"I'm glad you found the time to see me," Professor Boatbell announced while taking his seat behind the metal table. "I know things aren't easy for you in this period."
"Don't even mention it, sir," Khan politely replied, sitting on the other side of the table. "I'm actually sorry I couldn't plan something with your family's representatives. I hope this dinner won't offend them."
"Don't worry about it," Professor Boatbell reassured. "I've already warned them, and they understand your situation. They even wish to express their gratitude for having this dinner in the first place."
Khan smiled but didn't add anything. His return to classes had been messier than he expected, so he had used Professor Boatbell to escape the many invitations. The two had met in one of the Harbor's restaurants the same night, and the place had granted them a private room.
"As expected," Professor Boatbell sighed once the silence reached its fifth second. "I had a wealthy family's education, but politics have never been my strong point. My mind is blank now that I have to start a conversation."
"That's surprising," Khan admitted. "Your lessons have given me the opposite idea."
"That's because I love the topic," Professor Boatbell explained. "Maybe I would have been better at this if I hadn't spent so long studying alone."
"If I may, sir," Khan exclaimed, "I'm glad you did. Your lessons probably wouldn't have been as good otherwise."
"Thank you, Captain," Professor Boatbell replied. "Though you also deserve praise. Your tests' results surprised everyone."
"I have good teachers," Khan deflected the praise, "And I find most subjects interesting, especially yours."
"History is fascinating," Professor Boatbell declared. "We must know it to avoid repeating mistakes."
Khan nodded even if his interest in Professor Boatbell's subject mostly involved the Nak. Learning about humankind's evolution might reveal holes that hid the secrets he sought.
"Shall we order something?" Khan wondered.
"Of course," Professor Boatbell exclaimed while tapping on the table. "You must be famished."
"I'm always famished," Khan laughed as a series of menus lit up on the metal surface. The place had many options, so the two took a few minutes to study everything and make their orders.
"See?" Professor Boatbell called once the awkward silence returned. "Blank again."
"Sir, please, don't force yourself," Khan smiled. "If it makes it easier, just drop the formalities and speak openly."
"I could never disrespect you like this," Professor Boatbell stated.
"I might prefer it," Khan revealed. "Besides, I have many formal dinners waiting for me. Something friendlier might be for the best."
"Are you sure?" Professor Boatbell questioned. "I don't want to risk abusing my position as a teacher. You outrank me outside the embassy."
"It's fine, sir," Khan reassured. "Just speak your mind."
"Well," Professor Boatbell sighed. "Starting with some honesty will set the proper foundation."
"Sure," Khan confirmed.
"I know this dinner is a fortuitous event," Professor Boatbell revealed. "I've seen how your companions assaulted you after my class. I'm here because you needed someone to occupy your night."
"I did plan to accept your invitation anyway," Khan explained. "I simply thought I could kill two birds with one stone."
"That's totally understandable," Professor Boatbell uttered. "I'm not angry or offended. Being the only one here actually improves my position in my family. In a way, you turned me into a representative."
"I guess we both got something out of this," Khan stated.
"Indeed," Professor Boatbell replied. "Though, I hope we can still have a fruitful dinner. Honest but fruitful."
"We are on the same page, sir," Khan agreed. "Again, meeting you has always been my intention."
A notification lit up on the room's metal walls, and Professor Boatbell unlocked the entrance. A waiter crossed the door and delivered drinks before performing a polite bow and leaving the two alone.
"Captain," Professor Boatbell announced after performing a simple toast, "Have you ever considered the academic path?"
"Becoming a scientist?" Khan wondered. "Professor, I'm sure you are aware of my family situation."
"I know," Professor Boatbell stated, "And I mean no disrespect mentioning it. Still, the Global Army has countless scientific branches, and you would probably shine in all of them."
"I think you are overestimating me," Khan laughed.
"Not at all," Professor Boatbell pressed on. "I read your work on the Tors. It was amateurish but promising. You could do wonders after completing the Harbor's education and spending a few years in the field."
"Sir, I am a soldier," Khan explained. "Soldiers belong to the battlefield."
"Most soldiers choose the battlefield due to a lack of alternatives," Professor Boatbell pointed out. "They fight so they won't have to fight anymore. You have already achieved that goal."
"Maybe I enjoy fighting," Khan suggested.
"That's understandable," Professor Boatbell nodded. "I don't understand it myself, but I can accept it."
A notification lit up on the walls again, and Professor Boatbell unlocked the entrance to make another waiter enter the room. She delivered two steaks and a meal Khan didn't recognize before leaving the area in a hurry.
"You should add some green to your meals," Professor Boatbell voiced a friendly scolding when Khan seized the two steaks.
"A balanced diet never was the priority in the Slums," Khan chuckled without hiding his desire to taste the steaks.
"But you aren't in the Slums anymore, Captain," Professor Boatbell replied. "Just like you aren't on the battlefield."
"Do you have something in mind, Professor?" Khan smiled before gulping down a big bite. "I thought we were being honest."
"As a matter of fact, I do," Professor Boatbell declared. "Well, it didn't come from me. My family pressed me to mention how honored we would be to welcome you among our researchers."
Khan didn't hide his surprise, but the sudden offer had nothing to do with it. The Boatbell family didn't have specific scientific branches or contracts with the Global Army. It only had a few talents who happened to shine in those fields.
"I understand your confusion," Professor Boatbell continued. "You could get far better offers and positions from the other students. Yet, you'd have undisputed authority in my family, and we'd also make sure to meet all your needs."
"But, sir," Khan frowned, "I'm no scientist. I merely started my academic journey."
"And yet your talent is evident," Professor Boatbell responded. "My subject might not suit your peculiar situation, but imagine what your insightful mind could provide to humankind. Honestly, I think you would be perfect for the job."
Khan understood what the Professor meant. Khan's mutations and element made him unsuitable for the human arts, but he had a broad perspective regarding aliens.
Someone like Khan would find it easier to translate foreign methods to add them to humankind's collection. He had already proven his talent with the Tors, and the Professor wanted him to apply that expertise to more alien species.
"I can't accept," Khan eventually admitted, "Not now, at least. I have too much on my plate."
"Of course," Professor Boatbell uttered. "I never expected you to agree right away. Actually, as your Professor, I advise you to focus on your studies. You are doing well, so keep working hard."
"Thank you, sir," Khan replied.
"I only want you to keep this offer in mind," Professor Boatbell continued. "The big families have more resources and better authorizations, but there is value in working for a smaller one. I'm sure you are already aware of the advantages."
"I am," Khan confirmed without adding anything. Freedom was an important currency, and only smaller families could offer it without asking for anything in return. He could also aim to become a patriarch there if he played his cards right.
"Let's drop the serious topics for now," Professor Boatbell laughed. "Your food will get cold if-."
Professor Boatbell couldn't finish his line since a glance at Khan's side of the table revealed two empty plates. He had already eaten his steaks, and his drink also needed a refill.
"Do you want to order something else, Captain?" Professor Boatbell cleared his throat.
"I wanted to wait for you to finish," Khan revealed. "Still, I wouldn't mind another drink right away."
"Please, feel free to use the menus," Professor Boatbell reassured. "Making this dinner satisfactory is the least I can do."
"Bring my thanks to your family," Khan smiled while tapping on the table to activate the menus. "Though, I would appreciate hearing your opinions about your subject. I'm especially curious about the First Impact."
"Captain, I might annoy you for hours if you are not careful," Professor Boatbell laughed. "I lose track of time when I talk about the topic."
"I don't mind," Khan stated. "It would be a waste to miss this rare chance."
"Sure," Professor Boatbell agreed, "But I have a condition. I'd like to hear more about Milia 222. You must have had the chance to interact with other alien arts during your time there."
"We have a deal, sir," Khan chuckled, and the Professor showed a similar expression.
"I must say," Professor Boatbell announced once he and Khan stepped on the sidewalk, "This dinner was quite pleasant. Your insights into the Fuveall were captivating."
"I also had fun," Khan praised. "Your knowledge of the events after the First Impact is deeper than I thought."
"I built my career on it," Professor Boatbell laughed. "It's a pity it will be hard to meet again under these friendly circumstances."
"I'll do my best, sir," Khan promised.
"Don't force yourself," Professor Boatbell reassured. "I'm sure the next months will be hard for you."
Khan couldn't disagree. The Professor had given him a chance to escape the many invitations, but they were still there, and Khan needed to address them. He only wanted more time to prepare accordingly.
A message reached Khan while the two waited on the sidewalk for their cabs. Monica was checking on him, and he didn't hesitate to give her a summary.
'The dinner went well,' Khan wrote. 'I'm coming back now.'
'Hurry,' Monica replied. 'I miss you.'
'I'll be there in no time,' Khan wrote, but the arrival of a familiar presence in the symphony made him cancel the message. A car with lowered windows was descending toward the sidewalk, and he knew who was inside.
'Something came up,' Khan decided to send while the car landed. 'I'll explain later.'
Professor Boatbell understood that something was up, and the opening of the car's doors answered his questions. Lucian came out of the vehicle, and a big smile shone on his face when he approached the two.
"Professor, Captain," Lucian greeted.
"Lucian," Professor Boatbell called. "Are you here for Captain Khan?"
"Is it so obvious?" Lucian chuckled. "Still, yes, I was hoping I could have a talk with the Captain. We have a private matter to discuss."
Khan couldn't help but show a cold face, but his expression grew warmer when the Professor searched for his eyes. Khan smiled and nodded to reassure him, effectively agreeing to Lucian's invitation.
"I should take my leave then," Professor Boatbell stated. "Don't stay up too long. You both have classes tomorrow."
"Of course, Professor," Lucian replied.
"It won't take long, sir," Khan added.
An exchange of polite smiles happened before the Professor headed for the sidewalk's edge. A car had arrived by then, and he entered it to leave the area.
"This way, Captain," Lucian called while pointing at his car, and Khan followed him inside. The vehicle showed the luxury he expected from the Hencus family, and the passenger seats also had two soldiers he didn't recognize.
"Don't mind them," Lucian declared. "I was dealing with something, and they happened to stick around."
Khan only needed to glance at the two soldiers to figure them out. They were second-level warriors with battle experience, but their cold expressions couldn't scare him.
"Won't you ask me how I found you?" Lucian questioned.
"The entire Harbor keeps track of my movements," Khan revealed. "The Headmistress is taking care of dispersing the crowds, but that doesn't hide me."
"Someone made a site for that," Lucian explained. "It also has pictures and rumors."
"I guess I'm a celebrity," Khan sighed. "So, why did you come to see me?"
"Not here," Lucian stated. "Let's go somewhere private first."
Silence fell into the car while it flew among the buildings. The vehicle remained inside the shopping district but opted for a tall structure with a landing area near its top floors.
"You stay here," Lucian ordered the two soldiers while leaving the car. "Captain, with me."
Khan followed Lucian past the landing area to enter deeper parts of the building. A room with an assorted table eventually unfolded in his eyes, and Lucian didn't hesitate to reach for one of the armchairs at its sides.
"Please," Lucian called since Khan remained on his feet. "I'm sure you also wanted to talk to me. There is no point in this fake hesitation."
Khan reached for an armchair on the opposite side of the table, but his hesitation remained. He was in an environment chosen by Lucian, and the metal walls hindered his senses. He didn't know what to expect.
"Don't worry, Captain," Lucian exclaimed. "This room has no cameras or recorders. I'm willing to go through your alien technique to reassure you if necessary."
Lucian's mana confirmed that he was telling the truth, but Khan didn't give him any satisfaction. He simply made himself comfortable and reached for one of the bottles on the table.
"Good," Lucian announced. "We won't have the limitations of the political dinners here."
"Why did you help me?" Khan went straight to the point. "You had no reason to take my side during the dinner."
"I didn't," Lucian corrected. "I took my side."
"How?" Khan wondered. "I would have considered your offer anyway. Instead, your help makes it suspicious."
"Oh, that," Lucian realized. "See it as my way of asking for forgiveness. I underestimated you, and I wanted to make us even."
"What are you talking about?" Khan coldly asked. "You read the reports about Nippe 2's events. The kidnappers simply didn't prepare for me."
"Yes, that report," Lucian voiced in a mocking tone. "As if anyone would trust it to describe the entire story. Anyway, I was talking about our common friend, the one you claimed to have never touched."
Khan didn't answer. He knew the Princess had made Lucian suspicious about the nature of his relationship, but he couldn't speak openly about it.
"I truly believed your lie," Lucian continued. "I mean, it made sense, especially considering Monica's education. I didn't expect to be so wrong."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Khan declared, "Or where are you going with this."
"Nowhere," Lucian laughed. "I was only explaining my reasons. I felt sorry for underestimating you, so I decided to help."
"In a political dinner with your father," Khan pointed out.
"Captain, every descendant has their parents as their first enemies," Lucian explained. "Undermining their position while gathering more influence is part of the game. My father would be proud of me if he knew how much I'm not telling him."
Lucian's explanation had a deeper meaning. It wanted to tell Khan that he didn't reveal anything about Monica.
"Though, you sure didn't do a good job hiding it," Lucian continued. "I had a hard time holding back the laughs when you cornered Madam Solodrey."
"I was only speaking the truth," Khan partially lied.
"A dangerous truth," Lucian corrected. "Yet, I admire your guts."
"The game," Khan mentioned to change the topic. "What is it? I don't get why you would undermine your father."
"To take his place, obviously," Lucian stated, "And eventually get in charge of the Hencus family."
"Isn't that your birthright?" Khan wondered.
"Each family has different methods," Lucian explained, "But all of them have many branches and descendants. Mana also makes us live long enough to witness the birth of new talents. The competition can only increase as time passes."
Understanding dawned upon Khan. Lucian probably was the best descendant in his family, but that could change in the next decade. His father also looked quite capable and powerful, which made his ambition harder to accomplish.
"Don't overthink it," Lucian uttered. "Every descendant has to play a similar game. Even Monica is in the same situation, but I'm sure you know that better than me."
Khan kept his expression cold and suppressed any reaction. He had gotten an idea of the internal struggles of the families, but their specific situations still escaped his mind. He knew Monica's issues but had never applied them past her parents.
"On this topic," Lucian continued, "I think it's time to talk about your mission. I need it to gather merit inside my family, so I'm eager to hear your opinion."
The dinner with Lucian happened only two days ago, and Khan had been incredibly busy during that time. Still, he had given a better look at Lucian's mission and had even started developing plans.
"Unless," Lucian added in front of Khan's silence, "You need more time."
Khan and Lucian exchanged a look for a few seconds, but the former eventually took out his phone. Khan reached the mission details and activated some holograms before placing the device on the table.
The holograms took the shape of a planet that shone on Lucian and Khan's faces. More than half of that spherical object was red, while the rest carried an iconic azure color.
"The Global Army has rights over most of Lauter's empty areas," Khan announced while tapping on the azure parts to add yellow shades to half of them. "If you want to avoid taxes, you must build in these territories."
Khan tapped on the remaining azure parts, and the holograms changed. The planet disappeared, leaving only a few dots and small bright patches above the table.
"There are a few available islands," Khan continued, pointing at the largest bright patch, "Especially here. Yet, these areas have the highest concentration of Tainted animals since the Harbor kicked them out of the other territories."
"I know all of this, Captain," Lucian stated. "I personally reviewed these reports before sending them to you."
Khan held back a sigh. In theory, the mission wasn't too hard. Any relatively wealthy family had enough manpower and weapons to clear the packs of Tainted animals and establish an outpost. That huge mobilization simply wasn't cost-effective.
"If I have to be real," Khan declared, "It doesn't sound possible to complete the mission without going above your ideal budget. The biggest chunk of the expenses simply can't be avoided."
Khan had done the math with Monica. The mission involved fixed expenses like fuel, ships, bullets, and weapons. Khan could save money when it came to manpower, but that would lower the mission's success chances.
"I hired the most promising figure in the Global Army for that reason," Lucian explained. "It's your job to make it possible."
"Some of these locations have hundreds of Tainted animals," Khan rebuked. "Recent reports even confirm the presence of specimens as strong as fourth-level warriors. Any team would need air support."
"Air support is expensive," Lucian revealed. "A few missiles can make the mission cross its budget."
Khan knew that. He had actually remained stunned when he learnt about the cost of missiles, and that wasn't the end of it. Bringing those weapons to the Harbor's system required many authorizations, which weren't cheap.
"A high-level warrior might replace them," Khan suggested. "I'm sure your family has many under their payroll."
"I've been clear in the reports," Lucian reminded Khan. "Asking my family's help would take away merit from myself. Besides, high-level warriors are expensive, and descendants carry similar problems."
Lucian had used precise words, and Khan didn't miss their hidden meaning.
"George would be cheap," Khan reassured. George wouldn't join Khan for money, so he was the perfect candidate for the mission.
"That's not the point," Lucian rejected. "Involving another family would muddle the business' ownership. George could even give me his word, but those above him would always be able to ignore it."
"So, I can't hire George," Khan sighed.
"No," Lucian confirmed, "Or any other descendant."
"Lucian, there are many Tainted animals down there," Khan tried to appeal to Lucian's reasonable side.
"You have experience with outbreaks," Lucian pointed out. "Who better than you knows the dangers that those creatures pose?"
Khan's gaze inevitably wandered on the map as memories filled his vision. He had a better understanding of the power wielded by high-level warriors now. He knew Yeza and Captain Erbair could have survived in the valley. They didn't because Yeza wanted to save as many people as possible.
"Captain, did I choose the right person for the job?" Lucian wondered. "I can come up with better incentives if that's what you need."
Khan didn't bother to give those words any value. He would only play by Lucian's rules if he did. Instead, his thoughts remained on the mission. In theory, sticking to its budget was impossible, but he could make a difference.
"I need to redo the math and find suitable teammates," Khan exclaimed. "I won't know for sure until then, but it should be possible."
"That's what I want to hear," Lucian stated. "Who knows? This might be the beginning of a lasting cooperation."
"I'm just considering a job with good pay," Khan disregarded Lucian's words.
"For now," Lucian smiled. "It's never bad to have the support of a big family, especially in your unique situation."
"Are we done here?" Khan questioned, retrieving his phone and storing it in his pocket.
"I think we are," Lucian confirmed while standing up. "Allow me to bring you back home. It's the least I can do after imposing on your night."
"There's no need for that," Khan refused. "Just show me the way to the first floor."
"As you wish," Lucian agreed. "Good night then, and make sure to bring my salutes to Miss Solodrey. I had no intention of making her wait for you."
Author's notes: Just a friendly reminder that any kind of feedback is welcome here. I only want what's best for the story, and your opinions help a lot. They also make me improve as an author, so don't hold back.