Of Love and War
By Brandon Victorian
"So, Arxoxa, how are we feeling today?" Gillian asked as he served a tray with a soup and sandwich to the trader.
He accepted it, and began to eat. "Much better, thanks," he said. How's my ship? Were you able to salvage anything?"
Anything that is broken can be repaired, no matter how bad the shape it is in," the old wizard replied with a smile. "I'll get right on it."
Arxoxa laughed. "I never thought I'd actually see a wizard who's a mechanic."
"I am many things, my good sir," Gillian said. "After all, a thousand years is a long time to pick up a few skills other than just magic."
"Ah, but magic does help, doesn't it?" Arxoxa remarked.
"Indeed," Gillian said, as he approached the exit door. "You need rest, now. Eat and rest. Your ship is in good hands."
As the door opened, Arxoxa could make out a tiny figure standing just beyond. It looked like a little girl, from where he was sitting, with fiery orange hair, and large, green inquisitive-looking eyes. For the entire time the door remained open, she stared at him with a strange expression on her face. If he was right, it looked almost like confusion.
The door closed, hiding her once again, and Arxoxa took a bite out of his sandwich. It was ham, yet quite good for something so plain. Obviously, this ship replicated far better fare than his.
So far, everyone here had been so nice to him, especially that boy, Jayce. It was a shame he would have to follow Saw Boss's orders. But his business was too important.
He took a few bites of the soup. It was a bit spicier than he'd expected, but like the sandwich, was still very good. My compliments to the chef, he thought, as he lay back upon the bed and tried to sleep. After all he'd been through, he needed it. But the horrible look of Saw Boss's face grinning at him was sure to haunt his dreams for quite some time.
It was then that he became aware of a tapping noise going on inside the room. He opened his eyes, and was greeted by the sight of the little girl again. She was walking on tiptoes, as though she believed he was asleep. In a way, the entire scene was rather amusing.
"May I help you?" He asked the child, who, in turn, nearly fell backwards from being so startled. Regaining her composure, she stood straight, and smiled at him. "Hello, she said. My name's Flora. You startled me."
Arxoxa smiled at the girl's adorable voice. "Well, didn't your mother ever tell you that it's rude to sneak up on people?" He asked.
"Oh, I don't have a mother," Flora answered. "Audric and Gillian created me from a plant."
That's a pretty amazing story, Flora," Arxoxa remarked with a chuckle. But when he saw the girl's expression fall, he realized that he'd hit a nerve."
"It's not a joke," She said in a reproachful tone. " I can talk to animals and plants. Watch." Then she walked over to a hanging vine near the exit door. "Excuse me," she said to the plant, and then paused, as though it was answering back to her. "The man over there wants to know if I can really talk to you. Can you help me out?" Another pause. "No, all you have to do is just wave to him."
Suddenly, and to the trader's shock, the plant moved! It curled its tendrils and moved its leaves toward him, and waved them up and down, as though it was actually trying to say, "hi."
"That's--absolutely amazing!" Arxoxa remarked, mouth agape. How'd you do that?!"
"I already told you!" Flora said, sounding even more upset, "I can talk to it! I can talk to animals, too! And I can read peoples'--" She stopped, and blinked. Then, with an intensity that started to unnerve the trader, she peered at him, as if trying to read something on his head. Then, she stopped, and frowned.
"Well, I can't read you, she said in a sad voice. "But I can read animals and plants. It just doesn't always work well with humans. Gillian says I just need some time."
Is she the one Saw Boss warned me about? Arxoxa though. But she's just a little girl!
"Well, I believe you, Flora," he said with a smile, trying to comfort the little girl's bruised pride. "And I'm sorry I was so rude. My name's Arxoxa." And he stuck out a hand for her to shake.
"Well, alright," Flora said, receiving the hand offered. I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have been so angry. Lots of people don't believe me until they see me talk to plants for real, or play with Brock."
"Oh. I almost forgot him," Flora said brightly. He's waiting for me outside.
Indeed, someone was outside the exit door, because it was just then, that Arxoxa had heard a squeaking sound coming from that direction. He turned, and as the door slid open, his eyes were greeted with the biggest fish he'd ever seen. It colors were vibrant lavender, blue, and white, and something like a little saddle was attached to its back, which Flora climbed up on. And if that wasn't enough, he saw that the creature was floating in the air, like a balloon, flapping its long, wing-like fins.
"What is that thing?" He asked, more than a little startled at such a weird-looking creature.
"Don't be scared," Flora said. "This is Brockshe rubbed and nuzzled the side of the fish's face. "He's my best friend."
The giant fish then looked directly at him, and let out a series of excited squeaks. Flora, in turn, responded, "No, Brock. He's a friend. Jayce rescued him, remember?"
The fish let out another string of squeaks. "Now, be nice, Brock," Flora answered. "He was hurt. He needed our help. I'm sorry," she turned back to Arxoxa. "He's always a little nervous around strangers. He'll be friendlier once he gets to know you." She then smiled. I have to go now, mister Arxoxa. Gillian and Jayce will be looking for me. I hope you feel better."
"Well, thanks for the visit," he replied, smiling back as he watched her fly off down the corridor, astride the giant fish.
Arxoxa laid back and sighed. This place was weird, definitely. Telepathic plant kids, flying fish, wizards,-- And he thought he'd seen it all.
But the other thing that struck him was just how nice everyone was to him. And how much like a family they were. He'd seen very little of the Crew during the three days he'd been holed up in this infirmary: Jayce only a few fleeting moments every day, as he came to check on him and ask him questions; Gillian more than others, being a grandfatherly type, and Flora just now. It seemed as though everyone cared deeply for each other. He himself, had never had time to forge strong relationships; his business prevented that. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd talked to his family. But such was the way of the trader. Especially one like him. These travelers filled him with a sense of belonging, or wanting to belong.
Which made it even harder to do what he knew he had to do.
* * *
"I'm tellin' ya, kid, it's suicide!" Herc exclaimed, looking over Jayce's shoulders at the main helm. "Nobody goes to Kelos and Zelos on purpose! And besides, That Arxoxa character's a gunrunner! They're the only folks authorized to enter that system now. The marker buoys outlining the system will blast the Pride to bits before we can even get close!"
"We have no choice, Herc," Jayce fired back. His voice was as determined as ever; even more so, now that a possible trail to Audric was found. "That letter Arxoxa was carrying is the only clue we have to where father might be, and Jal did say he was in this sector, so war or no war, we have to go those worlds!"
Herc sighed exasperatedly. When the kid was that adamant, the only course, of course, was to head where he pointed. And his travels with this merry bunch had gotten him into some pretty thick jams, as he recalled, but somehow, the'd always come out on top. But if it led him to payday, he'd follow them straight into the galactic core. And of course, after as long as they'd been stuck together, he'd grown on him. He had to admit defeat--again.
"Alright," Herc replied, punching in the engine system for maximum burn. "But this time, I'm doing it under protest. And when we reach the system, you'll understand why."
When Herc retired to his station, Jayce leaned over to Gillian, who was standing beside him. "I don't know why Herc's so nervous about this venture," He whispered. "He's had his complaints before, but I've never seen him so apprehensive."
Gillian smiled. "It's because the two worlds are all that's left of the empire. And that the war was between use of magic, and the use of science, my boy. The Pride can stand up fairly well against any physical assault, but unless this ship, or any ship is forged of magic or protected by it, magic will always win."
"I see," Jayce said. "I understand Herc's feelings in this, you know. And I must admit that Arxoxa hasn't told us much beyond father's being in the system."
"Oh, that doesn't surprise me much," Gillian said. "People like him have much to hide."
"Well, if there is that kind of a danger in heading towards a system like this, don't you have something that might be able to protect us from their magic?" Jayce asked.
"Quite possibly," Gillian said thoughtfully, stroking his beard. "But it will only get us past the magical outside defenses around the system and planets. Once we leave the Pride, we'll be fair game to whatever is thrown at us."
Jayce nodded. "Do it."
* * *
Oon walked the hallways of the Pride, performing his unofficial patrolling duties. It was darker in these subdeck corridors than the rest of the ship, and that made the eternal squire just a bit more nervous than usual. His pacing of this area was coupled with more than a healthy dose of looking behind his back. But frightening or not, it was a small duty he'd perform for his master. He only hoped he'd get out of these corridors as soon as possible before his imagination would get the better of him.
He heard a noise. Oon froze in his tracks, his zircomite-plated body shaking. His eyeholes grew wide as he whispered in a voice that was shriller than his chipper metallic norm, "Wh-wh-who's there?"
But there was no answer.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, he forced himself to turn around, and face the source of the sound. Keeping his self-proclaimed magic lance in a striking position, he turned around slowly.
But the corridors behind him was as empty as the ones before him.
He scratched his head. He knew he'd heard something. But what?
Then it happened again. Barely audible, like footsteps. Oon's knees began to knock, as he forced himself along to follow the noise, staunchly obeying his duty, despite the fear.
By the time he rounded the corner, he was shaking enough to nearly make himself fall to pieces. But even above the rattling of his armored body, he could hear talking. It was coming from the entrance to the secondary cargo hold.
Still shaking, he entered, lance at the ready. Then, just as soon as the door slid open, the figure of Arxoxa, upon noticing him, jumped a mile in the air, and let out an expletive. Oon, in turn, let out a high, short scream, before falling backwards, and breaking apart.
Arxoxa, panting, grabbed his heart, and approached the eternal squire. His serious face turned immediately into a smirk. "Never seen a patrol droid fall apart so easily," he said with a chuckle, as he bent over to inspect Oon's pieces. "You scared the life out of me, little guy."
Oon was indignant. It wasn't the first time someone mistook him for a robot, but it didn't diminish the fact that he absolutely hated being called such a thing. To an eternal squire, it was the next closest thing to being insulted.
"I am not a robot, sir! Oon said sharply, his eyeholes forming their equivalence of anger. "I am Oon, an eternal squire crafted by Wixland himself, and I serve Jayce."
"Okay, okay," Arxoxa said, as he began to put Oon back together. "I was wondering why a droid would be shaped like a knight. And I thought the flying fish was weird. Now, a living suit of armor. Whew!"
"Thank you, mister Arxoxa," Oon said, as the trader slid the last arm into its socket.
"Hey, how'd you know my name?" Arxoxa asked.
"I told you," Oon replied, "Jayce is my master. He tells me everything. What were you doing in here, anyway?"
Arxoxa stood up. "Well, I--I--I just wanted to see if my ship was still in one piece, that's all," he said, shifting his position, as if someone were looking over his back. "It was banged up pretty badly, but I think she's salvageable."
"Well, that's very good, sir," Oon said, giving the broken craft a once-over. "Gillian can fix anything, you know, and I'm certain he can fix even this."
"I'm glad to hear it," Arxoxa replied, as he ran his fingers across its metallic surface. "My cargo's still intact; that's a good thing. At least my customers won't be disappointed in me."
"Well, carry on, then, the eternal squire said, as he marched off through the Exit. I'd love to stay and talk, but I have another hour of patrol duty. So long!"
Odd little thing, Arxoxa thought, as he let out a breath, as if he'd been holing it for quite some time. Then after looking outside the exit into the corridors for no more unwanted passerby, he re-approached his craft, and found the latch for the outer hatchway. It came apart surprisingly smoothly, leading into the cramped spaces of his ship. There, nestled within the bulkhead where he left it was the laptop communicator. He opened it, and stifled the urge to retch at the ugly one-eyed vine creature that stared him in the face. It was what formed a direct link to Saw Boss, he knew, but it didn't make it any less disgusting to look at.
The screen below the creature eye came to life, as Arxoxa spoke. "Arxoxa calling Saw Boss."
And almost as immediately, the face of the Monster Mind leader appeared in the screen. "Report," he said in his deep, commanding voice.
"The son of Audric is headed towards Kelos and Zelos, just like the letter said. He'll be there in less than a day."
"Do they suspect anything?" Saw Boss asked, half-threateningly.
"No, sir. Everything is going according to the way you planned."
"Was there ever any doubt?" Saw Boss asked in return. "Continue with your orders, trader. Leave all the rest to my minions."
"And the reward?" Arxoxa ventured to ask. "Remember your part of the deal."
"Don't worry," Saw Boss replied. "You shall get everything that was promised to you-- and more."
His image then faded away into static.
I'd better, Arxoxa said to himself. This deal is sounding more and more rotten by the moment.
He then placed the communicator back inside the bulkhead, re-sealed it, and exited his ship, feeling more unsettled than ever.