Original Content Bought and Sold. Chapter 38, Arc 3

MyNameMeansBentNose

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Well, the overwhelming response is consistent and positive. Take it to completion. Don't stop half way, finish the story and worry about improvement on a later 'official' version. So that's what's going to happen!

I will finish this arc and take a break, normal procedure when taking the previous arcs as a precedent. I'll get myself in order and possibly tell an unrelated short story to try and clean my palate as it were. Once I'm sorted and rested, I'll be moving onto Arc 4, my intended end point for Bought and Sold since I started on arc 2.

Thanks for all the support guys, it means a lot.

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Previous | Beginning | Technology | Wiki | Next
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Chapter 38
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The gaps here was every bit as charming as the previous visit when they had come up from the industrial section. Mike glanced over the rail into the distance below but didn't approach too close to the flimsy looking guard.

They weren't quite low enough to see the big swamp that was the base level of the gaps, the fog was too thick to see to the bottom. Most ramshackle walkways and makeshift buildings lining the walls were difficult to see clearly in the poor light, although there was a wide empty section of wall just across from them as they walked. A cursory glance and Mike could see that section had actually collapsed, the crushing damage of falling structure clear in the wreckage of the next several levels below.

The lights were haphazard as well, although they usually hung from the edge of the walkway above. Traffic was slower this time around, less Kashto, Veps and other miscellaneous races visibly moving around. It was pretty late in the night after all.

“So, where to from here?” Mike asked, turning to look at the others.

“You, young kit,” Tank called out to someone moving furtively in the dark. A young Kraltnin, Mike had almost forgotten Kraltnin had better night vision.

A small bluish-white Kraltnin flinched and then turned his eye on Tank. The eye opened wide and the adolescent turned to face him entirely. “Green Alpha!” he yelped, his tail curling underneath him in with uncertainty, “What can Tik do for you?”

Tank walked up, the men keeping their distance out of respect for the nervous young male. Tank crouched next to the Kit, reminding Mike of how Otto had made himself less intimidating for the Hyowean Tsalay.

“Tik, is it?” Tank asked, “I need a dataspace access point, can you guide me to one?”

The small Kraltnin nodded furiously. “It is several layers up, but I can lead you Green… Green Tail!”

“Please do,” Tanktantun replied calmly, taking the name in stride. He then stood and looked back at the men. Otto stepped forward first, still carrying that cylinder he’d stolen, the thing hanging from his shoulder. The three of them were still partially obscured by the cloaks that visually hid the weaponized harnesses they were wearing. The only thing any of them had discarded was the overly bulky d-plate shield Otto had started off with.

Daniel and Mike stayed towards the back, both of them letting their eyes constantly rove around. There were watchers. Even at a glance, Mike could see eyes watching them from various levels. A ragged looking Veprutasian two levels up with wings stripped of feathers. A Monos a level down missing an upper right arm and his lower left arm replaced with a crude looking mechanical limb ending in a barely functioning three digit claw. They’d passed a Kashto, all skin and bones and terribly dull brown fur, that watched closely as they walked by. The nighttime group was much sharper eyed than anyone they’d seen during the day.

The young Kraltnin had taken them a short distance forward and into one of the many poorly built structures. This one hid a set of stairs and they were led upwards, higher into the Gaps.

Two levels up and they reached the end of the stairwell and exited out to another equally run down level. There was a bit more traffic here. A group of healthy looking Veprutasians were walking past, although one took off from the railing as the young Tik opened the door. The young Kraltnin didn’t pay the birds any mind.

They all froze when they saw Tank, however. Mike could hear the subtle near singing tones of their voices and his translator picked up what they were saying despite the attempts to be quiet. That one made his forehead itch when it happened. Hearing people whisper and still understanding it clearly didn’t always happen, but it the feeling was almost indescribable. He scratched the little nodule near his left eye as those near inaudible whispers carried into his consciousness.

“A Green!” was how the whispering started. “Scary,” “Strong,” “Don’t Look!” and other statements issued from the handful of birds as Tank and Otto passed by. Mike and Daniel stared at the Veps as they walked by. Realizing there were three Humans startled them further and they walked, very quickly, in the opposite direction.

Otto yawned. He was facing away from the brothers of course, but his hand coming up and the size of the yawn made it clear was the guy was doing.

Daniel fumbled around on the cloak under his back. He pulled out a small bottle. “He Otto, we still got shit to do, yeah?”

“Of course,” the bigger guy replied, turning his head to look back as they walked.

“Want some of this?” Daniel asked holding up the little bottle. “Bottle of zip to pick you back up?”

“Sure,” Otto replied slowing down for a moment to take the bottle Daniel had offered. “Thanks man.”

“No prob,” Daniel answered as he pulled a second bottle out, holding towards Mike. Mike grabbed his and Daniel pulled a third. He was looking at the bottles as he grabbed them. The third one had a bright green line on it. “Hey Tank, this one’s for ya. It’s got less caffeine than ours, so it’s safe for you.”

Tank had turned to look at Daniel and accepted the bottle with some hesitation.

Finally, Daniel found his and he took a sip. Otto had already taken a swig and Mike was taking a gulp as well. They still had a meeting to go to after all.

They arrived at one of those chain lifts that still boggled Mike’s mind on how they could be a thing. Tik set a foot into a rising link, grabbed the chain and let himself be picked up. Tank followed, Otto was next, then Daniel, finally Mike. He hesitated for a moment before following suit.

They rose several levels in one go. After a certain point, all the ramshackle buildings started to blend together. Nothing was built the same size or with quite the same material, but none of it was uniform either. They passed a hall that seemed to extend the length of a soccer field and then the next level was a row of shop houses that fought for individual space. Half home and half stall selling self made goods. The next level was wide open with stools and tables surrounding a single food stall that looked like a big hot dog vendor.

And so it went. One floor short of the top, Tik stepped off and the group followed in order. Mike didn’t miss Daniel scooping a piece of junk off the ground. He didn’t see what it was, but Daniel had felt the need to have something in his hand. He let himself carefully look around as if he was just curious about the area.

“We are close Green Tail!” the male said, leading them to the left.

As they turned and moved Mike saw the shadow leaning over an edge and watching them from above. The area the figure was standing was poorly lit, but Mike got the impression of grey or white feathers. As they walked he would spot at least two more shadows that seemed to be watching closer than necessary.

Tik wasn’t lying about being close to the terminal. He opened the door to a solidly built building lodged into the Gaps wall. Tik lead the way and Tank followed. Mike was looking past them, however. The Gaps stretched a damn long distance, but the haphazard way things were built meant that sightlines along walkways tended to be really bad. He looked at Daniel and his brother looked back and nodded. They could both see it.

“We’ll keep watch,” Mike explained as Otto stepped up. Otto nodded at Mike before stepping through. Mike stood on one side of the door, and Daniel started chugging his bottle while standing on the other. That seemed like a wise idea, so Mike waited until Daniel was finished then downed his own. They were going to need to be wide eyed for what was coming.

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Otto
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Most of the public dataspace was pretty clean when he had to access it. On the flip side of that, the regulations were pretty strict. That combined to make the public space much easier to deal with compared to the darkspace as Otto found himself thinking of it. A person could handle either side easily enough if they knew what they were doing, but it was sort of like the difference between driving a car and flying a plane, there was a whole other dimension to worry about. And most annoyingly, you had to bounce all over the damn place before leaving that path on the public side. Or at least that was Otto’s impression, his only experience with planes was as a passenger.

What this meant was that while the public network was mostly clean of problems, here this was not the case. The roads here were more like dirt trails through the forest, and there were bogs and potholes and carnivorous plants all over the place. Otto had to harden his defenses and swat down several rogue infections as he attempted to push through to the node Oriashka had told him about.

The first nasty trojan he had to crush entirely. It had taken up residence in the terminal and was quietly infecting anybody who was forced to use it.

But that was the hardest part. Aside from the risks, it was much easier to push through the network and much harder to track what a person was doing past the… the terrain. Once he tracked the subtle tail of a surveillance camera above the door he pushed his way out to the node, he found Oriashka waiting.

“Otto! You were successful!” Oriashka started the conversation. She didn’t open up the connection all the way, and he couldn’t blame her. Just because he had a handle on things here didn’t mean the dataspace would remain safe. It was much easier to hide in the bushes, to continue the metaphor. “Our parasites noted that Hatherkey’s network wasn’t happy to be dealing with three simultaneously strikes. You managed the timing well.”

“Good to hear,” Otto replied. “It went well on our end, we got in, neutralized those we could recognize as trouble and managed to both leak the manifest and prevent the stock from moving.”

“So Kruent will be able to see the Military resources Hatherkey has been receiving.”

“Yup, we also saw a drone that looked exactly like what enforcement had accompanying Chase.”

“You saw Chase?” She asked with obvious worry and surprise.

“Yeah, the guy’s pretty sneaky, he managed to get the jump on us. He’s not hurt by the way, but with our d-fields mostly burned out and more reinforcements shooting at us, we had to leave without him,” Otto explained.

“Oh, that is unfortunate,” she replied. He could easily imagine her crest drooping and her wings hanging slightly like Aurula might have done when hearing similarly bad news.

“So what next?” Otto asked.

“Next is… we have to move your group out of that of that apartment. It was a bit of trouble to trace you, but not that much. Now that Hatherkey is fully aware of you, he’ll find you much quicker. It is safest to move you and your friends right now.”

Otto felt himself nod in real life. “Makes sense, and I was wondering how long we had. Do you have a plan to get us moving?”

“We have some members who are still hale enough to meet up with your friends and help you along. Loplum should be near you right now, he is a male white Leralin, similar to myself.”

A sudden shout of surprise and swift motion on the camera distracted Otto. “Just a moment Oriashka,” Otto requested. His mind flipped to the real life side he turned to see Tik standing nervously at the door with Tank heading through the door. They could hear several muted cracks of the brother’s guns.

“I will see what is happening,” The big Green noted as he exited the room. Otto could see Mike and Daniel facing off against something.

“We’ve got a problem on our end, is it safe to say we should head to the apartment and meet up along the way?” Otto asked, trying to hurry the conversation along.

“Yes, that is exactly the plan, Lopulm should be within eyesight of you at this point. Even if he is not, it would be best to make your way along… this route.” She dropped a small info package. He accepted it and opened it up to see a map guide and the notation of a transport capsule waiting for them.

“Okay, will do, see you soon Oriashka.”

“You too Otto.”

Otto pulled the cable he had plugged into the simple terminal that looked like no more than a wall mounted monitor and turned around to leave. Tik was currently huddled in the corner and clearly afraid.

Otto stepped outside to see the mess.

He had been watching the camera of course. The whole event had started with Daniel turning and whipping his empty bottle at something out of sight and then grinning at the result. Mike had followed suit, also throwing his own bottle a split second after. A couple shots had come in and skittered across the d-field of Daniel’s now cool module. The brothers had pulled out their own kinetic rifles from under the cloaks and taken slow and careful aim.

Otto was now looking at the aftermath. When he looked to the right where Daniel had thrown his bottle he could see a handful of black feathered birds and a brown weasel on the ground. There was another bird further back kneeling on the ground with his hands on his head. A nearby bottle suggested just what had happened.

One of the corpses didn’t look to have been hit by the brothers though. The lead Veprutasian had smashed up against the wall. Otto could see his module half removed, blasted apart by a bullet. But the damage to the birds head was clearly heat based. A tight plasma shot took the head of the last Veprutasian out.

“I’m coming down!” a voice called from across and above the open center. They looked over to see a white Leralin floating down.

His foot grabbed the railing and he pulled himself onto the walkways while folding his wings in.

The male Leralin didn’t look a great deal different than Aurula or Oriashka had. He was perhaps a little shorter, but the only notable difference was a thin dark head crest and bands of pale brown and tan on his wings. His white feathers were otherwise the same as Oriashka and looked like a white version of Aurula’s blue. He also had the black cheek or ear spots like Aurula and Oriashka.

“You are Lopulm I assume?” Otto asked as he faced the white Leralin. It was a rhetorical question. Oriashka had provided him with an image of the male’s appearance.

“Of course, I shall take you to the transport.”

“Wuh- wait!” a trembling voice called out.

They turned to look at the young Kraltnin. They hadn’t even taken a step, but it seemed he was terrified of them just leaving.

“I would not just leave you,” Tank replied as he turned to face the young Kraltnin in the doorway. “What is it you need?”

Suddenly put on the spot, the teen Kraltnin froze.

“You want to come with us?” Otto guessed. The way the Kraltnin physically twitched answered the question. If the boy had just wanted some sort of pay, he wouldn’t have been so afraid.

“Yes! Please!”

“Why?” Tank asked. The teen froze in place. “What is it you can offer?”

“What? That ain’t fair!” Daniel complained.

Tank looked at Daniel. “If he has no skills or knowledge to offer, will he be better off following us around? Is it fair to pull him into danger with no way to support our goals?”

“Yeah, but you can’t just step on him like that!”

“I did not step on him. I asked him why he wants to follow us. I asked him how he can carry his weight.”

“I know every way in and out,” Tik spoke up.

“In and out of where?” Tank asked.

“Well, just this section of Gaps. But my father is Hatherkey’s underling in this slice,” Tik explained, his voice fading as he spoke. The rest came out at a whisper. “He doesn’t want to be, but Hatherkey will kill him if he doesn’t do it. I know the hub connections.”

“And you want to follow us,” Mike asked, he seemed a little suspicious, but also impressed the Kraltnin was brave enough to even say that.

“That sounds useful,” Lopulm admitted looking at Otto. “There are only a couple safe ways into the Gaps.”

“Tik,” Otto spoke up. “Are you willing to let me scan you?”

“Scan?” Tik asked, by his next answer showed the boy had clearly put no thought into it. “Of course!”

“Understand Tik,” Tank said from above the smaller Kraltnin. “He is asking to dig through your head, to check on your memory.”

“Yes?” Tik asked, confused more by the explanation than by the request. “That’s okay!”

Daniel and Mike were dumbfounded. Lopulm’s feathers weren’t ruffled. Tank was making sure Tik knew what was being asked, but he also didn’t look bothered.

Mike looked at Otto. “What are you doing this for?” He asked, stepping right up to Otto and poking him in the chest.

“He came out of nowhere and now he wants to follow us? I am checking his memory to see what he’s thinking,” Otto replied. Mike was angry, his expression was clear. In response, Otto’s own blood was starting to rise. “I am checking the condition of his implant and making sure the boy is clean from influence.”

“And you think that’s okay?”

“No it’s not, but if he doesn’t say yes, I am unwilling to take the boy. This city is full of Hatherkey’s minions and that… person seems get into far more heads than seems reasonable,” Otto replied. “From what everyone has said so far anyways, the story is very consistent.”

“This is a good observation,” Lopulm interjected, “We have been having a great deal of trouble on those grounds alone.”

“I’m willing! It’s okay!” Tik piped up.

Mike whipped around. “He’s gonna root around in your head!”

Tik’s head tilted as he looked at the older brother. “Yes? What is strange about that?”

Mike froze in place for a moment.

“You’re an... “ he bird paused for a moment as he looked for the word. “... you’re an Earther, aren’t you,” Lopulm spoke up. “Chase was also surprised by that viewpoint. Did you know that mind scans are run before a sapient is allowed to take on a new job? Enforcement will happily root around in any memory and knowledge that can be accessed in ‘criminals’ that they can catch.”

“They already do invasive mental ‘background checks’,” Otto said gently to Mike. “It’s normal.” Daniel’s face had shifted from anger to being sickened. Otto didn’t stop there, the next part was important. “But unlike them, I’m asking permission.”

Tik just looked confused. Mike and Daniel stepped back.

“Fuckin’- is everyone this goddamn hard on kids here?” Mike complained bitterly as he gave them room.

“We should move as you look,” Lopulm noted. “It is not good to waste time.”

The brothers stayed quiet, and Tank stepped up next to Lopulm as the white bird took the lead. As they walked, Otto pulled a cable from a hidden reel in his collar and held it out to the young Kraltnin.

Tik didn’t hesitate to take the plug and stick it into a socket on the back of his neck. Tank put a large hand on Tik’s very slight shoulder and pulled the young Kraltnin along as Otto worked. Otto would dig while they walked.

It was a simple implant. The adolescent had a basic memory module and BIPU like any common slave. Otto’s first impression was the bloated nature of some of the packages loaded onto the Kraltnin’s head. Tik had some packages meant to help him interface with the systems of the city without understanding how those systems worked.

With only some cursory digging Otto was able to get a bead on the nestled recording of recent events. It was a necessary feature. That was how the implant interfaced with a slave package to help code and manipulate the mind of the person it was loaded onto. That was part of how it manipulated a mind based on recent events.

There was a poorly made worm sitting in Tik’s head, whatever it was doing, Otto couldn’t see, but it didn’t hurt anything to obliterate the nuisance. Tik’s memory was otherwise clear. The young Kraltnin ate, slept and ran all over the place, doing errands for his Grey father. He wasn’t lying. He knew the access points and he knew many of general patrol areas. And Tik didn’t have any tracking programs or apparent manipulations loaded onto his implant.

Otto had dug through the slave implants enough times. He knew what manipulation and observation looked like. This meant he didn’t feel bad giving Tik his endorsement. “I don’t think the young man isn’t lying. On purpose or by accident.”

Lopulm shook his wings out and settled them tightly on his back. “Then I have no complaints.”

That surprised the group a little. Otto was maybe the most surprised at how easily the bird believed him.

“Hey um, Lopulm!” Daniel called forward, walking ahead.

“Yes Human? The bird asked.

“You trusted Otto really easily there to do what he said.”

“Of course, Crackers are experts in managing implant manipulation,” Lopulm explained simply. “Nitita’s charge… Latte, confirmed Otto’s ability by denying Nitita’s commands. Outside of experts, there is no one better to verify a person’s mental cleanliness.”

“And that’s important?” Daniel asked.

“If enforcement realizes what Otto is, they will drop everything to catch him,” Lopulm warned, his voice grave. “And they are only interested in ‘catching’ his body. It doesn’t mean that body needs to be functional.”

That ended the conversation for awhile.

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Lopulm
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Otto scared him, if he was honest to himself.

The Green Kraltnin, Tanktantun was clearly impressive. Impressive enough that the sight of him was enough to completely uproot the young Kraltnin from what was likely a surprisingly comfortable life for one of his station. And Tik was excited just to be near the Green Kraltnin. Having known Red Tail for so long, Lopulm could relate to an extent. He’d seen it many times before.

The brothers had a hint of the hunter about them. Their eyes may not see as powerfully as Lopulms, but he felt their gaze. The brothers were dangerous simply in the way they carried themselves. They carried the weight of threat.

Otto didn’t have that. His eyes held a different weight, but it wasn’t a weight that was focused on whether or not Lopulm was going to stab him. Otto wasn’t watching for someone to attack him from the darkness. Lopulm felt like Otto was looking at who Lopulm simply was and it was disconcerting. Knowing Otto could potentially dismantle him really easily if the Human thought it necessary wasn’t something Lopulm wanted to think about.

Sure Lopulm was quicker, but the Human had the strength of a durable land bound primate. Although.. He was currently disconnected right now, Lopulm didn’t have to worry about dataspace based attacks.

He shook his head with a loud flutter, that wasn’t a healthy line of thought.

The trip through the Gaps had gone quietly. They had gone off the path, but it was a beneficial detour thanks to Tik’s knowledge of shortcuts. The new route had come out closer to the transport tube than Lopulm had expected. Not too long after and they were off that tube and coming up on the apartment in which the Humans were staying.

He kept his eyes open. More than that, as they approached the location, Lopulm pulled some headgear out and carefully slipped it over his head. The skullcap with built in wraparound goggles was rather uncomfortable, but the headgear provided important utility, if only they didn’t create a headache. He took the small cable dangling from the back and slipped it under the feathers on the back of his neck and plugged it into the multijack on the back of his head.

His vision expanded.

They were in that small period of time between the late, late night and the early morning. The few people who were up because they had to be were in the middle of work. And this place wasn’t one that had many of individuals out and about for the sake of fun.

There was only one individual walking ahead of them on street level, and that Kashto was stumbling, addled by whatever was going on in his head. But the street wasn’t what Lopulm was watching for. The balconies and the heights about him were the danger. He checked for movement and he checked for heat signatures. Lightbending was common enough when an opponent had enough resources. But it wasn’t foolproof after all. Not against gear like heat and motion sensitive optics.

“Spot anything? The skinnier brother asked.

“No, it seems clear,” Lopulm answered. He couldn’t find any signals. Lopulm found himself breathing easier as he looked around. He had been worried, but it was good to find nothing.

They arrived at the building. A big ugly block connected directly to the street, roughly at the center point between two of the city pillars. Just another brick tossed out to lay wherever it fell.

“If there was something, Matchka would have met us by now,” the other brother noted. “She’s got the drone after all.”

“Oh yeah,” the younger replied.

Otto pulled a small pod from his belt and plugged a cable into it before waving the module at the door control. The door hissed open and the Human lead the way through. Through a few hallways and up an elevator, it wasn’t long until they were to the apartment the Humans were occupying.

The first door opened, Tanktantun stepped through with Tik right after. Otto was next. The brothers waited for Lopulm to pass through first.

“Otto!” a lovely voice chirped. Lopulm stepped through to see a pair of blue wings wrapping around the Human.

“We’re fine, I’m safe, I’ve got a present for later.”

“A present? What is it?”

“A surprise for later, look forward to it.”

For a moment he blanked out. It was the light nudge of a heavy hand behind him that brought Lopulm back to the ground.

He moved out of the way for the other two Humans to step in. Otto put the Lady who’d jumped up to hang off his shoulders down then turned to the others in the room. “We kinda guessed it would happen soon, but we’re moving now.”

A Green and brown Bellani exiting the hallway nodded. “Sensible,” she commented before moving to a corner of the room where some boxes had been stacked up. “Damage?” she asked as the brothers moved forward.

“Yup, jus’ bout burnt out all the d-fields!” The younger brother explained cheerfully as he shed his harness. “We blew our wireless too, but ya knew that was gunna happen.”

“Indeed,” The Bellani replied. “Harm?” Lopulm hadn’t even seen the tan coloured female Kraltnin standing next to the Bellani before she accepted the harness. She’d come out and it had escaped his attention.

“No harm… well bit of a headache, but ya figgured it’d be like that.”

“Indeed.”

The Bellani and female Kraltnin settled down to quickly modify the harness, but Lopulm’s attention was drawn back to the other problem.

Just the tone of her voice had suggested her state, but Lopulm was watching closely. He spotted the black bar across her chest the very moment the blue Leralin stepped back. She was in season! And Otto was her mate? Lopulm had to mentally force his feathers smooth.

Otto turned to Lopulm, his teeth bared. A smile, Otto was happy to see his love bird. “We’ll take some time to get our stuff in order, then we can go.”

Carefully, without elaboration or reaction, Lopulm replied. “Of course. I will wait.”

-----
Otto
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The second Tube ride was rather chilly. And everyone knew why.

Lopulm had reacted visibly to Aurula’s attention. As soon as he’d seen her the white bird had turned cold and distant. All of his answers and suggestions were carefully spoken, clipped and direct. The bird wasn’t happy.

Stacey and the brothers simply weren’t paying attention, which was almost certainly on purpose. Stacey for sure wouldn’t miss the attitude. Aurula was equally obvious in the way she was ignoring Lopulm. Tank was fine, although he was happy to be with Minmint. He was tired, but the female was subtly keeping him stable as he walked. Tik was staying close to the Bellani, helping direct the small luggage hover to make himself useful. The only person who seemed oblivious was Tsury. If she was aware, then she was probably happy the difficult mood wasn’t her fault. The second skin and regular bathing made such a different in terms of her pheremones.

While Aurula was staying close on the right side of Otto, Tsury also up in his space on the left.

This seemed to bother Lopulm even further.

They descended further into the city. Descended, and headed deep into the center of the Peaks. They couldn’t see it because the lower levels of the transport tubes were all concrete of course. All they got to see was stonelike tunnels with occasional area and distance markers that zipped by faster than a regular human eye could often read.

But Otto’s awareness was increasingly crowded as the area around them was increasingly dense. There was a great deal of noise here and he found himself pushing portions of it away to keep his headspace relatively tidy. Then he realized the noise was likely the whole point, there was a plethora of signals and connections here. It was tough to say off hand which was the correct one when Otto realized many of the signals were near identical clones. It was a minefield.

Then the Transport capsule took off into a small side tunnel. It came to a stop at a tiny station and they slowly piled out. Otto felt the brush of automated scanning from the dataspace. “Otto, welcome!” A chirpy voice sent out over the space.

“Who is that?” a neutral voice asked from his left. Otto turned to look at Aurula. “That would be Lopulm’s sister, I told you about Oriashka.”

“You didn’t tell me she was Leralin.”

“Yes, I remember that conversation,” Otto smiled. “Someone was nibbling on my neck and wanted to move onto something more interesting.”

“I- oh. Yes, that did happen.”

Otto’s smile widened to a grin as Aurula realized she’d personally removed his chance to let her know. A hand slipped around her back. “Don’t worry, she’s not about to steal me away.”

“Of course!” she replied. “That couldn’t happen.”

Her too quick agreement gave away her worry, but Otto had another problem on his mind. Out of the corner of his eye, He could see Lopulm’s feathers rise and fall as the male Leralin had to master himself and his reactions.

There was a mental ping and the station door before them opened. They passed through to a large empty corridor. Otto could detect more automated signals brushing up against his dataspace. The space was mostly impervious as well, with the exception of a connection Oriashka was purposefully leaving open for him.

The floor echoed their footsteps as they walked towards the far door, Lopulm leading the way with Tanktantun just behind him.

That door opened automatically as they approached. Lopulm was through first, with Tank and Minmint through next.

Otto arrived to see Minmint carefully stepping out in front of Tank with her tail up in the air, rigid with tension. Her tightly controlled posture suggested her nictitating membrane had dropped as well.

Across from the surprised Tank and the defensive Minmint, a chuckling red Kraltnin was facing them. “Hello Tanktantun,” greeted the feminine voice of Red Tail. “I am Nualula Telesis, mostly known as Red Tail. Allow me to show you around.”

Nualula was impressive to look at. She was taller than Tanktantun, and of course, while his colouring was a bright emerald green, Nualula was a rich, brilliant scarlet. Her form was also a bit less bulky, more streamlined than Tank, although every subtle movement suggested strength and control. Tank caught the eye, Nualula demanded it.

Tank inclined his head. “Please do.”

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End Chapter
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