Rick Hillard
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Chapter Two Luccolos

Chapter Two Luccolos

Apr 15, 2023

Luccolos

 

                With a stop at a small electronics vender in the Perch to pick up a few odd parts and a set of new (and blacklisted) nano tools that the Grackle proprietor had promised to be able to order for him, Luccolos returned to the Intelligence Branch’s officers within the RAT. Like all the House ministries, the HIB occupied a dozen floors in the sky tower. The majority of these were devoted to administration, and to running the politics that operating and coexisting with, a host of other bureaucratic government entities. Most of the real work was conducted in the Dark Nest warrens beneath North Peak, or up on Lady’s Tears at the academy. It rubbed his fur the wrong way that he was posted to the Regional Administration Tower and not where all the real, far more interesting work, was being done.

                As he walked from the adjacent below ground parking towards one of the three ground level lobbies of the RAT his eyes were pulled upwards, past scores of flying Aviaries and darting AGrav ‘bots towards the highest ledges where his father perched. He would never admit it openly, for he deeply loved and respected his father, the Duke, but Lucc couldn’t help but feel a little oppressed sitting beneath his wings. Luccolos had celebrated his fledgling day some time ago and although by Imperium standards he was still a youth, he felt an urge to strike out from the nest and fly free. Yet, there was still a lingering fear, perhaps doubt, that he was not ready. What would he do? Where would he go? For all that Lucc loved the sense of adventure that came with his work for the HIB, he wasn’t certain that he wished to make a career of it. If it meant that he’d be stuck in the RAT the whole time, the youth was certain he didn’t want to make a lifelong commitment to it. A small dark part of his psyche suggested that, should the RAT cease to stand, he’d almost be sure of a change in office location. This small part was quickly pounced upon and suppressed, but he noted that it had grown larger in recent years. Lucc continued, unaware that the scruff of his neck fur had stood up noticeably.

                Passing through the outer layers of the RAT’s static security systems and past both White Talons, dressed neatly in their white uniforms and several pairs of gray suited Royal Protectors, many of whom he knew from growing up in the palace. Ignoring them, Luccolos turned and entered one of several turbolifts serving the HIB and rode it to an employee lobby on the thirtieth floor. While in the lift another SSSystem scanned him, sniffers and bio scanners invisibly playing over him as they checked the results with the HIB’s personal database. He knew from having spent a short time working with security, that at least two SecTech’s deeper in the HIB section was looking on, visually checking him out and running additional random scans. In the modern era, nobody fully trusted ‘puters or the software that powered them. A lingering paranoia caused by the A. I. wars of millennia ago. He also knew that he was being scanned because a series of passive detectors that he had hardwired into his cybernetic tail told him so.

                The half Kattorian youth felt a flash of ire. Wet-wared to the gills with enhanced reflexes, muscles, and assorted extras, he was eminently better suited to survival than many agents – even if his boosts were mostly intended to make up for the shortcomings of his DNA – and he was kept in an office, in the public face of the HIB. Luccolos experienced a moment of despair. Perhaps his father intended to force his frailest child into a life of safety and boredom. Inadvertently out of love, turning his world into a gilded cage for his own selfish needs to protect his son. A growling lump formed in Lucc’s throat until he snarled quietly at himself. Forcing himself out of this negativity, the youth exited the lift a moment later and noticed several Gray Talons standing watch, one eying him from behind her SHADES and nodded to himself. The HIB’s private security force, Gray Talons, were dedicated to protecting all the HIB’s facilities and installations, freeing up the Dark Talon’s, Stormcrow’s, and Shadow Agents to concentrate on pursing house agendas in the field. In addition to the Gray Talons and other staffer’s coming and going, there were many receptionists and greeters manning a ring-shaped desk in the center of the lobby. One, a particularly chatty Ovinous by the name of Ninnï Cŭrl, spotted him and wave energetically. When he lowered his head and picked up speed in hopes she would think that he was on important biz, Ninnï maneuvered past several of her coworkers, waving and calling his name and managing to draw attention from everyone else. The special sent shivers down his spine. Most fems, especially Aviary ones, tended to either be standoffish or nervous around him. He didn’t know if it was because of his mostly Kattorian appearance or his royal blood, but not Ninnï. Behind her snappy smile was a set of seriously predatory eyes, eyes that made him nervous.

                Those eyes would have been more appropriate in the face of a Sky hawk…or a Wolfgar, but the rest of the fem seemed custom built to draw a male in. she sparked off many unwanted reactions in him, sensations that the half Peregrine royal just knew were counter to his best interests. Her impressive attributes aside, the volume and frequency of her voice forced the youth into the attention of every thingy in earshot, something he always tried to avoid. Given the lungs the Ovinous sported, that was a large number. Lucc tried to put on still more speed but had to force himself from openly sprinting for the safety of the other side of the lobby.

                “Lucc… Luccolos!”

                Stepping out from behind the counter she hurried over before he could reach the safety of the hallway leading towards the Technical Section where his sanctuary lay. “Lucc…  I’ve some grand news,” she gushed, “do you have a moment to spare?”

                Bubbly and bouncy in ways that he was acutely uncomfortable with, Ninnï was also a very touch-feely sort. She pressed close, eyes wide with that strange hungry shadow lurking in their wells and lightly touched him on the arm.

                Given the tech-savvy youths posture and physiology, as well as the fems attributes, more than her hands pressed into his arms. The soft pressure was intolerable in its appeal, and Lucc shivered. Desperate to open a little space, he retreated a nervous step, even so, his sensitive sense of smell picked up hints of the sweet sunflower perfume the fem wore, and other, more intimate scents.

                “I am actually in somewhat of a hurry,” he mumbled, unsure of himself in these situations. That aroma seemed to assault his mind, and Lucc pondered the possibility that it might be some sort of drug. After all, it wasn’t unheard of.

                Ninnï seemed not to notice and crowded in again, intent on smothering him with more than just her perky charms, charms that Lucc found far more intimidating then her gaze. “I finely rented my own flat last cycle,” she gushed, “so I’m plannin’ to ‘ave a little party. You know, like one of those Nest warming things? Anyway, I thought, well, you know, if you weren’t busy Turgsday tha’ you might, well, you know, come?”

                The nervous royal tried again to retreat but found his hips pressing against a barrier. A glance over his shoulder revealed it to be the HIB’s running gag, a meter-square crate of fertile soil sporting a single melon plant. A plaque read, “Summerland Fruit Company, Agricultural Department.” The young tom failed to see humor in it. All he saw was a blockade preventing his escape.

                “Ah, um, I apologize, what?” The steady pressure of the softly woolen fems body must have been causing a major vessel to operate at a reduced capacity because nearly all Lucc could hear was his own heart pounding. Over her shoulder he spotted Ripper continuing his way towards the inviting hallway and its overt safety. The Helkat’s swagger seemed smug and indifferent to his master’s plight.

                You traitor! Lucc fumed and cast the thought through his neural link. While not quite prepared to have his guardian and pet attack the overzealous fem, his presence might have at least served as a deterrent. In response, Ripper’s bobbed tail twitched and Lucc swore that he heard a mental, smug laugh, as the feline continued his way.

                Lucc tried to shift to a slightly less compromising angle and blinked. “Party? Turgsday?” Excuse. He needed an excuse. What would define as ‘a few’? if he couldn’t avoid a social gathering, he far preferred as small a crowd as possible. “Ah, the delivery is not for here at the RAT,” he quickly improvised. “I am anticipating delivery at the palace. I will be waiting in my rooms.” He hoped she would take the hint and drop the invitation.

                Ninnï was about to respond when one of the senior receptionists glided out of a turbolift. Lucc couldn’t remember her name but, after talking to the Goose Aviary once, he’d found her dull and a little too peckish. Ninnï followed his gaze and gave a little gasp. Blinking twice, she grimaced.

                “Oh, oh, Mrs. Dosŭltebottom. I…I must go before I get into trouble.” She hesitated as if wanting to give him a hug but turned and hurried back to the counter. Mrs. Dosŭltebottoms’ disapproving hiss was audible even where Luccolos stood, still inhaling Ninnï’s floral perfume. For a moment he lamented not having an olfactory implant that would have allowed him to analyze the interesting scent. It was probably for the best, though. He could see himself spending all too much time over it. Either that, or the odd feeling of loss the Ovinous fems sudden departure created.

                Bah! He was running behind, and the youth was eager to get to work on his latest project. Pushing away from the Fruit Farm, Lucc shuttled eagerly toward his office once more, the incident with Miss Cūrl diminishing in importance with each step.

                Arriving at the door to the office he shared with an obsessively neat Spotted Owl by the name of Ochālt Undörran, Lucc barely acknowledged the other floob’s presence as he felt visibly relieved to enter the safety of the office. Five years older than the prince, Ochālt had recently graduated from Summerland University with a Class III Engineering specialty and had aspirations to earn a promotion into Special Projects – an innocuous name for the HIB’s sometimes controversial research and development twig.

                At one point two meters, Ochālt’s head was barely visible behind a pile of electronics, robot components, and miscellaneous parts staked precariously one side of the large worktable centered in the middle of the room. Sitting near the base of the Owl’s adjustable, auto perch, Ripper was busy cleaning the side of his face with one oversized paw.

                “That Miss Curl was in here looking for you,” Ochālt said in a voice that was only a few octaves lower than a badly oiled turbine on high. A brown, speckled wing gestured towards the long workbench that served as Lucc’s desk. Several multi-drawer parts cabinets and a large pigeonhole shelving unit overflowing with parts, bundles of fiber optics, and rolls of colored wire. More storage lockers, many crammed to capacity, lined the left wall, in front of which sat a half dozen ‘bots of varying size and function, as well as a highly customized ‘puter station comprising a dozen multipurpose ‘puters slaved together by a Weebies’ nest of connections he called, affectionately, ‘monster’. The slicer ‘bot cortex in his pocket made Monster look like a nestlings’ first ‘puter kit, even if monster had been responsible for taking down the planets Nexus system…twice.

                Lucc had so many found memories of his custom ‘puter, but now, couldn’t think of any. Ninnï had been in his office? She had been stalking him for twenty minutes. The young royal was quite nervous. The fem hadn’t violated the sanctity of his office before. It put him in mind of Curry Ploaaamoa who had persistently blandished her charms in the palace, to the point that he had found her sprawled across his bed. He’d retreated instantly and slept here, in his office, until the kittenish fem had left.

                “Ah, did she actually touch anything in here?” he said nervously.

                The speckled wing waved and pointed at a go box displaying a logo from ‘The Happy Twig’, a fast-food joint known across the sector.

                “She said something of having come back from Noonfest and thought you might be hungry. Or maybe she wanted to go out for a bite, came to see if you wanted to go, and then brought that back. I don’t remember. After all, I’m not your answering service.”

                As Lucc headed for his workspace Ochālt opened a bottom drawer on his scrupulously neat bench, removed a boneless mopper rib with a talon and surreptitiously tossed it to Ripper who snatched it out of the air with a lighting move of his reflex-enhanced head. The Helkat smacked his lips while the Spotted Owl busied himself with modifying another standard HIB issue CIS into something more personally appealing to one of the branches Shadow Agents. A bit of grunt work that could be done by a more common tech, which was something Ochālt groused about constantly since they’d been assigned to the task.

                Lucc used the tip of his tail to cautiously prod the go box. Failing to elicit a reaction, he gently niffed at the container. Was that fa-peas and Xebbit in veth sauce? He felt almost happy for the next ten minutes as he prodded at the food with his saala, choosing first the fa-pees, then the other mixed vegetables and finally nibbling at the Xebbit, which was always the best part. Unlike most of his kin, Lucc didn’t technically need to use chopstick like utensils but he had been raised using them and continued to do so out of habit.

                As the half-Peregrine ate, his workspace slowly adjusted. A surge spanner that used to belong to one pile being moved to another, a trio of aluminum-foam semi-circles now taking a central position where once they had been buried near a coil of conductive wiring holding a conglomerate of parts together was now occupied with quietly supporting a towering stack of narrow slats piled on top of one another in a precarious jumble. By the time his meal was finished, Lucc had all his supplies ready. Taking out the cortex he rested it near a series of obsolete projects that had stalled out for one reason or another.

                About to toss the empty go-box in the general direction of the trash something scribbled inside of the lid caught Lucc’s eyes. Partly smudged by some veth sauce, he recognized Ninnï’s nearly perfect penbirdship. It was an address. Some place in West Juniper and was followed by am emoji of a smiley face. Even her handwriting was bubbly and coquettish. In his typical manner, Lucc had sublimated his knowledge of just where the food had come from. This reminder, though, irked him.

                “Ninnï,” he muttered. Intending to do so unheard, his neighbors unnaturally sharp ears picked it up anyway.

                “I noticed that your lady friend didn’t think to offer to bring me anything from the restaurant,” Ochālt said with an annoyed chirp. “Oh, and must I remind you not to leave your work, whatever it is, on my side of the work resik? I mean, I don’t, ah, leave my stuff in your workspace.”

                “Believe me, if I could find a way to get Ninnï Curl to feed you and leave me alone, I would do so.” Of course, he knew that any such attempt would merely result in one of two possibilities the Ovinous becoming even more predatory or somehow another fem (or two) would replace her. Lucc shook his head. “Also, as for leaving my projects on your side of the table. I think it must have been someone else. Perhaps an admirer of yours?” The Kattorian-Peregrine youth withheld any outward sign of a smirk. As much as he detested being the focus of attention, others seemed to crave it, and Ochālt certainly lacked it.

                The engineer specialist’s beak clicked and Lucc heard the whir of his perch changing heights. This set off several soft muttering curses about having fixed the perch once already this cycle. A pair of suspicious eyes poked up above the barrier of stuff walling them off.

                “You didn’t switch perches with me again, did you?” The eyes narrowed slightly, “I mean, you are heavier than I am, and much taller.” Lucc’s sensitive ears noticed what might be an accompanying sound of envy in the small Owl’s voice. “Every time you sit on my perch it changes its biorhythmic.”

                Lucc’s tongue flashed out to lick his nose as he extended his own foot, misshapen by both Aviary and Kattorian standards. It clearly wouldn’t rest comfortably on the smaller engineers typically shaped talon rest. “Does it look as if I would use your perch?” His tail coiled over the back of his own, custom made perch, the foot pad broader and more thickly padded to resist damage from his claws. In truth, he hadn’t used it…but the night before, he had modified the internal height balance. Nothing that you could point at and say, ‘This was removed’, but just enough tinkering that, over a few cycles, the adjustments would become more extreme, overshooting their goals by wider and wider margins. It might only be a few centimeters by the end of next month, but it would be off that much with each adjustment.

                The Spotted Owl eyed the misshapen, talon-like foot with notable discomfort, gauging the probability that Lucc had used it or not. The diminutive Aviary ran a hand over his spotless tan vest and shook his head. “No, I suppose not, although I am also sure that none of the Moonshift comes in here, unless it’s building maintenance.” Ochālt eyed the organized mess that was Luccolos’ side of the room, his expression displayed the open doubt he had about a cleaning crew, aside from the mol-rug, ever set talon in it.

                Satisfied he had come off the better in this exchange, Luccolos’ tail stretched out and flicked a sensor on a specifically positioned luma. In addition to providing a soft, indirect light for his latest project, to backlit the odd collection of slats he had been fiddling with – casting their shadow over the workspace of the spotted owl engineer. The position of the light caused his hunched form to cast a menacing shadow over the part of the wall that was above his co-worker’s head. It took a moment before he heard Ochālt’s startled squawk and fluttering of wings when the Owl Aviary had looked up and found a larger than life demonic-looking shadow looming over him, clawed arms reaching out for…something.

                Luccolos smirked and then ignored Ochālt. Turning his full attention to assembling an innocuous shell to hide the slicer cortex in. it would need several external devices to form a wireless link to assorted security ports. Those, in turn, would need ‘kill’ switches to log off any connections made if he needed to cut the cortex off. These would, of necessity, be purely mechanical, so the ‘bot couldn’t prevent its link from being severed in an emergency. The shell would also need cosmetic features to help disguise its true capability…it wasn’t long before the young prince was lost in his work.

                A utilitarian looking CIS case manufactured by an unethically ran Gorn manufacturing concern was his first choice. Both for its notoriety (and the less than favorable reviews given or the performance of its original innards) and for its slightly macabre appearance. It looked crude, even somewhat cruel. The fact that the cases’ heavier-than-average construction would render it nearly indestructible, was a plus. Lucc’s tail twitched in an unconscious nod as he studied the interior. It had a few oddly shaped nooks and crannies that would cause some issues, including overheating and impact damage unless something were inserted. Fortunately, he had realized this before choosing the Gorn casing and had the best possible solutions ready.

                Securing the slicer’s cortex into its new body, he carefully packed in an organic insulator that had come from a rare plant on Bekla. Among its properties was the useful ability to absorb heat and reflect intrusions from the most commonly used sensors. This should make it appear like a badly over heated CIS or other electronics device, to any thingy not a Class Six or better Electronics’ Specialist. Keeping the contents secret was paramount, he knew. Pausing, Lucc gazed down at the cortex where it still seemed to be exuding anger, petulance, and an overall menacing vibe.

                “Oh, my ancient friend, you will get over your sulking,” the prince thought to himself. Once the ‘bot cortex accepted that everything it knew was gone, it could move ahead into the modern era and become a useful tool once more. A rare flash of sympathy rose within Luccolos. Well he knew the feel of being an utterly unique being in a cosmos that didn’t knew what to do with him. He continued to gaze with sad fondness at the cortex until something niggled at his awareness.

                A set of speckled wings waved above his intentional barrier.

                “Luccolos! Did you hear them call you?” Ochālt’s voice was high pitched and slightly aggravating. So was the Spotted Owl’s habit of opening a lower drawer every half hour or so in some inner need to bribe Ripper from viewing him as a potential meal. This despite numerous reassurances from Luccolos that the Helkat wasn’t some wild, mad beast.

                Before he could ask a pleasant, unfamiliar voice entered Lucc’s head by way of the com software in his neural implant. “Tech Assistant Flay-Tiber? Mistress Alfaiso would like to speak to you in her office. Do you require directions?”

                Lucc ignored the pesky, overly curious Owl to respond silently to the fem. “Thank you, I’m familiar with the route. I will be there momentarily.” He kept his mental tone polite even if it was distant. If they had resorted to a direct com-call it was because he hadn’t responded to multiple public announcements over the intracom system.

                There was another soft whine as Ochālt’s auto perch rose higher, so the Spotted Owl could peer over the wall he had constructed. “Did you hear? You’re being summoned to the Spymistress’ office.” Was there a poorly hidden tone of glee in the diminutive floob’s voice, or perhaps it was envy?

                Lucc allowed his attention to focus on the whimp-toned engineer. Allowing a hint of contempt and disdain to drip from his one, he responded, “I am sure it isn’t a reprimand, Ochālt. After all – “

                Ochālt glanced down. “Hey, what’s that?” His wings flapped for balance as the Owl stretched get a closer look. “A ‘bot cortex. An old model by the looks of it.” Ochālt sniffed. “We do have some new ones in cabinet E70, you do know that, right?”

                Red heat flushed along Luccolos’ nerves at both the interruption and the blatant invasion of his personal workspace. He was bright enough to know that any overt act at hiding the cortex would increase the Owl’s curiosity, so he avoided any ore to obscure the device physically. Instead he chose to hide it in plain sight and disguised it with words.

                “If a new model were wanted, I would have been provided it. Rest assured, this obsolete cortex is up to the task its intended for.” With that, he unhurriedly placed the cover on and locked it into place. “Now, if you don’t mind, I am late for an appointment with Mistress Alfaiso.”

                “Yeah,” Ochālt said as his eyes watched Lucc put the final touches to the slicer ‘bot’s new body. When Luccolos stood up in his quick, somewhat jerky motions, it started Ochālt. The Spotted Owl’s wings flapped furiously as he strove to maintain his balance. Responding to the engineer’s sudden movements the auto perch dropped half a meter with an abrupt suddenness, then overcompensated by springing back almost as fast. Ochālt squawked in alarm. His talons gripping tightly as he rode up and down on the madly bouncing perch.

                “Ahh! Stupid – yah! Sue – I’ll sue – “his distress turned to a torrent of poorly delivered curses and exasperated squawks. Nearby Ripper had leapt back, snarling at the malfunctioning perch, clearly unhappy with its actions.

                Luccolos hid his amusement and pleasure in an outward display of sympathy. The young prince wasn’t much more versed in swearing than the Owl. He, however, opted not to demonstrate this lack. Satisfied his sabotage had borne the appropriate fruit, the prince waved to Ripper and left to keep his coworker from asking further questions about the old cortex, now tucked under a protective arm. From the office squawks and curses continued as the Spotted Owl continued his battle with the perch.

                Choosing one of the hallways running parallel to the employee lobby, Luccolos hoped to avoid any further contact that day with Ninnï. Heading for a nearby turbolift it never crossed his mind that Mah^Rikka might want to question his activities that morning. His confidence in having left no trail in the vault made it the last thing on his mind. Clutching the slicer ‘bot, Lucc was considering how best to gain its cooperation. It was possible, even if only barely, that allowing it to access the general network might convince the cortex that Lucc’s words were truth. But even that wouldn’t guarantee helpfulness or full cooperation. Perhaps if he provided some sort of limited capacity framework it could operate within. Sensory appendages. Absently, the youth slipped into another back corridor and hit the button to call the lift. Potential schematics flitted through his mind as he waited, and when the door slid open, Luccolos drifted in without hesitation.

                The lift closed, and he became aware that he was not alone. A tall, broad chested Classic Agrafowl dressed in a moderately priced brown suit that went well with his off-white plumage. Like most Agra males, this one’s comb was tall and thick and curled over at a rakish angle. A deep, earthy red color, it attached the wattle hanging from his jawline. The floobs beak was a deep yellow with a slight hook in the fashion of many common Agrafowl sub-flocks. Though appearing taller because of his build and straight backbone, Lucc noted that the floob was actually a few centimeters shorter. There was a vacant sort of look in the Classic’s side-facing eyes that seemed to go along with those associated with thugs and low-grade street enforcers he’d grown up watching in holo vids. The floob was staring at him, obliquely, but nevertheless, giving him the eye.

                For the first few moments the half-Peregrine prince sought to ignore the stare, along with the cock doing the staring. After half a minute though, he realized the goon had no intention of returning the favor. These circumstances always irked the Kit. As those in the Ministry became accustomed to his presence, however, his appearance drew less notice and he’d become able to behave normally again. Best to get the ordeal out of the way.

                “Is something wrong?”

                “You’re Prince Flay-Tiber,” the Cock said in an annoyingly deep voice. “I’ve seen you on the vids and gossip ‘zines.”

                Ah. So, it wasn’t the deformities or his peculiar stance that fascinated the goon. It was his royal status. “Yes, I am the Dukes son… Some ways from inheriting though.” The idea of being forced into the House Seat set his back teeth on edge. While Lucc had never held great fondness for Ama^usu he fervently hoped the heir apparent had a long and extraordinarily prolific life. The idea that any gossip rag found his behavior interesting was odd. A slightly suspicious tone edged into Luccolos’ voice.

                “What have you heard?” he asked, curious despite his instant distaste for this tall, strong, and visibly virile example of the common floob that peopled the area. It wasn’t that the youngster disliked tall, physically fit individuals. The so-called beautiful thingys were fine and dandy – so long as they kept their distance. He didn’t need toe obvious contrast reminding others of his disabilities.

                “Oh, this an’ that. There’s a recent byte on the Daily Crow holo channel. Some investigative report named “Vin Plirian is hatching some ‘gurge about you having become a regular at The Spice Rack of Juniper. Then there’s a bit about The Royal Kitten being seen running around The Perch in the moonrite hours, leading a local Tuff ganger group. Oh, and – “The big, vac-eyed Cock scratched a spot beneath his wattle, that stare having yet to blink or shift away from Lucc – “one of the lads in my academy class said that he’d seen you last summer strutting around Corbliosopolis with a trio of Murta sisters, or was it triplets? I can’t remember.” The series beak cracked as the Classic grinned and nodded appreciatingly. “Must be a hoot to live on the Golden Ledge, eh?”

                Inwardly, the Kat was reeling. Lucc hadn’t been one to follow the gossip rags. Indeed, he’d gone out of his way to avoid sullying his mind with such gurge. Oddly, the bit about the Murta’s was nearly true. He’d been tracking down some rare tech component and had been waylaid by the trio. Their meddling, he was sure, had prevented him from making the purchase, plus he still got shivers whenever thinking about their pawing talons and openly suggestive invitations. He wouldn’t put it past any of them having tipped off the media, or even fed the nights misadventure to the gossip rags for their own purposes.

                “You have no idea,” he murmured in response to the Roosters last comment, “but you have me at a disadvantage, Mr…?”

                “Mr., what…?”

                “What?”

                Vac-eyes stared uncomprehendingly at Lucc until he sighed and gestured helpfully. “Name? What’s your name?”

                The eye blinked at last. “Oh, yeah, excuse my manners. My names Dorget Chasial. My ma clerks for the Grackle Point Bird.” Dorget’s already deep voice lowered conspiringly, “she’s a Grackle. Adopted me as an’ Egg right after Empty Nest landed, or so she’s always reminding me when I get out of line.” The big goon waves a wing that nearly swept Lucc off his feet. “Anywho, I graduated from the Intelligence Academy and passed my Fledgling assignments, so my Sensei cleared me for independent status.” Dorget lowered his voice again and cleaned closer. “I wanted to join the Dark Talons, but Admin said I qualified for Phantom Talon status.”

                Phantom Talon, the most common flock of HIB Shadow Agents. It meant, as best as Luccolos understood, that the big goon had passed his trials, had undergone at least some wet wear augmentation, and had successfully completed two years as a Phantom Fledgling where he had been paired with a senior agent in the field improving his craft and lived to talk about it. Everything that, despite his occasional request, Luccolos had been denied. Instead, he had trailed after the spy mistress, enjoyed several her post sitting cronies in the higher ledges of the HIB acting as tutors and mentors who otherwise, had left him to his own devices more often than not. The prince was intrigued, more at the potential story surrounding a Classic Agar fowl being raised by a Scavenger, than the dubious skills the agent might possess. In general, the two Flocks didn’t enjoy one another’s company, to the point a perfect stranger would have offered to raise the egg before letting a Scav lay talons on it. As he pondered this mystery, Luccolos sent a silent query for data from the net. The data request came back as flagged Second Ledge Access or higher, which meant, officially, that only top ledge floobs could nose into the goons’ background.

                The lift stopped and opened onto the top floor of the HIB’s section of the RAT. A few floobs could be seen busy running errands or flitting to meetings, moved up and down the hallway beyond. A long-legged Loon tipped his sack like hat as he squeezed past Dorget and entered the lift. When Lucc stepped out he felt the muscle-bound Classic doing the same.

                                The young prince was immediately suspicious. Unlike many of his siblings, older and younger, no Watch was assigned to follow him, which was all to the positive in his opinion. Was that about to change? Or was this bulky muscle-head stalking him on his own? Nothing Lucc had found was better at shocking skulkers then hitting them with direct queries.

                “Are you following me?” he said bluntly.

                “What?”

                Lucc glared up at the big goon. “None of that ‘what’ gurge! Now, are you following me?”

                Dorget’s face showed a flicker of confusion that Lucc realized was genuine puzzlement. “Ah, no, no…I have an appointment with the Spymistress herself.” The Classic glanced at a low-tech time piece strapped to one wrist. “In ten minutes. The Ovinous – a pleasantly sweet grub at the lobby info desk, gave me directions.” He frowned and shook his head, causing his thick comb to bounce slightly before shooting Luccolos a smarmy grin.

                “I tried to talk her into having dinner with me, after which, well,” he grimaced and gave a dramatic two step strut as he fell in beside an openly irritated Lucc. “Well, you know. She has very pleasing attributes, if you know what I mean. Anyway, while pleasant, I distinctly got the feel that she was brushing me off. Probably a cold fish, anyway,” sniffed the Classic.

                This hulking goon had hit on Ninnï? For a moment the Kat in him wanted to bundle the rooster into a ball and bat him around for a while. Ninnï was his…his…well, whatever she was, it was his, even if was spurning her, whatever it was she was doing. Making matters worse, the Falcon blood in him wanted to bat the big oaf down, break his wings as a lesson not to poach in his territory. This caused Lucc to pause. Hmm, jealousy? Odd as it would be, the symptoms matched. He suppressed the feelings; after all, Ninnï had turned the cock down. This realization was followed by a different emotion; dread. In rebuffing the advances of a disgustingly masculine thingy like Dorget, Ninnï’s pursuit of him became all the more serious. Then his dread deepened. What if – no, mistress Alfaiso was a busy fem. The timing of his being called to her office was simply a coincidence. It had nothing to do with this big goon next to him. Did it? Deep in analyzing his inner turmoil Lucc barely noticed as the lift slowed to a stop. Brooding, the prince eyed the Classic as he exited the lift and knew another question was about to spew out of the others beak.

                “Just what is it you do here anyway? For the HIB, I mean.”

                The Tech hesitated.

                “Ah, I repurpose assorted, highly technical devices to better suit the needs of field agents.” Compared to the glitz of the Classics’ experiences, the Kats activities seemed like a joke. He hoped that by couching his words in such floral terminology the goon wouldn’t understand.

                “Tech stuff,” Dorget nodded as they turned into the outer office of the spymistress’ section of the RAT. “Sounds, well, a bit dull.”

                It was. Aside from the joy Lucc took in discovering some new application of a device there was a great deal of tedium involved. Perhaps not as much as Dorget believed, but just once the young prince wanted to show what he was capable of. Still, just because it wasn’t exciting as the common thingy understood it, didn’t mean Luccolos intended to let anyone else disparage it.

                “The craft has certain compensation that the average floob might not recognize. It is certainly exiting in a certain cerebral manner.”

                “I can believe that. I didn’t do so well in the slicing and manually manipulating tech stuff classes.” The big cock seemed troubled that he barely passed the electronics and computer courses. A spiteful part of the prince was glad that it was a lack of ability that kept the rooster from excelling at slicing and gear. If Dorget simply lacked interest, perhaps, if mere application of attention would have brought the Agra Fowl to something akin to Lucc’s own level, the Prince wasn’t sure what he would have done. It wouldn’t have been fair, if looks, brawn and confidence with the hens would be paired with mental might, as well. “It takes a certain something to be a tech. Most are not equipped to deal with the intricacies.”

                Dorget nodded in agreement. “Must be my Agra Fowl blood. Ma always said I was about as bright as a bucket of nargal,” he grinned deprecatingly.

                There was something irritating about the agent’s cheerful acceptance of his shortcomings. Made for a lot of work if Lucc wanted to insult him. Not that the prince wanted to do so, just that if he did choose to, he didn’t want to have to overexert himself.

                Crossing the outer offices, they encountered several hallways lined with doors, planters floating between them. Nearby a Rags Fang drifted, tendrils weaving in the air as it corralled what looked like a Gornfly. Lucc shuffled along beside the Classic in brooding silence. He began to consider the implications here. Sending for himself and the Phantom Talon simply reeked of plotting, something that the spymistress excelled in. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be seated on her perch.

                At the far end of the main floor was the spymistresses public domain; outer offices filled with receptionists, assistants, and runners, over seen by a Hummingbird Aviary by the name of Morkaiˇtoua Danktnan. He wore a hand tailored suit and though not Mos Liggessa, it was top ledge. Lucc had spent some time following the diminutive, hyperactive PA. Morkaiˇtoua saw himself as cultured and sophisticated, a real gentlebird. As Lady Alfaiso’s Personal Assistant, he held a very important post within the HIB. Perched on an auto perch made of rare, handcrafted wood that reeked of great personal expense, the PA waved a wing that quickly became a blur.

                “It’ll be a moment, the Mistress is with someone, Luccolos.” Morkaiˇtoua peered at Dorget and then down at a ‘puter holo on his desk. “You must be Phantom Talon Chasial?”

                “E’yep, um, pardon me, I mean, Yes, that’s me,” nodded the Classic.

                “You’re early, please take a perch over there.” The Hummingbird gestured with a blur at a mixed row of Aviary perches and human-styled chairs. All high quality and befitting one of the offices of one of the most important royal advisers in the House.

                Lucc’s tail twitched slightly. Well, at least he wasn’t going to be in the same office with the goon. There was still hope that the timing was coincidental. He gave a slightly bow to the PA.

                “Thank you, Mr. Danktnan,” Luccolos responded politely, ignorant of the way his voice came across to most others. His most polite and thoughtful tone tended to sound like low growling. One that ruffled more than a few feathers within earshot. A brief gesture drew Ripper to his side where he received gentle scratching between the ears. Lucc was slightly conscious of Dorget’s seeming hesitation before the Classic drifted over towards a perch.

                “Want a Jooka?” Morkaiˇtoua pointed at a crystal covered candy dish. High in both caffeine and energy, the hard candy shells coated a moderately hot Bellva pepper. Like all Hummingbirds, the PA burned a lot of calories and snaked regularly to replenish them.

                Lucc blinked at the offered tray of snacks. The strange combination of Avian and Kattorian genes had, in his case at least, resulted in a somewhat sensitive palate. The lightly spicy treat was uncomfortably hot to his tongue. However, wanting to avoid causing any hurt feelings the prince considered what to do. Just then the double doors opened as if by themselves, releasing one of the HIB’s most menacing senior operatives. Don’n Qub. Qub’s left wing was an undisguised cyber replacement. How it was lost was the start of many a speculative conversation around the Dark Nest. Always with a cold expression and always seemingly on edge, the Buzzard Aviary stalked across the reception area towards the lifts. Lucc had heard his fathers’ disapproving remarks to Mah^Rikka about Qub on a few rare occasions when they hadn’t known Lucc was within electronic earshot. The Royal Interrogator and rumored Prime Assassin, Qub had always been an interesting floob in Luccolos eyes. He especially enjoyed the story about the three Gorn terrorists Qub had reportedly engaged in single (well, three-on-one) combat. The story went that Qub, a practitioner of the banned arts of Rabid Beak, had killed all three Gorns in as many seconds with three swift pecks through the eye socket. A rather gruesome way to die, especially if one’s technique was powerful enough to pull out a piece of brain in the process.

                The large Aviary featured in many of the young prince’s reveries. In one of his favorites, the Buzzard recruited Luccolos and began training him in the secret and forbidden arts of the assassin. Something in the youth’s makeup prevented him from most hero worship, but Don’n Qub was the one exception. Of course, there was nothing obsequious in Luccolos, so the most he could manage for his hero was a shallow bow of recognition.

                Dressed in a dull black Mos Liggessa suit with Anthcrock leather shoulder guards and a nano-chrome belt, Qub’s crooked neck curled slightly as he glanced at the Halthion prince and gave an acknowledged nod before going on his way. What he wouldn’t give to have that level of assurance! Luccolos released his tail, which had somehow found its way into his hand. Embarrassed, he simply stared at the lift Qub had left through.

                ‘You can go in now,” Morkaiˇtoua said, doing a credible job of not showing the nervous ticks that the rest of the staff were showing in the wake of the Royal Interrogators exit.

                “Mm, ah, yes. Thank you.” Lucc was grateful for the interruption. He rapidly shuffled toward the doorway. “Come, Ripper.”

                Lucc felt Dorget’s envious stare as he walked quickly into the oversized office. Just inside the door a Cratchel lizard hissed at Ripper. Used to the smaller guard beast, the Helkat ignored it as he padded quietly at his master’s heels. Mah^Rikka held up on hand as she finished a conversation with an unknown floob on a flat vid on her desktop.

                “I want that handled yesterday. The Duke has yet to ask but I am sure that he will soon, and I intend to be able to tell him who’s the current Scarlett Corsair. Leave an eburst when you know.” Terminating the call, the spymistress gave Lucc an almost motherly smile. The same sort of smile she used whenever she had some boring, pointless task she wanted him to learn or experience as part of his on-going training.

                “Thank you for coming, Lucc,” she said almost coyly.

                “I am, as always, ready to serve,” he murmured. Unlike most of his quite comments, this one was entirely sincere. The other hero in his eyes, if he were to acknowledge he had one, was perched before him. “What was the call?”

                “A common tick that most spy masters do is to try and foresee the needs of his or her lord. Sometimes we’re wrong, others we’re right, and when we are, it almost seems like magic to our noble lords.” She waved at the darkened vid. “It’s not always possible, of course, to know what is on your fathers’ mind but I try to anticipate as many of his needs as I can. Sooner or later, the House is going to respond to the Baron of Kal Ban’s foolish meddling, and we will need additional resources. Using those pirate princes and self-styled fringe lords that we can manipulate is one possible way. Do you see what I am saying?”

                “Anticipation of need based on current knowledge, both of the ongoing situation and the person served. Father needs to deal a blow to the interloper without giving him a pinion to grasp at proving it was father.” Luccolos was working, it out verbally as much for himself as to answer the question. “One way to harm the enemy without giving him a hold on you is to wield a weapon. The Corsairs are one such weapon. Without questioning them, there is no way to prove who aimed them, or that they were aimed at all.”

                “Very good, I am proud of how far you have advanced in the past few years. And while I have received your latest request to attend the academy, I am afraid that I must decline it, yet again.”

                Lucc had sent a request, through official channels, every quarter for years. Every time he received the same response. Every time it twisted in his guts. Failure. Too fragile, too weak. Not good enough. Despite the acid bile, though, the youth remained expressionless. Nodding as if knowing what was on his mind the spymistress gestured to a perch that was appropriate for his physique.

                “Oh, I have plenty of confidence in your ability to excel there, even surpass many of the fields of study, but it is no secret that I have chosen to keep you close, under my wing. Doing so has presented you with a wealth of opportunities to learn from our best Master Specialists and our wisest thingies. I did so because I didn’t want the academy to force you to conform; to become just one more agent.” She fixed his eyes with hers. “While our academy tries to produce the very best it still has its limitations. Do you understand what I am saying? The Academy just isn’t or you.”

                The half-Peregrine prince nodded his acceptance of her words, even if his inner turmoil hadn’t eased. True, his tutelage under the eyes of so many greats of the HIB had likely allowed Luccolos to surpass the likes of Dorget, or even Ochālt in some ways, but the training was unofficial. Without the direct interaction, without the competition, he couldn’t prove he was better. Shards, he couldn’t even prove he was good enough. Without the certificate, the House would never accept him as a Phantom Talon.

                Sensing his master’s distress Ripper’s low growl rumbled menacing around the room. It caused the Cratchel lizard’s spinal crest to shot up as a red flush brightened its upper scales. Hissing, the Cratchel bounced back and forth on its eight legs, snapping its tooth filled maw. Only training and heavy conditioning kept it from rushing the Helkat without a proper signal from the spymistress.

                Unless the smaller reptile had augmentation to exceed those that Ripper enjoyed, it would be an unfair fight, but the Cra

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