154 A Good Dream
The three of them quickly made their way back to the Stella and climbed aboard. Zoey took the controls and lifted them off, piloting the ship up along the sinkhole walls towards where the Tenebris awaited them.
Zoey smoothly maneuvered the craft into position above the main part of the cruiser and slowly lowered the ship down until it locked into place, joining the Stella Tenebris together as one once again. She looked over the display to make sure that the power reserves for the bridge were refilling from the main reservoir. Thankfully, everything was working well, and there were no issues with the couplings and power transfer.
It had only been a short time since she had given the Aether Crystals to 704 to cultivate in the cube-space, but the first batch had turned out well. Zoey had used a third of the new crystals to fuel the cruiser, bringing the fuel level to 5%. The rest of the crystals were used to set up more nodes for additional crystals.
The Stella Tenebris was in its current state very power efficient, but that would change as she added systems and features to the cruiser, so she had to play ahead and make sure she had enough fuel in the future.
Zoey was shaken out of her thoughts by the sudden entry of several people to the bridge. She was rapidly surrounded and barraged by numerous questions by Taigen, Baiken, Ssaul. Meanwhile Saigo was more concerned with his grandson Max and was similarly pelting the boy with questions. All of them wanted to know why they had been gone so long and what had happened.
Zoey was touched by the concern for their wellbeing she could see in their eyes. They had been concerned for her and Max, and she had a hunch that it was only in part due to the fact she had left them in a cruiser hovering in midair thousands of meters above the sinkhole floor.
She got up and hushed all of them, directing them firmly to sit at the table and wait until she could explain everything. Most of this held no interest for Max and Viridi, and Max made a beeline for the bathroom to clean himself off while Viridi asked Zoey to send her into Zoey's inner world where a lovely lake awaited her.
Zoey wondered if she should be letting a panther-dragon hybrid bathe in her essense lake... There wouldn't be any side effects, right?
Zoey kept the anxious group of Asurai waiting a while longer as she enjoyed a small meal of fresh fruit and took a cleansing shower herself after Max was done. The bathrooms and showers were easily the most popular fixture on the ship so far. A wondrous magic to the Asurai, and a happy mesh of tech and magic to Zoey who had designed the system.
After her shower, Zoey had the urge to change it up a little, so she pulled up her Aether Engineer talent and made herself a set of casual clothing. It wasn't fancy, just a simply black t-shirt and loose pants of the same color. They were made from a supremely comfortable and soft cotton that felt like feathers on her skin, and she also made a pair of slippers for her feet.
Once she was dressed, she looked at herself in the mirror and was slightly stunned by what she saw.
In her younger days back on Gaia, she had been considered good looking amongst the people of her home. She tended to be overly self-critical back then, and often downplayed her own looks, but she had been aware how she had been perceived by others. But the way she looked now, it was ridiculous.
The clothing was casual and unspecial, but on her is seemed to become almost godly attire that accented her looks even further. Her slender form was not over-proportioned, but she still had all the curves that made it clear that she was a woman.
Her hair was still short, only covering her ears, but each strand was smooth and shiny, and it shimmered on her head with its midnight black color that seemed to have hints of deep blue in certain light.
And then was her face. Zoey could not deny her own eyes, and what she saw was almost heart-achingly beautiful. Cute was not the word for it, more like ethereal, something akin to a dream that you could only vaguely remember upon waking but could not stop thinking about. Her emerald eyes were like brilliant gems set under slender brows that seemed expressive even when she tried to be dedpan.
Overall, her face was slender, but her mouth, nose, and the slight upwards tilt of her eyes all formed an exotic harmony that made it hard for Zoey to evaluate. She remembered what she had looked like when she first arrived on Darren, and she was certain that her looks had changed perceptively since then. Perhaps a side effect from ranking up? Maybe something to do with the Harmonic Heritage? She would have to look into it at some point.
For now, she had to get back to the others. She was tempted to put on her mask before leaving the bathroom though... She didn't much care for attention, and her current look was a lethal combo. Had she been back on Gaia before the war, walking on the street like this would had gotten her mobbed by socialites hoping to grab her attention.
In the end she decided to just deal with it and ignore the reactions of the others, and left the bathroom. Sure enough, her appearance caused a stir.
The most blatant was Taigen, who's jaw simply dropped open when he saw Zoey. Baiken sitting next to him was about to poke fun at him like usual, but she also froze with wide eyes when she saw as well. General Saigo averted his eyes and cleared his throat in embarrassment as he focussed his attention on some documents on the table, while Ssaul's scales seemed to shiver for a moment before returning to normal. A curious reaction, especially considering how he was watching Zoey with one reptilian eye.
Zoey noticed all this, but ignored them as she walked to the table and sat down, the sound of her chair seemingly bringing them all back to reality.
One person she did not notice however, was Max sitting in a corner of the bridge. The moment she had come out of the bathroom his eyes had been glued to her face. He showed no emotions, but deep in his grey eyes there was a brief glimpse of deep blue, like an ocean current stirring far under the surface. After she sat at the table, Max looked back down at the book in his hands, but the corner of his mouth seemed to tilt up in a slight smile.
Shortly after, Zoey went into describing what they had found in the dungeon, her clear voice enrapturing the others in the room with her tale. Everyone was stunned to hear that only hours had passed for them in the dungeon while days had passed for the world outside.
They gasped at her description of the fight with the corrupted and it's absurd strength, and shared thoughts of anger, disgust, and horror when she told them of the dungeon's true purpose. Zoey told them about the portal spewing corrupted essence, and that she had taken the dungeon core to close the dungeon, but left out the bits about Sethrii and what they she had discussed with the goddess.
Only Max knew the truth of her Harmonic Heritage and her connection to Sethrii, and she intended to keep it that way unless it was necessary to tell them. The fewer that knew her purpose and nature, the better.
After hearing her story, those at the table were all reminded of how weak they were, saved by this mysterious beauty and forced to depend on her to keep them safe after as well. They regretted that they were so weak, and that they could not pay her back.
Once everyone was caught up and the situation explained, Zoey shooed them off the bridge so she could get some rest. It had been a while since she had closed her eyes.
She went back to the front of the bridge and looked at the captain's chair with a sigh, wishing she had built it so it could recline. As a temporary replacement, she pulled out a floor mat from her inventory and laid it on the ground before laying down on it. Before she forgot, she pulled up her interface to check on what 704 had mentioned.
Like her copilot had said, the drone watching the area between the Bulwark and their current location had spotted a lone rider headed towards their location. Zoey couldn't make out much as the rider was wrapped in cloaks and had hidden their face, but whoever it was clearly was either mad or confident if they had come into the wasteland on their own.
But who was it? Why were they headed this way? They had not left any tracks to follow, so was it the one who had set up the dungeon coming back to check up on it? That was a worrying thought, but it could wait until after she rested.
Zoey turned off her interface and closed her eyes to rest, not noticing that someone was still on the bridge with her, proof of how tired she was.
It was of course, Max. He had not left with the others, and had simply stayed in his spot with his book. But now that Zoey had fallen asleep, he got up and silently walked to her side. For a moment, he just stood there, then he took his cloak that Zoey had made for him and covered her sleeping form before silently leaving the bridge.
He didn't go far, only to the bottom of the grav-shaft where he laid down himself, blocking the way up as if to guard it. He wanted to make sure that Zoey got the rest that she needed. More than anyone she was working as hard as she could with what she had. He had to do what he could to help her.
Down below on the cargo deck, things were quiet as most of the Asurai were all settling in for the night as well. Off in one corner were the four leaders of the clan deep in earnest discussion about something. Taigen and the others had realized that they had been complacent, and that needed to change. They had to work harder if they wanted to pay back the debt that they owed Zoey.
And so the night settled in. The Stella Tenebris hung in silent hover inside the obscuring fog that still filled the sinkhole, like a silent city hidden in the clouds.
Out in the wasteland a lone rider continued on their way deeper into the dead plains, their purpose and intent unknown. Behind them, dark clouds seemed to be gathering above the land of Frenach, appearing to the superstitious as perhaps a sign of things to come...
Back on the Stella Tenebris, Zoey was dreaming. She dreamt that she was flying through the skies of her inner world with Viridi at her side. Together they danced among the aurora and laughed as they dodged through splinters of color that illuminated the night sky.
She had not dreamed in a long time, longer than she could remember, and this was a good dream.
A good dream indeed.