Lone Star – Chapter 3

Deliah accessed the chronometer, making a guess that the team she was putting together would be arriving within the next few minutes.  Feeling no need to stretch the limbs of her mechanical body, she remained sitting while Quenlia paced around the table.  The older woman was showing her age, Deliah thought.  The magic that was keeping her healthy and strong was powerful, but a person can only look 30 years old for so long.

Deliah herself, on the other hand, would never show signs of age, because the only human components left were her brain and the minimum amount of living tissue it took to sustain it.  She did have to eat- occasionally- but the cyborg body she inhabited would not show signs of getting older.  Her mind may deteriorate over time, but her form would not.

Her host brought her mind back to the present with a question.  “Are you ready for this?”

Deliah snickered.  The two women had discussed this meeting in depth, several times.  While they were certain they could convince everyone to stay on the team they were putting together, they knew there would be some shouting involved at the outset.  There were just too many reasons for their prospective team-mates to distrust each other.

“I’m ready for it.  They may dislike each other, but when they’re working together on a mission like the one we’re laying out for them, they’ll come together.”

“How many of them know what kind of people they’ll be meeting?”

“I’m sure Jasmine knows,” Deliah replied, speaking of one of the powerful psychics she had chosen.  “But then again, she knows Arcturus personally, and she’s met Father Martiniros before.  The thing that will be interesting will be their reaction to knowing you have another team heading that direction.”

Quenlia nodded.  The older woman knew of Deliah’s objection to keeping the teams separated, but she was insistent.  “By the way, the replacement cyborg body is ready.  I just got the word before we met with Yaran.”

Deliah’s cyborg face raised its eyebrows.  “Magnificent.  You still haven’t told me what type it is.”

Quenlia’s lips twisted into a mischievous smile.  “It’s a new design from our overseas friends at Triax.  A heavy combat unit, brought over brand-new.”

“I’ve heard that Triax never sells those, and executes people who try to steal them.  How’d you get one?”

The smile remained on Quenlia’s face.  “It involved more protection than money, but that’s all I’ll say.  The engineer’s guild went over it, to learn what they could, but we’ll transfer you into it tomorrow.”

Deliah nodded, slowly.  Her current body was impressive enough- a CS-built combat model with very few human features outside the face and head. She usually wore gloves and loose-fitting clothing to disguise her true nature, but she could go toe-to-toe with any robotic power armor the Coalition had yet deployed.  She knew this for certain, because for a long while, she had fought in their military.  It had been those experiences that made her desert the army and head north.

The door opened slightly, and a young woman peeked around its edge.  Her black hair hung in a pair of braids, draping in front of her shoulders.  She was dressed in a loose grey jumpsuit, as if she was about to report to a machine shop for work.  Her eyes scanned the room, curiously.  When her gaze met Deliah’s, she decided she was in the right place.  She entered, and closed the door behind her.

“Hello,” she said, pulling out a chair across the table.  “Glad I’m not late.”

Deliah smiled.  “I’m glad you could make it, Kierla.  Quenlia agreed to everything on your list except for your choice of transport.  Too big, too noisy.”

Kierla nodded her head.  “It just would have been better for carrying tools.  But by the sound of it, we won’t have anything all that big to work on.”

The door opened again, and two rough-looking men entered.  They both wore old denim pants and shirts that were hand-stitched.  Their eyes were cold and grey.  One looked to be no older than 17, the other was in his late 30s.  They both had completely bald heads – not even eyebrows or eye-lashes.  The elder of the two had a simple black tattoo on the left side of his face, the broad lines forming the image of a spider.  The abdomen surrounded his eye, and when he blinked, his eyelid even showed black.  They were Psi-stalkers; hunters of powerful minds, who fed off the mental energy of their prey.  While solitary Psi-stalkers would never be allowed into the Kingdom of Tolkeen- they would be a threat to every psychic and magic-user within 100 kilometers- the Psi-stalker tribes of the northern forests often chose only dangerous creatures or people for their prey.  The Spider tribe in particular had good relations with Tolkeen, and occasionally traded with some of the local businesses.  And in this case, their interests aligned, and the tribe had sent along two of its people to help.

Quenlia greeted both of them with a silent nod of her head.  Deliah addressed the elder.  “Thank you for coming, Perridan.  I’m glad your tribe agreed to help us.”

He smiled, showing surprisingly white teeth for someone who lived in the wilderness.  “Your gift of the weapons has already proven invaluable to my people.  We have met the Xiticix patrols three times since, and each time we crushed them without losing a single warrior.”  He looked to Quenlia.  “So you’ve given us a gift of life, not just of weapons.”  He put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  “My apprentice, Finjiarn.  Our journey to the South will be his path of testing.”

“Thank you for your help,” Deliah said to the younger man.  “Your skills will be invaluable.”  The apprentice smiled, and the two took their seats.

Another pair entered the room just as Quenlia was approaching the door.  They, too, scanned the room, and Deliah felt the peculiar sensation again.  She could tell, in the parts of her that were still human, that she was in the presence of great psychic power.  Jasmine was the first of them, an attractive blonde woman in a long, green cotton dress.  She seemed disproportionately tall and thin, like a young tree that might break in a strong wind.  She was a deceptive sight; she was one of the most powerful psychics Deliah had met.  The gentleman who had arrived with her looked completely average- well dressed in an expensive pre-cataclysm style suit, and well-groomed, with his long brown hair pulled back in a tail- but otherwise unremarkable.  His power, too, was in his mind- the power to set things ablaze with little more than a thought.  These regarded each other as friendly rivals, but took chairs near each other.  On this mission, they would be working together more often than not.  Deliah greeted each of them with a nod.  The two tribesmen looked at her with an odd expression- she had easily attracted their attention, and not just with her beauty.

A few moments after taking her seat, Jasmine smiled and looked over at the cyborg.  “You’re still worried about our reactions to your choices for this team.”

Deliah nodded.  There was no point hiding it.  Her living mind wasn’t much more difficult for Jasmine to read than anyone else’s would have been.  “In some cases, yes.  There are a few people who wouldn’t have agreed to come had I told them who else would be here.”

“I just hope you can keep everyone calm.  But I think you should forewarn Tristan here before Jacob arrives, even if he is with his companion.”

“He will be.  I’ve asked him to allow her to enter the room first- that should help.”

The gentleman perked up at the mention of his name, then shook his head, slowly.  “You might as well tell me, so I don’t accidentally light them up when they arrive.”

Jasmine shrugged.  “All right- Jacob happens to be a Dragon-juicer.”

He was on his feet in an instant.  The chair Tristan had been sitting in slid backward and slammed into the wall.  His eyes had become lit, flame escaping upwards as his anger boiled.  “You ask me to join up with a blood-drinker?!  How dare you!” he shouted at Deliah.

She met his gaze, letting the machine-face lapse into an emotionless and cold expression.  “Yes – and he’s bringing his life-long friend, an Ice Dragon hatchling.  She has been his sole source of blood, I assure you.  He was converted against his will- otherwise I’d never have invited him.  You know I feel the same as you on that issue.”

Tristan took a deep breath, and the fire in his eyes faded.  “Against his will?  How?”

Quenlia provided the answer.  Her voice was soft, and tinged with sadness.  “He was kidnapped by one of the smaller kingdoms in the Magic Zone.  They were forcing people into military service, and had assumed they’d be able to control him through his addictions.”  She shrugged.  “Fortunately, he’s proven to be of stronger will than they’d anticipated.”

Tristan eased himself back into his chair.  He opened his mouth to speak, but the door opened again, and another pair entered the room.  These two were very young, and looked to be complete opposites.  The young lady who entered first was short, petite, dressed casually in denim and cotton travelling clothes, and had short, white-blonde hair under a grey knitted cap.  She looked a little out of place amongst the others, who all clearly were veterans of several kinds of fighting.  Her eyes were the only feature that set her apart from a normal human- while they were the right shape, and the pupils were human, the gold color was a shade no human’s could match.

The man who followed was far more powerful, at least outwardly.  He was easily the largest man in the room, his loose clothing not able to hide the size or power in his body.  The wide, composite-metal cuffs were just visible from the ends of his sleeves.  His hair was short and orange-red, streaked with white, and his eyes were jet-black.  Tristan turned to give him an appraising look, then turned away, looking down at the table.  The two new-comers took chairs beside each other near the far end.  The man was aware of the stares he was receiving, but they didn’t seem to bother him.

“Thank you for coming, Torealis, Jacob,” Deliah said.  “I don’t know if you’ve met Jasmine Drechart or Tristan Ellian.  And Kierla Johannes will be our field mechanic.  These two are Perridan and Finjiarn, of the Spider Tribe.”

Smiles and nods were exchanged, but no words were spoken.  A moment later, Kierla sighed and broke the silence.  “So, are there any more surprises for us?”

Quenlia smiled, and answered, “As a matter of fact, there are three more joining us.  Hopefully they won’t generate too much outrage.”

Someone knocked loudly, and a slightly digitized voice called through the door.  “Quenlia?  Deliah?  Am I in the right place?”

“Yes you are,” Deliah replied, smirking a little and looking around for reactions.  She knew at least a few of her companions would recognize the tone of the new voice.

Kierla’s head had turned sharply at the voice.  Torealis was glaring in the same direction, her eyes taking on a dangerous slant and shifting color from gold to scarlet.  Jacob merely looked confused.

Jasmine had figured it out already, but amused herself by reading the others and their reactions.  While she couldn’t read Torealis’ mind, her eyes told the tale openly enough.  And Kierla was familiar enough with machines to recognize the voice of a Coalition States Skelebot robot anywhere she heard it.

The door opened, and suspicions were confirmed.  The form at the door was a gloss black skeleton, with mechanical joints instead of muscle and sinew.  Its head was a black, spiked skull.  The eye-sensors looked like polished mirrors.  The head swiveled slowly, taking in the expressions of those around the table.  Kierla had already jumped from her chair, moving to the far corner.  Tristan was on his feet again, his hands already surrounded by fire.  Torealis had also risen, but was moving toward the robotic figure, not away.  The air became several degrees colder as she closed the distance between them.

But then the robot did something completely out of character.  It met the small woman’s gaze, but its head tilted sideward, like a person confused, and its hands folded behind its back.  This action confused Torealis, who stopped in her tracks.

The skull spoke without moving its jaw.  “I assure you, young lady, I have no intention of harming you.”  Its hands moved again, held out open before it.  “I’d have brought a weapon if that had been my plan.”

Quenlia moved to his side.  “It’s ok, Torealis.  This is Arcturus, and while he has the shell of a skelebot, his heart is in the right place.”  She placed a hand on the robot’s shoulder.

The skull turned to look at his host.  “You are too kind, my lady.”  He turned back to Deliah, who was leaning back in her chair, apparently enjoying the awkward introductions.  “Thank you again for allowing me to help you.”  Deliah nodded in reply.

Kierla was approaching him, slowly, as Torealis returned to her seat.  “Did you get reprogrammed?”

The skeleton pulled back a chair, and sat.  His voice was a paradox; the tone and sound was that of a machine, but as he spoke, the pitch and rhythm of his words was that of a living person.  “Yes, but not the way that you think.  I was caught by a dimensional Rift, and it took me to a place inhabited by living machines.  They rebuilt me, giving me my own thought and reasoning processes.  I am not certain I have a ‘soul’, the way you all believe you do, but in many ways I could be considered alive.”

Tristan let his hands extinguish, but still looked wary.  “The CS Military can remote-control its robots.  There could be someone using you as a puppet, remotely controlling you to give the appearance of intelligence.”

Kierla’s mouth had broken into an intrigued smile.  “No, no, they couldn’t, not out here anyway.  They’d need to maintain a line-of-sight for the link to work, so there would be a Coalition aircraft circling the city or something.  We’d have spotted a remote operator.”

“Yes,” Arcturus agreed, turning his head toward the psychics.  “I suppose out of everyone here, the one I make the most nervous is you, Jasmine,” he said, looking toward her.  “We have met before, but I believe you find it unsettling to converse with someone who has no mental radiation.  I am glad to see you again.”

Tristan shook his head.  “This is quite a crew, Deliah.  You say there’s two more?”

“That’s right.  And I’ll need your help introducing one of them,” she replied.  Tristan looked even more confused, but then his head turned toward the door again.  His expression brightened as he caught sight of the next guest.

Torealis snarled, but remained in her seat.  Jacob noticed her tension, but hadn’t deduced the reason for it yet.  Kierla gasped, her eyes wide.  Tristan rose, and slowly rounded the table to approach the door.  The two tribesmen had pushed their chairs away from the table, and looked like cats ready to either pounce, or dash to safety.

“Father Martiniros!” Tristan said with a smile.  The figure at the door was tall, slender, and dressed in a solid black suit, cut to look almost like something from a pre-cataclysm movie.  His white collar stood out sharply against the rest of his clothing, but it was the color of his skin that provided the most glaring contrast.  He was so pale, his skin was nearly grey.  He smiled as Tristan took his hands, and the over-large canine fangs showed between his lips.  He took a seat beside Deliah herself, meeting the eyes of everyone around the table as he took in all their faces.  His gaze halted upon Torealis, and he sighed.

“I assure you, young lady, you’re safe from me.  I won’t drink from anyone who hasn’t earned it.”

Her voice was a deep growl, impossible for a human to produce.  Her eyes shifted color again, this time to a light blue that was almost white.  “You’d find my blood a bit cold for your taste, vampire.”

Martiniros’ eyebrows rose.  He looked to Deliah, shaking his head slightly.  “You have a lot of courage to invite a dragon along on this trip when you knew I’d be here.”

Deliah nodded, then met Torealis’s gaze.  Then she swept her robotic eyes about the faces around the table.  “Everyone here will most likely find someone they have difficulty trusting.  But you all trust me, and I am telling you all that I would not have invited anyone that I couldn’t trust.  In your case, Torealis,” she turned back to the dragon, “I think Jacob has more of a chance of killing you for your blood than Father Martiniros does.”

Kierla cleared her throat.  “So why is it that we need a team like this?  If we’re all watching each other even as we meet, what sort of objective will we be heading for?”

Quenlia moved toward the door, holding her hand through the small crack without opening it any farther.  A pale green glow lit from her fingers, then faded as she drew her hand back inside.  “The reason for a team like this is to make it difficult to trace our origin.  It will be make little sense for our target to follow a trail back here, when easier explanations could be found.  Vampires aren’t welcome here, nor are dragon juicers.”

Martiniros nodded his head slowly.  “So, we’ll be going after the Coalition States directly.”

“Yes,” Deliah replied.  “As you all know, Tolkeen is being slowly encircled.  It won’t be long before there are no routes available for us to leave without meeting a fight at some point.  Since our goal is to appear to arrive at our destination from another direction, we can’t be seen leaving here.  Now,” she paused, seeming to search for the right words, “I’ve told you a little about our mission.  It will be dangerous, it will be difficult, and if successful, will deal the Coalition States a blow that will take much of their combat strength away from Tolkeen’s borders.  We could all join the ranks of those who are already preparing for war, or we could go south, and quite possibly foil our enemy’s offensive.”

Martiniros spoke again.  “Very few of the soldiers who fight for the CS Military are truly evil, Deliah.  You taught me this first-hand.  I find it hard to believe you’d start an operation that will certainly result in the deaths of front line troops.”

“Many, many more will die in a war with Tolkeen.”  She sighed.  “Our mission could save the lives of far more men and women.  But he’s right,” she turned her head toward the center of the table.  “And on this mission, we will be restricting the use of force as much as possible.  For the sake of secrecy as well as mercy.  My enemy is the leadership of the CS, not the fools on the front lines.  So if anyone has come here to fulfill dreams of bloody conquest, you can take your leave now.”

Jacob spoke next, voicing the thought everyone else had formed.  “So why bring along this kind of fighting power if we’re not planning to use it?”

Deliah let the thought hang for a long moment before answering.  “We will make use of force when we reach our objective- but it will be focused.  And just as important, a dragon, or dragon-juicer, will draw more suspicion to the Federation of Magic than to Tolkeen.  A vampire will draw their eyes southward.  We can’t hope to out-force the Coalition war machine, but there is a potential weakness, and the strength here, in this room, will be enough to exploit that weakness.”  The door opened again, and a short, balding man wearing spectacles and a threadbare grey robe entered the room.  He looked very tired, but had an uncommon determination in his eyes.  He met Quenlia’s eyes, then Deliah’s, then took a seat near the pair of psychics.

“Welcome, Darien.  Thanks again for offering to help.”  Quenlia put her hand on his shoulder.  He smiled up at her, clasping her hand in his own for a moment.

“Darien here is a shifter, a member of the Society of Free Thinkers.  Some of you may have heard of them lately,” Deliah said evenly.

Jacob snickered.  “Yeah, they’re the guys who were goin’ around sayin’ they broke into the Lone Star complex.”

Darien cleared his throat, and leaned forward over the table.  He met Jacob’s gaze, and without flinching, put a hand into an inside pocket of his robe.  When he drew it out again, it held a small black device not much larger than the palm of his hand.  On its face was the emblem of the CS Military Genetics Laboratories.

A few mouths hung open at the sight.  For those who didn’t understand the significance of the item he held, Darien explained.  “This is a memory module, a data storage device.  When those who had made it back here to Tolkeen said that more than half of our order was captured in the initial infiltration, I was one of those they were speaking of.”  He wiggled the device in his hand.  “It took the techno-wizards here two months to build a machine that would crack the security on this thing, and read the data that it held.”

Kierla’s eyes were wide.  “What was on it?”

Quenlia answered.  “Experiment data and test results from what they did to the Free Thinkers they’d captured.  It seems that in anticipation of their attack on Tolkeen, the scientists at Lone Star have been working on devices that will hinder, cripple, or contain a magic-user’s or psychic’s abilities.  I guess they planned on capturing at least a few of us alive, and needed ways to restrain us.”

Kierla’s face went white, her eyes turning to Darien.  “They tested these things out on you?”

He nodded his reply, biting his lip.  “It was an unpleasant time.  Most of my fellow Free Thinkers did not survive.  Fortunately for me, one of their experiments didn’t work the way they had thought it would- instead of blocking my abilities, it amplified them.  As soon as I realized what it was doing, I was able to teleport repeatedly, confusing my guards enough to get a grip on one of the memory modules.  When I made my escape, my teleport spell landed me almost on the north edge of old Nebraska.”  He laughed, and set the device down on the table.  “It was worth it, even having been captured, I think, because now we have a fairly clear idea of what they’re planning to use against us, whenever they get around to attacking.  It’s too bad that the device they’d tried on me didn’t survive the trip out.  We could make great use of something that boosted our magical powers, I’m sure.”

Jacob nodded, his face showing his new-found respect.  “And you’re willing to go back there with us?”

Darien nodded back.  “I was part of the distraction when we first tried to enter the complex.  I didn’t know the route, only our guides did, and I’m certain that particular way in has been either blocked off or has a guard set upon it now.  But it appears we have another way to get someone on the team into the complex.”  He turned and looked at Arcturus.

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