Chapter 5:

Shrugging, Richard stepped inside the dwelling, and immediately started as something unidentifiable crunched under his feet. Gazing around in awe, Isahn spotted piles of trash everywhere, some of them almost touching the ceiling. However, this refuse wasn't so much rotten garbage as just simply junk. Half-completed inventions, haphazardly repaired machines and appliances of various kinds were scattered everywhere, and Isahn had to carefully watch his step to avoid treading over anything the Motavians might consider valuable.

"My name is Tahle," the large male introduced himself after closing the door behind the two Hunters, "and this is my wife, Morna." He indicated a smaller Motavian standing in what passed for a kitchen; she looked exactly like a smaller version of her husband save for some vaguely feminine clothing and a couple other features found exclusively on adult women. Morna stepped forward and promptly bowed to the pair of Hunters. Jake acknowledged her sign of respect with a strange hand gesture that Isahn did his best to imitate. Later, Richard planned to berate his partner for not sharing his knowledge of Motavian customs (such as it was) any earlier.

"Would you like some Tonoen coffee?" Morna asked, her voice on the verge of cracking from stress, "we just got some shipped to us recently."

Although Isahn generally avoided coffee or any other stimulants, he was still fatigued from lack of decent sleep and readily agreed to a cup. Jake ordered his in a distinct style, complete with specific amounts of cream and sugar. Although Richard sighed inwardly at his mentor's conduct, Morna seemed unoffended and hurried off to prepare their beverages. Tahle gestured toward a sort of couch that was relatively free of clutter, and the pair of Hunters promptly found comfortable seats for themselves after carefully maneuvering around some intervening trash heaps.

"So," Richard began, eager to glean any details he could regarding their assignement, "our mission data is rather lacking, but we understand that your daughter is missing. Is there any additional information you can give us? Surely it would help in our investigation." Jake usually proceeded with this line of questioning, and the fact that he didn't interrupt Rich presumably meant the rookie was doing well. That, or Jake simply didn't care; another distinct possibility.

"Well," Tahle began, taking a seat opposite the Hunters, "I couldn't give much information, because I was interrupted while speaking with a secretary at your Guild. She said that a team of capable Hunters would be dispatched almost immediately in response to the situation, and then I terminated the connection."

"Can you tell us why?" Richard decided not to comment on the "team of capable Hunters" claim, but vowed inwardly to live up to the expectations this Motavian couple had of them.

"Yes. Our daughter, Sari, had returned to us, and I was about to cancel your services at that point, except that her project had accompanied her back," Tahle mentioned this last fact wearily, and rubbed his face in exasperation.

"Project?" Jake sat up a bit, suddenly interested.

"Yes. Her 'kidnapper,' if you will," Tahle explained, "and as you can probably see, she was taken from us once again, so it is fortuitous that you've actually been sent."

"Wait… can you tell us more about your daughter?" Isahn was impressed. This kid had apparently created something, a robot from the sound of it, and the machine had no doubt malfunctioned to some degree. The robot Rich had fought in their last mission was the first he'd actually battled (he didn't count the training droids back at the Guild), and he was eager to combat another. He found it somewhat satisfying, given that machines typically were tougher, deadlier, and possessed much quicker reflexes than biological creatures.

"Well, like many Motavians, our daughter is a genius with technology," Tahle couldn't help but puff up with paternal pride at this point, "but, unlike most others of our race, she holds a special interest for starships, and as I'm sure you're both well aware, we don't like to leave our planet," he shuddered at this point, disturbed by the mere thought of departing blessed Motavia. The two Hunters both nodded in understanding, although Richard hadn't known about this racial taboo against travelling off-planet. Of course, there were Motavians that roamed throughout the system and beyond, either out of necessity or for some other nebulous reason, but after later research Isahn discovered their numbers were indeed few.

"So I suppose that explains why you've relocated here," Jake observed thoughtfully, and it took Richard only a second to make the correlation between Sari's interest in spacecraft and Zema's own Starship Academy.

"Sari wanted a human education. She wished to be an engineer on a human spaceship," Tahle admitted with a hint of bitterness in his voice, "our traditional Motavian ways seem sort of backward nowadays, I suppose, so I decided we'd move to Zema, where the Starship Academy is, and she could start school immediately. There are other Motavians living nearby as well, with similar… situations to ours, so we figured that it would work out perfectly. Then… all of this happens." Tahle made a sweeping gesture which emphasized his frustration perfectly.

"Exactly how old is your daughter?" Isahn asked, brows furrowed in confusion. All along he had been expecting to rescue a child, but it was becoming more and more apparent that Sari was anything but. Jake, meanwhile, didn't seem surprised in the least.

"Our daughter is nearly twenty suns of age," Morna pointed out as she gingerly began preparing each of their beverages, pouring odd concoctions of ingredients into an even stranger device that more closely resembled a starship navigation drive than a food or beverage replicator. Richard chewed his lip in response. There was an old adage he recalled (but not from where) that went something like "assume anything, just not the truth." Although unsure of its exact meaning, it somehow seemed applicable. Why was he so sure that the kidnapped Motavian had just been a child?

"Can you tell us more about her 'project?'" Jake leaned back into the couch, which was soft and cushiony despite being covered in shed blue hair.

Tahle sighed deeply, which sounded much like an aerocar downshifting, "Roughly six months ago, while exploring an abandoned research facility nearby our dwelling, she discovered something. Remnants of ancient robots. Without our knowledge or consent, she began reassembling one of these machines, inside that run-down facility. About a week ago, her project was supposedly complete, and she showed it to us for the first time. However, once Sari activated the mechanism, it went haywire and walked straight through the wall into our neighbor's apartment," at this point, Tahle gestured toward a large patch of recently applied morphi-stucco that had yet to be painted over. Isahn breathed a sigh of relief at this point. Whatever the project was, it couldn't have been very large.

So, Isahn considered, it's definately a machine we're going after. That explains why the parents couldn't handle it. At least it appears to be a lot smaller than the last one I fought… Perhaps this mission would work out after all. The fact Jake seemed bored once again was oddly reassuring as well.

Tahle continued, "then, Sari ran off after the thing, and we hadn't heard back from her in days. We contacted the local authorities at that point, but… although they assured us they'd take care of everything, we have yet to see any results. However, as I mentioned earlier, this morning Sari returned to us on her own. We were so happy, and were about to celebrate, when that damned machine returned as well. Sari claimed it was repaired, and that it was a present for us, to guard our home in case the Great Light tried to punish us." The sudden animosity in his voice told Rich that he wasn't referring to the Great Light itself, but its zealots. Jake nodded in affirmation to this attitude, while Richard absentmindedly stroked his hair, wondering why the Inquisition would even bother with a family of poor Motavians in the first place.

"Has the Inquisition troubled you before?" Rich asked, deciding it was a worthwhile question.

"No…" Tahle seemed almost embarrassed to admit this, "however, there is a group of Inquisitors known by the locals to be operating out of an abandoned Church just up the street. Sari doesn't necessarily have the best judgment sometimes, and after she heard news of some bums getting roughed up, decided to take… unnecessary precautions." Although Isahn knew enough by now to realize that Motavians generally disregarded the Inquisition as foolish fanaticism, he was also aware that as a whole the blue-furred natives tried to keep to themselves, seeking to avoid trouble whenever possible. Richard had no doubt that if the Inquisition actually tried anything devious with these Motavians, however, the Inquisitors would probably end up being the ones regretting it, even if they didn't have the assistance of machines. Native Motavians were renowned for being tough, resilient warriors. Even the females.

There was a pause in the conversation as Morna brought all four of them self-heating mugs of a steaming, ebony liquid. Rich winced as he took a sip; the coffee was quite bitter. Jake guzzled his down in a single, inelegant motion, and thanked Morna for his drink. Isahn was also about to offer a polite compliment when he suddenly noticed the fur at the edges of her eyes was wet and matted; she had apparently been crying softly to herself this entire time. After a moment of awkward silence occasionally punctuated by an inhuman sniffle, she managed to compose herself, and stared at the two Hunters with what could only be the unadulterated worry of a concerned parent.

"All our daughter wanted to do… was protect us," she cried, her voice wavering, "please… please bring her back!" At that point Morna dissolved into a sobbing mess, and collapsed into her husband's arms. Tahle held his wife tightly as he appraised the two Hunters sitting across from him.

"Well," Tahle continued, almost reluctantly, "Sari had returned, like I mentioned earlier, but her project had followed her back as well. Although she said it was now functional, this time it simply grabbed Sari and began carrying her off when I told her we couldn't keep the robot because it was obviously unstable. In desperation, I tried to decapitate the thing, but as you can see…" and he gestured toward what used to be a fine Titanium axe, the shaft now twisted and bent almost double, "fortunately, no one has been injured…" Isahn could see he had been about to say 'yet' but didn't for his wife's sake.

"At this point, I contacted your Guild," Tahle explained, "and although we're not exactly wealthy, I was able to procure funding from the Greater Motavian community." Richard knew that native Motavians were clannish and supported each other, but wasn't aware that that extended to financial matters as well. Although not really surprising, it did inspire him to respect their race a little more.

"Do you know where they could be now?" Rich couldn't help but feel for the couple, and was eager to get started. Morna's weeping was beginning to make him a bit uncomfortable, as well.

"The research center would be a good start," Tahle suggested, "not only was that where the machine was completed, but it returned there again after it was shown to us for the first time. The complex is very large, and is east of the apartment almost half a kilometer. You should easily be able to find it. The machine had no weapons, at least that I'm aware of, so I imagine a pair of experienced Hunters such as yourselves will have no problems taking it down." Jake snorted at this, although the implication was fortunately lost on the Motavians.

"Don't worry, I'll make sure your daughter returns safely," Richard announced with more confidence than he actually felt.

"Yeah, what he said," Jake yawned and stretched before standing, gesturing to Rich that it was, in fact, time to go.