1.9: A New Team

They’re busy ladies and I understand that life.

     Fanger loves the car windows to be open on the road. The cavalier breeze ruffles his fur soothingly. He stretches out along the backseat to enjoy the feeling at both ends of his body. The fur blowing at his shoulders creates a warped aura due to his invisible legs. His bliss is immense but not palpable for Reddic and Stark, the two tackling numerous complications at once.

     “You can ask her yourself,” Stark says, annoyed by Reddic’s badgering.

     “If it’s not abundantly clear by now, she doesn’t hold confidence with me,” Reddic explains, though he still smiles. “I’m surprised she didn’t threaten me.”

     “Look, Reddic, I’m already between you and Nuria. I am not putting myself amid another brewing earthquake. Talk to Auriel on your own,” Stark explains, brushing aside the hair rolling into her face.

     “You can roll your window up if you want. Spoiling Fanger doesn’t have to be your job…either.” He adds the last word after a considerable pause to translate to Stark he’s done with the Auriel conversation.

     Stark shows him a pointed and resolute expression as her agreement to those terms. “I’m not spoiling him. I get enough of his stench from you. I don’t want it sticking to my seats.”

     Reddic laughs heartily. “Fair point. I’ve just grown nose-blind to him.”

     Fanger yowls lowly, offended by the implication.

     “Suck it up, buddy. Hard truths are that for a reason.”

     Fanger growls and turns over, facing away from Reddic.

     Reddic shakes his head. “Anyway, the secession vote is tonight. How do you anticipate it’ll go?”

     “It’ll lose but our margin of victory is narrow. This is the third vote in four months. The public behind our side is losing interest and the political sway in the slums is growing. The mayor, Warden Crata, and I have to fight back. If we fail the next vote, Jupiter City will be an Ibri haven surrounded by enemies,” Stark explains.

     “You still suspect Victa and Liamria to be in the slums?”

     “All this secession business began right after the War of FHA and border security around JC is too tight for them to escape without a trace. Not to mention all of our refugee arrests happened there. That has to be their base.”

     “I’d agree but I’ve scoured the slums for months and found nothing. None of the resources that they used for their base in The Winding Hills were present.”

     Stark doesn’t pause before countering. “Of course, we’ve taken away the allies that supplied those resources. They’ve gained new ones.”

     “Or…we move forward with a different hypothesis,” Reddic says.

     Stark leers at him. “You don’t think they’re in the city?”

     “Not in the slums, anyway. If they are involved in this secession scheme- and I believe they are- the best place for them to stay is outside those districts. The leaders of the secession movement are fed intel from them, all the while keeping their hands clean of any connection to those two. And if this secession succeeds…”

     “They’re just one step away from a landmark victory for The Pure. The next closest thing to taking down Four Hearts Academy.”

     “What are our options for–”

     Reddic’s and Stark’s phones ring at the same time. The headmaster sitting at his desk is the ID image Reddic uses.

     “I’ve got Neth here.”

     “Crata.” Stark shows her phone and it shows a photo of the warden carrying a young girl with dark hair, streaks of pink dye on the left side of her head. “I’ll call him back. Answer Neth first.” She declines her call.

     “Hello, sir,” Reddic greets. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?” He presses the speaker button.

     “The reports regarding the class merger are in. You wanted to be kept apprised, correct?”

     “I did, but it’s only the first week. Not even. Surely, there’s nothing significant to report.”

     “There’s always something significant to report,” Stark says.

     “Oh? You’re with Stark?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Are you sure you needed to leave today?” Neth asks, Reddic and Stark both recognizing the stress in his voice.

     “Unfortunately, yes. I’ll be back on campus in a few days. Once tonight’s secession fails, there can’t be another for two more months. The opposition has exhausted the two excess attempts that JC law permits in a six-month period. Why? Did something happen?”

     “Are the students okay?”

     Stark hesitates to exit the highway, ready to turn around if necessary, until Neth says, “Yes, and yes. The class merger has been eventful.”

     “How do you mean?” Reddic asks.

     “Lynald’s already had to issue a detention period after a skirmish that took place this morning. Sutar punched one of the new students, Mac, in the face and gave him a bloody nose.”

     “The young lady with the blood type concerns?”

     “Lynald’s told me that she can get heated but she’s never pulled a stunt like that before. Did the boy antagonize her beforehand?”

     “Words were exchanged. If the transcript he provided is accurate, then it’s good that two other students, Donovan and Wallace, intervened on Mac’s behalf.”

     “Was it worse than Nuria and Evic’s fight?” Stark asks.

     Reddic frowns, recalling the catalyst for that altercation sourly. He wanted to be more disappointed in Nuria for losing control, but he did the same and worse in his youth. He took greater pains to curve her attitude positively since. He hopes she can survive her current ordeal without his assistance.

     “I’d put it in the same wheelhouse. Lynald said he tried to coerce Sutar to take the class exchange but she wasn’t receptive to that idea as he anticipated.”

     “Tell Lynald and the other professors to have security stationed near their classes for the next few days and to keep those two as far from each other as possible until they relax or apologize,” Stark says.

     “And the other classes?” Reddic asks, now desperate to hear about Nuria. He hates not being able to tend to her directly anymore.

     “Cwen’s and Zathony’s classes both had fairly neutral results. However, Tameri reports that Aurum and Pan have already fostered positive contact with their new classmate, Fain.”

     “How so?”

     “They invited him to lunch after class.”

     Stark smiles. “It was bound to be him or Nuria to make the initial push. It won’t be long before Zathony reports the same.”

     Reddic grins, happy to hear more than reassures him Nuria hasn’t been changed too much by recent tragedies. “I’m sure it’s happening as we speak.”

     “Agreed. So, what’s your plan to follow the secession vote?” Neth asks.

     Reddic eyes the officer curiously. “Yes, what’s the big speech gonna be about?”

     Stark’s expression darkens as the Jupiter City skyline comes into view. The rundown and shabby buildings with chipped paint, damaged, wood, and cracked bricks on both sides of the street are home to people in raggedy clothing. Reddic can see her heart breaking slowly. When they hunted down the refugees, her rage had blinders up. Now, her gaze is softer, more sympathetic.

     “I’m going to unseal my police assignment dossier and announce why I was allowed onto the JC police force.”

     “I thought it was because of your mother being part of The Pure?” Reddic asks.

     Stark slices her head to the right. “That’s only part of it. Jupiter City’s history was impressive upon its inception. The sisters who created this gem are famous historical figures, Jupiter and Juniper, the former being the oldest. The pair of them brought rain to this once-dead land, the two of them top-tier hydrokinetic and hydromantic individuals. They’ve fostered a long line of descendants with similar powers. Revealing that information will be the heart of our pushback.”

     Reddic smirks and looks ahead, the statue in Dubary Square a striking inspiration for the statue of her back at Four Hearts. The Dubary fountain sculpture shows two women raining down water from their palms, standing back-to-back.

     She has so much power, now. When she reveals her ancestry, her image will draw more people than ever to JC. And I can see the desire to change the slums in her eyes. A combination like that, following one or two major successes, and she’s on the fast track to mayor.

     Reddic bursts out laughing, excited to see what the next few months will bring.

     “Did I miss a joke somewhere?” Stark asks tersely.

     “Thank you for the heads up, headmaster. I’m sure things will smooth out before long. The children just have to learn to play well with others. I’ll call you back when I can.”

     “Very well. Be careful wherever you’re going.”

     “Aw, thanks.”

     Neth stumbles over his words in response. “You’re welcome.”

     Reddic ends the call, cutting a look at Fanger through the side view mirror. “Fanger, stealth mode.” He nods to the next corner coming up. “You can let us out here.”

     Stark follows Reddic into the backseat using the rearview mirror. “Right at Dubary Road, the most direct street to the 61st Regiment?”

     “Indeed.”

     “I know you and Kirby are friends but surely you can’t command those soldiers.”

     “I can’t but that’s not my objective.” He opens the door and lets an invisible Fanger crawl out over him, indents and creases appearing over his clothes. “I’m off to trigger an earthquake.”

     “Come again?”

     “You know how Auriel feels about me. She’s not going all the way back home with Nuria and Aurum at Four Hearts. Not this time.”

     “So, you’re going to casually infiltrate a military base?”

     He winks and says, “I’ve infiltrated worse.”

-FHA-

     Reddic and Fanger approach the fence perimeter around the military compound. A host of one-story, dark green metal bunkers are scattered throughout. Reddic’s familiar enough with Silent Slayer bases to know the bunkers are all connected underground. He localizes his partial transformation to his legs and uses the enhanced strength to clear the barbed wire fence with one vertical leap. Fanger clears it just as easily. Their lithe landings don’t even register on the nearby soldiers’ radars. He peeks at their nametags to pass their names to Kirby.

     Herco and Meije.

     Reddic is not the only person blessed with invisibility and soldiers need to be able to rely on their ears as well as their eyes.

     Noses, too, based on Stark’s critique.

     He taps Fanger’s ears twice, signaling him to remain where he is. Alone, Reddic marches to the nearest bunker, dodging other soldiers and weaving around Humvees. He slides inside on the heels of a pair of soldiers, holding his breath and waltzing on his tiptoes. The pair of soldiers immediately go down the stairs to the right. Following them isn’t on Reddic’s agenda. None of the official business down there concerns him. And none of it would be allowed to be shared with a retired soldier, no matter how distinguished. He expects to find Auriel on the surface of one of the bunkers.

     A mess hall comes up halfway down the central corridor and he stands just inside the light pouring into it. From his vantage point, he can scan the majority of the mess hall in one go. As luck would have it, his target stands in the northwestern corner making tea, flanked by a pair of female soldiers. The one with a mole on her neck carries a single sai fastened to the small of her back. The other carries a maul with a riveted handle. Reddic doesn’t have to wait long for his target to end the conversation.

     He tracks her easily through the halls, her executioner’s blade nowhere it can be a hassle to move around. Just when he gets to thinking of reporting her to Kirby too, she whirls, grabs the collar of his double-breasted vest, and shoves him through a cracked door. The tip of a large blade presses neatly against his back without piercing the skin, even while he’s invisible, he hopes is due to Auriel’s supreme control and not a mere fluke.

     “What the hell are you doing here, Reddic?” she asks frostily.

     He undoes the cloaking around just his face. “Hello to you too.”

     “Answer my question.”

     He sighs, disappointed when she doesn’t lower her intensity.

     And the earthquake remains dormant.

“A mutual friend of ours is endeavoring to restore the name of this fair city. I’m going to help but could use a hand. Are you in or out?”

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