"Good bye, Mama Janet, good bye Paterson, good bye Clyde" a small five-year-old girl waved from the doorway leading into her pod, "Thanks for coming over."
"Good bye, Cindy," Paterson and Clyde both waved.
"See you in a few days," Janet waved as well, as she made her way down the hallway with the two boys.
"She was really nice," Clyde commented.
Paterson nodded in agreement. "I can't believe that her own father tried to rape her, that's just unthinkable."
"Not as bad as Amanda had it," Clyde replied.
Paterson thought back through all the different kids they visited. "That was the girl whose leg got run over by the mechanical grass chopper thing?"
Clyde shook his head, "That one was pretty bad too. But no, I was thinking of the one whose dad killed her mom, and then tried to kill her."
"Yeah, I think I would just rather forget about that one," Paterson shivered, "I can't believe how terrible adults can be now. None of this would have happened back in our time."
Clyde nodded in agreement. "Yeah,"
Janet smiled as she walked a few steps behind the boys. Any concerns she might have had about either boy being able to handle visiting the kids she had planned were quickly squelched after the first two or three stops. But over the last twelve hours they had managed to make eighteen different visits, seeing twenty four different kids; both boys had worked out better than she would have ever guessed. They got along so well with some of the kids that she even altered her visitation plan slightly so that they would hit a few of the worse kids.
As time went on, Janet found herself wondering if Paterson and Clyde had just been raised so well by their respective parents that they were that good with almost any other child they met, or if it was more the way that kids were raised in general two hundred years ago. After listening to some of the stories of their past lives that the two boys shared with different kids, she finally came to the conclusion that it was a little bit of both.
"Once again, I am very proud of both of you," Janet stated as she held her hands out to each boy. "I know I've said this after just about every visit we have made, but you both continue to surprise me in regards to how well you seem to be able to get along with just about any child we've seen."
"Thanks, mom," Clyde beamed with pride as he took Janet's offered hand.
Paterson nodded and beamed with pride as well as he took Janet's other hand. "Who are we going to be visiting next, mama?"
"My goodness, don't you two ever get tired?" Janet smiled as the hallway shifted around them.
Both boys smiled and shook their heads.
"Attention," Daileass's voice came across the hallway speakers. "This is a final reminder that the main cafeteria will be closing for the night in fifteen minutes to undergo some remodeling. Anyone that needs any snacks from the main cafeteria should go there now."
Paterson sighed. "About the only thing I'm getting tired of is that announcement. Do you think there is something wrong with Daileass? That's like the fourth or fifth time he's said that."
"I'm sure Daileass is just fine," Janet smiled. "But as far as you two go, I think it's about time that you two take a nap for a bit. Both of you have been visiting kids with me for the last twelve hours, you know."
"Twelve hours? No way!" Clyde replied.
"Oh no!" Paterson called out as he stopped in his tracks. "Twelve hours? Haden's going to think that I've abandoned him."
Janet smiled toward Paterson, "It's alright Paterson, Haden isn't going to think you've abandoned him. Less than an hour has gone by since you last saw him."
"But... You just said twelve hours," Paterson replied with confusion.
"You're right, I did," Janet agreed. "When we get back to my room, I'll tell both of you how both statements are correct. I would rather not talk about it here."
Although both boys were confused, they each nodded in agreement.
Five minutes later, the three stepped into the nice sized apartment that Joe and Janet lived in. The apartment actually had several extra bedrooms that could be used by any of Janet and Joe's children that stopped by for a visit.
After taking a brief look around to see how much nicer Janet's place was to most of the other places they had visited, they both stood in front of Janet, looking up expectantly.
"Alright, already," Janet warmly smiled at each of the boys as she knelt down to be at their level. "What I'm about to share with you is a secret, so I need both of you to promise that you won't share it with anyone else, alright?"
"I promise," Clyde quickly replied.
"Me too," Paterson added.
Janet looked in the eyes of both boys. Once she felt sure that they were both telling the truth, she continued. "Paterson, do you remember the comment you made on the way here, that you felt Daileass was broken because of the message he repeated so many times over the day."
"Yes," Paterson nodded.
"Well, the reason I could tell you that Daileass wasn’t broken, was because he really only made that announcement once," Janet stated.
Paterson quickly shook his head, "But I heard it several times, every two or three visits at least."
"Yeah, I heard it a bunch of times too," Clyde agreed.
"Let's just say that I've been given a very special... gift... that allows me to step back in time," Janet stated carefully.
"Really?" Paterson asked with wonder. "So you could take us back home any time you want?"
Janet shook her head. "No, it doesn't let me go that far back. I can use it to go backward an hour or two. I think three hours is the most. But it does give me the means by which to visit and spend time with a lot more of my children than I would ever come close to having without it. Do you know how I would take hold of your hands when Daileass teleported us to the next place to visit? Well, sometimes I was also using the locket to push us back in time as well."
"If we were going back in time, that would explain why we kept hearing that announcement," Paterson reasoned. "I bet you used it five times, right?"
"Actually I used it six times, but our visit with Douglas and Granger took a bit longer than I was planning, so when we went back that time, we missed the announcement," Janet replied.
"That's so cool," Paterson replied as Clyde nodded in agreement.
"But now that you know what I can do, you can't tell anyone else," Janet continued. "The only reason I'm sharing this with you two is because I have a feeling that you will probably be spending a lot of time with me in the future as we visit more of your brothers and sisters. Other than you two, and two or three others, no one else knows about it."
"Aright," Both boys agreed once more.
"Now," Janet said in a more normal voice as she stood up, "There are several guest bedrooms down the hall. Pick a bed somewhere and lay down. I think we should all take a nap before we even think about seeing more kids."
"You know? Now that I think of it, I am kinda tired," Clyde commented.
"Me too," Paterson agreed.
With that, the two boys stripped off their clothes down to their undies right in front of Janet, and padded off to one of the rooms.
Janet slowly shook her head. "Well, at least I know they are still Clan kids," she said to herself as she set the clothes off to the side before she headed into the study to take care of a few quick things before she took a nap herself.
A few minutes later, after she had finished, she looked into the first guest bedroom and saw both Paterson and Clyde lying on the same bed together, each out like a light. "Rest well, boys," she whispered as she carefully closed the door. "You both deserve it."
With that, Janet walked into her own room to get some much needed sleep as well.
Barrett lifted up the visor on his headset to find that he was back in Ardell's office. Although Ardell was still sitting behind his desk with his own visor still down, the seat next to him where Haden and Daileass had been sitting was empty.
"KLAUS?" Barrett called out, "Where did Haden go?"
[Daileass had me teleport himself and Haden to the Fons installation.]
"Okay, could you teleport me to where they are at?" Barrett asked.
[Actually, I think we might want to give them a little quiet time. I'll let you know as soon as I think it's safe for you to teleport over.]
"Fine," Barrett huffed deflated. "Did the questions really rattle him that much?"
[I think that is what we are about to find out. Keep in mind that Haden is not use to our style of government. And Elder Rainer did get into some rather personal topics with him.]
Barrett nodded as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I'll say this much, if how I'm feeling inside is any indication, it's not that good."
As Haden's headset powered down, the first thing he felt was warmth hitting the side of his cheek, followed by a very light breeze. As he lifted his visor, and his eyes came into focus, he saw a concerned and caring Daileass looking back at him. However, they were no longer in Ardell's office.
As he took off his headset and began to look around, it didn't take long for Haden to figure out where they were at. "What are we doing here?" he asked curiously.
Daileass looked around them. They were sitting in a small patch of soft grass surrounded by tall trees that somewhat resembled Palm Trees. A little ways away, the light trickle of water could be heard as the top of one of the waterways could be seen. "I figured we could use a quiet place to talk for a few minutes," he stated as he looked back toward Haden.
Haden lowered his head. "I tried not to let him get to me, I tried to be strong."
"You were strong," Daileass replied softly. "Rainer has hundreds of years of experience on you, and you still held your own against him; better than anyone would have thought."
"I let him hurt me, I got angry," Haden replied as he slowly shook his head.
"Haden, listen to me," Daileass replied as he gently lifted Haden's chin up. "You didn't do anything wrong. Rainer threw some pretty low blows by bringing things up publicly that should of remained private. You're not a robot, so you’re going to have feelings, and it's okay to express those feelings."
Again, Haden shook his head. "Not with something this big. Not when I'm representing the Clan and U.N.I.T. Not when the future relationship of our two groups is at stake."
Daileass tilted his head as he took a deep look into Haden's eyes. What he saw greatly concerned him. The bright spark that he had once seen inside of him had all but vanished. In its place was a cold, emotionless expression. In an instant, Daileass realized that one of his and his brothers worst fears were coming to fruition. Haden was on the edge of being pushed too far in too short a time, if he hadn't been already. "Haden, I'm so sorry," Daileass cried softly as he wrapped his arms around the nine-year-old and pulled him into a hug. "How could I have been so selfish? I wanted you to succeed so badly that I let it blind me to what it might do to you."
Haden didn't return the hug. Instead, he continued to stare off into the distance. "It's okay," he whispered back. "I just need to learn to be stronger. I need to set an example for my guys."
"No, you don't," Daileass sobbed. "You need to be the nine-year-old boy that you really are. You need to be Haden. You need to be able to cry when you are hurt."
"That's not how officers behave," Haden answered distantly.
"Oh Haden, how could we have let this happen to you?" Daileass squeezed Haden tightly before he broke the hug and pushed the boy back a little so he could look into his eyes. "Haden, you need to listen to me, okay? The U.N.I.T, being an officer, all the training you had, none of that matters if you lose yourself in it and become someone that is no longer Haden. First and foremost, you're a nine-year-old boy with real feelings and emotions. You need to be able to let them out."
Haden blinked, but said nothing as he continued to blankly stare ahead. As Daileass looked at him, however, he could see Haden's eyes starting to threaten to tear.
"Haden?" Daileass continued. "You know how good our hardware and software technology is. If we wanted mindless robots leading the strike teams, it would be really easy for us to whip up a few V.I.'s. But that's not where our strength comes from. Our real strength comes from our feelings and emotions and caring for what we do. It's not a sign of weakness when you let those feelings out, but a sign of strength."
Haden sat there for several more moments before he finally answered with slowly watering eyes. "I'm scared Daileass," he whispered. "I'm scared that if I let myself start crying, I might not be able to stop."
Daileass nodded compassionately. "It's okay, Haden. I'll be right here with you."
Haden's lower lip trembled for a few moments before he finally threw himself into Daileass, and buried his head into Daileass's shoulder as the flood gates opened and the crying began.
"That's right," Daileass cooed as he held tight onto Haden, "Let it out, let it all out."
As Ardell lifted his visor and took off his headset, he saw Barrett gently rocking back and forth in his chair with his head down and his arms crossed over his chest. "Barrett? Are you okay?"
"It hurts," Barrett replied as he shook his head. "I think its Haden."
Ardell nodded understandingly. "How come you're not with him?"
Barrett shrugged. "Daileass is with him over at Fons. KLAUS said that I should probably give them a few minutes before going over there."
"Is Haden really doing that bad, KLAUS?" Ardell asked with concern.
[It appears that he is. Barrett, it is probably safe for me to teleport you over there if you'd like. Please keep in mind that even though you two are twins, he has only known you for a little over three hours. Please try not to take too much offense if he doesn't know or trust you enough yet to seek comfort from you.]
"Okay KLAUS," Barrett replied. "I'll keep that in mind."
A few moments later, Barrett vanished, leaving Ardell alone in his office where he continued to sit for several more long moments.
[Ardell, I figured you would be a bit happier than this. It looks like relationships with the Clan may be moving forward as you had hoped.]
Ardell nodded in agreement. "Perhaps, but at what cost?"
[You cannot hold yourself responsible for the tactics that Rainer took.]
"Actually, that's where you're wrong," Ardell replied. "I could have stopped the questioning at any time. I should have stopped it after Rainer's first question where he began to attack Haden's past, but I didn't."
[None of us did. If you are going to take blame for that, then Geoff, myself, and the rest of the elders need to as well, since we were all right there with you, and any one of us could have called a point of order.]
"Maybe," Ardell replied. "But that doesn't make it feel any better."
When Barrett appeared several feet away from where Daileass and Haden were sitting, Haden's face was still buried in Daileass's shoulder, and the tears were still openly flowing. The only difference was that Haden's cries had started to become more like whimpers. Not wanting to risk interrupting anything, Barrett stood a few feet away from the two boys.
With a slight nod of his head, Daileass acknowledged the other boy's presence, prompting Barrett to sit down about two feet away from the other two, where he continued to wait patiently.
Several minutes went by before Haden's sobs became nearly inaudible. "Haden?" Daileass softly asked as he gently stroked his hair. "I think there is someone else who is pretty worried about you."
Haden lifted his tear-filled face from Daileass's shoulder and cleared his eyes enough to see who Daileass was referring to. "No!" Haden cried as he plopped his head back down after seeing Barrett's concerned expression. "You see? I really am messing everything up. Now my new brother thinks I'm just a big baby."
Daileass was about to reply, but Barrett beat him to the punch. "I don't feel that way, Haden," he began in a serious tone. "That's not how I feel at all."
Once Haden turned his head so that he could look at Barrett while still resting on Daileass's shoulder, Barrett continued. "This is probably going to sound really crazy, because I'm not really sure how or why it's happening, but ever since Rainer started pounding you in the meeting, it's been like... I don't know... like I've been able to feel what you're feeling or something."
"It's probably some type of twin link," Daileass softly answered. "We've seen that happen a lot with twins that are very close."
Barrett nodded. "Well, whatever it is, I can feel how hurt you are feeling right now, Haden. And you know what it reminded me of?" Barrett paused until Haden lifted his head off of Daileass's shoulder to get a better look at him. "It reminded me of how hurt I used to feel. Heck, I still feel that way sometimes when I'm having a really bad day."
"But you're like... forty... forty thousand years old or something," Haden choked out.
"So?" Barrett shot back. "That doesn't mean that I don't have feelings anymore, and don't get hurt. And it doesn't mean that I still don't feel really bad when I think I might have messed up or made a big mistake. And if we really are twins like everyone says, I bet we feel feelings close to the same way."
Seeing the hurt beginning to build in Barrett's eyes, Daileass opened up his other arm. "Come here, Barrett. Just because we just met doesn't mean that you don't deserve hugs as well."
Barrett hesitated at first, but seeing the serious expression on Daileass's face, he nodded and allowed his own head to fall on Daileass's other shoulder as the boy wrapped his arm around him; locking all three boys into a three-way hug.
"The important thing to remember, is that you didn't mess up, Haden." Daileass stated softly. Seeing Haden getting ready to protest, he continued before Haden had a chance. "I'm pretty sure you don't know about this yet, but KLAUS has been telling me about how the open government system works here, and some of the real time polls that they conduct work."
"Oh," Barrett stated with surprise as he lifted his head up and broke out of the hug. "I nearly forgot about them as well."
Curious, because of both what Daileass said, and how Barrett reacted, Haden lifted his own head back up as well. "What do they say?"
"If I understand what KLAUS told me correctly, about 82% of their society feels that Rainer was in the wrong for how he treated you, and that you were in the right for how you responded and put him in his place. And, about 78% are in favor of further perusing a relationship with us, just based on how well you handled yourself."
"Seriously?" Barrett asked in shock as he nearly fell backward. Seeing that Haden was not as impressed, he tried to explain. "Haden, those are like super awesome numbers. You almost never see our society take that strong of a stance, especially on a live event like this. KLAUS, are you sure those numbers a right?"
[Yes, Barrett, I'm sure. 82.14% are against Rainer's behavior with 5.06% feeling his behavior was appropriate.]
"Wouldn't that be like 18% agreeing with Rainer?" Haden asked.
Barrett shook his head. "Nope, because you have people that are undecided and you have people that are working or busy and haven't been able to see the replays yet. So that is like really unheard of. That means over 87% of everyone in our society was watching."
Haden nodded as he looked back up to Daileass. "If I did so good, then why do I feel so bad?"
"Emotions," Daileass replied. "Rainer hit you with a lot of really personal questions. Questions that were designed to knock you off guard, and try to make you lash out at him so he could show how terrible of a person you were. When you finally did lash out at him at the end, you thought that was wrong, and that you were ruining everything, when actually, Rainer deserved everything you threw at him, and then some."
Seeming to accept Daileass's answer for now, Haden shrugged and let his head fall back onto Daileass's shoulder.
Moments later, a series of clicks and whistles caught the attention of all three boys. Immediately knowing what it was, Barrett looked toward the waterway as he stood up. "It's the Delphinus."
Curious as to what was going on, Daileass and Haden followed Barrett to the edge of the waterway where they saw not one, but two Delphinus sticking their heads out of the water, looking up towards them.
"Hi, guys," Barrett said as he petted the melons of their two visitors. This was followed by a series of more clicks and whistles.
"Taltinic?" Haden asked hesitantly as he got the feeling that one of the two dolphins was the one that took him for his quick tour earlier.
Almost immediately, Taltinic let out a happy whistle and bobbed his head up and down.
"Hi," Haden replied gently as he reached out to rub the dolphin's Melon as well.
After a few more clicks and whistles, Barrett looked toward Haden. "They say that they are very pleased with how good you did in the circle earlier, and they want to know if we would go swimming with them."
As Haden continued to rub Taltinic, he could feel the warmth and safety that was being radiated outward. "I don't know," Haden replied hesitantly as he looked toward Daileass.
"The decision is up to you," Daileass answered Haden's unasked question. "There is nothing else to worry about right now, so if you two would like to go swimming for a bit, you can."
"But what about you?" Haden asked with concern.
Daileass thought for a moment before he shook his head. "Nah, I still have a lot of system integration and calibration checks I need to do with this new body. I wouldn't want to accidentally do something that would hurt anyone."
The dolphin that was not Taltinic started making more clicks and whistles. Shortly after, Barrett translated for him. "Mincelis says that your... umm... species of mecha is new to them, and they would like to get a chance to... umm... sound you which they could do a lot better if you were in the water with them."
Daileass smiled. Knowing how well normal dolphins are able to navigate with their radar-like sound pulses that they can emit, he could only imagine how good the Delphinus must be with it, and the depth of information they could learn about objects with it.
After Taltinic added some of his own clicks and chirps, Barrett smiled and continued. "Taltinic also says that there are a few younglings near one of the stair entrances right around the bend ahead that could really use a hug right now."
"Okay, okay," Daileass raised his hands. "You guys win, I'll go swimming for a bit as well."
Haden and Barrett both smiled at Daileass's response as all three boys began to strip out of their clothes. Once the clothes were removed in thrown into a pile off to the side, they quickly vanished.
"Whoa," Haden gasped as he looked toward Daileass right before he was about to slip into the water. "Daileass!... you're... you have..."
"What?" Daileass replied as he noticed the direction that a now-blushing Haden was looking toward. "Oh, that. Well, you didn't really expect them to make a body for me that wasn't anatomically correct, did you?"
Too embarrassed to reply, Haden simply nodded faster before letting himself slip into the water. Barrett, for his part, simply shrugged and allowed himself to slip in the water behind Haden.
As Daileass sat down at the edge of the waterway to follow the other two boys, Mincelis let out another click and a chirp.
"Don't even start with that," Daileass playfully replied as he slipped into the water.
The boys spent the next thirty minutes playing and swimming in the water. Initially, this consisted of getting rides from Taltinic and Mincelis. It didn't take long, however, for the boys to find themselves near the steps that Taltinic had mentioned, and for them to find a group of younger kids hanging out there that were anywhere from six to ten years old.
Although Haden was fairly certain that at least some of the kids were a lot older than they physically looked, none of them really seemed that interested in doing anything other than having fun in the water, and hanging out with Taltinic and Mincelis. To Haden's shock and surprise, it also seemed that they were beginning to set a fashion statement with many of the kids deciding that they wanted to strip out of their own swimsuits in favor of the standard Clan swimwear.
Even Daileass seemed to be enjoying himself. Beyond the occasional times where he would seem to stare off into space for a few seconds, he found that the process of going in and out of the waterway was proving to be especially helpful in allowing him to better calibrate his muscle responses.
Around the time Barrett and Haden realized that they were quickly turning into prunes, they decided that they had enough swimming for the day. Thanking Taltinic and Mincelis, and waving goodbye to all of the new friends they appeared to have made, both boys made their way up the stairs and out of the water only to find a large fluffy white towel falling on each of their heads. This, of course, caused several of the kids behind them to start giggling.
As the boys dried themselves off, they continued to talk and giggle amongst themselves in regards to the antics of some of the kids they had met while swimming. For the first time and a long while, Haden was smiling like a nine-year-old should, without a thought in his head about commanding troops or trying to save the world.
"Daileass," Haden said with surprise as he grabbed one of Daileass's hands. "Your fingers are pruning up just like ours."
Daileass nodded. "They sure are. Isn't that cool?"
"So, your skin is programmed to emulate real skin?" Haden asked.
"Nope," Daileass shook his head. "It IS real living skin."
"Sweet," Haden smiled as he wrapped his arms around Daileass, letting their warm chests touch each other. "Thanks for helping to cheer me up."
"You're very welcome Haden," Daileass smiled as he returned the hug.
"You too," Haden continued as he turned toward Barrett. "I'm sure you have a ton of other stuff you could be doing."
Barrett began to blush slightly at the feelings he was getting from Haden. "Not really. At least nothing that is more important than getting to know a brother... or rather, a twin that I never knew existed before a few days ago."
Haden nodded in agreement. "Yeah, that's still pretty wild to think about."
"Hey KLAUS?" Barrett called out. "I don't suppose you know where our clothes are at, do you?"
[Actually, I do. I decided to give them a quick wash, other than the shirt that Daileass was wearing.]
Barrett tilted his head as a pile of clothes appeared in his hands. "Why not Daileass's shirt?"
"No reason," Daileass quickly jumped in, clearly indicating that it was a question he was not comfortable having answered just yet.
"Thanks KLAUS, that was very nice of you." Haden stated as he slipped his shirt over his head.
[You are very welcome, Haden.]
"I thought I would find you guys here," a familiar voice called out just as the boys were finishing with getting dressed.
"Hey, Hac," Barrett replied once he saw the familiar red-head. "Or should I say, Elder?"
Hac narrowed his eyes on Barrett, causing the smaller boy to cringe slightly. "Normally, I would have some words to say about that, but it just so happens that my business does partially involve my Elder hat."
"Is anything wrong?" Haden asked with concern.
Hac slowly shook his head as he looked toward Haden. "I don't know how you did it, kid, but you really put a few elders in their place today, and gave our entire society a much needed kick in the right direction."
"What's going on?" Barrett asked.
Hac looked around. "Would you guys mind moving this conversation to somewhere less... public? Say, my office?" After getting nods of acceptance from everyone, Hac smiled just as the entire group disappeared.
Once the group appeared in Hac's office, Barrett looked around. "You do realize, you are going to have to tell me how you do that sometime."
"Let's just say that KLAUS and I have reached an understanding," Hac smiled as he took a seat behind his desk. "Anyway, you guys were in such a hurry to leave the circle meeting, that you missed the best parts."
"What happened?" Barrett asked curiously.
"Well, among other things, the circle has approved the reformation of the Clas Totus," Hac replied and then waited to see Barrett's reaction.
"Really? It's been a very long time since I've heard that name," Barrett commented.
"What's Clas Totus?" Haden asked.
"Oh, yeah," Barrett replied, realizing that two of the people in the room would probably have no clue what that meant. "Roughly translated, it means 'Joint Operations Group'. About twelve thousand years ago, a few hundred years pre-fall, we started working with a few surface groups similar to how we are starting to work with you guys. In an attempt to get to know each other better, one of the things we did was to form a special team comprised of people from both groups who handled... well, whatever special missions came up."
"So kind of like a black ops team? They handled the hardest missions that no one else could do?" Haden asked.
Barrett shook his head. "No, nothing like that; it was more the type of missions that would have elements of both societies. They would go on rescues, they would help provide security if there were any important meetings between our two groups, stuff like that."
Haden nodded in understanding.
"I could see the uses for such a group," Daileass commented.
"So, are you going to be leading it again?" Barrett asked.
"It's been offered to me," Hac replied seriously as he sat back in his chair. "However, I've convinced the circle that the position should be offered to someone else first."
"Who?" Barrett asked, curious as to who among them would be better qualified to lead such a team if not Hac.
"Your twin," Hac grinned.
"Haden?" Barrett gasped.
"Me?" Haden nearly choked.
"Not happening, no way," Daileass replied firmly. "I don't know how much you've been paying attention while you were in the middle of playing Elder, but Haden nearly had a breakdown because of everything we've been pushing onto him."
Hac jumped to his feet and stared right into Daileass's eyes. "We just met today, and you don't really know me yet, so I'll let that comment slide... this time... But one of my duties as head of our primary military forces is to have a perfect understanding of where everyone is."
Daileass held Hac's gaze for several moments, refusing to back down from his statement. Finally, when he felt his position had been made clear, he slowly nodded his head. "You are right, I don't know you that well yet, so perhaps you could fill me in on why you feel it’s in Haden's best interest to subject himself to more of the same pressures that nearly caused his breakdown?"
Hac sat back down in his chair, keeping his sight focused on Daileass. "I've had a good forty thousand years or so to keep an eye on that guy over there," Hac began as he briefly motioned toward Barrett. "If Haden is anything at all like him, and so far everything that we have seen suggests that he is, then I don't think his problem has anything to do with the pressure that you feel he is under, but rather the type of pressure."
Daileass looked between Barrett and Haden and folded his arms. He couldn't immediately disagree with Hac's logic, but he would certainly need to hear more before he could be convinced. "Go on."
"No offense to Barrett, but he is not the type of person cut out for Nation leading. But there was a point in time, because he was one of the originals that Father rescued, that many of our society looked toward him to be such a leader. That type of pressure never seemed to work that well for him. But, give him a good biological genetics mystery to solve, or a smaller team to lead, that would seem to help him deal with things a lot better than just sitting around doing nothing."
"I don't really know anything about genetics at all," Haden stated.
"No," Hac agreed. "However, you do know electronics. And I'm sure that if we gave you some weird obscure piece of electronics hardware, you would have a field day with trying to figure out its secrets."
A sly smile slid across Haden's face. "Maybe," he replied, feeling slightly embarrassed from having been so easily read.
From the link he shared with Haden, Daileass knew that Hac had nailed Haden almost head on, at least in regards to the electronics stuff. Although, he still wasn't convinced on the heading up of a special ops team. "So where does the leadership part fit in?"
"That part is simple," Hac smiled. "We have a forty thousand year old society. No offense, but some of the stuff we have, surface culture hasn't even come close to developing yet. By heading up Clas Totus, that would give Haden a much better excuse to get his hands on some of that. Beyond that, if I had to guess, I would say that Haden would feel a lot more comfortable leading and being part of a much smaller team that he could use like a precision scalpel rather than leading battalions and legions."
"Fine," Daileass replied after thinking for a few more moments. "In that case, if it's something that Haden wants to do, I'll support it. But if he says no..."
Hac nodded in understanding and looked toward Haden. "So, what do you say kid? Feel like having some fun?"
Haden remained quiet for several moments. "I would be lying if I said it didn't sound really tempting. But I already have obligations I've agreed to. I'm kind of expected to lead a battalion."
"Haden?" Daileass called out to get the other boy's attention. "There are a bunch of other officers in the U.N.I.T. that can handle leading a battalion. If this is something you really want to do, then jump on it. The battalions will always be there if you ever change your mind."
Haden nodded as he not only looked at Daileass, but focused on allowing his mind to touch Daileass's. After a few moments of concentration, he could tell that Daileass was being serious, and that it wouldn't be a big problem if he agreed to this.
After a few more moments of thought, Haden finally nodded. "I would be lying if I said the idea of learning more about the tech these guys have, didn't sound really exciting. Especially after the little sneak peak Barrett gave me earlier. As far as the troop stuff goes, to be honest, I kinda like the idea of having a smaller team that I can work hands-on with rather than ordering around lots of teams and coordinating things hundreds of miles away. So yeah, as long as I am not letting Daileass or the U.N.I.T. down or anything, I think I would like to try it."
Daileass nodded. "You will not be letting the U.N.I.T. down, and you certainly would not be letting me down. To take the position you are being offered is a huge honor. It says a lot toward just how much their society saw in how you handled yourself today. If anything, I would be beyond proud of you."
"If things go the way they have in the past, the joint operations team will sometimes go weeks without having any operations, so there is a good chance that once we get everything established, you will still be able to play with your battalions," Hac stated getting nods from both Daileass and Haden.
"I'm sure things will go great for you, Haden." Barrett commented. "So I guess I should leave for a bit so you guys can talk more on this?"
Hac grinned as he looked toward Barrett. "What are you talking about? You are going to be part of this thing too."
"Me?" Barrett asked with surprise.
Hac nodded. "After seeing how you handled yourself at the farm today? Definitely. You might need to brush up a little bit on your hand to hand combat skills since you have had your nose in the books over the last several hundred years, but you'll pick things back up pretty quickly. Besides, if I understand the whole twin link thing correctly, there will be times that Haden would be able to communicate with you when he might not be able to communicate with the rest of us."
"Plus, I bet someone with as much pre-fall knowledge that you have on biology and genetics stuff could be extremely useful in the field if we are up against things that I've never heard of or seen before," Haden added.
Barrett nodded and smiled.
"And that right there, ladies and gents is one of the main reasons Haden is perfect for this," Hac stated. Seeing the questioning look on both Barrett's and Haden's face, he continued. "One of the traits of a good leader is being able to recognize your own weaknesses in addition to your strengths."
"So, when do we start?" Haden asked.
"That depends on you," Hac replied. "As Daileass pointed out, you've been through a pretty stressful event today. You might want to take the next day or two off to rest. Whenever you are ready, we'll start putting the team together."
"Actually, I wouldn't mind getting started sooner, rather than later," Haden replied. "This is a little bit exciting."
"I figured you would say that," Hac smiled as he stood up. "In that case, we can get started now. The best place to do that, I think, would be from one of our control centers that we use for coordinating military operations."
"Cool," Haden smiled.
"You guys have fun," Daileass stated as he too was forced to smile as he felt Haden's excitement. "I think I've been letting the V.I.'s handle things for long enough and I should probably give this body a rest for a bit."
"You're not coming with us?" Haden asked as he looked toward Daileass.
"No, I really shouldn't," Daileass replied as he tapped a finger to his forehead. "But in a way I'll still be going with you in here."
Almost forgetting about the link, Haden smiled. "Thanks Daileass... for everything..."
Daileass nodded. "You guys behave," he said moments before he vanished.
"Let's do this," Hac stated as he walked to the front of his Desk. "KLAUS, Ops center four please."
Without a word, all three boys vanished from Hac's office.
Haden, Barrett, and Hac appeared in the center of a small darkened dome shaped room. As soon as they arrived, a ring of red florescent-like lights lit up on the floor, with a smaller ring lighting up near the top of the dome.
"KLAUS, Authorize Haden Rothwood for chamber entry," Hac spoke out loud. As soon as he said this, the red lights changed to soft yellowish-white lights.
[Authorization granted. Thanks Hacerth.]
Hac winced. "Oh, you just have too much fun following protocol, don't you KLAUS?"
[Of course.] KLAUS's voice giggled.
Haden could hear the soft low humming sound of some type of electronic devices as he looked around the circular room that they were in that was no more than ten feet across. In front of them, were two work stations that overlooked emptiness. Another work station was on each side of them, making a total of four stations in the room. A doorway of some sort seemed to be behind them, but it was too dark for Haden to get a good view of it.
Above them, about six small rods positioned around the light ring extended down about 3-4 inches. Other than the fact that the rods seemed to have small crystal-like ends to them, Haden couldn't really figure out what their purpose might have been for.
"What is this place?" Haden finally asked after he had looked around a few moments longer.
"Welcome to Operations Center Four," Hac smiled. "Basically, this is a fully self-contained environment from which tactical operations can be managed and observed for any theater of activity that KLAUS has access to."
"I think you're going to like this," Barrett grinned.
Haden walked a few steps forward toward the two front stations and tried to look past them. "It seems like we are in the center of a much larger room?"
"That's the intent of the effect," Hac replied as he took a seat at one of the front stations. "But it's really just an optical illusion. The actual size of the room is not much larger than the area we are standing in. In fact, if you reach out about six inches past the stations, you will feel the wall."
Haden did as Hac suggested, and the expression on his face immediately changed. "Warm and smooth, kinda like glass. A lot of small glass segments?"
Hac nodded. "Very good. They are micro-screens. They are connected such that they line the inner wall of the sphere that we are in."
"Why?" Haden asked as he looked over toward where Hac was sitting, and saw several panels in front of him light up.
"So we can do things like this," Hac replied as he pressed a few buttons on one of the panels. A few moments later, the front half of the sphere came to life and showed an image of the Briggs farm that they had been at earlier that day.
"Whoa," Haden replied as he lost his balance slightly as the image had a slight down-slant to it. Other than a very faint, almost unnoticeable outline around the small one-inch square micro-screens, the way the image was displayed made it look like they were there.
"This is a live feed that one of our cam-drones is sending back from that farm house we visited earlier." Hac stated as he pressed a few more buttons. "We can do just about anything we want with the feeds."
A few moments later, the image split into two images, so the right side was showing the original image, and the left was showing another view from a different location at the farm house. After a few moments, both images squished and pulled away from them, as if the sphere room that they were in flew backward, and was looking at both half-sphere images from much further out. Shortly after that, a third image super-imposed itself as a background to the first two, was showing a satellite top-down view of the property. A little bit after that, everything went dark. "But enough of that," Hac commented.
"Okay, now that was seriously awesome." Haden commented.
"See, I told ya that you would like it," Barrett smiled as he walked to Haden's side.
"As much as I would love to sit here and play all day, I think we need to get down to business," As Hac said this, he continued to press more buttons, this time using some of the other panels that were in front of him. After a few moments, pictures of five people appeared and evenly spaced themselves out in the space ahead of them. "Here are the people that I have in mind for our eight person team."
"I don't think any explanation is needed for the first two people," Hac continued. Since the first two images were pictures of both Hac and Barrett, Haden agreed. "The third person you might remember as well, he's name is Brudei."
Haden nodded. "Yeah, I met him at Fons before the Circle Meeting resumed. He gave us a message from you."
Hac sniggered. "That would be him. He's like me. He's a great friend, and an even better fighter. The fourth person I'm pretty sure you haven't gotten to meet yet, but once you do, I think you will really like him. His name is Tervus Klystron; he's a very power telekinetic, just like his father was."
Haden looked at the picture of the slightly tan, light brown haired boy. "That's probably going to be helpful. We have some Telekinetics in the Clan as well."
"And this last one... well, he's probably going to take a bit to get used to," Hac began as he pointed to the fifth picture of a rather pale looking dirty brown-haired, scruffy looking thirteen-year-old. "His name is Malory Sperry, but everyone calls him Mouse. He will be your intelligence and infiltration guy by day, and hacker and thief by night. I don't think we've ever found a lock that he hadn't been able to get us past."
"Nice," Haden replied as he looked at the screen. "But you said eight people, that's only five."
"Well, the sixth person would be you, of course," Hac answered.
"And the last two?" Haden asked.
Before he turned around in his chair to face Haden, Hac pressed a button on one of the panels that caused both his terminal and all the images in front of them to go dark. "Well, now that's an interesting question, isn't it? The answer to that is kind of up in the air. I have a person in mind for the seventh, but I'm not sure if we will be able to get him yet. And the eighth, that's up in the air as well. We'll see how the team rounds out with these seven."
"Okay, so who's the seventh?" Haden asked curiously.
Hac shook his head as he stood up. "I can't tell you that, yet. But I'm pretty sure you will like him." Before Haden had a chance to reply, he continued. "KLAUS, teleport us to Anwern's office please."
Moments later all three boys appeared in a well-lit room that looked like a cross between an office and a scientific work lab. Other than the three of them, the rest of the room was empty.
"It doesn't look like Anwern is here," Haden commented.
"Don't worry, he'll show up pretty quickly," Barrett replied.
As if on cue, Anwern quickly walked through the door into the room. "Hey guys, Haden... Barrett... Hac," he said cheerfully as he walked behind his desk, put the PADD device he was holding in his front lab coat pocket, and sat down. "What's on your minds?"
As Hac began, he focused his gaze directly into Anwern's eyes. "Clas Totus is being reassembled."
"I heard that," Anwern nodded. "I hope that works out better for you guys this time around."
"So do I," Hac agreed. "Because of that, I need to ask for a favor."
Anwern smiled as he sat back in his chair. "Although I'm flattered, unfortunately I don't think I'm going to have the time to be a part of your team."
Hac let out a small grunt. "That's fine, because that's not what I was going to ask. We need Meitas."
Anwern chuckled. "Right."
"Do you remember how you owe me one?", Hac asked in a serious tone.
"You're calling that in for THIS?" Anwern asked as the smile disappeared from his face. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
Hac gave a single nod.
Anwern held Hac's gaze for a few more moments before he sat back in his chair as he folded his hands in front of his chin in an expression of intense thought. After almost an entire minute had gone by, he turned his head to look toward Barrett, and then to Haden, before looking back toward Hac.
"Alright," Anwern replied as he slowly nodded his head. "But you’re going to need to go get him. I'm way too busy right now."
Hac nodded in agreement. "I can leave right now."
Anwern shook his head. "Not just you; all three of you. And since I'm assuming that Haden accepted the offer to lead the team, or he wouldn't be here right now, he needs to be the one that gets him to agree."
"Now that's not fair," Hac protested.
"Those are my conditions. Take it or leave it," Anwern replied seriously as he stood up from his desk, indicating that he was not prepared to discuss this any further, and instead expected either a yes-or-no answer.
Hac grudgingly nodded. "Fine. This is probably one of your damn lessons. But either way, we'll accept that."
Anwern nodded and pulled out his PADD from his pocket and began to type on it.
Haden looked up toward Hac. He was just about to ask him a question when Anwern spoke up first. "KLAUS, secure teleport to Ardell Klystron's office please."
A very faint whirling sound could be heard as Anwern and the other three boys vanished from the room.
Anwern, along with Haden, Barrett, and Hac, appeared inside of Ardell's office, startling Ardell who was sitting behind his desk reviewing some information on his terminal. Looking up to see who his visitors were, Ardell sighed. "You guys do realize that there is a reason why doors were invented."
"Oh good, you're already here," Anwern stated as he quickly looked around the room, completely ignoring Ardell's comment. "KLAUS, secure the room please."
[Stand by, I need to let Daileass know that Haden will be going dark.]
At hearing this, Ardell's expression quickly changed to one of concern. Before he had a chance to say anything, the whitish-yellow light shining down from the ceiling turned blue. At the same time, the small window that looked out into the hallway turned completely black.
[Daileass has been advised and acknowledges. Room is secure.]
Moments after KLAUS spoke, a look of both fear and concern appeared across Haden's face as the link with Daileass and the rest of the Logan clones seemed to fade away. "What's going on?"
"Sorry, Haden," Anwern replied with a slight degree of compassion in his voice. "But what is going to be said here cannot be heard by anyone outside this room. Unfortunately, that includes those that are in the link you are in."
[I slowly increased the dampening fields, so hopefully it was not too much of a shock to you.]
"So, this is like level five security stuff?" Barrett asked with a slight degree of excitement.
"I have a feeling this goes way beyond level five security." Ardell smiled toward Barrett before looking seriously toward Anwern. "Care to fill me in on what's going on?"
"It would seem that Hac is really taking to heart the little task you gave him to reform Clas Totus," Anwern began. "He has gone as far as calling in that little favor I owe him and has asked to be able to include Meitas on his team."
"Farg," Ardell replied in shock as he looked toward Hac. "You're serious?"
As Hac nodded his confirmation, Anwern continued. "The one stipulation that I made to his request is that the three of them will need to go fetch him, and Haden will need to get him to accept."
"What?" Ardell gasped in surprise. "That means sending them to..."
"Yeah, I know," Anwern cut Ardell off before he could finish speaking. "So now you know why we are here."
Ardell slowly shook his head. "Weren't you yelling at me just a few hours ago for jumping into things head first without thinking?"
"I wasn't yelling at you, I was just making sure you were looking at all sides of the issue," Anwern defended. "As far as this goes, I have my reasons for it. I’m just not at liberty to get into them right now."
"Hold on," Barrett began as a look of realization swept over him. "You guys aren't talking about that Star Sphere thing, are you?"
Anwern nodded. "We are,"
"Holy wow!" Barrett replied. "You mean you were really being serious about that. And it really really exists?"
Anwern nodded again.
"What's a Star Sphere?" Haden asked curiously.
"Right," Ardell replied as he sighed before taking a deep breath. "How would be the best way to describe this.... Okay Haden, you know a bit about science. Let's say you had yourself a star, and you wanted to capture as much of the energy from that star as possible. How would you do it?"
Haden thought for a moment. "Probably setting up a solar panel or solar array constructed with as strong of material as I could come up with, and placing it in orbit around the star as close as the thermal limits of the satellite would allow.
"That's actually a pretty decent answer," Ardell smiled. "However, remember the problem. We want to capture as much of all the energy from the star as possible. There is still going to be a lot of light energy that the star puts out that your little satellite isn't going to get."
"Okay, then maybe a whole array of satellites positioned all around the star? And then maybe another set behind them to capture any of the light that the first group misses?" Haden thought out loud. "But that would require a massively huge number of satellites, I mean probably in the billions."
"Perhaps multiply that number by a few trillion, and you might be a bit closer. And even then, you would still not get 100% of the energy. However, I think you are going in the right direction," Anwern continued. "If you really wanted to be sure to get 100% of the energy, wouldn't the best solution be to build a shell around the entire star?"
"I guess," Haden thought. "But the engineering required to pull that off, not to mention the raw materials... Do you have any clue as to what the diameter of something like this would be? We would be talking super huge."
"As a matter of fact, I do," Anwern grinned. "You would be looking at a radius of roughly one hundred and fifty million kilometers, or a circumference of around nine hundred and fourty million kilometers, which would roughly be around forty thousand square earths."
Haden's eyes nearly popped out. "Something that massive is not possible. I mean, for starters, the amount of raw materials needed to build something like that would be impossible to get from a single planet."
"I agree," Anwern replied. "A single planet would not be able to supply enough I guess you will just have to figure that stuff out when you get there, because that's where you are going."
"Wait... wait," Haden did his best to not explode. "We get to go to a Star Sphere? I mean... where do you even park one of those things? And we get to go there?"
Ardell and Hac were trying as hard as possible to not burst out laughing. Even Barrett was finding it very difficult not to break out in laughter at seeing just how excited Haden was. "Yup, that's exactly where you're going," Anwern smiled as he pointed behind Haden toward the Vase sitting in the corner of the room. "And as far as where you would park one of those things..."
Haden looked toward where Anwern was pointing. "The vase..." Haden said to himself as he remembered the comment that Ordath had made about the vase the first time he visited Ardell's office. "It's in there?"
"Yes and no," Anwern replied. "I guess you could say it's more of a gateway to get there. The actual Star Sphere is about eight galaxies away from here."
"Cool, so when do we get to leave?" Haden asked hopefully.
Anwern looked toward Hac. "Assuming Hac still feels he can control you while you're there, you guys can leave now."
"I'm not so sure anymore," Hac replied thoughtfully.
"Oh come on, please?" Haden pleaded. "You can't go telling us about something this cool, and not let us go there!"
"Oh, trust me, they can," Barrett jumped in. "Anwern first told us about this thousands of years ago, and then he never seemed to want to mention it again."
The look of sheer terror crept across Haden's face.
Not wanting to make the poor kid suffer anymore, Hac finally gave in. "Alright fine. Yes, I'm pretty sure I can keep these two in line."
"Ardell?" Anwern asked as he looked toward Ardell.
"As has been told to you in the past, anything in reference to the Star Sphere is completely in the hands of you and your brothers," Ardell replied as he sat back in his chair.
Anwern nodded as he took out a small black pyramid shaped object from inside his lab coat and twisted one of the edges of it until the entire thing began to get a faint blue glow around it. "While we are waiting for the gateway to open up and link, there are a few more things you need to know before you go."
Seeing that he had the attention of all three boys, he continued. "The places that Hac is going to be taking you should, for the most part, be fairly safe. Keep in mind that many races have tried to take control of the sphere over the millennium. If any of the systems for any reason perceive you as a threat, they will not hesitate to eliminate you. The best rule of thumb is that if you are not sure what something is, don't touch it."
After getting nods from the three boys, a large six-foot-tall portal of blue shimmering energy opened up right in front of where the vase was resting. "Hac, I trust you remember how to navigate the systems from your last visit. But if you happen to come across anything unexpected, then drag your asses back here. We can go another time when I have more time to go with you."
Hac nodded as he looked toward Haden and Barrett. "Okay, this is just like the rings, guys, just keep walking.
A concerned look came across Barrett's face. "I don't think Haden's ever been through any of the rings yet."
"Right, isn't that just lovely," Hac sighed "Okay, Haden, what you are going to do is hold Barrett's hand, close your eyes, and just keep walking forward. No matter what, keep walking forward in a straight line, and don't open your eyes until Barrett or I tell you to, got it?"
Haden nervously nodded his head. "What if I don't walk completely straight?"
"It would be bad," Barrett replied.
"Let's just say that parts of the molecules that make up Haden would end up being spread somewhere between here and eight galaxies away," Anwern added.
"Right," Haden replied as he swallowed hard and got a strong grip on Barrett's hand.
Feeling how scared his twin was feeling, Barrett did his best to reassure him. "It's not really that bad, Haden. But going through the rings can be a bit disorienting the first few times you go through them; so the first time or two we usually have people close their eyes. I'm thinking that something like this is going to be a lot worse. I kinda want to close my eyes too."
"You'll be fine, Barrett," Hac stated as the group moved closer to the event horizon of the gateway. "This is going to physically seem like two or three times farther than going through the rings. Just keep going straight and you you'll be fine."
Barrett nodded. "Okay,"
"Alright, you two go on. I'll be right behind you," Hac stated as he nudged the two boys slightly.
"You ready for this?" Barrett asked as he looked toward his twin.
"I think so," Haden replied as he nodded and closed his eyes tight.
"Okay, here we go," Barrett replied as he and Haden began to walk forward and disappeared through the gateway. A few moments later Hac followed them. A few seconds after Hac disappeared, the portal faded away.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Ardell commented once it was just the two of them left.
"So do I," Anwern replied. "KLAUS, go ahead and stand down from secure room status until you detect the portal re-establishing itself."
Within moments, the lights in the room turned back to a whitish-yellow color, and the window looking out into the hall became transparent once again.
[Acknowledged. What should I tell Daileass? He and his brothers are rather concerned.]
Anwern thought for a few moments. "You can fill Daileass in on the basics. But I would prefer that he not forward any of this information on until after I've had a chance to talk to Logan, which hopefully I'll be able to find a few minutes of time to do over the next day or two."
[You got it.]
"Let me know when they get back," Anwern stated as he made his way out of Ardell's office.
"Sure thing," Ardell replied to the now-empty room.
To say that the sensations that Haden felt were weird would be an understatement. As he walked forward, he could feel the pressure quickly dropping around him. It had a feeling similar to how it felt when you were flying in a plane that was steadily climbing upward. Every step forward he made, it seemed like the pressure was getting less. At one point he could even feel his ears popping.
Although he had his eyes closed, Haden could also tell that not only was there light around him, but that the light was shifting and changing colors and intensity. Although he really wanted to take a peek at what was causing the light, he dared not. Walking through a gateway that allowed you to transfer millions of light years in the matter of seconds did not seem like the type of thing you would want to mess around with.
After they had been walking for about fifteen seconds, Haden noticed it was getting more difficult to breath as well. Finally, just as he was close to panicking, the lights went away, and they stepped into a place that was back to normal in regards to pressure. The other difference he noticed was that it was a bit warmer than where they had left from.
"You can open your eyes now," Barrett spoke as he let go of Haden's hand.
"See, that wasn't so bad, now was it?" Hac added.
Haden opened his eyes and found himself in a moderately sized room. The floor was black with small white sparkles. Its feeling reminded Haden of marble floors. The ceiling and walls were made of large black tiles that slowly turned into dark green about an inch from the edges. One of the weirdest things about the room was that although he could not see any visible light source, the room seemed to be well lit.
On the other side of the room, where a doorway might otherwise have been, Haden could see a stream of reflective silver liquid slowly flowing from one side of the door way to the other, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. The only other object in the room was about five feet in front of them, and slightly to the right, where a milkish-white translucent cylinder protruded from the floor, standing about three feet high, with a diameter of less than a foot.
Hearing a swishing sound, Haden looked behind him just in time to see the portal gateway quickly fading away.
'So that's how they did it,' Haden heard Ordath speak inside of his head. 'That's a pretty sneaky way to get past the sphere's defenses. But I'm sure the Builders would still not have been happy.'
"Hey, I could hear that," Barrett said softly. Seeing the confused look that Haden shot him, he continued. "That Ordath person that's in your head."
Haden nodded in understanding. "So, this is the Star Sphere?"
"It's part of it," Hac replied. "We are more in the inner-workings of it right now, kind of like in the entry room. We still have a ways to go before we can get up to the surface."
'Actually, if my guess of where we are is correct, going much further up would not be that advisable.' Ordath stated.
"So we actually need to go down?" Haden asked.
"What?" Hac replied as he looked back toward Haden. "No, I said up, not down."
"Sorry, I was asking Ordath a question," Haden replied.
"Well, we should get going," Hac said shaking his head as he began to walk toward the sideways flowing liquid.
"That's an odd looking portal," Barrett commented as the group got closer.
"Actually, from what Anwern described, this is more like a bio-filter for medical decontamination," Hac replied as he stopped a few inches in front of the passage. "I would suggest holding your breath, and closing your eyes as you walk through it. It's supposedly not harmful if you swallow some of it, but it sure has a really bad taste to it."
Haden stood a few inches away from the liquid. Although the passage beyond the liquid seemed dark, it was still somewhat easy to see beyond it, but it was much harder to judge how thick the liquid was. Finally, he decided to do as Hac suggested, and stepped ahead through the archway. Whatever the liquid was, it was somewhat difficult to push through. Fortunately, it also wasn't that thick. Also, anywhere the liquid touched on his skin, he could feel a tingling sensation.
As soon as all three were standing on the other side, the flowing liquid vanished, and the hall ahead of them began to illuminate with light. It was the same light that existed in the room they were just in, a light that seemed to come from nowhere, as if the particles within the air were creating it.
"The light in this place is freaky," Barrett commented, echoing Haden's thoughts, as they continued to walk down the hall.
"That's just one of many strange things about this place," Hac replied. "I would suggest trying to not think about them too much; otherwise they'll give you a headache."
After walking a ways down the hall, they suddenly began to walk several feet down a slope. As they did this, the walls, ceiling, and floor took more of a shiny metal texture. About twenty feet away, they could see the hall slope back up to normal hallway.
"I wonder what this is for?" Haden asked as they walked.
"No clue really," Hac replied. "I just know we have to walk through two of them before we get to the trans-mat to take us up."
'They represent a small section of a massive energy relaying switch.' Ordath informed both Haden and Barrett. 'I believe the idea is for it to be part of the security system leading to the makeshift galaxy bridge that we arrived through. When not specifically turned off to allow friendlies to pass, plasma energy circulates through the corridor in preparation for being sent to one of the larger energy collectors. The excited plasma energy would instantly vaporize anything that comes in contact with it.'
"Ouch," Barrett shuttered.
"What's wrong?" Hac asked looking back at Barrett.
"Um, nothing, sorry." Barrett replied.
Hac stopped to eye Barrett suspiciously. "You know, I wasn't born yesterday."
Barrett shrugged, not really sure what to say.
Hac was about to say something else when he noticed Haden stepping through a door that seemed to just open up in the hall. "Haden, where you going? We need to stick to the path Anwern showed me." Before he could stop him, however, he was through the door.
As Hac and Barrett followed Haden into the room, they found that they were in a fifteen foot diameter circular room. The light went up for about ten feet and then disappeared into darkness, with no signs of a ceiling anywhere. Once Haden reached the center of the room, a small square panel of light appeared floating in mid-air next to him. The panel had a blue glow to it and had three rows of strange looking circular figures.
'This would be one of the old style maintenance lifts. If I'm right, there is really only one reason that it is still in use,' Ordath informed. 'If you want to see something truly breathtaking, press the second figure from the left on the first row, and then the fifth figure on the second row.'
"You can read this?" Haden asked.
"What makes you think I read this stuff?" Hac asked. "Anwern mentioned it was some kind of lost language."
Barrett shot Hac an odd look.
"Ya know, it would be a lot easier if I could hear Ordath as well, whenever you guys are talking with him."
'Yes, I can,' Ordath answered Haden's question once Hac was done. 'This is the language of the original creators of the sphere. They have long since left this plane of existence, and are now known only as 'The Builders'. Their language has evolved into a highly complex language consisting of three circles inside of each other. Each circle can start and stop in one of eight different locations, giving the basic alphabet around three hundred and thirty six different letters. Given your affinity for electronics, I think you would appreciate it.'
"Whoa, whoa! What are you doing?" Hac nervously called out as Haden pressed the two symbols that Ordath indicated. "What part of not touching anything did you not understand?"
"Don't worry, it's okay," Haden replied.
"Anwern said to not touch anything we weren't sure about," Barrett added.
"Oh, and I suppose Ordath just happens to understand these weird symbols?" Hac asked sarcastically.
"Uh-huh," both boys replied.
Before Hac had a chance to say anything, the floor rumbled slightly before it began to quickly move upward. "I am so going to regret wanting to bring you two here."
After around fifteen seconds of moving upward, the room was flooded with light as the ceiling literally dissolved above them. Moments later the floor came to a stop to reveal a sight that none of them would have expected.
The boys found themselves in a large observation bubble. Directly above them, filling up nearly the entire sky was a massive dark red and yellow star. Not far below them, stretching for as far as the eye could see was row after row of large angled dark square objects that closely resembled solar panels.
"By the gods," Hac breathed out.
"Still wanting to go up?" Barrett grinned as he looked back to a shocked Hac.
"Hey, I'm just going by what Anwern told me," Hac defended.
"Whoever built this place must have been pretty skilled," Haden stated in awe. "Especially for us to be this close to a star, and not get burnt to a crisp."
"Are you sure this is a real star?" Barrett asked seriously. "Look at the area between the surface of... well, whatever it is that we are on, and the star."
Both Haden and Hac did as Barrett suggested. Instead of seeing the blackness of space as one might suggest, instead they saw a blueish-grey haze. For the most part, the haze was moderately bright, just as you might expect something to be that was reflecting the light of a star. However, in many places in the haze, there were very tiny black dots which created a nice diagonal-like pattern.
"If the Star Sphere really is built around a star, then we are probably seeing the surface of the sphere, or more appropriately the light reflecting off of that surface," Haden offered
"That doesn't look like much of a surface to me. It just looks like hard to see mist," Barrett replied.
"From here, it probably would because the surface would have to be millions of kilometers away from the star, so it would be really really tiny," Haden nodded. "What has me puzzled are those dots. Even if they were the size of a few earths, I don't see how we could see them so clearly if they were on the surface, and if they were ships, they would probably be way too small to see at all. I don't suppose you have any insight on those, do you Ordath?"
'There are many wonders that the Star Sphere hides that you could discover. How would it help you if I gave you all the answers without giving you a chance to discover things on your own?' Ordath answered.
"Well, don't keep me in suspense, what did he say?" Hac jumped in.
Barrett shook his head. "He won't answer. He says we have to figure things out for ourselves."
"Figures," Hac replied. "That Ordath sounds almost as bad as Anwern and the rest of his brothers."
"Uh huh," Barrett nodded in agreement.
After another minute of looking at the breathtaking sights ahead of them, Hac looked at the other two boys. "Well, as cool as this looks, I really do think we should get back to why we came here. You think you can figure out how to get us back down?"
"Huh?" Haden asked as he looked toward Hac, "Oh yeah, that shouldn't be a problem."
Haden walked back to the panel that was still floating at the center of the platform, and pressed the two buttons that Ordath indicated to him. Almost immediately, the floor began to descend. After going down about twenty feet, the light from the star went away just as quickly as it had originally appeared, leaving them in total darkness for a few moments, aside from the faint blueish glow from the floating panel. Not long after that, the air around them began to emit its own light once again.
Once the lift stopped moving, the group made their way off the left and back into the hallway. It only took about two minutes before they came to the next relay switch segment, and another minute of walking after that until they entered a large room that seemed similar in design to the room they first arrived in. The main differences between this room and the first room was that a square raised platform took up almost the entire back half of the room, while toward the front of the room, several large black panels were hanging diagonally from the ceiling toward the raised platform.
"You said this was a trans-mat?" Haden asked as they walked up to the raised platform.
Hac nodded. "That's what Anwern called it at least. This should be an interesting ride for you guys?"
"What's that mean?" Barrett asked curiously as Haden noticed two more of those milky-white translucent cylinders sticking out of the floor that were three feet high, and a foot thick.
"You'll see," Hac replied as he stepped up onto the white platform. As soon as he did, the entire surface began to glow. "You guys best hurry. If you miss the ride, it will be a fifteen minute wait for the next one."
Not wanting to be left behind, Haden and Barrett both quickly stepped onto the platform as well. "So what do we do now?" Barrett asked.
"Just wait," Hac grinned.
Haden didn't like the look on Hac's face. Before he could say anything, however, small sparkles began to left from the surface of the platform, creating little trails of light white behind them as they rose toward the ceiling. The entire time this was happening, a low humming sound could be heard, as the amount of energy in the air literally made his hair stand on end.
Moments later, Haden and Barrett both let out a scream as the floor seemed to disappear from under them, allowing them to plunge feet first into a waiting pool of more sparkles of light that were quickly shooting up to greet them. There were so many of these sparkles, that nothing else could be seen around them.
It only took a few moments for Barrett, and then Haden, to stop screaming as they realized that it only felt like they were falling as there was no wind, and their feet were still firmly planted on something, although they couldn't see what that something was.
A few moments later, the pressure and gravity seemed to greatly increase as they sparkles went away, revealing a much larger room where three other raised platforms similar to the one they were on, were at.
"Whoa, what was that?" Barrett asked.
"It was weird, whatever it was," Haden commented as he did a quick check to make sure all of him was there.
Hac let out a hearty laugh. "Told ya, you guys would like it."
'That was a matter lift, or at least that's how its name would best translate,' Ordath answered 'It was used to transport large equipment and materials back and forth between the Skiffs.'
"That was a matter lift?" Barrett repeated, mainly for the benefit of Hac. "You would think that they would have a little better way of transporting around here."
'For getting around the surface of the sphere, they do,' Ordath replied. 'Although it's true that the matter lifts were an older tech for the Builders, it is one of the best methods to use that close to a star of that type, with the amount of solar radiation that is emitted. Besides, although it's safe for organics to use, I don't think the original intent of their design was for organic use.'
"What do you mean by old tech?" Haden asked.
'It took thousands of years to complete the Star Sphere. The Skiffs were the work horses used during the earliest design phases of the sphere. Over the course of its construction, the Builders continued to refine and improve their technology, bringing about the other various forms of transport that you may see employed on the sphere. However, in regards to the solar radiation, and other factors, the matter lifts would still be the prime transport option of choice in getting to the Skiffs.'
Haden and Barrett both nodded in understanding.
"I really hope that someone is going to fill me in?" Hac stated, trying his best to not let his annoyance show too much in his voice.
As the group made their way off the platform and toward one side of the room, Barrett repeated everything that Ordath had told them.
By the time Barrett has finished explaining everything that Ordath had relayed to them; all three boys were standing a few feet away from a wall.
"I see," Hac stated after taking a few moments to think. "Although Anwern didn't go into as much detail that sounds close to what he had explained to me." Hac then took a step toward the wall, causing a small portion of it to dissolve away, revealing a rather long looking hallway behind it.
"Whoa," Haden and Barrett both gasped in astonishment. The hall that they saw looked nothing at all like the halls on the Skiff. Not only was the hall significantly taller and wider, going at least fifteen feet high and twenty feet across, but it's design was not like anything they had ever seen before. To start with, the hall had a basic octagonal shape with about a two foot section of the sides of the walls being indented about a foot.
White strips of light ran along the floors and ceilings where they intersected with the walls. The walls, ceiling, and floors themselves were a strange looking white semi-translucent crystal-like material that almost looked like ice. Small streams of slow moving yellow and blue liquid could be seen in many places through the material. For the most part, these streams seemed to flow along with the hall itself. However, as the hall reached doors or split into smaller side passages, some streams would branch out of view. Apparently only the streams that were closest to the surface of the siding could be seen.
Perhaps the most impressive part of all were the two foot high side panels of the halls, the ones that were indented by a foot to create the slight octagonal shape. Small odd shaped characters seemed to flow top down in an assortment of configurations, going the entire length of the hall. As far as Haden could tell, it looked like a single extremely long terminal monitor that was streaming massive amounts of information. The tiny characters were very similar to the circular based characters he had seen in the lift room on the skiff.
Hac grinned after seeing the looks on the faces of the other two boys. "Don't get too excited guys; we aren't going to be here that long. Just long enough to find Meitas, and head back."
"This is massively, majorly incredible," Haden whispered, causing Hac to wonder if he had heard a word of what was said.
"What's that?" Barrett asked as he point down the hallway. In the distance, a small bright yellow orb of light was very quickly making its way toward them.
"I believe that would be the welcoming committee," Hac replied as he took a step forward to ensure that he was in front of the other boys. "Don't worry, it's not dangerous; at least not to us."
Both Barrett and Haden flinched as it appeared that the orb would fly right past them. However, it abruptly stopped less than a foot away from Hac. A laser-thin beam of light shot out from the orb, scanning Hac up and down. Moments after that, the orb began to grow and shift into the form of a Human boy.
"Nuw-av-tiz-vul-nic, oot-var-quv-shall-nic," the boy stated in a terrible mechanical sounding voice which very quickly shifted itself into a normal child's voice. "I am Pawn 3874410. Your presence has not been expected. Please state the purpose for which you are here."
"I am Hacerth Re Tyurth of Gens Tutella of Natio Klaus of Earth," Hac stated in a formal tone. "I have been here before."
There was a brief pause before Pawn replied. "Your stated designation matches the genetic and hyroscopic profile taken from your previous visit. Your longevity has not been expected for your species profile."
"Ain't that the truth," Hac muttered under his breath.
"Your entitlement level has been elevated to G-13. How may I help you Hacereth-Its-Just-Hac?" Pawn continued.
"Argh, I swear, I am so going to kill Anwern one of these days," Hac grumbled. "I have brought two friends with me. I would like my entitlement level to be extended to them. This is Barrett Klystron of Gens Klystron of Natio Klaus of Earth, and this is Haden Rothwood of Gens Short of Natio Saurik of Vulcan."
The boy turned toward Barrett as a yellow scanning laser shot out of his eye and scanned Barrett up and down. "Barrett Klystron has been recognized and has been elevated to level G-13 per your request."
He then turned toward Haden and repeated the same process with the yellow beam of light shooting out of Pawn's eye, and scanning Haden up and down. Only this time, after the beam had made its first up and down sweep, the light turned red and repeated the process. "Unexpected hyroscopic signature for genetic profile. Preparing to eradicate foreign hyroscopics," Pawn stated as his eyes began to glow red.
"What?!" Haden asked in concern as he took a step backward.
Hac looked equally concerned. "Whoa, wait a minute. I don't think you need to go eradicating anything."
"The hyroscopic signature detected in the Haden Rothwood entity does not match what should be possible for that entity's genetic signature. As this suggests a potential undesirable foreign genetic contaminant, avoidance of eradication procedure is not optional." Pawn stated seriously.
'Fuck,' Haden heard Ordath state from within him.
Both seeing and feeling the fear rising from Haden, Barrett jumped in front of his twin, holding his hands out. "Don't hurt him, please! We'll just leave if we have to."
"Leaving is no longer an option," Pawn replied as the glow in his eyes increased. "Preparing to initiate eradication procedure."
'Haden, unless you want something very bad to happen to both of us, you need to say exactly what I tell you,' Ordath stated inside Haden's head. 'Start by saying 'Pawn vish-tah'.'
Although Haden was beyond nervous and not liking at all what he was hearing or seeing, he nodded and spoke exactly as he heard it from Ordath.
The change in Pawn's behavior was nearly instant, specifically; the red glow in his eyes went away as he refocused his attention toward Haden. "Although it is unclear as to how you might know Builder language, but you may proceed. You have forty-eight time units to complete your request, or the procedure will be resumed."
'Alright, we don't have much time,' Ordath stated quickly. 'I did not anticipate Hac attempting to grant you and Barrett entitlement status. As a result, one of the security scans that is preformed detected my presence being bound to you and has labeled it as a foreign contaminant within your genetic make-up. That leaves me no other choice but to make my presence known to the system. With any luck, my security credentials will still exist from when I was here a very long time ago.'
"You have twenty-four time units remaining," Pawn stated passively.
"Alright," Haden said as he listened to Ordath for what to say. "Using Terran English... Identify Ordathulonixorizivar...Associate with Global Security Entitlement Level 8... Level 3 hyroscopic scan authorized."
Pawn tilted his head in confusion, obviously having to consult a higher up, or at least a higher database. Moments later, he nodded. "Acknowledged. Prepare for Level 3 scan."
'Brace yourself, Haden,' Ordath stated. 'This may end up stinging a little. But trust me, it is going to be better than what the alternative would have been.'
Haden was still confused as to what everything that Ordath told him to say meant, but he still prepared himself for whatever it was that might happen next. He didn't have to wait long. A few seconds later, a blinding beam of yellow light shot out from Pawn's eyes and began to scan Haden up and down. Other than feeling a little prickly, it wasn't that bad.
When the beam stopped, Pawn again remained quiet for several long moments. 'They must have made the Level 3 scan more organic friendly since I was here last,' Ordath commented while they were waiting.
When Pawn finally spoke, he did so in a less alarmed tone. "Level 3 scan confirms... hyroscopics confirmed for Ordathulonixorizivar of Thisvilauxtu of Agroth Prime... Haden Rothwood has been recognized and has been elevated to level E-8 by proxy of Ordathulonixorizivar's security entitlement."
"Well damn," Hac stated in surprise. "I have no clue what that was all about, but maybe you could grant Barrett and me whatever higher security level you've been given?"
'That would probably not be wise,' Ordath stated seriously.
"Ordath doesn't seem to think that would be that good of an idea," Barrett smiled.
"Oh well, was worth a try," Hac shrugged.
"How may I be of service to you?" Pawn asked a few moments later as if nothing had happened.
"Huh?" Hac looked toward the yellowish hologram as he slowly shifted back into his human form. "Oh yeah, I guess we might as well get on with it. We need to find a Subcinctor who goes by the name of Meitas. He should have entitlement status and probably moves from world to world, or whatever you call them here."
Pawn nodded. "There are very few Subcinctors on the sphere, so finding him should not be an issue. Please wait while I consult the master databases."
"A few? Last I knew there was only one," Hac replied somewhat surprised.
"I think one would qualify as a very few," Barrett grinned.
"That's enough out of you," Hac jokingly snapped back.
There was an eerie silence in the room for several long seconds before Pawn spoke again. "The one known as Meitas has been located. Cell four by five of zone six on plate one hundred and twenty seven by fifty four in quad block fifteen of region three. Is there any other way that I may be of service to you?"
Hac grunted. "Well yeah, we would like to go there."
"Very well," Pawn nodded and turned to walk out the door. "Please follow me."
'Oh sweet, a chance to get a better look at this place,' Haden thought to himself as they all followed Pawn down the amazing looking hallway. There were so many mysteries to figure out here. Where did all the wires that were in the walls and floors go? What was all the information being displayed on the wall screens going all up and down the hall? What was their electronics technology like? He was pretty sure it would have to be light years beyond whatever tech the Eryradain, Klaus society, and anyone else combined might have.
"So how exactly do we get there?" Barrett asked as they walked. "This place seems like it might be a little too big to walk."
"You are correct, walking would not be an option," Pawn agreed. "We are heading to the nearest ID Terminal Point, which, at our current movement speed should take us approximately 198.4 time units to reach. From there you will travel through the Inter-dimensional network to the nexus point of Plate 348X-715B-988L, which you would know as Plate one hundred and twenty seven by fifty four in quad block fifteen of region three. From there another Pawn will take you to a NLS transport pod where you will travel to cell four by five of that plate's zone six."
Barrett's eyes rolled as he looked toward Haden only to get the same confused look. "Is this how people feel when we talk to them about stuff?"
Haden shrugged his shoulders, "Probably."
As the group continued to walk forward, Pawn abruptly stopped, and turned toward the wall to his left. "Correction, due to a minor optimization of resources, our expected travel time to the ID Terminal Point will be reduced by 56.2 time units."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Hac asked as he and the other boys stopped next to Pawn.
Before Pawn could respond, Haden and Barrett both watched in amazement as a small eight foot section of the data screens on the wall in front of them not only seemed to stop displaying data, but sunk into the wall. Moments later, that entire section of the wall itself began to shift. The 'wires' that appeared to be right below the surface of the wall began to rearrange themselves. Within moments, a passage about half as wide, yet just as tall, as the passage they were in began to open up.
"Whoa," Haden gasped. "Your passages rearrange themselves?"
"Of course," Pawn replied as he began to walk down the newly formed passage. "Bishop has concluded that this optimized path will allow us to reach the ID Terminal Point such that you will be prepared to catch the next ID Pulse."
"If the passages are able to shift around, how do you keep track of where you are going?" Barrett asked.
"Normally I do not travel in physical form. However, organics such as you will typically have a Pawn or other construct guiding them, or they would have a direct link to Core, and would already be aware of the most efficient route to take to their destination."
As Barrett nodded in understanding, Haden decided it was his turn for a question. "This inter-dimensional transport thing sounds pretty cool; can you get anyone on the sphere with it?"
"Don't you guys ever stop asking questions?" Hac asked as the group stepped out into another large hallway like the first one they had walked in.
"No," Pawn answered. "The ID Transit system can only get you to plates that are in the same region. Each of the eight regions of the sphere have their own independent ID networks."
"Why not link them all together?" Barrett offered.
"I'm sorry, but your entitlement level does not permit me to provide any additional details on this subject," Pawn replied.
"I bet it has something to do with the star," Haden thought out loud. "A star probably plays havoc with trying to fold space and create inter-dimensional pathways."
'A very good and close observation,' Ordath commented.
The questions stopped as it became clear that they were about to enter another large room. Although it was true that the room was bigger than the passage they were walking in, it was nowhere close to being as big as the first room they arrived in when they transported down from the Skiff. This room seemed to be more like a bridge that crossed a large forty to fifty foot circular gap that ran across the width of the room. The only difference was that the bridge ended at the back wall of the room, going nowhere, and the large circular gap curved outward on both sides of the room. The way that it looked, if you were to jump down into the trench of the gap, you would walk in a big circle going out one side of the room and looping back around to the other.
Of course, it was unlikely that one would be able to do that, since there was protective railing setup on both the bridge, and the sides of the gap's trench that was exposed to this side of the room. As such, whatever was down the large circular passages would most likely remain a mystery.
As they approached the bridge, the boys could see several yellow diamond-like panels of light positioned on the floor near the middle of the bridge, placed about five feet apart from each other. In all, there were four rows of these diamonds with eight diamonds in each row.
"Have all of you used the inter-dimensional network before?" Pawn asked as he stopped in front of the bridge.
"I have, but my two friends here have not," Hac answered.
Pawn nodded in understanding. "Each of you should stand on one of the yellow pads located on the platform that you see ahead of you. Please do not attempt to make any physical contact with each other during your trip. The terminal point has been configured to take you to plate 348X-715B-988L. However, you will have two additional brief stops along the way as you switch pulses. During these stops, the pads that you are standing on will be red. Please remain on your pad during these points of time. Once you reach your destination, do not leave your pad until it turns yellow. Are there any questions?"
"Yeah," Barrett replied. "What happens if there is physical contact between two people during transit, will they merge together or something?"
"No," Pawn answered. "No harm will come to you by making physical contact. However, it can sometimes interfere with the internal security and safety system that monitors the inter-dimensional network. This may cause your trip to be prematurely aborted."
"In other words, if you do anything stupid, I kick your ass," Hac translated.
Barrett and Haden both nodded in understanding.
"If there are no other questions, please find a pad to stand on. You have eleven time units until the next pulse arrives," Pawn stated.
As Hac, Haden, and Barrett each did as they were told, Barrett sighed. "I hope this isn't as bad as the Skiff transport was."
"Nah, this is a lot cooler," Hac grinned. "The pretty lights are... well... pretty."
Haden was about to make a comment as well, but before he could, the dark passage behind them began to light up, as the sound of a huge amount of rushing water rapidly approaching could be heard. "I don't think I like the sound of this!" he managed to call out.
Before anyone else could reply, they were all engulfed in a sea of energy and lights. Looking ahead of them, it was if they were flying through the tunnel of a kaleidoscope. Bits and pieces of distorted images flew past them. It was truly an impressive sight to see.
Almost as quickly as it started, it was over. The sea of light flew past them, and disappeared into the tunnel ahead of them. The boys then found themselves in a room that was almost identical to the room they were just in. The only differences were that this room was significantly darker with air that seemed a lot stuffier, and Pawn was nowhere to be seen. Also, as expected, the color of the diamonds they were standing on were red instead of yellow.
"Told ya it would be cooler," Hac sated with a toothy grin as he looked at the expressions of the other two boys.
"Yeah, that was way beyond cool," Haden stated with Barrett nodding in agreement.
"How far do you think we travelled?" Barrett asked. "Other than the nice little light show, it didn't feel like we moved at all."
"When you are playing with folding sub-space, there is really no telling," Haden answered. "The bigger question is, how long are we going to have to wait here before the next wave or pulse or whatever it is comes?"
Haden didn't have to wait long for his answer. Moments after he finished speaking, the passage behind them began to glow, and just like before, the sound of a huge amount of water quickly rushing toward them could be heard.
The next two trips through inter-dimensional space were no less impressive than the first trip. Before the boys knew it, however, they had arrived at their final destination. Once the diamonds they were standing on turned yellow, they quickly stepped off the platform. Unlike the two rooms that they briefly stopped in that were darker and stuffy, the room they were in now was well lit, similar to the first room.
On the other side of the room, they could already see a portion of the wall dissolving away, revealing what Haden referred to as a 'cool hallway' behind it.
"So, where do you think the other..." Barrett began to ask, just as a yellow orb of shining light shot into the room from the newly opened passage. Just like before, the orb came to a sharp stop less than two feet away from Hac. A few moments later, it grew into the form of a yellowish transparent Human Boy.
"I am Pawn 2416031," the boy stated in the same exact voice that the previous Pawn used. "I have received your information from Pawn 3874410 and am prepared to escort you to the NLS transport pods."
"You guys don't like wasting any time with small talk, do you?" Hac replied. "By all means, lead the way."
"I think I liked the last Pawn better than this one," Barrett commented as they walked down the hallway. "He was a lot more talkative."
"Speak for yourself," Haden quickly replied. "You didn't have the last pawn nearly try to kill you."
"Good point," Barrett agreed.
"Your statements are irrelevant," Pawn replied as they walked. "All pawns function and behave exactly the same."
It took less than two minutes for the group to enter another room. On the other side of this new room, were four circular carriage-like objects that were suspended in the middle of circular frames. Each of these contraptions were resting inside of a circular track that that extended into four passages on the opposite wall which went on for as far as the eye could see. If Haden didn't know any better, he would say that the carriages reminded him of something he might get into at an amusement park or something.
Three of the four passages had large red lights above their entrances. The fourth passage, however, had a yellow light above it. It was the carriage for that passage that Pawn led them to, and opened the side of it up revealing a place that all of them could sit inside. "This is where you will sit during the journey," Pawn stated.
"Are you coming with us?" Barrett asked as he stepped into the carriage.
Before he answered, Pawn was already in the process of shifting back into a small sphere of light. "Yes, you will need me to pilot the NLS pod as it would be impossible for organics to possess the reaction times needed to travel at the speeds we will be going."
"Just how fast will we be going?" Haden asked as he sat down as well.
"Close to nine hundred and ninety speed units," Pawn replied.
'For those following along at home, that would translate to a little slower than the speed of light,' Ordath stated for the benefits of Barrett and Haden.
"Near Light Speed?" Haden repeated in surprise. "Okay yeah, I think that qualifies as fast."
Once everyone was inside, the door closed and sealed. Threw a small observation window in front of them, they could see Pawn's orb float up toward the top of the carriage. A few moments later, the yellow light that was above the tunnel in front of them, turned blue; at the same time, they quickly began to move forward into and through the tunnel.
As they continued to pick up speed, the whirling sound coming from outside the cabin increased in pitch as the lights that were in the tunnel started going by so fast that they became a blur, and finally solid streak of light. Occasionally, the cabin would jerk from side to side, or up and down as it would apparently shift tracks along its path.
"The inertia dampeners have to be pretty amazing on this for us to be going as fast as we are, and not really feel anything," Haden commented.
'It is,' Ordath replied since it was clear that no one else was in a position to.
The trip lasted for almost five minutes before the carriage began to slow down. When it finally did come to a stop, and the door was opened, it was very obvious that they were somewhere completely different from where they had been. Instead of the very elegant and futuristic looking architecture that they had been in up till now, the rather small room that they were in seemed like it was hastily created, and was still a work in progress, complete with scaffolding, exposed wires and pipes.
Once they had all gotten out of the cart, on the other side of the room, they could see a wide open door that had a blue protective field of light across it. Above the door was a small terminal displaying a red message written in Builder language. Beyond the door, through the blue field, they could see two puffs of steam coming out from the ceiling.
"This is the end of our journey," Pawn's orb stated as it descended down from the cart. "This is as far as I can go, and as far as the adaptive environment will go."
"Adaptive environment? What's that mean?" Barrett asked with concern.
"The archway with the protective energy barrier that you see over there is where the adaptive environment ends. Beyond that, you will be in the native atmosphere of the Plate that we are located at."
"This might be a stupid question," Haden asked. "But, we can breathe this atmosphere, right?"
"I would assume so, but that's probably a good question," Hac thought.
'The sign above the door indicates the atmosphere type,' Ordath stated. 'And yes, it is close enough to earth's atmosphere that you should not have any problems.'
"Ordath says it's fine," Barrett commented as he and Haden walked toward the door.
"Works for me," Hac replied.
"Thanks Pawn," Haden waved just as they were about to walk through the field.
"You are welcome," Pawn replied before it faded out of existence.
As Hac, Haden, and Barrett made their way down the passage, they found that it very quickly became so narrow that only one person could walk through it at a time. From Haden's perspective, this was probably the longest and hardest part of their journey as the passage winded its way through many different twists and turns.
Soon, the smooth walls of the passage became more like rock formations and the small floor lights stopped, leaving them in total darkness. Hac and Barrett took out their standard-issue mini utility kits, which had one end that could function as a small flashlight. Although Barrett promised himself to get one of the kits for Haden when they got home, that wouldn't help now.
Fortunately, Haden's GEAR was also able to act as a flashlight. Not only that, but it was a good deal brighter than the small pen-sized lights Hac and Barrett were using. The down side to this was the fact that Haden had the brightest light, which meant that he got to walk in front of the group.
As the passage became more like a maze, from time to time Hac would stop and mark their path with an ultraviolet marker. To most people, the marks would be invisible. However, they would be easily seen by those with enhanced vision like Hac that could see a wider range of the visual spectrum.
"How do we know we are going the right way?" Barrett asked after he had long since given up on trying to memorize the turns they had taken.
Hac grunted. "Yeah. As long as we are going in the direction that is going up, we are on the right path. These tunnel systems were created like this for a reason, but there is a pattern to them if you know what to look for."
Barrett nodded in understanding. "I guess that makes sense. This is probably one of those security things to prevent people from getting into the lower parts of the Star Sphere, right?"
"I guess," Hac replied. "Now quiet, I think we are getting close to the exit."
Hac was right in his suspicions. Up ahead of them they could see the faint flow of sunlight. A short while later, they were walking out of the cave and stepping into a bright summer day.
As soon as he was out, Haden took a look at their surroundings. They were at least halfway up a decent sized hill and were surrounded by all kinds of odd looking plants, shrubs, and trees that he had never seen before. In some ways, it reminded him of a rain forest, just without the rain and humidity. Several of the plants had very long and fanning leaves. A few of the trees he saw looked unusually short and fat. Possibly about ten to fifteen feet in diameter and only twenty feet tall with long stringy yellowish-green leaves draping down off of it.
The sun was directly above them in a blueish-grey sky that was dotted with several small puffy white clouds. A light breeze caused several of the planets around them to wave back and forth. The air itself had a very faint odor of something that Haden could not recognize, but otherwise was crisp and fresh.
"Are you sure we are still on the Star Sphere?" Haden asked. "This looks like it could just be any normal planet."
"You've been to other planets before?" Barrett asked.
Haden nodded. "Yeah. I've been to two others besides Earth."
"Yeah, we are definitely in the Star Sphere," Hac answered. "For starters, you will notice the sun will always be directly above you."
"That's going to make navigation a bit difficult," Haden commented.
Hac looked at the boy and grinned. "Normally, you would be right. However, if you look up toward the sun at just the right angle, about an inch away from it you will see another very faint spec of light."
"You mean that?" Barrett asked as he pointed to the lower right of the sun.
Hac nodded. "That would be the one. Anwern said it was a major energy collector or something. But the point is, it will always be there, so that is what I would use to orient myself to a standard direction."
"Cool," Haden agreed. "That makes a lot of sense."
Hac sniffed the air, and then pointed down one side of the hill they were on. "Looks like the closest encampment is probably in that direction. So that's where I think we should head."
"Works for me," Barrett stated as Haden nodded in agreement. With a decision being made, the three boys quickly began to wind their way down the hill toward whatever might await them below. As they walked, they saw a rather ugly looking six-legged lizard-like creature that had black and green scales, and a single thick horn sticking out of its head. As soon as it caught sight of the group, it scampered off into the brush.
"We're definitely not on Earth, that's for sure," Haden commented to no-one in particular.
After walking for a few more minutes, they came to a well-worn dirt path. Following the path led them past a few nicely crafted straw and wood huts, and into what looked like a small village settlement. Several of the huts had nets, or other small well-crafted tools lying outside of them.
Further down the path in the center of the settlement the boys could see a bunch of small hunch-backed purplish-orange skinned humanoid-like creatures, with their chests being more orange, and their arms, legs, and sides being purpler. Several of the creatures seemed to be dancing around a thin, oddly shaped shimmering dark golden tree. As soon as the group of creatures saw the approaching boys, they scattered off in every direction.
"It's okay," Barrett called out gently as they stepped into the clearing that had the strange looking tree in it. "We won't hurt you."
Hac grinned. "My guess is that they most likely don't understand a word of English."
"You're right, they don't," A garbled voice said from behind them.
Spinning around, Haden saw the strange looking dark golden tree shifting and changing its form directly in front of him. In a matter of seconds, the long thin branches of the tree shrunk into the quickly thickening center of it, and then the entire mass of fluid-like gelatinous goo took the rough shape of a slightly larger version of one of the hunch-backed creatures they had seen scattering away. Only instead of purple and orange skin, the creature in front of them had a dark tan color to his skin.
"Hello, Meitas," Hac stated as he didn't seemed phased by the creature at all.
"Hacerth, it's been a long time," Meitas replied just as his feet finished forming, and he took a step down off of the white pedestal he had been 'rooted' to. "I had no clue that your species were so long lived. In fact, I was not expecting to ever see you again."
"Normally, my species is not. I guess you could say I'm a special case," Hac replied as he sized Meitas up and down. "As far as the reason for the long duration from my last visit, there really hasn't been a reason to return until now. Plus, this place is fairly well protected."
"And for good reason, I'm sure," Meitas replied.
"I have to admit, I am slightly surprised to see you here," Hac continued. "These people seem to be nothing like the scaly fish people you were living with before."
"The Azrovians?" Meitas giggled. "That was a very long time ago indeed. I've explored at least five other of these... what are they called? World Plates... since then. It makes for a nice change of scenery. The diversity alone between each plate is astounding in itself."
"Wait, so you can change your shape to whatever you want?" Barrett asked as he was still trying to figure out how the tree was able to become the creature they were talking to.
"He's a bright one," Meitas smiled as he looked toward Hac and then to Barrett. "Yes, you could say that. What's the words your language would use to refer to me as? A shape shifter I believe?"
"That doesn't seem like it would be possible," Haden commented.
"Trust me, it's possible," Hac defended. "From the very small amount of data we were able to gather, we expect that he is made up of some type of morphogenic matrix. Sadly, as far as anyone knows, he is the only one of his kind."
"Actually, that's no longer the case," Meitas corrected. "I've had the chance to learn a lot more about my kind since we last met. Unfortunately, not much is pleasant. But that is probably a discussion best saved for another day. I'm guessing you did not come for a social visit?"
Hac nodded in agreement. As much as he might have wanted to hear more about what Meitas had learned about his race, there were more pressing concerns to deal with. "You're right; it's not a social visit. Do you remember the promise you made to me when we had first met?" Seeing Meitas nod, Hac continued. "Is it still valid?"
Meitas was silent for a few moments before he let out a heavy sigh. "I would not be alive right now, if it were not for you. That is something I remind myself every day. And yes, my promise is still valid, but your timing could probably not have been worse."
"My timing?" Hac asked curiously.
Meitas nodded as he slowly began to walk around the edge of the pedestal, occasionally glancing off into the woods as if spotting something of interest off in the distance. "I'm assuming you have come to ask if I would journey with you, to where ever it is that you exist, away from this great sphere."
"To the original home of the Thinkers and the current home of the Custodians of the sphere... yes," Hac replied.
Meitas let out another heavy sigh. "Had you appeared ten or even five years ago, I would have said yes in an instant. Not only would I be repaying my debt to you... but the opportunity to help those who help protect this great place, and whose people were involved in its grand design? It would certainly be nothing other than a labor of love."
"So what has changed?" Hac asked as he watched Meitas closely.
"The Zhalynites," Meitas replied. "There entire adult population has been wiped out as a result of a terrible sickness a few years ago and well... I am probably the closest thing that these young ones have to a parent right now. If it were only one or two, I could possibly consider it, but I would be abandoning an entire village, and I simply would not be able to bring myself to do that."
"I see," Hac let out his own sigh. "Then we have wasted our time in seeking you out."
"I'm truly sorry," Meitas stated as he stopped and turned toward Hac. "You have to understand, I would never break a promise that I have made lightly, especially not to a kindred spirit, a fellow shifter like yourself."
"I understand," Hac stated as he turned to walk away. "Come on guys, we have a long trip back."
"Wait," Meitas called out after Hac, Haden, and Barrett had only walked a few steps away. "There might be another option."
Hac and the other stopped and turned back toward Meitas. Instead of saying anything else, Meitas let out a high-pitched shrill.
Moments later, a gelatinous looking long shiny golden snake slithered out from brush, and formed itself into a rock-shaped object that seemed to partially merge into Meitas's feet. After being merged for around fifteen seconds, the rock separated and moved a few inches away from Meitas, and took the very rough shape of a nondescript humanoid-like creature. The figure was significantly smaller and shorter than Meitas was.
Meitas placed his hands where the shoulders of the smaller creature should have been. "This is Easol. He is my son."
"Meitas," Hac gasped. "You never said anything about being able to have kids."
Meitas nodded. "As I said, I learned a lot of my kind since our last visit."
Hac again found himself wanting to know more of this, but instead simply nodded in understanding.
"I have explained the situation to him, and if you will have him, he has agreed to go with you," Meitas continued.
"Meitas," Hac nearly growled. "I came seeking your help, not to try to steal your child away from you. What kind of monster do you think I am?"
Meitas shook his head. "It is nothing like that, I assure you. Easol has never been... well, let's just say that he has not yet developed the same appreciation for lavish scenarios and landscapes as I have. Nor does he ever seem content in settling down in one place. Maybe it's just a youngling thing, I don't know. But he has often talked of wanting to leave the sphere and see what else exists out there, and frankly, I am not sure if that is something I will ever be able to offer to him. He can't even get along with the others that well. He keeps calling them too simple minded."
"I see," Hac nodded in understanding. "But still, this is a child that we are talking about."
"I have already given him just about all the defensive and offensive knowledge that I have. I think you will see that he is not your typical youngling," Meitas continued.
"Well, it sounds like he would certainly fit in with this new clan we found," Hac agreed. "But still, we are talking about me taking your only son away from you."
"You would be giving him something that I cannot, so perhaps you could think of it more as a request," Meitas replied.
As Meitas and Hac continued to talk, Easol's nondescript form walked over and stood in front of Haden and Barrett, drawing the attention of the two smaller boys. A few moments later, Easol's form began to shift and shape slightly. After several long moments, he ended up having the rough form of Haden and Barrett.
"Is this how all of your race looks?" Easol's asked with a shaky, unsteady voice.
"Not exactly," Barrett answered, "But you are pretty close."
"What did father call you? Humans?" Easol asked. "I think I like how humans look, father."
Although he didn't answer, Easol's statement drew the attention of both Meitas and Hac, bringing their conversation to an end, so they could watch Easol's interaction with Haden and Barrett.
"Is it true that you come from a place outside of the sphere?" Easol asked as he turned his focus back toward the smaller boys.
"You could say that," Haden replied. "It's a place that is super far away from here. I think it's like eight galaxies away."
"What's a galaxy?" Easol asked.
"Humm," Barrett thought. "I guess you could say that galaxies are huge collections of stars."
"What's a star?" Easol asked.
"A star is like that," Haden replied as he pointed up toward the sun.
"Huge groups of bright spheres? Really?" Easol asked as he looked back toward Meitas. "Please father, may I go with them? May I explore what's outside of the sphere?"
Instead of answering, Meitas looked toward Hac.
With a sigh, Hac nodded. "If you are absolutely sure about this, then yes."
Meitas smiled and nodded. "Not only is it his wish to travel with you, but I would be honored to have my son help those who help to protect the sphere."
Hac nodded with understanding as he turned toward Easol. "Okay kiddo, if you are going to come with us, you best pack your bags."
"My bags?" Easol asked in confusion.
"Yeah, you know anything that you need or might want to bring with you. It might be awhile before we get a chance to come back here again," Hac answered.
"There is nothing that I need to bring," Easol replied seriously. "I am already all that I need."
"Right," Hac replied as Haden and Barrett giggled.
"If you have any problems with him, don't hesitate to bring him back," Meitas stated. "However, I doubt that will be that much of an issue for you."
"If he is your son, I'm sure he'll be just fine," Hac replied.
Easol walked back toward his father. Meitas leaned down so the two could touch their foreheads together. As they did, there were a few moments where they appeared to merge together. When the merge broke, Meitas looked down into his son's eyes. "Be well, my son. Make me proud."
"I will, father," Easol replied as he turned back toward Hac and the others. "I am ready now."
Hac nodded. "Okay guys, let's head out then. As I mentioned earlier, we have a long walk ahead of us."
With a final look and wave shared between Meitas and Easol, the boys were off, walking back down the path the way they came, heading toward the entrance of the cave that would eventually lead them back inside of the sphere.
Although the trip to get back to the gateway on the Skiff took a bit longer than the original trip took to get to where Meitas was, to the boys, it seemed to go a lot faster. For almost the entire trip back, Haden and Barrett were busy chatting up a storm with Easol, as they were both completely fascinated with everything about him. Even Hac found the conversation rather interesting at times, and found himself getting caught up in it as well.
Easol, for his part, was completely captivated about everything involving Haden and Barrett. He was fascinated by all the different body parts, and kept asking questions about what it was like to see things through eyeballs, hear things through ears, or even taste things that were consumed. This, of course, made Haden and Barrett even more curious about how you could hear things or see things through your entire body instead of from specific locations.
Easol went on to explain how he and his father had been living with the Zhalynites for almost four sphere revolutions, which Ordath translated out to be around seven Earth years. He also mentioned how he had never really had a chance to get to know any of them, since they were always so skittish and afraid of anyone that was different from them. The only reason they allowed his father to get as close as he did, was that they felt they needed him for protection and support, and Easol was not anywhere close to shifting as his father was.
Along the way, Easol also gave the boys several demonstrations of his shifting abilities as he would stop and try to mimic different basic shapes that they passed, panels, poles, boxes, etc. The shape he was most fascinated with, however, was that of Barrett's and Haden's. Over the course of their trip, both boys would constantly give Easol a number of pointers on what he could do to make his shape a little better, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to get the shape just right. Fine shifting skills were something that lacked the most. According to his father, it was something that he would get better at with practice and time.
Easol sighed in frustration as the boys walked into the room that had the large cargo lifts that would take them back up to the Skiff. "The hardest part to this is the hair; I just can't seem to get it right."
"Don't worry, I'm sure you will eventually get it," Haden commented. "You only just met us like an hour ago."
"Yeah," Barrett agreed as they approached the only active platform in the room. "Give it some time. I bet you will do a lot better after a good night's sleep."
"Sleep?" Easol asked curiously. "What's that?"
Barrett was the first to answer. "You know, that's what you do at night when you lay down in your bed and... Come to think of it, do you even have to sleep? You know, because you don't really have eyes or any specific form?"
Easol thought for a few moments as they stepped into the center of the cargo platform. "I'm not really sure. I know that if I try to hold shapes for a long time, it will get really difficult. And then if I let my shape drop, and not focus on anything for a while, then it gets easier again."
"Humm," Haden pondered. "Not focusing on anything... I guess that kinda sounds like sleep."
Barrett nodded in agreement. "Yeah, sounds like sleep to me as well or at least resting." As soon as he finished speaking, the platform began to glow, and small little sparkles of energy began to rise up.
"I hate this part," Haden sighed.
"Why?" Easol asked.
"You'll see," Barrett answered for Haden.
Just as it happened before, the small sparkles rising from the platform began to creating little trails of white light behind them as they raised toward the ceiling, as the low humming sound and rush or energy quickly followed.
And then, just as Barrett and Haden had each remembered it, the floor seemed to disappear from under them, allowing them to plunge feet first into a waiting pool of more sparkles of light that were quickly shooting up to and past them. Almost as quickly as it started, the ride was over.
"Interesting," Easol commented as he looked at the last few sparkles hitting his hands. "I think I liked the inter-dimensional gateway better."
"I'm with you," Haden quickly agreed as they stepped off the platform while the large dark green tiles in the room began to light themselves up. "Hey Hac, how come it felt like we were falling on the way back as well? Shouldn't it have felt like we were flying up?"
"You got me," Hac shrugged. "That's just the way it works I guess."
"So, is this where you guys live?" Easol asked as they made their way out of the room and down the hall.
"Nah, this is just one of the Skiffs that float high above the ground, near your sun," Barrett answered. "We have to go down this hall, and then through one more gateway to get back home."
"Near the light sphere?" Easol stated with surprise.
"Yup," Haden answered. "Hey Hac, do you think we have time to show Easol the observation dome before we leave?"
"I suppose," Hac grudgingly agreed.
Ardell was typing a report into the terminal on his desk when he first heard it; the pulsating whining sound coming from the other side of the room. Looking up, he could see a small circle mist starting for form near the corner that the vase was sitting in.
"Hey KLAUS?" Ardell spoke as he stood up from his chair. "I think you might want to get Anwern in here. Something really freaky seems to be happening with that vase."
[I have already informed him. I believe what we are seeing is an inbound gateway event forming.]
Moments later, Anwern appeared in the middle of the room, with his datapad already in hand. "Secure the room, please KLAUS."
Just as it had happened earlier, a few moments after Anwern spoke, the whitish-yellow light shining down from the ceiling turned blue, and the small window that looked out into the hallway turned completely black.
[Room is secure.]
As Ardell's desk along with the other objects in the room began to vibrate, Ardell got a concerned look on his face. "This didn't happen before."
"Don't worry, this is normal for inbound vortexes," Anwern replied as he pressed a few more keys on his data pad.
As if on cue, all the vibrations stopped, and a large six-foot-tall portal of blue shimmering energy opened up right in front of where the vase was resting. "You see?" Anwern smirked. "Just as I predicted."
A few moments later, Hac emerged from the portal, followed by Haden, and then Barrett who was holding the hand of... someone who looked vaguely similar to Haden and Barrett.
"Please tell me that's not a clone experiment that went horribly wrong," Ardell commented as the portal shrunk itself and vanished.
"No," Anwern smiled as he looked up from his data pad. "I believe that would be Meitas."
"Actually, I am Easol," the barer of the name announced. "Meitas is my father."
"Son?" Anwern asked as he showed his rare expression of surprise.
"So, you really can be thrown off guard sometimes," Ardell grinned.
"Yeah, things got a little complicated," Hac stated, "But the short version of the story is that Meitas was not in a position to join us, so he sent his son in his place."
"Lovely," Anwern replied.
Easol, for his part, began to look back and forth between Anwern and Ardell. "How come neither of you looks anything at all like Haden and Barrett?"
Barrett sighed, "That's what we were trying to tell you. All humans look different. Haden and I only look the same because we're twins. Just like Hac looks different from us."
"Of course Hac would look different," Easol agreed. "He's a wolf shifter. One of the things he shared with my father is that all wolf shifters have red hair and freckles. You would generally expect some very minor differences within species.. but..." Again, Easol looked back and forth between Ardell and Anwern and then back toward Haden and Barrett. "They look completely different."
Anwern smiled as he threw his hands up in the air. "Well Hac, I've held up my end of the bargain. For all that it's worth, Easol is your responsibility now.
"Gee, thanks," Hac replied.
"Don't worry, we'll look after him," Barrett commented with an agreeing nod from Haden.
"KLAUS, go ahead and un-secure the room," Anwern announced.
[Stand by. Per Daileass's suggestion, I am slowly lowering the intensity of the dampening field. Haden, please let me know immediately if you feel any discomfort.]
"Okay KLAUS, so far I don't feel any..." Haden began to say before he wobbled slightly. "Oh, that..."
[Do you need me to stop, Haden?]
"No... no, I'm fine," Haden replied. "Actually, that was way better than what normally happens when I get back from any of the other places that I've been cut off from the link. This actually gave my head a chance to slowly get used to it again. Thanks KLAUS."
"Link?" Easol asked with surprise as he looked toward Haden. "You are a part of a link?"
[You are welcome Haden. However, the suggestion actually came from Daileass.]
Once KLAUS finished speaking, the light in the room became the normal whitish-yellow color, and the window looking out into the hallway became see-through again.
"Yeah, I'm a part of a mental link with my umm.. I guess my boyfriend, and a bunch of his brothers," Haden admitted. "But it's not really the same as when you and your father linked together. For us, just our minds are linked."
"Wow that still sounds... what was the word? Effern?" Easol replied.
"Cool, awesome, effern, I guess they all work," Haden stated.
"Well, I think I'll leave this fun to you guys," Ardell smiled as he opened the door to leave Ardell's office. "Oh yeah, speaking of fun. Hac, you have a visitor waiting for you in your office."
"Oh? Who would that be?" Hac asked. But it was no use; Anwern was already out the door and walking down the hall. "Great, probably more Elder stuff to deal with. Would you mind keeping an eye on these guys for a few minutes, Ardell? We still have a few things we need to talk about, but I should probably deal with this other visitor first."
Ardell nodded as he sat back down in his chair. "Sure thing, Hac."
Hac gave Ardell a nod of thanks. "KLAUS, take me to my office please."
Without a word, Hac vanished.
"Who is this KLAUS that you guys are talking to?" Easol asked as he looked around the room. "When will I get to meet him?"
"In a way you already have," Barrett replied. "He is the artificial intelligence that pretty much runs everything around here."
[Hello Easol, it's a pleasure to meet you.]
"Um, Hi," Easol hesitantly replied. "So what's an artificial intelligence? Does that mean he is not really alive?"
"Well, he doesn't have a body made of flesh and bone like the rest of us have," Barrett replied. "However, he is definitely alive. Instead of flesh and bone, he has biometrics and server cores."
"But how could something like that really be alive?" Easol asked curiously as he looked around the room for any signs of this KLAUS person.
[I could ask you the same thing, Easol. In the short time that you have been here, I have taken some rather interesting scans from you. I am still trying to figure out how it is that you are actually alive. From what I can tell, you shouldn't be able to exist.]
"KLAUS, don't you think that's a little rude?" Barrett asked.
[Actually, it is standard security procedures for anyone that enters any of our installations. Especially the office of one of our Ternios.]
"What do you mean I shouldn't be able to exist?" Easol asked with concern. "Of course I'm alive."
Haden decided to try his hand at defusing the situation. "I think what KLAUS means is that you don't have blood and bones and stuff inside of you like we do."
[That is correct. Not only that, but I can't even find any indication of a brain.]
"Well," Ardell jumped in before things got any further out of hand. "I think there are going to be plenty of opportunities for us to get to know and understand each other a lot more as things move forward."
Getting the hint that it was time to stop that direction of the conversation, Barrett nodded in understanding.
Seeing that everyone appeared to be in agreement, Ardell continued. "While we are waiting for Hac to return, would any of you like a drink?"
Barrett's eyes immediately lit up. "Yes please, I would like a Spartan!"
Haden's eyes narrowed at the thought of how terrible Spartans tasted. "Do you have just normal tea or something?"
Ardell smiled. "Yes we do, and I'm with you on that one, Haden."
Within moments, Ardell was handing Haden a nice clear cup of tea, and handing Barrett a tall glass of red bubbling stuff. "Would you like something, Easol?"
Easol shook his head. "No thank you, I do not require any substance."
"You don't eat or drink?" Haden asked as he tilted his head. "How do you survive?"
"What do you mean?" Easol replied slightly confused. "I thought we discussed this earlier, I... what was it... rest."
"Well, yeah, we did," Haden agreed. "But still, your body must need to ingest something that you can continue to live and grow."
Easol thought for a few moments and shook his head. "No, I don't think so."
"As I said, we are going to be able to learn a lot about each other," Ardell smiled as he sat back in his chair sipping his own cup of tea. "And I mean that just as much for you as well, Easol. There is a brave new world out there for you to explore and learn about."
Easol smiled and nodded in agreement.
[Ardell? Hac is requesting that Haden join him in his office for a few minutes. You should probably send Barrett along as well.]
"Is there anything wrong that I should know about?" Ardell asked with concern.
[Not really. Hac feels that Haden would probably be better at dealing with the request of his... guest.]
"Alright," Ardell agreed.
Barrett quickly guzzled down the rest of his drink and slammed the glass down on the desk. "Wow, I can't believe how good that stuff is."
Haden simply shook his head. "Will Easol be okay here for a few minutes?"
"Easol and I will be fine. Go deal with whatever Hac needs you to deal with," Ardell replied.
As soon as Haden nodded, Barrett spoke up. "Okay KLAUS, take us to Hac please."
Hac appeared inside his office, close to the door leading out. In one of the two chairs that were in front of his desk sat a light brown haired fourteen-year-old boy. Even without seeing the boy's purple eyes, going by his styled hair, and the way he sat in the chair, Hac already knew exactly who it was.
"Elder Rainer," Hac called out slightly amused as he sat down behind his desk. "Now this is certainly a surprise." Although Hac was very well aware that Semus Rainer was no longer Elder of his clan, he knew that he would still be elder of his tribe, Tribus Faldiric, and as such, protocol still dictated that he be referred to as a an Elder.
"Tribus Elder, if you insist on having to use the title," Rainer corrected.
"Of course," Hac agreed as he quickly surveyed his office, not as much because he feared something might be wrong, but more because he was so rarely there. It was a much smaller office than Ardell's, or even most of the other Clan Elders and Guild Leaders, partly because he almost never used it. In fact, the only times he might use it would be situations like this where there was some person that had business with Hac as Clan Elder, and even that was a rarity. That was actually one thing that Hac was very thankful for, he had several great tribe elders that he knew well enough such that he could feel comfortable in entrusting just about all of the day-to-day clan business to them. Other than major clan decisions, the only time someone would need to come to him was if none of the tribe elders could solve the problem.
If you asked him, Hac would not have considered himself 'friends' with Elder Rainer. In fact, in the circle chambers, the two were usually at odds with each other more often than not. In the same light, Hac really didn't consider Rainer an 'enemy' either. At best, they had significantly different viewpoints on life based on the different experiences and environments they have lived in. Because of this, Hac couldn't really figure out why Rainer would have desired to talk to him specifically. "What can I help you with?" Hac finally asked.
"I believe the more appropriate question would be, how might I be of service to you?" Rainer corrected.
"That works as well," Hac replied with a very mild hint of annoyance. Perhaps it was all the time they had spent together, but one aspect of Rainer that bugged Hac was the fact that he always seemed to be trying to correct or teach those that he would talk to.
"As you might have guessed, now that I am no longer clan elder of Gens Presella, I am looking at having significantly more free time on my hands than I would typically be used to," Rainer began.
Hac grinned. "Don't tell me that you are looking for your old security team job back after all these years."
"Not exactly," Rainer replied with surprise at just how close Hac came to correctly guessing his intents. "I've heard that the circle has approved to reestablish Clas Totus. To put it bluntly, I want in."
Hac's grin turned into an all-out gut laughter, at least for the first few seconds. The laughter quickly stopped when he saw how serious the look on Rainer's face was. "By the gods, you're serious. Aren't you?" After seeing Rainer's nod, he continued. "Well, you might also be interested in knowing that I will not be in charge of it this time."
Rainer nodded again. "I'm well aware that the Clan Short kid, Haden, has been given the token role of leadership."
"There is nothing token about it," Hac leaned back in his chair, "Haden actually will be the Clas Totus lead, and what he says goes."
Although Semus could not fathom a nine-year-old boy, no matter how bright he was, being put in charge of warriors with thousands of years more experience than him, he could also see the serious look on Hac's face. "Very well. Either way, that's exactly why I need to be on this team."
"I think you are going to need to explain that one to me," Hac replied. "If I remember correctly, you gave up your security team position in favor of focusing on more political matters. Something about not being able to mix military and political elements?"
"That is how I once felt," Rainer agreed. "However, your performance as both the head of the bulk of our military forces while being a clan elder at the same time has since proven that belief wrong."
Hac nodded but said nothing.
Taking a deep breath, Rainer continued. "As far as why I feel it would be in everyone's best interest to have me on the team, besides the fact that that you already know how exceptional of a fighter I can be when needed, and how well I am able to think under pressure, the group will need someone that can look at the situation from an objective position and help to keep our nation's interests at the forefront of our actions."
"I see," Hac replied. "So clearly, you are doing this purely out of selfless intents."
"You're right, I'm not," Rainer sighed. "Look, today in the circle chambers, I took the position that I did because I was convinced that I was right, and trying to establish an type of strong relationship with Clan Short, a group of children, would be a very reckless move for our society. Clearly, the rest of the circle strongly disagreed with me."
"You tried to rake the kid over the coals," Hac stated as he allowed his annoyance to clearly show. "And then, when that didn't work, you sat there attacking him personally, while digging up every sore spot in his history that you could think of. You have to admit, that goes way beyond low, even for you."
"I'll admit that I may have allowed the strength of my convictions to translate into being slightly more over-zealous than I otherwise might have wanted," Rainer agreed. "But... Look... I'm no longer a clan elder because of my beliefs. Now, this same kid is being put in charge of what is arguably one of the most important task forces of our society. I need to find out for myself one way or another if I'm right in my beliefs. If I'm right, you need someone who won't be blinded to the moment. If I'm wrong, then I'll have no problem openly admitting as much. But either way, I have to find out."
Hac remained silent for several moments. "I'm sorry, but no," Hac shook his head. "I can't justify putting you in a position that you are going to be constantly at odds with, and second guessing Haden on every decision he makes. That would tear not only him up, but the group up as well."
"Hacereth? Now that hurts," Rainer replied in a truly hurt manner. "You of all people should know my ability to separate my own personal feelings from the task at hand. Regardless of how I might feel one way or another, as part of this group, I would be totally dedicated to the group, and will follow any order that the leader of the group might issue. Besides, no offense, but I don't really think it's your decision to make, is it?"
"And when your opinion of what should happen in a given situation directly conflicts with the decision that Haden makes?" Hac asked.
"If the situation allows it, and we are not in a directly hostile environment, or in any immediate danger, just as any team member should do, I will objectively voice my concern once, and after that will follow whatever decision is made. Of course, when the operation is over, and we are in debriefing, that will be a different story," Rainer replied.
"If it were up to me, I would say no," Hac sighed. "However, as you pointed out, the final decision is not mine to make."
Rainer sat back in his chair and smiled. "If you truly plan on really letting Haden lead this group, then yes, you should let him lead from the beginning."
Ignoring Rainer's final stab, Hac looked toward his terminal. "KLAUS, could you please invite Haden to join us in my office? Also, could you invite Barrett as well?"
[You got it Hac, asking now.]
"So, Barrett is Haden's nurse maid now?"
"No," Hac replied with more annoyance. "Barrett is Haden's twin brother, and right now the primary link that Haden has to our society. You of all people should be able to understand the importance of that."
Moments later, Haden and Barrett appeared behind where Rainer was sitting.
"You needed to see me?" Haden asked with concern as he glanced toward the boy sitting in the chair in front of him. Even without his ornate flower robe, Haden knew exactly who the boy was, as it was someone he was most likely not going to forget anytime soon.
Hac nodded and motioned toward the one remaining empty chair. "Have a seat, Haden."
Haden did as Hac requested. As he did, he briefly caught a glimpse of Rainer's bright purple eyes. Rainer's expression, however, was one that Haden could not as easily figure out.
"Why is he here, Hac?" Barrett asked as he stood directly behind Haden's chair, in an almost protective position. "Haven't you tried hurting Haden enough today?"
"Barrett!" Hac snapped sharply.
Rainer quickly put his hand up, "That's fine, I probably deserved that one."
Hac nodded and turned his focus back to Haden. Not really able to think of any better ways to say it, he decided it would be best to just lay everything on the table. "As protection force lead, Rainer came to me to express his interest in getting involved as part of Clas Totus. Given that you have accepted to be the leader of this team, I figured this should be a decision you should be involved in."
'What?' Haden shouted mentally in surprise as he tilted his head and looked at Rainer. This is probably one of the last things he would have expected. "Really? Wouldn't that take away from your duties as a clan elder?"
Rainer's eyes narrowed, but before he could reply, Hac jumped in. "Haden, I don't think anyone has mentioned this to you yet, but after you left the circle meeting earlier, very shortly after, Rainer resigned his position on the circle, and as such, his position of clan elder."
"Oh," Haden replied. Obviously, Haden had no strong liking toward Rainer, but he would never have wanted the guy to lose his position as a result. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks," Rainer replied, not really sure why it would be something that Haden would be sorry over. At the same time, it did not seem like it was something the boy was being disingenuous about either.
"I guess the first question I would have is, why?" Haden began. "From what the Clan has learned about Founders over the last week or two, I thought your people were mostly pacifists?" Apparently, he had once again said something wrong as Rainer's glare shot daggers at him.
As he stood behind Haden, Barrett winced as he knew at once what his twin's question was libel to set off.
"First off, let's get one thing clear from the start. Neither myself nor any of my fellow Faldiran brothers or sisters that live here are Founders," Rainer began, doing his best to keep his emotions in check. "I don't know what lies that arrogant, self-proclaimed head of the modern Founder Council, Tyne, has told you and the rest of your Clan. But when the nations of the world came to the Faldiran's almost seventy thousand years ago, and asked us to change our name to The Founders of Peace, there were some amongst them that were against the idea from the start."
Seeing that he had Haden's attention, Rainer continued. "Sadly, the number of people who did not like the idea was small in comparison to the numbers of Faldiran's who were all too eager to accept such a title. When the great and joyous day finally arrived. Those Faldiran's who openly refused to accept the new name were labeled as outcasts and shunned by the rest of our society. 'Who could possibly refuse such a great honor', they said, 'they must be sick or mentally ill'. And for twenty thousand years after that day, the handful of my ancestors that decided to remain true to our heritage were forced to live in secret, in constant fear of ridicule and persecution of not only our own kind, but the rest of the world. Even when their almighty gift of future-sight failed them, and the great Founder empire fell to the Moroi, my ancestors were still forced to live in fear."
Haden was shocked as Rainer told his story. "I sorry, I didn't know. I mean, Barrett told me earlier that you and the rest of your people were a group that refused to accept the Founder name, but I guess I didn't really understand the significance. And you're right, that's not something that Tyne or any of the other Founders had shared with us."
Rainer sniggered. "That's not surprising. I'm sure they would rather just pretend that we don't exist. To them, those of us who refused to accept the Founders of Peace name were nothing more than a smear on their honor."
Haden nodded. "I hope I don't offend you by asking this, but why didn't your ancestors accept the name? It was just a name, after all, wasn't it?"
Rainer sighed inwardly. Very briefly, he found himself asking why was he, of all people, sitting here trying to explain himself to a mere child. Just how far had he fallen over the last few hours. But almost as quickly, he answered his own question. Not only had this mere child ended up besting him in the circle chambers earlier, but for whatever insane reason they might have had, the decision was made to put this child in charge of the Clas Totus, and if he was going to have any chance of vindicating himself, he would have to play along, at least for now. Besides, there was also the possibility, granted a very small possibility, that this could open the eyes of him and his Clan to better understanding the type of people they were getting in bed with, as they continued to deal with the Founders.
"As it has been made clear that it would be impossible for you to have known better, there is nothing to take offense toward," Rainer continued. "I'm sure that the Faldiran's who refused the new name each had their own individual reasons. For the most part, however, my ancestors believed that to accept such a presumptuous name as Founders of Peace would only create to a level of arrogance and blindness that it would lead to the downfall of our race, as it ended up doing several thousand years later." Rainer stated.
"As far as the second part of your question," Rainer continued, "It is true that our gift of future-sight has in part helped my people better understand that war and fighting does not always have to be the first option taken to resolve a situation. However, there are times in which being willing to stand up to a bully, or to take up arms to defend a loved one is the only real option. So, to better answer your question; no, we are not pacifists as the definition of the term might apply. We are simply not as quick as others might be to pick up a sword, as we tend to prefer to look at other options first."
"Makes sense," Haden agreed.
"And I believe that leads us back to the purpose I have for being hear," Rainer stated as a polite way of reminding Haden of the decision he must make.
Haden's gut instinct was to try and find a polite way to say 'no', and move on. If he was going to lead this special team, he would need to have some degree of trust toward each of his team members, and he certainly didn't feel that way toward Rainer. However, for a brief moment while Haden was looking at the purple-eyed boy, he could almost see Edgar sitting in the chair instead.
During the first two years of his three year stay on the training planet, Edgar was his Drill Instructor, who from the very beginning seemed to have it out for Haden. Haden grew to totally hate Edgar. In fact, many of the times he seriously thought about quitting, and going home, it was because of him. However, near the end of his training, Edgar had gone to Haden and asked to serve under him. It wasn't until then that Haden was able to realize that he had completely mis-understood Edgar's actions toward him. What Haden saw as someone trying to be mean and do everything they could to hurt and insult him, was actually Edgar having a high degree of expectation toward Haden, and trying to make sure that Haden would become as good of an officer as he could. When it was all over, Haden ended up becoming good friends with Edgar, to the point that Edgar is now second in command of his battalion, or would be if Haden ever actually gets to lead it again.
Granted, there was no guarantee that Rainer was the same as Edgar. It could be possible that Rainer really was just a stuck up prick who had it out for Haden and Clan Short from the beginning, and would do everything in his power to try to fuck them over. However, Haden also had to consider the possibility that Rainer was doing what he truly felt was in the best interest of his clan, and his society. How old did Barrett say their society was? Forty-thousand years or something? If Haden was from a society that old, and small little nine-year-old kid came around trying to get him to agree to something, what would he do?
Haden shook his head. First off, he wouldn't keep attacking the kid until the kid felt like crap and that he had failed. Second off, Haden wasn't coming to them to ask for anything, the circle was arguing over him and his Clan, and agreeing to answer the questions seemed to be the only real choice at the time. Either way, if Haden was really going to try to head up this joint task force, he should probably try to make decisions as the task force leader, and not solely based on his personal feelings, regardless of what they might be.
After spending several moments in thought, Haden looked toward Hac. "How exactly would he be able to contribute to the group? What strengths could he offer?"
Hac blinked being caught off guard. He had fully expected Haden say 'no', and this conversation would be over with. But to his surprise, and admiration, Haden appeared to be taking his position serious, and at least seemed to want to ask the right questions. "Well, Semus Rainer has been a part of our society for a rather long time," Hac began as he continued to internally wrestle with his own feelings toward Rainer. "Not only that, but in the early days, he was a part of the defense team, and then later, the security team. As such, he's a very good fighter, along with being a very good tactician."
Haden looked toward Rainer and nodded. At a glance, Rainer wouldn't strike you as the strong fighter type person. But then again, his experience in the Clan and more importantly, U.N.I.T., has shown him on many occasions how the wimpiest looking kids could be exceptionally skilled combatants.
"In addition to that, Rainer probably is one of the most knowledgeable people in terms of both historical and contemporary surface culture," Hac continued, "As he and his son pretty much established and built up the Surface Elves guild."
"Alright," Haden nodded as he continued to think of the question at hand. He then turned back toward Hac. "Hac? Would it be safe to assume, that if offered, you were accept a position as my XO?"
This time, the expression on Hac's face surely indicated just how much he was caught off guard by Haden's question. Although he wasn't sure how this related to the current issue at hand, Hac nodded. "If that is how you felt, and the position was offered, then yes, it is something I would be willing to accept."
"Cool," Haden smiled, "In that case, consider the position being offered."
"That works," Hac agreed.
Haden then shifted his focus back to Rainer. "Now, as my XO, in your opinion, given your knowledge of the other team members, just how well do you feel Rainer would fit in?"
'Dah, there it is,' Hac thought as he resisted the urge to slap himself on the forehead. He should have made the connection, especially as it's more than likely the same thing he might have done, if he were in Haden's position. More than likely, Haden realizes that he is at a strong disadvantage with not knowing anyone from his society. As such, being a good leader and utilizing his resources, it would make sense to have an XO that was able to compensate for that loss. Of course, he had already considered this earlier, but at the time, the clear choice for that position should have been Barrett, as he too had a very strong understanding of their society. For whatever the reason, the current situation was clear, Haden had managed to throw the ball back to Hac, and would heavily weigh whatever answer he gave.
"Rainer is an outspoken elder from a tribe of very outspoken people. He will not have any trouble making sure that you are aware of exactly where he stands on any given issue," Hac began as he tried to word things in as objective of a way as possible. "With that being said, he has demonstrated on many occasions that regardless of what his personal opinions might be, he will be one of the strongest fighters for whatever cause he is committed to. With that in mind, I feel that he would be able to fit rather well with any of the team members that are from the KLAUS society side of things."
"Thanks," Haden nodded. "In that case, I only have one more question, and this is something I would like Rainer to answer." Once he saw that he had Rainer's attention, he continued. "I have a pretty good guess as to what the answer is already, but I would like to make sure I'm right by hearing it from you directly. Today, you gave me the impression that you were doing everything in your power to discredit not only myself, but also U.N.I.T. and Clan Short. With that in mind, why are you wanting to become a part of the task force that I will be leading?"
"A fair question," Rainer smiled. To be honest, he had not expected this reaction from the kid, but never-the-less, the question needed an answer. "To start with, let me just say that I don't like you. Or, more appropriately, I don't like what you represent. I don't really expect you to understand this, although maybe you will, but the actions I took today were actions that I felt were necessary for the well-being of our society as a whole. So, you are not the reason I am seeking to be a part of Clas Totus. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel that you, your Clan Short, or U.N.I.T. are necessarily evil, and I really do hope that you end up continuing to hold the same morals and standards five, ten, fifty years down the road, as you appear to be holding now. Sadly, history has proven to us time and time again, that is almost never the case."
"So, as I said, I am not joining because of you," Rainer continued. "Instead, I wish to join because of the group's concept and potential importance to our society. I know you don't understand its significance, but the last time that this task force existed, it was at a very pivotal point of our society, and was directly involved in the events that effected the direction that our society took for the next twelve thousand years. I believe the same may be true now."
"Is that your future sight kicking back in?" Hac asked seriously. Seeing the sharp look Rainer gave him, he continued. "Haden is already aware of the Founders, so I'm sure he's aware of their abilities."
"That was not my concern, Hac," Rainer replied. "As you should be aware, the sight of all of my people, including myself, has been, and continues to be... clouded. So no, this is not from any future sight, but is more on a gut feeling that I have. Call it intuition if you will."
"Right," Hac nodded.
Haden thought for a few moments before speaking. "I appreciate you being honest with me, Rainer. Personally, had you lied to me, and tried to butter me up, that would have made my decision a much easier 'no'. I guess since we are being honest with each other, I'll be honest with you. I don't really like you much either. I guess you could say that what you did to me earlier left a really bad taste in my mouth. However, with that being said, if I said 'no' on that alone, that would be a purely emotional decision, and that can be one of the worst ways to make decisions. I've had to work with people before that I didn't like, or who didn't like me. Sometimes, they can be some of the best team members you could hope for, because they won't be afraid to tell you if they feel you are wrong."
Rainer sniggered. "Oh don't worry kid; I'll have no problem telling you whenever I feel you are making a poor decision."
"At the same time," Haden continued. "It has to be understood that I will be the leader of this task force. When there is a difference between what you feel might be best for your society and what order I gave, I have to know that I can depend on you to carry my order out. The safety of the entire team could potentially be put at risk otherwise, and that's not something I would be willing to risk."
Rainer nodded. "Agreed."
"Alright, with that understood, I'll accept you being part of the team," Haden stated to the surprised expressions of everyone else, including Rainer. "But again, I need to make sure it's perfectly clear that the first time that I feel your personal convictions put me or any other member of the team in danger, you'll be off the team just as quickly."
"Well, I have to say, you certainly surprised me with this Haden," Rainer said as he stood up and held his hand out to Haden. "I just hope that you are able to continue to surprise me."
"I hope so too," Haden replied as he shook Rainer's offered hand.
"Now, if you guys will excuse me, I need to start dusting off some of my old equipment," Rainer stated as he walked toward the door. "Besides, I'm sure I've used up enough of your time already."
"We'll be in touch," Hac called out as Rainer left the room, closing the door behind him.
"How could you do that?" Barrett asked in surprise as soon as Rainer was gone.
Haden looked up toward his twin and shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do, from a group leader stand point."
Barrett shook his head. "I guess that's a huge difference between you and me then. Personal feelings or not, I would have said 'hell no', and kicked the guy out of the room."
"That's probably why you’re not the leader," Hac grinned as he stood up and walked to the front of his desk. "But Barrett does have a valid point, Haden. I know you are trying to show how you can be a good leader, and are trying to think what is best for the team and not just go by your personal feelings. But I have to admit, Rainer has the potential to be a loose cannon, and I don't really know how that is going to reflect on the group."
"So you think I made the wrong choice?" Haden asked seriously as he looked up at Hac.
Hac shook his head. "No, I don't. I think given the information you have to work with, it was the right choice. However, as you’re newly appointed XO, part of my job is to point these types of things out to you, to make sure you are looking at all possible sides of the issue."
"Okay, then thanks," Haden spoke as he stood up from his chair.
"Right, so now there is one more possible team member that we need to deal with," Hac stated. "KLAUS, is Easol still in Ardell's office?"
"Then take us back to his office, please," Hac stated. Moments later, all three boys disappeared, and the lights in the office turned off.
Hac, Haden, and Barrett arrived in Ardell's office to find Ardell was alone sitting behind his desk, staring off into space and smiling.
"Where's Easol?" Hac asked with concern as he glanced around the room.
"I'm right here," A muffled voice called out as one of the three black chairs that were in front of Ardell's desk shifted into a dark golden color just as its texture changed from the soft cushioning of the chair, to a shimmering reflective liquid. Within moments, the chair was melting away before their eyes, converging into a main mass of goo which then expanded and finally took a slightly improved rough shape of Haden and Barrett.
"Easol was just showing me some of his shifting abilities," Ardell replied as he sat back in his chair.
"I have to admit, that's a way cool ability," Barrett added. "We didn't even notice you when we first arrived."
Easol nodded as he walked closer to Haden. "Do you think I got the hair better this time?"
"Yeah," Haden answered hesitantly, "But about that... not that it's really a problem or anything, but it's already kinda confusing with people seeing both Barrett and myself walking around, since we didn't meet each other until earlier today. It might not be such a good idea if you were always trying to shift yourself to look the same as us."
Easol took a step back, with a hurt expression on his face. "I was just trying to look like humans look."
"Look at Ardell," Barrett pointed toward Ardell's desk. "He doesn't look anything at all like Haden and I look, and he's a human too."
"Oh," Easol stated as he walked closer to Ardell. "Maybe I can shift myself to look like you?"
"Um, no," Ardell put his hands out, "That probably would not work that well either, especially given that I have a fairly important role around here, having a duplicate of me walking around could get a bit complicated as well."
"Oh, I see," Easol replied as he lowered his head. As he did, small patches of his body began to shimmer slightly, as if they couldn't make up their mind if they wanted to stay in the shape they were in or not.
"Easol, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," Haden said as he could see the sad expression on the other boy's face. He walked over and put an arm around Easol's shoulders, causing the boy to look toward him. "It's okay if you want to look like us for now. I wasn't saying you couldn't, I was just addressing a concern."
"You two were the only humans I've met," Easol replied sadly, "I guess other than Ardell."
"Yeah, I guess I didn't realize how hard it must be, being someone that can shift their form into whatever they want," Haden tried his best to comfort Easol, "Wait a minute, I just thought of a cool idea. Barrett, you remember that playground we were at when we first met earlier?"
"Oh, yeah!" Barrett replied cheerfully. "Easol, what if Haden and I took you to a place that you could see all kinds of different kids? That should be able to give you lots of ideas for shifting, and maybe help you understand how humans can be different."
"They would probably just hate me, and not want me to shift to them just like Ardell didn't," Easol answered.
"I think that's where you're wrong, Easol," Hac stepped in. "A long time ago, I thought the same thing, but most of the kids I've met around here love it when I shift. I bet they will love seeing you’re shifting even more."
"Yeah, I bet you would become one of the most popular kids around," Barrett added.
"You really think so?" Easol asked as he looked up to Haden.
Haden nodded, "Easily."
"Okay," Easol stated as the sadness in his voice went away.
"Before you guys go running off, there is still another matter that we need to discuss," Hac stated seriously, getting the attention of the other boys. "Easol, how much did your father get to tell you in regards to why he wanted you to come with us?"
Moving away from Haden, Easol walked closer toward Hac, "In the link we shared before I left, he showed me how he first met you, and how you were able to save his life. He also passed on to me how you help to protect the great sphere that we live on, and how I should try to help you as best as I could."
Hac nodded. "Okay, seems to cover the basics, which is good. But you also need to understand that you are not a slave to us, or anything else like that. Regardless of how important your father might have said this is to him, it's not our intent to try to force you to do anything you don't feel comfortable or ready to do. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah, but I want to help," Easol protested.
"That's good, and I'm sure that you will," Hac agreed. "But there are lots of different ways to help. What we need to figure out is where it would be best for you to start helping out."
Easol nodded in understanding. "Okay."
"One of the reasons that we sought out your father is that a very special and important team of people is being put together to deal with issues that could impact the coexistence of two cultures that others might not be able to deal with as well," Hac began.
Easol thought for a few moments. "The coexistence of two cultures? I'm not really sure I understand."
Hac sighed. "Okay, let me try and put it another way. On the planet we are on, the dominant race that has always existed here, humans, have a very long history of fighting among themselves."
"People fight where we come from as well," Easol noted.
"Right," Hac continued. "Well, a long time ago, a group of people decided they didn't like all the fighting and wars, and they found places to live deep underground to get away from those fights. Over time, that group of people continued to grow until they had hundreds of thousands of people living in their underground society."
"You guys have more than a hundred thousand people here?" Haden asked with surprise.
"Easily," Ardell answered.
Ignoring the interruption, Hac continued. "As a result of living underground so much, they grew apart from the society that developed on the surface of the planet. So now, you have two societies that exist. You have a society of billions living on the surface, and you have the society that has been living underground. Some of us feel that we are at a pivotal point where it might be time to look at trying to re-merge those two societies so that they can exist together as one. And that is where this group comes in. It is made up of people from both societies and will serve an important role in helping to address issues that pop up in these societies while hopefully helping to facilitate the eventual coexistence of the two. It was that group which we were hoping your father could be a part of"
Easol nodded. "I think I understand now. That is also the group that I would like to be a part of."
"Right, but I'm not completely sure if that would be the best place for you to help or not," Hac replied. "The group will probably end up in a number of rather dangerous situations, many of which might involve combat and fighting. I know from experience that your father was a seasoned fighter, but with you still being a child and all."
"You are concerned if I have the ability to fight?" Easol asked. Seeing Hac's nod, he continued, "I can assure you, my father has passed on all his knowledge of fighting and combat techniques to me."
"That's good and all," Hac agreed, "but there can be a difference between having the knowledge of how to do something, and the experience of actually doing it."
"I understand," Easol stated. "So you would rather me not be a part of this group."
"That's not it either," Hac shook his head, "Well, for example, if you had to immobilize or capture someone, do you feel you could do it?"
Easol bobbed his head up and down. "Oh yeah, definitely. Maybe I could give you a quick demonstration."
Hac grunted. "I don't think I would be the best person for you to use for your demonstration."
"Why not?" Easol asked. "I promise I won't hurt you that much."
"I like your confidence," Hac giggled, "Okay, fine, I'll try to go easy on you. I'm going to pretend that I'm going to try to hit you, try to stop me if you can."
Easol nodded. "Okay."
Hac began to quickly walk toward Easol, raising his hand up as if to strike him. At the same time, Easol held out both of his hands toward Hac, as if to embrace him in a hug. Instead of hugging Hac, however, as Hac got closer, Easol's hands shimmered and began to quickly expand out toward Hac. As they did, they split in half with one half circling around both of Hac's arms, and apparently shifting into stone bringing an abrupt halt to Hac's forward motion.
"What the hell?" Hac said in surprise as he tried to break free from the rock shackles. Moments later, Hac shifted into his werewolf form and screamed in agony as the arm shackles refused to expand to match his thicker arms. At the same time, shimmering golden ropes circled around Hac's legs and also turned to stone.
"Fuck!" Hac cried out.
"Wow, Hac, I think he got ya," Ardell spoke with surprise.
"Alright, I give," Hac stated as he shifted back into his human form. At the same time, Easol released him, and the shimmering golden ropes shrunk back into his arms to reform his hands.
"I was trying to go easy on him," Hac replied as he rubbed his arms. "But yeah, I admit that was certainly rather effective."
"So I can be part of your group?" Easol asked hopefully.
Hac nodded. "If that is where you want to help, then yes. We will probably want to work more on other fighting skills, but I think you have clearly shown that you can hold your own if needed."
"Then it's settled?" Haden asked as he looked toward Hac, "Easol will be the final member of the task force?"
"Works for me," Hac agreed.
"Welcome to the team," Barrett cheered as he patted Easol on the back.
"Thanks," Easol beamed.
"So, what do we have next for task force business?" Haden asked.
Hac thought for a few moments. "Hum, I think that's probably it for today. We should probably try to get everyone on the team together to start working with each other, but that's probably something that we would wait until tomorrow to deal with."
"Does that mean you guys can show me this play-ground now?" Easol asked hopefully.
"Works for me," Barrett replied as Haden nodded in agreement.
"Yeah, that works for me," Hac added. "Although I think we should walk there. That way Easol can start getting a better idea of how things look around here."
"Makes sense," Haden stated as he looked toward Ardell. "Would you like to join us, Ardell?"
Ardell shook his head. "You guys go and have fun, you deserve it. But I have a bunch of paperwork I still need to get done here."
With a final nod, the Haden and Barrett both said their goodbyes before walking out of the office.
Once his office was empty, Ardell let out a sigh as he sat back in his chair. "I don't know KLAUS, do you think we did the right thing?"
[Right thing with what?]
"The whole reforming of the Clas Totus and all," Ardell replied. "The dynamics of the time look like they are going to end up being considerably different from the past. So the big question is, did we make the right choice to try to reform it?"
Several seconds went by before KLAUS replied. [I don't know.]