Chapter 50 – Casual Observations
2 Days Later
A serene quiet blanketed the dawnlit market street of Compound Tresnon, interspersed with the sounds of soft waves in the adjacent Mirage Lakefront and merchants beginning to set up their stalls for a new day. The typical crowds were no where to be seen, giving Pierce free reign to jog down the street and take in the early morning sights. While he could easily run the full length of market street in just under a second, he had nonetheless gotten into the habit of morning jogs at a normal human pace — partly to practice his ability to control his speed, and partly to enjoy the simple quiet of a town yet to wake.
There’s nothing like a brisk morning jog through the cool breeze rushing out over the water, Pierce mused, momentarily glancing to his right toward Mirage Lake. …A freshwater lake the size of a sea, huh? And still, this place is a desert. Weird. Makes for a nice view, though.
With that thought, Pierce detoured around a couple of empty market stalls to descend the ramp down to the Lakefront boardwalk. He stopped for a second to stand against the boardwalk railing and look out over the lake, taking in the spray of the water against the boardwalk below him, and the sights of a handful of fishing boats already casting their nets upon the lake. The boardwalk and its piers were just as devoid of activity as the market street, though as Pierce slowly surveyed his surroundings, he noticed that someone seemed to be engaged in some kind of workout on a nearby pier. I guess I’m not the only one who likes to stretch my legs in the morning, he thought to himself with a smirk. Hmm… looks like a woman. She has pretty nice form… in more ways than one, heh. I wonder if she has translation implants…?
He continued watching the woman stretch her arms for a couple seconds before beginning to turn away to resume his jog. Just before his eyes left her, however, he saw her square off her shoulders. Her back was to him, so he couldn’t see what kind of expression she was wearing, but he could see her shoulders slowly heave, as though she were taking a deep breath — and then she threw her fist out into the air, an act soon followed by a loud, sharp crack!
“Whoa!” Pierce exclaimed, reflexively wincing away. The hell? Did she just make a sonic boom with her punch?! …So she’s a Chaotic then, huh? A superspeed or superstrength, one, I’d bet. She might be a WCU student, then. Maybe I should ask about joining her morning workout. It’s always easier with a buddy. Except… He frowned as he eyed the woman from afar, and her tan skin and shoulder-length black hair. Combined with her short, athletic build, Pierce couldn’t shake the feeling that he had met her before. Wait a minute. Is that…?
A second later, the woman turned to sweep her gaze across the boardwalk, an act that allowed Pierce to see her face. She stood a couple dozen meters away, so he couldn’t make out any fine details, but the one key thing he could spot was a prominent dark mark running from just above her mouth, down across it, and then down her neck to below her shirt collar. So that IS Liask… he mused, recalling his last encounter with her over a week ago. She seemed pretty nice. But… A flash of Trenon’s face appeared in his mind, followed immediately by a brief throb in his lower torso. With a scowl, he looked down and gingerly grasped the scar he had gained from that fateful night on Ainminthalus, only to take a deep breath and shake his head to clear it. Alright, Pierce. That’s a long enough break. Let’s get back to the jog—
“Ooooii! Pierce! Is that you?”
He froze and snapped his attention back to Liask, who was now facing him directly. She spotted me, huh? Well, no sense in running now. With that, Pierce put on a friendly smile and waved as he began to approach. “Hey,” he replied once he was close enough to not have to shout. “Can’t say I expected to see you, here.”
“I feel like that’s my line,” Liask responded, and then turned to look out over the lake. “I come here a few times a week to get in some mornin’ trainin’ before the crowds show up.” She then glanced back at Pierce. “Never seen you before, though…”
“We might’ve just missed each other,” Pierce replied, stepping up next to Liask to join her in watching the quiet lake. “Still, I’m a little surprised to see someone else doing workouts in the morning. Most people around here tend to be night owls, it seems.”
“Oh… it’s a saying from Earth. Basically, anyone who likes to stay up late at night instead of getting up early in the morning is a night owl.”
“Oh. Yeah, true, most people here are like that…” Liask sighed. “Still, it makes for some quiet mornin’s. I like it that way.”
“Heh. Me too,” Pierce said with a smirk, though inwardly, he felt like he was fighting off a confused frown. …What do we talk about? Normally I can figure out what to say just fine, but Liask… part of the reason her brother is dead is me. Why does she even want to talk to me? I don’t get it…
“It’s nice, ain’t it?”
“Huh?” Pierce glanced down at Liask, and then back to the lake, where she was looking. The waters stretched out to the horizon, which itself was gradually lighting up under the brightening light of dawn. “…Yeah,” he eventually replied, “waterfronts are always nice. I grew up near one, myself, actually.”
“Yep. It was hella nice… though pretty different from this. The lake here has an… odd kind of beauty to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just the fact that there’s a huge body of freshwater here, but the surrounding area is still desert. I think I’ve heard of Earth having some deserts with lakes in them, but none as large as this… and I haven’t seen any of them, personally.”
“I see…” Liask responded quietly. “…So, even on Earth, you don’t get to see your whole planet?”
“I’d say the people who have seen the whole planet are few and far between,” Pierce replied. “I’ve only visited a handful of places outside of my hometown, myself.”
A moment of contemplative silence followed before Pierce glanced around himself. He couldn’t spot any bags or other materials around the nearby pier; it seemed as though Liask had brought only herself to her morning workout. “…What was that training you were doing?” he questioned. “I don’t think I’ve heard a sonic boom like that outside of my own running.”
“Ah… yeah, ha ha…” Liask smiled sheepishly. “That’s another reason I come out here so early, to practice without botherin’ too many people.” She then looked down at her bare hands, opening and clenching them multiple times. “As for the trainin’, it’s just for a class. Practicin’ form and control… you know, the basics.”
“Breaking the sound barrier with a punch when you aren’t even a Velocitechnic doesn’t sound very basic to me.”
“That’s what I used to think. But accordin’ to Dean Christeané, a Forcetechnic’s strength still allows them to move parts of their body faster than sound… I think…?”
“Huh, well, yeah, that does make sense, now that I think about it.”
“Really?! You understand what he meant? Can you teach me sometime, then? I didn’t really get anythin’ he said about that stuff…”
“Sure,” Pierce replied with a smirk. “This kind of thing is relatively basic physics, so it shouldn’t be hard to teach. …Who’s Dean Christeané, though?”
“He’s a friend of Dean Davídrius,” Liask answered. “He comes around every now and then to teach a lesson or two for us Introtechnics. He’s definitely… nicer than Dean Davídrius.”
Pierce scoffed. “As if that’s a high bar to beat.”
“I know, right?! Like, I know that Dean Davídrius made this school, and helped out a lotta people… but he’s so…”
“Abrasive? Mean? An asshole?”
“…I was gonna say ‘strict’, but I guess those work, too.”
“’Strict’ isn’t even the least of it,” Pierce replied, crossing his arms and shaking his head in disapproval. “You’d think that the best way for a Chaotic to learn their abilities would be to get hands-on practice, but trying to get that out of him is like pulling teeth!”
“Uh, well…” Liask glanced down, her right hand drifting up to the scar running down her neck. “…I think he’s right to worry about that…”
Pierce looked down at her incredulously, only to spot her caressing her scar and immediately replace his incredulity with regret and embarrassment. “Oh. Uh, right… sorry. Didn’t mean to downplay anything…”
Way to fucking go, you idiot, Pierce mentally berated himself. Dragging up someone’s trauma during small talk? Come on, man, this was even an obvious trap. Now that I think about it, though… does her scar have anything to do with that weird beast I saw in my vision? Hmm, probably not, since I’m pretty sure the beast in my vision had that metallic infection thing — and Liask sure doesn’t seem infected to me. I wonder what caused the scar, then… there probably isn’t any way to ask without seeming like an asshole, though, is there…
“Hey, Pierce, it’s fine. Really.”
He glanced over at Liask, noticing that she was looking up at him in concern. After realizing that she had likely interpreted his silence as unease or awkwardness, he said, “well, if you insist. That said…” His gaze drifted off to the left, where the sun was beginning to peek over where the shoreline disappeared into the eastern horizon. “…Time stops for no one, so they say.”
“Yeah, I guess we should get back to our workouts, huh…” Liask commented.
“This was a nice chat, though,” Pierce replied. “And, hey, seems like we’re both morning people, so maybe we’ll run into each other again.”
“Uh, yeah!” Liask’s face lit up for a moment before she glanced away and cleared her throat. “So… see you later, then?”
“Of course!” Pierce flashed a grin before turning to leave, breaking into his workout jogging pace as he did. Once he had jogged down the length of the pier and returned to the boardwalk proper, he passed a quick glance toward Liask again, eying her as she returned to her stretches. …I don’t know what to make of her. She seems fine with me. Normally, I’d be more than happy about that, but… A dull throb once again passed through his lower torso. Damn it. Come on, Pierce, get a damn grip already… let’s at least focus on the jog for now.
With that, he continued jogging into the sunrise as he mentally prepared himself for a brand new day.
Several Hours Later
“Oof. Finally, lunchtime… I’ve been waiting for this all morning.”
Kestrel responded with a brief grunt of acknowledgment as she and Conrad took up seats on the roof of WCU’s dormitory. The roof was largely flat, and even featured the occasional bench under a pavilion — benches that students like Conrad and Kestrel would sometimes use to sit and eat lunch at while overlooking the campus courtyard. Small groups of students could be seen coming and going from each of the campus buildings, with many of them heading toward the campus gates to eat lunch somewhere within Compound Tresnon. Conrad and Kestrel both had just returned from grabbing a couple sandwiches — sandwiches that Conrad now readily bit into. Kestrel watched him for a moment before adjusting the straw hat she wore to keep herself shielded from the overbearing desert sun.
“Man…” Conrad eventually said between bites of his sandwich, “the Nimalians might have a stupid long workweek… but at least their lunch breaks are two hours. Just enough time for food and a nap.”
“…Tired?” Kestrel questioned as she began to unwrap her own sandwich.
“You know me,” Conrad replied with a smirk, only to frown a moment later. “But, I mean, how isn’t everyone tired? We do so much physical training, nowadays…” He paused for a second to massage his biceps. “…Man… so much training…”
Kestrel stared at him blankly. “…Invisibility is hard?”
“Yes,” Conrad insisted, “I mean, c’mon. There’s no way I could use my powers in a fight, but I keep getting lumped in with the rest of you guys! That’s a lot of work!”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, we all have those weird weapons we can summon, but so what? The hell am I supposed to do with mine?” Conrad held out his hand and summoned his black and silver glaive into it to look the weapon over. “…Like, seriously. How does this help?”
“How does a glaive help with sneaking?”
Kestrel shook her head. “Invisible sneak attacks.”
“Well, yeah, duh. I’ve thought of that, too,” Conrad retorted as he dismissed his weapon. “But you’ve seen the kind of stuff we’re up against. Most people seem to have energy shields, and there’s no way in hell that I’m shutting down any shields with one swing of a glaive.”
“Not you. Someone else. Teamwork.”
“I mean… sure, I guess. But still. I’m not a primary combatant, I’m a finisher! I don’t need to have the same kind of endurance as everyone else!”
Kestrel responded with a blank stare, lasting for several seconds before she turned her attention to her food, her shoulders heaving slightly in the process.
“Hey, I saw that sigh,” Conrad replied.
“Mm,” grunted Kestrel in response.
Conrad sighed himself before focusing on finishing his sandwich. It wasn’t long before he had wolfed it down, leaving him to lay back on the bench and stare at the cloudless sky. After a few moments, he idly commented, “so, sounds like we have another trip coming up soon, huh?”
“Sikalia, right?” Conrad glanced over at Kestrel. “Do you know anything about it?”
She shook her head.
“Yeah, me neither. Apparently it’s a Tier 2 world… whatever that means.”
“Really? Huh. So, what’s bigger — a Tier 1 world, or, like, a Tier 4?”
“A Tier 2 would be pretty big then, huh? Since it’s just one step down from 1?”
“Mm. Less than Earth.”
“So Earth would be Tier 1, then?”
“Earth has over 10 billion people, right? What’s the cutoff for Tier 2, then?”
“Tier 2… half a billion, to 5 billion.”
“That’s a big range.”
“One order of magnitude…”
“Yeah, and that’s a big range.” Conrad turned to look up at the sky again as he mused aloud, “I guess that gives us an idea of how crowded this Sikalia place is, though. That is, not very. Compared to Earth, at least. I can get behind that.”
Kestrel responded with silence as she finished off her own sandwich. As she did, she glanced off to the side, toward the WCU courtyard below. Small groups of students could be spotted milling about, spending the lunch break chatting or play-fighting — and then, toward the front of the large courtyard, Kestrel spotted someone she recognized. “…Phoenix.”
“Huh?” Conrad sat up to look in the same direction as Kestrel. “…Huh, so that’s where she went.”
“Well, look at that, so there is,” Conrad remarked, watching as an unknown figure joined Phoenix and the two of them turned toward the campus gates. “So she got another date, then, huh? Good for her, I guess.”
“And Pierce is on his third girl, already,” Conrad pointed out, and then sighed wistfully. “Man… I didn’t think it’d be possible for Pierce or Phoenix to be any worse at holding down relationships than they already were, but here we are. I guess that contest of theirs isn’t doing them any favors, ha!”
“Alien culture, too…”
“Sure, but the Nimalians don’t have that alien of a culture. A lot of things are conveniently similar, in fact. The biggest issue around here is that the people who live here really don’t like outsiders for some reason.”
“Which, I mean, given what I know about what’s happened to Treséd, I’m not sure I blame them. If I was in a real shit situation and was ignored by everyone who could help, then I’d start distrusting them, too.”
“Anyways…” Conrad trailed off as he watched Phoenix disappear through the campus gates alongside her date. He then elbowed Kestrel cheekily as he commented, “wanna bet on whether or not this contest of theirs will go down like every other?”
Kestrel shook her head. “No winners.”
“Ah, so you agree! Ha. The only question now, then, is if their contest will just fizzle out into nothing, or if they’ll get into a fight over it. Now that I think about it, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them actually fight about something. Other than the whole ‘keeping our powers secret’ thing, but I think it’s pretty obvious which one of them was right about that one…”
“Mm… Pierce had a point…”
“I thought you might say that. And, yeah, I guess he kinda did… it would be pretty pointless to get superpowers and then just never use them.” Conrad sighed. “Still, don’t let either of them know you said that. We’d never hear the end of it.”
Kestrel responded with a silent glance toward Conrad before returning her gaze to the courtyard below. Conrad responded in kind, joining Kestrel in people watching for a brief while before going to lay back down on the bench — only to be startled by the sound of a distant thud.
“What was that?…” Conrad questioned, sitting up straight again to survey the courtyard.
Kestrel pointed toward the entrance to the administrative building, prompting Conrad to look that way. Emerging from the building were a couple of individuals dressed in white and green uniforms, followed by Davídrius, who appeared to be gesticulating angrily.
“…Something pissed him off, huh?” Conrad remarked.
“Mm…” Kestrel stared at the two unknown individuals, and their formal uniforms in a livery she had never seen before. “…Who…?”
“Good question. Let’s find out,” Conrad replied, and then furrowed his brow as he focused on the small group in the distance. While being able to turn invisible was the power of his he was most familiar with and most known for, he also possessed the ability to control sounds — including dampening or amplifying them at will. With just a little bit of focus, Conrad was able to isolate the attenuated sound waves emanating from Davídrius and the two uniformed individuals, and then amplify them for Kestrel and himself to hear, even across the campus and on the roof.
“—amn outsiders,” came Davídrius’s voice, “I fuckin’ told y’all, the answer is no! It’s always fuckin’ no!”
“Respectfully, we ask that you reconsider,” came a second male voice, this one unrecognizable to either Conrad or Kestrel. “The SFC would like—“
“I don’t give two shits what y’all want,” Davídrius snapped back. “I heard about you fucks from Kievkenalis, after all, and now y’all wanna try and muscle your way into Treséd? Get the fuck outta here! I’m dealin’ with enough outsider bullshit already as is!”
“…Very well, if you insist. But we do urge you to reconsider. If you’d merely listen, you’d see that working with us to eliminate the Bleeders would benefit everyone involved. Ignoring that so readily would be unwise…”
“Don’t think you can threaten me, you worthless idiots. Anyone in Treséd would see your anti-Bleeder ‘deal’ as absolute self-servin’ bullshit. Now get the hell out ‘fore I have to throw you out!”
At that point, the two uniformed individuals turned to leave, and Conrad ceased manipulating the soundwaves in the air.
As he did, Kestrel passed him a glance. “…Eavesdropping?”
“Hey, they were talking in the courtyard, that’s basically public,” Conrad countered. “If that was a secret conversation, they shouldn’t’ve had it there.”
“Mm…” Kestrel turned away to watch the two uniformed individuals leave the campus, while Davídrius remained standing in the courtyard, watching them. “…Seemed like… a lot of effort.”
“…What, to make it so we could hear them?” Conrad shrugged. “I guess there are a lot of steps to it. It wasn’t too hard, though.”
“That isn’t… but training is?”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Something something ‘if you just applied yourself, you could do anything’!” Conrad rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard it all before.”
“I wonder what’s going on with those two dudes, though. They said something about ‘SFC’, like it’s a group. I wonder what that is…”
“Really? Why would you think that?”
“Initials. Uniforms. Attitude. Lot of PMCs.”
“…Yeah, that’s true. The galaxy does seem to like their private militaries for some reason, huh? The Black Suns, the Chaos Knights… I think I’ve heard of a couple others, too. Even if this SFC group is a PMC, though, what would they want with Treséd? They said something about helping with the Bleeders, but what would they get out of it? This place is just a wasteland, right?”
Kestrel responded with a shrug.
“Yeah, I guess we really don’t know much, huh?” Conrad sighed wistfully and looked up at the sky. “Not much use in speculating.”
“Right. Well…” Conrad then laid back on the bench, clasping his hands under his head and closing his eyes. “That was a good chat, but I could use a quick nap before our afternoon classes.”
Kestrel glanced toward Conrad, watching him yawn broadly, and then lie still — he had already managed to fall asleep. With a silent shake of her head, she turned her attention back to the courtyard below, content to spend the remainder of her lunch break in quiet solitude.