-48-

Piles of data cartridges line the front dash of the van, separated only by pages of notes. Samantha eases the front passenger seat back, and props her feet up on the edge of the open door window. Balancing the laptop on her stomach, she types into chat windows on her screen and leans her head over towards the aetherphone on the center console. "So, Howie, have you seen the video of our little, psycho starlet roasting that bandit's nuts?"

Howard's voice crackles through the aetherphone with a slight reverb. "Oh, yes. I sent that segment immediately to the editing team...  With priority. They're trying a few different takes on it. Hopefully, I'll get the results from marketing to figure out which one to use. I'm personally leaning towards the slow motion with dramatic music."

Gerald ejects a cartridge from a small computer, and plucks it out into a large sack on the cab floor. He slides into another data cartridge, taps an on-screen button, and sighs as the progress bar creeps along. "My vote is still on the freeze frame and color wash out effect. Holy hell. Even with the booster, the radio reception signal is crap out here."

Samantha groans as her eyes shift between all the conversations scrolling on her laptop. "Tell me about it. But, thanks to Deedri we had a good main focus for this last episode."

Shaking his head, Gerald snorts and continues to stare at the trickling upload meter. "Veevi had it coming. Just wish I had grabbed that footage myself with my camera. That hall camera isn't the best in the world."

A sly smirk graces Samantha's face and she darkly chuckles. "Oh, along with all the other clips of the two, it worked out just fine. Right, Howie?"

A long silence looms in the van as both Samantha and Gerald await a response. Samantha grabs the aetherphone, inspects the call status on the screen, and lifts a eyebrow. "Howie? Are you still there?"

The distant voice of Howard sounds out from the aetherphone's speaker and he ponders with an audible hum. "Yeah. I'm still here. Just thinking about something. There's something about these new clips that I can't put my finger on exactly. There's something different."

Samantha exchanges a curious glance with Gerald, and aims her voice at the phone. "What clips are you talking about?"

After idle thought and a few attempts at a sentence, Howard dons an inquisitive tone. "The recent clips with Veevi. When she looks over to Deedri... I don't think I've ever seen that expression on her before. What IS that? I don't remember seeing that look on anything from the other show."

Gerald settles back into the driver's seat, blinks in confusion, and presses a button on his nearby camera. "Wait, I think I know what you are talking about. Let me check something."

The attached camera monitor hops between different segments at the command of Gerald. A minute of hunting later, a shot of Veevi next to Chad appears on the screen. The clip slowly plays out and Veevi glances over towards Deedri, stares apprehensively, and briefly shows a frown before mustering her normal front. Gerald and Samantha cock their head inquistively and closely examine the video segment on repeat. Samantha rests her hand thoughtfully over her mouth. "That IS strange. Is she... No... Not her. There's no way she would... But..."

Furrowing a confused brow, Gerald alternates between examining the camera display and the surprise on Samantha's face. "I'm missing something here. What is going on?"

A rolling, dark laugh emanates from the aetherphone and Howard slides to a near devious giggle. "Oh... That's perfect. I had NOT considered that a possibility, but... That is just going to lead to whole new angles."

Samantha grins with a blatantly evil curl. "Don't you mean... Triangles?"

Howard and Samantha share synchronous cackles of devilish delight, while Gerald slowly processes the information to a shocked realization.


----

The morning sun warns the asphalt of the two lane road in front of the ranch style house. Distant rumbling grows louder with each passing second. Soon, a motorcycle rounds the curve into view. Upon the cruiser cycle, a tall, imposing figure leans into the turn and levels out the bike upon the straight away. Artificial muscles flex underneath a polymer outer skin in both of his advanced, cybernetic arms. The muscular man navigates the motorcycle closer to the shoulder of the road. The vehicle slows to a stop next to the mailbox at the mouth of the driveway. The helmeted head glances down at a mounted aetherphone and confirms the mailbox's number. Lifting his military boots off the pavement, the man eases the accelerator and rolls the vehicle in and parks next to the humvee. With a flick of the switch, he cuts the engine. Removing his helmet, he reveals an aged, hard-edged face wearing a calm smile. He rests his helmet down upon the bike and brushes off his lovingly worn, sleeveless jacket. Casually walking up to the door, he grants an admiring nod towards the humvee and stops solidly upon the front doormat. Quickly brushing his synthetic hand through his swept-back silvery gray hair, he shakes out some minor nerves and presses the door bell button.

A muffled tone rings from inside the house. Signs of life stir inside and the faint echoes resonate out to the imposing figure. He patiently waits, but leans slightly off the top of the landing to try to peek into a window. Close to a minute later, the rattle of door locks cues him to stand back up straight. The front door swings quickly open to show Sotalia in a form fitting workout outfit, holding a fanciful cup of coffee and glancing back behind her. "Yes, I'll warn him about the rocks, too..."

She snaps her head forward and finally examines the person in front of her. "Hey, I guess you're-"

Her sentence trails to a hard pause as she tilts her head to the side in surprise. Recognition of the man before her explodes in her mind and overflows upon her face. She fights a losing battle to maintain her composure. The grip upon her coffee cup unconsciously loosens, as her golden eyes gawk starstruck ahead. "C-c-commander Blaureiter?!"

The cups slips from her fingers and Commander Blaureiter's eyes lock onto the falling container. His cybernetic arm flexes forward with the rest of his body and he gracefully seizes the coffee still in mere fractions of a second. Sotalia reflexively startles at the silent swiftness and long dormant youthful admiration wins the battle over composure. She covers her mouth with both hands, fidgets energetically, and struggles to keep her pitch from climbing. "OH MY GODS! You're Commander Blaureiter! I- Uh- Um- Oh- Ah- Wow..."

Blaureiter bashfully chuckles, presents the recaptured coffee cup to Sotalia, and smiles graciously. "Yes. Well, I was once. Now, it's just Professor Blaureiter, officially. And well, it's mostly just Thomas these days."

As Sotalia regains situational awareness and grabs hold of her coffee cup, Thomas lifts an examining eyebrow. "If I'm correct, I believe you are, Sotalia?"

Looking up from the cup in her hands, a flush of pink floods Sotalia's face and she gazes shyly at Thomas. "Uh... Yes. You are correct. How did you know?"

A gentle smile graces Thomas's face and he shrugs his shoulders. "Well, you are the only one who meets the vibrant personality that Sebastian described in his aethermails to me."

He glances inside the house around Sotalia and notices the gathering group looking down towards the entry. "I hope I didn't come at a bad time."

Sotalia snaps her head back, remembers where she stands, and excitedly steps to the side. "OH! No! Of course not! Come in, sit down! Please!"

Thomas nods, taps any debris off his boots before entering, and eases heavy footsteps upon the hardwood floors. "Hello. Hope I'm not barging in."

Sebastian's ethereal form zips over to see Thomas, who blinks in surprise. "Professor Blaureiter! Holy shit! What are doing here?! It's great to see you!"

Thomas inspects Sebastian's ghostly visage and cocks his head curiously to the side. "It's good to see you, too, Sebastian. Despite the information I've heard, I think there's a lot more you can tell me about what has happened."

Gritting his teeth, Sebastian shrugs his shoulders and sighs. "Yeah. It's a story or two."

Bach snaps a delighted gaze up from his bowl of cereal towards Thomas, hops up from his chair. "Hey, Professor Blaureiter!"

He holds a hand out to shake as Thomas steps closer. After shaking hands, Thomas wraps his arms around Bach in a brief hug, and holds him at the shoulders. "I've been worried about you, Bach. I had promised myself to hunt you down after the semester was over if I didn't hear anything from you."

A sly smirk curls across Bach's mouth and he directs Thomas's attention over towards Sebastian with a grumbling, ill-humored tone. "Well, someone already beat you to it."

Thomas's eyes narrow upon Sebastian and he slowly crosses his powerful, cybernetic arms with an unamused glare. "Did he drag you into trouble again?"

Bach joins Thomas in the stare down of Sebastian. "Oh, both figuratively... And LITERALLY."

Aristespha sighs as she slumps her shoulders and rolls her eyes at herself. "In his defense, Professor Blaureiter, we weren't in the best of mindsets at that time. But, I'd like to think we're making progress in conducting ourselves better."

Thomas smiles and lowers himself into a chair around the table. "Well, I'd love to hear all about it."

At the doorway, Sotalia settles her excitement and gradually calms herself down. She closes the front door and exhales. After a long sip of coffee, she stills herself and mumbles. "Okay. Keep it together. Don't fangirl out here."

She glances down the entryway towards the living and cranes her head to catch a glimpse of Professor Thomas Blaureiter sitting and chatting with everyone else at the dining table. She closes her eyes, bites her lower lip, and excitedly fidgets with teen-aged glee.


----

Kaleb scratches the top of his blonde haired head and slides through another guild mission listing on the tablet. He lifts the device up from top of the unfinished table and squints at the next quest description. The sound of water rushing from a faucet abruptly halts and Shadeesa lifts a greasy frying pan out of the kitchen sink. She dumps a few plates of leftovers on the pan and hovers it over the sill of an open window. Moments later, Lagi's big green eyes rise up into view, his maw opens, and a long, large tongue lavishly licks cooking surface clean. Shadeesa waits until Lagi's last confirming sniff and inspects the empty frying pan before sinking it completely into the water. "Thank you, Lagi."

She dries her light gray hands upon a nearby towel and tosses her head of dark green hair back. "Now, you can help yourself to FIVE apples off the tree in the back."

Lagi nods his large head and begins to turns away. Shadeesa lifts a suspicious brow, narrows a stern stare at Lagi, and snaps her long nailed fingers. When Lagi's pauses to attention, she holds her hand out and flexes all her fingers. "FIVE apples. I counted twenty eight yesterday on that particular tree, so there better be twenty three left. Understood?"

Lagi nods his large head again slowly. Shadeesa shifts to warm smile, leans carefully out the window, and scratches Lagi's chin to his enjoyment. "If you need to fill up, there's a new drum of fryer grease from Draco-Burger under the carport."

A low, growling purr rumbles from Lagi and he quickly departs. He hungrily rushes along, bounding his huge four winged frame around the long brick house. Shadeesa giggles to herself as she undoes the apron around her prominent belly. She slowly walks towards the table, and guides her hair over her horns. Sitting down next to Kaleb, she rests her head on his shoulder and sighs. "Anything good in the guild listings?"

Kaleb leans his head snugly against Shadeesa's and hums in thought. "The usual batch of fly overs and survey jobs. Nothing that pays great, but if I can get a few more... Might be able to work a nice two day run to take care of a bunch in a row."

He taps his finger upon the map on the tabletop and traces out a penciled in path between a number of dots. Shadeesa nods and wraps an arm around his. "That doesn't look so bad. Looks like a busy few days, though."

Flitting his eyes wide open in reluctant acceptance of the situation, Kaleb draws a long breath in and sighs. "Yeah. But, it'll mean just two long days to get what we need for the week."

Shadeesa grumbles and rests a hand upon her belly. "Gods, I really need to pick up the pace on getting the veterinary clinic plan together. I don't want you and Lagi having to fly around all the time. Especially, when the baby arrives."

Kaleb slips his arm free from Shadeesa and wraps it around her. He turns his head, and kisses her on the cheek, while carefully avoiding a horn. "Don't worry about it. We're on track with the payments here. We've saved up quite a bit. And, you've got a few local, regular clients."

A long eye roll crosses Shadeesa's face and she lowers her head in disappointment while snuggling close to Kaleb. "Livestock. I'm fixing cows, pigs, and a few stubborn donkeys. What I wouldn't give to get on the preferred list for one of the weird zone reserves or a dragon rider company."

Kaleb rubs Shadeesa's arm and rests a free hand on her baby bump. "Hey, we have to start somewhere. You did get to treat a dire boar piglet and people keep asking me about Lagi's dedicated vet. You may get those calls yet."

Shadeesa sighs and relaxes a bit. "I guess. It'd still help if I had a dedicated place to practice and the all the proper equipment setup."

The two share a quiet moment as each takes turns sliding through job postings on the tablet. A few minutes later, an aetherphone chime rings out from between the two. Shadeesa blinks to attention, retrieves her aetherphone, and reads the caller info. "It's Aristespha."

Kaleb cocks his head to the side and lifts brow. "Might be Sebastian, too, since he can't use phones at the moment."

Shadeesa taps a button on the screen, and holds the device up to her ear. "Hello?"

A mixture of dialog between a number of voices sounds out from the speaker and Shadeesa's eyes light up. "REALLY?! He's there?! ... Why, of course, I think we can!"

She turns to gaze at Kaleb with a happy smile. "Professor Blaureiter is over there with Sebastian and Bach for a surprise visit. Do you think we can go over there?"

Kaleb blinks and presents a happy grin. "Sure. I don't believe we have anything planned today."

Shadeesa squirms happily and focuses back on the call. "We'll fly over there soon enough, it shouldn't be too long..."

A flash of concern washes over Kaleb and he cranes his head over to stare resolutely into Shadeesa's bright green on black eyes. As he shakes his head, Shadeesa quirks an incredulous brow and turns the aetherphone away from them. "What?"

Kaleb sighs, and lightly pats on Shadeesa's stomach. "You can't fly right now. We'll drive over and Lagi can follow us."

Shadeesa sneers her upper lip, with an indignant tone. "I'll be fine. It'll take an extra half hour or so driving-"

Moving his head close to hers, Kaleb watches the minute shifts of mood upon Shadeesa's gray, white freckled face and calmly speaks. "Remember what you said last time."

Shadeesa blinks and pauses in thought. She eases to a calm, appreciative smile and places the phone back on her ear with a tinge of embarrassment. "... Oh, no. Everything is fine. We'll just be driving over instead. I shouldn't be flying at the moment. ... Don't worry. Lagi is really good about following the car. ... See you all, soon."

After the call ends, Shadeesa gazes over to Kaleb, wraps her arms around him, and hugs him tightly. "Thank you for keeping me grounded. Sorry for being-"

A sly smirk pulls across Kaleb's lips. "Yourself?"

Shadeesa squints her eyes at Kaleb momentarily and then rolls her eyes at herself with a grumbling groan. Kaleb sways with Shadeesa in his arms and laughs. In the distant background through a large window facing the back yard, Lagi sits next to a large tree and carefully counts apples.


----

A large gathering involving Thomas Blaureiter, Shadeesa and Kaleb, and the rest of the team converse at and around the dining table. Recent and historical events rise up as topics and individuals retell their perspectives. In a lull of the exchange, Thomas glances over to Sotalia with a quizzical hint to his voice. "I apologize, but I have to ask, Sotalia. How do you know about me? You recognized me, but not immediately. And, I haven't gone by Commander in over fifteen years."

Sotalia's eyes open wide and she briefly grits her teeth. After a tense moment, she sighs with an embarrassed smile. "Well, I think you know how. I was a teenager back then."

Thomas lowers his head forward and chuckles out a wave of bashfulness. "I'm actually a bit surprised. Okay. Now, I have to ask... Which poster did you have?"

Sotalia blinks, averts her eyes momentarily, and bites her lip with a coy tone. "All three."

Thomas shudders his head and gawks at Sotalia in genuine surprise. Sotalia shrugs her shoulders and crosses her arms. "I have two sisters close to my age, so when I took an interest in dragons... We all took an... interest... in the man riding the biggest, baddest one out there."

She fidgets with a girlish glee and tries to contain her amusement. "When my sisters moved on to other things, I kept the all the posters."

Aristespha puzzles between Thomas and Sotalia. "I'm missing something here. Posters?"

The last word reaches the ears of everyone else and draws different reactions. Bach and Sebastian reflexively snort and squelch any further response. Shadeesa covers her mouth with a hand. And, Kaleb grins wide. "You'll have to ask Commander Blaureiter himself about that."

Dretphi and Cideeda exchange glances and then concentrate their collective attentions with everyone else upon Thomas. After a few seconds of gauging the crowd, Thomas groans with begrudging amusement. "Let me first say, when your job description on a contract says other duties as assigned... Make sure there's limits up on that."

He gazes up towards the ceiling with a distant, reminescent expression. "After the Southern Crux collapsed from all their internal problems... And the GAA and Appaland States absorbed the territories, the mercenary group I was part of lost its major government backer."

Thomas lowers his head down to meet the attention of everyone and shrugs his shoulders. "To be fair, they actually had a decent plan given the situation."

Aristespha crosses her arms, and tilts her head curiously to the side. "Which was?"

Gesturing his hands outwards dramatically, Thomas laughs with a mocking grin. "Marketing, of course!"

He rests his cybernetic hands upon the table and pantomimes his thoughts. "Simply put. If you ever wanted to receive your big end of contract retirement payout, you pretty much had to sign away your likeness rights and go along with their big scheme. And being five years away from the end of my contract, I decided to humor them."

He settles back in his chair and sighs. "So, pretty soon my old mercenary company worked out merchandising deals, sold rights to every entertainment medium along with some of us as actors, and... the few they deemed photogenic... Were marketed as the latest craze for teenagers."

Cideeda drums her claw tips upon the tabletop pondering and springs her emerald eyes open at a revelation. "Wait! Is that why all the different named heroes got released in Battles of Nexus?!"

Thomas nods in confirmation. "Yes. Once the idea got out, every group and government that could get away with it wanted a piece of that market."

Dretphi pauses in thought and arrives at a surprising realization. "I believe my mother had-... HAS a poster of you."

Sotalia sneaks a grin across her mouth and winks mischievously to Command Blaureiter. "My favorite was the swimsuit edition."

A strong blush of red washes over Thomas, before he's able to work it off his face. Mustering his composure, he laughs quietly with a gentle smile and faces shyly down at the table. "That's Albert's favorite, too."

Shadeesa smiles and reaches out to pat her hand on Thomas's. "How have you and Albert been? It's been a few months since we went up to High Alton with Lagi for your class."

Thomas chuckles lightly and shakes his head in good humor. "Oh, he's still wily as ever. I always have to make sure he keeps on the light side of his profession."

He pans a look over to Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia. "He's a law professor, that specializes in patent law."

The four nod in understanding. Thomas crosses his synthetic arms and shrugs his shoulders. "He's currently out in Cali for a few weeks for a big conference. But, he specifically demanded I do something other than lounge around the house, since I'm not teaching summer courses. So, I decided to fire up the old motorcycle and travel down here from High Alton to see who I could see."

Bach gets up from his seat and glances towards the kitchen door leading to the garage. "I thought I recognized that rumble. I need to show you my ride, since you are here."

Thomas nods in agreement, slides his chair back, and stands up tall. "Sure. Need to get and move around a bit anyway."

Sotalia quickly rises from her seat, pulls her aetherphone out, and gingerly taps Thomas's shoulder. "Excuse Commander Blau- Um... Thomas. While I'm thinking about it, would you humor an old fan with a teen-aged wish to get a picture with you?"

A happy smile graces Thomas's face and he nods. "Of course."

He dons a mischievous grin, and steps clear of the table. "Stand over here."

Sotalia slides over next to Thomas and taps her aetherphone to the camera function. In a swift motion, Thomas kneels down, sweeps up Sotalia into his arms, and hoists her up. A squeak escapes the startled Sotalia and she blushes with a wide smile on her face. Anxiously giggling at the attention of everyone else in the room, she quickly addresses her appearance, aims the camera at her and Thomas, and presses an on-screen button. Sotalia wraps an arm around Thomas's neck, while he assumes a fashionably tough expression. After a bright flash, the picture appears on the aetherphone display. Thomas gently lowers Sotalia down to the to ground. Sotalia draws in a long breath and exhales out her nerves. "Thank you SO much. Sorry for being such a fan girl and all. I just never really expected to meet you in person."

Thomas rubs the back of his neck nonchalantly and chuckles. "You're just fine. Admittedly, it's all reminded me of my more youthful days. So, thank you."

The mischievous grin resumes upon Thomas's face and he inquisitively peeks over Sotalia's shoulder. "So, who are you sending that picture to?"

Sotalia bites her lip, and smirks with a sinister tinge. "Both my sisters. I can't wait to see how they react."

Thomas shakes his head in amusement and watches Sotalia quickly tap out a message. The door bell chimes out. Cideeda hops up from her seat and walks quickly to the front door. She opens up the entrance to reveal the tall, strong body of a red-headed teenager. "Hey, Dace. I'm guessing your schedule freed up enough to get to our yard."

Dace bring his focus back and gazes down at Cideeda. "Oh- OH, yeah! Sorry, it took so long to get out here. Everyone seemed to have something special that needed to be done with their yards... And... Speaking of special things with lawns... Um..."

His mind tries to assemble his thoughts and he apprehensively approaches the subject. "Okay. I just looked in the back yard and... Well... Uh..."

Cideeda scrutinizes the nervous uncertainty upon the teenager's face, thinks a moment, and then reflexively snorts in amusement. "OH! The dragon!"

A wave of relief washes over Dace and he breathes out his tension. "Okay! Cool! You know about the... Dragon- An actual dragon?"

With a nod, Cideeda grins toothily. "Yes, we do."

Dace combs his fingers through his short, red hair and tries to assume a collected attitude. "So, um. Do you want me to mow around the dragon? Is he bothered by loud machinery? Do I need to feed him?"

Cideeda snickers, shakes her head, and signals Dace to follow her inside. "It'll be fine. Just come inside real quick and we'll figure it out. Also, have you ever heard of Commander Blaureiter?"

Dace furrows an unamused brow and grumbles out past frustration. "Yeah, actually. Shallen keeps on using his Blaureiter and Night Terror combo unit to cheese out wins against my Red Gear mechs."

A dark chuckle escapes Cideeda and she leads Dace inside.


----

Squatting upon a branch, high up in an older oak tree, Modoran surveys the vicinity. After a few passes, he peers through a set of binoculars and stares down corridors between the trees. The drone from the rustling leaves in the breeze accompanies the minutes of inactivity. He lowers his hands and uncertainly twists his mouth. Aiming his gaze down to a trail down him, he shakes his head with a grimace. His attention shifts to an unseen source and he presses a finger upon a device in his long, dusky, bluish gray ears. "Modoran reporting. Nothing here. Saw some signs of foot traffic along a trail. But, whoever is probably long gone by now."

A few seconds after he lifts his finger from the ear piece, he nods his understandingly and taps it quickly. "Understood. I'll start moving towards the next sector in a few minutes. Just want to double-check the area."

He stares out into the forest and focuses his dark blue eyes at the occasional flit of motion from the local wildlife. Eventually, he slumps his shoulders, rolls his head around to stretch, and sighs. Slowly he unfolds his legs to balance upon the large branch and plods over to lean his back against the tree's trunk. As he closes his eyes and starts to relax, a distant snap twitches one of his ears. His eyes spring open and he presses into the contours of the trunk. A wary stare hunts around the area for the exact source.

Along the trail next to the large tree, over a dozen evuukians hike in a tight group. All carry packs of equipment, supplies, and other belongings as they navigate the terrain with ease. Their attire shares a similar uniform, natural theme, but lacks any obvious markings. Torn threads faintly outline unfaded spots upon clothing and scrapes obscure original markings on items. Chelindia glances over her shoulder and bows her head to two evuukian guards, light haired and dark haired. With an apologetic cadence, she speaks respectfully to the two in evuukian. She gradually presents an appreciative smile and gazes up to them. The two guards share a laugh, and both nonchalantly shrug back. Both mention Faelatelia's name in an inquiring tone. Chelindia nods, turns her head forward to gaze down the trail, and directs her voice back with a comforting, informing sentence of evuukian. Relief washes over the guards and they nod in agreement. Chelindia brushes back her dark green braids, draws a long breath in, and sighs to an uneasy expression upon her dark tan face. She verbally wanders in thought and occasionally glances around the group. A discussion grows between the large group, each individual thinking out loud and others commenting in return. As the calm debate continues, Captain Hayes, Captain Hackle, GAA, Borderland Rangers, and Perimeter Weird Zone stand out in contrast against the shared dialect of evuukian.

When the large team passes out of view over the crest of a small hill, Modoran releases himself from the tree trunk and slides down to a seat upon the branch. He blinks while his mind organizes the events witnessed and mulls the situation over. After some deliberation upon his face, he contorts his lips in an uncertain conclusion and presses his ear piece. "Captain, this is Modoran. Reporting... Strange... activity."

He listen to the reply, and concentrates on the his response when he keys the radio. "Large group of evuukians just passed by me a few minutes ago. I counted fourteen. If I hadn't overheard their conversation, I would identify them as Terra Priests."

Modoran furrows his brow as confusion seeps unto his face. "But, they were all talking as if they all... Well... Just quit and walked off the commune. They were debating what they were going to do next and brought up some names and organizations."

He hears a response over the radio, and reflexively shrugs his shoulders. "My sentiments exactly. I don't know what to make of it, really. I believe they're harmless and were heading south west from my current position. So, they'll be outside the operational zone in an hour or so."

With a grit of his teeth, Modoran grumbles and shakes his head. "But... If they are leaving the Terra Priests, that means there's a probably a commune somewhere around here. They didn't say anything to indicate where. I know we're out for bandits, but we might catch something else by accident."

Modoran stands back up, stretches his arms out, and quickly taps the radio after a minute. "That sounds like a plan to me. I'm going to continue on to the next area. That group will probably scare off any straggler bandits from coming this way. I'll report if I see anything else. Out."

He crosses arms, stares out into the forest, and gradually sways his head. He tosses his hands up in the air, mumbles out a few evuukian curses, and gestures out an incantation. Stepping off the branch, he glides down onto the ground and lands in a darkly obscuring mist that envelops him from sight.


----

Sotalia stands with her arms crossed and shakes her head in disbelief. Lagi resettles his head upon Thomas's lap and happily purrs a low rumble, and relaxes his wings out onto the freshly mowed field around the wooden plank picnic table. Thomas pets Lagi softly and stretches his legs out while seated on the end of the wooden bench. Sotalia sighs and reaches out to scratch underneath Lagi's chin. "I still can't believe this is The Night Terror's son."

Thomas laughs and smiles upon the attention soaking dragon. "Oh, I think he's turning out just fine. I'm certain Nachta would have raised him FAR differently, but I actually like this life for him better."

Sotalia stiffens her upper lip and fights a smirk at Lagi's begging gaze when she places her hand on her hip. "I- I mean, this IS the child of the Night Terror. The biggest, most powerful dragon to have flown in combat in recent memory. The dragon that bit off both your arms-"

Thomas averts his eyes, grits his teeth, and sheepishly remarks. "Actually, she only bit one off... Because, I was a stupid twenty something that didn't know what the hell I was doing."

Halting mid rant, Sotalia stares down and puzzles at Thomas. "Huh? I always heard she took both your arms? So... Um, how did you lose the other... If I may ask?"

Scratching the back of head, Thomas embarrasedly sighs. "You can blame marketing on that oversight. But, it was a farming accident. Trying to get my dad's heap of tractor working again. I was test driving it and hit a hidden sink hole on the road. Dumped me out first. Followed by the tractor flopping onto my arm with all the moving, hot bits. They may have been able to save some of it, but I just opted to pair up the cybernetics with reinforcement."

Sotalia blinks aghast and verbally stumbles to a response. "Uh... Wow... That sounds worse than Nachta biting it off."

Thomas breaks out laughter and smiles brightly. "Gods! I would have chosen her to chomp it off over that tractor in a heartbeat. I didn't realize she had bitten my arm off until after I tried to punch her with the missing arm."

He notices Sotalia utter bewilderment and sighs with a reminiscing grin. "You have to understand. Nachta had whole different mentality. She was proud, smart, and strong. She only respected those she felt were equals. That happened to be no one. Well... Until I showed back up and slugged her dizzy with the new arm. After that, we had an amazing partnership."

Sotalia closes her agape mouth and covers her astonishment with an admiring smile. "That's actually a lot cooler than the story they wrote for your bio."

Thomas massages the blue black scales between the white bony plates on Lagi's head and smiles. "Nachta was strange girl. Jealous, too. When she saw I lost my other arm to the tractor, she left her den, went to my father's farm, and melted the tractor to a puddle of slag. I still don't know how she knew where to find the thing."

Kaleb nervously smiles and shudders as memories rise up. "I still remember the few times you took me NEAR her enclosure. Gods, that red eyed glare."

A humored chuckle rises from Thomas and abruptly halts when a chime rings out from his inner jacket pocket. He retrieves his aetherphone, taps to the messages, and groans. "Oh gods, Albert."

Shadeesa leans close to Thomas and asks with a hint of concern. "Is everything okay?"

Thomas presents a smile over his frustration and nods. "Yes. Albert is just being his picky, over analyzing self again. We've talked about repainting the sun room. I'd just like A warm color. Albert... is trying divine the exact shade. And, conferring with me to the point I think my brain refuses to differentiate colors anymore."

He rotates his phone display out towards the gathering nearby. Sotalia, Shadeesa, and Kaleb squint and study the number of pictures highlighting extremely similar colors. The group deliberates and contort their faces in indecision. Sotalia glances around, grabs hold of Aristespha as she walks by, and directs her attention to the swatches. "Which color do you like better?"

Aristespha focuses her violet eyes upon the aetherphone screen, ponders in thought, and then incredulously stares at everyone. "Is this some kind of trick? They look almost the same to me."

Thomas sighs and shakes his head while he continues to pet Lagi.


----

Veevi stretches out upon the sleeping bag inside the large, tall tent. She combs through her pink hair and twitches her furry tail in idle thought. The tent flap unzips, and Chad steps through. He glances down at Veevi as she smiles slyly at him. "Don't get too comfortable, we still have individual interviews to record and a daily recap."

The half-fvalian girl sighs petulantly and narrows her pink pupil eyes. "I KNOW. Gods. I don't know what there's to talk about. Nothing happened Tuesday and nothing happened today. Not like Saturday."

She points her finger towards the top of the tent, curls her thumb, and audibly mouths out. "ZAP!"

Chad narrows his galre and tugs uncomfortably at the corner of his mouth, groaning. "I gave you that laser pistol to defend yourself. NOT to shoot surrendering people in the junk."

He briefly cringes and shudders reflexively. "Gods dammit, that hurt to WATCH. So, can you AVOID giving the medical staff anymore work in the future?"

Veevi rolls her eyes indignantly and sticks her tongue out at Chad. "Fucking fine then! It's not like the asshole didn't deserve it."

She wraps her arms around herself and presents a pitiful, endearing gaze to Chad with a meek cadence. "But, I am sorry. I guess I got a little carried away. After that amazing sword fight, I was just so worked up and saw him point that gun at you. I just wanted to help out."

Chad crosses his arms, and sighs with a smirk. "I agree he deserved it. But, fucking hell, try not to shoot anyone who has surrendered. I REALLY don't want the Flames of the Phoenix to get that type of reputation."

A seductive grin graces Veevi's lips, and she rolls over onto to her side. She glides her finger tips along the length of the sleeping bag next to hers and flicks her tail over her legs. "Keeping up appearances, hmm? Is that why there's two sleeping bags in here?"

A chuckle accompanies the smile upon Chad's face as he kneels down upon the sleeping bag. "Well... Not entirely. These two sleeping bags can be zipped up together."

Veevi bites her lip, giggles with a squirm, and stretches herself out to highlight her figure. "Oh. Something we'll try out, tonight?"

Chad shrugs his shoulders as he sits down. "Maybe. It might be a bit difficult, since you're not exactly... Quiet."

A sharp nailed hand walks over to rest upon Chad's knee and Veevi smiles with a seducing lick of her lips. "Ooo, that sounds like a challenge. I'd like to attempt... Now."

Outside the tent with the Flames of the Phoenix logo and across the other side of the camp site, Trakenthin flips to the next page of his book. He calmly reads the paragraphs, relaxing against tree and propping his feet upon an equipment locker. Poring over the pages, his hazel eyes quickly scan over the text and traces of excitement rise upon face. As he eagerly reaches out to turn to the next page, he freezes. His head lifts up and aims his ears towards faint noises. He hunts around the campsite and settles upon the tent with the Flames of the Phoenix logo. Bewilderment flashes over to disgust when Trakenthin recognizes the sounds. He cringes, grips onto a heavy armored boot nearby, and readies for a throw. Moment pass and Trakenthin grits his teeth in defeat, and drops the boot. He grumbles grath curses under his breath as he stomps away from the developing din of carnal gymnastics.


----

Cideeda and Dace stand at the crest of a slope leading down from the picnic table into the open field. Dace traces out the forest border with a hand. "When I do a finishing pass around the edges, I can angle the cutter and trim up the bushes along way if you want."

Scratching a claw tip thoughtfully on her chin, Cideeda nods, and pinches out a small height. "Can you cut it short along the bushes, like you did the target field on the side of the house?"

Dace grins confidently and proudly places his hands on his sides. "Oh, of course. I can cut the grass to the centimeter on that mower."

He points towards the lone, worn, scorched, and chipped boulder in the middle of the field. The wind blows the trimmed grass surrounding the pile of rock chunks encircling the massive stone. He glances down to Cideeda and inquires. "You sure you don't want me to take care that huge rock? I won't charge that much."

Cideeda grins toothily at the teenager. "Won't be needed. Kind of like it there. It's perfect for target practice. So, it might not be a problem given time."

Thomas blinks at the mention of target practice and notices the Particle Power Blaster secured in the equipment satchel on the sunning Lagi. He side steps over, flips the cover of the bag, and places his hand on the huge pistol. With a wistful smile, he looks over his shoulder to Kaleb at the table. "Kaleb. Do mind if this old man catches up with an old friend?"

Kaleb gazes over, sees Thomas's hand on the blaster, and nods enthusiastically. "Hell yes, you can. I told you when you gave it to me, that you can always use it."

Thomas grins wide, swiftly draws the weapon clear of its holster, and remembers the feel of the blaster as he walks to the crest of the slope with Dace and Cideeda. He examines the control panel on the device and chuckles. "Up to thirty five percent power. Nicely done, Kaleb."

Kaleb puffs out his chest proudly and beams at his accomplishment. "Oh yeah. I've gotten up to fifty percent for single shots, but keep it there most of the time for convenience."

Shadeesa briefly glares over to Kaleb and reinforces her sentiment with a stern tone. "Also because someone nearly dislocated their shoulders when they accidentally burst fired it on that setting."

Kaleb shrugs off the embarrassment and weathers the stare from Shadeesa. Dace studies the device in Thomas's hand and blinks in astounded recognition. "Holy shit. That's YOUR Particle Power Blaster!"

He gestures towards the large pistol and smirks at Thomas. "Okay! I GOT to ask how powerful that thing really is. Because, my friend Shallen and I got into an argument about it and the stats in the game-"

A sinister grin parts Thomas's lips and he powers on the weapon with a quick twirl of the pistol grip. He flips the blaster around in his hand expertly and presents it to Dace with a sly smile. "Try it out. Brace yourself. Take aim. Squeeze your pinky around the lower grip safety and hold your thumb on the upper safety when you are ready to pull the trigger."

Dace takes hold of the pistol with both hands. He searches around for a spot, plants his feet, and raises the pistol up in line with the boulder. Thomas side steps behind Dace, keeps a steadying hand at the ready, and flashes his greatly amused grin to everyone else. Dace secures his grip, takes aim, and pulls the trigger. A bright orange bolt of charged matter loudly blasts out the muzzle of the pistol, streaks down to the boulder, and erupts into fiery cloud. The surprise force lifts Dace's muscled arms up, and tips him backwards onto the awaiting hand of Thomas. Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, Kaleb, Lagi, Sebastian, Shadeesa, and Sotalia react in a mix of amusement, surprise, and encouragement. Dace blinks in utter shock, gradually lowers his arms, and stares in awe at the particle pistol. "Holy shit! That's at thirty five percent?!"

Thomas chuckles confidently and holds his hand out. "Yes. Want to see what it can do at one hundred?"

Dace returns the pistol to Thomas, steps back a meter away, and awaits with renewed respect. Thomas flips the power level to full. An audible hum of power emanates from the blaster. Training his stare upon the distant boulder, Thomas plants his feet, braces his stance, and keeps a free arm out to balance himself. He raises the muzzle of the blaster up to the target.

A flurry of blue-white particle bolts stream out of the weapon, single shots follow triplet bursts. Each shot belches out flashes of ionized gas and billow out faint pressures waves upon the cut grass ahead. Thomas's cybernetics buffer the recoil masterfully and he makes minute adjustments in aim between shots and during bursts. Taking a few seconds to squint at the distant, smoldering boulder, he squeezes one last blast and dons a happy grin on face. "I think I still got it."

Plume of dust, smoke, and ionized air lifts away from the boulder in the breeze. Upon the large rock, a collection of purposefully placed holes glow a fading orange-red and resemble an dotted smiley face. The assembled group amuses at the display, between uncovering their ears and granting a healthy applause to spectacle. Cideeda glances over with a scheming grin to Bach. "I think we need setup the target range today. We have a new challenger."

Dace gawks in absolute awe, blinks back to awareness, and scratches the back of his head reflectively. "Damn. I think I owe Shallen an apology."

Thomas pats the shoulder of the teenager. "Don't worry. They've been debating how many dice my attacks should get for YEARS now. They'll try to fix it an errata. Then, unfix again in the next errata. Then... unfix the unfix? I try to stay out of those fights these days."

Dace nods in agreement. Cideeda rolls her eyes and sighs. "Gods, tell me about it."