Chapter 10:

Pleasant Conversations and Kind Old Ladies

The Underwriters

They were headed to a small town a couple of hours away from Newton City. Wellington was an old remnant of the past, with its name serving as a reminder of the hydro-powered plants that made it a mini-industrial hub centuries ago. With the advent of more advanced technology, jobs had dried up, people had left, and the town as a whole had suffered. In recent years, more tired executives and their families had begun buying houses in Wellington as a reprieve from city life, giving the town a new lease on life. The revitalized side of town was not the team's destination this time. Instead, they were heading to the north side of town where only those with memories of a brighter past remained, and broken-down buildings were the only sights to see.

"I've never heard of this place. I wonder why Seela was taken here?" Hibiki and Maya chattered on while keeping their eyes firmly glued to the window. The boarded-up factories in the distance seemed like lost relics in comparison to the hover car they were riding in on. At least, Hibiki had assumed that they would be riding all the way into town when the car abruptly hiccuped in mid-air before lowering and opening the doors.

"It's an old former factory town, before the robot revolution. Come on. If we ride in, the locals won't be too thrilled."

Hibiki walked to Yui's side and watched the hover car lift off into the distance. She asked dazedly, "Why would they even care?"

"Let me put it like this. New tech is what made the town poor. And then those who got rich off of that same tech started buying everyone out of their homes. How do you think they'd see us if we flew into town?"

"Oh, they'd hate us."

"Exactly. So, we'll walk in from here and start asking questions. Do you have the picture of the kidnapper saved?" Yui slightly tilted her head down to look at Hibiki to wait for an answer.


"Good. We'll use that to see if anyone can recognize him."

"Um, Yui? Are we also using the picture that was in the decoded message for anything? I know it was really blurry but still..." Stumbling behind Yui's fast pace, Hibiki struggled to keep up. In between breaths, she sputtered out her questions.

"Hmm. Well, the picture is probably blurry since Seela was in motion. At most, it might show us what path they took. But if we can find the area they seemed to be in, we can take a look around."

Yui suddenly stopped at the town entrance with Hibiki jogging up to her. Gasping for breath, Hibiki inwardly complained about tall people with long legs moving way too fast, but she kept her whines internal.

Luckily, Maya did not repeat her thoughts out loud for Yui to tease her. She caught her breath before shifting her gaze to her commander, who seemed to be patiently waiting for her. Her guess was confirmed as Yui immediately started moving the moment it was obvious that she was ready to continue.

For a while, the trio only saw destitute houses and collapsing store fronts. Everyone seemed to be in hiding. Even Maya could feel the offputting energy surrounding them as she kept her chirps to herself. Wondering if they might be walking in circles, Hibiki was ready to start shouting to catch someone's attention. As if they could hear her silent pleas, she finally heard some talking in the distance.

"Who are they? That tall one looks dangerous."

"Oh, I know. Do you see those scars? I bet they were brought in by one of those big shots to clear the rest of us out."

"Well, I'm not leaving! They'll have to drag me kicking and screaming."

"Shhh. Just stay hidden and they'll get bored, eventually."

Hearing these voices in the distance, Hibiki closed her eyes and listened carefully to pinpoint a possible direction to head in. Once she determined the way to go, she opened her eyes to find Yui's inquisitive eyes focused on her. Tugging on Yui's arm, she forced her commander to follow her while opening Maya's cage to allow her to fly freely. Using the now loose Maya, Hibiki plopped the plump bird on her commander’s shoulder and prompted Maya to whisper her thoughts as discreetly as possible.

"I heard a few of them talking, Yui. They're hiding, but I think I know where they were at. Just act natural. Okay?"

Nodding, Yui purposely released the tension in her body and slouched to appear less intimidating. Putting an arm around Hibiki's waist, she simply huffed in response. One would have to be extremely close to notice the lightning in her thunderous eyes, which were the only signal of how aware she really was.

As they got closer, scampering and then running became audible even to Yui. Like a perfectly coiled cobra waiting for the right moment to strike, she immediately dashed in the direction she heard. Yelps and whimpering were heard before Hibiki saw her leader return with two older women tightly held in her arms. Although Yui's arms appeared to be loosely guiding them, the red marks on their wrists made it clear that they were being pulled along by her immense strength.

"Let me go! I don't care who your boss is, you can't treat people like this!"

All Yui had to do was turn and smile at the hunchbacked senior citizen who had spoken while staring unblinkingly. This silent stare was enough to keep both women quiet as they were presented in front of Hibiki.

"Hi, ladies. I'm sorry to disturb your rest, but we could really use your help. We'd appreciate it if you could just take a look at this photo and let us know if you recognize this man at all." Hibiki spoke as sweetly as possible through Maya's beak. The cuteness of her robotic friend was lost on the two distressed women.

"Fine. Show us the photo, then let us go."

Hibiki was afraid that they would change their mind, so she quickly pulled the photo up and showed a holographic screen to the two women. The technology was obviously unfamiliar to them as their eyes widened before they tried poking the digital image with their hands. Turning their attention away from the technology to the photo itself, their countenance changed. One woman turned her head and refused to acknowledge it while the other shakingly spoke.

"Isn't that Tri Wilder? Old Shane's boy, right? He was just-"

"Shut up, you old hag!" The other woman slapped her chatty friend, stunning everyone else silent. However, Hibiki remembered the name that was just spoken and noted it down.

They refused to speak anymore and Yui had no interest in threatening old women. So, the pair were released. Turning away, the ornery woman who had slapped the other had one final warning for the group.

"Listen, you don't seem like you're working for them and it's obvious y'all aren't trying to get anything besides information, so I'll give ya some advice girlies. Don't bother trying to get any more information out of this town about that boy. It'll only get all of us in trouble." Saying that, the women finally sauntered off, leaving Yui and Hibiki behind to think.

Maya pecked at Hibiki's fingers as a warning as her owner kept tapping on her cage, lost in thought. Hibiki cleared her throat before suggesting, "Um, maybe we should see what we can find online about those names before trying again?"

"That's not a bad idea. Good girl. Let's take a break and see what we can find now that we have another lead."

Two blue mirages were lit up before them. While Hibiki began her search of the internet as a whole, Yui opened the more private databases she had at her disposal to search the names, Tri and Shane Wilder. Both soon came to the realization that they might have hit another dead end. Hibiki tried to hold out hope for any results but lost hope after searching on the 27th search engine and finding zero results. Yui also gave up and instead sent another message to Tomoe whose inbox was getting increasingly full from her requests.

"Nothing. How can there be nothing? Even if there was no hit for someone from this area, there should still be someone else with that name on the internet, right?"

"That's because the results were most likely scrubbed. There's probably something that happened involving the Wilder family that someone wants to keep hidden. So, they removed any results about those names to prevent anything being found out."

Hibiki bit her lip while kicking the ground. Her head was filled with several thoughts, and she was unsure of which question to focus on next. "But doesn't that just make them look even shadier?"

"I agree, but if you know enough to look up those names, then you also probably already know what happened."

Silence. Chewing on this new information, Hibiki stood up and began pacing. Yui watched while sipping on water. Maya had been resting on Yui's shoulder, preening her feathers when she was snatched up.

Peeping out a reply to Hibiki's silent question, she flew up into the air. She activated a camouflage mode, making her yellow feather glisten before turning the same shade as the sky. Now blending in, Maya flew away while Yui lifted an eyebrow toward Hibiki. Soon Yui's holoband vibrated to signal the reception of a new message.

"I asked Maya to go fly around incognito to find any new leads for us. She will record any sounds and images that she finds. Sorry, but I'll have to communicate through messages for a while."

"That's fine. For now, I'll send a message to inform our 'client' about what we have found so far. Since we were so kindly given 48 hours by him."

Typing sounds kept the two company now that Maya's chirps were elsewhere. Hibiki twiddled her fingers and watched the man-made clouds drifting in the sky. Pink, blue, black, and white puffs of water vapor filled her vision while she wondered what obstacle they would have to face next. Deep in her gut, she felt a nagging sense of foreboding as she recalled the old woman's warning.