Chapter 211:

Homecoming: Harlan

The Nonpareil of Resh (Act 1)

The capital city of Wesk was a sight for sore eyes. Even as Harlan stood above ground, where only a few small dirt huts showed any city was around, she felt as if tears might break through the dam of her heart. Restraining her glands, she followed as escorts guided her to one hut. On close inspection, they would surprise a visitor—none of the dirt buildings were what they seemed. Walls had been carefully constructed to appear like dirt, and the inside housed elevators, which would take them to the city below.

Her efforts to keep a neutral expression grew harder as the door slid open. She had not seen the main city cavern in so long. Its giant expanse had been hollowed out to be larger than any major city's central avenue. Stony pillars connected from top to bottom like skyscrapers, each carved out to act as a building in its own right. All up and down the cavern, platforms were connected and crossed, going up and down—in and around—buildings like a web of organized insanity. Zenototes of all shapes and colors moved to and fro, carrying on with their daily tasks.

“This way, ma’am,” a skinny Zenotote man with black scales indicated. He went by Adder, a nickname that reflected his experience in accounting. Only the Zenotote leader knew what the man’s real name was. Harlan nodded and followed her guide. “Our leader expressed you would likely want to return to your lab immediately, but he wanted to introduce someone important to you beforehand. Rest assured; it won’t take too long.”

“Of course,” Harlan said quietly.

They walked along the edge of the cavern that overlooked the rest of the city, reserved exclusively for military or emergencies, to a train that brought them to the next cavern. More weaving through the underground network brought Harlan to the Absolutism’s headquarters. It was a single cavern with only a large round pillar in the center that housed the entire government. Only enough space for two guards to walk side by side was afforded between the cave walls and the pillar, but without the center building, it could have easily fit three battleships.

They entered, and Adder quickly took her to the room where she would meet her father. Instead, a Zenotote girl was waiting. Harlan almost reeled back as the stranger smiled and ran up for a greeting. She looked a year younger than the Zenotote scientist, with the most beautiful aquamarine scales possible, and her clothes were a formal military uniform, the marking showing she was only a recruit. Black frills went down the sides of her head in two clumps, and her tail was unusually short. What was most striking to Harlan was how flat her face was and how smooth her scales looked. By all accounts, the girl looked like she might be a quarter Netzian or Aqueenian—but someone like that wouldn’t have been brought into the military.

When the aquamarine Zenotote saluted Harlan as well as she could, her awkwardness made clear she was very new to the service.

“Junior Science Officer Harlan, it is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Recruit Rosemary, and I was just brought in by Leader Mixolydian!” The girl did her best to greet Harlan properly. Harlan nodded as Rosemary continued, “the Leader said something came up, and he couldn’t make it, but he wanted me to express to you the desire for our coming together.”

Harlan held back a sigh. Her father wasn’t too busy to come; he wanted them to meet without his presence. Perhaps he hoped they could become friends. He always did that sort of thing, but she would wait for more information before jumping to a conclusion.

“Yes, of course, please continue,” the Zenotote scientist replied after seeing the girl had awkwardly paused.

“My apologies! Well, Leader Mixolydian was very interested in the flying vehakuls the Nonpareil mentioned in one of your reports. He has decided that you will be responsible for creating one, and I will serve as the test pilot!”

Harlan nodded understandingly. She thought her father would be interested in the strange idea, and the girl who clearly wasn’t all Zenotote would be the perfect test subject if something went haywire. It was all making sense.

Of course, I am pleased to work alongside you, but after my long trip, I must rest. I will contact you at a later date so we can begin work.

Rosemary smiled and saluted.

“Of course! Please take as much time as you need!” she stammered.

Harlan wasted no time dismissing herself and quickly retreated to her private lab. As soon as the door slid shut, she let out a sigh of relief and examined the room.

Most of the space was set up with equipment, cases, and design tools, save for a small bed in the corner with a beauideal Berry the Blue Crusher poster. The Zenotote scientist quickly walked over to the tank where some of her test miccs—a small animal most closely resembling a mouse—were held. At the sight of her, the tiny creatures of various colors ran frantically to the glass edge of the tank and pressed their front feet on the transparent wall so they could look up at her. Harlan smiled softly and stroked each of their heads gently before turning off the automatic food dispenser and manually filling their bowl. The hungry creatures got to work, quickly devouring the meal.

Harlan made her way to the bed after, and sleep came upon her quickly.