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Balar scratched at an itch on his chin. He didn’t notice the flake of skin float away. He made adjustments to his calculations on the physics simulator and then ran a test. As expected, the battery couldn’t produce the energy required to power the laser rifle. He made adjustments to calculate for magical enhancement and tried again. This time, the computer registered an explosion.
“Khasis damn it.” Balar sighed and placed his face into his hands. He peeked through his fingers and saw that it was 25:03. It would be tomorrow in under an hour. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. The blinking green light indicated missed messages. No doubt his wife would be upset. Rather than read the messages, he shoved the phone back into his pocket. He’d be chewed out whether he read them or not.
He shutdown the computer and lowered the chair by a few feet so that he could slide out without difficulty. The desks at the elven university were far too high for a halfling to use without such aid.
The walk to his car was uneventful. Other than a handful of janitors in the halls, he was the only person left in the engineering college. He knew that he was far too obsessed with his current project for his own good, but he had no desire to upset his benefactor, and he was already well behind schedule.
He took some solace in the ease of the drive home. The late hour meant fewer drivers. While vehicles designed for halfling use travelled at the same speed as other vehicles, they were far smaller and less noticeable. Most halflings stuck to public transportation, but Balar preferred controlling the machine. He’d pilfered some of his research funds to purchase the human-designed sports car, and he wasn’t about to allow fear of a crash to stop him from enjoying his drive down highways curving through the ancient elven forests.
After the walk to his car and the drive, it was nearly midnight when he arrived at his little house in the halfling village on the outskirts of the city. As expected, the living room light was on. He let out a long sigh before getting out of the car and making his way to the door.
His wife, Hofit, didn’t say anything as he took off his shoes and loosened his tie. She just glared at him from the couch with her arms crossed over her chest.
“What did I forget?” he asked her.
“You missed Olivia’s science fair.”
He sighed again and rubbed his temples. “I don’t even remember what her project was.”
“She animated a clockwork doll. It’s standing on her shelf guarding her. Won gold.”
Balar sighed yet again. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re apologizing to the wrong person.”
Hofit stood and walked to a closet. She took out a blanket and pillow and threw them on the couch. Balar was surprised by what she said next. “I’m sure you’ll need your sleep. Take the bed. Goodnight, Balar.”
He tried to place a hand on her shoulder as she made up a bed on the couch. She slapped it hard enough to leave a red mark. He didn’t sigh this time.
He took the stairs to the second floor and checked on the twins. He’d rarely spent time with them in their whole two years of life. They could say Olivia’s name, but not “Dad”. They slept soundly; cuddled together in their bed with thumbs in their mouths.
Olivia’s room was across the hall. The door was closed and locked. Balar unlocked it with magic and tried again, but the door only opened a crack.
“No dads allowed,” came a slow and jerky voice. Balar forced the doll away from the door with a wave of his hand and just a touch of the aether. The door finally opened, but the doll—about waist high on a halfling—came back and began kicking him.
“Olivia, call off your doll, please.” Balar held the automaton at bay with a spell while waiting for his daughter to wake.
“It’s okay, Scrappy.” Olivia rolled over and sat up in her bed.
“Yes, mistress.” The doll stopped trying to attack Balar and he released it. It walked to the door and sat down—mechanical eyes watching him.
“I’m sorry for missing your science fair.” He sat down beside his daughter. “I don’t know if you’re old enough to understand how important my project is, though.”
“I’m eight. Try.”
“Eight…” Balar, for some terrible reason, had thought his own daughter was still six years old. He had been out of their lives that much over the past several years. A small part of him felt guilty, but he justified his absence to himself. His benefactor was powerful; the kind of person that you just didn’t say ‘no’ to.
“I’m working on a very important project for someone very powerful. I couldn’t say ‘no’. I’m already behind schedule and I might be in trouble.”
Olivia thought for a few seconds before speaking again. “Is he going to hurt you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Or you and your brothers and your mother could be hurt. I’m trying to keep you all safe. When I’m done I think we’re going to leave.”
“Where are we going?”
“I haven’t decided, yet. Maybe Aerchona. Maybe another planet or asteroid colony. Your mother and I will have to talk about it.”
Olivia pondered what he’d said for a minute, then sat up and hugged him. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Daddy.”
Balar held his daughter for some time before releasing her. “How about you show me your doll?”
Her eyes lit up. “Come here, Scrappy!”
The doll ran over eagerly and asked in its jerky voice, “Yes, mistress?”
Olivia picked up the doll with some struggle, as it was nearly the same size as her. “Daddy is now your friend, okay Scrappy? Let him take a look at you.”
Olivia handed her father the doll and proceeded to describe how she built it, the troubles she ran into, and how she overcame them. The primary problem, she said, had been dealing with the wind up springs.
“The outsider spirit is the consussness-“
“Con…scious…ness… Consciousness. But it couldn’t rewind itself and kept getting stuck. A few older kids were making clockwork dolls, too, but they all needed to be winded up again.”
“So what did you do?” Balar turned the doll over and inspected the physical mechanisms, seeing nothing obvious that would rewind the springs. There wasn’t even a key sticking out the back for him to turn.
“I put in a motor instead.”
“So it uses batteries? I don’t see a way to change them.”
“No, Dad! That was too easy; the kid that got 3rd did that. It’s kind of simple but worked. I got the idea from the bottomless bag charm. Except instead of empty space, I made a pocket fire dimension and put a steam generator in it. A couple of glamours stop the generator and wires from melting down. It doesn’t go forever, the dimension breaks down as the energy gets used, but Scrappy doesn’t use much power. It should last a few years at least.”
Balar was stunned. He’d known his daughter was advanced, but he hadn’t realized just how advanced.
Better yet, she had just solved his problem.
He kissed her on the top of her head and wrapped her in a bear hug. “You’re a genius, little girl.” He released her and looked into her face with one hand on her shoulder. “I have to go back to work. I need you to start packing a bag. We’ll be leaving tonight. I’m going to tell your mother. I need you to be a big girl and help her, okay? Get ready, then help her get your brothers ready. I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.”
“I love you too, Daddy.” She threw her arms around her father and hugged him as tightly as she could.
. . .
Balar raced back to the university, going well beyond a reasonable speed and leaving several police cars far in the distance. He had illegally masked his license plate and was going far too fast for the police to dispel the simple glamour. They wouldn’t be catching him.
He didn’t go to his parking spot at the university. Rather, his tires screeched as he halted directly at the engineering college entrance. Running as fast as a halfling could go, he got to his office and began punching numbers and code into the physics simulator. It wasn’t long before he ran a test and it succeeded. He had designed the first infantry-scale energy weapon. It was light and small, running off of a battery based on Olivia’s design; only he’d designed a pocket dimension directly made of electrons.
Rather than allow such technology to be held by one, he was about to upload the plans and data to an open source database when the door burst open and a team of soldiers entered and surrounded him. His hand hovered above the keyboard.
“Were you planning on doing something with our technology?” The silken voice belonged to his benefactor. Wearing long flowing robes, she was ordained with a small crown with a single emerald in the centre. She was tall and beautiful, her elven eyes a solid colour that matched the emerald on her crown. The elven Empress watched him carefully with a perfectly serene expression.
Balar didn’t reply. Nor did he move the hand hovering over the computer keyboard.
“We know you have been stealing from us, Balar,” the Empress continued. “We allowed it due to your faithful service. Why would you betray us like this? Have we not done enough for you?”
Balar still didn’t respond. Someone like the Empress would never understand his motivations. She desired nothing but ever greater power and dominance. There was no point in arguing with her.
“Step away from the computer, Balar. Our soldiers have already surrounded your house. We still need your expertise. Your family will be coming with you. Unless you take our technology from us. You don’t want us to harm your family, do you?”
He wouldn’t allow his family to become prisoners. “No, your majesty… And you won’t.” He pressed the Enter key, and the plans were instantly shared with the entire world.
“We wish you had not miscalculated, Balar.”
. . .
Before leaving for the university, Balar had awoken his wife and told her what he intended to do. She had pleaded with him for a time, but unable to dissuade him she had begun packing.
Balar then went to the basement—his personal workshop. He hadn’t had time to tinker for months. His old projects collected dust.
Old projects—and contingency plans. The new energy source his daughter had designed was easily adapted into something much more powerful in a short period of time.
An hour later, he’d gotten into his car to drive to the university.
. . .
“We have a go. No survivors.” The assassin unit that the Empress had sent to Balar’s house closed in. Years of battle experience and elite training had made them hardened killers. None would hesitate.
The Empress had to keep up appearances. The assassins were only armed with knives. No gunfire would wake the neighbours. After killing Hofit and the children, the scene would be staged to look like a robbery gone wrong.
The front door was unlocked. Four elves entered the little house, goggles enhancing their vision so that they could see in the dark. There was no sign of the family, so the four split up to check different rooms of the house.
The one that entered Olivia’s room was immediately set upon by Scrappy. The little doll kicked and punched the assassin to no avail. Scrappy was kicked across the room and into the wall.
The little clockwork doll stood up, speaking in its jerky voice. “Your turn, big brother.”
Movement behind her caught the assassin’s attention. She whirled around, blade at the ready. She looked into the orange eyes of a mechanical monster for only moments before it reached out and crushed her head with one hand. She didn’t comprehend what had happened until after her soul had left her body. Her brain simply fell to the floor in gooey chunks of flesh slipping through the combat android’s hand. Her body crumpled into a heap.
The sentient machine—loyal to the master that had given it life—stomped out of the room to hunt down the other assassins.
. . .
Olivia and Hofit ran alongside the four legged machine that Balar had built. Hofit carried the twins. The dog-like machine carried their bags.
They ran through the forests of the elven capital, buildings constructed between, inside, or hanging among the giant trees. Her father had explicitly told them not to use the car or the roads. He had told them that his friend would intercept them on the way to the port and get them to safety.
A gunshot rang out. Olivia and her mother screamed. The dog-like machine stopped and small gatling cannon turrets protruded from its shoulders.
“Easy boy,” came a male voice through what sounded like a small speaker. “Balar sent me. Emergency protocol one-one-three-eight.”
The robotic guard dog’s weapons retracted. Out of the shadows stepped a halfling man in operative armour carrying a sniper rifle. An amulet to Mavet, the god of death, hung from his neck.
“I’m Varga. Old friend of Balar. Let’s get you folks out of here before more show up.”
“What about my husband?” asked Hofit.
Varga released a long sigh. “Got pinched. Let’s go.”
. . .
An advisor whispered something into the Empress’s ear. Her face never changed. Balar held his breath. The Empress dismissed the advisor with a wave of her hand, and he walked backwards out of the office.
“You have merely prolonged the inevitable. We will be sure to let you watch them die.” She turned around and two of her soldiers grabbed him, lifting him off the ground by each arm.
. . .
Varga led Olivia and her family to a shuttle. He helped them load their bags. There was no room for Balar’s four-legged robot and it remained behind as the shuttle lifted away.
Varga sat in the pilot’s seat and guided the ship low over the trees. Moving relatively slowly for a shuttle in order to minimize sound and avoid military detection, it took close to an hour to get from the capital in the heart of elven territory to the plains of the human lands. In the middle of a large field, he brought it down to a waiting transport ship. He docked it and took everyone on board.
Once aboard he finally removed his helmet, revealing the weary face beneath. His piercing blue eyes looked to Hofit and the twins, then to Olivia. He ran his fingers through short black hair and released a long breath, but said nothing.
“Balar never talked about you,” said Hofit. “How do you know him?”
Varga considered the question for a moment. He opened a pouch hanging from his belt and pulled out a cigarette. He pulled a lighter from a pocket. He took a long drag on the cigarette after lighting it, then released a cloud of smoke that curled and twisted as it was sucked into a vent in the corner above his head. “Balar and I grew up together. Caravan kids. Good life, but we were too stupid to know that. Hitched a ride on a merchant ship so we could see the galaxy.” He took another drag on the cigarette, the tip turned cherry red. The smell made Olivia cough. “Already knew how to barter so we made money pretty quick, bought Kipper here, and were off. Stupid is as stupid does—got into a lot of tricky situations. Thankfully, we were smart enough to hire muscle. Learned to fight. After a bit, Balar got sick of the life, settled down back on Hamuvtikat.”
“He told me he’d been a merchant,” said Hofit. “He never told me that…” Tears began to make their way down her cheeks. “Can… can you get him back?”
“If he’s alive, he’s in Imperial custody. It would take an army to break him out.” Varga took a final drag on the cigarette, then tossed the butt into a corner. “We have a warehouse on Tunkyke. You folks will be safe there.”
“What will I do for money?”
“Balar owns the ship. We’ll set up a new account for your share.”
. . .
30 years later…
Olivia stared at the holoscreen displaying an image of the prison ship orbiting Hamuvtikat. Pipp sat in the pilot’s seat, guiding them in. Varga, Tasha and Caylee stood around her.
“Prison Ship Scindia has not detected us,” said Sarah, the VI. “Weapons distance in 30 seconds.”
Floating around Kipper were dozens of drones that Olivia had spent years constructing, all sentient and fully loyal to her and her alone. She could sense their presence, and they her. They could act independently, but she could send them commands with nothing but a thought.
“Weapons distance in 20 seconds.”
Varga placed a hand on her shoulder. She placed her hand over his.
Lightning arced around Tasha’s hammer. “Time for some fun.”
“Weapons distance in 10 seconds.”
A single tear fell from Olivia’s eye. “I’m coming, Daddy.”
To be continued…