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The Dreamer

By Featherwench

 

"You're a hard drake to get a hold of, Duke."

The voice was male, with that oddly crisp way of speaking words that hinted at military training.

Almost like they hate to waste air and time , t he jewel thief thought, amused, and glanced at his old friend and mentor. Marshall was eyeing the newcomer thoughtfully : not drawing his saber yet, but there was no flicker of recognition either.

Duke turned, almost casually handing the lockpick he held to Cutter and studying the interruption.

He didn't recognize the drake, but he looked like something out of an army recruitment manual, right down to the tattooed stripe across his bill.

I never understood getting inked there. What's it prove? It's about as macho as some dame getting her nails done.

It was a popular enough thing among guys that wanted to look a little more hardcore than they were, simply because it was cheaper and far less painful than getting a patch of skin cleared of feather growth and tattooing the skin. The tough, layered keratin of a duck's bill was the same stuff fingernails were made of, and about as insensitive to pain, provided the tattoo artist didn't ink too deeply.

He didn't meet too many ducks in his line of work that bothered with 'green' tats.

Those that did were usually just as green as you might expect.

Duke simply waited for the other drake to speak, mentally calculating how much time Cutter was going to need to get the warehouse's lock open.

"…I know this isn't the best time to talk to you, but I figured you'd prefer it over me trying to pay a house call," the newcomer finally said. "Canard Thunderbeak."

The name didn't ring a bell, but the drake looked too young to be much of a major player in anything. "You wouldn't've found us to make one."

"Probably not. Every time I picked up one of your guys, I couldn't manage to keep track of them for long ," Canard admitted.

Duke felt the tension ratchet up behind him at Canard's admission, and he grinned slightly. "I must be the only thief on Puckworld to get social calls mid-heist."

"Right now, I'd say you and your friends are about the only thieves on Puckworld, period ," Canard said. "There is a little matter of this war that's going on."

The only thieves on Puckworld, eh? Duke swallowed a chuckle at the other drake's na ïveté. The only ones you could find, more like. "Yeah, that little matter."

"Word around the streets is you've been helping out. Stealing food, supplies, slicing up a couple drones."

Duke shrugged. "Gotta have a few hobbies, eh?"

"How'd you like another one?"

"My calendar's awfully full…"

"I'm putting together a strike team, and I was given a list of several names that might help me ," Canard said earnestly. "You were at the top of the list."

"I'm flattered ," Duke replied, his voice a bit absentminded as he heard the soft snick! of tumblers moving. Cutter hadn't lost his touch with a lockpick, despite the hacker's usual preference for cracking into things a bit more high-tech. "I don't think the military's interested in hiring me , though. We don't 'xactly see eye-to-eye on a couple basic, ah … principles of society."

"The military isn't in a position to be picky at the moment ," Canard replied dryly, and Duke raised his estimation of the drake slightly upwards of green.

"Not enough left of the military to call it a military ," Duke said.

"Technically, a lot of the remaining military is involved with the Resistance now."

"Technically, the remaining military is running the Resistance ," Duke said patiently. "And this concerns the criminal underworld how, exactly?"

"It doesn't. It does concern you , though. We've pooled our resources into an attempt to take out the Master Tower. Once the Sauria ns' command structure is gone, weeding out the smaller observation posts and depots will be a lot safer."

Duke simply raised an eyebrow, waiting, and Canard shuffled from one foot to the other, a habit that seemed to stem more from impatience than nerves.

"We need people we can rely on, with particular skill sets. Like I said, you were at the top of our list."

"I'm flattered."

"… But uninterested?" Canard finished, and the jewel thief sighed.

"What I hear you saying is you've got a laundry list of misfits, and I happened to be at the top of it, which means your superiors must be really sweating it out right now ," Duke said flatly.

"We're all sweating it out right now ," Canard said, and Duke grunted in mild agreement. "And if we ever want things to get back to normal, we're going to have to sweat a little more."

"I'm not the joining type."

"You're in the Brotherhood of the Blade."

"I started the Brotherhood of the Blade ," Duke retorted. It wasn't strictly true, but not entirely a lie, either. "I only got so much altruism to go around."

Canard grinned slightly, leaning against the cold brick of the building that walled in the other side of the small alleyway. "You keep trying to perpetuate this whole thieves guild mystique, and you talk like everybody else around here, but then you throw out words like 'altruism'. It's interesting."

"Glad I could entertain you ," Duke said shortly. "Now if you don't mind, I've got things to do."

"Just tell me one thing. Why help those people?" Canard pressed. "Most thieves aren't concerned about much beyond their own skin, right?"

"Oh, is that how it is?" Duke found a slight note of irritation creeping into his voice. "Tell me more about how the criminal underworld does business, please."

"They do business by insuring their customers are still around to patronize them."

"… That's what you think this is?" Duke snapped. "Strictly business, eh? Thieves don't have souls?"

Canard was quiet for a moment. "If they do, then it explains why you helped those people. Why you've been stealing supplies and giving them away. If they don't, then you had other reasons. But either way, you're the sort of duck that's going to help the strike team. Because without you, we've got no chance of getting inside the Master Tower, and if the Saurians stay in charge, Puckworld's got no chance. Hell, the galaxy's got no chance."

Duke fixed him with an irritated look, and Canard shrugged. "Either it's bad for your soul, or it's bad for business. I don't care what your motivations are, Duke. I just need your help."

The tan-feathered drake pulled a small, folded sheet of flimsy from his belt pouch and stepped forward, folding the paper into Duke's hand. "I'd rather not give out our address for the same reason you'd prefer not to give out yours. But you can contact me by going here and sending a message. We can meet again whenever, wherever you want to discuss the details. If everything goes well, you'll be gone a day, maybe two."

"And if it doesn't go well, at least I died doing something noble?"

"If it doesn't go well, at least you died quickly instead of sitting around starving to death ," Canard said. "Winter's eventually going to hit. How many more do you think will die by then? What happens when there's nothing left to steal?"

Duke pulled his hand away, but he didn't toss the scrap of flimsy to the ground either.

"Think about it. You've got three days to decide."

"Canard."

"Hm?"

"What rank were you?"

"…I was still in officer training school in college, but I was a Lieutenant ," Canard said.

Duke was silent for a long moment. "The last remnants of the planetary military picked a Lieutenant to save us all?"

"I was the guy who found the Mask, so yeah." The other drake's tone was flat, unamused. "I'm also the guy that knows how to use it. I was studying military history in school."

A college student is going to save the world. Great. Duke sighed, suddenly feeling quite a bit older than his thirty-one years. "And who else is coming along?"

"A couple of people my superiors specifically wanted for the job, and a few civilians we've had our eye on."

"Civilians."

"Technically, you're a civilian ," Canard pointed out.

Duke fixed him with a look. "When you say civilians, are we talking about boy scouts and academics? Or people who actually know one end of a pucklauncher from the other?"

"People we're not going to have to babysit ," Canard assured him. "I'm not interested in bringing everybody and the kitchen sink along. This is a strike team, not a parade. It's too critical to screw up - we've only got one Aerowing left that we know of on the whole continent, and if we fail, I doubt the ship is going to make it back."

"The ship's probably worth more than the strike team at this point ," Duke pointed out quietly. "Like you said, if you fail, somebody's got to try again."

"I have somebody that might be able to help with that, actually ," Canard said thoughtfully. "I went to school with the guy, and his flight scores were always a little bit better than mine. Good goalie, too. He was always scoring high on spatial awareness stuff."

More college students to save the world. Duke managed not to sigh. Great Mother of Ducks, we're really screwed, ain't we? "You'd stick a friend on this mission?"

"I'll stick anybody on this mission that'll make it work." Canard looked grim. "Anybody. We're not exactly flush on options here. We have sister planets and trade agreements off-world, Duke, not to mention regular space port traffic. It's not like Puckworld's at the back end of nowhere - there have to be systems that have noticed the sudden drop in traffic and exports by now, and ships would have noticed the fleet when they jumped in system." The tan-feathered drake spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "If somebody was going to help us by now, they would have."

"Nobody wants to tangle with the Saurian Overlords ," Duke muttered thoughtfully, and Canard nodded.

"If we want to save Puckworld, we're going to have to do it ourselves. Nobody's coming to save us. Not at this point. They're all lying low, hoping that once these guys settle their score with us, they'll ignore the rest of the galaxy."

"It won't happen ," Duke said, and Canard grinned humorlessly.

"Yeah, but they'll never figure it out before they've got their own Master Towers. If there's one thing you can count on, it's sentients being selfish."

"Inspiring, really ," Duke said, his tone dry. "Makes me wanna join right up."

There was a quiet thump from behind him, and the jewel thief spoke, not taking his eyes off Canard. "We done here, guys?"

"Aye." Marshall kept his reply short and free of names, and Duke shrugged.

"Thanks for the information. Don't call us, we'll call you."

"I just need you ," Canard said, insistent. "You're the best thief on Puckworld."

Duke snorted in amusement. "You know, you keep trying to be a leader, and then you go and say stupid stuff that proves you've got no idea what's going on. I'm the best thief on Puckworld, eh?"

"Statistically, we could probably argue for best on the continent ," Cutter said, obviously amused. "But since you tend not to get caught, there's this little problem of you not being nearly as notorious as you could be."

"Like I said." Duke grinned slightly, an edge to the smile. "You've appealed to my soul, my wallet, and my ego so far today. Anything else you wanted to get in that sales pitch of yours?"

Canard regarded the three thieves silently, then turned on his heel and left the alleyway, his voice finally floating back to where they stood, just before he vanished from sight.

"I'll see you in a few days, L'Orange."

Duke gave an irritated sigh and turned to face the two thieves. "Sorry. Did you get find any convoy routes we can hit?"

"Aye." Marshall said. "What was that about, d'ye reckon?"

"Somebody got me mixed up with a hero again ," Duke drawled sarcastically. "It's becoming an occupational hazard. Let's split up on the way back - I want us to be as hard to track as possible, after what that guy said about following us."

I need to think. Really think about this.

"Was he a cop?" Cutter asked.

Duke hesitated. "… Nah. Just a dreamer."

 

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