The antique jukebox played music in the background of the festive atmosphere of the parlor.  The singer sang,

“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,

Greenest state in the land of the free,

Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree,

Kilt him a be’are when he was only three,”

Robert suggested, “We should get an air-taxi to Oak City.”

“I’ve got a back-ranger we can all fit in.” Said Nonna over the sugar cone of bright white ice cream with red and green mints mixed in like gems in a fresh snow.

“It’s over an hour trip by the ferry and more than three hours by the Mateo Bridge.  An air-taxi would have us there in twenty minutes.”

Nonna looked at the others sitting at the round peppermint topped table.  Kaniko was wiping a dab of ice cream from Mathias’ black lips and laughing at him. The wolf never had before this day, experience ice cream.  He had chosen salted caramel and had consumed it too quickly.  With both, his paws pressed on his temples as he tried to stop the pain of the brain freeze he had given himself.  The memory of her first ice cream in this very ice cream and malt shop played in her mind.  She looked back over at the human before her.

He was waiting patiently, for her to answer him. She licked at the shrunken ball of ice cream perched on her cone. “I want to drive. We’ll take the ferry.” He nodded, accepting her choice.  The old Polonius would never have just accepted such a decision.  She looked into his blue eyes and silently amended, “But then he isn’t the old Polonius.”

The drive to the ferry was a twenty-minute trip, and they were on it in another five.  Mathias leaned out over the railing at the bow and watched the nose of the boat push through the water.  His mates were on each side of him, Kaniko leaned with her back against the railing and looked up at the pilothouse.  Tomiroc was looking at the slowly approaching shoreline of the city across the Bay.  Mathias’ heart felt heavy as the realization of the doctor’s words sank in.  While they went in search of the human, Robert, he had been in shock and later in the ice cream parlor he had been distracted.  But now, watching the blue-green waters as the boat pushed east across to the distant city, he came back to those words.  He wasn’t born human but born a wolf.  He had come to realize that he would never know his parents, for they weren’t even human.  All he had left to know about his past was stopping the people who had made him.  He felt a keen sense of loss with the knowledge that for all intents of purpose, he had no parents.  The only family he had was on each side of him.  He looked and Kaniko, she had her face turned up toward the afternoon sun with her eyes shut.  He turned to his male companion.  Tomiroc turned his head and met his eyes.  A feline grin formed on the cat’s lips.

Tomiroc gestured in the direction they were headed.  “There is a forest and mountains east of the city.”  Mathias looked to the city and beyond it.  In the hazy afternoon were the outline of mountains behind the city and he could make out the green coloration of forested slopes.  The wolf glance back at the cat.  Excitedly, Tomiroc said, “Hunting! Fresh meat!”

Mathias felt Kaniko’s arm cup around his waist as she turned and stood next to him.  She said, “When we’re done talking to this Gillian Grace, I’ll ask Nonna about it.  I think we could all use a good hunt.”  Mathias felt her squeeze him.

He smiled down at her.  But he could see that she was searching his eyes and he realized she knew his thoughts.  But instead of letting him know she knew, she simply hugged him and gently ran her paw up and down his side.  The motion was comforting, and it seemed that it was all he needed at the moment.

They all felt Nonna touch their minds. “Come on back to the back-ranger. We’re nearly there.”  The three turned from the railing and headed down the stairwell to the vehicle at water level.  On the car deck were about two dozen vehicles of various shapes and sizes.  Many were commercial trucks moving goods from one city to the other for trade.  Governor Lynn’s government had reestablished one common currency for all of the West Coast Alliance members and businesses where turning to it’s use, but many still used trade and barter as part of their business.  Especially in the trade for fresh produce and dry goods in open markets.  Many people still only had what they were able to make or had bartered for to trade for what they needed.  For many, basic subsistence was still a daily challenge, and because of this fact, organized crime was still strong and prevalent throughout most of the larger city in the WCA.  It wasn’t that Lynn’s government didn’t care for all its citizens, it was simply too big a problem and many fell through the cracks of what support was available.  The darker parts of human civilization took advantage of those crack for exploitation and self-gain.  It simply was the way things were and would be for some time to come.  But the young adults didn’t know about these daily facts of life, only Nonna and Robert had lived in that world.

When the three climbed into the back of the vehicle, they found Nonna and Robert sitting quietly, waiting.  Kaniko asked, “Did you two even get out?”

Both replied, “No.”

Her cousin turned to face them. “The information she is liable to give us will lead us into certain danger. Did any of you bring weapons?”

Kaniko looked to her companions on each side of her.  They shook their heads.  She answered, “Just our hunting knives and a small pistol for defense.”

Nonna nodded.  Kaniko could see the older Otokononeko thinking.  She wondered if she was worried about putting them back into a dangerous situation.  Kaniko added to her comment, “Cousin, we know what’s ahead of us. But we’ll need weapons, other than our knives and small arms.”

Nonna looked hard at her for a long moment.  She glanced to her left, then almost like she was reluctant with the man sitting in the front seat with her, she said, “I’m sure you know, but I’m not sure you’re prepared for the possibilities of what you may have to do again.”

Kaniko looked again to her to companions.  Tomiroc’s eyes were downcast, and Mathias looked directly at her.  Tomiroc’s voice drew her attention back to him.  Still looking down, he began, “I will do…” He raised his head and looked at his two friends. “I will do what is necessary to protect and defend my friends and clan. This is our path, we are here to find out who is responsible for transforming Mathias and creating his brothers.  Stop them if possible, and that will require blood shed before it is all done, I am most certain.”

Kaniko at that moment realized how much she admired the Otokononeko sitting next to her.  The boy she had known all her life and considered silly and ridiculous at times.  Without her knowing it, had grown up to be a person she admired and wanted as a future mate to father her children.  She turned back to her cousin. “We know what is ahead of us. We,” and she glanced briefly over at Mathias, “can handle whatever gets thrown at us.”

Nonna grunted, then qualified, “When we find something. We will not be going in alone. That would be simply suicide.”  But, after we visit Gillian, I have some heavier weapons in the back. Enough for everyone.”

“I can not accept a weapon.”

The older cat turned toward her former master with a questioning look.

He repeated, “I can not accept a weapon.”

“Robert, you are a free citizen.”

He simply stated, “I can not accept a weapon.”

“Why?”

“I will not be responsible for taking another life, ever.”  He said this with such resolute that everyone was taken aback by his statement.

Nonna asked, “Not even in defense of your own life?”

He answered in a passive tone, “It is wiser to not to place one’s self in a situation that will require violence but rather to find a way to negotiate instead.”

Nonna looked at him in silence for a long moment and finally asked, “Is this really you, or is this part of your reconditioning from Lynn?”

“It is me. I will not do anything by action that might fatally harm another.” His smile was almost apologetic. “So no weapon.”

Nonna finding she was staring at the man she had known for so long with her jaw agape, she snapped it shut.  She blinked hard to convince herself that she wasn’t hallucinating or asleep dreaming.  But nope, she had heard him correctly.  “Well, I don’t know what to believe or say to that, but okay. You will be our guide, but at the first sign of trouble…”

“I will not abandon you.” He interrupted.

Anger colored her voice, “You won’t have any way to defend us or yourself. You’ll become a liability if things get dicey.”

Calmly, “Things won’t get dicey.”

“You, don’t… can’t know that!”

The ferry whistle blew two short blasts, stopping all conversation.  Nonna stared at the man she thought she knew and he stared out the front window of the vehicle.  The awkward silence stretched all the way into the backseat.  They all felt the ferry bumping the slip then it came to a stop.  A bell on the vehicle level gave a long clattering ring as a bridge gate lowered down in front of them.  When the ramp settled to its final position, the bell stopped. All the vehicles started forward.

With the back-ranger again in motion on the streets, Nonna put aside the conversation to pay attention traffic lights and other vehicles.  Gillian’s residence was located along a fork-shaped lake in the middle of the city.  The large house was situated on a slope overlooking the lake facing north. It was a three-story mansion with large windows and decks, denoting the owner’s wealth.  The slope was terraced into a multi-level garden.  A winding path worked its way down the different levels of flowering tree and roses.  Lots of roses, all of them red.

Nonna pulled to the curb next to an ornate iron gate.  A sentry-bot stood next to the gate, its optical sensor suite gave no indication that it registered their presence.  Robert got out the front passenger’s seat and approached the bot.  An artificial baritone voice emanated from the machine. “Wait. Please present identification and state your business.”

Robert held his hand up for the machine’s scanner.  He stated, “Robert Polonius and company, we have an appointment.”

The bot waited till the rest of the party stood behind Polonius. Then it said, “The Madam will see you.” It rolled to the side, out of the way to the gate.

Polonius led them past the bot and through the ornate iron gate.  The path up the terrace was mostly shaded and filled with fruit fragrance from both the trees and roses.  Nonna paused and looked up at the trees over her.  “These aren’t normal apple trees, are they?”

Robert stopped and turned to look back at the feline woman that had once been his slave. “No. They will never produce fruit. They will continually produce fragrant flowers year round.”  He added as a second thought. “They were developed by Governor Leakey.”

Nonna nodded, remembering the garden in the Institute.  She had spent countless hours there.  It was one place she was able to find peace during her transition from being a human child slave to becoming who she was today.

They continued on up the winding path till they reached the entrance of the mansion.  A tall red-haired woman stood in its entrance to greet them.  She smiled at Robert and said, “Pol, what brings you back to my door step?”

He gestured towards Nonna with one hand and said, “Nonna and her friends.”

A puzzled look crossed the woman’s face as she looked upon the Otokononeko and the wolf-humanoid.  Nonna stepped forward a little from the others. “Gillian, it’s me. Robert’s girl.”

Surprise colored her face, and she glanced at Robert briefly before turning back to Nonna. “Well, aren’t you different and all grown up.”

Nonna unexpectedly felt like the last fifteen years never happened for she felt little in the presence of the former leader of a once-powerful crime syndicate.  Taking a breath, she took another step forward and stepped up onto the landing to be on a level with the woman. “It’s been fifteen years Gillian. I have a life in another place now. But we need your help. Will you help us?”  Internally, she had been in conflict with the path she was taking her cousin down.  Gillian was no less innocent of the same crimes that Polonius had been convicted and punished for.  But she had managed not only to gain none-culpability but became mayor of a major city.  There is no real justice in the world when money and deals are involved.

“I guess that all depends on what you need help with. I have an image to hold up to and constituents to answer to now.” She gave a half smile and added, “The price one pays for making deals with the Governor, I suppose.” The woman then turned and offered for everyone to enter into her home.

She shut the door and led the way across the foyer into a side room.  The furnishings were plush and regal at the same time.  The legs and arm rest were ornately carved and rich with dark burgundy stain.  The cushions were crushed red velvet stuffed firmly to form a smooth surface in the seat and backrest of the chairs and couches.  In the center of the chairs and couches sat a low dark red tea table.  Inlaid was a bird rising from a bonfire.  Its mosaic pieces were made from the pearly insides of abalone mollusk shells.  Gillian motioned everyone to sit and a bot rolled into the room carrying a tray with a teapot and cups on it.  She sat down in a chair and let the bot serve her tea.

It then turned to the others, “Can one offer you some tea?”

When none of the Otokononeko or Mathias answered in the affirmative, Robert held his hand out and said, “please, with cream.”

The bot served Robert and then left.  Gillian offered, “Is there something else you all would like to drink? Water? Milk?”

Kaniko raised a whiskered eyebrow. She looked at the others, who glared at the woman, but said nothing. “No thank you, Ma’am.”

“Okay. Well now let’s see if I can be of any help to you.”

Kaniko didn’t wait for her cousin or Robert to start.  From the moment that they had first met the woman, she had wanted to know how she wound up in the Leakey Institute with a bone marrow disorder and what connection it had to do with Mathias. She started, “Mayor, you spent some time in the Leakey Institute about seven years ago for chronic blood anemia. How come there?”

Gillian lowered her cup from her mouth and blinked at the young lioness. “I didn’t know that my records were public knowledge.”

Nonna put in, “There not.” She glanced warningly at her cousin.

Kaniko undaunted by her older cousin’s warning look, continued, “The information they have on file, suggest that you are, in terms of DNA, Mathias’ mother.”

The woman looked slowly over at the large wolf humanoid sitting on a couch opposite her.  The silence in the room was such that they could each hear the others heartbeats.  After a long stretch of time, “Well. This is the most unexpected bit of information I have ever gotten.”

All eyes were on the former syndicate leader waiting.

“Well.” She said again and after another moment after seemingly to have collected her thoughts. “After nearly five years of continuous war with the remnants of the Hóu Gang, my organization was in bad shape.  I was looking for ways to find new alliances that would preserve my failing empire.”  She looked off to a distant memory and then focused back on her company. “I thought I had made a deal with the Neo-Technics, but I was wrong. They used me, used my body, robbed me of my marrow and dumped me in an alley in the darker parts of SanFran.  I lost my inner circle of bosses and lieutenants on the first and last meeting.”  She closed her eyes and said, “I still don’t know why they let me live or go.  Usually, body theft leaves the victim dead and replaced with a clone.”

Nonna asked, “But why did you choose the Leakey Institute? Why not the hospital where I was put back together after my fight in the Arena?”

Gillian looked at the older Otokononeko. “Didn’t you know it is run by the Neo-Technics?”

She shook her head. “No, I didn’t. Go on.”

“I managed to make it to the Institute and was checked in for Chronic anemia. I had no idea what the Neo’s had done to me or why.  I used my private accounts to cover my charges and managed to check out of the institute without anyone making the connection to who I really was.”

Nonna was curious as to how the woman had managed to survive and make her way into government, but she kept that to herself as they weren’t here for that.

Gillian regarded Mathias for a long while and asked, “So, tell me what you know about your friend?”

Tomiroc said, “A doctor in Fresno thought he was a human that had undergone full gene modification.”

Kaniko added, “But we found out this morning that he was never human.”

Everyone watched as Gillian put the puzzle pieces together.  “You’re saying that it is my DNA that has changed him into a hybrid from what, a Wolf or dog?”

Mathias answered, “Canis Lupus.”

“A wolf.”

Robert, ever since Gillian had mentioned the Neo-technics had taken on a worried look.  Nonna was the first to notice. “What’s wrong, Pol?”

“I’m worried about what this implies. The Neos of the past were merely profiting off organized crime syndicates needs for enhancements and augmentation. They took no sides and really played no favorites. If you could afford to buy the newest, latest, and greatest? They would sell it to you.  They simply were in it for profit.  But, now I’m wondering if there was a long-term plan in place all along.  One that pitted syndicate against syndicate.  Lynn had won her war against me and taken me out of the picture. Gillian was at war with the Hóu. Everyone else was small time operations at best. Once Gillian was out of the picture, they simply had to fill the vacuum.” He looked at Mathias and the younger two Otokononeko. “You kids need to stay away from them. This is really bad.  If they created your wolf friend here, they may want him back. You should consider leaving and going back to your wood.”

Kaniko looked at Mathias and Tomiroc.  She touched their wetwires, “What do you two think?”

Tomiroc said through their link, “If these are the people responsible for Mathias and the Ōkaminingen, then we must pursue this lead and try and stop them.”

“I agree with Tomiroc. We must try and stop them.”

Kaniko smiled at the man and said, “We appreciate your concerns, Mr. Polonius, but we have already faced the Underlord and survived. We will continue our course to its end. We won’t asked you to be involved. You, after all, have your own life to live.”

Robert’s eyes went from Kaniko to Nonna.  “She is as stubborn as you. I wonder where she got that.”

“Her mother.”

“Right.” He turned back to Kaniko. “The Underlord? You must be referring to Drake Carlaughty. He was the thug that I had running the Arena. Where did you encounter him?”

“Fresno. He was running a fight club operation, using the Ōkaminingen.”

Nonna added for Polonius. “Naoki and Rolan were part of his operation.”

Kaniko offered, “He also had a doctor or scientist working for him. A Dr. Preston Piper. Did you know him?”

“No.”

“I do.” Everyone turned to Gillian.  She continued, “He was the doctor that replaced my sapesyn legs with vat grown ones. He’s a Neo-technic doctor.”

Tomiroc amended, “Was.”

Gillian raised an eyebrow, “Was?”

Kaniko answered, “He’s dead now. Killed himself during the raid on the Pit. He had doped himself with the same drug, he was using on the Ōkaminingen. The guy was an absolute wack.”

Robert asked, “So Rolan and Naoki were captured?”

Nonna answered, “Naoki, yes. I killed Rolan.”

Her voice had no apology in it with her simple statement of the facts. He nodded. “Most likely just as well. Rolan would never allow himself to be taken alive. He was a brutal man for a different time in history, I think.”

Nonna agreed, “Yes, he didn’t leave me much choice.”

Gillian said, “As to the Neos. I happen to agree with Pol. You kids should stay away from them. If they have become so strong, your efforts will have no effect on their plans. Whatever that may really be.”  She looked at Robert for a long moment then speculated, “I bet they are planning a takeover.”

Nonna asked, “You mean take over San Fran?”

Polonius answered, “No. she means the whole WCA.”

Astonished, the older Otokononeko female asked, “You both think that they are that powerful?” They nodded.  “We have to tell Leakey.”

Tomiroc alluded, “I think she is a little preoccupied with other things.”  He didn’t feel it would be a good idea to divulge what his dreams had shown him to anyone outside their clan.

“But, this is the perfect time for them to start their move on the WCA.” Robert’s look of worry deepened as he voiced his revelation.

“There is still a way that we can bring this to her attention.”

Gillian asked, “How, Nonna?”

“We spoke with Adrian Leakey this morning and found out that he can communicate with her still.”

“If you will handle that, I’ll discretely communicate with the other city mayors, and maybe we can weather this some way.” The look of worry on the woman’s face was apparent.  Nonna wondered, how much of that look was for self-preservation or genuine concern for the people she represented.

Nonna looked to the others of her clan.  She realized at the looks on their faces that they understood that their quest to find Mathias’ beginnings were over.  They could not approach these Neo-technics.  It would only get them into trouble and might alert the Neos that they had been found out.  She said, “We’ll handle letting Lynn know.”

Gillian stood up, and everyone followed suit.  She smiled sadly. “Even though you might have brought me bad news, I’m still glad you came. All of you. Especially you Mathias.”

Mathias dropped his eyes to the wooden floor. “I don’t know whether or not I should call you mother or what? But I am glad to have met you.”

The Oak City mayor smiled. “My mothering days are long past, and I wasn’t ever a good mother.”  She glanced at Robert and Nonna with a knowing glance.  She continued, “But you may call me whatever you wish. If I can be of any help to you, let me know.”

“Thank you.”

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