Woah! Final part is here! Thank you Opa-opa for this fun story!
She rushed into the room to find Charthur standing with her hands on her hips, surveying the contents of her workbench. "Curious I am! So I thought that I might," she planted a dramatic pause here, "...see what you're working on at this time of night."
Neon edged her way around Charthur, feeling more comfortable once she had interposed herself between her energetic, tipsy friend and the delicate apparatuses she had laid out. "It's, it's nothing fancy. A simple procedure, relatively speaking. I'm replacing Chip's optical augmentation, since it was damaged in the War."
Charthur looked serious for a second. She snapped her fingers. "I just put it together, two and two. That's why Zeromy at the party was looking for you." She leaned to look past Neon, inspecting the inert catbot more closely. "I'm glad to hear it's a simple repair. And lucky for Chip, that you had a spare."
Neon snorted, frustrated. "It's inferior. A spare part that doesn't belong anywhere or fit with anything else." She said, bitterly. "I don't plan on leaving it in for very long."
But Charthur had moved on already, now staring at a map, freshly-printed and tacked to the adjacent wall. Her finger traced the brightly colored line, drawn on it, pausing at each of the neatly-constructed circles that it kissed as it meandered through the hills surrounding Teslic Yard. "What's this now? I've not seen the like. Were you planning on taking a hike?"
Neon came over to her side. "You remember the data-shifting fields I mentioned, right?" Charthur nodded a little too eagerly; Neon considered calling her out on her obvious bluff, but decided it wasn't a night for that sort of thing. "Well, I've been trying to work out a pattern to their appearances. I've charted out a route that hits most of the most likely areas they'll appear over the next few days." She pointed at some equipment in the corner: sensors on tripods, a variety of storage drives, and various self-defense tools. "I'll leave tomorrow, and see if I can't catch one to analyze it properly."
Charthur nodded. She continued tracing her finger along the route, noting the elevation changes and the hazards marked throughout. "A rugged trek, so it would seem. I hope you've got a hearty team."
Neon sighed, frustrated. "Uh, no. My normal team is all tied up these days. I can't ask Lily to help right before her big expedition, not when she needs to be in top form. Normally, Viridian would be all over this," she paused, making a face. "...but they've been investigating this mystery broadcast recently and I don't want to potentially distract them from that. It seems too important to interrupt, so... that's good. For them." She looked away from Charthur, and coughed.
"Anyway, Mia's swamped with overseeing the new community center. I don't know if she has a golem that she isn't using, much less the attention to pilot it. Shizu could probably help, except she thinks the whole thing sounds, 'like, totally boring.' And Xenon's working with..." Neon's brow furrowed. She pressed her hands together, in front of her lips. "Xenon's busy."
"So wait a minute, hold the phone," Charthur cut in. "TAL's really going to send you alone?"
"It's not that TAL doesn't want to help," Neon assured her. "She's encouraged me to investigate the matter. I thought she'd be concerned that her long-range sensors can't detect the fields, so, uh, I can't actually prove they... exist." She paused, seeing if this would concern Charthur, but it didn't seem to register on Charthur's face.
"She had no problem letting me use my discretionary time to try to gather concrete proof of them. She provided all the equipment I requested and prepared the topography charts for me. We just don't have the staff; no one else can afford to spend a few days on this. I'm on my own for actually stomping about in the wilderness, chasing my theory."
Charthur took this in, concerned. Then her face lightened, all at once. She said, clearly pleased with her own slyness, "It seems you need help, do I understand? That equipment looks heavy... you could use a hand."
"Yeah, I certainly could, uh...." Neon trailed off, realizing what Charthur was implying. "Are you..." Charthur nodded, her sly smile broadening into a grin. Neon looked away, pretending to be interested in the map in the hope that Charthur wouldn't pick up on the flush growing across her cheeks. "Are you sure you want to go? I can't imagine..."
But Charthur cut her off with a gentle (for Charthur) punch to the arm. "Sure you can!" She insisted. "What do you say?" She performed an exaggerated stretch, extending her arms up as high they'd go, rising up onto the tips of her toes, before releasing the tension all at once. "And I could use the holiday."
"Charthur, this won't be like the experiments we've run," Neon warned. "This'll be dangerous."
"Then you need my help! No more debate." Neon tried to interject, but Charthur slammed one fist into an open palm to cut her off. "And with my aid, you'll do great!" Neon opened her mouth, but Charthur was on a roll. "I'm an experienced hiker, or didn't you know? The Yard will be easy with no ice, wind or snow!" Neon tried once more to argue, but Charthur clearly knew she was on the verge of cracking, and pressed on. "And can you honestly reject, help from your favorite test subject?"
Neon covered her face with one hand, and Charthur grinned. She had landed a bullseye, and clearly knew it. "That'd be, uh..." Neon brought her hands up before her, drumming her fingers gently against each other. There was a voice screaming at her, telling her not to dare impose, but for once, it felt muted and distant.
The plan had been go alone, take some time to herself, just... disappear for a while. But here was an opening... no, better than that, an opportunity, and so she realized she had already abandoned the plan, right from the very beginning. "...actually," she said carefully, "...if you were to come along, I'd be able to take some additional scanners... and I could use a higher fidelity, if we took extra drives to store the data on..."
Charthur gave her a big thumbs-up, followed by another, less gentle (even for Charthur) punch to the arm for good measure, to demonstrate her enthusiasm for the idea.
"If you're sure," Neon said, rubbing her now-tender arm. One final out. She had to be absolutely positive.
"Nothing more important! The top of my list. If you think I can help, I'm glad to assist!"
Neon exhaled, smiling at her. Whatever Charthur had been drinking, it had made her somewhat louder than even her normally exuberant self, but she was still extremely Charthur, through and through. "Alright, then. I guess you've even done the paperwork for handling Teslic Yard equipment. I can print off the final few forms for you to fill out in the morning."
"So it's decided! I cannot wait," Charthur declared immediately, thrusting a finger into the air. "An expedition! I'll save the date."
"Thanks," said Neon, gratefully. "I mean it."
"I look forward to see what the Yard has in store." Charthur said, rubbing her chin dramatically with her eyes closed. She opened them again and fixed Neon with a tender gaze. "Anyway, really, what are friends for?" She opened her arms and swept Neon into a hug, capturing the lanky scrapgoat before she realized what was happening. Absolutely without hesitation, Neon hugged her back, leaning down slightly to complete the embrace.
She knew it wouldn't last forever. It was worth a try, though. Charthur didn't seem to be in any rush to release her, and so why should it fall on her to escape?
...after a minute, though, she grew aware of a shift in Charthur's stance.
She looked to Charthur's face, and saw her staring intensely past her, a grim look set on her features. "What?" Neon asked, nervously. "What is it?" Charthur did not respond.
She twisted in Charthur's embrace, trying to see what she was staring at. The two separated, allowing Charthur to slowly point at the scrap box on her desk, empty except for the damaged sensor, little translucent flakes of pink material scattered about, having fallen from the crack during the removal process.
"What?" Neon repeated. "It's just a damaged part. I was planning on analyzing the damage to it later." Charthur said nothing, but continued to point. "What about it?" Neon insisted.
Charthur turned her head to Neon slowly, her body frozen, her finger still pointed at the device. Her eyes were wide-open, and Neon could feel anxiety twisting in her gut. "What?" she cried. "Tell me!"
Staring her dead in the eye, face stony, voice grave, she asked, "Are you going to finish that?"
Neon felt her brain turn over. Then, with resolve, she puffed up her chest, and smacked Charthur across her still-solemn face, striking with equal parts rebuke and affection.
Charthur turned with the blow, doubling-over to clutch her knees and start cackling. Neon pursed her lips shut as hard as she could, but her own laugh escaped anyway. The sight and sound of Neon sputtering away prompted Charthur to let loose with a full-bellied chortle. Neon fought, but couldn't bring herself to stop. For a minute, there was nothing she could do but laugh along.
"Idiot," she finally managed.
"Your face," Charthur gasped. "Your face!" She reiterated.
"You aren't funny," Neon forced out between laughs.
"Your face!" Charthur proposed as a counterpoint, still laughing.
Collecting herself, Neon rose, planted both hands on Charthur's shoulders and gave her a meaningful shove. "Out, out of my workshop!" she demanded. "I told you I have work to do."
"Alright, alright, I'll leave if you like," Charthur gasped, still out of breath from her gigglefit. "I better go home, and prepare for our hike!"
"That's right! You better be here bright and early, or I'm leaving you behind," she threatened. Charthur laughed once more, winked, and gave her a wave as she padded her way over to the front door. "I mean it, Charthur!" she called out, as the grey tiger made her way out. Neon rushed to the door, calling after her as she retreated down the block. "Be here by 11am, or else!"
Once Charthur had disappeared around the corner, she huffed to herself, and closed her door firmly. She looked immediately to her clock, doing some mental calculations. Charthur's disruption of the plan required her to assemble, calibrate and stow additional equipment for the journey. Her interruption had pushed back her estimated completion of the repair before she could even begin all that. She was going to have to get all of Charthur's documentation in order and figure out a way to get her to read it. When she factored in the inevitable hours lost to Surfnet browsing at the end, there simply weren't many hours left over to dedicate to sleep.
Neon considered this, and decided it wasn't relevant. She knew full well she'd be too excited to sleep anyway.
Charthur tossed and turned in her bed.
She was dreaming. She was remembering. It was impossible to say which.
She had gone to sleep, thinking of the Yard, trying to imagine what it might be like. And now...
She had been standing over Neon. She was standing over her now.
Important words. Something she had needed to say. Something she was going to say right now. The words were coming.
She opened her mouth to speak. The words were here.
She said them.
Charthur shot up to a sitting position and lunged for the pencil and pad sitting on her bedside table. In her haste, she knocked the pencil across the room, where it skittered across the floor before disappearing under a piece of furniture.
Cursing, she seized a pen that happened to be left out instead. In a rapid scrawl, she wrote down the words while they lingered in her mind. Comprehension could come later — for the moment, capturing them before they vanished was all that mattered.
She finished the second and final line. There was no sound except that of her own strangely ragged breathing. She realized just how tightly she had been clutching the pad, and just how intensely she had been staring at the lettering on it, barely visible among the shadows...
In the darkness, she peered at what she had written. She leaned in, struggling to read her own desperate handwriting, her hand trembling, her ink still bleeding through the paper.
Whispering, she read to herself: "I told you I had it under control. A little ice to protect my sole."
With a silent curse, she casually flung the pad and pen away, not caring to see where they landed. Grumpily, she let her head fall back onto her pillow, and resolved to let sleep overtake her once more.—glitchedpuppet