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What do Angry Drakes Eat?

    The University
    The University campus is a sprawling place, with tree-buildings similar to the Silver Egg's standing serenely around a central courtyard. Outside the ring of trees are a number of buildings with sod growing on the roofs, most of which are set somewhat down in the earth, rather looking like they're snuggled comfortably into place around the trees. Many of them are obviously large enough to be lecture halls. A path winds around the outside of them and into the central clearing between them in crooked spokes. More trees and the low building spread out past that, in no really discernable pattern.

The crew has just finished speaking to the sphinx whom Vash rescued during a dream. Despite being over-exuberant she's been very helpful, and has examined the crew's dreams and given them several new leads to follow. Larrikan also witnessed this, and is still along, following with Sakura, although his ears are back, tail down, and fur rather fluffy. He's obviously trying to get hold of himself.

Sakura smiles at Larrikan, hopefully reassuring the poor, nervous kitsune. Vash is walking slightly off to one side, arms folded and seemingly studying the ground as it passes under him. His tail lashes irritably. Douglas remains quiet, considering. He glances over to Vash, leaving the armadillo some privacy, then glances down to his hands again. A bit of a disappointment, he thinks, but as my instructor once said, 'We can't all be the lead engineer. Some of us have to shovel the-' "Where to now?" he asks quietly.

Larrikan takes Sakura's hand and smiles at her, deliberately flicking his ears up and keeping them there. He says, "That was very brave of you." He is apparently rather afraid of the immortal, and either thinks the crew is all very brave, or very foolish.

Sakura laughs just a little at Larrikan's suggestion of bravery. "You must be kidding, Larrikan! I was terrified." She grins at him.

Kerry skrees, "Drekaris of Kanjerkan. Hmm. I want to see a map, see how big this place is." He angles toward the flight-center. "Anyone want to come along?"

Vash glances up and half-turns over his shoulder. "Go on ahead, Kerry... I'd like to have my thoughts clear before we start making any plans. I'll be interested to hear what you learn."

Douglas nods to Vash, then looks to Kerry. "I'll go with you, Pilot. I'm sincerely curious as to what they're building..."

Sakura nods at Douglas and Kerry, "Do you mind if I tag along with you?"

Kerry skrees, "Well, they were working on an ornithopter. I did a quick sketch of an ultralight and prop a couple days ago; don't know if they've done anything with it yet."

Douglas arches an eyebrow to Kerry. "An ornithopter? But those are impossible... at least normally," he adds hastily.

Kerry skrees, "Not impossible, but not efficient if you have the option of rotary motion. The power to weight ratios require very light materials." Douglas nods slowly, glad for the chance to latch his mind onto something of an engineering nature.

Vash waves after Sakura. "I'm going to take a quick walk around the campus... I want to be clearheaded if we're going to make plans. I'll meet you all back here."

Sakura nods, "Of course, Vash-san. Take your time..."

Douglas nods to Vash. "Sure thing, Captain..." Vash nods and turns, headed down toward the green space.

Kerry leads Douglas, Sakura, and Larrikan back to the flyers' tree, after having made sure Vash can catch up with them. When they reach the large tree it seems quiet, although the big classroom or lab that's in the building at its base is unlocked. Kerry peeks quietly into the classroom at the base of the tree, but it's empty. "This is where the maps are. Need to get someone to translate them, though." He leads the way up the stairway.

Doug frets slightly. The Captain seems a bit out of sorts. Should we let him...? Well. He is his own person. Granted, the last time he went off on his own he got attacked, but... well, that was late at night, and he'll be safe on the campus. Besides, he needs time on his own as much as anyone... He turns back to the others. "Maps? We could get a better idea of how extensive the other realms are, like Azteka, and Nippon..."

Sakura says, "Are they in the local written language, Kerry-san?"

Kerry skrees, "As far as I know they are. Can you read some of it?"

Sakura shakes her head, "I'm sorry, I can't read yet... "

Kerry nods. "Neither can I. So we find one of the crew to help out."

The stairway winds its way around the tree, planks tied to the massive trunk with some sort of vines or rope instead of nailed to it. The stairs creak a little and shift minutely on the tree's trunk as the crew ascends to the platform above. The platform is as the trolls left it; one end hinged somewhat downwards, resting in and tied to the tree's upper branches.

Sakura turns to Larrikan. "Would you help us read the maps?"

Larrikan says, "I've never looked at their maps before, but I can try," as he peeks curiously over the edge of the platform, staying well back from it.

Sakura squeezes Larrikan's paw in hers and smiles at him, "Thanks."

Kerry skrees, "Hmm... they haven't finished repairing the ornithopter yet, I guess." The ornithopter is clearly visible on the ground, pretty much where it 'landed.' The wings are disassembled and it looks like someone's been digging out around it, in preparation for moving it.

Douglas's ears flicker as he looks about the platform, at the vines/ropes and the overall layout. His brow furrows as he looks over the edge at the... well... what was once the orni'. "Oh, dear. Uhm... a four-point landing, Pilot?" he inquires casually.

Kerry skrees, "Actually, it was primarily a one-point landing. They got pretty far, and they're quite strong."

Sakura peers over at the ornithopter and winces a little. "I hope no one was hurt." Douglas glances to Sakura, and nods, grimacing as he looks at the orni' again.

Kerry glances around, not seeing the trollish aeronauts or the tree's 'owner.' "Ms. Dryad? Ma'am? You here?"

There is a rustling and a gently hissing voice says from above, "She's gone across campus to help another dryad with some squirrel problems." There is a moment's pause, then the rustling becomes louder and the sinuous form of the drake comes gracefully down out of the upper branches, where she had been sunning herself, her dark green scales mingling with the leaves of the tree. Once she's settled on the platform she says, "Is there something I can help you with?" Then the green drake adds, "Oh, it's you!" and nods at Kerry, "And you can talk now."

Douglas blinks, looking up at the... uhm... no, not a snake... not a dragon, either... well, part of him is trying to be rational, while the other part of him is fighting to push his heart down out of his throat. Sakura jumps back a little as the... dragon? ...comes down out of the tree... Kawaii darts hastily around Sakura, peering cautiously at the drake from behind her. His grunts reveal both exasperation at the trying nature of this day! -and a lot of nervousness... Kerry gives the dragon a bow, then shows off the translator bracelet around his leg. "Yes. Finally got these things finished. I'm Kerry Skydancer, this is our engineer, Douglas Percival, and our medical officer and linguist, Sakura Murasaki. The nervous little fellow we call Kawaii."

The drake is not quite a snake, but a long and slender creature. Her supple body is about eight feet long, with a winding twelve-foot tail, which she wraps about something to hang on to in the branches of the tree. Her gracefully curved neck is about four feet long, with a triangular head. She is colored a lovely jade green, with a bright golden crest which runs down her back to the top of her pointed tail. Her leathery wings are about fifteen feet across, and fold up behind her, a lighter green. Douglas blinks, and bows to the creature. "Ah... pleased to meet you..."

Larrikan gives Kawaii a jealous look, but stands his ground. Kerry skrees, "Larrikan there is a local fellow, the rest of us are from... elsewhere." Sakura suddenly remembers her manners and bows to the drake... Sheesh, Saki... remember your manners around creatures larger than you...

She nods, hissing softly, "Greetings." Looking at Kerry, she nods and hisses, "Interesting. Jurgens and Kerl haven't managed to rebuild their machine yet. I don't know what they made of the picture you left them. They kept asking how it would ever flap." The green-gold creature comes the rest of the way down to the platform, moving casually for her, which is very fast for anyone else, ending up sitting near the stairwell, her tail wrapped casually around one of the ropes which holds the stairs up. Douglas simply marvels at the liquid grace of the creature, at the fluidity and quickness of motion. I'd hate to meet her grandam! he thinks.

Kerry chuckles. "That's what I was afraid of. I guess they didn't understand why I was dropping those maple seeds. It's not supposed to flap."

The drake hisses quietly, "It is a pleasure to meet anyone else who has an interest in flight. Few seem to find it interesting here. My name is Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow." The translators utterly fail on her name, leaving each of the crew with the impression of, well, her. Douglas blinks, glancing to the others to see if they've possibly gotten the... the lady's name.

Sakura manages to smile genuinely at the drake. "It is a pleasure. I'm Murasaki Sakura... please, call me Sakura..."

Kerry skrees, "Schnell-pakebayov-qkgardow?" The bat manages the guttural-click sequence easily, but mangles the vowels. "Pleased to meet you."

Vash pauses, quietly ascending the stairway, and listens a moment as the drake introduces herself, catching only the awkward cadences of her name... what the hell was that? That doesn't sound like a machine... He raps softly on the doorframe. "Not to interrupt... but may I join the conversation?" Vash is, for his part, left with the impression of a really gnarly sinus drainage, but he keeps that opinion to himself, leaning quietly in the doorway.

Douglas blinks to Vash. "Oh! Hello, Captain..."

Sakura turns to her Captain, "Welcome back, Vash-san..."

Kerry skrees, "Ah... and our captain, Vash Montoya." He grins at the armadillo. "You couldn't find Blue, I take it?"

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow looks over her shoulder, twisting easily to look at Vash behind her, and says, "Of course. We've just begun." Looking back to the others, she adds, "We have yet to find a real conversation. Was there something I could help you with, or did you need the dryad?"

Vash grins a bit and shrugs. "I'm sorry to delay you."

Kerry ponders. "I was looking for the trolls, actually. Kerl and Jurgens? But actually we were wondering if we could get someone to translate the map-names for us. The translators don't do a thing for text, I'm afraid."

"Map names?" The drake seems confused, but says, "I would be happy to look at the maps with you, if you like. They are on the ground, though."

Kerry nods. "Down in the classroom at the foot of the stairs. There's no one in there at the moment." he gives the drake a sketchy bow. "We would be honored, ma'am."

Vash nods. "It would be a great help."

With a quiet chuckle, Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow says, "The trolls are in another, less life-threatening class. I shall meet you at the classroom." In an instant, she has smoothly and gracefully unwound, and leapt off of the wooden platform. A whoosh of air as she spreads her wings, then glides down to the ground, circling around the tree's trunk. Kerry grins and follows the drake as closely as he can, leaving the rest to head back down the stairs again.

Douglas blinks, leaning over the side of the platform to watch the drake drift to the ground. The small hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Dragons..." he murmurs. "I'd never have thought of ever seeing them... what...? Hey! Pilot!!" Sakura watches the drake and Kerry jump. ...think I'll just use the stairs... She makes her way to the stairs and walks down... Kawaii seems to agree with Sakura quite firmly... he dogs her steps closely, hopping down stair to stair with even more caution than he displayed on the way up. It's obvious he really doesn't care for the spaces between the slightly swaying stair boards. Douglas straightens. "Fine way to leave us high and dry," he says, with no rancor at all, padding down the stairs after Sakura.

Vash leans out a bit, looking toward the edge of the platform, and shrugs. "Bats will be bats... or something..." Larrikan inhales sharply when the drake moves, and watches silently as one, then the other of the two gliders heads downwards. He follows Sakura and Kawaii quietly. He's even too distracted to be watching the lady's tail as she walks. Vash descends the stairs just behind and to the right of Larrikan, and nudges his arm gently. "You gonna be alright? You look a little green, hey."

Larrikan comments to Vash, sounding a little shaken, "I don't know about you, sir, but I'm not used to talking to more than one carnivorous monster a day." He gives the armadillo an appraising look, then adds, "I don't know how you are all staying so calm." Sakura turns at Vash's words to Larrikan, looking a little concerned...

Vash grins lopsidedly and claps the fox lightly on the shoulder. "Culture shock. I'm sure when I get home I'll realize what I've been doing and burst into tears. But for right now, it's all quite interesting!"

Larrikan stumbles under the armadillo's hearty shoulder clap, "Yes, sir." He doesn't sound reassured.

Sakura nods at Vash, "Agreed... we're all just too amazed to be anything but... well... amazed... at least for now."

Vash grins broadly, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Trust me," he says.

Sakura grabs Larrikan's paw in her own and gives him another smile, "C'mon..." She pulls him towards the classroom... Larrikan is reassured by Sakura's taking his hand, and as he comes along he realizes, A beautiful vixen is leading you into a conversation with a monster, after having a different, famous monster read her mind. She's not afraid of anything. What a woman! Douglas also finally reaches the bottom of the stairs, and slips into the classroom where Kerry and Sh... Sch... Shkell... the drake are, not unaware of the conversation between Vash and Larrikan.

In the classroom below the drake asks, "Is there anything in particular that you needed to know, or did you just want to know viable landing zones?" She gestures to a map or two hung from the wall, covered in odd symbols over a fairly readable contour map.

Kerry skrees, "We are most interested in routes into and out of Kanjerkan, I think. Possibly. The Sphinx believes that that is where our own aircraft has been taken."

As the others enter, the drake is saying something to Kerry, "Kanjerkan? Hmmm." She asks one of the later arrivals, "Would one of you be so kind as to help with maps?" Gesturing with a claw-tipped wing, she says, "I have a difficult time handling them, and I don't know if Kerry will fare much better."

Kerry skrees, "Depends on whether they prefer to roll themselves back up once they're spread out..."

Douglas blinks, and nods, coming over to help spread out the maps for the two. "Certainly..."

The drake hisses something low to Kerry, "Let someone with fingers do this," then thanks Douglas, asking him to fetch a large book from a cabinet and open it up to the index. That done, she asks for a particular page and gives directions to help Doug, who can't read the numbers, get the right one. Douglas nods to the drake, perfectly unconcerned that he's taking instructions from what could possibly be a legged, winged snake. For all I know he thinks, she could very well be the aerospace engineering instructor. Kerry chuckles at the drake's comment, but nods and lets Douglas do the searching. He concentrates on the numerals, trying to recognize the patterns.

The drake says, "This is the city map we have of Kanjerkan." The page shows a collection of buildings, most of which are gray squares. Two are drawn in more detail, and one has a big red X on one end. She says, "Those two buildings in color are sturdy enough to land on. The red X is the church steeple, and you can see it for some distance." She adds, "I don't know how accurate this map is. It's several years old and was dictated by someone I don't know."

Kerry nods. "What's the other large building?" Sakura also peers at the map...

Vash leans a bit closer to the table, craning his neck to have a look as Doug flips the pages. He nods, absently echoing Kerry. "What's the other?"

The drake looks closely at the map, "Stables."

Vash says, "Stables... hmm. I wonder what the horses would think of having Alshain parked on top of them..."

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow explains, "It's not marked as the primary landing point because it's much harder to see from far off. The church's lightning bolt is visible for quite a ways."

Kerry skrees, "Probably wouldn't have brought Alshain into the town anyway... but it ought to be somewhere nearby. I wonder if the transponder's still working... if we get close we ought to be able to pick it up."

Vash says, "A bolt? Their holy symbol?" He almost immediately kicks himself, realizing how foolish his surprise is. Really, Vash... you didn't expect the Virgin Mary in this place, did you?

The drake asks the armadillo, "What's an 'Alshain'?" She looks at Kerry, too, not recognizing that word, "A 'transponder'? What?" and seems fascinated.

Douglas blinks, looking up to the drake, and looking between Kerry and Vash again. Vash says, "Ah... why don't you field that one, Kerry."

The drake idly nods to Vash, saying, "Yes, they've got the lighting bolt there, not the hammer. Those are usually harder to see."

Vash starts, "The hammer...?" -then cuts himself off. He'll ask later... something tells him that this conversational thread will only get more complicated.

Kerry skrees, "Alshain is the name of our aircraft. We're from... beyond Crossroads. The transponder is a device that... helps us locate it, or talk to those on board." He pulls out his radio, clicking it on and listening to the static for a moment. "A long-distance communication device."

Vash says, "Which is a little too long-distance at the moment."

Kerry skrees, "Yeah. They won't reach the mother ship, unfortunately." Vash nods, taking a breath.

Douglas's ears flicker. Interesting... a lighting bolt, and hammer... two holy symbols that are, as far as I know, unknown in our world. "And apparently it can't pick up the transponder, can it, Pilot? At least, not right now?"

The drake rears back at the hissing static from Kerry's device, but then leans forward, fascinated. She looks closely and sniffs at it, using her long forked tongue to taste it too if Kerry doesn't flinch. Then she leans back, "This talks to ships? Ships like Zildjian's Egg? Can it talk to that?"

Kerry skrees, "Not at the moment. Didn't think to leave it turned on when we first came into town, or we might have gotten a direction when it was moved."

Sakura says, "Can we turn it on remotely?"

Kerry ponders. "It could have talked to Zil's ship. I'm not sure the Egg is still functioning, though. It took a lot of damage when it landed."

Vash says, "And it's not entirely certain what being bonded to the tree's done for it internally."

Douglas coughs slightly, "Pilot, I distinctly remember the Alshain's transponder running when we left. The radios can't pick up the signal... however, if we could build a large enough antenna, we might have... a... chance..." He blinks, then his face lights up. "Orrrrr..." That almost comes out as a buzzing purr, "-we can try to salvage one from the Zildjian's Egg!"

Vash says, "That's an excellent idea."

Kerry sits up, clicking in annoyance. "Of course. Even if Egg's radios are dead, we can use her primary antenna grid."

Douglas nods enthusiastically. "Most assuredly!"

Kerry grumbles. "Should have thought of that myself."

The drake listens, then asks, "What does this have to do with Kanjerkan? Do you think your vessel has landed there?" She points to the diagram and asks, "How large is it? This building won't let even too large a drake, much less a full dragon, land; you can tell from the line width used to draw it."

Vash says, "It's not terribly large... but it's fairly massive."

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow comments, "I wouldn't have any trouble at all, but that's because I'm so small." She asks Vash, "Not large, but massive? What ever is it made of?" Sakura coughs a little in surprise at Schel's I'm so small comment...

Douglas looks at the map, and frowns slightly. "It's probably too large for there... which means he put it somewhere else..."

Vash says, "Metal, mostly." Douglas looks up to the drake, and is about to launch into a description of the ship's composition... then breaks off, and nods sheepishly to Vash.

The drake gives Vash a strange look, then says, "You have a creature of metal that can fly?" She sounds incredulous.

Vash grins a little. "It's... not quite a creature. It's more like the thing the trolls have been building... only with more power and less... personality."

"You mean, they can build a machine to fly?" Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow sounds stunned, as if she's been telling them for ages that it's impossible.

Vash says, "Well... I can't speak for them personally... but yes. It's possible."

Kerry skrees, "A machine. Not truly a creature. Our world has no magic, leaving us with machinery as the sole option for such things. It should be possible, if the rules are roughly the same here." Douglas blinks to the drake, glancing to her wings. Oh, dear. I wonder how she'll take it?

Vash smiles broadly, "Bear in mind, of course, that Alshain is nowhere near as agile as someone like yourself in the air... it's built only for power, not for your level of grace."

The drake gives Vash a stunned look, then another to Kerry. She looks back at both of them, "You say this," she gestures with her muzzle and a flick of her tongue to Kerry's radio, "-talks to your Alshain. How can you talk to a machine? Machines are a thing, like a table. You can't talk to tables." The long snake-dragon adds in a small voice, "Can you?"

Douglas shakes his head quickly. "No, of course not." At least, not and expect them to talk back. Though here, I wouldn't put it past the local reality...

Kerry chuckles. "Sure you can! They just don't talk back. Seriously. We have machines that can store information and speak it back to us on command. We are hoping to get our ship to tell us where it's been taken." Vash turns to look at Douglas with an expression that says, Maybe you should break this to her. Gently. Douglas catches Vash's look and nods quietly.

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow looks back and forth between Douglas and Kerry and Vash. She snorts derisively, expelling a harsh, "Pfah!" and a little cloud of bitter smoke, "What kind of a fool do you take me for?"

Douglas blinks, then coughs a little with the smoke. "Uhm... *hack* not a fool at all, ma'am..." Vash takes one decisive step back. Larrikan's hand tightens on Sakura's and his tail flicks back and forth once. Sakura also takes a half step back involuntarily, out of nervousness, especially at the puff of smoke.

Vash clears his throat, "Please, senyora... please understand, we're just stranded travelers here... we aren't trying to insult you." Madre de Dios, I wonder if my eyes are as big as I think they are... hell, I wonder if she can smell fear?

Kerry skrees, "No offense meant, ma'am. But it's the honest truth. You've seen Egg, after all. Our ship was still intact when we last saw it." Douglas mentally races. Great. We complete a quest, I start really feeling comfortable here -- and I get fricasseed by a dragon. That'll look absolutely stunning on my performance review. On my posthumous performance review, at that.

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow eyes the group warily, then settles into a coiled mass of green lizard, muttering softly for a moment. She finally says, "You! Fox!" and glares at Larrikan, "You're local, aren't you? You have sensible feet and dress right."

Larrikan's ears flick nervously back, but he says, "Yes, ma'am." He manages not to whimper.

The drake glares at the fox pointedly, "Do you believe these things?"

Sakura stiffens when the drake yells for the fox... and looks guiltily relieved when she realizes Schnel was talking about the other fox... even if she is a little nervous on his behalf. Douglas blinks and looks down sharply at his feet. He looks at them for a long moment. "But Annifred likes my feet..." he finds himself murmuring to himself. Larrikan nods vigorously and says, "Yes, professor, I do! They've done amazing things!" Vash takes a deep breath. And another. And another. There's no way I can outrun her. Maybe if I fall on Sakura or Kerry I can shield them for a few seconds. He relaxes, just a little, when Larrikan gives her a favorable impression. Just a very little.

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow harrumphs again, with more smoke and a tiny emerging trace of flame, then says, "I am not a professor here, merely a student, as I'd guess you are." She settles down, muttering something about, "Suck up." She considers the outlanders some more, obviously undecided. Kawaii snorts... then decisively trots out the door! A moment later his small snout can be just barely seen, snuffling quietly at the door, well out of the way of any blasts of fire. Vash winces internally. Nice going, fox boy. Sakura takes another little half step back at the sight of flame... Oh, Kami-sama... she's pissed off... I wonder what drakes eat... She looks at Kawaii enviously.

Douglas looks back up to the drake, blinking. Oh... she's not a student. Well... fine then, that doesn't mean she can't fry others. He takes in a deep breath. "You've seen pulleys and such, ma'am? And mechanisms like the ornithopter? The Alshain... it's similar, just... more complex." Sakura looks distinctly like she's wavering between her desire to be polite and courteous and her desire to run out the door screaming. Polite and courteous is winning... for now...

Vash exhales slowly. Couldn't just stay on the lawn and wait for the pretty artist, ay, noooooo, I just had to be the responsible Captain today... He nods, "Yes... it's kind of a collection of devices."

Kerry skrees, "Our world has had centuries to work on such things."

Larrikan's tail flicks, shedding fur slightly, and he stammers, "I'm sorry, ma'am. I had assumed you were a professor -- you seem so knowledgeable. It was intended to be respect." He swallows, adding, "I was going to go look at their ship, but it's been taken, and they're trying to get it back." He nodnodnods emphatically at the others' words, letting them talk -- and takes a couple of small steps backwards, tugging Sakura with him, when Vash and Kerry speak up. Sakura turns a reassuring smile on Larrikan... as reassuring as she can manage, at any rate. She doesn't let him tug her too far, though, out of politeness... She's not quite ready to leave the room yet.

The drake glares at the retreating fox, who stops, caught. His ears twitch nervously, as does his tail. The drake settles a little, then looks at the travelers, saying, "Your ship is stolen? That's low of someone." Her irritation seems to shift to someone who'd steal anything that's noble enough to fly.

Douglas silently lets out a breath. He nods quietly. "We, ah, think that the person who took it, took it, well..." He nods to the map. "There. Or nearby there..."

Vash says, "Or, at least, that's the lead we gained from the Dreamwalker." He holds out some small hope that dropping the sphinx's name will somehow mollify the drake.

The drake is obviously still thinking. She asks, "You've had centuries to work on it? None of you look Nipponese, except maybe the vixen." Her hard glare turns to Sakura for a moment. Distracted by Doug's comment, she looks at the map and asks, "How large is it? How heavy? That's not a very big town. Just a little human outpost."

Kerry skrees, "About 30 meters long, and around 150 tons. That's why we were headed there. We didn't intend to land somewhere large, since we weren't sure of the reception."

Douglas's ears flicker. Interesting. This is the first we've heard that there are towns other than, well, mixed communities like here. Then again, this is Crossroad's version of a 'college town.' "That's why we also think it's somewhere nearby that town, but probably not in it, not after you told us how small it is, ma'am."

Kerry skrees, "And no, we're not Nipponese. We are from another world entirely."

Vash exhales deeply. A distraction... Douglas, I'll see you get a medal for this. "Yes... it's a world very similar to this one, at least in geography. But we don't seem to have the benefit of magic."

The drake stares at Kerry in shock for several seconds, then says, "Thirty meters! A hundred and fifty TONS! Do you know what that much machinery will do to the magic around it?" She leans back, agitatedly flicking her wings a little, "You have no magic in your world..." She hunkers down and glares at Kerry from his own eye level, "You've killed all the magic in your world and are moving here next?!" Her tail lashes behind her, knocking over a chair.

Vash closes his eyes a moment and takes a deep breath. Well, Nanno... I'll see you in a minute. We may have guests. Sakura's eyes widen and her tail fur stands on end... oh no... Kawaii hastily tiptoes in, grabs the edge of Sakura's trailing skirts, and tugs frantically towards the door! Douglas blinks to the drake. Oh, hells... no wonder the sphinx was so concerned about the size and the mass of the Alshain, and how unusual it was that the Wild Hunt sounded like bikers. He doesn't back up however; he still hopes that the drake isn't going to simply lash out at them. He hopes, anyway.

Vash tries to sidle a little to one side, interposing himself as best he can between the drake, Douglas and Sakura. Sakura is momentarily pulled off balance by Kawaii... she manages to regain her balance before she lands in a heap on the floor and gives Kawaii a stern look... Kawaii squeals in sudden startlement, darting sideways to try to not get fallen on... then comes wriggling frantically out from under the trailing dress, grunting anxiously. The drake looks at Vash incredulously, "And you say the Dreamwalker knows about this? She didn't demand you get this contamination out of here?"

Kerry is suddenly nervous at the drake's movement, but doesn't show it. "No, that is not our intent. And unlike Nippon our world never had magic to lose in the first place. Besides, if it would disrupt magic, how was magic able to move it in the first place?" Sakura continues watching the drake and her teammates, in a little bit of shock. All of the old tales tell of magic... who's to say that we didn't kill the magic on our world, Kerry?

Vash frowns a bit, and doesn't back down this time. "What the Dreamwalker does is her own concern. We're only trying to recover it so that someone with intentions less pleasant than ours can't take control of it. We're trying to keep your world from being disrupted any more than it is already." Vash's voice is clear and steady and measured. He's got a fair inkling of his own imminent demise, but no one, but no one, is going to call his crew a contamination.

Douglas glances worriedly to Kerry. Should one of us answer, or should he...? Like it or not, we need Kerry, and we need him not fried. "We did not know that its presence would cause that," he says quietly. "Ignorance of the consequences of our actions does not excuse us from our responsibility to make amends for those actions; we know this. Which is why we're trying to keep it from being ill-used."

Larrikan is now nervous enough that Sakura can smell his tension, and probably others can too. He isn't sure if he should run away or not... standing perfectly still might be safer than getting her attention... If I could just stop shaking... A little fur trickles down from him. Kawaii is panting with fright, but manages to stand his ground, small trotters spread.

Douglas' nose twitches, then he blinks and only half-turns to Larrikan before turning back to the drake. Remarkable, he thinks, some part of him bemused. This is what the cougars in my heritage must have been able to smell, and why humans talk about 'smelling fear.' I'm glad it's not a scent I find particularly engaging. In fact... it's pretty obnoxious and distracting when I'm trying to concentrate on not being fearful myself... hell, I'm probably adding somewhat to the scent of fear in here myself... Kerry nods. "The Dreamwalker was far more concerned with who took it than with the fact that we brought it."

Vash just stands perfectly still and waits for a reply, watching the eyes of the drake. Sakura's stumbling causes the drake to glare fiercely at her, almost daring her to run away -- although she does listen to the crew speak before she snaps, "You'd better find it! If someone from here has control of it -- who knows what they'll do with something like that!"

Sakura catches a whimper in her throat when the drake glares at her... Vash says, "That's why we came here." He keeps any sudden indignation out of his voice; he keeps it clear and quiet and distinct.

Douglas nods quietly. "We will," he says, with a lot more conviction than he feels. Then, firmer, "We will. I..." He blinks, wondering where this thought came from. "I think... it's our quest..." Kerry nods once, a sharp motion.

The reassurance that it's a quest seems to calm the drake. She mutters, "At least you're taking it seriously enough." She shakes herself a little, a long ripple running down her sinuous form, before she says, "What stands in your way to finding it, then?"

Vash says, "Finding its location. And then recovering it from whoever was powerful enough to take it away from us..." Kawaii takes several long, gulping breaths... then simply collapses unceremoniously on Sakura. Sakura doesn't even seem to notice Kawaii... she's just staring at the drake, frozen in place... Larrikan very carefully sits down next to Sakura, and looks up at the drake meekly, Must remember. Never run from immortals. It just attracts their notice... He tries to think brave thoughts but fails, managing instead to sneeze in a little cloud of fur.

Douglas doesn't quite let out a breath. He looks to Kerry. "What was his name, Pilot?" he asks quietly.

Kerry skrees, "That is what we are working on. The Wild Hunt, perhaps... Drekaris of Kanjerkan, the Dreamwalker believes... and locating it in the first place." He sighs. "We came, hoping to trade peacefully. We meant no harm."

Vash says, "My crew and I are explorers... we didn't come here to upset your world. We're only trying to set things right." Douglas glances worriedly between Vash and Kerry. Guys... she's calmed down, now... the nice fire-breathing carnivorous dragon is no longer angry at us... Vash says, "You can choose to believe us, or choose not to. But I'm telling you the truth when I say we want to fix things."

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow hisses in irritation, "Dreamwalkers! Drekaris! The Wild Hunt! Is there anything you poor fools aren't tangled up with?"

Vash stifles a rueful grin. If you only knew. Douglas blinks. "Uhm... well, ma'am..." He visibly thinks for a moment. "Er... not that we can think of," he admits.

The drake looks incredulously at Douglas, then says, "You mean that don't you?" She shakes her head, "Gods," then adds, "You'll need all the help you can get. If there's anything a drake runt can do, you should ask."

Vash exhales a deep breath, and nods, at once feeling the tension draining out of his shoulders. "Thank you... it would be a very great help." Douglas just... blinks. Drake... runt. Ohhhhh, dear... Vash adds, "Thank you, senyora. Very much."

Douglas remembers himself, and bobs his head. "Yes, ma'am... thank you..."

Kerry skrees, "This will depend on what the Dreamwalker tells us about him, I think. But... thank you."

The drake mutters something along the lines of, "Maybe you can keep it from killing too many people -- or from getting killed. If you're very lucky, some of you will live." Douglas blinks. That's... hardly optimistic... Vash doesn't say anything. We'll see. Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow asks, "Is that why you asked where Kerjarkan is? You think he's taken your ship there? What does the Hunt have to do with this?"

Vash says, "We don't know yet. It was suggested that they could have the power that brought down the ship in the first place."

Kerry skrees, "It may have been a coincidence, but the Hunt passed through town just after we'd arrived -- using machines, apparently. At least, they sounded like machines."

"The Hunt is powerful. If anyone could bring your ship in, it would be them," the drake admits. "As far as machines, the Hunt uses whatever best suits their task at the moment. They're quite flexible. And deadly."

Kerry skrees, "So we have heard."

Vash says, "If Drekaris is manipulating them somehow... it seems like he's taking a big risk."

Douglas frowns slightly. "I'm definitely liking facing them less and less..."

The drake says, "Whoever uses the Hunt usually winds up rather messily dead, yes. If Drekaris does wield them now, that would explain his rapid expansion lately." She looks at Douglas, "If the whole Hunt is gathered, run away or you will die. Can I be any clearer? If there's less than all nine of them, they're not dangerous, but all of them together are extremely powerful -- almost an elemental force. A clutch of drakes will flee the Hunt."

Vash says, "I don't think there's any facing them, Douglas..." He adds, "When you say 'not dangerous,' what do you mean? They aren't aggressive? They lose their power?"

Sakura is still watching the drake's every movement, barely moving herself... Douglas nods slowly to the drake. "That... sounds like excellent advice, ma'am. No fear, if we even get within shouting distance, we'll... run... Doctor?" Larrikan looks up at Sakura again, still holding her hand. Sensing the tension in the room is lessening, he tugs gently at her, hoping she'll sit down, too, and he can offer what comfort a terrified student wizard can.

"As long as the whole Hunt is not gathered," Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow says, "-they can do nothing but follow you. Together, they can do most anything."

Kerry skrees, "They form a nexus, then. The whole is far greater than its parts."

Vash says, "Tell me, please... are they individual people? Or are they something else... more like spirits?"

Douglas frowns slightly, listening to the drake with only half a mind. He gently touches Sakura's shoulder. "Erm... Doctor?" He purposely interposes himself in her line of sight with the drake. "Doctor...?"

The drake considers, then says, "I don't know what they are, really. No one really knows, I suspect."

Vash nods. "I thought it would be something like that."

Kerry sighs. "And we may just get to find out." The drake snorts at Kerry, a little waft of smoke drifting at him. Sakura sits down rather heavily at Larrikan's side... her eyes are still wide when Douglas finally manages to get in her line of sight. She shakes her head a little, then looks at Douglas again, apologetically... Larrikan leans gently against Sakura, stroking her ears and the back of her head quietly, carefully brushing the fur from her, too. Kerry skrees, "Well, at least I don't have to look at them."

Douglas blinks, then smiles a little. "It's all right now, Doctor," he says quietly. "We're all right." At least until we run into the Wild Hunt, then things won't be all right, but no need to tell her that now. He catches Kerry's last, and looks over to him. "I don't know about that, Pilot," he says warningly. "They might have a rather flexible definition of 'look.'"

Sakura rubs her paws over her eyes, looking quite embarrassed at herself... Larrikan takes the moment with Douglas between the doctor and the drake to lean in and give her a quick peck on the cheek. The drake doesn't seem to think anything of the reactions she's getting, as if she were used to them. Douglas smiles encouragingly to Sakura, then looks back again to the conversation. Vash takes a deep breath and folds his arms. I don't know I can justify asking them to come along on this... no piece of TAG property is worth all this. But we can't let Drekaris have Alshain either...

The drake sighs and settles, saying, "So, what are you going to do next to try and find your ship? Have you any idea where it's gone?"

Vash says, "Kanjerkan is the only lead we have right now. Kanjerkan and a few snippets of dream."

"Where did you leave it? Would anyone have noticed its theft?"

Kerry skrees, "Some dryads. We've asked Aykuhbowmadchen to ask them about it."

Vash says, "It was first pulled out of the sky by a force that we couldn't identify, in a clearing a few miles outside of town. Unless someone saw us come down, only the dryads would have seen it."

The drake nods, "That's probably a good start. Or," she points, "-these talking boxes."

Vash nods. "So far, yes."

Douglas nods quietly. "If we can use the antenna array on the Egg. It would save time if we split up, but... all things considered, I'd suggest that we don't."

Kerry skrees, "I'd have to agree."

The afternoon has lengthened into early evening. The drake notices that the shadows are getting longer, and casually stretches up to the beamed ceiling where a lamp hangs. She lights it with a quiet, *ptui!* of fire into the glass-enclosed lamp. When she settles down again, it's clear just how fast she can move when she wants to. Sakura jumps visibly when the drake lights the lantern with her breath... Douglas also almost jumps out of his fur himself with the sudden motion of the drake. Vash says, "Yes... it's best to stay together if we'll have to journey back to the clearing."

The drake says, "Talking to the dryads would get you information on who took it, if they were watching. Were there many trees? Dryads often miss things."

Vash says, "It was in the midst of a forest."

"Ah, then you have a reasonable chance," says Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow.

Vash leans against the wall and nods. He considers what she said about dryads missing things. Days like seconds... blink and you missed it. Douglas tries to smile encouragingly to Sakura. "Quite a few trees. Larrikan wasn't able to find anything, though, when he talked with them. Which is why I think we should try the array first." He adds, "Besides, we'll be able to get dinner, then!"

Kerry chuckles. "Indeed. And breakfast, and I wish we could get a ride. My feet still hurt from the translator quest."

Vash grins wryly. "Bitch, bitch, bitch." His tone isn't sincere, though. He adds, "Yeah. Maybe a ride would be in order anyway, if we plan on crossing to Kanjerkan eventually."

Larrikan clears his throat, and says, "When we asked the dryads last, they weren't terribly clear with me. Aykuh would have better results."

Vash says, "I imagine dryads have different ideas about communication, when everyone else's lifespans are a heartbeat long. By comparison."

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow says, "I doubt you'll find much in Kanjerkan itself anyway. It's where Drekaris is from originally, not where he is now."

Vash says, "The Dreamwalker mentioned that he'd been on an expansionist run... he's got himself a stronghold of some kind now, right?"

"Not that I've seen from the air," Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow relates, "-but that may not mean much."

Douglas blinks to the drake. "We'll need to find where he is now, then. Though Kanjerkan may be a start to that..."

Vash nods, "Yeah. Crazed wizards are supposedly big on underground lairs..."

Douglas frowns, looking to Vash. "They are?"

Vash grins. "Don't sweat it, Doug; after finding the crystal you're practically an honorary troll as it is."

Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow says, "Trolls too? Amazing."

Douglas blinks, and wonders how the Captain went from 'crazed wizards' to 'trolls.' He glances to the drake. "Ah... well..."

Kerry shrugs. "We've gotten dumped into the middle of something, for sure and certain."

The drake says, "Well, you'd best do your best to get yourselves out of it. It sounds to me as if you could be stuck here, and have some folks rather upset with you, if you don't."

Vash says, "Somehow I think folks will be upset no matter what happens. But regardless we have to get Alshain back. Drekaris cannot have it."

Kerry skrees, "If we're stuck, we won't have enough tech left to upset anything. We'll see what happens."

Douglas nods, then looks to Vash. "Captain, if I may provide, I suggest that our first course of action be to go to the Egg, and I'll see if there's anything I can salvage from the antenna array."

Vash nods, "I think that's a good idea, Doug. A very good idea."

Sakura seems to be calming down considerably from her little ordeal, but remains sitting quietly on the floor. Larrikan is also there on the floor, as close to Sakura as he can get without moving any closer or being too obvious. He says, "Then perhaps another trip to where the shuttle was, to let Aykuh ask to see if it was really the Hunt?" He doesn't mention his thought, I hope not.

Vash says, "Yeah. That's what I was thinking." Sakura nods at Larrikan's words... Douglas also nods quietly in agreement.

Kerry skrees, "I had the impression that the dryads didn't need to be close together to communicate... but yes."

Larrikan says, "Oh. For any sort of real detail, they do need to be there, and ask face-to-face."

The drake says, "So, a plan. Go then, and see what you can see."

Vash says, "Yeah. No time like the present... let's get back to the Egg." He begins, "Schn..." then thinks better of it, "Senyora. Thank you for your help. We appreciate it."

The drake chuckles and pronounces slowly, "Schnel'pkebaov'qkgard'dow," again. She adds, "Takes a while to get right for most folks." She then says, "Good luck, travelers."

Vash grins. "Right. Thanks again..."

Sakura gets to her feet when Vash suggests going back to the Egg. Best suggestions I've heard all day... let's get out of here. Douglas pauses just at the doorway, then turns slightly to the drake. "If I may ask, ma'am, out of curiosity... just what are you studying here at the college?" Kerry pauses for a moment, curious to find the answer himself... Kawaii stands and trots shakily out of the door, apparently eager to get back to the Egg. Maybe there's food there! And no cranky drakes.

The drake looks at Douglas, and says, "Navigation and mathematics."

Douglas grins a little and nods, "I was just wondering. Thank you, ma'am. For everything. Good night."

The trip back to the Egg is uneventful, Larrikan leading the way. If anything seems unusual, it's that he is oddly quiet, walking along with Sakura. Perhaps it's awe. Perhaps it's shock. Perhaps he's terrified. Perhaps he's just hungry. On the way back, Douglas edges towards Sakura, and asks quietly, "Are you all right, Doctor? Now, I mean?"

Sakura nods a little at Douglas... then shakes her head... "I'm terrified, Douglas-san."

Douglas nods quietly, letting out a soft breath. "About the Hunt, or the drake? Or both...?"

Sakura manages a little grin, "The drake... I'll be panicked about the Hunt when they're as close as the drake was... I make it a policy to only worry about the thing that's going to kill me the soonest."

Douglas smiles quietly. "Sounds very sensible, Doctor. If you need anything, please, remember... the rest of us, and Larrikan as well, I imagine, will do whatever we can." Even if it means standing with you when the spider comes barreling down at you.

Sakura smiles, "Thank you, Douglas..."

Vash turns halfway as the crew walks back towards the Egg. "Which reminds me. There's something I need to say to you guys."

Kerry nods to Vash. "Ayup."

Vash stops and folds his arms, taking a deep breath. "You're all professionals... you're the best group I've ever had the good luck to work with. But this is totally beyond the scope of our mission." He looks at each member of the crew in turn; also at Larrikan and Kawaii. "I can't justify asking you to risk your lives like this over TAG. But... it's obvious we can't just leave this alone. So... if anyone's doing this for the sake of the ship... or for the Company... I'm telling you to stay in the Egg. If you're going to do this, do it because you think it's the right thing."

Douglas blinks to Vash, considering his words... Vash says, "I mention this because it's obvious this is only going to get more dangerous. And I can't stand the thought of someone losing their life for something trivial."

Kerry skrees, "Hardly trivial. There's some weird stuff happening here, and it almost looks as if we're supposed to be in the middle of it."

Sakura nods at Kerry, then turns to Vash, "If the Kami did not wish us to be here, they would not have sent us here. If they did not wish us to do this task, they would not have placed it before us. I will remain until our task is complete, no matter what it takes."

Douglas clears his throat. "Captain... Pilot is right. We're in the middle of this, we've been dragged into a quest. We have to do this. Even more than that... ever since coming here... well, I would not want to see this place harmed. I would not be doing this for TAG, or even Earth... I would be doing this for the people here who've taken us in and trusted us." For Annifred... He takes in a breath. "I'm in, until the end. Until we finish this."

Larrikan's ears go back when Vash says something about more dangerous. He takes a half step to Sakura, and lets his arm slide a little around her as he murmurs, "I think you're all very brave for being so willing to help." He swallows, then slowly adds, "I can't know there's a risk like this to my home forest and ignore it, so I must face it." He looks at Sakura, smiling and adding, "It's easier to face with friends, too." Sakura beams a smile at Larrikan... Kawaii snorts once, as if it's obvious he's helping, for you'd not last a minute without his guidance.

Kerry chuckles at the little piglet. "We're learning, Kawaii. We don't make the same mistake twice."

Vash nods and smiles broadly. He gives Kawaii a little nod too. He lets his arms drop; he seems to relax visibly. "Okay then. So let's go get that drink and get to work."

Kerry hangs quietly in his room in the Silver Egg, making notes in his journal. "Personal log, Kerry Skydancer. Crossroads Day 16."

He takes a breath, then continues, "##%%#. Here be dragons, indeed [literal emphasis pattern]. Met one. Closer to the mythological wyverns, one pair of legs and one of wings with weak manipulative claws at the wing joint. [sonar image, stylized snake with wings - reference mark, range gate 10 meters, subtended angle 40 degrees]. She flies! It is possible here! It may be due to magic, or to different rules for aeronautics, but if a dragon can do it, Keero can. I must find out how. The quest feather helps me, but not enough for fully normal flight."

Kerry chirrips softly in laughter, then continues, "Met a pair of troll folk who are attempting an ornithopter. [sonar-image, detailed, hull and wings of ornithopter. Range and reference check, recession doppler 20 meters per second, range 30 meters, subtended angle 10 degrees, vector intersecting ground return]. Spectacular mess. I am going to sketch them a bicycle-geared ultralight on my datapad. They are probably strong enough to manage flight with a muscle-powered prop. Will be a useful test for local Reynold's number compatibility, in any event."

    The Silver Egg -- The Commons
    Stepping through the tall, wide doorway into the oak tree, you see a very organically shaped room -- elliptical, high-ceilinged, and usually well lit with strategically placed mirrors and wall-mounted skylights. The tables and seats are all sturdy and wooden, apparently growing from the smooth wooden ground. A fire crackles warmly in a truly huge stone hearth set directly opposite the front door, set into one wooden wall, and warming benches inside the wide, mosaic-tiled fireplace welcome chilly travelers. The walls have a deceptive shimmer to them; the angle at which they're viewed sometimes makes them look to be just wood, other times swirling with decorative, naturalistic patterns. A glossy, wood-topped bar (with a tall door behind it) extends across one narrow side of the ellipse, and a sort of trapdoor lies at the other end of the ellipse.

It is edging onto the deep night. The day has been an exciting one, made so mostly by the encounter with the drake. The fire casts flickering shadows against the walls, and near by the softly-roaring warmth Doug sits thoughtfully, hands clasped in his lap, looking into the symphony of heat and color within the hearth.

Vash descends the stairs, looking around the empty room. It seems deadly quiet now, with none of the hustle of business going on; the fire seems to be simply roaring by contrast. Noting no activity at the bar and no Zildjian in sight, he decides to pass on the drink he'd planned on, and moves toward the fire. "Hey," he says softly. "Mind if I sit?"

Douglas looks up at the armadillo and smiles quietly. He nods. "Of course, Captain, please feel free." He sidles a little to the side to make room for Vash at the fireplace. "What keeps you up this late?" he asks conversationally.

Vash smiles a little and shrugs, sitting. "Couldn't sleep... it's so quiet. I'm out of things to put in the log... I was gonna have a drink but it looks like I missed last call." He grins lopsidedly, hands on his knees. A very small black book hangs delicately in his claws. "And I got sick of reading."

Douglas glances to the book, tilting his head to the side. "Well... yes, it is kind of late. And..." He shakes his head. "Sometimes I think it gets almost too quiet here, Captain. No cars, no aircraft, no heating or air conditioning, no electric motors, no motor-pumped water..." His whiskers and ears twitch a little and then, softer, he adds, "And then I think about all that not being here, and I find myself not missing them at all." He glances over to Vash and nods to the book. "If I may ask, what are you reading?"

Vash hehs. "Sun Tzu. The Art of War. It's a little harder to find nowadays... back home, that is... but you can find anything if you know where to look." He chuckles a little. "Found this one out of TAG's executive accessories catalog... apparently some middle managers believe they might have to repel the Manchus one day." He leans back a bit and takes a deep breath. "Like you said, though... none of that here. Can't say that it bothers me too much. I've known enough middle managers."

Douglas nods slowly. "I've never heard of it, actually." He chuckles softly, if a bit ruefully. "I had two years of college and a full engineering degree, supposedly. Literature like that... sort of got passed by the wayside." His smile fades. "We may not be 'repelling the Manchus' here -- whatever they are -- but part of me still hopes that we don't have to use that sort of knowledge. It's..." He sighs, looking into the fire again. "It's peaceful here, Captain. That is, they have war, but they'd... they'd never have to create whole new races to do their fighting for them..." He abruptly shakes his head, and looks to the armadillo incredulously. "Middle management studies how to make war? Good grief, no wonder they can't get anything right..."

Vash laughs softly, and turns his face from the fire just enough to look Doug in the eye. "Middle management does all kinds of goofy things... it's a different culture -- believe me, I know. I used to guard them, get them from one facility to another, hell, one room to another some days. 'S what I used to do for the Company." He looks down at the tiny book. "They think they can apply the same strategies to the boardroom, or something like that. They read all kinds of books by old masters. Even copies of works by ancient samurai you can't get anymore, now that Japan's a pile of glowing slag." He takes another deep breath. "You been thinking about our part in the war, huh?" Vash's voice quiets a great deal at that comment, a low intonation. Suddenly he sounds very tired.

Douglas laughs softly. "I almost was middle management, Captain." He sighs softly and nods, looking into the fire. "Sort of." His own voice is quiet. "It's a sobering thought, you know. After seeing the Io base in the Nexus system. If Pilot is right, then by our creation by the humans, we kept our world going for a little while longer, kept it from being devastated..." He sighs then. "At the cost of a hundred years of enslavement for the Texas uplifts, and for the rest of us..." A slight shake of his head. "For the rest of us, who knows? Second-class status, humiliation, substandard offerings. I never even really thought about it until we came here."

He continues quietly, "Here... here it's different, so different. Everyone's different here. In one day we have spoken with a sphinx and a drake, walked with trolls and even stranger people, so much more different than us. And the people here do the same thing every day. Put a TAG exec here. Hell, put one of my engineering professors here. They'd never even be able to teach a class -- they'd be too stunned to even begin."

Vash folds his arms on his knees, resting his chin on them. "I don't know, Douglas. I'm not a scholar of history... I don't know what we did differently, or what the Crossroads did differently from us." He runs a hand back over his head plates. "I gotta ask you, though... do you think it was worth it? What happened to the kids in Colorado Springs... or to your grandparents, or to mine, or to everyone that's got a collar in their spinal column? To keep the planet alive a little longer?" He sighs. "I can't believe that all our suffering was necessary. But still... it could always have gone worse."

Douglas blinks to Vash, and looks at him for a very long time before looking back at the fire. "I don't know," he says finally, quietly. "On the one hand, it got us here, to Crossroads. And for that I'm grateful. But on the other hand..." He shakes his head. "No, I can't believe it was necessary either, Captain. My grandparents fought in the War -- that's how two of them met -- but my parents didn't tell me much about it. They were overjoyed, in fact, that I wanted to build things, though they never voiced that. I could see it in their eyes though, when I told them I was going to Stanford to study engineering. I didn't learn until later that they had heard horror stories about the War from their parents, stuff they won't ever even tell me about. And even after the War, the segregation they went through, the hate, the anger, the fear... and all the residua from that." He sighs. "It's... better now, I'm told, than how it used to be. But as you say, in some places they still have collars..." And the engineer visibly shivers now, staring into the hearth.

Vash nods softly. "Yeah," he says, "They still have collars..." He trails off for a moment. "I ever tell you I was in the Border Corps... back in the day when there were little not-wars that popped up every couple of weeks..."

Douglas glances over, tearing his gaze from the fire. "No," he says quietly, "You hadn't..." It is more of a prompt than a statement.

Vash nods. "Yeah... straight outta college." He smiles a little at the recollection. "I was goin' off to follow my granddad's footsteps... the war hero. Juan-Miguel Ramos Montoya." He laughs quietly. "Oh, have they got stories about him, 'round where I grew up. I don't believe most of it... but I knew him when I was little, and he was just... I dunno. You could just tell by lookin' at him... he'd seen stuff. He was a great man, though, my grandfather..." He shakes his head a bit. "But I'm getting off the topic. I was down on the Border... and every so often someone on either side'd get it in their heads to pull a raid."

Douglas tilts his head to the side. "'Someone'? That makes it sound as if it was someone other than the governments were looking for fights."

Vash stares at the bottom of the fire, watching the logs slowly turn to carbon. "I dunno, really... after a few months of duty on the towers you kinda start forgetting about it. Someone comes up outta the dust and you shoot 'em back down into it. 'Cept one night I was standing on a tower looking out over a wide stretch of dust and scrub... you couldn't see a lot on the far side, beyond where the search floods stopped. And word comes down the line that there's about twenty heat signatures coming up on our position." Douglas listens quietly to the armadillo, his ears flickering silently in the fire-warmed evening air. Vash frowns, twisting the corners of his mouth. "I have better night vision than most folks... especially humans. It was mostly humans in the Corps. I looked out... and the last thing I remember saying before the shooting started was, 'Captain, that looks like a coyote...'"

Douglas blinks. "They didn't bother identifying who or even what they were shooting at?"

Vash shakes his head. "Didn't have to. They identified themselves for us... see, what happened was about fifteen men came up from the Texan side wearing dispersion gear to throw the sensor line... and they brought twenty-six uplifts with collars. Made 'em come up on all fours so they'd look like animals in the dark. Crawled right up to our post and then just opened up on us."

Douglas closes his eyes and sighs. "So the Border troops started firing on the collared uplifts..."

Vash says, "Yeah. We didn't have a choice... Douglas, have you ever seen someone wearing a collar?"

Douglas shakes his head quietly. "We... had a class trip to Texas A&M once but... we didn't see many uplifts at all, let alone any with a collar."

Vash nods. "It's like... " He pauses. "It's like... their eyes are open... but they're not looking at you. If that makes any sense."

Biting his lip slightly, Douglas nods slowly. "I... think I understand what you mean." But of course he can't know, not having ever seen a collared uplift.

Vash nods. "Yeah. But they're no damn good in combat, because there's nothing there! They just..." He pauses again to lower his voice, realizing his own volume. "They just give 'em simple instructions. They take huge losses, because they can't make decisions. The Texans just use 'em as living, moving flak shields. Tell 'em, 'run that way until you run out of ammunition, and then throw yourself at anything that's still moving.' Go down in droves, flinging themselves at machinegun nests. Those are the kind of orders that this wolf had when I ran up on him. He'd dropped his gun... and he just jumped at me. Lips back, arms out, just like a movie. I went flat on my back and fired as he fell toward me. I didn't wait... I rolled out from under him and kept moving. Turns out one of the controllers was nearby and out of ammo... so he sent this guy to keep me from getting a bead on him." Vash's mouth is drawn into a tight line. "I shot him down, too."

Douglas closes his eyes. "I can't feel any sympathy for the human," he says, admittedly reluctantly. "Dammit," he says suddenly, opening his eyes again, "I imagine that uplifts were treated the same way in the War, by all sides. We were weapons, nothing more..." He blinks and sighs and visibly tries to relax; his hackles have started rising. "I guess," he says in a quiet tone of voice, "-it's one of those things that you always know, but it never really grips you until... well, whenever you come face-to-face with it, when it takes hold of your whiskers like that."

Vash shakes his head softly. "No. See, I hadn't really quite realized it at the time. See... I didn't kill that uplift, Douglas."

Douglas blinks, looking over to Vash. "You... didn't? But you said... I mean, that you had shot him..."

Vash half-turns from the fire. "I shot him, Douglas." He closes his eyes. "But I didn't kill him. I found him on the way back to the post. Lying there in the dust... still waiting for orders, because his controller was dead. He was suffering... and his eyes were open. But... like I said, they don't really look at you. He was looking at me, but..." He swallows. "But he was still waiting for that fucker with the black box to tell him what to do. Like he couldn't even die without permission."

Douglas winces, looking back into the fire. After another few moments of watching the flames leap upward towards the arch of the hearth, "Do you think," he says quietly, "-that the next uplifts who come to Crossroads are going to be wearing collars, Captain?"

Vash leans back a bit and folds his arms. He studies the roadmap of white lines crisscrossing his forearms. "I honestly couldn't say, Douglas... but I hope not. Hope beyond hope. We don't even know how to get 'em off. There's only one favor you can do for someone wearing a collar, Doug. I did it, down there in El Paso. And I hope that thing never comes here."

Douglas continues looking into the fire, not even acknowledging Vash's words for the moment. Then he blinks and turns slightly, facing the bar, and lets his eyes trail up the wall above the bar. An odd expression -- the flicker of a whisker, the twitch of the corner of his mouth -- plays over his face, before he turns back to the fire, glancing to Vash. "It may be, Captain, that if collared uplifts are brought here... they may not be so for long upon arrival. And if their spirit is not broken completely then the Texans may find their hands... rather full."

Vash turns, frowning a bit. "What are you saying, Doug? A revolution? Zildjian got away, yeah... but even she said she wasn't clear on how it came off... are you saying you think the Texan uplifts will rise up?"

Douglas sighs softly, shaking his head. "I don't know. But... if whatever blew off Zildjian's collar could blow off the collars of an uplift army that came here, then it's possible." He pauses, then adds, "Captain, I know you didn't know me at all before we met at TAG, but believe me when I say I led an unremarkable life. My world was engineering, and nothing but that. I ran into the 'uplift ceiling' once, perhaps more than once, but that was it. In engineering, results were what mattered; good, solid, strong results. Mostly. Otherwise there wouldn't be an 'uplift ceiling.'" He looks back over to the armadillo. "Ever since coming here... I've felt different. I know I've said it before, but it's so hard to put into words. It's nothing I can measure or weigh, so I don't have the words for it. But for the first time in my life I've lived."

He pauses, then adds with slow wonder, "The first day we landed, it was as if the air was... new. Comfortable and familiar, yet also fresh and new, like something in me had lived in it all my life... or that something wanted to live in it. There's something in this planet, this environment... something in this reflection of our Earth that makes me call here home, and the devil take collars and segregation and humiliation. Here, I'm alive... here I feel like I'm starting to understand what it means to have the genetic heritage that I have, and if even a handful of other uplifts who come here feel that, then it might -- just might -- give them enough to see that there's more to their lives, and give them what they need to... to..." He finally runs out of steam and almost collapses against the back of his chair, looking pained and weary. "Damn it all... I'm a college graduate, and I don't even have the words that I need."

Vash smiles a little and shakes his head. "No, I understand. You don't feel like an engineer with a weird parentage that makes people act funny around you in the lab... you feel like a cougar. A living, breathing animal. And at the same time you've got this person here, that makes you feel like a good man. You don't feel transplanted." He turns and arches an eye ridge. "Am I close?"

Douglas grins softly, nodding. "Very close, Captain. Almost exactly so. Back in Rutgers and Stanford my classmates at first avoided me. Cougars were violent, vicious, ill-tempered folk, they felt. It didn't help any that some cougars were indeed like that -- did you know that the entire rugby team at Rutgers was made up of cougars?"

Vash grins a little. "You're kidding. Did they even let 'em play intercollegiate with humans?"

"Oh, there were some humans who ended up trying for the team." Douglas leans back in his chair, at least comfortable with the events now with the distance of time. "A couple of things, though: first, I imagine that cougars were initially... well, made, for strength and endurance. And humans don't have claws. The cougars had the team fairly well tied-up, and had won more than a few games. They were trying to get me to join them actually."

Vash says, "I'm guessing that wasn't what you were into."

Douglas shakes his head, chuckling softly. "I was the struggling, studious engineer, back then. It didn't help, though. The cougars had instilled an image of callous violence upon the other students." He frets, sighing. "There was finally an incident of hazing against the mostly-human football team, and the rugby team was disbanded; the members suspended or expelled." His whiskers and ears twitch slightly. "My transfer to Stanford at the end of that year was... oddly expedited, now that I think about it."

Vash nods and turns to watch Doug's face, noting the sudden constant, expressive movement -- something he hasn't seen the cougar do often. "So... you were trying to buck this image of you as some kind of bloodthirsty eugenics frat boy from hell."

Douglas blinks, looking at the armadillo for a moment before a wide smile breaks his expression and he laughs, albeit quietly. "I'll have to remember that one!" he chuckles. "Yes... somewhat. It was hard enough at Stanford, after the little incident at Rutgers. And of course, just having come from Rutgers myself, the first thing the dean of admissions tells me is that violence will not be tolerated on campus." He shakes his head, murmuring, "Damned pompous... anyway," he continues, in a more normal tone, though still mildly disquieted, "-it's an odd thing, to go from that -- trying to live down that image foisted upon you -- to a state where, essentially, that image is how you are... but it really isn't that. I don't feel violent or bad-tempered, at any rate. Just... different... I think..."

Vash nods. "You feel like you are the way you were intended to be." He smiles a bit. "Yeah. I know what you mean. Back home, they never let you forget that you were purpose-built for something, and that you were a real freak for trying to be a person... for trying to have a life. It's their own damned fault... making tools for themselves that have souls. Made you feel like you were always somehow out of sync..." He turns, "Okay... how about I tell you my story in the same vein."

Douglas nods quietly, looking back into the fire. "Yeah... always had to be on my guard, always had to watch what I said... I still do though, out of habit, but... it's not so bad here, I think..." He looks over to Vash. "Certainly...?"

Vash smiles amiably. "Tell you a story. Nobody outside my family knows this... but I'll tell you how I got these." He runs a claw down the length of one of the white lines of scar tissue.

Douglas blinks, his eyes flicking down to Vash's arms. "I admit... I was wondering about how you got those scars..."

Vash grins widely and looks down at his hands, seeming almost kind of proud of the mapwork that covers his body. "Now... some of these are unique. I got this one," he touches his shoulder near his bicep, "-when I put down a motorcycle in Denver. I was obviously not meant to be a courier. And this one..." He lifts his shirt and indicates a thin line at his side, "-was from the Border Corps. Grazed by a Texan while I was up on the wall. And this one," and here he draws his thumbtip in a long line across his chest, tracing the wide, ragged line there, and grins, "-is a new addition, courtesy of those assholes in the lousy hats. But the rest of 'em... those I all got at once."

Douglas nods slowly, frowning. "It must have been quite the event to do all that..."

Vash hehs softly, and nods, leaning back. "And I can blame it all on this." He raps his shoulder softly. "Cougars are made for endurance, to be strong, right? Well... armadillos're made to be durable. We're supposed to be able to just keep taking it. Back when I was a kid I got in a lot of fights... part of that was from being kinda lower-middle class in a town that had a lot of upscale families... have-and-have-not friction -- y'know how it is. Part of it was because I'm armor-plated and have claws. Well... one night, I'm out on the street... headed downtown but still in the low-rent area of town. And these kids up from the barrio decide they want to see exactly how tough an armadillo is. They wanna see, they tell me, how much I can take."

Douglas listens in almost morbid fascination. He'd never actually been in such a locale, but of course had heard about it on the news. The same news that said that relations were on the whole peaceful between uplifts and humans. So much for the news. Vash grins again, a little ruefully. "But hey, me? Bad-assed little Army brat with more cojones than brains? I tell 'em I'll show 'em everything they wanna see. Doesn't matter that there's six of them and one of me. So what do I do... I take the first swing. And I hit 'em, right square in the mouth. First kid, he goes down with a mouthful of blood. Second kid, he kicks me in the gut. So's the third and the fourth and the fifth."

Douglas winces. "They ganged up on you, then. Oh dear."

Vash chuckles softly. "Yeah. 'S how kids are, I guess. Can't just wait their turn." He grins up at Douglas. "Worst beating I ever had in my life. Felt like I got hit by a truck. So once they got me down, and down where I wouldn't be getting up right away, one of 'em, maybe the first one that I hit, I can't remember... too hard to tell with the blood hammerin' in your ears and coming outta your lips. He decides it's time they get some data on their little experiment. And he pulls out this cheap-ass little switchblade, like you buy in a pawnshop for twelve bucks. Cheap Taiwanese plastic and all."

Douglas blinks, now looking rather horrified. "They just pinned you down and cut you...?" he asks, in a tiny voice.

Vash nods softly. "Wanted to see if they could punch my armor. Turns out you can, you hack on it enough. It's alive, just like the rest of me, after all. After that they decided to just get creative with it. So they rolled me back over and went all the way around. Started above my knees and worked up." Douglas starts looking rather sickened -- well, in more ways than one. His proximity to the fire actually does bring out a faint greenish tinge to the tips of his ears.

Vash takes a deep breath. "And I lived." He grins in what he hopes is a reassuring manner, "I mean, obviously, right? I made that my way of showing them. Determined that I was gonna be unbreakable, just like Grandfather. But you know? Long as I've been alive, seems like everyone's had the same attitude about me. They treat everyone like that in the Army, though, so I didn't notice it much... but even when I signed on with TAG, they seemed more interested in my body than in my actual skill. Always... challenging. Wanting to see how much you can take."

Douglas frowns. "That must wear on you horribly after a while," he notes softly.

Vash nods slowly. "Sometimes... I drank pretty heavy when I got out of the Corps. Usually I just thought about my role model there, and gritted my teeth and hung on. But, y'know... knowing what I know about him now, and with everything I've seen here... and back on Io; he and I aren't fighting for the same things. But that doesn't leave me feeling adrift anymore... not like it did when I got out of the Army, or when I signed up for the Gate project."

Douglas nods and asks softly, "What are you fighting for then, Captain?"

Vash smiles a secret little smile. He looks into the cougar's eyes. "I've been protecting things all my life. And now that I'm here... I finally know what I'm trying to protect. And it's not some arbitrary line in the sand, and it's not some executive who can't take care of himself because he's been living in the zaibatsu too long. No... I'm here, because here no one here has ever had to feel the way I have, or you have, or Sakura, or Kerry, or any of our parents have. No one here's ever got hazed 'cause they don't have claws, or ever been cut to see if the knife'll turn. And more importantly... I know someone that looked at my scars and didn't jerk their hand away from me. You're happy here, Doug. So's Sakura. And Kerry. I want us to stay that way."

Vash stands, stretching. He grins. "Tell you what... let's go find Zildjian, and we'll all three of us have a drink. For old times." He laughs quietly. "May they rot."

Douglas laughs and stands, nodding. "For old times," he says, "-and for new ones."

Vash nods. "It's a deal, Douglas."

Last modified: 2001-Jun-02 22:24:00

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