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[BLOG] Eli Green's Writing Blog

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction & Literature' started by Eli_Green, Apr 2, 2017.

  1. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    He was over halfway towards his sister when she looked up from her prism and gave another commanding yell.

    "EVERYONE! HERE! NOW!"

    Lufkal made to cover the remining distance between them as quickly as he could. He kept his expression blank as he arrived in front of her. From the way her left hand was clenched into a fist, to the sharp angles drawn by her brow, she radiated an intense frustration and looked ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

    She did not speak again until the rest of the team had gathered around her, acknowledging the presence of each arrival with an irritable stare.

    "Are you ready!?" She stated harshly to whoever she was calling.

    Judging from the quick nod she gave seconds later the person must have said yes. She then took a few steps back while gesturing for everyone to stay in place. After which she directed her prism towards the empty space between them – its light converging on a single point. The sharp silver beam formed a garbled swirl of silver lines as it approached its destination – a familiar face gradually materializing from the storm of light.

    "Hello, SRT." The large projection of Jaas' head boomed. "Let me first apologize for the less than ideal conditions…"

    The anger his sister undoubtedly felt appeared somewhat justified now. From the Telniran’s voice alone it sounded as if he really didn’t care about the ordeal he and his team had to endure; but the crease of concern topping his face told a different story.

    "Is that what your idea of a clean race was?" Izi spat venomously at the floating projection, interrupting Jaas’ apology.

    "Of course not. Having the city’s local thugs running around does not help any part of my operations." Jaas replied indignantly, shifting its luminous gaze towards Izi.

    "Well you seemed awfully prepared for something of that scale to happen." Izi pressed.

    "Don't play stupid. You all know as well as I do that you always need a backup plan in this business. Especially when it comes to what I have to manage over the course of a race – which is quite a bit more than what you probably think." Jaas' fiery retort boomed through the hold.

    "That being said, I had made additional preparations for tonight's race." Jaas said coldly, his barbels bristling. Lufkal's eyes narrowed as the hold was filled with the collective exclamations of shock that erupted through the hold. His lack of energy the only thing stopping his own outburst.

    "There's been rumours flying around in my company of someone trying to shut us down. There was no solid proof, but I was hearing it enough to warrant extra care."

    "So you were scared of something, but didn't let any of us know?" Astraka snapped hoarsely.

    "Like I said, all I had to go on at the time were rumours. But after seeing what these mercs actually tried to do, those rumours are starting to look like facts. Which brings me to my other reason for calling." Jaas' stated, the hardness in his voice reflected in the piercing stare of the scorning hologram.

    "I'm cracking down on sponsors, new entrants, and new hires until this is figured out. You’ll have to clear your next and future sponsors with me much further in advance of a race. And anyone new you want to hire will have to be screened by me first. All existing team members are exempt from this, but are all suspects in this investigation, especially anyone who has only joined in the last two months…"

    As Jaas continued to speak he swept his narrowed gaze across the assembled team. Lufkal followed the head’s progression, meeting its stare with a fierce glare of his own when it turned to him. He continued to follow its gaze as it moved on, an odd feeling dropping through his stomach as the floating head's cold eyes lingered on Mina.

    "…and yes you'll still be getting paid." Jaas added agitatedly, the hologram briefly returning its gaze to the team at large before Lufkal found himself the target of its silver gaze once more. "This fiasco aside, it was a good race. You've probably made yourself a few fans, Swift.” Jaas’ smirked.

    “Now if you'll excuse me. I have pilots who need their release secured, and team extractions to set up." As soon as he had finished, the Hologram disappeared, leaving the image of Jaas final frown burning into Lufkal's retinas.

    Lufkal remained in place as his teammates broke apart, returning to where they had been before Astraka had called them over.

    "I'm watching you Mina." Izi suddenly exclaimed with an unprecedented harshness as she passed by.

    "Excuse me!?" Mina replied incredulously. Lufkal's expression mirroring her tone as he turned to face the engineer.

    "To be fair, I think everyone here noticed the way Jaas looked at her." Alvens said with an unusual coldness.

    "I get one strange look and suddenly I can't be trusted?" Mina snapped back.

    "Arguably convenient contacts." Grauf stated as emotionless as ever as he walked by, wearing an expression that exposed the suspicion he had not added to his words.

    "Exactly." Izi said with a raised voice, stepping closer to an increasingly flustered Mina. You come in from some freak show salvaging group and just happened to know someone who sponsors races, someone to supply us with parts to make something that could almost outrun interceptors, and someone who could get us out of harms way. Not to mention the luxurious choice of housing." She added, jabbing a glowing red finger at Mina with each accusation.

    Lufkal's mind raced as the argument escalated into a shouting match that showed no signs of slowing down. Being a Harvester, while not directly involved in parts salvage, would no doubt have left her with an idea of where to look for good scrap. And it wasn’t hard to believe that someone she knew from her past work or education could have owned a place in Allegra.

    Similarly, if her contact with their sponsor for the race had arisen from her days a Harvester it wouldn’t make much sense for them to want to shut down the races – he flexed each of his mechanical fingers in turn, feeling the mechanical internals at work – after all, they typically benefitted from them. And while knowing one of the few ships that they could actually leave on was plenty convenient, it seemed plausible given her past. He searched Mina’s distraught face for anything out of place, but between his tiredness and her obvious distress, he could see nothing but genuine anger and fear.

    "If anything now I'm more suspicious” Izi spat, circuits pulsing like the X-2's diagnostics panel.

    A solitary crimson tear slipped solemnly down Mina's face as a look of defeat flowed through her body language. A flare of emotion shot through his core as Izi continued to lay into Mina with poorly thought out accusations. Each one adding fuel to his building exasperation until it burst forth and he launched himself into the fray.

    "Hello?! you do realize you're implying the only reason we even still exist as a team – who already had a career – threw everything away to do what? Stop Jaas' little racing league?" He shouted at Izi, making sure to display the metallic black surface of his prosthetics.

    "I feel like it'sss more than a little racing league that Jaasss iss afraid of." Sevyr hissed suddenly.

    "Even if that'sss the cassse; it doesssn't make sssenssse for Mina to be involved. Lufkal’sss right without her, the team would have disssbanded when he crassshed.” Vyssr snapped back at his twin'.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Lufkal saw Ved try to intervene in the proceedings but his voice was drowned out but by the increasingly loud shouts. Part of him wished he had kept quiet like Tik-Shud, who was working at a frantic pace as if he was trying to drown out the ruckus with work. But the rest was convinced that he should spend every bit of his remaining energy defending his position.

    "ENOUGH!" Astraka's shrill scream commanded, her tangible fury instantly silencing the bickering. "Need I remind you that we're a team. And that many of you know what happens when teams start tearing each other apart." She stated fiercely, directing her fiery gaze at Alvens, Izi, and the twins in turn. "Now get some rest or get to work. This conversation is finished!"

    Utterly terrified by his sister's mood – though he couldn't help but feel a little pride – he stood frozen in place until his sister had stepped over to a nearby table and return to her prism. Only then did he let go of his held breath. He then turned to Mina and waited for everyone else to drift back to their stations.

    A trembling smile appeared as they locked eyes once again – a silent understanding passing between them. After gently Squeezing her wiry metallic hands in the cold surface of his own prosthetics he returned back to where he had first woken up.

    Finally, it was time to get some rest.
     
    carlvic likes this.
  2. Beary

    Beary Member

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    Hmm... this is the end. I guess I should start reading your book now. Any chance you will get this illustrated?
     
  3. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    I may do sketches but probably not the whole thing.

    I'm currently going through and revising (as it is in dire need of it) what I've posted to clean up the characters, plot, etc.

    And though this part of the story is complete there will be at least two more to follow.
     
  4. carlvic

    carlvic Moderator Staff Member

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    I'd like to see a map of how you envision this world. Also, I'll re-read it. GJ.
     
  5. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    *update* currently working on the second draft; should hopefully finish it within a month or two
     
  6. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    *update* page 14/60
     
  7. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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  8. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    10 pages to go until the second draft is finished
     
  9. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Finished the draft finally.

    Swift (Book 1/3)

    "Attention. Attention.”

    Lufkal lowered his prism as the announcement rang clearly through the empty observatory, maintaining his forward gaze while the shimmering silver particles of the holographic interface dissipated. His vision dimmed briefly as the protective membranes of his eyes slid in and out, their horizontal motion allowing his eyes to readjust to the natural light that flowed in through the room’s sole window. The vast expanse of which was dominated by a swirling mass of grey and white.

    “All crew prepare for atmospheric descent." The serene, female voice of the ship’s VI stated, finishing the announcement.

    Taking it as his cue to leave, he rose to his feet; taking one last look at the turbulent atmosphere before stepping into the passageway that lead to the deck below.

    Dozens of white uniformed crew members skirted past him as he retraced his steps through the pristine hallways, their elegant attire blending all but their faces with the white panels that tiled the walls. A few of them gave him a puzzling glance as they dashed past, but the majority wore focused expressions, maintaining a steady gaze on whatever destination they were heading towards.

    It was becoming increasingly tempting to see where else in the ship he could manage to get into as he continued travelling against the flow of the ship’s apparently uncaring crew. But his planning got cut short by a sudden, short burst of sound.

    "Lufkal Sidilve! I shouldn't have to tell you where you need to be right now." A familiar voice said through the ear implants of his prism. The particularly snappy tone bringing a mischievous smile to his face.

    “Using the last name, Sis? What have I done to earn that? I’m not even late yet.” Lufkal chided back.

    His smirk faltered slightly when his sister responded with a long, exasperated sigh.

    “Lighten up, Sis.” He said lightly, all the while increasing his pace back towards the ship’s hold.

    "Just get down here! I want to get started soon!" She snapped.

    "Yes, Ma'am". He replied with mock formality, breaking out into a flat-out sprint.

    ...

    A few minutes later Lufkal had launched himself through the threshold of the ship’s central elevator, forcefully tapping the lowest deck on the selection screen as he screeched to a halt. He took a brief look at the floor as he paused to catch his breath, noting eight hairline scratches that now sullied the glistening floor. “They probably won’t even notice” he thought to himself, relaxing the grip his talons were still exerting as the elevator continued its downward journey.

    A light ping sounded as the elevator came to a soft halt. And with a soft swish the doors quickly slid open to reveal the ship’s cavernous hold.

    A warm smile spread across his face as he swept his gaze through the towering space. Several rows of black, collapsible work benches – haphazardly arranged into a ring – sat between the stacks of silver containers lining the walls. Their surfaces littered with tools and parts that twinkled under the glaring overhead lights.

    The familiar forms of his teammates were scattered amongst the cluster of tables, the assorted choices in dark grey tops making them easy to distinguish in the bright space. Some remained in place, working away at some task or another, while others flitted between the edge of the ring and the components of his disassembled zephyr that sat in the ring’s centre. The latter group occasionally adding a splash of dark red to the hold as light bounced off the block letters “SRT” – the Sidilve Racing Team logo – emblazoned across their chests.

    As he started towards the tables, Lufkal shot glances at each of his busy teammates to try and figure out who was doing what, and where he could lend a hand.

    Closest to him, hunched over a table laden with segments of wings and body panels, was Grauf; a fellow Vaseran and the team's aerodynamics specialist. The jet-black prosthetic he sported in place of his right arm gleamed as it swept across the table alongside it's tan, organic partner. His dilated black pupils, with their amber irises and black sclera, were directed towards the loose parts he was securing with an intensity that matched his furrowed brow and the stiffness of his spiky brown cranial plumage.

    Lufkal could see Alvens in conversation with Izi a row of tables behind Grauf. As usual, Alvens was leading the conversation; the Noval coach’s stern voice carrying clearly over the clamour of clinking parts floating out from the centre of the ring. The bronze light of his prism danced through the air as he pointed a pale-yellow arm at various tables. And though Lufkal could only see the thin yellow spines that topped Alvens’ ears and the shoulder-length straight, white hair that fell between them, it was not hard to imagine the piercing glare his four silver-white eyes were directing towards Izi.

    However, Izi – the lead mechanical engineer and one of the team’s two Tzilus – was barely paying any attention to Alvens. She was merely nodding and shaking her head at her long-standing teammate as she looked towards the centre of the tables with concern. All the while fixing the short ponytail her thin, central band of black hair was pulled into.

    Her lack of interest was made more apparent by the circuitry that lined her light-blue skin. The dim, red light the circuits emitted matching the soft glow of her optical implants and the hexagonal circuit-stem embedded within her forehead.

    Lufkal was not keen on joining in on whatever Alvens and Izi were talking about and knew better than to try to help Grauf when he was busy. So he was glad to see that Ved and Tik-Shud were just working on bolting down the larger parts of his zephyr in preparation for descent.

    Ved – the team's mechanic and technician – was adjusting the worn, grey mag-locks that were keeping the machine's skeletal frame in place. The lighthearted Tzilus wore a calm smile that matched the cool-white circuits on his grey-blue skin as he shifted the cube-shaped devices into place around the table-length trellis frame. He was meticulous in his work, making sure they formed a sturdy and balanced magnetic pull on the machine with each adjustment, and checking that none of the devices were pulling at the free hanging wires and cables that poked through the zephyr’s skeleton.

    As Ved crossed over to the opposite side of the machine Lufkal’s eyes jumped to the diminutive form of Tik-Shud, who was scrambling around the anti-matter drive core that had been stripped from the vehicle. A blur of moving sleeves surrounded the Hyperactive Asparach as he ran diagnostics, made some final adjustments, and began securing the core simultaneously – each of his three pairs of arms performing a single task.

    Tik-Shud’s head whizzed from side to side as he worked, showing off the white and dark red stripes that decorated the sides of his tarnished, grey safety helmet. The speed at which he flicked around the top third of his body making it clear why he needed the protection. Though Lufkal was sure that underneath the helmet’s opaque visor, the nine eyes of Izi’s apprentice were glinting with excitement.

    Dismissing the nagging thoughts about the lack of his sister’s presence, Lufkal began making his way towards Ved and Tik-Shud. But not without shooting a wary glance at the rough line of tarnished crates and containers at the far edge of the tables.

    There, silhouetted against the hold’s massive bay doors stood a pair of serpentine figures he knew to be Sevyr and Vyssr; the Palyx twins that formed the team’s security crew. The back of each brother’s armoured-vest clad torso was undulating up and down as his muscular, brown-scaled tail coiled beneath him. On the left, Sevyr was flexing his shoulders and bearing his arms menacingly as if preparing to strike. His brother had only crossed his arms however, though he still seemed to be anticipating trouble.

    Judging by the twins’ body language it probably wasn't the best idea to go looking for his sister. Sighing to himself, he tore his eyes away from Sevyr and Vyssr, and stepped into the central space.

    "Anything I can help you with?" Lufkal asked Ved and Tik-Shud.

    "Yes, actually!" Ved replied jovially, his cheerfulness accentuating the metallic undertones of his voice. "Do you mind grabbing the last couple of mag-locks to secure the tail section?" he added, pointing at the table were the devices were being kept.

    “Sure thing.” Lufkal answered, already moving towards where Ved had indicated. He returned seconds later with the last two devices in a precarious stack. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ved chuckling and shaking his head. Lufkal replied with a shrug, only barely managing to catch the mag-locks before fighting further against gravity to set them on the floor without damaging them. He laughed of the mishap once the heavy cubes were safely on the ground. And with a reassuring wave at Ved’s relieved expression, he set to work placing and calibrating the mag-locks.

    "Great job on Mina to land us a sponsor like this.” Ved announced several minutes later as they finished up their respective tasks. “It's been nice to work out of a new ship for a change."

    Tik-Shud – who was now sitting on top of the secured drive core – nodded in agreement.

    "Ye, Mina have been good help to team." Tik-Shud said, both his broken GSD and the clicking of his pedipalps muffled by his helmet. "And good help to Lufkal too! No Mina, no more arms for Lufkal!" He added with a cheerful triple clap.

    "Guess that’s true." Lufkal said sheepishly as he eyed the matte gunmetal prosthetics that had replaced the forearms he had shattered only two months ago. It was still slightly jarring to see his pale grey skin give way to the nanofibre plating stretching from his elbows to the tips of his clawed fingers. Although the crimson red lights that dotted and lined each prosthetic’s aggressive plating had started to grow on him.

    "Where is she anyway?" Lufkal asked, hoping that the answer was not what he currently suspected.

    "She was helping Astraka with packing up some of the crates the last I saw her. Why do you want to know?" Ved answered knowingly.

    "No reason.” He blurted, rising to his feet to try and get rid of the sudden warmth in his face. Just wondered why we haven't done that usual pre-landing meeting." He added with a subdued murmur.

    "I see." Ved replied sceptically and with a sharp grin.

    Lufkal managed to ignore Ved’s tone but failed to do the same for Tik-Shud’s poor attempt at hiding a fit of snickering. Though he couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the waist-high Asparach rocking back and forth atop the drive core.

    "I'm just going to see if they're done so we can get this meeting started." He stated with some composure as he turned towards the twins’ perch.

    He had hardly even lifted a talon off the floor when the ship's VI boomed through the hold.

    "Attention. Attention. Atmospheric descent imminent. All crew return to your stations."

    Lufkal was sure he had heard a familiar voice echo beneath the announcement and pivoted to each of his teammates in turn, only to be met with froze in place as he pivoted to each of his teammates in turn. The unphased expressions of those in and around the tables were close to pushing him to dismiss the notion. But no sooner had he turned his eyes to the twins, when a sudden ear-piercing screech echoed nastily throughout the room. A truly haunting sound that Lufkal knew only too well.
     
  10. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Lufkal's heart raced as the echo of the talon-on-metal screech faded into a deathly silence. All around him his teammates had reacted in a similar fashion; halting what they had been doing and turning to the source of the ominous sound. All except for Sevyr – who had moved to slither down from the crates, only to be restrained by his brother – and Grauf – who seemed to have ignored the event altogether.

    He kept his sharp gaze focused on the leftmost edge of the stack, a sense of dread welling up within him as pair of footsteps echoed closer.

    Seconds later, a pale grey arm tipped with a clenched fist swung past the stack’s jagged border. Then came the deliberate stomp of a similarly coloured talon protruding from skin-tight black pant leg. Another hard step brought the rest of Astraka into view, her collared shirt pulsing with turbulent breaths, that matched the ferocity of her scowl. Each of her silver irises glinted threateningly as she came under the glare of the lights; the very same light casting menacing shadows over the dark circles already present beneath them.

    Lufkal remained in place as Astraka stormed forwards, watching on as she ran a quivering hand through her spiky, silver cranial plumage. He met his sister’s fiery gaze briefly while she approached but looked away when the slender form of Minasaemorha – a Nidessian bio-medical engineer, and the team’s most recent addition – stalked into view.

    A cold shiver passed over him as Mina emerged. There was a stiffness to the usual graceful motions of her prosthetic limbs, and both of her metallic hands were curled into spindly fists. Like Astraka, her half-sleeve top quivered in time with her sharp, inhales. However, she did not follow in Astraka’s wake, instead opting to skirt the perimeter of the tables. Nor did she spare even the slightest of glances towards where he or the rest of the team stood.

    "Alright team!" Astraka shouted fiercely as she stepped into the centre of the tables.

    Knowing that looking elsewhere when Astraka was this angry never helped, Lufkal tore his eyes away from Mina’s movements and cautiously met Astraka’s moisture lined stare.

    "Grauf! That includes you." She sighed with tangible irritation.

    The sounds of Grauf reluctantly dropping whatever tool he had still been working with clanked dismally through the hold; the dampened rumble of atmospheric re-entry perpetuating the melancholy clanging.

    Astraka made a point to shoot Grauf an exasperated look before brushing a feather out of her face and launching into her speech.

    "I know it has been a while since we’ve had a schedule to work with; but come on team.” She began condescendingly. “We’ve been… fortunate enough to acquire an adequate sponsorship. So it is critical that we deliver the best result we can." She stated with an air of resentment. "Something that can only be done if the structure of the team is respected."

    Lufkal gave a clear, affirmative nod as Astraka aimed a piercing stare through the ring.

    “Any information that can effect the whole team should be brought to my attention. I don’t want any of you dealing with more than your own roles, especially in our current position. Have I made myself clear!?” She shouted with a commanding force that reverberated around the hold alongside the clamour of the rattling containers.

    Mumbled agreements and a round of similar gestures were offered to Astraka as she glowered each member of the team in turn. Lufkal followed her eyes as she snapped her gaze between the assembled team, anxiously waiting for her to shift towards him.

    When Astraka finally turned to face him, her scowl had all but disappeared. Cautiously, Lufkal nodded his head, being careful not to break eye contact. A thin smile cracked on Astraka’s face in response. Lufkal instinctively mirrored her expression; he was relieved to see that his sister was still there beneath the towering pile of her managerial duties.

    "Thank you." She said, the last vestiges of her anger dissipating along with the remaining thin creases etched into her brow. "Now that we are all on the same page, let's get through these individual reports. Alvens..."

    All around him the team began to drift around the hold either waiting to give Astraka an update on their area of expertise or finding something to do until the ship finished its descent. With nothing to report yet again, Lufkal fell into the latter category and had so far only come up with scanning the room to ease the tension in his eyes. As he continued his aimless rotation he had half a mind to wander back up to the upper deck to watch the rest of the re-entry. But the thought was quickly replaced by a more pressing discovery; Mina had disappeared.

    Lufkal rushed towards the team’s crates and clambered up the pile, ignoring the confused looks worn by Sevyr and Vyssr. From his new vantage point he could clearly see every corner of the vast space, but a concentrated sweep of the room revealed nothing. It was not unlike her to briefly leave wherever the team happened to be working, but given the circumstances...

    Feeling a tinge of concern, he hopped off the stack, raising his prism as he started off across the shuddering floor. As he skirted the edge of the tables he opened the interface of the team’s CommLink channel; increasing his pace when he saw that Mina was missing from the list of users.

    He gave the elevator panel a sharp rap upon reaching its sealed doors; bouncing on his feet impatiently as he waited for its arrival. He sprung through the threshold before the doors had slid open and selected a floor at random to get them to close. He then flipped through holographic panels to find his contact list, locating Mina amongst his other favourited contacts.

    At the same time the elevator began its steady rise, Lufkal made to call Mina. But, an uncomfortable fluttering filled his stomach as his hand approached the silvery projection. The remaining organic tissue of his right arm tensed up, leaving his outstretched prosthetic a claw’s distance away from the shimmering prism.

    A torrent of possible outcomes – positive, negative, and everything in between – flooded his mind as he stood still. The sensation – like bad case of pre-race nerves – coursed through him in powerful waves, keeping him frozen in a trance-like state until the elevator’s light ping snapped him back to his senses.

    Beads of cold sweat dripped down the side of his forehead as he stared down the deserted white corridor that the elevator’s doors had slid open to reveal. Then, just like he dealt with pre-race nerves, he began drawing deep, steadying breaths. The stiffness that had seized his body eased with every breath, and once he had regained the feeling in his living arm he initiated the call with no further hesitation.

    He continued the rhythm of calming breaths as he waited for a response; timing his breathing with the steady ringing.

    After what had felt like hours, a bright jingle interrupted the ringing.

    "Sorry Lufkal, I'd rather stay alone at the moment" She murmured, clearly still riled up.

    "If that were really the case you wouldn't have answered at all." Lufkal asserted without thinking. Bracing himself for a verbal punch in the face as he replayed what he had said through his mind.

    "I guess you're right." Mina sighed with a mix of dejection and resentment.

    Having been expecting an angry retort of some kind, Mina's response caught him completely off guard leaving him at a loss for something to say.

    "Well there's an observatory on the upper deck. Want to meet there in few minutes?" He asked, putting an end to the unsettling silence and hoping that the confusion he felt was not audible.

    Another long pause took hold of the conversation, leaving Lufkal’s question floating awkwardly in the air. However, this time it was Mina that broke the silence.

    "That would be… appreciated.” Mina replied, a slight quiver still present in her voice. “I'll see you there."

    Relief flooded his veins as the call ended, only to be replaced with uneasiness. He was unsure what Mina would be expecting. In fact, he was unsure of what he himself was expecting. A feeling that persisted as he tapped the floor selection panel again, directing the elevator upwards once again.
     
  11. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Lufkal’s silvery glare was fixated on the layers of dark, billowing clouds the ship was peeling its way through when the swish of the door permeated the observatory’s stillness. And though he maintained his forward focus, he caught the corners of his thin lips perking up slightly in his reflection as familiar metallic footsteps drew closer.

    A faint ripple passed through the air to his left as Mina’s image appeared in the glass. The chalk-white skin of her face stood out clearly against the backdrop of swirling grey, accentuating the tattooed black stripes that lined her shaved head and wrapped around her slender neck. Her dark makeup created a similarly emphatic effect, making her pupil-less, ashen eyes glow in spite of the slight frown she wore. The very same frown delineating the pointed fangs beside the corners of her pale lips.

    “I don’t know.” Mina muttered, her reflection echoing the motions of the bone-white plating on her wiry prosthetics as she folded them across her slight frame.

    "“What don’t you know?” Lufkal asked warily.

    "If I made the right choice to join this team." She blurted before turning her back towards him.

    Her reply felt like getting doused with frigid water. He had spent a great deal of time working alongside Mina during his recovery and not once that he could recall had she expressed such any such feelings of regret.

    "And why's that?" He asked, fighting against the tumult of emotions building inside him to maintain a steady voice.

    She did not reply right away, leaving Lufkal to watch the increasing rate and intensity of her breathing through her torso’s quivering reflection.

    “Because it’s just as frustrating as when I became a Harvester.” She yelled, hemorrhaging what sounded like weeks of pent-up rage. “The idea of being able to travel the stars and help people with what I spent years training for; only to be dragged around like a niche tool that might someday have a use.”

    Mina’s fierce retort incited his own anger. "You do realize that this team wouldn't exist right now if it weren't for you." Lufkal stated sharply turning to face the back of her head.

    “Which is exactly like I said!” Mina snapped as she whipped around; a shrill clang echoing through the space as she thrusted an inorganic leg at the floor. “Start me off with something that I can do. And when that’s done start giving me tasks just so you can justify keeping me around in case I’m needed again. The only differences are that I didn’t have to get rid of any limbs to join and that I haven’t had to strip salvage off any corpses!”

    In the absence of a response the room descended into a harrowing quiet only broken by sharp inhales and the ambient rumbling of the ship. Lufkal merely stared at Mina, dumbstruck by the eruption of wrath she had funneled towards him.

    “I didn’t… I’m…” He stammered.

    “No… don’t apologize…” She stammered back, a single crimson tear beginning a solemn journey down the centre of her face. “I’m just… I don’t know.” She continued, brushing away the tear, only for another to follow in its wake. “I had to throw so much away to get a job where I couldn’t make a difference. I just don’t want to go through that again.”

    Not quite sure what to do and finding it unbearable to watch Mina stand alone in despair, he threw caution to wind and gently placed his right arm on her shoulder. “But you have made a difference.” He said with a soft smile, while a glowing wave of red travelled the length of his forearm.

    Lufkal watched as Mina stared at the gunmetal prosthetic for a moment, moving with the appendage as she delicately removed it from her shoulder and held it in both hands as if it weren’t connected to the rest of his arm. “I mean… Yes, to you of course.” She began with some composure. “But half of the others still look at me and see a Harvester, and your sister seems to think of me even worse than that.”

    He quickly smothered flare of residual anger Mina’s final words had stirred but was unable to stop the violent twitch that coursed through the arm she was holding. A pang of guilt pierced his thoughts as she hopped back with fright and pushed the limb back towards him, displaying the shadows of her own recently quelled anger. Yet at the same time, something about the way Astraka had been acting clicked into place.

    "I can’t speak for anyone other than Astraka.” Lufkal began slowly, gathering his thoughts as his arm fell limp by his side. "But I can see how she might give you that impression.”

    There was a look of disbelief on Mina’s face as she processed what he had just said. Her eyes narrowed, but she did not interject. So assuming it was reasonably safe to make his point, he continued.

    “I’m certain she appreciates you though.” Mina’s thin eyebrows rose even higher as Lufkal spoke but remained silent.

    “In fact, I don’t think she has a problem with you at all.” He said, bracing for the outburst he could see boiling beneath Mina’s lips.

    “Have you seen the way she looks at me?” Mina exclaimed, unable to contain her incredulity.

    But Lufkal was prepared for the interjection and launched right into his response. “Let me guess, a dismissive glare and a tense frown with no eye contact?”

    She donned a look that oozed skepticism as she gave a measured response. “I suppose so, yes.”

    Mina’s answer was in line with what he had been expecting. However, any triumph he felt was washed away by the disturbing reality it confirmed.

    “Then you really should let me apologize” Lufkal stated sullenly.

    “What? Why?” She replied, taking a step forward.

    The confusion manifesting on Mina’s pale visage mirrored the tumult of emotions swirling through his head. It was as if each of the unspoken feelings wanted to make themselves heard at the expense of the others.

    A couple of steadying breaths did nothing to alleviate the mounting pressure. So he pressed on with his attempt to piece together a suitable explanation – sliding the cool surfaces of his palms across his face to alleviate the throbbing.

    “First you need to understand that Astraka has always tried to do everything by herself. At least up until a few years ago.” He murmured through his hands; pulling them down just far enough to see Mina’s reaction.

    She looked ready to snap back with a fiery retort but swallowed whatever words had been ready to burst forth. Instead, responding with an attentive nod. Emboldened by her willingness to hear him out, he continued.

    “She got dragged into a bunch of trouble when she moved out but kept it to herself to avoid admitting she needed help. The only reason she even let me know was because I promised not to tell anyone else.” He said, closing his eyes as he tried another round of deep breaths; opening them when a delicate grip pressed on his left shoulder.

    “Just hearing what she was going through was horrible, but I didn’t do anything until she asked.” He went on; Mina’s touch spurring him to push against a wall of repressed guilt. “And when she did reach out, we both learned that either of us should have acted sooner.”

    “What did you do?” Mina urged in something more akin to her usual soothing tone.

    “We came up with a few ideas, but we couldn’t agree on how to split the inevitable fallout; meanwhile things were only getting worse for her. Eventually I decided that we were never going to be able to agree on a plan, so I hopped on a freighter with my old zephyr and set off to fly her out of the situation.” Despite the presence of Mina’s hand, his shoulders felt lighter, and a strange feeling of relief swept through his form. He lowered his hands as the sensation swept through his head, blinking a few times before meeting Mina’s wide-eyed stare.

    “She still feels responsible, doesn’t she?”

    Lufkal tilted his head in agreement. “We were lucky enough to run into the team after they had lost their previous pilot and zephyr, so we at least had work.”

    “Except now she has to deal with you risking your life on her behalf as well.” Mina said before he could put the thought to words.

    He nodded again. “Something that I helped make worse.” He said, raising his forearms and individually flexing each of the clawed fingers. “She still blames herself for not being able to do enough.”

    “And having us both serve as reminders…” Mina whispered as she gently slid her hand off his shoulder, tracing it over his still outstretched arm and brushing it against his own before wrapping it around her neck.

    “Yeah, it hasn’t been an easy few months and maybe she’s gone back to her old way of doing things in some places, but she is trying to get better.” Lufkal finished, leaving a hush to fall on the observatory.

    It felt like some silent understanding passed between them as his gaze remained interlocked with Mina’s; a feeling Mina reciprocated with an elegant smile.

    His own warm grin formed as their unspoken conversation went on; a pleasant warmth pulsing through his face with each of the fading rumbles of turbulence.

    Suddenly a blast of light illuminated the observatory as the ship finally pierced through the clouds. The flood of fluid deep blue reflecting the roiling waves now visible through the room's wide window.

    The eruption was accompanied by the booming voice of the ship's VI.

    "Atmospheric descent to Albora complete. All crew prepare to dock at Allegra Aquatic Multi-Terminal 2."
     
  12. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    rest to come later

    FYI, xenforo's paste clean up script doesn't like more than one non-breaking space in a row if you're posting rich text
     
    Last edited: May 17, 2018
  13. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Lufkal stepped off the elevator into the incredulous glare of his sister. Her crossed arms and tapping talons telling him the words she refused to speak.

    "Found Mina." Lufkal stated sheepishly, ruffling the back of his spiky plumage as he stepped into the hold once again.

    Astraka merely raised an eyebrow in response, her visible confusion causing an unpleasant squirming to crawl through his core. When it was clear that she was not going to elaborate on her position he began the path back to the ring of tables, the echoes of Mina’s footsteps joining his as he crossed the hold.

    Lufkal tried his best to ignore Ved’s deliberate smirk while he broke through the ring’s outer edge; doing the same when Alvens shot a disapproving look in his direction. He acknowledged neither expression and kept his focus on the frame of the zephyr until he arrived at its side. Then he gave the frame a slight push to test that the mag-locks had held.

    Glad that the tubular frame and its exposed innards seemed to be firmly in place, he took a seat next to the naked machine, waiting for the ship to touch down.



    "Alvens, finalize our transport rentals! Sevyr, Vyssr, go with him and make sure everything looks good and secure!" Astraka yelled commandingly over the mechanical whine of the opening bay doors.

    "I will let you know when we're all set." Alvens shouted in agreement before turning towards the steadily growing vertical slit of light at the back of the hold. The twins nodded their serpentine heads – each of their six amber eyes glistening with purpose – before slithering after him.

    "Everyone else, start loading up the skids! I want everything ready to go by the time Alvens calls back!" Astraka ordered.

    The hold was instantly filled with motion as the rest of the team scrambled to their feet and sprang into action. While his teammates were busy checking over the contents of the tables or gathering the components of the disassembled zephyr, Lufkal rushed through the ever-brightening hold to the thankfully undisturbed stack of crates and containers. He quickly located a large jet-black container at the back of the pile.

    He then brought up his prism and ran his left hand across the length of the crate’s uniquely unblemished surface. The matte exterior of the crate spiked in temperature as the sensors embedded within its walls registered the access frequency emitted by the shimmering tool.

    The moment the last of his fingers had lifted from the pleasantly warm surface, the containers nanite-infused walls began to writhe and squirm. The rapidly contorting material fluttered inwards and upwards of its own accord, producing a sound that matched the millions of miniscule folding movements taking place. Its suddenly fluid consistency allowed it to draw itself into thin tubes around its contents until it settled into a vertical rack that revealed the team's supply of neatly flux-skids.

    After the crate's transformation had completed, Lufkal pulled out a pair of dull grey flux-skids and set them on the floor. He briefly examined them to ensure they were in good condition before prodding a small panel at each of their centres and standing back as they hovered up to the height of his shins. Once they had settled he gave each skid a push, causing them to drift towards the rest of the team as they followed the magnetic rails integrated into the floor.

    As the first pair of skids disappeared behind the rest of the crates he pulled out another pair, repeating the process until a single flux-skid remained. He removed the final skid, activated it, and immediately slotted it into a horizontal space at the bottom of the rack. Then, he opened his prism again, setting it to emit a revert frequency before repeating the motion he had made to cause the crate to transform. The nanites immediately set to work reforming their original shape, however this time doing so around the last skid. By the time the crate had been reconstructed it was sitting neatly on top of the gently floating platform, ready to be transported. Lufkal gave the crate a firm push and watched it glide out of the bay doors. Once it had come to a stop on the surface of the landing pad, he rejoined his teammates to help load the rest of skids.

    He was about to reach Ved and Tik-Shud – who were heaving the core parts of his zephyr onto some skids – when Grauf's emotionless voice called his name. Lufkal turned on the spot and joined him by a pair of tables. When he arrived, Grauf said nothing, instead simply pointing a gleaming black finger towards the surface of the table closest to him.

    "You’ve been busy." Lufkal exclaimed as he took a closer look at the table’s contents. A pair of grey forewings stood out from the assortment of precision tools and bottled supplies. Each wing’s leading edge was lined with a thin black stripe, with a red stripe of similar thickness falling in place behind it. Yet, despite bearing a familiar colour scheme, the forewings were certainly smaller and more swept back than he remembered.

    Grauf tilted his head in acknowledgement, a glint of pride appearing in his amber eyes. "These should give you more control." He replied plainly, picking up one of the new wings and delicately placing it onto a nearby skid like a newborn.

    Lufkal would have pressed him for more details on the performance areas the parts were attempting to improve if he had a more recent frame of reference; though admittedly he preferred not having to piece together the shreds of information Grauf would have undoubtedly given him. Instead, he picked up the remaining wing – noting its lack of weight – and followed Grauf's actions.

    They spent the next five minutes shifting the table’s remaining contents to the skid, ensuring that weight was distributed evenly on the floating platform. Grauf gave him a swift nod once everything had
    been transferred. He returned the nod and gave the skid a gentle push, sending it hovering slowly towards the growing assembly of fully loaded flux-skids that sat beyond the bay doors.

    Before Lufkal had a chance to see what remained to be moved, a metallic outburst resonated through the hold.

    "Astraka! Can we hold off on assembly for now?!” Izi's cool voice resonated through the hold, drawing Lufkal’s attention back towards where Ved, Tik-Shud, and now Izi, were standing. “There’s been a few last–minute changes that need to be tested!” she said pointedly, her circuits ablaze with a fiery light.

    A muffled sigh came from behind the collapsed table Astraka was in the process of moving.

    "I'd much prefer we kept on schedule." Astraka panted irritably as she set down her charge, leaning on it for support as she caught her breath. "What risks do we run if you don't do them?"

    "Engine failure." Izi stated bluntly, her eyes flashing threateningly.

    Astraka did not answer immediately. Yet other than subtle grating of her contracting talons, there were few signs of an impending outburst. Instead it was concern that filled her expression as her eyes flitted between Izi's scowling visage and where he stood.

    "Do what you must." Astraka replied softly before reaching for the table once more. "Just try to do so as quickly as possible so we don’t miss out practice time." She ordered, her voice once again muffled by the table.

    Relieved that the situation had resolved itself, and with Grauf’s tables packed up, Lufkal made his way across the hold towards Izi, Ved and Tik-Shud.

    "Is it possible for us to go five minutes without biting each others' heads off?" He said with a smirk as he drew in on the group and the twin turbines that had been separated from the drive core.

    "Not if you want to stay alive next time you screw up." Izi sneered back, as she looked up from her tinkering. "And Tik, twist slowly this time." She yelled over her shoulder, casting a menacing red glare in the Asparach's direction.

    "Sorry." Tik-Shud said glumly, the notably unblemished turbines and the flux-skid they were floating on masking the apprentice from view.

    "Hang on, are those new?" Lufkal exclaimed as the matte black surface of each cylinder, stole his attention.

    "Kind of. There was no way we could afford new parts on top of a new machine after you crashed. But Mina was apparently able to pull a few favours.” Izi replied with a huff. “Got Grauf whatever he needed to keep him occupied and got us enough materials to redesign the stock drive core." She added as she ran finger across the surface of the turbine closest to her and causing the flux-skid it was sitting on to wobble.

    "You're not helping." Ved said from behind the skid, his polite tone betrayed by his dim circuits.

    "Well neither is misaligning the blades, so you can thank Tik for that." Izi snapped back, the flare of her own circuitry subsiding.

    Another muffled apology came from Tik-Shud's side of the skid at Izi's retort.

    Lufkal frowned at Izi as she turned back to face him.

    "Oh, come on Lufkal, getting that look from Astraka is bad enough." Izi exclaimed ruefully, the corners of her lips sinking like her lightless gaze. But Lufkal did not relax his glare.

    "Yeah, I guess that was a bit harsh…” She said apologetically. “I’m just a bit on edge – first time we've raced in a while, you know?"

    "True.” Lufkal replied forcing his voice to remain calm to mask a spike in his steadily building nerves – it had been a while since he had even sat on a zephyr, let alone raced one.

    “But that's why we're a team, so we can overcome that stress. Can't really do that if we're always angry at each other." Ved's voice chimed in from underneath the grinding and grating of his and Tik-Shud's work.

    “I don’t know how you manage deal with us Ved, but I suppose we’ll be fine as long as we have one person thinking clearly" Izi sighed. "And sorry Tik." She added with sincerity.

    "Is okay!" Tik-Shud responded in his usual cheer and happily clapping his top pair of hands together.

    The diminutive engineer’s optimism was infectious, and he couldn't help but chuckle as the reservations he had been mulling over melted away.

    He watched on as Izi returned to the drive core, her lips lined with a thin smile, before turning to see what else needed to be done.

    From where he stood he could see that Astraka and Mina were out on the landing pad, both sitting next to the fleet of flux-skids and both looking tired out – though Astraka much more so. Grauf on the other hand was leaning up against the yet to be moved crates, waiting for someone to help him move the haphazard stack.

    Lufkal started across the hold at a brisk pace. By the time he arrived at the pile Grauf had already climbed to the top and started preparing the crates for transport. Once Lufkal had scrambled up the stack Grauf looked up and nodded. Then, each Vaseran tapped one end of the central crate, revealing a hand sized display that projected two rectangular buttons. The upper button was green with an upward facing arrow, and the bottom one red with a downward facing arrow. In unison, they tapped their respective green buttons once, and stood back as the micro-thrusters at the base of the crate lifted it gently into the air. With a single command from his prism, Lufkal sent the crate floating towards the rest of the team's equipment. And as the initial burst of thrusters settled into a steady roar they moved on to the next crate and started the process again.

    By the time they were done, Izi, Ved and Tik-Shud had moved their work out of the hold, leaving the cavernous, white space in a clean save for a few scratches.

    "Done." Grauf announced as he sat down on the other side of Astraka.

    "Good." Astraka said, still sounding winded from moving the tables. "Because Alvens just called. He's on his way."
     
  14. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Cool sea air swept through Lufkal's plumage as he sat on the roof of one of the pair of plain white cargo vortexes the team had rented. Their relegation to open deck of a ferry – one of the many ferries that transported people, vehicles, and cargo from the Multi-Terminals to the docks on Allegra’s shoreline – allowing him to maintain his perch with relative ease.

    It wasn’t the most comfortable place to be sitting by any stretch of the imagination. Every few minutes a particularly strong gust of wind would rise off the bay’s churning waves, sending a blast of brisk air towards him. The jarring undulation of the crowded deck was also a far cry from the smoothness of aerial travel – even factoring in the occasional bout of turbulence.

    Having to endure the rough ride and brace himself against the weather every now and then was better than sitting inside the stuffy cabin however. And the flotilla of polished luxury yachts, and nimble pleasure craft that skimmed across the wide bay provided a decent distraction from the uncomfortable sensation of his organs gradually pressing inwards from the sea level air pressure. A quirk of Vaseran biology that he could live without.

    He turned with the wind as another surge of air buffeted his head and torso. While looking back he caught a quick glimpse of the trio of Multi-Terminals, the white cylindrical structures gleaming despite the swathe of grey dominating the sky above. The top of a massive wall – similar in colour to the structures it was bound with – rose out of the water next to the towering pillars, blocking the view of the ocean that lay beyond them and effectively isolating the bay.

    When the wind had subsided once again, Lufkal returned his gaze to the bay at large. Hundreds of boats were navigating the stormy waves; some – the larger industrial types – were clearly on the path too or from the Multi-Terminals, but most of the glittering sea craft were meandering between the city’s sandy shores.

    The air above the water was strikingly devoid of traffic, only filled by the occasional ship roaring towards or away from the Multi-Terminals. The lack of vortex and zephyr traffic over the bay producing a clear view of the expansive resorts that lined the waterfront and the impressive skyline that towered behind them. A forest of artistically curved towers swept across the horizon; the intricate canopy periodically pierced by sleek residential spires that stretched high into the air, appearing to surpass the altitude of the distant forest-covered mountains. It was only deep within amongst the collection of structures he was able to spot any signs of aerial traffic. The streams of vehicles weaving between the elaborate buildings so artistically masked, he had to wonder if their exclusion from abundant airspace above the water was intentional.

    He could also see a plethora of figures scattered across Allegra's various beaches, their silhouettes easily distinguishable from the golden sand. The walkways lining the shorefront were equally packed, with many of the crowds converging on the bustling docks on either side of the centre of the bay. Situated between the two marinas was a wide canal, its seemingly endless flow splitting the city into an eastern and western half, with the smoothly arced bridge that spanned the two sides the only visible link between them.

    "Brother." The sudden greeting from Astraka stole his attention away from the luxurious shoreline and towards the right side of the transport’s roof.

    "It's only slightly better up here." He said, extending an arm towards her as she pulled herself up the edge.

    Astraka did not reply until she had clambered up onto the roof, leaving Lufkal's extended arm to hang in the breeze. "The humidity in the cabin is much worse than this I assure you." She said, sounding short of breath. "I don't know how Grauf manages to handle it."

    Lufkal shrugged as he retracted his arm. He had long given up on trying to understand how or why Grauf acted in the way he did.

    "Any word from Jaas?" He asked, changing the subject.

    "So far just the usual. Race day schedule has been posted, but no track info yet. Nothing has really changed in how things are managed since your crash." Astraka replied, raising her voice to match a rush of howling wind. “Especially the time it takes for anything useful to be announced pre-race.”

    "What about you? Are you ready?" She asked once the wind had subsided, a hint of worry buried in her pressing tone.

    He was about to voice his mounting apprehension but caught his reply before the words escaped his mouth. He could not find it within himself to burden his sister with anymore concerns than what her stricken look already conveyed.

    "I should be good once I get some practice time." He said in as reassuring of a voice as he could muster while he bottled his bubbling tension.

    "Let's hope so." She stated in a commanding tone that did not wholly mask her uncertainty.

    A hush fell over the pair following Astraka's statement, amplifying the sounds of the increasingly frequent howls of seaborne wind, and the hulking mass of the ferry crashing through the waves as it powered towards the city's eastern dock.

    Suddenly, the grey clouds above opened up, loosing a deluge of rain upon the bay.

    "Of course." Astraka muttered glumly, the torrential downpour soaking her plumage and flattening it to the sides of her head. She promptly started towards the lip of the roof to make her way back to the cabin – which despite being uncomfortable, would at least be dry. Lufkal – who was faring no better – followed in his sister's wake.
     
  15. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    The journey to the residential spire that one of Mina’s contacts had lent to the team to borrow was a long one. The underground airway networks running beneath Allegra were full to the brim with the traffic that was vacant from the city’s picturesque airspace. Bulky cargo and transport vortexes slowly drifted through the air, carefully navigating the narrow space between the tunnel walls. While the ground was covered by convoys of rugged ground vehicles rumbling across the floor at a crawling pace.

    After what felt like hours they pulled into the cavernous landing bay of the residential spire. The rounded space was packed with luxurious personal vortexes in an assortment of vivid hues. A constant flow of these vehicles streaming through an opening that appeared to lead directly to the city above.

    The pair of cargo vortexes quickly set down within a collection of spaces that had been reserved for them. Then, Lufkal and his teammates began the process of unloading the holds of the respective vehicles; scattering the contents of each transport onto the space made available to them and starting to setup a familiar looking ring of tables.

    Throughout the unloading process Lufkal could feel the amount of time he had spent at a low altitude taking its toll. He felt exhausted, every breath was short, raspy and felt insufficient, and a numbness was beginning to spread through the living portions of his body. He was therefore quite glad when Astraka conceded to a stubborn Izi when the latter demanded to have the area cleared while she, Tik-Shud and Ved finished testing the drive core – albeit with the caveat that Sevyr and Vyssr could stay and perform their protective duties – which meant that he could seek the relief that their suite on the 380th floor would provide.



    One lengthy elevator ride later, Lufkal had started down a beige-carpeted corridor, only paying attention to the golden room number projected by each of the wood paneled doors lining the curved walls.

    It didn’t take long to find the room, and after bursting through the sliding door he arrived in the team’s temporary residence. The spacious suite immediately opened to a simple but elegant kitchen area, its angular countertops and island topped with mottled, white stone surfaces carrying the telltale sheen of nanofusing. On the right side of the cream walled room was a living space equipped with several low, sofas and a smooth glass table. The glass door of a balcony on the far side of the room was what caught his attention however, and he spared no time in stepping out from the slight overhang of the second floor to make his way across the mahogany, wooden-paneled flooring towards it. He forced himself through the sliding glass door panels before they had fully opened – nearly slipping on the balcony’s wet surface – before finally coming to a rest against its glossy glass guard rail.

    He closed his eyes as he took his first of several deep breaths of the cool evening breeze. His constricted organs decompressed with each inhale. And once the last vestiges of his altitude sickness disappeared, opened his eyes and scanned the city below.

    The vivid hues of Allegra’s burgeoning night life scattered through the air, painting the bank of menacing clouds above with colour, and refracting off the shimmering residue that coated the city. The resulting luminous haze danced playfully between the buildings below, forming arcing swirls in the wake of the metallic-surfaced vortexes cutting through the night.

    As he followed the lustrous patterns he found his gaze drawn down the central canal towards the glowing waterfront. To the east, a rippling light blue gleam rose up behind a wall of brilliant towers, illuminating the shadowy beaches and the receding tide. While to the west intense rays of white, orange and yellow stood out amongst the chromatic fusion, the beams decorating the western shore as they swayed from a common origin. The sea of vibrant structures that sat between the two landmarks filled the calmer waters of the bay itself in a myriad of colours, accentuated by luminescent boats and the distant white beacons of the Multi-Terminals.

    The sudden swoosh of the balcony doors opening stole Lufkal's attention away from the city's skyline and towards the svelte figure of Mina, who had just crossed the threshold.

    "Your friend’s done well to get a place like this." He said with a smile before returning his gaze to the city below.

    "I wouldn't really call them a friend." Mina replied gingerly. "But I can't really argue about the view. It’s much more pleasant than what I got to see as a Harvester." She added warmly as she leaned up against the glass to his right.

    Lufkal shot a quick glance at her face as she continued her vigil. There was an excited glow to her fair, white visage, and the city's radiant colours where faintly reflected in its soft features.

    "Really? I would’ve thought you’d get to see places like this all the time." He said, shifting to face her.

    "Ha. Any elegance was hidden behind bloodstained debris and panicked screams. Very rarely was I somewhere bearable." Mina replied bitterly, shadows forming beneath a fierce frown.

    "I’m guessing the site of my crash wasn’t one of the bearable ones?" He asked lightly.

    "It certainly wasn’t the worst. But it would have been a lot more charming had there not been a zephyr ploughed through the area." She responded with a witty smile.

    "I'll try not to do the same here then." He replied with a grin, dismissing the shudder that traversed his arms.

    "Speaking of which…” She began, her pale eyes flicking towards his prosthetics. “…how are your arms holding up?" she asked, her tone serious.

    The question caught him off guard. It wasn't really something he had thought about, which probably meant that they were doing their job. He flexed each of the powerful, clawed fingers, feeling the miniscule inner mechanisms at work as he tried to think of how to describe their performance. The sharp, aggressive lines of the prosthetics and their small slashes of angry red light contrasted greatly with the city below. But their threatening appearance offered up no inspiration of how to evaluate them.

    "The weight took a bit of getting used to, but other than that they are better than my old arms." He answered plainly, not feeling confident in the quality of his feedback.

    "I can't have that fixed for this race but will have it done for the next one." She responded, sounding slightly hurt beneath her businesslike tone.

    "You don't have to worry about the timeframe." He said reassuringly. “Not until the team’s stable again at least”.

    A perceptive smile spread across her gentle lips before she spoke. "The deadline is more for me than for you." She replied. “And besides, I'm sure you'd want to have upgrades sooner rather than later." She added coyly.

    "Fair enough." Lufkal stated truthfully. "Though the only upgrade I can think of being useful right now would be for my lungs." He smirked back.

    "If I had the time.” She laughed, her fangs glistening with the radiance from the streets below. “Your sister has had me busy with a few things you’ll enjoy I’m sure." She hinted tantalizingly, as she gently skimmed her hand across the railing.

    "Oh really?" He replied through his spiking heartbeat.

    "Mhmm.” She nodded, taking a step forward. “But it won't be ready until after the practice session."

    "Continuing on that line…” Lufkal jumped as Alvens' voice rang out sharply through the cool evening air. "The zephyr will be ready soon, and Izi has prepared a briefing on the new machine and its upgrades." He continued, seemingly indifferent to the conversation he had interrupted.

    "I would also like to go over some strategies for refamiliarizing yourself with the machine, maintaining focus, and the plan I have come up with to start off your practice session strong..."

    Lufkal just let Alvens ramble and he made no effort to halt his talkative coach as the Noval steered him back into the suite and towards the direction of the elevator. Alvens kept him moving at a brisk pace – only stopping to collect a disgruntled looking Grauf, whose expression immediately changed to one of gleeful anticipation as he joined them. A short wait later, the trio of coach, engineer, and pilot were rapidly descending towards the landing bay, and a distantly familiar burning sensation had begun to sweep away all other thoughts in Lufkal’s head.

    He could not help but smile as he felt his insatiable hunger for speed return in full force.
     
  16. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    In the relatively short time it took the trio reach the cargo vortexes, Alvens had managed to go over his practice plan not once, but thrice. Something that Lufkal somewhat appreciated as he had only started paying attention towards the end of Alvens’ second time through it.

    The plan was to split the training session into two parts. The first, shorter section would involve a series of the training exercises Alvens had come up with over his own racing career. While the second half would give him free reign to practice whatever he wanted until Astraka called for the session to end.

    The latter half of the plan had made Lufkal even more eager to get back on his zephyr; if only just to have more time getting accustomed to the new machine. But it appeared that he'd have a while to wait before he got there, as the zephyr was still sitting in a state of disassembly – its exposed trellis frame shamelessly revealing the gaping hole where the drive core should have been.

    "Are we ready to put this zephyr back together then?" Alvens asked as they reached the centre of the tables, gesturing towards the undressed machine as he spoke.

    "Didn't you want me to walk Lufkal through the upgrades?" Izi replied, sounding slightly annoyed as she rose from her work.

    "Yes, but you don't need to see the machine to talk about what has been done to it and how it will behave." Alvens replied firmly.

    Izi rolled her eyes, a flash of red following her unenthused irises. And she sighed before stepping away from the zephyr and approaching the newly arrived group.

    Alvens gave her a shrewd smile before stepping past her to take her place and instructing Tik-Shud and Ved to start rebuilding the zephyr. "Just let Grauf handle the aero parts, I don't want to deal with any more screw ups tonight." Izi called over her shoulder as Grauf sped to follow in Alvens' wake.

    Lufkal remained silent as he followed Izi towards the edge of the ring, waiting for the rate of her steadying breaths to die down.

    "First of all…” Izi began, raising her voice as the clunks of the reassembly echoed through bay. “…the frame and systems have been updated on this model, and while they are generally improvements over what we had before, we’re still adjusting to the new parts and layout.”

    Lufkal opened his mouth to voice the question that had jumped to his tongue but held it back as Izi raised a finger to her lips and continued.

    “Grauf has touched up the bodywork to be more inline with your piloting style. He’s made some – experimental – changes to the wings to offset some of the weight we’ve added but knowing him they are probably an improvement over stock. As for the drive core, we've managed to slot in a zero-stage and have switched in stronger turbines to handle the pressure. That alone will give you more thrust, plus you’ll get the added mobility from this model’s Thrust Vectoring Unit" She finished, lowering her finger and leaning back on one of the tables.

    The new information pushed his silenced question back into his thoughts, blending it with what he had now learned to produce a revised query.

    "Any idea how these changes will affect how it flies?”

    “No idea.” she answered bluntly. “We only had the old machine’s flight data to work with, so we can really only test for reliability for the moment.”

    “Guess we’ll see were it stands after the session then?” He said, already dreading the lengthy debrief that would likely follow the practice.

    "I mean, numbers wise it’s an improvement in all areas; but I can’t speak for how you’ll feel the changes. All I know for sure is that you’ll have more thrust on tap.” She replied.

    "That will mean smooth inputs, Lufkal." Alvens interjected, suddenly appearing by Izi’s side. "But we can discuss that later. For now, you should put on your racing gear, and Izi if you would see to it that the drive core is handled correctly."

    Izi was quick to stalk off, but Lufkal remained in place. He had only just realized that he had forgotten to grab his gear before they had left for the elevator.

    "There is a spare suit in the back of the leftmost transport." Alvens stated, expertly reading Lufkal’s blank expression as he pointed to the cargo vortex in question.

    Lufkal dashed over to the vehicle, sliding over the tables in his path before hopping into the open hold.

    A quick visual search revealed the extra set of race gear bundled together in the back-right corner of the dim cargo space. He hurried across the space and yanked jacket off the floor, snapping an arm back down to catch his spare helmet got dragged along with it.

    After setting the bland stone coloured helmet on the floor, he held up the jacket by its shoulders – the material deceptively heavy for something only slightly thicker than his shirt – and gave it a once over.

    There were no signs of damage on the front of the spare jacket; its only markings being the graphics that coated the dark grey fabric. Two discoloured white bands travelled vertically from the front to the back, sandwiching the dark red SRT logo – highlighted in white – on the chest before wrapping over the centre of each shoulder. Lufkal followed the lines, eventually flipping the jacket over and performing the same process on the back. There were a few scuffs here and there, but otherwise the material was in prime condition functionality wise; despite the unused look emphasized by the off-white bands that travelled beneath the similarly coloured block characters “3x80” – his pilot-number.

    With his checks complete, he threw on the jacket. Then he ran his left hand down the Hex-Lock fasteners lining the centre of the material while simultaneously issuing an activation command from his prism.

    As quickly as each half of the jacket snapped together the material began to writhe and fold; the layers of nanite sheets that composed it crawling outward from each edge of the jacket. It was a jarring experience after not having been through the process in so long. He shuddered as the material wrapped itself around his legs and hands, though he was unable to do much about it as the layers built up around his joints.

    The weight distribution altered as the process continued. The weight that had been resting evenly on his shoulders had moved between his shoulder blades due to the aerodynamic back protector that now draped his spine. Other protrusions had finished forming on his elbows and shoulders, the armoured segments made more noticeable by the angular dark red and black pattern decorating their sleek surfaces.

    When the material came to a rest, the jacket had transformed into a one-piece racing suit stretching from his neck to his talons. He performed a few quick stretches to get used to his restricted movement. And though there was some discomfort around his prosthetics as the material tugged against their jagged surfaces, there were no sensations bad enough from to prevent him from flying.

    Satisfied enough with the fit of the spare race suit, he scooped up the spare helmet and pulled it over his head. Despite its boring dark grey outer layer, its construction was just as good – and just as protective – as the helmet he had lost to his crash. He quickly fastened it, then brushed the thin layer of dust that had accumulated on the clear visor before making his way out of the hold.

    Upon stepping out of the transport he was greeted by the bouncing helmet of Tik-Shud.

    "It’s ready!" He shouted happily as he jumped back towards the tables.

    Lufkal followed the energetic mechanic's progress until his eyes drew even with the now fully assembled zephyr. A tingling warmth began to spread through him as he took in the matte slate bodywork that now draped the frame. The swept-back arc of the clear windscreen drew his eyes down the nose as it tapered to a single point, leading into a thick black with a thin scarlet border. A pair of angry, triangular headlights – split by the central stripe – glared back at him as he pulled his gaze towards the aggressive twin intake ramp, and the streamlined new forewings that sat on either side of it.

    He continued to follow the sleek white, scarlet, and black stripes that ran across the machine’s livery as he stepped to its side. Smiling as wide as the cheek pads of his helmet permitted as his attention bounced off the arm guards, leg guards, and razor-sharp delta wings in quick succession, before turning towards the short tail section and the pair vertical stabilizers sprouting from its surface.

    "I think he likes it." Ved chuckled as Lufkal passed the gunmetal exhaust nozzle of the zephyr’s main thrusters.

    "What’s its name?” Lufkal grinned, his eager voice muffled somewhat by his helmet as he spoke to the proud faces – and bobbing helmet – of his teammates.

    “We’ve agreed on calling it the ‘SRT X-2’, or ‘X-2’ for short.” Alvens said.

    “Well that’s boring.” Lufkal laughed as he stepped closer to the machine.

    "It sounds better than 'zephyr we had to buy because our pilot crashed the last one'." Izi smirked.

    “Ouch.” He replied, feigning offence.

    "I trust you have no further complaints then?" Alvens stated as he made to clear everyone from around the zephyr.

    "Numbers." Grauf exclaimed suddenly.

    "Ah, yes. I forgot about that. Tik-Shud, fetch them if you could.”

    Tik-Shud acknowledged the vague instruction with a three-armed salute before dashing off to the transports. Lufkal only understood the instruction when Tik-Shud came hopping back, carrying a collection of various sized decals.

    "I'll do this side, you do that side." Lufkal said to the ecstatic Asparach before the pair spent the next five minutes draping the X-2’s bodywork with the team logo and his pilot number.

    Lufkal only took a few seconds to admire their handy work before swinging a leg over the zephyr. He slid both of his feet and legs to the bottom of the leg guards until he was comfortably resting on his knees. Then he tapped the display panel that sat underneath the windscreen, connecting the pristine display to his prism and blitzing through the first time set up. A light ping sound indicated the success of the process, and another tap brought the X-2 to life.

    He could feel the steady pulse of its drive core vibrate through his body, and his ears filled with the low whine of the idling twin turbines. The piercing white headlights flared to life, as did the array of similar lights that tipped the wings of the zephyr. At the same time, the HUD on his helmet's visor materialized; the default layout of the translucent silver displaying a myriad of information.

    As the initial sensory overload began to dissipate he leaned forward, pressing his chest against the rumbling engine housing, and slid his arms into the arm guards. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he wrapped his hands around the horizontal bars of the flight controls, his heart beating faster and faster against the zephyr as the once steady intake whine began to grow in volume and pitch.

    Out of the corners of his visor he saw his teammates step away from the immediate area. And once they had all disappeared, Alvens' voice sounded out clearly through the prism implants in his ears.

    "All clear."

    A wild smile spread across Lufkal’s face. Finally, it was time to fly.
     
  17. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Slight left.

    Pull up.

    Left again.

    Sweeping downward right.

    As Lufkal accelerated out of the turn Alvens’ voice rang through his ears.

    "You're still lacking confidence in downward manoeuvres." He said sternly, the noise dampening of Lufkal’s helmet making Alvens’ voice as clear as if he was shooting through the chill air alongside him.

    “Yeah, I know.” Lufkal replied, disgruntled by the harshness of his inputs, the resultant unnerving shudders rippling through the X-2’s bodywork and further draining his initial enjoyment.

    “Calm yourself, breath, and think about where you want to go. Don’t fight the machine.” Alvens stated.

    He remained silent as he pulled onto the straight stretch of airway Alvens had chosen as the main straight for his training circuit. Instead he let the muffled roar of the X-2 reply on his behalf as he tore through the air above the gently flowing traffic, following the virtualized track layout being broadcasted to his HUD; its silver lines leading him through the lesser used airways that wove around the city’s intricate skyline.

    "Again." Alvens announced as Lufkal reached the middle of the straight.

    Lufkal took a calming breath and with a glance ahead to ensure his path was clear of the glaring lights of other vehicles, he launched the X-2 forwards.

    Left.

    Right.

    Downward left.

    As his eyes jumped from apex to apex on the virtual track, the effects of his lack of airtime were becoming more and more apparent. His right hand felt heavy on the throttle and he was struggling to make consistently smooth rotations. Even the slightest sharpness while twisting the controls jerked the X-2 forward violently as it tapped into the machine’s improved drive core output.

    Worse still, he could feel Grauf's improvements carrying him through the forest of luminous towers. The machine allowing him to skim within an arm’s length of the polished glass surfaces as it made undeservedly clean lines through Alvens’ course. And though the upgrades were certainly welcome, the performance was not reflective of his rusty steering.

    A sense of urgency welled up within him as he continued to hurtle through the city’s dazzling lights. The realization of how little time he had to get comfortable with the X-2 looming over him with each sloppy input.

    Pull up.

    Slight upward left.

    Bank right.

    Lufkal shot out onto the back straight with a burst of power. With some effort he managed to wrangle the peppy drive core into a controllable state without inducing as much uneasiness in the X-2. Curious as to why, he spent the rest of the short straight fiddling with the throttle in an effort to replicate his actions. But nothing he could think of seemed to work.

    In his focus to try and figure out the throttle response he had turned attention away from the course, only to find himself deep within the braking zone that kicked off the next sector. Instinctively, he honed his gaze on the rapidly approaching apex and engaged the X-2’s spoilers and thrust vectoring simultaneously. Yet despite the jarring sudden deceleration and shift in direction he managed to squeak through the corner. Adrenaline coursing through his veins as he toed the imaginary edge of the circuit and rocketed onwards.

    Sharp downward right.

    Slight left.

    Pull up.

    Left again.

    Sweeping downward right.

    He raced onto the main straight once more, his grip on the controls more relaxed as he encouraged the X-2 forwards.

    "Better." Alvens relayed as he accelerated through the haze of lights. "Again." Alvens added firmly.

    Feeling slightly more confident in his piloting, he tucked back in against the frame of the X-2 and launched on to a fresh lap.

    Left.

    Right.

    Downward left...
     
  18. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Half an hour later, Alvens had called for the end of his segment of the practice session, stating that Lufkal was in at least acceptable form. Lufkal did not entirely agree, but he was growing tired of the fixed layout of the training circuit. Tight and technical as it was, it could only do so much to prepare him for the unknown track layout. And the tantalizing glow of the city beneath him was begging to be explored.

    He cleared his HUD of everything but velocity readings, allowing the forest of illuminated columns to fill his vision. Then, with his excitement returning, he joined the trickle of late night traffic, eager to familiarize himself with Allegra and the X-2.

    His thoughts faded into the steady whir of the X-2’s twin-turbines and the muffled rush of air as he cruised alongside the few remaining luxurious vortexes that dotted the airways. Without the required focus of the earlier segment he managed to bring the drive core to a steady thrum, giving him the confidence to sweep His eyes from tower to brilliant tower and look for structures stood out from their artistically shaped peers enough to be considered a landmark. A task that was proving to be much harder than he had anticipated given the uniqueness of each of the buildings he had seen.

    Pillars of glass and metal – twisting and arching upwards, or entwining themselves around their neighbours – surrounded him no matter which way he swept the zephyr. The polished surfaces of the taller buildings scattering the playful lights from the distant streets into mesmerizing patterns, overwhelming the vivid colours of the equally artistic smaller structures that were nestled amongst them.

    As he continued to swerve through tubes of glass connecting the intricate structures he jokingly thought that the greatest obstacle the city would pose was potentially being blinded by the intensity of its chromatic glow. Until a piercing white glare almost did rob him of his vision.

    Lufkal blinked and snapped his eyes back in the direction of the overwhelming brightness to ensure it wasn’t the flash of an oncoming vortex or worse. But there was no movement in that direction; just a powerful, pure white glare that cut through the myriad of colours as if they simply did not exist.

    Veering through the airways towards the brilliant light soon revealed its source – a looming angular structure, unlike anything he had come across so far, standing alone in the middle of a lightless expanse of fenced off gardens. The solid, flat-faced mass of white was devoid of visible windows, its only hint of colour a thin gold and black bar that decorated each of the structure’s crisp edges all the way up to its sky-piercing tip.

    "That's the NCE Embassy." His sister's sharp voice said through his prism as he circled the gleaming column, answering the question that had been at the forefront of his thoughts. "I doubt the race will pass here." She added as he began another pass, this time casting his gaze at the perimeter of the shaded fields.

    "What makes you say that?" He replied with genuine curiosity. The entrances to the underground airway network that dotted the edge of the vast open space looked to offer multiple ways to connect with the winding subsurface system. And the wall of intertwined structures beyond them formed tight air channels that could make for interesting racing.

    "Because the hangers all of the local security corporations exit to the networks below the area; it would just be asking to get hit with contracts." She answered.

    At least glad he had learned an area to avoid, or more likely the direction any security forces would come from, Lufkal snapped the X-2 from its orbit around the shimmering obelisk and shot off to the eastern shore.

    It did not take long for him to reach the eastern beach and the what his HUD claimed was the limit of the city’s legally usable airspace. The wall of warning lights that decorated his display did not extend past the edge of the smooth beach below. He was not totally surprised to see that the city had actually blocked the stretch of air between the shore and the Multi-Terminals. And as much he thought the idea was stupid; crossing the barrier to see what would happen was equally stupid.

    Turning his attention away from the empty air above the bay, he launched the X-2 across the beaches. The light blue gleam he had spotted earlier jumped out at him as he blitzed over the east beaches. He gave its owner, a wide building that arced upwards like a cresting wave, a quick glance before streaking across the glowing, fluorescent blue canal and onwards to the city’s western half.

    Satisfied with the landmarks he had identified he peeled back towards the city proper, planning to use the rest of practice time to try and find the limits of what he could do.

    He continued to follow the airways in a western direction until he had reached some relatively clear air. Confident that his surroundings were free of the downtown traffic, he raced into a stretch of unmarked airspace, tearing above the thinning and increasingly less vibrant infrastructure that blurred beneath him.

    Not bound to a strict program or regime, Lufkal was quick to begin to push both himself and the X-2. He began to string together a series of dizzying rolls and vicious spins, leading the X-2 in a hectic aerial dance to the tune of its screaming drive core. Each step of the dance building his confidence in his own abilities as he experimented with the thrust vectoring and aerodynamics the X-2 offered.

    As the minutes of airtime wore on, a familiar sense of synchronization grew in step with his confidence. The X-2 was beginning to shift away from feeling like a separate entity, and towards becoming a physical extension of himself. He could feel the small forces acting on the X-2, allowing him to more acutely refine his actions into smoother, more controlled inputs.

    "Start making your way back, I still want to have an inspection done tonight." Astraka announced through his prism as he flew out of another sequence of breakneck rolls.

    "Okay, just have a one more thing to test." He replied, his voice full of adrenaline fuelled excitement that matched the furious pitch of the drive core.

    "Fine, but don't keep everyone waiting, Lufkal." She stated in response, her concern and exasperation transmitting clearly over the cacophony of the rushing air and the screaming engine.

    "Don’t worry, I won't." Lufkal answered, grinning wildly from ear to ear.

    Astraka's drawn out sigh was only barely audible as he opened the throttle and shot off towards the ring of dark mountains that crowned the bay.

    He did in fact have one last thing to test – the one thing he had yet to do in either portion of the practice segments and the unmarked, and likely unmonitored airspace he found himself in was the perfect place to do it. Locking his eyes at the dark horizon, he rolled on the throttle incrementally unleashing the X-2’s strength.

    His velocity increased in time with his steady acceleration until nervous tremors shot through his arms; his breathing and his grip on the controls sharpening in response. Frustration edged into his mind has he continued to rocket through the night. The stresses on his body weren’t too bad, and the X-2 still had more power to churn out, so where was this hesitation coming from?

    He made to re-open the throttle, but again his arm seized as if an invisible hand was holding it back. Emotion drained from him faster than he was moving as he struggled to overcome the invisible grip and concerned whispers rippled through the rushing air. But he could not let this become his limit.

    With a determined snap of his wrist he broke free from the intangible grasp. The scream of the X-2 peaking above the sound of the air as it surged forwards with a massive burst of speed. Only then did he realize his mistake.

    The barrage of auditory stimuli reached deafening levels as he tore through the air in a straight line, his vision clouding at an alarming rate as he picked up more and more speed. Worse, he now found his wrist having the opposite problem. His wrist was now locked in place, unable to be moved while his field of view shrank to dangerously low levels and the dark forest and silhouettes beneath him became an blur indistinguishable from the billowing shadows of the clouds above.

    Suddenly, while in the midst of pulling at his frozen arm, a red light flared on the X-2's display. A cold dread threatened to seize his crucial focus as the fiery illumination filled his drastically reduced vision. Leaving him in a panic and struggling to maintain control of both himself and a zephyr that was rocketing uncontrollably above the mountaintops.

    "Lufkal, what do you think you are doing!" Astraka shrieked, her voice shaking. "You're seconds away from a drive core meltdown! Do you..." Astraka's screaming cut off mid-sentence, replaced by the voice of a concerned, but otherwise calm sounding Alvens.

    "You will have to deal with your sister and the team when you return." Alvens stated clearly, an undertone of disappointment present in his voice. "But first you must make it back in one piece.”

    “Now, breathe, and think."
     
  19. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    "Just rest."

    Those had been the last words anyone had directed towards him since he had returned to the team's suite. The disappointed words echoed through his thoughts as he stared up at the stark ivory ceiling, his aching body unwilling to complete Alvens' instruction despite the comfort of the warm mattress.

    The harsh soreness steadily pulsated through his form; spiking when his thoughts strayed to the image of Astraka’s anxious face. A jolt of annoyance occurred in tandem with each shockwave, fuelling his anger at his own actions and piling on to the churning maelstrom of regret for the damage he had done to his sister, the team, and the X-2.

    Unable to handle the dizzying thoughts anymore, Lufkal rose to his feet, groaning as he stepped towards the plain spoked railing that bordered the suite’s second level.

    The light rapping of his talons against the floor’s wooden panels reverberated through the air, breaking the glum silence that had set in after the rest of the team had left to take care of the X-2. His brow furrowed, and his fists clenched as he approached the white carpeted stairs.

    “Breathe and think.” He thought to himself begrudgingly, pausing to take a deep breath.

    The anger ebbed away as he released a drawn-out sigh. Admittedly feeling a bit calmer, he staggered across the second floor, passing the rest of the neatly folded beds on his way to the curved staircase.

    As he tugged a talon free from the grasp of the fluffy staircase for the last time, he sent a quick gaze towards the balcony doors. He heaved another sigh – this time disappointed – as he watched trails of glittering beads slide down the smooth glass panels, and instead grabbed one of the white-cushioned stools that lined the kitchen island.

    He dragged the stool to the section of the countertop that ran adjacent to the suite’s exterior facing wall, spun it in front of him, and dropped himself onto plush seat, stretching his arms across the counter’s cold surface. He kept his head angled towards the window as he slouched forwards. Attempting to maintain his groggy focus on breathing as torrents of droplets mimicked the words pounding through his skull.

    "Focus."

    "Just race within your limits. Don't worry about the points."

    "Do best you can."

    "Don't die."

    The mixed tones from his teammates were not aiding his dampened spirits. Nor were the haunting ringing of his sister's distraught shrieks, which echoed with a frequency matched by the frenzied beat of the rain.

    A sudden, blinding flash filled the window as a cloud-rending crackle shook the room, barely masking the gentle swish of the suite's entrance sliding open.

    Lufkal kept his eyes on the window, concentrating on his breathing, as the familiar light footsteps fell against the floor in time with the reverberations of the grumbling thunder.

    "You should be resting." Mina said, her soft voice floating over his right shoulder, carrying a hint of worry.

    He didn't reply, choosing to keep his eyes on the dark window that now reflected Mina's thin frown.

    "If you're too tired to respond you don't have an excuse not to be." She said, stepping up to the counter’s right edge.

    "How did you manage to get away from Astraka?" Lufkal asked after a brief pause, avoiding her pale gaze.

    "I could have left as soon as the drive core testing started." She said, her reflected presence reaching for her left arm as she spoke. "So, I finished the first portion of the upgrades I’ve been working on before heading back.”

    Mina slid open a compartment on her extended arm, delicately drawing out a pair of jet black nanite chips from the recess.

    “We can install them now. If you’re feeling up to it, of course." She said tentatively while she held the chips up to her eyes.

    "Seeing as I can't sleep, might as well." He replied glumly, raising himself out of his slouch, but maintaining his forward frown. "What are the upgrades?"

    The corners of her lips rose slightly as she lowered the chips onto the table. Lufkal felt the tension in his brow eased at the sight. The gentle warmth that had bubbled up through his boiling thoughts compelling him to meet her proud expression.

    "An increase in synapse nodes, and a re-organization of the nerve logic. Combined, these should give you much better feel for subtle changes than ever before. At least until I get some time and some lighter materials." Mina began sliding her skeletal fingers around the centre of his forearms, sending a tingling wave through to the rest of his body. Just before she had completely wrapped either arm, she hesitated, shooting him a furtive glance. Lufkal replied with a nod and a smile which she returned before continuing.

    "It won’t solve all of the issues you’ve had with these models, but it should hold you over for now. Who knows, it might even help you with finding your limits." She added with timid giggle as she firmly, but carefully, rotated is forearms outwards, revealing the sharp lines running from his thumbs the insides of his elbows.

    Lufkal couldn't help but smirk. "Where were these upgrades a few hours ago? They could’ve saved some trouble.” He retorted with as much mirth as he could muster in his tired state.

    “Oh, because you wouldn’t have pushed past them anyway.” She laughed back.

    There was more truth to Mina’s words than he would’ve liked to admit.

    “Fair enough.” He said, ignoring the heat in his cheeks as he joined her laughter.

    "Okay” She said as she recovered from the fit of amusement. “I'll guide you through an installation quickly before you get some sleep. Which arm would you prefer?"

    Lufkal nodded at his right arm, figuring it would be easier to have his dominant arm done for him. Mina promptly snapped up one of the nanite chips in one hand, while the other ran down the forearm’s jagged central line.

    It did not take long for her to find what she was looking for, as her finger slid into a subtle notch just before the joint where metal transitioned into flesh. She briefly fumbled with the nanite chip, a faint red tinge flashing across her pale cheeks before she pressed it firmly into the socket.

    A small click was the only warning Lufkal had for what happened next. His arm seized up immediately as the contents of the chip dispersed through his forearm. It felt like the inside of his arm had turned fluid, sloshing around within its confines in an unsettling manner. He was sure that if it weren't for Mina's soft grip the arm would be writhing around of its own accord.

    Luckily, Mina seemed to have picked up on his discomfort, increasing the pressure she applied. Lufkal tried to smile his thanks, but the sickening convulsions of the upgrading process contorted the expression, bringing Mina to giggles.

    As quickly as it started, the sensation vanished and feeling began to return to his arm. Already, there was a noticeable increase in the feeling of Mina's touch. He felt her gentle contact more acutely, able to feel the grooves in the thin fingers of her prosthetic, and even the faint pulse of the micro-antimatter core that powered it.

    "That's all you need to do." Mina said, slightly breathless as she removed the now empty chip. "There will be a calibration period of a few hours but sleeping through it will be fine." She added as she picked up the other chip and placed it in his right palm.

    There was a faint reluctance to her hand as she slipped it away from his and turned towards the door.

    "I think I'm going to try and get some more work done." She yawned. "Please do try to get some rest."

    Lufkal didn't get a chance to respond before she had slipped back through the entrance.

    He sat still for a few minutes, flipping the second nanite chip in his hand – getting used to the increase in tactile information he was receiving – before slotting the chip into his left arm. He kept his right arm firmly on his left as it went through the same uncomfortable process, removing the empty chip and sliding it across the counter once it had finished.

    Though there was still a bank of dark clouds billowing behind the rain streaked windows, a quick glance at the time being projected on the wall on his left revealed that there were only a few hours until sunrise. Lufkal's surprise was coupled with a wave of fatigue that almost took him out on the spot. Slowly, he clambered off the stool and dragged himself back upstairs, immediately collapsing into the comfort of his bed.
     
  20. Eli_Green

    Eli_Green Member

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    Lufkal woke up to the glare of the sun, ache free and with a clear head. He laid still for a moment, listening to the rhythm of his sleeping teammates' breathing and the distant sounds of traffic to gage the time.

    Feeling sufficiently refreshed, he quietly rose from his bed. He paused briefly to stretch in the blanket of light shadow before creeping towards the stairs; taking care to minimize the knocking of his talons against the hard floor on his way to the sunbathed kitchen.

    Upon stepping off the footstep muffling staircase he returned to a creeping pace. His first stop was the fridge. After carefully sliding it open, he scanned through its packed shelves. Snatching a single nutrient bar from the small pile wedged between the rest of the team’s breakfast before shuffling off towards the balcony doors.

    The welcoming heat of the mid-morning sun greeted him as the glass gateway slid shut behind him. No longer needing to remain quiet he crossed the balcony at his regular pace, stretching his talons across the floor with each step.

    A soft crackling joined the lazy hum of airway traffic as he tore open the nutrient bar. And leaning up against the railing, he took a bite of the gooey mix of proteins and vitamins. Its bitter taste was somewhat offset by the spectacle of Allegra under the sun. The dazzling forest of glass below reflecting the cloudless sky in a glaring blue mosaic.

    After finishing his breakfast, he opened his prism and flipped back to the race replays he had been analyzing during their journey to the planet.

    He studied the races for what seemed like hours. He managed to watch two of the replays he had yet to see, and had begun a full break down on the first of them when he heard a sharp knock behind him.

    The piercing glare on the balcony door made it difficult to discern the rapid beckoning gesture his sister was making on the opposite side. But judging by her frantic motions the track layout had just been distributed. So, after pausing the race he had been watching, he crossed the balcony and slipped back into the suite.

    A haze of groggy chatter now filled the suite. The pleasant scent of raw meats and fish and the soft clink of cutlery rising from the gathering of his teammates in the kitchen. Those who had finished their brunches were helping clean the messy counter space or had drifted into the living area and opened their prisms.

    “Ahem.”

    Lufkal almost jumped as Astraka cleared her throat from his immediate right.

    "The track information just arrived." She said as she tore off a blood-stained apron and tapped something into her prism.

    Lufkal nodded his acknowledgement, opening his prism to receive the track data that Astraka had no doubt just sent. Within seconds, a message with the desired information appeared, and a few swipes and taps later, he was began rendering a map of Allegra onto the low glass table in the living area.

    The projection began as a flat image, spreading a web of silver lines across the surface of the table. Then, once the tabletop was coated in light, the lines shot upwards, building a map of the entire city. From the distant Multi-Terminals and the massive residential spires, to the labyrinthine underground road network and the legal airway routes, a faithful reconstruction of the city now sat on the table before him. Even the steady flow of vortexes and shimmering specs of thousands of tourists were included in the display, their miniscule movements sending waves of silver light dancing across walls.

    Despite the incredible level of detail, the projection was of no use to him in its current state. So, with a few more commands to his prism, he imported the track data into the map. Instantly, a single bright blue beam began to weave through the image. It started from a quiet corner of the underground road network on the western side of the city. Then wound through the labyrinthine roadways before erupting into the city proper. The beam then slithered upward and eastward, straightening out into a sharp climb, before plummeting towards the canal that split the city. Following the winding canal to its mouth, before it curved back to the east side of the city and resuming its chaotic path.

    The track continued to twist and turn on the eastern side, though it avoided going close to the NCE. The hectic eastern sector ended with a brief dip underground and a relatively straight path towards the seafront. A sharp turn to the west then set the track careening around the seashore in one smooth bank on the far side of Allegra’s massive wall. The long sweeping arch bringing the track to a close near the western Multi-Terminal.

    A fluttering sensation swept through Lufkal as his eyes followed the daunting path. A bout of pre-race nerves and a burst of excitement of equal strength coursing through his veins.

    "It's quite the course he has prepared." Alvens stated, as he appeared next to Lufkal, casting his four piercing eyes at the map with a thoughtful frown. "But I think it suits our machine, should it be piloted well."

    Lufkal raised an eyebrow in indignation but kept his voice calm when he replied.

    "Really?"

    "Indeed." Alvens said plainly, ignoring Lufkal's tone as he opened his prism and directed it towards the projection.

    Lufkal looked on as lines of bronze light sliced into the map, dividing the silver city and the blue trail into four segments. Once the divisions were clearly marked, the trail itself began to transform, shifting from plain blue to a mix of green, red, yellow, and orange bands. The coloured sections revealing the were the X-2 could go fast, slow, and everything between.

    "Our previous machine would lose too much time in the corners to be competitive here. But from our simulations the X-2 should perform well."

    Lufkal acknowledged the claim with a nod as he ran his eyes over the course again.

    "The nimbleness of the X-2 should enable fast times through sectors one, three, and the beginning of sector two." Alvens continued while running his finger along the sections of the track he had mentioned.

    Lufkal followed Alvens' hand, paying close attention to the colour of the track at each specific point. Despite the snaking nature of the sections, they were indeed mostly green. While the few slower yellow, orange, and red segments were only present at the handful of vicious hairpin turns.

    "Placing in the points should be doable then?" He asked eagerly.

    "For the sake our team, I hope so. But it will depend on how well you’ve learned to use the X-2’s power. And how well you can manage the core temperature."

    "The damage was that bad?" Lufkal said sheepishly, ruffling his plumage.

    "Yes. Though it has been repaired, it has not been as extensively tested as we would like for a track of this length. There's a fair chance that prolonged stress could cause it to meltdown, or worse."

    A cocktail of guilt and concern swirled through Lufkal's thoughts at Alvens' blunt warning. Adding to his existing mix of elation and anxiousness.

    "But as I was saying before, the state of the drive core should not prevent us from being able to compete for a few points as long as you can keep the technical sections clean. It just means that we will lose out in the long straight at the end of sector two, and the end of sector four, as you will need to focus on managing a stable temperature instead of going flat out." Alvens stated in a more reassuring tone.

    Feeling a bit less nervous, he spent the next hour discussing and studying the winding track alongside Alvens. Though they primarily focused on strategies to reduce the inevitable time loss he would face in the straights; Alvens didn’t hesitate to mention the importance of keeping his mind sharp, and not letting instinct do all the work.

    Bar the tangential lecturing, the discussions had gone well and were looking to continue to do so until a shout from his sister rang clearly through the room.

    "Alright team! The grid opens in an hour and a half! Let's get moving!"