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Bought: Chapter Three

Jenke

Even the air here smelled like it was made out of credits.

How much water did it take to keep this vast park growing? And for what purpose?

With an almost disjointed gracefulness, a bot came over the hill towards us.

I stiffened, watching its movements, but the woman in front of me didn’t give it a second glance.

She was worth looking at, though.

Tiny little thing. Afraid of something, that was clear.

But with enough steel in her spine to not back down,

Curly black hair swung past her shoulders, the last rays of the sun casting red highlights through the thick waves.

The rich brown of her skin was warmed by the unembellished yellow top tucked into full black pants, with thin flat slippers on her feet.

Her only jewelry was a thin rectangular pendant of silver, hanging from a fine chain.

Plain. Functional. But somehow, I didn’t think the woman herself was quite so uninteresting.

“How long have you worked for this Transaman lady?” I asked.

She didn’t pause, simply kept up her stiff march back across the endless lawn.

“Chairman Transaman will see you as soon as she is able.”

“That’s not exactly an answer to my question.”

Her hand flicked out to the side as if my words were nothing more than an annoying insect.

“I don’t see how the information is any of your business or pertinent to your errand here.”

I couldn’t help grinning. “Just making conversation, being polite.”

“Please don’t bother.”

We rounded a grove of silver and purple trees and for a moment, I froze.

I’d seen the building from the air, but somehow hadn’t recognized it for what it was.

“Your boss lives in a castle?”

My guide kept walking. “My boss lives in her home,” the woman answered as we reached a door set into the massive wall of glass that stretched the length of this wing.

I lingered for a moment, studying the façade.

From up close, you could tell that the stonework was replicated. The mortar was too even, too perfect.

Colored plexi instead of old-style glass filled the narrow, pointed windows.

And the faint iridescent shimmer across the cone-shaped roof of the central tower indicated solar panels rather than slate shingles.

But still.

“Would you prefer to wait on the grounds?” The woman had finally turned back, her arched eyebrows raised as she stood in the open doorway. “I can request that one of the gardeners finds you when Chairman Transaman is ready.”

“Not at all,” I said, passing by her to enter the room beyond. “Just appreciating the building.”

And then whatever else I had planned to say was lost within the far reaches of the room.

Fan vaulted ceilings covered an immense space, all filled with row after row of shelves and pedestals, each filled to bursting.

“What is this place?”

The woman closed the door and walked past me.

“Please don’t touch anything,” she answered, again not bothering to answer. “This way, please.”

Another bot, this one small and running on treads, with a screen taking up most of its chest, rolled forward to greet her.

“Curator Serra, I have located those documents. Should I put them in the queue for closer examination?”

“Yes, please, Annie,”

Serra.

I followed as she led the way through the labyrinth of artifacts.

Odd.

She was still nervous, that was clear.

But here, back in what was clearly her own domain, some of the rigidity had left her.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small, carved figure, the ivory yellowed and stained, of something barely recognizable as a seated woman, one hand pressed to her cheek, draped in heavy robes, a lumpy hat on her head.

“Not in all the zones of the Void,” I muttered, stepping closer to it.

In an instant, Serra was at my side.

“Did you not hear me? Please do not touch anything. The artifacts here are extremely delicate.”

She gave a tiny sniff. “Besides, you don’t even know what that is.”

“That’s the Queen from the Lewis Chess Set,” I answered, unable to rip my eyes away from it. “Do you have any of the others? How did you even get this one?”

Silence answered me.

I turned back, to see Serra’s golden brown eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open in shock.

“How would you recognize that?” She shook her head. “How do you know what it is? It’s not exactly the largest or flashiest of our artifacts.”

“You’ve got your boss, I’ve got…”

My voice failed.

Doc wasn’t exactly our boss. I knew the others thought of her as something closer to a mother.

“I have a trainer who’s particularly interested in games of strategy. And history. And, well, a lot of other things. You’d be surprised what I know.”

Somehow, she didn’t look convinced.

But she didn’t say anything, rather turned and led me further into the warehouse.

That wasn’t quite right.

A warehouse implied items in boxes, stacked away, out of sight.

This room had obviously been carefully designed to show off the items gathered within.

As the last light of day faded from the high windows, pinpricks of the lights set into the fan vaulting above began to glow, creating a map of unknown constellations above us.

The underside of each shelf held its own set of lights, spotlighting the artifacts that rested below.

“Who has all of this?” I murmured. “Who would even want it all?”

This was just crazy.

At first glance, it looked like things were stored higgledy-piggledy, without any rhyme or reason.

Expensive looking items that I guessed were pieces of art next to weapons.

Roughly carved, half broken pieces of pottery next to priceless antique books.

A twisted ring of metal, one section standing upright to display the intricately worked surface, the blazing lights of jewels embedded throughout, rested on a red velvet cushion.

“Is that…” I trailed off.

A crown of some sort. That was obvious.

I needed more information, a reference book or two.

But I wondered if Emperor Vandalar knew what was here.

“None of your business,” my guide answered.

“Are you always so informative when giving people a tour of this place?”

She turned, her head tilted slightly to the side.

“I’m not giving you a tour,” she explained patiently. “You’re here to meet with Chairman Transaman. I’m simply babysitting you until she’s ready to see you.”

It was hard not to laugh. “It’s been a long time since I’ve needed a babysitter.”

“I’m surprised,” she called back over her shoulder. “It looks as if you could use one.”

I scratched at the heavy beard I’d allowed to grow. Maybe she had a point.

We finally reached a wide wooden table, with silver cubed boxes arrayed down the center.

“I have work to do,” Serra announced. “Chairman Transaman will let you know when she’s available.”

She stepped towards the closest of the boxes, the eager expression on her face certainly more friendly than anything she’d shown me.

“Can I help?”

“I very much doubt it,” she answered dismissively.

I moved off to examine the contents of a nearby shelf. “Please don’t touch anything,” she sighed.

“Hands are behind my back, I promise,” I answered.

She got back to work, and surreptitiously, I rounded the corner to where I could watch her.

Don’t get me wrong. The collection of weavings was unusual and all that.

But somehow the spitfire of a curator was the most interesting thing in the room.

As the top of the packing crate retracted before her, each of the cube’s four sides folded down to form four pyramids.

Serra tapped the top of one, then winced. The tangy scent of her blood filled the air, pulling a growl from deep in my chest.

With two quick steps, I was at her side. “I told you I would help. And now you’ve hurt yourself.”

She looked up at me from the corner of her eye. “No, the packaging has taken a sample of my blood, and matched my DNA to open the lock.”

She held up her index finger, slightly reddened, but not the open gash I had somehow expected. “My job doesn’t require getting hurt on a regular basis, believe me.”

The corner of her lip twisted up, the flicker of a smile. “But thank you for your concern, all the same.”

I glared at the long line of crates down the table, waiting for her attention.

“Is every one of those boxes going to require the same thing?”

“Identification that the correct person is opening the statis fields?” She shrugged. “I would certainly hope so.”

She detached what had been the base of the pyramid from the shipping cube, examining what it held, then glanced up at me, a glint of mischief in her eyes.

“You’ve been full of surprises. What do you think this one is?”

I studied the thing.

A small dark gray box, with silver specks along the rough surface catching the light.

It could be a weapon.

It could be anything.

“No idea,” I admitted. “Obviously my trainer left some gaps.”

“How are we in section Granite 48?” Serra asked the bot, whose silent presence I’d nearly forgotten about.

“It’s clear,” the tinny voice answered. “At least that decision makes sense.”

“Beginnings and endings, Annie.” Serra lifted the panel from the table, shifted its weight slightly in her arms.

“Why don’t you let me carry it?”

“Because it’s my job,” she answered crisply. “And if it’s beyond my capacity, Annie here’s always happy to help out.”

I was pretty sure that the AI controlling the bot wasn’t advanced enough to actually give a little sniff of disapproval as it rolled past me.

Mostly sure.

Still, I followed the two of them as they made their way through the labyrinth of shelves.

“Beginnings and ends?” I asked, trying to make sense of the items before me.

“Something like that,” Serra said.

“Annie, move the Borjillian blaster down to the middle of the third shelf, would you?”

I tensed, uneasily watching the bot lift the panel that held the antique blaster.

Surely it wasn’t functional.

No one would be reckless enough to keep such a thing around, would they?

Serra stretched up on her toes to slide the panel into the vacated space.

“Do you require assistance, Curator Serra?” The bot rolled closer.

“No, thank you, I think I have it.”

She probably would have.

Except, as she stretched towards the higher shelf, the bot rolled even closer and its curved treads bumped into the base of the shelves.

The smallest tremor ran through the shelves, and as Serra reached to steady them, the panel in her hand slipped away.

Annie’s arms shot upwards, telescoping out to grab the strange item, but missed, instead knocking against the head of the antique axe that stretched across the entire shelf above.

“But…” the bot said.

Serra’s attention was split between balancing the shelf and the new item.

“Curator Serra.”

“Just a moment,” Serra said, trying to slide the new item back onto the shelf.

But whatever retaining field had been holding the axe in suspension flickered, then finally fell.

“Void take it,” I snarled, leaping forward.

Wrapping one arm around Serra’s waist, I pulled her tightly against me, curving my shoulders over her.

“What are you doing?” she gasped

Then she saw that axe in my other hand.

“Oh.”

For a moment, the fight deserted her and she sagged against my arm, just for the span of a breath, then she straightened herself, pushing away.

“Thank you,” she said warily. “That would have been unpleasant.”

I hefted the pole weapon in my grip.

Whoever had designed it was either having a bad day or really enjoyed dicing up their enemies.

Maybe both.

The head came to a sharp point, one side flaring to a massive curved blade, tapering down to a series of jutting hooks.

I didn’t feel the need to test them.

I was certain, just from the way they glinted in the light, they would be wickedly sharp.

“What’s this thing, anyway?” I asked, placing it back on its shelf.

“Coronation axe of the first Rothian kingdom,” Serra answered, her voice trembling just a bit. “One of the first systems to break away from the early Empire.”

“And that’s connected to that box, how?” I pointed to the small gray cube she still clutched.

“These are the memorial ashes of their last king.” She took a deep breath, and pushed the panel with the remains back onto its dedicated shelf, the trembling in her hands barely noticeable. “The Empire was not pleased about dissenters.”

“Never have been,” I grumbled. “But now I’m curious. Let’s go see what else is in that crate.”

“I’m afraid that will have to wait,” the AI interrupted. “Chairman Transaman has requested that you bring Mr. Jenke to the Gold Room.”

Serra blinked rapidly, as if surprised, then nodded.

“Please let her know that we are on our way.”

Finally.

I’d get some answers out of this place.

I glanced down at Serra.

Well. At least some of them.

Now I had a new list of questions, none of which had anything to do with my missing brothers.

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