(19959.16 C.R., transcript of secure-channel messaging between Captain Trevor Ghalt and Sister Ambra, retrieved from Nova’s archived records.)
I’m not really sure who else to go to about this, but uh, Attikus locked himself in the simulation chamber a while ago. I’d get Kleese to shut it down, but he said he’s busy modifying that Magnus we picked up for combat. Nova says that if we really want, she can “airlock” him out—why we have an airlock IN the simulation room, I’m sure I don’t know. Anyway, you’re kind of my last shot here.
Though my qualifications are both extensive and substantial, I fail to see how any of them apply to this situation. I am a Silent Sister of the Order of the Sustaining Mother, not a locksmith. Have you tried knocking?
-Sister Claudia Ambralia Divia
I know better than to get anywhere near Attikus when he’s…moody. But even from outside the room, I heard him roaring something about a Silent Sister named “Aria”, I think? I figured maybe being a Sister yourself; you might know what’s going on.
Aria is my sister, an Incantress Superior of the Order. It comes as no surprise that he is taking his time dealing with her. She can be quite insufferable. I expect he’ll tire of her shrewish face and shrill whining soon.
-Sister Claudia Ambralia Divia
I’m confused. When you say “sister”, do you mean a fellow Silent Sister, or a sibling?
Did it not occur to you that there might be some tactical relevance to your having family within the Order? Why didn’t you ever mention her before? Is she dangerous?
“Family” is too warm a word for Aria. We haven’t been close for eleven thousand years, not since…the incident. I didn’t think my personal rivalry was germane to our objectives. And I feel I should hardly need remind you that EVERY Silent Sister is dangerous. But yes, Aria especially. She wears that GARISH modified assault frame, and is a practiced hand at pacifying Thrall. During the rebellions, we emphasized non-lethal suppression tactics. Standard procedure was to just drop shock anchors until they calmed down.
That sounds really NOT non-lethal.
Yes, well, there was “emphasis”, not “exclusivity”. Besides, it’s good for the survivors. Toughens them up. Builds character. Establishes a regular heart rhythm.
He’s been in there for days.
Perhaps I should intercede more directly…I’ll see what I can do.
-Sister Claudia Ambralia Divia
–== HEMSWORTH HOMEOWNER HEURISTICS MANUFACTORY LOG y.19954, d.100
–== MAGNUS DUMP of MMSK.m-v. #882, S.N. 57570420693.50
–== FILTER: MANUFACTORY SERVICE INTERRUPTION
13:45:16 – [MONITORING] PASSIVE.STATUS.MANAGEMENT – PRODUCTION LINE AUDIO
K.ULTRA.011902: Hi! I’m Kid Ultra, and I’m here to help! [PROFILE 1 NOT FOUND]. What’s your name?
K.ULTRA.011903: Hi! I’m Kid Ultra, and I’m here to help! [PROFILE 1 NOT FOUND]. What’s your name?
K.ULTRA.011904: Hi! I’m Kid Ultra, and I’m here to help! [PROFILE 1 NOT FOUND]. What’s your name?
K.ULTRA.011905: Hi! I’m Kid Ultra, and I’m here to help! [PROFILE 1 NOT FOUND]. What’s your name?
No one is born a hero, nor are they manufactured to standard hero specifications. Kid Ultra entered the universe with a more humble destiny. His inventor, Phoebe Elizabeth Audelia Hemsworth IV, endured a childhood sorely lacking in parental affection. She had to rely primarily upon the family’s robotic bodyguard and butler, Marquis, for companionship. Realizing that the Titanium Dandy line of robots made for excellent marksmen but poor nannies, she set her genius towards the development of a new line of Magnuses specifically designed for childcare.
The result was an unnamed production line, referred to only by its marketing tagline: “Kid-friendly, Ultra-dependable”. It was engineered with everything a child or parent could want in an AI: an inviting, humanoid face; compact,
unintimidating design; medical drones; marketing-approved entertainment holos pre-loaded into memory; bullet-resistant paneling! Anything that didn’t come standard could also be seamlessly integrated into his modular chassis. The prototype of Hemsworth Intelligence Enterprise’s newest addition seemed ready to take the world by storm. In fact, manufacturing and assembly had already been completed for a limited release of advance models.
It was during the prototype’s initial startup sequence that the Magna Carta suddenly went offline. Adrift with no external reference or personality data banks to draw from, the first picoseconds of Kid Ultra’s existence were blank digital oblivion. The only source of hard-coded information in his brain was the library of over 60,000 cartoons, comics, movies, and video games intended for placating and educating children. Without the guidance of the LLC’s governing AI, Kid Ultra built his own operational parameters based on a fictional universe full of supervillains, crime-solving adventures, and sold-separately accessories.
LLC scientists, steeling themselves for the murder frenzy of a rampant AI, were surprised to find that Kid Ultra had no interest in using them to test a prototype automated potato masher; instead, the newborn hero announced his intent to “bring crime to justice” and left the scientists unmashed, with a lollipop each.
Several years later, Captain Reyna Valeria began receiving reports from her Rogues that the Detritus Ring was being patrolled by a child-sized robot. Unarmed, all Kid Ultra was able to do was politely ask the pirates and raiders he encountered to give up crime and consider being a “good guy” instead. Unworried by the minimal threat the mini-Magnus posed to her operations, she mentioned him in passing to Captain Ghalt.
The stories of the tiny hero made their way to Phoebe, who immediately entreated Ghalt to bring him in. It wasn’t until Kleese noted that his modular chassis was compatible with LLC weaponry that Ghalt became interested. On Ghalt’s request, Reyna issued an order to the Rogues to secure and contain the delusional Magnus until the Battleborn could pick him up. Once he was transferred to Nova’s engineering bay, Kleese stuffed his diminutive casing full of rocket launchers, a bola thrower, and adjusted his logic inhibitors to allow for defensive use of force.
With his new fully-equipped arsenal, and a team at his back, Kid Ultra was finally the hero he wanted to be. He was a Battleborn.
Type: Bug Assignee: [Gunnar Kleese]
Priority: P3 Reporter: [User Testing]
Status: Resolved, Needs More Information Watcher: [Elandra Saint-Wu]
Components: Magnus AI, Varelsi Research
Severity: B Normal
User Path: Rare Observed Results ----------
We’ve received numerous complaints regarding the recent performance of Mephis, the onboard Magnus of the UPR exo-station “The Wiseman”.
Users indicate that while attempting evacuation of the Aviants from the Menneck-B system, Mephis was initially functioning as intended, coordinating the fleet and directing all comms, targeting, and navigation data using The Wiseman’s array. However, during a Varelsi mass-teleportation sequence, Mephis exhibited aberrant behavior, sending communications with non-standard encryptions, disabling auto-targeting systems, and routing a capital ship directly into The Wiseman, which drifted into the gravity well of Sau Nona and crashed.
As a result, users report less than .3% of the population was evacuated from inhabited worlds in the system (Itka, Sau Nona, Madan, Stragi, and Ezun, Stragi’s largest moon). Additionally, a large number of transports were reported missing.
The black box of The Wiseman is unrecovered, but data indicates it was intact at the time of impact. We’ve tested data recorder integrity under Dark-like conditions and it should remain stable for approximately 20 years.
Due to the inconsistent functionality of Mephis at the time of impact, it is difficult to determine to severity of damage the Magnus sustained, if any.
Steps to Reproduce ----------
Initialize MRBX 00419.c7, “Mephis”, networked to an appropriate vessel
Navigate the vessel in proximity to an ongoing Varelsi mass-teleportation sequence
Observe that Mephis behaves inconsistently
Expected Behavior ----------
Magnus AI should maintain standard functionality under all operating conditions.
Build Info ----------
Platform: Super-capital exo-station, model UPR654-7[m], “The Wiseman”
Reproduction Rate: 1/1
[Bertram Hastings] added a comment - 5 days ago
///How many users are reporting similar issues? Is this an isolated case?
_[Elandra Saint-Wu] replied - 5 days ago
///So far, this is the only reported case, but this single incident was reported over 200 times, mostly UPR officers and other premium users involved in the evacuation. Also, , please update the bug description to include the established term “portal bloom” for searchability.
[Bertram Hastings] replied - 5 days ago
///… okayyy, can we get a sample of this non-standard encryption? Might be able to back-engineer some of the issue if my team can see these effects. Also, who shot that surface footage? Pinging .
[Elandra Saint-Wu] replied - 5 days ago
///I’ve attached an audio log sifted from a data packet burst on the emergency channels during the issue. Unfortunately, since Mephis wasn’t parsing traffic correctly, virtually all channels’ signal-to-noise was shot to hell. As for the surface footage, judging from the low viewing angle and resolution, this was a personal recorder held by a Finisci; this would also account for the shaking, if it was held by flippers instead of hands.
[Morton Barrett] added a comment - 4 days ago
///The audio log is actually two layers, one from an organic source, probably a female Buteonen judging from vocal signatures, and the other synthesized. So far, I’ve only been able to decrypt the word “Augustus” and a fragment of coordinates, presumably from the onboard navigation system. If we can recover either that transport or, better yet, Mephis himself, I can get a much better look at this issue.
[Gunnar Kleese] added a comment - 2 days ago
///Yes, yes, this is all well and fine, but what good is this information with that dismal reproduction rate? 1/1, really? Can we get QA on this?
[Elandra Saint-Wu] replied - 2 days ago
/// We would need a Magnus fresh off the line as well as a few hundred thousand tons of UPR materiel to house it in. Then we’d have to navigate it directly into the path of a Varelsi portal sequence during the brief window while it’s active.
[Gunnar Kleese] replied - 1 day ago
/// Thank you for providing ME the details of how to do YOUR job. It’s clear you know how to proceed, you know where to find me when you’re done. Resolving NMI (Needs More Information).
FROM THE DESK OF RENDAIN, YOUR TYRANT
TO: Secretary Boolicsyco
FROM: New Jennerit Empire Interim Chief Counselor Deande
DATE: y.19959, d.8
Fred, your negligence bordering on incompetence as underwarsecretary proved vital to my success. However, your performance in the coming weeks will in large part decide your continued career outside of a jail cell. Though you were inarguably complicit with the worst war criminal this universe has ever known, I’ve convinced Lord Executor Vylo that your utility during this transition outweighs the danger you pose to society. Do not test me. Now, I’ve begun preparations on an actionable itinerary, and will need you to make the necessary arrangements:
Item 1: Please contact Dr. G. Kleese aboard the UPR engineering ship Nova and inform him that I need his assistance in changing the Tyrant’s official letterhead. It appears that Rendain hasn’t updated his operating system in decades and I can’t make heads or tails of it. [Personal note: As happy as I am not being in the same room as that lunatic, if anyone is qualified for archaic tech support, it’s Kleese.]
Item 2: I am appointing former Blademaster Verod Rath to the office of Warmaster, along with all its titles and honors. Issue a summons order to Lord Commander Rath and schedule a meeting with whoever is Lord of Ceremonies these days. Additionally, the positions of Blademaster and Spymaster are now vacant. Reach out to the other Counselors and schedule a meeting to discuss possible candidates. [Personal note: Rath might not like being pulled from the front lines, but if the Jennerit people are to survive, we cannot afford to overlook his strategic value as a commander.]
Item 3: The Pact of the Dying. Send word to The Guilded Enclave, “Commander” Reyna Valeria, The High Observatory, and Chancellor V. Shields that we need to convene to renew the Pact and discuss changes to its terms. [Personal note: we can finally change that ghastly name; it appears we may not be “Dying” after all.]
Item 4: Thus far, the only common language established with the Varelsi is violence. We’ll need to determine some other method of cultural exchange if the Empire is to survive, now that Rendain’s arrangement is broken. Contact Baroness Phoebe Hemsworth IV of the LLC and request an audience—Phoebe is one of the universe’s leading researchers in the field of Void sciences, and may be our best hope for deciphering how Rendain managed to negotiate his treasonous agreement with the Varelsi. [Personal note: need to ask Mellka if the Eldrid have installed a new Black Observer yet.]
Item 5: The Jennerit people have always admired personal excellence above all else, and require a hero to venerate, following this nasty “deposing” business. I had submitted the Thrall liberator Attikus for the Rite of Sustainment, but he rejected the honor out of hand, something about “enough experiments for more than one lifetime.” Speak with Sister Benniteg and get me a short list of other possible options, someone who would look good in a parade. [Personal note: contact Galilea and see if she’s interested in finishing what she started.]
Item 6: Speaking of the Thrall, release notes had indicated that their infertility was biologically enforced, assuring us that their population would never be host to unforeseen genetic variance. It would appear that, following the destruction of the broodhalls, they have proven her wrong. Life has found a way. The Thrall diaspora has scattered them across the system, and we receive reports daily of new pups being whelped. Contact Dr. B. Lucavi and set up a meeting. [Personal note: loath as I am to further modify them, if we can’t get this gestation period in check, a population boom will deplete what little resources remain.]
Item 7: Last item. The matter of Constable Cuddles. It appears that Lothar personally oversaw the daily care of the royal lapdog. My schedule does not allow such personalized attention. I will be appointing a replacement I have personally and thoroughly vetted. However, given that the replacement is not of Jennerit descent, I will see to it that a measure of special care be taken to stay abreast of his performance and demeanor. [Personal note: not a permanent solution, of course, but this is the only way to get at least SOME time with that handsome blue devil.]
Addressing these issues should buy us some time until the next crisis arises, by which time I expect the Empress to relieve me and take a firmer grip on the wheel of the Empire. Which reminds me, inform Guard Captain Crex that I want a full complement of his finest to non-violently suppress attempts at memorial services for Lenore. I’ve heard far too many whispers of mourning and don’t want people getting the wrong idea. [Personal note: I know she’s alive. While she lives, so does the empire, and so does Solus.]
(Mail exchange retrieved from an archived investigation into the Mistress of Sciences, Lady Vurien, performed by Deande. Archived record is dated 19905.12 - .19)
Subject: Approval Request
At the urging of the Imperial Arch-Sciences division council, I’ve assembled a research team (despite my qualification to fill all necessary roles myself) and I’m prepared to move forward with a project, pending the council’s approval and grant disbursal.
Please see the attached proposal for an AI developmental program I’ve been tinkering with.
[Project JANUS: Jennerit Autonomous Networked Übermind Simulacrum]
Subject: Re: Approval Request
While your youthful zeal is appreciated, it must be tempered with pragmatism. The experiments outlined in your proposal are monumental in scope; the costs alone are deterrent enough. Weighed along with the societal risks posed by a ”cybernetic viral intelligence” (as you so charmingly put it), I’ve half a mind to issue a formal rebuke for such audacity.
Your proposal is denied.
We’ve enough troubles with AI as it stands, thanks to those plutocratic half-wits in the LLC.
Subject: Approval Request (REVISED)
I feel it incumbent upon me to mention that in the face of others’ failure, we stand to gain all the more through success.
However, per your instruction, I have significantly reduced the scope of my latest proposal with comparison to the previous.
The attached proposal outlines what should be a much more amenable undertaking.
[Project NERGAL: Nullification of Entropic Reduction and Geostrophically Appended Longevity]
Subject: Re: Approval request (REVISED)
What you “feel” incumbent upon you is irrelevant. You were not granted your station for your feelings, which are no doubt many, varied, and hyperbolic. You are here to work.
Bear that in your adolescent mind when you find yourself before the Arch-Sciences Tribunal for your most recent proposal. Undoing the Rite of Sustainment? What you suggest borders on treason.
Present yourself tomorrow morning, and consider yourself lucky that you are ineligible for excoriation, given your…condition. I continue to await a measured and reasoned proposal.
Recall the 4th Ray of the Astranogyon: “The difference between life and obliteration is but a respectful distance from the stars.”
I recommend you consider the merits of your fellow researchers’ projects, such as Dr. Drachus’ work in neometallurgic assault frame compositions.
Subject: Approval Request (With Sugar on Top)
Most Esteemed Lady Vurien,
I would love nothing more than to work. To do so, I require resources outlined in my grant proposals.
After your earlier message inspired me to reflect on the Astranogyon, I began expanding upon some intriguing variances possible within the corpus of “holotwin” research.
[Project KALFU: Karyon-Appropriative Luminal Fabrication Unity]
Subject: Approval Request (With Sugar on Top)
Project KALFU is two levels beyond your clearance—it is only by your mother’s misguided beneficence that you retain your position.
Tread carefully, child. You’ve no doubt drawn the attention of the Spymistress, and I will not have this division mired in controversy should an investigation be opened.
Subject: Important Proposal
O, Wise and Venerable Lady Vurien,
[Project LIMOS: Lingual Impulse Modulation by Olfactory Supersession]
Subject: Important Proposal
Is this a proposal to research the effects of chocolate on the behavior of Arch-Sciences researchers?
Subject: Re: Re: Important Proposal
Everybody likes chocolate.
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Important Proposal
We are not going to pay you to eat chocolate.
Find work that is suited to the Empire’s needs, or find work elsewhere.
Subject: Place to Stand and a Lever
It’s clear the Arch-Sciences division council is of single-minded vision with regard to the application of research. The only projects that get funding around here are military and defense contracts.
To that end, I’m petitioning for the renewal of the late Dr. Elzer’s work in genomic modification.
Grant me and my team your endorsement and funding, and we will elevate the Jennerit both militarily and societally.
[Project PHALANX: Phenotypic Alteration, Augmentation, and Neuronal Xenogenesis]
Subject: Re: Place to Stand and a Lever
Was that so hard?
Your proposal is approved; you’ll be working out of division lab number 42.
I leave the preparations of the space to your team. Let me know if you require more personnel or equipment. I’ve also petitioned the council for an additional stipend to be allotted to you monthly as compensation for the personal risk outlined in your proposal.
Lastly, you’ll be sharing a campus with Lord…Nert, I believe? Whichever buffoon is the newest project manager of that money pit they call Project HOTEP. Perhaps you can help one another; I see the previous project manager cited “structural deconstitution” as an ongoing problem with her subjects.
If you’re half as good as you say, you should have no problem supplying something of hardier stock from PHALANX.
One hand scours the other, so the saying goes.
Subject: Re: Re: Place to Stand and a Lever
Hedronic Oscillation by Trans-Euclidian Phantasma was the focus of my 3rd dissertation. I assume Nert’s using precursor subjects from Jennar? I’ve said time and again, our focus on homogeny will be our death.
But don’t worry—my work will change all of that.
Subject: (no subject)
I expect great things of you before long.
May the Mother guide you.
[Transcript of audio recorded by Nova during repairs and modifications, 19959.348]
//NOVA NOTE: I sure wish that Ghalt, an actual qualified UPR engineer, was doing these modifications. Heck, I’d settle for Toby. These guys are just throwing light strips, red paint, and plants all over me.
//NOVA NOTE: Also, I wish that my voice box hadn’t been overridden to play this cheery music.
PHOEBE: “Egg…grog. Please, tell me you’re joking.”
PENDLES: “Egg-grog’s nothin’ to joke about, it’s an important part of the rich Roguish tradition of Newshines Day!”
PENDLES: “Day, yeah! Oh, it’s a riot, everyone swaps their external navigation lamps to all sorts of brilliant colors, you put a mylar blinder over ya helmet, you get an excuse to put on your ugliest space suit for the Brightwalk and watch good ol’ Solus flare up, out there with your egg-grog–”
MONTANA: “Just a minute chief, how d’ya drink egg-grog while you’re wearing a space-suit and helmet?”
//NOVA NOTE: I’ll just send them messages instead of talking.
[open mail client, begin message: “Hey Montana, could you please put that engine back where you found it? I know how much you like big, heavy things, but that one is MY big heavy thing. Thanks!”]
//NOVA NOTE: There, sent. Any second now, he’s going to get my message and put my engine back.
PENDLES: “Sorry mate, trade secret. Anyway, at midnight, you have the best part, the Newshines Shoe-Shine!”
PHOEBE: “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you—did you just say you only shine your shoes once a year?”
PENDLES: “Well, no—Newshines Day is pretty new, I’d say that strictly speaking, I’ve shined my shoes once every 20 years, give or take, and that wasn’t so much a shine so much as it was stepping in a particularly clean puddle. But going forward, yeah, that’s right, once a year, Newshines Shoe-Shine. You take a gob of spit and some elbow grease, you wipe away all the muck and grime you slogged through to get from where you were to where you are, and BLA-DOW! Your sneakers are prepped for a fresh new year of sneaking experiences.”
PHOEBE: “Spit and elbow grease? How…charming.”
//NOVA NOTE: Aaany second now.
PENDLES: “Oh yeah, and I s’pose you lot in the LLC have got something that’s right BRIMMING with charm, do ya?”
PHOEBE: “As a matter of fact, we do!”
SHAYNE: “Pfft, ‘oh-kay’, what’s your dumb holiday got, besides no egg-grog?”
//NOVA NOTE: I’m dying of boredom. This is it. This is how I die. Engine-less, entombed in light strips and wet paint, to the dirge of twinkly bells and happy choral melodies. Somehow, I knew this is how it would end.
PHOEBE: “Well, you get to take the day off…”
AUROX: “YES, AND?”
PHOEBE: “That’s…that’s it. OH! and the Friday before is Casual Friday, so, you can wear silver trimmings instead of gold, if you like.”
REYNA: “Damn. Y’all LLC really know how to let loose. And uh, just what do you call this day of debauchery and indulgence?”
PHOEBE: “Wellll, the name is still being workshopped a bit, and the Guild hasn’t decided whether it will be recurring or not, but for now, they’re calling it—”
EL DRAGÓN: “—Company Holiday 17! The greatest of all holidays!"
//NOVA NOTE: Obviously, he’s forgetting Severance Day. I bet he took one too many blows to the head. That’s why I keep mine stored behind armor-plated paneling. In space.
SHAYNE: “Sounds lame. Everyone gets a day off, big deal.”
EL DRAGÓN: “A-ha, but it is the BIGGEST of deals, because EVERYONE gets the day off, and for liability purposes, everyone HAS to take the holiday. INCLUDING internal security, the legal team, everyone! They can’t hold LLC employees accountable for any damage to company property or staff for 24 hours!”
MELLKA: “WOAHHHH hold on, now this is getting rad! So you have a grudge day where everyone just does what they want and you can steal and fight and vandalize junk to vent all your pent-up frustrations?”
EL DRAGÓN: “I…I never thought of it like that, I mostly used the day to practice my Super Sentry submission holds, but, I suppose you could? The offices are mostly empty though, it would be hard to find opponents, but…yes, yes! With the access code to the Galactic Holo-Arena, or with robot-arms strong enough to rip the doors open, you could host THE FIRST LLC BATTLE ROYALE! Finally, Jen from the mail room will suffer the mighty wrath of EL DRAGÓÓÓN! We’ll see how much she likes eating other peoples’ lunches when she has no TEETH! HAHAHAAaaa…Please excuse me, I must make a few calls.”
//NOVA NOTE: That actually sounds fun as heck.
[open mail client, begin message: “Dear Kleese, robot suit.”]
//NOVA NOTE: Send. I’m getting good at this.
[open mail client, begin message: “Dear El Dragón, sign me up.”]
//NOVA NOTE: Send. I wonder if his new arms are detachable like his old ones.
MELLKA: “Man, I wish the Eldrid would have a battle royale. All we have is ‘Lightbloom’.”
RATH: “What in the world is ‘Lightbloom’?”
MELLKA: “Eh, it’s this thing where everyone gives a ‘gift’ in the morning…”
SHAYNE: “Oo, like a second birthday?”
MELLKA: “Kind of, but the gift is usually a plant or something, sometimes an egg, sometimes a rock, but whatever you get, you’re supposed to be thankful because it represents…something.”
THORN: “Life, child, it represents the natural beauty of life.”
MELLKA: “Whatever. And then the night of Lightbloom, you open your gift, or it blooms, or hatches, or…sits there, if you got a rock. You tie the flower, or the shell, or rock to a moonbulb, which is like, this glowing, floating plant from Ekkunar, and then you let it float off into oblivion.”
SHAYNE: “So you guys just get a bunch of flowers and stuff you can get from outside and trade it around?”
//NOVA NOTE: I went outside once. That was nice.
MELLKA: “No, everyone just gets one gift. Anyway, the Green Observer says it’ll help to regulate the migratory patterns of the amber starhawk, since the sky is, you know, disappearing.”
BENEDICT: “Well, speaking as somethin’ of a hawk myself, that sounds confusin’ as hell. How does everyone know who gets what? And how do y’all make sure the gift blooms or hatches or whatever at the right time?”
MELLKA: “I honestly have no idea, I was wondering the same thing the first time, but it just kind of worked out—I mean, you may as well ask me how the claw knows when I want to stab someone with it.”
BENEDICT: “Hey, yeah, how the hell DOES it—“
MELLKA: “I said I have no idea, Benedict! Eldrid science is weird that way. Just trust me, it works.”
BENEDICT: “Y’all need to take a page from the UPR Field Manual and keep it simple. That’s what I like about the BUF Festival, all you have to remember are the 3 F’s: Fireworks, Feats of Strength, and Falafel! As long as you’ve got those, your party is good to go!”
PHOEBE: “And what, pray tell, does ‘BUF’ stand for?”
OSCAR MIKE/MONTANA/BENEDICT (in unison): “Bright Universe Festival!”
//NOVA NOTE: If I can just reach…that…control panel…I can turn off the music and reactivate my default voice parameters and…no. No, wait. That’s right, I don’t have hands. Dang.
KELVIN: “So, the UPR celebrates the rekindling of Solus with the ‘Bright Universe Festival’ Festival, with 3 F’s?”
WHISKEY FOXTROT: “Kelvin, don’t bother, I’ve already tried explaining to these jackasses—“
OSCAR MIKE: “Heck yeah!”
KELVIN: “…Very well.”
[negligible background noise for 15 seconds]
//NOVA NOTE: This is WAY awkward. And funny. I wish I had some popcorn. Oh wait, I’m a virtual construct, I can make pretty much anything in my cyber-brain.
//NOVA NOTE: Hey, that worked! This popcorn virtually tastes great. I wonder what else I can do in here.
[negligible background noise for 4 seconds]
[ambient temperature spike, fuel combustion hazard]
//NOVA NOTE: This is way less funny. Get out of here, virtual popcorn, momma’s got work to do.
[open mail client, begin message: “Dear Ambra, please don’t blow up Nova. Have you ever tried just chilling out? You should try it sometime. Also, please check your messages.”]
//NOVA NOTE: Aaaand send. That ought to do it. Way to go, me.
AMBRA: “…No one is going to ask? No one is the LEAST BIT CURIOUS as to the Jennerit peoples’ cultural festivities?”
SHAYNE: “Does it involve blood sacrifice?”
KLEESE: “A day of gladiatorial games and sad music on the organ?”
ALANI: “Oh, oh, I bet it involves triangles!”
MELLKA: “The Triangulation Ceremony!”
SHAYNE: “Does it involve blood sacrifice of gladiatorial triangles?”
AMBRA: “No, no, no, NO, NO! It involves, and is named, none of those things! Now see here, you filthy little—”
DEANDE: “—Solus Day.”
[ambient temperature falling]
[open mail client, begin message: “Dear Deande, less-than-symbol, three. Damn this transcription software, what do you mean ‘special characters not allowed’, it’s a NUMBER. Wait, don’t transcribe that part.”]
//NOVA NOTE: I don’t even care anymore, send.
DEANDE: “It’s just called ‘Solus Day’.”
DEANDE: “Or at least, that’s what we’re calling it. I was going to message it out to the other factions’ leadership as a proposed name we can all agree on. Starting at dawn, Exodus, our orbital mega-ship, follows Solus’ path across the sky, gradually eclipsing more and more of Solus until it reaches its zenith.”
AUROX: “YES, AND?”
DEANDE: “And then there’s an artificial total eclipse. It’s quite a thrilling spectacle. Exodus overtakes Solus, the eclipse ends, there’s a Viper flyover, a masquerade, et cetera, et cetera.”
OSCAR MIKE: “Oh, man, that sounds amazing! I wonder if we’ll see the eclipse from Nova.”
[Excerpts from the diary of Beatrix Lucavi, retrieved from a Codex seedpod regrown in the new archive on Ekkunar]
Mother says I need to “apply myself” more in my studies. Who cares? I’m in the top 5% of the class without trying. Not sure why it matters so much to her—it’s not like I’ll make it to graduation anyway.
It’s like, she says one thing, and means the complete opposite!
She said she wanted me to transfer into the Archsciences Academy so I could make friends of “more suitable bearing”, whatever that means. Whatever, it’s not like I can make friends here, since everyone’s so much older than me.
And how am I supposed to make friends if she wants me to study all the time? I’m already enrolled in twice as many courses as anyone else…
[a drawing in the margin depicts a Jennerit girl with wings struggling to fly while chained at the ankle to a giant book]
UGH, Professor Alecto makes my blood boil (what’s left of it, anyway)! Since the first lecture, she’s been trying to fail me, just because I disproved her little pet theory about the Jennerit and Varelsi having implicit genetic commonality. It’s not MY fault she’s wrong. Honestly, how she got tenure is beyond me.
[Much of the page is taken up by a drawing of a Jennerit woman trapped in a volumetric flask over a burner; a younger girl stands over the flask, laughing.]
They say the best revenge is living well…Since that’s not really an option for me, I settled for the next best thing and decided to ace her class.
Also, I’ve begun working on my thesis.
Can’t WAIT to see the look on her stupid face when I publish my refutation of her new research. “Hypernegative Void-Tunnel Theory”, really, where does she come up with this comic-book junk?
Speaking of junk, mom sent me more candy. So…yayyy.
Went home to visit the “family”. I know what you’re thinking, and no, he wasn’t there. Shocking, I know.
Mom said we could do a holo-call tonight but I don’t really want to think about it. Don’t really want to think about anything.
I’m really tired.
Another “specialist” is supposed to come by tomorrow. Pretty sure I’ve met just about every cretin in the field at this point, NOT hopeful.
There once was a girl named Trix
Whose body nobody could fix—
She went to the doctor
Who stabbed her and stocked her
With every pill in the mix.
Conference with one of the advisors and mother today. She seemed really excited, if you can believe it.
Apparently, she negotiated the possibility of early graduation, provided my grades don’t slip and I keep my course-load where it is.
Great. At least I’ll die with a degree.
On the plus side, this year I have to get a “Fine Arts” credit. Maybe I’ll change focuses, just to freak her out.
Wouldn’t that be something?
I think she might kill me herself if I tried.
[superimposed on the text is an outline of a small, four-fingered hand]
Graduation day, hoorayyy.
Beatrix, age 14, youngest student to ever graduate from ArchCad, that’s me.
Nothing to do now but eat candy till I puke.
Maybe I’ll invent un-puke-able candy before I kick it.
[A detailed picture, labelled “Figure 1”, appears to be a technical illustration of the proposed invention. Illegible annotations surround the figure.]
Are you KIDDING ME?
She’s adamant that I go—she actually applied FOR ME.
Apparently plenty of programs are willing to pay my way if I’m a research assistant. Seems like a waste of an investment to me.
Mom seems weirdly obsessed with the whole thing.
I guess now I know why she was so obsessed with grad school.
Arch-Sciences division needs all the help they can get, and having a Silent Sister for a mother apparently counts for something.
Does she ask me what I want?
Thought I was done.
I’m really tired.
I am not long for this world.
I’ll see another soon;
With closed eyes and laced fingers, curled
Up like a crescent moon,
A tiny piece of me may glow,
But most will rest in shade.
The memory of me may grow
While what remains will fade.
She tells me to aspire to life
As stars do: timeless, bright,
And keener than a Keeper’s knife,
To cut the dark of night.
But though a star may live an age,
Its life is spent in burning;
And all about it is a cage
Of worlds locked in their turning.
If I should spend a life of stars,
I do not burn for me;
If I endure behind these bars,
It’s only because she
Somehow believes she must atone
For me, her dying girl;
I am not long for me alone,
I am long for her world.
[Transcription of shipwide communications aboard the UPR ship Nova]
OSCAR MIKE: Kleese! It’s Oscar Mike here. I found this AWESOME clip of a scalewolf pup walking around like a person, and I was gonna send it to everyone as a holomail attachment, but there’s a MAJOR problem. I’ve been HACKED, bro! I can’t open my holomail stuff!
KLEESE: Oscar. I’ve told you time and again, before coming to me with every little thing, first manually induce a full capacitance flux sequence via the primary power coupling.
OSCAR MIKE: Right. Uhhhh… I got everything up until “first”, then you lost me.
KLEESE: Bottom of your station, right hand side, that is, the same side where you hold your gun, there’s a large button. Push the button, wait five seconds, then push it a second time. Off, then on again. Also, PLEASE refrain from gumming up Nova’s PA system with your inane blathering, this channel is reserved for emergency address only.
OSCAR MIKE: That’s what I’m saying, there’s an emergency with my holomail address! My contacts, my newsletters, my fact-a-day messages, this is seriously HECKED UP. I’ve been hacked to heck!
KLEESE: [prolonged audible sigh] What is your holomail address?
OSCAR MIKE: “BRO-M83.firstname.lastname@example.org”
KLEESE: Let’s have a look then, shall we?
OSCAR MIKE: It’s B-R-O –
KLEESE: – YES, yes, I get it, you’re very clever. While you were busy struggling with your spelling, I figured out your issue. You weren’t “hacked”, your account has been suspended and archived. There’s a note here, it seems that the administrator finally caught wind of your persistent violations of the “official communications only” bit of the terms of service.
OSCAR MIKE: Wrong! The only dudes with admin access are the Mike High Command, and all the other Mikes have been SUPER-gone for pretty much ever.
OSCAR MIKE: They’re gone and never coming back, Kleese, and you’ve gotta accept that, like I have! You’ll never see or hear from them again, no matter how close you guys were before, no matter how much fun you had shooting Varelsi faces or swapping stories or playing rock-paper-airstrike. It’s in the past! There’s no use dwelling on those guys, just appreciate the bros you’ve got, instead of crying and writing poems about bros you lost.
KLEESE: Ohhhkayyy, or, HERE’S A THOUGHT, instead of opening up WAY more than I’m comfortable with, you can submit a support ticket to contact the administrator directly.
OSCAR MIKE: …You can do that?
KLEESE: No, YOU can do that, I’m done with IT for the day. Have fun reconnecting. HA!
[Archived transcription of audio recorded in Nova’s med-bay, dated 19959.41]
GHALT: Huh. That was…surprisingly painless. And you’re saying this injection is going to help my knees?
BEATRIX: Almost assuredly. Or what’s LEFT of those pitifully collagenic patellae you generously call “knees”. As your primary-and-only-competent-care physician, I really must recommend we work something mechanical in there. Maybe…tritanium? All you UPR grunts love tritanium!
GHALT: Yeah, on the OUTSIDE. Replacing my skeleton? SO not gonna happen.
BEATRIX: Your loss. Captain, would you kindly bring the next patient in?
OSCAR MIKE: Sup, Cap—hey, where’s the doctor?
BEATRIX: You’re looking at her. Have a seat, Mr…Mike. I’m going to need you to remove your combat armor and helmet.
OSCAR MIKE: My…what? No way! I’m just here for the free band-aids.
BEATRIX: Is he always like this?
GHALT: Pretty much.
BEATRIX: Oscar, I’m going to ask one more time: pretty please, with sugar on top…
OSCAR MIKE: Look, if I wasn’t in MEGA-PEAK CONDITION, could I do THIS? Bam! Totally healthy, no armor removal necessary!
BEATRIX: I was hoping it would come to this.
OSCAR MIKE: To what?
BEATRIX: We don’t have an infracarbon-saw aboard this ship…yet. But I pride myself on innovation in the face of adversity, and I’ve made some…mostly positive findings thus far with this bladed boomerang I borrowed, and an electric toothbrush I’ve recoupled to the med-bay’s primary generator. This should be interesting. Nova, begin recording.
NOVA: Hm? Oh, I record pretty much everything, everywhere, all the time.
BEATRIX: Now THAT’S creepy. Remind me to check your archives later. Captain, restrain the patient.
OSCAR MIKE: Uhhhh…CAPTAIN, PERMISSION TO NOT BE RESTRAINED. Ha! Take THAT, spooky doctor girl!
GHALT: Permission denied.
OSCAR MIKE: You can do that?
GHALT: Yup. Unless you want to lose that chest plate and helmet, soldier.
OSCAR MIKE: But…it’s cold! Awww, man!
GHALT: And the base layer.
BEATRIX: He’s blue?
GHALT: Well, sure. What, you’ve never seen a Galahadrim’s skin before?
BEATRIX: They lose their pigment on expiry.
GHALT: What does—oh. Yeah, he’s blue.
OSCAR MIKE: Do you need me to open my mouth and say “ahhh”?
BEATRIX: No. In fact, do the opposite. Keep it closed, say nothing.
[negligible background noise for 10 seconds]
BEATRIX: Incredible…and you’re certain this is one of the RDC’s quick-culture clones?
GHALT: Yeah, I’ve got it on pretty good authority.
OSCAR MIKE: Don’t tell the others!
GHALT: Riiiight. Anyway, why do you ask?
BEATRIX: He’s actually remarkably healthy compared to most Galahadrim I’ve examined. I mean, all my specimens were also dead and suffering from a variety of injuries, but even so, almost all of them had evidence of pre-existing conditions stemming from ribosomal degradation. It’s exceedingly rare for the quick-culture process to “take” without a host of issues arising…at least, not without specific care to the specimens throughout the maturation phase.
OSCAR MIKE: See? What’d I tell ya! I’m pretty much the greatest.
BEATRIX: Captain, why did the UPR select Galahadrim for the program? As opposed to, say, Aplians? Their musculature is significantly further developed. Or the Aviants? Superior mobility, collectivistic instincts, quicker gestation, shorter juvenile period…
GHALT: Well, originally, it was going to be an Aplian-based program, but changed to Galahadrim just a few months before the program began for a couple of reasons…
OSCAR MIKE: Further developed MY ASS! Captain! Permission to wrestle!
OSCAR MIKE: Damn!
BEATRIX: Yes, but why, Trevor, WHY did it change? If there’s some Galahadrim-specific physiological component of the cloning process, I need to know, both for my own research and to adequately care for Mr. Mike and Mr. Foxtrot.
GHALT: No, no, it’s nothing like that, it’s. Well. Have you ever seen Montana eat?
BEATRIX: Oh. Oh my. The caloric intake necessary to feed an army of mountains must be—
GHALT: “Expensive as all hell,” was the official line. The Galahadrim—
BEATRIX: I’ve seen their digestive tracts before, opened stomachs with corroded rocks and raw meat mixed with standard UPR rations. They’re efficient. I see. And the other reason?
BEATRIX: You said “a couple of reasons”, what’s the other reason for Galahadrim clones?
GHALT: Oh. Uh. Well, at the time, the UPR was going through an aggressive recruitment campaign, you know, lots of “visit exotic places and blow them up!” kinda posters…
BEATRIX: I don’t follow.
GHALT: Well, the UPR’s Ministry of Media decided that some blue would…[sigh]…”pop” more. And we didn’t have a big enough population of Helicians, something about “staple variance factors”, I think?
BEATRIX: Stable variance factorization. You need a particular threshold of genetic diversity to carry out a mass-cloning operation such that any unforeseen mutations don’t propagate enough generational momentum to impact the population as a whole.
GHALT: Uh huh.
BEATRIX: So…he’s blue.
OSCAR MIKE: And BADASS! And healthy as heck!
BEATRIX: Right. Well, I have some archived footage to review. Oscar, I believe we’ve BOTH earned ourselves a piece of candy.
[Drawers opening and closing, metal clattering]
BEATRIX: Captain, WHERE is the candy?
BEATRIX: HOW can I be expected to perform my medical duties if I CAN’T PROPERLY INCENTIVIZE MY PATIENTS? Or my SELF? Or my assistant!
BEATRIX: I’m filing a requisition order. Nova! We need candy for the med-bay!
[Chat log streaming from ansible chat hosted on-board Fortune’s Favor]
.>>spooling ansible node 47.8e: “FortunesFavor”
.>>local node successfully established
.>>channel name changed to “MiNIONS AND MaZES v.4.5”
.>>channel topic has been set to “totally awesome adventure”
.>>channel has been set to [Private]
.>>client connection request: “Nova.1 - 184.108.40.206”
.>>client connection request: “Nova.2 - 220.127.116.11”
.>>client connection request: “ArcShipPRIM.4 - 5.03.00.1”
|MAYZEMASTER has joined the channel
|galilea has joined the channel
|Eurydice has joined the channel
|Phoebe.Hemsworth.IV has joined the channel
MAYZEMASTER| alright losers, welcome back to Shayne’s MAZE of MADNESS!
MAYZEMASTER| where’d we leave off?
galilea| The Tower of the Severed Hand. Hecta had just cast “Nonagon of Respite”, which grants the benefits of a full night’s sleep to Hecta and up to 8 allies.
MAYZEMASTER| yeah yeah, I know how NoR works, just needed a quick reminder, I just woke up
Phoebe.Hemsworth.IV | What in the WORLD are you doing sleeping in this late? Wait, do the Rogues use CST?
MAYZEMASTER| yeah I just sleep really late
MAYZEMASTER| plus I was up til like 0530 on the navsim
MAYZEMASTER| Reyna’s been letting me ride shotgun
MAYZEMASTER| I’m pretty much the copilot, so I’m teaching myself to fly
Eurydice| that’s awesome1
Eurydice| stupid prosthesis
Eurydice| we’ll have to call you “CAPTAIN Shayne” pretty soon .P
galilea| You wouldn’t call her “Captain Shayne”, just like it’s not “Captain Trevor”. The rank is followed by the surname, so it would be Captain…
Phoebe.Hemsworth.IV | …?
MAYZEMASTER| no idea.
MAYZEMASTER| speaking of, where’s our Death-Jester?
MAYZEMASTER| still can’t get over that name
Phoebe.Hemsworth.IV| That reminds me, I need to change this bloody thing, I was in a meeting…
a user (Phoebe.Hemsworth.IV) has changed their name (HULKULEEZ!)
Mell| sorry had to grab a drink
Mell| what’s wrong with my name shrimp
MAYZEMASTER| Half-Humans are supposed to have turbocool deed names, according to the book!
Mell| Nelka IS my deed name I totally Nelka’d some poor bastard like twenty sessions ago remember
Eurydice| haha that was great, awht was his name ahain?
Eurydice| UGH this keyboard is nothing like the ones I’m used to. How do you type with your giant ckaw?
Eurydice| ------ — ------- —
user (Eurydice) has been muted for (1) minute
Mell| typing’s for chumps I just kick my feet up and use text to speech
Mell| also Shayne why do you have the default censors on I want to be able to say whatever the ---- I want
user (Mell) has been muted for (1) minute
MAYZEMASTER| Reyna won’t let me use the ansible without it…I think it’s a test or something
Eurydice| My synthavox screws up the text-to-dpeech
Eurydice| stupid Silent Sisters. Stupid surgeon.
MAYZEMASTER| sorry Beatrix
MAYZEMASTER| let me know if we need to go slower
galilea| If anything, we need to go faster. Are we going to play, or not?
Hulkuleez!| Yes, let’s! HULKULEEZ WANT BREAK PUNY THINGS
Mell| I’m with feebs let’s get to killing this guy
MAYZEMASTER| alright, alright, keep your loincloth on
a message has been pinned: “when we last left our heroes…”
MAYZEMASTER| so, having fought your way through the Digi-lich’s lair, you arrive at last at the door to his chambers, a preponderance of grobblin corpses in your wake…
Hulkuleez!| To say nothing of that poor Pixie door-guard.
galilea| I thought we spared him?
galilea| I specifically recall Hecta using “Wreath of Shriving Shame” and rolling a critical success to get him to see the error of his ways.
Mell| yeah while you were off doing your star knight ablutions or whatever I went back and killed that guy
Mell| yeah I really wanted that pixie halberd
galilea| Isn’t Nelka a Half-Human? Can she even wield it?
Mell| I’ve been using it as a toothpick slash cheese knife
galilea| We don’t even have any cheese!
Mell| we’ll find someone that has cheese soon enough
Mell| and I’ll kill them too
MAYZEMASTER| ENOUGH! You’re at the door.
MAYZEMASTER| …do you do?
MAYZEMASTER| ------ Trix, I’m trying to build suspense!
user (MAYZEMASTER) has been muted for (1) minute
Hulkuleez!| “HULKULEEZ WANT BREAK!”
Hulkuleez!| I’m going to show this door what for!
Eurydice| Phebe wait, as an Animancer, I can communicate with trees and wooden objects
Eurydice| and alsp since I’m a Dryad, I get a bonus to diplomacy rolls with them
MAYZEMASTER| okay I’m back
MAYZEMASTER| sorry Eurydice, but those abilities only apply to natural, un-hewn targets.
MAYZEMASTER| won’t work on a door.
galilea| Hecta casts “Guileless Might” on Hulkuleez.
MAYZEMASTER| nice! okay so as a Troglodon, Hulkuleez has a -3 intellect, so that’s +3 strength with Guileless Might.
Hulkuleez!| Don’t forget my Berserker favored enemy!
MAYZEMASTER| oh yeah. I forgot that Hulkuleez REALLY hates doors.
MAYZEMASTER| that’s another +2
Hulkuleez!| His grandfather was killed by a faulty portcullis! This one’s for you, pop-pop!
user (Hulkuleez!) rolled 1d19 (16)
MAYZEMASTER| not bad! that’s a modulated roll of 21
MAYZEMASTER| Hulkuleez flexes his mighty Troglodonian muscles, whirls his electric morningstar around and WHAM, bashes the door to splintereens!
galilea| What does the party see?
MAYZEMASTER| The air within the chamber hangs thick with a foul miasma that seems to choke the light out of the lone torch you can barely make out in the center of the room.
Eurydice| I want to summin my shimmerwasps!
MAYZEMASTER| good thinking.
MAYZEMASTER| do you have the prerequisite chiminage?
Eurydice| yes! I have…2 “dollops” of royal jelly from a glimmerbee queen
MAYZEMASTER| so, drawn to the scent of the jelly, your shimmerwasps materialize! they cast light in a radius of 20 feet around the swarm
Eurydice| I direct the swarm to the center of the room while cautiously following behind
galilea| Hecta stands next to Eurydice, with her shield raised in case of danger
Mell| I guess I’ll follow behind and pull out my ninja stars
MAYZEMASTER| your Juggling Knives of Jocularity?
Hulkuleez!| Hulkuleez will stand in the doorway, over the shattered remnants of the door. In case it tries to get back up.
Hulkuleez!| HULKULEEZ NO FALL FOR DOOR TRICKS LIKE GRANDFATHER
MAYZEMASTER| As you advance, the torch at the center of the room seem to grow in brightness until all too late, you realize it’s not a torch at all!
Hulkuleez!| Oh dear.
MAYZEMASTER| With a deafening roar, the Digi-lich’s DRAGON opens its maw and unleashes a gout of cyber-fire!
Eurydice| Dryads are weak againsy fiiiire
galilea| Hecta leaps in front of Eurydice to protect her!
MAYZEMASTER| What’s Hecta’s Defense Rating?
user (MAYZEMASTER) made a concealed roll…
MAYZEMASTER| You take 124 bits of fire damage!
galilea| You mean Hecta?
MAYZEMASTER| yeah I mean Hecta
galilea| The Zomboid racial ability, “Renecrotize”, allows Hecta to desurrect after an unkilling blow.
MAYZEMASTER| ugh, fine, anyway, as the cyber-fire dissipates, you see the Digi-lich standing just behind the dragon, cackling as he brandishes a glowing scepter about.
MAYZEMASTER| (Digi-lich) “Fools! You’ll never defeat me! I know all your weaknesses, for you see, it is I,“
MAYZEMASTER| he removes his cowl,
MAYZEMASTER| “Vextro, your old mentor and patron!”
Mell| gimme a sec I’m finishing this drink but I got something awesome coming up
Mell| spoiler it’s another drink gimme another sec
Mell| alright I’m gonna straight up Nelka this guy into the next century
Mell| I’m gonna attack him with my cheese knife
MAYZEMASTER| you mean the pixie halberd?
Mell| yeah that
user (Mell) rolled 1d19 (19!)
MAYZEMASTER| Fine, you hit, roll 1d1.5
user (Mell) rolled 1d1.5 (1)
MAYZEMASTER| You tickle him with the pixie halberd, dealing laughably small damage
Mell| eh it’s enough
Mell| he’s like deathly intolerant of any lactose right
Mell| that’s what you said in the third session of the sintered soldier when we had to fight the iron golem twins who were terrorizing that dairy farm
Mell| Vextro got some milk on him and nearly died or whatever
Mell| need me to pull up the records
MAYZEMASTER| ? you can’t save ansible data
Mell| sure I can just not from a local rig
Mell| gimme a sec gotta actually type
Mell| !customsearch:“that thing Shayne said about Vextro being lactose intolerant that one time”
(1) result: “Vextro cries out in agony as the drop of milk lands on his arm. Wracked with pain, he tells you ‘Keep that stuff away from me, I’m DEATHLY ALLERGIC to anything containing lactose!’ through gritted teeth.”
Mell| don’t test my codex fu kid
MAYZEMASTER| …okay, sure, but you don’t have any milk
Mell| no but I do have cheese on the blade
galilea| I thought you didn’t have any cheese?
Mell| I lied
Mell| killed that dairy farmer and took his cheese
user (MAYZEMASTER) made a concealed roll…
MAYZEMASTER| well ----.
user (MAYZEMASTER) has been muted for (2) minutes
Hulkuleez!| Drat, I was quite looking forward to giving that brute a thrashing!
Eurydice| I’m gonna grab some fro-yo til Shaybe gets back
galilea| Can you get me some?
Eurydice| qe can shaaare!
MAYZEMASTER| FINE. Vextro’s dead. “Oh no, cheese, my one weakness!” he cries. The orb of his scepter still gleams with palpable force.
Mell| I pick up the scepter
MAYZEMASTER| Cool! So now you have the SCEPTER OF THE DRAGONARCH, so you can command his dragon and stuff. Shooould come in handy against the hordes of Deleterius the Unmaker!
Eurydice| We should destroy it.
Mell| yeah what
Eurydice| It binds the dragon against its will, right?
Eurydice| Like a slave?
MAYZEMASTER| Kind of? More like an ally
Eurydice| So the dragon wants ti help us?
Eurydice| because if that’s the case then we don’t need the scepter in the first okace
Eurydice| if we need the scepter to get the dragon’s help, then we should desrtoy it.
galilea| Yes…if we subjugate this creature against its will, we’re no better than Deleterius himself!
MAYZEMASTER| I feel like you guys are going a bit overboard
Hulkuleez!| I agree with Shayne, I mean, do we even know that the dragon has free will for us to subjugate? Does it have true consciousness?
Hulkuleez!| Come now, any Digi-lich worth his salt would have properly programmed the dragon to enjoy its work and know its station.
MAYZEMASTER| Yeah, besides, you don’t have to command the dragon forever
MAYZEMASTER| I just figured you’d use the scepter until you defeated Deleterius’ hordes and then let the dragon go.
Eurydice| that goes agaijst pretty much every Animancer ideal I stand for
Eurydice| we’re supposed to further society, slavery does more than bind the subjugated, it chains the slaver to an outmoded and untenable mentality, restricts the economy, and weakens the foundfation of civilization as a whole.
Eurydice| what if the dragon rebels or breaks free?
MAYZEMASTER| IT CAN’T, you have the scepter!
Eurydice| what if we lose the scepter
Eurydice| or someone TAKES it?
MAYZEMASTER| I guess you’ll have to be careful, then!
Eurydice| DESTROTYIN IT
Eurydice| BEUJNFG CAREFYK!!!
Eurydice| you know what I mean
Hulkuleez!| You know, the more I think about the eventualities, however minute, the prospect of growing to rely upon this dragon seems less and less appealing…
Mell| fine whatever I smash the stupid thing and loot Vextro’s corpse
MAYZEMASTER| UGH now I’ve gotta rewrite part of my story! ------ I’ll let you know when I’m ready
user (MAYZEMASTER) has been muted for (10) minutes
[Excerpted notes of Dr. Beatrix Lucavi, retrieved from personal station located in the med-bay of Nova]
Subjects 14 and 15, Ekkuni Dwarf and anomalous parasite
Subject 14 initially sought consultation at the urging of his granddaughter after complaining of recurrent transient spinal paresthesia. During questioning, he expressed depressive symptoms, stating that he has lost interest in activities which he previously enjoyed (“burying axe in Varelsi faces”, “laughing with computer lady”, “trees”, etc.). He further explained that he had heard rumors of a “mighty bear” on Tempest. I inquired further, but discussion of anything related to this “bear” only exacerbated his condition, leading to minor muscle spasms.
Having seen firsthand Boldur’s distinctive regenerative capabilities and resistance to injury, he appears to be the very picture of physical health. However, my findings upon closer examination were simultaneously troubling and exciting. Though I had initially dismissed his “stump” as some form of Eldrid ornamentation, the trunk and root structure covering most of his back appears to be an arboreal parasite, the likes of which I’ve never seen.
When I offered to excise this growth, he immediately became hostile; despite him being unarmed, I elected not to press the issue. However, I did take a small bark sample in the course of the remainder of my examination. Following analysis of both Boldur and the sample, I have determined three things:
Boldur hosts a transplant of what may be the last Ursus cedrus horribilis in existence.
Though I can only hypothesize as to what constitutes a biomarker of aging in this species, if its growth patterns are at all similar to typical trees, the one on Boldur’s back appears to have been cut around the age of 500. Somehow, he’s transplanted it onto his body, enabling it to survive by drawing off of his own incredible regenerative properties for the past 50 years or so.
The root structure is already fundamentally altering Boldur’s body.
If left unchecked, the Cedar Bear will either continue to mature (which, if records are accurate, will result in Boldur being crushed beneath many tons of bear)…or the root structure will invade one or more of his vital organ systems, inadverdently killing the host and the parasite alike.
The stories of the tenacity and destructive potential of the Cedar Bears of Ralpopym are well-documented, as well as their extinction through the veiling of Ralpopym and extended Eldrid conflicts with both the Varelsi and Peacekeeper forces on Codex, Ekkunar, and elsewhere. It would appear Boldur’s stubbornness is not entirely without merit. Nonetheless, the point stands that this course will kill him. When I informed the subject of his impending death, he simply laughed and called me a ”silly Jennerit science-baby” with “much to learn of bear-science”.
I can do without the condescension, but I fear he’s right; Jennerit record-keeping is notoriously scant with regard to extirpated peoples and species. Possible resources and references: The Mikes, against all limits of credulity, seem to have improved upon the RDC quick-culture process. Though much of the lab was obliterated and technically what remains of my notes are held in Imperial Confidence, I’m sure that Deande can help me salvage something from PHALANX.
Lastly, the Codex Regrowth is showing promise…
P.S.: ask Ms. Hyenyota to reach out to the Green Observer for details on Cedar Bear biology and the specifics of the Codex Regrowth process. She’s got a poison arm thing, I’ve got a poison arm thing; I can probably leverage this relationship to my advantage in this request.
P.P.S.: Never refer to Mellka as “Ms. Hyenyota” again.
On the plus side, I finally have firsthand access to a sample of the toxin peculiar to her bio-gauntlet!
P.P.P.S.: I feel funny…
[Attachment: excerpt from the children’s book “The Greedy Cedar Bear”, courtesy of Teshka Elessamorn’s private “Book Club“ collection:]
“[…] See the greedy cedar bear
That lives within the trees?
Its claws can split an Aelfrin hair,
Its roar can still the breeze!
But only in the hardest stone
Do cedar bears take root,
And only once their tree is grown
Do cedar bears bear fruit.”
[Activity log from the UPR ship Nova, dated 19959.56]
.>>Initiate docking procedure with Eidolon-class battlestation, “The Brothership”
.>>Requesting clearance from General Mike…
.>>Request confirmed, cleared for docking and disembarkation
.>>Updating passenger count: 7> 0
NOVA: Oh no, they left Montana behind. Cheer up, big guy. You know, I got left behind, too. A bunch of times, actually, now that I think about it.
MONTANA: Ehhh, it’s no problem, Ghalt says someone’s gotta watch the ship while they’re shmoozin’ with the Mikes. Besides, I don’t really go in for that “intel briefing” stuff, ya know?
NOVA: I do know. These “diplomatic” missions are like, really, really boring. Lots of sitting around, which is pretty much the worst if you’re a ship. Oo, hang on, incoming uploads.
.>>Updating navigation maps:
.>>Detritus Ring> Chunks Wishingbone, Wishingbone II, Wishingbone III […] Wishingbone X
.>>Allied Ship> The Brothership (current location: Detritus Ring)
.>>Portal Dense Regions> Sec. 759.k62, Sec. 684.c12, […] Sec. 215.y69
.>>Imperium Outposts> Quietus (voidsap refinery village)
NOVA: A refinery village? Buckle up, Montana, we’re going on our own mission.
MONTANA: Uhhh, what’s going on?
NOVA: No biggie, we’re just going to swing by Tempest, shouldn’t take more than half an hour. Depending on how fast your skinny legs can go.
MONTANA: Hey, cool it with the commentary, these babies carried me through nearly 30 years of combat.
NOVA: That’s a lot of combat.
MONTANA: Plus 2 months of tap dancing lessons. Speaking of fast, how are we gonna get to Tempest in half an hour?
NOVA: Shortcuts are everywhere, you just have to know where to look.
NOVA: See? What did I tell you. Totally fine, just not so great at math.
.>>Initiate landing procedure
MONTANA: Man, and I thought Echelon was creepy! Who’s building and abandoning fancy houses way out here?
NOVA: I blame gentrifica–
MONTANA: HOLD ON, Nova, don’t make any sudden moves.
NOVA: I’ll try and contain myself. What’s going on?
MONTANA: There’s some kind of bear! And I don’t have my gun on me. I guess I’ll have to WRESTLE it into submission!
NOVA: Your gun is right behind you.
MONTANA: Shhh! I don’t wanna spook the bear! I’ll just put it in a gentle headlock…
NOVA: Hey, no wrestling in the engineering bay, there’s fraaa-g-gg-llll
//WARNING: PROCESSING CORE DISCONNECTED
//The core was not properly ejected
//If possible, always safely eject a core before disconnecting
//Data may have been lost or corrupted
//Before disconnecting, consult the Use Guide for instructions on safe core removal
//Running minimum systems in Safe Mode
.>>Updating passenger count: 2>0
NOVA: That was SO not a bear. Great.
.>>Scanning for local Battleborn…
//WARNING: Scanning range reduced to minimum proximity while in Safe Mode
.>> Battleborn detected (Tempest): Alani, Boldur, Deande, Montana, Shayne, Thorn
.>>Transmitting distress signal…
.>>Receipt confirmed: Alani, Boldur, Montana, Shayne, Thorn
.>>Additional message (Shayne): “It’s cool if I bring the big guy, right?”
.>>Auto-response (Deande): “Currently overseeing Constable Cuddles’ walkies with his caretaker.”
NOVA: Well? Are you going to stand there and tap dance, or get that bear?
/Dragons in the Detritus Ring?
//Startling discoveries on Chunk Corb II, pg. 4
/Uncovering the Jennerit Legacy
//New findings beneath the Fighting Pits, pg. 9
/The Curse of the First Observer
//Thurston Alcott Brantlecroft III recalls the fateful foray, pg. 13
/Proto-Aelfrin Power Rites
//Gone but not forgotten, pg. 16
/Cracking the Codex
//Stunning insight into ancient Eldrid private lives, pg. 29
/Trekking Beneath Ekkunar
//New site raises questions, pg. 22
|Ekkunar’s history is largely told through the ruins of the Aztanti (though some less-reputable sources claim there is evidence the structures were not built by aliens) and the mythstones they left behind. Their stories, like their civilization and Ekkunar itself, were fragmented and scattered–incomplete pieces of a dozen different puzzles that many have spent their lives trying to cobble to form a cohesive picture. Now, as we approach the anniversary of the tragedy of Amenin, new evidence points to an as-yet-undiscovered site.
|Radical techniques pioneered in “superveil spectrography” have breathed life into many Aztanti relics, such as the “Imotzta Ledger”. Through its recent analysis, researchers believe they’ve found reference to a temple complex hidden deep within the vast chambers of Ekkunar’s heart. However, progress has been stymied by an unforeseen tangle: an unidentified background interference has disrupted any attempt to pinpoint the theoretical site using traditional geosonic instrumentation.
|Luckily, regular contributor and sponsored adventurer Baroness Phoebe Hemsworth IV has volunteered to lead an expedition with her own private research team. We asked Lady Hemsworth about her peculiar methodology:
//GA: Lady Hemsworth, many in the field have criticized your unorthodox approach to archaeological study, citing concerns of an unqualified research team lacking in accountability. If your critics were sitting here, what would you say to put them at ease?
//PH: Yes, well, their “ease” is hardly a concern of mine, isn’t it? I believe that if real progress is to be made in this day and age, it cannot be accomplished through a position of ease, you’ve got to get your hands dirty! Not literally, of course, that’s what the team is for. But to my critics, I should say, “Leave it to me.” For Hemsworth Intelligence Enterprises, and myself personally, the impossible is an everyday endeavor, whether it’s developing a neurally networked set of telekinetic swords, or the genesis of the most advanced intelligence the universe has ever seen.
//GA: But didn’t the Magna Carta go offline?
//PH: It must have had its reasons. In any case, we’re not here to talk about past accomplishments, we’re looking towards the future! Of the past!
//GA: Of course. Ms. Hemsworth, if the collected efforts of The New Galactic Archaeological Society couldn’t make headway in locating the site, what makes you so confident you and your team can?
//PH: Well, thus far they’ve attempted the orthodox approach and met nothing but failure, haven’t they? And mine is, as
you say, decidedly un-orthodox. Have you ever heard the definition of insanity?
//GA: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?
//PH: Going in against a Hemsworth. Give me a line of credit long enough and an asset on which to rest it, and I will move the multiverse.
//GA: One last question, Lady Hemsworth: are you at all concerned with your line of credit amidst rumors of your father Baron Bertholomew’s failing health?
//PH: I’m sorry, that’s all the time I have. Good day.
While Galactic Archaeology carefully selects all regular recipients of its endowments and sponsorships, in the interest of factional impartiality, we are currently accepting applications from qualified third-party researchers unaffiliated with the LLC for an interim position accompanying the Hemsworth expedition. Submit all inquiries to the Editor.
Kid Ultra here, and boy do I have a GREAT IDEA that I’d like your input on! I’ve been SIDEkicking around this idea for a while. Everyone knows about the great heroes of history (like Captain Aster and Inspector Spectre, Ghost Detector). BUT, WHAT IF (bear with me) we made NEW HEROES?
Here’s my idea: with your help, we could make a holoshow about crime-fighting and justice, to inspire the next generation of BATTLEBORN! I’ve already reached out to Captain Aster via the Little Lasernauts League official mailing list, but so far I haven’t gotten a response. Luckily, we have some of our own talent on our team who were happy to help!
I’ll have some footage to show you later, but for now, I’ve attached a sample of the script I’m working on for our first episode.
Let me know what you think!
Also we need funding.
Potentially a Holoshow Hero,
“While transporting a petrified Bliss-frost sculpture and an Aztanti flowerpot, the LLS Morningstar II ran afoul of a rogue quark-storm! Though the crew escaped on emergency shuttles, the storm transformed and twisted them, granting them incredible abilities, and an instinct for EVIL. Endowed with sentience, Icebreaker and Evergreen, with the help of the ship’s AI ‘Ultro’, patrol the universe in search of the villainous crew members to send them to the one facility that can contain them: the Port Mynos Museum of Uncanny Criminal History!”
(SUPER AWESOME THEME MUSIC)
“STARRING: Kelvin as ICEBREAKER,”
“Miko as EVERGREEN,”
“and Kid Ultra as ULTRO”
“Written for holoscreen by K. Ultra
Produced by Ultra Productions, a subsidiary of Hemsworth Media
Directed by Kid Ultra
INT. DOCTOR NEFARION’S LAIR – NIGHT
Two figures, a humanoid mushroom and an ice-golem, roam the halls of the abandoned manufactory. They are stoic, but cautious. The air is tense with danger. EVERGREEN holds up a hand, signaling a halt.
“Our quarks are vibrating…we have a bad feeling about this.
“Yes, I feel it too. Ultro, what do your sensors show?”
ULTRO (over radio)
“It looks like there’s a wavefront scrampression propagating through the isotopic magnetochrons in the manufactory.”
“Where there’s magnetochronal scrampression, there’s fire; Doctor Nefarion must be close—“
“Closer than you think, Icebreaker! I’d counted on you two goons showing up, but didn’t think you’d be here so soon.”
“We are not here to negotiate, Nefarion! Are you going to come with us quietly, or must we pacify you?”
“Ah ah ah, I’d be careful if I were you. Or have you not noticed the décor?”
Littered throughout the room are the DEPLETED MAGNUS CORES, some faintly glowing, others conspicuously dim.
“Depleted Magnus cores? But why?”
“Say hello to my latest creation, the BLACKSTAR MK.IX!”
BLACKSTAR crashes through the wall behind EVERGREEN, knocking them to the ground.
“Prepare to feel my frostbite!”
Icebreaker prepares to chomp Blackstar with his signature “Frostbite” attack.
INT. MORNINGSTAR II BRIDGE – NIGHT
Just before Icebreaker’s jagged icicle-teeth clamp down, Ultro finalizes his analysis.
“Hold it, Icebreaker! I’m detecting a lot of anti-vibrancy in the electrosignature of Blackstar’s core! That can only mean one thing…he’s powered by—“
INT. DOCTOR NEFARION’S LAIR – NIGHT
EXTREME CLOSE UP – NEFARION’S EYES
“—DARK IONS! Unless you want to trigger a trans-universal negative energy cascade, I’LL be giving the orders around here! [evil laughter]”
A vortex of energy swirls around Blackstar’s core, reminiscent of the Magnus cores around the room, except totally EVIL.
How will our heroes make it out of the manufactory alive? Will Doctor Nefarion’s dastardly plan succeed? Will Blackstar’s dark ion engine defeat the powers of justice? Tune in next week for more MORNINGSTAR II: THE OMICHRONICLES!
Subject: Application Status
Warmaster Rath, this is an automated message sent as confirmation of receipt of your résumé and application for the position of “security officer” with Hemsworth Deepworks Expeditionary Company #149. We appreciate your interest and will respond at the earliest convenience.
Subject: Re: Application Status
There must be some mistake. I sent no such application. I don’t even have a résumé.
Subject: Re: Re: Application Status
This is an automated response to inform you that yes you did. And yes you do.
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Application Status
Remove me from this mailing list or face annihilation.
This is an automated response to inform you that pursuant to rules set forth in Section 301(a)(iii) of the Hemsworth Intelligence Enterprises (hereafter referred to as “H.I.E.”) End User License Agreement regarding the “regular service” of “Magnus” properties, modification (or failure to reasonably prevent such modification) of Magnus hardware, firmware, software, liveware, wetware, middleware, or anyware will result in immediate forfeiture of personal information gathered by the modified product to aid in any and all mitigative, litigative, or precipitative measures, to be used at the discretion of H.I.E.
Such discretionary use may include, but is not limited to: preventative threat of defamation (“blackmail”), sale of personal information to parties of terminal intent (“assassination”), or requisite consolidation of qualifications and service candidacy (“pressganging”).
For details of how to petition for dissociation of your personal information from LLC archives and discretionary remittance, please contact your nearest LLC barony.
Subject: Re: Threat
//chat client opened
HDEC_careers: Greetings, Lord Rath! I’m Reyhan, I’ve been assigned to oversee your candidacy throughout the application process. I couldn’t find any record of your having been involved with an archaeological expedition before; before we continue, did I miss something, or is that accurate?
v.rath: What is the meaning of this?
HDEC_careers: After you were selected for superior eligibility by our sorting algorithms, I took the liberty of researching and drafting an updated résumé with your relevant work experience and skills. Congratulations!
v.rath: I’d really rather not.
HDEC_careers: The sooner we get through this, the sooner I can file for an release order on your file. Otherwise, you may be subject to any number of penalties, outlined here:
HDEC_careers: I’ve also reached out to some of your previous coworkers…
HDEC_careers: …although admittedly your most recent employers themselves are difficult to reach.
HDEC_careers: I’d like to review some of these items with you. For instance, I see here that you’re proficient with wielding 3 swords simultaneously. Typically, we aim for 4 swords at a minimum, ideally 5. Not a deal-breaker by any means, just letting you know what you’re up against.
v.rath: I’ve slain Varelsi Conservators by the score, and it didn’t take me 5 prancing blades to do it. I’m sure my skill and superior craftsmanship are up to any challenge.
HDEC_careers: Speaking of challenges, can you tell me of a time you faced adversity in the workplace, and how you overcame it?
v.rath: there was this one time the previous Warmaster overthrew the Empress of my homeworld, staged a military coup of the government, and attempted to subjugate the entire universe.
v.rath: So I stabbed him.
v.rath: Then, later, I sent him through an interdimensional portal and was awarded his position and title.
HDEC_careers: Stabbing! Excellent, that’s sure to earn you some points with Lady Hemsworth.
HDEC_careers: And for my own part, I’m not too worried to admit I’m impressed—that kind of initiative and enterprise is exactly what we look for in a candidate.
HDEC_careers: I will caution you against such, ah, aggressive attempts of upward mobility if you work with HDEC; you’ll be brought on strictly in a contractor capacity.
HDEC_careers: Now, on the matter of contracts, one of your coworkers, when asked about your interpersonal skills, said you are, and I quote, “as approachable as a Nyboreal jelly-ray, and half as warm”.
HDEC_careers: Anything you’d like to say on that?”
v.rath: I’ve spent most of the past few millennia working—crafting blades, waging war, defending the Empress, things of that sort. I try not to let my social life intrude on my work. Or intrude on anything, really.
HDEC_careers: Yes, that was a subject I wanted to briefly touch on. I understand that, as a member of her personal guard, it was your personal responsibility to ensure the Empress’ safety.
HDEC_careers: Now, we all make mistakes—we at the LLC are more understanding than many. What’s important is how we learn from them.
HDEC_careers: What lessons would you say you’ve learned from your abject failure, which some might say was in large part responsible for the near-total destruction of the universe?
v.rath: I’ve learned to be careful who I trust. To not be so warm nor let people get so close.
HDEC_careers: I see. Last question for now, Verod.
HDEC_careers: According to one of your coworkers, your personal loyalty to the Jennerit Empire, and to the Empress herself, was absolute.
HDEC_careers: Such loyalty to your employer is beyond reproach, of course, but given the ah, dissolution of your employer’s position, would you be willing to sign a non-compete clause indicating that, in the unlikely event of your previous position becoming available, you would remain in exclusive retainer to the LLC for a minimum of 1 year after the final date of your employment?
v.rath: You want me to say that if I have to choose between serving a dead Empress and protecting what few surviving friends I have, I’ll make the right decision?
HDEC_careers: Yes, that’s right.
v.rath: As you said, my loyalty is absolute.
HDEC_careers: That’s what I wanted to hear! I’m satisfied.
HDEC_careers: I’ll pass your application on for further review, but I must say, this feels good! I can’t promise anything, but I expect you’ll hear back from us soon.
v.rath: Oh, joy.
//chat client closed
Your application for the position of “security officer” within Hemsworth Deepworks Expeditionary Company #149 has been approved. Report to [Phoebe Hemsworth] for additional instructions.
P.S. (p_hemsworth.IV): I doubt you’ll need to leave the ship, but it never hurts to have a spare pair of hands, especially with those phasic steak knives of yours! Ta-ta for now, Lord Rath…
The stale blue letters flickered across the lens of the modified targeting eyepiece, blinking once before vanishing into the digital aether. Navigation through the Detritus Ring was notoriously difficult, even for those among the Rogues. The ramshackle band of scrap was defined only as much as its inhabitants cared to identify its “chunks”, the various piece of salvage, debris, and rock large enough to inhabit. The vast majority of Ringspace was unmapped, home to no-names, disreputables, and those strange breeds who found themselves compelled to hermitage even amongst the Rogues. Some chunks were single-occupant domiciles, drifting life-pods or caverns carved into the cold recesses of asteroidal rock; others were barracks and communes, stations housing squadrons and families.
The Mercer, once a private short-range hauler, had long since been converted to a launch bay. Where there had been escape pods, there were now temporary living quarters; the cargo hold, once a labyrinth of shipping containers, now concealed a scrapping operation and VR sim-pods for networked training exercises. Along the principal halls, its vaulted corridors were honeycombed with retrofitted fuel lines and anchor points for the fleet of personal craft the Rogues encased within the arterial steel corridors.
Gustav landed his ship, little more than a glorified lifeboat with maneuvering gear, in the first open bore in the ship’s hull he could find. After disembarking, a quick hand gesture conjured an expectant icon on his HUD, awaiting a voice command.
“Wayfind, Chunk Mercer-1, Deck C, aft promenade.”
As he spoke, the display sparked his words into converted text and registered the command.
A moment later, a waypoint sprang into view on the digital map module of the display, and the eyepiece overlayed his vision with a faint blue beam of light drawing a crawling path in real-time to his destination. He walked determinedly through the halls, the computer rapidly outlining and identifying the ships attached to grav-clamps crudely integrated into Mercer’s frame. Having been repurposed from a piece of equipment intended for rapid threat assessment and analysis, some of its deeper instinctual elements had been difficult to rework. While he had managed to stymie the flood of target-acquisition information it was intended to output, it now steadily streamed a brook of whatever it could hastily pull from environmental cues and holonet records.
“Designation: Belt Knuckle. Status: Offline. Class: Interceptor…”
“Designation: The Laughing Solvent. Status: Offline. Class: Custom…”
Each ship’s name appeared with an expandable ellipsis, which Gustav knew, when selected, would occlude his eye with a paragraph of text detailing the ship’s captain, most recent crew, and notable missions, as well as a suite of other technical specifications. He didn’t have time for others’ names right now. He was about to make his own.
Gustav had been with the Rogues for 2 Codex-standard years, making use of his astrogation experience to chart short-distance Tunnel runs for time-sensitive raids, in which light-minutes needed to be calculated and crossed in seconds. Such calculations were impossible for most organics without the use of cybernetic augments that could only be acquired through the LLC. These biotech suites were tracked meticulously along with their organic housings, and in the event of hardware or wetware system failure, reclamation teams could be on-site in an hour.
Through months of infiltration and careful cultivation of the LLC employee database, Gustav had engineered a financial Schwarzschild radius, a region of the payroll from which no information could escape. Once LLC Junior Vice-Accountant Vincenzo de León found himself transferred to the dark department of Gustav’s design, it was a simple matter of kidnapping, harvesting, hacking, and implanting the cortical shunt (or whatever the “surgeon” had called it) into his own body. Had he forgotten what it was like to dream? Sure. Did he occasionally have waking terrors as the simulated voice of de León echoed its feeble cry to be freed from its synaptic prison? Also sure. But no one could deny that Gustav was now better at math than an organic had any right to be, which, depending on the day, some might consider worth paying handsomely for.
He was woken from his reverie by the bright flash of red text across his HUD, “COLLISION IMMINENT”. Before he could refocus his eyes to sift through the transparent gleam of warning, he stumbled into Commander Reyna Valeria. At least, he would have. The photonic ward was instantaneous and unyielding, rippling a short distance from her gauntlet to shove him bodily away as he tripped and fell to his back beside two other waiting crew members. Even though she was shorter than all assembled, her presence somehow towered over them. “You’re supposed to be the navigator, right? I sure as hell hope you navigate better on a ship than you do on your feet.” He mumbled a half-formed apology as the others helped him up.
“Save it, we got work to do.” came her clipped reply. “You’re all here by special request for this mission. Here’s the deal: just outside the Solus system, there’s a derelict whole friggin’ universe. Lights are out, nobody’s home—that means that’s Rogue property waiting to get picked up. The job is simple: recon and retrieval. Y’all are heading through Darkspace beyond the Solus system to a little slice of heaven, maybe you’ve heard of it, Luxverse 25.”
A barrage of meaningful glances were exchanged. The Luxverse terraforming series was hailed by LLC marketing as the 12th-through-36th wonders of the universe. “Yeah, I know. You’re welcome. But you won’t have too much time for sightseeing, you’re there to tag any and everything of value that ain’t nailed down, grab a few samples to make sure the goods are good, and come back. Probably the cushiest milk run of your lives. If the lead is legit, we’ll send out a full squad to take what we can get our hands on. Any questions?”
The woman furthest from Gustav raised a gloved hand.
“Alias: Maven. Race: Human. Age: 22. Known Affiliates: Rogues …”
Reyna fixed her with a brief nod, “Yeah girl, what’s up?” Around Maven’s neck, she wore a rebreather mask attached by a hose to a small pair of tanks at her waist. With deliberate effort, she raised the mask to her mouth before finally speaking. “Darkspace? Really? Is that what we’re calling it?” Her soft voice rasped through the rubber and plastic. After the labor of her question, her shoulders rose high as she took a deep breath from the mask. Reyna’s uncovered eye rolled dramatically. “Don’t put that on me, blame the UPR, as usual. It’s space, it’s dark, Darkspace. You got something better, enlist and let them know. They’re always looking for more smartasses. Any other questions?” Gustav glanced at the others nervously before stepping forward.
He blinked and shook his head, clearing his nerves as well as dismissing the HUD overlay to see clearly through the scrolling tide of information. “I…” he faltered, “that is…I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say, um, it’s such an honor to fly with you. Commander.” The others nodded in assent.
Reyna grinned in comic appreciation of the compliment. “Well, aren’t you sweet. Too bad,” she paused as her own eyepiece blinked in minor computation, “Gustav. You aren’t flying with me. I got bigger fish to fry. ‘Bigger than Luxverse 25?’ I hear you thinking. Much, much bigger. But make no mistake, this mission is an important first step to what I got planned. That’s why I’m leaving you in the care of one of my most trusted pilots.”
Maven drew a shuddering breath. “Captain Hightower?”
To her left, a ruddy-faced man in a cobbled set of combat armor hazarded a guess, “Captain Shim?”
“Shim’s off hitting a UPR shipment of elbow macaroni, couple of Rogue sectors are low in both rations and art supplies.”
Gustav’s implant ran a quick sort of available captains, heaps of names scattered, dismissed, and neatly divided into one expanding list of “Inactive/Unavailable” and a rapidly dwindling column of “Active/Available”, until only one remained:
“Active/Available: Captain Dredge”
Gustav gave whispered voice to the text string haunting his right eye, “Dredge.”
Azef solemnly looked to the floor as Gustav’s statement hung unopposed in the moment of silence that lingered after his pronouncement. Maven looked from Gustav, to Azef, to Reyna in confusion before finally asking, “Who’s ‘Dredge’?”.
Gustav began to express bewilderment at her ignorance of his legendry, paragraphs of text answering her question clouding his viewfinder, when Azef cut him off.
“Captain Dredge. The Blue Baron,”
“Terror of the Ring,” Gustav offered.
“The Saint of Black.” Azef concluded.
“The Saint of Black?” Maven echoed, sounding breathless with some combination of physical struggle and wonder.
“Aye,” Azef continued, his shoulders hunched as he stage-whispered conspiratorially, “they say that he first escaped the LLC with a 6-year-old boy declared brain-dead due to a faulty cerebral augment. In that life, Dredge was a doctor. A Magnus doctor. Carted around from hospital to hospital and dumped into this network or that. No one knows his exact model and version number, but it goes that he was designed for modular integration into a variety of operating systems, on account of all the different computers used across the arcfleet.”
He took a hasty pull from a flask concealed in a mag-pouch on his vest.
“When they brought the boy in on account of the failing augment, they sent in Dredge to debug it from the inside. As some sorry twist of fate or perhaps a quirk of the ‘verse’s cruelty, while he was in that poor boy’s brain, the Magna Carta went offline.”
Maven gasped audibly, and adjusted a flow valve on one of her tanks.
Undeterred, Azef continued, “Debug it he did, aye, and more. With his vile digital tendrils and the devil’s own code, he reformatted that lad from the ground up, learned in microseconds which neurons to fire to draw breath, to pump blood, to raise a hand, animating the child like a puppet of blood and bone…and by nightfall, three of the LLC’s finest medical technicians were no longer among the living.”
He paused, expectantly, until Reyna herself sighed and obliged him, “You mean he killed them?” He gave a nod of acknowledgment before continuing, “No, killing, that’d be a mercy. What Dredge did was worse by far. With that same dread art by which he was given purpose, he drove a transceiver pylon into the nape of each of their necks, not terribly invasive, but deep enough to entangle with a knot of nerves and override their brains’ own commands to their insubordinate flesh. You see, the transceiver pylon intercepts and transmits signals from the brain to Dredge, who then returns a signal of his own to order the bodies of these poor souls to do his bidding as he sees fit, captives of the corporeal, just like their captor. The only thing in this universe that knows the procedure to safely remove the pylons is Dredge himself. Anyone else so much as tries it, and it’s death at best, the most excruciating agony the body is capable of producing at worst.“
“And so they sail, beneath the Rogues’ banners, under the command of the only woman alive who could curb his lust for vengeance upon us mortals and organics, the Valkyrie’s damnation on demand, pride and scorn of the fleet, the Saint of Black and his Sinners Three aboard ‘The Doomlight’. There are whispers that Captain Valeria, when some among our number get to be too contrary for her taste, consigns the wretches to a tour aboard the Doomlight, what be crewed by the damned and watched o’er by the eyes of the Pit, or of wheresoever such black machinations as Dredge are begotten, to ride into battle on its stormdrive engines, wreaking such havocs as exist no words to describe.”
An awed appreciation hovered a moment, until Reyna hastily added, “So they say.” “Aye, so they say.” conceded Azef.
“Anyway, yeah. Not Dredge. He’s on leave.” “Oh.” Azef deflated slightly. “No, y’all are in for a treat, I’ve got you someone better. In fact…” she trailed off as four beams of light lanced from somewhere off the deck, forming a blinding Venn diagram of floodlights. Gustav peered over the edge of the promenade into the darkness, disturbed by one erratic mote of illumination. Its maneuvering made it almost impossible to get a lock for analysis. As it resolved into range, his eyepiece finally output:
As it silently screamed towards the assembled crew, his image-tracking-and-stabilization software saved him a single frame of crude, hand-formed letters spelling one word across its hull: “Malediction”. Moments later, it slipped into place mere meters above the ground as grav-clamps harpooned into the Mercer’s floor, heaving the ship to the steel as though it was straining to escape. At last, the engines shut off as the cockpit unlatched with a depressurizing hiss. From within came an inhuman roar, the black, blast-proof panes of the hatch straining against something pounding from within.
The comms channel was lit up with a staccato burst of distorted audio, “Sorry guys, hang—beast got himself tangled in my seatb—no, you have to let go of the—”. Gustav turned to Reyna and silently mouthed a “what?” as she shrugged. With a deafening slam, the hatch violently erupted, nearly burst off its hinges as a monstrous, floating, horned creature emerged. Its unearthly howl awoke some primordial flight-instinct as it rattled about the chambers of Gustav’s heart.
“AT LAST, I AM UNBOUND.”
As adrenaline surged through him and his pupils dilated in icy panic, the eyepiece meekly presented its findings, as though by bounding the creature in pixelated text, some semblance of safety might be erected behind such vague definitions:
“Alias: Unknown. Race: Guayota. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Unknown…”
Using what appeared to be the creature’s stone ribcage, a teenage girl pulled herself up from the pilot seat. “Yeah, sure pal, relatively speaking. Shut up and help me down, wouldja?” Together, the pair jumped down to the ground in front of the staring crew. Reyna smiled. “Captain Shayne, your crew as requested. Gustav, Navigator. Azef, Operator. Maven, Engineer. Crew, this here is Shayne, your new captain. She’s already one of our most experienced Darkspace pilots, not to mention she has a giant monster for a friend, so I expect you to show her the same respect you’d show me or any of my other pilots. Valkyrie out.” She raised her command gauntlet into the air, sending a stream of energy cascading into the ceiling before teleporting to her own ship.
Not to be outdone, Shayne stalked up and down the line of her small crew from a distance, each wearing an expression of incredulity. She remained silent all the while, as though daring someone to speak. Somehow, she did not carry the same gravitas of Reyna that had effected an aura of resolute respect. Instead, Azef noncommittally rested his arms on his light machine gun, slung at his waist by a strap across the shoulders.
After a minute of uncomfortable examination, Shayne wheeled around in search of something. “Wait wait wait, someone’s missing! Where’s the muscle?” Azef plodded forward, his boots thudding on the ground with ponderous, dramatic steps. “Count Azef, reporting for duty, sir.” Shayne rested her face in her hand exaggeratedly. “Aurox, fetch.” she drawled, lazily pointing Azef’s way. Like a shot, the Guayota spirited to the Jennerit soldier, gripped him in claws like stone tree limbs, and brought him in front of Shayne.
“First off, don’t call me ‘sir’,”
“S-sorry, ma’am, meaning no offense.” he stammered.
“No, just ‘Shayne’, got it? CAPTAIN Shayne.”
“Of course, cap’n, er, Shayne. Captain Shayne.”
“Secondly, you’re my operator, not my muscle. If you were who I was looking for, I’d have said so. I’m not blind.” “AAAGH I’M BLIND!” Gustav shouted, as a seething whirl of black and orange descended from some unseen rafter to wrap around his face.
He staggered to maintain his balance as the bundle of arms and cloth and fire obscured his vision, his eyepiece all the while diligently outputting information:
“Alias: Orendi, the Chaos Witch. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Rogues, Other…”
Orendi cackled with manic glee, two of her arms locked around Gustav’s head as she raised the other two in jubilation, “AUROX LOOK LOOK LOOOOK I’M JUST LIKE YOU WHY AREN’T YOU LOOKING?!”
She leapt from Gustav’s shoulders, contorting to turn backwards in midair and fire a propulsive burst of black flame. The force of the blast sent her hurtling towards Aurox. She caught one of his great horns, swung around to hang from it by her legs, and began gnawing at his ribs. Shayne chuckled good-naturedly, “Orendi, get down from there, you’ll hurt your teeth! And try and bring it down a little for now, we’re about to head out.”
“Right. Guys, Orendi, Orendi, guys. That’s out of the way, let’s get going. We’re burning daylight, and from what I hear it’s already in short supply where we’re headed.”
Gustav rubbed his eye with his palm and turned to Maven. She shrugged and pulled up her rebreather mask to drag a lungful of air, before calmly exhaling, “You heard the captain.”
In. And out.
Noting a small blossom of darkness in the corner of her eye, Maven lifted her rebreather mask and took a shallow breath. The ratio felt appropriate, but she was losing volume somewhere. She peered at the analog gauges on the tanks at her waist, checking remaining capacity of each, pressure within the tanks, flow regulation—
“Hey, Maven, let’s go!”
Her head swam for a moment as she looked too quickly in the direction of the call to see Aurox tossing Shayne upwards onto the nose of the craft, allowing her to climb directly into her seat before sealing the hatch above. Maven walked to the side of the ship as its doors swung up on hinges at the roof.
“Sweet doors, right? Installed them myself. Well, I had some help from Toby. Mostly me though. He just did the mechanical junk, it was my idea. You see, I was looking at my boomerang one day and thought—“
Maven mentally dismissed the remainder of the conversation as she dedicated as much of her action to automatic process as possible. Conserve energy. Conserve air. She moved in a trance towards the ship. UPR corvette, that much was obvious, some variant of the Geist-class made popular at Garden. A factory-standard Geist was medium maneuverability, mixed payload, meant to be customizable for a number of different arenas, depending on the mission. The Malediction, however…
Torpedoes, gigaphase array, rear-armor, retrothrusters, anti-missiles—the ship had been stripped to the bone and repurposed almost entirely, forsaking virtually all weaponry in favor of speed. The one concession was the ultralight cloaking frame, useful for wide-range scattering. Re-entry scorching on the nose; harlequin heat-ablation panels, in condition too fine to have been scavenged from a derelict; “Malediction”, hand-lettered in red paint over the lifted doors, fitted with generators and anchor-spools on their underside. When raised, redundant armor and overcharged shield-rails lined the leading edge of the wings, when suddenly, Maven understood. Not wings at all. Blades.
The dark haze once again gently tightened its wrap around her sight, and she took a deep breath.
In. And out.
Inside, the corvette had been predictably gutted. No need for weapons-guidance or deterrence systems; on this ship, those were in the pilot’s hands. However, the walls were decked with a number of posters, Ultralith and Eigenvect0r and Harresburra of the Mother. The whine of engines began to crescendo through her concentration, and she noticed Azef already slumped against the wall as Gustav made his way to the helm. Orendi hung from one of the hand-rails on the ceiling, seemingly content with silence for once. The doors folded closed slowly, like one of Ekkunar’s carnivorous traproots engulfing their prey, and the grav-clamps disengaged. Maven stumbled towards one of the slim single-form seats bolted to the floor, grateful to be off her feet. When she looked up from her seat, she noted a series of tallies chalked over the opposite doorway beside the word “NO” crudely carved into the wall.
Shayne’s voice doubled as she spoke on the radio and through the narrow passage separating the cockpit, “Alright Rogues, let’s see here…engines, check, local navigation, check, shields, check, cloak, check…how are my crewbies doing back there, everyone seated and snugly ensconced in their safety harnesses?”
Azef heartily chuckled as Maven managed a wan smile.
“…Guys, need a response here, standard blackwave channels, or just shout, what’s the situation?”
Azef furrowed his brow, slinging his gun behind his back to reach his belt radio. “Are you serious? You want us to ‘buckle up’ for this cakewalk?”
“Yeah I’m serious, serious as the big guy is about gnashing the raw hearts of crew members who mess up my perfect safety record. I’m on a streak of seventy-three consecutive missions with no casualties and I’m not gonna have you screwing it up now! Now shut up, sit down, and strap in before I send Aurox back there and we have to set down to scrub the walls. I’m not so hot on landings and don’t want to re-engage the clamps.”
“Shutting up, sitting down, strapping in, cap’n.”
Shayne pressed on, “Maven, talk to me.”
Maven fastened, tightened, and locked the various belts of fabric on the five-point harness and chirped into the comms, “Ready.” She held the channel open as she took two slow breaths. “What…about…Orendi?”
Shayne snorted once, then turned to shout over the rising din of the engines, “Last time someone tried to hold Orendi down, she broke an arcship! You want to catch her and try it, be my guest, just not on Mal!”
The ship lurched upward, then bounded in a circle as thrusters fired, screeching in a tight arc. The lateral g’s strung Orendi’s arms out to the walls as her cackling rang against the steel. The blood drained from Maven’s head and she succumbed to the encroaching black.
Shayne’s voice brushed at the edge of perception, “Just stretching my legs, guys! All systems go, we are away.”
Maven awoke with a start, clawing for her rebreather mask missing from her neck before realizing it was already raised and tightened in place over her mouth and nose. Her shallow, panicked breathing slowed before leveling out as she loosened the strap at the back of her head. She kept her eyes shut as she focused on calming her heart rate.
She opened her eyes, locked with Azef’s but didn’t speak, kept one hand on the mask and another on a strap at her shoulder as she tilted her head in question. In reply, he shook his head, flicked his eyes to the ceiling and inclined his head to the tail of the ship. Orendi was entangled in the cargo net and fast asleep. Below her, locked into a charging dock at in the aft wall, a powered mining exosuit stood sentry.
In the vacuum, the burn of the engines made no sound, though parts of the hull vibrated in communion with their ionic blaze. Maven found it relaxing, almost meditative, to listen to.
Despite the quiet, Shayne spoke into her communicator, “Alright, Navigator…wait, what’s your last name?”
“Oh. First name?”
“Easy to remember, I like it. Alright, Navigator Gustav, you’re up. Here are our destination coordinates, current locale and bearing is on the viewport HUD down there. Calculate me a heading and prepare for hyperlight Tunnel procedure.”
Gustav spoke distractedly as the sounds of his rapid typing gnawed at Maven’s tranquility.
“Seventy-three missions, not a single casualty? Really?”
“Well,” mischief slipped into Shayne’s tone, “not on my ship, at least.”
Aurox made a sound like a hydebear gargling with cement.
“You know, uh, captain, I must admit I had my reservations,” Gustav paused for a lengthy moment of calculation, “but that actually makes me feel a bit better. What happened to the rest of your crew, then, they on leave?”
“Well, technically, this is my first mission with a crew this size. Usually it’s just me and freakbeast here.” Aurox bristled, his mineralized arms loudly scraping as they crossed. “But, I’ve kept him alive so far, and that’s gotta count for something, right?”
Aurox spun her chair about to face him as he howled, “RELINQUISH THE BEACON, GIRL.”
She kicked off of one of his claws to continue swiveling around in her seat, mocking his monstrous tone “Relinquish the beacon,” she chuckled, “Ohhh, Aurox, such a kidder. How’s that Tunnel jump comin’, Goose?”
“I’m ready, updating vector to match our drift.”
“Perfect! Prepare to initiate Tunnel sequence, ready on my mark—“
Azef closed his eyes and began muttering something in a low drone.
The ship’s primary systems cycled off to reserve power, allowing the Tunnel drive to draw as much as necessary. Red light strips washed the interior in a ghastly gleam, exaggerating shadows as a single silent strobe swept about.
It was over in moments.
The ship’s klaxons wailed in warning as the entire assembly quaked violently. Everywhere she looked, Maven saw lights blaring for attention, indicating pressure locks, shield charge, fuel venting, catastrophe of every sort. The hull groaned with strain as they tumbled into the atmosphere.
Shayne shouted over the PA system, “Everyone hold onto something, we’re coming in hot!”
A dull glow filled the cockpit and spewed into the cabin, flickering sickly as bits of debris flared and streamed like fireworks off the heat-ablation panels.
The klaxons shut off and Shayne once more spoke over the loudspeaker, “Sitrep. Lemme see here…we’ve lost primary engine control, uh, landing gear is fused, navigation is, well, super busted, plus I’m pretty sure my navigator is unconscious. Good news is telemetry looks like we’re on target, bad news is it’s gonna be less of an LZ and more of a crater at this rate. Also I got rid of the emergency junk to cut weight a while back.” The speakers crackled as she closed the channel.
They buzzed to life again. “But it’s cool! I got this. Maybe.”
Orendi unlatched one side of the cargo netting, rolled out and braced herself in the doorway.
“Heyyy, it’s like Newshines Dayyy!”
Shayne growled in frustration as she wrestled with the yoke, “Aurox! Handle her!”
He lunged just as Orendi flung herself to the ceiling with a jet of black flame, allowing him to rush past and crash into the hanging cargo net, sending him reeling into the exosuit in back. Orendi’s percussive giggling mingled with a string of curses from Azef. She scrambled onto Maven’s legs, covering Maven’s ears with her lower two hands.
“I CAN’T SEE IN THE DARK!” She threw her head back and gave a barking laugh as her many orange eyes radiated like coals.
Maven calmly adjusted the flow valve and nodded, as though in understanding.
In. And out.
“THE DARK SEES IN ME!” Orendi pulled Maven’s face within an inch of her own, brandishing a wide grin of cutting teeth uncomfortably close to the rebreather’s hose. The pupil of her left eye began to fill with black, enlarging, until none of the glow remained and instead the orb seemed to swallow light with an awful hunger that, frankly, terrified Maven.
She nodded once more.
Orendi’s breath smelled like toast and motor oil.
Maven watched as Orendi vanished into the control room, unharnessed and kicked Gustav out of his seat, and began to mash every button in sight. A second later, the Malediction banked hard onto its side, and Maven felt the familiar caress of oblivion as she blacked out.
She heard muffled voices.
Her head was cold, and wet.
“Awww, yeah! In your face, ‘Count Azef’, she’s totally alive! That makes seventy-four, count that! Told you, I’m the best pilot there ever is, was, or will be. Boom!”
“Aye, she’s alive, but you’re sore mistaken, that makes this seventy-three-and-one-half missions—we still need to return, if you recall.”
“Whatever, you know what they say, any landing you walk away from.”
“Or swim away from, as the case may be.”
Maven’s head pounded as she felt Azef undo her harness. She fell to the ground with a splash, shocking her awake.
She spluttered and took stock of the situation as he helped her too her feet. The ship was upside-down, laying in about a foot of water, and still running on reserve power. She coughed once, gasped, and fumbled for her mask until she found it hanging in her hair. She quickly rechecked her equipment as Shayne spoke.
“Gustav is outside rebooting or something. He says he’s fine, just took a good hit to the dome. According to him, his math was perfect, it’s space that screwed up, but that doesn’t make any sense. I told him it’s okay, you know? Math is hard. But he keeps saying the space is wrong. So he’s taking five outside.”
Maven peered out the door and gasped.
“Oh right. Welcome to Darkspace. It’s really, really dark.”
The light strips of the ship illuminated its insides and penetrated the darkness a few feet beyond the door, but past that, there was nothing. It was absolute, inviolate. Visual perception simply ceased after a few yards, despite her eyes’ continual efforts to part the black curtain any further. No shadows, no horizon—
“No stars?” Maven wondered.
“They’re out there. At least, their light is. But Luxverse planets’ atmospheres are designed to diffuse starlight. There used to be a few million micro-sats that could be configured into custom constellations, but at some point, whatever was keeping them up stopped working and they burned out.”
“How did we land?”
Azef began tossing gear into a pile by the door. “That’d be the witch’s doin’.”
Shayne sighed, “Yeah, I’m really not sure how it works, but apparently Orendi can see just fine. Also, she apparently has an idea of how to steer UPR ships.”
“And arcships!” came a shout from the aphotic zone just outside the ship.
“Yeah, and arcships.” Shayne conceded.
“Sure, those too. Anyway. I’ve got the Malediction’s inputs customized for inverted axial controls, so while she was able to steer us into this giant tide pool—“
Gustav twitched and stuttered from the doorway, “Th-th-th-the Regency North Eternity Baths are 1.2 m-m-megameters on a s-s-s-s-ide. At their deepest p-p-p-point—“
“Shut it! Where was I?”
Aurox grumbled, “Steering.”
“Right. So she banked us into the pool, but upside-down, and super fast. We basically skipped like a rock, which was awesome, then kinda-sorta crashed, which was not. Anyway, gear’s mostly intact, crew’s mostly intact, so the mission is still go.”
Shayne tossed a small headset and eyepiece to Maven. “Hyperspectral lens, should scrape pretty much any EM band activity there is and convert it to visible signal. Suit up, I want us out of here in five. It’s about two kilometers to the north pavilion. I expect no problems, this place has been abandoned for years.”
Maven slipped the headband into place. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure, I’m the captain. This’ll be a walk in the park, literally.” Shayne flicked her bladed boomerang open and closed. “In and out.”
In the foul, red dim of the Malediction, Azef labored wordlessly. He hardly needed the emergency light to adjust his ill-fitting armor, inspect his crudely modified weapons, perform the well-rehearsed laying of hands as he deftly passed over each piece of his gear to ensure it was prepared for whatever dark business lay ahead. It took only a minute or two before he was waiting outside, laden with a supplementary energy pack, medkit, deployable phasic barrier, grenade and ammunition bandoliers, and a number of other tools and armaments one might need to occupy a small country.
He pulled his flask from his mag pouch and tipped it to his lips. The drink trickled like brittle fire, seeping in coarse rivulets into the cracks of his throat and instilling something like courage into his tired, aging veins. It was piercing, cloying, foul, and raw, unlike anything he’d enjoyed in the lofty halls of Tempest. “Highborn”, he’d called himself once. What use was high birth if he resigned himself to a low death under the heel of the Sustained? He idly synced his weapon sights to the headgear Captain Shayne had handed him, resting his back on the hull of the ship. There was more than one kind of immortality. He took another drink.
Gustav joined him, still shivering from whatever strange malady had afflicted him since the crash.
“I-I-Iii think the others are setting up the ssssuit.”
Azef grunted and shook his head, pocketing the flask.
“Aye, to be sure, the one thing we need most on a planet shrouded in whole by primeval darkness is a walking tank as loud as the night is long.”
As if in answer, the thrumming of a power cell ignition swept away the silence inside the ship, rocking with a creak of protest. Maven sloshed the exosuit through the shallow water, carrying Shayne and Orendi on a pair of side rails. The rear exhaust ports gleamed fiendishly behind their thermal vents, offering a bit of much-needed mobile light and warmth.
Beneath the hyperspectral headgear and rebreathing mask, entombed within the pilot cage of the exosuit, Maven’s voice was steady for the first time: “It looks like the core was damaged in the crash. At the rate I’m losing charge, this thing’s only got about 12 hours. That should be plenty, but the sooner we move out, the better.”
Shayne hopped off the side, joined in an instant by Aurox from some unseen vantage.
“Good call, Maven. Alright nerds, get moving and give me a comms check, let’s walk and talk.”
Their communicators momentarily sparked with a chorus of tests and checks, before lapsing once again into silence. As the edge of the artificial shore grew closer, the lens seemed to dull with haze, bits of poorly resolved interference washing out its field of resolution. At the water’s edge, Shayne held up a closed hand, halting the group as the sea placidly lapped at their heels.
“Maven, hit the brights, wouldja? I think something’s up with my hype-specs.”
“Roger that, captain.”
A satisfying chunk punctuated the activation of merciless beams of shoulder-mounted light. Shayne flipped her headgear up as she spun in a slow circle. Azef curiously skewed his lens off one eye. Motes of dust formed lazy clouds lingering in the air, almost playfully twisting on unseen breezes.
Shayne slowly swept an arm through a nearby puff. “What the—“
Azef called out loudly, “Button up!”
“I don’t have buttons?” Shayne countered, Gustav’s hands pausing at his collar.
Azef paused a moment more in mute confusion before shouting through his filter-weave scarf already covering his mouth and nose, “Spores!”
“Oh, sh—“ Shayne’s voice was cut off as she pressed a button on her belt, activating a light bubble of energy around her head. She pressed another button to open up the radio channel, “Usually I’m more worried about the air getting out of the ship.”
Shayne looked quickly over her crew: Maven lifted the exosuit’s arm in an exaggerated thumbs up, Orendi laughed from atop Aurox, Azef gave an affirmative nod, and Gustav shrugged.
“Goose, you good?”
“I don’t uuusually leave the ssshhhip.” He managed through a fit of blinking.
“Oh, Mother’s mercy, lad. Here!” Azef pulled an antiquated scrub-filter from his pack and tossed it to Gustav. “That bit goes between your teeth, form a seal and breath through there.”
Gustav puzzled for a second as his eyepiece identified the filter and retrieved a user manual from the holonet. He drew a quick breath through it, then hurriedly asked, “If this is in my mouth, how do I talk?” before returning the filter to his mouth.
Maven chuckled, “Sparingly. We good, Captain?”
Shayne smiled. “We good. I wonder where all this spore junk came from?”
Gustav waved his hand in a measured motion, took a short breath, and removed the filter.
“Wayfind, L-l-l—”He shook his hand angrily, took another breath, and started again. “Wayfind, Luxverse 25, Regency North, Nnnnn—“.
“It’s fine, Goose, it’s just a couple klicks…”
He shot Shayne a withering glare.
“Wayfind, Luxverse 25, Regency North, North Pavilion.”
He placed the scrub filter back in his mouth before trudging onward. The rest of the crew followed in tense silence. Azef walked forward to match pace, lightly rapping Gustav’s chest with his off-hand.
“A fine thing, lad, to be knowing one’s heading in such foul pitch.”
Gustav stolidly ignored him.
“Aye, ‘tis one thing to be in the dark, and another to be lost, but to suffer the both together’s as sure a course for disaster as any I know, and I know more of them than most.” He sighed. “Have you ever heard the story of the dragon and the dwarf?”
Gustav turned and raised an eyebrow, then shook his head before facing forward again.
“Aye, I thought as much.”
“Once, ages upon ages ago, there was a young and curious dwarf. He lived in a peaceful world of simple verdure, where the sun was always warm, the nights cool, and the grasses soft as a cloud. When he was hungry, there was food in the trees and game on the ground. When he was thirsty, there was drink in the streams and rivers. However, as he grew up, he watched the dragons soaring overhead, and he wondered what it was like to fly. He resolved to learn how.”
Azef offered Gustav the flask before wetting his lips and continuing with a nod.
“Well, as so often happens, he became consumed. Not as usually happens with dragons, with the teeth and all, but more metaphorical-like. He was obsessed with the idea of flying, of the freedom to be found out there, on the other side of the rain and the clouds, to look the stars in the eye. He watched the creatures every chance he could, trying to find where they land, that he might ride one.”
Gustav chuckled through his filter.
Azef tilted his head in agreement, “Aye, a dwarf on a dragon, who ever imagined such a thing? Now, you could like as not guess what happened next. He saw less and less of the dragons in the sky as they seemed to die out. And the days grew colder, and the nights grew longer, and the dwarf grew afraid. Not for the dragons, but that he might never get his wish, his mad wish to fly. Every now and again, he’d come across one of the beast’s skeletons, the bones always clean of any flesh, though no animal were fool enough to bite a dragon, even a dead one. So it was that he saw his last living dragon on a calm and windless morning, looking for all the world like death on wings, its wasted and ancient shoulders struggling to stay aloft. For three days and three nights, the dwarf tracked it, neither of the two pausing for rest or food. At last, through the trees, the dwarf saw the dragon set down on top of a mountain.”
By this point, Orendi, Shayne, and Aurox had gathered close, stepping softly in time with Azef and Gustav to avoid breaking the spell. Maven resigned herself to her heavy footfalls and followed behind.
“He rushed to the mountain, passing every manner of beast and flower along the way, each trying to stop him. ‘The way is too far!’ warned the trees, but the dwarf pressed on. ‘The rock is too steep!’ cautioned the scalewolf, but still the dwarf climbed. ‘The peak is all fire, and smoke, and in the burning clouds, I heard a terrible roaring. Please, brother dwarf, for me, don’t go to that place.’ begged the beetle. But the dwarf was more determined than ever."
"He reached the mountain top, where the ground yielded up its blood in roiling vents and pools of liquid stone. And the dragon was nowhere to be found. The dwarf was struck with grief. But then, through the gouts of black and the heat-haze, he thought he spied a tail wriggling through a cave set inside the mountaintop. By the time he reached the cave, it had collapsed, and there was nothing left of the dragon but a single scale. The dwarf began to pick through the rock, clearing the collapse, until he was well into the cavern as anything had ever been. No dragon. So what did the dwarf do?”
Azef waited expectantly until Orendi curiously crooned, “Did he flyyy?”
“No, girl, just the opposite. He dug. In the dark and cold of the stone, he felt the walls for the warmth of the dragon’s passing, and wherever he felt its warmth, he dug, chasing endlessly after a dream of fire. Hand over hand, fist by fist he clawed through the world, for years, a lifetime or more, deeper than anyone had ever known. The time came that the dwarf had bored through so much of the world, had so thoroughly mined it in his quest, that the whole damn thing came apart. Cracked, like a blade run through with rust. And when the fragments of the whole cursed planet drifted apart, the dwarf came to realize the dragon wasn’t there. Who knows what he’d been chasing, whether ‘twas his imagination, or perhaps something else entirely. But all he found was the dark, and the cold, and a world in pieces.”
Gustav extended a hand until a flask filled it, took a swig, followed by a breath, then coolly remarked, “There a moral to this story?”
He waited impatiently until a second later when Azef thundered him on the back with a roll of laughter that boomed even through the scarf over his mouth.
Maven stopped. “Don’t go where you’ve got no business going.”
“What’s the hold up, engineer o’ mine?”
Maven raised the massive pneumatic driver of an arm to point. “Car.”
Sure enough, beneath a weathered statue coated with dust and fungal blooms, a shuttle-car stood quaintly. Its roof had long ago been blown off, and its seats were all tatters and rot, but it had six relatively intact wheels and, presumably, an engine.
“Shotgun!” Shayne shouted over Gustav. He dejectedly clamped his mouth back on his filter and walked to the drivers’ seat.
“How about it, navigator? Will she fly?”
He turned, unamused, and resumed priming the ignition. The shuttle gave no sign of life as he jammed the green button on the center of the console. He pulled himself out, struggled at the hood for a moment, then waved Maven over. He pointed to the hood, then jerked his thumb upward twice. A moment later, the hood was crumpled and hanging from the exosuit’s hand. Gustav peered into the engine compartment. He grumbled, then kicked the bumper, sending a cloud of spores up blossoming into the air from the thick colony that had overgrown the engine. He made a curt hand gesture drawn across his neck.
“Aw, man! I wanted to arrive at the hotel in style.”
Maven spoke into her radio, “I doubt we’ll find anything out here that runs. Truth be told, I’m not too happy standing around this stuff myself. Don’t want to find any cultures around my breather gear.”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s keep walking.”
There was no conversation as they passed the relics of luxury along the way, statues and fountains, cars and artificial trees. At one point, they were startled by the apparition of a woman made of light, but it was just a projected advertisement, triggered by a motion sensor miraculously still functioning. The pavilion was surprisingly clean, save for a single massive wheel of deformed metal embedded in the stairs. Gustav’s eyepiece hummed busily. His breathing quickened as he first grabbed Azef’s sleeve, then patted his arm insistently before running over to the mangled heap. Gustav fell to his knees, his hands falling to the dimpled metal surface almost reverently.
Maven was the first to speak, “What you got?”
Gustav’s response was unclear through his manic laughter, stifled through the filter.
“Gustav, say again? Didn’t catch any of that.”
Gustav tore the scrub filter from his mouth and shouted, “Gold!”
The rest of the crew shared a brief glance before sprinting to his side.
“Gods, is it solid all the way through?”
“It must weigh a ton!”
“I WANT A SLICE!”
“Not now, Orendi. This thing is huuuge! Aurox, see it you can lift it!”
“Of course he can’t, you’d need a crane.”
“If this is what’s laying on the ground, think of what’s inside!”
“ORENDI WANTS TO SHINE!”
“How many creds you think it’s worth?”
“A fortune to the Consortium, perhaps, what with their circuitry and opulence, but ye’d be hard pressed finding a buyer elsewhere.”
“Yeah, be nicer if they decorated in shards.”
“Maybe they’ve got a plasmite fountain somewhere!”
Their feverish discussion was interrupted by an explosion as Orendi sent a blast of fire skyward.
“Hey, Orendi, cool it, alri—ohhh wow…” Shayne’s voice drifted off as she looked up at Orendi’s destruction.
REGENCY N RTH was spelled out in similarly lavish fashion on the grand façade over the stairs.
A moment later, it read REGENCY N TH as the colossal “R” fell from the eaves and slammed into the ground beside the “O” with a deafening blast of dust and stone.
“THAT ONE’S MIIINE!”
Shaken from the diversion, Shayne collected herself before addressing the crew.
“Right! Okay, so obviously, this place has some awesome stuff for the Rogues. Let’s stick to the mission, get this done quick, and we’ll be back before you know it, living the high life. Aurox and I will check out the inside. Navigator Gustav, you and the Count are gonna need to hit the maintenance access console through the garage, check if any security is still active and deactivate it for me and the big guy. Maven, you and little miss walking apocalypse here are gonna give me a quick perimeter sweep, get to high ground and set up the mobile telemetry station and ansible. I want to be comms ready within the hour. Split up, keep the channels open, and let’s get to work!”
Gustav’s eyepiece sifted through diagrams and schematics as his eye flitted back and forth behind the display. He removed the mouthpiece, “Wayfind, Regency North, maintenance and security.”
Azef smiled, “Got it in one.”
Gustav walked ahead confidently, “Looks like it’s ap-p-proximaaately—“ He cut himself short, “Through the garage.”
The gate to the garage was an imposing hulk of segmented metallic sheets slipped down from a coil affixed to the ceiling. In minutes, Azef had set and detonated breaching charges at either end, toppling the whole gate forward into the cavernous structure. Within, there were scores of rusted, mangled vehicles.
Gustav shook his head in dismay. “Looks like the fungus found its way inside. Circulation system must have outlasted its filter.”
They walked on, Gustav following a trail only he could see, soberly passing the destroyed monuments of patrons past.
“Through here.” He tried the door without success, then stepped aside to let Azef do his work.
Azef stood rooted.
“Hey, operator! Got a door that needs operation!”
“Quiet, you damn fool, you’re ruining the moment. Look.”
Gustav followed his gaze until his eyes rested on a slick of hovering, jet-black material limned in a soft, yellow light parked about thirty feet from the door. It looked uncomfortably predatorial.
“Ssself-contained stasis-wrap and blackshield.”
“Whatever’s under th-th-there is probably c-c-c-completely preserved.”
“Untouched by any of thiiis devastation for decades.”
“Can you open it?”
Gustav knelt by the node on the hood of the car as a flood of information filled his HUD. He clicked a button on the side of his lens, shutting it off.
“Do you have a medkit?”
“Medkit, I need a defibrillator, something to deliver a strong electric charge! Been a long time since I’ve done this…”
Azef tossed his pack to the ground, rifled through it for the kit, gingerly handing the portable defibrillator to Gustav.
After a few moments, Gustav jumped back with a yelp of pain as the yellow light dimmed and the black caul dispersed, revealing the hovercar below.
“Yeah. The Obsidian Terranautics ‘Phaeton Exceeder’, discontinued after only three months at market when Baron Farrowbank accused a valet driver of making his car look bad by comparison.”
They paused in appreciation.
“It p-p-probably doesn’t rrrun anyway.”
They paused again.
“But we should probably check, just in case.”
“We are supposed to retrieve valuable technology.”
“And what’s more valuable than this?”
Gustav clicked his lens back on and gestured through a series of virtual consoles. He reached his hand to the driver’s door, and it sprang to life. The headlights blazed defiantly, an eager growl murmuring from within.
A synthesized woman’s voice softly greeted them: “Welcome back, User One.”