Campaign of the Month: September 2014

Outremer

Fuel On The Fire

Al Hekmah Spaceport, Sophia, Illiyun
0737 (Coordinated Illiyun-Sophian Time)
May 2nd, 2494 (Universal Civil Calendar)

(Basileus)

Leaving behind the confusion and disarray of the GSRP, the company provided a chartered hovercar to the spaceport, its interior clean and modern with glowing holofeeds of headlines, economic trends, and internal company announcements. Clearly meant for executives and respected visitors, it smelled of old world leather, though almost certainly artificial, and the hum of powerful engines thrummed underneath sending faint reverberations through the floor. The sounds and smells of the city were sealed out completely.

DamasqueDescending from the Upper Cataracts to the Damasque district, the landscape changed from manicured corporate plazas and polished carbon glass, to organically curved streets and alleys, lined both by structures built by the original colonists almost two hundred years ago as well as newer apartments and storefronts squeezed into every open space and stacked one upon the other like some twisting urban forest. Fortunately, a wide expressway arched high over this urban maze and led directly toward the port at the south end of the district.

Deceptively squat from a distance, the spaceport loomed over the city like a hunched mountain, and coming closer it became apparent just high its superstructure reached into the sky. A sprawling complex, the port was divided into various public and privately owned subsections each with its own array of hangars and terminals, studded with everything from warehouses for industrial storage to exclusive lounges catering to the traveling elite.

The Vesta Corporation had a long-term lease on an entire wing of the port and the hovercar carefully wound its way through the streets, avoiding crowded public terminals until they came to a row of hangars with a small sign projected at the front declaring “Contractor Docking”.


HangarThe hovercar came to a smooth stop in front of the open hangar door and slowly floated down to the ground with a slowing, cyclical whine. A corvette filled the cavernous space inside, its silvered hull smooth save for a few patches of blistered scars. The air smelled of electricity and tasted of oil. Two dockworkers stood among the stacks of crates against the wall, but they didn’t appear to be working – in fact, oddly, they had their hands in the air, and their industrial assistance synthetics were standing dormant.

The hovercar wasn’t the only new arrival.

Standing in the entryway leading from the interior of the structure was a large man with obvious cybernetic augmentations studding his neck and arms, and an impeccably groomed blond beard. He was flanked by six gunmen carrying various handguns and carbines, each of them covered in a variety of glowing tattoos. One had a small handheld scanner pointed at the ship, and turned to the blond man standing in the center.

“Mattias, this is the Mirror, sure enough. Broadcast ID confirms it.”

Mattias, the apparent leader, gestured to one of the dockworkers, and a thug swiftly pointed his weapon at the hapless laborer.

“You there, where might I find the illustrious sons of Charles Maeka, hmm?”

Hangar Map


Raize (Maesenko)

Crouched and leaning against the wall of the Control Room door, Raize couldn’t help but lament to himself. Damnit, I knew this was a trap! I thought that Vesta message from this morning was definitely too good to be true. Now here I am, alone, with… — Raize peeked out from the door frame for a quick headcount — …seven armed Hellions looking for me. I don’t even have a firearm with me. At least Zhair isn’t here, not exactly a proud moment for me. So, I’ve got two choices here: try to sneak into close range and take them out, or try to make it to the Mirror and run.

The choice was obvious to Raize. After all, The Only Good Hellion is a Dead Hellion. But he’d try to leave the leader alive, at least long enough to get some intel out of him. But first, a little scare tactic might work to my advantage. Cutting the lights should do nicely. (ENGINEERING)


Tumbrel42 (SkidAce)

As the Vesta hovercar slowly came to a stop, Tumbrel noticed the unusual deployment of the dockworkers and the Hellions that were confronting them. “Tumbrel has bad experience with Hellions. They tend to shoot at the beginning of conversations instead of the end.” Tumbrel commented to those in the hovercar. Tumbrel looked at the hovercar driver, and although not an expert at organic emotions by far, the human was clearly overwhelmed by the thought of what he may have driven into. Tumbrel moved forward and quickly yet mostly gently removed the pilot from the seat and took his place behind the controls. Tumbrel looked back at the rest of the passengers with a odd look of enjoyment and said “Considerations?”


Alda (joettle)

Alda studied the building as they pulled up and saw the Hellions interrogating the dock workers. She grinned approvingly at Tumbrel42’s initiative, ‘’Interesting. Wonder if this has anything to do with our new pilot. I think it best I slip out. I have a few flash bombs. I’ll move around and disorient them. Protect your eyes. 42, after the flash move in and sideswipe them, but don’t hit the workers. Hune, I think it’s a good idea for you to stay with Nura unless you have a better idea.’’ She reluctantly slides the symbionetic Neural-undunal scarab of Hune’s in place behind her ear. Gross.


Nawahune (machineguneharry)

BETTER IDEA!?” the Shen said trying to shout ‘quietly’. “Yeah, I have like a THOUSAND, and they all don’t have a synthetic crashing us into a group of armed-men! Alda are you CRAZY??”

Tumbrel’s neck servos slow turned his head towards Nawahune, like one of those possessed puppets, leaving his body unit still facing forward. The synthetic simply stared silently on at the Shen. Looking back from the corner of his eye, Nawahune still facing Alda said in an aside, “See! Its looking at me now. V, I got a bad feeling about this.”

“Relax Hune.” Alda said. “It will be fine. I have total confidence in our pilot. ‘Sides, he’s never unintentionally crashed anything.”

“Actually, Ms. Vitrionne,” Tumbrel42 interjected humbly, his head turning with that slow servo motion again to Alda. “Tumbrel has a 0.795% of destroying the inner hull of this vessel. Mr. Bengwe makes a marginal complaint.”

“See, Hune. You’ll be fine!” Alda hides her grin as she goes for the door handle.

“Fine! How’s that fine?” Nawahune complains. “That’s more than a half a percent! That is statistically significant!”

Alda shakes her head with a slight chuckle, and opens the door.


Alda (joettle)

“I’ll be in contact, Hune. Be ready.”

Alda slides out of the far side of the hovercar and moves silently around into the hangar behind the Hellions. Once in position, she signaled Nawahune and threw the flash bomb in between the workers and the Hellions and hoped the shock would drive them away from each other.


Nawahune (machineguneharry)

Nawahune fumbles his large hands into his messenger bag that contained the starfish inhaler, and pulls out a matching scarab. Nervously he puts it on to his temple. The chitonous legs of the beetle sink into the subcutaneous adipose, dimpling the surface epidermis. The bug, then lays its carapace low against Nawahune’s skin. Its segments of its abdomen undulate ever so slightly as Alda’s voice…thoughts come into Nawahune’s mind.

“Hune, when will get over this synthetics conspiracy obsession?” Alda transmitted.

“Its not an obsession, V.” Nawahune thought back. “Its real.”

“Well, however real it is, don’t let it cloud your judgment.” Alda responded. “Now keep the doctor safe…it might get bumpy in there.”

Nawahune looked over at Nura sitting across from him in the car. For a scientist and researcher she had a great figure. It was like looking at two Erlenmeyer flasks put mouth to mouth. Her pulled back hair and thick rimmed glasses hid something very desireable. Her face had soft curves and velvet lips, and naturally lush lashes framed her jewel-like eyes. And yet, despite these womanly qualities, there was a naïveté about her.

“Hune! Get your mind back in the game.” Alda’s inner voice startled Nawahune out of his daze.

“What? I don’t know what you are referring to.” Nawahune said defensively. “I was not oogling Dr. Sadik!”

“You said it not me.” Alda retorted, humorously.

“V, focus on your part of this plan, despite how crazy and futile its outcome might be. And, I’ll handle mine.”

“I bet you will!” she thought smirkingly.

“That’s not what I meant.” Nawahune said, the words escaping into reality.

“I’m sorry?” Dr. Sadik asked. “What was that, Dr. Bengwe?”

“Uh…nothing,” the Shen recovered. “The ride’s going to get a bit bumpy. You may wish to hold tight.” Nawahune moved to the side of the hovercar he predicted Tumbrel would be side-swiping the Hellions with. This way he could better protect the doctor.


Tumbrel42 (SkidAce)

Tumbrel blinked on the light sensor filters he just discovered that he was equipped with to block the blinding light of Alda’s flash bomb. Pushing the throttle of the hover car forward, and grasping the steering yoke, he drove the car swiftly into the hanger area. Noticing the jerk with which he had accelerated, Tumbrel though it best to warn those behind him, “Caution is recommended, we will soon decelerate just as fast as we accelerated”.

Having performed due diligence, Tumbrel hit the brakes, reversed the throttle and spun the hovercar to the left, immediately engaging the thrust again, forcing the vehicle into a long careening slide. There were a few bumps and thumps from the interior of the vehicle, and then a huge thump and multiple shudders as the rear of the hovercraft drew itself across the two groups of helliions, bouncing up and down on its stabilizers as if traveling over uneven terrain. After the thumping against the car, and the tumbling motion of flung hellions had ceased, Tumbrel conscientiously shut down the engine and parked the vehicle properly. Tumbrel forget to glance into the back as he opened the hovercar door, stepped out, and surveyed the scene.


Nawahune (machineguneharry)

Despite Nawahune’s well-intentioned mental planning, the spin of the hover car put quite the pressure of G-force in the back seat. Dr. Sadik, clearly out of her element in the heat of action and combat, flew from one side of the back seat to the other. Like a basketful of wet clothes in the dryer, Dr. Sadik was tossed back and forth unsecuredly while the car spun with fury. Nawahune managed to hold on, but to his horror the doctor could not be controlled. He tried restraining her from flying through the window, but the many sharp, diamond-hard chitonous additions to his body cut deep lacerations into the terrified doctorCompel Covered in Commensialistic Chiton-based Creatures for One FP, and inflicting unintentional damage to an ally. Nawahune realizing that he was doing more harm than good, grabbed the car door in mid spin and used his MightCreate Advantage “Wielding a Bulletproof Car Door” -- Roll ( + 1), Might (+ 4) = + 5 to rip it from its hinges for a quick escape and display of raw power.

View
The Fire Before Them: Lab
Lab Scene

containmentcells.jpg

Nawahune (machineguneharry)

Nawahune’s first reaction was to move quickly away from this room. But, the hand-sized daemonodendrons fused to his chest injected a healthy dose of cortical-suppressors that began to regulate his heart-rate, even his breathing, and allow him to think rationally.

‘’Alda, did you get a good look at the systems of security that we pass through from here to the apartment?’’ Nawahune asked calmly, but with a sense of urgency. ‘’What type of thief are we looking at? Can we assuming there are not many who can make it this far…are you even that good?’’

With his nerves calmed, Nawahune was able to look closely at Mr. Mahanya’s reaction to the situation to discover if he might be hiding something regarding this murder and theft [EMPATHY] .


Alda (joettle)

When Nawahune looked to Alda he saw that her hand had involuntarily gone to her mouth, covering it in shock and a futile, subconscious attempt to protect her self from infection. The Shen’s question snapped her out of it and she lowered her hand. Her eyes scanned the room, flicking back and forth, seeming to plot out methods, weak points and escape routes.

Still facing the ravaged lab, Alda replied, “This good? Yes. This psychotic and brutal. No. They did a real number on the systems. I could barely wade through it. They were searching for something hidden in plain sight judging from the files they accessed. They seem innocuous, but somehow important. The rest of the damage to the system was a smoke screen. I think it was an inside job, at least in part.”

The agent turned to Nawahune with uncharacteristic concern spread across her face, ’’Hune, we need to talk.”

Alda guided Nawahune to a secure location, outside if need be and confided, “This is bad. Not just “widespread-deadly-infectious-disease-at-large” bad, either. I dug a little deeper while I was in the computer systems. Hune, they were illegally testing on human subjects. Dozens of them. This adds a whole new level of motives and suspects to what happened here. But we can’t trust Sadik, or Mahanya for that matter. We don’t know how they’re involved. They may block the investigation or worse." She shivered at the thought of being infected with Xeno, “A bullet or fall from a building, I can handle, but slow, mutated agony is not on my list of ways out.”


Tumbrel42 (SkidAce)

Tumbrel was not sure what all this fuss about lab work and viruses was about, nor what it had to do with piloting a spacecraft for Doctor Emil Nemecek, other than the fact that his potential employer had ceased to function. Tumbrel decided that he “felt” fairly irritated by this turn of events.

He followed the others, who seemed even more upset over this turn of events than the death of one human would seem to imply. Tumbrel listened quietly to their discussion, standing to the side and slightly behind the group, where he could look over most of the laboratory.

Alda (little bird) seemed quite concerned about the destruction in the laboratory, and the effect the “virus” would have if miss used. Following her interest in the destruction of the lab equipment, Tumbrel activated his scanning sensors in conjunction with the passive array/proximity sensors, in order to scan the room, looking to see if anything stood out as unusual from his point of view. As a result, he also noticed the subtle conversation between Alda and Nawahune.


[Basileus]

As Nawahune keeps a large, dark eye on the security chief, the human’s eyes are wide and darting rapidly around the room, his breathing quick and heavier than normal, yet his face is frozen tight and emotionless and his shoulders drawn high and back. Even from the Shen’s limited experience with humans, Nawahune can tell that Francis seems to be trying to camouflage his clear nervousness.

Unfortunately, perhaps watching the security director a bit too long, Francis’ gaze flicks over to meet Nawahune’s and he notices the Shen scientist watching him. He glances down at the symbiotic creatures attached to Nawahune’s body and slowly back up to the alien’s face – his lip curls slightly as he steps away and toward Dr. Sadik to murmur something quietly.


Thinking through the security systems of this facility, Alda quickly runs through how someone could have penetrated this far into the GSRP without tripping off any of the many layers of security between the perimeter of the campus and this room.

The first thing that comes to mind is the array of omni-cameras. Tiny button-like devices that integrated full-spectrum sensors and wireless transmission devices, each operated independently and would run even through an interruption in the tower’s ambient wireless power. They were a ubiquitous security measure in high-sensitivity corporate security and a practiced glance at the top corners of this very room confirmed for the agent that they were present here as well – likely in every hallway and room on this floor.

Quickly referring to the automatic preliminary reports generated this morning, the recorded feeds showed that whoever pulled off this theft had used advanced technology to blind the cameras without actually interrupting the transmissions so as to avoid setting off any alarms. That is, until the pattern recognition filters picked up a large distortion in the feeds surrounding this central lab. After the distortion cleared up, the feeds showed the lab in its current state, coolant pooling and spreading on the floor and the shattered rounded face of one containment vessel rocking back and forth on the floor.

Whoever had done this had also clearly come in with the necessary passcodes and biometrics – confirmation of Alda’s gut instinct that this had been (at least in part) an inside job.

Why anyone so well-equipped and prepared would need to violently smash the lab equipment remained a mystery…


Tumbrel is able to simultaneously monitor both conversations as they occur in the observation room, both between Mr. Mahanya and Dr. Sadik close to the main window, and Nawahune and Alda as they walk around the corner of the L-shaped room – seemingly to get a better view of the main chamber of the containment lab.

From Mahanya, he hears a frustrated, murmured complaint, “Does that fish really have to be here, doctor? There are plenty of so-called experts already here.”

Nura Sadik, from where she had been leaning intently close enough to the glass to create a thin sheen of fog in front of her lips, whips her head to him with narrowed eyes and practically hisses.

“Emil respected him. I respect him. And I will thank you to refrain from insulting the company’s partners.”

“Partners? I still think we need to focus on this investigation. You can resume operations once we determine that the safety and security of this facility and its staff has been restored.” This seems to be an argument the security director and the scientist have had before, as both quickly fall into a practiced back-and-forth that distracts them from the situation for a moment.

“This project’s continuity is far more important. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved with our work and if we halt research or have no material to work with, it could set us back months – even years for some of our teams. I’m confident you can carry on your investigation without bringing us to a halt. Do I need to consult with Director Yeun if you are going to make this about authority?”


Eventually, Dr. Sadik and Mr. Mahanya come around the corner to join the rest. Francis looks defeated, as if everything in his world were going wrong at the moment, while the doctor has continued to recover vitality after having mourned her slain friend and mentor not so long ago. There is a certain manic energy about her as she begins to speak.

“Mr. Mahanya and I have come to a consensus about how to regain control over this situation. It is incredibly important that this Project’s operations continue without interruption – too many people have invested so much, and the stakes are too high for those out there who are counting on us to come up with a cure.” She pauses for a moment, her energy dimmed just briefly. “And this is what Dr. Nemecek would want.

“There is a second repository of Xenoviridae material at our remote facility in the Kotal Mountains. We need to bring it back so that our researchers can get back to work.”

The security director interjects. “I’m going to be pursuing the investigation here, with my own personnel; however, I have concerns about pulling Project staff to assist with this retrieval. So I’m recommending we hire trusted, external consultants for this task.”

Dr. Sadik takes over again. “Mr. Bengwe, I must remain here to speak with each of the team leads and manage this crisis. Emil recommended you highly on several occasions, and I’ve been following your recent work on cross-phyletic recombinant therapies, I’d like you oversee the transfer of the material and ultimately bring you into the Project as we resume operations. We just lost a brilliant mind and we’ll need someone to help fill Dr. Nemecek’s shoes.”

She looks to Tumbrel.

“Mister, ah…” She stumbles over the word as if unsure of the proper title. “Mr. Tumbrel, company records indicate that you’ve contracted with us before, and your combination of piloting skills and immunity to the danger this material poses makes you uniquely qualified to assist with both transport and handling.”

Mahanya interjects for a second time, drawing a harsh look of irritation from Dr. Sadik. “I must also insist that Ms. Vitrionne go as well, simply as a company representative who is already privy to the details of the situation. Ms. Vitrionne, I will notify your supervisors in Development that you are being temporarily re-assigned.” He smirks slightly before continuing. “I know this is out of your usual wheelhouse, but we would greatly appreciate your help in this.”

Nura nods, though she looks at Alda for a moment as if re-assessing the woman who had been introduced to her as simply a technical specialist.

“In the next few minutes you each should receive contracts with sizable compensation, both for the potential risk involved as well as your discretion. If you agree, we’d like to get started as soon as possible. If not, you will also find a copy of non-disclosure agreements you will be required to return to us before you will be allowed to leave the facility."

This time, Mahanya waits a moment to make sure that the scientist has stopped speaking before adding, “If someone is targeting the Project, I’d rather the retrieval be performed with a ship that isn’t licensed to Vesta. We’ve also engaged the services of a captain who will provide the ship, on the condition that you, as Vesta Personnel be allowed to perform your jobs without interruption. He should be at the spaceport now in one of our private landing areas.”


Alda (joettle)
After she and Nawahune rejoined the group, Alda’s eyes fell on Tumbrel42 and smile lit up her face, “42! It’s good to see you! With all this news I guess I didn’t notice you come in. I’m glad to have you on board. I’m happy to have someone I can trust aboard an unknown ship with an unknown pilot.”

Alda decided that she would continue with the mission as ordered for now. She had no real evidence that either Mahanya or Sadik were involved. Only that the project was acting illegally.

Alda nods to Mahanya assignment and agrees to go, “It will be best to get that back up supply before whoever did this gets to it. By the way, it was an inside job.” Alda pauses and watches Sadik and Mahanya carefully to gauge their reactions, “Had to be. They knew exactly where the omni-cams were and how to by-pass them. They’d need to be working with someone familiar with the systems to do that. Would anyone from either staff have any motive to do this? Who else has access to the location of the second repository of Xeno? They may already be on their way.”


Tumbrel42 (SkidAce)

Tumbrel shifted a mechanic plate above his left eye lens in a reasonable facsimile of raising an eyebrow, which he had learned was the organic equivalent of a welcoming smile, and replied to Alda. “Alda-bird, Tumbrel feels satisfaction at working with you again. However, there is no worries on concern of the pilot. The ship may be currently unknown, but I have been contracted as the pilot. You know Tumbrel, therefore you know the pilot.”

Tumbrel waited patiently for the rest to determine the proper course from this point. He also mentally calculated the disbursement of funds for this contract versus the amount needed to procure his own ship as a percentage.


Nawahune (machineguneharry)

“Well,” interjected the Shen somewhat distracted by all he was trying to calculate in his mind from the scene. “I am not one to dwell on long conversations, so I feel that we should be moving hastily along to this external site.”

Nawahune was feeling a sense of uneasiness being outside of his own secured lab, where he was the one in control. Typically he preferred the benefits of isolation: peace, quiet, calmness, predictability, decreased variables. But in this moment despite being so close to where an explosively virulent microbe once was housed and freed, he was getting mixed signals between isolation and the present company.

“Doctor,” Nawahune directed his question at the lovely Nura. ‘’Will you be escorting us to the spaceport? If so there is much that I would love to discuss about the Emil.’’ He offered her his arm to lead her as a proper gentleman. In doing so, his other hand trying to conceal the careful placement of a bug (something Nawahune might call more correctly a Gromphadorhina intellica) on to the under-ledge of a steel table. [STEALTH]

“Nura…may I call you Nura, Dr, Sadik?” Nawahune continued. “Have you ever heard of Emil’s and my exploits in the jungles on Ronig-Suer? It was very exciting! There we were amidst thrawls of Proteo simian Gong-murins trying to collect specimen of the rare Galendraethicus arencetes, the most beautiful flower in the three galaxies, when…”

Over hearing Nawahune’s story from her conversation with Tumbrel, Alda rolls her eyes; and says under her breath, “Here he goes again”


[Basileus]

Director Mahanya takes a long breath before replying to Alda’s suspicions.

“I’ve been thinking along similar lines, Ms. Vitrionne, though I have no good answers just yet. All the internal staff undergo extensive background checks, though I suppose a visitor from one of our partners might have slipped through with less… stringent investigation.

“The facility in the Kotal Mountains is used as a remote site for several projects and ongoing operations, so the existence of the facility is no secret. The Xenoviridae repository though – I can only think of a handful of people who are aware of it. Those of us in this room, Director Yeun, the on-site staff at the Kotal facility…” he trails off, as if trying to think of anyone else, and Dr. Sadik finishes for him.

“One of our senior team leads here oversees the scheduled transports – Charles Sawin with Procurement and Distribution.”

The doctor seems pleased with everyone’s acceptance of the task, and after a moment’s hesitation, she ultimately agrees to Nawahune’s proposal to join them on the way to the spaceport. A faint smile begins to cross her lips as she listens to Nawahune’s tale, and her demeanor begins to change gradually – neither sorrowful nor driven with a manic determination, but slowly relaxing.

Director Mahanya, on the other hand, watches coldly as the others move to leave. “If you will all excuse me, I have much to attend to. Please keep me apprised of any developments.”

As the others recede from view, his dark eyes turn slowly to the steel table in the observation room…


Next On Outremer: Fuel On The Fire

View
The Fire Before Them

GSRPGiulia Sapienti Research Park, Central Plaza
0612 (Coordinated Illiyun-Sophian Time)
May 2nd, 2494 (Universal Civil Calendar)

(Basileus)

Pale sunlight danced on the horizon, lending a glimmer of reflected warmth to an early morning in the Upper Cataracts that would have otherwise been overshadowed by towering, carbon-glass facades like dark silver monuments where massive corporate facilities lined the street. The wide thoroughfare was paved in smooth ferrocrete, studded with carefully groomed Terran vegetation tended by tiny automated drones that whirred quietly as they bustled through the otherwise still morning air, oblivious to the masses of humanity gathered in the structures around them. The trees were artificially stimulated to bloom year-round, so clusters of tiny white flowers adorning them emanated a light, honeyed smell that drifted pleasantly through the air. Cutting through the center of the plaza, a channel of deep waters flowing from distant mountains whispered and gurgled as it ran swiftly toward the nearby Cataract Facility.

A rare moment of peace – almost unheard of in a city of nearly 25 million sitting at the center of a massive interstellar web of commerce and travel. The handful of people huddled in small groups along the walkways spoke in hushed voices, as if hesitant to disturb the precious quiet.

They needn’t have bothered.

The keening wail of a security alarm descended furiously on the plaza. High above, angry red lights flashed in the sky hovering around the highest levels of the soaring tower at the far end of the thoroughfare. The Vesta Corporation’s automated security systems surged into action across the GSRP campus – securing entry and exit points, tracking and identifying the roughly three thousand people living and working in the complex, and dispatching numerous summons and reports to various security and administrative staff.


Doctor Emil Nemecek, esteemed researcher and pioneer of human knowledge and experience, was dead.

Purification Project LobbyThose were the words on dozens of lips as research staff filtered into the offices and labs of the Purification Project. Team leads, lab techs, and support staff wandered aimlessly in the open space of the entrance hall, trading shocked looks and rumors about the events of the previous night.

No one would be getting any work done today anyway – whole sections of the upper floors had been sealed by security staff. Two Vesta officers in black uniforms with gold piping stood to the left of the wide corridor leading to the closed labs, trying (and failing…) to calm an animated scientist gesturing pointedly with long, narrow fingers and raving loudly about “agglutinative protein reversal” and “weeks of lost work” if he didn’t get into his lab within the next few minutes. A light-duty combat synthetic stood silent sentinel a few paces down the corridor, appearing oblivious to the argument though doubtlessly monitoring the man’s agitation closely from behind its placid mask of artificial professionalism.

The Purification Project was a high profile partnership between multiple corporations and academic institutions with the stated mission of finding treatments and ultimately cures for the terrible viral scourge known as Xenoviridae. Although, despite its admirable goals, it had been mired in some degree of public controversy of late, surrounding rumors of secretive human trials and heavily “incentivized” test subjects – all unfounded speculation of course, as Vesta’s press releases emphatically declared.


Dr. Nemecek's QuartersA few floors up, adjacent to the Project’s most secure offices, the on-campus living quarters where Dr. Nemecek spent his few resting hours were deceptively quiet, at odds with the chaos that was spreading below as news of the good Doctor’s death spread like wildfire.

The term “luxury suite” fell far short of describing the quarters that Vesta had supplied for Dr. Nemecek. Along with real hardwood floors the color of dark cherry, and wide windows that stretched from floor to ceiling and around the exterior, the apartment was divided into several rooms each larger than the homes of most of the city’s residents. Printed volumes smelling of dusty leather binding and rare historical artifacts recovered from Earth lined the shelves in the corners, and the view afforded from the windows stretched out over the sprawling city like that of some omniscient deity looking down upon multitudes of hapless mortals.

The coppery, sickening odor was immediately out of place – as ugly hanging in the air as a stain on delicate fabric, and it filled the entire apartment. It grew stronger proceeding through the otherwise immaculately clean surroundings, overpowering at the door to the doctor’s small private office.

Inside, what remained of Emil Nemecek lay sprawled on the floor in front of his desk.

His upper body was fairly undisturbed – arms cast out as if he had fallen forward while walking and tried to catch himself, head turned to the side at a slightly awkward angle. His lower body seemed to be… gone. Stretching from his left hip to just under his right arm, there was a smooth dissection as if his entire body had been sheared in half by something incredibly sharp. The floor and walls were sticky with an inordinate amount of unidentifiable gore that had somehow been liberally splashed wide across the room.

Back in the main living area of the suite, just around the corner and marginally removed from the sight and smell of murder, stood a man and a woman in measured, quiet conversation. Dr. Nura Sadik, having just found herself effectively promoted to the head of the Purification Project following the grisly death of her longtime friend and mentor, rubbed at her puffy, reddened eyes with a pale face that was cast down toward the floor. Opposite her, a stern-looking gentleman by the name of Francis Mahanya attempted – rather awkwardly – to be comforting, while glancing rapidly at a miniature holo-display embedded in his left arm and periodically hissing orders at security staff as they passed by.

“There’s nothing more we can do here, Dr. Sadik. Why don’t we wait outside? My people are already handling this investigation internally, and I’ve contacted the appropriate people to take care of our… outstanding needs. They should be arriving any time now…”


Alda Vitrionne (joettle)

Alda walked briskly through the busy lobby, her eyes on the holographic display in her palm. Dressed casually, yet clean and trendy, Alda look very much the part of high-end tech support. She wore a sleek gray jacket over a form fitting black short-sleeved blouse, dark gray slacks and elegant, but function, low-heeled shoes. Without looking up or breaking stride, she wove her way in and out of the crowd of lab techs, scientist and other nondescript personnel to the lift in the center of the building. Ignoring the irate man gesturing to the officer, Alda flashed her palm outwards to the officers, holographic display instantly changing to her ID, barely pausing to allow examination, then closed the distance to the synthetic at the door. She took more care with the combat synthetic, but proceeded with no less confidence and, once her ID was accepted, passed through the doors and into the elevator, barked out her destination and leaned back in the corner to continue review the file in her palm display.

When the doors opened again Alda took a moment to assess the situation. Security officers and other personnel hustled here and there. A couple of techs appeared to be combing the late Dr. Nemecek’s home for any evidence they could find with the assistance of a handful of palm-sized drones that flitted this way and that. Spotting Sadik and Mahanya, Alda made her way over to the pair.

“Mr. Mahanya, Alda Vitrionne. Thank you for your call. I am at your disposal,” the agent said offering her hand. She then turned her attention to the obviously stressed and grieving doctor to her left. “Dr. Sadik, I presume,” she began, as awkwardly as Mahanya’s own attempts at comfort, “My . . . condolences for your loss. I understand the you and the late doctor were, um, well acquainted.” Alda winced inwardly, knowing this was not the right thing to say, but words had already left her lips.

Nura winced outwardly and fresh tears welled in her eyes, “Yes, Ms. Vitrionne. It is a great loss for us all. Pardon me, but what is the nature of your visit?”

Francis interjected quickly wishing to both ease the tension and divert Nura’s attention from Alda, “Alda is here to analyze Dr. Nemecek’s computer systems. We hope to find information that will lead to the killer’s identity or motive. If you will excuse us, actually, I’d like to get her started. Alda, please proceed.”

Grateful for a way out of the tense situation, Alda quickly moved to the computers and got to work. Alda took the small messenger bag from her shoulder, dug inside and withdrew three cables. She connected them to the computer then to directly to the inside of her right wrist.

Now, thought Alda, let’s see if I can find something valuable outside of this investigation.


(Basileus)

Slipping into a sea of data in her mind’s eye, one thing was immediately apparent to Alda Vitrionne as she examined the doctor’s computers – they had been ravaged by a malicious software probe, and were at this point barely functional. Huge swathes of data and programs had been destroyed, erased forever. Interacting with it through a mental jack was less like swimming and more like slogging through thick mud, as most of its resources were being devoted to self-repair and attempting to isolate and destroy the malicious intruding program.

It was also clear to the agent that she had a limited amount of time to perform her investigation before the system would be overwhelmed entirely. Alda would want to have disconnected before that happened or the experience would be… unpleasant.

Carefully avoiding segments of corrupted data, she found something interesting in the system logs. A few hours ago, surely not long before or after the doctor’s death, petabytes of data had been downloaded from the Project’s networks. The download was relatively small compared to the entirety of Project’s data banks, but the content was inconclusive – the intruder might have escaped with the GSRP’s weekly staffing reports for the last decade, or with proprietary research data.

Things were starting to get dark, cramped, and chaotic as the system descended further into oblivion at the hands of the malicious infection, but buried in the record of the download was one more interesting tidbit. Something that had come not from the Project’s networks, but a small block of encrypted data stored locally. And the original files appeared to have miraculously survived the ravages of the intrusion probe thus far. With no time to decrypt it now, so Alda quickly made a copy and rapidly began the process of extricating her consciousness from the computer.

The snap of mental disconnection was immediately followed by the holoscreen going dark. The doctor’s computers were gone forever.


Tumbrel42 (SkidAce)

Tumbrel had made his way discreetly towards the office where he was supposed to meet the Vesta Corp official who had requested a “skilled and dependable” pilot, when all the alarms went off and security checkpoints began to close. Fortunately for Tumbrel, he had reached the section of offices and research stations where he was supposed to meet his contact.

Still Tumbrel stated internally, discretion is called for. Humans (in Tumbrel’s experience) had a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Most of the humans glanced at Tumbrel curiously, and then with bored business efficiency when he presented his credentials. His attempt to deceive the normal guards about his nature, combined with a valid pass, got him through the remaining checkpoints to the elevator leading to the office of his employer. As Tumbrel was interacting with a curiously primitive combat frame, he saw a human female figure enter the elevators ahead of him. It was the flying human from one of Tumbrel’s previous jobs. The little bird Tumbrel thought. I shall have to find her after accepting this job.

Entering the elevator himself after it came back down, Tumbrel spoke the address of his prospective employer, and looked around curiously when the elevator stopped and he stepped out.


(Basileus)

Upon entering the upper floor’s of the GSRP tower, an oddity of human nature became apparent to Tumbrel. Having slipped past the security perimeter, most of the staff scurrying around on this level seemed to ignore him, perhaps on the assumption that anyone who had made it this far was supposed to be here. Unchallenged, he made his way through the initial hallways of the Purification Project, until finally he came to an open door displaying the name of a Dr. Emil Nemecek.

The grim security chief standing in the apartment was the first to notice the synthetic as he entered.

“Who the hell…” Francis Mahanya started toward Tumbrel, looking ready to throw him out personally, but slowed and looked back down at the display on his wrist for a moment. “Huh… guess that wasn’t a joke,” he muttered under his breath.

Not quite sure how to address the synthetic, Mahanya took a carefully neutral tone.

“You must be, ahem, Mr… Tumbrel. Thank you for you prompt arrival. If you don’t mind waiting for a few minutes, we’re waiting on one more.”


Nawahune (machinegunharry)

Nawahune arrived at the ground lobby of the Vesta Corporation’s building as soon as he could free himself from a previous engagement. Being too big to take a Terran taxi, he had dashed nearly three blocks from the magni-tram depot. Despite his impressive lung capacity, he was gasping for breath as he burst through the carbon-glass doors onto the scene.

“Barnacles to this thin air!” he swore, bent over and catching his breath while supporting himself on his knees. He quickly shot a hand into his side messenger bag slung around his neck and left shoulder, and rummaged around with his fingers for a minute or two. It was a very low key bag, nothing fancy or high tech, like you might find on a typical pedestrian in Illiyun. Nawahune didn’t care much for high tech apparel. In fact, the bag wasn’t even composed of synthetic fibers; it was made from the hide of some animal, tanned and sewn with the imperfect precision only an organic could achieve…at least he believed that to be true.

From the bag he pulled out a curious item. It was rigid and quinary with five cone-like arms in a radial fashion, much like a starfish. Holding it in one hand with each finger in one of the five crevices between the arms, the Shen put the strange object to his mouth. It latched on, and then delivered a puff into his lungs. The Shen pulled the item from his lips, whereupon it was noted that each arm had tiny suckers holding fast to his skin. Nawahune gently put the starfish-like item back into his rustic bag, and reattached the bag’s latch. He straightened himself, corrected his tie, and walked to the central lift dignified. He clearly looked more relaxed, and had regained his breath and composure.

Upon reaching the top floor, he exited the elevator to be suddenly impeded by a pesky security synthetic.

“Halt!” it barked apathetically. The Shen tried to pay it no attention. “Halt!” it repeated in the same exact person-less tone. “This is a restricted area. Only those authorized can advance beyond this point.”

Upon stating this, the synthetic remotely activated the yellow light emitting holo-tape surrounding the penthouse crime scene. It flashed three times to alert the Shen of its presence. Then it returned to its previous status of scrolling the words, “Caution: Crime Scene in Progress…Stay Back…Caution: Crime Scene in Progress…Stay Back…”

“Worthless Synthetic.” The Shen thought. He put his massive hand on the bot’s cephalic component, and proceeded to push it away at a distance, much like an older brother would do to a younger brother in teasing fashion. At first it seemed that it would work. The synthetic flailed its arms trying to reach for the Shen. The Shen chuckled in amusement at the scene, when suddenly a ominously sharp probe-like object unfolded from one of the security synthetic’s arms. Nawahune did not have time to react. A low hum emitted from the sharp object, followed by what sounded like a thousand whips cracking in succession. The Shen’s massive muscles convulsed violently. He all but fell to his knees trying to fight the high amounts of electric current flowing through his body. The sharp smell of ozone permeated through the air.

When the synthetic was finished issuing it initial shock, Nawahune was still on his feet…but only barely. The Shen despite his large frame was quivering uncontrollably.

“Now…PLEASE…back away from the scene. This area is for authorized personnel only. Do you continue to resist?” the synthetic added coldly.

A soft whimper emanated from Nawahune’s lips.

“Very well.” The synthetic responded, followed by a secondary shock to the Shen.

AAAHYAHYHAOWWWYAH!” Shouted the Shen as he torn away from the electrical hold. “W-w-why I-I-I o-ought-t-ta p-p-pulvi-p-pulvi…r-rip you apart!”

Nawahune’s outrage clearly was making a scene. So much so that many did not see a tumbrel unit obviously dressed in a fairly mediocre disguise to pass among the crowd less noticed.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” called out a familiar female voice from within the authorized area. “The big guy’s with me.”

Agent Vitrionne waved her gloved hand at the synthetic, whereupon the security synthetic immediately changed its posture and said, “You are free to enter, Authorized Ass-s-s-ociate of Agent Vitrionne.”

Alda Vitrionne led Nawahune through the holo-tape.

“These synthetics have it out for me, V." Nawahune said to Alda as an aside as they continued away from the lift. A crowd was now forming around where the Shen vs. Synthetic incident took place. Several people were whispering discretely, but clearly talking about the Shen.

Noticing this, Alda turned around, raised her arms and said aloud to the crowd, “Okay, th-th-that’s all folks.” The majority chuckled and then began to disperse.

“What was that all about?” Nawahune asked cluelessly.

“Its…uh,” she knew he wouldn’t get the joke, and even if she tried, she’d have to spend at least an hour explaining and satisfying his curiosity. “I’ll tell you later. Dr. Sadik is expecting you.”

“How did you even know I was here?” Nawahune asked. “I only just arrived.”

“I was reviewing the security cameras as part of our investigation. I just happened to notice when you entered down in the lobby.”

Silence.

“Thank you, for back there.”

“No prob, Hune” Alda replied. *"It’s what friends do. But why didn’t you just show your clearance badge?"

“I was going to, but I think I misplaced it somewhere.”

*"Ah! Mr. Bengwe. I am glad you arrived." interrupted a rich but sweet voice. The two turned to meet Dr. Sadik.

The Shen was caught completely off guard. He had rehearsed in his mind the words of condolence he was prepared to say, but for once in his life he was caught without words. “Doctor?” he said weakly.


(Basileus)

Nura seemed to pull herself together as Nawahune walked in, perhaps simply calmed by a sympathetic face – alien though it was. She paused for a moment, smiled weakly, and said to him, “I know you feel the loss of Emil as deeply as I do; he was a treasure to both our peoples. I’d like to talk more later, when we have a moment.”

The security chief seized on the opportunity to interject, “Now, I believe we can begin. If you will all follow me, we will show you the reason why we called you here so early in the morning.

“Oh, Miss Vitrionne, if you are finished, would you please join us in the labs.”

Lab HallwayThe journey from Dr. Nemecek’s apartments to the adjacent labs took the small gathering through a wide hallway studded periodically with short flights of steps. The walls were a sterile, pure white and the lighting stark and clinical, all a jarring difference from the warm, old-world sophistication that had characterized the apartment. Out here the smell of gore was absent and instead replaced by a vaguely electrical scent created by ionized and ozonated air. The temperature was an even 20 degrees Celsius.

Small scrolling projections glowed from the windows of darkened labs as the five passed by, displaying names of authorized personnel and identifying the activities conducted within. Finally, they came to a lab located in the center of the floor, where the glowing projection read:

Core Sample Containment
Special Access: Doctors E. Nemecek and N. Sadik
All others A-4 designation required.

There was an airlock with thick double doors leading from the corridor into the lab proper, and before the second set of doors opened, jets of cool, gaseous sterilizing agent flowed into the chamber and surrounded the visitors before being whisked back out by powerful air filters.

Dr. Sadik stepped forward confidently, beckoning the rest to follow, and began speaking. She was hardly the same woman, who had clearly been weeping not long before – now she seemed authoritative, decisive… even passionate. Francis Mahanya’s face was twisted in displeasure, as if he’d rather his feet weren’t even touching the floor of this chamber, but he didn’t complain as Dr. Sadik took the lead.

“Some of you may be familiar with the Purification Project. We’re headed by the Vesta Corporation, but we’ve partnered with Cardinale Biotech, the MacKennon Corporation, NovaThought, and over a dozen other entities. Over the better part of the last decade we’ve made significant strides in understanding the alien mutagen we all know as Xenoviridae.

“The original strain we call “XV-1” was discovered on a planet called Neritus in the Piscium system. Highly destructive to organic tissue in its natural state – it wiped out an entire colony of several hundred thousand people in a matter of weeks. By the time the initial outbreak had been contained through widespread quarantine measures and the earliest treatments developed, the death toll had risen into the millions. Even today, with the symptoms suppressed by medicines like Exvexa, it is one of the deadliest and most virulent biological agents known to exist, and it has spread beyond the systems of the Protectorate… in this very city we have three thousand registered infected.

“The Purification Project aims to change all that, by developing radical therapies aimed at treating and eventually curing XV infection.”

The olive-skinned doctor strode over to a panel by the observation window and hit a large release button. Pale light flooded in slowly as the observation window opened and the main chamber of the lab came into view.

“Which is why this” she turned her head to the containment lab, “is…” She seemed to struggle for words for a moment before whispering, “calamity.”

Core Sample ContainmentThe lab was filled with numerous transparent containment cells each fitted with high powered coolant systems. Glowing projections ranging from “XV-284” to “XV-327” flashed in red above the rows of cells, reminiscent of the security drones outside Dr. Nemecek’s apartment reacting to the discovery of the murder. However, each cell seemed to be entirely empty, the carbon glass cases shattered and coolant leaking out across the floor to create a layer of frost and fog that filled the majority of the room.

Nura looked pale again, and Francis seemed ready to crawl out of his skin.

“We’re safe here in this observation room, right, doctor?”

Nura turns to Francis and replied, “The sensor drones cleared the area of any traces of infectious material. But no one is safe, Francis. No one. No where. Not anymore.

“This is smallpox, and Black Death, and the Manhattan Project, and the Phobos Chemical Spill all wrapped into one nice little package… and someone stole it last night.”


Continue HERE

View
Catch and Release
Raize and Zhair's First Contract with Shen.

A few months after Charles’ passing, Raize and Zhair are in a slump. Their funds are low and their spirits lower. They trade in small goods and make port in small outlying communities or in unpopulated areas so as to avoid docking fees. Raize has spent most of his time in the hangar, working on the strike craft that have sat idle for some time or otherwise going through the motions. Zhair, seeing that the two are in need of some excitement and funding, finds a job posting from a Shen official regarding mercenary work attacking a “rogue enemy of the state.” After convincing Raize to take the job, the pair head into battle alongside several other small mercenary companies to bring down this enemy…


“…Remind me again, Zhair, why we took this job?!” Raize called out from the Lunar Crater’s commlink while swerving between stray shots from the bogey on his tail. A moment later, the shots stopped, and Raize detected a rapidly-dissipating energy signature from behind. The bogey was gone.

“It pays well and the Shen will owe us a favor. And besides, this is FUN !” Zhair enthusiastically responded from the seat of the Stellar Skimmer, which passed by from behind Raize’s ship with two more fighters giving chase. Raize locked on to one of them and fired, hitting their starboard thruster. The fighter broke off to retreat back to its frigate.

Fun, he says…he’s not the one sitting on the payload. And why do the Shen want us to attack another Shen ship? Can’t they handle their problems on their own?

Raize began to guide his bomber in line with the carrier and prepped to launch the payload into the hangar bay now opening to receive the damaged fighter…


“Wait for it, wait for it,” came Zhair’s voice through the commlink. “Just like in simulations, bro.”

“Yeah, just like in sims. Except for the fact that I didn’t have enemy fire coming at me!” thought Raize.

Over the commlink back at Zhair, “This is gonna be tight.”

His bomber, practically on a collision course with the Shen frigate, was trying fast to enter into the field of frigate’s defense systems following the ‘invisible’ trail from the injured ship. Shen technology was completely foreign to Raize, but he had learned prior to this mission about the pherochemical trails. Every Shen ship excreted a pherochem trail, which allowed their ships to recognize friend from foe. Raize knew it dissipates quickly, so he was pushing his craft to ride the trail for as long as he could to get close enough to release the ‘payload’ his contractors had loaded into the launch bay behind him. He needed to release it inside the defense field, thus allowing it to not be destroyed by the Shen’s point defense system, which many experts believed teeters on near precognition.

“Ten seconds to payload launch.” Said the synthetic woman’s voice that Raize had installed to represent his onboard computer, which he had named YULIA.

“We have more fighters converging on our position, Raize.” Zhair warned over the comm. Just at that moment 3 blips appeared on Raize’s nav window.


“…Nine seconds…” YULIA said calmly.

“I see them.” Raize replied, trying to stay cool in front of his adopted brother.


“…Eight…”

“Just hold your course and stick to the mission…I’ll handle them!”


“…Seven…”


Raize knew Zhair was a decent pilot; but he also knew he was no Charles. A stray thought flitted through his mind, “Will he be okay? Should I break off and help?” he almost broke course.


“…Six…”


“No! Like Zhair said, ‘stick to the mission’. I need to trust him; it’s what Charles would have done.”


“…Five more seconds, sir…” YULIA added as coolly as the void outside his carbon fiber window.

Suddenly, a red relay light flipped on in Raize’s cockpit! “What the #@%$!? Why is the payload-release error light on? Not now!”


“…Four…”

He quickly hit the auto-pilot, unclicked his harness, and exploded through the hatch behind his seat leading to the payload bay…he had seconds to fix the problem. It was a good thing Raize worked well Under the Pressure of a Possibly-Imminent Reactor Meltdown. But, he was pretty sure this was no reactor meltdown…at least 93.2% sure… this time.

To his suprise upon entering the payload bay, the torpedo payload was no longer in its cradle like it should be. The whole torpedo was disconnected, and at a jaunted angle to the harness.


“…Three…”

Raize immediately heard and saw the sparks spewing from the robotic clamps that had been holding the hull of the torpedo. These robotic arms had been clearly damaged. Furthermore, it appeared like the torpedo was no longer in an aerodynamic shape that it was when Raize and Zhair had allowed the Shen to load it. It looked like the top was…open, like a pressurized can exploded in one direction. An ozone smell from the arcing wires filled Raize’s nose. Smoke from the damaged wires and hydraulic lines was accumulating in the corner of the payload bay. Something large was in the smoke.


“Two”

It emerged. Raize saw a large Shen stumble into the light. It looked pale and dazed. It saw Raize, and spoke weakly.

“Habu…wedu’i Ayo?” Though this was the first time Raize had heard an actual Shen say it, he caught the question: “Where…am I?”


“One…”


Nawahune’s Aspect: Lone Man in the Garden of Eden


YULIA, Abort launch! Return to the Mirror!” The words came out of Raize’s mouth before he could fully comprehend the plan that had sprung to mind.

While YULIA announced compliance overhead, Raize quickly motioned to the Shen before him and asked tersely, “My name is Raize. Are you okay?” A slow nod was all the answer Raize needed before he sprung back to his cockpit, vaulting into the seat and grabbing the controls. He popped on the commlink to Zhair. “Change in plans, bro. Return to the ship. The Shen tricked us, and now I need to pay them in kind.”

“What?! What happened, Raize? All we had to do was fire the torpedo into the ship and we’d get paid big! We could even have gotten some upgrades with all that cash!”

“Get back to the hangar and I’ll explain there. And trust me, we’ll still deliver on the terms of the contract, if not quite as our employers intended.”


Zhair pulled into the hangar bay to his waiting brother and a Shen he didn’t recognize from the contact meeting or the loading crew. Raize filled him in on what had transpired in the launch bay of the Crater and his discovery of what — or rather, who — was in the torpedo. Zhair let out a long, mid-octave whistle at the end of this revelation. He then asked, “Okay, but then what are we going to do about the job? I mean, I know we can’t just shoot this missile loaded with her at them, that’d most likely kill her.”

At this point, the Shen spoke up. “Him. I am male. My name is Nawahune Bengwe, and I believe I have a solution to your problem.”

Zhair stuck his hand up at the elbow, “I’m Zhair. And sorry, I thought most Shen were a bit of both.”

“Most are. I am not.”

Raize meanwhile, was busy working at reattaching the Shen torpedo he was lowering from the Crater’s launcher. “Now that the introductions are done, you said you had an answer to this problem?”

“Indeed I did. As you informed me while waiting for your kin, the point of your mission was to launch that missile beyond the point-defense systems of the opposing Shen and it would detonate once inside, damaging or destroying the vessel…and myself as well, I suppose.”

“I propose the following solution: load the missile with your own munitions and we can reseal it. I will use my knowledge of pherochemical symbiotecture to synthesize a suitable mimic which we can coat your ship and the missile with so that you may safely pass through the point-defenses and launch the modified payload into the ship. Then you simply return to your ship and collect your bounty.”

“How long would it take for you to craft something like that, and what kind of resources are we looking for? I don’t think we have a whole lot at your disposal.”

“Leave that up to me, and I assure you it will be completed by the time you have the repairs and modifications complete. Now, then if you would lead me Zhair, I will begin.”


Sure enough, by the time Raize got the torpedo resealed, Nawahune came back with Zhair in tow, carrying a case full of vials of fluid which Raize could only think to describe as ‘green and smelling like a filthy fish tank’. While Raize could feel his face contorting, Nawahune remarked, “Be glad you can’t smell it in space. Also, you will need a new cooling chest.”

The mission ran almost impossibly smoothly once the Crater was coated in the false pherochems. The Shen were impressed at the success of Raize and Zhair where so many other mercenaries had failed during the mission. They did comment that the damage of the missile did seem to be higher than they had calculated, but Raize quickly brushed it off as him “getting lucky and striking a critical point”.

With cash in hand, Urania’s Mirror charted a course back to Illiyun, where Nawahune parted ways with the duo, thanking them for saving his life where so many others had perished.

View
Sparrow Gliding on the Long Wind
Alda goes to work at Argentum.

Alda walked down the halls of Argentum, her hair up in a slightly messy bun, wearing an off-the-rack grey pantsuit. She carried a stack of papers in one arm, pushed a cart loaded with files and other office materials with the other, pausing every so often to push up her ill-fitting glasses. By all appearances, Alda was just another bedraggled intern, carrying on with one of her endless and tedious tasks. People barely glanced at the badge hanging from a black lanyard around her neck, but if anyone had stopped her, the credentials would have checked out.

Alda wound her way through the halls, keeping her eyes averted, as only a beat-down intern will do, until the load in her arms was too much for her and cascaded from her arms . . . right in front the door of one Prescott Belinger. Mr. Belinger was Head of Development for the Quantum Computing division of Argentum. A very important man, and all development data and plans came through this office for Prescott’s approval.

As she stooped to pick up her papers, Alda reached subtly in to the lower shelf of her cart and slid out a slim, black device. Rising casually and glancing down the hall, she placed the code-breaker over the key-fob panel and punched in a few numbers on the code-breaker’s keypad. She continued to fuss and organize her papers then, as the red light turned green on her little device, placed the stack down and backed into the room, pulling the cart and code-breaker in with her.

Once inside she worked quickly. The mousy demeanor fell away and she pulled one of the cardboard paper boxes off the cart, brought it over to the desk and flipped it open, revealing several smaller tools and a somewhat bulky, 10×16 cm silver box. Alda flipped a few switches on the side of the box, slid out two of the round discs and placed them strategically on the smooth black glass surface of Prescott’s desk. Blue light washed over her face as the holographic monitor came up and a keyboard appeared on the desk’s surface. Alda’s agile fingers began working at lightening speed as she began searching for data.

A moment later, a grin flashed across the SOD agent’s face, signifying her task was complete. She picked up the two disks and the display went dead . . . just as the office door opened.


Mr. Bengwe, I thought we were done. Was there something else you required?” Mr. Belinger responded with an air of annoyance mingled with his subtle old-Terranish accent, reminiscent of Dutch.

“Ah yes, yes, Mr. Bayleengwer." The deep voice continued. “I failed to describe fully the complex reproductivity of the eusocialistic colonial isopods. It is most fascinating, and essential in the understanding the potential for organo-symbiotic computing networks used by my people.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Bengwe. I felt that your previous description was sufficient for my overall assessment needed for my analysis. You have already provided sufficient information for my team to review. I have been most impressed. Can this wait?”

“Most certainly not! Do you realize that the rate machines and technology are developing independent of human involvement, pretty soon they will be taking over! You will be the servant, and THEY your master!”

“Excuse me?” Mr. Belinger’s voice asked, a bit confused where the conversation was going.

“I mean to say, Mr. Bayleengwer, that creating a symbio-organic computing network will be revolutionary! It will be the first of its kind on Illiyun. Imagine the patents that this company will hold by being the first to perfect this technology. And the best part of all? The network will grow because it is alive! This will be most extraordinary, you see? Furthermore, you can not fully appreciate its profitability until you understand its ecology.”

A loud sigh came from the door. ‘’Fine, fine. I understand your point, Mr. Bengwe. Step into my office, and you can finish describing the complex reproductivity of the socialistic colonial isopods … ’’

“NO, NO, NO!” the basso voice shouted as the door began to open again.

“MR. BENGWE! I THOUGHT YOU WISHED TO DESCRIBE THESE CREATURES??!! NOW YOU DON’T?” Mr. Belinger burst out in frustration.

“Yes, this is true, Mr. Bayleengwer …”

“ITS BELINGER!” Sounding even more frustrated.

“That is what I said, Mr. Bayleengwer. It seems you are a bit frustrated. Are you okay?” There was a long pause, while Mr. Belinger regained his composure.

“Yes, I am okay, now. I apologize Mr. Bengwe. Forgive my outburst. Now, where were we?”

“The complex reproducti…” answered Mr. Bengwe.

“Yes, yes, yes, reproductivity of the socialistic colonial isopods.” interrupted Mr. Belinger.

“EU-socialistic colonial isopods, Mr. Bayleengwer. Socialistic would just simply be absurd.”

“Yes, yes, shall we?” He began to open the door once more.

“NO!”

“No?!” parroted Mr. Belinger in confusion with a higher uncontrolled pitch. “BUT I THOUGHT…” He stopped himself this time, taking a deeper breath. “Do you want to continue, or don’t you?” He asked trying to remain polite.

“I do, Mr. Bayleengwer.” The deeper voice came back with the same formal tone. “I simply would like to discuss it out here. To be confined in such a cave is to deprive oneself of the vast opportunity to be stimulated by the mutual effects we exhibit upon others that are around us. We fail to observe an epoch to teach and learn. I feel others in this office would benefit from the description I wish to give.”

“Very well, proceed then Mr. Bengwe.” Mr. Belinger gave in fully exhausted now. He closed the door to his office completely.

“As I was saying, the complex reproductivity of the eusocialistic colonial isopods is a fascinating subject…” he paused. “…a subject I regret to inform you, Mr. Bayleengwer, I will have to share at another time. I failed to remember I have a previous appointment with the Shen Ambassador. I cannot keep her waiting you know. Forgive me, we shall bring this up at a later time?”

Prescott Belinger did not even respond. He simply turned to his door, burst open to find it just the way he left it. He slammed the door a little harder than he wanted in frustration at the long-winded Shen, who had just wasted his afternoon.

Already deep in the air duct systems, Alda was pulling the dismantled cart and equipment on a small retro-grav sled while just about to reach the extraction point.

“Well, Hune, that skill definitely isn’t something you should bring out at the annual company cocktail party.” Her thoughts transmitted through a symbionetic Neural-undunal scarab placed at her left temple. It was received by a second scarab on the temple of a Shen traveling down the central elevator of the Argentum building.

“FINALLY! Where have you been?! I thought I lost contact with you! Was there something wrong with your scarab?” Nawahune thought back to Alda.

“Well, not exactly, Hune.” Alda thought. “I was just thinking it is…creepy. It’s a beetle! How do you stand having things like this all over you?”

“We have already discussed this Alda. A regular comm would have been detected, hence the reason would could not just plant a transmitting device to extract those files. Did you get the files, by the way?” The whale-like Shen transmitted his thoughts to Alda.

“Hune, don’t worry I got ya covered. Of course I got ‘em! They don’t call me Victorious Vitrionne for nothing! Double V one, Argentum ZERO!” Alda thought boastfully.

“Sure cut it close this time, V.” Nawahune responded through thought.

“Close? You haven’t seen nothing yet, Hune!” Alda took the scarab from her temple and tossed it in her side bag as she crawled out of the shaft to the roof exit.

View
Our Final and Lonely Hour
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the system...

With a broad hand pressed to the cool, carbon-glass surface, Rear Admiral Leon Durand let out a heavy breath that created a cloudy patch on the window, obscuring his view of the space beyond for a short time. For the moment, he was alone on the observation deck of the FNCcr Okeanos – the crew rarely came up here anymore – and he didn’t mind letting the weight of his many years show in a brief moment of vulnerability as his heavy shoulders drooped down over his weary frame.

He had turned 80 last month, out here on this God-forsaken assignment, but the grey-haired officer didn’t look much more than 50 thanks to telomeric therapy and nanite treatments that his successful career and value to the Federal Navy afforded him. But he could feel it. Deep in his old man’s bones, his body was whispering to him “I am spent”. The assurances of the medical staff be damned – maybe he just hadn’t been meant to live this long.

Alright, bloody grow a pair, Leon… you’ve been through worse than this!

Straightening his back and shoulders, Admiral Durand gathered the practiced air of a commanding officer and career veteran about himself. With stern grey eyes and steel set in his weathered jaw, he locked his gaze once more with the scene that lay on the other side of the observation port.

At first glance, it was beautiful and peaceful. Serene, even. A glittering vista of starlight undimmed by atmosphere filled his eyes. He could see two rocky asteroids spiraling languidly in silent dance roughly a hundred kilometers out, but they didn’t draw his focus. He even saw the flickering pattern of lights from the FNCd Ammut, one of the escort vessels assigned to his command, as it engaged in tactical drills.

But there was something else out there, beyond the Sayhun Belt, something distant that nonetheless urgently demanded his attention. The enormity of it was mind-boggling – not just the physical size (which was hard to gauge from several million kilometers away) but what it meant. Not just for him, but for his home, for his nation… maybe even for humanity. Thoughts of it gnawed and scratched at his mind in every waking hour, and dreams of it clawed their way up from the depths of his subconscious when he slept. For all his decades of service and strict military regimen, for all his campaigns against the machine efficiency and inhuman brutality of the Collective, for all his early tours on the rim of explored space where humanity had never before traveled… despite these things Leon remained a simple man, a soldier with no frame of reference for what lay before him.

A sudden flare of determination in his eyes, the admiral turned on his heel with a vigorous snap entirely inappropriate for a man of his advanced years, and strode decisively down the corridor that lead toward his quarters. In a hushed growl, he gave instructions to his artificial adjutant over the commlink:

“Prepare a message. Mark as private and send on an encrypted channel…”


Marjolaine Durand was a low-level functionary in the governor’s diplomatic office, approving invoices and spending more time wrangling finicky administrative AIs than doing anything truly meaningful. Her career could have progressed much farther by now, had she been willing to cash in on her father’s reputation and her own attractive blonde curls, but she had decided long ago to make her own way – she wouldn’t accept anything attached to the vaunted “Iron Admiral” Leon Durand.

But at this particular moment, she was trying very hard to pretend that there weren’t large tears shining in her bright blue eyes as the recorded message from her father came to a close. There was a strained, deliberate quality in his voice, like he was swallowing pride, or fear, or sadness… possibly all three. Nobody else would have heard it underneath the rigid, commanding baritone… but it was there for only his daughter to hear.

She was half-surprised she could still pick up on that sort of thing, given that they had not spoken in six years.

“…I know I’m the last person you want to hear this from. And I’m sorry I can’t say why, but please… please just pack up what you need and book passage to another system. Somewhere quick – maybe one of the regular jumps to Beta Hydri.

“Whatever we’ve lost these past few years, I… Laney, I love you.

“Just… get out of Delta Pavonis.”

The admiral’s face in the holographic projection wavered, as if he wanted to add more, but after a moment of awkward silence the message cut out abruptly, leaving the young woman with little more than emotional turmoil, more questions than answers, and a decision to make.


Issue: “The Terrible Truth Is Out There.”

View
Family Problems
Slade balances his work life and his Family life.

Family. A simple word that holds so much weight and obligations. Slade enters the hover limo in the back of Vesta Corporation’s main office skyline. It has been quite some time since he has visited his family and frankly that was a pretty beneficial relationship to the both of them. Slade sits back and feels the contours of the seat adjust to the shape of his body as he gathers some champagne from a nearby fridge. The times might be changing, but a nice drink when off to do something stupid is never a bad call in his experience.

The limo lifts and merges onto the laneway at high speeds. Slade can admit, he always enjoys the adrenaline of flight. He glances out across the city and sees joyous couples together, shoppers conversing with storekeepers, people making important calls over their cyber-implants… the city seems so full of life and perfect. When he looks up through the sunroof and sees the darkening clouds continue to move overhead, he knows that a storm is coming, and not just a literal one. There is a sickness in the city, and it is spreading. All this joyous perfection is only an interlude to the madness that will settle in the longer things stay the same. You see, for large corporations to succeed they have to be driven, and usually that dedication to success is driven on the back of peoples’ lives. The farther the limo drives, the more he sees homeless citizens distributing themselves throughout the streets, not to mention the sick and starving. Corporations and governments should do more to help their citizens, but they sit back and enjoy the success that they feel, not the harmful acts they demand.

The city flies by in a blur, but one thing can be seen through all the skylines, a vast facility going miles into the sky: Illiyun’s main spaceport. A wondrous accomplishment of man that let them do what man has dreamed since waking under the caves millennium’s past… Travel the stars and find out what is out there. Ships can be seen taking off and landing at the port, vast and smaller craft, traders and smugglers, military and civilians, 24/7. Even as the limo zooms by in hover lanes, seeing the port always gives Slade such pride for where mankind has risen. He has contracted many jobs that have gone through that spaceport; a big difference between himself and his family is that Slade thinks ahead. The family is mostly working to establish themselves as the dominant party in the city, and maybe the entire planet, but I know that there is more out there than just this lonesome world. So, I invest a lot of money and time establishing an off-the-books business outside Delta Pavonis. That means investing in people, not just what their profession may be, but also the kind of people they are, which is more demanding than you may think.

Slade gulps down the rest of the champagne and lays back as the driver takes him through the city to the inevitable meeting with his family. Despite his best efforts to clear his mind, he can’t help but think to himself. I am not necessarily a man with the most reputable background, but there is one thing that I value above all else: life. Don’t get me wrong, I have had to kill, I have employed people in which killing was both necessary and avoidable, but one doesn’t just throw a life away if he has any choice. There can be many benefits, favors, contacts, or even human decency to strive to be a better man. No one probably knows better than I what taking a life does to one’s soul even if it wasn’t you pulling that trigger. Life should be preserved at all costs, but I will do everything in my power to make sure the job gets done, regardless of cost.

The limo starts to slow and a familiar-looking few acres enter his view in the backseat as what can only be described as a mansion lies ahead, surrounded by the city skyline just on the edge of the land. “Who says power has no privileges,” Slade mutters to himself. The limo hovers to a stop in the the circling driveway and Slade waits for his driver to get the door, and his feet settle on the brick driveway that is rarely seen now.

“Would that be all, sir?” an older, severe looking gentleman says as he closes the door that Slade just set foot from.

“No, thank you Arnold, you are as efficient and a lively conversationalist as ever,” Slade replies with a hint of a smile to his longtime friend. Arnold has long since been my driver but most would be surprised to find that he is a retired Navy officer with specialties in marksmanship and tactics. He was hired after my Navy days were done and he needed some kind of activity to spend in his free time… retired life was too boring, and this way he has flexible hours, gets to carry a gun, and most importantly dental ’cause my were those teeth bad before he signed on.

There was no hint of a reaction to the old sea-dog but his eyes told another story as the two of them got along quite well and he made a good bodyguard as well. They were not alone, however, as there was a beautiful woman of delicate features standing in front of the archway leading into the main building. She was on the short side but she more than made up for it with excellent physique and figure, though she could more than make up for that figure with a flattering personality… before she gutted you with lead, that is. Also we haven’t had the best of pasts since she took after mother in the family business and was mother’s favorite.

“Lexy, didn’t see you there, just having a flattering conversation with Arnold here on the wonders of something called “sea bass fishing.” Slade gives his sister Alexis the most charming smile he can, which gets a hint of a smile on her end but she of course could see through that act many, many years ago. “Where’s mother Lexy, got a bone to pick with her on Skyline."

“Mother cannot attend to you this moment, she is having a delicate business arrangement at the moment, " Alexis replied with an air of smugness. Most likely, that meeting is being handled at the end of a gun. “She asked me to tell you that she is most disappointed with your not-so-casual distaste with the Family, and she wanted you to take on a special job to prove your loyalty. All the details are on the datapad.” She gathers it from the ripped stylish jeans she wore and tossed the datapad to Slade, which he catches one-handed and briefly skims the contents.

“Son of a bitch, she can’t be serious. You know how much trouble I went through just to get these people off my back and now this. You would think in her elder years she would be less ambitious to cause mayhem, but I’m wrong yet again.” Slade briefly glances up to see Alexis’ reaction, and from the smugness and beaming smile she presented, she already read the orders.

“Alright, Lexy. Just tell mother I’ll handle it… somehow and clean up the mess that will undoubtedly ensue on yours truly. Just keep her off my back in the meantime, Lord knows how she can be without death, violence, and her oatmeal. Oh, and by the way, you look as lovely as always.” Alexis shows a genuine smile at that and heads back inside. “Arnold! Get your raggedy old ass in gear, off to the spaceport!”

Slade quickly gets inside and punches up on his ledger all of his past contacts and finds a rather interesting one. Did a bit of bump-and-run coverage in his early years, father last time he checked, and has proved to be a man of discretion and a talent for mischief if his memory served. He would need that. Slade checks the local spaceport and sees that his contact’s old heap of bolts is in port, the Urania’s Mirror. Lord only knows what brought him to call it that after he helped him get that ship in the first place.

He grabs his earpiece and places a call to Charles Maeka. No response, but he leaves a voice recording. “Hey Charlie, its Slade, why don’t you get your cheerful self down to the spaceport commons will ya, be there within the hour, if of course you’re up for a job that has high risk, high reward, and chance of death… you know, the usual. Get back at me when you can, but if memory serves we are both not going to like it. Slade out.”


Slade arrives at the spaceport commons and immediately begins looking for Charles but finds no one waiting. “Geez, the guy is almost 7 feet tall, where’s he hiding?” Slade wonders aloud. Well, maybe he’s meeting with someone else at the moment, I can wait a bit.

A sparkle from above catches Slade’s eye, and he looks up to one of the docks above. There he sees the corvette-class ship he and Charles acquired so long ago, Urania’s Mirror, glistening brightly all over in the sunlight. Okay, I can see why he calls it a mirror, damn that thing is reflective. A stray bit of cloud rolls in from the oncoming storm, however, and blocks out the sun beams and a different scene is revealed. As the shine of the ship fades, Slade sees the ship almost transform from the pristine appearance of before to a damaged and scarred exterior, patched enough to make it hold and work but not enough to hide the battle the ship had clearly been in. “What the..?” Slade uttered aloud. He also thought at that moment Charlie would never let his precious ship go like that. Something big happened to that vessel, and I’m going to find out what.

“Arnold, stay with the car, I’m going up to see if Charlie’s in. I’ll call if I need anything.” Slade then ascends the tower that is the spaceport to the level of the Mirror. As he exits the lift, his face registers a feeling of shock at the vessel; it looked bad below, but up close it’s even worse. Still, if she can still take on the void of space, she mustn’t be in that bad of shape. As Slade approaches the bay doors, he begins to overhear voices coming from behind the door. He stops to listen to the pair of voices argue:

“…the guy knew Charles, I’m not taking a deal from someone I don’t know! Especially one from a guy who talks about ‘a high chance of death’ like it’s a Tuesday afternoon!”

“It IS Tuesday afternoon, and besides, if he knew Dad then I want to meet him. I don’t know much about him from before he adopted me, he was always hush-hush about that stuff. And we could use the money, I couldn’t tell you the last time we went out and just enjoyed ourselves lately. And we kinda need a new fridge…”

“What’s wrong with the fridge? Oh, never mind. I’m going out to check for jobs NOT from this Slade guy. It sounds way too seedy to be anything legit.”

“Hey, wait up!”

At this point the door slides open and two men come walking out at a hurried pace, though they stop the moment the see Slade standing there. The younger-looking brunette boy chimes in first, “Oh hey, are you a client? Welcome to the Urani —” “Can I help you with something, or are you just lost?” interrupted the platinum-haired man.

“Actually, I believe you can. Slade Wilson, CEO of Vesta Corporation’s Operations Directorate. And yes, I am a client.” Slade gave only the slightest hint of a smirk at the stunned faces the two were wearing. “I’m assuming you two work for Charles Maeka, and one of you is also his boy, right? Where is the old bolter, out trading for some old-Earth trinkets again?”

The duo took on solemn expressions, and the platinum-hair said in a flat tone, “Please, come inside. You should hear the story.”


“…I’m sorry about Charlie, Raize. I’m sorry, Zhair. I hadn’t spoken with him in years, last I knew was still alive and kicking. Look, forget about the job I mentioned on the message. You two seem like good boys, and I don’t want to drag you into something you don’t understand.”

Raize shook his head. “No, we’ll do it. One extra condition, though: you tell us all you know about Charles, especially the early stuff. Zhair knows so little about his past, even though he is his son, and I know even less.”

“You boys have a deal. I’ll send you a copy of the full details of the job right away.” Slade began to walk out, but before he left, he turned and said to the two, “Charles would be proud, you two are so much like him.” Slade then exited the Urania’s Mirror and headed back down to the limo.

-

Slade made his way back to his limo, his brow furrowed with thought as his brain parsed all the data he’d just received. Though it had not turned out quite the way he had hoped, this new arrangement could very well work out just as well or better. Charlie was an old friend, but sometimes difficult to deal with. Perhaps these youngsters would prove more . . . mold-able. Still, Charlie’s death was a blow to Slade, and the circumstances that lead to it were somewhat disconcerting.

So deep in thought was Slade that he stood by his door for five minutes before he realized Arnold hadn’t yet opened it.

“Arnold?” Slade asked cautiously, peering at the driver’s side door. Strange. The man never leaves his post. Slade approached the front of the limo and glanced in the window to find his bodyguard propped up in his seat, but clearly unconscious. A short burst of adrenaline shot through Slade as he started to think about the implications.

“Mr. Wilson,” came a low, somewhat sultry, female voice from behind him.

What the hell? Slade instantly pulled the small hold-out weapon he kept holstered at his lower back, raising it as he spun to face this sudden threat. He needn’t have bothered. The Vesta CEO glimpsed a lithe feminine form and a flash of black hair before his wrist was grasped, inverted and the gun was knocked from his hand. She twisted his arm, forcing him to spin, then slammed him against the side of the limo. The high-pitched whine of a charging ROPE gun ended his resistance as the cold barrel pressed firmly against the base of his skull.

“I understand your trepidation, Mr. Wilson, but let me assure you that I mean you no harm. I am Agent Alda Vitrionne,” Alda released Slade’s wrist and stepped back, keeping him in her sights, but lowering the gun to a more subtle position near her waist. She gestured to the rear door of the limo, “Please, let us move to more private surroundings. After you.”

Slade faced Alda with a stare that was equal parts anger and respect, straightened his jacket and tie, then opened the limo door and slid in across the expensive leather seats to the far right of the vehicle. Alda followed a moment later and sat across from him holding his Enyo Gauss Needler, the weapon he had tried to pull on her earlier. Her own gun was nowhere to be seen, but no doubt within easy reach.

“Cute,” she said, tossing the Needler to him before lounging against the plush seat opposite him, “I apologize for the state of your bodyguard. I required a private meeting with you, and he was… uncooperative. Mr. Wilson, I know you are a busy man, so let me get right to it. We are well aware of the assignment you are currently undertaking for your family. And before you ask, we are not here to stop it. On the contrary, we’d like to help.”

“Help? And who are ‘we’?” Slade asked with a raised eyebrow. He was definitely intrigued.

“All in due time. Yes, help. Those on your list to eliminate are on our list, too. Although, we’d prefer them alive and incarcerated. What we are offering is a way for you to maintain your standing with your family while retaining your upstanding status at Vesta. We’ll provide the theatrics and support for your operation, and you deliver us the men we require. Everyone wins. What do you say?”

View
Raising Raize

Raize Darkstone was born to a small Sekan Clan in the Lower Cataracts in the city of Sophia on the planet of Illiyun. For fourteen years, he was raised communally with the other minors of his community, taught the basic education to which every person is entitled. He proved to have a natural gift for engineering and understanding how things work, and spent much of his free time tinkering with whatever machinery he could get his hands on. Soon after his 14th birthday, Raize was pledged to a Clan in Anshan as part of a diversity exchange. While he was sad to have to leave his kinsmen, Anshan would be a welcome change from the Lower Cataracts and the more-than-occasional harassment from Hellions.

The day of the diversity exchange occurred during a Sekan gathering and trade fair in Anshan. Many vendors and craftsmen were peddling wares, Deltans and other locals gathered, and even a few Nejmeh arrived in their ships to trade. It was one of these Nejmeh ships which drew Raize’s attention. While nobody was watching, Raize wandered into the cargo bay of one of these ships. Inside the bay he found a pair of run-down strike craft and his curiosity took hold of him. He began to take apart one of the thrusters of one craft, inspecting the components and eventually finding some fried parts. He noticed a crate nearby and began sifting through it, looking for something he could use to try and get the machine working. He replaced the components, and continued on like this for nearly an hour.

It wasn’t until Raize was about to connect the final electrical wires that he noticed the Nejmeh standing in the cargo bay, watching him silently. He stood well over six feet tall, and wore an eye-patch over his right eye. It was clear from his posture and expression that this man was the owner of the ship Raize was trespassing in. Realizing what he had done over the course of the last hour, Raize dropped everything he was doing and began bowing and apologizing profusely to the man and asking forgiveness.

The man held a hand up to quiet the boy. He then simply asked, “Does it work?”

Stunned by the man’s reaction, Raize replied “I-I think so…”, to which the man responded, “Show me.”

Raize moved back over to the thruster engine and connected the wiring. He then moved over to the cockpit of the craft and attempted to power it up. The thrusters hummed to life and held strong. With an excited smile, Raize looked back to the man, who nodded and said, “Very good. You seem to be quite skilled with machinery. I could use someone with skills like that.” As Raize climbed out of the cockpit and walked over to the man, he continued. “Tell me, young man…Do you yearn to see the stars beyond this world? I can take you away from here, in this ship. You can work on the machinery all you like, and I can teach you so much more.”

The offer shocked Raize. “I would be honored, sir, but I am pledged to an Anshan Clan in exchange for one of their own to my old home Sophia Clan. As I am a minor, I cannot go without their blessings.”

“You may call me Charles, young man. And as I understand it, we are in a place of trade, which means your exchange may be substituted with enough material goods. I’m certain we can find an agreement benefiting all parties involved.”


For the next four years, Raize served as apprentice to Charles Maeka aboard his ship, the Urania’s Mirror. Charles also had an adoptive son, a boy named Zhair. Together, the trio wandered the stellar systems, delivering and trading goods throughout every governing body but the Central Collective. Charles taught Raize all manner of things, from the basics of piloting to cooking. Charles was also quite the storyteller and historian, recanting centuries-old tales from Earth or telling tales of the Reconquista and the War of Ascension that Charles had gathered from his travels. Charles even oversaw Raize’s completion of repairs of the two strike-craft stowed in the cargo hold and even allowed Raize to use the one he had been repairing when they first met.

Zhair became like a brother to Raize, as the two were only four years apart in age. However, if Raize could be likened to ice, Zhair was fire. An extremely happy, energetic child, Zhair was almost as much responsible for the problems on the ship as he was for the solutions. Zhair and Raize often got into fights and arguments over little things, but when put to task by Charles the pair worked surprisingly well together.


Raize decided to enter the military shortly after his 18th birthday. Since he was a spacefarer and had no official home system since the age of 14, Raize chose to enlist in the military of the Serene Enclave of the Virgin Star. Their neutrality meant he would not be likely to face any major issues with other governments, and Raize hoped he could be attached to a good engineering corps, possibly giving him a chance to study jump gate tech up close. His enlistment meant required retrograde enhancement, as typical Sekan physiology was not sufficient for a modern soldier. Raize elected to undergo " Martialis " bio-enhancement, as he doesn’t particularly trust cybernetic augmentation or nanotech flowing through him, a holdout of his Sekan origins.

For the next three years, Raize served on several Engineering detachments as part of the VSF. When Raize was finally given the opportunity to request a posting, he had only one thought on his mind: Home. Raize messaged Charles stating he wanted to come home and was being given the opportunity to select a transfer. Charles reply was brief but direct, and contained an attached personnel liaison request that Raize was to send to a specified officer, one Charles had connections with. Raize’s submission was pushed through the same day, and by morning Raize was heading back to Urania’s Mirror in a civilian craft headed for Rimward space. Once he reached the system the Mirror was in, he took a private solo civilian craft to the site.


What Raize arrived to was not an open welcome, but the aftermath of a battle. Urania’s Mirror was heavily damaged, and another craft was attached, likely a boarding crew. Raize sneaked his craft over to an external service entry hatch and boarded the Mirror from there. From within the service tunnels Raize made his way through the ship until he overheard unfamiliar voices. He peeked out from another hatch and spotted two men who could only be fittingly described in one word: Hellions. Between Raize’s intimate knowledge of the ship layout and his military training, they stood no chance. They were dead before they hit the ground and never even let off a single shot. Raize began clearing out individual Hellions as he made his way to the bridge. If Charles and Zhair were going to hold up anywhere, it would be there.

Raize continued through the service shafts to the bridge. When he finally made it there, his eyes widened. Standing in the middle of the bridge was Zhair with a ring of Hellion corpses around him, and a line of several more leading out the bridge door into the hall. Zhair appeared to be in a trance, which he snapped out of when Raize called out to him. He asked Zhair where Charles was, to which Zhair began to well with tears, and he pointed to Charles’ body sitting along the far wall. Raize rushed over to him and quickly examined him to see if he was still alive. Charles was barely breathing and unconscious, shot in several places, and had lost most of his blood. Zhair came over and kneeled, sobbing and crying. He explained that they got a hailing call matching the signature Raize used to contact yesterday, so they assumed it was him approaching on the ship. Instead the Hellions showed up, blasted the ship until it was disabled, then boarded. Zhair continued, stating that once they took the bridge they demanded something to Charles and threatened to kill Zhair, but Charles jumped into the line of fire, shielding Zhair from the damage. Something inside Zhair snapped, and he blacked out. He came to when Raize called out to him and he saw all the dead Hellions.

Charles awoke at that moment. His eyes looked upon Zhair, then upon Raize. A smirk formed on his lips, and he whispered, “Did it work?” The two looked at each other, then at Charles, and nodded, unsure exactly to what Charles was referring. With a sigh, Charles smiled, his eyes closing, and he said, “Then my time has ended. I leave it all to the two of you, as my Testament.”


It has been three years since Charles died. Raize and Zhair have spent the majority of the time traveling in and around Delta Pavonis and the Federal Commonwealth section of space, taking odd jobs and deliveries but only really doing enough to get by, scavenging whenever they didn’t have the money for what they needed.

It would take something big to bring back the motivation and spark that Raize had the day he first boarded this ship and met Charles.

View
Troubled Waters
Nawahune shows his wares, Alda shows off hers.

Working as an Organo-netics consultant with the Vesta Corporation, Nawahune Bengwe was showing a potential buyer/investor, the CEO of Ma Xin Holdings, the properties of bonding a neurokinetic wyrm to the neurocortex of a man, mixed with bilateral exo-implants of two brachioherculean slugs on each arm. The process only took a moment for the Ma Xin volunteer (fathoms faster than traditional cybernetics…and the subject gets to keep his own arms!), though a bit painful as the organo-symbiotic creatures embed micro-rhizomes into the skin, connecting to his neural network and vascular systems. Once properly embedded, the Ma Xin demonstrated his sheer strength lifting up the back of their black limo with ease. At that moment, the CEO ordered his men to pull guns on Nawahune! They weren’t a holdings company at all! Just a bunch of thugs led by a Yakuza!

Suddenly, Nawahune’s gentle demeanor turned into a raging storm. With his own great strength, he kicked over the heavy metal table that served as the “operation table”, and dove behind it, while bullets started flying over his head…

Aspect: Covered in CommensalistIc Chiton-Based Creatures


…High pitched “tings” and “tangs” rang through the air as bullets hammered the table that served as Nawahune’s cover. The large Shen frantically looked about for an escape route, but only saw the ground around him lit up with sparks from Yakuza bullets. Feeling invincible from his new enhancements, the Ma Xin strode forward and lifted the table over his head. The barrage lightened as he stepped in the line of fire, but cover fire kept Nawahune pinned down.

“Thank you for your contribution to the Yakuza, Whale,” the Ma Xin said, spitting the racial slur used for the Shen throughout Illiyun, “but your services are no longer needed.” The newly-enhanced human’s face grew angry and he flexed his muscles, preparing to slam the table down on the prone Shen.

Suddenly, crimson bursts of blood, followed by the cracks of a high-powered rifle, exploded from the chest of the Ma Xin, who looked down in shock at the unexpected wounds before dropping the table and falling lifeless to the ground. Sprays of bullets blanketed the area ahead of Nawahune, pinning down and scattering the armed assailants. Spinning disks flew in and activated with a high-pitched whine, creating a wall of static and obscuring their view of the Shen.

The sniper lowered her TX-245 Charon Gauss Rifle and rushed in to Nawahune, waving support agents in to cover positions as she approached the Shen. ’’Mr. Bengwe, I’m Agent Vitrionne. If you’ll follow us, we’ll get you to safety.”

Aspect: Alda Has Nawahune Covered


Slade Wilson’s Entrance below ….

View
Tumbrel Time
Tumbrel42 finds a friend in the most unlikely of places.

Not many people want a tumbrel in the drivers seat. Watching the cargo loaders similar to what he used to be, Tumbrel42 supposed he could understand why people would be initially reluctant. But the lack of opportunity to prove himself was what he had yet to comprehend.

Now the group of “humans” he was currently working for…they were slightly different, a little more accepting. " Hellions " was the term they used", he recalled. “Some of them are almost as modified as I have been.”

Tumbrel42 stepped out from between the crates and walked towards the decrepit inter-solar ship that was being loaded. The ship that he was the pilot for. This particular job didn’t seem to require a pilot with space certification, which was good, because Tumbrel hadn’t found a way to get certified yet.

Learning to reason and develop cause and effect was getting easier for Tumbrel. After the ship cleared orbit and was headed to the outer moon of one of the gas giants, he actually considered that fact that since there were no questions asked after he had demonstrated his piloting skills, there could be some other complications involved with this particular flight.

Naturally, it was too late for thoughts such as that. An amber light began blinking on Tumbrel’s console, and a human voice came over the inter-ship comm link…ISS Sellshark, heave to for customs inspection, this is the patrol cruiser Decahedron.”

Tumbrel naturally began to comply when the ship’s captain, a well modified cyborg looking Hellion came into the pilot’s cabin and ordered evasive maneuvers. He looked at Tumbrel42 and said “If they inspect us, we are either dead or in prison for life. Best show off those skills you say you have.”


Tumbrel took the command of his captain to processor and broke off for a run with the Sellshark. It wasn’t long before the Decahedron began to open fire on Tumbrel’s ship, but Tumbrel was predicting their firing patterns and maneuvering between the blasts. Sure, the Sellshark took some surface damage, but it was a clunker, junk parts sticking out the sides, not at all streamlined. It seemed as if Tumbrel was going to make a clean getaway; his captain and the crew certainly thought so, judging by their cheering.

There were two thoughts that proved them all wrong, however. The first was thinking that the rickety old ship could handle such tight maneuvering. The second was thinking that there would be no other military ships passing through the area. The first led to the thrusters burning out and stalling the ship; the second put the ISS Sellshark face-to-broadsides with the ENSF Gefjon , a Vestal-class Frigate in the midst of ferrying troop and personnel rotations to the various Enclave facilities in the system.

The Sellshark captain began to sputter in disbelief at their bad luck, and demanded Tumbrel to open fire on the Gefjon. “We’re gonna lose this one, but no decent Hellion goes down without a fight!” he cried out. Tumbrel began firing weapon systems when the Gefjon let out a pulse from one of its electronic warfare suites, knocking out the guns. Over the comm, a stern female voice spoke out, “This is Captain Adele Tremaine of the ENSF Gefjon. We have pulsed your ship and disabled weapons. We will be sending a boarding party; lay down your arms and come quietly, and you will not be harmed nor will you be turned over to the Commonwealth vessel on approach.”


The Hellions gave little opposition, and what opposition there was was quieted by their own crew. Tumbrel42 found himself being transported along with his other Tumbrel units to the Gefjon’s cargo bay, and shortly thereafter to the Engineering station for what he overheard was “a routine sweep and cleanup of their systems”. Tumbrel knew that could mean reformatting, but stayed in line with his fellow synthetics; exposing himself could threaten his relatively new-found status. The engineers began to force-switch all the synthetics to sleep mode, and Tumbrel hoped that he would awake the same as he was.

Tumbrel awoke several hours later, finding himself on a tilted gurney. A lone engineer was working next to him, facing away muttering about how the other engineers had “left the new guy to do all the work.” The engineer grabbed his toolkit and turned around in his chair to face Tumbrel. Tumbrel noted that he bore a strongly-featured face, with platinum hair and amber eyes. The engineer then did a surprising thing: he greeted Tumbrel! “Hello, Tumbrel unit,” he said. “My name is Raize Darkstone. What is your designation?"

“This one was designated Tumbrel42, but I now consider that to be my name. Do not all sentient beings deserve a name?” Tumbrel surprised himself by expressing that philosophy at this time. Sure he had thought a lot about it recently, but to be the first thing he blurted out after being put on a gurney for “system cleanup”? Very peculiar.

Cautiously, so as not to alarm the engineer in front of him, Tumbrel sat up and broke free from the restraints that would have held a normal tumbrel in place.

“This one expresses pardon, but I was feeling confined and confused. What is the purpose of your tools in this situation?” Tumbrel addressed towards the engineer in front of him. “What does YOUR designation mean?”

Raize was taken aback by the sudden actions and speech of the Tumbrel unit…no, Tumbrel42, he reminded himself. Does this mean I’m dealing with a genuine Artificial Intelligence? If that’s the case, the system resets would kill him, or his personality at least.

After a moment of silence, Raize finally spoke. “My…designation? Oh, my name! I don’t know how my parents got the Raize part, but Darkstone is my family name, supposedly they settled on land rich with Obsidian when they came to Delta Pavonis."

“And the tools?” Tumbrel asked again.

“Oh, the tools, right. Repairs and replacements, mostly. Confiscated equipment is often re-provisioned within the Enclave Military. Usually any memory banks are wiped and configurations are set to default.” Raize set down his tools and scooted his chair back. He took a good look at Tumbrel42’s body. It was in remarkable condition, he noted, and wondered if it was modified beneath that exterior. “I…must admit I’ve never met a full-synthetic intelligence before, and certainly not amongst the machinery I’ve worked with. I apologize, I meant no offense or harm. This must be awkward for you.”

“If I may, Tumbrel — is it alright if I just call you Tumbrel? — what were you doing aboard that Hellion craft? Were they transporting you as cargo or were you working on the ship? I imagine you would be worth a lot to them on the black market.”

“Tumbrel will be fine. Did you happen to notice how gracefully the ship flew within its limited physical operating parameters? I was the pilot. But it appears that your crew assumed that I was not part of my crew…was that expressed properly?, and sent me here.”

Tumbrel was intrigued by this person. He asked Raize if he was the pilot or captain of the vessel they currently occupied. “What is the purpose of this vessel, does it fly well, does it have an enhanced engine/mass ratio, and how would the crew react to a new pilot”?

“A Tumbrel unit, piloting? That is impressive. But you’re lucky that my crew didn’t know you were actually crew on that Hellion rig, they would have probably put you down a lot harder than sleep mode. Most Virginids are…cautious when it comes to Synthetics. And no, I’m no captain or pilot, though I have flown a couple strike craft and taken the helm on my homeship on occasion."

“As for your questions about the ship we’re in, the ENSF Gefjon is currently on routine patrol and troop disbursement to several Virginis-controlled locations. It flies pretty well for a frigate, but I’ve seen and used better. It could stand to be more efficient as well, but that would require an overhaul and those resources may be better spent on a new ship entirely. This thing has been in space for a solid decade and some years, but her electronic warfare suites are still pretty on par with or surpass the cruisers in most other militaries.”

Raize paused and closed his eyes for a moment and took in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “…We need to get you out of here, and quietly. I could fudge my paperwork and say you were processed, but they’ll just move you to another Enclave facility and you’ll be discovered eventually, and that could mean cold-storage if you end up in the wrong place. I’m due to depart at our next destination, a research facility on the edge of a city in the Beta Hydri system. If you don’t mind doing…well, what you were originally designed to, you might be able to slip away while we unload our freight. Sound like a plan?"


“Unload this ship…and then sneak away…” Tumbrel considered the idea. Tactically it had merit. After all, nobody expects a tumbrel to do anything out of the ordinary. “Why haven’t I thought of that before?” he mused inwardly.

“I concur with your plan and am motivated to support your course of action.” Tumbrel declared to Raize. “I shall…blend…in with my brothers and sisters and assist them in unloading the ship. Will I be meeting with you after I escape?”

“I don’t believe I will be able to get away anytime soon, but please look me up if you ever need a friend. Good luck, Tumbrel.” Raize then stood up from his stool and walked out of the Engineering Bay, making sure to turn off the light but forgetting to lock the door on his way out.

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