As it turned out, Harrison Fredericks was in the so-called dragon room. As Galahad in his humanoid robot body led Columbus and Shiori, along with Vulcan, through a set of vault-like doors in a corner of the main room, the four entered what looked like a dark cave. The floor became dirt and stone, with crystalline rock walls around them. The entrance was a tunnel that sloped downward, gradually opening into a cavern even larger than the room they had just left. Straight ahead was a giant lake with a trio of underground streams feeding into it from various tunnels, one of which dropped from above in a cascading waterfall.
Right in front of the lake stood a dragon. Well, a clearly mechanical one, anyway. It was dark green with gold patterns weaved throughout. Sitting up on its haunches, the thing was tall enough that its head just crossed the fifty-foot mark. It had a long tail wrapped around its body with what looked like four massive mini-guns mounted to the end of it, one on each side of the tail. All along the dragon-bot’s back leading clear to its head was an ungodly enormous starship-grade cannon.
“Holy Fin Fang Foom,” Shiori breathed out, eyes wide. She’d come to a stop and stood there, staring open-mouthed at the giant cyberform. “That’s a big gun. That’s a really big gun.”
As if reacting to the sound of her voice, the cyberform dragon’s head turned a little, focusing on them. Vulcan, meanwhile, took a step forward and lowered his ears, making a soft whining sound before barking once to show that he definitely wasn’t afraid, no sir, and that if the fifty-foot tall dragon robot wanted to hurt Columbus and Shiori, he’d have to go through Vulcan to do it.
The dragon’s mouth opened, but just as Columbus was about to grab Shiori’s arm and teleport them the hell out of the way, a man appeared there… in the dragon’s open mouth. Apparently there was space inside the giant cyberform, and the mouth was a hatch of some kind. From that distance, the two now-former Crossroads students thought there was something odd about the man who stood framed in the open mouth, but couldn’t tell what it was, exactly.
The answer to that became obvious a moment later, as the man stepped off the edge of the mouth and dropped toward them before landing easily on the ground.
He was short. That was what the siblings had noticed from the distance. The man stood only an inch over four feet, with dark red hair cut short, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes were an unnaturally bright green, and one of his arms was very clearly cybernetic.
For a brief moment, the man stood there, squinting at two teenagers and their robotic dog. His eyes scanned them curiously and intently, as though reading everything in their lives in those couple of seconds. Just as Columbus and Shiori were starting to get uncomfortable with his attention, he straightened and abruptly announced, “What, our guests are here already? You sure are eager to get started early this morning, aren’t you?”
“It’s mid-afternoon, sir,” Galahad politely corrected. “You were working all day again.”
“Was I really?” The short man looked surprised by the information, blinking that way before looking back toward the teens. “Well, in that case, you’re late. What, am I not important enough to spend more time with? Tearing you away from your computers and your Playstations?”
With a wince, Columbus started to stammer a response, only for the man to laugh and shake his head. “I’m just messing with you, kid.” With that, he thrust his flesh and blood hand out to them. “Name’s Harrison Fredericks. You knew that, but you can call me Harry. That’s what I prefer.”
Shiori was the first to react, introducing herself while shaking the man’s hand quickly. “And for the record,” she added while waving her phone his way, “I can play plenty of games even while we’re–holy crap!” The girl blurted the last bit after glancing to her phone screen. “Did you know you’ve got a shiny Mareep in here?!” With that, the girl stepped away, eyes focused on her phone. “Uhh, just a second.”
Snorting at his sister, Columbus started to focus on their host once more “Hi. Sorry, she gets into that stu–uhh…”
He trailed off upon realizing that Harrison had also yanked a phone from his pocket and was furiously tapping at the screen while blurting, “There is?! I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t let me down.”
Columbus and Galahad glanced to one another, each offering a shrug before the latter murmured, “He’ll ahhh, be right with you, I’m sure. Sometimes Harry’s priorities are just a little skewed.”
“Tell me about it,” the boy murmured, glancing to his sister before returning his attention to the dragon-robot nearby. Only then did he actually notice that it wasn’t the only one here in the cavern. There were several others spread out throughout the wide open space. One was clinging to the ceiling, shaped more like a traditional serpent. Another was under the water, its distorted form barely visible. A few more smaller ones were up against the cavern walls, mostly blending in through a semi-chameleon quality to their exterior. Taking all those in, the boy was sure there were more he couldn’t see. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath, “no wonder people don’t try to take this place over.”
“They have before.” That was Harry, his full attention once more on his guests. “Independents, Crossroads or Garden people that just think the rules don’t apply to them, and more. Took me adding penalties where I won’t sell to any group connected to the ones that piss me off for awhile before they wised up and started policing each other. But they seem to have gotten the message now. They leave me alone, and they get to buy my little friends.” As he finished, the man shook Columbus’s hand, adding, “Don’t look so worried. I’m not about to freak out and throw you to the wolves just because you mention what side you’re on or bring up your opinion. Some of these people just need a really firm line drawn or they’ll keep pushing.”
“I uhh,” Columbus started before hesitating. “I can see why you’d be pretty sought after.” He nodded up to the nearest, most obvious dragon. “With things like that, it seems like the ones you sell people are toys.”
“They basically are,” the man confirmed with a wink. “I’d be an idiot if I gave out my best work. The only reason I’m not chained up in some lab somewhere, making personal versions of Tigger over there for whatever Heretic group grabbed me first is keeping the strongest guys here. You people get the small versions because that’s the way I stay independent.”
That said, Harry took a knee in front of Vulcan, meeting the cyberform’s gaze. “Anyway, how’re you doing, buddy? These two treating you alright?”
He reached up, rubbing Vulcan’s head and murmuring softly for a moment before glancing to Columbus. “You’re not the one he’s bonded to, are you? Neither of you are.”
“Not… exactly,” Columbus confirmed before hesitating. “Okay, so, what I’m about to say is totally not supposed to be breaking your rules about trying to convince you to join one side or the other. It’s just… you know, the facts. Just wanted to get that out of the way.”
With that said, he carefully gave a quick summary of what had happened to lead Vulcan to being with him instead of Sean, and where the other boy was. He tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible, but couldn’t keep all the anger and frustration out of his voice. Which was not helped by the way Vulcan himself gave a soft, weak little whine whenever Sean and his current imprisonment was mentioned. Hearing that just made Columbus angrier.
Thankfully, Shiori helped partway through, taking turns explaining the rest after sliding the phone away, back into her pocket. She stood there on Vulcan’s other side, hand rubbing the cyberform canine’s back while finishing with, “So now we’re trying to figure out how to get him out.”
Once they finished with that, Harry looked back and forth between the two for a moment, clearly lost in thought. “I see,” he murmured, “I hope your friend ends up alright. Neutral, mind you, but still. I hope he comes out all intact. And hey, if he does and this little visit today ends up alright, maybe you can bring him over. I’d like to see Vulcan here with his partner. I don’t… ahh, get that many visitors.” He looked briefly regretful about that before turning away to walk toward the nearby dragon. “Well, in any case, come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on lately. Then we can talk about the reason you really wanted to come here.”
After exchanging brief glances, the two siblings shrugged at one another and followed the man. It was very clear that he was intent on not saying more about the situation than he already had. Whatever his personal opinion on the matter, he wasn’t saying. And pushing would be bad.
On the way over to the giant cyberform, Shiori spoke up. “Ah, Mr–I mean Harry, did you say this one’s name is Tigger? As in–”
“The one above our heads is Winnie,” the man confirmed. “The one in the water is Piglet.” He smiled over his shoulder at them briefly. “I find it helps my creative process to have a theme.”
With that, he snapped raised his mechanical hand and snapped the metal fingers, calling, “Tigger, entrance!”
At those words, the massive cyberform abruptly took a step back, partway entering the water before it lay down on its stomach. The mouth opened wide, and Harry led the two students, Vulcan, and Galahad around to it. There was a door there, barely visible with the mouth opened the way it was. The door was round, with a slight indent for a handle. Beside it was a red half-globe about the size of a softball that had been cut in two. It glowed as they approached.
“Don’t get any closer,” Harry warned the pair of teenagers and their cyberform companion. “Not until I let him know you’re alright. We wouldn’t want any… accidents.”
With that bit of warning ringing in their ears (and a pair of vivid imaginations about just what kind of ‘accident’ there could be, Columbus and Shiori stayed very, very still. After assuring himself that they had taken heed, Harry stepped up into the mouth, then froze as the red orb projected some kind of light over him. The light scanned the man up and down twice before it, and the half-globe itself, turned green.
“Full body scanner,” Harry informed them. “DNA through the hair and skin, retinal, fingerprints, bone structure, check for active hologram or magical shapeshifting, and more. Also scans the voice for distress.” Clearing his throat, he spoke clearly, “Everything’s fine, Tigger. These two humans and their cyberform companion are friends. State your names.”
“Oh, uh, Columbus,” the boy quickly put in. “Columbus Porter.” He went still then, as the green light turned yellow while scanning over him from head to toe. As with Harry, it repeated twice before shifting back to green.
It then did the same with Shiori after she gave her name. In her case, however, it stopped and began to blink yellow after the first pass. A soft warning tone chimed a few times, which brought Harry’s head around sharply. “Miss,” he began with a frown. “Is there something you haven’t–”
“My mother’s a Vampire!” Shiori quickly blurted. “I mean, I… I’m… half-Vampire. Dhampyr. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything, I just didn’t think it was relevant, and–”
“Stop, stop.” Harry’s head shook. “Wait, Dhampyr-Heretic? Is that even po–” He stopped himself. “No, you’re right. It’s not all that relevant. Tigger was just anxious because I introduced you as human and you’re not… not exactly. Apologies. Tigger, it’s okay. She is a Dhampyr-Heretic.. apparently. It’s safe. She’s clear.” He gave her a strange look then, but kept quiet.
The light turned green then, before moving to quickly scan Vulcan. Finally, it was done, and the half-globe turned light purple before giving a triumphant chime. As it did, Harry reached out, caught hold of the handle of the circular hatch, and pulled it open. “Come on then,” he urged, “you’ll be the first people besides Galahad there to see this new project from an… inside perspective.” He actually giggled after saying those words, clearly amusing himself before stepping through.
The others followed, finding themselves in what looked like the entrance of a submarine. The corridor was narrow and made entirely of metal, with a few hatchways along both walls and one at the end. That was the way Harry strode, pounding a fist against each door that they passed while explaining what was beyond. “Laundry’s through here. Kitchen and dining in this area. This here on the left is a rec room to keep up spirits. The whole thing’s bigger on the inside, but you should be used to that stuff by now.”
“Are we in a pocket dimension or something?” Columbus asked as they reached the hatch at the end of the corridor, revealing what was obviously the bridge. It was a half-circle space with a raised platform and seat in the middle for the captain, a hologram projector screen in front that seemed to show a view of the cavern they had just left, and various control panels and comfortable chairs scattered throughout. A couple more hatches leading elsewhere in the dragon interior were against the back and far walls.
“Hey, yeah,” Shiori realized, “are we? Because otherwise, what happens when the dragon stands up?”
“Sort of,” Harry confirmed. “The space we’re in is stable. It’s always upright, and the body of the dragon moves around it. There’s more to it, but hey, trade secrets.” He winked before gesturing around the bridge with a bright, contagious smile. “Pretty cool though, huh?”
It occurred to both teens at the same time that this was a man who ached to show off his toys. He genuinely wanted to share what he could make with people, but the fact that anyone he let in would almost inevitably try to take advantage of that necessitated his almost hermit-like lifestyle. They were, Columbus and Shiori realized, probably seen as ‘safe’ for him to open up to just because they presented absolutely no threat of being able to imprison Harrison or take his creations away. Because people clearly had. It made them both wonder just what had happened to make him learn that lesson and both institute and strictly enforce his neutral position.
Shaking that thought away, Shiori smiled. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. But um, what is it? I mean… you’ve got seven seats in here, counting the… captain’s? Who’s piloting this thing? I thought you didn’t send the big ones anywhere.”
“I don’t,” Harry replied, looking away to squint at one of the nearby consoles before offering a small shrug. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t build things that could take a group. I uhh… I like to stretch my hands and my brain like that.” Tenderly, the man ran his hand over the hologram projector, his voice wistful, “It’s just too bad that Tigger’ll never have a crew.”
Galahad stepped past the others then, resting a metal hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey,” he started, “why don’t we take this thing for a spin before getting down to the important stuff?”
A broad smile broke across Harry’s face, and he nodded before stepping up to plop himself into the captain’s seat. “Right, you two, pick somewhere to sit and we’ll get underway.”
Shiori and Columbus moved to do just that, picking a couple of the crew positions. On the screens in front of them were a couple words floating back and forth, which they barely paid attention to… at first. Columbus, however, gave a short double-take after seeing them from the corner of his gaze, eyes widening dramatically as he absorbed the words on the screen.
Not noticing the boy’s reaction, Harry started, “Okay then, let’s talk about where we’re going on our little joy–”
“Excuse me,” Columbus found himself interrupting, unable to look away from the screen. He pointed with a shaking hand. “What… what is that?”
“What’s what?” Harry asked, squinting that way while leaning up off his seat.
“This.” Columbus leaned back, letting the man see the screen. “Why does the screen… why are those words there?”
“Those words?” Harry looked even more confused by his reaction, which was furthered by Shiori’s own gasp as she finally focused on them herself. “It’s just Latin. It means–”
“Summus Proelium,” Shiori read out loud. “Why did you write Summus Proelium on the computers?”
Clearly lost about why the two were reacting that way, the short man stood and moved over. He squinted at the screen before shrugging once more. “It’s just the words from the world where I… where I took my power.” The two turned baffled looks toward him, and he explained, “It was an alternate Earth. One like ours, but different. Actually, it was the future on that world at the time. I went decades back, but it was like… two-thousand something there. Dimensional travel is weird. Anyway, my group and I went there, got separated, and I ended up fighting and… and killing one of their super-powered people.”
“But where did you hear Summus Proelium?” Columbus pressed, trying not to grab the man. That definitely wouldn’t end well.
“It’s how they get their powers over there,” Harrison slowly replied. “These little orbs appear, announce… well, those words, and then transport the people into some pocket dimension where they’re empowered before being sent back. Why?”
“The orbs… say Summus Proelium?” Columbus opened and shut his mouth, making a noise in the back of his throat. “And they transport these people to some other place to give them powers? I… that… oh.”
“What’s going on?” Galahad spoke up sharply. “How do you two know those words?”
“Umm…” Columbus exchanged a look with his sister before slowly replying, “I know you said you never met Arthur, so I guess you never met Nimue either. But–”
“She’s a Seosten, I know that much,” Galahad confirmed with a brief glance toward Harrison. “He knows about them too. Part of why we’re so strictly neutral. Dunno what side’s still safe from them. But what do they have to do with this other world?”
Hesitantly, the two siblings explained where they had heard the phrase before, and about the Seosten super-soldier project that had created the Olympians to begin with.
“So, uhh,” Shiori finished, “the odds of little orbs that say those exact words before transporting the people from that other Earth somewhere else to give them powers not being related somehow to this are umm… small.”
“Small indeed,” Harrison muttered under his breath before straightening to his full (still not exactly impressive) height. “Well. Maybe you should bring this Nimue or Athena or whatever she’s going by here next time, so we can figure out exactly what this means.”
“Next time?” Columbus echoed, a note of both eagerness and caution in his voice.
The man glanced to him. “Well yes, that’s what you were going to ask, wasn’t it? If I would teach you how to work with cyberforms and perhaps even start to build them.” As the boy fidgeted and stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t be rude, Harrison chuckled. “It’s okay to be eager, kid. I’ve been looking into your history, your school records both out of Crossroads and in, ever since Broker said you were interested in coming. Yeah. Yeah, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I’ll… ahh, I’ll give you some pointers and we’ll see how it goes. But it means coming here four days a week for the entire summer. You got that? I’m gonna work you ragged if you wanna learn from me.”
Quickly, Columbus nodded. “Four days a week, got it. I’ll be here. Whatever it takes. I want to learn.”
“Oh, you’ll learn alright,” Harrison agreed. “And you’ll work. But like I said, bring this Nimue with you next time. And–” he glanced toward Galahad. “And bring that Lancelot too. They need to catch up.” Belatedly, the man amended, “That is, as long as you get through this test flight here without proving to be a completely incompetent ninny. Think you can do that?”
“I… ahh, I’ll do my best, sir,” Columbus weakly promised, swallowing hard.
“You do that.” Turning on his heel to move back to the captain’s seat, Harrison finished with, “Now, enough talk of Seosten, Olympians, wars, and everything else.
“Let’s focus on seeing what this puppy can really do.”