Adventures of the Twin Tails Chapter 9-10

Chapter 9: Session 4 – The Reverse Copperfield Gambit

The room that had become Amaya’s workshop was a mess. Formerly the tool room attached to engineering, the kitsune had dragged a mattress into one corner and laid sleeping bag out on it. Technical manuals and blueprints were scattered around the bedding along with her notes and calculations. Shelving bore clearly labelled boxes of parts, from nuts and bolts to rubber tubing. Amaya herself sat cross-legged at the end of the steel table in the middle of the room, head stuck deep in the guts of the new environmental control for the ship, her fox-like ears flat against her head to keep them out of the way.

“Last screw!” she proclaimed, extracting herself from the device to flop backwards over the edge of the table, hanging upside-down with her legs still crossed on the bench. Letting her arms and hair dangle for a moment, her tank top bunching up under her breasts, she let herself breathe.

Raphael ‘Raph’ Thorn, the chief engineer, stuck his head through the door. He was an older man with greying hair wearing the same overalls as the rest of the engineering crew. Looking up at him while upside-down, Amaya felt conflicted. On one hand, he was her jailer. On the other hand, he was a kindly, father-like, figure. Demanding but fair, good to his subordinates and popular amongst the engineers. “Is it working?” he asked.

“It will work,” Amaya answered, flipping off the table to land on her feet, “all I need is some photosynthetic cells and carbon filters.”

Hopping over to the box, she pulled out the one labelled ‘Cartridges’ to look inside. Her ears and tails immediately drooped as the only occupant, a dead cockroach, skittered into a corner on its back. “We used everything we had and more getting the hull airtight,” Raphael explained. “If you hadn’t disassembled the environmental controls, we’d still be leaking air.”

Amaya groaned, rubbing her temples. “I don’t need to be told there’s a providence to my madness.”

Sheesh, Sis, Akiko grumbled, learn to take the good luck you can get.

“I probably wouldn’t have made the same call, but I might have depending on the severity of the leak,” Raphael said, shrugging. “And we’ve got a new life support system thanks to you. Not sure I could have built one from scratch myself.”

“The difference between an error and a mistake is not correcting what you do wrong,” Akiko quoted from one of her favourite books, “thanks, Raph.” And thank you, Sis, she added mentally to Akiko. “But without photosynthetic cells and carbon scrubbers, it’s still just a pile of highly organized junk,” she continued aloud. “I can build them, I helped redesign the environment system for the prototype racing suit back at school, but I can’t cultivate the photosynthetic cells from nothing.”

“We could raid the decorative plants on the rest of the ship,” Raph suggested.

“Nah, they’re slowing down the carbon dioxide build-up,” Amaya rejected the idea. “We need fresh materials. I’m going to go see Rudyard and organize another exploration party onto the shard. How’s your team doing with the tether?”

Grinning, Raph beckoned her out of her workshop and led her to the fore of the engineering deck past the engines and a set of stairs that led past the cargo bay to the helicopter pad on the roof. The room had been storage and maintenance access to the bridge systems overhead but all the cargo had been cleared to make way for the energy tethers. Two large engines hummed, radiating heat from the plasma coils that generated power for the long, cable-like, force-fields that held the ship to the anchor points installed in the shard below. A thick window had been installed so that the operators could see the tethers as the energy beams fluctuated rhythmically.

“Your team did all this while I was working?” Amaya asked, whistling as she pressed her nose to the window. “I’m impressed.”

“Can’t let you hog all the glory,” Raph chuckled.

“Where’d you get the plasma coils?”

“One thing about working skyships, you’ve got all the rules, regulations and safety precautions of both an airline and a cruise ship,” Raph explained. “The engines have two redundant systems and by law we’ve got to bring a full set of spares. We’re going to have to be careful, though, depending on how long we’re out here.”

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Amaya said, as much to herself as Raph. “Hope you won’t miss me for a few hours.”

“Just remember, we need you back here in one piece to start on the void engines,” Raph reminded her. “I don’t know what kind of school you went to and I don’t care but you and Aislin are the only two people on board who can get us out of here.”

“Don’t worry,” Amaya said, trying to smile reassuringly as she walked towards the lift to the upper decks. “I’ll have Rudyard and a bunch of his boys with big guns right behind me.”

Raph waved goodbye at the lift as the doors closed. Not long after, Amaya made her way to the security office where Rudyard was sitting behind his desk, looking over reports. “I thought Raph was taking care of you?” he asked, eschewing pleasantries.

Amaya spread her hands and shrugged, helplessly. “Can’t avoid it, I need an escort down onto the shard to gather resources. I’ve finished the life support system but we need raw materials for the carbon dioxide scrubbers. There are plants and charcoal, thanks to the fires, we can use on the surface.”

See? I know what I’m doing, Akiko commented.

Don’t push your luck, Amaya snapped back.

Rudyard stared at her for a long moment. “We know at least that displacer wolf is down there. Not to mention the cockatrice. Besides, Aislin’s busy taking the captain through her plan to pull us along with the shard’s engines.”

“We’ve got a helicopter,” Amaya suggested. “No need to bother Aislin and the Captain. We can scout a landing zone for beasts before dropping us in. It won’t take me long to harvest the material, then we can get back home. Heck, if we can take out some of the hostile wildlife along the way, bonus points. If we’re going to use the shard, we’ll have to secure it anyway.”

Sighing, Rudyard stood, neatly stacking the papers he’d been reading and stacked them off to one side. “I’ll need to inform the Captain but those environmental controls are our top priority. And I could use a walk. Go grab what you need and meet me at the landing pad.”

Amaya saluted mockingly, “Roger, Sir.”

#

Flying over the terrain was a new and interesting experience for both Amaya and Akiko. The bubble-like cockpit of the helicopter gave a near two-hundred-and-seventy-degree field of view, the kitsune could even see the treetops passing by between her feet. Fitting headphones over her ears had been impossible, so she wore one of the thickly padded pilot’s helmets with her ears flat to her scalp. Wind whipped through the cabin as Rudyard and his men scanned the ground for hostiles, hindered by the periodic clouds of smoke caused by the smouldering brushfires that had erupted after the malfunction in the command centre. The security chief was wearing mirrored shades along with his beret, his heavy machinegun resting butt-first next to his booted foot. They were loaded for bear, which was apropos. Amaya didn’t want to see what sort of bears this place could have produced.

Lydia sat on the opposite side of the cabin, peering down with the curious detachment of an academic. She’d dressed somewhat practically in rugged shorts and a tank top. Of course, since it was Lydia, the tank top was a designer print depicting a Japanese ink drawing of an Oni and the shorts were artfully frayed denim with hand-embroidered floral decroations. She was also pointedly not talking to anyone present without reason, though that was as far as any obvious hint of resentment went on her part.

“That area,” Amaya said, pointing to a blackened, burned, clearing near the edge of the shard with a copse of trees and several large stones resting in the middle. “Take us over there.”

Nodding, the pilot slowly turned the craft in that direction. Trees got sparser near the edge of the shard but Amaya spotted large patches of green moss on the rocks. Seeing the edge of this small world simply drop off into grey nothingness as they got closer to it was still unnerving. Ignoring her fears, Amaya scanned the edge of the clearing, seeing a momentary shift in the bushes. As the helicopter hovered for a few moments, Amaya focused on the bushes at the edge of the clearing. It wasn’t long before she saw the outline of an enormous bird-like creature, feathers shifting between patches of green to camouflage itself.

“Rudyard!” Amaya called back, pointing, “That’s the cockatrice!”

Spinning his head, following Amaya’s finger, it took a moment for Rudyard to spot it. “I see it! Holy hell, it’s big!”

Lydia got up, nimbly grabbing the overhead handhold as she joined Rudyard on that side. “It’s not supposed to be that big,” Lydia informed them. “There’s only one cockatrice sighting that we know of on Earth, and it was the size of a chicken. It also didn’t have adaptive camouflage.”

The group watched it scratch at the dirt, pacing just beyond the edge of the trees. “It knows we’re here,” Lydia yelled over the wind and noise, “but it doesn’t want to move into the open. If you can give it a scare, it’ll run off!”

Nodding, Rudyard reached over his shoulder to remove a gun that looked like nothing more than a tube with a handle. Opening the breech, he selected a large munition with red markings and loaded it into the chamber. Making sure his safety harness was firmly attached to the fuselage, he leaning out, took careful aim and fired. The incendiary grenade was propelled in a long arc, descending within a few feet of the bird-creature before exploding in the air and setting the nearby trees alight. The cockatrice screeched and bolted back into the forest.

“All right, take us down,” Rudyard ordered the pilot, holstering the grenade launcher to hoist his heavy machine gun. Looking to his men, he nodded. “That thing might be back. Watch our backs while Amaya gets what she needs. Keep the engines warm, I don’t want to be down there any longer than we have to be.”

The landing was smooth. Rudyard and his two men immediately hopped out, running ten feet before kneeling with plenty of open space between them and the underbrush. Lydia stood tall, like the wind from the rotors barely affected her, while Amaya scampered over to the rocks to begin gathering moss samples. The fire burned out at the edge of the clearing quickly thanks to the damp conditions.

“Here,” Amaya said, handing Lydia a bucket, “scoop up some of that charcoal, would you? Fill the bucket.”

Lydia snatched the bucket from her hand but went and began collecting material as requested.

In no time at all, the group was back on the chopper as it rose into the air again, not a trace of the cockatrice in sight. “See? Nothing to worry about,” Amaya called back. Rudyard gave her a thumb up but Lydia was staring out at the scenery, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Amaya resolved not to let the goddess get her down, grinning happily as she cradled her moss samples on her lap.

The helicopter passed through a small cloud of smog from the grenade as the pilot directed them back to the Sol Suna. The skyship was still an impressive sight, glistening in the eerily source-less sunlight on the approach. It wasn’t until they touched down that Rudyard breathed a sigh of relief. Lydia immediately jumped out and strode into the ship without saying a word.

“Almost too easy,” Rudyard commented to Amaya as they stood at the edge of the helipad, the whine of the engines finally subsiding. “After the last couple of days, I’ll take a little good luck.”

“I hear you,” Amaya agreed, taking off her flight helmet. “Part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Is Lydia ok? I’m sensing a little hostility.”

“You did kinda show her up down in the command centre,” Rudyard muttered, “maybe she’s still sore about that. Maybe she thinks Akiko’s a liability. Honestly, I don’t blame her. Let her cool off a while.”

Maybe she’s an uptight bitch, Akiko commented.

“We’ll leave her alone. Besides, I’ve got work to do,” Amaya said, patting her box of samples. “I should have a report for you in a few hours.”

“Once you do, you’re going to get some sleep,” Rudyard called after her, “that’s an order!”

Amaya gave him another mocking salute before hopping into the lift and descending to engineering. It wasn’t until she was halfway down that she realized she’d forgotten the bucket of charcoal.

#

“The fires were likely caused by blockages in the coolant vents,” Aislin explained to the Captain as they poured over her hand-drawn schematics. The Captain’s office was a large room with a table directly in the middle, a minibar at one end and bay windows looking over the recreation area, giving the two plenty of light to draw plans. “The structure is very old, we’ll need to reinforce…”

She was interrupted by a polite knock on the door a moment before it opened. Aeryn poked her head through, looking apologetic. “Um, I’m sorry if I’m interrupting something…”

“You are,” Captain Frye snapped, “but I trust it’s important enough?”

Aeryn gulped, understanding the threat implicit in the question. “It is,” she said, slipping inside and closing the door. She was holding a small TV screen in her hands. “Rudyard didn’t want me to go with the away team this time but he let me tap into the helicopter’s camera system.” Placing the screen on the table, she turned the screen around to show them the picture. It was obviously the point of view from the nose of the helicopter, looking out over the landing pad.

“Huh,” Frye mumbled, “we haven’t been informed they’d returned yet. I’m glad everything went smoothing this time.”

“About that,” Aeryn said, pointing through the bay windows to the landing pad outside. The demon and the Captain turned to look over their shoulders.

The landing pad was empty.

Aislin’s jaw dropped open. “What the F…!”

Chapter 10 – Eighty-Eight Times

Lydia was getting a headache and she wasn’t quite sure why. Wandering through the halls of the Sol Suna, heading back to her cabin, she took several wrong turns that confused her. Finally reaching her cabin, she flopped into her bed and groaned. Rolling onto her back, she picked up her tablet to resume her research. For the last several days she’d been trying to work out what was happening to Amaya and how she could seal Akiko away once more. Unfortunately, there was precious little on Ashvattha about kitsune and even less in the Community lorebooks.

Did Amaya have multiple personality disorder linked to her shapeshifting ability? A bizarre form of Popeye syndrome? Practically every book on the subject mentions two things about the kitsune race, first that the older ones are eccentric and second that the race as a whole is highly secretive. More disturbing were the articles that suggested that kitsune are related to the kumiho, a similar fox-like species that eat souls. Amaya couldn’t be a kumiho, however, she was crazy but not crazy enough.

Staring at her tablet screen, the goddess came back to reality with the realization that the words she was reading didn’t make sense. “Tonal changes in kitsune range from pumpernickel to the camshaft,” she read aloud from the text, just to make sure she wasn’t going mad. Scanning the page, then flipping forward and back through the pages, she blinked. Every single sentence was pure gobbledegook.

Casting the tablet aside, she hit the call buzzer on her bedside table to summon a member of staff. To her surprise, there was an immediate knock on the door. Jumping up, she pressed the button to open the automatic door to find a short, young, Japanese stewardess smiling up at her. “Hello, ma’am,” she greeted, bowing politely, “you called?”

“That was quick,” Lydia observed hesitantly.

“I was just checking on the other residents when I heard your call,” she explained, stepping inside. “What can I help you with?”

Lydia’s eyes narrowed. “I just wanted to find out if there was a problem with the ship’s computers.”

“No error there I’m currently aware of, ma’am,” the stewardess replied with a fake smile.

Focusing, the goddess shifted her attention to the mindscape, the subliminal reality that connected her to Ashvattha and all other immortals. The purpose this time was different as she attempted to peer into the stewardess’ mind. As reality fell away, Lydia found herself standing before enormous, burning, black gates the size of skyscrapers. Across the doors, burning with the fury of a forge, was a number written in Japanese.

Eighty-eight. In Chinese culture, the luckiest number. A code for ‘Heil Hitler’ in white nationalist circles, ‘H’ being the eighth letter of the alphabet. Also code for ‘hip-hop’ in music circles for the same reason. In Japanese culture, however, eighty-eight took on the associated meaning of ‘uncounted’ or ‘infinite’.

Snapping back to reality, Lydia took a step back from the beatifically grinning stewardess. “Who the hell are you?”

#

Amaya stared at her new environmental control system, only it wasn’t her environmental control system. It was an assemblage of parts to be sure, superficially similar to her machine, but it wasn’t a machine that did anything. Tubes were connected to fittings that weren’t attached to anything. The wiring connected to mish-mashed circuitry that looked like something out of a poorly researched science fiction movie.

Picking up her box of samples, she left her workshop and looked each way down the hall. It was astonishingly quiet, far too quiet for the engineering deck she knew. “Raph!” she called, walking back to the engine room. Several men in engineering overalls that she didn’t recognize were tightening and un-tightening bolts as the engines hummed along perfectly. They barely noticed her other than to turn and nod their heads. Walking the other way, she opened the door to the room with the energy tethers, only to find shelving full of random parts and materials.

Her heart beating fast, Amaya skipped up the stairwell, navigating the hallways until she found the bridge. Captain Frye was nowhere to be seen and the crew idly keeping the ship steady didn’t pay her any mind as she stepped up to the sensor station. The view outside the windows was clouded by hanging smog from the fires and the sensors were useless. The altimeter read that they were perfectly steady at one thousand feet, there wasn’t even a slight breeze and the ship was perfectly level, almost like they were parked on a sidewalk rather than floating.

What the hell? Akiko asked. Since when was there an illusion of our entire fucking ship?

Grabbing her radio, she left the room and flicked to Rudyard’s channel. “Chief? We have a problem.”

“I’ve noticed,” Rudyard whispered back, “where are you?”

“Outside the bridge,” Amaya answered.

“Ok, I’m coming to get you,” he said. “I’ve gathered the boys and our pilot back on the landing pad with the chopper. Then we pick up Lydia and get the hell out of wherever the hell this is. Do you still have the charcoal and the samples?”

“I have the samples,” Amaya answered, “and the charcoal’s still on the helicopter. I forgot it.”

There was a long pause before Rudyard answered. “Lucky break. See you in a minute.”

You know if this is an illusion, whoever’s controlling it can keep us separated, Akiko suggested.

No need to alarm the Chief just yet, Amaya replied, we’ve been able to navigate the ship well so far.

Sis, we share a brain, we both know who’s doing this. I think Rudyard has a right to know.

It could be some kind of freaky defence the shard has, I don’t want to jump to conclusions…

Right at that moment, Rudyard turned the corner and came into view, fully armed. Staring at Amaya for a few moments, he shook his head. “Ok, I was expecting that to be harder. Thank God you kept hold of the samples.”

Walking over, Amaya’s ears flattened against her head as she looked down the way he’d come. “It’s easier to render an illusion for a group together than one split apart,” Amaya mused. “They probably let us meet to reduce the burden of maintaining it. Even so, whoever or whatever is doing this is extraordinarily powerful.”

“How powerful are we talking?”

“When it comes to illusions, Akiko’s a talented beginner,” Amaya explained. “The best we can do is make illusions to disguise ourselves.”

Don’t tell him that! Akiko complained. You’re such a fucking goodie-two-shoes!

“Aislin and Lydia are way more powerful,” Amaya continued, ignoring her sister. “But even on their level, if they could do illusions, they couldn’t do this. This is an entire, solid, environment inhabited by apparently living people. Sure, the details are sloppy but considering the sheer scale of the feat it’s no wonder.”

“All the more reason to keep moving,” Rudyard said, pulling Amaya down the hall. “I’m assuming that Lydia went back to her cabin. If not, we can…”

He paused at a T-intersection. Looking both ways, he pointed. “The dining hall should be that way, medbay should be that way,” he said, pointing to a curved hallway lined with windows on one side and doors on the other in both directions. Looking back, he saw the hallway shift, morphing from the way back to the bridge to the hallway leading to medbay. “Shit,” he swore.

Turning around, Amaya shook her head. “Now they’re just toying with us,” she murmured, walking over to one of the cabin doors. She tucked the samples under one arm and pressed the button and found that it opened into the ballroom, tables and empty chairs stacked neatly at one end of the large open space. It was also impossible, the room itself was supposed to be aft aside from being large enough to intersect with the hallway they’d just walked down. Allowing the door to close, the kitsune snapped her arm up at the last second, holding the door ajar as she peeked inside at the rapidly morphing illusion. Catching the flicker of red mist as the geometry dissolved, she grabbed the edge of what was ‘real’ and gave it a yank with all her physical and spiritual might.

“Wait, wha…?” Rudyard gasped in alarm, interrupted as the hallway around them began to flicker in and out of existence. Parts of the wall and floor began to break into triangular prisms, revealing more of the formless red mist.

Amaya gave sudden cry as the floor broke apart under her, Rudyard reacting in a split second, diving to grab her wrist. Dangling over the blank grey void, clutching the samples to her chest with tails swishing frantically, the kitsune squeaked when she looked down to find the edge of the shard in the distance far below. “R-Rudyard!” she called out. “I found the sub-ocean!”

“What the fuck did you do?” Rudyard demanded, grunting each word as he heaved her upward. A sudden shift in the floor under him made him look down to find his stable platform also breaking into flickering triangles along with the rest of the hallway. “Shit,” he sighed in a moment of resignation before they both fell.

Only to land heavily on the floor of the Sol Suna’s arcade as it appeared underneath them, surrounded by flickering screens that buzzed old electronic tunes. Amaya managed to hit the ground on her feet before flopping onto her back but Rudyard smacked into the ground belly-first.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Amaya moaned, quickly rolling over to rub her tails.

“Never. Do that. Again!” Rudyard shouted.

“I know, I know, dumb idea!” Amaya agreed, springing into a cross-legged sitting position. “On the bright side, I don’t think whoever’s creating this illusion wants us dead.”

“That’s not a great comfort,” Rudyard grumbled.

We both know who’s doing this, Akiko said. Let me handle this, Amaya.

Amaya sighed, “I wouldn’t usually suggest this and you’re not going to like it.”

Kneeling, Rudyard leant against his HMG and sighed. “You’re about to suggest letting Akiko out.”

Amaya blinked. “Wait, what?”

“First, it’s what you always say just before suggesting letting Akiko out,” he snapped, “and second, you suggest it every single time we get in trouble.”

Oh shit, Akiko commented, better pull the plug, Sis, it’s learning!

Shut up, Amaya snapped back at her. “Ok, but the reason I do that is because she’s better at illusions and sneaking about than I am. Remember how I said whoever’s doing this is way more powerful? We need every advantage if I’m going to get us out of here.”

He glared at her. “Then why am I still looking at you?”

Amaya’s black and blue hair immediately brightened into white and red, her body slimming and losing muscle definition as the change spread down to her tails. Standing up, Akiko stretched. “AH! Good to be out! Thanks, old man,” she said, patting Rudyard on the beret.

“Hands off,” Rudyard snapped, standing up. “Amaya said you can get us out of here, I need you focused.”

“Yes, yes,” Akiko snapped back, “I’m not an idiot. Believe it or not, I understand the gravity of the situation…”

She was interrupted when gravity suddenly inverted and the two occupants of the room suddenly found themselves slamming heavily into the ceiling. Akiko still had the presence of mind to clutch the samples to her chest, the corner squashing against her breasts on impact, knocking the wind out of her.

“Ow!” Akiko wheezed.

“Damnit!” Rudyard growled through the pain as he rolled around on the floor. “Don’t tempt them like that!”

Taking a deep breath, Akiko rolled onto her knees to search Amaya’s tool belt for something she could draw with. Finding a permanent marker, she began inscribing a circle into the floor around her. “Ok, time to power up a bit,” Akiko said. “Aislin’s been teaching us how to do this.”

Finally getting onto his feet again, Rudyard watched as she inscribed a perfect circle around herself. “Wow, you’ve really been paying attention?”

Akiko glared at him. “Ok, I admit, I have attention span issues for a lot of things. But this is magic and magic is awesome! You never wanted to be a wizard as a kid?”

“It wasn’t exactly on the curriculum,” he replied, hefting his machinegun. “I’ll stick with what I know.”

“Each to their own,” Akiko said.

Rudyard watched her complete the circle. “You know, you’re impressive when you’re actually focused.”

“Amaya’s a bad influence,” she quipped, looking over her work before grinning up at him. “But thanks, big guy. All right, let’s get out of here.”

Closing her eyes to concentrate, Akiko reached out with her senses and felt the illusory material around her. It was firm and solidly under someone else’s control, but they were distracted. Insinuating her will into the structure, she pulled and warped it. Rudyard watched the ceiling underfoot warp and twist, undulating like water. The waves reached the wall and crawled up it, geometry twisting into a vertical whirlpool that seemed to drill through solid matter, creating a tunnel that cut to the heart of the illusion.

“Who the hell are you?” Lydia demanded of a Japanese woman wearing a stewardess’ uniform. Both women jumped when they saw the hole opening in the wall of what appeared to be Lydia’s cabin, revealing Akiko and Rudyard in the arcade beyond.

“She’s the illusionist,” Akiko answered.

The stewardess smiled at Akiko as the cabin around her began to dissolve, revealing an immaculately sculpted Zen garden. “Impressive,” she complimented as her clothes shifted into a traditional red kimono embroidered with silver and blue waves crashing over villages and mountains. Her hair shifted to a fiery red as her face extended into a fox’s slender muzzle, nine tails spreading out around her in a halo of burning fur. Amber marks spread from her forehead down her face as she grinned, revealing sharp teeth. “You’ve grown well, Akiko.”

Lydia backed away towards Rudyard, looking at Akiko. “You know her?”

Akiko bowed respectfully. “It’s nice to see you again, Godmother. Rudyard Holt, Lydia, this is my Godmother, Yakyou, the Uncounted Calamities.”

“Your Godmother is a nine-tails?” Lydia asked incredulously.

Akiko smirked. “Mum was one of her disciples.”

Rudyard hefted his machinegun up onto his shoulder. “That means she’s really powerful, I take it?”

Both Lydia and Akiko nodded.

Looking to Yakyou, he inclined his head in respect. “So you can get us home?”

The nine-tails shook her head, picking up a watering can to absently tend to some potted plants. “Unfortunately, I cannot sense where you are. I just know you’re there.”

Rudyard glanced at Lydia, who nodded. “She can probably see the area where Akiko is,” the goddess explained, “but not the path between the two points.”

“A good enough explanation,” Yakyou said, smirking. “The void between worlds is both infinite and infinitesimally small. You are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it’s not like taking a trip down the road to the supermarket. There are no directions to give, no online maps. But don’t despair, your quest home is by no means impossible.”

“Well that’s something,” Rudyard mumbled. “But if Amaya and Akiko are your Goddaughters, why the hell would you trap us in here in the first place?”

“It’s a test,” Yakyou answered. “I wanted to see how much my Goddaughters have grown. Tell me, Akiko, how long have you been awake?”

“About three days,” Akiko said balling her hands into fists as she trembled. “The ship went through some sort of portal and I was hit by green lightning. Before we go, I have a question. Why did you seal me? Being Ichiro all those years was hell! Do you have any idea what you put us through?”

“Yes,” the nine-tails said simply, looking up from her task to fix Akiko with a cold, passionless, stare. “I knew it would hurt every day but my hand was forced. Frankly, I’m glad the seal was broken early.”

Squeezing her fists tight, Akiko finally relaxed. “Well that’s something. Can we go now?”

“Certainly,” Yakyou replied, sweeping her hand in a commanding gesture. The arcade shifted, the ceiling opening as the floor rose onto the top deck of the illusory Sol Suna. Rudyard’s men stepped back as the whole scene emerged onto the landing pad, even the tunnel leading to Yakyou’s garden and the nine-tails herself.

Aislin popped into existence next to them with an audible rush of air as she teleported in. “Ok, there you all are,” she said, glaring at Yakyou. “I take it this is your doing?”

“Uh, Aislin,” Akiko interrupted, “this is…”

“Yakyou, the Uncounted Calamities,” Aislin finished for her. “Yeah, I studied modern immortal politics on Ashvattha. We all ready to leave, then?”

“Damn straight,” Rudyard said, stalking towards the chopper.

“One moment,” Yakyou interrupted. “I’m quite willing to let you go, in return for some payment. I’ll be keeping that helicopter of yours…”

“Oh, fuck no,” Aislin snapped. “Akiko!”

Already concentrating, Akiko’s circle flared and sparked with amber lightning as she thrust all the power she could muster into it. The landing pad stretched, solid metal rolling into two enormous waves spreading in opposite directions, one away from Yakyou, the other slamming into the hole to Yakyou’s garden. As the group was hurled into the air, Aislin spread her arms, red light encapsulating every living being as well as the helicopter. They felt a moment of weightlessness before they were all dumped once more on the landing pad of the real Sol Suna.

The helicopter bounced on its landing gear and skidded to a halt, rocking the landing pad with the impact. Caught by surprise, the rest of the group rolled across the deck and came to rest groaning and muttering darkly. Rising to her hands and knees, Aislin spat blood onto the decking, the marks on her face burned and blackened. “Hrgh,” she coughed, collapsing onto her back, “we can forget about me doing that again for a while.”

“Sempai!” Akiko called out, scrambling to Aislin’s side, leaving the box of samples behind. “Are you ok? Shit, she’s been burned! We have to get her to the doctor!”

“That sounds like a great idea, actually,” Aislin groaned.

“Medic!” Rudyard called to the crew members running towards them. Stepping up to the end of the platform, he took out his binoculars to scan the horizon, just in time to catch the fake Sol Suna winking out of existence, leaving no trace behind.

Malcom and Aeryn brought a stretcher to carry Aislin, Akiko following along behind as they carried her downstairs. Limping a little, Rudyard picked up the forgotten box of samples and handed it to one of his men. “Get this down to engineering,” he ordered, “and get the charcoal from the helicopter, too. Tell him Amaya will be there presently.”

Looking over to where Lydia was dusting herself off with barely a scrape, Rudyard nodded to her. “You ok?”

“I’m fine,” she said curtly.

Walking closer, he leaned in and lowered his voice. “I couldn’t help but notice that Yakyou and her Goddaughters have markings like you and Aislin.”

“Honestly, I don’t know what that’s about,” Lydia said. “It’s curious. Our markings stabilize our mindscapes and connect us to Ashvattha. Nine-tailed kitsune are immortal, if very eccentric, it’s only natural they worked out a similar method of protecting themselves. They probably copied us. Even so, there’s no reason for Amaya to have them.”

Rudyard grunted. “Something about them, though. It’s on the tip of my brain. Ugh, nevermind. I’m going to report to the Captain then go get a drink for me and my guys. You’re welcome to join.”

Lydia nodded. “Thanks, that’d be nice.”



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