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Connected member of RPG for 2 years

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A wanderer seeking vicarious healing.
48,534 words written.
32 total posts.
1,517 words per post.
8 posts per roleplay.
110 average days in a roleplay.
4 universes joined.
15.00 INK received in tips.

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Began Role Playing:
14 Jun 2003
Favorite Role Playing Game:
Starfinder
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Yes
Favorite Setting:
Speculative science fiction

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Game Design Workshop
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On the Matter of New Players and Orphaned Plays
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1.00 INK received for post #2817667, located in Fort Kate:

Monarch Superprocessor

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Cloistered from the jealous eyes of skybound humanity, deep beneath the Adriatic Sea, lay the gargantuan Monarch Superprocessor and unfathomable riches within. Neither day nor night held any meaning here―the sun's jurisdiction ended a thousand leagues above, supplanted by an insatiable hunger for earth's bounty.

Ljilja, a sanguine girl with hair and eyes as blue as the sea, was but one of many tasked with slaking the colossal beast with ore―an assignment which last year claimed the life of her father. Yet she toiled undeterred as the remainder of the world gave ear to a call to arms: the drawing of the contestants for the 100th Game of Pursuit.



Clawing away at an undersea mineral vein, young Ljilja carved out hunks of glimmering ore with each swipe of a massive four-armed mining apparatus. Each limb was roughly as large as she was, yet she wielded them fluently as extensions of her own body.

"He's from the tundra," an attentive female voice proclaimed from Ljilja's communicator. "They seem pretty excited about him."

"Come on, tundra?" Ljilja answered. "Everything is fluffy and soft over there."

CHUNK, rattle-rattle-rattle.

"He won't last..." CHUNK, rattle-rattle. "...two weeks!" CHUNK-CHUNK, rattle-rattle-rattle.

One after the other, Ljilja thrust mighty metal palms into the rock face, steadily tearing it apart as she spoke.

"Yeah, well, people like that have a tendency to surprise you. Oh, hang on, they're reading off the next ID. One-six-two..." she began as usual, but stopped short of reading the whole number.

Suddenly, for the first time since Ljilja started her shift, the girl on the other side fell speechless.

"Talk to me, Sonja. Anyone interesting? Anyone we know?"

The pause continued, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.

"Sonja?" she repeated.

At last, a response.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Sonja hissed.

Ljilja was stunned at the harshness of those words. She answered instinctively.

"Tell you what? We tell each other everything."

"Apparently not," came Sonja's scathing reply. Before Ljilja could muster a response, the commlink was interrupted by an announcement.

"ID #1624163-0, report to the surface immediately. A shuttle is waiting for you."

Instantly, her chest felt as heavy as her mining equipment. She had submitted her ID for entry into the Games. And by the sound of it, she had just been selected.

Now trembling like a leaf in the wind, she fumbled with the communicator in a desperate attempt to try to explain herself to Sonja―the girl who was her anchor when she was most lost. But as she read the words on her communicator screen, a chill crept through her core:

This contact is ignoring you.



Fort Kate - Surface

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Lumbering forward with each step, Ljilja's body slumped with anxiety. The motion of her slim legs on the rocky shores of Fort Kate was perfunctory―four Longjack mining arms alternated their fists upon the ground in a ballet of metal that kept her upright and moving ahead.

Ordinarily, she would be glad that her workday had ended early. But not today.

She trailed the path to the shuttlepad with naught on her but her work gear and pack. A change of clothes, some basic supplies and toiletries, and a little bit of food was all that she had stored on her person. Apart from that, she had only her mining suit and Longjacks with her.

Before her was the departure pad, a flat, cordoned-off zone near the top of the mountain settlement she called home. Around it, security fencing and armed guards prevented mutants from passing unauthorized. In the center was a polished white aircraft no doubt valued many times in excess of her own life.

One of the guards, seeing Ljilja approach, motioned for aid. Some of the maintenance personnel joined to meet her at the gate. Ljilja expected them to confiscate her mining equipment, but as she stepped out of the Longjack harness, she saw the personnel begin carrying it to the shuttle. Ljilja looked about in confusion, then peered up to the guard before her. She could not see beyond his helmet, but she recognized his voice.

"Be safe, bubica," he said, and, noticing the puffiness of her eyes, knelt down to wrap his arms around her in a warm embrace.

"I'll try, Valentin," Ljilja answered, giving way to sobs for the second time this day. A friend of her father's before his passing, Valentin and many others saw her as one of their own. She felt confident entrusting him with one last request.

"C-can you...tell Sonja goodbye...? She doesn't want to listen to me," she pleaded, her voice quiet as a whisper.

"She will hear," the man assured her. "Go now," he urged, "and don't look back."

He let her go with a pat on the back. Procedure demanded he check her ID, but they would do that on arrival―he knew Ljilja well enough to be beyond that.

As she was escorted to the shuttlecraft, the guards and maintenance workers crowded around her. The announcement of her acceptance into the Games had turned her into an instant celebrity, and she struggled to filter out the noise of her people chattering and cheering. Overwhelmed, she wordlessly boarded and took a seat, buckling in for the ride.

And as the vehicle rose from the pad to the skies, Ljilja was left for a moment with her thoughts. Thoughts of Sonja, of Valentin, of her late father, of her extant family, of all the resident Katonians that would swell with pride or wince with disgust as they watched her on their holoscreens. The craft rose higher and higher―this would be her last chance to see her home for a long time, perhaps ever.

So she peered out the window at the mountain below, watching it shrink and shrink beneath her until it disappeared beneath the clouds. And when it was gone, she settled back in her seat, staring blankly ahead, her mouth slightly agape as the reality of her situation sank in.

I'm not coming back, am I?


1.00 INK received for post #2822575, located in Father:

On the Precipice

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Musical Accompaniment



Staring blankly past the artificially frosted window of his highrise apartment, in this moment, Jaden felt like the only one on the ship not watching the feed. He could see the flicker of holoscreens in adjacent buildings, their colors changing, shifting, blinking in unison like one big cloud of fireflies.

He slugged back his glass, and a cold, spiced sting filled his mouth. The ice cubes in his cup clattered as they collided with one another and with the glass, creating a tinkling noise that made Zorana, his maidservant, wince. It had been a long time since he had last gotten this drunk—since he had last been in this much pain.

"It's my fault, you know," he said with a slur, swiping a hand across his eyes to wipe them dry.

Zorana held her tongue. She knew that trying to defend him would only make things worse. He always won those arguments.

"I pushed her to do it," he determined, a prelude to downing his whole glass in one go. He coughed at the burning in his throat. It hurt, but he bore it. In his mind, he deserved whatever pain he now felt.

She filled his glass once more, watching helplessly as he shambled over to his chair like a zombie and collapsed into it.

On the holoscreen before him, Kore was hyping up the crowd for the countdown. Jaden glared daggers at her. Vile words struggled to try and free themselves from his lips, barely restrained by the knowledge that any criticism he could level at her would rightly apply to him as well. He swore under his breath. "I'm complicit," he murmured with a cracking voice, hanging his head in shame.

"After months of preparation, the moment you’ve all been waiting for is finally here!" announced Kore Mars, the on-screen host, chipper as could be.

Jaden clutched tight to his drink and clenched his teeth. Launching up from his seat, he shouted at the screen, "Yeah, I bet the mutes on the surface can't wait. They're about to die and you're...[hic]...wearing that stupid grin, you worthless waste of air! At least I have the decency to feel bad about it!"

With that, he hurled the glass at the holoscreen with all his might, which it phased through to smash against the wall. As the glittering shards tumbled to the floor, Jaden panted with fury, grimacing at the screen.

"Without further ado, let's begin the countdown!"

His rage turned inward once more, and he collapsed to his knees. He clutched at his white hair, gripping his head firmly with both hands. His gaze fell to the floor. "Oh God, I can't watch," he wept.

Avoiding the glass, Zorana carefully stepped over to the holoscreen, ready to turn it off.

"No, don't, I..." he protested with a sniffle, "If she has to live it, I have to watch it."

She gurgled with pity as he sat and listened, seeing him crumble a little more with each passing second. By the time Kore reached zero, Jaden's forehead was nearly at his knees.

"Mrrstrr," she finally spoke up, unable to hold back her concern.

"Put her on," he demanded. "I need to see."

Zorana hesitated. The screen displayed a bird's eye view of the battlefield, which had devolved into a slaughter. Screams and cries mingled with the sound of gunfire and the roar of hoverbikes. The squall lost voices with each passing moment. Those who died quickly were lucky.

"Put her on!" he shouted again, cocking his head upward to force himself to look at the screen.

Relenting, she tapped at the holoscreen's controls, selecting Ljilja's camera. Jaden's red eyes grew wide with horror.

He saw the girl he had taken care of for the past week curled up in the corner, her nose bloodied, her small body hyperventilating. She was directionless, paralyzed with fear, overwhelmed with the sound of suffering and death. It took one last blood-curdling wail for Ljilja to rise up and run for her life, barreling out from her compartment at full speed.

"Go," he urged, "Go!"

He focused his whole attention on the screen. For a few moments, so did Zorana. Together, they watched Ljilja equip her Longjacks, grab her supplies, and take off running without her bike.

Stunned, Jaden remained sitting on the floor, his hands dangling limply at his sides. Zorana, lucid and focused on her duty, recovered sooner, and got to work cleaning up the shattered glass and supplying him with a new drink. Before he knew it, she was presenting him with a fresh cup, full of ice and rum.

He took hold of it, his eyes glazing over. He mindlessly sipped at his glass until it was gone, received a top-up, and soon he found himself back in his chair without ever having made the conscious decision to return there. His glass was emptied and refilled, and time blended together. He stared at the holoscreen almost unblinkingly until he saw his little blue mutant unite with each of her allies and begin traversing the Wastes with them.

He shut his eyes, breathing a sigh of relief. It was only now that he noticed a persistent pulsing sound emanating from his wrist holo. He sluggishly tapped at it to see what was going on, then squinted at the interface.

506 similar messages not shown.
Neve: hey
Aries: hey
Neve: hey
Neve: hey
Aries: hey
Aries: hey
Neve: hey
Aries: hey idiot
Neve: hey
Neve: hey
Aries sent a location.
Neve: hey
Aries: get over here we're waiting
Neve: hey


Groaning with effort, Jaden wiped his face and held out his holo so that Zorana could see what had been sent. After reading it, she looked to him for direction.

He let his head drift to the side and took a deep breath. He had to maintain appearances somehow. Though he was comfortable letting Zorana see this sympathetic side of him, it would ruin his reputation to be seen like this with others. The only cover he could come up with on short notice was that he was simply partying hard in private.

"Gimme that bottle," he ordered, his drunkenness robbing his speech of any tact. Zorana did not seem to mind, and obediently handed him his now-half-empty bottle of golden spiced rum. In return, he handed her his glass so that he could free a hand to push himself up from his chair.

He took one last long look at the team of mutants on the screen and muttered, "...I'm gonna need a ride."


0.25 INK received for post #2821198, located in Father:

Blood in the Water

Image

Musical Accompaniment



Transitioning from the commercial break with the unexpected but natural cadence of autumn leaves changing color, Zhang Wei maneuvered the capitalistic tone into one more somber and sincere. Feeding off of the Editors' cues, he stood in the center of the stage, clasping his hands together and furrowing his brows to give the impression of seriousness.

"Our next competitor comes from a remote mining colony called Fort Kate. You know her as 'Little Fish' Ljilja. This is her story," he said before stepping aside and letting the holos take over. The lights dimmed and suspenseful music began to play.



"Go now, and don't look back," a raspy voice echoed through the stadium, as an older man in uniform held Ljilja close in the rain before sending her off on a sleek white aircraft.

A flash of lightning and the crackle of a thunderclap ushered time forward. The feeds showed Ljilja beginning to panic while onboard, wrenching her seatbelt off, and then scrabbling out of her seat towards the back of the vehicle to escape an unseen threat. She reached in desperation for the bright red handle of an emergency exit. The camera exited the vehicle to show the raging seas miles below, and the dark storm above. Then, black nothingness for what seemed like eternity.

A sudden slam brought things into view once more - Jaden, her manager, pinned her to a wall to keep her from leaping from the craft. "Come on, little fish, we can't have you out of the game this early," he asserted, gazing into her eyes as she panted for air.

In a flurry of dramatic short cuts, the holoscreen showed the craft ascending to Father and the two disembarking together. After, it showed Ljilja standing alone at the opening ceremony, reaching toward the blue flowers of a tree. A voiceover of Ljilja's conversation with Jaden began to play.

"What if they don't like me?" Ljilja asked.

"Watch your back," Jaden warned.

The editors cut to a shot of Ljilja backing away in terror from a towering, cybernetic competitor clad from head to toe in midnight black metal.

"They will gut you if they get the chance."

With a bone-chilling howl as an audio cue, a stern white wolf marched towards little Ljilja, whose eyes darted to and fro for escape routes.

"Hey," Scout barked, "why is a kid here?"

As Scout approached the small blue girl, the audience's concern and anticipation grew to a fever pitch. Then, overlooking Scout's deadly and aggressive nature, Ljilja thrust out her hand as a gesture of friendship. After, it showed Scout and Ljilja sitting together on a mat in the gym.

"I want to be with my family. I’ve worked on Fort Kate as long as I can remember... I’ve never even met my mother. I want to."

"What about your dad?" Scout asked.

Suddenly, Ljilja was plunging into the aquarium, lying still and motionless as she sank deeper and deeper, bubbles of air flowing from her lips.

"He died."

Now she was bounding down the marathon track at full speed, the audience heard no sound but her heavy panting and footsteps before she began to lose her balance. She slipped and fell forward, and time slowed to a crawl. As it became clear that an impact with the floor was inevitable, the voiceover continued.

"Can we be friends?" Ljilja's voice asked as her limp body crept closer to the hard ground.

"You don't want to be friends with someone like me." Scout answered.

"I think you're a good person. I want to be your friend. But if you don't..." Ljilja continued, her voice wavering with pain and desperation.

"Allies it is," Scout declared with a tone of finality.

The feed cut out just before she hit the ground.



Ljilja sat meekly in her chair as the introductory video ended and the audience cheered and applauded on cue. She could not tell if they were moved, but she hoped that they liked what they saw.

Zhang, regaining the attention of the audience, leant forward and gazed deep into the eyes of the small mutant before him. "So, Ljilja - am I saying that right?"

She politely nodded.

"Ljilja, do you have a death wish?"

Blinking in confusion, she answered, "Huh?" So unexpected was the question that she was already on the back foot.

"Nearly jumping out of a plane, diving into an aquarium, and getting up close and personal with one of the most vicious competitors in the Games? Ring any bells?"

Ljilja stammered, her cheeks turning pale. "Scout is...I was..." she said, averting her eyes and shrinking back into her chair.

Zhang Wei chuckled warmly. "Alright, alright. Let's just say you're quite daring for such a small fish," he said, trying to draw attention away from her timidity.

"I...I have to be," she answered, peeking up at Zhang.

"You really think you can take this whole competition home to the folks back at Fort Kate?" he asked. He seemed to be sincerely asking.

Perfect. That was exactly the question she had been drilled on. Swallowing her nervousness, she put on the warmest face she could muster. Making a fist in determination, she answered, "I'll try my best!"

The crowd roared, more than happy to cheer for an underdog, if only to ensure she would remain in the Games long enough to be fodder for a stronger fighter.

"Beautiful!" Zhang replied. "We're happy to have you aboard as a competitor. What are you going to do if you win?"

"Um...I want to be...a family again."

A chorus of 'awws' signalled the crowd's affection - and with it, some loss of interest. Zhang needed to keep the show going.

"How sweet! Alright, everybody, that was Ljilja! Next up after the break: Jax the cat! Stay tuned and don't miss a thing!"



Blood Money

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"Step right up, don't miss yer chance! Takin' all bets on the little blue fish - 1 to 27, she bites it in the first round!" shouted a tubby human in striped suspenders with a grin the size of a small moon. There were few takers on such a hopeless cause, but a handful of high rollers put their money against Ljilja for the meager payout, assuming it was a safe bet she would lose quickly.

"Counter," announced Jaden, leaning forward over the bar, looking over the gambling spreads.

The man squinted from behind the bar, grabbing a scanner puck and sliding it over to Jaden. "Counter?" he inquired. Someone was betting on her? "What's your put?"

"Eight thousand," he answered before swiping his chipped wrist along the scanner. The puck chimed to indicate that the transaction had completed, paid in full. Jaden slid it back across the bar.

Scratching at his brow, the man retrieved the puck and asked, "That was you in the intro, weren't it? You know somethin' I don't know?"

"Let's just say I have some faith."


0.25 INK received for post #2821650, located in Father:

Yeqon's Office

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Tap-ta-ta-tap-tap, tap-tap. The sound of Jaden rapping upon the door to Yeqon's office disturbed the eerie silence between Ljilja and Zorana, whose hands stood nervously at their sides as they waited for a response from those on the other side. Ljilja brushed down her two-layered blue dress, which she had last worn at the interviews and had chosen again to wear for this occasion. A little shiver ran through her. This was going to be the first time she had spoken with anyone from Fort Kate since she arrived on Father two weeks ago, and she knew exactly who she was going to call.

The door slid open, fitting so flush with the doorframe that one could be forgiven for assuming it was never there. They were greeted by Eon, Yeqon's slave, who stepped to the side, gesturing openly to invite them in. "Welcome," he said. "Please head over to the chairs."

Within the well-decorated office, decked with pristine antiques and relics from bygone ages, were three leather chairs placed before a hand-carved wooden desk. Behind the desk was the stoic Yeqon, ready for their arrival, sitting before a massive holoscreen on which the call would be conducted.

Ljilja's eyes flitted from object to object as she and Zorana followed Jaden inside. She had seen old items before, but never in such fine condition. Jaden, meanwhile, remained focused as he proceeded to take a seat. After all, he had been here before. Zorana joined him, scooting her chair over to sit nearer by his side.

Finally, Ljilja stepped up to the desk. She clutched her hand closed for strength and addressed Yeqon directly. "Thank you for saving me," she said with the meekness of a mouse. "I-I wanted to say thanks in person. I am glad to be able to."

Yeqon, wearing his signature frown, answered, "Don't let it happen again."

Eon sighed wearily at his master's response, but otherwise remained silent. Though at first it seemed his dissatisfaction fell on deaf ears, Yeqon soon changed his tone. Rising from his seat, he said, "This moment is a reward...for your diligence. An excellent performance...thus far, Ljilja."

"Thank you very much," she bashfully replied.

"You are welcome," Yeqon said. Uncharacteristically, he then asked for permission from the little blue mutant. "May my servant stay...during your call?"

"Yes," Ljilja immediately replied, "of course. We are friends."

Eon's ears twitched in delight. Yeqon's did not, though to say he was displeased would be a lie.

At the touch of a button, Yeqon brought the holoscreen to life. Eon moved Yeqon's chair beside Jaden's, replacing it with one intended for Ljilja, that she might have a better view of the holoscreen. With Yeqon's approval, Ljilja sat down behind his desk and faced the display.

"It's voice-controlled. Say the destination...and the call will automatically be connected," Yeqon explained.

Ljilja nodded in acknowledgement. She shifted to get comfortable the chair she had been given, then took a deep breath. Inhale...exhale. With her hands in her lap, she called out her destination.

"Monarch Security, Mining Claim 4K-8."



Platform 7, Fort Kate

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Rising and falling like a majestic bird, a hand with its thumb and pinky performed swooping aerial swirls, dives, and climbs. Its owner, a scraggly-bearded young mutant, was leaning back in his chair, watching his hand soar through the air as his belt-mounted communicator buzzed with security chatter.

A chime from his desk forced him upright, and he cleared his throat to recompose himself. He checked his holoscreen, noting the caller: Yeqon Cryo, Overseer, Father.

He blinked a few times in confusion. What on earth did a Topside human want with a mining outpost in the middle of nowhere? But he didn't have time to ask questions; if he delayed too long, he might lose his job. So he tucked his shirt in and answered the call.

"Overseer! It is good to see you. How can I he—nemoj me jebat!" he cursed. He rubbed his eyes, then took a second look to confirm what he saw: on his display, instead of an Overseer, was a small blue mutant he knew well. He proclaimed, "It is Ljilja!" before leaping from his chair to call someone from offscreen.
"Valentin!"

Ljilja giggled on her side of the call, the levity helping to ease her nerves.

Bootsteps hailed the approach of a heavy-set man, who hauled himself into the seat and dropped with a thunk, a gesture that reminded her of her father. His vision failing, he dragged his chair closer to the screen and squinted to see more clearly. His graying hair and scarred face briefly filled the screen until he was able to confirm who he was speaking to. With a low growl, he fell back into the chair and smiled in satisfaction. "Ljiljica... you are okay. We are all so very proud of you."

At this, Ljilja grinned from ear to ear, but tears were welling up in her eyes. She did not know how to respond to his praise but with a shaky nod and a soft grunt. "Is...Sonja okay...?" she asked.

"Da," he answered, "she is okay. Worried, but okay. She hopes you are happy. And forgives you."

Nodding again, Ljilja clenched her shaking hands in her lap. On the verge of crying, she continued, saying, "U-um...the first Round is tomorrow...I might not...make it back."

Valentin rubbed at the lines of his forehead, gazing into Ljilja's eyes. He saw a desperate mutant facing certain death. It was a look he had seen before. "Then there is something you must know," he replied.

As if he had just noticed the others in the background of the call, his focus shifted to the lot of them—Jaden, Zorana, Yeqon, Eon—and his gaze narrowed. "What I say here, you will tell no one. Yes?"

His age and the graveness of his tone made a compelling argument. Much as Yeqon despised ultimatums, he sensed the importance of this one. "So long as silence...brings no adverse consequences to my servant and I...yes."

Jaden and Zorana both waved their assent in Finfolk sign.

Raising his chin, Valentin seemed to accept these responses. He held his fist up and roared to all in earshot: "Samoća!" After a few moments, when it was clear that no one in the security office remained to hear him, he said, "Aleksander was a great man. The sea took him."

Ljilja's curiosity stayed her tears. She sniffled, but acknowledged his words. "I-in the demolition, yes."

"Da," Valentin confirmed. "But this is not whole story. He had the ori."

She cocked her head to the side. "No...? He...I would have seen the marks," she answered, her brows furrowing.

"He painted them over. Hid his tiredness. Drank much."

Ljilja searched her memories of her father. Was anything off about him in his last moments? She could not say. Instead she asked, "Why are you telling me this?"

Valentin closed his eyes and swallowed. "Because you deserve to know: Demolition was not accident. He chose to die there."

"What?!" she exclaimed, narrowing her gaze. "How can you know this?"

"Because, he came to me the night before. Ask me to take care of you when he is gone. I said yes."

Her spine turned to ice. She sputtered for words, her breath staggering. "B-bu-but...why?" she wondered helplessly.

Growling under his breath, Valentin stated, "I can not explain a man's pride to you, Ljiljica. Aleks did not want you to see him turn slowly to sand. Ne. Better to keep his dignity; go on his terms."

Ljilja collapsed back into her seat, bringing her hands to her head. She tugged at her hair, struggling to make sense of things.

Finally, she asked, "W-what do I do...knowing this?"

"That is for you; I cannot say. I am sorry, Ljiljica. It was better for you to know."

For a few moments, all that could be heard was Ljilja's sniffling. Valentin, too, aged and weathered, felt his own eyes watering at the sight. She was not his daughter, but for the last year, she had been treated that way. He had no desire to see her suffer, but to keep a matter like this secret on the eve before a competition in which she might die was unthinkable. Neither of them could muster words. It was the computer which spoke first.

"Tunnel collapse detected, Sector Će. Personnel affected."

"Jebote!" he swore. "I must go now, Ljiljica." Security officers began to fill the screen, suiting and gearing up for a rescue effort. With only moments before he, too, would have to respond, Valentin gave the parting words, "Jako te volim. Come back safe."



Back at the Office

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Trembling and hugging her knees to herself, Ljilja broke down into soft sobs.

Yeqon frowned deeply. He knew, ultimately, that she did not belong in a competition like this, and instances like this of what he would term weakness only bolstered his position. To him she seemed a mere weeping child, unprepared for the realities of bloodsports, and she could not disprove him in this state.

But neither could he tell her to give up.

Yeqon fetched a handkerchief from his pocket, holding it out for Eon to snatch. He delivered it to her posthaste, and she took it in gratitude, blowing her nose into it.

Ljilja lowered her legs, sitting properly once more to say a congested "Thank you" to Eon and Yeqon. She coughed into the cloth, trying to recompose herself. She needed strength. With Valentin and Sonja taken care of, there was one last person she needed to call before she could accept the possibility of death. Swallowing mucus, she asked, "C-can I...make one more call?"

Eon turned to Yeqon. Yeqon shut his eyes and sighed, then looked away.

With a smile, Eon said, "My master will allow you to make another call."

Once again Ljilja thanked them. Then she shut her eyes, taking deep breaths in an attempt to to still her heart and stop her sobs. When she had calmed herself down enough to hold a conversation, she spoke the destination for her final call.

"Staša. The Dancing Onion."



The Kitchen

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The call was automatically connected, evidently configured to do so as a matter of convenience. Multitasking appeared to be the order of the day for the white-haired woman on-screen, who, with the help of her many tentacles, chopped and diced, sauced and spiced, salted and dipped, stirred and sipped. She was turned away from the screen to tend to her line, and as she toiled she hummed a sailor's serenade.

Ljilja's heart melted. "Mati," she murmured wistfully, at once recognizing her from the stories her father used to tell.

The tentacles ceased immediately. They began disengaging from their tasks, setting down cutlery and ladles, allowing the woman to turn around without making a mess of things. Placing her hands on her hips, the cook swiveled round and bent forward to take a closer look. Her glimmering sapphire eyes were the clear origin of Ljilja's own, and she locked eyes with Ljilja on the other side, sizing her up and comparing her to her memories.

Once assured of her identity, the woman's tentacles relaxed, and her lips curled into a smile that could warm the coldest of hearts. "So it is you! I saw you on the screens, but I had no way to reach...ah, lijepa moja đevojko...how pretty you are. Thank you, Overseer. Send for it, I will give you the best. Crni rižot, fritule, rakija, whatever you like."

Tearfully giggling, Ljilja spoke up. "Mama! The first we meet in however-many-years, and all you can think about is cooking food!"

Her mother softly tutted. "Ne, Ljiljica, it is more than food! It is...hospitality! Kasuns show their thanks. You know this from Aleks, yes? Now who are all these friends? Hello! Say hello!"

Jaden and Zorana greeted her in Finfolk sign, to which she cheerfully applauded, returning their introduction in kind.

Yeqon and Eon took a more human approach. "Hello, ma'am," Yeqon said, his words coated with warmth and respect despite his unchanging tone, "Thank you for your time... My name is Yeqon Cryo, and this is Eon. We are associates of Ms. Ljilja."

Touching her hand to her heart, her face softened with delight, won over in spades. "So very polite! You are not all human, are you?" she remarked of Yeqon. She could not have known how accurate her statement was. "I am Anamarija," she said with a curtsy, "Ljilja's mother. I see she is in good hands!"

Gesturing to Jaden, Yeqon was quick to correct her. "This is Jaden Kumar... Caring for Ms. Ljilja is his responsibility. My duty is to oversee this competition..."

Jaden gave a pleasant wave as he was introduced.

"Of course, Eon here is her friend...so his position is vastly different from mine." Yeqon concluded in consolation, gesturing to Eon, who grinned with exceptional warmth knowing that he had his master's approval.

"I'll watch out for her whenever possible," Eon assured her.

Anamarija lightly covered her lips with her fingertips, raising her brows and grinning. "Eon! So tall and handsome! You are courting moja Ljiljica? I approve."

"Ma!" Ljilja protested, "He is a friend! You are embarrassing me!"

Holding her hands behind her back and swaying playfully, Anamarija replied, "I know, I know. But when otherwise do I get to tease you? This is only chance to try!"

"If I win this round, I will be able to move in with you," Ljilja answered.

Anamarija's wide smile disappeared in a flash, replaced with a flat, serious expression. She had gone from bubbly to motherly in an instant. "Mm. You are like Aleks in this way."

"Is that a bad thing?" Ljilja asked. "Don't you want me with you there in Staša?

Her mother sighed. "Da, I want you here. But if I choose between maybe-dead Ljiljica and sure-to-live Ljiljica..." She tilted her head to one side, resting it against her palm, gazing longingly at her daughter's visage on the holoscreen. "I am your mother. I only want you to alive and to happy. But it is your choice. Aleks would say, 'Without choice, you are not really alive.' But you know this already, I am sure."

"But, Ma...Aleksander is..."

"I know," she said, cutting Ljilja off, "I know. It is okay. He was a sailor. He always knew the sea would take him."

Ljilja clutched the handkerchief in her hands. She was not yet ready to admit to herself how much she missed her father, and in the face of such strength, she was even more reluctant. Instead, she asked, "Aren't you sad...?"

Seeing right through her, Anamarija reached forth in a motion to pat the holocam before her. "Of course I am sad, Ljiljica... But we must to treasure what we have, not to focus on what is lost."

A little chime from Jaden's commlink indicated important news. As Jaden pulled up the message, he groaned. "Scout's in the medbay again. Aries says it's serious."

Ljilja glanced back at Jaden, then at her mother.

Anamarija smiled fondly. "Just like Aleks...you wish to help. Such a good girl. Help your wolf friend and prepare. I will watch you on the feeds tomorrow, if you choose to play the Games."

"Jako te volim, Mati... I hope to see you soon."

"Fališ mi - jako te volim. I love you with all of my heart."


0.25 INK received for post #2821750, located in Father:

Cortège

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Blood trickled from Amiya's piercing pink eyes, dribbling as tears before dripping down onto her black coat, where it massed and eventually coagulated, filling the air with the pungent sting of iron. She had suffered no injury—no physical injury, anyway—but the arterial flow was by a strange mutation she possessed, which tainted her sweat, tears, and even saliva with the qualities of blood.

She grit her teeth, which through the years had been stained a light pink. "It isn't fair," she lamented. "I saw him first. I said hi first. I even wrote him a love letter."

"In your own blood," added a tall, voluptuous mutant, whose short-cut, form-fitting dress left little to the imagination.

"In my own blood!" Amiya responded.

"That's men for you. Fickle and ungrateful. Can't see the forest through the sleaze."

ACCESS DENIED.

With a groan, the tall mutant tossed another tag bracelet aside. It clattered like a coin along the floor, where it joined a pile of similar bracelets pilfered from other mutants aboard the ship. She took another from her bag and touched it to the warehouse door's reader, which began to scan it thoroughly to validate entry.

"Oh, don't talk like you're above it, Hecate. It's a different guy every day with you."

ACCESS DENIED.

Hecate's little black horns twitched in annoyance. "Ugh. Yeah, but when I do it, I don't go falling in love. I'm gathering intel and softening them up."

"It's sleazy."

"It's survival. You want to win, don't you?"

Amiya wiped her tears with the back of her hand, staining it with red smears. "Yeah..."

"Then don't be so picky about where you get help from. We wouldn't even have gotten back here if I hadn't spiked the guard's drink. And he wouldn't have accepted it if I hadn't—"

ACCESS GRANTED.

"He-he~" Hecate teased in a sing-song voice as the door slid open, granting access to the competitors' armory, where all of the support items were stored.

But instead of entering, she suddenly froze, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. She backed away from the entryway, standing to its side, bowing her head respectfully and allowing passage.

Amiya held her breath, fidgeting with her fingers and gazing at the floor, daring not to make a single sound.

Step after step, a small mutant with sea-green hair approached, her shoes meeting the floor with, not a gait, but a dance. Her arms gracefully swayed to a melody that only she could hear, and she bounced her knees and spun as though she were waltzing without a partner, sending her flowing ocean-colored dress twirling around her little frame. She held a malicious smile and a knife between her lips. Her dancing took her past the door, down an aisle, and through to a shelf bearing the name Chika.

Once there, she retrieved her support item: a human skull. Her dainty fingers reached inside of an eye socket to pull out a string of shells, pearls, and teeth, which she placed upon her head as a diadem. She giggled melodically and brightened up, looking like she was on top of the world. In one hand she held the skull, and with the other she retrieved the knife from her lips.

Amiya and Hecate cautiously stepped inside to join her.

Sensing movement, the small mutant's red eyes locked on to the two of them like a predator sizing up prey. They froze in place once again. Chika grinned, showing off serrated teeth that would make even a shark think twice about coming near.

"Adorned with a crown, your Queen is complete; now tell me again whom we three must beat."

"Boqin," Amiya murmured, avoiding eye contact.

Chika's smile contorted into a frown, and she growled, exposing her sharpened teeth.

"M-my Queen," Amiya added, completing the rhyme.

Satisfied, Chika returned to smiling and danced along until she found the correct shelf. Upon the metal platform marked "Boqin" was a handcrafted sword, perfect in weight, with the symbol of a dragon scorched into its grip.

Chika worked the blade of her dinner knife beneath the fibers of the grip, sawing at it to wear it away, careful not to snap it lest the defect be noticed too soon. She stopped just as soon as she was confident it would break under the strain of a real fight, then freed her knife, blowing it clean.

"The deed has been done. The Games have begun."

Hecate dared to raise her head, confident that Chika would answer her question if said respectfully and in a rhyme. She had long wondered something. "I'm here for Amiya, to help calm her heart. But...what of my Queen? Why do you take part?"

Chika licked her lips. Few things pleased her more than someone who played along with her own song and dance. She waltzed over to her own shelf, stepping to and fro, turning this way and that, before gracefully setting the skull back to its place, ready for the competition.

"You two have your reasons, but I have just one: I kill and I maim..."


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