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  1. #81

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Read The Penumbra Incident.

    There's nothing I can really say except that it was short and sweet and a pretty smooth transition into something bigger. Appropriate for what it kind of the first episode of the second season, so to speak.

    Remove the stuff about the bathroom though and just have Terry look for his wallet in the lecture hall. It's just filler and you can just have the man die in the bathroom without introducing it beforehand.

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Read the last one.

    It's pretty good, a nice way to introduce Serac.

    The fighting scenes felt pretty quick in the good way to match the action although Terry chasing after her seemed too reckless and dramatic but that could be just me. It worked out since it gave us the characterization we needed of her.

  2. #82
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
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    Default Re: Stargazer

    It's supposed to be reckless, don't worry. Though I didn't intend on it at first, recklessness is something of a theme for this part. It'll both work out and be paid for.

    I don't see how I didn't notice the "though" abuse in that paragraph before, yikes!
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
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  3. #83

    Default Re: Stargazer

    While it's good that you have a plan I just realized that recklessness in a character is usually preceded by urgency or cockiness.
    You don't need to go too far with either but going into Terry's thought process briefly could hook the reader in more than just mostly showing him going after her. Bonus points if you can get the reader to feel the emotion he's feeling.

    And as a general tip I got from more experienced writers it's best to try and write each chapter of your story like it's the first one. I say that because getting too caught up in the bigger picture can lead to a kind of mistake where excitement on the small scale is ignored. You're not really a big perpetrator of that your comment on themes and things working out just reminded me of that.

    Another way to think of it is to remember how many of your favorite tv shows caught your attention with a random episode you happened to watch as opposed to watching it from the beginning.

  4. #84

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Quote Originally Posted by gotta<3OP View Post
    Now I got confused. In england/america is it usual to count the ground floor as the 1st floor? Cause in Portugal we never count it. :S That got me really confused for a second.
    Nice story. Only read the first 5 chapters. I'm liking the setup. Really looking forward to see how this battles will be. Sounds fun.
    I also like your descriptions. They're simple but effective. Only point that you could improve, if any, is the repetitions. I noticed you always use "Terry said" "Akira asked", playing with hypernyms would definitly help. For instances "Said the gemini stargazer" "asked the japanese"
    I know its not something crucial, and you may even think it would get confusing, but I totally think it would be an improvement.
    Oh, I've only read this far into the thread, but to add to the floor thing: in Britain, the ground floor isn't counted, but in America, it usually is.

    And, I think switching your dialogue tag is really tacky. If you have
    "Hi," said Tom.
    "Hello there," said Al. "How was work?"
    "Oh, the same as usual," said the young man.
    "Figured as much," said the middle-aged taxi driver. "Your boss still giving you shit?"
    "Yeah, she's a right bitch!" said the office worker

    it just reads ridiculously. I think dialogue tags should be minimal and changing someone's name for something other than an appropriate pronoun is usually not good.

    I intend to review this when I read the whole thing ;)

  5. #85
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
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    Default Re: Stargazer

    I try to keep the tags simple for exactly that reason. I prefer to use ancillary phrases like "he said as he twiddled his thumbs in a display of inattention" in order to break up the monotony of dialogue-heavy segments. Speaking of...

    Chapter 26: Stargazers and Stardust


    Despite his efforts to hold it in Terry let out a violent sneeze which left his nose stinging. By now he had lost count of how many times he had done so, and the fact that Akira was beginning to take humor in his condition was not helping his mood.

    ‘’Someone must be talking about you behind your back.’’ he said, a little grin playing on his face.

    ‘’No, it’s because I have a cold.’’ Terry grumbled back. He was seated on the edge of his bed, with a spare blanket wrapped around his body while his numbed feet were resting in a basin of warm water. Though he knew that he ought to be lucky that he had gotten away from that fight with only a cold instead of something long-lasting like frostbite, he couldn’t help but feel indignant that the others were seeing him in such a pitiful-looking state.

    After freeing himself from the ice he and Akira had managed to make their way back to the dorm, not an easy or enjoyable feat given how he had had a difficult time staying upright. Once there Akira had called the others, telling them that something had come up and that they needed to talk as soon as possible. It was now the early evening, and Terry’s room was as crowded as it had ever been with Akira, Daniel, and Nova squeezed inside.

    ‘’So,’’ Nova began to say. He was over by the room’s window, peering out into the darkening street through the shade’s slates. ‘’you’re saying that a girl did this to you.’’

    ‘’Not just any girl, she was a Stargazer.’’ Terry said sorely. ‘’Besides, what does it matter? Sayren was a girl too and look at everything that she did.’’

    ‘’True.’’ Nova admitted.

    ‘’And she could fight.’’ Akira put in. ‘’Like, she was able to go toe-to-toe with him! It was amazing!’’

    ‘’Well, given how I have yet to actually see him fight I’ll just have to take your word for it.’’

    ‘’I’m a bit more curious about her power.’’ Daniel said from where he stood. He had been the last to show up since he had been at work when Akira had called him. ‘’You said you think she was an Aquarius?’’

    ‘’Probably.’’ Terry said before sniffling. ‘’Ice is just frozen water, after all.’’

    ‘’What was she like?’’

    Terry sighed as he pulled the blanket tighter around himself. He’s never really cared for being put under this sort of scrutiny. ‘’Blonde, blue-eyed.’’ he began. ‘’About Akira’s height, so I suppose a little tallish for a girl. Pretty, looked to be around our ages. She was…I dunno, there was something about her…’’

    ‘’Well, no duh.’’ Akira said.

    ‘’Well, what I mean is…’’ Terry paused as he felt another sneeze about to come on, but fortunately this one appeared to pass. ‘’I’m trying to think of a way to describe it.’’

    ‘’Just spit it out.’’

    ‘’Well,’’ Terry began. ‘’when you’re in a fight you can learn a lot about an opponent through things like their body language and such. Like, when I fought Sayren I could tell that she wasn’t a trained fighter or had much discipline. I was able to read most of her attacks easily.’’

    ‘’Yet you still got beaten up a bit.’’ Akira remarked. ‘’But I get what you mean.’’

    Forcing down his annoyance at his friend’s sarcasm of tact, Terry continued. ‘’This girl wasn’t like that, she was really good considering the circumstances. But her fighting skills aren’t exactly what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about her eyes.’’

    ‘’Her eyes.’’ Akira repeated, looking very dubious. ‘’Uh, it sounds to me like you’re just –‘’

    ‘’No, I get what he’s talking about.’’ Nova interrupted. ‘’A person’s eyes can be one of their most telling facial features. There are a lot of subtle things about a face that a person can extrapolate information from.

    ‘’That’s one of the reasons why Deck always wore sunglasses.’’ he added. ‘’He didn’t want people to be able to read him so easily.’’

    ‘’Is that so?’’ Akira said. ‘’I never saw Deck for myself, if you remember.’’

    Terry cleared his throat to regain everyone’s attention, and immediately regretted it for the burning sensation the action left behind. ‘’Can I continue?’’ he asked. ‘’Good. Anyway, there was a moment when we were pretty much face-to-face, so I was able to get a good look at her. There was a lot of agitation of course, but there was also something behind that, something deeper. Like resentfulness or something similar, I guess.’’

    ‘’You can tell that just by looking at a person’s eyes?’’ Akira sounded even more dubious than he had before.

    ‘’It’s just a guess.’’ Terry shrugged and wiped away some snot that was dripping from his nose. ‘’It just felt like something different from the aloofness she had before.’’

    ‘’So basically, this girl’s a literal ice queen.’’ Nova briefly bowed his head and let out a sigh. ‘’First that Sayren girl and now this. You seem to have a thing for getting involved with troublesome women.’’

    ‘’Believe me, it’s not a habit that I want to keep up.’’

    Daniel took the opportunity to speak up. ‘’I’m more concerned with the fact that there’s an unidentified Stargazer on the loose in the city.’’

    ‘’For what it’s worth, I doubt she’s anything like Sayren was. Or Deck, for that matter.’’ Terry replied. ‘’She only openly used her power when I forced her into a corner, and only when we were out of sight instead of it being her first resort. Like, I’d only use my power in public if it was a matter of life or death.’’

    ‘’I don’t think she’s like those two either.’’ Akira agreed. ‘’At least, it seems like she takes orders from someone.’’

    ‘’Oh?’’ Daniel’s eyebrow arched in an expectant way.

    ‘’The reason she froze Terry’s feet to the ground was because someone called her, asking where she was. Maybe it was that guy I saw back at the Penumbra Center. He called her ‘Serac’, at any rate.’’

    ‘’Serac?’’ Daniel repeated to himself. ‘’Huh, strange.’’

    ‘’And then there’s the fact that she seemed to recognize our faces.’’ Terry said.

    ‘’Maybe you just spooked her, coming up all of a sudden and asking about a dead man?’’ Daniel suggested as he took out his tablet and started it up.

    ‘’I don’t think it was just that.’’ Terry shook his head and shuffled a bit underneath the blanket. He gave his toes an experimental wriggle. He thought he could just barely feel the blood starting to circulate again. ‘’At first she didn’t seem to recognize us, but once she did she tried to bolt. Take my word for it, if you had been there to see it would’ve been obvious.’’

    ‘’I hope you understand that I’m wary of taking so many words.’’ Nova replied dryly. ‘’Regardless,’’ he sighed, his gaze drifting up towards the ceiling. ‘’it’s only been a few days since vacation started and already you two’ve gotten yourselves into a mess!’’

    ‘’It’s not like I was trying to run into her or anything.’’ Terry grumbled, sniffling for emphasis.

    ‘’Ah, here we go.’’ While Nova had been talking Daniel had found what he was looking for on his tablet. ‘’There’s already an article online about the death on one of the local news sites.’’

    ‘’What’s it say?’’ Akira asked.

    ‘’It identifies the victim.’’ Daniel replied, eyes scanning his screen. ‘’His name’s Stephen Gowzy, thirty-two.’’

    ‘’Does the article mention the cause of death?’’ Terry asked.

    ‘’Doesn’t look like it, the article’s pretty much a footnote. The autopsy’s probably not done yet.’’ Daniel answered. ‘’Wait…’’ he continued, looking down at his screen. ‘’I think I can hazard a guess, though.’’

    ‘’And that would be?’’

    ‘’Our victim looks to have been found with an open bag of Stardust on him.’’ Daniel said. ‘’Well, under is probably more accurate. He seems to have landed on top of it when he collapsed.’’

    ‘’And what’s Stardust?’’

    ‘’I can answer that.’’ Nova spoke up. ‘’It’s a drug. It’s a baby blue, powdery substance that’s meant to be snorted, like cocaine. I remember some of the guys with The Beings talking about the stuff; apparently it gives a very strong high.’’

    ‘’It has a longer, more scientific name of course.’’ Daniel added. ‘’But the reason it’s called Stardust is because people used to believe that it could make one a Stargazer.’’

    ‘’Can it?’’ Akira asked in a doubtful tone.

    Daniel scoffed at the suggestion. ‘’Of course not.’’ he said. ‘’Like Nova said it just gives a high. Thing is, it’s very addicting, but if one goes over the ‘prescribed’ amount by even a milligram…’’ He drew a finger across his throat. ‘’Your airway constricts and you die from asphyxiation.’’

    Terry could see the dead man again in his mind’s eye, with his gaping eyes, expression somewhere between fear and shock, and the extended mouth that had reminded him of a gasping fish. He’d never seen someone die of suffocation, or die at all really, but he imagined that that was what it would look like. ‘’An addict huh?’’ he said to himself. ‘’That’s a sorry way to go.’’

    ‘’He got what he deserved, then.’’ Akira said firmly.

    ‘’That’s a terrible thing to say!’’ Daniel said in admonishment. He shook his head and sighed before continuing. ‘’The thing is, Stardust should be pretty difficult to get one’s hands on. The materials that it’s refined from can only be found on Heion.’’

    ‘’So?’’ Akira asked.

    ‘’Well I’m sure you can imagine how tightly trade between Lagoon and Heion is regulated.’’ Daniel explained. ‘’It’s practically impossible to get illegal contraband across on the spacebarges. You can’t just walk up to your local neighborhood drug dealer and buy the stuff.’’

    ‘’Your assumption then, is that there’s an outside party who’s introduced the shit into the city?’’ Nova asked. ‘’If they can do that, and have their own Stargazer, this could be trouble…’’

    ‘’If they’re an organization they could’ve found a way to determine our identities.’’ Terry suggested.

    ‘’That’s certainly troublesome, if the theory’s right.’’ Daniel sighed. ‘’I really wish my uncle was around so we could discuss this stuff with him, but he’s out of town until after New Year’s…’’

    ‘’So these guys aren’t your average drug pushers, have a Stargazer at their beck and call, and possibly know our identities.’’ Nova summed up, arms folded. ‘’Lovely.’’

    ‘’But,’’ Akira scratched his head. ‘’what was that Serac girl doing with them then? As we said, she didn’t look like she was any older than us.’’

    ‘’Well, it’s not like Lifeline can find and identify each and every person that’s made a Stargazer.’’ Daniel explained. ‘’There’s really no way to anticipate it, it just happens without warning, something that you three should definitely know. A good number of them are able to slip below the radar or simply fall through the cracks.’’

    Terry tried wriggling his toes again as he chewed over the discussion in his head, thankful that sensation was definitely starting to return to his feet. Daniel’s mentioning of Stargazer’s falling through the cracks certainly made him wonder. It had been through sheer coincidence that he had met Akira on the night when he had become a Stargazer, and if they hadn’t crossed paths when they did he might never have joined Trident. If this Serac girl truly was a part of some shadowy criminal group, how did she end up with them? Her skills and manner had already piqued his curiosity, and now he definitely wanted to find out what her story was. The death man he had witnessed earlier that day and the threads that he and Akira had inadvertently stumbled upon and the implications thereof were all the more motivation for he and his friends to get to the bottom of what had happened.

    The problem was he had no idea where he could start.

    As soon as River Serac returned to her hotel room she all but collapsed facedown on top of her meticulously-made bed. She felt drained, both mentally and physically. Her physical exhaustion came from her unexpected fight earlier, a confrontation that never should have happened, while her mental exhaustion came from both her frustration and anger with herself along with a sense of anxiety that was building up in the pit of her stomach. She had already had to explain herself to her teammate Burke,and he had had no doubt already contacted Christian. She hadn’t expected to encounter those two boys or anyone else from the Stargazer cell that operated out of this unfamiliar city, but there had been so many different ways that she could have handled the situation, and she had chosen the absolute worst one. By revealing herself she could have potentially derailed Christian’s entire operation, and it would be entirely her fault. She despised being in this bind, and above all else knowing that it could have been easily avoided.

    After lying on her bed for a few minutes River rolled onto her back and took out her cell phone. Currently there were no notifications displayed on its screen, though she knew that a call from Christian was inevitable. Christian was not the sort of man who tolerated things going wrong. If a problem presented itself he would go about squashing it, using whatever methods available. He was a sharp and intelligent man, but his temper could often get volatile, and if he thought that he could get away with it he’d go the extra mile to strike at his foes as he had demonstrated in dealing with that man Hermanus Groot. Not even those under his command were safe from his wrath if they displeased him enough.

    Since she hadn’t been called yet River decided that taking a shower would do her some good in the hope that the hot water and steam would clear her mind of its fogginess as well as alleviate the soreness still remaining from her fight with the boy in the alley. As she stood inside of her suite’s spacious shower unit letting the warm water run down her body and steam billow around her she once again found herself drifting back to the encounter earlier in the day. She had already read the information Christian had provided on Trident during the flight overseas, but it still hadn’t really hit her that they were the same age until coming face to face. Christian’s line of work had brought his team into contact with other Stargazers before, generally playing the same sort of role that she did, of the unassuming bodyguard for their underworld masters. But they had always been distant, aloof presences, and adults on top of that. Never before had she encountered one who was also teenaged and lived on the surface.

    Her curiosity began to get the better of her, and after she had dried herself after the shower, combed her hair and put some clothes on she dug through her bags until she recovered the small binder containing the dossiers on Trident from Lifeline’s data archives. Trident was smaller than Christian’s team, even taking into account the administrator’s nephew who appeared to be an ad-hoc member. They had only been officially active for a few months, yet they had already been instrumental in breaking up a massive street gang which had run wild through certain parts of the city as well as in the apprehension of two criminal Stargazers – the leader of said gang along with a young woman who had been responsible for a series of burning attacks of which included a handful of deaths.

    She turned the pages of the file. Trident’s Stargazers were listed in the order that they had been recruited. All three were students at Marine Cove Pre-Collegiate Academy, a private school located on a small artificial island just off the shore of the river that divided the north and south sides of Marine Cove’s expansive downtown. First was Theodore Bown, a former member of the aforementioned gang who had turned over a new leaf after his family had been injured in a traffic accident. His power involved the creation of armor that primarily augmented his strength, and his personality was described as being stalwart and blunt. The second member, a foreign student from Kamagura named Akira Kamiya, was almost the complete opposite. A manipulator of air currents, Akira was described as being something of a card, being the most easy-going and irreverent of the group. His persona as a jokester was said to be his way of rebelling against the idea of conformity. He hadn’t said much during their brief encounter at the convention center, leading River to believe that despite those traits he was still very much a follower, the kind of person who didn’t like to make serious decisions on his own. The write-up on his file seemed to agree with her assessment.

    Finally, there was Terrence Eaves, the green-eyed boy who had so doggedly pursued her. River shifted into a more comfortable position as she began to once more go over his section, this time making sure to take in every word. Like the Akira boy, Terrence wasn’t from Marine Cove. Instead he hailed from Severstone, a state located in the southern mid-west of the country. In addition to his power to control electricity – a power which he had refrained from using during their fight, a wise decision, she reflected - he had at the very least a brown-belt’s level of martial arts expertise. If he was truly self-taught like he apparently claimed to be, she couldn’t help but begrudge some respect as even with an instructor and a set training regimen not everyone was able to go that far in the discipline, but she could tell that he possessed the stubborn drive to do so. She had seen it in both his actions and in his eyes. Whoever had drawn up his report apparently had a high opinion of him as a Stargazer, since despite the fact that he had only had his powers for a few short months he had quickly emerged as a frontline fighter, having singlehandedly taken down the Leo Stargazer woman and also tangling with the gang’s leader. Another piece of trivia that failed to surprise her.

    River didn’t read the main section that addressed Trident’s role in the captures as she had already reviewed that information on the flight over and instead put the file down next to her on the bed. She had a file like that, she reflected, a long time ago. Before Christian arranged for it to be destroyed or altered, she didn’t know which. She had never read it herself, but had no doubt that the things written in it weren’t anywhere near as positive as what was in Trident’s.

    She closed her eyes and decided to meditate while she waited for the inevitable phone call so that her mind would be clear when she had to discuss the day’s events with her boss. Time passed as she gazed at nothing but the blackness before her and settled into a rhythm of slow but steady breathing. She had no idea how much time had passed, only a few minutes or a significant fraction of an hour? before her phone began to vibrate, rousing her from her reverie. She opened her eyes, reached over to pick up her cell phone from where it lay, and answered it.

    ‘’Burke told me that you had something of a run-in earlier today.’’ Christian’s voice was steady and firm, and he did not offer any sort of salutation or preamble. ‘’Explain.’’

    River briefly closed her eyes again, gathered herself, and began to speak. Christian no doubt had already heard the whole of it from Burke, but he wanted to hear her own words. ‘’For the past few days since you and the others left Burke has been scouring the city, using our web of contacts to set up meetings so that he could sell some of his personal…merchandise.’’ she explained, treading delicately on that last word. ‘’He wanted me to accompany him for some of his meetings today, just in case something happened to go wrong.’’

    Christian didn’t ask for any clarification as to what this “merchandise” was. Burke tried to hide it, but everyone on the team knew very well what it was. ‘’So then, what was this problem?’’ he asked instead.

    River felt herself quietly inhale before she spoke. ‘’Burke’s final appointment was at a place near the financial district called the Penumbra Convention Center. Afterwards he said that he had one final errand to run, and that we were to rendezvous at the train station several blocks away. I remained behind in the center’s main lobby for a little while, but before I could leave I was accosted by two members of Trident.’’

    ‘’Who?’’ Christian asked, voice betraying no change in emotion.

    ‘’Terrence Eaves and Akira Kamiya, the Gemini and Sagittarius Stargazers.’’ River replied. ‘’I don’t know why they were there.’’

    ‘’That doesn’t matter. What reason did they have to confront you?’’

    River felt her expression sour at the memory. ‘’Apparently they had witnessed Burke’s meeting, and Kamiya had noticed me. It seemed that the man Burke had just met with had turned up dead.’’

    ‘’I shall definitely have words with him when I return.’’ Christian said darkly, and River could picture the blue flames smoldering in her boss’s eyes. ‘’So they were investigating the death.’’ he said, his words were a statement instead of a question.

    ‘’That’s what I assume.’’

    ‘’They thought you could shed some light on the matter, no doubt.’’ A ghost of a slight chuckle of amusement carried over the phone. ‘’How did you respond?’’

    River closed her eyes again and spoke. ‘’I told them that I had nothing to say and left, however…’’


    River once again made an attempt to flush the agitation that was lurking below the surface from her mind, but her boss’s drawn-out interrogation was designed to leave her exposed. ‘’I confess that I did not handle myself as well as I should have.’’ she admitted. ‘’I didn’t recognize their faces at first, but once I did I let my surprise show.’’ she said truthfully. ‘’I was flustered.’’ There was no use lying to Christian, for he’d know, even if no one else did. He was a man who valued, no, expected complaisance from those under him, showing no tolerance for duplicity of any sort.

    ‘’You were flustered?’’ Christian repeated to himself. ‘’That’s funny. You and Adrian are always the most unflappable ones on the team.’’

    ‘’Well, I didn’t expect anyone to approach me like that.’’ River said, knowing that her “well” was betraying her. ‘’Especially not someone from Trident.’’ she added. ‘’What’s more, I was pursued.’’

    ‘’By which one?’’

    ‘’By Eaves. He was the one who apprehended that Leo Stargazer.’’ River answered, not knowing why she had added that last bit. ‘’I tried to lose him, but he forced a confrontation.’’ There was silence on the other end of the line, a prompt for her to continue. ‘’I…used my powers to facilitate my escape.’’

    It was no use. She finally felt her insides squirm as she waited for her boss’s reply. She couldn’t maintain her façade any longer, not with the specter Christian’s anger looming over her head. She had learned over the years that he was a difficult man to please, she had seen him make countless examples of others, she knew how he liked to throw others off-base, and he was doing a fine job of it now, simply by letting seconds slip by in silence. Would the weight of his anger fall on her? There was surely absolutely no doubt in his mind what the repercussions of today’s events could be. Both of them did. She could hear the sickly sound of her own heartbeat consume all else while she waited for his reply.

    ‘’I exhibited poor judgment.’’ she said finally when Christian still did not speak. ‘’I am deeply sorry.’’

    Another moment of thundering silence passed.

    ‘’Talk alone is cheap.’’ Christian finally replied, coolly. ‘’However, I know you well enough to know what you’re doing to yourself is worse than any punishment that I can mete out.’’ he continued, a faint trace of lightness making its way back into his speech. ‘’Just know that our meeting with Lai Changxing is in a mere four days, and it must go according to plan. If it doesn’t, the responsibility will ultimately fall on your shoulders.’’

    Twisting the knife further, River thought with a grimace. ‘’I understand.’’ she replied. ‘’I won’t let you down.’’

    ‘’Good.’’ was Christian’s answer. ‘’However, don’t expect me to let you off with just words alone.’’ he continued. ‘’From this point on you are not to take a single step outside of the hotel unless I am accompanying you. You won’t be having any more ‘chance’ encounters with those people.’’

    ‘’I understand.’’ River said again.

    ‘’And another thing.’’ Christian added. ‘’Forget them.’’

    Despite the fact that she had expected to hear something like that from him it still took her by surprise, which apparently even Christian picked up on.

    ‘’I know you well, you’re a thinker.’’ he explained. ‘’A thinker getting herself flustered is a bad combination. You start to dwell.’’

    He was right on the mark, River admitted to herself. Even if she could hide her emotions from her other teammates with a blanket of aloofness she couldn’t fool him. ‘’I was just a little surprised to see, really see, that they were my own age.’’

    ‘’Yes, I know the files well. That Eaves boy even practices mixed-martial arts, just like you.’’ her boss said. ‘’You may be the same age and have similar abilities, but you are worlds apart. Your circumstances could not be any more different. So they are not worth thinking about. Remove any and all such thoughts from your mind. Your job is to be vigilant yet unassuming in order to safeguard us from danger, and you can’t do that while your thoughts are muddled. Take advantage of this opportunity that I’m giving you. Meditate, exercise, train, study, read, do something to keep yourself from dwelling on them.’’

    ‘’I won’t let that happen.’’ River said.

    ‘’Good answer.’’

    ‘’So will you do anything else about this…incident?’’

    ‘’No.’’ was the reply. ‘’For now we do nothing that will generate unwanted scrutiny. As I said, our schedule has to unfold perfectly. From what you’ve told me I can imagine that their ‘investigation’ was amateur in nature. They may be Stargazers, but they are just three kids, and we are adults who can handle ourselves. We will call no attention to ourselves, especially now that we’re almost fully set up.’’

    ‘’Yes, speaking of that,’’ River took advantage of the change of subject. ‘’How has that been going?’’

    ‘’Well.’’ Christian replied. ‘’Adrian and Gekko finished setting up the last of our equipment last night, and Mirch has already gone to pick up the first shipment. After he returns we will start unloading and getting things into storage. We won’t be back until after New Year’s.’’ River heard him sigh over the phone. ‘’This is exactly why I hate extended stays. It’s far too time-consuming to set all of the equipment up, and we’ll have to take it all down again once it’s time for us to move on to wherever upstairs decides to send us next.’’

    It was River’s turn to remain silent. Having sat in on plenty of Christian’s meetings she harbored no illusions as to the true nature of HLTO’s business, nor of the ugly things that she had witnessed or was otherwise privy to. The underworld was dangerous, especially for a teenage girl, but she was of course no ordinary teenager, and it was a world that accepted her. In the normal world she had been a freak, a monster, an embarrassment, something to be discarded, but thanks to Christian and HLTO she at least had a place in the world and a life, such as it was. She wasn’t particularly attached to it, but that alone made it better than what she had had before.

    ‘’Now,’’ Christian was saying. ‘’just because I told you to forget about Trident doesn’t mean that I want you to completely forget what happened today. Learn something from this experience, such as how to not put yourself into this sort of situation ever again.’’ He put some edge back in to his voice. ‘’Understand?’’

    ‘’I do, sir.’’

    ‘’I’m glad to hear it.’’ came Christian’s reply. ‘’See to it that you take it to heart.’’ A soft beeping sound issued from the phone as he hung up. River gazed aimlessly at the main menu display for a bit before reaching over to put it down on the bedside table. Of course, she thought, Christian could be ruthless when pressed, but he was still a smart man. He knew the value of being prudent when the situation called for it. It was how he had been able to last in his chosen field of work.

    But he was wrong about one thing, she reflected as she slid down onto her bed, deciding that a late nap was in order following the day’s draining events. It was not that easy to simply forget. People, actions, events, emotions…they were all things that were preserved for eternity in a person’s memory. She couldn’t just brush them aside like her boss could.

    Especially since she had a feeling that they hadn’t seen the last of Trident or that she had seen the end of that green-eyed boy.

    I decided to take advantage of the circumstances of the chapter to throw in a touch of recap, since it's been two years since some of the background backstory has been covered in much detail, after all. And as a bonus, I'll treat you to some more of my crappy art of the two new(ish) characters that were in this chapter:


    My original idea was to have her wearing something that looked very formal, almost like a heavy Russian military uniform or something, but the more casual look fits the setting a lot better. Either way, I wanted the fur fringe motif to be included.

    He has legs, I swear! They're just cut off thanks to poor paper-space budgeting on my part.

    And the profiles:

    River Serac

    Age: 17
    Birthdate: September 19, 2631
    Hair: Blond
    Eye: Blue
    Height: ~5'7'' (~170cm)
    Hobbies: none
    Stargazer: Aquarius. The ability to produce and manipulate ice, along with an innate resistance to the effects of low temperature as well as immunity to cold-based afflictions such as frostbite and hypothermia.
    Trivia: Apples are her favorite food.

    Christian Drost

    Age: 35
    Birthdate: February 2, 2613
    Hair: Black
    Eye: Blue
    Height: 6'1'' (185cm)
    Hobbies: firearm range-shooting
    Trivia: When he was younger he was part of the Danzier Army and remains an expert in CQC (close quarters combat (note: CQC is not something that Metal Gear Solid made up!)). He fancies himself as a bit of a gourmand and he can even cook himself yet rarely gets an opportunity to do so.
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  6. #86

    Default Re: Stargazer

    I've read up to (and including) ch23. I'm thinking I'll write a review of sorts of that 'part I' sometime in the near future, so just a few general things and some stuff on the later chapters:


    There are a lot of cliches but it's a fun story to read.

    I think you have a big problem with perspective. You tend to drift between one characters perspective and another's eg in the middle of a conversation or in the middle of a continuous scene. Some examples: in the first chapter, I believe we get this fight from Terry's perspective, but then you describe how the guy pulls out some sort of knife ... then you reveal that actually, Terry doesn't know this because he's facing the wrong way -> confusion. Another example is during a conversation between terry and Gerald sometime, we get Gerald's perspective creeping in as how he feels, or how he's trying to say something etc when the rest of the dialogue is from terry's perspective, and it would be better to stick to how Terry interprets how Gerald's trying to put something across, or what terry's suspicions as to Gerlad's feelings are at that time. This would help flesh out terry better, as he's a bit vacuous early on in the story. These perspective issues seem to be less prevalent the later on we get, but they're around pretty much throughout to some extent. I don't know how far you want to be jumping between PoVs, but I would clean up on this subtle sliding that happens.

    This sounds a bit ... rude ... but I get this feeling I'm reading a dot-to-dot story ... and I'm loving the dots and the overall picture, but sometimes getting between them is a bit ... contrived. I get this naruto-esque feeling from it, that I'm enjoying some event, but when I think about how you got there, it feels forced. For example, in the chapter where Nova appears, Akira and Terry go out to get some 'privacy' ... but, the whole dorm is pretty much empty. I don't get it. The character development we get in their subsequent conversation, and Nova's appearance, are both good. But it feels like in order to have them happen, you've contrived a pretty odd reason to be out and lost. Similarly, when Terry pries into Nova's past, he asks Nova why he left the Beings and joined Trident or something like that. Maybe it's just me, but I think that a normal person would answer the question. Instead, Nova just tells him to follow, and we go off on this trip all the way to nova's house, hang out there for a few hours and chat to the family and then we go off to a hill and then FINALLY, after many hours, Nova actually answers Terry's question. Again, I like the scenes we get (in the house and such), but how we got there feels very contrived.

    A more minor thing is there's some generally sloppy spg and editing. You swapped out English for Anglosine and stuff, but I caught English and Nihongo once each anyway. Also, on the chapter where Nova appears, there's some exchange between Nova and Akira that actually happens twice (presumably because you edited it and it happened again earlier but you didn't take the other bit out or something) and a section is in larger font (presumably because you edited in later). And on a font size note, it would be nice for those who stroll over here in the future if you would raise the font size on those few ultra-small font size chapters (unless it screws up the formatting or something). You tend to use full stops in place of commas sometimes in speech, even when it isn't the end of the sentence. I think there was sometime where it was the end of the sentence but you put commas instead of full stops. Those are the only recurring minor errors I can think off quickly. (There also tend to be often missing words or the wrong word etc etc but ...)

    On Part II's first couple of chapters:

    Chapter 22: great little setup chapter. Don't really have much to say about it. Leaving the stargazer slightly ambiguous was good, but a little confusing. Also, WHY DOES THE DRIVER LOOK OVER HIS SHOULDER O.o that is scary ... couldn't he glance in the rear-view mirror instead? because he nearly gave me a heart attack . . .

    Chapter 23: I don't really know what to think about this chapter. It reads well and I think it shows things that were missing earlier ... well, specifically, Terry practicing. It's nice to glance back over what's happened since the first part ended, but, the thing is, this reads like the first chapter in book 2. If we're in the same book, do we need all these reminders about who everyone is and stuff like that? I'm unconvinced, and feel like key elements of this chapter could be condensed down into the opening of the next chapter (though, that said, I haven;t read the next chapter yet . . .)

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Oh, while I remember, another recurring grammatical error: if the list is longer than two items, use 'last', not 'latter'.

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Chapter 24: Awesome chapter. I loved all the stuff at the start (how can you do those combos!?!?!?) and all in all the chapter built up fantastically. I love how the shady guy quickly became the dead guy. But, there's a lot of fluff in this chapter. Particularly, I felt you went through the lecture in a labourious way, and went through Terry's trip to the toilet then the atrium then the toilet then the lecture room in an overly step-by-step fashion. I felt like terry's trip alone there and back served to build up this image of the shady, labyrinthine corridors which could have been done more succinctly. I think, leading on from what I said about 23, the key elements could definitely be merged into the start of this chapter.

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Chapter 25: Serac is Cares backwards. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. And she uses ICE. Hmmmmmmmmm. Anyway, I thought the contrast between icy Serac and the fiery Sayren was quite nice. My preference would have been to not overtly mention how her fighting abilities contrasted with Sayren's. Anyway, I'll believe there's a reason she didn't freeze Terry to the ground right away. But why didn't Terry just shock her? Especially when he was trapped and she was getting away.

    Also, I didn't feel that what they did was overly reckless. Her apparent recognition of them and generally being a suspicious person were good reasons to chase after her.

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Chapter 26: A good chapter! Nice 'debrief' in Terry's room (but why don't they just phone up Gerald ... ? Since if Trident really is exposed again, it's kind of a big deal, no?). Annnd, River's debrief was also pretty good ('River' is a terrible name by the way! :p) I feel this is skillful foreshadowing for Cares joining Trident by or at the end of this part.

    A minor note on dialogue tags: sometimes you use things other than said and they sometimes end up being a bit superfluous or redundant. Just thought I'd pick up on a certain thing you put in this chapter:
    ‘’I confess that I did not handle myself as well as I should have.’’ she admitted. ‘’I didn’t recognize their faces at first, but once I did I let my surprise show.’’ she said truthfully.

    She says 'I confess', so admission is implied. In the second instance, truthfully feels redundant since we already know that it is truthful.

  7. #87
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Out there

    Default Re: Stargazer

    The early chapters are rough and could no doubt use another round of revisions and editing, I definitely agree. This was the first story I'd written since my fanfiction days of yore, and it wasn't really until around chapter 10, which I believe was when Terry visited Nova's family, that things started to click for me (BTW, the reason that that chapter played out the way it did was to humanize Nova a bit before he spilled his backstory, since up to that point he hadn't exactly been shown to be the most, shall we say, socially inclined person). While some of them are genuine typos, the reason why I use a lot of full stops in dialogue is because, let's face it, it's unrealistic for people to use immaculate diction when they're talking casually, especially with kids. I try to have the adult characters speak a little more "properly" compared to the teenagers (for example, Christian's and River's speech patterns are a little more formal if you notice).

    I believe that I brought up the point-by-point storytelling earlier in the thread, and I agree on that point as well. And it's especially relevant right now, since while I currently have all the major plot threads and events from now to the end of the story plotted out in my head, actually connecting those dots in as seamless and coherent a manner as possible is giving me a lot of trouble. Like I know how point A is going to lead into point B, but actually executing that transition is giving me a bit of writer's block at the moment.

    Let's see, why Terry didn't shock River, I wrote that he was considering it when she froze him, and you can chalk it up to surprise on his part that he didn't afterwards. Plus he was still trying to play it safe. And she's fast too. Why don't they just call Gerald, that will be addressed.

    I'm not sure what you're getting at with "Cares" unless you're referencing another ice-user from fiction or something. I do have a reason for giving her that last name, but it's not particularly deep or important. It's not hard to figure out, but it you don't it will eventually be revealed. Oh and:

    'River' is a terrible name by the way! :p

    Hey, I put a lot of love and care into picking my characters' names! (well, some of the time...)
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  8. #88

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Quote Originally Posted by Crossword View Post
    the reason why I use a lot of full stops in dialogue is because, let's face it, it's unrealistic for people to use immaculate diction when they're talking casually, especially with kids. I try to have the adult characters speak a little more "properly" compared to the teenagers (for example, Christian's and River's speech patterns are a little more formal if you notice).
    I meant you often write "Blah blah." said Person as opposed to "Blah blah," said Person ... I think.

    I'm not sure what you're getting at with "Cares" unless you're referencing another ice-user from fiction or something.
    Just that 'icy' is the opposite of caring ... and her surname is cares backwards.

  9. #89

    Default Re: Stargazer

    I need to do your story first just so I don't feel like I'm singling it out to be left out.

    Overall the chapter was alright, I would comment that some parts could use a little more description (the scene with Terry and the rest come to mind) but listening to Christian and River was pretty interesting.

    Other than that just keep up the good work.

  10. #90
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Out there

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Here's a Christmas present for you all, a new chapter at last.

    Chapter 27: New Year's Eve


    Following the incident at the Penumbra Center the next few days passed by without incident. Daniel had spent some time trying to get in touch with his uncle to no success – apparently Mr. Gerald was in the habit of not taking any calls at all when he was on his vacation. In the meantime Daniel had begun his work at the local Lifeline office,which kept him from visiting the dorm. Nova had returned home to his family. Terry and Akira had nowhere else to go, so they spent the time just hanging around the dorm when it was too cold to go out –mainly playing video games together. Terry was still finding that he was dreadful at them.

    By now it had been about a week-and-a-half since vacation had started. It was now late afternoon on New Year's Eve, and Terry and Akira were hanging out in the dorm's rec room. Akira had brought his video game console down from his room and hooked it up to the room's large television, where he was once again plugging away at his fighting game. Knowing that he'd simply get pasted if he tried to take part, Terry was content with simply watching from the sofa.

    ''Almost got 'em...'' Akira was muttering. He was practically hunched over his controller, and sounded the most focused and determined that Terry had ever seen him before. He was going for some kind of record on his game's endurance mode, and had been at it for nearly an hour by this point. Terry was barely able to hear the sound of the room's door opening over the game's exaggerated sound effects and voice acting.

    ''Hey guys.'' It was Daniel, still in his winter coat.

    ''Oh, hi.'' Terry acknowledged. This was his first time he had seen him in person since the day of the incident at the convention center. ''How was work?'

    ''Okay.'' Daniel shrugged. ''I just do clerical stuff, so it's not very exciting.'' He was searching through his bag for something. ''I tried to call my uncle again, but I still couldn't reach him. He won't even answer my messages, either.''

    ''I bet he left his phone behind at home or something.'' Akira said,still focusing on his game. ''My grandpa did that whenever he went somewhere for vacation. Drove my parents crazy.''

    ''At least nothing's happened to us, and his boss said that he'd be back in a few days when I asked him.'' Daniel said, pulling out his tablet and waking it up. ''I've also tried to see if anyone could get into our records again, but they've really increased the security down there after what happened with that Beings member. Anyway, have you guys seen the news today at all?''


    ''Well I figured that you two would like to take a look at this.''

    Terry took the tablet and looked at what Daniel had pulled up. It was the front page of Marine Cove's online newspaper's local section. There was an article in the corner detailing a police drug bust. It looked pretty routine, until the term “Stardust” jumped out at him. ''Huh. Didn't you say that this stuff was supposed to be rare?''

    A flash of light and burst of sound accompanied the demise of Akira's game character, finally. He let out a sigh and swung around to face the others. ''So what's going on?''

    ''There was a drug bust in Browshead yesterday and they found some Stardust on the dealer.'' Daniel summarized for him.

    ''Where's Browshead?'' Terry asked. Though by now he was familiar with a number of the city's typical student haunts there were still many neighborhoods that were unknown to him.

    ''Browshead is on the North Side, just east of the financial district.'' Daniel explained. ''It's actually practically right next to Liuhou Town. And what's more,'' He briefly paused for emphasis. ''Browshead is where Stephen Gowzy, our dead man, lived. I think this clears up where he got the stuff from.'

    Akira leaned over to look at the article himself. His eyes scanned the column until they came across the picture of the arrested culprit. He frowned. ''This doesn't look anything like the guy I saw that day.'' Before Daniel could say anything he continued. ''The guy I saw had a thinner build and wasn't black like this guy is.''

    ''He could've been meeting with a subordinate instead.'' Daniel suggested.

    Terry stopped scanning the article and began to actually read it, paying particular attention to the little section on the dealer. The guy didn't sound like he was a kingpin or had much in the way of connections. He just happened to be the most organized corner dealer in the area. Save for the Stardust, of which there hadn't been very much of, it didn't sound like he dealt with anything exotic, or so Terry assumed since he had actually heard of all of the confiscated stock. Then again, he wasn't a professional investigator.

    ''You really should have gone to the police with this.'' Daniel was saying in the meantime, with an air of disappointment. ''I can't believe you didn't.''

    ''We kinda had more immediate things on our minds, you know.'' Akira retorted, getting testy.

    ''You could've gone later.''

    Terry frowned to himself as he tried to tune their arguing out. While the article did connect the Stardust to the death at the convention center, it didn't seem to go beyond that. He skimmed a few related articles but couldn't find anything else. The death just hadn't been important enough to warrant any deeper investigation.

    That meant that it was very likely that he and the others were the only ones that knew that it was another party that was responsible for what had happened. And then there was Serac... He wanted to know who she was, and what her people were after. But it was more than a simple desire, he felt responsible, like he had to find those answers after getting himself entangled, similar to how he had took it upon himself to bring down Sayren after he had fought her on Landing Day. Perhaps it wasn't entirely rational, but the need to do something was strong in his mind and he couldn't bring himself to ignore it.

    ''How about we investigate what's going on ourselves?'' he found himself saying. That got his friends' attention.

    ''Really?'' Daniel asked in an 'are you serious?' sort of tone.

    ''Why should we?'' Akira said. Unlike Daniel he didn't sound surprised so much as recalcitrant.

    ''Well...'' Terry began, trying to expand on his spur-of-the-moment idea. ''The police consider the case closed.'' he said, pointing at the tablet's screen. ''We're the only ones who know that there's more to this than meets the eye.''

    ''As I keep saying,'' Daniel began to say. ''go to the-''

    ''I don't think going to the police right now is going to do much.'' Terry said quickly, cutting him off. ''It's not like we saw the guy in much detail, and as you said before, the city's big. It'll be impossible to find someone in a place like this with such a vague description.''

    Daniel put a hand to his forehead and sighed before looking up and putting his hands on his hips. ''Okay, then how do you propose to go about doing this?'' he asked crossly. ''We're just three people, four counting Nova.''

    ''I...don't know for sure. Not yet.'' Terry admitted, his mind working to produce an answer that would satisfy his skeptical friend.''I guess we could...I dunno, visit Browshead and the convention center again and ask around to see if anyone's seen or heard anything about the two men or Serac?''

    Daniel let out a short, empty laugh. ''That might work where you're from, but not here. This is a city. It's big.'' he said, smiling a bit at being able to turn Terry's words back at him. ''Besides, what's to say that our mystery dealer and Stargazer are even in the city anymore?''

    ''That's true.'' Terry was forced to admit. ''But still...what's the point in saying that this won't work before we've even tried? Look, I understand why you're being resistant, I would be too if I hadn't seen what I did.'' he pressed forward. ''But what happened was real; my fight with that girl happened, and I came this lose to being implicated in someone's death. It's fine if you don't feel like it's your business, but I feel that it's my business, and you can't deny that a Stargazer is our business.''

    Daniel sank down into one of the room's armchairs and sighed as he turned to Akira. ''What do you think of this?'' he sighed.

    ''Me?'' Akira tilted his head and made a hmmm sound before answering. ''Well, I'm not too sure... Like, I don't want to mess around in anything that's really dangerous, and I don't really care about that Gowzy guy...'' His face looked rather grim. ''I am a bit curious about that girl, though. If you guys really want to do this and think it's a good idea I'll go with you, but I'm not going to stick my neck out.''

    ''I understand. And thanks.'' Terry said, nodding. Akira wasn't much of an adventurous person compared to him or Nova, and that was okay. He could sometimes be overbearing and stubborn, but he was a loyal friend, and Terry did appreciate him for that.

    Daniel sank down even further and took off his glasses. Without them, he looked pretty tired, Terry couldn't help but note. ''Again, how do you propose we go about doing this?'' he asked. ''We can't just go up to people at random and ask them if they're drug dealers, you know?''

    Terry hadn't come up with a solid answer to that question. Daniel was making some good points; he really didn't have a solid plan, nor was he familiar enough with the city to pull off the sort of investigation that he was proposing. But even so there was definitely a way, he knew that there had to be. He couldn't do this alone, so he needed to look beyond what he was capable of. As soon as he considered that route, an obvious answer came to him.

    ''Nova.'' he said. ''Let's talk to Nova for starters and see if he can help us?"

    ''Why him?'' Akira set his mouth in a half-frown.

    ''Well it's pretty clear that he still keeps up with what's going on on the streets.'' Terry explained. ''I'm sure that he'd at least have an idea as to what angle we should approach this from, and if not he should at least be able to give us some advice.''

    ''Tch, I dunno.'' his friend muttered. ''I doubt he's going to like those implications.''

    ''True, but I doubt he'll flat out refuse us, and we're going to be seeing him tonight anyway.'' Terry turned back over to Daniel. ''If this works and we find something, what do you say to the idea of writing up a short report and turning it in to the police then? If we can submit something that's organized and documented I bet it'll be harder for them to dismiss.''

    ''You're just assuming that you'll be turned down otherwise.'' Daniel replied, his face in a slight grimace. ''But fine, I'll go along with this plan of yours for now.''

    Terry gave him a thankful smile. ''Thanks.''

    ''You're welcome.'' Daniel replied with just the barest touch of stiffness. ''You know, while I disagree with you on this, I do at least think that your heart is in the right place.''

    Terry thanked him again, but as he did so the thought struck him: was he really pushing for this because he truly wanted to solve the mystery of who this group really was, or was it just because of the promise of more action after all this time being idle since The Beings were broken up? He made a mental note to reflect on this more the next time he did some training. That always helped him to clear his mind.

    Nova hadn't had any special plans for the day other than his family's New Year's dinner that he had invited his dorm mates to, but even so he was annoyed when he had received a call in the early afternoon from the Marine Cove Research Institute asking him to come in for some sort of consultation. The MCRI was the facility where Trident had Akira, Terrence, and himself go for their medical checkups and participate in various tests to determine and gauge their Stargazer powers. He had wished that he had been given more advance notice, and since they had already had physicals right before their finals had started he didn't know why he was being called in now, two weeks later. If something had been wrong with him they would've gotten back to him earlier than this.

    So that afternoon he went into the city and took the monorail over to the section of town where the facility was. He took the lobby elevator to the wing that he normally visited for his health checkups and was told to have a seat in the small waiting area until his doctor was ready to speak with him. Aside from the secretary there was no one else in the waiting area. Whatever the reason was for being called here, it looked like it was for him and him alone. After a few minutes of staring blankly off into space he was called to one of the wing's few examination rooms where his physician, an unremarkable-looking middle-aged man he knew only as Dr. Roberts.

    ''Have a seat, Theodore.'' the man said, gesturing to one of the wheeled stools in the small room. ''Are you well?''

    ''I'm fine, sir.'' Nova replied. Adults trying to engage him in small-talk had never been something he had cared for.

    ''Good, good.'' Dr. Roberts nodded. ''You're not here for a checkup,but I might as well ask. You haven't experienced any episodes of sudden vertigo, blurred vision, memory issues, or anything similar, have you?''

    Nova mentally rolled his eyes. ''No, sir. I've been fine.'' he said.He had taken a terrific blow to the head during his battle with Deck during the fall and ever since the physicians had been trying to see if he was suffering from any long term effects. He understood the necessity of it, but he found these questions to be very tiresome,especially since he was getting the impression that they'd only be satisfied if he did display any symptoms.

    ''Okay, good to hear.'' the doctor marked something down on a form that he had and then pulled out another one. ''The reason that you were called in today actually has to do with your Stargazer abilities.''

    ''Yes?'' Nova's ears perked up at hearing this.

    ''First of all, I'm sure that you'll be happy to know that we've finished analyzing that blood sample that we took during your last visit, and your Weissman count has increased.''

    Nova choose not to outwardly react to this, but inside a pleased feeling spread through him. If his Weissman count had gone up it was solid, tangible proof that his powers were progressing. The higher a Stargazer's Weissman count, unique particles found within their cells, the more potent their powers were. The researchers here had been throwing tests at him designed to gauge the current extent of the “energy projection” ability that he had first been able to use against Deck, and while they were rather boring aside from the times they had provided various barriers for him to knock down he was glad that they were having an effect. It was becoming easier and easier for him to call upon it and control it.

    ''Secondly,'' the doctor continued. ''Would you mind shifting your arm for me?''

    ''Sure.'' Nova took off his jacket and shirt. It was his style to simply wear just a tank top when going into a situation where he'd have to use his powers since long ago he had discovered the hard way that the slightly-increased size of his transformed arm would rip his sleeve. He held his right arm out in front of him, and in the blink of an eye it was covered in metal armor. It was an action that was as simply and involuntary to him as breathing.

    ''Did you see it?'

    ''See what?'' Nova asked as he flexed his fingers. Despite his arm's increased weight, he never had any more difficulty in moving it than he did under normal conditions.

    ''At the very instant it transforms, there is a projection of light.'' Dr. Roberts explained. ''Only for a very split second. Here,look at this.'' He held out a set of photographs. ''We took these during the last set of tests.''

    Nova took the photos from him and saw that they depicted him both in the midst of transforming his arm as well as projecting blasts of energy in order to knock down the types of barriers that had been erected for him. What instantly drew his attention was the fact that in each of the images there was a distinct glow obscuring both his arm and parts of his upper body, both when he was transforming and when he was throwing the projected punches.

    ''These were captured with a high-speed camera.'' Dr. Roberts explained. ''Each one of these frames represent thousandths of a second.'' He started to talk about how the light appeared to intensify at certain moments but Nova tuned him out as he studied the images on his own. What was interesting to him was the fact that the aura did not appear to be evenly distributed. In the frames that it did appear in, it tended to be brightest around his right arm, but he could also see traces of it by his left arm, albeit a bit dimmer and fuzzier. He looked down at his arm again and frowned. When he had fought Deck he had tried to “project” his power through his right arm. For the longest time he had simply taken it for granted that his power came exclusively through that arm, but perhaps there were other ways that he could channel it. He looked back at the photos, and it dawned on him what was happening.

    ''So, my armor doesn't just provide strength and protection – it's meant to be a conduit.'' he said.

    Dr. Roberts, who had been saying something about subatomic particles and phase-shifting, looked mildly surprised at Nova's interjection.''Yes, I suppose that's a simple way to put it.'

    ''Following that,'' Nova continued. ''it stands to reason that I could transform other parts of my body as well. I wonder why it's only my right arm at the moment...''

    ''Well, perhaps it is because your right arm is the appendage that you use most during your every-day routine?'' the doctor suggested. ''Similar to how people's dominant arms are generally more muscular and longer than their opposite due to heavier use, I'd imagine.''

    Nova nodded to show that he agreed with the analogy, and then Dr.Roberts launched into a new spiel on Stargazer theory. Nova listened with a blank expression while the man went on about Weissman particles, the Astral Growth Paradigm, and even the personal pseudoreality theory, which he always found to be absurd no matter how many times it was explained to him. It wouldn't shock him if the scientists at this facility were required to hold a laundry list's worth of doctorates. He never cared for their long-winded,jargon-filled ramblings. Pure theory wasn't for him, he was most interested in tangible, practical applications. He wasn't concerned with the science, or lack thereof behind his arm and how many joules of energy it could produce or the newtons of force it could potentially exert; what it could do and how he could utilize his power to be more effective was what he cared about.

    ''...it's quite fascinating.'' Dr. Roberts was saying. ''We may even have to revise your classification.''

    ''No.'' Nova said, very firmly and suddenly. ''I'm a Taurus. Period.'' Being called something other than a Taurus Stargazer did not sit well with him at all, inspiring an involuntary notion of disagreement as if it had been hardwired into his being. This was a unique peculiarity of Stargazer behavior, but much to his relief Dr. Roberts didn't bring up the relevant piece of psychological terminology.

    Instead he said, ''Alright then. Anyway,'' It finally seemed to be hitting him that Nova wasn't really in the mood for much more discussion. ''We're going to continue analyzing the data we've collected, and when we're ready we'll be calling you in for another series of tests in the near future.''

    ''Sure, sounds fine to me.'' Nova said, though that was the last thing he was looking forward to.

    Dr. Roberts nodded and glanced at his notes one more time. ''Before I let you go, is there anything else you want to talk about? Anything on your mind?''

    Nova shook his head. ''There isn't.'' he said. ''But I'll keep our talk in mind and see if I can't figure something new out with my powers.''

    ''Good.'' The doctor seemed satisfied. By now he should know when he was in the mood to talk or not, Nova thought. ''Well then, that will be all for today. I hope you have a good New Year's Eve.''

    Nova shook the man's hand, said farewell, and began to head home.The sky was already starting to get dark, and the monorail was packed with people heading out to get an early start on their New Year's revelry. By the time he finally reached his quiet neighborhood, away from the city center, the sky was almost completely black save for a stubborn band of blue hovering at the horizon.

    ''I'm home.'' he announced as he entered his house. He found his mother and younger sister Liren in the living room where they were watching a New Year's special of some sort on TV.

    ''What did they want with you today?'' his mother asked. Nova noted that her cane was resting against her armchair. She claimed that her bad leg acted up in especially cold weather.

    ''They wanted to talk with me about Stargazer stuff, that's all.''Nova shrugged. Since his mother didn't like to talk about that side of his life very much that was enough to satisfy her. Liren however,was a different story.

    ''What did they talk to you about?'' she asked, her eyes lighting up, the TV program apparently forgotten. ''You can tell me what it is, right? Right?''

    ''Perhaps later. Right now I wanna take a nap.'' he answered,smiling a bit. It was always the same story with Liren. To her, her brother and his friends being Stargazers was one of the coolest things ever. No matter what her mood was, at the mere mention of the topic that sparkle would appear in her eyes and override it with the mixture of eagerness and awe that only a bright, young child could have. Not that Liren was exactly young, but the exuberance was there.

    On the flip side it could sometimes be a pain as there were certain things about his work with Trident that he couldn't or didn't want to tell her, but this wasn't one of those instances. ''By the way,'' he added. ''Terrence and Akira are supposed to he getting here it,'' He glanced at the time displayed on the TV. ''an hour and a half. Have you started making dinner yet?'

    ''I've just put the bird into the oven.'' his mother explained. ''Can't you smell it?''

    ''My nose must be stuffed up from the cold.'' Nova said. ''Okay then, let me know if you need any help down here.''

    ''Alright. It won't be too long, so make sure to sleep lightly, Theodore.''

    ''Don't forget to tell me what happened later, okay?''

    Nova smiled and waved at his family and then made the trek up the old house's stairs to his room, where he tossed off his jacket and sat down on his bed. Now that he had some privacy, he transformed his arm again and just stared at it. He found himself feeling a little bit envious of the relative simplicity of Terrence's and Akira's powers. Improving their abilities had to be a lot more straightforward. He tried to do his best to recall the feeling of trying to project his power from his fight with Deck, only this time trying to focus it on a different body part. After several minutes of this nothing happened, though he thought he could feel a certain sensation in his left arm. He glanced at it; nothing, probably just psychosomatic. With a sigh, he flicked the fingers of his right hand to create a brief, tiny spark of light and listened to the room's opposite wall creak slightly as the invisible force disturbed it. Just how could he draw out this new power?

    Terrence and Akira actually ended up arriving nearly a half-hour early thanks to having the foresight to leave early in an attempt to beat the traffic. Nova hadn't seen them for a few days, but they looked much the same as they always did. He and Liren were sitting with them in the living room while his mother was putting the finishing touches on dinner and the opening topic of conversation was naturally on how everyone was doing during vacation. Liren had been talking about a homework project for one of her classes, but it was really just a veiled diatribe against a teacher that she didn't like.''I suppose though,'' she was staying. ''that you guys have a lot more work to do since, you know, Marine Cove Academy is special and all.''

    Sometimes it was easy for him to forget, Nova thought, that Marine Cove Academy's high school curriculum was supposed to be on par with college-level courses, and the second-and-third-year courses actually did count for college credit.

    ''Actually only our History teacher gave us something to do.'' Terrence replied. ''We had to go attend a lecture on imperialism downtown. It was pretty interesting, I thought.''

    ''Speak for yourself.'' Akira shrugged. ''When exams ended I told myself that I was done with learning for the year.'' Between him and Terrence he was the more reserved one when he was visiting, Nova had observed, a turnaround from how they normally acted. He was glad that that was the case too, for he didn't still didn't trust Akira, even when in company, to filter his thoughts and not shoot his mouth off.

    Naturally Liren was the driving force of the conversation. Earlier she had pumped them for information on their hometowns, Akira's especially, and now the conversation was drifting back to Marine Cove. Nova was glad that she knew better than to ask them about Trident and Stargazer-related topics here, though it was plain that she'd jump at the chance.

    ''I wish it would hurry up and snow.'' Liren was saying, going back to this winter's odd dryness. ''Have you ever seen what the city lights look like during a snowfall? It's really pretty.''

    ''No, I haven't.'' he said. ''How much do you generally get here?'

    ''Generally a foot-and-a-half per snowfall, more if we get a blizzard.'' Nova spoke up. ''It's an okay amount, but some people downtown freak out at the slightest flake, like they've never seen the stuff before. That's what causes the most disruptions during thewinter, not the weather itself.'' He personally didn't mind the lack of precipitation. Sure it looked nice for a few days, but then the mounds of snow would become dirty and ugly, causing nothing but headaches and messes as it melted.

    ''I wanna ride my bike soon, so I'm glad there's no snow on the ground.'' Akira said, cringing slightly as he came to the end of his sentence. Despite Nova telling him that Liren didn't take any offense to that sort of thing he still self-conscious when talking about anything that could be related to her disability. The conversation went on in similar veins, and while he admittedly didn't find it very interesting, Nova was glad that everyone seemed to be content and happy.

    Nova eventually excused himself to help his mother in the kitchen and it was soon time to eat. His family didn't have a traditional New Year's dinner, so his mother had decided to take advantage of having guests over to splurge a bit on her cooking. The main dish was a roasted chicken stuffed green vegetables, flavored with a sort of mushroom sauce and rosemary seasoning and accompanied by a warm, creamy chowder. The kitchen was filled with a delicious aroma by the time everyone sat down at the table, and the meal proved to live up to it. With his mother now a part of the equation, the conversation began to tread back over old ground, but all in all it was certainly the liveliest dinner his family had had in recent memory.

    The evening wore on, and eventually it came time for Terrence and Akira to leave. They wanted to go and see the city's midnight fireworks show, and so were facing a lengthy commute. Amidst the thanks and farewells Terrence managed to get up close to him and quietly say ''There's something we want to ask you.''

    ''About what?''

    ''About...you know.'' Terrence said evasively.

    ''Sure.'' Nova raised his voice. ''I'm going to walk them to the bus stop, alright?''

    It was very dark outside, and quite cold. Everyone's breath showed like little clouds of expelled smoke. ''So, spill.'' Nova said. ''What is it?''&

    ''Well,'' Terrence outlined a conversation that he had had with Daniel and Akira earlier in the day, and of his idea to further investigate the group behind the Stardust and the Stargazer girl. After listening...

    ''You better not be suggesting that I was involved in any drug shit.''

    ''No, no! Of course not!'' Terrence said hastily while Akira muttered an “I told you so.'' in the background. ''We're just curious if you have any advice, or know any way to help, that's all.''

    ''Good,'' Nova growled. '''cause I'd flatten you otherwise.'' Sticking their noses into the city's underground drug trade...not something anyone on the surface did if they had two brain cells to rub together. These organizations tended to run deep. The shifty corner-and-park-bench dealers were rather harmless in the grand scheme of things but their suppliers, who more often than not had their fingers in more than one underground pie, tended to be brutally protective of their businesses and territories. They would think nothing of killing a snoop who was in over his head. Even Deck hadn't wanted to tangle with them when he had started formulating his plans.Not at first, anyway. They were opponents that those on the street didn't mess around with.

    ''You do realize what you're suggesting is really stupid, right?''

    ''That's why we're asking if you know anything that can help us. And we've already heard this from Daniel.'' Terrence answered evenly. ''I understand that it's risky, but after what we've already been through...''

    ''Yeah, yeah.'' Nova said dismissively. He thought of the night that he'd finally met him, out late on the street in a district where someone had just been attacked by a mad Stargazer, completely oblivious to any and all danger. He had been pretty hard on him back then, and Terrence still had an air of naivete about him. But he did have a point – he had proved himself to be a capable individual over the course of the past few months once he had set his mind on something. He was tough, no doubt about it.

    While he was thinking momentarily about their previous adventure, a thought suddenly kicked into Nova's mind. It was only when he had been up against the wall when fighting Deck that he had been able to bring out his new power. Perhaps that was the key – he needed to be in a situation that would force him to his limit if he wanted to draw out any more power. This expedition that Terrence was suggesting was foolhardy and dangerous, but it could be just what he was looking for...

    ''Okay, fine.'' he said at last, making his decision. ''Do you have an idea of where you want to start?''

    ''You're actually agreeing to this?!'' Akira gaped, eyes wide in surprise.

    ''What?'' Nova glanced at him. ''You're scared?''

    ''No I'm not!'' Akira furiously shook his head. ''I'll be fine as long as I'm around you guys. I just didn't expect you to agree so easily, that's all.''

    Terrence shot him a sidelong, knowing glance before turning back. ''We were thinking about starting with the victim's neighborhood, Browshead.''

    Browshead... Nova considered it. On its own Browshead wasn't very remarkable, more known for its proximity to Liuhou Town than for any of its own merits. But one aspect did stand out to him, and it was probably their strongest lead.

    ''Okay then.'' he said. ''If you're really serious about this, then meet me at Bruscono Square at ten. Not tomorrow, since everything's closed on New Year's Day, but the day after, on Friday.''

    ''You have an idea of where we can start looking?''

    ''Not a place, a person.'' Nova explained. ''He might not be willing to help us, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't know anything.''

    ''Alright, let's dig in!'' Torrent said happily, his utensils gripped expectantly as he surveyed the spread laid out on the table before him. He and Douglas went right to work, and soon enough their platters were filled with fish, potatoes, and rice all still steaming hot. Torrent went about devouring what he had picked out with the sort of enthusiasm one would expect from someone who hadn't eaten the entire day, while Douglas and River were slower and more methodical in their approach. Evidently this did not sit well with their teammate.

    ''Come on, look festive why don'cha?'' he said after gulping some food down. ''2649 only comes around once, you know?''

    ''We know.'' Douglas said evenly. ''The night's still young however, and I don't plan to be the one showing up at the hotel in the morning covered in dried vomit.''

    Meaning that the two of them were going to go out drinking afterward, River thought to herself as she quietly ate her dinner without saying a word. Torrent was the newest member of Christian's team. He looked relatively young, mid-to-late twenties perhaps, despite the shadows under his eyes giving him a constant tired look and him claiming to be around twice her age. He also seemed to be perpetually cold, since even in the hotel's climate-controlled restaurant he wore his usual scarf and sweater. “Energetic” was the best word to describe him. He loved the physical aspects of their work – transportation, loading, unloading, etc. - and hated it whenever Christian chose him to sit in on one of his meetings. What his real name was no one except perhaps Christian knew, but no one was bothered by it either. Pseudonyms were very common in this line of work.

    For example, River suspected that Douglas's name was one too. His name was one that was steeped in Sentremarian history, but his complexion and trimmed beard marked him as being from northern Hiwanbi instead, possibly either Pydos or Albaska. He was a veteran of the business, jumping between various syndicates and dealers before settling in with HLTO, and the only member of Christian's team who was still around from the time when she had joined. He was grounded in manner and experienced, quite the opposite from Torrent. Despite his years he'd never been interested in leading a team of his own, Christian had once said. He didn't take to that kind of responsibility, so the explanation went, preferring the hands-on duties that he'd always done.

    River took a bite of her food. Torrent and Douglas had decided to make concessions towards her and tried to order a meal that was close to what one would find in Danzier. It wasn't prepared in the same way, nor did the dish taste quite the same as the genuine article, but side she did recognize the thought behind it. ''Thank you.'' she said at last, a little more awkwardly than she would've liked.

    ''Don't mention it.'' Torrent said, waving his free hand. ''As I said, 2649 only comes around once. Christian won't let you out of the hotel, right? It would be a shame to not celebrate the new year someway, you know? And 'sides,'' he added as he wiped his mouth.''knowing you you'd just sit around anyway even if you could go out.We need to take advantage of the little vacation we get.

    ''Not that Burke has a choice in the matter.'' he finished.Following the fiasco at the Penumbra Convention Center Christian had immediately pulled the hapless Burke out of the city to wherever the supply and shipment cache that he, Adrian, Mirch, and Gekko had been setting up so that he couldn't do any more damage. Knowing how Christian could get when he was angry, none of the three seated at the table envied him.

    ''Burke is an idiot.'' Douglas grunted. ''Anyone who deals with that garbage and jeopardizes our work has no place among us as far as I'm concerned.'' Years of experience also brought with it strong opinions. ''He's lucky.'' Douglas continued after taking a small sip of wine. ''Christian won't be very happy with him, but he'll get off lightly compared to what I've seen other guys do to people who stepped out of line.''

    ''Like what?'' Torrent asked.

    ''He's lucky he's not in a cartel. They do nasty things to people.Torture, mutilation, and I'm not even going to get into what I once saw happen to an undercover cop once.''

    ''Yeah, let's not talk about this over dinner. Forget I asked.'' Torrent said quickly. They ate in silence for a few more moments before Torrent turned to River again, trying to keep a conversation going. ''So uh, if you don't mind my asking, what was that kid like?''

    Douglas made a grunt of disagreement, but River decided to answer him anyway. She didn't feel like talking about that day again, but ifshe didn't Torrent would probably continue to ask her. ''Stubborn.''she replied after thinking it over for a moment. ''Skilled admittedly, but stubborn nonetheless.''

    ''Yeah, I read about what they did before we got here.'' the man nodded. '''Trident', right? Hard to believe that they're just kids like you huh? Kinda freaky, no offense of course.'' For his part, Douglas just shrugged. Apparently teenaged Stargazers weren't odd enough in his book to get much of a reaction from him.

    ''Think this'll have any effect on our schedule?'' Torrent asked Douglas.

    ''I doubt it.'' the older man said. ''Christian wants the meeting with the Changxing organization to go off without a hitch.''

    ''Because of their distribution network, right?'' Torrent prompted.

    ''Right.'' Douglas nodded, food forgotten for the moment. ''Since HLTO hasn't made many significant inroads in this part of the country it'll be easier for us to enter a partnership with another group than do everything ourselves at the moment.''

    ''Christian's really banking on it, isn't he?''

    ''Of course. If he manages to form a network of his own during this trip his standing in the organization's going to skyrocket.''

    ''He's looking to move up in the organization, huh?'' Torrent looked thoughtfully at his food for a moment. ''Yeah, no way he's going to let something like those kids mess things up for him.''

    River silently ate while Douglas and Torrent exchanged a few more words on Trident, seeming forgetting her presence. They had encountered Stargazers in their line of work before, but it was only very rarely that they had had to actually fight one, and they had never been on the side of law enforcement. Some made no secret that they were Stargazers, while others like herself were told to be more reserved and unassuming in order to catch people off guard if there was trouble. Unlike many other people Christian was not intimidated by them, treating them just like he would any other person he'd encounter. His team was another matter. Douglas and Adrian didn't seem to care that she was one, while Mirch always seemed wary around her, as if he were afraid that she'd attack him out of nowhere if he interacted with her. That was perfectly alright with her, as far as River was concerned, because she had absolutely nothing to say to him. Gekko seemed to not like anyone on the team at all, while Torrent was a different matter. He didn't speak much to her about Stargazer matters, but oftentimes she caught him fixing her with a strange-looking glance, inscrutable even to her. His gaze wasn't particularly unsettling as being an object of ill curiosity was not unfamiliar territory for her, however he was the only one whose feelings she could not fully place, and she didn't like that.

    As her two companions continued to speculate on how the upcoming few days were going to go River glanced out away from the table, past another party that was currently bursting into laughter at a far table, and out the restaurant's windows at the panoramic view beyond of the city of Marine Cove at night. Somewhere out there amongst the pinpricks of light was Eaves and his fellow Trident members. Despite her boss's wishes she couldn't help but wonder: what were they doing on this night?

    There are two reasons this took so long. First, there've been a number of changes in my life over the past few months with graduation and my job search so with the shift in priorities I haven't had as much time to write and type. Secondly, I had a really difficult time getting through this upcoming section of the story thanks to a combination of lack of planning, writer's block, and just plain not finding it interesting to write. I'm still not really satisfied with what I've got down now, but I'm over most of it so I hope to be a little more active now that I'm past that section writing-wise.

    I don't think I've mentioned what HLTO stands for yet. It's just "Heion-Lagoon Transportation Organization", a deliberately bland name.

    It's funny that now the time of year both in story and real life now roughly coincide.
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  11. #91

    Default Re: Stargazer

    You put up a chapter called New Year's Eve on Christmas Eve. I'm so losing track of time already, what are you doing to me :p
    Quote Originally Posted by RobZilla View Post
    "With the internet, comes the possibility of Uberpedanticism" - RobZilla

    That is to say, me.

  12. #92
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
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    Dec 2007
    Out there

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Chapter 28: All Across the City

    It was looking to be yet another grey and overcast day when Terry, Akira, and Daniel arrived at Bruscono Square to meet with Nova at the designated time. It was a part of the city that Terry hadn't been to yet, and the square itself was built around a modestly-sized patch of green at the center of which stood a fountain, shut down for the season, that was topped with an equestrian statue. Daniel had explained to him that during the warmer parts of the year it was often a venue for outdoor markets. Right now it looked sparse, the few leafless trees arrayed around the center looking lonely and forlorn in the winter air.

    Nova wasn't difficult to spot. He was standing by the fountain, hands buried inside his coat pockets, his cherry-red hair standing out against the pale scenery. ''Hey.'' he said in simple greeting as he watched the others approach. ''What're you doing here?'' he added, eyeing Daniel.

    ''I figured I might as well.'' Daniel replied dryly. ''If for no other reason than to help organize any information we come across.''

    ''Sure, fine.'' Nova shrugged.

    ''So, who's this person that we're supposed to be meeting?'' Akira asked. Terry was thankful that his tone was of genuine curiosity instead of the usual confrontational tone he took with Nova. Them being disagreeable with each other was the last thing they needed today.

    ''Someone I know.'' Nova answered, taking the tight-lipped route. ''He works up on Moren Ave.'' He jerked a thumb towards the northwest. ''Or at least he used to. I'm hoping he's still there.''

    ''Uh huh.'' Akira said, not even bothering to hide his dubious feelings. ''And how's he going to help us again?''

    ''He lives in the same neighborhood as your OD victim.'' Nova replied.''Now come on and let's go. The bus doesn't run into that area so it's going to be a bit of a walk.''

    ''That's fine.'' Terry answered. He was eager to get started. ''Let's go.''

    Nova nodded. ''Follow me.''

    The buildings seemed to get older the further they walked, Terry noted. The uniform boxy, gray office and business spaces began to give way to brick and mortar structures that tended to have rough-looking sills and archways that gave them a compressed, almost smushed look. He could tell right away that this wasn't the case of poor architectural planning or unskilled craftsmanship but rather a deliberate attempt to squeeze as much space into as narrow a spot as possible while still providing a decent degree of livability. It certainly added character to this part of town, like a more homely, down-to-earth almost version of the residential area where the dorm stood.

    Nova seemed to know exactly where he was going, and the road they were on was clearly taking them into an ethnic neighborhood. The din of traffic began to fade, replaced by the hearty sounds of passerby conversing and negotiating with each other in a foreign language. The relative lack of cars was soon explained by the shrinking of the streets, which along with the sidewalks became less smooth, as if built on top of a gradually rolling hill. Cafes and grocers selling unfamiliar yet delicious-smelling food started to line the sidewalks, along with other businesses that Terry hadn't seen in the central parts of the city like laundromats and specialty clothing stores. It was as if they had stepped into a part of the city that had been temporally frozen for a good thirty or forty years.

    ''I notice your head seems to be on a swivel.'' Daniel remarked.

    ''Oh? Yeah, I guess. I just haven't seen a neighborhood like this in person before.'' Terry replied.

    ''This part of town came to be a community of Daundine immigrants during the big immigration push three-hundred years ago.'' Daniel explained, happy to have an audience. ''A lot of their descendants still live here and carry on old family businesses and traditions, even though it's grown so much since then. My father actually gets his suits tailored somewhere around here.''

    ''It's relatively homogeneous where I live,'' Terry said as his eye swept over some unfamiliar packaging that was being displayed in a grocer's window. ''but I get the part about sticking to tradition. A number of people back home are like that. I guess the original settlers were immigrants too, in a way.''

    ''Exactly.''Daniel nodded in agreement. ''Go back far enough, and everyone living in this country came from somewhere else in the world.''

    ''You don't need to tell me that.'' Terry said off-handedly. Though he wasn't interested in genealogy per se, he understood just how important population movement and sociology were in historical study.

    Nova meanwhile, had led them out onto a slightly larger and busier street.''So how long until we get to wherever we're going?'' Akira called.

    ''Almost there.'' Nova replied, squinting as he peered down the sidewalk. He seemed to find what he was looking for, as he uttered a satisfied “Ah.” and his stride seemed to lengthen. The building he had been eyeing had the look of an old firehouse, and as they got closer Terry could see that it had been repurposed into an auto body shop. The two large shutters were half open, revealing a moderately-busy garage from which came the sounds one expected to hear from a repair shop: the clanging and clanking of tools and machinery and the grunts of exertion along with the occasional expletive from the mechanics.

    ''Do we just...go in?'' Akira said, apprehensive. Nova didn't answer and strode over the threshold, scanning the garage for whomever he was looking for before walking over to a rust colored car that was the only one that wasn't elevated. The hood was propped up with the mechanic bent over the exposed assembly, at work adjusting something hidden from view.

    ''Hey!'' Nova called over the din of the garage. ''Auto!''

    The mechanic stopped whatever he was doing and glanced over his shoulder, revealing a young man with dirty blond hair. He looked dazed for a few moments, apparently trying to place Nova before his eyes widened a bit in recognition – but only a bit before his face slackened back to a neutral, almost bored look. ''Nova?'' he muttered. ''How did you know where I work?''

    ''Who's this?'' Akira asked.

    ''His name's...'' Nova briefly faltered. ''Actually, I don't know his real name, but he goes by Auto. As in 'automobile'.''

    ''Wait,he's a member of The Beings?!'' Terry's surprise got the better of him. Behind him he heard Akira exclaim ''Seriously?!''.

    ''Keep it down!'' Nova hissed, though the garage's noise was already doing a good job of covering up their conversation. ''So what if he is? The Beings are done for, anyway.''

    Auto looked entirely unfazed at being outed like that. ''And who are you?'' he retorted. ''Wait, you guys must be Trident, aren't you? Whaddaya want?'' His gaze slowly roamed over Nova's companions, sizing each of them up. He didn't seem scared or even concerned,Terry observed. He was looking them over with about the same level of enthusiasm as if he had been reading the daily weather report. He seemed even more detached than Serac had initially come off as.

    ''Nothing that'll cause you any trouble.'' Nova answered.

    Auto shrugged in reply. ''If you say so.'' He wiped his hands off on a dirty rag that was hanging out of his back pocket. ''I'm busy. Come back in an hour when it's my lunch break. I can talk then. Go kill some time.''

    The young man's abrupt manner took Terry back a bit but Nova, no doubt used to his companion's eccentricities, took it in stride. ''Okay, we'll see you then. Come on, guys.'' He gestured for the others to follow him, then turned and headed for the garage exit.

    ''You didn't tell us your guy used to be a member of The Beings!'' Akira shot at Nova as soon as the group had left the auto body shop.

    ''So?'' Nova answered curtly. ''What's it to you?''

    ''Isn't it obvious? He's...well, one of them!'' Akira sputtered. ''You saw all the stuff they did!''

    At this Nova stopped and turned around to fix his companion with a cold glare, bringing him to an unexpected halt. ''So what?'' he said. ''There are all types of people in a group, some good, some bad, and The Beings were no different. Maybe instead of seeing things in black and white you can start learning how to make distinctions, hm?''

    ''Please, enough.'' Daniel sighed as Akira was about to retort. He was rubbing down his glasses after leaving the dirty air of the garage. ''Putting aside the matter if he was a member or not, can he be trusted?''

    ''Yeah, I trust him.'' Nova replied. ''Auto may be strange but he's not a bad person, believe me, I know.''

    ''He certainly felt very...detached.'' Terry said, finally speaking up. ''He didn't seem to care that we're Trident.''

    ''He's always been like that.'' Nova said. ''If anything's ever surprised him he's done a damn good job of hiding it.''

    Akira was still highly skeptical. ''Well, how do you expect him to be able to help us?''

    ''I'm pretty sure he lives in Browshead, or at least close to it.'' Nova explained. ''I remember that he always went off in that direction whenever he left one of our hangouts. Even though he never says much, Auto's always been very observant. If something went down in his neighborhood he'd at least have an idea of what it was. Maybe he can shed some light on your druggie.''

    ''Will he be willing to help us, though?'' Terry asked. Nova might be confident, but he still had a little trouble believing that this blank-eyed young man would cooperate so easily with them, especially given their role in taking down his boss.

    ''He will.'' Nova said, assured. ''He's been a huge help to me in the past. He'll come through, even if it takes a little persuasion.''

    Terry spent the next hour exploring the neighborhood on his own and returned to the auto body shop at the appointed time with the others. As he had promised, Auto was there waiting for them, and he took them to a small, empty playground that was a block away – apparently his usual lunch spot - to talk. Auto gravitated over to one of the benches, but before he sat down he fixed his baleful stare on Terry. ''You're the one who beat Deck, aren't you?''

    It didn't come as a surprise that this would eventually be brought up. ''Uh, actually I didn't.'' he answered truthfully.

    ''I did.'' Nova put in, drawing Auto's attention away.

    ''Huh. Figures.'' He didn't sound very surprised, but that in itself was hardly surprising anymore. He took out a wrapped sandwich and then looked at Terry again. ''You're not from this part of the country.'' he said. ''You're from the Aureolian Sea region.''

    ''Actually I'm from Severstone.'' Terry said. ''But close. How did you know?''

    ''You have a western accent.'' was the reply. ''It sticks out.'' Fair enough, Terry supposed, but it was rather rich of Auto to say that when his own accent was far thicker than his could ever be. Still, he had to admit that it was impressive of Auto to figure that out when he'd barely spoken so far.

    ''You must have taken down that crazy chick then.'' Auto went on. ''Thanks.''

    ''Uh, you're welcome?''

    Auto took a few bites of his sandwich instead of responding. Daniel sat down on one of the adjacent benches and Akira followed suit, looking bored. Nova didn't bother moving from where he stood with his arms crossed. They waited until Auto spoke up again. “So, what do you want to talk about?'' he asked, swallowing what was left of his lunch.

    ''The other day there was an incident downtown.'' Nova started to explain.''A man died from ODing on Stardust.''

    ''Stardust?'' Evidently Auto already knew what that was, for he didn't ask for any further details. ''What does that have to do with me?''

    ''They arrested a guy from your neighborhood in connection to the death. A dealer.'' Nova continued. ''We're interested in seeing whether you know anything about it.''

    ''Here, you can read the story here.'' Daniel cut in, offering Auto his tablet. Auto's eyes scanned the screen as he sipped his drink, his expression static. Finally he handed the device back and looked up at the others.

    ''I've seen this guy before.'' He began to rummage in one of his pockets for something.

    ''Where?''Terry asked.

    ''I pass where he lives each day.'' Auto found what he was looking for, a pack of cigarettes. He lit up and exhaled a small cloud of smoke. Terry and Nova tried to surreptitiously step away a little. ''Calls himself 'Topper.' Really just a drug pusher. Police cars were outside his apartment building recently. So that's what it was about.'' He stopped talking for a moment to take another drag on his cigarette.''Why are you investigating this?'' he asked.

    ''Because we think there might be something bigger behind the death.'' Nova replied, giving a safe, ambiguous answer. ''Stardust ain't something your average drug dealer's gonna have access to, you know? Have you seen or heard anything that can give us any leads?''

    ''Why should I tell you?''

    ''We took down Deck.''

    Auto scowled and scratched his head. ''You still owe me for -''

    ''I think what we did wiped the slate clean.'' Nova said firmly.

    Auto's face briefly twisted into a grimace but after exhaling another puff of smoke it was back to normal. ''Fine.'' he said, tapping out some ashes. ''But I'm not going to do anything else for you after this is settled.''

    ''Sure, just tell us what you know.''

    Auto let out a “hmph” and began to speak. ''I don't know anything about Topper, but there's a guy I know who does.''

    ''And who's that?'' Nova asked.

    ''Jan.'' Auto said simply. ''A guy I buy cigs from sometimes. He was part of Topper's crew. Talk to him if you want to know more.''

    ''And where is this Jan?''

    ''Hangs out at a park near my street.'' Auto replied in between drags. ''Actually, I can introduce you to him.''

    ''You'd do that?'' Akira asked from his bench.

    ''Sure, just gotta convince my boss to shuffle my shift.'' Auto looked at Nova and, to Terry's surprise, his face broke out into a slightly nasty-looking smile. ''I'm gonna make sure you owe me so much after this that you'll never ask me anything again.''

    ''Thanks, pal.'' Nova deadpanned.

    The others may have had their doubts, but Auto was true to his word. Upon returning to the garage he spent ten minutes absorbed in conversation with his gruff-looking boss and then met the others out on the sidewalk. ''Follow me.'' he told them and then set off down the street without waiting for acknowledgment. He led the group to a small parking area nestled between two buildings with an unmanned booth. Terry saw that he was leading them to a truck that was parked in a corner. It wasn't a very large truck – about the size of a typical rental moving van, and while he recognized it as a somewhat older model it bore the signs of meticulous care and upkeep.

    ''It's mine.'' Auto said without any prompting. ''Restored it myself.''

    ''This is yours?'' Akira's eyes traveled the length of the truck and back, clearly impressed despite himself. ''That must have been a shit-ton of work!''

    ''It was.'' Auto answered. He was making no effort to move everyone along, leading Terry to wonder if he was trying to show off in his own way.''Someone abandoned it outside a junk heap years ago. The body's a '38 Ballmer, but the parts and furnishings are from all over. It holds up well. I use her to get around and make money on the side.''

    The cabin was pretty cramped with five people – Auto and Nova sitting in the front seats while Terry, Akira, and Daniel were forced to squish together in the rear. The inside lacked the tacky decorations Terry was used to seeing on trucks back home, but it retained the strong scent of tobacco, and he could see that Auto had converted the dashboard's cup holder into a makeshift ash tray.

    As Auto navigated his vehicle through the city streets Terry reflected on hearing numerous people saying that you'd be crazy to drive around in the city and he could see why now that he was experiencing it firsthand. The neat, grid-shaped layout of the main downtown areas seemed to lend itself well to the creation of gridlock as vehicles queued up behind its stoplights. Travel seemed to come in short bursts followed by several-minute delays waiting for the lights to change and traffic to move. Auto must really love his truck if he was willing to drive every day in this sort of environment.

    But to his credit he seemed plenty skilled behind the wheel, able to maneuver the truck around lines of stalled traffic and pull out of lanes with expert timing without ever once driving recklessly. From the back Terry could see that he was leaning slightly forward, hands firmly grasping the steering wheel, focused entirely on the road. Akira had made an offhand comment about the radio shortly after they had first pulled out of the parking area but Auto had only replied with a “No.” and that was that. No distractions, just the sound of the engine and wheels.

    It took about forty minutes of driving until Auto pulled into an alleyway and brought the truck to a halt in another parking area.''Welcome to Browshead.'' he announced flatly. When they got to street level and Terry could get a good look at the neighborhood what immediately jumped out at him were the median esplanades that divided the main road, which was extra wide to accommodate them. They were large enough to be fenced off with wrought-iron fencing and be home to planted oak trees and he could even spy a memorial statue here and there.

    ''So where's this Jan?'' Nova asked, scanning the crowd of people. Terry noted that most seemed to be sticking to the sidewalks rather than take the esplanades, even though it looked like a more enjoyable walk to him.

    ''Hanging out this time of day.'' Auto replied. He made to step out and head across the street but abruptly came to a halt as if a thought had suddenly struck him. ''Actually, only Nova should come.''

    ''Why?'' Akira asked skeptically.

    ''He'll get spooked if there're a lot of people.''

    ''Oh, I see.'' Daniel said, a faint creep of distaste in his words. ''Well then, good luck Nova, I guess.''

    Nova nodded and he and Auto quickly sprinted across the street during a lull in traffic and hopped onto the esplanade pathway. Akira put his hands on his hips and sighed. ''That guy's certainly a...piece of work? Not sure I'd be able to trust someone when I don't even know their real name.''

    ''Well so far he's helping us and he isn't asking for anything.'' Terry said, shrugging. ''If Nova trusts him, I'm going to go along with him for now.''

    ''I'm just worried, that's all.'' Akira admitted. ''Like, as crazy as it sounds, I can't shake the feeling that he's trying to trick us into a trap 'cause we took down his gang. I know Nova say he's okay, but I'm just having a hard time taking him at his word.''

    ''I understand how you feel.'' Daniel said, looking out at the esplanade.''But I think all we can do for now is just to keep our eyes open.''

    Terry nodded. ''Yeah.''

    ''There.'' Auto said, jerking a thumb at one of the benches lining the pathway.

    Nova followed his companion's gesture to see that he was indicating a heavily-bundled person who was seated on the bench's edge, leaning forward with hands clasped in his lap and seemed to be humming to himself, it was a little hard to tell with the traffic driving by in the background. Nova had seen these kinds of people before, it was impossible to live in a city and not. Jan looked to be cut from the same cloth as the sketchy guys who kept to themselves when they weren't haranguing passerby to buy whatever illicit substantives they happened to be peddling. Small fry.

    ''He's not gonna be on something, is he?'' he muttered.

    Auto's shoulders bobbed up and down. ''Maybe. Maybe not.''

    ''Well just so you know, I hate trying to talk to people who're high.''


    The two causally walked over to where Jan was sitting. Seeing the two approach him the man stopped humming and seemed to squint behind his sunglasses for a moment before his eyebrows rose in recognition and his face broke out into a broad smile, flashing many yellowed teeth.''Auto, whassap man!'' he said, sounding like his day had just been made. ''You here for some more cigs? Or do ya want somethin' lil stronger huh?''

    Auto shook his head. ''Not today. I'm good.''

    ''Oh, then how 'bout yo' friend there? You interested? I got smokes, dope, CS, snow, I could hook you up wit' some DOA...''

    ''I'm not here to buy anything.'' Nova said firmly. ''I'm here to ask you some questions about Topper.''

    ''Topper?'' Jan's grin evaporated and a trace of panic started to seep into his voice. ''You ain't wit' the fuzz, are ya?''

    ''Do I look like a cop to you?'' Nova responded. Auto, who was lighting another cigarette, let out an unhelpful “Heh.”

    Jan wasn't reassured. ''I ain't telling you shit, man. I ain't no snitch!” he growled, but the effect wasn't very intimidating. The sight of him bristling inside of that thick coat of his made Nova think of a petrified little animal trying to appear larger than it was to frighten off a predator. Well it certainly wasn't going to work on this one, he thought.

    ''He got his ass thrown in jail already. The whole 'no snitching' time's passed, wouldn't you say?''

    ''You are fuzz, aren't you? Forget it man, I said I ain't tellin' ya shit!''

    Nova didn't have the patience to engage in repartee with this lowlife, so he went the direct route – grabbing Jan by the front of his coat and lifting him right off of the bench and into the air. The hapless dealer let out a yowl of surprise followed by a stream of cusses as he futilely struggled against the grip. ''Listen shithead,'' Nova growled, baring his teeth. ''I'm not playing around. We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way and I'm not particularly fussed over the latter, 'ya dig'?''

    Jan continued to ineffectually squirm for a bit, but as Nova suspected his spine was weak. ''O-Okay, I'll talk witchoo, jus' don' hurt me!”

    Nova dropped him back on the bench and crossed his arms. ''That's better.'' he said. ''Now, we heard that your pal Topper had some Stardust on him when he was arrested. How did he get a hold of it?''

    ''Stardust? Whazzat?'' Jan said, confused. ''Oh wait, I know what 'choo mean!'' he hastily amended upon seeing the glare in his interrogator's eyes. ''I was chillin' at his pad when that dude came visiting. He was lookin' to sell.''

    ''What was this 'dude' like?''

    Jan shrugged. ''White guy. He looked like a total pussy, nervous as shit. Always lookin' around.''

    Nova tried prodding for more information. ''What did he look like? Was he tall, short, thin, fat, what?''

    ''I dunno man, he just didn't really stick out.'' Jan protested. ''I guess he was tall? I honestly dunno. He an' Topper talked a little, did their thing and that was mostly it.''

    ''Are you sure?''

    ''Well, he also asked Topper if he could hook him up with some guys who woulda been interested in buying some of his merch, but I don' remember much else. It was like two weeks ago.'' Jan insisted. Well, Nova hadn't expected the guy to be very helpful, but his bare-boned description did seem to be consistent with Akira's own of the man he saw at the convention center. It was tenuous, but it was still their only lead.

    ''Do you remember if this guy said anything about himself?'' he asked.''Like, how long he'd be in the city, or if there were others with him?''

    ''Uh...'' Nova couldn't see Jan's eyes behind his shades, but he could imagine them darting around as he cast about for something to say. ''Oh! Said something 'bout being in the area. Like, he an' his crew had some business with a hotshot in Liu-hou Town.''

    ''Anything else?'' Nova asked. ''You aren't hiding anything, are you?''

    ''Naw man, really!'' Jan insisted, flinching. ''That's all I remember,honest!''

    ''Fine then.'' That was all he was getting it looked like. Nova would've liked a more complete picture, but that would have to do. ''Sorry for being rough on you. Let's go, Auto.'' Without another word he turned and left, Auto following. Jan shouted something after him, but it didn't sound important so he just tuned him out and soon the dealer's voice faded away entirely.

    ''Now I can't buy anything from him again.'' Auto muttered as he flicked some ash from his cigarette.

    ''Who cares?'' Nova replied. ''I told you that you shouldn't smoke.''

    ''You heading to Liu-hou Town?'' Auto asked, changing the subject rather than pursue an argument.

    ''I guess so.'' Nova shrugged. ''Terrence'll definitely want to check the place out at least. I'm not really sure what we're going to do once we get there though. That guy was pretty vague.''

    ''Hmm...''Auto took a long drag and exhaled. ''Know this 'hotshot'?''

    ''No.'' Nova shook his head. ''I'm not very familiar with that area. Do you have any ideas?'' Auto didn't say anything. Nova sighed and instead asked, ''Are you going to come with us?''

    ''Sure.'' Auto answered in a tone that was the audio equivalent of paint drying. ''I said that I was going to make sure you'll owe me big time.''

    ''Thanks, pal.'' Nova said dryly, repeating his response from earlier. His companion's words were starting to have an ominous ring to them.

    Finally being able to step out of the meeting room was nothing short of a relief for Christian. The objective of the meeting had been simple, forge a partnership with the Changxing Organization, and he had done just that. The problem had been that his hosts hadn't been straight with him. The leader, Shan Chu Lai Changxing, outwardly appearing to be a withered old man, had been present but instead of engaging Christian directly he had left his deputy, his son Xi, to participate as his proxy. In contrast to his father's wizened sagelike patience Xi was both short-tempered and short-sighted. He claimed to see no value in Christian's proposal to enter a partnership between their organization and HLTO, even though Christian had come prepared with arguments and evidence showing that an infusion of goods from Heion would bolster their black market business manifold. He called them worthless trinkets, called Christian a black merchant.

    If it had been any other setting Christian would've laughed at his archaic insults and simply taken his ball home but this was a vital assignment, leaving him no option but to smile politely and calmly explain again and again what the advantages were. When he was finally well and truly fed up with Xi's thick and empty skull Lai finally spoke up, telling his son to stand down and that he would gladly accept Christian's proposal. This whole charade, Christian figured, had been a test: pit the representative against his obstinate son so that he could see what kind of person they really were. While he did not voice his objections he found these sorts of secret character tests a colossal waste of time. Business partners should be evaluated by the organization they represent and the skills they bring to the table – not aspects of character that could be easily masked or fabricated.

    With the charade over, Lai had expressed interest in further discussing the deal's arrangements with him over lunch, while as a gesture of faith allowing his men access to one of the organization's storage sites to offload several containers of goods that Christian brought along as a hook. He was looking forward to the luncheon, admittedly, both because he would not have to deal with Xi and because Liu-hou cuisine was not something he had often indulged in. However, not all of his men were enthusiastic about this arrangement.

    ''Can't this wait until after we have some lunch?'' Gekko insisted as he retrieved his white suit jacket from the coat room's rack. ''We've all been stuck in that room for two hours.''

    ''Don't complain.'' Christian reprimanded him. ''It'll be a quick and easy job. They've sent all the information we'll need to your tablet, and all you will have to do is place the containers where you're told to. After that you're free to do whatever you wish.'' He had always found Gekko to be a paradox. As far as interpersonal relations were concerned the scowling, slouching man was incorrigible, but when it came to actually doing the tasks assigned him he accomplished them swiftly and efficiently. ''You're in charge, don't forget that.''

    ''Whatever you say boss.'' Gekko muttered, brushing non-existent dirt from his immaculate suit and tie.

    ''I don't mind.'' Torrent replied from over by the small room's window, looking out at the city as he stretched his back. ''I'm completely stiff from sitting down for so long. I need to loosen up.''

    The others: Douglas, Mirch, and the two youngest members Adrian and River didn't say much as they gathered up their things. ''Make sure that you call Burke and tell him to stop whatever he's doing and head over to the truck.'' Christian reminded them. Burke was the only one that he hadn't brought along into the building, as his bruised and bandaged face was no longer presentable.

    ''Are you sure that you don't want me here?'' River asked him.

    Christian shook his head. ''No, I don't expect there to be any need for your presence here.'' he replied before allowing himself a slight smirk. ''And in the event that something does happen well, I've not particularly worried about it.'' Good of her to suggest staying behind, he thought. No doubt she was trying to make up for her blunder against Trident.

    He turned back to Gekko, who was checking his tablet. ''Are they there?''

    ''Yeah.'' he replied. ''Map, access codes, layout... It's all here. They're being awfully generous.''

    ''It's most likely another part of old Lai's test.'' Christian answered. ''So see to it that the unloading goes smoothly. I'll expect a report on how it went tonight. Does everyone understand?'' They all answered in the affirmative. ''Good. Now get to it.''

    The city had served as his home for four months, but Terry was still learning new things about it all the time. Liu-hou Town was the unofficial name for the local Liuese population center, and from what he understood each of the large cities on the east coast contained a Liu-hou Town of their own, each one being the largest ethnic Laingese gatherings in this part of the country. He couldn't exactly call his home region ethnically diverse, so it was an unusual feeling to be surrounded by elements of a culture that was wholly unfamiliar to him. Large, eye-catchingly colored signs written in characters that he couldn't read advertising both services and products that he'd never seen before, seeing unfamiliar foods being displayed in the windows of small food stores and restaurants, architectural flourishes that were unknown to him...it really drove home the fact that for the first time in his life, he was the minority.

    Nova and Daniel, meanwhile, didn't seem particularly taken in as they were no doubt used to the city's multiculturalism. Akira occasionally glanced around but he didn't say much. Terry wondered if the people who lived here could tell right away that he wasn't one of them. Auto, of course, refrained from saying or expressing anything.

    After they had walked a little bit from the small parking garage Auto had found (he had insisted on driving them despite Liu-hou Town being well within walking distance of Browshead) and gotten a taste of the neighborhood Daniel called for a break so that they could review their information and try to plan a specific course of action. So they stopped at a small green area tucked inside an alcove between two buildings. The place was decorated with stone lanterns and some unfamiliar-looking breed of shrub. Two picnic tables were set up for use in warmer weather, and the group sat down at one of them.

    ''So this is what we know so far:'' Daniel began, opening his notebook and starting to quickly jot down his notes. ''As far as we can gather, the Stardust is being distributed by at least a single individual of an unknown organization. We'll call them 'Organization X' for now.'' He wrote 'Org. X' down on the page. ''Let's also call this guy 'Star.D'.”

    ''What's that supposed to stand for?'' Akira asked, frowning.

    '''Stardust Dealer.''' Daniel explained. ''We also know that there's a Stargazer with them.'' He drew two arrows leading from 'Org. X' and wrote 'Star. D' and 'Serac' at the end of each.

    ''There's a Stargazer involved too?'' Auto asked. He was sitting by himself at the end of the table since he had chosen to light up again.

    ''Yeah.'' Terry said. ''She's nothing like Sayren, if that's what you're thinking. The complete opposite, really.''

    ''Is that so?'' Auto commented. ''You gonna beat her, too?''

    ''Well...'' It was obvious that if he continued to pursue the case that he'd run into her again and that was what he wanted. He wouldn't be able tolearn anything about her otherwise. But as it stood he couldn't quite imagine defeating her. Not necessarily because she was stronger than he was. Their clash in the alley was enough to tell him that she wasn't like Deck or Sayren – she had had no antagonistic motives in fighting him beyond the fact that he had been in her way. No desire to go out of her way to hurt him, no drive to beat him into submission. She had even held back on using her powers. She wasn't the kind of person he could imagine just knocking unconscious to the ground.

    Auto easily saw his hesitation. ''Forget it.'' he muttered, exhaling a small cloud of smoke into the air.

    ''Anyway...'' Daniel was saying in the meantime. ''From what Nova told us about the guy's supposed meeting with this 'Topper' it sounds to me like he was working on his own.''

    ''That Gowzy guy must've been one of the clients he promised to hook Star. D up with.'' Akira commented. ''I wonder why he'd sell drugs if he was apparently scared of the dealer, though... Kind of ironic, I guess.''

    ''That's easy.'' Nova grunted. ''Greed, plain and simple. He probably had this ice queen with him just in case things went south during his meetings.''

    ''Whatever his motives, let's focus on who this 'hotshot' is.'' Terry said, trying to move the conversation along. ''Do you have any idea who it could be?'' he asked, turning to Nova.

    Nova shook his head. ''As I said to Auto earlier, I'm not very familiar with this area. As far as I know there isn't much gang activity in this part of the city.''

    Terry looked down at the table and frowned. If Nova didn't know much that was a problem as he'd been counting on his knowledge to see them through the investigation. Then he realized, of course, that Auto might be able to shed some light on the problem, as that was why Nova had sought him out to begin with. ''Can you think of something?'' he asked the smoking mechanic. ''You do live closer to this area than we do, after all.''

    ''Do I know something?'' Auto repeated lazily. He inhaled and stared up towards the sky for a while before replying. ''A group with rare drugs and a Liu-hou hotshot...'' he muttered before swinging his head back down to fix his companions with a blank stare.''Maybe...Changxing.'' he said.

    ''Who's Changxing?'' Terry asked.

    ''Oh I know what he's talking about.'' Daniel spoke up as he started busily writing something down in his notebook. ''The Changxing Organization owns a fair amount of property around the city.'' he explained. ''They do a lot of things like leasing out buildings to businesses and funding city development and construction, though...'' His expression grew a little dark as he reached his next point. ''I remember seeing them in the news years ago being cast under suspicion for being secretly engaged in illegal activity.''

    ''Really? Do you remember what for?''

    ''Something about money laundering and I think smuggling.'' Daniel said, starting to sound a little less confident. ''It was a while ago though, so I don't really remember the details. I can look them up for you though.'' he finished brightly, hand already reaching for the tablet in his bag.

    ''No, that's alright. That you remember this at all is proof enough.'' Terry waved him down and then turned back towards Auto. ''And are you sure that you think it's them? Are there any other organizations that fit the bill?''

    ''Nope.'' he said. ''They're the largest.''

    ''Okay, so assuming that they're indeed the one, where does that leave us?'' Akira asked. ''I mean, we still don't know when this meeting was, or even if these guys are still in the city.''

    He was right, Terry knew. What's more, even with that information he was starting to realize that he had no idea where they were going to go from here. This Changxing Organization sounded like something they did not want to be sticking their nose into. A possibly-rogue drug dealer was one thing, an organized crime syndicate was something else entirely.

    ''At least we seem to have a clearer picture of what's going on now.'' he said. He glanced over to Daniel, who was adding some more notes to his diagram. ''Do you know when Mr. Gerald's returning, exactly?''

    Daniel looked up from his work. ''Tomorrow, I think.''

    ''Do you think we have enough to write up that report we talked about the other day?''

    ''We don't have all that much really, but yeah, I can do that.'' Daniel said. ''He'll definitely listen to us, even if all we have is circumstantial.''

    ''Thanks.''Now that that was settled, Terry stood up and stretched his arms. He felt lighter, like he had just completed a major assignment.

    ''So, that's it?'' Akira asked. ''We're done, just like that?''

    ''Well do you have any other suggests for what we should do?'' Terry asked him.

    Akira scratched his head. ''No, it just feels weird, you know? I thought we'd have to do a lot more than this.'' He got up and shrugged. ''Ah, who cares?'' he said, brightening up and jumping to his feet as well.''I vote we get lunch! I'm starving!''

    ''I can agree with that.'' Daniel said, putting his stuff away and rising as well. ''We can talk more over food.''

    Nova turned to Auto. ''Are you gonna stick with us or are you bailing?'' he asked. Auto put out his cigarette and simply shrugged unhelpfully.

    With a consensus having been reached the group headed back out onto the sidewalk. Terry turned to the others and was about to ask them if they wanted to stop at a place around here or go elsewhere when a man came darting by, brusquely bumping into him without even bothering asking him to make way. ''Watch where you're standing, kid!'' he grunted, briefly throwing an annoyed glance over his shoulder before continuing to book it down the street.

    ''That was rude.'' Terry muttered as he brushed himself off. Not that the man's behavior surprised him, as he'd learned long ago that city people could be very self-centered sometimes. He looked up to see Akira staring after the man, looking perplexed. ''What's wrong?''

    ''I think...'' Terry could see his eyes widen in recognition. ''I think that was the guy that I saw at the convention center! 'Star. D!'''

    ''Are you serious?'' Daniel asked.

    ''Well his face didn't have bandages on it back then but his hair and clothes looked the same!'' Akira insisted. ''Really, I'm not making this up! I'm pretty sure he's the dealer we've been after, I swear!''

    Terry's head whipped back around in the direction of the man's retreating back. Oh man, if that was true they had just seriously lucked out.Out of all the people in the city to run into purely by chance, it was the one guy that they had been trying to track down? He wanted it to be true, but the odds were just so outrageous that he just had a hard time believing it.

    Nova's commanding voice broke through his confusion. ''Well what are we waiting for, then?'' he said, being the first to start moving.''We'll lose him if we don't start following him right now!''

    ''Right!''Daniel added, setting off as well. ''Even if we don't catch him we might be able to find a new clue or two.''

    Without another word Terry set off at a brisk pace as well, with Akira immediately following him and Auto silently bringing up the rear. Whatever this led to, it looked like they weren't done just yet.

    Shan chu is supposed to be the traditional title of a Triad leader. It translates to "mountain/dragon master."

    Again, sorry for taking so long in between updating chapters. I haven't been slacking on the writing side though, as right now I'm working on the final confrontation, so I'm almost done with the story. Things conveniently worked out so that there will be a total of forty chapters. It's been three years, and I want to wrap up this story and move on to the next before the heat death of the universe!
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  13. #93

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Read ch27. Sorry it took me like ... half a year.

    I thought the New Year's meal at Nova's was sort of ... boring. Nothing of interest happened and, to be honest, it seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever.

    Everyone is certainly being rash in trying to do things this way around. While I understand Terry and Nova's reasons (mixed with a dash of inherent recklessness) Nova's change of heart feels so sudden and well defined. I think I would have actually preferred it if you had basically just hinted at the whole "I might be able to grow my power" thing rather than spelling it out.

    The other meal was more interesting, providing us more exposition on Christian's team. River and Torrent huh ... there has to be something there, even if I can't quite put my finger on what. In any case, I'm quite liking your antagonists for this arc, far more than with the Beings and Sayren.

    Onto ch28~

    --- Update From New Post Merge ---

    Don't have much to say about ch28. Nice to see Auto again. Though really, so much of this arc seems to be based on random luck. Like Akira just happened to notice the deal being carried out and that River was watching the deal from some distance away ... now the whole they just happen to run into Burke just when they're about to leave thing ... and that Akira manages to recognise him from ... his hair and his clothes.

  14. #94
    Carcharodon Piledriver! Crossword's Avatar
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    I put that scene at Nova's house there because I didn't want it to look like his family just dropped off the face of the planet now that their role in his backstory's been explained and to show that Trident does nice, friend-related things during their periods of downtime. As for River and Torrent, I know that this is where I'm supposed to wink and nod knowingly, but I honestly did not realize that their names had thematic connection until you mentioned it just now... I just picked that name for him because I thought that it sounded cool, heh heh...

    Trident succeeding in their investigation through lucky breaks mostly, yeah that's a thing, a theme of this part. It's an irony thing I'm trying to go for, since Christian, as he needs to fly under the radar for his scheme to work - unlike Deck, likes things neat and tidy and under his control the events that gradually lead to his downfall are the kinds of coincidences and breaks that he can't control.
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  15. #95

    Default Re: Stargazer

    Quote Originally Posted by Crossword View Post
    As for River and Torrent, I know that this is where I'm supposed to wink and nod knowingly, but I honestly did not realize that their names had thematic connection until you mentioned it just now... I just picked that name for him because I thought that it sounded cool, heh heh...
    Also Trident -> Poseidon -> water -> the rest. HMMMMMMM.

  16. #96
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    Here's another dirty secret: I only named them Trident so I could make a (very lame) joke later on.
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  17. #97
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    Chapter 29: Collision


    Tailing a person was a lot harder than it looked. ''Star. D'' was hurrying on ahead at a decent clip, and here they were trying not to lose him in the crowd. Terry hadn't put much thought into his pursuit of Serac on the day this all began, but this was a different matter as they had to avoid drawing the man's attention, which was a tricky thing to do when you were in a group with four other people. That being said, they were lucky that the man seemed to be a hurry, for he never once turned around or even glanced over his shoulder as he awkwardly tried to negotiate his way though the flow of pedestrians.

    What Terry found curious, and no doubt some of his friends might've been feeling the same, was that the man seemed to be following the exact same path that they had after arriving in Liu-hou Town. He took each and every same turn and corner until they saw him duck into the front entrance of the same parking garage that Auto had parked in. With a growing sense of excitement they followed him up several levels, having to be more careful now that there wasn't a crowd of people to hide behind. Eventually he came to a halt in front of a moderately-sized moving truck with a non-descript pastel logo painted on the side. There he brushed off his jacket and leaned back against the grille with arms crossed as if trying to put on the impression that he'd been waiting there for some time. Fortunately for Terry's group there was a sizable utility vehicle parked nearby that allowed them to hide behind while giving them a decent view of the bandaged man and his truck. A few minutes passed and nothing happened, until the man's head perked up and a new group approached the truck from the opposite direction.

    ''Look, look!'' Akira hissed, tapping the sleeve of Terry's jacket in excitement. Terry didn't need the group pointed out to him; they were unmistakable. The newly arrived group appeared to be six in number: four adult men, one sticking out thanks to his white suit, another by the scarf he was wearing, and two younger members. One of them Terry couldn't make out any distinguishing features from this distance beyond blond hair color and that he was carrying a briefcase of some sort, but the shorter of the two was unmistakably a girl, definitely Serac.

    ''Is that her?'' Nova whispered, gesturing over in their direction with his head.

    ''Yeah, definitely.'' Terry said. ''She's wearing the same fur-trim jacket she had on when we ran into her at the convention center.''

    ''Shh!'' Daniel whispered. ''I'm trying to hear what they're saying.'' Terry nodded and cocked an ear to see what he could make out from this distance.

    ''...orders.'' the man in the white suit was saying, apparently filling in Star. D on something. ''We're supposed to unload the first... Yes right now. Take it up with him if...'' Then one of the other men said something that was inaudible and the man in the white suit turned to face him. ''I don't know, that's why we need...get in.''

    ''Not very enlightening.'' Terry muttered.

    ''I wouldn't say that.'' Daniel replied. Before Terry could ask what he meant by that Daniel had taken out his phone and quickly snapped a picture of the side of the truck. None of the men or Serac seemed to notice and they started to clamber into the truck, with most of them climbing up into the trailer.

    ''Looks like that's that.'' Terry sighed. Perhaps they could get the truck's license plate number as it pulled out, but other than that it didn't look like there was any more that they could do. That is, until he heard Auto shuffling beside him.

    ''You wanna go after them, don'cha?'' he asked with his usual blank-eyed look.

    ''I...guess so.'' Terry admitted. ''Oh right, you're here!''

    ''Yeah, I am.'' the mechanic said. ''So, what's it gonna be? Don't have much time.''

    ''Guys?'' Terry turned towards his friends.

    ''If we can find out where they're going that'll be a big lead.'' Daniel said. ''I say we should go for it.''

    Nova nodded in agreement. ''Whatever you guys are cool with, I'll come along.'' Akira chimed in.

    It was a good thing that they had reached a consensus so quickly, because it was a mad dash down to Auto's own truck. It was therefore fortunate that the garage only had one entrance cleared for vehicles of that size, allowing them to quickly catch up with the group's truck at the ticket gate (Auto insisted that the others pay, which they begrudgingly did). Once outside on the streets however it was a different matter. They had no control over the flow of traffic and were entirely at its mercy. Following a vehicle without being obvious about it wasn't very difficult if there was a group of cars separating them, but they nearly lost the truck thanks to the capriciousness of traffic lights and the other motorists. Auto though, was up to the task. He was completely in his element, and whenever it seemed the truck was pulling out of sight he managed to execute a deft maneuver and slip through the gaps to catch up.

    ''You know what you're doing, right?'' Akira nervously asked after one such maneuver was met by a cacophony of car horns.

    ''I had the right of way.'' Auto replied, eyes forward. ''Now shut up. I need to concentrate.''

    As Akira sat back in his seat with a frown on his face Terry heard Nova mutter something to himself. ''What was that?'' he asked.

    ''What? Oh, I was just saying that it looks like they're heading for Lodgeport.'' Nova explained. ''It's part of the private, industrial part of town.'' he added for Terry's benefit. ''It's near the water, and a lot of shipping and processing companies have depots and warehouses out there. Take a look.'' He pointed out the window.

    It was a little difficult for Terry to get a good look at the scenery outside from his vantage point, but he did notice that the buildings lining the streets were getting smaller and more utilitarian. The traffic was lightening up too, and through the gaps between buildings Terry thought that he could just barely see brightly-colored cranes and rows of low, boxlike structures that looked similar to the depot that he had fought Sayren at.

    ''Yeah, definitely Lodgeport.'' Nova remarked.

    A few more minutes of driving passed before anything else happened. Then, finally, the truck they had been following slowed down and turned left off of the road and onto a lane that seemed to dip underground and disappear beneath one of the buildings that lined the road. ''There they go.'' Nova commented, pointing across the dashboard.

    ''I see, I see.'' Auto murmured. ''Let me park.'' He took the truck another block before pulling into one of the parking spaces on the side of the road, around a corner and out of sight. All of them were over-sized to accommodate vehicles with heavy loads.

    When everyone spilled out of the confines of the cabin the neighborhood's atmosphere immediately made Terry feel a little unsettled. It was strangely quiet, the only noises he could hear coming from a distant highway overpass and the occasional cry of a seagull circling around overhead. He saw a person walking off in the distance, and from time to time he could spy a car driving by from a couple hundred yards away. It was quite a change in scenery after all that walking they did earlier through heavily-populated and lively streets.

    ''Where is everyone?'' he asked. ''Didn't you say this was part of the industrial district? It's practically deserted.''

    ''This is just one small sector, and it's private.'' Nova said, shrugging his shoulders. ''A lot of places are probably still closed for New Year's.'' He gestured at some smaller, shuttered businesses on the opposite side of the street. ''I bet if you walked a half-mile in any direction you'd find more activity. If you're going to be doing something shifty, now would be the time to do it.''

    ''I suppose so.''

    ''But at the same time that means that if something goes down we're on our own.'' Akira observed. ''Whatever. I guess we should go check out that building while we can.''

    The group walked over to the building that they had seen the truck disappear into. The lane the truck has disappeared down looked surprisingly steep, and the entrance was blocked by a large set of shutters that seemed to be controlled by a large keypad device that was set into the wall on the driver's side. The clearance and warning signs, Terry noted, appeared to be written in both Anglosine and Laingese characters.

    ''Look at this.'' Akira called from the sidewalk. Terry and Nova trudged back up to the sidewalk and saw him and Daniel examining a plaque set by the front entrance. ''Under the address it says 'property belonging to the Changxing Organization'.''

    ''That's good to know.'' Daniel was writing stuff down in his notebook again. ''So far things seem to be working out the way we thought.'' Terry peered past him and into the building's front. It was utilitarian, dark, and empty. This building was nominally closed as well.

    ''It's sort of creepy.'' Akira commented, looking up at the building with a slightly foreboding look. ''By the way, what did you mean back in the garage, about the boss, the guy who was dressed like a yakuza thug, saying something interesting?''

    ''Oh that?'' Daniel looked up. ''I noticed that he said something about unloading 'the first', implying that either have more stops planned, or that they'll going to come back with a new load of whatever they're carrying.'' He looked up towards the building. ''Whatever they're unloading, they're doing it furtively. I'd guess that they could be traffickers.''

    ''Like drugs and stuff?'' Akira suggested.

    ''That's the most common kind of contraband people think of, but it could be anything.'' Daniel said. ''It would certainly explain why one of the guys was selling Stardust, though.''

    ''Their truck wasn't that big.'' Nova spoke up. He too was looking up at the building, arms crossed and a contemplative frown on his face. ''I think it's a safe bet that they'll be sticking around the city for a bit.''

    ''But they could also be entirely legit, just saying.'' Akira shrugged.

    All of this speculation was making Terry feel restless. He had pushed for this investigation, but he was finding that he didn't really have much to add to it. He didn't know the city like Nova and Daniel did and all he could really contribute was...muscle. He understood how important the talking and hypothesizing were, but he didn't feel comfortable unless he was doing something. He looked up at the building again, and than down at its base. There were a row of small windows at ground level, though when he walked over and peered down at them he found that he couldn't see much of anything.

    ''I wonder what's down there?'' he remarked aloud. ''A receiving area, maybe?''

    ''Probably.'' Daniel shrugged. ''I mean, what else would there be down there?''

    ''I guess so.'' Terry continued to stare at the windows. The blackness beyond was...tantalizing.

    Akira seemed to notice what he was doing and stepped over to get a look himself. He looked down at the windows, then back up at Terry's face. A look of knowing settled onto his face. ''You're thinking of trying to get in there, aren't you?'' he said.

    Terry looked at him. ''I didn't say that.'' he said.

    ''But you were thinking it.'' Akira pressed. ''Come on, I think I know you enough to know how you think.''

    ''I guess so.'' Terry admitted. His friend probably had in mind the time that he had declared that he was going to be the one to confront Sayren. ''I admit it, if possible I would like to see if there was a way inside.''

    ''What for?'' Daniel said, a sense of wariness immediately creeping into his voice. ''That's way too risky.''

    ''I...dunno,'' Terry could imagine how well saying something like 'because I want to' or 'because I want to see that girl again' would go over with his friends. ''if we went in there we could...'' He cast around for something to say. ''Maybe we could try getting a look at whatever they're unloading?'' he suggested. ''If it's something illegal it would help our case to have some hard evidence.''

    ''I think you're reaching.'' Daniel replied.

    ''Well yeah,'' Terry admitted. ''it's not like I seriously think you guys want to go down there.''

    ''Actually, I wouldn't mind.'' Nova said. Everyone turned to him. He shrugged. ''I'm just saying that I'm down for trying to get inside if there's a chance we could learn something from it.'' he said. ''I'm not afraid of whatever's down there.''

    ''Er, but what if these guys have guns?'' Akira said warily. ''I mean, they are traffickers, right?''

    ''You said just now that it's possible that they're actually legitimate.'' Terry pointed out. ''The point is, all we have right now are suppositions built on top of information that's circumstancial.'' he said. Now that he knew he had Nova's support he felt emboldened. ''This could be our only chance to find out once and for all what's going on here, and what these guys are up to.''

    Daniel muttered something to himself and looked down, as if trying to gather himself. Terry could understand if he was feeling exasperated – after all, what he was proposing they do wasn't exactly the rational thing to do. But as he had said, they were Stargazers, and were supposed to do things that normal people would balk at. Again, as the only ones who knew the hidden side to this case, it was their duty to do everything they could to investigate it.

    Finally Daniel looked up. “You know breaking into a building is a felony, right?”

    His remark almost made Terry laugh. How like him to be worried by something like that! Instead he reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. His friend blinked conspicuously, surprised by the gesture. “Look, I understand why you’re worried.” Terry said, trying to sound soothing. “But don’t worry about us. We can take care of these sorts of things.” Daniel shoulders drooped a bit as he exhaled. The look on his face clearly showed that he still disagreed with this idea, but he slowly nodded his head.

    Terry turned to the others. “You guys okay?”

    “I said I was fine with it.” said Nova.

    “I’m okay if you guys are.” shrugged Akira. “But uh, how are we supposed to get inside? You got a plan?”

    “Maybe.” If this receiving building was anything like the depot where he fought Sayren then there had to be other entrances in the back.

    “What’re you gonna do?” Nova asked, turning to address Auto. Terry had forgotten that he was even there as he hadn’t said a single word.

    “I’ll stay here.” Auto said, rummaging around in his pockets for another pack of cigarettes. A rather nasty grin came to his face. “In case you need to make a quick getaway.”

    “Thanks.” Akira said dryly. “Come on, let’s get out of the street. I feel so exposed.”

    The group, now numbering four, slunk around to the back, and just as Terry had thought there was a series of loading docks on the opposite side of the building. There were several human-sized doors next to the truck lots for the employees in plain view. There was nothing special about the doors themselves, but each one did look solid and had no panes to smash this time. Each one seemed to be locked electronically by a card reader.

    “I guess these are out.” Akira observed. “Any windows?”

    “Not so fast.” Nova said as he examined one of the doors up close. “I could probably break one of these down, but that would cause a lot of noise...” He continued to examine the area. “Hey, Terrence.” he suddenly said. “I have an idea, why don’t you undo the lock?”

    “And how would I do that?”

    “With your electricity, of course.” Nova clarified. “These things work by generating a current to undo the mechanism when a valid card is read, right? You can just skip that step by sending a jolt directly into the thing, right?”

    “I don’t know,” Terry admitted. He actually had very little knowledge about the intricacies of electrical devices beyond the basics. Whenever he used his power he never tried to quantify exactly how many volts he was putting out, just whatever felt like “a lot” or “a little.” His experience from helping his uncle out with some of his projects wasn’t going to be any help either, as his uncle delegated that sort of stuff to one of his employees who was an electrician. But he couldn’t very well give up without even trying. “I’ll give it a go.” he said.

    He bent down to the device and examined it. He could see the wires that ran from the reader to into the wall by the door, and the few millimeters of copper where they connected to the box itself. He was unsure exactly how he should go about doing this, and everyone looking at him expectantly didn’t help. He decided to just do it and see what happened: he put a finger to the bit of copper and let out a tiny spark, the smallest amount of power he felt he could muster. There seemed to be a half-second pause, during which he thought nothing had happened, but then there was a small thunk as the lock disengaged. Terry let out a relieved breath and gripped the handle and turned. The door swung inward, revealing a dark corridor. Akira whistled. “Good job.” he said. They stepped inside, but before they continued on Nova took a scrap of paper from Daniel’s notebook and stuck it between the door and it’s lock. “Just in case.” he said.

    Terry’s feeling of deja vu began to grow as they cautiously felt their way down the darkened corridor. There were a few empty staff rooms here that soon gave away to the typical assortment of small offices, restrooms, and storage spaces, all locked. Terry took the lead and moved slowly and cautiously, an ear out for strange or out of place noises. But fortunately everything seemed to be quiet and desolate in this part of the building, and they soon came to a large flight of stairs running up and down the building.

    “They’re probably down below.” Terry said quietly, indicating the words “To Main Receiving Area” that were stenciled in both Anglosine and Laingese on the wall next to it, along with an arrow pointing downward. Down they went, as slowly and quietly as they could. At the bottom Terry came to a sudden stop.

    “What is it?” Daniel whispered.

    “A camera.” Terry muttered, pointing to the door a few yards away. Stenciled on it was “Main Receiving Area Sector B” and trained on it was an old, boxy camera. In the semi-darkness they could clearly make out the green LED light by its lens, indicating that it hadn’t been installed simply for show. Terry felt like cursing; he’d forgotten about the possibility of security cameras - surely there had been some set up outside, hadn’t they? Had their faces already been captured?

    He shook his head in annoyance. No use worrying about something that he hadn’t been aware of. Right now he had to think of a way to deal with this one. They could try finding another entrance, but those were probably watched too. He had to think of a way to deal with this one...

    “So what’re we doing?” Akira asked. “Are we going back, or...?”

    “Quiet, I’m trying to think.” Terry murmured, scratching his temple as he fought. The camera was an electronic device just like the card reader outside. He supposed he could destroy it with a well-placed bolt, but that would definitely leave behind evidence that someone had broken in. How could he disable it without destroying it?

    Then the answer came to him. He judged the angled the lens seemed to be at. “I have an idea. Stand back a few feet.” The others complied, and Terry called on his powers again. Not too much, just enough to output a few small sparks.

    “What are you doing?” came Akira’s voice from behind him. “My hair’s feeling tingly.”

    “I’m, uh, trying to jam it.” Terry explained. Any first-year Physics student knew that electromagnetic waves could interfere with an electronic device’s operation. If this was working, and admittedly he had no way to tell if it was, then right now the camera’s picture should be warped and distorted, hopefully enough to obscure them from sight.

    Akira whistled again. “Dang, your power’s really handy.”

    “Well I have no way of knowing if it’s working or not.” Terry said back testily. “Just hurry up and go through the door!” He gestured for the others to hurry down and they did. Nova took the lead and very carefully eased the door open and glanced out. Apparently the coast was clear, for he motioned for the others to follow. Akira and Daniel hurried past, taking care to stay away from the small electric arcs that were rising from their friend’s body, and he followed, letting the sparks burn out once he was through.

    The basement receiving area only served to strengthen Terry’s sense of deja vu despite being dissimilar to the old depot in several respects. Massive metal partitions divided it up into multiple sectors, each one with an open portal wreathed by plastic sheets large enough for a number of forklifts that were parked against a far wall to drive through side-by-side, while smaller openings for conveyors were situated next to them. Smaller containers were stacked on giant metal shelves like at a giant home improvement and construction material store, while larger containers and cargo palettes were stacked in such a way to leave wide lanes on the floor-space. Arrows painted on the floor served to direct workers while crisscrossing the ceiling above were guides for an automated crane. The area felt enormous and made Terry think of an iceberg when he compared it to the building on top.

    He couldn’t hear anything other than his heart’s excited beating and he didn’t see anyone either. The traffickers and Serac must’ve been in another sector. He exchanged a glance with Nova, who he noticed had an uncommon glint of anticipation in his eyes. They nodded wordlessly and took point, with Daniel and Akira sticking close behind. The containers, Terry could only begin to wonder what they held, provided plenty of color as they crept slowly and cautiously forward. His whole body felt like a coiled spring, ready to jump into action at a second’s notice. Actually it wasn’t quite that he was ready for action so much that he was anticipating it, almost relishing it. Did he have the same look in his eyes that Nova had? He had realized after his encounter with Serac that he had actually enjoyed their fight. Not the injuries or freezing, but just the sheer rush that came from fighting someone with equal skill on equal ground without any significant danger. Was that why he wanted to see her again, and kept pushing the investigation, just to fight her?

    No, this was no good, he berated himself. This wouldn’t be anything like that time, and if he didn’t take this seriously Daniel’s fears would come true. That wasn’t going to happen.

    They had passed from Sector C to Sector B when they finally heard the sounds of activity. It was distant and indistinct at first but as they sneaked from the shadow of one giant container or shelf to another they could occasionally pick out a word or two from the buzz, distorted by the acoustics of the large chamber. Finally, crouched behind a shelf, they could see at a distance their quarry. At the far end of the chamber was a set of horizontal shutters through which poked the back end of the traffickers’ truck, trailer doors open and ramp lowered. Terry could make out three figures standing by the truck while a fourth seemed to be wheeling a large dolly down the ramp. The man in the white suit seemed to be looking at a clipboard or something of a similar shape while there was no sign of the one with the briefcase. Serac was easily recognizable thanks to her ponytail and stature compared to the others. Nova turned, put a finger to his mouth to needlessly remind the others to be quiet, and they all stretched their ears...

    Gekko was scowling deeply at his tablet while the others were getting started on unloading the smaller items from the truck. The security clearance codes that the Changxing people had sent them had worked like a charm in getting them inside of the building’s basement, but the rest of the documentation was unnecessarily dense and jargon-filled. No “bring such-and-such over to Sector So-and-So” or anything that would’ve actually been helpful, but instead he was expected to decipher a stream of numbers and protocols that were absolutely useless to him without a visual aid. There were a lot of things he’d do differently if he were in charge; he couldn’t care less for Christian’s “test of character” talk, he just cared about having the tools he needed to do his job.

    “Hey, a hand here?” It was Burke, pushing an especially heavy-looking box to the edge of the trailer.

    “Be careful with that!” Gekko snapped as he slipped his tablet back into the inside of his jacket and grasped the other end of the container to balance. “The stuff in there’s worth more than all of us make combined! Christian’ll have our asses flayed if we break anything!” Most of this shipment consisted of Heian pottery, made from material that looked almost nothing like anything found on Lagoon. All of this stuff came in to Marine Cove’s cargo depots from the spaceports down south,which they then picked up and drove off to their cache out west, and then inevitably bring it back into the city when Christian forged new contracts with HLTO’s prospective clients until it was time for a new team to take over. It was all very roundabout and overly-cautious, Gekko felt, though Christian had assured them that once business took off in the area and the operation became more large-scale they wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore.

    “Sorry.” Burke mumbled as the two carefully eased the container down the ramp and to the floor. Burke was always like this, Gekko reflected angrily to himself. He was always making clumsy or stupid mistakes because he had no inkling of foresight at all. Small things for the most part, but even small mistakes could end up with shit hitting the fan in this profession. Christian had already had words with him before in the past, but his latest escapade with Stardust had left him on very thin ice, as his black eye and busted nose now attested to.

    Douglas, on the other hand, was a man that Gekko liked...as a worker. He and Mirch were the workhorses of the group, yet while the latter had as much intellect as a grazing cow Douglas was a veteran of the business and the most experienced of the group aside from Christian. He was also thoroughly unambitious. He could’ve easily been made leader of his own team, yet instead seemingly preferred a life of taking orders instead of issuing them. It was this quality that Gekko especially liked him for; he was a non-threat.

    That brought him to River and Torrent. Torrent was always eager to get to work and to his credit worked hard but Gekko didn’t care for him. There was just something about him that rubbed him the wrong way and he could never put his finger on it. River creeped him out. Normally she barely said anything and was almost always by Christian’s side whenever he was present. He knew that that was her job, but her standoffish and aloof nature reminded him of nothing more than a wind-up doll. And on top of that she was a Stargazer... After learning how he had wound up in Christian’s custody he had always done his best to keep his distance.

    “This is Adrian.” said a little voice issuing from his earpiece.

    “I hear you. You there?”

    “Yeah, I’m at the dispatch office.”

    “Can you access the system and see about pulling up some layouts that we can actually use?”

    “Sure.” said Adrian matter-of-factly. He was a rather laconic person too, but at least he wasn’t a Stargazer on top of it. “Just looking at the consoles they have here tells me that they’re running an old OS. It’ll be no problem for the Craybird.”

    Adrian had been a bored computer engineering student at a Danz university when Christian had met him. His boredom had led him to messing around with his school’s network, and one security breach too many had landed him in rather hot water. Christian had then swept in and offered him a position as member of his team. Adrian’s new role was to keep track of HLTO’s finances, logistics, and anything else that involved numbers or computer engineering. The Craybird was his secret weapon: a cutting-edge Heian-made laptop stuffed to the virtual gills with an OS and hacking/decryption suite that was normally only reserved for use for the most cutting-edge top departments of SARA and SPHERE law enforcement. Compared to the vast majority of civilian software and hardware it was practically a quantum computer.

    “By the way,” Adrian continued. “When I got up here I saw that one of the door alarms was triggered just now.”

    Gekko’s brow creased further as his scowl deepened. “I don’t hear any alarm.”

    “It’s silent.” Adrian explained. “It means that one of the outer door locks isn’t properly engaged.”

    “And what about it?” Gekko grunted. An additional complication was the last thing that he needed right now. “One of the workers probably just forgot to lock up properly.”

    “According to the readout it was only triggered thirteen minutes ago.”

    Gekko swore under his breath and put a hand to his forehead while he contemplated what course of action he should take. If this really wasn’t a malfunction then who could’ve gotten inside? There weren’t supposed to be any of the regular workers here today, so was it a thief, some third-party trying to steal a piece of their rival’s pie? There was precedent for that, he had to admit. Or could it be some punks thinking it would be funny to break in to the place? Whatever it was he couldn’t afford to ignore it if Adrian was right. Christian would have his hide if he messed this one up.

    He lowered his hand. “Everyone stop!” he called out. The others put down whatever they were doing and looked over at him.

    “What’s up?” Torrent asked. “A break already?”

    “No, this isn’t a break,” Gekko snapped. “Listen, Adrian just told me he thinks that we’ve got some snoopers in the building.”

    “Like who?” Douglas asked, a skeptical look on his face.

    “I don’t know!” Gekko grumbled. “That’s why I want you guys to fan out and see if you can find them!”

    “I’m not an idiot.” Douglas replied coolly. “I just don’t want to jump at any shadows.”

    Gekko didn’t bother hiding his irritation. He liked Douglas as a worker, true, but not as a person. Whenever he had something to say to him it always seemed to be critical. He walked over to one of the containers that had just been loaded to the floor. “Listen!” said, rapping the container for emphasis. “Christian put me in charge here, and I’m not going to let this operation get derailed! The stuff that’s in here can put us away for ten years minimum! You don’t want to go to jail ‘cause some punks just happened to stumble across our operation, do you? I sure as hell don’t!”

    “He just asked a question, don’t get your panties in a twist.” Torrent said, coming to the defense of his friend.

    “Whatever, just go.”

    “If we find anyone what should we do?” Mirch asked, slow on the uptake.

    “What do you think?” Gekko said impatiently. “Whoever these guys are, they seem careless. Just drive them off before they see anything, but if they don’t, well...use your imagination.” He turned to the others. “Well what are you guys still standing around here for, start sweeping the place, now!”

    “Oh shit,” Akira gulped. “you heard that, right?”

    The others didn’t need to be told. They hadn’t heard every word of the group’s conversation, but they had heard enough to realize that they had been somehow found out. Terry cast a quick glance over towards the nearest gap in the partition wall. They could probably make it, but there was little chance of doing it without being seen. What’s more, he realized that this was his fault. Since he had pushed for coming in here, it was on him to solve this. “Okay, look guys...” he began to whisper as the man in the white suit gestured in their general direction. He didn’t have a plan, but he had to say something.

    “You guys start running,” Nova cut in much to his surprise. “I can distract these guys for a little bit.”

    “Seriously?! We all need to get out of here!” Daniel hissed. “These guys could-”

    “Look, just do it!” Terry hissed back, jumping on Nova’s suggestion. “The two of us can take care of ourselves, you know that!”

    “Okay, well, I hope you know what you’re doing.” Akira said under his breath. “Let’s go!” With a look of concern he raised himself up slightly and started to dart towards the opening, keeping his body crouched low to the ground. Daniel locked eyes with Terry and Nova, nodded painfully, and then did the same.

    “You do know what you’re doing, right?” Terry asked his remaining companion hesitantly. Up ahead he heard an exclamation of surprise from one of the traffickers as they immediately spotted the retreating Daniel and Akira, who immediately broke into runs.

    “Don’t worry about it, I’m used to this sort of thing.” Nova replied, nonplussed. “Besides, I’m looking for some action too.”


    Nova smirked. “Yeah, I can tell. We’ve got the same look in our eyes, that same gleam. That’s why you pushed for this, didn’t you?”

    Terry couldn’t quite answer him. If he had picked up on that then perhaps there was some truth in his feeling from before. But, again, he tried to shake that thought from his mind. “That’s our cue.” he said in response to the trafficker’s cry. Nova nodded and the two leaped out from behind their hiding place.

    The two traffickers who had been running in their direction, “Star D.” and the bearded man, quickly skidded to a halt when they saw the two Stargazers reveal themselves, and not a moment too soon as Terry threw an arc of lightning in their direction which impacted at their feet, scorching the floor. “Aw hell, it’s those Stargazer kids!” Star D. Shouted in alarm.

    The other traffickers who had been making their way to another part of the floor were doubling back to check on what was happening. The leader swore viciously as he backed up near the truck. “Serac!” he shouted. “Get them!”

    “Me?!” the girl exclaimed in surprise, taken aback by her leader’s orders.

    “Yes you!” the man commanded. “This is your job, isn’t it?!”

    The others backed off slightly, clearly a little unnerved by Terry’s and Nova’s presences, while Serac took some cautious steps forward, like a spooked animal, until she was between them and the other traffickers. It seemed to Terry that she wasn’t sure about the possibility of fighting a two-on-one fight, especially against two Stargazers.

    “So this is your ice queen, huh?” Nova remarked as he removed his jacket and tied it around his waist.

    “Yeah.” Terry replied, shifting into a cautious fighting stance. “I’ll focus on her, you try keeping the other guys from going after the others.” he said. Fortunately, Akira’s fears that they were armed didn’t seem to be holding true. “Five minutes, then we run.”

    Nova cracked his knuckles and nodded. “Got it.”

    Serac’s eyes were cautiously darting back and forth between Terry and Nova, unsure of what to do. But she quickly seemed to come to a decision for she swiftly ducked down and threw a hand to the floor. Almost instantly a wide, fan-shaped spray of cold air and ice leapt from it, riddled with tiny stalagmites of ice. Terry had expected this sort of tactic again and had sprung away as soon as he say her put her hand to the ground. Nova, however, remained in place. Instead of dodging the emission of ice, he instead smashed it with his armored arm. Terry saw a brief discharge of light, and the entire spray shattered into little fragments.

    “Trying to scare us?” Nova asked as he straightened up, a cocky-looking smirk on his face. “Sorry, that won’t do shit to me!”

    Serac let out an annoyed tch and sprang forward over the broken fragments, a spike of ice gripped in her hand. This time Terry jumped forward and grabbed her upraised forward, arresting her movement and preventing her from swinging her makeshift dagger. “Here we are again,” he quipped, remembering a similar incident during their first meeting.

    Serac’s expression darkened even further at the sight of him. “I have nothing to say to you.” she growled.

    “Liar,” Terry said. Her eyes were burning with a blue flame. “Your eyes tell me you have plenty to say!” He put on some pressure, trying to force the icicles around and away from him. Her response was to throw a knee at his ribs but he swung away at the last moment to lessen the blow and jabbed his right elbow into her side to throw off her balance. However, she quickly turned her momentum by pivoting on her foot and lashing out with her free hand. It wasn’t aimed very high, but Terry swiftly pulled back anyway, the ice shards scattered on the floor crunching under his feet as he did so.

    After he fell back he realized that there were some flecks of blood on his hand and he quickly saw why. Serac’s hand and forearm was completely iced over, with her fingertips ending in claw-like spikes. Well that was fine, Terry thought as he glanced between Serac and one of the cautiously-circling traffickers. Last time he had fought purely defensively; this time was going to be different. He let electricity flow through his fists and jumped forward again to make his counterattack. She swiped at roughly eye-level so he ducked down and thrust a palm into her stomach. She was knocked to the ground with a sharp cry as the electricity within the blow discharged with an equally sharp crack, though she managed to break her fall and spring back up again. She came at him with a high, sweeping kick that he almost lost his balance trying to dodge and he found himself back up against one of the containers that were arranged on the floor. Gripping the cargo handle behind him with both hands he threw up a high kick to deflect her downward swipe. The ice felt surprisingly solid as the tow of his shoe made contact with her arm, though he still saw a chip break off at the point of impact.

    With one hand still on the bar Terry swung out of the way as Serac thrust her other hand forward, also iced over now. He could hear the fabric tear as her frozen claws shred the spot where he had just been. He couldn’t help but gulp - his winter jacket would provide a little protection, but he definitely couldn’t afford anything more than a glancing blow from that attack. He wondered though, why she wasn’t trying to freeze him in place again? She obviously wasn’t trying to hide her powers anymore, so why stick with melee combat when she had more efficient tools at her disposal? Well it was working out for him so far, anyway. Only a few more minutes...

    He couldn’t afford a distraction, but Nova couldn’t help stealing a few quick glances at Terrence’s duel with the ice Stargazer girl. He’d seen and participated in numerous street fights in his time, but the fighting of two trained and dedicated martial artists was quite different. They weren’t as highly choreographed and smooth as a casual observer might expect, but both of them seemed to be holding their own despite the occasional blow or near-miss.

    That was enough spectating, he had his own job to do. There were three guys facing him: the guy Daniel had designated “Star D.”, the especially large one, and the mid-eastern-looking man with the beard. All three of them looked a little apprehensive at the sight of his transformed arm, and none of them seemed to have weapons, which was a reassuring sign. Nova wasn’t sure what he had to do, but this was his chance to see if there were more secrets to pull out of his arm.

    Star D. Was the one who moved first, but in an inelegant, spooked sort of way. He made as if trying to dash past him in the direction where Akira and Daniel had disappeared to but Nova managed to grab him by the shoulder and - he was surprisingly light for a grown man - threw him to the ground as if he was throwing off a tackle in the middle of a football play. The other two men circling him, trying to find an opening, well taller, broader, and clearly more experienced. As soon as they saw their fellow about to hit the floor they tried to take advantage of the moment to attack. Springing around his comrade’s skidding body, the bearded man threw a punch at Nova’s face. On reflex he threw up his left arm to block it and felt a numbing vibration run up to his shoulder. While this was happening the larger man tried to run around him, forcing him to whirl and throw out a burst of force from his right arm into the man. The man would’ve been sent flying if he were someone around Nova’s age, but he was a big, muscular adult, so while he did go down it wasn’t with the forceful crash that he was used to.

    Nova quickly ran around to reposition himself in front of the opening in the large metal wall. His arm of flesh was still a little sore, but not enough to stop him. “You bastards aren’t taking a step past me!” he declared, striking his chest emphatically.

    “You’re making a big mistake, kid.” the bearded man said. There was anger and force in his voice, but curiously no actual malice, Nova thought. “You should’ve just run.”

    “Sorry, I don’t turn tail.” Nova replied, grinning expectantly. This was the chance that he had been waiting for, wasn’t concerned with the risk. The more danger, the better. “Bring it!” he declared.

    All three of the men rushed him at once. Nova smirked again; this was a situation that he was well familiar with. He put his arms up in a guarding stance and went on the defensive. His plan wasn’t to fight them head-on, he was going to play smart, look for things like wasted movements, mistakes, openings, and when he saw them, that was when he’d strike. Keep his mind working and get his body into a routine. He figured that he’d have to be in tune with his body if he wanted to unlock some sort of new power.

    Of his three attackers Star. D was easily the most inexperienced. Everything about his body language screamed nervousness, and it was crystal clear from how halfhearted his occasional punches and swipes were that he would rather leave the fighting up to his two allies. Nova was more focused on those two who were clearly more experienced. They kept trying to flank him and maneuver him away from the entrance, but he wasn’t going to allow that. He took a couple hits, but he was willing to take them as long as he was able to keep them at bay. He needed to be like a wall, solid and impenetrable.

    He winced as he moved out of the way of a chopping punch the bearded man threw at him and got hit in the small of his back by the butt of the large man’s fist. He stumbled a bit before growling and side-winding his own fist into the man’s rib cage. He staggered back wheezing just as Star. D tried to have another go at it. Nova sidestepped him and dealt and hammer blow to the back of his head. “Burke!” the bearded man shouted as the hapless man crumbled to the floor, bleeding.

    “Guy’s weak shit.” Nova growled, stepping over the prone body. At least he finally had a name for the guy. And now he was down to only two opponents.

    The big guy grunted in annoyance and lunged forward, payback clearly on his mind. He took several swipes at Nova, the first missing but the second scoring a solid blow on his guard. Nova grimaced and staggered back a few paces as the shock reverberated through his body but he did his best to stand firm. Like a wall, he repeated to himself. As he deflected another blow with his metal arm, eliciting a grunt of pain from his opponent he suddenly became aware of an odd sensation. At first he thought it was leftover trauma from the blow he just took, but it wasn’t a painful sort of feeling - it was like a strange tingle in his arm that felt more than skin-deep, like it was running through the bone itself.

    For an instant he felt a wave of excitement course through him: this must be it, he had to be getting somewhere! But then the man’s knuckles scraped the side of his jaw and the feeling was immediately lost. Nova let out a small growl of frustration and hit the man with a blast forceful enough to knock his huge frame to the floor, pissed that his rhythm had been lost. He tried to work himself up again, this time choosing to go on the offensive and drive the two men back towards the piles of storage containers to limit their movements, but to his continued annoyance the tingling sensation did not return. Well whatever, he thought to himself, at least he had a start and the time limit he and Terrence had set was likely running out by now...

    In a fight, even a few minutes could feel like an eternity, but this time Terry found himself not caring. Just as well, for Serac was able to match him practically blow-for-blow and was, he had to admit, probably a little more skilled than he was. She had probably gone through a formal training regimen, unlike him, and her fighting style was a balanced mixture of offense and defense, combining deft footwork and body movement with well-aimed punches and swipes with her frozen claws and hard-thrown kicks that reminded him of savate. As he had noted during their first encounter she didn’t waste anything, whether successful or not, every movement had a purpose.

    However, she still seemed reluctant to actually use her Stargazer powers. Not that she necessarily needed them to be effective, the bruises Terry could feel forming on his arms and ribs were proof of that, but after fighting Deck and Sayren it felt odd, and she had no reason to hold back. She swung a kick at him which he caught on his forearm, and the shock of the impact reverberated through his arm but no wave of cold. Serac quickly retracted her foot and thrust forward with a clawed arm, and in response Terry spun away and smashed her in the shoulder with his elbow. She responded with a knee to his side and threw out an elbow of her own, but he managed to grab her arm and, ignoring the numbing cold of the ice he was gripping, shot a bolt of lightning into her stomach with his other hand just as she tried twisting out of his grasp. He let go and the arc of electricity blew her backward and to the ground with a cry.

    “Stand up!” the man in white yelled from his position over by the traffickers’ truck. He still hadn’t made any effort or indication of moving from that spot, even after the others had run off to confront Nova elsewhere on the floor. “What are you doing?!” he continued to shout. “Do your job and take that boy down!”

    Terry shot a dark glare in the man’s direction and then turned back to Serac. She was slowly trying to get back up to her feet in the stumbling, numbed manner he was used to seeing from people by now after he blew them off their feet. “Why are you letting a coward like him give orders to you like that?” he asked.

    “It’s none of your business.” Serac growled.

    “Is it just because he’s your boss?” Terry pressed. Whatever her story was, all he had to do was look at the expression, or lack thereof, on her face and the grimness in those striking blue eyes of her’s to know that it wasn’t anything good.

    “I said it’s none of your business.” Serac repeated as she wiped at a her lip with the sleeve of her jacket. Both of them were breathing heavily, their contest already starting to wear them out.

    “Why the hell are you just standing there?!” the man screamed, his face going red. “Get him!”

    “Shut up!” Terry shouted, losing his patience. He threw a bolt of lightning off in the man’s direction, heard him cry out in surprise and crash to the floor but he didn’t bother looking to see if he had hit him or not. Instead he turned back to Serac, who still had a hand on her stomach and was trying to catch her breath.

    “So you’re just fighting because you’re being told to, like an attack dog?” he said to her. Serac didn’t respond to that, at least not in words. She sprang forward and came dangerously close to slashing him in the face with her clawed hand; he could hear a rip as she managed to nick the part of his scarf that was hanging outside his collar. Being this close to her again, he could see that her face was furrowed with visible anger. It was different from how she had composed herself before. He must have struck a nerve with her. Terry retaliated with a kick to make her back off, and again it caught her frozen forearm, chipping off more ice. With her arm deflected she took a few steps backward and quickly dropped to the floor and laying her hand out flat. Once again a spray of ice burst out from it, but the spikes of ice were much larger than the ones she had shot at him and Nova before, reaching waist height and looking sharp enough to pierce right through his coat.

    He dived away from the line of ice and shot another bolt of lightning at her, but this time Serac had anticipated his move and one of the spikes of ice suddenly grew in size to intercept the bolt, its tip being vaporized in the process. Terry spared a moment to silently complement her on the reaction time before generating a ball of electricity in his hand and throwing it in her direction. It swooped in a wild arc that she hastily ducked away from, an arm thrown up to shield her eyes from its dazzling light. This was exactly the effect that Terry was looking for; he darted forward, keeping his body in a half-crouch, and threw an electrified punch into her side that sent her spinning, but like she’d done earlier she caught herself on the spin and drove the heavy heel of her outdoor boot into his side, resulting in him only barely managing to dodge a follow-up hammer kick.

    She thrust another blade of ice at him that he hastily backed away from and then jumped back over the dolly to put an obstacle between them and pulled over to the side to avoid the blade as she threw it at him like a javelin. Just as he was starting to wonder if he had gone over the time limit or not he suddenly a terrific explosion of pain and something heavy and metallic-feeling smashed into his temple from the side, darkening his vision with red and throwing him off balance. He reflexively put a hand to his head and felt a warm rivulet of blood creeping down his cheek, when through the haze before him he could make out something light-colored move in front of him before something, likely a fist, slammed into his stomach, stealing the air from his lungs and dropping him to the floor.

    Dammit... was the only thought going through his head, dimly aware of what must’ve just happened. Careless...

    Nova heard the crash and whirled to see some twenty feet away the sight of the man in white dropping Terrence to the floor with a punch right to the gut. The two men he had been tangling with, no doubt bruised and sore by now just like he was, stopped trying to throw punches at him to see what was going on too. The leader pulled out of the toolbox he had used to bludgeon his friend with a box cutter and flicked up the blade. Terrence was on the ground, wheezing and clearly dazed, and the stomped his foot down on his friend’s back to keep him pinned in place.

    “What are you doing?!” the girl gasped, and even from this distance Nova could see that she was visibly surprised by her leader’s actions.

    “What’s it look like?!” the man spat viciously. “Doing the job myself!” He looked over at Nova and pointed his blade in his direction. “Stay right there and don’t even think about doing anything funny unless you want me to kill your friend on the spot!” he growled. “How did you get in here?! How’d you find us?!”

    “Go to Hell.” Nova growled in defiance. In the corner of his eye he saw Burke pulling himself up to his feet, groaning and clutching his head. His very first thought was an admonishment, too late to be of any use, but then again that was how those sorts of things always worked. His second thought was to begin searching for a way out of this mess. Their leader’s sudden burst of action seemed to have taken the rest of the traffickers by surprise, but that wouldn’t last and they were already slowly closing in. Normally he wouldn’t be too concerned about them, but Nova could guess that the leader could plunge his box cutter into Terrence’s back or neck faster than he could wind up a punch. And if he happened to be truly out of it, that would certainly be a major hindrance to any sort of escape plan.

    But he had no time to think one up. The leader sneered at him and waved the blade around in his hand, emphasizing it. “That’s not the attitude you want to take with me.” he said. His face was contorted into an ugly, arrogant look. He lifted his foot off of Terrence’s back and grabbed him by the back of his scarf, pulling him up into a kneeling position. The man squatted down and pointed the tip of the blade at his neck. “Talk. Now.”

    He certainly couldn’t bullshit his way out of this now, and he was a little concerned about how the girl would react, but he had no choice. If he was fast enough, Nova was confident that he could knock the man away and then maybe grab his friend before the others could react...

    “Get your hands off of my friend!”

    Just as the man’s head jerked in the opposite direction to see where the voice had come from he was hit by what looked like a tightly-condensed funnel of air that shrieked and whistled as it blasted the man, throwing him off of Terrence and spinning him to the ground. The others all whirled their heads in the same direction and Nova took the briefest of moments to spot Akira, wind still swirling around him and an angry look on his face, jump out from behind a row of forklifts that were situated nearby, Daniel slightly behind him, looking incredibly apprehensive and clutching a fire extinguisher in his hands.

    Immediately Nova dove forward while the other traffickers were still caught by their surprise, like wild animals caught in a car’s headlights. He heard Terrence groan as he propped him up, but he was still conscious and his eyes were now open, albeit glassy-looking. At least he seemed to quickly take stock of what was happening.

    “Close your eyes.” he muttered, and Nova quickly looked away as his friend generated a second small ball of electricity that exploded with a sharp crack, the light dazzling the traffickers and briefly leaving small starbursts imprinted on his vision. Then Terrence stood up straight and gave the dolly an electric-boosted kick that sent it flying off towards the group. He turned, saw his other two friends, then wordlessly they all began to run. Daniel quickly stopped to spray a cloud of foam behind them to discourage any pursuit, then threw the canister itself into the mist. None of them spoke a word to each other as they carried out their escape plan, it was like they just wordlessly knew what to do, a sort of synergy born from the direness of their predicament. The four of them wheeled around to make towards one of the area’s exits, past the shelves, boxes, and conveyors. They could hear commotion from behind them, but it sounded more like swearing and gasps from the cloud of foam than the noise of pursuit. But as Nova, who was now leading, swung around a support column he spotted the man wearing the sweater and scarf ahead, seemingly having headed them off.

    “Out of our way!” he shouted at the man. Where had he been before? Was he not a fighter like the others? The man’s body was all tensed up, a look of annoyance on his face and teeth grit. Surely he wasn’t thinking of taking on all four of them?

    But after a few tense half-seconds, the man relaxed slightly, though his brow remained furrowed, and stepped to the side, leaving the way to the nearby exit open. “Get out of here.” he growled. Nova and his companions didn’t need to be told twice. They dashed past the scowling man, through the doorway, and hurried up the stairs as fast as they could go.

    “That guy just let us go, didn’t he?” Terrence remarked as they wheeled down the building’s empty hallways, trying to head back in the general direction they came in from.

    “Don’t complain.” Nova grunted. “How’s your head?”

    “Like it’s being squeezed by a vise.” Terrence grunted back, scowling himself. “I can see fine and everything, though.” Already it looked like the bleeding was starting to congeal, a good a sign as any. “Anyway,” Terrence looked over his shoulder towards Akira and Daniel who were starting to fall behind a bit as they lacked the stamina of the others. “why didn’t you guys run like we told you to?!”

    “Dumbass!” Akira exclaimed in the heat of the moment. “That guy...didn’t you see he was going to kill you?! You should...be glad that we changed our,,minds!”

    “I was just caught off guard, is all!” Terrence said defensively. “But yeah, thanks.”

    “Argue later!” Daniel gasped, doing his best to keep up. “Let’s just get out of here for now!” That was something they could all agree on.

    Side still aching from being blown to the floor, Gekko let out an articulate cry of fury and violently kicked the toolbox with his foot, knocking it over onto its side and disgorging its contents out onto the floor with a metallic clatter. This had been a disaster, a disaster! The others were nursing their own bruised frames, and no one seemed to dare to say a word. Gekko felt himself seethe. So help them...

    “Is...everyone all right?” Torrent asked as he approached the solemn group, in an annoyingly-oblivious way. Gekko took one glance at his face, saw red, and before he knew it had lunged forward, grabbed the startled man by his stupid scarf, and was yelling in his face.

    “What the hell was that all about?!” he shouted, pulling Torrent within inches of his own face. “You just let them go?! Do you realize what you just did?! What the hell were you thinking?!”

    Torrent’s surprised expression turned to one of anger as well. “Gte your hands off of me!” he shouted, pushing Gekko away from him. “What the hell was I supposed to do?! There were four of them, three Stargazers! It’s not like I had a gun or anything!”

    “They’re goddamn kids!”

    “Yeah, kids who could electrocute me and punch my frickin’ head off!” Torrent retorted. “Screw you!”

    Gekko felt his mouth starting to twist in preparation for another round of verbal abuse but decided no, Torrent wasn’t worth the wasted breath. Instead he swung around and locked his sights on River, who had one hand on the side of the truck to steady herself, her breathing coming long and hard. “And you!” he snapped. “I told you to take that kid out, what was up with that shitty performance?!”

    “I...” River began to open her mouth, but Gekko didn’t even let her begin. “You were practically useless!”

    “Hey, lay off of her!” Douglas interjected in a forceful, authoritative voice that was amplified by the acoustics of the area. His dark eyes were set in a look of understated anger. “If you’re so obsessed with being our leader, then don’t just go around assigning blame, act like one! Before anything else we need to figure out what we’re going to do here! Act like a brat afterwards!”

    Gekko felt a fresh surge of anger at being disrespected like that but this time he bit his tongue. Dammit, Douglas was right, that was the most important thing to do right now. Christian was going to be furious when he heard about this, so he might as well start on damage-control. Worrying about those damn kids and how they found them would have to come later. “Okay,” he muttered, sounding heavily restrained. “First, we clean up this shit.” He gestured towards the shards of ice and the puddle of fire extinguisher foam. Then he put a finger to his earpiece. “Did you see all of that, Adrian?”

    “A front row seat.” the young man replied in a deadpan, yet cheeky way.

    “Well can you use the Craybird to remove any trace of what just happened here from the security cameras’ records? I don’t want there to be any traces left of what just transpired for our clients to stumble upon.”

    “Hack their security system?” There was an apraising silence from the other end. “Sure.” Adrian said. “I should be able to do that.”

    “But...how did they find us?” Burke said confusedly, scratching his head. “That was Trident, right? How did they know where we’d be? I don’t get it.”

    “I dunno.” Gekko growled. “But what I do know is, if we don’t do something our asses are smoked.” he said. He didn’t have any doubt that if their plan did completely fall through they’d all be boned, but whether it would be at the hands of their clients, the police, Christian, or the organization, that was an uncertainty, and not one he wanted to know the answer to.

    A short wrap-up chapter next and we can say goodbye to this little arc of the story, and I won't be sad to see it go. Since this chapter had all the other HLTO members in one place, here're some more of my crappy artwork. Only head shots, 'cuz I'm lazy:

    Torrent, Gekko, and Mirch




    As I gloated mentioned in the general thread, I've actually finished writing the story, and the whole thing comes out to a nice, round forty chapters. I've already started on the next one, and it's pretty refreshing to finally be able to write a new story, even if it is using the same characters and setting. Eleven more chapters to go.
    ~Stargazer~, an original story.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

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