. She looked at Tanktantun as she spoke, twitching as she did so. Her forehead was slathered with some slowly receding nano-fix paste. The crash had opened up a very painful looking laceration above her left eye. She stood up and wobbled slightly. Any deeper effects from the crash would have to heal on their own.

Mike and Daniel had busied themselves putting the scattered boxes back on the central shelves rather than leave the stuff scattered about. Daniel closed one of the boxes, latching the top closed as Tank spoke with Stacey and Mike.

“Pretty wild tho’,” the younger brother noted. “We gunna hafta deal with the cops again? Not lookin’ forward to it.”

“Perhaps,” Tanktantun admitted. “I am convinced they intended to capture us at that time, which means they were interested in turning you all into assets.”

“What, like… make us a job offer we couldn’t refuse?” Daniel asked, earning a subtle snort out of Stacey.

“Precisely,” Tanktantun replied. “Aurula noted seeing a human aboard that craft.”

“Hunh,” Daniel grunted.

“You are all very relaxed,” Tsalay commented, the small Ushen bodied Hyowean standing up from where she’d been looking after a Gerlen with a broken arm.

“No point gettin’ all all outta shape,” Daniel replied. “If we’re ‘fraid of what’s gunna happen, then might as well just hide under a rock.”

“I’d rather not,” Tsury complained stepping up next to Daniel. She hadn’t fixed her shawl yet, the wrap of cloth having come off in the crash earlier. “I like the sun.”

Daniel reached out and grabbed Tsury, putting a hand through the ropes of hair and moving his hand vigorously. “Noogie!” he shouted as she wailed a complaint while reaching up and attempting to push his hand away. “It’s a figure of speech Tsury! Not actually hidin’ under a ro-ACK!.”

There was the distinct crack of static as Daniel yanked his hand outta her hair. “Ow!” he complained, shaking the hand.

She crossed her arms and puffed her cheeks. “That’s what you get!”

The older Hyowean watched the whole interaction with confusion.

“I’m seeing the landing,” Aurula’s staticy voice transmitted through a back-up speaker in the compartment.

Tank turned and headed for the cockpit of the transport. Otto had lifted himself into the second chair. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Aurula’s focus was on the flat landing set into the rounded floor of the tunnel, a wide platform with several bay doors set along the left.

A single figure stood in the middle of the platform. Another Human, but different. Tank leaned on the center console as he focused. “A black skinned human?”

“Leroy, our contact for the ‘underground railroad’, the name is almost certainly his idea,” Otto mumbled into his hands. Tanktantun could see the edge of a smile on the man’s face. “Keeping an old tradition alive.”

The comment didn’t make sense to Tanktantun, and sometimes the Humans simply didn’t explain themselves. If it was important, they’d let him know soon enough.

There were several sunken docking ports on the platform. Aurula brought the transport down onto the leftmost, taking her time to get it settled properly. “This isn’t as easy by hand,” she complained softly as she worked.

It took her a few adjustments, shifted back and forward, left and right. Finally the transport dropped into the cradle with a jarring crunch.

“Opening the bay door,” Aurula reported automatically.

Otto took a deep breath in, then grunted and he placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself upright. He wobbled as he did so. Aurula tapped one last time on the console, then stood and rushed over to Otto to provide a little support. Otto squinted his eyes, but didn’t complain.

Tanktantun gave them their space, leaving the cockpit to rejoin the others.

“Y’all motherfuckers made some noise, I tell ya what!” a deep voice was saying as Tank headed through the back of the transport.

“I know, ain’t it fuckin’ awesome?” Daniel replied shamelessly. “Mike, this is the guy, some fucking time finding this fucker I swear!”

Leroy’s laugh boomed.

Their language had become quite harsh, but Tanktantun couldn’t help but laugh in return at the simple joy in their tones.

A new Gerlen with pants and a simple vest stepped into the main compartment of the craft with a couple loading drones behind him. Little more than humans sized floating capsules with articulating forks on the front, they went to work grabbing the stasis pods without hesitation.

Most of the Gerlen they’d taken from the auction house had already exited the craft but Tsalay was helping the last to his feet. This Gerlen had suffered a blow to the head on the second crash. Tanktantun stepped into and placed his arm underneath the Gerlen’s to help him stay steady.

“I will help,” Tanktantun told Tsalay without hesitation.

She looked up at him, her eyes widening in surprise.

“Let’s go, Otto and Aurula will be following just after.” The sound Aurula’s talons clicking on the floor confirmed his explanation. Tsalay looked at Otto, then looked away and headed for the exit ahead of them. Tank carried the Gerlen out and Otto could be heard following just after.

“You got me a real haul out here brother,” Leroy was saying as Tank stepped around the corner, coming down the ramp.

The human was well built, although only marginally larger than Mike. He kept his remarkably curly hair short. “Oh man, ain’t met many Alpha Kraltnin!” Leroy said, stepping past Daniel to approach Tanktantun. “You’re Tank, ain’t ‘cha?” Leroy asked, approaching with an outstretched hand.

“I am.” Tanktantun responded in kind, accepting the handshake of the dark skinned man. Getting a good look, the shade of his skin was different from that of a Black Kraltnin, more of a deep brown than a true black. The man’s eyes were brown as well, although the sides of his eyes were lined with noticeable wrinkles, a sign of age for humans? His smile was wide and friendly, his white teeth standing out in stark contrast to his dark skin. Leroy wore a bulky harness, loose black shirt with no sleeves and baggy pants.

Unlike the Humans Tanktantun accompanied, Leroy seemed much more… comfortable with himself.

Tanktantun had drawn Leroy’s attention, probably due to his larger size, but the next person the Human looked at was the smaller Tsalay.

“Well now! A second Hawaiian, cool!” her mouth opened, Tsalay obviously intending to correct the mistaken name, but Leroy continued speaking. “You dryads are as rare as they come, Boss is gonna wanna speak wit ya!”

“Did you just?” Otto asked as he stepped off the ramp with Aurula under his arm. He was at least looking more steady.

“Sure did, ain’t it obvious?” Leroy asked with a toothy smile.

As the group talked Tanktantun looked away to see the drones moving stasis capsules through the loading doors. The helpers Leroy brought included a couple white Kraltnin looking at him with obvious worship. He spotted a Kashto helping out as well.

A tall Veprutasian with a bright white ruff of feathers around his neck and a steel bar running down his beak stepped out of the bay doors leading away from the platform. “It’s not Boss Leroy. It’s Vossrey!”

“Sure thing Boss Ray,” Leroy responded naturally, “but hey, did you see this lady?” he asked, waving at Tsalay.

The old bird stopped in his tracks entirely, then rushed over to her. “To be here! You’ve been cracked already!”

She flinched as she looked up at him. “Ye-yes, he did it!” she replied, no longer seeming her age as she pointed at Otto.

The bird stood up and rushed for Otto.

Leroy shrugged and looked at Daniel. “You got other stuff right? Find much for credits? Can’t do this without some cash man.”

“Over here!” Mike called opening up a box he’d just dropped on the ground near a hovering trolley. He picked out a credit chit and held it out as Leroy approached. Tanktantun left them to that and turned to the conversation between Vossrey and Otto. He walked up to see the Vep taking Otto’s hand in his.

“You must join us!” the bird exclaimed. “The Crackers need more like you!”

Otto blinked, he clearly didn’t expect that. “I’m uhhh… not against the offer, but that really depends. We need a doctor and probably the help of a decent raider ship.”

The shoulder of the Vep fell, and his winghands released Otto’s good hand. “Ah… perhaps in time, what is your timeline?”

“Soonish? We have two heavily injured in stasis, but there is a pregnant woman with little assistance waiting on us. The ship is… we need to take on a Monos pirate ship and we aren’t sure how long they’re going to remain in their current hunting grounds…”

“Yes, Monos do move around… Leroy mentioned you trying to get into contact with Red Tail?” the Vep’s head tilted. “Indeed that would be the better choice. Half a planet circuit ago I would have had little trouble getting in contact. Hatherkey has split us down the middle however.”

Tanktantun felt the tip of his tail drop, but was still curious. “Split you down the middle?”

“Yes, that is Hatherkey’s style in fact. Turn, Isolate and crush,” The old bird transitioned from explained. “He has help from elsewhere, unlike Red Tail. Us Crackers have several other key locations, all of which I’m not familiar with, but our only function here is to pass escapees along.”

“Hey Boss!” Leroy called over with a huge smile. “These guys got the good stuff!” he held up a silver canister that looked almost exactly like a thermos. “It’s some Helix ‘hundred years’!”

Vossrey perked up, then shook his head. “That’s a very nice wine indeed, but what else is in there?”

“Eh,” Leroy responded, peeking down into an opened box and looking around. “buncha arts, some super dense gemstones, a couple more luxury foods…” He smiled his bright white smile again. “Plenty of credits though, what they’re giving us will cover the transport costs for sure!”

“Well, I uh…” Otto drifted off, some errant thought distracting him. He didn’t stay lost in thought for long. “Do you guys have a good way for me to get in touch with you?”

Vossrey’s answer was straightforward. “Unless you are moving directly to meet with the next contact, no, not right now. Other places and representatives would likely have a different answer however.”

“Well, we don’t really have a name for ourselves, but if word can get around, it’s safe to consider us allies.” Otto noted.

“Fuck yeah!” Daniel shouted from where he and Leroy were picking through another box. A Kraltnin finished closing the box they’d just finished playing with and carried it away. The pile was mostly gone at this point. Mike and Stacey were laughing as well in response to Daniel’s excitement.

Vossrey glanced at Tanktantun.

Tanktantun found himself smiling. “There is no reason to be cautious of me. We are looking for Red Tail, but you can think of me as a young…”He brought a hand up and placed a knuckle on the front of his chin, “as a young Green Tail.”

“Oh?” Vossrey asked, then his eyes widened with realization. “Oh! Oh that’s... haha, that makes me feel like I’m missing out. Red will likely enjoy meeting you then.”

“That is my hope,” Tanktantun admitted.

Tsalay pushed her way into the conversation. “What happens to me next?”

Vossrey looked down on her. “There are a couple directions to send you, but while many of them depend on being able to fit in, there are only a couple where you can plant a tree unnoticed… Hyowean need their trees right?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll talk as soon as we can get loaded up and out of here,” Vossrey looked around, the constant work of the drones had almost finished emptying the transport of the capsules and while they’d been distracted the last of the boxes had also been taken away.

Otto glanced around. “About time to head separate ways?”

“Yup!” Leroy exclaimed, walking over to join the conversation. “As we agreed, I’ll take ya guys for a tour and show you the quiet way home.”

-----
Otto
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“Underground railroad?” Stacey asked the man as they walked.

“Yeah, the teach was takin’ the class through it before I uh… moved out, heh.”

The Transport was heavily scarred and marked by enforcement. It also initially belonged to Hatherkey. There was no way they’d get away with continuing to use the vehicle. A Gerlen and Kashto had taken the vehicle away after Otto wiped any transit data the machine had. Supposedly Vossrey knew a good hack shop that would be happy to recycle the craft, piece by piece.

Otto could only spare Leroy half an ear as he worked on putting his head back in order. He was leaving the sensory and the share stuff for last. The first order of business was getting his defenses and interface settings sorted out… and he was wondering if he could duplicate the strange but very calming smell Aurula had acquired according to his compromised senses.

For her part, Aurula hadn’t left his side, although she didn’t need to hold him steady anymore. Didn’t stop him from keeping a hand somewhere on her person as they walked. Hard surfaces were bright while soft ones only produced a soft glow. Her touch was less painful than most.

Still, mentally he was spent, his head still throbbing from that AI supported attack. There was a very clear line between organic minds and artificial or synthetic minds. He’d learned what it was like to have the support of a core, now he knew what it was like to face one alone.

Otto got the last of the general dataspace interface sorted and then let out a deep sigh.

“Is everything okay?” Aurula murmured.

“Yeah,” Otto replied. “I just gotta take a message I had no excuse not to take earlier.”

“... No excuse?” Aurula asked with a tilt of her head. “Why wouldn’t you?”

“It’s… uh… it’s complicated,” Otto replied.

“Oh,” Aurula replied, leaving it at that.

It was… a really old habit of his. Ever since his… since she had…

Ever since that day he had refused to talk to the rest of his family, but Mom had never stopped trying to get a hold of him. His brother Erik had tried, even that Father, the very last person who should have ever tried...

The time spent not working didn’t help. Bill collectors didn’t like being ignored, but they sure gave Otto lots of practice. When Otto finally started getting his life in order he’d never tried to break the habit of ignoring messages out of hand. And now Tsalay had unknowingly called him on the habit when there was no longer a reason for that habit to exist.

Otto actually had the ability to access the remote node, but they’d been walking through a dataspace dead zone. It had lifted moments before Aurula heard him sigh.

He reached his connection out, activating the node. A new message from Stoyaf waited, the time stamp from about the same time Ship Lord Prock attacked them. He hadn’t realized he’d groaned with involuntary irritation until Aurula gave his hand a little pat. Stoyaf would have to wait for a bit.

He opened the message from Latte. It was a simple video message giving him a look of her head and shoulders as Latte relayed her message.

“Hello Otto? You said to send you a message if there was a problem-”

Otto’s stomach clenched.

“Well I’m not in trouble at all but…” Her eyes wandered to look at something past his viewpoint and she nodded. “I know! I know, stop it!” She looked back at Otto. “My foster dad Nitita wants to talk to you about…”

“Ch ch ch ch!” a voice clicked at her from off screen.

“Oh yeah, someone else might see this,” Latte reminded herself out loud with a flinch. She looked back at Otto. “It’s really important that you meet, he has a, uh, bright tailed friend he wants you to meet.”

“Mother Fucker!” Otto swore. This was just his luck.

“Otto?” Aurula asked in surprise.

The group came to a halt as everyone turned to look at Otto and his feathered escort.

“Ain’t no mother’s round here,” Daniel joked.

“So uh, meet me along the same route? I’m along there every school day.” Latte explained. “I hope to see you soon.”

The sight of her blinked out as the message ended.

“Jesus Christ man, was that shit necessary?” Leroy asked. “Scared me! Thought we were in trouble!”

“What’s happenin’?” Daniel asked. “Implant ain’t workin?”

“That Latte girl, the skatergirl, I think she can get us in contact with Red Tail.” Otto explained.

“Skatergirl?” Leroy’s voice rose. He sounded like he knew something.

“Well no fuckin’ shit,” Mike responded. “You sure ‘bout that?”

“Not a hundred percent, but she says her foster father Nitita has a ‘bright tailed friend’ for me.”

“Nitita?” Matchka asked, “That’s our contact!”

“Nitita?” Leroy asked at precisely the same time, “never knew he had it in ‘im.”

Otto looked at Matchka, then at Leroy. The tall man and short Bellani were currently looking at each other… and Otto’s headache was coming back.

“Well, we can figure it out as we go,” Leroy interrupted, “Here’s the next elevator… just a warning, gonna be cozy in here.”

They squeezed into the industrial lift with Leroy going last so he could use the lift controls. Otto and Aurula got to occupy the tiny window.

“And… here,” Leroy mumbled to himself before the lift began its ascent.

This wasn’t the first lift after a long walk. It was the third, with the promise of a fourth. Otto and Aurula stared out the window, seeing the bleak maze of pipes walkways, open hover corridors and tightly wound utilities. It was just like his impression of a cyberpunk industrial complex with the huge pipes, constant steam fog and sporadic lighting. It was also exactly as exciting as the last two elevators.

“So you guys were looking for Nitita?” Leroy asked.

“Yeah, but we were thinkin’ we’d find him at a shop belongin’ to a Denmenson guy,” Daniel explained.

“Hmm, ain’t heard from Nitita for awhile, gotta admit, he used to work in the inspection station.”

“Inspection station?”

Leroy paused with his mouth open, momentarily regretting the slip. He then shrugged his shoulders and kept talking, “Yeah, center of our operation is an import and export station we ‘inspect’ for problems while loading up goods. Us guys at the station sorta… spontaneously decided after Latte’s dad went and died that we’d like to do more than exist. Nitita stopped working so he could look after her for Fred.”

“That sounds like a story,” Stacey said softly.

“Not much for a story. Fred ran out and hit a faulty safety so when a stepdown blew it was localized instead of, uh… impressive. Saved a lotta lives that day. I know the crows like their fuckin’ bribes, but they really gotta know when it’s better to throw money at fixin’ their own shit rather than making people look away.”

Mike finally spoke up. “So uhh… we gonna acknowledge the fact that we didn’t need to attack Sapient Resources?”

Otto kept his silence.

“Fuck it! Don’t care!” Daniel broke the newly formed ice. “They had it comin’ to them! More importantly, we didn’t die!”

Mike nodded with appreciation, the cloud clearing from his expression at Daniel’s words.

They passed the rest of the tip with the boys just telling Leroy about life back on Earth and everything he’d missed in the last thirty years, the stuff they knew to say anyways. After a long walk and another lift the group of them were in the gaps.

“This is where we part my brothers of another colour,” Leroy said with a smile. “Stay safe, and be careful, I’ll be pissed if ya get Nitita in trouble!”

“You fuckin’ know we will,” Daniel replied as the lift door closed. “Not get him in trouble I mean!”

“Haha,” Leroy laughed before the closing door cut off any further conversation.

The group of them turned around to look up into the gaps.

“It stinks,” Stacey complained while holding her nose. They were in the very bottom of the area, where everything ended up. The lift had opened up to a grated walkway a couple meters above a shallow lake of discarded scrap and sewage. A few rafts could be spotted, using poles to move themselves around as they inspected the soaked heap for anything of worth. One of the rafts flashed with blue light as an augmented individual moved around.

The roof of the gaps was far enough away that they simply couldn’t see it through the humid, smoky air. But they could still see the endless levels connected by a crisscross of walkways and small lifts. They were also near the outside of the city were the gap was the widest. Even this far away from anywhere interesting there was the movement of countless Sapients just trying to scrape by.

“Let’s see… we wanna go this way!” Daniel exclaimed, heading down the walkway without hesitation.

-----
Nitita
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“I’m home!” Latte called from the front door. This caught Nitita’s attention. She was usually trying to slink away from his attentions, seemingly embarrassed whenever he tried to make his affections known.

Nitita’s words died in his throat as a Human stepped through the door. A larger built man with brown hair and eyes… with a bright handprint on his left cheek. The handprint contrasted the three scars on his right.

Latte still looked annoyed. She had been absolutely out of control waiting for Otto’s reply...

Two… probably younger men stepped through after, followed by a pair of Bellani.

“You are Nitita?” the Human stated as much as asked. “I am Otto.”

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End Chapter
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