Chapter 11: An Inconvenient Serendipity
When Yuuno returned to the Durand house, the first action on his mind was to communicate with Chrono. It had been remiss of him not to arrange for contact options in case of emergency, he realized. He should have asked Chrono for backup, rather than insisting he could handle the situation without help. He knew better than that.
Entering the house, he spotted Madeleine at the table, sorting documents. Holding down his frustration, he walked toward her. "Madeleine, do you have a communications terminal that I could use?" he asked.
She glanced up. "Ah, there's one upstairs. What do you need it for, if I may ask?"
He considered his options, and finally replied, "I need to contact home. Brigitte and I have had a falling-out."
Madeleine gasped. "It's not about what I said, is it? I thought I might have reacted too harshly. I just...I just didn't think she was that kind of girl."
"No," said Yuuno, softly shaking his head. "You're not to blame. I allowed the matter to escalate as it did." He sighed. "Be that as it may, it is rather important that I send my message as soon as possible."
She nodded vigorously. "Of course! I'll show you where it is right away. Feel free to take as much time as you need."
Yuuno went to bed immediately afterward. Searching for Brigitte after he'd already lost her trail would be fruitless. Resting and waiting for help would be more productive than wasting his energy to scour the desert all night.
When he woke the next morning, he was alone in the cabin, as he had been when he went to sleep. Brigitte's bed was untouched. There was, however, a piece of paper on the table that had not been there last night.
After a few moments' hesitation, he walked the short distance to the table and picked up the paper. It was a short letter in unfamiliar handwriting.
Dear Mr. Scrya,
I apologize for my behavior of last night. I should not have panicked as I did. However, the topics then mentioned being a sensitive subject, I will only say that the Bureau is not free from the influence of corrupt or power-hungry individuals who will attempt to weaponize any new technology resulting from the analysis of Lost Logia. Be careful.
I had hoped our partnership would not fail such as it has, but it was inevitable, given the volume of information that had to be kept from you. I am glad that I was able to spend time with all of you, though I wish it could have been on better terms.
I'm sorry I had to withhold the truth.
The name was signed in a decorative script, decked with the simple embellishments of a child's imagination.
Yuuno closed his eyes. His hand clenched around the paper, then let it fall.
Even after all his efforts to reach out to her, he still didn't understand what sort of person she was.
Brigitte had not slept well the previous night. In fact, she had hardly slept at all. It wasn't ideal for her circumstances, but sleeping in the open was hardly safe, whether in the wilds or in the city. Both hopokks and little girls had to beware of predators.
She'd left Yuuno a note after making sure he was asleep. That was the only risk she was willing to take at present; she walked the rest of the way to a public area rather than teleporting.
It was odd, she thought as she sat on a park bench waiting for sunrise, that even with her introverted personality, she never disappeared into the background as she sometimes wished she could. Someone would always notice and try to pull her out of her shell; Laurent, her father, her mother...
...come to think of it, she'd survived her trip to the past so far without time alone. Back when she was young, she would get "peopled out" after only a few hours. Perhaps she had changed more than she knew.
Brigitte cracked a smile as a tired giggle broke from her throat. Several more followed, and she stopped trying to hold them in. Heaving with inane laughter, she let her head fall into her hands and marveled at the horribly inconvenient state of her affairs. What had been the use of going to this time's Dr. Scaglietti at all? She had become entangled with Administration Bureau personnel on her own, despite planning to keep them out of it. She hadn't strictly needed to raid the Infinity Library, either. Why had she bothered? Was it just to prove she could? Or had she been looking for attention, for some sort of affirmation?
It shouldn't matter what Yuuno thinks of me, she thought. He's not my father yet. Was I really so desperate for companionship that-
"Why, Miss Vert! Fancy seeing you here this early. Is it a habit of yours to view the sunrise from here?"
Slowly, Brigitte turned her head to stare at the owner of a certain conspicuously innocent voice. "Mr. Cobalt." Under normal circumstances, she would have tried to hide the grimace that she felt coming on. She felt the awkwardness of not giving a full reply, but she couldn't think of anything polite to say to him. All that came to mind were disparaging witticisms.
The smuggler waved his hand in front of her face. "Miss Vert? You seem distracted. I was expecting a witty comment to the effect that it's impolite to inquire about a young lady's habits." He frowned. "Are you all right? You look rather exhausted." Brigitte just stared back at him. Nothing came to mind for her to say. Frowning, Astrus sat down on the bench a few feet away from her. "Mis Vert, if you need to discuss something, or have need of any service I can provide...well, I won't be going anywhere for a little while, and I can charge the doctor for any costs incurred. I've no reason not to help you."
"And you have a reason to help me?"
He spread his palms. "Perhaps, perhaps not. However, I tend to consider a working relationship...an investment, shall we say, for the future. I do, in fact, understand the concept of delayed gratification, dear miss. Please excuse me if I gave the opposite impression."
Well, if he was offering..."I need chemical explosives for demolishing a stationary target. Anything magic-based won't work."
"Hm." Astrus scratched at his goatee. "And the requirement is annihilation, rather than burial, to be precise? The necessary tools would vary depending on the scenario."
"...Annihilation, yes." It wasn't the word she would have used, but it was adequate.
"Good, good. So, what are we—sorry, you—destroying?"
Brigitte slowly inhaled and exhaled. "Heavy machinery in an unexcavated section of the ruins. If not for the MD field, I could have teleported it out, but..." She shrugged.
"I see." Astrus stared vacantly ahead, tapping his fingers idly on his forearm. "I expected Montignac, once you mentioned the MD field...I suppose a few shaped plasma charges could do the trick, given a primarily metallic construction. It's a fringe technology, due to Administration Bureau influence, but I believe I could get a few on short notice with a bit of cash and a favor or two."
...Now that sounded suspicious. Practical Rule #1 of socioeconomics: nobody does you a service for free unless you have a preexisting bond of friendship or affection. And given the strictly business nature of her relationship with the man..."What do you get out of this?" Brigitte asked. "Is Dr. Scaglietti paying for you to babysit me? My deal with him did not cover any such thing."
Astrus looked at her suspicious squint and burst into laughter. "Oh, that's refreshing! I'll never get tired of that old-fashioned, childlike cynicism." He composed himself. "Your question is valid, however, and deserves an honest reply. Did he pay us extra for a psychological profile of you, based on our observations? Yes. Have I been tracking your general whereabouts? Possibly. What do I get out of this? Why, the chance to facilitate and finance a girl's first real adventure!" He leaned closer, expectantly. "This is your first real adventure, I assume?"
Brigitte grimaced. "Yes," she said, "but you'll excuse me for finding that motivation entirely implausible."
Astrus looked a little put out. "You're not the first to say so," he muttered. "Look here, I'm not claiming altruism of any sort, far from it. It's like the way a rich fellow with more credits than he knows how to use will fund a crackpot scheme on one of those reality serials on the net, just to use his money for something. Not that I'm quite that solvent, mind you," he added, taking a serious tone, "but my day job pays well enough, if you know what I mean."
"Because it amuses you, then," said Brigitte, unimpressed. "And how many children's adventures have you funded, pray tell?"
He flashed her a crooked smile. "You're my proof of concept, young lady! The concept being, of course, whether I find the execution of such ventures sufficiently motivating to make of them a habit."
"Your phrasing is as dubious as...as everything else about you."
"Thank you! I appreciate that, coming from you. Perhaps you could sneak in a comment about my face next? I hear it's quite the popular jibe among your age group these days."
Brigitte huffed. "I don't have friends my age, so I wouldn't know."
"I suppose we have that in common," Astrus hummed. "Do you know, I've not been liked by anyone of my acquaintance for at least fifteen years?"
Brigitte buried her face in her hands. "Please, stop."
"Only if your spirits are sufficiently mended for a serious discussion of logistics." Abruptly, his voice was cold.
Brigitte felt a headache coming on. I can't deal with this, she thought.
Astrus waited, his expression unchanging. Finally, Brigitte let out a breath held in for too long and managed, "Logistics. Let's...let's talk about logistics."
"Good," said Astrus, sharply. "Now, if you could provide concrete details on the size, composition, and general construction of the objects to be demolished, we may proceed in selecting ordnance. If you please?"
"I have the schematic right..." Brigitte had Calliope bring it up. "...right here."
Astrus appraised the diagrams with a raised eyebrow, standing and leaning in to take a closer look at the projection. "May I?"
She nodded, and he brushed his fingers against the hologram, rotating here, enlarging a section there. "This is quite detailed," he murmured.
"It's a composite," Brigitte said. "Some of the notes are mine; the rest are originals." Original to her father and uncle rather than the device's inventors, but Astrus didn't need to know that.
"I see. It's fortunate that you have the internal components mapped. This way, we can dissect it with a plasma cutter before resorting to explosives. Will dismantling and disposing of it piecemeal be acceptable? It will be more cost-effective."
After a moment, Brigitte nodded and said, "The less I'm in your debt, the better."
"Quite, as collecting from you may be difficult."
Astrus asked a few more questions about minor details, and Brigitte answered as concisely as she could manage. Finally, the man stood back and nodded. Brigitte deactivated the projection.
"Thank you for your time, Miss Vert. Let us meet by the entrance to the ruins in fifteen hours' time. I suspect you need the sleep."
'You'll be ready by then?" she asked.
"Assuredly." He raised his hand in a cursory three-fingered salute and turned to walk away.
He stopped and raised an eyebrow.
"Please. Which is your...real face? This, or...the other thing?"
He was silent for a long moment, and Brigitte feared she had offended him—wasn't that a change—but he simply said, "I achieved habits of efficiency only through hard work over many years. They require much mental effort to maintain; therefore, it is natural to conserve that effort except when necessary or particularly expedient."
Brigitte continued to stare blankly after him long after he had gone. Eventually, she roused herself. She had little more than fourteen hours to rest. She ought to make the most of them.
Roughly ten and a half hours later, Brigitte awoke and realized that she wouldn't be able to get any more sleep than that. It would take her most of the remaining allotted time to get to the ruins on foot. She didn't dare fly or teleport—anyone could be watching. And Yuuno...would he be able to detect a minor use of magic from her if he wasn't actively searching for it? She didn't know how good his sensory capabilities were. Best not to risk it.
She had just enough coins left to purchase a bottle of water before setting out.
Astrus stepped back to admire his highly illegal combustion-powered plasma cutter. The true struggle of this venture was to pack a complete set of usable equipment into something he could carry alone. This device was just the thing to bring.
Paula grunted, moving some heavier machinery behind him. "Hey, Astrus. You done fussin' wi'that thing?"
Astrus sighed. So little patience. "Quartermaster Chevron, I am aware of my own timetable, thank you. I'll arrive on location exactly on time and no earlier." Paula snorted contemptuously in lieu of reply. She knew better than to engage him in a battle of pedantry. For all her stubbornness, she could never make him give a straight answer against his will.
Astrus was rather proud of his perfect record of arguments driven to silence.
"Ya know," Paula began, "I kinda feel sorry for the kid. I wouldn't have minded her as a repeat passenger."
"Well, if she didn't want to be taken advantage of, she should have gone to—" Astrus broke off. "I was going to say the Administration Bureau, but..."
Paula barked a laugh. "Yeah, we know how that one goes. Least we're honest about what we do."
If only afterwards, Astrus thought. He wouldn't deny that he had enjoyed the girl's company, but enjoyments were cheap, so to speak, and a potential paycheck was worth more to him than negotiating an honest bargain.
Chrono paused in his packing. Amy was hovering at his office doorway with a questioning look. He turned. "Yes, Amy? What is it?"
She eyed his assortment of items waiting to be put into S2U's dimensional storage. "Chrono, where are you going?"
"Avenata. Scrya ran into trouble."
Amy's face grew serious. "How bad?"
"He spooked the girl, and she ran away."
"Oh." Amy sighed, then rolled her eyes. "Figures. Are you going because it's serious, or because you have nothing else to do?"
"The girl knows something about Project Fate."
Amy gasped. "A new lead."
Chrono returned to packing. "Potentially. We've had nothing since the Mondal boy. That's why I can't let this go by."
Amy nodded. "Got it. You have your transport lined up?"
"I've already booked the long-range teleport pad," said Chrono. "I can't legally go there directly from Mid without permits, so I'm taking a second jump via Tsania IV."
"The planet with the volcanic beaches?"
"No, you're thinking of Tirunia. Not even remotely close."
"Wait, I remember! That hundred-story shopping center your mother took us to! That was on Tsania."
"...Yes. That one." It had been a trip.
Amy drifted into the room and pulled Chrono into a hug. "Stay safe," she whispered. "If you get hurt, we'll have to delay the wedding."
Chrono wrestled an arm free and brushed at her hair. "I'll be fine. Just get that cowlick fixed in time for the pictures."
I'm baaaaack! Sorry for the wait.