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Small tales with character.

CenCen Posts: 47Member ✭✭
I was thinking that maybe some people who have a clear character concept in mind would like to share a bit of background or something. With that in mind, I'll start off with a short little something to portray Cen.

-----
A young woman sits hunched over a work bench, completely focused on the task in front of her. The room is dimly lit, save for the bright light that illuminates the immediate spot in front of her. Grease tracks streak across her light blue short-sleeved top, as if she has used it to wipe off dirt from her fingers, or possibly massaged a sore spot on her lower back without realizing she will cause a stain. Her coverall has been pulled down to her waist, the arms used to tie it in place above her hips. This, too, shows stains and rips from wear and tear, with bottom hems frayed near the heel as if being stepped on often.

Pausing in her work for a moment, she raises the back of her hand to her forehead, wiping away some sweat. The motion continues up into the long blond hair, which streaks back across her scalp in a mohawk fashion, nudging a few stray strands of hair out of the way. Gripped between her fingers is a small silvery wire, which seems to roll up into a coil in her palm. 

Cen shifts a little in her seat, rolls a shoulder, then leans forward to peer through a mounted looking glass. Once more, she slides the soldering iron in place, adjusting the flux-tipped end to rest against the nearby component before dabbing with the thread of solder against it. Smoke rises for a moment, but clears quickly with a puff of air that passes her lips. Shifting the soldering iron out of the way to get a better look, Cen lets out a disgruntled, "Bah!", as she notices her mistake. She had just secured the wrong wire. Correct spot this time, but it would still short-circuit the bloody thing. Frustrated, she tosses her tool away across the bench, perhaps just a little bit too carelessly.

The hot end of the soldering iron rolls away and comes to a stop against a forgotten wad of grease-stained rags. It doesn't take long before the combination causes a rather spectacular result. In a whoosh, the cloth lights up with a green flame, which then spreads rapidly in the other direction, as a spill of some kind has only been hastily wiped up. "Oi!" In startled panic, Cen shoots up from her seat, tossing the solder away as she rushes over towards the fire. Undoing the knot of her overall, she wrests a sleeve free and furiously begins patting at the flames.

Sadly, this only exasperates the fire, as whatever was dumped on the bench has also soaked into the coverall. With a shrill-sounding "Eep!", the young woman lets go of the now-burning sleeve and instead begins to tug at the few remaining buttons. Fumes rise from the green-tinged flames, causing her to cough as she struggles to free herself of her burning clothes. Once she can allow them to fall to the ground, she stomps energetically all over them, puffs of smoke rolling out from underneath the pile.

Standing in her underwear and a greasy top, she slumps her shoulders and looks back at the work bench. The fuel there has already been exhausted with nothing having been damaged by the initial mistake. Her eyes travel back to the charred clothes at her feet and she rolls her eyes. "Well shoot, there goes another one," she grumbles, stomping off towards her sleeping quarters.
-----

QitorienVillanoxTectonAterrasSqueakumsTravelerCookieKazMordekaiMalashKestrel

Comments

  • SqueakumsSqueakums Posts: 21Member
    edited January 30

    Deleted because I seem to like double-posts.

  • SqueakumsSqueakums Posts: 21Member

    Change. It is at the heart of Inigo's life, and his new role in the ship is no different. Thanks to his predecessor's recent trip out the airlock, Inigo has been reassigned to cooking duty. Everybody pulls their weight their own way here, and a hired gun in space has a lot of downtime. So Inigo cooks. It is uncommon for smugglers, pirates, and scavengers to have this kind of luxury aboard their vessel. A real shame, too, as their irregular routes and clandestine stops put them in contact with all kinds of exotic ingredients and spices. But this ship is different, isn't it?

    Well, time to work! Inigo takes a knife and begins his craft, chopping a handful of spicy tubers from an Ixodon colony. The processor is faster, but it lacks precision. Chop them too large and you risk ruining the texture. Too small and the flavor isn't fully released before the pieces are consumed. He turns up the temperature and watches the transformation of insipid ingredients into a culinary delight.

    The echo of heavy steps down the ship's passageways announces the movement of the captain, a large Krona with a strong build and a stronger appetite. Inigo is thankful for the latter, as it gives him the opportunity to experiment further in the ship's kitchen. Few hired gun positions offer such an opportunity.

    A splash of scalding oil on his arm snaps him out of his thoughts, and he hastily turns the temperature down. Stay in control, he thinks, quickly running damage control on the dish. He can't afford to get careless like this. A pinch of yellow firemoss for flavor, a few choice herbs, and a generous helping of Danalian redsalt later and the dish is done. Inigo sets it aside, turning towards the cupboards to continue with--

    Crash! The ship's lights flicker momentarily, then turn red. "Pirate ship boarding party," the communications system rings out. "All crew to stations." Got past our sensors? Stealth tech must be cutting edge, Inigo thinks excitedly. Fancy tech means better spoils. Inigo draws the small handheld blaster holstered on his hip. Simple and inelegant, but a dependable weapon. Time to earn my pay.

    Inigo hurries to the bridge, his heartbeat racing as anticipation builds. A familiar boiling sensation is his veins heralds the buildup of star kith in his system. It sears through his skin, pierces his bones, urges him to act. Now. The comms flare up again, "Tukkav pirates. They have a B.E.A.S.T.!"

    Inigo hears this and immediately holsters his blaster. The kith screams around his body, a raging tempest audible only to him. He draws his blade from its sheath across his back. He firmly grips its pommel, asking it to change. The blade comes alive with dancing flames, their red glow evident even under the emergency lights.

    He races towards the invaders. A B.E.A.S.T. huh? Time to earn my bonus.

    CenTravelerCookie
  • CenCen Posts: 47Member ✭✭
    So, if anyone's wondering... I'm waiting for the game to start and all these things just sort of pop into my head. Love that @Squeakums added a little something. Feel free to join him!

    -----
    Flexing and stretching her fingers, Cen scowls down at the burn marks that mar the skin. Her eyes shift to the glove she is holding in her other, equally scarred hand, but this one in different ways. She lifts the glove up, peering inside it. The darkness makes it impossible to see anything at all, at least until she turns on the headlamp resting above her brow.

    "Now where's that blasted electrode that keeps mis-firing?" she mutters, spreading the opening as wide as she can, tilting it this way and that. "Aha! That's got to be it." Without taking her eyes away from the thing, she plucks a pair of needlenose pliers from the bench next to her. With an immense look of focus, tongue pressing lightly against her upper lip, she uses the tool to grab hold of the electrode.

    A static buzzing sound comes from the far side of the room, followed by a voice, slightly distorted from the craked speakers, shouting, "Cen! Need you up here." However, the woman keeps her focus on the grabbing hold of the devious piece of tech, which continues to elude her. There's a clicking noise and then silence.

    It takes quite a few attempts, as the small thing refuses to remain firmly gripped by the narrow extensions. After finally twisting the wire the piece is mounted on into the right position, she attempts to slip it into the correct slot. As frustration builds, the speaker buzzes again. "Hey!" The voice sounds angrier this time. "Stop screwing around with that lousy tech stuff and haul yourself up here. You're not a blasted Engineer!"

    "Shut it!" she growls back, and as she loses focus for that split second, the electrode once again slips free with a pinging sound. With a sigh, she glares inside the glove again. "I'll be up soon, alright?" Two swift clicks follow her announcement, confirmation that it was received, and she returns to her struggle, this time with better results. There is a satisfying click as it snaps into place and she removes the pliers.

    Pulling back to peer inside again, Cen nods to herself and lets out a soft, "Mhm, should do it." Sliding in a finger instead, she feels around to make sure nothing sticks out, but is met with nothing but a relatively smooth surface. She searches her cluttered bench for a moment, then plucks up an awl, etching a small marking along the edge of the glove, right above the newly-corrected electrode.

    "Alright!" she exclaims enthusiastically, spinning her stool away from the bench, knocking about some of her tools in the process. She flails out to ensure they remain where they should be, slapping her entire arm down on top of them. There is a loud clattering noise as a jar tips over and spills its contents on the floor. She waits until the sound of nuts, bolts and screws skidding across the hard floor fades away, then nods slowly to herself. "Less enthusiasm, more calm. Scientific approach, methodical, clear-headed..."

    She pauses, blinking once, twice. "By Kith, who am I trying to fool?" Rolling her eyes, she turns her attention back to the tech glove in her hand, smile spreading on her lips again. Gleefully, she shoves her hand inside it, wriggling her fingers and tugging at it to make sure it's in its proper place. Turning her hand over, she checks her markings along the edges to make sure they line up with the extensive tattoos along her arm.

    Once she is satisfied, she leans back, closes her eyes, and begins to embrace the kith. As the energies build up, she tugs the lamp off her forehead, and flicks her sleek glasses in place over her eyes. With a press of a button, electrodes unfold from the temples and spread out to connect with the skin on both sides of her head. There is an exuberant expression on her face as she raises her hand and notices the right lights firing up along the display. Her earlier promise forgotten, she gets up from her stool with a grin. Finally time for practice!


    PS: Also, my poor excuse of a swarmglove picture. Not really that good with tech stuff! https://imgur.com/TPL4mN7
    TravelerKazMordekaiTheograth
  • TheograthTheograth Posts: 45Member ✭✭

    “You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?”

    It’s not an easy thing when your best friend is pointing your own PIECE at you, and Buck was handling it worse than most would in his shoes. He could feel his shock starting to bleed away, and pure, unbridled rage was taking its place.

    The Nath-El standing before him made a wet, gravelly sound at the back of his throat; a laugh that was once considered jovial by his friend. “You know, there was a time I would have agreed with you. How does the phrase go? ‘You are the company you keep’?”

    “I took you in ‘Zain. You were nothing but a strung-out dung beetle and I gave you a home, and a job, and a purpose,” Buck spat through gritted teeth, “and I don’t believe you’ll be finding a better arrangement anywhere else. You can bet on that.”

    “I'll take any deal over indentured servitude,” the insectoid hissed, “that last score was all me. It was my idea—“

    “Using my connections.”

    “Your connections are worth sixty percent?!”

    Buck rolled his eyes, “Cut the shit, ‘Zain. This is my ship, and I use the extra money to keep it flying, you know that.”

    “Sorry, pal, but I’m afraid I’ll be taking all of it,” ‘Zain waved the pistol at his surroundings, “...all of it.”

    Buck balled his hands into fists and fought the urge to reach for the empty holster at his hip. For ten years this guy had been at his side, doing all manner of less-than-legal jobs in the name of profit. They had shared everything: they had the same enemies, the same stories, even a few of the same women. Hell, they probably had the same blood type with the amount of times each of them had dragged the other from a deal gone sour, and patched up the bullet wounds. They were practically brothers as far as Buck was concerned, and now he couldn’t think of anything except how badly he wanted 'Zain dead.

    Ten fucking years.

    “Let’s go.” ‘Zain walked him toward the back of the ship, past the sleeping quarters and through the galley. It was a small ship, and it was an old ship - some might even say it wasn’t worth scrapping for its skip drive - but Buck loved it, and he struggled to take in every detail as he was marched toward the cargo bay airlock. He streaked a hand through his brown mane and scratched at the stubble on his face. A shower would’ve been nice, but then again he would have done a lot of things differently if he had known he was five minutes away from death. Actually, it had already been five minutes and he was still alive...why hadn’t ‘Zain already shot him?

    “Holy shit,” Buck stopped in his tracks, “you’re giving me to Gerdey, aren’t you?”

    ‘Zain smiled, his mandibles twitching with satisfaction, “You wouldn’t believe how bad that little bastard wants you dead.”

    “He wants you dead just as bad,” Buck shook his head soberly, “I don’t know what deal the two of you made but he won’t honor his end. He’s coming for you next.” That rewarded him a jab in the sternum from the barrel of his pistol.

    “Don’t worry, I’ll have a head start. Keep moving.” They continued through the galley, finally coming to the cargo bay. “Get in.”

    ‘Zain pointed to a small cargo container, about double the size of a coffin, with several oxygen tanks attached. Buck had no idea how much the tanks actually held, but if he were to guess it would be somewhere between one to three days’ worth of air. It worked beautifully for turning in fugitives and live bounties, and in addition to keeping them alive it also bought Buck and ‘Zain plenty of time to get out of Dodge before some unsavory business associate showed up to them.

    “Man, you really are confident in this plan, aren’t you?” Buck chuckled, “You’re actually letting Gerdey get this close? You’re dumber than you look.”

    “I’m not afraid of any Elgan!” snarled ‘Zain, “And I’m not the one getting vented into space, so I would keep my insults to myself if I were you.”

    “And what if he isn’t able to find me? Can’t I at least pack a few sandwiches?” asked Buck, cocking his head to the side. He looked hard into his friend's eyes, and what he saw there made his stomach turn to frozen lead. ‘Zain was watching him too, and grinned as he saw the realization slowly spread on Buck’s face.

    He wasn’t meant to survive, he was meant to die slowly over days.

    “You told them where our clones are being held,” Buck breathed, “you stupid son of a bitch.”

    “They are at the facility as we speak,” ‘Zain purred with satisfaction, “and by the time you’ve been resurrected there I will be a long, long ways from your INR, which they no doubt will attempt to retrieve. Then it's off to pick a new cloning facility for myself, someplace where none of you will ever find me.”

    “This plan is so convoluted, only you could have come up with it,” Buck jeered.

    “Well, you will have plenty of time to think of a bett—“

    It was so fast that even the most fidgety of Nath-El would not have seen it coming. The jar Buck had lifted from the galley was now spiraling in the air, its contents a mystery only to 'Zain. Buck had purchased the raw honey as a gift at a small confection stand, and when asked how concentrated he would like it he replied, 'Strong enough to knock a Nath-El on his ass.' This it did with great effect: the jar shattered on the ceiling, raining honey down onto the insectoid's sensitive taste and smell receptors. The sensations assaulting 'Zain's nervous system were so intensely pleasurable, they became outright agony. His body twisted and convulsed, trying to clear his head, and a shaky hand took aim for the center of Buck's chest. But he was already too late.

    Buck grabbed the barrel and spun inside 'Zain's fire arc, sending his other elbow crashing into what would be the solar plexus of a human. The blow staggered 'Zain, and more punches and kicks followed until he felt himself connect forcefully with the cargo bay door at his back. The searing pain from his sensory receptors was ebbing, replaced by the more tactile pain that comes from physical injury. He let out a dry cough and smiled, lifting his gaze toward his friend of ten years. 

    But who he saw standing there wasn't anyone he'd ever known.

    "Say 'hey' to Gerdey for me," Buck said, and he felt the familiar jolt of his PIECE leaping in his hands.


    ----

    ((Just a little backstory on my character, Buck Langdon. I promise he's not always this dark!))

  • CenCen Posts: 47Member ✭✭
    Love it, @Theograth!!
  • TravelerTraveler Posts: 62Member ✭✭
    edited March 12
    Zain is a horrible creature. :open_mouth:

    Edit: was
    TheograthCen
  • MalashMalash Posts: 98Member ✭✭✭
    Traveler said:
    Zain is a horrible creature. :open_mouth:

    Edit: was
    Roaches always come back.
    Image result for mib bug

    TheograthMogarcheKestrel
  • TheograthTheograth Posts: 45Member ✭✭
    edited April 17
    “Roaches always come back.” - Malash

    *******************

    Zain's eyes opened to the sting of saline, his body weightless within a stasis capsule. Through the glass he could make out two hulking figures on either side of a smaller one, all facing the capsule opposite his.

    Gerdey.

    All at once his mind put the pieces together and instinct kicked in. He jerked his body in the fluid, pawing at the glass, frantically looking for a way out.

    "Well, would you look at this..." the smaller one said as he turned toward the writhing Nath-el clone, "Zain... you mean to tell me after all that, he got you?!"

    Gerdey stood at knee-height between a massive Krona on his left and a burly Ry'nari to his right. There was humor in his voice, and he smiled with brown, expressive eyes. He had a calm demeanor that complimented his expensive pin-striped suit. His fur looked recently conditioned and was brushed down, save for a downy tuft between his ears. He motioned to the Krona, who then sauntered over to a small panel beside Zain's capsule and pressed a few buttons. The fluid began to lower inside the tube, triggering the hatch to open once it had all been drained. Zain's newly minted body collapsed on the floor awkwardly, his mind still unable to command it with any grace.

    "I mean don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see you, but I was very much looking forward to seeing Buck, you understand," Gerdey motioned once again, and the Krona picked Zain up by his throat, and yanked the breathing tube out of his mouth before throwing him back to the floor. He let out a long and painful gagging sound, then filled his new lungs with their first breath of atmospheric oxygen before going into a fit of gasping and choking. The three onlookers waited patiently for him to catch his breath.

    "He says 'hey'," Zain croaked, chuckling between gasps.

    Gerdey glanced back at the dormant clone of Buck Langdon floating peacefully in its own capsule, then snorted, crouching down beside Zain.

    "Y'know, I had a lot of time to come up with some pretty nasty stuff. I'll admit, I went a little overboard," the chiding little Elgan conceded, "Hell, I'd wager that some of it isn't even physically possible, you know?" Gerdey leaned closer, "But now I have you, Zain. And you're going to help me by testing all of my crazy ideas. That way, I know which ones work the best for when I do get Langdon."

    Zain followed Gerdey's gaze toward a large hall, filled with capsules. There must have been twenty on reserve, filled with full-grown clones waiting in stasis.

    "I know, I know, you probably want to get things started right now. After all, time is money, right?" Gerdey curled his face into a wide grin, "But please don't worry on my behalf, because I've got a lot of both."

    The Elgan stood up and fixed the creases in his suit pants. He turned to walk away, then stopped.

    "What, are you just gonna stand there?" he looked at one over-sized thug, then at the other, "He's a bug. Squash him."

    The last thing Zain saw was the Krona lift its leg, just before it drove its boot through his head.

    *******************

    Zain's eyes opened to the sting of saline. He flexed his fingers and arms within the capsule, trying to get used to the feeling of his new body. He could just make out Gerdey and his henchmen through the glass, when a searing pain enveloped his right side. He turned his head to look, and was surprised to see small ribbons of brownish-red blood clouding the water around his flank. He felt another stab of pain, this time from his left leg, and as he turned to inspect it something swam passed his face. Another bite behind the knee. Then another on his neck. Soon the tank was filled with a blur of small creatures, swarming around him, obscuring his vision. He slammed his fists against the glass, trying in vain to break out of his water-filled prison. The pain numbed his mind as they continued to feast on his body. He recognized the bits floating in the water around him were parts of his flesh, and then he fell unconscious.

    *******************

    The sting of saline was somewhat less surprising to Zain this time around. His head swiveled right, then left, looking for anything in the tank with him. Then the liquid drained around him and the capsule swung open, throwing him out onto the floor. Gerdey was midway through a fit of laughter.

    "Aw Zain, I'm sorry... I'm sorry, the piranhas were just too good to pass up!" the Elgan wheezed like a hyena, "I mean, you should have seen your face!"

    He stopped laughing abruptly and cocked his head as if an idea had just occurred to him.

    "What am I saying? I can show you, it's right over there!" Gerdey grabbed Zain's face and turned it to see the vessel of his previous incarnation, or what was left of it.

    The shock of seeing his own mutilated remains froze him in place. His mind was at once petrified by an existential conundrum: his corpse looked foreign to him, as if it looked nothing like him and at the same time, it used to be him. His mind was just getting itself wrapped around the concept when giant hands yanked him off the floor and interrupted his thoughts.

    "I won't lie, that was fun," Gerdey said as the goons carried Zain away, "but this time around we're going to make it last."

    *******************

    Zain squeezed his eyes tight, allowing them to water on their own before opening them to the saline. He waited for the liquid to drain, head lowered, and stepped out once the hatch had opened to allow the Krona to pull the breathing tube out. Although it felt like an eternity, he had no idea how long he had actually been in Gerdey's custody, but he did know that it had been fifteen lifetimes. He knew that because Gerdey showed him after every rebirth. The image was etched into his mind: corpses burned, drowned, strangled, electrocuted, beaten to death, thrown from balconies... all genetically identical but mutilated in such different ways that they looked nothing alike. He shook the thought from his head, and it occurred to him they still had not removed the breathing tube. He opened his eyes, seeing a red tile floor underneath him instead of the usual metallic plating. He flinched, expecting some cruel fate that hadn't yet befallen him, but nothing came. He removed the breathing tube as gingerly as possible, lest the tube itself be serrated or some other awful, fatal trick.

    The room around him was empty: no other capsules. No Gerdey. No Krona or Ry'nari. Zain crept up to the only door in the room and peered through the small view port. A holomap on the hallway wall outside showed he had spawned halfway across the Starmourn sector. He backed away in confusion, his antennae twitching as he pondered the possibilities. Was it a trick? Could Gerdey have orchestrated this just to give him hope, only to tear it away at any moment?

    No. That doesn't seem right. I am free... but how? he asked himself, The only other person able to change my cloning facility is--

    "Don't get the wrong idea Zain," Buck's recording played over the room's PA system, "I didn't help you because we're friends, that ship has sailed. I did it to piss off Gerdey. Don't make me regret it." The voice ended as suddenly as it had started, and he had the profound and peculiar feeling that he would never hear it again.

    And for the first time since he was a strung-out teenager jonesing for Black Nova in a Scatterhome gutter, Thorzain Nill'j wept.
    MalashTravelerKestrelCen
  • MalashMalash Posts: 98Member ✭✭✭
    That was just fantastic.
    TheograthKestrelCenTraveler
  • CenCen Posts: 47Member ✭✭
    Mind is blown. Your writing is exquisite, and I love your imagination. <3
    MalashKestrelTheograth
  • CenCen Posts: 47Member ✭✭
    edited April 20
    Wrong thread. 
  • TheograthTheograth Posts: 45Member ✭✭
    Wow. Thank you, likewise! I’ve been incredibly impressed with everything I’ve read in here and in the rp section. Excited to run into all of you ingame once it drops!
    TravelerMalashKestrelCen
  • QueanQuean Posts: 4Member
    [All right, let me throw my little attempt here as well, as I have really enjoyed the ones posted above.]

    The rain was finally over. Skies over Litharge were cleared just enough by the ocean wind for the magnificent planetary ring to start glittering, reflected in the puddles. The air was still moist with the memory of the storm when a set of heavy doors swooshed open and several figures were ejected into the cool, damp street, splashing the pools.

    "And stay out! Crazy merc scum!"

    Five humanoids started to shakily regain their verticality, switching between curses, hisses of pain and volleys of drunken laughter.

    "All right, let's call it a night. Tomorrow's the big day! Time to hit the racks." said a burly Tukkav.

    "Sweet stars, please, don't!" chuckled a W'hroon. "Lads, if this hairy moron aims at anything today, be sure to duck. In this state, racks are the last thing he would hit. And that only if someone was desperate enough to..." His last words drowned in another burst of intoxicated merriment. Finally, the group managed to coordinate efforts in order to take a semblance of a bearing. All but one of them.

    "You're not coming, Quean?" asked the Tukkav.

    "I have some business to deal with down at the Scrapston." the W'hroon replied. The others sighed heavily, someone cursed under his breath.

    "Brother, we are boarding first thing tomorrow. If the sergeant sees you wasted, this will be the last female you will have enjoyed."

    "Duly noted, mommy." snorted Quean. "Now move on with this circus of a convoy! See you in the morning."

    Once the street was empty again, the W'hroon took a moment to straighten up to his full seven feet of a muscled frame, take several deep breaths and close his eyes. His hand automatically adjusted a scabbard holding a massive scimitar. When he finally opened his eyes, street lights danced in their amber depths, making them glow like a dying fireplace. He took a tentative step, then another one. With growing confidence, he strode towards the cliffs.

    * * *

    Quean had never figured out why he enjoyed Scrapston. Perhaps it was the water – the sounds of countless canals, with the background whisper of the ocean? When one discounted the odors and the labyrinth of shabby dwellings, this place had a strange allure to it.

    Having climbed a steep stairway and ducked under an impossibly dirty drapery of sorts, the W'hroon reached a place that in any other circumstance could have been called a terrace. Slightly elevated above the makeshift rooftops of discarded living modules and cargo containers, it offered an impressive view of the vast, dark ocean, with the planetary ring still adoring the night sky in a rare, smog-free display. The whole area was strangely out of place in the surrounding sprawl. Cleared of rubble and trash, with several containers placed here and there, it emanated a sense of calm harmony. So why were Quean's hair suddenly raising at the back of his neck?

    He ducked down and to the side, just in time. Blazing heat barely missed his mane, charring the hair. Thick braids capped by bronze rings danced around the feline face as the mercenary swirled around, sword already in hand. Drunken haze evaporated in an instant as instincts kicked in, raising his weapon to desperately catch the incoming blade. The attacker was smaller than him, but vicious and fast. A pair of eyes was ablaze in the dim light, same as the deadly, thin blade he was wielding. Quean's own anger, born somewhere down his spine, lit the scimitar just as he lunged a powerful counter. But the other swordsman did not even bother to parry - he tilted his torso only enough to let the swing pass him, and with the same motion thrust his blade. The W'hroon had no choice but to desperately lean backwards and try a flurry of poorly aimed swings to keep his enemy at bay long enough to regain balance.

    His smaller opponent, however, was not about to back off. Just as the first swing traced the night with a glowing arch, he ducked to the ground and span around, kicking the W'hroon's legs from under him. Moving gracefully up, he continued the motion with a downward slash. A sudden gush of air passed both fighters, as a thick, metal pipe suddenly flew through the air, just in time to intercept the cut. The sword, burning white-hot, sliced through it, but the split second was enough for the fallen to tumble back and gracefully assume a stance.

    The attacker wasted no time. With a long leap, he closed the distance and showered the more imposing W'hroon with lightning-fast thrusts and swings. Quean roared, rage setting his own eyes in flames. His powerful wings opened up suddenly, and with one beat carried him several feet back and up, in an attempt to gain some space. The air waved from the heat around them, and for the first time, the attacker hesitated. Instead of pursuing his target, he took a step back and assumed a defensive stance.

    A fraction of a second later the image of the gliding W'hroon wavered and disappeared, revealing the true figure, springing from his knees, thrusting forward and upward. But his slim opponent was ready. In one, balletic move it was over: the Whoorn was on the ground, his own sword pointed at him. Quean roared again, but the final blow never came.

    The flames from the blade and the eyes disappeared in an instant, as the Shen pulled both swords behind his back.

    "Well, that was pathetic." he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

    The W'hoorn's own anger was more persistent. It took him a minute to calm his breathing enough to reply.

    "But I almost got you with that mirage, master." Quean managed to smile.

    "No, you did not." the Shen handed his student's blade back to him and led him towards a large bench just at the edge of the terrace. Once seated, he pulled a bulky flask from a bag and poured himself a cup of a translucent fluid. "I would have offered you one, but it seems you are way ahead of me this evening. It could have cost you your throat."

    “It’s called living, master. You should try it. This is actually something I never understood. You have all this blazing passion within you, and you never brawl, never party, never conquer a female...”

    “You know this is not what we do with women, right?” interrupted the Shen, his eyes set on the horizon.

    “Of course, master! You make an appointment with her mother’s aunt’s cousin to offer him a Glisian iris, which symbolizes you deepest desire to make an appointment with her father to discuss the prospects of a possible family alliance.”

    “That’s called civilized courtship, you uncouth, raw beast.”

    The W’hroon suddenly looked worried.

    “Uncouth, raw beast? You were talking to one of my Prizes, weren’t you, master?”

    “Hardly. I do not frequent the houses of professional pleasure.”

    “And what about parties? You could come with us the next time we come back planetside.”

    “I think I would prefer the company of the lustful ladies to gun harlots.”

    Quean grinned.

    “And yet here you are, talking to one. Not to mention having him trained. Although technically, I am a blade harlot. Wait a moment… Blade Harlot! I have to use this nickname the next time I log into...”

    “Are you leaving the planet?” the teacher’s voice did not raise a bit.

    “I do, yes. We start a tour, at least a Glisian month.”

    “A tour. You never seize to amaze me. This is what you call the work that neither the police, nor the military are willing to do?”

    The W’hroon shrugged.

    “I tried firedancing at a party. It was fun, but you cannot count on such gigs to make a living.”

    The silence was long this time, adored with the faint echoes of the waves.

    “Please, tell me that was a joke.”

    “Nope.” a clawed hand peeled the cup from the unresponsive fingers of the master. Quean took a long sip and released a content sigh. “One of my employers invited me to his daughter’s birthday to show off. Decent pay. No dismembered companions, no need to get my brain blown off only to pay for a new clone. It was a good day.”

    “Then just tell me you did not...”

    “She was nine, master.”

    “What a relief. I cannot but wonder, have you payed any attention to my teachings? Not to the fencing; your neglect was painfully obvious from your performance today. I mean what I told you about this world. What is it that you want to achieve, working for those shady companies?”

    “Simple. As my friends drink away their wages, I train, upgrade, save. I make friends. I climb up, slowly but steadily.”

    “Towards what, may I ask?”

    “The shining spires of The Singing Citadel, where else?” the grin became even wider. For the first time in this conversation, his master turned to look him in the eyes.

    “Quean, listen to me. The elite has had not years, not centuries, but millennia to perfect the system. We are paid only so much as to sustain us and to drive the market. They have sophisticated models to calculate every aspect of our lives. There is no real uplifting for us. They are masters of social gravity. When you account for the equipment, training, medical bills and clones, you will have just enough, after years of risking your life and bleeding your soul, to buy a cleaner, more functional rat hole not that far from here. And you will have lost every opportunity to make this life at all worth living.”

    The grin from the feline face faded, leaving only a trace of a smile. But the ember eyes glowed warmly when he replied.

    “I was paying attention, master. And if it was for any other profession, I would have agreed. But the mercs are different. We really are payed more, because even with the clones and the wetwiring, we still die the true death often enough not to disturb the statistics. But this means that a small fraction of a percentage of us, the ones who are skilled, smart and lucky, come to live among the spires. Oh, I have no doubt our benevolent rulers never accept those wealthy, retired warriors as their equals. But they need them. No matter how high the ladder you climb, there is always a need for us. And if a small fraction of a percent can make it, I am going to be a part of it.”

    “And what if you actually do?” The master’s voice was quiet, barely audible.

    “Then I will fight only the crucial, most glorious battles, and spend the rest of my days visiting luxury planets, writing poems, conquering females and dueling their next of kin.” There was a boyish sparkle in the amber eyes, but it faded as the W’hroon carried on. “I will die, master. Maybe not tomorrow, the next day or the next year. But some day, this path will come to an end. Before that happens, I intend to make my dance as intense and as beautiful as I can. You have taught me to really feel the star-born fire in my veins. I intend to make it brighter with my every day.”

    He stood up and offered the cup back to the Shen.

    “And I did almost get you with that mirage.”

    The master stood up as well.

    “Ah, you were always the intuitive type. Remember this feeling, this sense of being connected to the truth that cannot be blurred by fancy words or straight up lies. Remember this feeling…” the Shen almost smiled. “… for it is the taste of you being wrong.”
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