Long dense forests border both sides of the long highway as the humvee rolls at a steady pace. Sitting in the front passenger’s seat, Sotalia glances over to the side, and squints at a passing road sign. “Well, only a few hundred kilometers till we reach Phis.”

Blinking the early morning drowsiness from his eyes, Bach stretches out his neck and shoulder against his seat, and fights against a yawn. “Are we actually going to try to make that in one day?”

Flicking her furry ear back from the comment, Cideeda flutters emerald green eyes, and grumbles with a frown. “As much as I’d like to, I don’t think so. Roads are getting rougher, and I don’t want to push it too hard. I just got everything running nice. Really don’t want to knock the alignment out hitting a pothole too fast.”

Dretphi glances up from studying a road atlas, and ponders out loud. “We should travel past the halfway point today. Then, a comfortable trip tomorrow to Phis.”

Tapping through a number of messages on her tablet, Aristespha sighs as she sorts through the junk mail, and plays with her silvery blue hair between her fingers. “Depending on how far we get today, I have a few places we can stay. Thankfully, since this is a main highway, there are actually decent motels to stay at. I figure we should take our time in Phis, and relax. Enjoy the stay.”

An eager smirk appears on Dretphi’s face, and a flit of excitement wiggles up her body. “The barbecue. Hard to choose which place.”

Sotalia cracks a sly grin, gazes towards Dretphi around her seat, and shows her phone screen. “I know! We’ll have at least lunch and dinner to choose a place to eat. Maybe after breakfast the next day, we can get some fresh to go for lunch later on.”

Picking up her aetherphone next to her, Dretphi leans forward on the far back seat after tapping to an aethersite, stretches her arm out, and shows Sotalia her phone display. “Have you seen this one?”

Quickly reading bit of text from the screen, Sotalia returns her attention to her phone, and navigates through to a different menu. “No... I’ll check that one out.”

Cideeda shakes her head with a smirk, gradually adjusts the steering wheel, and stares off into her mind. “I hope we get a good view of the big Train Depot there from the hotel. It’s amazing how they run that whole operation and keep those land trains running.”

An entrepreneurial, toothy grin graces her face, and she narrows her stare with a quiet chuckle. “And the deals that can be made...”

The humvee cruises down the wide highway, gracefully navigates around rougher patches of road, and follows the gradual curves in the path. Minutes later, the vehicle slows down into a short line of traffic condensing behind a number of Chrome Crusader trucks. Cideeda narrows her glare forward, and groans. “Gods... What’s going on here that Chrome Crusaders would be out for?”

Aristespha blinks her violet eyes, twists her mouth, and squints down at her tablet. “I don’t remember anything about this... Sebastian, do you remember if we read anything about this?”

From the sword resting between Bach and Aristespha, Sebastian’s voice resonates out with a puzzled tone. “No, dear. I don’t remember hearing or seeing any bulletins about this. Maybe some weather advisories, but that’s not for another day or so.”

Studying the flow ahead, Cideeda rocks her head side to side, shrugs her shoulders, and comments calmly. “Well, it seems to be moving. Looks like they’re just taking turns sending all the traffic down to one lane.”

As the humvee rolls up to a uniformed Chrome Crusader with a stop sign, Cideeda rolls down the her window, and waits. A young man steps close to window, tips his hat respectfully, and points down the way. “Sorry for the hold up, everyone. But, after this next batch of cars, we’ll get you through. It’s only a few kilometers, and then you’ll be in the clear.”

Nodding appreciatively, Cideeda lifts an intrigued brow, and motions over to the number of armored up Chrome Crusaders in the distant tall grass of on the right side of the road. “Thank you. So... Is there anything we should be careful of? Maybe, keep an eye out for?”

The young man glances over in the direction of the soldiers, awkwardly smiles, and stumbles to a reassuring tone. “Oh, um… Nothing too bad. We’re here for a precautionary measure. Probably nothing will be happening around here.”

Cideeda nods to the man with a smile and cheery tone. “Well, thank you for keeping us safe.”

The young man bows slightly, and walks down the forming line of traffic behind the humvee. After Cideeda rolls up the window, she pivots her head, and frowns slightly with a suspecting color to her cadence. “Yeah... Something is going on somewhere nearby.”

She points a claw tipped finger between a large metal figure hunching low in the brush, and grumbles. “I don’t think they’d have that anti-armor mech at the ready, hiding over there, if they didn’t expect nothing to happen.”

The rest of the team peers through the windows. Each quickly spots the humanoid robot within the natural shrubs when it gradually sweeps the aim of a large caliber arm cannon towards the forest. Bach quirks a surprised brow, and glances over his shoulder to Cideeda. “If the models of yours I’ve seen are accurate, that’s a thirty millimeter autocannon.”

Dretphi slowly nods at the information as her recognition grows. “Yes. Not a weapon to have ready for no reason.”

Shifting her attention towards a group of uniformed Chrome Crusaders, Sotalia hums in thought, and searches the scene. “Maybe we can pester one of them to tell us what’s going on... Who looks to be in charge-”

Her golden eyes widen, and an evil grin graces her lips. She rolls down her window, rests her elbow up on the door, and props her head upon her hand. Drawing a long breath, her gazes falls upon a middle aged man with short graying hair, and she shouts out. “OH, QUINCY!”

The man freezes in place, tenses up his shoulders, and slowly pivots towards the source. He searches around the vicinity, and settles his gaze upon the waving Sotalia. Blinking a few times, he musters up an awkward smile, waves back to Sotalia, and slowly walks his way over. Sotalia twists her mouth at the corner, and chuckles darkly as the man gradually navigates the road block. Directing her voice with her hand, she lets out a strained quack. The man startles, sprints into a run, and stops right next to Sotalia’s door. “For fuck’s sake, Sotalia! Keep it down! That duck is STILL alive and well.”

Easing back into her seat with a blatant grin of satisfaction, Sotalia giggles and sighs with a smile. “What’s the point of having a little blackmail if I can’t use it. So, what’s new with you, Quincy?”

Quincy briefly grumbles, draws in a breath, and snorts out a laugh. “The usual. Trying to keep recruits from embarrassing themselves and making sure the convoy doesn’t accidentally leave any behind. Or... On purpose, despite how tempting it is.”

He peers into the vehicle, and politely waves to the rest of the team. “Hello, everyone. Um, so, if you don’t mind me asking? Where are all of you going this time?”

Sotalia perks her brow, tosses her fiery orange, wavy hair back, and grins. “Perimeter.”

Quincy blinks a few times, and nods impressed. “Damn. That’s a run and half. Hope the trip is easy going. That route isn’t nice even during a good week. I think we stopped taking contracts going that way simply because we got tired of pulling trucks out of the muck the roads turn into.”

Pointing out to the forest, Sotalia narrows a prying stare at Quincy, and curiously inquires. “What’s going out here? You all usually don’t have that much fire power just waiting for something.”

Glancing around briefly, Quincy studies the surrounding personnel, leans upon the humvee, and directs a whisper to the team. “Well... I don’t know all the details yet. Still waiting to talk to the front line guys. But, my guess is something stirred up a place with a bunch of autonomous robots. Weirdest fucking thing really.”

He stands back up, listens to radio chatter in his ear piece, and motions the team towards a woman with signal flags. “Wish I could talk more, but your group is up.”

Pausing a moment in thought, he smiles to Sotalia and nods. “Send me a message tonight, and I’ll see if I got any more info by then.”

He lingers a moment, and lowers his voice towards Sotalia. “Is Sebastian still... in a sword?”

Sebastian ethereal voice resonates loudly from the blade on the floor of the cab. “Yes, Quincy.”

Quincy blinks, thinks a moment, and slowly shakes his head. “That’s so fucked up, man. Hope they get you out of it soon.”

Sebastian appreciatively sounds out from the sword. “You and me both. Let us know if anything weird happens around here.”


Stretching out his back, Bach steps along the sidewalk, flexes out his tension, and stands in the afternoon sun. A gust of wind blows the scent of distant sea spray across the hotel parking lot, and sways the canopies of deciduous, coniferous, and palm trees in the area. Aristespha, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia stream out from the front automatic glass doors of the building, and the team gathers around. Sotalia compares the aethersite on her phone with the site upon Dretphi’s phone display. “So, is your choice or mine closer? Because, I really don’t feel like sitting in a car right now.”

Dretphi scrolls down the list information, reviews a small map, and glances back to Sotalia. “Yours. Mine is sea side.”

Sotalia nods in agreement, taps the route finding button, and points in a direction. “Yeah, this is just a walk down the main road on this side of the bay.”

While the team travels down the street, Cideeda perks a curious brow over to Aristespha. “Not a bad place you found. A little cheaper than a hotel along the Azure Sea?”

Aristespha nods, and relaxes with the wind blowing back her long hair. “Oh, yes. Same features, but just over a kilometer away from the main beach made all the difference. If we were here for the beach, I might have gone with another choice.”

She rolls her violet eyes, and briefly grimaces. “I also figured, since it’d be the last good place to overnight, we’d try to enjoy it. All the reviews mentioned that bay side hotels were significantly more peaceful and quiet. But, close enough to walk to everything.”

From the sword at Aristespha’s side, Sebastian comments to the group. “Yeah, not going to lie, we’re going to be roughing it for the next few days.”

Sotalia rests her hands on her hips, grins, and struts down the sidewalk. “Sounds like justification for a little indulgence to me. I wonder what their drink specials are like.”

Bach furrows his brow as the wind tosses the white streak in his brown hair. He searches his mind with his blue eyes, and glances between the other members of the team. “I don’t know. I’ve only heard of Phis for their barbecue, music, and trade. Don’t remember anything unique in the way of alcohol. Maybe some local breweries?”

With shrug of her shoulders, Cideeda snorts with a toothy grin, and gazes up to Bach. “You don’t need to have your own, when you can easily get your hands on all the different liquors out there. Big trade hub, so a big selection.”

The team continues down the main road, and pass by different shops, bars, clubs, and other local establishments. While the group admires the sights, a long convoy of large multi-axle trucks roar on pass, and plow through the air. Stirring wind pushes past the crew, and Cideeda furry ears flick off strands her shorter multi-colored hair. She watches the heavy haulers roll fast onto a massive bridge, and traverse over the bay to the other side. Seconds later, another series of large trucks run down the main street, and follow the same route as the previous. An excited smile appears on Cideeda’s light brown face, and she recognizes the logos and color-coded flags. Bach notices Cideeda’s interest, and directs his curiosity. “What were those?”

Cideeda shifts her focus up to Bach, and smirks her amusement. “Oh, those were Train local haulers. I’m guessing those were biggest vehicles they have that can fit through these streets. I think they are heading to the Train Depot on the other side of the bay.”

Bach nods and follows Cideeda pointing finger to distant industrial structures on the other side of the bay and a large chain of buildings in the background. The team follows Sotalia’s aetherphone guidance to a shoreline, open air restaurant. Their eagerness swells with each aroma packed wave of cooking smoke that the coastline gust guides to them. After the host seats them at a large table with a clear view of the bay, the crew scours over the menus at the table. A minute later, an emin waiter addresses the team with a bright smile and cheery tone. “Thank y’all for coming down to Bay Side Ribs. My name is Erdin, and I’ll be taking care of y’all tonight. You got any questions before I get your drinks?”

Sotalia grins towards Aristespha’s smirk, and inquires eagerly. “Any drink specials going on?”

Erdin grants a quick nod, deftly whips out a pamphlet from his apron pocket, and places it between Aristespha and Sotalia. “Oh, plenty. We also have a few menu items for just this week, since it’s a special occasion here in Phis.”

Bach furrows his brow, turns his head, and puzzles at Erdin. “Huh. So, what’s the occasion? We just got into town.”

With a delightedly slick smile, Erdin motions with a wave of his hand across the bay and explains eagerly. “Well, y’all are just lucky then. Land Train number five just arrived last night is slowly doing its loop through the depot. And Bay Side Ribs is happy to offer the freshest cuts of meat from the west, smoked to perfection. For just this week, we have menu items you won’t enough get to taste for another few months if y’all are lucky to visit us again.”

The group’s attentions shift across the bay. Between squinting and searching, a grin appears on Erdin’s face, and he gestures a hint for the team. “Keep your eye on the big stuff in the background... and watch carefully. What you see isn’t want you think it is.”

The scrutinizing stares of Aristespha, Bach, Cideeda, Dretphi, and Sotalia at the table join the hidden visage of Sebastian under the deck peering out. As the team concentrates and carefully observes, surprise sparks in each of their faces. They watch the long series of buildings in the background behind the industrial structures gradually, constantly shift over time. From the side of one of the moving masses, a large robotic arm drops out of sight from a resting position at the top. Seconds later, the heavy crane hoists up a large local Train hauler and brings through opening bay doors near the top of a massive land train segment.


Bach gazes off into the darkening skies west, narrows his eyes, and blinks at the flashes of lightning arcing between the clouds. He turns his head towards Cideeda with uneasy smile, and taps his finger upon his window. “Looks like a storm is coming off the sea.”

Easing her foot off the accelerator, Cideeda deftly turns the wheel to carefully steer the humvee around a large dip in the cracked and worn road. She grumbles to herself, droops her furry ears briefly, and sighs. “Yeah. And, these roads have taken a beating lately. No one has been out to repair these in months. We’ll be at a crawl if we have to drive these in the dark and a storm.”

Aristespha squints her eyes and peers out ahead through the front windshield, checking passing road signs. “We should be close to the place I found for the night. The town is called...”

As she searches her tablet for the exact information, Sotalia furrows her brow, focuses her stare ahead at a rusted, damaged sign, and smirks out a sarcastic tone. “Wino?”

Blinking to attention, Aristespha notices the partial lettering, and rolls her eyes. “That’s part of the name.”

Turning his head track to the broken signage, Bach snorts out a chuckle, and shakes his head. “Yeah, probably more fitting, if they don’t even bother to fix the town sign.”

Cideeda navigates the humvee down a highway off ramp, and slows to a stop at a desolate intersection. “Okay, so where is this place?”

Peering out the side windows, Dretphi leans from one to another, squints her steely gray eyes, and frowns at the darkening clouds choking out the late afternoon sun. “Not much around.”

Aristespha checks the digital map on her tablet, orientates herself from quickly inspecting the landmarks, and spots a distant glow of artificial light down the eastwards. “There. Make a left here, it should be up ahead.”

The humvee rolls through the turn and speeds down the rough, almost gravel road. Minutes later, the vehicle pulls under a large, aged stained metal awning in front of a run down, long motel building. The team directs their attention to the dark, quiet structure, and wait. Over the idle seconds, expressions slowly sour, and apprehension fills the cab. Concentrating his scrutinizing stare into the still, dim glass of the lobby, Bach lifts a reluctant eyebrow, and twists his mouth hesitantly. “Um... I’m not getting the feeling that this place is open.”

Sotalia’s golden eyes dart around between the dark, empty windows, and she curls her upper lip into a sneer. “Yeah. None of the main lights are even on. Is this place supposed to be open?”

Focusing her frustration upon the tablet, Aristespha grumbles out her irritation. “Everything I read up said it would be open... I even called ahead...”

Sebastian’s ethereal visage materializes in the middle aisle just behind Aristespha’s seat, and winces at the chain of evuukian curses muttering out. “Well, we could just knock on the front door and see if anyone is in there.”

Everyone momentarily glances over to the eerily still, rundown motel building. Each watches the gloomy, blackened storm clouds drift overhead and eastwards behind the structure. Distant bright flashes of lightning from the west cast unnerving shadows into empty rooms. And, gusts of wind stir up dust, sand, and debris around the cracked brick walls. Attention gradually pivots back to Sebastian’s ghostly form, and he releases an unamused sigh with a long roll of his eyes. “Or... I guess I can just phase in there and check... and really complete this whole theme going on...”

An appreciate smiles graces Aristespha’s face, and she nods with an assuring tone. “Thank you, Sebastian. I’ll see if I can call anyone.”

Phasing through the roof, Sebastian flies up to the front, lands, and walks through the front door. He cautiously inspects the empty, unlit lobby, the flickering display of the snack machine, and the vacant front desk area. A harsh chime of an old phone rings out, and Sebastian’s eyes dart around the to a few wooden doors. After a long series of rings, silence returns to the dated motif, and Sebastian slowly shakes his head. Quickly sinking his head through the few doors, he rolls his eyes and fades away. Reappearing in the aisle of the humvee cab, he hovers down to a seat on the floor, and crosses his arms with a frown. “Nothing. The phone rang, but I didn’t hear or see any signs life. I bet someone ditched work early.”

The ambient roar of rain surrounds the humvee, and waves of water spray underneath the overhead awning onto the gravel lot. Cideeda shifts the vehicle in a park, shuts down the powerplant, and groans. “Well, we can hang out here for a bit and let the storm pass over...”

A sly, toothy grin appears on her face, and she gazes her emerald green eyes across the team in the cab, while tapping her claws tips together. “Or, I can... gain access to a few of the rooms for the night?”

Aristespha lifts a judging brow, Sebastian mulls over the thought, Dretphi weighs the option, Bach grimaces uncertainly, and an evil grin grows upon Sotalia lips. Cideeda gauges the reactions, smiles pleasantly, and shrugs her shoulders. “Of course, I’ll make sure the owner is compensated at market rate...”

She mumbles under her breath, lowers her furry ears, and averts her eyes while flexing her claw tipped fingers. “... after a significant discount for lack of service...”

Sebastian dons an amused smirk, and sighs. “Yeah, probably not the best idea.”

Aristespha grumbles to herself and settles back into her seat. “It is also very troublesome to itemize expenses predicated upon multiple counts of breaking and entering.”

Tapping upon her phone screen, Dretphi studies an animation loop of weather radar data, contorts her face in thought, and cocks her head to the side. “This is a small storm cell. A break after this passes. Other storms afterwards.”

Moments after a bright flash overhead illuminates the world below, a wave of thunder vibrates the humvee, and the droning rain falls in obscuring sheets across the area. Sebastian briefly watches the gust of wind sends sprays of water against the sides of the vehicle, and shrugs his shoulders. “Well, I say we wait an hour or so, and figure out what to do after that.”

The team settles in to their distractions. Dretphi quickly adjusts the pillows on the back bench seat, and opens up a graphic novel to a bookmark. Aristespha eases back into her seat, notices Sebastian watching her tablet over her shoulder, and adjusts the aim for him with a loving smile. Cideeda retrieves a small piece of golem crystal from a pack under her seat, and concentrates upon it in the palm of her hand. The small chunk of magical mineral gradually, shakily moves as faint flows brush against it. Bach glances up from his aetherphone, smirks at the progress, and directs his voice to Cideeda. “That’s pretty good. You want to try something a little challenging?”

Cideeda’s ears perk up, and she cranes her head around the front driver’s seat eagerly. “Sure!”

Bach points to the crystal curiously. “You have any more of those with you?”

Quickly reaching down under seat, Cideeda retrieves a few similar chunks of magically reactive rocks, and gives one to Bach. Her emerald eyes blink as Bach positions the crystal in the palm of his hand, and she watches expectantly. With a faint blue glow in his eyes, the small, cylindrical chunk rights itself upwards upon a point. Bach smiles and gradually tilts his hand as the golem crystal maintains the angle relative to his palm. “A lot harder than it looks, and really great practice.”

An appreciative smile grows upon Cideeda, and she quickly shifts her full focus upon keeping the righted crystal in her hand, with Bach occasionally catching mineral when it escapes. Half an hour later, Sotalia blinks her golden eyes, twists her mouth, and rolls her shoulders. Over the minutes, she sits back up in her seat, squirms uncomfortably around, and crosses her legs with a straining wince. Cringing briefly, she glances back towards Aristespha, and awkwardly questions. “So... Does this place have any other numbers you can try calling? Maybe another location the owner might be at? Um... Anything?”

Aristespha looks up from the show playing on her tablet, cocks her head to the side, and puzzles. Slowly shaking her head, she frowns slightly and sighs. “No, I didn’t find anything else...”

A blatant wave of unease colors Sotalia’s pleading expression and she carefully breathes out her discomfort. Aristespha lifts up an intrigued brow, studies Sotalia’s body language, and notices an empty, extra large drink cup in the holder on Sotalia’s side of the center control. Rolling her violet eyes, she pulls an amused smirk across her mouth, and chuckles. “Really, if you need to use the bathroom, just say so. I’ll accompany you if feel that uncomfortable.”

Sotalia blinks hard, glances briefly over at the eerie gloom looming around the empty motel, and reveals her objection towards Aristespha. “Thank you, but... Where? I hope you’re NOT suggesting outside, around HERE?”

Aristespha dismissively shakes her head, and motions towards the dark motel. “There’s obviously no one here, it’s not that-”

A bright flash from the storms above brilliantly contrast stark shadows along surfaces and into the rooms of long, empty motel. Fighting against her own failing courage, Aristespha grits her teeth and mumbles. “...scary...”

Bach scans over property, glances over to the team, and frowns uneasily. “Yeah... Um, I have not been adventuring that long. But, I know I have been to far more welcoming ruins than this place right now. At those places you have certain expectations. This place? I'm getting body in the ice maker vibes.”

Cideeda narrows an investigative stare out the front windshield, rocks her head side to side in deliberation, and shrugs her shoulders. “I think it has cleared up enough. I'm up for leaving this creepy place.”

As she starts up the humvee’s powerplant, she aims her voice back. “Is there a rest area close, down the highway?”

After a few moments of sorting through aetherphone, tablet, and map, Dretphi locates a point of interest with Aristespha’s help. “Yes. Twenty kilometers.”

Nodding as the humvee’s console status lights flicker through a nominal pattern, Cideeda puts the vehicle into gear, and secures herself in the seat. “I can manage that much. Buckle up.”

Aristespha grumbles as she glares over at the motel. “Try my best to arrange everything, and still these things happen.”

Sebastian smiles comfortingly to Aristespha, and shrugs his shoulders. “Don’t worry, dear. If they’re this bad at staffing the place, I’d hate to think how bad they are at cleaning the rooms.”

Blinking blankly a few time, Aristespha shudders off the thought. “Um, good point, Sebastian.”


Groggily rolling his head away from the beams of mid morning sun shining into the humvee, Bach fights against the persistent desire to snooze off in the quiet cab. He flutters his eyes back to consciousness, and searches the space for the source of a snore. Glancing to the front and back seats, he settles his attention to his side, and watches Aristespha slumber with growing volume. Under an uncombed, messy cover of long, silvery blue hair, Aristespha unconsciously balances her head upon a hand propped against the humvee window. At the apex of a long, loud snore, she snorts, squirms in place, and exhales lazily. Sebastian’s ethereal visage forms in the humvee aisle, and he narrows a humored gaze upon the sleeping Aristespha. Leaning close to Bach, he whispers with an amused smirk. “She’ll never admit this, but when she sleeps like this... She sometimes drools. Bad.”

Bach squelches a snort, and shakes his head at this brother. “Oh, I bet she’d never admit it.”

Sebastian glances over to Bach, rolls his eyes with a smile, and widens a gap between his thumb and forefinger. “Seriously, bro. I’ve caught her with spit stains this big on her shoulder, and she’ll flat out deny it.”

Pondering out a smirk, Bach lifts an intrigued brow and motions to his aetherphone. “Have you tried recording it?”

Gritting his teeth, Sebastian averts his eyes, and contemplates the repercussions between rocks of his head side to side. “Yeah... I’ve thought about that. But, I didn’t think it was worth the war of calling out our bad habits that might start.”

He settles a loving gaze upon Aristespha and sighs quietly with a longing tinge. Muffled conversations from familiar voices surround the vehicle. The front doors open up, and Cideeda hops into the driver’s seat. Sotalia slides up in the passenger’s seat, balances a tray of different rest stop beverages in her lap, and sorts through the labels. “Okay, I did my best to mix up your orders from what they had available. Hope my misspent teenage years at a coffee shop pay off.”

Cideeda draws a long sip from her cup, licks her lips, and shrugs her shoulders while placing the beverage in her side’s cup holder. “It was a surprisingly good selection.”

Sotalia pulls up one drink, reads it off, and extends her arm out back towards Aristespha. “One black tea and coffee for the sleepy girl.”

Sebastian and Bach glance over to notice the alert and awake Aristespha rigidly sitting up, and calmly accepting the beverage. Aristespha dismissively rolls her violet eyes, and slowly sniffs in the aroma of the drink in the insulated cup. “Sleepy? I was awake before you this morning.”

With a tightening smile, Sebastian catches Aristespha’s attention, motions to his face, and traces a path out from the corner of his mouth and down his chin. Aristespha puzzles, blinks blankly, and flits her eye wide when a flush of embarrassment overwhelms the blue and gray hints on her face. She awkwardly sneaks a wipe of her hand, and dries off a patch of spittle off her mouth. Sebastian confirms with a nod, and playfully weathers the faux glare from Aristespha.

Bach opens his door, hops out, and slides his seat up. He holds a large, full paper sack for Dretphi as she slips through into the humvee. Once inside, Bach passes back the bag, and sniffs the lingering aroma while moving his seat back in place. “That actually smells really good.”

Sotalia presents Bach’s beverage once he settles into his seat, and dons a guilty grin. “The finest rest stop food we could find. We MAY have gone a little overboard... But, they totally had everything you could think of there.”

Cideeda leans over her seat, points to the paper sack before Dretphi, and grins excitedly. “You can tell we’re near a port, because you never find this stuff inland.”

Dretphi unpacks the huge bag and arranges the different packaged snacks into the view of everyone. She hands off a few items to those that show interest. She quickly secures a bundle of treats with grath lettering, and hides it off to her side. While the team distributes the variety of snacks and drinks, Sebastian gazes between the group. “So, a bit of late start today, but I think it’s workable.”

Dretphi finishes a bite into a partially unwrapped pastry, savors the moment, and joins the topic. “We are not far. We could arrive at Perimeter today. Late night. Possible.”

Aristespha breathes in the moist vapors off her hot tea and coffee, and blinks back to awareness. She glances down at her tablet. “Oh, yes. The place I made reservations at in Perimeter is fairly flexible. Especially, since I paid a deposit. And, I think we’re out of the lodging dead zone now. There’s a number of small local inns and motels that will work depending on our progress.”

Fighting off a yawn, Bach contorts his face, stretches in his seat, and shrugs. “I’m up for a long drive. Honestly, the storms last night kept me up so much that I’ll probably just doze off on the ride. Just hope the roads aren’t awful.”

Pressing the sequence of buttons upon the control console, Cideeda starts up the humvee’s power plant, and grimaces along with her growing suspicions. “Yeah... I’ve been reading a lot of reports about a lot of road debris, flooded areas, and washed out sections. So, we might be in for a slow roll through some parts.”

Sebastian crosses his arms, nods at the information around him, and dons a bold grin. “Well, we’re not going to find out anything here, so... Let’s hit the road!”

The team secures themselves in their seats with treat and drink aplenty, and the humvee rolls out of the parking space towards the highway on ramp.


The humvee’s headlamps illuminate the rough, pavement ahead in contrast the fading evening light. Cideeda blinks her emerald green eyes hard, winces a worn frown, and groans as she steers the vehicle. Sotalia sighs long in a yawn, shudders through her fatigue, and shakes her head at the road ahead. Aristespha idles her stare upon a movie playing on her tablet, while Sebastian’s ghostly figure hovers watching. A gentle snore sounds out from Dretphi, and she stirs lightly. With a slight turn upon the back bench seat, loose pastry wrappers slide off her chest upon the floor of the humvee cab. Bach gazes out to the distant setting sun, as the remaining specs of direct light disappear below the horizon.

The humvee crests over a small rise and banks around a turn between thick forest into another straight stretch of road. Cideeda’s eyes flutter to attention, and she squints. Moments of her furry ears flicking in thought, an annoyed grimace appears and frustration tinges her mood. “Oh gods... What now? Don’t tell me another section of the highway is washed out.”

Sotalia swings her attention ahead, pulls back her fiery orange hair over her swept back horns, and groans. “I REALLY don’t want to have to move another fallen tree out of the way.”

Cocking her head, an uncertain expression dwells on Cideeda’s face, and she raps her claw tips upon the steering wheel. “No... They’re redirecting traffic this time and... have it blocked off.”

Aristespha pauses her movie, taps back to the main screen, and navigates to an aethersite. “I’ll see if there’s anything posted, somewhere.”

The humvee slows down into the barely mobile line of traffic, and joins the staggered jam of occasional movement. Minutes later, the vehicle arrives the front of the queue. A number of Perimeter Defense Force vehicles block off the highway leading to a massive bridge, uniformed officers patrol the perimeter, and scattered groups of armored personnel cautiously sweep the area. Sebastian scans the scene, ducks down behind Aristespha, and fades into the sword at her side. Moments later, his voice sounds out from the blade within the scabbard. “Try to find out what’s going on here. Seems like they are doing some serious work out here.”

Cideeda’s ear flicks forward, and she rolls down the window. Leaning slightly out, she concentrates her stare upon one of the officers, and waves to her. The woman approaches the vehicle, and greets Cideeda with a nod. “Sorry about the trouble. But, the five five route is closed until cleanup crews secure the bridges.”

Lifting a puzzled brow, Cideeda directs her inquisitive tone at the officer. “What kind of clean up are we talking about?”

Drawing in a long, weary breath, the dark haired woman sighs tired. “Maelstrom. Short lived, but dropped a lot upon the five five’s bridges.”

Wrestling the irritation away from her tone, Cideeda presents a hopeful tint to her expression, and motions towards the highway past the blockade leading to the large bridge. “So, what time frame are we looking at for the cleanup?”

The woman officer grimaces, stands up straight, and pivots to gaze at a distant pair of armored personnel in hazardous environment suits. One glances down at a device in hand, looks up, and points to a spot on the roadway a dozen meters ahead. The other nods, rolls his shoulder, and ready himself for a pitch. With a grip upon a large metal bolt in hand, he winds up a pitch, and flings the piece of steel accurately towards the questionable patch. As the projectile flies within proximity of the spot, the fabric tail tied to the bolt suddenly ignites into flames. Bright orange-yellow light radiates out in stark contrast to the surrounding night, and a towering pillar of flame blasts meters up into the air. The spouts of fire swirl in place into flaming vortex, and a loud roar echoes out in the vicinity. Seconds later, the flame wanes back down into a charred, blackened spot on the highway. The two suited personnel exchange looks, and one picks up a three meter pole with a large piece of chalk. Carefully approaching the spot, the armored person cautiously extends the pole out, and marks warning arrows in bright neon orange chalk from a safe distance.

Cideeda, Sotalia, Bach, Aristespha, Sebastian, and Dretphi gawk in sheer, dumbfounded silence. Blank expressions fail to conceal their emotions as flits of shock, surprise, astonishment, and fright twitch through the thin exteriors. The sound of boots slowly twisting upon rough pavement snaps Sebastian out of his daze, and he quickly disappears out of sight just as the officer turns around to Cideeda. With a strained smile, she groans out lingering frustrations. “Yeah... It might take a while. I assume you are heading to Perimeter. There’s no easy routes from here. But...”

She points towards the nearby off-ramp, and explains. “Your best bet right now is to head to Yazoo. It’s a town on the coast, but they should have lodging. They’re at the start of route four nine, which runs directly into Perimeter, too. It didn’t get hit that badly, so it should open up tomorrow if all goes well.”

Cideeda blinks back to awareness and nods to the officer sympathetically. “Uh, yeah. That’s probably the best plan we got then. Um, thank you. We’ll do that.”

The officer nods understandingly, directs them with a hand wave, and awaits the next vehicle in the line. The team stares out to the long, large bridge as the humvee rolls down the off-ramp onto another highway. As the vehicle speeds away, strange flits of light flash out distantly, and odd, unnatural noises crest above the background night ambiance.


A short order cook works the grill, and balances his efforts between different orders of eggs, hash browns, bacon, and hamburger. A waitress in a Pancake Shed outfit, slips behind the main, counter to a row of coffee machines, and changes out the glass carafes. With scattered customers in the larger dining area, Aristespha, Bach, Sotalia, Dretphi, and Cideeda occupy a large, booth in the corner of two window walls with a view of the beach. Aristespha pours back the remaining quarter cup of coffee, and hungrily reaches out to the metal carafe at the center of the table. Dretphi slowly works on a cheese steak omelet. Cideeda rubs the sleep out of her eyes and leans back in the booth seat to soak up the near noon sun radiating in. Bach groggily watches the waves roll in on upon the white sand beaches, and observes the coastal traffic near the long docks stretching into the sea. Sotalia fights back a yawn, examines her plate of food, and secretly eyes the bacon on Bach’s platter next to hers.

Glancing over towards Bach briefly, Sotalia’s fork drifts over into the airspace above Bach’s dish, and slowly eases down upon the target. When the tines of the utensil hover over the bacon, Bach casually grips the edges of his plate, and smoothly rotates the dish. Sotalia withdraws her fork quickly away from the moving target, and returns her attention to her food with an amused smirk. Bach hides a satisfied grin behind his hand propping his head up.

A fvalian waitress with green hair walks up to the team’s table, and smiles brightly as the sun reflects the embossed “Lucida” in her name tag. “Well, I hope everything has been good. Is there anything more I can get you all at the moment?”

Bach’s attention shifts to a thought, and he turns to gaze at the woman, with worn smile. “Um, could I get a glass of milk? Need something to balance out all the coffee.”

He narrows his blue eyes at Sotalia, snorts quietly, and smirks. “And another order of bacon. Just feel like I might need more of that.”

A sly smile sneaks out the corner of Sotalia’s mouth, and her expression warms. Lucida nods at the request as she writes it down with a wag of her green, short haired tail. She cracks a humored grin, and perks her brow at Bach. “Would you like chocolate in that milk?”

Rolling his eyes at himself, Bach chuckles lightly and eases out a bit of childish embarrassment. “Oh, why not. Thank you.”

Lucida giggles, and surveys the rest of the group. “Anything else for anyone?”

Aristespha slides the empty metal carafe across the clear middle lane of the table, and taps the lid. “More of this flavor. Please.”

Lucida’s rounded tip ears flick up under her green hair, and she blinks in surprise. “Of course. If you don’t mind me prying, but I get the feeling last night was not that kind to you all?”

A collective agreement rises out from the fatigued team around the table. Cideeda flutters her eyes to attention, and straightens up from the sun spot. “Yeah. We were planning on going to Perimeter using route five five. But, it’s closed off right now.”

Dretphi sighs and nods, guiding back her platinum blonde braids. “Rerouted here. Nice town. Pleasant. Just not our original goal.”

Nodding understandingly, Lucida rests at hand upon her apron covered hip, and shrugs her shoulders. “It happens more than anyone likes, really. But, I’m not one to complain when it brings in business for us. You all are welcomed additions to all the shipping crews, that aren’t always the happiest to be here.”

Bach thinks a moment, and glances out the wall window to the dozens of ships moored at the long docks. “It seems like you do a lot of shipping here.”

Twisting her mouth, Lucida crosses her tan arms, and sighs. “Well, not as much as we’d like around here. We’re just a convenient stop before Perimeter for smaller shipping companies waiting to get clearance into Perimeter. Not much actual shipping. Though, I believe we could easily handle it. I mean, route four nine starts with us.”

With a roll her eyes, she sighs with a small shake of her head. “But, they don't ask my opinion.”

Bach narrows his stare, and points out to a huge barge docked along a long concrete wharf in the distance. “I mean, it looks you can handle big ships like that easy enough.”

Lucida steps to the side, cranes her yellow eyed gaze to the right angle, and frowns slightly. “Yeah. Still don’t know about that ship. They’ve been there for a week. A little strange.”

Sotalia lifts a curious brow, and grins conspiratorially to Lucida. “So, what’s your take?”

With a sly, gossipy smirk, Lucida giggles quietly and directs a whisper to the team. “Oh, I think they got spooked by customs and are trying to offload... through other channels... Probably trying to find a new buyer or something the can’t get into Perimeter. But... That’s just my fun theory. Probably just paperwork hold ups.”

Standing upon the large barge docked along the long concrete wharf, a tall muscular man in a loose, long sleeve jacket scans the vicinity. After a few passes, a hint of satisfaction appears on his stern, scarred face. Checking immediately around him, he walks over to the end of boat, and enters the wheelhouse. Kneeling down slowly, the muscular man lifts up a floor hatch to reveal a ladder, and slips down below. Stepping through a narrow passage, he reaches a bulkhead door, knocks a timed sequence upon the frame, and waits. The metal door handle rotates, the locks release, and the large door swings in. Walking inside, the man’s heavy boot steps clang against the metal floor of a large hollow chamber within the core of the boat. He quickly strips of the jacket, and tosses it to the side. A soft, echoing chorus of hydraulics, servos, and metal contact fill the background drone of the hidden space. A dozen men and women with bulky, intimidating cybernetic limbs, implants, and enhancements idle and prepare. Racks of weaponry line the walls of the makeshift barracks, and people inspect a few small, light assault vehicles. A gigantic man stands up straight with a hydraulic hum, hoists up an industrial lifting arm, rotates the modified claw, and clamps it through a solid bar of steel. Another woman with a cybernetic eye and head rig, slowly cleans the barrel of a bolt-action rifle, and smiles with a scheming satisfaction tinging her battle worn face.

A sinister grin emerges out of the dark expression on the muscular man, and he laughs to himself with a grim confidence. From his pants covered legs, faint sounds of hydraulics and servos resonate out as he stretches out of his arms and upper body. Breathing in the looming mood, he wipes the sweat off his arms. He eyes the Red Gear symbol tattoo on his shoulder, and gazes out to the similar logo upon weapons, vehicles, and people in the secret hold.