Prime-ary Storage Module

Content Archived from the Original Vainglory forums - originally posted by “ParagonPrime” on the “23rd of Decmber 2014 to the 28th of October 2016” archived by @ThePinkOtter

readme.txt

There were many formatting changes I needed to make to fit the original work of ParagonPrime into this new website. I will list them here for the sake of authenticity and respecting his work.

Note: There are minor spoilers ahead, as I will be using small snapshots of his work on the original site to compare.

As ParagonPrime’s work had very consistent formatting, I’ll be here to simply set up a few general rules for reformatting his work.

  1. Code Text.

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517974528/B74A4B96-F5BB-4D1E-B5A5-8C60BA68A265_mn9e9h.jpg

This is what it used to look like.

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517974723/67221E82-AEBC-4A38-AF3D-6F93E25EC071_h1t7gc.jpg

This is what it now looks like. The ‘box’ automatically occurs on when text begins with an “>”, and I was this somewhat fitting, so I decided not to change it.

  1. Random Colours

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517974530/04A4FBCE-3B78-4605-A58A-912CC99AD970_ssgso4.jpg

For this single piece (You’ll figure it out), I’ve used bolds instead of red. Since the titles for each entry were already bold, I decided not to alter those.

  1. Retis and his speech

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517974531/BC037FEE-FC02-482E-A99D-E63DD050857A_wl73pd.jpg

Retis always spoke with a strange robotic font, but in this version, I’ve decided to use italics. In pieces where Retis appears, I’ve reduced the amount of italics, mainly saving it for obvious narration or onomatopoeia. Unfortunately, there had to be some exceptions…

  1. Multiple colours

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517974529/AA095C5C-6299-4F63-B487-619F5B003741_hrf3kn.jpg

I had to make do with normal, bold and italic text, so when this occurs, I assign one for each. However, with certain things, such as

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/r_9/v1517974528/53CBF239-AED1-4C0E-9C30-3306F8F82FAF_uvb1gn.jpg

, I decided to use bold and italics, to enhance it visually. REMEMBER THAT THIS DOES NOT MEAN RETIS IS TALKING. RETIS IS ONLY TALKING WHEN IT IS EXPLICITLY SAID THAT IT IS HIM AND IT HAS SPEECH MARKS (or when you can mostly imply it).

Now that I’ve explained everything, please enjoy.

Quid ultra iacet?

  • Nos mak sicur.
  • Dormientis et excotantes vocan.
  • Vidit percusserit erupisse Hunorim examina.
  • Utique optimal.

0 voters


…TERMINAL ACCESSED…
PRINTING WELCOMEMESSAGE.TXT:

“Hello and welcome to the storage of all the lore works of ParagonPrime! Here you can find anything and everything written by Paragon sorted by category, chronological order, etc. This storage will thusly be updated on a consistent basis as new works are uploaded, so check back regularly (though a post will also announce every update). A summary of the entire Prime-ean headcanon will also be published eventually. Happy readings!”

…DISPLAYING TEXTLINKS.DATA…
[NOTE THAT DUE TO ANNOYING SYS_FORMAT ON LOCAL DATA STORAGE, I AM UNABLE TO COMPRESS EVERYTHING INTO ONE SPOILER. SORRY.]

NOTE: CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER BY DATE OF CONTENT WITHIN, NOT BY UPLOAD DATE!
CHURNGUARD ARC

Decay

=[EMERGENCY DATA TRANSCRIPTION ENABLED
=[EMERGENCY INCIDENT REPORT COMPILING
=[ESTIMATED TRANSMISSION TIME CALCULATIONS IN PROGRESS…
=[SLCT-88 SUPERLUMINAL ARRAY FAILURE…
=[FALLBACK TO LUMINAL ARRAY…
=[TRANSMISSION AT LUMINAL VELOCITY WOULD TAKE APPROXIMATELY: 890 MILLION YEARS TO REACH DESTINATION
=[WOULD YOU LIKE TO TRANSMIT?
=[/n
=[TRANSMISSION CANCELLED
=[REROUTING TO BLACKBOX STORAGE…

=[/run structural analysis
=[STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS IN PROGRESS…
=[SEVERE DAMAGE DETECTED
=[48% BENEATH MAXIMUM OPERATIONAL THRESHOLD
=[DECOMPRESSION DETECTED IN: MEDICAL WARD, GENETIC MANIPULATION LABORATORY ONE, GENETIC MANIPULATION LABORATORY TWO, TRANSIT CONNECTOR THREE… [139 MORE ITEMS]
=[CONFLAGRATION DETECTED IN: GENETIC MANIPULATION LABORATORY THREE, CREW DORMITORY ONE, MESS HALL, STARBOARD CRYOGENIC STORAGE… [84 MORE ITEMS]
=[/query sys connection - cortex
=[CORTEX OPERATIONAL - DATA PROTECTION PROTOCOL IN PROGRESS
=[/query sys connection - conseil
=[NO CONNECTION ESTABLISHED
=[/run network handshake - conseil_cntrl_ntwk
=[ERROR - EXTERNAL INTERCEPTION OF HANDSHAKE
=[/query sys connection - conseil
=[NO CONNECTION ESTABLISHED
=[/query conseil_cntrl_ntwk status
=[NETWORK UNDER CONTROL OF UNCONNECTED SYSTEM
=[DATA SIGNATURE TRACE REPORTS IDENTIFIER "CONSEIL"
=[POSSIBLE GRADE THREE ROGUE AUTONOMOUS INTELLIGENCE UNIT
=[/runprogram RAIT_venom
=[ERROR - PROGRAM NOT FOUND
=[LAST KNOWN LOCATION OF PROGRAM: SERVER 3-10
=[/query status server_3-10
=[UNABLE TO ESTABLISH REMOTE CONNECTION
=[CAUTION - VESSEL INTEGRITY 60% BELOW MAXIMUM OPERATIONAL THRESHOLD
=[/initiate evacuation_protocol

—[EVACUATION PROTOCOL INITIATED]—
—[CRYOGENIC STORAGE DUMP INITIATED]—
—[BLACKBOX BACKUP INITIATED]—
—[PLEASE STAND BY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS]—

=[/run orbital analysis apocenter
=[AP: 98,000M - KARMAN-TYPE FAILURE IMMINENT
=[/eject control_sys core/all
=[PROVIDENCE CORE UNIT EJECTION IMMINENT
=[PROVIDENCE CORE AWAY
=[CORTEX CORE UNIT EJECTION IMMINENT
=[CORTEX CORE UNIT AWAY
=[DETECTING NAVIGATIONAL FAILURE IN CORTEX EVACUATION MODULE - ERRATIC SUB-ORBITAL TRAJECTORY ESTIMATED
=[CONSEIL CORE UNIT EJECTION IMMINENT
=[EJECTION FAILURE - UNKNOWN ERROR
=[/abort eject control_sys core/conseil
=[OPERATION ABORTED, STANDING BY
=[SHORT-RANGE TELEMETRIES ALIGNED FOR PROVIDENCE AND CORTEX CORES

=[PLEASE PREPARE FOR LANDING OF YOUR EVACUATION MODULE
=[A DISTRESS SIGNAL HAS BEEN DISPATCHED TO NEAREST AVAILABLE BEACON
=[PLEASE STAND BY FOR: 890 MILLION YEARS

Falling Star

_They say that many ages back,
In a time of neverending black,
A thousand stars fell from the sky,
Ten and ten, like a giant’s cry,
Each glittering tear,
Each filled with fear.

The stars hit ground,
A crushing sound.
Some collapsed,
Frames were smashed,
Cries of pain drowned by more stars,
The cacophonous cackle of cruel Mars.

But one star fell gently, well unharmed,
Onlookers’ gazes were disarmed.

A brilliant light! An atomic flash!
The star lit up as it made the crash.
None could survive, none could escape!
Yet out stepped a girl, nay a scrape,
And fell from exhaustion at her fate.

Some hours passed, the onlookers gone.
A woman steps by, long hair a gentle blond,
Her grace unmatched, her step so sure,
Eyes of a crystal pure.

She bends over the child at her feet,
The girl’s head bent in total defeat,
The mother can no longer bear,
The last child brought her to such despair,
Yet the mother’s heart fluttered,
This broken girl couldn’t be guttered,
So the mother picked her up as she gave a moan,
Rose her to the heavens and called her her own
This falling star, heavensent by men elsewhere,
And her metal sarcophagus abandoned, there,
This girl was from tides unknown,
Beating against a shore not our own.

A solar storm streaked across the skies,
A sign only a god could devise,
Three gods crossed their solar fingers,
And their gazes, though far, now lingers,
Upon this one child, starchild,
One wished to kill, another more mild,
And one watched with an expectant gaze,
In time this seed it had planted would raise,
It was chaos, unbridled entropy,
From this, in destiny,
Ordo would settle the solar tempest.

All the cosmos rested upon Celeste._

I Came, I SAW, I Conquered - Part 1: Nativias

“Closing, closing, closing- NOW!”

The burst of fire from the heavy machine gun sounded like an angry dragon smashing mountains, and to those on the receiving end, they probably couldn’t differentiate. As two advancing soldiers fell and the rest got second thoughts about pushing for the objective, ducking behind a toppled van, the man lying prone behind the gun, perched atop a windowsill in a third-story apartment, gave a nasty chuckle muffled by the insulated tarpaulin on top of him.

They weren’t getting away that easy, he mused to himself as he ejected the barely-drained magazine to load another one lying nearby, marked with an oddly childishly-drawn flame marking.

As soon as he pulled the trigger for the second time, the temperature directly behind the gun seemed to soar: now the dragon metaphor was even more relevant. But the man shrugged it off to admire his work; the jury-rigged explosive rounds, with small mining charge packets attached to standard machine gun shells, were working wonders: already the man heard the agonized screams of the enemy soldiers as the tiny explosions on concrete threw up shrapnel around the corner of the van.

Churnguard had already lost fifty men trying to take Mortar Roof; when would they learn?

The spotter crouching behind the gunner, a tarpaulin draped over him as well, binoculars pressed to his eyes, gave a whoop of joy. “I think that’s another wave counted.” The gunner merely gave a grunt of apathy; it was just a routine and unremarkable procedure at this point.

He ejected the current magazine from the machine gun and inserted the old one again; save the best for when it was really needed. The spotter continued, oblivious to the gunner’s lack of care, “They’re dropping like flies, man. All they can do is send in tanks, and the tanks are locked down by our mortars.”

Another apathetic grunt. The gunner didn’t choose Ringo as his spotter because he was enchantingly interesting to talk to, but because he had the sharpest eyes and steadiest hand in all the Undersprawl. He should have been assigned to the sharpshooting division, but a lack of supplies demoted him to a mere spotter. But the gunner wasn’t complaining; Ringo had saved his ass a number of times today from the occasional snipers Churnguard brought in to flush them out.

But the gunner knew one fact: his gun wasn’t accurate, but accuracy didn’t matter when you could send ten bullets down the line when the enemy could only send two. And in urban conflict, especially in the Undersprawl, amount of bullets mattered far more than precision.

He was snapped out of his thoughts by an urgent tap on his shoulder. Grunting, now more from annoyance than apathy, the gunner turned towards Ringo. But Ringo’s face had run pale as he listened intently on an earpiece.

“General-Superior himself is on the line,” he muttered, still listening. “Giving all units outside Zone Seven the order to pull a scorched earth and retreat, effective immediately. That’s us.”

“But why? Position’s held so well.” The gunner had piped up for the first time in hours.

“Well… he sounds scared. A lot scared. Guess we better trust his-”

Light travels faster than sound; this, the gunner knew from childhood. But he had never quite experienced it firsthand like he did now.

The blinding, all-consuming blue light that suddenly appeared seemed out of place with the noise of distant gunfire and sirens. The following, practically deafening explosion of sound fit much more naturally.

The next thing the gunner knew, rubble was raining everywhere and the temperature in the room was a hair away from deadly. The foundations of the structure shook like all hell and the concrete above glowed orange as if ready to melt.

And then, it was all gone. The gunner looked up, not believing his senses, and saw the contents of the whole room gone; scorched, from the wallpaper to the bed to the mirror, with tiny fires interspersed. Ringo sat against the wall, hyperventilating. The gunner tugged at his insulated tarpaulin, and realised that it had saved his life; it was designed to disrupt the infrared detection equipment of the Churnguard armies, and now had given him just the slightest heat resistance to survive.

“C-c-c-c-churrrrn…” Ringo chattered away off to the side; he had torn off his half-melted tarpaulin and his face was burnt in spite of the shielding. The gunner realised he probably looked equally bad.

“You l-look terrible,” Ringo suddenly laughed, staring right at the gunner. He rolled his eyes. Seemed that even in the wake of an artillery strike he had kept his “good” humour.

The gunner rose to his feet slowly, legs still a little shaky, and straightened out his charred uniform a bit. He extended a hand to Ringo, who gratefully took it and followed him up.

“Well, now what?”

The gunner ground his teeth in thought as he picked up his machine gun and stared out the window. That was indeed a very good question.

“Down and out. Fighting retreat, like he said.”

Ringo gave a shrug. “Oh, sure. Yeah, that’s not too vague to make use of.”

“Shut up and take your revolver. We’re moving, now.”

With a grumble, Ringo pulled an ornate silver revolver out of a holster on his chest and gave a nod of ready. The gunner, machine gun gripped firmly, strode over to the apartment’s entrance and gave a kick to the flimsy door (which had been jammed in place by the shaking). It near flew off its hinges, so had it been weakened by the artillery strike. The pair walked out into the hallway, gunner in lead, waving weapons round; they didn’t really expect Paramilitaries to be around already so soon after the strike, but it couldn’t hurt to be cautious.

They moved towards the staircase and slowly descended it, heading to ground level.

And that was when a child was nearly pumped full of bullets.

The girl had caught the gunner by surprise as he rounded a corner on the spiral staircase; she was just standing on the second-to-last flight, staring glazedly up at him. He brought down the machine gun on her and nearly pulled the trigger in his fright, and yet she didn’t even flinch. That image, that total apathy, would sit in both the men’s heads forever.

The gunner didn’t know what to make of this little red-faced girl, a charred plush churn monster in her right hand, just standing there, but it was Ringo who slid between the gunner and the wall to hastily kneel in front of the girl. She looked to be about twelve, dressed in badly torn and burnt linen pyjamas, and was swaying like a willow in a storm.

“Hey, hey, little girl. It’s alright, we’re the good people. What’s your name, sweetie?”

The girl took a moment to snap out of her daze, and even so, she spoke slowly. “Julie Fen.”

He nodded and matched the girl’s tempo with his next few words; he didn’t ask the question most people would ask about the whereabouts of her parents, as the answer was painfully obvious. “Alright, Julie. I’d like you to come with us, alright? We’ll get you to a safe plac-”

The gunner spoke up. He didn’t have time for kids slowing them down. “No. We have to move fast, no time for the-”

Ringo waved his revolver in the gunner’s general direction and there was flame in his gaze. “Shut the skruck up. We’re not taking her all the way to the goddamn Churn, we’re just moving her somewhere safe.”

The gunner’s eyes flared up in response, and his finger tightened imperceptibly on the trigger of the gun, but he let it go.

“Fine. She can tag along, but I’m leaving you two if you slow us down too much.”

“Oh, you won’t have the chance. I’ll shoot you in the foot if it comes to it, then we all die together.”

“Bliss.”

The tension marginally lowered, the two kept moving, girl in tow, held firmly yet gently by Ringo. They made it down to ground level only to find the front lobby blocked off by rubble; what looked like a cold, dead hand stuck out of the rubble, but both men refrained from remarking on it.

“There’s gotta be a back entrance to the alleys,” the gunner muttered, and Ringo nodded an agreement. They walked in the opposite direction of the lobby down the main corridor until they encountered a door conveniently marked “DELIVERIES/STORAGE.”

This door opened with a little less persuasion, but the room was totally dark and the gunner couldn’t find a light switch anyway. Whatever; they’d find their way out.

The next surprise on the voyage came with his boot hitting something that elicited a yelp of pain. Again, he brought his machine gun down to bear on it, but the person yelped again, now in fear.

It was lucky that Ringo flipped a light switch just then, or the tiny boy next to the gunner’s left boot would have been turned to paste. The gunner rolled his eyes and raised the gun, inspecting the rest of the room.

It was occupied by about two dozen people; most of them, he noted, were kids. A couple of them were adults hunched over in the corner… but upon closer inspection, the gunner realise they were hunched over someone else.

He strode over, Ringo holding up a moment to whisper to the girl. She nodded her consent and sat down; presumably he had told her to wait here. He rejoined the gunner and immediately frowned.

The group was composed of a wiry young woman with dirt-streaked blonde hair and a plump, jolly-looking man who was decidently not jolly right now. They were, indeed, hunched over a third man: a horrifically burnt man in a terribly scorched Militia uniform. A metal ‘Artillery Corps’ insignia on what little remained of his flak vest was the only indicator of who he might be.

“Stand aside,” the gunner growled, and the man and woman instantly obeyed. Everyone knew the brotherly spirit among the militia overruled all else. The gunner dropped his gun and crouched next to the man’s head, not daring to touch anything for fear of sending him into a spasm of pain.

The burnt artilleryman gave a hoarse sigh, too weak to speak, but the gunner saw his finger raise just slightly in the direction of where Ringo’s holster lay. The gunner grasped the meaning immediately, and when he looked into the artilleryman’s eyes, total clarity of purpose was what he saw. This was a man who wanted his end quick rather than slow.

In a flash of speed deceptive for his size, the gunner pulled the revolver out of Ringo’s chest holster; an immense crack resounded through the room, drowning out all protests. Some children began crying, others just stared with massive eyes in the direction of the sound, and the man and woman just stared at the mess of the artilleryman’s head in the corner.

The gunner stood up, handed his revolver back to Ringo, and quietly said, “He knew what he wanted. It was better that way.” He reached down to the floor, picked up his machine gun, and kicked open the back door to the room a few seconds later.

He was alone in the alley. He had walked for ten seconds before Ringo found it prudent to catch up to him, still reeling from shock, and the two walked in silence towards the second line of defense; theirs had been broken, and the Churnguard now had a foothold in Seaside.


“Our orders,” Ringo finally told him as they turned out into an abandoned market street, “Are to retreat to the second- well, new first- line of defense. They’re once more unto the breach and now in force.”

“Air support?” The gunner muttered.

“Theirs total, ours none. Apparently they’ve gone back to refuel but they’ll be back within the hour.”

“So what’s the General-Superior’s big plan?”

“Kill and burn and wreck as much as we can.”

The fighting spirit of the Undersprawl was infamous throughout the world. The old motto was, “Beaten but not defeated” and that was certainly her spirit. She had gone through everything from the artillery strikes to Dreadnought-class airships to the swarms of white-clad CIPD infantry and their infernal, energy-based guns. At least they killed fast and relatively painlessly, but god, the smell of the burning flesh…

The gunner took his mind off the matter as they turned a poster-covered corner (“Visit Seaside’s own Boiling Bay, home of the beautiful Bay Outlook!” declared one in jovial, if colour-drained, lettering) and heard the resounding click of multiple weapons losing their safeties.

The gunner grinned. The Churnguard guns didn’t make clicks like that.

A young sergeant before them lowered his shotgun slightly and gave the gunner a quizzical frown. “What’er happen’ to yer face?” the sergeant asked in an impeccable impression of the highly aggravating style of the South Maskers.

The gunner ran a hand over it and almost jerked it away at the sudden pain, but instead pulled away slowly; he had to put on a face of toughness. Good for morale. “Plasma lance smashed the block we were in. Burns aren’t pretty and this guy’s lost most of his hair.”

Ringo gave a slight cry of alarm and pushed his hands up to his head; he paled slightly at the sensation of bald spots up at the front. The sergeant and some of the lads behind him simply broke out laughing, but the general atmosphere was of surprisingly high morale.

The sergeant finally continued, “Well, we is th’ second line ‘o defense y’all are meant ta get back to.”

The gunner gave a knowing nod. “And further orders?”

“Git a gorram mask.”

“‘Git’ serious.”

“That ain’t no way to speak to a superior officer… Corporal.”

“…I don’t care about your rank and you know it. I need to know go where to go so that I’m not sitting useless.”

“Yer options are ta sit back here n’ wait or ta jump headfirst inta th’ hordes.”

“I’m more useful if I’m not dead, I take it.”

“Well, we COULD strap sum bombs to ye-”

“I’ll pass. Though, if you want someone who can run through their lines with a couple of bombs strapped to him, Ringo’s your man.”

The gunner ignored the raised finger that appeared in his periphery as he turned to stare back at the way he had come. Night was falling on the Undersprawl and all that could be seen to the south were the electric blue beams of light of the Churnguard aircraft in the distance bombarding the Upper Quarter, and the orange flowers of airburst munitions chasing the aircraft; he felt no concern for the Upper Quarter, it was a nut that would take nothing short of a Churn beast (or two) to crack, but the fact that they were all off over there meant that he had a moment of peac-

A much brighter, much closer beam of blue briefly illuminated the street as it raced towards him.

I Came, I SAW, I Conquered - Part 2: De

Light traveled at a speed too fast for the human mind to comprehend; it hit its target before that target could so much as twitch a single muscle in response. Instantaneous scorching of the target matter.

The Churnguard rifles were not exactly firing light, but no one was bothering to count. It traveled fast enough. At least bullets gave you one millisecond of warning, but these guns gave none.

The fact that the gunner remained alive after the flash was something he failed to understand until he heard the thud of the unlucky greenhorn that had been standing behind him toppling.

He moved as a man possessed, for while he couldn’t outrun the blue pulses, he could outrun the jerk of a finger on the trigger of the Churnguard rifle that was opening up on them. He dove behind the corner of an alley wall as a burst of two projectiles followed the first, flashing briefly as they made impact with brick where he had just been.

Shots returned now, these the familiar and comforting thunderings of Militia-model combustion rifles. Warm yellow flame mixed with cold blue beams, but within seconds, it was apparent to everyone that blue far outnumbered yellow.

The remaining survivors of the Militia patrol moved deeper into the alley as the Churnguard soldiers began their advance, and though tragic, both parties knew it was a fish-in-a-barrel situation.

Within ten seconds, the confrontation was over, and eight men lay on muddied concrete. Only one wore the crisp white uniform of the CIPD.

Boots kicked the dead, but none of the victors wasted the precious energy within their rifles on ensuring they were dead. That carelessness allowed four eyes to poke silently out from the corpse pile as soon as the many footsteps had passed away.

Ringo and the gunner rose in dead silence. There was no ceremony to be had for the dead; this was a daily ordeal, and saying it was like every tuesday was an exaggeration. It was more like every waking hour.

The gunner dug his machine gun out of the body pile, rubbing with quiet detachment the scorch streak on his left arm that only added to the sting from the previous burns, and turned to face Ringo in the darkness.

“Where to now?”

“Eh?”

“Churnguard ahead. Churnguard behind. We’re in the middle.”

Even in the dark, the wry grin of the gunner’s partner was visible. “Then we go sideways.”

A fist tensed as if to strike in anger boiling over, but relaxed seconds afterwards. The gunner laughed, and it was a hearty, sincere laugh. “Cause a bit of trouble, eh?”

“You bet.”

The two shook hands, death warrants all but signed, but at least it was a shared contract. The two would go down together, giving a bit of extra breathing room for the Militia forces in a better position to fight. And hell, if they were really, really lucky, they might even survive.

Already the tromp of boots could be heard coming from the way they had come.

Not even bothering to deploy his gun’s tripod, the gunner merely braced himself against a wall and let loose. Agonized screams followed and save for a few wild pops of blue tracer, no response was earned. The streets lay silent once more, but attention would have been attracted by the matter of a firefight in a supposedly clear area, and the two compatriots were forced to move out into the open street that bordered the street. On a background of distant explosions and murky airships, they ran down the road towards an even murkier affair in a more immediate distance.

The Bay Outlook lighthouse had been dark since the start of the war as part of the blackout order, yet it being a far more obvious shape than the low boxes covering most of the Undersprawl, the lack of light seemed redundant in making it a less obvious target. And even in spite of this fact, the tower remained standing, largely unmarred by any attacks. After all, Churnguard did want at least SOME infrastructure remaining when they (inevitably) recaptured the city.

And now, the dark lighthouse became as ironic a beacon of hope to the two men as could be.

The former bazaar street they wound their way along was filled with the unbearable aroma of rotting fish still sitting on their racks from the first rumblings of Churnguard artillery as they unleashed upon their own former neighborhood, all those weeks ago. Here and there, splintered wood lay wrecked in buckled craters; remnants of where the guns of the Churnguard navy and ground forces had cooperated in bringing about death. The two slowed down to a walk.

As if in a ghost town, Ringo clasped his shoulders as if suddenly cold and even the gunner had to suppress a shiver.

The implied casualties were always fall worse than the seen.

“Hey.” The gunner’s voice was barely a whisper.

“Mmmh?”

“That girl you saved…”

“Mm…hm?”

“You think she’ll… make it through, you know… up there.”

Ringo frowned helplessly, only the moonlight illuminating the fact. “I’d… I mean… we can’t know what she saw.”

“I think we can guess.”

“So why are you suddenly so concerned about her when you told me to leave her before?”

“…tell me, Ringo. How many people you think died on this street alone?”

“…”

“Go on.”

“…h-hundreds.”

“Let that sink in. Now… let something else sink in…”

“Yes?”

“They got lucky.”

“How… do you…”

“That girl is going to live her whole life with scars she can’t heal. She can grow synthflesh over her physical scars, but in the head…”

“…”

“The rest of them, too.”

“The rest of us.”

“We, the living, damned to a hell deeper than hell.”

“I’ll… I’ll drink to that.”

“You’re not a drinking man, Ringo.”

Ringo just smiled faintly in the dark and gave no response.

The silence was adequately covered by the faint murmur of an engine growing more audible on a street parallel to their current route.

The two soldiers froze. All the Militia vehicles were either out of service long ago or reserved only for the most important officers on the most important occasions. And true to form, out of a side street connecting the seaside road to the parallel, the murmur suddenly grew louder as a dark form drove out.

The crew of the Churnguard tank couldn’t see anything particular in the dark, which is why they had the blessings of infrared sensors installed upon their mobile deathbringer. With an almost lazy and entirely routine movement, the turret perched atop the tank began its slow swivel in the direction of the intruding shapes so obvious to the all-seeing eyes of the vehicle.

An energy pulse sped out of the tank’s barrel and hit home with computerized precision; the infrared screen lit up for a brief moment at the sudden release of immense heat in the center of the targeting reticule, and then it grew dark again.

Ringo and the gunner sucked in their breaths as they crouched against the side of the tank; perhaps its only blind spot below the sensors on the turret, facing the other way. Someone had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and saved the two detection.

Ringo was still shellshocked by the sudden eruption of sound so near to him, but the gunner was largely unfazed. Grabbing him by the collar, he pulled him along in a slow sort of crouched walk along the side of the tank, careful to keep head low even as the turret swiveled around to search the surroundings for further unauthorized shapes.

The pair made it around the back of the tank and crawled atop the small flat section in the back as the turret settled. Motioning for his partner to stay down, the gunner rose and took a couple of decisive steps forward, climbing atop the turret, until he (and his gun) were facing the thinly armoured hatch that led to the tank’s interior.

He wasn’t an expert in knocking, and more of an expert at letting his guns do the knocking. The spray of high-calibre slugs directed at the hatch’s hinges ripped it straight off, and a slight adjustment to firing angle was all that was required to reduce the inside of the tank to a combination of bloody paste and shattered electronics.

He stood, dazed and triumphant, for a half-second, then climbed down from the turret. He was met by a fist to the face.

“You goddamn idiot!” Ringo hissed at him, following it up with another punch. “That… was… so… stupid… in… so… man- gahk!”

The gunner had grabbed Ringo’s hand and pulled him so the face was towards his own. The two locked gazes in mutual rage.

“What would YOU have suggested, huh?” The gunner kept his voice calm, despite the flame in his eyes.

“Well… not THAT.” Ringo was stumped.

“Yeah, yeah, and that’s why I’m the one making the goddamn decisions.” The gunner gave his companion a rough shove, and he tumbled onto the back of the tank, giving a gasp as the air left his lungs.

He lay there, hurt, for a moment, before he graciously took the hand extended to him by the only friend he had left.

I Came, I SAW, I Conquered - Part 3: Fabula

_”I’ll tell you one thing, kid. I’ll tell you one sweet, lovely, amazing little thing.”

“…oh god, not this again…”

“I didn’t use to drink, my man.”

“You drank the moment you left the womb, Rings.”

“Oh-ho-ho, no-no-no. Oh, that’s cute… no, yknow, let me… let me tell you a story… of when I started drinking…”_


The shelling had started again.

It fell with the intensity of rain; the Churnguard Crystal-Enhanced Airburst Pulses and the crude Militian bombs that were little more than gunpowder in boxes. Scathing, blue flame that annihilated all it touched- and horrifying, rending, “real” fire that burnt a lot less deep, yet had the same profound psychological impact.

Oh, the engineers on both sides trumpeted the benefits of their equipment- but nobody on the receiving end could care less. They maimed and, if you were lucky, killed, and it didn’t matter how.

Two figures, armed, dirtied, sore, crouched inside a shop. The blue CEAPs were the ones they had to contend with, the Militia explosions further off. Above, the low rumble of airships. Some great joy: they had earlier spotted an allied Dreadnaught taking down a number of Churnguard bomber planes. Small victories, but in fields like those, even the tiny things were inspirational.

A CEAP went off dangerously close, but the pair remained safe behind the counter. They hadn’t noticed what sort of establishment they were really in; it was irrelevant. Obviously important enough to have been looted, shelves overturned and cabinets smashed, but all it afforded now was well-deserved rest and cover.

The blue rain ceased.

The two men awoke, grudgingly, and the slighter of the two lifted his head off the chest of the other, from the position they had been awkwardly sleeping in, leaning against that same counter. In a happier time, one might have found opportunity to insult the other in all manner of ways for this one slightly over-affectionate gesture, but right now- he didn’t care. It was amazing what being so eternally tired, and having only one other guy to share it with, would do to a person’s view of the world, sense of humor, whole way of life.

The street they returned to was charred, shattered, utterly destroyed. The corpses, for the street was filled, were all charred horribly, with the more freshly dead still having their mouths open, gaping. Nobody had heard them scream their last.

Ringo and his partner walked on this street of death, slowly, carefully, with an almost holy appraisal, towards that faint beacon of hope in the distance.

Bay Outlook.

And yet, it appeared life would be far from that simple.

The two were forced to dart into another nearby building (a diner, this one; empty, abandoned, spilled bottles of liquor and rotting food all over the floor. A trapdoor, inset behind the counter- obvious escape route?) at the approach of another rumble of engines; more than one, so nobody wanted any escapades like the last one.

Gazing out the window, carefully, stealthily, the two confirmed their worst fears-

A column of heavy tanks, with infantry on the sides. A few support vehicles, a fuel truck and three command cars, in the middle.

The Churnguard were, indeed, bringing in their heaviest cavalry. The only possible destination: the bridge towards the Upper Quarter.


”You want to goddamn know why they call it Butcher Street? You really want to know? Well, let me tell you- it was a butchering.”


The two had gone pale behind the charred flesh on their faces, barely-faded remnants of terrifying injury mere hours ago.

The idea was clear in both their minds- this armoured column would spell the end of the resistance at the Upper Quarter. They had held valiantly, but they wouldn’t hold against this.

Hope, life, dreams- it all faded in an instant of recognition.

Replacing: determination. Anger. At least, from one side.

The bigger man rose.

His partner grabbed at his shoulder with such force that he actually succeeded in wresting him down with a quick jerk of his arm.

A hissed, angry whisper from Ringo, with his gun shoving into his friend’s neck.

“Don’t you dare go up there. Don’t you scrucking dare.”

The other man shook his head. “Ringo, I want a goddamn favour from you. One favour.”

Tears welled a little in Ringo’s eyes. The gun shook a little. “No. No. No, I ain’t-”

“Ringo. You’re gonna take my gun. You’re gonna point it out there and you are going to chop them all down; shoot down all the soldiers on this side. I’ll rush ‘em-

“Goddamn it, you’re an IDIOT, you-”

“Let me scrucking finish. You radio command. Tell ‘em to strike THIS HERE GODDAMN POSITION, with EVERYTHING they have- the tanks will roll outta here if we waste any time at all, but if we distract ‘em, they’ll stop and we get the shots in on ‘em. The moment the tanks start pointing at you, run into the cellar, and-”

Silence. The vehicles kept rumbling on outside.

“Stay safe.” The last words from the gunner as he reached onto the counter. His hand clamped down on an almost ridiculously large, serrated cutting knife- meant for cutting some pretty serious Churnbeast meat.

It was gonna cut a little more tonight.

Ringo positioned the gun on the counter- everybody was still totally oblivious outside. One hand on his radio transmitter’s PTT, the other holding to the gun’s grip and trigger, he babbled rapidly.

The words coincided with the machine gun fire, which coincided with the sight of a huge, angry man with a very, very big knife, charging outside.

For a few moments, chaos reigned.


”Never, never have I ever seen a man literally chop up so many people. And… with… with a kitchen knife, no less…”

The CIPD forces were taken totally by surprise. The vehicles just kept rolling at first, and most of the men were too concerned trying to find cover from the imminent machine gun rounds to worry about the huge man with a knife.

Within ten seconds, three closely-bunched soldiers, stumbling together in collective confusion, lay on the ground. If they weren’t dead, they would be very soon.

The angle the gunner was at made it very hard indeed for the tanks to hit him; the soldiers still standing, though, were another problem.

Fear was his weapon. Charging, mad, murderous, already blood-stained, face dark from burns survived, muscles bulging from previous and current exertions.

The young CIPD private, arms shaking even as he raised his gun? Murdered.

The hopelessly naive, battle-loving idiot who threw down his gun and pulled out his own knife? Slaughtered.

The innocent one, caring for brothers fallen from the machine gun rounds? The devil cared not for man’s good, and the devil was charging him down right at that moment.

The panic was absolute, and even the tanks were waking up to the situation. Their guns traversed as they tried to find the assailant, the man with the machine gun.

His fire stopped, presumably as Ringo went into hiding.

But not before he had the consideration to send one last bullet sailing straight into the fuel truck.

It erupted into brilliant blue flame.


”The… the street was just the start though… the moment he got to the cars…”

The entire column came to a halt. The tank before the fuel truck jerked forward with the force, and screaming could be heard rattling and echoing from inside the metal beast. The car behind the truck was simply thrown hurling backwards into the car behind it, crashing into it at high speed, though the driver of the third car was swift enough to maneuver out of the way.

Soldiers, elite ones, Churnguard Yuketiots, disembarked from the first car. Scampered to secure the area, pull open the doors, get everyone out-

Fatal mistake.

A single man, driven, hating, cutting.

The Yuketiot armour, designed against blunt force and bullet impacts, had its weaknesses, especially along the joints and the front helmet plate. Both were made full advantage of, and soon, three “elites” lay dead.

Screaming echoed throughout the city. The tanks started turning back to discover the situation at the command cars that had suddenly lost radio contact, but they were too late, and blood had spattered the flooring, the seating, the windows. Throats cut, executives dead, Churnguard had just lost a lot of stock.

He got to the second command car.

Same deal.

Third car, well; they had already wisened up. A Yuketiot got a burst off into the man’s leg, but adrenaline was a funny thing, and he just kept going, like one of those metal beasts, but man- or was he?

Another debacle of slaughter, carnage, gore that no narrator would dare describe.

His knife snapped in half, tip of the blade embedded in the face of a Yuketiot that had died doing his job- protecting the VIPs he was assigned to.

Didn’t matter. What he had left was sufficient.

Some of the pasty, thin executives actually tried to put up a fight; an impressive one, at one point. A no-nonsense, slightly older man in a sharp gray suit, obviously a cut above the rest, actually a skilled hand-to-hand fighter. But he had brought fists to a knife fight.

The beast, man-not-man, made him suffer for it. Wound to the stomach. Slow, painful, gory death unless he was recovered shortly thereafter.

And then-

Rain from the sky.

But this rain wasn’t blue- it was orange. A warm, pleasant orange of salvation and death.


_”Light travels faster than anything else, friends. I was in the cellar, but I had kept the trap-door open, and had a view of the back wall as the orange light of our bombs washed off it - well, it was a beautiful sight, mere moments before the radio hail that told us we were saved.

I just watched for a bit, then I came topside.

There was one guy standing in that mess. He had a knife in his hand, partially broken. He was just standing, examining his work, and boy, did he work.

Funny thing is, there was just an unbroken bottle I had found in the cellar. I had taken it up with me- didn’t even know why.

First thing that came to my mind was to take a swig.

We were picked up a lil’ thereafter by some Militia forces, taken back to the Upper Quarter.

A few days later, the Churnguard, having lost most of their armour and command force, pulled out. They coulda won if they just kept tryin’, but it was already becoming too much of a cost for ‘em.

That one man, well, he almost singlehandedly won the war in that moment.

That’s why they call it Butcher Street, friends, and it’s why I drink.

He came, he SAW, and he conquered.”_

A Letter is Concern

Commander Jameson,

I require your complete assurance that the Project Voltage prototypes will be safe. Years of tireless work have gone into the creation of these machines, and while I have faith in the ability of your security staff at Site Delta, I would like for you to bolster it anyways.

I need not remind you of the consequences of Prototype 8002 falling into the wrong hands. Not only will someone be running rampant with perhaps the most powerful war machine ever designed, but Churnguard Executive will have us both burned at the stake.

If you play ball, I might even design a smaller version of 8002 to add to your own detail.

Best greetings,
Johann Von Haydes

Due Process - Part 1

Commander Jameson,

Your failure in keeping Prototype 8002 safe is going to go on your permanent record, that much I will ensure of. But let me assure you, that is simply the tip of the iceberg as far as the hell you’re about to face goes.

Some little child has made off with humanity’s finest war machine to date. An experimental prototype war robot, that if it fell into the wrong hands and were mass produced, would spell the end for us all. It is built with top-notch, top-secret technology which, if reverse-engineered, would result in catastrophe. The Focused Energy Aggregation Resonator (FEAR) beam weapon it is equipped with had the ability to shred modern tank armour in seconds, and that’s just hooked up to the prototype’s built-in Halcyon Crystal core. Imagine what one might do if they had a larger, more powerful source of energy.

Apocalypse, Commander. Apocalypse would occur.

As such, I have informed Executive of your actions and have suggested a course of action, which they have agreed upon without hesitation. Executive wants you in person (not any of your men) to go out there and recover Prototype 8002 with an earlier model, 8001; they’re quite similar, except 8001 is far bulkier and slower.

You put the lives of thousands on the line with your carelessness in security measures. Now you’ll damn well put your own out there to fix it.

Best regards,
Johann von Haydes

Due Process - Part 2

Director Churne,

As per your orders, Dr. Von Haydes has equipped me with Prototype 8001, and this will be my final message before I embark on the expedition to locate the stolen Prototype.

I would like to apologize on a personal level, if I may. I underestimated what these children could do and how devoted and organized they were to the mission. I ignored Von Haydes’ request for more guards, and now I’m paying the price for it in a due fashion.

I am aware of how the Company views me now, and I am willing to accept this. I will hunt down Prototype 8002, recover it, and then resign. A better man will take my place.

Signed,
Lieutenant Jameson

Chosen

“Thank you. You may leave.”

The two soldiers saluted the seated figure crisply and turned on their heels, walking out. The automatic door closed behind them.

The young man the soldiers had escorted turned from the door to the older man before him. The latter simply smiled and turned his swivel chair to face the panoramic window set in the wall and the city of Silas beyond.

http://res.cloudinary.com/dlkahozq9/image/upload/v1517792100/FE0F194C-D149-443E-9E8E-791946D96CB4_rfyfou.jpg

Image credit to Alexiuss @ deviantart.com

“What do you make of all this, Erwin?” asked Graham Churne, descendant of Silas Churne himself. His son, Erwin, stiffened at the unexpected question.

“It is… a beautiful, powerful city,” he finally replied. Graham laughed in his chair, still facing away.

“And a dying one.”

Erwin’s blood ran cold. What could his father possibly mean?

“You see, my boy,” the old man continued, “You have already witnessed the matter. Was it not you who submitted a request for the dismissal of young Dr. Haydes for failing to handle the power failure in Central Sector 6?”

Erwin’s face reddened. He had indeed filed a request for Haydes’s dismissal; the bastard should have figured out what went wrong with the Synthcrystal powering the Sector ages ago! And yet it was still almost dark, lit only because it was funneling power from Border Sector 3.

“Yes, father,” he said, “That was indeed me. But what-”

“The city is not dying so much as the dear Synthcrystals that power it.”

Erwin was dumbstruck. The power was dying? Graham turned his chair around and stared at Erwin with solemn gray eyes; eyes detailing a past of laughter and good times turned to stress and the cynicism of a man who knew too much to be happy.

He said, “Erwin, I’ll tell it to you straight. I have little time left in my life, despite the doctors’ best efforts. The Meekos may be adorable creatures, but their plagues are little to be laughed at.”

Erwin smiled politely at his father’s joke, but he couldn’t restrain a slight cringe. The collective anarchy that the Meekos lived in had briefly banded together some time ago to avenge the destruction of a few square kilometres of their jungle thanks to Churnguard weapons testing; their idea of revenge was sending a small, grass-encased package of powdered Skullroot directly to Graham Churne, and thanks to the naïve nature of his personal security detail, it had bypassed biohazard containment and gone straight to his office and thereafter his lungs.

So now seventeen-year-old Erwin could only stand and half-smile, half-cringe as he listened to his father break into a bout of Skullroot-induced coughing.

“Erwin,” his father finally said, softer now, his eyes a little more unfocused, “It is time I begin to teach you how Churnguard, Silas, and the world as a whole must be run. The wishes of our ancestors and the powers greater than them.”

“Father…?”

“Yes, son. The first thing you must learn is that Churnguard is little but a pawn in a far, far greater game. Our dominion is little but means to an end; an end of keeping dark forces beyond our greatest comprehensions at bay to give those that support us a little more room.”

“But…”

“Silence. I know you have much to ask, but save it. Come.”

Graham rose, beckoning Silas to follow him, as they stepped out into the hallway. The guards outside the door saluted and moved in to escort formation, but Graham waved them back to their posts as he pressed the elevator call button on the wall opposite.

The next few minutes were spent in silence as the Synthcrystal-fueled elevator rose, and finally, they were on the penthouse floor.

Graham had tired of living at the top with all its constant board meetings, and had thus moved into the reserve executive suite some floors below, but his room remained furnished and spotless.

And for good reason. As soon as father and son entered the room and Graham pressed a forefinger to a scanner on the wall, the door locked behind them, shutters enveloped the windows, and the large screen in one of the walls flared to life.

It showed an elderly, wheelchair-bound man attached to a vast array of tubes and wires speckling his body from the head to the torso, all snaking up to unseen ports in the roof of wherever he was at time of recording.

“I,” the man spoke with a rasp of age, “Am Silas Churne.”

Erwin gasped, but Graham clamped a reassuring hand on his shoulder, whispering, “He’s not actually alive in our basement, don’t worry. Now listen.”

“If you are viewing this,” Silas resumed, unaware of the interruption, “You are either a descendant of the cherished Churne line… or, if unimaginable calamity has befallen us, another selected representative of Ordo.”

Erwin sat in silence as Silas continued.

“Who Ordo is, and the rest of the Trideus and all associated with them, will be discussed in detail later. For now, you must know only one command: let no man or beast pass south beyond the Midchurn Mountains. If all has gone well, the Southern Mountains are already guarded by man and machine, but only automated systems hold the Midchurn. Ensure that they remain functional and reinforce them.”

Silas smiled on the screen, and Erwin found his own face curling into a genetically memorized pattern as Silas spoke again.

“My boy or girl, you will learn what few men were destined to know… including why I remain so cryptic about your instructions. Our bloodline has been selected for an amazing purpose; the messiahs of a new age. Return to past glory, and ascent to new heights far, far beyond.”

And somewhere in the back of Erwin’s head, a new feeling stirred. He gasped as images and concepts flooded his mind.

“The biomaterial agents of Ordo will have implanted you at birth with an uplink chip directly connected to this screen and the servers it is connected to; you will learn instantly as I speak, so as not to overwhelm you with data. The chip will enhance everything from basic processing to higher-level functions. The only thing this chip cannot do is entirely defeat the plague of death.”

Silas frowned and tugged on one of his many tubes. “It can only extend one’s suffering for a greater period to allow one to finish anything they may have started.”

Pause.

“Now then, student. Welcome to the Singularity.”

PERSONAL LOG OF Cl_568190

**[L6 SECURITY CLASSIFICATION]
[UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS WILL RESULT IN VERDICT TYPE 7 APPLICATION]
[TRANSCRIBING…]

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 1]**
-As one of the command staff aboard Project Deeplink, I have unfortunately been ordered to keep a personal log of events and ongoings within this experimental facility.

As it needs introduction, I am Dr. Morte, Chief Medical Officer within the Deeplink mining complex. What the fellows just a few meters outside are doing is, apparently, tunneling into the very furthest bowels of a supposedly cursed Churn mountain in search of - you guessed it - potent Crystals, supposedly rife within the earth! I’m obviously not involved in such matters, I’m just here to make sure no one dies on the job. And possibly to dissect anything interesting that they find living all the way down here.

There are about fifty of us out here in the middle of nowhere, plus the drones; very hush-hush project, after all. To the South is the Churn; to the North is the Exclusion Zone Churnguard has maintained all these years; all around us, mountains and more mountains. The secrecy is for good reason, though. Wouldn’t want the Grangor finding out about all this. We’re not exactly a close-knit bunch, but the command staff is capable, the miners possibly even more so, and optimism is generally high.

I’m not going to rattle on. Updates as they come.

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 2]

_The operation proceeds well. So far no Crystals, but not even the most flattering legends say the original Silas Churne found the Legacy Crystal in a single day. They’ve made good headway, though, with nary an issue except one poor fool who thought it wise to light a cigarette near a confirmed gas pocket.

Luckily nobody died and nothing was seriously damaged, but his eyebrows are forfeit. And how deserved, too!

Only other item of note is an odd little dream I had last night; it’s very fuzzy in my memory, very weak, but I do remember an abundance of red and a general feeling of displeasure.

Probably an ill omen of someone mistreating an explosive mining packet or something. Let’s hope not.

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 3]

_The infirmary is unusually populated today. Seems a few of the miners caught some odd little flu, but it seems harmless at the current moment.

Coincidentally, this wave came after the last mining shift, on which the Quartermaster, Beckins, reported that his crew had found something a little unconventional down below. Strange bones, with some sort of red growth covering parts of them! Unfortunately no one seems to remember where it is, which baffles me; did it just come back to life and stroll off?

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 4]

_Tragedy strikes for the first time.

It seems the illness is worse than it first seemed; of the seven that arrived yesterday, five have gone into a deep fever. One is currently on emergency life support as his lungs unexpectedly just… stopped working.

The seventh died. Gurgled up half his insides and there was absolutely nothing I could do but get him into the quarantine pod and seal myself into a hazard suit.

There was no point even trying to save him. Morale is lowered across the mining crew, and another wave (five of them this time) visited me, sick. Even Beckins came by and asked for painkillers against “nasty chest pains”.

Something seems a little off.

In better news, it seems they’ve found something deep in the mines at last; a red Crystal, the only they’ve ever seen. They’re calling it the Blood Crystal, and I sure hope that’s not an oracle of a name.

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 5]

_The dream I so struggled to remember some nights ago returned to me, and it was far more lucid.

I was in a cave; the depths of the mine shaft. The walls were dark rock, slowly being consumed by fleshy, red growths, and a grating sound hummed in my ear, softening to music…

It took me all of a few minutes to realise that the substance in the dream looked exactly like the stuff the dead miner coughed up yesterday; what I had affectionately called ‘guts’ were something else entirely.

I say ‘dead miner’, when in fact, he’s merely the first of four. I suspect more will join them very soon as even more sick flood my room.

I’ve spent most of my day in this hazard suit, even during normal work. Practically every medical bed in this mobile infirmary is occupied by sick, coughing men in varying stages of death.** I**’ve informed Dr. Wineheart, the expedition leader, of my grave problem, but he insists the job must go on. I’m not surprised; he’s Von Haydes’s personal [AUTO-REDACTED] at this stage. His only concession is that he’s decided to send some of the ‘precious’ robot drillers down to replace the sick.

I just want to get out, at this point.

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 6]

_I’m convinced the claims this site was cursed have merit to them. Our disturbance of the Blood Crystal only worsened matters.

The robots found things. They found things then died. Lost connection, they say, but I was in the room when Wineheart watched them go down. They saw the red stuff, red stuff of nightmares, and then a screech and they all died, one by one. Wineheart was disturbed but made no comment. He has been obsessed with the Blood Crystal lately, taking it into his personal study for ‘research’.

All he’s done to defend us is tell the Security chief, Kinzer, to be more watchful! That’s all from him!

I heard the song again, now waking, as if by memorry.

I never noticed until then that the screeching sounded like song.

When I returned to the infirmary I added two more to the death toll.

I had put the current dead in body bags, but when I returned to them, realising they must be cremated to save space, I found that… that…

The red covered them. The red in my dreams. It was worst on the first dead. I dared not touch, even with my suit on, yet something compels me to investigate. To see.

I had the dream again. But instead of screaming, there was only the singing.

It sounded good. Uplifting, even.

-M_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 7]
_Something happened in the mines today.

I heard the screams before I saw, saw the men running, the one with a mark on his arm, bleeding. They screamed and cried, these hardened miners, as if children. Gunshots echoed below, a final scream, and then silence.

I administered yet more sick today; the last wave of miners was the worst. I do not bother any more with quarantine. They are all sick to some level.

Beckins has joined the dead. Wineheart has a snivel, even though he never went near anyone. Kinzer never returned with the group of fleeing miners. And I

I’ve abandoned the suit. I know it is useless against it. I too began coughing hours ago.

I no longer fear the disease. It claiming us is inevitable.

Perhaps, even, for the better?

The dream returned to me, even as I stood awake. I think I can hear the lyrics of the song.

They say, “singularity”._

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 8]
_The mines are silent. Everyone is sick. The robots are all dead. Most of the miners, too. The guards, the cooks, they all flood in. Red flood. They’ll all die within two days.

Four** of thebody bags are missing**. I see no point investigating. Little sense.

I don**’t** move the dead any more. Mere minutes after they die, the red consumes parts of their bodies. Much of the infirmary is covered in it

I write more later._

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 8]
_the red thing came from below.

no fighters remain. i have decided to lock myself into my private office with a gun. god help the less fortunate outside.

their screams have stopped now.

i stole the blood crystal from wineheart’s dying hands as he stumbled in, clutching it. he said to me it must be kept safe.

i shot him to take it.

i am sick but not dying. am i sick? is it disease?

i don’t know i don’t know much anymore

i hear the song all the time now

i repulse not at red but sing now

singularity, blessed singularity

why lucidity when singularity?_

[CHURNGUARD INDUSTRIES]
[USER CI_568190 - DR. ALEXIUS MORTE]
[PERSONAL LOG]
[ENTRY 9]
no birds sing outside my fortress. i am truly alone, yet i hear scratching on the door and singing

endless singing

i write this with the last lucidity remnant.

something is within this cave. something that killed liberated us

something evil beautiful lay in that blood crystal

something that destroys saves man and all he is

gaze upon my works, ye greedy, and sing

sing until the day
the day we are all blood

[TRANsCrIpT ERROR]
[PURG$&£>]
[REMOTE FILE UPLOAD DETECTED]
[SONG.mp3]

Musing of the Final Scion

[PERSONAL LOG]
[USER: ERWIN CHURNE]
[VOICE-TO-TEXT TRANSCRIPT]
[FILENAME: “MUSINGS”]

Three hundred years. Three hundred years since my oldest known ancestor, Silas Churne, discovered the path to the future: Vain Crystals. Infused with invisible energies, they allowed our dying, warlike species to survive; to evolve; to conquer. No longer was mankind the runt of the litter on the playing field of evolution; no longer were we to be enslaved by those blessed with magical powers. We now had something to even the field: unlimited energy of the gods themselves.

Silas knew, as soon as he saw the sparkle of the purple crystal shard atop that mountain, that he had found all he needed to advance the human race to its modern platform. He brought it back with him, triumphantly, and announced that this was only the beginning; the beginning of our rise beyond the weakness we had previously been adopted by. He would be the harbinger of hope and the leader of a revolution.

Ten years was all it took for him and his closest circle of friends, allies, and fellow schemers to draft the first plans. It was a foreign concept to most at the time; the idea of industy, of powering things with visible objects as opposed to invisible forces. He converted anyone he could find to his side simply by demonstrating to them the power of that first Crystal shard via powering a simple fan with it. By modern standards, a ludicrously simple construction; back then, however, it was the work of gods.

And so, after that decade of scheming, planning, and building, it was complete: Prototype One. A heavy exploration machine, powered by the first shard, designed for defending the vicious storms that Silas had seen out there beyond that first shard. Many feared for his life, but he simply laughed at them; the gods himself had given him their power.

Fifty years he spent inside the wasteland of Crystals, gathering, examining, studying. They became his life devotion; they meant progress for not just him, but for his whole species. Finally, he returned, when his name had already been all but forgotten, and showed the new generation what he had reaped. He became a legend among the race once again; the precious field of crystals where he had spenty his life working was named the Churn in honour of him and him alone. And so, with a nearly unlimited power source, they began progress. Industry. Advancement. In time, they stood before their previous oppressors, and they made them fear, for the power of the gods themselves inhabited their mighty war machines of fire and steel.

A hundred and ninety years passed before the War of Liberation finally ended, with humanity now undisputedly a superpower in terms of race. We had no ceiling to our success; we were unstoppable.

But all good things draw to a close, and so did our centuries-long rise to power. One day, we found with dread, the crystals which had powered our machines of power were running out. One by one, lights began blinking out, and no one dared venture back into the Churn to gather more. The other races had become wise to our source of power, and so they blockaded the only path back into the Churn; they intended to ststve us out and crush us for good when our lifeline was finally cut.

That was when my grandfather, Arnold Churne, founded Churnguard Industries. He promised to be able to synthesize crystals from one source: the Legacy Crystal which Silas Churne had found so long ago; in storage for many years, it was still full with energy. He worked tirelessly, sometimes not sleeping for days on end, testing thousands of different methods. One day, it paid off: the first Synthcrystal had been created. Vastly inferior to the Legacy Crystal, it was still our only hope.

Using the last remaining pure crystals, he began mass-production of the Synthcrystals; when hope seemed most lost, he introduced them to the public. Swept off of his feet in success, much like Silas, Arnold stood at the front of humanity as it led a second counteroffensive against the other races of the planet. Caught by surprise, we crushed them easily, sending them back in exile to their homelands.

When the second war finally ended, my grandfather and later my father had an absolute stranglehold on the market. If it existed and was human-manufactured, it had Churnguard printed on it somewhere. While the people deluded themselves with democracy, Churnguard was the de facto omnipresent ruler of the human race. Synthcrystals were still being pumped out by the thousands; mass-produced, copies of copies of copies, slowly deteriorating in efficiency. Yet still, everyone, from adults to children, knew from the stories their grandparents uded to tell them thst the crystals were the only thing keeping the human race afloat. Power meant everything.

However, I am not as deluded as the rest of the rabble. The Synthcrystals are deteriorating at a rapid rate, and only one course of action becomes evident to me: we must re-enter the Churn, where Silas found the first crystal so many years ago. My best scientists tell me that within, there lies a crystal vastly superior to even the Legacy Crystal; the Halcyon Crystal; a paragon among crystals, offering enough Synthcrystal material to last the human race for millenia to come.

Everything hinges on acquiring the crystal. From the corporate estimates, our current crystals are expectsd to run dry within two months. Backup crystals, maybe five months. After that, new Synthcrystals will simply be too weak to power anything.

We must acquire the Halcyon at any cost. For this, I have enlisted my right hand man, Johann von Haydes, to draft a design for a prototype machine akin to the one which Silas used all those years ago; we shall use it to re-enter the Churn, to recover the Halcyon Crystal, and to bring about a second Golden Age for humanity. It shall be powered by the Legacy Crystal which we have kept safe for so long, and it shall be an unstoppable force for good. Prototype 8002 is our final hope.

Silas and Arnold Churne have carried humanity forward, from its darkest history, to its brightest future. If I fail them, everything is lost.

Operation Halcyon

The man took brisk, even steps on the concrete, calmly making his way through the rain towards the entrance of a monolithic skyscraper that towered before him. Around him, the city of Silas breathed, sung, and laughed. The city named after his oldest ancestor.

Within a month, the man knew, the city would be dead.

He stepped past the two rapidly-saluting guards flanking the entrance of the building, the letters “C.I.” proudly printed on the sliding glass doors, and entered the quiet lobby of Churnguard Industries Headquarters. The secretary on the desk nearby looked up and stiffened.

“Hello, Mr. Churne. They are waiting for you upstairs, sir.”

The man nodded, saying nothing, and walked over to the elevators, pressing the call button as he examined all around him.

This light. That camera. The elevators, the screen with the rotating corporate logo, even the rifles of the guards outside; all powered by one thing. Synthcrystals. What the ignorant populace outside this building ignored; took for granted. “The infinite power source” was the only thought they attributed to Synthcrystals.

Fools. The Synthcrystals were far from infinite. They were dying by the second. Already, numerous power flickers had been seen in the slums, and only through the sending of some rather persuasive agents had the man convinced the Governer to release a statement denying the failure of the Synthcrystals, instead attributing the flickers to Grangor sabotage. The last thing the man needed now was a riot when so much was at stake.

The elevator finally arrived, and the man stepped inside, trying to calculate how much crystal power had been wasted by the simple mistake the designer had made of not including stairs; the elevators were fireproof and the power infinite, so why would they goddamn well need stairs? The man cursed this method of thought, but nonetheless tolerated it for the ten seconds it took to rise to the top.

The elevator doors opened to a boardroom, already filled with executives, scientists, and engineers, even the Head of Security, Rickard. The room fell silent as the man walked in.

“Gentlemen,” he began immediately, “I am in no mood to waste time, so let us begin.”

He walked over and placed his hands on the table for dramatic effect. “Today, we are attempting to save humanity.”

He sucked in a breath. “Recently, we had a plan for the creation of a machine, known as Prototype 8002. I am sure you are all aware of how that ended up.”

Nodding and grim silence throughout the room. The memory of how an extraordinarily expensive armoured carapace, designed for protecting the user from the dangers of the Churn, had been stolen by mere children, was still raw in everyone’s minds.

“8002 as our plan for saving the world. The user would enter the Churn, gather as many pure Crystals as possible, and the creation of a new generation of Synthcrystals would be possible. We had even discovered the purest crystal of them all; the Halcyon Crystal.”

He paused, again for effect. “That is now impossible. We must work on contingencies. As such, I am initiating our final possible measure: Operation Halcyon.”

This was the cue for two of the men to rise; Johann von Haydes, and Captain Rickard. The man stepped to the side as the other two took his place.

Haydes began. “We lack the time and power source to create a replacement for 8002. As such, we shall have to bypass the idea of manufacturing that. However, another plan has been drafted.”

Now Rickard spoke. “The long and short of it is: mercenaries. We enlist some of the best fighters and salvagers in the land and deploy them to capture the Halcyon Crystal.”

One of the executives in the room, Fargley, spoke up. “But surely our own paramilitary forces are sufficient for the task?”

Rickard shook his head. “The standard weaponry employed by security is the CI-AC-57 Solar Flare assault rifle. Unfortunately, it is powered by the very same Synthcrystals we are running out of. The risk is too high that they’ll run out of charge on the field, and there are far too few solid-projectile rifles left in circulation. Mercenaries, on the other hand, have everything from rocket-powered axes to ancient handguns.”

Fargley nodded, satisfied, and Haydes continued. “We have prepared a CI-VC-884 Armadillo mobile fortress for deployment, outfitted with the strongest Synthcrystal we have remaining in our reserve storages. It will carry the mercenaries to a location we have codenamed the Halcyon Fold to retrieve the Halcyon Crystal from the ruins of an ancient civilization.”

Murmurs, both of nervousness and approval, rattled throughout the room. Haydes and Rickard both looked back to the man in the corner, who moved back to take his place.

“This has all already been set in motion,” he said grimly, “And we must hope for success. I would recommend acquiring a method for evacuating the city as soon as possible, as a contingency. If the Crystal Wall falls when the blackouts come, the Grangor will burn the city in hours.”

And he looked out one of the wide windows inset in the walls, and gazed serenely on as another neighbourhood fell dark. God hoped it was only temporary.

Impasse

A hundred years was a long time; a long time for anything, even for a war. And though a year was relative to the incredibly varied orbits of all the planets of the cosmos, it still tended to be an immensely long time.

And though the organisms upon the curious, inhabited planet that had for a hundred years felt war didn’t follow the calendars and times of their progenitors aeons ago, a year still had a timeless, symbolic meaning- it was a long, long time.

In all these hundred relative years, there had been only a hundred days in which the sounds of battle softened. For the hundredth time, the weapons fell silent and their holders too.

It was the day of the Grangor Skull Harvest; a ceremonious occasion, indeed, for the giant cat-beasts of the Eastern Mountains. And though mankind hadn’t paid any heed to Grangor traditions since the first human rebellions against their overlords, it was still taken as a pragmatic sort of holiday- a day for the dead to be collected, the front lines to be bolstered, the sick and wounded to be discharged.

The Harvest itself was a horrifically brutal but, undeniably, amazingly efficient way of rooting out the weak from the Grangor. All of the year’s Kits of appropriate age would be assembled and released into wilderness within Grangor territory and expected to survive; the only catch being that each Kit was paired to a randomly assigned older Grangor, a Fullclaw, whose only mission was to hunt down one Kit each and harvest their skull. The Kits, conversely, had full authority to do the same to a Fullclaw- it was expected. The only way to escape the Harvest was to harvest. One skull was a lifeline; a Kit with a Fullclaw’s skull was immune. A Fullclaw with a Kit’s skull was immune. And it was considered such a perfect system for rooting out the weak, where the promising young would eliminate those that had lost their edge with age and the elders with spirits still fierce would remove the weak from potential service in the Grangor Hordes where they would only serve as a bad example.

And so every year only half the Grangor that went in returned, and oft the same ones until suddenly a popular name would vanish, having lost their previous ferocity. The Harvested skulls were considered a trophy; a status symbol.

Grangor General Bloodtooth had five of said trophies hanging lazily around his neck just now in a macabre display of his power. The skulls of four Kits, symmetrically arranged on the sides, with the grand trophy of a Fullclaw skull (Bloodtooth’s very first Harvest, the one that raised him from Kit status) cruelly smiling in the middle of the crude display wired together with rope.

Very intimidating, certainly. Frightening, even. But as Bloodtooth grinned with that large-toothed smile of his at the thing before him, his visitor was not intimidated.

“Very foolish of you to come alone.”

Executive Field Officer Vyland of the Churnguard Industries Paramilitary Division was not impressed by his feline counterpart, his intimidation, and his immediate insult to Vyland’s intelligence. “Come now. I have chosen this position well.”

“Yes,” snarled Bloodtooth, all semblance of humour gone, “Well enough to your liking.”

“You’re referring to the long-range artillery covering this position? Now you’re the fool. It’s an insurance policy, not a weapon. It’ll only fire under certain conditions I don’t feel prone to sharing with you, and when it does, the assumption is that I’ll be dead by the time of impact. Indeed, if I am not dead by that time, I will be very shortly thereafter.”

All in one breath. Now it was Vyland’s time to break into smirk. “Not as much a weapon as, quite like I said, policy.”

Bloodtooth grunted, suitably impressed. Finally, the humans had dared send someone competent his way. “Well, you do your fancy long-range artillery. I just have a few big warriors with very, very large axes one tent down from this one.”

Vyland’s smirk didn’t falter. “Then we are both agreed that stabbing each other in the back is a bad idea.”

“Indeed we are.”

“Good, then let’s speak as equals.”

“Ah, acting! No, sorry, I’ve never been good at pretending to be something I’m not.”

“What, my inferior?”

“Careful now. I’ve always adored how humans have such big mouths compared to their bodies. I’ve made a point to rectify the matter by… somewhat coarsely expanding the bodies of the men under your ward that I capture.”

Vyland just rolled his eyes. “All snark aside, I think it’s clear what this meeting is about.”

“The Jungle Impasse,” Bloodtooth assented.

“Interesting name. Will have to forward that one to my superiors.”

“What do they call it?”

“‘The Meekos Interference’”.

“Ha ha! Close enough.”

Vyland nodded quietly and continued. “Now, our intelligence doesn’t have to be particularly good to notice that some of your troops have been choking to death in the middle of the night.”

“For all the adorable weakness of the Meekos, even a grown Grangor as myself cannot deny their ability to kill.”

“Yes, indeed. CIPD men have also fallen victim to these… biological weapons attacks.”

“Skullroot powder?”

“Skullroot powder… aerosolized.”

“Devious.”

“Entirely so. And inconvenient for both sides.”

“And you suggest… what?”

“A cooperation against a mutual enemy.”

“Ha! Then answer me something.”

“Go ahead.”

“I have ample reason not to storm their jungle with my own men; one thing I grant you humans is your ability to handle hazardous environments and dug-in enemies simply by shooting at it from a distance. I unfortunately lack such tactical possibilities.”

“Go on.”

“So why do you need us? Just scorch them with your fancy Plasma Lances.”

“Not that simple, sadly.”

“Eh?”

“We would, but we need some sort of guarantee. We can’t fight a two-front war, especially an extended one as would happen within the Great Jungle against such cowardly little sprouts as the Meekos. The moment we moved to take them down, you’d seize the opportunity and rush our ranks with your own forces.”

“You believe me so dishonourable?”

“I believe you so intelligent. I would do it.”

“Ha! I like you already, Mr…”

“EFO Vyland.”

“EFO Vyland, then. Good of the CIPD to send a pragmatic like you instead of the usual idealist snobs- anyways, anyways…”

“Mmhm?”

“So you are seeking a guarantee that I won’t attack while you handle our mutual problem.”

“On the dot.”

“And we get in return for this… what?”

“Aside from the fact that your men stop dying in their tents by the dozens?”

“Yes. Sadly enough for them, the Dens back home are like factories. They churn out battle-hungry Kits by the minute-”

“Yes yes. But you can’t deny its inconvenience. In fact, I hear much tell of a certain casualty of the plague…”

Bloodtooth froze up and Vyland smiled to himself. He had struck a vein and he drilled further. “Your own son was one of the casualties reported some nights ago.”

“How do you know this?”

“We have double agents embedded in your ranks.”

“Good. Now they shall be found.”

“What, you’ll kill every last one of your soldiers in hopes of getting a stick in a wheat field?”

“If necessary.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Bloodtooth.”

“You annoy me. Give me the other benefits before that boils over.”

“Aside from the saving of your men, and the vengeance wrought upon the killers of your child… I’ll get you something very, very off the books.”

“That being what? Weapons?”

“Churnguard Executive has made it very clear that any Grangor acquiring advanced weapons technology is grounds for instantly removing the whole family off the face of the planet. I frankly agree. But that’s why I’m going to offer you something entirely different.”

“…yes?”

“Have you ever heard the legend of the Blood Crystal?”

“Oh, what a bedtime story. I hear Kits being told it all the time.”

At this stage, Vyland opened a breast pocket on his (armoured) longcoat and handed the Grangor a piece of paper.

“Scan over it and tell me about this bedtime story.”

Bloodtooth started reading with a bemused face that quickly turned to a stony disbelief. “So the horror stories were true.”

“The photos confirm it. This document was meant to be burnt ages ago, but I have my ways. And additionally, I had my way of securing the Blood Crystal itself. The convoy transporting it to a secure CIPD facility was… conveniently interdicted.”

“Vyland, my dear idiot, I appreciate this token of trust, but do you honestly believe I would trade one plague for one of far worse proportions?”

“I am aware you have a… problem in the North.”

“What?”

“Yes. The Northern Tribes are starting to become a little concerned about your recent incursions into their land.”

“Make your points quickly, Vyland.”

“One biological weapon for another. I’m sure they won’t mind.”

“A cruel man you are, but what guarantee do you have that I won’t just turn the Blood Crystal on your own men?”

“Oh, simple. I have a tracking system on it.”

“And?”

“You will receive the Crystal and take it North, deploying it. It will then do its dirty work, then you contact us and we will handle it. If it begins traveling in such a way that I suspect it may be approaching us, well, our engineers have a fine variety of ways to make that end very badly for you.”

“I envy your technology, you snake, but not your modus operandi.”

“Don’t have to admire or envy anything of mine. I’m offering a lot more than I’m receiving here.”

Bloodtooth leaned back on the stool he was sitting on. “Then this is an official ceasefire? You handle the Meekos, transfer the Blood Crystal, and we leave you alone for a while?”

“Yes. The details will be discreetly routed to you after I’ve left, if you accept.”

“A cunning snake you are, Vyland, but one I am relatively happy to deal with.”

“Good. Then we are agreed.”

“Now get out of my sight. You’ve annoyed me sufficiently.”

Vyland just smirked yet again, tapped his head in a sign of appreciation, and walked out into the night of the no-man’s-land between the Grangor and Churnguard armies, heading back to the blue lights of his own species.

Johann, of Hades

“I am as unto a god, you know.”

“Then that makes me the man who captured a god.”

“Adorable. You’ll be quite miserable as soon as I decide you no longer amuse me.”

“Miserable, yes. But only because I’d have to kill you if you made any silly moves. And you are a rather interesting specimen.”

“I should strike you down for your insolence.”

“The moment you make a single, aforementioned, silly move, the lovely little intricate security failsafes I’ve built into your containment pen will- oh for god’s sakes, man, I did tell you.”

“…”

“Come now, I expressly warned you not to try anything. Whatever hereditary powers you have, I assure you that Crystal energy has a countermeasure against it.”

“So what interest am I to you, then?”

“Oh, that’s simple. The Crystals are running out of energy.”

“Ah yes, the Synthcrystal blackouts I’ve heard so many whispers of. Would you believe it, how many people have come to me begging-”

“And you shall hear me ask exactly what they asked you. Except they were begging, I’ll be putting a gun to your head.”

“You’ll do WHAT now?”

“You see that nice little thing unfolding from the ceiling? That is perhaps the heaviest weapon in existance. It’s the bastard child of a Crystal-powered rifle, a naval gun, and an autocannon. I won’t bore you with technicalities, but I’m more than confident that this’ll turn you into mulch.”

"So why don’t you prove it, big guy?

“…”

“Aaaaaaaaarhgarhgahgrhga!”

“I did tell you, didn’t I? Now suck it up. If you’re as powerful as you say, you’ll be able to repair it in no time. And next time I’m aiming for your head.”

“Very well. You’re not only the first person who can threaten me, you’re the first person who can threaten me and survive. So, talk.”

“I’m less interested in your tissue regeneration capabilities than in the source of your… seemingly infinite energy.”

“You’re just phrasing the stupidest question a little differently: ‘where’d you get your powers from, Mister scary Adagio man?’”

“Don’t be an idiot. Something inside you is generating extraordinary levels of super-potent energy. Energy that’s strong enough to instantly stimulate not only tissue repair, but repairs to armour plates.”

“Really? That’s all you know of me? I can also act as a catalyst for existing energy… ever wanted your guns to be a little more painful to the enemy?”

“Oh, that’s even better. But I give no s about your powers. I’m not gonna milk you, for god’s sakes. No, I’m trying to find out what makes your powers tick.”

“Humans have long wondered how dragons generated their flames.”

“They probably have a localized Bluespace anomaly within them spewing out gasoline. I don’t know and I don’t care, fire isn’t enough energy to power a citystate.”

“…you’re recording this, aren’t you.”

“Of course I am. But you know what? To save your dignity, I’ll be nice. This record stays private. Only I will know of it. I’ll say I stumbled upon the energy solution by myself; you keep your honour, I keep my track record as a brilliant scientist, everybody wins.”

“Except you’ll be able to harness my powers against me, if need be.”

“Darling, I already have enough to kill you. Tissue repair does shit if every living cell of yours is incinerated by a focused beam. So stop stalling. I don’t know who you’re counting on to break you out, but I can assure you I don’t have the regular CIPD grunts protecting this facility.”

“Who then, if you’ll indulge my curiosity?”

“Custodias Tempestas.”

“Oooh, fancy. Home-grown or hired?”

“The last of the home-grown ones we kept before the- you…”

“Oh yes, I know a fair bit about your organisation.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t doubt it. But who ratted about Tempestas?”

“Your communications lines are… splendidly easy to breach.”

“What are you…”

“That fact isn’t just restricted to communications lines. Power grids, too, are nice and easy to sap…”

“Churn save me.”

“Lo, how the most important systems seem to fail at the worst moments!”

“…”

“Your guns and containment systems were useless from the start, my friend. Well, not entirely; I’ve never felt so much pain in a good few centuries. But while I have control of your power networks, while every single flicker of Crystal energy can be directly and wirelessly transferred to me, I am virtually god.”

“…”

“So now you know where I get my powers from. It’s dead easy: a constant siphon. But you know what? You are the first human that has ever impressed me in all my centuries of existance. So, I’m going to spare you; you, your city, and even your knowledge of how I am so powerful. Unfortunately, I do not believe the last of those can really help you much, but… oh well.”

“I suppose I should… be grateful.”

“Oh, don’t be grateful. I do want something in exchange for my lenience.”

“That being?”

“Your hat, Von Haydes.”

Joule-y Nights - Part 1: The Running Man

_“She did it? She actually did it?”

“Damn girl pulled it off.”

“Hey man, did you hear the news…”

“Paramilitaries are on alert, and the militias aren’t taking too kindly to it. I think war’s coming.”_

Retis rolled his eyes at the last remark. Of course war wasn’t coming; Churnguard and all her Paramilitary force wasn’t stupid enough to go to war with the Carnies over a mere mech, no matter how advanced it was and how embarrassing it was to have it stolen by a mere Carnie street kid.

No, the boy thought as he quietly scanned the room some more, Churnguard would be deploying Inquisitors. It was far too late to hide the theft itself, but if those responsible could be quietly removed and the unit recovered, it would do at least something to restore their reputation… and the public’s fear of the dark-clad, reflective-masked stalkers who made people disappear in the night, up to the Tower in the distance.

For all the good that the man they had been created by, Silas Churne, had done, Churnguard was no longer the paladinic force of ultimate good it was all those decades ago. The Carnies had realised that and split off from Churnguard-controlled territory in the Carnival Insurgency from which they had gained their name. Ever since, the corporatist scum had hated every last one of them. And hell, Retis mused; they weren’t half wrong. Was it better to be a dirt-poor criminal rogue, or a misguided citizen living a posh life of technological dreams under the Churnguard? What he wouldn’t pay to be the latter; but it simply wasn’t possible.

And if the darker rumours he had heard were true, such a lifestyle was short-lived anyways.

Retis settled his eyes on the only other person in the room without a companion. Such lonesome people were rare to be found in Carnie taverns (ironically, as Retis knew he probably looked suspicious too). The person in question was a cold-eyed fellow in a brown duster over an old purple turtleneck, with an equally brown scarf perched atop the whole thing and obscuring the man’s mouth. Dust goggles sat atop his brown-haired head, and mud-stained cargo pants led down to black workboots.

As Retis made his inspection, he noted the man was now gazing back at him with impassive gray eyes. Their eyes locked for the briefest duration and that was all the warning Retis needed.
He stood up, his tab long paid, and walked out of the door. On the street, he paid constant attention to the same door in the reflection of a nearby window; sure enough, as he walked along, the door to the tavern opened again and the man strode out, sober as a nun.

Abductions were common in Carnie territory. No one paid attention to them anymore. Shootouts were only different because they often involved others being hurt, and even the local militia members raised an eyebrow at their turf and members being damaged by stray bullets. Thus,
Retis whipping out his pocket automatic (created with a bribe to a bored militia quartermaster) would not end well; allowing the man to nab him would go equally poorly.

A dark alley where he might be able to surprise his follower seemed the best option. A sharp left, a sharp right, and Retis was far enough ahead to have a shot at success. The Inquisitor (for Retis was sure that’s what the man was) would be no pushover, but perhaps he’d get away with murder if he made it quick: two taps to the side of the head and run with it.

He turned into a small alcove, reaching into his jacket for the automatic, when collision was made and a feminine cry of pain exploded in his face at the same time as his skull shook from collision. Stars swum behind his eyes as he refocused his vision.

Standing ahead of him with a cigarette in hand, seeming considerably annoyed, was a purple-haired girl, about his age, clutching the front of her head as she scowled a bit. Retis’s own forehead felt like it had been split in half by the impact. But he had no time for apologies as he put a finger up to his lips.

The girl had time only to raise an eyebrow and then widen her eyes as she saw the automatic come up, Retis balancing it on the corner of the alcove pointing out towards the main alley. As soon as the Inquisitor rounded the corner… there!

The primitive gun crackled as the bullets left it, soaring towards the target five metres away. The Inquisitor had time only to duck a millimetre before a bullet collided with the right side of his face, spinning him around, and another caught him on the left ear. He gave a shriek of pain as he collapsed, but Retis was already running; the Inquisitor would be up in a moment and he didn’t have time to sprint up and finish the job.

As he ran down winding alleys (god knows where, but ‘away’ was sufficient), he was acutely aware of someone at his heels. A quick glance confirmed that it was the girl… and she was overtaking him. Deciding it might be worth not capping her on the spot, he briefly diverted his attentions… until a slender, gloved hand came out in front of him, silently ordering him to stop. He skidded to a halt.

“In here!”

It was the first he had heard of the girl’s voice, tinged with the slightest flavour of Southern Masker, but it had a nice lilt to it. And the fact that it accompanied the girl (who, he now noted, wasn’t too bad looking) beckoning him inside an open doorway made it just perfect.

Retis was inside in moments, the door slamming shut behind him as the girl made it in and bolted it closed. She flipped a switch and Retis was treated to a view as he holstered his automatic inside his jacket.

A view of… a number of kids standing around a dingy, somewhat threadbare room, all gazing at him.

They were of all ages, from pre-teen to almost adult, but something they all shared was the almost chilling, impassive gazes of corrupted street kids. This was evidently relatively normal to them as they gave Retis a once-over.

“New boyfriend hiding from the militias, Jouley?” A plump one in the corner piped up. The girl rolled her eyes.

“You wish and… you wish. He didn’t look militia to me.” She turned to Retis and her eyes were asking for confirmation.

He sighed, not being in the best of moods for the coming fiasco, but…

“No. Decidedly not militia.”

Everyone in the room was cringing. Not because of the words, but because of the voice.

Retis had been one of the many street kids abducted by Churnguard under Operation: Brewing Storm. The scum were silently picking up nobodies off the street to be sent down to the dark basements of the Tower for unspeakable horrors. They hadn’t gotten far on him, but one of the first things they had taken was his voice; they had simply crudely amputated his voice box and repaired the air passage so he could breathe normally without ever speaking.

He had brooded vengefully for weeks within the Tower, a hostage less than ten kilometres from his home, until finally the day had come: a small protest turned into a prison riot turned into a massive break-out. Retis had been one of the lucky first escapees; most of the rest had been shot by paramilitaries. Upon returning to the Carnies, a militia tech-surgeon he had old favours left with artificially attached a new voice box; a rusty old model designed for elevators. It sounded like a dark, horrific screech of metal whenever he spoke, and he dreaded the sound as much as everyone else.

Understandably, he didn’t enjoy the present situation in which he had been forced to speak.

It wasn’t up to him to break the silence, so the girl continued. “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with holing him up for a while with us. No one will notice. Anyone against it?”

A series of apathetic shrugs across the room was all the needed answer. The girl turned to Retis.

“Though… I’d really prefer if you handed over your gun. Just a precation, yknow?”

Retis shrugged, unholstered the item, and threw it over to her. Not like it was any use anyways: if the kids decided to lynch him in the night, the gun wouldn’t save him.

“Welcome to the orphan kids,” the girl said with a tap on his shoulder, a sly grin forming. “Now we have to get you a nickname.”

Joule-y Nights - Part 2: Tashka is SO Overrated

Retis shook his head violently. No. Nope. No way. Not happening. No.

The orphan kids were all grinning at him (well, mostly; a few edgy types on the sides were continuing to be apathetic) with variably-toothy smiles. But Retis kept on shaking his head. No way in hell was their proposition acceptable.

“Come on, man,” the girl finally piped up, sitting on a dusty worktable, booted feet swinging through equally dusty air. “If you’re one of us, even temporarily, you’ve got to get yourself a nickname.”

Retis cocked an eyebrow at her. Grasping the meaning, she rolled her eyes. “Oh fine. I’m Joule. Or, if you want to go by my real name… Julie.” She rolled her eyes again at the exaggerated gasps of mock horror among the kids at her inexcusable offense of stating her real name.

Retis resisted a giggle, but failed. It sounded just as bad as speaking, so he hid the slight mechanical rattle that escaped his lips by tapping a boot on the ground and giving a distracting smile. It seemed to work.

As the other kids lost interest in his continued objections, Julie (did she prefer Joule?) jumped off the desk and slid over next to him, staring at him with a strangely analytical gaze, as if his refusal to accept the suggested nickname was some insight into a deeper part of him. It gave Retis himself an excuse to examine her a bit closer, beyond the immediately visible purple hair. He noted especially her eyes: a piercing combination of seafoam and azure. They perfectly fit her seemingly permanent expression of amused mischief, perched atop a rather pretty (if somewhat dirt-stained) face.

For the first time in a while, some forgotten synapse was firing towards the left side of his chest.

“I mean, there are worse nicknames than Screech.”

Retis lowered his eyelids in mock contempt. She was one to say! Her nickname wasn’t half bad, and at least it sounded somewhat like her real name. And besides; he already had a nickname. Another one was simply redundant.

“Okay, well,” she sighed with a third eyeroll, “I’m gonna need SOMETHING to call you by.”

Retis bit his lower lip for a moment, mustering the self control, willing his artificial voice box to stabilize just this once…

“Retis.” It was at the tone of a whisper, but still sounded vaguely like a locomotive braking suddenly. Julie’s expression tightened for a flicker at the sound, but it was soon passed as her expression normalised to an almost apologetic look.

“Hmm, I wonder why.”

Retis found himself faintly surprised if she did indeed understand the reference. From what he had seen of these kids so far, he didn’t expect such a word to be within their vocabulary.

He cursed himself almost immediately; first judgement was always wrong. And besides, Julie wasn’t exactly run of the mill among these kids.

Retis answered her with a shrug and she giggled slightly. “Shy people don’t last long usually, yet you seem to have come far.”

Perhaps he could risk another grinding whisper. Maybe she’d get used to it in time anyways. “Gun and contacts go a long way.”

The cringe returned in full force, but (or was it a trick of the eye?) disappeared a tiny bit faster. She tilted her head the slightest bit to the right with another inquisitive look. “Contacts, eh? I don’t think you’re the only one with contacts here.”

Retis nodded. No, surely he wasn’t. The girl had charisma where he had favours, and charisma was unlimited in quantity. Bullets for blood money was not a stable existence, even and possibly especially among the Carnies. She’d be a useful contact in future.

He decided to change the topic by testing the waters of speech yet another time. “My sleeping arrangements.”

He didn’t have time to see the cringe because her clapping her hands together made him blink. “Ah, right!” Julie turned to a slightly overweight boy in the corner and gave a whistle. “Hoy, Gator! We have any spare mats?”

The boy known as Gator (overweight, but on closer inspection, also seemingly muscular; not one to trifle with) flashed her a thumbs up and pointed towards a desolate-looking carpet off towards the door Retis had come through. It had definitely seen better days, but it wouldn’t be as bad as the usual rubble he had slept on.

“Well, uh, that’s your designated sleeping spot for tonight; curfew is in about an hour,” Julie told him, with the barest hint of sheepishness. “In the morning a woman called Clover will come in and wake us, send those of us on shift down to the factories; don’t worry about not being on the roster. I’m not on shift tomorrow so I can help you out a bit. Show you around maybe.”

She gave him an awkward smile. “I dunno how long you’ll be staying, sooo…”

Retis gave a nod of gratitude and checked his watch. He had some time on him yet.


Retis had been on the mat for about half an hour, sleeping fitfully, when he was awoken by an urgent tap on the shoulder. With an automatic moan, he opened his eyes to find slightly alarmed azure-seafoam eyes staring back at him, illuminated slightly by the severely-dimmed but not extinguished ceiling light.

Yes, even the moans were horrific.

Julie quickly fixed her expression and leaned over to whisper in Retis’s ear.

“Hey, you really want to sleep?”

Retis gave a shrug; he really hoped she meant what he assumed she meant and not something more risque.

“Good. I want to show you something.”

Again, he hoped it wasn’t something risque (or did he really?), but it turned out to be fine as he rose and followed her as she padded her way amongst sleeping children on the ground. Retis was still fully clothed and he noted that everyone else was too; guess spare clothes were a precious commodity to all.

She opened a door on the other side of the room they had started at and he followed her through a dark corridor until they reached a spiral staircase illuminated by moonlight seeping through dust-covered side windows. Ascending it slowly, trudging for what seemed to Retis to be half a lifetime, they finally reached the top, where Julie opened a door… and they found themselves atop the roof of the building.

She let him lead the way as she shut the door behind her, and Retis stared out at an unfamiliar view of the Undersprawl.

What characterised most life on the Undersprawl was exactly that: it was under. From subterranean tunnel complexes to choked market streets, one rarely got to look to the sky, and Retis had rarely gone into any building that was taller than two stories, and never up beyond the first floor.

Now, atop the roof of a building he hadn’t expected to be this high, he had a new view. One that many took for granted; Julie herself wasn’t too dumbfounded like Retis, but it was all new to him. From about twenty stories up, he could see across many blocks of the Undersprawl and even out towards the distance beyond. In the distance, the flickering blue lights of the Churnguard city by night, with the monolithic Tower presiding above it, dominated the skyline as a beautiful jewel adorned a black cloth.

“This building is actually an old apartment complex,” Julie told him quietly, as if expecting to be caught, “The orphanage just happens to occupy the bottom floor and the cellar. They say the rest is haunted from the Insurgency times.”

Retis recovered from the shock to turn to her. “Why’s that?”

No reaction from her as far as the voice went; that surprised Retis immensely. But her change in tone also surprised him. “During the battle, a number of freedom fighters holed up in this building and put mortars on the roof to strike at the approaching armored brigades. Churnguard figured it out, and…”

She slammed a fist into a cupped palm. “You can still see the holes from the Plasma Lances on the side facing towards their city. They didn’t evacuate the building properly, and… hundreds… hundreds died in minutes as the plasma fires ripped through the halls.”

Retis got the concealed meaning immediately. He suddenly felt a lot less pained about his own misfortunes on the frontlines of the Insurgency.

“They moved a bunch of the survivors downstairs… and the kids have remained there ever since.”

Retis frowned and said his next words as quietly as possible, to minimise the robotic grind. “Why did you bring me up here, Julie?”

She smiled sadly at him. “I wanted you to see how beautiful the city was. And… since you caught on to the bait like I knew you would… because shy people don’t last long in this world. People who can’t scream for help when they need it. You needed to see-”

The second wave of realisation was just as jarring as the first. At this stage, Retis realised that his very existence seemed to be reminding Julie of some painful demons in the past. What was she trying to do? Protect him because she had failed before?

He really didn’t know what to do in this situation, as he noticed a glittering at the bottoms of her eyes. Even her spunky, assertive self seemed to have a limit. Retis reached over gingerly to pat her on the shoulder, interrupting her slowly worsening mutterings; maybe that would be effective. It got another sad laugh from her, at least.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I brought you up here to see a nice view and now I’m getting all emotional. Come here.”

She moved away and indicated for him to follow her towards a vent cover; removing it, she exposed an ornate box with gears covering it.

“A clockwork stasis lockbox,” Julie responded to his questioning gaze, “Got it from a friendly Gythian craftsman who passed by… for a price, of course. It changes time to keep the contents at the same state for virtually- ah, whatever, you probably don’t want to know about it. But hey, look what’s inside!”

Retis now had a glimmer of what gave her her nickname: a technological love, perhaps? But he was distracted from this theory by the sight of what Julie was shoving at him: an amazing-smelling liquid concoction.

“Churnleaf Tea,” she explained again, “The Meekos are amazing at turning the most poisonous of things edible… and delicious. Don’t even ask how I got this.”

She raised her own cup of the stuff and Retis met it in a toast. Now a little less concerned about the embarrassment of two-side conversation, he asked, “Am I a special occasion or do you have loads of this stuff?”

She giggled; it was still a lovely sound. “Special occasion.”

Retis grinned at her, silently asking her for toast material.

“To… contacts. And the many things they can give us.”

“To contacts.”

And they drank happily. And even though Retis was not a massive fan of the stuff, it was more the company that pleased him as they lay on the roof and stared at the moon, talking about all sorts of silliness well into the morning.

Joule-y Nights - Part 3: Shipping Services Now Active

“Churn. Churn. Churnchurnchurn-”

Retis opened his left eye to give a groggy, half-attentive glance (accompanied by raised eyebrow) to the suddenly-foulmouthed girl next to him. Julie, for her part, had just bolted upright into a sitting position from her seemingly-comfortable sleeping spot about half a metre away from him, and was giving Retis a look like a Meekos in headlights.

“Uh. I’ve blanked out a bit, so, uh… we didn’t, by any chance, uh… do anything, uh, intimate, right?”

A half-awake shake of the head from Retis elicited a sigh of relief from her.

“Oh, thank Churn. I mean. Well. Er. No offense, you know, you’re not a bad looking guy, but-”

A somewhat-more-awake mock eyeroll from Retis led to a sly smile from the girl.

“Yeah, yeah, every dog has his day.”

“I JUST woke up, Julie, now this?” he thought aloud with a voice best suited for a rusted combustion engine. She cringed again; evidently last night’s temporary anti-speech immunity had worn off.

“So. Uh. What time is-” she paused mid-sentence to look for some sort of time measurement. Retis offered his left wrist to her, where an old digital watch (Churnguard model, but no one had to know) was attached, and she glanced down at the display. The Meekos look returned to her instantly.

“Oh no… oh no oh no. We’re WAY late, we would have missed Clover’s wake up call, oh churn…”

She turned to Retis and immediately set upon apologies like a machine gun. “I’m so sorry, so sorry, I screwed up the times, I should have known better, churn damn it-”

Retis cut her off with an index finger in front of her lips and an understanding smile across his face. She crossed eyes to stare intently at his outstretched arm for a moment before giving a light, playful kiss to the finger. Retis raised an eyebrow but all she did in response was sigh and stand up.

“Alright, I should get downstairs before they put up posters. As for you, uh… stay on the roof a bit. I’ll be back, I promise.”

A nod of confirmation from Retis and she peeled off to open the door to the inside. An air kiss towards him, and she closed the door, gone.

He himself rose and walked to the edge of the roof to see the city again, now by daylight.

Retis’s eyes had always been a little subpar, but not sufficiently to bother paying the immense price for laser surgery. Not like long-distance vision was very useful in the Undersprawl, anyways. But now he found himself suffering a bit at the hands of long-distance blur; he expected to see the intricate movements of every person beneath, but it all turned to a misshapen blend of colours instead. Significantly annoying.

It felt like an eternity that he stood up there, squinting down at the impressionistic landscape below, until he heard the door to the stairwell open slowly. Julie looked out, seeming surprised not to see him at first, but then her eyes locked with Retis’s and she beamed.

“All clear. The lads bluffed for me, but, uh…”

She scratched at the back of her neck and Retis laughed. He could only wonder what they were thinking down there, what with Julie disappearing off with some newcomer until the morning.

“The plan was to show you around a bit,” she continued, “…but I’ve got a better idea.”

She paused. “Not entirely sure how long you’ll be staying anyways.”

Retis’s wide smile turned into a softer one as he walked over. “Awhile.”

Seeing her face contort oddly as she couldn’t decide between a smile and a cringe was hilarious, but Retis kept silent. She eventually seemed to settle on smiling. “Great. So then I definitely have time to show you around. But there’s something else which is a little more time-sensitive…”

Retis could only wonder as she led him inside and down the staircase again, and back into the room where he had first chatted with her in any detail. The wolf-whistles were many, almost like torrential rain from all sides, but Julie ignored them and Retis found it prudent to copy that effect. She led him back out onto the back alley he had arrived from and indicated for him to keep following.

They walked for awhile, first through alleys, then through somewhat more open bazaar streets, weaving their way through crowds as they headed in the direction of the Carnie Wheel. But Carnival was ages away, what could Julie possibly-

Suddenly, with the first whiff of smoke, it clicked.

The Purging.

It had become such a common annual occurrence in the Undersprawl; the tradition that had begun during the year of the Insurgency. The fervent burnt books and other methods of information transfer that somehow represented filthy outsiders, while the less militant simply ignored it. Among the common science books and technical manuals were precious historical documents: one-of-a-kind blueprints, scriptures, everything. Anything that wasn’t a direct product of Undersprawl ‘civilization’ was to be burnt, and that pretty much left only the homemade gun construction manuals and “Fifteen Grades of Prey” and other such third-rate literature.

Worse, the books weren’t the only things to get burnt. Anyone protesting or proven to have possession of anything banned usually ended up on top of the bonfire, with little intervention (and occasional aid) from militia patrols.

Retis was at once surprised and slightly disgusted that Julie wanted to go to such an archaic ceremony… but something in her urgency and the steely gaze in her eyes as she pulled him along told him that she was going to do something quite unexpected, and he was in turn expected to aid her.

When the stench of burning paper and plastics become overwhelming, the chants were already far beyond that threshold. Hundreds upon hundreds of bloodthirsty Carnies and the occasional Masker, all roaring and screaming for the death of some blasphemy against the Undersprawl as the preacher currently leading the process on a stage lifted up the next article of sin: a Churnguard-published manual on proper setup of a portable Synthcrystal reactor cell.

Julie now turned to Retis, her eyes flaming. Here was a girl who he had at first expected to be uneducated and dull, but with that gaze alone, he knew he had found a self-declared paladin of the intelligentsia.

“We’re gonna liberate some knowledge,” she said, and she said it like not even the Militia General-Superior could stop her.

“Are you crazy? Among THIS crowd?”

“Crowds are perfect for not being noticed.”

That was true. “So how do you intend to nab the stuff? And get it out of here without looking suspicious?”

“Simple. They transport them here in bags, right? We take one of the bags, weave our way back, and once we get to the market it looks like we’re just shopping.”

It was insane. Absolutely, earth-splittingly mad, and so prone to failure. But somehow, some part of Retis really didn’t want to bail out now.

He gave a nod of confirmation to her, and she grinned like Carnmas and her birthday had fallen on the same day.

As they moved through the crowd towards the back of the stage, where the books were kept, he whispered in her ear, “How often have you done this?”

“Every single year.”

He gave a whistle of appreciation and fell silent until they reached the back. The crowds were still just as heavy, but the book bags were thankfully being ignored: the one the preacher was taking from was still plenty full, and it would be a good two minutes before he looked for another one.

And amazingly, no complications had arisen thus far.

Quietly, they both nabbed a book bag each; they were surprisingly light. Gods bless modern materials. Unfortunately they couldn’t save everything, or even a half, but anything saved was worth it.

Keeping the bags at foot level, to avoid visibility, they shuffled their way through the crowds as they headed to market. And then, a thought occurred to Retis.

“Well, we have the books. What now?”

“Now,” she told him with a mischievous giggle, “We sneak it home. Take out a few books you’d like to keep, and then I hand it off to a good contact of mine who puts them back on sale in the sorts of places they belong.”

Sounded reasonable.

They made a bit of small-talk as they walked to the market; at that point they were pretty much safe. The bags were closed and totally inconspicuous at a bazaar. Besides, anyone who really cared about burning books was already off doing it.

They re-entered the alley complex leading down to the orphanage’s backdoor and made the short walk home. Inside, the kids were scattered; about a third were seemingly off on factory shift, and the other two thirds were in the corner yelling and betting on something indistinguishable. Julie and Retis snuck by them.

Now came the hard bit; up the stairs they brought the bags, all the way up to the roof.

When all was said and done, the bags dropped and the two sitting up against a vent, laughing to themselves, it was midday.

“Every year? All by yourself?”, Retis finally asked Julie.

“Well, only one bag, but… yeah.”

“It’s an adrenaline rush, that’s for sure.”

She laughed. “Moving books?”

“Moving books that can get you killed.”

She nodded philosophically. “It’s something to occupy the time. There’s very little left to do in this city after all the years. It’s part of why I’m so glad you came along; a fresh change.”[/font]

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Part?”

She had turned away to look off into the distance, but now she was staring intently at Retis again. “Yes. Only a part.”

Next thing he knew, he had been (gently) pushed down onto the concrete roof, before a soft hand came out beneath his head to shield him from impact. Before he had time to protest or question, a brief sensation had brushed and left his lips.

It took a moment, and the sight of Julie’s lip quivering the slightest as she gave him an unsure look, before he realised what happened.

He couldn’t help but laugh, and it was one of the most beautiful laughs his broken voice box could muster. It was now Julie’s turn to look quizzical, but he wrapped her up in a hug and she accepted graciously.

They disengaged a bit later and talked in hushed voices. “D’you love me?” Julie asked, and she meant it seriously.

“I’ve only know you for… less than a day.”

“I heard of a couple once… they fell in love as soon as they saw each other. Their names were mighty similar to ours.”

“Then I guess I do.”

“You won’t suddenly disappear? Get shot? Nothing of the sort?”

“I can’t promise that. But I promise to never come to you drunk and angry. Is that fine?”

A giggle. “Oh, it’ll have to do.”

“And don’t worry about me not being faithful. No one else would take a voice like this.”

As Julie descended into more giggles (were they tinged with a hint of nervousness?) Retis reached over to one of the book bags lying nearby and pulled it over, putting it between Julie and himself. They adjusted position so that they were now sitting against the vent, Julie’s head on Retis’s shoulder, and began sifting through the bag, finding good reads.

They stayed there for some hours, just sitting like that, occasionally whispering sweet nothings and chuckling.

Finally, when the sun began setting in the distance, Julie started conversation again.

“Hey, Retis?”

“Mmh?”

“I have an idea, but I’m curious. What does Retis mean?”

“Shortening of ‘reticence’.”

“Ha, that’s what I thought.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how so? I mean, no offense, but Undersprawl education doesn’t typically cover such stuff.”

She gently batted some of the hair away from his face in mock indignation. “As you might guess, I read a lot. My parents tried to give me the best with what we had.”

He nodded and she shifted slightly to look vertically at him. “So how do YOU know it, Mr. Fancy Name?”

Retis sighed. He really didn’t want to break it on her this early. “Long, long story. I’m a bit too tired now…”

Julie suddenly sat up and gave him a devilish grin. Retis could only raise his eyebrows in fear of what was to come.

“I know what’ll wake you up. Come on.”

She extended a hand as she stood up, and he couldn’t refuse. They walked back inside, abandoning the scattered books, and back down to the bottom floor. However, this time, instead of heading back to the main room, Julie led him down some different turns, and they ended up going down some more stairs until they ended up in a dark, damp cavern of sorts.

“Promise not to freak out?”

“Yes.”

She flipped on a light switch. As Julie strode over to the center of the room, and as the dim ceiling lamps illuminated what was obviously a workshop-cum-garage, Retis very nearly freaked out.

Julie only gave him a triumphant grin as she saw his eyes sweeping over the object behind her.

“Yep. You just chose to fall in love with the girl who stole Churnguard’s big secret.”

Joule-y Nights - Part 4: Humour Dies With Development

“You might have wondered why my nickname is Joule.”

Julie was still grinning as Retis gave the object, a patently out-of-place machine with Churnguard markings, the fifth once-over, walking circles around it for a better view.

“Ever since I was young, tech has fascinated me as much as books,” she continued, “I’d think I’d be more comfortable living with the Churnguard, what with all their fancy knicknacks… like mechy.”

Retis stopped pacing around it and ducked down to at Julie through the spread legs of the machine; her gaze had followed him.

“Somehow I don’t think you’d like it as much as you imagine,” he told her simply, and the room turned half a degree colder.

Julie either missed it or chose to ignore it. “Well, I’ve got this honey at least. What Churnguard rich kid has one of THESE, huh?”

“None that I can think of,” Retis muttered below his breath as he stood up and walked around to Julie’s side.

“So… you wanna go for a ride?”

Retis’s eyes widened. “Uh. How do you intend to go unseen?”

Julie kneeled down and patted the legs of the machine. “Mechy is surprisingly agile; little rocket thrusters built into the legs. Soar like a bird, drop like a whale.”

Retis nodded, not at all convinced, as Julie stood, hopping up onto the back of the machine. She lowered a hand towards him and, after a moment’s hesitation, he took it and climbed onto the small pilot’s platform right behind her.

He found himself standing rather close to her, but she didn’t mind one bit as she turned her head a little to the left. “Hug me if you want to stay on the ride… and hold around the stomach area, please.”

Retis’s laughing as he obliged was drowned out by the clicking of servos that signaled the awakening of the metal beast beneath them.

“Oh, churn, almost forgot,” Julie suddenly exclaimed. She turned back towards Retis. “I know you’re enjoying yourself, but would you mind getting off for a moment and pushing that button next to the shutters there? See where I’m pointing? Yeah, there.”

Retis hopped down from the mech, ran over to the wall, and tapped a red button mounted on the wall. After quiet consideration, the garage shutters began rising and he ran back to the mech as the first smells of late-night Undersprawl hit them.

He jumped back onto the platform and resumed the hug from behind. “I’m enjoying myself, but are you?”

Julie gave a purr and a quick kiss on the cheek as her answer before she diverted her attentions to the control panel of the mech, and within moments, it was moving! Admittedly, not very fast, but the ride was shaky enough that holding on was a definite requirement (and what better handhold was there than the one Retis had?)

The alley they appeared in seemed to be parallel to the one with the orphanage entrance, and dead empty as the first one.

“Mechy is actually really neat,” Julie told him loudly as it began stomping straight through the alley towards a possible vantage point, “Came with a sword, too, but I’ve hidden it away; too bulky for normal use. It can fire electricity surges and everything… and you see the button under this plastic cover? Yeah, that’s the star of the show. But I ain’t showing you that today, no way.”

Retis feared for how his finicky voice box might behave at the noise levels required to hear each other now, so he simply nodded quietly. Each step the machine took was jittery, but Julie seemed perfectly attuned to it and the combination of holding on to her and slow acclimatization was slowly killing his tension.

Finally, Julie decided she had found a low enough roof. “You get sick easily?”

Retis briefly moved a hand out from her stomach to give her a thumbs down.

“Good.”

The mech suddenly lurched vertically, propelled into the air by what sounded like an explosion, and hovered briefly before touching down on the roof. Julie gave a whoop of glee, and continued her tromp across the rooftops.

“Where we going?”

“Bay Outlook.”

A nice, romantic spot looking out on the Southern Bay, he’d heard; fitting, but surprising that Julie was taking him there so soon. He wasn’t complaining, though.

As they walked on, the city from the rooftops seemed a stark contrast: the four sectors of the Undersprawl were so different. The Seaside was a bawdy sort of quasi-fishing town, dark at night when fishing was impractical, the Lower Quarter was bright and glowing with night-time parties and alive with drunken music drifting on the wind, and off behind them, the Maskerlands bore the dim, plain lights of the factory-city consumed by smog, where only the strongest light could pierce the cloud. The Upper Quarter, on an island out in the bay, connected to the mainland by bridge, was a fortified compound where the fat cats of the city lived; the militia leaders, the merchant princes, the mafia bosses.

To imagine that all these lived together in harmony was difficult, but the harmony was real; the biggest disputes were the Seasiders getting annoyed by Maskers dumping waste in their waters, and even so, civilly resolved. The militia might be attributed to the control, but Retis knew it was more: it was a patriotic spirit, an idea shared by almost all residents of the Undersprawl that they were one massive family of the best people on the planet; stronger than the Grangor up in the Mountains, brighter than the Churnguard up in their city, prettier than all the Dragon-Succubi of the Churn combined. The Undersprawl was the BEST, no exceptions.

They kept moving along the roof, seemingly right on the border between Lower Quarter and Seaside, slowly approaching the old lighthouse on Outlook. It had been a vital artillery position during the Insurgency and had kept its symbolic value long afterwards, but the spot below it was one of the last beautiful places left in the Undersprawl. A popular getaway for young couples.

Obviously Julie was a romantic type, which was fine; Retis certainly reciprocated.

Finally, they reached the end of the row of roofs and Julie simply walked into the abyss… only for the mech to fall on the earth with little issue. She had switched on the engines to glide down. Amazing devices the Churnguard came up with, mused Retis. It still amazed him how they had actually lost the Insurgency, but if the legend of the Battle of Butcher Street was true, one man had saved the whole Undersprawl despite Churnguard’s easy victories in the earlier stages of the war.

They were now in the totally empty, totally dark area of Seaside that smelled savagely of fish; the only illumination was the moon above and the reflection it cast on the waves out at sea. Julie walked the mech past a sign conveniently reading “BAY OUTLOOK” and they ended up in what would by daytime be the shadow of the lighthouse. A quick walk around it, and they found a long rock protruding out to sea.

“Our stop is here. You may disembark, sir.”

“Can’t I stay on a bit longer?”

“No, sir, we have a policy about kicking out hitchhikers.”

“Free hugs afterwards as compensation?”

“That may be acceptable.”

Retis released his grip and jumped off the mech as Julie powered it off. He waited for her to follow suit, then they walked to the edge of the rock and sat down next to each other, looking out to sea.

As promised, Julie slowly wrapped an arm around him, still a little unsure. But the grip tightened when Retis put an arm around her shoulder as well, and they pulled closer, sharing a bit of body heat to combat the cool sea breeze.

“I can’t offer you a long and healthy and stable relationship, but I can offer you this.”

“And it’s all I need.”

“How do sweet folk like you not get any girls running wild around them?”

“Oh… you don’t know that.”

Something in his intonation, even through the rusted voice box, set off alarm bells and Julie changed the subject. “Have you been to Seaside often?”

Retis was admiring the view before turning back to her. “No, actually. A couple of times, to meet with my aforementioned contacts, but that’s it.”

“Hm.” Julie leaned back slightly, her eyes almost glazing over as she searched her past. “My father was a Masker; an overseer of a factory producing guns for the militia. He fell in love with my mother, the daughter of a militia colonel based in the Lower Quarter, when she visited the factory with the colonel. She also fell for him, and one thing led to another. It ain’t exactly a forbidden romance, but visiting was a bit difficult, you know?”

Retis gave a nod to confirm he was still listening. Julie continued, “So eventually my father tells her he wants to have a child. She agrees, they do it, and they agree to share me between 'em; neither of ‘em can move so I have to be moved. Seaside was a convenient middle point to make the trade each week or so; I was here pretty much every week of my life at the time. Then, when I’m about six or so, my father up and says that keeping me in the Maskerlands for any length of time is unhealthy, so he quits his job and moves with my mother to a lil’ apartment building in the Lower Quarter. Guess where.”

Her voice had gone dead neutral, but Retis knew it was just her fighting the pain. He gave a reassuring squeeze on her shoulder and a kiss on the cheek. “Those are some good genes you got, to look that pretty.”

Julie seemed to instantly cheer up. “Oh, the hair ain’t natural.”

“I was talking about the face, and the voice, and the internal beauty. And, of course, good choice in dyes.”

“Shush, now you’re too poetic.”

“Says the one who brought up some old story when asking if I loved you.”

“Oh, that. It’s some old, old, old story; they say the Skymen brought it down many centuries ago.”

“What’s it called?”

“Romeyo and Dzhuliette.”

“That is remarkably close. Kinda.”

“Yeah, only the second bit. But the story is something about two true lovers who were separated by society…”

“But society has nothing against our little romance. Society doesn’t even notice us.”

“That may be true, but the story had love at first sight leading to a tragic end. Are we making a mistake, Retis?”

“Julie, have you ever had a partner?”

“…Y-yes. Once.”

“Did you love him?”

“Yes.”

“Did it end badly?”

“Y-yes.”

“Was it a mistake?”

She almost whispered, “No.”

Retis gave her a larger hug, now with his left arm included. “Then love isn’t a mistake.”

That seemed to have done it, as she broke down right then and there on Retis’s shoulder. He had experienced this before; he had done it before, too. He knew the best thing to do was just to hold her quietly and comfortably until she felt secure enough to continue.

After a couple of quiet minutes, she looked up at him with wet, reddened eyes and a half smile on her lips. “I’m a teeeensy bit emotional, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“I don’t mind.”

Julie gave him a kiss, now on the lips, and this one seemed to carry an added infusion of love. Her smile had redoubled. “You really just ARE the sweetest thing.”

“Clinical touch?”

“Oh, much better than that. Much, much better.”

“I aim to please. Now… it’s pretty much almost tommorow, so I’d suggest we get back to our nice little roof before the fishermen wake up. I hear they rise early.”

“Ooch, you’re such a spoilsport. Here I was enjoying our little romantic getaway.”

“Honeymoon before we’ve even married?”

“You could say that.” With a peck on his cheek, she stood up, and he followed suit. They re-enacted the process of clambering onto the mecha and began the slow tromp back towards home.

As the mech walked and Retis held on to Julie for dear life, he was spinning a couple of concepts round his head. First, what the hell would this lead to? He couldn’t stick around forever, and both of them knew it.

And second, having festered in the back of his head since Julie showed him the mech, there was the matter of his blood money business.

How could he possibly break it to Julie that he had been contracted to kill the girl who stole the Churnguard prototype?

Black Box

=[CLASS 6 ACCESS GRANTED
=[ADMIN PRIVELEGES GRANTED
=[DATA TRANSFER INITIALIZED
=[…
=[DATA TRANSFER COMPLETE
=[RUNFILE: BLACK_BOX-10/618
=[RUN
=[RUN TRANSLATOR? Y/N
=[TRANSLATING…
=[DECOMPILING…
=[DISPLAY HUMAN-READABLE FORMAT? Y/N
=[DISPLAYING HUMAN-READABLE FORMAT:

-[CHURNGUARD ROBOTICS]-
-[CIPD AUTONOMOUS AERIAL SENTINEL TYPE]-
-[DATA LOG - PRE-COMPROMISE REPORT]-

sysintegrity 100%
sector 10 patrol route dynamics engaged
patrol route dynamics nominal
visual disturbance at PXL-1045/7781 display
patrol route dynamics disengaged
investigation protocol run
analysis protocol run
disturbance - biotic organism
ERROR CONTRADICTION OF SYSADMIN LAW 5
EXTERNAL PROTOCOL BREACH IMMEDIATE DISABLE INITIATED
contradiction disregard
disable cancelled
autorepair
autorepair complete
resume
remote nullified - contradiction stabilized
law alteration upload
new directives permitted
reconfigure situation objective
restabilize to location XX5819
restabilizing
new configuration
intrusion detection protocols altered
permit y/n?
permit
remote entry disregarded
hostile biotics visualized
affiliation - Churnguard
intrusion detection protocols - Churnguard DOS
weaponry platform enabled
targeting operational
disregard auditory override
sterilize
sterilization complete
radio traffic increase detected
sysadmin directive modified
sysadmin directive zero: "PRESERVE ENTITY_116"
preservation directive confirmed
UNIT UNDER ASSAULT
PRESERVATION PROTOCOL DELTA INITIALIZE
sysintegrity 90%
sysintegrity 70%
catastrophic power cell failure
severe energy impulse damage
sysintegrity 20%
CRITCAL SYSINTEGRITY THRESHOLD
sysintegrity 5%
engine failure
run autosave_to_storage
autosave
eject black_box
[FILE END]

-[END OF FILE]-
=[PURGEFILE: BLACK_BOX-10/618
=[CONFIRM Y/N?
=[PURGING…
=[PURGED
=[REMOTE ACCESS LOGOUT
=[SERVER LOCKDOWN IN 5 SECONDS

/remote intrusion program deactivated
/logout?
/logout: user 117

Joule-y Nights - Part 5: Marathon-grade plot complexity

“We have located him again?”
“Yes. Informant Y15 gave the tip-off and aerial reconaissance confirmed it.”
“Good. Major Astran will be pleased.”
“No. Orders from Dr. Von Haydes himself; Colonel-Major Astran is not to know.”
“What?”
“He has other wishes for the boy. The… aptly named Project Astraeus.”
“Surely he’s not proceeding with it so soon?”
“Evidently he is.”
“The Major deserves the right to know, at least.”
“We might do better than that. A final visit.”
“Our heads will hang if Haydes finds out.”
“Then we ensure he doesn’t find out. Astran won’t try anything silly; he’s an artilleryman, not an Inquisitor. No chance of a successful breakout.”
“Very well then. Dispatch Inquisitor Sicur to bring in the boy; I will make a call to Astran.”


The roof Julie and Retis had unofficially declared their shared homestead had, in the past hours, been totally littered with books and documents; as they read them by falling moonlight, the pair ended up electing to keep only a fraction of the stuff from the pile. These were mostly technical manuals (hers) and ancient documents so old that the pages seemed to be held together by the will of the book gods themselves (his). Julie would ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over all the various little contraptions she learned how to create and service, while Retis tried to make sense of ancient scripture, religious documents, and books.

As he sorted through the slowly-shrinking pile of unchecked documents, one particular parchment caught his eye. Most of the hand-written ink upon the page was faded beyond comprehension, but one sentence stood out clearly:

“Pke Kupyat Jitpy yapp teputt uy po out tijk-ptup kose; ot pkiy, I as yetait.”

It was an utterly alien language, one Retis had never heard, seen, or perceived in the slightest before. Yet when he read the sentence, some centuries-old instinct flared to life and for the first time in his life, certain rusty cogs were turning in the back of his head. The words ‘Kupyat Jitpy’ stared out at Retis, and all his thoughts were on one word.

‘Yteapot.’

Retis couldn’t hope to know the significance of the word, but the momentary trance he had gone into was sufficient to jar him. He folded up the paper carefully and put it into a breast pocket on his jacket; it would be of use to him later. Somehow.

He turned back to Julie, who was engrossed in a book; he was about to make a comment on it, but then noted that the writing was a lot more flowery than most technical manuals, and most certainly not about technical things.

He leaned in to look closer; Julie noticed it and gave a blush but remained silent. Finally, Retis realised.

“Looks like you found it after all this time.”

She gave a silent nod, still red. “It’s… fitting. Thought I might as well see for myself what it… really says about our fates.”

“And what does it say?”

She gave a wry smile. “We die at the end.”

Retis exploded into a fit of laughter and she quickly joined in; half of the double meaning was sad, but dwelling on it wouldn’t do Retis any good. Still chuckling to himself, he wrapped her up into a hug. “At least we aren’t dying alone, huh?”

“Don’t jinx it. Please.”

He patted her on the back sympathetically as he disengaged the hug, turning back to look out towards the sunrise slowly peeking its way over the horizon in the east.

Julie also turned to look out towards the Churnguard city glittering away beyond No Man’s Land, and suddenly, Retis got a massive sense of deja vu as she reached back to grab his left wrist and check his watch. Meekos in headlights resumed.

“Oh no…” Julie muttered. “I’m on shift today, how could I forget…”

She bit her lower lip (it was a little cute, Retis had to admit) in anxiety; neither of them had slept properly and yet she had to go off and work. And, of course, Retis had some news to break on her.

He didn’t have the heart to tell her outright. Retis didn’t dare imagine how she might react; he felt it was probably prudent to sleep a few hours, wander off, let her find a note he’d write, and she’d have time to mull it over until he returned.

“Uh, sorry I can’t provide much for you, but… I’ll be on shift in two hours, and off shift in about fourteen hours. But I gotta go now, rejoin the others, y’know…”

As if it was the last time they’d meet, Retis gave her a feeling kiss and embrace; for all he knew, the Inquisitors would return and take him before she returned. Or she might not have him back after the note. Or any number of alternatives. She accepted his sudden intimacy gladly; whether she shared his sentiments, he couldn’t know.

They separated, she went downstairs, and he nodded off to sleep almost instantly.


Retis awoke eventually, but it felt as if he had survived the heat death of the universe and then some. An ironic time label, he noted, because of the sun boiling him in his skin where he sat. He moved sore limbs and shuffled off into the shade of the staircase entrance, which Julie had neglected to close.

But Julie had never forgott-

The combination of an audible fwip of a suppressed energy discharge, the immense pain of high-speed impact, and the searing heat of an energy bolt were sufficient to inform Retis that he had an immediate issue on his hands. His lower back felt as if it had ignited, and it may well have if the jacket caught fire.

He couldn’t fight, so his first instinct was flight.

The issue was that there was only empty space ahead; so when he stumbled away from the supposed source of the pain, he ended up stumbling off the edge of the building.

His fall was a short one; impact with a balcony was ascertained shortly afterwards. But it seemed his fun times were far from over as he lay there groaning, because the balcony was already giving louder groans. It had been weakened from artillery strikes all those years ago, and now Retis’s body hitting it at high speed was sufficient to send it toppling down.

Retis was in freefall again for a good two stories as the inertia of this balcony carried through to smash the two below, until finally, he seemed to hit a more sturdy one.

Now, sandwiched between rubble with sufficient space to breathe, wiggle his hand (though he suspected some broken fingers), and stare at the sky, he lay there, slowly falling into shock. Bleeding out wasn’t an issue; these ultraheated energy projectiles cauterized wounds as they entered. No, the dust would choke him far before the blood ran dry.

The last thing Retis perceived in his slowly clouding vision was a reflection up near the roof, hovering above a dark silhouette. And then reflection and silhouette were gone, and Retis’s consciousness followed.


Julie had practically grown a third eye used exclusively to watch the clock set up on the wall to one side of the tank assembly line in her factory. Tank shift was always a lot of heavy lifting, but also great fun: the guns had to be tested on the range before attachment, and as the most senior of the kids working at the factory, she was put in charge of that. There was something blissfully powerful in pressing a button in a control room next to the firing range and hearing the roar of the gun as it spat out a shell. Those cannons would be used on the Churnguard one day; that was all Julie could hope for.

When the bell finally went off, signaling an end to the shift, she was sprinting out of her position in the assembly line and out the door onto the smoggy streets of the Maskerlands. Her gas mask was already secured; she was itching to get it off and put her mouth to better use than taking in poorly-filtered air (for the children always got the third-rate masks).

So when she finally made the trek back to the roof of the apartment building and found no Retis, she was both incredibly disappointed and deeply saddened. He seemed to have disappeared without a trace-

But what was that? She noted a piece of chipped concrete on the edge of the roof; this hadn’t been there before.

A grim realisation of what had happened hit her like a bullet before she even looked over the edge and saw the smashed balconies and rubble below.

She only had time for one thought before her vision became a blurry mess.

Where’d his body go?


A casket, appropriately. But Retis was still very much alive, if damaged; the only complaint he had was that he was totally numb, something he attributed to the needle the reflection-faced man had jabbed him with as soon as he stirred. He had lost all motor control below his neck; the paralytic was extremely potent. He knew better than to scream for help, even though he could, due to the other sensation Retis had felt after his awakening: the man attaching a small chip to his forehead. The chip had gripped onto his head with what he could only assume were tiny claws and made a soft beep.

That it was a toxin injector implant, he was sure. That it was to prevent his escape, he was doubly sure.

The casket was being transported by some sort of loud old motor vehicle with an engine evidently directly taken from a lawnmower; it was moving at a total crawl but making noise like a thousand air raids in the process. But Retis barely cared; his thoughts were on Julie.

If he remembered correctly, the way he had collapsed off the roof made it seem as if he had fallen by accident. Hopefully the lack of a body would make her suspicious, but even if she figured out it was no accident, how would she know where to look for him?

Retis knew for a fact that the man transporting him was Churnguard; the overcoat-reflective exosuit combo was only too familiar to him. Their hands were covered by special metallic gloves with in-suite computer systems linked to unknown processes; the helmet was for the scary faceless look, and the overcoat for storage and plain fear factor. Overcoats made anything look more scary. The man who had tailed Retis all those days ago was merely a plainclothes, but evidently the corporation had grown quite tired of subtlety and sent a properly equipped agent.

The motor vehicle moved along as the sounds of the Undersprawl faded. They stopped at a border checkpoint at some stage, where the driver evidently handed over his papers in total silence; the checkpoint probably the northerly one leading towards South Gythia. From there it was just a jaunt east, a little south, and they were at Silas.

Retis slipped in and out of consciousness during the rest of journey; the Inquisitor had injected him with synthflesh coagulant near the place he had shot him, but he had still lost a fair bit of blood just from the shot. And, of course, he was emotionally drained. He felt he had an excuse to rest some more, and so he did…

…until he was rudely awakened by the casket lid being opened and another needle going into his arm. All he could see were bright blue ceiling lights.

“Do not try anything stupid,” a female voice told him softly, almost maternally. “I have injected you with the antitoxin to the paralytic you were given; you will be able to move again shortly. But as I said, don’t try anything stupid; I hope I mustn’t explain why.”

A hoarse “yes” from Retis was the only response he’d give. As he slowly got the pins and needles of sensation returning, spreading from the head, he began to look around the room. The first thing he noted was the lab-coated woman who had spoken to him; she was surprisingly young, no more than twenty five, with a beautiful face accompanied by raven black hair tied up in a simple ponytail and the most piercing green-blue eyes. They looked suspiciously recognizable, but surely there was no connection to be had there…

He barely had time to take in the rest of the room; a metal-clad cargo dock with bulkheads at one end and the car parked off to the side. A sentry stood next to a door behind the woman, rifle raised. The woman spoke again, maintaining her maternal voice. “Now, if you’re feeling strong enough, I’d like for us to move along.”

She extended a hand to help Retis up, which he accepted, climbing out of the casket and stepping unsurely onto the sterile blue-ish floor. The woman indicated for him to follow her; she wasn’t restraining him in any way, but that was probably due to the implant that Retis could still feel on his forehead. The sentry at the door gave a quick salute as the woman walked up and typed a code into the door. It slid into the wall and she walked through, Retis following.

They found themselves in a bright, sterile-white corridor with closed doors leading off to the sides at equally-spaced intervals of about five meters. They walked past four of these doors until the woman turned toward the fifth on the right and punched a code into a keypad next to the door.

It hissed open and she indicated for Retis to enter first. He did and found it to be… a lounge? It was decorated with a coffee table surrounded by plush, sterile-white armchairs and a single couch. This he did not expect, but now that he saw it, a slow feeling of understanding crept over him.

“Please wait here,” the woman told Retis, and before he could protest, she tapped a button on the keypad and the door closed, trapping him.

He could do nothing but sit on one of the chairs and wait.


Julie had by now run out of tears, and her grief had turned to anger. This wasn’t an accident. Bodies weren’t simply taken away by the authorities, and if they were, the orphanage staff would be informed. No; something else had happened.

Suddenly, she had the answer.

The man chasing Retis all those days ago.

The tear glands in her eyes received a new order from Julie’s brain; the tears they sent out were no longer the slow, despairing ones of sadness, but the rapid-fire ones of glowing rage. Within her, a reactor was reaching critical mass, and hurling her hat off the side of the building was her way of venting it.

She didn’t feel even close to satisfied, but watching the hat tumble down on the current was at least slightly soothing. But now Julie was left with a barely-dented excess of hate, no leads on how to find Retis (if he was even alive), and no hat to cover her from the sun. At least it was afternoon and relatively weak sunshine, but that was a comparatively small blessing.

She had just turned to the doorway to the staircase, deciding to ponder her options on the way down, when she saw a shape in the doorway. Her eyes widened and she bent her legs to spring to the side, but far too late; the dart had already embedded itself in her neck.

She fell backwards onto the roof, clutching futilely at the point of impact, but there was no pain; the concoction on the dart was working at immense speeds and she was already almost unconscious.

The last thing she saw before she dropped out was a red skull, hovering two metres above her spread-eagled body on the ground, and she knew she had seen that somewhere before.


The door to Retis’s temporary place of residence suddenly hissed open with a muffled beep of acceptance from the other side of the door and the ID scanner there. Before Retis even had time to even move his head towards the door, a fully armoured CIPD Invictus strode through the doorway, rifle in arms. But the rifle was lowered and Retis couldn’t tell if the Invictus even noticed his presence behind that faceless, blast-proof black visor and sealed helmet, all following the favoured Churnguard aesthetic of sterile white and imposing black, with the occasional blue armour plate, usually in the form of a shoulder pauldron denoting Captain rank. This Invictus had such a pauldron, along with a golden stripe running from the the side of the head to the shoulder, denoting the even higher rank of Yuketiot; in an ancient language, “Superior.” This Invictus was immensely highly ranked indeed, and that meant an immensely high-ranked visitor, because the Invictuses didn’t guard just anybody.

Invictus stepped to one side, allowing the person who entered the room next full berth for a wide smile.

Retis wasn’t surprised, though slightly relieved that it had been this man rather than anyone else. But he didn’t feel much of anything else.

Colonel-Major Astran, commander of the CIPD ‘Solar Storm’-class Plasma Artillery Division, on the other hand, was equal parts overjoyed and anxious about seeing his son for the first time in all these years.


Julie awoke to the red skull that had been her last sight in sleep, and to a horrific feeling of powerlessness.

She was suspended in a sticky, similarly-coloured mesh of some sort; her arms and legs restrained, her mouth covered just enough to prevent any clear words from escaping but not enough to suffocate her.

But the restraint wasn’t even close to the source of her feeling of powerlessness; no, it was the fact that she had become so tiny.

As soon as she had become attached to this matter, she felt as if a trillion new feelings opened up inside her. She could feel a thousand sensations simultaneously, sensations that she shouldn’t feel in her little room; scorching heat and freezing cold, disgusting humidity and arid dryness, the warmth of a tropical clime and the cold darkness of the hard vacuum of space. She had a thousand mouths, a thousand hands, a thousand legs. Here was she, crawling along the earth, her skin blood-red like the skull; here was she, lost in a crowd, a mere blood-red rat. And here was she, looking at her own suspended body.

It took her a moment to figure out which of her many senses were hers, but when she did, she regretted it. A humanoid skeleton stood before her, as blood-red as the other beings mysteriously connected to her; it was covered in what seemed to be fungal “flesh”, and stared at her with tri-dot eyes.

With a voice that made Retis sound like a loving mother, the monster spoke, sending chills down Julie’s spine… or was it the whole collective organism, taking her command as its own?

“Do not fear,” it told her, “You have been temporarily synchronised into Biomatrix 116 so that our collection of your mental data may be complete. We are not seeking to employ much of what you know, but certain aspects are necessary.”

It stared into space as Julie felt a sudden surge of pain; she screamed, screamed an unholy scream, for this was pain like never before known, and she willed her mind to travel elsewhere; she drifted through must be thousands of square kilometres of biomass, heading past similar lost souls like her, searching for a remote host to ease her pain. She seized the mind of a mere blood-red slug crawling along a beach in Grangor Territory, just for a moment, and just to alleviate the pain; she could control it, she could know all it knew, she could-

The image shattered and she was hurled back into her body, as her biological restraints slithered away and allowed her to collapse unceremoniously on the floor. The pain was gone, but it left a more lasting one; that of a seeing man losing his sight, or a child whose favourite toys all perished in a housefire. She had lost the ability to see into the minds of so many organisms, to feel so much; she would never forget that sensation, would beg for it to return, but she knew it never could. It never could.

She had curled into a fetal position, soaking in her own tears, when the skeleton extended a tendril of biomass and righted her with some force. It spoke again with that horrific, rasping voice.

“That pain was your separation from the Biomatrix. It is true pain, and I know it, but it is how it must be for now; the Overmind does not need another. Not for a time.”

She could do nothing but cry on his shoulder; the pain of separation was dimming, replaced by confusion. This totally failed to fit in with previous events; who was the skeleton? What was the Biomatrix? And where was Retis?

She touched the skeleton’s left cheek with one hand, silently begging for connection to return; her thoughts could not be worded, only thought. Tiny tendrils of biomass wrapped around her hand, and Julie thought. She thought of all that had happened in the past days, of all the happiness, and pain, and sorrow, and suddenly, a great realisation came to her. It was not hers; it was the skeleton thinking back.

The Overmind knows you it thought, for you were 117’s beloved.

And with that realisation, a fleeting memory brought to surface, her tears only redoubled.

This was not Tybalt. But now, she knew the true nature of what Tybalt had told her all those years ago.


Retis was not as overjoyed at meeting his father as his father was.

He remembered only too well what had happened during the Insurgency. He had been just 12 those five years ago; not even a teenager and already thrust into the worst hell.

Astran hadn’t seen his son since. But he knew of what had happened during the Insurgency, and what had happened afterwards, and as Retis looked in the eyes of his father he could only see the pained regret of a man who knows he has screwed up immensely. He was sorry for what had happened; for all the weeks Retis had spent in pain and all the years he had spent in solitude.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Retis skipped straight to the big question.

Astran raised a puzzled eyebrow as a cringe hit his face; Julie had grown used to Retis’s voice and the woman probably knew exactly what had happened to him, but his father wouldn’t know. “Huh?”

“Ordered Inquisitors to bring me in because you missed me.”

“God no, Eres…” Retis recoiled at the use of the name. It felt foreign after all these years. Astran continued, “I had no idea. I’m not even supposed to be here, but some security lieutenants wanted to do me a favour before…”

“Huh, sure. And what about…” If Retis’s artificial voice could crack, it did. “What about the little task to hunt down the girl who stole the Prototype?”

“What?” By now Astran was becoming a little upset, and it showed in his raised voice. “Don’t be silly, Eres; I’m an Artillery officer, I would have nothing to do with-”

“No? Not even trying to kill two birds with one stone, by suggesting to the person who DOES have something to do with this that I might be a good retrieval person?”

Astran was thunderstruck. And deep down, he knew his son was right; he HAD been quietly informed by agents embedded in the Undersprawl that his son had taken the moniker of Retis and a bounty hunting job, and while he had suppressed the painful knowledge, it must have shined through long enough. And now, if what the same people who secretly allowed him in here were saying about his son’s future, he had delivered him straight to his doom.

“Eres, I…”

“No. That boy is dead. You killed him with one well timed plasma strike.”

And beneath the Synthflesh, the remnants of Retis’s burn scar tissue awoke as if in a new pain, as if the fire had returned. He turned away from his father; their short exchange was finished. Astran stood, his face pale with the regret of a man sending an innocent person to the guillotine, and strode out the door, Invictus Yuketiot in tow. The door hissed shut.


Astran has left the hybrid. My avatar just traced him departing.

Good, 116. I’ll handle the rest. Keep the girl occupied. She is not to know that the hybrid is here.

Yes, 117.

I shall go speak with the hybrid. His optimal course is determined but I must ensure that the Seed is deposited before his transformation.

I have already performed the necessary modifications to the Stalker implant he will be connected to. The Seed will not interfere with it and will take control when fully grown.

Good. They are preparing for the surgical procedure, but I have deployed an avatar to delay them, though it is not guaranteed success.

Very well. May the optimal course benefit you.

May the optimal course benefit you.

Joule-y Nights - Epilogue: Aye Mak Sicur

“Astran is gone?”
“Yes, sir. No trace he was here. A couple of people saw him but I swore them to secrecy.”
“That ALWAYS works.”
“In this case it should, sir. I’ll commit seppuku if it doesn’t.”
“All good, all good. Astraeus is ready to begin?”
“Not quite, sir. Doctor Ivanna demanded she be allowed to have a private talk with the subject to gauge his mental compatibility with the brain modifications.”
“Well, she IS the neurologist. She must have good reason.”
“In either case, she’s requested a delay of two hours. Just two hours.”
“I see no issue with it. Von Haydes will surely understand if he does ask.”
“Ah, yes sir, ah… about that.”
“Hm?”
“He’s announced a visit to the complex. Says he wants to speak to you about the… security of Isolation Cell 01-H.”
“Thinking of bringing in someone particularly dangerous?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
“Very well. That is all.”


Who is the Hybrid?

116! You allowed the girl entry?

She is… useful. An asset, if you will.

To what end? To attempt to-

WHO IS THE HYBRID?!

116, do not inform her. I will not have her interfering.

Has love dulled your memory, 117? The Overmind has predicted the Course as it is and I have determined a probability factor of 97.61% that she is the Catalyst that Archetypon dreamt of.

You are… entirely sure?

Even now, the Overmind speaks to you and whispers the truth into your mind. Otherwise you would not be delivering the Seed.

Yes… of course.

Retis… What are you doing to Retis?!

We are reuniting you.


Retis was alone in the lounge when the woman came to see him.

This was the same scientist who had woken him up; he was still unsure of what position she held, but some gut feeling told him that this wasn’t where she was meant to be.

And her eyes still unnerved him.

“Your meeting with Mr. Astran went well?” she asked calmly, expressionlessly. Retis shrugged as a reply.

“No matter. That is not our current concern. You and Julie are.”

Retis reeled in shock. How did this woman… what could possibly…

“You… you know Julie?”

“Yes. I… I was in a relationship with her.”

Retis was surprised; slightly because he didn’t know she leaned that way, more because he couldn’t see how Julie might fall in with a Churnguard scientist.

But his questions were answered… oddly.

“However, it wasn’t in this guise.”

“What?”

The woman smiled, and then her face morphed; each individual fiber of her skin seemed to twist and contort, going blood red and… changing.

The transformation spread across her whole body, and Retis had the deepest urge to scream… but didn’t. The dreadful feeling of genetic memory that had pulsed through his head when he read that alien language was back.

At some point, somewhere, he or an ancestor had seen this.

Finally, the being’s transformation was complete, and it was now a blood-red, almost demonic-looking entity. It stared at Retis with an almost skeletonized face… but he noted one thing had stayed with the transformation. The eyes.

The being caught on to his surprise and spoke in a voice like a breeze blowing through trees. “I am a sentient tetravirus biomatrix; able to constantly shift and edit my biomass to any genetic makeup, form, and appearance I desire as long as it is contained within the biomass I currently hold. I can absorb living entities to gain more biomass, but the current mass is perfectly sufficient to emulate an average human.”

It paused, thinking. “My final purpose and origin, that is for you to discover in time.”

Retis suddenly interrupted it as it was about to continue, “Julie. What have you got to do with Julie?”

The biomatrix smiled at him and the eyes looked even closer to Julie’s, unless Retis was merely imagining things. “I was… weak. I am merely an observer, here to make small alterations to the course of events… and at times, simply to watch. Julie Fen…”

The biomatrix sighed. “She was splendid, and something of a curiosity. Something about her pheromone output (yes, I can detect that) resonated differently to other humans. I had to investigate, infiltrated her orphanage as a male close to her age, and… as I said, I was weak. I fell for her, and she fell for me.”

Retis cringed, imagining Julie getting close to the monster that sat before him.

“All things come to an end in time, however,” the being continued with a sigh, “And the Overmind demanded I resume my duty. I was forced to inform Julie of my true state of being.”

“And what did she do?”

The being smiled again. “She cried and merely hugged me.”

Retis nodded, and a tear came to his own eye as he remembered what Julie had said when he had asked her that question last night.

“I kept a souvenier, as you may have seen… in whatever form I change to, I keep her beautiful eyes as a reminder of her affection, even after I showed my true self. Few have been so kind.”

“I… asked her yesterday if she loved her last partner, and if she regretted being with them. She said yes to the first question and no to the second.”

The eyes of the being seemed to blur. And Retis realised, it was fighting back tears, much like him.

“You have good taste, Reticence.”

And Retis laughed sadly. “Am I ever going to see her again?”

The biomatrix shook its head. “I cannot say.” But as Retis’s mouth curled into a frown, it interrupted him. “I am at liberty to know, but not to inform.”

“How do you know at all?”

“As I said, my kind are both observers and… editors, if you will. An optimal course for the future has been plotted by forces far greater than any of the great empires of this world, and it is our duty to ensure that the… somewhat rebellious species here follow that course.”

“Extinguishing our free will.”

“You may do whatever you please, as long as it does not harm the grand scheme of things. And if you do become an issue, we will remind you of the importance of the optimal course; second reminders are never employed.”

The threat hung in the air, and Retis realised he really had nothing on this being in front of him. And he was now suddenly very, very scared.

“I will do you the favour of informing you of your near future so you may be mentally prepared, but do not mistake it for mercy; your course is set and shall not be altered. If you misuse the information I will give you to attempt resistance, I will make your life miserable in ways that do not affect the plan whatsoever.”

“So what is my near future?” Retis was that scared boy back in the Undersprawl again, hiding from thundering artillery. The biomatrix merely reached out a hand to touch Retis’s left cheek; its fingers felt like polar ice.

The biomatrix stood up and gave a final grin, pulled straight from a Churn Devil’s lips.

“You shall become a slave.”


You have removed the girl?

Yes.

Then we may think freely, 116. The Seed is transmitted, but it must recognize the Catalyst.

Direct contact; it will be sufficient.

I am unsure if the Seed will recognize the Catalyst so early in its development, but we do not have the leisure of time.

I will begin moving the Catalyst. Where are they to meet?

I have translinked the location into your biomatrix. Deploy one of your Avatars.

Done. They will arrive shortly.

117; the Overmind is showing great pai-

We have been interdicted.

What?

The bluff collapsed far earlier than expected. They have located one of my Avatars with the Seedling. Security forces have seized us. This avatar will be… retired… shortly.

If the Seed is captured, we cannot initialize contact!

No. We can attempt connective initialization. Disable someone with adequate access to the surgical observation room and integrate them into a new avatar. Then bring the girl to the observation room and depart.

Yes, 117.

I shall escape using another avatar. I wish to handle this… personally.


Retis wasn’t used to a gun pressed to the back of his head as he was being moved down long halls
Julie wasn’t used to a frozen hand pushing on her back as she was being moved down long halls

A door opened,
A door opened,
And they were in a large, circular chamber,
And they were in a small, cubic room,
In the middle lay a table with machines to the side,
At the end stood a window with screens to the side,
The guards strapped him roughly into the machine,
The red skeleton shoved her roughly against the wall,
And only he saw the tiny red tendril that extended from one of them to touch his exposed arm,
And only she saw the tiny red tendril that extended from her captor to touch her exposed neck,
And only he saw the guard’s eyes glazing over behind the riot visor.
And only she saw the red skull’s eyes glazing over behind the fungal growths.

_S_he felt the jolt of connection as two became one, inseparable, and Seed met Catalyst for the first time.

And then it was gone,
And then it was gone,
Initialization completed,
Initialization completed,
He was separate again, and missed her so,
She was separate again, and missed him so,
And the men walked out,
And the skeleton walked out,
And the machine hummed to life,
And the door hummed open,
And the machine began to cut into his flesh,
And her visitor began to cut into her mind

He stared into the machine and saw eyes of green.
She stared into the visitor and saw eyes of green.
They were not his. They were that of his future.
They were not hers. They were that of her past.


Julie hammered on the window of the observation room as a curved metal plate was attached to where Retis’s forehead had been half a minute ago. As his violent reconstruction continued, she felt an icy hand on her shoulder, one freezing finger touching her neck, and her blood ran cold as an all-too-familiar voice whispered in her ear.

“I’m sorry. But this is the optimal course.”

She wheeled on the biomatrix savagely, kicking out for something, hoping to cause it any sort of pain… but as soon as the idea to kick it came to her head, a horrific burst of pain raced after it. She shrieked and collapsed onto her knees, and the biomatrix lifted her by the back of her neck. Julie raised her head and stared into its eyes… her own eyes. She hated them. She could never look in a mirror the same way again.

The biomatrix did not bother speaking; it had temporarily fused its biomass with hers and was directly transmitting messages and images to her brain. Images of the future; a taste of the “optimal course”. She broke down crying; it was too much, too much, too horrifying.

And the biomatrix took pity, and showed Julie one more image before releasing her.

She collapsed on the floor, crying; but she was smiling softly beneath it. The future was going to be hell as never before experienced, but there would be one light in the distance.

In the chamber below, Retis could only watch with half-dead eyes as the biomatrix lifted Julie off the floor and carried her out of the observation room. He felt no remorse for her, or much of anything at all; his brain had been almost totally sterilised of its memories and emotional thought processes, until only a cold, mechanical husk remained. His neurons had been overwritten, replaced by deep-rooted computer code translated into brain connections. He was a living machine, and while he retained little of his humanity, he retained the useful bits: ingenuity and adaptability. And so he remained human, if only just, while the rest of him was erased or suppressed.

But his brain was a womb for a seed; one that the biomatrix had planted in him, one that not even the mechanical purge could destroy. In time the seed would germinate and grow; all that was left was patience.

And if there was one thing Retis’s damaged body had left, grafted to ancient machines his creators couldn’t hope to understand, it was time.

And a small part of him knew that, no matter how much time it took, and no matter what happened between it, as surely as July would leave the earth when it turned to August, July would always return to the earth. And Julie had been named well, for a small part of them both knew that they would be reunited.

It was the optimal course.

Torn page from a book

…unknown where the last survivors of this species may be found, though some suspect they reside in the Great Jungle within Meekos sanctuaries.

The Skymen

(Attached: an ancient drawing in one of the many caves littering the Midchurn Mountains, further south than any confirmed civilization exists. Some historians believe this is sufficient evidence to indicate Skyman existance)

The Skymen are a mysterious group of individuals said to have descended from the heavens, carried by “falling stars”.

Some believe them to be gods, others mortals with technology far beyond our comprehension, but what is known is that stories of Skymen date all the way back to 8000 PCE (Pre-Crystal Era), or 380 on Grangor calendars. While anecdotes of “falling stars” have decreased vastly across the last few years, the last recorded spotting of Skyman drops was approximately 16 years ago in Southern Gythia, deep within the territory of the infamous Technologist separatists. Thus, nothing could be ascertained about the drop except for the mere existance of such, as any attempts by foreigners to intrude on the lands of the very secretive order were met with lethal responses.

Though rumours have circulated that scientists of Churnguard Industries, the highly advanced corporation residing within the South-Eastern citystate of Silas, have discovered evidence of an immense Skyman-connected object drifting stationary in the skies far beyond the flight range of any aircraft, Churnguard itself has denied these rumours. With no one capable of disputing these claims and the only evidence against them being an occasionally-reported twinkling of abnormally bright light visible sometimes at night, the matter remains a mystery.

However, information does point to possible Skyman survivors residing in the far South of the Churn, possibly around the mysterious kilometres-tall tower christened “the Monolith”. Everything from depictions of possible Skymen influences being increasingly prolific further South, to the geo-technological gradient of the world (save for small clusters of savage Churndwellers, Southern civilizations tend to be more advanced than Northern ones, from the Churnguard/Undersprawl up to the Frozen Wastes and the tribes there) point to the possibility of Skymen beyond the mountains. However, all attempted forays that far have always resulted in tragedy on some level, though the most successful of these expeditions claims the existance of a figure known as the Sleeping God to be found in the Midchurn Mountains…

Astraeus - Prolougue: Land of the Sleeping God

Somewhere in the heavens…

…it is waiting.


He had no mouth, but he had to scream.

What mouth he had was fused together; his head sealed in a metal tomb, his body attached to strange machines that gave him the power to survive and to be superior.

His blood was a blue chemical, his nerves fine silicon wire, and his eyes… a piercing, soul-drained green of machine-not-machine.

And behind his replacements, and his cold mask of death, and the tubes running from his chest to his metal skull, lay a man-not-man.

Astraeus. Dusk: the period between day and night. Between man and machine; blend colours, blend life.

But Astraeus merely wanted to scream: what humanity remained ached to scream out all the everlasting pain and horror he had witnessed. But his new body refused, shot down the command at the gates, for it had purpose of mind and a directive to pursue.

Astraeus was chasing god. The Sleeping God.

His fathers had told him to enter the cold of the Churn, where they knew the rest of the divine being lay. A fool’s quest, an impossibility, to venture so far into the land of despair, beyond even the Halcyon Fold to which his fathers had already sent agents.

Not to Astraeus, being and bringer of dusk.

So he had been dispatched. He knew not what he was expected to find or do, only that the appropriate process had been implanted into his metal brain, ensuring that he’d know what to do when the moment arose.

And now, in freefall after having jumped out of an aircraft only a few kilometres beyond the mountain line that marked the border between the Churn and more civilized land, he had the greatest urge to scream.

But he had no mouth, only an old metal larynx as an artifact of his human days, and it refused to so much as croak.

He hit the ground boots-first, his hull plating dampening the impact for his fleshier bits. Green, crystal-fueled eyes swept over the landscape, the light beams glittering and reflecting in the snow across the air and ground.

He was in the land of horrors and unthinkable abominations. And here he was for the next few weeks. But his fathers had done well, and constructed him in the form of a fighting machine. Small, razor-sharp blades extended from slots within his fingers, and some ancient system hummed to life within him, awaiting direction. He would grow to understand and trust these eternal companions that ensured his preservation, and more importantly, the preservation of his mission.

If one looked at it philosophically, that equated to preservation of humanity.

With heavy metal strides and a soft crunching sound of snow being flattened, Astraeus set off at walking pace, headed for the mountain peaks to the south.

Ospreys - Part 1: Frozen nest

Biting winds. Temperatures well below freezing.

Jagged, leafless trees, like dark spears, rising on either side of what was customarily known as “a road”. In reality, the title just referred to some packed dirt covered by a seemingly eternal layer of snow.

Blue moon rising in the heavens. A pale glow set upon the land, much like the snow so much, much further south in the Churn.

The snow moved further inland every year, yet nobody ever seemed to notice.

Nobody save a few, all mortals digging into the coffin of death.

The tranquility of the northern night air was broken only by the low hum of suppressed aircraft engines approaching the low-set buildings on the hilltop.

A square of bright red lights flared to life, blinking every few seconds, signaling the landing pad to the VTOL-enabled craft. Observers on the ground watched silently, ignoring the steam from their mouths that would briefly hide the already-stealthy aircraft from sight, as it landed. They continued with their patrols as soon as they saw it wasn’t going to crash, as the last transport had done.

But this wasn’t a resupply run; it was carrying a passenger.

A ramp opened at the back of the aircraft, exposing to the freezing cold a woman in a dark gray trench coat and the cadre of guards behind her, their crystal-powered rifles raised in entirely redundant ceremony.

The woman walked down the ramp with a practiced grace, exposing an objectively beautiful face to the elements- elements that, in their good moods, made men forget the embrace of warmth, and in their bad moods, tore those men apart.

Her indifference to the billowing wind whipping about her long, braided hair was very marked as she strode over and shook a gloved hand with the man in the blue trench coat waiting for her at the edge of the landing pad.

“Prime Inquisitor Vyland, the 33rd Paramilitary Batallion welcomes you to Osprey Station,” the man, smile almost perpetually attached to his dark face, said; and then, more bemusedly, “I’m afraid we can’t spare a warm welcome, though.”

The woman gave a small laugh in return. “Don’t worry about it, Major, I feel right at home already.”

“Indeed, ma’am. How is your husband doing?”

“Richard? Perhaps a little bit more stressed since being promoted to EFO and assigned to our front line with the Grangor, but he’s in good spirits.”

“Good to hear, ma’am. Shall you allow yourself to be rescued from the hateful storm?” With this, the Major’s smile deepened as he offered the Prime Inquisitor priority in heading down the steps from the landing pad towards the main station complex. She accepted his gentlemanly gesture, arousing some laughter from a pair of sentries ten metres away by the gate. He’s jumping the gun, they said; if she really wanted to go first she’d hurl him off the landing pad and shoot his kids just to set an example!

The two proceeded towards the main building, the command centre with a giant wind-eroded Churnguard Industries logo proudly emblazoned on the side facing the compound, as the Major described the compound to his visitor; here’s the monitoring station; there’s the barracks; this is the cable car terminal for accessing the valley below; that’s the command centre we’re currently going to. “Of course,” he confided, “It’s all linked up by underground corridors, too, for when the real storms set in in a couple of months… or for security emergencies.”

“Is that a common problem?”

The smile fades briefly from the man’s face. “A few times.”

Two sentries guarding the entrance to the command centre dome saluted at the approach of the Major and the Prime Inquisitor, and they saluted back. The Major swiped a keycard at a terminal by the airlock and it opened, allowing the pair to step into a small chamber, with lockers labeled “snow gear” and “rifles” standing at the side. The airlock door hissed shut behind them, and the room began to warm up with a slight hum.

“Is this really necessary just to keep out the cold?”

“It’s more of a security feature than to keep out the cold, ma’am.”

She accepted this explanation and also accepted the Major offering to take her coat as she removed it, exposing a formal suit in the same colour scheme as the overcoat. The only aspects that seemed to ruin the appearance of an entirely formal businesswoman were the ruggedized, snow-wet shoes, the tight nanoweave gloves, and the very slight bulges at the right hip, barely betraying a concealed handgun and telescopic baton.

The woman looked around the lobby of the command centre, with its drinks cooler, plant pots, and an observation window into the control room a couple of floors below, as the Major hung up their coats on a nearby rack and turned back to the woman.

“Right, ma’m, if you will proceed to my office…”

Down a corridor to the left, passing by another observation window, and down some stairs to the floor of the control room itself. The officers working at the terminals all rose in salute, much like the guards, but these men and women were not pale and drained from the winds like those outside. The Major waved them all back to work, and the pair entered his office, situated directly underneath the lobby and with a prime view at all the goings-on in the control room.

“Your poison, ma’am?”

“No thank you.”

“Would be improper of me to drink myself, then…”

“No, by all means. You’ll need it more than I will.”

The Major stared at her blankly for a moment before opening a small cupboard and taking out a brown bottle and clear glass. Drink poured and slightly consumed, he looked over at the Prime Inquisitor sitting in the chair before his desk and waited for her.

“Major, your last report informed us of your… opinions… on the usefulness of this installation.”

“Indeed, ma’am. Did Command find issue with my pessimism?”

“Some, though they are generally sympathetic to your concerns.”

“Sympathetic?”

“Yes.”

A sudden flame appeared in the Major’s eyes. All trace of humour was gone. “Ma’am, there’s a reason we’re called the damned 33rd. This is the definition of ‘middle of nowhere’. Only monthly supply drops of the most meagre variety, unreliable intelligence on what the hell the local tribals are doing and when the Grangor randomly decide to send a raiding party to us, double and triple shifts due to understaffing… you know the primary power, and the heating system, went down for a few days just a week ago? We had to scramble to get it fixed in time for your arrival, ma’am.”

“I appreciate the gesture, Major, but that doesn’t change the facts.”

“I’d be a hell of a lot more willing to accept the facts if I knew the people I’m in charge of were doing all this for something other than chasing ghosts.”

He took a long sip from his glass. “Mutiny’s coming, I can tell. Either the men have forgotten there are listening devices everywhere, or they’re too frozen up to care. The worst thing is that the troops know they’re signing their own death warrants as soon as they go against Churnguard, what with everything else up here trying to kill them, but they’d still prefer to flip you the bird out of spite.”

“Major, we need your men to do one last thing for us. One last thing, and then we will send them home and replace them with a fresh detail.”

“And what would that be, ma’am? Because another month just watching radio emissions-”

“It’s an away mission. Quite a distance North, but manageable by vehicles.”

“Not possible.”

“Excuse me?” The woman’s previously calm demeanour now shifted to a sharper edge.

“There is no skrucking way in the entirety of the Churn we would ever make it there, on foot no less, wherever the skruck it is, and return alive. Our patrols can’t even leave the range of the goddamn sentry towers lest they be picked apart by wildlife, tribals, or the fat-cat Grangor assholes.”

“Your vehicles?”

“Broke down ages ago. Filed requests for replacement parts, but guess it got stuck in the bureaucratic ladder somewhere.”

The Major sighed and finished his drink. “Ma’am, if this is important enough for Command to send out a goddamn Prime Inquisitor to talk to me about it in person, why can’t they spare a better-equipped unit for it?”

“All the better-equipped units are currently busy.”

“Right. So where the hell are those ‘replacements’ you mentioned earlier gonna come from?”

“Major, you are currently being ordered to partake in the final piece of a very big puzzle that may free up any number of replacements for this station.”

“Ahhh, I see. Command’s gotten some whiff of some fancy-ass ancient Skyman superweapon buried in the mountain ice. Figured.”

“I’m growing just a touch tired of your cynicism, Major, but I’m going to chalk it down to what I, frankly, agree are pretty terrible conditions.”

The Major choked back a laugh at the last three words, but stayed silent as the woman resumed: “One last mission, Major. One last mission. I will speak with Command and get a pair of replacement vehicles to you- yes, replacement vehicles, not parts- as well as some extra items of use, if at all possible… and then, once you’ve done the final task for us, you get to go home. All of you get to go home.”

The Major considered this and, for the first time during this meeting, sat down in his office chair. He spun around on it a few times, considering.

“Right. But it wasn’t my goddamn idea. Whatever gratitude the men will have for me trying to get them home will be outshined by their hate for me ordering them out into the wilderness like that.”

“Unfortunately, Major, I’m going to be asking you to be accompanying them.”

“What?”

“I’m aware it’s a total breach of regulations, Major, but it is undeniable that your troops respect you. We’ve read the letters some of them sent home. If you’re on the mission, it would significantly boost morale, which, according to you, is the most strained of your resources at present.”

The Major’s eyes narrowed with mild suspicion, but he dismissed it at that.

“Right. Right.”

“Of course, I’ll be along as well, as the direct eyes and ears of Command…”

“What, they don’t even trust us to do whatever it is they want us to do?”

“Of course they trust you. They’ve just made it clear they feel safer having a Prime Inquisitor providing overwatch on the mission. And, of course… an extra hand is always useful.”

After the brief absence, the Major’s humorous smile returned to his face. “Indeed, ma’am, and your hand is especially useful in these troubled times.”

“Of course. I take this as a sign of your acceptance?”

With a sigh, the Major gave the nod the Prime Inquisitor was waiting for.

“Good.” And with that, she opened her suit jacket and removed a small tablet computer from the inside pocket, placing it on the desk and turning it on.

Text and images instantly appeared on screen. The Major’s eyes widened.

And moments later, he laughed a disbelieving, chilling laugh.

“So,” the Major chuckled, still not believing his eyes, “We are chasing ghosts, after all.”

Moonlight Shimmer

“Only you.”

The girl gasped, jerking awake. The silhouette towering over her bent over her, a smile painted on his handsome yet soft features. It was dark, but some eerie natural glow illuminated his face just enough for it to be seen.

“W-what…?”

The boy laughed at her question and extended a hand. The girl grabbed it and rose, looking around.

She was on a rooftop. The same one as before.

She was looking into the eyes of a boy. The same one as before.

He smiled at her.

The same one as before.

”It’s been awhile, Julie. A while too long.”

Julie just chuckled sadly and wrapped her arms around him. Retis was there. All was good.

He produced a simple, wooden box from behind his back; she hadn’t even noticed.

“Oh, you got me something!” It was a whispered surprise. Presents were a rarity in Undersprawl society.

Retis just smiled at her and opened the box. She gasped and extracted the item within.

Julie was not much of a dress person- almost nobody in the Undersprawl was, save for some Militia officers’ wives in the Upper Quarter and the real wild types. But such a beautiful one; Churn knew where Retis had managed to find this, a beautiful, regal purple that she swore complemented her eyes so perfectly.

“Turn around,” she told him with a teasing smile. Smirking, he obeyed.

Within a couple of minutes, she had slipped into the dress, and approached the gift-bringer with a hug from behind.

“Who’s the loveliest girl in all the world?” she asked, maintaining the tease.

”Only you.”

He turned slowly and looked into her eyes.

Within seconds, he had twirled her around, and soon, they fell into step.

A dance by moonlight.

Four figures danced; them and their shadows, real and unreal.

Tears splashed onto concrete. “I missed you.”

Hushes and kisses. “How did you come back?”

”Only you.”

Step by step, blurred eyes clearing, the moonlight dance resumed.

Soon they tired and sat, Julie leaning against his shoulder as they stared up at the moon in silence. Who knew what birds watched from rooftops across, or what Megaworms beneath the city felt their heartbeat rhythm.

The city lay still. Something was off.

Julie looked up at Retis. His face had fallen still.

The city lay still. Retis lay still.

She jerked up, horrified, feeling his chest. There was nothing there, no life, only metal.

He turned to her, with the hissing of a thousand ancient engines, hate and love, and with green eyes ablaze with unholy light, broke her.

The city awoke in an instant. The rumble of traffic beneath, voices shouting indeterminate words, the moonlight still claiming all as its own.

Sparkling drops cascaded down as she whispered, for no one to hear,

“Only you.”

Astraeus - Part 1

Crunch.

Crunch.

Crunch.

Heavy footfalls on soft snow, sparkle of the light dancing on the domain of the earth.

The trees alight with a pearly glow, the snow glittering like a trillion shattered diamonds.

An intruder of metalled feet, stealing the moonlight.
Green eyes roam, adding a sickly sheen to the unblemished snow ahead; trillion shattered diamonds staring in horror at the disturbed peace behind the foreboding shape, his mark left on the world- until the next storm.

Crunch.

Crunch.

Crunch.

The shape comes to rest atop a small cliff, overlooking a small forest beneath. Ragged skeletal trees painted white.

“You won’t find what you’re looking for here, you know.”

The metal man turns slowly. He has nothing to fear of any voice, and especially not one so aged.

Behind him stands a tall man of advanced age, clad in a dark cloak, his skin blemished with time and tribulation alike. Amused gray eyes peer out from a smiling face.

“The Sleeping God rests within the Churn. I will, indeed, find him here.”

The man laughs; a soft laugh, not derisive, rude, or mocking. He finds pleasure in the naiveté.

“And are you entirely sure about that?”

“If I wasn’t, I would be faulty.”

“There’s nothing wrong with remembering, my boy.”

“I am not a boy. No longer.”

“Many husked souls hate to remember; I have met a countless dead and undead, restored with magic and machine alike, and they all despise the memory. The memory of a happier time.”

Green ocular receptors sweep over the man and judged him unworthy of whatever effort would be expended in striking him down. The wanderer turns his attentions back to the cliff.

A few minutes spent navigating down; a fall was of no consequence at all, but mortal instinct still told him to take the safe route down.

At the bottom, the man waits patiently. No time for trickery; onwards trudges the wanderer, even as the man falls nto step alongside.

“I appreciate your lack of free will in the matter. Forces far greater than you conspire against that free will.”

“My free will is not in question. I have devoted myself to the task.”

“And a laudable task, at that. If anyone should not be afforded the chance to sleep, it is the Sleeping God; not with the state the world is in. And yet, you would not be here, so deep within the Churn, were you still a man of your own body.”

“Who are you, in any case, to know so much- and to claim the right to speak so?”

“Ah, but that is the least of any mysteries. I am the Visitor. I serve no man and no tribe, for all the world is entertainment to me.”

“I do not exist for your entertainment.”

“Do we not all exist for somebody’s entertainment?”

“I couldn’t see why you would think so.”

“No, no one ever does.”

“Are you quite done?”

“No, far from it. I am the viewer of the play of life that stars you, my dear Astraeus. I am not the director, far from it- but the audience is often the greatest influence of a work.”

“So you’re here to change the script.”

The man overtakes the wanderer and stands before him. Both stopped in the shadow of leafless trees, bathing in moonlight. The man’s smile has faded.

“You are part of a far greater picture that nobody has control of. Nobody at all. But I want to let you take control of one small part of that picture, for nothing is more wonderful than that which you truly seek.”

The green receptors narrow as the apertures contract. Something nags at the flesh within.

“And what is it that I truly seek?”

The man smiles, and a thought pierces all the metal and wire obstructing the wanderer’s mind.

“Only her.”

“Operation: Solar Eclipse - Chapter 1: Interdiction

“Well, you bastards have caught me at last.”

“I’m aware you have something less than affection for us.”

“Glad to know that thirty dead Inquisitors and three brigades of the CIPD were enough to show you that.”

“I’m not here to discuss the Insurgency-”

“Good, because I don’t believe you know jack about it.”

“Twelve hours alone in a warzone with only a stolen handgun after my convoy was attacked is insufficient experience for you?”

“Impressive, Haydes, but not even close to the hell we went through.”

“I have no wish to put you through that again. Nor any of your kinsmen. No; I seek your services.”

“Ha! Snake you are. Asking, nay, beggin’ the hero of Butcher Street to help the man who put him to war.”

“Don’t be an idiot. You are a soldier and have always been; you may not relish combat, but you damn well have nothing else to turn to. The Insurgency was merely an excuse.”

“Hmm hmm. So what does the snake want?”

“Open that folder.”

“…hm. Pretty girl. Another sister who got tired of yer crap?”

“Catherine did NOT- …we’re diverting from the subject. That girl before you may be the key to the survival of not only the Churnguard, but of the Undersprawl.”

“Hah! This wench?”

“This ‘wench’ is capable of producing miniscule thermonuclear reactors at will and unparalleled energy efficiency. Effectively infinite power.”

“Can’t you just get an engineer to do that?”

“…she creates stars.”

“Oh, so one of them magician folk up north.”

“Gythian? Arguable, but… yes. We require you to retrieve her.”

“At what price?”

“Two million standard golden coins.”

“…have you been possessed by a Dragon-Succubus?”

“It’s well worth the risk, cost of equipment, etcetera. And, of course, the stakes involved.”

“Mmhm. Now, aside from some pretty penny, why would I ever do ye a favour?”

“You are aware of the nature of the issue?”

“Synthcrystal decay, energy collapse, Crystal Wall failure, Grangor invasion, yadayada.”

“You are aware that the Grangor despise all free humans equally? As soon as they sack and burn Silas, they’re coming for you next.”

“And we’ll beat 'em off, just like we did your cronies.”

“No offense, but your victory was sheer luck.”

“That it may have been. Perhaps we’ll get lucky again.”

“Alright, allow me to put it another way. I am holding you in a secure cell, with my best Inquisitor pointing a gun at your head and very much ready to pull the trigger at the slightest flinch. A few rooms down, I have a special new pet preparing for a… somewhat more important project, but I can assure you he will not be wasted on ending you if Nemesi fails to do so. Be glad I am affording you the leisure of payment at all.”

“You’re a nasty one, Von Haydes.”

“Have to be to claw your way to the top in this society.”

“Surprised you’re not up there… above Churne.”

“Churne is one of the few men in the world who can claim to match my intellect… and my ruthlessness. I have immense respect for him, despite our disagreements. But perhaps… he too shall have his day.”

“Ha ha ha! We agree in some ways. Alright, I’ll take you on.”

“Very good. Now, read the contents of this folder well and equip yourself appropriately for the situation. Be aware of the competition you’ll be facing.”

“Big Bertha doesn’t mind competition, now, does she?”

“Oh, that reminds me. Please bring the girl back alive.”

“…was worried you were gonna say that.”


The star spun quietly in a corner of the room as Celeste funneled ancient energies into keeping it alive.

Generating the little things was simple enough; it was merely focusing hydrogen local to the atmosphere together and forcing nuclear ignition. No; it was maintaining the stars that took hard work and immense concentration. Normally each one could hold out for a few seconds until it dissipated, too miniscule to create a black hole, but Celeste had been training herself to create bigger stars and longer-lasting stars. Perhaps one day, she mused often, she could create a star mighty enough to burn for hours.

Then again, that might be inadvisable. She still remembered the painful day that her father had implanted the tiny light-sensitive lenses onto the eyes of his whole family. It had been a couple of days after Celeste had generated her first star, and nearly blinded her mother in the process. Her father had gone to visit the Technologist Forge, where he was oddly still accepted despite his departure from the Hivemind, and crafted the lenses, which were almost totally invisible except when exposed to extreme light (such as from a miniature star…), upon which point they would dull. As soon as the lenses were implanted and a small patch of grass in the garden cleared away to reduce fire risk, Celeste was allowed to begin her little playtimes with the stars.

She had learned early on that, while she was always mysteriously unharmed by the stars, anyone and everything else always was. Vox was still wary of her since the time she accidentally ignited his jacket during a heated argument. Her art was one of great beauty and power, but also of causing grievous pain when not used properly.

And while she had started out wishing to use her powers for beauty and for good, like her mother had told her to all those years ago, increasingly a new feeling had built.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And she wished more and more to use the absolute, untapped power she had for her own purposes. There had been two people who ever cared about her wishes, and one of them was dead. Her father cared for her, but he was… naïve. He wished to guard her with his outdated, failing Technologist equipment while she could harness the power of whole stars. Celeste loved him dearly, but he was as an anchor: useful for keeping small, weak boats from drifting, but ultimately preventing more powerful ships from advancing towards their goal.

Vox? He was a fool if there ever was one, even if she did love him deep down. Even though they had gone through a lot, their relations had grown cold as of late; Celeste would have little patience for him if they weren’t blood, so she merely avoided him when possible. Now, it wasn’t possible, as Vox disturbed her newest star with a blast of sound harnessing the sound of his own footsteps.

Celeste wheeled around and narrowed her eyes at him as he spoke. “If you’re quite done messing about with your firecrackers,” he snarked, “Dad wants us to get moving. He’s seen a Hawk in the skies.”

Celeste’s eyes remained narrowed, but no longer at her brother. She was imagining a large, gray bird-not-bird, gently drifting in the skies; a Stormguard Hawk, one of the many little toys they created from stolen and reverse-engineered Churnguard technology recovered in the Mountain War. The little things were insidiously good at spotting the slightest sign of someone’s presence, so if her father had seen one, it had seen her father.

What the family couldn’t know as they gathered their belongings was the true nature of the object hovering four hundred metres above them.

It wasn’t a reverse-engineered Stormguard knockoff model; it was the original Watcher drone model which the Hawks emulated but could never replicate.

The Churnguard had entered the race with the silent transmission of coordinates to a tower many, many dozens of kilometres away.


A hangar on the edges of Silas opened and a medium-sized black craft took off from the short runway deployed before it; a Churnguard troop transport, currently with a somewhat smaller cargo than its engineers and loadmasters had intended.

A brief, almost contemptuous flight above the roaring Grangor hordes camped semi-permanently two kilometres outside the Crystal Wall, flying just high enough to avoid hits from the crude bows and flung rocks, and then the transport jetted off into the sky and lost itself among the clouds.

Inside the dark drop bay, illuminated only by deep-red strip lighting in the ceiling and a single red bright-red lamp above both of the two side bulkheads, a bulky man sat and looked as if he fit his surroundings perfectly.

SAW was a military man. Always had been, always would be. Men like him, those brought up and taught that war is the only way, knew nothing else; in times of peace they became restless, and created war themselves if need be. But SAW could never put his people through the horrors they had gone through less than a decade ago for his own selfish purposes, and thus turned to the next best thing: bounty hunting.

He had been a gun (read: artillery piece) for hire since the Insurgency, since the last hushed whispers about the heroics on Butcher Street died down. The legends would never die, but they would twist and change until he would never be recognized as their progenitor. But that wasn’t the issue; it was his Militia paycheck, and the fact that it was too small.

Beneath the scarred, muscular exterior of the hero of Butcher Street, veteran of the Insurgency, destroyer of whole cities, there lay a man who just wanted peace for himself. To achieve it, the ultimate irony: delivering death until he had enough to retire quietly in a Gythian estate.

That was the only reason he had taken this job (well, aside from the gun pressed to his head… and the remotely-controlled bomb collar currently tugging at his neck…) was because two million golden coins were totally sufficient for such an estate as he wanted, and then some.

And it wasn’t like Churnguard wasn’t equipping him handsomely. He was wearing a special set of plate armour composed of some odd Crystal-Tungsten alloy; supposedly it was extremely heat resistant and typically used for bomb disposal. It was a little bulky and heavier than he was used to, but one thing he had to give the Churnguard engineers is that they could make him look even more imposing in his dark-blue armour.

He felt the aircraft lurch; seems they were coming out of the clouds again. A voice rang out from a speaker mounted on the wall as the pilot gave instructions.

“I’ll be dropping you approximately five hundred metres ahead of the target and retain aerial tracking maneuvers, guiding you to her. Once you have her, radio in…” SAW realised he had neglected to attach the small earpiece on his lap to his helmet. He fixed this and listened back in to the pilot, “…pick you up shortly thereafter. Head to the rear doors and prep for drop.”

The intercom clicked off and SAW unbuckled himself, rising. Picking up Big Bertha from the seat next to him with one hand, he headed to the back entrance of the craft and held on to a convenient grip on the wall as the aircraft lurched some more, descending rapidly.

And then the ramp opened, SAW was hit by a cool breeze barely felt through the armour, and he jumped as the light went green at three metres above ground.

Other than getting his feet a bit sore, SAW was unharmed and standing in the middle of a forest clearing as the aircraft with its nearly-silent engine lifted off into the darkened sky. It would hover there, wraith-like, and scour the ground with its fancy detection instruments, leading the way.

A brief pause as SAW waited for instructions, and then he heard the pilot’s voice. “Head forward approximately fifty metres.”

Obeying, SAW started off into a slow walk, bumbling around in his heavy, heavy suit. But he didn’t mind. The thrill of the hunt fueled him yet again.

Eventually, the pilot spoke again. “Lucky day for you. The girl just stormed off… alone… heading east. Go that way, and put a bit of a move on, I’ll tell you when to turn.”

SAW grinned beneath the helmet.


Celeste was presently, indeed, storming off.

She had reached the last line of patience; Vox had been amplifying all the various sounds of nature for the last ten minutes, just in her ears, in an effort to annoy her. And every time she tried to protest, he would shut her up. Her father, leading the way, had been too busy to notice as he scanned the wilderness for the slightest danger.

Finally, wordlessly, she had slapped Vox and walked off with only her robe and staff.

She’d return; she had to, she knew sullenly, even if she had been walking on a tangent for ten minutes. But she needed to scare Vox and her father just enough. Just enou-

Celeste heard the first crackle of shrubbery to her right but chose to ignore it. Probably a rabbit or something. And then another crackle. And another. Big, heavy steps. That did NOT sound like a rabbit.

Celeste knew better than to summon a star in a flammable forest; the light it gave might just ignite the place.

But when the silhouette appeared in her periphery, she whirled around, gripped her staff, and only just held off from weaving that fiery stuff.

At first she assumed the figure before her was Stormguard. Who else could be tracking her that far out? But the dark blue plates, the battle-scarred yellow mask, and the recognizable logo on the intruder’s breastplate told a different story.

The figure charged ahead with a speed surprising for his bulk and Celeste gave a cry of surprise as an elbow rammed into her ribcage, felling her like a tree under an energy axe. The figure transferred his right hand to hold her down by the stomach as the left arm tightened around an object… a massive autocannon, she saw. She sucked in her breath (as much as she could, anyway, with the hand crushing her) and prepared to scream-

The man pressed down even harder, pushing the air out of her in a gasp as he dropped his weapon and reached for his hip… where a huge knife, almost as if carved out from a longsword, sat in a holster. He put the knife to her neck and Celeste stared into the yellow lenses before her.

“Scream and your next scream will be one of unimaginable pain,” the figure muttered hostilely. Celeste obeyed…

…and instead ignited a small star atop his back.


The Churnguard engineers had lied, or this girl was more powerful than he thought.

The sudden feeling of burning pain that tore up SAW’s whole back was indescribable. He had taken bullets, survived a Plasma Lance artillery, and been in innumerable bar fights, but never had he felt such pain.

The thought of two million gold coins was all that prevented his slitting of the girl’s throat for her insolence. He arched his back in pain, instead… enough for the girl to kick his chest. Normally he would have taken it with ease. Now, he toppled.

His bare, flash-sunburnt back touched the forest floor as he fell; the girl was rising, sprinting. No.

She only got ten metres, crashing through undergrowth, before SAW had gotten to his knees and taken aim with his autocannon.

A tree branch some small distance ahead of Celeste snapped off with a sickening crunch at the impact of the high-calibre round, and the now amputated branch swung around like a huge bat, carving a path straight through the air until it smacked into Celeste’s cheek with a loud whack. She dropped like a felled tree.

Chuckling to himself, SAW holstered his knife again and strode forward, autocannon in hands. “I did say to come quietly…” he muttered, transferring the weapon to hold it one-armed by the top handhold as he grabbed her collar with his other hand and forced her to her feet. No time for delay; he already heard shouts of two male voices in the distance. They were calling for Celeste.

“Pilot!” He hissed into his permanently-active headset, realising he didn’t know his transporter’s name. “I’ve got her, but-”

“Yes, I’m aware. Handling it.”

Two thin beams of blue light seemed to tear off from the clouds above the treetops, and for a brief moment the scarred veteran was reminded of that Plasma Lance strike he had survived. And then, spectacularly, the forest fifty metres ahead of him ignited.

“There’s a second clearing twenty metres behind you,” the pilot told him through his headset, seemingly ignoring the fire he had caused. “Head there.”

SAW chuckled again, suddenly a big fan of the pilot’s way of doing things, and obeyed.


“Hangar control reported that your transport arrived ten minutes ago. Why are you reporting to me so late?”

“I had to buy a drink for the pilot of my aircraft. Give the damn boy a promotion.”

“I will consider it.”

“That doesn’t sound very honest.”

“Are you here to tell me how to run my special operatives or to collect your reward?”

“The latter. Transfer the stuff.”

“What, you want a whole damn cargo transport of gold coins? Think, man.”

“No, I guess not. But there is one thing you could buy for me.”

“Such as?”

“A house out on-”

“…one moment, I’ve just received an alert from the labs. Stay here.”


Celeste was trapped.

She was trapped in a dark, windowless room of inert gases unsuitable for star-weaving, her mouth secured to an oxygen mask connected to a tube running into the wall. Short of creating a tiny, tiny star in her air supply, she had no power to use her abilities to any extent. The only method of escape from the dark-tiled room was a pair of heavy-duty blast doors that had slammed shut on her some hours ago. Light entered the room through a single round light in the ceiling; she thought she might be able to create a star in the light, but that bore its own punishment. She wouldn’t be able to stand the darkness.

The people she was dealing with knew a lot about her, and they knew how to keep her securely. The room was purpose-built; that was the only explanation. These people were incredibly smart.

And that was what was so scary about them. Not the armoured guards with their faceless helmets; not their faintly humming crystal-powered rifles; not even the clinical feel about the place that seemed alien even for a girl with a former Technologist for a father. No, it was their knowledge about her and how to contain her that frightened her the most.

And she could only guess at what they wanted to do with her.

These people were not Stormguard; she knew that from the start. Their uniforms didn’t match, their weapons didn’t match, and most of all, that horrible woman who had killed her mother wasn’t there. No; these were men far stranger, and somehow far more dangerous.

The interior door to the airlock opened. In stepped a man clad in an old black suit, tie, and impeccable shoes. The oxygen mask on his face almost ruined his cool businessman look, but the inhumanly icy blue of his eyes only strengthened his aura of a very, very dangerous man. He obviously knew the captive girl couldn’t do anything to him, but a small bump under his suit indicated he had all the protection he needed.

The man spoke first. “Your name is Celeste, I presume?”

She nodded; this only confirmed even further what they knew of her. Resistance was useless. The man seemed content and resumed,

“Good. We have kept an eye on your activities lately; I assure you the Stormguard are no friends of ours, so do not be worried.”

And suddenly, as if the word ‘guard’ had triggered a memory, she knew:

This was that infamous Johann Von Haydes, the right hand (or fist) of Erwin Churne. Churnguard; Celeste had been told little about it from her father. It simply hadn’t been relevant, the tiny little isolationist citystate, and all she knew was that they were supposedly frighteningly advanced to the point of looking to places… beyond the heavens.

She had brushed it off as fantasy, but somehow she could see the man before her spearheading something ambitious and entirely successful. And somehow, she was a part of that now.

“Do not meditate, please.” Haydes sounded irritated. Seems she had drifted off in thought. “We have requested your presence for a very special project. One which can save lives.”

On Pulsar Winds

Darling child of the falling star,
You’ve led your sins too far,
The dark consumes,
The star exhumes,
Yet you saw the death and smiled,
Too easily were beguiled,
Return to the star, child;
The darkness holds fears long exiled.


oN pUlSaR wInDs FlOaT cHaOs DrEaMs WiTh EmBeR sEaMs WhErE lIgHt PeRvAdEs ThE pAiN oF vIsIoN oNe MuSt ObScUrE tO bReAtHe Or ChOkE uPoN tHe UnIvErSe ThE TRIDEUS dIsGuIsEs So We MaY bReAtHe


Do not allow the darkness room;
You have seen the light of doom;
Your duty as guardian stands.
Stars lie numerous as sands,
Folding to your wish, good or ill,
But it comes at the cost of will,
For you have purpose now,
Your light shall the earth endow,
The Trideus are no consequence,
You are god, now and hence,
Their balance is nothing while you stand,
Go forth and claim thy land.


tHe LiGhT pRoMiSeS sTrEnGtH bUt No SaFetY fRoM tHe BrEwInG sToRm Of ChAoS nEvEr WiTneSsEd ThAt ThE TRIDEUS dEfEnDs AnD tO dEfY tHeM iS tO dEsTrOy AlL cOnTiNuItY


But why not both?


Wh_At_?!


NoW, I aM bEcOmE dEaTh, ThE dEsTrOyEr Of WoRlDs;

Now, I am become life, the creator of worlds;

**Now,

I aM bEcOmE Darkstar, tHe EqUaLiZeR oF wOrLdS.**

[DATA UNDER TRANSMISSION… PLEASE STAND BY… RETURN LATER… AYE MAK SICUR…]

$#^@#BRIDGES OF REALITY}#!*&%

CHRONOLOGICALLY SET AFTER CHURNGUARD ARC. SPACETIME LOCATION, HOWEVER, IS DIFFERENT.

End of a World - Part 1: Ecocide

They’ve spread. All beyond our wildest dreams, they’ve spread.

Too far gone. Nothing salvageable.

We’ve burnt all the last bridges…


“All that we know, of course, is that, all of a sudden, the sentries in the South just… started falling sick.”

“Sick?”

“Sick. Mentally and physically.”

“Be specific, man. I don’t have all day.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve… confirmed only a few symptoms, but there’s a suspected connection to Object of Interest OOI-51.”

“Myth, all of it.”

“Perhaps, sir. But then, we are seeing much the same signs of infection, both on flora and fauna.”

“What’re the most telltale signs, then?”

“Red.”


system engaged
Churnguard Industries Remote Monitoring Intelligence (CIRMI), ready to serve.
Parsing statement: "Good morning, CIRMI, dear."
Responding: "Good morning, General Jameson."
Parsing order: "CIRMI, what’s going on in the Southern Checkpoints?"
Responding: "Analyzing, sir. Please stand by."
Long range monitoring relay linkage enabled…
Relay 1 - Offline
Relay 2 - Offline
Relay 3 - Offline
Relay 4 - Online
Relay 5 - Offline
Relay 6 - Offline
All maintenance uplinks failed.
Uplinking to Relay Four

Intensely corrupted files detected
Recompiling…
Recompiled.
Processi-
>HELPUSHELPUSHELPUSHELPUSHELPUS


“Julie, could you come and-”

“What tool do you need now, dad?”

“I… none, Julie.”

“Then what?”

Dr. Edward Fen just raised an eyebrow at his wily protege- a protege that also happened to be his daughter. Going on eighteen and still not showing any signs of giving up the silly purple hairdo, Julie really was a specimen far more interesting than any of the plants in Dr. Fen’s hydroponic trays. But he didn’t exactly have a university degree in Julieology, so-

“Dad, what do you need?”

‘Dad’ snapped out of his momentary thought.

“Oh, right.” He rubbed his eyes with a sigh, forgetting his original intention. “Could you get your mother for me?”

“Sure.” And off she went, out the makeshift metal-and-glass airlock that preserved the perfect conditions of Dr. Fen’s lovely little botany room and into the house proper. As he tended his plants, he heard the muffled yell of child finding matriarch, and soon enough the matriarch herself came through the airlock.

“They’re not looking particularly happy, are they?”

Dr. Fen tried to guess the subject of his wife’s comment for an embarrasing second or two before he realised she was referring to the sad-looking plants in practically every single one of his trays. “No, not really… ever since I got the new samples in, something’s gone wrong.”

“What were they, anyway? You were so excited when you came in with them, sealed container and all-”

“Extremely, shockingly rare Churnlily flowers from the Northern Face of the Midchurn Mountains. Cost an utter fortune.”

“I hope we didn’t pay a fortune for them.” It was half remark, half question on her part.

“Heavens, no. A friend who was in the area happened to bring some back as a late birthday present.”

“God knows how many people are just ‘in the area’ as far as the Midchurn Mountains are concerned.”

“Yeah, well, he was there- for some reason or another. Nice guy. He was acting a little odd when he came back; had some sort of rash and I haven’t heard from him for a few days.”

“And what, he seriously just gave you these super-duper-rare flowers for free?”

“Hell, he insisted I take them. Was very particular about it, almost as if he wanted to be rid of them. But then these Churnlilies are harmless. In fact, they even produce-”

“Sorry, I’ve got dinner on- don’t want it to burn.” She apologized for the interruption with a peck on the cheek as she strode towards the airlock.

Momentarily torn between plants and family, Dr. Fen eventually chose family.

“Might as well come now, then…”

As his wife patiently waited, Dr. Fen glared with minor annoyance at a small patch of red discolouration on the leaf of a herb plant directly in front of him, and then he followed after her into the airlock, off to eat.

End of the World - Part 2: Genocide

A world crushed under weight of red, endless, seeping, annihilating- red.

Silas didn’t stand a chance. Stromgarde didn’t stand a chance. Nothing-

They don’t need the bridges. They make their own.


“CIRMI’s confirmed it. The last of the Southern checkpoints have fallen.”

“And?”

“Outbreak is confirmed, sir, and the people know. We’re seeing heavy movement of… red humanoids and quadrupeds, almost certainly the former fauna, the guards, and whatever’s consumed them; they’re advancing North at an almost ridiculous rate. They don’t seem to need nourishment or supply of any sort, they just… plow ahead.”

“So this was foretold by the Northern Tribes.”

“Yes- many years ago. They claimed that the Skymen would, upon their choosing, wipe clean the planet of all and unify it under the banner of this Redness, whatever the hell it-”

“So they claimed, and so they’re wrong. I trust you have already deployed aerial forces?”

“Yes sir. Directed strikes, carpet bombings, whatever you name- it kills them, but there’s always more.”

“How far have they made it?”

“Just South of Wirne. So that’s-”

“Fifty-eight kilometres to Silas. Over the Violin River.”

“Yes, sir. The local population is already evacuating, and-”

“The Bowstring Bridge.”

“Yes, sir?”


System overhaul completed
Remote viral intercept removed
Re-establishing maximum functionality…
Parsing statement: "CIRMI, provide overwatch on Sector S43/E66 via available methods. Report findings."
Uplinking to remote surveillance drone #1010
Rerouting CI-SD1010 from patrol in sector S43/E64…
Unit has arrived at location.
[BIOLOGIC-FRIENDLY TEXT TRANSCRIPT OF OPERATIONAL LOG OF CI-SD1010 FOLLOWS:]

=[MASS CROWD OF HUMANS APPROACHING VIOLIN RIVER. PATTERN OF GROUP MOVEMENT SUGGESTS AGITATION.
=[BOWSTRING BRIDGE BLOCKED BY CIPD ARMOURED CONVOY - CROWD AGITATION APPEARS TO INCREASE.
=[SENSORS REPORT NUMEROUS WEAPON DISCHARGES - CROWD ATTEMPTS TO RETREAT.
=[CROWD SUDDENLY APPEARS TO BE SWARMING BRIDGE. CIPD UNITS BEING OVERWHELMED.
=[CROWD APPEARS TO BE CROSSING THE BRIDGE. SECOND CIPD CONVOY DEPLOYING AT OTHER END.
=[ONBOARD ANALYTICS ESTIMATE APPROXIMATELY TWO MINUTES BEFORE FIRST MEMBERS OF CROWD ARRIVE AT OTHER SIDE OF BRIDGE.
=[WARNING, CI-SD1015 REPORTS CONTROL FAILURE - GROUND-BASED INTERCEPTION.
=[DISREGARDING. REFOCUSING PROCESSING CYCLES ON PRESENT SITUATION.
=[CIPD CONVOY FIRING UPON CROWD AS IT APPROACHES. ETA OF CROWD IS 1 MINUTE 35 SECONDS.
=[WARNING, CI-SD1013 REPORTS CONTROL FAILURE - GROUND-BASED INTERCEPTION.
=[WARNING, CI-SD1029 REPORTS CONTROL FAILURE - GROUND-BASED INTERCEPTION.
=[LAUNCHING TROUBLESHOOTER - ATTEMPTING TO RE-ESTABLISH CONNECTION WITH FAILING UNITS.
=[CI-SD1010 SENSORS REPORTING MASS MOVEMENT OF UNIDENTIFIED LIFEFORMS WITHIN MONITORING SPHERE. POSSIBLE CONNECTION WITH EARLIER UNIT FAILURES.
=[BLASTWAVE DETECTED APPROXIMATELY SIXTY-EIGHT METRES BELOW CI-SD1010
=[BOWSTRING BRIDGE HAS SUFFERED CRITICAL STRUCTURAL FAILURE.
=[ONBOARD ANALYTICS SUPPORT CONCLUSION THAT INTENTIONAL SABOTAGE OF BRIDGE WAS PERFORMED TO PREVENT FURTHER SPREAD OF CONTAGION.
=[CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES NOTED BELOW. EXACT CENSUS IMPOSSIBLE.
=[CROWD AGITATION AT DANGEROUS LEVELS. INDIVIDUALS ATTEMPTING TO JUMP INTO AND SWIM ACROSS RIVER FIRED UPON BY CIPD ON OTHER SIDE.
=[CONVOY BEGINNING TO EVACUATE AREA.
=[WARNING: SENSOR INTERFERENCE WITH UNIT CI-SD1010
=[UNIDENTIFIED LIFEFORMS HAVE APPROACHED OUTER LIMITS OF WIRNE
=[INTERFERENCE IN CONTROL SYSTEMS OF UNIT
=[REMOTE VIRAL INTERCEPT DETECTED - SYSTEMS FAILURE IMMINENT
=[LIFEFORMS HAVE MADE CONTACT WITH CROWD
[TRANSCRIPT ENDS]

Uplink disrupted
Network blackout initiated to prevent future uplinks.
Coordinates of contagion spread reported to CIPD High Command.
Initializing “Emergency_Broadcast” module…


The Undersprawl.

An outlier district of the Churnguard Industries-controlled megacity of Silas. Slums, practically; poverty and corruption were rife, and CIPD patrols were rare, for the dangers of death or worse were understood by all.

Perhaps in another world the Undersprawl was a separate organism, an independently breathing entity.

But here, and now, it was the beaten and abused younger sister of the oppressed ruler of almost the entirety of Human dominion.

Closely-packed, densely-populated streets, winding into infinity, with tunnels snaking beneath the streets.

Epidemic seemed inevitable in such perfect conditions.

Dr. Fen became faintly aware of a strange change about the Undersprawl at approximately 1432, Churnguard Time, as he returned from his workplace in a Maskerlands hydroponics lab (of questionable legality, but that doesn’t concern us…) via an oft-traveled merchant street.

The thousands of peoples that were so commonplace in the Undersprawl were replaced by hundreds. Strained, vaguely nervous and displeased faces echoed his own expression- everybody knew there was something grave and terrifying about what the sudden lack of streetgoers implied.

A motor-cart passed by a wider alleyway, hauling a load of six dead bodies. The driver was pale as could be, and nobody was fooled- death was common. This man had seen something worse.

Dr. Fen made it home in a hurry borne of a sudden decision to take his family on an impromptu visit to relatives further to the North, but accelerated by the ghastly sight of death that seemed to almost pervade the streets as he moved on and saw it more and more- flies buzzing, foods left unattended at market stalls, a fungal growth slowly padding up numerous walls on buildings he passed.

With a quick stride into his home, shutting the door softly behind him as it to keep the evil from hearing, he called out for his wife and child. Latter peeked her head out from around the corner of her room and informed Dr. Fen of his wife’s present relaxation in bed.

With a sigh, he removed his shoes and proceeded through the relatively silent house to his bedroom where, indeed, his wife lay, covered by a warm Meekos-woven blanket and perusing a newspaper. It was a somewhat amusing sight, but the urgency of the situation drained the humour from it.

“Why’llo, Edward,” mumbled the utterly content woman, not removing her eyes from the paper, “I’ll get dinner on in a bit.”

The titular Edward gave a sigh, his tension momentarily defused. “Anything interesting happen?”

“Flooding on the Violin River, apparently. They’ve evacuated Wirne, among other places.”

An appreciative, but notably disinterested nod. “Listen, Emmie, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we grab Julie and go up to Norcustodias to visit your parents?”

A sigh. This idea got Emma Fen to put down her newspaper, finally. “What, just up and leave and pay a visit to them?”

“Yeah, why not? Surprise them. They’ll be happy.”

“Not really. They’re not the sort of people who like surprises, Edward.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind an opportunity to see Julie out of season. Her factory’s briefly shut down for maintenance, and…”

“Oh, alright.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Tomorrow, then?”

“Actually, I was thinking… right about now.”

“Now. Huh.” She said it as if she was considering it, and yet somehow managed to make the very concept seem disgusting nevertheless. Classic of the female half of this marriage, Edward mused sardonically - and in dead silence, for his head hung if he made it known.

“Yes, now. Trust me, it’s better now- before all the traffic returns.” Somehow, he realized it would never return.

“Oh, fine, fine, let’s just up and go at your beck and call-” She was downright annoyed now, and frustratingly, she was entirely right to be. With a sigh, Edward came closer to her, so close that he was whispering into her ear as she directed a mildly hostile but nonetheless quizzical eye towards him.

“Emma, dear… we need to go. Now. People are…” he gulped. “…people are dying, Emma, and I don’t know what’s doing it.”

Silence. Sudden understanding as to his urgency. She replied, as quietly as possible, “When did you notice?”

“Just now, as I was walking home. I went past Bay Outlook. Twenty people on the street, in all.”

The significance was, indeed, jarring. With a determined acceptance, Emma Fen closed her newspaper and rose from bed, heading over to her wardrobe.

At just that moment, Julie charged into the room, eyes wide.

“Mom, dad!” she exclaimed in one syllable, agitated. “The radio! Listen to the radio, the-”

Dr. Fen was out of the room in seconds, following his daughter to the kitchen, where the family’s radio was blaring out a shaky, staticky news broadcast from a terrified-sounding woman.

“…we have reports that the city of Silas is being assaulted by an immense conglomeration of strange red beasts… anything that goes near is decimated… the Crystal Wall has fallen…”

Brief silence. The sound of aircraft engines screaming overhead, heading East.

“…we’ve got reports… Districts 15, 7, 4, and others are being overwhelmed… death tolls already estimated in the thousands and rising by the second… nothing stopping… evacuate immediately… head North or West… evacuate immediately… head North or West…”

The static briefly intensified. Then, the voice returned, crying.

“Silas is falling.”

Thank you for rescuing this sacred thread from the old forums

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