CTF 2187: Vows and Vengeances
Copyright © 2002 By Shannon Muir
ABOUT THE GAME: CTF 2187 from Advanced Gaming Enterprises features teams of Battle Bots pitted against each other in Arenas. Two or four sided contests are possible, as well as a yearly Free-For-All contest where a group of Bots fight to see who's "the Best in the Arenas". Some players act as Independents, allowing the GMs to put them with any group of Pilots. Others organize themselves into teams, either official (on record with AGE) or unofficial. This story centers around characters who are actual Pilot characters in CTF 2187, with only some basis in game play; mainly it captures the historical and political climate in which the ‘backstory’ of the game is based. The events of this story follow "Black Hearts and Broken Dreams," previously published by Sabledrake Magazine in February 2002. Some material contained within is copyrighted by Advanced Gaming Enterprises and used by permission. I’ve been playing the game for over ten years, but that’s my only association with the company. For more information, write: Advanced Gaming Enterprises, Post Office Box 214949, Sacramento, CA 95821-0949 or see their website at http://www.ageforfun.com.
This story is dedicated to the ten-year anniversary of the CTF2187 team, the Sisters of Silicon. A thank you to all players, past and present, for being part of it.
Derrick Deathex approached the memorial wall that encased the ashes of generations of the Deathex family. With his twin brother Mirk alienated from him, and both parents deceased, all of Derrick's family was gone save one -- his half-sister Francine Forsythe, better recognized as Femme Fatale, the leader of the all-female team known as the Sisters of Silicon.
He remembered when his mother, hospitalized in a Gamestown facility after a stroke, asked him to arrange a visit with Femme Fatale. She'd given him no clue that the young woman was her own daughter until her final moments. Derrick just assumed his mother had become fond of the young woman while watching the Arena contests in the hospital, and wanted Femme to visit as one might want a celebrity to come cheer him or her up.
At one point, Callenda and her husband Selkirk were at odds and she allowed herself to be romanced by the leader of Lorne's Lions, Ryker Lorne, an early Arena team. Derrick could remember spending over a year with just his twin brother Mirk and father while his mother was away. It wasn't until Femme Fatale entered his life that Derrick learned Callenda had been in hiding, secretly giving birth to her daughter and surrendering Francine to her sister Aria to raise with her husband, Frank Forsythe, with whom Derrick had no contact growing up.
Callenda used her dying breaths to warn Francine that the man who framed her adoptive father wanted her, and that man turned out to be Ryker Lorne. To lure his daughter close, Lorne kidnapped Femme's husband Racubus "Rus" Sterling with the help of Victor "Dark Horse" Cartwright. Victor Cartwright had been hired to sabotage Frank Forsythe's Bot so that it would explode and kill him, and then frame Frank posthumously as a traitor, a fact he was quick to gloat about as he held Rus prisoner.
Derrick agreed to rescue Rus while Femme confronted Lorne, but not without a horrible price -- in order to save Rus, Derrick was forced to kill Victor Cartwright. The inquiry after Rus and Femme's rescue found his action necessary, but that didn't make things any easier.
I thought it wouldn't matter to me, Mother, he thought, running his hand over the plaque bearing her name. The Deathex family engaged in dirty deeds for generations. And Pilots die in the Arenas all the time. So why do I feel so much guilt over killing one man?
Derrick sighed deeply.
I know. I'm afraid to find out what Helen thinks of me. And to think, I nearly killed H.A.L. Mayne too. Now I love her, Helen Mayne, Francine's best friend. What has finding my sister turned me into?
Derrick entered the office of Doctor Lawrence Wright, specialist in therapy and reconstructive surgery for Arena pilots. The salt-and-pepper haired doctor sat behind his desk, and Derrick's sister Francine (better known as Femme Fatale, leader of the Sisters of Silicon team) sat opposite.
"All ready to go, sister?" Derrick asked.
"Yes, we were just finished here," Doctor Wright commented as Femme stood up. "Your sister checks out fine and won't need to come back for some time."
"That's excellent news."
"Don't forget, Lawrence... er, Doctor Wright," Femme interjected. "You can arrange for Kristi to come by and tour the Headquarters any time. We'd love to have her."
"Kristi?" asked Derrick.
Lawrence pointed to a holo-picture, in a globe-shaped container on his desk, containing a headshot of a smiling teenage girl.
"My daughter. Her friends call her 'Speedy.' Knocks down those simulator games at the arcade like real child's play. She's got her mother's blood for combat, and they're both good at it."
"Look forward to meeting her sometime," Derrick replied. "We shall see you then, I guess."
"Perhaps," replied the doctor.
Outside the office, Derrick grilled his sister.
"Lawrence? What was that about?"
"Ah, we've worked a lot together in my therapy. It's hard to maintain formality after a while."
"You like him, don't you?"
Femme clammed up.
"Ethical issues aside, need I remind you that although he tries to be supportive of his daughter and her mother, he couldn't deal with being married to a combat pilot? His values that women should stay at home when they have families is carefully balanced with the idea his daughter's almost grown up. If Kristi was still young, I doubt he would have let his ex-wife set one foot in the Arenas! How do you even expect to compete with that?"
Femme quickly changed the subject.
"We've got to get to Lazer's," Femme nudged her brother. "Before everyone else does."
"Unless you're really on your toes, you can't even tell there was a fire," Femme commented to Derrick as she looked around the completed decor of Lazer's. Everything finally was in place, from the chairs to the curtain on the performance stage. Not to mention the carefully arranged wide racks of alcohol behind the bar.
"I would have to agree," Derrick replied, looking closely at the bottles all lined up. "The bottles are even precisely back in their old order. Whoever spent time working on this place really cared about it."
"And Lauraic proposing a re-opening party is fantastic," she replied, referring to her fellow Sisters of Silicon pilot's brilliant idea. "Now if she'd only get here."
As if on cue, a harried Lauraic Vileslayer, arms overflowing with party supplies.
"I think I bought out the store," she eagerly told Femme as she set the box on the bar. "Hopefully this won't make too bad a dent in the team's coffers. Luckily they took our purchase orders."
The unexpected sound of four other people charged into the room.
"Hello? Where's the party?" came a thickly Russian accented voice.
"Tatiana Romanov, Team Lightstorm. Long time no see," Femme sighed. "I believe you're more than a few hours early. But then again, I guess you're attracted wherever the booze is flowing."
"Booze as you say is so low class. As someone descended from the great Romanovs of old, I cannot surround myself with inferior liquors."
Femme shook her head.
"Once again, you get on the Romanov platform," Derrick pointed out. "Look, if you do not plan to make yourself useful, come back when the party really begins."
"Hmmph. Some way to treat one of royal descent."
Indignant, Tatiana stormed out. Femme Fatale looked over at the other three women.
"Did Tatiana drag you along? I'm afraid I don't know you."
A bubbly, rotund blond raced up to Femme and began frantically shaking her hand.
"I'm Kimberlee Bitzman. Call me Kibitz. Just about to go into my first Arena. Lauraic said you needed the extra hands."
"I appreciate it very much," Femme said, trying to politely break herself of Kibitz's all-too-friendly grasp.
"You are so totally my hero. And the Sisters of Silicon are great!"
"But you said you were headed for your first Arena," Femme noted, as Derrick reached in to politely assist prying Kibitz's hand off of Femme's. "You're still an Independent then?"
"Actually, I signed up with G.I.C. No offense, but they offered a better benefits package."
"I'll make sure to do a comparison, thanks," Femme noted.
Lauraic brought the other two women over to Femme Fatale and Derrick Deathex. One was a petite, slender, Japanese woman; the other, more of a European extraction, slouched and withdrawn.
"These two young ladies are still in Academy also, but have worked hard with me for extra credit here during the restoration and are roommates. Sachiko Matsuda, Alanna McCain, this is Femme Fatale and Derrick Deathex."
Sachiko quickly covered her mouth in embarrassment to stifle a gasp.
"Are you all right, Sachiko?" asked Derrick.
"Yes," she responded plaintively. "But I stand before the incredible Derrick Deathex. You are practically legend."
"I do not know if I would choose that wording. Notorious, perhaps. Any thoughts of what you want to be called in the Arenas?"
"Shield Maiden, Sir. I wish to serve with honor."
"Sounds like you'll do fine, and pleased to meet you, Sachiko," Femme responded. She turned to the other young woman. "And what about you?"
In response, she crossed her arms, turned away. For a moment it seemed as if she wouldn't speak. Then:
"Probably end up being called Soulshaker, still trying to make up my mind. My family, we've been in the Arenas forever. Ever heard of Dealbreaker?"
"Yes, I have," Derrick spoke up. "He was one of Lorne's Lions. Passed away in Special Contest #77, I think."
"The team that killed the man I called father, run by the jerk who really is my father" Femme noted aloud, then hurriedly added, "Not that I blame you, or your father. That's just the association I make."
"Believe me, I'm not proud of that either. That's why it's so hard to look at you. Dad stayed in the circuit after that whole mess. Now all his kids are doing the Arena thing because it's what's expected. I'm not sure it's what I want."
Alanna looked over at Femme, and extended her hand.
"But I feel right helping you now. And hope you might let me join you someday after I sort my life out, if that's the way things go."
Femme affirmatively shook Alanna's hand with a firm grip.
Derrick started feeling like and intruder and decided to excuse himself. He wandered back into the lobby. From the exercise area came an exhausted Racubus "Rus" Sterling. Upon seeing Derrick Deathex, Rus mustered the energy to race up to him before he could leave the building.
"I need your help," Rus begged Derrick. "I miss Fran."
"You truly believe I'm going to give my help! You cheated on my sister with one of her own team members."
"It wasn't the way it looked. She was trying to seduce me."
"Francine says you told Alias that you learned a lot from her."
"I learned a lot about repair work, for starters. I learned how well people from the poorer sectors like Arengas know how to fend for themselves and take charge."
"And the hand through the hair?"
"Alias reached up and did that right as Fran came in, I swear! The last thing I'd ever want to do is hurt her! We grew up together, went to Academy together, and I stood by her even after I found out she'd lied for years about who her father really was. I can't believe after all that, Fran rammed through a divorce."
"She's been through a lot, Racubus, physically and emotionally. You weren't there when Francine's world was falling apart in the hospital. Instead, you insisted on spending nearly all your time at Bot Med when Lauraic could easily have taken charge. Why?"
"Wanting to save Lazer's I guess. I worked there to get through Academy. Our wedding reception was there. I couldn't see the job botched. You've seen how much it looks like it did before, haven't you, right down to the custom Battle Bot pattern imprinted on the edge of the bar? I drew that up myself from memory and gave it to the contractors making the new bar. Took care every chair and table was the same height and comfortable feel as before. Lauraic could guide the teams, but no one else could get those details right. But you're right, I got my priorities mixed up."
Rus slouched his shoulders, looked down at the ground.
"And believe me, I've paid the price."
Derrick bit his lip as he considered long and hard about teaming up with Rus Sterling. Finally, he exhaled a sharp breath.
"So who is this Alias woman? Her dossier says her name is Elise Shannon, but her ancestry doesn't track. It's all falsified."
"You've already started looking?" Rus asked, surprised.
"Look, this woman helped screw over my sister's life, whether or not you intentionally intended to be an accomplice in that. Of course I have interest in knowing her identity."
"I have a theory on who she is. And I'm sure you and Fran would find it equally interesting. Alias hasn't told me who she is, but I think I know her."
"You definitely know her, in ways I'd rather not."
"Seriously, Derrick, I think it's tied to Ambassador Lorne."
At the sound of the name that changed his life forever, Derrick stopped to listen.
"Alias feels familiar to me. I looked her straight in the eye to try and get her to confess what she'd meant to do by going after me. And I realized I know those eyes. I think I met her while you and I were tracking down Ryker Lorne to save Fran from his twisted wrath. Only one woman comes to mind, but that woman was prettier than Alias."
"Victor Cartwright's daughter. I wish I could remember her name. When I went to see him in Arengas before Fran was kidnapped, he wasn't home and his daughter answered. I think she was on her way to work at a cocktail bar or gambling house or something. Can you use your sources and see if there's any way that Cartwright's daughter could have become Alias? And if you find anything, warn Fran! Please!"
Derrick nodded firmly.
"Only because Francine's life could be at stake. Otherwise, you would not be worth a millisecond of my consideration."
Derrick started by scanning the information he picked up from the publicly accessible Hall of Records.
CARTWRIGHT, VIENNA PARIS - Daughter of Victor "Dark Horse" Cartwright and Shannon Wilson Cartwright. Father deceased in Armory fire, posthumously convicted of treason. Mother and sister Elise Victoria disappeared when Vienna was twelve.
Then he looked over Alias' publicly available Pilot Biography, on file to be released to the media covering Arenas.
ALIAS - Real Name: Elise Shannon. Hometown: Arengas.
Derrick turned his attention back to Vienna's information and scanned it again. He noticed that Vienna's mother's name and Alias' last name were identical. Also, there were matches between Alias' lost sister and her newly adopted first name.
Derrick leaned back in the faux-leather highback chair. It belonged to his father Selkirk, and his father before him through generations of scheming, lying, blackmail, and manipulation. Now here he was, using that same power to uncover truth and try to make a difference -- albeit with the power to do it in a less than ethical way.
Derrick entered another query into the public system. It kicked back the following response:
SEARCH FOR "ELISE" AND "CARTWRIGHT" -- 3 records found.
The first two were the same he'd seen before, Alias' bio and Vienna's information which included her sister's name. The third record, however, immediately piqued Derrick's curiosity on several levels.
VILESLAYER, E.C. - Birth name Elise Victoria Cartwright. Mother Shannon Wilson. Adopted by stepfather Lyvik Vileslayer. Stepbrother Gorrik Vileslayer.
Without hesitation, Derrick turned to his commscreen and punched in a code. The face of his half-sister Francine, also known as Femme Fatale, came into view.
"Derrick, you look terrible. Are you all right?"
"Meet me at the Sisters headquarters. And please request that Lauraic Vileslayer join us immediately."
"After all I have done to help you, how could you keep a secret like this?" Derrick demanded of Lauraic, one of the more notorious members of the Sisters of Silicon, in Femme Fatale's office. Femme sat back in her chair, listening, and ready to spring into action as a referee at any moment.
"You assume my cousin Gorrik and I are close," Lauraic replied flatly. "We both come from the same crappy background so I cut him some slack, but that's about it."
"Still," Derrick insisted. "You had to have known there was a connection between your cousin Elise and the Cartwrights. When the truth about Ryker Lorne and Victor Cartwright came out, why didn't you let your team leader know Victor still had family alive out there?"
Derrick watched as Lauraic punched her hand into her fist instead of into his face, which more than likely was her preferred target.
"Attaching the sins of the father to the daughters? Of all people, Derrick Deathex, I would have thought you would understand the fallacy of that."
Derrick's shoulders slumped, defeated by the truth of Lauraic's words.
"For what it's worth, E.C. took the Vileslayer name because she no longer wanted to be a Cartwright. She only has a middle initial now, totally getting rid of Victoria since it's the feminine form of Victor. She hated her father that much. Now you'd have to ask E.C. to be sure, but to hear her tell it she discovered her father's secret life as a hired killer when she was a little girl. Her mother took her away to protect her. But Vienna loved her father and refused to go. She thought her little sister was lying because she was jealous."
"And you've known this how long?" asked Femme from her chair, tensely.
"Not as long as you'd think. E.C. didn't speak about it until after Victor Cartwright was dead and the damage done. My uncle thought she did the name change out of love. But that's doubtful. I don't know if that little terror can love anyone. She's worse than Gorrik. All I hope for now is that you forgive me for not volunteering the information sooner."
Femme got up and joined her brother and her teammate.
"It's as you said, innocence until proven guilty," Femme told Lauraic. "I admire you for respecting that. But what do we do? There's clearly a woman out for revenge as part of my team, and I have no recourse to remove her unless I can clearly prove she lied about her identity."
Derrick checked his timepiece.
"I don't have much time before I report to the Arena. Alias and I are scheduled to go out together. I'll get what information I can. I don't think anything can really be done until after the conclusion of the Arena. In the meantime, enjoy the facility re-opening party at Lazer's."
Femme gave her half-brother a hug.
"Come back safe, please," she implored. "I've seen enough tragedy lately to last me a while."
The doors slid open and Derrick Deathex entered the pre-Arena preparation area, where team members rendezvoused for last minute rallies (like those done in a locker room) before going out in the field. To Derrick's dismay, only Alias had arrived so far. He'd hoped for their third teammate, 'Guns' Anne Rosas, to show up so there'd be some kind of mediator. 'Guns' was part of a Sisters subteam contingent called the Ladies of Metal, best noted for being fans of 20th and 21st century heavy metal music.
"Alias," Derrick said sharply.
"Whatcha treating me like that for? We on the same team!"
"I do not approve of how you have treated my sister after all her generosity. Destroying her marriage, plotting now to corrupt the Sisters of Silicon from within."
"You full of it."
"I know your father was Dark Horse, or Victor Cartwright. You're no better than he, planning the things you are. Unfortunately, you don't have his skill, and got caught much sooner."
"Femme Fatale killa my old man! She musta pay!"
"Is that was this is about? Revenge against Francine? My dear, you're shooting at the wrong target."
"I hearda it all, at da armory. The Ambassador guy, he said he wasa sorry she hada kill my old man."
Derrick couldn't believe what Alias was saying. She'd been there eavesdropping outside the armory where Femme Fatale had been held prisoner, at the hills where Rus and he had taken Femme for safety from the fire and been joined by her longtime family friend Ambassador-Major General David Blaze.
"Oh, you poor misguided woman. He wasn't talking to Francine."
Alias stood and started at Derrick blankly. Filling with rage, Derrick grabbed Alias by the folds of her baggy uniform and shook her.
"Look at me! Do you understand what I'm saying? I killed your father, not Francine! I kept him from murdering the man you seduced."
"No! It canna be true!"
"The transcript of the inquiry afterwards is public record. Go and read it for yourself. Or can you even read, Vienna Cartwright?"
Alias went limp at the sound of her real name, which no one had called her in a long time.
"You were so busy plotting revenge you never heard the news or word of mouth. How else could you not know about the greatest scandal to rock the Arenas? Who was your father, Vienna? Who was he?"
Alias dropped the slang enriched broken English she'd largely adopted as a cover and began to speak somewhat properly structured sentences.
"My old man was a Arena Pilot. When his leader died, his heart broke. General Lorne let him go with honor. Then he gotta odd jobs doin' repair work. My old man said the armory was his last job. He promised we'd make a new life."
"What did you think he was fixing at the armory?"
"Dunno. Thought maybe they'd reopen it, need help gettin' ready."
"He was fixing to kill Racubus Sterling. The same way he was paid to blow up Frank Forsythe's Bot. He wasn't traumatized; Lorne giving him an honorable discharge was a cover. Victor 'Dark Horse' Cartwright was a hired killer."
Alias pulled herself out of Derrick's hold, ran over and crouched in the corner.
"I had to prevent him from killing Racubus, Vienna. And I know saying I'm sorry won't bring your father back. It'll stay with me the rest of my life."
Derrick walked toward Alias.
"All I can do is promise to help make your life better. I know you've had a tough life, given up a lot of things. Who your father was is not your fault. I can help you smooth things out with Femme and Rus, get you good doctors to repair your face. The Sisters can be a new start for you."
Derrick outstretched his right hand to help Alias up. She responded by lunging forward and biting his index finger. As Derrick grabbed his finger, Alias ran past him and out of the room.
"First call -- all Pilots for Arena 320 please go to the Pre-Game Preparation Area. All Pilots for Arena 320 to the Pre-Game Preparation Area," came the recorded announcement telling the Pilots to get ready for the contest.
Derrick looked down at his finger. First, he was going to need a medic.
At that moment, 'Guns' entered the room. She took one look at Derrick's finger and wasted no time getting on the horn.
Dr. Lawrence Wright finished nursing Derrick's finger before the start of the Arena in the Triage Center.
"Seems like you should be on bigger detail, Dr. Wright," Derrick commented as the doctor put his tools away.
"First off, I might have had to pull you to do some reconstructive surgery, depending on how deep that went. Also, our shift assignments rotate between getting assigned to deal with on-site needs versus the hospital. My number came up to be here today. Just that simple. Now you mind telling me how you wound up getting bit?"
"I'll gladly explain, but I need something in return. Help me get a message to Francine."
"Last call -- all Pilots for Arena 320 to the Pre-Game Preparation Area," interrupted the synthesized recording.
Dr. Wright motioned towards the Triage Center door.
"I'll walk with you and you can fill me in. Your teammates are already there."
Derrick did his best to try and hold things together in Arena 320, being the senior pilot of the group. However, with Alias refusing to communicate he had to pray his suggestions got to her and were followed. When he encouraged Alias to head in the CP's direction to back up 'Guns', that much at least Alias did seem to follow. She did cooperate with 'Guns' and manage to sandwich the Goliath for a round. Meanwhile, Derrick found himself toe-to-toe with one of the newer Goliath Bots, and took refuge in a lake to keep his heat down for a few turns before charging the Goliath bot again as the women headed toward the Command Post.
Once in range of the CP, Alias fired her missile packs on it, phase after phase. Despite the fact that several Bots now had her in their sights, she refused to retreat. Circuits fried, heat rose.
"Alias, get out of there!" Derrick yelled at her via the communicators. Derrick suspected Alias wanted to block out his transmission, but the rules didn't allow disrupting transmissions from her teammates. So apparently she chose to just ignore him.
Then the unbelievable happened. Alias' Bot ended up right against the CP, where it was positioned to volley shots directly into her damaged backside.
"Alias! Vienna!" Derrick cried out. "Standing there and letting the CP get you isn't the way. Please respond."
At last, Alias caved in and responded, in the broken angry English that had become part of her new life.
"I ain't talking to you!"
"Listen, Vienna. You're about to take your next turn. Program your Bot to Eject."
"Because you've got people around you who can help. Femme Fatale's adoptive father was clouded in scandal too. And her real father turned out to be a horrible man. But she survived. Now that she knows who you are, we can help you. But you have to let us."
He could hear Alias hiss.
"I'm sorry your father had to die," Derrick pleaded. "I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted this for you. Eject, turn back, anything!"
"My old man wanta me to see him as hero. But his life, a lie. My old lady tried to tell me, before she and baby sista left. I wasa fool. And lookit me now. I start out good and end up nuttin. My lifesa lie too."
Buzzers sounded and lights flashed in the Arena. The next turn began.
"Alias, I pray you listened to me in time," he shouted at her, desperate. "Think of the future you could have. I could reunite you and your sister."
"Whatcha know about Elise?" came a plaintive reply.
"She's alive, Vienna. I know where she is. Her last name's different now--"
Alias replied, resigned, in the structured sentences she spoke as Vienna, "At least she escaped the shame. I should have believed her. She said the old man was poison. I miss her--"
The CP launched another missile attack. Alias' Bot exploded into a bright ball of flame, reflecting brightly against the dark Arena walls.
Then Derrick looked down at his own status indicators for what felt like the very first time.
He and this Bot were hurting, bad.
"5... 4... 3... 2... 1... FWOOSH!"
The ejection countdown never felt so devastating. In so many ways, Derrick Deathex lost that day. The Arena, yes, but more importantly any chance at redemption and quite possibly at Helen Annie Lynne Mayne's heart. His soul ached.
Dr. Lawrence Wright and Femme Fatale raced to Derrick's side as the medical teams brought him off the combat field. The doctor saw that Derrick's wounds got immediate attention, and then let Femme slip in to talk.
"I came as soon as I could, dear brother," Femme told him. "So hard to slip out of my own party."
"But now," lamented Derrick, "It is too late."
Femme hugged her brother tight. He awkwardly reciprocated, as the Deathex family never had been much for affection.
"Did I lie to her?" he whispered. "Would you have helped her, after everything she'd done?"
"Yes. Because you asked me to, I would have put it all aside. Though both Alias and I are biologically descended from the scum of the universe, it's not our fault. I don't know if she would have changed, but I know she deserved the chance. Just like I gave you a chance when you first came to me."
"What about Rus? Does he get another chance?"
"He loves you, Francine."
"I know," she croaked. "I know."
Femme and Derrick went together the Feral Feline Memorial Hall, a museum dedicated to the women of the Arenas. Femme decided they both should hang a plaque personally at the Wall of the Fallen. No fanfare, no ceremony, not even so much as a press release. Enough had been made already of the woman who would forever leave her mark on the Arenas, and more than likely the press would not be kind.
VIENNA PARIS CARTWRIGHT
a.k.a. ELISE SHANNON
Member of the Sisters of Silicon
Fell in Arena #320
Killed by enemy Command Post
Daughter of Victor "Dark Horse" Cartwright
Derrick and Femme stepped back to examine the plaque. Derrick heard footsteps behind them.
"Lawrence?" Femme said, also having heard the footsteps.
"No," said a familiar voice. Derrick turned to see Rus standing there, Femme now making eye contact with him.
"You played it straight and factual. I'm glad. She deserved that," Rus said.
"That seems to be the one thing we agree on," Femme told him. "I wish there'd been another way than taking her shame public. And part of me wonders if the way things got handed wasn't the final trigger that made her choice."
"You did the best you could. And after everything she did to you, it took a lot of strength and courage," Rus replied. "I'm proud of you."
"Thank you... I guess," she struggled to say, oblivious to Derrick's overhearing the conversation.
"What about us?" Rus asked her. "Is there any other road for us than separate paths?"
Derrick walked away from the Wall of the Fallen, leaving his sister and her ex-husband to sort out their differences. As he headed down the hall, Derrick looked up to see a pair of figures approaching. The man he recognized as Gorrik Vileslayer, Lauraic's troublemaker cousin. With him walked a tomboyish teenage girl, built strong either from surviving the streets or hard labor, Derrick couldn't be sure.
"Elise Cartwright?" Derrick dared to speak.
The teenage girl looked up at him, and snapped, "None of your business!"
"I have a message for you, from Vienna," Derrick carried on, unfazed. "She missed you and did not know how to start searching for you. At the very last, she believed about your father and all the things he'd done. I just wish I could have saved her. There's so much I wish I could have changed."
"A little late for regrets, Deathex," Gorrik Vileslayer said as he stepped in, shielding the young woman behind him. "Now leave my stepsister alone."
Derrick shoved his hands in his pockets, looked down at the ground, and walked on. Behind him, in the distance, he swore he heard the echo of a young woman's sobs.
Outside, Derrick felt a hand slip into the curve of his elbow, a calloused but feminine one. It squeezed his.
"She said you'd be here."
Derrick turned toward the sound of the voice, and looked into the hazel eyes of H.A.L. Mayne.
"Did you drive?" she asked.
"Francine brought me."
"Could I offer you a ride, then?"
"She might wonder where I went off to."
H.A.L. tugged Derrick along.
"I think she and Rus have a lot to talk about. You can leave her a commscreen message. Would you be interested in having lunch at Mother's Place? I hear they got the chef back from the 100-series Arena days. Their heyday, many say."
"That's going way back," he replied, walking alongside H.A.L. "Back to when we first met, in each other's target sights."
"Thank goodness that's changed," she said.
Derrick looked over at H.A.L. again. Her sly smile spoke volumes.
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