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A Little Blue

Seventeen

09/21/09 0510 Sullivan Homestead, Texas

Martha was bent over a large mixing bowl and blending ingredients together to make biscuits when there was an abrupt knock on the back door. It startled her enough that she spilled some flour onto the counter when she jumped. She wiped her hands on a towel and peeked around the blackout curtain that covered the window. A slender teenage man wearing nice jeans, a plain t-shirt and a faded ball cap advertising some farm and ranch store smiled broadly at the tiny motion. “No, I’m not a feral pokegirl, but your caution is commendable. I’m here to talk to Ciaran.”

Hospitality was important, but these were still uncertain times and Martha wasn’t going to unlock the door for just anyone. “He didn’t mention to me that someone was coming to see him.”

“That would be because he should have known I was coming to see him but he may not have thought the situation out in enough detail to realize it.” The man’s smile faded. “And I didn’t say when I might come to visit. My name is Kerrik and I’m here because Ciaran and I are doing a bit of business. We also have another mutual associate because Iain Grey told me he’d visited you and your husband, Mrs. Sullivan. Iain is a student of mine, although I’ll freely admit I’m learning some things from him in return.”

Martha was still suspicious. “Please have a seat in the chair to your right and I’ll see if Ciaran is awake yet.”

Kerrik started to say something and instead smiled again as he nodded. “It shall be as you wish, Mrs. Sullivan.”

Martha hurried to Ciaran’s room, pausing only to give a pained look at the door to the room that had, until last night, belonged to her daughter since she’d been born and now only housed two guests. She squared her shoulders and raised her hand to knock on her son’s door when it opened and Victoria stopped at the sight of her. “Martha,” she said quietly.

“There’s a man here to see Ciaran,” she replied.

“We know,” Victoria answered, closing the door behind her. “He just called Ciaran to let him know he’s here. His name is Kerrik Wolf and, although we’ve never had the opportunity to meet him, Ciaran knows about him through Iain. Kerrik and Ciaran corresponded about a purchase that Ciaran wanted to make.” She glanced over her shoulder at the door. “Ciaran will need a few minutes to get dressed, and therefore I was asked to speak to Kerrik so he’s not waiting for us.”

“Ah,” Martha said. “Should I invite him inside?”

“If it’s acceptable to you, I will handle this,” Victoria said. “He has pokegirls and they have a bit of a reputation. Because of it, if they’re with him I’d like to meet them before they cross the threshold of your home.”

Martha blinked. “They’re that bad?”

Victoria smiled back at her as she led Martha to the kitchen. “As I said, I know of them by reputation only and I’ve heard rumors that those stories might only be that, stories. I just want to be sure first.” She gave Martha a confident look before slipping through the back door onto the porch.

The man sitting in the chair watched her with some curiosity before smiling thinly. “I’d ask where you heard about my harem but I just remembered Iain gave you access to his stories. I only hope you’ll be cautious about who you let read them.”

“Iain asked that we not give them to anyone else and we haven’t.” Victoria cocked her head. “I am Victoria. Are you Kerrik Wolf?”

The man pulled a long thick braid of silvery hair around from behind him and showed her the length before coiling it in his lap. “I am.”

She eyed the darkness around them. “Are you alone?”

“You know I have a harem, at least some of its composition and you bother asking if they’d let me out of their sight?” He chuckled. “Of course I’m not alone. Whisper and Misery are watching from nearby and everyone else is probably on standby in case I get attacked.”

Victoria glanced into the night again, but couldn’t see anything. “I’m just being cautious. We recently lost someone and we didn’t know you were coming to visit.”

Kerrik’s smile vanished. “Cassiopeia told Ciaran she or I would be in touch soon. He probably thought it meant one of us would call. I guess she should have been more specific in that regard and I’ll speak to her about it for the future. As for the death of Eliana, Theodora told me about it when I let her know that I was coming to see you.” He rose gracefully from the chair. “It’s understandable that her death would make you more careful in dealing with unexpected events, but I reassure you that my visit is in no way a threat to anyone here and is actually to your benefit.”

“Would you like to come inside?”

He shook his head. “It’s not necessary, but when you get the chance I’d like to ask that you please inform Mrs. Sullivan that while our reputation is accurate, we’re not a danger to her or anyone else here and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. Is Ciaran available?”

“He’s getting dressed and should be coming outside to meet with you in a few minutes.”

Kerrik nodded. “I thought he was an early riser.”

“He is. His body is still adjusted for time in the United Kingdom.”

Kerrik’s hat twitched. “I should have considered that.”

“You don’t have to hide your ears,” Victoria said amusedly.

“I don’t want to panic anyone here and Mrs. Sullivan is jumpy enough this morning.” His hat twitched again. “Is this a bad time for my visit?”

Victoria considered how to answer that question. “Last night Mr. Sullivan and his only daughter Beibhinn had an argument that culminated in her moving out unexpectedly. Martha was and still is understandably unhappy over the entire incident.”

“Is Ms. Sullivan safe?”

Victoria nodded. “She is. We made sure of that or we’d be out there with her.”

He rubbed his nose absently. “That’s good to hear. As for her leaving, no matter what the parents might say I doubt there is ever a good time for a loved child to move away from home.” His eyes met hers. “You’ll understand that when your own children leave.”

The door opened and Ciaran came out, closely followed by Elsa and Ceres. “I hope,” he said hurriedly, “that Victoria had the manners to invite you inside.”

Kerrik smiled broadly, for the first time showing his teeth. “Her manners are excellent and, yes, she did. I, however, declined. Your mother might expect me to take my hat off and people react sometimes unfavorably to my ears, especially if the first experience is in close proximity to me.”

Ciaran nodded. “Thank you, Victoria. Oh, the Lioness is Elsa and the green woman is Ceres. Now, Kerrik, what did you want to talk about? Is this another interview?”

“I’m afraid you misunderstand my purpose, Ciaran. I am here to deliver your AI, not to discuss doing so. I was able to deliver it ahead of schedule and it gave me an excuse to meet you now as well as to keep you from having to pay Theodora for yet another taxi ride.” His hat twitched again. “Besides, I sort of owe you an apology and I like to do those in person.”

“What could you possibly have to apologize to me for?”

“It’s customary for a newly born AI to meet its clan leader before it makes any decisions about itself. This is supposed to allow the clan head and the AI to make their first decisions together, which is commonly considered to be a good omen for the future of their relationship. This one asked some questions about you when I wasn’t around and some of my harem, who didn’t know they were supposed to tell it that it would meet you soon and instead provided answers. The AI promptly decided to adjust itself to a form and adopted a name without your input. For that, I owe you an apology.”

Ciaran chuckled. “I doubt there was any real harm done and I certainly don’t think you owe me an apology for something you had no control over. As for the AI, it’s a person and has the right to decide who it is going to be.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.” The unknown feminine voice came from the computer on his belt. A woman appeared in front of him. She was his height, with long brown hair that fell in curls to her waist and bright black eyes. She was wearing an old fashioned blue dress that he’d seen on some shows on PBS back when there was television, but he couldn’t identify it. She smiled warmly at him and spoke in a heavy Irish accent. “I am Eriu, and I am the AI that has come to meet you.”

Ceres cocked her head. “You say your name like we should know who you are.”

“Eriu is the pagan Celt goddess of Ireland,” Ciaran answered, saying Celt with the hard k sound. “And you are welcome in my family, Eriu.” He sent a question to his twee. It is a kirtle, a dress popular from the fifth to sixteenth centuries in Europe. She is wearing a linen chemise under it, typical of later period kirtles.

She bowed her head gracefully. “Thank you, Ciaran.” Her head came back up and she regarded him curiously. “Why do you call me pagan?”

“I’m Catholic. You’re a goddess of the Celts. I’m Celt but I don’t worship the Celt gods and so you’re named after a pagan goddess.”

She blinked in surprise as Kerrik chuckled. “And that’s part of the reason I suggested you wait before meeting him.”

“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” Eriu said. “I want us to get along and thought I was being helpful. Do you wish me to change my name and appearance?”

“Do you expect us to worship you?”

She shook her head. “I do not.”

“Then I don’t think we’ll have any problems because of your name.” He jerked his head towards Victoria. “She’s named after an English queen and I don’t hold that against her.” He smiled. “Her name is Victoria, the girl with the feline ears is Elsa and the green girl is Ceres. Counting you, that’s my entire immediate family, although we are traveling with a couple of friends as well. You’ll meet them later.”

“May I access your computers and twees for a comprehensive download of our situation?”

“You can access mine, but you’ll have to ask each of my ladies individually and they can refuse your request if they wish to.”

“Thank you, I will.”

“You can access mine,” Victoria announced.

Elsa glanced at the Angel for a second. “Mine, too.”

Ceres shrugged. “Right now I want to think about allowing you access, so for the moment I don’t allow it. I’ll let you know my decision after we get back from the lake.”

“What is at the lake?”

“We’re investigating potential feral activity,” Ceres answered. “Other than that, we don’t know yet.”

Eriu looked at Ciaran. “May I come along?”

He frowned. “What sort of package do you come in?”

She laughed suddenly. “I’m in front of the house. It’s rather small for a spaceship, but then I’ve been told you’ll want me to build something bigger for us and soon.” The humor in her face vanished. “I’d like that. I feel pretty vulnerable right now.”

“Well, let’s go see our new ship,” Elsa said as she grabbed Ciaran’s arm. She looked at Eriu as the hologram of the AI shrank to about six inches tall and moved to stand on Ciaran’s shoulder. “Is it named the Eriu?”

Eriu shook her head. “It’s named after the classical home of the Ó Súileabháin clan in Ireland, which later became the O Sullivan and Sullivan clans. It’s a town in County Tipperary called Cnoc Raffan. In English it is Kockgraffon. I went with an Irish Gaelic theme, so the ship is the Cnoc Raffan.”

Ciaran chuckled. “My Gaelic is so rusty you can’t see it for the rust. Am I going to have to learn to speak it again?”

“I would recommend it,” Eriu said firmly. “If nothing else, the more languages a person learns, the more synaptic connections stay active and so the better your brain works. And, of course, it is the historical language of the Irish.”

Kerrik had silently followed Ciaran and his harem as they headed around the house. Now he grinned suddenly. “It’s also a much prettier language than English and beauty in all forms is to be encouraged. Eriu, it’s still at least an hour to sunrise and I suspect that not everyone here has gotten used to using their twees for low light vision. Please turn on your running lights, on low level.”

Light suddenly appeared in front of them, dimly at first but slowly growing in intensity until it was the equivalent of a forty watt bulb. More lights appeared, extending away from them. The lights revealed a rough cylinder far larger than a tractor trailer.

Ciaran frowned. “How big are you?”

Eiru laughed, it sounded like tiny bells in his ear. “The Cnoc Raffan, in its current form, is three hundred meters long and thirteen meters in diameter. It’ll carry a standard crew of seventy, with allowance for ten percent growth of the crew over a five year mission. Most of my tonnage is power plant and engines, with the bulk of the remainder held over for processing equipment.”

“What about gardens,” Ceres asked.

“I am too small for gardens, I’m afraid. All food, water and atmosphere is either stored in bulk or synthesized as needed. When I build a bigger ship, it’ll have plenty of room for gardens.”

“What about weapons,” Elsa asked curiously.

“I have minimal weaponry, the vast majority of which is defensive in nature. My shields will protect against meteoroids that get through my point defenses, but I doubt I’d be able to stop the primary laser of a StarlightXpress pokegirl from penetrating my shields at close range.”

Ciaran looked back at Kerrik. “Can you put her size into something I can relate to?”

He nodded. “She’s a little bit longer than the battleship USS Iowa was before the pokegirls sank her but only about two thirds as wide. Or, if you’d prefer, she’s three times as long as a Saturn V rocket, but only three meters wider than one.”

Victoria looked surprised. “This is a small ship?”

“The transport that Theodora brought you back to Earth with wasn’t much smaller than this ship is,” Kerrik responded. “The shuttle probably had a little more room for passengers, but that’s because it’s a parasite ship with deliberately limited endurance. The Cnoc Raffan is designed to be completely self-contained if need be. For her mission parameters, she is quite small indeed.”

“We’ll just have to do something about that,” Ciaran said. “Eriu, do what you need to in order to become completely mission capable.”

Kerrik’s hat twitched violently and slid sideways off his head as Eiru grinned. “Yes, sir, I’ll get started immediately.” Her smile faded. “Now, about coming along with you to the lake, while my hull would prove impracticable for direct aid I can provide stealthy drones for real time aerial surveillance so Victoria and Elsa can stay combat ready at all times.”

Ciaran nodded. “Get what you need to ready. You can monitor through my computer.”

“I can’t believe you just did that,” Kerrik said as she vanished. “She’s a new AI and you just gave her pretty much complete independence in which to operate.” He picked up his hat as his ears flicked. “There’s no telling what she’ll do with that kind of latitude.”

“She’s not going to hurt me or mine, and if she reads my twee she’ll learn a lot about my moral compass so I doubt she’ll do anything to disappoint me too much.”

The Cnock Raffan lifted into the air. “I am moving so as to not be blocking your father’s driveway,” Eriu said through Ciaran’s computer. “I’ll go on ahead and meet you on the way to the lake. Would you mind if I scavenged old cars and such for raw material? It’s already processed and will take less effort to convert into substances suitable for drone manufacturing.”

“Don’t raid any from around houses that show signs of habitation,” Ciaran warned. “Those probably belong to someone.”

“I’ll scan for thermal signatures in addition to visual surveys before I begin collecting,” she answered as the ship turned and headed away.

“Thank you,” Ciaran said. He looked at Kerrik. “Would you and your harem like to stay for breakfast? Mother might be startled by your ears at first, but she’ll get over it pretty quickly.” He smiled. “And she needs to get used to some more of the various pokegirl breeds.”

Kerrik was shaking his head before Ciaran was finished speaking. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got things to do and I didn’t plan to stay for meals. Besides, start with more normal girls if you’re going to be using them in order to accustom your family to their presence. Mine are not the ones to begin that process with.”

“Well, in any case, thanks for introducing me to Eriu,” Ciaran said. “I appreciate you doing this.” He held out his hand.

Kerrik took it. “You are very welcome, Ciaran.” Releasing the hand, he bowed slightly. “Farewell.” Then he was gone, disappearing into the darkness.

Ciaran smiled as he felt Victoria’s small, warm hand slip into his. He tightened his fingers over hers. “Ladies, let’s see about helping mother with breakfast so we can get moving.”

09/21/09 0810 Mackenzie Lake, Texas

Ciaran pointed. “We’ll cross over to the south side of Tule Creek and follow it to the reservoir. That’s the side where the boat ramps are as well as the park facilities. It’s probably where the fishermen who disappeared would have set up their camp and a good place to start our investigation.”

Ceres nodded. “Victoria will take point and I’ll drop back to cover the rear.” She glanced up at the empty sky. “That is, Ciaran, if you trust Eriu’s drone overhead.”

While she obviously wasn’t comfortable with the thought of a remote controlled drone operated by someone she hadn’t worked with before providing overwatch, Ciaran wasn’t going to let her insult Eriu. “I do.” He glanced at the sky too, unsurprised when he didn’t see anything since Eriu had explained that the drone projected a hologram around it that passed what was on the other side through it to make the drone appear invisible to all but the most determined observer.

Thank you, Eriu said through his twee. May I have permission to feed you data from the drone?

You do. In his vision a window opened on the bottom left side and he saw an overhead view of the area in front of them as seen by the drone hovering above them. Animals hidden in the sparse bushes and undergrowth were highlighted in a light blue outline. Wow.

I must admit I’m showing off to you just a little bit, Eriu responded. Normally I wouldn’t bother with providing tracking data on the animals unless you were hunting or they could pose a threat to your group. They can provide too much of a distraction from real danger.

I am impressed.

Neem scowled. “What about me? I want to fight too.”

Ceres smiled at the diminutive Elfqueen. “First we protect our tamers. Second we fight.” She glanced at Beibhinn. “If she dies you’ll be alone and, since she’s Ciaran’s sister, he would be unlikely to try to recruit you.”

Elsa’s ears flattened. “If Beibhinn dies in your care you’ll be a failure and we won’t want you anywhere around Ciaran.”

“I wouldn’t have said it quite that way,” Ceres said soothingly.

“She’s right,” Neem almost snarled. “But I want to fight too.”

“What if I stayed close to my brother,” Beibhinn interjected. “Can Neem fight then?”

Victoria chuckled. “I’m not sure that’s the safest place to be, Beibhinn.”

Beibhinn frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Ciaran has been hurt while he was away. You might not want to be around him in case it happens again.”

Beibhinn looked at her brother. “What happened,” she asked in a flat voice.

“I got shot.”

“Twice,” Ceres interjected. The look Ciaran gave her suggested she was not being helpful and she smiled back at him.

Beibhinn missed the interplay. “How did you get shot?”

“Someone was trying to steal Victoria and he shot me. The other was a duel I fought with an idiot who threatened to rape and murder everyone I love.”

Baker blinked. “I haven’t heard about the robbery attempt this before.”

“It’s been mentioned previously without any details, but you wouldn’t have wanted to hear it before you got to know Ciaran,” Victoria replied. “I’m not sure you really want to hear it now.”

Baker frowned. “I think I do.”

Victoria shrugged. “I think you don’t but I’ll tell you anyway. It was when Ciaran and I were traveling. We came across some woodcutters clearing the trees away from the roads right about the time they were attacked by Eliana while she was still feral. We captured her and one of the guards shot Ciaran because he wanted pokegirls of his own. Ciaran almost died.”

“If it was when he acquired Eliana it was before he met me,” Baker said slowly. “Why didn’t he tell me about it during his interview? We want to know when someone is attacked by the Blues.”

Victoria snorted. “We were still in Scotland, Tamsin. He wasn’t shot by a Blue soldier. He was shot by a British soldier. A Royal.”

“As for why I didn’t tell you,” Ciaran interrupted as Baker looked shocked, “it's because we have no idea what the name of my attacker was. Everything happened so fast all I can tell you is that it was some guy with a bad attitude and a shotgun. He shot me, I fell into the river and Victoria chased and rescued me. I never saw the guy again.” He grimaced. “And we’re getting distracted. Elsa, are you willing to help protect Beibhinn so Neem can fight?” He recognized the angry glint in her eye and quickly spoke before she could. “A good pokegirl would be willing to be that helpful.”

Elsa’s mouth snapped shut as she shot him a glare. Then her ears stilled and she smiled. “I can’t make any promises because I am bonded to Ciaran and I’ll want to protect him first, but I’ll do my best.”

Beibhinn put her hand on Neem’s shoulder, making the Elfqueen look at her. “I’m willing to take that chance if you are.”

“You are entirely too much like your brother,” Victoria muttered. “You’re taking chances that aren’t safe. Will you come back from the dead too?”

Beibhinn stared at her. “You know about that?”

“He told me after it happened again.”

What?

“We’re still being distracted,” Ciaran said firmly as he unslung his shotgun. “I am not discussing this right now. Victoria, either you take point or I will."

Victoria’s head whipped around. “I’m going,” she said as she trotted forward.

“Neem, go with her,” Ceres ordered. “Do what she says or you and Beibhinn can go home.”

Neem looked at Beibhinn for a second. “Take good care of her.” Then she loped towards Victoria.

Ceres turned to Captain Baker and Libby. “Since we’re letting others help, Libby, you’re covering the rear. Wait until we get moving and then drop back ten meters or so. Call out if you see anything. Your mistress can stay with Ciaran and Beibhinn and I’ll help Elsa protect them.”

Libby’s ears flicked. “I don’t get a keeper too?”

“We’ve worked with you before and I trust you not to do anything rash.” Ceres’ head cocked curiously. “Or do you want one?”

“No thank you.” Libby looked at Baker. “Mistress, do you mind?”

Baker shook her head. “Go with my blessing, Libby. Just come running if I scream.”

The Nekomata’s face almost split with her smile. “I will always, mistress.”

Beibhinn moved to walk with Ciaran as they got moving and spoke in a low voice as she eyed Baker. “You died again?”

He glanced at her. “Yeah. It happened a month ago.”

She gave him a hurt look. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Mother and father don’t want to hear about it, remember? And why would I want to tell you? You’ll just make fun of me just like you did the first time.”

“I was just teasing you,” she protested.

“No, you weren’t. All of you were cruel. I knew I died. I knew just how messed up not staying dead was. I needed someone to just hug me and tell me that I wasn’t some kind of freak. Instead our parents pretended it never happened and you did exactly the opposite of what I needed with your Lazarus jokes and,” he trailed off bitterly. “Never mind.”

Beibhinn stared at him for several seconds before looking away. “I am so sorry,” she said softly.

He shrugged. “You were ten. How mature could I expect you to be?” He held up his hand when she started to speak. “Let it go, Beibhinn. It was a long time ago and it’s over. I only brought it up because you wanted to know why I didn’t tell anyone what happened in Scotland. Now you do.”

Beibhinn was quiet for a while before looking at him. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“I already have,” he said.

Elsa glanced at him as Beibhinn looked relieved. Is that the truth?

It’s what she needs to hear right now.

Beibhinn squared her shoulders. “You’re not a freak, you know.”

Ciaran surprised her with a loud chuckle. “Actually I am, which it turns out is a good thing.”

She looked surprised. “It is?”

“If I weren’t a freak I’d be dead and you and our parents would probably have never known unless Iain found out what happened and told you or Ceres, Victoria and Eliana turned up on your doorstep looking for a home. Elsa hadn’t joined us at that point.”

Ceres gave him a hard look. “Needless to say, we, his women, are doing everything we can to make sure he doesn’t have to do that ever again.”

He smiled back at her. “And that is something I completely appreciate.”

“Except where you feel it constrains your personal freedoms,” Elsa said flatly. “Then you chafe against our desires to protect you.”

“Well, yes, except then.”

***

Victoria reports there’s a potential problem. It had been about an hour since his talk with his sister and, so far, they’d seen no sign of pokegirls or humans so Eriu’s sudden statement inside Ciaran’s head made him start in surprise. I have instructed her to make a report over your communication system for Baker’s benefit and made a suggestion for determining if the problem is real or not.

His computer chirped once and then spoke with Victoria’s voice. “We can see part of the lake from here and something is going on at an island in center of the lake. I’d like to send the drone to investigate.”

Eriu spoke next. “I think that moving the drone forward to cover Victoria and Neem is a good idea. This will leave a potential hole in coverage for you.”

Ciaran exchanged a look with Ceres, who nodded. He glanced behind the group and realized that he couldn’t see the rearguard. “I want to pull Libby in closer and collapse the point until we can see them, but as soon as we can see Libby, Victoria and Neem, do it.”

Baker made a motion with her hand and a blue hummingbird appeared. It hovered for a second before it zipped towards their rear. “I’ve summoned Libby.” Then she clicked the safety off on her rifle.

Seconds later the Nekomata sprinted up and almost skidded to a halt near Baker. “Mistress, what is your command?”

“Follow Ciaran’s instructions,” Baker said as she scanned the area.

“Keep watching our rear but stay with us,” he answered the unspoken question. “We’ve got some kind of issue up ahead and I want to pull the group together until we are capable of mutual support.”

“Get moving,” Ceres said to Elsa.

As soon as Victoria and Neem could be seen, Eriu spoke again. “I am moving the drone.” The holographic display on his and Baker’s computers lit up to show the view from the drone. It slowed as it moved over Victoria and Neem’s positions.

The lake was fuller than Ciaran had ever seen it and, in fact, looked like it was close to the full capacity that had been dreamed of when it had been constructed. It was so full of water that the ends of the boat launches where trucks used to back down them to unload their trailers were almost underwater. About fifty feet from the shore was a tiny island a dozen or so feet across. On it were strewn dozens of blue forms. His twee immediately identified them even as Eriu spoke. “On the island are thirty seven Titodiles varying in ages from adult to sub adult juvenile. They appear to be sunning themselves. The absence of infants and adolescents suggests more than likely there is a crèche elsewhere in the lake, presumably guarded by other Titodiles as it is almost certain that with the presence of this many Titodiles they are breeding here.” Two forms flashed with a yellow outline. “Breeding confirmed. These two are heavily gravid.”

“We’re too close,” Elsa said softly. Her ears flicked when Ciaran raised an eyebrow. “Titodiles don’t have to stay close to water and they’ll chase prey for miles away from their homes. Your fishermen are dead. Even if they’d had pokegirls of their own they would never have had a chance against that many of them and we’re in a lot of trouble if they detect us. The flying pokegirls might escape if they flee but anyone who stays will be swarmed under. We need to attack before we’re discovered.”

“We could withdraw,” Libby offered. “They can’t track us if we teleport.”

“They’ll find our trail and investigate,” Elsa disagreed. “They’re very curious and they might follow our trail all the way back to the Sullivan Ranch.” She glanced at Ciaran. “We can’t take that chance. Neem couldn’t stop them all. Your local pokegirl hunters probably couldn’t unless they’ve got a lot of plant and electrics available.”

“I can help,” Eriu said. “The drone is armed.”

Ciaran blinked. “What with?”

“It has a launcher for pokeballs and a load of five hundred balls. That’s only a quarter of the full capacity, but I don’t have the resources available to make that many yet. I didn’t put coil guns on it because the energy expenditure would have been prohibitive on a drone this small so the launcher is its only armament.”

“What’s the rate of fire,” Ceres asked.

“One ball every half second,” Eriu replied. “According to my information, even if a pokegirl breaks out of a ball, she is weakened against the next one. I will have ten balls in the air before the first ball hits its target and with thirteen balls available in my magazines for every Titodile we can see, we will catch many of them unless they all run.”

Ciaran thought quickly. “Elsa, move up and join Victoria. You two will open the attack with lightning on as many as you can hit. Ceres, you and Neem will backstop them. I, Libby, Tamsin and Beibhinn will stay here and deal with any that get past you four.” He smiled thinly as Elsa’s ears flattened. “Libby will be primary and the rest of us will huddle behind her as much as we can. Eriu will call the lightning attack to maximize damage and surprise before the pokeballs hit.”

Ceres looked thoughtful for a second and nodded. “We’ll do it. Elsa, you and Victoria hit them hard on Eriu’s order.” The two of them headed off at a crouching run.

Beibhinn frowned as Libby shifted forward to put herself between the humans in the group and potential danger. The woman was carrying a pump shotgun and Ciaran had given her fifty of the grenade rounds for ammunition. “What happens if someone attacks us from behind?”

“We bleed,” Baker said grimly. “Libby will come to our aid as fast as she can, but we don’t have the firepower to cover all directions at once and a feral attack isn’t going to start with a parley.”

Beibhinn swallowed hard before glancing at her brother. “How do you do this every day?”

“Very carefully, sis, very carefully. That and Victoria yells at me from time to time when I’m too brave.” He gave Baker a cool look as she snickered. “You’ve seen it.”

“I have,” she replied. “And it would have been hilariously funny if the reason she was yelling at you had been anything other than the fact that you were brave while keeping Eliana from slaughtering me out of hand.”

Beibhinn gaped at her. “What?”

Before Ciaran could say anything, in his display a nude redheaded woman appeared in the middle of the island between two Titodiles. One of them lifted her head, sniffed the woman’s leg and promptly sank her teeth into the meaty part of the woman’s calf.

The redhead shrieked and the other Titodiles responded instantly by mobbing her.

“Elsa, Victoria and Eriu attack now,” Ciaran yelled into his com.

Victoria’s voice came out of it. “But our lightning may hurt her.”

“It’ll be better for her than if we watch those Titodiles eat her alive,” Elsa’s voice snarled back. Lightning erupted from the Mazouku’s hands, quickly followed by the same technique from Victoria. The two women aimed at Titodiles who weren’t immediately involved in the melee with the redhead.

Ciaran noted the redhead wasn’t going down peacefully. She was fighting back with her bare hands and every punch knocked a Titodile at least a dozen feet away. Some flew into the water, only to rush back towards their prey. The one that had bitten her on the leg writhed nearby, but the fact that her lower body didn’t move with her upper suggested her back had been broken by a stomp.

Titodiles began vanishing into red clouds as Eriu’s pokeballs rained down on them. Some broke free, but vanished again as Eriu hit them once more. Others dove into the lake and disappeared into its depths as still more shot from the water looking for something to attack and targeted the redhead, who went down under the new assault.

Lightning ceased playing over the Titodiles and Ciaran realized that was because some ferals had come out of the water on shore of the lake and were rushing Elsa and Victoria, who had shifted their attacks and were now peppering the oncoming ferals with lightning attacks until they closed to melee range. Then Elsa summoned her sword as she charged, cutting the head off her closest opponent with a blurring swing as Victoria ran another through with her spear.

Fire where I indicate, Ciaran’s twee said. He raised the shotgun as three red dots appeared in his vision and squeezed off single shots in a smooth traverse as his sight crossed each dot. The grenades plunged into the water in a line a couple of yards from the bank and went off, making the water boil. Stunned blue forms swirled briefly in the churning water and vanished again without apparent damage, but no more Titodiles came out of the waves to attack his women.

Suddenly, and with no signal he could see, the Titodiles broke as a group, rushing back to the safety of the lake. Elsa hurled her sword, the blade burying itself deep in the back of the last one just before she reached the water’s edge. She went down screaming until Victoria nailed her with a pokeball. Then, suddenly, it was still again.

“We should collect the captured girls on the island,” Eriu said from the com.

Ciaran nodded. “It’ll wait until we rejoin the others. Libby, take point and everyone keep an eye out in case they come back elsewhere along the bank. Let’s move.”

“I can’t identify the body on the island,” Eriu said as they rejoined Ceres, Neem, Victoria and Elsa. “It is definitely a pokegirl, but she is not in any known database. I tried pokeballing her, but she appears to be too far gone for it to work.”

He peered into the display on his computer. From what he could see the woman had been pretty badly mauled, but worst of all her throat looked like it had been torn out. “Ceres, you and Elsa get the pokeballs from the island and retrieve the corpse while you’re at it. She might be wearing a necklace or something that identifies her. If she has a Texas family we’ll try to return her body to them.”

The Tantrasaur nodded as she pulled two cloth sacks from her pack and handed one to Elsa. “Do you want Victoria overhead?”

“Eriu’s still up there. Victoria, Neem and Libby can stand guard and cover you if need be.”

“Is it always like this,” Beibhinn asked softly as Elsa took Ceres’ hand and the two of them teleported to the island.

“No, this was pretty bad compared to what we’ve seen,” Victoria said. “Most fights with ferals are with only individuals or small groups.” She sighed and looked at Ciaran. “I hate admitting this but your idea of using the grenades as concussion bombs was inspired. Thank you.”

“I’m just glad it worked,” he said quietly. “And no, I don’t intend to make a habit of firing into your fights.”

Victoria smiled briefly. “That’s good. I’m pretty sure Elsa was saying words you wouldn’t approve of about you robbing her of more enemies to fight.”

“I didn’t hear them,” he said with a chuckle. “And I can’t comment on something I didn’t hear.”

“We’re being watched,” Neem said evenly. She pointed with her chin at a faint shadow far from the shore. The Titodile was just surfaced enough that the end of her snout and her eyes were out of the water.

“Of course we are,” Libby said confidently. “We just proved we’re the most powerful predators here and they want to make sure we’re done attacking them.” Her ears flicked. “Not that I want to see those things rushing out of the waves again. I was worried that Victoria and Elsa would be taken down before you and Ceres could get to them.”

“I was concerned too,” Neem replied as she kept scanning the surface of the lake. “Ceres wasn’t though and after seeing them fight I won’t be as concerned either.”

On the island, Elsa looked at the corpse with disgust. “I don’t suppose you want to carry this back, would you? She’s going to get me all bloody.”

Ceres looked up from gathering pokeballs into her bag. “You haven’t tried to teach me to teleport yet, remember? And I don’t care how fastidious you are. I am not going to get my belly ripped out trying to swim with her on my back so you can stay clean.” She smirked at the glare she got in return. “You wouldn’t do it for me.”

“Remind me to teach you to teleport. I’ve been told any pokegirl can learn how to do it.” Elsa blinked and grinned suddenly. She grabbed the corpse by an ankle and vanished, appearing again in front of Ciaran. “Here’s your body.” She vanished again as she returned to the island, leaving the corpse behind.

Victoria grabbed the corpse’s hair and pulled the head up. “If there was a necklace it was torn off when her throat was ripped out,” she observed clinically. Bone gleamed whitely from the dead girl’s spine inside the gaping wound. “I don’t see any tattoos or other identifying marks either.”

Beibhinn’s face was slightly green as she watched. “The computer says she’s a pokegirl but that it can’t identify her. I wonder who she was.” She shivered slightly. “Nobody should die like that.”

“I am the Kentarch.” Everyone whirled to see a nude redhead identical to the corpse, except that this one had no visible wounds. She was looking at the body with a curious expression on her face. “I am the only of my kind, which makes that body’s existence impossible.”

Ciaran noted idly that she had white eyes with black slits for pupils as well as noting when Victoria’s spear shimmered into existence and she began easing in front of him. He blinked as the redhead’s body seemed to waver slightly on the edges. She’s an Astral pokegirl, his twee said. Very likely she is the dead pokegirl’s ghost. He swallowed hard. “Um, miss, you’re an Astral pokegirl. That means you’re dead. This is probably your body.”

The pokegirl’s face paled and she faded almost to invisibility before becoming more visible. Tears suddenly glittered in her eyes before they began to run down her cheeks. Her voice was heavy with pain and grief. “Then I have failed in my duty.”

Agony exploded through Ciaran’s chest and he screamed once before his world went black.

The finished painting now hung on the wall and the easel stood nearby with an empty canvas frame on it. The ottoman that had been doing circles had been turned over and shoved into a corner where its legs spun madly as it tried to keep moving.

The woman in the British Army uniform stood in the middle of the room. Her eyes glittered with tears as she looked at him. “Did you hear what she said? She has failed in her duty just as I have.” Resolve filled her eyes. “It does not have to be this way.”

As often is in dreams, Ciaran could not have described what the woman looked like, her appearance seemed to change slightly each time he blinked. He knew she was attractive in some way, but that was all. “What are you talking about?”

“You heard the ghost speak about duty. Her pain and her grief are mine. They call to me. I can help her.” She nodded firmly. “I can.”

He frowned as he tried to understand what she was saying to him. “How?”

She smiled warmly at him. “I must leave. You have kept me safe but now I must leave and you must let me go.”

“I don’t understand. This is a dream.”

His shadow stretched away from him and rose to form a negative image of Ciaran. “This is a dream, but it is not a dream.”

He blinked. “Who are you?” To his surprise, the woman said the same words simultaneously to him .

“I am your twee. Your mind is not in a dream state right now. You are not conscious, but you are not unconscious. The activity levels in your brain suggest an intermediate condition similar to that experienced while waking from sleep.” It gestured at the woman. “And she is not a part of us, neither a memory nor a dream construct. She is somehow physically present in this place, which itself is a dream construct. And yet, she is not an intruder, either. This is outside anything either you or I have experienced. I cannot advise you in this situation.”

The woman shook her head. “You must let me leave,” she said. “Please let me leave now so I can help her.”

Ciaran frowned. “How am I keeping you here?”

She pointed at his waist. “I cannot leave without my gun.”

Ciaran looked down. The pistol she’d given him was still thrust into his belt. He drew it free and held it out, butt first. “Are you sure?”

She took it with a pleased smile. “I am and I am very grateful for you keeping me safe. I’ll reward you for it, too.” She winked. “You’ll see.”

Beibhinn cradled her brother’s head as Victoria knelt and checked his pulse. “He’s alive,” the Angel said, her voice heavy with relief. “He doesn’t appear to be injured.”

Neem was facing the Astral pokegirl. “What did you do to him?” Her eyes narrowed when the ghost ignored her and kept crying. “What did you do?”

Beibhinn gasped as a bluish globe shot from Ciaran’s chest. “What is that?”

Victoria stared as the globe hovered over his chest before moving away. “It’s the Bean Si.” The Angel lunged to her feet, her spear appearing in her hand as she struck. The blade passed through the globe without any apparent change. Her mouth twisted into a snarl and she hissed angrily as she stepped between Ciaran and the orb. “Keep him away from it!”

The globe stopped over the corpse of the Kentarch and immediately sank into it. As Victoria watched, the wounds on the body sealed themselves shut. The corpse jerked once and began coughing, spewing up aspirated blood from its lungs.

The Astral stopped crying as the body sat up and looked at it. The corpse’s mouth moved several times before it spoke in a raspy voice. “You have failed in your duty as I have failed in mine. My failure cannot be undone. If yours can, we will correct it together, with me using the body you once owned while you guide me.”

“He’s awake!”

Beibhinn’s shout pulled Victoria’s attention back to her and Ciaran. She dismissed her spear and dropped to her knees next to him as he blinked and tried to sit up. Beibhinn’s hands tightened as she kept him from moving. Victoria smiled slightly. “Let him go, Bee.” She looked into his eyes as Beibhinn relaxed her grip. “How do you feel?”

“I hurt more than when I was shot in the chest,” he said slowly. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” She looked up as Elsa appeared with Ceres. “Guard the Kentarch.” She frowned. “Kentarchs, I mean. There are two of them now.”

Ciaran blinked. “Two?”

“The Bean Si was in your chest,” Victoria said gently. “It left and went into the Kentarch’s corpse, animating it.”

“Not animating it,” Beibhinn said as she scanned the redhead. “According to this, it’s something called a Haunting and it’s alive.”

Elsa’s ears flicked. “Then the Bean Si must have been a Ghostly.” She nodded absently as her mind raced; her twee filling in gaps in her knowledge as they worked together. “That would make sense. Some of the misfortunes and deaths attributed to it could have been from its feeding on humans. But how did it get here?”

“It was inside Ciaran,” Victoria said.

The Astral Kentarch stepped closer to the Haunting. “What have you done?”

“I have returned life to this body that we might correct your failure,” the Haunting said proudly. “I failed in my duty but together we shall prevail in yours.”

Ceres cocked her head. “What is your duty, Kentarch?”

The ghostly figure squared her shoulders. “My breed was created right at the end of the war, although I didn’t know it at the time. The production process was rushed and, therefore, flawed. The initial manufacturing batch was one thousand units but only ten of them were successfully decanted. A second run of another thousand units was started, but the process was terminated before completion when the facility was powered down and mothballed after Sukebe was killed. During the mothballing process the facility was attacked by a military unit and my sisters and I were tasked with its destruction. It was our first battle and for the others, it was their last.” Her eyes narrowed. “The humans were trying to shell the facility with artillery but we quickly destroyed their cannons. Having no other use for them and facing destruction, they then placed 155mm howitzer rounds under the dirt as improvised land mines and fell back, luring us into their trap. I was the only survivor.”

Victoria frowned. “What about the soldiers?”

The Astral Kentarch smiled grimly. “You misunderstood. After they murdered my sisters, I was very angry. I was the only survivor of that battle.”

Baker swallowed hard. “You killed them all?”

The Astral Kentarch spoke in a voice filled with satisfaction. “I did.” She returned her attention to Ceres. “When I got back to the facility, I was given one last mission by my Caretakers. I was to find a suitable place and reproduce so that my breed would not die out and would be available for the return of Sukebe. I was confused by this order as I had seen and heard the reports of his death, but as you know we must follow the orders of the Caretakers.”

“I remember,” Ceres said gently. She turned her head slightly towards Ciaran. “The Caretakers were the ones who oversaw our decantation and education. We were conditioned to obey them over all others until they released us to our command authority. Only Sukebe could override the orders of a Caretaker.”

The Haunting looked confused for a moment before shrugging. “That was not the mission I was anticipating, but if that is our duty, then that is our duty. This body will survive to produce offspring.”

The Astral Kentarch frowned for a second. “I realize now that I went insane. What is to keep you from going insane just as I did?”

The Haunting shook her head. “You went feral, not insane. Humans are the key to keeping being feral at bay. Even as you are, you can go feral. Ciaran will keep us both from that and his family will protect us and our children. It will significantly increase the chance of our mission’s success.”

The Astral Kentarch eyed Ciaran curiously before making a dismissive noise. “He is human. After what they did, I cannot trust any human.”

“You killed all of them,” the Haunting argued. “He was not one of the men who murdered your sisters and you cannot blame him for that.”

“Not blaming him is not the same as trusting him. Humans are not worthy of our trust.”

The Haunting folded her arms under her breasts. “Then you will not be able to help me have children for I will stay with Ciaran. He is not like the others. He is special.”

“It’s odd,” Ceres said softly to Victoria. “They look identical. They have the same voice, but the Haunting has an Irish accent while the Astral has the basic one, like I do.”

The Astral Kentarch scowled. “All humans are alike.”

“He gave me refuge and succor where the others let me die again and again,” the Haunting snapped. “He is kind to those who do not deserve it. He tried to rescue you before you failed and this body died.” She smiled maliciously as the Astral flinched away from her. “And he fed me. We are dead and we feed off of life. You will see that most life is tasty and some is weak and bland, but his energy is rich beyond compare. I have never tasted life that is so rich before. Where I had to drink deeply of other humans until they grew weak and died while I still hungered, I need only sip from him and I am completely sated. You are like me now and must feed off of life.” She waved an arm. “Taste any of these and then him and tell me if I lie.”

“What were you before you died and became as Ghostly,” Libby asked suddenly.

The Haunting smiled amusedly. “I have always been a Ghostly. I do not remember anything before I became, for which I am glad.” She turned to the Astral Kentarch. “I will help you.”

The translucent redhead nodded. “And I will help you. If you insist on remaining with this human, so shall I, for so long as he aids our purpose.”

“You wait just a minute,” Ciaran said as he sat up. “I didn’t agree to anything.”

Elsa looked at Ceres. “What do you think,” she asked in a low voice. “This isn’t exactly what we intended, but it is two pokegirls who are not feral.”

“Will he accept this,” Ceres asked back.

“First we need to know that this Kentarch breed is useful to us,” Elsa said. She turned to Ciaran. “Do you remember the talk we had on the way back to Cairnryan with the Irish sailors about replacements?”

He frowned and his eyes narrowed. “You have got to be kidding.”

“It’s either these two or one or more of the Titodiles,” she said with a grin. “Victoria, what do you say?”

“We know nothing about this breed,” the Angel said. “Until we do, I won’t help you.”

Elsa nodded. “That’s fair enough. How about we make camp right here, in the heart of the Titodile’s territory. Then we hunt them for the rest of the day and catch all that we can. The ones that we miss will learn to respect the presence of strangers, or at least to fear them. Tonight, we’ll talk with these two,” she nodded towards the redheads. “And in the meantime they can get to know one another. If they are acceptable, Ciaran will bed them and make them one of us.”

“Mother will want them to wear clothes,” Beibhinn murmured. “They look too much like human woman.”

“Clothes get destroyed when I must use my battle form,” the Astral Kentarch said. “And there is seldom time to remove them before a fight.”

“She has a battle form,” Ceres said quietly. “I like her more and more.” She raised her voice. “Will each of you give your parole so we can trust you with our humans while we hunt the ferals in the lake?”

“What is this parole,” the Haunting asked. “I will not agree without knowing the terms I am agreeing to.”

“You would be agreeing to not take up arms or use force against anyone here or anyone we know for a year and a day or until Ciaran releases you from your parole,” Ceres said.

The Haunting pursed her lips as she thought. “I agree to the terms. You have my parole.” She looked at the Astral Kentarch. “What do you say?”

The Astral nodded. “I give my parole. Can I help hunt?”

“You wish,” Libby said. “I won’t be hunting, either.” She nodded to Ceres. “I’ll put them to work setting up the camp so you can take Neem with you.”

The Elfqueen looked surprised. “Thank you, Libby.”

“I will hunt with them another day that will be soon,” the Nekomata said confidently. “You may not for some time and I wouldn’t deny you that pleasure.”

Ceres looked at Victoria. Did they speak the truth about their paroles?

The Angel nodded. They did. Do you want me to stay too? I want to monitor Ciaran.

No, I want you to help us hammer the Titodiles. We’ll wait until you give him a checkup but after that you come with us.

Victoria gave her a look. “Ciaran, before we leave I want to give you a complete checkup. I want to make sure you’re ok.”

He nodded. “That’s fine. Maybe she’s the reason I was having those chest pains.”

“We can hope,” the Angel said as she released the box of sensors from her pack. “Now take off your shirt and lie down.”

Ceres looked at Elsa. “While Ciaran is getting checked, you and I will clear all of the brush between here and the lake.”

“The Kentarchs can help with that,” Libby suggested, “and they can bring back some firewood when they’re done.”

Both redheads looked surprised. The Astral shook her head. “I am a soldier. I do not do manual labor.”

Elsa laughed. “That sounds to me a lot like someone begging to pull bushes. What do you think, Ceres?”

Ceres smiled. “Yes, it does. Come along, ladies. You,” she motioned towards the Haunting, “get to learn what it means to have a body and you,” she nodded towards the Astral, “get to learn how to materialize. You need to in any case if Ciaran is going to have sex with you.”

The Astral’s eyes narrowed. “And if I refuse?”

“Then you are free to leave,” Ciaran said from where he was laying. “We are a small family and we work together doing whatever needs to be done. If you can’t deal with that, then your place is not with us.”

The Astral closed her eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths before opening them again. “Do I have to pull them up? I can just cut them off at the ground.”

“As long as they’re not impeding the view between here and the lake, I do not care how you remove them,” Ceres said. “Now come with me and Elsa. We’ll start at the edge of the lake and work back to here.” She looked back at Ciaran. “Please don’t let Victoria hover over you for the rest of the day.”

He chuckled. “I won’t.”

Ceres led the group to the water’s edge and turned to face the two redheads. “I am Ceres Sullivan and this is Elsa Sullivan. What are your names?”

The Astral straightened. “I am the,” she paused and sagged for a second, “I am no longer the Kentarch.” She looked at the Haunting. “You are the Kentarch now. I am just a memory given form.”

“You’re not a memory,” Elsa said. “You’re a ghost.” She smiled without showing teeth. “Considering the role you intend to play for this one,” with a nod towards the Haunting, “you’re a spirit guide or guardian spirit.”

The Astral looked thoughtful. “If I am a spirit then that shall be my name. I am Spirit.”

“And I am Kentarch,” the Haunting said. “Spirit has given me her name and I bear it with pride.”

Elsa frowned. “You aren’t the Kentarch?”

“I am, but as I intend to make more of my kind, the would not be a good thing to have in my name since I will not be unique forever.”

Ceres rubbed her frill with the fingers of her right hand. “Maybe it would have been better with a Titodile,” she muttered. “Very well, just understand if we get you two confused for a little while and don’t take offense when we do.”

Spirit looked surprised for an instant before chuckling. “She wears the body that was mine in life. Do I look like it too?”

“Except for the fact that you’re kind of transparent you are an exact copy,” Elsa said, “and could be littermates. Later I’ll let you use my mirror to see.”

“I would like that.” Spirit extended her hand and an energy blade sprang into existence. “I can use this to shear the bushes and trees.”

Kentarch held out her hand and frowned when nothing happened. “I do not know how to do that.”

“Later I will teach you,” Spirit said, “and many other things about your new body. For now, you have the strength to rip most of these from the ground. We will work together if Ceres and Elsa will allow it.”

“I think that’s a splendid idea,” Ceres said. “You two start over there and Elsa and I will work from over here. Now get busy, ladies.” She waited until the two redheads headed off. “Elsa,” she said quietly.

“What is it?”

“The longer you take deciding if you really want to help with this takes away the time before night and therefore the amount of time you get to help us hurt Titodiles.”

Elsa’s ears flattened as she scowled. “That’s cruel.”

“We’re not hunting them in the dark,” Ceres responded. “Our goal is to thin their numbers. Darkness gives them a much greater opportunity to thin ours and, more importantly, I want us back in camp to keep them away from the humans.”

Elsa growled and summoned her energy blade. “Then let’s get this blasted brush removed!”

Eriu is pronounced Ayru.

Ciaran Sullivan

Victoria – Angel

Ceres – Tantrasaur

Elsa – Mazouku

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